Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins review

Batman is back for a third offering, and this time development duties have fallen to Warner Bros. Interactive Montreal for the single player portion, and Splash Damage for the multiplayer.  While I really enjoyed the first of the Arkham games, by the end of City I found myself starting to tire of the formula a little, to the point where I wasn't all that excited about the prospect of a third game - especially one that was a prequel.  However, the game was quite heavily discounted in the post Christmas sale last year, so I ended up getting it, where it languished on a shelf for quite some time.  I eventually played some of it in March, and was quite surprised at how much fun I was having, until I got stuck on a certain boss battle with Deathstroke.  I then stopped playing until last month, when I decided to pick the game as one of my ten candidates for the 2014 Summer Backlog Challenge, and just this past week I finally completed it. Let's break down what I thought of it in the end...

Graphics: 8 out of 10
On the whole I was really impressed with the visuals of Arkham Origins.  Everything is extremely moody and atmospheric, which works really well in single player.  I found the sheer darkness of the levels was a bit if a problem online though, which is where your enhanced vision comes in.  Batman can use detective vision as much as he wants, and indeed it is key to solving puzzles offline, but if you're playing as one of the Joker or Bane's thugs online you only have limited use of it before it goes on a cooldown.  For a lot of the rest of the time I was blundering around in the dark.  However, combined with the sound, the excellent graphics really drew me into the world of Gotham and the story that was being told.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The music in Batman: Arkham Origins, whilst definitely echoing the work of Hans Zimmer on the Christopher Nolan movie trilogy, still manages to add something new with the embedded Christmas music in the score. The game is set on Christmas Eve night, you see, so it makes a lot of sense, even if I happen to playing the game in the middle of summer.  Voice work is once again top notch, even if I personally prefer Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman over the new guys.  The game also features top quality sound design, from the trademark boom of Batman's exploding gel, to the cool effect that pulses through your speakers every time you level up.  Top quality stuff, overall.

It's good to see some of the more unusual villains from Batman's pantheon get a chance to shine, such as Black Mask, Copperhead and Firefly.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Batman: Arkham Origins brings back the mechanics that have worked so well in the previous games in the franchise, so you have the incredibly satisfying combo / counter system for fighting large groups of enemies.  As the game goes on, it introduces more and more special enemy types, each with their own way of being taken down, from armoured henchmen, ones that wield knifes, shield carrying guys and more. It keeps the player on his toes as you constantly have to switch your tactics and dart around the battlefield to stay out of danger.

Then we have the "Invisible Predator" system, where you're frequently locked in a room full of armed goons, and have to take them all down to move on. Simply wading into their midst with your fists flying will quickly get you killed, so you need to make use of conveniently place places to perch on and other hidey holes such as grates in the wall, and strategically take them out one by one.  It's still incredibly satisfying to lurk in the shadows until an unsuspecting gang member happens to walk right underneath you, then dive down and string them up!  Should you happen to be detected and are at risk from gun fire, you can quickly throw down a gas pellet and make your escape.

The online multiplayer mode is extremely well designed and adds something new to the genre in the same way that the multiplayer of the Assassin's Creed series did, yet I think I left it a little too long to try and get into it.  My own ineptitude combined with the dark maps and the extremely high levels of those still playing, meant that I was hopelessly outmatched in the handful of games that I took part it.  I expect if I persevered I would improve, but I'm not really an online kind of guy so I would prefer to move on to the next single player experience.  The unique thing about the online mode though is that as well as your typical gang vs gang gameplay with fairly standard weapons, a third team plays the parts of Batman and Robin.  They win by intimidating the members of the Joker and Bane gangs - which is achieved by taking them down in as quiet and as varied a way as possible.  Indeed I had the most fun when I played as Batman for one match, as he is far more agile then your common thug and can make use of his detective vision at all times.

The online seemed to be having a few technical issues when I tried it though - often whilst waiting for a match the entire lobby would be reset so that I was waiting on my own, and once or twice I was dropped from a match in progress.  There aren't a huge amount of people still playing, either - though that's only be expected as the game has been out for around 9 months already.  People move on quickly in the gaming world.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
While the game is indeed cleverly designed, the single player mode is essentially retreading the same formula that has been used in the two previous games.  I would have given this game a lower score in this category if it weren't for the rather innovative online mode, which does add something genuinely new to both this franchise and online gaming in general.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The single player campaign is fairly brief, yet I was satisfied overall with the length of it.  Hardcore players can go back for more with the New Game Plus and I Am The Night modes, which increase the challenge significantly.  Then if you can find sufficient people to play with the online mode potentially extends the game play for a long time, though as I mentioned previously the community seems to be dying off a little bit, at least on the Xbox 360.

