Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Split Second | Last Gen Regen: Forgotten Favourites

Welcome to the second edition of Last Gen Regen: Forgotten Favourites! Today I'm going to shift things up a gear by taking a look at an overlooked arcade racer by the name of Split Second.  The game was developed by the Brighton based team Black Rock Studios, who had previously released the much loved ATV game, Pure (though that one was made by a different team).  Black Rock Studios were known as Climax Racing in their previous incarnation, before Disney Interactive acquired them. It was Disney that published both Pure and Split Second, before shutting down the studio shortly afterwards. The game was released in May of 2010, just one week before rival racing game Blur was released.  This fact means that neither game performed as well as it might have done unfortunately.  I'm going to cover Blur at another time, as I think both games deserve their own episode.

The premise of Split Second is that at an undisclosed time in the near future, a reality TV series has taken the world by storm where contestants race around a condemned city that is rigged with all manner of explosive devices and traps. As you build up a power meter by drifting around corners, drafting behind opponents, narrowly missing danger and by exceuting big jumps, you can execute what the game calls "Power Plays", that let you trigger these devices around the track in an attempt to wreck your rivals.  They could be racing near a gas station for example, so you can detonate the entire place, or there might be a crane by the track that you can set swinging dangerously into the path of the race.  These examples are both fairly mild, level one Power Plays though.  By banking enough power so that your meter fills up into the red zone, you can release level two Power Plays that have the potential to completely reshape the path of a race.  See that control tower by the side of the airport track? Not any more you don't, it's just been vaporised, forcing everying down a different path for the rest of the race!  While these Power Plays do have the potential to feel a little gimmicky once the novelty has worn off, and the campaign can start to feel just a bit repetitive during the later stages, for the most part they add a lot of excitement to the game and are just dynamic enough to remain interesting. So that's the basic set up, but how does the rest of the game fare? Let's break it down in more depth shall we?

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Almost all of the events take place either at midday or at sunset with just a few set a night, so there's a lot of bright sunlight flooding the screen.  It reminds me of a Michael Bay film back before he started making nothing but crap, such as Bad Boys or The Rock.  I love the way that the game has been designed with almost no HUD at all - your speed, power meter, and lap counter are all cleverly place on a readout situated on the back of the car itself.  This lack of screen clutter allows you to focus on the race and soak in the impressive explosions that are constantly popping off.  For the most part the game performs adequately but there is the occasional frame rate dip when something major is happening such as an entire building collapsing on 4 or 5 cars at the same time.  It doens't really effect the game play too adversely but it is there so I have dock a point for that I'm afraid.  Other than that though, Split Second looks very nice indeed and still holds up pretty well today.

Sound: 9 out of 10
The sound design in Split Second is absolutely glorious, from the way the explosions totally envelop you and the shrapnel flying mere inches away from your car cuts through the air, to the dynamic music.  Special mention has to go to the music in this game, in particular the tune that plays during the Elite Races that cap every "episode" of the show.  It sounds incredibly cinematic, and as you claw your way up the field into the top three (which is the requirement to proceed) another layer of instrumentation is added with more bass coming in and some very funky guitar work.  It really helps build the tension and excitement in these events, which after all are supposed to be the highlight of each episode of the fictional show.  There is not much voice over work in the game, but what's there is very well done as well, with an announcer telling you what's coming up in today's episode and also giving you a sneak peak of the next one.  Great stuff all round!

Wiping out five rivals with an exploding power plant is actually quite satisfying - who knew?

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
I've already described how the basic races function in the intro, but there's a bit more to Split Second than that.  The main campaign mode is broken down into 12 episodes, which represent an entire season of the show.  Each episode has 6 events within it, with four being unlocked initially.  The 5th event is always a bonus event which is unlocked by wrecking a certain number of opponents within that chapter.  Normally you will have wrecked enough cars by that point to unlock it, but occasionally you may have to replay an event or two to get enough wrecks.  Event six is always the Elite Race, and is unlocked by earn a certain amount of points in earlier races.  These don't have to be from within the same episode though so say you get to the end of episode 12 and you are a little short of points to be able to take on the Elite Race (which probably will happen) - simple, just go back to a previous episode and find an event that you didn't do as well in as you could have done.  Perform better and earn some more points towards your goal.  Every event in the game has the potential to award your 50 points if you manage to get first place, then 40 for second, 30 for third, etc. While progress was fairly rapid in the first half of the campaign, by the end of it I was having to go back to earlier races for more points.

There are also a few more modes besides the standard races that I've already described.  There is also an Elimination mode much like those seen in other games, except with the added complication of the Power Plays, and a time trial mode called Detonator where you are given a fixed car for the event.  So far, so standard.  Things get more interesting after this though with the addition of some modes that are unique to Split Second.  First up we have Air Attack.  In this, a fully armed and operational attack helicopter will be firing rockets at you, denoted by red targets on the track surface.  You have to avoid taking a direct hit or suffering too much splash damage which will eventually cause your car to explode.  Get wiped out three times and your race is over.  As you clear more and more waves without losing a life, you will build up a score multiplier, and if you don't take any damage at all whilst still maintaining a decent speed you will earn a perfect wave bonus - this is the secret to earning a high score.  Later on in the campaign there is also the addition of an Air Revenge mode, where the attack helicopter returns.  This time, by building up your power play meter, you can then send the missiles back at the helicopter and eventually take it down.  Level one power plays just take one pip off the helicopters health bar, whereas saving up a full meter and releasing a level two power play takes off four pips, so ultimately it's faster to wait until your meter is full.

Finally, for the main game at least, there is Survival mode.  In this, giant big rig trucks are constantly doing laps around the track, all the while dropping red and blue explosive barrels.  The blue barrels will damage you, and the red barrels will wreck you instantly.  You don't have a fixed amount of lives, in this mode you can be wrecked many times.  Instead, you are up against a tight time limit which is increased by passing the trucks.  As you keep passing trucks unscathed, once again you build up a score multiplier.  There are also other cars on the track that are there to get in your way. The first time you play this mode it takes place in a storm drain of the type featured in the famous chase sequence from Terminator 2, which is really awesome!

So that's the structure of the game, but how does it actually play? Really well! The handling feels spot on, with each car having a different weight and drift style to it (new cars are earned by meeting certain point thresholds, by the way).  The drifting feels really good, with you really able to throw the cars around the corners with extreme precision after just a few goes to get a feel for it.  The rumble in this game is also very well implemented, adding to the immersion immensely. It's not something I would normal notice or comment on unless it is truly exceptional, as it is in this game. With Split Second, Black Rock have crafted an arcade racer that rivals the true great of the genre such as Ridge Racer, Sega Rally, and Burnout - it's a tragedy that it isn't as well known as it deserves to be.  Those who do know of it do love it for the most part, though.

This is the Survival mode - watch out for those barrels or say bye bye to your chassis!
Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
I'm going to give Split Second a fairly high score here (at least, higher than I usually give) because the combination of triggered explosions with the TV show format is quite unique, especially to the racing genre.  The closest thing I can think of is MotorStorm Apocalypse but that came along quite a long time afterwards and you don't actually have any control over the destruction in that game.  It isn't nearly as dynamic either.  Nope, there isn't really anything else quite like Split Second out there.  We may well have received a sequel, but Disney in their infinite wisdom pulled the plug on Black Rock, and the team went their separate ways.  Some of them continued to work on racing games alongside veterans from Bizarre Creations, Eden Studios and Codemasters, to form the Forza Horizon developers Playground Games.  Others moved on to making mobile games at companies like Shortround Games.  So luckily, it wasn't truly game over for most of these guys!

