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Found 16 results

  1. Game: Quake 4 System: XBOX 360 DVD-ROM, PC DVD-ROM Release: November 2005 (XBOX 360), October 2005 (PC) Emulators: None Quake 4 for the XBOX 360 is a first-person shooter that will leave you with mixed feelings. On the one hand it boasts a competent single-player campaign that, while not groundbreaking, is thoroughly enjoyable. On the other, the lack of multiplayer options and startling performance issues mar what could have otherwise been a strong launch title for the platform. In all, does Quake 4 do enough right to make you forget about its shortcomings? Not really. The Strogg Berserker is a prolific enemy in Quake 4. The single-player storyline picks up where Quake II left off. The Strogg, an alien combine that razed Earth years before, has found the fight brought to its doorstep by human marines and its leader assassinated by the unnamed (Grunt?) protagonist of the previous game. It now falls to Matthew Kane and the members of Rhino Squad to destroy the Nexus – the central hub of Strogg communication – and thus expedite a human victory on Stroggos. As seems to be the trend these days, the developers at Raven hired a science fiction novelist to pen the storyline and some C-grade Hollywood voice talent to enliven the characters. What they failed to realise however is that sci-fi writers and small screen actors aren’t exactly the most able or qualified in their fields. The plot itself is painfully derivative. Missions are glorified marches from point A to point B and none of the characters, least of all the mute Kane, elicit any kind of emotional involvement. However it is still functional and while you will rarely care about who dies or what is going on, you’ll never be left completely clueless as to what to do next. Your fellow marines will be hard to protect, but no big deal if they die. Saying Quake 4 was made using the Doom 3 Engine id Tech 4 was a seal of graphical excellence back in 2005. It does fall prey to some of the criticism of Doom 3- it is primarily set indoors and its wide open spaces are unremarkable looking. The trade-off is that Quake 4 looks great... technically. It has great textures and geometry, great dynamic lighting and shaders... except that it runs at a snail’s pace. The XBOX 360 hardware is far and away sufficient to max out a game like Quake. Inconsistent framerates, rarely ever rising above 30 but very often dropping to less than 10, are therefore disappointing. That is a gross understatement as well since this is the title’s most obvious flaw. While PC versions received a patch early in the game’s lifetime to remedy an issue with multi-core processing, the 360 version has yet to as of December 2007 and likely never will. Obviously rushed out the door to meet the console’s launch, the performance of Quake 4 has ‘lazy’ written all over it. Quake 4’s outdoors are nothing special. What makes the stuttering framerate even more tragic is the marvellous art direction the game been crafted in. Taking cues of everything from Aliens to Soylent Green, the planet Stroggos is a biotechnological nightmare. All architectural and creature designs combine metal and flesh in barbaric ways, and the planet itself is basically a living base. The Strogg creatures themselves are not born- captives and prisoners-of-war are biologically changed into Strogg warriors via a series of implants and behavioural control devices. One of the many unsuccessful plot twists sees Kane become ‘Stoggified’ and the player bears witness to the gruesome process since Kane is unanaesthetized throughout. Although metallic halls and the same few cyborg warriors may seem boring early on, the more elaborate set pieces like the Stoylent Creature or Network Guardian bosses later more than make up for the monotony and really show off what the Strogg are about. The low framerate may make it hard to enjoy the scenery, but there will be moments where you just have to stop and check out that torso in a jar, or the giant room-sized heart pumping blood through a number of different pipes while beating violently. The Strogg Harvester is one of the first, and surprisingly one of the smaller bosses you face. The visceral feeling of killing these bizarre enemies wouldn’t be possible without an equally well-crafted assortment of weapons. Any FPS stands on the strength of its weapons and Quake 4 doesn’t disappoint here. There are a number of close-range and long-, human and Strogg weapons to use. Everything from Quake II returns and the new, less typical tools like the Nailgun and Lighting Gun make selecting the correct arsenal for a given encounter even more interesting. Weapons can also be upgraded over time. Your Nailgun can be modded with a scope and homing feature for instance and the Rocket Launcher is given a barrel-reloading mechanism at one point to allow for quick, massive damage at long range. There is no melee weapon however and when facing some of the heavier close-quarters foes the stock shotgun just won’t cut it. Overall the armament is varied and balanced and with the exception of the default Blaster nothing ever becomes truly obsolete. This gun gains the ability to ‘chain lightning’ across multiple foes. A number of other gameplay mechanics debut in an attempt to break up long spells of shooting. Working in a team was a feature that was pushed for Quake 4 pre-release and crops up in a few places throughout the campaign. The feature is just broken. Allies will run head first into oncoming fire and die at the drop of a hat. Tech Officers and Medics, who are there to replenish health and armour, routinely meet requests for help with ‘sorry, I’m busy’ and in all are more nuisances than anything else. On the flipside, whenever you get a storyline NPC with you, just hang back and let them take out everything. They do so with surprising ease and are invincible- allowing you to literally walk through some of the toughest encounters in the game. Unsurprisingly there is no co-op mode available either online or off. Another big feature was meant to be Matthew Kane’s Strogg form. However, apart from an orange HUD, there is apparently no difference between humans and Strogg. Being one of the enemy had a huge potential which isn’t utilised in the game at all. Finally, vehicles are present for the first time in the series but just as easily could have been left out. When in a vehicle, whether the hover tank, the tram or the walker mech, the first-person view is maintained and there is no real way, apart from the modified heads-up display, to know that the player is even in a vehicle. In each case a mounted machinegun and sometimes a missile launcher replace the normal arsenal but otherwise it is like travelling on foot. Vehicles make no appearance in multiplayer either, which may have given them some gameplay significance otherwise. The Walker Mech: Just like walking but with a stronger machinegun. Multiplayer itself is a scant offering in Quake 4. There are the usual Deathmatch and CTF modes but the most notable thing is that the game plays almost exactly like Quake III: Arena. All the weapons and physics have reverted to their predecessor’s settings – your shotgun no longer needs to be reloaded and it seems like gravity has been turned down a few notches, the character injected with steroids and basically its like 1999 all over again. For Q3 fans this is great but for anyone looking for a genuine multiplayer system based on Quake 4, this will be a kick in the face. There are no domination modes and no vehicles (perhaps intentionally saved for Enemy Territory?), which are depressing omissions themselves but not as much so as the lack of split-screen, local play. You can link up consoles or you can play over XBOX Live. However, failing having two TVs, two consoles and two copies of Quake, you’re pretty much screwed if you want to see what little multiplayer Quake 4 has going for it. Finding a buddy online is pretty much a lost cause and so the missing split-screen solution is something that, like the performance issues, spanks of ‘didn’t give a crap’. As an interesting side note there is a dedicated XBOX Live Marketplace menu, but to my knowledge no patches or Downloadable Content have ever been released for this game. Multiplayer stages are awfully reminiscent of Quake III: Arena. In terms of presentation, it is clear time and effort were spent (if misappropriated) on the game. The single-player portion is of a decent length and features an awful lot of incidental voicework, even if none of it is very good. There are a number of cinematic scripted events using the in-game engine which would be compelling if not for their poor use of the engine itself. The opening clip of the marine in space contains debris and other waste drifting through space, extremely close to the screen, with ripped textures and poor skinning. When the Stroyent Creature boss is defeated, its stomach ruptures as if it was made of paper – the resultant corpse bearing a greater resemblance to a broken pinata than an organic mess. Sound is also a mixed bag. There are some good effects in there, but mostly you’ll be noticing how tinny all the gunshots sound and how the screams of agony are barely audible. Concerning music, the cinematic ambience here fails downright. Suspense if carried terribly and the music almost gives this harrowing odyssey a melodramatic feel. Needless to say the hard hitting beats of Sonic Mayhem are sorely missed. In-game GUI menus are a major feature of id Tech 4 and the ones in Quake 4 are unremarkable but competent, like the rest of the game. The main menu interface is good, but awkwardly unresponsive on the XBOX 360. Loading and saving games takes far longer than it should while thumbnails are read off for each existing save and loading itself is a catastrophe. Between-level loading can take anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes, which is really inexcusable. There are also a number of easy to replicate 360 crashes that can occur during loading. Nothing is more infuriating than waiting for a level to load only to realise your machine needs a hard reboot and that you’ll need to wait through the loading again. Often though you’ll need to redo half a level as well because Quake 4’s checkpoint and autosave systems are pathetic. Sometimes ‘Saving Checkpoint... Done’ will be displayed on the screen, but no save will exist when you visit the load screen. Another technical oversight to throw on the heap. The menu will take ages to load with that many saves. Unlike its PC cousin, every copy of Quake 4 for the 360 is treated as a special edition. This means they all ship with an extra disc containing videos and a perfect 480p port of Quake II. Also unlike the PC version, this port has its audio tracks intact. It might not feature its two expansion sets but this version of Quake II has Achievements. They are evenly spread across the single-player campaign and although awarding them with Gamerscore would violate Microsoft’s 1000 point rule, they are an admirable feature nonetheless. Achievements for the main game are distributed less evenly. Single player campaigns are judged on difficulty. Similarly to something like Gears of War, Quake 4 requires that you complete the game on each setting to attain all the points. There are also points awarded for completing levels with a single weapon or without sustaining damage but the overwhelming bulk of Achievements are portioned out to online modes. Given that hitting the lottery and finding another player in the Quake 4 lobby have something in common, I’m stuck with a good 500 or so Gamerscore points that I’ll never get. Minor issue honestly, but I can see this upsetting some people. Quake II, at least, runs smoothly on a 360. If you can ignore the performance hiccups, there is a fairly long and well made single player campaign for you in Quake 4. However, if you require strong multiplayer offerings or are unable to look past the game’s inexcusable technical failings, this might not be for you. Quake suffers a particularly bad case of launch syndrome and while it should have come off without a hitch on the powerful XBOX 360 hardware, instead the game chokes. Badly. There are no patches to remedy the problems and its entirely possible the developers have chosen to forget about this buggy port of a decent game. You should probably do the same. Either check out the PC version or pick it up if it’s cheap. Otherwise just give it a miss altogether. Story: 6/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics (Artistic): 8/10 Graphics (Technical): 5/10 Presentation: 4/10 Multiplayer: 4/10 Extras: 8/10 Overall: 6/10 Grade: C
  2. Game: gRiMgRiMoiRe, GrimGrimoire System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM Release: June 2007 (NTSC-J), July 2007 (NTSC-U), September 2007 (PAL) Emulators: None An unconventional Real-Time-Strategy game in every sense of the term is GrimGrimoire, the sophomore effort of VanillaWare Inc., makers of Odin Sphere. GrimGrimoire combines the striking 2d charm and whimsical narrative of its predecessor with perhaps the best control scheme implemented in a PlayStation 2 RTS to date. Training and commanding units is, with only a few exceptions, a delight and easily outclasses its peers in that respect. It is, however, repetitive and suffers greatly from the stark lack of any multiplayer facility. Luckily its well designed units and art design, which GrimGrimoire has in spades, help make these shortcomings the more forgivable. The title screen sets the visual tone of the game perfectly. GrimGrimoire’s plot, while eclectic and understatedly bizarre, falls flat in terms of both originality and narrative cohesion. The player assumes the role of Lillet Blan, a young girl invited to the illustrious Silver Star Tower, an academy of magic tutelage built on the ruins of an evil Archmage’s fortress. Five days into her stay, a period which serves as a basic tutorial, the school is assaulted by the Archmage Calvaros, released from his binding for reasons unknown. Lillet mysteriously finds herself back at the night she arrived at the Silver Tower at this point, instead of at the top of Calvaros’ pile of corpses however. Such does GrimGrimoire begin, the goal being to both to understand the recent events and work out how to prevent them. This could set the stage for a remarkably deep exposition, as the non-linear nature lends itself to revelations of twist after twist. One would especially expect this due to the sheer number of students, teachers and others whose intriguing back-stories and interactions are hinted at constantly, but this never comes to pass. Motivations are unclear, the story itself goes nowhere, and aside from being confusing, does not come together at all in the end. When the credits role the player will undoubtedly want to know more the interesting people they have met or about the circumstances leading up to this curious ending, but neither are forthcoming. Since the plot ultimately fails, the originality of the whole idea has to come into question as well. Schools of magic are all too common these days in fantasy fiction (Hogwarts, Duel Academy and the Scholomance all spring to mind), but other touches, be they a freshly risen villainous mage intent on the protagonist’s murder, a philosopher’s stone, or a headmaster called ‘Gammel Dore’, point the finger of inspiration squarely in Harry Potter’s direction. Admittedly the original Japanese name was ‘Gammel Drask’ and, along with names like Chartreuse, Opalneria and Advocat, was a not-so-subtle nod to European liqueur, but the point remains. Make no mistake though, it is still an enjoyable adventure with a surprisingly copious amount of sexual innuendo for a story about children at school. It still has all the etherial quality of a fairy tale, but the mainplot arc does not diverge from the beaten track perhaps as much as it should. Elaborate subplots are business as usual for GrimGrimoire. Insofar as Lillet Blan is a wizard in training, magic in GrimGrimoire is divided into four schools and taught by the eponymous ‘Grimoires’; tomes of lore awarded after the defeat of the teacher in a given field. Possession of each Grimoire allows creation of a certain ‘Rune’ in battle. Runes are effectively the barracks of GrimGrimoire- unit-producing structures which, when all destroyed, constitute a loss for the player. The first unit produced by the first Rune in each school can collect Mana, the only currency in the game, from crystals littered about the stage and it can be used to either build Runes, units or upgrade Runes already in place. The schools are arranged in a quadrilateral configuration typical of Japanese RPGs. Glamour, a faction of elves, fairies and unicorns, has a natural advantage over the ghosts and phantoms of Necromancy, which naturally trump the imps and demons of Sorcery. Sorcery itself can devastate Alchemy’s golems and homunculi, which both enjoy strength against Glamour. Although there is a strong aesthetic through-line for each house, there are no particular strengths or weaknesses attributed to each, outside of the innate advantages they have over each other. Unlike, say, Warcraft III’s Orcs, which have the undisputedly toughest ground units in the game, there is no clear distinction in GrimGrimoire. Each school has gatherers, spell-casters and strong tanking units. Luckily the reactive element comes from being quickly able to lay down a Rune of an advantageous type after scouting the enemy’s army- you have access to every Rune already obtained in every battle and there is no need to choose one faction over another. The unfortunate aspect of this design is that battles become monotonous because of it. Premium units from each denomination become frequent sights and opposition comes from the same couple of Rune combinations the majority of the time. The Titania Rune is the strength of the Glamour school. While the GrimGrimoire’s plot and factional disparity could use some polish its controls need none. Controlling the units, at least, is a blessing. What could easily have become its greatest downfall is instead one of GrimGrimoire’s shining assets. While the XBOX 360 version of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars is often given as an example of console RTS done right, the control scheme of GrimGrimoire is in its own league. First off, both analogue sticks are used; the right to scroll the screen and the left to move the cursor within it. Stages are designed in a grid-like fashion with regard to hit-boxes which means clicking (pressing Square) on the large, colourful sprites is child’s play. Square to select, Cross to command, with the analogue sticks for screen movement is an arrangement that keeps things simple. Selecting multiple units is similarly easy given that only units of the same type are selected when Square is held and dragged across the screen. This nuance simplifies the task of isolating a lone Grimalkin unit amongst a pack of demons- something that will come up quite often. Group selects can also be achieved by pressing up when a key unit is already selected, and movement commands are simplified to smart moves, and attack moves, both of which are self-explanatory. Targeting deserves special mention as oftentimes the headache of your gatherer elf wandering off to engage a looming chimera instead of a Mana Crystal due to an innocent selection error is averted as though the game can anticipate your motions in real time. The proof is in the use, but without exception this is the most accomplished control setup available and should stand as an example for future console RTS design. The regrettable few drawbacks come as a side-effect of its ease of use. You cannot, for instance, select a group of more than one unit type, or jump to another part of the map without scrolling there manually. Trust this reviewer, however, when I say that these are more blessings than curses if you consider how much harder things would have been on the whole had the controls been done any other way. These Fairies have no natural advantage over this Imp, outside of sheer numbers. Another aspect that needs no further refinement is the graphical presentation. Like Odin Sphere before it, GrimGrimoire is a testament to how a successful 2-dimensional approach to game design should be taken in 2007. Every character and every unit is animated fluidly, gorgeously and with a clarity that breaks benchmarks in this area. Not only are the in-game sprites artworks in and of themselves, the menu systems are some of the most noteworthy in gaming. It is clear that the highest level of attention went to all aspects of the visual design throughout development and the game has a very distinct class because of it- its interface truly comes alive. The only imaginable complaint to level is that there is not nearly enough of anything. There are five to six units per faction. The menacing golem, the gargantuan dragon and nightmarish chimera all beg for more of the same, however. Silver Star Tower’s innards are an indulgent blend of gothic and romantic architecture, but ultimately all of the story missions feature maps built from the same tileset. You do get a handful of differently-themed levels come the extra ‘Trial Missions’, but there is no avoiding the compulsory 10-15 hour slog in the main tower. Story scenes are told with lush, large portrait sprites for the main characters, and the occasional unit is featured in these too. Still, dialogue with Charon, the penultimate Necromancy familiar, among others, is all but obligatory at this point, although omitted. A Chimera and Dragon on-screen at once is usually a sign of a major battle. This limited scope extends to the overall presentation, which is missing a number of key modes. GrimGrimoire is basically a story mode, comprised of a progression of similar missions complemented and segregated by cinematic interludes. As far as this goes, it is a strong experience. The game is complemented by an adept mood-setting score throughout, although the battle theme will invariably grate on the senses after a short while. Better still though is the voice over track, which is done in full English and boasts some superb performances, particularly that of the devil Sorcery teacher Mr. Advocat. Aside from this strong linear stroke, ‘Trial Missions’ are unlocked over time that offer unique challenges but exist outside the main story arc. Between the two of them, though, there are less than fifty in all, and there are only so many tactical scenarios that can be played out with these confines. Between this and the remarkable lack of any two-player battle feature whatsoever, a lot of the strategic value of the cleverly crafted units is squandered on an AI that irrevocably falls back on attrition-based tactics. Adding insult to injury is that there is no reward, ignoring an additional ‘Hard’ difficulty for each mission, attached to completing the game. A fully-featured level select is unlocked as you go, so any scene can be revisited at any time, but after the first clear no apparent reason to revisit any part of the game presents itself. Further, there are no replay, map-editing or custom scenario features, all of which would have gone a considerable way in prolonging this game’s shamefully short longevity. In terms of detail, GrimGrimoire's interface leaves nothing to be desired. GrimGrimoire, makes a great first impression, with graphics that dazzle, an enchanting score and a genuinely amusing English dub. It does not have any glaring weaknesses but there isn’t really much lasting value to it either. The story would have been better had it come to a more satisfying (or sensible) conclusion and the game itself would have benefitted from a greater breadth of modes considering the engine and gameplay themselves are competent in what they do. Nevertheless, as with the previous Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire should not be missed if for its unique aesthetic alone. ‘Charm’, a word which I’ve bandied around in the reviews of both games, simply doesn’t go far enough to describe their intangible qualities or why they make the games worthwhile. It is hard to recommend an odd 2d PS2 RTS to buyers in this day and age, especially given this one’s obvious shortcomings, but GrimGrimoire is more than worthy of a rental at least. Don't miss trying it out whatever you do. Story: 7/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 10/10 Presentation: 8/10 Overall: 7/10 Grade: B
