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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Green Day Rock Band – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

This, in all honesty, could be one of the shortest reviews we’ve ever done. Do you like Rock Band? Do you like Green Day? Yes? Then Green Day Rock Band should be right up your street.

7 /10

Still here?

Shaped around the same template as The Beatles Rock Band, Green Day Rock Band attempts to cover the band’s rise to stardom, from playing house parties in California to their now world renowned tours, spanning some twenty years of pop-punk. Compared to The Beatles, however, the locations depicting the rise of Green Day are less well defined. There’s no equivalent to the iconic Ed Sulivan show, and instead there’s a mid-90s generic Warehouse representing their humble beginnings; a jump of a decade to their first stadium show at The National Bowl, Milton Keynes; and finally the Fox Theatre, Oakland.

Backgrounds aren’t the reason people play Rock Band, though. It’s by its music catalogue which it lives or dies, and GDRB is no exception. There are 47 tracks including the complete Dookie, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown (albeit through a slight DLC top-up) albums, along with a smattering of more well known tracks from Warning, Nimrod and Insomniac. It’s not a complete discography by any stretch – my wife would like to know what happened to Pop Rocks and Coke – but it more than shows the band’s musical progression from masturbation to political activists.

Throughout it all you get to experience the manic crashings of Tre Cool, the chord heavy strumming of Billie Joe and the long walking bass lines of Dirnt, each brought to life with stylised models and animations capturing their on-stage essence down to a T. Their parts, too, are, as always with Harmonix, brought over with a talent that’s second to none, with every track’s master copy raided to give ultimate authenticity.

An extra incentive for fans are the unlockables. As you strum, pluck, hit and warble your way through their back catalogue, rewards and challenges are unlocked. The rewards include a collection of photos, videos and performances from the band at various stages of their career, whilst the challenges add extra life to a game that could easily be polished off within a handful of hours.

Although accomplished in its presentation, the lack of depiction of Green Day’s “middle period” between Dookie and American Idiot leaves us seeing not so much an evolution of the band as a fast forward. Whereas Beatles Rock Band took you on a journey, Green Day’s package seems more reminiscent of a well produced track pack. Understandably a game based on a group with the prowess of the Fab Four is going to have more time lavished upon it than anyone else, but with the benchmark set so high it’s almost disappointing when the follow-up is only very good instead of great.

That aside: do you like Rock Band? Do you like Green Day? Yes? Then Green Day Rock Band should be right up your street.

7 /10

Emergency Budget

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Well, it was inevitable, wasn’t it. In their Emergency Budget on Tuesday, the coalition Government scrapped plans for tax relief aimed at the video games sector. Despite the vast amount of lobbying carried out by TIGA, who delivered a petition on the matter to Number 10 only the day before, and ELSPA, the economic climate was deemed in too poor a condition to support such measures. Indeed, with many governmental departments facing budget cuts of a quarter and the benefits system taking a pounding it would have been a hard one to justify to the general public.

Rather than give support to specific sectors, the Chancellor opted for a broader approach; from next year Corporation Tax will be cut to 27%, with a further 1% cut in each of the following three years. Speaking on TIGA’s website, their CEO called this “welcome, but does not address the specific needs of the video game sector”.

Wilson also went on to say that “the UK video games industry is export oriented, high tech, highly skilled and low carbon in output. This is an industry of the future which the Government should be supporting with action, not words.” Further warning of the possibilities of job losses and brain drain to foreign markets.

Some may feel let down by the various policies issued by all three of the main parties leading up the General Election, but I think at such a time all such promises should be taking with a hefty grain of salt. Given the state of the economy, Labour were seemingly writing blank cheques to win over voters, and as you’d expect the other parties were trying to say exactly what you’d want to hear just to grab your vote.

