Monday, February 28

In case you haven't played it: Mass Effect 2 Review (PS3)

At the dawn of the current generation of console hardware, Mass Effect was one of the most promising intellectual properties to debut on the Xbox 360. Wrought with thoughtful dialogue, an intriguing lore and striking visuals; the Bioware-developed space opera was a strong, tactical RPG marred only by awkward vehicle sequences and some inconsistency in the difficulty of combat. It's sequel was first released in January last year on both the PC and 360, and was the subject of much critical praise. As I have often documented, I didn't quite take to it on Microsoft's console. Upon hearing of the Playstation 3 release, complete with most of the DLC (anything of substance, at least): I resolved to give it one last shot. Surely I must have been playing the game in a way different to what the developers had intended? In a way that was different to almost everyone else who had published an opinion regarding this game online.

For the uninitiated: the Mass Effect games chronicle the adventures of Commander Shepard, a human with a sordid origin of the player's choosing. You encounter, and recruit an interesting group of humans and aliens; each with their own opinions, prejudice, training and abilities. In order to survive this adventure, Shepard must earn the loyalty of his crew to take on the Collector threat. When customizing your Shepard, you will select one of six classes that will determine what abilities and weapons you'll use throughout the game.

For anyone interested: I went with the Sentinel class. The Tech Armour ability is invaluable.

Mass Effect 2 picks up shortly after its predecessor, which PS3 players are able to experience via an interactive digital comic. This is one of the strongest facets of this release, as so many of the choices players can make in the first game can have such a significant impact on the universe that you encounter throughout the sequel. Choices that an Xbox 360 player such as myself, was unable to import upon my first machine RRODing on me back in 2008. Through the comic, I was able to make the same choices (or at least what I remember those choices being) that I made a few years ago, and that allowed for me to have a much stronger connection to the events of the sequel. It only takes about ten minutes to skim through, and honestly I think it made the difference between me merely playing it (read: the 360 version), and finishing it (read: the PS3 version). Bravo, Dark Horse and Bioware!

When compared to the first game (Fergo, I hope you're reading this), Mass Effect 2 feels stripped. This works for and against it. For, in that the vehicle sequences that I could not stand are encountered more infrequently, and the physics for vehicle movement have been changed considerably. Further to that, the combat interface is far less cluttered, leading to battles that I could make sense of (read: if I died, I was playing like a nihilistic jackass). Against, in that the RPG elements relating to gear have been removed almost entirely. You also no longer acquire any loot other than med kits, credits and ammo. Mass Effect 2 is RPG-lite in terms of combat and character progression (as in levelling), but definitely not in terms of character development (read: narrative) and exposition. When I was trying to explain my impressions of the game upon finishing it to its greatest advocate (my brother), I equated it to Gears of War, crossed with Star Wars and the videogame adaptation of My Dinner with Andre seen in an episose of The Simpsons entitled "Boys-Scoutz N the Hood."

So what does that mean for you? Basically Mass Effect 2 is a third-person cover shooter that is punctuated with heavy doses of conversation. In each conversation there are usually several points at which players can select one of three dialogue options that encompass a Paragon (good), neutral or Renegade (bad) response. Sometimes you can learn more about the Mass Effect universe by using the "Investigate," option, which (depending on the questions you ask certain characters) can open up more dialogue options. Sometimes you will be prompted by non-verbal Paragon and Renegade cues during conversation, which depending on the context might allow for Shepard to interrupt someone who's talking smack, or even stop someone from taking a life. In other instances, you might just take a life yourself. Mass Effect 2's greatest accomplishment though, is the infinitely malleable universe that you travel through. Every choice you make, every dialogue option and cue that you act on can have serious implications for the storyline of the game and the series at large.

With reference to combat, in addition to shooting from cover, players can also unleash biotic abilities, tech and different types of ammunition upon their opponents. In the beginning these abilities are painfully ineffective, however once you upgrade some of these traits to full strength, your squad can make light work of all but the most heavily-shielded enemies. These abilities do serve to mix up the generic shooting action somewhat, but ultimately Mass Effect 2's gunplay fails to measure up to competitors like Uncharted and Gears of War.

Mass Effect 2 is typically, a visually stunning game. There are slight inconsistencies, such as textures failing to load properly and some awkward animations. This is particularly prevalent during conversation with central human characters, as sometimes it looks as though facial muscles are being articulated with a puppet master's strings. On the whole though, there is a diverse cast of characters of varying species, coupled with some solid (while sterile) art direction and brilliant lighting effects. The lair of the Shadow Broker, and the world of Ilium were the standouts of the experience. I should note however that the load times required to produce these visuals are unbearably long. You may not notice initially, but after twenty or so hours of play, it really did begin to test my patience.

The score in Mass Effect 2 is not as campy as that found in its predecessor, but it can still be quite grating. Often I found it to be a little too melodramatic during combat sequences, especially when there is a time limit involved. On the effects side, most of the guns sound disappointingly present-day. Whenever there is space travel, mining or lasers involved though, the games sounds delightfully futuristic. The quality of the voice-acting is mixed. For the first ten or so hours, Shepard is unbearably monotone, as are most of the crew for that matter. Once you pick up some of the more colourful members of your squad though, you'll find that most of the conversations will keep you engaged (if not, conscious).

