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Reviewlet: Halo: Reach – Single Player

Halo: Reach is the game that turned me into a Halo fanboy. I wouldn’t say I’m a true frothing, forum-bashing, smack-talking, willy-waving, Ha-lolife, but I’ve definitely gained a great respect for the series having played through Bungie’s swan song contribution to the franchise. I was brought into the FPS fold by Unreal, a friend’s demonstration of the Nali Castle flyby on his Voodoo-powered PC convincing me that gaming had arrived full-bore on the platform. I thus skipped the entire Xbox generation: having made a large investment in a gaming PC I didn’t see the need for a console, especially when I had the likes of Unreal, Half-Life and its accompanying fragfests: Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike with which to occupy myself, followed later by the time-devastating march of the MMOs.

Thus, when I did finally take the plunge and buy an Xbox 360 I steered clear of FPS games; having been raised on the immediacy and accuracy of a mouse I always had trouble becoming comfortable with, and proficient at, aiming using a thumb stick. It was Gears of War 2 that eventually converted me, or trained me that aiming ‘well enough’ on a console would get you through most games at normal difficulty, and that I could still join other consoling types and pull my weight, or at least camouflage my inaccuracy enough not to be laughed out of the game. I still wasn’t sure about Halo though, and having played the odd demo I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about and didn’t buy Halo 3 when its blockbusting release arrived and busted a fair few blocks. I grabbed Halo:ODST on the prospect of more cooperative online play with friends due to its Firefight mode sounding very similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, but although I tried the single player game I couldn’t get into it, it was all too strange and seemed to rely too much on the player having prior knowledge of the game series to be able to get anywhere.

And so Halo: Reach arrived to much punditry aplomb, and with it came many comments on the lack of “circuitous, difficult to follow plots” that past Halo titles had ‘suffered’; in essence the game came without Master Chief and the baggage with which almost ten years of franchise development had lumbered him. It was time to revisit the Halo universe.

The musical score had an immediate impact upon me. The very instant the game starts its brief introductory synopsis you are presented with the sombre thumping military-like drum beat which evokes (for a non-Halo player like me) fond memories of Mass Effect, Aliens and the recent Battlestar Galatica TV series — quality sci-fi. The score is wonderful, atmospheric, brooding, ominous, and is pitched perfectly for the sci-fi story that the game is designed to present: the doom of the planet Reach.

I noted as I began the game that the introduction into the world is similar to that of ODST. As a silent no-name rookie you are introduced to a well established squad made up of strong characters whose personalities rub against one another to cause an awkward heated tension from the friction. Yet where ODST felt trite and generic, Reach’s characters were more believable and appealing and their personality traits, although obvious, were less in your face, perhaps an indication of progress in Bungie’s presentation of the generic hardcore combat unit, an understanding that players are by now, in the main, familiar with the tirelessly mediating and effectuating captain, the gentle giant of destruction, the brooding nut-job, the reserved assassin and the token female eye-candy.

The game breaks you in more gently than ODST too, it’s as though lessons were learned with ODST and that an understanding was reached that a break with Halo tradition also required a break with the assumption that the player was a hardcore Halo fanatic. Game mechanics are introduced slowly and sensibly, and although there is still a level of assumed familiarity — that, for example, you know how to operate the most bizarre game-based vehicle handling system known to man or Covenant — you are not thrown in at the deep end, but introduced to the enemy under controlled conditions that let you get to grips with the controls before more serious combat ensues. It’s a smooth, subtle tutorial that has you playing the game while learning it, rather than giving one of those stark immersion breaking tutorials of traditional FPS games, where the fully qualified combat recruit is forced to run through an exercise where they, as a first step, learn how to walk.

After that the game is of the standard FPS fare, but the story that is being told keeps the missions interesting and the player invested in the game. There are some nice highlights, such as the space combat mini-game which has a very Battlestar Galactica feel to it, and the cut-scene leading up to it had me whooping and bouncing in my seat, and was probably the point at which I started to get an idea of what Halo was all about. The weapons are generally satisfying; all the standard options are there from the assault rifle, to the sniper rifle, up to the grenade and missile launchers. If I were to be slightly critical it’s that the Covenant weapons feel far more powerful, but that is perhaps deliberate due to the fact that the Covenant are meant to be technologically superior. It’s a shame, however, that using the Covenant weapons is generally the preferred option — not only due to their power but due to the relative scarcity of ammunition for the UNSC weapons — because I preferred the more visceral and familiar feel of the assault rifle and its company. The reusable armour abilities are a nice touch, a semi-permanent power-up that offers an advantage for a short while before needing to slowly recharge itself for use once again. Only one of these abilities can be carried at a time, and although they are placed sensibly throughout the various levels, not all are offered at any one station, so a tactical decision is sometimes required. Or, like me, you just pick the faffing-great invulnerability shield generator whenever it becomes available, and stick with that.

The story of the combat squad itself is one that has been told numerous times and is a tale of inevitability; there are few surprises in the overall outcome, although the inevitable is delivered on occasion from out of the blue, and I think it does achieve its aim to shock you out of your familiarity zone, which again helps to keep things from feeling rather stale and regurgitated, which would otherwise be a danger even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise.

The ending, however, is what sold me on the game. It is the perfect every-tale of bravery and honour and sacrifice in the face of an overwhelming and superior force; you already know how the game is going to end because you are shown your future in the very opening scene, and yet you still want to believe that it will end differently — it doesn’t, but that just makes it all the better for it. Bungie has told the final chapter of their story developing Halo, which itself is the first chapter of the Halo story, and it sets the tone for what is to come after, both in terms of the existing games to which it serves as a prequel, and also those games which will be produced by the next developer to take up the Halo mantle. In the meantime there is plenty for Halo virgins such as myself to enjoy, because where a game such as Red Dead Redemption left me feeling glad that the ordeal was finally over, Halo:Reach left me wanting more, and so I plan to revisit the Halo games that I’ve missed in the past, while keeping an eye firmly on Bungie’s future developments.

Reviewlet: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption: incredible world, mediocre game.

You play as John Marston, reformed gunslinger, family man, cowboy, philosopher, and – in the grand tradition of all Rockstar games – everybody’s bitch. Like Nico Bellic, Tommy Vercetti and his other game-based predecessors, John Marston is a criminal jellyfish: an entity with a vicious sting but utterly spineless. In the case of Red Dead Redemption the excuse for this utter inability to get anywhere in life without having to perform some weird and wonderful set of tasks for a random gaggle of strangers, is that Marston is trying to turn a over new leaf and become a good man because he now has a family. I suppose the game is set in the Wild West after all, where clichés roamed far and wide and free, therefore as much as I’d like to lasso this one, hogtie it and throw it off a cliff, I’ll have to let it slide.

The game follows the traditional Rockstar format, with a main plot that sweeps you around the game world, and numerous side quests offered by random strangers that allow you to build fame and honour and earn a little cash on the side. It’s the nature of Rockstar games that the path to redemption for the (anti)hero involves doing menial tasks for people before they’ll give you the information you need to go to the next person who wants you to do menial tasks for them, but it becomes so rote and formulaic that it often fails to take into account the nature of the hero and his situation. Early on in the game you meet the local sheriff, a brilliant character straight out of finest Western traditions, whose lack of trust for former outlaw Marston is both understandable and sensible. He gets Marston to ride with him and take down a local gang to prove that he’s on the straight and level before even entertaining the idea of doing him a favour in return. But then there are numerous characters where you can’t help but think that, instead of running off to do their laundry or fetch their cat out of a tree, Marston would be better off reverting to type for just a few moments, taking out his revolver, forcing it into their mouth and telling them to stop messing him about and give him the address of the next time-wasting moron he needs to meet up with. The man is a former outlaw whose family is being held hostage, and yet he feels the best way to get what he wants is to act like a spoilt teenager being asked to do chores for pocket money: a bit of whining and huffing and “I hate you!” before tromping off to do what he was asked, hands in pockets, kicking sulkily at stones. Either that or there’s an unquestioning acceptance of situations that seem to gradually escalate in silliness:

“Could you tell me where the bathroom is, sir?”