I may be cynical, but I also like to think I’m a realist. The passion with which MPs of all colours have spoken about the industry should show everyone that video games do have support from within the House of Commons, however this is just not the right time to throw radical support behind us. At a time when benefits focusing on housing and children are being slashed, I see it being nigh on impossible for the mainstream press to react positively to such a move. Labour and the SNP have already thrown weight behind a further TIGA campaign to achieve tax relief, meaning the issue is far from dead, and, most interesting of all, it has been confirmed that Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey will be appearing at the Develop conference in July. Stay tuned for that keynote.

Alpha Protocol – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

With pedigree comes a level of expectation. When the people behind Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights 2 decide to produce a RPG based on a completely new IP, people sit up and pay attention. Such titles are written into the very fabric of videogames and Obsidian have proven themselves more than adept at creating huge worlds filled with deep history, and more importantly filling them with tales to captivate their audience. Alpha Protocol, however, is somewhat of a departure from the post-apocalyptic and fantasy landscape the studio is usually associated with.

Deep in the bowels of an unspecified location, Agent Michael Thornton awakes in a medical bay. He is the fresh young recruit in contemporary America’s latest ultra-secret service known as Alpha Protocol, and he’s being put through the final stages of his induction. From this high tech, subterranean lair, Mike and his colleagues handle covert operations that are deemed too shadowy to be associated with the US government. Should their exploits ever come to light, their association is denied and the agent in question classed as rogue and cast aside. It’s a brutal world, but Mike is hoping to make a difference.

There are no character customisation screens to hand as you take charge of Mike. Rising disorientated from the bed in the medical bay, he has but one face, although you can perch a hat upon his head and shades over his eyes later on, should you so wish. What can be chosen is his background, allowing you to paint him in a manner that befits you’re approach to life as a secret agent. Claiming to be a Solider will give a grounding in fire arms, Field Agents will excel in stealth and close combat, whilst Tech Specialists have a penchant for gadgets. No matter which you choose, each operative operates from the same skill tree. This tree is how you will shape your agent and endow Mike with talents in different guns, convert manoeuvres, data hacking, resilience and many other facets found handy in the world of espionage. It is also extremely open, too, meaning that your initial choice as to your background won’t harm or lock out alternates paths. If you do choose Soldier but later fancy on changing into a stealthy assassin then its easy to drop some points into those disciplines and alter your style.

To begin with, however, you are but a lowly grunt with very little talent to speak of. Dropped in the Middle East and tasked with intercepting a purported stolen missile, you’ll not only have to battle against a small army of militants but your own ineptness: weapons prove inaccurate in your hands; your ability to lurk undetected ala Sam Fisher is only possible if the enemy is the other side of concrete wall; and the effective blast-radius of your gadgets is all but embarrassing. It’s an incredibly slow start and I kept having to remind myself that things would get better as I levelled up.

You’ll soon come to terms with just how stealthy Mike is, but he’ll often draw unwelcome attention as he bumbles around. In such situations you’ll need to protect yourself using a combination of pistols, SMGs, shotguns and assault rifles. Each can be a chosen specialisation and each has certain benefits, such as pistols being able to carry tranquiliser darts or flaming shotgun shells, though once you’ve found a favourite and invested in its branch of skills, it’s doubtful that you’ll switch to anything else. Sadly, gunplay itself is decidedly average, lacking the crisp feel to the controls that other third-person shooters have achieved. Certain skills can aid the lack of precision, or rather the length of time it takes to achieve it, but shooting is not Alpha Protocol’s strong point.

Thankfully, skills like lock picking and computer hacking are not adversely affected by your novice status. Creeping around the dusty levels and sneaking in through the back door is almost encouraged by default as opposed to direct confrontation. Each is represented by a mini-game against the clock where you must either correctly weight the barrels to pop a lock, match the correct override paths on a maze-like circuit board, or scan a scrolling screen of text for the appropriate password. Each are unique enough and require their own skill set, be it steady hand or eagle eye, and are still surprisingly engaging even late on in Alpha Protocol.

