Tuesday, 28 September 2010

What's The Crack?

Seriously, what is the big deal with this game? I've just got it today, on a rental vibe, and I can't seem to understand it. I played the original, and I didn't really enjoy it, bemused by a bunch of nostalgic folk talking about the game that made the Xbox 360's early days tolerable and full of light. With the new one, I decided to give it a try, and see if they've done something different.

They haven't.

It's more of the same. Which sadly, isn't for me. It's entertaining enough, but I feel like it's depth could be discovered by playing a display console edition in HMV. It seems a little shallow to me. Maybe I'm missing the point of it, but the action doesn't make up for it either. The weapons are a tad disappointing, the driving is clumsy, and the whole Agility Orb Schtick just leaves me frustrated, wanting to get to ledges and failing constantly.

All in all, I'm left disappointed. In this day and age, we CAN have sandbox games with compelling storylines. I didn't rate it, but GTAIV really had purpose, and drive to it. You wanted the plot to unfold, a feeling that I sadly didn't get with Crackdown.

At the same time, it doesn't ramp up the insanity factor enough. Just Cause 2, which I'd class in a similar vein, was absolutely insane. Lassooing dudes to cars, parachuting off buildings, riding nukes. It was ridiculous. It didn't take itself seriously, and revelled in it. It was the cheeky schoolboy, sat in the corner winking as he filled his straw with another spitwad.

The problem is that Crackdown 2 doesn't know where it is. It's trying to deliver a serious plot with tension and atmosphere, whilst a commentator screams at you to 'kill that bitch, Agent!' The game is confused, and as a result, so am I. After the pleasurable romp that was Just Cause 2, my faith in the OTT sandbox game was restoring, but it's games like Prototype and Crackdown 2 that are making it difficult for them to be taken seriously as great games.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Retro Monday: Gitaroo Man (PS2)

OK, so this is an important one for me. This is one of the major games of my life, and one that well and truly blew me away, in a time when games were only just starting to get somewhere. A while ago a friend and I debated about the meaning of 'retro'. He attests that the only way something can be called retro is if it's from a console 2 generations behind. So the original Playstation would be retro, as would the N64, but not the PS2 or Gamecube. Well I say SOD THAT. Gitaroo Man was released here in 2002, and if I can't talk about something 8 years old in Retro Monday, well then there's just no point.

Anyway, onto the greatest rhythm action game of all time, shall we?

I stumbled onto this game by pure chance. My cousin found it on a demo disc sellotaped to a Playstation magazine. He'd said he played this one level about 30 times, and was eagerly awaiting the release date. I had a go, enjoyed it, and put it in my memory banks. Fast forward six months, and I was getting my own Playstation 2. Stood there at my local game store, I already had PES and GTA3 in my hands, with the choice of getting another game at a greatly discounted rate. My mum said she'd treat me, and I could have another one. At this time, I had it all. I already had 2 amazing games, and the thought of another one only cemented this as being one of the greatest birthday presents of all time. I chose Gitaroo Man, which was full price, and remained so all the times I saw it on the shelf of any game retailer I was lucky enough to see it at.

What then followed was an amazing Summer. I'm not talking about the weather, because I haven't a clue about how sunny it was. I was too busy inside playing this futuristic games machine, with 3 of the most engrossing games I've ever played. Gitaroo Man was the first one I completed, and the one that has probably stuck with me the most.

Somewhere inbetween Guitar Hero, Pokemon and Street Fighter sits Gitaroo Man. In essence a rhythm-action beat-em-up with anime and an original soundtrack, no words I say here can make it sound even approachable. The premise is terrible. It's a game that shouldn't work, and the cutscenes inbetween each battle try their hardest to make sure it doesn't work. But, for the few faults it has, this game more than makes up for in one thing: The music.

The crux of any music game. Obviously. But whereas these days Guitar Hero tries to tempt you with a roster of 'cool' artists and 'sweet' cameos by favourite rockstars, Gitaroo Man went it alone, shunning any kind of commercial music, instead writing it's own soundtrack. And this is where Gitaroo Man get it's strength. It's secret weapon. It's where it stops being U-1, and becomes Gitaroo Man.

This is not a dig at Guitar Hero, far from it. I understand the fun in it, and I'm ashamed to say that I do have a plastic drumkit sat at home, albeit buried away these days. No, the point I'm making is that Gitaroo Man did it WITHOUT any gimmicks. Without any peripherals, without any NME tracklistings. Gitaroo Man, first and foremost, is a Music game. The music is designed to help the narrative, to shape the game, to make each level unique, in both musical genre and visual appearance. This music in the game is so intrinsically linked to the game itself, that this isn't a music game, it's just a game, and it's brilliant.