Overall: 8 out of 10
I was quite surprised just how much fun I had playing through Batman: Arkham Origins, especially when I thought I was done with the series after Arkham City.  I really enjoyed the story in this one, which was a fairly slow burn for the first half.  Once the "twist" happens it's a fairly rapid plunge towards the end of the game.  Before I sign off, I must also add that I quite enjoyed most of the side content this time.  I still haven't got the patience to find and solve every single of the the Enigma puzzles, but I did take the time to do everything else, and had great fun doing so.  This game really brought me back on board after the double disappointment of Arkham City and of The Dark Night Rises at the cinema, so I'm now really looking forward to seeing what Rocksteady Games brings to the table with Arkham Knight.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Grid Autosport review

Codemasters is back with another release in the Grid series, barely a year after the last entry came out.  Grid 2 received generally positive reviews at the time, however there were a number of things that fans took issue with.  The most glaring thing was the complete lack of a cockpit view, something that marred the experience for me personally as it's the viewpoint that I primarily use in realistic driving games.  Then there was the slightly squirrely handling model, which I managed to get used to at the time.  Finally, while not really a general complaint aimed at the game, I personally hated the Touge and Checkpoint events.  Has Grid Autosport managed to address all of theses issue? Let's find out...

Graphics: 8 out of 10
While not a drastic leap over Grid 2 or anything else out there on the Xbox 360, Grid Autosport is still a solid looking game.  The cars and tracks are nicely detailed, the frame rate is solid with almost no sign of slowdown or glitching, and the damage model is impressive with cars deforming and losing tires realistically.  The main thing that's wrong is the ugly looking cockpit view, but considering that the previous game didn't even have one, that's still progress for you.  We all know that Codemasters is capable of better though, so it's a shame that the insides of the cars haven't received a little more polish.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
The music used in Grid Autosport is perfectly fine, yet it is only present in the menu's and in race replays.  During races there is a complete lack of any music at all, which I think is a shame but has probably been done to appease petrol heads who would prefer to hear the engine note of their car at all times.  If I remember rightly, in the previous Grid games some dramatic chase style music would kick in on the final lap of a race, increasing the excitement, but that's gone now.  You can still use custom soundtracks of course. The engine roars sound perfectly decent to my untrained ears, and there's definitely a noticeable difference between the high pitched whine of an open wheel car compared to the growl of a muscle car.  Finally, we have the voice over, which consists of the dulcet tones of some lady who introduces all the different race disciplines to you at the start of the game, and your team manager who talks to you over the radio during races.  You can press different directions on the D-pad during a race to request different information from him, such as how your team mate is doing, where you rival is and how far you're behind the car in front.  Useful stuff!

I totally didn't mean to wipe that guy out in my video review - I just braked too late for the corner, honest!
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
In my opinion, the structure of Grid Autosport is a definite improvement over Grid 2.  Considering that the heritage of the Grid series stretches back to TOCA Touring Cars for the PS1, it's a shame that touring cars have been completely absent from the series for a while.  Not anymore though, they're back in Grid Autosport and have a sizable presence within the game.  Besides this, there are another four disciplines: Open Wheel, Endurance, Tuner, and Street.  Each of them feel distinct from one another, from the handling, the rules of a race weekend, and the types of event found within.  For example under the Tuner discipline, you will find standard racing as well as Time Attack and Drift events.  I've previously hated the Drift events in other racing games but Grid Autosport manages to get things right by making them optional events for the most part, and not a critical part of seasons.

Endurance is really the only discipline that I don't enjoy, and that's mainly because I'm not very good at it and find it slightly boring.  Every Endurance race takes place at night, uses a timer (about 8 minutes by default) instead of a set number laps, and has tire wear turned on.  You have to drive cautiously and sensibly during the early parts of a race so that you've got enough left in your tires for a charge at the pack towards the end.  It's just not my thing really, and I dread having to complete a season of Endurance just so that I can earn enough XP for the next Grid championship.  I should take a step back here and explain how that works.  You see, you have a separate level for each of the main disciplines, which you level up by completing seasons and fulfilling goals that your chosen team sets for you.  Then there are special cross discipline Grid championships that require you to be a certain level across all the disciplines - the first being at level 3, the next and 6, and the final one at level 9.  So while you can focus on just your favourite disciplines for a while, eventually you will have to play them all if you want to "complete" the game.

Speaking of my favourite disciplines, I enjoy Street and Touring Car the most, followed by Open Wheel and Tuner.  The handling model and the pack racing of Street and Touring Car simply feels the most enjoyable to me, whereas the Open Wheel cars are a bit more of a challenge.  Drift and Time Attack aren't the most exciting of event types to me, but Tuner is pleasant enough to be an interesting way to break up the other discipline types.

Before I move on, I just want to quickly go over the online mode. Here, you start with your own Golf GTI and $10,000 to your name.  That doesn't limit you just to low end Street races though, as you are given loaner cars to any of the different disciplines or car classes.  The idea is to get some races under you belt with these loaner cars, build up your cash, and then buy cars of your own that you can upgrade and tune.  There's a vast range of different car classes though, so deciding which car to buy first can be difficult.  You don't really have to worry about it for a while though, so just enjoy so races in the cars they loan you.  If you play in one of the Codemasters play lists as opposed to setting up your own lobby, then damage is set to on by default.  This can be problematic because as we all know, random players online race like complete tossers, ramming into everyone on purpose.  This can smash up your vehicle and see you having to pay out a hefty repair bill at the end of the race, slowly your progress to buying your own car.

