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The Shoot is proof you should never judge a book - or in this case, a rather innocuous-looking video game - by its cover. Essentially a guinea-pig for the PlayStation Move's shooter credentials, it contains, much like the marvellous Sports Champions before it, the kind of clinical presentation that's as casual as its perceived audience. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, many were quick to dismiss Cohort Studios' gallery shooter, casting it aside with little more than a cursory acknowledgement. But if you are a casual gamer, and bought The Shoot expecting a cute tech demo for your motion controller, you may be surprised to find you have a bonafide game on your hands. The title plays on a double-meaning; shoot a movie, shoot a gun. There are five 'movies', each riffing on a different cinematic theme that includes a western, a sci-fi, a film-noir/gangster flick; an underwater fantasy and, of course, a haunted house horror. It's hard to pin-point precisely why I'm so enamoured with The Shoot. Perhaps there's the lingering buzz of being able to play lightgun-style games without having to dust off an old copy of Time Crisis, or venturing out to a seedy arcade to see if they've still got that partially-functioning version of Lethal Enforcers from the early nineties. With every scene comes a new, miniature burst of pure shoot 'em up fun and the thrill of pointing the gun at the screen, waiting for the action to begin takes a while to subside. The manner in which The Shoot challenges the gamer is perhaps the most praiseworthy and surprising of its attributes. In many respects, The Shoot reveals itself to be more of a purists' (or certainly, perfectionists') blaster than either House of the Dead or Time Crisis. The reason? It specifically rewards not simply the player's survival, but their aptitude and accuracy with a gun. The game's great strength in this regard is that it caters for a broad range of gamers, in different ways. For less ardent players, five lives (or 'takes') makes for a gentle learning curve, allowing progress through scenes as The Shoot rarely bombards you with hails of bullets. Instead, the real art to scoring comes from stringing combo kills together without missing targets, as a designated score is required in order to progress to the next movie. For those less versed in this style of gameplay, it prompts multiple runs and the learning of levels, with real satisfaction being derived from improvements in both performance and score. The aiming is a smidgen slower than the player's movements, meaning it's important to follow the movement of the on-screen reticle, something that takes a few goes to adapt to. Elsewhere, it makes mostly very solid use of the Move motion controller. Occasionally, you'll be prompted to lean one way or the other to dodge projectiles, which works smoothly, whilst there's also a trio of special moves designed to aid scoring potential. 'Showtime' is the most common, a brief period of slow-motion activated by spinning on the spot; 'Shockwave' dispatches everything on screen when you shoot at the floor, whilst the awesome 'Rampage' turns everything sepia and grants a short period of rapid-fire mayhem, which tends to see send scores through the roof. All of these are hearty fun, although on occasions, these off-screen gestures cause the motion controller's calibration to go a bit haywire. Sometimes during Showtimes if there are lots of targets close together, bullets fired in quick succession won't always register as having hitting anything, ruining kill-chains in a frustrating and rather needless manner. The Shoot is home to an extensive, generous trove of content, far more than you'd expect of an early Move title. Remember the days when arcade shooters would have half a dozen levels and that was your lot? The Shoot goes a lot further, offering a whopping twenty - four for each of its five movies. The themes are mostly recognisable motifs but offer enough variety and charm to be replayed plentifully. 'Outlawed' opens things in the Wild West and is the most accessible, enjoyable setting due to the slow enemies and abundance of explosive barrels to hit. There's little to criticise about the levels, save for a slight imbalance in the difficulty. 'Robotomus Crime', the second movie, is tricky because the majority of the enemy robots need to be killed with a headshot making it genuinely tricky to build combos, and it took me two or three run-throughs before I accrued enough points to unlock the next level. Conversely, fourth movie 'Deep Perils' was a far more sedate, less difficult adventure to conquer. Bright, chunky levels and cut-out enemies mean it's more 'carnival' than 'action movie', and The Shoot does succumb to frame-rate dips now and again. To some, the idea of shooting gallery targets will seem a touch cheap and sedate, but Cohort Studios deserve credit for creating a lightgun game that is inclusive to all levels experience, recognising that there are gamers out there who remember the quick bursts of fun similar nineties arcade games offered, and want something lighter than the usual full-on bloodbaths that dominate the genre. Before long, you'll be hooked on improving high-scores, as much of a pleasure as anything else, and what the spirit of arcade gaming is about. The Score Attack mode allows you to tackle the twenty scenes in isolation, handing out star-grades based on performance, and by posting your top scores online, ensures yet more time-sapping ventures into adding a few more points to your best. The two-player mode doesn't really fit the nature of the game's scoring system, as you inevitably end up trying to shoot the same foes at the cost of combo opportunities, so perhaps the scoring should have been adapted for co-op. It's a minor disappointment that there aren't any online multiplayer options, though the same troubles would likely have marred it all the same. Substantial enough in terms of content and high-score opportunities to entice shoot 'em up fans, whilst accessible enough to encourage less experienced players, The Shoot is a rare example of a game that caters well for players right across the spectrum. It's not the prettiest, nor is it graced with the high-end budget of the films it knowingly parodies, but whilst it isn't going to wow people into buying Sony's motion controller on its own, it's a must-play for anyone who already has one, with plenty of enjoyment to be found at a very reasonable price.
Whereas the majority of people who used the RPGMaker PC design tool were content to busy themselves making Zelda and Final Fantasy clones (as well the occasional, unfathomably clever Tetris variant), Corpse Party put the program to unusually creative use. First made in 1996 by Japanese homebrew developer Team GrisGris, the game draws specific attention to its deep horror narrative, whilst employing every trick in the book to unsettle the player. Some fifteen years on, the western world finally got a taste of this oriental obscurity, in the form of a PSP, download-only release that is not so much a remake as a gentle enhancement. When it comes to horror yarns, the Japanese really know how to spook us. The litmus test was whether they could do so in sprite-filled 2D, and as it happens, the answer is yes. It isn't quite Dead Space of course, but it says a lot for Corpse Party that it's able to instil, retain and build such a sensation of unease, so that by the closing stages, the atmosphere is palpable. The story sees a bunch of high-school kids and their teacher performing a "friends forever" ritual in Kisaragi Academy, only for it to backfire and leave them stranded, in fragmented groups, within a version of Heavenly Host Elementary, which used to reside on the grounds before being pulled down after a spate of grisly murders. Weird space/time phenomenons are keeping the group from reuniting, while vicious ghosts, occasional psychopaths and the looming threat of depression and insanity loom over the intrepid bunch. Corpse Party is a horror adventure where the bulk of the entertainment comes from exploring the school, soaking in its powerfully dark, heavy atmosphere. Each of the five chapters features multiple endings; progression simply requires that you find the one that doesn't involve the student in question being drowned, maimed, buried alive, tortured or otherwise terminally incapacitated by the undesirables of the school. You'll die in lots of ways, but a lot of the appeal lies in being able to go back and right your wrongs. It has one of the most fully realised horror narratives available on any format. Refreshingly, it uses the gaming medium to broaden rather than restrict its storytelling; making wrong choices and causing friends to split often reveals their nastier sides, and a hidden depth to their neuroses that wouldn't otherwise have been appreciated in a single strand. The story has been altered to incorporate more characters, and though I haven't played the original, the inclusion of partners (you typically explore in twos) means individuals can voice their troubles more articulately, which is a positive. The story has seen a little modernising around the edges too, with mobile phones and texting not such a big thing in 1996, they're slipped in as clever plot devices here. There's real depth and quality to the characterisation as well. It proves to be the driving force behind the game and the reason you'll be glued to Corpse Party until the end credits. As early as the first chapter's haunting conclusion, you'll feel affected when anything happens to a member of the group. The mixture of sad and shocking demises keep you on your toes, wondering if someone you've grown fond of has really been killed off or if you're simply on track for another "wrong end". It's helped greatly by the retention of the full, crystal-clear Japanese voice track (with dialogue boxes) - it lends the game a serious edge, wisely avoiding going the route of many cheesy English voices-dubs. Indeed, a large part of Corpse Party's success lies in its magnificent audio. The music compositions colour scenes with all different shades of depression, panic and expectation. Blood-curdling screams, squelching blood-splatter, pianos playing on their own, dozens of creaky floorboards and jump-inducing lightning effects - all bar the kitchen sink has been thrown in with regards to sound effects and the game is all the better for it. The PSP redux also sees slightly smoother transitions from room to room; sharper presentation and picture quality in general, whilst cool animated sequences and stills add a bit of class to certain sections. But it still very much looks its age; corridors and rooms appearing basic, whilst virtually all of the sprite animations are horribly blocky. With no traditional battle/action system, GrisGris had to be a little creative in engaging the player, and though there are periods towards the end that could have been livened up a touch with a couple more of those pesky ghosts, they give it a fine shot. Just to be extra cruel, a couple of nervy time-limited events are thrown into the mix, the best being a memorably nervy two minutes within which you have to rescue a student from drowning, by finding the point at which they became submerged. One of the tensest bits sees the player having to evade a violent psychopath, who chases you through parts of the school, all the while gleefully cackling and shouting threats. There are issues, however. Some puzzles, such as working out directions as a means of guiding the player to items hidden under creaky floorboards, prove right on the money. Less effective however are the elaborate teasers that seem to get lost in translation. One instance sees you piecing together various three separate sequences of letters, and having to use another set of numbers to supposedly help decrypt a message - general consensus however suggests that even after the event, this didn't make a whole lot of sense. Elsewhere, a couple of chapters are easy to get stuck on because (more in early stages), you have to activate certain events are specific times, or end up getting wrong endings. Whilst the myriad of death/wrong end scenes are enjoyable, perhaps the game's biggest oversight (particularly as they've had a lot of time to do fix it) is that you can't skip cut-scenes you've already seen (and the game can be a bit wordy at times, especially in the final chapter) or death sequences. The worst example of this being when you're caught by the marauding ghosts; having to go through the same extensive scene every time you die becomes a bit of an aggravation. Then there are lingering the issues with the original programs limitations. Certain menu elements don't really fit; character HP and the inventory system in general are only really included because RPGMaker made them something of a necessity. The use of "player homing" tactics for the ghosts remains a simplistic but effective means of creating tricky A.I., even if they do end up getting themselves stuck now and then as a result. New to the 2011 version are ten new, unlockable "Extra" chapters, and these become available when you witness a variety of endings in the main game. The first couple pit you as other ill-fated students who got trapped in the school, and give you what is in essence a mini chapter in a similar vain to the main story. All well and good, but unfortunately they rather flatter to deceive as at least 7 of them end up offering no gameplay at all, just brief backstories to some of the main game's chief figureheads. Nice little curios, but somewhat disappointing if you were expecting a shot of longevity. Still, Corpse Party kept me welded to my PSP for a week, and for £11.99 it represents decent value. It may appear rather harmless looking, but that's no reason horror fans shouldn't still get something out of it. Whilst some may rightly point to the crude visuals and lengthy, non-skippable cut-scenes as points of concern, the overall result shows that even working with modest tools, a little ingenuity can go a long way.