  3. Game: King of Fighters: Maximum Impact Regulation ‘A’ (NTSC-J) System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM Emulators: None Right off the bat, this is not KOF: Maximum Impact 3. King of Fighters: Maximum Impact Regulation ‘A’ is a straight PlayStation 2 port of its simultaneously-released arcade version, itself a slightly upgraded Maximum Impact 2. The result is an even finer tune of an already surprisingly good 3d brawler, albeit one based in 2d mechanics. It has more moves, characters and stages than its forebears, and also adopts the patented King of Fighters 3-on-3 setup for the first time in this series, but lacks the single-player-oriented unlockables, character endings and stories that rounded out the previous game. Regulation A is no doubt the definitive version of the Maximum Impact series from a gameplay standpoint, but perhaps not the most accomplished in terms of presentation. What most immediately separates Regulation A from Maximum Impact 2 is its roster. The previous cast is available in its entirety from the get-go, which means some of the more colourful participants, like Fatal Fury’s Richard Meyer, or Metal Slug’s Fio Germi no longer need to be unlocked. The four new entries constitute the real value of admission though, and all are reasonably fun to play with if not at all game-breaking. Ash Crimson, the hero of more recent core King of Fighters games makes his 3d debut with his existing arsenal complimented by a few almost unnecessary additions that result in him being both a beast, and a simple entry point for newcomers. Blue Mary, a ubiquitous absentee from previous MI tournaments is finally playable, and largely analogous to her Real Bout self. Xiao Lon and Makoto Mizoguchi, the last two new entries, are newcomers to the KOF realm, Xiao Lon being an entirely new creation (and an admittedly interesting one) while Mizoguchi appears for the first time since his Fighter’s History series disappeared. He is an interesting inclusion not only because his origin game was made by Data East - not SNK (Fighter’s History Dynamite only appeared on the NeoGeo) but also because the visual punch of a lot of his moves have been lost, and apparently not compensated for, in his transition to 3d. Either way, the current roster is 42-characters strong as of Regulation A, and would be impressive enough by itself were the bulk of them not as varied and competent as they are. The core fighting game is mostly unchanged from Maximum Impact 2, as it should be in what is effectively a minor revision. Regulation A’s physics allow it to be played pretty much exactly as a typical 2d King of Fighters game. Dialled-up combos are the key, and probably the only, differential here, and are simple enough to be quickly grasped and experimented with. Some of newcomer Ash’s bread and butter strings are p>p>P>P, P>P>K>D+K, and K>K>K>K>K, and as you can see the system is not rocket science. More than half the specials and combos are super-cancellable as well, making for some frantic impromptu chains and rapid turnarounds in matches. This time though, bouts are between two teams of three fighters, just as in the classic KOF games of old. Unfortunately, there is no tagging system implemented at all. The player is offered a chance to select the order of combatants pre-fight, but other than that, it is a one after another attritional affair. In itself, this is not a problem, except that a rather grievous failing of Regulation A arises from this arrangement- the loading times. Menu and character select interfaces are well implemented – 2d portraits are now used in place of 3d models, meaning there is no loading time to speak of during or between any of these screens. Still, once a character is KO-ed, the poor PS2 has to dump the character’s data and load another’s. The delay is marginal, but happens so often it becomes an unbearable annoyance. Understandably there is little way around this issue, given the hardware, but it is an unfortunate negative nevertheless. Regulation A’s presentation is on the whole an uneven effort. As mentioned, the character select screen and general interface is fairly impressive – both as flamboyant as and more streamlined than those found in the other Maximum Impacts. The roster is huge, and stages have all received a Dark Resurrection-style time-of-day remix. Graphics are not best in class, but very easy on the eyes. Modes are the typical fare, with a ‘jukebox’ unnecessarily glorifying a boring sound test. The problem is that Regulation A has dispensed with the usual niceties that accompany a home port. There is no story mode of any kind – not even a text-based one. Further, the gorgeous full-motion video from Maximum Impact 2 is all gone – the endings, the intro movie – everything. In their stead is a remarkably unimpressive mishmash of stills and cheesy video effects set to a boring metal track that seemingly demanded zero effort to put together. Hell, it even recycles some Ash concept art from The King of Fighters 2003. Worse still is that there are no unlockables at all. You may get to play as Nightmare Geese, Jivatma and Luise Meyrink right from the start, but there is not a whole lot to do with this game after you get sick of the new characters. There is not even (can you believe this?) a high-score table saving feature as far as I can tell, and that is saying something about an arcade game. This is a straight arcade port in the strictest use of the term – no frills; you get a lot to play with, but what you see at the start is literally all you get. King of Fighters: Maximum Impact Regulation ‘A’ is a really fun game. There are a whole bunch of characters to mess with and the combo system is easy enough to get into. Now if you happen to have a competitive interest in the game, all the better. I don’t know that there is a sizable scene for this game, if any, in Japan, let alone overseas. For the layperson though, this will be a predominantly single-player affair with the occasional match against friends here and there as long as the game holds interest. Given its lack of unlockable content and annoying loading delays, it may not hold interest for that long, and at the end of the day this is only a minor extension of the Maximum Impacts that have been around for ages now. Whether or not to purchase Regulation A will likely degenerate into an equation of the cost of importing, lack of movies, story and unlockables versus four new characters and being able to play problematic 3-vs-3 fights. If you happen to find yourself weighing the game up in those terms, do yourself a favour and either pick up or stick with Maximum Impact 2. I recommend this only if you’re getting it for free, or if you are a ninth-degree KOF nut. Regulation A is great fun, and, gameplay-wise, the definitive iteration of the series, but it ultimately lacks the lasting appeal to warrant the price of admission. Gameplay: 7/10 Graphics: 7/10 Presentation: 5/10 Extras: 1/10 Overall: 6/10 Grade: C In regard to the loading issue, running the game off a HDD solves it. It would have been nice to see an official HDD installation for this game, as with the recent Street Fighter Alpha and Darkstalkers collections. However its absence should not come as a surprise considering this title’s bare-bones presentation in all the other areas. PS: Thanks to SNK’s Blog for the images.
  4. Game: Resident Evil: Dead Aim (PAL/NTSC-U) / Gun Survivor 4: Biohazard – Heroes Never Die (NTSC-J) System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM Emulators: None Light-gun games have a sketchy history on the PlayStation 2. Capcom’s efforts in particular have been met with everything from mild indifference to outright derision by the gaming public. Luckily, in most ways, Resident Evil: Dead Aim succeeds where its predecessors have failed. It effortlessly combines patented Resident Evil-style 3rd-person survival horror with 1st-person light-gun action and the result is an experience far more satisfying than similar games to date have been. The storyline is ludicrous, the voice acting is just plain terrible and while slightly on the short side, Dead Aim is a very recommendable light-gun game, easily on par with any of its rivals on the PS2. Dead Aim handles, without exaggeration, marvellously. Resident Evil, the franchise that put survival horror on the map, branched out into action with Resident Evil: Survivor - essentially a free roaming 1st-person shooter – to little fanfare. Maybe this was in part due to the Columbine shootings nixing light-gun support for the title in the United States, but really it was down to the mechanic driving the game being clunky, and unrefined. For aiming and shooting, things were fun, but navigating a 3d world riddled with hidden with hidden items and teeming with enemies, while only looking left and right is bound to go wrong somewhere. Dead Aim avoids these pitfalls by throwing those ideas out entirely, and using the tried and tested Resident Evil gameplay for exploration, and shifting to a point-of-view interface for combat. The game allows you to either use both a Dual Shock 2 controller in tandem with a G-con45 / Guncon or G-con2 / Guncon2, or just a G-con2 by itself. The former is more comfortable to my tempered hands, but either configuration is a matter of preference. The d-pad and analogue stick control characters’ movement, and all buttons are mapped to confirm / interact. This allows a controller to be easily held in the left hand, with a thumb on the stick, a finger positioned above L1, and with a gun in the right, providing complete control over the game while doing so. Pulling the trigger on the G-con will shift from 3rd- to 1st-person perspective, while shooting off-screen reloads. Lurching zombies can usually be dispatched by drawing a weapon and scoring a clean headshot, while others, such as the frog-like Hunters, will require some moving around in-between taking shots. None of this is cumbersome, but while the game can be played solely with the Dual Shock 2, it is not recommended. Overall, the control scheme in Dead Aim is remarkably simple, but effective, and allows the player a great deal more agency in the gameworld than in any of the previous Gun Survivor games so far. Dead Aim’s polished presentation extends to its graphics. Not in the same league as Resident Evil 0 for the GameCube, or Resident Evil 4, the game’s graphics are clean and clear, and almost consistently running at a silk-smooth 60 frames. Almost no slowdown bogged the game at any point, and there are instances where veritable legions of zombies will obstruct the player’s quick exit. The interior of the Umbrella cruiser is especially well realised, as much of the architecture above deck, as well as the engine rooms below, bear strong familiarity to their often-seen film and TV counterparts. Without any doubt though, the full-motion-video sequences in the game are almost without peer on the PlayStation 2. Consider this game’s age, and the stiff competition on the platform, this is not a statement that can be made in passing. Although in some ways a throwback to the old Resident Evils, Dead Aim is completely separate from them in terms of plot. Set in 2002, years after the Racoon City events of the first three games, it follows a CIA agent, Bruce McGivern, who has to reclaim a hijacked Umbrella Corp. cruise ship from renegade scientist Morpheus Duvall. Unbeknownst to Umbrella, however, is that Morpheus has secretly stolen a new hybrid G/T-Virus, and infected everyone on board the liner. This conveniently sets the stage for wanton zombie-shooting mayhem, as the player fights their way through the ship, searching for keys and unlocking their way to Morpheus. Eventually the fight is taken to an abandoned Umbrella facility where the plot reaches its unspectacular climax. In truth, the story is pathetically contrived, but is most disadvantaged by its voice-acting. While the narcissistic Morpheus is suitably effeminate sounding, Raj Ramayya, the voice of the protagonist, oscillates equally between a heavy-south accent, and something more mainstream. Claire O’Connor, who plays Chinese agent Fong Ling, puts forth, without exception, the worst bunged on Chinese accent I have ever heard. As if the already painful-to-watch cutscenes needed any more help sucking, the subtitles never match the spoken dialogue. Obviously one follows a more literal Japanese translation, but the combination of the two actually manages to further obscure what is already a poorly thought out sequence of events. There isn’t that long of a story to suffer through, fortunately, as the game is as short as its story is poorly conceived. All up a run through can take less than an hour, but there are more serious content-related grievances than that. While there is a standard survival horror fare of weapons and items, including pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, as well as herbs and sprays, there is not a huge roster of enemies. The vast majority of time will be spent wasting the run of the mill zombie, but there are only really hunters, ‘torpedo kids’ and three bosses to deal with other than that. Once you can easily get off three running headshots on the zombies, you are pretty much set for the rest of the game. Crimson heads, lickers and Mr.X were nowhere to be found, which was quite disheartening. Rewards for completing the game are sparse too. Depending on difficulty and rank achieved, a clear save will allow access to either all weapons from the start, or infinite ammo. The ability to control Fong Ling, who is no more than an alternate model, is little incentive to play through a second time. She plays through the same story as Bruce in any case. On the whole, Resident Evil: Dead Aim is the first game to successfully blend free-movement and explorative elements with a light-gun shooting mechanic. Admittedly it doesn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with the masterpiece that is Resident Evil 4, but Dead Aim is easily the best game in the Gun Survivor series, and one of the best light-gun games available for the PlayStation 2, if not the best off-rails light-gun game ever made. Its short length is a pity, considering how well the it plays, and the script could use a lot of work. Nevertheless Dead Aim is a very capable title that all G-con owners should consider, if only as an excuse to clear off all the dust that has settled on it over the months of disuse. Of course, you could just play the game with a Dual Shock in tow... but where’s the fun in that? Control: 10/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 8/10 Extras: 1/10 Overall: 7/10 Grade: B
  5. Game: Odin Sphere System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM Emulators: None A game that does as conventional things in as remarkably unconventional ways as Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere, and succeeds, is a special kind of rarity that PlayStation 2 owners are lucky enough to now laid before them. Odin Sphere is an action / role-playing hybrid framed by a compelling and tight nonlinear narrative, and presented with high-resolution 2d graphics and extraordinary production values. While it may get off to a slow start, and it may be blisteringly difficult to the newcomer with some area for improvement in controls and inventory mechanics, this game is only a very slightly flawed masterpiece. I cannot adequately stress the enormous disservice any PS2 owner is rendering themselves by neglecting Odin Sphere. Please note that SPOILERS are a necessary part of critiquing the game’s storyline – I will use spoiler tags for that section and keep the rest of the review spoiler-free. What most prominently sets Odin Sphere apart from its contemporaries is its enchanting 2d presentation. Although technically only in standard definition, the sprites in this game can honestly be described as ‘next-gen 2d’. They are enormous, incredibly detailed, and well-animated – so much so that the images used during gameplay are strong enough to carry the cut-scenes and story segments on their back – the two blend seamlessly. Considering the PS2’s memory constraints this is no simple feat, but the game rarely suffers from any kind of slowdown, even when a seeming legion of enemies appear onscreen. Character and enemy sprites are top-in-class efforts, easily beating out the likes of Guilty Gear X in both detail and clarity, even when scaling effects are being utilised. But they still pale in comparison to the bosses, which are so big and so detailed that they leave no room for any doubt that Odin Sphere is the best looking 2d game ever made. The Raging Dragon, Belial, the first boss encountered, is perfectly illustrative of just how impressive this game looks, but not just by the size of its sprite. The aesthetic charm comes from equal parts technical accomplishment, and a very deliberately whimsical visual style. Artistically, the game is gorgeous. As empty a statement as that sounds, what is seen in Odin Sphere could generally be mistaken for the kind of artwork used to embellish other games in instruction manuals or concept art, except that here it is alive on screen. Reminiscent of an animated fairy tale, Odin Sphere avoids the stylings typical of Japanese RPGs and finds a niche for itself. Since it is (loosely) rooted in an amalgamation of Teutonic and Scandinavian literature and mythology, a lot of the inspiration for everything between in-game architecture and interface elements can be traced back to classical European form, which helps imbue the dazzling sprites with a distinctly elegant flavour. The Kingdoms of Ragnanival and Titania seem to draw from gothic and Norman eras respectively, while Ringford and Valentine appear more Tolkienesque. The visual style provides both an emotional grounding and subject matter for the admittedly jaw-dropping presentation. In keeping with the theme established in the visuals, Odin Sphere’s soundtrack is equally as impressive. More ambient than your average Uematsu offering, the designers succeed in giving the game a more filmic, epic scope through orchestral backing of boss encounters and generally mood-setting pieces everywhere else. More striking than the score, however, is the fact that the entire game is dubbed, start to finish. The voice acting on display is largely varied, if for no other reason than the enormous number of parts, but on the whole adds to the experience instead of detracting from it. This is of course speaking for Atlus’s English dub, which was released almost simultaneously alongside the Japanese version. The Demon Lord Odin himself is suitably menacing to his enemies, while showing more humanity to his kingdom (both sides of which are faced during the various plotlines), while other more dastardly characters, like the evil