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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Gray Matter | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

One of the cardinal sins of videogame design is frustrating the player. Puzzles, especially when it comes to the world of point and click, often expect the player to make leaps of logical understanding using a limited set of tools. When, however, this leap is so far as to be nonsensical (see the mid-90s Discworld for a case in point) you can drive them either into acceptance that they must click everything on everything to progress or simply away.

Far worse than that, though, is when the path is blocked not by a lack of player understanding but by the game not keeping up with the player. When the puzzle can be solved or even started before the designers believes it should be, to block a solution sees the beginnings of a slippery slope. Distrust emerges, out comes the FAQs and walkthroughs, and gone is any semblance of faith in the player’s abilities.

And for all the positives that I can credit Gray Matter with, I cannot forgive it for this.

Things start entertainingly enough as a broken down bike sees Samantha Everett find her way one wet and windy night to the home of Professor David Styles, only to witness an apparent abduction on his doorstep. The plot thickens further as the next day Sam turns out to be a young, up and coming magician, and Professor Styles a world renowned neurobiologist investigating the paranormal. It’s though a lost episode of the X-Files had been set in the Oxford.

Conveniently Styles is in need of a new assistant and so Sam fills that role, starting her post by rounding up six ne’er-do-wells (read: students) to take part in his studies. So begins your quest, collecting any item that isn’t nailed down, listening to all those around you, and attempting to coerce, bribe and trick those same people into helping you achieve your, and your new boss’, goals.

One interesting addition is Sam’s talents as a magician and how they can be woven into the plot. Rather than, say, just clicking on a private letter to whisk it away to your inventory, Sam needs to set up a sleight of hand trick that employs distraction and some light fingered prowess to switch it with a similar object so her victim is none the wiser. The employment of such techniques manages not only to explain how the protagonist can get away with such unusual acts but also adds a further level of depth to your adventures. Not all tricks can simply be performed without preparation as props need collecting and the stage setting before they can be pulled off.

Control switches between Sam and Styles meaning you also get to witness first hand his continuing grief for his late wife. His research is fuelled by keeping her memory alive and so don’t be surprised if he is rather melancholic, leading him to look wistfully on most aspects of his life.

The degree of thought required for most puzzles is well pitched so as to be challenging but not so much as to leave you beating the desk in frustration, and most require a combination of knowledge of what’s to hand and some lateral thinking. The design is lean enough to block off irrelevant parts of the town that would otherwise offer nothing but red herrings, and those that are accessible are nicely colour coded to indicate whether you have done all you need to there.

Where it all begins to go wrong is in the inflexibility of your progression. A great example of this being reasonably early on when Styles is collecting mementos of his wife to help in his latest experiment. Off round the house I go identifying dress, photos and wine amongst other things, but find myself with a complete inability to actually pick them up. Much time passes with little movement on the task and so in frustration I look further afield. To my utter annoyance it turns out that to allow myself to pick said items up I need to examine Sam’s motorbike and then talk to the housekeeper about it. Quite why that particular gem prevents me from progressing is beyond me, but it is definitely not an isolated occurrence. On at three other occasions I thought I had softlocked myself (once I actually had done and had to restart the game in its entirety) only finding from FAQs that I had gotten ahead of the game logic.

If a shooter failed to recognise headshots, an RPG robbed you of XP, or a tennis game falsely calls a ball out, you wouldn’t stand for it. Why should it be any different here?

4 /10

Windows Phone 7 | Round-up #4

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

i love Katamari

And indeed I do. Combining psychedelic themes with whacky J-pop and a royal with a penchant for kleptomania, this unique experience has seen me roll away many happy hours over the years. And whilst the concept arrives on the Windows Phone unhindered – that of rolling a sticky ball about the world, collecting anything that it touches providing it’s big enough – the execution is flawed.

Rather than detach the player from the ball by a virtual joypad, Namco have opted for a motion control scheme whereby the Katamari is moved about as the phone is tipped and tilted. Although fine in principle, it proves incredibly twitchy with fine grain movements tricky at best and turning on the spot being be nigh on impossible.

