Category: Xbox360 (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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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.

Fable 3 (Xbox 360) Review

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Review updated: 29/03/11 – Traitors Keep DLC added

Peter Molyneux has promised many things in his previous games to the gaming community and on the most part has delivered a fair representation of what he has described as “the new innovation”. So it is all the more disappointing when those dreams he so carefully marked out are shattered without much of a trace to speak of. With Black & White, he promised that we would have the power to adapt the world based on our decisions. The only thing that really changed was your pet. Fable promised us a fully realised world. What we got was a standard action RPG that was well presented, but had none of the mentioned flair. Fable 2 was his shining moment as the dog mechanic and family aspects worked wonderfully. So from God to Hero, Molyneux now wants you to be King/Queen. Is this a Royal ascension of ambitions or a tyranny of marketing potential?

Set a few years after the events of the second game, the industrial age has hit Albion like a sledgehammer to a dormant mouse. The country wasn’t ready for it, nor was it ready for their current King. Your brothers rule has brought misery to the people, and because of a dispute involving protestors you are led out of the Castle by Walter; a trustworthy officer. Determined to lead some kind of rebellion, the prince/princess must ascend the throne. The least well kept secret is that you will be King. Decisions however will reflect on your funds and promises made earlier in the game. This is a startling tactic and while his crazy ambition let the execution slide slightly, Molyneux’s team have pulled this one of brilliantly.

The focus this time around doesn’t seem to be with the combat mechanics, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any improvements. Flourishes with your sword are now available from the get go, though guns remain relatively the same. Magic seems to be the main focus of the upgrade here though with the ability to wield two gauntlets with interchangeable spells. The result is that now you can combine the effects of the spells to produce arctic storms or a gut shattering fireball. While the mechanics now in place are simple to understand, one gets the feeling that it does play second fiddle. Enemies come in a limited amount of variety and their strength depends on what quest you have undertaken or how far on the road to be King you are. Oh and you can’t die. You just lose progress towards your next guild seal. “Cop out!” out I smear. This takes all challenge away from the game.

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What really shines is the interactions in the towns and cities, together with the quests. Relationship based quests will be the same slog as you’re used to from an MMORPG such as World of Warcraft. Your interactions are now more focused though. You may now hold hands and lead them to a secluded paradise, or their final resting place. Up to you. You can also adopt children from the streets of Bowerstone. Other than that, building relationships and your weight management remains unchanged. The other quests are a variety of dramatic story encounters and self contained ventures into a peculiar scenario. While you might have some trouble with your waypoint guide trail, you could be traversing through an underground pit battling Hobbes, or finding a lost book in Brightfall library. One particular highlight is a quest involving saving a princess from an evil Baron. It all paints the world of Albion as a quaintly English land where even the humour resonates with the British audience. Americans could potentially get some form of culture shock, especially when the Gnomes shout from the bushes; “I’m going to go round your house for tea, and then I’ll have your mum.”

Speaking of gnomes , they’re one of several collectables in Fable 3. Haven’t we gotten bored of this game extension tactic? Luckily it actually tells you how many of a certain object you need to progress. Other things you can do include upgrading weapons and opening demon doors. Same old Fable fare to be honest, and definitely the weakest point of the experience. In a complete contrast is your time on the throne. How it works is that you get a few days of your one year reign to decide a few policies. One could say that we should spare a thought for the politicians, but we wouldn’t want to make them feel too good about themselves. Instead what conclusion we should be thinking about is the importance of sourcing money. Some actions take a lot of funding, while the typically bad ones give you a substantial donation. There is an ultimatum which you must face at the end of this epilogue, and the sense of urgency about it all really pushes the morality. You do of course have the option of saving millions through the property market and taxing your people through rent, but where is the thought behind that?

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While the concepts behind what you should be doing during your time with Fable 3 are mostly brilliant, it wouldn’t be believable if the world wasn’t worth caring about. Albion is fresh and colourful, despite its now very dated visuals. The cast of main characters is of stellar quality. Why wouldn’t you wish to keep the likes of Simon Pegg, Sir Ben Kinglsey AMD the oddly parody filled voodoo shaman from two of the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies in your good books? Wouldn’t you wish instead to just go gallivanting on an industrial scaled revolution with Stephen Fry? To make things even better, your mentor is Theoden King from the Lord of the Rings films and your butler is John Cleese. Why are these name bombs important? They represent a first in the 21st century: The first all celebrity cast that got voice acting right, even if it is the comic geniuses of Pegg, Fry and Cleese steal it. The only other games that beat this in this category are the Discworld adventure games and they had a cast member from Monty Pythons Flying Circus and Blackadder too. A note to self; convince Rowan Atkinson and Michael Palin to voice over in a game as it is guaranteed to bring success.

Of course Mr Molyneux doesn’t just want to bring the in game people together, he wants to bring everyone together. With that in mind, he has updated the multiplayer component to allow players with the same interactions with each other as with the NPCs. So you can indeed get married, have children or indeed make a business transaction with another human being. The prospect of fathering/mothering a child with your best mate Bruce from down the road may raise a few eyebrows, especially when they find out Bruce is a girl called Doris Fairbottom on the weekends. Psychologically , the idea is a complete mess. In practice though it does provide a sensible approach to co-operative gaming with surprising depth. If online doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then having a player simply join you locally will do. One interesting thing to note is that different weapons are available in different worlds. This means that you won’t see all 50 of them in one sitting, and trading with other players might be a necessity. Other online interactions involve actually using real world money to buy some items in a special store in the pause hub, and a fully functional leaderboard. The game doesn’t really need a competitive option, so one being tacked on last minute wouldn’t have helped. Thankfully no option exists here.

