Wednesday, February 29

Golden Abyss swipes, rubs and cuts in the right direction

This post contains spoilers for Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss features a Nathan Drake that I can live with. Not as in sharing the same domestic space. He's a charming young man -- don't get me wrong -- but he would cramp the married couple dynamic that my wife and I have. I mean "live with" as in I can forgive myself for liking him.

Why? Because this Nathan Drake isn't the murderous consumer of all things hidden, shiny and -- more often than not -- dangerous. Sure, he kills lots of thugs, but that's not all he does. Like the other Nathan Drake that I've spent time with, he runs, leaps and climbs up tall structures of ancient origin. This one also collects various relics and treasures that are littered throughout various temples and caves.

What's different about this Nathan Drake, however, is that he pauses, he investigates, he acknowledges danger. He acts more like Indiana Jones, the big screen hero that he is so often compared to. He examines sites for clues and even dusts them off  to confirm each item's historical context. He takes photos of ancient ruins and looks to group collected items and evidence based on the civilisations or "mysteries" to which they pertain.

 A lovable mess

This Drake is an explorer first and foremost, and a bloodthirsty grave robber second; well, that is until a recurring cast member gets involved at least. Still, I got enough of this new Drake to be satisfied that the series could cater to the "Adventure" side more than the "Action" in terms of the Action/Adventure genre.

I've read criticisms that the touch controls for the afformentioned clue cleaning and charcoal rubbing feel "tacked-on," but I think it creates a pace that is more suitable for a portable game. Gaming on the go means that you need to pause at inopportune times, and an action-heavy shooter with long peaks and short troughs in activity can make for a jarring experience. For example: as great a game as Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is, I would argue it's not a very portable experience. You're always doing something in game, whether it be driving to a save point or mission marker, or completing some of the more lengthy missions, there's no break: no place to leave the action and  it can suffer as a result. Through these new touch-controlled sections of the game, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is punctuated perfectly. There's still enough shooting and jumping for this to be seen as a legitmate instalment in the series; but enough is new to differentiate it from its predecessors.

On the topic of jumping and platforming, the new swiping controls breathe life into what was starting to become a superfluous activity in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The additonal control method in concert with new instances where players need to swipe upward in order to regain grip on some of the more shaky handholds reinvigorated my interest in this particular aspect of the series. There are missteps, but for the most part, I felt that the new touch controls kept me engaged.

Swipe up to converse

There are some poor design choices where controls are concerned, but they don't detract significantly from the overall experience. The need to swipe upward everytime a companion needs a boost and the silly gestures required to cut walls of bamboo and hanging cloth repeated to the point of nausea. One sequence towards the middle of the game (which I loved) requires exposing the back of the Vita to a light source, which may not be overly practical during your commute either. They work more often than not, but there have been some ill-considered control methods that have appeared thoughout the adventure.

As far as characterisation and controls go, Uncharted: Golden Abyss feels like a breath of fresh air in the context of the series at large. This new and (for the first few acts at least) less-violent Nathan Drake reads more like a witty adventurer, and less like a sociopath who likes treasure and dispatching scores of mercenaries.

What do you think of the new Nathan Drake? Do the new controls feel "tacked-on" and unnecessary, or have they added to your experience?

Sunday, February 26

PlayStation Vita Launch: First impressions and purchase recommendations

A friend texted me yesterday to ask whether they should buy a Vita. This question haunted me for the better part of twenty-four hours and I've so far been able to articulate how I feel in writing. Good thing our friend YouTube emerged a few years ago, because now you can get all of my umm-ing and ahh-ing uninterrupted and commercial free!

Before you watch this twenty minute ramble, allow me to apologise for the following:
  • Saying "umm" approximately 247 times.
  • My pronunciation of "Shinobido" (Shin-O-Beed-O)
  • Liberal use of the word "experience" 

Saturday, February 25

Steamy Quantitative Analysis

Greg Voakes, a contributor to the Huffington Post and Business Insider passed on the following infographic that illustrates Steam's domination of the gaming world. In addition to listing recent bestsellers, there's some genuine revelations to be found within (the word petabyte for example). It's also worth noting that despite the bat shit crazy pricing seen during Steam sales, Valve's business model stands to offer greater benefit to game producers when compared to more conventional retail channels.

There's been a fair bit of negative press surrounding Steam and other digital content providers recently, with particular emphasis on the concept of ownership (or rather how the average EULA serves to contravene it). I'm not sure where I stand on the issue myself, but know this: with each seasonal Steam sale, my game collection swells ever bigger. I can't be too concerned about my Steam library (or my SEN/PSN or XBLM purchases) being held to ransom by ambiguous online contracts.

You can follow Greg Voakes on Twitter: @gvoakes

Friday, February 24

PlayStation Vita Launch: Unboxing videos

I'll start with an apology: I had intended to post these videos last night but it has been a long week and I'll take what little free time I can get. It's a been a professionally fulfilling and - at times - deeply distressing week (on an unrelated, personal level) that I'm glad to see the back of.

Now, onto the fun and frivolity. The PlayStation Vita has arrived! Everyone, you have full license to go nuts.

I went with the Wi-Fi bundle that GAME offered. It was clearly the best deal with a free game (the so far, critically lambasted Ridge Racer). Other retail outlets were more than happy to offer little more than the standard pre-order incentives: a discount voucher for a selected range of titles, early access to an app that I've yet to get my hands on, and some limited edition blue - wait for it! - headphones. I went with the 16gb memory card because I NEED that much storage capacity for games that I'll buy on a whim without need of leaving the house; well that and the fact that the 32gb card wasn't made available to Australian consumers (why I'll never know).

