Monday, November 26, 2007

Hidden Gems: The Return

I was checking out the list of Xbox games which are currently compatible with the Xbox 360 over the weekend, and I noticed that a number of excellent games can now be played. Seeing as most of these games can also be found at very low prices, I thought it was a great opportunity to highlight some of them and resurrect Hidden Gems at the same time. This time, it's the turn of Panzer Dragoon Orta.

Title: Panzer Dragoon Orta
Format: Xbox
Genre: On-rails Shoot 'em up
Expect to pay: £10 or less

The Panzer Dragoon series started life on the Sega Saturn and was highly regarded by fans but seldom heard of by people that didn't own the console. My first experience with the series was playing Panzer Dragoon Zwei on the Saturn that belonged to my flatmate at university, and I enjoyed it. If you have played on-rails shooters like Star Fox or Rez, you will have a rough idea of how the PD games play, but what sets them apart is the fantasy world that was created for the game. Acclaimed artist Moebius was brought in to create the art style that defines the entire series, and a whole language was created for the characters to speak. This is a level of detail that goes beyond what is expected for the average shooter and helps make the Panzer Dragoon series so special.

In the later days of the Saturns life, Sega released Panzer Dragoon Saga, an epic four disc RPG that is the holy grail for many game collectors to this day, and regularly fetches prices of well over £100. However, like the other games in the series, it didn't sell in vast quantities and chances of any further games in the series were pretty slim. Skip forward to 2003, and Sega decides to give the series one last try (to date anyway) with Panzer Dragoon Orta for the Xbox. The Xbox was a much more successful machine than the Saturn ever was which meant that there was a much bigger potential audience for it to begin with - however Sega didn't exactly sing its praises at every opportunity and it failed to make a big impact. Those that did notice its release and try it however were treated to one of the best shooters of the non first person variety for the machine.

The first thing that strikes you when you fire up the game are the sublime visuals. The FMV that sets up the story, with the young girl Orta imprisoned in a tower and about to be munched by nasty dragons, looks amazing. Needless to say, she doesn't actually get eaten, but instead is rescued by a mysterious and friendly dragon. She escapes on its back, and from that point on she is embroiled in the battle against the Empire and their genetically enhanced dragon army. She also has to piece together her past, and the player finds out why she was incarcerated in the first place over the course of the game.

Panzer Dragoon Orta still looks fantastic today.

The next thing that will probably grab you and get under your skin is the amazing musical score. I am especially fond of the boss tune, with it's memorable melody and deep bass line. The speech in the game is in a language that has been devised for the series as mentioned elsewhere, first by the original creators Team Andromeda, but continued here by the new developers Smilebit. It does a good job of sounding other worldly while still sounding like it could feasibly be a genuine language. You do of course get full subtitles so that you know what on earth everyone is blabbing on about.

As the game is an on-rails shooter you'd be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't have much depth, but in this cash you'd be wrong. There are multiple paths through the levels, and sub chapters and modes which open up as you progress through the game. The game itself can be quite tough at times but with some practice you should be able to get past the bosses, which include other dragons, and entire fleet of airships and a giant golem which hurls rocks at you. Your dragon has a standard attack, which can be locked on to multiple enemies, and a smart bomb move to kill everything on screen or give a boss a pummelling. The dragon also has three different forms - a standard form which is good for all around use, a speedy form which is handy for avoiding obstacles, and a defensive form which is very slow but can soak up much more damage.

Seeing as the game can now be picked up so cheaply, and the Xbox 360 is finally capable of running it, I recommend it to everyone. It looks better than many so called next generation titles, is full of imaginative worlds and characters, and has rock solid gameplay. Fans of the series may never get to play another game in the series, but at least it went out on a high. If this sounds like the sort of thing you'd enjoy, you really Orta get it! (groan)

Sometimes you have to have quick reactions in order to avoid all the enemy fire and the walls, which is where your speedy dragon form comes in handy.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide Part 4: Downloadable Games

So I finally got my copy of Super Mario Galaxy on Friday, and over the weekend I've managed to get 45 Power Stars. It's every bit as good as I had hoped, and I would have played longer had I not been suffering from a nasty bug which gave me a splitting headache all weekend long. Still, I should probably pace myself anyway because true Mario platformers like this only come along about once every five years. Anyway, now to the real reason we're here - the fourth and final part of my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide. This time I'm looking at the five best games for the Wii's Virtual Console, and the 360's Xbox Live Arcade. I'm not including the PS3 as I have no experience in this area.

