Sunday, 30 October 2011

Batman: Arkham City - review

Batman: Arkham City is the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Games' 2009 Game Of The Year.
Arkham City picks up a few months after the events of Arkham Asylum. Quincy Sharp, the former warden of Arkham (now the Mayor of Gotham City) has set up a new inner-city prison, where inmates roam the streets freely. This walled off section of Gotham has been dubbed 'Arkham City'.

In the games opening, we see millionaire Bruce Wayne campaigning against the Arkham City initiative, before he is captured and imprisoned within its walls. Once he has been re-united with his Batsuit and trusty gadgets, Bruce sets off to find out what is going on.

Despite a more open feel, fans of Arkham Asyluum will feel very much at home in Arkham City. Developer Rocksteady have ensured that the game stays true to the series winning formula. 

Hand to hand combat plays a big part with the Dark Knight taking on as many as 20 enemies at a time. Much like its predecessor, the system for brawling is fairly straightforward, with one button to attack, one to counter and one to dodge. However, the variety of combos and counters make combat a joy to behold. So much so, that I often found myself going out of my way, just to pummel groups of enemies.

A crowd this size is no match for the Bat
Arkham City is a sprawling metropolis teeming with enemies, hidden areas and many secrets to uncover. Navigating the city by gliding and using the Batclaw is a lot of fun. You can swoop down on a group of unsuspecting enemies and then disappear back into the night before re-enforcements have time to react.

What's great about this game is that it truly makes you think and feel like Batman, the worlds greatest detective, with all the gadgets and techniques at your disposal. Whether it's tracing a bullets trajectory to sniff out a rogue sniper or using your wits to outsmart the Riddler in his deadly challenges.

Arkham City really stays true to the Batman universe with fantastic lore and back stories, as well as appearances from many of our favourite characters and villains, including some of the more obscure characters like The Mad Hatter, Scarface and Solomon Grundy.
Joker is uglier this time round but no less insane
My only complaint about the game is that, like many, my copy of the game arrived with the Catwoman DLC codes missing. However, after contacting Warner Bros games, they offered apologies and swiftly sent a new code via email.

That small gripe aside, Batman: Arkham City is a fantastic game with excellent characters and tremendous voice talent. Its graphics are very good, with great character models and animations. Most of all though, it offers a sinister and gritty realisation of Gotham City, in which you are the hero. A must have for comic geeks and action fans alike.

My Score: 9/10

Competition Time!
I have a code for the Catwoman DLC (Xbox Only) to give away. For a chance at winning leave a comment on this blog post saying who your favourite villain from Batman comics, films, games etc and why. Be sure to include your email so that I can mail you the code if you win.
Catwomans DLC adds a new perspective and new skills and gadgets
 I will announce a winner on Monday 7th November 2011.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Looking Forward

Skyrim is the next installment in the Elder Scrolls saga and so far it is looking epic. The game is set 200 years after the events of Oblivion and the story will take place in the region of Skyrim located to the North of Cyrodiil and to the West of Morrowind. Skyrim will be released in both the U.S and Europe on the 11th November 2011 (11.11.11).

The development team boast countless improvements on the previous title, Oblivion, but here are just a handful of things that I am looking forward to the most:

New system for leveling up
Unlike the previous Elder Scrolls titles (and indeed most RPGs), Skyrim has taken a more open ended approach to character leveling up and skill customisation. Players will no longer be bound to a class and it's related skills based on a decision that they made right at the start of the game. With the new system your character can improve any skill simply by using it. This means that you can now adapt the skills of your character as the story progresses e.g you may start off with skills with a two-handed weapon but after some experimenting discover that spell casting is more your style. Experimentation looks like it will be key in Skyrim and it means that your character will be constantly evolving throughout your journey, regardless of the path you take.

New combat systems
You can now dual-wield a variety of weapons and spells. You can for example hold a sword in your left hand and a fireball spell in your right. You can alternatively dual wield two different spells, or even dual wield the same spell in both hands. This will give you the ability to cast an enhanced, more powerful version of the spell. The new combat system will encourage players to try different combinations and tactics for attack, furthering the ethos of creating a unique character that suits your style. 