Anyway, without further ado, my unboxing videos!

I should've left it there, but there were some tidbits that I was too excited to think of (and therefore, address) at first:

I'll save the impressions for next week; primarily because I'm pretty frustrated with the UI at the moment, so I don't want to come off all trollish without giving myself some breathing space. I want to give this console as good a chance as I'm able.

Wednesday, February 22

PlayStation Vita Launch: Once more unto the breach

Ever since I've been earning real money, every console launch feels like an intense battle between my impulses and my near non-existent sense of self-control.

Believe it or not, during the launch of the 3DS, Self-Control had some important victories. With the PlayStation Vita arriving tomorrow, however, Impulse is proving that those victories were due in great part to Nintendo not having their shit together when it came to day one releases for their new portable. Two games worth owning (Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars for those interested), with very little to look forward to until what would end up being the end of 2011. Sure, the 3DS' outlook is far rosier than it was in March/April last year; but I'll admit that I still look back with my fair share of bitterness at what was the most lacklustre console launch since that of the Nokia N-Gage.

What I'm trying to say is: I've already spent so much money on the Vita and I don't even have one in my hands.

It's crazy when you think about it. $350 for the console bundled with a copy of Ridge Racer (a game that I wouldn't have thought to purchase on its own), $65 for a proprietary storage device, nearly $200 on five games in transit from the United Kingdom (thanks ozgameshop!), and what I'm sure will end up being about another 2 or 3 hundred dollars more when the PlayStation Store updates with all those wonderful digital downloads sometime in the next twenty-four hours. Will I end up playing these games enough to feel as though I've gotten my money's worth? No chance in hell. Will I fell like a big man for approximately 3.5 days? Abso-freaking-lutely!

I know it's wrong to complain about being blessed with an overabundance, but I realise now - more than ever - that I have a serious problem. The appeal of a shiny new console tears away at my defenses and leaves my wallet open to larceny of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae proportions. I could be saving this money and put it towards the dream of a pet-friendly apartment in Melbourne. But then again, if I did, how would I pay for all those launch titles?

If this was a series of tweets, each would be marked with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. Please dismiss this post as the excited ramblings of a  twenty-something year old child.

Who's picking up a Vita tomorrow? Don't tell mw I'm alone on this one?

Sunday, February 19

5 PSP games that you must download to your PlayStation Vita

Recently, Sony released a list of PSP titles that are compatible with the incoming PlayStation Vita via the PlayStationBlog. There were some notable omissions (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories causing the greatest distress) and the promise of further additions down the line. While some of my favourites didn't make the cut, here are five PSP games that will help Vita early adopters stave off the post launch blues.

Note: It took a fair bit of restraint to pick anything other than fighting games. The PSP has some quality JRPGs in its library, however, I found that the portable catered to fighting fans best of all.

Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny
Soul Calibur IV in the palm of your hand. Well, sans the questionably included Star Wars characters and the ability to fight online. Broken Destiny may not have been heavy on content, but its gorgeous, fluid visuals and novice friendly approach are the perfect place to start the Tale of Souls and Swords. The Gauntlet mode introduces all of the mechanics of the storied fighting series and tells an interesting, though nonsensical story all the while. A full-bodied character creation suite and the Trials mode will be sure to soak up as many hours as you're willing to give, while Quick Battle mode is perfect for a few fast fights on the go. That varied cast - which includes Sony mascot, Kratos and humorous Dampierre - is probably the best the series has seen and this game simply demands a spot on your memory card.

Note: You can currently purchase Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny and Tekken 6 together in a bundle on the Australian (and presumably, European) PlayStation Store. Tekken 6 is well worth the extra twenty bucks and it's just as good, if not better than its home console counterparts.

Half-Minute Hero
On a system with several hardware generations worth of Final Fantasy instalments, Half-Minute Hero stands apart - and at times above - this hallowed franchise with charm, humour and a no nonsense approach to questing. There's also six legitimately different experiences on offer in this game and - while some are more worthwhile than others - I guarantee that you'll find something to love here. Hero 300 may just be the greatest test of time management and budgeting skills ever seen in a videogame, while other modes will present twists on real-time strategy, dual-stick shooting and tower defence. The speed metal soundtrack and suitably pixelated visuals are further reason for Half-Minute Hero to score a place your Vita's proprietary storage device.

This will all be over in a second
God of War: Chains of Olympus
Ready at Dawn provided no greater proof that they were masters of Sony's handheld and its limitations than God of War: Chains of Olympus. Distilling all of the sex, beauty and gargantuan scale violence into the PSP's smaller screen and limited control set up, Chains of Olympus is still my favourite installment in the popular action adventure series. While some may argue that it was too easy and too short, I found it to be infinitely replayable and it still impresses me to this day.
 A game to silence all trolls

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
Ever worried that your latest purchase won't have enough meat on it to justify the purchase price? Even if, like me, you picked it up at launch and paid the full price, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite will keep giving until you're satisfied that you got your money's worth. Featuring what are arguably the most technically-impressive visuals seen on the PSP and enough depth to drown in, you will never conquer this game; even with the help of three friends or your cat-like companions. Creatures great and small await death by your blade, axe or ridiculously-large bow. It may not be the smoothest experience, but it offers more questing than you could possibly hope for. 