Top 5 Virtual Console Titles

Sin and Punishment - N64 - 1200 points

Sin and Punishment
was never granted a PAL release back in the nineties as the lifespan of the N64 was already drawing to a close. Developed by master coders Treasure, it is regarded as one of the finest games for the console and with very good reason. It plays a bit like Star Fox crossed with a platformer, as your character runs along on foot instead of flying a star fighter, and you must double jump over pits and avoid being crushed by walls. Boasting some of the best graphics on the N64, Sin and Punishment is worth the extra 200 points.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past - SNES - 800 points

Many gamers cite Ocarina of Time as the best game in the Zelda series but for me A Link to the Past takes that honour. The game was riveting right from the start with the extremely atmospheric opening in the rain as you set out to resue Princess Zelda. It also introduced the light/dark world concept which has been reused in some form or another in many games since. A true classic!

Paper Mario - N64 - 1000 points

I discovered the original Paper Mario rather late in the day - some two or three years after it was first released, but I've been a fan of the series ever since. Despite having two very good sequels, this first game remains my favourite and is a bargain at the price of 1000 points (which works out at around £6 if I'm not mistaken).

Super Mario World - SNES - 800 points

It might seem that I have a Nintendo/Mario bias here, but that's only because they really are some of the best games ever made, and the Sega games all suffer from being slower than they should be and have huge borders. Super Mario World is the pinaccle of the series in its 2D form, and crams in dozens of neat ideas into a tightly packed bundle of pure enjoyment. If you've never played it, go and get it!

Super Mario 64 - N64 - 1000 points

Super Mario 64 is so good it's taken ten long years for a game to equal it (I'm referring to Super Mario Galaxy of course). Who can forget the first time the arrived in the grounds of Peach's castle, explored worlds like Bob-omb Battlefield, Tick Tock Clock or Shifting Sand Land, and faced off againts Bowser in 3D for the first time? The game could be as challenging as the player wanted it to be too, as getting 70 stars was enough to finish the game, but completists could go for all 120 which is a much trikier proposition. A timeless classic.

Top 5 Xbox Live Arcade Titles

Switchball - 800 points

OK, so rolling a ball around a maze to get to the exit is hardly a new concept (see Marble Madness, Super Monkey Ball, Marble Blast Ultra and Kororinpa for just a few examples) but as long as they are done well, as Switchball is, the concept is a sound one. You can change the properties of your ball to make it heavier, or to allow you to perform a speed boost and get up slopes or break through barriers. With great graphics as well, it's worth a shot.

Puzzle Quest - 800 points

Puzzle Quest
has already established itself as one of the best and most addictive games available for both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and now it has been released on the Xbox 360. Reasons for picking up the 360 version include enhanced visuals, achievements, an online multiplayer mode and rankings. 800 points is a small price to pay for such a large and rewarding game.

Space Giraffe - 400 points

If there ever was a game that thoroughly deserved the irritating photosenstive seizure warning that you have to sit through, then this is it. Before long the screen will be awash with technicoloured explosions and your ears will be bombarded with bizzare beats and sounds. It may take you a little while to get the hang of things, but when you get in the zone it's a real rush and at 400 points a bit of a bargain too.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - 800 points

Before the game finally appeared on Xbox Live Arcade, I had heard great things about it for many years. Hunting down a copy for the PlayStation or Saturn could be a tricky and costly pursuit, so it's fantastic that it can finally be downloaded. You take the role of Alucard, Dracula's son, as he explores a vast castle in a quest to slay his father and send him back to his crypt for another 100 years.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved - 800 points

One of the earliest games available for Xbox Live Arcade is also still one of the best. To begin with you will probably struggle to break 100,000 points, but with practice you will get better and better until you might just break a million points. Later levels swarm with enemies and the screen will be as filled with explosions and debris as the air will be with swear words.

