Saturday, 27 December 2008


Hmm. Do I buy a PS3 or don't I buy a PS3?

2009 will be Sony's year, I predict. Home looks sweet. Killzone 2 is primed. And perhaps it is now clear that Blu-Ray won the format war. So, during this time of economic upheaval, is it really a wise move for me, an Xbox 360 owner, to spend hundreds on this great black obelisk-like machine?



Thursday, 27 November 2008

The New Xbox Experience?

Microsoft don't do philosophy. I do. I ask the big questions. The kinds of questions that would leave even closet Satre's flummoxed. One such question is this: what exactly is the New Xbox Experience?

I've spent the last few days pondering about this one. My conclusion is based on literally two hours of intellectual toil. 'NXE' is an odd concept. Microsoft wants you to believe that their recent dashboard update for the Xbox 360 is a major step into new territory, but is it? Let's weigh it up.

Initially, there is clearly a wow factor once you've switched your 360 back on after the update's initial installation. The new design for the dashboard is neat and modern. It really goes to show how, even in the space of just three years, the design of software can move from cutting edge to obsolete. The old dashboard design had clearly done the rounds and needed to go. However, I'm not so convinced it was replaced. In reality, the NXE is a paintjob.

The major new feature is the Avatar. You create a Wii-like alter ego. Clothing and shaping your avatar is a laugh for about five minutes. I spent a good deal of time perfecting mine because I imagined some great 3D lobby beckoned. However, no such 3D massively multiplayer platform exists. The avatars are ultimately the biggest waste of effort I think there has been since Sega launched the 32x.

What is the point of an avatar when there is literally no environment available where you can take them? The answer is there is no point. None at all. The 'friends' blade (are they still called blades??) is random. It's interesting to see how your friends have designed their avatars but this blade is the only section of the dashboard where you can view them. Because of this, they don't seem integral to your Xbox experience. They feel gimmicky and less central than even the old gamerpic you can select for your profile.

About the only thing to praise about the NXE is the new party feature. Finally, you can have up to 8 friends form up in a private party via the dashboard and either migrate into games together or do as you will separately whilst still being able to speak in the party's private chat. Essentially, this new feature equates to the end of trash talking... if you want it to that is. No longer do you need to be in public channels to be able to speak to more than one friend at a time. Expect a good deal more silence when playing games solo from now on.

For me, the NXE needed a really solid 3D world where you and your buddies could chill out independant of any game. The party mode should exist within a 3D private lobby - akin to something like Habbo Hotel's room creation. Omg. I actually just mentioned Habbo Hotel. Kill me now.

I'm sure Microsoft are due to spam us with mini games featuring 'avatar support'. However, we will no doubt have to pay for them. As far as I can see, the NXE will be based in a sadly 2D world. This reality check got me thinking about Sony's Playstation Home. I'm interested to see how Home shapes up once it finally comes out and will certainly be tempted to give it a go if it turns out to be as good as the hype suggests. Like I said in a previous post a while back, I predict Home may well represent the great console shift to the PS3 unless the NXE actually competes with something more than a gimmicky Avatar system thrown into the fray.

In conclusion, my personal take on the NXE is that it's a very convuluted dashboard paintjob. Party mode is fantastic and I cannot stress how happy I am to see this. The problem though isn't with the party mode. It's with the rest of the NXE. There is nothing to behold besides a slightly fancier marketplace front screen and some nice new camera effects if you keep your Vision Camera plugged in when on the dash. The NXE doesn't really seem like much of an experience to me, or particulary new for that matter. Hmm.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Rant Review: Call of Duty: World at War / Call of Duty 4 (???)

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-18
Publisher: Activision

What the CoD?

Time for a new feature: the quick capsule review, aka a rant review. Inspired by an obscure Hicksean joke, I have decided to 'quick capsule' those games I just cba to actually properly critique. This may be for various reasons but you can rest assured that it will always be for a reason, and not just due to laziness on my part.

CoD: WaW. It was inevitable this game would hit and hit it did. I wasn't even going to bother picking it up but swapping Far Cry 2 for a part exchange in a well known games store ensured the coinage came calling. To say I was sad to part with Far Cry 2 would, simply, be a lie.

I didn't expect much from "CoD5". Treyarch's games catalogue reads like a token example of a list of games that should be put on a bus for a one way trip to the desert. However, I wanted to give this one an open mind. People had told me that it was surprisingly good. Infact, many have even dubbed it 'the greatest' WW2 game ever made. Let's break that down.

I guess people are impressed by the dramatic set pieces that... wait. No. Let's roll back a year or two. So there was this games developer called
Infinity Ward and they created a few great WW2 FPS games off the back of their expertise having worked on the original Medal of Honor titles. By 2006, they got working on their magnum opus, Call of Duty 4. They made it from scratch and set a gold standard in the process. Call of Duty 4 was, and still is, that standard for FPS games on both the PC and consoles.

A few months pass. And here we have
CoD: WaW. Quick Capsule review time: this game is merely the sum of Treyarch taking IW's CoD4 formula and just dumping a few new ideas into the mix. This is literally akin to someone taking a core code for a game, customising the options screen, adding a new score over the top, and altering the maps/player models and then announcing it's the latest big thing.

I'll admit that, at first, this game actually really surprised me. At one point I fell for the line that Treyarch had actually pulled it off. I then realised that this was far from the reality of WaW. The reality here is that people are paying for a CoD4 clone. There is nothing new here. Co-op is decent enough. However, I'm not convinced it was particularly hard to implement. My real gripe is with the adversarial multiplayer. Compared to CoD4, it's just not that good. I can't put my finger on it. It's a sense of there being a lack of that magic touch to the map design we saw in CoD4. It's in the way weaponry lacks that cool and solid feel you get in CoD4. It's in the lack of red tiger camo. WaW just isn't as inspired.

