Archive for the ‘ Video Games ’ Category

Article: Shadowrun – A defence

It’s difficult to try new ideas, to try to bond disparate methods into one cohesive whole. So many times they’re doomed to failure before they even begin, as anyone who’s ever tried a chocolate and tuna sandwich can attest to. But when they work, when the distillation of two separate parts is in perfect harmony, then you’ve got something special. By popular consensus, both commercial and critical, Shadowrun is not one of those combinations. It tried a variety of new ideas, and had the noblest of intentions in many ways but just failed to deliver. It never even managed that jump to cult phenomenon like so many under-selling gems such as Beyond Good and Evil and American McGee’s Alice. Yet here I stand, one of the lone few who revel in Shadowrun as a unique and enjoyable take on the stagnant FPS genre, against the onslaught of criticism, and the important thing which I have to stress here is that I’m right! And I’m going to tell you why.

Shadowrun never had it easy: the sheer principle would prove to be problematic on a whole host of levels, many of which continued to dog the game long past its release. The Shadowrun brand itself, although essential to the game, placed the developers, FASA, in a difficult situation. It was well-established, with a small but devoted following but it was very much a niche brand. This meant the game was unable to use it to successfully infiltrate the mainstream consciousness as the mainstream was completely unconscious of it. On the flipside of the this was the small cult following that the pen & paper RPG had built up who had expectations of what any game baring the Shadowrun moniker should be. Basically, not an FPS. The game was already an RPG, with an in-depth and tactical system and the traditional devoted crowd bemoaned the dumbing down of its beloved brand into an FPS ‘for the masses.’ And when it comes to ‘core’ gamers, opinions like this can spread like wildfire over the internet, and the worst thing in the eyes of that particular group is the dilution of the essence of old-school videogames to keep the mainstream happy. Essentially from the word go, it was not guaranteed any support from either camp.

But still a good game can win over many of the sceptics, but upon release the response to Shadowrun was lukewarm at best. One huge criticism stemmed from an area which had the potential to really set the game apart: it’s PC/console platform linkup. Shadowrun allowed Xbox 360 players to play against PC players, a move that has yet to be repeated by another game, and while many championed the attempt to bring two historically antagonistic FPS groups together, the old antagonisms reared their ugly head just the same. Console players weren’t happy with the lack of an aim-down sights, something that only Halo is still managing to persevere with in the current climate, but more importantly PC players complained that the targeting system favoured console players with it’s semi-automatic aim lock-on. While it did allow this, it was a fine-tuning balancing act because of the less-responsive nature of a controller, which is something that will always be a problem for console and PC connectivity, and to be honest until that issue gets addressed I really can’t think of a better way to do it, although obviously I’m not a designer. The cross-platform functionality was fundamentally flawed for one main reason; something that was not the fault of either FASA or their game. In order to play on the PC you need to have Games for Windows Live. All arguments about the current state of the platform aside, in 2007 it was a mess, and almost no serious PC player would use it. So that takes away a huge potential customer base and also destroys one of the game’s main potential selling points.

There was also criticism of the lack of variety. Well yes in a very strict sense I suppose that’s true. There was only three game types, and nowhere near enough maps, plus at only 8 the weapon count is significantly down on games like Call of Duty or Halo. Let’s be honest though, how many of the guns on a game like COD do you actually use. Personally on Black Ops I stick fairly religiously to the Commando and occasional sniper rifle because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Not only does this make the others redundant but it makes me judge them relative to my norm, and often somewhat unreasonably. Case in point, on Black Ops I hate the FAMAS. Using that inaccurate hose-pipe of a gun I couldn’t hit a barn-door, but it’s a tried and true favourite of several of my friends for its accuracy. The difference is probably negligible, but it enforces huge stereotypes that discourage experimentation because people are comfortable with what they know. And with the exception of the majestic Borderlands, can anyone name a single game which has been made better just by the addition of more guns? Thought not. But despite all this there is variety in Shadowrun, it just doesn’t come from traditional sources.

