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Gamescom ::: Day 3 Highlights

Mighty Quest for Epic Loot (PC)

The promotional image for Mighty Quest that stuck in my head was that of a burly man in a dress sitting daintily on a throne, surrounded by gold. It’s a striking image and one that I thought would guarantee a certain sense of humour. Disappointingly it’s not quite the dungeon crawler crossed with Monty Python I had hoped for but it still keeps tongue firmly in cheek as you fight ferocious chickens, barrels full of tentacles, and shambling zombies hindered further by being stuck in stocks. It’s brought to life by a very clean art style. Heroes have strong jaws, wizards have excessively long beards, and all are painted in an unfussy colour scheme that appears very bold and bright on screen.

Knowing little about the game going in, I was surprised when my initial quest for said loot lasted only a few minutes. There’s still levelling, loot and skill but this isn’t the sprawling questline of Diablo, more a short romp meant for repeat visits. However, the change with each trip doesn’t come from Ubisoft’s designers but the other players in the community.

Every player has a castle, their base of operations, which is stored online and each is customised with a host of traps and creatures, some of which are far more fearsome and deadly than those mentioned above. They may not be your first thought when it comes to decorating a new home but in Might Quest other players will choose to steal into your castle and make off with your loot. If they make it through within a predetermined time limit then they’ll take a large slice of your hard earned treasure so it’s down to your “décor” to delay them for as long as possible.

It’s a great dynamic. Mixing tower defence with a dungeon crawler, but with the added twist that because on your own sorties you battle exactly that which you’re fortifying your own castle with you know their strength and weakness. Combine that with the bite-size level of commitment you can put in and you have a very novel concoction that won’t consume your life but will make it more interesting.

Rating: Good

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Walking with Dinosaurs (PlayStation 3)

Dust off your Wonderbooks as Cologne has seen an influx of games to support the AR flickbook. Well, two. The first of which is tied in with Walking with Dinosaurs.

Tucked on the floor, sat cross legged and possibly a little too excited due to my love of terrible lizards, the demo opened with a cinematic showing two carnivores having a scrap. The visuals, lacking when compared to the recent BBC documentaries, were interspersed with quick time events. A swish of the Move this way and that would cause your dinosaur to dodge this way and that, although it wasn’t clear which one was “my” dinosaur.

After that I explored the unearthing of a stegosaurus. Each step saw the Move used as a variety of tools; a saw to remove excess rock, a brush to dust down the bones, and finally a gravity gun that swung the bones into place. Soon a fully recreated skeleton sat on the page in front of me before slowly morphing into a living creature that grunted at me and wandered off.

As with the Book of Spells, Walking with Dinosaurs seems more a toy than a game. Each page contains a bite-sized feature, ranging from quizzes to full AR scenes where you feed your newly reconstructed/revived dinosaur. There’s plenty of variety but in terms of depth they won’t keep older players engaged for long. However, for those of younger years and with a penchant for prehistoric monsters I can see them lapping this up.

Rating: Good

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Puppeteer (PlayStation 3)

If ever you want an example of how not to do a show floor demonstration, Puppeteer should be your test case. Obviously using the tutorial level from the full release, page after page of text threatened to beat me and my co-op partner into submission before even a button was pressed. It may look gorgeous but it doesn’t half go on.

Sadly because of this drip, drip, drip of information it was hard to get a true handle on this charming 2D platformer. One of us took the role of a ghostly, floating cat and the other a boy without a head, the former being able to scour the background and find a variety of new bonces for the latter. Spooky skulls, web-spinning spiders and chunky bats can all be wedged on top of your neck and each hand you a new talent. Most of them were strangely unintelligible as executing them usually only meant the boy did a little dance or spun himself up in a cobweb, but apparently they’re key to getting through certain environmental puzzles. Things became clearer towards the end of the level as the boy also received a pair of scissors. These he wielded as a sword and everything fell back into more traditional tropes as you hacked away at baddies.

All the time the strange interplay between the cat and the boy felt very stilted. Rarely would the two have to interact and so the whole notion of co-op was curious. One would act, then the other, the only real interplay being when the cat held down foes for the boy to chop at, though again I feel the demo was not being very forthcoming with information.

It was a very poor demonstration of what could be a stunning game. The layered levels feel as though created in Little Big Planet but brought to a new sharper finish as ever knot and ring could be seen in the wooden puppets. I’m not writing it off but let’s hope the PSN demo will be far more targeted.

Rating: Meh

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Ryse (Xbox One)

At first glance Ryse appears to be a title moulded in the same vein as God of War, Microsoft’s attempt to try and capture the market for old world violence from Sony. By the time my fifteen minute demo had drawn to a close it seemed that those initial comparisons were not too far off the mark. I was playing co-operatively as part of a two-man team and had to fight my way through waves of enemies inside a Coliseum, although it wasn’t apparent whether this was part of the main campaign or merely a side game.