Value & Replayability: 7 out of 10
The main campaign mode in Split Second is actually fairly short, lasting roughly 10-12 hours.  You can add on a bit more if you are a completionist and want to try and get first place in every single event.  Also, it may be just because I was trying to play through the whole game in a fairly short space of time, but I was starting to tire of the power play mechanic just a little bit by the end of the whole thing.  I love the Air Attack mode though, so it's a shame that it's totally replaced by the Air Revenge mode about half way through the campaign and never comes back.

As usual in these reviews, I am basing this score on what the game would cost you today, and not what it was originally selling for. So, you should be able to find a copy of Split Second for a fiver or less fairly easily, which is a very good price for the amount of fun on offer. I did hop online to see if anyone was still playing the multiplayer mode, and was surprised to get into a full lobby on my first try.  This was just in the race mode though - the other modes were pretty empty.

Finally, there are some DLC packs available which add a couple of new modes, some extra tracks and cars into the game.  I thought these tracks were really good, so it's a shame they are only in the free play mode and not incorpated into an extra episode or two of the campaign. There was potential for them to do a "Christmas Special" or something and give the DLC a bit more structure.  As it is I can't really see myself playing them that much.

Overall: 9 out of 10
If you haven't played Split Second already and you still have your PS3 or Xbox 360 then you should definitely acquire a copy and play through the campaign, it's a ton of fun.  The game may also be available through the PS Now service, though I'm not sure about that.  Hopefully one day it will also be made backwards compatible on the Xbox One, though I doubt that will happen as Disney don't seem terribly interested in the game industry these days.  Nevertheless, for a short time they were putting out some solid titles with the help of developers like Black Rock and Avalanche. Perhaps we will get a spiritual successor to Split Second one day, in the meantime we still have the original, which I think holds up fantastically well today.  That's all I have for this time - next time I will probably be playing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, so see you then! In the meantime, take care!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Darksiders | Last Gen Regen: Forgotten Favourites

Welcome to the first article in a new, semi regular series entitled Last Gen Regen. There were tons of games released for the last generation of consoles that didn't perform as well as I think think they deserved, either crtically or financially, and I think they deserve a bit more love. Titles that fall under this category include Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the de Blob games and Binary Domain, just for starters. The reason that I'm not committing to a regular schedule is that most of these games take quite a while to complete, so I will just be releasing them as and when they are ready. This series also serves as an excuse to replay some of my favourite titles, so I will be savouring my time with them!

We begin with Darksiders - which was developed by Vigil Entertainment in the year 2010 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.  This team was assembled by legendary comic book artist Joe Madureira, whose unique art style is stamped all over the game.  While beloved by the majority of those who have played the game, there are still tons of people who have never given it a second glance.  With a remastered version on the horizon, and copies of the original version selling for just a few quid, now is the perfect time for you to pick it up for yourself if you have yet to do so. Now it's time for me to spend roughly ten minutes explaining why.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
The action of Darksiders revolves around the four horsemen of the apocalypse, or more specifically, War.  As the game begins, War is standing in the streets of what looks like New York city, doing battle with demons.  As you progress further into the prologue, angels will arrive on the scene as well.  Rather than the classical winged creatures that you're familiar with, angels in the Darksiders series make use of technology such as jet packs and guns.  Their halo is also a part of the armour that they wear. War is on earth because he believes the seventh seal has been broken and the riders have been called, but he was deceived by a powerful demon called The Destroyer and his minions.  After falling in battle against Straga, one of the Destroyer's lieutenants, War finds himself in front of the Charred Council, entities which act as the balance keepers between the forces of Heaven and Hell.  Displeased with Wars actions on Earth, they strip him of most of his power, before permitting him to set off on a quest for revenge against The Destroyer.  As a condition of his release, War is tethered to The Watcher, brilliantly voiced by Mark Hamill.  From there, it's up to you to restore War to his former glory, slaughter your way through The Destroyer's forces, and set things right.

While I am more than aware that there are plenty of people out there who hate fantasy nonsense like this, I absolutely love this kind of thing. While the game takes itself a bit too seriously sometimes and comes across as cheesy, for the most part it is really cool, and metal as fuck! War himself is built like a brick shithouse, with huge chunky limbs and a giant sword that you can do some serious damage with. So while it's definitely not for everyone, I really enjoyed the premise of Darksiders and the ride that it took me on during its 20 or so hour long campaign. Of course the game play had a lot to do with that as well, but I will get there all in due course!

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The chunky, American Football player proportions of War also apply to a lof of the other characters in Darksiders, from the Angels like Abaddon, to side characters like Ulthane, who belongs to a race called The Makers.  These guys heavily resemble the Norse gods like Thor, and wield mighty hammers like him as well.  While there were a few instances where the was some screen tearing and a drop in frame rate, for the most part Darksiders ran really smoothly and the environments look really nice. At one point the mixture of hack and slash combat and puzzle solving is punctured by a rather lengthy flying sequence on the back of a Pegasus, which is just one of many visually spectacular parts.  The huge golems that guard the various areas of the map are also impressive, and a sight to behold as they lumber away, shaking both the screen and your gamepad.

While there aren't that many in the game, the horsey bits in Darksiders are good fun.
Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The audible portion of the presentation is equally as solid as the visual component, with some great noises while you're in combat and when you make use of your abilities. The music is well composed, but not particularly memorable after some time away from the game. It certainly doesn't measure up to the epic soundtrack of Darksiders II that was composed by Assassin's Creed veteran Jesper Kyd, but that is a matter for another time. The voice work in the game is generally well done again, though the dialogue that these guys have to read is incredibly melodramatic and can come across as a tad on the cheesy side at times. Still, it suits the subject matter.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Darksiders plays out like a mash up of God of War and one of the 3D Legend of Zelda games, and that is no bad thing, believe me!  As your basic abilities are doled out during the opening hours of the game, you will find yourself locked inside various combat challenges where you have to kill a certain number of demons within a strict time limit and while using a certain ability or weapon.  Just as was starting to tire of this, roughly nine of so challenges in, they stop, never to return throughout the rest of the adventure.  The majority of the game is spent exploring huge dungeons, solving relatively mild puzzles, hacking up demons (and the occaisional angel) and obtaining new equipment or powers that allow access to further sections of the overworld.  While the world of Darksiders is fairly extensive and interconnected, with few noticeable load times, it is still fairly linear for the most part, with just a brief quest towards the end of the campaign giving you free reign to travel back to the various zones in any order you choose.

For most of the game the difficulty level is pitched just about right, with combat keeping you on your toes but never becoming frustrating.  You may die once or twice, but the penalty is very benign, with you just going back brief way to the nearest checkpoint. There is one dungeon close the finale that I did find really frustrating to beat, though - or rather, one puzzle within it that involved warping boxes through portals in order to raise and lower huge chandelier style platforms. I got quite annoyed by that one, but it's not even close to being as annoying as the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, ultimately.

