Monthly Archives: September 2011

F1 2011 | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I’m coming at F1 2011 from an interesting angle. In much the same way I don’t hand my money over to EA every time a box bearing the word “FIFA” is released into the marketplace, I haven’t played a new Formula One game in years. With sport franchises, I choose my moments, as chances are that year on year there are very few changes worthy of note. How many tracks are likely to differ, cars are subtlety tweaked and some sponsors decals might be altered; F1 2010 then is something that I simply saw other friends play.

Although, being completely straight, the last true F1 game I bought and loved was released when I owned a console with a “64” in the title. Chances are then that things may have come on more than a little since then. And in more ways than just graphical fidelity.

Jumping into a cockpit for the first time is an experience, and one that will probably have new players on the cusp weeping. It’s tough, although not unfairly. Codemasters Birmingham have put a great deal of work into simulating the nuances of a car that regularly travels in excess of 200mph, and have succeeded in capturing just why us mere mortals are unlikely ever to travel at such speeds in real life.

Back in the day I swear I could just point my car in the right direction and away I would go, but this new handling model takes getting used to. Practise sessions are worth their weight in gold as you slowly piece together how hard to push yourself round each corner. Patience is rewarded though as those initial laps spent wondering just what you are doing wrong are slowly replaced with a feel and understanding of the car and its limits.

At this point, your carbon-fibre steed has a great sense of weight to it, as you throw it from left-hander to right–hander. The power you ride on also becomes evident as you start to notice the subtleties of inertia involved when turning or breaking whilst accelerating, and the absolute contrast this brings when first taking a long, open corner at 180mph before breaking hard to go navigate a hairpin at a pace more comparable to a small family hatch-back. If you did not appreciate the intricacies involved before jamming on your helmet that first morning, you will have by the end of the day.

There are, naturally, a whole host of assists that can be toggled to suit everyone from novice to Vettel himself. Brake assist, ABS, traction control, all can be altered to provide a race experience tailored to you, and opens up the whole experience to more than just the hardcore petrol heads out there.

The nicest touch of the aids is probably the 3D racing line. A virtual line painted onto the strip is nothing new to the videogame racer, but for that extra ounce of feedback it stands proud of the track if it thinks you’re going too fast. Greens and reds have been and are still very practical for communicating how your speed compares to the ideal racing line, but this extra layer gives such immediate feedback that it’s as if a lollypop lady is standing there, arm out, demanding you slow down.

The most interesting simulation of the handling this year is by far and away the tyres. There is a great emphasis on not only choosing the right compound but getting them up to the correct operating temperature before fully extracting the most from them. Similarly, over aggressive driving or staying out on track too long will see the set degrade, resulting in tough grip and purple sectors or cars that dance on ice as your traction falls away.

Solving one of the conundrums revolving around the “what’s new this year?” bullet points on the back of the box, sees the introduction of KERS and DRS. Simplifying matters somewhat, they are both the real-world equivalent of Mario’s mushroom when he goes karting; allowing the driver a short burst of extra speed.

With the touch of a button, KERS allows drivers to inject energy that had previously been recovered when braking back into their acceleration. This extra burst of horse power can see them accelerate quicker from a corner, boost their chances of over taking on a straight, or even fend off such a move. Similarly powerful, DRS opens the back wing of a car. This wing is specifically there to create downforce, dragging the car down to the road for grip. With it open, however, that drag is reduced and the top speed of the vehicle increases.

As with the short term effect of the plumber’s ‘shroom, KERS and DRS both have limiting factors that stop drivers from employing it around the entire circuit. KERS, for starters, only has a limited reserve each lap, forcing you to pick your spots. Furthermore, if you can drive round the entire circuit with your back wing open, then good luck to you. With the car handling as it is you need all the grip you can get.

Correct use of the two in conjunction can shave whole seconds off of your lap time, or allow you the jump on the car in front, completely changing how races are won or lost. It’s as if Bernie and co had spent one late night too many dabbling with F-Zero.

Binding all this together is a career mode intent on continually slapping you round the face with the fact that Codemasters have managed to secure the most complete of licensing deals. Race drivers, team principles, BBC commentators, and of course every manufacturer, are recreated and can be seen outside your motor home or personally contacting you as you compete across the span of an entire season’s worth of racing.

Given a seat with one of the more inexperienced teams, your goal is to further your career by raising your standing, working your way through the grid and eventually lift the world title. One aspect of this is obviously the racing, but behind the scenes there’s a reputation/XP system constantly ticking away, judging your progress. At a base level this is all about qualifying and final race positions, but in a bid to extend the experience there are more things to consider.

