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===Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines=== ==Story== The game is set in White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade universe, a pen and paper RPG where entire societies of vampires, werewolves, gargoyles and wizard hide from the normal human world around them. The game focuses of course on the Vampires, who are split into various clans, each with their own genetics flaws and traits, goals and connections, and then split again into factions of different political ideologies. As a newly born vampire, you are roped into the schemes and plots of the Camarilla, a dogmatic, fascist faction hell bent on upholding the Masquerade that keeps humans from discovering vampire society. You must prove your worth and discover the mysteries behind a mysterious Sarcophagus rumoured to be linked to the End of Days. The story is fantastic. Though generally linear, it has plenty of branching paths, opportunities to side with different factions and many problems have a multitude of different solutions to them. The world is huge and has plenty of places to explore, each with many little stories and quests underscoring the main one. It's well paced, well told, has plenty of excitement, mystery and intrigue and is just a great experience all round. As someone who had never heard of Vampire the Masquerade before playing this game, I can attest to the fact that it does an excellent job at introducing new players to the world around them, the different clans and the history of the universe. The exposition given in dialogue never seems forced and can of course just be skipped if you are already familiar with the game. In addition the loading screens will contain interesting factoids to let you know even more. Top tip though: do not play as a Malkavian on your first play through. They have oracular powers and will occasionally spoil plot twists before they happen. They are, however, the funniest and most entertaining clan to play as, so make it your second playthrough. ==Characters== As well as characters in the Camarilla you have the opportunity to meet, do quests for and even possibly join some of the other factions; the Anarchs (who uphold the Masquerade but don't think the dogmatic regime of the Camarilla is the right way to go about it), the Kue-jin (the Asian equivalent of vampires) and the Sabbat (vampires who wish to dominate mankind and give in to the beast within). There are plenty of memorable characters in each location and in each faction. Many have deep and emotionally involving backstories and you as a character get to determine their futures in the game's storyline. Some are funny, some are tragic, others you will want to beat to death with a cheese grater (*cough*Prince LaCroix*cough*), and hey, the game will probably let you do just that eventually (minus the cheese grater part). Voice acting on every character is also superb, though the actual writing can be a bit cheesy at times. ==Gameplay== Experience points are gained by completing quests and objectives rather than just killing enemies. The levelling up and skill system takes a while to get used to and on the first playthrough its difficult to know exactly which skills you should go for (since you can't be good at everything). Possibilities for completing certain puzzles will be limited by not having the right skill, but all in all this just increases the games replayability. Always make sure you invest some in combat though; while you can talk your way out of a lot of combat situations, you will have to fight some pretty tough enemies over the course of the game. It's also possible to go through most of the game as a melee character, only to get a huge shock in some levels where gun skills are necessary; make sure you invest the odd skill point in guns even if you aren't using them. In combat there are a ton of different weapons to choose from, from sledgehammers to shotguns and everything in between. You can even beat a man to death with his friend's severed arm if you fancy it. Combine this with loads of different clan skills, such a mind-bullets, driving everyone in the room berserk and turning invisible for a sneak attack, combat is always varied, challenging, interesting and a ton of fun. Stealth is perhaps a touch too easy though, but hey, I guess the game designers were just cutting the Nosferatu some slack. Each piece of dialogue can have a different outcome depending on the approach you take, and often you can use special skills to get the edge, such as seducing and intimidating the NPC you are dealing with. Certain clans get special skills to use in dialogue which are a lot of fun, such as the Malkavian who can convince people that they have just eaten a plate of maggots or that their hair is on fire. One of my favourite interactions is a random encounter in which you run into a woman from your past life as a human, and the Malkavian can convince her that no, you aren't her long-lost friend whose parents have been searching for for months, but in fact the pet hamster she flushed down the toilet when she was 12. The branching paths through the both the game and the dialogue, the ability to side with different factions, and the multiple endings give the game as a whole great replayability. Replayability is increased even more by the fact that playing as a different clan each time really gives the game a different feel; if you are a Nosferatu, you must play without letting any human see you, if you are a Malkavian, many characters will get frustrated with your endless nonsense and you can run around driving people insane and using mind bullets, and so on. Even the side quests, of which there are many, have different outcomes which change the gaming experience; you can have your own blood slave (a 'ghoul'), be a partner in a bar, and even fight zombies at the local cemetery. The world is in-depth, exploration is rewarding and the possibilities are truly endless. I've had it since 2005, and I still enjoy replaying it today. ==Graphics and Sound== The graphics are hit and miss. It runs on Valve's Source Engine, so in a lot of places the graphics are quite impressive and as a whole the game has aged well; a modern gamer can play it very easily without having the immersion ruined by horrid oldy-time graphics. The animation can be a bit clunky in places and there is still the occasional glitch. It's nothing too distracting, just the odd shop owner having a seizure while you're trying to talk to them. The score is incredibly atmospheric and fits the game to a T. Clubs each have their own music thats fun to dance around to, darker levels have their own spooky themes and city streets have very subdued little tunes that blend perfectly into the world around you. The game also features my favourite Lacuna Coil song, Swamped, as the theme to the ending credits. ==Conclusion== This game really is a classic, and should be played by any one who is a fan of the pen and paper rpg, or just vampire mythos and rpg games in general (that's proper vampires, none of this Twilight rubbish. I joke). Its a ton of fun, its replayability is through the roof and the story and characters are all a joy to play through. This game has remained such a cult legend that updates and mods for it are still being made to this day. Make such you play it with one of the mods installed (I recommend the UnofficialPatch and whatever the latest Clan Quest Mod is, 3.0 at the time of writing), because the game as shipped is horrifically buggy (near unplayable), and the mods contain new quests and easter eggs. In addition, the game is not compatible with Windows 7 unless you have installed the patch. Highly recommended!
