Remember Me reviewed

Capcom's game has many memorable moments!

7.1 Surround Sound for the masses

Want cinematic sound quality? Then Mad Catz 720+ may be for you

DayZ: a new approach to survival horror

DayZ, a mod for Arma 2, is unlike any other horror game that came before

Best of the worst bad habits in gaming

Megabits of Gaming takes a look at five of its favourite gaming characters who have bad or slightly seedy habits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Megabits Column: Deus Ex Human Revolution

Megabits of Gaming contributes a monthly column in Charged Middle East – a leading Dubai-based gadgets and games magazine that provides news, reviews and features on the latest home and consumer electronics.

Each month, Megabits takes a look at a new release in a gaming franchise and considers how its evolved over the years and what makes it great!

Here’s the latest of the articles from the November 2011 issue. For more about the magazine, check out its Facebook page after the jump.

After a summer lull of epic proportions, it’s somewhat appropriate that one of the newly-released titles to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into subdued gamers is rightly being tipped as a Game Of The Year contender.

After a whopping 10-year hiatus, the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is being heralded as a classic and has accrued a healthy 89% rating from score aggregating site Metacritic.

As a hybrid of different genres there’s truly something for everyone. Depending on how you approach Human Revolution, it’s a stealth game or action shooter with RPG elements thrown in for good measure. Decisions you make have a bearing on your game… whether you agree to track down a crazed terrorist, save a downed pilot or help a mother mourning the death of her daughter, they all have consequences and affect future missions. Not only that, but how you choose to upgrade your powers and abilities as the game progresses will completely change the way you play.

Taking place some 25 years before the original Deus Ex, you step into the shoes of Adam Jensen, security chief for Sarif Industries, a biotech company that manufactures augmentations that improve the body’s performance, transforming people into superhumans. A terrorist attack on your employer’s headquarters leaves many dead, with Jensen only surviving after extensive surgery using the very augmentations he’s assigned to protect. With his shiny new cybernetic body he must track down the perpetrators, travel across the globe and negotiate a plot full of twists and turns along the way.

Sure Human Revolution looks great but it’s the living, breathing world that really deserves the plaudits. The gameworld is full of life with NPCs passing you by in the corridors or streets chatting away and going about their business. Police and security guards can be perfectly civil one moment, but if you draw a weapon or try to gain access to a restricted area then all hell breaks loose.

Earning these super powerful upgrades means you can take an all-guns-blazing approach and enhance Jensen with awesome add-ons like the ability to punch through walls or lift immense weight. Alternatively, you can take the stealthy option and buy augmentations for invisibility and silent footsteps. Hacking computers and completing side quests will earn XP and the vital Praxis kits – the currency used to improve your skills.

Human Revolution’s influences are clear. The soon-to-be rebooted fan favourite Syndicate - from Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog back in 1993 - was a landmark title that arrived to critical acclaim, engraining the cyberpunk world deep into gamers’ psyche a full seven years before the original Deus Ex. Negotiating a dystopia of the not-too-distant future, upgrading your characters with super-powered limbs and abilities, and using some high-tech weaponry has again been captured in Human Revolution’s 30 plus hours of gameplay.

Stealth also plays a huge part in the game – and features elements perhaps best captured in two games dating back to 1998, Thief: The Dark Project from Looking Glass Studios and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid. Metal Gear was arguably the game that took the stealth genre to a whole new level. Although hiding in a cardboard box is not in Jensen’s repertoire, hugging walls and scurrying through ventilation shafts is common practice in the new iteration of Deus Ex.

Perhaps though, the strongest and most impressive aspect of Eidos’ game is choice, and the many paths that open depending on your reaction and interaction with characters and objects. As a result, Human Revolution achieves what many developers have strived for over the years – immersion into the gaming world.

Choice is becoming an increasingly important facet of modern gaming, encouraging players to come back and take different paths and explore more. Molyneux attempted it with his Fable series (2004-2010), as have the two Bioshock games (2007-2010), with varying degrees of success. With Deus Ex, there’s so much to see and do, there’s huge incentive to replay the game as soon as the credits start rolling. The developers should be proud.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review - LEGO Harry Potter:Years 5-7

Before you even put the disc in the tray, anyone who has ever played one of the many LEGO games of recent years will know exactly what to expect. With LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 – 7, TT Games and Warner Bros have sprinkled a little Hogwarts magic and once again replicated the winning formula that has seen those little yellow block-headed characters slip seamlessly into the recognizable environments of our most-loved movie moments.

As the title suggests, Harry and his pals return in the follow-up to LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4, replacing the likes of Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker from all those other LEGO movie tie-ins. On this occasion the bespectacled one must negotiate many of the scenes and settings from the last four Harry Potter films and the three final books of the series, with loads of exploration, puzzles and the usual comedic cut scenes these titles are so good at.

From Privet Drive and Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade and new locales such as the Ministry of Magic and Godric’s Hollow, it’s up to you to rid the world of Harry’s old foe Lord Voldemort.

Numbers-wise, it’s all fairly impressive: 24 story events, 16 lessons to attend and 200 characters including Fenrir Greyback, Bellatrix Lestrange and Professor Slughorn await the eager gamer. Suffice to say, you’ll need perseverance to discover everything as there’s so much to see.

Solo player is fun enough but it’s the co-operative mode that really shines. The drop in/out mechanic once again works perfectly, the screen splitting when players stray too far from one another. Some puzzles or paths can only be accessed with certain characters and teamwork so it really is enjoyable with a partner.

This game is all about the puzzles, the building of LEGO contraptions and collecting those multi-coloured studs. Of course, you’ll also have to get to grips with your wand and become the ultimate wizard, flinging magic about like there’s no tomorrow and manipulating objects to continue along your path. Spells, potions, charms and wand waving become second nature in no time as you explore the vast gaming world and unlock loads of characters from the films. Attaining that 100% completion status remains an achievement for the committed. Although some accolades are a fair old slog, others are suitably silly (“Stand still with no controller input for 5 minutes” is an easy 20G, for example).

With each and every LEGO movie rendition, the graphics and effects seem to get better and better. Some of the locations are absolutely lovely to look at – crisp and colourful and crammed full of detail, while retaining the cartoony charm of the franchise. The camera also works really well, shifting about the play area so your view is never really obscured whether you’re playing the side scrolling sections or running towards the screen.

The sound effects and background music are also great, subtly matching the situation without being distracting – it’s really cinematic, with the tunes either calming when your characters are safe or increasing in tempo and urgency as the drama unfolds.

Although this game is almost identical to what we’ve seen before, there are some new additions, notably the changes to the combat with the new dueling skills that sees you draw your trusty wand and have a spell-casting fight with your opponent. Each showdown sees you face off against a baddie surrounded by a coloured ring. It’s up to you to cast the appropriately coloured spell and emerge victorious.

Of course, the simple gameplay is clearly aimed at a younger audience, but it still proves fun no matter what your age. There is absolutely loads to explore and interact with, and therefore plenty of reasons to replay even when the main game is completed and all those characters are unlocked. LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 – 7 is a worthy conclusion to the Potter phenomenon and worth buying if you enjoyed the others.