Some of the game's finest achievements and biggest faults can be found in the mission design. Each of the loyalty missions, which allow you to earn the trust of each squad member, are varied in purpose and execution. Most require you to stop someone from doing something they'll regret, but often the way in which these events transpire is genuinely surprising. Some don't even involve combat, but you'll find that the most enjoyable are those that reach a balance between bullets and banter. Anything that doesn't involve recruitment and retention however, is almost a complete bust. The final mission in particular is an extraordinary misfire, eschewing set-pieces and challenge in favour of a large, painfully simple boss fight.

The missions that were offered as DLC for the 360 version each have their moments, but save for one are almost completely disposable. Kasumi and the Stolen Memory mission are big on looks, but almost completely devoid of substance. Overlord is one giant fetch quest, spanning four equally arbitrary locations. I will concede however, that the ending is somewhat shocking. Lair of the Shadow Broker is easily the strongest of the three, but there are some questionably-long combat sequences that impacted on my enjoyment of this mission. The ability to reunite with a character from the first instalment was unexpected and enjoyable, and surely has ramifications for any futures iterations of the franchise.

Finally, I should note that most of the crew are genuinely likable, and depending on your choices throughout the game, will lead to some potentially heartbreaking scenes. The final addition to the crew was a complete surprise, and after having played the first game, it had me awestruck. I didn't get to employ him (it) half as much as I would have liked, but every time he spoke I had a smile on my face. You should also prepare yourself for a game that is almost completely devoid of humour. The early acquisition of fast-talking Salarian scientist, Mordin Solus may lead you to believe that you'll be in stitches throughout the adventure; but the laughs are few and far between. I know some would argue that given the dark nature of the narrative arc, the enemy and their methods, that humour is not a priority; but when the Mass Effect universe is as sterile as it most often is, it can be a hard slog. There are also some pretty serious plot holes in Mass Effect 2 depending on the sequence in which you complete certain missions.  Maybe in the next game I will see the proper impact of some of the choices I made, but for now these narrative inconsistencies will continue to annoy me. I also took issue with the relationship system. After reaching a certain point with my chosen mate, the conversation options narrowed to me reassuring her that I was still interested in sleeping with her. While I could still discuss recent revelations with the rest of the crew, Miranda needed to know if I was still horny. I know a lot of this may sound like nitpicking, but in the end these issues did impact on my enjoyment of the package as a whole.

8.0/10 - Mass Effect 2 is a great game, and I'm truly glad that I took the time to play it through to completion. There is plenty of content, combat and conversation to engage with in this release, and I am sure that many would find this to be an enjoyable game. There are some flaws that hold the game back from greatness though, such as its extremely slow start, inconsistent voice-acting and unexciting gunplay. Highly recommended, but ensure that you have the time and the patience to immerse yourself in this universe.

Friday, February 25

March Xbox Live Mixed Bag

Like most of you, I too trawl through the new and old releases available on Xbox Live. Sometimes I’m rewarded with gems such as Trials HD, while other times I search for a dull instrument to stab myself with (thanks Bionic Commando 2). Earlier this month I picked up a few demo’s to pass the time and this is what I thought of them.

Super Meat Boy

From the moment I saw this arrive I thought to myself, “This is going to be dodgy. Don’t waste the bandwidth”. Then, as time passed by, I heard a number of positive reviews and I was convinced to at least give it a crack.

I was right all along. This game is horrible.

Essentially you are a blob of meat living your life doing meat things. Suddenly your girlfriend is kidnapped by a guy named Dr Foetus (alarm bells start ringing), you get beaten up and decide to rescue her. It’s a very basic single screen platformer where you aim to beat the clock when getting from your starting position to a bandage on the screen. You can jump up walls (leaving a bloody trail behind you) with the main goal not to be viciously killed by a buzz saw or long falls.

2/10. I was bored within minutes, with the only enjoyable feature being the games’ introduction – it has a cool 80’s retro feel, complete with an over the top voice over of the title.


One of the newest releases from Brisbane’s Halfbrick Studios, Raskulls is a side scrolling platformer with a number of cute characters, which for some reason remind me of Sonic. The plot is simple: alien rats have crash landed on your planet and are looking to steal a powerful gem to fuel their ship. Local authorities intercept the gem and you are summoned by the King to deliver it to the Knight, who is destined to save the kingdom.

The game design is quite refreshing; it combines the action of a traditional side scroller with elements of Tetris, creating interesting and addictive game play. Furthermore, the goal of many levels differs, reducing repetition for players. While some levels require the player to get from point A to point B, others are a race against AI characters or are a special quest to unlock new characters and tricks.

8/10. I actually ended up playing Raskulls for much longer than I intended, only stopping because I wanted to get through some other games during the night. It is well animated and addictive, with my only criticisms being towards the script and the way the characters communicate.

Bionic Commando 2

A retro style side scroller, BC2 is a total and utter waste of time. I found the game design insulting due to pointless little notes such as ‘Press A to jump’ or ‘To fire your weapon press B’ well into the first level. Thanks for telling me what I figured out as the game started. These notes tell you everything from when to open doors to picking up keys and where to put them. I can think of a place to put this game...

1/10. As the design hurts your brain, the soundtrack hurts your ears. The horrible bass and beats will haunt your dreams. Don’t bother.

