Tuesday, July 31

Give that monster a medal

Pokémon Conquest is contradiction upon contradiction upon contradiction. A heartwarmingly cute interpretation of war in Feudal Japan that features a simplistic turn-based combat system that offers no attack bonuses for position, but also map design that prevents players from attacking with a lot of the Pokémon that they'll recruit over the course of the adventure. A game that emphasises the importance of warriors bonding with their Pokémon, but also allows them to link with others in the heat of battle (wow, that sounds weird). A game that features a protagonist who is rumoured to be the chosen one but who chose to use Eevee as his starter Pokémon (read: commoner!). 

I've only been playing for about two hours, but the amount of mechanics introduced in that time is simply staggering. The combat seems uncomplicated enough, but managing the affairs of  recruited warriors and their Pokémon, my development, captured kingdoms and picking up new recruits (be they linked Pokémon or new warriors) is overwhelming. Finding my favourite pocket monsters is feeling like a task that I'm not equal to. 

I'm drowning in menus and my interest is fading fast. 

Thankfully I've got Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy on hand for the instant gratification and whimsy I've come to crave. I haven't paid a great deal of attention to what makes for ideal party composition, I'm just tapping away to some beautiful midi music. The art style is enough to make me squeal with nerdy delight, and all you've got to do is touch the screen in time with the music. No better way to unwind after a day of proof-reading proposals and answering loaded emails; that much is for sure.

What are you playing at the moment?   

Sunday, July 29

Heroes of Ruin Review (3DS): Cheese, charge attacks and cloning

The hack-and-slasher of choice for PC gamers the world over, Diablo III dropped in May this year. I wasn't sold on it after a short trial, and came to the conclusion that maybe this style of RPG just wasn't for me. Fast forward just shy of two months, and the demo for Heroes of Ruin lay in wait on my 3DS memory card. After an enjoyable two hour romp with the somewhat unusual Gunslinger class, I decided to take the plunge. Was a different control method the only thing holding me back from enjoying the average, isometric loot fest?

First up, some disclosure: I haven't played through with all of the game's four character classes. I finished the game with the Vindicator class and spent a bit of time with the aforementioned Gunslinger. Vindicators function like your average Barbarian/Paladin class: big swords, big hits, no brains required. The Gunslinger is more focussed on ranged combat, but can hold his own in close quarters. The Alchitecht is your mage, while the Savage is another melee class with a focus on speed. Based on my experience with two classes, each felt sufficiently different and could warrant a second playthrough at the very least.

Whether alone or on the few occasions I managed to find company, the Vindicator could deftly deal with a veritable rogues gallery without issue. The standard attacks and a range of unlockable powers, buffs and passive skills made for a fortress of lion-flavoured muscle.  I'd even go as far to say that Heroes of Ruin is a little too easy, with death only ever being the result of extremely careless behaviour on my part. You can carry twenty health and energy potions at any given time; to make matters even less stressful, potion pickups are plentiful and mapped to the d-pad for ease of use. It looks as though the developers tried to water down the difficulty in order to avoid making co-op play a necessity. Given the 3DS' shakey online credentials, I appreciated this design choice and was happy to play despite the distinct lack of challenge.

Heroes of Ruin is exceptionally easy to play. I'd have thought this genre wouldn't translate well to the 3DS, but the buttons and touch screen input work just as well as a mouse and keyboard setup. Powers can be mapped to face buttons and the touch screen, roll and dodge are mapped to the right shoulder, and the left shoulder functions as a use button. I was genuinely surprised at how I was able to play for long stretches without any fear of cramp or any form of discomfort for that matter. The UI and menu system works well enough, but could've done with some work. Quest markers or anything other than a map are usually missing from proceedings, however, exploration is essentially a linear affair; so you'll finish most quests by default. The in-game economy is broken (with players unable to fence more than 99999 gold worth of goods), but since I bought less than a handul of items across seven hours of play, it never registered as too great a concern. The game is not without flaws, but they never get in the way of fun.

In terms of presentation, Heroes of Ruin exists in a realm of technical and artistic mediocrity. While the meat and potatoes (read: fantasy dudes beating the shit out of trolls and junk) looks great, the supporting cast and random dungeons do little to surprise or otherwise excite. The story is hilariously terribad with more double crosses than a spy movie parody. The settings are stock standard in terms of theme: underwater cave, ice, forest and post-apocalyptic wizard void. The soundtrack is also predictable fantasy fare with voicework that would make all but the most seasoned D&D player cringe. There's nothing here that you won't have seen or heard done better, but provided you've bought Heroes of Ruin for want of solid hack-and-slash action, you won't be disappointed.