It's also in the small things. The voices of the enemies and buddies alike. What they say. How they say it. The voiceover you get for the start of a multiplayer match. All of these elements are superior in CoD4 because they just are. I also prefer the helicopter for a 7 kill streak over a pack of dogs anyday.

Guns, generally, are a massive failing point for
WaW. Nothing is particularly exciting to use. For God's sake, to pit CoD4's arsenal of cutting-edge military shooters against the back catalogue of your Daddy's WW2 era firearms is only ever going to result in one winner when it comes to gamer satisfaction stakes. Treyarch needed to breathe life into these rusty guns in order to keep them exciting to use. We needed a little bit of artistic licence here. The M1 Garand, for example, needed a far more weightier, bass-heavy, blast of a sound effect. I don't care if your sound engineers didn't conclude that would be authentic. Also, camo patterns should have made it in in order to insert something into this dull set of boom sticks. There are also way too many bolt action rifles.

All WaW is is the product of an inferior studio trying to copy a superior one by literally pasting an entire body of code into their new game and tweaking/screwing with it in p-laces. About the only welcome new feature I could find was the filter for matchmaking that allows you to search for local gamers only (about time this became a standard over live). WaW does a few things well, such as the co-op and decent new gore system. The new zombie mode is also a neat bonus. However, I refuse to accept this game does anything better than, say, CoD2 when it comes to dramatic set pieces and linear level design. For me, it's also just a damn frustration that this WW2 title has taken all the limelight and left Hell's Highway in a cold and lonely shadow. Highway is the superior WW2 shooter even after its lack of co-op and poor multiplayer is taken into consideration. This is because it tried to do something different and ambitiously placed a heavy emphasis on realism.

is all about the fun factor both on and offline. That is why red tiger camo is acceptable. That is why you can take on near enough one hundred baddies as a solo sniper guarding a man with a busted up leg. CoD: WaW tries too hard to be a 'horrors of war' piece and trust me when I say that computer games cannot achieve this like a good movie or book can.

Here be my conclusive take on Call of Duty: World at War:

Quick Capsule:

Online: Inferior to CoD4 in every respect - including map design, weapon selection, gametypes.

Single Player: Just another linear CoD romp. Co-op is fun but nothing ground breakingly good - particularly after experiencing Gears of War 2's Horde Mode (review to come soon).

Because of everything I have stated above, I refuse to actually score WaW. This is because I fear giving it a mark out of ten will negate my primary message here; being that
CoD4 is the game and WaW is some pretender trying to make out it's the game. However, seeing as I never actually reviewed CoD4 back in 2007 I will use this moment to rate that glorious title instead.

Summary (Call of Duty 4)

+Linear gaming at its finest
+The paragon of pure FPS games
+Intense, dramatic, heart racing action
+Simply put, the greatest FPS multiplayer experience since CS
-Co-op... if only

9.6 / 10
The pinnacle of a crowded genre both on and offline

by The Critical Alien
© 2008

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Review: Far Cry 2

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-16
Publisher: Ubisoft

Roaming the Bush.

Now here's a game that looks at first to have it all. A grand arsenal of guns? Check. A vast and varied map? Check. Smart A.I? Check. However, let's look a little closer. Cover system? No. Satisfying gunplay? Nope. An actual sense of being lost in the wilderness? Never.

You see, Far Cry 2 is not what it at first seems. I was excited to begin with. Everything was in place. The graphics are certainly a cut above most FPS games and the clean and clear HUD made me smile. It basically looks like real life. The problem is once the bullets start flying this game falls apart. It just doesn't feel right. I can't explain it but I know many out there will just know what I mean. Shooting an enemy just isn't satisfying. Firing your weapon is a generic experience and there is just a total lack of intensity about the combat.

You do a lot of driving in Far Cry 2... until you discover the bus stops. Even after being teleported via a black loading screen to the bus' destination there is still a good deal of marching to be done. I say marching because jogging/running in this game is broken. Like the gunplay, it feels wrong. I guess the PC gamers out there (all remaining five of them) might have no issue with this whilst playing WASD style. Sadly, us console gamers do. Pressing down on the analog stick COD4 style to run is how it should be. However, not being able to easily change direction mid run is awkward. Also, a problem for all formats, comes the blemish that is the way that running means your vision will become blurred around the edges of the screen. This pointless effect seems designed with some aim of achieving realism in mind. However, this actually simulates nothing and just proves irritating and even enough to spark motion sickness with some.

There is no denying that there is a real exploration factor here. After the initial thirty or so minutes of missions that are indirectly designed to teach you the controls, you are free to do as you will. I took a vehicle, hit the road, and headed out into the wild. To begin with there was an amazing sense about this. The hot African sun bombards your windscreen as you negotiate thick foliage and ramshackle dirt tracks. The driving side of things is very well handled. You get a first person view of the inside of the vehicle and are free to look around whilst driving. You can also study your map, which you hold in your arms, and still move around. This simulated view is a far more immersive way of putting you in the driver's seat than something like GTA IV's bog standard external views and bizarre windscreen-mounted-cam view.

