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Despite not being as mainstream a sport as the likes of football, tennis has managed to generate quite a gaming pedigree down the years. It seems to be a particularly easy target for novelty games, with the likes of Mario and the Sega characters getting involved in recent years, along with past titles such as Anna Kournikova's Smash Court Tennis. However, despite often proving to be fun and accessible, these games have been overshadowed by the two main tennis series; Top Spin and Virtua Tennis.
The balance of power between the two series has tipped a number of times. The original Top Spin, developed by 2K and released on the original Xbox console, was a triumph and one of the best tennis games ever released. However, the series' transition to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 has proven to be rocky at best, with Top Spin 2 & 3 both ultimately sorely lacking in key areas. This has caused Top Spin to become overshadowed by Virtua Tennis, which has maintained a consistent level of quality over the years. Virtua Tennis 3 was an excellent title all round, and whilst Virtua Tennis 2009 was arguably not as good, it was still superior to the disappointing Top Spin 3.
And so we come to the latest tennis offering from 2K in the form of Top Spin 4 , a game which has quite a lot riding on its shoulders. Apart from needing to reignite the franchise, the tennis genre in general seems to be in need of a boost, with recent titles in both main series ultimately not meeting the expectations of fans. The test for Top Spin 4, therefore, is not just to offer balanced gameplay, but also to refresh what is becoming a tired genre.
When you first load up Top Spin 4 you will be greeted not with a menu screen, but with Roger Federer facing a ball machine on a practice court, allowing you to hit some balls without any pressure at all before even deciding what mode you want to have a go at first. This is a screen that you will ultimately decide to bypass as you play the game more and more, but it is an original addition, and the first indication that 2K sports have really thought about this game.
In terms of player choice, Top Spin 4 offers an impressive twenty-five current and former professionals to choose from, ranging from expected inclusions such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Serena Williams, to a number of legends such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg. Each of the players is instantly recognisable and has their own set of individual statistics (in areas such as forehand, backhand, power, speed and reflexes) to recreate their own playing style. Overall this really is an impressive line-up of players, and certainly the best out of any tennis game that I have ever played.
Take one of these players into an exhibition match and you will be greeted to fresh, clear graphics that re create the look and feel of a tennis match as well as you would expect. Crowds are animated, linesmen indicate when a ball is out, and television style replays flash up at the end of particularly good points. There are also plenty of neat little touches that enhance the feel of the game, such as statistics that pop up at random points just as they do during televised games. These little touches don't mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things, and certainly there are far more fundamental areas of the game, but they again demonstrate that 2K have put real effort into this offering, and bit by bit this effort shines through to create a game that, at least in terms of presentation, is spot on.
One area where Top Spin 4 does fall down, however, is in relation to the animation of the players. Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with it; players run around and take shots in a smooth and believable manner, and you will have no problem believing that you are participating in a high level (virtual) tennis match. However, what Top Spin 4 doesn't do is individually animate the players. In recent Virtua Tennis games every professional player has been individually animated, so that you can tell which players you are looking at just by the way they serve or hit shots. This has proven to be a fantastic addition to this series, and consequently it is difficult to understand why 2K haven't adopted the same approach in Top Spin 4. It certainly doesn't make or break the game, and ultimately doesn't overshadow the positives either, but it is something that may irritate purists.
Fans of the Top Spin series will notice that risk shots have been removed entirely from Top Spin 4. Instead the game now offers three basic shot types; flat, topspin, slice and lob, which are initiated by using the four main buttons on the controller. In a new twist to tennis gameplay in general, how you press that button then dictates the type of shot. If you just press and hold the button normally you will hit a normal shot. If you tap the button as your player swings for the ball you will hit a control shot, which is slow but accurate. If you hold the button down for long enough and release it before your player swings, you will hit an aggressive power shot, which moves quickly but is not as accurate as a control shot. The same shot types are also available when serving or volleying.
The trigger buttons are also used to good effect, offering additional ways of playing a shot. For example, one trigger button allows you to play an 'inside out' shot, where the player moves around the ball to get to his or her more effective side. These are more powerful, but require time for the player to move around the ball, and are therefore useless in a quick rally. Another trigger button turns your shot into an approach shot, which will result in your player rushing to the net after hitting the ball. This is an excellent shot to play for players that like to volley, but if the approach shot isn't good you will leave yourself open to an easy passing shot.
No matter which type of shot you decide to play, timing is absolutely key, and you have to either press or release the button at the right time in order to play a good shot. If you press the button too soon, you will only play a normal shot. Press it too late, and your shot may well land out. After each shot the game tells you via a small popup how good your last shot was. The timing can take some getting used to, but fortunately the game provides a very effective training mode to introduce all aspects of the game to the player. This takes about 45 minutes to play through fully, and will help you get to grips with the game with the minimum of fuss.
This new system provides a wide array of different shot types to play around with, and each one of them is effective in the right situation. It is no longer the case that powerful players dominate proceedings, as happened in Top Spin 2 and 3, and there is now genuine choice as to how to approach matches. Players all have different styles, and this translates directly into how you should use them in a match situation. If you play as Andy Roddick, for example, you should aim to concentrate on power shots and overwhelm your opponent with aggression. However, should you decide to play as Andy Murray, you will have to be vary your shots and control points with the aim of wearing your opponent down to secure victory. No one style is clearly dominant over another, giving the player real choice as to how to play the game.
Players' abilities are further advanced by the use of special characteristics. Each player has two or three of these, and they directly impact on their ability with regards to certain shots. For example, Rafael Nadal has the 'Topspin Invasion' characteristic, which makes his top spin shots particularly devastating. Boris Becker, on the other hand, has the 'Spectacular Volleys' and 'Excellent First Volley' characteristics, which make him a particularly fearsome competitor at the net. It is important to take note of these characteristics, both in terms of what your player has and what your opponent has, and they further underline the fact that players can approach matches in a style of their choosing.
Overall, there is little doubt that the gameplay in Top Spin 4 is an absolute triumph. It is accessible for the beginner, but offers a deep and complex experience for those willing to spend time with it. The wide range of professionals available for selection from the off allow players to pick a character that matches the style that they want to play, and matches really do become battles of mind as well as ability and timing, which is exactly how a tennis game should play.
But of course, what use is a tennis game without a career? The answer is very little, and as such it will come as no surprise that Top Spin 4 offers an extensive career mode. This starts with the player creating their own character from scratch, using what is a staggeringly detailed character creation system. Everything to do with physical appearance can be customised down to the smallest detail, and you can even customise your character's animation style and how often they grunt.
The career itself unsurprisingly sees the player take their character through the ranks from absolute beginner to one of the world's best. This is done primarily through entering tournaments, and the more you win the more prestigious tournaments you can enter. At each stage the game sets targets to reach the next 'rank' in your professional development, from Rookie through to Rising Star, Superstar, and ultimately Legend.
Developing your player is done through gaining experience and 'levelling up', as you would perhaps expect to see in a role-playing game. However, rather than allowing you to distribute attributes how you wish, the game requires you to select a style to work on after each level, choosing from an aggressive style, a controlling style, or a serve and volley style. Attributes are then distributed automatically. Whilst this doesn't allow you absolute freedom, it also stops players from becoming unbalanced and forces you to decide how to play the game. In this way, this system works far better than the traditional system that can see players becoming lop sided in terms of their characteristics.
At this stage those who have experience with tennis games will be afraid that the career mode in Top Spin 4 is essentially a dull string of samey matches with nothing to really make the whole experience exciting. And it is true that this lack of invention has plagued tennis games up to this point.
But not so with Top Spin 4. For once a developer has actually sat down and figured out how to make a career mode in a tennis game interesting. And as a result, Top Spin 4's career is packed full of features and touches that will keep you hooked. Each month you can enter one tournament and do one other activity. This extra activity can be a practice match to gain experience, or one of many 'special events' which become available through advancing up the world rankings. These events can be exhibition matches for television, or other events such as extra training, or starring in your own commercial. These can either increase your experience or, for the first time a tennis game, your fanbase. Yes, you read that right. Top Spin 4 tracks your fanbase with every game, so as you win matches you will gain more fans. Becoming a global superstar therefore requires you to think about how to gain more fans as well as simply winning matches.
There are other additions to the career mode that seem so obvious, but have never been implemented before. From an early stage you will be asked to choose a coach. Each coach is individual and will affect your individual characteristics as well as giving your player special characteristics. Your coach will also set you targets within matches, and meeting these will increase the benefit that the coach gives you. A coach specialising in serving may want you to serve a certain number of aces, for example, and in return you will gain the 'Focus Serve' characteristic, which makes your serves more accurate.
I could go on for a long time about the career mode in Top Spin 4, but hopefully the general idea has already been formed. Suffice to say that 2K have finally created a career mode that feels fresh and invigorated, and it is actually worth playing through. This genuinely is an absolute first in tennis games, and very much raises the bar.
And so we come to the crux of not only all tennis games, but all sports games; the multiplayer. In this regard Top Spin 4 offers two main modes; the 2K Open and the World Tour. The former is a simple mode for playing the professional characters against one another. You pick your favoured pro, and play exhibition matches against other players. The not only tracks your own progress through leaderboards, but also tracks who is using which players, which offers a nice little twist as you can see who the most popular professionals are.
The World Tour, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. This is where you take your fully developed player from the Career mode and pit them against created players from all over the world. Top Spin 3 introduced this mode, and the format is very similar. The World Tour is split into different 'seasons', and each season lasts one week. Whilst the game tracks your overall statistics, the main leaderboards and rankings are reset every week as a new season begins. This means that you can jump in and compete in World Tour at any point, because every week on Monday everybody starts on a level playing field.
Every week your can participate in up to eight tournaments, ranging from entry level tournaments with two rounds to Grand Slams with four. If you win the first match of a tournament you then qualify for the next round; if you lose, you are out and cannot play in that tournament until the next week. Every round you are obviously matched against players who have also reached that round, which means that the standard should become higher the more you progress. Even if you are very good yourself, by the time you reach a Grand Slam final your opponent will have won at least three matches in a row, so they certainly won't be a pushover.
Playing in tournaments is the quickest way to gain a large number of points, and is therefore the best way to shoot up the rankings. However, when you have finished competing in tournaments, you can always play quick one set matches which offer far fewer ranking points, but there is no limit to how many you can play.
As a system the World Tour mode is compelling and interesting, and gives real meaning to matches. However, as has perhaps already been intimated, it is backed up by a gameplay system that is far more balanced than anything that has come before it. No longer do powerful players dominate, leading to a real mix of styles that keeps the multiplayer in Top Spin 4 interesting and competitive. With each week bringing a new chance to rise up the leaderboards, the World Tour system is one that carries with it real lasting appeal.
This review would be even longer if I were to point out every aspect, both positive and negative, about Top Spin 4. And indeed it is fair to say that there are negatives. As well as the animation issue, you also cannot play ranked doubles online, which is a baffling omission. There are also other small niggles, such as the colour scheme in the Shanghai Masters arena making it very difficult to see the ball.
However, ultimately these niggles don't really matter, because Top Spin 4 has not only reached the top of the tennis game tree, but it has reinvigorated the genre as a whole. The bar has been well and truly raised not only due to the original thinking in relation to the Career and World Tour modes, but also in the eminently balanced gameplay which casts away the flaws of previous games emphatically. It is not perfect, and there is certainly scope for Virtua Tennis 4 to take the crown back later in the year, but for now Top Spin 4 is the definitive tennis game.
BIOWARE DELIVERS ITS LATEST EPIC
Take a look at this list of games; Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins. Now I don't expect that list will mean a lot to those who don't really play video games. However, to those who do, there will be two obvious things that those games have in common. The first is that they are by and large high quality titles that were released to critical acclaim. The second is that they were all made by Bioware, a company that very much has a reputation for producing games that are really rather good.
Dragon Age 2 is the latest game from Bioware, and is rather unsurprisingly the sequel to Dragon Age Origins, a game that was more or less universally praised upon its release in 2009. The original game was described as the 'spiritual successor' to the Baldur's Gate series, widely considered to be one of the best series of Role Playing Games (RPGs) of all time. It also happens to be one of my favourite series ever, and as such I personally I have very high hopes indeed for Dragon Age's sequel.
Dragon Age 2 largely takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall during a time in which things are less than stable. The Chantry, which is the main religious group in Dragon Age, is falling apart from within, and the entire world seems to be on the bring of war. And in a fantasy world where all manner of monsters, beasts and hellspawn roam around, war is far from a tantalising prospect.
You play the role of a character by the name of Hawke (which is your surname; you can pick your own first name), who depending on your preference will be a male or female character who is a warrior, rogue or mage. Regardless of your sex and class, your character will eventually become the Champion of Kirkwall, and your main aim is essentially to follow the story through a number of years and make a name for yourself.
Obviously there will be some concern from those reading this review that are yet to play the game that I have just given away the ending, but never fear. You actually learn your characters eventual reputation very early on in the game, as the story is primarily told through a framed narrative where one of your party members in the future is telling the story of your life. As he tells various parts of the story you then play through that section. It is an original method of story telling, and actually works incredibly well on the whole.
The difficulty with the plot, however, is that there is very little focus to it other than this notion that you will eventually become a very significant character within this fantasy world. There is no main villain, no saving the world, and no big showdown to work towards as the plot unfolds. Instead the plot is essentially made up of a lot of different sub plots involving the developing stories of individual characters. It should be clarified that many of these individual plotlines are very well done, and within their own right tick every box that you have come to expect from Bioware's brand of storytelling. However, without a main plotline to work through the game lacks context at times, which can make these plots feel a little bit isolated when considering the game as a whole. The end result is that Bioware tells a number of very decent stories, but lacks the glue to bring them all together. This is by no means fatal to the narrative as a whole; as previously stated, both the style of narrative and the individual plotlines are well done overall. The story is just missing that cherry on top of the cake to round the whole thing off.
Graphically the original Dragon Age wasn't too hot on the Playstation 3 (or, for that matter, on the Xbox 360), and the sequel has tried to remedy this with mixed success. Certain aspects of Dragon Age 2 look very good; environments stand out in this area, both in terms of detail and scale. The lighting has improved, and the detail in various other areas, such as character's clothing, is also far superior to the first game. However, other areas fare less well. Inexplicably given the obvious improvements, textures are very low resolution at times, making them look edgy and unattractive. The game also seems to have a more restrictive colour range than the original, with the sequel just not seeming very vivid a lot of the time in terms of colour.
However, the presentation of the characters themselves ticks all the right boxes. This starts with the voice acting. Unlike previous game in Bioware's flagship series (such as Baldur's Gate), all characters are now fully voiced. This is a move that may be met with scepticism from purists, but the simply fact of the matter is that the standard of the voice acting is excellent. This not only helps to make each individual character distinct, but it also makes the cutscenes and dialogue between characters eminently interesting and watchable, which is absolutely essential in a game of this genre. Facial expressions displayed by the characters have also been greatly improved, which again adds extra depth to conversations and really helps the player to feel involved with the plight of these characters.
The sound generally is also an improvement on the original game. In Dragon Age Origins the soundtrack was fairly standard for the genre, with no particular cause for complaint nor anything that particularly made it stand out. The soundtrack in the sequel is clearly more dynamic, with orchestral scores accompanied by far more serious and threatening tones in times of peril. I'm not normally one to particular take note of the soundtrack in the majority of games, but I was pleasantly surprised by effective Dragon Age 2's was at times.
THE BATTLE SYSTEM
Dragon Age 2 is a party based role playing game. For those unfamiliar with the concept, that essentially means that whilst you take the role of a specific character throughout the story, you can at any time control and give orders to any members of your party. In past Bioware games this 'control' has effectively entailed issuing commands to members of your party, who will then carry them out. However, in Dragon Age 2 you can actually take direct control of any individual party member, and quite literally move them around and attack as if you were playing an action title.
As such, Dragon Age 2 feels far more like an action RPG than its predecessor, though it is still not as strictly action oriented as say, Diablo or similar series. When you have direct control of a character you can move them around using the left analogue stick, and can then attack in a variety of ways using respective buttons on the controller. One of these buttons is always a basic attack, and the others are specialist abilities that the characters learn as they level up and progress through the game. However, despite seemingly having instant control over a character's abilities, the game is still stuck with some classic 'role playing elements' that operate behind the scenes. What this means is that you cannot just attack instantly and relentlessly; attacks have a re charge time depending on the ability itself and your character's statistics, so bashing buttons relentlessly will not result in your character attacking every time you press a button.