Fable 3 is by no means perfect. Combat has overall been made so easy that it saps all the action away from this RPG. But that is not what Mr Molyneux wanted to try out. Instead our own decision making and morale standing is at stake. Your time on the road to rule will be a familiar experience, especially when the relationships arise. The King sections are wonderful; with a sense of urgency and morale standing that it might force tough revelations. The presentation and variety of quests cements he reputation of he franchise as a well thought out world. While the multiplayer sections could get awkward if one player gets down on one knee, having your own personal bodyguard who acts as a Bank account as well is interesting as a prospect. Fable 3 seems to have therefore lived up to the hype, but I wonder just where Peter Molyneux can go from here, except improve the difficulty. Perhaps micromanaging your family so they are raised with a frugal and vegan mind-set, or making looks important? As long as they don’t try to make other players decide what furnishings they want in their house a main focus.

DLC also available: Understone – 400MSP

 

FABLE 3: Traitors Keep – 560MSP

So you have risen from a ruthless rebel to becoming either a benevolent or malevolent King. You have driven away the impending darkness that threatened to overrun your kingdom and either celebrated victory with your people or buried the dead as a consequence of your actions beforehand. But what now? Is your rule a happily ever after scenario? Of course not. With the Traitors Keep DLC, you have an entire story arch that happens after your fight with the crawling darkness to contend with.

It is yet another boring day in your kingdom, and your event organiser is briefing you on your day to day activities when all of a sudden an assassin comes for your head. Shortly thereafter a captain from a prison guard unit arrives via ship to inform you that the assassin was a former inmate at the Keep, and requests you come along to see for yourself. There is an inevitable jailbreak, and three notorious prisoners need to be rounded up. The plot is hopelessly predictable, but an enjoyable romp while it lasts. One scene makes you fight a rather surprising enemy, who is probably more difficult than anyone I’d faced in the main game; I actually used more than one health potion.

The quests themselves consist of one of two scenarios. Either go here and kill these guys or collecting bits and pieces for some scatter-brained moron. There is also one demon door that is new, and he is a collectable in disguise. The only real moral choice at the end is largely irrelevant in context. There is more to do, but it does feel like hardly any effort went into the quest design.

Which is a shame because the environments are of a high quality despite some odd frameskip and texture loading issues. While the prison island looks okay, the clockwork town and haunted Manor are unique and in keeping with the rest of the main game. There are some Easter eggs lying around, with probably one of the more amusing ones being the gravestones in the island with the Manor. The game does include some odd variants on enemies you’ve seen before, with a couple of brand new concepts. The difficulty has been ramped up slightly and it is certainly possible to die with maximum stats, but alas the challenge is not significant enough to give you issues.

If you are the kind of person who goes for achievements, then this DLC might work in your favour. The collectable aspect of the DLC is tedious, but thankfully there are not many of each item to find. Some new costumes litter the landscape, with some arguably disturbing results; depending on your character. The price of this DLC however is a surprising figure: 560MSP. In all honesty, while there isn’t much going for everything here, at the very least it is reasonably priced.

Fable 3: Traitors Keep is a bit of a flawed gem. The price means that it isn’t going to rob you, but you don’t really get a lot worth having in this pack. The quests are nice, but they aren’t as good as other expansions generally are. The main reason for this is purely because it relies on a predictable story and collectable quests to try and liven up the games life span once the kingdom has been saved. There are some wonderful details within this pack, but at the end of the day they are purely superficial. This comes down to whether or not you want the achievements, and whether or not the prostitute outfit you obtain can be dyed green and silver just to outline your status as an achievement whore.

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

Format Reviewed: Xbox 360

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

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

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

falloutnewvegas1

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

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

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

falloutnewvegas2

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

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

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

Halo Reach (PAL) - Standard Halo Reach (PAL) - Limited Halo Reach (PAL) - Legendary (complete with hefty model)

Review updated 29/03/11 – Multiplayer; Noble Map Pack and Defiant Map Pack added.

Ten years ago, the console first person shooter only had Goldeneye to really inspire the multiplayer component. Single player was more of the rage at the time with classics like Doom and Medal of Honor giving thrills by shooting down demons or Nazis with your variety of guns. Of course Quake brought multiplayer brawls to the PC, but alas the console FPS was essentially a guilty pleasure. Something you couldn’t easily play with friends. Halo: Combat Evolved really didn’t upgrade the FPS as a whole, but the multiplayer mode was very well supported. Halo 2 revolutionised the console FPS to the online realms thanks to Xbox Live and a variety of map packs released months afterwards, while Halo 3 brought things to the next generation. The franchise deviated from its FPS roots in Halo Wars, but made a co-operative mode popular in Halo: ODST. A lot has changed in ten years, but Bungie feel that it is time to retire their involvement with the Halo series with Halo Reach. Do they retire with grace, or has the magic worn off?

Halo Reach is essentially a game that has been spoilt more times throughout the franchise than morons spoiling the ending of The Usual Suspects. If you haven’t really delved into the campaign modes of the series that much, then you’re in for a better experience than those who have played them religiously. That isn’t to say the plot of Halo Reach isn’t well told and features some rather spectacular scenes though. Problems start on the planet of Reach when Noble team, a group of Spartans who are a dedicated squad of rag tag soldiers; encounter some Covenant forces whilst on a suspected riot mission. Things get bad to worse when the Winter Contingency is initiated because more of the aliens have stormed the oddly named “Sword Base”. The problem with the story on the other hand is that after a certain point it becomes more or less about which Spartan dies the most glorious of deaths, which drives in the spoiler from the entire back catalogue of Halo games. “You heard about Reach?” “Yeah, bad stuff happened there.”

The single campaign is definitely worth the playthrough...