“You’re John Marston aren’t you? Well, then, I can tell you where the bathroom is Mr Marston, but first I need you to do me a little favour.”

<hopping from foot to foot>”I’m listening.”

“I’ve got this sister over in Mexico who needs to know if I’m coming to luncheon this Sunday, and I’m going to ignore the telephone system and mail service that exists in this day and age of ours, and get you to do it instead. It’s only two hundred miles away, so it shouldn’t take you too long. You do that for me, Marston, and I’ll see you right in getting to a latrine, yessir I will.”

I imagine that will be a quest in the next game in the series, Red Dead Reloaded, before the final game, Red Dead Revolutions, has Patrick Stewart turn up and return you to the holodeck of the Enterprise where it turns out you were stuck playing a broken and buggy Western game set in an incredibly realistic world.

Indeed, it is the world that keeps you coming back for more bum-reaming at the hands of pixelated human plot devices. It is, frankly, astonishing. You could probably spend as much time carefully exploring its every inch of detailed and beautifully crafted expanse as you would playing through the main plot of the game. The wilds teem with life, not your randomly placed crap MMO mobstacles, however, but animals that belong there, hunt there, breed there, live there. It is a living world, a breathing world; it is the best character in the game. The various towns and populated locations feel absolutely genuine, from the dusty ramshackle mining towns with their Deadwood saloons, to the Mexican forts with their weather beaten walls and the equally weather beaten Capitáns, through to the proto-city of the modern era, with its cobbled streets that cause you to pause at the strangeness of the clip-clop sound of your horse’s shoes against the sole-polished stone. It is one of those perfections of craft, where every detail and placement is meticulously made in such a way that the player doesn’t realise that any crafting has gone on at all, the world just exists, has always existed, because it is a real world.

The world is perfect, without being so perfect that it can’t be real.

There are plenty of other distractions in the game away from the main plot, some more successful than others. If you like poker and blackjack for example, then you can easily while away hours playing in saloons across the land; nothing beats reacting to a gambling loss by jumping up from the table and unloading a six shooter into your opponent. You’ll get a bounty on your head, but a full pardon is only a save game away. There are curious design choices, again some more successful than others. Having missions that can only be started at a certain time of day seems pointless, just let the player start the mission and advance the world clock to the correct time, if it’s that important; time-restricted missions are doubly redundant when a player can advance the world clock by several hours for themselves by simply entering and exiting the save game menu until they reach the desired time. Travel is also a curious affair, with your trusty horse always at your beck and call, short distances are never an issue, but the world is huge and missions often require you to travel from one side to the other and back again, something which gets pretty tiresome after your initial awe for the world has been tarnished by the somewhat mundane quest design. There are stage coaches at major locations, but the cost is prohibitive in the early stages of the game, and frankly I can’t really see the point of them at all. You could wait for a train I suppose, but again it’s hardly my idea of a rip-roaring Western adventure. The main issue is that all of these options are made moot by the fact that you can ride a short distance out of town, make a camp, and then travel to any point on the map by marking it as a waypoint; travel like this ruins the size of the world in an instant, and the inconvenience of having to ride out of town to make camp is nothing in comparison to the cost of stagecoaches, the time on horseback, or the improbability of a train turning up any time within a day of you needing it.

Red Dead Redemption also suffers from a problem of pacing. You start off the game slowly, doing mundane tasks as you are introduced to various elements of the game, before rootin’, tootin’ and, in most cases, shootin’ your way across the county, into Mexico and back again. Then you’re back to doing mundane tasks before the final dramatic piece of exposition. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, and that final lull is probably meant to be akin to the final climb before the big drop, but after all the incredible experiences you’ve had up to that point, it fails to act as a builder of tension or anticipation and simply becomes a tedious blockage to the end of the game. Rockstar’s writers come close to getting you to empathise with Marston and his family, they try to show the bond between the father and his son, the love between the husband and his wife, but in the end you just find them tiresome and uninteresting because you’re having to lead their tiresome and uninteresting lives in order to get to the end of the game.

When you’ve finished the game you’re left satisfied but quite possibly not wanting more. It’s perhaps apt for a Western adventure with some of the most beautifully animated horses that I’ve seen in a game so far, where you can almost feel the wind against your face as you charge across a dusty plain, that it feels like such a long ride to the end, and although the ride is epic and exhilarating in places, when you reach your destination you’re quite glad to be free again.

It is the night. My body’s weak.
I’m on the run. No time to sleep.
I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again.
And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.

I was born the son of a lawless man.
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.
Lived nine lives, gunned down ten.
Gonna ride like the wind.

And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.
           — Christopher Cross, Ride Like the Wind

Reviewlet: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was much lauded upon release by game pundits and players alike, and reported pretty much universally as a firm indication of the imminent second coming of our lord and saviour – J. Holy-Christ O.B.E, until the mania died down, people got bored, and everyone moved on to the next effusion of orgasmic halleluiahs, which seem to currently being ejaculated for Uncharted 2, with Brutal Legend surprisingly and sadly being cast down into the pits of gaming Hades where, ironically, it’s probably most comfortable, and is even now rocking out with the Lord of Hellfire; although, if a game that revels in the satanic imagery of the heavy metal scene is sent to Hell, does it really go to the fiery pits of the Inferno, or is it perhaps forced to reside in a quiet country field full of sheep and bunnies and forced to play Singstar: Annoying Whiney Girl Band Edition for all eternity? Regardless, the crowd of gourd worshippers have rushed off after a new messiah, and so I decided to pick through the debris of their wake and see what all the fuss was about.

The introductory sequence instantly lets us know that this game is aiming more at Dark Knight than the television show of the sixties, or even the much acclaimed slightly more serious-but-still-aimed-at-kids animated show of recent years, despite many of the actors from that show being employed to work their vocal voodoo on this game. Indeed, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a masterful work, and had it not been for one Heath Ledger, would probably be considered the definitive acted interpretation of the master villain. The other insight that the introductory sequence gives us is that the game is running on Epic Games’ Unreal Perspiration Engine, a curious piece of technology which can render landscape environments in stunning and immaculate detail but always manages to make skin look overly shiny as though it’s covered with a sheen of sweat. Maybe it’s a deliberate commentary on the future side effects of global warming, or perhaps a reflection on the greater existential problem of mankind’s permeability of thought, that our motives and desires inevitably leak through to the facade that we present to the world, and the people we interact with can see themselves reflected in the sweat-like sheen of this psychic projection. Either that or someone left the PHONG_SHADE_ALL_SKIN_TEXTURES flag set to TRUE again.

If you want a dry but detailed account of the game I would recommend the Wikipedia article. The game has a story typical of the genre, it’s a suitable vehicle to allow Batman to go forth and verily punch punks in the teeth with wild abandon, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for originality. It’s a super hero comic book adaptation, and as such it follows the trend of Big Bad Boss quite astonishingly escaping from a maximum security facility – for the third time this week – and contriving a huge and convoluted plot to destroy the hero’s City of Protective Choice whilst giving our hero every opportunity to stop him under the pretence of needing to toy with the hero first. The Joker is one of the few villains where a writer can get away with this script over and over again, because it’s basically the Joker’s modus operandi – he has to pick at the bat-shaped scab that scars his mind – but even so, if you couldn’t see the whole plot laid out before you from the very beginning of the game – like the walls of the Matrix in that scene where Keanu Reeves finally, oh thank the lord FINALLY, realises that he is Of Course THE ONE, You Plank – then you probably don’t read comics much. The important thing with the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it doesn’t get in the way of running around and giving generic goons a darn good kicking, this is more important than one might think, and I’ll come back to why in a moment.