If you ever wondered what the love-child of Silent Hill and Heartbreak High would look like in gaming form, then Obscure: The Aftermath is assuredly the closest you're going to get. Despite its "don't mind if they die" cast of corny college kids and adherence to some unashamedly vintage survival-horror gameplay mechanics, it's rather better than it sounds. Released in 2009, this portable sequel to ObsCure revolves around a group of students based at Fallcreek University in a fictitious US location. A mysterious flower has been doing the rounds on campus, inflicting terminally dodgy mutations upon those who've snorted it or had unprotected sex. And this being a teen-horror, means more or less everyone. Aftermath's marquee features include unique character abilities and a cooperative element that runs throughout the game. Among others, you've got Corey whose acrobatic skills allow him to reach areas others can't; Stan picks locks; Amy is able to decipher codes and hidden information whilst Mei can hack computers. It's a mix that works well, and in instances when four or five characters meet up in a designated location, you can form different line-ups in a bid to find the duo best suited to moving things forward. The manner in which the narrative jumps from one pair to the next not only lends the game an episodic feel that's ideal for portable gaming, but is naturally conducive to creating cliff-hangers, as you're made to wait to see how certain scenarios pan out. Having an ally at your side soon becomes second nature, and you can swap between characters instantaneously at the touch of a button, even during combat which is a plus. Choosing what weapons to hand the A.I., is important as it tends to dictate the role they play in combat. The best option is to give them a supporting role, preferably wielding a stun gun (which, like the chainsaw, has a rechargeable energy supply), allowing them to incapacitate enemies while you attack with bats and clubs. It's best to do the lion's share of the fighting yourself, as granting your partner a more hands-on role is risky as they aren't great at defending themselves. Healing characters individually is a serious drain on resources, and as there isn't an abundance of health items, you'll find yourself cursing the A.I.'s ineptitude on occasions. Ultimately, much like the game as a whole, the teammate system is neither complete success nor total failure; joining a game with a mate via WiFi is a commendable addition though there's rarely anything elaborate asked of you, beyond basic stuff like helping reach a high ledge, pushing the odd box or turning a valve. It's also a peculiar scenario in a horror game, and it inevitably loses some of its atmosphere when paired as a social experience. You have to admire Aftermath's pandering to the golden era of survival-horror gaming, just because it embodies it so wholeheartedly. The whole thing reeks of the nineties, in ways that are both positive and detrimental in the final reckoning. It's collection of excessively vapid characters present a neat pastiche of the "ghoul fodder" common amongst the new breed of teen-horror films (Scream, Halloween H20) that emerged towards the end of the last century, whilst transferring the deposable nature of characters central to the plot is a highly gutsy and smartly executed move on the part of the developer. Its puzzles rarely stretch the player and the combat, though perfectly competent, is nothing that will live long in the memory, but there's a bunch of good moments that help things along. Little touches such as being able to explore the dorms at the beginning, trawl Blair Witch style through murky woods, and using a wrecking ball to knock holes in buildings so as to reveal new paths forwards. The game thrives on an accumulation of neat little touches to keep the player interested, and for the most part, its endeavour is appreciated. There are a few tense sequences that ramp up the pressure, the best being challenged to quickly re-wire an elevator switch whilst a deadly black cloud bears down on your position. Similarly, having to go through the delicate procedure of picking a lock having stunned the last boss for just a few seconds is a desperate, excruciating experience. Whilst it's easy to be critical of the teamwork idea as being tacked-on to what is still very much a one-player experience, there are fleeting moments where it makes real sense, notably when one player has to manoeuvre a boat through a swamp whilst the other is tasked with fending off the beasties that amass around you. Credit where it's due, it's quite cinematic at times, if you can overlook the shocking scripting and massively irritating voice-acting. The camera is very good; mostly following behind the player or, in a move that recounts the static backgrounds of yore, pinning itself to a corner, hiding from the player the dangers that lurk just out of shot. The ability to smash windows, cabinets and doors in order to procure new items or open up new routes adds a little something to basic exploration too. The characters themselves look excellent, and the locations which include a campus, hospital and obligatory creepy shack in the woods don't look too shabby either. The only area in in which it fares noticeably worse than the Wii version visually is in its ugly, slightly staccato video sequences. Whilst another dose of survival-horror is welcome in an era where the genre has become less prevalent, it's important to keep things in perspective. The simple truth is, by showing such reverence to lynchpins of the past, Aftermath merely highlights its own relative shortcomings. A superbly creepy, torch-lit trek down a bloodied tunnel serves as a supremely unsettling introduction, but this flatters to deceive, as from there on in, genuine scares are thin on the ground, as the game comes nowhere close to recapturing the stifling, heavy atmosphere of Silent Hill. Similarly, it lacks the labyrinthine scope and cerebral nature of Resident Evil's location design, whilst the monster design is disappointingly non-descript. The game isn't massive either, though there's enough in the tank to keep you playing to the end credits. Aftermath can be polished off in six or seven hours first time through and unfortunately there's only the one ending. Only on one occasion does it venture an alternative path; should you save Mei's twin sister Jun (yes, they really did call them Mei and Jun) within a set period of time, you get to play a superb level at the controls of a security monitor, whereby not only must you guide her through a claustrophobic basement of beasties unarmed, but are periodically required to tune the picture so you can still see what's going on - it's a really classy touch. Replay value is pretty limited as virtually all of the other bonuses and extras (the usual artwork) can be unlocked without much hassle first time through. A harder difficulty setting, the incentive of new weapons, costumes or scenarios might have enticed players back. Obscure: The Aftermath won't win over the sceptics, but nevertheless will present survival-horror fans with an adventure that will keep you engaged (though not necessarily scared) through to the end, even if the game is bare about the bones overall due to a lack of meaningful extras. Whilst the jury is still out on whether the genre can ever reach its full potential either on a handheld or in team/co-operative form, it's a well-made and diverting tale that's a welcome reminder of - though not quite a return to - the genre's glory days.
Though I suspect many musicians are loath to admit it, sometimes it pays to keep things simple. And that's the crux of what made The Beach Boys' second album such a pleasure. It arrived in 1963, before the Beatles-led rock 'n' roll revolution upped the stakes, before Brian Wilson endured a period of personal hell fighting to produce the bloated epic (and until recently, unreleased) SMiLE, in a prolonged struggle to recapture the immense critical acclaim that Pet Sounds had been afforded. It was before the band became something of a conceptual guinea-pig, before they started passing lead-vocals around anyone and everyone in the group, before some of the distinctive surf-pop sparkle had begun to dissipate. But nearly fifty years on from its original release, there's an endearing lack of pretentiousness to Surfin' USA. It's a straight-up surf-pop album which, though a little conservative at times with its themes, largely plays to the strengths of a band that, it's often easy to forget, was extremely young at the time. With a runtime of 24 minutes, it's considered by modern standards slight enough to be routinely bundled alongside its predecessor Surfin' Safari. But 'slight' is too derogative a description; maybe 'streamlined' is more apt. After all, it's marks a logical evolutionary step from their debut; reprising most of what was promising before, and making it sound bigger and better. It's certainly among The Beach Boys' most cohesive early records; Mike Love and Brian Wilson take lead vocals on three tracks each and share duties on the likable closing number "Finders Keepers", whilst the glut of instrumental tracks allow the remainder of the band to showcase their talents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album's opener "Surfin' USA" is its biggest draw. Though the contentious lifting of its distinctive guitar riff from Chuck Berry's "My Sweet Little Sixteen" is something of a moot point, there's no question the band stamped their mark on the tune; immensely catchy and chirpy from start to finish, it's beautiful harmonies and brilliantly effective vocal overlaps, as well as Love's unmistakable west-coast tones, make for a glorious, up-tempo classic which hasn't diminished one bit over time. Indeed, whilst there's no question they like to stick closely to tried and tested themes (cars, surfing and occasionally women), it's the Love vocal tracks that are quintessential early-Beach Boys. His songs buzz with big 'n' busy choruses, with melodies that flow with an easy smoothness. In "Shut Down", Love regales us in an unexpectedly engaging tale of racers battling in a 409 and a Stingray, whilst "Noble Surfer" is an even better one that is an ode to a man of the waves ("A surfin' Casanova with his customised board, a Woody and his dirty white jeans/He takes his choice of honeys up and down the coast, the finest surfer yet to make the scene"). Brian Wilson penned the majority of the album, and it's his vocal tracks that are the most adventurous, hinting at the route the band would take when he became more hands-on with production duties, though they're also inconsistent. "Lonely Sea" is his biggest personal success; a starkly pretty ballad that is noticeably stripped-down, his precise vocals and the gorgeous, deep harmonising make it by a distance the most affecting work on Surfin' USA. "Farmers Daughter" and "Lana" are comparatively awkward however. Both are hindered somewhat by Wilson's gaudy, shrill falsettos, whilst the former, a fairly innocuous ditty, falls foul of tame lyrics and lines that, by modern interpretation at least, seem like dodgy, half-innuendo ("ain't got no place to stay/glad to help you plough your field, farmer's daughter"). Whilst five instrumentals may seem to labour the point given the relative lack of diversity among some, they were a means of showing a side of a band that "played" as well as "sang". The results are occasionally outstanding, especially if you consider that lead guitarist Carl Wilson and rhythm guitarist David Marks were, at the time, sixteen and fourteen respectively. "Misirlou", inspired by Dick Dale's surf interpretation (later reintroduced to the popular mindset via Pulp Fiction) is an absolute cracker. The brooding, exotic, panicky chords will be an instant fixture even to younger ears, due to its latter-day cinematic associations. This is followed by one of TBB's best self-made efforts "Stoked"; from the outset, the booming, massive guitar licks will have you transfixed in what is a devilishly funky, virtuoso (almost) one-man show from Carl Wilson. The remainder of the instrumentals are a bit of a patchwork, and by the closing phases the jangly jams start to blend a little bit. A heavier reliance on instrumental and "borrowed" material in the second half also suggests that deadlines might have had a role in stopping the album from being all it could have been; it was the first of three albums the band would release in a period of only seventh months - a crowded schedule in any era. It's re-treading of certain vocal and melodic formulas means you'll like most of it or little of it, and it's only lyrically eloquent in fits and starts, but for a brief LP, it certainly packs its share of highlights. Surfin' USA's easy to listen to, easy to appreciate, and most of all, easy to enjoy. STANDOUT TRACKS: Surfin' USA; Stoked; Misirlou; Noble Surfer; Shut Down; Lonely Sea MEMORABLE LYRIC: Surfin' USA: "If everybody had an ocean, across the USA/ Then everybody'd be surfin', like Californ-I-A"
