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Bioshock Infinite ::: Review

I can’t help but feel judged. I’m rooting through trash cans and lost luggage looking for supplies as she stands behind me pretending to admire the view. What must I look like to her? More vagrant than knight in shining armour. You can tell she’s taken pity on me as she tosses me a coin she found. “Here, you keep this.” Thanks, Elizabeth.

In fact on many levels, thank you, Elizabeth. Though she is absent from the first few hours, Bioshock Infinite is all about her. She’s the reason your there, the means by which the story evolves, and a key partner through large portion of the fighting that mars your passage through the floating city of Columbia.

She’s no hapless Yorda, incapable of looking after herself; she is a strong woman who initially greets you with a few well aimed books to the head. Yet despite that initial shaky start your character, Booker, and her grow to share a bond. Born through a mutual need to escape, it soon matures as they share in the horrors of the world about them, realising they’re going to need to stick together if they ever wish to leave alive.

Elizabeth’s the second noticeable heroine is as many months, though her and Lara share more than plaudits for simply representing women. Elizabeth too has that moment where she is repulsed by the taking of a life, and, though the drama isn’t particular drawn out, a similar acceptance of her new way of life is realised. The pair discuss it as a zeppelin ferries them across the city and the conversation demonstrates how well written both characters are. Though there’s regret in the eyes of the girl, you are stoic given your military history; it’s just one example of the two sharing a moment along the journey as a greater tale unfolds.

All this is set against the backdrop of the airborne Columbia, a city made up of many floating islands that has seceded from the United States. It’s a world away from the original Bioshock’s dark, closed, decaying world. Instead we find a sun-drenched place full of open walkways and painted in bright, pastel shades. It’s a visual treat, made all the better with the completeness of the world as it’s not only a painted façade. Large numbers of shops and streets are all accessible, letting you drink in the atmosphere of this initially upbeat town.

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Set in an alternate 1912 the citizens go about their business, gazing happily down on the world below and seemingly quite content (or oblivious) in having you listening in on their conversations. The almost insignificance of the local tittle tattle is pleasing enough, but looking in every store, taking part in the local fayre, or simply reading every lovingly created poster, advert and art piece all proves again Irrational’s ability of making not just games but worlds. Rather than moving the adventure along, it’s easy enough to spend large segments of time simply looking at things.

There’s a dark undertone hidden beneath, however. Founded by a white supremacist known as The Prophet, there’s racial oppression throughout Columbia and an almost religious fervour about its population. It makes for some deeply uncomfortable moments as the townsfolk openly use very racist language when describing the minorities living amongst them in a manner that is usually shied away from in mainstream media let alone games. It’s a deeply interesting and brave angle to approach and this persecution persists as an undertone throughout.

These tensions soon reaches breaking point and, for reasons I would prefer not to spoil, you are forced to defend yourself. Being a military man you are a dab hand with pistols and rifles, but in addition to these are your vigors, plasmids by another name. They grant you the ability to suspend others in midair, summon forth a flock of murderous crows, or even bewitch entities to fight on your side. They are drip fed to you as you progress and can open up some equally satisfying and lethal combinations. At times the guns were all but forgotten as at first I’d wash away my foes with a tide of water before sending a jolt of electricity through their now drenched bodies. Or alternatively sending out the murder of crows to peck at them before dropping a fiery cluster bomb in their midst.

This may bring gleeful memories of tormenting splicers rushing back from the first two Bioshocks, but there is more. Columbia is also criss-crossed with skylines, tracks by which people and goods can cross from island to island, and by riding these you can cause further chaos. Jumping up and latching on, be it for a dramatic entrance or hasty escape, they add a verticality and speed to combat previously unknown in the series. The plodding Big Daddy is a world away from fights that can take place on multiple levels, battling back and forth across surprisingly large venues.

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All this time Elizabeth is keeping herself busy. It’s made quite clear that she can take care of herself and whilst she keeps her head firmly down the girl is adept at keeping you well stocked with ammo and health, with a further knack of making weapons and cover appear later on. It all makes her a very valuable ally and strengthens the connection between the pair. We’ve seen enough AI shooting poorly in our time to make us question their worth at all, and so to remove that and consider what actually makes a sidekick useful is a masterstroke.