Performance wise though everything seems fine online - I didn't notice any problems with lag when I tried it and there weren't any disconnection issues.  The only thing I would recommend if your more interested in the online multiplayer mode than the single player, is to consider getting the PC version rather than one of the console versions.  At the Xbox 360 and PS3 are both winding down, then the community for this game may not be around for the long term.   At least you know the PC isn't going anywhere.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The single player campaign is huge - getting to the level cap with each of the five disciplines and beating the Grid Legends championship will take a good deal of time.  Then you have the online multiplayer mode to dive into after you've finished, which is vast as well.  There are also a sizable amount of tracks in the base game - admittedly a lot of them are reused from Grid 2 but there are some new ones as well.  Plenty of game to get stuck into.

Overall: 8 out of 10

Grid Autosport is an incredibly solid and fun realistic racing experience.  While the number of disciplines available may seem on the lean side compared to the days of TOCA Race Driver 2 and 3 which both featured around 30, a lot more care has been taken over each one so that they feel right and do justice to the particular branch of the sport they are emulating. Hopefully we will still see a Grid 3 or whatever they decide to call it on the next generation platforms at some point, but until then I'm perfectly fine with keeping my Xbox 360 plugged in!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Skyrim DLC Round Up

Here you will find my mini reviews for the three pieces of DLC for Skyrim.  I am planning to do the same thing for Fallout: New Vegas one day, just as soon as I get around to replaying the whole thing and completing the DLC I haven't played yet.  Anyway, hope you all enjoy the reviews below (and don't forget to check out the video versions!


I'm back again with my review of the first of three DLC packs for Skyrim: Dawnguard.  This one adds a whole new quest chain to the game which splits off down two different paths after a bit of initial set up.  You can either choose to side with the eponymous Dawnguard, a group of vampire hunters who have seen better days, or you can side with Harken, an extremely old and powerful vampire lord.  I have actually completed both sides of the story as different characters, and I definitely enjoyed the Dawnguard version more.  There is a lot of crossover between the two sides though, as you will be doing essentially the same missions, just for a different outcome.

The main quest chain is fairly lengthy, though the last quest drags on far too long in my opinion, to the point of becoming somewhat tedious.  There is some cool lore for long time Elder Scrolls fans, though this is not quite enough to raise the whole thing above mediocrity.  Some of the plot and the actions of the characters don't make a whole lot of sense in the scheme of things either.  Backing up the main quest chain are a bunch of side quests that you can do.  These seemed to make more sense and be better structured on the Dawnguard side because the quests were all centered around restoring the dilapidated Dawnguard fort back to its former glory, and recruiting new members for the cause.  The vampire side quests were a lot more random in their nature and after a while I kept getting given variations on the same ones.

This DLC does offer a few more new things, however - it introduces crossbows and bolts, and also the ability to make your own arrows at a forge.  This is very handy, especially if you play on Expert or Master difficulty where you will constantly be running low of ammo.  The other thing new to this DLC is the expanded vampire and werewolf skill trees.  Now as you kill enemies in vampire or werewolf form you will earn experience which can be spent on a dozen or so exclusive skills. They are pretty cool and powerful, and the whole skill tree only takes a couple of hours to unlock if you put your mind to it.  Being a vampire is such as pain in the ass in general though that as soon as I was done with the Dawnguard story I sought out a cure.

Overall this DLC is just OK in my opinion.  It's just about worth the asking price if you're dying for more Skyrim.  Once again as with all of the DLC, the best way to get it is as part of the Legendary Edition.

Overall: 7 out of 10.


So, here I am again with another review for the next piece of Skyrim DLC, Hearthfire.  Unlike in Dawnguard or Dragonborn, you won't be setting off on all all new adventure this time, unless you consider interior decorating and adopting a child an adventure (which you might well for all I know)!

Considering the original asking price, what you actually get in this DLC doesn't really amount to all that much.  Player housing was already present in the main game to a certain extent, and those houses were quite handily placed within exisiting cities for easy access to blacksmiths, general goods stores and potion shops.  The three new plots of land available to you are all fairly remote, and each has their own particular disadvantages for living there.  For example the one I chose to build first, Lakeside Manor, just happens to have a giant living right next door, who has a nasty habit of loitering in the garden and killing my cow and horse!

After building this first house and all of the optional wings, a task which takes a lot of blacksmithing and materials, I then decided to adopt a child.  There was a girl called Lucia in Whiterun who I decided to take under my care, though sadly my adventuring lifestyle can keep me away from her for months at a time.  Luckily I have a steward to keep an eye on her!  When I do turn up at home to offload any pelts, ingots and other assorted junk I've looted from the corpses of bandits, there are sometimes situations that require my attention.  Maybe the cellar has become infested with Skeevers, or perhaps a dragon is trying to set fire to the thatch.  It could just be that Lucia is bored and wants to play hide and seek.

Building the foundations of the house won't use up too many of your own material supply as most of the stuff you need can be found right on your plot of land.  The main things you will need to go off and buy are lumber and iron ingots, as well as things like glass and straw for interior decorations.  Once the actual house is built you can just pay your trusty steward to buy and decorate the place on your behalf, if you're lazy like me.  This does cost quite a lot though.

Hearthfire is a tough thing to recommend.  If you're getting it as part of the Lengendary Edition of Skyrim, then you may as well build the houses and adopt a child just for the the achievements points (if you're into such things, that is).  Otherwise it's really not worth the money, and is definitely the weakest of the three DLC packs that were made available.