Despite a lack of originality, personality and challenge, I can recommend Heroes of Ruin to lovers of hack-and-slash RPGs without hesitation. With varied character classes, pretty visuals and comfortable controls, I was engaged from beginning to end; I even had a few good laughs thanks to the wealth of cheesy voicework. There's also drop-in/drop-out co-op that works better than expected. It may serve to make the game even easier, but it's all the more enjoyable with company in tow. With a larger community and a more varied campaign, this would've been damn near essential. As it stands, however, the game is still well worth a shot.

Wednesday, July 25

Assassin's Creed: Revelations Review (PS3 - single player campaign): Define "revelation"

It's silly, you know. I decide that I'm going to refrain from buying games for -- what is ostensibly -- the rest of the year, so the first thing I do is finish off the most recent instalment in a series renowned for historical intrigue. The last thing this addict needs is a cliffhanger, and luckily enough, Assassin's Creed: Revelations fails to live to up to its name. There's nothing akin to a revelation to be found within this unnecessary chapter that follows the exploits of two familiar master assassins, Altair and Ezio Auditore and their descendant, Desmond Miles.

There was one burning question that I had at the end of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. If there was one thing I expected from Revelations, it was some kind of resolution to that. Follow-up of any kind to the final moments of the last instalment was all I wanted. After roughly ten to fifteen hours of awkward stabbery, I have no further clues as to why things went to shit at the end of Brotherhood. The only thing, story-wise, that I got from this game can be discovered simply by watching a trailer for Assassin's Creed III.  That's right, the Revelation is that the Assassin's Creed series is going stateside: GET HYPE!!!

While Assassin's Creed: Revelations doesn't live up to the lofty standards I've set for the series, it is, at the very least, a substantial offering that has several redeeming features. Best of all is the brand new setting of Constantinople, another location teeming with life and packed with imposing structures. The new hookblade -- while not a gamechanger -- does allow for a noticeable increase in climbing speed, making stunning ascents all the more enjoyable. The search for the Masayaf Keys also presents some of the greatest platforming sequences in the series' history, with stunning visuals, feverish pace, and a minimum of fuss (read: combat). There also some likeable characters thrown into the mix: Suleiman, Yusuf and Sofia Sartor prove to be just as compelling as the members of Ezio's Brotherhood from the last two instalments. I did, however, feel that the Altair memories were entirely pointless and the characters contained within added nothing of substance to the series' lore. It is entirely possible that anyone could enjoy this game, but I've seen the best that this series has achieved, and I couldn't suffer much of it without screaming at the screen (or twisting the control til I felt it could break, or my eyes rolling to the back of my head).

Burn your papers, they ain't worth reading.

As for what's wrong with the game, short version: it just feels somewhat unpolished. As per my previous post, new mechanics like bomb-making and tower defense felt best when avoided completely. Unnecessary additions from previous instalments like managing the assassin war, the real estate metagame and the Templar towers that hold it back, all return to provide an artificial length to proceedings. Want to afford that new piece of armour? That's fine, you'll just need to retreat to higher ground, spot the Templar captain with Eagle Sense, kill them, ignite the relevant Templar tower, buy some businesses, wait twenty to forty minutes until monies are deposited in the bank, and withdraw money from the bank... unless you don't own a bank; then you'll need to buy a bank. There's also some woefully-designed missions that revolve around the series' busted stealth mechanics which irked me to no end. Assassin's Creed: Revelations features everything I dislike about the series.

Worst of all, the disjointed combat system from the previous instalment returns with the addition of enemies that can't be damaged by anything but counter hits. While these enemies don't appear until closer to the end of the game, what it means is that combat slows to a crawl. All of those mechanics introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood that had the intent of getting Ezio on the offensive are undone. For the last three hours of the campaign, I actively avoided combat. When I wasn't required to rout the enemy, I got the fuck away from anything with a weapon, let alone a mask. For someone who used to grab a horse and ride towards enemy encampments outside of Acre just to pick a fight in the first game, the slow, frustrating flavour of Revelations' combat stings. If you're thinking of jumping into the series, don't start here. 