Each session and race weekend will come with its own set of objectives. Team rivalry, for one; for if you can’t out race your team mate, then you’ve no chance at making an impression. More so than that though, you’ll be asked to race with specific car configurations, introducing the very editable car setup and forcing you to possibly step outside your comfort zone. Top it off with regular interviews with the BBC Radio 5Live team and all the ways you have conducted yourself and succeeded (or failed) will no doubt catch the eye of other teams. Much of this feedback is conducted through a very stale email system tucked away in your motor home or wooden interviews, but it’s hard to see of a more streamlined way that this could have been handled.

When out on the track, however, things liven up once more as your fellow racers go wheel to wheel with you. Their AI is impressive, with a careful balance of aggression but with large helping of self-preservation. Coming down a long straight, they’ll happily employ both KERS and DRS to push you down a place, cutting the breaking fine. On the other hand, give the grid a first corner hairpin and each driver will attempt to negotiate it successfully. All too often have such corners been graveyards that have caused me to hang back at the first turn charge.

Thankfully there is a feature that allows such things, should they go a cropper, to be rewound and reset, just as in Dirt 3, placing your car back five-seconds in time. Whether you use it or not is down to your own conscience but all beginners should make a point of hunting it out.

With all the shine and glamour, be it the cars or the locations, the disappointing aspect of F1 2011 is just how flat it looks. There is a great amount of detail in the vehicles themselves and everything that lines the trackside, but there is something in the lighting model that means it lacks a certain va va voom. We’ve all seen the sleekness of the Ferrari, but sitting in the cockpit, hammering it down the straight, the nose you stare out seems quite dull by comparison.

The audio however, is outstanding, with the roar of the engine as you thrash it to pieces bringing the whole experience together. Furthermore, the extra little touches of wind and distortion as you alter your aerodynamics and apply the DRS is aurally equivalent to the screen stretch in Burnout. You’ll feel like you need a seatbelt for your sofa.

Part of the reason I have been absent from virtual F1 for so long is that I just fell out of favour with racing games as a whole, finding them sterile and unrewarding. What F1 2011 has done, rather impressively, is make me once again interested in the world of engines and lap times.

Though the career mode may have some rough edges, it is a focused attempt to bring the important aspects of the race weekend to your console. I began to care about the practise sessions, willing to put the time in to get used to the new circuits, and became desperate to shave tenths of seconds off of my time to beat that smug German.

As with its real life counterpart, the greatest asset Codemasters possess’s here is the car. It may be a difficult mule to begin with, but at some point it clicks and you’ll find yourself driving a thoroughbred.

8 /10

El Shaddai | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I believe this is a path you and I have trodden before.

Style over substance, does it have a place in videogames? Can a production be so solely based in its aesthetics that it holds gameplay as a mere secondary consideration? Is a spellbinding tale enough to win out over mediocre level design? To my mind, there are certainly publications that seem blind to releases that may push the artistic boundaries of our medium, but which also fail to deliver that which is most core: a game. For if it’s not worth playing, who will want to be enveloped in the world?

El Shaddai is a beautiful creation, picked out in bright colours and a bold style, telling a tale based upon themes found within the Dead Sea Scrolls. Seven angels have fallen to earth and you, as Enoch, descend from the heavens to round them up and stop their corruption of Man.

Strip away the layers of filters and colour, and what lies beneath, however, could easily be considered a laborious and repetitive brawler, lacking both imagination and depth. Supremely linear levels funnel our protagonist down tight corridors from one gladiatorial arena to the next, forcing them to fight a small number of combatants from an extremely limited set of opponents. When victorious, the player is free to continue down the corridor once more until yet again they stray into the clutches of unavoidable combat.

Distilled to such an extent and ripped from its trappings, El Shaddai does not fare well.
With so much focus on combat, the lack of variety is the main bone of contention. From beginning to end your standard adversaries will be one just of four. Each class’ outfits may change but the difference between each new swordsmith or brute is negligible.

Their key is their individual weaponry. Each holds a tainted and holy relic that, should you best them, can be retrieved, purged, and used in the name of The Lord himself. The Arch resembles a fiery longbow but acts as though a sword; the Gale causes a cluster of sharp arrows to dive towards their target; and the Veil is a tough shield that can also become a mightily powerful pair of gauntlets. All carry a mix of speed, offensive and defensive benefits, but they are pivotal to the experience, with each enemy having a particular weakness to one or another of the three.

As such, early battles become a test bed of brutal experimentation to discover which of rock-paper-scissors work best against the poor sap taking a pounding. Be it the Arch tossing them high in the sky and subjecting them to a series of mid-air slices, the long-range safety of peppering them with the Gale, or the meaty elbow drop from the Veil, they are flung about like ragged dolls in a tumble dryer.

What soon becomes apparent is that such a weakness to one is neither logical nor apparent. Standard encounters soon become a chore with the best course of action being settling on your favourite weapon of the three and wailing on anyone who comes near you until they disappear in a puff of smoke. A lovely, almost rhythmic, combo system does exist – based on the varied timing of attack-button presses – but, between it and the limited number of combatants involved, skirmishes are never more than those seen in Assassin’s Creed: stylish, yet formulaic.

