• 2011

Yearly Archives: 2011

7-Up | Christmas Gaming

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Flick through the seasonal copy of Empire and the pages teem with seasonal blockbusters and cinematic yarns about snow and the joys that this time of year brings. If I asked you to rattle off a list of ten, neigh a score, of Christmas related films then I doubt you would struggle for no longer than it takes for the more senior of your relatives to polish off a bottle of Tesco’s Finest sherry.

Switch out “film” for “game” however and I think you’ll struggle. Easy fare such as “Home Alone: the Game” is banned, and so you’re left with anything than may involve a glimpse of St. Nick or throwing in a smattering of snow. A much reduced field.

Before you ponder for too long though and I spoil your Christmas mood, let me take a stab.

1. Christmas NiGHTS

A favourite of my other-half, NiGHTS was one of the few games to take advantage of the Saturn’s oft forgotten analogue pad. Players would control characters as they flew as though Peter Pan through many vivid worlds, flying through hoops and collecting stars. It was a very freeing experience.

Christmas NiGHTS itself was a pseudo follow up; a promotional game released for a limited time during the run up to Christmas 1996 only. Despite such a small run it still became a cult classic packed with extra features that were unique to this sampler. Levels and UI would change depending on the Saturn’s internal clock, with snow covering the ground and Santa outfits on all the main characters if played on the day itself.

2. Christmas Lemmings

Right, we’re on a roll. Gawd bless Psygnosis and their love of blatant seasonal tie-ins.

As with NiGHTS, these started as a pair of very short demos of the original Lemmings back at the start of the 90s. Sensing there was something, the following two years saw the release of full Christmas editions of the suicidal puzzlers. Gone was the green hair and blue smocks and in their place Father Christmas hats and coats.

3. Banjo Kazooie

Though not uncommon for platformers to have elemental levels, Banjo’s snowy Freezeezy Peak went a festive step further. Enter Boggy’s Igloo and there you’ll find his three ungrateful offspring complaining that their dad hasn’t shown up with their Christmas presents. The brats only cheer up when you go and bring them their gifts, caring little that you had to save Boggy from choking to death on a Jiggy in the process!

4. Clay Fighter 63 1/3

In this comical, N64 beat-em-up, you’ll find the anti-Santa. Grossly overweight and dressed in nothing but his beard and a loincloth, this evil clone is intent on conquering the North Pole and ridding the world of his goody-two-shoes namesake.

He’s surprisingly spry as he leaps about the screen and in doing so makes you ponder quite a different fate for the Coca Cola adverts if he’d been around a few decades back.

5. James Pond 2

Released on no fewer than 14 different platforms since its original 1991 launch, Mr Pond has been thwarting Dr. Maybe’s attempts at ruining Christmas for two whole decades. After defeating his nemesis in his original outing, our fishy friend has chased the evil doctor to the North Pole, where’s he’s hidden in Father Christmas’ workshop with the elves as hostages.

Not content with his pun on Britain’s greatest secret agent, this is where James also receives a cyborg body upgrade to aid his infiltration into the fatman’s grotto. Call it a thinly veiled excuse to subtitle the release: RoboCod.

6. Animal Crossing

The original Animal Crossing was something on a masterpiece; constantly enticing you to keep the village clean, expand your house, and general keep the mafia racoons off you back. As holidays loomed however, the neighbourhood took on a different atmosphere.

There was a sense of excitement in the air as the ground would first frost and then become covered in snow, flakes falling as you wandered through the orange groves. Snowballs could be rolled into snowmen and come Christmas Eve Jingle the reindeer would appear, handing out presents to all he met.

7. Max Payne

The white of the snowstorm that persists throughout Max’s tale fits perfectly with the film noir style. It sits in such contrast with the dark surroundings that many of the storytelling graphic novel panels have more than a passing resemblance to Sin City, adding to the bleakness.

Admittedly, Max Payne is not strictly set at Christmas, but the snow has always bound it to the time year so tightly for me. In fact, thinking back, I almost felt that the joy of everyone else at that time of year, between Christmas and New Year’s, was at such a contrast to Max’s own experience that it must have been an intentional choice.

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

7-Up: Best GameCube Games

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

It’s not just the Xbox that’s ten-years-old…

How many consoles have a handle? You’ll probably find that list begins and ends with Nintendo’s much maligned box, but it summed up the attitude of the platform. It was quirky, trying to recapture the spirit of gaming that Nintendo always sought to share. That, however, mattered little as it languished in third place in its generation behind both the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox. The “hardcore” had come to play and had muscled out the fun-loving ‘Cube.

Whatever the wider world thought (it was outsold 7:1 by PlayStation 2) I loved it, as it offered some of the finest multiplayer experiences of any console of any generation. The simple inclusion of four-ports on the front invited frivolities and boy did its catalogue deliver. And even when the party had ended, it had solo experiences that were unique to my Wavebird.

Oh, the Wavebird. Still one of my favourite pads to this day, and the first wireless one that felt wholly reliable. I can still remember seeing how far down the corridor at work we could get the thing to function. About 16m in the end. Shame it was only a 20” CRT telly and Luigi was a dot on the horizon.

7. Monkey Ball

The pinnacle of the series. Yes, it was a slow downwards spiral after the first release, one that combined a challenging yet fair single-player with a collection of mini-games that were arguable strong enough to be released on their own.

Balancing the simians in their spheres was taken straight from the classic marble labyrinths of old, but elevated by a collection of lovable characters and inventive locations. Better than that though were monkey bowling, monkey target and monkey fight. Anything with monkeys. Each one would literally suck players from around the house and deposit them in front of the telly. There we would sit hour after hour trying to land the simians on the tiniest of targets or curl them to score the perfect game

6. Resident Evil 4

The reinvention that saved the series. After sticking with seemingly antiquated controls for so long, this is the one that brought RE into the modern era. The plot and setting were equally refreshing and welcome.