It looks and plays well, and is a great opportunity to share some time with family members or friends. The only real downside is that it really plays just the same as all the other LEGO games out there. There aren’t many surprises or innovations, it’s by no means taxing and even verges on being slightly repetitive. Still, the kids will love it – and they’re the prime audience afterall. Despite this slight criticism, we’d suggest you go ahead and pick up a copy as a rental would be pointless given the sheer size of the game and all the things to unlock. It's a magical game and great entertainment.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360

Dark Souls: We share your pain!

Dark Souls is the latest obsession at Megabits, and we're perpetually torn between hating the way we have to grind for hours on end just to make a millimetre of game progress, and loving the sense of tactical and strategic variety the game lets you explore, and the immense satisfaction you get when your latest ploy succeeds.

Still, more often than not, the game makes us feel like this very, very sweary guy. What's really interesting about this video is that this guy is having a fairly normal Dark Souls experience, despite the fact that he's completely confused shield blocking with shield parrying. That's right, Dark Souls is so difficult that even if you get the controls completely wrong, the game just can't kick your ar$e any harder...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ten ReasonsTo Love Deus Ex: HR

You know how much I loved Deus Ex – and how much I was looking forward to playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (it's an acquired taste though... check our review - Ed)? Well… having played through it again, I felt compelled to answer my previous Wishlist article with a top ten, as writing the word ‘Awesome’ ten times isn’t really very enjoyable for the reader – despite its accuracy.

With that in mind, here’s another Top Ten... the things I love about Deus Ex: Human Revolution!


10: Sunglasses/HUD
JC Denton looked cool, with his augmented blue eyes hidden behind dark shades (even though he looked a berk wandering around at night with them on), and Adam Jensen – Human Revolution’s protagonist – follows this trend – but while Denton can slip off his specs, Jensen has them bonded to his pointy-bearded face…

As well as looking damn cool, the glasses also allow Jensen’s augmented body to display health and armament information, a funky map and other assorted trivia. I’d quite like one in my day-to-day life… although it would need a ‘tea’ bar, rather than a ‘hit points’ bar…

9: Arm blades
Though impractical for opening a can of tuna, Jensen’s retractable arm blades looks cool – and are as deadly as you’d expect. Capable of extending forwards or backwards from his mid-forearm, the oddly square lengths of the blades can slice through enemies or doorways with ease, as well as looking pretty damn cool to boot. Shame it takes up one whole energy cell to use them!

8: Icarus Landing System
Icarus being a central theme of this game – flying too close to the sun and getting burned – the inclusion of the Icarus Landing System is rightfully sitting in my top ten. As both a useful life-saving device and aggressive method of stunning your enemies, the Icarus augment is a fantastically cool way to get around, sheathing Jensen in a ball of electricity as he plummets to the ground, before bringing him to a safe landing – and making him look badass at the same time. I find combining Icarus with the ‘Typhoon’ explosive system to be a great way to make an entrance…

7: Side missions
Aside from the main storyline, Human Revolution includes a huge number of side missions, which vary from criminal investigations to breaking-and-entering, assassinations and ‘gopher’ tasks. Of course, this being Deus Ex, each of the tasks can be tackled any number of ways – do you charm your way through the security gate, sneak in round the back, or kill everyone in the room? The choice is yours. My personal favourite was a murder investigation carried out in the bowels of Hengsha – a megacity off the coast of China. Atmospheric and exciting in equal measure…

6: ‘GlassShield’ cloaking system
Who wouldn’t want to be able to turn invisible at the drop of an augmented hat? Yes, Jensen’s ‘GlassShield’ cloaking device is the infiltrating agent’s best tool, combining complete invisibility with the ability to pass through the game’s many laser grids, dodge probing robots and – of course – look awesome as you punch enemies to the floor, their shocked expressions a sure sign of their fear.

5: Malik/The HeliJet
Deus Ex had the Black Helicopter and it’s New Yoiker pilot, Jock, Human Revolution has the Helijet, and it’s wisecracking, soulful pilot Farida Malik. Damn, I want one of those. Just to tootle around in. Imagine showing up at your friend’s house in a helijet, crushing the flowerbeds as you set down. Of course, provided it had as interesting a character as Farida Malik in the flight deck, I’d probably never land. It also reminds me of Thunderbirds’ helijets as well...

4: Soundtrack/Nods to Deus Ex
Deus Ex was known for its atmospheric music, which added character and depth to the myriad locations JC Denton travelled to, from bars in New York to chateaus in France. Human Revolution continues this trend, offering a wide selection of musical themes for Jensen’s travels, most of which match the mood of the map perfectly. For me, though – as a long-time Deus Ex fan – I was overjoyed at Square-Enix’s stellar fan-service, after I discovered than in-game radios occasionally play tracks from the original Deus Ex, and NPCs sometimes whistle the Deus Ex theme – and at one point, right at the start, the game’s soundtrack jumps back to the opening of the previous game, just for a moment. Made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up….

3: Plot
Human Revolution’s plot, which covers the nature of humanity, evolution and civil unrest alike, was a well-written exciting affair, which kept me hooked for hours. Although too little was made of the ‘hand behind the throne’ which underpins the story, and the twist was let down by pretty poor characterisation, I still loved the game’s cyberpunk, murder-mystery chase through the underbelly of a world on the brink of a new age.

2: Locations
As the plot is so fantastic, it’s no surprise that the locations the game takes you to are also brilliant. Starting out in the former motor-city of Detroit, Human Revolution’s sweeping story takes you to China, Canada and several other places I’ll keep secret for now. Each location has its own feel, be it the dirty, decrepit city of Detroit – where beggars search the bins in the shadow of industry skyscrapers – or the vertical city of Hengsha. Hengsha is by far my favourite location – a sprawling city atop a city, where the rich and powerful sit amid an endless sky – and the downtrodden poor are conveniently forgotten in the warrens of the lower city.

1: Characters
As with any good story, the heart of Human Revolution revolves – first and foremost – around its characters. In a world of grey, where right and wrong are blended into one whole, these people offer Adam Jensen (who is himself something of a mysterious character, being as dark as the world around him) advice and guidance – or misdirection and misuse, if you prefer. From David Sarif, the brilliant – if misguided – visionary of augmented evolution, to the strident voices of the terrorists (or ‘freedom fighters’) fighting for or against the evolution of humanity, each of Human Revolutions’ characters is dripping in personality, and a fantastic addition to the world of 2027.

Of course, Jensen is also a fine dancer… (the action really hots up one minute in to the video!)

Review - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Hey, check it, transhumanism! I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution is trying to be an ominous prophecy of the dangerous melding of flesh and machine. The thing is that I don’t know if that’s so much a future thing than a present thing. We’re already being augmented with laser eye surgery, replacement limbs, Taylor Lautner’s hair and other things that cannot be considered natural in any way, shape or form. Are mechanical 2-foot arms concealing 6-foot blades that much more unethical than Tiger Woods’ enhanced eyesight? We’re already uploading our music collections to the Cloud, so is uploading our consciousness to Amazon that far removed? Bring on the mothatrucking singularity, folks!

I have much adoration for Human Revolution in attempting to let players pick sides in the maybe-edgy issue of man and machine becoming one. But the problem with the game’s approach is that the main character is a half-man-half-machine-all-cop who stabs sentries with his humerus knives and conceals sunglasses behind his orbital bone. So the game is already innately inching players towards “augmentations are f#@king badass!” The only rebuttal the game offers to that argument is that your character can only stab as many people as he has charged batteries in…wherever it is he places batteries. Also, he replenishes his battery power with chocolate bars. So if you’re anti-obesity, I guess you’re also anti-transhumanism.

