Itchy Thumbs

Completing games then reviewing them

Too many games, so little time

Posted by D on October 7, 2009

Little King’s Story
Diverting, engaging and mostly fun RTS-come-RPG on the Wii. Starts off very strong, gets a little work-a-day through the middle segment but doesn’t stick around long enough to drag you down. Very charming

The Legendary Starfy
Playable but run-of-the-mill platformer on the DS. Child’s play difficultly curve until you reach the hidden levels at which point it really starts to hand you your ass. Mildly diverting.

Batman: Arkahm Asylum
Spectacular, playable and brilliant action/fighting game. Possibly slightly let down by the paucity of fighting segments. You’ll come for the cloaks and scowls and stay for the amazing pacing. Expect a sequel that doesn’t quite live up to the sheer joy and originality of this one. Chiropterian high-jinks.

Super Stardust HD
Brilliant modern reworking of 90’s rewrite of Asteroids. So hard, so very, very hard. Frustrating fun.

Trash Panic
Fun yet wholly inscrutable take on the falling block puzzle. Not yet completed this, not even fully come to understand it. Engaging Rubbish

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Ghostbusting

Posted by D on September 8, 2009

This was going to be a short piece but I seem to have got carried away putting all my thoughts down. Ghostbusters really is the game for which the word average was invented. Never before have so many individual components of the modern multi-media experience been brought together in one place to produce something so studiously middle-of-the-road. I’d swear it can reflect headlights and keep you safe at night. That’s how middle-of-the-road this is.

Now I like the whole Ghostbusters thing (milieu if you will), in fact I like the whole set up sufficiently that I’ll gladly sit through the second film and enjoy it. Yet, somehow the fact that a big budget game was being made had completely passed me by up until it was released, not that it’s release made a big splash. But I went out and bought it as I hadn’t played anything all the way through in a while and Overlord II was boring me to tears (more on that some other day).

So the game looks nice and the voice acting is good and the choice of music is pretty good too. The use of the film’s title theme (which I love) and Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters sets the tone for what’s to come; although I am disappointed to note that they didn’t use The Bus Boys’ ‘Cleanin’ up the Town’ (why do I know these details?). And when the game started it really was as though all my childhood dreams had been realised, finally and at last I was a Ghostbuster and I had assumed my rightful place in the universe. When it was all you dreamed of when you were 7 it’s hard not to be charmed by a game the looks right, sounds right and lets you blast the Stay Puft marshmallow man IN THE FACE. That feeling alone was enough to carry me through to the end of the game and I can’t help feeling that was best they were hoping for when they signed it off.

So, notionally this a game about catching ghosts in ghost traps. And when you eventually get to your first ghost hunt you discover that they have perfectly captured the anarchy and chaotic feeling of ghost wrangling that the first film portrays. All good. Except it never changes, it never gets smoother or easier, hidden within the chaos of your first attempts there is no smooth, clever and flowing ghost capturing game. It starts off flabby and imprecise and by the end it remains flabby and imprecise. Latter on the whole thing is compounded by the fact that the visual effects, impressive and well realised as they are, actually make it impossible to see what that ghosts are doing as you fight them and that’s just irritating. But I’m not sure what you do about that. Dial it back and it’s no longer Ghostbusters, leave it as it is and it’s a chaotic visual mess. Additionally irritating is the lack of any functional radar during the fight. While trying to tackle one ghost you will be taken out innumerable times by ghosts you’ll never see floating around behind you. It doesn’t take long before it surpasses irritating, sails right past infuriating and settles comfortably on “I must smash the developers in the face with fury of a young god”.

