Video game review entries

December 01, 2008

Fallout 3: Apocalyptic

5 out of 5 stars

The setting: a post-apocalyptic version of the US that got stuck in the 50s culturally, but advanced massively in technology - I haven't played the first two, but I just love that off-kilter setting. The SPECIAL system that defines your underlying stats (Strength etc) is familiar territory, while it's slightly more complex than the standard AD&D ability scores, I've seen (for example) the Luck attribute appear in quite a few JRPGs.

Ok, it's mostly Oblivion with guns, but with a few significant differences - the biggest being the VATS combat system. This is an optional mode where you can freeze the action and auto-aim at a specific part of a monster, as many times as your Action Points allow. It goes all slo-mo cinematic and your proximity, line of sight, skills (and Luck) take over, with you hitting like it's a turn-based combat game - then it jumps back to real-time so you can dodge any retaliation while your APs regenerate. Non-VATS is just like a normal FPS, and the main reason the PC release shades the console ones, but it would be perfectly playable using only VATS. Since I didn't play the earlier incarnations, I'm gonna continue comparing it to Oblivion.

Other good changes are fully remappable keys (there's a line at the top of the readme about how to map the mouse, perhaps clumsier than it should be, but it's there), a nice range of toys to shoot at stuff, a much-simplified crafting interface and more variety in costumery.

Bad changes would be that each weapon needs very specific ammo, the weapons break very easily and you need identically-described weapons to repair existing ones, so inventory space gets used up pretty quickly.

Another change is that all skills have to be bought at level-up, so while the enemies get tougher, you should theoretically be getting tougher yourself (rather than only leveling when you improved key class-stats) but you can no longer learn things like stealth simply by creeping around a lot.

What's not changed are instant-travel nodes on the map, the clumsy way the map, inventory and skills are on separate tabs within the same menu and you constantly need to switch between them, the same rather basic compass, characters and monsters seeming to pop out of nowhere and giving you a heart-attack, and the monster NPCs having AI like the red ghost in Pac Man.

Still it's a excellent game, the VATS system never seems to get old as you think it might and the setting is amazing.

Valkyria Chronicles

4 out of 5 stars

It seems like forever since I saw the first examples of this game's artwork. It's anime-style, all cell-shaded with a watercolour-on-pencil effect and very fine indeed.  The style extends beyond the comic-book-like panes of the chapter-select menu, the artful stills and animated cut-scenes and into the 3-D part of the game itself.

The actual game between the many cut-scenes is turn-based combat on individual battlefields. You start in map view, and decide which character to move, at which point you gain control of them in 3-D third-person. As you move, your Action Points decrease and any enemies which spot you are free to shoot at you, then you can select aim, target an enemy and fire upon them. It briefly switches to a cinematic attack view as you fire, the enemy gets to retaliate, and then you end your turn. Oddly you have to do alll this quite quickly as you can continue to take damage if you just stand there. Then you can choose another (or the same) character and repeat until you run out of Command Points and it's the enemies turn to do effectively the same thing - but of course without the dangerous moments of indecision you
face as a human player.

That's pretty much it, it's pure strategy with no exploration in-between, but you do get a big number of characters to choose from later on. It's like any of the [JRPG-series-name] Tactics version with the third-person live-action-move mode added on, so if you're looking for an update to those games, with some wonderful stylised graphics, your search is over.

Dead Space: Last Place

1 out of 5 stars

Can’t remap the controls to my preference. This wouldn’t be a problem for most people, but I find it annoying and unnecessary for a PC game to dictate to you what the mouse buttons must do. No amount of remapping would improve the unresponsiveness of the controls, though.

The view is a rather nasty drunken-over-the-shoulder one and your character is drawn so large it’s really hard to look around. Being honest, I didn’t actually play long enough to judge how scary the monsters and stuff are, because if I struggle to follow some people down a corridor and open a door, I don’t need stuff jumping out on me.

Graphically it looks quite nice, but they ruined it with sluggish controls and your stupid big immersion-breaking head covering up where you want to look.

