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Bioshock Infinite ::: Review

I can’t help but feel judged. I’m rooting through trash cans and lost luggage looking for supplies as she stands behind me pretending to admire the view. What must I look like to her? More vagrant than knight in shining armour. You can tell she’s taken pity on me as she tosses me a coin she found. “Here, you keep this.” Thanks, Elizabeth.

In fact on many levels, thank you, Elizabeth. Though she is absent from the first few hours, Bioshock Infinite is all about her. She’s the reason your there, the means by which the story evolves, and a key partner through large portion of the fighting that mars your passage through the floating city of Columbia.

She’s no hapless Yorda, incapable of looking after herself; she is a strong woman who initially greets you with a few well aimed books to the head. Yet despite that initial shaky start your character, Booker, and her grow to share a bond. Born through a mutual need to escape, it soon matures as they share in the horrors of the world about them, realising they’re going to need to stick together if they ever wish to leave alive.

Elizabeth’s the second noticeable heroine is as many months, though her and Lara share more than plaudits for simply representing women. Elizabeth too has that moment where she is repulsed by the taking of a life, and, though the drama isn’t particular drawn out, a similar acceptance of her new way of life is realised. The pair discuss it as a zeppelin ferries them across the city and the conversation demonstrates how well written both characters are. Though there’s regret in the eyes of the girl, you are stoic given your military history; it’s just one example of the two sharing a moment along the journey as a greater tale unfolds.

All this is set against the backdrop of the airborne Columbia, a city made up of many floating islands that has seceded from the United States. It’s a world away from the original Bioshock’s dark, closed, decaying world. Instead we find a sun-drenched place full of open walkways and painted in bright, pastel shades. It’s a visual treat, made all the better with the completeness of the world as it’s not only a painted façade. Large numbers of shops and streets are all accessible, letting you drink in the atmosphere of this initially upbeat town.

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Set in an alternate 1912 the citizens go about their business, gazing happily down on the world below and seemingly quite content (or oblivious) in having you listening in on their conversations. The almost insignificance of the local tittle tattle is pleasing enough, but looking in every store, taking part in the local fayre, or simply reading every lovingly created poster, advert and art piece all proves again Irrational’s ability of making not just games but worlds. Rather than moving the adventure along, it’s easy enough to spend large segments of time simply looking at things.

There’s a dark undertone hidden beneath, however. Founded by a white supremacist known as The Prophet, there’s racial oppression throughout Columbia and an almost religious fervour about its population. It makes for some deeply uncomfortable moments as the townsfolk openly use very racist language when describing the minorities living amongst them in a manner that is usually shied away from in mainstream media let alone games. It’s a deeply interesting and brave angle to approach and this persecution persists as an undertone throughout.

These tensions soon reaches breaking point and, for reasons I would prefer not to spoil, you are forced to defend yourself. Being a military man you are a dab hand with pistols and rifles, but in addition to these are your vigors, plasmids by another name. They grant you the ability to suspend others in midair, summon forth a flock of murderous crows, or even bewitch entities to fight on your side. They are drip fed to you as you progress and can open up some equally satisfying and lethal combinations. At times the guns were all but forgotten as at first I’d wash away my foes with a tide of water before sending a jolt of electricity through their now drenched bodies. Or alternatively sending out the murder of crows to peck at them before dropping a fiery cluster bomb in their midst.

This may bring gleeful memories of tormenting splicers rushing back from the first two Bioshocks, but there is more. Columbia is also criss-crossed with skylines, tracks by which people and goods can cross from island to island, and by riding these you can cause further chaos. Jumping up and latching on, be it for a dramatic entrance or hasty escape, they add a verticality and speed to combat previously unknown in the series. The plodding Big Daddy is a world away from fights that can take place on multiple levels, battling back and forth across surprisingly large venues.

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All this time Elizabeth is keeping herself busy. It’s made quite clear that she can take care of herself and whilst she keeps her head firmly down the girl is adept at keeping you well stocked with ammo and health, with a further knack of making weapons and cover appear later on. It all makes her a very valuable ally and strengthens the connection between the pair. We’ve seen enough AI shooting poorly in our time to make us question their worth at all, and so to remove that and consider what actually makes a sidekick useful is a masterstroke.

The pacing of each encounter is just right, too. There are no drawn out slogs by which you could grow weary of the battles. Each is used to tease you through the tale, leading you from chapter to chapter, the content revealed by your chats with Elizabeth and through the taunts of your enemies. Together with the audio logs strewn about the place, it may not be the most complete story telling experience but because they all happen in the world you find it far more compelling. There are scant few cutscenes that you are forced to sit through, at each point that the story evolves and moves forward you are there in the middle of it, experiencing it first hand with Elizabeth. Together.

Whilst our original trip to Rapture was a horror story, detailing the twisted results of great minds gone astray, this keeps the Bioshock spirit but moves in a different direction. The dystopia may be a common theme with plasmid providing you with the means by which to destroy it, but more so than anything this is a story of you and Elizabeth. Though I may be disappointed the tough racial angle wasn’t completely seen through, the layers they pour upon the story, continually shifting just when you think you’ve guessed where it’s heading, proves it as one of the finest in its field.

Infinite is a game that gathers momentum. A considered, impressive start gives way to a tale and to a combat system that both compete to steal the limelight in a world that effortlessly amazes. Amazed. Will amaze.

Sim City ::: Review

Ever played a game that you know isn’t great but you can’t stop playing? That kind of guilty pleasure which consumes you against your better judgement. At the extreme end of this spectrum I’ve had that with Feeding Frenzy, an early XBLA game that saw you as a fish devour other fish. As a concept it wasn’t great, and its execution was similarly mundane, but something within it kept making me want to swim around a single-screen, two-dimensional fish tank and fill my fishy gut. It was not my proudest moment.