As you hack apart your enemies, souls will fly out of them and these can be drawn into you.  They can also be found inside chests that are liberally scattered around world, and in inanimate objects like cars, dustbins, and street lights.  These souls act your main currency in the game, and can be used to unlock new abilties and weapons, or power up those that you already have.  Speaking of weaponry, War mainly wields a huge sword, though you do also get access to a sythe, pistols, and a deadly disc launching thing.  You won't have enough souls to level everything up, so it's best to focus on whichever suits your particular play style and focus on them.  You can also find Zelda style upgrades to your health bar and rage meter hidden away all over the place, which will often be inaccessible the first time you find them.  You know what that means - come back later when you have the right ability.

This is Ulthane, one of the Makers - you will learn much more about these guys in Darksiders II.
Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Ultimately, it's the solid game play combined with the setting that makes Darksiders such a great game, in my opinion. It's not particularly innovative, being an amalgam of several different genres, but that doesn't really matter to me. Zelda style puzzling and exploration will always be fun, and brutal hack and slash combat adds that extra spice to make it interesting.  Layer on the truly fantastic character designs and fleshed out game world, and you have something rather special on your hands.

Value and Replability: 7 out of 10
You will probably only want to play through Darksiders the one time, or maybe twice after enough time has passed by.  But that play through will last somewhere around the 25 hour range, even more if you try and hunt down every single health upgrade and the best armour in the game, which is scattered across the lands. I never felt that the game was dragging on at all, which is something that very few games get right.  The original release will probably only set you back a fiver or less, which is a real bargain.  I am not sure how much THQ Nordic is going to be asking for the HD remaster - I would guess somewhere around th £30 mark.  That's still not bad considering how much quality gameplay is on offer.  UPDATE: Since writing this article I have learned that the price of the HD remaster will be £15, which is an absolute bargain!

Overall: 8 out of 10
Xbox 360 and PS3 owners were not short of quality games to play, but there weren't many experiences that compared to the Zelda games (Okami being a notable exception). Darksiders takes the blueprint that Nintendo established, adds in a liberal dose of visceral combat, and makes the whole thing much more dark, gothic, and cool.  If the game somehow passed you by the first time it was released, then either pick up a nice and cheap copy and play it on your older system, or grab the upcoming "Warmastered" version.

Darksiders II will most definitely be getting its time in the sun at some point in the future as well, but I haven't played all the way through it yet.  Before then though, now that Lost Odyssey can be enjoyed on the Xbox One through the magic of backwards playability, I think it's time to revisit it.  It will take a while for me to finish it though, as it's absolutely massive.  To tide us over, I will try and find something a little shorter to talk about next.  I was thinking a racing game would make a nice change of pace, but which one? There's Blur from Bizarre Creations, or Split Second from Black Rock Studios.  Let me know in the comments if you have a preference, and in the meantime, take care!

Friday, October 07, 2016

Game Diary: Autumn Update

It's been quite some time since I last had an update, or any type of post at all for that matter, so I thought I would bring you up to speed with what's been going on lately and my plans for both this blog and the YouTube channel.

Those of you who are subscribed on YouTube will be aware that the second season of Covertape Chaos ended a little while ago.  I am taking a well-earned break from making those for a while; though I am still really busy creating other content.  I recently started taking a look at some of the games in my Steam collection - so far I have videos for Ember, Chronology and Glorkian Warrior.  These initial glances will become full reviews just as soon as I have had time to complete each of them!

Next, I have been planning a new series that will take a look at some of the more overlooked games of the prior generation for quite some time, and I am nearly ready to post the first episode and article.  That one will take a look at Darksiders, the Zelda style action adventure from Vigil Entertainment.  Other episodes in the series will cover Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, de Blob 2, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Blur, Split Second and more besides.  I am not going to commit to a regular schedule for these because I want to take my time playing or replaying each game, so new episodes will appear sporadically.  The Darksiders episode will be up next Tuesday though.

Also coming soon will be another pickups video.  Over the last few months I have acquired a nice pile of games, both brand new and older, so it's about time I went through them all with you.  Then after that I will be bringing back PS2 Tuesday for another season.  So far I know that Shadow Hearts will definitely be part of it - I am currently in the back half of the game and just need to crack on and finish it.  I don't think I will bother going for the good ending this time, I have done so twice before already and it's not canon anyway - the sequel disregards everything that happens in it!  I also have quite a few other PS2 titles that I would like to be part of season 4: Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2, Lumines Plus, Motorstorm: Artic Edge and much more besides. Hopefully I can get the ball rolling on the new season by the start of November, but don't hold me to that!

Sprinkled in and around all of these will be other stuff like the odd episode of RetroGrade when I feel the need to play some of the classics, and maybe the occasional review of a new game as well.  Silly season is well upon us already, with games like Forza Horizon 3, X-COM 2, Mafia 3, Gears of War 4 and Dragon Quest Builders either out already or just around the corner.  That's just for starters as well.  2016 is set to be remembered as another great one in the annals of video gaming!  Covertape Chaos will also be back, but not until 2017. You can rest assured that I am 100% committed to getting through all 64 Power Packs though!

Thanks for letting me witter on for a bit and listening to my plans for this rather modest blog and RMGB TV, its YouTube spin off.  I'll see you again next Tuesday for that Darksiders article - in the meantime take care!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Game Diary: A Mini Update

It's been a few weeks since I last posted an update, so I just wanted to pop on and bring you all up to date with what's going on with the blog and RMGB TV.  Firstly, the second season of Covertape Chaos is now in full swing, with the third episode dropping today!  A new one will be going live every fortnight, up until we get to episode 24, when it will go on another break.  The tapes I've played for this season so far have been a lot of fun, with some really smart games like Hacker II and Terror of the Deep to enjoy.

I've also recently been doing a few mini unboxing videos, because 365games.co.uk have had an offer where you can buy 10 random unboxed DVD's of a given certificate for £10.  I've got some decent (and not so decent) movies this way, and now I'm in the process of watching some of them.  I have on occaision posted some film reviews here on the blog in the past, but I didn't want to overdo it as it is a gaming site first and foremost, after all.  Maybe I will wait until I have watched around half a dozen movies and then do one big post with mini reviews of each.  I have a few more unboxings coming up, for the Zbox Gamer Edition and a Mystery Zbox that was given away free as part of an offer Zavvi were doing.  If they ever turn up, that is.  Then there's my pick ups video - I have quite a large pile of games that I've acquired since Christmas, so I would like to show you all what I've got.  This might go up next Tuesday.

Next up, I played and completed Quantum Break in its entirety, and do intend to review it very soon.  That might not be up this week - we'll see how things go.  I am also playing through the back half of The Division, attempting to get to level 30 and to the end game content.  I have really enjoyed The Division - it's quite surprising how much fun it has been, actually. In the handheld arena, I am about 10 hours in to Bravely Second: End Layer on the 3DS and I am loving it.  I loved the original game as well, for the most part - until the notorious stretch of repetitive gameplay towards the end of the story.  Apparently Square Enix have rectified this for the sequel, so I am looking forward to gradually making my way through the game.

