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The Simpsons: Hit & Run

Everyone is searching for GTA-beater. And when I say “beater” I mean “clone”. The likes of True Crime, 25 to Life and numerous other city-based, gangster-driven games litter the shelves but possibly the breath of fresh air in this wave of Rockstar tributes is The Simpsons: Hit and Run.

Last time out the Duff loving father and his family shamelessly used the template of Sega’s Crazy Taxi, now, with this follow up, you still have the whole of Springfield to roam through, on foot and in car, but now you must complete a series of missions to unravel the mystery of the black vans that have recently arrived in town.

You start the game with Homer but quickly get to play as the rest of the family, along with a level as Apu. Each has their own car and, more importantly, sound bites. All are high quality and seemingly yoinked straight from the show.

The sound bites made the game for me as throughout the samples were hardly ever repeated, and we’re talking about a substantial multi-hour period here. If you were down on your luck you’d hear “I am evil Homer” chirping from you driver as he rammed his fellow townsfolk off the road twice in a row but considering the scale of the game the overall range and variety is a great achievement.

Sound is not the only area where the attention to detail is high as the game has been packed with every possible item they could gleam from the Simpsons’ world. From the shops down on the dock side to Camp Krusty, the world is full with the show’s references and even the cars have their own personal touch; you can see the police chief’s dog sleeping in the boot, every nasty inch of The Car That Homer Built and the comics in Comic Book Guy’s car.

Most of the missions you are given are squarely set behind the wheel of a car and usually fit one of several categories: follow a vehicle; destroy a vehicle; collect items dropped from a vehicle; race a vehicle or the clock. For a real change from the norm you sometime have to collect items whilst on foot.

The timed challenges and races are usually a doddle, especially when you exploit the shortcuts that are common place throughout Springfield, with the main fun and challenge being reserved for the destruction tasks. At times you will be asked to take down opponents whilst keeping your own vehicle intact – not the easiest thing when your target is an armoured security van and you’re driving Malibu Stacy’s sports car.

As limited as the task types may sound the game uses all the franchise’s characters and settings to make the most of those simple premises; you may be doing the same things over and over but the storyline changes quickly and varies who you have to deal with.

Unfortunately the differences between the variations are not great enough to make any one mission stand out and the only way the title evolves the challenge is by cutting down on time limits or forcing you to explore for short cuts to gain the upper hand.

You do have a slight distraction from the main game in the form of staged races and collecting coins to buy new cars and outfits but nothing exciting enough to tempt me into overly commit myself to doing either.

This game has torn me as I enjoyed playing it but in the end I felt disappointed with what it had to offer: the settings, the concept and the sounds are superb, however, the cars handle averagely at best, the missions are repetitive and platforming is limited and basic. If you like The Simpsons and GTA, in that order, it will be is worth a gander but prepare for something that quick and fun but lacks the overall draw of Rockstar’s masterpiece.

6/10

Pac & Roll

Pacman has now made two appearances on the young DS. His first appearance, Pac Pix, seemed to be more a tech demo moulded into the form of a game rather than a fully fledged title in its own right and so when Pac and Roll appeared I was quite sceptical. Luckily this has had considerably more development time given to it and the time has been well invested as it has turned this DS release into one of the most solid platformers I have played in quite a while.

Pac and Roll is a cross between Sega’s Monkey Ball and Nintendo’s Mario. You control the spherical Pacman across a variety of levels in search of his kidnapped friends, avoiding hazards and fighting ghosts along the way.

The thing that makes the game unique, as with all DS games, is the way you control the lead character. Pacman has been cursed by a guitar-playing ogre and it is up to you to roll him (do you see how they got the title?) around the world with strokes from you stylus; the direction and speed of the stroke being the direction and speed you want to roll him.

Early levels operate as tutorials to get you used to the controls with walls to keep you on the straight and narrow but the path ahead soon opens up with a nasty amount of pitfalls to hamper our hero. I would say that the levels remind me of many a Mario game with basic gaps in the earlier levels giving way to collapsing walkways, rotating platforms and jump pads as the game progresses.