==Fable 3== The latest instalment in Peter Molyneux's Fable RPG series, how does it hold up? ===The Story=== This unfortunately contains a fair bit of spoilers, since it's impossible to discuss the merits of the story without them, so be warned. It the industrial era, and you are the sibling of the King of Albion, an oppressive, evil king. After a showdown in which your brother gives you the choice of having your love-interest or a group of protestors executed, you decide you've had enough of this nonsense and escape the castle to begin a revolution, guided by a mysterious prophetess. Along the way you discover that a nightmarish creature known as the Crawler is on its way to destroy the kingdom and everyone in it, and you must find a way to take the throne and stop the monster before it's too late. The story in this section of the game is very well told, and the Fable world is beautifully crafted in all its self-referential glory. Many of the levels and set pieces that are incredibly tense. The level where you meet the Crawler is a nightmarish and terrifying level full of great imagery, sounds and the perfect atmosphere. It's one of my favourite levels in gaming history, and the level right afterwards where you escape, exhausted into the desert is fantastic too. Unfortunately, this just isn't sustained throughout the game. Where it goes downhill is when you finally charge the castle and take the throne, about half way through the game. The story completely changes tone, pace and kilter, leading to a jarring case of gaming-whiplash. Instead of the epic showdown you were expecting your brother simply throws up his hands and is all "Fine. You deal with the gribbly monster trying to kill us all" and promptly saunters off. The throne is yours, and you must now rule the kingdom while waiting for the Big Bad Gribble monster to arrive on your doorstep. This brings me to my biggest problem with the story. It hinges around this great moral dilemma, of doing good things at the expense of not being prepared for Mr Gribbly (as you promised everyone who helped you get where you are), or being an oppressive git but being prepared (as your brother was trying to be). My question is, why is this a dilemma? Why can't the king just explain to his subjects that a giant monster is on its way and he just wants everyone to buckle down and put up with a year of hardship, and he promises he'll rebuild that orphanage once the threat has passed? This option is never presented, for some reason the nobility decide to keep it completely secret. Worse still, it's possible to side step the dilemma entirely; you are able to put your own personal funds into the war effort, meaning if you anally buy up every house in the land, rent them out and contribute your millions, you can be the Good King of Cake and eat it too. This leaves the moral message of Fable 3 being: if you want to solve all the world's problems, become a real-estate tycoon. ===The Gameplay=== The combat is an over simplified rehash of Fable II and I. One piece of criticism the Fable gameplay designers have just flat out refused to listen to since the very first game is that the magic is grossly overpowered. Well, it's even worse in this game, as now not only will your fireballs of death kill everything with ease, but you can now combine it with your lightning bolts of doom just in case things weren't dying fast enough. This makes combat a pointless grind. Stand in crowd, hold B button until everything is dead, rinse, recycle, repeat. Once you become king/queen a new game mode opens up where you make judgements on certain issues relating to the management of the kingdom, such as whether to shut down an orphanage to build a factory (where the factory owner is offering to grants profits to the war fund) for example. You can also do minor things like impose prohibition and set taxes. This has an effect on the world around you, for example less drunk people will be wandering around if you ban alcohol, and depending on your decisions your subjects will either boo or cheer you as you walk around (though one wonders why they are confident enough to boo you given that you probably can just have them executed). It's a nice feature but it is introduced a little too jarringly about midway through the game. Some foreshadowing would be nice. In addition it seems to make the second half the game very poorly paced, including an egregious example where the plot suddenly skips forward 200 days without warning. Both the inventory system and the level up system have been converted from a list-based menu to some sort of weird alternate dimension hotel room inside of the player character's head. So instead of pausing combat and equipping a sword, you pause combat, are transported to the Land of Oz and must go fetch your sword from its stand in the weapon room. Call me old fashioned, but I don't get it. What was wrong with a menu system? This feature pulls you right out of combat and interrupts the flow of the game completely. Finally, the ability to influence a crowd is completely gone. Now if you want to increase someone's opinion of you, you have to engage in a conversation mini-game. After you have increased it by a certain amount, in order to continue you must complete a randomised fetch quest for the NPC. Because that's the best thing about RPGs isn't it? Fetch quests? I genuinely never bothered with this element of the game. It seemed like tiresome busy work for no real reward. The game also places a large amount of emphasis on being able to hold people's hands and take them places which again, I don't really see the point of. As a result of all these changes, you are left with a huge and colourful world to explore, but nothing actually fun to do in it. The most fun I had outside of the main quest was the pie-making mini-game. And that is not a compliment. ===The Characters=== One thing you can always rely on with the Fable series is a star studded cast. Stephen Fry remains delightfully funny as Reaver (though I preferred the character when he was a pirate) and the likes of Michael Fassbender, John Cleese and Simon Pegg turn in great performances too. No idea how Peter Molyneux keeps managing to assemble such a cast for a video game, but I'm impressed nonetheless. That said the characters themselves are largely forgettable. Though some characters (such as your mentor Walter) are well developed and interesting, a lot of them are just...meh. Most disappointing is the lack of character development given to your brother, Logan (Fassbender). He is revealed to be struggling with the exact same moral dilemma you face (be evil, get eaten by the Crawler) in the very last scene we see him in, but we don't really get any sense of how its affected him emotionally, whether he was redeemable or not and so on. Lots of opportunities were missed, and it's a shame. I didn't feel there were enough emotionally compelling characters to really carry the story even at it's height. ==Conclusion== A lot of the problems surrounding the Fable series involve Peter Molyneux over hyping the game and its features so I always purposefully avoid all the pre-release material. This is my opinion of the game, coming in blind: you can probably give it a miss. If you are a Fable addict like I am, you'll probably buy it anyway, but for casual RPG fans or those who have never played the series, you can probably find a better game.