When inFamous emerged in 2009, its inventiveness served to reinvigorate a sandbox genre that had started to feel formulaic. The developers at Sucker Punch were onto something really good; no longer were cities merely anonymous spaces to mooch around gormlessly in - inFamous made an art of mobility; maximising its platforming and climbing elements and thus drawing attention to its landscapes as something interactive, not incidental. More noteworthy was its implementation of superpowers; so often plonked into the gaming medium as little more than an after-thought, here you had a character in Cole MacGrath whose electric powers were numerous, varied, destructive and satisfying. The game's 2011 sequel - stylised inFAMOUS 2 - has its issues, but on the whole, does a fine job of reminding us of what we've been missing out on since the first game. After opening to a battering from the gigantically destructive entity known simply as "The Beast", former courier turned walking-electrical-conduit Cole MacGrath heads for New Marais (loosely modelled on New Orleans), in a bid to strengthen his powers. The city is controlled by a righteous militia, overseen by zealot and part-time megalomaniac Joseph Bertrand. Block by block, Cole must loosen the rebels grip on New Marais, and win over the people - either by earning respect, or instilling fear. It'll all be familiar if you've played the first game. Being "good" means using the arc-restraint to arrest enemies, healing wounded civilians, avoiding an excessive amount of collateral damage, saving hostages, and defusing bombs. But if gaming has (possibly) taught us anything, it's that it's both more fun and more profitable to be "evil". There's no need to worry about civilians stupid enough to stick around during the more explosive fire-fights, and some of Cole's upgradable, evil abilities are great, especially the potent Hellfire rockets and the summoning of beasties to help do your bidding. Cole's Karma rating affects his appearance, and also little touches within the city; inspire civilians, and they'll help you fight the militia. Cause them grief, and you can expect the fools to throw rocks at you in a futile show of defiance. On the whole, the story missions aren't quite to the level of its predecessor. They're still really good, but on measure, there's fewer standout boss fights, hectic train-top chases or generally memorable segments. The story throws in a few nice twists to spice things up however; there's the juicy love-triangle involving Cole, Agent Lucy Kuo and fearsome swamp warrior Nix (two of a raft of characters enhanced through strong voicing), who come to symbolise opposite ends of the karma moral system underpinning the game. At certain points, you'll have to choose whose plan to go along with; the former offers logical solutions to problems, the latter more sadistic but straightforward ideas - both are nicely conceived and of a similar standard and difficulty. You have the choice at one stage to meld your abilities with one or the other - resulting in Cole attaining additional ice or fire powers. There's evidence the developers have learned from past mistakes too, as the way the way in which the dual endings are handled marks a big step forward. Whereas the original featured two endings but essentially the exact same final boss, things are radically different this time around depending on which final mission you wish to undertake. The Evil ending in particular is a fabulous spectacle to behold and arguably the game's best passage of play. Combat remains one of its strongest assets, and continues to mark the series out from other open-world games. It more or less mimics Uncharted's shooting system, with less reliable covering but significantly more potent "weapons". As well as being able to channel a stream of lightning bolts, Cole can chuck electric grenades and use forceful blasts to fling enemies from rooftops, a trick that never seems to get old. With a litany of neon-sprinkled casinos, a towering cathedral and a spooky cemetery, there's a diverse bunch of locations that all seem strong fits for battle, and on this score the developer delivers once again. Crucially, Sucker Punch never lost sight of a fundamental point - that playing as a superhero, above all else, should be fun. Cole is awesome; he's more than human and in every facet of his control, you never forget his superiority. It's fortunate looks aren't everything though, because inFAMOUS 2 isn't going to win any beauty contests. The original looked just-about-acceptable in 2009, but two years down the road, the graphics were starting to show serious signs of age. Admittedly, Sucker Punch didn't have a GTAIV-sized budget at their disposal, but a certain standard is still to be expected from a first-party PS3 exclusive. New Marais itself is alright (albeit suspiciously similar to the New York-inspired Empire City of the first game) and the gameplay as a whole runs without any glaring technical issues, but close-up objects and scenery appear basic and sparse-looking, whilst civilians are low-rent and don't move at all convincingly. Worst of all is the lack of anti-aliasing, resulting in visual distortions that cause certain special effects (mostly noticeably those involving ice) to appear horribly blocky and pixelated. Perhaps we've become accustomed to the glut of technical powerhouses coming from Sony's development houses in recent years, but there's a roughness that makes inFAMOUS 2 seem somehow plainer than its sparky gameplay deserves. Every game has its gimmick, and here Sucker Punch opted to jump on the "Create and Share" bandwagon, with User-Generated Content (UGC) missions. In principal, the idea was mouth-watering: gamers devising and creating their own levels and uploading them for others to play, thus creating a lengthy stream of free content. In practice however, it's an out-and-out failure. Proving that its level editor isn't very intuitive and that the majority of gamers are frankly no good at making games, the UGC is plagued by unfinished or broken/glitched levels as well as a whole host of seconds-long missions designed simply for XP farming (so as to attain new abilities faster) or a cheap means of changing your Karma alignment quickly. I ended up abandoning - for a whole host of reasons - more than half the missions I started, and the whole process became mind-numbing very quickly. Even the very best creations come off a distant second-best to those of the main game. Like its predecessor, inFAMOUS 2 isn't especially lengthy but will have no trouble keeping you hooked for two solid playthroughs, which amounted to a couple of weeks in my case. That the good and evil endings are more pronounced in their differences helps in this regard, whilst the trophies similarly encourage you to try the diverging paths, as well as the Hard difficulty setting. This isn't too tricky but does require that the player is less gung-ho in their approach to the bigger battles, so is recommended for more experienced gamers. There's always room for improvement, and looking ahead, the series could certainly stand a new lick of paint. But graphics are no substitute for gameplay, and few games this generation can match it for sheer unadulterated fun. Though it's not the game its predecessor was, it still offers a more varied, more imaginative and more enjoyable sequence of events than 99% of open-world games available. The UGC missions, intended as the icing on an already-sweet package, fail to hit the mark, but for the duration of the story at least, inFAMOUS 2 is sure to have you glued to your PS3.
Gran Turismo is simultaneously one of the most comprehensive portable video games ever made, and yet something of a let-down. Coming from a distinguished line of driving simulators long-revered for its pin-point driving physics, supreme track design and immense depth, the series' first portable foray has all of the above in spades, though its open-ended nature and loose structure are both a blessing and a curse. Its Career mode is all very different from what's gone before. Whilst previously you'd have to slave away earning licences before even thinking about competing, buy a cheap car, scrounge away for a while until you could afford a better one and then move on from there, Gran Turismo on the PSP does away with structured tournaments, in favour of single races. With each circuit you're tasked with working up from Rank D to Rank S, and you have the freedom to race any vehicle in your possession for however many laps you should so choose. It's understandable that series aficionados may be put out by the lack of focus. After all, the heavy mix of tournaments, endurance races and model-specific cups are the meat and potatoes of the average Gran Turismo experience. However, what's often overlooked in such circumstances is that the game offers accessibility without sacrificing the depth of its racing - it is, after all, GT-on-the-go, and being able to fly through a couple of three laps races is more ideal on a train journey than perhaps a seven race series. There are genuine positives too - the eternally tiresome ritual of Licence Tests has been replaced by a similar though crucially non-mandatory set of "Driving Challenges" which are a nice means of getting used to the game with the added bonus of monetary rewards for good showings. What should be recognised off the bat though is how great a technical achievement the game is. Bearing in mind the PSP's relatively modest specs in comparison with its home-console contemporaries, it's awesomely ambitious. Developer Polyphony Digital pulled no punches, basing the physics engine on the PS3 GT5 Prologue, resulting in a game that, but for a few periphery sacrifices, runs beautifully. The frame-rate is silky smooth, the action blisteringly quick, the handling challenging but fair. The cars are typically outstanding; both in terms of how they look and in the way they pitch under braking and warble when traversing curbs. Even within its deficiencies, there are signs that elements have been cleverly prioritised. The road surfaces look fine and close scenery looks grand; prominent backdrops such as those seen in the Grand Canyon course have been beefed up and look great, whilst some of the trees, which appear flat on the replays, don't give such an unflattering impression when whistling past them at speed. Most of the uglier-looking buildings and advertisement hoardings have been kept out of the player's primary visual focus - although tracks with tonnes of the above - most notably the Monte Carlo street circuit, find it more difficult to sweep mediocre visual elements under the rug. The odd bit of low-fi visual design is likely due to data compression, as what Polyphony have managed to cram onto one small UMD is almost beyond belief. That there's an incredible 800-plus car roster is almost taken as a given these days, but it's still worth noting that this includes the likes of Lamborghini and Ferrari, after their Need For Speed exclusivity rights presumably lapsed, and elsewhere everything from Fiat Pandas and Volvo Estates to Bugatti Veyrons and Dodge Vipers. But it's the tracks which are really special; there's a staggering 45 individual circuits in total - ten more than even the game's box gives it credit for - some of which are admittedly alternative or shortened versions of the main tracks (Suzuka and Fuji for instance), but the number still doesn't take into account mirrored courses. The vast majority of the racetracks on show featured in GT4 but there's also the eminently appreciated appearance of the Valencia MotoGP course from Polyphony Digital's motorcycle sim Tourist Trophy. Course design is, as ever with GT, almost flawless. Real-life racing royalty such as Suzuka or Laguna Seca allow you to appreciate what makes them such unique challenges, whilst GT's own creations, such as the colossal Grand Valley Speedway, Autumn Ring and Trial Mountain, all seem to get better with age, presumably as the technology allows all of their little nuances to feel that little bit more "real". Not only is the player spoiled by the array of race tracks, there's all manner of dirt, snow and ice rally stages to powerslide around. Markedly different but in many ways just as engaging, you'll be scrabbling round corners desperately searching for a purchase, allowing you to put the power down and catapult away. Virtually every WRC-winning car of the last twenty years is present, including many of the infamous Group B/S supercars of the eighties like the Lancia Delta, Ford RS200 and Renault 5, which are bags of fun to drive. Suffice to say, there's something to test every facet of your driving ability here. A couple of long-standing criticisms linger on however. There's still no crash damage, and whilst it's still questionable whether the inclusion of such a feature in an already-challenging game would necessarily enhance the playing experience, it remains the one glaring omission from a game that aims to ape real-world physics so minutely. A broader trouble is that GT more than ever paints itself as a driving simulator rather than a racing game. Fans will know the real satisfaction of the game lies in mastering both car and course, but the fact the competitive element is so negligible doesn't help matters. The number of competitors in a race has been trimmed from six to four, and though the A.I. is marginally more conducive to close racing than before (they're given cars that roughly stack up against your own choice), they still chug around like automatons. Loading periods are just a little too frequent for comfort as well. Elsewhere, GT's recent struggles to associate itself with a soundtrack of any distinction continues with another incidental selection of rock songs buzzing along harmlessly in the background. Nothing terribly unexpected there perhaps, but more disappointing is the lacklustre quality of the sound effects - engine notes in particular sound whiny and not up to the series typical high standards. A lot hinges on whether you enjoy the mechanics of driving in GT, because if you do, it's the kind of game that a player could quite easily dip into for months on end. It's hard to see gamers playing it solidly for any great duration of time however as, aside from saving up enough credits for a dream car and attempts to reach Rank S on all the circuits, there isn't really a concerted, motivating factor to play long term. It is however one of the PSP's best exponents of WiFi play, and with adjustable handicaps, they ensure superior, close racing between you and a friend - provided you race each other in the same car, that is. If you're looking for bumps 'n' scrapes, wheel-to-wheel racing then in truth, this is unlikely to leave you fully satisfied, though when it comes to a wealth of cars and superbly-designed tracks; it's a veritable trove of driving delights. It's mostly stunning to behold, though with the odd graphical concession, you can't help but wonder whether the mountainous amount of content was a case of Polyphony Digital biting off more than the PSP could chew. Nevertheless, with tuning options and structured progression traded for accessibility, it still feels every inch a Gran Turismo, even if a couple of troubles stop it from being as defining as its forebears.