The pacing of each encounter is just right, too. There are no drawn out slogs by which you could grow weary of the battles. Each is used to tease you through the tale, leading you from chapter to chapter, the content revealed by your chats with Elizabeth and through the taunts of your enemies. Together with the audio logs strewn about the place, it may not be the most complete story telling experience but because they all happen in the world you find it far more compelling. There are scant few cutscenes that you are forced to sit through, at each point that the story evolves and moves forward you are there in the middle of it, experiencing it first hand with Elizabeth. Together.

Whilst our original trip to Rapture was a horror story, detailing the twisted results of great minds gone astray, this keeps the Bioshock spirit but moves in a different direction. The dystopia may be a common theme with plasmid providing you with the means by which to destroy it, but more so than anything this is a story of you and Elizabeth. Though I may be disappointed the tough racial angle wasn’t completely seen through, the layers they pour upon the story, continually shifting just when you think you’ve guessed where it’s heading, proves it as one of the finest in its field.

Infinite is a game that gathers momentum. A considered, impressive start gives way to a tale and to a combat system that both compete to steal the limelight in a world that effortlessly amazes. Amazed. Will amaze.

Bioshock Infinite ::: Hands On

Bioshock Infinite has consumed the 7outof10 team this week. We’re ignoring sleep, food and girlfriends just so we can spend more time with Elizabeth.

XCOM ::: Review

Usually it’s FIFA that sees me trot out the well-worn phrase “a game of two halves”, but never has it been more appropriate than with XCOM. Though it has been much vaunted for its turn-based-strategy, pitching a handful of elite soldiers against the best an invading force of aliens has to offer, it also has a deep management simulation attached to it too. Sim Earth Defence Force, or Men in Black Tycoon, if you will.

For every shot that’s fired on the battlefield, there’s a wad of paper being pushed behind the scenes to make sure that your forces are funded and provided for. Engineers and scientists need recruiting alongside your hardened marines, captured aliens require interrogating (and in turn dissecting), plus the skies above earth need defence jets and satellites to monitor the alien’s presence. There’s a lot to juggle.

However, rather than being awash with cash as the world’s nations turn to you for protection, they throw a pittance of a budget at you and expect you to do wonders. That money then needs splitting and how you divide that will affect your mission readiness. Launching a new satellite may reassure the world and bring in little extra cash, but the base is running low on juice and could do with a new power plant being built. Whichever way you turn the money could equally have been as well spent elsewhere. Even at the height of the evasion with Paris under imminent invasion, I built a new fighter plane and I had guilt pangs knowing how many sets of body armour or plasma guns I had just sacrificed for France. Bloody France!

And for me that was captivating; the well balanced trade-offs that meant for every advancement there was a sacrifice paired with it. Completely ignoring a portion of the operation will only spell defeat, and yet overinvest in an area and you may find everyone else struggling to reap its benefits as they bid to catch up. Though it may not be as open or deep as many standalone management games, it’s very easy to spend a great deal of care and attention balancing every department’s and country’s needs.

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All the time this frugal simulation takes place with the XCOM building itself the backdrop, as though a very high-tech ant farm. In mission command, the hologram of the world will blaze away, whilst to the left engineers and scientists buzz about their business and to the right your soldiers prepare for insertion.

These soldiers are the life blood of XCOM: the souls that you’ll be commanding directly, and used as your own well-armed chess pieces against the alien invasion. From a high view above the battlefield you’ll move them from cover to cover, sweeping across the ground, taking out any bogeys they encounter. It’s a turn based affair, with each of your men (or women) getting two actions to move, shoot, take over watch or perform a special actions, such as heal or fire a special weapon.

With the enemy getting the same, it turns into a very strategic battle with both sides fighting for cover and to get the drop on the other. Left out in the open and your troops will be lucky if there’s enough left of them to fill a body bag, so most turns are spent ensuring that your advancement is to behind trees, building corners and walls, only then poking your nose out to shoot. It’s a slow but rewarding pace as you stretch your forces out, close in and apply pressure.

Actual shooting comes down to a dice roll, taking into account a soldier’s skill, any perks they have, and the angle they have on their target. It’s not simply a case of lining your cross hairs up. This further plays into the engrossing battlefield tactics as you seek to expose weakness through outflanking, playing to your strengths or just overwhelming force if it comes down to it. With different classes at your disposal from medics to assault troops, they all mesh together to help you form a squad that will play to your preferred style of play. Those who like blunt force could load up on nothing but heavies, saturating the battlefield with heavy machine gun fire, whilst I much prefer an approach that sees two crack snipers lurking at the back, finishing off the targets flushed out by my ever-advancing assault troops.