Prettier menus
Ok so, menus aren't generally a deal-breaker for a good RPG. However, from what I've seen of Skyrim, the menu and stats screens look stunning. For example the skills/perks system is presented as an enormous night sky filled with the twinkling stars of the various constellations that represent the various gods. Your character will now look to the heavens for skills and powers instead of the generic lists that we have come to accept. Skyrim has even taken a fresh approach to the Map Screen - now, at the push of a button, the player camera will zoom up into the sky giving a birds eye view of the entire region. As vertigo inducing as it sounds, it looks fantastic!

New ways of talking
Unlike Oblivion, conversations with Skyrim's inhabitants will no longer take place from a fixed perspective. You will now be able to converse freely with NPCs whilst on the move or whilst rummaging through their homes. This means that once a conversation is initiated, the game will no longer zoom in the other characters face, forcing you to hang on every word while you are glued to the spot. Not much is known so far about the conversation mechanics such as persuasion, but early speculation is that it may resemble something like that in the Fallout series.

Dynamic questing
The new Dynamic Quest system means that factors in your tasks will be randomly generated. Whilst the specifics of a quest may be pre-written, for instance 'steal an artifact from a sorcerer', the game will pick and choose characters and locations dependant on what is nearby and relevant at the time. In short, you and five friends could complete the same quest and yet each one of you would have a completely different experience. This factor sounds great for re-playability, although I wonder what it means for guide and walkthrough creators. 

Diverse dungeons
Dungeons in Skyrim have been built by a team of level designers who specialise in internal environments. The development team have said that this will help to create a better flow and diversity to these aspects of the game. I find this reassuring considering there are over 120 dungeons in the game.

New and improved AI
Much like Oblivion, the NPCs in Skyrim will all have set routines and occupations that they must attend to. However, the game will build on this by including unscripted reactions to the players actions. NPCs may now attempt to steal items that a player has put down or even challenge your character to a dual if they have taken a particular dislike to you. It's these small details that really breathe life into the villages and towns that you visit.

Ah yes, the Dragons. These fiery foes will play a large part in the story of Skyrim. Without saying too much, Dragons have awoken and roam freely around Skyrim and your character is the last of the 'Dovahkiin' (the Dragonborn) meaning you have the soul of a dragon and can speak the dragon tongue. These huge beasts look incredible and I can imagine the first few encounters with them will be terrifying. That said, I can't wait to get stuck in!

So those are just a few of the many new things that I am looking forward to in Skyrim. I was a huge fan of Oblivion and I can tell that Skyrim will be spending a lot of time in my disc tray from day one.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is due out on 11.11.11 and it's available for pre-order now.

Watch the trailer here:

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Just Cause 2 - revisited

Probably time to open that parachute soon
It's been nearly two years since Just Cause 2 was released, yet it is one of those games that I find myself revisiting every couple of months.

Some games that we play do not have a 'wow-factor' that makes their appeal immediately apparent to the player. However, on many occasions, a seemingly dull game can pleasantly surprise you with a bit of perseverance. I tend to call these games 'growers' and for me, Just Cause 2 falls firmly in that category.

Just Cause 2 throws you into the role of mercenary 'Scorpio' and takes place in the fictional, South East Asian island of Panau. You are on a mission to find the whereabouts of your good friend and previous employer who has recently gone missing. You quickly befriend some of the local factions who are looking to overthrow the country's despotic leader 'Baby Panau' and take control. That's where you come in.

It's probably fair to say you've seen this story somewhere before, whether in a budget B movie, some low-grade jar-head literature or possibly even in another video game series. However, the real appeal of Just Cause 2 does not come from it's plotlines, nor its characters but from the massive sense of freedom it creates for the player. 

Following the first mission (which takes place in a small island fortress) the whole 1,000sq km island becomes your open-world playground. You can drive and pilot any vehicle and go anywhere you choose without restriction. Armed with a grappling hook, which can attach itself to any surface, means that Scorpio can literally scale any building or mountain that he encounters. Scorpio also has a parachute, which he can use from any height. Experimenting with combining both these tools really becomes a joy when you start to attach yourself to cars and boats whilst gliding behind them with a parachute.

