• Posts tagged "Review"
Header

Blog Archives

Review: Blood Bowl

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

Blitzing into view is this year’s second greatest American Football game. If Madden’s photorealistic simulation isn’t your idea of how a pigskin should be used, then maybe gridiron mixed with Orks is more your thing with this faithful recreation of the classic and ultra-violent board game, Blood Bowl.

Games Workshop’s Blood Bowl is a fantasy, turn-based interpretation on America’s favourite sport. Given a team of hardy individuals each with their own special skills, you must block, tackle and foul your opponent into submission and carry the ball into their end zone. The victors are the side with the most touchdowns, whether that be after the allotted number of turns or because one team has been battered into submission.

Every action is taken with dice, with the success based on an individual character’s attributes of agility, strength, armour and movement. Stronger players will survive better in the rough and tumble of tackling, whilst the more agile can skip through defences and will be more adept at catching passes. The key is knowing your team’s strengths and your opponent’s weakness in order to exploit them to create gaps in their defence.

It has, however, been many, many years since my ratty Skaven team have been pulled down from the loft and forced on the field of play. Whilst I had a vague recollection of what was required, I felt it safest heading directly to the tutorial to refresh myself. What is presented is woefully inadequate. Most rules, even the very basic concepts of the game, are presented through reams of tediously, lengthy pop-ups. The amount of information that bombards the player is overwhelming and presented very inefficiently. Just one case in point is that when reeling off the dozen or so ways a player’s turn can be ended it is displayed in twelve separate pop-ups rather than a simple list. Worse still is that much of the information cannot be accessed from anywhere else, so any vagueness on the rules can only be righted by inflicting the tutorial on yourself again. This is at odds, however, with the welcome foresight of putting the bewildering array of a team member’s special skills in an encyclopaedia on the pause menu.

Thankfully there is a training match that offers you the chance to play a simple game of Blood Bowl that at every opportunity explains just what you and your opponent are doing. This definitely helps pull the separate parts of the tutorial together and adds a lot more context to the numerous pop-ups.

bloodbowl1

Outside of this learning curve, the actual recreation of Blood Bowl is very competent. There seems no omissions or compromises in bringing it to the DS and those who have played before should feel at home. It can be summarised as “angry chess” and is a very tactical game where you must weigh up the odds of success against each action you take in your bid for the end zone. The dice rolls are all hidden, which can lead to minor consternation at times as you try and work out just why your star player is face down in the mud but is clearly done with the intention of speeding up play.

Opponent AI seems well rounded, providing a good test even at the base Rookie difficulty, with victories earned rather than given. The downside seems to be large pauses during play for no perceivable reason. Whether it is the DS’s limitations or not, I very much doubt the Blood Bowl equivalent of Deep Blue has been included and it always prompts me to question whether the rival coach is deep in contemplation or has just crashed.

Those willing to sink time into the sport can head to the game’s main mode, the Championship. Based on a normal league format, you start at the bottom of the third division and aim to play yourself to the top, buying in a team of players and then building them into stars as your rise through the standings. The long term depth of Championship – again pulled directly from the board game’s team building – may not be enough to win over those fresh to Blood Bowl, though, as it seems very much a title that will only find success with those who already have prior experience with Games Workshop. There are just too many barriers preventing the uninitiated embracing the game and many will not be able to get passed the stuttering tutorial and the constant minor annoyances of an unresponsive UI.

As a faithful recreation of a classic board game it should be commended but the final verdict is a missed opportunity to bring in new players.

5/10

Review: Peggle

There are a clear subset of games which I can easily lose my wife to. Zuma is one, Zoo Keeper another and in recent weeks I can now add Peggle to that list.

Peggle is a cross between the pachinko machines of Japan and bagatelle. Faced with a board full of pegs and armed with a limited number of balls, the aim is to clear a batch of designated pegs by bouncing, cannoning and ricocheting your balls off them. When the ball falls off the screen the pegs that you’ve hit will disappear and your task continues until you run out of pegs (good) or run out of balls (bad).

