All entries for Monday 24 January 2005

January 24, 2005

Football Manager 2005 – Review

Every year at around this time I ask myself a question. How can a glorified spreadsheet be one of the most popular games of the year? The answer is as simple as the concept behind the game: football supporters all think they can manage their club better than anyone else. So Championship Manager was born, and soon became one of the most widely played games of all time. What started out as a crude DOS-based UK-only game became a global phenomenon with almost 100 leagues from over 40 countries. With scouts around the world providing stats on thousands of players, it has often been suggested that real football managers might benefit from CM’s database.

Sadly, all good stories have to end. Championship Manager is no longer the game we knew, loved, and sacrificed copious amounts of free time for. Publishers Eidos and developers Sports Interactive have split, with Eidos keeping the rights to the Championship Manager name. The next CM game you will see will have nothing to do with the previous 12 editions.

But no developers worth their keyboard are going to throw away that kind of history, so the boys at SI joined forces with Sega. Thus Football Manager 2005 came into being. Granted, it’s not such a familiar name, and “FM” is harder to say than “CM”, but we loyalists can live with that.

Football Manager contains everything you would have expected from the next CM title. Transfers have been implemented, media interaction improved, stats reassessed and the 2D match engine enhanced. As well as this there is the continuing expansion of the game to include more leagues from across the world. The interface has also been changed. Getting used to it is slightly confusing at first, but so was the switch from CM2 to CM3, and again to CM4, and after an adjustment period no one ever wanted to go back. The same is the case here, with information more easily accessible than ever before. Matches deserve a particular mention – there is now a split screen view, allowing you to watch the 2D pitch and player or match stats at the same time.

Of course, if you have played the CM games, you know exactly what FM is about. If not, it is the best, most well researched football managing game you will find. Until next year. It just doesn’t break any particularly new ground. There is not much more to say. Yes, it is a spreadsheet, but comparing it to Excel is like comparing the crayon scribblings of a 3-year-old to Van Gogh.

In the epic words of Brian Clough, “I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one.” Go forth and live the dream – it’s going to be a great season.


Need for Speed Underground 2 – Review

I would like to start this review with a disclaimer: I am not a chav. I do not like Burberry baseball caps, or Kappa trousers. I also find chav-mobiles, in their native urban wasteland setting, to be ridiculous. But provide me with flashing lights and shiny graphics, and I plunge headlong into Self Loathing City, otherwise known as Bayview, EA’s fictitious chav-ville extraordinaire and the setting for its latest game – Need For Speed Underground 2.

The first thing that strikes you about NFSU 2 is that EA have shamelessly ripped off Grand Theft Auto. No, actually the first thing is that the “story” is pointless, and the cartoon style cut-scenes seem out of place next to the rest of the game’s visuals. That is of only peripheral importance however. It appears that EA have taken GTA’s free roaming city setting, pumped up the shininess, and removed the violence – in other words, NFSU 2 is what GTA would be if it was a racing game. Or rather it wants to be.

You cruise around the city, looking for races or shops to tune your ‘ride’. These appear on a world map, which is supplemented by another familiar GTA-style feature – a smaller map of your immediate surroundings. Races come in a number of flavours: Sprint, Circuit, Drag and Drift all featured in the original NFSU, with new modes Street-X – a tight, drift-style race where accurate cornering is everything, Underground Race League – 6-way racing on proper circuits, and my personal favourite, Outrun. Outrun races are entered into if you meet a fellow racer while cruising the streets between races, and challenge them. The aim is then to get 1000 yards ahead of your opponent. This gives you a chance to race freely – to pick whatever route you wish – and is immensely enjoyable.

As well as racing you can change the features of your car, both enhancing performance through a number of upgrades and improving its look through new bodywork, paint, vinyl stickers, neon lights and so forth. It’s enough to make any chav wet him or herself with glee, and yet the cars look neither out of place, nor ludicrously silly. This is obviously due to the lack of realism – if NFSU 2 was set in a disused multi-story car park, normality would be restored. That is to EA’s credit – they have created a world which is shiny and colourful enough to force either suspension of disbelief, or brain damage.
Of course, this comes with a price – namely the need for a powerful graphics card to be able to get the best out of the game. Without one, you will either have to cope with some nasty texture issues and a large helping of jagged edges, or suffer from lag, both when using the mouse in menus and while driving.