Dead Space 2

Although I never played the first Dead Space, I did watch the animated movie (although that doesn’t help me because I fell asleep during). I won’t go into much detail of the game considering Dutch has already looked into it (Inertia Creeps – will Dutch be able to make it through for a review?) however I must say it did manage to start to freak me out. Why? Because nothing happened for the first three rooms I meekly entered and I was anticipating some massive alien monster zombie thing to jump out of nowhere, making me soil myself while it ate the character on-screen.

Unfortunately the wait was scarier than the result. Once I got through that first attack, I knew what to expect and it just turned into another horror based shoot ‘em up.

6/10. This score is mainly due to the scared-by-anticipation factor. Not many games or media in general create this sensation for me so credit where credit is due. Also, I feel like this game could be good, it’s just not my cup of tea. Resident Evil (PS1) was my last successful venture into horror and that’s how it’ll stay.

Fight Night Champion

As a fan of the Fight Night series, this is a game I’ve been keen to try for a while. I’m yet to give it a good crack (hence no score below) but I did dabble with a number of the features and a have a quick fight.

Firstly, from a marketing perspective, I find this demo amazing purely because it’s trying to sell itself. The menu is (what I can only imagine) recreated to incorporate videos on how the game was made, what to expect, new features and much more. I haven’t seen this in many demos before and I’ve always wondered why it’s not a common feature.

Visually, the game is aesthetically appealing, with many improvements since FN4 including reactions to hits, fighter animation and overall style of the game.

Fighter control is similar to previous instalments but slightly improved. While you still use both analogue sticks to fight (you can use the buttons if you prefer), the movement for each punch is more fluid than in FN4. By moving each stick in a specific direction you are able to easily dictate the type of punch you want to throw. This allows careless button mashers such as myself to be more tactical and throw more of the punches I want to throw because the movements are much more organic.

The soundtrack is full of hip ho p and urban beats; not my choice but I found it uplifting and a pleasure to listen to when it was on.

I’m currently undecided about this game. I’m keen to play it again to get a better feel for it and to try the career but after EA Sports MMA I’m not sure if I can happily give up my hard earned dollars for another EA fight simulator. Whilst I really enjoyed FN4, Fight Night Championship might take a bit of time to come around.

Have you picked up anything good of late from Xbox Live or PSN? What are your all time favourite downloads?

Wednesday, February 23

Rushing the Snail

Mum (and pretty much any other person who had a hand in raising me) always told me that "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." I probably should have taken that advice last year when I dubbed Mass Effect 2 the most disappointing game of 2010. It's not that I necessarily regret my decision: in the context of 2010, where I purchased another Xbox 360 to play Halo: Reach and Mass Effect 2 (and Gears of War 3, which was then delayed by the better part of a year), these games had to deliver on expectations. Mass Effect 2 had been touted by many as a "Game of the Year," contender, and it was released in January!

When I actually had the game in my hot little hands, things didn't go exactly as planned. I spent about 10 hours with the game and was underwhelmed by a combination of lacklustre voice-acting (mainly from the make-your-own protagonist) and repetitive combat that played like just about every other third-person conver shooter on the market. The biotic powers spiced things up a little bit, but not enough to get me through the title.

Fast forward to February 2011, three months after I deliver my indictment, and here I am playing through the same game (essentially), again. The first ten hours were once again a hard, mind-numbing slog, yet I persevered. I recruited a few more team members, fully upgraded some abilities, and then I actually found myself having fun. Was this the GOTY that the majority of gaming journalists had been singing praises for since the beginning of last year? No. Not even close. What Halo: Reach lacked in narrative depth, it more than made up with frenetic combat and persistent rewards across single and multiplayer suites. While Red Dead: Redemption may have had fifty-too many fetch quests, the Wild West constantly surprised and engaged with dynamic situations, hunting and foraging. Mass Effect 2 is a great game, but the experience was a little too repetitive and dare I say, sterile, to take the mantle from Noble Six, Marston, or Big Boss.

Now Mass Effect 2, particularly on the Playstation 3, is a dense package. I was rushing through it, and it still took me about twenty-three hours. I did complete all of the additional missions that were released as DLC for the 360 version as well, but considering you spend most of that time crouched behind a random bulkhead: twenty-three hours is a long fucking time.

A review will be forthcoming, so expect a quantitative value to be assigned to Bioware's space opera sequel next Monday.

What are you guys playing this week?

Monday, February 21

Special Delivery - A Marvel Versus Capcom 3 Haiku

Postman yet to bring
Marvel Versus Capcom 3
Agonising wait

Dramatic battles
Between favoured mediums
Comic books and games

Hulk, Thor and Dante
Would be my first selections
From large, varied cast

Some casting choices
Far beyond questionable

While not essential
Lack of Ken is heartbreaking
Worse still, no Blanka!

Hopes may be sky high
Simple mode and no kick/punch
Ready for the worst

Bring on the fireworks
Some bat-shit crazy combos
Wolvie and Ryu

Saturday, February 19

In case you haven’t played it: Brutal Legend Review (X360)

I’m not afraid to say I’m a fan of Jack Black. I find his predictable movies entertaining and his musical style refreshing yet obscene. Funnily enough, this is also the best way to describe Brutal Legend. Black voices (and looks suspiciously similar to) Eddie Riggs, the world’s best and most creative roadie who dies on stage while saving the life of one of today’s ‘rock stars’.