Whilst this may sound like a game lacking in extravagance, Peggle then wraps it all up in sickly sweet colours and sprinkles it with doe-eyed characters. Quite how a unicorn sporting an inane grin fits into a suped up bagatelle I’m not entirely certain. Looking at my own bagatelle it’s hard to imagine dousing it in florescent shades and associating it with mythical beasts, and this is where a many of the more cynical consumers are likely to be lost. Out of my circle of gaming friends many have said that they just can’t get past the look of Peggle.

What Peggle offers these people is an opportunity to rethink their stance very early on. Complete a level successfully and out of nowhere Ode to Joy pipes up, fireworks spark from your ball and rainbows blossom at the bottom of the screen. The sheer ridiculousness of the reward and its contrast to the sedate nature of play is both super pleasing and a revelation. At this point you begin to understand what Peggle truly is: a game that never takes itself seriously. It stops being a cuter-than-cute arcade game and unmasks itself as a collection of elements lashed together with the sole aim of making a silly and addictive time sink. If you can relax into that then Peggle will just keep on giving.

I found there a childlike sense of pleasure from seeing the balls bounce and ping around the pegs, and every new board was readily embraced to keep that feeling going.

There are dozens of boards to play and each batch has its own theme. Their challenge ramps up throughout and so whilst the early garden styled levels bed players in, the later ones are heavy on awkward geometric shapes or moving scenery that test seasoned Pegglers. The hike in skill required to clear latter stages is evident. By the time a competent player has progressed through the main game, though, they will be attuned to the bounce and feel of the ball, enough to feel they can pull off the audacious shots needed. Just like a favourite pool table, you’ll know how the balls bounce and run and it’s just a case of lining up the initial shot.

With each theme also comes a mascot, ranging from aforementioned unicorn, named Bjorn, to a dragon going by the title Lord Cinderbottom. Although all launch the ball in exactly the same manner, they offer variety through powerups. The effectiveness of each may vary but all alter how a board can be approached, the most useful being a mystic owl who hones your shot to zen-like perfection. Other can activate multiballs, create pinball flippers or detonate any close by pegs. A lot can be down to personal taste but there is a reason why the cult of Mr Owl has sprung up in Cheltenham.

One aspect that I never considered before downloading Peggle was the social one. Armed with only a single television, Peggle has to be the game most likely to galvanise a room full of friends. Each ball is met with a chorus of “ooh”s and “ah”s and particularly crafty shots can have whole sofas on tenterhooks. Free balls and lucky bounces are serenaded with “good shot” whilst narrow misses have sympathies pouring in. Most might be down to physics and/or luck but you’ll take the support on board just as if everything after the initial bounce was down to a finely executed masterplan.

Once you’re done just hand the controller on over to the next player in the circle and the fun just keeps on giving. Pass-the-pad at its finest.

By all accounts, Peggle shouldn’t work. It’s a collection of seemingly random art assets combined with a game mechanic that ostensibly revolves around luck. And yet somehow this crazy mix works. Like so many simple concepts, its hooks can sink deep and everything from the ever rising pitch of the activated pegs to the constant positive reinforcement seems like a masterstroke. Above all, it’s about the search for the perfect shot. The one that even Mr Owl would be proud of.

8/10

Review: Death Tank

The origins of the original Death Tank are that of a pack-in game found in a pair of mid-nineties Saturn games. Rather than face the world alone it shuffled into being cowering behind Duke Nukem. Nothing has really changed with the release of a new Xbox Live Arcade version. You still have a two-dimensional hilly environment, you still have to blow opponent’s tanks to kingdom come and it still doesn’t warrant being a stand-alone title.

Even those players who missed Death Tank’s original outings will probably be familiar with the style of play. It is basically a real-time version of Worms, where the trajectories and power for your projectiles must be set with the analogue sticks before launching a weapon. It’s a game of angles and experimentation, mostly, although you can upgrade your weapons to mix things up.