Counter that shit.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations isn't a bad game, it's just not a particularly good one. There are some fantastic missions and sequences on offer in this instalment, but these great moments were often bracketed by frustrating and unnecessary gameplay. The title of this instalment is also terribly misleading. I just wanted an answer to one burning question, and all I got was interesting though ultimately pointless exposition.

Monday, July 23

The Last Supper

As expected, things got a little hectic in the lead-up to the great fast. I kept my eyes glued to the Daily Deals, Flash Sales and Community Choice promotions -- which in a disappointing twist, were merely daily deals reconstituted for the slow to decide -- and came up with my smallest tally in my history of dealing (yes, dealing) with Steam sales. Just over a hundred dollars spent and over twenty games acquired:
  • Quantum Conundrum (with Season Pass)
  • Driver: San Francisco
  • E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy
  • Krater
  • Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers
  • Dungeon Siege I, II and III
  • The Walking Dead
  • Dead Rising 2: Off the Record
  • Dear Esther
  • Total War: Shogun 2 (and Fall of the Samurai)
  • Gotham City Impostors
  • Trine 2
  • PixelJunk Eden
  • Legend of Grimrock
  • Ys: The Oath in Felghana
  • aaaaand a bunch of games I own on other platforms but don't have the self-control to refuse at ridiculous prices: Burnout Paradise, F3AR, Crysis 2, Red Faction: Armageddon, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City
I wasn't -- for the lack of a better word -- strong enough to let it end there though. I also picked up the following console games to see me through this trial:
  • Theatrythm: Final Fantasy
  • Spec Ops: The Line
  • The Darkness II 
  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD
  • Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown
Honestly,  if I can't survive just over 4 months on this final meal, it's over. I know I have a problem, but cataloguing a week's worth of this shit has been somewhat of a wake-up call. On the bright side, I did manage to knock one game off the pile of shame already: Assassin's Creed: Revelations (review forthcoming).

Wish me luck!

 Hang in there, peeps: a review will be up soon.

Edit: The website I ordered Spec Ops: The Line and The Darkness II through couldn't process payment on Monday (23 July), so I decided to cancel. Didn't want to disqualify myself before I even started!

Thursday, July 19

Sum of parts divided by fun = Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a baffling game. I should love it, but every time I start to enjoy myself, frustration interjects. I don't think it's because the developers were against players having fun, rather they didn't have the time to create a game that met the series' usually high standard.

Whether it's the new mechanics, like bomb-making and den (read: tower) defense, or the combat and general parkour that characterise the series, you get the feeling that someone was standing behind the various creative teams with whip in hand. Brotherhood's annoying combo kill system returns and the rhythm of melee encounters is more stilted than ever before. I've mistakenly plunged to my death while traversing across Constantinople more times than I'd care to admit, and the new hookblade and zip lines don't really do much to counter the feeling of déja vu Revelations presents to series' veterans. I've only ever used bombs or thought of making them when the mission design thrusts it into the realm of necessity. As for the den defense, it is, simply put, a crime against gaming.

 I would sooner stick this bomb up my ass, than defend another den!

I don't abhor tower defense games in the slightest. Pixeljunk Monsters and Fieldrunners are just some examples of the genre done right. Revelations' effort is so horrendously unbalanced that I've opted to just let my territory fall to the Templars and reclaim it the old-fashioned (read: more enjoyable, but still unnecessary) way: by killing Templar captains and igniting the base they just took from me. After the tutorial, I have failed to succeed in these sequences; even when I've taken the advice of friends and built numerous barricades and covered rooftops with gunmen. I can't make heads or tails of it, even when my experience with it hasn't required me to cover multiple routes: your enemies have only one route to your den. Throw me a bone!

The story isn't overly compelling either; the only thing driving me forward is a desire to see some loose ends tied up (and there's no guarantee of that happening in this instalment!). I just wish the whole Animus Island thing was done away with. The only thing it's presented so far is some cryptic conversation and the most nauseating first person puzzle sequence that I've ever played through. Thankfully, the majority of the game takes place in the Animus-rendered past, but even Ezio's charms fail to drag the narrative out of mediocrity's territory. Sure, the opportunity to once again walk in Altair's boots is appreciated, but I can't think of a single thing in this game that hasn't been done better in its predecessors. 

Maybe I'm being too hard on this game? Maybe the best is yet to come? I feel I'm about halfway through, and apart from a breathtaking sequence underneath Galata Tower, I couldn't recommend Assassin's Creed: Revelations to anyone but the most ardent of fans.