Your journey will eventually come to a firm halt whether on foot or off roading though. Regardless of what way you go, you'll encounter impenetrable rock faces that oddly seem to run parallel to the roads as if nature mapped those very paths. In other words, the map is sectioned up. It doesn't feel realistic. I wanted to just head into the bush with a pistol and a machete and just get lost in a wilderness. It just doesn't work that way. Head in a direction for long enough and you'll hit a mountain side. There is no way to climb rocks or devise elaborate methods of crossing over. The game just doesn't really give you that sense of battling against the elements and pulling through.

Far Cry 2 needed more in the way of an emphasis on survival. There should have been the option to buy a tent and deploy it whenever you wanted and use that as a save point. There should have been a way of collecting various resources in order to make stuff like primitive bows. I don't know. It just seemed to me to lack everything I wanted from such an African setting.

The missions with Far Cry 2 are your standard go and blow up some crates tasking objectives. To be honest, I didn't bother with many. Instead, I roamed the map and created my own story. I often 'pretend' things when playing these kinds of games. In my world, I was a lone sniper out to cause as much chaos as possible whilst remaining out of site. I moved from enemy checkpoint to enemy checkpoint and engaged with an old Springfield bolt action sniper rifle from a distance. After playing in this manner for several hours I had basically unlocked almost every location marked on the map.

It was certainly fun. However, it was rather a pointless tour of duty. Sniping is completely effortless, with no scope drift or bullet drop, and the enemy make no effort to hunt you down. I wanted to see a collective effort by them to track me. I wanted to see swarms of them rambling through the vines, coming to get me. Instead, I just saw a load of checkpoints; where enemies patrol and never budge from. Once killed, they eventually respawn, ready for it all to happen again.

Many reviews go on about the awesome fire effects in this game. Personally, I think it's pretty worrying when the best thing you can say about a game is that the fire looks cool. Sure, it spreads around a little, only to then puff out into smoulder before you've got yourself a forest fire. Nothing burns for long and no major structure is destructible. I'll admit that on one occasion I was very impressed by the way fire can be used as a distraction. I sneaked over a promontory of rock where I had an overhead view of a few bad guys patrolling a... shed. I hurled a molotov and it lit the grass alight. They all ran off screaming 'fire' whilst I sniped them one by one. It's all good but just not enough.

Far Cry 2 is let down by its gunplay. Death animations aren't impressive. The blood effects are also poor. I wanted to see pools of the red stuff under bodies and entry and exit wounds. I also just wanted to see more realistic enemy behaviors. The A.I isn't stupid but the enemies don't strike me as organised. Okay, they're a bunch of militiamen with AK-47s and not much skill. However, this is no excuse for the way they never seem to just do human stuff like call for backup, stay in cover, or just run away.

There is a possibility here that I'm missing something regarding the A.I. You see, I ended up playing this game on the easy/normal difficulty settings. This was because otherwise, I just kept getting killed by crazy enemy jeep assaults (see further below) or just found it impossible to survive with enemies charging me and the sluggish control handling making precision firing next to impossible.

Just to cover it, I may as well bring up the game's multiplayer offering. To be blunt, it sucks. It feels dated, much like Hell's Highway's recent attempt. Also, it is another game that suffers from its lack of any co-op mode. The idea of roaming this vast world with a buddy to share the experience with would have made it all worthwhile. The hyped map editor is all very well but I'm just not into map making. At first glance it just looked too complicated to me and I doubt we will see many console players embrace it. It's interesting to note that at the time of writing the most popular custom map was a user created 'Shipment' from... yes you guessed it, Call of Duty 4. To me this was yet another example of multiplayer gaming truth number one: map design makes or breaks an online game. Map editors are all very well but they need to be backed up by... good maps.

I'm going to round this up with my final few points. The whole, 'omg I have Malaria, best take my meds', feature is BS. It shouldn't have made it into the game. You have to make sure you are stocked up with pills or otherwise you'll suddenly find yourself wondering the jungles and thinking you're under the influence of eight dried grams.

It was also sad to see this game suffer from the Oblivion style 'bandit on the road' syndrome. Whenever you drive across the road you're bound to encouter enemies driving jeeps and riding shotgun with a fixed MG. In other words, you'll get shot up and f*cked up unless you, too, cruise in a vehicle boasting some form of turret. You die, you die, you die. All because some jeep smashed into you and you had no time to grab cover.

This is a game that boasts it all but the execution is just lacking. It's just not that fun or satisfying to play. Combat is overly simplified and the marvellous world you roam lacks any real sense of life besides the generic evil militiamen and the odd zebra. This title is more a showcase than it is a computer game. It's a tech demo with a hefty pricetag for admission. If you're that desperate for some African sunsets, just get saving for that real trip.


+Visually stunning
+Uniquely realistic fire
+Pretty limitless freedom
+/-(But the map is sectioned up via rocky borders)
-Combat is generic and lacking in intensity
-No real sense of getting 'lost in the woods'

7.8 / 10
With freedom comes generic content and a dated FPS experience

by The Critical Alien
© 2008

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Brushing up on some Gears

I wonder quite how many people are doing, or have been contemplating doing, what I got up to for a great deal of last weekend. With the imminent release of Gears of War 2 for the Xbox 360, I felt it wise to return to some old ground with the original Gears of War. Released in late 2006, this is still one beast of a third-person shooter.

Playing Gears again reminded me of quite how good it was. Sometimes it's too easy as a gamer to knock games and take the truly important stuff for granted. Playing through it on the Insane difficulty setting with a pal over Xbox Live co-op affirmed for me one thing above everything else; that this game still remains to be bettered. No shooter has really come close to offering the level of co-op integration that exists in Gears. Sure, Vegas 1 & 2 gave us a few laughs, and no doubt Halo 3 kept parties keen well into the night, but there is no denying that in terms of integration of co-op gameplay Gears is the daddy.