Lastly, I have several new series in the works for the YouTube Channel - the first episode of Advance Warning, which will be GBA reviews, has already been uploaded, and I have more on the way.  Besides that, I also want to start a series that highlights what I consider to be classics from the previous generation that everybody should play.  To that effect, I am about 8 hours into Darksiders on the Xbox 360.   Other games that will most likely be part of season one of this series include Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed II, Gears of War, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Enslaved: Journey to the West and Red Dead Redemption.  Not sure when the series will start yet - probably when I've got three episodes ready to go.  As for PS2 Tuesdays, that will be back as well although I don't know exactly when yet.  It's hard to find the time to play all of these different games!  Thanks for reading this mini update, and for sticking with the blog.  There will be another video next Tuesday, and hopefully another post fairly soon as well.  In the meantime, take care!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Advance Warning #1: Racing Gears Advance

Way back in the early days of my YouTube channel, I made a short lived series called Nintendo Night, where I would talk about some of my favourite games for the various Nintendo platforms.  Back then I was making my videos by shooting the screen with an iPhone 3GS, and basically making it up as I went along.  These videos are rather embarrassing to watch nowadays, so I have decided to remake some of them, starting with the one I did about a rather overlooked GBA title called Racing Gears Advance. I don't have a huge collection of GBA cartridges - around two dozen or so - but I am going to cover more games for the system later on so I have started this new series called Advance Warning.  With the help of my Retron 5, I will be able to bring you some nice clear footage of the games I'm covering.  So let's get on with taking another look at Racing Gears Advance!

I remember reading about this game in one of the magazines that I used to buy around the time of its release, and thinking it looked really cool from the screen shots.  I love top down racers like Championship Sprint, Micro Machines and Circuit Breakers, so one look at the little cars racing around nicely detailed tracks planted the game firmly on my radar and taking a bit of a gamble, I pre ordered a copy.  I remember it was fairly late in the life of the GBA, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap had been released not too long before it, and my imported Japanese DS fat had recently turned up from Lik-Sang, so I ended up playing most of those two games on the superior screen of the DS compared to the dingy old screen on my GBA SP AGS-001 model that I owned at the time.  From the moment I put the game in and fired it up for the first time I was not disappointed - the game felt immediately responsive and intuitive to control with a nice little powerslide that could perform lifting off the acceleration button and then hammering back on to it as you turned into a corner.

The graphics are nice and bright, and compared to most games on the GBA, they are very nicely detailed indeed. Little things like the way the trees move in the breeze and the way your cars suspension reacts when going over cobblestones or a wooden bridge are great little touches that help to set Racing Gears Advance apart from the average crapware that was sadly so common on the system.  The tracks are pretty diverse in their nature, and consist of scenic rural areas like vineyards, treacherous snowy mountain tracks, shipyards, and even an active volcano!  Backing up the graphics is some very strong audio as well - particularly the music.  Again, music of this quality is fairly rare on the GBA, and the actual tunes remind me of SID music from the C64.  It is most definitely of a retro chiptune style, and even features some voice samples in tunes such as the catchy People Mover.  Sound effects are decent enough as well, but are a bit overshadowed by the music.  There's a variety of skidding effects, explosions and the like, which all add to the overall quality of the game.

So that's the presentation addressed, but let's now focus on the game play.  Initially, the game is a lot of fun indeed as you bomb around the circuits, building up money reserves from both pickups on the track itself and from winnings after placing in the races.  Each cup, of which there are five, consists of five races, so there's a very decent 25 tracks in total in the game.  At the end of a championship, the points are tallied and the final placing revealed.  If you come first, then you get to move on to the next championship, anything less and you will have to try again.  You are never actually faced with a game over screen, which is quite nice.  Before each race, you can take a look at the map, see roughly how difficult the track is, check surface type and the weather.  These last two things are important, because if you were go race on snow with your slicks equipped, or if you had dry tires on when it was raining, you would really struggle to control your car and also maintain a decent speed in the race.  So as you earn cash in the events, you should be buying new types of tire.  That's not all though, your car itself is also upgradeable - you can level up the engine, the turbo, the armour, the brakes and finally, the weapon cells.  As you progress through the different cups you will discover that it is absolutely necessary to upgrade your car in order to be competitive.

You can also take damage as well, which can get pretty expensive to fix.  Finally, there are many different weapons to buy in the game.  At first you just get access to nitrous and basic missiles, but with each new cup that's unlocked you will be allowed to buy more and more types of weapon.  Later types include mines that do a significant amount of damage to anyone unlucky to drive over them, and heat seeking missiles.  In addition to weaponry, each character has their own innate special ability as well.  One of them can steal cash by bumping into other cars, another one can mess up your steering temporarily, which can be infuriating.  That brings to my one major problem with the game.  By the time you get to around the third championship, the majority of the weapons will have been unlocked, and the computer AI starts acting like a complete bastard.  Within the first few seconds of a race it's quite likely that you will have been shot, spun out, run into level mines, and bashed into for good measure.  A decent race can easily be ruined by the overaggressive opponents, and it can become infuriating.  You can go back to previous championships, grind for money and gradually level your cars so that you can then easily win the current championship, so at least you won't get stuck, but this does make the game feel like a bit of a grind at times.

Despite these few problems though, Racing Gears Advance still stands out as one of the best third party games released for the GBA, yet it's one that I never ever hear anyone talking about.  When I checked the price for this review, I was surprised to find that there were copies available on Amazon.co.uk for around £28.  That's not an insignificant amount by any means, but I was thinking it would be worth £50 at the absolute minimum.  If you get the opportunity, you really should check this game out, either through emulation or by spending a bit of a genuine copy.  Despite the frustrating game play in the latter stages on the championship mode it remains a lot of fun to play and is a title that I still return to frequently today.  I'll be back with another edition of Advance Warning in the not too distant future, as well as bringing all the other videos that I've been promising for a while.  In the meantime, take care!

Friday, March 04, 2016

Game Diary: Rapturous Retro

It's been a couple of weeks since my last video, so this weekend I will definitely try and put something together for all of you.  The next episode of the C64 review show is partially completed already, so that's the most likely candidate.  I am thinking that I may change the way I do my C64 reviews though, and just do one game per episode.  When I do four games with music interspersed throughout, that takes a lot of time to produce, and I have to say often at the end of a long week the enthusiasm just isn't there to spend most of my weekend making them.  By focusing on just one game I would be able to release episodes much more frequently and it would be more fun too.

I recently picked up a nifty little gadget that should also assist in my video making endeavours.  A few weekends ago, I received an email from the UK gadget supplier Funstock, where they were announcing that they had a whole bunch of stuff available at half price because they were refurbished.  Amongst the stuff on sale was a JXD S7800B, which is a powerful Android based tablet with physical controls.  After watching half a dozen or so reviews of it on YouTube, I was very impressed with what I saw.  This thing is powerful enough to emulate consoles all the way up to consoles like the N64, PS1 and Dreamcast!  The Dreamcast emulation isn't perfect but it is possible to get the majority of games running in at least a playable state, with a few graphical glitches here and there.  My eyes lit up at the prospect of playing Skies of Arcadia on the go and so I ordered one!

When it arrived, there was a bit of a problem - Funstock had neglected to check the product properly before sending it out and a few vital cables were missing, namely the charger and the USB data cable. Having heard bad things about the regular charger, I managed to find a USB version online and ordered that.  I do have everything I need now though and my JXD is now loaded up with emulators and games for the C64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, NES, SNES, N64, PS1, Game Gear, Master System, Megadrive, Neo Geo Pocket, Neo Geo MVS, MAME and of course the Dreamcast.  I've been getting used to it over the past week and enjoying a variety of games including Earthbound, Streets of Rage and of course Skies of Arcadia. My dream of playing my favourite RPG on a handheld system is a reality!  Of course if Sega ever do decide to release a legitimate port of the game on the 3DS, Vita or any future handheld I will buy it, but I think the chances of that happening are pretty slim unfortunately.

