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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Portal 2 | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Though their idea of what conforms to “episodic” content is at odds with most of the rest of the planet, Valve not only have a knack for producing immaculately polished games but bringing through ideas that others may consider a little too outlandish for mass appeal. Bearded, nerdy protagonists? Buying up mod makers? Melting your brain as you unhinge your concept of the relative dimensions and fabric of time and space? Well, just space, but either way, it’ll never catch on.

But, boy, did it.

The first Portal blew many away with its subtle blend of humour and inventive puzzling, something that has not been lost in the intervening four years. Any worry that it was somehow a flash in the pan, a one trick pony, is swiftly put to bed as the people behind Half Life not only manage to extend the offering into a complete standalone package, but also succeed in significantly improving upon it.

What made the first such a success, tucked away inside the Orange Box, was presenting a joyful gaming amuse-bouche of the highest order. Three or four hours honed to a tee, but that sort of length would never do for a sequel. Rather than pad, however, the tale leads us on a trip through the lengths and depths of Aperture Science’s complex.

Spring-loaded platforms; bouncy, blue Propulsion Gel; speed enhancing Repulsion Gel, gravity lift-esque Excursion Funnels and hard-light bridges are all unearthed in long forgotten vaults, and each is slowly introduced to enhance the rich toolbox the puzzle designers have created to test your grey matter.

The original premise of placing rips in the very substance of the universe – or “portals” as they are so lovingly known – is always at the heart of any situation you may find yourself in, but steadily it is not just white walls you need to concern yourself with. At times portals become more a means of accessing the other tools at your disposal, and this change of tact further adds to the wondrous conundrums on offer.

Drop one end of the portal under the propulsion gel tap and place the other over there, put a spot of repulsion gel to the left and before you know it you feel like a highly trained circus performer. Bouncing and sliding, flying through the air before passing through your portal to be thrown across the map: the sensation of a high octane (or cerebral) solution is barely matched in any other digital experience.

The inclusion of additional elements also allows level design to blossom, with vast structures where exits are barely visible, adding to the feeling that everything in number two is bigger and better. And yet at no point does Portal hold your hand. There’s the odd “Press X to pull switch”, but bar the usual keen sense of direction smuggled away in lighting and understated background design, you’re left to your own devices. As such, when tricky solutions come about, you are left feeling a genius, knowing that you somehow beat this latest test of wits. The lack of patronising hints is most refreshing, especially as a considered look around your surroundings will do much a similar job.

Throughout the eight-hour campaign, ideas are never left long enough to go stale. Your initial introduction and escape from the compound with lowly droid Wheatly, voiced by one Stephen Merchant, swiftly makes way for the return of an old friend, which in turn makes way for a variety of challenges and settings that are almost unthinkable given the first Portal.

If truth be told, my biggest fear was the inclusion of Mr Merchant. The Office co-writer and general whitterer’s presence as lowly droid Wheatly had me in mind of Danny Wallace’s appearance in Assassin’s Creed 2, whose stilted performance did little for anybody. By contrast, the character and bumbling nature Merchant’s casual and superb comic timing brings to the role creates a perfect and amusing counterpoint to the dry, calculating GLaDOS. Between the pair of them they both contribute to some truly fantastic one-liners, far too numerous to be noted here.

To round the package off, if fantastic pacing and puzzling weren’t enough for you, there is a dedicated co-op campaign that’s as well-rounded as the solo equivalent. This isn’t just a second pair of hands helping you on your way, these test chambers are just as – if not more – polished, for when you’ve got four portals as opposed to two a whole new set of brain teasers can come to the fore.

Your team will require communication and timing if you are to struggle through the obstacle courses that GLaDOS has waiting for you, but their extension on the main story shows just what variety and depth can be still be extracted with just a subtle tweak on the formula. That’s if you can get over the childish fun of yoinking out portals from beneath your partners feet and sending them crashing to their doom.