In the grand scheme of things, however, this is a good thing because it allows every class to play out differently. As a warrior class in the heat of battle, you have to carefully choose how and when to use your special attacks to enable you to inflict maximum damage on your opponent (whatever it may be) whilst avoiding damage yourself. As a mage or rogue, you may want to stand back away from the hand to hand aspect of the fight, but have to select the most appropriate spells and abilities to tip the tides of battle in your side's favour.
As mentioned earlier, you can select how characters are going to behave in battle when you are not controlling them, which means that there will be some consistency to how your party behaves when you are not controlling them. In theory this option is there to stop you having to babysit characters; battles are often fast and furious, and the last thing you want to do is to have to switch between characters to ensure that they don't get themselves killed through stupidity. And for the most part the friendly AI is competent enough. There are some niggles, for example your own party members will not use health potions of their own accord, which seems like an obvious oversight, but on the whole these niggles don't cause major issues.
On the whole the battle system itself is a simply to use, and is accessible to less experienced players on lower difficulty levels without being too strenuous or difficult. However, on the higher difficulty levels the player needs to think on the move as to how and when to use abilities most effectively, and there has to be an element of planning in how you set up your party. In that sense the battle system is a success; depending on difficulty it is accessible for the novice whilst challenging the more experienced player, which is something that the game deserves praise for. In fact, it is fair to say that the battle system overall results in encounters that are a joy to play. Personally I had more fun playing as ranged characters rather than getting into the thick of the action, but once you unlock a few abilities going toe to toe with enemies is satisfying. As such, despite some minor niggles and despite being far more 'hands on' than its predecessor, the battle system in Dragon Age 2 is very much fit for purpose, and ticks all of the right boxes.
As Dragon Age 2 is a role playing game, it is worth discussing the system for levelling characters up and developing their characteristics and abilities. The system, as with a number of aspects of the sequel, has been somewhat stripped down compares to the original. Every time a character gains enough experience to gain a level, a small icon on the party menu screen will alert you to that fact. It is then simple a case of selecting that character, where you will first increase their characteristics, and then select a new ability for them.
The former of these two actions is self explanatory. Of the various characteristics, it should be quite obvious which are important to which classes, though if any doubt does linger the game helpfully reminds you as to the effects of each characteristics, just so you don't accidentally make your mage proficient in hand to hand combat, or needlessly increase your warrior's ability with magic. Each level gained allows to distribute points between characteristics as you see fit.
You choose new abilities for your characters based on a very simply web diagram system. Each character has a number of web diagrams representing different areas to potentially specialise in. For example, mages have different areas for different types of magic, whilst warriors can choose between becoming proficient with a sword and shield, a two handed weapon, and so on. The game usefully highlights which abilities you can choose as well as laying out the future paths you may wish to take. This allows you to plan ahead and offers a good level of flexibility. There is no mystery in the system with regards to what certain abilities are going to do; it is all there in very clear terms. As such it is entirely the player's choice as to how characters develop.
It is worth noting that the options contained within the system are not as extensive as those found in the original game, nor indeed are they as extensive as previous Bioware games. However, Dragon Age 2 has very much made a move towards making a simpler and more streamlined process in a number of areas, and the levelling up system is certainly one of those. So purists may be disappointed with the lack of staggering depth in tinkering with their character's abilities. However, in the context of Dragon Age 2 and what the game is trying to achieve, the ability system is accessible, simple, and does offer a good degree of flexibility on the whole.
INTERACTING WITH THE WORLD
The other major area of gameplay is in relation to how you interact with other characters that inhabit the game world. As mentioned above, the standard of voice acting and animation (especially in relation to facial expressions) really elevates the dialogue sections in the game to a level that makes them eminently enjoyable. However, as well as watching these scenes, it is also important for the game to incorporate a solid system of choosing how your character plays out these encounters in terms of how s/he responds.
As with other systems, choosing dialogue options is very simple. At various points in a conversation a number of options will appear, and it is simply a case of directing the right analogue stick to your response of choice and clicking. An icon appears next to each response, in theory aiding the player as to responses that are aggressive, passive, sarcastic, and so on. However, the problem is that it is not immediately obvious as to which icon refers to which 'type' of response, which for the first sections of the game at least will have you reaching the manual to check what tone you're actually taking in conversations. This is perhaps only a minor niggle, but is nevertheless one that stood out to me.
That said, the success of this system is that you always feel that you have an element of choice with regards to how matters play out in terms of conversations. This sense is heightened by the fact that your own party members can become involved in dialogue options and open up new potential conversations strands depending on how you have developed them, which really does make it feel like most of the choices you make actually matter to one degree or another. Overall, as with the combat system and character development system, the system for interacting with other characters in this fantasy world is more than competent and ticks all of the right boxes.
There is no denying that Dragon Age 2 is engaging, satisfying, and fun to play. Despite the lack of a cogent main plot, the individual plotlines contain strong stories that will keep you engrossed enough to gleam plenty of enjoyment out of the game. You will also more than get your money's worth, with a single play through of the game talking at least 30 hours or so.
However, ultimately Dragon Age 2 falters slightly in a number of areas that stop it from becoming an instant classic. Many systems are stripped down to ensure efficiency, but they also represent areas where perhaps Bioware have tweaked things that simply didn't need tweaking. The end result is that fans of the first game may feel that their loyalty towards the series has not been rewarded with all of the changes. However, notwithstanding these potential complaints and the other niggles, those players who can accept Dragon Age 2 for what it is will find a great role playing game that is well worth a purchase.
The Need For Speed name is one of the most recognisable in the racing genre. Since the original game was released in 1994, the franchise has produced no less than sixteen different games, with the seventeenth well on the way. These have been spread amongst several sub series, such as Undercover, Most Wanted, Underground and Shift. Unfortunately these varied sub series have also been wildly inconsistent in their quality, and in recent years the Need For Speed series has been unable to get anywhere near the quality of the best games in the genre.
The original Need For Speed Hot Pursuit was actually the third game in the series (released in 1998), with Hot Pursuit II being the sixth game (released in 2002). Therefore, the Hot Pursuit that forms the basis of this review should actually be Hot Pursuit III, and is the sixteenth game in the Need For Speed series. Confused? No need to worry if you are. All you need to know is that the Hot Pursuit game that I am reviewing here is a remake of a game that is generally held in very high regard by those who have played it, meaning that this new release has had some fairly hefty expectations placed upon it.
Normally at this point in my computer game reviews I pose some kind of question as to whether this game lives up to expectations. Hot Pursuit is going to break this trend, because for once a game has so utterly exceeded my expectations that I feel no need to place any room for ambiguity in my review of it. Hot Pursuit is an exceptional game, and is one that will both restore faith in the series, and also redefine expectations within the arcade racer genre in general. And now I'm going to tell you why that is the case.
KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GETTING YOURSELF IN TO (PREMISE)
The basic idea behind Hot Pursuit is that the player takes part in races and other events involving some of the most impressive and high powered sports and super cars in the world. However, such dazzling races are hardly going to take place without attracting the attention of the police, and as a result racers can expect to have to contend with equally high powered police cars trying to wreck their vehicles and generally shut down the race. The kicker is that Hot Pursuit allows the player to get behind the wheel of either a street racer or a police officer, offering two very distinct experiences.
Fans of simulation racing games such as Gran Turismo should look away now; Hot Pursuit is an arcade racer that very much ignores realism for the sake of entertainment. Cars do not handle like their real life counterparts, and the general situations that the player will find themselves in are in no way realistic. What they are, however, is adrenaline packed and exhilarating. In other words, Hot Pursuit seeks to deliver only what a pure arcade racer should deliver. If that is what interests you, then read on.
TAKE A LOOK AROUND THE FORECOURT (GRAPHICS)
In terms of graphics, Hot Pursuit looks fantastic. Every car model is faithfully recreated, as you would expect, with each car also available in police colours for those wanting to put a stop to the street races. The races themselves take place in a variety of locations, each one offering stunning vistas and environments. It should be noted that, whilst the roads are populated with civilian vehicles depending on where you are racing, there is no racing within cities in Hot Pursuit. As a result there are no pedestrians or similar. The closest that Hot Pursuit gets to heavily populated areas is racing on freeways, putting the focus very much on the cars and the driving rather than ploughing through pedestrians or wrecking havoc within cities. Which, in my opinion at least, is exactly as it should be.
The game is not afraid to show off its graphics, either. As cars scrape against and collide with one another, paintwork becomes damaged, windows smash, and bits and pieces fly off all over the place. If you crash or force another car to crash, the game will cut to a close up view of the carnage in slow motion, which really demonstrates how detailed the graphics are. It is very much an approach taken from the Burnout series, but in the context of break neck speed races between felons and cops, it is incredibly effective.
Crucially, the graphics are complemented by a frame rate that always keeps up with the action. Given the speed at which things happen in Hot Pursuit and the carnage that can be caused, the game could perhaps be forgiven for stuttering or slowing down slightly when a lot happens on the screen. But impressively nothing of the kind happens, and regardless of how fast you are travelling or how much debris is being thrown into the air, everything graphically within Hot Pursuit remains super smooth, which is a triumph in itself.
TAKE IT FOR A SPIN (GAMEPLAY)
As stated above, Hot Pursuit is very much an arcade racer. Crucially, the controls are tight and responsive. It will obviously take anybody a little bit of time to get used to how the cars handle, but once a little bit of time is spent on the game the cars handle like a dream. The slightest tap of the brake button can cause cars to drift around corners at break neck speeds which, whilst not the most realistic thing in the world, is certainly exhilarating.
And when I mention break neck speeds, I really am not kidding. Regardless of the individual speed that is noted on the screen, which at the end of the day is just a number, Hot Pursuit has an extraordinary sense of speed. Every car is equipped with nitro boost, which is used simply by pressing or holding the X button, and which gives your car a boost in acceleration and speed. Your nitrous bar refills through driving dangerously, such as by racing on the wrong side of the road, narrowly missing civilian vehicles, or driving directly behind opponents, which quite literally means that the more dangerously you drive, the fast you will be able to go. All of this combines to create a general feel that will constantly leave you on the edge of your seat.
The cars also feel solid, making shunts in to and from other vehicles feel hard-hitting and significant. Given that each car can only take a certain amount of damage before they are wrecked, the solid feel to the collisions combined with the tight controls and extreme sense of speed combine to create a compelling gameplay experience.
In addition to standard driving, however, both racers and police officers have access to up to four extra types of weapons by using the d-pad. Both sides can release spike strips when in front of opponents and lock on to opponents when they are behind them with EMPs (Electro Mangentic Pulse), causing other vehicles both to slow down and take damage. Racers can also activate a Jammer, disrupting police weapons and causing their radar to shut down, and switch on a Turbo system, which gives a massive boost in speed at the expense of handling. On the other side, police officers can call in roadblocks to block the road ahead of racers, and helicopters, which harass racers and drop spike strips in front of them. The weapons themselves are all useful and all have an excellent balance to them, which really adds an extra dynamic to the gameplay.
MAKE A NAME FOR YOURSELF (SINGLE PLAYER CAREER)
The single player mode in Hot Pursuit takes place in the fictional area of Seacrest County, which conveniently contains numerous suitable areas for racing at ridiculous speed. Unusually, Seacrest County is one big map, and each event will simply see you racing from one point to another as guided by your map. This gives something of an authentic feel as each race area is constructed as an actual road rather than a racing track. There are also numerous shortcuts scattered around each area, giving an air of flexibility in how you race through each area.
The map of Seacrest County contains symbols for both Racer events and Police events, and it is simply a case of choosing a symbol, picking one of the events contained within that area, choosing a vehicle and doing your best to win the event. There is a great variety to the types of events, so as well as taking part in Races and Hot Pursuits (where cops are trying to shut down the race), racers will also take part in Time Trials, Duels (a race with one other driver) and Gauntlets (where there are no rival racers, and the aim is to reach the end in a quick time without the police arresting you). On the flip side, as well as trying to shut down races in Hot Pursuit, cops will also take part in Rapid Response events (effectively time trials) and Interceptors (where the aim is simply to bust a single racer before they escape).
Each event sets a standard to win bronze, silver and gold awards, so whilst the aim will be to win a Race in first place, you will have to bust a vehicle within a particular time in an Interceptor event, or bust a certain number of racers in a Hot Pursuit. Completing an event gives your racer points which are accumulated throughout your career, which will see your progress from a Level 1 Racer or Officer, all the way through to an Ultimate Felon or Ultimate Officer at Level 20. On the way you will unlock more events, more cars, and more effective weapons.
With a total of approximately 70 events, and trophies that encourage you to win gold in each one, the single player career in Hot Pursuit really does have a great deal of substance to it. The difficulty level is just right, with no one event being too easy or too hard, and the racer AI becoming steadily more competent and ruthless as you progress. The sense of progression is clear, and the sense of satisfaction when you achieve gold on a particular event never goes away.
KEEP TABS ON YOUR FRIENDS (THE AUTOLOG SYSTEM)
However, once you have fully completed the Career mode and secured gold in every event, chances are you will be going back over some events again to better your performance. Why? Because Hot Pursuit introduced a brand new system called Autolog, which keeps track of your performance in each event and compares it directly against your friends'. This means that next to each event description will be a leaderboard showing you your best time, and comparing it directly to the best times that your friends have managed to achieve.
Just showing this information would probably be enough to incite some competition between friends, but Autolog actually goes on step further and takes proactive steps to encourage you to beat your friends' times. Events in which friends beat you are highlighted on the Career map, and every time you beat a friend's time, a record of it is posted to your 'Speed Wall' for all of your friends to see. Equally, when a friend beats your time, you can see it on their Speed Wall. Autolog will verbally update you with regards to friends that have beaten your times recently, and will actively recommend certain events for you to try to better yourself. I'm not one for replaying games personally, but Autolog telling me that my friends have beaten me in a number of events over the past day really proved to be incentive enough for me do my best to beat them in return. It is a great system, that will hopefully be developed in future games.
COMPETE AGAINST THE BEST (MULTIPLAYER)
It should come as no surprise that the general gameplay and style of Hot Pursuit lends itself very well to online play, and there are three basic online modes available to pit your skills against other players; Hot Pursuit, Interceptor, Race. These are effectively carbon copies of the single player modes, except every participant is a human player, rather than AI controlled.
Race and Interceptor are both decent, but both are somewhat short lived in terms of appeal. Race fails to hold the attention simply because Hot Pursuit by its nature is about more than just racing. Interceptor is a more interesting game mode in that it is a 1v1 competition between a racer and a cop, with the cop attempting to make an arrest and the racer trying to escape. However, whilst tactically the game does offer some variety, after ten or so games you will really have seen it all.
Hot Pursuit mode, however, makes up for the other two and then some. Events take place with four racers and four cops, with the racers attempting to finish (and, as a bonus, win the race), whilst the cops are trying to wreck them. This mode cranks Hot Pursuit up a gear in terms of intensity and really is an adrenaline packed rush from start to finish. It is the sort of online experience that arcade racers have been crying out for. The AI, whilst decent enough in single player, is no match for the skill, variety and unpredictability that human players bring to the table, and the exhilaration and competition experienced in playing Hot Pursuit mode is simply something that no other arcade racer has ever matched.
THERE'S MORE TO COME (DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT)
The content within Hot Pursuit out of the box is enough to keep you occupied for a long time, but even as I type this review there are new fewer than four downloadable content packs to expand the experience further; specifically Porsche Unleashed, Lamborghini Untamed, Super Sports, and Armed and Dangerous. These bring new cars, new events, new trophies/achievements, and (in the case of Armed and Dangerous) new online game modes. If Hot Pursuit grabs you as much as it has grabbed me, then these are certainly packs that you will want to consider picking up. However, it is certainly valid criticism that these packs should have been in the original game, and that they are effectively just ways of making more money out of customers. In the circumstances it is worth noting that the packs are in no way essential, and there is more than enough to keep you going in the main game without spending more money on these.
MAKING IT TO THE FINISH LINE (CONCLUSION)
In case it isn't obvious by now, I consider Hot Pursuit to be one of, if not the finest arcade racer available on the current generation consoles at the moment. Everything about the game oozes quality, and it provides an exhilarating experience that will keep you coming back for more time after time.