Giving generic goons a good old fashion knuckle sandwich is what super hero comic book games are all about, because it’s what super hero comics are all about. You can pretend that super hero comics aspire to a higher art status, that they reflect the nature of society’s doubts and tackle the difficult issues of the time, but in the end they resolve those issues by finding someone that they classify as naughty and punching them hard in the teeth. Watchmen – resolved by punching people in the teeth. V for Vendetta – teeth punching. Grandville – there might have been some animals in there who don’t have teeth, but whatever tooth-like substitute they have, you can be sure that they were punched in them. The combat in the game is beautifully realised, it’s not just the simplicity of the Rock-Band-like rhythm system that it uses, where timing your punches to the beat of the fight awards you with a linked combination of moves that cause greater damage, but the fact that these moves flow seamlessly together and look totally natural. If someone attacks from behind and you counter the move, Batman doesn’t just turn mechanically and punch the assailant, but grabs the kicking leg and snaps it with an elbow drop, or back-fists them in the face. There are a huge variety of moves, such that, even if you aim at an enemy who is across the room from you, Batman will move to attack them in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed any better: back-flipping across the room and kicking the goon while Batman flips himself onto his feet being just one example. It’s another nod to the ‘less is more’ style of game design, you essentially mash just one button to attack, use the directional stick to aim at the enemy you want that attack to land on, and the game does the rest. The subtlety is in the timing, in using the counter attack button judiciously, and in working your way around the room of enemies in a systematic fashion such that none of them even get a chance to retaliate. Because the combat is simplistic yet nuanced, and because the player is not having to constantly remember five or six different button actions along with the thousands of additional combinations of those buttons in order to progress, the combat is utterly immersive, you come out of the other end of a fight with Batman standing over a pile of incapacitated felons, adjusting his Batsuit cuffs in the nonchalant manner of one who has just single handedly pummelled an entire steroidally overdosed American Football team armed with baseball bats into submission (they tried fighting with the implements of their chosen profession, but hitting someone with an American football just doesn’t have the same impact), and you think “Wow, look at what Batman did!” and then you check yourself and think “No, wait, look at what I did as Batman!”.

As good a game as it is, I think that immersion is the real triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Coming back to the fact that the story doesn’t get in the way of the game, this also helps with the immersion. The cut scenes are kept to a minimum, as such you don’t have your immersion broken by suddenly becoming a passenger in a scene that you were moments ago in control of. These cut scenes often change the camera angle so that you view your character in a way that can only be seen as you peering in from the outside, they eject you from the world you were living in and make you watch, helpless, as the entity that was you a moment before is now under the control of Mr Story-Teller. Honestly, I think that Rocksteady Studios could have removed the cut-scenes altogether and had the player play through them in an interactive way, but since they are kept to a minimum they provide, if nothing else, a suitable reminder that it might be time for a quick cup of tea, or to evacuate the previous five cups of tea.

The attention to detail magnifies the level of immersion. Batman’s costume gets ripped on several occasions, and that battle damage stays with you throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, when you come back to the game you are instantly reminded as to what Batman has been through up to this point in the game and you are reminded of your previous battles, as such you are able to settle back into the game that much quicker, even having been away from the game for some time. Batman’s outfit tells ‘the story so far’ and you get your reminder almost subliminally.

Adding further to the feeling that you are Batman is the fact that the game embraces the way Batman generally operates: he piles into groups of enemies and martial arts them into submission, or he sneaks around and uses fear and the shadows as his weapons, picking off heavily armed opponents one at a time. With the former method the game positively encourages you to wade into groups of enemies and revel in fighting against overwhelming odds and winning through, although you quickly come to realise that you are the Goddamn Batman and that unless there are twenty or more of them facing off against you, the odds are not going to be in their favour. The latter method is equally well handled, with Batman quickly being able to learn the inverted takedown manoeuvre from the obligatory character progression mechanic (often incorrectly using the appropriated term RPG, it seems). With the inverted takedown available, Batman is able to hang from the rafters unseen until an unsuspecting enemy walks underneath, at which point you drop down on a line, grab the enemy and whip back up into the shadows, stringing him up for his friends to find. The AI is well programmed, such that the remaining felons come running to their compatriot’s aid, and finding him all Bat Bondaged, exclaim in terror to the room in general “Who are you?!” and other such phrases, and then stick together more often, reflecting their increased fear. This all serves to make the player feel utterly powerful as they sit in the shadows of the ceiling and gloat. The game goes to great lengths to make sure the player always feels like Batman, and feeling like Batman means feeling in control. There’s this dark brooding menace and arrogance of self belief that serves Batman well in the comics, and the player is never thinking “how am I going to overcome this challenge” when it comes to combat, they’re simply thinking “what’s going to be the most entertaining way to overcome this challenge”. It’s never a matter of ‘if I overcome this’, it’s merely a matter of ‘when I’ve overcome this’. There are a couple of disappointments with respect to the immersion in this case: the stealth aspect of the game relies on Batman strategically using oh so conveniently placed gargoyle statues around the ceiling of the rooms in order to execute his divide and conquer strategy; it may just be that the architect of Arkham Asylum was as insane as its inmates, and this manifested itself in stuffing gargoyle heads at random into rooms that were clearly otherwise not designed for them, but in all honesty it just screams game mechanic, which is all the more stark when compared to the cleverly hidden mechanics in the rest of the game. It’s perplexing when considering that the mechanic for the Bat Grapple when used to move around the rest of the game world is, like most elements of the game interface, simple and enjoyable to use. Another immersion breaker is that the stealth sections are clearly defined, you can’t use the inverted takedown in the outside areas, despite there being many walkways and guard towers that would make perfect ambush spots. Apparently it only works from gargoyles. These are minor niggles though, and quickly forgotten when you realise that no matter the environment, there are punks who need to be taught a lesson, and you’re the one who is ideally suited to give it.

So the combat is delicious, and this being a super hero comic game that makes it ninety percent perfect straight out of the gate. There are a few other things worth mentioning though. For example, this being a super hero comic game, all of the female characters (barring Token Dowdy Doctor Lady) are over-sexualised to the point of driving all the way past the suburbs of Parody and heading deep into downtown Juvenile Masturbation Fantasy. For good or for bad, foxy females are a staple of super hero comic books, but in recent years it seems to have devolved from the innocence of pubescent infatuation into a more demeaning, derogatory and dark place better suited to seedy Soho stores. It’s a shame to see the game follow this trend, because although the Dark Knight had an adult audience as its intended focus, it refrained from such cheap thrills.

The Sandman levels are also worth a mention, making excellent use of the villain’s hallucinogenic devices to twist the game on its head and provide a nice change of pace to the ‘explore and conquer’ mode of the main game. Think American McGee meets Mario and you won’t be far wrong.

And finally two design decisions which show the curious nature of game development, where on the one hand the old tropes of past games are ignored, and yet another is included for no added benefit. Throughout the game there are numerous ventilation grates which Batman can yank off in order to sneak around obstacles and enemies, but to do this you have to go up to the vent, press the A button to start the process and then repeatedly mash the A button in order to pull the vent from its housing. Why? It seems utterly pointless, there’s no game to it, you either press A enough or you don’t, there’s no timing or rhythm mini-game, the amount of noise you make isn’t affected by the speed of your button presses, it’s just utterly pointless, and I’m totally curious as to why it’s in there. On the other hand, Rocksteady Studios completely resisted any urge to add a token and utterly inane driving section to the game. Possibly a first in any Batman game to date, and something that they should be congratulated on. When the Batmobile blows up somewhere near the start of the game, I couldn’t have cheered more.

There’s no doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an accomplished game; whether it’s actually worthy of the Second Coming praise that has been showered upon it, or whether that was just a product of a games journalism industry floored out of left field by a competent and compelling super hero game, I think it must be for the individual player to decide, but if you love the idea of the being the one, the only, the true “Goddamn Batman”, then welcome to Judgement Day.

Reviewlet: Gears of War 2.

After another splendid session with Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] last night, I decided to write-up a quick reviewlet for our current game of the moment – Gears of War 2. There will be spoilers, however, so if you haven’t gotten around to playing this game, you think you may yet, and spoilers are the sort of thing that matter to you, then you may want to look away now. Have they looked away? Yes? Good. You know, I never liked them. And they smell of Fisherman’s Friend.