The whole process is made no easier by your character’s movement. In trying to make it realistic they have instead made it clunky, slow awkward. You can tell that the game is caught somewhere between trying to make a real world ghost trapping simulation and a Ghostbusting game. Strangely though the ghost wrangling gets easier and easier as the game progresses. As a rule the further into the game you get the less often you meet multiple ghosts in big open spaces. Later on when you need to capture ghosts there is usually plenty of cover so as long as you’re careful you’re less likely to be taken out by ghosts swarming behind you. So the later fights are sugnificantly easier. But weirder still many of the later ghosts don’t need capturing, you just blast them until they die (dead ghosts?). And once you get about 50% of the way through hardly any of the ghosts need to be trapped and the game just descends into “Generic 3rd Person Shooter XIV”. Go figure.

All in all it means that the Game part of the game is one of the more average games I’ve played in a while (still better than Overlord II). Which is not to say it’s a bad game, merely that there is nothing that stands out or has been implemented well. A renter not a buyer lets say.

But it’s lack of sparkle on the game side is compounded by missteps that are the plotting, story and acting. The game desperately wants to be a canon 3rd episode of the franchise. It’s written by Harold Ramis, all the original cast are providing the voices. It’s trying so hard and that makes it’s failures all the more bitter. The voice acting routinely sounds like they were phoning it in that day. There’s no verve and sparkle in the dialogue or it’s delivery. The story itself, revisiting Gozer, tries far too hard to tie together everything happening to everything that happened in the previous films, it’s so neat and completist, every single thing and every single person are all linked together. It comes across as ridiculous and far-fetched and it swiftly and without mercy shatters your suspension of disbelief.

Additionally the pacing of the plot is all wrong. Plot points and dialogue are handed out in excessively frequent cutscenes that contain never ending screeds of barely amusing dialogue. When it comes to intelligently integrated story telling, it’s clear that Harold Ramis and the game’s producers weren’t taking any leaves out of the Half Life 2 or Bioshock books. But it is better than most games but when you’re clearly aiming to be the accepted 3rd episode of the series then you really need to step up your game. Mostly though you’d put up with it were it not for the fact several of the pieces of dialogue are on the wrong side of a checkpoint so you end up waiting through them over and over.

A further misstep is the in the pacing. The game quickly gets far too fantastic far too soon. By the time you’re through the first chapter you’ve captured slimer, destroyed a hotel, killed the marshmallow man and reprised the entire first film. By the second chapter you’ve crossed the void into a haunted alternate reality. Much of the charm and immersion of the films is that the ghostbusting is mostly a little work a-day and layered on top of an everyday, real New York. You can just about believe that you’d need an additional emergency service to hoover up errant spirits. In the films it’s not until the closing acts, as they reach their climax, that the very fabric of reality is rent assunder. The game on the other hand blows it’s load far too soon, and in trying so hard and it quickly breaks the spell.

If there’s something strange,
In your neighborhood,
Who you gonna call…

…Acceptably animated, poorly lipsynced wasted opportunity.

(hmm, catchy)

e2a: I missed a bit. The “romance” between Dr Venkman and the female lead. What the fuck was that about? You see her for a grand total of 30 seconds, there are no significant scenes setting up a believable romance but by the closing sequence of the game we’re supposed to believe that a romance has blossomed between her (I can’t even recall her name) and Dr Venkman. I just can’t describe how pathetic it is. Shoehorned in to tick the boxes just like everything else about the plot in the game. I mean really. Really? Is this what it’s come to?

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Plants Vs Zombies

Posted by D on July 1, 2009

Plants Vs Zombies

Plants Vs Zombies

Ok, I lied. This isn’t going to be a review of Street Fighter IV after all. This is mainly down to the fact that I don’t actually have enough time in my life to become good at it in order to do it justice. To be honest, the beat ’em up boat long ago sailed for me. The last one I was even vaguely competent at was Wu Tang: Taste The Pain (née: Shaolin Style) and before that it was the SNES version of Mortal Kombat II. So you can probably see that in the intervening time much has passed me by. Street Fighter IV initially feels like you are getting reacquainted with an old friend, it is very much Street Fighter II but newererer. I thought I was getting somewhere. And then I went on-line to play other pasty faced mortals and discovered that there is in fact a whole other game that I have barely even begun to discern. I believe this has been discussed elsewhere. For me the effect is very much like being an archaeologist. I have dug down through the topsoil and exposed the tip of some giant structure. I know there will be great wonders deep below, amazing truths will be revealed to me if only I can take the time to dig out the whole structure. The problem is, without all those years of exposure to the genre, I am like a man who not only has to learn how to dig but is only equiped with a teaspoon. And it turns out I’ve found the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