Crushed by a giant demon prop, Eddie is transported to another world; a heavy metal world populated by mythical beasts and characters you would expect from Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath album art.

As Eddie makes his way through the land, he must vanquish demonic enemies with his guitar, either with a powerful axe like attack or by strumming it to create bolts of lightning. Throughout the game you will also use your guitar to raise relics such as The Duece (your hotrod), open Motor Forges (garages) and unlock powers, combos and skills. It is your principle weapon and used extensively when in battle to control your legion of fans and loyal army of head bangers.

Whilst you can explore the world as much as you like, the game does actually have a plot. Basically you need to rid the land of an evil plague led by General Lionwhyte. From here a mythical back story unfolds and a wild adventure ensues.

The Good
Brutal Legend’s concept is solid. I like to think of it as Grand Theft Auto goes comic rock-opera. While it isn’t a controversial masterpiece like GTA, the free roaming experience of Brutal Legend is reminiscent of the game, especially when you stop your car to beat down monsters on the side of the road.

The whole game is based around heavy metal music, complete with an introductory movie featuring Black who takes you through a music shop to show you a mystical album. When he finally finds it, the game menu is shown, which is like flipping through an old record sleeve (Yes I just wrote a paragraph on the menu but that’s how much metal love has been poured into the game).

The comical characters are well drawn and animated while the metal inspired landscapes and overall art design are captivating. I seemed to spend much of my time looking at relics and icons of the land rather than stay on track and play the game.

More than just visually appealing, the mix of heavy metal themes and mythology coupled with voice acting of Jack Black make the game quite entertaining. With the musical nature of Brutal Legend being Black’s specialty, he truly brings Eddie’s character to life. Even cameos by Ozzy Osbourne and Motorhead’s Lemmy are done well and provide a little bonus fans.

Brutal Legend’s soundtrack is amazing, with music played during battles and while driving The Duece complementing the scenery and themes perfectly. More than just a few heavy power chords, the soundtrack contains classics from a long list of bands including Motley Crue, Motorhead, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and Tenacious D all blasted loud and proud across the land.

The Bad
When I played the demo, I thought Brutal Legend was going to be more of an adventure game with hoards of demon bad guys attacking you followed by a boss fight. While much of the game is like this (but in a free roaming environment) the major battles require you to recruit head banging allies, build a stage and then direct your army to the fight. It essentially genre jumps from adventure to real time strategy, which I found really frustrating considering I can’t stand RTS games.

In the larger battles I had no idea what was going on. I’m fairly sure I didn’t even watch the main fight because I was too busy zapping people with lightning and rebuilding stages. At times I’d send reinforcements somewhere but then the fight was over and it cut to a cool movie.

I also found this problem with the mini-games. While the driving or shooting games were fun (even if they were easy) the Ambush games were confusing. The idea is to ambush a passing enemy patrol, but not only would the action start before the intro movie frames had left the screen, it was difficult to tell who the enemy was and where they were. In one Ambush, an enemy had run away from the battle area after his friends were killed. The fight music continued and it took me close to eight minutes to find him and enable me to move on to other things.

I also found many of the challenges simple and predictable. If I managed to die, it was a consistent indication that the end of the challenge was near. Also, the solution to a challenge might seem clear i.e. lightning bolt a monster so they land on a spike, but the game can be a bit slow and make you run around for a while before Eddie has a brain wave and says, “Hey why don’t you do....”. I was already doing that Eddie! Pay attention!

The Ugly
For me, the worst aspect to Brutal Legend is the RTS elements. I have little patience for them and never liked playing this style of game which wrecked the experience for me. I don’t like directing teams of attackers; I’d rather just smash it out myself, which is actually quite enjoyable when the game lets you. I felt a little ripped off because there was no mention of the RTS factor in the demo, just a whole bunch of demon beating and hot rod driving action.

That said, had I of known about the RTS elements I still would have bought the game (I got it on sale for $30), however my level of frustration and disappointment would have been low, if not non-existent.

The Verdict
6.5/10 - Brutal Legend is a good game but possibly a poor choice on my behalf. While the art and concept was a breath of fresh air and a well executed concept, the confusing battles and repetitive nature tends to bring the game down. While I’m likely to play Brutal Legend again soon so I can fully complete it, it’s not tempting me to stay up at night to get just that little bit further.

Wednesday, February 16

Fortunate Son

I was going to write about my second attempt (this time on the Playstation 3) at playing through Mass Effect 2 today; but considering that it is still installing after thirty minutes, perhaps I should consider alternative subject matter.

For those of you not following my antics via social media outlets, know that I have spent a ridiculous amount of money on videogames in the last month. What started with the acquisition of a trilogy of the last hardware generation's most influential games (Prince of Persia for those wondering), has now culminated with the order of Nintendo's latest portable, complete with a game I had no intention of buying previously. My game collection at the moment is something akin to Gotham City in Batman Begins,  where Ra's Al Ghul would claim that my gaming forest has grown too wild, and "a purging fire is inevitable and natural."