Gears of War 2 is a simple game concerning the plight of two He-Man impersonators charged with wiping out a race of alien creatures who have a muscle structure so improbably ripped that they can bench press 800lbs with their orbicularis muscles alone, and are thus a clear and present danger to the masculinity of all He-Man impersonators on the planet. Our two heroes are at times joined on their missions by other meatheads, who are presumably taking time off from their busy day down at the gym, where they flex at their oiled-up thong-wearing reflections in the mirror, then head into the locker room and whip each other’s naked bottoms with towels in a manly heroic fashion, before heading into the shower and engaging in some hot steamy guilty sex. As only heroic manly meatheads can do.

Where was I? Ah yes, homoerotic allegory in the post-modern apocalyptic war genre. I mean, World Wrestling Entertainment. Ah no, Gears of War 2. No wait, same difference.

In the single player campaign we are quickly introduced to our two steroidally overdosed heroes, shortly followed by Token Nod who is, coincidentally, related to a well known character from the first game in the series. Token Nod never takes off his face-covering helmet, however, and therefore might as well be wearing a red Star Trek ensign shirt. The game even tries to explain away the fact that Token Nod never takes off his helmet, while Muscle and Musclier never wear theirs, when Dom (you can recognise him because he’s the homogeneous pile of muscle that isn’t wearing a bandanna) explains that wearing a helmet severely restricts the experienced combat veteran’s ability to spot a sniper. I was going to suggest that they didn’t wear a helmet because they had no use for their head, what with all motor and cognitive functions being controlled by the master muscle in their underpants, but clearly the game’s developers had thought of something even funnier. Last and by no means least likely to be seen staring in a porn film in the near future, is Token Hotty, she with the supermodel looks and a military uniform cut so tight that it must have been applied with some form of hyper-advanced vacuforming technique.

After a brief optional tutorial, and then the customary introductory waffle “Now listen up you magnificent menageries of muscle. Aliens are trying to destroy life as we know it… blah, blah, blah… we must fight them in the trenches… blah, blah, blah… or life as we will know it will end forever… blah, blah, blah… no more hot steamy shower sex… etc.” you’re finally allowed to get on with the game, and it is actually a game that I enjoyed a great deal for the most part.

The game is broken up into acts and chapters, with each act being an overarching segment of the storyline, and the chapters being missions within that segment. In turn each chapter has various checkpoints strewn throughout it, as is the norm with such games, and there are often small sections of dialogue between the characters as you reach certain points. Generally these involve a lot of macho posturing, shoulder bumping, and I’m sure if there’d been hot steamy showers in the vicinity… oh, I think I’ve made my point. There was, however, a disappointing lack of fist-bumping between the characters; I do like a good bit of fist action between a couple of frenzied sweaty mounds of masculine muscle, but who doesn’t? Ok, ok, I’m done.

Having said all that, I do have to confess that I found the part where Dom finally finds his wife Maria, to be quite haunting. The acting is, perhaps appropriately, a bit Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Nnnnnoooooooooooooooooooooo”) but the transition from Dom’s reality into actual reality, where it jars us into a shocking comprehension of the horrors of what Maria must have been through at the hands of the Locust without spelling it out for us, is very well realised. This is achieved on two fronts, the first is that the Unreal graphics engine is powerful enough to present a detailed and harrowing character model, no words are required because a thousand are being painted to the screen, sixty times per second. The second is the use of Tai Kaliso. Tai is introduced early on in the game, and his character is quickly developed (as much as character development ever exists in shooter games) in the eyes of the player as the stalwart, indestructible and unswerving spiritual warrior. Marcus, the aforementioned bandanna wearing meatpile and lead character, describes Tai as “tough as a Brumak though, so if anyone could make it it’d be him” after Tai walks away unscathed as the sole survivor after his transport is destroyed by a Locust ambush. Later, when Tai is rescued by Marcus and Dom after having been captured by the Locust, he immediately commits suicide when given a weapon due to the nature of his time when incarcerated. Thus when we see the reality of Maria’s condition, a simple civilian exposed to such horrors that made a hardened combat veteran commit suicide, we understand that although the body is still alive, the mind is utterly broken, and how it must have suffered to reach that state. For anyone who has truly cared for another and ever worried about their safety, this is quite a heart-rending scene.

It is a shame, therefore, that this is quickly shrugged-off with a bit of bullheaded bravado. And possibly some shoulder bumping, I forget. It was the only part of the game where I felt any sort of emotional connection to the plight of the world and the denizens thereof, and it showed quite clearly that the developers could readily have achieved such emotional manipulation had they wanted to.

The game itself is a third person tactical shooter which relies heavily on cover mechanics to enhance the tension (useful when there haven’t been any steamy showers for a while), and to give a more realistic feel to the combat. Charging gung-ho into the midst of the enemy is a recipe for a quick death, and judicious use of the abundantly available cover provided by doorways, walls and crates that are conveniently placed in open areas at the perfect distance from one another to provide superb continuous cover for an advancing force, is advisable on the easiest difficulty setting, and pretty much mandatory at any level thereafter. The cover mechanic works well in the main, a simple press of the A button when near to anything that looks like cover will generally result in your character slamming up against it and, where feasible, ducking down behind it as you’d expect. From cover the character can choose to aim their weapon by holding the left trigger (which also works when not in cover), at which point they will pop out from cover and the game will temporarily switch into a first person shooting mode. Releasing the left trigger at any time ducks the character back into cover. As long as the cover is blocking line of sight between your character and the enemy it will significantly reduce any incoming damage, pretty much to zero, barring well placed grenades and such. The other option is to blind-fire, which simply requires the player to fire using the right trigger as usual, at which point the character will shoot without leaving cover but at a greatly reduced level of accuracy. The advantage to blind fire is obvious, you cannot really aim at an enemy, but you can lay down suppressing fire for yourself and your team mates without any risk. The only grating problem I have with cover is in its interaction with the Roadie Run. The Roadie Run is activated by holding down the A button when out of cover, at which point your character will enter a sort of crouched jog which allows you to cross open spaces quickly whilst reducing the target you present to the enemy. It’s awkward at first because the camera moves such that it’s almost level with the floor, which results in you looking up towards the third-person perspective of your character’s bottom, like one of those camera angles in porn films where they’re trying to get a better shot of the action. Despite the distraction of Bottom Cam the Roadie Run works well, and is useful for escaping ambushes, but the problem comes when you accidentally run into an object that can provide cover, at which point the game assumes that with the A button held down you want to take that cover. So what results is you being surprised by a bunch of rather meaty, bulgy-veined and angry alien lizard things, turning around and running away (Brave Sir Robin), only to clip a nearby crate and thus have your character slam into a crouch ‘behind it’. Only it’s not behind it, because the enemy were behind you in the first instance, so what you’re actually doing is cowering up against a crate while facing them. Not only this, but you can’t see the enemy chuckling to each other as they slowly walk up to you because the camera angle is designed to look beyond the cover to where the enemy should be, were you the correct side of it. Finally, it takes a bit of time to disengage from cover into open space and instigate Roadie Run again, at which point the camera then flicks around from Cover Cam to Bottom Cam, throwing you off just long enough that your character veers off and slaps into a nearby wall. And takes cover against it… at which point the following paragraph seems apposite.

In representing injury to your character Gears eschews the conventional health bar for what I can only describe as the Soreness Indicator. As your character takes damage a red image slowly fades onto the middle of the display, the more solid this image becomes the closer to death your character is. My only problem is that because it starts out so faint and gradually becomes more clear, my first impression of the image was that it was akin to the puckered posterior from that famous Internet image of a certain Mr Goa Tse, hence my reference to it as the Soreness Indicator. It turns out that it’s not, and that it is in fact the Gears of War logo, which seems more logical now that I think about it. But the Soreness Indicator is still relevant, because with one enemy pounding on your character the Soreness Indicator takes some time to fully develop, but as one would rightly imagine, with several enemies pounding away at once the Soreness Indicator quickly develops to the point where your character can take no more punishment and cries out in agony while collapsing to the floor. The Soreness Indicator is quite a clever take on the health bar though: due to the subtle nature of the graphic fading in, it’s quite hard to tell precisely how damaged your character is. You can tell that a character is ‘pretty healthy’ or ‘close to collapse’ or somewhere in between, but there’s no definitive readout as there is in many games where a health ‘fuel bar’ gives a fine level of precision as to just how close to empty one is running.