Has anyone else played through Assassin's Creed: Revelations? What are your thoughts on it?

Tuesday, July 17

Curation versus Addiction: Can I survive a few months without buying a single game?

The Steam Summer Sale is once again upon us, and the madness is in full swing. Not only do we have daily promotions and publisher packs to worry about, Community Choice and Flash Sales have made it even easier for consumers to part with their hard-earned cash.

I've been surprisingly well-behaved (by my troubling standards) so far, but I have this feeling that all self control will be thrown out the window at sale's end (should be July 23 in Australia). "Why?" I hear you ask. Well, I'll tell you why! From Tuesday 24 July, I intend to stop purchasing games and gaming content until the next Steam sale; which should be the week before Christmas.

I know that for some, that sounds responsible, even relatable. For me, however, this is the exact opposite of normalcy. I buy gaming content -- on average, I'd say -- every second day. Apps, retail releases, downloadable content: every second day. This may sound like the epitome of first world problems, but I'd say I'm just shy of addiction here. I've tried to stop previously, but I can't hold off for long. My last attempt, where I swore I'd buy nothing for a month, ended in failure after three days... I'd bought a terrible game for my Windows Phone 7 handset. I gave up on this resolution for a meagre fifteen Achievement Points. After then, it was business as usual: pre-ordering consoles, grabbing games, and spending at least a hundred dollars each week on my habit.


Safe to say that I have a problem, don't you think?

I've discussed this with my wife and two close friends and opinions are mixed. My lovely wife is obviously supportive, to the point where she actually thinks I can do it. My Japanese connection wished me well and even gave me some coping strategies (that mostly involve writing). My bro, Gravy -- who I've written for previously -- laughed at the proposition. Thought it would be a hoot, even expressed interest in starting a pool for the occasion. He gave me two months, and I got the impression that he was in a generous mood.

Two out of three ain't bad, right?

Who knows what I'll be able to do with the money that I'd save? I could buy a powerful new rig, have a solid deposit for a house, give something to charity. The possibilities aren't necessarily endless, but they are still attractive. Perhaps what's more desirable is thinking of the time that I'll save not having to worry about acquiring new games for the best possible price. I reckon I spend more time shopping for games than I do actually playing them. To quote Kanye West, "That shit cray."

For my part, I reckon I'll be OK. On top of the most recent additions to my collection, there's over 200 games in my Steam library, about 100 digital titles on various consoles, and roughly 140 titles on physical media sitting in my living room. If I can't make it five months without buying anything, I'm a lost cause. You can leave me be.

I'll be sure to update you on my progress, and if you're interested in the pool, let me know and I'll think of something (perhaps an interesting tie-in for this year's Movember campaign?). Be prepared for lots of desperate rants on the eve of huge releases, particularly Assassin's Creed III: that shit's gonna be real intense.

Friday, July 13

Mario Tennis Open Review (3DS): Charming bounce

She would argue that Burnout 3: Takedown took first blood, but my wife and I cut our gaming couple teeth on Mario themed sports titles for the Nintendo Gamecube. Mario Kart: Double Dash, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour and Mario Power Tennis helped our love (and love of gaming) grow in our relationship's early stages. For that very reason, I have a soft spot for anything that gets that mustachioed plumber off his arse. Mario Tennis Open isn't quite as charming -- or as brutal -- as its predecessors, but it's an enjoyable romp while it lasts.

First thing I noticed after a few matches of Mario Tennis Open is that it's stunning to behold. Don't get me wrong, it's not the most ambitious game on the planet, but it's literally bursting with colour. Everything about this game's visuals is dripping with whimsy; if you need to smile, boot this game up for a quick hit. Not every aspect of the presentation is a winner, however. Like every tennis game in videogame history, the one note soundtrack fails to impress. Much in the vein of other Mario Sports titles, it's beautiful, well animated and sounds like mascot hell.

The second thing you'll notice -- almost immediately afterwards -- is the painfully easy single player component. The first seven of eight Singles tournaments fail to register any sense of challenge. Dropping no games and precious few points, you may be asked to play for longer (as in win more sets per match), but nothing will be asked of you in terms of skill, dexterity and reflexes. All of this makes the final Singles tournament (creatively named, the Final Cup) all the more bemusing: it will break you. Well, it will break you if you use any member of the standard cast. Use the Mii with some top tier gear and it won't pose much of a problem. You may lose a game, possibly a set, but you should pull through with a little focus. Save for a serious hump at the end that can be undermined by dressing up an avatar, the enjoyable part of the single player offering is a push over.