Our first task was to take down waves of barbarians, all of which fell quickly. A combination of attacks can be used from quick stabs to heavy blows, and your centurion also utilises his shield as both an offensive and defensive tool. Fans of 300 will also be pleased to learn that a heavy Spartan kick is also available which stuns the enemies allowing for follow up attacks. Littered around the arena were spears (usually stuck into a deceased corpse) that can be picked up and subsequently thrown. An element of timing was required here to ensure contact but they seemed to usually result in an instant kill.

After damaging your opponents enough, a symbol appears above their head which indicates that the assassinate move is available. After pressing B to initiate it, time slows and a variation of button presses can be used to chain together a series of killing blows until the target is no more. In one sequence my character launched the barbarian into the air, before delivering a big vertical swipe to the helpless soul. It’s all very slick and violent but not unlike what has been seen before.

Any preconceptions that Ryse was geared more towards reality soon evaporated however, when the developer informed me to press the right trigger when I was surrounded. A great blast of lightning energy enveloped the screen, instantly killing everyone. I used it several times throughout the demo and it certainly helped with crowd control when needed.

The camera was positioned very close behind the player and whilst it does a good job getting you amongst the action, it did leave to some problems when certain foreground objects obstructed the screen and with enemies behind. It was manageable but still a bit of an issue at times. Graphically Ryse looks quite decent, but nothing about it really screamed next-gen to me. It’s not an ugly game by any means, quite the opposite, but if you were looking for a game to show off to your buddies upon the release of the Xbox One, look elsewhere.

After destroying the hordes we moved into another arena, this time we were tasked to burn some tents by knocking over flaming cauldrons, all the while fighting our way through more barbarians. After a while the chief barbarian appeared. I was expecting a tough boss fight but in actuality he fell just as quickly as his brethren. As quickly as that it was over. Whilst I enjoyed the experience I still couldn’t shake the fact that it was a little bit too similar to God of War. For those not blessed to have played these titles then that won’t matter but for others there are question marks as to whether there is enough about Ryse to make it stand out on its own. Time will tell and of course Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rating: Good

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Peggle 2 (Xbox One)

Without doing anything particularly special Peggle, at least in our group of friends, developed a personality. Silently Bjorn and his friends would sit alongside each level, providing you with special powers but very little of their of character but we projected onto them wise but senile old fools, sexually confused hairstylists, and a host of others that probably would send us to a psychiatrist if we revealed them publically.

Peggle 2 is bringing us back from the brink as it provides its own character traits. The core of the game remains the same but each of the mascots are now given a makeover. For one they embrace a style more akin to webcomics with strong lines and exaggerated expressions. They no longer look glib on the sidelines but watch the ball as it travels, offering oohs and ahhs as the balls career about the level. Bjorn seems to have turned into an rock star as he throws up the horns in appreciation of skilful shots and struts wildly, wind machine blowing through his mane in classic 80s hair rock fashion, as you hit the final orange peg. Though worryingly he also appears to be having a bowel movement when he magics up each level.

Not all the original Pegglers return and the roster is refreshed with a host of debutants each bringing their own special powers. The only one revealed so far and playable at Gamescom was Luna, a ghostly child with large eyes and a touch of the supernatural about her. Her talent makes the ball fly straight through blue pegs, still clearing them but making it far easy to reach the crucial orange ones.

In a game that is so based around the random bouncing of a marble around a pinboard this injection of personality is welcome. It has a light tone about it and a sense of humour that at times seems very bizarre but fits right in with how I’d already painted the established Pegglers.

Rating: Good

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Age of Zombies (Vita)

Tucked away in the corner of the dedicated Vita portion of Sony’s booth sat a selection of smaller and less fashionable titles. Tokyo Jungle is apparently coming to the handheld, as are a selection of titles seen previously on iOS and beyond. What caught my eye however was a zombie tyrannosaur.

The plot is thin but anything that reaches that conclusion must be explored and apparently an evil doctor has sent zombies back through time and they are altering the course of history. Of course the only natural solution is sending back a cocky lead character with a gun to mow the undead down before the brain hungry evils destroys humanity.

That’s where the fun stops. A twin stick shooter its sole goal is to throw hundreds of zombies at you, all shambling in your direction only to be mown down. That’s it. It’s bullet hell but with corpses and all you do is shoot back. It’s a mundane experience as they walk merrily into the firing line and offer no resistance other than through sheer numbers.