In general Gears is a very polished, graphically accomplished ‘follow the path and kill anything that moves’ shooter. The weapons are varied and sufficiently satisfying to use, with each one feeling different enough from the rest to make it a difficult tactical choice as to which ones you should carry with you – you have two heavy weapon slots, one pistol slot and a slot for grenades, of which you can carry only one type at a time. There is a decent variety of enemies, from snipers and close combat shock troops through to chain-gun wielding armoured hulks. The AI is acceptable, ranged types try to stay at range, certain other types will try to flank you, and yet others will try to pop a grenade underneath you in a way that makes your Soreness Indicator scream for mercy. I will say that it has one of the most horrible handling vehicles of all time, and I can only assume that the developers were in some sort of competition with the creators of Halo for the Most Infuriating Vehicle Control in a Meatheads vs Aliens Console Shooter category at the next Game Developer Choice Awards. Thankfully the vehicle segments are short enough not to draw down the full Controller Through TV Screen wrath of the frustrated gamer.

Finally I’d just like to address a complaint that I heard on a recent podcast about the colour palette. “It’s drab, and dreary. Brown. Washed-out” they complained. Well, just in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a gritty ‘realistic’ fighting game, set in a world that is, for the most part, in utter ruin due to a massive globe-spanning war, and a huge portion of time is spent running around ruins and tunnels underground. What the flying ferret did you expect? Super Mario Brothers? “Oh, I like the game well enough, but it could have done with more cornflower blue in the scenery, and those aliens are so drab dahrlingk, couldn’t we spruce them up with a slinky little Dolce&Gabbana number?”. I think the graphics in Gears of War 2 are splendid, character animation is also superb, as is the bulk of the voice acting, mainly thanks to the inestimable talent of John DiMaggio as lead character Marcus Fenix.

I’ve only dabbled briefly in the competitive online play, so I won’t be commenting on that. The co-operative multiplayer, especially the Horde mode, is outstanding fun however. I’ve mentioned it before, and I really do like some of the ways that it enforces group cooperation without it actually feeling like you’re being arm-twisted into it, I guess a better word would be ‘encourages’. Either way, I think I’ll save that discussion for another post, although I will state for the record that it has nothing to do with steamy hot showers. Honest.

Reviewlet: Plants vs Zombies.

I suppose that since our default sub-heading for this sort of post contains the word ‘review’ I should have some sort of disclaimer here at the start to appease our Internet Overpersonages who think that you can’t review a game without having played every single inch of it TO THE DEATH. Twice. Additionally it’s probably not considered a real review until you’ve performed a Fagan inspection of the source code, checked the UML design for namespace completeness, and stalked the lead developer from a house across the street until you know what their favourite breakfast cereal is, what time they eat each day, and how long on average they spend on the toilet afterwards.

So if you can’t bear to read a review in which the reviewer hasn’t spent the entirety of their life up to this point investigating the genealogy of the game’s creative director in order to determine if they have the correct genetic makeup to produce a fun game, look away now. The rest of you can read on to discover my thoughts on Plants vs Zombies what with me having now played it for a bit[1].

Plants vs Zombies is PopCap Games’ latest offering in that market of games for which they have become famous: that being the electronic entertainment equivalent to viewing the Magic Roundabout whilst simultaneously flushing one’s eyeballs with a crack cocaine solution and eating Galaxy Minstrels. PopCap have distilled the idea of ‘gaming for the sake of simple enjoyment’ to its purest form and they continue this trend of producing unadulterated, beautifully presented and utterly addictive games with their current offering.

I’ve read and listened to a multitude of commentaries on the game and most of them describe PvZ as being a tower defence game. They then go on to explain the various dissimilarities between PvZ and a traditional tower defence game, until one is left wondering if PvZ is perhaps in fact not a tower defence game at all but a first person shooter. Or a small dog in a hat. It’s hard to entirely qualify what PvZ is; where Bejeweled sits distinctly in the puzzle genre, PvZ is part puzzle, part tower defence and part arcade game. Ostensibly though, PvZ is clearly of the family of tower defence games, but very much like Michael Jackson is a member of the family of Jacksons: you can see a few vague resemblances if you look hard enough and perhaps squint your eyes, but clearly a great deal of surgery has happened at some point in order to diminish those resemblances. In the case of PvZ, however, the surgery has been far more successful in giving the tower defence genre a bit of a facelift, rather than turning it into a crazed living representation of Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas with a penchant for children.

PvZ does have a penchant for children though – but with entirely non-prosecutable intent – as well as that confusing and somewhat derogatory category of people known as “housewife gamers”, because this is not your traditional tower defence game, where various types of enemy run through a maze of gun towers which have been placed in increasingly bizarre and complex patterns by the player in order to maximise the amount of time that the poor dumb AI units spend jogging under a rain of weapon fire that would make the forests of Apocalypse Now blush. Gone, for example, are the health bars of the enemy units, removing the need to micromanage your towers to any major degree in order to min/max the slaughter potential of your killing field. In place of health bars are subtle visual hints as to how much damage a given zombie has taken, zombie armour (delightfully represented by traffic cones on the head, screen doors held like a shield and such) disintegrates and is destroyed, until the point at which the zombie is close to death whereupon their head falls off in the finest tradition of George A. Romero. Also removed is the freedom to create a complex maze of turrets on a large play map, instead the zombies approach your house in search of brains across a five row, nine column grid that is represented as a lawn to the player (replete with swimming pools and such at later levels to add extra terrain complexity). On this grid one can place a variety of friendly plants which have, over a rather short period of time, evolved an astonishing array of abilities that are perfectly adapted to stopping waves of rampaging zombies. Convenient! All of the character designs in the game, both plants and zombies (not forgetting Crazy Dave who pops up every now and again to lend some friendly, if utterly insane, advice) are typical PopCap: simple yet beautiful and fun. ‘Polished’ is a word we sometimes use to try to convey our feeling when presented with a game whose production values are clearly top notch, as though the game were a brass object placed in the centre of a room formed from the developers’ ideals and well-formed intentions, such that the more the game is polished the more it shines, the more it shines the more it reflects in its surface the room surrounding it, and therefore the more we can see of the now unobstructed intent of its developers; PopCap is synonymous with polished.

Another of the game-play elements to change is that of resources. In more traditional tower defence games the player earns resources by killing the enemy, these resources can then be used to purchase new towers with which to defend against tougher enemies and larger waves of enemies. The more impressive defence towers cost more resources, so the balance is between having many small weak towers or to save up for the more powerful towers at the risk of not having enough defence in the meantime to stop the current wave of enemies from reaching their destination. Essentially what this boils down to is a sort of debugging simulator, where the player compiles their defence and then runs the program and sits there watching how many holes it has in it. As such, many tower defence games include a fast forward option so that players don’t have to endure the less than fascinating game-play element known as ‘sitting on your hands and waiting to be able to play again’; PopCap, on the other hand, have applied their usual RSI-inducing methods to remove the tedium of sitting and waiting for your resources to build for the next round. Plants, being the photosynthesising little blighters that they are, generally require sunlight to power themselves, and the plants in PvZ are no exception. Sunlight is the resource in the game that enables you to grow more plants, and it initially comes in one of two ways: either falling from the sky at certain times or ejected by the eponymously named Sun Flower. The sunlight is represented as a small glowing ball of light which the player must click on to collect, so in between planting your defence you must also remember to click on the various sun resources dropping around the screen in order to be able to continue to plant. It makes for quite a frantic experience when facing some of the more populous waves of zombies, and yet it is not a laborious or tedious objective, instead serving to activate the oft dormant arcade gamer gene in us that once was fundamental to the genetic makeup of good gamers everywhere.

