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January 20, 2005

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines Review

Some games transcend genres. Deus Ex, Warcraft 3 and Metroid Prime are three names that spring instantly to mind. And it is in this heady company that Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines almost finds itself.

Yes, you read the title correctly. A complex title (well, at least in terms of length and punctuation) for a complex game. To start at the beginning: you are a new vampire whose sire has been put to death for creating you without permission from the vampire elders. Cast afloat in your new life with no guide, you must discover for yourself the murky world of vampire politics, and the disturbing rumblings of the coming of Gehenna – the apocalypse.

In many ways, Vampire is similar to Deus Ex. From a starting point of ignorance, the storyline unfolds around you, engulfing you. Conversations cover subjects as diverse as politics, mythology, schizophrenia and lap dancing, without causing a distraction. In fact I’ve never played a game which tackles adult subjects with such ease and wit, nor gets away with this amount of swearing, simply because none of it is out of place. This immersion, just like with Deus Ex, makes Vampire a very difficult game to put down. The RPG style stats system is also similar. Completing quests provides you with experience points, which can then be spent to improve fighting abilities, character attributes, and vampire powers. But comparing any game to Deus Ex is incredibly dangerous and can only lead to disappointment, and sadly, this is the case here too.

Vampire is current the only game other than Half Life 2 to be using the Source engine. Unfortunately, while Half Life 2 is optimised to within an inch of its life (hell, it even runs acceptably on my low/mid range spec), Vampire is not. It has sound jitters, jerkiness, and some of the worst graphical glitches I’ve ever seen. Of course, as this is the Source engine, the graphics are otherwise beautiful. In fact, the game gives the engine a more intensive workout than Half Life 2, with close-ups of faces during conversation really showing off the range of expressions available.

Vampire is also the most memory whoring game ever, requiring a 1400MB swap file and not even running smoothly on a system with 1 gig of RAM. In essence, it’s not finished, and the recently released patch does almost nothing to fix these problems, providing the disclaimer “Your computer sucks, get a new one.” Or words to that effect.

There is one more problem – combat. To start with it is particularly weak, following a simple ‘you hit them, they hit you, repeat until someone is dead’ model. With stat increases things start to get a little better however, and throwing powers into the mix adds some spice to the more important battles. However the reason I claim that Vampire doesn’t manage to transcend genres is that it doesn’t quite work as a shooter. Gun wielding is a little clunky, fairly ineffective unless your stats are good, and just a lot less fun than using melee weapons, or just sucking the life out of your opponents.

The ideas behind Vampire are excellent, and the potential is there for this to be a truly great game. As it stands, this is an original and thoughtful game, providing that “just one more sub-quest” feeling that characterised all great RPGs. It’s just a pity it isn’t properly finished.


December 14, 2004

The Best PC Games EVAAR

  1. Deus Ex
  2. Baldur's Gate 2
  3. Morrowind
  4. Half Life 2
  5. Championship Manager (01/02 or 03/04 in particular)
  6. Unreal Tournament
  7. Unreal Tournament 2004
  8. Ultima Underworld 2
  9. Worms United
  10. Call of Duty
  11. Splinter Cell
  12. Dungeon Keeper
  13. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
  14. Max Payne
  15. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
  16. Freelancer
  17. Beyond Good and Evil
  18. Lemmings 2: The Tribes
  19. Command and Conquer: Red Alert
  20. Civilisation

Note: No Total War games (although Rome nearly made it). No FF games. NO EA GAMES WHATSOEVER. No Half Life.

List subject to change due to nostalgia. Terms and Conditions apply. No purchase necessary. See back of box for details. This list is regulated and controlled by the laws of Botswana.

December 10, 2004

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within – Review

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was undoubtedly one of the best games of 2003/2004. It was charming and witty, set in a beautifully airy palace where dust-motes danced in beams of sunlight shining through the windows. More important than all this, it was thought-provoking and highly enjoyable, in a market currently flooded by grisly, brainless first person shooters.

So where can you go from there? Sadly, despite everything it had going for it, Sands of Time didn’t sell many copies. This has caused Ubisoft to take completely the opposite direction with its sequel, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.

The Prince, having meddled with the Sands of Time in his previous outing, is now chased by their protector – a seemingly invincible, but strangely dim-witted beast called the Dahaka – whose sole purpose is to kill anyone careless enough to use the Sands. After missing out on Farah, the Prince has reverted to what he does best – saving his own arse. To that end he travels to the Isle of Time to stop the Empress of Time from creating the Sands of Time, effectively negating the Dahaka’s existence.

