Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2009
Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Playtime: 5 hours (campaign + Special Ops), 5 hours (online).
Paid: ~$60 from GAME
Metacritic: 87 (PC), 94 (PS3/360)

(An aside about the playtime: For those 5 hours of playtime online, Steam claims I’ve spent 7.5 hours in the multiplayer client, suggesting I’ve spent 1/3 of my time in matchmaking and customisation.)

Well, that was …interesting. After all the hype, all the advertising, and all the controversy, what did you expect?

Modern Warfare 2 includes a singleplayer campaign continuing 5 years after where its predecessor left off, and… well, it’s short. Indeed, it’s really short, at just 4 hours and 40 minutes for my admittedly quick playthrough on Regular difficulty.

An interesting addition to the game is the Special Ops mode, comprising 23 singleplayer / 2-player co-operative (some are 2P-only) missions, which are a mixed bag of brief little scenarios of various types – assault missions, defending an area, racing, stealth, and so on. Completing each mission earns you 1, 2, or 3 stars, giving those who need to complete everything an added challenge. The challenges are quite fun, and will likely cause that “one more time” reaction when you fall just short.

And, of course, the game features multiplayer. You may have heard some things about it. Plenty more after the jump.

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Review: Aquaria

AquariaBanner

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2007
Developer: Bit Blot
Publisher: Bit Blot
Playtime: ~16.5 / 19 hours (in-game / Steam timers)
Paid: $13.39 at Steam
Metacritic: 82

Aquaria is essentially an indie under-the-sea Metroidvania game crossed with Ocarina of Time.

Bit Blot, a development team composed of two people (two people!), created the world of Aquaria, a sprawling and diverse underwater landscape. Derek Yu is an illustrator, and his work shines in the beautiful, high-definition environments and character/creature design. High-definition 2D graphics are a joy for the eye, and are something I’d like to see more of. Everything about the game is visually stunning, down to the water and particle effects, or even the miscellaneous items left around the place. It’s hard to get past how delightful everything looks, but for the purposes of discussing the game’s other strengths, I’ll do so for now.

I said Aquaria was a Metroidvania game – for the uninitiated, Metroid and Castlevania games are non-linear, leaving you to explore the world with few hints and requiring backtracking after discovering new abilities or items to access hitherto blocked rooms or areas. These sorts of games also feature combat, be it against the aggressive creatures of the world or in boss battles.

Aquaria‘s musical aspect (the Ocarina of Time link I made before) stems from “the Verse”. The Verse is a force… like, well, the Force. Your character, Naija, a lonely humanoid sea creature, can sing notes which harness the power of the Verse. A ring of 8 notes, each shown as a coloured symbol, is displayed when the right mouse button is held. Hovering over a note sings it, which can cause plants or animals to respond. Over the course of the game, Naija learns songs which can have a profound effect.

It is worth noting at this point that the actual music of the game is just as remarkable as the graphics – a soundtrack CD is still under production, with a digital format to be released as well. Conveniently, Aquaria comes with a Jukebox mod, accessible from the main menu, which can play any of the game’s music. Different locations have different music, matching the area’s general feel, ranging from dark and brooding to light and innocent. Thankfully, they tunes are catchy and enjoyable enough that you don’t get sick of them.

Aquaria can be extremely difficult at times, between some rough boss battles and puzzles. Thankfully, most of the toughest incidents aren’t essential to the game’s completion. Many boss battles are nigh-impossible without eating a great amount of food, which is created with the cooking system. Naija will discover recipes as she explores Aquaria. By following these recipes, combining items dropped by defeated creatures in the game’s inventory system, you create life-saving foods which, for example, heal Naija, boost her defence, or increase her offensive capabilities.

The actual story of the game is fairly simple – Naija (voice-acted by Jenna Sharpe) is the only one of her kind; desiring friendship, she heads out into her world. What she finds is a massive world, and what she achieves is equally large in scope. I found the game to be driven more by exploration anyway, but the story is interesting. Certain secret areas unlock flashbacks; finding all of these unlocks a rather surprising ending.

Utilising Naija’s 8 “forms” (changes in physical appearance and ability), bestowed upon her by fallen foes and otherwise discovered, is the key to fully exploring Aquaria. The experience is immersive and atmospheric, helped along by simple and fluid controls. The game’s secrets are well-hidden, and after 16 and a half hours I still haven’t found everything.

Discovery is satisfying, as is victory in combat. Aquaria provides both in ample supply, in a remarkable world with fantastic production values. It can be frustrating to not know what to do at a certain time, given the game’s non-linear progression, but that’s part of the fun. Congratulations to Bit Blot for creating such a great experience.

I Think I’m Done Here: Bionic Commando (2009)

Bionic Commando

Platform: PS3 (Also released on X360, PC)
Developer: GRIN (now defunct)
Publisher: Capcom
Playtime: 2.5 hours
Paid: £12.28 ($23.12AU) from The Hut.