There are, as with every game, some minor niggles that will irritate some people. For example, the slow motion camera that fixes on crashes as mentioned above can be a distraction from racing and cause collisions in itself. The single player races are also 'rubber banded', meaning that it is difficult to open up large gaps between rival racers regardless of how well you race. However, in the context of a game that otherwise displays such exceptional quality at every turn, these niggles will hardly register for most people.
All in all, the unpredictability of the races and the sheer speed that they are played at make Hot Pursuit an exceptionally thrilling game that is very difficult to put down, regardless of whether you want to play as a racer or a cop. If you are looking for an arcade racing game that offers tight controls, stunning graphics, a great sense of speed, and edge of your seat thrills, you need look no further.
Electronic Arts is a giant in the world of computer game development. From humble beginnings in the late 1980s, the company is now one of the most recognisable names in the entire computer game industry, so much so that I imagine the name will ring a bell even for some people who only have a fleeting interest in computer game generally. The company develops a number of household franchises, such as FIFA, Need For Speed, Command & Conquer, Medal of Honour, and Fight Night, which is the subject of this review.
A few years ago EA came under a lot of public criticism for two main reasons. First of all, it was felt that the standards of their main series were slipping, with the likes of FIFA and Need For Speed both notably lagging behind that of their rivals. In response to this, EA made a habit of acquiring smaller developers primarily to secure the intellectual property rights in other critically acclaimed series, a move which was seen as a cynical attempt to increase the quality of their products by proxy.
In more recent times, however, EA has enjoyed something of a reprieve, with the general quality of their titles clearly getting better. This is demonstrated starkly by the positive reception to the latest FIFA and Need For Speed games, both of which have now climbed back to the top of their respective ladders. And so we come on to Fight Night Champion, the latest in a series that has actually been historically solid in terms of quality. But does this latest offering build on the quality already evident in the series, or has the traditional EA curse finally struck down this great franchise?
GET INTO THE RING, KID
A good boxing simulator is difficult to make, because there is very little to fall back on in terms of gimmicks. You can't have the competitors pulling off special moves or throwing fireballs at each other like in Street Fighter, and equally the game has to have a level of depth and complexity to avoid becoming repetitive and stale. Quite simply, you have to get it right on merit, with little on offer by way of excuses.
Fight Night Round 4, the predecessor to Champion, managed to hit that particular nail more or less on the head. The graphics were absolutely stunning and the character models were solid and realistic, which made the knockdown punches have genuine impact. The gameplay, which primarily involved throwing punches by using flicks and rotations of the right analogue stick, also demonstrated a level of imagination and flexibility not seen in any fighting game before, let alone a boxing game, and it worked very well. Fight Night Round 4 was a triumph of technical mastery and solid mechanics, so much so that even in hindsight, its flaws really didn't matter.
In an usual move, EA has seen fit to revamp both the graphical style, from how the characters look to how they are animated, and the gameplay mechanics. Starting with the latter, the 'total control' analogue system has been binned in favour of a button based system. You can still flick and move the right analogue stick to throw punches if you so wish, but the four buttons on the controller now allow you to throw straights or hooks with a simple press, and by pressing buttons in sequence you can throw simple combos with very little effort. The shoulder buttons allow blocking and other defensive moves as before, but also now offer the ability to throw 'power punches'. So a left straight becomes a much more powerful, albeit slower, punch when a shoulder button is held down whilst the button is pressed.
KEEP YOUR GUARD UP
This new system is an extremely positive change, offering both certainty and accessibility. No longer do players have to deal with the curse of accidentally throwing a wrong punch because they flicked the analogue stick in a slightly imprecise manner. Nor do newcomers have to battle with the confusion of an alien system, as even the most inexperienced player can throw together impressive combos just by simply pressing buttons. It's a level of accessibility that boxing games have never really had before now.
I appreciate that a system that allows newcomers to string together knockout blows without any prior experience is one that will be greeted with apprehension by the Fight Night faithful. But never fear, because Champion is far from a button masher where skill is not relevant. Quite the opposite, in fact. Under the hood this game houses a powerful and accurate system of mechanics, in which really comes into its own at higher difficulty levels. You may be able to beat down a computer opponent at lower difficulty levels just by smacking buttons, but crank up the difficulty level and Champion becomes a completely different ball game.
At these higher levels everything within the fight becomes relevant. Defending and countering become key skills, and you'll always have one eye on your stamina bar to make sure you're not wasting energy. Deciding when and how to throw punches, and how many, become vital choices. You can wear down an opponent for six rounds only to come unstuck by a single punch due to a silly mistake. The game often becomes tense and exciting, but losing your head often results in you, almost literally, losing your head.
The AI opponents notably display different fighting styles and tactics consistent with their real life demeanour. Sick of Mohammed Ali toying with you and picking you off at a distance? Try fighting Mike Tyson, though don't be surprised when he comes at you with the speed and power of a steam train and applies relentless pressure until one of you hits the canvass. Of course, this complexity and difficulty simply makes it far more satisfying when you get the knockdown or knockout. And Champion really is a satisfying game. Once you learn the basics, every win has to be earned. The vast majority of the time you will win because you deserve it, and on the flip side you will lose because you weren't as good as the guy standing opposite you.
The change in the graphical style, as mentioned earlier, simply facilitates this change in the mechanics. The character models, whilst still detailed and solid, are notable quicker and move in a more free flowing manner. You can feel every punch now, rather than just the ones that stagger you or knock you down, and the fighters themselves react to the flow of the match as it happens. This is both in terms of tiredness and bruising, but also in terms of cuts and scrapes that now actually bleed, potentially leaving both fighters in a mess in the later rounds. It is a graphical and animation style that will feel a little strange to veterans of the series, but there is no doubt that it is absolutely spot on. As well as facilitating the new mechanics flawlessly, the increase in speed means that there is now a visible difference in how the game plays out depending on weight class. Playing as a welterweight now actually feels obviously different to playing as a heavyweight, which is something that was somewhat lost in the previous game.
MOVE YOUR HEAD
But of course, great graphics and spot on gameplay need content to compliment them, and Fight Night Round 4 was a little light in this regard, with only a moderately engaging career mode and fairly decent online mode giving any excuse to play the game long term. Champion brings a tweaked version of these modes back for another run through, but now adds a new string to its bow in the form of an all new story based Champion mode.
In Champion mode you play the role of Andre Bishop, a fictional amateur boxer who also happens to be a prison inmate. You begin your journey along his path engaged in a fight against another prison inmate, which also serves as a tutorial for those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the game (which, to be fair, is just about everyone). Win this fight, and you will begin to progress through a story that throws up more than its fair share of variety and surprises.
It would be all too easy for EA to have produced Champion mode as a string of generic fights connected via numerous cutscenes, but fortunately the approach is quite different. In the five or six hours that it will take you to reach Bishop's final showdown, you will encounter numerous twists and turns that will force you to fight in a particular way. For example, one fight is presided over by a rather dodgy referee who will count all of your body shots as low blows, forcing you to aim specifically for your opponent's head. Another results in your breaking one of your hands, so for the next fight you have to prove to your adoring public that your injury is healed by knocking your opponent out with that hand.
And so on. Whilst there is a fair amount of cliché contained in Bishop's story, the variety is a really welcome addition to a genre that historically lacks it. The context specific fights keep proceedings interesting, and the excellent cutscenes between fights keep the story flowing and really help to engage the player throughout. It may be a little short, but overall Champion mode is an extremely welcome addition, and is fully deserving of praise for showing that there is scope for more original content in a boxing game.
DO THE ROPE-A-DOPE
Beyond Champion mode, Legacy mode (essentially the game's Career mode) returns with the ability to create a boxer with whatever appearance and style you wish, before embarking on a career that will hopefully end with your main man labelled as the greatest boxer of all time. Functionally Legacy mode works much the same as the last game, with the player having largely free choice as to who to fight and when, and with the development of your character handled through training exercises between fights.
In practice, however, Legacy mode is notably more engaging than in the previous game, and this is to do with the new mechanics system. Given the potential to not only tailor make a character's style, but also to face many different styles of opponents, picking an opponent and then finding out a way to bring them down becomes an immersive experience that highlights the success of Champions gameplay as a whole.
And of course, once you're bored of fighting AI opponents, Champion boasts the obligatory online mode that allows you to pit your skills against the real life best in the world. Once again little has changed functionally, though the ability to form gyms (essentially a way of making clans and groups of players) is a nice touch. Once again, though, the joy of the online mode comes from the solidity of the gameplay mechanics in general. The unpredictability of human opponents leads to some real battles of wits, and the winner of a particular fight is almost invariably the one who deserved it, either through consistently solid ability, or through not making a silly mistake. This makes the online play feel balanced, fair and satisfying, which is the key to longevity with any game that allows online competition.
THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME
In case it isn't obvious by now, I have really high praise for Fight Night Champion. It was a bold move to make notable changes to graphical style and gameplay mechanics, but EA has pulled such an ambitious move off, with the game being much better for it. Champion is without a shadow of doubt the pinnacle of the series to date, offering accessibility for the newcomer, and an immersive and competitive experience for the serious gamer. That is a combination that few games ever really manage to strike, and is one that Champion deserves a huge amount of credit for. Not only have EA created an excellent boxing simulator, but they have also created a game that all boxing fans can enjoy, regardless of skill level. As such, for those who have any desire at all to try out a boxing game, or for those who are already familiar with the series, Fight Night Champion is an absolutely essential purchase.
Like any self-respecting global mega franchise, every James Bond film nowadays is accompanied without fail by a video game that launches itself onto shop shelves around about the time that the movie is released. Yet unusually Bond games are never pre judged as mediocre and dismissed out of hand in the same way that most other movie tie ins are. And with good reason, because the world famous James Bond movie franchise has also produced one of the finest video games ever made in the form of Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64, released all the way back in 1997. To this day Bond fans and computer game fans alike live in hope that the next James Bond game will live up to the past glory of Goldeneye, and bring with it renewed hope that, just because a game is associated with a film, it doesn't mean that it can't climb swiftly to the top of the video gaming tree.
And so we come to Blood Stone, the latest James Bond game to try to escape from the under the Goldeneye shadow. But even before this review gets going I can't help but hear the murmurings of confusion from the assembled masses. Is there actually a James Bond film called Blood Stone? Well no, actually, there isn't. The new Bond film, which is currently nameless and carries the tantalisingly vague title of "Bond 23", had its production suspended throughout 2010, and has only just started up again. It is currently due for release in November 2012. This means that despite starring the 'current' James Bond in the form of Daniel Craig, Blood Stone is not actually connected to a film at all. So as a standalone computer game, does Blood Stone actually come even slightly close to taking Goldeneye's throne?
I MUST BE DREAMING
Despite not having a movie to base itself on, there is no doubt that Blood Stone feels very much like a Bond escapade from the outset, and as is tradition that outset takes the form of a classic James Bond action sequence. However, in a clear attempt to modernise the series somewhat, Bond finds himself not in a fight to the death against a sneaky Communist, but instead he's clambering to stop a suicide bombing on the G20 summit. Still, the pace of the opening is just as quick and exciting as you would expect.
And indeed, beyond the opening the design of the game is very much in keeping with the Bond tradition. Much like the general plots of Daniel Craig's adventures, the main plot in Blood Stone is one that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and trying to keep up with it all the way may well lead to an element of confusion. But as with the movies, keeping up with the plot is not really the point. In Casino Royale, everyone was less concerned with the complicated and alleged devilishly underhand share meddling scheme that Le Chifre was aiming for, and more focused on simply how Bond was going to win a game of poker. The same can be said of Blood Stone. The plot essentially serves as a mechanism to catapult Bond through a number of intense situations and varied environments, to the point where the fact that the plot might not make a whole lot of sense doesn't really matter. Simply put, the plot does what the game needs it to do, so can't really be criticised overall.
As well as the varied environments and quick paced plot, Blood Stone also features the vocal talents of Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench, no doubt reprising their roles as James Bond and M on their days off while they were waiting for filming to start up again on "Bond 23", and both do as good a job as you would expect. The excellent orchestral score, containing the expected mix of bangs and crashes as well as dramatic music, rounds things off nicely. Overall, the presentation of Blood Stone really can't be faulted. It clearly has excellent production values, as one would expect, and crucially it does actually feel like a Bond adventure, which at the end of the day is what anyone would realistically demand from the presentation side of things.
THIS MUST BE MY SECOND LIFE
So Blood Stone certainly feels like a Bond movie recreated as a video game, albeit without the movie part to lean on for support, but what of the gameplay that it offers? Does the game offer the player the chance to partake in the eclectic mix of activities shown in your average Bond film? In short, yes it does. Blood Stone is very much a hybrid of genres, and the best way to analyse the gameplay is simply to take each of the main types of gameplay in turn.
The core gameplay is very much your traditional shooter, with the player taking control of Bond from a third person perspective, and proceeding to take on hoardes of enemy henchman. The shooting mechanics themselves rely heavily on a cover system, encouraging the player to take cover behind a variety of objects, and to pop out and take shots at enemies as and when the opportunity arises. In this regard there can be no complaints; the core shooting controls are responsive and solid enough, with gunshots feeling suitably meaty and satisfying. The shooting mechanics may not set the world on fire, but equally they aren't going to frustrate either.
Accompanying the basic shooting is a further option that's available to the player in terms of melee combat. In other words, if you find yourself too close to comfort to an enemy, or just fancy running at your opponent in a bit of a zealous manner, the game will allow you to take down a henchman from close range using a variety of hand to hand combat techniques and take downs. Crucially, these moves are satisfying and varied, and quite simply never get old. A close quarters take down will also earn you a "focus kill", which allows you to take down further enemies with brutally efficient headshots. For those who have played Splinter Cell Conviction, the "focus kill" system s essentially a carbon copy of the "mark and execute" system from that game. Stringing these together can create exhilarating moments in the shooting sections, which really are highlights in themselves.
Unfortunately the third person sections have their own flaws. Despite the moments of adrenaline pumping action, there's no hiding from the fact that plenty of aspects of these sections lack any sort of innovation. The two aspects that are most apparent are in the variety of enemies and weapons. Specifically, there isn't much of either. Enemies are almost exclusively standard henchman, with nothing to separate one group from another in terms of threat or personality. Weapons consist of your standard pistols, machineguns and so on, but again nothing to excite or inspire. Perhaps I'm expecting too much here, but ultimately the lack of variety in these sections seems a little lazy.
The second main gameplay type is the vehicle sections, which typically sees the player jumping behind the wheel of a snazzy car and chasing some unfortunate bad guy through a variety of environments. These sections were the highlight of the game for me, with the tension and excitement rarely letting up. The controls are solid, the environments are eye catching, and the difficulty is such that the sections are satisfying without being frustrating. Again, in judging the game against natural competitors, there is nothing in these sections to reach the excitement levels seen in the likes of Need For Speed Hot Pursuit, but in the circumstances this can be forgiven, and is not a major gripe.
There are other aspects to the gameplay, with the main lesser activity involving the use of gadgets to crack codes, hack into computer systems and so on. Unfortunately this branch of the gameplay is by far the weakest, with each scenario as dull and uninspiring as the last. They all feel the same, and whilst I appreciate that the intention with these sections is to break up the pace, they do so in a negative way. There is rarely any real reason why these sections need to be done by the player and not handled in a cutscene, and considering how weak the gameplay in this regard is, you'll find yourself wishing that the game had glossed over them without any effort on the part of the player.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, MR BOND
But how do those different gameplay styles tie together in the end? The answer is that fundamentally they create an experience that could potentially have been very good. The problem is that the single player campaign is very short, with about five or six hours of gamepay at most. To make matters worse, after the intense opening sequence, the game takes perhaps half of that to actually pick up any kind of pace. The second half of the campaign is a blast and thoroughly satisfying, but by the time you have played through a few hours of uninspiring campaign levels, a few hours of good quality gameplay is the least that you should expect. Ultimately, despite its strong moments, it seems difficult to recommend the campaign considering its short length and uninspiring first half.
Graphically there is a stark contrast between the more epic environments found in the driving sections, and those found in the shooting sections. Whilst the driving sections are glossy, smooth, and generally rather eye catching, the third person sections are a little bland by comparison. There is certainly nothing horrific about the graphics in the third person sections, but equally there is nothing to set them apart, something that a James Bond game should certainly be aiming for.
