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Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The Vita is not short of ways to interact with a game. Microphone, rear camera, front camera, front multi-touch screen, rear multi-touch screen, tilt sensor, accelerometer, twin analogue sticks, Bluetooth, and lest we forget the good old fashion button. You could be forgiven for thinking that hardware designers had decided they were not going to compromise on anything, they wanted it all.

You have to then feel sorry for the first party developers. Those poor souls who, to show off all the various platform’s bells and whistles, are told they have to incorporate all of those particular input methods into a single game. The look on their faces when that particular email surfaced must have been one to behold.

With so many bases to cover, this shoehorning could have become the death knell for any semblance of consistency or flow for Uncharted. Skipping back and forward from touch screen to sticks may well have seemed contrived, but for the vast majority of their inclusions they complement or even enhance the experience.

Despite being shrunk down, the Uncharted formula remains unchanged as Drake continues to roam through Incan jungles and statue-lined caverns, hoping that he’ll strike it rich. As always though he’s also managed to team up with a less than salubrious partner and, to complete the picture, he’s joined by a quick witted female co-star. The setup may be a well worn prospect but it is one that sets up the Saturday afternoon matinee approach that the treasure hunting adventures take and that gives them so much appeal.

Much of the gameplay comes ported as-is from the home console too, with next to nothing left out due to the Vita’s parity with the six-axis. For the first time ever I felt as though I was playing a full action game rather than a stripped down port full of concessions for the portable platform. Our hero can run and gun, jump, swing from ledges and pan the camera as well as if you were sitting on your sofa at home directing him.

In fact, the climbing is probably distinctly improved on the Vita. Operated by analogue stick and buttons it still handles as expected, but I’ve never found the act of climbing in games such as these challenging. Having removed the frustration of pixel perfect jumping a generation ago, adventures now-a-days are more about picking routes and with Golden Abyss you can paint said route on the screen with your finger, Drake following along the path you trace. I found this far more satisfying as his motions were far smoother as he picked his way around the rock face, obeying your commands, whilst you effectively scouted ahead. With extra little details of allowing him to lean with a tilt of the machine, leap to a higher handhold with a flick up, or drop down with the opposite motion made me think that maybe the whole game could be controlled in such a manner.

Boots back on the ground though and it’s a fair bet that this generally means you’re not too far away from being shot at. Sadly, gunplay is once again a disappointment. The feel and flow of a fire fight has never been something that Naughty Dog had managed to nail down and here it again feels floaty and unreliable as the cross hairs meander across the screen. The enemy AI makes the best of the situation though, sticking to cover, poking up in an unpredictable fashion, attempting to make more of the shoot-out, but it is by no means Golden’s Abyss’ strongest suit. The further the adventure progresses the more emphasis is placed on your ability with a gun, which was disappointing. It may help to ratchet up the tension and the settings for some of the situations maybe spectacular but a proportion just felt like padding.

Though most of your time is spent climbing and shooting, the touch controls do offer a host of distractions that act as a series of nice little intervals to the main proceedings. Rubbings must be taken off rocks, vines chopped down to access secret areas, and photographs snapped to chart the journey. In isolation none are anything special, but each add a drop of exploration and discovery to Drake’s trip. Be it uncovering an important symbol from a grave stone or rearranging fragments of paper to create a map, every tiny extra goes to build a more cohesive experience. They allow us to fill in the blanks where previously a cutscene may have been presented.

There are a couple of turkeys in there though, including the traditional balance scenario when edging over gaps on logs, but these for the most part are outweighed by clever uses, such as dragging grenades about to show their arc and using the rear touchpad to zoom snipers and cameras.

A lot of this could be completely ignored by those happy with a stick under one thumb and buttons under the other. It feels and looks as any of the previous Uncharteds have done and so shows off the power of the Vita probably better than any other of the launch line up. Treasure hunting lends itself to stunning vistas and locations and they’re brought out in stunning colour and clarity right in the palm of your hands.

It’s a surprisingly lengthy and faithful addition to the series that continues to see some great performance capture continue to make Nathan Drake into the Indiana Jones of this generation. From navigating cliff faces to unearthing secrets in darkened tombs he leads on an impressive journey. The gunplay may still bring down the overall package, but you ask GTA if that’s ever harmed its success.

Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters

Seeing the “Jane’s” moniker attached to a game has always put me in mind of hardcore simulations, or highly intricate cockpits with more knobs and whistles than the common man knew what to do with. It was a brand that stood it apart from the Ace Combats and Top Guns, but it would appear that in the ten years since last it graced the front of a box this is no longer the case.

Jane’s returns with Advanced Strike Fighters and has thrown away its focus on simulation and has opted for a far more stripped down, arcade style of flying. There’s no trim to adjust or landing gear to raise, here flying is as simple as keeping your bird pointing away from the ground. With very little practise you’ll see yourself ably embodying the ace American pilot “Razor” – sadly you have no choice in this tag – soaring high in the sky, pulling off zero-g turns, before dropping low to the earth and skimming over the hills and plains of war torn Azbaristan.

Quite why a US pilot is in such a position is explained through a token initial news report and mediocre banter between you and the tower. The result, however, is that you’re caught up in the middle of a civil war between the North and South and are flying sorties with the pro-West South. Not wanting to let Uncle Sam down you strap on your helmet, fire up the afterburner and head up into the blue.

One of the issues I’ve always found with combat flying games has been the very limited group of missions that can be pulled from, usually ultimately involving a dog fight somewhere along the way. JASF’s strongest suit is that it manages to continually mix objectives up to prevent such feelings creeping back. From the initial covert starts of having to fly low and take out radar dishes to then ending a mission having to pelt it back to friendly airspace with engines screaming and weapons denied, Evolved Games keep things varied.

Even throughout a single flight you’ll find yourself initially flying low to avoid detection, before having to do fly-bys to collect data on enemy targets, topped off with then having to track and bring down a scout plane that happened upon you. With an enemy army packed full of aircraft carriers, warships, drones, bombers, tanks and supply convoys, throughout the 15-20 mins of each mission goals are happily diverse.

It is then a disappointment that this solid foundation is not built upon. Combat is predictable and perfunctory, if somewhat hampered by a poor and confusing heads-up-display. It’s the usual situation of attempting to wheel trying to get a lock on before launching a spree of missiles to blow your rival out of the sky. Whilst this is of course part and parcel of air combat games, JASF’s experience fluctuates between being overly easy to nigh on impossible.