wisemen Urzur, Beldor and Skuldi, feature aptly stereotypical villain voices. Jennifer Sekiguchi, who plays the impetuous child-queen Mercedes does a particularly noteworthy job, as does Michelle Ruff, the voice of Princess Velvet (both of whom are playable heroes). Unfortunately some key roles, such as Gwendolyn and Oswald, arguably the main characters, are met with weak and insipid performances. Gwendolyn in particular is unable to provoke as much sympathy as disdain from the player, who will quickly grow impatient at the controls of such an indecisive Valkyrie. Odin Sphere’s narrative is one of its greatest strengths, although the player may think otherwise throughout the entire first chapter. The plot picks up during the final climactic battle between the demonic Aesir kingdom of Ragnanival, lead by the Demon Lord Odin, and the Vanir faerie kingdom of Ringford as they fight for control of the Crystallisation Cauldron, an artifact that mentioned in a five-part prophecy scrying the world’s end. The problem with this is that almost none of that will make any sense until the game’s final moments – likely a good 30 or so hours later. Any familiar references to Norse mythology won’t help unscramble the confusing affair either- names like ‘Odin’ and ‘Yggdrassil’ are presented for flavour only. Ironically some symbolism regarding the Armageddon is spot on, but in those cases the literature is scribed from different bodies of mythology, an example being the enormous ‘world serpent’ that wraps itself around the Earth being here mislabelled as ‘Levanthan’ (itself a likely misromanisation of Leviathan). However neither its loose ties to its mythological roots, nor its apparent confusion throughout most of the game can change the fact that this story is marvellously written. You play as five heroes, Gwendolyn the Valkyrie, Cornelius the prince, Mercedes the faerie, Oswald the shadow knight and Velvet the witch. The course for each character takes place during roughly the same period of time, and they run into each other on occasion as well, although only one will ever be under the player’s control in such instances. Each story is played through completely before the next is unlocked. Consequently, for much of Gwendolyn’s game, a lot of the mentioned terms, character interactions and backstory will be lost on the player. However, as the various characters’ chapters are played, an intricately interrelated set of events unfolds, revealing more about the scenario in general, but also more about the people previously played as. Odin is a somewhat gruff and distanced father figure to Gwendolyn, but is a fearsome tyrant when faced by Mercedes. Oswald is seen as a cold killer for most of the game, but this is shown to simply be out of debt to the man who raised him and to whom he regards sole loyalty. By the end of his story, a great deal of sympathy is attached to his tale, although somewhat unexpectedly given what is shown of him beforehand. Similarly events take on a different light when put into context by new information. Why did pages from the Book of Transformation go missing during Cornelius’s story? Because the Ingway sought to use the Beast of Darkova spell to get atone for using the Cauldron to save Odin (revealed in Velvet’s chapter), his father, and consequently destroying the kingdom of Valentine. Where is the elder dragon Wagner when Lord Brigan goes to Horn Mountain to offer sacrifice in Gwendolyn’s chapter? He was off protecting the Ring of Titrel given to him by Velvet, but before discovering his brother Hindel has been murdered by Oswald, at which point he returns to the mountain only to encounter Mercedes in her storyline. Convoluted? Only a little. To this end, all story elements are easily re-watchable at any menu, and are arranged in chronological order, making it easy to see what one person was doing while the player was busy with another. This is a very useful addition that most will come back to several times will figuring everything out. The end result is ultimately satisfying and the vague references, and indirect exposition offered through the game are more than made up for by the grand epic left when all the pieces fall into place. Not at all the first game to combine role-playing elements with realtime action, Odin Sphere takes a new approach, both hitting and missing in doing so. The best way to imagine it is as a side-scrolling platform game, except with no platforms as in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog, but no beat-em-up style depth of field either, as in Final Fight or Golden Axe. Basically, it comes down to running left and right, jumping, and hitting any enemies that come at you. Here’s the catch; stages are arranged in circles. Eventually running in one direction will lead back to the starting point. This aspect is the origin of ‘Sphere’ in ‘Odin Sphere’ by the way. Once all enemies in a given ‘stage’ are beaten, an exit appears, leading to yet another circular stage with a different configuration of enemies, or maybe a boss, but the same music and the same scrolling background. Chapters are arranged thus in a web-like network with the goal being to reach the final boss stage, at which point the chapter ends. Each character’s session is comprised of 6 such chapters, bookended by story segments at both the beginning and end. This arrangement is repetitive to say the least. At worst, it can be a tedious trial that will turn away players before the intriguing plot starts to take hold. The reason is that although there are 6 chapters to a character, there are only 10 grid-like stages in total and maybe 20 backgrounds (considering the backdrops for story scenes) all up. This means that the same places will be visited more than once- Elrit Forest is somewhere that the player will have to venture 5 times – once with each character. The bosses and enemies don’t ever change and so although there is quality content in this game, there is a shortage of it, or a nominal amount stretched across many hours of gameplay, depending on how you choose to look at it. The battle mechanic itself is largely dependent on the character being played as too. Their attacks are all unique and some have certain special abilities. Mercedes, being a faerie, can fly freely while Gwendolyn can glide and Oswald can shift into a more powerful ‘shadow’ form for short periods of time. As attacks go, though, all that really changes is the timing, as fighting will always boil down to repeatedly pressing the square button and hoping the attack will either knock down, or out-prioritise the enemy’s before they get a chance to strike. Things will definitely not fall with one blow and so anyone expecting Symphony of the Night-style action should consider themselves warned. Despite the dull nature of combat in Odin Sphere the responsiveness of controls is an even greater hindrance. Timing and foresight are obviously the foci of battle, but the controls are simply too heavy, and too slow, to make fighting anything but a chore. Everything but the lightest poke will leave the character open for massive retaliation against most monsters, and trying to get a 4-hit string off against one of the larger bosses is tantamount to suicide. Progress will either come as a result of a Rambo-approach, along with some heavy level grinding before and after, or of extreme patience during battle since those big bosses will take short eternities to down. Both paths involve enough time spent for this to become a tedious exercise, but there is unfortunately no third way. To the game’s credit, by the end encounters will be a breeze, but this will inevitably be down to exploitation of A.I. habits rather than actually getting better at the game. In other words this is a noticeable issue early on, but gets easier and easier to overlook once things start rolling. Item management and levelling-up are both interesting aspects of Odin Sphere but are also more failed experiments than well-executed features. Items are stored in bags as icons. They cannot be sorted and there is no quicker way to use them in battle then to set one’s weapon down and rummage through one’s bags looking for the item needed. This is a problem only because healing items and alchemic spells are needed frequently during battle, and trying to find what is needed at any given time slows down the pace of action significantly. A Kingdom Hearts-like system here would have helped immensely. The alchemy mechanic is marginally useful because levelling up involves independent statistics for HP and attack – the only attributes that ever rise. Attack value rises with ‘Phozon Level’, which gauges up by absorbing the released souls (Phozons) of slain enemies (pretty macabre isn’t it?). HP on the other hand only gets raised by repeatedly eating healing items or using mixed potions. Cooking recipes come in handy for this, as do alchemy mixes, which additionally serve to make potions with special effects, such as the ‘Cooler’ mixture, which keeps the player from sustaining intermittent damage while in the Inferno Kingdom. Both make use of a system that allows the player to combine items they have to make something more useful. The concept is novel, but becomes problematic considering the limited inventory space in bags, and the often staggering number of things needed to administer a simple recipe. As a result these features will not be used as frequently as were probably intended. Like the battle mechanic, items and levels come off as more clumsy, extraneous implementations than anything else. In the end, the player’s experience of Odin Sphere will be defined by its interwoven storyline and extraordinary visuals. The game wrapped around these things is not void of good ideas, but needs a great deal of tweaking before it can honestly be considered fun to play on its own. Battling is a repetitive affair that will involve a greater struggle with the controller than with the in-game resistance, and item management is quite honestly a pain in the ass. Still, the narrative comes together better than expected, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the best I have ever seen in a game, with all the suspense of Metal Gear Solid and all the exploration of cause and effect in Shadow of Memories and then some. To be sure, this is one of the most, if not the most captivating RPG I have ever come across. But if Odin Sphere’s story is impressive, its graphics are nothing short of astounding. This game is not only evidence that 2d is not dead, but that it can have a character and appeal greater than anything in 3-dimensions. The fact that Odin Sphere diverges from the beaten track in terms of both presentation and storytelling is reason enough to check it out, but that it is such a remarkably satisfying game to see to the end, despite its faults, makes it a must have in my opinion. Gameplay: 5/10 Graphics: 10/10 Story: 10/10 Sound: 9/10 Overall: 9/10 Grade: A Odin Sphere is really an odd thing to see on the PS2. As I say, it is riddled with problems, but once you get past them it is really such an engaging and rewarding experience that it wouldn’t have mattered if you were forced to fight using dance mat and the repetitive stages were 10 times longer. I wrote an extremely scathing review for this game 2 weeks ago, after just finishing the first section of 6, at which time I absolutely hated it. I thought the controls were bad, the story was going nowhere, and I had seen the best of the 2d animation I was going to see. I am so glad I decided to stick with it a little longer before posting that up, because boy would my face have been red once I realised this was likely one of the best things I’d ever played. Sincerely my opinion was changed that much between finishing Gwendolyn’s story and the end of the game. It really does come together that well. If Odin Sphere really fails, it is in not putting its best stuff right at the start. Bad first impressions, along with an absent PAL release and the end of the PS2 era will deny this game the success it really deserves, and I can’t help but think that is a tremendous shame.
  6. Game: Guilty Gear XX ^Core System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM, NAOMI Arcade Board GD-ROM Emulators: PCSX2 The Guilty Gear X/XX series from Arc System Works has been placed alongside the legendary Street Fighter II in terms of illogically-named incremental upgrades and Guilty Gear XX ^Core does little to break the trend. As the third revision of Guilty Gear XX, ^Core (pronounced ‘accent core’) only features a few new special moves and new mechanics that do not go far to significantly differentiate the core (get it?) gameplay from its predecessors. Its balance changes and interface overhaul will breathe some fresh air into the franchise for those who still adhere to its hi-resolution, anime-inspired madness, but the stale taste of an old game will be all the average player feels toward this necessarily conventional reprisal. Guilty Gear XX ^Core is essentially a retooled version of Guilty Gear XX Slash, itself an update of Guilty Gear XX #Reload which originally expanded on Guilty Gear XX. These 2d fighting games stood out from the pack with hi-resolution VGA (640x480) graphics, fast-tempo combat all wrapped in bizarre heavy metal-themed, anime styled universe. By Slash, the series’ roster had expanded to more than 25 unique characters with their own specials, ‘tension’ based super moves, and even instant-kill techniques. While crafted in superficial homage to Street Fighter and Marvel Vs. Capcom, GG quickly became the most fully-featured and polished 2d fighter still in production. The intricate system involves fighting mainstays like jumping, dashing and 4 main command buttons, but also allows more advanced techniques. Some include the ability to ‘Roman Cancel’, or recover instantly from attack animations, to defend without taking damage, or to retaliate with what is termed a ‘Dead Angle Attack’. These abilities, and the character’s fighting capacity at large are monitored by a variety of gauges apart from the standard Life and Guard. ‘Burst’ affords certain special moves when active and many of the specials mentioned are payed for with ‘Tension’, a ‘super’ meter, the amount of which increases with every action taken, but can be completely drained by idling or playing defensively. Ponder that Johnny, A.B.A and Order Sol have even more specific commodities to manage and conclude that the GG system is as intricate as they get. On top of all that, each character’s ‘Dust’ move launches the opponent into the air and allowing the exhibitionist to take advantage of the series’ simple yet intuitive air-combo system to the fanfare of a psychedelic backdrop (unique for each character in ^Core). As a largely unchanged instalment, ^Core benefits from all these tried and tested mechanics, but introduces some new ones to the fray for good measure. A significant difference between ^Core and every Guilty Gear upgrade previous is that it introduces no new characters. In the spirit of competitive gaming, balance has been completely reworked across the board. Every returning cast member has received at least one new standard special in complement to a new ‘Force Break’ attack (more on that later). These are changes which will no doubt aversely alter the effectiveness of characters in high-level play – Order Sol, for example, is now considered ‘top-tier’ despite his debut one game earlier seeing him as one of the weaker fighters. Other characters play completely differently. There will almost certainly be a ‘wtf’ moment when Sol Badguy’s Grand Viper no longer trailblazes into the air and instead launches with an animation resembling CvS1 M. Bison’s Psycho Crusher. Lamentable it is then that no fresh faces appear this time. Raven, a mysterious antagonist throughout the series, had been rumoured to compete in-game for the first time in ^Core but has apparently been overlooked. Newcomers introduced in Slash, A.B.A and Order Sol, join the old crew for another round, but an entirely new cast member would have made ^Core especially appealing, if slightly counterproductive to the game’s balancing efforts. New mechanics almost make up for the lack of new blood in ^Core. ‘Force Break’ attacks provide another way to spend Tension during a match. They come out almost instantly and hit hard albeit at the cost of 25% of the Tension gauge. Think of them as level 1 supers, in contrast with real Tension or Overdrive attacks which typically cost 50% of the meter, or 100% for top-end techniques like Gamma Ray. Normal hits now have new properties to work with too. Before a hit could knock back, knock down, launch or dizzy, but now can also slide an enemy across the stage, or knock them up against the walls at the sides of stages. Wall-stuns are particularly dangerous as they open the victim up to free hits, which are easier to land than if they were during a juggle. A final change to the system concerns throws- they are now escapable and counter-able. If one were to somehow miss the fact that there are no new characters and that the engine has only been advanced in paces, and not leaps, (not to mention the sprites dating back to 2000’s Guilty Gear X) they might be forgiven for mistaking this for Guilty Gear XXX (as in X3, not pr0n), so severe are the superficial aesthetic facelifts. First off, the entire main-menu layout is vastly rearranged from previous ports, but this is only a matter for the PlayStation 2 owners. The game opens with a new introduction sequence using the art style of each character’s redrawn ^Core profile pictures. Interface elements are completely redrawn, and after so many years of seeing ‘Heaven or Hell’ and ‘Destroyed’ written in certain ways, they might come as a slight shock. Not as much of a shock, however, as the new voice-over work. Every single in-game cue has been rerecorded. ‘Round 1’ sounds different. Character voices are different. Bridget sounds more like a girl. These changes are ultimately for the worse, and almost none of them properly match the mood or feel of Guilty Gear. Admittedly they are easily warmed up to, because players will likely be paying more attention to the new stages in ^Core than the dodgy voicework. Most have been recoloured (yet again) but all have been changed to varying degrees, and new ones added to the line-up. Paris, Sol and Ky’s stage, is all new. Although it is set in the same highland chateau, it is an original area, and contains the link to A.D. 2172. The Hell stage is entirely changed too, and as morbid as its old version was, its ^Core incarnation is unreservedly better. Minor cosmetic changes like these will not impress the sceptics, but this is without a doubt the most extensive visual upgrade the franchise has seen since the jump from Guilty Gear: The Missing Link to Guilty Gear X: By Your Side. Too bad that, like Slash, only 2 tracks from Daisuke Ishiwatari are original here – one of which, the opening theme, is especially noteworthy. It is a shame because the music is generally one of the series’ strengths. The rest of the soundtrack has aged well, but will be deplorably overheard to most all GG veterans. Naturally ^Core ships with all the standard modes. Arcade, Vs, Survival and Training, all obligatory quantities, are joined by the inept M.O.M. mode from Slash, but not its Mission mode or the text-heavy Story Mode from #Reload. A tip of the hat has to go out to the Vs CPU mode where you can lay down the gauntlet against any opponent on your own terms. It is a simple yet appreciated feature for any fighting game that is all too scarce these days. Where ^Core surprises is in its original ‘Guilty Gear Generations’ mode. A nostalgic avenue not dissimilar to Street Fighter Alpha3’s X-ISM, Generations allows you to pick the game to play under, and modifies the movesets (and game system) accordingly. The options available are ‘Guilty Gear’, complete with all those sneaky countering one-hit-kills, ‘Guilty Gear X’ with its older commands, and of course ‘Guilty Gear ^Core’ and its most recent errata. Although not all that useful beyond its novelty, Generations is a welcome feature. Still, like the collection of art in the Gallery mode, it will have to be unlocked the old-fashioned way. It will be hard to get over the fact Guilty Gear XX ^Core is just another upgrade to Guilty Gear. Worse still, it is the first such upgrade to not add any faces to the line-up. Once that ostensible obstruction is overcome there is a tight, finely-tuned game to be discovered. Not a significant amount has changed, even though the new interface elements and voices would have you believe otherwise, but that does not stop ^Core from being a satisfying game. It is easily the best version of GG to date and a definite essential for those with an import-ready PlayStation 2 looking to do their due diligence to either 2d fighting or import gaming cultures. For series diehards, there are assuredly enough new mechanics to make the game feel ‘fresh’, but probably not enough for the layperson who picked up #Reload at retail a few years ago – they will likely be unable to tell the differences. Standing on the strengths of its previous iterations, Guilty Gear XX ^Core is a strong title. Justifying its purchase against Slash or#Reload already being owned (or the fact that #Reload can be had for a bargain price) is, unfortunately, a harder call to make. Gameplay: 10/10 Graphics: 8/10 Sound: 8/10 Extras: 6/10 Overall: 8/10 Grade: B So yeh, ^Core is fun and all, but I wouldn't buy it. Unless you're hard up for the little changes, #Reload is going for a lot cheaper and with its Story Mode (in English) you can't go wrong.