Finally, Blood Stone also features a multiplayer mode. Up to now the keen eyed will have noticed a theme that, despite some highlights and solid moments, this game is undermined badly by mediocrity in too many areas. These failures are summed up entirely by the multiplayer mode, which features gunfights between groups of human players, in Team Deathmatch, Last Man Standing or Objective modes. The gameplay here is significantly slower with the "focus kill" system unavailable, and there is no driving or similar in the multiplayer. In other words, it is utterly bland, with the best parts of the single player gameplay removed, and only standard multiplayer modes available. This would be bitterly disappointing for any game, but is even more so for a game that, as previously stated, should be aiming significantly higher.
YOU HAVE A LICENCE TO KILL, NOT GET KILLED
Blood Stone is a game that has its moments. It really does. There are times when you'll put a free flowing combination of shooting and melee combat together to take out henchman when the game feels invigorating and satisfying. Plenty of moments during the driving sections will have the same effect. Unfortunately these standout moments are buried beneath of torrent of mediocrity and lack of ambition. And whilst the good moments do exist, they will be forgotten in favour of the woefully short and poorly paced campaign as a whole and the unacceptably bland multiplayer.
Is it worth a purchase under any circumstances? Perhaps, but only for those who are desperate for some Bond action until the next movie comes along. Even then, this game won't occupy anyone for much longer than the brief campaign takes to finish, and as such I can only recommend picking this up at a bargain price. Anything more would be a waste of money.
In fact, if you do have a James Bond itch that needs scratching, the full game price of £30 could buy you a second hand Nintendo 64 with a copy of Goldeneye. That might be a better option, simply because it will remind you that the James Bond licence can be used to inspire gaming gold. All that Blood Stone will do will shake that resolve to the core, and remind you that most movie tie ins really are just distinctly average, even those which don't strictly have movies to go with them.
Ah, Harry Potter. The character that began as a roughly formed idea that a certain Joanne Rowling came up with on a train journey from Manchester to London in 1990 has come a long way. In twenty short years the spectacled young wizard has become the star of seven books (not counting the extra spin off), seven going on eight films, and a theme park. In addition, the obligatory lines of toys and memorabilia continue to dominate markets, and it is in this group that we can include computer games. Somewhat predictably, every Harry Potter film to date has been released with a computer game not long behind. It is unfortunate, though not entirely unexpected, that these movie tie ins have been mediocre at best in terms of quality.
However, in recent years a new type of movie-based video game has emerged, namely that carrying the Lego name. The concept is very simple; popular movies are re made with the characters and surroundings constructed of Lego. Players take the role of the characters that they ordinarily would, and the game then tells the story of the popular movies with an injection of Lego style humour given for good measure. To date the likes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman have all been given this building block makeover, and largely to great success. And so it is that the Lego series turns its attention to J K Rowling's famous creation, which has apparated its way into our high street stores as Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4. But does it continue the strength of the Lego series, or does it fall short?
YOU'RE A WIZARD, HARRY
If you have played any of the previous Lego games (as I expect many have), you will know what to expect from Lego Harry Potter before you even load up the disc. For those who haven't experienced the charm of this series before, you can expect to see your favourite Harry Potter characters re created in Lego format, with everything made of the traditional coloured building blocks.
Presentation has always been a strong point of the series, and Harry Potter is no exception. If anything, the magical lands of Hogwarts and beyond provide the sort of variety that certain past games in the series, such as Indiana Jones, have lacked, and as a result the Lego style really does compliment the overall feel of the game. The idea behind Harry Potter is a concept that everyone wants to be a part of deep down, and the feeling of interaction is one that should invoke curiosity and enjoyment in equal measure. Suffice to say that with everything made out of Lego blocks, these aspects come right to the fore.
Simply put, every cutscene in the game is something of a delight, with the bright and colourful characters and backgrounds combining with over the top animations and sound effects to create scenes that are not only charming, but genuinely funny and entertaining. It is difficult to construct decent humour in computer games, but as with the other Lego games, this one manages it almost effortlessly. Of course not everything is absolutely as it is in the movies, but these bits are easily forgiven as they only ever work to increase the entertainment value.
WELCOME TO HOGWARTS SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY
The eagled eyed amongst you will notice that Harry Potter doesn't really have the same focus as previous Lego target movies. The likes of Star Wars and Batman have ample imagination, but are also based on heavily on the action side of things. After all, who would want to be a part of those movies without being able to engage in a lightsaber duel or punch The Joker square between the eyes? Whichever way you spin it, action is a stable part of those series.
The same cannot be said of Harry Potter, and this is something that did initially concern me before playing the game. Yes, there are notable action scenes in Harry Potter, but by and large magic is not used as a weapon in the series, and it is the wide use of magic in Harry Potter that makes it same more feasible within the confines of the mind, and which really sucks people into the world as a whole. Whichever way you spin it, a Lego game based on Harry Potter just wouldn't feel right if it were as laden with action as the previous games in the series.
I was therefore very much relieved when it became clear that Lego Harry Potter has a different focus to other games in the series. Yes, you do still fight with characters on occasion, but the combat takes a back seat to exploration, which is what this game is all about. As with previous Lego games there are countless Lego bits than populate every nook and cranny of the game world, which can be collected by finding them, solving puzzles and defeating enemies. But this time rather than being something that you can focus on as an aside to the main game, collecting these bits and blocks is what the game is all about.
Unsurprisingly, spells are a mainstay of the gameplay in Lego Harry Potter. For the first time in Lego games, holding down a spell button brings up a target reticule, which you can then move around to decide where you want to cast your spell. This offers a level of freedom in terms of targeting which hasn't been seen in the series before, so whether you are moving blocks around to create a stairway or seeing off a nasty Dementor, you always feel like you have a choice as to what you're doing. This free targeting system also benefits the feel of the game because, when you can cast spells on more or less anything, you never really lose that feeling that there is something else to discover.
And, indeed, there usually is. One of the joys of the Lego games is laying waste to the environments around you, resulting in a wide scattering of collectible Lego bits in the process, and Lego Harry Potter continues this trend with renewed vigour. Altering the environment with spells never gets old, and enables the game to maintain a level of unrestrained fun throughout. The environments themselves really do feel alive, with objects dancing around constantly, and the residents of Hogwarts always being on hand to help you open new areas or throw you items to help with your quest.
In fact whether you are old or young, the appeal of the general gameplay really is universal, which also means that it is a game that you can get just as much fun out of with a friend or family member than by playing alone, if not more so. There is lots to do all of the time, and whilst the game is not at all challenging and the puzzles are hardly the most taxing, the diversity in relation to the environments, spells and other gameplay aspects (such as using Scabbers or Crookshanks to explore tight and confined spaces) always keeps things fresh and fun.
This diversity also means that you will almost inevitably be playing through this game more than once. In between missions you are free to explore the main environments from the films or head down Diagon Alley to spend your Lego trinkets. This allows you to unlock new characters and such, which in turn will potentially make areas of the game newly accessible. For anyone who is even the slightest but curious, this inevitably results in you going back through the levels again to see what new areas you can reach, which keeps the whole concept of exploration ticking over nicely. A single, quick playthrough of the game would probably take between five and eight hours, but unless you have no sense of fun about you you'll probably want to spend at least the same time again going back over things and completing more of the game. Such is the way that the game is constructed, you will be lucky to get anywhere near 50% completion on your first playthrough.
Unfortunately, despite all of the excellent aspects of the game as listed above, things are far from perfect. You always have one or two characters by your side as you progress through the game, and whilst it is easy enough for a friend or relative to take control of one of these at any time (the simple drop in/drop out feature seen in other Lego games returns to this one), when you're playing by yourself you will often find that the AI is somewhat frustrating. This is mainly in relation to puzzles that require two characters to synchronise their actions, such as standing in specific spots on the floor. Obviously with another human player this is straightforward, but unfortunately AI allies have a habit of not reading the script in relation to these, which can make progress frustrating. It's not enough to ruin the game, but it is a niggle that is worth mentioning.
In a similar fashion, the game does have a surprising amount of other glitches and bugs. These vary in severity, from simple graphical glitches that practically affect nothing, to more significant problems such as the game not letting you interact with vital objects, which can necessitate restarting the level from scratch. It is perhaps testament to the strength of the core game that these glitches are not reasons to let this game pass you by, but at the same time it is extremely frustrating when developers can't eliminate these simple bugs from their games. Quite simply, bugs like this shouldn't exist, but unfortunately in Lego Harry Potter they do, and you might have to be prepared to spend some time tolerating them.
THE BOY WHO LIVED
On the whole though, Lego Harry Potter is a fun, charming, and thoroughly enjoyable trip through the first four movies in the blockbuster franchise. It is perhaps an obvious point to make, but if you have never read the books or seen the films, or if you don't like Harry Potter generally, then this game is not for you. On the flip side, if you are a fan of the books or films then there is more than enough here for you to sink your teeth in to. In fact, being a fan of the franchise will more than likely allow you to forget about the games shortcomings and let the fun reign supreme.
It is perhaps fair to say that Lego Harry Potter is not the best Lego game to date, indeed most would agree that it isn't, but when the games are aimed at fans of the movies rather than fans of Lego, this doesn't quite seem as important as it might be. Simply put, Lego Star Wars is not an adequate replacement for a Harry Potter fan, even if it is a better game. What does matter is that Lego Harry Potter is by far and away the best Harry Potter game to date, and will likely prove to the best Harry Potter game ever released, at least until Lego Harry Potter 5-7 inevitably comes along. Until then, if you're a Harry Potter fan yourself or want to buy something for someone who is, this comes highly recommended.
WHY DID I BUY IT/WHAT IS AN EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE?
External hard drives, whilst a relative unknown not too long ago, are now fairly big business in the world of electronics, with numerous different brands competing for your money. The basic idea behind them is that they act as a backup for the files on your computer, so that if the worst should happen and your computer drives break or become corrupted, you can always recover your precious photographs, music, documents and so on from the external drive sitting next to your computer. In a world where people are storing increasingly large amounts of information on their computers, external hard drives are becoming a must have accessory to act as peace of mind in case something goes wrong, and perhaps rightly so.
Personally I bought the Iomega Minimax Desktop Hard Drive for exactly that reason. I had just bought a MacBook Pro, which as well as being a pricey item in itself, was also to ultimately be used to store a large amount of personal files on, including vital work documents, photographs, and music. Whilst I had every faith that my newly purchased Apple product wouldn't break on me, I thought that the price of an external hard drive was a small one to pay for that piece of mind. I will confess that my path to buying this particular hard drive was not extensive; it is one of Apple's recommended products (it is actually designed to sit on top of the Mac Mini), and after scanning some positive reviews online, I took the plunge.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS/VITAL STATISTICS
The Iomega Minimax is a compact little unit, measuring approximately 16cm x 16cm square and being about 3.5cm high. It is white on top with silver trim around the sides. As should be obvious, it is nice and neutral in colour and will look right at home next to the majority of computers. There is no option to stand it up on its side as there is with some of its competitors. However, this really isn't necessary, as the square design is convenient enough to fit pretty much wherever you need it to go, including for stacking on things and having things stacked on it (though with the latter I would recommend very lightweight items only).
In addition to the basic design, there is also a small slit blue light on the front of the unit below the logo, which illuminates when the drive is turned on. The light isn't too bright or distracting, though is perhaps not as subtle as it could be. Personally I've never had any issues with it though, and I wouldn't particularly consider it to be a negative.
The on/off switch is located on the back of the unit to the right, which is as convenient a place as any, and the AC point which connects to the mains. They are joined by an impressive array of four USB ports, a USB 2.0 port (which is a different shape) and three Firewire ports (which do the same job as USB ports essentially, but transfer data quicker). In other words, this hard drive should be able to handle anything that you want it to in terms of multiple connections. I have only ever used it to connect to a single computer via a single Firewire port, though it is clearly capable of handling more ambitious use than that.
SETTING IT UP AND TAKING IT FOR A SPIN
The Iomega Minimax Hard Drive has its own independent power supply, as opposed to being powered directly through a USB cable (as is the case with portable external hard drives), and therefore it has to be plugged into the mains to work. However, once it is plugged in it can then be switched on and off via the switch at the back, which means no bending down to switch it on and off at the mains.
Once the unit is switched on and connected to your computer (via either a USB or Firewire cable) it should immediately be recognised and pop up as an icon. At this point it is effectively set up, and you should be ready to drag and drop items into it as and when you wish. However, nowadays it is possible to set up external hard drives to back up your computer automatically. How this works varies depending on your operating system (Macs do it via Time Machine), but whichever way you do it the Iomega Minimax can setup to work in this way with just a few simple clicks. It can then work away in the background without you having to do anything. For those who want to use it for more technical purposes, for example to backup a Playstation 3, it can of course be formatted however you wish, and therefore has a large degree of flexibility.
A common problem with external hard drives is that they are noisy, especially when writing data to the drive. Fortunately there are no such worries here. The Iomega Minimax does make some noise when it's initially switched on, but otherwise works away very quietly. If you listen carefully you can hear it, but I can't say it has ever come close to distracting me when I'm using my computer, so in this regard the hard drive has to get top marks.
Of course it is fair to say that a hard drive would be remarkably ineffective in terms of giving peace of mind if it was prone to breaking itself. And indeed, external hard drives do not have the best track record in terms of how long they last. However, I again have no complaints in this regard in relation to the Iomega Minimax. I have owned it for about two years and it still works as well today as it always has done. Admittedly I only turn it on when I want it to back up my files (perhaps once every few days on average), and then turn it off when it has finished, but I wouldn't recommend keeping an external hard drive on indefinitely in any event. Providing you use it how I have done, I would expect that the Iomega Minimax should last quite a while.
In terms of physical durability, I can't confess to ever having dropped the unit or really banged it in any way. It has survived two house moves in its time, but it was well packed on both occasions. As such I can't really say how well it stands up to physical punishment. However, I wouldn't expect that the average person would want to use this as a rubgy ball anyway, and certainly keeping it away from the edges of things is just common sense. So the only advice I can give is just to be sensible with it.
The Iomega Minimax is my first external hard drive, and the highest compliment I can give it is that it has never given me any reason to seek out a replacement for it. It works quickly, quietly and efficiently in backing up my files, and is a subtle addition aesthetically to my desk. It has never broken or in any way degraded in terms of its performance in two years, and therefore really doesn't offer an negatives in my experience.
In terms of price, the 500GB version of this model has now largely been replaced with the 1TB and 2TB models, which obviously offer more storage. However, if you can track down the 500GB version you should expect to pay £60-£80, which is a little pricey compared to rival models. However, the extra cost is worth it for the reliability factor in my opinion.
All in all there is nothing I can really criticise about the Iomega Minimax External Hard Drive apart from possibly the cost of buying one, so ultimately I can only recommend it.
In 2001 a game called 'Devil May Cry' was released to critical acclaim on the Playstation 2. This game was effectively an updated incarnation of the old scrolling beat em up genre. In other words, your aim is to control your character in a third person view and progress through levels in an adventure style setting, but with a heavy emphasis on getting up close and personal with a variety of nasty enemies and doing your best to rip them to pieces en masse.
Shortly afterwards God of War was released on the PS2, and as a rival to Devil May Cry the two series set out to make their own niche genre. On the current consoles (Xbox 360 and Playstation 3) those two names have been joined by others, such as the underrated Bayonetta. Dante's Inferno is another new name to come out of the fire and ashes of this newly found genre. But with such a strong field to compete with, how does it fare?
If there is one thing that history has taught us, it's that making a deal with the devil is asking for trouble. Unfortunately this was a message that didn't get through to Beatrice, who is the wife of Dante, the protagonist of the game. She decided to bet her soul that her darling husband would be faithful to her. Unfortunately he wasn't, and so her soul went to the devil. Dante himself found this news out after dodging death himself, by quite literally beating up the Grim Reaper and taking his scythe, and therefore sets out on a quest through the various circles of hell to rescue his beloved from Lucifer.
As a plot it is admittedly not the best, despite the game being based on the 14th century poem The Diving Comedy. However, in terms of presentation the game does do considerably better than its story would suggest. Make no mistake (in case the premise left any room for doubt) that this is certainly not a game for children. It is rated 18 for a reason. The graphics are nice and gritty, with fiery pits and structures crumbling at every turn as Dante descends into hell. The music is powerful and fitting, and is complimented by other sound effects such as the screaming of imprisoned souls, or the taunting of larger demons in the background. These aspects combine well to add some real atmosphere to the game as you beat off constant waves of hellish demons. The game also contains cut scenes and cartoon segments to tell the larger story surrounding Dante as his journey moves on, and it is these cartoons that are perhaps the standout part of the presentation, bringing some real charm and originality to proceedings.