Fool me once
Despite the dubious honour I bestowed on Mass Effect 2, it still has the most spectacular opening sequence that I've played through in recent memory. It was even to the point where Carls piped in with "Those are some impressive visuals." It is nothing short of breathtaking, peering through the broken shell of the Normandy into dead space (ha! EA pun). The only difference now is the interactive comic punctuating the opening and the first mission, which was not an offensive experience. It cut out all of the awkward cut-scenes, vehicle sequences and combat, while allowing me to make the choices that I'm pretty sure I made back in 2007 when I first played Mass Effect.

And now unlike the 360 version of Mass Effect 2 where I couldn't carry over my save after an encounter with the Red Ring of Death, I have some connection to the first title and it only took me about ten minutes (as opposed to fifteen to twenty hours). The PS3 version looks pretty, even if it is somewhat unstable. Textures still take their sweet time to load, but on the whole it looks a little better than its Xbox 360 predecessor (as it should). I have noticed quite a few hiccups with the audio though. 

None of these technical issues really matter if the strong impression left from the opening hour of gameplay dissipates again. I'll keep plugging away though, there's too much hype behind this game to fail (again).

Belligerent Sky
After having the Vietnam expansion to Battlefield: Bad Company 2 installed on my PS3 for over a month, I finally had a decent session with it and I have to say that I'm feeling indifferent towards it. A few maps, a few weapons, but not enough to add to the core action. If anything the dense jungle maps take away from it. Half of the enjoyment found in BF:BC2 is derived from destroying structures, and riding in choppers piloted by selfish, sometimes suicidal players from across the globe. The pilots are still there, but there's no rockets volleying into factory walls, or UAVs cutting down soldiers running between houses on snowy fields.

It's all a little too narrowly focussed for my liking. Also, I will boycott the next Cold War era title with a soundtrack featuring "Fortunate Son," by CCR. I get it, people listened to that song in the seventies.

What are you guys playing this week?

Monday, February 14

In case you haven't played it: Stacking Review (PS3)

This may seem a little left of centre to begin with, but Playstation Plus has not proven to be the game-changer I thought it would be. I thought the paid-for service which entitled subscribers to free games and exclusive offers every month would mount a challenge to Xbox Live Gold, in terms of both value for money and popularity. I was wrong (for now at least), as I very rarely found myself engaging with any of the free content, while discounts were applied to some of the more lacklustre offerings on the Playstation Network. This tarnished view has been challenged somewhat in the last few months. Firstly, most full retail games that have been released on the PSN in the last few months have been available for download via the "Full Game Trial," feature. Mass Effect 2, Assassin's Creed II, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 have all been available for a timed trial, and while most would have played these games, the option to try before you buy is appreciated. It's just a shame that Australians are charged an arm and a leg for these releases in digital form. Further to that, a greater range of titles (for both PS3 and PSP) have been available at reduced prices to Plus users. The improvements are fine, but still do not amount to a worthy investment.

That is until Thursday last week, when Double Fine Productions' latest release, Stacking was made available to Playstation Plus subscribers at no cost.

Stacking features the tale of the Blackmore family, a loveable band of chimney sweeps who've been separated by the nefarious Baron upon incurring a large debt. The Blackmore children are forced to work in each of the Baron's gloomy domains with the youngest child (not to mention the smallest), Charlie and Mom left at home. Despite his diminutive size, Charlie resolves to reunite his family and bring an end to child labour along the way. It may sound like a depressing situation, but every scene, environment and character is rendered with a silent film-era charm that is undeniable.

If you've never read about Stacking previously, it's an adventure puzzle game where the action revolves around stacking Russian dolls; each with their own unique abilities that can be combined to solve various humorous, sometimes dangerous dilemmas. Few of the scenarios provide any real challenge, particularly as you become more familiar with each of the various dolls' abilities. There are even facilities to lead you to the next challenge, as well as offer hints if you become stumped. Stacking is meticulously directed, especially for a puzzle game. So much so, that I breezed through it in about three hours. You can extend your playtime by discovering the various solutions (usually three) for each puzzle, engaging in doll-specific hijinx and by collecting each of the unique character dolls in each of the four environments. Truth be told though, I can't see myself combing through the game for any of this extra content as the first playthrough was more than enough for me. Some of the alternative solutions I found were reasonably inventive, but the action is no less simplistic.

The main reason I would think to recommend Stacking is the quality of the presentation, which is an aural and visual delight. Every scene is composed of a mixture of hand-crafted details and art-deco, almost steampunk design. Players will traverse across steam-powered sea vessels, trains and an airship over the course of the adventure, and each environment is impressive from both an artistic and technical perspective. The frame-rate rarely dips, and while you will find the occasional clipping error and camera fault: Stacking should be one of the more visually memorable downloadable games of the year. My favourite aspect of the presentation though, is the score, which once again draws from the silent film era. The whimsical, piano-centric music captures the drama emotion of each sequence expertly.

7.0/10 - I can't help but think the reason I liked Stacking so much stemmed from the non-existent purchase price. After eschewing this shallow observation however, I found that the game's superior art and sound design made for a thoroughly memorable experience that is well worth downloading. The action may be overly simplistic, but when a game is as enchanting, and downright charming as Stacking is, why should you (or I) care? It's incredibly difficult to not enjoy vomiting on a map to then find that you actually solved a taxing puzzle. If you're a Playstation Plus subscriber, there is absolutely no reson for you to not play this. For those who aren't, or for those who only own an Xbox 360, know that Stacking is a short, wonderful ride that you may not find to be worth 1200 Microsoft Points.