NFSU 2 allows you to drive more than 30 cars from a range of manufacturers, all of which look – until you start modding at least – like the real things. As you would expect, each car’s performance is different, although many handle like monster trucks in disguise. Still, it’s worth having more than one fully souped up to provide the best choice for each race. The main problem however is that you can start with one of the best cars – namely the Mazda MX-5 – which makes bothering anything else rather pointless for most of the game.

Overall, NFSU 2 is an empty but strangely compelling racing game – good for pick-up-and-play value, but lacking any real substance. I just pray for a Project Gotham PC conversion, so I don’t have to feel this dirty every time I play a racing game.


Thief Deadly Shadows – Review

Welcome to a different pace of game. In a world where the trend is increasingly toward blowing away mutants or zombies with a shotgun, it’s nice once in a while to be able to sit back, creep around…and steal things. This is where Thief: Deadly Shadows comes in. In the third instalment of this series, you once again pick up the role of Garrett – kleptomaniac extraordinaire.

For once in my increasingly jaded gaming career I came to this game with no preconceptions. Having never touched a Thief title before I didn’t care that the developers are now Ion Storm rather than the sadly defunct Looking Glass Studios, or whether the game continues in the traditions of old. So what of the game itself?

An absorbing plot sees you helping the Keepers – a group Garrett used to belong to, and one of the three factions in the city where he lives. Armed with an array of stealth-aiding tools ranging from the faithful blackjack to unlikely water and moss arrows, Garrett fulfils his magpie-like obsession for shiny objects while carrying out his main quest objectives – usually the liberation of a particular item important to the storyline. During the course of the game Garrett meets the other two main factions in the town – the Pagans (a group of magic-using, strange-talking tree-huggers) and the mechanist religion of the Hammerites. As well as these there is also the City Watch to steer clear of, and many weird and not-so-wonderful creatures, as the twists and turns of the story take you to almost every location in the city. The quests themselves each provide thought-provoking challenges, and are set in a range of rich environments, with the pick of the bunch being the Shalebridge Cradle – a haunted insane asylum who’s eerie atmosphere and uncomfortably long duration make for one of the most gripping gaming experiences I’ve had for a long time.
Outside of the main quests Garrett has freedom to roam through all the areas of the city; mugging, pick-pocketing and lock-picking as he goes. But beware – the more crimes committed in an area, the more Watchmen there will be next time you enter it. These sections of the game also provide a chance to discover sub-quests and hidden loot, via notes or overheard conversations, and to improve your standing with the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is a good idea and makes life a lot easier towards the end of the game.

While it is definitely a refreshing change from most of the current gaming experiences, Thief: Deadly Shadows still suffers imperfections in similar ways. Anyone who has played Ion Storm’s other recent offering – Deus Ex: Invisible War – will get an immediate sinking feeling when they realise that Thief uses the same engine. This means that the physics are a little on the dodgy side, for example objects bumping into each other for slightly too long, and player motion is rather jerky and suffers from lag. The first of these problems can be avoided by using the third person view, which also makes the game much easier, but the latter, especially when you are relying on quick actions to avoid detection, can be extremely frustrating. Also the pathing is inconsistent, to the extent that NPCs occasionally attempt to run into doors and walls for about 5 minutes, and AI is blinkered and extremely paranoid, with guards coming to investigate a small noise you made two rooms away, despite it being almost inaudible above the clunking of their own boots. Of course, even the paranoid can be correct occasionally… Finally, Thief suffers the ignominy of being a console port, causing world areas to be small and load screens frequent, and the lack of a cursor in either first or third person view occasionally makes selecting objects, which you do by looking at them, rather tricky.