FPS games from the last ten years or so have adopted many of the mechanics that Halo Reach seems to incorporate, so to explain an old staple will be utterly pointless. It’s your general shoot what’s in front of you with funky weapons and grenades. Two key differences apply though. First, you have a health bar which is not as easy to recover as cowering in a corner. Sure your shield sucks up some of the shots and does regenerate, but you actually need to go looking for health packs to recover lost health. Health packs? Remember those, the little things that saved your hide in Doom? The other new thing that’s turned up is the armour ability roster. These range from the Sprint augment, to the Jetpack. Depending on what kind of situation you are in, they have a varying amount of use. For example, do not bother using Armour Lock in the campaign mode on any difficulty above Normal. Elites start cottoning on to the fact you’re playing hedgehog and hoping they roll over your spines. They also have a surprising amount of patience, taking you out at just the right point.

As mentioned before, there are some brilliant set pieces both in terms of visual spectacle and gameplay finesse. Most of these involve using vehicles of sorts, which handle slightly better than you’d normally find them. One in particular turns Halo Reach into a clone of Star Wars Rogue Squadron. This is rather ironically my personal favourite part of the entire game. I’m not shooting a gun; I’m shooting many guns at big ships. Forbidding Banshees that annihilate ground based forces fall at the feet of your ship. It’s just a fantastic part of the game, which is sadly over before it really begun. Worst off, there is no multiplayer component of this style of play. Other awe inspiring sections come from situations like the massive melee at Sword base or the apocalyptic end section at the Pillar of Autumn. The visuals aren’t the best around, but they do their job and are seemless in their execution. There are fantastic views to be had from mountain tops, that are perfectly accompanied by the music. If there is one thing that will always stand the test of time, it is the musical score, and Halo Reach has some of the best music in the series, with sombre tones amongst the more dramatic clashes of orchestral and guitars.

...but really; the multiplayer modes are why you buy it.

It is on this note that we turn to the more social aspect of Halo Reach; the multiplayer modes. Considering that a lot of ways to play were thought of during the years previously, it is nice to see that a return of old favourites with new twists and brand new multiplayer modes that compliment them so. Back are the classic rumble pit and team based modes, but a more diverse voting system means the days of “oh not Team Rockets again” are long gone. Games are usually split into three tiers. There are classic game modes such as Slayer and Team Slayer; more professional modes such as SWAT; and more bizarre variants such as “Race” or “Headhunter”. The only exception to this rule lies with the Invasion or Invasion Slayer choice, but given they’re unlike any mode you’ve ever seen before; this isn’t so bad a compromise. Best yet, the developers actively watch what is going on with the game’s multiplayer and add/remove certain aspects depending on player activity. Also back is a slightly tweaked Fire Fight mode, which is certainly more accessible than ever. The difficulty of some of the maps and waves of Covenant warships is dependent on your teammates, and their usefulness. Best played with friends you like. The single player aspects remain, with Armour Lock seemingly more sufficient in ability here as it disables the shields of those foolish enough to be too close, and damages those even more foolish to attack you. Others such as the Sabotage

The maps however are where the heart of the multiplayer lies, and there are several returns of old favourites. Most notably however is the renamed “Haemorrhage”, formerly Blood Gulch, which now includes a whole world of opportunities. This is because Bungie have created a singular colossal map that can become several. As mentioned before however, the sad absence of the space mode is probably something Bungie should think about including at some point. While going toe to toe with others in dogfights might sound appealing, I think it is more feasible to try it in Fire Fight. Still, co-operative multiplayer can keep one entertained for a while with spaceships, whilst the potential for outstanding DLC is rife with new opportunities for more modes.

It is obvious that Bungie wish to end their involvement with the franchise the only way that they could: With an almighty bang! The visuals are the best in the franchise, but nothing particularly outstanding unless you’re looking from a mountain top. Music as always is top notch, though one imagines the composer really went for impact this time around. The gameplay is not unlike anything you’ve seen before, but then again it is a thoroughly polished adventure. Still, the reason to shell out on this game is the multiplayer’s diverse range of ways to play a first person shooter. Bungie is also well known for taking care of its customers, offering more incentives to lure people back from other FPS games by simply offering a fun and well constructed experience that isn’t afraid to offer something new. Perhaps this is the last hurrah for Bungie and the Halo franchise, around ten years of happy marriage. Think of this then as the ultimate swansong to a series that has inspired many others.

Multiplayer Updates

Firstly, I love how Bungie have updated their game since its initial inception. Grifball being made permanent? Awesome! It is silly fun and makes for great diversion from just shooting people all the time. The only complaint I have is that I miss mongoose rocket race. Two player multi-team needs to be its own separate playlist. Community slayer playlist is also a really good idea, as the players exploiting forge have created some really good maps. One or two fall flat though, but the effort to reward players by having the world play their maps is a nice touch.

Noble Map Pack – 800MSP

The Noble map pack introduces some new maps, ranging from the massive Tempest to the rather small spaceship one. These are generally good maps, but the bigger the map, the more fun it is. As for the achievements, some are really difficult and need players to work as a team. Others just involve luck, such as getting a double kill “from the grave”. Honestly though, none of this matters too much as it extends the lifeline of a really well polished game in the most tasteful way possible.

Defiant Map Pack – 800MSP

The Defiant map pack does pretty much the same idea as Noble Map pack. One big map (Highlands) which is absolutely brilliantly designed and certainly has the sniper in me in mind. Condemned is a little more constricted in size, but is certainly a step above the previous DLC’s mini-map. The third map is solely for use with Firefight and features a lot of space designed for vehicular combat. This isn’t new, but my lord is it welcome to have an increased chance of surviving! Achievements return and they’re even more obscure this time around. Odd that Capture the Flag gets a look in though, while Stockpile gets another achievement. Still, you play the game a lot? Must own!