Friday, February 11

Unbelievable Dutch

I just finished watching the 1984 ‘classic’ The Karate Kid and it turns out I have a profound issue with it.

I find it too hard to believe that some kid can train for a karate tournament in two months by painting a fence and waxing a car, then enter said tournament (as a black belt no less) only to win by beating the reigning champ.

Not only were the competitors bigger than Danny, they had also trained for years and were accredited black belts.

If that scenario had happened in real life, Danny would have had his arse handed to him before any of the Cobra Kai had a chance to pummel him in the ring. I like to think that once Danny had awoken from the first round knockout coma he received, the clan would have snuck into his hospital room and beaten him with soap in socks Full Metal Jacket style.

At least Rocky had a boxing history. That real 80’s classic had an ending that made sense - he had a dream, he trained hard, he put on a good fight. Sure I’m probably not meant to giggle when he’s crying out “Adrienne!” after the fight but I do anyway because I’m insensitive.

What has this got to do with video games? Nothing really I'm just annoyed at the ending to a film. However it did make me think about the expectations of the hero and the plot of games.

For example, have you really thought about Super Mario Bros? Essentially it’s about a plumber who eats too many mushrooms, plays with fire and is expected to save a Princess from a giant turtle. Ignoring said mutant turtle, why would you leave your life in the hands of a drugged up arsonist? Personally I’d take my chances with turtle.

Clearly Mario and his world is a work of fiction; he was created solely for entertainment and not to inspire like dodgy films of the 80’s. I’ve got nothing against Mario; I just want to know what his creator was doing when conjuring this amazing mix of crazy elements.

For something a little more real, how about Doom? Yes it too is a work of fiction and it’s sci-fi and there’s absolutely nothing real about it, but you’re one man taking on hordes of insane aliens, running around Mars and its moons with a chainsaw and other Earth developed weapons. Why do humans have the technology to teleport and live on Mars, but we only have two futuristic weapons? How is one man meant to save the world with knuckle dusters and chainsaw? Who does he think he is? Chuck Norris? Have you seen the final boss? It’s fricken huge! I can’t even walkout to the bin of a night time just in case I come across a cane toad.

The same can be said for most first person shooters with a single protagonist – the fate of the world comes down to just one person facing an unknown enemy against the odds. Unless you’re in a Tom Clancy game or Call of Duty World At War, in which case the fate of the world comes down to your unit of allegedly crack soldiers who spend more time taking friendly fire than shooting the enemy.

Although some games may not make sense when analysed out of context, I am grateful they don’t often contain a dodgy montage sequence. Can you imagine Street Fighter if it had a Kickboxer style montage just before the fight with Bison, complete with a motivating tune with an electronic drum breakdown? I think my head would explode.

Have you questioned the plot of any games recently?

Wednesday, February 9

Inertia Creeps

Have you ever played a loud game? Sure there are some games that feature frequent crescendos, that create "jump moments," with their use of sound and vision (Dead Space 2 and Resident Evil 4 anyone?). Games like Hydrophobia however, assault your eyes, ears and any other organ used to process a gaming experience, non-stop. The central character, Kate screams constantly while the score continues to pound away. Lighting may be in ample supply, but it flickers and sparks, exhausting your eyes. The camera doesn't do players any favours either, jerking at doorways and creeping in too tight in confined spaces. Movement is justifiably made sluggish by the ever-present water, but combined with the previously listed elements, it leads to a disorienting and eventually, nauseating experience that I'm praying will end soon.

There isn't much of a story to accompany this attack on the senses (at least not in what I've played so far). Basically, terrorists have attacked the Queen of the World, a large sea vessel that makes the titanic look like a drop in the ocean. Our heroine is caught amidst the chaos, and is led by her friend, Scoot to counter the invading Malthusians. The Malthusians have littered the ship with the message: "Save the world. Kill yourself." I'm not sure what that means, but the mystery alone is probably not enough to compel me to stagger to the end. Queasy and defeated, Hydrophobia was a risky investment at 400 Microsoft Points (Xbox Live Deal of the Week), and is nothing short of overpriced now that it has returned to its standard 800MSP price tag.

It's not flat-out terrible, as there are some aspects of the game which have been positive, sometimes even enjoyable. The platforming sections work well and are not as obvious (in terms of direction) as other third person action titles like Uncharted and Prince of Persia. The combat is too much of a mixed bag to be labelled anything other than functional. It is fun to stun an enemy, and then have them drown in the encroaching depths; but the lack of a close-quarters option is of severe detriment to the gameplay. I've seen screenshots of players taking cover, but I don't know how (the game hasn't prompted me, I could pause and search; but...) and I don't see the need to when your opponents are as bereaved of intelligence as the Malthusians are.

All things considered though, Hydrophobia is killed by its own soundtrack. If there was some reprieve from the pounding music, and the attrocious, uber-Scottish accents I might have been able to grin and bear it until the end. As it stands, I don't think I can make it. Especially when you see others playing the survival horror game much more effectively.

I'm talking of course, about Dead Space 2.