However none of this can obscure the simple pleasures of exploring the city, breaking and entering, and walking off with another’s valuables. With the odd blackjack to the back of the head for good measure. Now…should I book myself into therapy now, or do you want to phone the police?


Far Cry – Review

Foliage is not something that usually concerns the gaming industry, but in Far Cry, the new first person shooter from Crytek Studios in conjunction with Ubisoft, it is most definitely your friend. If it’s green, you can hide in it. If it has a trunk, you can hide behind it. Occasionally you get boulders thrown in as well for good measure. As ex-special forces operative Jack Carver, you find yourself washed up on a tropical archipelago after an “accident” with your boat, only to discover that the islands are crawling with mercenaries and mutants called Trigents created by a renegade scientist. Any of this sound familiar? Well it should, as the plot is neither innovative, nor particularly interesting – consisting mainly of finding a way to escape the islands, whilst rescuing you token female accomplice and attempting to put a stop to the research taking place.

However Far Cry is not as run-of-the-mill as this would imply. Complementing the ordinary storyline and fairly standard choice of weapons are some stunning graphics, sarcastically humorous dialogue, and truly impressive artificial intelligence. While the Trigents tend to charge straight at you – as expected for creatures with larger biceps than brains – the mercenaries take a much more tactical approach. They work in teams, often with one firing on your position to keep you busy while the others attempt to sneak up on the flanks. The AI is unscripted, so the tactics used will change for different situations, but the mercenaries will not know your exact position unless you are spotted. This gives the opportunity to move locations and set up an ambush of your own, once the mercs appear at your previous hiding place.

The game differentiates itself from the competition in terms of difficulty. Far Cry is a tough game to begin with, with the last two levels being a little too hard in my opinion, and this is made more so by a carrying limit of only four weapons at any given time and, more importantly, a checkpoint system, robbing gamers of their usual tactics of quick-saving themselves into hospital with RSI.

With offerings like this it would seem that Crytek will be more at home with the mediocrity of their recent buyers, Electronic Arts, rather than the usually excellent standards set by Ubisoft. While Far Cry is an above average game in a market saturated by first person shooters, that is all it is. For those of you who enjoy mindless violence with a side order of pretty graphics, this is the game for you. For everyone else who requires games to be more thought provoking and intelligent, Far Cry is just something to stop you getting bored until something better comes along.


Rome Total War – Review

From the stylish initial splash screen onwards, Rome Total War is a game that exudes class. This third instalment of the highly acclaimed Total War series provides the opportunity to play as one of three large Roman families, fighting for the Senate to expand the glory of Rome. Until you build up a large enough powerbase to be able to turn of them like the treacherous dog you are, that is. During the campaign you will encounter many of the factions around at the time – the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Gauls and the Carthagians to name but four – most of whom you will be able to play as once you complete the game as the Romans. In addition to the main campaign there are also a number of historical battles, allowing you to experience the magnitude, confusion and glory of large scale warfare first hand.

With a mixture of a turn-based world map and real-time battles, Rome provides everything a strategy gamer could want, and then some. The world map provides a sumptuous Civilisation-style view of Europe and northern Africa, complete with geographically recognisable terrain, cities, resources and armies. Here your management skills are tested as you decide which buildings to construct in each city, what army units to recruit and so on. The level of participation is up to you – the game provides auto-management for cities, as well as constant advice – should you wish it – on what to do next. There are some more advanced elements, such as trade optimisation, which allow advanced players to excel, thus making the game accessible and interesting to the widest spectrum possible – from those who want to concentrate almost solely on battles, to management specialists.

It is the battles however that will be the main draw for most people. These are beautify rendered – to the extent that you can tell a unit’s status with a close-up look – and are fought on terrain mirroring that of the armies’ placement on the world map. This makes positioning very important, for example a fairly small army placed in a mountain pass could stand a chance of victory against a much more numerous foe. In real battles, tactics are all-important, and this is no less the case for Rome. Each unit in the army have their own stats and descriptions, allowing you to choose how best to use them. It is up to you to decide whether to take the General Hague “CHARGE NOW YOU LOW-LIFE SCUM!” approach (and most probably lose), or to be more studious, perhaps using infantry to tie up an enemy before crushing them with a cavalry charge from the rear.