My love for Shadowrun can be explained by a multitude of reasons, but the crux of it can be summed up by one simple idea. In other shooters of that period, and even now to a large extent, if you were caught out you were dead. In COD, a murderous rampage can be cut short simply because you happened to walk past a doorway 2 seconds too early. That’s it: you’re just dead, through no fault of your own, through no skill of your enemy, through nothing but blind luck. In Shadowrun if someone catches you from behind you can use a swift blast of wind to gust them away and mess up their accuracy, before teleporting through the floor to end up behind them and finally cutting them in the back with a katana and watching with glee as they gradually bleed out. What other game lets you do that?! In many ways the games various magical and technological abilities were precedents for Call of Duty’s perks, but active rather than passive. In essence this was the first console shooter with a customisable load-out system, and it was far in advance of anything else around; still is to this day in many ways. This was the variety. You fought in completely new ways, using completely new tactics with combinations that people hadn’t even considered. This was the variety that gamers craved, but no-one saw it because there’s only one type of SMG so clearly there’s no variety. Well maybe there was only one kind of SMG compared to the 6 in Call of Duty; but Call of Duty didn’t let you summon a demon to chase your enemies around while you pick them off with a high calibre sniper rifle.

The variety was there, just in ways that people didn’t expect to see, and so didn’t look for. And the innovation was completely lost on them. The cross-platform functionality didn’t work properly, that was true, but so many of the other new ideas did. Most importantly, the technologies and magics effected not just how you fought the enemy, but how you managed and traversed the terrain, how you co-operated with team-mates and how you balanced the risk-reward of different possibilities. And under it all, as any review you can find will tell you was a fundamentally well-made FPS with all the right check-marks one would hope to find in all the right boxes.

Maybe it tried too much, maybe it didn’t try enough, maybe both of these are true in different areas. However, for some reason the enjoyment I got out of the game wasn’t found by others. It didn’t help that the vast array of play-styles and abilities were baffling to newcomers. Several of my friends who started after my recommendation couldn’t get into it because after six months or so, there was only the devoted few left who had already perfected the games intricacies, providing the steepest learning curve. The lack of a single player campaign as a training ground damaged it here, as it probably did in many other ways too. Indeed I can certainly see some strength in the argument that it maybe should have been released at a lower price point. But none of these are to do with how good a game is to play. Sure you can forgive more for a lower price point, and expect more for a higher one, but fundamentally a good game is a good game. And Shadowrun is a good game, maybe even a great one, but you need to approach it in the right way. It’s not like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield or any other FPS. It tried something new, but more than that it managed to create a gameplay experience unlike any other available at the time. Perhaps so much so that it was destined to be left out in the cold, and doubtless it was edged closer to the door by a lack of support across numerous fronts, and technical difficulties that were always going to be hard to avoid. So out in the cold it seems destined to remain, and barely any of the spawn-campers in Black Ops will care. Still it’s a shame, because I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again, and every time a new approach fails, it’s another nail for the coffin of creativity. I for one am not looking forward to that funeral.


Review: Call of Duty – Black Ops

First things first, I have a new level of respect for the people who write the Eurogamer subtitles. After sitting here for nearly half an hour trying to think of a clever and funny one and coming up with nothing, I hearby vow never again to criticise the puns that make up the subject of so many comments posts.

And now on to the game… (and yes there will be spoilers, as if anyone who cares hasn’t finished the game already).

Like most self-respecting gamers I have very little love for Activision/Blizzard right now. Long ago did Rock Band steal my heart from Guitar Hero, I have never understood the draw of World at Warcraft and every sentence that Bobby Kotick emits kills a small part of my boyish spirit: the cream of the crop was my firm belief that Bad Company 2 was most definitely better than Modern Warfare 2. You must now imagine my horrible distress to find myself enjoying Black Ops more than I had with any Call of Duty game before, and that’s all because, against the horrific soap-opera that was the Infinity Ward split and Kotick’s geyser of inane drivel, Treyarch went about putting together a really good game, which to be fair I don’t think anyone expected.