So that's it, the end of my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide. I hope it has helped at least one person out there decide what to get with their Christmas money, or perhaps what to get someone else as a present. I'll be back next week, probably with another review.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide Part 3: Gaming on a budget

This weeks update is a bit later than usual, but at least I am managing to update on a regular basis! Here is part 3 of my 4 part Christmas Guide, this time looking at 10 of the best games available for a budget price (which I define as being under £20). Most of the games here aren't new by any means, but they do come highly recommended. I will list the best price I managed to find the game for, but prices vary so make sure you shop around a bit first!

Kingdom Hearts 2 - PS2 - Out Now - Best Price: £10

If you are a fan of Disney, Final Fantasy, Action RPG's, or all of these, then you'll probably love Kingdom Hearts 2. The plot can be a little confusing to start with if you missed the original game, but you will be gradually brought up to speed as you play the game. As well as the usual worlds such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, this time you will also visit the characters from Pirates of the Carribbean at Port Royale and also travel to the virtual world of Tron.

Metal Slug Anthology - PSP, PS2, Wii - Out Now - Best Price: £10

7 games for £10 is bloody good value for money no matter who you ask. Granted, they are all pretty much the same sort of thing, but you will have great fun playing through them. Take control of Marco or one of the many other playable characters and take on Nazi-esque enemies, aliens, zombies, giant enemy crabs, robots of all shapes and sizes and many other weird and wonderful creations. The action is extremely frantic in my opinion is a perfect fit for the PSP. For the full details on this game, check out my review from a few weeks back.

Puzzle Quest - DS, PSP - Out Now - Best Price: £15

Take the basic puzzle game concept of Bejewelled, and then fuse it within the trappings of an RPG, and what you get is Puzzle Quest. You gain experience, mana or gold from removing pieces, or you can deal damage to your opponent by taking skull pieces and casting magic spells. Your reperoire of spells and skills increases as you level up, and eventually you will be able to tame beasts and use their skills as well. Puzzle Quest is extremely addictive and I highly recommend it to all.

Final Fantasy XII - PS2 - Out Now - Best Price: £10

£10 is an amazing price for one of the best games of last year (this year if you had to wait for the PAL release). This is the biggest overhaul the series has had since Final Fantasy VII, and I for one really enjoyed it. The graphics, music, storyline and new battle engine all came together to deliver a truely amazing game. Thanks to the rise of the next generation consoles, PS2 games are rapidly reducing in price, much to the gamers advantage. Go and get it now!

Wii Zapper + Link's Crossbow Training - Wii - Out 07/12/07 - Best Price: £20

One of the most enjoyable multiplayer games for the Wii so far was actually the shooting game which was included in Wii Play in my opinion. It's just a shame the levels were exactly the same each time - abit more variety would've have elevated it to true classic status. This could be exactly what I need - a more developed shooting game, set in the familiar land of Hyrule, which comes packaged with the plastic holster than can also be used with games like Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles.

Killer 7 - Gamecube, PS2 - Out Now - Best Price: £5

Killer 7
is one of the most overlooked games to be released within the lifespan of the Gamecube, and also one of the best. It is also, as those who have played it will attest to, extremely weird. The Killer 7 referred to in the title are in fact the split personalities of one man - Harman Smith, who must go up agains the horrible monstrous "smiles". The spiritual successor, No More Heroes, is out soon for the Wii, so now would be a good time to catch up with the original.

Dragon Quest VIII - PS2 - Out Now - Best Price: £15

This remains my favourite RPG that was released on the PS2 for many reasons - amazing visuals, a scintillating score, a fun a plot and enjoyable/addictive gameplay. Plus the fact that it gives over 60 hours of quality entertainment. Anybody who is even remotely interested in Japanese RPG's should go and get themselves a copy of Dragon Quest VIII straight away, and then while away the winter months - combined with FFXII, it's unbeatable!

Burnout Dominator - PSP - Out Now - Best Price: £10

Each of the games in the Burnout franchise have traditionally brought something new to the table, but I'm afraid I can't really say that for Dominator, which was brought out more as a filler title between Burnout Revenge and Paradise with its newfangled free roaming mode.. That said, it's still a brilliant game which works extremely well on the PSP, and is a great improvement over Burnout Legends, with improved graphics and brand new tracks rather than hand-me-downs from previous games. Fans of the series should definitely consider picking it now that it can be found at a bargain price!

