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It’s been a while since I communicated with you on a personal level. Bit naughty of be to be honest.

Let’s just say I’ve had a busy time with other commitments. My workload got far larger at my paid job, and suffice to say that took its toll. I had to spend less time doing what I wanted to do because I didn’t have the time to do it.

But technology gives me a new helping hand. As I am now able to update on the go, things will be different in 2011 (“twenty-eleven”). One thing that will also change is the fact I now have access to mobile phone gaming, so you will see games you may have played on your mobile phone come under scrutiny (having said this, I haven’t seen a particularly bad mobile phone game that is put on more official channels (Xbox Live compatible or iPhone App Store recommended, etc).

There will also be more mini-reviews and indeed longer more in-depth articles to come from me. I’m currently working on an extended review at the moment for what I think is the most socially important game of 2000-2010. Watch this space…

Starting from next week, I’m back to my Fortnightly arrangement.

Hope to see you then. In the meantime: A mini-review on the brand new expansion for Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Format Reviewed: Xbox 360

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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!

 
 

Plants vs Zombies 
Version Tested: Xbox 360

Since around the early 1990s, zombies in video games have been invading our homes, towns and indeed world ever since. There have been many different tools of the trade for zombie extermination that would send a pest controller into a giddy frenzy. The use of live ammunition has been the widely used method of dispatching the hordes. But they just keep coming. Other methods need to be thought of. Dead Rising already thought of humiliating them, but as is the case here; it only serves to make the rest of them annoyed. Mind you, a lot of methods appeared over the years. Draining their brains of fluid, running them over with various contraptions, using the power of…horticulture? Confused? Perhaps, but not as much as Monty Don when his geraniums start taking arms against undead human beings. It’s hard to imagine the concept behind Plants vs Zombies; a tower defence game where you must cultivate your defensive line against a group of particularly bitey people trying to get into your house, probably to participate in an exercise of mass eating.

If you are familiar with the concept of the tower defence strategy game, then think of this as one with a bizarre theme. If like me you are as unaware of the genre as a metal fan is with the ins and outs of the drum n bass scene, then think of this as quite simply defending a certain object from waves upon waves of enemies. Each level of the game will send a quota of zombies hurtling towards your house. Using a combination of solar power together with super cultivation powers, your job is simply to block their advance. There are 49 plants in total you can use, one unlocked after every mission. Essentially, it is best to look at these plants in two groups. The first are universal plants, those which are needed regardless of the circumstances. These include the Wallnuts and, in most cases, the Sunflower/Sunshroom. Others such as the Exploding Cherries and the Chompers are regarded as situational. Developing a strategy that works isn’t particularly difficult, but there will be certain zombie types that will cause a minor headache. Luckily there is always a quick solution to a monster issue. If all goes to pot, the lawnmower will act as a lifeline for that row and kill every zombie in it. Simple gameplay, but really as a casual themed title there is a fantastic array of strategy.

Let the power of horticulture smite the heathen zombies!

The main game isn’t very long, lasting for 50 levels spanning 5 worlds. It’s the amount of extras that really make the 1200 Microsoft points worth spending. With a history of casual hits to choose from, including them in zombie form for mini-game levels is just brilliant, with the likes of the highly addictive BeJewelled being represented. My only issue is that levels such as this needed two forms. The first should be as the standard Plants vs Zombies style and the second should be an endless score attack (where scores could go on leaderboards). This wouldn’t be difficult as there are survival and endless modes already in the games options. Every mode is unlocked via the main game, but stuff within is unlocked as you play these modes. Then there is the Zen Garden. As unlikely as it seems, this mode allows you to farm money. This money can be spent on stuff for the game modes, or to cultivate more money in the long run. To say this game is light on content as is the case with a lot of video games these days would be a desperate lie. Finally, in case you think this is very one sided, the zombies get a turn to eat brains in the I-Zombie mode, just to add to the strategy.

Finally, there is a Zen Garden mode which is unlocked after completing the main experience. You’ll start obtaining plants in stages and mini-games at this point, which are sent to the Zen garden for you to raise from sprouts, and then ultimately sell. Marigolds are bought from Crazy Dave, which can be matured and them farmed for coins that emerge from them. It’s an interesting idea that keeps some kind of incentive post-ending. Another large plant to raise is the Tree of Wisdom. This will increase in size after every special feed you put on it. The feed does cost a fair bit, so every little indeed does help. This means finding more plants to raise, sell and pay for the feed. It stands to reason that zombie killing is a kind of economy. The more you kill, the bigger the tree grows. Thankfully the variety of modes and the new “hard” mode makes this seem like an extension of that experience, rather hoarding more gold than the average dragon for the sheer kick.

Bowling is simply better when done with a friend.

Visually, it is a fairly standard affair resembling something more in tone to a Flash based game than anything of big developer budget. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely without charm. There are almost as many zombie types as there are plants, and they’re all themed in some way or another. There is even a dancing zombie who can summon backup dancers to surround him. What is amusing is that while the main dancer looks like he jumped straight from the disco scene, the backups resemble Freddy Mercury. It’s not just the cosmetics that are relatively amusing, but also the element of self parody. The descriptions for the plants and zombies, combined with the bizarre ramblings of Crazy Dave being…well, stark raving mad; are witty, if a little strange. This is the kind of game that could and indeed has generated a cult following. The new details in this version are as fresh as the plants you plant, rather than the stale decaying zombies that you obliterate.

Cult phenomenon on the PC and iPhone apps, it is nice to see that for the console ports that there is the same amount of playability but additions to make things even better. As a concept, it is probably the only tower defence game you’ll ever need. Units are balanced on both sides, and with this much variation between modes it is hardly surprising that people rave so much about it. So should you spend however much it costs on any version? It depends on whether you like innovative gaming and wish to reward it, or whether you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind playing the billionth generic first person shooter. PopCap might not be the first company you’d find a great idea, but a tower defence game involving botany and necromancy together is worth a peek, even if it’s just out of morbid curiosity.

(Errata: PC/Mac version is operated via mouse, iPhone version operated by touch. 360 by pad. Pad does work, but has some issues in certain situations (ie: when you’re frantically racking defences)

New look, new provider

Just got a message saying that I could convert my Windows Live Spaces thing to this instead. All I can say is: Why not? So here we are. I’ll be changing the layout repeatedly until it’s just right, so bear with me. Some posts will look a little odd in comparison to the old layout, especially with pictures.

The most recent posts will now be labelled at the top, with the most recent one now appearing here immediately. This should make the page a lot more organised. I will need to take time to create a proper browsing page, but the reviews come first.

Also, this weekend I will be at the Eurogamer Expo 2010. I’ll be the guy in the smart hat with a dictaphone and possibly a camera. It will be an experience I won’t forget, and I hope that I get good scoops!

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.