Though even mentioning Sim City on the same page may seem a disservice to Maxis, I equally question why I have put so many hours into that somewhat flawed experience. It was supposed to be the coming of age for the venerable franchise but instead it has been a release dogged by server issues and filled with questionable design choices. And yet it is all too easy to sit down, intending to quickly check in on your fledgling cities, only to emerge several hours later not knowing quite what happened but by the proud mayor of a town boasting a new airport, to have struck a bountiful source of oil, or feeling the pressure of your voters as a crime wave grips their lives.

Right from the start it’s devilishly moreish and keeps you glued to the screen as requests regularly arrive from your townsfolk, opening with a request for roads so they can build houses and settle down. As soon as you’ve committed that virgin strip of tarmac, a stream of new residents flow in from the region’s highways. Zoomed in you can see the tiny removal vans speed in and start assembling homes and moving equally tiny Sim families in. Before the paint is dry on their garage doors however they’re complaining there’s no power. Ingrates. So you open up the power options and decide between wind, solar, coal and oil. Certain towns will have obvious solutions, but this is only the start of it. Next come requests for water; and sewage treatment; then rubbish collection; it goes on.

What started out as a simple and tranquil town where you drew pictures using the road network as your pencil, soon turns into a planning puzzle. Certain utility buildings, such as water pumps, might upset local residents if plonked next to them, but it’s a darn sight better than the sewage treatment plant being upwind from them. The trick is figuring out where in your plot of land you can fit everything whilst annoying the fewest people. Finding the corner of the city where the smell will go away from town, or the local bog that citizens won’t mind if you taint it a little as long as their streets are clean. In some way it’s as much you making moral calls as logistical ones as in cases there may be homes or businesses already sat upon that perfect spot.

The other headache comes from the limited cash flow you start with. All these services cost money, to buy and to continue to run, and they need to be balanced against the taxes collected. Provide first rate services, costing the earth, and people may be healthy, employed, well-plumbed and happy, but the high tax rate will scare many off. Equally, dirt and germs may be cheap but don’t expect many takers.

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Businesses can bring in further streams of revenue too, easing the woes of your treasury. Casual players can skim the surface and can play around with growing large industrial hubs selling goods to shops, but a more advanced set of options lets you tailor your city to be the black-gold capital of the region with oil refineries and derricks, or attract in the high rollers by erecting neon lights and casinos up and down your strip. You can focus on trading, electronics or tourism, and each will vastly alter the makeup of your city and how the cash comes rolling in.

Taking all of what’s on offer can be slightly overwhelming but the simulation underneath is at least sensible and spaces its requests out in the early days. Requests from Sims are as much a guidance along what to explore as they are indications of what’s faltering in your creation, and it’s easy enough to write the whole thing off as an experiment and start in a fresh region if the worst comes to the worst.

What this all builds towards is the fun of founding, growing and specialising. Making sure all your Sims have enough jobs and health care to keep them happy, ensuring the place is attracting in visitors from the wider world to put extra coins in your pocket, and being the mayor of a sustainable city. Where you begin to see the cracks, however, is as your first creation reaches its limits.

The cities are surprisingly small and it won’t be long before your buildings are pressed up against the border. There will be no teeming metropolises gently spilling out into suburbia and onwards to more green outlying villages, instead you will have constructed a solid square of concrete and iron and once you’ve filled it, you’re going to have to start recycling space. This may seem like a challenge, something put to you to test your mayoral wits, and to a certain extent it does as you bulldoze here and tweak there but there comes a point where it’s not worth it. The rewards earned for changing focus greatly or bowing to every Sim’s little request and upsetting the balance are negligible; there is a dearth of long term goals and so it’s often best starting afresh.

Definite advantages await with this course of action, as cities in the same region all help each other, be it through trading utilities and resources, or sharing technological and governmental developments that unlock more advanced buildings. Neighbours can often be called upon to plug a shortfall in water or to employ some of your citizens, but it’s highly buggy. Shared power supplies will cut off for no apparent reason leaving your city in darkness and with businesses threatening to leave, gifts of cash and resources take an excruciating long time to travel between mayors, and direct interaction is so minimal that at times you question the online nature of the game.

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The visual representation of your city, spread out on the region plane sat in amongst whilst also seeing all your friends’, does provide a lovely diorama yet it just serves to highlight further how isolated you feel whilst playing. There are no great shared constructions of any meaning, no chance to co-mayor a city or change the face of the region, you operate in a completely solitary fashion.

This in itself could just be considered a missed opportunity but when forced to focus on your own endeavours so much you realise there are fundamental problems at home, too. Bugs and inconsistencies with traffic pathfinding, business and the general sensibility of Sims can bring whole conceptual infrastructures crashing down. Sensible little assumptions that you make about life in your world are not replicated in the thoughts of your Sims. Businesses happily go out of business claiming they have no place ship freight to despite living across the road from a freight warehouse; Sims will die queuing for hospital treatment despite there being a queue-free hospital elsewhere in town; dim-witted drivers will clog roads meaning the fire brigade are stuck in jams whilst the industrial quarter burns freely. Each in isolation is irritating, possibly humorous, but when its replicated time and time again any long term goal you had for your city is an exercise in futility.

And yet, I keep going back.

That initial period, where you have nothing but a piece of green belt, maybe a strip of land by the coast, you put to one side the disgruntlement that ended your last venture and you see only potential. Maybe a series of well-to-do mansions could have views of the sea and bring in the high-rate tax payers, possibly this time you’ll pop down a concert hall and expo centre and dedicate this town to putting on shows, each time you’ll try something a little different to see if this time it sticks.

More often than not there will be an early struggle as you balance out your ambition with the trickle of cash that comes in through tax returns. More often than not you’ll be distracted from your initial goal as you see what would happen if you unleash Godzilla through the streets. More often than not you’ll put together a working world that will quite happily tick by if you just stopped tinkering.

For all its initial ambition it’s hard to consider Sim City as anything other than a let-down. Let-down or not, though, if you give me a sandbox I will keep on making castles.

