Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide 2008 Part 3: Budget Games

Welcome back to my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide for 2008. In part 3, I will be rounding up 10 games that can be picked up for under £20, if you are feeling the pinch this year and trying to save money (or maybe you want to give someone several cheaper games instead of one expensive purchase).

House of the Dead 2 and 3 Return - Wii

If zombies, light gun shooters or both are your cup of tea, then you can't really go wrong with House of the Dead 2 and 3 Return which collects the second and third entries in the series together in one tidy package together with some extra modes (Training, Boss and Original). House of the Dead 2 is often regarded as the best entry in the series with its branching paths. It's a shame that Sega didn't manage to cram in the original game or part 4 but for around £15 it's still worth a punt.

Ninja Gaiden 2 - Xbox 360

Maybe Ninjas do it for you instead? In that case, you can now pick up Ryu Hyabusa's second outing (not counting Black or Sigma) for less than £20 of your precious pounds. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into though, as the game is relentlessly difficult and won't hesitate to punish you for a poor performance. If you think you're up to the task and actually enjoy a challenge then you might actually enjoy this complete bastard of a game.

Odin Sphere - PS2

Odin Sphere is a gorgeous side scrolling, 2D action RPG. Like Ninja Gaiden 2, it is also pretty tough to battle your way through but it is worth putting the effort in. If features five different playable characters that each have their own storyline which is intertwined with the others, and huge bosses that go off the edges of the screen at times. If you know where to look (hint: Odin Sphere can be picked up for the low low price of £7.99.

Patapon - PSP

The creators of Loco Roco followed it up with another game which has equally striking visuals - the tribal/music fusion that is Patapon. Using various drumbeat combinations, you give commands to the Patapon army (fight, retreat, etc) and take on over 30 different missions. It initially seems quite basic but there's a surprising amount of strategy involved the further you get into the game. As well as the main game there are also five mini games to play. Patapon is one of the finest games on the PSP!

Boom Blox - Wii

Boom Blox
has apparently failed to sell very many copies, which is a great shame because a) it's very very good, and b) it's an original title from EA rather than yet another Need for Speed. There are a ton of single player levels to play through, but what really makes this game special are the multiplayer modes. There are quite a few different types, including throwing balls at a Jenga style tower in an attempt to knock it down, striking blocks so that they fly into a score multiplier, shooting galleries, and attempting to knock down the other persons castle. It's great, and deserves recognition!

Rogue Galaxy - PS2

I'm including this one because I'm playing my way through it right now, and it's great! The creators of Dragon Quest VIII return with an original sci-fi action RPG which uses the same style of cel shaded graphics, and contains 100 hours of gameplay (if you include all the optional things you can do). The game start out fairly linearly, but about 10 hours in things start to open up a bit and you get to journey from planet to planet at will, as well as being able to take part in the Insectron tournament and build your own items in the factory. The best part is, it only cost me £3.99! Now that's value for money!

Eternal Sonata - Xbox 360

The story of Eternal Sonata take place within the fevered dreams of the famed Polish composer Chopin as he lies on his deathbed. Within his dream, he meets a colourful range of characters including a young girl named Polka. Also in this world they are both able to wield magic, which he discovers is a side effect of having a terminal illness. This rather dreary and depressing sounding premise is juxtaposed against an extremely vivid anime world, full of brilliant blues and gorgeous greens. It can now be picked up for a tenner, and is well worth every penny.

Uncharted: Drakes Fortune (Platinum) - PS3

The developers of Crash Bandicoot and the Jak & Daxter series return with a rather more mature style of game. Fans of the Tomb Raider games should definitely take a look as it features the same sort of globe trotting adventure gameplay that they love. You play the part of Nathan Drake, as he discovers a clue to the fabled treasure of El Dorado left behind by his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. Exciting and cinematic, the game has recently been rereleased on the budget Platinum label and so can now be picked up for less than £20.

Space Invaders Extreme - DS, PSP

Let's face it, the original Space Invaders is rather boring nowadays, but Space Invaders Extreme is anything but. Taito have managed to keep the familiar gameplay of old but have added brand new elements such as powerups, huge end of level bosses and bonus rounds to enliven the experience. Then there are the sound and visuals, which have been brought bang up to date with funky dance tunes and bright neon colours. If you're after a top quality shooter for either the DS or PSP, then you should definitely consider this one.

R-Type Tactics - PSP

Irem led everyone to believe that R-Type Final would be, well, the final one. Yet the Bydo empire has struck back again and the series has made its return on the PSP. It's not actually a horizontal shooter like every previous entry in the series though - instead it's a strategy game where you can take control of the bad guys for the first time! Also, the R9 is not on its own, instead you can choose from a fleet of over 100 different units as you tactically plan out your next move in an attempt save or enslave the galaxy. R-Type Tactics hasn't been out all that long, but can already be found for less than £20.

That's it for part 3 - I have one more planned where I will feature 5 downloadable games from each of the major consoles that you can spend any points that you may receive over the Christmas period!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide 2008 Part 2: Worth a look

Welcome back to Part 2 of my Christmas Gaming Gift Guide for 2008. This time I am focusing on 10 games that are by no means essential, but are still definitely worth a look. Some of these are slightly older games that were released earlier in the year and should now have started to come down in price.

