Itchy Thumbs

Completing games then reviewing them

Archive for March, 2006

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Posted by D on March 14, 2006

I remember playing the very first iteration of the Prince of Persia concept on a friend’s cutting edge x286 PC and shortly thereafter on my own Amiga 500. The graphics were bold and simple and the prince’s 4-colour, motion captured movements were enthralling. It was tough. Timings were tricky and the fencing wasn’t easy either but it was much loved. So much so that it spawned a range of imitators that bore more than a passing resemblance, including Delphine’s Flashback and Oddworld’s Abe’s Oddysee. You might even go as far as suggest that the layout and design of the Tomb Raider series is a 3D rendering of the of the original Prince of Persia concept. Prince of Persia was a success so of course they attempted a 3D version (imaginitively titled ‘Prince of Persia 3D’) which was dissappointing to say the least.

At that point you’d be forgiven for thinking it was time to put the whole concept to rest and never talk of it again. It was afterall that peculiar period during the 2D/3D change over where some games worked and others played like utter dogs. But No! Not too long ago UbiSoft decided to give it another go and we can but rejoice at what they came up with. The most recent three Prince of Persia games are a joy to behold. I’m supposedly talking about the latest game here but most of what I’ll say is applicable to the previous two.

These games really, really work. Playing them feels effortless and natural, everything about the control system feels utterly intuitive. When you tell it to do something it does it, that sense of immediacy keeps you immersed and keeps you playing.

The most telling point I have to make about the Prince of Persia games is that they feel like the games that the Tomb Raider series should have become. Where Tomb Raider’s interface feels slow, clunky and artificial – Prince of Persia feels fast, fulid and real. The developers of the Tomb Raider games missed a trick in not refining and updating their game engine with each passing game. On the other hand, having got it so right the first time out, the developers of Prince of Persia have little need to change their game engine. It is a joy to play.

In case you’re not up to speed this is a running, jumping, avoiding traps, stabbing a monster type of game. The twist is that you’re capable of manipulating time using your “Sand Tanks”. Unfortunately these are not some manner of desert ordinance, as I had hoped. A tap of a button and time slows down, especially useful for killing monsters or slowing down traps and blades. Hold down a button and you can rewind time a little, especially useful if you went for yet another faceplant off the edge of that cliff or you decide against becoming better aquainted with those friendly spinning blades of sharp pointy death.

Rewinding time is a great feature of the game engine, it allows you a couple of attempts at anything that’s especially difficult without dying and having to be sent all the way back to the last save point. As well as being a little forgiving it allows the game to flow and maintain a sense of pace. A further point of game design is the addition of restart points within levels, other than the save points. The larger regions between save points and the very tricky regions are usually demarked by a restart point. Afterall it’s not fun to repeat the preceeding 5 (easier) minutes of game just because the difficult series of traps you came across sliced you into teeny-weeny pieces.

The only exception to this was getting the final life upgrade. Towards the end of the game there is a restart point immediately prior to a tricky series of traps, just by this series of traps is the path to the super-secret final life upgrade. I feel utterly, compelled to gain this upgrade not just because it’ll make the final boss battle easier but because I’m an anally retentive completist. Having failed to get the upgrade once you are spat out of the secret bit and you can try again as many times as you like. All good but you’ll likely have no sand tanks and the only way to get more is to kill yourself. So you have to run back to the restart point, kill yourself, restart, collect the 3 sand tanks, run back to the super-secret final life upgrade. That’s a lot of annoying lag time between each attempt. Why couldn’t there have been a couple of sand tanks available at the entrance to the super-secret final life upgrade?

But it gets better, having finally gained the super-secret final life upgrade you have to go back to the restart point and attempt the tricky series of traps with only 1 sand tank available. Failure doesn’t just mean a restart but you also have to get the super-secret final life upgrade again. So you have to do both really tricky bits with a very limited number of sand tanks in one go. I think it took me 40 mins in total to finally manage it. I would like to think that this was an error, that when you eventually get the super-secret final life upgrade it should be yours permenantly (god knows you’ve worked hard enough for it at that point). If this was a deliberate design decision I hope they hunt down whoever made that decision, find something excessively pointy and stab them in the face.

Enough of the whining; the graphics are glorious. The level of detail and the scale is quite breath taking, it makes the game totally immersive. I especially appreciated the cityscape background when you are climbing the outside of the tower at the end. On the lower portions of the tower the background is viewed from one perspective. Once you’ve gone inside the tower, climbed up to the next portion and come back outside the background cityscape has changed to one with a different elevated perspective. The loading of the new background is seamlessly hidden by the fact that you’ve just gone in and out of the tower. It’s just a small thing but having noticed it I really appreciated the attention to detail
Amazingly the plot is also bareable. A surprise in anyone’s books. It’s a little hackneyed in your fantasy/Sinbad/Ray Harryhousen style but enjoyable nonsense nonetheless. Alongside this, the dialogue isn’t utterly excrutiating, a turn up for the books in any computer game and always appreciated. The day that computer games firms start hiring decent script writers will be a glorious day. Hell, anyone who can string a sentence together would do; someone with an English degree or perhaps just somebody who read a book in English once. And on that day; birds will sing, lambs will be born and little rabbits will come out to frolic. I imagine that some kind of worldwide holiday will be declared.