The real-time element does add a sense of panic to proceedings, as you constantly attempt to juggle dodging bullets with maintaining your angles to score hits in return. Upgrades add on boosters to allow you tank to fly around the screen, shields that can be pulled up in an emergency and cluster bombs to rain down destruction, but no matter how hard it tries it just doesn’t possess any charm that makes me want to keep playing.

The bottom line is that Death Tank is ridiculously overpriced at 1,200 MSP (roughly £10 and a 50% markup on the average arcade game) as it is no more than a simple flash game with delusions of grandeur. The actual concept is quite fun, but I got a very similar game to this built in to Q-Basic back in 1993 that was just as enjoyable. No matter how many power-ups or flashy graphics that are laden atop this remake, none can justify its cost. Instead can I direct you to Worms, a vastly superior game for only one-third the price.

3/10

Review: The Maw

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwww!” For the umpteenth time this evening my purple alien cries out for his lost pet blob, Maw. Quite where he has gotten to is anyone’s guess; I last saw him eating tribbles in a bed of daisies. Some time ago we crashed on a strange alien world and it appears that our best way off it is for him to digest half of the world’s fauna, a task which his is excitably setting about.

The Maw is a platformer come puzzler, quite reminiscent of Space Station Silicon Valley. You roam around the green and verdant setting, meeting the local wildlife and attempting to figure out how to break through the various barriers that block your escape.

To break through your pet’s leash doubles up as a weapon, but in situations where that is not enough your pet itself proves useful. Like a gelatinous Kirby, consuming certain creatures will unlock special powers. Fiery salamanders will allow him to burn down trees, flying worms send him bobbing like a balloon whilst eating a peacock apparently turns him into a laser firing fiend. Each transformation brings out the character in Maw and it’s suprising just how much exists within a one-eyed blob.

The challenge is getting each creature in a state where Maw can eat them, as those salamanders need to be cooled, worms grounded and peacocked plucked. Most of these are logical and shouldn’t stop anyone in their tracks for long, but do prove engaging none the less.

There is a hint of Katamari, too. Early on Maw will only be able to snack on the smallest of creatures but the more he eats the larger he gets and the more prey available to him. Completists will scour the level for anything that moves and a few levels in they’ll have an eating machine, chowing down on anything that crosses their path.

There really is only one word to describe The Maw, and that’s “nice: it has “nice” graphics, “nice” sounds, a “nice” concept, a “nice” charm about it and a fun factor that could be summed up simply as being “nice”. Unfortunately “nice” isn’t always enough. Maw is worthy of your time, if you want to gorge your way through a planet, but there is nothing exception or standoutish. It’s possibly why I’m so unsure about this review as there is nothing to damn it for yet equally to praise it highly for, either. Those taking a dip will find a smile inducing journey but there is very little reason to play through for a second time.

6/10

Review: Mirror’s Edge

If the future depicted in Mirror’s Edge is to be believed, it is also a world of bold but limited colour. Tall buildings gleam white in the sun, interrupted only by flashes of red, green and blue. It’s as if a the mayor of the city, despairing at his wife’s inability to choose between apple white and snow white for their new kitchen, took some very drastic action to simplify matters.

If the future depicted in Mirror’s Edge is to be believed yet further, it is also a world of high security, where information is everything and highly sought after. Throughout, you guide Faith, a “runner” and purveyor of such information, across the rooftops in a bid to stay one step ahead of the authorities as she clears her sister’s name. Scaling scaffolding, jumping fences or sliding under pipes, she’s an agile lady who also isn’t afraid to get into a scrap if cornered.

Whether the contrasting visuals appeal to you or not is all down to personal taste, but their importance in the world cannot be downplayed. Running across the rooftops, the only signposts you’ll ever encounter are these flecks of colour. Not only do they help create a striking environment but an intuitive one, highlighting your next objective and allowing even new levels to be confidently tackled at a satisfying pace. It’s an unobtrusive way to guide the player and fits in well with the rest of the clean aesthetic; there is no HUD, no clutter, no reason to remove you from the experience.