 
 

Singularity (Xbox 360) PAL  Singularity (PS3) PAL Singularity (PC) PAL
Version Tested: Xbox 360

There aren’t a lot of games made about the Cold War. That’s probably because the two sides were actively participating in a game of “sibling rivalry”. Instead of making troops shoot each other, they instead decided to try and one-up each other; ranging from space exploration to weapons technology and spies. Many authors and film-makers have tried to paint the Cold War as an era full of conspiracies and betrayal. Its portrayal in video games is limited at best, with (to date) only the fantastic Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater even coming close to the subject. There are others down the line, mostly awful or in the future. So where does this leave Singularity, a game that explores an alternative version of events during the Cold War? Is it condemned to remain locked away in the past?

Katorga 12 is a research facility manned by the Soviets in the 1950s. As events transpired, a fatal accident resulted in the island’s closure, but the base remains in a derelict state. In the present day, an American satellite becomes victim of an electromagnetic shock that seems to come from this island. As Cpt Renko is drafted into the island, his plane crashes because of an EMP. Deciding to explore the island, he uncovers evidence that the Soviets were experimenting with a substance known as “E99”. As another surge quakes, he suddenly finds himself in the past surrounded by fire. The man he saves somehow changes history when time reverts itself. As mutants scurry around the island looking for their next meal, the two Americans are captured by an apparently Soviet based army. While his partner is executed by the man he once saved, Renko is saved by an operative from a secret organisation who explains the consequences of his paradox. Somehow he must find a way to return history to the timeframe he knows; otherwise Dr Demichev will still remain president of the world.

Some of the haunting images you see are disturbing. One wonders where this man is being dragged off to for example...

The deserted island with lots of Soviet artefacts and structures presents us with yet another dystopian setting. The only difference with this and the likes of Rapture is that the back-story behind it is one of war from the start rather than unity turning into chaos. While the technically unimpressive visuals make you wonder if this game came from three years ago, the feeling of solidarity really hits home when faced with the horrors of E99 due to some atmospheric design choices. Take for example when you obtain your first weapon; the Centurion (a pistol). Seconds after thinking “I’m safe now, I have a gun”, you’ll probably think, “Ahhh! I’m dying!!!” This is because the game wishes to remind you that just because you have a gun, that doesn’t mean the game can’t try to surprise you. Should it tweak that this cut-scene is fully interactive, then you’ll begin to realise that the game isn’t really all that fair in the beginning. After the initial stages, there is a rather mundane part where you only wield standard weapons and perform rather generic tasks associated with most other first person shooters.

After the revelation of the past, things begin to get very interesting. Amongst the standard Sniper Rifle, Shotgun and Machine Gun combination, there are also some unique arms such as “The Seeker”, a rifle that allows you to control the bullet in mid-flight, or the TMD (Time Manipulation Device) which not only has the power to return things to their previous state, but also degenerate stuff. Prime example, use it on an enemy soldier. Seriously, it’s just plain funny. There is even a gravity gun style command with the TMD, proving that stealing an idea from another company is justified when combined with your own creation. Other weapons in the game border on the completely ridiculous, and it’s better for it. Like Bioshock before it, there are upgrade stations for your weapons which can be used to use weapon tech or even spend hard searched for “E99 Tech”. It doesn’t really explain that for some of these perks you need to physically equip them, but knowing they’re there is a huge bonus. It’s nice to have all of this, but the ability to wield more than two weapons at a time would have made things better. Since ammunition is somewhat sparser than the availability of Christmas present options on Christmas Eve in certain areas; another slot for a gun would have improved things greatly. The powers towards the end of the game are just plain fun and ones that need to be seen to be believed. Surrounded by enemies? Turn one into a monster and then set him to detonate!

AHHH!!! MY FACE!!! MY BEAUTIFUL FACE!!!!

While there are one or two areas that will prove to be a challenge, the vast majority of the game is alarmingly simple. It is possible to clear the entire single player campaign in less than a day. But despite its rather rushed conclusion sequence where more room for a level could easily be inserted, the main campaign is worth experiencing, purely because of how well it flows. Some iconic encounters with big monsters, like the gargantuan on the train are well surrounded by sections that feature intense paranoia or an insane amount of firepower. One section that featured both these elements is a sewer sequence where opening the door to the next area unleashes a whole swarm of tickers which you need to flee from. The tools you obtain are helpful in most situations, but when faced with overwhelming odds such as this; the old strategy of run ’n’ gun will indeed save your bacon.

Multiplayer is limited to only two co-operative game types with fairly similar styles and goals. The first one is a variant on numerous territory game modes in other first person shooters, while the other is your standard Team Deathmatch. What is interesting is that players are split into Creatures vs Soldiers teams. Each side has its own four classes. The humans get the Blitzer, who can teleport through time; the Bruiser, who can generate impulse energy like some kind of Soviet Jedi Knight; the Healer, whose name should be self-explanatory to his power; and the Lurker, who can create a shield that damages foes upon impact. Then there are the Creatures, who move in a third person perspective that is a little odd, but seems to work well. The Zek can shift time and summon barrels to chuck at anyone in need of flammable oil dowsing; the Revert can puke on enemies to damage, friend to heal, the Radion who acts like a massive mutated tank; and finally the Phase Tick who can blow the sack on his back or possess enemy soldiers. All these creatures are balanced very well with the rest, so while there is a levelling system it only serves as status recording rather than upgrading. Stability in connections is an issue, as host timeouts happen often. Multiplayer in most FPS games isn’t a big priority, so this is a nice diversion that is worth a look at.

Lasting little more than a few hours, it is hard to justify the full retail price for Singularity. But think about it this way. Multiplayer will keep you interested for a good amount of time, despite only having two types, and what you experience in the single player campaign is so good that you probably wish it had not rushed its conclusion. It could easily have milked the plot for another level. It could easily have another epic boss encounter or disturbingly quiet level where you are stalked by something. I certainly didn’t want it to end at the point where it did. There is also a new inclusion to the armoury that I never would have thought of in my wildest dreams; the TMD. It can make biological matter turn into dust; mutate into a killer monster or slow it down enough for you to shoot it. It can progress or reverse the aging process on material objects or send things flying with a burst of energy. If like me you want utter mayhem and destruction from your FPS tools; I highly recommend the Deadlock. It just screams pain.