Anyway, because the JXD has HDMI out built in, I am thinking that I will use it to capture footage of all sorts of retro games.  The picture quality of the C64 games should be noticeably better this way, in theory.  I have heard that I may need to replace the version of Android that comes installed on the JXD with a more recent version though, because the one on the machine runs at 66hz and all the emulators and games run at 60hz.  This isn't a problem in normal usage, but it creates all sorts of issues when you plug the system into a TV - namely horrible input lag and a chugging frame rate.  It's a pain that I have to go through this process in the first place, but the effort of upgrading should be worth it in the long run.  If all goes well, I will then start to use the JXD to make capture the C64 games. During the week on my commutes I will continue to play various games until I get a good feel for one and can put together a review.

During my first attempt at creating content on YouTube, about 5 or 6 years ago, I made 5 or so videos under the title Nintendo Night. These are pretty poor quality efforts because they were made by pointing an iPhone 3GS at my TV - I didn't have a proper capture card at the time.  I'm thinking of resurrecting this series under the title of Nintendo Night Neo, and using the JXD to discover / capture the games.  I could also do something similar with the Sega machines of course!  Picking up the JXD S7800B has really reignited my passion for retro gaming, and for making YouTube videos about them.  I would be interested to hear any suggestions of games that you think I should check out for any of the systems that I listed above.  Keep an eye open for the C64 Review Show Episode 3 at some point over the next week, and in the meantime, take care!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wii Hidden Gems #7 - Sam & Max: Season One

This time I'm taking a look at the Wii version of Sam & Max Season One.  The titular duo are freelance police, with Sam being a dog and Max being a "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" as the game often describes him.  They were created by Steve Purcell and originated as a comic book form in 1986, where they developed a cult following.  After Purcell became employed at LucasArts and worked on the graphics for titles such as Monkey Island 1 and 2, he was given the chance to make his own Sam & Max graphic adventure, which was subtitled Hit the Road and was released in 1993.  The game became hugely popular and ranks up there with the true classics of the genre, securing Sam & Max a much bigger audience.  In 1997 there was a fairly short lived TV series starring the duo, but then things went silent for quite some time.

Fast forward to around 2002, and there was word that a new Sam & Max game was in development, a true sequel to Hit the Road.  Unfortunately LucasArts decided to pull the plug on the project in March of 2004, which was the impetus for Dan Connors, Kevin Bruner and Troy Molander to leave and start their own company, Telltale Games.  After moderate success with early titles like Telltale Texas Hold 'Em, Bone, and some licensed CSI games, they manage to secure the rights for new Sam & Max games directly from Steve Purcell.  The six episode first season was originally made available from October 2006 to April 2007 on the PC, with the Wii version appearing on the Wii Shop in 2008.  A physical version containing all six episodes and some fairly inconsequential bonus materials was published by The Adventure Company in 2008.  The game was hugely successful for Telltale, and led to two further seasons for Sam & Max, as well as future series like Tales of Monkey Island, Back to the Future: The Game and The Walking Dead.  Nowadays Telltale Games are a really big deal in the industry, securing the rights to huge properties like Game of Thrones, Minecraft and Batman.  I intend review each of their series eventually, but I am starting here with Sam & Max: Season One, aka Save the World

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
As each episode of Sam & Max: Season One introduces new characters and develops old ones, I am going to break them down into their own mini segments with my thoughts on each. Overall though the characters are very strong and entertainingly written.  One or two of them are on the verge of being extremely irritating but that is deliberate.  While there is an overarching plot that connects each episode to the one after it, the thread is pretty thin in this season to be honest, and Telltale definitely get much better at this by the time we get to Season Three.

The season premiere sees our crime fighting duo investigating an outbreak of hypnotism.  This episode introduces us to The Soda Poppers, former child stars who used to appear on an old sitcom called "Soda Jerks".  Each of them have their own characteristics and catchphrase - we have Whizzer, whose overactive bladder can cause him to rush off to the bathroom every few minutes ("Time out for number one!"), Peepers, whose over sized eyeballs give him fantastic vision ("I can see you!", and Specs, a super obsessive control freak who absolutely hates it when others ruin his plans ("You made me mess up!").  We also meet recurring characters Jimmy Two Teeth, who is a shady rat who lives in a hole in Sam and Max's office.  In this first episode, the duo have to negotiate getting their phone back from Jimmy by supplying him with Swiss cheese.  Then we have Bosco, the owner of the local "inconvenience" store and paranoid conspiracy theorist.  He is constantly trying to convince you that the government is out to get him (which to be fair, sometimes they are.  There's also Sybil Pandemik, who is working as a Psychotherapist when we meet her here, and finally Brady Culture, the villain of the piece, who is trying to spread his "Eye-Bo Ocular Exercises" program throughout the neighbourhood with the help of the hypnotised Soda Poppers.  It is up to Sam & Max to return Whizzer, Specs and Peepers back to normal and then stop the nefarious plans of Culture Once and for all.   7 out of 10

The second episode sees Sam & Max tasked with freeing the audience of a chat show, who have been taken hostage by the host, Myra Stump.  Myra herself appears to be based on Oprah Winfrey, at least partly, because of her penchant for giving away gifts to the entire audience.  As the villain of this episode, I think she is the weakest of all of them, having only a brief appearance right at the end.  The bulk of this episode is spent helping the studio director produce various TV shows, from a sitcom called "Midtown Cowboys", a cooking show, a parody of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Embarrassing Idol.  You will encounter the Soda Poppers again while attempting to win Embarrassing Idol, and you will also meet new characters like Philo Pennyworth, a highly trained chicken thespian who stars as the landlord in Midtown Cowboys, where every episode sees the main characters attempting to hide the fact that they are keeping a cow in their living room.  You'll also meet Hugh Bliss for the first time, the father of Prismatology (a parody of Scientology), standing in as a game show host.  Bosco and Sybil are also back, with Bosco putting on a hilarious British accent, and Sybil changing professions to tabloid journalist for the "Alien Love Triangle Times". 7 out of 10

This time Sam & Max are investigating Ted E. Bear's Mafia Free Playland and Casino and trying to track down a mole who is working for the cops in secret, by using the phrase "Does the carpet match the drapes".  This is definitely the funniest episode so far, as it was hugely entertaining going around trying out the code phrase on everyone you meet, and the musical number that the creepy animatronic bear heads on the wall sing was great as well.  New characters this time around include Leonard Steakcharmer, a shady gambler to attempt to cheat Sam out of his tokens while playing Indian Poker, Chuckles, the second in command at the casino, and Ted E. Bear himself.  This time Sybil is a professional witness, preparing to testify against the Toy Mafia, who put a hit out on her.  Bosco is once again attempting to disguise himself by wearing a beret and affecting a bad French accent.  This was the briefest episode so far for me but also the best written.  8 out of 10