The feel of each level, and I don’t mean in terms of decoration, is quite unique; one may challenge you to negotiate a very classically shaped, Pacman grid of corridors while another may involve traversing past falling walls. Each set of obstacles comes at you for a sustained period of time and then relents for a level or so before possibly being combined with another item to prove a different challenge. This setup meant that Pac and Roll continually felt fresh throughout with some great, if a little frustrating, level design being found in the latter stages.

The penultimate world and its levels was my favourite; the stages were set in a castle environment where you had to dodge collapsing walls whilst rushing up a slope and simultaneously avoiding the rising lava. It made you exist in a controlled state of panic as you negotiated so many things at once, all the time maintaining control over Pacman – not to mention how it wore your hand out as your strokes battled against the gradient.

A criticism I would have to give is that the difficulty curve suddenly spiked. Out of the six worlds the first four were enjoyable but easy. As soon as you entered the fifth you knew that the designers had taken the kid gloves off and were prepared to make you suffer. At least a few audible outbursts happened during the more Monkey Ball-esque levels that involved taking your charge where no right minded person would ever dream of putting a spherical object. Having said that the challenge was welcome and really showed off what the game was all about, I just wished they had build up to it.

Pacman wouldn’t be Pacman without pills and ghosts somewhere in the game. The pills are this platformer’s coins/notes/bananas and you must collect enough of these to open up the next portion of the level. Standing in your way will be a series of ghosts which will attack you and steal energy until you can prod them away with your stylus. Of course Pacman has his Power Pills to fend off his supernatural foes but they are generally only common enough for you to have one shot at dispatching a group of ghosts. If you get your attack wrong or just run out of time you will find yourself skirting round the little blighters for the rest of the level.

The good thing is that the ghosts aren’t too prevalent. Again, sensible level design only places ghosts in line with the difficulty curve. In the early stages you will face them on the flat but as time progresses you will have to fight them in confined environment or mixed in with a tricky platforming section for extra spice. They are never overused and so when it does come to the fiendish areas where you have to concentrate solely on the environment you don’t have to worry about a ghost popping up to frustrate you yet further.

Where they can prove a pain in the backside is during the boss battle that tends to reside at the end of each world’s set of levels. You must face off against the ogre who cursed you and, according to video game lore, consume three Power Pills to take down one bar of his energy. You of course then have to do this three times to dispatch him completely.

Although the general outline of the boss battles is routine the levels he resides in are nothing if not varied with some clever designs awaiting you. One fight sees you on a sphere bobbing in lava whereas the final engagement takes place on an oversized pinball table. The environment shapes the strategies you need to take down your guitar wielding foe and on more than one occasion I was dispatched before I could get the measure of the level let alone the boss.

Pac and Roll is definitely worth a gamble for those with a few hours spare who enjoy the feel of classic platformers or puzzle games of the ilk of Monkey Ball. It features a very intuitive control scheme and some lovely set pieces involving swaying platforms and its own take on mine carts, but beware the difficulty spike. Many will find it a challenge however I can see some finding it frustrating.

It has a reasonable amount of replay value, too; once completed in story mode levels can then be played in time attack mode or with the challenge of collecting just the right amount of pills. Top that off with the chance to unlock some of Pacman’s more classic titles and you have yourself a very nice portable package.

8/10

Pikmin 2

I don’t think I truly appreciated the first Pikmin. I played it and enjoyed it but had no problem trading the disk in at Gamestation for my next digital fix. I registered the release of its sequel but something distracted me from picking it up and so once more the Pikmin were left unloved.

When I finally did pick up the title it didn’t take me long to remember just how magical Pikmin could be. Everything about the game screams that it’s a Nintendo pet project that presses all the right gaming buttons leaving you grinning at the screen.

The plot is quite ridiculous as you take Captain Olimar and his brother, Louie, in their space ship to a nameless green a blue planet where they are given the task of collecting the treasures that litter its surface. Being a strange planet you can only venture out during daylight hours meaning every portion of the game is all about balancing resources to tasks and not over stretching your characters before the sun sets. The quirks of the game are that you are dwarfed by the environment through which you roam as you only stand an inch or so tall, and that the treasures are random pieces of junk which can range from rolls of sticky tape and doughnuts to pieces of electronic gadgetry. Oh, and you have an army of walking seedlings to do your bidding, namely the Pikmin.