Given the drop, enemy pilots seem incapable of dodging your ordinance. Their sense of self preservation all but absent, and generally the only way they’ll avoid a fiery death is if you’ve pulled the trigger at an inopportune moment. Conversely, your own evasive action, be it launching counter measures to distract missiles or showing off with some nifty flying, has similar negligible affect. Throughout the multiple hours of the campaign, not at any point did I feel I could competently avoid fire. Warning signs would flash indicating I should deploy counter measures, but despite experimenting at different distances from impact and a variety of suicidal, high-speed turns, I felt it best to put my fate in The Lady rather than my own piloting skills. At least the checkpoints are well placed.

During combat, the screen is scattered with a myriad of indicators pointing to potential targets, friendlies and incoming missiles. Though all is relevant the nature of presentation is poor. A good proportion of your time sees a host of overlaid and mostly unintelligible colour in the centre of your view, whilst at the same time your periphery is dotted with pointers to airborne threats which are rendered too small and too far out to be considered easy to digest. It is such an innocuous aspect but one that has a great impact as you attempt to keep an eye on the fighters behind you at the same moment you line up a strike on a cluster of targets. It’s a symptom that continues throughout, with the plane select screens, camera controls and bombing runs being equally functional but no more.

With Azbaristan liberated and Razor’s spell in this fictional country complete, I walked away feeling very little towards Advanced Strike Fighters. It had provided a cluster of compelling missions that had piqued my interest, but equally it had offered very little in the way of memorable moments when supposedly fighting for my life a mile above terra firma. It felt very much as though I were going through the motions.

Quite how Jane’s became attached to this competent but inspiring project I am not privy to. If it were to try and break out of their more natural sim dominant world, they may wish have stripped it back a little too far.

Journey

It’s not very often I’m moved by a game, but then Journey isn’t like other games. It’s a small but perfectly formed package that during its mere two hours in length takes you through high tension, despair and exhilaration. It runs a gambit of emotions, all from a rather humble beginning.

Crouched on the ground, wrapped in an earthy coloured cape, you sit in quiet contemplation. Stretching out before you is a desert, the sun low in the sky emphasising the dune about you. Not far in front is a rise with a pair of standing stones. A length of fabric attached to them flutters in the breeze. It’s a strong image.

You stand and make your way towards them. As you move the sand shifts beneath your feet and grains flick out behind you. The trudge over the sand is emphasised further as you reach the incline; hunched in the effort of walking up a shifting surface your pace slows. The subtleties are a lovely small touch in a very big visual experience, but they are nothing compared to what waits you as you crest the hill.

From this vantage point the desert seems even larger, with further stones littering the landscape, but in front a small outcrop draws your attention. There are no objective markers or large neon arrows within Journey, curiosity is its primary tool in drawing you forward and at this outcrop one of the your few abilities is revealed. Surrounded by small scraps of cloth flocking like birds, a glowing trinket allows you to jump and soar as though a bird yourself. It’s about the only way you can interact with the world, but it will see you whirl and swirl to new heights.

That talent comes in handy as proceeding onwards you find Journey is made almost exclusively of arenas which stretch off in each dimension and cause you to be no more than a tiny speck. The sense of scale always reminding you that your character is not a hero rampaging through a world but more a pilgrim on a quest. Indeed, the very temple like structures and your crossing of the desert gives proceedings almost religious significance.

Your other ability is that of chirping. Throughout the world lie dormant variants of the cloth birds you found initially. Standing over them, let out a chirp and you’ll reanimate them, sending them fluttering about once more. What this does for you can be anything. Stand close by long enough and all will most likely recharge your limited jump power, some may even rush around you and pull you into the air, and others will trigger large cloth bridges to help you on your way. It’s your way or bringing life back to the world.

For the most part this is the main “game”, assessing how to reach from point A to point B over this vast and beautiful landscape and then setting off to do so. Consideration only needs to be made for making sure you have enough jump when necessary, there’s no time limit or for the most part no threat so to speak of to hurry you on your way. It’s a broad and lush canvas that you’re being asked to traverse.

That in itself is enough of a reason to experience ThatGameCompany’s latest but where the experience takes you is somewhere quite unique. Many, many releases have introduced a buddy or a partner that you’re supposed to care about. Be it the lovelies that Nathan Drake keeps happening upon in deepest, darkest Peru or the voice insider Master Chief’s head, all are there to introduce a dynamic and work as a emotional tool to grant the writers the opportunity to pull you along. Though what if they were real?

Early on, when I was pottering around in the desert, a shape resolved in the distance. I had thought it another small flock of cloth but as it came closer it was another journeyman. The online co-op is seamless and wherever possible the game will gently feed you a companion to share the trip with. Being honest, I waved the first one through; I was too busy poking around the desert to want to continue right then, but at one point I became stuck.

A large wall stood in front of me and I had no idea how to scale it. After a few minutes of puzzlement a chirping came from behind. A new journeyman had happened upon me. Through a series of chirps and tweets he somehow pointed out where I was going wrong, and leapt to the top of the wall. And waited, chirping encouragement. Up I went and upon reaching him, a further chirp. There’s no other way to communicate, you don’t even know the gamertag of your compatriot, yet somehow a chirp is enough to attract the attention or holler out in distress.

And so we continued, surfing down the other side of the huge dune, chirruping back and forth. Our adventure took us over further sand fields, deep underground through lost temples, and up large towers filled with a magical menagerie of cloth creatures. By now we could both soar quite some way and the act of flying or dune surfing in tandem was extremely liberating. Doing so alone is fun, but seeing the other interject the odd jump or twirl, maybe try and slalom in and out of the stone pillars, adds a certain joy that could never be replaced by an AI. You know their actions are spontaneous and knowing that they are probably getting the same kick out of the interaction makes it even better. It’s a simple pleasure but one that truly works, even more so due to the limited means of chat as no abusive teenager is going to break the spell.