Quantum of Solace - Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PS2 - Out Now

Forget comparisons to GoldenEye, Quantum of Solace is more likely to be held up against Call of Duty 4 and World at War, seeing as it's based on the same engine that powered both of those games. Early reports are that it can't quite match them for depth and quality of gameplay, but for Bond fans this is probably the best 007 game for a long time. It's is based both on the new film and also features flashbacks to the story of Casino Royale, with both single player and multiplayer modes.

Gears of War 2 - Xbox 360 - Out Now

I seem to be the only person that isn't particularly excited about Gears of War 2, but I would still like to check it out one day. All that I've seen would suggest that it is more of the same, but bigger, badder and louder than before. I did really like the multiplayer in the first game but I wish that they had included a lone wolves modes they all required you to be in a team - hopefully they have rectified this with the sequel. Horde mode also sounds interesting, but not enough to get me to shell out £40 to find out.

Mirror's Edge - PS3, Xbox 360 - Out Now

I have been quietly keeping tabs on Mirror's Edge since I first saw it splashed across the cover of Edge magazine, but it has never particularly grabbed me - mainly because of my slight apathy towards first person games. The visual style does look great admittedly, but the game has garnered quite a bit of criticism for its extremely brief lifespan (it can be completed in under six hours) and it ended up receiving a 5 out of 10 score when Edge finally came to review it. The storyline, written by Terry Pratchett's daughter Rhianna, is apparently very bad as well. It may be wise to rent this one before spending out around £40 on it.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts - Xbox 360 - Out Now

I loved the original Banjo-Kazooie on the N64, it was very nearly a Super Mario 64 beater (but not quite), so I was slightly disappointed to learn that Banjo's long awaited return would not be a platform game, but more of a freeform racing/adventure game. You explore Showdown Town, build various wacky vehicles and then complete challenges in order to earn jiggies and unlock further levels. Once you've earned a jiggy, you then have to ferry it somwhere else before you've earned it which sounds like a pointless extra step in my opinion.

The Last Remnant - Xbox 360 - Out Now

Square-Enix has released something of a small avalanche of titles upon Xbox 360 owners recently, which is heartening to see for RPG fans like myself. It seems that the machine may actually be on the way to some kind of acceptance in Japan (or at least Japanese publishers are eager to secure western gamers money). Very little is actually known about The Last Remnant at the moment, except that it appears to be a more traditional turn-based game than the recent action oriented Infinite Undiscovery. It's getting very average scores on GameRankings so far, so it may end up being just another average RPG, but it's worth keeping tabs on.

Race Driver: GRID - PC, PS3, Xbox 360, DS - Out Now

A bit of an oldie this one, having been released way back in the spring, but still well worth a look nonetheless. The seriousness of previous Race Driver games has been toned down quite a bit and now the game is more of an arcade experience. The engine that powered Colin McRae: DIRT has been utilised again here and the racing is extremely fast-paced and exciting. I am not so keen on the Japanese Drift or Touge events but the game doesn't actually force you to play them, unless you want to wring all of the achievement points out of it.

Trackmania DS - DS - Out Now

Trackmania DS
was developed by the same team that also worked on the DS version of Race Driver: GRID, so they have some experience in how to squeeze the power out of Nintendo's handheld. The track designer that was a key component of the original PC games has made it over in tact, along with online play which is an extremely impressive feat. DS owners have been waiting for a decent racing game since Mario Kart DS was released several years ago, and finally they have got one!

Infinite Undiscovery - Xbox 360 - Out Now

Infinite Undiscovery has been getting pretty mixed reviews so far, and it does suffer from both a crap title and a lousy beginning, but if you manage to get through this then you will discover an enjoyable and oftentimes amusing action RPG. The main protagonist, Cappell, always seems to have sex on his mind and this can lead to some funny situations, at least until the game starts to get more serious on Disc 2. I have seen the game going for as little as £14.99, and at that price it's worth a look.

Ferrari Challenge: Trofeo Pirelli - PS3, Wii, DS, PS2 - Out Now

For those who prefer driving simulators to arcade style racing games, Ferrari Challenge: Trofeo Pirelli could be just the ticket. Ferrari fans will also be in their element here - as while you are initially only allowed to race the Ferarri Challenge car, as you progress through the different racing seasons you will unlock other models from throughout their history. It's also pretty much the only serious racer for the Nintendo Wii - it's just a shame that they insist that you use the rather unnatural remote and nunchuk combo rather than letting you use a Classic or Gamecube controller instead.

Super Smash Bros Brawl - Wii - Out Now

I know this game has been out for quite some time, but for those new to the Wii it is still most definitely worth a purchase. Featuring around 40 classic characters ranging from the usual suspects (Mario) to the more obscure (Kid Icarus, it contains a huge array of game modes. You needn't fret if you don't have any Wii owning friends to play with - the game fully supports online play, and even if you're not connected to the web there's still the surprisingly long and enjoyable Subspace Emissary mode to play through.

Join me next time as I take a look at some budget titles that you should consider putting on your Christmas list!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Christmas Gaming Gift Guide 2008 Part 1: Must Have titles

Just like last year, I am going to post a four part guide to help you decide what to ask your friends and family for this festive season, or maybe what you should be buying the gamer in your family. This first section covers 10 games that I consider "must haves" - some are new releases, some are coming out soon others came out earlier in the year. Part 2 will feature 10 games that I have my doubts about but are nevertheless worth keeping an eye on and perhaps picking up in the sales, then part 3 will cover gaming on a budget (more important than ever in these harsh times) and finally part 4 will have a round up of downloadable titles should you be on the receiving end of some points cards. Let's get things underway...