Far Cry 2: A sequel in name

3 out of 5 stars

Nice-looking but not quite as jaw-dropping as the footage that’s been around for a while promised. Playing it, it’s a bit lonely – it is basically sporadic outposts of people with nothing in-between – I was hoping to be like Bear Grylls and kill some wild animals for no reason.

The fire effects are pretty, but makes the game crash if I get too carried away. The map/monocular thing is a bit clumsy, but the driving is way better than the first game (so a million times better than Crysis) but the view is a bit restricted in the jeeps.

While there are interesting advances, it doesn’t really feel like a sequel to the original Far Cry – that dubious accolade probably goes to Crysis. While all three games are pretty much tech demos with a game built around them, it’s Crysis that shares the ludicrous plot diversions which define the first Far Cry.

But Far Cry 2 is certainly the better game, everything in the other two felt rather a slog. It works pretty well most of the time, although you sometimes get murdered through a wall, if it’s flawed it’s that the missions are all pretty similar and you really have to get creative yourself if you want to keep your interest going.


1 out of 5 stars

As wonderfully incomprehensible to non-fans as the actual sport. Woefully inadequate tutorial for the neophyte. Disappointing amount of Wii-interaction, involving a little flick at the right time, rather than a throw. Played for a full twenty minutes before discovering I was actually “controlling” the other team to the one I thought I was, though my performance actually dropped after realising this.

December 11, 2006

Wii Sports

4 out of 5 stars

Wii Sports – Wii

Wii Hardware
While this scarcely needs an introduction, here a few points about the hardware itself, that I hadn’t picked up from the prerelease chat.

It’s quite small. It looks rather like a white external CD drive, and only looks remarkable when mounted on its stand. The stand has a transparent circular attachment which keeps it pretty stable, although you only really need to go anywhere near it when changing CDs. It has little doors which open to reveal an SD card slot, four GameCube controller ports (!) and two GC memory card slots. It has phono+scart connectors and the magic sensor thingy. The sensor has a generous amount of rather delicate-looking cable, and sits either above or below the centre of your TV – tiny stand and extra stickies provided.

The controllers are equally smaller than I expected, and the length of cable between the mote and the chuk, while less than my full armspan, has not been a problem so far gameplay-wise. Changing between mote-only and chuk config is fiddly (and necessary when you switch games) if you connect the strap how they say, infact even passing the mote to another player is harder than it need be. Ideally the straps would have been quickly disconnectable from the mote, with spare straps provided.

Setup’s fairly simple, even typing by pointing the mote at the letters was easier than I expected, plus there’s an on-screen phone-like TXT pad available which is probably a clever move. Internet setup is easy if you router’s setup is standard and your neighbourhood isn’t wireless-infested, but their servers are very busy.

Wii Sports
A collection of five games, with training modes and some basic games. Sometimes the training modes are more fun than the actual games, and there is very little depth beyond the standard game-types.

Perhaps the most sedate-seeming of the games, but I actually managed to split my jeans playing it on Saturday. Fortunately I was saved any embarrassment as everyone just assumed I had blown off.

This is the only one in my experience that you pretty much have to stand up for. Standard game is ten frames of normal-rules bowling, spin seems to be a bit difficult to get right, becoming easier as you approach the screen. The training is way more enjoyable – with barriers to spin around and up to 100 pins to knock down at once – where else can you do that?

Up to four players can swap a single mote to play.

Another supposedly-restful sport, this one really gets you carried away. While it is possible to play seated, and kind of flick the controller from over your shoulder as if fishing – it’s much more fun to pretend it’s a real golf club. It’s the best of the games, so it’s a real shame there’s only a single nine-hole course. Doing short hits can be a bit problematic at times, there are no options for vertical ball control, and landing off the fairway can be catastrophic. It’s great fun, but really just leaves you wanting a “proper” golf release on the system.

Up to four players can swap a single mote to play, although there is a lot of swapping to be done. Also, check you are not underneath the lights – it’s an easy one to get caught up in.