Dissidia: Final Fantasy
The final scenes of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children present an airborne battle between protagonist Cloud Strife and the reincarnation of much-loved villain, Sephiroth. It's a spectacular confrontation that nearly makes up for a couple of hours of indecipherable narrative. Dissidia makes such gravity-defying melees commonplace and even with your favourite Final Fantasy characters careening through columns and other structures, the frame rate never skips a beat. The cast is composed of one good and one evil character from the first ten instalments of the storied franchise with move sets that include each of these characters' most memorable attacks, spells and Limit Breaks. It's not the deepest fighter (or RPG for that matter), but it offers hours worth of melodramatic pugilism in wonderfully rendered, destructible environments. There's also a persistent reward system that encourages sustained and repeated play, so free up some space for this addictive fighter. 

 Finally! A scenario in which I can actually defeat Ultimecia!

Are there games on the extensive list that you feel are more deserving of a download? Is your favourite PSP game currently supported by the Vita?

Friday, February 17

The PlayStation Vita will not survive in Australia

Ever feel like something that you desperately want to succeed is destined to fail?

I have before, and now I do again. The PlayStation Vita hits Australian stores next Thursday, but it's already looking to be somewhat of a lost cause. Why? Because three of Australia's biggest retail chains are refusing to stock the dedicated gaming device on their shelves at launch or - in the case of K-Mart - have ruled out stocking it altogether.

The news first broke on Kotaku AU, with the normally Nintendo-focussed writer, Daniel Vukovic providing statements from representatives of Big W, Target and K-Mart. Sony seemed nonplussed by the announcement, claiming that they had identified the "active gamer" as "the specific target market" for the Vita. As a result, Sony had "chosen to launch the console with a focussed retail channel strategy across national specialist game and specialist technology retailers".

Now, not only does this effectively kill almost any competition for price, but it should serve to prevent the console from appealing to anything other than its - in my opinion - shallow target market. I say shallow because there's still something of a stigma associated with gaming in Australia; particularly that of "Teh h4Rdc0r3z" variety. You may have read one of my older posts entitled "Enough room to swing a gyroscopic cat" where I examined this phenomena in more frivolous detail. If you're short on time, however, the message contained within reads thusly: unless you're gaming on an Apple device, be prepared for the cold, judgmental stares of an at best casual gaming audience.

So, Sony's dick move to bypass the country's biggest and most far-reaching network of retailers should mean two things:
  1. The PlayStation Vita is doomed in Australia: granted it should survive longer than the PSPgo, but it won't enjoy the enduring, though limited shelf space that the PlayStation Portable (models 1000 through to 3000) still manages to occupy.
  2. The market for dedicated gaming portables in Australia shrinks even further.
Luckily enough, the Vita is region free; so the inevitable trickle of games to retail can be eschewed in favour of grey importing. The only trouble is for those who wanted to ride that digital marketplace wave, where I foresee publishers not even bothering to engage with Australia's costly and nonsensical rating system; which will in turn see less games arriving on the PlayStation Store (and at brick-and-mortar stores).

I'll still be there on day one. My Vita has been pre-ordered for months now, and I have every intention of experiencing more fulfilling gaming on the go. The only question is: how long will I be able to without having to look to purchase games and accessories abroad?

Are you picking up a PlayStation Vita at launch? Is the stigma associated with dedicated gaming devices perceived on my part, or have you felt it too?

Wednesday, February 15

Batman Arkham City: Lockdown Review (iOS): The Five Ds of Dodgeball will help you survive this one

While Batman: Arkham City continues to wow gamers everywhere (yes Dutch, except for the ending), Arkham City: Lockdown (ACL) compliments the story further with gamers taking control of The Dark Knight as he battles his way through goons and the toughest villains Gotham has to offer.

The Good
ACL's graphics really took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting anything more than defined cell animation but the HD visuals are really impressive. Although each level is essentially the same (backdrops and villains are identical with the exception of some shirt colours), the characters are well presented and fluent in motion.

The added bonuses include a comic book reader for the Arkham City series as well as wallpapers and the ability to purchase different Batman costumes. It's nothing more than an aesthetic change but it's cool none the less, especially when playing as campy 70s Batman and Brave and the Bold Batman.

The Bad
A key error for the game is it's concept - ACL is literally one brawl after the other. You fight goon after goon with the same moves and once you master dodge, deflect, and punch you've mastered the game. The level bosses offer some sort of variety - Two Face allows use of the Batarang, Solomon Grundy changes views and battle design - but not enough to keep me addicted.

The Ugly
There's nothing worse than faulty controls. Yes, I know, it's the first excuse of a poor gamer but this is just annoying. Throughout battles you can boost your health by clicking a HUD button but it only works at certain times. When? Beats me, but to add insult to injury if you get killed, despite clicking the button, the health meter increases.

Additionally the fighting swipes could be better. When enemies are flashing red they are impervious to your attacks and all you can do is dodge them. Some of the smarter goons bring guns to the fight and no matter how quickly you tap-to-dodge, it doesn't always get you out of trouble, resulting in gunshot wounds and angry tapping.

The Verdict
As an add-on for Batman fans, it's not a bad title; but unless you like your games as predictable as gravity, this one probably isn't for you. I enjoyed playing Arkham City: Lockdown mainly for the key villains and extras but the constant repetition of the thug fights took its toll on my patience.