In addition to this, you can use the grappling hook to link any two surfaces or objects. This is a little more complex but can have great results. For instance, you can attach a car to a helicopter, hop in the chopper and carry the car (and occupants) off to another location. You can also hook enemies with this tool meaning that you can pull them out of high sniping positions or simply hang them upside down from a tree in a macabre display of rag-doll physics.

Weapons come in variety, as well as abundance, and much like the previous game, Scorpio has the ability to call in weapon and vehicle drops from his employers.
The army don't take kindly to having their helicopters stolen
Some of the stunts that Scorpio can pull are far from realistic, such as surfing on top of a 747 as it glides through the sky and hijacking fast moving vehicles. However, the graphics are far from it, with impressive lighting effects, water rendering and highly detailed textures which make make every setting in 'Just Cause' positively stunning. Panau's varied landscape with its mix of dense jungles, ancient temples, deserts, snow topped mountains - adds to the games richness and beauty. 

Even after the main missions have been completed, there are countless side missions that can be undertaken as well as races, collectibles, easter-eggs and all the other features that we have grown accustomed to with open-world games.

This is a fantastic example of how a sandbox game should be and after 2 years I am still finding new things that I love about Panau.

If you have not played Just Cause 2, I strongly recommend it and you will likely be able to pick it up at fairly low price.

My Top Tip: Traveling can be made easier by mastering a technique called the 'Sling-Shot'. This involves using the grappling hook to keep you airborne whilst gliding with the parachute. It's done by grappling the ground in the distance whilst descending. This will cause you to be pulled forward at which point you need to grapple again. Practice makes perfect!

My Score:  8/10

Game Reviewed On: XBOX 360

Monday, 19 September 2011

Plants Vs Zombies - review

The PvZ cover-art
This review is a little late but I've just bought Plants Vs Zombies again, but on a different platform, the iPad. Yes, it really is that good.

Plants Vs Zombies is essentially a tower-defense game (or flower-defense as it's become affectionately known), which sees your home under siege by an army of the living dead. Your last line of defense is your front-garden and the huge variety of killer vegetation that inhabits it.

There are over 50 types of plant, each with its own unique ability. Peashooters fire projectiles, Cherry Bombs explode taking down multiple foes while 'Wall-Nuts' (Walnuts) create a barricade to keep those pesky Zombies at bay. Plant types are limited to begin with but players unlock a new plant at the end of each level.

Like most Real-Time Strategy games, farming resources is key to building a successful empire. In this case the currency for purchasing plants is sunlight, which can be collected whenever it falls from the sky or by planting Sunflowers. The more sun you have banked, the more defenses you can grow.

However, like all good tower-defense games, PvZ has excellent balance with multiple Zombie types with various strengths and weaknesses. There are Zombies wearing buckets and traffic cones on their heads for protection, Zombies that can pole-vault over your Wall-Nuts and even a Zombie resembling Michael Jackson that can summon back-up dancers. This is a tongue in cheek nod to the Thriller video and a prime example of the style of humor in PvZ.

Added challenge comes from later levels which take place at night. This introduces new varieties of flora (mainly mushroom variants) but also drastically inhibits the amount of sunlight available. This is just one example of the ever changing environment which keeps each of the 50 levels feeling fresh and a constant challenge.
Brains are off the menu

The iPad's added touch functionality adds to the fun and simplifies the experience but aside from that there are no major differences between this and the Xbox version.

Blending what is essentially simulated farming like Harvest Moon or Farmville with a Zombie apocalypse is genius and developers Popcap have done a wonderful job in creating a fun, challenging, well balanced game. PvZ is beautifully rendered and features a unique, jaunty soundtrack that compliments the mood perfectly. A must have for Zombie-lovers and Botanists alike. You'll really 'dig' it.

My top tip: Sunflowers are key to victory. Build up a sizable patch that is well protected from attack and watch the sunshine-credits roll in.