Now solo Doubles play (oxymoronical as it may sound) is a complete bust. I didn't have the patience to play through every tournament as my AI partner was a dead weight. Even when using a Star level companion, victory would not come easily. Between being hit by your own partner's shots and their inappropriate shot selection, frustration was all but assured. After the first Doubles match, I knew making the Final Cup was a long shot. Lush visuals and a respectable roster can't do much to save this form of competition. There are some enjoyable mini games to soften the blow though.

The tennis itself is surprisingly sedate for a Mario Sports title. Characters no longer have their own signature shots. Instead, mistiming shots or poor shot selection will cause special shot tiles to appear on the court. Pressing the "Simple Shot" button on these tiles will allow you to hit sensational lobs, curve shots, inch-perfect drop shots and power shots. The mechanic is unexpectedly equitable unless you're playing on the Morph Court. Granted this is only a concern for the Final Cup or for any sadists who desire to play on said court regularly, but the wacky bounces (which AI opponents are able to foresee with an annoying level of regularity) are guaranteed to kill the fun. For the majority of the time I spent with it, however, Mario Tennis Open is an enjoyable and somewhat balanced game of tennis.

I only managed to find a handful of multiplayer matches, but the lag was noticeable. One disconnect and three jumpy duels means those looking for a solid multiplayer tennis game for the 3DS will need to keep waiting. Those happy to play by themselves have a colourful, charming and -- for the most part -- consistent grand slam fest on their hands. Sure, it's easy, short-lived and Doubles is pretty much busted, but it's worth a look.

Tuesday, July 10

The High Horse Audit 2012: The Top 5 Games of 2012 so far

Time is money: an old adage that has meant more to me this year than it ever has. A new job, a longer commute and a growing family means that gaming time is becoming scarce and all the more precious. It's not like I regret any of the choices that I've made, but the sad fact of the matter is that I'll never have all the time to do/play everything that I want to (let alone write about these ventures in great detail). What all of this ultimately means is that writing a list of the best games I've played in a calendar year becomes a little easier, as the amount of games I've played is somewhat diminished. 

With all that said, ordering this list has still been a painful experience, as the quality of releases that I have managed to play to completion has been quite high. I'm still agonising as to whether Prototype 2 should have made the list; yes, it was shallow in terms of narrative and it was pretty easy, but I'll be damned if it wasn't fun. The games that did make the cut each illicited an emotional response -- some in more ways than others -- and speak to the way in which this medium can contribute stories, characters and experiences that I'll carry with me until my final days. Some -- like Motorstorm RC and Rayman Origins -- evoked a strong sense of nostalgia that reminded me why I fell in love games during my childhood; others -- like Journey -- challenge us by presenting unconventional narratives that aren't really possible through more conventional storytelling methods. Despite all the gloom out there on the interwebz, there's still a lot for gamers to be excited about.  

5. Motorstorm RC (played on PlayStation Vita)
An arrow courses through a race track with ruthless efficiency, like blood through veins. Uninterrupted by obstacles or my opponents, the arrow would taunt me from a position that was usually well in front of my own. Switching vehicles wouldn't help, the arrow knew each corner of the track like the back of its hand. My only weapon was persistence; tracing these small tracks with tiny cars until they became imprinted on my brain. Eventually, my car would eclipse the arrow and a reasonably inflammatory message would meet the author upon their return to Motorstorm RC's fiendishly addictive playgrounds. 

Poetic license aside, this is the PlayStation Vita's "killer app": it's cheap, it has a wealth of content that continues to expand with reasonably-priced expansions, and -- most importantly -- it's fun. Reminding me of the hours I invested in the Micro Machines series, Motorstorm RC puts the focus back on the racing as opposed to sponsorship deals with energy drink labels or poorly conceived action movie narratives. Its asynchronous multiplayer constantly taunts you with your friend's better times and encourages you to keep playing. This game is the reason I kept my Vita charged, and to make an even more compelling case for its purchase, you can download it to your PlayStation 3 and race at home if you feel the need. Unbeatable value.

4. Mass Effect 3 (played on PlayStation 3)
Have you ever had to say goodbye to a friend? Knowing that hand shake, that hug, or that kiss could be the last contact that you ever have with them can be a little too much to bear.   Mass Effect 3 presents many moments like this; some are idol threats, while others proved true and the resulting loss had my bottom lip quivering. Sometimes the relief of seeing a crew member survive a tense sequence proved just as moving too. Bioware may not have gotten everything right here, but Mass Effect 3 is an emotional roller coaster and fan service of the highest order.