My brother brought it over last Saturday to show me through its first few scares. I say "show me," because I have not been able to play a survival horror title since Resident Evil 4 (Alan Wake doesn't count because I don't think anyone could be legitamtely scared, even startled by what Remedy brought to the table). It's not because I don't enjoy games of this particular genre, it's just that I am by nature, a scaredy cat, and only recently has this nature extended to gaming. I played each instalment of the Resident Evil series (except 5) and dabbled in a bit of Silent Hill. Nowadays though, I found myself looking away from the screen when my brother first started playing Visceral Games follow-up to their much-lauded 2008 horror masterpiece (apparently; too scared to play it, so I can't say for myself).

"Just watch!," he pleaded. So I did, and I was blown away. Disgusted, uncomfortable, but blown away all the same. So much so that I actually went and purchased the game for myself. Will I ever play it? Who knows. Based on thirty minutes of terrifying action witnessed second hand however, I'm going to try and find the courage to experience it myself.

What are your thoughts on the survival horror genre? Any favourites?

Monday, February 7

In case you haven't played it: Fable III Review (X360)

I've never survived any of the previous instalments of the Fable franchise. For all of Peter Molyneux's posturing, I found each of these games to be more sterile than innovative, and quickly lost the will to quest across Albion. Fable III has once again made some lofty promises, allowing players to take the throne; but will a healthy dose of government save the latest instalment from the depths of mediocrity?

The Good
A whimsical journey - Despite all of its flaws (and there are many), Fable III is a stress-less trip across the beautiful land of Albion. You see many sights, talk (fight with, snog) a cast of amusing, cockney-voiced villagers, encountering nothing reminiscent of tension throughout the entire adventure. Even when engaged in combat, rarely did I find myself tested. Fable III  never rocks the boat, and is (I believe) the gaming equivalent of taking a walk in a very big park - very relaxing.

Tinsel Town - I thought this might impacted negatively on the experience at first, but Fable III  is the most heavily-directed action RPG I've ever played. You're directed to your next objective by a glowing trail of fairy dust, so you're never left wondering or wandering as it were.

Charming cast - Each of the central characters in Fable III are made all the more lovable/loathable thanks to some fantastic voice acting. Stand-outs include John Cleese (your ever-present assistant, Jasper), Benard Hill (your mentor, Sir Walter Beck), and Simon Pegg (swashbuckling compatriot, Ben Finn). While the central characters are not always effectively developed, every resident of Albion has a voice. Further to that, you can choose to talk, dance with, whistle to, even marry almost anyone you come across. While choosing to wed the factory supervisor by the swamp doesn't really fit into the epic nature of the tale, it does give you an idea of how much freedom you have to determine your own fate in the timesink that is Albion.

Finding Aurora - While Fable III never manages to be difficult, the journey to the barren land of Aurora is genuinely dark; not the awkward, black comic stylings that permeate throughout the majority of the game. The change in mood, coupled with some stunning visuals served to distract me from the one-dimensional combat and further develop the relationship between the Hero and Walter. A truly enjoyable hour's worth of compelling storytelling. Even after this particularly memorable sequence, each time I returned to Aurora I once again found myself awestruck.

Road to Rule - There are two aspects of the interface which served as a refreshing change from the usual Action RPG fare. The Road to Rule allows players to unlock new abilities and combat upgrades as the story progresses, instead of a traditional levelling system. I found it to be a somewhat shallow version of Final Fantasy X's sphere system, which didn't pose any particularly hard choices; still, a welcome change. The other interface change comes in the form of The Sanctuary, Fable III's playable pause menu; allowing players to wander through a well-furnished armoury and closet, instead of navigating static menus. While it is a lot more time-intensive than a traditional menu, it is an interesting concept and a valid alternative.

The Bad
Nonsensical economy - I found it comical and completely absurd that one could earn more money from making pies, than playing the real estate game. I haven't checked whether this extends to the other minigames (Lute Hero and Blacksmith), but by upgrading the Pie Maker job to the highest level, I was able to make around 30000 dollars in about five minutes. Compare this to purchasing an affordable property or shop, which will earn you between one hundred and a few thousand dollars every five minutes. Why go to the bother of renting out some houses when you can make more than ten times the money by making some pies?

Stuttering - While Fable III is generally speaking, a beautiful-looking game; the frame rate consistently falters during combat, especially when confronting large groups of enemies. Sometimes it looked as though animations were truncated to accommodate more characters on screen, and it very rarely looked pretty. The effect was even more noticable when enemies were further away. It was also interesting to note that the frame rate took a pretty noticable hit any time that I attempted a job after taking the throne. I'm not sure if this was because of the NPCs swarming around me, wanting to give me presents, or if it was the armour I was wearing; but you should have seen the game grind to a halt when it was pie time.

Moral Compass- The final section of the game tasks players with ruling over Albion and making good (or not) on promises you made on your ascension to the throne. This should have made an interesting change of pace from the standard travel here, kill this (or retrieve that), return to quest-giving NPC formula; but what it boils down to are some overly obvious choices from each end of the moral specturm. For example:
  • Do you establish an orphange at a cost to your coffers, or do you approve of a whorehouse which will feed millions into your economy?
  • Do you allow for child labour in Albion's factories, or do you establish a school?
  • Do you drain a lake and mine for resources, or do you maintain the natural beauty of the region?
Most disappointing of all (and something that I didn't properly consider until viewing Yahtzee's review - which is highly recommended), is that there is no way for you to justify some of the more sinister decisions to your constituents given the circumstances in which you have to make them.