After three levels of tedium the T-rex did appear to liven things up briefly. He at least wanted to attack me and for a brief while I felt threatened but for all his bluster he was again just a giant bullet sponge. If there had been an attack pattern or a dedicated weak spot then things may have got interesting but I guess if they were that clever they wouldn’t have gone extinct.

Rating: Meh

Gamescom ::: Day 2 in 8bit

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A pair of Androids hog the attention in the business lounge.

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A pair of Journey monks hog the attention in the entrance hall.

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A bright green wall hogs the attention in hall 6.

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The masses head for lunch.

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Creeper!

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Andrew appears from the void.

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Peggle 2′s Bjorn poses for us.

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Today’s Cologne sight: the padlock strewn bridge adjacent to the convention centre.

Gamescom ::: Day 2 Highlights

Tearaway (Vita)

Last year’s Gamescom marked the turning point for the Vita and leading that charge was Media Molecule’s Tearaway. The papery platformer promised not only charming visuals but a use for the many features of the handheld that had only up until then be used as gimmicks or in mini-games.

The demo level exemplified this as for large parts our hero could not jump. A small issue for a lead in a platformer but by standing on certain types of ground and tapping the back of the Vita you could send him leaping upwards. After years of conditioning to press the X button to jump it felt a little weird but it proved a fun interaction if only because it threw aside convention. In your role throughout you affect the world as much as the character.

Elsewhere you open doors with a parting of your fingers, paper crowns are designed and cut out for squirrels, and records are scratched and rewound to slow down the pace of life in the forest. On paper – excuse the pun – it all sounds contrived but because of the world that MM paint around you it makes complete sense. You are the “One in the Sky”, an almost godlike figure looking down and helping all about you; it’s even possible to look up and see yourself smiling down from within Tearaway’s sun.

What is truly beautiful is how the game embraces its paper style across the board. Even the animations forgo normal smooth motion and elegant blending and instead opt for a slightly stuttering approach mimicking stop-frame animation. This takes incidental animations such as the butterflies fluttering by or the rain drops bursting on the ground and makes them as much a part of the game as any of the platforming.

Rating: Awesome

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Project Spark (Xbox One)

I’ve always been a fan of Build Your Own Game games. They open up creative paths to those who are not yet trained programmers or artists and allow a white box for people to experiment with in a hobby that they usually only consume rather than create. Project Spark is the latest of these and from the demo we saw on Xbox One it seems to cater for both the casual and those wishing to drill a little deeper.

With a suite of terrain creation features players first paint their world. Raising and lowering terrain, cutting gorges, and scattering “filler” onto open planes with a broad brush that auto-generates scenery. From there a selection of several hundred objects – from trolls to trees, cannons to cats – can all be edited down and handed a default behaviour. There proved to be a huge selection of prewritten behaviours that could fill enemies, power-ups, objectives and pet rocks. The potential seems huge, especially when you brush beneath the surface and find this can be layered with complex variable assignment and conditional programming.

As a finale we saw a Limbo clone that demonstrated the ability to lock movement in a plane, tweak the lighting and fix a camera. With that and the racing game on the screen next door it appears that Microsoft have created a very powerful tool that could inspire a new generation.

Rating: Good

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Super Mario 3D Land (Wii U)

Super Mario 3D Land embraces what proved such a success on the 3DS and brings it into high definition. Mario looks unnervingly large and crisp as he bounces around the levels which are made of the same abstract shapes and blocks that have defined his recent outings.

The new twist this time is his figure hugging cat suit. When donned our plumber can scale walls to reach otherwise unreachable areas; just jump into a wall and he’ll latch his claws into the vertical face and scrambles up. Though this ease of use is balanced by a short window of use after which the plumber will plummet back to earth.

Worries about it unbalancing the game should be laid to rest though as the levels on offer showed that it, like the racoon suit before, is used for accessing bonus areas, rewarding players with further platforming and offering new ways to play rather than exploiting weaknesses in the old formula. It also provides new offensive manoeuvres too, with a new diving attack and cartwheel slash that give an uncommon range to Mario’s combat.

It’s another demonstration that rather than building on feature after feature, Nintendo are happy to strip away Mario to his core and build upon just the odd new skill here and there. In doing so it allows them to focus on making the most of them rather than losing them in the noise of feature creep.

Rating: Good

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Sonic Lost World (Wii U)

Our favourite hedgehog must be getting old; Sonic has a run button. The old boy needs to conserve his energy and so from now on you have to tell him when you want him to pick up the pace. Rather than hamper the essence of the series however it in fact enhances it and leads to an interesting dynamic, one that I’ve hoped to see for a while. You still get to hurtle along on the straight but now when the designers decide it’s time for a quirky platforming section you ease off on the gas and tackle it with far more control than previously offered. It takes a while to get used to but within the twisting Green Hill Zone it worked wonders.

