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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Blood Bowl, a game of hard-knocks played by those who are more likely to be found rolling dice than picking up a pigskin. Blood Bowl, a game so brutal it makes rugby look like it’s played by young girls in plaits. Blood Bowl, a game that transports the world of the NFL into the world of fantasy.

For all those who think American Football feels turn-based, then this is an iteration of that concept. Originally spawned in 1987 by Games Workshop, the format loosely takes our American cousins’ favourite pastime and turns it into a highly strategic sport-come-war, pitting two classical fantasy teams against each other whilst the on looking crowd bay for blood. Orcs, humans, elves, the undead, dwarves and halflings all field teams, each with their own unique trait and vying to be crowned Blood Bowl champion.

Set out on a gridded playfield, eleven men on each side match up against each other. On the line of scrimmage the powerhouses face off, each looking to batter the opposition into a crumpled mess on the floor in order to break into their backfield and tackle the ball carrier. On the flanks the fleet of foot wait, either looking to blitz into the opponents or scamper through their ranks and await a pass from a skilful thrower.

Though it wears the trappings of a sports game, Blood Bowl is a pure strategy game where tactics are plotted, plays shut down in their prime, and control of the ball needs to be wrestled away from your opponent. At a basic level the concept is simple to grasp – angry chess with a ball – and for those unfamiliar with the franchise the tutorial does a decent job of explaining the ins and outs of how to organise an effective defence and launch a competent counterattack.

Players can only tackle those they begin their turn next to – with the exception of a single player a turn who can blitz – and so the game becomes a risk and reward strategy of throwing players into contact with the opposition and hoping they don’t get over powered before their next turn. Strength is key; for the stronger you are, and the more of you who gang up on the opponent, the more likely you are to dump them on their ass and create a vital opening. It’s all about placement and loading the dice in your favour.

For coaches looking for something more, at your disposal are a squad of players that possess any number of the dozens of special attributes that exist in the Warhammer universe. This can be as simple as being able to reroll dice, through to having the mutagenic quality of a tail with which you can trip up passing runners. The sheer amount of talents and combinations thereof can lead to highly unique teams, even within the same race. Are you going to be brutal and punch your way through the opponent’s ranks, or turn agile and skip through their tackles on the way to the end zone?

Conversely, that variety can also lead to sheer confusion for the uninitiated. Hovering over a talent will reveal just what it means, but don’t expect to have your hand held as with a play clock continually ticking down you’re liable to learn the hard way.

Although sports games as a whole tend to struggle with ways to engage the player much beyond leagues and cups, Blood Bowl expands upon this slightly. You can still lead a custom created team through a campaign to glory, but it also offers a Story mode which tasks you with completing secondary objectives, such as completing a total of X passes or dodging out of Y tackles. Not only does this force experimentation with different play styles, but the storyline itself continually switches the race you control meaning it’s the perfect place to start should you be unsure of which team to pick.

Although a much more capable and complete package compared than last year’s DS release, it does still suffer from a handful of niggles, including inaccurate player selection and the lack of an easy save midgame. Though they don’t take the shine off what’s not just a good adaptation of an old game, but a turn-based strategy title that should give non-tabletop gamers something new to ponder. If you’re willing to spend a few hours literally reading the rulebook, then you should find something that will prove a tenacious time sink as you declare “just one more game.”

8 /10

Bizarre

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Game development is becoming an awful lot like football management. Not in relation to the wages being so high that accountants regularly have to replace the zero on their keyboards, sadly, but rather in the manner that you’re always just one game away from being let go. For those running Premiership clubs, that simply means the sack and a temporary career as a 5Live pundit before resurfacing elsewhere, but for developers it means that your publisher is either going to shut you down or sell you off.

On the sharp end, we have previously covered the demise of Realtime Worlds following the failure of APB to generate enough sales; a sad tale that saw an adventurous studio collapse under the weight of an ambitious project. And in this last week we’ve also seen news that Viacom are to sell developer Harmonix after poor sales of Rock Band 3, with Activision to do likewise with Bizarre Creations, whose first post-Project Gotham racing title, Blur, “did not find a commercial audience.”

Each case is evidence of just how cut-throat and ruthless the industry has become and how track records are ignored in favour of the money men pointing out that it is your last game that matters. Reputations may not pay the bills but the price of failure is so incredibly high in this day and age you can see why so many developers – especially those owned by the larger publishers – are playing it safe in a bid to get comfortable sales rather than risk alienating large portions of the buying public. The modern publishing game is all about risk management, and innovation is considered high risk.