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Tomb Raider ::: Review

The first reveal of the Tomb Raider reboot was a curious one. Gone was the self-assured Lara Croft of old, roaming round long forgotten tombs with dual pistols, and in her place was a young, unprepared woman, screaming and screeching her way through flame-lit caverns. It seems she couldn’t move more than a few feet without falling down a ravine or having men of uncertain principles reach out for her. Either way, she’d shriek.

Though this is a fair reflection of how our time with Lara begins, it soon becomes clear that we’re witnessing the birth of the legend. The period when she learns that it’ll take more than knowing how to excavate pots to survive her own extreme branch of archaeology. It’s been a much touted strand of this release, and with the inclusion of Rhianna Pratchett on the writing staff it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics want to flesh out the character and for her to be taken seriously. Away from the gunplay and puzzles, though a strong personality, she’s rarely been explored to any depth.

And so, after her and her fellow crew are shipwrecked on a remote, mountainous island, what we see is her taking her first fledgling steps as an adventurer. Despite calling on her survival training, initial forays into dank forests and foraging for food by hunting deer are obviously traumatic for the youngster. With the mantra of “I can do this” she scales great heights – metaphorically and literally – and sees off her fears to get her through her first night alone. Though this is nothing to the dangers that present themselves when the stranded crew meet the natives.

Separated from civilisation for what can easily be classed as “too long” the locals are a group of religious zealots intent on including the crew in their bloody rituals. They round up the new arrivals and by the light of a burning village the first big chapter in the Lara tale is told. Panicked, pushed to the edge, and in fear of her life, she kills her aggressor.

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The impact is immediate. Covered in blood and staring at the smoking gun in her hands, her body shakes as she sobs at her actions. Despite the circumstances, knowing it was the only way to save herself, you can see the obvious regret. At this point you really feel for her. As with any film where they’ve drawn you in to the characters and has shown them beginning to grow, there’s empathy.

What this also provides, however, is a disconnect.

This tearful young woman quickly learns to deal with the horrific event and swiftly repeats the action time and time again. Over the course of the next dozen hours, tears may be shed over friends as they come and go, but with barely a second thought she’ll kill hundreds of others with some of the most brutal animations this side of Assassin’s Creed. This once shrinking violet soon can do things with an arrowhead that will make your eyes water and demonstrates another case of cutscenes and their sentiment being completely disingenuous and at odds with the gameplay.

Although disappointing, it doesn’t ruin proceedings. Away from what you make Lara physically do, the story is a confident one and helps motivate you through the strong mix of combat and adventuring that follow.

The former is a definite departure from earlier games in the series. Though still third-person, the auto-lock has gone and controls are much closer to Uncharted, with completely free aim as you wave rifles and pistols about. This allows a lot more freedom than before and offers a fluidity that initially felt quite strange as my reticule danced about the screen. It’s not as easy as just selecting the pouncing wolf that’s going for your jugular and as such Tomb Raider feels far more at home in the modern world.

Of course guns have always played a part in the Tomb Raider series but here new ground is trodden in a number of areas. For one, it’s not just firearms she’s pointing at the resident nutters; she’s a dab hand with a bow and arrow too. This is the first weapon you’ll have access to and it suits the survival nature of the opening act. Silent and deadly, Ms Croft uses it both to take out potential food and protect herself.

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Soon pistols, rifles, and then eventually shotguns and grenade launchers, become available, forcing you to fit a surprising amount of ammunition is such tiny shorts. And whilst each makes you a formidable fighter, there’s something about turning Lara into a one-woman army that doesn’t sit well with me. True, it’s effective, but between this and a series of overly dramatic set pieces there are points you feel that the developers are trying to ape Uncharted a little too much. I kept wanting to fall back to just using the bow or at worst the pistol to try and fit with my own portrayal of the character.

Thankfully this is a perfectly viable option if you’ve sure enough aim, but more so the bow is crucial in managing enemies. In each encounter, as long as you can stay hidden away and pick off the outlying soliders, you’ll be able to silently dispatch large numbers without retaliation. A hushed arrow between the eyes will take them out in one shot and prove incredibly satisfying given an ounce of patience and the will to act like a hunter.

However, should you be spotted then all hell breaks loose as all barrels train on you. Even in the pitch dark of a midnight forest, half way up a tree, all enemies will somehow psychically pick you out against the branches from hundreds of yards away. It’s a little jarring going from a cloak of secrecy to running around as though you’ve a glowing target painted on your head, but if you want to put a positive spin on it then at least it encourages a stealth approach.

With combat a mixed bag it’s a relief that the adventuring is wonderfully strong. Large sections of the island are given over solely to your exploration, with cliff faces, ledges and old villages all calling at you to explore. This is where Tomb Raider feels at its strongest, as you face off against the environment and attempt to come out on top. It may have borrowed heavily from Drake in many areas but here it feels assured and safe in itself as traversing long forgotten tombs all hold unique physical puzzles that yield golden treasures. At times it’s the reward for clearing areas of their crazed residents.

For a mostly linear game it has a delightful knack of skirting back round on itself and interweaving its tracks. Very early on you start out on a mountain path, the cliff face stretching high above you and impassable. Yet a few chapters later you’ll return further up the cliff and in possession of a tool that will now link the two. This progression suddenly opens up the island and turns an otherwise corridor adventure into a playground that see trinkets and collectibles hidden liberally about.

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It replaces the traditional Croft Manor, the training ground that provided an athletic diversion from the main campaign. Here these trials are worked into the environment itself and through use of a very liberal fast-travel system provide said diversion without breaking the illusion that you’re trapped miles from home. It’s easy enough to ignore the main plot for a short while and head off into an ancient village to plunder it for all the riches it hides away and yet just be feet away from continuing onwards.

This exploration is highly worthwhile too as hidden caches of salvage can be used to upgrade weapons or provide XP to unlock extra skills. Bows can be made stronger, guns more accurate and Lara more lethal. It’s a simple addition that means your wandering round darkened corners looking for hidden trinkets is rewarded with more than just a completion stat. Come the end you’ll have not only grown a more accomplished treasure hunter but all this foraging will have turned Lara into a seasoned survivalist.