Although don’t expect a more conservative approach, a later demo saw Sonic rekindle memories of his Dreamcast Adventures. Pelting headlong into the screen he navigates a casino, jinking left and right to avoid barriers and spinning through enemies blocking his route. Compared to Green Hills, which at one point inverted itself and made you navigate across what was once your ceiling, this was disappointing bland. I have mixed feelings about gameplay that I used to have on an LCD racing game but half way through they softened my stance by dropping in a tribute to Sonic Spinball.

Though I welcome the approach in optionally slowing down their mascot, Sega made it hard to judge what Lost World actually is. Such a mishmash of styles and levels could be considered a greatest hits but for as much as I enjoy variety it made it very hard to get a consistent feel.

Rating: Meh

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Titanfall

This was for sure a big highlight of the day, and possibly the show. Before sitting down to play the game, we were shown a short video which explained the mission objectives and broke down each of the classes on offer. The on-foot pilots could choose between assault, support and close quarters builds. These act as expected but interestingly enough there are also separate classes amongst the Titans as well. The three on offer here (it was hinted that there may be others available) offered a variety of weapon types and skills, each one suited to a particular style of play and role within a team. The first class came with a machine gun and the ability to use a magnetic field to catch oncoming fire and then return to sender, or anyone else that may be in your way. The next came fitted with a heavy cannon, a slow firing but highly accurate precision weapons which favours those with a good aim. An electrical field could also be deployed which disrupted the electronics of other Titans. Finally, the third class came with a rocket launcher which fired off a cluster of three missiles at a time, highly effective against Titans.

Initially you can’t but help comparing it to Call of Duty, but it didn’t take long until the differences came to the forefront; make no mistake Titanfall is very much its own game. A big part of it is due to the controls of the pilot. All of the classes are able to double-jump using their jet packs, meaning verticality is more important than ever and almost no area on the map is unreachable. Pilots are also able run along walls and chaining these two talents together mean you can effectively traverse whole maps without ever touching the ground. This parkour feel really does set this apart from other titles in the FPS space. The speed and variety of movement creates a fast paced match but at the same time isn’t so fast that it becomes nothing but a twitch contest.

At the start of the battle some of the other players were already roaming around in the Titans, but before long my timer had ran down and I was advised that my own personal Titan was available for deployment. With a press of a key I was able to choose where the giant mech dropped and a few seconds later I looked to the sky, watching with giddy excitement as it suddenly plummeted to earth. I hastily entered the machine and after a short animation the cockpit informed me that systems were online and my first stint in a Titan began.

It was riding in the assault class, mowing down troops with my machine gun and dashing about the place. It wasn’t long however until I encountered an enemy Titan. This one was firing rockets at me and I knew that I didn’t have the fire power to go toe to toe. I waiting around a corner for my foe and then rushed him, shooting at the cockpit. Luckily for me a team mate jumped in and we took it down, confirmation of my first Titan kill displayed at the bottom. The video from earlier had said that my main weapon was more effective against pilots than Titans and yet I was still able to bring it down, albeit with a little help. It seems therefore that the balance, even in this stage of development, is being carefully considered and will no doubt continue to be evolved.

After the end of the battle (which our team lost) the epilogue kicked in. This short section sees the losers try to flee the battlefield on a drop ship whilst the winning team attempts to kill them and prevent this. A way point is displayed on the screen which after a few seconds sees an escape ship arrive, waiting for you to board. It only seems to hang around for a few seconds however so you have to be quick. I was unable to get to the escape ship in time as I ran into a couple of titans who swiftly destroyed me. It seems that in this part of the match you are only granted one life as all I could do at that point was watch my fellow pilots dash towards safety.

Overall then I couldn’t have enjoyed my time with Titanfall any more than I did. Microsoft have a very strong exclusive title here that is good enough to sell the Xbox One by itself. The idea of further classes available, especially for the Titans, is mouth-watering and I cannot wait to play this more down the road.

Rating: Awesome

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Warframe

“Press X To Ninja” prompts the title screen of Digital Extremes’ Warframe, shortly before launching players into its universe of alien races, co-op shooting, card-collecting, loot-grabbing and extreme melee action. Combat is a fast-paced hybrid of systems found in the likes of Sega’s Vanquish or the online portion of Mass Effect 3, with missions accessed through a hub world of players that brings to mind the original Guild Wars or Phantasy Star Online.

As Warframe is already a success on PC, Digital Extremes’ Gamescom presence is entirely focused on their impending PlayStation 4 release, and it’s coming along nicely too. Feature parity with PC is already locked and by the time the PS4 launches Warframe will be running at a steady 60fps with all the visual bells and whistles exhibited in the demonstration today. It looks sharp already, with some excellent motion blur and copious amounts of particle effects showcasing its next-next-gen pedigree.