I also liked the new one-hit-kill system where timed button taps dispatch enemies in short order. When the camera zooms in these moments gain a visceral, immediate quality. In fact the camera work throughout the game is excellent. You rarely get stuck behind something, unable to see where you are, and the way the camera pans and swoops around emphasises the scale and detail in the environment. When you slide down chains or down narrow gullies the camera frequently pans out to let you see where you’re going. More often than not there is a one-hit-kill oppertunity at the bottom. As you jump down the camera snaps from zoomed out view to the foreshortened one-hit-kill view. This marked contrast in camera angles is an excellent effect and one which lends a cinematic, edited quality to the game. Another lovely example of attention to detail.

But there were also bad things too. The game strikes me as short and perhaps a little too easy. Although I appreciate this maybe be a consequence of my previous experience with the earlier games. Gone too is the sense that you are freely exploring an environment. The path of the game is very linear. The game also feels as though there are less traps, spining blades and timed leaps than there were in it’s predecessor. It feels much more like you are just working your way from save point to save point with few decisions along the way. Although there is more trap dodging later in the game by that time the whole thing is nearly over.

As with the previous iterations of the game engine, fighting more than 2 enemies at a time often feels a little clunky, in fact occasionally fighting one enemy is fairly awkward. Thankfully slowing down time remedies that to a fair extent. Lastly the game does suffer a litte from SNK boss syndrome when you’re fighting the penultimate boss(es). It’s not as bad as the Warrior Within, in which I never did bother to kill the final monster, but it’s a little annoying.

Anyway I would give this fine, fine game:

8/10

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Tee hee

Posted by D on March 8, 2006

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Beyond Borders

Posted by D on March 6, 2006

Now I apprecaite this is supposedly a place to review computer games but as I initially said I won’t shy away from reviewing films, books or even music as the mood takes me and to that end here’s a film review:

I have just seen one of the worst films I have ever had the misfortune to sit all the way through. It’s true to say that the straight to video classic that is ‘Beyond Borders‘ is mind numbingly appalling.

What follows could be construed as containing spoilers but quite how you could make ‘Beyond Borders’ any worse is anyone’s guess;

The film tells the tale of a woman who feels the ‘western, middle class guilt’ need to visit various grief/horror/war/famine torn regions of the world. Each time she’s inflicted with this mawkish, self-serving wanderlust she finds herself in a refugee camp run by the dashing, doesn’t-play-by-the-rules Nick (Clive Owen). That’s right folks, Nick is some manner of international jetset aid working superman. Be it Cambodia, Ethiopia, Chechneya Nick is there getting the job done no matter what it takes. Grrrrrr. Manly. What a hero. It seems only natural that our heroine should fall for Nick. Why else is he always there? Why else is he quite so rugged yet sensitive? What other point is there to this film? Who can say?

Here’s the rub. This film is dishonest, duplicitous and offensive; It’s little more than a very badly executed love story and other people’s suffering is used as a vehicle to facilitate telling that story. The use of other’s suffering comes across as a hamfisted attempt to tug at our heart strings in the hope that by making us feel these emotions we will be better inclinced to be touched by the romance at the heart of the film. The suffering and refugee camps are a McGuffin, an obvious and clunky story telling device to facilitate the film’s cheap and tawdry ends. Perhaps the use of others suffering would be excusable if the love story was worth telling. Instead it does nothing more than trivialise what hundreds and thousands of people went through for it’s own cheap ends.

But we’ve barely even scratched the surface. The film could have been redeemable if the romance seemed worthwhile it but the film doesn’t even give us that. The film plays out over three periods (1984,1989 and 1995) but in those periods we’re never given to believe that our heroine and Nick spend more than a total of 4 weeks together. Why should we believe they have such a worthwhile romance given that they only see one another for 4 weeks in every 5 years? Why should we believe she’s one of the good guys when she’s walking out on her kids for a man she has only ever seen for 8 weeks in her life? When we can’t identify with the romance it seems especially cynical and manipulative to use a backdrop of human suffering.