My Score: 9/10

Game Reviewed On: iPad

Friday, 9 September 2011

Halo: Anniversary - Looking Forward

117 is back
I can scarcely believe it's been ten long years since Halo: Combat Evolved first graced our living rooms. I remember first playing Halo with a good friend of mine (I didn't own an Xbox at the time!) huddled around a 19" portable television, elbow to elbow and loving every minute.  

Halo really set the standard for console based first person shooters and it's co-op experience was second to none. My friend and I spent countless hours tearing around the first level in a Warthog, mowing down the enemy and plunging off of the occasional cliff. Ah, fond memories! 

Being an Xbox exclusive, It could be argued that Bungie's masterpiece was single-handedly responsible for the success of the Microsoft's first console. After all every platform needs that essential game to put it on the map. Halo was undoubtedly that game. 

A decade on and the Halo franchise now rests in the hands of 343 industries who will soon honor us with a re-release of Halo: Combat Evolved simply titled Halo: Anniversary.  

Anniversary will undergo a major face-lift with fresh, 2011 visuals created by Saber interactive. However, the game mechanics that we all know and love will remain untouched as changes to the game are 99% cosmetic. 
The visuals in Anniversary look stunning
Original fans of Halo: CE will be overjoyed to learn that the original graphics can be restored at the touch of a button (the Back button I believe) meaning that the entire game can be played as it would have been back in 2001. The switch can be made at anytime including during cut scenes. 

Do Spartans dream of sheep?
In addition to this, Martin O'Donnell's original musical score has been completely re-recorded with the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra. Some of the synth-heavy parts being replaced and the entire soundtrack now being audible in the glory of Dolby 5.1 surround sound. 

Co-op will also make a comeback, with two friends now being able to team up over Live as well as via the traditional split-screen and system link options.  

As if all that wasn't enough, players will have instant access to the multiplayer mode that was originally designed for four players around a single console (or eight with a system link). Multiplayer for Halo: Anniversary is being revamped to include seven original maps that have been re-imagined and the highly contentious Xbox Live play option. Multiplayer mode will be included on the same disc as the single player campaign, unlike Halo: ODST, and feature the mechanics that we have grown accustomed to in Halo: Reach. 
The Halo ring in all its HD glory

I am ecstatic about Halo: Anniversary and can't wait to get my hands on it. This is just what fans need to keep them busy until the release of Halo 4 in 2012. What with this, Skyrim and Assassins Creed: Revelations all due out at the same time, November is shaping up to be a very anti-social month for me. That's what Xbox Live's for though, right?

Halo: A brief history 

Halo: Combat Evolved - Fantastic graphics, gameplay and a lovingly crafted universe that inspired a cult following. A great boost for Xbox.

Halo 2 - The continuation of the great elements that Combat Evolved built up, as well as that a revolutionary multiplayer experience on Xbox Live.  

Halo 3 - New graphics engine, new enemies, new generation. Halo's first outing on the Xbox 360 was a treat for all the senses.  

Halo Wars - An unusual departure from the usual FPS to real-time strategy. The first game to come from a different developer, Ensemble.

Halo 3: ODST - A large side story that took the focus off of the familiar protagonist, Master Chief, and put the player in the roll of an ODST Trooper.  

Halo Reach - The final Halo game from Bungie studios and a great way for the developer to say thank you and goodbye to the series. Simply brilliant.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - review

Softly softly...
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third installment to the critically acclaimed FPS, action-RPG series by Eidos Interactive and Square Enix.

Set in the cyber-punk style future of 2027, you play Adam Jensen, an ex-cop turned head of security for Sarif Industries. Sarif specialize in human augmentation (genetic & mechanical enhancements) and weapon design.

The company comes under attack by a group of mercenaries early on who kill the top research scientists (including Jensen's ex-girlfriend) and demolish most of the complex, killing Jensen in the process.

Jensen then undergoes a series of extreme augmentations to bring him back and enhance his broken body. Once recovered, he sets out to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

Human Revolution is blessed with a tremendous narrative, rich in twists and many complex characters to keep you guessing. It explores a future where science has enabled mankind to break down the barriers between man and machine, taking a serious view on the problems that this presents.