The speed and freedom that can be achieved in Mirror’s Edge prove its greatest strengths, backed up by the first-person perspective and accessible controls. The former gives you a sense of connection with Faith and her movements, never taking you away from what she is going through, whilst the latter gives easy access to all of Faith’s skills. Wallruns, vaults, flips, jumps and slides, that if strung together across the cluttered skyline can provoke an empowering experience.

Most of the more open areas offer more than one way to navigate them, giving the opportunity to express yourself and experiment. Even the linear sections are welcome, acting like a three-dimensional puzzle that you must crack to progress.

Of course, there will be times when things go badly and a mistimed jump can send you hurtling to the pavement below. On these occasions you are set back to a the nearest checkpoint are persuaded to learn from your mistake. The frequency of this varies greatly throughout the game but whilst they can come in bursts the load times are never long enough to become annoying.

Unfortunately the weak point does come when those who wish to stop your free-running ways arrive on the scene. “Blues” armed with guns will burst out of doorways and although many can be avoided some must be knocked out or killed to progress. It can prove horribly scripted and combat on a whole is a painful, tiresome affair that breaks the game’s flow.

A lone enemy may not prove much of an obstacle, with their intelligence such that you can run straight at them and floor them with a flurry of blows, but rounding the corner to find a small squad always made my heart drop. You are advised to isolate each in turn but on certain rooftops that is easier said than done and on more than one occasion a play session ended because of the sheer frustration that it caused.

There is the option to disarm Blues and turn their weapon on their sqaudmates but the timing for this is ridiculous. A man could be doubled over and wheezing from a blow to the crotch but there is no option then. Instead it seems that the optimum time to remove is weapon is when he’s swinging it at your face. Having said that, and getting into character, I never felt as though Faith was the type to use guns and so insisted on battling through solely using unarmed combat.

Time-trials do become available as you progress, presenting areas where it is simply Faith and the environment, but they are balanced out against being forced to play through the main-story to unlock them.

Mirror’s Edge is ultimately a game of highs and lows: the joys of free-running across a gorgeously, stylistic city, and the lows of yet another bullet induced death. In many ways there are parallels with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, as in both cases you had a very pure and enjoyable platform-adventure and yet it seems that bad guys were added to either pad the game or because the designers just couldn’t imagine a game without them. In both situations, I feel their inclusion was to the detriment of the games themselves.

7/10

Review: Left 4 Dead

Who doesn’t like zombies? No-one, that’s who. Unless, of course, you’re running for your life from them, which is exactly where you find yourself in the co-op centric Left 4 Dead. Taking on the role of four armed survivors of the zombie apocalypse, you move from safehouse to safehouse searching for an escape from The Infected.

Between safehouses the path is anything but hospitable; zombies are everywhere. On their own they are manageable, but an onrushing horde is enough to cause crosshairs to wave wildly in panic.

A cool head and teamwork is vital to survival. Those running off alone will only last so long before the pack attacks and separates you from the safety of your friends. It may not be on a par with Rainbow Six when it comes to checking corners and clearing rooms, but you need your buddies close to apply first-aid and pull up those who have been knocked down. Plus the trivial matter of helping keep the undead at bay.

The experience of seeing of your first horde descend is a memorable one. There are no slow, pondering zombies here. Expect a sprinting 28 Days Later style that will pour from the surroundings in their droves. Bicycle clips are recommended.

As well as your standard Infected zombie model, there are also Special Infected. Taking the shape of large tanks, swift hunters and ranged smokers that can lash you from a distance with their tongue. Each has their own distinct cry and all can incapacitate a member of the group in their own special way, causing the rest to concentrate their efforts on freeing their comrade before it is too late. The introduction of these special types keeps everyone on their toes, awaiting the noise through the trees that signals a hunter’s approach.