Its decision to skip off into a strange village inhabited with folk whose head had a tendency to erupt into something from the Little Shop of Horrors was a departure from the dark mansions and cities of before. This new setting was however delivered with beautiful clarity through clever use of pre-rendered backgrounds, making it one of the best looking games of its generation on any platform.

5. Eternal Darkness

A launch title that so often gets overlooked from the team that have since brought you Too Human.

Most remembered for its ability to screw with your mind, it taunted you with blue screens of death, save game corruption and a host of other dastardly twists. This extra level of emersion brought you far more into the experience than simply controlling the on screen protagonists, a feat rarely even attempted since.

4. Wario Ware

Although now a staple on every Nintendo platform, I rate the GameCube version as the pinnacle of the series. The simplicity of the games combined with the absurdity of the tasks at hand make Warioware an absolute hoot to be played in company.

Multiplayer turns into games within games as balancing turtles, blowing up balloons and even playing an extraterrestrial version of Othello all work themselves in and around the microgames.

3. Luigi’s Mansion

With no Mario at launch, the chubster’s lanky brother took the lead. I fondly remember Luigi’s Mansion being an exploration title first and a game second. Nervously trundling about the haunted house, torch in hand and vacuum on back, each room would open up a new Easter Egg.

There’s also a cynical part of me that still thinks of it as a technical demo, showing off lighting and physics on the new console that just happened to do well. With a sequel coming out soon however I care little about the reasons behind it, I just know I love it.

2. Animal Crossing

Why live in the real world when you could make friends, take up hobbies and get yourself a mortgage in a virtual world? Broken down into its component parts, it’s still hard to see why Animal Crossing works, but that didn’t stop my wife and I becoming hooked for months on end. We’d get up early to check out the bargains at Nook’s, go fossil hunting on alternate days so neither one of us felt left out, and evenings would ebb by casting a fishing line from the beach.

From all the options available, the ‘Cube version is also the best for me. With a house each it meant we could share and enjoy the world in our own little way, decorating as we see fit. Newer versions forced us to share a cottage, and I have enough of that in real life.

1. Donkey Konga

This is where the modern music genre began: put aside your plastic guitars and lay down your Sing Star mics, what could be better than clapping and bongoing your way through Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

I will never forget one lunchtime at work when a dozen of us took over a meeting room and had a Bong-off. Twelve grown men tapping (somewhat) in time to everything from remixed versions of the Mario tune to Supergrass’ Richard III. It was a sight to behold.

Super Mario 3D Land | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

This week, there’s been a phrase that I’ve used to describe Super Mario 3D Land to anyone who is foolish enough to catch my eye for more than a fleeting moment: “understated brilliance.” Compared to the testosterone and bravado of the Modern Warfare trailers, the thumping baseline of the Saints Row push, or the high drama of Assassin’s Creed’s cinema promotions, Mario has the quiet assuredness of a man who knows that quality will speak for itself. Quite how this dumpy plumber continually bucks all the current trends of what’s hip and happening must baffle a great many marketing executives, but spend five-minutes with him and you will see that quality shouts loudest of all.

From the opening moments running and jumping around that very first level, you should begin to sense that yet again Nintendo have found the mark with their prize mascot. From the tightness of the controls that you’ve come to expect from the Italian, to the presentation of the world about you, everything feels comfortable and right.

Stroll through the green pastures of the Mushroom Kingdom and all that you find has been placed explicitly for you to enjoy and play with. Gombas readily waddle over, almost eager to be squashed; platforms and ledges form an ever-enticing series of stepping stones that need to be traversed; whilst recesses hide warp pipes and conceal treasures. Indeed, World 1-1 has all this, luring you in to a microcosm of what to expect as a whole.

Forgoing his recent astronautic tendencies, Mario returns to terra firma and takes his cues from a mix of the NES’s Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World on the SNES. Aesthetically this means large, colourful blocks creating a backdrop and the meat of many of the levels. If this seems like a step back from the comparatively thematically driven Galaxy and Sunshine, where each location formed the very core of the experience, you need not worry. The return to an era where power was measured in bits places Mario in a world where the abstraction benefits the experience.

Many of the finer levels in his recent Wii releases have been the through the strange, floating constructions in space that brought to the fore his rasion d’etre. Here too, levels are foremost concerned with how fun or challenging they are, built with the sole purpose to please and leaving the worry about tying the visuals together until later on. Blocks float in space or span from tiny islands but are so carefully placed that each of the dozens of levels on show appears to be a master class in design.

This is also not to say that the overall appearance is shabby, either. Whilst the priority may be on your trip through the world, each is brought to life with characteristic Mario themes. From the classical, open, verdant lands through to Bowser’s brown brick castle, each are decorated with bold colours and shapes, complete with extra touches. Snow covered coin blocks shed their frosty load once disturbed, dandelion seeds scatter with the wind as you run past, and the night sky fills with the stars of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Each theme is used sparingly and all are mixed in together. Ghost house could follow desert, then on to a floating cloud before squeezing in a spot of diving off the Kingdom’s coast. Similarly, the variety of the very levels themselves continually changes, the whole package working together to keep you interested and engaged.

With mere platforms being no match for Mario’s talents, a slew of new obstacles have been brought in by Bowser. Among the variety of collapsing causeways and bouncy blocks a few stand out. The first of these is a platform split into two, whereby only half of it at any one time is usable, and that half alternates every time you jump. It’s a clever trick of using Mario’s own skills against him, and means that thought has to be put into every move that you make.