Monday, February 13

Soul Calibur V Review (PS3): The soul giveth and the sword taketh away

It was a bright Saturday afternoon when I'd first realised that I didn't like the direction that the Soul Calibur series had taken. I'd just finished an hour long session against a skilled opponent who'd bested me five times straight with Edge Master's feminine duplicate, Elysium. Cycling through a series of move sets - both old and new- and coupled with a near-unblockable Critical Edge attack, I had found my match for the day. I persisted, however: another five fights until a breakthrough - and not to mention, painfully-close - fifth round win. In spite of this achievement, I felt nothing but apathy for a series that I'd loved since my final years of High School.  

What was to blame? Was it just that my skills had failed to evolve across six iterations (remember Soul Edge/Soul Blade kids)? Had I come to rely too much on new features aimed at newcomers? Was it the lack of compelling single player content? 

It was a combination of all of the above, plus a few other minor annoyances that I had encountered throughout my twenty-something hours with Project Soul's latest weapon-based fighter. The overriding feeling I got was that what was added wasn't substantial enough to mask the features that were watered-down or taken away.  

As with Tekken 6, the first thing that your gaze will be thrust toward is the new Story mode. Set in 1607 A.D (seventeen years since the last instalment), players will control a handful of characters in a (roughly) four hour quest to destroy the cursed sword Soul Edge. You'll spend most of your time with protagonist, Patroklos (and his Alpha variant), but you'll also get some time with his whiny sister and the mysterious Z.W.E.I. Fights are tied together with hand-drawn stills overdubbed with melodramatic voice acting. All comments about the predictable, woefully-told story aside, it's odd that the developers opted to use a central character that is so difficult to use (this observation is true for his variant as well). Patroklos' attacks don't seem to flow like that of series veterans like Cervantes or Mitsurugi, so the later chapters are actually quite difficult. I would have much preferred a more traditional Edge Master mode or even Soul Calibur IV's towers, as opposed to this narrative-driven mess.  

 Next time on Soul Calibur V: Patroklos gets broody.. and even more self-indulgent

Apart from the aforementioned Story mode, there's very little else to keep solo players engaged for a sustained period of time. To their credit, Project Soul have implemented some practical elements to the genre staple Training mode; with the ability to enable prompts that offer advice as to when you should use specific attacks as well as the more common move lists. Quick Battle is very similar to Ghost Battle from the more recent Tekken games, with the exception that you can earn titles for the new License system (more on that later). Arcade mode follows the standard time attack formula and has no hints of story for those intrigued by the rest of the game's cast. Finally, there's Legendary Souls mode which will be a welcome addition for the more skilled players amongst you, as it sets the CPU difficulty to near unbeatable levels (read: be prepared to face off against perpetual combo machines). After about eight hours, you'll have seen all that Soul Calibur V can offer you without engaging in online competition.  

Before I get to what the cruel world can do to a game like Soul Calibur V, it's worth going over the roster. There's quite a few new faces: front and centre being Patroklos and Pyrrha, series veteran Sophitia's children. Pyrrha handles similarly to her mother and her Omega variant's move set is nothing short of deadly.  Viola is an interesting addition, being able to place her weapon behind you to juggle and otherwise continue combos. Z.W.E.I is similar to Patroklos in that he's pretty hard to read, and even harder to use. Natsu, Leixia and Xiba are ring-ins for Taki, Xianghua and Kilik respectively, and handle somewhat like their predecessors. There are also several returning characters with minor tweaks; but some have stood to benefit more from the passage of time than others. Ezio Auditore - of Assassin's Creed fame - also makes an appearance, and he's a perfect fit for the series. Dampierre, the bumbling thief from the PSP instalment, Broken Destiny is present as  EBGames-exclusive DLC. It's a shame that this lively character is held to retail ransom, but I'm glad that he made it all the same. Puzzlingly, there's now three Edge Masters (read: characters that switch move set in every round) available in this instalment: Edge Master himself, Kilik and Elysium. Edge Master and Kilik inherit everything - including Critical Edge maneuvers - from the characters that they imitate. Elysium, however, has the edge (ha!) with a clutch move that can juggle airborne characters and even damage you while you're down. It may sound like sour grapes, but there's a distinct lack of balance in this roster and it's also missing some characters that have endeared themselves to the series faithful (Zelasamel and Talim are the most notable omissions). This is made worse when you consider that three characters perform what is essentially the same function.  

It may not be apparent at first, but new mechanics inspired by (or derived from) Capcom's recent revival of the fighting game genre have significant implications for the Soul Calibur formula as we know it. Firstly, there's Critical Edge moves that act as your Ultra Combos (for those experienced with Street Fighter IV and its subsequent releases). Performing a double quarter circle motion in concert with pressing all three attack buttons will trigger a flashy, multi-hit attack that can either turn the tide of a match, or at least help you keep up depending on your choice of character. While all of these moves are expertly animated and awesome to behold, some of them are grossly overpowered. Characters like Yoshimitsu, Elysium and Siegfried can take - in some scenarios - more than fifty percent of their opponent's life with a carefully timed Critical Edge maneuver; turning what could have been a close contest into a series of one-sided affairs. I liked the concept initially: a last minute gambit that could help newcomers (or those like me with lesser skills) to get back into the match, but it's been poorly implemented across the board with some being neutered by range or lacking comparable power. Also new are Brave Edge attacks which serve to power up selected regular moves, much like EX Specials from Street Fighter IV. Brave Edge attacks and series staple Guard Impacts (read: parry) use energy from the same gauge that powers your Critical Edge attacks, so this does add an extra element of strategy to the formula.  

 OMG! Where did you get that necklace?