The game looks fantastic in HD and the environment designers have done a brilliant job in creating a moody yet sleek vision of the future, which clearly pays homage to the film Blade Runner.

However, it's in the gameplay that Deus Ex really shines, giving you absolute freedom over how you play. Fans of gunplay and explosives can go wild - leaving a trail of death and destruction (great fun). For the more patient among you, try your hand at sneaking past enemies, performing silent take-downs, hacking security devices and crawling through air ducts. Whatever your style, Deus Ex will provide you with numerous upgrades and multiple paths to get the job done.
Not all negotiations end peacefully
Upgrades come in the form of body augmentations, which include abilities like temporary invisibility, x-ray vision, super strength (enabling you to punch through walls and throw refrigerators!) and enhanced hacking skills. These can either be bought from LIMB Clinics or gained through skill trees that are unlocked by gaining XP.

Perhaps one minor shortcoming is the lack of guidance or support when upgrading augmentations. This becomes particularly apparent in some of the later boss battles, which without the appropriate skills, can be power-sappingly mundane. These conflicts are also the most linear parts of the game and fly in the face of the flexible ethos that the rest of the game promotes. However, this fault is so insignificant in the scheme of things it's barely worth the mention.

With these minor issues aside, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an amazing game that I have found difficult to put down. With a story full of intrigue and visuals to die for, this truly is next generation gaming at its best. You owe it to yourself to buy Deus Ex. Do it now!

My top tip: Explore as much as you can. There are multiple routes for each mission and hide-y-holes everywhere with new items and upgrades. It is also advisable to complete all the side-quests in order to get your hands on as much XP as possible for augmentations.

My Score: 9/10

Game Reviewed On: XBOX 360 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Bastion - review

The Bastion cover-art
Bastion is the first title to be released as part of this years 'Xbox Live Summer of Arcade' and it's a real treat for arcade lovers. The game takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a cataclysmic event called the 'Calamity'. The Calamity has caused widespread destruction and unleashed a plague of hostile creatures into the world.

You take on the role of 'The Kid', a boy who has seemingly slept through this catastrophe and wakes up to find the world in pieces with many of his friends gone. Guided by a wise old stranger, the Kid sets off to find The 'Bastion' (a safe place where people agreed to meet in troubled times) and restore normality to the realm.

The Bastion acts as a hub where the player can upgrade weapons, swap load-outs and select levels. You can also take part in mini-games based around the many weapons and complete challenges for upgrades.

This is a very accessible RPG in the sense that the player does not have to concern them self with endless statistics, items and inventory management. Interaction with other characters is simple and adds value and insight into the world and recent events. As well as this, combat with the various weapons and combinations is a joy. The mechanics of battle are simple to get to grips with, but timing of attacks plays a key role, particularly if players have raised the games difficulty.

Vivid environments like this are plentiful
The game has a stunning art style and scenes throughout resemble a moving oil painting in which the world quite literally forms beneath the Kid's feet. It also features a fantastic musical score that complements the game's mood perfectly. However, what makes Bastion truly unique is the dynamic narration of events. Much like the film 'Stranger Than Fiction', the narrator comments on the players actions in real-time, often observing the players particular style or choice of weapon.

Bastion does a brilliant job of merging storytelling with action by allowing players to take part in a fable as it unfolds. I was entertained throughout as well as constantly surprised by the variety of weapons, enemies and environments.

SuperGiant Games have done a brilliant job with Bastion and truly started the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade with a bang. I urge you to give it a look. For 1200MP it would be rude not to.

My Top Tip: Experiment with lots of different weapon combinations and upgrade the ones you like. Don't be afraid to mix it up a little if you are finding a particular section difficult. 

My Score: 10/10

Game Reviewed On: XBOX 360

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Duke Nukem Forever - review

Fists may not be enough in this battle...
Duke Nukem Forever is a game that has been in development for over 12 years. After reading some pretty harsh reviews on release day, I decided to see for myself.

Admittedly my key motivation for buying was a sense of nostalgia which stemmed from fond memories of playing Duke Nukem 3D on my N64 as a boy. I was also curious to see what the developers had achieved after a whopping 12 years.

