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

Review: Mass Effect

According to the hype surrounding this game, it’s the reason we bought an Xbox 360; an excellent mix of “Oblivion”, “Halo” and “Gears of War” which makes it a guaranteed game of the year. Certainly it is a very good game. Anyone who’s played Bioware’s old game “Knights of the Old Republic” will know what to expect from this sci-fi RPG with added firepower. It has an epic plot which is superbly played out by excellent characterisation and voice acting by very talented individuals including Seth Green. The graphics are exceptional and the RPG elements like levelling up are certainly on a par with the benchmark set by “Oblivion”.

Sadly it’s in the areas which are supposed to set Mass Effect apart that it falls short. The combat system is too sophisticated to be simplistically appealing like Bethesda’s giant and other RPG staples, but also too basic as a shooter to appeal to fans of “Gears of War” and “Ghost Recon” style tactical squad based shooters, who will be frustrated by the interface’s clumsiness and your squad’s general uselessness. However, the replay value is huge given the multitude of options and dialogue branches on offer, and overall it is a very impressive package, just not quite as essential as we were led to believe.

Final verdict: 8/10