XCom – On the shoulders of giants

xcom-enemy-unknown-logoRemaking one of the most universally loved computer games of all time is a dream and nightmare in equal measure  Everyone has ideas on how to improve a classic, but in reality most attempts end up short of the original and often lose the magic somewhere along the way.
Enter Jake Solomon; designer at Firaxis who has always had a love for the original Xcom games. Rather than simply recreate the original in a modern engine Jake and the team distilled down the core concepts and cut out clutter. While some might see this and “dumbing down” it actually adds a lot more interesting choices.

“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Like its predecessor the game is splits your time between the Geoscape & Battlescape; one is focused on a strategic level and the other tactical. More than that though they act as pacing blocks giving you intensity and then refrain. The core of the modern version is the Battlescape, despite striping the points system out of the combat options you are left with are obvious and real choices.

The best choices happen when you can’t quite execute on your plan and play your A team. Being forced to go slightly off script but still giving you enough control that you feel master of your domain. This is manifested on the Geoscape with your squad almost always having some of your key members out of action forcing you to use a rookie which you cannot directly keep the class of. On the Battlescape it is quite common for you to shift your approach when two enemy types interplay causing you to fall back or fan out to avoid being flanked. Each alien has a distinct attack style which require specific tactics to defeat. Berserkers are brutal in melee if left unchecked but they can be kited between your squad members, meanwhile however you may have to also avoid moving out of cover. Knowing how to best use your soldiers, classes and talents is crucial avoiding fatalities.

Story progression is handled much in the same way as the original, plot elements are peppered in to the general missions making it feel organic. A hint of the board game Pandemic can be felt in terror missions which now make you choose one of multiple missions which will otherwise escalate. This is a template that is stamped all over the game; a set of non-perfect choices that the player must live with the consequence of.

It isn’t without its problems but they tend to be foibles that you learn to work around. Kill cams which add flare and tension but eventually you start to pick up the cues as to which outcome is about to happen. Movement can become a chore inside UFOs and bases as camera clips in and out of the ceiling, accidental clicks on the wrong layer often happen at worst time possible. Until you become more accustomed to the traits it is frustrating to cannot mouse over the icons on the Battlescape to get tool tips.

Xcom’s biggest success isn’t the game itself, more its self-contained identity, its ability to stand on its own two feet. Rather than standing on the shoulders of the giant or living in its shadow, it stands tall beside it as its own giant.


Not the face!

A colleague raved to me about Yazuka 3 last year, when I saw Yakuza 4 available for £25 a few weeks after its release I snapped it up. It did take a few hours to get to grips with but I’m very glad I stuck with it.

The Yakuza series is set around the fictional setting of Kamurocho, and is very similar to the game world used in Yaukza 3 with the addition of some underground and rooftop areas. Like most of the major cities in Japan most people get around on foot, there is no GTA style car jacking to be had here but it isn’t needed. If you just want to detour from the main story there is plenty here to keep you busy. There are large amount of shops, attractions and mini-games, roughly one per street. These are normally coloured on your map so you know where to go when you just want to wonder around. You can also look them up in an index but its not that intuitive.

The story telling is done in typical Japanese fashion, the story happens, new character appear and disappear. There is no western style handholding, nothing is spoon fed to you which can be a little difficult at first but is quite rewarding by the end. If like me you aren’t familar with works of the Yakuza the first hour or so can be quite difficult to understand as there are quite long cutscenes which throw you in at the deepend with talk of Clans, Familys and Brothers. The cutscenes are usually split about 50% prerendered voice work and 50% text although there doesn’t seem to be any rules defining what sort of content each one contains. Over the course of the game you switch between four different characters and by the end of the game you have a rich tapastry of history, double crossing, lying and deceit. As long as you stick with it for the first few hours there are enough twists and turns to keep you interested until the end when all the story threads are pulled together.

The real suprising joy of the game is the combat. It seems extremely simple at first but has enough depth to keep you wanting more. Best of all are the heat moves which can be used once your heat bar fills up, these are often extremely brutal and more often than not envolve breaking some faces. Dispite never killing anyone in combat this is somehow much for disturbingly violent then anything you would see in GTA. Despite being more comic book like the fighting is much more bone crunching.

Yakuza 4 is very quirky and very Japanese in its nature, almost every fight ends in an apology, every street has a hostess bar and it is all of its stories have a strong moral backbone. This is a game that ticks all of the boxes, it might not be to everyone’s tastes, just like some of items on sale in restaurants.

Review – Final Fantasy 13

Why am I reviewing Final Fantasy 13 now? It has taken me this long to get around to finishing it. It has very little in common with previous Final Fantasy games, I can see why they have don’t this but I don’t think it has worked quite as well as they would have liked. Thirteen is said to be an unlucky number, it probably wasn’t the best choice for Square to mixed up the formula quite so much knowing this.

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Review : DeathSpank

Greetings miscellaneous internet person!
I’ve been flowing DeathSpank ever since it was first annouced on Ron Gilbert’s blog GrumpyGamer so needless to say I was very excited when it was finally released. So does it live up to my hopes?

The First question you may ask is who or what is DeathSpank? DeathSpank is the protagonist from every RPG and Adventure game you have ever played, all of his life he has been destined to find “The Artifact” , he takes on all manner of tasks ordinary people give him without questioning why and he runs around cleaving everything in to a fine paste.