The single-player has many shortcomings, one of them ironically being its brevity, although compared to Medal of Honor it feels like a digital War & Peace. The story is utterly and completely ludicrous to a point that stretches even beyond the parody of a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick. The notion that the Soviet Union could have built that enormous underwater base in the Caribbean with no-one noticing defies belief, and the numerous action sequences which never let up are just as illogical. Then we have the fact that the Vietnam War, which let’s describe as questionably motivated at best, is presented in exactly the same style and with the same atmosphere as World War II games, which leads us to the conclusion that Treyarch either didn’t do any historical research or purposefully ignored it. That’s not even considering the idiocy of a team of “Black Ops” making such a wreckage that any possible deniability is not incomparable to the setting of the game: i.e. blown to pieces. But after all this the problem with the story that got to me most was the way they dealt with Dimitri Petrenko. To anyone who spent hours of their lives getting him through World at War (even worse if you tried to complete it on veteran) the decision to kill him off in such a cheap manner to try to create emotion in a game completely devoid of any is lazy at best, and insulting at worst. He might as well have just jumped off the Reichstag at the end of WaW for all the difference it would have made.

But if you don’t care about story then the mechanics of the game are fairly solid. You point your gun at people, they die, you walk to some more people, repeat, occasionally with some extra heavy ordnance included. There’s nothing inherently bad about any of it, but it also hasn’t changed one iota in numerous iterations and the whole experience is really starting to stagnate. In order to push it up to Bioshock or Deus Ex level something fresh is needed to reinvigorate this franchise.

However, given the prominence of multiplayer that’s probably never going to happen. As ever then, it has to be the multiplayer which serves as Call of Duty’s coup de grace, and while there are still numerous hair-wrenching, controller-smashing experiences, this is definitely one of the best multiplayer CODs in many a year. For one thing it lacks the sniper-heavy feel of Treyarch’s last attempt, whose huge and open maps gave long-range campers an unfairly large advantage. It also doesn’t have anywhere as many annoying little glitches and secret spots that unscrupulous types can use to their advantage, as most obviously happened in Modern Warfare 2. Additionally the removal of reward-kills from earning killstreak rewards means that the whole experience feels much more rounded than before and succeeding is far more about skill than it had been in previous iterations. It’s by no means perfect, and spawn campers, glitchers, drop-shotters and people generally playing to artificially boost their own sense of self-worth rather than for fun can be still be found in a good portion of matches, but that’s hardly unexpected when a game has a player base as huge as Black Ops enjoys.

The real God-send that raised Black Ops above the rest though is the sheer genius that is the wager matches, although not so much for the wager function. No, the real brilliance is getting a small group, 5 or 6 is ideal, and just having your own group games. There is nothing as enjoyable on Black Ops as repeatedly stabbing your best mate on Gun Game and setting them back when they’ve just moved off their least favourite weapon. Quite frankly it never gets old. All of the game types serve to foster this atmosphere, with there always been a tense balance to find between progressing your own goals and generally trying to screw over your friends, knowing quite how annoyed they get with every humiliation you send their way. The originality of the modes themselves is also a breath of fresh air for what had become a long-standing musk of deathmatch, headquarters and capture the flag, even if the absence of the match type war from COD 3 and WaW is criminal.

Black Ops is not perfect, and it probably won’t stop any nightmares of Bobby Kotick laughing maniacally over a swimming pool of money, but if you let yourself get over that the game can be very fun. While the single player may be simplistic and ludicrous, it’s impossible to describe it as being bad, and with the multiplayer, Treyarch is clearly making an effort to make the game less camper and glitcher friendly in a way that Infinity Ward never seemed to be bothered with. In order to get the most from this game you need a very specific set of circumstances like the one I described above. In those instances I’d feel like giving the game a 10, such is the fun I’ve had with it. Even without however, Black Ops is still a very good game. It’s not the best and while we’ll all bemoan the sales this gets while genius like Rock Band 3 and Bayonetta barely dent the all-formats chart, it’s very hard not to find this game likeable, enjoyable and, yes, even good.

