Friday, June 25, 2010

Need for Speed: Shift review

I picked up Need for Speed: Shift back in the middle of December with some of my birthday money, and it has taken until now to reach level 50 and complete the World Championship. I did stop for a while though and also took a slight detour away from the main campaign to play the Ferrari and Exotic DLC packs, which I will also incorporate into this review. Whilst I have quite enjoyed some of the recent NFS games such as Most Wanted and Carbon, I wasn't that keen on the Underground games or Pro Street, so this break away from illegal street races and the modding scene was quite refreshing.

Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3)
Publisher: EA
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Expect to pay: £20 - £25

Graphics: 9 out of 10

As you would hope and expect from a game with the word Speed in the title, Need for Speed: Shift feels convincingly fast, more so that Forza Motorsport 3 in fact. When you first get into some of the more powerful cars in the game, you may (or at least I did) struggle to stay on the track as the corners leap up on you with alarming velocity. The game also looks very pretty all round, with a stable frame rate, excellent in car view and well designed user interface. You are constantly getting feedback from the game as you earn stars, unlock badges and gain levels (more on this later), enticing you to play on just a bit more. There are also some great tracks in the game, based on real world circuits and cities, such as Spa, Brands Hatch, Road America and a London River track.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
I'm no expert on how one car should sound compared to another but the engine noises all sounded distinct and convincing to me. By default, the licenced soundtrack is turned off but after a while I decided to switch it on and give it a listen. Firstly, the choice of music isn't really to my tastes (it's quite hippity hop orientated), and secondly there isn't really a lot of it, so you'll be hearing the same tracks over and over again very frequently. In the end I preferred to play my own music that I'd ripped to the hard drive of my 360.

Racing around the London track, one of my favourites.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Firstly, how does the game feel? It's not quite as realistic as the Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo series, yet not as arcadey as PGR. The closest comparison I can make is Race Driver: GRID - you can't just throw the cars around the corner, but things feels ever so slightly exaggerated.

The main career mode of the game is split into 4 Tiers of events, followed by the World Championship. There are quite a lot sub events within each tier, which fall under various types: standard races, hot lap events (beating set times), time attack (getting the fastest lap within a set time limit), knockout, drift (my least favourite), Endurance, and series of 3-5 events. In order to progress to the next tier, you must earn a certain amount of stars, which are given out for podium finishes, earning certain amounts of profile points during races, and various bonus objectives such as beating a certain lap time, staying on the racing line or for a clean race.

You earn these aforementioned profile points by carrying out certain manoeuvres during a race, split into two categories: precision and aggression. Precision includes such things as clean overtakes, driving on the racing line, etc, whereas aggression points are awarded for bumping into your opponents, drafting them and sliding around corners for example. These profile points also act as a form of experience, and as you reach certain totals you will level up. Levelling up brings with it various awards, such as extra sponsorship money, more garage slots or the ability to take part in many different Invitational Events. Whether you're a precise or aggressive driver will influence the order in which this Invitational Events are unlocked, so if you fall within the Precision category you will be more likely to be invited to time trial events, whereas if you fall under the Aggression banner you will get knockout and drift events.

Making you reach certain star thresholds in order to progress through the career is all well and good, but there are so many Invitational Events on offer that you will probably have unlocked access to the World Championship way before you've finished with the other tiers. This initially caused me to lose interest in the game but eventually I came back, and I'm glad I did because taking part in the events is fun in and of itself (apart from the Drift events which I detest - not because they're bad, but because I'm not very good at them and don't find them fun). Now, on top of all these things there are badges, awarded for achieving various milestones within the game - such as driving a certain distance in a European car, mastering all the corners of a track, or pulling off a particular number of perfect starts (when the shift indicator is green). The badges come in various flavours - Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Epic - you earn certain amounts of them you will also unlock achievements/trophies. I was still earning badges right towards the end of the game.