The gameplay itself sits between a hack and slash dungeon crawler like Torchlight and an old school adventure game. Generally the game is based around fetch quests, killing certain monsters or dialogue trees. Despite this the game for me at least had a good variety of quests to the point were I have completed all of them including all the side quests. DeathSpank also uses a similar hint system to the recently released monkey island special edition in that if you can’t figure out how to do a quest you can get progressively more obvious clues. You do this by using fortune cookies which you periodically pick up through general play and generally each quest has 3 clues however 75% of them you should be able to figure out without needing to use cookies.

The Dialogue and writing in general is top notch although I can understand it won’t be to everyones taste. It is constantly silly and fourth walling breaking, never forgetting to nod to all the clichés it adheres to. The voice acting is well executed, both DeathSpank himself and the non player characters really come alive. Even the shopkeepers and orphans are truely entertaining, I will certainly never think about felt in quite the same way again.

Combat is simple but I personally never found it boring, you can a equip a different a different weapon to each of your four main action buttons. Whenever you strike an enemy your justice meter fills a little bit. If you alternate your strikes between different weapons you get chain bonuses which give you more justice. When your justice meter is full you can unleash your weapon’s special ability, these include things like chain lightning and spinning whirlwind like attacks. There are also combination attacks later in the game where you can combine two special abilities together but generally i found these a bit too fiddly to pull off given the rapid pace of the combat. The blocking mechanics work surprisingly well, when you activate it you take no damage whilst the shield holds. However if you activate the shield just as a blow is about to hit you get a “Perfect Block” which instantly fills your justice meter, so there certainly is some depth of skill available if you want to explorer it. If you are feeling cowardly (which DeathSpank never does) you can just hold your shield are barge enemies out to way.

The world itself is a well realised mixture of 2D and 3D. The floor rolls round almost as if the world is tight cylinder and most objects are 2D cut outs which gives the game a unique Pop-up book like effect. I have actually had a graphics glitch whilst running around in PluckMuckle where the trees became all garbled, then after about a minute the system froze completely. I couldn’t say if this was the game itself or my PS3 though. Over all the game is visually a treat although it does obviously lean towards a stylised look given with its cartoon visuals and often low resolution textures, however this is never an issue given its subject matter and downloadable nature.

There is probably around 10 hours worth of content here and not a huge amount of re-playability however due to its budget price I think its still great value. DeathSpank was originally going to be episodic, at one point Ron even made a blog post singing the praises of episodic content and explaining why most of the time it failed (in short most people would prefer to to wait until the discounted complete end package is released before buying it). At some point in the design process I think they did a U turn on this, I would like to see the world of DeathSpank expanded however realistically I don’t see it happening now that Ron has left hothead at the end of his contract for DeathSpank as per their original arrangement. This is one of those situations where the game is best remembered as a standalone Masterpiece.

Masterpiece? Yes I think it is, I haven’t enjoyed a game this much for a long time, to the point where I have finished it 100% I don’t think however that everyone will like it. I would say if you like the look of the game and comedy from the trailers you will love the game, if you don’t then you won’t. Simple

Oh and calling the bad guys Orques? Genius

Is 3D gaming actually taking off this time?

Over the years 3D technology has come and gone, usually involving novelty films with objects popping out to scare you. Finally technology has matured enough that 3D is now becoming a viable medium, sadly it isn’t quite standardised yet. At the moment we have 3 completely different methods being waved about in our faces. All 3d viewing on a flat screen works in the same way, you display two images but only let each eye see one image, your brain then does the rest.

PC nVidia 3D Vision

This uses shutter glasses to cover alternating eyes, this happens 120 times per second, so you get 60 frames per eye.

This is compatible with a fairly large amount of games as the graphics driver renders the game from two slightly different viewpoints, as a result game developers do not have to have this system in mind while the game is being developed.

To use it you have to have the following:

  1. 120hz Monitor – 22″ is approx £200
  2. 3D Vision Kit – approx £150
  3. Modern nVidia Graphics Card – Start from £75 and go up and above £400
  4. Of course a computer that isn’t a pile of crap

The benefits of this method primarily is that you can play most of your existing games in 3d

Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo have done again what they do best, used tried and tested technology and package it together in to a novel format. Make no mistake though, the 3DS will be a massive success. The 3DS uses parallax barrier technology which apart from sounding impressive gives you a 3D image without the need for glasses. Rather than flicking between two images and  shutting off one eye the 3DS displays the picture for both eyes at the same time but has an extremely fine barrier in the way that only allows each eye to see alternate lines. Effectively it is like one of those bumpy pictures that change depending on the angle that you look them but a bit more high tech.

The 3DS will probably be around the £150 to £200 region, although it isn’t cheap it will still be the cheapest entry in to 3d for most people.

PS3 3D

Finally the PS3 3D is available to anyone with a PS3…as long as you have a 3D TV. It works in a similar way to the nVidia PC solution in that you have a shutter glasses that allow each eye to see alternate frames. With the PS3 the only games that will be supported are ones that are locked at 60 frames per second so that you get 30 frames per eye, any lower than that and you will notice the flickering. At the moment only a few titles such as Wipeout are available however there will be many in future.

Currently the list price for 40″ 3D Ready TV is around £1000 although a projector can be had for around £500 .