Sniper: Ghost Warrior (Xbox 360) PAL  Sniper: Ghost Warrior (PC) PAL

There was a point in time when originality in first person shooters just wasn’t an issue because the genre itself was: original. This all changed with the dawn of the 21st century as many studios decided to create their own answer to Halo or Half-Life. Then along came the smash hit Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a game that was so popular it became the new model for all FPS games since. Some have challenged the conventions of what a game should be like, whilst others are so generic you’d hardly notice. So hot on the heels of just about every other first person shooter out there, the relatively unknown City Interactive have unleashed onto the shelves of a few outlets Sniper: Ghost Warrior. When I say unleashed, I do however mean spat out a budget title that even for a small price; fails to impress.

The plot is the tried and tired “mission goes wrong, finish the job” affair. Razor Two Four, who incidentally has the worst codename in the history of the Special Forces, misses his chance to kill a target. The consequence of this is that a secret agent gets found out and is subsequently put in a hostage situation. There are one or two twists here and there, but it seems like the writers just watched Sniper, a 1993 film about the namesake. What they did was take out the hint of drama about the situation of two snipers trying to survive and made it more like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The result is a mess that fails to engage its audience and provides an at best generic tale.

Bullet Cam: For when you really want to see brains spilt!

Appropriately, the one thing that the developers got completely right was the sniping. It’s all well and good to point the crosshairs on an enemy soldier’s head and pull the trigger; but it isn’t very realistic from very far away. Stick in gun velocity, wind speed and the sniper’s own blood pressure and you’re simulating the real thing a little more. Throw in the nice little cut-scene of the shot being fired at that person’s skull and you have one mechanic that is well thought out. As for the rest, it is a bit of a joke. Stealth is the worst offender as the general’s forces seem to have eaten a lot of carrots, have surgically implanted eagle eyes, or even a combination of the two. What doesn’t help is the tiny heads up display, for the tiny dots from a normal position don’t show the direction they’ re facing, which they do show if your face was surgically attached to the TV by the eyeballs. If this was at the very least a little bigger, and the enemies diet consisted of less carrots then the game would be a more forgiving experience.

The main problem comes from the fact that missions seem a little too familiar. The first mission shows you how the controls work, but turns into a big shootout. Towards the end of the chapter however, there are sequences where you aren’t the sniper. These act like an unrefined carbon copy of a certain game from 2009. You see where this is going. Where did the original ideas go? Perhaps the developers realised that some of the sniping sections would bore some of the typical first person shooter players, so opted to make sections dedicated to remind them of what they should be playing. It’s bad enough when a game is bad on its own merit, but when trying to emulate a better game but falling at simple things such as hit detection and weapon effectiveness, it is beyond salvageable. Then there is the multiplayer, which is practically unplayable as games quickly turn into a Mexican standoff from one side of the map to the other with snipers. One move is likely to get you shot, that is if anyone will actually be playing when you are. They’re probably on some other game.

It might not look like it, but this guy is screwed on around four different points!

There is a saying that “looks are deceptive” that is surprisingly appropriate here. While the environments are well detailed, they do come across as a little stale as you progress through the four acts. The character models would have looked alright if the game didn’t allow you to look through a scope. By granting you this ability, you will see how the models look as if their eyes were stuck to their faces with Pritt-Stick. That said, it isn’t as if the game looks horrible. The jungle is fittingly bright and green, rather than the sea of brown that we’ve seen from most shooters in the past five years. Effects of seeing a bullet pierce an enemy’s skull are slightly laughable when the victim does a somersault from the apparent force.

Perhaps with the title itself, one would have seen it coming. Sniper: Ghost Warrior is for a lack of a better term; dire. A little more effort in tweaking the sniping sections and putting less emphasis on making the game just like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare would have made this a more creditable effort. A lacklustre campaign combined with unforgiving enemy awareness and dodgy hit detection means that anything other than the somewhat brilliant sniping mechanics will come across as rushed and in serious need of disinfectant. Its games like this that make me wonder about the future of the first person shooter. Sniper: Ghost Warrior could have been a far better effort if more care was taken into its construction. What we have here is a cut and paste scheme gone horribly wrong.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (Xbox 360) PAL   Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3) PAL 

Set after the events of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and before the events of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, the Prince is sent to his brother in a neighbouring kingdom, he arrives to find it in a state of war. Invaders from a foreign land have come to take the kingdom from his family. When he eventually meets up with him, Malik is about to open a seal to King Soloman’s army. Despite the Prince warning him that it is a desperate measure that will probably make things worse, the seal is broken. The result is that everyone not holding the seal pieces is turned to sand statues and an army of undead soldiers starts running amok in the castle. After getting separated, the Prince wanders into a strange portal to find that the seal wasn’t Soloman’s Army, but an undead army led by the inferno Djinn ; Ratash. Razia who is incidentally a water based Djinn, says that the only way to stop the army is to reunite the seals. He must now safely find his brother and stop the invasion. The plot is entirely too predictable with the major twists becoming all too obvious as you progress. It’s hard to not laugh at some of the dialogue for its campness, but with the recent film release it was probably going to be that way anyway.

The landscapes are given away from the mention of an old collection of Middle Eastern countries called Persia, so expect a lot of deserts and Arabic architecture. A lot of the environments are completely interactive, such as the flags and banners surrounding doorways and the pots that are scattered around the place. Most of the time they will churn nothing, but there is an odd occasion where health and energy can be replenished. There are occasions of the old invisible wall syndrome one would have expected to have been eradicated in the last 10 years, but these are few and far between. Scale has certainly been achieved, but at the cost of any charm. We certainly have the desperation element from the sand statues, but other than this the castle is as lifeless as the current inhabitants. Fitting certainly but appealing; not so much.