This is a nice bit of exercise, but possibly harder standing up. When batting, the timing is hard to get right, and the aim a little erractic. It seems the timing’s more important than the direction, as you can play seated and swing to the side. Pitching’s a bit random too – you can control direction and speed a bit, but not with any consistent effect on CPU batters. You sometimes annoyingly swing when repositioning the mote, missing critical shots.

You need a mote per player for this one. Also the pitching action is the most likely to see your mote flying towards the screen if it’s not strapped on.

Bit lost with this one. While actually hitting the ball is quite a natural, satisfying action, subsequently directing it is a bit random. Playing standing helps, as underarm motions seem to be more directable than the smash or volley-height strokes possible when seated. As with baseball, it’s easy to miss-swing when readying – thus missing your stroke.

Multiple players need a mote each. Important to stand still, despite the sluggishness of your character’s running.

Easily the most knackering, but that’s mostly (perhaps realistically) because most of your blows seem to go wasted. Haven’t quite got the hang of dodging, and the sparring training ended with a punch I found impossible to throw, no matter where I aimed. Probably only included because it needs the chuk, it’s a rather poor game. A shame, as I thought it had a lot of promise, but any dreams of pummelling your opponent with a windmill flurry of blows are quickly shattered – this particular game doesn’t reward quick, repeated movements, only “well-timed” ones.

Multiple players need a mote AND chuk each, which isn’t currently worth the expenditure in my view – also, the facing player has a horrible perspective to play from.

Sights and Sounds
Graphics aren’t what this system’s about, and certainly aren’t the focus of this game – they’re…okay. It’s quite hard to see the flags in Golf, otherwise not noticeably good or bad – your extra Mii’s make appearances in your Baseball squad, which is kind of cute. The little sounds from the mote really add to the feeling of personal involvement.

Stuff that sucks
You’re never quite sure if you’re doing stuff…correctly. Some actions seem a bit random, as things like slow putts in Golf just don’t seem to register. The system does have it’s limitations in the motion it can detect, and it can frustrate if your on-screen persona isn’t doing exactly what you are. It’s more a question of training yourself to move as the game expects, rather than getting too carried away with the perceived realism. I’ve actually played all these sports in real life, and it’s hard to shake some habits, particularly leg and head movements, which of course aren’t registered by the game.

A very entertaining get-everyone-playing introduction to the system, well worth the price of admission, disappointing in some areas, but leaving hunger for more in others. While the system shows massive potential, this game on it’s own, while hugely enjoyable, isn’t the best this system is capable of.

August 18, 2005

Star Ocean: Till The End of Time

Writing about web page

4 out of 5 stars

This game is made by Square-Enix (formerly Squaresoft), who were responsible for what many regard as the pinnacle of console RPGs – the Final Fantasy series. You may have heard of them.
This, though is not a Final Fantasy game and while I would be a liar if I said the bonus DVD featuring FF12 footage did not inflence my buying decision, I was kind of hoping there'd be a decent game on the other disc, too. I was wrong on two counts: there are two other discs (only the second 2DVD PS2 game I've encountered) and it's rather a fine game.

Square have done some other games besides FF before, and while some (like Unlimited SaGa) felt like they were made up of ideas rejected for inclusion in the next FF, others were sufficiently different to stand on their own.

Star Ocean
There was a "Star Ocean II" on the PS1, but it's rather rare, and whatever SO1 ran on I can't find it – so I'm reviewing with no knowledge of the series as a whole.
The whole style is the anime-type thing we've seen before, so if spiky hair, big doe eyes and pointy noses and ears rub you up the wrong way, it's not for you.
It is two types of game squished together. In the main you explore around, talking to people and advancing the story much like any other console RPG, with all the usual levels, equipment, magic skills as well as a few other things like inventing and cooking which I haven't managed to unlock yet after about 12 hours of play. The other part is the battles – they are real-time button-mashing affairs, switching between characters at will while the configurable AI controls the other party members, in battle you gain various trophies which are redeemable later. For some reason these trophies require a whopping 1.2Mb of your memory card (with each save game taking 500kb) – and are not transferrable, so plan your memory cardage before playing.
Despite the name, the boxart and website pics – I haven't seen much in the way of space adventuring, having consecutively crashlanded on two "underdeveloped" planets and had to utilise my sword-swinging and face-punching skills to sort them out. Remember the Prime Directive, space cadets.