Deus Ex stars Adam Jensen, a security guy for whom emergency augmentation surgery transforms him from generic brooding soldier to generic brooding soldier with Blades of Steel and a giant arrow above his head screaming “I have a shocking secret.” Until he figures out that secret secret, he’s going to help the augmentation company he works for figure out whom was behind the terrorist attack that cost him his boring human arms. I don’t think I’d call the plot itself especially interesting, and anyone that heard a thing or two about a thing or two about Deus Ex 1 already knows what the Big Reveal is.

But it’s the world itself that makes Human Revolution intriguing. This game’s version of the post-machine future is as weird as you’d think it is. Implants are fetishized, machine-based drugs are causing an addiction pandemic, augmented people are hated by the general population due to sheer envy of their awesomeness, corporations are more evil and sinister than ever, and I don’t think the sun exists anymore. It’s fascinating to explore the various settings, see the curious augmentation advertisements, hack into computers and learn the culture of each company. (Hint: people are either angry, scared, or pulling porn spam pranks that were comical in 1999.) You do learn very quickly, that no one in the future is capable of remembering passwords, and must rely on sending themselves and their coworkers e-mails and hoping that their rivals don’t have a Level 4 Hacking skill.

Very critical disclaimer: the Deus Ex franchise has never been kind to me. Deus Ex 1 is such a pure combination of action and RPG elements the likes of which I can never be made to comprehend. When I aim my handgun pointblank at someone’s temple, I feel cheated when a dice roll based on my firearms rating sides with temple. I’m so inept at bizarre stat-based action RPGs, I couldn’t even get into the dumbed down, baby’s first conspiracy thriller in that Deus Ex sequel. Human Revolution’s hardest difficulty setting is labeled as “Give Me Deus Ex”, and I shrieked! No! Please! Don’t give me too much Deus Ex. I’m Deus Ex Intolerant. I could cramp up real bad.

So I set the difficulty to the easiest given choice, “Give Me A Story.” I assumed that the game would dumb itself down enough that I could just breeze through the Deus Exey parts and admire Adam Jensen’s vicious arm blades. However, I quickly learned that I was misled. Cybernetic implants do little to keep my vitals free of enemy lead, it seems, and death is swift and frequent. Really, the one aspect of the game that was noticeably dumbed down was how the number of hack attempts given to break into any given machine would never diminish. So at the least, I felt comfortable that I could take all the time in the world breaking into a laptop and find all the penis augmentation spam ads I desired.

I also noticed that the game presented a more seamless and intelligent combination of those action and RPG elements that made me previously dread receiving more Deus Ex. When I aimed at someone’s head, I was kiiiiiiind of certain that one of those bullets would stay within my aiming reticle, in spite of any and all imaginary dice rolls. Your character isn’t leveling up a series of numbers that loosely resemble one’s ability to swim faster. You are making upgrade choices that have a practical and immediate impact on how you play.

For example, when you decide to purchase an upgrade that lets you punch through walls, suddenly all of these walls begin to glow, and new paths appear. Actually, I was so impressed with the might of my steel knuckles that I would smash through every wall smashable, regardless of relevance to my quest or guards with working eardrums. Most upgrade choices have a very real, practical impact on how the game is played. Suddenly, new paths open, stealth and/or gunplay become more plausible, and there are walls that have no business being left unpunched.

The game’s first few hours are among the most frustrating, if only because so many paths and options are blocked off on account of your lack of iron fists and poor stats. Every Praxis Point spent counts. A Praxis Point spent practically makes you feel like a genius for running into a enemy gun turret that can be hacked or a wall that can be haymakered. (And I was giving many self-high-fives for that wall punch upgrade.) A Praxis Point spent impractically is aggravating. Avoid the “cone of vision” upgrade. Despite what you want to think, this game is not Metal Gear Solid; enemies have a field of vision wider than three feet ahead of them, and stealth requires a bit of thought and luck. Many of my early Praxis Point decisions were spent on trying to make my personal Adam Jenson not suck, in such areas as more inventory space or better hacking skills or such. By the end of the game, almost every area you want upgraded will be covered and you’ll have a mechanical jack of all trades.

Actually, the real worst moments are the boss fights, where you have to deal with superhumans with much more health and munitions than you unloading all of those health and munitions unto your iron pancreas. I had specced my character to be more firearms-friendly, on the easiest difficulty no less, and I was still finding myself cybermurdered repeatedly. I still had to do an awful lot of loading and saving every time I escaped 5 seconds of the boss fight with my head and sexy knuckles intact.

Endings are kind of dull, too.

Still, the biggest shock about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that I actually found myself kind of half-liking it. There was a great deal of growing pains as I struggled to wrap my mind around the benefits of hacking computers or not murdering guards. But the game did manage to make all of its ideas click, by hook or by cybernetic crook. Not every person should play Human Revolution, but the person who wants nothing handed to them but the opportunity to make several unpleasant gameplay choices perhaps should.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Megabits Column: Dead Island

Megabits of Gaming contributes a monthly column in Charged Middle East – a leading Dubai-based gadgets and games magazine that provides news, reviews and features on the latest home and consumer electronics.

Each month, Megabits takes a look at a new release in a gaming franchise and considers how its evolved over the years and what makes it great!

Here’s the latest of the articles from the October 2011 issue. For more about the magazine, check out its Facebook page after the jump.

Sun cream? Check. Swimming shorts? Check. Currency? Absolutely. Shotgun ammo? Eyes in the back of your head? Survival instinct? You’d better hope you’ve not forgotten these... otherwise, Dead Island is one holiday destination you may not need a return ticket from!

What better way to get away from all the stresses and strains of everyday life than to retreat to an island paradise, knowing that your only worry is working out how best to while away the hours enjoying the sun, sea and surf? Oh, and how best to fend off the hundreds of marauding zombies that have taken over the once idyllic resort.

Dead Island from Deep Silver and Techland transports us to the luxury Royal Palms resort on the picturesque isle of Banoi in the South Pacific when calm quickly descends into chaos. After a night of heavy drinking you awake to find the place in turmoil; the hotel has been ransacked, suitcases looted and bodies are strewn about the place. Somehow you’ve survived a zombie outbreak – now you just have to ensure it stays that way!

As one of four playable characters, this is all about survival of the fittest as you negotiate the vast island and its varied terrain, looking for answers and wielding as many makeshift weapons as possible.

What appears at first glance appears to be a shooter actually has RPG elements, and requires you to scour the resort for weapons, collect money and complete missions for XP to upgrade your character’s skills and abilities. Completing set tasks or helping stranded holidaymakers unlocks more missions. Imagine a combination of Borderlands, Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead and you’ll get the idea.

Zombie games have been spreading almost as rapidly as the very pandemic that features in them. The past few years have been positively full of them, the successful combination of action, puzzle solving and seat-of-your-pants gameplay.

From Dead Rising 2 and Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare to the zombie maps of Call of Duty Black Ops, gamers have shown their appreciation with their wallets over the past year and continued to hand over their hard-earned cash for some zombie-slaying carnage. There’s something profoundly appealing about blowing the heads off the undead or lopping off the odd limb; maybe it’s the fact it’s guilt free... it’s them or you, and they’re dead anyway.