The original Assassin's Creed has clocked sales of around 10 million units since its 2007 release; an impressive achievement for a new intellectual property. It's easy to see why the game was so popular, as it provided owners at the time with a justification for owning a HD console, during a period where many releases were starting to feel a little safe. It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but then, it wasn't just a PS2 game with sharper graphics either. Play ACII for 2 hours and you could be forgiven for thinking little was altered in the interim leading to its 2009 release. Play for 2 weeks however and exposure to a host of small but meaningful improvements, as well as generally more intelligent, adventurous design, will leave you in no doubt that the series has found its feet with this instalment. As with the first game, ACII runs with an interesting, dual-strand narrative. The story sees Desmond Miles being sprung from confinement within the sinister, high-tech Abstergo Industries, before going into hiding with a small band of allies. Desmond's ancestors were assassins, and through a virtual-reality machine known as the Animus, he (and therefore the player) is able to relive their exploits, with the hope of shedding light on centuries-old conspiracies and what it is Abstergo are so desperate to find. Though something of a scientific leap-of-faith, the "genes with memory" trope offers plenty of gaming potential and narrative intrigue. The modern day bits have perhaps wisely been scaled back (amounting to no more than 1-2% of the play time) to offer further emphasis on the main meat of the game - what takes place in the Animus. This time around you're following the Florentine Ezio Auditore, in 15th Century Renaissance Italy. The move to focus on a new lead protagonist immediately pays dividends, as though Altaïr was a solid hero in the crusades-set original and its portable spin-offs, the absence of a backstory or a broader, personal focus left him feeling more of a bit-part player than Ezio. Following the Italian nobleman's life from free-spirited teen to a forty-something assassin, his highs and lows are as grand as they are empathetic, and that the missions are significantly less mercenary in their nature than in the first game is a big plus too. The game mixes open-world adventuring with elements of free-running and climbing, not dissimilar to the likes of inFamous and Prototype, only in this instance, it's not superhero antics you're getting up to, but the subtle art of stealth. It's accomplished stuff, with several tweaks enhancing an already-promising setup. Streets are bustling with market-holders, carnival performers, musicians, monks and courtesans all doing their own thing, there's a real sense of community - there's even the odd thief who'll pilfer your cash, forcing you to give chase. Braving the rooftops is usually the quickest method of getting from A to B, but attracts the attention of archers so it pays to be fleet of foot, though should you wish to be more methodical, you can hide yourself among the crowds. Ezio's is rewarded for inconspicuous behaviour; remaining "Incognito" ensures the city guard won't bat an eyelid, but should he become "Notorious", they're constantly on the lookout. Tearing down wanted posters and bribing heralds are two ways of reducing visibility, and because it isn't too fiddly or obtrusive, the whole idea complements the adventuring quite nicely. Combat has been improved too. The original was weighed-down by frequent onslaughts that lacked finesse; in part due to the one-button attacks which lead to some protracted and tedious skirmishes. Whilst still relatively simplistic, the swordfights in ACII are less repetitive and place greater emphasis on blocks, counterattacks and the utilising of various cool pieces of kit Ezio attains. There's consequently lots more freedom; you can sneak up behind a guard and nick him with a poisoned blade; retreat out of sight and watch as his frenzied last moments act as a perfect distraction for the other guards. Meanwhile, there are less lethal ways of diverting attention from high security areas, namely hiring courtesans, who will help you blend in with the populous, and then can be instructed to distract specific guards. Smoke bombs are great too as they can aid your escape (or make taking out several guards significantly easier), and irritatingly persistent troubadours hindering your tailing of a target can be shaken off by throwing money on the ground. Almost without exception, these tools are great, because should you find an effective method in which to use them, their effect is both extremely satisfying and tangible thanks to the smart and receptive A.I. Visually, there's little difference between this and the original, meaning that ACII looks just a touch dated. This is only in the most mercenary sense of the word however, as to ignore the sheer aesthetic beauty and intricate detailing of Florence and Venice in particular would be to do the game a disservice. It's still a thrill to climb hundreds of feet up a tower so as to see the awesome panoramic vistas of the city below, even if they are sometimes accompanied by a thin layer of fogging. Character animations look a little long in the tooth, but the overall presentation is supreme, with the white-washed menus in particular proving absolutely dazzling to behold. There's always something to keep you occupied. Monteriggioni acts as a light business element allowing you to invest in the small city with the pay-off being cheaper prices and a better selection of weaponry and items in stores. It's a simple but rewarding idea, granting you a quantity of florins twenty minutes proportional to the value of the area. A particularly excellent feature that is rarely touched upon is the game's cross-connectivity with PSP spin-off Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines. For every boss you've slain in the portable version, you'll be rewarded with a version of their unique weapon in the PS3 game; a commendable bonus for those who've tackled both adventures. As mentioned, the missions are far more engaging this time around. As well as the usual assassination, search 'n' find and scouting/following missions, there's a host of other adventures to undertake. The optional Assassin's Tombs are a real highlight. Typically based in sprawling cathedrals or catacombs, they reveal the full extent of the game's art design and platforming potential, mixing some gorgeous paintings and architecture with stomach-churning heights that often see you winding around a building and up into its wooden ceiling rafters. The tension when jumping on thin, rickety beams is palpable; you'll hold your breath for every one of them. Though this kind of concerted, labyrinthine design is not as apparent outdoors, they're absolutely brilliantly realised in the tombs, rivalling any of the modern Prince of Persia's for platforming nous. There is inevitably still the odd peril caused by the controls, with Ezio occasionally jump off a rooftop in a completely unintended direction, seeing him lunge to his death. This isn't an issue that will necessarily be quickly fixed; the sheer number of interactive points on each building that can be grabbed and climbed is vast, so there are going to be times where the movement you instinctively believe Ezio is going to make is not what comes off. It's important to stress though that this is an occasional trouble, and the majority of the time the controls are very sturdily both on the deck and whilst climbing. Some of the cities don't allow for as instinctive a sequence of rooftop sprints as would have been preferable; Venice in particular, whilst a pleasure to explore, still causes frustration as you'll have Ezio hopping unceremoniously into the canals if you don't plan your routes. At times enthralling and never less than engaging, the story produces a range of colourful characters that really bring things to life. Figures from history are brought to life in theatrical but powerful fashion, including the infamous Rodrigo Borgia as the chief antagonist, and the likeable Leonardo Da Vinci, who aids Ezio, not least by letting him test his prototype flying machine. The side-missions, which include beating up unfaithful husbands, racing around the rooftops and carrying out courier and assassination contracts are all of a decent standard, though it's curious that there's little incentive to tackling them, beyond a meek monetary reward for individual completion. They have no bearing on trophies or reaching 100% completion and as a consequence, leaves them feeling rather incidental. Fortunately, the story is more than worth the price of admission alone and should have you glued to Assassin's Creed II for a good couple of weeks. It's accomplished, addictive and marks a clear improvement over its predecessor - just what you want from a sequel, then.