Worst, though, is the Boomer who can turn a moment’s calm on its head. A huge, obese monster whose vomit attracts vast swathes of zombies from seemingly nowhere. Taken out at range they prove no bother but yards from a safehouse with low ammo and low health they can be a downright pain.

Disappointing, Left 4 Dead only has four chapters, each taking roughly an hour to complete. Its replay value comes from an “AI director” that spawns Infected as and when it sees fit. Dawdling too long will probably provoke a zombie rush, but take too much punishment and the director might ease off giving you time to regroup. Whilst this does add variety and unpredictability, it doesn’t seem enough with the blandness and linearity of the levels and your mission.

A different dimension is added to the experience through the adversarial mode, where you are placed in control of the Special Infected. Being far weaker than the humans, Infected must play cat and mouse with their prey. Charging in alone is a definite way to see the respawn screen very swiftly and so waiting in ambush or following in on a horde rush are your best methods of getting the brains you desire.

Played offline Left 4 Dead is a midly interesting affair but ultimately just an average shooter. Played with friends the experience is definitely lifted, but no matter how much the AI director plays with the game’s tempo those spending extended periods with the game will be retreading an awful lot of ground.

7/10

Review: Fallout 3

Last year, Bioshock became the darling of the gaming world because it combined a beautiful but tortured historical aesthetic with an engaging narrative. Whilst comparisons with Fallout 3 may at first seem misguided, they both share very similar themes: a world in ruin, an unlikely hero with a series of moral choices, and an art style set in the recent past. Not wanting to give too much away, but Fallout, like Bioshock, is an exceptional title.

As the opening cinematic fades away, the initial scene reveals a very unique experience: that of your own birth. Part of the quality of Bethesda’s epic RPG is the seamless way it weaves in the character creation stages, and what could be more natural than birth? It continues through childhood with important events shaping the adult who you will become: a toddler’s ABC book will assign characteristics whilst skill points will be gifted through school tests. Even the introduction of your Pitboy 3000 – your inventory manager, guidance system and quest book – is handled in the manner of a birthday present.

The style of the forthcoming adventure is molded through these handouts and there is plenty of scope to create a wide array of characters. From hackers to brawlers, marksmen to scientists, the world can be tackled in a variety of ways, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

This period of growth does a wonderful job of rolling out the Fallout universe, too. It is a world in a post-apocalyptic state where the denizens of the US have sought shelter in giant underground vaults. However, with the stage set in your cozy subterranean home, everything is turned upside down as your father decides to leave the safety of Vault 101. Keen to find out just why he abandoned his only child, you follow in his footsteps and set off in pursuit across the dangerous Capital Wasteland.

It is here where the game starts to shine. With the shackles of the vault cast aside, you stand on a hillside surveying a scene of utter devastation: buildings torn asunder, bleak landscapes and nothing but a gray palette for miles. Coming from the colour-rich Fable some may feel subdued by this depressing panorama, but the sense of freedom is immense.

Whereas Oblivion’s landscape was usually curtailed by hills, forests and city walls, Fallout hides nothing of its desolation. More often than not you can see far, far into the distance. Glimpses of strange buildings and settlements lurk in the distance, pulling you from your goal with the sheer intrigue of what they might hide.

As soon as I emerged blinking into the light, I took one look at my primary objective and promptly marched off in the opposite direction. Nearly a dozen hours passed before I took my first steps towards seeking out my father. Whether that makes me a bad son I do not know, but in the meantime I discovered abandoned towns, happened upon hidden weapon caches and had run away from more than one giant scorpion.

For those focusing solely and millitantly on the main storyline they’ll be able to polish off Fallout 3 in roughly ten hours. Kudos. They’ll also be depriving themselves of exploring a rich world populated with colourful characters. Wandering the barrens introduces many communities hidden away. Scared slaves living in ruins, an undercity full of mutants and towers housing the pre-war upperclass. Many have a tale to tell, some may even partner up with you, and searching for these groups often opens up quest chains that tells the story of the Wasteland yet further.