For quite some time each mission felt like a sub-par Splinter Cell or Rainbow Six. Attempts to use stealth were all but foolish thanks to guards apparently blessed with ESP and every room turned into a rather predictable, mundane shoot out as you sat waiting for the AI to stick their heads above the parapet. An array of gadgets, including explosive grenades, flashbangs and incendiary bombs do aid you, but as you generally have to expose yourself to utilise them they were not an ideal solution. On the rare occasion that sneaking did succeed it caused genuine surprise, partly because many of the levels don’t seem structured to allow such an approach. There are sections scattered with conveniently placed boxes, alternate paths or screens that allow one to sneak unseen, but for each of those there is a gantry or balcony you’ll be asked to cross where cover is scant and it’s nigh on impossible to stay out of sight.

Eventually, a corner was turned. From the XP gained by dispatching the enemies of the US Government, completing missions and generally being a suave super spy, enough stealth upgrades can be banked to unlock two key skills. These were an automated respite from detection if enemies or cameras were to spot me, allowing a chance to scuttle to cover, and the ability to turn nigh on invisible to the naked eye. Together they literally turned the game on its head; where once you opened a door only to be faced with a sinking feeling that another shoot out was only moments away, now there was a way to truly be covert. Rather than skulk in the shadows, using this invisibility you can literally creep up in front of a guard and incapacitate him without him even blinking.

What it also highlights is the incredibly dim AI. Not only do they have a merry tendency to run down your gun sights, but place two guards next to each other and whilst you’re applying an invisible choke hold, causing him to flail and cry out for help, his colleague will stand around oblivious. Only when the body hits the floor will the other become interested, wandering over only to receive the exact same treatment. When this occurs with a gaggle of four foreign mercenaries standing just feet apart from each other, each falling like house of cards in turn, you can only sit back and chuckle.

Not all of Alpha Protocol is focused on combat, though. Conversation plays a vital part in your skillset as it’s a way of winning over the sceptical, gaining the trust of the those around you, and even worming your way out of – or in to – tricky situations. It’s handled in a manner that could be considered a cross between Heavy Rain and Mass Effect; when engaged in conversation you’ll only have a short amount of time to respond before a default is selected for you. You can be suave, aggressive or business-like most of the time, and the intelligence you collect on each character you meet will prove key in deciding just how you should approach the situation. Rather than just being padding to an action game however, there is an awful lot that can be achieved through the choices that face Mike, as played right they can open up contacts or reveal key details pertinent to the next mission. He might even find the love of a good woman.

Quite refreshingly for what is on the most part an action-RPG, there are even entire missions dedicated just to the art of conversation. This change of pace is a welcome departure and although it could be considered a brave move it does symbolise the importance of contacts and informants in this shadowy world.

The characters that you meet as you fly from the Middle East to Rome, the Far East to Moscow, are all incredibly well fleshed out, with complete bios and many distinctive personalities. There’s the very sombre Eastern intelligent agent to the rather deranged American jock who likes to pour detergent down people’s throats; the flirtatious flame-red haired photojournalist, to the security officer who you instantly want to punch in the face. All together those that you meet and chat to pull this spy adventure together and make the world feel cohesive, especially when they refer back to what you’ve said or done in prior missions and conversations. It feels as though everything you’re achieving is being noticed and realised by those around you, which in itself has its own consequences as your reputation spreads before you.

Overall, Alpha Protocol shouldn’t work. The shooting sections are decidedly average, stealth yo-yos from barely registering to being all powerful, and Mike himself looks as though he was dragged from the generic concept art of any one of a thousand games. Somehow, though, it becomes more than the sum of its parts with a story that spans the globe and drags in many, many characters along the way. There’s a good game fighting to be seen underneath the rough edges, something that becomes more evident the further into it I delved.

The choice to base their latest adventure in the modern world was a brave one, and it is verging on ironic that the genre has slipped almost unnoticed into such a setting. There will be times when Alpha Protocol will cause you to demand the tightness seen in Ubisoft’s own spy games but then conversely they too could learn from some of what Obsidian have achieved here.