In 2005, a brief tech demo of Killzone 2 was enough to generate a wave of hype among gamers. Was this wondrous footage of actual gameplay or merely a clever marketing ploy designed to imitate it? With the benefit of hindsight, the issue seems incidental now, but it's easy to forget how such powerful imagery can have a bearing on expectations. Four years of tantalising sound-bites and teasers later, the game finally launched in 2009, by which point the media had its knives well and truly sharpened, poised to decree the latest big thing a failure should they find the slightest chink in its armour. In the absence of anything concrete, many settled for Killzone 2 bearing the ills of the first-person shoot 'em up genre's most enduring weakness - a lack of originality. But marking Killzone 2 on the grounds of familiarity is somewhat akin to judging a car by the smell of its air-freshener. Here, originality is of secondary importance to the sheer quality of the experience itself. For what it's worth, the game does in fact showcase a number of elements that explore the PS3's hardware in ways other FPSs on the format have not, but it's not new content that gives it the wow-factor; it's the stuff you'll have seen before, but rarely this good. Certainly, it doesn't rock the boat thematically, and from a purely objective standpoint, both its controls and sci-fi 'n' soldiers setting will seem well-worn to the more dedicated of FPS fan. But if the PS2 original was technically accomplished, its sequel is technically outstanding. That K2 should sport such a shallow, clichéd story lead by a shouty cast of could-be-anyone soldiers seems almost contradictory to it harbouring one of the most intense, enjoyable and intelligent gameplay experiences around, and yet that's exactly what you're getting. The game follows "Mr Generic" Sev, part of the human ISA invasion force tasked with overthrowing the Helghast's (powerful, gas-mask adorned hominids) home planet, with a view to capturing their defiant leader Scolar Visari and his sadistic henchmen Colonel Radec. The combat is pleasing for several reasons. It doesn't do anything exceptional within itself, though the strength of the game's architecture and the rock-solid design means every inch of Killzone 2 is quality. The weight of the controls takes a little getting used to - turning in particular feels heavier than in many of its contemporaries - though Guerrilla Games accurately gauged the divide between testing the player's quick-thinking whilst also gradually challenging you to improve precision aiming in pressure situations. The guns don't strike as imaginative a balance of human/alien technology as in the first game, though nevertheless feel like they're dealing real damage; they don't feel lightweight in the way many FPS's do, and the collision physics are completely immaculate even from extreme distance. Between the juddering use of the DualShock's vibration function and the visceral, war-film styled puffs of blood that linger briefly in the air after you land a hit, it's very satisfying. Visually it's nothing short of a masterpiece; gorgeous to look at and flawless in its continuity. The brutal beauty of Helghan cannot be understated, even if the finer qualities have sometimes been overlooked amongst sentiment that the game's muted green, murky veneer is derivative. But make no mistake; Killzone 2 has one of the most remarkable graphics engines of its era, enough on its own to lift an accomplished FPS to a level of excellence, and in doing so it delivers a level of overall immersion that even Uncharted 2 couldn't fully emulate. It's a number of technical triumphs, both obvious and minor, that help create such a remarkable, tangible atmosphere. More than just the explosions, it's the sum total of everything that happens in the environment 360 degrees around the player. The use of light and shadow is brilliantly foreboding, wind and rain effects have never been so convincing in how they affect surroundings, whilst the cut-scenes and depth of field, as you spy other battles taking place in the distance, are of a simply jaw-dropping quality. Every section of every level looks stunning, whilst allies and foes alike are supremely animated. The iconic Helghast still emit that haunting red glow from their eyes, visible as terrible streaks through the incredible, gritty swirling dust effects - and you have reason to be apprehensive, as they're some of the best A.I. in gaming. You're usually outnumbered and made to feel like it. Regardless of difficulty setting, enemy soldiers have got plenty of sneaky tactics up their sleeves. The bare minimum you can expect is for them to be finding effective cover and taking pot shots, but the Helghast are smart enough to make their numbers count. As well as trying to remain a moving target, in many instances they seek to distract and surround the player. They'll lob grenades to draw ISA troops out into the open, attempt to batter you at close range, and if things look to be going against them, they'll regroup in classic, safety-in-numbers fashion. The two lowest difficulty settings present a good, durable challenge, whilst the highest make progression through each bloody checkpoint seem like an achievement in itself. Cleverer than the average action-FPS but more accessible than the tactical shooters, K2 represents the best of both worlds. Though story progression is linear, there are many instances where a bit of thought will garner greater reward than rushing into a fire-fight. Equally though, the shooting retains an element of instinctiveness, and there's no faffing around with menus or team-orders. It's relentless and rarely pauses for breath, though the game never lacks for sticking to its guns. Unusually, Guerrilla opted to make use of the PS3's six-axis motion control; occasionally, you'll have to twist the pad to open a valve or plant an explosive, whilst the Sniper Rifle's scoped-aiming also reacts to physically moving the pad. Nothing special, but nice touches on the whole. It's replete with standout moments that will have shooting fans drooling at the mouth. The unforgettable opening sees you flying in towards the hellish, muddy Corinth River warzone, in what feels like a sci-fi ode to the D-Day landings; bullets and missiles whistle past the stricken carrier, as you're powerless to help comrades being blown out the sky around you. In the closing stretch the ISA reach the final Helghast stronghold, but standing in their way is what feels like an entire army. Inching along trenches, finding an adequate enough stretch to cover you from the hails of bullets and occasionally returning a few of your own, sensing victory is agonisingly close - the intensity of the battle is amazing. Even the relatively few quiet moments are carried off with aplomb; ghosting around the remnants of a deserted outpost feels odd and unnerving after all that had gone before it. In an age where the Call of Duty's and Battlefield's of this world are attempting to marginalise the one-player experience, it's gratifying to see a big-hitter delivering such a full-blooded experience, and one you're certain to want to play through more than once. The online multiplayer is absolutely stonking too. Pitching all matches as team affairs between the ISA and Helghast, you are free to jump into games and sample a range of different team games which are on rotation, thus meaning matches neatly avoid stagnation. There's your straight-up, kill the enemy free-for-all; assassinations whereby you either have to kill or defend a particular target for a given time (very difficult in populated matches); as well as capture-and-hold marked territories and planting/defusing bombs. There's a mountain of enhancements to be found simply because good performances ultimately translate into new abilities or points bonuses for certain soldier types. A healer for example can to begin with resurrect downed allies, but later on they can produce health-packs too. You can strategically place gun-turrets, or spawn-points to help teammates crowd an enemy base, and if you prefer to be sneaky, you can masquerade as an enemy in order to infiltrate them or even use cloaking. The odd level does leave you with the impression that you're doing more running than fighting even with a 32 player field, but a majority of the eight maps are superb. What could have been better? The story, certainly - not so much it's content, which has some potential, but more its hackneyed articulation. Whilst the vicious Colonel Radec is proper villain material, the goodies are unfortunately a bunch of meat-heads. When they're not reeling off expletives, they're making some tired, humourless jokes about "your mom"; it's no coincidence the game isn't viewed as high-art. The voicing as a by-product is passable at best, though the music saves face somewhat with a succession of rousing military-themed epics. The vehicle bits are oddly unnecessary, whilst the yawning gulf in intelligence between your sly Helghast adversaries and moronic, seemingly-suicidal teammates is also rather galling. This becomes more of a pain on the harder skill settings, as they are little more than a hindrance by then. Still, Killzone 2 is the sum of its impressive parts. Dazzling graphics are backed up by a flawless game engine and a host of grand, show-stopping action sequences that are as immersive and involving as any game available. The one-player has scope for weeks of play, the multiplayer possibly months and for all the time that's passed, it still feels like one of the few games to have got the absolute maximum from its PlayStation3 hardware.
Picture the scene: it's the turn of the millennium and the biggest video game brawlers are beginning another term at Fight School. Swatty Streetfighter is still the teacher's pet; Tekken is busy beating up the new kids and Dead Or Alive is being its usual pervy self behind the bike sheds. And then there's the eccentric loner - and that would be DarkStalkers. None other than the quirky cousin of Streetfighter, it may not have garnered the same level of notoriety, but then, the real mavericks always were too cool for school. The PSP's 2005 launch saw a remarkably unlikely return to centre stage for a series that had been largely dormant for six years. DarkStalkers Chronicle is moulded as an anthology of sorts, but unlike Capcom's slightly unconvincing (and highly frequent) revamps of Streetfighter II, this feels very complete. It pools together the content of all three instalments of the Saturn/PSOne 2D beat 'em ups and more besides, as well as all the intricacies that the connoisseurs love to pick through. What's easy to forget in the time that's passed is, even with its retro leanings, The Chaos Tower was almost certainly the best portable beat 'em up ever released at the time. This was of course as much down to the sizable technological leap afforded it by the then cutting-edge PSP, but as easy as it was to be wowed by a handheld fighter with pin-sharp visual clarity and no watering-down of the control scheme, the game also has an impressive degree of staying power. For those unfamiliar with DarkStalkers' homage to gothic anime and all things odd, there's the opportunity to sample an ageing though superbly crafted brawler, complete with one of the most eclectic character line-ups you could ever wish to see. It's not just the newcomers who'll find stuff to like here though; long-term fans will appreciate a couple of notable new features. Firstly, WiFi brings the series' portable debut to life as no Capcom beat 'em up is ever complete without multiplayer, and playing against a friend predictably doesn't disappoint. Just as significant is the all-new Chaos Tower mode. An early foray into the tower-climbing quest trope, it sees the player assembling a team of three fighters and aiming to win bouts in order to move up "floors" with a view to facing tougher opponents and attaining artwork stills as a mini-incentive along the way. Getting knocked out eliminates a player permanently, leading to some tricky moments as you'll periodically face powerful mid-bosses, thus it's important to rotate and protect fighters low on health. You'll spend longer on the Arcade mode, but it's a nice addition. And of course, it plays very well in a familiar kind of way. Strictly speaking, it doesn't do anything the Street Fighter Alpha games don't, but whilst D-Pad control is so often a hindrance to such titles, here it's actually very sprightly, and with a characteristically generous selection of difficulty settings and playing styles, it is in the classic Capcom style, a game with as much depth as you could ask for. Learning to block and time simple attacks proves as rewarding as executing the flashier special moves, and the computer opponents (even the last boss, Jedah) rarely use cheap tactics. Of course, you can't weigh up a fighting game's credentials without looking at its cast, and on show here is an array of characters so strange that it's difficult to know quite where to begin. Morrigan is certainly the most recognisable figure; all boobs, wings and green hair, she's a fan favourite and an ideal starting point for newcomers as her mix of agility, projectile attacks and uppercuts will seem pretty accessible. What's ultra-impressive is the almost-complete absence of palette swapping as a means of expanding the quota of playable characters; Morrigan and Lilith do share similar features, but employ very different combat techniques. The other twenty or so protagonists are unique however, and whilst they aren't as iconic as those the other big franchises have mustered, there are some fantastically creative figures to play as. The most distinctive include Pyron; literally a fireball in the shape of a human, Felicia; the blue-haired cat-woman and Sasquatch who, as the name suggests, is a Big Foot. The most memorable among this motley bunch however is Baby Bonnie Hood. Mimicking the look of Little Red Riding Hood, she's a wickedly humorous, dark skit on the fabled children's character, designed to highlight evil as a universally human trait that isn't dependent on a specific type of appearance. Beneath her cute veneer is a psychotic murderer whose ending sequence, which sees a family of wolves huddled around a TV worriedly learning of her exploits as she lurks in the woods, is absolute genius. It would in retrospect have been nice to have had a moves list accessible from the pause menu, as gamers with little or no exposure to the genre are likely going to struggle to begin with. This is further compounded by the odd bulkier character using the old charge move sets (holding a direction before quickly pressing the opposite and an attack button) and these are really tough to make effective without guidance - the Frankenstein-esque Victor thus plays like lumbering wrestler Zangief from Streetfighter II, and is horribly unsuited to non-joystick control. Still, whilst this may be attributed to one of the less desirable aspects of nineties gaming, one aspect that doesn't disappoint is the hugely comprehensive and very listenable soundtrack that, unsurprisingly, has a boppy, nineties arcade exuberance to it at times. Presentation-wise the game was perfect for showing off its hardware. The imaginative characters are a far cry from the pixelated hand-me-downs that beleaguered handheld fans had for so long had to put up with, but it's the acid-trip backdrops that really make things fizz, and while many would go on to surpass The Chaos Tower's relatively simplistic PSOne-era animations and unrefined menus, few can match the vivacity of what is an absolute festival of colour and activity. One area where it lets itself down though is in the visual quality of the ending videos; rather than being remastered properly, they are downsized to look miniature on the screen and look pixelated and unclear, looking like they've been lifted second-hand from a VHS recording. In the end it's nice that DarkStalkers got to have its moment in the sunshine, as in retrospect, the gaming world would be less well off without its quirky, original cast and old-fashioned but watertight gameplay. As a collection, it doesn't lack for content and the retention of all aspects that made the games great in their heyday is first class, and with the new Chaos Tower mode and WiFi multiplayer, fans are unlikely to be put out. It may be starting to look its age, but should the series remain eternally overlooked, its finely-tuned controls and well-balanced gameplay remain evergreen.