Overall: 5 out of 10.


It's time to go back to Skyrim one last time and take a look at the final piece of DLC that was released for the game, Dragonborn.  This time around, Bethesda have created an entirely new landmass for you to explore, complete with new enemies such as the terrifying Ash Spawn, annoying Ash Hoppers and several new varieties of spider.  Well, I say Solstheim is new, but apparently it has been featured before in the Bloodmoon expansion for Morrowind. As I understand it, several of the quests on the island refer back to characters and events from Bloodmoon as well, which is a cool little nod to the fans.

So, then what does this DLC consist of? Well, Soltheim is a fairly sizeable new area to explore - certainly nowhere near as big as the main game, but it has over 30 new places to visit, from settlements such as Raven Rock, Tel Mythrin and Skall Village, to Nord barrows and Dwemer ruins.  The look of Solstheim is quite different to Skyrim as well, due to the island being affected by the constant plume of ash coming from the Red Mountain, which can be seen but not visited.

The main quest line of Dragonborn sees you going up against Miraak, who was once a loyal Dragon Priest but was swayed by the influence of the Daedric prince Hermaeus Mora.  You may remember him from the main quest of the game proper when you were tasked in with finding the Oghma Infinium, a very powerful tome that granted your character one of three boons.  It turns out that it's not the only book of its kind, as there are another seven Black Books hidden around Soltsheim to find.  You will come across several of these as part of the plot, and visit Mora's Oblivion realm known as Apocrypha.  This place is heavily influenced by Lovecrafts Cthulu mythos, as are the denizens of that place.

The rest of the Black Books are entirely optional, yet it will benefit you greatly for seeking them out as you can choose another power from each one, and there's an achievement for recovering at least five of them.  You will be aided in your quest by colourful characters like Glover Mallory - the brother of Delvin from the Thieve's Guild, and an extremely eccentric Telvanni Mage called Neloth who is brilliantly voiced by Dwight Schultz.  He is the highlight of the entire DLC in my opinion.

There quite a few other optional quests to be found on this island as well, and your total time spent should you do everything could be as much as 30 hours, to you definitely get your money's worth with this one.  Also included in this DLC are several new types of crafting material such as Stalhrim, Chitin and Bonemold for making your weapons and armour even more effective.  There's even almost and hour of extra music, including tunes that will be familiar to fans of Morrowind, as well as brand new tracks composed just for this DLC. Not everything about Dragonborn is as great as it could be though - being able to tame and ride dragons sounds really exciting in theory but the reality is a massive disappoinment.

This aside though, Dragonborn is by far the best of the three DLC packs that Bethesda made available.  It's a shame they stopped there, as Hearthfire really felt like it was chucked together quickly just so that they could get out of their promise of three exclusive pieces of DLC on the Xbox 360. Most fans were hoping there would be at least one more offering, but it was not to be.  So, my time with Skyrim finally draws to a close - well, almost.  I still have the business of restoring the Thieve's Guild to their former glory, and I've yet to finish the main story for a second time.  Still a fair few hours of gameplay to be had then!

Overall: 8 out of 10

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Watch Dogs review

Watch Dogs finally arrived towards the end of May 2014 after missing its originally planned release date of November 2013.  This combined with the amount of hype surrounding the game has meant that the final product has been a huge disappointment to some who were expecting it to be their first genuine "next generation experience".  There are those who are outright hating on the game, which I feel is unwarranted.  For me, Watch Dogs was an incredibly solid game with tons of optional material to keep you busy for hours, should you enjoy it.  I did, so let's break down the reasons why...

Graphics: 7 out of 10
Initially the graphics didn't impress me all that much.  They're only marginally better than those seen in GTA 5 and that was running on an Xbox 360!  However, the more time I spent with the game, the more I appreciated the visuals.  Chicago is an interesting city to explore, and the condensed version in this game does a good job of cramming in significant landmarks (complete with some history if you take the time to check in and read it).  Wandering through the park with the various sculptures was very interesting to me and helped make this version of Chicago feel real.

Most of the time things run smoothly, though the game did get a bit juddery sometimes after I had just completed a mission.  This is a bit disappointing, as I was playing on a PS4 which should have more than enough power under the hood to run this game without hitching.  If the PS4 version runs like this, what's the Xbox 360 version like, or the Wii U for that matter? Strangely though, when playing online I didn't notice the frame rate take a significant hit. Minor technical issues aside though, Watch Dogs is a game that can look quite beautiful at times. Granted, elements like the day/night cycle and rain that progressively makes the roads and pavements appear wet have been done before, but they're still effective here.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
The licensed soundtrack features some great, recognisable tracks which I really enjoyed for the most part, and the music that was specifically composed for the game is also of very high quality and helped ramp up the tension when the situation required it.  Sound effects are well implemented for the most part featuring custom hacking noises (for lack of a better description) that help give the game its own unique flavour and identity.  The only minor let down for me is the voice acting for Aiden. Maybe they wanted him to be a kind of everyman character that the player could easily identify with, but I frequently found his performance somewhat dull and lifeless.  Some of the other side characters like Clara and T-Bone do help spice things up a bit though.