The enemies themselves are also suitably intimidating and gruesome. They are initially themed around the specific circle of hell that Dante is fighting through, with deadly prostitutes populating Lust, and the more than slightly disturbing unbaptized babies that populate Limbo. These come at you in constant waves, and as you fight them you are often watched over by larger demons in the background, really giving a strong sense of being up against it as you tear through armies of enemies.
There are also other nice touches that help with the atmosphere of the game. Throughout the various levels you will encounter some well known characters from history who have been damned, such as Pontius Pilot, and you have the ability to 'punish' or 'absolve' each of these. It is a small touch, but once that certainly adds something to the feeling that you're fighting through hell. Overall Dante's Inferno is a game that is initially very well presented, and does the basic job of involving you in a world that very much emphasises and compliments the nature of the game.
It should be obvious by now that the odds, at least in terms of numbers and generally size and power of the opposition, are firmly stacked against our hero. Fortunately the control system gives you more than enough ability to dispose of these swathes of hellish demons. The controls are responsive, and work well in the fast paced and bloody combat that you will often find yourself embroiled in, with your scythe cutting easily and efficiently through enemies in your path. Crucially, there is also variety to the combat, with Quick Time Events (the name given to the need to press several defined buttons in sequence) used to bring down larger foes, and a decent number of other attacks being available to deal with everything else. As well as the viciously effective scythe, Dante has a holy cross that provides powerful ranged bolts of holy power to hit enemies from afar. This holy cross also gives you the opportunity to 'finish' enemies by pinning them to the ground and pressing the cross to them, dealing out holy justice in a pretty spectacular manner, or simply ripping them apart with the scythe. Throughout the game you have the ability to upgrade Dante using the souls of defeated enemies, as well as through finding dark and holy relics scattered around the levels. These allow you to unlock new attacks as you go to keep things fresh.
All in all the combat is actually very satisfying, showing that at the very least the game has the basics right. There are problems, though. At times the mechanics of the game can cause Dante to be caught up in attacks by enemies with no chance of blocking or dodging them. These sections can take a significant chunk of health away, which leads to the feeling of frustration when the AI beats you in a way that is perceived to be cheap or unfair. And that is never good. The aiming for the ranged attacks also doesn't work very well, which for the most part is not an issue as you throw out attacks liberally, but can be a problem when trying to hit a specific enemy across a crowded room. I should stress, though, that these are by no means fatal flaws. I hold this game to high standards because the rest of the genre is competitive, but ultimately Dante's Inferno does an excellent job of the basic combat, and it brings with it a combat system that is fundamentally enjoyable.
Unfortunately there are other aspects to the game that don't work quite so well. The game breaks up the combat with enemies with what can only be described as puzzle sections, though I do hesitate to use the phrase. Why? Well, generally speaking these sections are unimaginative and incredibly simple, such as pushing boxes into position or turning leavers. More often than not any perceived difficulty at completing these sections is caused by the game not making it obvious what you have to do, rather than actually outwitting you. As a result the puzzle sections are a significant let down, and only serve to break up the pace of the game and deprive you of time spent in the generally excellent combat sections. They feel like a waste of time, when really they should be a decent change of pace that helps to mix up the experience.
Sadly there is also a much bigger problem with Dante's Inferno, and that is that the quality and flow of the game is not consistent as you progress through it. What I mean is that the excellent presentation described above slowly withers away until the game becomes something that is less than average. The crumbling and fiery areas quickly become closed off rooms that do everything they can to kill the impression that you're fighting your way through a hellish underworld. The enemies, too, become average, with the gruesome and vile creatures from the earlier circles replaced with stereotypical enemies such as wizards towards the end of the game.
To be frank, this is extremely disappointing. Games that offer a single player campaign with no multiplayer have to provide an experience that ties together well and leaves the player feeling satisfied by the end. Unfortunately Dante's Inferno does neither. It is almost as if the developers just ran out of ideas for the last sections of the game and reached into a book of computer game clichés for their inspiration. The result is that the adrenaline pumping start to the campaign withers by the end into something that is simply mediocre.
This is a real shame, because certainly the first half of the campaign is an excellent gaming experience that would come highly recommended. For all of the minor issues with combat and the (slightly bigger) issues with the poor puzzles, the game does a fantastic job of throwing the player into an intimidating environment where fighting down through the levels of hell is a genuine thrill. Unfortunately by the end of the game the memories of these earlier sections have been dampened and replaced by a game that has stopped trying, and as a result leaves the player with a somewhat hollow feeling.
Dante's Inferno is very much a game of two halves. The first half is a fast, exciting, adrenaline packed ride through a well constructed word that offers an excellent gaming experience. The second half (or at least final third) is almost the opposite, with the imaginative and exciting elements of the game stripped away to leave something which still has some of the basic elements right, but provides little to tie them together to keep the player interested.
When compared to other games in the genre, Dante's Inferno struggles. As much as I liked it initially, and wanted to like it through to its conclusion, it just doesn't match up to the likes of God of War III and Bayonetta as an overall package. Both of those games are genuinely excellent and offer some of the finest gaming experiences of the genre. Dante's Inferno, for all of its early promise and undoubted high moments in the first half, fails to maintain the consistency that would allow it to challenge its rivals in terms of quality.
That is not to say that it is a game that shouldn't be considered as a purchase. Much of the negative overtone of this review comes from disappointment forged out of an initial experience of the game that was extremely positive. And just because the game finishes with a wimper, it doesn't mean that the early parts of the game are somehow irrelevant. They are not, and if you pick up a copy of this game those early sections will provide you with hours of vicious entertainment. Just don't expect the quality to last.
At the time of writing Dante's Inferno has achieved platinum status on the Playstation 3 and the platinum version of the game is due to be released in February 2010. For that reason you should expect to pay between £10 and £15 for a new copy, depending on what you can find. At that price I'd certainly say it's worth a purchase if you're already played and enjoyed the likes of God of War and Bayonetta.
There is no possible way that anybody reading this review has not at least heard of Star Wars. If you haven't seen any of the six movies, then fair enough. I can comprehend that. But if you try to claim that you don't even recognise the name, then I simply don't believe you. Because Star Wars is one of, if not the, biggest movie franchise of all time. It is global phenomenon really, spawning not only the aforementioned six movies, but also swaths of memorabilia, books, toys, computer games and so on. The Star Wars war machine spans decades, and has millions of (sometimes worryingly devoted) fans. In short, the Star Wars name carries great power in the consumer world, allowing even the most mediocre products to sell in droves just because they have some relevance to lightsabers or the Force.
For those who aren't aware, one of the latest products of the Star Wars name is an animated television series called The Clone Wars. Effectively set between Episode II and Episode III, it tells a number of stories in half hour episodes set in the Clone Wars conflict. Being a cartoon it clearly aims to rope in the younger audience to an extent, and then aims to keep them entertained through that classic mix of lightsabers and, well, other science fiction things. But it's all about the lightsabers really. Following on from the television series is Star Wars: Republic Heroes, is the latest in a very long line of Star Wars games. And whilst there have been some excellent Star Wars games over the years, there have also been a lot of pretty terrible ones as well. So where does this latest offering fit on the grand scale?
As should be abundantly clear by now, Republic Heroes is set in the Clone Wars tv series world, and effectively sees you playing the roles of various characters in what could very easily be untold episodes from the series itself. You never control any one character for very long, and will find yourself playing as a lot of different Jedi as well as clone troopers. Functionally there is little difference between the different characters, but it just goes to show that rather than focusing on one character, the game chooses to focuses on a wider plot spread over three Acts, and puts you in the shoes of numerous characters. Which is no bad thing in principle, and indeed fans of the tv show will no doubt welcome this approach.
In terms of the graphics, Republic Heroes certainly won't bowl you over with its graphical prowess, and indeed the graphics are nothing special. However, they are faithful to the series itself, and as such will once again please fans of the show. The characters in the tv series are slightly oddly proportioned in that 'classic' cartoony fashion, and so it is with the game. Effectively what this means is that, whilst Republic Heroes may not be the best looking game ever, it is faithful to the show that it is trying to mimic, and as such cannot be criticised too harshly in terms of graphics. It is far from ambitious and looks a little rough at times, but the cartoon style does suit the game with its quirky characters and colourful worlds, and as such will certainly keep younger players happy.
As mentioned above, the game effectively sees you playing as either a jedi or clone trooper throughout the various levels, and the two types of characters predictably have different sets of controls, though neither is particularly complex or taxing. As a Jedi you can move around, jump, block (which isn't really necessary), swing your lightsaber, and perform a force push to scatter enemies. As a clone trooper the controls have a slightly different style, with movement being controlled with the left analogue stick, and firing your weapon being controlled by the right analogue stick (you fire in the direction that you push the stick). This control scheme is in use a number of other games and will take some getting used to for younger players that haven't encountered it before, but overall it is not all that difficult and should be picked up quite quickly. As a clone trooper you have a further secondary attack of throwing grenades, and can also vault over or crouch behind cover at the touch of a button.
I should make it clear from the outset that these controls are very, very basic, and whilst younger players will no doubt be endlessly entertained with shooting droids or slicing them up with a lightsaber continuously, more seasoned gamers will quickly become dissatisfied with the lack of moves on offer. There is some variety throughout the campaigns, such as being able to 'control' a droid and shoot with them by spearing them with your lightsaber as a jedi (don't ask about the logic behind that, because I just don't know), but ultimately this variety is very limited and doesn't stop the gameplay from becoming intensely repetitive.
Unfortunately though the lack of variety isn't the main issue with the controls, as irrespective of what you're doing they ultimately feel very loose and unresponsive. As a Jedi you will often find yourself falling off ledges to your death and mistiming jumps simply because the game doesn't allow you to measure or control these jumps accurately. It doesn't help that the often confusing level design frequently fails to make it clear where you should actually be jumping to. Equally as a clone trooper you will feel like you're gliding across the floor, and aiming with any accuracy is nigh on impossible, leading to your only real tactic being to spray fire across a wide area in the hope that you will eventually hit all the droids in front of you. And, of course, these issues lead to a lot of unnecessary deaths.
Whilst this issue may sound like something that breaks the game, it is actually isn't due to the one slight silver lining to this very dark cloud, namely that this is a kid's game. And like a kid's game, it is never as harsh on you as it could be. For example, if you fall off a ledge to your untimely death you will always immediately respawn on the ledge that you fell off. Equally if you get gunned down as a clone trooper you will simply be thrown straight back into the action. Still dying an awful lot? No need to worry, as you actually have infinite lives and cannot really 'fail' a level. What this effectively means is that the aforementioned issue with the gameplay never lead to the game becoming frustrating, as you won't be stuck on a particular section long enough to get annoyed by it. This even applies to kids, which is a good thing as this game is clearly aimed at kids. The downside for seasoned gamers is that the game is too easy as a result, but I find that for the younger generation this is never really an issue.
Sadly the negative points don't stop there. I touched briefly on the confusing level design above, and this is a feature throughout the game. Ironically the basic cartoon like graphics mean that the background to the levels and the foreground (i.e. the bit you actually move around on) are often indistinguishable, which effectively means that it can be very difficult to figure out where you need to go, especially in the Jedi sections. The camera doesn't help matters in this regard either as it often swings round to silly positions, which seem to deliberately block your view of where you need to go. Now admittedly the fact that you respawn instantly and cannot fail a level will help to keep frustration levels down even amongst the younger gamers, but this shouldn't be seen as an excuse for what are basic errors that threaten to spoil the game even further.
And the easy difficulty doesn't go any way to helping one of the most annoying aspects of the game; Yoda. Yes, you read that right. Yoda acts as your guide throughout the game, popping up with hints as to what to do next and what move to perform against certain enemies. All in classic Yoda style. Unfortunately he feels the need to pop up constantly throughout most of the levels. Even when have long since mastered the controls and are facing a group of droids for the umpteenth time, Yoda will still pop up and tell you what you already know. And whilst this may sound a little pedantic, he really did annoy me as the game wore on and managed to offer a constant distraction. Admittedly I imagine that kids will find him less annoying and/or may be able to ignore him more effectively than I managed, but I challenge any adult to play this game without getting the urge to strangle that little green guide at some point.
So far I have painted a pretty grim picture of this game, and indeed I am not going to hide the fact that it is a very poor offering by any standards. However, it isn't actually all bad. For all the issues with the repetitive levels, loose controls, bad level design, and poor camera, the game can actually be fun on occasion. Not being able to fail a level means that these issues can be masked somewhat, and at its most basic the game does offer some level of fun. Scything through a group of droids as a Jedi, for example, always offers at least a minor thrill even if you're just mashing one button. Equally, diving behind cover as a clone trooper whilst coming under fire from a group of droids, only to throw a well timed grenade into the middle of them and blow them to pieces, is all good fun and quite satisfying.
This basic enjoyment can also be helped if you have a friend to play with, as the entire game can be played co-operatively. In the Jedi sections this simply entails the second player being the other Jedi that always accompanies you, whilst in the clone trooper sections the second player becomes another trooper in the squad. And in keeping with the general rule, the game is a lot more fun with a friend. Somehow the problems mentioned above become slightly less prominent (though Yoda is still irritating), and the thrill and taking on a large group of enemies is enhanced when battling with a friend.
For those who manage to enjoy the game sufficiently to keep playing it, there is also a decent amount of unlockable items to discover that are bought with points that accumulate as you complete levels. This adds a good amount of replay value as you unlock new costumes for characters, or new cheats to change the dynamic of the levels, and should keep the attention of those who are sufficiently drawn in to the main game.
Those who know their games might realise by now that a lot of mechanics of this game sound very similar to the Lego Star Wars games. And if you are thinking that you'd be right. Indeed, it couldn't be more obvious that this game is based on the Lego Star Wars games. Unfortunately, the poor execution has turned what should be a decent game into a fairly miserable attempt at a Star Wars game. Simply put, Republic Heroes is not nearly as good as it should be and I just can't recommend it.
I understand that there will be some parents who are asked to buy this by demanding children that are fans of the tv show. If that is the case, and your bundle of joy wants this game specifically because they enjoy the Clone Wars television series, then this might just be worth buying. As I have mentioned, there is some small amount of enjoyment that can be gleamed from this, and I think there is a good chance that a younger player can find that enjoyment more readily than an adult can. And indeed any kid that does enjoy this game may well be occupied by it for a while, which ultimately would make it a worthwhile purchase.
If, however, you are looking for a Star Wars game for your son/daughter that doesn't have to be linked to the television series, then I would strongly advise you to avoid this and pick up any of the Lego Star Wars games instead. They work on the same premise, but are significantly better. In fact, they are truly great games with genuine humour and swathes of imagination that you will enjoy yourself. Certainly if I had the choice I would choose to buy Lego Star Wars over this without any doubt. If you have the luxury of that choice, I would urge you to do the same.
WHAT IS G.I. JOE?
Whilst I highly doubt that anyone will actually have never heard of G.I. Joe I suppose it is theoretically possible, so a bit of background seems like the best place to start. G.I. Joe started out life as a selection of military action figures which, as well as serving as excellent propaganda for the American armed forces, were also a lot of fun to play with, and hence they became incredibly popular. The tagline for this series, 'Real American Hero', is very widely known, and throughout the four decades or so that the toy line has been produced it has become iconic as a classic children's toy. Hasbro, the creators of G.I. Joe, gave a licence in the UK for the production of Action Man, which I imagine will be just as familiar (if not more so) to those reading this. Not many people realise that there is a link between the two, but essentially Action Man is the UK spinoff of G.I. Joe.
G.I. Joe, as with any highly successful franchise, has not been refined to action figures over the years and in fact has spawned numerous other forms of entertainment, including a tv series and a special edition Marvel comic book. Most recently, the big budget film "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra" was released in cinemas in the summer, effectively pushing G.I. Joe into the present day/near future with high tech weaponry and oodles of special effects. Unfortunately the film has been slated by critics and fans alike as a below par production that is simply taking advantage of an iconic brand name in a bid to shamelessly make money.