Wrestling the PS4 controller from the developer’s hands for a quick wave-based co-op round, I can confirm that fps games appear a natural fit for Sony’s updated analogue sticks, with aiming, melee and shooting all feeling precise and speedy with the Dual Shock 4. Warframe’s close-quarter combat and assault weapons both feel satisfying and do a great job of making you feel like a total badass, with ample room for tactics as four-player parties mix and match their ordinance and special skills against enemies that require a degree of thought to dispatch.

Warframe should be available at launch for PS4, whether you’re a PS Plus subscriber or not.

Rating: Good

Gamescom ::: Day 1 in 8bit

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Assault by a screaming Rabbid.

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In tribute to Tokyo Jungle, we went to the zoo.

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Lost in any city? It’s best to keep a map of the underground on your camera.

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Tearaway’s mascot stands guard over the Vitas.

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Next door the Walking with Dinosaurs booth is equally guarded. Possibly more effectively.

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The Quest for Epic Loot sees a new ruler sit upon its thrown.

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A game picked in a completely un-bias nature to represent the Xbox One booth.

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Booth mascots are all trumped by a life sized Titan.

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Though even he is dwarfed by a pair of 10′ tall headphones.

Looking forward to today as the public are let in and the cosplayers come out to play. At this point the Game Boy Camera will be in its element; capturing the past.

Gamescom ::: Day 1 Highlights

Killer is Dead (Multi)

There’s a style that you associate with Suda. After No More Heroes and Killer 7 you expect bold visuals and a level of striking violence that is usually only reserved for graphic novels. The aspect you forget, however, are the overly sexualised women. Within the first five minutes of Killer is Dead I had already bore witness to at least three women who were barely contained within their tops and with each part of me died a little. I don’t consider myself a feminist but when it’s emphasised by gratuitous camera shots it reinforces why I won’t be playing this game in front of my wife.

Apart from sexual inequality Killer is Dead is shaping up to be an intriguing brawler. The lead character, Mondo, is an executioner who’s sent into the world to rid us off criminals and assassins. During one mission things turn odd as the lady you meet in the search of a killer appears to believe she’s Alice and her house turns into Wonderland around you. There are no white rabbits here but as space takes on strange properties and malicious robots appear from thin air and force you to take up arms.

Combat’s fluid and simple, with little sign of combos (unless they’re saved for later beyond the initial demo) but the staple swordplay basics are all here with guards, counters and general hackery all available with a quick mash of the buttons. The twist Suda brings is that you also have a bionic arm that adds to your powers. Utilising this super limb you can decapitate your foes or slice them in half foes at will through some spectacular montages that allow the studio to go to town on close up camera angles exploiting the carnage.

The gameplay itself would not be enough to make it stand out from a Devil May Cry but the creativity displayed in the visuals and themes do. With the game out at the end of the month this build should probably be considered final and whilst certain depictions within it make me cringe the overarching absurdity may still mean I have to play it. Even if, like the best saucy media, it will be in private and away from my other half.

Rating: Good

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Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag (Multi)

Quite aside from naval warfare, Welsh pirates and the PS4 pad, the one overriding memory I’ll take away from Assassin’s Creed IV at Gamescom is that all demonstrations should be done by members of their native development team. The enthusiasm and eye for minutia brings out the best in Ubi’s offering. “That’s a new combat animation for the double assassination!” I casually exclaim. Never mind that, “check out the rainbow behind this beam of wood! My team did that” he grins. And so it goes.

It’s not all window-dressing and incidental detail though. From the brief hour I spent with AC IV, Kenway’s pirate adventures promise to be the most expansive set of contract killings yet seen. The landmass is huge. A quick prod of the PS4 touchpad pulls up a map screen that’s intimidatingly large and yet absolutely crammed with digital bread trails leading to missions, collectibles and resource-gathering, while fast-travel and an increased top speed on Kenway’s ship – the Jackdaw – makes navigating between them fast enough to keep things ticking over.

With nary a loading screen in sight, AC IV’s engine has also been tweaked and expanded to cover all manner of new transitions between boat, sea, building, and land. Clambering between moving and static objects is as easy as the free-running in previous instalments, and although a couple of AI bugs crop up to remind me that this is indeed still an authentic Assassin’s Creed experience, it’s a demo that soothes more concerns that it raises. Kenway is a charismatic lead, the setting is beautifully rendered, there’s an ocean of content and a suitable vessel with which to navigate its seas, and heck, there are rainbows and cats on the rooftops. What more will we need from next-gen?