It's always fun causing people to crash into bollards.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
For me, by far the strongest aspect of Watch Dogs is its gameplay, and specifically the combat and stealth options available to you as a player.  Scoping out a gang hideout through the use of CCTV cameras, tagging enemies, and remotely detonating their grenades never gets old!  There are a number of different ways to approach a given situation and the missions play out slightly differently each time, so I was happy to replay some of the tougher missions over and over again until I got things right.  Near the start of the game Aiden is quite weak, so carefully taking out bad guys with a silenced pistol is usually the way to go.  As you level up though and gain access to more and more perks, like disabling a soldier’s ability to call for reinforcements, the game does get significantly easier.

There are a ton of different side quest types and hundreds of these missions spread out across the map, which I think is the game’s biggest asset.  The main story line for me was a just OK and a bit clich├ęd overall, so it was the sheer variety of optional things to do that kept me interested.  You can line up parts of QR codes painted onto different buildings and scan them with a specific CCTV camera for hidden messages, play a round of the shell game, challenge a random stranger to a drinking competition, track down a serial killer, and many more.  Then there's another bunch of optional online modes for you try, like hacking another player without being spotted, racing others through the city, or joining a team of four in an attempt to hold onto and decrypt sensitive documents.  The online modes are well implemented into the single player as well - sometimes you will be invaded by another "Fixer", but never when you're already in the middle of a mission.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
If you were to plough straight through the main story of the game without participating in any of the optional content, you could get through the entire thing pretty quickly - I would estimate about 10 hours.  Throw in all the other missions though, and there's enough there to keep you entertained for a long time (as long as you enjoy the missions of course).  Watch Dogs follows the same addictive template as the Assassin's Creed series and Far Cry 3 in this regard, and I love it!

Overall: 7 out of 10
Watch Dogs is definitely not the mind blowing showcase of what the next generation consoles are capable of that many were hoping it would be (and Ubisoft were touting it to be in the early days, to be fair). It is however an excellent open world game.  Despite the weak plot and dull main protagonist, I had a great time exploring this virtual version of Chicago and would welcome a sequel that would almost certainly be an improvement now that they have the basic structure in place.  I'm not sure the series can support a yearly release like Assassin's Creed though, so please Ubisoft, don't do that.  Take your time on the next game and put it out in a few years’ time, when it's ready.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Mario Kart 8 review

The Mario Kart series has been a favourite of mine and my family ever since the original game appeared on the SNES in 1993.  I remember spending many an enjoyable hour racing and battling my brother, and now here we are in 2014 and not much has changed.  The latest in the series has arrived on the Wii U, and it looks and plays better than ever.  It may have taken a while to get here, and Nintendo have struggled quite a bit in the meantime, but it was worth the wait.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Seeing and playing a Mario Kart game in full HD for the first time is a fantastic thing, as not only does Nintendo's flagship driving series really pop due the imaginative settings and primary colours, they've also managed to cram an incredible amount of detail into the game.  You may be hurtling past too quickly to catch a lot of it, but the dynamically generated highlight reels via MKTV allow you to slow down the action, and notice such things as Mario's moustache quivering in the breeze, one of the annoying baby characters getting blasted by a well-timed green shell, or one of the many clever billboards for imaginary mushroom kingdom businesses. 

The game doesn't quite manage to run at a consistent 60 frames per second, as Digital Foundry pointed out in a recent report, but most players won't even notice this fact or care, and it doesn't significantly impact the gameplay, at least in single player.  Even with two players in split screen the game still runs smoothly, but play with 3 or 4 people on the same console and the quality drops significantly, both in terms of detail and frame rate.  The game is still quite enjoyable like this, but it's not the most optimal way to play.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Ever since the first Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo have produced fully orchestrated soundtracks for their flagship titles, and Mario Kart 8 is the latest game to receive this special treatment.  The music is absolutely fantastic too, from the slightly cheesy sounding yet entirely appropriate Sunshine Airport theme, to the surf rock sounding melody of Toad Harbor and then the techno laced stylings of the Electrodome.  The music is expertly crafted and helps elevate the sound of the game to another level.  Even old favourites like the theme to Moo Moo Meadows have been redone with real instruments, and they sound better than ever as a result.

The music is of course backed up by the usual array of sound effects and voices. Some voices, particularly those belonging to the squeakier characters like the babies, can be a bit grating, but generally it's competently done.  The sound effects don't really sound all that different from those used in other recent entries in the series like Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7, but at least they are consistent.  Overall, the sound is very high quality.

Mario Kart 8 looks absolutely lovely and really shows off what the Wii U can do in the right hands.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The basic structure of Mario Kart 8 remains the same as it has been for year - 3 difficulty levels split over 50, 100 and 150cc with four cups consisting making up 16 tracks that are brand new to this release, and another four cups featuring 16 retro tracks selected from previous games in the series. This is all capped off by a mirror mode once you've managed to beat everything else.  So far, so standard.

The new element that Mario Kart 8 brings to proceedings is anti-gravity - there are sections of track where your wheels will turn sideways, these usually being upside down, a complete right angle or twisting all over the place.  Through some kind of new-fangled magnetic technology (probably invented by Professor E. Gadd) the karts, bikes and ATV's are able to stick to the track without any trouble.  In these sections, colliding with other racers or specially placed pop bumpers will give you an extra boost.  These new antigrav sections don't radically change the gameplay in a significant way as the camera automatically centres itself so you don't get disoriented, though they still look really cool during the replays.