Controlling your Pikmin is simple as a quick press of your B button will cause Olimar to whistle and bring all troops within the vicinity of your cursor under control. Once called then the Pikmin will follow you around like a colourful set of ducklings following their mother. As fun as a flock of Pikmin can be they need an aim and you can give them just that by either tapping A to throw them towards a target or using the C-stick to swarm them forward to either attack an enemy or carry home a treasure.

The highlight of Pikmin, for me, is the animation and the sound that come from controlling your Pikmin friends: the bustling as they get called to Olimar; the tiny trumpet as you command them to swarm forward. Both are so simple but consistently heart warming. Should you leave a lone sole out of reach they will shiver and whimper until you feel moved enough to rescue them.

Initially you start with only one of five possible breeds of Pikmin by your side but you’re soon finding and rescuing the others to aid you in your quest. You have red Pikmin who are resistant to fire; yellow that can withstand electricity; water loving blues; super strong purple Pikmin and a poisonous white breed. Each must be used in certain situations to reach goals, destroy elemental specific foes and to clear blocked pathways.

It is the white and purple breeds that are new to Pikmin 2 but it is the latter that are the most useful of all as they can take down most enemies in seconds; one purple Pikmin has the strength of ten reds. As long as you have enough of the little blighters very little will stand in your way.

What does stand in your way, even if not for very long, is a vast array of natural enemies all imaginatively created and beautifully realised. There are standard grunts in the shape of lumbering frogs and skittering beetles but most require very definite tactics on how to defeat them, whether it is immunity to their electric attacks or a mass charge to overpower stronger enemies before they drag your Pikmin off into a dark hole.

The majority of your enemies, apart from the boss battles, are relatively straight forward and it should only be the unlucky or careless player that loses vast number of Pikmin in a confrontation. It was always quite painful when I lost more than a handful of my troops as it was either my fault entirely or a new foe had surprised me with a new attack pattern – damn those balloon-suspended bomb-droppers!

There are a lot more boss battles and enemies in general due to the way that this follow up has now introduced caves that can be explored. When on the surface you must return to your ship by sundown to avoid the night life devouring your Pikmin, giving you roughly 15 minutes to complete all you need to, but when in the caves there is no time limit. Instead the game just lets you take it at your own pace as you explore the darkness.

Both the surface and the caves show reasonable level design as natural barricades stand in your way and treasures just lye out of easy reach. You know that your Pikmin will always eventually be able to break through or reach these but the puzzle is how and whether you’ve brought the right ones for the job. Whereas the planet’s surface shows a beautiful, natural landscape the underworld’s levels have a varied feel to them but generally are dark places that focus more on set pieces and their maze-like structure than glowing visuals.

The overworld presents challenges that are all about resource management which involve splitting your Pikmin into squads and setting each a task to complete before the sun goes down in order to open up new areas that contain yet more caves and, in turn, treasures. The underworld is a different kettle of fish as they tend to be more combat based with the variety being how you defeat your foes. It doesn’t rush you, instead it allows a thoughtful approach, should you so wish.

My personal favourite cave was the level that had massive creatures that had seemingly swallowed a loaf of bread. These tall fellows required the Pikmin to be flung high on their back to exploit their weak spot and the entire landscape appeared to be taking place in a picnic hamper on a series of dinner plates.

I think the division of the game into these two parts really helped the enjoyment of the title as it allows you to vary between the action and the exploration. At times the caves could feel like they dragged on a little too long but usually this was offset by the quality of the boss battle at its end.

To help you in your passage through this strange new world you can split duties between the two brothers; whilst Olimar ushers the blue Pikmin away to destroy a submerged barricade Louie can move the flame retardant reds to take down a fire-breathing beastie. Whilst a nice feature I don’t think I utilised it too much as the Pikmin can tend to function on their own once given a task, although it did allow you to herd the little blighters up quicker as the sun started to go down.