Likewise, there’s a panel on rails that trundles forward or back, depending on which half you stand. This contraption is usually found high above the ground, your handiness at its controls the only thing preventing it from derailing and plummeting earthwards. So many are apparently there to thwart you, but a little consideration before you leap and by the end of each heroic endeavour you’ll feel empowered to believe that there is nothing beyond the ability of this portly chap from the Bronx.

The strengths of the 3DS also added into the melting pot of ideas. For the most part the camera is fixed, watching you scroll along the level, and to its credit not once does it feel as though its framing needs to be tweaked; a rare property in 3D cameras. At times, however, it will switch, shifting to shoot down the length of the scenery as though recreating early Crash Bandicoot, or pan upwards and stare towards the floor to frame what a drop of seemingly several kilometres that Mario has to then brave. Each time the 3D effect is subtle but effective, never overburdening the eyes but handing you a fresh challenge to overcome. Running down a tunnel out of the screen whilst a large fish chases you, jaws gnashing, is a moment that definitely sets the heart racing.

Further refugees from SMB3 can be found in the form of the Tanooki Suit and the Koopa Kids. The latter return replete with compulsory floating pirate ship, whilst the former becomes the title’s go-to power-up. Though the fire flower or boomerang suit have offensive benefits, the freedom that comes from turning Mario into a flying racoon is unmatched. Hold down the jump button and he’ll glide, legs frantically pumping and tail waggling, across great stretches of the world. Whilst making some of the more tricky platforming slightly less stressful, it also serves to allow exploration, expanding your range and giving you that piece of mind that should the worse happen you can always float back down to earth safely.

Undeniably this extra sense of exploration is what elevates this handheld Mario from his previous DS outing. There was a certain degree that he played it safe last time, again hitting that quality bar but not really pushing himself. Here, the forking routes, the hidden treasures and the sense that you’ve been handed as much a playground as a level in many instances makes New Super Mario Bros. pale by comparison.

There is very little to fault at all with Super Mario 3D Land. Even those elements that I have tried to – such as the typical Mario time limit on each level – are only because I want to stay in the world and carry on cavorting. Each level is a short burst of pure gaming joy, refined to the point where no gimmicks or tricks need to be pulled to ensure that you feel good about what you’re doing; the levels themselves see to that.

As cynical as I can be with Nintendo at times, they have utterly delivered with what should have been a launch title. From the nostalgic nod to Marios of old, the impressive camera, and the sparing but effective use of 3D, all have been brought together to form the reason to own a 3DS. In short, Super Mario 3D Land is simply understated brilliance.

10 /10

Halo: Anniversary | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

There is a reasonable argument that without Halo, the videogame world that we appreciate today might have been very different. Take Masterchief out of the original launch line-up and – barring a couple of well received racing titles – the original Xbox is left with questionable exclusives like Blood Wake and Fuzion Frenzy. Without the Spartan would Microsoft have made such a splash in the market? Would they have even dented the PlayStation juggernaut? And today would the 360 even exist? All points are moot but it speaks volumes that this week is celebrated as much for being Halo’s tenth anniversary as it is the Xbox’s.

Never one to miss a trick, Microsoft has had the original brought right up to date. Combat Evolved Anniversary has been showered with a Pelican full of high-resolution textures and sharp new character models that even the perennially grumpy Sgt Johnson could not find fault with. Whilst leaving the campaign true to that of a decade past, Saber Interactive have handled this remake with the utmost consideration to the fans.

Although “remake” is not entirely accurate; “port” would be closer to the mark. So keen were they on not damaging the experience that very little has been altered apart from the graphical sheen. Everything that you remember is there, from the floaty jumping to the beautifully overpowered pistol that’s as lethal at a hundred-yards as it is a point-blank range. Each set piece is present and every pitched battle intact, and rightfully so, as there’s nothing worse than a reimagining that smudges your rose tinted spectacles.

As such, you can see how Halo made its mark as its general combat still stands up even to modern levels of scrutiny. Given an open arena specked with odd pieces of cover, you and the Covenant will trade blows, each trying to get the jump on the other as the AI does its best to out-smart you. Warrior Elites will flank or bide their time, whilst their Grunt companions seem permanently in binary states of either charging headlong or retreating post-haste. The intelligence and tactical savvy displayed is still impressive and indeed remains more than a match for current shooters.

Playing an equal part in the sandbox warfare that Halo thrives upon is your extensive weapons cache. Very rarely has a game created such a tightly tuned arsenal, with each firearm having a unique role meaning that none are useless when deployed in the correct situation. From the shield-draining plasma pistol to the dependable and Flood-thinning assault rifle; the versatile and powerful pistol to the explosive potential of the Needler; each is distinctive in its approach. Throw enough projectiles at anything and eventually they will succumb, but knowing which tool to use in the heat of battle is the key. Even years on, there’s a sense of smugness that comes from draining a high-ranking Elite’s shield with an overcharged plasma bolt before one-shotting it between the eyes.

And with the introduction of the Flood, weapon choices become even more crucial as what works against the Covenant is rarely effective against these diseased, space zombies. The interplay between the two alien species is enough to not only introduce a very subtle and clever difficulty curve as you plot just how to tackle both sides simultaneously, but it also produces some of the finest organic set-pieces in gaming. From close quarters fighting in the corridors of the Pillar of Autumn or across a snow-covered field where mortar tanks rain fire down upon all and sundry, just settling back and watching your two enemies duke it out is a wonder. Seeing them attempt to employ the same sneaky stunts they pull on you, diving out the way of grenades or simply beating down Grunts with gleeful abandon, you observe the sandbox at its best.