Requiring more of an undertaking however are the boss battles that pepper the experience. As if from no-where they appear, resembling anything from a pig donning battle armour to a large beetle dressed in skin-tight black lycra. They are the archetypal Japanese boss formed of multiple stages and long, drawn out encounters. They are also tough, infuriatingly so at times.

Most rely on reactions and attack pattern recognition to avoid your health bar being removed in its entirety in one fell swoop. There are a handful that stick out as memorable, having carefully negotiated the fine line between “difficult” and “obscene”, but they are the exception. Most are “old school”, hard for the sake of being hard, with modest spectacle and adding very little to the experience. The knack to beating them being to run like hell, nip in for one punch every now and then, and then continue on loop for the next ten minutes.

To round off the experience, a great proportion of these boss battles have your defeat predetermined. A futile and frustrating fight against infinite odds. So often did this happen that I reached a point that when facing a new boss that, rather than waste a large portion of my time, I would simply stand there and purposefully die just to see whether the story progressed or a continue screen popped up.

There were times, and these were probably the greatest, when I just wanted it over. Done and dusted and out of my Xbox, such was the repetitive and frustrating nature of long stretches of El Shaddai. Not in a long time has a game caused me to say such unkind things in the direction of my TV.

And yet I did not stop.

For as much as it is easy to question the position of such elaborate palettes and storytelling devices, they play just as much of an integral role in proceedings as Mario’s jump or Luigi’s vacuum. To separate them out is churlish.

The subject matter may itself raise eyebrows but the combination of religious references empowers rather than binds. The portrayals of each of the angel’s effects on the human world gives scope for the creation of some truly stunning backdrops, both in isolation and in contrast, such is their differences. Early cold, over-exposed tundra give way for a neon walkway high above a population lost in song. Stark, geometric walkways fade to a world at the bottom of the ocean, before it all explodes in a world of noise as a dark, urban city takes centre stage.

Very few alter Enoch’s highly linear movement but that channelling is at times well used. Most notable being the flattening of the world down into two-dimensions as silhouettes of two characters play out their latest act, projected onto the sky itself, as Enoch streaks forward in the foreground, vaulting gaps and cutting down the dark minions in a bid to reach them.

Further showing Ignition’s quirky sense of humour and design, the devil himself, Lucifel, is your guide to proceedings. Showing up at regular intervals, he can be found in jeans and dark shirt talking to God on his mobile, reassuring the big guy that all is well and that he should just let you get on with things. Portrayed as being cooler than the Fonz, and with a bunch of tricks more impressive than bump starting the jukebox, he is your narrative, your savegame, and your guardian angel.

It is his voiceover at the start and end of chapters that helps clear up any confusion caused by the strange cut scenes and abstract levels that you may have just wandered through, too. In some cases the plot can rattle by to the point that characters come and go without realising, but also, to its utmost credit, El Shaddai will have you play through ponderous scenes that are as much about setting a scene and tone as they are about story. Such snapshots would be ridiculed in isolation, but in context the act of walking from darkness into light or protecting a simple tree adds a great weight to proceedings.

Not every aspect of storytelling meshes so well with your interactions, however. Some filters or colour choices make the already awkward platforming even harder as depth and scale prove hard to judge. Plus there is a disappointment that the great variety seen in the environment is never filtered through to your sparring partners. Given the imagination invested, this disparity is highly conspicuous.

And so on two very different levels, El Shaddai proceeds to delight and destroy. A clever and mature narrative that sets itself apart from the flock, and played out against a canvas constantly frequented by unique tableaus and refreshing story telling techniques. However, it is as flawed as it is creative. A disappointingly flat and repetitive game that is rarely lifted by even the grandest of boss battles, if it were depicted in any other guise it would fare far worse.

Is this a case of style over substance? Probably. But, boy, what style.

7 /10

Space Marine | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

The Space Marine has been with us since the 80s, ever since a Nottingham based miniatures company chose to depict man’s war against the rest of the universe in a far flung future. Space Marines were giant, genetically enhanced, heavily armoured, eight-foot tall super soldiers who constantly screamed “For the Emperor!” as they charged into battle. Gods amongst men, they could clear whole battlefields single-handed.

Recently, however, videogames have somewhat circumvented the term. Everything from Master Chief and the COGs in Gears of War to any unknown soldiers fighting in the back end of nowhere is now given that tag. Grant yourself a visor and a fancy gun then you too can fall under this banner. It’s become a phrase to pigeon hole and at times deride, and Games Workshop have had enough; they’re taking back the name.