==Dragon Age: Origins== ===The Story=== The story is set in the fictional realm of Ferelden, a dark, high-fantasy setting. The land is haunted by horrific monsters called the Darkspawn, who plague the underground, and who every so often rise up in what is known as a 'Blight' to wipe out every living thing in the land. At the head of every Blight is the Archdemon, a legendary figure rumoured to be the tainted soul of a god. You are a Grey Warden, part of an organisation which exists to stop the Blights, and that is just what you plan to do. Unfortunately a catastrophy kills most of the other Wardens, and when you seek allies to build your army, you find the land torn apart by civil war and political bickering. You must unite the people, one way or another, and end the latest Blight. It's a great story, and though it's a bit simplistic ('go stop big bad eating everyone'), this simplicity is well compensated by the elements of political intrigue and the relationships between the various races. The writing style is self-aware when it needs to be, making what would be a lot of tired fantasy clichés fresh and interesting. It also turns a lot of RPG stereotypes on their heads; elves are an oppressed slave race, mages are quarantined from the rest of humanity by the church and dwarven ale tastes TERRIBLE. The 'Origins' part of the title refers to the fact that the player character can choose an origin (in terms of the characters race and class) for their character, such as Dwarven noble rogue or an Elven mage, and each origin has a unique starting level and character story. The origin will also affect interactions with other characters later in the game, as you run into people from your past or are forced to deal with the racism of certain species. It may even limit or extend the options you have for completing missions. I felt it should have impacted the story a little more in the dialogue, as when playing as an elf or mage I never really felt that the NPCs were ever harsh or nasty enough to me, given how feared/hated the two classes are bigged up to be. ===The Gameplay=== The gameplay is very much in the ilk of Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate. You have a wide range of abilities based on your class (mage/warrior/rogue), and you can command your party members in real time, take control of them directly and also pause the game to queue up attacks and strategize. It's solid RPG stuff. Unfortunately the combat overall isn't anything special, bordering on bad. Enemy AI is flat out awful, and there is no variation in their tactics; they'll hoard you with 50 guys and you'll hack and slash and set things on fire till they die. It gets incredibly tedious very quickly. Though there is the potential for strategizing, such as combining spells for greater effect, you'll typically find one set of attacks/spells you like at the beginning of the game and spend the rest of it mindlessly spamming them. Owners of the PC version should check out some of the player made mods aimed at speeding up and improving the combat; they help a little. Unlike most Bioware games there isn't a recorded morality system. Instead the focus is on your relationship with your party members, and your actual concrete actions. This is a positive feature, as instead of NPCs reacting to you based on some arbitrary number of 'good' or 'evil' points, they will comment and judge you based specifically on the fact that you burned down a village that one time or rescued that twelve year old. Not only that, but certain characters have different views as to the morality of your actions and what might garner the praise of one party member might incur a hissy fit from another. It adds an excellent amount of depth to the game, though it comes with the downside that players may find that certain characters are constantly berating them for their actions and that can get a little annoying (Morrigan, I'm looking at you). This game avoids a lot of the 'illusion of choice' problems that plague many modern RPGs; where you are occasionally given the choice to kill a kitten or cuddle it, but ultimately it doesn't make much difference in the grand scheme of things other than giving you a bit more xp or a special item. In Dragon Age, you can be flat out genocidal in places and it'll change things significantly. ===The Characters=== It's a Bioware game. Do I need to say anything? Really though, the characters in this are epic. They are three-dimensional and interesting, each with their own relationship to the plot, own character arc (which the player can influence and twist for good or evil) and even the odd romance thrown in there. There's plenty of side quests linked to their own personal stories to help the player get to know them better, and they will comment on locations and missions you take them on. One of the best parts of this game is listening to them bicker and talk to each other as you wander down some dusty city street. Many conversations are utterly hilarious. I can guarantee that by the end of the game the player will care about a lot of them deeply. ==Conclusion== A fantastic fantasy RPG, recommended to anyone who is even vaguely interested in role-playing, fantasy, epic tales and the like. The DLC are also highly recommended; they are self-contained, epic little vignettes exploring certain character's back stories or aspects of the main story. There's even an alternate universe DLC where you can play as the darkspawn trying to conquer Ferelden. It's not perfect, but then nothing really is. Buy it!
== Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney== ===The Story=== The game takes place in an unknown near-future country, based roughly on a caricature of the Japanese legal system. You playPhoenix Wright, a recently qualified defence attorney, and with the help of your trusty and loveable side-kick Maya Fey, you take on a series of cases and try to discover the truth behind each. Unfortunately for Phoenix, there is no presumption of innocence until proven guilty, reflecting the actual practice in Japan (though it beginning to shift away from this as later games in the series explore). Not so much a reflection of Japanese law is that not even 'guilty until proven innocent' applies, but rather 'guilty until someone else is proven guilty instead'. So not only must Phoenix get his clients off the hook, but he must find the real killer and prove their guilt in court. In doing so he must beat his rival, the Prosecutor Edgeworth, a zealous, antagonistic man who has never lost a case and will do anything to achieve a guilty verdict. The story is fantastic, as is the case with every game in the Ace Attorney series, and worth owning for that alone. The writing is zany, the cases unique and interesting and will hook the player from the start. The penultimate case (or the final case on the Advance port) remains the best case of the Phoenix Wright series (in my opinion), delving deep into the past of the Prosecutor Edgeworth and his rivalry with Phoenix as he find himself on trial for murder and only Phoenix will take his case. Its emotional, heart wrenching, but at the same time utterly hilarious in places - I played it at night on a ferry to France, secretly under the sheets of my bed, and had to get up and lock myself in the bathroom at one point because I couldn't stop laughing. ===The Gameplay=== There are two game modes, both 'point and click' in nature, the first where you search the various locations connected to the crime for evidence, question witnesses and try to work out what happened. The second place Phoenix Wright in court, where he must try to win the case by bleeding the lies out of witnesses on the stand and disproving the prosecution's evidence with his own. Mistakes are punished with penalties given by the judge; once the player accumulates enough they lose and a guilty verdict is handed down. Overall the game is completely linear; there is only one way to advance the plot at any one given time and only one answer to any given puzzle, but the game does a surprising job of masking this by providing a range of locations to explore and people to talk to. The one downside of the game is that the puzzles can be completely head scratching at times, and first time players will probably find them getting through some parts through trial and error (always save first if you are unsure), but overall it's fun to play and it feels incredibly rewarding when you work out a particularly difficult puzzle. ===The Characters=== Phoenix Wright is a strong protagonist, naïve, optimistic but determined and capable of holding his own in a battle of sarcastic comments. Maya Fey is a quirky and cute side-kick who was so popular with the fans that they ended up pasting her character onto every new side-kick for pretty much every other game in the series (I'm looking at you, Trucy and Kay Faraday), so that tells you something. Edgeworth, while starting off as a bit of a one-dimensional extremist, quickly gains a lot of character development as losing to Phoenix starts to break his mind and the reason for his obsessive need for a guilty verdict is revealed. By the end the players care deeply about them and their fates and want to see them succeed. The side characters are all unique and a lot of fun to talk to, and though a lot of them are two-dimensional comic relief characters, you will still cheer when they show up for their obligatory cameo in future games. Some side characters are as well developed and loveable as the leads, especially the beleaguered Detective Gumshoe. ==Conclusion== A must own for any DS or GBA owner. The story is top notch, the characters are captivating and its just an all-round great experience. Its also one of the most unique gaming series out there - I personally can't think of a game where you play a silly haired lawyer and cross-examine parrots. Make sure you get the DS version if you can, as it contains an extra case (and a really good one at that). And play all the sequels too! You won't regret it.