Towards the end the tone takes a darker twist, reinforcing the pilgrimage ideal that our journeymen are testing themselves, and it was here that Journey truly touched me. Making our way up a hillside during a heavy storm we crossed from cover to cover in a bid to be shielded both from the winds and a large predator that circled above us. Against the noise of the breaking storm we chirped our moments and then sprinted from stone to stone. But then my friend seemed to panic. He jumped up, chirped and ran into the open far too soon. I let out a long hoot, trying to call him back, but it was too late; the flying beast descended and in a flash of light he was gone.

I stood there, honestly stunned. This man who had helped me so early on, who I had shared most of the journey with was gone. I stood and called out for a while, my character turning blue with the chill. I felt a little lost, alone on the hillside. I sat there hoping he would return but when a shape did emerge from the slopes below I could tell it was not him; his scarf was a different length.

That single incident there was something incredible. An emotional response had come from not the clever scripting of level design or pen of a script write but from the simple connection I had felt with my fellow traveller. There is a tale that runs behind Journey, but that is the facilitator rather than the reason. A focus for the pair of you that sets the scene and indicates the mood.

To now return to talking about things like mechanics and replayability verges on seeming crude, but necessary. Played alone the experience will be one of wonder, but in a similar way to those embracing Child of Eden for the first time. The scenery and fauna will delight, whilst the puzzles that block your way are solved easy enough as long as you let your curiosity take over. But you will be missing a large proportion of the experience.

Open up to online and you’ll find yourself in a completely different world. One where whole conversations take place as though bird calls, and one where you will have someone to share the good times and the bad times of your passage. It is an emotive and beautiful experience.

For me, Journey is the pinnacle of the art of videogames.

I Am Alive

The city is covered is a thick, low cloud of dust. Stumbling through the streets you used to live in, you can barely make out the landmarks that were once so familiar as they loom out of the haze. Broken cars and dilapidated buildings line the roads but a year on from the Event such sights are common and their blurred form numbs what in earlier times would have proved shocking.

A fractured overhead railway sparks memories of a route you took with your daughter in better days and you turn towards it, hoping that sentiment as much as survival instinct will draw the pair of you together again.

Shapes resolve in the gloom and three men walk confidently towards you, appearing as though ghosts. They mean business. The lead man approaches you brandishing a gun; his friends cockily stand back, toying with machetes. He mutters something as he shoves you. The words wash over you as self preservation takes over and you whip out your own blade, downing your agitator before bringing your own firearm out to ward off the other pair. It’s empty, but they don’t know that.

One surrenders almost instantly, throwing his machete to the ground. The other’s still mouthing off but too afraid to try anything. Then he calls your bluff; you’ve brandished it for too long, he knows you’re empty. He charges…

Such is the life in Haventon after the Event. A worldwide apocalyptic occurrence has brought civilisation to its knees and whilst some men choose to try and seek out what they’ve lost, some have turned feral. You play a determined, unnamed soul. Having been out of town when the disaster struck, it’s taken him a year to walk home, hoping that he’ll find his wife and daughter when he finally returns.

Upon reaching his ruined apartment he knows they’ve gone, probably to one of the many survivor camps nearby. What he does stumble across however is some of the town’s nicer denizens, and so he begins to comb the city in a bid to help his new friends and to search for his family.

To do so, Ubisoft have imbued the lead character with the same wall climbing and edge grabbing talents seen in Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia. The city is a wreck and the only guaranteed way to negotiate its debris strewed highways is to go up and over. Using exposed girders, drain pipes and window ledges, new passage ways and areas unseen from ground level reveal themselves.

Yet our man is not like Ezio or the Prince. Being comparatively normal, he only has a certain amount of stamina before the strength in his arms is exhausted and he falls. This introduces an interesting element of strategy when scaling large distances which highlights the fact that you are only human and that you can’t simply take on the city without consequences. Routes must be planned, taking advantage of any tiny ledges en-route that allow you to rest up for the next leg of the climb.

Although should you misjudge and exhaust your stamina, it’s not all over. You’ll be able to dig deep and give a final push by hammering on the right-trigger in an effort to see you the last couple of metres to safety. The screen focuses in and your heart beat will fill the speakers, emphasising the need to get there now otherwise it’s all over. Whilst this provides a get out clause, it does have a long term negative effect as every time you’re forced into that panic your overall stamina capacity is reduced, emphasising the physically draining escapade you just put yourself through. In turn that reduces the distance you’ll be able to climb again and so increases the chance you’ll have to dig deep once more. It’s a nasty cycle but one that can be best avoided by a quick scan of your climb before you being vaulting up the wall and planning.

Any lost capacity can be regained by some of the many foodstuffs that you’ll find round the broken buildings. Soda cans, rat meat and pain killers all to varying degrees patch you up, even if they may taste a little funky. Keeping topped up is highly advisable as both climbs and fights can be devastating to your overall condition. The latter aren’t very common but when they do occur the machete’s cut deep and a single gunshot wound is liable to have you close to death, the screen glaring red at your situation.

Thankfully they are relatively considered affairs, being much more about strategy and a cool head than quick reactions. With only a limited number of bullets ever available – I never had more than four and never knew if or when that would be topped up – you have to prioritise. Take out the others with guns first, and then threaten the blade wielding nutters, hopefully backing them up next to fires and ledges which you can then some what conveniently kick them obligingly into.

It’s all an interesting concept, and a far better idea than mass gun fights in a world where resources are scarce, but at times it does feel a little contrived. From the ability to quickly kill at a button press those who saunter up to you, or the willingness of those you wave empty guns at to back themselves against a gaping hole in the ground, it breaks the illusion of surviving in a desolate future and instead reminds you that it’s a game with hard and fast rules.

Away from the skirmishes, I Am Alive manages to capture a wonderful atmosphere. At street level the world is cloaked in thick fog, producing a necessity for navigation by map but also a wonderful sense of exploration as you pick through the ruins hoping for either hidden survivor hidey holes or some water you can stash for later. Climb up through the fog onto a roof top and you’re presented with a very different scene; the sun shines down on a crisp, grey landscape and as you gaze around you bear witness to toppled skyscrapers, ruined train lines and camps dotting the rooftops. Producing two seemingly separate worlds just feet away from each other is impressive.

Even more impressive when you find yourself scaling the outside of an office block, or working your way through a residential block that’s fallen over where the walls have now become its fall. Your journey through the six hour campaign takes you through much of the city’s undergrounds and sights. Indeed it was this exploration that warmed me to I Am Alive most. Though nowhere near the scope of Fallout 3, Haventon provided enough secrets and side quests to make you want to explore the side alleys and lend others a hand just to hear more of what happened to your home town.