7 /10

E3 Approaches

So what are you looking forward to at E3 next week? For me, for possibly the first time, I’m more interested in the hardware, accessories and middleware that is going to be on display than any of the games. I’m getting old and cynical and so the amount of sequels that have been touted leaves me cold; it is instead the technical innovations that have my attention.

3DS

First and foremost, it’s Nintendo’s successor to the DS that causes my pupils to dilate. The amount of promise that just one short press release managed to cram in, but simultaneously leaving so many questions, was an incredible PR stunt. Pushing out to the wider world that they were working on portable machine capable of 3D imagery, but the then telling us we’d have to wait three months for the next snippet of information. The swines.

Part of me is worried that, like most things, the anticipation and the build up will be far more exciting than the actual announcement – I compare this of course to the World Cup – and that when Reggie steps on stage and no doubt pulls something from his jacket that there will a collective groan from the audience. I don’t want that, I want to regress back to my childhood where everything Nintendo did I treated as a marvel. I want to be blown away by the 3DS.

Natal & Move

We’ve seen various titbits emanating from Sony’s Move camp, but very little from their supposed rivals Natal. E3 will change all that with Microsoft holding a dedicated Natal press event where the covers will be pulled off what we can only hope to be a whole slew of titles.

The tech behind Natal honestly has to be seen to be believed as its ability to use lasers and depth perception to recognise the human form in real time is truly staggering. That alone won’t shift hardware, though, and I’ll be looking to the stage to see just how the developers have chosen to embrace this radically new form of input. There are bound to be a lot of Wii-esque mini-game collections incorporating wild movements, but I’m holding out for something a little from left field.

The same goes for Move. Again the tech is impressive but it could easily be classed as the hardcore gamer’s Wiimote and I’ll be looking for some innovative uses for the wand next week. If either or both end up being the dumping for a lot of shovelware shipped over from the Wii then neither will launch with a fanfare. They both need stand out titles to hit the ground running, something that shows off each hardware’s strengths in the same way that Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort sold wagglesticks to the masses.

PS3’s 3D

A question still remains as to whether or not 3D is really the next leap for gaming. Many of the current implementations are either expensive, because they require special televisions and/or glasses, or detrimental to the game itself, either because they turn the whole game into a muddy palette of reds and blues or due to the extra processing power required to achieve such a feat.

For now, however, thanks to Mr Cameron and his blue elves there is still a “wow” factor associated with everything 3D. Sony hopes to ride that wave through the LA convention centre. Already we’ve seen many games ported to make us of the extra dimension but I’m a staunch believer in that games adapted to use technology are those best to show it off. Experiences need to be designed with the process in mind to take true advantage of the tech’s strengths and it won’t be until a game has set out with standard displays as a secondary consideration over 3D that we might really see what is possible.

Seeing as I’m itching for an excuse to upgrade my TV then the PS3 3D announcements and demos will be eagerly tracked.

Music accessories

Quite sadly, I’m still interested in new guitars and drums for my music games. And just when you think all that can be done in plastic instruments has been done, out comes Rise of the Six String utilising proper guitars, and Rock Band 3 with a mix of actual stringed instruments and a keyboard. I’m not expecting any further announcements but instead I’ll be paying attention to the actual hands-on experiences that those lucky folks out on the sunny West coast are going to be reporting back on. Are they actual advancements or, as many fear, are they the last desperate throw of the dice for a fading genre.

Pure Football – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Taking on the might of EA’s FIFA franchise or Konami’s Pro Evo series is something that no developer should do lightly. Over the years there have been many pretenders to the crown, from Sony’s This Is Football to Libero Grande, an Eidos published Champion’s League tie-in and even an attempt by Sensible Soccer to be taken more seriously, but all are now memories from yesteryear’s bargain bin. With the World Cup only days away Ubisoft is trying its hand, and entitled “Pure Football”, you’d expect it to be aimed squarely at Pro Evo’s marketshare. Titles, however, can be misleading.