The underwater and aerial gliding elements that were added in Mario Kart 7 also return, and are generally better implemented this time around.  Most of the tracks feature multiple routes which give you more scope for trying out various tactics depending on which customisation parts you've chosen, which item your holding and personal preference.  Even the retro tracks have been overhauled, or at least most of them.  Some, like Melody Motorway are exactly the same as they were previously.  One of the best examples of this is Sherbert Land from the Gamecube, which has had a sizeable underwater area added. This transforms the track significantly. There are some really great track designs in this game - personal favourites of mine are Sunshine Airport, Toad Harbor, Mount Wario and Shy Guy Falls. 

It's not all good news, however.  In the past, the battle mode has been equally good as the racing.  Over the years though it's steadily become worse and worse, and this time is no different.  Instead of crafting special arenas that are a sensible size and layout for battling in, Nintendo have simply taken some of the tracks from the main game.  Not only do they feel too long, but some of them are also too narrow for you to be able to turn round easily.  This is sadly not the only negative thing I have to say about the game - the line-up of characters is also a bit weak, with far too many baby characters, koopalings and crappy pallet swaps like Pink Gold Peach.  After Nintendo recently unveiled their Amiibo figures at E3 and mentioned that they would work with Mario Kart 8 in some way, this gives me hope that there may yet be more characters and tracks locked away within the game.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The single player mode won't take too long for most players to complete if they're persistent, but then it never does.  Thankfully, local and online multiplayer is there to keep you coming back to the game for a long time to come, and is very well handled.  Nintendo have expanded the online offering this time around to encompass online tournaments, which work very well for the most part.  I got disconnected a few times when I entered a few tournaments, but luckily your score is kept between sessions. 

To try and keep things fair for all players, there are some options you can turn on, and I recommend doing so.  For starters you can define a certain number of races, set how long the tournament window is open, and decide whether you want CPU players to be present if there aren't 12 human beings in the lobby.  This last one is fairly important; as if there are only 5 of your racing for example you won't be able to score the maximum points and will therefore have no hope of winning.  By turning CPU players on this can be mitigated, and they can be set to Hard difficulty to try and keep the challenge level as close to that of a real person as possible.  It's still not perfect, but it's the best solution in the circumstances.  I would recommend trying not to take Mario Kart too seriously though - it's meant to be fun!

Overall: 9 out of 10
On the whole, Mario Kart 8 is one of the strongest entries in the series to date.  The racing feels great, the tracks are superb, and the presentation is first rate.  I can easily recommend this to long term fans and also more casual players who may not have tried a game in the series for a number of years. Hopefully the small issues I have with the game can be ironed out either via patches or DLC.  Until then, see you on the track!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review

For the last few years, I was of the opinion that the best game of the last generation was Red Dead Redemption.  It is most definitely a masterpiece and thoroughly deserving of the 10 of 10 score I gave it.  However, when I tried to go back and replay it a second time last year, I just wasn't that into it.  I can't really put my finger on why - there are just some experiences where it's hard to feel the magic when you've experienced it all before, I guess.

The same can't be said of Skyrim, however.  A few months ago I decided to replay the whole game again from the beginning, with all the DLC that was released incorporated into my new adventure from the very start.  Because of the sheer scope of the game, and because you can choose your race, there is a fair amount of replayability to the game - admittedly by the time you've been playing for around 100 hours your character will probably be much the same as anyone else’s, because by then you will have had to develop most of the skill trees in order to keep levelling up - but for a long time the experience will still feel your own.

I may be pretty late with this review, but I still felt it was worth the time to write it, as this is by far my favourite game from the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii generation.  The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series could have both been contenders, but unfortunately both had sequels that ended in a slightly disappointing manner.  Now, there are some of you out there that will probably not be impressed that the platform I played Skyrim on is the Xbox 360, as PC owners not only get better graphics, faster loading times and a more stable base game experience overall, but they also have access to hour upon hour of extra content created by extremely talented mod creators.  It is indeed true that the PC version is the definitive Skyrim experience, but the console version is still an amazing achievement it its own right.  Am I jealous of the fact that my hideously slow PC can't run the game? Yes, I am somewhat.  I have still enjoyed the Xbox version immensely though.

Just a quick note - I will be reviewing the DLC for the game separately, with short opinions on by Hearthfire and Dawnguard coming soon.  I am taking a little break from Skyrim to enjoy Watch Dogs, Mario Kart 8 and some other titles for a little while, so my review for the Dragonborn DLC will be along a little later.  Now, time to end this somewhat lengthy into, and break down what I think of the game.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Skyrim on the Xbox 360 is for the most part, a really beautiful game.  Standing on the balcony of my homestead, and looking out on the valley below as the sun rises slowly above the trees, is quite a magical experience.  Likewise, trudging through the northern tundra with a fierce blizzard obscuring my view actually gives me chills in real life, even on a warm spring day.