At one point it’s very heavy handedly suggested the our heroine’s husband has been cheating on her. Are we to feel sorry for her? Maybe (finally) identify with her? No. Instead it quickly becomes evident that it’s little other than an excuse to give our heroine the moral justification to sleep with Nick not 5 minutes later in the film. It might be forgivably heavy handed if we cared about her, Nick or their developing romance but we don’t and the whole husband infidelity comes across as an excuse to ensure the director doesn’t offend the audience’s sensibilities. Afterall we wouldn’t want either of the lead characters to be real people. That wouldn’t do at all, instead we must ensure that they exist in some kind of moral wonderland where they can do no wrong. Remember kids, they’re aid workers, not only are they better people than us they have more important love lives.

And now we come to the pacing and the script. The script is awful. Melodramatic, mawkish, po-faced, I could go on but I doubt there’s more I could say. The pacing is clunky and unwieldy. Seperating the film into three parts makes it disjointed and incoherant. It also contributes to the sense that our two leads have barely spent 30 seconds in one another’s company which (as mentioned above) reduces any sense that they could have established any kind of romance. Continuity is also woefully lacking. Failing to hire new actors or use better make up also means everyone looks the same age across the 11 years during which the film is set. This is especially noticable with the children who go from being 5 years old to 5 years old. The shots of what I assume are London are obviously somewhere in North America. I also assume they managed to acquire the only black cab available in North America because we certainly get to see it lots.

I suppose much of this (with the exception of the manipulative use of people’s suffering) could have been salvaged had the direction, editing or any of the post production been any good. But they aren’t.

And so to the end of this review and a suitable place to discuss the end of the film. The film could just about have redeemed itself if Nick had died at the end thus demonstrating that no amount of work (on her part) will be enough to bring an end to her/the world’s suffering. An ending that might have sent home the message that there’s still so much to be done before many people in this world can have their ‘happy ever after’. A film without redemption can be a wondeful thing and can have a message with impact. But no. Instead she dies to save him. It’s twee, trite and obvious. One last grand romantic gesture to save a romance we didn’t even care about to begin with. True, unadulterated rubbish. Definitely one of the worst 10 films I’ve ever sat all the way through.

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Mutant Storm

Posted by D on March 2, 2006

Somewhere deep in the limbic portions of my brain resides an entity composed of little more than reactions and raw instinct. This is an entity whose deep thirst can be sated only by rapidly blinking, psychedelic colours and incremental adrenalin based rewards and to that end I can not recommend Mutant Storm enough. It’s basically Llamatron on steroids, were I Jeff Minter I’d be rather jealous. Buy it, buy it now or regret every living moment of your life. Oh and get a controller with 2 analogue sticks to play it with (although the keyboard/mouse combo works rather well).

I am aware that this is “old” news but some things bear reiteration.

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Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time

Posted by D on March 2, 2006

Right as I was saying there will be reviews and whatnot here.

This is a Nintendo DS game unsuprisingly featuring the ubiquitous Mario and his brother Luigi. Except it’s not just the normal pair there is baby mario and baby luigi to shepherd and marshal too. I fully expect the next sequel to also feature an elderly Mario elderly Luigi and to be some manner of 3-way, zimmer-frame racing simulator, 3D platform game and RPG combo. One can only hope.

I’ll gladly come clean now and say that I enjoyed playing this game and I’d even go so far as to challenge anyone not to enjoy playing it. Yet I could not help but feel cheated and disappointed once I came to the game’s resolution (more on that later). Nonetheless, there are many things that are great and glorious about this game. Upon loading, the graphics and music that greet you are well within the cartoon, cutesy standard that you’d expect from the Mario genre. I’m ever the sucker for a repetitive, cutesy melody so I’m happy to be absorbed by any game’s melodies. I’d even go so far as to admit to whistling along for almost the entire duration of the game play, something which I’m sure my housemates especially appreciated.

Starting the game introduces us to Mario and Luigi who appear to be needlesly hanging around Peach’s Castle, I imagine that Mario is still after some of that sweet, sweet princess action, who can blame him, who hasn’t seen those racy pictures on the internet. After some random plot about a time machine we reasonably quickly get to fighting the first monster which initially appears to be little else than your standard turn based, menu driven combat not entirely dissimilar to the Final Fantasy series (less the time bars). So far so good nothing especially interesting, a little more plot and then we’re sent packing back in time to rescue Princess Peach (time machine tribulations you see).

With the first main area of the game gives a good idea of design sensibilities whereby each region of the game is more or less modelled after the various regions from within the other Mario games. So expect to see desert regions, Bowser’s castle and thwumps everywhere. Like many games these days, this first region also acts by way of a tutorial, introducing the combat and how to navigate the world. By this point, with the exception of the Mario theme, there is almost nothing that makes this game stand out from any other RPG out there. So it’s a relief that at the end of this region, when come across baby Mario and baby Luigi, the game transcends its mundane, so-so RPG beginings.