Not all facets have survived the test of time so well, however. As engaging as the open expanses of the Covenant hanger bays and the wide pastures of Halo are, the inner corridors of each border on tedious. The middle levels – starting from the latter half of otherwise tremendous Silent Cartographer through to The Library – in particular suffer from a large amount of repetition, exacerbated further by their close-quarter nature. Later Halos have seen fit to allow breadth even if forcibly channelling the player, and leaping back so far in the evolution of the series you can see why as The Library still lives in infamy.

Most criticisms have obviously been addressed in later releases but, nevertheless, travelling back to the origins you can see how far it has progressed. Melee attacks are weak and feeble wafts of a gun butt, jumping feels as though you are doing so on the moon, and lack of boost on Ghosts is almost criminal. Combat Evolved is also brutally difficult. Even veterans, who will have softened over time, will cry in frustration at the sheer number of times they are blown up, beaten down, and generally schooled by the alien oppressors.

By comparison, there also exist modern-day problems, most notably in the retexturing of the environment where certain elements have been overworked. Although the world of Installation 04 is now gifted with greater colour and detail, certain visual cues have been made either far too subtle or lost altogether. Certain Flood infested corridors became a maze that I only escaped when switching back to the old graphics, whilst an overabundance of snow means at points a similar retreat to 2001 is required for anyone wishing to see more than five metres in front of their Mjolnir visor.

As a final nod to the current positioning of the Xbox, Kinect support has also been included. Able to activate a tactical view of the battlefield (akin to that seen in ODST) whilst also scanning weapons and creatures into to a virtual library, it offers a novel if not essential extra. Multiplayer too is included and sees an update, although this is through Reach’s already exemplary online execution being packaged on the same disc complete with classic map remakes.

The danger of going back to the classics of yesteryear is rudely discovering that they were very much a product of their time. To Halo’s huge credit it still stands testament with the vast majority of what it brought to a fledgling console ten-years ago. It’s easy to bemoan the niggles that were since ironed out in Halo 2 and beyond, but that the core gunplay and intelligent adversaries are unmoving in their ability to one-up shooters a decade its junior reveals what a legacy Bungie have left for Microsoft.

8 /10

Sonic Generations | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Having spent quite some time with Sonic Generations, I think I’ve put my finger on just where the series has gone a cropper: bullet points.

As gamers, before we hand over £40 for our game of choice, we partake in something tantamount to bullying; demanding that if the developers ever wish to take our cash that innovation and new shiny buzz words need to be latched on to our favourite games. They sit proudly on the back of the box, one after another, each promising us a bigger and better experience, bullet point after bullet point. For some franchises this is fine, the FIFAs of this world seem to thrive on it; someone like Sonic, however, hasn’t faired so well. We’ll give him a two-tailed fox, but after that each extra addition clogged the series until here we sit twenty-years later with the obligatory what-happened-to-Sonic opening statement.

Generations does away with all that. There are no werehogs, no magic lamps, no firearms, and, gratefully, no human love interests, restoring Sonic back to a position where he has nothing but the purity of platforming. He can run, jump and spin, and that’s all he needs to get by.

Or rather, both of them can run, jump and spin. A maniacal, floating, purple enemy known as the Time Eater has sucked up both the podgy 2D Sonic of yesteryear and the smug 3D Sonic of today and has deposited them in a world where colour and time has drained away. There reside blanched versions of levels from throughout the whole of the blue hedgehog’s timeline, each caught in a strange limbo which hides away one of Sonic’s many chums. Setting aside any possible paradoxes, the pair resolve to bring colour back to the land, find their friends, and defeat the Time Eater.

Each level has a 2D and 3D variant, allowing you to sample the best of both worlds. Yet, stripped of the superfluous mechanics that has blighted a good many of Sega’s mascot’s outings, it’s easy to see just how the speedy sprite made a name for himself. From looping the loop in the quintessentially Sonic Green Hill Zone to running full pelt along the undulating, toxic pipes of the Chemical Plant, fond memories rush back. Nostalgia needn’t be a factor either as these are no quick remakes, instead they are newly created levels inspired by the past. Most prove successful in their transition from the flat world of the Mega Drive to the polygon rich world we live in today, marrying speed, traditional platforming and the need for sneaky alternate routes.

Many will seem sprawling labyrinths the first time you dash through but as each route intertwines with the others it’s not so much about picking the right one but the quickest one. Nail each jump and you’ll be rewarded with a swift journey through the level, bypassing platforming speed bumps and cruising to the finish. Miss the jump and though your experience won’t be fast, you’ll definitely get to see more as you work your way back up through the maze until you are once again in sight of the fast lane.

At times it does seem a little too fast though, with the visuals lacking the crispness or camera movements required to take everything in at breakneck speed. Old Sonic may have had his world rounded-out, but at full-pelt, jumps and springs are gone before you’ve had a chance to react. As levels progress and become more obstacle strewn this becomes less of an issue, but early sprints do feel as though they require as much muscle memory as they do twitch-reactions.

New Sonic handles speed far better. Although quite happy to dabble in a bit of side-on action too, when he hits his stride the camera tucks in behind him and does its best to keep up. Showcasing his pace, the action turns into a slot-racer, with dabs on the shoulder buttons flicking Sonic left and right. This may sound controversial, complementing the precise movement of the analogue stick with an easy option, but such is the reaction required that it’s a welcome addition when dashing back and forth across lanes.

In quite a reversal from its flatter companion, it’s when the 3D sections slow down that the flaws begin to show. Platforming in an extra dimension requires far more assistance from the camera and Generations is not willing to offer any. Certain tricky sections, usually when trying to navigate back to the fast lane, seem to have the camera stuck on a preset path, insisting on moving or changing angles at the most inopportune moments. During large open sections or when trying to lock-on to enemies this is barely a niggle, but when balancing on walkways no wider than Doctor Eggman’s belly then a sudden shift can prove fatal.