Backdrops border the somewhat epic, but it gets too easy to know where to go.

Along with the Prince’s ability to warp the perceptions of time and space to make sure he doesn’t die, he will gain access to a few new interesting abilities along the way. Solidifying water is perhaps the first you’ll come across and the implementation is brilliant. There are occasions where you’ll need to solidify it to turn into poles, whereas waterfalls make temporary walls to run up. The other two aren’t as important, but are very useful for mobility nonetheless. Being able to home in on a single enemy from far away renders seemingly un-passable gaps almost redundant, while being able to recall a location’s former glory to create platforms is a novelty idea that is quirky enough to find charming. A few locations will use several of these in tandem, but because of the nanny state of games thanks to tutorial systems and “breaking in” jumps and obstacles, these will rarely frustrate you. There are a couple of sequences where brilliantly timed jumps are essential and an incredibly long puzzle involving the tedious simplistic task of opening a gate, but these points are the only real point of challenge.

This is because combat is like going ten pin bowling with the world’s largest bowling ball. On the outset, it seems like a God of War clone with enemies; en-mass and only a small sword to keep you company. But as you progress through the game, certain abilities learnt from the outset such as leaping from enemy to enemy as if they were car tyres on an obstacle course and aerial slashes make taking care of individual enemies a doddle. The real kicker however comes from the ever present upgrade system. You get sand essence from defeating enemies which translates into experience. Each level will allow you to choose an upgrade from the menu. If you chose wisely and go with health and energy first, closely followed by Stone Armour upgrades, then the difficulty takes a severe Olympic style nose dive. Levels are obtained far too quickly, making you seem overpowered incredibly quickly. It doesn’t help that the higher levels of the elemental powers of fire, ice, earth and wind can be abused with little to no drawbacks. The Prince of Persia series has always been more about the jumps and traps, and this is very apparent in the new game, but including a combat system where anyone who knows not to just mash on one button can triumph with little effort is just worrying. Where did the imaginative thought process go? It was there for the platforming sections, but is inconspicuously absent from the combat. Heck, there are even instances where the two boss battles and the titan enemy types seem like a walk with a particularly moist Victoria sponge, which leads me to the most heartbreaking thing about this “interquel”.

Episode 3 of "Xtreme Shower": Gravity defiance

You know that a game isn’t particularly challenging these days when the achievement list includes amongst others: “Defeat the final boss without getting hit”. It is a baffling choice and one that the development team might come to regret. Outlining the simple difficulty of an entire game, with the only thing to add to it being “…it’s easy”. There is a saying: “life isn’t always easy” just really doesn’t apply here in the slightest. The most difficult thing in the entire game is the tedious search for X amount of collectable MacGuffins that are scattered over the ruins of this oversized sandcastle. Here it is the ever macabre Sarcophagi. But even these are somewhat easy to find because there is always a lingering blue haze whenever one is nearby. In a way, it’s like being in a rather packed lift where there is a lingering smell. You are definitely sure that this was the location, but you’re not sure who the culprit was or indeed where they might be in the lift. Oh well, the UPlay enabled capabilities have some merit for use with other games, and that is a plus I suppose.

I wasn’t expecting much when the game was announced to be available as well as the film release this year. To say that is fairly bad is a bit of a damp squib but when one or two aspects show sign of promise, it is a little tragic. This had the potential to be special. It had the potential to be a great title that surpassed expectations. What we got is a game where two separate teams worked on the two styles of play; one team who had a moment of genius, and the other team who had moments of dementia. Who didn’t see the conflict of interest? Some people had the desire to create something special, while the rest decided to sit on their bums and pick their nose; yet they all get paid the same. I love how in Ubisoft games they always make a statement saying “the development team is comprised of people with different beliefs”. From this example, that isn’t the only thing that is different between them all.

Naughty Bear (Xbox 360) PAL  Naughty Bear (PS3) PAL 
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

When this was first teased, I seriously thought this was an April fool’s joke. Then I realised it was around June of last year. As things progressively got teased, it seemed we were in for something special. Given all the tooting the developers gave in the build up towards its release date, we were promised an innovative sandbox adventure with intelligent AI and even more intelligent mechanics, all with a fluffy exterior. This then, is Naughty Bear; such an unlikely concept to ever see the light of day, has actually gone on to sell in shops. So if you go down to the woods today, will you find a big surprise?

There is warped and twisted idea that went into making this game and it stirs some interesting emotions once you stop laughing at the overall concept. Naughty is a bear that always seems to get up to mischief. So when the teddy bears didn’t invite him to Daddles’ birthday party, he decides that enough is enough and makes him a present. On his way to meet him, the other bears point and laugh at him, in short demoralising him to the point of homicide. Okay, so the British voiced narrator kind of pushes him towards the idea of a fluffy revenge. Essentially, all episodes start off with something that the teddy bears do in order to either eradicate Naughty or indeed eradicate themselves. In a guilty kind of way it reminds me of TV when I was a child, if written by Robert Louis Stevenson with a rather macabre twist.

Where's my money?!

Your first few hours of Naughty Bear will be a welcome departure from most games. You are given complete freedom to run around and maim the stuffed bears whilst vandalising their stuff. Combining the two into object kills is even better. You also have a wide array of weaponry to use on the bears which have varying strengths and can provide even more finishers to play around with. Traps provide impromptu set pieces when enemies walk into them, or stall your escape should you become trapped in one that you planted yourself. It helps that the AI has a degree of intelligence, in that it will automatically make the bear head for the nearest weapon or safe room in order to barricade. If a bear should hear something be sabotaged, it will investigate. Of course, this is all provided the bear is still sane. Their tiny little fluff brains can’t take an awful lot of the naughtiness going on around them. Should bubbles be appearing on their head, their objective turns from preservation to cowardice. One more scare sequence is enough to make them top themselves with whatever they have handy. All of these actions are fairly easy to control, though lacking in a great deal of strategy in execution. While visually it isn’t bad, Naughty Bear isn’t exactly pushing any barriers. In the cut scenes, the narrator is mildly amusing. However, when he’s making up terminology for an execution you just pulled off, he quickly becomes irritating, making you want to turn that sledgehammer on him instead.