I was also reminded of the simple fact that Gears just feels solid and smooth around the edges. It's in the details such as the way a bright orange glow will pierce bullet holes upon initial impact with solid surfaces. It's in the way the cover system is just flawless. It's in the way your A.I teammates just seem to get on with it and it's in the way the active reload feature keeps even reloading your weapon entertaining.

Frankly, I just forgot about the calibre of game Gears represented. I forgot how much of a marvel it was and remains today. I'm sure vast swarms of gamers will be revisiting this title over the next few weeks in preparation for the arrival of the sequel and I bet most of them conclude much the same as I; that in actuality we've seen little in the way of greatness over these last two years.

Call of Duty 4 stands out for me as the only truly special game to have come out since Gears. Again, the key with CoD4 was its polish. The 60 fps touch. The unique perk multiplayer. The engrossing story. The developers just had that special touch that makes a great game. GTA IV just didn't quite nail it for me atleast - not enough for me to call it great anyway. Halo 3 certainly didn't. The rest were never really in the competition.

Roll on Gears 2 then.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Review: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-20
Publisher: Ubisoft

Got the t-shirt.

Literally. It came free with my copy of
Gearbox's latest tactical WW2 FPS; a game I've been pretty pumped for since... oh at least 2006! When it came in the mail it was one of those childish moments I seldom experience nowadays. Like a geek, I 'prepared' myself before settling in for a hardcore night of war gaming. How? By watching Saving Private Ryan and eating Pringles, of course.

I can't be bothered to type
Hell's Highway every time so from here on in this one's called Highway. I had a feeling Highway was going to do something special. Three years of development would surely ensure one hell of a game? You would think so, and you would be right to think so, for Highway delivers. There are a plethora of issues here though; most being minor, a few being major.

I'm going to be blunt here. Quite simply,
Highway is without doubt one of the finest FPS games I've ever played. It's also one of the very best WW2 era shooters put onto a disc. As war games go, this is a high point. However, it's a flawed game and some of its rougher elements are plain embarrassing for all concerned.

Highway is all about the single player experience. Forget the multiplayer. It's optionless, laggy, played by about 35 people, and blatantly just an afterthought. There is no party mode, clan system, or any sense that it's going to be a hit. It feels like the old days of online gaming and reminds me of early builds of Day of Defeat as opposed to a Cod 4 rival. This is a shame. I wasn't expecting a great deal from the team deathmatch mode but was hoping for co-op. Highway is just one of those games crying out to be played with a friend. Why it didn't make it into final code is a question I don't think anyone has a satisying answer for. The best I've heard is something about how 'we' are just not there yet as an industry. Well, surely we are? With Cod 5's 4 player co-op on the way and countless other games managing to include some form of co-op mode in recent years there basically just isn't an excuse. It was obviously on the cards at some stage of production but just never happened. Frankly, this is just embarresment number one.

If Highway had just been a generic romp of an FPS game I'd have been utterly pissed off with the fact the multiplayer side of things is just pants. The thing is this: what Highway does well it does so well that I, for one at least, can just forgive and forget. The experience this game puts you through feels like playing the very best bits of
Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Now I know that just sounds like a gaming cliche' nowadays, and I'll admit I've said that before about much older titles, but here I just cannot emphasise it enough. However, the bug/omission list goes on.

There are all sorts of blemishes with
Highway that could/should have been ironed out before release and considering the length of time it took to make, and countless delays, it just makes no sense that they exist. One particularly striking issue comes with the way your character's mouth doesn't move when he is yelling out a command to the squad. When in the third person cover view this is very noticeable and just takes away some of the sense of it being real and cinematic. All we needed was a mouth movement animation! Also, why can't you chose your kit before each stage? I wasn't impressed by the way this game assigns weapons to you. It's odd because you never get to use some guns, such as the Grease gun, at all. It's also rather bizarre how you can't pick up German stick grenades. They don't seem to be modeled at all. This is a shame as it would have been nice to have more than one type of explosive. I also wanted to try out the bazooka and .30 caliber MG for myself. There should also have been some form of melee attack, a rifle butt atleast.

There is no animation for attaching charges to Pak 88s either. You just hear a click to acknowledge the bomb is set. I died the first time I primed a field gun because I literally just didn't realise I'd done anything and didn't run for cover. I was also unimpressed by the way death of squadmates is handled. They never die! Instead, they fall and writhe in pain only to respawn at the start of a new checkpoint. The
Cod system should have been adopted here. I would liked to have seen some form of pool of reinforcements who run into the fray every time a soldier falls. A medic would have also been a decent inclusion, and a sniper team. Stuff like this would have made this an absolute masterpiece of a game as opposed to a very, very good one.

This brings me to another problem. Only in one level near the end do you get to play with a full squad at your disposal; being 3 teams of 3 guys. I wanted far more of this earlier on. However, the early stages were still stunning in every other respect and that's the thing about
Highway. Its successes are solid enough to negate the f*ck ups.

What Highway does is something no other war game, besides former
Brothers in Arms titles, has ever come close to: depicting combat for what it really is. Skirmishes can be long, drawn out affairs where you find yourself flushing enemies out of barns with grenades, pinning down an MG42 position with sustained covering fire, or even just getting so confused and battle weary that you lay low in the bushes and hope for a positive outcome. Blood spatters the ground where dead bodies rest in the grass and grenade explosions raze sandbag placements and create billowing craters in the earth.