The sheer variety and detail of these quests is impressive. Players will rarely feel like they are facing the same challenge twice, aided and abetted by the narrative and their branching nature. Case in point, when asked to remove a troublesome ghoul, said ghoul also has a story to tell. Do you then continue with your orders to off him or is it now far more lucrative to keep him alive? Whose word do you value most? Should you follow the path of greed or righteousness? Choices, choices.

Although your early stat distribution will have shaped your character in one of many fashions, a good majority of quests are ultimately resolved by gunfights. Whilst it may be feasible to stealth around hordes at night and hack your way through security doors for sneaky shortcuts, lead will eventually fly. There are situations that can be resolved through diplomacy or cold hard cash and they are refreshing when they crop up, however, it is always worth dropping a few skill points into firearms not matter what the chosen character build.

What saves this adventure from turning into a sprawling shooter is a system called VATS. Entering VATS will freeze time and combat will change to an almost turn-based system where individual body parts can be targeted. Each will show the percentage chance of hitting and so the trade-off must be made between the high-risk, high-damage head and the relatively easy but more durable torso.

To maintain balance, using VATS costs action points, which take time to recharge. Once all are spent then combat reverts to a more traditional shooting mechanic. The basic FPS controls are not the game’s finest moment and so the mix works well. Players can choose between holding back for their recharging action points or charging in ala Quake, each giving their own experience.

Whilst combat may still be a work in progress (although a step up from Oblivion), Fallout 3 is ultimately an immersive world where it is possible to lose yourself for hours upon hours. Drawn in by tales of survival and the vast map just begging for exploration, the goodies that lie at the bottom of long abandoned vaults and the search for your missing father, there is so much to do it is hard to see a better value game this year.

For those of you who lost your lives to Oblivion, then prepare to do so again. Those who did not, and I was amongst your number, I would still consider putting Fallout 3 at the top of your Christmas list; it will keep you going long after the last of the mince pies have been eaten.

10/10

365 Word Review: Army of Two

Army of Two tries, bless it. It tries to expand EA’s license dominated catalogue and offer up a fresh experience. Drawing on principles usually seen in MMOs, this third-person shooter places players in the bodies of two meat-head jocks working for private military contractors. Sent around the world fighting for a paycheque, this pair need to work closely together to push through each exotic level.

Against a stream of foes, the two must use cover and distraction to progress. When either shoots or advances they generate aggro. The more aggro generated, the more invisible your partner effectively becomes with the enemy forces preferring to focus on the biggest perceived threat.

This is where it really does try something different. This very clear idea of where your enemy’s attention is focused allows for tactical movement through the battlefield. Good communication between partners can make short work of those in your way. Those, however, with no clear plan could find themselves bogged down in arduous firefights.

Extending the teamwork principle, even if someone takes a tumble it’s not necessarily game over. Dragging them to a quiet corner allows for some emergency first aid. There is no limit on the amount of times this can be employed, the only deterrent is forcing the other into harm’s way.

Whilst in principle the game’s ideas are sound, there a far too many niggling problems to see Army of Two live up to the initial promise. The main offender being the enemy AI which can flip suddenly from overly reclusive to suicidal lemming. The controls simply can’t cope with fast moving foes close up. The targeting is not responsive enough and all too regularly you’ll get clotheslined by an onrushing soldier which cannot be countered.

The game does bring a handful of fresh ideas to the table, including coordinated sniping, a “back to back” mode which sees players at the centre of an on rushing horde and a parachuting section where one steers and one shoots, but none of these ideas truly raise the bar. Army of Two can be put down as a commendable effort to buck the licensing trend but something that ultimately falls short of reinventing co-op play.