Rating: Awesome

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Forza 5 (Xbox One)

Whilst not the first Xbox One title I played today, it certainly left me excited by the possibilities. Not due to the game itself however, but due to the pad and, more specifically, the rumble enabled triggers. Whether it was to simulate wheel spin or the feel of going over a speed bump, the triggers gave rumble feedback accordingly, with the subtle differences in strength lending to an increased sense of realism that has not been seen, or indeed felt, before. It may sound like a gimmick along with the other 39 improvements made to that pad, but in reality this short demo really sold the idea of force feedback triggers to me that has left me feeling positive for the future.

As far as the demo itself goes, it didn’t leave me with as much enthusiasm when I walked away. It’s still very much business as usual; the same realistic physics and graphical flair that you would expect from the series. The car models themselves are visually impressive and the extra power afforded by the new console really shines through with the little details on the cars themselves adding an extra layer of visual sheen. The only downside was some jaggy edges but these were minor distractions at best. Unfortunately the track selection of Laguna Seca did not help in selling the graphical prowess of Forza 5. The barren nature of the track leaves little to gawp at whilst speeding along, which may be why driving with the cockpit view is the most satisfying. Again the level of detail on show here is excellent.

It’s clear however that this is not the final build, with draw distance and level of detail pop in prevalent throughout. These are all elements that I have no doubt will be tweaked so it is little cause of concern at this stage. Given the high quality bar set by previous titles however, we have no doubt that this title will be a must have launch title come the end of the year.

Rating: Good

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Super Mario Kart 8

The familiarity I found with Mario Kart is both a blessing and a curse. So easy was it to jump into that I hardly cared about the course I was careering around, merely the next corner and the bugger peppering me with green shells. It’s like a warm and comfortable jumper that you’re happy to slip on, unconcerned whether it’s in style or how many times your friends have seen you in it.

As such the multiplayer fun is immediate. With split screen it’s easy to have anyone jump in and experience 8’s take on the series. There’s no learning curve because if you’ve been behind the wheel of any the recent editions you’ll be right at home, power sliding round corners, controlling the hang-glider as you leap off a particularly meaty jump, and peppering the bugger in front with green shells.

The big twist is supposedly that a page has been taken from Mario Galaxy and that tracks now loop upside down and the cars switch into anti-grav mode. Whilst an interesting concept on paper the actual execution is sadly lacking. There is no discernable difference whether you are the right way up on completely inverted, the kart controls exactly the same and even the track-side decoration barely acknowledges the fact that you’re defying everything that Newton worked so hard to establish.

Like so many Nintendo games in the current generation Mario Kart 8 can be summed up by simply restating the title: it’s Mario Kart. Even the gamepad support is lacklustre providing only the ability to honk your horn. The lack of movement or innovation in the series is not surprising but still disappointing.

Rating: Good.

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The Division

As the doors to the convention opened this was where we made our beeline. Wowed by the showing at E3 we wanted to get up close and personal with yet another of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy titles and unearth more of what was behind it. As we queued this became evident as we were prodded, scanned and probed by the booth attendants checking for any signs of infection. A novel twist for their military/squad based shooters that oh so regularly revolve around political upheaval.

Inside I was initially disappointed that we were shown a repeat of the E3 playthrough but the wonder of it playing uncompressed and in glorious high-def in front of me on a large screen cannot be underestimated. It is wonderfully crisp and the detail in everything from the debris in each alley to the smooth nature of the police cars Division operatives use for cover screams “next-gen”.

After that we were treated to a live gameplay demo that centred around smartglass, whereby one player operates a drone and hovers above the more traditional players who control fighters on the ground. Through our pigeon German it seems the drone is far more active than originally perceived as it has its own skill tree to level through and talents to exploit. For a simple comparison it almost behaves like an MMO shaman class, playing a support role buffing and healing players from afar or conversely weakening the enemy in preparation for a ground assault from its colleagues.

The co-operative nature seems the most attractive quality to me and married with the technology-rich future of the Tom Clancy name it seems a more considered alternative to that offered by Titanfall or Black Ops.

Rating: Awesome

No “Meh”s today, but what can I say. We were picky in what we played/wrote about. There’s still time.

Rogue Legacy ::: Let’s Play

Who Do You Think You Are: The Game. Sort of. James and Ali join the family tree of an intrepid set of adventurers as each successive generation sets forth to discover fame and glory in this Castlevania-esque rogue-lite.

Racing Down Memory Lane

I often think that you should never go backwards through a series. Whilst you may have fond memories of a supposed classic, a creep of features and evolving controls can often make you wonder whether the prescription on your rose tinted glasses needs updating. Never was that more evident than last week as I took my Super Nintendo into work and hooked up the original Mario Kart for an office competition.