Fable II - Xbox 360 - Out Now

The original Fable didn't quite deliver in the way it was supposed to but nevertheless it was still a great game in my opinion. Peter Molyneux has been a bit quieter during the development of Fable II, but what has been shown off is quite promising - the way you make use of your doggy partner to help you spot things of interest for example, or the promised co-op play which will let you drop into a friends game and then drop out again at will, and take any experience and items earned back to your own game (there was a rumour that this wouldn't make it in time for launch, but now a patch is promised on day of release which will fix whatever issues they were having with it.

Fallout 3 - PC, PS3, Xbox 360 - Out Now

The Fallout games are still held in incredibly high regard even today and there has been constant demand for a sequel for many years. Finally Bethesda (developers of the Elder Scrolls series) have given the fans what they want, and the third game in the series (not counting spin-offs Fallout Tactics or Brotherhood of Steel) promises to reel in new players as well with it's enticing mix of turn based RPG goodness, real time shooting and limb targeting, as well as its wicked sense of humour and post-apocalyptic setting. Here's hoping the Bloody Mess talent makes a comeback too!

Little Big Planet - PS3 - Out 05/11/08

Old school 2D platforming meets the power of the PS3 and the best community features that Web 2.0 has to offer in what is possibly the biggest exclusive Sony has for their platform this Christmas. Create your own levels using the incredibly intuitive built in designer and then share them with your friends, either alone or at the same time! I can't wait to finally try this having heard so much about it over the last year or so, but initial reports from the US indicate that Media Molecule have managed to deliver on all the promise that has been shown.

de Blob - Wii - Out Now

The idea of this game is extremely appealing to me - bounce around a greyscale world and paint the colour back in, while creating your own soundtrack based on which colour you use (each colour produces a different musical instrument). I love games that fuse visuals/audio in this way such as Rez or Lumines and this promises to give the same type of satisfaction. I can see how the game could start to get a bit repetitive but there are some other types of gameplay included (such as races which hopefully break up the action of the main time enough so that it stays fresh.

Motorstorm: Pacific Rift - PS3 - Out Now

The original Motorstorm was arguably the best of the PS3 launch titles, but it was far from perfect with a lack of track variety and gameplay modes. Now that Evolution Studios have had all the time that they need to work on the sequel there is a much wider range of environments to race around, from jungles to beaches, to volcanoes via swamps. Monster trucks have been added to the mix of vehicles and you can expect the same multi tiered tracks that branch of in every direction, only with much more polish than last time! The first game also lacked a split screen multiplayer mode much to my disappointment - this time it's in there for up to four players!

Valkyria Chronicles - PS3 - Out Now

I've been looking forward to this game since I saw the trailer back in the spring, and the more I see of it the more I can't wait to get my hands on it. It features beautiful cell shaded graphics, gameplay which is a combination of tactical turn based RPG (ala Fire Emblem) and real time action, and features cameos from Vyse and Aika from Skies of Arcadia! What's not to like? Easily the most interesting thing that Sega has done in almost a decade. The demo is out now on PlayStation Network - check it out!

Dragon Quest: Chapters of the Chosen - DS - Out Now

The DS is fast becoming the console of choice for RPG fans, not least because of the output of genre behemoth Square-Enix. If you have yet to experience the Dragon Quest series I really recommend it, and this entry in the series is perfect for handheld play as it is divided up into several chapters as the title suggests. The gameplay may be a little old school for some, but if the thought of battling blue slimes and one eyed monsters called "winkys" interests you, take the plunge!

Left 4 Dead - Xbox 360 & PC - Out 21/11/08

Zombie fans, Valve has a brain flavoured treat in store for you this winter! Take on legions of the undead before facing off against powerful boss zombies, with each encounter based upon your skill level. Doing well? Then you may come across an entire room of bosses to take you down a peg or two as the AI Director analyses your progress and adjusts the experience accordingly. The multiplayer modes also promise to be superb, with survivors taking on the infected. I'm not really a big fan of First Person Shooters, but this one sounds absolutely brilliant!

Final Fantasy IV - DS - Out Now

DS owners who prefer Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest, Square-Enix has you covered too in this stunning remake of the classic SNES game (which was never released in Europe originally). The game has been brought up to date with the same 3D engine that was used for last years Final Fantasy III, but there have been a few tweaks so now it is even better. This is one of the best games in the series, along with VI, VIII and XII and if you haven't experienced it before it's well worth a look!

Star Ocean: First Departure - PSP - Out Now

PSP owners needn't feel left out as Squeenix also has a classic RPG freshly updated for your gaming pleasure. Again, it never reached these shores when it was first released on the SNES, but the huge popularity of Star Ocean 3 made Squeenix reconsider things and has already released the game in Europe. The visuals have been given a considerable overhaul with new anime cutscenes by Production I.G. and the gameplay has also been tweaked, helping you become fully immersed in the Star Trek inspired universe that Tri-Ace have created.

See you again very soon for 10 more games that may be worth picking up, if funds permit!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Vault: Crazy Taxi (Dreamcast)

Crazy Taxi
Format: Dreamcast
Genre: Arcade
Expect to pay: £2 - £10

"Alright! Let's go make some crrrrrrrazy money!"

This was the phrase that greeted players as they fired up a game of this Sega classic, which was expertly ported over to the Dreamcast completely intact by Hitmaker. In it, you take control of the titular Crazy Taxi and head out into the fictionalised version of San Francisco to earn fares by taking people where they want to go within an increasingly tight time limit. Only, this is Sega's version of SF, so everything is ultra bright and colourful and over exaggerated.