Given a handful of the story levels where narrow paths must be navigated to roll up specific items, this lack of fidelity is supremely frustrating and most likely a deal breaker for many.

The shame is that behind the controls is the traditional Katamari magic with environments that see you progress from rolling up crabs on the beach to consuming whole submarines. Taking in table tops, towns, parks and oceans, the sense of progression in scale is as always the main draw and an impressive technical feat.

Those with a track record of throwing controllers in frustration should avoid at all cost.

6/10

Zombie Attack 2

This month’s undead-themed release comes in the form of the extremely mundane Zombie Attack 2.

If the zombie apocalypse is as uninteresting as depicted here then I’m not quite sure what all the fuss is about. Cadavers shamble forward, running the gauntlet through a variety of turrets, buzz saws and automated defences that stand between them and my house, slowly being whittled to bits on the way.

Rinse and repeat for however long you can stand the grind. With no need to repair your defences, as long as you’ve set your lines of sight correctly and upgraded them to the right level then your only concern is the phone putting itself to sleep.

What lets Zombie Attack down is the complete lack of variety or challenge. You will be troubled by half-a-dozen visually unique walking dead, but most turrets couldn’t care less whether it’s a Flesh Beast or a Winged Horror coming into view, the result is always the same. As such, spamming one or two different weapons is usually enough to eradicate any problems. And fun.

3/10

Tiki Towers

Construction games are all well and good, but we now live in a place and time where merely citing “Physics!” as one your game features will do little to increase sales. Knowing this, GameHouse have been cunning and added the one thing on this planet that is a guaranteed byword for fun. No, not a bear in a fez; monkeys.

Although this could be disregarded as somewhat of a gimmick, it is the energy of the monkeys that add to an otherwise well-worn formula. With their inclusion, the bamboo constructs must not just be stable enough to bridge a gap or scale a sheer cliff face, but sufficiently resilient to take a quintet of excitable simians bouncing and swinging from its frame.

Their kinetic force can be put to good use, too. Swings, trapezes and Indianna Jones style rolling boulders can all be built to bridge gaps that a traditional static structure would fail miserably at. All in all, these more dynamic constructions allow Tiki Towers to stand out from its brethren and prove to be its strongest facet. And not least because it means that should your tower snap in two, the resultant mess might just surprise you and be enough for the monkeys to swing and clamber to their goal unexpectedly.

Some may say that an occasionally temperamental building interface lets it down, but you’d have to be pretty harsh to mark down what is otherwise one of the best offerings on the platform.

8/10

Torchlight | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Just what on earth is going on? The last thing I knew was that I was having a quiet poke around a Dwarven stronghold when a dozen of the local greenskins took umbrage at my presence and started waving their big choppas at me. Nobly my dog jumped to my aid, calling to his side a pack of zombies; not wanting to be showed up, I summoned a phalanx of floating, flaming swords; and before you know it my pet imps have waded into the carnage, teeth bared. Between all that and the lightning I’m casting from my fingertips and the fireballs from the hound, I can’t see a bloody thing.

And that’s because Torchlight is not afraid to fill the screen with “stuff”. Some adventure games live by moderation, but that seems a dirty word around the Runic Games studio. For when two-dozen, oversized spiders can leap on you, why not even things up by chucking as much as you can back at them?

Whether you begin your heroic career as a brawler, an assassin or a mage in this top-down, dungeon crawling, action RPG, you’ll be given access to a host of over-the-top talents and traits to learn and abuse. Be it stomp attacks that sends enemies tumbling in an explosion of blue of light, whirling blades of doom that flash around the screen on green arcs, or bringing forth a mob of lumbering and solemn golems; your potency in combat will soon extend to far more than that which you initially wield in your inexperienced hand.