The alternate is independence, and as news of the Bizarre Creations trouble was breaking, Travelers’ Tales boss Jon Burton Tweeted “really glad I didn’t sell my company to Activision”. Though it’s not always as cut and dry as it may seem. Although remaining as an independent studio allows you to keep your creativity and talent unflustered by the Marketing execs looking to tick the boxes to create the next Modern Warfare clone, it brings with it its own set of issues. The possible lack of financial security brought about by being owned by a multinational, for one.

It’s a sad state of affairs to have to witness, but in an era where financial failure is not accepted it is one we seemingly have to accept.

The Undergarden | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

There are two ways to approach The Undergarden, a game filled with pollen spreading imps, underground gardens and mandolin-playing monkeys. The first is to stare terrified at the press release and ask the boss whether he’s sure he’s got the right man to review it and is he sure his sister wouldn’t be better suited. The other is to jump straight in, feet first, and hope a Flower Fairy will cushion your fall. But as you land in The Undergarden, brushing the dirt from your knees and the crumpled wings from your behind, surveying your surroundings makes you realise that bullet points can be misleading.

Behaving like a cross between PixelJunk Eden and Solar Jetman, you send your imp gliding through the initially sleeping caverns, navigating their dark passages in search of pollen. And it’s a worthwhile search as when armed with such a commodity, the whole world comes alive about you. Sweeping low across a previously dead, rocky outcrop will now see life literally burst forth as dormant flora awakes. The once dark screen is quickly filled by bright, strong colours as a whole variety of plant-life takes hold, from wall-hugging lichen to swaying grasses, tubular anemones to fruit bearing trees.

The burst of colour is very striking, but it is as practical as it is pretty. Certain fruit can be grabbed and used in the scattering of puzzles, depressing pressure pads, lighting your way through dark smog, and setting off switches that cause massive, stone mechanisms to whir into action. The minimal and extremely accessible controls reinforce the ethos that it is just as much an event as it is a challenge. However the balancing act between experience and game is one wrought with difficulties; there is a fine line between giving players enough focus to drive them through the levels without handing them so much to do that the enchanting spell of The Undergarden shatters. On the whole this is achieved admirably, with only the odd puzzle causing the relaxing flow of flower growing to be broken, whilst the majority of your time can be set aside for exploring the varies nooks and crannies on offer in a bid to flower as much of the garden as possible.

Many parts of the 14 levels are there purely to show off the world, and designed to see you speeding along, leaving a trail of vibrant blooms in your wake. There are many side-passages that need to be explored for the completionists amongst you, but those who decide that hidden flowers and secreted gems are not for them will not be missing out at all. Simply gliding along, bring the world to life can be enough for many due to the rich nature by which it is presented, including seeing previously explored caverns sitting in the middle distance behind your current plane.

If all the talk of imps and flowers has put off the more burly of our readers, then it should be noted that they are merely the means to an end. This is no Flower Fairies adaptation, but a stylish and incredibly bold release that can readily be appreciated by anyone. The Undergarden is one of those rare experiences that are so often spoken of but so very rarely witnessed first-hand. In very much the same vein as Rez and PixelJunk Eden, Vitamin G have created a game that is as much about the taking part as it is about your success, although not necessarily matching the heights reached by its peers. On a very practical level the premise is that of guiding your imp-like character through a series of underground caverns, but in reality that journey only serves as a means for you to create a show of light and colour of your own making.

7 /10

First Impressions | Kinect

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I have been in the extremely fortunate position of having Natal, sorry, Kinect for the better part of a week now. During that time I’ve been merrily dancing around my living room in varying states of frivolity, but rather than give you a write-up of how wonderful I think it is and risk the cries of the ever-present “Conflict of Interest”, I thought I’d step aside and let my wife tell you of her experience instead.

James – So, dearest, how would you describe yourself when it comes to gaming?

Ali – I’m very much a casual gamer. I used to game a lot more, and was a big Tomb Raider fan, but other hobbies now get in the way. At the moment I don’t tend to see a game and feel the need to play it, I just tend to play more of whatever you play.

James – So you haven’t gone out and bought many 360 titles, then?

Ali – Not 360, the last one I got really excited about was Professor Layton on the DS. That’s the kind of game I go out of my way to get.