Most of the levels are well constructed and considered enough that such experiences happen infrequently. Each offers their own set of baddies and trademark obstacles to overcome, from the swinging robot arms of Planet Wisp to the runaway truck contained within City Escape. Indeed, seeing old Sonic and just how he handles that first cross-over into the world of the Dreamcast is something decidedly odd, as if a fourth wall has been broken down, and yet it is handled wonderfully.

Not all domains stand up to scrutiny, though. The game is frontloaded with the best of the levels whilst the last three are a definite mix bag. Crisis City in particular, stolen from the 2006 version of Sonic the Hedgehog, is one that I will never be setting foot in again.

With both new and old Sonic, these minor flaws do little to detract from the experience. Sega have gone to great lengths to ensure that each one plays to its own strengths and possibly the inclusion of both have stopped the other trying to shoehorn in unwanted extras that would only detract from the purity of experience.

As each level is conquered and coloured, a number of challenges are unlocked. With the vast size of each of the levels, the chance to be shown an area you may have missed is a welcome one. Sonic can be tasked with anything from a freeing trapped animals from Eggman’s capsules, racing against his older/younger self, using Tails to help him cross a divide, surviving on just a single ring, and many other variants that extends the life time for those who aren’t content with beating their previous time through the environment.

On a more practical level, completing these goes some way to unlocking boss battles. Collect enough and a gateway will open, sucking through our hero as he faces down a huge enemy. Sadly, although the enemies may be huge, the battles themselves are uninspiring, usually involving navigating an arena until you’re in such a position as to execute a rudimentary quick-time-event. Although many of Sonic’s nemeses have had predictable attack patterns in the past, there used to be a knack of getting in and bopping them a few times before having to retreat. Here with the QTEs it’s so prescribed that the victories feels very hollow.

Such battles won’t be what keep you interested in Sonic Generations and it is the return to basics that has done both 2- and 3D Sonic the world of good. Marred only by my general misgivings of modern Sonic’s suitability to open worlds and occasional drop in standards in level design, developers Sonic Team have gone along way to atoning for years of animal cruelty. The classic levels sit extremely well with the more cinematic and showy modern incarnation of everyone’s favourite rodent, and it is that separation that has allowed each to play to their strengths.

As for bullet points, if Sega still feel compelled then may I suggest: simplicity is the key. Hopefully a lesson they will remember for the next 20 years.

7 /10

The War of the Worlds | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

There are few openings to books that carry such delicious intrigue as H. G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds. There’s a weight to the words that always fills me with anticipation of what is to come, be it from the classic radio production or Jeff Wayne’s musical. And now, thanks to Other Ocean Interactive, that list now features another name as their XBLA adaptation of the classic book enlists Patrick Stuart as the narrator.

Our Thespian’s practised and dulcet tones introduce this space oddity as you, Arthur, ride an evening train into the heart of the London. Strolling down the carriage’s length, the countryside flashes past on either side whilst the radiant colours of a sunset light up the horizon. Though as our narrator continues proceedings take a dark turn and the sky fills with cylinders raining down from the heavens, bringing a Mars born chaos and your train to an unceremonious halt.

Pulling yourself from the wreckage, this Arcade release reveals itself as a 2D platformer, very much in the same vein as Another World or the original Prince of Persia. You run and leap over the carnage of your derailed carriage, bidding to escape into the capital and all the while Mr Stuart feeding us lines about the horrors unfolding around you. The tale places you on a search for your family, risking the infested streets to find out what has become of your brother and your love.

However, the sense of this being a narrative driven experience disappears relatively quickly as you come to terms with your surroundings. The bulk of proceedings involve clambering through buildings looking for the next exit or simply turning tail and running as fast as you can away from the extraterrestrial invaders. Although the concept in of itself is not necessarily flawed and indeed ties in with the tale, the unforgiving nature of the accompanying design harks back to the early 90s and shatters the illusion of the world.

Controls prove anything but smooth as Arthur scales the station scaffolding, never feeling truly reactive. Whilst leaping up to grab overhanging ledges requires a level of precision, this is not too helpful when attempting to hastily escape the might of an alien race. Frantically struggling to reposition yourself so that you may pull yourself to safety is one thing, but dying whilst continually jumping and bouncing your head off a low ceiling because you appear to be five pixels out is quite another.

There are a lot of ways to die, not least by your own hand. For a protagonist who has chosen to take to the rooftops for much of his escape, Arthur can barely survive any sort of fall. Mistimed jumps are not uncommon when exploring and yet here they often prove fatal, causing such a cautious approach as to run contrary to your urgency to escape.

The Martians also prove extremely effective at ridding you from the world with grand shows of excessive force. An early encounter sees a giant walker stride down a London street, people scattering in front of it whilst it lets fire its death ray; the run across Hyde Park’s warzone and upturned tanks despite the countless alien sentries patrolling the skies; or the frantic office block escape as it fills with poisonous black smoke. All provide dramatic setpieces for the artists and voice talent to work wonders with, but each are executed in such a manner that they lack any refinement causing them to be, at times, excruciating to play. The death ray requires unintuitive and precise positioning in hiding behind irregular lifesaving blockades; sentries fly random and nonsensical patterns causing evasion to be purely based on luck; while the escape from the smoke actually forces you to run through fire, a completely counterintuitive move for the survival instinct of any player. The frustration truly comes from so many of these annoyances being so easily addressable. Just a little more consideration for the player is required and each one feels hard for hard’s sake.

When instead War of the Worlds focuses on the setting a scene or progressing the tale, it does so with aplomb. Certain chapters exist solely for the purpose of allowing our hero to enter into a monologue, examining his situation and the plight of the world in a manner that you wish the rest of the game could match the standard it sets.