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath - Xbox - Out Now - Best Price: £8

Those of you who still have your original Xbox in a working condition should definitely consider purchasing this little gem if you haven't already. Though this game unfortunately put the final nail in the coffin of the Oddworld series due to its monumental lack of sales, that really isn't any indication of the overall quality. It's a first-person shooter with a sense of humour, which combines pure fantasy with the traditions of the Wild West, and is an excellent game.

WipEout Pulse - PSP - Out Now - Best Price: £15

Now this really is an incredible bargain! The latest entry in the WipEout series has only just been released, but it can already be found for £15! The game has more tracks, weapons, teams, and modes - everthing you'd expect from a sequel. The graphics are a noticeable improvement from Pure, and the Mag Strip is introduced which lets your craft flip flop from the ground to the ceiling and back again during the course of a race. Downloadable content is promised, just like the original game (which remains one of the few games to offer such as thing to this day), as is proper online play thanks to the Infrafstructure mode. There should be enough game in here to keep you busy for quite some time.

That's it for part 3. Come back next week for the fourth and final part of my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide, where I take what I consider to be the five best downloadable Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade games and present them to you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nintendo DS Round Up

The penultimate part of my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide will most likely go live on Friday. In the the mean time here are my first impressions of four new Nintendo DS games.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker
The first thing that strikes you about this game is the graphics. They are extremely close to the style used in Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2, which is no mean feat. When you get a bit further into the game, you realise that DQM: J lacks the plot of the PS2 game, and is more of a Pokemon style collect-em-up. I've never really enjoyed Pokemon games, despite having tried them several times, but for some reason this game appealed to me where the Pokemon games don't. A great little RPG which is extremely addictive - look for a full review some time in the future!

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga
The Original Trilogy
was a buggy mess, and the levels also differed from the home console versions rather greatly. I am pleased to say that The Complete Saga is a huge improvement however. While some of the the levels are missing, the game is much more solid this time - the only niggle I have is that sometimes you are unable to activate force powers even though you should be able to, which results in wiggling your character about until the object you're trying to use starts to glow. The DS version benefits from some touch screen mini games, which give you more opportunities to earn studs and gold lego bricks. Worth a look if you're after some Star Wars action on the move.

Dementium: The Ward
I haven't played this one as much as the others featured here - only about an hour so far, but I was extremely impressed with what I saw, not to mention terrified. The developers have managed to capture the creepy atmosphere of a Silent Hill game, except this one is viewed in the first person. You wander around a zombie infested Hospital, spattered with blood of ex-patients and armed only with a night stick in the beginning. Before I could find a better weapon, I had my intestine gnawed on by a dozen grissly monsters - so like Silent Hill it's rather challenging until you know what you're doing.

The Simpsons Game
The DS version of The Simpsons Game is for all intents and purposes a traditional 2D platforming game, in much the same style as a Mario or Yoshi game. Without all of the many characters and voice clips recorded especially for the game, it would be a pretty average experience, but their inclusion, combined with a script written by people who have actually worked on the show elevate to above average status. It won't win any Game of the Year award but for fans of the show, it's great!

If you have a DS, then any of these may be worth a look depending on your tastes!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide Part 2: The Ones to Watch

Hello, and welcome to part 2 of my Christmas gaming gift guide. I had originally intended to make this a three part feature, but now I think there may even be a fourth part. This one is about the 10 games that I'm intrigued by but am a little hesitant about for whatever reason. The next part will be about Christmas gaming on a budget with 10 of the best bargains I can find, and the last part will be about the to 10 downloadable games on the Wii's Virtual Console and the 360's Live Arcade.

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles - Wii - out 30/11/07

I am a long term fan of the Resident Evil series and while the spin-off light gun series has been something of a dissapointment up to now, Umbrella Chronicles looks to rectify this. Making good use of the Wii's controllers, the game takes you on a rollercoaster ride through some of the most memorable moments from each of the games, along with some new content that will reveal things that we weren't privvy to the first time around. Will it be long enough, however?