There are many variations of plant that the player can utilise, thus it still satisfies the more prominent tactician gamer gene that is prevalent these days. Unlike traditional tower defence games, however, you’re not only limited to what you can plant by whether you have the resources to fund it, but also by the limited number of slots for the packets of plant seeds that you can take into each round of the game; you have to choose carefully which combination of plants will best suit the setup of the lawn that you will have to fight on next. In addition to plant selection tactics the player also has to contend with the various classes of zombie that they can face. For example the pole vaulting zombie can leap over obstacles placed in its way, such as the punningly named Wall Nut which traditionally halts a zombie’s progress for a set amount of time. Variations of the standard game-play also exist, such as night time attacks where there is no naturally occurring sunlight and the player must therefore rely on their sunflowers to generate enough resources to power plant production, as well as making extensive use of the free-to-plant mushrooms. Free to Plant mushrooms are entirely free to plant but also have a subscription plan of £5.99 per month to access extra fungi features. Really.

No not really.

If this fundamental foundation of fun wasn’t enough for your money, PopCap continue their art of blending a genre of game with which they are not usually associated with elements of game-play that they are well versed in. As such there are mini-games spread throughout the standard level progression of the game, such as a bowling game where instead of your standard fixed slots of plant seeds you have a conveyor belt of walnuts that you can grab as they appear and launch down the five ‘lanes’ of your lawn at the wave of approaching zombies, knocking them over and, if you’re really good, getting their mates on the rebound as well.

In the end, though, there’s little a review of PvZ can tell you that you didn’t already know by looking at the name of the developer associated with the game. If you like PopCap Games’ past products then this one will not fail to live up to your expectations. Likewise if you can’t stand the light-hearted but relatively shallow repetitive fun that a PopCap game represents then this may not be the tower-defence-based game that you are looking for. Perhaps you should try a small dog in a hat instead?

On the off chance that you have yet to experience a PopCap Games’ production, then I know someone who does a very nice line in Class A narcotics that you may wish to consider first. You know, try something that is only mildly addictive before getting on to the really hard stuff.

Score: 2*Pi/180 out of Jam

[1] ‘A bit’ may be taken to mean nine hours, or two hours, or seven and a half minutes, or the time it takes a fish to blink on a particularly balmy Monday afternoon. Generally though, it means ‘long enough to determine whether I like the thing and would continue to play it given the spare time.’

The Chronicles of Spellborn: First impressions.

I played The Chronicles of Spellborn for the first at the weekend and was left disappointed, as I frequently find myself to be these days when it comes to MMOs. TCoS is a game that has been on my radar since way back in early 2007, and I’ve been quietly following its progress ever since. I was initially excited by its potential for character customisation and its innovative take on the MMO skill bar combined with FPS-twitch-like combat, based as it is on the Unreal game engine. I was, therefore, interested to see how these concepts had been realised in the game, and so I downloaded the open beta client this past weekend and had a look around.

I had visions from the promotional videos which I’d seen that character customisation was aiming for City of Heroes levels of flexibility, and while admittedly it’s easy, with a little imagination, to create a unique looking character, this effect is really produced through the smoke and mirrors of combinatorics. Essentially there are only a few art assets that one can pick from, in two outfit layers: one clothing and one armour; the fact that one can specify individually each body location’s clothing and armour type (or indeed none at all), means that there are statistically a large number of overall outfits that can be created. Fundamentally though, there are a pool of five or six sets of matching armour available, and the same of clothing, and one can mix and match from each set to create a unique look. It’s certainly a more flexible system than the vast majority of MMOs offer, but City of Heroes set the standard for character customisation, and if you’re going to have it as one of your selling points you really should be aiming to at the least get close to that. It’s certainly not a subscription breaking issue, and there may in fact be more customisation options available as unlocks as you progress through the game, but it’s something that fell short of my expectation based upon their gaming hype. I have no problem if they’ve taken out ninety percent of the outfits and decided to sell them via micro-transactions, but they should be far more explicit that this is the case.

Am I at fault for setting my expectations against the output of their hype machine? I used to think that maybe I was; I’m under no illusion that the promotion of these games is almost entirely undiluted finger-waggling horseshitery, as an MMO developer tries to build a critical mass of community around its forthcoming product. I should take it all with a pinch of salt, but lately I’ve come to realise that the amount of money these companies spend on marketing could be spent on improving their game such that it’s not an embarrassing bug ridden piece of half-realised promises and pie-in-the-sky design ideals. I find that it’s much better, for me, if I take the marketing of these companies at face value, and if they don’t live up to the tenet of what they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of $monetaryunit preaching to the masses, then it’s a fairly safe bet that there won’t be any substance to the game in the long run either.

Disappointment set in fairly early on in my experience when the starter area mobs started bugging-out and returning to their spawn point with full health half way through a fight… Oh yes, the game is in open beta, and the second mob I attacked in the starter area got bored with my circle-strafing around it in the manner that one is positively encouraged to do by the twitch-like nature of the combat system, and decided to wander off and reset its health bar. But not its aggro. So once it had regained full health, it came charging back at me again. And then it did it again. Either its a really really ‘why the hell didn’t you catch this in closed beta or QA testing?’ bug, or TCoS has boars with self-healing properties that would make Wolverine cry ‘nerf!’. For the record it wasn’t actually a boar, it was a unique creature of the Spellborn universe, I think it was technically called a Notaboar Honestguv. Another joyful ‘feature’ which I discovered is that the combat system has range detection, such that if you’re not standing close enough to the mob you won’t hit it. Fair enough, same with any MMO, except with most standard MMOs your abilities won’t fire if you’re out of range, in fact they’ll tell you as much, whereas in TCoS you can happily swing away and be hitting nothing but air. Again, this isn’t a problem, I’ve already established the twitch combat heritage that TCoS has touted from the outset. What seems strange is that I can be swinging away like a mad thing at the Notaboars, after a short time notice that its health bar is not reducing, think ‘Ooops, I’m too far away’, and move in closer. However, all this time, my character’s health bar has been reducing. So apparently these self-healing Notaboars also have snouts with a melee reach greater than my character’s arm with a three foot sword attached to the end of it. Strangely formed creatures of the Spellborn universe or nonsensical bug? You decide!

Of course it’s just as I’m wondering whether it was these seemingly all powerful starter-area Notaboars that were the ancient formidable force that tore the world of Spellborn asunder and shattered it into the many shards of rock that now float around in the deadness of space, that I see a Mage class character, of the same level as my Rogue, soloing about five or six of them at once. So now I’m pondering as to whether there might be a little class disparity as well. It is, however, open beta, and therefore all of these issues are there to be fixed before release. Honestly though, I do find it increasingly disconcerting that MMO developers can so consistently get to open beta with issues as basic and easily identifiable as these.

I did enjoy the Skill Bar[TM] – now with rotating action! It’s a genuine stab at, if not outright innovation, then at least taking skill bars to the next level, as it were. I think the bar design works; it is an interesting concept; it adds a level of complexity to building a character that is akin to deck building in Magic: The Gathering, and is possibly what Blizzard was initially hoping to create with their talent point system. So a quick description of what the bar is and does. Take your standard MMO action bar – a row of slots where you can put character skills for ease of activation – and then stack a bunch more on top. If you take the net of this shape and fold it around, you can make an approximation of a cylinder, as you rotate the cylinder around you encounter the next action bar in the sequence. So what happens is this: you draw your weapon and your skill cylinder pops up at the bottom of the screen, you then initiate combat by activating one of the skills on this first row. As soon as you activate a skill, the skill cylinder rotates to the next row and you, potentially, have a new set of skills to pick from. Eventually you rotate all the way back around to the first row, and the sequence begins again. So player ability lies not only in twitch-combat skills, but in the thought process behind building your ‘deck’ of skills. Anything you put on the first row will not be available again until the skill cylinder has completed a full rotation. You can duplicate a skill on the next row if you so choose, but you then give up a space that might be used for a different and perhaps more useful skill. For example, you might have an opening skill that debuffs the target on your first skill row in the first column, the following rows have standard attack abilities, but when you come back to the first row you may still be in combat and not be able to use the opener skill, so you might also have added a standard attack in the second column, thus allowing you to activate an ability and thus have the skill cylinder continue on its rotational journey. In this way you can set up a sequence of attacks across multiple rows and columns based on the rotation of the cylinder after each attack, but you need to balance this against the fact that you might need a situational ability at any point in time, so provision for such emergency measures is also something you have to weigh up – whether it’s worth dedicating a slot on the skill bar to something that you may or may not need at the time it crops up in the attack cycle. Think of it as introductory programming for drum-memory computers.