If you just play through the main game without going online, then you probably won't hit level 50 by the time you've done all the events. If you decide to purchase the two DLC packs though, there's plenty to see you through all the way to the level cap, and some nice achievement points for bothering to do so. As for the packs themselves, both of them offer decent value for money for 800 points apiece, and playing through them will take a fair old while. The Exotic pack is ever so slightly longer and offers a set of new tracks (one of them being a version of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit), but both packs feature a set of new cars.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out 10
While it is hard to truly innovate in a racing game these days, or one grounded in reality at least, the stars, experience and badges and attractive design of the interface help give Need for Speed: Shift a style and flavour of its own.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The career mode will take you a decent chunk of time - it took me many many hours of playing hit level 50 and get to the end of the game, and I haven't even done absolutely everything (I still need to go back and do most of the Endurance events, as I never seem to have the time to devote to them). Those who want to squeeze the game for all of its achievement points will have to earn every star on offer in the game, and get every single Epic badge - which is no small task let me tell you. Since the game was released the price has fallen quite a bit, so you can now pick up the Limited Edition version for £23. If you love your driving games, it's well worth the money.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Need of Speed: Shift is an extremely solid, highly polished game. For petrol heads, it's not quite in the same league as Forza Motorsport 3, but it's a pretty close call. If you have already finished Turn 10/Microsoft's game and you want some more racing action, then definitely give this one a look.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Top 5 Announcements from E3 2010

Here it is, my list of what I consider to be the most exciting announcements to come out of last weeks Electronic Entertainment Expo. I'm only focusing on stuff that we didn't know about before E3 happened, although I will be including a short list of other stuff that I'm interested in afterwards.

5. Driver: San Francisco
I know the Driver franchise has fallen out of the public eye thanks to the buggy and decidedly average Driv3r (despite having several decent enough games since), but I really enjoyed the first two games back on the PS1. The series seems to be returning to its roots, with Tanner being reinstated as the main character. The developers are promising that the handling will still feel like the Driver that we know and love, and hopefully they will deliver a solid, entertaining game that will help turn the fortunes of the franchise around.

4. Kirby's Epic Yarn

Just one of several good looking platform games coming to the Nintendo Wii (see also Donkey Kong Country Returns and Epic Mickey). What really sets this one apart is the art style, as the backgrounds look like made of fabric and the characters out of string. Reminds me a little of Paper Mario, except you know, with knitting instead of paper. There appears to be solidly designed platform game behind this visual gimmick though, making this one to watch out for.

3. Back to the Future and Jurrasic Park game franchises from Telltale

This was actually unveiled a few days before E3 began on the Telltale web site, but I think it's fair to include it here. They have managed to secure a deal with NBC Universal to produce two episodic game series based on these much loved film properties. I would imagine that they will be within the graphic adventure genre as that is where Telltale excel, but I could be wrong...

2. The Nintendo 3DS
This has of course been rumoured for several months now but now Nintendo has officially unveiled the next iteration of its DS hardware. Rather than being just a minor upgrade like the DS Lite and DSi, this is a brand new console. The main selling point is of course the stereoscopic upper screen that allows you to play games and watch films in 3D without the need for glasse, but the console will also feature motion and gyro sensors, an analogue swipe pad, improved graphical and processing capabilities, two cameras on the front to allow you to take 3D photographs and perhaps most importantly full backwards compatability with all of the old DS cartridges.

There have been some very exciting game announcements for the platform already, including:
Kid Icarus Uprising, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Super Street Fighter IV, Saints Row, Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Professor Layton, Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Assassin's Creed. For the complete list, click here.

1. Child of Eden

Many of my favourite games of the last decade were thought up by one man: Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Space Channel 5 Parts 1 and 2, Lumines, Every Extend Extra and of course, Rez. All of these games share something in common: they fuze music, graphics and game play together so that each part is important as the other. Child of Eden is his next project, and is a spiritual sucessor to Rez. It looks and feels very similar from what I've seen so far, and promises to make full use of the Microsoft Kinect camera to immerse you within the game. I can't wait to get ahold of it sometime during 2011 - in the meantime I'll just have to make to with replaying Rez yet again!