Blue Dragon - Xbox 360 - out nowBlue Dragon has picked up some rather dissapointing review scores, which explains why I don't own it yet and also why it's been relegated from must-have status. I have played the downloadable demo and I did enjoy what I experienced, but the game does seem a bit shallow and simple compared to the likes of Final Fantasy XII. Dragon Quest VIII showed a few years ago that an RPG can be light-hearted and have huge depth at the same time, and from what I hear, Blue Dragon doesn't quite pull it off.

WipeOut Pulse - PSP - out 30/11/07

WipeOut Pulse has more tracks, weapons, teams, and modes - everthing you'd expect from a sequel. The graphics are a noticeable improvement from Pure, and the Mag Strip is introduced which lets your craft flip flop from the ground to the ceiling and back again during the course of a race. Downloadable content is promised, just like the original game (which remains one of the few games to offer such as thing to this day), as is proper online play thanks to the Infrafstructure mode. There should be enough game in here to keep you busy for quite some time.

Sega Rally Revo - Xbox 360 - out now

The original Sega Rally and its sequel still stand the test of time as true arcade classics, and the machines can be found in cinema foyers and bowling alleys to this very day. Sega has made one previous attempt to update the franchise on consoles, which resulted in the shockingly poor Sega Rally 2005, but they seem to have learnt from their mistakes this time with this decidedly old school but extremely enjoyable follow up.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War - PSP - out now

The original Final Fantasy Tactics started out life on the original PlayStation just after the release of Final Fantasy VII, except it never made it to Europe. Although largely considered to be a classic, the game wasn't without its flaws, most noticeably the broken translation. With this remake, this has been fixed, and new animated cutscenes with full voice dialogue have also been added. You can also now get the sky pirate Balthier from FFXII and the hero from the forthcoming FFTA2 to join your party. Be warned though, it's incredibly difficult.

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga - Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, DS, PSP - out 09/11/07

The Complete Saga
combines all of the levels from the first Lego Star Wars and The Original Trilogy, adds some new ones and gives the whole package a bit of a boost in the graphics department. The lighting effects are more impressive and the plastic looks shinier - more of an evolution than a revolution then, but if you missed the games the first time around this is worth considering.

Zack & Wiki - Wii - out 07/12/07

Now this sounds interesting - a game that involves monkeys, pirates, pointing and clicking. Could be a succesful combination! You can turn your enemies into tools to help you solve puzzles - for example a snake can be turned into a grabbing arm to retrieve an item in a tree which is otherwise out of reach. From what I've heard, things get rather tough later on - I hope the game builds up gradually rather than being frustrating from the start.

Assassin's Creed - Xbox 360, PS3, PC - out 16/11/07

I'm in two minds about this game. It originally sounded rather cool when I first heard about it over a year ago, but it's been rammed down my throat at every opportunity by Jade Raymond at every gaming event since and I'm starting to get sick of hearing about it, and Ubisoft haven't delivered on many of their promises recently. Still, swan-diving off buildings, swaggering through crowds and stabbing people in the throat might be fun.

Wild Arms 5 - PS2 - out 30/11/07

Now, I realise it's probably a lost cause trying to convert any of you to Wild Arms fans at this stage, let alone pursuading you to buy a PS2 game, but I've been a fan of this series ever since I picked up Wild Arms 3 out of curiousity for a tenner a few years back. The fourth game monkeyed around with the game mechanics somewhat, but 5 returns to more traditional gameplay (except it keeps the Hex battle system from the last game).

Dewy's Adventure - Wii - out 23/11/07

The next game from the Eledees/Elebits team sees you in control of an anthropomorphic blob of H2O, who can move between a solid, a liquid or a gas state to solve various puzzles. The Wii controls are put to good use in this charming game. It may not appeal to the "I only play Halo, I'm 'ard me... grrr" crowd, but I for one would not be ashamed to be seen playing a game with so much imagination.

So there you are, if you have a spare bit of Christmas cash and you're not sure what to do with it, then consider one of these game. Next time, I will be featuring 10 excellent games you can pick up at a budget price, so if you haven't got much to spend or you just want to make what cash you have got stretch further, take a look!