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Monthly Archives: October 2011

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

Worms: Ultimate Mayhem | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

During their almost twenty-years of bazooka-lead, turn-based shenanigans, there surely must not be a single person on the face of the planet who has managed to avoid the Worms phenomena. I still have fond memories of my immediate family trading grenades across a Hewlett Packard 486’s keyboard back in the mid-nineties, and ever since then the invertebrates have been with us on an almost annual basis. Trading sheep and old ladies across a two-dimensional field, slowly and inevitably destroying the landscape in a bid to rid themselves of their rivals, they keep returning with bigger weapons, squeakier voices and an even larger doses of insanity.

Now, however, they return with something a little different: a third dimension. This may not be their first foray into depth, but given the mixed reaction to how it dramatically affected the feel and flow of such a well-established series, it’s a bold move to strike out in that direction once more.

The basis of Worms remains unchanged, whereby a small group of annelids take on one another in gladiatorial combat until one side is utterly destroyed. Worms take it in turns to take pot-shots at each other with both sides granted access to a wide range of imaginative weaponry. From the basic bazooka and shotgun through to the fantastical and overly destructive holy hand grenade or the shambling and racial stereotypical Scouser bomb, each item has their place in the theatre of war.

This isn’t dodgeball though, with teams lined up on opposite sides of a blank hall. Battle takes place across all of time and space, with medieval courts, Arabian palaces, wild west canyons, and comparatively mundane dockyards all providing the necessary interest to make shooting matches more than just a straight fight. Worms will scurry – as best they can given their lack of legs – in between cacti before firing off a missile, or seek refuge underneath a model horse, hoping the incoming air strike will pound their steed and not their head. The environments have always played their part in Worms, using it to gain both defensive and offensive advantages are the cornerstone of success. Although your cover or vantage point can never be guaranteed, as a meaty detonation – be it trip-mine or missile – can see it blown away and you left exposed. After drawn out rounds of shelling whole sections of a map can be left in disarray, with the floor lowered, vast portions of buildings removed and very little cover left at all.

Whilst all this proves the essence of Worms is intact, not all of these aspects fare well in the transition from sprite to polygon.

The main issue is that of the camera. With so many buildings, over hangs, nooks and crannies, the camera trailing your little worm as he negotiates the litany of obstacles can fluctuate between being functional and making you suspect that it is actually an operative of the opposing side. Navigating one particular building site, with my character wishing to scale its heights, the cam managed to get so snagged and confused that I spent most of my round’s time limit attempting to reorient myself with “up”. Such an extreme case was indeed rare, especially with the very open nature of the majority of levels, but it did scare me off from putting my worms in overly confined spaces.

Minor camera niggles also haunt the first-person aiming, where being too close to a wall or fence can actually cause your view to appear as though there is no obstruction. All well and good if one is simply scoping out the view, but launching a small nuclear warhead and finding it detonates the instant it leaves your barrel can come as quite a surprise.

For stalwarts of the series, this first-person aiming will be the biggest shock to the system. Close quarters combat involving classics like the baseball bat or dragon punch require little precision, whereas fire any ballistic and you’ll have to hold down X and see through the worms eyes, adjusting his orientation as you see fit. Whilst not problematic in itself, there is a jolting transition between the view of the main game camera and the worm itself, which can prove disorientating and unnecessary as you try and find yourself as the clock ticks down.

Though the poor (in both senses of the word) camera seems to be the weak link, it’s only because – whilst the rest of the formula has had since the days of the Amiga to be refined into a critical and commercial success- there have only been fleeting attempts at solidifying Worms in the third-dimension. It’s by no means a deal breaker, it’s just that at times it is more noticeable than others.

The added freedom that is granted by Team 17 to its pink, earth dwelling mascots is not taken for granted, either. The landscapes crafted for them throughout the campaign and multiplayer are varied and a good balance of open spaces and impromptu barricades. The basic platforming talents that have existed from the very first title – the long jump and the high backflip – allow intuitive traversal of wizard towers, wind generators and building sites ripe with planks and staircases. Gone, or so it seems, are those moments of being stuck on a single pixel of unexploded earth, and in its stead is a definite design for allowing your team to scale and take advantage of higher ground. This comes at the cost of the fun a randomised terrain could bring, but it’s a fair trade.

Of course the true test of any Worms title is in the multiplayer, be it over Live or jostling with a couch-sharing buddy, and the joys are still there. The prospect of a Worms battle may not be as fresh as it once was, but the familiarity swings both ways; yes, you’ve played it countless times before, but there is a reason for that and it’s because boiled down it is simple and moreish. Be it custom weapons or a classic fight involving nothing but bazookas and grenades, any issues with cameras are forgotten as the worms start throwing high-pitched insults at each other. All it takes is the wind blowing a missile slightly off course and hilarity can ensue in any number of ways as mines roll into the course of unsuspecting worms, strings of explosions can reach unintended targets, or even a good old double-cross. There is a meaty single-player campaign (also joined by an import of the Worms 3D campaign), strung together by series of pitched battles and platforming-based fetch quests to occupy your time, nevertheless this only serves to strengthen the feeling that Worms is best when it is a multiplayer game.

The transition from the traditional flat view will not be for everyone, and at times it is questionable whether the series truly benefits from this direction, but for each downside there is an up. The levels have far more personality, and bending a rocket around a rocky outcrop and through a horses legs is just downright flashy. It could be the injection the series has been requiring to give it new legs, but then again these chaps have been surviving without those limbs for quite some time.

7 /10