But that's not a dig at the music, as I think it's better than any track in any Guitar Hero game. Every genre in Popular Music is taken onboard and given the Gitaroo Man treatment. From battling a robotic space-Reggae shark, to battling a samba skeleton gang, every single level is different, and themed accordingly. In fact, the bosses are so characteristic, I could base this whole article on Mojo King Bee. One of the best videogame characters of ALL TIME. A trumpet-playing, Saturday Night Fever-strutting humanoid Bee. With an afro. Playing Funk. The level also contains a backing band made of frogs. And it's even better than it sounds.

I've not played anything like this before, or since. The Japanese Kookiness and kitsch goes just far enough without being too much, and the graphics are beautiful. Really nice FMVs, amazingly unique character design, and of course the soundtrack. It's been re-made for the PSP, and is pretty easy to pick up on the PS2 for relatively cheap. If you've ever played Guitar Hero, and longed for more, perhaps this may just tickle your strings.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Minerva's Den. Wow.

As soon as I heard about the addition of new, narrative-driven DLC for Bioshock 2, I was excited. I'm a bit of a fanboy for the franchise, and it's not particularly difficult to see why. Beatiful, unique visuals, compelling and addictive gameplay and a narrative that is seldom beaten in other games, the Bioshock franchise is a wonderfully distinctive and special gaming experience. Plus it's scary as hell.

So when the new DLC sprung up on my Xbox, it was time to order the Special Edition, and the points needed to acquire such a purchase. 800 points, which is what? 6 quid or thereabouts? These questions are good, but the real kicker is: is it any good?

It's fantastic.

I mean, it's Fallout 3 DLC-Good. Completely self-contained, Minerva's Den is about 4-6 long, and Tenenbaum is the only recognisable character from the previous 2 games. It condenses the gameplay into a smaller, bitesized affair, with all of the elements it's big brothers carry all visible, just a little easier. The new Ion Lancer is a brilliant weapon, and the Gravity Well plasmid is absolutely devastating. The enemies are more cunning, and the new Big Daddy is trickier than ever to handle.

But once again, it's the story that shines through. The plot to this little tale is beautifully constructed. Completely in-keeping with the Bioshock universe, you know you're playing a Bioshock game when you're actually stopping to listen to the audio diaries, and sneak off to a quiet place in the game to play them, savouring every last bit of dialogue.

Indeed, the biggest compliment I can give to Minerva's Den is that it is just like it's older brothers. It's got the same level of polish, that same level of detail, and a plot twist that Atlas himself would be proud of. 2K Marin has announced that this will be the last of Bioshock 2's Downloadable Content, with Minerva's Den officially drawing it to a close. Until Infinite takes to the skies sometime around 2012, I think this is a perfect send-off for the city of Rapture.

Retro Monday: Zelda: Majora's Mask (BEN Edition/N64)

Now this is an interesting one. Stuck for ideas for our frankly MARVELLOUS Retro Monday column, I stumbled across this today. Kotaku pointed me in it's direction, and it's AWESOME.

Basically a new age horror story involving a copy of Majora's Mask for the Nintendo 64, with a mind of it's own. Anyone who's ever played the classic Zelda game knows that at the best of times it always had slightly creepy undertones, this fleshes it out with a little back story, and a whole lot of well-written prose.

It's a LOT to read, so I'm not going to waffle on, but it is worth it. A really interesting tale for anyone with a penchant for the mysterious, and a taste for Zelda.

The whole article is here, and the Youtube videos of the footage also accompany the article. I strongly advise reading it first, as it makes it all the more spooky.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Special Needs

Today, Bioshock 2's Special Edition arrived at my doorstep. I already have Bioshock 2. Indeed, I've completed it. But for £25 on Play.com, it was an offer I couldn't refuse. It's one of the finest Special Edition games I've ever owned, but I've not come here to brag. I've come to discuss the rise of the special edition, and what should and shouldn't be in that big, overpriced box.

It seems that every game coming out these days has noticed the cash-making potential of bundling in some crap and 'exclusive' content. I mean, Dead Rising 2 may turn out to be a great game, but does it really have a big enough following for a Special Edition? We'll see. To be honest, the sheer amount of games making their launch a little bit more special can only be a good thing. But it's with Call of Duty: Black Ops that I'll make my key criticism on the rise of the Special Edition.

A trend creeping in is the inclusion of extra digital content packaged with the Special Edition of a game upon release. Let's look at Call of Duty as an example. Regular edition is going for around the £45 mark, with the next step up, the 'hardened' edition, going for around £65. For this you get a medal, an avatar outfit, and extra in-game co-op maps. It'd be far too easy of me to make an observation on how £20 extra doesn't really get you far, but my main beef lies in the co-op maps. Why are Treyarch offering something that clearly should already be included in the standard game, trying to offer it up as extra, premium content?