Once you have the babies on board, the combat system that the game utilises really comes into its own. The game’s interface is simple and intuitive, of the four main buttons (A,B,X,Y) on the DS each one controls a seperate character, when it’s that character’s turn you use their button. The button selects that character’s menu items and performs their moves. Sounds simple. And for the most part it is. Things start to get challenging, and pleasingly so, when you start adding the special moves or combat items into the fray. Take the green shell, selecting to use it in combat with Mario makes him kick it at your enemy doing a small amount of damage, as it rebounds Luigi gets a chance to kick it back at your enemy. Get the timing right and you can keep kicking the shell back and forth between Mario and Luigi, causing more and more damage but the shell gets faster and faster making this simple trick increasingly difficult to perform. Done correctly this is exceedingly satisfying, the timings feel natural and the graphics, sounds and immediacy of the interface reinforce the timings and make it fun to learn and perform these moves. With the addition of the babies one of the babies will climb onto the shell and when the shell gets to your enemy you can press that babies’ button to dish out more damage, at the expense of more tricky button pressing. This pressing the correct character’s button at the right time while everything gets faster and faster is the core mechanism for how all the combat items function. Some are easy to marshall and some are difficult but all are fun and satisfying. That these timings feel so right and that the interface is simple and feels like it is actually responding to what you’re telling it is what makes the game so fun to play.

Another aspect to the combat and one that I’m not too sure of is that you can avoid taken damage and even dish out some more when you are being attacked. If a monster attacks one of your characters pressing that character’s button with the correct timing can avoid the attack. Get the timing spot on and you’ll even cause the monster some extra damage. As fun as this is I think this poses a huge problem for the game as it makes a huge amount of the combat unnecessarly easy. The combat is fun and a great departure from just selecting options from menus but I really don’t think there was any need to make it so easy.

The issue of game difficulty is a tricky one here. To a point the difficulty curve of your subsequent battles is well designed, you never meet a monster that is suddenly much, much harder to kill than you’re capable of. On one hand this is a good thing, I never have to hang around in an area with high experience point monsters so that I can level grind for 3 hours just so that I can (finally) kill the next boss. I really, really appreciate that, in fact pointless level grinding is my biggest bugbear in RPG games. It doesn’t just add nothing it actively detracts from the gameplay experience. If I wanted to perform dull repetitive tasks I’d get a job on an assembly line. it’s an annoying and exceedingly cheap way to make your game last longer. Yes, I’m looking at you Final Fantasy. On the other hand it feels as though they’ve tended too far on the side of caution and made the monsters too easy to kill. At no point during the game did I have any real fear that I might die and have to go back to the last save point. The only real exception to this rule was the final boss battle, it took me nearly a full hour to kill her (in part due to my own stupidity/lack of lateral thinking). So I wonder about this difficulty curve, is this supposed to be a game for small children or is it supposed to be a game all mario fans? The way it plays out I tend towards the prior interpretation and I think that’s a real shame. Not least as kids are better at computer games than that.

Outside of the combat the game plays like a slightly peculiar platform game. You’re not just navigating your characters around a map going from fight to fight there are various platforming elements to contend with; things to jump across, buttons to press, puzzles to solve. All this is handled excellently, although almost all the puzzles resolve by splitting the babies from the adults and sending one group one way while the other group goes the other way. Not entirely dissimilar to Head Over Heels in fact. The forced, nearly top down, perspective rarely gets in the way of these platforming elements and it is well integrated into the game, it’s a nice nod in the direction of the the game’s heritage.

Finally I should address my greatest dissappointment with the game; it’s length. Peach’s castle for the main part acts as a world/level select area and initially it looks as though there might be a world to select for every room in the castle. It looks as though there will be an awful lot of game to play sadly this turns out not to be the case. I think in total it took me 18 hours of play time to complete so having bought the game on Friday evening I was finished on Sunday night. In that time I went shoe shopping and to the gym twice so I was hardly sat indoors constantly sloggin away at it. That was dissappointing especially as some of the last RPGs I completed had gameplay times in excess of 60 hours. This sensation of short gameplay is further compounded by a complete lack of side quests, the whole thing plays through in a very linear manner, it lacks the freedom you see in Zelda or Final Fantasy where I can ignore the plot for a while and explore other parts of the map and find all the hidden bits and pieces. Not that this would be necessary if there was just more plot to play through. When you get to the final boss you haven’t really been playing for long and it’s the first point where the difficulty curve picks up. It feels much more like the final boss should have been the end of the first chapter in the game with a further 3 or 4 chapters worth to play through.

In summary this is a game that is a totally joy to play, I can’t put that across enough, yet it has a couple of serious shortcomings. As a gameplay experience I feel drawn to award it a high score but it’s shortcomings stay my hand. I don’t feel I can award Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time anything more than…

6/10

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