Project Soul have also lifted the License system from Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and have implemented it with similar aplomb. You can customize your license with titles that you've unlocked in Quick Battle and icons (pictures of the cast and your custom characters). Your license will also track your stats across single player and online activities and you can compare your accomplishments with any players that you encounter. The developers have also managed to put their own spin on this with the Rival system which allows players to compare vital stats (time played offline/online, best Arcade time, win/loss ratios and more) with up to three registered players. It's a great idea and it managed to ignite my competitive side for a few speedy playthroughs of Arcade at the very least. Soul Calibur V  benefits from the blend of old and new book-keeping techniques. 

The shift to a more fully-featured online suite also appears to be inspired somewhat by Capcom's recent successes. There's the option to play Ranked and Player matches and join the Global Colosseo: a series of large lobbies sorted by region that allow players to converse, challenge each other, and partake in random fights and tournaments. I had great trouble finding Ranked matches, but the Player Match function allows you to host six players at a time: so you'll rarely be left wanting for competition. Global Colosseo is a great idea, but I encountered so many connection issues while in the Sydney-based lobby that I hesitate to partake any longer. One in every four matches ended in connection failure, and the shame of meeting your opponent in the lobby after being disconnected from a near thrashing is unbearable. I can't remember a single match - using either of the three matchmaking systems - where I got any more than zero bar connection quality. That may sound as though it would be unplayable, but the action itself holds up remarkably well in these conditions; I usually lost my opponents in the transition from a replay to the following round. Speaking of replays, you can upload replays of your own victories as well as view those of your rivals. All things considered, it's a far meatier offering than that of its predecessor; it's just a shame that this improvement has come at the expense of the single player component.  


The character creator returns in Soul Calibur V, with the ability to customize the look of your favourite fighters or deliver your own spawn to the dueling grounds. Gone from this instalment is the quasi RPG weapon and ability selection, this time it's all about looks. I've fought everything from provocatively-dressed lingerie models to pixel perfect likenesses of comic book heroes. I've also been tasked with defending myself against some more abhorrent creations, like a horse dressed in a pink g-string, sporting a conical dongle and bright white, spherical testicles. This is what you get when the default placement area for waist accessories is directly over a character's crotch. In any case, Soul Calibur V's creation suite showcases the most creative and deviant elements of a fledgling fighting community.  

In terms of presentation, Soul Calibur V features what are easily the most technically-impressive visuals in a fighter on this generation of hardware. Minor clipping issues through clothing aside, the game is achingly beautiful; even when showing duels between the most loathsome of cast members. It must be said that in this iteration more than any other, Project Soul has the camera squarely pointed up the skirts of the feminine cast members and this can be off-putting; particularly when you manage to break some of these characters' armour. I also found it odd that Mitsurugi is perhaps the only cast member - male or female - to show the effects of seventeen years away from the spotlight. Still, the game is truly wonderful to behold and a new standard-bearer for the genre at large. The soundtrack is also reminiscent of the series' high standards and features a wonderful rendition of the Assassin's Creed theme. Soul Calibur V truly is a feast for the senses! 

 Behold! Voldo's puzzling crotch adornments in stunning HD!

Despite the spirit of negativity that permeates throughout this review, you should know that the 8-Way Run system and weapon-based combat still holds up well after all these years. The new additions may cheapen some contentious battles, but Soul Calibur V is still a competent fighting game. It's just that the game has drifted so far from its point of difference that I yearn for the days of the Dreamcast original. The visuals are just as striking as any of its predecessors, the soundtrack rousing, the cast varied, but Project Soul have taken too much from the competition and omitted features and characters that endeared the series to me all those years ago. A great game, though merely a solid entry in an otherwise distinguished series. 

Friday, February 10

Havoc (iOS) Review: Frustration in storybook form

Full disclosure: Dinoroar Interactive provided me with a copy of Havoc for the purpose of this review. 

It's a question that keeps me up at night. How do you assert yourself (or your product) in a marketplace that is crowded with titles that have attained overnight success and - in some cases - reached multi-platinum status (in terms of either downloads or purchases) in mere months?  I'm pretty sure that Australian developer, Dinoraur Interactive is in the same boat, too; especially when it appears like some Australian-based competitors do it so effortlessly.  Studios like Firemint (in spite of recent troubles) and Halfbrick have seen great success and acclaim on the App Store and Android Market: commerce channels whose volume grows daily by literally hundreds of rival apps.

How do they do it? Aesthetics may have something to do with it. Whether it's Real Racing HD 2's realistic visuals or Jetpack Joyride's pixelated approach, there's no denying that artistically and/or technically impressive graphics can bring in some customers. But you can't win in these highly competitive markets based on looks alone; you need some addictive play mechanics to have any chance at success. You don't need to create an experience that rivals what home consoles can offer in terms of depth and responsiveness, you just need something that's shallow enough to be enjoyed in short bursts with a scoring (or progression) system that can lure players back. That mantra is true for both of the apps I mentioned previously.

Havoc is a vertical-scrolling shooter with a children's book art style that tasks you with destroying almost everything in sight. As one of three characters - with no discernible difference other than appearance - you'll throw collectible stones at everything from giant grasshoppers to toilets. Sounds simple enough, but is the game's storybook charm enough to keep players coming back for more?

The short answer is no. While the watercolour visuals were appealing at first, Havoc suffers from a multitude of design and technical flaws that make it hard to recommend.

The first thing I asked myself as I trudged though the game's first level was: what is the target market for this app? At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Havoc was aimed at children with the visuals and simple gameplay premise seeming a perfect fit for the youngest of gamers. When I reached the finish line of the first level and noticed that I hadn't scored enough to progress, however, I immediately questioned my initial assumption. The four or five subsequent attempts after that were enough for me to abandon it altogether. Target scores aren't disclosed until you make it to the end of a level for the first time, and anything less than a near-perfect run will almost always end in failure.