And come the end, if you’re like me, you’ll want to go back and hoover up anything you’ve missed. Not just because of any sense of kleptomania but because it’s a world that you’ll want to experience again. To scale and unlock missing tombs, see the subtle tells placed in Lara’s animations to feedback on her surroundings and feelings, and to prove yourself against the elements once more.

Despite niggles about the lowest-common-denominator combat and the tear-jerking cutscenes giving way to scenes of mass genocide, Tomb Raider is a triumphant return for one of our most well-known faces. There are enough little touches to keep traditional fans of the series happy and yet these are balanced with aspects of levelling, sandbox play, and dramatic Naughty Dog-esque cinematics that bring the franchise screaming – quite literally at times – into the modern era.

Though it may be a world best known for its block puzzles and mythic lore we now have a new facet to place alongside that. She may have once been famed for her dual pistols but silently stalking her prey through the forest, bow in hand and drawn in anticipation, has opened up a whole new exciting side of Lara Croft that should not be ignored.

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XCOM ::: Review

Usually it’s FIFA that sees me trot out the well-worn phrase “a game of two halves”, but never has it been more appropriate than with XCOM. Though it has been much vaunted for its turn-based-strategy, pitching a handful of elite soldiers against the best an invading force of aliens has to offer, it also has a deep management simulation attached to it too. Sim Earth Defence Force, or Men in Black Tycoon, if you will.

For every shot that’s fired on the battlefield, there’s a wad of paper being pushed behind the scenes to make sure that your forces are funded and provided for. Engineers and scientists need recruiting alongside your hardened marines, captured aliens require interrogating (and in turn dissecting), plus the skies above earth need defence jets and satellites to monitor the alien’s presence. There’s a lot to juggle.

However, rather than being awash with cash as the world’s nations turn to you for protection, they throw a pittance of a budget at you and expect you to do wonders. That money then needs splitting and how you divide that will affect your mission readiness. Launching a new satellite may reassure the world and bring in little extra cash, but the base is running low on juice and could do with a new power plant being built. Whichever way you turn the money could equally have been as well spent elsewhere. Even at the height of the evasion with Paris under imminent invasion, I built a new fighter plane and I had guilt pangs knowing how many sets of body armour or plasma guns I had just sacrificed for France. Bloody France!

And for me that was captivating; the well balanced trade-offs that meant for every advancement there was a sacrifice paired with it. Completely ignoring a portion of the operation will only spell defeat, and yet overinvest in an area and you may find everyone else struggling to reap its benefits as they bid to catch up. Though it may not be as open or deep as many standalone management games, it’s very easy to spend a great deal of care and attention balancing every department’s and country’s needs.

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All the time this frugal simulation takes place with the XCOM building itself the backdrop, as though a very high-tech ant farm. In mission command, the hologram of the world will blaze away, whilst to the left engineers and scientists buzz about their business and to the right your soldiers prepare for insertion.

These soldiers are the life blood of XCOM: the souls that you’ll be commanding directly, and used as your own well-armed chess pieces against the alien invasion. From a high view above the battlefield you’ll move them from cover to cover, sweeping across the ground, taking out any bogeys they encounter. It’s a turn based affair, with each of your men (or women) getting two actions to move, shoot, take over watch or perform a special actions, such as heal or fire a special weapon.

With the enemy getting the same, it turns into a very strategic battle with both sides fighting for cover and to get the drop on the other. Left out in the open and your troops will be lucky if there’s enough left of them to fill a body bag, so most turns are spent ensuring that your advancement is to behind trees, building corners and walls, only then poking your nose out to shoot. It’s a slow but rewarding pace as you stretch your forces out, close in and apply pressure.

Actual shooting comes down to a dice roll, taking into account a soldier’s skill, any perks they have, and the angle they have on their target. It’s not simply a case of lining your cross hairs up. This further plays into the engrossing battlefield tactics as you seek to expose weakness through outflanking, playing to your strengths or just overwhelming force if it comes down to it. With different classes at your disposal from medics to assault troops, they all mesh together to help you form a squad that will play to your preferred style of play. Those who like blunt force could load up on nothing but heavies, saturating the battlefield with heavy machine gun fire, whilst I much prefer an approach that sees two crack snipers lurking at the back, finishing off the targets flushed out by my ever-advancing assault troops.

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The enemy is equally varied, if not more so, with giant floating metal discs, insectoid monsters that turn their victims into zombies, and greys that like to mind-control your best men. They’re a highly diverse band of invaders and this alone helps keep you on your toes as you tackle each map. Though they’ll all succumb to withering fire eventually, different approaches are required to tackle each race efficiently, whilst facing multiple types at once always proves testing as you try and prioritise threats.

What comes together is a very simple mechanic that is elevated by the superb way it’s varied. Through forests, cities and crashed UFOs you’ll patiently stalk your prey, only to find yourself on the defensive as their assault troops crash through your lines, or their psychics play merry hell with your minds.

Although a few hours in, once you’re used to the brutal difficulty level and the caution it promotes, you’ll find yourself settling into a routine. Edging forward, setting as many men to over-watch as possible, you become a well drilled military outfit. By the sheer length of time you find yourself going through these motions, preparing for combat, it can occasionally grind. Routine missions will definitely feel as though you’re on auto-pilot, and just as in a FIFA season there are times when I longed for a “simulate” button so I could go on tinkering with XCOM’s financials.

Quite conversely, some of the best experiences are when things have taken a significant turn for the worse. The squad’s been torn asunder and with only a sniper and a medic left I’ve scrapped my way out through a mix of sheer luck and a lot of hiding. Popping that last alien right between the eyes and reaching the extraction zone truly makes you feel like you’ve witnessed a supreme feat of human heroism against more advanced beings. Plus you’re just grateful your ace sniper is still with you.

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What XCOM boils down to is an incredible act of balancing. In the management sim, the trade-offs you’re forced to make are all equally worthwhile and therefore equally painful to take; in the field, it’s whether to send in the talented veteran or the expendable but less dependable rookie; do you risk getting close and capturing the alien aggressors to aid your scientists, or pepper them from afar to stay safe. They all come from a game that gives you so much choice, all of it fair.