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The enemy is equally varied, if not more so, with giant floating metal discs, insectoid monsters that turn their victims into zombies, and greys that like to mind-control your best men. They’re a highly diverse band of invaders and this alone helps keep you on your toes as you tackle each map. Though they’ll all succumb to withering fire eventually, different approaches are required to tackle each race efficiently, whilst facing multiple types at once always proves testing as you try and prioritise threats.

What comes together is a very simple mechanic that is elevated by the superb way it’s varied. Through forests, cities and crashed UFOs you’ll patiently stalk your prey, only to find yourself on the defensive as their assault troops crash through your lines, or their psychics play merry hell with your minds.

Although a few hours in, once you’re used to the brutal difficulty level and the caution it promotes, you’ll find yourself settling into a routine. Edging forward, setting as many men to over-watch as possible, you become a well drilled military outfit. By the sheer length of time you find yourself going through these motions, preparing for combat, it can occasionally grind. Routine missions will definitely feel as though you’re on auto-pilot, and just as in a FIFA season there are times when I longed for a “simulate” button so I could go on tinkering with XCOM’s financials.

Quite conversely, some of the best experiences are when things have taken a significant turn for the worse. The squad’s been torn asunder and with only a sniper and a medic left I’ve scrapped my way out through a mix of sheer luck and a lot of hiding. Popping that last alien right between the eyes and reaching the extraction zone truly makes you feel like you’ve witnessed a supreme feat of human heroism against more advanced beings. Plus you’re just grateful your ace sniper is still with you.

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What XCOM boils down to is an incredible act of balancing. In the management sim, the trade-offs you’re forced to make are all equally worthwhile and therefore equally painful to take; in the field, it’s whether to send in the talented veteran or the expendable but less dependable rookie; do you risk getting close and capturing the alien aggressors to aid your scientists, or pepper them from afar to stay safe. They all come from a game that gives you so much choice, all of it fair.

Firaxis has created a supremely clever strategy game, one that is equally accessible but demanding. It’s scratched that itch that I’ve been looking for ever since the last Full Spectrum Warrior and all I hope is that I don’t have to wait the same length of time again for another.

XCOM ::: Hands On

Once upon a time you’d have probably called Mulder and Scully to a first contact situation. Not sure how they’d have coped though if the aliens came down, mind controlled the ginger one and then shot the Dan Petrescu impersonator in the face with a plasma gun.

Nowadays, we need not worry. The nations of the world have united and formed XCOM to defend the earth from alien invasion.

Watch as I take the role of squad commander and leads the world’s finest (or at least those he hasn’t already lead to their deaths) through another UFO landing.

Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

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Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

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Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

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Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

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Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

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Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

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Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

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Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

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Lego Lord of the Rings

Once more in to Mmmmmmorrrrrrrrdorrrrrrrrrrr we go… Traveller’s Tales return with another in their highly blocky franchise, this time based around Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. Some may say it’s just another Lego game but we pull in our resident Lego experts to see if that really is the case.

F1 Race Stars

The F1 season maybe over with Vittel taking the tightly fought title from Alonso, but that won’t stop the battle continuing. Superstars sees the starting grid turned into caricatures and sent into some very colourful and imaginative courses… armed with bubbles.

Join us as we weave our way through the pack in Codemasters’ lastest racer.

FIFA 13

We may not be the most active of blogs but the last couple of weeks have seen a drop in productivity that is poor even by our standards. Apathy, illness, or the loss of use of our fingers is not to blame. Instead you can point the finger squarely at Electronic Arts; FIFA 13 had taken over all our lives.

I’m not an annual subscriber to the FIFA franchise, having a tendency to dip in every three-years or so, and as a result the wealth of updates and features that are on offer when compared to my last foray has astounded me. More so than that though, the gameplay itself feels as good a simulation of the sport as you’re going to get from a joypad. It captures so many of the subtleties, from the mis-controlling your first touch to shooting when off-balance, the tangle and clatter of accidental clashes or the nasty slice of a hurried clearance. By comparison it’s easy to get the beautiful parts of the beautiful game right, but to capture the “off” moments so naturally is a talent.

That may sound a strange but it’s the incidents where you’ve given possession away or swung a peg at completely the wrong moment that help you learn. It’s a very visual and gratifying feedback that helps describe just what you were doing wrong, be it being plain too ambitious or snatching at a chance that wasn’t really there. This definitely isn’t the type of game where a single man can dribble past the entire field and score as so many elements come into play from the defensive jockeying of the opposition, your first touch, the lightness of your touch and so on.