James – You’ve had a couple of evenings with Kinect, what are your initial impressions?

Ali – Yeah, it’s fun. At the moment it feels quite a bit like Wii, in that respect very much a party game platform. I’ve only played Kinect Sports and Dance Central, and I’ve seen you play Kinectimals, which looked kind of cute.

James – You’ve also been messing around with it in the Dashboard, giving the general navigation a try and shouting “Xbox!” across the room. How was that? Did it find it worked well for you?

Ali – Yeah, we should probably try and use it with our normal voice as I doubt our neighbour is too impressed with us yelling “Xbox! Xbox!” through the walls. I do like the idea, but it doesn’t seem to have enough take in enough options; we were trying to turn it off but couldn’t find the right command. Currently it seems a little cut down and so I’d be looking for it to have the full functionality of the normal Dashboard, until then you can’t dispense with your controller because every now and again you’ll find you need your controller to go do something.

What’s there is good, though; really easy to use.

James – But it does recognise you when you walk in front of it.

Ali – I’m really, really impressed by that. I remember when you had to teach a computer voice recognition for each individual person. It’ll be interesting to try someone with a very strong accent.

James – Although novel, the dash is just an interesting use of the tech, the meat and potatoes are the games so describe to us a little about Kinect Sports. What did you play on that?

Ali – We started off playing bowling, table tennis and the athletics, just the main games in two-player battles. And I have to say that it’s absolutely hilarious, I don’t think we’ve laughed so much in ages. They’re just really fun mini party games, and what makes it is that funny video afterwards of your highlights (it records you sporadically throughout the game, and usually at inopportune moments) that has you both jumping round – especially when you don’t know it’s going to happen. The first time you see it it’s just “wow”. I’m looking forward to getting a few people round, having some drinks and wetting myself with laughter, not only doing the games but with the video afterwards.

James – How natural did you find the games to play? Were the easy to get into?

Ali – With sports, yes. Although we just played boxing and I didn’t feel in complete control there, it didn’t seem as responsive as Wii boxing, but bowling and table tennis were wonderful. Oh, and the athletics was funny, with the long jump. Each one just took the movements you’d expect to make in real life and so made them really easy to play.

I enjoyed the 100m sprint, as I won. I had a few issues with jumping on the long jump, though you seemed to have no trouble. I think it’s just the kind of game you need to play a few times to get good at.

James – It may be accessible, but what do you consider its long term appeal?

Ali – At the moment [Kinect] Sports seems very much like a party game that you’ll get out when other people are around, but Dance Central seems like you could ditch your Davina McCall workout video and switch to that. I felt like I got a bit of an exercise just by doing that.

James – You know it’s from the makers of Rock Band, which you also play. Could you see any similarities?

Ali – They’re very different. I think the thing with Rock Band is that there are only five variables, only so many buttons, whereas with Dance Central each song has lots of moves. Although you could just dance and move on, if you played it regularly you could be rewarded by just being able to pull off a good dance routine. You won’t look like a professional dancer, it just picks up the shapes you’re making… just as well given the faces we’ve been pulling whilst dancing. It looks like we’re gurning as we were concentrating so hard on the moves.

It got easier as we played it, and it could definitely work as a different kind of workout. Even on Easy [where Rock Band doesn’t give you too much to do], it still keeps you moving all the time, which is good as that in itself is rewarding from the start.

James – Given your self-confessed casual approach to gaming, do you think the removal of the controller or other input device was a good thing?

Ali – Yeah, it seemed very natural. I didn’t miss having a controller, which you think you might do when playing something like Table Tennis where you usually have something in your hand. But it felt great just waving your arm and hitting the ball back, even if you do look a little ridiculous.

James – Yes, the waving arms weren’t just ridiculous. Some particularly over-enthusiastic bowling gestures put furniture and pets at risk. Do you think room space will be a widespread issue?

Ali – We’re quite lucky as our living room is a reasonable size, and we’re able to push the sofa back and create some space. It’ll be interesting to see when there are more than two people in the room. Thinking about our old house, we would have probably struggled there with where the telly was, it’s something to think about if you’re going to buy it. You can’t have too much stuff, or rabbits, sitting in the way.

James – One aspect that keep cropping up at work are the way that people navigate through games and menus with Kinect. Did you find it easy to get about?