Though it may have changed hands and tact during its development, what emerged, blinking into the daylight is an atmospheric piece that tries to immerse the player in a bleak world but one where there is still hope. Large periods can be spent alone, wandering through the dust clouds or clambering through structures, to the point that when you do meet someone it’s almost a treat. As long as they’re not brandishing arms, they’ll give you a snippet of their story and you move on, putting me very much in mind of The Walking Dead.

In atmosphere it may prove itself but in story and gameplay it proves a little clunky and by-the-numbers. The inability to swap weapons or even leap gaps without fighting the controls hampered my enjoyment and with each you could possibly point the finger back to its troubled development. As such, I Am Alive is full of potential and ambition, not all of which is fully realised.

Catherine

Never has my wife watched the television with such a fixed look of concentration. There am I, Vincent, sitting in a confessional booth with nothing but a pair of ram’s horns, a white pillow and my boxers to cover my modesty, and in front of me floats a question. She’s awaiting my response.

“Does life begin or end at marriage?”

The answer is never in doubt, but the attention that is being paid to me – silent, unobtrusive, and yet with a force comparable only with that of a Tyrannosaur’s bite – you can’t but help feel judged. Internally the game is making a note, nodding its head in appreciation of your response but giving you no indication as to whether you gave the “right” answer. My wife knows what the correct answer is and is pleased I have chosen it; Catherine, however… well… Catherine’s different.

Catherine touches upon issues usually only reserved for more established forms of media. Whereas most Western Top 10 releases explore love and relationships with no more subtlety than a cheeky a fumble to a slap bass soundtrack or the promise of a plumber receiving some cake, Atlus’s Persona Team have turned their attention away from teen-angst and RPGs and produced an experience composed of very disparate parts that marry together as an exploration into a young man’s mind. It is quite frankly unique.

Our tale begins with Vincent, said man and in his early 30s. He lives alone and is involved in a long term relationship with the lovely Katherine. With a K. Between the responsibilities of his new job and hints of marriage, he’s under pressure. With no wild ambitions in either professional or personal life, it’s getting in the way of his drinking time with his buddies and the only way he knows how to solve it is to ignore it and carry on doing what he does.

On our first night with Vincent he drinks a little too much and ends up in bed with an attractive young lady name Catherine. With a C. He can’t believe it, horrified at what he’s done and unsure how it came about. From that moment we witness the daily panic of him trying to straighten things out between him and Katherine, and guide him through his guilt-induced nightmares.

These nightmares present themselves as block puzzles and form the main bulk of the action. Each sees Vincent start at the bottom of a vast column of movable cubes which he must scale and reach the peak of if he wishes to wake up again. As long as he has enough space to manoeuvre, blocks can be pulled and pushed about freely allowing him to form a variety of staircases and platforms for him to exploit. With certain rules, such as the limitation of only being able to scale a single block at a time or his talent of hanging from edges as though a semi-naked Ezio, the levels can at first seem daunting though early nightmares are as much about learning the ropes as setting the scene.

Still, as the subconscious feels more addled by guilt, difficulty increases. Standing before a sheer rock face can lead to you feeling that you’ve struck upon a devilishly difficult puzzler. Yet with a little guidance, developing a few “techniques” that can produce stairways from nothing; during the night, between stages, you’ll run into other men ready to offer advice on how to become a better climber. Though they resemble farm animals, their tips are sound and should be heeded if you are ever to see daylight again. Impenetrable walls suddenly become a climbing frame that can be deciphered by instinct alone and veritably scamper up.

With such torturous dreams Vincent returns night after night to the bar, conveniently named The Stray Sheep, to seek solace in beer. A home from home it offers a fine opportunity for you to mix and chat with your friends and the other regulars, some of whom even share a passing resemble to the sheep you meet each night. Away from the rigours of climbing blocks, this is where Vincent can try and make sense of what is going on.

Your time spent there is more than just a respite from the brain teasers however. Talking to those about you begins to reveal possible clues as to why too they are troubled by the dreams and after a while you start to feel attached to those sharing your fate. It’s a welcome sight to see a fellow climber and pulling up a seat next to them at the bar – though they may not recognise you from the dreams in return – allows you to find out more about them and offer a chance to reassure them for the night ahead.

Both Katerine and Catherine know you hang out there however, and so expect the odd visit or phone call to see how you are. The pair combined don’t make life easy and how you handle the situation, reassuring one whilst pushing the other away, will be judged. Each message sent has connotations; every white lie is noted, sending something resembling a karma-meter swinging back and forth with your responses.

All this feeds into the final aspect of Catherine. Everything is brought together wonderfully by a series of professionally produced manga shorts and slick in-engine cutscenes telling the tale. Close shaves as the two love rivals almost meet, awkward morning conversations, and even simple reflective walks in the rain all flesh out the story to be so much more than a compelling puzzle game wrapped in a thin veneer. The story is everything. It even delicately changes depending on your choices, painting Vincent in the light you have subliminally selected.

Soon you realise that the nightly torment that Vincent suffers under, scaling the blocks, is more than it seems. It’s a metaphor for his struggle, whilst his attitude in tackling it doubles as how hard he fights to save his relationship with Katherine. How subtle you find that is subjective but as one part of a greater whole it’s clever.

As the nightmares continue so does the fiendish nature of the puzzles. Blocks made of ice, packed with explosives and those that crumble under foot are all introduced to at layers of complexity that at times created pad-throwing frustration. Yet all the time a series of simple rules reduce the trickiest layout into a level that is easily conquered by those with a cool head and ability to focus on the task in hand. However, the incentive to continue the tale is reason alone to refuse to quit.

The word “mature” may be thrown about to describe many a grisly or bloody 18-rated game, but so rarely does such a game deserve it. Catherine is a rare treat, showing that there are more to videogames than space marines and fast cars. Through an interesting premise and a balance use of humour, it explores themes of infidelity, a young man’s concern of losing the supposed freedom of youth, and facing the responsibilities of being in a serious relationship. Some of the trapping by which it does so may seem strange but even ignoring all of that there is a very fine puzzler tucked away within.