All of which brings me neatly on to Plants Vs Zombies:

Plants Vs Zombies is a clever finesse of the aggressively popular 2D tower defence genre and is published by PopCap games (who are themselves aggressively popular). As such it falls squarely in the “casual” games pigeonhole (but as you know: I don’t really believe that exists). The phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’ could have been coined to describe this game, which is not to do it a disservice. Those are two of its greatest strengths. The game is incredibly chipper, the entire aesthetic of the game is cheery. Happy little flowers and varied nonsensical zombies make this the most cheerful game ever created. It just screams “THIS IS FUN” at you. How could you not be engaged?

PvZ swaps out the usual tower defence format of a single track along which hordes of ever tougher enemies relentlessly march and gives you six short tracks instead. So you get a small grid consisting of six horizontal tracks to defend and you can place a single plant within each square of the grid. As the zombies attack this means you must cope with managing the action from six different lines of attack. It is a neat innovation and the pace of the game is such that it never gets overwhelming or too confusing, although now and again you can end up planting things on space you didn’t want to because things are slightly obscured.

Additionally, each level requires a little resource management. You don’t get awarded cash with successful level completion or killing zombies, instead you need to plant sunflowers to generate sun (read: cash), then you can buy defence flowers. As each level represents a fresh clean beginning the start of each level requires you to balance a need to plant sunflowers to generate sun with the need to defend against the incoming zombies. This often makes the start of each level the most hectic and fun part and the latter periods of a level once your flowers are properly planted more or less run themselves. Early on this means that the end game of each level can be a bit boring, fortunately in latter levels with more powerful zombies and zombies with various sneak attacks you have to actively work to keep your defences in place.

The game offers up a multitude of game modes but you are initially required to start off with the story mode. Running through story mode the first time happens at an easy level of difficulty which functions as a tutorial mode, unlocks and introduces all the main flower types and unlocks the other game features. The first run through the story mode is great. The story is “defend your house from the zombie hordes” and you must use the flower types it introduces as you go. As you progress through the game various environmental hazards are introduced such as a swimming pool, fog and the need to use plant pots as there is no ground. Once story mode is complete you have access to all the other game modes and you can do story mode at a difficult level. The only real issue I had with the “difficult” level of story mode is that you can complete just about every level using the same 6 or 7 flowers (out of the about 40). And it seems a waste that you have access to all these interesting flower types yet  have no call to use them. So the difficult mode was fairly work-a-day and peculiarly easy. But the meat of the game really resides elsewhere.

Plants Vs Zombies

Plants Vs Zombies

Fortunately though the meat of the game resides elsewhere. Three further game modes are opened up as you play: Mini-games, Puzzle and Survival. The mini-games where probably my favourite 18 odd different flourishes of the main game from knocking down zombies with “bowling balls” to playing a strange bejewelled hybrid. As a rule they were interesting and fun and a welcome diversion from the main game. They were perhaps a touch easy. The Puzzle games were something of a puzzle. There are only two puzzle types. One where you have to break open vases to reveal flowers or zombies and another where you had to be the zombies and work out how to get round the plant defenses with limited resources. Both of these were a little tedious. The vase breaking game really didn’t have much to it, neither was it a puzzle per se as you can’t plan for what is randomly in the vases. Survival mode brings the game closer in line with other tower defence games. You must weather multiple rounds of zombies but the flowers you’ve planted remain in place between rounds. This mode finally gives you a chance to properly exercise the range of flowers that are unlocked in story mode. It’s clearly the best mode of the game but remains too easy and is over all too soon.  There should really have been more of it.