Ali – Dance Central’s menus seemed the most intuitive, especially for going back and forth through the menus. In Sports you could go forward very easy but bit of a pain going back. There was something satisfying about just quickly swishing your way through Dance Central [with just a wave of the arm]. It was very easy. It’s one thing to hold your hand in place [as you do in Sports to activate a button], but Dance Central’s swishing is the way to go for me.

James – You mentioned earlier that it seemed like a party platform…

Ali – For me there’s no real long term substance or engagement, not a long term adventure like you can find in Tomb Raider, say.

James – So what would it take to become more than a party platform?

Ali – I don’t know what’s coming up, or really what its capabilities are. I’d want something a bit more involving, a one-player game. I mean, how would they convert Tomb Raider to it? I can’t see you having to be super coordinated and keep running away from things, but it would be amazing if you were more involved, closer, with exploring the tombs. I suppose more involved games, I mean how many hours did you play Fable for last week?

James – I’d rather not say.

Ali – Can you see yourself standing and trooping round your living room for hours on end?

James – So you’re more looking for the future generations of games where you’ll be able to sit down and still play Kinect games?

Ali – Is that possible?

James – Definitely.

Ali – Well when it can do that it will be a total revolution in gaming, wouldn’t it, not having the controller but still playing those sorts of games. But right now, right this second, it stills seems like it could be a gimmick, although there is obviously huge potential. I’ll be interested to see how quickly they can develop that as it could go quite deep.

I remember ten years ago for my brother’s A-level computer project he had a very primitive version of motion sensing where you had to move your arm up and down to fill a jug, and event then I thought that was really cool. That was ten years ago and it’s taken this long to get it into people’s homes, but it seems to have been worth the wait.

After a bit you sort of forget how cool it is. How cool it is to see yourself on telly, seeing yourself in the videos and then being able to upload them.

James – So you liked seeing your Avatar in Kinect Sports being puppeteered by your actions?

Ali – Yes, but that won’t work with everything. With Dance Central you needed the character to mask your movements because although you had the dance cue cards you needed to see what you were really supposed to be doing, especially with the more complex moves as you have no idea of what they look like. You need that dance instructor to be there. It would have been nice
to see a mode where you could see what you were actually doing, though.

James – Has your initial experience been enough for you to recommend Kinect?

Ali -I think they’d be ifs and buts for recommending it. It’s a combination of having enough dosh and having enough youthful exuberance to enjoy that entertainment.

James – You can’t see the older generations jumping on board, then?

Ali – Maybe. I’d love to see my work colleagues play. Maybe we should get them round. I bet their children would love it, and I bet they’d be jealous we’ve got one. It’ll be interesting to ask them see if they are interested. I think my colleagues might be a little grumpy to try it, though.

I can’t see many people much older than us wanting one, like from our parents’ generation, as I just can’t see them getting in to it. Although I can see a lot of kids pestering their parents this Christmas as it is very cool.

I definitely recommend it for teens and twentie-somethings, or anyone who can get a lot of people round. It might be a bit of a outlay but a few nights in with this and some friends and it’ll pay for itself. It’s much funnier than a lot of nights out I’ve had, and, as I said, we haven’t laughed so much in ages.

Many thanks to Ali for taking part.

Fable III | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

This time I swore I would be evil. After treating Albion to a goody-two-shoed Hero twice before, helping villagers with errands and sacrificing all I had for the great good, I thought it was time to be feared as well as revered. So goddamn you Molyneux for placing such a weighty decision so early on; there is no childlike introduction here of either stealing or paying for an apple. Instead, within five minutes of beginning his latest work, he’s asking me to put a faction of protesting villagers to death. I can’t be that evil straight off the bat, I need time. Can’t I kick a puppy or something and then build up to mass execution?

Be that as it may, the choice sets the tone for Fable III. Your brother, the King, has gone mad with power and his tyrannical rule is unsurprisingly unpopular with both you and the wider population. Someone must stop him. The world needs a Hero, and before disappearing into the underground to set light to the kindling of revolution, you vow he will pay for what he has done. Thankfully there are factions within the kingdom sympathetic to your cause, but first you need to prove that you are the saviour they are looking for.

Fable III continues where Fable II left off; an action-RPG attempting to play as much on your moral standing as it does with your thirst for adventure. It feels very similar, too, so regulars will feel instantly at home; barring the story, it looks and handles very much like its prequel. Albion is still bright and bold, full of snowy passes and verdant planes, but there is also a sense of progress. The cities are quintessentially Dickensian, for with the passing of time it has entered an age of industry – where Bowerstone is dominated by workhouses, and towering chimneys belch smoke high in to the sky.