This was another great episode with another entertaining musical number part way through. This time, apparently the president of the United States has become a victim of hypnotism, but after further investigation, it is discovered he was a robot all along that was actually the one doing the hypnotising.  After the heroic duo have dealt with him, the chief of staff activates the Lincoln memorial, who it turns out is a huge stone robot.  An emergency election is called where Max stands as presidential candidate in opposition of robo-Lincoln, and it's your job to ensure he gets elected.  New characters this time around include Agent Superball, a member of the secret service who is always trying to deny you access from where you need to go, and the animatronic Abe Lincoln himself.  The Soda Poppers return, with Whizzer trying to start a campaign for the victims of Soda Abuse, and Specs and Peepers on the opposing sides of a civil war between North and South Dakota.  This time Sybil is running a dating agency, and Bosco has turned Russian.  8 out of 10

For me this was the best episode out of all of the first season.  It sees Sam & ; Max taking a trip into Reality 2.0 after acquiring some high tech goggles, and then attempting to prevent The Internet from enslaving the entire human race.  In this episode you will meet the C.O.P.S (Computer Obsolescence Prevention Society) who are a bunch of ageing machines attempting to preserve their usefulness.  They include an telephone, an classic 80's arcade machine that strongly resembles Sinistar (especially when he says "I hunger!"), an old timey computer, an Atari VCS and a printer / scanner.  Hugh Bliss reappears in virtual form as the Internet Wizard, who gives Sam & Max an important item for their quest.  Sybil is now a beta tester (at least until you come along and break her goggles, which incidentally how you obtain them in the first place), and Bosco has decided to be a half elf - for the shire!  This is definitely Telltale at its best.  9 out of 10

The final episode of the first season sees you visiting the moon as the title would suggest, in an attempt to stop the big bad's plan once and for all.  In case you haven't played the game yet and would like to, I am not going to reveal too much information about this one or I would spoil for you.  Overall I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the previous three episodes, but I would say it's on par with episodes one and two.  Pretty much all of the characters you've met over the course of the previous episodes come back in one way or another, and it all leads to a fairly satisfying climax. 7 out of 10
You will revisit certain locations, such as the office, multiple times throughout the season.

Graphics: 7 out of 10
The visuals of Sam & Max on the Wii are OK but definitely not the best I've ever seen by quite some margin.  There's also some really bad performance issues which I believe could have been sorted out if a bit more time was spent optimising the code.  With the Wii proving itself more than capable of running impressive software like the Super Mario Galaxy games or Xenoblade Chronicles, it should be able to run something as simple as a graphic adventure game without any difficulty, yet there are times where I encountered chronic slowdown with an absolutely abysmal frame rate.  Most episodes feature a rather ill advised and poorly implemented chase sequence in the Desoto, which is where the poor performance is most noticeable, although there were also a few moments in regular game play where the action slowed to a crawl and looked as if the game was about to crash at any moment.  It actually did lock up completely on me once.  The ugly looking background textures were a side effect of the episodes starting life as downloadable content on the Wii Shop, where they had to come in under a certain size.  If you play game on PC, it will look and perform a lot better.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The voice work is really strong with a relatively small group of actors playing a whole bunch of different characters.  Bosco was definitely the highlight for me, with his British and Half Elven voices being extremely funny.  Hugh Bliss and the Soda Poppers could get irritating, though this is intentional.  Jared Emerson-Johnson has composed some great music for this series as well, from the main theme, the various background tunes and the musical numbers like the ones from The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball and Abe Lincoln Must Die!

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Setting the technical performance of the game aside, graphic adventures like this actually work really well on the Wii thanks to the simple point and click interface.  You navigate around the different areas of the world, converse with the different characters to try and glean what you're supposed to be doing, pick up any objects you find and use them to progress through the story.  The episodic nature of the game means that there are never too many options available to you at once and though some puzzles will require a certain degree of thought with a bit of effort it should be possible for even genre newcomers to make progress.  These episodes are definitely on the easier end of the graphic adventure scale, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  They are meant to entertaining and completable within a few hours, not super challenging. 
On the set of Midtown Cowboys during Episode Two - Situation: Comedy.

Innovation and Cleverness:
6 out of 10
Telltale Games were the pioneers of the episodic adventure game, which have since become hugely popular and have seen other companies bring their own take on the genre into the market (such as Life is Strange and Blues & Bullets).  The Wii controller is also a perfect fit for this type of game, and Telltale were fairly big supporters of the system in the early days.  It's a shame that the third season of Sam & Max never came out for the Wii, but that's another review for a later time.

Value & Replayability: 6 out of 10
Copies of Sam & Max: Season One can be fairly easily obtained for about a fiver, and the game should take you about 12 hours to complete if you spend 2 hours on average on each episode.  I would say that's pretty decent value for money.  Whether you will ever replay the game again after the first time is questionable though.  I could potentially see myself playing through the episodes again in a few years time, although the plot is not in the same league as classics like The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle.

Overall: 7 out of 10
Sam & Max: Season One is definitely worth playing.  If you have access to a PC though, I would definitely play it on there rather than the Wii as it will look nicer and not suffer the same embarrassing technical issues that are present on the Wii.  Having said that, for me personally it's still a nice game to have in my physical Wii collection as it is part of the diverse range of games that are available for the system.  Many people cannot look past the shovelware and see the quality titles underneath - whilst Sam & Max is not as polished as it could have been it is most definitely not shovelware and is still very entertaining despite its problems.  Hopefully Season Two will have ironed out the flaws - we will find out when I get around to playing it in a month or two!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Game Diary: Feeling the Pressure

Why hello there! Fancy seeing you here. Been a while hasn't it?

This week I want to go over some of the short and long term plans that I have for both the blog and the YouTube channel.  I do sometimes have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew when it comes to this sort of thing so it might turn out that some of this will take a long time to pan out, and some of it may never happen at all.  I hope that isn't the case though!

At the beginning of the year I made a long list of older games that I want to try and beat over the rest of 2016.  This list is so long that I almost certainly won't get around to everything, but I want to do my best and finish a nice healthy chunk of it.  In my "RMGB in 2016" post I already touched upon how I would like to get around to completing all the Zelda titles that I haven't got around to yet.  You can also add to that list some Resident Evil games.  I have struggled to complete any of the games that have come out after Resident Evil 4.  Part of that is definitely because there has been an overall dip in quality, but I have also drifted away from the survival horror genre in general for whatever reason.

The other thing I want to focus on over the coming year is adventure games.  My Monkey Island Mondays series is the starting point for this, and episode will hopefully be online in early March.  I would also like to play other well received games in the genre that I have skipped though:  Deponia, the Runaway series, the Dreamfall / Longest Journey games and stuff like the Black Mirror trilogy from the Adventure Company.  These point and click games all work really well with the Steam Controller and Link, so I will be playing through them gradually.

To begin with though, I thought I would focus on finishing some of the older Telltale Games series that have been in my collection for years, yet I have never got around to beating.  For starters, we have Sam & Max Season One on the Wii.  Because each episode only takes a few hours to complete, they are quite easy to fit into my schedule, and the jokes hold up pretty well today even if technically the Wii version has its fair share of problems. I just finished the final episode yesterday, so there will be both a written and a video review up sometime over the next week.

After that I will probably play something else on the Wii that won't take too long to finish, as a bit of a palate cleanser.  I was thinking that the Bit Trip Collection might be a good option.  Then I will move on to playing Back to the Future: The Game, followed by another palate cleanser, and then Sam and Max: Season Two.  I have been meaning to bring you some more Wii Hidden Gems for quite a while now, so playing these will both take care of my hankering for adventure games and allow me to address the lack of Wii content.