The last generation or so has seen one-time PlayStation icon Crash Bandicoot flitting around in an awkward limbo. He hasn't had his reputation quite as thoroughly sullied as Spyro the Dragon did by the increasingly desperate Legend Of Spyro titles, yet for all his endeavours and continually solid commercial performances, the bandicoot hasn't been able to recapture the form that made him the envy of the platforming world at the end of the nineties. Mind you, it isn't for lack of trying. After Crash Twinsanity's novel but ultimately unconvincing experiment in co-operative platforming, its successor Crash Of The Titans, released in 2006, deals the series another significant shake-up, this time placing major emphasis on a revamped combat system. As a platform game, COTT rarely pushes itself beyond the realms of mediocrity, but add to the mix an array of cool, imaginative enemies who can then be made to do your bidding in some frantic and involved battles, and it gives itself a fighting chance. The story is familiar fare; Crash's sister Coco once again gets herself kidnapped by everyone's favourite camp, evil egghead villain Dr. Neo Cortex, only for his equally deranged niece Nina to take over in his stead (a bit of a shame as typically, the more Neo Cortex, the better). There's not much in the way of narrative progression but that's never been especially important here, acting as it always has done as a framework within which its marsupial lead protagonist is free to explore all manner of bubbly cartoon landscapes and hazardous locations. The game isn't long in showing its hand, putting pretty much all of its eggs in the one basket. You're given the ability, having stunned an enemy, to "jack" and essentially take control of them, allowing parts of the levels to be navigated on the backs of some marvellous, freaky mutants. The scraps impress and frustrate in equal measure. There's plenty to admire though; there are fifteen beautifully bizarre beasties, each with their own small but distinctive set of attack moves. The best of the battlers including Scorparilla (a gorilla-cum-scorpion, I'm guessing) with its devastating, far-reaching melee attacks; Sludge which offers an unlikely mix of toxic barf and sneaky uppercuts, and the tank-like Shellephant. Occasionally, Crash will need to use jacked foes in order to progress through areas, and whilst this feature is fairly embryonic in its execution, it's nevertheless a positive step. The Snipe creature for instance shoots projectile beams, meaning they can flick targets or switches, whilst the Rhinoroller's devastating barrel-roll attack can take out obtrusive bits of scenery just as well as it sweeps away the bad guys. For the most part, the battling is solid fare; it's nothing overly technical as most mutants only have a small pool of attacks each, but learning to time your block and counter moves is actively encouraged, and particularly useful against some of the more aggressive enemies later on. Problems start to arise when you're outnumbered, and if Crash is left to fend for himself without the power of a mutant, it can feel a bit David versus Goliath. His lack of power exacerbated by the quick recovery rate of opponents who are quite content to block for long periods, whilst avoiding attack from other foes who is as much luck as anything else. Whilst the combat shows creativity, the same sadly can't be said for the platforming which is something of a low ebb for the series. Nothing's terribly amiss unto itself; there aren't any major issues with navigating Crash and he's learned a couple of new tricks since his last adventure, including an amusingly balletic twirling technique that slows descents, but it lacks any real spark or conviction. There's no question combat was the big focus for COTT, but it seems to have been at the expense of the platforming, which is for large parts unchallenging, unfocused and seems like little more than a bridge between fights. And as such, but for the odd uncomfortable spike, it's possible to coast through the majority the game. Because the levels tend to follow a similar pattern, things start getting repetitive by the latter stages when the novelty of controlling mutants starts to lose its gloss. In true Crash style though, there's no shortage of levels and extras. There are more than twenty stages in total and they're pretty lengthy too, offering roughly half an hour's play each. It makes a better fist of encouraging replay value than most platformers too, with a gaggle of hidden stuff and extras to garner by going back and perfecting your performances. The rewards themselves - artwork and mutant info mostly - aren't anything to write home about, but Crash's mutant-mimicking outfits are rather great, and it's worth some of the toil just to see his Halloween get-up. The game is unlikely to win any awards for its graphics, but its cartoony visuals have retained the colourful, rounded and a-bit-zany-round-the-edges spirit of the series. In fairness to SuperVillain Studios who handled the PSP version, there are few signs of fallibility in what is a very smooth and competent game engine, the odd slightly protracted loading time notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't rock the boat thematically, but the mix of jungles, waterfalls, sinister laboratories and underground lairs are as attractive as they are predictable. There are parts of Crash of the Titans that are a genuine breath of fresh air, though it's hard to shake the feeling that, even with all of the effort that's gone into the mutants and combat, putting the platforming on the back-burner is to the game's detriment. It's impressive to see a developer so actively able to pursue new themes and ideas in what is an aging franchise - a good sign for the venerable Bandicoot, even if this isn't quite the game to return him to the top of the platforming tree.
Whatever the Need For Speed franchise may sometimes have lacked in quality, it's more than compensated for in the metronomic turnout of new instalments. The sixteen years following its 1994 debut have yielded no less than sixteen games, a somewhat improbable achievement for a series that has only occasionally been party to concerted critical acclaim. 2010's Hot Pursuit had better prospects than most in its recent history however, simply because it was being created by a developer of some considerable pedigree; Criterion Games, the clever people responsible for giving us the blistering arcade street racer Burnout Paradise. Whilst Hot Pursuit is a comparatively clinical foray into cops 'n' robbers racing, it's still likely the best Need For Speed there's ever been. The fictitious Seacrest County is the setting that's mapped out for the player in the beginning as you're handed a range of challenges to undertake, either as a cop or a racer. The influence Burnout Paradise has had on the game is an instant and very obvious positive; skilled or on-the-limit driving is rewarded through the filling of a nitrous bar. Heading into oncoming traffic, executing powerslides and utilising shortcuts are all means of topping up your boost. There's a tantalisingly thin line between success and failure, but the more risks you take, the faster you can go. Hot Pursuit opts for a structured approach to its racing, using fixed routes with few deviations as opposed to a point-to-point setup where drivers pick their own route to the destination. At first, it struggles to emulate Paradise's buzz and excitement; the canyon passes, long desert roads and coastal runs feel reserved and sparse next to aforementioned title's bustling city. The handling initially seems a touch heavy, not as instinctive, and the action less busy. Yet the game gets markedly better with extended play, and by the time you reach the exotic car classes, there's little question that in instances that see you blazing down the freeways in the blurry night-time, slipstreaming and weaving in and out of traffic, it's right up there with the best racers in terms of excitement and adrenalin. Car control, which feels ill-suited to arcade racing to begin with, soon becomes second nature, and the weight of direction change and the wickedly enjoyable powerslides soon come to be appreciated. Furthermore, it really shows off with its weather effects; rain reduces grip levels and acceleration just enough to make you feel like you're walking a tight rope when approaching corners and traffic at speed - driving a Lamborghini at 160mph in the night with limited visibility and battering rain is an immense experience, and particularly satisfying if you manage to master the conditions. The gameplay is further complimented by some superb weapons and gadgets. No weapon is infallible and there are always ways to use each situation to your advantage - police roadblocks for example can be a nuisance from a racer's point of view, but should you pick the right spot to nip through whilst dropping a spike strip, it's an ingenious way and turning the situation to your advantage and taking care of your pursuers. There's a nice sense of balance and counter-balance to the equipment; police can use EMP's to wreak havoc with racers electrics, or send helicopters up the road to scout their progress, but equally racers can use jammers that prevent such measures and, by temporarily knocking the cops' radar offline, it gives you the opportunity to flee or shake your tail before they've recovered their bearings. Whilst the race layouts and scenic designs are perhaps a touch conservative, there's no denying the game is exceptionally pretty. The incredible speed, fluidity and dynamism it sports at crazy speeds is something of an art form. The vehicles themselves include a glamorous array of real-life manufacturers including Porsche, Lamborghini and Shelby, and it even throws in the world-beating Bugatti Veyron for good measure. All look sumptuous and impossibly glossy on the selection screens but also make full use of some bruising crash damage effects. The damage parameters themselves could have been a bit better; it's easy to cause damage by ramming an opponent from behind, but side-swipe collisions seem rather more of a grey area, as sometimes slamming a racer into the railings has no effect at all. It also has a habit of cutting away to brief cinematics mid-race to show resultant crashes or the deployment of police officers and this can be a peril, especially when it you are made to rejoin the action halfway around a corner or heading straight into traffic. For what it is, it's a heck of a lot of fun to play with others too. The online structure leaves a little to be desired however; it's a shame there wasn't a more detailed set of leaderboards or a stronger emphasis on structured progression, because though the racing itself is highly addictive, it's ultimately more geared towards holding your interest for a few days than a few months. "Hot Pursuit", which sees as many as four cops chasing four racers, is an absolute blast whichever side you are on, whilst "Race" does pretty much what it says on the tin and is competitive and enjoyable too. "Interceptor" is a bit of a misfire - a one-vs-one battle across an entirely non-linear route where either the cop wins with a bust or the racer does by escaping. It's hard to derive any significant enjoyment from this, as they often descend into awkward scraps that see the racer doubling back on the route in an attempt to disorientate their opponent. For those who'd rather tackle it alone, a stern challenge awaits that'll keep you grafting away for a few weeks, in part thanks to the smart level-up system for the police/racer disciplines. Points are accumulated through strong performances, personal-best times and also for beating friends' records. They in turn lead to a steady stream of new cars, events and equipment upgrades, though it is a little odd that, given that there are twenty levels to scale, the goodies abruptly stop at Level 13. Still, just as online, the Hot Pursuits will provide you with the most enjoyment, whilst the "Rapid Response" and "Preview" disciplines may divide opinion. They make for an engaging and satisfying challenge, even if these time-trial styled events are given a rather bigger role than was really necessary. Penalties for clipping traffic or scenery are harsh however, and if you wish to restart (which, if you are aiming for the top awards, will be quite frequently), you'll be met with some curiously lengthy loading times. Even so, these are small gripes. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is a class act, all told. Graphics and gameplay tick the right boxes, whilst the game gradually builds from an innocuous start to reveal a hi-octane racer of some considerable technical quality that, at its best, is quite thrilling to play. The settings may be guilty of coming across as just a tad anonymous in the final reckoning, but if you're in any way interested in the racing genre, then this has to be worth seeking out.