== Apollo Justice== The latest game in the Ace Attorney Series, how does it hold up? ===The Story=== The story takes place 7 years after the last Phoenix Wright game. It's really difficult to talk about the story without giving massive spoilers from the get-go, so suffice it to say we now play a new budding attorney, Apollo Justice. He begins his own quest to be the most ridiculous haired defence attorney of all time, embarking on a series of cases which are all, unbeknownst to him, mysteriously linked. Overall the story is excellent, as is typical with Ace Attorney games. The cases have the right amount of ridiculousness and at the time doesn't sacrifice its ability to make you emotional invested. The last case was...confusing however. Without spoilers, the manner of the game play creates several time paradoxes, leaving me unsure as to what...actually...happened. Don't get me wrong, the story is clear and the ending is strong, but it's head-scratching how the main character gets/knows about certain bits of evidence. You essentially play as someone else, in a different time period, for certain parts of the case, yet by the end BOOM Apollo has all the evidence, no questions asked. It's weird, and could have been executed/explained a bit better. ===The Gameplay=== It's pretty much the exact same gameplay as all other Ace Attorney games, a linear story telling game where you find the evidence, question everyone involved and uncover what happened, interspersed with court scenes where you must defend your client with evidence, rhetoric and a lot of luck and brain-scratching puzzles. The main difference is that psyche locks are mostly gone (though they crop up again in the final case, leading to one of the most chilling scenes in AA history) replaced by a 'perceive' system. Apollo has the ability to easily spot people's nervous ticks and tells, the signs in your body language that show you are lying. The player must find them in witness testimony to gain more information or tear it apart. The first few start off easy, but they quickly progress in difficulty and become quite challenging to spot, making this an interesting and fun element of the game. ===The Characters=== Probably the biggest reason this game gets a bad rap in the AA community is that Apollo Justice 'isn't Phoenix Wright'; they changed the main character, so now it must suck. This is really unfair, as Apollo is as likeable and fun to play as Phoenix was in his first appearance; I strongly suspect if this game had come out first the fans would all be complaining about Phoenix Wright. He certainly isn't as well developed as Phoenix was by the end of his run, but that's only because the latter has had several games to grow as a character, while Apollo has yet to. Par the course, the characters are zany, cool and a lot of fun to talk to. The new prosecutor rival, Klavier Gavin, is unique in that he is the only prosecutor that doesn't start as an amoral nutjob, and is actually a nice guy with the same passion for truth as the defence. It's fairly refreshing, and he is a very enjoyable character. The new side-kick, Trucy, while yet another Maya knock-off, is cute, funny and loveable. Both characters' lives are intimately tied up to the tragedies in the plot, making the player genuinely care about them both. This wouldn't be an AA game without a heap of cameos from previous games, which Apollo Justice provides in spades. Unfortunately its missing a lot of the biggies (we don't find out what Maya is doing with her life 7 years on, nor Pearl or Edgeworth), but it's got Emma, Gumshoe, the Judge and of course Phoenix himself, who forms the crucial pivot of the plot. To a certain extent Phoenix tends to grab the spotlight a lot, pushing Apollo aside in places, but not to an excessive extent. ==Conclusion== Any AA fan needs to own this game, and they need to give it a fair chance and not snub it just because of the main character change. It's an excellent game, and though not the strongest of the series, has the potential to set in motion a new set of games revolving around Apollo that are as engaging as the first lot. New players probably want to play the Ace Attorney series in order however, as the games rely very heavily on cameos and references to the plots of the predecessors, and so are not that accessible to newbies. That said, you won't regret playing the other games either.
==A Review of the York Inspiration Rowing Machine== Rowing is one of the best cardiovascular exercises out there, so how does this rowing machine fare? ===Ease of Construction and Use=== It's easy enough to set up, though it takes a little while. It took me about an hour and a half (it's flat-packed, which I've never been very good at sorting out, but I got it together in the end with the help of some easy to follow instructions). It's very stable and it also folds up for storage, which is neat. Buyers beware that it's a very noisy little minx, but that's common to air-rowers in general (since the giant fan turns when you row), and if you notice it you aren't working out hard enough (only joking). ===Features=== This was the first rowing machine I ever bought, only to be quickly supplemented by a second because I, an uninformed newbie rower at the time, didn't realise this machine is unlike most of those you find at the gym; it has no mechanism for changing the resistance of your workout. It's an air-rower, and as such the tension adjusts automatically depending on how hard you are rowing. Though you have to review a product for what it tries to be rather than what it doesn't, I have to note that this gives you a lot less control over your workout and makes it difficult to do more varied workouts like High Intensity Interval Training. This is is exacerbated by the fact that the basic starting tension is far too high, making it pretty much impossible to warm up properly, and newbies to fitness may find the tension too high in general, making their workouts too difficult. So just be aware that this is a feature of the machine, and so if you are looking for more control, avoid air-rowers and stick with normal ones. The display gives you information on calories, distance, speed and time, but nothing special and no option to set yourself challenges and have the machine alert you when you are done. Most rowing machines have extra programs like this, so its a bit of a disappointment that they're missing. The display is tiny and stuck at an odd angle, so don't expect to be able to read it while you are rowing. Its a bit inconvenient to have to completely stop every so often and crane your neck. ===Comfort=== The seat is nice and comfy. The handle is another hard plastic job that's incredibly rough on the hands, especially when they're sweaty. I do wish makers of ergs would put a little bit more thought into consumer comfort when they make handles. Admittedly it's not as bad as other machines I've used; if you wear gloves or sellotape some foam to the handle you should be alright (even if you feel a bit silly). ==Summary== Even if you are fine with being unable to modify the tension yourself, I'd only really recommend this for non-beginners since the starting tension is surprisingly high and only gets worse. For what it advertises itself as though, its a solid rower with the most basic functions a fitness fan will need, so if you aren't looking for anything more complicated, you couldn't do a lot worse than this. That said, you could also do a bit better for the price, so shop around. Thanks for reading!