Dungeons are heavy with atmosphere, with some great lighting effects and some really well designed creatures to slay.  The dragons are of course a big feature of the game, and are quite the sight to behold.  They may start to lose their wonder after you've slain several dozen of them, but when you see their shadow dart across the night sky and hear their roar reverberate around the mountains, you can't help but be impressed.

The main reason I knocked the game down a single point in this category is because at certain points, there's no doubt that the sheer size and scope of the game is pushing the Xbox 360 hardware to its absolute limit.  Frame rates can get a little dodgy outside, and the game has frozen up on me completely man times.  Load times also become noticeably longer with older characters, as the game has a lot more data and variables it needs to keep track of.  That the game still keeps running as well as it does though is overall extremely impressive, and I was able to overlook these small niggles.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
The Skyrim soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule is absolutely amazing.  From big bombastic pieces like main theme of the game, to quieter and relaxing pieces like Kyne's Piece or Far Horizons, every single track is a thing of beauty.

In one of my recent reviews for Geometry Wars Galaxies on the Wii, I commented how great sound design in a game is a thing to be cherished, and Skyrim is a perfect example of just how much it adds to the overall experience, especially if you have a surround sound system.  From the immensely satisfying sound that a well-placed arrow makes as it thunks into a bandits head, to the sounds that play when you read a spell book or level up, Skyrim is a true exemplar in this regard.  The sound mix is also very well separated, so with a 5.1 set up you will be able to tell in which direction enemies are attacking from.

Finally there is the voice work.  There are a bunch of celebrity voices once again in this Bethesda release, and they all do a great job of reading their lines.  It's good that for the most part Nords speak with a strong Scandinavian accent, and they even got the legendary Max von Sydow to play the part of Esbern - quite a key character in the main plot line.  My only minor gripe would be that certain actors are a touch over used.  For example, while I am a fan of Claudia Christian due to the sterling work that she put into one of my favourite TV shows, Babylon 5, the fact that her voice pops up at least a dozen times does damage the sense of immersion I have just a tad.

This isn't How To Train Your Dragon - I don't think he's going to be your friend.
Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
There are some that have called the real time combat of the Elder Scrolls series a little basic and clumsy, however I really like it.  Stealthily creeping through a dungeon with a bow and arrows and killing off enemies before they even know I'm there is especially satisfying, though perhaps a bit overpowered when combined with certain perks from the Stealth and Archery skill tree. I found myself depending on archery for most of the game, at least until I maxed it out at skill level 100 and was forced to start using other skills to level.  Though Bethesda did add the option for you to make a skill "legendary" and reset it to 15, doing this at level 30+ with your main combat skill is not a great idea as you will struggle to give your enemies a "Chinese Burn" let alone kill them!

The way you level is overall quite clever as basically the more you use a given skill the more it improves, and then once you've levelled individual skills a certain number of times you can increase your overall character level, choose whether to give Mana, Health or Stamina a permanent boost, and spend a skill point on a perk from one of the various skill trees.  Sticking with my Archery example, the corresponding skill tree includes perks that slow down time when you draw your bow, or do 3X the amount of base damage if the enemy hasn't detected you.  So you can see how this approach can be incredibly powerful (not to mention fun!).

The levelling is open to abuse for those willing to spend a bit of time making nails over and over again (to give a Blacksmithing example), though those willing to play the game properly and not resort to exploits will probably have a more enjoyable and immersive experience overall in the long run.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
The sheer size and scope of Skyrim is quite frankly ludicrous, even in its most basic, unexpanded form.  You can (and I have) quite easily lose yourself in countless adventures for well over 100 hours.  Throwing the official DLC that's been released (and you might as well now that the Legendary Edition is available) and that number increases by another 30 hours or so (to give a conservative estimate).  If you're playing on a PC as I mentioned before, you can then delve into the world of fan created mods which includes such brilliant offerings Moonpath to Elseweyr and Falskaar - the latter of which features all new music composed just for the mod.  It's extremely impressive stuff.

Back to the 360 version though. Despite the lack of mods I was still more than satisfied with the amount of game on offer, and as I mentioned in the intro have even needed to take a little break before delving back into the Dragonborn DLC.  Not many people are likely to replay such a huge and time consuming game as this, but I did.  My first character was an Argonian called Deepdelver, and then I dabbled for a dozen or so hours with a Khajhit thief called Sta'bhim, before replaying the entire game and all the side stories with a Wood Elf called Dwyleth.  That adds up to over 200 hours in total, and I'm still going. When you consider that some games feature campaigns that last about 10 hours, and cost £55, that's amazing value for money.

Overall: 10 out of 10
There's no doubt that those of you who just don't like RPG's will not agree with me here but for me, there was no other game that came close to beating Skyrim in the last generation.  Those who do love their RPG's, particular action based ones, will be in absolute heaven for a long long time.  Those who aren't into this sort of experience still have many other worthy titles to enjoy.  Now, the only thing that could really beat Skyrim in my mind would be a new Fallout game on the next generation platforms, running on an enhanced Skyrim engine.  Sadly, another E3 has passed and we've still not had an official announcement regarding Fallout 4.  Hopefully it will come soon.  In the meantime, I will be spending more time in Skyrim as soon as I'm done in Chicago, the Mushroom Kingdom and Gotham!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wii Hidden Gems #5 - Geometry Wars: Galaxies

In the very early days of the Xbox 360, there was one game that kept gamers coming back for more thanks to its simple yet highly addictive gameplay.  Sure, Project Gotham Racing 3 was a fine launch title, but eventually you would come to the end of it.  Not so with Geometry Wars, however, as you could always go back and try and beat your high score.  It was essentially an update to the classic twin stick shooters of old such as Robotron 2084, spruced up with some funky graphical tricks yet still traceable in its lineage to classic vector games.  Imagine if MB were still making new Vectrex consoles today, just perhaps this is what they would look like.