There are various ways to play the main mode, from a time limit that is topped up based on how much money you bring in, to fixed length modes which vary from 3 to 10 minutes, which are great if you can only play for a little while and just want to try and beat your (or your friends/siblings) score. Then you choose from one of the four characters who each have their own car - all rounder Axel, speedy BD Joe, nippy Gena, and built-like-a-tank Gus. Each car has its own characteristics but it doesn't make a major difference to the gameplay.

As well as the city that was ported across from the arcade cabinet, Sega wisely decided that some extras were needed for the home version, so we get a second Original city to drive around and the Crazy Box mode. Crazy Box is a series of challenges that are quite addictive when you get into them, and without these extras the game would have been really short. The main game is so well done though and the many different ranks you can earn will keep you coming back in an attempt to better yourself.

Certain Offspring songs will always be associated with this game whenever I hear them for the rest of time, as they contributed a total of three songs to the game. Bad Religion also provided four of their own but for some reason these aren't nearly as memorable to me. There's another type of licence prevalent in Crazy Taxi in addition to the music though, in the form of Pizza Hut and KFC restaurants as well as other real word franchises that you have to ferry your customers between.

Crazy Taxi 2 came out a few years later and was basically more of the same but with cites based around New York instead of San Francisco. I'd say both games are about equal in terms of gameplay but you can probably find the original slightly cheaper as more copies were made. There was a Crazy Taxi 3 released for the Xbox but unfortunately I never got around to play it so I can't honestly say whether it was any good or not.

Crazy Taxi is full of that special magic that made Sega games so good back in the day.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Vault: Quantum Redshift (Xbox)

Quantum Redshift
Format: Xbox
Genre: Racing
Expect to pay: £1 - £10

Nintendo has F-Zero, Sony has Wip3Out, and Microsoft has... Quantum Redshift? Let's be honest, it's not exactly a brand you would automatically associate with the company like the other two. That's because it didn't exactly set the world on fire when it was released. Nevertheless, Curly Monsters have put together an extremely solid future racer here, one which still looks good today. The tracks have a nice solid sheen to them and the most important factor for a game like this, the speed is most definitely present and correct once you get past the lowest difficulty setting.

Quantum Redshift does things a little differently from most other racing games in that the main tournament mode isn't the same fixed journey through all the tracks every time. In fact it is dictated by your choice of character and this also decides your difficulty level at the same time. It will probably take a while to get used to the handling of your craft anyway so you may not win on your first try, so don't be discouraged. After the first few easy characters are out of the way, the races can get extremely tough, and you will probably have to keep restarting them as I did.

You don't pick up individual weapons as in Wip3Out, instead each craft has it's own weapon and the red pickups on the track power it up, from level 1 to level 3. The same is also true for boost and shields, so you need to strategically decide whether to go for a short burst of boost for example, or build it up to level 3 and then release a longer burst. Winning races earns you cash which can be spent on upgrading your boost, weapons and shields, and also unlock new characters each with their own journey through the various tracks.

Quantum Redshift can be picked up incredibly cheaply - from as little as 1 or 2 quid which really is a bargain. It will take you quite some time to finish the tournament for each character, if you do manage it at all for the harder ones. What's more, I can confirm that it is fully compatible with the Xbox 360, so if your original Xbox has broken (like mine) you can still enjoy the game on your current gen system.

Quantum Redshift is a worthy alternative to F-Zero or Wip3Out

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Vault: Chibi Robo

Title: Chibi Robo
Format: Gamecube
Genre: Action/Adventure
Expect to pay: £15 - £40

As fantastic as I most definitely think Nintendo is, they do tend to wheel out the same old mascots over and over again. How many games have you seen Mario in lately, and Link is almost as bad. For that reason it's great to see them developing a new IP every once and a while. On the Gamecube, they did this with the Pikmin franchise, and they also did it with Chibi Robo, an enthralling and charming adventure game starring a diminutive, cute (chibi) robot whose job it is to clean up the Sanderson household and help out any poor souls (human or otherwise) in need.

When you start the game your repertoire of abilities is severely limited. You have a toothbrush, a built in chibi-copter and that's pretty much about it. The capacity of your battery is extremely low and therefore you won't be able to stray very far from your Chibi House before your juice will start to run out and you will have to return or seek out a power socket. To remedy this you need to earn happy points - these are cashed in back at the Chibi House and when you bank certain amounts you will earn a new higher capacity battery, thus allowing you to explore further and further into the house. Your pal, Telly Vision, with his freaky cross eyed stare, will explain everything to you.

At the start of the game these happy points come mainly from doing housework - either by cleaning up stains using your toothbrush, or by picking up stray sweet wrappers or biscuit crumbs. I know, it doesn't sound like fun does it? But it is thanks to the brilliant and charming way it's implemented. As Chibi walks around different musical notes emanate from the floor, and you also produce other little riffs when you use your tools such as the toothbrush.

As well as the Sanderson family (which include a little girl who spends most of her life dressed up as, and pretending to be, a frog) there are many toys around the house, all of which have a life of their own and most of which have more than their fair share of problems that need sorting out. There's a Buzz Lightyear style space ranger, a princess, a pirate and many more. They all have their own areas of the house, such as the living room, the kitchen, the basement, the attic, the parents bedroom, the kids room and the back garden, and exploring everywhere and doing everything will take a considerable amount of time - especially when you consider that you only have a limited amount of time before that particular section of the day comes to an end. The day is divided up in to several sections and once the time limit expires you are automatically returned to the Chibi House.