“Pure” football conjures up images of Brazil in full flow, slicing through foreign defences with a grace and speed that brings tears to grown men’s eyes. The kind of elegant play that Arsene Wenger preaches week in and week out and the sort that we all hope to the high heavens England will produce over the next month in South Africa. What, in fact, Ubisoft Vancouver delivers is a cross between Mario Super Strikers and ISS 64 – as far away from the notion of purity as humanly possible.

In a world reminiscent of the aesthetics of Crackdown and Team Fortress 2, teams are reduced to 5-a-side and the overall feeling is very much arcade over simulation; shot meters, balls with vapour trails, sprinting as if you were in Gears of War, and slow motion power shots are all included. Though this is the extreme end of the wedge with basic play scarcely any different to that of the big two. Passes, lobs, through balls and skill shots are all at your disposal to carve your way to the opposition’s goal.

Anyone who has played 5-a-side will know that pace and exploiting space on the counter attack is key to success, a notion shared in-game. To its credit though, Pure also allows a slower build up. There will be no getting to the goal line and cutting the ball back, it’s just not that sort of game, instead toying with their defence, passing it about just outside their box until an opportunity presents itself is more its style.

If you do find it tough to score, tenacity is rewarded. Record enough shots on target and a guaranteed Pure Shot is granted, something usually only achievable if the shot meter is stopped on a tiny, glowing slither. When activated, everything slows down, the camera slides in behind the ball, and you can guide it to its target like a homing missile. It’s not a guaranteed goal, especially against more talented keepers, but used wisely it can be a game changer.

What hampers the experience is the sluggish response of players. Swift movements and passes take that iota too long to be truly fluid and I never felt as though my team were the liquid football combination that I was trying to turn them into. This was never more evident than in defence; defending is all or nothing, with the choice of muscling opponents off the ball or leaving your feet and sliding in for the challenge. The former seemed to be such a hidden combination of player’s strength, positioning and ability that I would resort to more in hope than expectation, whilst, unless timed to perfection, the latter would produce a foul. Thankfully, one of Pure’s best innovations is the Foul Meter, where you have to contravene the rules a number of times before being penalised. Crop a player as he screams through on goal and as long as you hadn’t already filled up the meter you’ll get away with it. Considering the level of sportsmanship around the 7outof10 office, this will be music to certain players’ ears.

Away from match day, the Campaign is Pure’s greatest attribute as a combination of several interesting nuggets. Firstly, you get to lead your team; create a player in your own image and then drop him into the heart of your squad, ready to guide your merry band of players to World Cup glory, growing in stature as a footballer in the process.

Secondly, you can bulk out your squad with the cream of the world’s players. With licenses from most prominent national teams, you can rub shoulders with the likes of Rooney, Drogba, Gallas and Ballack. Rather than spending a transfer kitty, each of these superstars must be earned through playing their native side. Take on Spain, for instance, and to win Castillo’s services you must save a penalty during the game, or to hire Jermaine Defoe you need to score three Pure shots against England.

Finally, the aim in each match is not necessarily straightforward. Each has their own set of rules, including, first goal wins, every foul results in a penalty, mini-tournaments and first team to lead by two goal wins. Though only minor changes, they do allow for some tense moments and changes of pace in what otherwise could have become a mundane campaign.

All these games within a game serve to make Pure Football stand out from its peers. Throughout I was driven not just by my thirst to see B. Sheep lift the trophy, but with secondary objectives such as collecting as many Spurs players as possible to play alongside me or finally beating Germany at the third time of asking in a first-to-three game. There is a great deal of variety and depth that can be mined from Pure Football for those willing to give its frantic take on the beautiful game the time of day.

Ultimately, though, the depth of its depiction of football is lacking somewhat. With a limited number of players and tactics you will discover there are certain methods that guarantee goals that takes the allure away from varied play. Most fans should enjoy the Campaign from beginning to end, and even be willing to dabble online with you custom built squad, but it does not offer the subtlety, long term appeal or variety that Messrs FIFA and Pro Evo provide. As a different take on football it works, and indeed all of its component pieces are without doubt solid. Together they should build to create something great; much like England, however, they fall short.

6/10