The shuffling hordes have been synonymous with computers and consoles for decades, with prime examples dating back to 1984 with the 8-bit classics Zombie Zombie and The Evil Dead on the C64 and ZX Spectrum. One of the greatest zombie cameos was the titular pirate in the seminal 1991 point and click classic Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge – a lovable rogue dead set on getting the better of Guybrush Threepwood.

But it was arguably Capcom’s Resident Evil that breathed life into the survival horror genre and set the benchmark in 1996. In the original game, the zombies were little more than the slow, shuffling type and posed little real threat.

By 2008 and they had evolved somewhat with Left 4 Dead and its sequel a year later stacking the odds very much in their favour. Valve’s epic was all about volume and speed – loads of the undead, many of which would actually run at you. Not only did this add tension and shock value to the proceedings but it also set up some fantastic opportunities for melee combat and co-op play.

Dead Island has clearly taken inspiration from many of its predecessors. Within moments of walking outside, you’ll find yourself reaching for an oar, bottle, knife or bat to fend off your attackers just like in Left 4 Dead. Then there’s a hint of Dead Rising 2 thrown into the mix too... every so often you’ll come across a workshop where you can splice together objects to make more powerful weapons.

Zombie games are nothing new but they’ve adapted and changed as the years have passed. With Dead Island, some of the best bits have been pulled together, feeding even the most bloodthirsty of appetites.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Review - Need for Speed: The Run

Jack Rourke is in a spot of bother. He’s upset some powerful people and needs to come up with some cash fast. Just as luck would have it, he’s able to line up for a race across the US from San Francisco to New York. The prize? A cool $25m! Imagine an interactive Fast and Furious movie and you kind of get the kind of idea of EA's Need for Speed: The Run. The story is never going to win any awards but it sets up a mad dash through the various US states and throws up all kinds of varied environments and challenges. It's cheesy but good, clean fun.

Before playing this, a 3000 mile race across the continent conjured up the notion of a hardcore driver's dream; it would take you or I several days to traverse the US so, in these days when realism plays such a vital role in gaming, you'd expect a decent challenge - perhaps a WEC Le Mans style race requiring a couple of days of constant playtime. You'd at least expect to dedicate some 30+ hours to crossing that finishing line. Not so. In fact, after all the stages are complete, you're informed that your total race time - excluding cut scenes - amounts to a total of just over two hours!

Still, The Run is an entertaining game and, unlike some of those more realistic hardcore racers, it kept me glued to the screen throughout thanks to its fast cars, police chases and mobsters...

After a pretty feeble attempt at QTE in the opening few minutes, when our hero's plight is explained and we have to mash the controller's buttons to escape a car crusher, you hit the road in an attempt to thwart 200 other drivers who are also eyeing that incredibly lucrative prize.

You start by picking from a handful of vehicles – each with different styling and handling – and before long will be zooming along the highways, taking in some spectacular vistas. Stop off at a nearby gas station and there’s the option to switch your car for something that may be more suited to the current race and the road conditions. There are plenty to choose from: sports cars, muscle cars and exotic cars can be accessed, with more available as you overtake rivals later in the game. From Lotus and Porsche to Audi and Nissan, there are loads of lovely looking vehicles packed in there. Their handling varies greatly and they all look suitably shiny and authentic. Light shines off their bonnets, the engines emit a reassuring roar and damage is shown - albeit temporarily - as you pass each stage's finish line.

They can be tricky to drive too. Run over leaves in the autumnal stages, or linger on your handbrake a little too long in the snowier settings and your car will slide about as you try to regain control. Shoot off the road or hit an obstacle and you're confronted by a short replay of your crash and encouraged to try again from the last checkpoint.

But although collisions, crashes, roadblocks and mobsters' gunfire result in damage to your vehicle, it's all a little pointless as the car undergoes some rapid maintenance between stages so that you're driving a shiny new model seconds later. It all seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, as driving with a fender hanging off or a wonky bonnet would have discouraged me from using walls or passing drivers to slow down and corner rather than my brakes.

Each stage is split into challenges, some requiring you to gain position, pass certain opponents before the clock ticks down or reach checkpoints within a time limit. If you fall too far behind or screw up in some way, there's always the option to restart that section - although replay attempts are finite. This sometimes makes stages tricky, especially when the game is overly fussy about how much you can stray off track. Be warned, lengthy loading times can be frustrating and the regular restarts do prove a slightly irritating.

QTE raises its ugly head occasionally to explain some of the plot, requiring a button press when prompted. It’s tedious and little fun but does break up the unavoidable repetitiveness of driving. It certainly didn't grate as much as some critics have suggested - it's only employed on a few occasions afterall.

XP is awarded when you complete each section of the race, as well as for jumps, near misses and overtaking rivals in a dirty, clean or rapid fashion. The points total sees you regularly rank up, earning you new vehicles, speed boosts and so on. It also helps you climb the leaderboard, with EA again using its fantastic Autolog feature so you can compare your performance with that of your friends.

On this occasion Black Box (of Need for speed: Undercover fame) replaces Criterion (responsible for Hot Pursuit) and does a fairly decent job. The Run makes good use of DICE's Frostbite 2 engine for the car physics and damage, and it all looks really great as you swerve about at high speed. Problem is, there's very little to keep you coming back once the core campaign is complete.

Online multiplayer offers some replayability, and then there are harder difficulty settings and plenty of separate Challenge modes, with medals awarded depending on your performance. But I wonder how much time you'll spend on this when you've finished your first playthrough.

The latest addition to the Need for Speed lineup is a fun but brief experience, and one that this reviewer certainly enjoyed. But although it pretty much ticks all the boxes, it comes up a little short seeing as you're paying full price for only a few hours' play.

Reviewed on the Xbox 360

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: X-Men: Destiny

One looks back at the lineage of X-Men games over the years, and sees that it’s a flimsy one. There have been great games, there have been less than great games. One can make the argument that the future for all mutantkind progressed as a species once LJN got their mitts off the franchise. But the one consistent fact about all of those titles is that they only have a skin-deep understanding of X-Men’s themes. You are with the good mutants, Magneto is with the bad mutants, you let the optic blasts sort out the rest. That Konami arcade game might fit into this group, I dunno, I remember Magneto welcoming me to die and maybe falling in a trap or two but that’s about it. There’s never any kind of attempt to explore the themes of racism that the (good) bits of X-Men fiction are so known for addressing.

So kudos to X-Men: Destiny for at least trying to take a gander at the ideas of segregation within the franchise. The game opens with a rally of some kind to unite all the people of different skin colours under one person that will obviously turn out to be the villain. Bad things happen, Race A blames the problems on Race B, and tensions fly. The player controls one of three plebian mutants that gets involved in the conflict, and can (in theory) choose to side with the X-Men’s Martin Luther King Jr. approach to racial conflict or Malcolm X-it-up with the brotherhood, serving the Honorable Elijah Magneto...

…or that’s how things appear at the onset. There’s a meter at the pause menu that fills up in favour of the X-Men or Brotherhood based on whose missions you choose to do. However, the mission structure never changes much. Good or evil, you are still beating up legions of the same bad guys. I guess they affect which muties fights alongside you. They probably affect which bosses you fight, but I went with the pro-X-Men path and I still spent more time fighting fellow X-Men than I did the Brotherhood threat.