Portal 2 delivers on every possible level. From the iteration and refreshment of the original, to a story that amuses and flows from beginning to end, Valve have excelled in presenting an at-times devilish puzzler that somehow makes you feel like Einstein and Superman in the same stroke. There’s no debate about it, Portal 2 will simply make your life better.

Just like smooth jazz, which will be deployed in 3… 2… 1…

10 /10

Section 8: Prejudice | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Stare into the portfolio of any artist working on a sci-fi shooter and you enter a world not too disparate to that of wine testing. There are notes of Halo’s dropships, a whiff of Mass Effect’s shaven-headed lead, and more than a soupcon of the neon lighting seen everywhere from Tron to Too Human. To stand out takes something truly remarkable, and usually that’s a blank cheque for the marketing department. Adding further to Section 8: Prejudice’s confusion, the main voice actor is none other than the voice of Crackdown; there seems very little which it can rightly call its own.

That which it can, however, is ironically the HALO jump.

Your super soldier will hurl himself out of a passing aircraft and hurtle towards the battlefield rather than lower himself to a simple spawn. The terrain below spreads out great distances to each side, but as the earth screams towards you it resolves into a theatre of conflict. One that you enter with a thud, having angled yourself to either a corner of solitude where you can sneak your way back into combat or opted for descending straight into the middle of the firefight.

The initial learning curve of multiplayer skirmishes was almost worth the monochrome screens of death just to experience plummeting headfirst back into the fray. At times quite recklessly, tempted by the prospect of landing with force directly on my killer’s head.

Of course a glorified spawn point, no matter how fun, cannot carry a game, and the strength of the multiplayer is enough to reinforce that initial rush. Though there is the standard Horde/Firefight mode where waves of enemies must be withstood, the Conquest manages to successfully marry several classic modes. Control points must be held but dynamic objectives and capture missions also appear, forcing your side to suddenly change tact as the base you have so resolutely dug in to is now no longer the focus of the opposing force. They’re off collecting data cores on the other side of the map.

In addition, kills, assists and other general feats of battlefield valour earn credits that can be spent mid-game on supply drops, sentry turrets and vehicles. Used effectively they can shift the tide of battle, particularly the nasty anti-aircraft gun that peppers incoming droppers with an evil amount of fire.

It is the dynamism that impressed me with Prejudice, and although random pick-up games may never live up the true ideals of what a setup like that can bring, you can see that it offers as much for lone fighters who want to jump in a mech and kick some ass as it does for a group of friends who are quite happy to lock down a corner of the map and make it their own with teamwork.

Supporting the multiplayer is a reasonably sized campaign, continuing the story of 2009’s original Section 8, though it is not a prerequisite. What unfolds is a familiar tale of space marine shenanigans as good fights evil in a bid to right a wrong set in a time when conveniently we weren’t necessarily paying attention.

The level of detail and overall quality in the mission structures and levels is quite astounding if you think back a few years to what we used to get on XBLA, but they just fall short of being overly impressive. The setpieces in themselves have the potential of living up to the likes of John 117 and Mr Fenix, but continually either offer up too few opposition – so that you never feel that you’ve overcome insurmountable – or are plagued by AI that are all too content to play stop-and-pop from behind their rock. It’s a case of almost, but not quite.

The same could also be said about the gunplay, where weapons are numerous but rarely distinctive.

However, after a slow start, Prejudice never left me wishing for the credits to roll or for any particular level to cease. It proved an unassuming success, with everything from your soldier’s super sprint to built-in jetpack, the streamlined nature of ammo collection to generously spaced supply depots helping to create a shooter that shows a great deal of thought about giving the player what they want and not artificially prolonging the experience.

This may not have the marketing budget to push it as the latest, greatest space opera with guns, but there is a great deal of potential left to be exploited. Now, prepare to drop.

…where have I heard that before?