On a basic level you can point the stick in a direction and run but without the awareness of the number of elements likely to do you over, chances are you’ll quickly have handed possession away. Yet knowing this means that when you do carve through the opposition with a through-ball, sprint past the right back, before cutting it back to arriving midfielder who then buries it in the back of the net, is a deeply satisfying experience. Having said that, with my prowess in front of goal I’m happy if it spins in off my shin with a miskick.

Over the years the gauge has always swung back and forth between favouring defence or attack, and I think this year the balance is with the former. As such, unless you’ve Messi at your control, chances are FIFA 13 will be a game of through-balls down the line and patient passing. For one I really enjoy this balance of power. I’m the fool who optionally chooses to be the defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of the back four, and there are a pleasing number of tools on offer to help me relish this roll. Jockeying and shadowing offer far more to those who prefer to defend the onion bag and round out the team nicely.

However, it’s not just the feel of the game that has drawn me in so. The number of ways available to play that game is quite overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms crazy new ways to play football, the sanctity of which remains reverently intact, but in respect to that almost every “what if” my brother and I could have thought of playing ISS ’98 on the N64 over a decade ago has come true.

The most compelling one for me has to be the online club, where you and your friends team up under one banner and take on the world. Taking the lead from the Pro mode, each of you takes a position and then holds that role for the full 90 minutes. At first this may sound like an exercise in futility as everyone flocks, playground-like, too the ball, but given a modicum of common sense and discipline it produces very rewarding results. On the base level there’s the knowledge that you’ve bested another team of humans (always a better feeling than doing the same to AI; you know someone somewhere is ruing your very existence). On another, it’s the moves, the coordination and the runs that could never be accomplished with non-sentient team mates. It can take you back to that time when your work’s 5-a-side team for five-minutes one night played like Brazil. Nothing was planned, no one said anything, but every pass, every flick, every back heel came off. Except digitally and with less chance of opposition getting shirty and hacking down Dave with the dodgy ankles.

Ultimate Team is also an intriguing prospect. In there you collect footballers as though they were Panini stickers to form a team. Starting out with an unnatural number of Australian and Paraguayan second division players, the greater your team does the more opportunity you have of collecting or buying better players until you’re mixing with the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Rather than just relying on the skill of your players however, chemistry also plays a part. Players from similar clubs, countries or leagues are more likely to gel, making the team more than the sum of its parts. It’s a devilishly addictive mechanic that has you gambling on lesser talented players to boost your overall level, sending you down avenues such as scouting for a Hungarian leftback with a tendency for the 5-4-1 formation.

Combine this with online auction houses for players, contracts, healing cards and a whole extra layer of depth, Ultimate Team could have effectively been a complete standalone game. For something that on the face of it could have been nothing but a cash cow for EA, there’s an awful lot to lose yourself in.

With further lovely tie ins such as league tables as to how well your real-life team’s supporters are playing (currently Rotherham sit top of the Premiership thanks to their fans’ gameplay talents), the chance to download current form for teams, weekly challenges, skill games that cleverly coax you through tutorials and many other nuggets tucked away, I will barely want for interesting ways to underperform with Tottenham ever again.

Some stalwarts of the series may be reading this surprised at how enthusiastically I’ve greeted features that have possibly been in place for the last few FIFAs. I know the club has been around before, and the Pro mode, but to me all this is new. Having only dabbled with the decidedly average Vita versions with any real conviction over the last couple of years, the wealth of ways to play and the quality of the gameplay should not be forgotten and taken for granted.

The levels of polish and ease of accessibility to bring in new or returning players and then keep them hooked is a level beyond anything I’ve seen before. There are multiple avenues to get sucked down, about the only question is which one will you succumb to.

Rock Band Blitz

It’s been tough for Harmonix since the great plastic instrument crash of twenty-ten. Despite the superb Rock Band 3, demand for clacking guitars and Fisher Price drum kits dried up and first week sales of the flagship title did not even break five-figures. It was a far cry from their billion-dollar Guitar Hero days when the sound of friends and families clicking along to Kiss filled living rooms across the land. The craze disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived and not even a keytar could prevent it. Not long after, Harmonix and Viacom parted company and it looked an uncertain future.

They have, however, put out the consistent and well received Dance Central for Kinect. Although this may have scratched a musical itch for the developers, it was a departure from the games that made their name and you could always tell that something else was brewing. That something was Rock Band Blitz.