The Ugly
Monster Mash - Combat in Fable III is utterly forgettable. Let's forget for a minute that you'll be fighting about eight different types of enemies, each of which employ a similar strategy (read: rush him!) for every encounter. Enemies, even in very large groups are overly fallible and prone to dying well before posing a threat to the Hero. What's worse is that whether you choose melee, ranged or magic to fight the hordes, there's a very slim chance that you could come close to meeting your demise. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure why there is a ranged option when magic can be used for either focussed (with more than adequate range) and radial attacks. If it weren't for the fact that shooting an enemy in the face mid-combo is somewhat amusing, I'd never have even reached for my pistol in first place. You could go through the entire game mashing only on the X button in combat situations, and I would wager that you could survive pretty much every encounter. If you do find yourself injured though, you can always roll away from your opponents until you recover. Fable III is the easiest game I've ever played. I never died, and I've even got the cheevo to prove it (commence celebratory dick-swinging).

That's it? - Now to be entirely clear; I was the good guy, in almost every scenario. For that reason, I can't categorically say that the final confrontation is as disappointing for the more evil players out there when compared to my noble colleagues. What I can say though, is that the final boss fight in Fable III is without a doubt, the most anti-climactic (in terms of both challenge and scale) sequence in recent memory. It's over before it even begins, taking a grand total of about ten minutes to transpire.

Do I get a happy ending? - I must stress this once again: I tried to please everyone. When I (BEGIN SPOILER) took the throne, I was told that the only way to save the kingdom was to make unpopular decisions. I wanted everyone to love me, so almost every decision I made was popular with the people of Albion. Was I punished? No. It seems that the ending I attained was all the more whimsical because I failed to show the backbone required to make the decisions that no one would want to make, in order to keep the kingdom safe (END SPOILER). Lesson learned!

Sanctuary Shop - There are few things that can kill immersion quite like advertising. Nearly everytime I paused the game, I was reminded that there were some new "bits and bobs," in the Sanctuary Shop. If I'm interested in downloadable content, I'll download it from the XBLM or PSN at my own leisure. I'd prefer not to be reminded about these unnecessary additions ad nauseum.

5.0/10 - Fable III is the definition of mediocre, abjectly failing to deliver on its premise of thoughtful rule. Players are made to wade through a series of simplistic, morally-polarized decisions to save or forsake the kingdom of Albion. Save for one particularly memorable sequence, pretty much every aspect of the game fails to stir excitement, and unless you are in desparate need of ten to fifteen hours of walking and talking (and bashing X) this game is best left avoided.

Thursday, February 3

Screaming Yahtzee

Thanks to Dutch’s recent blog on Gameinformer, I was motivated to think about gaming reviews and industry information I’ve read in print recently.

I drew a blank.

As I thought on a much broader scale, I struggled to remember the last magazine of any sort to take up the better part of an afternoon. Had it not been for Forrest Griffin’s fantastic Got Fight? I honestly think the last book I read would’ve been a marketing text from 2005. If that doesn’t count, it may well be A Clockwork Orange; the subject of my Year 12 English assignment... in 2000.

It was at this stage I realised I rarely engage with print, with almost all of my daily information being fed directly from the little blue cord in the wall.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no but I’m not going to dwell on it. Between Dutch and myself, it is quite clear who is well read; not only due to the topics we write about and their depth of information, but because of our chosen writing styles.

My underlying issue with reading is the fact I have the attention span of a brick. Unless I’m really motivated to get through an article, even on the subjects of interest such as movies or my beloved punk rock, I just lose focus. Even reading Facebook status updates can prove to be a chore and they’re often less than 15 words long. I promise I’m interested but reading is just so hard sometimes.

Despite my idiosyncrasy, I mainly stopped reading magazines because much of the content is often so dry and laboured. Sure, many articles are entertaining gems, but no matter what I read, from Alternative Press to Rolling Stone, Empire and even Better Homes & Gardens (shut up it’s for work), I can just picture a team of reluctant journo’s plodding away on the keyboard hoping to meet a daily word limit so they can hit the nearest wine bar and finish the day in an undeserving Merlot haze. Where’s the passion for the content?

That’s why I enjoy Zero Punctuation, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s weekly games review on The Escapist. Passionate and straightforward, Yahtzee delivers his reviews through a fast paced flash animation with quite an open and unrelenting dialogue; never have I witnessed a series of reviews containing so many references to a vaginal colloquialism (he’s clearly not a fan of Halo or COD: Black Ops).

More than just strong language and a pessimistic outlook on life, Zero Punctuation is a winner simply because it’s entertaining. Thanks to its speedy pace, both with dialogue and visual cues, you need to stay focussed to understand the flickering mess on the screen, but not so focussed that you feel like you are working and therefore don’t care so much.

While I don’t necessarily agree with his point of view on many games (this is often my prerequisite for any consistently accessed media review), his thoughts and criticisms are delivered with a certain panache you just don’t find in print.

A refreshing change of pace from standards such as Good Game, or GameSpot, Yahtzee may have a glass-half-empty perception, but he can definitely deliver an entertaining critique.

Have you seen any of Yahtzee’s work? What are your thoughts on his excessively negative outlook?