Of course, all games have flaws, and Rome is no exception. The AI can occasionally act a little strangely, naval battles have to be auto-resolved, and all the Romans speak with American accents. But when you realise that a bout of nit-picking is needed to find anything wrong with this game, it’s time to stop. This is a must have game, but be warned: it is very long and could result in the end of your degree, and maybe even your social life.


Unreal Tournament 2004 – Review

Unreal Tournament 2004 – the latest in Epic Game’s Unreal series of first person shooters – blazes onto your screen in a riot of vibrant colours, frantic energy, shock combos and flying flak. In it you take the part of a tournament contestant, battling your way up through the ranks and rounds, conquering different game modes, until you are crowned the ultimate champion.

After the rather tepid response received by the last title, UT 2003, Epic had to rethink their approach when developing UT 2004. The gameplay, and has thankfully been returned to something much more like to the original UT’s speed, movement and weapon powers, which when combined with awesomely beautiful levels of the type we saw in 2003, makes for a game to be reckoned with.

And it doesn’t stop there. Many of the complaints about last year’s game have been fixed. The sniper rifle has returned, albeit slightly rebalanced to make headshots harder. The Assault game mode is back, and brings with it a couple of the most enjoyable levels in the game, as well as some of the most frustrating. But the biggest change is with the inclusion of a whole new game mode: Onslaught, in which teams battle for control of a network of power-nodes, in order to gain access to the enemy’s base and destroy their power core. Both Onslaught and Assault modes introduce (suspiciously Halo-esque) vehicles for the first time in UT, bringing with them extra challenges and rewards.

The Tournament itself – the single player campaign – has also seen improvements this year, with prize money and team wages bringing a new dimension to the game, however shallow it might seem. As well as the standard tournament ladder matches you can now also fight Head to Head and Bloodrites matches, the first to win double the money you staked on the game in a one-on-one fight, and the second to take a member of an opponent’s team away from them. As well as all this, there are enough maps, game modes and mutators to provide hours of fun and replay value, even if your computer has never seen a modem in its life…

Which brings me to the multiplayer side of the game. Once again UT’s clear and easy lobby and server browser provides the benchmark for usability, and even has a quick play function where you can choose what level of opponents you want to play against, assuming that everyone else choosing this option is being honest about their ability. Lag, while always an issue doesn’t seem to occur too often when using a half decent connection, and the game claims to support speeds as low as 33.6 Kbps. On both counts UT has delivered successfully, where its competitors have recently failed to live up to expectations – particularly Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. There is even the chance to speak to the players on the server with the touch of one button – and a microphone of course – although this does have the downside of occasional big-headed Americans getting access to your speakers.

By returning to many of the original values of Unreal Tournament, while keeping the gorgeous environments of 2003, Epic has firmly put the Unreal back into Unreal Tournament. Its few problems are too superficial to be mentioned, and will probably be fixed by the patch we are assured is on its way. Buy it…just remember to eat and sleep occasionally.


Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow – Review

Sam Fisher, the NSA’s greatest secret agent in the war against terrorism, is back. Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow carries on shortly after Splinter Cell, this time fighting against an Indonesian guerrilla, threatening to release smallpox across the USA.

The development of Pandora Tomorrow has followed the simple principle of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, which sadly seems to be so lacking in the thinking of many recent game sequels. This is probably due to the short period of time between the release of Splinter Cell and Pandora Tomorrow, meaning that the developers haven’t had to improve the audiovisual experience, which so often seems to result in neglect of the actual playability. Basically, Pandora Tomorrow looks, sounds and plays the same as the original Splinter Cell, which is most definitely a good thing.