Because Chibi Robo was released very late in the life span of the Gamecube, it was largely overlooked as most people had already moved on to one of the next generation systems. It is a great shame that the game didn't do as well as it deserved, but it has managed to get a sequel on the DS, Chibi Robo: Park Patrol which is equally as good. The game can be quite expensive though, on ebay recent auctions have gone for as little as £15 and as much as £40. If you can find it at the lower end of the price scale I would recommend it.

Here's Chibi, staring wistfully into a cup of coffee.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Vault: Wacky Races (Dreamcast)

Wacky Races
Format: Dreamcast (also on PS2)
Genre: Kart Racer
Expect to pay: £5

There have been a few worthy contenders to Mario Kart's throne as king of the kart racer, most notably Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing. A title which is slightly less renowned but just as good in my opinion is Wacky Races on the Dreamcast. I must point out that while a Wacky Races came was released on a number of formats, it was quite a different game on most of them (PS1, GBA) and should be avoided. The Dreamcast version (and its PS2 port) is the one worth looking at.

Borrowing quite heavily from the structure of both the aforementioned racers, Wacky Races puts you in a open world environment with various sub levels that you can drive up to and enter various challenges, which are unlocked by earning stars from earlier, easier challenges. You will begin with straightforward races around the many colourful tracks which aren't too challenging. Periodically you will have a boss race against another character such as Professor Pat Pending in his convert-a-car, and you will unlock them as playable characters if you manage to complete all of their challenges. Then comes the Wacky Championship, which is all of the races in a particular environment back to back (5 races in all). After that you have to complete the Golden Muttley challenges, which is somewhat harder but doable with a bit of practice and skill. It's basically the same as the red coin challenges in Diddy Kong Racing, where you have to collect 10 objects scattered around the track as well as finishing in first place.

There's more to come... Battle Arena challenges are what they sound like, destruction derby style events where you have to shoot the other characters with your weapons until you are the victor. Finally you have the Team 00 challenge, which is four elimination races (you lose, you're out) followed by a rather tough face off against Dastardly and Muttley. These can be challenging and frustrating but if there's one thing you can say for this game, it isn't short of things to do.

Each character has their own set of weapons but they can all be divided up into certain types, such as defensive shields, offensive weapons and speed boosts. You start with three abilities and three face buttons to map them onto, but as you progress you will earn more and will have to choose which are the most useful. Graphically and audibly the game is still very impressive today, with bright, cell-shaded graphics that mimic the look of the old cartoon perfectly. The voice actors sound just like the people who did the original voices, but I'm not sure whether they've actually sampled the old cartoons, got the original voice actors to come in and record new lines, or managed to find new people who can do very good impressions. Whatever they did, it works.

Throw in split screen multiplayer and a simple arcade mode if you don't fancy getting into the championship mode and you have a lot to see and do. I had great fun playing this game and picked it up extremely cheaply too. Give it a spin!

The graphics are vividly coloured and still manage to stand up well to most of today's offerings.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Steambot Chronicles is awesome!

I plan to post a full review of the game once I'm done with it, but I just had to say that I'm now about 15 hours into the game and loving it. The handling of the trotmobiles can take some getting used to and there's some pretty tough battles from time to time but for the most part it's a very relaxing sandbox adventure with lots of things to do and see. Imagine GTA with all the controversial content taken out, done in a Japanese anime style. Music is a big part of the game and you can join a band and play about half a dozen different instruments, each with their own unique rhythm action minigame. You can also dig for fossils, enter arena battles, transport goods from city to city, act as a taxi for people, become a pool hustler and more. For me the best part of the game has to be the moral decisions you make, in a similar way to a Bioware RPG. Will you be the hero, always helping out everyone, or will you look after number 1, join with one of the criminal factions and just generally become an evil bastard? It's up to you. At the moment I'm playing the nice guy, but I plan to replay the game as a villain afterwards.

A sequel is in the works for the PS3 and as you can see from the following trailer, it looks really good! I hope it gets a PAL release this time.

Speaking of Bioware RPG's and games with Chronicles in the title, their Sonic game is finally upon us and it got a pretty good review in the UK's Official Nintendo magazine. You should always take their reviews with a pinch of salt though as they tend to over rate things fairly often, so I will wait before I've played it to decide for myself.

I'm aware that things are going a little slowly with the 100 games of the last generation feature and at this rate it will take years to finish it, so I'm going to accelerate things soon and post a new entry every day for five consecutive days. Then I will probably take a short breather, post a review of another game and then do another five. Also, the festive season is creeping up on us so it will soon be time for me to do another Christmas Gaming Gift Guide!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Vault: Fable (Xbox)

Format: Xbox

Genre: Action RPG
Expect to pay: £5 - £10

Peter Molyneux has made quite a name for himself in the game industry. He is extremely passionate and enthusiastic about the games that he makes and sometimes in press interviews that enthusiasm can cause him to get a bit carried away and promise things that eventually turn out to be just too ambitious. He is on record saying that Fable would be "the greatest RPG ever made" way back when it was still in development. Many gamers got swept up in this hype and as a result came away feeling rather disappointed when the game was finally released. However, it is still most definitely an excellent game and one that should be played.