  7. Game: Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: Tag Force System: PlayStation Portable Emulators: None Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: Tag Force is the first game in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise to be released for the PSP. While other conversions of the curiously popular card game have suffered from poor presentation (World Championship 2007), or abridged rulesets (Forbidden Memories), Tag Force delivers a faithful and vibrant adaption and supports, as its namesake would suggest, tag duelling as well. Additionally, the plot follows the GX anime’s first season incredibly closely, offering both overt and subtle fan-service throughout. Although card animations are sparse, and despite the narrow scope of the game the sense of aimlessness is prevalent, this title can be squarely recommended to fans of the anime or of card games in general even though others should take the ‘rent-first’ approach. While there is an RPG tacked onto it, Tag Force is first and foremost a card game simulation. As a new student at the illustrious Duel Academy, you have the ability to explore the island on which it is situated and mingle with the likes of Jaden, Zane and so forth. The player is denied complete freedom though, as exploration is limited to places of particular importance- a map screen of nodes allows you to zip around but not take the more picturesque routes. Encounters with characters are one-line back and forth affairs but what is said is both dependent on what pre-canned question you open with, and the context of the situation, so there is a fair amount of dialogue in there... somewhere. The fact is, apart from during the first scenario in which you have to intentionally make friends with your future tag partner by talking to them a lot (you can choose any of the student duelists on the island), there won’t be time for much chit-chat at all amongst all the duelling you will have do to. A clock is ticking behind the curtain as well, and every warp between locations or duel ticks off 15 minutes from the current day- and you only have 99 days to recruit that partner of yours else its game over. The second and third parts of the game are concerned mostly with the tag tournament itself and battling the evil Shadow Riders from the cartoon, but at its core, the game is always just about duelling opponents. Duelling itself, the somewhat pretentious term for playing cards with other children, really makes the world go round in Tag Force. The concept is simple- reduce your opponent’s designated number of Life Points (LP) to 0, using Monster cards Summoned or Special Summoned to the field, which can attack or defend against the enemy monsters and unguarded opponents themselves (should all their Monster cards be destroyed). Magic and Trap cards each have unique effects that add diversity to the gameplay. Unfortunately the system lacks the depth of other TCGs, CCGs and the like, and winning duels often comes down to outmuscling the other player with a stronger, more consistent stream of good draws. Victory will inevitably consist more of what cards your deck contains than how they are played. The mechanic is what it is, but Tag Force uses 3d-animation sequences for characters and a limited number of key Monster cards to keep battles more interesting than they might otherwise become. Since they interrupt the flow of battle, you’ll likely end up turning them off. Too bad, then, that the voice-overs by the cast of the anime, present in the Japanese version, are also replaced by bland subtitles in the English release. Finally, the same background and music for each battle will become more monotonous than grinding the same area in an old Final Fantasy ever was. Considering the game is all about duelling, you will definitely notice a few key themes permanently become etched into your memory. All in all, the game flounders in trying to ‘spice up’ the core card game, but that is likely all most people will pick up this game for anyway. Yu-Gi-Oh! is nothing without cards, and luckily Tag Force (at least as of its release), contains the largest collection of cards of any video game adaption. While more of the common GX cards will be all you’ll see for a while, classics such as the Red Eyes Black Dragon are there to be found after a bit of digging. Duels reward ‘GP’ for both wins and losses which can then be spent at the card shop to buy booster packs of cards. Each is from a unique set and contains only one rare from that selection of cards as well. If your deck demands 3 of a certain rare card, you’ll be buying packs in rapid succession, but they are cheap enough for it to be viable to do so. New sets are unlocked after completing specific objectives ranging from befriending certain characters to acquiring a set percentage of cards from the previous set. Up to date rules also limit the game in certain ways- overpowered cards like ‘Raigeki’ are banned and stronger cards such as ‘Jinzo’ are limited to one per deck. There are still a few poignant exceptions to the card roster- you won’t find the legendary god cards in Tag Force for example. Managing the thousands of cards in your possession and constructing decks is breeze thanks to an intuitive interface for cycling and sorting cards. The 40-card deck provided at the outset will quickly be augmented with bought cards, or the free cards handed out every time you attend one of Dr. Crowler’s lectures, but the first deck need not be lost as an infinite amount of ‘deck recipes’ can be saved and reconstructed instantly. If anything, browsing a library of cards sometimes makes you want to shell out 10,000GP on Machine packs just to get the rare ‘Cyber Dragons’ you need to complete your collection, but realistically searching for all the cards can take a lifetime. As if that wasn’t enough, Konami also offers card downloads via an infrastructure connection, but this feature has so far been used to ill effect and, considering the looming release of a sequel, seems unlikely it ever will be. The card game’s translation may be strong, and the presentation mediocre, but Tag Force has some serious shortcomings in other areas. It attempts to follow the storyline of the anime, and, to its credit, manages to quite well, but has an awful pacing. You have almost one hundred days to find a tag partner. Considering that you can manage to do a hell of a lot in one day, and that you must manually ‘go to sleep’ to end the current day, navigating through months of in-game time is tedious to say the least. Also, since it is not unlikely that you will put together a deck competent enough to see you to the game’s end in maybe 20 or so game-days, the question of what to do for the rest of its time is very prominent. The inept attempt to wrap an RPG around a card game becomes obvious in the shocking amount of time you have to amuse yourself. Talking to, and duelling, the same people over and over again is no fun at all. There are some sideplots and time-based events, but the sense of aimlessness will definitely get to you. It doesn’t help that, as mentioned, battles take the same course (and to the same music) again and again. Fans of Yu-Gi-Oh! and those that like the idea of skilling up in a collectible card game without dishing out hard-earned cash for countless booster packs, or without similarly-minded friends to trade with, will find Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: Tag Force right up their alley. For the rest of you, this could inspire a card-collecting obsession or deep-seated resent at being fleeced out of the RRP. Tag Force does what it needs to do right well- it boasts a solid card-collecting and card–playing mechanic as well as a tacked-on RPG that, while inept, at least holds some value for those who are familiar with the anime. While more and better-integrated battle effects, and a little voice-over work, could have done something to convert the non-believers, this game is what it essentially needs to be, and is perhaps the most accomplished specimen amongst all the Yu-Gi-Oh! video games available at the moment. Ultimately this game is a not-to-be-missed title for those inclined toward this kind of thing, but a ‘try before you buy’ prospect for everyone else. Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 7/10 Sound: 5/10 Extras: 8/10 Overall: 7/10 Grade: B The good thing is, if you find that Tag Force is your thing, there are hours worth of play to be had... and you’ll know pretty soon in whether it is or not.
  8. Game: The King of Fighters NESTS Saga System: PlayStation 2 Emulators: PCSX2 The latest instalment of SNK’s NeoGeo Online Collection, The King of Fighters NESTS Saga, continues the tradition of classic fighting games bundled together with online play for the PlayStation 2. This seventh release, which features King of Fighters games ’99, 2000 and 2001, makes the additional boast to include home conversions as well as the NeoGeo ports for the first time. The sad truth is it fails to deliver on its promises – a few bugs and omissions that are in themselves small oversights almost completely ruin the collection. It provides all the arcade-perfect goodness that the series is known for, but falls short of its predecessor, Garou Densetsu Battle Archives Vol.2, which was arcade-perfect and then some. The King of Fighters series has undeniably had its ups and downs over the years and the games that span the period from 1999 to 2001 are subpar, to say the least, no matter who you ask. Nevertheless, their collection here means that now all titles in the core series are available on the PlayStation 2 (with the exception of ’98, the release of which is to be announced). They follow the rise of the maniacal NESTS syndicate which has risen to power since Orochi’s decline. The saga marked the introduction of KoF mainstays like K’, Kula Diamond, Whip, Maxima and others. It also saw the introduction (and retirement) of the much maligned ‘striker’ system, which was used to summon uncontrollable teammates for one-off attacks similar to the mechanism already used in the CPS2 fighter Marvel Vs. Capcom. Unlike that game, the strikers were otherwise normally selectable characters with a few exceptions. The infamous Ron is one of the only characters in KoF cannon to only ever appear as a striker for instance. Although not altogether well adopted, the system was open to some abuse by players, and certainly was used as such by the legendarily cheap boss, Zero. Further consolidating their distaste amongst the community, 2001 and 2002 featured bosses that were so overpowered that Igniz and Zero are often used to illustrate the ridiculousness of the so-called ‘SNK boss syndrome’. Despite all this, the games have their place in modern collections if only because most of the game mechanics they used, such as strikers, have been dropped from current series entries and cannot be seen anywhere else. Marked ‘Vol.5’ on the cover, NESTS is actually the seventh release (Garou Densetsu Battle Archives Vol.1 bore ‘Vol.5’ on its jacket as well) in the NeoGeo Online Collection and consists of a similar feature set to its forerunners. Online play is offered through a Japan-only network – so importers will be out of luck - but otherwise there is plenty of stuff to fiddle with. The now-compulsory arranged soundtracks are available for all games although particular note goes to the music of The King of Fighters 2001 which is all-new, as compared to those from the previous games which have either been featured in Dreamcast or PlayStation 2 ports previously. Colour-edit palettes can be assigned to characters and each game is complimented by a full in-game movelist – a very welcome addition since its debut in volume 6. Finally, all bosses (ostensibly not the first form of Krizalid in ’99) are unlocked in standard play from the get-go. Still, what makes the NESTS Saga different is its inclusion of ‘arranged versions’ of games. Essentially the versions of games that were shipped to home systems, these replace the NeoGeo ports by default, although the older games can still be chosen from a submenu. From the way in which they were integrated into the main select screen, it can be assumed that these versions are intended to supplant the originals in casual play. Like previous collections in the series, The King of Fighters NESTS Saga’s NeoGeo ports are arcade perfect. That is to say they contain the exact presentation and timing as the arcade originals. The origin of the ‘arranged’ home versions is far more difficult to determine. According to the printed material, the game The King of Fighters ’99: Evolution is based on its Dreamcast counterpart, where 2001 and 2002 seemingly derive from PlayStation 2 versions. On further inspection though, they all seem closer to their respective Dreamcast incarnations. Bonus and unlockable striker characters that were added to the PS2 version of 2001 are notably absent here, as are certain additional stages found only in that release. The particularly prominent redrawn lifebars, versus screens, and other interface elements that characterised it are also not included. Modes specific to the DC games, like ‘party mode’ and the infamous bonus puzzle game, both unfound in the PS2 ports, are also here. In the end the fact that all characters are unlocked from the outset and that various tweaks not to be found anywhere else (portraits for former-secret characters Kula and Zero) are part of this package means that these games are not so much console ports as much as new compositions altogether. Certainly they show that at least some effort was vested in this project by SNK. Numerous bugs unfortunately detract from the overall appeal of this collection, which is curious considering that more time was spent on The King of Fighters NESTS Saga than any other entry in the series (it has been delayed almost a year from its original projection). One thing that is impossible to miss is the inability to make custom button-maps for the original NeoGeo games – the main menu’s configuration screen services the new ports found on the title screen only – not those in the NeoGeo menu. People with arcade stick-style controllers are squarely out of luck if they had intended to use the Advanced Entertainment System’s original four-in-a-row button layout. Also there are problems with sounds all over the place. Both effects and background music in the arranged games are muffled at best and nothing can be done to alleviate the situation in the menu. Conversely, the native NeoGeo audio playback is nearly flawless, but the arranged music cannot be played in the old games - particularly curiously as it was possible to do so in each collection prior to this. That is not the only expected feature missing. Despite the fact that every console port SNK has developed in recent memory has contained a video filter or ‘softening’ effect of some kind, NESTS has none. The severity of this omission is largely dependent on the display being used to play the game, but consider that any variety of HDTV will unavoidably look pixelated to a greater degree than it should. One last thing is that customised colour-edit loadouts will also not work with the NeoGeo games and this is again something that has been enjoyed by everything from The Last Blade to Art of Fighting. At its most basic level, The King of Fighters NESTS Saga features the arcade-perfect ports players have come to expect, but this time with more extra stuff to go along with them. The tipping point comes when the arranged games, that are the main angle for this release, end up costing it some of the features that have made the NeoGeo Online Collection such a great series so far. While lack of arranged soundtrack integration and edit colours are negligible, being unable to customise your NeoGeo controls is inexcusable. It doesn’t help that this group of games was not at all the highlight of the franchise to begin with. This compilation is serviceable, but does not stand up to Garou Densetsu Battle Archives Vol.2 which came before it in terms of quality and should stand as a reminder to SNK to not allow such absent-minded bugs and technical issues mar their upcoming Samurai Spirits and World Heroes collections. By all means, get this game if you’re a KoF fan, but just know what to expect beforehand. Port Quality: 9/10 Graphics: 5/10 Sound: 6/10 Extras: 4/10 Overall: 6/10 Grade: C The King of Fighters NESTS Saga just makes you think SNK got lazy with this one. Without the bugs it has, this collection could have been a real contender and maybe even the best in the series. Let’s just hope they get the next few compilations right.
  9. Game: Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition System: PlayStation Portable Emulators: None The original Final Fantasy is a legendary title that has commanded countless ports and remakes since its original appearance on the Nintendo Entertainment System two decades ago. In celebration of the franchise’s twentieth anniversary year, Square-Enix is releasing the first two titles in the series for the PlayStation Portable. Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition is essentially the most recent in a line of remakes, but stands out as being the most proficient and best executed of the lot from both content and technical standpoints. Unfortunately it is ultimately just another rehash of FFI, so to those who have played the original or one of the myriad other rereleases, you may not find ample cause to pick this game up now. Conversely, players who have been groomed into the RPG fold by the likes of Final Fantasy VIII, will find much of the character, convolution and technical exhibition gone from this invariably aged game. What will likely be the most noticeable departure from the FF series of late to newcomers is the lack of character development in Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition. Instead of being thrown into the middle of a political upheaval, heated rivalry, love triangle or worse, the game opens with a bland ‘pick a team of four people and enter their names’ screen, typical of the console RPGs of old. Consequently, the plot in the first Final Fantasy is more concerned with destiny than any character relations or drama. The team you assemble at the outset are the fabled ‘Warriors of Light’ whose goal is to power-up magic crystals across the landscape to rid the world of monsters. Along the way, the band stumbles upon new weapons, magic and towns. Each town is pretty much a one quest affair- heal up at the Inn, buy whatever new things are being sold in town, and then head out to kill the evil wizard, recover the item or what have you. It’s pretty basic, but there is some nostalgia in seeing the first use of Fire, Cure, and Phoenix Downs in a game. Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition has, however, the updated thematic elements seen in other ports. Names and places have been slightly altered in some places, or completely thrown out in others. The kingdom where you first start out is called Cornelia – is was misromanised as ‘Corneria’ in the original NES version. I mentioned ‘crystals’ but even these were actually ‘orbs’ back in the day. Also the sprites, having been redrawn twice since the NES incarnation, bear only little resemblance to the originals. Fans of Final Fantasy IX will immediately notice that most of the cast from that game (themselves harkening back to the earlier games) are nigh identical here. The White Mage and Black Mage almost everyone will start with are mirror-like semblances of Princess Garnet and Vivi Orunitier from FF9 respectively. High-end bosses of the Anniversary Edition have had their sprites retooled along the same stylistic lines as their appearances in future Final Fantasies. The Lich, Hades, Tiamat and more bear more overt visual connections than simple namesakes. These have been common throughout the recent remakes but are more pronounced on the PlayStation Portable’s superior resolution. Speaking of resolution, the brilliant 480x272 display shows no signs of stretching or skewing in Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition, suggesting the graphics were not only redrawn (or existing hi-res assets retooled) but reworked for the new widescreen aspect ratio. This is assuredly the game’s strongest selling point over previous iterations, but it also combines the unique content of the two previous efforts. A few years ago the PlayStation featured the first Final Fantasy as part of Final Fantasy: Origins whose special boasts were the high-resolution (if not high quality) full-motion video segments. These prevail in the PSP version, but are complimented by the bonus dungeons found only in 2004’s Final Fantasy I & 2: Dawn of Souls in addition to yet another bonus dungeon, this one a PSP exclusive. Sadly this is the extent of the gameplay bonuses. While there are graphical effect tweaks and such that may be noticeable only to the veterans, not a great deal else has changed since the 2002 Origins release, or even the WonderSwan release before that. As a side note, the beautiful arranged soundtrack from Origins returns with a few new themes, but is only worth minor mention. Extra content attempts to fill the gaps in some places. There is the now-expected bestiary feature, allowing you to review the stats of slain monsters, and an art gallery equipped with an illogical time-release mechanism that, so far, feels extremely unrewarding. To make things worse, the art unlocked hardly fits the visual style that the game has going for it otherwise. The facetiously difficult and labourious exclusive dungeon, ‘The Time Labyrinth’, is no more an exercise in masochism, if you ask me. One unexpected bonus, however, that was extremely pleasing was the inclusion of a fully English text mode. In addition to this option, Japanese can be selected with full use of Kanji, or all in Hiragana – no doubt a great suit of alternatives for all the budding Japanese amateurs who imported the game. Everything about Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition is acceptable to mildly-impressive until you consider the price. At $39.90USD for the Japanese version, or $29.95USD for the local release in June, the game is overpriced, firstly because this is a remake of an extremely dated game, but more importantly because every other time it has been rereleased in the last 5 to 10 years (depending on region) it has shipped alongside a remake of Final Fantasy II and bundled for less than $29.95USD. If you wanted to get really upset about this, you could even argue that the large number of Final Fantasy remakes as of 2007 have saturated the market – even more reason to make the price lower. There was also a missed opportunity to pack this game in with a bunch of collector’s items to help warrant the asking fee. A cheap soundtrack CD would have been an acceptable show of good faith, as seems to be all the rage nowadays. Square would almost certainly turn a profit no matter what sum they charged at retail, so paying out $30 for this as it stands (and another $30 for the Final Fantasy II: Anniversary Edition in a month’s time) is unjustifiable to me, and anyone else who thinks it through long enough. The bottom line is this; Final Fantasy: Anniversary Edition is a very conditional purchase. It is without a doubt the best version to date of a classic RPG, and its pixel art and remastered soundtrack are still captivating. To be sure, there is enjoyment to be had. However, it hinges on expectations not being as high as they would necessarily be for a contemporary Final Fantasy, the player not having played through this game once (or perhaps more times) already, and the willingness to overlook the fact that the same game can be found as a bundle, and cheaper, on the PlayStation and GameBoy Advance. The only true advantage Anniversary Edition holds over its predecessors is the higher-resolution display. Whether or not that alone is worth the steep asking price is up to you. Story: 5/10 Graphics: 8/10 Sound: 8/10 Extras: 4/10 Overall: 7/10 Grade: B The grade would be higher were the pricing for the game not so ridiculous. As it stands, as remaking old games go, this is as well done as they come. There aren’t any artbooks, soundtrack discs or other paraphernalia to make this a celebratory collector’s edition, but the game itself is solid and looks and sounds better than it ever has before.