Right from the off, Relic are intent on showing you just how bad-ass they are, too. When first we meet our heroes, Captain Titus and his brethren, they are aboard a Thunderhawk dropship, high above an Ork infested world. But rather than wait for clear passage to the surface they opt to strap on jump packs and hurl themselves out of the back of the transport, weaving through exploding vessels and anti-aircraft fire, focused on taking out the Ork flagship. The indignity of this Xenos invasion cannot wait for air traffic control to sort themselves out.

With the scene set, taking control of these super soldiers you quickly gain a feeling of the weight and power they possess. Charging into combat with the crew causes the screen to shake and footfalls to boom as your armour’s bulk crashes across the deck, sending foes reeling as you cannon into them. Your chainsword wails about, cutting deep gashes of red as it does so, whilst your Boltgun barks and in response those out of range of your sword fall.

Combat is extremely visceral, with each blow heavy and brutal. Yet there’s a simplicity to it, one that allows Titus to wade in and still regain control. The focus being on threat management over style allows skirmishes to involve dozens of Orks at a time, near and far, further building the invincible aura that surrounds the Marines.

Simple melee attacks can be mixed in with stuns and basic combos that will leave your assailants dazed and open to executions that are heavy on exaggerated moves and lashed with gore. There will be little doubt you’ve finished them off given the array of places the Captain finds to stick his chainsword, and no matter your situation, melee combat can be swiftly interchanged with the brandishing of one of the game’s many guns should your sword arm grow tired.

Despite all the tales told of the valour of the chapter, your Ultramarines are still vulnerable. Their armour is powerful and such a hulking warrior thinks little of cover, but by sheer attrition shots and blows will wear it down until it’s useless. From that point your health bar will take punishment; let that fade to nothing and the palette will turn sombre and you’ll be offered a pearl of wisdom by Mark Strong in his solemn tones before being pushed back to the last checkpoint.

As is the current convention though, avoid damage for long enough and your armour will replenish back to its peak. Your health, however, is a little different. No Space Marine worth his salt is going to stagger from the fray crying “medic!” Instead they man up and get a second wind from the destruction of the enemies of the Emperor; health top-ups must be earned in blood.

Stunning a foe in combat and then executing a finishing move on them will see your health restored. There is neither rhyme nor reason for this, but in the brutal world of the 41st millennium it fits in and keeps you right in the midst of battle. This adds further layers to close combat, for as easier as it may be to take out a whole horde of Orks, each one is slowing landing damage. In between the wild swings, time needs to be taken to stun, take advantage of your vampiric skill, and then carry on cracking skulls. Given enough awareness, your ability to survive in the midst of the enemy should know no bounds.

Although there is an emphasis on close combat, gunplay is also strong, offering up a variety of mixed weaponry from heavy-duty, sniping Lascannons to rapid firing, short range Stormbolters. Exotic weapons such as the sticky-grenade launcher and devastatingly powerful Meltagun further add variety and an alternative to those who wish stay at arm’s length from their targets.

The joy is that the two disciplines work so well together, allowing them to be switched between effortlessly. One memorable encounter saw Titus pop a couple of sticky grenades into the on-rushing horde, watch them explode and disrupt the enemy lines, before switching to the Bolter to take down some gunners on the floor above. At that point the main body of the enemy was on me, and as I expended the last of my rounds the power axe was unsheathed. It all unfolded in only a matter of seconds, but it’s symptomatic of Relic’s considered design when it comes to embracing combat.

Your adventure will lead you right across the Imperial Forgeworld, through giant factories where titanic war machines are made, under the sizeable living district, and to many landmarks that the Emperor potted across the now ruined world. Throughout all, your movements retain a flow. There are very few fade-to-blacks that see you appear half way across the globe, instead you and your men trudge – or fly – from chapter to chapter. This grounding reinforces your place in the world and never treats it as an excuse to change backdrop every half-hour.

Every location you do visit is painted in the hushed and darkened tones of the grim, far future. Greys, browns and metals are evident everywhere, with only the blue of your armour and the warpaint of the Orks striking a contrast against the stark background. The scale is something to behold, however. The art directions takes every opportunity to remind you that although you’re an eight-foot monster, you’re also a mere speck when compared to the Empire. Vast bridges, huge monuments and a titan war machine all serve to put you in your place and instil grandeur in the warzone.

Lacing it all together, the tale that unfolds is one that shows the Space Marines in a light quite unlike the butch jocks of Gears. There’s no bravado when the umpteenth victim falls from your blade, the understated and very British manner they display shows that being a hard man in space is about more than just witty one liners. There’s a matter-of-fact about their actions, as though experienced cops on the beat.