The game takes place in the world of Albion and the first few hours of the game take place during the childhood years of your character. You are charged by your father to go out and earn some money to buy your little sister a birthday present, and you can do this either by performing good deeds and helping out the villagers, or by more nefarious means. As the game progresses the appearance of your character will be affected by your decisions, if you're a goody goody you will have a heroic look, if you are a complete bastard to everyone you meet you will take on a more sinister aspect. After your task is complete the village is attacked and razed to the ground, but you are rescued and taken away to the Heroes Guild, where you are given training in the various means of combat - melee, archery and magic.

After this is complete it is time to venture out into the wide world and either carry on with the storyline and complete the game in a fairly short amount of time, or thoroughly explore the world, taking on every side quest, buying property, getting married, fighting in the arena and much more. Combat is fun and fast paced, with you being able to quickly move between melee, archery and magic attacks at the press of a button. Again, the amount you use each technique effects the development of your character.

The graphics in Fable still stand up fairly well today - they are quite cartoony in style with lots of bloom effects in the lighting. The music is also well composed, but some of the voices sound a bit ridiculous, you can definitely tell the game was developed in England with some of the strange accents the NPC's come out with.

Fable can be picked up nice an cheaply today either on the original disc which is 100% compatible with the Xbox 360, or you can download the Xbox Originals version for 1200 Microsoft Points. There was also an expanded version of the game released, Fable: The Lost Chapters, which goes for slightly more money and is the version I recommend getting. It is slightly closer to the original vision that Molyneux had in mind for the game.

Fable 2 is just around the corner and promises to be bigger and better in every way, but for a small price you can check out the original and enjoy an RPG which while quite some way from being the best ever made is still a damn fine game.

Is it just me or does this guy look like a bit of a creep?

Next time: another Gamecube classic!

Friday, September 05, 2008

The UK Pinball Show 2008

Last weekend I had the fortune of being able to attend the 2008 UK Pinball Show, along with my brother Kevyn and nephew Nathan. We headed out of Bognor towards Wicksteed Park in Kettering at approximately 6.45am and the traffic was very good, so we arrived just before 10:00am. I had to pay £17 which covered both Saturday and Sunday, but Kev got in for free because he brought a table along with him (Jurassic Park) which he set up as soon as we arrived.

The weather was quite warm on the Saturday which meant combined with the almost 200 pinball tables giving off energy and roughly the same amount of people in attendance, things got rather warm towards the middle of the day. As for the tables, there was a sizable collection of classic machines, from the old electromechanical machines from Gottlieb, through later 80's tables, the 90's (which is where I think Pinball really started coming alive) and there was also a sizable amount of right up to the minute Stern tables available. Pinball Heaven had brought along display models of the brand new Indiana Jones and Batman Dark Knight tables for people to play, and they proved incredibly popular. To get a game of on the Dark Knight it wasn't unheard of to have to queue for half an hour or more. The Indiana Jones table didn't really impress me much - sure it looked nice and the speech samples were brilliantly clear, but the game seemed very shallow and consisted mainly of four modes (on for each of the films) and a few sets of drop targets. The Dark Knight seemed to have much more to offer, but I only got to play it twice so I only got a very rough impression of it.

Elsewhere on the show floor loads of great games could be found, including (but not limited to): Monster Bash, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Scared Stiff, Lord of the Rings, The Sopranos, Fish Tales, Theater of Magic and Medieval Madness. Unfortunately on Saturday, two of my favourite tables, Spiderman from Stern and High Speed 2: The Getaway were off limits due to being in the tournament area. Luckily on day two they were made available for everyone to play, and there were also fewer people around so we got to play quite a lot of Spiderman. It really is a fantastic game and were it not so expensive my brother would probably add it to his collection immediately. As it is we'll have to wait a while and hope we spot a bargain one day (like he did with Lord of the Rings).

High Speed 2 is definitely my own personal favourite pinball table at the moment, and were I to replace my Hurricane table with anything this would be it. I also really enjoyed The Sopranos, mainly because it was set to five balls and you could earn unlimited extra balls, which made for nice long games.

We had great fun at the show but there's no doubt it's rather exhausting (you'll be on your feet for 6-7 hours a day and the noise of all the machine can be a bit overbearing at times). Check out the YouTube video below for a tour around the show floor (provided by nmisys). I actually appear in the video at about the 3:45 minute mark, playing Medieval Madness with my nephew. My brothers Jurassic Park table is also in the video.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Vault: Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

Title: Shadow of the Colossus
Format: PS2
Genre: Action

Expect to pay: £10 - £15

When the PS2's game output was at it's creative and technical peak, some truly amazing titles were released. Dragon Quest VIII and Final Fantasy XII are two such examples, but I've already talked about them in detail in the past. Instead I'm here to talk about Shadow of the Colossus, the spiritual sequel to the equally amazing Ico. Instead of dragging a ghostly girl around crumbling castles whilst solving puzzles however, Shadow has a much narrower focus, but is probably all the better for it. Your sole task is to head out into the vast wilderness on your faithful steed Agro and slay 16 colossi. These colossi vary from the huge to the mammoth to the gargantuan and as well as ground foes you will face flying ones and some based in the water.