Quibbles with the unfulfilling (and baffling) conclusion and shallow multiplayer offering aside, this is easily the best game in the series. The impending doom of the Reaper invasion keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, and impacts on every conversation and every relationship that Shepard has developed over the course of the trilogy. While a hard sell to anyone who's never engaged with the series, the final chapter is a worthy investment for anyone who's been there since Eden Prime.

While the side missions feel somewhat arbitrary, the main quests are packed to the gills with awe-inspiring set pieces and an impressive sense of scale. The Maw Hammers sequence on Tuchanka would have to be one of the stand out boss fights that I've seen on this generation of hardware; it simply must be seen. In hindsight, I may have rushed through my playthrough; and now that the Extended Cut has been released I may try (and most probably fail) to see the game's ending in the way hoped for by a throng of internet trolls. As it stands, Mass Effect 3 is a fitting finale to this space opera series and a farewell tour without equal.

3. Journey (played on PlayStation 3)
Looking back, it may not have been the smartest idea to play through Journey just after my wife left for school camp. Feeling vulnerable and a little lonely, it wasn't long before Journey started tugging at my heartstrings. The ominous hum of the score in the initial stages drew me in immediately, reminding me of past anxiety and pushed me into a great expanse. The anonymous companions I gathered in my travels then served to reinforce themes of life, death, companionship and tradition. Multiplayer that doesn't involve childish name-calling, vulgar language and also conveys a message deeper than "us versus them" is not only an accomplishment, but an important step forward for the medium.

Despite the distinct lack of guns, explosions and sexy costumes, Journey drew me in with a refreshingly brisk pace. Two hours of gentle surprises like sliding down a shimmering sand dune, the exchange of language, and floating on air. The controls are simple, the mechanics even moreso (read: go forward) yet thatgamecompany have delivered something truly profound. Go play it now, just make sure you have loved ones and tissues nearby.

2. Rayman Origins (played on PlayStation Vita)
I don't ever want to be a kid again. I love eating rubbish and slippery slides as much as the next person, but I have so many things now that I simply can't go without (believe it or not, I'm referring to people and relationships as opposed to my lovely game collection). What I do miss from the days of old, however, is a bit of tough love from my gaming experiences. One-hit deaths, huge gaps, a need for precise timing, reflexes and attention to detail aren't typical of tutorial-heavy shooters and adventure games: back in the day, you had to work for the wins.

Rayman Origins captures that spirit and makes few concessions. You may not have to worry about lives and continues, but the distance between checkpoints -- not to to mention the difficulty in traversing between them -- will demand your focus and utmost care. The controls respond to your every careless command and display of hesitation; it's the kind of game you could use to teach some very powerful life lessons. If that's not enough for you, there's charming visuals, a memorable soundtrack and enough content to justify the price of entry five times over. This is one of the best 2D platformers of all time.

1. Max Payne 3 (played on Xbox 360)
The title theme for Max Payne 3 still haunts me. If I'm ever alone for any great amount of time, Health's powerful piece of music serves to make me all the more pensive. It foreshadows the pain, failure and the -- for lack of a better word -- shit that the game's titular hero is to see or has already experienced. While it is at its heart, a solid third person shooter, Max Payne 3 is a shockingly violent and stylishly presented story of redemption.

Despite an awkward cover system and inconsistent damage model, Max Payne 3 is an enjoyable shooter that features the return of the eternally satisfying Shootdodge and Bullet Time mechanics. It also features some of the most shocking depictions of violence that I've ever seen in a game. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it will stick with you; that much I can guarantee. Its also worth noting that the game's substantial single player campaign is     infinitely replayable and available to play at multiple difficulty levels and in two different score attack modes. Great fun and better value.

I haven't touched on the addictive multiplayer offering which isn't half as popular as it deserves to be. Huge maps, a wealth of perks and a respectable arsenal make for a compelling alternative to the competition. I intend to return to Hoboken sometime soon in the hope of another match with a perfectly orchestrated Shootdodge off the top of a building at round's end. 