If it was cosmetic, such as customisations for you online profile, I could understand. Generally useless, and only for show. But this is actual game content. It simply isn't right. As a consumer, you shouldn't be missing out on content, at launch, because you've only bought the 'standard' edition. Look at Modern Warfare 2's content? An extra game, design books, steelbooks, all superfluous to the game, all guaranteed to make fanboys excited, and perfect for a special edition. I feel that even if I paid £65 for the special edition, I feel that the medal included would only be a token of how stupid I am, and how much I've let Treyarch mock the idea of the Special Edition.

No, Special Editions shouldn't be about digitial content, especially game content. It's a nice thing to bundle in with a package, but it shouldn't be important. We all know what's important when we tear off that shrink-wrapping: STUFF. Wonderful, useless, tacky stuff. My Fallout Bobblehead sits next to my TV, and my Bioshock Big Daddy Ornament guards my Gamecube. These are the meat and potatoes of the Special Edition, the crux of the content, and what we should be getting, and getting excited about.

It should make no difference to the game. It should have nothing to do with the in-game content. What it should be is a gloriously self-indulgent luxury item, that makes you feel even more connected to the game, a loyalty badge you wear that only yourself can see, but further shows your love for a certain game.

Come October, I'll be eagerly running to my local gamestation to pick up Fallout: New Vegas. I'll also be doing the same when I go to pick up my girlfriend's copy of Fable 3. We've ordered the special editions because of the fake book for Fable, and for my Fallout Poker Chips. We love these game franchises so much, that we want to immerse ourselves further in the world. I don't care about a caravan shotgun, or a new dog I can download. I like my tangible, real-world extras. We need more gold lancers, more batarangs, more cat helmets in the gaming world, to further expand our geekiness. These are much better medals to wear.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Retro Monday: Rock n' Roll Racing (Snes/MegaDrive)

So my Grandad asked me to sell some of his old Super Nintendo games recently. I remember him getting it off some local kid second hand, and the kid had great taste. When I used to go round after school, there was a plethora of games he'd bagged for next-to-nothing, including Secret of Mana, Killer Instinct and his favourite, Pilotwings. All these games were ace, but one stood out for me. So much so, I actually wanted my own copy. That game was Rock n' Roll Racing.

When World of Warcraft was just a twinkle in Blizzard's eye, they were busy writing quirky, good-looking Snes games that were all over the place in terms of content and design. One of their more impressive offerings was this. A racing game that combined combat, aliens and bad attitude in one 2.5D package, Rock n' Roll Racing was a bit good.

Even back then, Blizzard were toying with the idea of stats and builds, and somehow managed to shoehorn customizing into a racing game. The depth of build-your-own-car-ness in the game was really impressive, and although it really was all about the hovercraft, the choice of weaponry and the upgrades made for an addictive game, despite the repetition. The constant money-grabbing and slowly upgrading your pimped-out deathwagon was delightful. Fuck carrot and stick, this game made the stick out of a carrot.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this game though, was style. This games never, ever took itself seriously, and much the better for it. Mind you, when you're racing on a Prison Planet called New Mojave in a yellow hovercraft, it must of been pretty hard to take the serious angle. At a time when a lot of games were just an idea and no identity, this was a game that not only had a genre and theme, but also went back on it. Playing Rock n Roll Racing felt like you were in on the joke. I always expected that after blowing Rip up with a Rocket Launcher, the commentator would turn around and wink at me, coming out of the TV to high-five me and say, "This is brilliant, isn't it?".

Finally, I reckon I could of played this game with no images at all. The sound absolutely smacked this out of the park. 16-Bit renditions of Rock classics belted out of your TV, directly into my rebellious teenage brain. 'Bad to the Bone', that song off Terminator 2 as I used to know it, is a sure-fire way to grab an impressionable youngster's attention. The commentator also made the game a rawkus affair, shouting catchphrases at every occasion. The bombasity and downright balls-out apporach of every aspect of this game made it perfect for a young chap who drank Pepsi Max and ate Monster Munch. Come to think of it, I still do.

These days, Meta games are taken completely for granted. Serious Sam. Castle Crashers. Gears of War (Without knowing it). We expect it these days, and almost question things which don't acknowledge themselves in the medium of computer games. But in the days of the Super Nintendo, it was a rare and valuable thing, and Blizzard absolutely nailed it. These days they're much more bothered about the 11.5 million people running the Gnome treadmill, but back in the day, Blizzard showed us a thing or two about Heavy Metal and futuristic space alien racing.

I played this game so much, I wanted my own copy. My Grandad gave me his.

"The Stage is Set, the Green Flag DROPS!"