Between these flashes of humanity, the encounters come thick and fast. The combination of differing Ork units and the varying level layouts provide enough possibilities to keep each new section fresh. From Orks with long-range rokkits or beefy and extra tough Nobz, it’s not always as easy as charging in and slashing wildly, even if the terrain allows it. Even when you feel you’ve beaten down as many Greenskins as humanly possible, an extra edge is added with the introduction of Chaos. As with the Flood in Halo, the different characteristics they bring into battle are a welcome change. Twisted demons and fragile, warped humans alike suddenly arrive on the scene and some of the more exhilarating set pieces are when your trio happen upon an arena full of Orks and Chaos fighting each other.

Possibly the finest inclusion however are the occasional appearances of the jump pack, first seen in the opening cinematic, allowing you to rain down your Imperial might from upon high. Ridiculously powerful when used properly, it appears sparingly and to great effect adding a verticality and pace to your movements that was previously absent.

It has a similarly strong impact on the multiplayer, too. A class-based and competent battlefield shooter where Chaos and Imperial Space Marines duke it out in a games of deathmatch and territories. Swift jump pack-carrying Assault Marines mix in with heavy weapon Devastators and run-and-gun Tactical Marines, straying very little from the feel of the campaign. Perks and weapon unlocks are ubiquitous in a bid to keep you hooked with the tease of a new bauble when next you level. With the mix of weapons and loadouts this produces there is definite scope for truly epic battles, but not so much weighted so that new comers and low level players will feel at an instant disadvantage.

There of course is a question to ask whether those who know or care little of the Warhammer 40,000 universe will enjoy the Space Marine experience as much as those who do, but on balance I think it matters little. There is nothing contained within that should alienate anyone for the story of bashing space goblins in the face is hardly a complex one, no matter the forces involved.

Instead of concentrating on that, we should look at the core. Trimmings aside, Relic have managed to fashion a shooter-come-brawler that works equally well whether it be Stormbolter or Thunder Hammer in your hand. Throwing so many enemies at you, you will relish the opportunity to get stuck in time and time again.

They have shown their version of a Space Marine. And they have done him justice.

8 /10

We Dance | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Some may have thought that the rise of motion controllers – be it the wagglestick of the Wii or the laser tracking of Kinect – would spell the end of dance mats. Those large vinyl tiles covering the living room floor now seem a concept from a quite distant era, where strutting around on an oversized d-pad was the only way of unleashing the rhythm trapped inside you.

Around the country, alongside their Guitar Hero axes, charity shops began amassing ever-growing piles of Dance Dance Revolution emblazoned, vinyl mats. Youngsters traded in their DDR knock-offs and replaced them with games requiring distinct lesser amounts of plastic accessories.

“But why can’t we all just get along?” piped up some bright spark at Nordic Games. And so We Dance was born.

Combining both dance mats and motion controls into one entity brings a fair set of challenges, although the potential reward is great. Watching the trailers and seeing players quickstep their way around the 8-way mat, grinning inanely and swinging their arms in gay abandon is a coordinated sight to behold. A far cry from the stern-faced, iron concentration and swift-but-clinical leg motion displayed by the pinnacle of the DDR crowd; they look like they’re actually having fun.

If it sounds overwhelming, have no fear, for dancing with the Wiimote has been spun off into Easy difficulty and the mat alone is used in Medium. Only on Hard are both combined, by which point the mutual flailing of all your limbs will be measured, though they should at such point be moving in utter harmony. However, at every level We Dance falls short of delivering an experience that will succeed in coaxing you into any semblance of smiling choreography.

Even on easy, players are left to fend for themselves. A dancer styled as though from an iPod commercial looms large on screen, silhouetted as an item of high contrast, and takes you through the moves. At no point are you warned what the next move will be. He struts and grooves in time to the video playing behind him, but there is no indication as to what you should be doing other than copying him. The result is you dance as though separated by a poor transatlantic video link, appearing to suffer from terminal lag.

For me, this is the cardinal sin when it comes to dancing games. Prior warning allows players to become attuned with the moves required and feel like they’re taking part in the routine. Offer no indication as to what’s next, how long the move will continue for or even what is considered proper form, and there’s a good chance they’ll feel out of time and foolish.

Not even the included dance school helps to address the problems. It does show you what moves to bust, but in such a way that it becomes illogical. Whilst the requisite moves are displayed below, the Apple dancer continues as normal above, not pausing for you to keep up or waiting for a particular block of moves to complete, he’ll carry on regardless. You’re then left with a series of moves to execute yet with no frame of reference, timing or comparison to work against.

Playing on the mat is thankfully better, but equally flawed. Though jumping out a rhythm to Ace of Base did have me on the cusp of grinning – if it wasn’t for my furrowed brow of concentration – the concept as a whole has simultaneously been made too hard and yet too stagnant.

The choice of an 8-way mat is just too much. We Dance’s chosen method for indicating which squares to hop to doesn’t help, either, obscuring each other and lacking the ability to infer timing. Staring at the screen and then attempting to operate your legs when such comparative precision is required is not intuitive or scalable, and that’s prior even to dancing with both accessories.