1966's Fahrenheit 451 carried with it the prospect of an exciting meeting of minds; a story adapted from Ray Bradbury's excellent fifties dystopian novel of the same name and directed by the now-legendary French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut (The 400 Blows; Jules and Jim). The film isn't as dynamic as this combination may have promised, but it remains an enduringly relevant tale, preserving the book's warning as to the perils of culture "dumbing down". Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman at an indeterminate time in the future. In Fahrenheit 451, this carries quite different connotations; firemen start fires rather than put them out, wielding flamethrowers and carrying out ritualistic, public book-burnings. Society fears and distrusts books, claiming they spread "lies" about "people who never existed", false philosophy, and stories devised to make people sad, angry and anti-social. One day on the way to work, Montag has the root of a dangerous question planted in his head by free-spirited neighbour Clarisse (Julie Christie): "why?". Are books harmful, has he read them, why does he burn them? Soon he begins to question the ethics not only of his job, but more broadly the nanny state within which his and everyone elses lives are so tightly dictated. The first half of Bradbury's tale is intelligently reconstructed. The viewer is on the periphery of a fascinating world; an unseen yet omnipotently controlled authoritarian society with odd quirks and contradictions few living in it challenge or even seem aware of. Its dystopian suburbia is attractive and impressively-realised; marking the prosperous locales with vivid colour and defining the city outskirts with stark, brutalist architecture; it acts as a precursor to A Clockwork Orange's more visceral, violent vision of the future - which is praise in itself. The director exercised some artistic license on the picture, most evident in his brave move to cast Julie Christie as both Montag's neighbour Clarisse, and his wife, Linda. The two are diametric opposites, and one critic's suggestion that the two differ little more than in the changing of the actress's hair-do is perhaps a little unfair. Books come to represent imagination and curiosity, and by openly rejecting both, Linda's the perfect unassuming zombie, to be easily manipulated. Her hazy, shallow demeanour and materialistic nature are effectively conveyed by the actress, whilst the beige/brown outfits, walls and furnishings she's enveloped by hint at her utter conformity and humdrum existence. She symbolises a great irony that is not lost on Truffaut; the criticism of books being seen as anti-social and subversive tools is continually undermined by Linda being glued to television sets around her house, or taking massive quantities of drugs. Perhaps the film's deftest scene is a delivered with a rare dash of humour. Linda believes she's been selected to star in one of the television shows she's so hooked on. The characters on screen come up with a dilemma, then direct a question at her (or as Montag more accurately proposes, anyone and everyone called Linda), but before she is able to reply with anything more than a mumble, they claim that she is right and plough on, bringing to light, in a quietly jovial moment, the absurd illusion of an individual's value. Julie Christie cuts a more chirpy and likable, though perhaps less distinctive figure in Clarisse. The character's role is reshaped to appear more film-friendly, whereas in the book she's more of a muse than a mistress, her participation less involved, her fate rather more ambiguous. The dual-casting points to Clarisse as a "thinking" version of Laura, or perhaps the wife Montag wishes he had. Christie's performances won't live long in the memory, though for what it's worth, she juggles her two relatively unchallenging roles without major incident. For the musical score, Truffaut enlisted the services of Bernard Herrmann, a long-time collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann reprises the lush, panicky string accompaniment he used to such memorable effect on Psycho, though here the racy tempos seem somewhat ill-fitting. A subtler, more invasive sound would have fit the cerebral atmosphere more aptly. The closing stages of the novel made for some breathlessly tense action but in the film, such sequences are disappointingly brief and incidental. Attempts at a poignant and poetic ending also fall flat, even with a clever instance of Cinéma vérité showing a child struggle to commit a book to memory as an older, dying man recites it to him. Dialogue is inconsistent, perhaps in part due to Truffaut's limited grasp of English and apparent unhappiness with stony-faced Viennese actor Oskar Werner over his interpretation of Montag. Werner is fine playing the "unthinking automaton" in the beginning, but slightly less reliable when shows of emotional instability are called for later on - there's no question, he paints a much more muted figure than the book. Montag's Captain, played by the very watchable Cyril Cusack, gets to spout some of the best and most (if you'll pardon the pun) inflammatory dialogue, as he positively delights in rambling about the worthlessness of literature and how people are drawn to fire. Many of the monologues from other characters lack clout however, appearing listless and preachy rather than inspirational, with some rather hammy tertiary performances. The film is also guilty of becoming hypnotised by its own martyr-like book burning scenes, developing a rather heavy reliance on close-up shots of classic works receiving the flaming treatment. Fahrenheit 451 ultimately does no disgrace to its source material but, in a somewhat ironic twist, comes to highlight its own theme of written literature proving a more articulate medium to that of the screen. Middling performances from its leading lights, along with an inability to graft out a punchy, meaningful ending mean it comes off second best, yet Truffaut's elaborate sets and at times beautiful compositions remain a highlight. So poignant is the story, that even now it's difficult not to be in some way moved or disconcerted by the image of history's works being systematically eradicated. Worth watching, but the book's still better.
In theory at least, Elite Force could have been the answer to so many a long-suffering sci-fi fan's prayers. After a seemingly endless run of straight-laced space combat games and colourless real-time strategies, finally a first-person shoot 'em up arrived that put you right in the heart of a Star Trek universe, phasers and all. Sadly, by the time of its PS2 release in 2001 more than a year after first debuting on PC, Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force had already been assimilated by its superior competitors. Decent games-of-films are few and far between, decent games-of-TV-series' perhaps even more so. What's frustrating is how much of a missed opportunity Elite Force is because, far from hindering gameplay development, the Voyager canon should if anything have fuelled it; replete as it is with cool settings and scenarios, as well as a ready-made cast of colourful foes and allies alike. However, it ends up playing out like a wooden, by-the-numbers episode. As a first-person shoot 'em up, it's a sizable and ambitious port but ultimately unimaginative, whilst its barely-veiled attempts to ape Half-Life are crippled by an inadequate game engine. You play as Ensign Munro, who is part of a new Hazard Team aboard the Starship Voyager, formed with dangerous missions in mind. Miraculously, such a narrative occurrence almost immediately comes to involve him and his team when Voyager gets beached in what the game's own blurb describes as "a mysterious null-space graveyard." In English, this simply means a good excuse to plonk Voyager in close proximity with a host of their most memorable adversaries including the Borg, Hirogen and Klingon. Using the Quake III Arena engine, it's perhaps little surprise the game evokes memories of the classic era of corridor shooters, though even next to the ageing Quake II, Elite Force appears frail, with many of its problems stemming from obvious technical deficiencies. Most troublesome is the utterly ruinous effect busy fire-fights have on the frame-rate, at times virtually reducing things to a standstill. The enemy A.I. rarely wastes time on tactics, instead going for the kamikaze, attack in numbers method, which can prove daunting to the player as the slow frame-rate (and consequently unresponsive "shoot" buttons) and getting snagged on ill-placed teammates can leave you vulnerable. From an aesthetic point of view, Voyager's interior proves something of a visual highlight, even if the brightly-lit facades are rather basic when paid close attention. The majority of the other ships you'll explore have their own little quirks too, though with scenery being aggressively recycled throughout, environments inevitably end up feeling a touch derivative. Characters look excessively chiselled and blocky, not helped by some extremely jerky and wholly unnatural-looking animation. A.I. teammates are of some help in shootouts when they aren't walking across your line of fire, but travelling in group is a pain; especially using elevators, as each person shuffles in very slowly, one-by-one, like Starfleet sheep, before you can eventually get the lift started. But there are good bits. Whilst Voyager's own decks aren't quite as fleshed-out or interactive as would have been ideal, they are something fans will undoubtedly get a kick out of. There's some enjoyable Holodeck training levels designed to allow you to test new weaponry, whilst you can also visit the mess-hall to catch up on the latest gossip, and even check out Munro's quarters, complete with toilet-less bathroom, paying admirable service to a long-running Star Trek in-joke. Iffy graphics aside, the general presentation is very slick, with futuristic menus and displays distinctly echoing those of the TV series and proving very easy on the eye. Sound effects add a layer of authenticity, from the beeps of the control panels to the "shh!" noise of the doors, it all sounds like it should, even if the music is a tad incidental at times. Many of the show's participants return to voice their respective characters, so you get Kate Mulgrew's distinctive tones as Captain Janeway and Tim Russ as the unceasingly awesome Vulcan Tuvok, among others. They do a fine job, it's just a shame the script didn't have a little more spark, as encounters with familiar faces end up feeling a bit clinical; like they're really only there to relay mission objectives. To the game's credit, whilst the shooting becomes rather wearisome, it does occasionally try to vary things up with a bit of platforming. Whether it's edging along perilous beams, jumping over an immense precipice or crawling through craftily hidden vents, there are portions of the game where the environment design is intelligent and nicely thought through. It even tries its hand at stealth on a couple of occasions and with some degree of success. You have to be a little careful of the controls however, as particularly when set to "run", Munro can get very leery. If you like corridor shooters and you like Star Trek, you'll get plenty of bang for your buck, as Elite Force is a lengthy adventure that will take most players at least a couple of weeks to finish. The "Holomatch" mode is the multiplayer suite and allows for deathmatches for between 2 and 4 players, and though the experience isn't a patch on that of TimeSplitters 3: Future Perfect, it's impressive to note that there are over thirty deathmatch arenas on show. Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force is, when all's said and done, okay. Fan-pleasing settings, occasional flashes of smart design and robust longevity all work in its favour, though it's hard to shake the feeling that, even upon its 2001 release, the game was looking over its shoulder for inspiration rather than forward for new ideas, and it comes nowhere close to matching the aptitude of the PC version. Run-of-the-mill gameplay and an ultimate inability to acclimatise itself to the PS2 hardware means you're left with a so-so shooter that doesn't fulfil its potential, and with so many superior alternatives, it's hard to recommend.