==A review of the York Inspiration Rowing Machine== Rowing is one of the best cardiovascular exercises out there, so how does this rowing machine fare? ===Ease of Construction and Use=== The machine takes half an hour tops to put together and comes with everything you need to set it up (it even comes with a spanner, which made me chuckle), including a manual with easy to understand diagrams, so its very convenient in that regard. It also has wheels, which is pretty cool and not something I've seen on other rowing machines, which means despite being heavy it's really easy to just wheel away and shove in a corner when you're done with it. However it wiggles a teeny bit when you're using it, not enough to be noticeable or unstable, but enough that you don't want to put it on tiles that can get scratched or any nice carpet. ===Features=== It's got 12 resistance settings so your workout can be as intense as you need it to be, although I've found anything above an 8 is better for High Intensity Interval Training than regular cardio (bearing in mind that I'm female, men probably will be using 8 for cardio), while anything below a 5 is too easy to really achieve anything. The programs are simple enough, target strokes, time, distance and calories, so basically enough for anyone just looking to burn some calories or improve cardiovascular health, but nothing fancy like HIIT programs. The display will show you your strokes, time, distance, calories, stroke rate per minute and accumulated total strokes. There's no heart rate monitor, but frankly I've never understood why they put those on rowing machines since it's difficult to read the screen when you're moving back and forth at high speed. That said, this machine does have one of the more difficult screens to read, even when rowing slowly. Its a bit small and dark. ===Comfort=== There are pros and cons here. In the one hand, the seat is very comfortable and the foot straps are as secure as you need them to be (good for me, a person with tiny feet who always has problems staying attached to rowing machines). On the other, the handle you hold onto will absolutely wreck your hands if you don't wear gloves (and probably still will if you do). As someone who rowed in university I admit a lot of ergs will give you blisters, but while rowers are expected to put up with it since their hands will be destroyed by wooden oars on the boat anyway, the average consumer who just wants a 30 minute work out really shouldn't have to worry about this sort of thing, and it is possible to design handles to minimise the damage. Unfortunately this machine's handle is just a stick of hard plastic, so no such effort is made in that department. ==Summary== All in all, this is a good machine if you aren't looking for something fancy and have tough skin. For me, the harshness of the handle is a bit of deal breaker, and it's the main reason I'm rating it 3 stars instead of 4, so bear that in mind. Thanks for reading!
== Portal 2== The sequel to the popular puzzle game Portal, how does it hold up? ===The Story=== It's a simple story; you wake up back in stasis after being frozen in time for 1000 years following the first game. The Aperture Science facility has fallen to ruin and you set off to escape with your new friend Wheatley, a robotic sphere, inadvertently waking up a very angry Glados along the way. You journey deep into the recesses of Aperture's past, discovering secrets along the way. It's quaint, it's funny, it's dark, it's amazing. Though far more complex than the short and simplistic plot of the first Portal, it is just as captivating. ===The Gameplay=== Portal is often dubbed one of the best puzzle games (if not the best game) of all time, due to its engaging puzzles and clever physics mechanics. This game adds lots of new features to the puzzles to make them more varied and interesting, including gravity tunnels and paint that makes you run faster or lets you bounce to incredibly heights. The puzzles are challenging and a lot of fun as a result. There are a lot more of them than there were in the original Portal, but they never get stale or boring, resulting in a much longer game which is equally satisfying. I did find that there were a lot of rooms between puzzles that seemed to only be there to show off the graphics and artificially pad the game out with the occasional game of 'find the one tiny spot on the wall that you can actually fire your portal gun at'. I'm not sure why they felt the need to artificially make the game longer like this, after all the first Portal was only 4-5 hours long and was still incredible. The game would have been better if they'd minimized these between level areas, or actually bothered to make them challenging puzzles in and of themselves. ===The Characters=== Most interaction with characters comes from them narrating you actions over speakers in each room, since the protagonist is mute. As in the first game, each character is hilarious in its own way. Glados is delightfully dark and passive aggressive, making all the twisted jokes we've come to love her for, while Wheatley acts as her incredibly stupid foil. His accent is absolutely adorable and loveable. In addition to this, we get recorded narration from Cave Johnson, the bat-crazy and long dead founder of the facility, providing some of the funniest monologues I have ever heard. His sections of the game were by far the most enjoyable, and that's saying something given how excellent the rest of the game is. ===Multiplayer=== Multiplayer is a fun little extra campaign where you and a friend play as robots, solving a new array of puzzles. It doesn't have much replayability though, since if you've played it before you'll know how to solve the puzzles. ===The Graphics=== They are crisp and pretty looking as always, with some added variety thrown in due to the greater array of levels in different locations. Many of the rooms and set pieces are a lot bigger too, making the experience feel a lot more epic. ==Conclusion== A must-play for any fan of Portal. If you haven't ever played Portal...why the hell not?
==Miles Edgeworth: Ace Attorney Investigations (DS)== The latest instalment in the Ace Attorney series; how does it hold up? ===The Story=== The story is a good one. The player, playing as Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, engages in a series of 5, seemingly unconnected cases, each with their own unique story and puzzles, only to learn that everything is connected, ravelled up in a conspiracy involving warring nations, a Great Thief, and the murder of Kay's father. It's a really engaging plot that makes the game difficult to put down, and it even throws a few clever twists into the mix that I seriously didn't see coming. ===The Characters=== Par the course for an AA game, the characters are all zany, quirky, and a lot of fun to talk to, along with lots of cameos from previous games. Miles himself lives up to all fangirl expectations with his dry wit, scathing humour but inner monologue revealing a softer side. Meanwhile, young Franziska von Karma runs around with a riding crop yelling at people. What's not to love? That said I was not a fan of the latest side-kick/Maya expy, Kay Faraday. She seems to try too hard to be as likeable, quirky and tragic as Maya, Emma, Pearl and Trucy, but ultimately doesn't succeed, coming off as more two dimensional than her predecessors. Due to the many throwbacks to the previous games, new players probably don't want to start with this game. In general, the AA games are much more enjoyable if you play them in order. ===The Gameplay=== This is where the game struggles. The changes it makes to the traditional Ace Attorney formula make the game seem horrifically linear. Now of course, all Ace Attorney games are completely linear, but they always did a good job at giving you the illusion of choice and freedom by letting you wander where ever you want and talk to whoever you want, even if you have to be doing a specific thing to actually advance the story. In Investigations however, you are often locked in a single room until you find whatever it is you need to find, and often locked into a single conversation until you say whatever it is you need to say. It made me feel boxed in a claustrophobic, like I wasn't really in control at all. The game replaces Psyche-Locks and such features with 'Logic' where you piece together clues in the intergalactic alternate dimension of Miles Edgeworth's brain to work out new information and progress the story. This feature is simply too easy, especially when compared to some of the brain-scratching puzzles of previous games. It gets to the point where a piece of information is so obvious that it doesn't occur to you for hours that the game actually expects you to tell it you've worked it out; like the fact that there are two unclean teacups on a table means...two people were drinking tea. Rather than thinking you are some sort of genius with obscure knowledge of American/European/Japanese car design as previous games did, the game jumps to the other end of the spectrum and treats you like an idiot. ==Conclusion== In summary, die hard AA fans need to own this game, for the story and the chance to play as Miles Edgeworth if nothing else. People new to the series shouldn't start with this game however, as the flawed gameplay makes it the weakest of the franchise.