This wasn't a great concern to start off with, as the earlier levels are populated with a small array of immobile enemies (the only time an enemy moves is when you break or kill it) and you're afforded more stones than you'll possibly need. Enemies come in three variations: ones that require one, two or three hits to kill. Their appearance will differ from level to level, but there's never any variation to the action other than enemy numbers. You can make it through the first two (of five) levels without even hitting bonus rockets that grant you score multipliers or extra firepower. After that, however, things take a turn for the worst.

With more targets, the broken touch controls turn from minor annoyance into an unbeatable foe (read: I couldn't unlock the final level). There's only a few more stones available for collection than a level's worth of enemies can take. More often than not, when I tapped a stone to collect it, I'd fire one by mistake. I tried hard, sharp taps, slow, smudgy taps, any kind of tap would almost inevitably send a precious stone hurtling towards the abyss instead of at my enemies, where I desperately needed them to go. To make matters worse, hit detection is spotty at best with many stones appearing to be on course - at times even passing through the enemy - but still being ineffective. I tried it on iPad and iPad 2 and the results were the same: broken, frustrating gameplay.

Perhaps if the scoring system was a little more forgiving, I'd be able to suffer the complete lack of movement on the player's part. Your selected monster will trudge forward, but you can't dodge incoming enemies (that will still inexplicably damage you). Enemies don't attack you either, it's just that you'll lose health if they happen to be parallel to you. It was somewhat amusing: the preposterous notion of being killed by an outhouse or a bucket and spade that was nowhere near me; but after about five minutes and a few hundred grunts (that sound the same, regardless of your choice of character), you'll be done with Havoc.

There's also an ineffective tutorial that fails to warn players that objects outside of your path will still harm you, and a soundtrack that's either non-existent or glitches out as soon as the action starts (I haven't been able to determine the answer yet). But apart from that, Havoc has very little else to offer apart from the odd humouous visual glitch (menus not disappearing when the action starts, freezes and other issues). 

While the game has a charming point of difference with regards to its storybook visuals, Havoc fails to deliver addicitive gameplay and/or scoring mechanics to justify the purchase price ($1.99 as of time of publishing). The various glitches and repetitive sound design may incite a few cheap laughs, but I'd forgive you for wanting more given the quality free and premium competition available for your chosen Apple device. Buy a chocolate bar and download Jetpack Joyride instead.

Tuesday, February 7

BREAKING NEWS: Notch (kind of/sort of) agrees to fund Psychonauts 2!

Fans of Psychonauts rejoice: Mojang (of Minecraft fame) founder, Markus "Notch" Persson has expressed interest in funding a sequel to Double Fine's 2005 sleeper hit. It's all hearsay for now, but in case it turns true, you heard it here first!
(Source: Twitter)

Post-script: Still a while off, but it looks as though this may indeed become a reality. Let's hope that an agreement can be made and fans get the game they've been thirsting for. Good on Rock, Paper, Shotgun for lighting the fire here too!

Gotham City Impostors Beta Impressions (PS3): Soar like a chubby eagle

Who would have thought that a first person shooter loosely based on the Batman license would have been any good? Despite my lack of faith, Gotham City Impostors may just be the surprise of the year. You can dismiss this as hyperbole - it is early February after all - but the time that I've spent with the beta trial has me buzzing. Try this on for size: Impostors has so far been more enjoyable than the entirety of Batman: Arkham City.

On the surface, this first person shooter looks like a Call of Duty clone complete with perks (dubbed: Fun Facts), sidearms and kill streaks. Dig a little deeper and you'll find a shooter that puts an emphasis on movement. Jumping, sliding and soaring throughout the two available maps is a joy comparable to the Mandalorian Wars mod for Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. For anyone who knows me and my habit well, this is high praise.

Impostors is a team-based shooter that pits the Bats against the Jokerz (no points for guessing who is the influence for each faction, or what moral orientation they follow). The premise doesn't sound too promising, but developer Monolith has given these vigilantes and criminals a believable purpose and rationale. During the tutorial, you're briefed by two Bats members who seem very much aware that their actions aren't sanctioned by the police or Batman himself: they just want to help. You aren't given much of an introduction to the Jokerz, but the first bleep-laden cutscene humorously paints these villains as murderous hell raisers: just as you'd expect. The presentation is unbelievably charming to anyone with an interest in the Dark Knight.