Combat is both frantic and satisfying; with vast swathes of colours appear on screen as the wide array of attacks hit back and forth, accompanied by suitable bangs and crackles you land a particularly devastating hit. Though fighting styles may vary, all are easy to execute. On the PC, Torchlight proved a very compelling Diablo-lite, trimming back much of the RPG fat, and so the transition to the home console has been achieved mostly seamlessly. Powers can be easily mapped to the face buttons, toggling between sets if you learn more than there are things to press, and the complexity of battle is such that you need to do no more attack at the right time, and heal when necessary.

Having taken on the role of the mage, I found myself settling into a routine. I would throw out my skeletal archers as a defensive wall, from which I would target fireballs at the most vicious targets whilst my imps attacked whoever they pleased. Quick dalliances with the other classes revealed more traditional beat-em-up styles, but I just couldn’t get away from the joy of controlling a magical army.

Those looking for something deeper than all out offence might want to reconsider, as Torchlight, although of hardcore persuasion (it’s team made up of ex-Diable, Mythos and Fate developers), has turned its back on that side of the hobby. Inventory, talents, upgrades, all have been streamlined to reduce the numbers, stats, and prerequisites required to understand how to build a powerful hero. There still exist numbers and attributes to compare, but to a lesser extent than even a modern Fallout.

Even the surroundings appear to be from byword for accessible fantasy, namely World of Warcraft, with a slight rounding and softening to more traditional settings. This isn’t high-fantasy, but a bright coloured world with strong themes, from the ratman infested mines to the goblin riddled dwarf stronghold, the lizardman’s exotic cavern through to the dragon lairs below. Each theme has its own strong sense of identity, in looks and level design, and continually refreshes the experience.

With the emphasis on such an audio and visual experience, there are times however when the clarity of what is unfolding can become muddied. Getting enveloped by a horde, be it your own minions or those seeking to do you harm, there is little way of telling (apart from your diminishing health) that things could be amiss. As much fun as sending two tides against each other can be, control of the situation is always just a fraction of a second away from being lost and even when you become a widely renowned hero, complacency can never be ignored.

It’s not the only downside to the sheer quantity of magical beings chucked, and on the Xbox 360 the framerate can be seen to dip during particular set-tos. Furthermore, attempting to pick up the loot that has been dropped in the latest skirmish is annoying difficulty thanks to the number of bodies on screen. This infuriating issue can be overcome, but far too often I found myself walking off in one direction, only to suddenly double back, leaving my minions, hammering A, and attempting to pick up said loot before they once more flocked around me like chicks around mother hen and get in my way.

Despite that, I wouldn’t have it any other way, as it’s those features that make Torchlight. The cartoonish nature, the over the top effects and excessively flamboyant talents are the reason why I went from level to level, plundering these quite probably innocent and unassuming creatures’ homes, in want of loot and XP so I could buy my next set of perks. From turning your pet into a troll through feeding him a fish you caught, to fighting monsters that cause the screen to shake as they walk, everything is larger than life, but never pushes too far as to be parody.

In the same way that the original Saints Row satiated my desire for a Grand Theft Auto before the release of IV, then maybe Torchlight can keep some Diablo III fans company in the meantime.

8 /10

3DS | Pricewatch

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

The launch of the 3DS is now just three weeks away. And whilst it may be coming out the same day as the new iPad, it is only Nintendo who are going to be getting my cash come 25th March.

The portable 3D device has already launched to great success in Japan, shifting 400,000 copies in its opening weekend, with a projected 3.5m sales worldwide by the end of this month. Of course projections are one thing, but with a smattering of reviews and first impressions finding their ways across the Internet, it’s fair to say that I too am now sold on investing in Nintendo’s latest curveball to the industry.

Our hands on last July went a great way towards selling me on the concept, but early reports of a £250 pricetag almost entirely dashed my enthusiasm for early adoption. Thankfully market conditions have brought that number down somewhat (although its still more expensive than any of the current generation of home consoles), but I was surprised at just how blanket the prices – and the offers – were across the board.

If you too are shopping around, let me save you some of the legwork and roundup just what the major retailers have on offer when it comes to the 3DS.