See, the game does that Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 trick of teasing a moral choice based on thought-provoking themes, but then pairing both sides of the conflict against a common generic force of evil trying to destroy the world. So the “pick a side on this touchy issue” business means nothing in the end and serves to make me feel stupid for writing those first two paragraphs in this review. The loot drops and rewards for quests seem to be randomly generated too and have no basis in your moral choices. Maybe the Brotherhood ending is different from the X-Men ending, I have no way of finding out since I can’t seem to find that ending on Youtube. I sure as shit ain’t beating this game twice. So really, the difference between choosing between one side over the other is a matter of whether you find polygonal Emma Frost sexier than polygonal Mystique.

So you either choose to play as a hokey football jock, a hokey Asian stereotype or a guy that looks like a hokey football jock. You then choose whether you want your drone to have energy blast powers, shadow blade powers or rock hand powers. The three choices lead to different ability unlocks later in the game, but all amount to the exact same type of God of War-derivative style of action combat that dominates the entire game.

The combat itself is competent, if a tad imprecise and clunky. Rare is the confrontation that your mutant can’t keep his or her archtypical ass up and thrive. There’s one boss fight that comes in three stages, with no checkpoints or health power-ups, that stood out as one obscenely difficult challenge in a series of otherwise breezy and repetitive fights. I’m at least willing to karmatically forgive that specific part of the game thanks to a more interesting boss battle with a very giant, very nimble, very fly Sentinel. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that you will indeed fight a giant Sentinel. That one boss fight is really the game’s one other strong point, besides how the game’s script and voice acting can sometimes be so hilariously, unintentionally bad.

See, the game uses that God of War-derivative combat as the answer to every question. Did you just walk into a new room? Stop and beat up these 50 enemies within 3 minutes. Did you decide you’d rather accept a bonus mission from your broski Colossus instead that poser Quicksilver? Here’s a combat arena with two or three of that flamethrower mini-bosses. Did you try to explore the environment looking for hidden secrets? Here’s a combat arena as a reward. Just finished the game? Be treated to the largest combat arena of them all as the end credits roll. Over and over and over again, you will be locked in a room and asked to defeat X number of the same human goons the X-Men are sworn to protect. The only time you aren’t beating up human beings and reinforcing negative mutant stereotypes is spent climbing and speed-shimmying along ledges that are so brief and easy to navigate that they don’t exist for any reason other than to give your knuckles a break from jaw-cracking.

There’s a loot system that seems to randomly generate “X-genes” as rewards for exploring or doing way more combat arenas than the game forces you into. These power-ups are named and based after various characters, so you can give your character Colossus-like steel skin or Iceman-like…err…ice skin, or what have you. It’s nice that the game has SOME kind of character progression, but it feels immoral that your dullard protagonist can casually steal the unique identity traits of iconic characters that are infinitely more interesting than they are. And that leads to the greatest lesson that needs to be learned from this experience.

Call it the DC Universe Online quandary. It’s obvious that Silicon Knights spent a lot of time designing character models for all of the X-Men, as well as moves and effects so they can fight alongside your character. So why are we not controlling the X-Men themselves instead of these three new generic imitators? Once upon a time, Electronic Arts made a spectacular failure called Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. That was a very middling game where Marvel characters battle Electronic Arts-created heroes. All of the EA heroes came across as cheap knockoffs that will never be seen in another video game, comic, movie or Playboy spread again. No superhero I could ever create will ever come across as more intriguing than Nightcrawler, nuanced as Magneto or Canadian as Wolverine, so please give me the real deal.

If I want to make my own dream superhero, City of Heroes just went free to play. Champions Online is free to play. DC Universe Online is free to play. Putting a pencil to a piece of paper and writing my own comic books is free to play.

This is neither an especially noteworthy action adventure, nor the ideal use of the X-Men license you are looking for. It’s also sadly not the comeback I was hoping Silicon Knights would make, though I guess the Silicon Knights that made Blood Omen and Eternal Darkness are too busy raising families and enjoying life to make anymore dark fantasy action titles. Go play X-Men Legends. Go play X-Men Legends 2. Go play the X-Men Origins: Wolverine video game. Go even play that wackyass Konami beat-em-up on XBLA. I promise they’re all much better than this.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Resident Evil 4 HD

Un forestara!

Being marginally more mature than the average gamer, we at Megabits are very fond of remakes and rereleases. Long gone are the days when we lived in a sweaty bedsit with five consoles from three generations. We need space for vases and candlesticks and other decorative but not very interactive stuff, and we can’t afford to store 15 year old consoles on the off chance that the urge to replay Shadow of the Collossus might strike.
Consequently, the trend towards remakes has us very pleased. Ocarina of Time, Ico, and Halo have all been dusted off and reworked for modern consoles lately, along with one of our favourite games of all time, Resident Evil 4.

When Resi 4 hit the PS2 and Gamecube in 2005 it had all the good stuff from the Resi series: expansive, detailed and varied environments, numerous weapons, scary villains, and a plot that delivered a constant drip feed of satisfying progress. But it built on them. There was an RPG element to the weapon upgrade system, the clunky controls had been polished, and the old pre-rendered backgrounds had been replaced with a dynamic environment that allowed you to manipulate character and camera within a 3D world, rather than just chugging about, tank-style, in front of the backdrops. It felt like the future of gaming. Which just goes to show how quickly things change.

Resident Evil 4 HD, the game’s Xbox 360 rerelease, feels very dated. It may have been tweaked for modern HD screens, but you won’t notice. Edges are blurry, text is jagged and textures are a mess of embiggened pixels. On top of that, the controls are far from intuitive and the camera is downright resistant, fighting back against your attempts to control it, bucking like a rodeo mustang as you desperately try to find out where the next threat is coming from.

Resident Evil games have traditionally had poor controls, and when Resi 4 became the first to abandon the old tank-style steering it felt like such a leap forward that we didn’t really notice that none of the controls felt quite natural. You can’t miss the fact these days, however. Aim with a right trigger, shoot with a face button? Try it and you’ll see how much your muscle memory has been trained by games built around a more intuitive LT aim, RT fire system.

It’s been a while since we’ve been able to sit and list complaints about a game so easily, but the really impressive thing about Resident Evil 4 HD is that none of these gripes actually matters. We don’t mean that you’ll enjoy the game enough to grudgingly forgive them. We mean you’ll enjoy the game so much that you’ll quickly stop noticing them at all. This is a game so good that no amount of small failings can take the shine off it.

The sense of progression as you move from secluded village to ancient castle, to deserted island and secret lab is enough to make you feel like you’re constantly achieving your goals. The sheer variety of environments you’ll wander through and the desire to collect every scrap of loot will encourage you take an interest in every corner of the game, and the set-piece battles rank among the finest ever programmed.

While Resident Evil 4 marked the series’ first step away from survival horror towards a more action-oriented design, it still manages to muster plenty of tension. The implacable advance of armed and angry villagers is enough to make your stomach flutter, while the nigh invulnerable chainsaw wielders and gibbering hosts will genuinely have you white-knuckled on the controller.