Combat just feels authentic. Sometimes you'll just see red and feel a burning desire to assault all guns blazing. It never works out though. You rely on the men around you, your squad, and the skill is ultimately in leading them through it. Here are a few things you simply MUST do in order to get the full experience with this game: 1) Turn off every on screen HUD element. 2) Crank that effects vol all the way up. 3) Set the controls for 'tour of duty' - the FPS controller layout God intended. 4) When it's unlocked, you owe it to yourself to play in the 'authentic' difficulty setting.

With these pointers in mind, you'll get to experience a true simulation of WW2 era squad based combat. This is not a game that has you single handedly defeat a reinforced armoured battalion. Nor is this a game that puts you in the shoes of some godlike hero of warfare. In fact, Sgt. Baker is in some ways an anti hero. You're a dried up soldier in no mood to do much besides get through it.

The story is adequate without being particularly memorable I would suggest. My biggest gripe was the way British troops were acknowledged but in that antiquated way certai
n Americans just can't leave alone. I do wish Gearbox had just accepted the fact years ago that games cannot mirror television when it comes to portraying character. The cutscenes are overly sentimental and seem to be aimed at a pro-war, go America, gun demographic that doesn't really exist anymore in any great number and probably are mostly just too busy watching re-runs of BoB to play games anyway. That or they're dug in deep in Afghanistan right now.

The battle dialogue that can be heard during gameplay between squad mates could have been better too. It's good and quite varied but I just wish it had been even more varied and, well, just done by much better voice artists. There is often a lack of emotion in the comments you hear and not enough swearing. It's that simple. I really wanted to hear yells of "this son of a bitch" and "fucking flank that bastard" during intense moments of swell. Occasionally you do hear some realistic dialogue but it's just not as integral as it could have been.

The last level of Highway is a big anti climax. It's another 'to be continued' moment. I can live with that though because I want far more of this game. A factor I struggled to accept at first was the way this game tries to go all mystical on us. The initial in medias res level is a poorly handled introduction to the game as it simply fails to do anything besides throw you straight into the combat without any sense of a build up to the action. Later, we are once again forced to play through a sort of dream-like sequence in an abandoned hospital. You are split up from your squad and end up wondering through hallways whilst marvelling at the impressive visuals. The atmosphere is fantastic and certainly rivals moments from fully fledged horror games such as Fear and Bioshock. However, it just felt a little out of place. This is a realistic war game. It tries to be more than that and just shouldn't.

The eastern village moments are few and far between compared to the constantly challenging and genuinely realistic scenes where you are in the thick of it. I wasn't that amazed by the tank combat though. It felt like
Medal of Honor, enter the evil nazi shooting gallery, territory. During scenes where you take on enemy tanks as infantry you also get the sense that realism goes out the window. For a game striving to be realistic there is no excuse for these old school moments where you defeat panzer tanks via satchels and rocket launchers instead of just avoiding them and calling in the P-51s.

So much that was promised simply hasn't made it into the game. For instance, enemies do not 'trip up' or help one another to safety if wounded. All of these elements simply failed to make it into final code. Also, civilians play no role whatsoever. There is also no true sense of comradeship with your men. I never once 'exchanged ammunition' for example. At its core, it's not much more than the previous
Brothers game. It just takes those original premises, such as the find, fix, flank, finish game mechanic, and gives them a serious overhaul.

Highway offers is a humble simulation of small scale skirmishes. No other game I have played comes close when it comes to just capturing that sense of real combat. Inclusions such as the action cam are simply brilliant. It slows down the action and zooms in on your well placed headshot or grenade hurl. Sometimes it can seem so real that you actually feel ill at ease with the results. The gore is grim and bloody.

Highway is a game I know I am going to play again and again. If it had co-op this would be an absolute high point in gaming. I'm not sure why it took so long to make, although I get the sense the PS3 may have been a seminal factor, but on the whole this is a brilliant game. When you're pinned down beside a log by enemy fire, hearing the whizzes of overpassing tracers and seeing the dirt hit your face, you will be about as close to war as you're ever going to get within the comfortable confines of your armchair.


+Fantastic visuals, sound, and atmosphere
+Genuinely realistic and tactical
+A WW2 game for the more mature gamer
+/-Which has no co-op mode
-What? No co op mode? Ya rly! No wai!
-Vomit inducing story

9.0 / 10
A seriously intense, realistic, and mature war game

by The Critical Alien
© 2008

Friday, 5 September 2008

Review: Soul Calibur IV

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3

Category: Beat 'Em Up
Players: 1-2
Publisher: Namco

Die by the sword

'Tis been awhile since I had a good session with a classic beat 'em up. In fact, the last time I went a few rounds was in Dead or Alive 4. I was rusty upon picking up the sword and unsure how sharp my skills would prove. Having never played a Soul Calibur game before this point the world around me was alien and the task of mastering this title was, at first, daunting. Then I just realised I was that damn good at gaming and had this sh*t beat within 45 mins.-ed

So, I'm being quick to establish that namco's latest is rather easy, even for journeyman sword wielders. It's also short on story and hardly anything groundbreaking. Graphically, it's just okay without being jaw dropping (like the first time you got a look at DOA3, amirite?). The dialogue for the story mode is as bad as any beat 'em up out there too. I opted to switch off the English translation as, mercifully, you can select to enable the Japanese voice over. The music is great and really keeps you locked into that fantasy mindset when in option screens etc.

It takes about 10 minutes to complete story mode with each character and on normal mode you'd have to be lacking in opposable thumbs to pull off anything but a pretty flawless beat down each time you take on the A.I. On Hard mode, sure it gets tougher. However, I can still pretty much smoke all comers.