To conclude, I'll take the easy road and quote from my review:

"I can recommend Max Payne 3 without hesitation. Its brutal, refreshingly adult narrative is something that anyone of the appropriate age -- which for the record, shouldn't be 15 -- should experience. There are inconsistencies that appear throughout the single player component, but I found it compelling and rarely frustrating. The multiplayer offering is also well worth your time, even if the majority of gamers don't seem to agree with me at the moment. Easily the best game of 2012 to date, and I have no doubt it'll survive my rigorous High Horse Audit later this year. Miss at your own peril"

What are your picks? Are there any glaring omissions from my list?

Sunday, July 8

Burnt by an old flame

I've finished every game in the Metal Gear Solid saga and loved them to death; I've even bested both of the AC!D games on PSP. Solid and Naked Snake are two of my favourite characters across any storytelling medium, videogames be damned. I've finished each instalment several times -- I honestly couldn't tell you how many times I've beaten the original MGS on PlayStation -- with the exception of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

It's not for a lack of love for the game, nor was it because I disliked Raiden (I actually prefer the MGS2 version of Jack to the bat shit crazy cyber ninja from Guns of the Patriots), the surreal final hours or even needing to escort Emma in the Plant chapter (and I freaking hate escort missions). No, I can't do Metal Gear Solid 2 again for fear of being spotted at the end of the Tanker chapter. That lengthy, panic-inducing stealth sequence gets me every time.

For the record, I've snuck through that epic briefing unnoticed five times; but each time the Plant chapter commences, I'm completely exhausted. Spent before the largest portion of the game even gets off the ground! When I do manage to press on after surfacing in the Big Shell, I can usually only make it to the whole bomb diffusal section and then it all becomes too much. I'm hoping that now, with Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, I'll be able to get over that panic-inducing stealth hump in the Tanker Chapter and finish MGS2 once again.

I've got both the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions on hand, so I can enjoy the benefits of Transfarring (sigh) technology; an awkwardly named  feature that allows me to transfer my saves between the home console and portable versions.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 5

Rugby Challenge Review (PSV): The hardest button to button

In these modern times of fast cars and funeral insurance, we expect one button to do a lot. We expect it to help us stick to cover, roll away from it, duck and run faster. Things work as expected most of the time, but that unintentional forward roll can sometimes end in bloody, frustrating death. The stakes aren't as high in Rugby Challenge (deceivingly packaged in Wallabies and Jonah Lomu varieties), but those unintended consequences crop up more often than the average because of a control scheme that tries to do too much with a few buttons.

It doesn't try to do too much with every button, but some work across purposes. The most eggregious example being the humble square button. You use it to shrug off defenders, drive through tackles and... drop kick. So many times I found myself breaking away from what could've been a try-saving tackle, only to bomb the ball dead; on the full no less. To make things even worse, every face button can be used to kick the ball. Useful commands are either relegated to the unresponsive back touch pad (sprint), or simply don't function under the pressure of competition.

I should clarify, the controls don't function under the pressure of competition and the artificial difficulty. Play even the most meagre of opposition with the greatest of teams, and you will be beaten each time at the breakdown if you beef up the difficulty. Break the line on any difficulty level higher than Easy, and your opposing number will move at the speed of a sports car to end your rush for glory. They'll also promote the ball with reckless abandon. Normal difficulty or higher will have the AI playing hot potato with reasonable odds of breaking your line. The unresponsive player-controlled tackling doesn't help things either; more often than not, I would switch to a player and run back to act as a safety net for my defence and hope that my computer-controlled allies wouldn't need me to intervene. Don't get me wrong: victory is possible on even the highest setting, but your enemy will use dirty tactics to keep you on your toes.

The training suite is reasonably thorough, save for the fact that I still have no idea how the line out works in this game; I won these set pieces often, but I'd be buggered to tell you how -- or more importantly -- why. The training mode tasks you with watching instructional videos complete with button prompts, and then performing the actions yourself. It's surprisingly effective, and the ability to play with a group of four players during the extensive loading sequences had me well versed in how Rugby Challenge was supposed to work. It leaves a solid first impression, but as per the observations above, it's quite misleading.

The best thing about Rugby Challenge is that the fundamentals work well: the passing, running and kicking of the ball (when intentional). Played on Normal difficulty or lower, you can set up scoring plays by running straight, absorbing defenders, and offloading with precise timing; it's undeniably satisfying. Twin stick controls for scrums and touch-controlled goal kicking also work surprisingly well, and if you're not too picky about what happens when a phase ends, you'll probably find a lot to like here.