Firaxis has created a supremely clever strategy game, one that is equally accessible but demanding. It’s scratched that itch that I’ve been looking for ever since the last Full Spectrum Warrior and all I hope is that I don’t have to wait the same length of time again for another.

ZombiU ::: Review

Back in August I walked away from my brief bout with ZombiU distinctly unimpressed. An unresponsive combat mechanism and a clunky interface did nothing but alienate the user. That was no slight on the novel hardware (I’d just had a great time with Rayman on the same device), but rather the blame solely lay at the door of the developers. It was Red Steel all over again.

However, come the start of December, when I buckled horribly and broke into my penny jar to get a Wii U, I still held onto the hope that an extra couple of months incubation could turn things around. Yet even after playing through it, the answer isn’t clear cut.

Straight out the gate you’re still faced with the same punishing slowness that greeted me in the demo. Your movements are casually paced considering the undead are right on your heels, and you swing a cricket bat with such consideration that you’d expect the zombie’s skull to find the gap and head to the cover boundary for four. It feels wrong; there’s no urgency to any of your actions.

The difference between this and the demo however is that you have time to adapt. Fresh to the controls and asked to take down a veritable cavalcade of cadavers you would die horribly and repeatedly. At home, however, you have time to learn the nuances, adapt to the lethargic rise and fall of the bat, and find your feet in the world. Very aware of this, the early stages almost spoon-feed you zombies one by one in as low a risk situation as possible to get you used to it all.

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Of course, low risk is a relative term. A single zombie on their own can be handled simply, easily pushed back and pummelled into submission, but it can still rip your throat out in an instant should it slip pass your defences. It’s a game where – and I found this out on a handful of occasions – a lack of concentration can see the end of your adventure end before you can recover. It makes you approach every situation and each new room with caution as you learn to both fear and respect the undead.

Tackling more than one target at a time needs serious consideration as wading in waving your bat will only buy you slithers of time. If possible, outliers need to be dealt with first, or sensible use of flares (zombies like light, it turns out) paired with grenades and fire bombs to get rid of groups. These are no silver bullets, however, and a looseness in the controls never guarantee that these tossed objects end up where intended. Should things go even slightly awry, genuine panic can set in as you know that your default melee weapon is next to useless against multiple assailants, and running might only delay the inevitable.

As a fall back you do gain access to a series of guns, but this is no Call of Duty. As you play a member of the general public you have no formal weapons training and that tells in the aiming. Headshots will not come from popping a dot over a zombie’s bonce, they either require a splash of luck or for your enemy to be virtually on top of you. Not something to be advised.

Helping out in the quest for survival is the Wii U gamepad, acting as your inventory and your radar, each equally adding to tension in their own unique way. The former allows you to switch which weapons you have quick access to, though never pausing the game. Whilst digging around in your backpack the camera swings round to show you against the background. Even if there are no actual zombies in sight they play on the mind, and if there is then, boy, does that pile the pressure on your fingers to pull out the right item; flourishing a chocolate bar won’t quite work the same as a Molotov cocktail.

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When not rejigging your weaponry, the second screen alerts you to local threats. Creatures show up as red blips, allowing you to prepare for what’s round the corner. Yet almost cruelly it’s not just zombies but rats and crows, meaning you’re never quite sure what you’ll be facing. The sonar can also function as a scanner to try and help differentiate these from a distance, but line of sight is still required. Despite that, wandering down a corridor to suddenly hear a blip emanate from the pad can cause you to pause, whilst the sound of a chorus of blips reporting back can do more than that.

What all these component parts have in common is that none are flawlessly implemented. The inventory management can seem needlessly convoluted, your actions dawdling, the story full of holes. Respectively they have rough edges, minor failings that whilst never jarring are obvious enough to make you wish that ZombiU had had just a couple of extra months to get an extra level of polish. But by the same token they also add to the levels of tension and drama.

Not since the original Resident Evil or Fatal Frame have I felt truly unnerved playing a game. There are no cheap jump tricks on display here, the pressure and tension come from being pitted against a world that has gone to crap and the only object that you can truly trust is a faithful piece of English sporting equipment. The knowledge that you simply respawn back in your Safe House as a new character – though having lost all your backpack’s content – should the worse happen, does little to calm the nerves as you’re trudging around an unmapped sewer with a handful of blips that you prey turn out to be small and fluffy.

It’s a game that seems to have been built out of equal parts luck and judgement. For as much as I think the slow nature of the cricket bat’s rise and fall is a very clever feature, forcing you to truly understand combat and not just swing out wildly, there are many others that just raise questions as to how they settled upon that as a solution. Although either way it does not matter. Rather than question why what you’re playing is compelling there are times you should just stop over analysing things and settle in and enjoy it.

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Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation

It could have been the same. Ubisoft could have quite happily pared down a version of Assassin’s Creed III and squeezed it on to the Vita. A little draw distance trimming here, a drop in polygons there, and it may not have been the prettiest looking adventure but it would have no doubt kept the punters happy.

So it is to their massive credit that Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a completely fresh and different take on Assassin-Templar universe. A game that plays to the series’ strengths, utilises the console in a couple of interesting ways, and comes up with its own unique approach. The most prominent of which is Liberation’s protagonist.

Aveline de Grandpré is a former slave in New Orleans, taken in as a youngster by a well-to-do couple and raised as their own as a Lady. Though this chance at a better existence sees her hobnobbing with the town’s high society, she eventually chooses to lead a double life; out in the Bayou another former slave has taken her under wing and taught her the ways of the Brotherhood.

Looking back at previous assassins they have all been somewhat one-dimensional, but here the social and political setup of Aveline’s situation opens up layers to explore. It’s a potential that, whilst not fully utilised, lends itself to a twisting story and a does come across heavily in the gameplay. You no longer run around town exclusively in your peaked hoody like some homicidal adolescent, there’s scope to meander through the streets dressed in your best frock, creep through the worker districts with barely a glance in your direction disguised as a slave, or go balls out – so to speak – with her assassin’s outfit.