You might destroy the odd pad on the way up, but it’s worth it.

Quarrel

If there’s ever a game that will illicit cries of “cheat!” from the opponent it’s a turn-based word game. Accusations of guessing or blindly stumbling over a word are abound, and if you’re playing apart, separated by the tubes of the Internet, then there’s always that suspicion that certain apps or anagrams sites have been called in to reinforce their knowledge of the English language. It’s a murky world where you can and should trust no-one. Just ask my brother about the word “oolite”, and you’ll see what I mean.

Quarrel, therefore, is aptly named. Another word based, argument inducer, it comes to XBLA after a successful debut on the iPhone. In it players are handed a series of nine tiles, each with a letter with a corresponding number of points attached to it, and are asked to make the most valuable word possible. Length is not always best, however, with quality beating quantity as “sounder” can easily be trumped by “qi”, given the esteem that ‘q’ is held in.

High scores and quick fingers mean more than just points on the board though, as Quarrel is as much about warfare as it is word play. Each word battle takes place over the territories of an island, with the winner claiming new land or successfully staving off unwanted advances. You start off by being given a random smattering of land, each with a number of cheery natives, the number of which is crucial because they represent the number of tiles you will have at your disposal when the fighting begins. Should a player with seven villagers attempt to invade a neighbour with only five then that puts the invader at a distinct advantage, being able to pick more letters and long words. It’s not an assured victory, should the defender spring a doozy like “proxy” then anything is possible, but the extra tiles do tip victory in his favour.

And so the strategy begins. Victory means all but one of your conquering horde then move into the captured territory, free to attack again in a pique of word savagery. Rampage too far however and you’ll leave a string of solitary defenders ripe for being picked off on the counterattack.

It’s a delightfully simple premise given an extra twist by the inclusion of a Risk-style boardgame and limiting the length of the words that players can produce. Given a straight anagram then it will always be those who can decipher the jumble first who would claim victory, but the extra layers are a fine equaliser. With reinforcements after each round, cautious players can build up a large number of villagers before marching into battle, whilst the more gung-ho or confident wordsmiths can seize an early advantage and hope the tiles favour them and their small strike team. It’s a very satisfying experience knowing that you and your four tiles have outwitted a seven letter word on the opposite side.

In the basic mode, play continues until one side dominates the map, turning each block to the colour of their banner on the way. In the early “campaign” this is all but a cake walk, and even when outnumbered by your opponent’s tiles you barely have to worry. Despite faced with relatively simple words worth large points they’ll still reveal vastly shortened attempts, causing you to win almost by default. Conversely the latter matches in the same campaign verge on being an exercise in futility, so quick and accurate are they with their choice. A moderate middle ground can be found on the way to the top, and further distractions can be found with the Quarrel challenges. Long words, winning streaks and alike are all laid down for you to achieve, although the base mechanics remain the same.

Online is possibly where the fairest challenges lies, pitted against likeminded humans. Here at least it feels more of an even keel, knowing that the chap at the other end of the connection is only limited by the grey stuff between his ears and the speed at which he can enter the solutions pumped out by his anagram solving app sat by his side. Those matchups that do appear to be genuine however manage to show off the finery of Quarrel’s core concept; victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat as one or the other of you goes blank for a round, and whole matches can be turned with moments of clarity over the mess of letters in front of you.

Happily the presentation is sweet enough to make light of all such conflict. With a world full of bright, primary colours, depicting toy castles, lush forests and coastlines with blue seas stretching away from their shores. The tiny Quarrellers themselves are a cheery sort, made up of Vikings, aliens and robots. They bleet and ba along in tones of joy and despair, echoing your own success as they stand their holding your letters above their heads like pastiches of ring girls from boxing.

Yet there are times when I feel there is too much heaped on the presentation of proceedings. As endearing as it may be the first dozen times, with the dramatic reveal of each side’s chosen word and the subsequent scuffle and take over, long matches can feel overly so as there is no way to quickly skip through this fluff. The effect is more prominent should you be involved in a three- or four-player game where you may be sat on the side-lines for a considerable period of time, though you too can guess at the anagrams whilst rivals duke it out.

In an era when everything is heading to the digital platform, I find it intriguing that I consider that I would probably enjoy Quarrel more as a board game (which is indeed where its roots lie). The understandable lack of a local multiplayer option, the odd word filter that Microsoft applies online, and the periods of inactivity when playing with three or more players leaves me longing to have that physical connection playing with others in the same room affords.

Everything about Quarrel is wonderful fun, from the main themes to the ways battles can swing back and forth even within a single round. Nonetheless, as good as it is, the niggles leave a slight tarnish to an otherwise oolite solid puzzler.

Skylanders

Many years ago, back when I worked for a certain giraffe-fronted toy shop, I could name you all 151 Pokemon. On a good day, in order. That was at the height of Pikachu’s success as every aisle seemed to contain bikes, cards, balls and plushies dedicated to the tubby, electric rat. There was so much tat that I once said in jest “the only thing they’re missing is being able to drop your actual toys into the game.”

Fast forward to the modern day and I like to think that somehow Activision were listening. That butterfly of a comment has flapped it wings across time and space and created Skylanders. Though probably not the “storm” that Edward Lorenz had envisioned, Nintendo must surely be looking at the concept and be kicking themselves.

No matter the platform, each version of the game comes with a portal: a glowing pedestal of plastic that hooks up to your console. Place a plastic Spyro on this dais and it will smoulder purple, throbbing as the elemental forces run through it, before ultimately summoning the well known dragon into your game, ableto run free and spit fireballs. Fancy a change? Maybe a water Skylander? Then simply depose Spyro from his lofty position and pop your Gil Grunt figurine there instead. Lo and behold there he appears on your telly, harpoon and all.

There may not be anything magical about the ability to scan the chip hidden within each character’s base and nothing that an old fashion menu couldn’t replicate, but the tactile nature of the experience is strangely compelling. Sat playing, with your portal lit up by your side and flanked by a team of Skylanders, there’s more than a touch of sport to it. It is as though you are the manager of a fantastical mixed martial arts group, throwing one after another into the ring when conditions dictate. It’s a scene to which punching the pause button and scrolling reams of text to substitute in a more suitable combatant compares poorly.