As you play around more and more though, the game’s structure becomes abundantly clear. The entire game is based on one island. Considering the nature of the weaponry and ways to kill other bears, having it all on one level with changing themes is a bit of a disappointment. It is also set in an episodic format with four sub-episodes aimed at challenging you to perform in a certain way. Some require you not to get hit, while others require you to kill every bear. The most interesting bit of fun comes from the invisible challenges, where you cannot be seen. Grass provides cover for Naughty, while certain unlockable costumes provide a disguise. Then there are the not so fun levels; namely the Top Hat challenges. Every bear is stupidly good in these episodes because they wield laser rifles. In order to do well in all the levels, you need to score enough points to rank in various cups. This of course means abusing the multiplier and collecting the freeze multiplier power-ups at the right time. Other than this, general terror; murder; vandalism and destroying particular special items will raise your score…and this is the entire game for 35 levels. It gets incredibly repetitive very quickly. By the time I finished episode 7, I was bored enough for the game not to warrant the rest of my time. That isn’t the worst bit…

Okay I’ll spare you the suspense, mainly because the game does it for me itself. If you go down to those woods, you are not only going to find bears, but also a lot of bugs. The game will probably do the following to you at some stage during your time with it; crash on loading screen, not load the heads up display, bug out on the ultra kills and worst of all, make it so the bears know where you are despite you being hidden. All of these have happened during my time with this game. Isn’t there an occupation for testing quality? If so, what the heck are they doing? Some games in this day and age need an update to improve reliability. It’s annoying enough when it hampers enjoyment, but the real frustration is that an entire game mode cannot be played at all. I want to say that multiplayer is better. It probably isn’t, but the fair judgement cannot be made simply because it refuses to connect players to the game. It’s a shame too, as some unlockable badges help your online presence have the edge in some game types and it even has appropriately named modes.

Look at my cavities, I DARE YOU!!!

Naughty Bear has its own little ranking system which is based on the total naughtiness career score. This in turn unlocks new multiplayer badges, but seldom little else. The rest of the unlockables come from completing levels and obtaining certain ranks within them. Generally the better you do, the better the costume you obtain. For example, simply completing a level will reward you with better stats, but no other useful benefits. Completing all the challenge levels on a particular episode on Gold rank or above will net you a character who starts with his own weapon and can run around other bears without any fear. But perhaps the best thing about the game, and this for me is odd, is the achievement list and what it means in the game. Iconic kills, secret missions and costume based challenges. All of which take a degree of tact and certain costumes to solve. The “don’t let the zombie-teds kill the other teds” challenge was tricky, but huge relief was expressed once done. Sadly, this is perhaps the most satisfying thing you’ll do.

It comes with deepest regret that Naughty Bear, a game with so much promise, is being cast into the pile of over-hyped but ultimately terrible games. Its credentials are solid, but it rarely brings anything interesting to the table, apart from a couple of bugs to keep you on your toes. The presentation is hit and miss at the best of times, and the stagnant progression feels like an afterthought. Being set on one smallish level that makes the smallest Halo 3 multiplayer map seem huge in comparison is unforgivable. But really it is the fact that play testing either never happened or was never acted upon that frustrates me as a gamer. How can an entire game mode be so bugged that it is unplayable? How can the single player mode crash so dramatically that its bugs are more akin to 8-bit games? This game is naughty for all the actually bad reasons. It therefore needs to go up to its room and think about what it has done.

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Blazblue: Calamity Trigger (Xbox 360) PAL  Blazblue: Calamity Trigger (PS3) PAL   

For the longest time, we have seen very little to compete with the Street Fighter series. Most would argue that the blood and gore of Mortal Kombat would suffice, and for a while it did. But since the first 3D incarnation, it went off the rails somewhat with lacklustre changes and the complete removal of unique fatalities. Tekken is a joke compared to old school 2D fighters, and Soul Calibur can hold its own, but relied too much on franchising with Star Wars the last time. King of the Fighters would have made more of an impact if it didn’t get released exclusively for a console that cost over £200 in 1994. Darkstalkers as an IP had a good run, but since the re-release on the PSP launch we’ve heard scarcely little. It’s a little like the premier league for football in the UK; a bunch of okay teams and one or two powerhouses usually slugging it out for the title. One of the underdogs is the Guilty Gear franchise. It showed a promising start, but somehow slipped outside of the radar. So much so, that the developers at Ark SystemWorks decided to bury it in favour of a new IP. This new game is Blazblue: Calamity Trigger, and judging from the artwork we’re in for a completely 2D HD treat. But does this game trigger some long awaited competition for Street Fighter, or is it merely a dud?

If you’re going to start a new fighting title in the 21st century, you need a setting and some background. Blazblue: Calamity Trigger does this, but it is a little abstract. The game is set in the “13th hierarchical city” known as Kagutsuchi. Some event happened prior to this where magic was used to slay a beast. Only problem with it was the world was covered in a dangerous substance and humanity began using the magical devices known as Azures. The army, known as the Librarium have people in a police state, while another organisation known as Sector Seven want to return humanity to an era of technology and science. It is all a little confusing to comprehend, but thanks to a little “tutorial on the world” that is unlocked whilst progressing through the story this is explained in far better detail than one paragraph. For that reason alone, the characters feel far more fleshed out than most in fighting games. It’s not going into as much plot as Mortal Kombat ever did, but it’s not as stupid as Tekken’s.

I'm not even going to comment much. Just look at the pretty images.