Even visually it succeeds, capturing a London of years’ past. Although a 2D adventure, the backgrounds are layered and range far into the distance. Forays across the rubble strewn streets will see the destruction go on for great distances behind your plane creating a great sense of scale, especially as beastly tripods roam the horizon. Similarly, your rooftop adventures sees the skyline stretch on and on, giving yet further glimpses into the damage inflicted on the nation’s capital.

The goodwill earned with each cinematic escape from the platforming is however always expediently crushed. Instant death is never far away, with a series of poorly chosen checkpoints compounding matters further.

The brutal difficulty will cause countless numbers to give up before even the half way point. Whether that was an intentional choice to mask the compact nature of the content or simply a release blighted by outdated and poor design, it’s hard to say. What is certain is that War of the Worlds is a missed opportunity. It could have been a wonderful narrative lead, visual wonder, carrying you along for the ride. As it stands, enjoy the opening cutscene; it’s downhill from there.

4 /10

Kirby: Mass Attack | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Mario is a flexible character. Running, jumping, fighting, racing, athletics, baseball, tennis, football, basketball, party games; he’s a veritable decathlete, but at times I feel he’s phoning it in. Stuck in the titular role and never able to stray too far from his comfort zone, he’s a definite safe, if unexciting, bet.

And then we have Kirby, a veritable chameleon of a mascot; albeit a decidedly pink chameleon. His gameography is a smorgasbord of variety; from his classic platforming days of Dream Land through to his Line Rider-esque Canvas Curse, our bloated little friend has been anything but pigeon-holed. He’s branched out and experimented with the possibilities of the touch screen, tried his hand as a golf ball, and even spent a whole year pretending to be a ball of yarn, all because he’s free of the burden and pressure that comes with being a Mario.

Mass Attack again sees Kirby trying something new. Although this time he’s gone to pieces. Literally.

An evil power has invaded the Popopo Islands and is spreading across the land. Its leader, Necrodeus, catches Kirby unawares and splits him into ten, each copy having only a fraction of our hero’s greatness. Besting nine, Necrodeus turns his attention on the only one standing between him and control of the islands. Thankfully, jumping on a passing star, Kirby escapes, regroups, and thus prepares to take back the land from the dark invaders.

He’s nothing if not hardy, and we take control of the lone Kirby bumbling his way through green fields at the start of his travels. Control is solely handled by the stylus. Tap it to the screen and he’ll follow its point, the level scrolling as you reach the screen’s edge. Similarly, flick your stylus across Kirby’s path and he’ll leap as though a pink projectile in the same direction. It’s a neat, simple system, minimising the need to obscure the action and easily capable of allowing you and Kirby to set off on a platforming adventure.

Inevitably along the way there are friends of Necrodus who wish to interrupt the ramble and, as adorable as they may be, it’s kill or be killed. Unlike more traditional platformers though, there’s no need to jump on anyone’s head here. Tap on an enemy and Kirby will head straight for them, fists flailing, as though he’s learned this particular form of martial arts from watching my wife play Wii Boxing.

Being but a fraction of his former self however, the monster will soon shake him off. From Kirby’s point of view, this is rather embarrassing. It’s like a former England international insisting to play on in the Conference, and to this end he does what a Kirby does best to right this indignity: eat. Scoff enough of the fruit lying about the world or dropped by defeated foes and you will soon summon another Kirby, both of whom can be thrown about and sent into battle. Continue filling their pink bellies and another and another will appear until eventually you have all ten Kirbys fighting for your attention.

Having ten run and bump into each other as you direct them across the screen is utterly charming. They won’t all space out and walk like ducklings following their mother, these fellows feel like young siblings squabbling to get the best of their brethren. They’ll clump on top of each other, all jostling for position, and then, when called into action, bravely dash forward with the same mob mentality, fighting to be first into the brawl.

Unsurprisingly, such fights become much easier once the squad size has risen. Small critters crumble under the flurry of blows, and only the much larger creatures will ever brush off your first wave of attack. To such an end, most enemies you meet prove no bother, simply an excuse to see your decakirbhedron break out into the animation where they look all flustered and furious.

Where the challenge lies is in leaving an enemy alone for too long. Some might just try and punch you quite hard, but others will fire electric bolts, encase you in purple jars or even try and carry you away. Very rarely does a creature out-and-out kill you, instead they aim to impede, or sneak one of you merry band away. It’s a very forgiving experience. Even if a Kirby is terminally injured – having already turned a sorry looking blue to warn you of his fragile state – that’s not the end. They will rise angel-like towards the heavens and should one of the surviving Kirbys grab them before they disappear, then they’re back in the fight. This is a game where everything possible is done to keep you in the fight and keep frustrations to an absolute minimum.

As such, the only real test of mettle comes with frequent boss battles that mark the end of each of the world’s areas. From boulder-spitting pigs that live in volcanoes to piranha plants determined to shake you off of a giant see-saw, there’s a diversity in both boss and battle that can make you eager to see just what pickle you’re going to be dropped into next. Between balancing on a constantly toppling tower, to counter-weighting an evil’s clock’s dials, so many try and bring out different the facets of controlling a herd it only occasionally feels repeated. Admittedly, very little cannot be achieve by hurling Kirby after Kirby at the problem, but it’s all about finding that opening.

Although they start out relatively straight, the levels also start adding in bags of variation. Early stages will deem it enough that you know how to run and jump and simply find the exit, but as you progress through deserts and forests then a series of secret passages, timed gates and alternate routes will see your pace slow as you look to unlock hidden treasures. The platforming itself is not difficult and precision is not a factor so these and other distractions unique to each world help keep Kirby’s adventures fresh.