Though not everyone in this new and enlightened age is friendly to you or your cause, and reason won’t see you out of many situations. Single button combat persists, with melee, magic and firearms all accessible with minimal fuss. There are no combos to learn, instead the emphasis is on the player to find a style that works for them. Some may label the system “mashy”, but fending off a dozen angry skeletons at a time forces variety, and a certain amount of control, as a necessity for survival. A blast of electricifying magic may stun the oncoming horde before a spinning blow from your cudgel allows you some breathing room; a quick roll back to create further space before opening up with your pistol and you’ve turned a hairy situation into a manageable one as shards of bone fill the air.

No matter the versatility, combat isn’t enough to sustain attention alone however, and instead the main focus lies on the many quests on offer throughout the land. Being based on such a classical model, Fable does well to escape the clichéd fetch quests that can blight similar titles. From the humour and trapping that surround each questline, extending right through to the varied environments those golden breadcrumbs lead you through, Lionhead’s designers are on incredible form in keeping each as interesting as possible. You’ll find yourself in amongst an Albion themed D&D session, transported to the lost plays of a long-dead playwright, and dropped into the centre of a ghost’s drunken night out. The variety is enough to turn the most innocuous request into something incredibly bizarre.

Throughout all this, your Hero proves himself to his subjects, earning their trust and backing to rise against his brother. It is at this point that your adventure takes a sudden left turn. Filling the void left by your sibling and assuming the role of monarch brings with it responsibilities, and these weigh heavy on your shoulders. As well as continued questing, matters of state need to be addressed, such as taxes, child labour and what to do with Albion’s natural resources. Your choices will not only reflect on the world as a whole but also how your subjects think of you and how prosperous your country will become. Fable may never have lived up to the highs set out by Molyneux, but it does continue to try and set new standards by testing your reactions to a situation. From that initial no-win situation to trials that, though may seem black and white, contain an array of grey beneath the surface.

One aspect of the Fable experience which has received a much needed overhaul has been the UI. On one level this has come in the form of some decluttering, with health and magic bars removed from the main display, and, conversely, the expansion of the pause menu. No longer is this a clunky menu, and in its place is the Sanctuary, an instantly loading room in which you can swap outfits, exchange weaponry, manage quests and control your burgeoning property empire. It’s almost silly the amount of time I enjoyed spending in this instantly loading alternate reality; partly because it addressed so many of the niggles of poor maps and unwieldy customisation from the previous Fable, and partly because it felt a very interactive experience, as though you were personally browsing through wardrobes and casting your princely gaze over a map of the world rather than simply calling up some extra UI. Plus, John Cleese is its guardian.

He’s not the only famous name, either. Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry, Zoe Wanamaker, and (my personal highlight) even Dave Lamb, the narrator of Come Dine With Me, makes an appearance. On the most part, they do their bit and the voice acting fits in with the wide array of British accents on display. The overall effect makes Albion a varied society, a feat not often achieved in the medium. That’s not say things are perfect, however, as the inclusion of Jonathan Ross’ dulcet tones lack the finesse of the others and as a result does grate on the ears.

The vocal work is just one indication of the overall level of quality found within Fable III. From the polish lavished on the kingdom as a whole, to the individuals that inhabit it, Lionhead has done everything possible to pack the world with interesting people and ways of keeping the player busy. Aside from overthrowing your brother, there are dozens of side quests, many of which shape the world itself; friends and relationships to be forged; families to be had; evil, potty-mouthed gnomes to be found; hidden treasures to be unearthed; and all the time you’ll have your faithful dog by the side of you. It may not have the grandeur of Grand Theft Auto of Red Dead Redemption, but the quality and variety of distraction on offer should not be ignored.

Furthermore, it’s accessible. Lionhead have stripped out the superfluous odds and sods that overcomplicated things and have left us with a combat system that should grant players of any persuasion access to the world of Albion. This is not a dumbing down, as some may see it, but actual progress in getting the “other half” involved. It’s hard to resist the understated charms of Fable III, but I offer you this one piece of advice: be sure your “other half” is out of the room when embarking on the route of evil; it seems they don’t like Heroes roasting villagers alive and then running off with their wife.

9 /10