Soul Calibur IV is not about an immersive story. It's not even about story mode. It's about unlocking stuff: swords, armour, characters, art work, stages, even photographs of plastic models; each painstakingly detailing the main figures from the game. Soul Calibur is also about the glorious Character Creator. This is one powerful and effective char creation system. It rivals the best 'wrestling' games out there and I'm showing my age by even stating, for the record, that that sentiment includes the 'glory days' wrestling titles on the N64.

Within hours I'd created a very convincing Blade, for instance. Just check YouTube for a wealth of player videos showing off their skillz with the character making. I've seen perfect Hulks, flawless Harry Potters, and even Heath Ledger's Joker. All look convincing and it takes a good system to pull this level of customisation off.

Soul Calibur IV has a decent fighting system too. It's not particularly technical when it comes to counters but blocking itself is vital. There is also just something very satisfying about using swords etc but I guess I'm about 5 years late in saying that considering this is the forth game in the franchise. There are a host of styles to chose from but it's quite patent that many are just gimmicky rather than potentially effective. The plethora of styles and weapons gives each fight a unique sense about it too.

Online, you can take IV into standard 1 on 1 modes that also allow up to 4 players to take turns fighting. It's very basic and with no tag mode I wasn't that impressed. I don't think many were expecting much out of it online though and this feature is just good enough considering the genre.

Out of all the unlockable characters, weapons, stages, and clothing perhaps the most bizarre inclusions are the Star Wars personalities of Yoda (360), Vader (PS3), and The Apprentice (both versions). Firstly, I was happy to see them. Secondly, someone needs to retire George Lucas, period. I got the sense whilst reading the in-game story behind Yoda's inclusion, for example, that Lucas had literally gone out of his way to justify to the world why this cross of worlds had occurred. You also just get this sense of holy sacrament whenever the Wars chars are involved with what unfolds story wise. It's like a Steven Seagal movie in the sense that you just know Lucas wants to make out his characters can and will pwn all of Soul Calibur's weaklings. I'm also convinced The Apprentice was just made to be way tougher to defeat than any other character in the game. This is perhaps a new stage in viral marketing; the aim being to send the message out that this guy is l33t and will be even l33ter in the upcoming game, The Force Unleashed. It's also a bit ridiculous that you can't give the lightsaber or 'force' style to any of your own created characters. As if relics of some greatness you can't access, these three characters are not to be edited or copied like the rest. Star Wars is Serious Business, after all.

There we have it. IV won't bring you to tears. It won't keep you up until 3am. It probably won't do much besides offer good old stress relief for a few minutes every other day. Upon completing it with every character, you can rest assured that arcade mode, versus, and the gimmicky 'tower' mode will keep you going for a good while. However, it's all about making your own brawlers and entering into battles against randomly generated A.I opponents - a feature that is available in versus mode. This is a solid weapons based beat 'em up and well worth a 'stab' - lol.-ed


+Solid fighting system
+Loads to unlock
+A very good character creation system
+/-That won't let you customise or use Star Wars content
-Weak and lacking story
-'Tower' mode could have been more

8.0 / 10

Hang in there, fellow gamers!

In a way, this is a continuation of my ranting from the previous post regarding the state of the games industry. However, I wish to offer light at the end of this year's dark tunnel for gamer. Firstly though, from what I have seen Mercenaries 2 is a terrible, unpolished, and bug ridden game that is actually inferior to the 2005 original. I'm not really surprised to hear this. I suspect the reasons behind Merc 2's failure are largely down to Pandemic struggling with the requirements and demands of 'next gen' programming. They were hoping PS2 era thrills would do it for the seekers of digital bliss. We've moved on.

I'm not looking to review Mercs 2 here. It would be unfair seeing as I haven't played it, but from what I can tell the game is abysmal and I'm no longer in the game of buying any old trash just so I can say I've played it. I only pick up worthy games nowadays.

In my last post I went on a rant about how Hell's Highway was shaping up. Well, it now looks like things aren't perhaps as gloomy for Gearbox's FPS. Apparently there is a co-op mode, according to this article anyway, and on top of this the multiplayer sounds pretty varied and large scale. Also, I'm now just beginning to sense the single player game really won't disappoint. It looks like a seriously mature and realistic experience from all I have seen and I can't wait to finally play it later in the month.

So, my message to the 'next gen' gamers is to hang in there. 2008 has been a terrible year for games up until now. We are all still playing those big '07 releases and waiting for the likes of Gears of War 2, Left for Dead, the aforementioned Hell's Highway, and wackier stuff such as the PS3's Little Big Planet. I'm sure that these titles will end 2008 with a gaming bang.

It is also interesting to see how 2009 is shaping up. Hopefully, early '09 will mark the start of a grand new step for the PS3. If Home, the free 3d MMO lobby-like Second Life clone, is as good as Sony are claiming I might even finally get around to picking up a PS3. That, alongside the release of Killzone 2, might finally mark a point where the PS3 can truly say it has something unique and worthy of praise over the 360 - besides Metal Gear.

Microsoft's pending Dashboard update for fall this year looks like a scarily Wii-like pretender in comparison. I just hope you can turn OFF the childish avatars upon updating the console and revert to the old layout. However, the idea of a dashboard party mode that launches into a game and therefore doesn't rely on that game to exist sounds very attractive - and it's about time this party mode as a console feature element entered the fray.

I'm about done with this one. I will review Hell's Highway later in the month. From then on I hope to be immersed in gaming and primed for Gears 2!