The theory behind our choice of game was that even though there were pockets of 3DS Mario racers and still some hardcore Wii Karters, the original entry in the series had not been seen on the premises in nearly a decade. Hopefully this extended absence would mean there were no hard-core fanatics ready to bust out a well-practiced hot lap. More so than that, the name alone promotes an accessible and familiar series that we hoped would coax as wider a range of people in as possible.

The theory was sound, but as I wired up the system, plugged in the cartridge, and sat on the starting grid for the first time in years, my fond memories were on the cusp of disappearing in a belch of exhaust fumes.

Our modern expectations of the number one racing series for plumbers is characterised by elaborate backgrounds, wide circuits and easy to control karts. There’s a lushness to each stop on the grand prix circuit that has grown over time, yet Mario Circuit 1 is anything but. As neat as the Mode 7 graphics are, that initial track is strangely bland. The mind’s eye paints in a lot but the misshapen doughnut road sits upon a dull dirt plateau, the only thing tying it into the Mario series being the iconic green hills sliding by in the distance.

Of course when you’re racing you barely notice anything but the pipes dotted about the track; you focus on the race and your character so the lack of franchise padding is of little interest. What is noticeable however is the incredibly unforgiving handling.

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There was a time that I mocked my younger sister for her uncanny ability to fish tail all the way down a straight. She seemed unable to point the cart in a straight line, always overcompensating, turning out to the other side of the track, forcing another correction and the cycle to begin again.

I now take everything back. A combination of sensitive digital controls and a large amount of over-steer saw me lurch back and forth, fighting to keep Luigi in his kart and out of the dirt. I daren’t even attempt power-slide as it was a sure fire recipe for ending up with Lakita flagging me down and kindly informing me that I was pointing in the wrong direction. It was a desperate return to a classic I had played for hours and hours as a teenager.

As I staggered over the line, my driver green in more ways than one, my high scores of 16 years past flashed up on screen. My younger self had somehow managed a 1:07.86, an embarrassing amount quicker than my stumbling return. My only thought was that over the years I had gotten soft with analogue controls and countless driver assists turned on. A culture of rubber banding and a need for instant success has caused me to forget how you had to work at games in generations gone by. And just before I popped my flat cap on and started moaning about the youth of today I vowed there and then that by the end of the week I would get back to at least the standard I had set to myself when I was 16.

If this were a film this would be the point where some enthusiastic 80s music would kick in and you’d see a montage of me honing my skills. A furrowed brow of concentration, the wringing of the pad at a misjudged turn, and a few choicely bleeped phrases, I can see it now.

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Over the next week early starters would come into the office and find me already tucked in front of the SNES, stealing some solid time on the track before the masses arrived and took their turn. And I needed a continual block as the odd lap here and there did nothing for me. From the narrow window for boost starts to judging the slide round a corner, I was slowly relearning the basics and only a series of consecutive races could help me settle back into the flow.

Second by second my lap time eked down but with that came all the memories of the subtle magic that Nintendo crafted into this very first Mario Kart. On a basic level you can easily pick a racer like Mario or Toad and zoom round the course, posting a respectable time and progressing in any Grand Prix you may be in, but there are glorious layers. The powerslide for one, which not only allows you to keep speed round bends but can be as tight as required, falls into the classic category of being easy to pull off but incredibly hard to master. Seeing some of our top racers hug the corners so tight there was a danger of asphyxiation whilst travelling sideways in a controlled skid was incredible.

Very rarely do you step back into the past and find that it still is as good as you remember but Mario Kart still stands up remarkably well. Though there is an initial learning curve as your privileged hands have to relearn digital controls, it is a welcoming and warming experience. If anything the stripping away of the presentation frills benefits the focus on racing and means the giant cheep-cheep that floats over you on the podium means so much more.

What meant the most to me however was my time at the end of the week: 1:07.66. I’m a whole fifth of a second better than my teenage self. Take that, young James!

Pikmin 3 ::: Let’s Play

It’s been a mighty while since the last Pikmin and James has been having to suffice with the offering found in Nintendoland. That only whetted his appetite further and so here he is showing Ali found the newest instalment of Nintendo’s garden-based franchise.

Oculus Rift ::: Hands On

As a proud owner of a Virtual Boy I consider this Oculus Rift a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. Yes, Nintendo’s doomed device may have been as portable as a house brick and incapable of being played without a stand to support it, but it gave your eyes a stereoscopic treat almost two-decades before Carmack began backing the Rift.

In stark black and red there is still to this day a wonderful quality to its vector graphics. Like lasers breaking the void each line sears itself onto your vision, impressing upon you a sense of depth never seen before in the mass market. From the low camera angles of Mario Tennis and Nester’s Funky Bowling, to the curiously top-down Vertical Force, the thin catalogue of games did what they could to sell the dream. Ultimately, however, when combined with a high price, an uncomfortable design, and migraine inducing visuals, the games were fighting an uphill battle.