I feel that if you’re going to review a game, you should finish the game. In this case, I could not. Whether or not this is a flaw on my part for lacking patience is debatable. Hence the title of “I Think I’m Done Here” – this is not a full review. It’s a review of the first 2.5 hours of gameplay, and an explanation of why they gave me a headache.

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Review: TimeShift

TimeShift PC

PC – Keyboard/Mouse – 2007
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Playtime: 7 hours
Paid: $11.24 from Steam
Metacritic: 71 (70 on PS3/X360)

Consider 2007’s first-person shooters with either a silent protagonist, a special suit of some sort, or both. Did Half-Life 2: Episode Two come to mind? Or perhaps Crysis? BioShock? Portal? I could continue. The point is, TimeShift probably wasn’t your first choice, nor mine. In fact, it actually felt to me like Saber, the developers, had recently played Half-Life 2. TimeShift features a silent physicist in a special suit which allows him to – and here’s the crux of the game – shift time by slowing, stopping, and reversing it.

The traditional shooter mechanic of “if it moves, shoot it” more or less applies here, but has been modified to “if it moves, play with time, and then shoot it”. Obviously the real question is in how entertaining you find this. I enjoyed the demo enough to drop some money for more. The game finds a lot of cool uses for the three powers you have, although the puzzles they provide are never altogether hard, being that there are basically three possible answers. The player can either select the power to use manually or use the suit’s auto-suggest feature. It may be a stretch to refer to the obstacles put in front of you as puzzles, but they require some thought and are satisfying to get past.

TimeShift uses the regenerative healing system for both health and timeshifting powers, which makes sense given the context of the suit.  The ridiculous battlefield advantage given by the powers is balanced by the low amount of health you have, although it does regenerate very quickly. Combat is the focus of the game, as suggested by the seemingly never-ending supply of enemies. I found it to be a great deal of fun, though – which is good, because the game absolutely depends on it. Stopping time to run behind someone, blast them with a shotgun at point-blank a few times, and then starting time again to see them explode in front of you is just one of many, many ways to frankly be just mean. Less cruel players can just use the time-slowing ability as bullet-time, making battles a lot easier. Or you could stop time and steal an enemy’s gun, or reverse time if you want to try something again. Battles offer a fair bit of choice to the player and let them make their own fun, to an extent.

Much like Half-Life 2, the game begins in an oppressed city, then visits the countryside and other enemy industrial complexes, then returns to the city. Also, in the city, the ruler (a scientist!) does a great Dr. Breen impression, with an endlessly-repeating message over the loudspeakers, essentially telling the citizens to behave. Even the rocket launcher feels like HL2’s, following the cursor after being fired so you can aim during flight. This is one of 9 powerful weapons available, though only 3 can be held simultaneously. The plentiful enemies means a great deal of dropped ammo, although I still found myself running short – probably because of my tendency to unload a ridiculous salvo of ammo on a hapless enemy. These weapons and abilities mean that TimeShift really is quite bloody, with exploding bodies aplenty.

The “silent, mysterious protagonist” gambit stretches to the story, which is unveiled gradually through extremely short (but pretty!) cut-scenes, leaving the player to piece it together for the most part. This is a refreshing method of exposition and all, but it left me occasionally wondering what my motive was other than “survive by shooting dudes”. The setting is an alternate-timestream in the late 1930s, with visual design occasionally reminiscent of BioShock’s. The lead antagonist is another physicist, Dr. Krone, who has made himself leader of this ‘30’s word. The game does escalate, as you go from fighting standard humans to others wearing time-shifting suits (which is very cool), and other machinery; also, there are a couple of brief aerial combat sections to break up the monotony.

Visually, TimeShift is okay. Sometimes it looks great, at other times…less so. Visual effects caused by the time-shifting powers and more extreme weaponry are quite impressive, such as rain falling in slow-motion. Some of the countryside views are impressive, as well. In general, they’re not fantastic, they’re not awful. As far as the audio goes, sound effects are again competent, but not memorable. The dialogue can be hilarious, with the expressions of surprise and disbelief from the enemies after you use your powers generally providing a good laugh – particularly since the vocal work itself can be quite cringe-worthy, either cheesy or just not well-done. The vocals in the cutscenes were a cut above, however.

TimeShift is a decent effort, and can be extremely enjoyable. I felt as though I’d been playing for longer than 7 hours, although I’m undecided as to whether that’s a good thing. It can feel repetitive and uninspiring, and the enjoyment comes solely from the time-control. The thing is, this is exactly what players would expect, and the developers made the most of these powers. The ending leaves the possibility of a sequel wide open, but whether or not there are another 7 hours of unique situations to use these abilities in is pretty questionable. Now at a heavily-reduced price, TimeShift isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours, and is definitely worth a look if an FPS with time-control powers is what you crave.