Friday, 22 August 2008

Worrying trends in the Games Industry

This morning I realised that the one game I've been hanging on for above all others this year, being Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, now looks set to disappoint. From what I can tell there is little left of the game that was promised to us back in early '06 builds. Many features have been omitted and the final game seems to be centred around a single player story. I'm noticing this more and more nowadays with 'next gen' games. They fail to deliver and the excuse is so often one relying on the argument that the game was designed with 'story' or an offline component in mind above anything else.

So, it's now relatively old news that Hell's Highway will not have any form of Co-Op mode. As a result, my excitement for this title has faded away by about 80%. We now are being told that the multiplayer component will, in effect, be quite a limited experience. There will be no bots, or A.I squad mates to order about whilst in online battle, and it seems that a timer for each battle will mean rounds last only a few measly minutes.

It all looks quite worrying as far as I'm concerned. Hell's Highway now seems destined to be yet another generic WW2 romp of an FPS game. Unless the single player is truly stunning I fear this game will flop. It looks to me like a scripted game relying solely on the squad hand-signal component to flesh it out. Without co-op, I'm just not particularly excited about the prospect of Brothers in Arms with better graphics. There is nothing new here, or am I wrong? Once the game is out next month we will know for sure how good this single player is going to be.

My real reason for this post is not to log my frustration over what looks set to be another shoddy FPS game though. Hell's Highway is just a microcosm of what seems to be a pattern developing as part of our current wave of 'next gen' games. Big things are promised and announced, little is delivered besides flashy visuals. Content wise, we are just not seeing much anymore. Where are the true 'next gen' titles? We WANT co-op in all our games! We WANT good, content heavy, multiplayer as well as a single player. And hell! If there has to be omissions then let's start getting rid of the story in these games! Let's start placing emphasis on gameplay as opposed to the cheesy drivel we see as stories in computer games.

Frankly, I'm just fed up with the po-faced, self righteousness of the attitudes developers seem to have regards their stories. No one really cares for stories in FPS games for example. If a story is in and co-op is not, I'm not playing. If there is no story (just some basic plot) but the game is content and feature heavy, I'm in!

Perhaps though, there is a hidden truth behind the constant excuse of story elements taking precedence over features. The real truth may be that this is just a lie, and that in reality it's just that games are too damn hard to make nowadays. Games makers are feeling the pressure and having to create shells for their dreams instead of the fully realised product. All I'm saying is if there must be a compromise let's start seeing it in favour of gameplay over story, longetivity over one-off experiences, and online play over offline.

Maybe Mercenaries 2 will deliver instead!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Call of Duty: World at War: An early warning

The internet has become ablaze in recent days with talk and speculation regarding Call of Duty 5. It seems that only very few CoD4 players out there are aware of the background behind the CoD series and are therefore mostly ripe for what I predict to be a harsh sting/reality check later in the year (game is set for a November 2008 release at time of writing).

I figure that the more coverage the truth gets, the more likely people may slowly start to realise the sad truth. I am doing this for the sake of the gamers' collective! Drop any notions of a true Call of Duty 5 release this year! Forget the rumours, hype, YouTube hysteria and forum activity. Sure, Call of Duty: World at War has been announced... but CoD5 this is most certainly not.

There are several reasons for this. The main one is that Infinity Ward, makers of CoD1, 2, and 4, have nothing to do with CoD:WaW. A few years ago, Activision signed a deal with Infinity Ward that gave them a 2 year allocation to make CoD games. However, Activision, being the publisher, wanted a yearly roll out of CoD titles so turned to a second dev team, Trayarch, to work on the alternate years' releases. We saw this with CoD3, a very poor game. It lacked the magic feel of Ward's CoD titles and was inferior to CoD2 in every way.

World at War is a Treyarch game. It is also another WW2 Treyarch game. This should be enough of a heads up for seasoned gamers. It will be a highly linear, highly scripted piece of cheesy, sentimental, tripe. The story will aim to please children and that magic feel of CoD4 will be absent. It is a roll out product, and it will be CoD3 with new locations. DO NOT FALL FOR THE HYPE. Stick with CoD4 for your CoD fix until the true, Infinity Ward, title hits in 2009.

K thx.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Battlefield: Bad Company - an initial reaction

Well, my 360 just Red Ring of Death'd me. I had it for well over a year so what should I expect!? With the UPS man due tomorrow, I can now look back on my game time with EA's Battlefield: Bad Company and ponder. I guess you could call this a pre-emptive review, but it's not my intention to judge or weigh up EA's new FPS title just yet. This is really just my reaction to the recent demo released for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

If you have read my earlier post regarding my anticipation for this game, amongst others, then you will know that this is a game that is right up my alley; being a semi-realistic sandbox
FPS war game. Battlefield games are a mixed bag though. I never got into 2142 (did anyone?) and was very unimpressed by the console port that was Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. However, I was in love with Battlefield 1942 back in the day and, to a lesser extent, the popular modification, Destert Combat. On the PC, Battlefield 2 (not being the port) was also very tight. I still say it lacked the magic and sheer fun of 1942 but was still very good all round. This was primarily down to its well implemented squad system, large maps, and that 'war on terror' feel to the combat zones.

The demo of
Bad Company leaves a lot to be desired. If I was in a bad mood, I would probably tell you how shoddy and downright inept the game is shaping up to be. However, I can identify certain positive factors that are large enough to conclude this game might have sparkles of promise. I stress might. Whether it turns out to be a mess or a masterpiece now depends entirely on what DICE and EA are going to do with the critical community demo feedback.