Finally the game gives you a Zen Garden game.  As you play Zombies intermittently drop plant pots which will later appear in your Zen Garden. You can tend these plants and use them to buy upgrade items from the game’s shop. It’s pretty but kind of tedious and really doesn’t bring a lot to the game. I suppose if you like tamagotchi you’ll probably like it.

All in all this is a great, imaginative game that displays an amazing amount of polish. You can almost feel the hours of play testing and QA that went into it. You’d have to have a peculiarly cold and bitter heart not to be won over by the game’s jaunty feel. It’s only drawback is how easy it is through out, even the challenging achievements aren’t that challenging. But for the money they are asking for it you’d be a fool to pass it up.

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Yet another quick round up

Posted by D on February 26, 2009

Sorry but I’ve just been splitting my time between too many games and not really completing any of them. I’ll give you a quick round up of my thoughts though

Locks Quest : I did complete this and it was totally and utterly excellent. nice lite RTS-come-tower-defence game. Highly recommend.

Contact : Completed this too; rather dull and work-a-day RPG

Little Big Planet : Very attractive graphics hide an aggressively mediocre platform game. The physics engine gets in the way and the servers for multiplayer were flaky to say the least.

Resistance 2 : Really well done FPS for the PS3.

WipeOut HD : Acceptably fun lite-version of wipeout for the PS3. Would be nice if they released a full game.

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict : Excellent next game in the series. Probably not quite as good as Dual Strike though.

Space Invaders Extreme : Ruthlessly hard “new” version of space invaders. Really keeps to the feel and spirit of the original while adding some modern touches like great bosses.

Bangai ‘O Spirits : Hard and fiddly shoot ’em up for the DS. Doubt I’d recommend it to anyone

World of Goo
: Kind of ok puzzle game with “hilarious” physics.  The PC version really, really feels like you’re playing a game designed for the Wii that’s been ported over. Fun but nothing to write home about

De blob : Brightly coloured platofrmer for small kids. No challenge at all plus what’s there is repetitive in the extreme. If you were 8 this might be fun I suppose.

Spelunky : Totally and utterly awesome but unforgiving procedurally generated platformer. Totally great piece of freeware full of all sorts of hidden and clever touches. Quite a triumph of game design.

Kings Bounty : The Legend : Initially very, very entertaining fantasy strategy board game set in an exceedingly imaginative fantasy realm. Gets a little boring once you realise that the board game element that is the game requires no more strategy than “be vastly stronger than your opponent”. Also the over world you traverse between games means that you spend an awful lot of time toing and froing and not playing the game bit.

GTA IV : More of what you’ve come to expect. Got a bit bored of it and sacked it off half way through the story line.

Sorry for that slack round up I promise there will be a complete review of something and soon.  Maybe Streetfighter IV

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Deadly Rooms of Death

Posted by D on July 30, 2008

Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD as it is known) is a turn based puzzle game, somewhat like a cross between Sokoban, Bombuzal, Gauntlet and Nethack (minus the procedural generation gubbins). Now before we get much further I just have to get one thing out of the way (and I’ll keep this simple for those of you who might be playing with a few cards short of the full deck ): DROD is probably the greatest game ever written and a definite shoo-in for greatest puzzle game ever written. There. I’ve said it and I’ll wrestle anyone to the death who disagrees.

DROD has a modestly interesting history. It was initially released in 1997 and sold spectacularly badly, something that was not helped by the publisher going under. Some years later the original author re-acquired the rights to his creation and set about updating it and incrementally releasing the updated versions. Eventually this process culminated in two sequels, a whole new game engine and a complete update of the original game using the new game engine. One legacy version remains free shareware while the newer versions are paid for games which retail at a modest $20. If you spend any time playing the game you’ll quickly discover that given the amount of game on offer $20 is a bargin.

