Monthly Archives: November 2011

Super Mario 3D Land | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 /10

Halo: Anniversary | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 /10

Sonic Generations | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 /10

The War of the Worlds | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 /10