== Dragon Age 2== The sequel to the popular Bioware fantasy epic; how does it stand up? ===The Story=== The story feels so much more mature, less formulaic and less predictable than that of Origins and Awakening (and don't get me wrong, those were great stories). It focuses not on the standard 'big gribbly is trying to eat the world, go stop it Chosen One', but instead on the rising tensions between magic users (a reviled group, segregated and trapped in towers due to the risk of possession by demons) and the Chantry/Templars, the predominant religion of the setting's culture and those in charge of keeping the mages locked away. It is fairly unique in the fact that there is no 'big bad': each side of the conflict has understandable reasons for acting even if both take their causes too far, causing steady escalation throughout the game. Players can choose sides and influence events, but ultimately it is a powder keg of politics and culture than has to blow -up at some point in some fashion. It makes for a really engaging and tense plot. The narrative also has the novel feature of being framed as a retelling of the story by one of the main characters, under interrogation by a Chantry agent. This makes for a very unique experience, with cut scenes occasionally being interrupted by the Agent, only to reveal that the scene where the dwarf kills 50 men singlehandedly with a cross bow was...a bit of an embellishment, before cutting back to reveal what really happened. It's both humorous and dark where it needs to be. ===The Gameplay=== The combat has been completely revamped since Dragon Age: Origins. The first thing you'll notice is that it just looks about ten times more awesome, especially the mages who no longer stand there moving their staff back and forth repetitively, but instead swing it around and spin it while hurling fireballs like a badass. It moves a lot faster and is much more gory and flowing than the slow and repetitive combat of DA:O. Enemy AI is slightly better too even if they do resort to hoard tactics a bit too often. The dialogue system is based on that of Mass Effect, a wheel with serveral conversation oprions which allow you to roleplay and shape your character's personality. Another huge improvement on the original game is that Hawke, the main character, is now fully voiced, and that voice changes in tone and intonation depending on whether you're overall in-game actions and conversation choices peg you as a heroic Hawke, a sarcastic smack-talking anti-hero, a flirty seducer, or a sadistic and angry killer. It's really neat and makes the game incredibly immersive; Hawke is your character and customisable in every way. The setting is much smaller than that of Origins, and it suffers from the common Bioware affliction of reused level designs for the insides of buildings on side-quests, but it never feels too cramped or empty or as if there's less to do. Sidequests are numerous and most are interesting little vignettes and stories, with the occasional fetch quest/kill all the baddies in this cave quest. ===The Characters=== As per any Bioware game, the characters are worth a mention for their 3-dimensions and engaging characters arcs. By the end of the game you will care deeply about most of them and their fates, and the game operates on a unique friendship/rivalry system, whereby each character might end up your closest friend, hating your guts but ultimately respecting you, or completely indifferent to your existence depending on how you treat them and the decisions you make in the story and side quests. They also each have several character specific quests which advance their character arcs. Romances are available with most team members (everyone is bisexual too), and these will vary massively in tone depending on whether the object of your affections is your friend or rival, allowing for extra replayability. ===The Graphics=== The design, look and feel of DA2 is completely different from that of Origins; much darker, grittier and more realistic. Monster designs are vastly improved, especially on monsters like Ogres which now tower over the player and look truly gruesome. The different races have gotten a revamp too, with Elves now looking more distinct from humans and the Qunari looking completely amazing. The one flaw is a minor one; due to the huge changes the cameos and recurring characters from previous games look...really...weird, Zevran being the biggest offender. ==Conclusion== As with all Bioware games, I can't recommend this game enough. Dragon Age was an amazing setting to begin with, and the changes made in DA2 only improve and build on this. There is also a large online community of dedicated mod-makers allowing you to customise and add extra features to the game, from big things like new levels to little things like different haircuts and eye colours. Make sure to get the latest patch though, because the game as shipped is monumentally buggy.