There are also two other things that I want to take care of as soon as possible - a review of Kameo: Elements of Power as part of the Rare Replay series, and episode three of the C64 review show.  So at the next opportunity I will be sitting down with my Xbox One for some extended play sessions in an attempt to get to the end of Kameo.  The C64 video is actually partly done - I have finished the section on Turrican. I have the three other sections left to complete: Bod Squad, Retrograde and Last Ninja Remix.  Finally, I have drawn up a list of twelve more games that I would like to cover for PS2 Tuesdays Season 4.  With everything else I'm already working on, I don't think that this will begin until the second half of the year, but I would like to start preparing for it now.  Covertape Chaos Season 2 will also start in the back half of the year.

So as you can see, I have given myself quite a bit of work to do, and to be honest it's all starting to feel a bit overwhelming.  As long as I take it slow and steady though, I should get there.  My original plan of releasing a new episode of Monkey Island Mondays was way to ambitious. Even a monthly schedule is quite tight, seeing how I like to play a variety of things at the same time, and still need to leave some room for brand new releases.  My new target is to get all five episodes out by the end of June.  I doubt I will be taking part in the Summer Backlog Challenge this year - my own personal backlog challenge will be going on all year long anyway!

At the moment I'm not really sure what order this content is going to appear in - if I had to guess, I would say that the Sam & Max Season One review will be next, followed by the C64 Review Show, Monkey Island Mondays #2 and then Kameo, but the reality may turn out to be slightly different!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Yakuza 5 review

The Yakuza series is one that I've been interested in for quite some time now.  The first game in the series piqued my interest due to its apparent similarities with my beloved Shenmue, yet when I played the game myself I found the combat rather clunky and lost interest a few hours in.  Something brought me back though and over time I have acquired copies of all the other entries that have been released in the west.  I spent a fair bit of time with Yakuza 3 and really enjoyed it, but I set it aside for some vague time in the future when I would dedicate myself towards completing it properly.  That day never came, but in the meantime the hype over Yakuza 5 and the disappointment from long term fans that it showed no sign of being localised hadn't escaped my notice. 

When Sony finally did announce that the game would be released digitally on the PlayStation Network, I decided it was worth supporting and used some of my birthday money towards it.  Whenever I buy a new game I always have to try it out a little bit, even if I don't intend to play it all the way through there and then.  This is usually only the first few hours of the game, but I had so much fun playing Yakuza 5 that I ended up spending about 12 hours on it!  Still, after that first day and a bit of playtime, I did set it aside so I could concentrate on finishing Tales of Xillia.  Roughly one month later I came back to it though, and have now completed the game having spent about 75 hours on it in total.  Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed myself, and now firmly intend to go back and play the first four games, plus Dead Souls.  If you are curious about the Yakuza franchise and have never taken the plunge, let me attempt to explain why you should strongly consider giving it a go.

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
Having watched some of the videos that go over the plot of previous games, it is apparent that these games can get rather convoluted and hard to follow.  That wasn't really the case with Yakuza 5 though, despite it being deep into a well established series.  The main protagonist of the games, Kazuma Kiryu, has moved from Tokyo to Fukuoka, changed his identity, and is just trying to make a living as a humble taxi driver.   That all begins to fall apart when the chairman of his former yakuza family cuts in line and gets into his taxi one day, in order to warn Kiryu that there is a war on the horizon between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance.  From this point on his is gradually drawn back into the yakuza life yet again, and the plot deepens from there.  He is only one of five playable characters though, and after about 15 - 20 hours of playtime depending on how thorough you are with the side activities, the game shifts onto Taiga Saejima, who fights differently and has plenty of his own problems.

While there is enough mystery in the plot to keep you interested throughout the games long play time, it never becomes too hard to follow.  Also, by shifting things up every 20 hours or so, the game remains fresh.  Saejima's part of the story was my least favourite but I kept going in the knowledge that I would eventually get to play as three more characters after him.   His main side activity was hunting, which was a nice change of pace from all the fighting, but the opening hours of his chapter really dragged for me.  By far my favourite was Haruka.  She has been in the series since the very first game, where she started out as a little girl that Kiryu had to take care of.  Now she's about 15, and has been noticed by the head of a talent agency for pop idols.  She is in the very early stages of an idol career as week take control of her, preparing for the finals of a TV show called Princess League.  Her chapter was a lot of fun, and the rhythm based concerts and dance battles were a very nice change of pace.  This game really has three key strengths: the characters, the variety of gameplay, and the sense of fun.

Take that! A foot to the armpit.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Yakuza 5 does look very good for the most part and the engine has obviously had an upgrade since Yakuza 3.  The key cut scenes of the game have had the most attention, with the character models looking extremely detailed and realistic.  Outside of these the rest of the game running in realtime is slightly less detailed and there are one or two rather ugly textures to be found, but overall this is an impressive looking PS3 game.  When things get really hectic there are signs of slowdown, but nothing that's too detrimental to the overall game play.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The Yakuza series hasn't had Enlgish voices since the first game, and from what I heard when I tried to get into it all those years ago, that's no great loss, as it was truly terrible in places.  My untrained ear can't really tell if the Japanese actors are good at their jobs or not, but it all seems perfectly fine and having them speak their native tongue just makes the game feel more authentic.  There are some quite brutul sounding crunches in combat, and the move where Kiryu grates somebodies face on the pavement always makes me wince due to the unpleasant sandpaper noise that accompanies it.  There is some great music in the game as well, from the tunes that play while your in combat, the suitably cheesy ballads that you can belt out at the karaoke parlours, and the pop or dance tunes that Haruka performs to.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The Yakuza games are chiefly brawlers - kind of like a modern day equivalent of something like Streets of Rage.  There is a lot more to them than this though as I will attempt to explain.  When you first take control of a new character, their move set and abilities are fairly limited.  By beating random thugs that will come at you in the street or by taking down people in the story, you will earn experience points and level up.  Each time this happens you will be given three pips to spend on a variety of things, from extending your life bar, to learning a completely new move.   By the time you're getting towards the end of that characters chapter, he will be incredibly powerful and able to beat the shit out of most enemies, bar the bosses.  I was playing the game on the default Normal difficulty and never really had too much trouble in any particular fight.  You are given healing items from completing side quests and from random drops so even if I did get close to being defeated I could just down a Staminan Spark or something and be right back in the fight.  Those who are good at action games may want to go straight to Hard mode.

In addition to regular moves, each character also has their own array of heat moves.  You earn heat by successfully beating on your opponents, or by blocking incoming attacks.  Once the bar is filled you can then trigger some really painful looking attacks like the face grating one I mentioned earlier.  You can also pick up a large variety of background objects and use them as weapons as well, all of which have their own heat move associated with them.  So you could pick up a bicycle, beat somebody around the head a few times with it, throw it at them and them stomp on top of them for good measure.

If the combat was all the game had going for it then I would start to tire of it eventually, and this is pretty much what happened back when I tried to play the first game. The great thing about this series though - the later games at least - is the vast variety of things to do.  Aside from the taxi driving, hunting, pop idol business and other main side modes that each character has, there are also many more side activities.  You can go to a hostess club and attempt woo a pretty girl, you can go bowling, play darts, air hockey and billiards.  Virtua Fighter 2, Taiko no Tatsujin and UFO Catcher machines can be found in Club SEGA that are based in most of the cities, and there are a whole host of gambling games like poker, pachislots and more in there.  Plenty of things to break up the fighting.  All of the mini games are at least competently implemented as well, which is important. 