It’s a clever system and I like it lot, but the natural flow of the design is somewhat thrown out of the window by the use of an old MMO crutch mechanic which one would have hoped had been eliminated precisely due to the nature of the design of the rotating skill bar system, and that is the cooldown counter. The inclusion of cooldowns on skills potentially adds another layer of complexity for the spreadsheet wielding crowd who like to work out optimum skill rotation timings in World of Warcraft and the like, and I can see that the reason they were added is due to the fact that you can place a skill on each row of the rotating skill bar and thus, if it was a powerful skill, sit there spamming it to your heart’s content. However, it seems to me that the timed rotation of the skill bar lends itself perfectly naturally to being a built-in cooldown, all you would need to do is restrict the number of times you could place a skill on separate bars. Say it takes eight seconds to make a complete rotation through all skill bars, if you can only place a skill that it powerful enough to require an eight second cooldown on any one row, then you have your cooldown built in. You could split cooldowns further, every other row, every two rows etc. However, it may be that the deck building system of the skills may warrant having a skill with an eight second cooldown on more than one row, because you may use it at one point in your attack cycle, or choose to wait a while and use it in a different point in the attack cycle. If the system really is that deep, and can be fully utilised by players in a game where they need to be looking at the screen in order to maximise the twitch-based game-play, and yet still expected to watch cooldowns on a rotating skill bar, then I tip my hat to Spellborn International. For me though, the interface was becoming difficult to monitor whilst fighting when using only five or six skills in total, but you can potentially have a maximum of six rows with five skills in each. It’s a system that wants to be elegant, but I think its reliance on old MMO design elements has broken it in practise when combined with a first person targeting system.

I’ve experienced all of this through only the starter area, and people may decry my passing judgement based on such a small section of the game, but let me explain why starter areas are so important to me and why they are the simple Go or No Go flag by which an MMO earns my subscription or not. Starter areas are the filter through which all of your players will pass, like a prism filtering a beam of light, all players pass into the starter area and then refract out in a wide band to the various content that your game provides, be this quest regions restricted by level, game-play sections – PvE, PvP, Raiding – or various other segregations based upon your overarching design philosophy. How your starter area refracts your players will determine what paths they take, it colours their approach to your game, if you will. The starter area is important; where progression content and end-game content are what will ultimately keep players subscribing for years to come, the starter area will often determine whether you get those subscriptions at all. That is not to say that many players will be instantly turned off of your game by a poor starter area, but they will have been coloured by it, and the colour will be jade. Jaded as they are, many players will continue on, willing the game to prove them wrong and to provide them with the experience that they have been hoping for, but when they reach that inevitable level – 20 in many MMOs, 30 in others, but you know the level I mean – the grind will set in, the world begins to lose its lustre, and they will see it as the culmination of problems that they saw from the very beginning. They will feel that all the warning signs were there and that they can’t ignore them any longer, and they will leave. World of Warcraft had a horrible grind, lessened only somewhat in recent patches, in the mid-to-late forties; why did so many people stick with that game and ‘push’ through this hump and on to the end-game? I honestly believe it is because they have been filtered by the incredibly strong starter areas the game provides, and that the colour in this case is rose. Rose-tinted, they look back on the good times of their early levels and they give the game the benefit of the doubt that this is indeed only a hump, and that once they crest the brow of it they will be on the downward slope to enjoyable times once again. Go back to the starter areas in WoW and look around, observe the vast amount of content, the cities, the quest chains, the zones, the level of detail in everything, all of which mostly lies untouched these days. It seems like such a waste to have created this vast amount of content that was passed through only briefly, but that effort has been repaid through its contribution to retaining the huge subscriber base that the game now enjoys.

A thought: what if Blizzard had chosen to have only one starter area for the Horde, and one for the Alliance. What impact would it have had on the game? I think it would have a greater effect than many people would believe. WoW would still have been a success, the game is far more than just its starter areas. But the loyalty that it commands, the reason people just keep going back? That seed was sown in that first little village you ever entered, whose inhabits were having a problem with some critters that they needed you to kill ten of.

In summary, TCoS feels exactly like Tabula Rasa, Pirates of the Burning Sea and Auto Assault did when they were in open beta. A unique, visually impressive setting (which would be made that much better in this instance with the addition of a v-sync option so that I don’t have to look at two separate screen-torn versions of the world any time I pan faster than one degree per fortnight) wrapped around a game that is trying to do something different but which fails to convince me that it has at its core a substantial foundation of solid game-play to back up its ambitions. Like the aforementioned MMOs, it will most likely capture a small core enthusiast audience which is large enough to keep the game ticking over with a modest level of development and bug fixes.

For me, it’s another MMO for the ‘Non-starter, but hope I’m proven wrong’ pile, alas.

Reviewlet: Burnout Paradise, Castle Crashers and Braid.

It would appear that the graphics card in my gaming PC has decided that it is bored with the day to day drudgery of producing modest DirectX 9 compatible graphics, and has left to go and live in a commune in the forest with my old printer and that really stupid Linksys router I had that would always drop the Internet connection whenever a download reached ninety eight percent complete. Indeed, my graphics cards has decided to stick it to The Man, has abandoned the rat race life of 3D graphics, and now spends its days printing small tie-dyed Space Invader icons all across my screen. “No maaaan, Direct X is, like, bad juju. OpenGL is baaaad karma. Here, check out these totally rad icons I made in all the colours of the rainbow. They came to me in a dream, man! You wanna toke on this? All right, man, but I’m telling you, it’s good shit.”

So while I wait for a replacement to arrive I thought I’d take stock of what I’ve been playing recently that is not PC related. In this first instalment: Burnout Paradise, Castle Crashers and Braid.

Burnout Paradise: If you don’t know about Burnout Paradise, then you haven’t been a regular listener to the Van Hemlock and Jon podcast. Shame on you! I’d played an earlier incarnation of Burnout on the GameCube and had enjoyed it enough that, combined with the constant media praise for the ‘Next Gen’ edition of the driving series, and perhaps slightly more to do with the fact that I found a copy for sale at a disgustingly cheap price in a local electrical store, I decided to grab the Xbox 360 version and give it a try. So what is Burnout Paradise? One could say that it is a driving game, but that would be a lie. It would be more accurate to say that the primary single player experience is actually a very detailed, very gruelling, hardcore orienteering simulator. Orienteering at one hundred and seventy five miles per hour in super-charged V8s. The subtitle for the game should be Vin Diesel’s Extreme Orienteering Simulator. There are various events within Burnout Paradise, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of them are a point-to-point race of some sort; some of these events are straight races, where others require you to avoid being taken down (run off the road so that you crash) too many times by a set of pursuers who are wolf-like in their relentless harrying. The problem is that unless you know the roads off by heart you have to rely on your map and compass to get you from start to destination; I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble reading a map when I’m stationary at the side of the road and not in a hurry, let alone trying to decide whether I need to exit at the next turnpike whilst driving twice the posted speed limit, on the wrong side of the road, airborne halfway through an advertising hoarding, and trying to land such that I avoid the other racers who are determined to run me into the oncoming traffic. Essentially then, you’re expected to learn the layout of the city, to find the shortcuts and the crazy ways to literally cut corners, and commit them all to memory so that you need never experience that sinking feeling in your gut when you suddenly realise that you haven’t looked at the road for a good five to ten seconds, and you peer out from behind your map only to see nothing but sky. And then ground. Sky. Ground. Sky, ground, sky, ground… ‘the captain has illuminated the safety belt sign, please place your seat backs in the upright position and stow your tray in the seat in front of you in preparation for landing. Thank you.’.