The game’s ability to successfully balance tension and action and place the result within an interesting and puzzle filled environments is what makes it such fun , but in these straitened times, Resi 4 HD also offers value for money-you get the original story, the Seperate Ways and Operation Ada add on campaigns, and the score-attack Mercenaries extra. Even speedy gamers will find that they get a good 25 to 30 hours play out of that lot, and of course, Resi 4 is good enough to be replayed multiple times.

In all honesty, the Wii edition remains the definitive version of RE 4, but RE4 HD runs it a very close second, containing all the same content and compensating for its lesser controls with a slew of achievements. If you haven’t played RE4 before, you owe it to yourself to play it and see what you’re missing. If you have played before and are wondering whether you can justify playing again, trust us, it’s as good as you remember, and it now dishes out 1000GS as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review - Sesame St: Once Upon A Monster

Microsoft’s Kinect camera was made for the likes of Once Upon A Monster. Developed by Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions and published by Warner Bros, this is purely aimed at children and gives them the opportunity to leap into a living storybook featuring all their favourite Sesame Street characters. To do this review justice I therefore had to recruit the services of my three year old daughter who was very excited at the prospect of playing with Cookie Monster, Oscar, Grover and of course Elmo.

Now she’s an absolute novice regarding video games and has never so much as grabbed a controller so this game not only had to be easy to play but work effectively with Kinect. Both of these essential requirements were met admirably, with Once Upon A Monster proving instantly accessible to even the smallest of gamers.

Our heroes Elmo and Cookie Monster have come across a magical picture book and as luck would have it, it’s possible to leap into the pages and become part of the story. Cue plenty of opportunities to dance, jump and leap through six fun-filled chapters, interacting with the Sesame Street characters and walking through the many colourful environments. The many mini games see you complete various tasks ranging from dressing up monsters, flying, running along avoiding obstacles and playing musical instruments.

It’s aimed at up to two players (of any age – although probably best if one is under 5!) and the drop in/out co-op gameplay allows regular breaks if needed. Bear in mind, it’s a pretty active game too and bound to get you puffing (and ensure children get tired out too).

Kinect picks up your movements and actions admirably, with the various mini games each having easy to understand instructions and clear voice commands and animations to explain the controls. Kinect’s microphone is used to good effect too and means the game relies on more than just your movement.

As each task is completed, stars are earned; every page can be then revisited as players try to improve and earn more stars. It’s original and fun, and for the most part kept both me and my daughter engrossed.

The whole thing has been designed with help from the Sesame Workshop, an educational organization behind the Sesame Street show. Once Upon A Monster allows children to learn how to make friends, work together and, importantly for a three-year old girl, realise that there are such things as friendly monsters!

Being controller free, the game is obviously entirely reliant on the sensitivity of Kinect and its ability to track your child as they jump about. It all works pretty well although on occasion the tracking was visibly off. Fortunately, the game is quite forgiving. Another issue was the fact that little people rarely stay still for any period of time and getting my daughter to stay in roughly the right spot during some of the activities proved a little tricky; her indifference at flapping her arms to fly was however, outweighed by the fun she had running through the woods and avoiding logs and branches. For her, the fun activities certainly exceeded any slightly less interesting ones.

The games are many and varied, and thankfully last only a few minutes apiece, which helps to maintain the interest levels.

If you don’t have a child, this game is clearly not for you; it’s short and there’s little challenge for anyone much taller than a metre high. The ease with which you can clear the various stages should also be a factor when considering a purchase... at full price, you have to question whether you’d get value for money from the game. I would, however, argue that it offers a fair amount of replayability.

There aren’t many games aimed at this age range and it’s thoroughly refreshing to find one that allows me to play on the 360 with my daughter without worrying about violence or foul language. Another bonus is that there are no complex controls to master. Once Upon A Monster is an interactive version of the popular TV show that many of us grew up with – and it’s great seeing the characters come to life in front of your eyes. It’s heartily recommended.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Video: Proof That FIFA 12 Is Realistic

We at Megabits are great fans of the FIFA series and loved the latest instalment. With such a packed roster of players and matches that feature realistic movements and skills, we never had any doubt that EA's footy game was an accurate rendition of the beautiful game.

If any of you out there had doubts, however, check out this video... It just goes to show that they've captured the some of the world's top players perfectly. Here's an homage to England international Emile Heskey.

Review: Sonic Generations

Few people, myself included, thought that we’d ever see SEGA’s spiky blue hedgehog return to form and give those other gaming mascots a run for their money once again. But just as the old fella reaches his 20th birthday, he dusts off his trademark trainers and marks the event with the release of Sonic Generations. Thankfully, we can all breath a collective sigh of relief as the latest addition to his long list of self-titled outings is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that will leave his fans grinning from ear to ear. Even the 3D segments are fun to play – unlike many of his recent appearances (yeah, we’re looking at you, Sonic Unleashed!)

The opening movie sees Sonic’s cutesy friends springing a surprise birthday party on our hero. But all too quickly, the celebrations turn to chaos when all his animal chums are sucked through strange time portals by some angry-looking demonic creature. It’s then up to the world’s most famous blue mammal to tie up those shoelaces, rev up those legs and race off to find them.

The time holes not only transport our hero back to the past but also see him cross paths with his older self, opening up the opportunity for SEGA to not only to make use of some of the best bits of the series but also to give us the chance to step into the shoes of both classic 2D Sonic, with his trademark spin-dash attack, and his modern self with his Sonic Boost move. This epic journey is a tribute to all those past escapades, taking him back to some old haunts with all those familiar ramps, platforms, springs and loops. The game is heavily influenced by Sonic’s past exploits and features reworked levels from his various games over the past 20 years, from the original 1991 Megadrive classic to the more recent Unleashed and Colours.

Each zone is split into halves, one is classic 2D fare with the side-scrolling levels providing old Sonic a chance to stretch his legs, while the other is largely a 3D affair. Beyond these two-part Acts and boss levels, side missions and challenges can be accessed through the main hub menu.
The landscapes are many and varied, from Seaside Hill and Sky Sanctuary to Rooftop Run and Planet Wisp. Each has numerous routes, hidden Red Star rings, and bonuses to collect – and every single stage is ridiculously fast! Despite his advancing years, the old boy certainly hasn’t slowed down!

Being a Sonic fan since his debut all those years ago, Green Hill Zone remains a firm favourite in Generations, harking back to the days of old but revamped with plenty of twists, turns and tunnels. But for me, it’s the City Escape zone that perhaps deserves the plaudits. The classic Sonic portion is well worked but it’s the modern 3D level that will bring many a fond memory from Dreamcast owners, as we smash through cars and skate down sloping San Francisco-like streets. City Escape sees you chased by a crazed trucker like in the classic Spielberg movie DUEL.

It looks awesome, with the juggernaut zooming between the fore- and background as Sonic sprints to the finish line (the driver has some cool buzz saws at his disposal in the 3D version too, which makes everything a little more hectic!). Grab a skateboard and things seem to get even faster, but it doesn’t matter – the camera zooming in and out to cater for the unrelenting velocity. It’s a really well-worked level, with the two stages offering a really nice blend of old and new.

There are plenty of stages, and improving scores and completing the various sections unlocks upgrades, artwork and and allows access to the original Sonic game – it’s an awesome package for fans.