  10. Game: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars System: PC DVD-ROM Emulators: None In a return to form for the ailing Command & Conquer franchise, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, a 3d real-time strategy game, is the first in almost 6 years to use the series’ patented mechanics since 2001’s Red Alert 2 and the second to use the 3d SAGE engine, after 2003’s Generals. It also returns to the fundamental roots that made the original game so popular more than 10 years ago –a fast and frantic style of play complemented by live-action cutscenes and an over the top presentation. It has been criticised for a faulty online infrastructure and significantly simplified gameplay, but these claims carry little weight when compared to the list of things C&C 3 does right. The unit designs are fantastic, the missions are varied and compelling, the graphics are gorgeous even on modest hardware setups, the production values are unparalleled and the game is ultimately a joy to play. It is not without its faults, and it consciously sets itself up for an expansion pack, but Tiberium Wars is nevertheless one of the most fun and accessible RTS titles in a long time, and a worthy successor to the Command & Conquer mantle. Please note that this review will focus on the ‘Kane Edition’ in scoring, only one of 3 released stockkeeping units, and that it will contain content and plot SPOILERS for the both this game and its predecessors. Traditionally, conflict in the Command & Conquer series has been played out by the Global Defence Initiative, an UN-like military entity, and The Brotherhood of Nod, a worldwide terrorist network financed by its monopoly of the alien substance ‘Tiberium’ that landed on Earth 50 years prior to Tiberium Wars. However this new entry brings with it a new alien race, the Scrin (a name which is never used in the campaign- they are merely referred to as ‘visitors’), which may or may not be the creators of Tiberium (or as they call it, ‘Ichor’), but have certainly arrived on our planet to harvest it. Each faction’s identity is well defined, and while they might be initially reminiscent of the 3 species in Starcraft, those similarities are only superficial. The conventional GDI relies on advanced technology and military strength to fight its war. It tanks are stronger, its bombers are faster and it can trigger a strike from the orbital Ion Cannon to annihilate a point on the map. The flagship GDI unit is the Mammoth Tank, returning in its original form, and is unmatched on the battlefield, boasting both ground and anti-air capabilities. Nod lacks the strength of GDI, and has to use its stealth technology, numbers and various Tiberium-based powers to win. Its Catalyst Missile devastates fields of Tiberium, the sole resource that all sides rely on by starting a chemical chain reaction. Thus entire bases situated around the mineral, or clustered around Tiberium Refineries and Silos are always vulnerable to Nod. They also have access to tactical Nuclear Warheads that are largely unchanged from their Red Alert 2 and Generals incarnations. New to the fray, the Scrin utilises outworldly sciences to overcome the human sides. Connections will immediately be drawn to the Protoss, whose arsenal also includes Photon Cannon base defense, conjurable Ion Storms, a powerful Carrier air unit, shield generators as well as interstellar gateways as means for summoning troops, but they are actually significantly different. Scrin forces are extremely fragile, and depend emphatically on their enormous damage output and air dominance to survive. They also are the most adept at Tiberium use, and can harvest it much more effectively than the other sides. An interesting detail too is that now infantry is trained as squads, rather than single soldiers used to represent squads. The differences between the sides are illustrated further by the visual group dynamic and behavior of a bunch of GDI Rifleman as compared to the hunched Nod Shadow Teams, and the insidious Scrin Buzzers. Overall, this triangular relationship keeps the sides different enough, but offers each the right tools to conceptually be able to deal with any threat put forward by the others. There is a return-to-roots vibe that pervades every element of Tiberium Wars. Many features that were missing from the series departure, Generals, are back, such as the mentioned live-action cutscenes. Most satisfyingly, the trademark Command & Conquer sidebar interface has returned, putting the decidedly Blizzard-esque system used in the last game to rest. The methodology is like this- buildings and units can be queued up using a panel on the right- there is no need to select production structures or worker-units on the field to achieve this. Construction is thusly limited to a field around any existing structures already placed. One resultant implication is that you can capture an enemy building with an Engineer or a Saboteur, and then immediately lay down a Sonic Emitter defense next to it, inside the opponent’s base, without having to bring over a bulldozer unit to build it! The system is extended this time though, allowing you to have multiple unit and structure building queues based on the number requisites you have. For example, in Red Alert 2, even if you built 2 War Factories, you could still only order up one tank at a time, and you would have to designate one Factory as the primary operational one. Not anymore. The same is true of buildings in Tiberium Wars, except you can get by without 2 Construction Yards. Cranes offer a cheap alternative to a full ConYard and allow you to line up 2 orders in unison. Expanding a base has also been given a kick in the pants this time- it no longer needs another expensive MCV either. Surveyors can be bought at a fraction of the price and can quickly go over to a Tiberium field and deploy, allowing you to immediately drop a pre-built Refinery next to it. As you can tell, there isn’t a lot of time spent establishing an economy or creeping in this game- you get to the action straight away. The presentation is top-notch too. For those with medium- to high-end PCs, this will be likely the best looking RTS on the market. Surprisingly though, it is more than serviceable on even dated machines. It especially runs like a dream when compared, side by side, to its main rival, Supreme Commander- there is essentially no contest. Menus are lively enough but the theatre of war maps are stunning and animated superbly. Technically speaking, Tiberium Wars is a landmark achievement across the board, and, despite the immense volume of assets at work here, loads faster than anything else I’ve seen, even on my modest 1Gb memory setup. The only area in which it is not jaw-droppingly impressive is the music- series mainstay Frank Klepacki does not return and the score suffers for it. It is still above average as RTS games go, but his scores, particularly for Red Alert were legendary. Fans of real-time strategy may be immediately drawn to the multiplayer arena, but Tiberium Wars boasts an impressive 35-mission-long singleplayer outing, spanning branching campaigns for each side that are sewn together by impressive star-studded cutscenes which were curiously removed from Generals (to much fan backlash). While cheesy, camp and honestly not up to Hollywood standards, they are a pleasant addition, even if they take themselves too seriously. Of specific note is the sheer volume of film and TV stars that have been assembled in this game. The ensemble cast stretches from Lost’s Josh Holloway to Michael Ironside, known for his similar role in Starship Troopers, and even Joe Kucan, Command & Conquer’s original cinematics director, who reprises his signature role of Nod leader Kane. Although not as lighthearted as those in Red Alert 2, these cinematic interludes certainly help immerse the player into the scenario. There is no denying the narrative lacks depth, but there is enough in it to get you emotionally engaged in the war. Missions themselves are well crafted and put most every unit and strategy to good use at one point or another. Knocking down impenetrable defenses, going guerilla in urban environs with a commando, making pinpoint strikes with bombers and artillery and even struggling against 2 entrenched opponents at the same time is all business as usual in the campaigns. Confusion as to what must be done next is a non-issue as the missions are interlaced with an unprecedented number of video cues from your communications liaison. Each group of sorties is divided into a real-world geographic ‘theatre’ which gives foundation to the objectives achieved in one area, as they directly affect options available in another. Victory is rewarded with a bronze, silver or gold medal, depending on difficulty, and additional decoration comes from completing side-quests or reaching particular milestones in battle. This is ample incentive to go back and give a completed mission 110%, even if these merits do not translate to any unlocked content. There are only 2 complaints to be had with the singleplayer portion of Tiberium Wars. The first is concerning the Scrin campaign. Despite being arguably the most interesting addition to the series, their campaign is cut short at only 4 missions compared to roughly 15 a piece for the other sides. Additionally, while the GDI plot wraps up well, the Nod story is left deliberately open-ended with Kane, the player, and his Inner Circle about to ‘ascend’ using a Scrin structure acquired in the final mission. This, and more, practically beg for the obligatory expansion pack that all Command & Conquers thus far have received. Tiberium Wars is without a doubt a fitting sequel, but there are many gameplay and plot threads from Tiberian Sun which have either not been followed up on, relegated to background details or just plain forgotten about. Although the existing factions have not been markedly changed on the whole, Nod has received a major overhaul since Tiberian Sun- the only recognizable aspects are the attack bikes, the Obelisk of Light and the Nuclear Missile. Most of the old units have been cast aside- the Tick Tank is replaced with a generic Scorpion Tank, the Artillery Platform is gone in favour of the very Prism Tank-like Laser Cannon and the burrowing Devil’s Tongue Flame Tank is now just a plain old flame-throwing Flame Tank. The Banshee has gone over to the Scrin side, understandably, but what of the Cyborg units, a mainstay of the Nod force of old? Indeed Cyborgs are not the only curious omissions when it comes to units. Mutants are merely paid lip-service in Tiberium Wars and are now relegated to a neutral faction consisting of only one unit- the Mutant Marauder, and are, even then, only to be found on a number of maps that can be counted on one hand. What of Tiberian Sun: Firestorm’s titular Firestorm Defense? Even Red Alert 2 had a similar feature to defend against Super-Weapons, but here there is none. GDI has been scarred to a far lesser extent. The previous game’s Juggernaut returns, albeit a shadow of its former self, as a long range bombing walker. Mammoths return as tanks, not mechs, and the Ion Cannon is a lot more useful than its dismal point-and-shoot versions in the past have been. Plot holes also abound here. Screen-filling Ion Storms? Sorry, Earth just stopped having those a while back (despite the cause – Tiberium – reaching critical concentrations everywhere). There are no mentions of CABAL, the artificial antagonist of Firstorm, or of any old characters either. Kane is not only alive after his apparent death, 30 years ago, but he seems to have not aged a day. The curiosity of this is compounded by the allusions towards him being either a cyborg himself, an alien, or a series of clones that were strewn throughout the previous literature being all but abandoned here (no other explanation for his survival is given or hinted at). The course of Tiberium Wars, if anything, only serves to reiterate that Kane is just a normal human being. His enigmatic agenda for Nod is also given a rather simplistic closure with his intention to summon the Scrin based on information gleaned from the Tacitus. However, this begs the question of the purpose of the first Tiberium War- apparently Nod had no knowledge of the alien species at that time, which, when considered, renders that conflict illogical. To its credit, there are a vast number of Intel datasheets scattered throughout the game that enrich its own mythology. It simply requires exercising some liberalism with regard to the old canon in order to be enjoyed. It is a sad thing to report that Tiberium Wars’ multiplayer offering is plagued by minor problems that combine to render it a less than satisfying experience. Cosmetic oversights, such as the inability to toggle Super-Weapon use on or off are made blatant by their inclusion in every title previous to this. Also no nations (as in Red Alert) or generals (like in Generals; Zero Hour) exist to diversify the core factions, gravely limiting the variety of tactics one is likely to encounter on the field. This, like the open-ended Nod campaign, scream for an expansion in my opinion. An uproar has developed in the few weeks since release over the prevalence of tier-1 tanks in online matches, due mostly to the ratio of temporal and monetary investment in creating a battalion of them, as compared to defending, teching, or spending cash on different units. Natural counters to the ‘tank rush’, like anti-vehicle defenses or Missile Squad infantry simply do not do their job- it takes almost a 2:1 ratio (based on money spent) of these counter units to stop a force of tanks. Consequently, the GDI Predator Tank is, at the moment, the most popular unit online, and some of the more obscure combatants are never seen at all. Online, I have not seen the anti-air Pitbull buggy used. Not even once. In contrast, the skirmish mode is fantastic- it has more customization and A.I. tweaking options than I have seen before. You can alter the difficulty, attack pattern, resource-gathering techniques and more. It is worthy enough of a substitute until the online play gets its act together. There has been suggestion that Electronic Arts has shown little interest in supporting its products post-release. Still, considering that Generals evolved, eventually, into a deep and balanced strategy game (if only after 5 major patches and an expansion), there is at least a glimmer of hope that the same attention will be paid to Tiberium Wars. Balance problems inevitably plague all games of this type (Starcraft, Warcraft III anyone?) and are usually remedied over the course of the game’s life. However bugs still prevail in other areas. The online competition channel goes through GameSpy, and not EA-owned servers. Some have attributed the unnatural level of latency involved in playing to this decision and various petitions are active right now imploring EA to host the games themselves. Luckily, it is not an enormous stretch to imagine that there will be support for these things in the coming weeks. EA has even pledged themselves already to the development of a couple of additional features that should be turning up soon. These features will likely set Tiberium Wars apart from the pack, even if it is never going to be the most detailed RTS out there. First is the standard World Editor that has been marked for an ‘early-April’ release. Even though it was built on the same engine as Generals and the Battle for Middle-Earth series, the SAGE editor that facilitates customisation of those games is not usable here, the reason being that the EA Los Angeles team plans to make the Tiberium Wars editor ‘unlike the [programs] that have been shipped with games so far’. This is at least encouraging, if ambiguous. Secondly, the BattleCast system aims to turn the game into a veritable online spectator sport. BattleCasting, so to speak, is the ability to broadcast and watch matches live, as they are being played, or to view old matches as archived at CommandAndConquer.com. The real draw here is that you do not even need the retail game installed to view these- the BattleCast client will be freeware and made available in the next week. To consolidate the new game-as-sport concept, commentators will be able to offer their insights on the match as it progresses, and, if EALA has anything to say about it, meritorious commentators will be ranked, made famous, and invited to host sponsored tournaments and leagues in the future. All interesting in theory, it is impossible to properly critique these as-yet unreleased features, but keep in mind there are some ambitious things in store for the latest C&C. After finishing the campaigns, whether one bothered to complete all the side-objectives or complete the missions on ‘hard’ difficulty, there is very little unlockable content to signify the achievements. Tiberium Wars, by default, comes with no bonus content whatsoever. The cutscenes can be unlocked, and there may some incentive in completing campaigns a second time, making different decisions in order to see them all, but that is about it. Finally, both GDI and Nod must be taken to final victory in order to open up the Scrin’s mini course. For those left wanting more, you had better hoped you picked up one of the 2 editions of the game other than the basic one- they all contain everything described so far, and more. One alternative to the vanilla release is the ‘Special Edition’. Ironically it is never called that- in the United States this is referred to as the ‘Pre-Order Edition’ or, at some retailers, given separately as a pre-order pack before release of the main game. Luckily Europeans and Australians got the best deal this time- this version is actually our default retail release. Anyway, this box contains the game, an additional DVD with previews of a making-of featurette, a Tiberium Wars trailer, and a GDI strategy video. Even better, it comes with a second bonus CD that contains Command & Conquer: Gold Edition, comprising the original game and its Covert Operations expansion pack. The catch is that it is not an updated version for Windows XP and Vista- this is the same release from 1996 and will require a lot of fiddling with compatibility modes to run on your machine, assuming you are running one of those newer operating systems. The second alternative is billed as the ultimate version and comes with a significantly marked up (depending where you live) retail price – the ‘Kane Edition’. This is definitely a more complete version for those who don’t mind shelling out extra cash- it is missing the original C&C but has a treasure trove of video content on a bonus DVD video disc, awfully like the recent God of War II. It has behind-the-scenes, a blooper reel, and a series of strategy videos from the developers, covering not only GDI, but Nod, Scrin, Singleplayer (only 1 mission really), Multiplayer and general tactics. They offer enough of an insight to franchise veterans about the nuances of the retooled factions in Tiberium Wars but are also an excellent crash course for anyone new to Command & Conquer or even RTS at large. Even if you think you know all there is to know about the game’s intricacies, it is still funny to see how excited screen actors like House’s Jennifer Morrison or even Billy Dee Williams get about breaking the fourth wall with the direct to camera performances the game requires. Regardless of what he says, I cannot see this being the game for Williams, but hey, it’s all good. Not that I ever noticed, but this version also has some unique skins and 5 exclusive maps in the main game too. Not game-breaking stuff, but worth mentioning. While a miniature Avatar War-mech or Hand of Nod figurine would have been a great cherry on top, the Kane Edition is definitely my recommendation, assuming you don’t have to pay through the nose for it. There were only 100,000 copies of it made (all are numbered too), and so if the price goes way up on eBay, that’s likely why- forego it in that case. In Australia I was lucky to find one at less than the RRP of a normal game, but then it is still likely more than Americans would pay anyway… Tiberium Wars has all the makings of a great Command & Conquer. It has fast gameplay, a beautiful presentation, and the classic cheesy cutscenes intact. However, it is still not a very deep game when compared to its main competition, Supreme Commander, classics like Starcraft or even its direct forerunner, Command & Conquer: Generals, and this is the source of most of its criticism. I believe this to be a deliberate design choice though. There is no doubt in my mind that a few patches and a likely expansion will propel it to surpass Generals and Zero Hour and stand alone as the undisputed best title in the series. Its unique features, once rolled out, will make it stand out amongst the other franchises as well, and, if executed better than the failed ‘UnrealTV’, BattleCasting could become the observation and replay-sharing mechanism to revolutionise the RTS genre. The Kane Edition offers all the content needed to make this a great package and a worthwhile investment for when the online portion is cleaned up. Even if that isn’t your bag, the campaigns are long and involved enough to keep you satisfied and the skirmish mode offers more customization options than I’ve seen before. In all, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars does not disappoint, and is definitely worth picking up if you are at all inclined toward this type of game. Controls: 10/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 9/10 Sound: 8/10 Extras: 8/10 Overall: 9/10 Grade: A To be honest, I can’t see the appeal in games like Supreme Commander. I wasn’t even particularly taken by Starcraft in its day- the game that got me into RTS was Red Alert 2. Not sure what exactly it was about the game… but everything from the mission briefing installation sequence to the trained dolphins appealed to me. While I played and enjoyed Generals and Warcraft III, this is really the game I have been waiting for. It’s not perfect, but anyone who has missed games like RA2 and been bored to tears by the needlessly complicated RTS offerings of late will definitely find their money’s worth in Tiberium Wars.