On one hand these diversions are as simple as a fresh set of enemies with as yet unseen powers, but every now and again something truly special will crop up. There’s nothing like popping through a door and finding that on the other side is a tank that you cannot only pilot but fire Kirbys out of the barrel. Or maybe a giant game of pinball where, once again, our pink friend plays the role of the ball. These oddities are delightful and make you wonder whether you’ve accidentally gone into the Extras menu, which itself is home to a handful of mini-games that are of a surprising quality given their status.

In fact, Mass Attack seems nothing but a large collection of deviations, content never to leave you alone for too long a period without changing it all up again. The first portion of the game lulls players into a false sense of security, bedding them down that they’re about to embark on a relatively straight forward platformer before slowly releasing the trickle of distractions. The sheer breadth of the variety goes a long way in masking the lack of challenge, but at times you do feel as though certain sections are but window dressing to cover some of the basic shortcomings.

Therefore the latest Kirby continues to mark him as somewhat of a risk taker, striking out and doing a lot of different and unique things. Most are successful, but every adventure falls just short in carrying a consistent quality. And that definitely something that could be learnt from his moustachioed comrade: he may be safe, but he’s nothing if not consistent.

7 /10

We Sing: UK Hits | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

We take pride in our review scale here at 7outof10. We may be named – tongue in cheek – after the quaint notion that seven is considered the new average in some quarters, but that doesn’t stop us using the whole ten point scale where necessary. With that comes the understanding that five is thoroughly average; showing neither the spark to elevate the game at hand into the upper half of the scale, or offending us enough to drop the poor soul towards numbers that even a two-year-old would be happy wrestling with.

It’s often very hard to find such a game. Usually there is something about a title that tries to be at the very least, for better or for worse, different. Those efforts alone are usually enough to warrant a reaction and cause the score-needle to shift on its dial at least a fraction.

After many years of trying, however, I believe I have found such a game.

There is nothing at all intrinsically wrong with We Sing: UK Hits. As a karaoke game it ticks all the right boxes and is fundamentally solid, capable of standing up to the most tone deaf, X-Factor wannabes. Offering a wide range of British pop classics, a selection of game modes, and support for up to four microphones, Nordic Games laid some sensible foundations. For me, the issue is that they never pushed on from that.

The presentation is the first aspect to suffer, lacking anything that could be considered a distinguishing mark. Menus are backed by images of Big Ben replete with his clanging tones, quintessentially British red telephone boxes, and silhouettes of the London Eye, all emphasising the point that this is a UK edition of the now established franchise, but compared to Sing Star and Dance Central no personality leaps out. Everything is functional but little more.

Put a mic in your hand and that feeling doesn’t change greatly. As with all good karaoke games, the appropriate music video is played in the background whilst the lyrics flash up and lead you through the song. Pitch bars highlight as you hit the notes, giving helpful clues as where to aim your larynx, and come the end you’ll be presented with a score for your efforts.

Again, it all works, but an absence of a couple of notable features seen in other franchises again make you feel as though much more could have been packed into the product if only they had wanted to put in the effort. Most problematic for me and my dubious ear is the lack of what pitch is I’m currently singing in. Displaying where I should be on the scale is next to useless if I don’t know if I’m being asked to sing higher or lower. Although, to balance the argument, this had lead to some extremely amusing moments as singers have gone up and down the scale searching for the much sought after note.

As always when others get involved with party games, the odd niggle you thought was abundantly clear is forgotten almost entirely and you spend as much time laughing at others as you do holding the mic yourself. A healthy mix of pass the mic, score chasing, duets and a few additional modes are all contained within and provide a reasonable variety to proceedings, though it will be UK Hits biggest selling point that will keep the party going.

The 40 songs that come packed on the disc covers all decades since the 60s and equally as many music styles. From the modern day with Tinie Tempah and Jessie J the carousel will spin and present you with David Bowie or The Animals. Rap, pop, cheese, indie and everything in between is catered for, including an enjoyable nugget of 90s with Radiohead, Pulp, Blur and Happy Mondays. Once again, overall, musical choice is definitely something that you cannot knock Nordic Games for. They even have everyone’s secrete guilty pleasure: Mr Rick Astley.

And it will be the songs that people will pick up We Sing for. A browse of the back of the box and if enough of the bullet-pointed tracks pique their interest then that’s the decision made. To many it won’t matter that there are no online leaderboards, no downloadable content or that what they are about to play is the personification of a game that does just enough but no more.

We Sing: UK Hits is inoffensive. As a product is does exactly what it set out to do and, depending on your taste in music, possibly achieves even a little more than that. As an experience, though, it’s a little soulless. But is it bad? No. Is it great? No. I think we know where this is heading.

5 /10

Rage | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

You’ll soon notice it.

Keep on moving and it won’t even register, but stand still or cock your head and there it will be: the textures popping in as if a team of tiny set dressers are hurriedly unpacking the environment as you saunter through, desperately trying to keep pace. In a second objects will turn from a muddied smudges to something crisp and wonderful as the post-apocalyptic wasteland that you find yourself stuck in is brought into sharp relief.

It’s glorious.

Rage sets about elevating the dour and grey standard of worlds torn asunder. Fallout may have had a grandeur about the scope of its depiction but the level of fidelity that id have injected into their future Earth rarely fails to impress. From the decaying and mutant filled city to the tribal clans in their canyons that infest the wasteland, freedom is repeatedly granted to the art team to cut loose and pack the background with as much variety as a Blu-ray can hold.

Surfaces are covered with posters, graffiti, wear and abuse. Clan iconography and idols tower above pathways, and, rather than being there simply to ferry you between choke points, every room has a purpose. Nothing is left flat and unloved with every texture pop is worth it for the life that’s injected into this barren world. There’s no cut-and-paste here, every aspect feels unique and lived in.