Review: Race Driver: GRID

PC – Keyboard – 2008
Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Playtime: 19 hours
Paid: $15 – Steam
Metacritic: 87 (PC/PS3/360), 79 (DS)

If you’ve played DiRT, here is a summary: GRID is like DiRT with road and street racing events, and retaining the atmosphere and great presentation. In my opinion, this is a good thing. It lives between arcade and sim, but definitely leans towards the arcade side of the spectrum – higher difficulty settings essentially crank up the realism. Car damage becomes a bigger factor as the difficulty increases, as big slams cause tyre damage, or damage to the steering, engine, and so on. These can really affect performance.

On the first launch of GRID, a menu prompt asks for the player’s name. If it is common enough, it will be on the list, so the in-game vocals refer to you by name, which is really quite nice. The menu, like DiRT’s before it, is really well-presented and simple. This sort of thing should be more common, with occasional background vocals explaining menu options, well-designed menu design, and background graphics as opposed to a hastily-constructed list of words.

Car damage is neutralized by the flashback system, which is an excellent way to add forgiveness to an unforgiving genre. In each race, there are 0-5 flashbacks available (dependant on difficulty). When you crash, or just decide you could have performed better in a section, you can pause and view an instant replay of the last 10 or so seconds and can start again from any point in that replay – it is oddly reminiscent of rewinds in The Sands of Time.

GRID has two types of rewards – reputation and money.  Both are earned by winning race events. Retiring from an event loses you reputation, but there is practically no reason to ever do so, as there is no penalty for restarting a race. These events span multiple races, and thankfully, if you’re 2 races through a 5-race event, the game saves the progress. After a few introductory races, you earn enough money to start your own racing team, giving it your own name and car design (changeable later). Given more time and money, you can add a teammate to the mix. Reputation is issued in each region, and unlocks new licenses which open new events, eventually unlocking the global license. Winning events unlocks real sponsors, who will provide cash rewards if you meet their demands in each race – such as finishing in the top 3.

There are three regions for race events – the US, Europe, and Japan. Each has a different style of racing: the US tends towards muscle cars; Europe, touring cars; and Japan, drifting. There are 15 race locations spread between these regions, and pretty much all tracks are fun to race on. The variety really comes from the racing disciplines. GRID includes open wheel racing, demolition derbies, pro tuned cars, touge races, pro muscle cars, touring cars, Le Mans events, prototype cars….a bunch of stuff, essentially.

The game is split into seasons of 4 events. At the end of each season, you can enter the 24 Hours Le Mans, one of the most famous races in the world. The option to race in this is pushed on you in the menu – either do it, or skip it. Le Mans is a superb event, though. For the uninitiated, it is a real race which lasts for 24 hours. In-game, it lasts for 12 minutes by default, which still makes it an endurance event by game standards. It can actually be set to last for various lengths, including a ridiculous 24 hours, in the Race Day mode of the menu, which lets you jump into any race, any time. The quality of racing is higher than the rest of the game in this race, and any mistake can really ruin you.

Le Mans events have four classes of cars. For your first few 24 Hour events, you’ll start in the lower classes. To “win” the race, you just have to win out of your class of vehicle. Actually winning the race in the highest class after buying the $20 million prototype car is a great experience. This is the best example of how high-level the racing becomes. By this point in the game, you’ll be high in the rankings both of drivers (ranked by reputation) and teams (ranked by money earned each season). Becoming number one in each is a point of pride, but isn’t actually the end-game, and is hardly even congratulated. Winning each event in a group (3 to 6 events) unlocks a head-to-head battle against Ravenwest (the game’s top racing team). The final showdown is locked to extreme difficulty, with only one flashback available – winning this causes the credits to roll.

Clearly, I got distracted writing about the rewards of racing. The racing itself is a solid experience, with each vehicle type performing and controlling differently. The game looks fantastic, truly. I raced in the cockpit view for the whole game, and found it to add immersion, particularly with car damage. Shattering the windscreen is incredibly distracting – it would be nice if there were a way to break it off entirely without having to crash again. The environments and vehicles are pretty flawless. Performance is affected by car damage, and slipstreaming is rewarded.

Having vocals in the game is quite neat. I was pleasantly surprised the first time my teammate spoke to me over the team radio. Their accent is defined by their nationality. I suspect that their relative ranking might also have an impact on their dialogue, as I hired a German guy who was ranked higher than me, and he seemed really condescending. He eventually caused me to crash near the end of a Le Mans, so I fired him and replaced him with a lovely Irish guy. The other vocals are the manager and your pit chief. Hearing these voices adds immersion, but there just aren’t enough dialogue lines. The pit chief told me roughly a thousand times that my “car got a little banged up, but it’s nothin’ serious”. The car sounds sound like…well, cars. I honestly don’t know what more to tell you. They could probably be better, but they’re definitely competent. The game’s music is really quite enjoyable, but is only played in important races such as head-to-head battles and 24 Hour events. This is good in that it adds to the drama and intensity, but a drawback in that the rest of the game could really use some tunes.