Blending their more recent gameplay stylings with the track swapping and score chasing of their earlier work, Amplitude and Frequency, it carries on the Rock Band brand without the need for half-sized guitars.

For those, like myself, who possibly overdosed on Rock Band in recent years, what is presented is something that’s very familiar but utterly confusing. On screen are up to five highways – the streams of colourful buttons that represent notes and indicate when you should press buttons – one for each of the instruments in your band. Drums, bass, lead guitar, vocals and keyboard each have their place, and in a different era this would mean there were five people playing along together. In Blitz, however, you play everything yourself; you are the ultimate one-man band.

As the notes rattle towards you, there’s only two buttons to worry about as you tap out the rhythm in time to the song; left or right is all there is. Layered on top of that is the ability to swap tracks. If the drums have grown a little slow or the singer’s nipped to the back of the stage to grab a drink, a tap on the triggers will switch focus to a more involving instrument. Similarly, if the guitar solo’s getting a little too hot for your fingers, flick over to the bass to ensure your combo remains unbroken. With each run of notes your multipliers tick up and you feed your Blitz meter. When that fills the camera drops low, the sense of speed picks up and points are positively hurled at you like knickers at a Tom Jones gig for as long as you can keep the chain going.

It’s all about the high score. There’s no longer the ability to fail mid-song when you reach the twiddly bit and your sense of rhythm collapses under the pressure of syncopated off-beats, your only penalty is that you will score nothing. That, strangely, is a feature I’ve often wished for in the main Rock Band career.

Initial forays will be mini adventures as you get used to the new format, experimenting, and wrapping your head around the focus on scoring. There’s always been points, but not like this, as the keen designers drag you left and right with the introduction of a gated multiplier. Each track must be built up evenly, spreading your focus across each instrument to gain the maximum benefit. Neglect the keyboards and even if you’ve topped out the other highways until they glow like Blackpool seafront you won’t see the caps increased as you pass through various checkpoints scattered throughout the songs.

It introduces a level of strategy I’ve never encountered before in music games. It’s easy enough to play through a song but to master and balance each instrument to know that you’ve played enough notes to unlock higher and higher multipliers needs you to truly know that song. Knowing when the vocals fades out can be the difference between a high score and a wasted run. At this point it goes past the point of simply playing along, as you flit back and forth between the highways, it’s a manic display of finger dexterity.

And it’s compelling. Leaderboards are rampant throughout and the constant comparison to friends is an undeniable draw to giving that song just one more go. And then one more. Maybe third time lucky. A situation only made worse by Harmonix’s Score War feature where you slap your online friends round the face with a digital white glove and call them to duel with you, giving you both three days to set the highest score. There’s in-game currency to win but being called out and showed up is a high incentive to eke out every point from a song.

Adding a further twist are the power-ups that can be equipped before every try. Star Power no longer fuels increased multipliers, it launches bottle rockets, sets off explosions, or calls to your aid a virtual bandmate. With three different types of power-ups, all possibly heavily affecting the way you approach play, it furthers experimentation with each one unlocked. Already around the office tips and tricks are being passed about as new techniques and combinations lead to higher and higher scores.

No matter what has changed, below it all is still Rock Band. The gems still glow as they did before as they glide down the highway, and either side that rock city motif scrolls by with the odd recognisable character briefly flitting into view. It’s a reassuring constant, especially as it imports all your previous Rock Band content. The track list built into Blitz is incredibly solid, with a range from Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters, but the instant expansion gave it a lease of life I find very rarely in score attack games.

For those of you who miss a traditional Rock Band experience, this will go some way to alleviating that pain. It may be reimagined but it shows all the design genius and subtlety that made Harmonix’s name. Where Blitz has its focus however is entirely on competition. Anyone who is alone amongst their friends in downloading this will enjoy it but see very little of its incredible depth. Bobbing your head and floating your way through a song is one thing but when pressed by the knowledge that that bastard Ben has just knocked More Than a Feeling out of the park, that smile will be replaced with gritty determination as you flick tracks like a man possessed.

That high score? She will be me mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.

Minecraft

I once listened to a radio phone-in about the greatest ever toys. Transformers, Barbie and other staples from across the generations were mentioned and lauded, until the show was completely derailed by one irate caller who had particular beef with Denmark’s finest ever export. Lego, he proclaimed, was rubbish. “Well,” he continued over the hoots of derision, “once you’ve built what it tells you to build, what’s there left to do!?”