8 /10

3DS Firmware | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Most hardware releases rely on the strength of their software catalogue to reinforce the “bigger, faster, harder, stronger” message that polished marketing executives have been pumping out over the preceding months. From the sublime Mario 64 to the surprise of Halo, big hitters can kick-start a generation.

What the 3DS presents us with, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Its most impressive collection of software sits not alongside it in plastic, cellophane wrapped cases, but rather unassumingly comes preinstalled. Just as with Wii Sports, the packed in games are there to show off all possible features of Nintendo’s new hardware. This goes beyond just the 3D, too, as the stereoscopic cameras, the gyroscope and the much trumpeted Streetpass each receive top billing in their own little showcase.

Most likely to impress both technophiles and technophobes alike is Augmented Reality. By simply placing a branded playing card down on a flat surface, the 3DS can turn your tabletop into anything from a shooting gallery to a petting zoo for your Nintendogs. Worktops can open up to reveal deep target-rich chasms, mountains can rise up, or a fishing lake can appear as if from nowhere.

The truly impressive trick here is turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. If this were any other shoot ‘em up or Sega Bass Fishing knock off you wouldn’t give it the time of day, but given the fact you not only can see the real world morph in front of you but you are also given the chance to move around it, experiencing it from any angle you wish, lifts the experience beyond the expected. Don’t underestimate the ability to plant a gaming world on your desktop.

Though there is a heroes’ parade, able to render many memorable Nintendo characters into your home, and the virtual graffiti, the highlight is the shooting gallery. Initially laying a series of basic targets around your designated plane, it soon evolves into creating pits and secreted nooks in your tabletop, with each new hidey-hole causing renewed consternation at what is possible.

Rather than a fully fledged game, each AR mini-game is more akin to a toybox or a a feature you will call on time and time again to show off your 3DS. Though in equal amounts they are also the stand-out experiences that will see you too return just to remind yourself what wonders can be achieved with such a simple piece of kit.

For those seeking more long term satisfaction, Faceraiders is at hand. This again uses the cameras but this time takes photos of friends’ faces and implants them in an almost Gradius style game that will have you spinning on the spot. For though you may have played titles where you must defend yourself from wave after wave of oncoming foe, they have never attacked you literally from all sides before.

Gyros and cameras work overtime, displaying the scene seen before you but overlaying it with the floating heads of your friends, who seem intent on launching marbles of doom in your general direction. They’ll appear behind you, above you, and in formations that are as humorous as they are frantic as you spin around launching tennis balls in a bid to repel them.

The lovely incentive here is that the more faces you collect, the more the variety of your games increases. Though newly scanned friends will be the “boss”, images scanned weeks before may crop up as bonuses in the background. And it’s not just normal faces; my 3DS is packed with BAFTAs, Spartans and Piñatas, all mixing in and amongst office-mates.

What rounds Faceraiders off nicely is that it offers a real challenge. So often pack-ins are wrung through User Testing and Market Research so frequently that become insipid, tasteless affairs, but here some teeth still remain. And as such the best advice I can offer for later levels is a sturdy, well oiled, office chair.

But as impressive as the AR maybe, and as fun as spinning round and round on work’s furniture proves, the trump card of the 3DS is possibly the least flashy: Streetpass.

This is the Pokemon of the real world.

Pop your 3DS in your back pocket when you go out and about and should you pass similarly minded folk then you’ll trade Miis. Sometimes they’ll pop up in Nintendogs to walk their pooch down your road, or challenge you to a duel in Street Fighter, but every time you’ll find them waiting to enter your Streetpass garden, lining up to greet you with a friendly smile and little titbit about themselves.

For those not wishing to partake in virtual dog walking or fisticuffs, newly discovered Miis can be put to good use in the built in sticker album and RPG. The former allows you to trade stickers in order to create classic Nintendo scenes, whilst the latter has the potential to become an obsession.

Refreshingly your Mii is not the star, instead they are locked in a tall tower with your many visitors battling through the many ghosts and ghouls that hold them prisoner. Each time they visit they’ll level up and become more effective, slicing through lesser opposition with ease.