The plot of the original game, as much as there is, places you in the shoes of a Beethro Budkin a warrior type charged with the task of clearing a dungeon of all it’s critters and this frames the objective of the game’s puzzles. The game is divided into 25 levels with each level consisting of around 14 rooms. Each room represents an individual puzzle, the objective of which is to kill all the monsters and exit the room.

Rooms play out on a grid with Beethro effectively occupying 2 squares; 1 for the character himself and 1 for his sword. Beethro’s sword is capable of occupying any of the 8 cardinal and intercardinal squares around him but to switch which square requires a clockwise or anti-clockwise rotation with each rotation costing a turn to perform. Beethro is also capable of moving in any of the 8 carindal or intercardinal directions, once again each step costing a turn to perform. After Beethro has taken his turn all the monsters in the room take their’s, with each monster’s movement being governed by a specific rule set. Giant roaches always move directly toward Beethro, even if that might cause them to be stuck behind a wall. Goblins can move slightly more intelligently around obstacles and will always avoid moving into a square that Beethro’s sword could occupy in the next turn.

With these rules in place the object of most of the room’s puzzles is to manoeurve Beethro into the series of postions which will allow him to use his sword to kill each monster without any monsters being able to reach and kill him (by occupying the square Beethro is on). The true genius of the game is how these simple rules are expanded into the amazing variety and depth puzzles that are found in the game. The game and level design is second to none and the difficultly curve is exceptionally well paced. Levels commonly introduce a new feature (roaches, goblins, tar mothers, snakes etc…) or type of puzzle (having to manipulate goblins to kill snakes), then each room in that level will finesse that new feature or puzzle in a variety of different ways. As the levels progress features start to be combined to build ever more elaborate puzzles and the game quickly becomes very challenging.

The game can be very hard but because everything follows the same rules the same sequence of movements will always yield the same outcome this means, you can always return a room to a state that you’re having difficulty with. This means that very hard puzzles are slightly ameanable to a brute force, combinatorial solution should you find yourself stuck and without any ideas. An alternative to trying every possibility until you strike the right one is to search the DROD fan forum for hints. Seemingly, the community prefers not to hand out solutions, so most of what you’ll find are small hints and pokes in the right direction and, to my mind, this works rather well. The handful of times I did look up hints it was gratifying that only a gentle shove or confirmation that I was going about it in the right way was enough help me to complete the puzzle myself.

Many of the rooms are put together as a discrete series of sub-puzzles and this contributes to the game’s almost unbelievable level of addictiveness. Often you’ll realise how to complete one portion and once done it opens your eyes to how to go about the next bit. You’re always on the verge of getting to a new part of the puzzle so it always appears that it will pay off to “just to have a couple more goes” at the room you’re stuck on. This reason alone was responsible for me staying up into the wee small hours, long after sensible people have gone to bed, on many an occasion. In general though I found that a level’s worth of rooms could be completed in an evening’s play so each game represents a substantial task and time sink.

The gameplay itself has a slightly odd aspect to it. As it’s turn based the game plays at whatever pace you want but you’re unlikely to need to stop and consider every key press and unlikely to want to linger over inconsequential portions of rooms. So you’ll find you strike a balance between typing speed and the need to consider what happens next. In this way the game plays out as a strange test of both logical reasoning and your typing accuracy, a Mavis Beacon dimension of the game which is rather unexpected.

If the community forum is anything to go by, DROD seems to inspire a fair amount of love from those that play it and this greatly encouraged by it authors and the website plays host to a fairly active fansite and forum. In one of the earlier iterations of the game a level designer was included and this has given rise to a very active community of DROD players. It also means that there are almost endless extra levels to be played and a large number of the better ones have been bundled into various expansion packs. You could probably spend all the rest of your game playing years playing nothing but DROD and still not see all of the available levels people have created.

All in DROD is a spectacularly engaging game and everyone should take the time to try it. The graphics aren’t much more than functional and some of the character art is frankly awful. The music is OK, thankfully not too inane, and the audio is quite fun when it tells you the little bits of plot. What really makes this game standout is that it is an excellent idea for a game brilliantly executed. It is pure game stripped of needless additional content, which in this day and age is a rare thing.