Technology aside, the game itself is surprisingly a dungeon crawler. Spyro’s home has been devastated by an evil Portal Master known as Kaos. The only means of stopping him is by travelling the floating isles that make up Skyland and bringing together the mystical components that form the legendary Core of Light and turning it on Kaos.

Each part of the Core lies at the end of a fair sized level that’s filled with Kaos’ minions and traps, forcing your merry band of toys to fight and claw their way through to their treasure. Given Spyro’s platforming roots it is a little surprising that his new adventures have moved in the direction of an isometric adventure – that could in a certain light be mistaken for a children’s version of Torchlight – but his transition is nothing if not solid with an ample helping of combat, XP and loot.

Each Skylander starts out with two basic attacks, typically one short- and one long-range. As enemy imps, warlocks and monsters are defeated, these can be upgraded and improved by a mix of levelling up and purchasing extra talents. Water-based Gil Grunt may start with a small harpoon and a water pistol, but by the time he has reached level 10 his pistol is now a high pressured, limitless fire hose that sprays exploding star fish, whereas his harpoon is now the size of an ocean liner’s anchor.

Bonuses are awarded for using specific types of Skylanders in certain regions, handing them combat boosts. Through these shifts the game persuades you to continually rotate the character in play and at the same time see just how varied each of the thirty-plus Skylanders are. There are rock elementals that place down prisms before firing lasers through them; undead mages calling down magical air strikes; and stealthy elves which turn invisible before revealing themselves for a fatal stab with their blades. The nature and variety on offer is sure to tend players to use some Skylanders over others, and also brings to life a personality in combat that the comparatively static likes of Pokemon has been lacking for some time.

Disappointingly most of the dungeon’s inhabitants possess very little to bother a capable or even moderately levelled hero. Though this could be explained away by the game’s focus on younger players, there are few adversaries that can’t be defeated by sheer brute force. Even when the odd exception to this rule does crop up, attrition is still likely to win out eventually.

Thankfully there are areas tucked away that prove a worthy test. With every Skylander comes a challenge level, there to unlock bonus skills and provide a sneaky way to grind XP. From timed dungeon runs through to taking on vast numbers of foes, it all feels as though Activision knew what they were doing and hid this grownup, testing treat away to one side. Like the After Eight mints your mother bought but hid on that shelf just out of reach. Even the faux Mortal Kombat voiceover speaks that it was surely targeted as an arcade addition to an otherwise lengthy yet straightforward campaign.

Multiplayer options extend play a little further, too. Co-op is available throughout whilst a few throwaway battle arenas hide in the opening menu, including a very novel take on American Football that could never be accused of taking itself seriously. Spike pits and bounce pads turn it into a frenetic few minutes as players chase the ball, each other and, at times, shadows, in a bid to score more touchdowns than their rival.

Whether you dig deep enough to find and dabble with many of these extras however will come down to whether or not you have bought into the concept of Skylanders. On one level it’s a competent if not exceptional dungeon crawler for kids that sees much of its content locked out unless you purchase physical DLC (i.e. extra Skylanders). The lands are well realised, combat fun and the characters interesting but at times it all feels fairly generic.

Conversely, the very physical nature of the roster of heroes you take with you on a journey can be a strangely powerful draw. Personalise your Skylanders with their own unique name and a natty hat and all of sudden that is your own exclusive and exceptional elf or dragon. Capable of being transferred across platforms, from 3DS to Xbox and back again, you raise them to be a force to be reckoned with.

It tugs at the completionist within you, offering you a feast of challenges, collectible figures and hidden treasures that the nagging voice inside your head won’t let you ignore. The only way to appease it is to catch ‘em all.

Mario Kart 7

In an age of cloud saves, drop-in-drop-out co-op, Xbox Live and Steam, to be amazed that a game simply handles online match-ups competently is definitely an oddity. Ever since I first hit Quick Match eight years ago on Moto GP II on the original Xbox I have been used to an online experience that doesn’t require me to juggle IP addresses to get online. In this always-on era, a button is the only thing separating you from a world of opponents.

Usually, anyway. Nintendo have always been the exception with a mixture of per-game friend codes and DS dongles that has painted a picture of a company that refused to move with the times. Every step in the right direction feels more a begrudging need to tick a box than give their patient customers what they’ve been waiting for.

The less-than-catchy Mario Kart 7, however, could be the turning point. Sign in to the Nintendo Network and a literal world of challenge and competition await you in a way I previously thought could never exist on a Nintendo platform. There’s support for friends and recently met players, options to create your own clans, and even hoppers catering for some much specialised race parameters.

All are laid out simply and pretend to be yet another game mode, breaking down any preconceptions or barriers that could linger about facing others online. Get through to your preferred race option and there you sit on a starting grid with a septet of racers from around the globe. As a further pleasing touch, should you join mid-race there’s no static menu screen waiting for the current race to run its course; you’re provided with a track side seat to watch the current race and see just who you’re up against.

And it is as such a spectator that I pinned down just why I felt so strongly for this multiplayer update: these are real people you’re racing against. You’ve no predetermined rival selected at random by the AI, each racer has their talents and foibles that will make each outing unique and usually lead to a far harder fought contest. Each cc level has its place, but taking on a series of programming routines is no replacement for taking down your fellow man.

Underpinning the experience is still the classic Mario Kart styling that has prevailed ever since the SNES. Eight racers boost and slide their way round a variety of Mario-inspired race courses, firing off power-ups at each other with gay abandon. The traditional roster of projectile shells, boosting mushrooms and invisibility-granting stars have been topped up with a trio of new additions: the Tanooki suit, Fire Flower and the mysterious Lucky Seven.

As with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, the Tanooki suit pops a racoon tail onto your racer. Sadly, unlike the plumber’s platforming outing, no flight powers are granted here; rather the tail whips around the kart deflecting incoming items and upturning other racers. The Fire Flower is more straightforward, allowing a stream of flaming balls to be hurled, whereas Lucky Seven simply hands you a bag of seven power-ups. Needless to say, the latter is usually only seen when lurking around the back of the grid given the armoury it suddenly deposits. The three fit well into the existing collection of power-ups, adding some extra restrained variety whilst not feeling overpowered.