The first trick to taking them down is working out how to scale them, which is a puzzle in itself. You will first need to find a spot to cling on to, either just by jumping onto a spot of exposed hair straight away, or by using your weapons (a sword and a bow) to cause the creature to expose their hairy bits (ooer) for you to jump on to. Then you will have to carefully climb the creature, pausing where possible to recharge your grip meter, lest you fall off and have to start all over again. Once atop the colossus, you will have to find its weak spot, which will only show up when you have the sword equipped. Find it, and plunge your sword into it, again and again. The creature will cry out in pain, and try and shake you off, but by hanging on for dear life and stabbing repeatedly, it will eventually be slain. Ghostly black tendrils will then envelop your character, and you will wake up back at the temple, where your female companion lies resting. Asleep? No, she's dead. The reason you're destroying all these graceful beasts is to bring her back from beyond - but there may be a heavy price to pay.

The visuals are fantastically designed, with a sprawling, load free wilderness to explore before you encounter one of the colossi. The colossi themselves are huge, craggy, hairy beasts which never fail to impress. Sometimes the draw distance is not so hot to compensate for the action going on, but in the heat of battle you probably won't even notice as all your attention will be focused on staying alive. The musical score is equally brilliant, once it gets going. Before you encounter one of the beasts, there is nothing but the sound of the wind and the hoof beats of your horse. As soon as you engage one of the colossi however the soundtrack wells up, and during a battle it is majestic and heroic, and once the colossi falls it is melancholy.

Shadow of the Colossus is undoubtedly well worth tracking down and playing today, especially as it can be found for a bargain price. I recently dusted off my copy and played through it again. It won't take your a terribly long time to complete but you will probably still feel that you have go your money's worth, and there are extra modes to play once you're finished. Both Shadow and Ico deserve your attention.

Meet my pet dog, Tiny.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Virtua Tennis 3 review

The Virtua Tennis series first appeared in the arcades as a companion piece to all of Sega's other Virtua titles (e.g. Racing, Cop, Striker, Fighter) and offered a stripped down and accessible version of the sport. As well as local multiplayer, the machine also featured a single player mode where you faced off against some of the most well known professional players of the time, with each match getting progressively more difficult. Eventually the game was ported over to the Dreamcast and it was a very faithful conversion, but without friends to play against the game lacked depth in the home environment.

This was rectified with the release of Virtua Tennis 2 towards the end of the life of the Dreamcast, which introduced a comprehensive career mode, and for those who played it, it was one of the finest and most addictive games on the system. The game was later made available on the PS2 as Sega Sports Tennis and on the PSP as Virtua Tennis: World Tour. It took Sega the best part of six years to continue the series with Virtua Tennis 3 on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and this time the reigns have been handed to Sumo Digital, who have previous handled the PSP version of Virtua Tennis 2, as well as the two PSP Outrun games and the Race Driver franchise. Can they bring anything new to the series while remaining true to the spirit of the older games? Read on...

Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3, PSP, PC)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sumo Digital
Genre: Sports
Region: PAL (Europe)
Price: Around £20

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The graphics for the most part are crisp and clean, and a good representation of the real life sport. However the players look a little odd close up - more like wax work models than real people. You can tell who they are supposed to be if you know what the real players look like, but the skin has an unatural sheen to it. The animation on the other hand is smooth and convincing, so as long as the camera remains zoomed out the illusion isn't shattered and you could almost believe you were watching a game being broadcast on TV.

I did encounter a couple of freakish bugs while I was playing - in one of the replays a racket was floating around in midair next to the player, and another time there was a strange thick black outline around the mouths of the players which made them look as if they'd been attacked by the Joker! I only encountered both of these graphical bugs once, but there was also a gameplay bug which was rather more serious which I will get to later on.

The game offers a good approximation of real life locations and courts, even if they're not allowed to be called by their real names (Sega didn't get the licences). So the clay court in France, and the English grass court look just like they should. In the mini games (more on this later) over sized fruit rolls around in a convincing fashion and giant bowling pins tumble as you would expect.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
Virtua Tennis 3 features a nice range of music tracks which are upbeat and catchy and help to make the games more exciting. There is usually one main theme for each court and then a second tune which plays when Match Point is reached to help raise the tension.

The sounds of the balls thwacking against the racket strings are authentically reproduced, as are the grunts and groans of the players, and in a nice touch the umpires in the different countries each speak in their native tongues.

Each of the different surfaces play slightly differently, either speeding up or slowing down the pace of the ball. Here you can see the VT3 version of Germany, complete with worn out patches of grass.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The Virtua Tennis series has always offered a more simplified version of the sport than the likes of Top Spin, and have appealed more to my taste for that reason. That's not to say that control has been compromised however, as it's still possible to put the ball where you want it, at least after you have trained up your custom player.

As well as offering a Tournament mode, much like the one found in the first Virtua Tennis, where you can play as a fully powered up tennis star such as Federer, Henman, Hingis or Hantuchova, the game offers a full World Tour mode. You are first tasked with designing your own player (either male or female), and then you start and rank 300 and have to work your way to rank 1. There is a calendar that you can access at any time from the world map which shows you which tournaments are taking places as well as the entry requirements. For starters you will only be able to enter the Challengers events, until you get your ranking below 204.

Right at the start of the World Tour your player will move sluggishly and suffer from underpowered shots. They might just be good enough to win some of the easiest matches but in order to progress onwards and upwards you will need to train them and raise their stats. By playing various mini games, you will increase the ability of your player in a number of areas, including Serving, Volleying, ground strokes and movement. The mini games include knocking down bowling pins with your serve, trying to hit a bullseye, destroying ball launchers that are advancing towards the net space invaders style, and protecting chunks of meat from alligators by knocking the ball into spinners which winch them backwards. Yes, I did say alligators. Most of the mini games are larger than life and add to the fun factor of the game without making it a complete mockery of the sport (unlike Sega Superstars Tennis).