Something I do have to praise Pikmin for is the way it fitted gaming into nice bite sized chunks. As previously mentioned a day lasts less that a quarter-of-an-hour whilst a single level in a cave roughly the same allowing you to easily fit in a quick session here and there. It allowed the title a great pick-up-and-play feel that other RTS games (if Pikmin does indeed fall into that category) never seem to, in my opinion.

Pikmin 2 is a great title and is another Nintendo title that is dressed up as a child’s game in all the primary colours; whilst this is accessible to children it also is hugely enjoyable for us grownup gamers. It has the potential to engage your brain whilst simultaneously holding a certain charm due to the Pikmin and their environment. If you’re looking for something different, something that could be a puzzler or a RTS, then this might just be the title for you.

8/10

FIFA ’06: Road to the World Cup

This isn’t FIFA. FIFA is a game that sees almost as many goals as Mario Smash Football; FIFA is a game where you can run rings around your opponents; FIFA is a game that is polished to within an inch of its life. This isn’t FIFA.

I’ll set out my stall now: I am a Pro Evo player. FIFA may have many charms and is very easy to pick up and play in recent years, however, it has never reached the subtle feel of football that Konami’s series has managed and has lived mainly in the realms of arcade football with as many tricks and gimmicks as a joypad can hold. The last few instalments of EA’s cash cow have definitely improved and I no longer feel dirty wanting to play its licensed game as they attempt to refine the subtleties in the beautiful game. What happened in FIFA ’06 Road to the World Cup, then, is anyone’s guess.

To put simply, RTWC is a step backwards and a tragic derailing of the improvements seen recently. It seems quite obvious that EA had farmed this 360 exclusive edition off to a team only remotely linked to the recent FIFA ’06 non-RTWC edition so they could ship at the launch of the new Xbox.

My main qualm with RTWC is that it has lost all fluidity making games a very clunky affair. Whilst one-touch passing can be achieved it is very rare, with unresponsive controls and very inaccurate passing helping to cause loss after loss of possession. This wouldn’t really matter if you had the ability to take on players but it seems that not even the chunky Wayne Rooney can hold off a challenge from even the smallest of defenders.

So defensives are on top in this game, but more by default than by some great tactical wizardry. Your attacking team mates are usually quite happy to let you attempt to breach the opponents single handed as they wait back and only a few times a match making the runs you actually want them to. When they do make a break for it the through-ball button in invaluable but more often than not you’ll see them start to make their run only to check and hold.

The lack of credible runs is only one of the reasons how the game prevents you from scoring. The shooting can occasionally be very floaty and at set-pieces heading is almost impossible if there is a man in front of you. On a solid level of difficulty you will find that most matches either end 0-0 or merely see the odd goal.

That all being said the gameplay is still solid and as I have mentioned I’ve spend quite a bit of time on the pitch over the last couple of weeks, but it is more out of my own stubbornness of trying to beat the game itself rather than trying to win the World Cup.

And winning the World Cup is about the only thing you can do. Considering how many options, leagues, cups and teams that exist in EA’s usual annual update you only have the choice of leading your country to the World Cup or your own custom tournaments. I find it criminal that you have to pay extra to play this game on a next-generation system yet have most of the game modes taken out: I’m paying more for less!

To try and make up for this distinct lack of options they then make the aforementioned Road, to the said World Cup, is a long and winding one as it takes in mini-tournaments and friendlies, which can be a mixed blessing when all you actually want to do is play the final tournament.

Rather than extra modes and average gameplay it seems most of the effort has gone into making the game look nice, and they have made it look very “next-gen” but in a quite disturbing, and occasionally detrimental way. Players and managers attempt to look like their real-world selves but instead look like they’ve had a Hammer Horror make over, topped up by being caked in wax. It is very odd and does no one any favours.

Luckily they only look like this in cut-scenes, i.e. complaining at the referee or wheeling away in celebration after scoring a scarce goal, and at this point they turn all the effects on including six-inch long grass, bloom lighting and lots of bump mapping. At which point the replay can slow down to 10 frames per second. I find this madness; this is a next-gen machine and it is running slower than Goldeneye, N64, during a rockets match.