As previously mentioned, there's a tutorial (dubbed: Initiation) and two match types available in the beta. I'd strongly suggest that you go through the training; if only to give yourself a taste of some of the methods of transportation that'll eventually be at your disposal:
  • Glider Rig: This is by far my favourite gadget. After propelling yourself into the air using trampolines, air vents or simply jumping, players can slow their descent and glide to points of interest below. You can also perform dive bomb attacks to kill your enemies or simply get about faster. Gliding over air vents will also allow you to regain altitude, meaning that you can buzz about between control points quickly and with a minimum of fuss. You can't fire while gliding, which is just as well, as any sense of balance would have been nullified if you could perform both vital actions concurrently. 
  • Grapple Gun: I went with this for my first few matches because... well, it's a grappling hook gun. You can reach just about any point on any map with this device, however, it's slower going than with the glider. It's also worth noting that you can't hang from the hook and shoot like you could with the Mandalorian Wars mod. It's unfair for me to expect as much, but it would have made the nostalgia complete.
  • Rollerskates: Move faster at the expense of maneuverability. You can launch yourself a great distance by using ramps that are peppered across each map. I haven't used it outside of the tutorial, and I did note that I've seen very few opponents and teammates employing this gadget either. Fast strafing and being able to take to the skies are a key to victory in the matches I've played so far and skates don't help achieve either. For now, they'll stay in the closet.   
  • Spring Boots: Jump a two story building in a single bound! Apparently there is a cool-down time after each use, but this wasn't apparent from my experience in the tutorial environment. I'll opt to unlock these next for further testing.
  • Inflatable Insoles: This gadget apparently allows players to double jump and grants a passive bonus to your jump height. I haven't had any time with these shoes, so I can't provide any further comment. I am keen to get my hands on them at some point, though.
  • Targeting Goggles: With this gadget you can reveal enemy locations and tag them for your team. Any kills on tagged enemies will grant you assist points. Yet to try this as well.
  • Ninja Smoke Bomb: This is very popular with the kids at the moment. The smoke bomb allows you to become virtually invisible provided that you don't open fire or use support items. You do emit a feint blue outline while using this device, so don't get too comfortable.
Joyous, game-changing movement mechanics won't mean much in the grand scheme of things if a first person shooter can't get the shooting right. Thankfully, Gotham City Impostors delivers with solid gunplay and a vast arsenal of firearms and support items. Assault rifles, shotguns, LMGs, sniper rifles, even the humble bow and arrow are available to aid in dispatching your foes. You can carry two weapons of any size, however, this can slow you down depending on your weight class (more on that later). Weapons can be fitted with attachments that do anything from steadying your aim to detecting your opponent's body odor. Support items range from standard grenades to proximity mines and anti-air devices. Even with all of these wonderful toys, you won't feel overwhelmed: you'll do just fine by aiming and pulling the trigger if that's all you want to do. In my experience, players are more than willing to experiment with all the trappings available. No one weapon seems to be favoured by the community, and I seem to be the only person with a predilection for the Jackhammer (a LMG with a fair bit of kick). Hit detection seems about right, and I haven't suffered anything reminiscent of a cheap death yet. Impostors' gunplay is a deft match for the movement-centric approach to the FPS.

Choice of body type has tactical applications (speed, melee strength, how big a target you are, encumberment), but it also has implications for what may be Impostors' biggest draw card: costume customization. Each body type has some unique hair styles, but the range of clothes available to those that I've unlocked doesn't appear to differ (presumably, women can't go topless?). You earn Costume Coins upon completing matches to buy more wares for your avatar, and this has proved to be an absorbing distraction to say the least. Those coins do not come cheaply either, each item of clothing you see on your opponents will have been the result of a substantial time investment. You'll have a hard time making a character that looks intimidating: best opt for as wacky as possible! 

Of the two match types available, Fumigation will probably allow for hardcore FPS players to feel most at home. Playing similar to your average game of Domination (from every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 4), teams vie for three control points to increase their gas supply. Depending on your team, the gas has a different effect: if the Bats have control, a bat pheromone is released and all the Jokerz will be chased away; if the Jokerz win, a deadly toxin is released into the air effectively killing the do-gooders. Unlike your average game of Domination, Fumigation doesn't end when the match clock strikes zero: it's overtime until one side wins! Psych Warfare plays somewhat like Capture the Flag in that players must escort a battery to their mind control device and defend it until it's fully charged. This is where things get hilarious: the fully-charged device emits a track that disorients the opposing team and renders them unable to use their equipment. They can however slap for a one hit kill and disable the other team's device with repeated slaps. Slap kills grant you extra points, but lacking equipment also makes you easy prey for your enemies. Team scores are determined by how many times each side activates their device (you'll still score even if your device is disabled before your track finishes). I won't spoil the aural comedic surprises that each track delivers, but it should suffice to report that I was in stitches during my first few matches.

Two maps are on rotation in the beta trial: Crime Alley and Amusement Mile. Crime Alley is probably the most balanced - primarily due to vent distribution and control point placement - but both offer up sufficiently different experiences. Amusement Mile offers a clear guide path between mind-control devices in Psych Warfare and the control points are far too close together in Fumigation. Crime Alley is more open and that means that attacking objectives carries greater risk. Matches tend to be more lopsided in Crime Alley, but wins on that map tend to be far more satisfying. I'm hoping that the maps in the full release encourage greater use of other gadgets (like the rollerskates, for example), but I still found what was on offer to be quite promising.

I could go on about the experience and levelling system (which isn't at all dissimilar to that found in the Call of Duty games), but I'll wait to see the finished product before I discuss that in any great detail. I will say, however, that it seems to reward those who play the objective far more than those with a higher kill count; which is very much appreciated and something that I wish was the norm. In any case, Gotham City Impostors is shaping up to be one of the sleeper hits of this year. With the right community, this game may just have some staying power. It's worth playing solely on the strength of its unique movement mechanics, but the gunplay and progression system should act as a carrot for shooters fans to give it a go. I am very much looking forward to playing the full game towards the end of this week. Get excited, Batmen and Batwomen!

Monday, February 6

That is a Bulls#!t Call, Ref!

In the time I've contributed to this blog, I've waffled on about all sorts of crap. Sometimes I even reviewed games (shock horror). Maybe nowhere near as many as Dutch has, but there were a couple.

When I did these reviews, I like to think they were not biased in any way, shape or form. Sure, I only reviewed games I liked, but that's because I'm stingy on buying games and time poor with playing them.