6/10

Review: Fable II

One of my main issues with the original Fable was that the “are you good or evil?” premise was never fully realised. You could be bad, true, but it never had any more effect on your experience than causing people to run away muttering something about that messy rampage that may have accidentally taken place last week. The world changing shifts, however, just weren’t evident.

The sequel to Lionhead’s action-RPG begins with a very subtle and engaging tutorial. Wandering around a snow covered old town, basic mechanics are explained and the story is unveiled. Early quests are constructed in such a way as to allow a nice or nasty path to completion, or even a hint of both. For instance, whilst clearing a warehouse of bugs a leering old man offers gold in return for the destruction of the stock. Certainly a tempting offer and an indication of how a personalised moral maze can be mapped through the land of Albion.

Choices will affect more than just how citizens react a hero’s presence. There are key moments that can affect the look and feel of the land itself. Helping or hindering a lawman will see a suburb flourish or sink into disrepair; not donating to a renovation fund for a remote village could cause it to be taken over by criminal elements; and turning a blind eye to bandits in the forest early may allow them to run riot.

Realising that these differences are down to your actions (or lack of) can be quite striking. Though knowing a community has been condemned or helped can only truly be appreciated if you are either in constant chatter with friends going down different paths or are willing to play through Fable II multiple times.

Whilst these grander effects are clearly evident, more minor inter-person misdemeanours are seldom as weighty or permanent. Most can be laughed off with a quick jig or arm pump meaning that some negative actions can be performed time and time again without fear of reprisal, causing a disconnect from the larger principle of Fable.

The main story line is even less affected by a player’s behaviour and is played out extremely weakly, possibly to cover this fact. Whether you create the biggest, baddest, most corrupt and ugliest son-of-a-balverine that the poor citizens of Albion have ever happened upon or a character on a path that will ultimately see you walking on water, the main quest will continue undeterred.

Alignment does, however, open up different side-quests and whether they are enough to replay the whole experience is down to personal tastes. Following the path of righteousness has its benefits whilst the darker route definitely offers more comedic highs. Nowhere else can offer Social Displacement missions (“’kidnapping’ didn’t poll very well with the public”) or enlistment into the Temple of Shadows (where the Wheel of Misfortune keeps its members happy until poker night).

Personally, this is where the strength Fable comes from: in the distractions that it has to offer. Much like the framework set out by other open games, if progress in the storyline is tough then choose from a wide variety of additional activities. Try some socialising, economic expansion or just some simple light hearted side-quests. Hours would literally pass by before I remembered about the main quest and I would have to excuse my current activity (usually Gargoyle hunting), grab my sword and head off into the forest.

For the vast majority of my initial playthrough, I spent my time starting a family and providing for them through my ever-expanding business empire. Getting my wife Jessica the Farmer to notice me at first was easy enough, with a few heroic poses and dance moves gestured in her direction, but wooing a fine maiden comes at a price. So came the graft at local jobs (wooding cutting, blacksmithing and bar tending, which all come in the form of a mini-game to raise cash) to buy her presents and overtime at the chopping block filled my purse enough to buy a quaint cottage on the outskirts of town. Not content with that, we saved enough gold to buy the fruit and veg stall on our doorstep and slowly the profits from that went into buying up half the village.

For Fable to turn out to be a wannabe-property-mogul’s dream was surprising. Investing in the housing market is a sure-fire way to earn money, with rent being collected every few minutes. This is offset by having to pay maintenance on any families secreted about the landscape but before long money will not be an issue.

Cash on the whole is moot point, anyway. Considering the game’s scope, there aren’t that many items to buy from the world’s shops with only a comparatively modest selection of weapons and clothing. If Too Human had too much loot then Fable sits at the opposite end of the spectrum with not enough variety to make characters feel truly unique. A hero will know which getup best suits them so don’t expect to be rooting round dungeons or stalls at midnight expecting to find a hidden gem of an epic hat.