Retailer

Price

Offers

Game
prices

Amazon

£196.99

Plus
selected game for £20

£29.91

Play

£196.99

None

£29.99-£35.49

Game

£196.99

None

£34.99

GameStation

£196.99

None

£34.99

ShopTo

£199.85

None

£29.86-£34.85

ASDA

£199
(online only)

Plus
selected game for £15 (in store only)

n/a

Tesco

£197

None

£34.90

Sainsbury’s

£199

1,000
bonus Nectar points

£34.99

So it’s pretty much even across the board, with even a distinctly poor showing when it comes to bundles to entice the consumer through their virtual doors.

Que sara. At least with a meagre two pounds and a penny between highest and lowest price, you should know that if you can find a 3DS for around the £200 mark you know that’s about fair.

A World of Keflings | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I’m going to be straight with you; this review of Kingdom for Keflings is hitting the site far earlier than I had originally intended. I only ventured into this Lilliputian world as a way of killing time whilst waiting for a two-gig download, and yet some four hours later my wife prods me and questions whether I am going to remove myself from the sofa at any point during the day. “Can’t you see”, I reply, “I’m building a pigeon loft for a bird the size of Mothra?”

From the off it’s all too evident why I became so engrossed in this Black & White, Sim City hybrid. Immediately the tiny folk who befriend your towering Avatar treat you to some wonderfully warming and witty dialogue. It never takes itself too seriously, and so the quests to build a suspicious pirate ship shop for Ratbeard the Merchant or seeking out the Crystal of Fluffy Puppy Dreams for the witch are effectively to see what silly utterance comes from their tiny faces next.

The meat of your involvement with the Keflings however is not one of deep conversation and sees you adopt the role of a gigantic foreman of a building site. Your Avatar wanders through their miniature world, assigning individual Keflings to specific tasks so that together they bring in enough building materials to aid them in expanding their settlement.

Picking up and placing one Kefling down on an outcrop of rock will see them pull out a pickaxe and mine stone for all their worth. Another can then be handed the task of ferrying the lot back to the village to be cut into building blocks, before a third carts that to the local factory for further processing. With a multitude of resources, and many secondary and tertiary uses, the world around which you stride soon becomes a criss-crossing pattern of Keflings as dozens scurry about. Zoom out far enough and it begins to look as though you have trained an ant colony to do your bidding.

Once processed, the raw materials can be turned into the building blocks of structures, and as you progress more and more blueprints become available to you. Some will have specific uses, such as the house which spawns new Keflings, the University where the populous can be educated, or Factory where advanced components can be manufactured. Others however, will exist purely for the reason of beautifying your world, or for the King’s own eccentricity.

Constructions can be customised with elaborate style pieces that can be shared and earned from your Friends on Live, and, as is the case with most similar experiences, no two towns will look the same. Immediately I separated my commercial district and residential area from the bureaucratic buildings I had setup as the hub. I rearranged my processing plants so that workers had to walk as little as possible, and generally found myself taking far too much pleasure from simply shoving around buildings to get the right feel to the world.

Resource management also plays a large factor in proceedings, and not just regarding natural reserves. With a finite number of Keflings to play with, collecting a balance of building materials and still having enough people on the task so that you don’t have to get your hands dirty can prove an interesting logistical challenge. As friendly as the interface can be, taking stock of what all your workforce is doing involves spying on your workers rather than pouring through screens of UI. My largest, and probably only, complaint with World of Keflings is that there is no easy way to figure out just what the hell is going on at a glance.

Generally, though, that doesn’t matter. The world isn’t going to come crashing down because too many Keflings are carrying stone rather than felling trees. Your Avatar walks around with a huge grin on his face, your minions smile like simpletons and nothing that you can do is irreparable, so relax.

The gentle nature is extremely intoxicating and Ninja Bee have set out to try and make every aspect as stress free as possible. Be it the helpers that follow you, lugging around building tiles for you, the colour coded building plans or the simple trading system, there’s little if anything that could be considered obfuscated.

If Killzone 3 is getting a little too much and you need a break, make yourself a nice hot drink and a grab biscuit, then relax with a Kefling or two.

7 /10