I recently opened my local rag to see what this week's rants were all about when I noticed a newish column about gaming. It was a review of Assassins Creed Revelations. His verdict: a ridiculous 10/10.

At first, I thought that just because I have no interest in the game doesn't mean that it's crap, and therefore not worthy of a perfect score. Upon further investigation, however, metacritic gave it 80%. At best it was awarded 9/10 from an individual site.

Thats a big difference between the aggregated and the delivered scores. While I'm sure that it's got decent graphics and a story that ties into the others in the series (and yes, personal opinions will provide a range of scores), I just can't help but be annoyed at this perfect score.

If professional critics can find flaws, surely a fan can; surely a random player of games can. In my books, a game has to be pretty awesome on all levels to get that perfect score; not just be enjoyable and fit the theme of the rest of the series.

Dutch has touched on this topic before, but I suppose it's never really hit a nerve until now. I'm not even sure why it's bothering me.

What are your thoughts on games being inaccurately reviewed? Have you ever bought a game based on said review to find it was crap and the reviewer was clearly bias towards the franchise/publisher? Am I just as bad for not accepting the review due to my own bias towards the game?

Friday, February 3

Couch your feelings

Tonight will be the last night that I spend on this couch. The "leather" has started peeling, there's hair from creatures of various species tucked between each cushion, and the armrests have started to cave in. I've never liked this couch, but my word have I had some memories on it. Some I won't share because, quite frankly, I don't know who's reading this; and others I'll gladly share... because I don't know who's reading this. 
 I love you.... but I hate you!

Carly and I acquired this uncomfortable, though visually-inoffensive chair when we first moved in together in 2008. It supported me - literally - while I played games on my terminal Xbox 360 and eventually on my PlayStation 3 and healthy, more recently-acquired Xbox 360. I dragged it close to the entertainment unit when I had a mere nineteen inches of viewing space. I pushed it back when I upgraded to a larger display. I punched it when I lost hundreds of bouts of Street Fighter IV online, and during the hair-tearingly frustrating final mission of Grand Theft Auto IV. I curled up on it as I wept through the last boss fight in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

Almost everything I've written for consumption via my blog or Bitmob, was written on this couch. Every job application, every trolling comment, every counter-trolling comment, (almost) every email was written on this couch. The insincere back support made me write faster at times... if not, I'd have to lean forward to give my spine sweet, though ineffective respite. I've written enough words to form a dissertation or two on this couch, I guess I owe it some form of farewell.

 You did the best you could, leathery soldier.

Tomorrow its replacement will arrive: a stylish, modular suite with a reclining chair and infinitely-better back support. I will more than likely continue to write on this new piece of furniture and rest-assured I'll game from it as well... but it won't be the same. I won't have to battle back pain and discomfort while I climb or rapidly descend half a decade's worth of leaderboards. I'll be more comfortable then ever before, but will I be as determined? Probably. Shit, without having to shift every twenty minutes I may become a paid writer just yet!

Despite my unkind words, I would like to thank you, uncomfortable brown couch for all the time we've shared together. May we never meet again.

Tell us about your gaming furniture. Are you comfortable with you current setup?

Wednesday, February 1

Lightning Focus

I'm trying to find my Focus.

I'm supposed to be giving my PlayStation Portable its last rites. That was going swimmingly until Saturday afternoon: I'd just finished Resistance: Retribution - which didn't get half as much praise as it should have, just quietly - and just started playing Dissidia 012: Duodecim Final Fantasy. That was when my quasi-religious gaming experience went to shit.

Don't get me wrong: the game plays just fine and the new cast members are all good fits. Probably a little bit too similar to its predecessor, and still brimming with the same sappy, nonsensical drivel that had me itching to skip just about every cutscene; but still, the game features beautiful, fluid visuals and the same brand of dramatic, gravity-defying violence that made the last part of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (almost) bearable. 

It was just seeing Lightning again. She was a strong protagonist, with a manner unbecoming of your typical Final Fantasy female (read: not solely candy for the male gaze, coherent, and not gasping in every second line of dialogue). She was one of the few reasons I persisted with Final Fantasy XIII for as long as one with a developing allergy to JRPGs could. Ultimately, an extended vacation with Light's polar opposite, Vanille proved to be too much for me to continue. Her insufferably high voice and insipid scripting was not a good match for the mindless grinding of the early chapters.

But seeing her again, dear readers, it was enough to send me back into that middling narrative. It was time for a change of pace: from the hectic, somewhat-shallow battles of Dissidia to the complex, arguably turn-based affair that is Final Fantasy XIII.

It was hard: picking up from where I'd left off - almost two years ago - reacquainting myself with a new battle system and terminology-heavy lore. Forty minutes of play in, and I still hadn't progressed past the chapter where I'd first hit the wall. Regardless of what weather effect I had in play, I was always presented with a battle that would take at least ten minutes to get through. I know you can opt out of some of these encounters, but I'm always suspicious that if I were to end the grind that I'd be fodder for future foes.

I'm glad I made the effort. Even if the script reads like a self-indulgent teen fantasy, the battle system is deep without feeling convoluted. Plus it's just plain amazing to behold; I mean this game is freaking beautiful. Even after a few years, some of the sequences are breathtaking even when compared to more recent releases.

I might even finish it. For the first time in what seems like years, I'm happy to play something not quite new. Let's forget about the fact that there's been no major releases in January, shall we?

Note: For those in the know, did you like my elaborate Final Fantasy XIII pun?