Beyond the main single player game, there are also two new modes: 30 Second Trial and Ranking Attack. The former is exactly as the name suggests, giving the player just half a minute to see how far they can race through a level. A marker is then set down and you and friends can try to better it. Simple but addictive fun. The Ranking Attack mode challenges players to complete a stage as fast as possible with their score posted to an online leaderboard; compare your times and try to beat everyone else’s.

There’s plenty packed onto this disc to keep you occupied and there’s always the urge to find hidden routes, improve your scores and collect as many rings as possible. The hidden Red Star Rings and challenges certainly add to the replayability factor.

After years of promise, Sonic is back to his best. Sonic Generations captures exactly what SEGA’s iconic character is all about. This is a brilliant game with something for everyone; it’s fast, there’s plenty to do and loads to bring a smile to your face – especially if you were one of those gamers who were with him when he started his journey two decades ago.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review - Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The rousing success of 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves left Naughty Dog in a slight predicament. On one hand the studio had created a masterful sequel that improved on its highly capable predecessor in every department; it was a cinematic thrill ride that subsequently set the benchmark for all action adventure games. On the other, our expectations for the inevitable third instalment were now stratospheric.

Naughty Dog has made no secret of the intense pressure it is under to deliver with Drake’s Deception. Much of this is of course self-imposed due to the impeccably high standards the developer has set for itself. But Uncharted now has an allegiant fan base that expects number three to eclipse one of this generation’s finest titles. Nathan Drake’s latest adventure is certainly under intense scrutiny. Among Thieves passed the “difficult second album” test with flying colours and to universal appraisal. However, in all forms of media we’ve witnessed a triumphant sequel later followed by an altogether less inspiring outing. Drake’s Deception doesn’t disappoint because of a lack of effort or care poured in to it, but it’s missing that magic that marked the evolutionary leap from the first to the second incarnations of the series. Perhaps then it’s to its testament - that despite the almost inevitable failure to have a similar impact as its esteemed forbearer – it’s still a very good game.

Much of Uncharted’s appeal lies in the superb characterisation of its protagonists. Nathan Drake may indeed be a cocksure, wise-cracking lead, but he’s fundamentally an affable sort of bloke. Despite the spiralling body count and explosive Hollywood inspired set pieces, he’s far from the generic muscle-bound action heroes we’ve become all too accustomed to. He makes mistakes. His vulnerability is often exposed. And, most tellingly in Drake’s Deception, he starts to question his own motives. Although this sits at complete odds with the relentless gunplay, it’s refreshing to control a character that - at least in part - you can relate to. Gears of War’s testosterone fuelled killing machines do their job peerlessly, but the ill conceived Dom and Maria saga in GOW2 all but proved that storytelling is far from the series’ strongpoint.

This isn’t the case with Drake’s Deception. Although combat is adequate, almost every facet of it has been produced to greater effect elsewhere (more on that later). However, when it comes to scripting, character chemistry and overall charm (as with Among Thieves before it) it’s exemplary. From playing as a young Drake and understanding the basis of his relationship with series stalwart Sully, to the banter between British hard man, Charlie Cutter, and Nathan - Uncharted 3 is a delight. Although its villains have an archetypal pantomime feel to them, the malignant Marlowe and contemptible Talbot play their parts well in a generally involving plot, complete with cunning twists. The game manages to strike a fine balance between typical light hearted humour and the more dramatic moments it inevitably throws your way. Although nothing quite captures the comic brilliance of the “There’s a guy below you, there’s a guy below you!” moment in UC2’s early stages, there’s plenty of memorable dialogue to enjoy.

Drake’s Deception is no doubt a fine spectacle. You’ll soak up everything that’s going on around you and appreciate its undeniable charisma. However, all too often you’ll feel like a passenger being whisked along for the ride. In other words, Uncharted 3’s strengths have very little correlation to the actual gameplay at all. The result is basic, but adequate mechanics wrapped in a blockbuster exterior. You could argue that Among Thieves used the same template, but it was so unexpected, such a massive leap forward in terms of scale and spectacle that it was hard to fault. Although there are many dazzling set pieces in Drake’s Deception, some wonderfully realised environments and a sustained sense of adventure, the gameplay now feels somewhat rudimentary.

Cover based combat falls short of what Gears of War 3 recently perfected (which defines its experience) and the QTE based melee system pales in comparison to Arkham City’s freeflow brilliance. For all of the epic scenarios that Drake finds himself in (scaling a nose-diving cargo plane, escaping from an inferno in an ancient French chateau or engaged in a horseback gunfight through scorching desert) basic shooting and jumping is the extent of true player interaction.

Drake’s Deception will often throw some cruel and inconsistent difficulty spikes your way too. Grenades rain down; heavily armoured goons outflank you as snipers take potshots from concealed vantage points. Challenge is all well and good but sometimes it all feels a little unfair, especially considering that combat is far from UC3’s finest and most versatile trait. BUT, despite these minor annoyances, despite its mechanics feeling a little outdated now, Drake’s Deception is hard not to love. Its affable characters and involving story make up for its gunplay/fistfight related shortcomings. The beautiful visuals and abundance of epic scenarios often mean that you’ll forget that you’re not really doing that much while they’re occurring anyhow. There are still plenty of ‘wow moments’ playing out in front of your eyes regardless of how truly involved the player is. In that respect Drake’s Deception in no way does a disservice to the Uncharted name and is a worthy instalment in the trilogy.

You always get the nagging feeling that Drake’s Deception is competing with Among Thieves as opposed to capitalising and improving upon it. To be fair, there are few small refinements here and there, but these serve to iron out UC2’s minor flaws (the cumbersome and ill conceived boss battles being the most thankful removal) rather than set it head and shoulders above its predecessor. However, fans of the series will no doubt feel that they’re getting their money’s worth. Drake’s Deception is still a white knuckle ride infused with all the wit, character and charm that series has rightly become renowned for.

Amongst Thieves’ omnipresent shadow still looms, a shadow that Nathan Drake will find incredibly tough to step from. But credit to the studio; it will inevitably keep striving to eclipse the gold standard of action/adventure gaming it set in 2009. Even if Drake’s Deception doesn’t quite manage it - in Naughty Dog’s esteemed hands - the future is still very bright for Uncharted.

*Reviewed on PS3

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Review - The House of the Dead: Overkill

I used to love playing House of the Dead at the bowling alley. The game's plot played second fiddle to the zombie blasting – as you'd expect – and it was hard as nails. However, I managed to miss Overkill at its initial release, so I didn't know what I was in for. So, it was with some surprise (and delight) I discovered that as soon as you turn on House of the Dead: Overkill – Extended Cut, you're treated to a poledance from a buxom brunette with a six-shooter strapped to her hip. I don't remember that from the bowling alley.

Yes, House of the Dead: Overkill is something of a different animal – and it's a whole hell of a lot of fun. Gone is the grungy, Resident Evil-wannabe storyline, gone are the haunted houses (and those little swamp guys who come from nowhere) – instead, Overkill draws you into a lovingly crafted, grindhouse-based, ridiculous adventure which will make you howl with laughter, even as you stare in wonder at the oddly shoddy graphics.