Whenever that pesky matter of saving the world does crop up a solid quest line is presented, throwing bandits, goblin-like Hobbes, ninjas and werewolf-esque Balverines around liberally. No fear, though, as each hero comes equipped with a melee attack, some form of ranged weaponry and a bag full of magic at their disposal. Each is assigned to their own button respectively and fights play out as you see fit, bashing on the attack of your choice.

Extra abilities and combos can be bought and upgraded by spending accumulated XP to open up a more interesting brand of combat. Initially my hero started out as a brawler but as time went on I unlocked the ability to raise a horde of the undead to do my bidding and swamp my foes. Eventually I stepped away from necromancy and I finished my heroic career as a marksman with the skill to snipe a man in the crotch at a hundred paces.

The melee and ranged combat are reasonably standard no matter what weapon is being wielded and so the variety will be down to the type of magic employed. Force pushes, lightning strikes, fireballs, time control and flying daggers are all on offer. Mixing and matching those on the fly is where those wanting stylish combat can truly find it and it seems that no two people have the same fighting style. Some opt for teleporting behind a target and stabbing them in the back whilst others have the common decency to at least flame them face to face.

It would be nice to think that these skills could be shared with a friend in drop-in/drop-out co-op but I would not recommend it. Fixed to the primary player’s camera view, co-op partners are limited to making expressions and bashing people over the head, all with a character that has no resemblance to your hero, too. The whole premise is far too limiting to be a worthwhile experience.

Fable II to me is like Crackdown: a game where I loved being involved in a journey through a world from the beginning to the end. However, now I’m done I’d prefer to start over rather than tour that same world now it’s been saved. Aside from the very poor payoff for doing so, I loved building up a reputation, taking my first steps to owning all the property in the city and generally fighting my way up from the bottom of the pile. When the biggest boss in the game has been defeated, what else is there to do?

Restarting is not something that would be a chore, either. After you’ve played Molyneux’s game through once you’ll want to try and explore the avenues that you missed, both in the world and in your moral judgement. What would happen if I joined that dark cult? If I were faster to that person’s aid could I have saved them? Where is that last blasted Gargoyle? Don’t expect stories to be rewritten but there is enough charm and depth to make it well worth your while.

9/10

365 Word Review: Star Wars: Force Unleashed

Pirate Steve came to me and stated that he thought “Force Unleashed is this years Assassin’s Creed.” I can see what he means: it looks lovely, it’s not the lengthiest game you’ll encounter and there is a certain repetition to your actions. But is that a little harsh?

This latest instalment in the Star Wars saga is set between Episodes III and IV and reveals the trials of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, the laughably named “Starkiller”. In order to do his master’s bidding, he force blasts and light sabres his way through the galaxy, with you at the helm, in this RPG hack-and-slash.

Conditions on the Death Star were just shocking.

Combat is the lifeblood of Force Unleashed, and also its greatest strength. It very capably hands you control of all of Starkiller’s force powers in a manner that lets each be executed with ease, enabling the player to string together a variety of combos without having to study a move list as long as your arm.

In early encounters you’ll experiment with how exactly each target should meet their fate just to please the new god-like complex you have instilled in your character. Later on, though, variety is a necessity as creatures will face you that have discovered ways of counteracting certain aspects of the force.

Set piece boss battles are scattered throughout and prove a test of counter attacks and timing. All are a distinct ramp up in difficulty level, which seems out of character with your progression but do prove satisfying once bested.

Visually, Force Unleashed is impressive. Environments are crisp and detailed, but it is the tiny things – such as Storm Troopers resisting force grips by grabbing on to crates or each other, or Millennium Falcons sticking out of a scrap planet – that complete it.
Cutscenes must be commended, too; they sport some of the finest facial animation and expression that I’ve ever seen in a game.

For all the good points, however, the game failed to make me truly one with the force. It is an incredibly enjoyable hack-and-slash but with linear levels, very little incentive for replay and the feeling you’ve seen everything after one play-through, it falls slightly short of shrugging off Pirate Steve’s observation.

7/10