Initially the concept seems extremely simple and almost achievable through grinding alone, but the ability to hire wandering heroes and combine any of the dozen magical talents soon unlock unexpected depth. It’s still not Dragon Age but a compelling dungeon crawl is not quite what I had expected to see top my Most Played list (data courtesy of the inbuilt Activity Tracker).

If truth be told, I have spent far more time lost in the many small time-wasters that can be instantly found on the 3DS “dashboard” than the three full games I have picked up since launch. A mixture of variety, innovation and, let’s be honest, novelty, should mean that those who eagerly await the second wave of dimension popping releases should be able to bide their time by earning special Mii hats through Street Pass, collecting faces in Faceraiders and watching relatives faces contort at the uniqueness of AR.

Pilotwings Resort | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

You have to give it to Nintendo, they know how to get the most from a franchise. Be it the brilliant reinvention of their plumber every few years, the consistency of the boy called Link, or the avalanche of cash that Pokémon brings in, they’re not short of a license of two.

For me, however, it is the ones they don’t trot out so frequently that have always stirred my loins. Where is the sequel to Luigi’s mansion? What have they done with R.O.B.? And, up until last summer, why had they grounded Pilotwings?

The weight of expectation, not only from being a sequel some fifteen years in the making but from being a flagship launch title for a new generation of hardware, can be crushing. And though it may not be the must-have 3DS title, it capably shows off the advancement in the platform whilst also refusing to wilt under the steely gaze of its forebears.

It still remains a toy box of aerial antics and the inclusion of an analogue nub makes soaring through the skies above Wuhu Island and absolute treat. Subtle dips and movements that wouldn’t have been possible on the DS’s digital dpad instantly prove that the upgrade in hardware was worth it on more than a visual level, but it is that sense of depth the extra dimension brings that not only adds to the sense of technical evolution but actually enhances the experience.

With many of the missions requiring flying through hoops, landing on platforms and popping balloons, the ability to place yourself in three-dimensional space is a crucial one. Previously this has been achieved by a fair amount of gut instinct, cross-referenced with a mini-map giving you a top down view. Once the sense of scale had settled in I barely found myself referring to the mini-map, such was my sense of knowing my place. It almost became intoxicating at times, knowing just when and how to bank and see my target looming up, and playing with the 3D turned off almost made it feel like a completely different and poorer experience.

On a more shallow level, pushing your hang glider into a steep descent and seeing the world dash towards you only to then bank up and slide between a forest’s trunk, or skimming your jet plane so low over the sea at sunset as to kick up spray at the screen, should be enough for most. The amount of natural tunnels, hoops and grand structures the island possesses is ripe for exploiting the graphical wonder as you see the world dash by.

Unfortunately the glue holding the package together is not as rich. Early missions frame Pilotwings Resort as a tech demo, offering little for experienced pilots to get their teeth into. It takes some time before later classes to be opened up and your mettle to be truly tested, but it is not so much the difficulty that is found lacking but the variety.

No matter the trappings, it lacks the extras that were attached to its predecessors. Flying the plane, jetpack and glider around are all fun in their own right, but the distractions that used to be offered by sky diving, spring-loaded boots, and the human cannonball are missed; something that gave the player a truly different way of exploring the game.

And exploring the island of Wuhu is an activity that should wholeheartedly encouraged. Be it as it may imported from Wii Sports Resort, it has been kitted out with a myriad of sea caves and rock formations that are perfect for a little stunt flying. Unshackled from mission objectives, the world becomes your playground.

So once again Pilotwings appears as a launch title and once again it offers an absorbing showcase for Nintendo’s latest console. Whether it’s selling the virtues of the third-dimension, newly achieved portable analogue control, or the inclusion of your Mii in the cockpit, everything is there to sell the virtues of the 3DS. It may not be the complete package compared to those that have gone before it, but it does anything but disgrace the family name.

7 /10