So, story-wise, Overkill places up to two gamers in the shoes of a mysterious man known as Agent G, and a wise-cracking, incredibly foul mouthed detective called Washington, working to track down a mysterious, psychotic scientist known as 'Papa Ceasar', with assistance from a tattooed ex-stripper called 'Varla Guns'.

Yeah, if you haven't got the joke yet, Overkill doesn't take itself seriously – and it's a damn good thing too. The main campaign is built around a number of set-piece missions, taking you from an abandoned plantation house, or “Papa's House of PAIN!” as the grindhouse-style intro movie screams at you, onwards to a nightclub, casino and strip club, all of which have been overrun by the walking dead. Good thing then, that Washington et al come all tooled up with Magnums, grenades, and any number of upgrades and new weapons to buy with the piles of money dotted around the wide, lengthy missions.

Each of the missions is a good 15 minutes long, allowing your characters to banter (usually Agent G being dumb, and Washington cursing time and time over) and blow away thousands of shuffling, 'mutants'. “We. Don't. Use. The 'Z' word”, as Agent G would put it. This, unfortunately, is where the cracks begin to show in the blasting action. Sure, it's funny and fun to play an old-fashioned, on-rails shooter with such a fine pedigree, but beneath the deliberate grimy filter of the grindhouse feel, the game's graphics are pretty damn shoddy, especially for a PS3 – filter or not, there's no excuse for laziness.

Plus, though rose tinted memories live longest, I distinctly remember having to blast chunks out of the House of the Dead zombies in the bowling alley – not put them down with one shot to the chest, Overkill's just too easy, even on harder difficulties – especially with another player along for the ride. The boss battles are also ridiculously easy, involving repeating the same pattern time and time again, as the game moves your character for you on rails. Sure, the character and enemy design is pretty snappy, but when the boss battles are dull, you know something's up.

Thankfully, outside of the main campaign, the Extended Cut also includes a wide variety of minigames, from shooting ranges to room challenges filling your screen with zombies, and also included is a jukebox of the game's fantastic 60s and 70s score, which is filled to the brim with brilliant tracks – I'd buy a CD of Overkill's music alone, in an instant.

The control scheme - emulating the bowling alley's plastic guns with the PS3's Move controllers - works well enough, as does using the controller's joysticks – though this is, of course, more clunky and awkward. Overall, while Overkill is a simple, enjoyable blaster, it's not one I'd want gracing my shelf permanently. If you're having a drunken party and need a fun, exciting, hilarious blaster with some slow-mo zombie killing action, however... look no further.

*Reviewed on PS3

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Review - Batman: Arkham City

Superman? Coward – afraid to take the punches (it helps that he's almost invulnerable). Iron Man? Wimp – hiding behind technology and armour. The X-Men? Bunch of nutters – relying on their powers and no true ability.

For me, there's only one superhero who really fits the bill – the Dark Knight himself, Batman. Sure, he has no 'powers' as such – aside from a genius-level intellect and brilliant detective skills... and a high-tech suit, and cool gadgets, and a badass voice... but he's still the best of the bunch.

Good thing, then, that Rocksteady – the team behind the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum - are back with Arkham City. And it kicks ass. Set shortly after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City sees the titular hero infiltrating what was once a prosperous area of Gotham City – but which has now become a walled-off nightmare of a place, where supercriminals and lowlifes alike are loose and causing havoc – all overseen by Hugo Strange, a brilliant psychotherapist (and utter nutter). And it doesn't help that he knows Batman's true identity. Sound like a fun place to spend 15+ hours? You'd be right.

Anyone who played Arkham Asylum will feel instantly at home in Arkham City (this is a good thing, as the game drops you right in the action!) and fairly soon gliding between Gotham's huge, imposing architecture on wings shaped like the crime-fighter's namesake will become second nature. And what a city it is. As with the movies, Gotham City itself is the co-star of the action, with huge buildings, underground, scum-filled (figuratively and literally) sewers and soaring vistas aplenty, as well as the mean streets themselves. These are populated by the scum of the city and - as one would expect, with all the series' supervillains in one place – a war has begun. Joker, Penguin and Two-Face are all fighting it out, with each of the trio after one thing or another – and the Dark Knight is in the middle, facing his demons and holding out hope to restore order. Yeah, good luck with that.

And all the while, Batman's irritating, mystery-obsessed foe 'The Riddler' is back on form, and has seeded Arkham City with numerous riddles, puzzles and clues for the Dark Knight to follow and solve, offering just one of any number of side-missions to keep you busy. These can range from answering a phone to a convicted serial killer, using your high-tech gear to solve a murder or simply taking our some video cameras with a perfectly timed batarang, and serve as a nice pace-breaker from the mainstream action.

As one would expect of a crime-fighting legend, Batman comes tooled up with all the best in gadgets, from batclaw to batarangs to smoke pellets to escape wily bad guys - and even more gadgets are up for grabs as the game goes on through a robust experience and upgrade system. The combat's also been ramped up this time around, with each gadget having a spot in 'quickfire' controls for the melee. While it's easy to mess up the combination you were looking for, using these becomes second nature pretty quickly, and Batman's astounding agility will take your breath away as he easily disarms and downs his foes in true showboating style. I still feel, however, that the combat is still a bit too simple in the long-run, but that's only a minor quibble, as taking out 15 thugs without breaking a sweat is still an awesome experience.

The other part of Batman's modus operandi – stalking from the shadows – is also back in style, and Arkham City offers a huge variety of intimidation moves for the wily gamer, allowing Batman to stalk from high above, offing thugs one by one as the panic sets in among them.It's an amazingly cool feeling, and one you'll want to repeat again and again. Handily, there's more than one way to do so, as besides the lengthy and engrossing campaign mode, Arkham City also features the game's signature 'challenge' modes – combat or stealth based challenge rooms which task the Dark Knight with taking down thugs fast or silently, and offers online leaderboards to compare scores. Plus if you buy the special edition of the game (or purchase an activation code if you buy second-hand) you can also play through these challenge modes as Batman's sidekick, Robin, or the sultry Catwoman – a master thief, both of which have their own distinctive movement and combat sets, weapons and gadgets. Catwoman also has her own story missions, which tie into the main campaign and serve as a nice break from the elbow-bashing style of Batman's way. Riddler has also filled Arkham City with trophies and challenges for her to find, which extends the experience still further.

As for the graphics - Arkham City is simply glorious. The huge space the game occupies is beautifully modelled, from moody skies to black waters in the docklands, and looks stunning as you glide through it on wings of fabric and fear. The animation is also excellent, from combat to movement, and there are practically no graphical bugs to be seen. Then there's the sound, which is engrossing in both sound effects and score, featuring crunching beats for combat and eerie moans for Batman's signature brooding atop a gargoyle (of which there are, once again, far too many for one city...).

And don't get me started on the voice acting. Batman (Kevin Conroy) is spot on once again, and the insanity of Mark Hamill (real or just acting, I wonder..?) as the Joker was amazing to listen to - the two of them playing off against each other beautifully. And right beside them was a huge variety of talent, lending a credence to Arkham City's characters, good and bad, that bought it to life.

All in all, Arkham City improves on Arkham Asylum in every way. Everything's bigger and brighter, there's more to see and do, a huge campaign mode, challenges and riddles to solve, two other playable characters - and so much fan service the game's practically a love letter to Batman fans. Buy it now, you won't regret it. "I'm Batman" – and you can be too.