My reaction to the single player this game is going to offer is lukewarm. Based solely on the demo, my impression is that it is nothing more than a slightly superfluous training element for the online action. It is heavily scripted, which is not something any of us associate with
Battlefield games. It is more than just fighting bots, but it essentially feels like a sandbox game being awkwardly blended in with scripted event triggers (kind of like an example of the bad missions in Operation Flashpoint). There are no squad controls, no means to select your kit, and very limited tactical considerations. I stress though that this is solely a reaction to the demo's single player level. However, from experience, I know that demos are often very good indications of a final product.

So then, the multiplayer. This is clearly about 95% of what the fuss is all about. I guess
DICE just fancied their hand at story telling as something to do when not coding the online component. The bottom line is that there are many, many, issues with this game as it stands. I can tell that these are not 'demo' issues but integral problems with the design and mechanics of how Bad Company works. In other words, they won't get fixed in a few weeks. This worries me as many of these issues are major, make or break, hiccups.

Firstly, as it stands
BC has absolutely no clan support. Just to be clear about this I want to repeat that. It has absolutely no, none, zilch, zero, support for clans. There is nowhere to add a player tag, form a basic clan emblem, or even a way to organise private clan matches. This is because everything relies on the dedicated servers hosted by EA. The closest thing BC has to a party mode is the squad invite feature in the custom game menu. You can only have up to four players in a squad. So it isn't really a true party mode. You then often find yourself being split up when you join a game. This is because team balancing seems to trump your private squad's existence. This forced splitting up happens a lot. It essentially means that the squad invite system is about as effective as sending manual invites whilst in game.

The second major problem with
BC relates to this squad system. When you don't start up your own squad and join a match solo you will randomly be assigned to a squad and have no way of leaving it or joining another. This is ludicrous. It breaks BC like a stone coming at it from high above and crunching through its disc case. Players will often be unresponsive, loud and obnoxious (O RLY?), or just not the sort of folk you want to roll with. DICE don't seem to be able to comprehend the fact that humanity has just not reached that evolutionary point where we will, without fail, always manage to cooperate with our fellow man.

When in your randomly assigned squad you CANNOT communicate with anyone else on your team. There is no proximity voice system (which would have been perfect for this game), no way to talk globally, and no means to send any form of message out to players outside of your 4 man unit. Console games have always been hindered online by the fact they cannot incorporate a talk bar. However, many games now show us how voice chat should be done. With
Xbox Live titles, there is simply no excuse for a poor comms system. It actually undermines the entire platform and just makes you look back to those days when you were running around El Alamein with 63 other players, whilst chatting on Teamspeak to your clan and spamming the talkbar with insults directed towards the noobz.

The communications are broken in
BC as is the squad mechanic. These are crucial weaknesses that EA/DICE seem to think they can just disregard and hope will fade the more times they tell you this game has a gold rush mode in and is 'all about the gold bars'. The premise of BC is Kelly's Heroes. Yeah, we get that already. Move on.

What BC does well it does very well. The sound is some of the very best I've heard in a game. Gun fire exceeds expectation as it is cinematic. I often say that but it is truly the case with
BC. But then again, DICE have always done a marvellous job with sound. Back in 1942, I remember the first time I heard the 'pop' of a distant explosion after several seconds had passed since the flash on the horizon. In BC, shots echo brilliantly and are nice and loud. So many games fail to get this right - GTA IV is a good example actually.

The destructible environment is impressive and takes a while to get used to. However, it's not integral to the way battles play out online. It is also apparent that the destruction is more limited than many had hoped for. Tanks can't plough through buildings as 'titanium' frames keep the body intact at all times. Walls will crumble and doors will give way but you can't seem to level locations in that way you know everyone is geared up to do. I say f*ck the considerations that restrict the destruction. It would be awesome to see full blown, 100%, destructible maps.

The unlocking/stat system looks good. It probably isn't going to impress you with its innovation though. It's basic but in a way this is good. As you rank up you earn credits and use these to unlock weapons. What I like is the way you can use your first credit to unlock anything you want; meaning no long waits for that particular weapon/gadget you want to test out. Graphically,
BC is gorgeous but so are most FPS games these days. Gold rush mode plays out very well and the combat itself if decent and very much true to the Battlefield games of the past.

The sniping is top notch stuff and reminds me of classic PC titles of the past (Delta Force series essentially). However, the game lacks a prone position. You can crouch but can't hit the deck soldier style or combat roll. This is another serious problem with the game as it feels wrong, and therefore it is wrong. I've heard of no satisfactory reason why it's not in
BC and if it doesn't make the final code (or patched code) I will be very concerned. Any outdoor environment shooter needs prone. This is like a rule of thumb. Where there are hills and fields there must be the ability to lie down in the dirt. I don't care what anyone says, crouch is no substitute. Crouch is for quick cover, prone is for sniping and... yes camping. In Battlefield games, camping is as valid an option for player as rushing. So, prone is needed. End of discussion.

You get the impression when playing the
BC demo that the problem with so many games so far this year has been that they just don't stack up to Call of Duty 4. Like many, I think I'm now only just beginning to realise quite how much of an outstanding job Infinity Ward done with it. It stands out as the gold standard and, although not perfect, acts as a marker developers like DICE need to acknowledge and aim for.

If the final game hasn't satisfactorily addressed the issues I have covered then I won't personally be picking up
BC. To be honest, I know from experience how it tends to play out - particularly when EA are concerned. They won't be addressed and the forum-based feedback will be largely ignored. The final game will be for those who find it fun running around solo and give no credence to any need for customisation options, clan battles, teamwork or even just playing with friends hindrance free. Essentially, it will be a streamlined EA product designed with bucks in mind and little else. I guess in a few weeks we will find out for sure.