Little did we know, but when Traveller's Tales first emerged with LEGO Star Wars in 2005, they would have on their hands not only one of the sleeper hits of the year, but the beginnings of what would become something of a gaming craze. Even without rewriting the platformer rule book, the game won a lot of admiration for its fun, humorous homages to the silver-screen classics, whilst achieving that oh-so-difficult task of entertaining players of all ages. Though the LEGO circus had begun to sprout games thick and fast by late 2009, it didn't trouble LEGO Batman: The Video Game, which turned out to be an absolute corker. Because beneath its familiarly accessible (it reuses the LEGO Star Wars game engine), light-hearted veneer beats the heart of a truly complete 3D platformer, sporting a whopping 30 levels, a simply chasmic selection of collectibles and superlative structuring that perfectly tailors the experience towards maximising the extensive replay value found within. Its gameplay is a distinct evolution of the formula, not reinventing the wheel but recognising little alterations that needed to be made. Whilst it was easy to appreciate the myriad of characters in LEGO Star Wars, differences were rarely much more than cosmetic, extending as far as perhaps the ability to double-jump or use lightsabers. Traveller's Tales have built all of the "goodies" missions in LEGO Batman around "suits"; both Batman and Robin can make use of outfits that allow the ability to withstand extreme heat, glide, travel underwater, blow things up through demolition charges, and there's even a suit that allows Robin to traverse walls in magnetic boots. Since the dawn of time, mankind's favourite past-times have been to build, and to destroy. In between conflicts, we've also learned that it's especially fun to do both with bright plastic bricks. LEGO Batman is thus the thinking-man's war game. Not really; it's a family-friendly 3D platformer. But brick-smashing remains a key element in how the game operates; not only does busting up scenery earn you "studs" (the game's currency) but in many instances leaves pieces of LEGO bouncing around, ready to be used to create new and useful objects. These can range from switches, ropes and platforms to aid your progression through the levels, to vehicles you can motor around on, as well as turrets and electrical charges required to defeat bosses. You'll need a keen eye to succeed, as sometimes you're just after a couple of small bricks needed to form that crucial rung in a ladder, whilst observing the scenery is important as by holding square, you can aim a Batarang to take out certain foes or structures that are out of reach. It may have been released mere months after LEGO Indiana Jones, but make no mistake, there's been a heck of a lot of work done in fleshing this out. Batman's fifteen levels see him teaming up with Robin and travelling all over Gotham City in three mini-stories that chart his battles with the Penguin, Riddler and Joker, and barring the odd flying and driving level designed to add some action emphasis, most will last at least half an hour in length, packing a gargantuan amount of smash 'n' build fun as well as hidden goodies and puzzles. As if this wasn't enough, there are fifteen more stages from the villains perspectives, using Arkham Asylum, rather than the Batcave, as a hub of operations. And if anything, these are even more fun. They rather cleverly work as a flipside to Batman's stories, so whilst the opening level "You Can Bank On Batman" sees the caped-crusader rushing to the scene of a bank-robbery, it's mirror-level "Riddler Makes A Withdrawal" pits you as The Riddler and Clayface as they go about pulling off the heist. The villain stages feature recognisable settings, but the environments themselves are unique with the gameplay taking you through different locations. Add to this the opportunity to play as an incredibly comprehensive roster of famed underlings such as Mr Freeze; Harley Quinn; Catwoman and Killer Croc, and you've got a dreamy amount of fan service. The platforming itself still isn't especially refined; climbing ladders is needlessly cumbersome, as is judging certain jumps and the one-button mash-athon combat, though trouble-free, isn't the most thought-provoking or ideally executed. But it doesn't really matter; LEGO Batman impresses in just how much there is to interact with, how many secrets are buried away, just out of sight. There's so much to every level that really each of the thirty is worth a couple of hours of your time individually - every one has ten pieces that form a LEGO model; a hostage needing to be rescued and a unique (and usually hidden) red brick to be found; whilst amassing enough studs to reach "super-hero" or "super-villain" status grants the player a piece towards a large model. LEGO Batman instils in the player a wonderful belief that should you choose to hang around, experiment and delve a little deeper in what you might find, there'll be lots of rewards in store. ...And whilst the Story mode challenges the player to think logically about how to progress through a level, the Free Play option opened up after completing a level allows the player to use any of their unlocked protagonists in a far, er, "freer" manner, granting access to a hoard of areas and actions that were off-limits in the Story. It's the perfect means of extracting replay value; enticing the player by dangling a host of bonuses in front of them, only to be available second time through. As such, there's literally months of play to be had here and compared to the majority of modern platformers, it's absolutely gigantic. Gotham City looks rather nice in brick form, capturing the streets and various landmarks effectively. On the whole it's as you'd expect from a LEGO game; nothing technically extravagant though nevertheless easy-on-the-eye. Though the level of detail and general activity is very impressive, there is the odd moment here and where the picture seems compressed. Still, the instances when characters scuttle around at light-speed assembling a new construction from scattered bricks is endlessly satisfying, whilst the cut-scenes outline the general plot direction in simplistic fashion, with a well-judged dash of humour. Whilst there's no dialogue and the sound effects are somewhat incidental, the soundtrack is more notable, as it uses Danny Elfman's compositions from the 1989 Batman film, which is a nice touch. LEGO Batman fares superbly on the PSP, though the portable version does suffer from a couple of minor issues. The first is loading times; upon booting up the game, there are a couple of really quite lengthy waits, so it's best to use the console's stand-by function where possible to avoid having to repeatedly sit through these. Strangely, for a game that is essentially co-op in nature, it features no multiplayer options - not even a local, peer-to-peer setup that would have allowed for some classic drop-in/drop-out gameplay. It should be noted however that the computer-controlled ally is no slouch. It's unlikely that you'll find yourself screaming at the screen as they tend to do the right things during co-operative puzzle solving and can handle themselves in combat. It's a real pleasure, when all's said and done. The new suits and vehicles add a sprinkling of variety to an otherwise water-tight platform game, and whilst there's still perhaps a slight clumsiness around the edges lingering over from the earlier LEGO titles, Traveller's Tales' trek into Gotham City sees the positives significantly outweighing the negatives. It may not look a world-beater at first glance, but few recent platformers have had as much thought invested in their design, or offered as much longevity and once again, it's a game that those of all ages can enjoy. This is no Holy abomination, that's for sure.
The first thing that springs to mind when loading up Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is simply: "weird mix". MK's vicious, gothic clique are naturally at home in the dank, seediness of Earthrealm, which has for so long been synonymous with the series, yet the black humour and excessive violence seems rather ill-fitting for the (mostly) wholesome visiting cast of DC superheroes and villains. Of all the dream "vs." combinations, it's hard to picture even the most creative of fans yearning to see Sub-Zero encasing Wonder Woman in ice, or baying for Superman to laser-beam psychotic thug Kano in the face. Still, the unlikely pairing is what's on show here and there are times when it works, and times where the gulf creates problems. The game presents the usual Arcade mode setup where you work through a series of battles before facing Dark Khan (a fiery combination of villains Shao Khan and Darkseid). Victory grants a rather lame, gallery-shot ending with a brief narration divulging the nature of what each character did with their new-found power. More noteworthy however is the brave and enjoyable Story mode. After choosing your side, you get to play through a lively narrative as a number of protagonists, and some smart cut-scenes flesh out the combat rather nicely. The Story sees a merging of realms, with figures from both sides getting transported into each other's habitats and succumbing to "Combat Rage", a symptom manifesting from the aforementioned Dark Khan's lust for conflict. Each chapter pits you as a different player, and cleverly, weaves a few of the more unsavoury figures into the mix as they attempt to benefit from the ensuing chaos. Admittedly, it's a touch disappointing that they opted to keep the franchises in strict in opposition throughout, possibly as forging any "common-ground" dialogues between the likes of Scorpion and The Joker would surely have proven difficult to substantiate. With significant differences in fighting styles, as well as the fact that many of the DC lot aren't exactly a staple of the beat 'em up genre, the character-balancing perhaps inevitably isn't great. Raiden and Superman, as the story's main figureheads, have a fair bit more in the way of special moves than other characters. The Flash has a range of lightning fast combos and tricky-to-block-efforts whilst Sub-Zero is agile and full of frosty menace, but their potency ends up highlighting the deficiencies of others. The likes of Captain Marvel, Lex Luther and (despite being easily the most creative figure on show) The Joker all require rather more effort to make effective in battle. In fairness, isn't just the DC lot either; as spec-ops pairing Sonya and Jax struggle to establish themselves with short-range moves and neither are especially effective in fights. Toothy-freak Baraka and shady DC villain Deathstroke, whilst fairly robust combatants, seem tacked-on as they play virtually no meaningful role in the stories at all. On the whole, it plays well enough. There's a fine (if over-familiar) array of quick 'n' easy combos and character-specific special moves, whilst the Kombo Challenges mode highlights the additional manoeuvres made available through good timing. Though it would perhaps be a little unfair to describe the fight system as wooden, there's no question it lacks the fluidity of the Tekken's and Streetfighter's of this world, and the ungainly block function rather draws attention to the severe shortage of low-aimed combat moves outside of basic attacks. To its credit, the game throws in a bunch of new gimmicks, even if they prove hit and miss. "Free-fall Kombat" sees fighters battling in mid-air, punching and parrying on the way down to the next level of the arena. Judged right, you can inflict 30% damage on an opponent's health bar, but as these can be reversed, and the player who hits the ground first takes all of the damage, they can also frustrate. Other quick-time events see you smashing your enemy through walls in a button-mashing frenzy to determine the extent of the damage, whilst the filling off the "Rage" bar grants the combatant near-unstoppable, hyper-powered moves that are guaranteed to turn the tide of most battles. You will of course enjoy the inclusion of the "Rage" function far more if you're the one using it, rather than being on the end of the already uber-powerful Dark Khan's unnecessary usage of the system. The presentation isn't bad. Finding a happy medium for the bright 'n' chunky DC Universe characters is a tricky task, but though the game misses the heavy atmosphere that benefited the classic Mortal Kombat titles of the early nineties, the compromise is relatively well-met. It's rather odd seeing the superheroes mimicking the gangly punches and lurid uppercuts of their counterparts however, and only really The Joker is given a truly distinctive fighting style. The music is, on occasions, pleasantly foreboding, and the environments are a definite boon. The pick of the bunch include downtown Metropolis, Gotham City, the Batcave and also arenas where the two universes have been split down the middle, though the character select screen and menus are rather unattractive on the whole. Perhaps the biggest disappointment attached to MK vs. DC is its fatalities. The once-legendarily gory finishers have been severely toned down, in all likelihood because certain folks wouldn't see the benefit of having Batman being ripped in two or Catwoman having her head-severed. So what you have is an unfortunate collective that ranges from the mildly diverting (such as The Joker's fake pistol routine and rather vicious playing card finishers) to the uneventful, and the downright rubbish - such as Shang Tsung replicating his opponent's appearance and then timidly levering them to the floor. So whilst it's always entertaining to give the finishers a go, most are a bit half-hearted. There's just enough in way of distractions and game modes to give you a couple of weeks of play, with online and two-player functions propping things up. The two-player is, much like the single-player, an okay means of killing an hour or so, though it's not addictive or satisfying enough to get you enthralled in epic, best-of-50 matches. Midway ultimately made sound work of what was in hindsight not an easy assignment. It's impressive that they've made this brawler as cohesive as it is, because by all accounts the two franchises involved are not an ideal fit. The fatalities aren't satisfying, the characters are a bit of a mish-mash and it's not as refined as the genres top representatives, but for all this, there's still some endeavour and enjoyment to be found in this bizarre marriage.