The roster is a rather minimalistic twelve characters in total. Compared to the thirty odd in Super Street Fighter IV, some might say that they didn’t try hard enough. But the old saying of “quality over quantity” still stands. Yes, they might not look like much, but then you press the Drive command. It is one simple little button that unleashes the character’s true potential. For example, Jin Kisaragi can freeze your opponents where they stand for a follow up of brutal attacks. It is certainly open for spamming. Thankfully there is an option to cancel out the opponent’s attacks mid-stream by pressing all the face buttons at once. Much like other fighting games of the past, there are ultra moves known as Distortion Finishers. Each character has access to two or three of them and they’re all fairly brutal. Even more offensive are the Astral Finishes, which are only able to be executed when the opponent has less than 20% of their health in the entire match. The game doesn’t really outline this as much as it does everything else, but it’s nice to know you can humiliate your opponent. For those who don’t fancy having their derrieres handed to them on a silver platter by obsessed Japanese players online, the right stick features the entire move set one might need to beat them. Combine them with other moves you learn and you’re an expert in no time.

Character balance is something all fighting games seem to get wrong, especially with the overpowered final bosses. In living memory, only Street Fighter II had the most balanced last boss because he couldn’t kill you in one hit. That honour in Blazblue: Calamity Trigger doesn’t go to the last opponent, but to Hakumen. He has the ability to charge his sword by sitting there, like a fat Japanese guy eating meat buns. At least it is easily blocked though, which is more than can be said for Tekken 5’s Jinpatchi (stupid large unavoidable fireball!). Rarely does the sense of imbalance really surface though as while he can take a large chunk of health with one hit, you’re practically beating him senseless prior to this unfortunate event. The only character I didn’t have fun playing as was Carl. He is a little boy with an amazing top hat being stalked by a marionette. Who does the fighting? The Marionette of course! So what does Carl himself do? Send cogs and mechanical things at close range whilst avoiding attacks from opponents. While all other characters pass in terms of efficiency and fun to control, Carl needs to see the teacher after class.

Blazblue: Calamity Trigger also features a fully blown out story mode. Each character has a multiple path arc in their campaigns which depending on which way you tackle things determines your ending. I have one large niggle about this though, and that is with 100% a campaign. I get going through multiple paths. I get making certain choices to go down those paths. I even get in-fight conditions to get to certain paths such as performing a Distortion Finish. What I don’t get is what you need to do to get the other 20% of the quest completed. You’ll never guess how to do it unless I flat out tell you. One ending for one of the characters is dependent on completing the campaign with another character. For flavour, I don’t mind this so much but it is a little abstract. What I do mind though is this: You need to lose every single battle at least once! Who came up with this idea? If you want to save yourself a few hours, make sure you save often, in multiple slots and concentrate on one campaign at a time; otherwise you’ll have to go through the entire campaign again to find that one elusive loss. In terms of the actual plot, it isn’t bad for a fighting game. Quirky Japanese humour and lots of juvenile reference to the “booby lady” from the female cat or lack thereof on the military girl, but

In the arcade mode, all twelve of the playable characters are unlocked from the outset. In the story mode, two are missing at first but are unlocked once you’ve been through the plot of each character. But here’s an interesting thing to unlock; special moves! A few of the characters begin with their Astral Finishers which are like the Ultra Combos from Street Fighter IV, only more destructive, but the rest are unlocked after completing the arcade mode with said character. It is an interesting idea, and one that works well as you get to try out every character more than once to get used to them. For the more conventional unlockable options, each character has an ultimate form. These enhance their power somewhat in certain areas, such as having Ragnar the Bloodedge’s “Blood Kain” ability constantly active, or enabling Rachel Alucard’s electrical frog to remain on screen even after being hit. There is also a gallery of artwork and sound samples for those obsessed with the making of documentaries to get all giddy about. But the real thrill from this fighter in a single player point of view comes from the challenges. The Score Attack mode puts you in the hardest setting on a fixed path, and the aim is to get as far as you can. It does have an end point, which I think adds to the charm and challenge.

Stages have a distinct theme about them and are colourful. Again, look at the pretty pictures!

The real strength though comes from the online mode. A lot of the time you will come across crazy Japanese people or weird American “otakus” who prefer the Japanese voice acting. Score one up on them and you gain ranks, and depending on how stylish in your fighting you are, you gain bonus experience. While it’s not as fleshed out and extravagant as Super Street Fighter IV’s online client, it doesn’t fill it with needless tedium. The Japanese/Otaku will however completely decimate new players, but when you do win the satisfaction is priceless. Especially when a Japanese otaku messages you to remind you that he lost and didn’t like that fact. Some fights though you do get the odd close one that doesn’t feel one sided. These though are few and far between. Still, get a group of friends together and it should be a brilliant little online fighter to pass the time. As a home brawler, it is even better as you can pretty much make an entire night of it the fear of the land of the rising sun. Local multiplayer is limited to training modes and versus modes, but with such a fun battle system it doesn’t get that old at all.

This might be a surprising thing to say, but I think Blazblue: Calamity Trigger is the best fighting game I’ve played in years. It’s the closest thing to a full blown fighting game with all the trimmings since the turn of the century. While a big roster prolongs the games lifespan, it quickly becomes stale and repetitive. This is where Blazblue: Calamity Trigger shines as the many modes and styles of play never really get too old. Story mode drags on a tiny bit with the 100% completions, but with all manner of distractions surrounding it, there’s something for anyone with a vague interest. The geeky ones can gawp at the gallery content, those wanting an online fix can be beaten senseless by arcade nerd fanatics and on occasion by the normal person and those wanting a real challenge can try their hand at beating the hardest mode. I am of course the latter category, so this suits me down to the ground. Blazblue: Calamity Trigger is by far one of the best original ideas I’ve seen in recent years; won’t give you the blues in the slightest, and I can hardly recommend it enough.