Yes, that is a lot of Time, and it is here we find one of the major problems with the game – its chronologically challenged storyline. The Prince arrives on the isle in the present and proceeds, via a number of time portals, to jump back and forth to the past, the not-quite-present and the slightly-more-past,-possibly, without a care about the nature of cause and effect, or what meeting oneself might do to reality.

This is not even the most obvious problem with the game, however. Combat, the weakest aspect of Sands of Time, is now the main focus. It crops up everywhere, and the large number of combos you are provided with reduces the whole process to a button-mashing mess. In fact, combat is often redundant, particularly in some areas where enemies respawn continuously. A good tactic is to kill enough to fill all your sand tanks (which allow you to activate powers such as slow time or rewind), then run away. Even this approach is often unnecessary, as you can collect sand by smashing some of the innocuous containers which happen to be lying around. No, that doesn’t make sense to me either. Neither does having the ability to use the sands in the past, before they were created.

If you ever get the chance to look around in between the frenzied fighting (or fleeing), you will notice that the sandstone palace from Sands of Time has been replaced by a gothic castle, grey and dark, with a sound track to match. The whole game in fact is seeped in bloody grimness, with much more emphasis being placed on decapitation and cleaving animations than on exploration and enjoyment. Oh, and on treasure chests to unlock game artwork, because we all know that the one thing gamers want more than life itself is artwork. The script, such as it is, ranges from cheesy to downright painful, with the Prince’s charm and wit so lacking that you could be forgiven for thinking that Warrior Within was written by those responsible for the brain-dead offerings of Need For Speed Underground.

It doesn’t end there either. The camera, which caused most of the frustration in Sands of Time, is somehow worse this time round. You still can’t pan through walls, which occasionally forces the player into unnecessarily claustrophobic environments, or makes you fight against opponents who are off the edge of the screen. The fixed camera angles can also be problematic – to pick a specific example, on one occasion you have to run up a wall and grab a rope. The camera is fixed in a position which makes this difficult, but makes accidentally running along the wall and out over the edge of a cliff much easier. The camera angle is the cause of death much more often than unforced player errors, and thus is the greatest frustration with the game.

Sadly, this game is a disappointment from the very start. The low production values, evident in the poor quality of the movie clips, the lack of lip-synch in the in-game cut-scenes, the laughable script, the badly thought out storyline, and the occasional unnecessarily frustrating travelling routes, all speak of a game made without the love of its creators. Boycott it – go out and buy Sands of Time instead. You won’t regret it, and you will be giving an under-sold game some much needed support.


December 05, 2004

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within – Instant impression

After playing Sands of Time last year, and loving it, I have really been looking forward to this sequel. Unfortunately the reviews were not amazingly positive, and, despite having barely played 10 minutes yet – not even completed the first section – I find myself sadly agreeing.

The game plunges you straight from a long and rather dull cut-scene into the midst of a battle on a ship. It's as if the game is instantly shouting "look what I can do with decapitation" at you.

Anyone who enjoyed the spacious, well lit environments of Sands of Time will be instantly disappointed. The graphics are dark, gritty and bloody. Also, (and I fervently hope this is only the case at the start) the camera angle is fixed, and is closer in and more side-on to the Prince than I would like. This occasionally forces you into combat with enemies you cannot see, and one time stuck a pillar in the centre of my screen, while I was trying to fight the first boss.

Ah yes, the first boss. /Sigh. For a start, she is a thong-wearing, leather-clad devil-woman. Oh how very grown up. Secondly, I can’t beat her. And when you die, the game only allows you to start again from a point 3 minutes (or so) previous to the boss fight in gaming time. Most annoying. Of course, if you quit the game out of frustration, the lack of save-points in this first section means you have to play the whole thing through again, including watching that unskippable cut-scene. This is Not my idea of fun.

More thoughts to come. I’m sure there’s a game in here somewhere, once I can get passed this first section. The question I’m asking myself at the moment though, is “Why should I bother?”

[This is Warrior Within being played on the PC, as I did for Sands of Time. Oh, and don't criticise the writing. Its messy and nasty, but I had to write all the annoyances down asap, before I forgot what I wanted to say. :P]

December 02, 2004

Half Life 2 Deathmatch

The phrase everything but the kitchen sink has never been so inappropriate. Cos, you see, this is the game that allows you to use anything as a weapon, including tables, chairs, filing cabinets and, yes, you guessed it, kitchen sinks.

There's nothing quite like being shafted by a radiator to make you feel like your playing a really fun multiplayer game. Well, maybe there is (namely when YOU get to do the shafting in return).

I think there are some guns too, but, frankly, bludgeoning opponents to death with high speed household objects is just much more rewarding :D

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