Inexplicably, these periods of rapid movement are then interspersed with long sections of inactivity or requests to “freestyle”. One particular Pendulum track – lasting three-and-a-half minutes – saw me standing idle for a combined total of a minute-and-a-half, sparking genuine boredom. With a thumping track backing me, why am I not being asked to move?

We Dance’s saving grace is the broad range of music it can offer, pitched well to appeal to many different generations and tastes. There are pockets of music from the 70s right up to modern day, indie, early 90s dance, cheese, and a playlist that would be at home at any wedding reception, encouraging even Auntie Agnes to join in.

It’s not enough to save the experience as a whole, however. Given a greater emphasis on guiding the player, a “traditional” dance mat and more commitment to an involving dance routine for both arms and legs, We Dance could have been something. As it stands, there are far greater and more rewarding prospects out there deserving of your time.

Sorry, Oxfam. Here’s another one for your collection.

3 /10

Mercury Hg | Review

I’ve seen many a postfix of HD before, but this has to be a first.

The “Hg”, for those who aren’t forced to memorise their periodic tables for their local pub quiz, is mercury’s chemical symbol. And while this liquid metal has over the years been used in hat making, thermometers and as a nuclear reactor coolant, game developers have always had a worrying obsession with swilling it around mazes.

Much like Marble Madness, or Monkey Ball depending on your generation, UTV Ignition have harnessed the simple fun of moving a highly unstable object about an obstacle course, testing simultaneously your nerves, patience and mettle. Listing the world on which your mercury blob sits will coax and tease it around the levels. Each subtle tilt of the stick, egging gravity on as you glide over exposed walkways, in between moving barriers and across a pulsating landscape.

The general principle is a tried and tested one, having existed as far back as when the hardware was a wooden box with a marble and controls were two knobs connected by string. Here, early stages allow you to embrace that simple pleasure once more and gain a feel for the weight and momentum you can create with your movements. Gentle nudges should see accurate, if slow, control, but be warned; that mercury can get up quite a speed.

So the importance of moderation when it comes to balancing the conflicting factors of speed and cornering is something all will find out soon enough. Sadly this lesson took a while to sink in and having rashly taken the first few corners at less than sensible speeds, I started to find myself thankful that it was a gelatinous blob at my controls rather than a solid object. Forgive the absurdity of the example, but if, say, I were navigating a simian encased within a sphere about the same plane, it would have quickly met its end having completely overbalanced with my carelessness, causing me to be sent back to the starting gate. With this liquid, however, despite a loss of control, there’s a chance only a portion of the mercury will be lost. I may have just been left with a tiny, silver drop, but at least I was forgiven for my one moment of madness.

The fluid properties of the titular element are not just exploited as a means of giving you a second chance, either. They play a factor in puzzle solving and the level of challenge. Magnetic floors can pull part of your blob apart, sharp edges can divide and send you down two paths simultaneously, and, for when pratting about, hit a wall at speed and droplets will splash off with the impact.

Particularly interesting examples are when you not only split your mercury, but dye each portion a specific colour. Many switches are colour activated, but when faced with a small maze to reunite the respective yellow and green blobs to then activate a blue switch it becomes a much more involved. Although only a handful of levels were available in the demo, there were enough variety and tricks to prove UTV Ignition could easily keep you entertained for 60 levels.

Whilst the speed challenges that come with each one of those levels may not help promote a calm puzzler, there are more to these mazes than a stopwatch. Other elements must be collected, the amount of mercury escorted to the finish line is judged, and a score aggregated across all three factors are compared against your friends’.
The crisp and clean presentation, plus the incorporation of musical interaction with the levels themselves, round off a very polished title. The floor throbs around you in time to the music, whilst distant abstract towers echo the movement.

Mercury Hg has the potential to be a real time-sink. With bite-sized levels that are just the right length to promote trying to shave tenths off of a speed-run and an impulse price point of 400MSP, it is a very tempting prospect.

F1 2011

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

There should be more sporting events that decide to take their influences from video games. Imagine a dull nil-nil draw being played out on a freezing cold Tuesday night at The Lane, how could that not be enlivened by Van Der Vaart triggering multiball? Or how about Andy Murray in the midst of the US Open final engaging bullet-time to truly pick apart Djokovic? They may be a little farfetched but it would appear that Bernie recently caught someone in F1 HQ playing Blur or Burnout and he liked what he saw.

Anyone who has been paying attention to F1 this year will have not only seen the reintroduction of KERS but the appearance of another acronym, DRS. For those of you unfamiliar with such terms, the former is a system whereby energy is recovered and stored when a car breaks which can later be used to deliver a short speed boost, and the latter is an adjustable flap on the rear wing of the car that can be opened to swap downforce and drag in return for extra speed. Put simply: each driver now has two buttons marked “go faster”.