During the intervening time we’ve seen little of virtual reality. Craig Charles’ Cyber Zone aside, it has troubled us little since the early 90s. Understandable given the quality of the graphics being offered at the time. Low polygon counts and flat textures may have been impressive at the advent of 3D but as the novelty wore off then so too did demand. Strapping yourself in and experiencing a blocky, misshapen world could quite readily happen on your own telly without the need for a helmet.

So much stock had been put into the fact that Virtual Reality was an outdated concept that despite the obvious leaps in technology I for one pooh-poohed the Oculus Rift when it was unveiled. Still imagining oversized and unshapely headwear the initial mutterings of interest from some of the industries most esteemed names did little for me. I struggled to see, in an age where 3D is failing to take off, that it was anything more than a novelty. I imagined the proximity of your face to the screen being off putting, so close to the light source as to be irritating; the fidelity of the screen being too low at such a distance; and the whole experience of controlling your own camera by motion tainted by that of Wii and Kinect.

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And yet when I strapped myself sceptically into Ether One’s tech demo at Rezzed most of these reservations melted away. Coupled with a supremely robust set of headphones I found myself transported from a bustling, noisy show floor and cocooned into a whole new world. The dark arena hall had given way to a verdant cliff top, a town sprawling to my left whilst the sea stretched out in front.

The sensation of being in the world, truly immersed in it, was staggering. It’s the type of thrill you only get once, like finding your first warp pipe in Super Mario Bros. or that moment where you crest the hill to see the vastness of Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina of Time. You’ll never get your first time again as your hobby finds a new and exciting way of portraying itself. All my previous concerns were forgotten and I strolled about, head tilting this way and that to drink in this new feeling.

The superlatives may seem laid on a little thick but I found myself taken in by the simplest things, though mainly those that demonstrated the power of 3D handled effectively. Positioning myself so that the light bloomed through the trees as I looked up or viewing a river running underneath a cracked wooden bridge, the view adjusting ever so finely as I moved my head about. Each brought the world into sharper relief than any Hollywood blockbuster that had hurled millions of dollars at the third dimension.

Whilst your head maybe encased and in control of your view, your hands still need a controller or keyboard to allow you to move around. A necessary evil helps ground you back in reality and indeed introduces bad habits. So used am I to controlling cameras with the right analogue stick on a standard joypad that I had to force myself to let it be and allow my head to swing the viewport around instead. Such a simple thing but I had to fight years of muscle memory to make my own head look about instead of my thumb.

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The demo itself was little more than an attractive background to wander through, showing little if anything of the game itself, and as time ticked by I began testing the boundaries of the headset. For one the input latency is negligible. There is no noticeable lag with swinging your head about and the response from the game, though no doubt this is all down to Ether One’s camera system but shows that the refresh rate is high enough to be of no hindrance.

Soon after this I happened to focus on something quite close up and began to notice the resolution. The headset being demoed was a 1280 x 800 development kit rather than the full 1080p consumer version and so you could see the tiny lines separating the pixels. Overall the image quality was absolutely fine but sadly like a dripping tap once you notice it it’s hard to ignore.

Finally, and most disconcertingly, I insisted on jumping down flights of stairs. I had heard people had become motion sick during their time on the demo but hadn’t yet felt anything nearing that and so tried to do the most nauseous inducing thing I could find to do. Whilst relatively untroubled the brain does protest slightly at being told by most senses you’re throwing yourself off a great height but then having the body stay perfectly still. I found it a curious sensation but nothing too unpleasant, though a good friend thought otherwise when they tried later on.

During the space of five minutes I went from a sceptic to a supporter. A large amount of preconceptions were built on a combination of outdated thoughts on virtual reality and my dislike for the use of 3D in modern cinema, but the Oculus Rift dispelled those worries. The all-encompassing feeling that I was in the world was incredible and offered me very little reason to draw me out of it. There were no borders on the edge of my vision, no tearing in the render, no flaky refresh rate; it does what it need to and that is to be invisible to the user.

As always with these things, concept is one thing and execution is another – just look at the Wii U. There is an ever growing list of parties supporting it from individual studios to engine manufacturers but each game will be its own challenge. Every dev will have to ensure that it’s balanced just right and that the vision swings just so with your head’s movements but for me that’s of little concern. There is a lot of momentum behind the Rift and as soon as the consumer sets go on pre-order then there’s a pretty fine chance I’ll be throwing some money at them.

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The Last Door ::: Let’s Play

It’s not just platformers that can go pixelated for a more nostalgic vibe. The Last Door takes both the horror and point and click genre back in time and celebrates all things blocky. Join Ali and James as they take on The Games Kitchen’s online release.