Furthermore, walk through any of the hideouts or communities and whilst your route is found to be a comparatively linear corridor shooter, no expense is spared in giving the illusion that you are investigating a veritable warren. Beyond pipework, halls and walkways can be glimpsed; a minor rock fall may be an unfortunate obstacle from allowing you access to a curious path; and always there are alcoves and short passage ways spanning off from the main path inviting you to see what titbits they hide.

In the wasted future, however, stand staring at the beauty of a particularly lovely rusted pipe tied with exquisitely rendered rags for too long and it’s common knowledge that a deranged bandit is more than likely going to try to kill you, for no other reason than that is what happens in the wasted future. Upholding that tradition, Rage barely even tries to disguise this pretence and scraps together a hackneyed plot to place a gun in your hand and a bandit in your ironsights.

The forced nature and speed at which you transition from awakening from a pre-Apocalypse stasis pod to being sent out on your first bandit hunt is extremely jarring. The unquestioning nature in which your mute protagonist picks up arms is quite at odds with the grander story that unfolds. Dubious origins firmly ignored, you move from settlement to settlement building up a reputation as a saviour, solving each one’s problems (i.e. bandits), before setting your sights on the oppressive ruling regime, The Authority.

Though the progression is similar in structure to that found in GTA, each movement allows for a welcome variety to be injected through a change of colourful characters, bandit clans and new upgrades to your various weapons. All add extra incentive to advance but the meat of your experience is when you’ve left town and start shooting.

id’s pedigree is unquestionable and although I had initial doubts about whether their classical shooter style would fit in landscape, they have without doubt moved with the trends and evolved. The strength of the first-person experience is impressive, and made so by a range of aspects working together in harmony. Solid level design and shrewd AI combine with a multitude of satisfying weaponry, ammunition and gadgets to produce an experience fitting of the impressive graphical sheen.

The guns, your main companion, are made up of pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper and crossbow, and although unspectacular to name each plays their own role. So much so, in fact, that even very late in the campaign I would ensure each was suitably stocked ammo before proceeding. In the case of the sniper and shotgun this was for necessity of play-style, whilst the alternate ammunition for the others proved invaluable in certain tricky situations. Be it mind-controlling darts, explosive shells or armour piercing rounds, the spread of abilities meant a constant rotation of firearms.

Need for such variety of munitions is due to both the enemies and battlegrounds encountered. From your trainee bandit to an armoured and mini-gun-toting Authority commando, with a dash of mutant somewhere in the middle, each had their own slant on how best they thought to kill you. On-rushing mutant waves give way to the Authority’s high-tech dropships deploying reinforcements just when you think you’ve broken the back of their assault, each faction present their own set of tactical challenges in the midst of battle.

Enemies hug cover with a vengeance, never allowing you too much of a clean shot until they take a chance to have a pop in your direction. Don’t expect flanking or ingenious counter assaults; these AI provide a service whereby they don’t do anything stupid but similarly don’t show flashes of Deep Blue. They’re there to be shot and whilst run-and-gun is a definite but risky option to negate their cover, those who prefer a more cautious approach have more than just bullets at your disposal.

A wealth of gadgetry is available to those willing to invest in the schematics on sale from vendors. High explosive grenades, bombs lashed to RC cars and sentry bots resembling Clone War rejects are at your disposal if you’ve collected enough of the tat lying about the land. Drop down a couple of turrets and cobble together a robot and you’ve created yourself a mini-fortress, capable of fending off the strongest of attacks. Alternatively, why not use the local flora to mix up a brew capable of doubling damage and increasing your resistance to damage?

Greatest of all gadgets however is your resuscitator, capable – via a quick mini-game of rapidly pushing thumbsticks – of kick starting your heart and granting you a second chance. In a game where auto-saves are few and far between, this extra level of leniency is a well thought through addition.

Although all this paints a bleak picture, the life of a wastelander isn’t all about fighting for survival. There are plenty of side quests and distractions to tempt you off of the main campaign, most of which are happy to reward you with vehicle upgrades, schematics or just good old fashioned cold hard cash. Many will send you into the lairs of bandits and mutants alike, recycling the highly detailed environments to make sure they pay for their lavish construction. The reuse is never an issue, as it would have been a crime to step foot but once in some levels.

There’s a healthy racing component hidden within most settlements, too. Jump into a buggy and you’ll endulge in time trials and checkpoint races, more often than not armed with rockets to add spice to proceedings. The races prove a useful testing ground for when you take your ride out into the wasteland, which itself is teeming with rogue vehicles and marked jumps to distract you further. At times these external vehicular sections can feel a little flat, merely servicing a link between gunfights, but the races can prove engaging.

Side quests aside, the campaign clocks in at a sturdy dozen hours, with the option extras adding many, many more atop of that. Throughout that time the tale keeps moving you at a pace that means no one bandit clan or settlement will grow tiring, the only shame is that some characters are left behind. The enthusiastic and spirited animation that embody many of the townsfolk allows them to spring forth from the screen, full of character, but not so much as to feel cartoony. It’s a far cry from the dead eye stare of the past that NPCs would so often greet you with, with the facial motion alone worthy of note. Even in combat the character movement is not toned down, with the wounded throwing themselves down and around with more vim and vigour than anything since the original Goldeneye.

The innate care running throughout every aspect of Rage is what brings the package together. Not one area could be considered a let-down. From the sharpness and detail imbued in the world through to the quality of the core shooter experience, it’s hard to pick holes in id’s next-gen coming of age. Their ability to at one point create a high-tension, dark forage through a mutating city and then transport you to a high octane gameshow where you’re fighting for your life and still maintain such a high quality bar is testament to their years of experience in the field.

9 /10