In terms of presentation, Rugby Challenge again gets the fundamentals right for Australian and New Zealand fans. The Trans-Tasman rivals get licensed national and Super 15 squads, but our European and African friends aren't so lucky. There are quite a few genuine European club teams and kits on offer, but none that I'm really familiar with. No such luck with international teams, however. Player and location likenesses are surprising in some cases, but more often than not, you'll find a clusterfuck of unimpressive textures on display. There's some competent commentary and a repetitive score that occasionally plays over the menus: otherwise your ears will have to be satisfied with the roar of many a different crowd.

I couldn't find a single multiplayer match, which is more than understandable given the system's relatively small install base and the limited appeal of the sport. That being said, however, Rugby Challenge offers a respectable amount of options and competitions for solo Rugby enthusiasts. That being said, unless you have a great love of the sport, I'd probably recommend an EB rental (EBGames in Australia has a seven day return policy which I used to exploit on a regular basis) before committing.

Despite the inconsistent controls and artificial difficulty, Rugby Challenge wasn't a total loss. The game faltered at the breakdown, but the solid fundamentals made for a reasonably enjoyable experience. I wouldn't recommend this game to any but the most ardent Rugby Union enthusiasts, and even then, you need to spend some time messing with the camera options to get the most out of it. A pleasant surprise with some expected technical and mechanical hiccups.

Tuesday, July 3

Game Masters Review: Almost possible at home

The last few days have been rough: my first two days back at work after a calming, romantic and expensive week in Melbourne with the love of my life. I could write a post about every awesome breakfast, lunch and dinner I got my hands on, but I'll spare you the gory details (read: if you want the best Eggs Benedict on Earth, go to Riverland Bar near Federation Square). I'll instead write about something more relevant to this blog's themes, specifically: vidyagaemz.

I had the good fortune to attend the Game Masters Exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image last Thursday. Don't get me wrong, I walked away feeling somewhat disappointed, but there is something here for everyone. For me, it was the Donkey Kong cabinet in impeccable condition and full working order that I would've hogged for an entire day if not for the siren call of Little Bourke Street's culinary delights. For you, it could be anything: the Metal Gear Solid series juxtaposed to great effect, a drool-inducing display of pretty much any console released in Australia since the dawn of the medium, or even the Dance Central 2 arena where many people required napkins after being served with righteous, piping hot dance moves.

There is something for everyone, but not a great deal to take away. You can't even take photos AND I WANTED TO TAKE PHOTOS OF DEM BEAUTIFUL YOJI SHINKAWA (of Metal Gear fame) PRINTS!!!

For starters, I own about sixty percent of the games on show. Worse still, my TV screen is larger than most of the displays that these games were channeled to. I couldn't escape the feeling that I could've done Game Masters better from my own living room. It would've been lacking the glorious arcade cabinets, a few large projectors, and a respectable crowd; but it would have been possible. Hell, a few years ago I would've had the small clutch of arcade classics lingering on my hard drive somewhere.  I guess I should note that I've been hoarding console games for the better part of two years and my Steam library is getting ridiculously large, so I'm aware that this isn't a criticism that'll be true for all.

Perhaps the greatest criticism I can level at Game Masters is that it almost completely disregards the 8 and 16 bit console eras. Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 are playable, as is Super Mario Bros, but the collection is missing some of the greatest games from two generations of hardware. It's not even as though you could argue that it's due to the setup of the collection: most games are grouped according to their creator but this isn't the case for the "Nintendo" display. Game Masters is primarily composed of recent releases, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that a big part of the gaming pastime is glossed over. 

It's also worth noting that some very notable franchises (and therefore "Masters") aren't on show. No Grand Theft Auto (Dan and Sam Houser), no Resident Evil (Shinji Mikami) and no BioShock (Ken Levine). I thought at first that it may have had something to do with assembling an exhibition that is "safe" for all ages, but the entire Metal Gear Solid saga is on display, and that is not suitable for children. The lyrics in your average Singstar (also on display) song probably aren't really suitable for children, so a little more viscera wouldn't have gone astray.

As disappointing as it was, I felt a certain buzz from seeing some of the greatest games ever made in the same space, being celebrated along with their creators. Yes, I feel the exhibition could've been bigger and that certain events weren't adequately advertised on site (read: forums and talks from industry legends), but it's a beautiful thing to see people of all ages playing the games that have defined your (read: my) life.I couldn't in good conscience recommend that you fly to Melbourne to see the show, but if you're in town, it's worth a look.