Moreover, a number of refinements have been made. The first and most important is the ironing out of the seemingly never-ending string of General Protection Faults which plagued the PC version of Splinter Cell, causing endless frustration. In-game changes include night vision blinding (when you look at a bright light while using night vision the entire screen whites-out for a few seconds), a few extra special moves, and a laser sight for your pistol. Sam Fisher’s dry sense of humour is also back, again voiced by the excellent Michael Ironside, and the trend of snappy, amusing conversational which has become a major feature of Ubisoft’s recent games is here in force.

However this game is still slightly disappointing. For a start there isn’t enough of the ledge-hanging, girder-swinging, pipe-climbing monkey action that made Splinter Cell so enjoyable. Also the AI hasn’t been improved, and as recent games (including Far Cry, also by Ubisoft) are creating unscripted AI, the very obvious scripting in Pandora Tomorrow is rather disappointing. Just to site one example – the guards going from not being able to see you at all as you hide in the shadows, to pinpointing your exact position the moment you shoot at something. Finally, most of the levels aren’t as memorable as before, and the whole game is just too short, and leaves you wanting more (although this is obviously not a bad thing as far as Ubisoft are concerned). In fact, playing Pandora Tomorrow makes you want to go back and play Splinter Cell, rather than the other way round.

Pandora Tomorrow also comes with multiplayer capability, bringing a totally new style of game to the online community. Three different game modes – Neutralization, Extraction, and Sabotage, are played on servers with a capacity of just 4 players, 2 spies and 2 mercenaries. The spies are like Sam Fisher in the single player mode, albeit with a few less moves, and the mercenaries play like a first person shooter, but with vision modes of their own; motion sensor and electromagnetic.

The problem with Pandora Tomorrow online is that the learning curve is too steep, making it very frustrating when starting out, as the new player will invariably take heavy defeats all the time. Also the controls are configured separately from the single player mode, which is a strange and unnecessary annoyance. Finally, the entire multiplayer mode is rather buggy, for example lag created just by switching on your torch as a mercenary, and gun laser targeting which appears to snap to an unseen grid. This, combined with the need for a broadband connection to play it at all, means that a lot of patching is still required before the multiplayer mode is a viable and fun option for everyone.


Game Reviews – Deus Ex Invisible War

Writing about web page

So our of the sheer need for an ego boost, I'm going to put all my Boar game reviews up here, in the hope that they might get more attention...

For all you sorry people who missed out on the original Deus Ex, here is your chance to play something which, frankly, isn’t quite as good. Deus Ex: Invisible War is soon arriving in the UK, three months after the US release.
Invisible War takes place 20 years after the events of the first game, and once again plunges you into a world of nanotechnology, bio-modifications and intrigue.
And this time the world is beautiful – the textures and sounds are amazingly well designed, and the physics engine allows realistic interactions with almost any object in the game.

But a game isn’t just about looks and sound, and DE:IW doesn’t quite have the soul of its older brother. For a start, the story isn’t as good. Characters from the original are back, but if you played it the plot of IW will be a bit transparent. People who missed out on DE however will not have the same insight, and can enjoy a similar experience to that delivered by the first game, provided of course; you have the latest patch (1.1) installed.

In addition, as IW has been designed for PC and Xbox with no major content difference, PC players will notice certain “consolifications” have taken place. The most obvious of these is size. Levels in DE were huge, but similarly sized areas in IW will frequently be interrupted by load screens. Also the skills system has been removed, and the number of biomods decreased. This has sadly reduced some of the role-playing aspect.

Ironically, choice is where IW excels. You get to choose your style of play – from sneaking in the shadows to blasting everything you meet. Restricted storage space and limited capacity for a universal ammo type also force careful decisions about what equipment to carry. But the greatest choices come in the main quest, where you can decide which faction to work for at any stage, depending on your moral standpoint or where the greatest rewards lie.

Congratulations should go out to Ion Storm for breaking new ground with another great game, it’s just a pity that Invisible War doesn’t quite manage to live up to the incredibly high standards set by the original.


Simon vs Hume

Me: I just punched you in the face. Did it hurt?
Hume: Yes
Me: Well does that mean that it will hurt next time?
Hume: You cannot make that conclusion
Me: Ok, lets experiment then

Aaaaaaaaaah, if only.

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