What this leads to is a unique approach to taking on missions, whereby picking the right outfit tailors you either for a covert mission or an all-out assault. Early on you’re asked to sneak into a ball. Dressing as the respectable Aveline will see you able to enter through the front door; your slave persona will be able to enter through the servant’s quarters. The third option of course requires a more stealthly approach, silencing witnesses as you go, but the concept is a great one, opening up Assassin’s Creed to be so much more than a series of dramatic kills from rooftops with your hidden blades. It adds a freshness that the annual franchise has, in my mind, been needing for a couple of years now.

The core of the series is still intact however. Missions still revolve around either tracking down a person or some evidence or disposing of them. Though there seems a reduction in the amount of killing our Assassin partakes in. Most of the sequences end up in one large hit at the end but many of the preceding missions are about building up the tale of the continent, about the new Spanish Governors and the slave trade, fleshing out the world a great deal and bringing out the unrest of the period

Between the main quest and the numerous sidelines available, bloodlust will be satisfied. Informers and business rivals have to be eliminated. Though how is generally up to you and what outfit you’ve a penchant for, a new subtle subgoal for each mission helps add diversity. A kill is a kill, but it may suggest you kill them through an exploding barrel, or that you dispose of them with not a soul setting eyes upon you. It’s a little addition but one that help demonstrate the number of ways a single task can be approached and the relative richness of the world.

And nothing has been lost of that richness in packing it onto a Vita with each of the three main hubs taking up a sizeable piece of land. New Orleans has houses, shops and dock fronts, all there to free-run over or meander through, pick pocketing the unwitting. The Bayou is a murky swampland dotted with homesteads, through which you’ll find the trees your fastest route from A to B. In both, the free-running is still as accomplished as ever, and navigating the initially disorientating system of trunks and branches soon proves easy as your eye picks out certain landmarks. At times it’s almost too simple, as you scale a synchronisation point with barely a second thought, but it’s a balance that has to be struck and it’s clear that the studio opted for elegance in movement over anything else.

At ground level you’ll find the streets bustling with people. Most are there just to add character to the city, nonetheless there are also guards and mercenaries that pay you close attention if your notoriety level is high enough. Once upon a time, this series set the benchmark for cinematic combat, now, post-Batman, the scuffles you enter into never feel as though they have a sense of jeopardy. Assailants will queue up one by one to attack you, and the counter is so simple to execute that execute you will and even the supposedly weak Lady persona has little trouble in seeing off large mobs. It’s not bad by any stretch, but by current standards it promotes stealth on the pure basis of not wanting to be engaged again in another melee battle.

It’s only one of a few missteps Liberation takes. There’s a poorly thought-out trading game that takes far too much time and investment for relatively poor payouts, a distinct lack of replay or freeplay options, but they do little to tarnish an otherwise solid portable outing. Even the Vita specific controls, that of pick pocketing through touch screens, unearthing secrets by shining light through classified documents, and marking targets for your pistol, are all welcome additions rather than forced mechanics.

Assassin’s Creed fanatics will find everything they expect from series packed into Liberation. Practicing parkour over the rooftops of New Orleans, silencing elevated guards before plunging down to street level to send their target to parley with their maker. Those wanting a departure from the formula will find it with Aveline’s alter egos, the interesting historical settings, and the distinct lack of Desmond.

The apparent freedom offered to Ubisoft Sofia to create an entry in the series that continues to carry the torch and yet make their own mark has paid dividends. Liberation has emerged and instantly become one of the flagship titles for the system.

Tokyo Jungle

Think of a game solely starring animals and you may conjure up images of the rather splendid Lion King platformer or the colourful Viva Pinata. Most games purely focusing on fauna have a decided friendly approach to their doe-eyed characters.

Tokyo Jungle laughs at this. The soft and cuddly creatures you’ve played with in the past wouldn’t last two minutes on the cruel streets of Japan; the Jungle would turn them into a Simba sandwich with a side of Fizzlybear fries.

Reason being, mankind’s time has come to an end. In sudden circumstance humans have been wiped from the face of the earth leaving the plants and the animals free to make our concrete jungles their own. For the likes of the coyotes and lions once trapped in zoos this may be a very base instinct that they’re happy to obey, but for the lapdogs and pampered pussies this is somewhat of an adjustment. To survive they need to adapt, and adapt fast.

Taking the reins of one of these hapless critters there are but three things to remember: eat, pee, and mate. The staples of life.

The first is achieved by putting any thoughts of ever seeing a can of Pedigree Chum to one side and taking down a more hapless creature than yourself. You can wade in claws flying, wearing you prey down, but it’s deeply inefficient as chances are that they’ll flap and scramble away causing you to pursue, all the time your hunger meter draining. A more canny use of your time is carefully stalking your intended snack. Leap at the right moment – indicated by a pair of circling red jaws – and you’ll score a clean kill, taking them down in one strike.

In an abstract sense, Tokyo Jungle reminds me of the street brawlers of the 90s. You roam the streets, going from district to district, scrapping your way to success with limited buttons (and in turn moves) until the city has become yours.

It’s not always you who is going to be the aggressor either; there are more than pets roaming the abandoned city. Larger carnivores and packs lurk waiting for you to fill their health meter. At this point stealth and patience are crucial as you need to take down scouts before they can let the rest of their pack know or just scoot around the edges and avoid confrontation altogether.

Although there’s a certain amount of balance between being both the hunter and hunted when playing a carnivore, should you pick the deer, chick, or similar animals of vegetarian persuasion then expect a far more nervy experience. Sony takes an old school approach with the stealth as you creep through bushes for cover and take wide arcs around others to avoid detection. This is rounded off with a threat meter sat in the bottom left to reinforce just how much trouble you’re in. That’s not to say an old school approach is a poor approach; on the contrary, the very simple and well defined mechanics leave you in very little doubt as to how safe you are.