There are other drawbacks, but they’re really nothing serious. For example, the mini-map could be more informative – instead of showing every car as a yellow dot, how about showing me my teammate, or colouring each class in Le Mans events differently? There are no night races with the exception of half of the 24 Hours, and a street race in Shibuya. There are also no weather options, with every race being sunny and dry. Admittedly, rain and snow would make the game really hard. Some racing fans may also complain that there are fewer than 50 cars to collect and drive, but again, it’s not really a big deal.

Time flies while playing GRID. It is an exciting and immersive racing experience, beautifully presented and designed. The racing is the real focus of the game, but the team management features are interesting as well. Loading times are short and made moderately interesting by showing statistics about your racing career. (It would be nice if I could view these separately.) GRID is a solid arcade racer which can be set to have just enough realism to make it compelling to gamers looking for a sim experience.

Review: Mass Effect

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2008 (2007 for Xbox 360)
Developer: BioWare (Demiurge for PC port)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (EA for PC)
Playtime: 15 hours
Paid: $38AU from Harvey Norman (Australian retailer)

Metacritic: 91 (Xbox 360), 89 (PC).
Sales: Several million. At least 1.6 million on 360.

I’ve been putting off reviewing Mass Effect for a couple of weeks now, for a couple of reasons: firstly, I wanted to let it percolate in my mind for a while; secondly, because I know I’m a little raw here, and in my opinion this game deserves better verbalization than I’ve been pushing so far. For the lazy, six words can save you from reading through the following paragraphs: This is a really good game.

Mass Effect is the successful sci-fi action role-playing-game from BioWare, which combines third-person combat with classic RPG dynamics (dialogue trees, skills, leveling) in an epic galaxy full of quests and stories.  An informal summary be to say that you get experience points for shooting aliens, and it is great. You play as Commander Shepard, a human soldier on a mission which soon evolves into a manhunt. Both combat and diplomacy are necessary for the completion of this major mission and the many optional side-quests. Set in 2183, the Human Alliance is just one of a number of memorable races in the Milky Way, which is governed by the Citadel Council.  The game looks extremely good, particularly the characters. The level of visual customization options for the main character is impressive. Continue reading

Review: Zeno Clash

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2009
Developer: ACE Team
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Playtime: 3.3 hours
Paid: $9.99 on Steam.

Zeno Clash has received a Metacritic score of 78. Sales are a mystery, but were apparently good enough to warrant a sequel.

This is probably the strangest commercially-released game I’ve played. Even its origins are a surprise – an independently-developed Chilean effort running on the Source engine, currently only digitally-distributed (unless you import from a selection of Eastern European nations). The first thing that will really strike you is the art style. The world of Zenozoik is bizarre, colourful, and beautiful. Character, creature, and item design is similarly outlandish yet impressive, and it is frankly difficult to find anything to draw comparisons with. Certainly it is an original experience in terms of design. Continue reading

Review: Prince of Persia (2008)

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2008
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Playtime: 11 hours
Paid: $24.99US on Steam

Metacritic scores for Prince of Persia range from 81 to 85 across the three platforms.
Sales were recently estimated to be over 2.2 million worldwide.

Previous experience: I played the demo for The Sands of Time a few times and decided that I needed it. After buying the game for $100AU, I proceeded to play roughly a quarter of it. Sigh. Fortunately, this means I’m not attached to the “old Prince”.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about this game is the art style – 2D characters traversing a 3D world. Both are beautiful. The character outfits and textures are detailed and suitably designed. The world itself is nothing short of magnificent, and I occasionally took pause to rotate the camera and just have a look around. As you progress through the game, you clear the Corruption from each area, gradually cleaning the world and making it more beautiful – from polluted, dank, and dangerous to vibrant, healthy, and shining.

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Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

PC – Keyboard / Mouse controls – 2008
Developer: Rockstar North (Rockstar Toronto for PC)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Playtime: 25 hours.
Paid: £20.48 shipped from 365 Games.

Grand Theft Auto IV has a Metacritic score of 90 on PC, and 98 on PS3 / Xbox 360.
Sales were stated as over 13 million as of March 11, 2009.

Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the most highly-anticipated games of 2008, and received incredible reviews from the gaming media. The open-world action gameplay of the series took its first step into this generation (can we not call it next-gen anymore? Thanks.) and people were absolutely ready for it. This release is huge in scope and influence – but does it live up to the hype? A year-late investigation follows.

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