That last line becomes something of a worry when you also consider that a computer game based on the movie has also been released, which is what I am reviewing now. As I stated in my previous review of G-Force, traditionally movie tie ins are games to avoid, and if that is not an ominous sign in itself for this game, the fact that the movie has already been labelled as a cash bow that betrays the fans certainly doesn't instil hope for the game. But could the game, against all odds, actually be decent? Read on to find out.
Unsurprisingly the game is based heavily on the film, which sees you playing alongside a friend as one of the Joes and shooting, blowing up, and otherwise decimating large swaths of Cobra soldiers in your efforts to make the world save for civilised people. So far, so clichéd. It's not the best story in the history of such things, but that's not necessarily a requirement. Unfortunately one thing that does make the whole story telling experience significantly worse is that the cut scenes and voice acting are just so dull. It's like the voice actors did each scene specifically when they were half asleep. Even by movie tie in standards it is outrageously lazy, and makes each cut scene and briefing a chore to sit through. Which is not what you want from something that you are paying to be entertained by.
But honestly, it's not about the story. G.I. Joe as a concept is based on little more than fighting the bad guys, which is the most one dimensional story ever devised. So the standard story and bad cut scenes can be forgiven, because you don't play this game to listen to s wistfully drawn out tale full of twists and turns. You play the game to beat the bad guys and save the world.
Unfortunately, beating the bad guys is nearly as good as it should be. The game itself is a third person shooter, meaning that you are watching your character from a distance as you control him or her. It is also based quite distinctly on similar game mechanics to the classic Xbox 360 game Gears of War. For those not familiar with that game, it essentially means that ducking behind cover, and using the cover to protect you as you shoot at enemies, is a major part of the game, and simply running into the open with all guns ablazing is not going to get you anywhere.
It's a shame then, that a game based on a classic example of the genre is so woeful in its execution. There are so many problems here that I really don't quite know where to start. For the sake of having to start somewhere, I'll talk about the aiming system. Obviously how you actually target the enemies you want to defeat is a pretty fundamental aspect of any action game. In G.I. Joe the targeting system is automatic, which means that the game chooses your target for you. Unfortunately it is therefore somewhat crippling that the targeting system doesn't seem to distinguish between inanimate objects (which do not shoot at you) and actual enemies (which shoot at you quite a lot). Countless time in this game you will be involved in a shoot out with a group of enemies, only to start shooting at the building next to your enemies rather than the enemies themselves. On the grand scale of computer games, that it pretty inexcusable, and is indicative of the sloppy design that plagues this game.
It should be noted that you do actually have the ability to switch the target if you want, but the automated system is stubborn and will switch to another target when you stop shooting for more than a couple of seconds, which makes manual targeting rather pointless. So all in all, you are stuck with an action game that brings it down to luck as to whether you will target your enemy or a brick wall. Not a good sign, really.
But perhaps even worse than the targeting system is the camera. Now normally I wouldn't really mention the camera in a game, because it is usually done right and isn't worth mentioning. But the camera in G.I. Joe is not done right, so it is worth mentioning. You see, as with the targeting system the camera is automatic and you have literally no control over it at all. But once again the problem is not that you cannot control it, but that it is so possessed with a mind of its own that it makes shopping trolleys look positively sane and manageable. You will often find yourself being shot at by enemies off the screen, so you are left firing blindly out of your field of view (probably at a brick wall), and really have no idea what is going on. The camera will also often swing around without warning, leaving you disorientated and, as the controls take a few seconds to catch up, running in entirely the opposite direction to where you want to go.
The targeting system and camera may seem like two very basic aspects of any action game that should be done right. And they are. But they are not done right here, and these to problems are pretty much crippling to the entire gaming experience. Simply put, it is hard enough to shoot at enemies when the game refuses to let you target them, but even more so when you cannot actually see the enemies that are trying to turn you into a human sieve. It just makes the entire experience a chore, and not very much fun at all.
Of course in a movie tie in that, as you may have figured out by now, is terrible, there are many, many further issues. One of the first complaints that I had with the game was that each of the Joes (there are potentially twelve to choose from) looks so bland. In the action figure line up each one was unique, but in the game (and, to an extent, the movie), each of the characters looks to similar all of the others, which significantly takes from the charm that a G.I. Joe action game should have. The graphics themselves are pretty average, but even that seems something of a moot point when the character design butchers the original concept anyway.
A further complaint is the vehicle sections. Normally in games vehicle sections are supposed to add some variety to proceedings. Mix things up a bit. Keep things fresh. Unfortunately in G.I. Joe the vehicle sections are shamelessly tacked with terrible controls and, which is a running theme, a clear and distinct lack of effort. This is even more a shame than everything else in the game because G.I. Joe fans will recognise a lot of the classic vehicles from the toy line up, so the fact that no effort was put into the sections involving them just leaves a really sour taste.
The final issue that is worth mentioning is the length of the game. Not that it is too short, but actually that it is too long. It takes about seven hours to finish. This isn't just because the game is so bad either. Even if it did what it does well seven hours but still be too long. You see, even with the major issues aside the game is incredibly monotonous in itself, with little more to do than destroying wave after wave of enemies and bosses, dodging and weaving (well, theoretically anyway) behind conveniently placed boxes, and generally getting through inhuman amounts of ammunition in pursuit of world peace. There is little variety, and seven hours is just too long to be doing the same thing. Four or so hours of a solid, well thought out shooter with replay value would be preferable to seven hours of monotonous rubbish.
Whilst it would be tempting to say that there aren't any, there are a couple of positives to the game. The first is accelerator suit. Every character has their own unique special power that they can unleash (which are not only inconsistent in their effectiveness, but also don't really add much), but the accelerator suit is something that every character can activate at certain points. And, as much as it pains me to say it, it does make the game more fun than at any other time. You become invincible, and essentially move around with incredibly speed and do silly amounts of damage. Maybe these sections just activated my primitive and childish desire to beat games easily, but I did have fun with this, and it was the highlight of the game for me. That's not saying much considering how incredibly terrible the game is, but it was the highlight nonetheless.
The second positive is that you can plug in a second controller and play the game co-operatively with a friend or relative that you wish to punish. That said, I do enjoy playing games co-operatively and have to admit that the game is a lot more fun with playing with a second player. This might have something to do with the fact that your AI partner is so useless when playing single player, or it could have something to do with the fact that it is easier to laugh at how bad the game is when experiencing it with a second player, but either way it is more enjoyable playing this with a friend. The bad aiming is still there, and the camera still struggles with two players, but at least you can share the pain with someone else and make light of the failings of the game.
I was originally going to entitle this last section 'Should you buy this game', although I would imagine that it is painfully obvious by now that the answer is a resounding 'No'. Because even for parents that are being bugged by their children to buy this game, it is not an advisable purchase. Yes, you run the risk of incurring your child's wrath in ignoring their demands, but I honestly can't see any child sticking with this game for longer than an hour. It is just not accessible or good enough, and will be too frustrating. At the very least if you do end up buying this game for a child I would recommend playing it with them so that you can help them through it and control the frustration. If you are forced into buying this, it is currently available on HMV for £17.99
But providing that you don't have a demanding child to appease, there is absolutely no reason why you should buy this game. Even if you happened to like the movie, it cannot be denied that this game butchers the memory of the franchise, and should be avoided like the plague. If you want a good franchise tie in, go and buy Batman Arkham Asylum. It is exceptional. If you want a good third person shooter that is similar in style to this but is actually competent, go and buy Gears of War. Just don't buy this. You will regret it, no matter how much you enjoyed playing with your G.I. Joe action figures back in the day.
The concept of arming a small group of hamsters with high tech weaponry and gadgetry and sending them out to save the world is a frankly bonkers idea that you can imagine a group of somewhat tipsy students coming up with in a pub somewhere. Though rather than saving the world, the hamsters would probably be up against other rodents, and bets would be placed on which species would be triumphant in the end. Such barmy concepts do not generally go much further than that, and certainly do not get made into multi million pound blockbuster films. But a film is exactly what has been made of this high tech hamster concept. A Disney film, no less. Welcome to the world of G-Force, a film where the only thing preventing the world from destruction is a small group of intellectually superior hamsters armed with gadgets and weapons that would make James Bond jealous. You've probably heard of it by now, and may well have taken your children to see it.
But Disney films rarely stay isolated within their own world. There will be extras, such as merchandise. And, usually, a computer game. Which is exactly what has happened in this instance. This is a review of the Playstation 3 version of G-Force, but whilst I have not had the pleasure of playing the other versions (it is out on all major consoles) I would imagine that they are more or less the same as this one. So if your child/children has/have asked you for this as a birthday treat or stocking filler, read on to find out whether purchasing it is worth your while.
WHY DID I BUY IT?
Before diving into the review proper, I feel that this question is a relevant one. You see, I am fairly experienced when it comes to computer games. I have been playing them for a long time, and know the general ins and outs of the industry. One thing I certainly know is that, as a rule, movie tie ins are absolutely rubbish. Some of the worst games ever made have been movie tie ins (in fact, ET is widely considered to be the very worst game ever made). There have been some decent movie tie ins over the years (Toy Story 2 and Spiderman 2 spring to mind), but generally they are ones to avoid.
So why did I buy this? The short answer is that I didn't. As it happens the game was bought for my nine year old nephew as a present, and one fateful afternoon when he was around at my parents' house I was given the arduous task of keeping him occupied whilst everyone else talked about other things, mainly because no one else wanted to play computer games with him. So the mission fell to me, and he wanted to play his shiny new movie tie in. I was left with no choice.
Of course he wasn't done with the game in one afternoon, but unfortunately (and as fate would have it) he left the game at my parents' house. So having played a couple of hours already, I decided to make the most of this opportunity and finish the game, because up to now it wasn't too bad. Which is exactly what I did over the next few days. That alone should give the hint that I got some amount of enjoyment out of this game, and indeed the ending to this story is a happy one. So read on.
As already mentioned, G-Force is a direct tie in to the movie of the same name. It is something that you will probably only buy because you or your children have seen the movie. And indeed, if for some unknown reason you buy it without seeing the movie (I have not seen the movie), you will be left as confused as I was. Because whilst there are plenty of cutscenes, there is very little actual story here. I know the basic gist (explained in the first paragraph of this review) because I had seen the trailers and my nephew insisted on filling me in on the details as he fought his way through the first couple of hours of the game, but beyond that there is no plot of character development here at all, which frankly feels a bit lazy. Even the dialogue between characters (which there is plenty of) is really a little bit dull, with painful and cheesy one line jokes offering the only clue that the script was written by someone with a personality. Whether the movie's script follows the same pattern I simply cannot say, though I hope for the sake of those who have seen it that it does not. But either way I would highly recommend that anyone wanting to either play through this game or buy it for someone else ensures that anyone who plays it has seen the film first. At least I assume that seeing the film sheds some light on proceedings, because certainly my nephew didn't look nearly as confused as me.
The game itself is a platformer/third person shooter combination in which you mostly play as Darwin, the leader of G-Force. And armed with a variety of weapons and gadgets, you must amble on through the game completing objectives, solving puzzles, defeating enemies, and generally saving the world from, in this case, a bloke who intends to conquer the globe by turning household appliances into bloodthirsty monsters. Yes, you read that right. In addition you also get to spend some time playing as Mooch, another member of G-Force who apparently has sufficient gadgetry to allow him to fly. Good for him.
If this review sounds negative so far I have been misleading you, because actually G-Force is a lot of fun to play. The controls are well thought out and very responsive. There is a wide variety of things to do in this game, and each action is controlled in a smooth and solid fashion. So whether you're crawling up a drainpipe or fending off rabid waffle irons with your electric whip (never thought I'd write that in a review) you will do so using controls that, on the whole, make the experience pretty satisfying. The controls are quite easy to get to grips with (my nephew had no problem), and they are precise enough to prevent any unnecessary frustration (again, none was present when my nephew played it, nor did I experience any). Controlling Mooch is also a lot of fun. Often you will by flying high above the levels that you play in with Darwin, and zipping through gaps in metal grates and weaving in and out of light fittings really is quite thrilling, and one of the highlights of the game. There are also a couple of levels where you are riding in your motorised hamster balls (obviously), though unfortunately the controls here aren't that good at all, and it can be quite tricky to make the ball do what you want it to. That said these sections aren't long at all, and on the whole playing the game generally is good fun and the control scheme is solid.
The game does also, initially at least, have enough variety to keep things interesting. As well as fending off enemies you will also have to solve puzzles, and for the most part these are original whilst being just the right level of difficulty (again, my nephew didn't struggle for too long with any that he faced). However, it should be noted that as the game moves things can drag at times as the level of variety drops. Certainly this was by no means crippling to the experience, but it does feel like the developers somewhat ran out of ideas about half way through, and as a result the game did have its noticeable dull moments. Then again I would imagine that this affected me far more than it would a younger player who loves the film, as the novelty as playing as a superhero hamster would likely not wear off as fast for them. Still, the game is far from non stop entertainment and excitement, and after a few hours it does become somewhat monotonous despite the early promise and variety.
The graphics in G-Force, whilst not close to mind blowing, are good enough. Obviously the level of detail in the characters and environments isn't close to the level that the film reaches to, but no one would realistically expect them to, and certainly those playing it won't mind about that. But it is good to see that the developers have put some effort into the graphics, and by movie tie in standards they are pretty decent. My only complaint here follows the same line as the gripe above, namely that there is a lack of variety in the environments. Why government facilities must always be grey I am not quite sure, but either way the environments do get a bit bland after a while.
One thing that absolutely has to be mentioned here though is that G-Force does have one very unique graphical gimmick to offer up in the form of 3-D glasses. Yes, you read that right. 3-D glasses. In a computer game. Very exciting. The Playstation 3 version (and I believe the Xbox 360 version as well) comes packaged with two sets of these, and when you set the game to use the glasses (done easily through the menu screen) you can experience the joy of having the characters pop out of the screen.
As exciting as that sounds, it unfortunately isn't really as good as it should be. Unexpectedly, but I suppose somewhat reasonably, the mode that allows you to use these glasses washes out the colours in the graphics. So whilst the 3-D is interesting and entertaining for a while, the graphics become remarkably dull. I would also not recommend using the glasses for very long, because to be absolutely frank it hurts when using them for prolonged periods. When watching my nephew play it wasn't that bad, but when playing myself (and therefore concentrating harder) my eyes did start hurting after an hour or so. All in all kids will probably love this feature (my nephew wouldn't play without them, despite the fact that it was probably liquidising his retinas), but it does take away a lot of the graphical charm and isn't as good as it should be.
HOW LONG WILL IT LAST?
It should come as no surprise that G-Force really isn't that difficult, as indeed it is clearly aimed at a younger audience. It does have its ever so slightly tricky moments, but you are given plenty of lives at the start of each level, meaning that even kids shouldn't encounter too much frustration in playing through the game. The lack of challenge is something of a double edged sword, as whilst kids are unlikely to give up with it and (I imagine) will play it to the end, it won't keep them occupied forever.
In terms of length, I obviously don't know how long my nephew took to finish it (I'm sure he has by now), but it took me about seven hours or so. At a guess, I'd say that would translate into between ten and twelve for kids depending on how good they are at it. So whilst it is not the longest game in the world, it is a decent length for a game of this nature. The only downside is that I would guess that once finished it probably won't be played again, as it is monotonous at times and certainly I had no desire to play through it a second time. That said, no doubt a child who is hooked by the charm of playing as a gadget wielding hamster might find more time in this than the average person, but as always that can never be guaranteed.
Many parents will be pushed into buying this game because their children demand it. That's the way of the world, and has resulted in the purchasing of many a substandard product over time. But in this case the game is decent enough. It is, for the most part, well put together, and it is actually quite a lot of fun to play for both children and adults. It is certainly a step above the average movie tie in, and better than a lot of other games aimed at kids as well. As such I would recommend the game to any parent who is considering buying it for their son or daughter; providing they have seen the movie they will get their fair share of fun out of it, and it is a worthy purchase.
Of course for everybody else (and certainly for adult/teenage gamers) there are far better games out there, and as such this should be avoided. But that should really go without saying, because this is a kids game, and never pretends to be anything else. And considering that the game can be picked up for about £20 (it was previously £17.99 at Play.com, and I would expect it to drop down again) this is not only a reasonable price for a PS3 game, but one that will do its job of entertaining the kids as well. And in that regard, whilst it may not be the best game in the world, it cannot be faulted.