Jon St.John is still the voice of the Duke and the first line you hear when inserting the disc is "I'm back baby!", delivered in true Duke style. Cue a catchy power chord riff with heavy distortion and it's straight into the game.

Your first action in-game sees you leaning over a urinal to respond to a call of nature as Duke whistles a tune. This more or less sets the overall tone for the game - crude, juvenile but kinda funny nonetheless.

Duke then zips up and heads off to fight the 'Cycloid' in the stadium just like the end of the 'Duke Nukem 3D' all those years ago. This serves as the games tutorial and once over the game kicks off proper.

After defeating the aliens in the past, the Duke is now the world's biggest celebrity. Men want to be him and Women want to be with him. However, all is not well in Duke-land, the aliens are invading again and this time they have made it personal by abducting the Earth's women.

Naturally, Duke is pissed, and he sets off on a quest for revenge. Unfortunately revenge is hard to come by with an aiming system that is clunky and tricky to master. Loading times are long between levels and this can make dying (which happens often) a bit of a chore. The frame rate can slow down considerably at times and you will notice the occasional bug here and there.

The game does have many redeeming qualities though. The choice of weapons is good with a few old favourites like the shrink-ray and pump action shotgun. Plus if you get tired of shooting enemies you can simply pick up an object like a barrel or breeze-block and pummel them with it.
One of many turret sequences
There are also some very fun sections were Duke is shrunken and has to navigate huge areas whilst avoiding giant aliens. I was also impressed by the level of interaction with objects in the environment with many items granting you a permanent boost to health. Health is now a regenerating bar called the 'Ego-Meter', which works much like the shield in Halo games.

All in all, this is not as bad a game as some would have you believe. The humor maybe a little chauvinistic and cheesy at times but the game play is fun and feels reasonably true to the franchises predecessors.

My Top Tip: If like me you find the aiming slow, raise the sensitivity in the options menu. Best done early on so you have a chance to adjust.

My Score: 7/10

Game Reviewed On: XBOX 360

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

L.A Noire - review

When peaceful negotiatons fail...
L.A Noire is a game that feels and looks more like a film from beginning to end. Rockstar's latest title sees you serving lady law by taking on the role of Cole Phelps, a war  hero who is adapting to life as a beat cop on the streets of Los Angeles.

You are assigned a partner and quickly introduced to the key elements of the job: investigating crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, interrogations, high speed car chases and shootouts. The former of these may sound a little boring but searching for clues and determining a liar with a false alibi, purely on the nuances of their facial expressions soon becomes deeply rewarding.

Once you have learned the ropes you will begin to ascend the ranks of the force starting off in Traffic, then Homicide, then Vice - each department having specific cases assigned to it. As well as this, you will also be investigating an ongoing subplot focusing on the subterfuge and corruption of L.A's politically elite.

Each department also has 10 (or so) 'Street Crimes' to complete. These are miniature cases that vary in difficulty and can be completed at any time during your career.

Many games in the past have given the illusion of a cinematic and engaging narrative in the past. So what is it that enables L.A Noire to triumph where others have failed? 
Some credit has to be given to the new MotionScan technology, which is used to create some of the most realistic facial features that we have seen to date. Top quaity voice acting also plays a vital role with Aaron Staton as Cole Phelps and the likes of Michael McGrady, Adam Harrington and Sean McGowan. Mainly though, it is the fiendish attention to detail and sense of style that Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are famous for. 

First to blink buys the doughnuts!
What this game lacks in the multiplayer department, it more than makes up for with its engaging narrative and complex characters. The completionists among you will also find replayability through collectibles, exploration, revisiting old cases and a wealth of dlc.

With a varied and vibrant soundtrack coupled with a wonderful recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, Rockstar and Team Bondi have truly created a masterpiece here.  

My Top Tip: When interviewing a witness or suspect, pay close attention to the eyes. Those telling fibs will find it hard to look you in the eye. The eyes never lie.

My Score: 9/10

Game Reviewed On: XBOX 360

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