The 16 brand new tracks also feel right at home, too. Some riff off of known environments, such as Bowser’s castle, Mario Circuit and DK’s jungle, but all are well put together with sweeping curves that will endear themselves to long-standing karters. The more surprising inclusion is that of Wuhu Island, the location for both Wii Sports Resort and the 3DS’ Pilot Wings. Almost becoming a Nintendo icon in its own right, the island foregoes laps and instead hands two very compelling point-to-point races that takes you up, round and through its heartlands.

The original tracks are all very strong and 7’s repertoire is reinforced by a further 16 classic tracks pulled from all six previous releases. From Mario Circuit 2 on the SNES through to the more recent Koopa Cape on the Wii, all of Mario’s racing history is on show here. There are very few duds on the roster; still, your feelings for each will no doubt be as based on nostalgia as much as anything else. I’ve been a stickler for the SNES and handheld Mario Karts, considering recent console releases to not reach the high standards previously set, and so always frown when a GameCube course appears.

These are no straight imports, either. Each has track has been given a large amount of spit and polish and brought up to modern standards. For the early SNES levels this includes real jumps, proper 3D and, in the case of Rainbow Road, shock waves from the impacting Thwomps. All updates successfully keep their nostalgic value intact, whilst also feeling part of the modern whole. So much so that even the new glider and submariner features of your kart fit seamlessly.

Rather than plonk into the sea when taking too wide a line on Koopa Beach, underwater you’ll go, a propeller emerging from the back of your ride as forcing you on through the water. Similarly take a jump that throws you high into the sky and a glider or parachute will pop out from the chassis and allow you control over your decent. Especially with the glider, the extra dimension that this can hand to racing is splendid. Launch yourself into the blue and its all about how skilfully you can control your flight, whether you should for go a long, steady glide to cut a series of s-bends or plant yourself quickly back on terra firma and pocket the speed boost that your rapid descent will bring. Even more remarkable however is that it seamlessly fits into the racing experience, at once becoming a part of the Mario Kart framework. Seeing a host of racers take to the skies and start bustling for position or launching shell mid-air is a lovely sight, and the verticality granted to the new tracks is a great addition.

At the end of it all, however, I return online. I plundered the single-player experience to unlock as many tracks and drivers as I could but now, should time allow, I leave the CPU controlled automatons to one side and head to where I know everyone who beats me is a real person and not a preset rubber-banding drone. Even online you can still collect coins to unlock further vehicle upgrades so you’re still progressing personally, my only wish is that you could have done the same with the tracks too.

With communities set up for friends with specific race conditions, or the prospect of a crazy bomb-only race with randoms, Nintendo has finally relented and allowed players the freedom and ease to experience one of the finest racing games online. Some may say that it’s about time, although I would hasten to add that some things are worth waiting for.

Batman: Arkham City

I find it very rare that a game immediately grabs you. Quite often there will be a meandering introduction or a series of subtle tutorials that slowly ushers in the main event, allowing you time to find your feet as the excitement builds. Arkham City doesn’t fit this mould. Not wasting any time, it throws you – as Bruce Wayne – into a street fight and barely pauses for breath before letting you loose in the sprawling streets on the bleaker side of Gotham.

Having not previously dabbled with Batman: Arkham Asylum, quite why Mr Wayne (not Batman) was being dragged into a walled off portion of the city reserved for the criminal classes escaped me. It mattered little though as when the fists started flying I began to see why Rocksteady had made a stir and had brought the best out of the Dark Knight.

A goal of many developers has been to produce flowing and involving combat without requiring the user to have the dexterity of a contortionist octopus about the joypad. Fable and Bayonetta in some respect have managed this, reducing fighting down to a small number of buttons and their timing, but the fluidity and sheer elegance involved in Batman’s brawling puts all others to shame.

At the core there are but two buttons, attack and counter, and they can be used to devastating effect. Wait for a goon to swing at you, easily spotted by the warning icon, and a well timed counter will see him not only miss but find himself on the wrong end of one of your own attacks. With the momentum behind him, Batman can then wheel off a string of well timed kicks, strikes and elbows that sees a dozen-strong mob reduced to unconsciousness; it verges on rhythm-action, such is the timing.

The spectacle comes from not simply downing these hoodlums, but from the supreme smoothness in which the fight unfolds. Every attack, be it Batman’s or the crowd he takes on, blends seamlessly from one to the next. From a devastating uppercut in front, Batman will then lash out behind sending a pipe-wielding thug reeling, before countering two more, clothes-lining the pair before ramming their heads forcibly into the pavement. There are no animation glitches or pops as the players in our theatre of pain take their places, it is a veritable adaptive ballet of violence.

As our hero progresses through Arkham, the fights become harder as more nefarious opponents are found. Guns, riot shields and electric prods are all introduced to prevent brawls from becoming a simple exercise in button mashing. With Batman still only a mortal man underneath his suit, gunmen need to be sought out and taken down immediately, whereas those with shields and prods require attacking from their weaker rear. Mix in knife wielders and informants that need to be left unharmed and each melee proves to be as much about tactical smarts as it does brawn. It’s a clever technique, adapting difficulty by tweaking ingredients here and there.

Though street brawls do play their part in Arkham City, they are but one segment of the whole. The City itself provides a large playground for our hero to roam, full of collectibles, side missions and hidden extras for all good detectives to seek out. Grapple up to rooftops and that is where you’ll find most freedom, leaping off a parapet before spreading your cloak allows you to glide across large expanses before either grappling up mid-flight or descending on the unlucky scum below.

It’s a different degree of freedom than that found in Crackdown or Assassin’s Creed. Batman lacks the athleticism for parkour, but what he lacks in nimbleness he more than makes up for in gadgetry. Grapples, capes, line launchers, smoke pellets and more mean that he can as easily make a swift getaway over the roof as he can spy on a situation from a tightrope strung between two water towers.

Most of these gadgets are straight from Batman’s prior experience in the Asylum and are available from the off – another reason why the game starts with such momentum. Others are unlocked as the story progresses, opening up further options to the caped crusader, such as new ways to reach previously unreachable nooks or ever more elaborate ways to crush the wrong doers. Ice grenades seal up path-blocking steam pipes or freeze enemies to the spot, whilst an electric pulse weapon is handy to operate large electromagnets to clear objects out the way or attract irritating guns away from their owner’s grip. Very rarely are you forced to use a specific weapon on a specific target and so the offensive repertoire that soon builds up only ever adds to your options.