Sports games sell. That much is undeniable. No matter how much we enjoy watching sports and playing sports, there will seemingly always be a market for sport games on consoles. This is especially true for football. Just look at the facts. Year on year millions of people scramble to buy the latest edition of Fifa or Pro Evolution Soccer. For many it is an automatic purchase. Yet for other less popular sports timing is often required in order for sales to be properly boosted, and this is evident in plenty of releases. For example Virtua Tennis 2009 was released a month before Wimbledon. And so it is with Ashes Cricket 2009, a game that makes no secret of the cricket spectacle that it is relying on to boost sales.
Cricket games are quite rare on consoles, coming along once every few years or so, usually to a lukewarm reception. This is not only because cricket is less popular than other sports, but also because it is difficult to translate into a compelling gaming experience, and many cricket games are substandard. Those who have been playing games for a while may remember the excellent Brian Lara Cricket on the PC (the original one), but sadly no cricket has hit those heights since. So how does this latest offering fare, and is it worthy of the name that it carries?
I know that graphics are not generally the most important area of games, but they do make a difference, and indeed you're likely to notice the graphics before you really get into the nuisances of batting or bowling. And, chances are, it is not going to make a good first impression. Why? Well for a start the player likenesses are horrendous. It is pretty much an expectation of sports games nowadays that the players depicted look like their real life counter parts. One look at any player in Fifa or Virtua Tennis and they are instantly recognisable, adding to the illusion that you are actually playing as that person.
Not so in Ashes Cricket. I honestly do not know what these player models were based on, but it certainly wasn't the players themselves. Whilst the odd player bears the odd resemblance to their real life counterpart, on the whole the likenesses are terrible. I genuinely cannot stress enough just how bad some of them are. Freddie Flintoff, for example, one of the most recognisable cricketers in the world, is depicted as a square headed, almost hunched ogre type character. Sort of like if you squashed the real Flintoff with a mallet and then blurred his facial features. And unfortunately most players follow suit in looking nothing like their real life counterparts. Let's just say that you'll be extremely thankful for the fact that the names pop up on the screen regularly. Certainly not a positive for the game.
In terms of how the players move and general animation, things are better. On the whole the animations for both batting and bowling look realistic and are nice and smooth. Things do get a little disjointed and jittery now and again, but this is nothing that spoils the experience. There are some nice little touches in this area, from subtle little animations in the outfield, to the solid and very satisfying sounds when the ball is struck cleanly or the bails are hit dead on. Everything in this area is generally put together to a good level, to the point where you will forgive the minor rough edges. So even if the players look like non descript men on the street, at least they play like cricketers.
The batting controls in Ashes Cricket are, in theory, very simple. First, you use the left analogue stick to position your man. Then, you use the right analogue stick to aim where you want the ball to go (with better batsmen being more accurate), and then hit a different button to strike the ball depending on whether you want to play a standard shot, a defensive block, or a high six hitting lift. It really is as simple as it sounds to get to grips with the general controls, and certainly you won't be left wondering how to swing the bat.
Mastering the batting controls, however, is a little more tricky. This is because, as in real life, batting is all a matter of timing. Yes, shot selection is important (no point in swinging wildly at a full bodied deep thunderbolt or defensively stabbing away a short slow ball), but at the same time if you cannot time the correct shot, you won't get very far at all. Your are helped in this regard by a small marker which shows where the ball will land, and it turns from a circle into a green blob to show you when you should be striking. Crucially this doesn't make things too easy (you still have to get the timing right and play the right shot), but it does make things a little more accessible and, on easier difficulties at least, minimises the chance of the game becoming frustrating.
There are also nice little touches to the batting system that make it more realistic and more fun to play with in equal measure. One prime example is that the confidence of the batsman that you're playing as is displayed on screen. A succession of hits, even singles, will raise this confidence and make it easier to hit big shots, whereas missing balls, not scoring runs, or seeing your partner bowled out will drop your confidence. This system puts every ball in context rather than being individual, and gives a better sense of building an innings, rather than just facing a succession of isolated balls.
Overall this 'simple to start but hard to master' system does seem to have hit a perfect balance. You'll jump for joy when you hit your first four or six, and honestly that thrill never goes away. The feeling of getting the better of the batsman and smacking a poor delivery for six is one of immense satisfaction, as in real cricket, and in this respect the game gets it spot on. There is also a lesser, but still quite real satisfaction in blocking an excellent delivery or playing a cheeky single, and all of this culminates into a batting experience that really is very good indeed. It is, above all, enjoyable, which means that you will have no problem finding the patience to build those high run partnerships.
On the other side of the coin, the bowling controls are pretty easy to get the hang of as well. First you choose where you want the ball to bounce, then press a corresponding button depending on what type of swing or spin you want on the ball. You then need to time the run up so that you release the ball at the right time, with good timing being the difference between bowling a plum delivery, and bowling a terrible ball that gets smacked out of the park for six.
The confidence system also applies to bowlers, with confident bowlers throwing down unstoppable balls more often, whilst bowlers that lack confidence are more likely to present batsmen with more opportunities to score runs. The confidence system is, if anything, more accomplished with bowlers than batsmen. When watching cricket you often get that feeling that 'a wicket is coming' when a bowler bowls a succession of strong deliveries, and this happens exactly the same in this game. As a bowler bowls a series of balls, his confidence rises and he continues to bowl good balls. Coupled with the detrimental effect that this can have on the batsman, this makes a wicket more and more likely, and really gives a sense of tension and anticipation with the bowling.
Once again the bowling system does take time to master, and indeed unless you stick on the easiest difficulty level (when timing the perfect ball is a doddle) you will never fully master the bowling system. Yes, with experience (or indeed just straightforward knowledge of cricket) you will learn which types of delivery work best in different situations, but on the higher difficulty levels bowling the perfect delivery every time is nigh on impossible.
However, far from being a frustration this is actually quite realistic. No bowler bowls an entire game of perfect balls (far from it), and this is true here. However, the feeling of bowling an excellent delivery and catching out a batsman is just as thrilling as hitting a six, if not more so. Personally I found getting a batsman out in bowling to be far more satisfying than the batting on the whole, because the contrast between getting hit for fours or sixes and bowling a plumb delivery is so stark. But it is fair to say that both systems are implemented well, and result in the backbone of the game being strong.
Unfortunately whilst batting and bowling in principle are implemented well, there are plenty of negative points to the game that threaten to spoil it. The first example is with fielding, which is not nearly as engaging as the two main disciplines. In fact, placing your fielders is something of a passive exercise and seems to make little real difference. Once the ball is hit you also pretty much lose control as to what happens next, having to leave the fielding as a whole down to what is some very shaky AI. Too often fielders just don't react to balls that stop right next to them, or fail to catch balls than nearly hit them. This can be immensely frustrating and, especially when bowling, can detract from what should be an immersive experience.
Regrettably though, the rough edges don't stop there. There are plenty of glitches in this game that break up and hinder the experience. Some examples are batsmen both being at one end of the crease, which is crazy in itself, but the fielders then often ignore the chance of a run out, fielders holding on to the ball for no reason, or terrible leg before wicket calls that are clearly not even close. It could be argued that this latter bug adds realism, but I don't buy that. Mainly because some of these calls are just so outrageously bad. All of these glitches add to the frustration and detract from the enjoyment, and often significantly so. In fact, the AI in general can be very hit and miss, which makes playing against the computer a frustrating experience at the best of times.
There is also the (some would argue minor) problem that only Australia and England are fully licensed, meaning that the player names for the other teams are wrong. I would say that the likenesses are terrible as well, but that applies to all of the players. This isn't really a game crippling issue, but is a somewhat baffling one. To be honest I don't know why a licence couldn't have been obtained for all of the teams, and this will annoy cricket enthusiasts.
As expected all the major forms of cricket are represented, including test matches, one day internationals, and the ever popular twenty twenty format. There is also the full 'Ashes Experience', where you play the whole Ashes series as it has just happened, with the same teams being present and all the tests being played in the same location. All of these game modes (apart from the latter, obviously) can be played with any of twelve international teams, though as previous mentioned only England and Australia are fully licensed.
There are also ample options to get more than one player involved, from online game modes to various types of offline game modes to play with several people on the same machine. And this, undoubtedly, is where the game shines. This is because whilst playing with another player many of the glitches and bugs with the AI simply aren't there, resulting in a more satisfying and enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately the online community is pretty sparse, and as such those wanting to buy the game to play online may wish to think twice. There simply are not a lot of people online, which means that finding a game can be an incredible chore, often to the point where it really isn't worth it.
Offline though, the game really does come into its own. You can play 'co-operatively' against the AI (by building a run partnership or taking turns bowling), but by far the more enjoyable experience is simply going against the player sitting next to you in a one day international or test match. Quite simply this results in the excellent bowling and batting systems becoming even more compelling, as you cheer with delight as you hit a delivery for six or clean bowl the batsman. Having a person sitting next to you to compete against just makes these excellent moments all the sweeter, and in thi regard Ashes Cricket rivals any other sport game on the market.
Ashes Cricket us a prime example of a game that gets the basics right, but ultimately falls short due to the developer not spending enough time with it, and allowing bugs and glitches to seep in as a result. Whilst the bowling and batting system are accomplished enough, the baffling glitches, uneven AI, and lack of licensing, often threaten to ruin what is actually a pretty good game.
This game can still be recommended to those looking for a decent cricket experience, because in all honesty it is decent. Certainly if you're going to playing the game with a friend this comes pretty highly recommended. But if you're going to be playing by yourself I would stop and consider whether this is really worth your time, as it can get very frustrating at times.
I have no doubt that most people who buy the game will get a decent level of enjoyment out of it. But potential buyers should be aware that the game has its flaws, and these are not insignificant. One day I'm sure that a developer will come up with the perfect cricket game. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as it can be, this isn't it.
The Midnight Charter is the first in a promised fantasy trilogy. It is author David Whitley's first novel, and as debut releases go there is a fair amount of pressure following this book around. For a start he is only 24 years old, but even more poignant for such a young author is that this book is published by Puffin. Which means that it has been released in 20 countries in 13 languages (well, you don't expect a company like Puffin to do things by half do you?). And when you add together a young, talented writer with a major book publisher, you certainly create a level of expectation. So how does the book actually fare?
The Midnight Charter is set in the fictional fantasy city of Agora, a place where money does not exist and quite literally anything can be bought and sold. Which means that residents of the city get by not just by trading traditional physical possessions, but also more novel items such as their emotions, and even their own children, who do not become 'free' to trade independently until their twelfth birthday. The police of this society are called Receivers, who ensure that deals are kept to as well as enforcing the harsh and punishing law on more traditional crimes. The mysterious Director or Receipts watches over the entire city, and though he is rarely seen there is nobody than cannot be touched by his influence.
In the absence of money, status is determined by reputation, with one wrong deal or dishonourable act more than sufficient to knock a person from the top to the bottom of the ladder. Those with nothing left to trade are called 'debtors', and in a world where things always have to be traded these helpless individuals have no way of climbing back up the social ladder. This highly pressurised and cut throat society is very much self centred, and charity as a concept simply does not exist.
I have to admit that this premise really appealed to me. In basing the main feature of his world on what is essentially capitalism with a twist, David Whitely avoids the normal clichés of magic and strange fantasy creatures, which in itself feels so very refreshing. Yet at the same time the world does contain this fantastical element of mystery and adventure rather than simply being a twist on the normal world. It is an original approach, and one that for me really does pay off.
CHARACTERS AND PLOT
The book centres around two children called Mark and Lily, who at the start of the book are not yet teenagers. Mark is only a couple of weeks off reaching his twelfth birthday (and therefore effectively his independence), whilst Lily is only a couple of months past the same point. Mark has just been sold to a doctor, who himself lives and works from a tower owned by his grandfather, a powerful and strict Count who is one of the cities most highly regarded astrologers. Lily is the Count's only servant, and helps Mark to adjust to his new life.
However, this status quo is not maintained for long. The Count expels the doctor from the tower, and in a last minute dramatic act Lily trades places with Mark to become the doctor's servant, and leaves the tower with him. Mark manages to move from a simple servant to the Count's apprentice, and within a few short months is the most famous young astrologer in the city. With the city's make up being based so heavily on astrology (each district, for example, is named after a star sign), those with a talent in that area are always hot property, and as a result fame and fortune come beckoning for Mark. By contrast, Lily and the doctor struggle to support themselves whilst helping other people. In considering how to help those who cannot trade anything for the services provided to them, Lily comes up with an idea that will send ripples through society's norms. Yet the lives of Lily and Mark are being watched closely by powerful and mysterious forces that work to conspire against them as their fates seem inexplicably intertwined, and eventually both are forced to confront the question of just how in control of their own lives they are. More importantly, just what is the Midnight Charter, which seems to influence so many powerful people?
Whilst there is a smattering of supporting characters in the book, Lily and Mark remain the central focus throughout, and in reality that focus never strays from them. So it's a good job, then, that their characters are so well defined. Lily is a fiery and resilient character who fights for her principles, whilst Mark retains and air of innocence and naivety despite his rapid rise to fame. The personalities of both of the characters develop to an extent as they experience more within this harsh world, but these fundamental traits remain strong throughout, and the way that the characters are developed really is quite impressive.
These two main characters do not exist in a vacuum, however, and there is an ample supporting cast of characters. None of these are given anywhere near the character development that Lily and Mark are, but this isn't really necessary when the main characters are so prominent. It is very much a story about Lily and Mark, and therefore the role of the supporting characters as just that, namely people who aid the story and are developed through their interactions with the two main characters, is perfectly adequate. That said, Whitely doesn't neglect his supporting cast entirely in terms of their importance, and delivers some excellent twists and turns through them on occasion. He also ensures that each character is painted fully into their role, so the reader is wary of the sneakier and more evil characters, whilst sympathising with the good ones, which is a mark of good judgment more than anything and gives proceedings some much welcome depth and complexity.
As debut novels go, this really is impressive work. The writing style is very easy and results in the book being a real page turner. Whilst more than ample time is spent setting the scene, which may turn off more impatient readers, when the book hits its stride it doesn't let up for one second, and from about half way through the book reaches a fantastic pace that the reader can't help but be carried along by.
That said, this slower start results in the city of Agora become really well defined to the reader before the plot proper gets going, which in itself has its benefits. Personally I felt that the varied districts and settings of the city served to set the tone of any particular scene in an impressive manner. Character interaction, like in most novels, is key in the Midnight Charter, but the physical settings in which these events take place help to create a truly vivid world littered with excellent little touches, and enriches the novel as a whole.
As mentioned above, the characters of Lily and Mark are very well developed and they make excellent main characters. Personally I found that Lily was a particularly well defined character, and I really enjoyed reading the sections in which her stubborn and fiery personality comes to the fore. Throughout the book there are numerous meetings between Lily and Mark and the stark contrast in their personalities makes for some really engaging dialogue sections.
The plot itself, whilst slow to start, quickly becomes interesting and engaging. Certainly my eyes were virtually glued to the last eighty or so pages. I seem to remember audible cursing when reading the book on a train that subsequently arrived at my stop with fifty or so pages to go. I genuinely didn't want to stop reading, and it has been a while since I was that engrossed in the closing pages of a book. Which of course is an excellent sign. Speaking of excellent signs, the ending to the book is superb and sets up the next instalment in the trilogy, Children of the Lost (due out in 2010), very well indeed. I really can't wait for it, which I imagine will be most people's reaction.
The Midnight Charter is effectively aimed at the 11+ range, but will certainly appeal to adults just as well. I would highly recommend it to both seasoned fantasy readers, and those who enjoy the more mainstream offerings of Harry Potter, Dark Materials and so on. To that end, it would actually make a fantastic present for anyone who has previously enjoyed those books (Christmas is, after all, on the way).
It is excellent to see a new writing talent burst onto the fantasy scene, and that is exactly what David Whitely has done. A long and successful career beckons on the evidence of this debut novel.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT PLACEBO
I normally wouldn't start a review with information about the artist/band in question. However, I would imagine that plenty of people reading this review don't actually know who Placebo are (they have never really been mainstream), so in this instance it seemed like a logical place to kick things off.