  11. Game: Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) System: PlayStation 2 Emulators: PCSX2 Despite leveraging the skills of Arc System Works, creators of the Guilty Gear franchise, as well as the famous anime property Fist of the North Star, Hokuto no Ken is ultimately a failed experiment. It retains the high-resolution presentation of its creator’s previous effort, but disappoints in almost every other conceivable way. An unbalanced 2d fighter, its animation, interface design and basic combat mechanics suggest an obvious lack of effort invested in its production. The location tests it underwent have failed to reduce the marked difference between the high- and low-tier characters which brings is comparatively tiny roster into prominence. As a final nail in its coffin, Hokuto no Ken offers none of the additional extras that are characteristic of Guilty Gear PlayStation 2 ports, surrendering an easy opportunity to add variety to the otherwise banal offering. The aging genre of 2d-fighting games has typically drawn newcomers against benchmarks like Street Fighter II but Hokuto no Ken inevitably has more in common with Guilty Gear, hinted at by my numerous mentions of the series. The reason is that this essentially the sophomore 2d effort from Arc, the team responsible that has made a name for itself through the eclectic and visually stunning later game. However, no matter what you compare HnK to, it comes out wanting. Against SF2, HnK finds itself with looser gameplay and a smaller roster despite having almost 15 years on the legendary title. When placed beside GG, it is slower, clunkier, and seemingly lacking the technical intricacy of that game. One of the most notable problems with this game is that one-hit-knockout moves, usually marked by extremely long and obvious execution, are now able to be combo-ed into. At length, the issuess with this title are legion. For the mass market, the minuscule number of characters will be a turn-off, and to the hardcore crowd, the fact that balance is nonexistent amongst the game’s already small cast will add insult to injury. However these are just two things that will annoy you about the fighting. Another is that lithe-looking characters are oddly slow, as compared to the behemoth, Raoh, who can end up running at cheetah-speed. Admittedly, I have not seen the anime on which this is based (there may be a canon justification for this), but it definitely stands out. Hit-boxes are also noticeably out of whack- I have never played another fighter (or any game for that matter) where jumping kicks so clearly go straight through a standing, non-guarding opponent. Still, the gameplay side of things is just one way in which HnK fails to deliver. Hokuto no Ken’s main draw against other, better established 2d pedigrees is the high-resolution engine that has been quite literally copied and pasted from Guilty Gear. Unfortunately, the animation and presentation overall is of a lesser calibre than its cousin. Sprites, while of a similar resolution, animate extremely poorly. This is about as smooth compared to Guilty Gear as Guilty Gear is compared to Street Fighter III. Gauges seem to be directly copied over, but the menus and pre-match fireworks are honestly laughable to witness. While it may be harsh to say so, the VS. screens just make you think the new intern at Arc was a little too trigger happy with the motion tween in flash, despite only knowing how to make things slide side-to-side. Similarly the introductory movie (with its absurd theme ‘You ha Shock’ [?]) is plain ugly. The decent enough anime art is ruined by the obscene use of pseudo-3d scaling and other effects that the resulting pixilation is not only obvious, but unacceptable. Another questionable aesthetic choice is the overuse of on-screen text during the fight. Slayer’s instant-kill move, and maybe a handful of others in memory have used the technique, but here it is overkill. The developers apparently wanted to shove writing on to interrupt the fight as much as they could – someone should have reminded them they are directly adapting the anime, not the manga. On the bright side, the music is palatable fare and the stage backgrounds are, if not plentiful, varied and interesting enough. Sadly, they are probably the best part of the game. On top of the mentioned streamlining of the core fighting mechanics, and of the animation, more corners have been cut in the extras department. Hokuto no Ken features a rather stark presentation, consisting of the obligatory Arcade, Team Battle and Training modes, and lacks unlockable galleries, characters or anything such. Those who have come to expect Gold, Shadow or even SP-coloured characters from Arc will not only be disappointed but also bewildered at their omission. They are but some of many curious oversights – there is not even an option to switch to monaural sound output in the menu options! The tacked-on History mode, which does not rightfully deserve to be a mode on its own, is inadequate compensation. In all it is indicative of the developers unwillingness to invest anymore in this title, which offers grim speculation as to what they thought of it themselves. There is not a great deal that can be said in Hokuto no Ken’s favour, or even about it as all. It offers nothing new or compelling to a genre that has really been beaten to death and even presents less than its forefathers and[/i] its contemporaries manage to. For some time now 2d fighting releases have been built on a solid base of either nostalgia, an enormous offering of characters, a budget price or innovations and improvements. Hokuto no Ken however has none of these things going for it, and its ill-concealed imbalance will likely doom its competitive longevity at arcades as well. Those looking for an improved package for the PlayStation 2 will have to look elsewhere as it misses all the chances to either rectify its problems or compensate for them with some amount of bonus content. Considering its prestigious anime heritage, a version of the original Fist of the North Star feature on the disc might have made the package more appealing at least to fans of the series and surely would not have been that difficult to secure. As it stands, the property on which it is based will likely be little incentive for fans to pick up the game, and the numerous shortcomings of the game itself will most definitely deter almost everyone else. Controls: 7/10 Gameplay: 5/10 Graphics: 7/10 Sound: 8/10 Extras: 1/10 Overall: 5/10 Grade: C-
  12. Game: Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary System: PlayStation 2 & PlayStation Portable Emulators: PCSX2 Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is simply the epitome of the ‘falling-block’ puzzle genre. It takes everything good about each of the previous 5 core games in the series and adds almost twice as many new features, resulting in possibly the best-in-class package imaginable on the PlayStation 2 and PSP. While an online-enabled freeware PC version and an 8-player DS version were released last year, they will not be the focus of this review since their feature-sets are to varying degrees different to those released for the Sony platforms. First off; what the hell is Puyo Puyo! ? It is a profoundly Japanese puzzle franchise developed by Compile (later assimilated into Sega). What distinguishes it amongst the others is that it was deemed, back in the day, too Japanese for a straight localisation process. Many bizarre characters were featured speaking needlessly drawn-out pre-match banter, some with unsettlingly sexual overtones. Different properties were attached to the Puyo Puyo engine to make it more sellable – to everyone that played Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine on the Sega Mega Drive, or Kibry’s Avalanche on the Super Nintendo, you were actually playing a reskinned and slightly remixed version of the original Puyo Puyo! In essence, the premise of the game is to join up 4 ‘puyo’ (beans, whisps or various other things as they have become known overseas) of the same colour in any arrangement so long as they all touch each other. Unlike other games at the time, it was primarily a competitive affair – two players race to clear puyo on side by side playing spaces. If a number of clears are setup to execute one after another, ‘ojama’ (trash) puyos are sent onto the opponent’s side to punish them and block their progress. Larger amounts of ojama are proportionate rewards to larger combos. The system gave the game a considerably greater latitude than Columns or Tetris, which were designed to promote far-sight and endurance over quick thinking. The franchise was taken over by Sega’s Sonic Team and an overhauled system was released as Puyo Puyo Fever!, the last Sega title for the ill-fated Dreamcast. This new title, along with a more cutesy visual style and cast of characters, changed some of the play dynamics. Trash drops became a lot less punishing, and the number of different coloured puyo was reduced from 5 to 4 by default, both reducing the original games’ brutal difficulty considerably. Also trash drops could now be averted by doing a combo before they fall, the ascribed penalty either being cancelled, or deflected back onto the other player. Most prominent was the addition of ‘Fever’ mode, a reward for countering enemy combos in this way. During the 10-50 seconds of Fever, pre-arranged lumps of puyo are dropped onto the screen after each combo; the puzzle now working out how to trigger them all off quickly. With a little practice, Fever mode becomes a way to quickly and easily pile a lot of ojama onto the enemy, although an additional reward is allocated to getting an ‘All-Clear’ (removing all puyo from the playspace in one go), which is exceedingly difficult, and an attempt at which costs the player the otherwise free combos Fever provides. As a final icing on the cake, Fever mode gives the opponent an insane amount of combos to counter, bringing them ever closer to hitting Fever themselves! Thus, Fever matches are some of the most frantic and exciting puzzle experiences around – Super Puzzle Fighter II and Lumines bouts never get this tense. This tight and incredibly fun system sets the stage for Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary, which is basically a concatenation of the original series, and Puyo Puyo Fever! 1 & 2, but with a whole lot added. To get an idea of the perspective, there are now 12 different modes. Modes 1 and 2 are carbon copies of the game systems in Puyo Puyo! and Puyo Puyo! 2 respectively, with mode 3 representing Puyo Puyo Fever! However, the other 9 are completely new systems with original game mechanics. To those like me who notice the vast intricacies between the first game and the Fever series, having so many brand-new systems is like having as many brand-new games thrown at you at once. Consider one that is like playing the game in a tank of water. Puyo still fall from the top of the screen, but float to the top of the water each time. So dropping some onto others actually pushes that whole column of blocks deeper into the water. It takes a long time for any puzzle-oriented mindset to wrap around this change. Or how about a mode that does not punish with trash puyo, but rather frozen puyo that melt over the course of 5 seconds and are already set-up to be triggered into large combos? The imperative here becomes surviving your enemy’s onslaught for those 5 seconds while your screen is almost full to be able to unleash a barrage of your own as soon as the iced puyos thaw out. One of the most frantic new modes packs half the screen with random puyo, but places a special star block right at the bottom. The game becomes a race to clear out all the puyo in the way of the star before your opponent can. I would imagine that by now you would already know whether or not this interests you – I am still coming to terms with the finer points of each game myself, and wouldn’t know where to start on the mode that switches the field upside down periodically, the mode that hides parts of the screen from view, the one that involves constant Fever, or ‘Okii’ mode that drops massively inflated puyo. Suffice to say that they could have got away with a lot less of the new modes for the 15th anniversary release, and that the sheer amount of new mechanics to play with was a very pleasing surprise. However, you may need to summise the rules for each by yourself, as the pre-match rules sheets are in some heavy Japanese and will not easily be decipherable by those with only marginal vocabularies. To anyone put off by the questionably aesthetics and overt senselessness of the Fever series, which is the only incarnation of the franchise released in English (Puyo Pop Fever for the DS, PSP and PlayStation 2), you will be relieved to know that favourite characters and themes return from the old games. Graphics for combos and the puyos themselves can be taken from the 16-bit games, the Fever games, or the new set of assets drawn specifically for Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary. The crazily designed fish and elephant characters return as sub-bosses – the game uses a tournament ladder style approach to single player. I am curious as to why Sonic Team didn’t make any attempt to change any of the more inappropriate content (why is the last boss still called Satan?) but overall there are pleasing additions all round. The music gets a reprisal as well – memorable tunes from the older games return and will be familiar especially to those who picked up Mean Bean Machine or Avalanche even if the returning characters are not. There are many more backgrounds included as well, but the most impressive feature is how all of this is integrated into the game. Characters and modes are unlocked during the single-player campaign (by the way, characters are more than just different placeholders – they actually affect the sequence of puyo that fall and other factors, like how much Fever guage is gained from counters) – you don’t start with everything at the beginning. For the 2- and 4-player modes, every aspect of the match can be customised, from how many different colours of puyo are used to which background and music piece accompany the competition. This is a welcome feature that is long overdue – head to head games in virtually every previous entry in the franchise have been stifled by playing on ONE background with ONE theme repeating over and over. Only a few select technical problems and omissions spoil this otherwise well-crafted title. The most glaring is the apparent lack of the replay feature that let you immortalise impressive achievements in Puyo Puyo Fever! and each title since. It seems like such an inconsequential thing to leave out, and yet it is missing here. Also, while the 4-player competitions are great (they allow for teams, handicaps – the works), everyone was tempted by the DS version’s unprecedented 8-player gameplay via WiFi. Surely the PSP version could accommodate that many via its own WiFi capability and the PS2 through multiple screens / iLinked consoles, but again we are left wanting. Finally, despite the absurd level of polish given to every feature that is included, and the ingenious concept work behind all the new modes, Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is without any online or infrastructure mode whatsoever on the PSP and PlayStation 2. It doesn’t have a great replay value either – 3 or so runs of the story mode will likely unlock all the hidden content for you, but then again that isn’t different to any other puzzle game out there. In context, none of these have a huge weight, but are disappointing nonetheless. Choosing Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is unavoidably a taste thing – coming from a niche genre, most will already know whether there is anything they can take from a puzzle game like this or not. Still, this title has the benefit of combining all the elements of its various incarnations and discarding very little, while presenting an abundance of new mechanics for the first time. The premise is simple enough and the aesthetic is honestly a hit and miss thing, but this is really the best this genre has to offer. The gameplay is rewarding at low levels but incredibly deep and is enhanced by a wealth of features targeted at both the hardcore, and at making the game accessible to newcomers. For what it is, Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary really could not be any better. It gets my solid recommendation. Controls: 8/10 Gameplay: 9/10 Graphics: 8/10 Sound: 9/10 Overall: 8/10 Grade: B If you are at all inclined toward this kind of game, pick Puyo Puyo! up right away. You’d have to import it, but at least the PSP version is region free anyway.
  13. Game: Sega Ages 2500 Vol.29: Monster World Complete Collection System: PlayStation 2 (Ports of Arcade, Master System, Game Gear and Mega Drive games) Emulators: PCSX2 (MAME, MEKA, Gens, Fusion) While one that lacks consistency, the Monster World / Wonder Boy series is one of the most underrated of Sega’s 16-bit legacies. Spanning 4 entries in the Monster World continuity and 2 separate Wonder Boy adventures, the Monster World Complete Collection is an extremely well-featured arrangement of not only the 6 games from genres as disparate as side-scrolling shooting and RPGs, but also the various arcade and home renditions of each title. Perfect emulation aside, the sheer amount of customisable options, new save-schemes, and wealth of scanned manuals, official / concept art and other extras, combined with its 2500-yen price point (as part of the renowned Sega Ages 2500 collective) make this a dream come true for anyone with fond memories of these games. In short, this is as ‘complete’ a collection as could be put together and, for its price, is extremely hard not to recommend. The individual games you will find here are, as per their western regionalisation, Wonder Boy, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, Wonder Boy in Monster World and the Japanese-only Monster World IV. While all unique games in their own right, they are all based on the loose premise of a cyborg horde of aliens introducing ‘monsters’ to the otherwise peaceful ‘Monster World’ which was purportedly, according to the 5th game, ‘once a peaceful region’. Yeah right. Anyway, as mentioned, the two individual series’ became amalgamated somewhere along the way. Wonder Boy is the original Sega alternative to Mario (think pre-Sonic)- it features linear side scrolling gameplay where your character (a primitive caveman type) throws hammers at snails and attempts to cross a finish line before the time runs out. Basic as it was, its direct sequel, in Japan, was Super Wonder Boy: Monster World (Wonder Boy in Monster Land), a level based arcade action game with rudimentary RPG elements- you could collect gold and buy stronger equipment. These new features were expanded upon in Monster World II (Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap), which picks up directly from the end of the previous game (Symphony of the Night-style, except about 5 years before) and also introduces the ability to change between 6 animal forms with special abilities – Hawk Man can fly, and Piranha Man can swim. Also like Metroid and the mentioned Castlevania, the game relies on the various abilities being unlocked to allow access to new areas of a single large gameworld. This impressive achievement is topped only by Monster World III (Wonder Boy in Monster World), which takes these elements to a new extreme, as is quite possibly the best title in the collection. Monster World IV is almost like a step back. Although featuring some impressive animation and new platforming mechanics, it loses the magic and equipment elements that made the previous games so deep for their time. Monster Lair (localised erroneously as Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair) exists outside the Monster World canon, instead being a direct successor to the original Wonder Boy. That game’s side scrolling, time-dependant gameplay remains and is accentuated by portions of free-flight shooting. In part to alleviate the confusion arising from the nonsensical naming conventions, Sega has decided to incorporate not only the Monster World games, but also Wonder Boy and Monster Lair into volume 29 of its classic series. Confused about which game is which? It gets worse… It is a given that the original Japanese releases of these games would appear here. It was unexpected, though, that additional versions were slated to be included as well. So now not only is Wonder Boy’s original arcade version available to play in the Monster World Complete Collection, but so is the Sega SC-1000 home port, as well as the Mark III (Master System) release. The enormous graphical difference between the coin-op and home games should illustrate that this is not a trifling addition, particularly when you consider that the RPG contingents of the franchise are heavy on the Japanese text. Luckily for the kana-illiterate, the two big RPGs, Monster World II and III, have their English Master System and Genesis ports respectively included, and be played through entirely with full English text. Monster World II also benefits from the included English Master System release. In Japan, where the Master System had been discontinued, Monster World II was hastily ported to the Game Gear for the native version, which suffered not only lower sound quality output, but a lower-resolution display that stifled the on-screen action, both of which are remedied by the inclusion of its console cousin. Although it would seem no expense was spared in compiling this title, the PC-Engine remakes of some of the series constitute an obvious omission. From the MWII-derived Dragon’s Curse, which boasted a 16-bit environment as compared to the Master System and Game Gear’s 8-, to The Dynastic Hero, the enhanced version of MWIII with a richer colour-depth and a completely redone redbook audio soundtrack, these missing entries are a glaring hole in what is otherwise an impeccable round-up of editions. To Sega’s credit, those IPs belong to Hudson, who even released the Wonder Boy inspired Adventure Island as part of their own budget series a few years ago, and to use this point against the integrity of the collection is a very nitpicky whim on my part. There may well be more than 16 variations of the 6 core games to play on the one disc, which is certainly nothing to scoff at. In case it has not been mentioned in point, Monster World Complete Collection offers flawless emulation of all included titles. Fans who would like to pick apart compilation discs like these, finding places where there is slowdown or muddied sound as compared to the original cartridges, will come up empty-handed this time. Meticulous efforts have obviously been made to ensure that the games offered are absolutely perfect representations of the originals. Monster World II is an excellent example. Released in Japan on the Game Gear, and in Europe on the Master System, MWII is available here on both. However, if the game had been released on the Japanese Master System equivalent (Sega’s Mark III hardware), it would have benefitted from a specialised FM modulation chip that was not included in the consoles from other regions, and thus had a soundtrack that was significantly different. To solve the problem, you can play with the FM chip emulation turned on or off, which suitably exemplifies the level of detail in the emulation options integrated into the collection. All the standard fare is present here- screen size, stereo / mono sound, but each hardware has specific emulation options like the FM chip. You can disable the Genesis’ hard-coded sprite limit, for example, or deactivate slowdown that was present in the System 1 version of Wonder Boy. Another nice addition is the ability to select screen resolution and frame timing for each game individually, which allows you to set up a centred, low-res Game Gear configuration, alongside a 480p output for the Mega Drive, if you were so inclined. All of these settings are stored in a general ‘System File’. The menus are the lacklustre offerings that have become characteristic of the Sega Ages series. While there is a veritable treasure trove of content behind them, the plain blue and white typography belie it well, and border on offensive, given the quality invested in other areas of this release. On the positive side, they are by and large in plain English, so no confusing menus to navigate through. The only confusion (apart from each instalments various titles) to be found here is to do with a new feature called the ‘Suspend File’. Not available to all games, the ‘Suspend File’ is basically a dedicated save state that retires the laborious password systems of some of the titles. However, changing emulation settings and then saving a ‘System File’ will render your Suspend Files invalid. What’s more is that if a System File is loaded, Suspend Files can no longer be saved at all. Whether this is a bug or not would perhaps be clearer if I had been able to decipher the game’s kanji-laden manual, but as it stands, gives the impression of a broken feature. Any complaints about the menu or the outlandish saving methods will disappear when you first behold the unprecedented behind-the-scenes compliment of media. Although there is not much in the way of video features present, there is most everything else imaginable here. First off, manuals of each of the different versions of each of the different games have been scanned in from the archives. Various levels of concept art, official drawings and such are also included. Each title is also served with the usual compliment of BGM and SE galleries, which in some cases like MWIII, contain sound samples and tunes not available in the game, or in the roms of the cartridge releases either, which rouses many mysteries as to their original intention. A surprise feature are speedrun options for some of the arcade titles. All of this is unlocked right off the bat, mind you, with the sole exception of MWIV’s compliment, which is largely only available after clearing the game once. In all, the Monster World Complete Collection is hard to fault – it does everything that a good compilation disc needs to do effortlessly, and contains additional extras to boot. Although quaint and charming in their own way, the Wonder Boy and Monster World games admittedly haven’t aged that well. While they might bridle your interest for some hours, there isn’t a great deal of replay value to be had here. That said, like the bulk of Sega’s Ages series, this is aimed squarely at the nostalgic oldies, who likely played the games with the battery-packed cartridges they originally sold on, and it certainly delivers where it counts to its target audience. Even if you missed these gems the first time round, the 2500-yen pricetag ($26.30AUD or $21.20USD) makes the game a worthwhile purchase, and I would even have recommended it had it been sold for a slightly steeped price (to Australia, with shipping, it cost me less than a Platinum / Greatest Hits game, and less than a third of the price of a new release). Highly recommended. Controls: 8/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 4/10 Sound: 7/10 Overall: 7/10 Grade: C Don’t let the grade fool you- it is mostly due to the fact that these are all 3- and 4-generation old games. But if you have a taste for the 2d realm, definitely give Monster World a go.