But all this risk is not for naught. Exploring the streets and marking territory (read: peeing on flags) is required to attract a mate. Each area of Tokyo has its own markers and making your way to each, through the teeth and claws of other species, will eventually deem you attractive enough to find a partner. A romantic snuggle later and you begin again as one of your own offspring, receiving some generous hereditary bonuses from your parents to improve your base stats.

And so the circle of life continues: exploring, eating, peeing, and mating your way through the years. They’re simple principles and built upon elegantly to bring out the best from Tokyo Jungle.

For one there are the Challenges. A series of tasks are set asking you go here, kill so many of that, or find this before a number of years have passed. They help funnel your experience and reward you with upgrades to your character.

Also, each time you enter the world it’s subtly different. Whilst roads and buildings remain intact, different species will wander the streets, unique events will take place to attract you to distant areas, and chances of pollution and famine can severely affect your gene pool’s chance of survival. Though when I’m told a dinosaur’s awoken in the park district, not even the turf war between the chimps and the alligators will put me off going.

Lastly, it’s the ability to unlock new animals to play as. Everything from chicks to lions, alley cats to dinosaurs, and everything in between can be found. The prospect of handling a new, larger, better equpped hunter or more hardy herbicide can be quite compelling, even if they all do handle the same. Specific challenges appear for such unlocks and they’re the only way to wring true longevity from Tokyo Jungle.

Sadly, they are as much earned through stubborness as they are skill. To reach the level of lion involves going through a dozen interveening creatures, and whilst I’m more than happy to wile away many an hour roaming Tokyo’s streets the sheer obsfucation of many of the more interesting animals is deeply disappointing. Taking down bosses that hide so many of the unlockables is a tough, especially as the lack of a checkpoint system means it’s a hard slog to get what you want.

However, whilst this barrier is as equally likely to shorten as it is to extend the experience, it shouldn’t detract from what is overall a well-structured game. Its design is highly concentrated, stripping away a lot of fat that exist on many modern games that could have dragged it down. Instead, bereft of storyline and mass-customisation, you are faced with simply proving yourself: How long can I survive? How far can I go? Can I take down that hippo?

Though at times frustrating, there’s a quality in Tokyo Jungle that made me want to continue plugging away, ensuring my animals lasted as long as possible, explored the next area of the map, and scrapped until my last breath. It’s a simple but fascinating game that marries older gameplay principles with a modern streamline approach.

Grab yourself a Pomeranian and head into town.

The Unfinished Swan

Welcome to the dawn of a new age. Buoyed by our technological success at GamesCom – yes, I’m still talking about the Game Boy Camera – we’ve decided to move to the next level and try our hand at video.

Now, admittedly, the audio is the same as our written review we published last week but hopefully you’ll enjoy the content and help us warmly usher in a new visual age for the site.

Enjoy.

As always, please do leave comments. This is our first tentative step into a brave new world and can only adapt to your tastes if we know what they are.

The Unfinished Swan

The PlayStation Store continues to deliver. Offering exclusive downloadable titles that appear to fly in the face of mass appeal, opting instead for a more art-house approach, it is possibly my favourite aspect of the entirety of Sony’s platform. From the early days of PSN and fl0w right up to the recent Journey, at first glance style lauds it over substance. Take a step into each however and you’ll find that’s nowhere near the case, as each one hides a very different but equally compelling offering going beyond mere visuals.

Latest in this unique series is Unfinished Swan, a collaboration between Giant Sparrow and Sony’s prominent Santa Monica studio. And what is most telling about Unfinished Swan is the option on its title screen marked “Toys”. It sums up a lot about this quirky, first-person adventure.

A lot of the early coverage on this very striking game has focused on the initial steps of your journey. You take the role of Monroe, a young boy who has grown up in an Orphanage. The only reminder of his parents is his mother’s silver paintbrush and a solitary, incomplete painting of a swan. One night he wakes up to find not only that the swan has gone but a mysterious door has appeared in his room. Not one for letting avian abductions go uninvestigated, he picks up his brush and heads through the door.

On the other side, it’s white. Not the white of a bright day or of a polar bear convention, but the kind of white where there are no shadow or edges. He is as lost as if he were blind. Or at least he would be if it weren’t for his brush. A flick of its bristles and you throw a black ball of paint that splatters on the background, breaking the sterility of the environment. A few more flicks and you find that you’re not on an endlessly blank plane but there are walls about you. Following the now evident corridor you discover bannisters, carts and trees. There is a whole world to explore and the only way you will do so is through you paintbrush.

It’s an amazing sense of exploration, one I’ve not encountered in any other game. You don’t as much roam about, seeking the next door, but probe gently and tentatively. Features burst out of thin air as the contents of the world make themselves known to you, and even objects that would be almost inconsequential in more traditionally visual games become somehow wonderful. Stairwells with gaps between the railings, crates with slightly raised planking, and other simple objects take on great depth when splattered from the right angle.

Amusingly enough it’s worth considering where you throw you paint. It’s funny that, unaware that you’ve been walking into a white wall for several seconds, you lob a paintball only for it to explode at point blank range and turn your whole vision black. It’s made me jump a few times, too.

The Unfinished Swan is a modern maze game; but before it gets too settled things begin to be shaken up. The story unfolds a little and shadows appear in the world. By contrast the world it still very minimal but their entry has a large impact on proceedings. For one there’s less need to liberally lob paint around as you can see corners, but for another there’s a sense of loss. Now the world and its edges can be discerned, what are you pressing on for? Where has the neat little mechanic that wowed me at Gamescom gone?

It seems the monochromatic world is merely the first of several that you and Monroe make your way through. In each the paint brush takes on different qualities, every one enabling you to tackle that particular passage’s troubles. Sadly, however, none prove as edifying as its first.

I’ll refrain from spoiling just what is in store for this modern day Penny Crayon, but it’s fair to say that you should never become attached to any single theme. None are left to sit for so long that they become stale; instead the designers prefer to whip them away just as you warm to them. Though this may keep proceedings moving, again there are times when you are left feeling a little empty, knowing that you could have quite happily played with that previous concept for a good few minutes longer. Some fill gaps, but others seem to have the potential to be the focus of full games themselves.