The most favourable comment you can make about the game is that it is playable, but the slow down, the lack of options and the price tag all make this one to avoid. The best part of the game? The fact you can have a knock-around whilst the main match loads. Not enough.

4/10

Condemned

It’s scary. It’s very scary. Playing Condemned in the right environment, the surround sound turned up and the lights turned off, can be an intense experience; exploring a poorly lit, fire damaged library knowing that criminals stalk its hallways and you’re only armed with a piece of piping and a torch means you take every step with caution, searching the shadows and straining to hear distant movement. If you see your adversaries then your prepared, if not, you’ll jump out of your skin.

The whole concept of Condemned is that you play an FBI officer on the hunt to the truth of a dual cop killing of which you are wrongly accused. On the trail to the real killer and his motives you trek through subway stations, an ancient department store, an isolated house and a few more beautifully modelled environments. The detail at which the levels are modelled are incredible and add to the atmosphere of the game as everything is dark and all seemingly in a state of urban decay.

At first you enter these areas to escape capture but that soon turns into a quest to hunt down clues about the real killer which in turn reveals a quite disturbing and intriguing storyline. Luckily you never have to decide what a clue should look like and instead your FBI issued spidy-senses start tingling to indicate one is nearby, after which you then pull out one of a range of evidence collecting devices to scoop up the item in question. The tool itself is self-selecting but you still have to try and figure out what the game actually wants you to collect.

As always in these situations the path to the truth is never easy and it seems those on the streets are either on some new drug or generally don’t like the cops sniffing around, either way everyone you meet will want to take your head off with any close combat weapon they have to hand. Initially you have a gun to fight back with but ammo is in extremely short supply and you’ll rarely get more than a single clip at a time.

Once out of ammunition you can pull pipes from walls and planks from the floor as most items that look like than can be held in your hand can be separated from the background and turned into your weapon of choice. Each has their own sets of characteristics: some are heavy hitting but take time to swing whilst others are very quick to block oncoming attacks but not very effective at dishing out damage.

Without a firearm combat could be considered very repetitive as it is constant loop of blocking your opponent’s attacks before lashing out with one of your own, however that is looking at it in the same way as saying that an FPS is simply “pulling a trigger over and over”. Each enemy has varied attack speeds and patterns also changing by their ability to use any weapons they find, exactly like yourself, so each encounter is a mini-tactical battle as you block and counter followed by a moment where you have to try and decide whether to go in and hit again or wait in case he flails wildly.

Condemned also seems to be one of the few games that actually has a “fair” health system i.e. you have exactly the same as your foes. With an average weapon you can take down an attacker in roughly three to five hits, however, they can do exactly the same to you. If you do not master the art of blocking quickly then you will die quickly.

As a backup, especially in the cases of being attacked from several directions, you have your Taser at hand, firing a short blast of volts into the chest of anyone your target it at. This will stun them for a few seconds allowing you to close in on them and give you some free attacks.

…and that seems to be about it for Condemned: scary and immersing; lots of melee combat; interesting story line. Doesn’t sound much at all but it pulls it off very well. The fights are carefully balanced, spread out and never laid on too much as to make them seem a chore. Sega have achieved a balance that mixes a horror movie with an FPS as each time combat happens it is more a relief that the wait for the scare is over and you can set about your scarer with a locker door.

The standout level has to be the Orchard House which appears towards the end of the game. It incorporates all that is good about the game with the tense exploration of rooms, the following of clues and a heavy dose of close quarters fighting. This area is gorgeously modelled and the level design allows some great set-pieces.

As always with computer game storylines it goes slightly pear at the end as it takes in the obligatory end boss but it holds up very well and is one of the reasons I wanted to see it through to the end. Empathy with the main character may be overdoing it but it always felt as though if you pushed on a little further you would discover a lot more.

When played in the right circumstances and conditions Condemened is a great game and I will more than likely play through it again at some point but at this moment I feel too drained. My advice, play one level a night in the dark but make sure you have something bright and cheerful on standby for afters; this is not the game to play before you go to bed.

7/10