== Final Fantasy 13== The latest instalment in the popular Final Fantasy franchise. How does it hold up? I have to preface this review by noting that I have been a final fantasy fan since I was a child, and have pretty much loved every game in the series. Bear that in mind; I'm not hating on this game for no reason, it is just my genuine opinion. ===The Story=== The story is by and large, incomprehensible. There are things called the Pulse, who are gods, maybe, and if you go near them they'll turn you into a l'Cie, basically a slave doomed to carry out a single task within a set period of time or turn into a monster/crystal/maybe. Only if you complete the task, you still turn into a crystal. I think. And the main characters are all made l'Cie. That's the best I could decipher. The game throws you right into this incredibly unique and new setting with no explanation, expecting you to understand all the random terminology and passing mentions to government operations and conspiracies and political issues the characters use. The only way to understand what on earth is going on it to read the HUGE codex, a menu option filled with pages upon pages of information on every topic. This is just failing at basic story telling: a small codex or journal is fine, but players should not have to read a novel just to understand what is going on. There is potentially the makings of a good story under all of this, but it is awfully told. ===The Gameplay=== Unlike every other FF game ever, which had a degree of exploration, settings where you could chill out and talk to people to learn more about the world and the occasional side-quest or optional dungeon, FF13 is. One. Giant. Linear. Corridor. There are no towns, no shops, no people to talk to, no branching paths through levels. Just a huge, prettily decorated corridor that you run along, fighting monsters and waiting for the next incomprehensible cut scene to hit you. It so dull it becomes physically painful after a while. Even the improved combat system, which is actually pretty unique and combines the best of combat from previous games like X and builds upon it, allowing for serious strategy, couldn't save it. The admittedly interesting combat mechanics became a horrific slog after fighting the same 7 monsters over. And over. And over. In the end, I stopped playing. I had hit the 50 hour mark, having completed about 80% of the game, and finally the game had let me onto the first level that wasn't a linear corridor and actually had sidequests (just one type, killing special monsters), but by then it was far too late. I was bored out of my mind and completely burned out. I couldn't finish it. This game had committed the worst sin a game could commit: it just isn't fun to play. ===The Characters=== The characters are either unlikeable, annoying or both. They seem to be the a collection of the worst traits from previous FF characters; Lightning is Cloud with breasts and no interesting subplot to give her a 3 dimensional character, Snow is some sort of bizarre Tidus/Naruto hybrid who won't shut up about how 'he's the hero' and throwing a strop when things don't go his way, Hope is an emo brat who complains and whines for 60 hours solid and Vanille, the narrator, is every 'zany' character turned up to 11 and fed crack until she's bouncing off the walls. And she never shuts up either. The only character I ever gave a care about was Sazh, the African-American character on a quest to save his son, and the only person who ever behaved like a genuine human being. Unfortunately he is only a small part of the game and not enough to save it. ===The Graphics=== This is probably the game's biggest selling point; it looks gorgeous. In fact, it's probably the best looking game I have ever seen in my life. I didn't know the Xbox 360 could even render something that good looking. The settings are beautiful, the monster and character designs are cool as always and everything just looks perfect. You can really see the effort that was put into this element of the game. ==Conclusion== I've been a diehard fan of FF since I was 8 years old, and have enjoyed pretty much every game Square Enix have churned out. Even VIII and X. And nobody liked VIII and X. So it with the heaviest of hearts that I dub this one of the worst games I've ever played. I can't recommend it to anyone, even the biggest of FF fans. It's a real shame, because the effort that went into this 70 hour long game is really obvious, and it's tragic that it didn't pay off.
==Deadly Premonition== A survival horror, murder mystery, Twin Peaks homage with terrible graphics and an epic story and cast. ===The Story=== You play Francis York Morgan (but everyone calls him York), a chain-smoking, clinically insane FBI agent (probably) with an (maybe) imaginary friend/(maybe) psychotic delusion/(maybe) split personality which he calls Zach and happily chats to in front of other people. He's been sent out to the town of Greenvale to investigate the ritualistic murder of a young woman. Soon the bodies start piling up, small town dark secrets are revealed and conspiracies uncovered. Ever seen Twin Peaks? The game's story and characters were directly inspired by it, and the result is a zany, bizarre setting with equally strange characters. The game and story is utterly captivating in its oddness. ===The Gameplay=== The game has two main modes, an exploration mode where you can explore Greendale, which runs on a weather, night and day system in real time, do story and side quests and talk to all the strange characters. The second is a Silent Hill-esque other world, where horrific ghouls of the murderer's past victims come to life and try to kill York (something which he doesn't seem to find at all strange and never mentions to other people), strange imagery coats the scenery and the Raincoat Killer, a hideous demonic man with an axe, occasional jumps you for a boss fight. The combat is standard but solid survival horror stuff, third person shooting with melee options, with varying modes of difficulty and the occasional boss fight. The boss fights begin fairly mundanely, but become more epic and more ridiculous as the game goes one. Oh, and there's a third mode, where you wander about as an avatar inside the bizarre alternate dimension of the inside of York's mind. Don't ask. It'll make sense when you play it. Kinda. The setting big and there are plenty of optional side quests and mini-games, as well as things to collect for achievements and other goodies. ===The Characters=== The main character York is one of my favourite characters in gaming history. There is something glorious about a man who will travel out into outskirts of town, a 5 minute car ride, in the middle of the night, only to knock on a sheriff's door and ask him if he prefers ketchup or mustard. For no plot or quest related reason. He's insane, he's determined, he's likeable and cool, and he acts like zombies trying to eat his face is an everyday occurrence to him. He also has a mysterious past connected to the events of the game that is slowly revealed, making him a very interesting lead. Every character has their own little quirks and weird personality, from the lady who never stops talking about the cooking pot she's always carrying (an homage to the log-lady from Twin Peaks), to the art museum owner whose goal is to sleep with every married man in existence, to the effeminate police lieutenant who makes 'the best tasting biscuits ever made' (York's opinion) to the grim, protective sheriff with a tragic past. They all have their role in the story and they are all fun to talk to. ===The Music=== The music is strange, switching from excessively loud and upbeat (Life is Beautiful is currently my ringtone) to eerie and mysterious, to rock music to disturbing music-box twinkling without much of a segue-way. That said, it's a pretty awesome soundtrack and fits the game perfectly, even if the wrong music sometimes seems to play at inappropriate moments, as if the game designers forgot that there is dead body in the room while tooting on their kazoos. ===The Graphics=== Well, put bluntly, they're awful. They look like late PS1, early PS2 era graphics, and looking at the tree textures is not advised if you suffer from epilepsy or migraines. It's a budget title, and you can tell, but really it doesn't detract at all from the game's roguish charm. I'd advise you to watch the opening scene on youtube or take a look at some screen shots before you think about buying, just to see if they are the sort of graphics that will distract you from the game. Gamers from the PS1/2 era shouldn't be fazed. Though no Silent Hill, a lot of the imagery and monsters are genuinely freaky and disturbing (the wallcrawlers in particular). The murders are creative and the character designs are detailed and impressive looking (it seems that's where most of the graphics budget went). ==Conclusion== I was desperate to have this game imported to Europe after I heard about its zany characters and insane plot. I spent a week signing pretty much every petition I could find and posting on every relevant forum, and eventually, 6 months down the line, the publishers gave us Europeans our wish. And it was well worth the wait. It's funny, entertaining and despite its silliness, the murder mystery is bizarrely captivating and intriguing. This game grabs you by the throat and won't let you go. Even if the graphics are awful.