The tale that strings each chapter together is equally erratic, failing to add any meaningful coherency to proceedings. That said, the tale of Monroe is a light-hearted and sentimental one that is hard to scorn. The characters it introduces could all find a home in a modern day fairy tale and help set the playful tone and aesthetic to the world.

Despite my misgivings over how the gameplay evolves, the game as a whole can be described as nothing but delightful. Three hours with Unfinished Swan will not be regretted, as throughout it offers a mix of visual styles and concepts to keep you entertained. The structure is, in some respects, almost comparable to Portal, where different chambers (or in this case, chapters) allow you to explore each toy before moving onto the next.

Unlike Portal, however, you feel that much of what is on offer is only partially explored. It’s not about budgets or production values, what you’re asked to do is novel, engaging and at times unique, but also it has the sense that it’s never pushed beyond the obvious.

Long into the game, I was still entertained with all the toys but I always yearned for was more time in that white room.

FIFA 13

We may not be the most active of blogs but the last couple of weeks have seen a drop in productivity that is poor even by our standards. Apathy, illness, or the loss of use of our fingers is not to blame. Instead you can point the finger squarely at Electronic Arts; FIFA 13 had taken over all our lives.

I’m not an annual subscriber to the FIFA franchise, having a tendency to dip in every three-years or so, and as a result the wealth of updates and features that are on offer when compared to my last foray has astounded me. More so than that though, the gameplay itself feels as good a simulation of the sport as you’re going to get from a joypad. It captures so many of the subtleties, from the mis-controlling your first touch to shooting when off-balance, the tangle and clatter of accidental clashes or the nasty slice of a hurried clearance. By comparison it’s easy to get the beautiful parts of the beautiful game right, but to capture the “off” moments so naturally is a talent.

That may sound a strange but it’s the incidents where you’ve given possession away or swung a peg at completely the wrong moment that help you learn. It’s a very visual and gratifying feedback that helps describe just what you were doing wrong, be it being plain too ambitious or snatching at a chance that wasn’t really there. This definitely isn’t the type of game where a single man can dribble past the entire field and score as so many elements come into play from the defensive jockeying of the opposition, your first touch, the lightness of your touch and so on.

On a basic level you can point the stick in a direction and run but without the awareness of the number of elements likely to do you over, chances are you’ll quickly have handed possession away. Yet knowing this means that when you do carve through the opposition with a through-ball, sprint past the right back, before cutting it back to arriving midfielder who then buries it in the back of the net, is a deeply satisfying experience. Having said that, with my prowess in front of goal I’m happy if it spins in off my shin with a miskick.

Over the years the gauge has always swung back and forth between favouring defence or attack, and I think this year the balance is with the former. As such, unless you’ve Messi at your control, chances are FIFA 13 will be a game of through-balls down the line and patient passing. For one I really enjoy this balance of power. I’m the fool who optionally chooses to be the defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of the back four, and there are a pleasing number of tools on offer to help me relish this roll. Jockeying and shadowing offer far more to those who prefer to defend the onion bag and round out the team nicely.

However, it’s not just the feel of the game that has drawn me in so. The number of ways available to play that game is quite overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms crazy new ways to play football, the sanctity of which remains reverently intact, but in respect to that almost every “what if” my brother and I could have thought of playing ISS ’98 on the N64 over a decade ago has come true.

The most compelling one for me has to be the online club, where you and your friends team up under one banner and take on the world. Taking the lead from the Pro mode, each of you takes a position and then holds that role for the full 90 minutes. At first this may sound like an exercise in futility as everyone flocks, playground-like, too the ball, but given a modicum of common sense and discipline it produces very rewarding results. On the base level there’s the knowledge that you’ve bested another team of humans (always a better feeling than doing the same to AI; you know someone somewhere is ruing your very existence). On another, it’s the moves, the coordination and the runs that could never be accomplished with non-sentient team mates. It can take you back to that time when your work’s 5-a-side team for five-minutes one night played like Brazil. Nothing was planned, no one said anything, but every pass, every flick, every back heel came off. Except digitally and with less chance of opposition getting shirty and hacking down Dave with the dodgy ankles.

Ultimate Team is also an intriguing prospect. In there you collect footballers as though they were Panini stickers to form a team. Starting out with an unnatural number of Australian and Paraguayan second division players, the greater your team does the more opportunity you have of collecting or buying better players until you’re mixing with the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Rather than just relying on the skill of your players however, chemistry also plays a part. Players from similar clubs, countries or leagues are more likely to gel, making the team more than the sum of its parts. It’s a devilishly addictive mechanic that has you gambling on lesser talented players to boost your overall level, sending you down avenues such as scouting for a Hungarian leftback with a tendency for the 5-4-1 formation.

Combine this with online auction houses for players, contracts, healing cards and a whole extra layer of depth, Ultimate Team could have effectively been a complete standalone game. For something that on the face of it could have been nothing but a cash cow for EA, there’s an awful lot to lose yourself in.

With further lovely tie ins such as league tables as to how well your real-life team’s supporters are playing (currently Rotherham sit top of the Premiership thanks to their fans’ gameplay talents), the chance to download current form for teams, weekly challenges, skill games that cleverly coax you through tutorials and many other nuggets tucked away, I will barely want for interesting ways to underperform with Tottenham ever again.

Some stalwarts of the series may be reading this surprised at how enthusiastically I’ve greeted features that have possibly been in place for the last few FIFAs. I know the club has been around before, and the Pro mode, but to me all this is new. Having only dabbled with the decidedly average Vita versions with any real conviction over the last couple of years, the wealth of ways to play and the quality of the gameplay should not be forgotten and taken for granted.

The levels of polish and ease of accessibility to bring in new or returning players and then keep them hooked is a level beyond anything I’ve seen before. There are multiple avenues to get sucked down, about the only question is which one will you succumb to.