Everything I've already mentioned was also present in the Dreamcast version of Virtua Tennis 2, but there have been some minor additions as well. Eventually you will start getting offers of practice matches from the other tennis aces and these will also raise your stats. In addition, you can go to the Tennis Academy and learn the basics of the sport while increasing your stats again. Eventually you will be good enough to take part in the 4 Grand Slam tournaments, and if you do well enough in those you will be able to enter the King of Players tournament and be one step away from the top rank.
In addition to the Tournament and World Tour modes, you can also play multiplayer versions of the various training mini games, and go online to play ranked and unranked singles and doubles matches.

Now it's time to talk Achievements, and in VT3 they vary from ridiculously easy (creating your custom player or winning your first match), reasonably challenging (earning the top rank in the World Tour) and very tough (winning 50 ranked matches online). This is the right sort of balance as you will steadily unlock more achievements the further you go into the game.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
While most of the mini games are very inventive, the fact is that most of them made their debut in Virtua Tennis 2. Nearly everything about the game is a polished version of what has gone before, and the major additions (online play for example) are really no less than what you would expect from a game in this day and age, so I can't justify giving out a high score in this category.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
It will probably take you around 10 hours to get to the number one spot in World Tour mode, and then you can continue playing if you want for up 20 in game years. Then you could always go back and play as a character of the opposite sex for a slightly different route to the top. After this is done and dusted, you will probably turn to the mulit player modes - and I have to say playing this game with friends is great fun. There's no tricky controls to master but you still feel that you can put the ball where you want it to go. If you don't know anybody else who owns the game, then go online and challenge the world - but be warned there are some damn good players out there.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Virtua Tennis 3 is an incredibly enjoyable game and pretty much as good as tennis is going to get on a home console. Sure, it doesn't really offer much that the 6 year old Virtua Tennis 2 didn't have, but what's on offer is well put together (barring the odd bug). Sumo Digital went on to develop Sega Superstars Tennis, which features famous Sega characters, but the power moves unbalance the game so much it becomes something of a farce. It does feature another selection of smart mini games though (but no World Tour mode this time).

Virtua Tennis 3 Trailer

Monday, July 28, 2008

This Is Living: My First Impressions of the PS3

So bonus time has come around again and it's a good one this year, so I was finally able to pick up a PS3. Along with the console I also got copies of Metal Gear Solid 4, Motorstorm, Ridge Racer 7, Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, Folklore and Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. I also bought The Golden Compass on Blu Ray as I am a big fan of the book trilogy and thought the film was a decent attempt at adapting the first book (although it ends in a very strange place). Here are my initial thoughts about the machine and the games...

Sony have basically taken the same interface from the PSP and shoved it into the PS3, and to be honest compared to Xbox Live it is rather unwieldly. There are dozens of sub menus to sift through, surely it could be streamlined a bit? Maybe when Home finally arrives (if it ever does) things will improve.

As for the games, I have mostly been playing Motorstorm and Ridge Racer 7, mainly because they are easy to pick up and play without having to commit to a deep storyline. They were only a £10 each and worth it in my opinion. RR7 isn't really that much different than RR6 on the Xbox 360, however it does have a hand full of new tracks and a new campaign mode which being the Ridge Racer slut that I am, is enough to keep me satisfied. Motorstorm may be a bit thin of modes and options but the races themselves are brilliant fun and the tracks are all really well designed with multiple routes branching off all over the place. I haven't felt the need to buy any of the extra content yet but I may do once I've exhausted the "tickets" that come on the disc.

I'm going to hold off from playing MGS4 properly until I have gone back and completed MGS3 - something which I never got around to doing for some reason despite having owned the game since the day it was released. I have had a quick peek at the game though and annoying installation process aside, what I have seen has really impressed me.

Ratchet & Clank is more of the same gameplay wise but given a full HD makeover and contains more enemies on screen at once than ever before. There are some great new weapons/gadgets as you would expect from this series but no major surprises. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is really just a glorified demo, but I picked it up for the GT TV mode which just sounded too interesting to pass up, plus I am a fan of motorsport (which does help). The thought of old episodes of Top Gear being piped through my PS3 doesn't really thrill me, as I can turn my Freeview TV on to Dave at any moment of the day and chances are they will be showing an old epsiode anyway, but coverage of the Nurburgring 24 Hour race and detailed documentaries about the development of the worlds best cars sounds promising. There are a handful of videos to watch already, but the service launches properly on the 1st of August.

Finally, there's Folklore, which I'm just starting to get into. The graphics are stunning and the whole package is my sort of game. You take control of either a male or female lead and explore the island of Doolin, as well as travelling to the underworld to commune with the dead and harness the powers of the "Folk" - a wild array of monsters the all have different abilities - some offensive, some defensive. It reminds me of the sort of gothic fantasy that Neil Gaiman is famous for, and I can't wait to play more.

I also bought and downloaded Super Stardust HD which is the PS3's equivalent of Geometry Wars (although it's based on an old Amiga game). More great pick up and play fun - highly recommended. When I've had more time to play all of these thoroughly I will start reviewing PS3 games. In conclusion, the PS3 is actually a great games machine with the brilliant bonus of being able to play Blu Ray films. It has a handful of exclusive titles that are worth checking out and more on the way, but I would still pick the 360 version of a game over the PS3 because of the Achievements and the fact that all my friends own 360's and none own PS3's.

Folklore, yesterday