  14. Game: God of War II System: PlayStation 2 Emulators: PCSX2 Although hailed by a surprising amount as the swansong of the PlayStation 2, God of War II does little to differentiate itself from what has come before it. Granted, the tight gameplay and breathtaking graphical presentation of the original God of War remain intact and its enormous production value - evidenced not only by the game itself, but also by the inclusion of a supplementary DVD containing a great length of behind the scenes footage – is nothing to be dismissed. It is unfortunate then that the significant time and effort spent refining what was already debatably the pinnacle of modern action gaming has failed to yield a game that is in any way noticeable superior to its predecessor. Further, a few tweaks to the combat system and all the new content do not disguise the surprising absence of numerous elements that made the first game so good. God of War II is undeniably an extremely polished and satisfying action game, but squanders the opportunity to have suitably expanded on the impressive foundation that had already been laid down for it. For the purpose of this review, there will be SPOILERS. However, I will try not to spoil any plot elements that you don’t discover in the first 30 or so minutes, BUT I will reveal later weapons, spells and other content that you may want to be surprised by. The foundation is the original God of War. As Kratos, a Spartan general who fights with the magical Blades of Chaos – ferocious weapons bound to his body by long chains that are seared into his forearms - you must traverse fairly linear environments and basically cut down the enemies that stand before you. This may sound reminiscent of classic old hack ‘n slash offerings such as Streets of Rage or Golden Axe, or even the more recent Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden games. It is actually a combination of the elements of both, but what sets this franchise above the others is the skill with which it is executed. There is no exaggeration in saying it is a sheer joy to play. God of War consists of light and strong attacks combined with blocking, grabbing, special moves, magic and dodging, and while that may sound somewhat complicated, the control scheme renders it extremely accessible to all. Each movement is rewarded by fluid animations and sound effects that make the strong attacks feel as though there is a weight behind them - the DualShock 2’s rumble feature is used to great affect here. Everything is necessarily bloody and some grab moves particularly barbaric. Context sensitive attacks flash random inputs on the screen at key moments as well, requiring you to be alert at all times. The technique was masterfully applied to the first game’s boss fights (and is also present in God of War II), making each a frantic but memorable experience – these jaw-dropping exchanges were one of the game’s most prominent features. RPG elements revolve around the collection of ‘red orbs’ from either chests or slain foes which are then used to upgrade weapons and magic ala Devil May Cry. Not only a novelty, some abilities change drastically when upgraded fully, and so it should not be ignored. Also shamelessly stolen from Dante’s outings, is the Rage of the Gods / Titans, which is basically like a limit break stance when you’ve filled your super-move-esque gauge up. Standard platforming and puzzle-solving elements round out the experience, and God of War II inherits most of these things untouched. It uses the same engine as the original, which (while tethering the title to the aging PlayStation 2) is a testament to its inherent strengths. Due to this, the game benefits from a strong foundation, if from little else. Plainly no effort was made to reinvent the wheel with God of War II. Not only is the engine seemingly copy/pasted from its forefather, but the same animations are used for the most part as well. Even the staunchest fan would be hard-pressed to find any, even slight, differences in the dress or appearance of the protagonist, which is considerably unusual. There have been a few changes, though, not all for the better. A good one to start with is the grappling point system. Small luminous effects are now placed on hooks, ornaments and various other things you’d be able to get a Blade of Chaos caught on. When near one, pressing R1 allows the player to throw their blade at it and swing on its chains, much like a vine. Being fairly forgiving, the mechanic is fun to use, although rarely necessary. Only a few designated places in the game require you to use the technique, but in fairness one specific implementation during a late boss fight is very well done and makes you wish the move’s potential had been better exploited in other areas. Another positive addition is legendary ‘golden fleece’. Once obtained, somewhere around the middle of the game, you will be able to ‘parry’ incoming attacks of all kinds by blocking just when the attack connects. If successful, Kratos can follow up by launching an invincible, high-priority attack against all nearby enemies, or, if the countered move was a projectile, fling it back at his attacker. What makes this feature so fun to use is that its input timing is lenient- think Dead or Alive 2, not Street Fighter III. There is also room to experiment with its use, since missing a parry and taking a hit is nowhere near as punishing as in the aforementioned games, unless of course you are playing on the game’s ‘Titan’ (Very Hard Difficulty) mode. The game’s special moves (executed by holding L1 and pressing a face button) used to be long automatic combos and were not very useful simply because you could be hit out of them at any time. God of War II’s replacements are far more usable, with either more damage or knock-down effects balancing their extended vulnerability. Special moves might be an improvement over the old, but magic is an area which has taken a step back. Two of the spells, Euryale’s Gaze and Typhon’s Bane are pretty much carbon copies of Medusa’s Gaze and Zeus’ Lightning, but the other two, Cronos’ Rage and Atlas’ Quake are pale in comparison to Poseidon’s Rage and Army of Hades that they replace. The bright side is that all the spells, except for Atlas’ can now be used while moving, and so will be seeing more use in battle than they used to or might have otherwise. Another feature that will no doubt see more use in God of War II than in the original is the new weapon system. Forget the Blade of Artemis- the new sub-weapons can be switched in and out by pressing the R2 button and are actually better than the Blades of Chaos in some areas. The first one Kratos will get his hands on is the legendary Blade of Olympus – the weapon used by the gods to defeat the Titans in the Great War of old. Not as long reaching as the default, and not quite as fast, the Blade of Olympus is obscenely strong, and when upgraded, is by far the most powerful weapon in the game, bar none. The catch to this one is, while you will use it to dispatch the first boss, The Colossus of Rhodes, you will have it taken from you, and will not recover it until the second play-through of the game. Its power is well worth the wait however. The second new weapon is the hammer used by the Barbarian King to almost kill Kratos before Ares’ intervention in the first game. It is a typically slow, strong single-hit weapon that can create shockwaves. At first glance is seems to possess a zero-MP replacement to the missing Army of Hades spell, but even when fully upgraded hardly matches that attack and is more of a distraction technique to offset the weapon’s lack of agility. Early in the game there is a sequence where you must tear a magic spear-wielding griffin rider from his mount. Later in the game his corpse turns up and offers the final sub-weapon, the audaciously-named Spear of Destiny to the player. Especially effective against the pesky returning satyr enemies, the spear is a long-range alternative to the blades that has a shotgun-like energy burst attack and is also able to plant explosive charges on the ground that are time released – many creative scenarios can be set up by this weapon. In all the weapons are fun to use and have their individual applications. Ultimately though, their creative design does not change the fact that the Blades of Chaos will still be getting you through the bulk, if not all, of the game due simply to the superiority of their design coupled with their ease of use and undeniable cool factor. Technically, the game is a marvel. I have often harped on about the age of the PlayStation 2, and there is no ambiguity about this game being a ‘last generation’ title, but still it manages more out of the hardware that runs it than any game in recent memory while consistently delivering large-scale, almost cinematic scenery, large numbers of enemies on screen and an unwavering 60fps framerate to boot. Some large models suffer from either blockiness, like the Steeds of Time, or low texture resolution, such as the Colossus of Rhodes, and there are vertical sync issues here and there, but it is mostly passable. Something that really adds to the visual presentation, though, is the uncontrollable camera that is perfectly positioned at all times. It should be obvious Sony sunk a large amount of money into this project, and so it stands to reason that its production value is unmatched on the current generation. Apart from the extraordinary visuals, which are now de rigueur at the house of Santa Monica, the game’s budget bestows on it another no-expense-spared voice track featuring impressive performances across the board. It does not have the cast of Tiberium Wars, but it is a joy to listen to all the same. There is no hammy voice acting here to mar immersion into the experience, unlike, say, in Final Fantasy XII. The soundtrack is still fantastic, but it invariably relies too much on remixes of Zeus’ Wrath Devine by Cris Velasco from the first’s battle against the legion of Kratos Clones. There is also a wealth of unlockables that puts other games to shame. First off, you can unlock Urns which offer different powers by finding them during the game. You can also unlock the Blade of Olympus by finishing the game. There are 7 different hidden costumes / characters to reward finishing the game, as well as other tasks, such as collecting 20 cyclops’ eyes. Challenge of the Titans replaces Challenge of the Gods as a scenario based final trial, and Arena of Fates is a new mode where you choose the terms, powers and enemies to duke it out with in a ring of your choice. However the icing on the cake, when it comes to presentation and extras, is the second disc, a dual layer video DVD, which is devoted solely to behind-the-scenes features chronicling not only the game’s development, but in-depth pieces on specific things – the design of Zeus gets its own feature, for example. The sheer amount of video here is unprecedented, and really makes you wonder why the making-of footage of other games was interesting at all. A tip of the hat also goes to the producers for not mandating the joke that is the ‘special edition’. All copies of God of War II sold in the United States and Canada come with this second disc as standard. Unsurprisingly, however, when we PAL regions get a local release, we will have to pay an additional premium for the extra disc via a special edition. So, in Australia, the $39.99USD I payed for the game would have turned into $99.99AUD ($79.68USD), had I decided to wait until April 13 for the local version. Bravo, SCEE. I just had to add this little outburst of bitterness- it should not overly detract from the great work the producers did here. Unfortunately, this is where the praise ends. Where the game’s design has garnered acclaim from me thus far, most of it can be attributed to mechanisms already left in place from the first game. From a creative standpoint, I would go on a limb to say that nothing added in God of War II is objectively better than what had already been seen in the first God of War. Additionally, it is my opinion that the quality of this game’s artistic design, as a whole, is significantly poorer than its forerunner, and were it not for all the positive technical traits it directly inherited, it would have sunk into the obscurity of other mediocre, forgotten titles. To really send this idea home, God of War II does everything conceivable to drive the franchise into the ground short of rewriting the game engine and starting from scratch. That maybe too harsh, but I truly believe an enormous quantity of postives from the first have been cast aside, and most of the opportunity to expand the mythos already establish squandered. Consider, first, the premise of God of War. The intention for Kratos to journey and become strong enough to kill Ares, the god of war, was necessitated by the fact that Zeus, king of the gods, had forbidden direct conflict amongst the deities. I am only spoiling the first half hour by saying that now, Zeus has decided he will just forget about that and kill this god of war all by himself. Err… Another thing – Athena claimed that Cronos was the last of the Titans, but now there are Titans all over the place – even the narrator from the first game turns out to be Gaia, the Titan of Earth. It poses the question of where they all came from, but more worryingly, suggests there was almost no intention to take the story in this direction during production of the original. Characters’ personalities and motives are also questionable if you consider the first game. Zeus, first and foremost, was portrayed as a kindly old pacifist who preferred to hide his limited involvement in affairs as much as possible; posing as a gravedigger. Now he is petty, vindictive and seemingly high on power. Cronos, who now aids the player, is another example. Before, he sought to destroy Kratos in his mission to slay the god of war, but now is more than happy help kill Zeus despite his general hatred of gods as opposed to a single grudge against their king. Their designs have changed too. Hades differed from the other deities with his tall, slender demon-like form and is now portrayed as a smaller squat humanoid who bears a resemblance to Death Adder from Golden Axe. In context these are insignificant gripes. Their indication of the creators’ disregard for the existing canon however is troubling, and extents into the general narrative. Shallow as the first game’s story was, it was fleshed out by gorgeously animated stylistic flashback sequences that gave a depth to Kratos and the relationships that set in motion the main events and prevented the experience from being as flat as it might have been. God of War II not only dispenses with those compelling cutscenes, it also skimps in the story department with regard to both style and substance. There is no legendary overtone to what little storytelling there is here which makes the absence even more glaring. Too many unknowns are left to the imagination. Clearly much has transpired between Kratos taking the throne and becoming truly resentful of the pantheon he is a part of. Even more is implied about the Titanomachy, of which only glimpses are shown, leaving gaps that are obvious and frustrating. The Titan Atlas refers to a previous encounter with Kratos, which has never been shown expressly or even alluded to, and yet is made quickly enough to suggest the player was intended to know about it. Plot holes abound, and are, honestly a much larger issue than would appear based on the space I have allocated to the topic. While spoilers prevent me from divulging more than this, I will say that one of the techniques employed is time-travel. A troublesome literary device to be sure, it is here so poorly utilised that, after finishing the game, even a brief discussion of events will reveal that hardly any of the narrative makes sense, put in context. It certainly falls short from the succinct, neatly resolved narrative that befitted God of War. To its credit, God of War II is paced out very well. There is just the right mix of mindlessly cutting through waves of fodder enemies, being trapped with a few powerful ones, solving puzzles, platforming around, and running into bosses or more complicated encounters. However, more could be done with that formula. Puzzles are almost identical, and in many cases, watered-down versions of the kind found in God of War. Spike puzzles, pressure plate puzzles… all have been seen before. The new ability ‘Fate-walking’ allows you to freeze time all around you to solve time-based puzzles when you see a green glowing statue of the Fates nearby. What could have been a very interesting puzzle mechanic instead comes off seeming like the creators just could not be bothered timing the complicated triggers for some of the puzzles, and instead copped out by offering the time-slowing effect in those certain areas. This is particularly obvious because only one puzzle in memory actually seemed like it needed the ability. Most of the time you will have passed the gate and be long gone from the puzzle arena before the timer runs out. Too easy by coincidence? All the puzzles are blindingly simple, maybe because I had solved a very similar version of each in the original game, except for one, which was blistering hard. In this scenario, you have to work a machine that makes the floor drop at the same time as the ceiling, incidentally layed with spikes, falls toward you. While you are doing this, skeletons keep spawning to impede you. One hit and Kratos stops manipulating the thing. Although working the thing is too clunky, combine it with skeletons that take forever to kill, and the swiftly falling roof (which is instant death if it reaches you, by the way) and you have a puzzle whose frustration-generating capacity rivals that of the Kratos Clone battle last time. I mention it because it stands in sharp contrast to the relative easiness of the rest of the game. All the while you solve these simple but drawn out tasks, the question is bound to beg at some point; ‘why am I doing any of this?’. Only a handful of non-combat tasks are integrated into the level or story in any meaningful way. One minute you will be trying to manoeuvre a phoenix’s egg into lava to birth it, and the next that trifle will be all but forgotten as you are forced into battle with a Kraken boss for no apparent reason. Speaking of bosses, they are almost as inconsequential as the puzzles. Personally, the Hydra and the Minotaur from the previous instalment were some of the most extravagant and satisfying boss fights I have experienced. Definitely a defining feature of that title, I had high hopes for the bosses this time round. Since the action opens to a set-piece battle with the Colossus throughout Rhodes (an overwhelmingly promising first impression), you might be expecting similarly impressive efforts throughout, but if so you will be disappointed. No other boss in the game comes close to the daunting spectacle of battling a giant as it destroys a city, or a sea monster ravaging a fleet of ships, but some are honestly no more than laughable. The previously mentioned Kraken looks like a hi-res Pokemon - its dopey expression had me questioning momentarily whether I was in fact playing a God of War game. Along the way some Greek heroes of myth are also encountered. Without naming names, the legends of these warriors are shamed by their portrayal here. Poorly crafted models as well as predictable (block three hits then do a combo, repeat – no joke) attack patterns bring into question why they were added at all – they have nothing to do with the story. Cameos of legendary characters also aren’t hip as far as I’m aware. Ironically, since you get the golden fleece, you might be expecting to run into one hero in particular, but guess what? You don’t. Funny isn’t it? God of War II is a great game mostly because it retains intact the game mechanics and technical things that made the original the 2005 Game of the Year. This alone more than makes it worth your time. My review has been coloured by the fact that, within all reason, this game could have been more. A lot more. Combat is largely the same, and the graphics are still impressive. The puzzles are a tad dumbed-down and the soundtrack is only half-original. That in itself is acceptable, but consider that the artistic cutscenes are gone, the bosses are less impressive, and that the plot is flat, illogical, in an overall different direction, as well as being in direct contradiction of the canon of the first game. These things are disappointing, and it is a shame that the franchise is now in Cory Barlog’s hands – he must be the only creative director in the industry who could possibly not only fail to properly expand on a game like God of War but also take it some steps backward in a few areas. But make no mistake – God of War II is very likely the best game to be released on the PlayStation 2 either this year, or from now until the end of its lifespan. It may detract from the original in more ways than it improves upon it, but considering how brilliant a game the first was, these failings are negligible in the grand scheme of things. Controls: 10/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics (Technical): 10/10 Graphics (Artistic): 8/10 Sound: 9/10 Overall: 9/10 Grade: A You probably already knew whether or not you were going to buy the game before reading this review, but I’ll qualify everything I’ve said already by endorsing it anyway- go and buy it. It’s a no brainer. The only thing more certain is that you should own God of War if for whatever reason you don’t already. Just to be clear, if this game deserves a 9, the original almost certainly deserves a full 10.