I remember reading at the time that the fancy warping of the background grid and the particle effects flying everywhere were only possible thanks to the power of the Xbox 360 and the game couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.  Yet along came British development studio Kuju and proved everyone wrong with today’s Hidden Gem Geometry Wars: Galaxies.  Not only does the Wii version do everything that the downloadable 360 title did, it also does a whole lot more besides.  They even released a version for the DS, though that one is a tad compromised due to some unfortunate slowdown.   What exactly makes this spin off game better than  the original though? Let’s take a look…

Graphics: 9 out of 10
As I alluded to in my intro, the visuals in Geometry Wars: Galaxies are very true to the original version, yet Kuju have expanded on the original premise with new enemy types, and many different level layouts instead of just the simple oblong arena of the first game.  The game may look simple in screen shots, yet it can be quite spectacular at times when seen in action, due to the crazy amounts of enemies, bullets, and “Geoms” flying around the screen.  Throw a few black holes into the mix, and things really start to get crazy.  These troublesome enemies suck everything towards them as you might expect, and once they’ve reached critical mass, they explode in a deadly hail of play seeking bullets.  Expert players will actually allow this to occur though, as these bullets can be shot down for a lot of points.  Then there are the snakes – I really hate these bastards.  They typically turn up at the worst possible moment in a large swarm and kill me.  Argh!

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The music in the Geometry Wars series consists of some nice techno beats, which get the blood pumping nicely.  It’s not spectacularly good stuff, but not particularly offensive on the ears.  The sound design is where things get rather clever though.  Each enemy has its own unique sound, so expert players could probably shut their eyes and be able to tell what’s just appeared on screen.  This can be helpful in some of the new, larger stages that have to be scrolled.  It’s not just the enemies that have smart sound design though, this extends to the whole game, so you will know when you’ve earned an extra life, or achieved a medal for example, without having to glance up at the top of the screen to verify.  Very handy.  Too many games overlook things like this, so Geometry Wars: Galaxies is to be commended.

A typically explosion filled scene from Geometry Wars: Galaxies.
Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
The game design of Geometry Wars was pretty much perfect back when it was based on one single, simple level.  Kuju have essentially just expanded upon this winning formula and added a few new wrinkles to spice thing up a bit, and keep you coming back for the long haul.  Firstly, there’s the multiplier.  Now, as you collect the little while diamonds dropped by slain enemies called Geoms, you will gradually increase you multiplier all the way up to X150.  Should you die, it’s reset all the way back to X1.  Seeing as some of the gold levels can be ridiculously high on the tougher planets, getting your multiplier up to the max and then staying there for as long as possible is vital to your success.

Connected to this are the new Drones, little friendly AI controlled doobries that fly around your ship and perform various tasks, such as enhancing your own firepower, actively trying to protect your ship from harm , or my favourite – zipping around and picking up loose Geoms for you.  As you collect more and more Geoms while playing the game, your active Drone will become more effective and level up.  You will also unlock more Drone types in this manner.  There’s quite a range of different types, which gives players a variety of different tactics to try while going for that all important high score and the ever elusive gold medals.

Geoms are also used as currency, to unlock more advanced galaxies.   You start off with a basic tutorial galaxy unlocked, and another slightly more difficult one, but there are many more after this, made up of multiple planets.  Each planet offers up its own unique spin on the Geometry Wars formula, be it a constricted arena in which to fight off the hordes of killer shapes, or indestructible objects in the middle of the play space.  Each level has multiple medals for you to earn, with the early levels having tricky yet achievable targets, and the more advanced planets having mind bogglingly high medal thresholds. I’ve played both the DS version and the Wii version quite a bit, and where a lot of the medals were just a question of being patient in the DS version because there are less enemies on screen and the slowdown actually makes things easier, this is not the case on the Wii.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
I can’t be too generous here because this is essentially a sequel to an already established formula, though the new aspects of the gameplay do add a lot of depth.  There’s not really a whole lot more to say here!

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
The original Geometry Wars was already endlessly replayable in theory as it was an old school arcade style high score chasing game.  The vast range of new levels and deeper gameplay ensure that you won’t get bored with Galaxies for a long time.  While I might not spend hour upon hour at a time playing the game, it’s one that I’m constantly coming back to for a quick fix.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Geometry Wars: Galaxies is one of my favourite titles for the Wii, and a must for those looking for a simple yet addictive blast of retro style gameplay.  All the new additions go a long way to enhancing the overall appeal of the game and give you ample reasons to keep coming back.  It will take you a long, long time to earn all of those medals.  Here’s a tip though: make sure you have a classic controller, you’ll need one!