At that point you could only feel sorry for him. So devoid of imagination was he that he had worked himself up into such a rage over his building blocks and their limited potential that he was forced to ring into a national radio show. Heaven only know what he’d be pushed to with Minecraft.

The PC phenomenon has crept its way onto the Xbox, and although it may be a slightly stripped down version it offers a world full of sandbox fun. It’s a game powered by the user’s imagination, that can see whole worlds spring forth if they only have the time and inclination to commit to it. You can turn a meadow into a village, a bare seascape into Atlantis, or fill the skies with a recreation of the Death Star.

Though I fear I am getting ahead of myself; at the beginning such possibilities seem a long way off. Dropped into a land made of cubes with nothing but the ability to hit things until they break, you must build yourself up a toolset to make life easier. Collecting (read: punching) wood from trees and stone from rocks allows you to create at first a workbench and then spades and pickaxes with which to more easily mine the world about you.

You first hour or so is spent simply harvesting, replacing blades when they dull and break, but mainly gathering resources simply because you can. No tree is safe or rock out of the question from this early frenzy and soon you’ll no doubt survey the environmental damage you have wreaked and decide a little more focus is needed.

That is ably handed to you by the monsters that come out at night. As square as the world about them, they aim to put a stop to your ways and so the only reasonable course to take is to build a house and hide until morning. At first it’s a necessity, a place to cower only to prevent yourself from losing all the inventory you’ve built up, probably no more than some dirt thrown together in a high-sided square. The second night, however, is where the magic of Minecraft gets you. A dull square is no longer good enough; you’ve foraged more materials and maybe you have grand design for a sloped roof? If you extend it a little out back, maybe you can create a mineshaft so the night is as productive as the day? Or how about a castle? If you’re still happy with a dirt hovel, you’re playing the wrong game.

With elements from glass bricks to stairs, working switches to rudimentary water, there are enough bits and pieces to fill any young architect with glee. With enough planning and resources the world is your highly angular oyster.

And so unfolds the other great facet of Notch’s wondrous creation: the world itself. Each land is different, randomly generated and brought into life for you to then mine to destruction. But it’s huge, genuinely vast, and hides some true natural wonders. Above ground the hills rolls out as far as the eye can see, whilst the coastlines teem with sea caves. By sheer chance however, towering cliffs, dramatic valleys and cracks splitting the land also form before your eyes, and all warranting further exploration. For a game based on giant cubes and a random number generator the landscape can prove stunning, and yet it is below ground the true treasures wait.

To build up enough resources for your 1:1 recreation of Hogwarts you’ll need to head through the bedrock, deep into the bowels of the earth. Choose a cliff face or dip in the floor and head down and you’ll gather enough rock to start building those magical walls, but every now and again you’ll chance upon a hidden underground cavern offering possible ores and precious stones, items needed for the more advanced pieces. More than that though, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a maze of caves, looming of into the darkness just teasing you to explore them.

From tiny pot holes to vast caverns that you could fit a cathedral into, poking about and seeing what natural wonder hides round the next corner was a huge draw to me. Collecting essential stones became secondary as I longed for the next underground river or cracking through a rock to be met with the subtle glow of a lava flow. By this point I’d turned the monsters off, I wanted nothing to get in the way of my subterranean adventure.

Objectively, Minecraft seems at the same time nothing and everything. You’re plonked in the world with next to nothing and an objective to survive. There is no narrative, no grand story to “complete.” It is a sandbox where they stories write themselves, be it tunnelling in a cave alone or building a grand structure over Xbox Live with friends, it will be the telling of the stories that is most likely to draw people in.

Like the time my brother and I built a floating castle and tried to create a lava flow from the top turret, only to realise that doing so with wooden flooring might be a mistake, but tried it anyway with hilarious/catastrophic results. Or the time I was struggling blindly through a cave, having run out of torches, only to burst through a wall and find sunlight streaming down on me through a natural opening that ran 100m dead-straight up to the blue sky. The cave of chickens my brother found, or the pub my boss hid under his friend’s cathedral, or the squid that swam into my kitchen, or the cow that stole a minecart, the giant fire-filled floating arrow someone made for their brother who kept getting lost, or the countless other tales that are created by handing us a simple set of tools and letting our imagination and little random luck from the world take its course.

So, to the man on the radio: think. If you could build anything, what would it be?