  15. Game: Shadow of the Colossus System: PlayStation 2 Emulators: PCSX2 From the makers of Ico comes Shadow of the Colossus- an action / puzzle-solving hybrid game that is unlike most games to fall under those categories. While a poor technical presentation, unresponsive control scheme and a lack of variety detract from the overall experience, Shadow of the Colossus’ redeeming factors almost make up for them. Its concept is unique, and the artistic merit of its visuals and score are undeniable. Although it probably won’t make the best first impression either, it definitely deserves the attention it does receive. The premise of the game is intentionally simplistic. You, an unnamed ‘wanderer’, have travelled to a forgotten shrine to beseech the resident spirit/s to cure / revive / resurrect your sick /comatose / dead girlfriend / sister. The details are all deliberately left vague except for the task given to you- you must traverse the abandoned peninsula surrounding the shrine to hunt, and kill, 16 colossi. That is pretty much it. Shadow of the Colossus is, in essence, 16 boss fights. The game consists of finding each boss and then killing it. There is nothing tacked on or pretentious about this setup- there are no monsters, equipment gathering, or puzzles related to anything other than defeating each colossus. To be clear, though, that much is surprisingly satisfying. It works like this- you have a horse and a magic sword. You raise the sword into the sky and the sun will reflect off of it, pointing in the direction of the colossus you must find. There is not anything intrinsically difficult about this. You don’t have a map per se, but the geography isn’t designed to confuse you or make you get lost. In fact, the only part that is not straightforward is fighting the beast when you find it. Combat consists of locating the enemy’s weak spots, which are marked by a glowing sigil, somehow mounting the creature and finally driving your sword into their vulnerable point. In this manner the colossi can usually be downed by 4 or 5 well placed strikes. However, in case it hasn’t yet been made obvious, these monsters are huge. They may well be the largest bosses around- most even put the Painkiller behemoths to shame. Needless to say, getting on top of one and leisurely sticking your sword in its neck is a complicated matter. Usually it is accomplished be grabbing onto hairy parts of their anatomy and climbing your way up. Oftentimes you will be somehow luring them into a position where you can get a grip- you won’t just be able to walk up to their foot and start climbing away. That said, fighting a colossus is a mostly trivial challenge. Very rarely, if ever, do the giants adopt an offensive posture, and, even when they do, the damage dealt is never lethal. Although some required stratagems that took a bit longer to put together, only the 10th colossus, Dirge, was actually able to send me to the ‘game over’ screen. Defeating each one is thus highly procedural, and once you have worked out how exactly you are meant to reach the weak spot, or how you are meant to lead the creature to a trap, almost all of the challenge will be lost from the encounter. The subsequently unlocked ‘Hard Mode’ and ‘Time Attack’ features add little to the mix- you might just try to get stepped on a few less times than on normal. Sooner or later, the combat will become mechanical and labourious especially because, even though each creature is breathtaking in its own right, they really do not differ that much from a gameplay standpoint. Variety is something Shadow of the Colossus sorely needed. I cannot help likening the 16 colossi to the 16 angels of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where, in the latter, each was profoundly different in appearance and capability, requiring unique tactics to be defeated, here they are all similar lumbering titans fought roughly the same way. Sure one might look like a horse and another a turtle, but it comes down to finding and stabbing a glowing spot on the lot of them. By the end, not only are you no longer intimidated by the prospect of engaging a foe maybe 100 times your height, but the whole thing even seems like a joke. Even though there are no mindless enemies or inane plots used to pad out the game’s length, the sheer monotony of its most basic feature makes the already short game (10 hours max) seem too long. Incidentally, this won’t be the first thing you notice wrong about this game. From a purely technical standpoint, the visuals of Shadow of the Colossus are unacceptable. The developers obviously worked on a very large scale when designing each element of the game from the landscape to the colossi themselves. Now, commendable as this is, it becomes soon apparent that this ambition belies a reckless disregard for the system for which the game was developed. First off the graphics are mostly bland, and yet are very blurry. The oversaturation of everything, obviously a creative choice, should have helped to conceal most of the graphical flaws but doesn’t. Anisotropic filtering would have helped the landscape tremendously, but is unsurprisingly absent considering the most prominent issue is the wildly varying framerate. During some mundane scenes where the camera pans across a wall, 60 or more fps are easily perceivable. Why? Because the rest of the time you’d be lucky to see 10 or more per second and it puts those 60 into sharp relief. The brilliant animation, particularly of the main character and his steed, help bring the shocking framerate into focus. Not only is the game anything but ‘smooth’, but the low fps also makes certain encounters, or situations where the camera jumps about, mind-numbingly frustrating. The camera itself is a joke. By default it finds its own way- the alternatives are to posit it yourself using the right analogue stick or to hold L1 and have it lock onto the nearby colossus. Neither are very effective and since the controls are relative to the camera’s constantly movement (and constantly need to be adjusted). You will effectively be less scared of the colossi in this game and more afraid of the camera switching on you or giving you too dodgy an angle, and the framerate too low to allow for adjustments before you miss the chance to strike or, on rare occasions, get killed as a result. One example of note is the lion colossus, Cenobia. It is constantly charging and knocking down the hero for a recovery of about 10-15 seconds each time, but each time it does, the camera chooses to do its own thing, often landing inside part of the landscape- fighting in a ruined Aztec-esque city means that there are bridges, walls and columns all over the place for the viewpoint to get trapped by. Did I mention there will be a delay of about 1-2 seconds before the camera even starts moving after you tell it to? The time it takes it takes to find an angle where you can actually see the character, combined with the severe choppiness, means that you’ll likely have been knocked over by Cenobia again before getting up. Great fun. That input delay is not exclusive to the camera controls, by the way. It goes for everything- jumping, attacking, calling the horse… While it is not always 2-seconds long, it will often provoke multiple presses of a button just to make sure the command got across. For what is essentially an action gameplay experience, Shadow of the Colossus has just plain terrible controls. First off, everything takes a long time to do. If you accidentally press R1 to crouch, you have to wait until the guy crouches and gets back up before you press Triangle to jump- else he will dive instead. As mentioned, the directions are relative to camera position. Thus jumping from hand to hand of the sorcerer colossus, Malus, will be an enormous trial since the angle is constantly in flux. There is no exaggeration in saying the controls are Silent Hill-clunky, which is unforgivable since the combat in the game is resultantly not reflex- or puzzle-based, as it should be, so much as it is a struggle with the controls, the shocking angles and the appalling framerate. It is unfortunate these issues condemn the title when there are so many lesser games that get them right so easily. It is honestly the art of Shadow of the Colossus that kept me playing. Despite its many faults, the game is gorgeous to look at. The colossi are some of the most creative creature designs I have ever seen and the game maintains a whimsical visual style that suits perfectly its premise, narrative (which does become more prevalent at the end) and its concept. While the giant statues are clearly modelled after individual animals (the minotaur, the bird, the lizard), their design of rock combined with flesh differentiates them from their origins to the point where they all look like monsters. Indeed, even the giants modelled in human form (the knight, the old man, the sorcerer) are far removed from humanity- an odd sensation to be conveyed through last-generation polygons. The enormous detail put into the creatures and their animation demands the huge scope of the game, and, I concede, in some ways necessitates its poor performance. Despite the framerate and lack of image enhancement, the raw assets of this game clearly surpass anything else on the PlayStation 2 by a large margin. There are times, especially during the spectacular final battle, that you can see past the choppiness and low-resolution to a game that is far ahead of its time. I seriously think that if the textures were upscaled, and if some basic image enhancements were added, Shadow of the Colossus, would be a worthy high-definition next-generation title left as-is. Although not an audiophile, the game has an impressive score to back it up. Most of the gameplay is without non-diagetic music, but the battles themselves are accompanied with a frantic piece that mirrors the state of the fight. Special mention goes to the somewhat melancholic theme just before the killing blow is delivered- it is very much characteristic of the sobre mood that the game as a whole develops. Having completed the game, it warrants an appreciation most of its competition doesn’t. As a whole, again, it can be seen as a self-contained experience, the immersion into which is aided by its unusual narrative structure. Shadow of the Colossus is not the first game to feature a nameless protagonist but it is the first I have played that uses the technique to such great effect. There is an empathetic exchange that extends beyond simple watching and controlling that is fuelled half by not knowing the wanderer’s motivations or intentions and half by his obvious desperation to complete his impossible task. His uncoordinated movement, seeming inexperience at wielding a sword, and tireless efforts make his actions sincere and relatable, if at times frustrating. This is not even considering the moral dilemmas of game- you will no doubt feel sorry for some of the beasts you slay and many times wonder what the real goal of your journey is. Even though there is no substantial plot development during the course, the resolution offered at the end is adequate and satisfying. It is also a shame that beating a colossus isn’t more difficult the second time, since at end game you are free to roam the forgotten land and fight with which each again. While it doesn’t add much replay value, it leaves the game in a complete state, at least, at the end. In truth Shadow of the Colossus is not a bad game, but despite its extremely strong points is not a great game either. Its gameplay is interesting but unvaried and will inevitably descend into tedium. Aesthetically the game is nigh perfect, with evocative countryside and ruins playing host to battles on a scale that has never been seen before. The colossi are some of the best creature designs, if not the best or most creative challenges. I am, however, compelled to describe the grave technical shortcomings of the game, and have done so before issuing praise so that this review differs from the bulk of others which offer acclaim while playing down these factors. I finish Shadow of the Colossus and end up wanting more- not more of the same, but an experience not tainted by unfortunate technical problems. It is an utter shame that this was released on the PlayStation 2. Unlike most reviews, I do not believe the game’s saving graces succeed in saving it, but I have no doubt that if a sequel were made for next-generation platforms the performance (and likely responsiveness) issues would be solved and that the result would be a game whose ascent to greatness would not be obstructed by the constraints of an aging piece of hardware. Controls: 3/10 Gameplay: 6/10 Graphics (Technical): 5/10 Graphics (Artistic): 10/10 Sound: 9/10 Overall Score: 7/10 Grade: B While I would dearly love to grade this game higher, I cannot. As it is, 7/10 and a B are generous.
  16. Game: Metal Slug Anthology System: PlayStation Portable (also PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii) Emulators: None (Metal Slug 1-5 arcade versions can be played on MAME, FinalBurn Alpha, Kawaks & Nebula) The original Metal Slug (MS) was a side-scrolling shooter released by SNK in 1996 for its NeoGeo platform, already well known primarily for the fighting games Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and The King of Fighters. While one of the later franchises established for the system, the Metal Slug series has as great a following as the aforementioned titles due to its fast-paced, chaotic gameplay, its charming art-direction and the fact that each installment (at least until Metal Slug 4) pushed the hardware of the NeoGeo to its limits. Metal Slug Anthology (MSA) assembles the 6 NeoGeo Metal Slug games (1,2,X,3,4&5) for the first time on one disc to mark the series 10th anniversary in 2006. Although numerous (10, no joke) delays caused the game to overshoot this milestone, it makes up for it with an extra draw. It contains the first version to be released outside Japan of Metal Slug 6, the series' latest entry, originally developed for the more powerful Atomiswave platform. When the collection was released last December for the Nintendo Wii, however, the ports were compromised by everything for graphical errors to downsampled or nonexistent sound effects. So how does this title, only just released in Europe and yet to hit US and Australasian shores, fare? Well, if you are worried that the PSP version maybe plagued by the same errors as its Wii counterpart, or because Metal Slug, a 2D game, may not have aged gracefully over the last 10 years, don't be. I wish I could leave it at that, but unfortunately this collection is marred by issues all its own and, overall, is ultimately a disappointment. In the beginning, the series was something of a quircky shooter set in a World War II-esque scenario. MS1 saw Marco Rossi and Tarma Roving battle the evil army of General Morden- the links between whom and a certain German authoritarian could be drawn by any grade school flunkee. While Morden was set to remain an antagonist in most of the games, they gradually branched out in more bizarre directions. MS3, for example, often cited as the high point of the series, featured zombies, mutant crabs and ultimately battle inside an alien mothership. The titular 'Metal Slug' is in fact a strangely agile vehicle that takes many forms- originally a standard tank, 'Slugs' that fly, venture underwater, and walk are all available to ride. If those aren't odd enough, you can also ride camels, ostriches and donkeys and wield weapons as banal as the 'Heavy Machine Gun' or as laughable as the 'Iron Lizard'- a tiny anthropomorphic rocket with wheels that falls to the ground and smiles as it rushes toward enemies. Crazy huh? Despite all this, the ridiculousness of Metal Slug conceals a deviously addictive and insanely difficult game. Human enemies take one shot to drop. Considering a Heavy Machine Gun fires off 3-5 shots with each button press and you get 200 ammo per pick-up, you'll be taking down a considerable amount of chaff during your missions. The flipside is that you only take one shot to kill aswell. After playing through Mission 1 of Metal Slug 1 this might not seem that intimidating but do not be fooled. There are many situations where you are swarmed by enemy gunfire and you'll get the feeling more than once that there was nothing you could have done to avoid dying. This makes a Metal Slug session a symphony of adrenaline and frustration. Don't worry though- you'll never end up throwing the controller (in this case the $400 PSP). It is no secret that the game requires planning as well as cat-like reflexes to get through, but it is certainly not impossible. The difficulty is stymied somewhat by the fact that you have infinite credits to finish the games with. Considering it will likely take you at least 20 to a game the first time, the fact that dying so many times would have translated to a heavy monetary penalty at the arcade will be largely lost on most players of MSA. To be clear, these are HARD games. However the gameplay is ultimately addictive and a profound feeling of satisfacition will overtake you when you manage to finally manage to finish one of them on your first credit. Luckily the PSP version's controls are fit to the task. Unlike the Wii which strangely prohibits use of a d-pad and buttons for all actions (why, oh why?), the PlayStation Portable's sensitive buttons mean taking down that boss fast enough will never be a problem because you weren't as good at flicking a Wiimote like a retard as the game would like you to be. All three main actions (shoot, jump and throw grenade) will map easily to the face buttons of your PSP. In the main menu, the responsiveness to the controls is surprisingly laggy, but this is a minor gripe. The only real irritation might be having to use the shoulders to pull off Ralf and Clark's special attacks in Metal Slug 6. You need to map one button for the special move, and one for switching weapons in addition to the core 3 (I always use the triangle button for switching, which leaves the special to L or R). Speaking of Metal Slug 6, it will definately stand out amongst the others. Unless you managed to get a hold of the Japanese import for the PlayStation 2, this will likely be your first outing with the new game. The previous NeoGeo games were all built around the same engine, slightly tweaked each time. While the art may have varied between games, the overall look did not. With the exception of new weapons and slugs along the way as well as the poorly-recieved slide move in MS5, the games felt the same as well. Even though Fio, Eri, Trevor and Nadia join Marco and Tarma at various points across the first 6 games, they all play effectively the same way. As mentioned, MS6 was the last of a brief 5-game stint SNK had on the Atomiswave hardware in 2005-2006. As such, while keeping many of the same sprites from previous entries, MS6 sees them all upscaled and accompanied by new higher resolution and more varied mission backgrounds and landscapes. It also makes core gameplay changes for the first time in the series' history. First off, you can now store up to 2 weapons and switch between them mid-battle. Secondly, Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors and The King of Fighters join the cast, to total 5 playable characters for the first time in a Metal Slug. More importantly, each character for the first time is given unique characteristics. Marco's default weapons do more damage. Tarma does more damage when in Slugs and is able to lock the Vulcan Cannon on them in place while moving. Fio packs a Heavy Machine Gun by default and gets more ammo from pick-ups. Eri can aim grenades and stocks twice as many. The Ikari Warriors will force you to play the game most differently though. Ralf only picks up half as much ammo as others. However, he has a special attack that can heavily damage enemy troops, and even vehicles, up close. His melee attack style is supplemented by the fact that he takes 2 hits to kill- that's right. This can make the game a lot easier, in theory. Clark also packs his Argentine Spinebreaker, which is basically a throw executed against one enemy during which you are invincible. I mention the changes in MS6 at length because, as I said, this game will be new to most people and is a major draw for the Anthology. I consider, however, the changes to be mostly for the worse and make the game feel slower and more boring than its predecessors. The weapon change feature, while novel has 2 important consequences. Switching between weapons causes you to stop and think more often, robbing the game of its frantic 'run n' gun' feeling. This is compounded by the fact that weapon pick-ups are far less plentiful in 6 and that there is a focus on conservation of ammo right from Mission 1. More often then not you will find yourself against a bunch of enemies or even a boss and, unless you picked Fio or Ralf, you'll be plugging away at them with your handgun. While it may be argued that these changes encourage thinking what you are about to do beforehand, I reckon the system is ust plain not fun the way it is. A little tweaking, and maybe things will change. My 2 cents. Graphics- and sound-wise MS6 floors every other game. It does not have the variety of MS3 but it almost has the length. The music is also composed mostly of remixes from the series and are for the most part memorable- they do get stuck in your head. Which brings me to the presentation of Metal Slug Anthology. I've spent half this review talking up the franchise because honestly the strength of the original titles is the only redeeming quality of this collection. It fails in almost every other area. Firstly graphics and sound- I immediately set the video to take up the full screen (480x272) as soon as I got to the main menu. Big mistake. When playing in the full 16:9 ratio, the Metal Slug games 1 to 5 look terrible. Where Street Fighter Alpha3 Max's 2D sprites really came to life on the PSP's LCD, Metal Slug's look horrid- far more blurry than you would expect. Also, unlike SNK's other recent ports, MSA lacks any graphics-tweaking options whatsoever. There is no 'filter' and no soft focus. Not that those things would necessarily have made a huge improvement, but they would have been a show of good faith at least. To its credit, MS6's higher resolution is definately noticable when playing full-screen. Still, when playing in 4:3 or even in the NeoGeo native resolution (304x224), the unseemly black border around the image is very prominent. Wallpapers to help conceal this have to be unlocked. Sound is pretty much perfect emulation. However the music has undeniably aged poorly- it too sounds just plain 'blurry'. MSA would definately would have benefitted from an arranged soundtrack which is, again, a mainstay of SNK home ports but curiously missing here. Sound effects are mostly intact with the exception of MS6. That game's sound, having played the PS2 version, is definately downsampled, like the Wii version's. No effects were missing but some were obviously different sounds altogether- gunfire and the sound of tanks being hit sound nothing like the originals. I am sad to reiterate that it still has the best AV out of all the games presented. There is more to presentation though. Since it is billed as a celebration of Metal Slug's 10th anniversary, the Anthology should by rights have a few, if not a host of, cheesy extras. Again, MSA fails to deliver. The only really new thing here is a (IMHO) boring interview. Did I mention it was a text transcript and not a video? A pathetic effort. Most of the unlockable art and music are copied straight from the PS2 port of MS6. Not a bad thing, to be sure, but consider that all the extras from each other game's home ports has been discarded. Even worse than that- the menus from each game have been chucked as well. What you are left with is a bunch of white text on black background options after you leave the first game selection screen. 'New Game' and 'Load Game' are all that after firing up Metal Slug X. Underwhelming? Very. The icing on the cake, I have to say, is the fact that there is no level select, even once you've finished the games. Not only that, but you can only save one state. If you were hoping to be able to replay MS3's Mission 4 or 5 at your leisure, think again. At this point I feel I should be honest with you all. I love Metal Slug to death. I think hearing 'Rocket Lawncherr' being yelled is one of the highlights of gaming. I also think that Metal Slug is exactly the kind of game for the PSP- fun frantic stuff that looks nice, is hard as all hell and can be played and fully enjoyed in short bursts. So here's the thing- Metal Slug Anthology really isn't any of those things. As much as it pains me to deliver such a scathing review, as a compilation, this is just poor. It doesn't look particularly nice on screen. The sound could use a lot of work. It is a still a difficult game, true but playing each from the beginning each time you want to start will certainly drill the first Mission in each game deep into your head long before you see everything the later Missions have to offer. This design, coincidentally, is not as conducive to on-the-go gameplay either. What you have is essentially a bunch of glorified emulation- no frills and hardly any extra features. The tacky and laggy menu system seals the coffin. As a celebration of this great series' 10th anniversary, Metal Slug Anthology fails. Some months back I would have said to get it anyway since it would have been the only avenue to playing Metal Slug on the PlayStation Portable. However, since then, NJ's delightful MVS2PSP emulator has been able to offer most of the games with the additional feature of being able to save multiple states, enabling you to recreate a makeshift level select, all at fullspeed mind you. The ridiculous amount of delays brings in to question what, if anything, SNKPlaymore or distributor Ignition did with their time. As it stands this collection is only worth it if you do not have a homebrew capable PSP (but why shouldn't you?) and to play Metal Slug 6. Even then, as far as MS6 is concerned, there is a lot more to get out of the PlayStation 2 version. Controls: 8/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: 5/10 Sound: 3/10 Overall Score: 6/10 Grade: D Overall I give Metal Slug 2 thumbs up, but this particular compilation 2 thumbs down.
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