Given the open nature of the world, there are times when this gadget progression is irritating however. A trophy or similar bauble sits tantalisingly out of reach and yet you do not know whether it is because you have not found the right approach or simply do not have access to the correct tools. I found myself putting off full exploration until later on when my inventory was full, though that didn’t stop the odd deviation from the main story to save innocent “political prisoners”, take phone calls from the deranged inmates, or solve one of Riddler’s many puzzles. Though many are an excuse for a brief rooftop race or another round of fisticuffs, each sits well with Batman’s world and further flesh out the hive of villainy that is Arkham City.

The main tale takes in a solid story arc, but on occasion proves incredibly lacklustre in terms of execution, preferring instead to be an excuse to include as many of Batman’s nemeses as possible. Two-face, Penguin, Riddler, Joker, Mr Freeze… the list goes on to the point where it’s best to ignore the wafer thin reasoning to your movements and just enjoy the ride from lair to lair. Many conclude with satisfying boss battles as one-by-one the larger (quite literally) names in DC’s universe are dealt your own brand of justice, but of particular note the almost Splinter Cell-esque rooms that lead to each finale.

With no roof tops to flee to and certain death waiting should you drop down into a room full of armed men, your environment and wits are to be used well if Batman is to triumph in these arenas. Letting off a fire extinguisher here or using the sonic batarang there will distract guards enough to allow one or two to be picked off before disappearing into the rafters, but with the others spooked it’s all about patience and positioning. Grates can be hidden in, walls burst through and gargoyles descended from as you beat them down physically and psychologically.

The contrast in pace is what really distinguishes Rocksteady’s talents here, being able – with the same character – to produce rooms full of slow building tension and seconds later a street teeming with a gang getting their backsides handed to them by Gotham’s protector.

Batman: Arkham City maybe more than just a violent action game, with notable portions of exploration and detective work, but the rush I felt from beginning to end being smack bang in the middle of a group of masked thugs is what I will remember most. Whether it was stringing one up by their ankles to a gargoyle or pulling off a double-reversal when escaping a blow looked near impossible, I felt as though I was given the best chance I’m ever going to get to feel like a superhero.

Like Batman.

I’m Batman.

Artemis | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I am weary of typing these words. Each syllable is a confession to the nerd that lives inside me; the nerd that shies away from the everyday world – and not just due to the brightness of that fiery ball in the sky. This tale is one of sinking deep into a special world, one that I thankfully returned from but where others are lost forever.

Yet I sense I am amongst friends and so feel comfortable sharing the events that unfolded last Friday; although I may still omit my dalliance with the rubber ears.

Artemis is a bridge simulator. Not the kind that involves spanning rivers or load bearing beams, but more the Star Trek variety. Artemis grants you control of a space ship and sets you on a journey across the galaxy as you explore nebulae, service remote space stations and fight off those who seek to do harm to man’s deep space interests.

Unlike more traditional space games such as Elite or the recent Star Trek Online, Artemis offers a twist on proceedings. Rather than fly solo, you need friends to help you pilot the ship; across a local network each crewmember’s PC is turned into the workstation of a bridge officer. Taking their post, each will assume control over Comms, Engineering, Weapons, Science and the Helm, and together you will split infinitives where no man has split before.

Each station’s role is unique and crucial to the successful completion of the mission. Helm naturally is charged with manoeuvres, whilst Science and Weapons assess the local tactical situation and shoot torpedoes at it respectively. With their fingers in their ears listening to the many broadcasts that are zipping around the blackness, Comms are your route to communicate with the wider universe, whereas Engineering is tasked with balancing the power requirements of the other four stations equipment. Each station is an extremely focused element of a larger whole, containing a very concentrated but well laid out interface allowing each bridge officer to have everything they need to perform their duties at their finger tips.

However, each role is completely isolated from one another: Engineering has no concept where Helm is steering, with Weapons similarly unaware of what Science’s scans are showing. What ties all stations together is the Captain. He has no direct controls of his own, instead he is granted a tactical view that allows him an overview of proceedings and a method by which to orchestrate his crew. He can call up views from his officers, take in the crew’s reports, issue commands and generally leave his hands completely free for the cup of tea his rank grants him.

This unique concept wholly relies on cooperation between all parties. There are no individual winners here and so the linchpin is the Captain. They must ascertain the mission and any relevant information from each station before issuing a series of orders that could either send the ship into a dust cloud in the name of exploration or put them all on a series of evasive manoeuvres that will save their necks.

Simple descriptions do not do justice to what is possible here, in the very same way that telling someone to “just strum that and press that” cannot relay the magic of Rock Band. Though not quite on that level, the element of team play is a strongly compelling and the facet that makes Artemis stronger than the sum of its parts. With a good group of friends and the right setup, kitchens can turn into voyages into deep space where all eyes turn to the Captain’s main display to see whether that last gasp salvo of laser fire was enough to turn the boarders away.

In any game like this, combat is all the most thrilling part, and the one where all stations come together, shouting out reports as repair crews are dispatched throughout the ship and Comms hastily negotiates with the brigands abroad. With the right Captain and attitude the tension and, dare I say, role playing is easy to escalate and seduce players in to otherwise quite a rudimentary game.

Away from the thrill of outflanking, the imbalance of certain stations becomes all too obvious. Helm is always guaranteed to be called into action but all others can find themselves with moderately barren spells as the ship slips from encounter to encounter. Engineering can quite happily keep itself busy twiddling dials and pushing coolants to the engines even without the instruction of a superior, but if there’s nothing to shoot or talk to then Weapons and Comms can at times feel like makeweights.

With a very adaptable setup though, content to fill the universe with space stations and baddies, it is possible to address these concerns should a team wish to persevere. Missions also vary to a degree, and with the ability to play community created storylines there is definite extensibility.

Of course, it could have all the bells and whistles on it that you could ask for but the limitations of it being a.) a Star Trek simulator and b.) requiring a LAN to reap most from it are bound to fell many’s interest. Artemis however is a great alternative, even palette cleanser, for LAN parties that are so often stocked with shooters and RTSs. It may not rival Battlefield when it comes to looks or gameplay, but I can guarantee that the actual experience of successfully manning a spaceship with those you’re normally used to fragging is something you will not find anywhere else.

7 /10