The difference these bring to Codemasters Birmingham’s F1 2011 may only be among a number of new bullet pointed features, but, to a racing novice such as myself they mark the biggest change. Haring down the straights of Monza and attempting to reel in the driver in front of you used to be about out-breaking and out-manoeuvring as you looked for a sly line around them. This is still the case but the application of KERS to bring them within striking distance is wonderfully satisfying.

As you narrow the gap, holding down the right shoulder, your engine screams in response as the extra power is employed. Similarly, with the DRS activated, there is a very audible feedback as the wind flow over your car is changed and your speed increases. Such little touches, to a game where you’re already hammering along at near 200mph, pushes that sense of speed even further.

But, just as they don’t have multi-ball in the Premiership, allowing everyone to have a turbo button readily at their disposal might just ruin the spectacle. As such, each is only allowed in moderation. KERS is limited to only a few seconds use per lap, and in full race conditions DRS is only allowed when in an overtaking opportunity. The choice of when to use them is then as much a strategy as your choice of tyres or pit stop policy.

The tricky part is using them in combination as one is toggled, the other has to be held to be activated, and that’s in and about all the other gear changes and camera glances that you may need to successfully pass and avoiding “doing a Hamilton”. Dextrous hands will be required to take full advantage of all the controller has to offer.

Power-ups aside, one of the biggest chances is in the handling with a larger emphasis on realism. At times, working up from scratch and with all but break assist on, it can be a bitch. For periods during my initial foray out of the pits I was spending as much time in the gravel and grass as I was on the tarmac as I fought to learn the nuances. Over apply the throttle when turning just a tad, and you’re gone; scream round a corner only to be a bit too enthusiastic over the curb, and you’re gone; it’s a game of fine margins and it’s doesn’t mind teaching you the hard way.

Approach F1 2011 like Dirt 3, where you are willing to throw the cars around corners and just be happy with some scrappy racing with the pack and you’ll either black flagged or in the crash barriers before you know it. The cars are delicate beasts that may roar aplenty but need to be guided round with a gentle hand.

Never more so is this true in the wet, which emphasises those needs a hundred fold as you tip toe around a sodden Monaco, permanently running a fine line between setting a competitive pace and calling in the safety car.

That challenge is worth overcoming, though, for the sense of frustration from your early laps of being battered further and further down the running is eventually replaced with a set of comparatively silky lines, cannily defensive KERS and very pleasing uses of DRS to eek your car up the standings.

With further features like online co-op still yet to be unveiled, the quick turnaround from F1 2010 to F1 2011 is no simple update of liveries and sponsors. Codemaster’s Brummie studio have taken an incredibly solid debut and are not resting on their laurels. The learning curve might be steeper but with it the experience deeper, and the sense of satisfaction when you knock that smug Vettel off the top of the podium is only going to be greater.

Not bad for a number two driver.

8 /10

Bodycount | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

With the big guns of Battlefield and Modern Warfare looming ominously on the horizon and already fully emblazoned across mainstream media, there could be a tendency to think that there are but two shooters on the release schedule.

Lest we forget, however, anyone casting their mind back a couple of years may remember a little title called Borderlands, which came from nowhere to offer an alternative to Infinity Ward’s monolith. It may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but it showed that putting a spin on a normally predictable genre is often what the public secretly want.

Bodycount could be this year’s alternative. Sneaking in under the radar it cannily combines a tight, tactical shooter with a more outlandish, arcade affair, full of power-ups, explosives and destructible scenery. It blurs the lines between its potential audiences, welcoming both the serious and the not-so but never straying too far from either so as to alienate.

The plot is the first aspect which treads that fine line; as an agent of “The Network”, you fight a private war against the ills of the world. Whereas the UN may send in sanctions, The Network sends in you, to get the job done and to remove the despots. And so you find yourself on the street of an African warzone, targeting a resident warlord, battling through a town already filled with the gunfire of both local militia and security forces. Neither seem to welcome your assistance and so you begin to pick your way through the mess, one headshot at a time.

Despite some of its trappings, this is a considered shooter. Whereas the mention of power-ups might well bring to mind thoughts of running from target to target, shooting from the hip, those actions will see your life expectancy dwindle to near zero. The bullets launched towards you are as fatal as those your expel and so caution is always a vital consideration, and that tends to mean finding a safe place to shoot from.

There’s no static and predefined cover to tuck yourself securely behind, however. Instead the simple inclusion of a “lean” turns everything from the corner of a building to a crate into a bullet shield, allowing you to bed yourself in and then peer out to return fire. A much underused ability in modern shooters, this subtle addition opens up combat into a far more fluid affair as you move through the level, ducking and slinking into corners when the heat gets too great. Combined with a tight and responsive set of controls and it feels like no matter what Bodycount throws at you, providing you have an ounce of cover and enough bullets in the clip, you could survive.