I take it back, Burnout Paradise is an orienteering simulator only so long as it takes you to memorise the layout of the not inconsiderably sized city. For example, the stunt events require you to know where all the decent ramps and drifting places are with respect to your starting spot, so again it’s all about learning the area and knowing the optimal routes to take. Perhaps a better subtitle for the game would be Vin Diesel’s Extreme London Taxi Driver Knowledge Simulator, or Vin Diesel’s Bastard Hard Brain Training.

The game looks gorgeous and the physics simulation is excellent such that there is genuinely great pleasure to be had in just ‘free burning’ around the city, trying to learn the roads and find all the hidden jumps and shortcuts; it’s like a giant adventure playground for the Mad Max generation, and never does this become more clear than in the multiplayer achievement mode. Having tagged along with Jon’s Tuesday Console Club for a session of multiplayer achievement mayhem, where the game mode is a cooperative effort to try to complete various tasks set by the game – drift for a cumulative distance contributed to by all players, all players must achieve a barrel roll in a specific zone of the city, any one player must achieve a set amount of airtime from a jump, to name but a few – I have seen the level of effort that has gone into creating something that is more than just a simple arcade driving game. With Burnout Paradise, Criterion have created a driving sandbox game, it’s Elder Scrolls in American Muscle cars, and as such would have been worth its full retail price for the amount of time I will undoubtedly invest in it before I get bored. At the current clearance price it’s ridiculous value for money.

Castle Crashers: Ren & Stimpy meets Golden Axe. Need I say anything more? Expect lots of subtle yet childish humour and old-school arcade game-play with the respective rapid ramp-up of difficulty that coin-op machines would employ to keep you feeding them regular snacks of cupro-nickel. There’s a hat-tip RPG element in the form of points gained per level that you can invest in various stats in order to customise your character towards your preferred style of fighting. There are upgradable weapons; spells; potions and there are enemies. Lots and lots of enemies. There is one excellent tactic granted to you in order to deal with the vast relentless tide of foes that you face, and that is the fact that you can bring three of your friends along for the fight. The graphics are crisp, the animations traditional but fun, and the audio is that perfect blend of catchy tunes that bleed into the game without taking over from the arcade-homage sound effects. A very enjoyable, easily accessible, side scrolling hack’n’slash arcade game of the old school. It’s available on the XBox Arcade, and for me the only thing it lacks is a backing ambience of Penny-Go-Round coin pushers, an oppressively dark and smoky atmosphere, and a strange emo kid called Danny who stands slightly too close while looking over your shoulder as you try to play.

Braid: You remember that girl you knew at school? You do. The stunningly pretty one who all the boys fancied and half the girls did too, and they all waxed lyrical about how fantastic she was. Remember your disappointment when it turned out that no matter how much you or anyone else loved her, they would never be able to love her more than she already loved herself? Braid is what would happen if that girl was sucked into the Tron machine and transferred into the digital realm.

Braid is pretty. Braid is clever. Braid loves itself utterly, and no clearer is this in evidence than in its supposedly deep and meaningful story. Braid wants to be seen as high art, and Braid thinks it is too good for the likes of you.

What Braid actually appears to be is a delightful little Marioesque platformer combined with puzzle elements generated using the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time time mechanic. The puzzles are devious and clever in their implementation, and this is the one thing that I think Braid brings to the table that makes it special and perhaps more than just another amalgamation of game-play elements slapped together from existing games. Braid is an accomplished game, it presents a coherent, attractive, and innately comprehensible game world. It’s just such a shame that it clearly thinks that it is far more of a revelation than it actually is.

Reviewlet: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.

Following Zoso’s post regarding the freebies available for a short time on Tor, I took the opportunity to grab a couple of the books on offer and have myself a bit of a read. Unfortunately the books listed didn’t have any descriptions listed alongside, and being the lazy bugger that I am I couldn’t be bothered to research each one on Amazon. So I went for the <voice style=”reverb: on; volume: booming; pitch: low”>random click of destiny</style> and hoped that I’d picked something I could get in to.

The first book was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a decent enough space romp with a slightly different take on the ‘downloadable personality’ theme as seen in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and elsewhere. Scalzi has created a universe that is both interesting and believable, with compelling races and individuals that leave you wanting to find out more about them, and although the main story is a little uninspiring, the secondary storyline – based around the main character himself, his history and the moral dilemmas he faces as life as he knows it is turned on its head – allows the reader to really engage with the book as a whole and to be immersed in the ideas and themes that Scalzi presents. Obvious comparisons can be drawn to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and, as mentioned earlier, Morgan’s Altered Carbon, so if you enjoyed either of those two books then you probably won’t be disappointed with Old Man’s War.

The second book was Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, a really rather excellent fantasy story that pleasantly surprised me with its well presented world, its likeable-without-being-mawkish characters and the real star of the show: Allomancy.

Allomancy is the system of magic that Sanderson has created, and instead of having it as some innate unseen power that requires hugely bearded men to sit hunched over dusty old tomes for years on end to achieve, Allomancy instead manifests itself as more of a mutation that is powered by various metals that the Allomancer must ingest and then ‘burn’ to activate the power. There are a number of known metals that can be used in this way, each giving the Allomancer a different power when they burn the metal, but they gain this power only for as long as the metal lasts since it is consumed as the Allomancer uses the power, hence the term ‘burning’ to represent the use of the power. Unlike magic in many other books though, the art of Allomancy is still not entirely understood, and this leaves the door open for things to be twisted around and for plenty of surprises to be unleashed on the main characters and the reader.

The world of the Final Empire is one of a class of nobles who rule over an underclass of slaves known as Skaa, all of whom are presided over by the Lord Ruler, the hero of a past age, who is now immortal – a shard of God – and controls the land with an iron fist. The lands themselves are a depressing affair, with what little vegetation that manages to grow under the ash-filled sky being nothing but dull brown; nobody knows what colourful plants look like, although it is hinted that they did exist in the time before the ascension of the Lord Ruler.

The story is nothing out of the ordinary, with the standard framework of the underclass rising up to overthrow their oppressors through the efforts of a select band of unlikely heroes, but it does throw some nice twists in along the way. However, there is an undercurrent of another story which is not fully expounded upon, and The Final Empire clearly leaves the door wide open for the second and third books to sate the reader’s desire to find out more about the trials of the Lord Ruler a thousand years ago: what was this Deepness that he faced? And if he succeeded in defeating it as we are led to believe, why did the land change so much for the worse afterwards? There are some answers in the first book, just enough to whet the appetite and keep the reader wanting more as the main story of the first book comes to its, perhaps inevitable, conclusion.

I could best describe Mistborn: The Final Empire as having a strong bouquet of Eddings, with a light fragrant sensation of Jordan on the palette and subtle undertones of Lynch and Gemmell.

It’s a credit to Tor, and hopefully in its own small way encouraging to authors and publishers out there, that I’ve already ordered all three books in the series, and I’m certainly keen to find out what the story is behind this fascinating world that Sanderson has created. I bought the first book because, although having read it, I’d like to give the author the sale, and there’s nothing like having a paper copy of a book, the creased and wrinkled spine and loose well-fingered pages a simple testament to one’s enjoyment of the story within. So putting a free copy of the first book in the series on to the web has resulted in at least one new fan, and a few sales, and more importantly I’d like to think that I’m not out of the ordinary in doing so. Not only that, but it has also inspired this little reviewlet which I hope, in turn, might turn some of you on to the idea of trying this excellent little trilogy yourselves.

Well done Tor for seeing the advantage in this sort of marketing strategy, and I hope it works out well for the authors involved.