Article: A History of Grand Theft Auto

Back in 1997, a small Scottish developer named DMA, previously most famous for Lemmings, released the original “Grand Theft Auto” on the PC to relatively little fanfare. A simple top down viewpoint disguised a game-play style that was to revolutionise the way video-games worked. Instead of a linear progression, players were now free to pursue their goals in any manner they saw fit, completely ignoring typical missions if they so wished. Two years later, the sequel was revealed on Playstation and PC, retaining much of the original’s style, content and game-play. One key new feature was the introduction of shifting allegiances. Like its predecessor, “Grand Theft Auto 2” was a successful game but in many ways remained a sleeper hit. This was all to change in 2001 with the release of “Grand Theft Auto III”.

Released on the platform that introduced gaming to the general public, the Playstation 2, and adopting a new 3D perspective, the game proved a huge success, selling over 14.5 million units in its lifespan. It retained the freedom of its predecessors, allowing people to either follow the story completing the missions or simply storm through Liberty City, killing, robbing and generally creating havoc on the streets. It was this feature of the game, combined with its larger coverage, which led to the critical backlash from the conservative media. There had been some controversy with the earlier games but nothing approaching the level of GTA III. To a certain extent it was the beginning of the investigation of the supposed link between video-games and teen violence, represented by a $246 million lawsuit filed by the families of the two murdered victims against the newly renamed developers, Rockstar North.

The huge success of GTA III on a purely gaming level meant expectations were high for the sequels, but both “Vice City” and “San Andreas” surpassed them with consummate ease, selling close to 40 million units combined. Retaining everything from their predecessor and upping the ante in terms of scale, story and graphical enhancements, they are seen by many as the pinnacle of sixth generation gaming. But, once again, the mainstream media overlooked much of this and controversy continued to rage. This time claims of racism were added to traditional criticisms, as Cuban groups were offended by “Vice City’s” representation of Hispanic communities, and there were forced recalls of “San Andreas, following the Hot Coffee controversy which allowed those who installed the correct mod to instigate a mini-game simulating sex (although the term ‘simulating’ required the loosest possible definition).

But none of the criticisms seriously damaged the series, in fact they are probably part of its success, and now just days away from the release of “Grand Theft Auto IV,” a game anticipated to be one of the greatest of all time it seems the series will continue to represent the best that console gaming has to offer as well as the most controversial.

Review: Bully – Scholarship Edition

I’m sure people will say in response to this release; ‘Why on earth would I want to buy a two-year old Playstation 2 port on my shiny all-powerful next-generation console?’ And to a certain extent, they’ve got a point. The game lacks originality in the gameplay department, the graphics are about as blocky as a next-gen machine can get (and that includes Wii Sports) and many of the in-game mechanics truly feel like they wouldn’t have been out of place in “Grand Theft Auto III”. But anyone who gives “Bully” a chance will find a gem of a game, maybe not a top quality gem like a diamond but at least a turquoise or amethyst.

The comparison to GTA was deliberate, as the game is made by Rockstar is basically just a clone set in a public school with the criminal element reduced accordingly to fit in with the surroundings. Missions occur in an open-world setting, with additional quests, missions and races to add some variety along the way. There’s nothing new here game-play wise, but that’s because it’s a classic template and here it’s done by the people who invented it, so that can hardly be considered a major negative point. In addition to this, the game has a certain charm and, despite the New England setting, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in an interactive episode of “Grange Hill”, just one that realises the irony. The story is similarly appealing, involving every high school cliche you an think of.