==Pokemon Black== The latest instalment in the Pokemon series; how does it fare? ===The Story=== This is probably the most complex of the handheld Pokemon games in terms of story, but in spite of this it's still pretty formulaic. You're still a child kicked out of the house at an absurdly young age to run from town to town catching Pokemon, beating gym leaders and unravelling some secret (but completely unsubtle and cliché) cabal of bad guys, wondering why there isn't a police force in PokemonLand. That said, the latest Team Rocket expy, Team Plasma, have a very interesting twist to them that instantly elevates Black above the rest of the Pokemon franchise. They're animal rights activists. It's a nice touch, as if Game Freak heard all the jokes about how horrific the PokeVerse is when you think about it (I wonder how my 151 pokemon that have been locked in a tiny ball inside a computer since 1998 in Pokemon Yellow are doing...) and made a little shout-out to all the older Pokefans out there. Unfortunately, they don't take it far enough; in the end, the player is assured that the activists were all just evil tricksters with an ulterior motive, and catching Pokemon and forcing them to fight for your amusement is good, honest. It's understandable, since every Pokemon game is essentially aimed at a new generation of youngsters who Nintendo don't want to put off with complex moral ambiguity, but sometimes I wish they'd make a game that rewards older fans for their loyalty to the series. This could have been it, but it missed the mark. ===The Gameplay=== There are now different types of battling to shake gameplay up, with double battles being available for wild Pokemon and triple battles and 'rotation battles' for trainers. These make travelling up long towers and roads much less of a repetitive slog and add a little bit more scope for strategy. There are some nice little innovations to the time mechanism; the game now changes seasons as well as night and day, with certain Pokemon only appearing in certain seasons, and others changing their appearance depending on the season. Other little things have been changed to make gameplay flow a lot quicker, like slightly faster battles, and combining the PokeMart and Pokemon Centres into one building. Mini-games are still available, the Contests of previous games being replaced with 'Musicals', which are much the same, and the Battle Subway fulfilling the role of the Battle Frontiers/Towers of previous games. ===The New Pokemon=== I've gotten the distinct feeling in recent years that the Pokemon production team are running out of ideas and have taken to sitting in the street making Pokemon out of anything they see. So how does Black fare? Well...there's an ice-cream Pokemon...and a pigeon Pokemon...and a garbage Pokemon... And I feel silly for some reason. ===The Graphics=== Pokemon Black's graphics are really cool. Each gym has a unique and awesome design (there's a gym with rollercoasters in it!), and outside buildings look 3 dimensional even without 3D enabled, ranging from little villages to towering skyscrapers. In battle pokemon have even more animations, making the whole experience look a lot better. ===The Music=== Par the course for a Pokemon game: lots of catchy little jingles for every town, battle situation and so on. There are some really stand out pieces, such as Ghestis' battle theme, which I would happily put in my Top 5 most awesome boss battle themes of all time. ===Conclusion=== In summary, this is a solid game in the Pokemon franchise and a must have for any long term Pokeman, while as always being completely accessible to newbies. The music is great, the graphics are great, and the story is an improvement on the standard formula even if it doesn't go far enough. Much recommended!
==All Star Batman and Robin== This is one of the more infamous Batman comics, for reasons that can be summed us thusly: Frank Miller seems to think he's still writing Sin City. Symptoms include several pages of shots of Vicki Vale in her underwear (for no reason), Black Canary as some sort of Irish stripper bartender, endless broody inner monologues full of repeating lines (take a shot every time you read 'Dick Grayson, age 12'), and a protagonist who happily shreds cop cars in two while announcing that he's 'the goddamn batman'. Every character is pretty much warped into some sort of gross, film noire alternate version, the worst offender being Batman himself, who is practically unrecognisable as the Dark Knight we know and love. The story focuses on Robin's (Dick Grayson, Age 12) origin story as he is kidnapped by Batman (don't ask) and embarks on a quest to discover who is behind the murder of his parents, and avenge them. The book does have a lot of fun moments if you don't take it seriously and brace yourself for having all your favourite characters 're imagined'. The ridiculousness of it the events (including such gems as Batman expecting Robin to eat rats, Robin calling the batmobile 'queer' and Batman painting himself and an entire room yellow in order to have a chat with the Green Lantern) and the completely inappropriate film noire style of writing is actually quite entertaining. There actually some quite poignant moments scattered here and there. The final page in particular is a really great scene. In addition the Jim Lee's artwork is really something special; as with most of his works it is worth owning just for the art. Probably the biggest disappointment with this book is that the series has been on hiatus for quite a while, and its unclear if it will ever be completed. Fingers crossed though. In conclusion, those interested in a modern meme-legend should pick this up. Serious Batman comic book fans should avoid it like the plague.
==Garmin Nuvi 215== ===Features=== The display provides a number of useful features, such a estimated time of arrival (which I always found to be accurate give or take a minute both when walking and driving), written as well as visual and voice instructions about what to do next, plus your speed. It also beeps constantly if you are accidentally over the speed limit in a car, which could be either a plus or a con, depending on the driver. Since it's a budget GPS it only comes with UK maps and though further maps are available they are a bit expensive to buy. However Garmin updates the maps you already have for free and at regular intervals. ===Ease of Use=== In general it was easy to use and got me where I wanted to go. The screen is clear, visible and easy to read. The touch screen is responsive and entering text is no problem. Voice guidance is clear and easy to follow. It is highly portable and fits nicely into even tight jean pockets. The battery power while on is a few hours, meaning it is equally good for pedestrians as it is for drivers. The ability to search for nearby restaurants and other locations in order of distance from your current location was also really useful, though its categorisation was sometimes a touch confusing (good luck finding a MacDonalds without having to type it out). However it took forever to find satellite coverage, sometimes up to ten minutes, even when standing in the middle of the streets of London, so it became frustratingly useless whenever I was in a hurry. It also seemed incapable of dealing with one way systems, especially where there are a lot of them in rapid succession such as Cambridge city centre. ==Conclusion== Overall I would only recommend this if your budget doesn't allow for anything else; I suspect there are better quality GPSs on the market. The slowness of the start-up was a bit of a deal-breaker for me personally.