Overall rather well done, certainly very simple and hard to make an error. When you're in a small room your character seems to move a bit fast, though, and it can be a bit frustrating to get them to line up just right in order to activate usuable items. There is no indication items are usable, apart from obvious treasure chests, so it's trial and error for a while until you learn to spot them. Battle is okay, there are a few more moves than just hit-hit-hit and it's actually quite a small part of the game time-wise.

Attention to detail
The character models are quite well done and used in all the cut scenes – a few sword-poking-through-the-character and "steel hair" glitches, but you almost expect them in these types of games. The backgrounds though, deserve a rather special mention, still in a cartoon style they are much more detailed, and while they do have a stack of reusable stock furnishings they do manage to make every location seem custom-drawn. While many locations are simply labelled "Private Home" they have made the effort to make them all look unique.

Yes, it's quite fun. I'm still playing it and taking time time to enjoy it, too – rather than rushing to the next quest. Will I play it again when I've finished it? Very unlikely.

I've given it four stars – while it's not as jaw-dropping as Jade Empire, I expect it will last me a lot longer.

August 17, 2005

Jade Empire

Writing about web page

4 out of 5 stars

My first real game review. Could even be the first game review.

Bioware. Made Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic. All of them Action RPGs with familiar backstories - the first two in a D&D setting with a game world spanning 11 games/add-ons and the last one being set in the Star Wars universe, hugely successful amongst the fans who had actually grown up since the original trilogy.

They could have made the sequel to Knights, but they didn't: they made Jade Empire. I'm rather glad they did.

While the consequence of this is that Knights II was rather clumsy graphically, Jade Empire is absolutely beautiful – while the Xbox is probably the most powerful of the current consoles they get more out of it than I thought possible, given it's based on technology which seems very outdated to PC users. Smoke effects, running water, rain, fountains, waterfalls and an amazing water trickling over stone effect all add to a believable and wonderfully detailed world. Typically as the Xbox's replacement looms into view we only just begin to see what it is capable of.

Level Design
I always judge a good "map" or "level" by how easy it is to remember – if after a couple of runs around you pretty much know your way around, the designers have done their job – they've made it "real" and they've made it distinctive. A perfect map of the old Senate House corridors isn't going to make a great level, and no level is going to win awards if it's all made out of plain concrete.

New Thing
This is a new thing for Bioware – the game world is basically ancient China, but a China where all the stories you ever heard about magic and demons and crazy kung foo antics were all true. Plenty of Emperors, Monks and Spirits too. They went a bit mad with it, and I'm not sure if there's enough left for a sequel. What's not new is the "Open Palm"/"Closed Fist" meter - it's just the "Light Side"/"Dark Side" meter taken straight out of Knights and while the game has plenty to say on the merits of either course, in actuality it's a good/evil choice as usual.

The controls are a little different from a regular RPG, and more what you'd expect from a game based around martial arts, but are nowhere near as hard to master as a straight beat-em-up. Actually there's loads of things to help you – there are buttons for healing, dealing more damage and even a "bullet-time" mode – the latter two only really being necessary when you're in a desperate scrape.

Overall I found it rather fun, most of the lines are spoken in not-too-annoying style, the good/bad thing works well, difficultly is constantly adjustable so you shouldn't get stuck/bored, there's a nice variety of missions from finding lost animals to repelling a siege, great story and it looks superb.
Having finished "good", I will probably give it another play through as "evil", but not right away.

The limited edition reviewed here gives you an extra selectable character Monk Zeng but his Leaping Tiger move is available to other characters, so I'm not sure if it's an exclusive - it was my favourite move, though. You also get a Making Of DVD which is reasonably interesting, but recorded at a pitifully low resolution and probably available for download from the game TV channel it was taken from

Edit: on reflection have reduced the rating to four stars – while it scores highly on all the criteria I am interested in, I will only play through it a maximum of two times, good and evil paths, unless a significant amount of extra content becomes available for it.

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