Also of note:
and many, many more...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Red Dead Redemption single player review

I have bought every major entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, but haven't completed a single one of them. Every time I've either just lost interest and drifted away to other games, or got stuck on a particular mission. While Red Dead Redemption belongs to the same stable of sandbox titles from Rockstar, it goes way beyond anything they've done to date in my opinion. It held my attention for around 35 hours spread over about three weeks, and very few games manage to do that these days before I get distracted by something else. Let's explore why this is a very strong Game of the Year contender...

Format: Xbox 360 (PS3 also available)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Expect to pay: £30 - £40

10 out of 10
The vistas throughout New Austin, Mexico and West Elizabeth are truly stunning. Your HUD basically boils down to a handy mini map/compass combo in the bottom left corner of the screen, with the rest being taken up by the game world. By keeping things simple Rockstar keeps you fully immersed in the living, breathing world that they have created, and it truly is impressive stuff.

While certainly not the first game to feature wildlife, I have never encountered anything quite as diverse and believable as the range of animals to be found here. Rabbits, armadillos, coyotes, wolves, elk, cougars, bobcats, grizzly bears... the list goes on and on, and they all interact with each other as you would expect. So you will see village dogs chasing chickens for example, or a big cat take down a deer. Every animal in the game can be killed, and then you can gather resources such as pelts, meat, horns etc. which you can sell in the shops throughout the land. Likewise there are many different types of plant life that can be harvested for saleable materials.

The wide open landscapes make a very refreshing change from the bustling, cramped environs of Liberty City, and you can while away many an hour simply exploring on your horse, seeing what you can find or triggering one of the many random events. A full day/night cycle is of course included, as is dynamic weather conditions such as rain, thunder storms and the occasional bit of snowfall up in the mountains. When the heavens open, pools of water slowly form on the dry ground, which is a nice little detail.

The many characters that you meet are very well designed as well, each one looking convincingly lifelike and having their own little quirks. They vary from the like able such as the Marshall of Armadillo, or Bonnie McFarlane, to the strange, such as Seth with his fascination with the dead, to the downright detestable like Bill Williamson or Agent Edgar Ross. I encountered a few graphical glitches during my time with the game, such as an invisible train that meant that parcels appeared to be floating in thin air, but in a game of this size and scope such things are unavoidable.

All in all Red Dead Redemption is one of the finest looking games available for whichever system you decide to buy it for, and the good stuff doesn't end there!

This sort of view is pretty common in Red Dead Redemption

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
First off, the music. The Morricone inspired soundtrack suits the game perfectly as you would expect, and the style and instruments shift as you move from the US into Mexico. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the game at key points in the story by Jose Gonzalez, which boost the cinematic feel of the game. The voice acting is also very competently done, with Rob Wiethoff and Antony De Longis proving excellent performances as John Marston and Marshal Leigh Johnson respectively, backed up by solid performances from the rest of the cast.

If you happen to have a 5.1 surround sound system or better, the positional audio can actually be helpful to you, as you may hear gunshots in the distance and be able to deduce where they are coming from based on which speaker they are coming from. Speaking of gunshots, there is quite a large range of weaponry, from pistols, through to shotguns, repeaters, rifles and mounted machine guns. They all sound unique and are based on the real life weaponry.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
Rockstar have taken the basic blueprint of a GTA style game and refined it until it is almost perfect. There are many small improvements that have been made to Red Dead Redemption, from the way that missions are now sensibly broken up into smaller segments with checkpoints, to the overall difficulty curve that means that the game gradually gets tougher as you get better at it, it seems that all the years spent making games like this have finally paid off in this, their masterpiece.

As well as the main storyline missions that will have to be tackled sooner or later if you want to beat the game, there is a ton of optional stuff to see and do as well. First off, there are 18 optional quests for strangers that can be taken on, which vary from the simple to the weird. These often consist of multiple parts, and you will sometimes have to carry on with the story or just allow a few days of game time to go by before you can continue them. In addition to these, there are 4 sets of ambient challenges that can be taken on and completed at your leisure: survivalist - which involves find various plant life in the wilderness, sharpshooter - which entails shooting stuff (usually wildlife) as you might expect, hunter - finding, killing and skinning various animals, and treasure hunter - figuring out where gold is hidden based on treasure maps with clues on them. Reaching certain levels in each of these challenges and completing them entirely bestows various benefits on your character, and finishing them all gives you the title of "Legend of the West" along with access to a special outfit.