On the other hand, the graphics can’t really be defended. They’ve had two years to successfully port this game, and to do it so shoddily is a bit of a disgrace. Also unacceptable are the various bugs that blight the Xbox version, which are so much of a problem that a patch had to be released. The lack of an auto-save dates the game as well, as manual save points should no longer be necessary anymore. In addition the game is very easy; failing missions mostly being cause by accidentally riding a bike into a policeman.

So there are problems with this game, and if you’ve played the original version, there’s little to recommend, but if you haven’t, take note of the reduced price tag and enjoy a fun, witty and intelligent game, even if it’s somewhat simple and noticeably aging.

Final verdict: 8/10

Review: Devil May Cry 4

For the first time in the history of the series a “Devil May Cry” title has topped the charts on its release weekend. Doubtlessly this is partly due to the benefit of being released on multiple platforms but also because it’s a very good game. Admittedly it’s not flawless, and its faults can really start to get to you, but they don’t detract so much as to negate the games positive aspects. Half the game is played as new character Nero but inevitably the young pretender proves unworthy to sport Dante’s moves and it’s up to the old guard to come to the rescue in the second half.

Gameplay basically revolves around stringing together impressive combos using guns, swords and a demonically possessed arm, interspersed with puzzles. Thankfully what could have become repetitive in an unwanted to homage to “Dynasty Warriors” is remarkably fresh, with each enemy type requiring much more than simple button mashing with boss battles especially requiring more varied thinking. The puzzles may put some off, but this is an action game and so they don’t prove too taxing. The graphics, ‘though occasionally bland, are generally impressive.

However, there are some problems, the main one being the lack of save points within missions. Checkpoints allow you to restart from certain intervals, but these aren’t saved and every time the console is booted up the whole level must be played through again. Also the camera can be a bit of a nightmare, and the gameplay can feel a little too familiar and distinctively last-gen.

Another issue is the learning curve which is steep and high. Each completed setting unlocks the next and, as it’s possible to run into problems on the lower few, the ‘Hell or Hell’ setting will likely cause several shouting episodes at the screen. However, the game is a good one as the actual experience of playing it is undoubtedly enjoyable; just prepare to get quite angry at its unforgiving nature a fair few times along the way.

Final verdict: 7.5/10

Review: Sensible World of Soccer (Xbox Live Arcade)

For anyone born in the early to mid ‘80s SWOS was most likely the first football game you played. In the days before Pro Evo and even before FIFA, it was the king of video game football; free-flowing and easy to pick up, but near impossible to put down. The game was a mainstay of early consoles like the Master System and it took several years for FIFA to take its place, despite its graphical enhancements and improved technology.

This brings us to 2008 and the release of the downloadable version of SWOS… and it’s brilliant, that’s the only word for it. Amazingly simple, using just the d-pad and two buttons but still just as addictive. Little has changed, including squads with luminaries such as Andy Hinchcliffe available. It looks a bit prettier, runs a bit smoother and supports online play, but otherwise it’s the same old classic and, unlike most retro games, you don’t need rose-tinted glasses to appreciate it. It’s still one of the most enjoyable football games out there and that includes Pro Evo.

Final verdict: 8.5/10

Review: Lego Star Wars – The Complete Saga

Coming out in the midst of numerous blockbuster titles like “Halo 3” and “The Orange Box” , “Lego Star Wars” was easy to overlook when first released. However, anyone who did take that chance would be pleasantly surprised by what they found. The fact that developers Traveller’s Tales have recently been snapped up for a hefty fee by Warner Bros is an indication of their talent and the game itself proves instantly likeable, with a delightfully humorous take on an old and well-known story. Admittedly it is rather simple to play through; it is after all a kid’s game. You can die repeatedly without any real consequence, but finishing the story and finishing the game are different matters, and anyone looking for that elusive 100% will be facing a lot of their hours. One large negative point is the fact that there is barely any new game here. In essence this is just a compilation of the previous two games and so anyone who has already played through them should feel little need to come back. For the rest of us, this game proves to be a simple but enjoyable tonic to all the multi-million pound games vying for your attention.

Final verdict: 8.5/10