Hopefully, anyway. The inclusion of “shred” technology means walls and barricades will splinter and fracture under fire in a quite spectacular fashion. Whole walls can be removed piecemeal and should a fire-fight take place around a particularly fragile piece of scenery then it’s doubtful much shelter will remain when the final casing tinkles to the floor. The destruction is not on the scale of Red Faction, but that’s no reassurance as the pillar you’re cowering behind is slowly eaten away by enemy fire.

Be it the dusty streets of Tesanga or a military dockyard, each stage is chock-full of multi-levelled buildings, back streets and hidey-holes to snipe from, escape through of hunker down in. Most have a great breadth and feel more like (and indeed some cases are) large scale multiplayer maps as you roam about from one mission goal to the next. For the most part, all corners generally have something going on in them, too. Having left my main mission behind I began to investigate the back streets of one particular suburb only to find a stand-off between rival militia. There was no need for me to venture that far off the beaten path but still when I got there there was something to be seen and be drawn into.

Later levels swap the broad exteriors for the closed, linear confinement of an underground base, while the natural palette is swapped for a high contrast black and white gloss of modern materials and high tech equipment. Interspersed throughout the campaign the two bring variety, with each presenting their own opportunities with architecture and layout.

Where first Bodycount begins to stray from the sanities of real world is in its love of explosives. Not only are there countless jerry cans, gas canisters and fuel drums strewn carelessly about the streets, but The Network arm you with some rather potent trip mines and grenades. Drop a strip of mines down in a convenient doorway and should any poor soul trigger them then they, their close friends and probably most of the door frame will be sent to the pearly gates. Grenades are similarly harsh and come equipped with a lovely double-tap mechanic that will see you hurl them straight and fast, causing them to explode on impact; a very handy method of getting our trouble quickly.

The sheer number of explosions open to exploitation is laughably fun, as you tempt enemies to run past yet another conveniently placed red barrel, or group them up before spiking a grenade in their centre. Quite a contrast from the sneaking and sniping approach above. Both though have their merit as skilful kills, be they explosive, sneaky or headshot, and they leave behind glowing orbs of Intelligence Data which power-up a player’s Operative Support Button. Power-ups in all but name, and treading dangerously close to a law suit from Crackdown, break enough skulls skilfully and you’ll have access to some powerful toys, including invulnerability, explosive rounds, air strikes, and even a radar ping that instantly terminates all nearby threats.

Although powerful, the frequency at which such items can be used is limited but definitely worth waiting for. Whether it’s doping yourself up with adrenalin to ignore damage then running out screaming and firing wildly, or poking out from behind a barrier to let loose a series of high explosive rounds into a melee, either can clear a room highly effectively. So powerful are they in fact that, combined with the quality of the general experience, I found myself not wanting to waste such treats and only using them in a tight spot, when overrun or pinned down. It almost seemed cheating when I rushed into the middle of a dozen guards and then insta-killed them with my radar of doom.

As an interesting extra dimension to Intelligence, Codemasters Guildford occasionally throw Scavangers out onto the battlefield to steal those precious orbs before you can harvest them. Combined with medics that resurrect those you had previously released from their mortal coil, heavy weapons experts, and the odd suicide bomber, and target priority plays just as much part in how a situation will unfold as anything else. Only very occasionally did I feel that all these threats and more were stacked unfairly against me, be it due to lack of environmental protection or overwhelming force. For the most part, though, each of the sixteen levels are not only setup in accessible 20-30 minute chunks, but each carries through them a pace and series of pitched battles that was nothing but enjoyable and morish.

Although if I were to offer criticism it would be in its poorly considered checkpoint system. Not learning the lessons dealt out by Call of Duty and Halo, Bodycount insists on placing quick saves where it considers convenient rather than directly before and directly after large encounters. At times, the frustration of death was not so much that mistakes had been made but that I would have to redo a tedious two or three minute build-up, rather than respawn in such a manner that I could leap straight into mix once more.

That is a lesson that can be learnt, but it does dampen the experience at points. The great success of Bodycount, however, is marrying together a large number of factors that could have quite easily distracted from or even broken the core experience. With an extremely solid shooter at its heart, layering special powers and destructible scenery together only serve to enhance the experience. The visuals may be slightly muddy and flat, but when everything is exploding about you and the very building you are standing in is falling to pieces, you’re not going to care. Instead, you’re going to remember the Rainbow Six-style experience of lurking round maps, picking off unwitting mercenaries, leading gaggles of militia through your maze of trip mines, and calling down an airstrike to knock out a dozen armoured soliders.

For the time being, Bodycount does more than enough to make you forget about Call of Battlefare.

8 /10