Like Rockstar's previous games, Red Dead Redemption also features a whole range of optional mini games: from gamblers favourites such as poker, blackjack and liars dice, through to arm wrestling, a game of horseshoes, five finger fillet, horse breaking, killing or capturing bandits from wanted posters, or a side job as a night watchman. You could quite easily spend many an hour on these distractions alone (liars dice is my personal favourite). As you travel the country, random events are also triggered at fairly regular intervals - such as a lawman needing help to round up some escaped criminals, a shopkeeper being robbed, or someone about to be hanged unless you can arrive in time and shoot the rope around the victims neck. Taking time out to help people will boost either you honour, fame or both. As your fame increases you will actually hear the dialogue of random passers by change as they begin to recognise you, and they may even ask start giving you gifts.

Of course, honour can be affected negatively as well as positively if you decide to go on a killing spree in a town for example, which also comes with a price on your head. You can clear your name either by paying off your bounty at a train station, or by using a pardon letter. The bigger the bounty on your head, the better the US Marshall's assigned to take you down become, and there's also the likelihood that gunslingers throughout the land will form posses to try and take you down.

For the most part, I didn't have much trouble with the controls, with the odd exception of the auto targeting snapping to a random animal instead of an outlaw during some of the gunfights. After a while you get used to pressing the left trigger to lock onto an enemy, shifting the left stick up slightly to line up with their head, and then firing a shot off with the right trigger to take them out. For large bands of enemies or beasts, you can click the right stick to enter Dead Eye mode, where you can paint targets in slow motion before blowing everyone away. Should you decide that stealth is the way to go, you can also click the left stick to sneak, and then either use throwing knives or simply get up close and slit the enemies throat. This sometimes make more sense that going in guns blazing if there's a large number of heavily armed bandits - sneak around, take a few of the ones on the outskirts out silently, then mop up the rest.

I did encounter a fair few bugs whilst playing through the game, some of them being just graphical glitches such as invisible train which meant that boxes looked like they were floating in mid air, and other more serious bugs which caused the game to freeze up altogether. While these were very annoying when they occurred, the game auto saves very often which meant I seldom actually lost any progress. All in all though, Red Dead Redemption is a stunning technical achievement.

In your face!

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
Sandbox games are nothing new, but the execution of Red Dead Redemption raises it above everything that has come before. Just the staggering range of wildlife that adds an extra layer of realism to the game world ensures the game a pretty high score in this category. The little I've seen of the multi player, with its own version of the open world for you to roam in and the ability to form posses, should also be taken into consideration (though it is by no means perfect). Although it took many years to make, it would seem that the hard work put in by Rockstar has really paid off.

Value and Replayability: 9 of 10
Should you decide to rush through all the story missions as quickly as you possibly can, you could probably "complete" the game in under 20 hours, but you'd be completely missing the point. Take your time to explore the world, help out all of the strangers, enjoy the many mini games on offer, and raise your Fame and Honour points, and you can spend many many more hours on just the single player portion of the game alone. When you add in multi player and the promise of more DLC packs on the horizon, you will keep coming back for a long time to come.

Overall: 10 out of 10
Not so long I go I handed out my first 10 out of 10 to Mass Effect 2, but Red Dead Redemption equals it in every way in my opinion. It is every bit and deep and involving as any RPG I've played in recent times, so if you loved exploring the wasteland in Fallout 3, the world of Fable 2, or the galaxy of the aforementioned Mass Effect 2, then you will love wandering in the wilderness of Red Dead Redemption. Giddyup

Below you can watch the 30 minute Red Dead Redemption film directed by John Hillcoat (The Road). It is made up of cut scenes from the earlier parts of the game, so if you'd rather play through the story unspoiled at your own pace, don't watch it.