Placebo are a British band that were formed in 1994, and despite the fact that you may not have heard of them (or may have heard of them, but can't instantly recall any of their songs) they have in fact enjoyed a significant amount of success, and have sold over one million albums in the UK. In terms of style of music, they are very much a rock band, and any attempt to paint them as anything else would be somewhat misleading. In terms of comparison, they could perhaps be placed into the same general group as bands such as Blur and Radiohead. That said, over the years Placebo have noticeably attempted to advance their music and vary their style a little. This brings with it a level of appreciation from fans, and I at least feel that the band is not content with slipping into complacency by producing similar material with every album, which is good to see. Battle For The Sun is their sixth album, and is one that perhaps shows the most significant varying of their style to date. Certainly on reflection this was a bit of a risk, and if you want to know whether or not that risk has paid off, I suggest you read on.
1. Kitty Litter (3/5)
Odd title, but a very familiar start in terms of how this song pans out. I know I just said that this album is an attempt by Placebo to vary their style, but those who have listened to Placebo albums in the past will instantly feel at home with the opening to this song. Harsh riffs and solid drum beats bring a high tempo opening (and, indeed, a high tempo song) that signals the classic signs of a Placebo album. However, there are small signs of the changes to come, as there is clearly more variety as to the number of styles of guitars. On the whole though this track does its job by setting the tone and nothing more. The lyrics are a little lacking to be honest, and certainly if you analyse this song closely the main flaw that will be exposed is in that area (it's repetitive and just not really very endearing). However, as a song that you're only half listening to as a part of a playlist it's absolutely fine, and a decent enough opening to the album.
2. Ashtray Heart (3/5)
This song is similar to Kitty Litter in that it is high tempo with solid and consistent rifts. However, the sound that it produces in general is noticeably less harsh. There is also a backing track, which may sound a little odd to Placebo fans, but which actually works quite well all things considered. The song is in danger of being a little bit generic (a cardinal sin for rock fans), but the introduction of some non English lyrics adds a little bit of quirkiness. It's quirkiness that I imagine will turn off a lot of people who are used to Placebo producing something that is, well, not in a foreign language, but personally I quite like it. The song is not spectacular, but it signals an intent on behalf of the band to become slightly more appealing to a wider audience, which bodes well for things to come.
3. Battle For The Sun (2/5)
The title track, but one that honestly got me very worried about this album, because after a promising opening couple of tracks this one goes down hill. The thing is, if you take the individual components of this song, they are fine by themselves. The problem is that they do not come together at all. The lyrics are repetitive, and a lot of the song is just a chore to listen to. Listening is something instinctive that requires no effort as a rule, but I genuinely found it to be a struggle to listen to this song. If the uninspiring style wasn't bad enough by itself, the fact that this goes on for over five minutes is a nail in the coffin. As I said, there are some individual components that are fine (and rescue the song from a mark of 1/5), but on the whole this is just a struggle to listen to. One to be skipped.
4. For What It's Worth (5/5)
Luckily the anti climax of the title track is soon scrubbed away with this song, which is much, much better. It's a decent tempo again, but the thing that sets this apart from the three songs that came before it seems to be that a lot more thought has gone into it, and it really comes together very well. The lyrics are catchy, the tempo is good, and, importantly, the song is very pleasant to listen to. It just sounds good in the same way that the more mainstream rock tracks do (such as the recent ish Kings of Leon hits). It's also short and snappy, which means that there is no risk of it becoming dragged out or repetitive. It's really one to sing along to in the car whilst tapping your hand on the steering wheel, and overall this is one of my favourite tracks on the album.
5. Devil In The Details (1/5)
This is very different in style to the ones that came before it, with a very noticeable electronic backing for a lot of the song. Then you have lyrics that, because of the electronic backing, don't really sound like a song. Followed by a burst of guitar riffs from nowhere in the middle of the song, before a finish with the electronic backing again. If you think that this sounds like a rubbish recipe for a song, you would be right. It is rubbish. It barely actually sounds like a song at all for most of the time, and really is just a mess. Very difficult to listen to and really with no redeeming features that I can see.
6. Bright Lights (4/5)
I was very apprehensive about this track because the first thing I noticed is that the electronic backing sound is stuck with her as with Devil In The Details. However, this time it is actually done right. It is very easy to listen to with the electronic effects on the guitar put to good use. There is no traditional drum or guitar solo present, but then again it would have felt a little out of place if anything. The lyrics are a little odd to be perfectly honest, but on the whole this is a solid track and will please newcomers and fans alike.
7. Speak In Tongues (3/5)
The band stick with the electronic sounds with this one, interlaced with light guitar riffs. The standout feature, however, is the vocals, which are far more ambition in terms of pitch compared to other songs on this album. And they actually work quite well, which is a shame because the song as a whole is missing something and doesn't seem to come together quite right. You almost feel like the vocal ambition deserved something better to back it up. Instead you have a track that is decent enough, but just doesn't do enough to be memorable in the long run. A pity.
8. The Never Ending Why (4/5)
The lyrics for this one are odd. I'm not actually a person who generally pays close attention to lyrics when listening to rock music, even when I'm singing along to it (which may sound like a contradiction, but I promise that it isn't). But it is noticeable that these lyrics are odd. However, thankfully it doesn't detract from what is, tempo wise at least, an upbeat offering. The desire for Placebo to alter their style is shown here by some odd sharp piano sounding notes at parts of the song, but on the whole that somehow works with the meaty guitar riffs even though it really shouldn't. A decent track.
9. Julien (1/5)
This is a very strange song. It's electronic based again, and has something of a blaring backing track. There's not really much to say about this. I don't like it. The lyrics sound somewhat monotone in front of this really odd backing track, and I just can't get into this track at all. It's deep and repetitive and just not appealing. This doesn't work for me at all.
10. Happy You're Gone (4/5)
The piano chiming sound is back again for this one, but only to introduce some stronger guitar riffs later on. In many ways the guitar riffs offer some classic rock, which becomes even more prominent when combined with the strong vocals. I actually really like this track. The opening lyrics become mellow when put in front of the chiming back track, and then become much more powerful and emotional when the guitar comes in. It just works really well, and is a song that I took to straight away. If I had one criticism it would be that the mellow section at the start lasts a little too long, but by the end you won't care.
11. Breathe Underwater (3/5)
The high tempo with guitar riffs from the first two songs is back, though it is interlaced with some interesting drum work. The vocals are a little stronger as well. On the whole though this one falls into the same category as the first two songs on the album. It is a high tempo rock song with some solid riffs, that is decent to listen to as a background track, but falls apart a little when you analyse it. Solid, but not spectacular.
12. Come Undone (3/5)
And now we're back to mellow. This song is similar to Happy Your Gone in that it has the chiming followed by some heavier riffs. The reason why it is not as good is the vocals. This time around rather than having a power to them, they end up sounding a little bit whiny. Similar to the 'ballad' songs that punk bands come up with sometimes. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing, and it is a decent song, it just doesn't quite work as Placebo track and feels like a step backwards in a way. Fine for the casual listener though.
13. Kings Of Medicine (2/5)
Not a good ending. Once again this is a little odd. There's a very simple backing track with a mix of electric sounds and standard, simple riffs, but with a much more prominent vocal set. However, the vocals are not ambitious, and it just sounds like talking. The song is once again somewhat mellow, but with the lack of effort in the backing track it just sounds like a monologue with guitar riffs and piano notes in the background. It's not absolutely terrible, but isn't really that good either.
This album represents, in my opinion, the most significant step yet in terms of Placebo trying to vary their style and come up with something original. Parts of the album also sound like a push towards the mainstream. However, for me the album as a whole just doesn't really work. There are some good tracks on here, and certainly those who approach rock with something of an open mind can and will find a lot of entertainment. But traditional rock fans will be turned off by the variety, and Placebo fans may feel that the band has drifted too far.
However, despite the album not flowing well as a whole, that doesn't mean that the collection of songs isn't worth a purchase. Individually there is enough quality here to warrant a purchase. I'd probably recommend it for those who have an open mind when it comes to the genre, and it would make a good present for someone who is a rock fan but looking for something a little bit different. Just don't expect to be blown away, and don't expect something that stays in a consistent style.
For some time now it has been official that Blu Ray has won the high definition format war against HD-DVD, and as such is currently on a mission to replace all the DVDs in our meticulously constructed collections, much like DVDs did to VHS a while ago. However, at this moment in time Blu Ray is still being ignored by most, and even for those who are making the transition it is still an expensive format. Which means that anything on Blu Ray that represents good value instantly become an attractive proposition. Which brings me to the 28 Days/28 Weeks Later Blu Ray double pack. Two of my favourite horror movies of recent years backed together in one high definition box for a very reasonable price (I personally picked it up for £9.95). But how does it stack up against other Blu Rays, and is it worth it over the DVD versions? Those are the questions, and I'd like to think I now have the answers.
28 DAYS LATER
Directed by Danny Boyle (he of Slumdog Millionaire infamy), 28 Days Later was released in 2002 to critical acclaim and became an unexpected hit. It tells the story of Jim (Cillian Murphy), who wakes up naked in a hospital bed in London to find the entire city deserted and wrecked. Curiosity and anxiety turn to panic when Jim meets Selena (Naomie Harris) and discovers that society as he knows it has effectively been destroyed by an uncontrollable and highly infectious virus that turns humans into bloodthirsty 'Infected'.
Jim and Selena join with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his young daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) and set out together in their attempts to stay alive long enough to find a safe haven. In doing so they follow directions to a mansion that has been barricaded by a group of soldiers led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). However, it soon transpires that the soldiers have less than honourable intentions, and ultimately the group are left fighting for their lives against not only the bloodthirsty Infected, but also the soldiers that they relied on to protect them.
There has been much debate over various aspects of 28 Days Later. A common issue with fans of this genre is simply that the movie breaks certain 'rules' of the genre. For example, one perceived issue seems to be that the Infected run. And they run fast. Apparently this breaks the long standing rule that zombies shouldn't run, and is something to be criticised. Further criticism comes of the final segment with the soldiers, with many claiming that it tries to send across a message of how uncivilised human beings actually are, and sacrifices the quality in the end.
Personally with movies like this I don't buy into clichés, nor do I look for hidden messages. I simply attempt to enjoy the film. And as a piece of entertainment, I personally consider 28 Days Later to be right up there with the finest examples of the horror genre. In opening in a setting that is deserted and abandoned rather than chaotic and bloody (such as, to give one example, Dawn of the Dead), the movie is somehow more realistic, and sets an atmosphere that this thick with tension. It then carries the viewer through lightning quick and panicked set pieces that personally never fail to get my heart racing, yet the whole time maintaining this compelling sense of dread that hangs over the entire movie.
I have already stated above that 28 Days Later is one of my favourite horror movies, and it should therefore come as no surprise that I rate it very highly indeed. But in breaking the aforementioned rules it creates a grittiness that makes the movie seem much more real and, consequently, much more terrifying. Yes, there probably are hidden messages in the soldier segment, but even in this final part the fact that the characters are being hunted by two distinct groups just raises the tension further. But the attention to detail and planning evident throughout doesn't let up for one minute. Every performance is polished and believable, every scene meticulously constructed, and ultimately it results in 28 Days Later being a heart thumping ride from start to finish, and one that I heartily recommend to those who enjoy a good horror movie.
28 WEEKS LATER
But how did the sequel, released in 2007 to far greater attention than the first, fair in the face of this strong first showing? The short answer is very well and the longer answer is, well, longer. But allow me to elaborate.
28 Weeks Later unsurprisingly begins 28 weeks after the initial outbreak. The Infected are dying out, and the American army has arrived in order to clean things up and attempt to rebuild civilisation. With the centre of London entirely secured, civilians are allowed back in to get on with their lives. But the discovery of a woman long thought dead in the outer suburbs of the city throws the city back into jeopardy. She has the virus in her blood but is not Infected, displaying some kind of natural immunity. Yet whilst she is immune her husband is not, and one innocent kiss transmits the virus to him, and the nightmare begins all over again.
Despite a very similar premise, 28 Weeks Later is a different type of horror movie to the original. Whilst the first movie built up a solid atmosphere filled with tension, the sequel dispenses with the subtleties and goes straight for the jugular. Once the infection is reignited the pace quickens considerably and rarely lets up for the remainder of the film. There are some similarities, such as having some hidden messages that you can find if you like to look for those types of things (as already stated, I do not, at least not in a horror film). But on the whole things are very different when compared to 28 Days Later, and this film gets under your skin in very different ways.
Once again we do have a rag tag band of survivors looking for safety, but the scenarios that they encounter here are much more varied. Crucially they build on different types of fear, and this is what makes this movie stand out. It is still very much a post apocalyptic zombie type film (just without the zombies), but one that shows more colours than average. The budget on this movie was considerably higher than the first, and it does show, but it does not, in my opinion, hamper the film as many would suggest. What it does is just create a different experience, and one that is equally as terrifying as the first, if admittedly in different ways. The instinctive human fears of being trapped, helpless, and hunted are all present and correct here and portrayed incredibly effectively.
Many criticise this film for not staying true to the original's gritty style, and whilst this is fair comment in principle I personally don't feel that it reduces the quality of the film. It's a different type of film, but one that does its job just as well. I was not constantly gripping the ends of the arm rest when watching this as I was with the first, but if anything my heart was beating faster, and I certainly couldn't tear my eyes away from the screen. It may not be as intricate or as clever as the original, but it still hits just as hard and remains one of my favourite horror movies right alongside the original. If I had to make a decision I would pick the original as my favourite. However, that's a decision I don't want to have to make, and luckily as both films come in this back I don't have to. The bottom line is simply that these two horror movies are fine examples of the genre, and a must for anyone who likes to be scared silly.
BLU RAY QUALITY
Now if this was a normal DVD review, things would end there. And indeed if it was a DVD review of one of those films it would be two reviews by now. But this is a Blu Ray set, and things go far beyond the quality of the movie. Because Blu Ray films cost more than DVDs, so if you're going to shell out on them, you have to get something above and beyond the DVD experience. And you get that through the picture and sound quality. So are the Blu Ray versions of these films up to scratch?
In the case of 28 Days Later, the unfortunate answer is 'no'. When people think of Blu Ray they think of crystal clear pictures and vivid colours, but you don't get any of that in 28 Days Later. In fact, there is very little difference from DVD at all, with the same graininess in the DVD version present in the Blu Ray picture. To put it another way, the picture just isn't as clear as a Blu Ray picture should be. On the one hand, this is understandable. 28 Days Later was shot as a gritty film, and the picture quality is entirely intentional. But what this translates into is a Blu Ray that offers little that the DVD version doesn't. Yes, the sound quality is better, but when the picture is still grainy that ultimately means very little, and will not satisfy consumers that expect more for their money when buying a movie in high definition.
Thankfully, 28 Weeks Later puts this right. As noted above, this is not a gritty movie like the first, instead offering a more polished picture and advanced special effects. And it shows in the Blu Ray picture, which is noticeable sharper, clearer and more vivid than the DVD version. The explosions are brighter, the characters are sharper, and the dark parts are much darker. The sound follows this trend as well, offering a much punchier and clearer sound. Overall it is fair to say that the 28 Weeks Later Blu Ray is a notable step up from the DVD version, and is exactly as a high definition version should be. In short, if you're watching this movie in high definition you will notice the increase in picture and sound quality, and that really is the bottom line
In terms of extras, the Blu Ray versions unfortunately don't contain any extras over and above the DVD versions. Admittedly those extras contain a juicy amount of extra content for those who have the desire to dig into them (including a few alternate endings, which are always interesting), but with nothing exclusive to Blu Ray there is nothing on the extras side to warrant the extra money. That said many of the documentaries and such are actually in high definition which is on par with the second film, so there is some measure of a bonus there.
28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are two excellent horror films, and in my opinion are right up there with the classic horror movies of old. The last ten years or so has been a pretty torrid time for horror movies quality wise, but these two films buck that trend and deliver tension and terror by the bucket load. For that reason alone they are worth a purchase, at least on DVD. However, those pondering the Blu Ray purchase should stop and think twice. The package offers excellent value for money compared to other Blu Ray movies, but really only shows off one of the two films in true high definition format. If you have already embraced high definition this Blu Ray pack is still a worthy purchase. But those who haven't shouldn't feel that they are missing out on too much. The DVD double pack is still available for half the price of this one, and whilst 28 Weeks Later looks good in high definition, overall it is nothing that should pull you into the realms of high definition if you're not already there.
For horror fans looking to build a high definition collection, or even those looking to build high definition collection of high quality movies, this is essential. But for everyone else, there's no harm in waiting until Blu Rays in general become better value for money.