Just grin and bear it!

Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While Yakuza 5 is building on the previous titles in the series, it does bring a lot of its own new stuff to the table as well.  The decision to allow you to play as Haruka and make musical performance the focus of her chapter instead of combat was a masterstroke.  Really a lot of the reason that I played all the way to the end is because I couldn't wait to see what new thing the game would throw at me next.  The story is good enough to back up the game play though, resulting in a highly polished experience.

Value and Replayabilty: 9 out of 10
As I mentioned in the intro, it took me 75 hours to get to the end of Yakuza 5 and while I did complete most of the sidestories for each character, I came nowhere near to doing everything that is possible to do in the game.  My overall completion rate was about 25%, so if you were truly determined to get 100% it would take a long long time indeed.  When you get to the end of the story for the first time you unlock two extra modes - one where you can play through the story again but with all of your levels and abilities intact from last time, and one where you can visit any city with any character and complete anything that you skipped while playing through the story.  So even when you're done playing the the game once, there's plenty to come back to.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Yakuza superfans will probably hate me for not giving this game at least a nine out of ten, but the combat can get somewhat repetitive and so I'm marking it down slightly for that.  This is based on my own enjoyment of the game after all.   I did have a lot of fun playing through the story though, a few dull moments aside, and all of the optional content was a ton of fun.  I definitely will be going back and playing through all of the previous games now, and any future titles such as Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 6 that will hopefully be brought over eventually.  If you have never tried this series before then jump on board, you're missing out on quite a lot!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Jetpack Joyride | Mini Review

I’ve got a shorter review for this week, and the game I’m going to be looking at is actually fairly old.  It is Jetpack Joyride – more specifically the Deluxe PS3 version.  I have put a ton of hours into both this version and the Android version on my Kindle Fire.  The game is fundamentally the same on both platforms  except that because it is part of Amazon’s Underground scheme it is 100% on their devices, including all DLC and coin packs that would normally cost you money elsewhere.  You many think that this is a good thing but when infinite coins are so easy to obtain, you can pretty much break the game for yourself and render it pretty pointless.  So if you have the willpower I would recommend not touching any of the free stuff at all, or if you know that you won’t be able to manage that, spend the paltry £1.39 asking price for the PS3 version and earn everything properly with the in game currency.   I’ll go into more detail about this later on in the review.

So then, the overall plot behind the game sees you take control of Barry Steakfries, the hero, who takes a prototype jet pack for a joyride.  In order to escape the laboratory with the purloined pack, you will have to first navigate 30,000 meters of deadly zappers and missiles, which is way, way easier said than done.  I’ve put quite a bit of time into the game and furthest I’ve managed to get is about the 4,500 meter mark.  This game is firmly in the “endless runner” category, except in theory it’s not actually endless.  From your point of view when you first start out, it may as well be though.  The layout of the lab changes each time, and before long you are careening along at a breakneck pace.   Eventually it will become unmanageable and you will make a mistake, bringing your run to an end.    While you’ve been dodging the many dangers though, you’ve been picking up coins, which can be spent in the Stash on a variety of things.   Probably the most useful are the Gadgets, which change up certain aspects of the game – but you can only equip two of these at a time.   They include stuff like a device that causes the missiles to misfire more often than not, and another that randomly turns certain coins into precious gems.   As you purchase gadgets from the earlier tiers, you will gradually unlock later ones with more useful stuff.  Then there are Utilities, which are one time use items such as hearts that can be used to resurrect you one time, and other items that will let you instantly pass a particularly tricky mission (more on these in a minute).

Awww, it's Mr Cuddles!!!
The Stash is also home a variety of clothing, different types of jet pack, and vehicle upgrades.   The clothing is purely cosmetic, but the other things may change up the gameplay a little bit.  Because you start with the machine gun jet pack, as you boost you will be inadvertently filling poor unsuspecting scientists full of lead as you go.  Most of the time that’s perfectly fine, but sometimes you may have a mission to not harm any scientists on a run.   By changing the jet pack you’ve got equipped – to a steam powered one for example, you can make it much easier to avoid scientist slaughter.  You still need to avoid crushing into them, of course, but that’s pretty straight forward if you have decent throttle control.   During a typical run through the lab you will find randomly place vehicle icons, which let you go on a rampage in a robot suit called Lil Stomper, or a mechanical dragon called Mr Cuddles, for example.  The upgrades mostly give you different skins to equip, but you can also buy magnet upgrades which will then attract precious coins.  Very useful indeed.     The items in the stash will go on sale periodically, and new items may appear from time to time.  Some of them, like the sleigh and the Santa outfit, are seasonal and available for a limited time only.  Others cost real money if you want them straight away, or if you are patient you can get them for free if you wait about 15 days.

The missions are part of what playing the game so addictive.    Usually you will have three assigned to you at the same time, and they include things like high-fiving a certain amount of scientists, having a near miss with a certain number of missiles, or gathering a certain number of coins.  Sometimes your target will be fairly high but can be spread over as many runs as you need in order to complete it – for example 5000 coins.  Other targets may be good for just one run, and so are a bit trickier to get.   Each mission has a star value of one to three, and these stars contribute to your level. Every time you level up, you get a bonus in coins.   Once you get to level 15, you will have finished that set of missions, but that’s not the end.  You are then awarded a medal and the whole process starts again.  There are many different mission types and they are randomised, so the chances of you getting the exact same ones are pretty remote.  There are 175 medals, so if you want to get all of them, it will take you a long long time indeed!   So in addition to just managing to get all the way to 30,000 meters, you also have the additional objective of earning all those medals.  For such a cheap game, Jetpack Joyride has a ton of content!  There is also a reward for coming back every day.   Every 24 hours, three tokens will appear that spell out S.A.M, which is short for Strong Arm Machine.  Once you get all three, you will be encased in a giant robot suit until you get hit by five missiles. The amount of coins that appear increase dramatically during this mode, so you can really bolster your coffers if you’re reaction times are good!  Once the S.A.M. has been destroyed and that run ends, you are then given a daily bonus.   If you do this every day for five days, you will be given a random outfit for free.

Make good use of the S.A.M. to earn a ton of extra coins.

The presentation of Jetpack Joyride is fantastic, with really well drawn and animated sprites and backgrounds.   There is a ton of detail and lots of little hidden things to uncover.  The tune that plays on a loop in the background is also extremely catchy, as are the remixed dub step and Christmas versions when you are in the S.A.M. and the sleigh respectively.   For such as cheap game you really can get a ton of play time out of it, if you get really hooked!  While there are items that are on sale for real money in the Stash, you are always given ways to obtain them for free if you just wait or save up the required number of coins, so the micro transactions are not evil in that regard like they can be in other games.  The great thing about the PlayStation version is that not only can you play it on your big screen TV, you can also play it on your Vita if you happen to own one with Cross Save!  The special Back to the Future content may be missing on Sony consoles (from what I can tell at any rate) but the base game is still great fun without it.   If you’ve never played it before, I urge you to download Jetpack Joyride on whatever compatible platform you own, and prepare to be addicted!

Overall: 9 out of 10