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The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

Posted by D on July 23, 2008

I have a lukewarm relationship with the Zelda franchise. I quite enjoyed A Link to the Past but Ocarina of Time was rather wearing and Majora’s Mask hardly held my attention. And with that background I came to The Phantom Hourglass in a fairly neutral state of mind with little bias either way. Personally I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the game will go down in history as a deinfining moment of “the art” but it is certainly worth some time and money.

As always, you play Link and you are charged with the task of completing some quest and once more resucing Princess Zelda. Like the earlier SNES and gameboy outings the game plays from a topdown viewpoint, the initial and main portion of the game plays out in an overworld that links together a series of temples or dungeons. So it’s the usual zelda affair. The overworld consists of a series of islands that later in the game are linked together by a sailing mini-game as you island hop following the fairly linear two dimensional plot.

The game’s design displays a somewhat direct and simple philosophy, if things ever appear inaccessible you can rest assured that you’ll shortly learn the appropriate skill that allows you to reach them. Often it’s easy to find and recall where these slightly hidden bonus bits are and one results of this is that The Phantom Hourglass lacks the rambling treasure hunt feeling of many of the earlier episodes. The endless traipsing back and forth in the Ocarina of Time, just in case something was newly accessible, was nothing short of mind bendingly boring. And as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing that it’s kept to a minimum here..

The game is spent shuttling between islands, to follow what little plot there is, and incrementally exploring more and more of the central dungeon as new abilities are granted to you. This nominally sisyphisian task is enabled by one of the single greatest inventions that the world of computer gaming has ever brought to you: ‘writing’. Yes! The near limitless opportunities afforded by ‘writing things down’ has finally been opened up to to the world of computer games. What this means in reality is that, as this is a stylus only DS title, they’ve included the ability to stop the game and scribble notes or make marks on any of the maps in the game. Strangely enough this proves to be one of the most welcome additions to any adventure/RPG game that I’ve ever seen. It means that the game and everything you need are completely self contained, no need to keep a pad of paper beside you to take notes. Especially useful given that the game is on a portable platform. The only real issue is the disturbingly low resolution that you can make notes in, the ability to zoom much further into the maps to leave slightly more detailed notes would have been nice. Instead, coupled with the somewhat low resolution of the touch screen, you usually end up scrawling what looks like the hamfisted doodlings of a neanderthal. Zog have writey stick, Zog mark here.

The core of the game itself involves exploring The Temple of The Ocean King at ever deeper levels with ever increasing complexity. This portion plays out much like a little top-down, timed, puzzly stealth game and it’s pretty great. As you explore you occassionally get to an impasse, some plot point is handed out and off you’re sent to a different temple (read: dungeon) on another island to gain which ever ability you need to progress further through the Temple of the Ocean King. Link is pilotted through these dungeons using the touch screen and almost all of his abilities use the touch screen in some manner and it works excellently. From drawing the path of the boomerang to using the grappling hook, there are plenty of neat imaginative touches when it comes to Link’s abilities. I especially appreached the way you can use the grappling hook to tether two posts together and then the rope can be used as either a tightrope or from the ground as a cartoon style catapault to send Link across gaps.

I enjoyed the main portion of the game a lot so it was quite disappointing that the game is so short and the story so brief. The dungeons/temples could have been longer and the puzzles could have got a bit harder. But perhaps the Zelda games have never been about providing hard challenges.

Beyond the game’s core dungeons there are plenty of mini-games to keep you occupied most of which are pretty good. Sailing between the islands represents the main minigame where you have to fend off pirates and jump(!?) over barriers. It’s a little work-a-day and it’s nice that teleport points are eventually introduced so that you don’t have to sail across the whole map to get places. Within this sailing section there are further mini-games where you can fight pirates and fish for items and again these aren’t really up to much once you’ve got the hang of them. More interesting are some of the other mini-games. The timed maze and the archery, shooting gallery are really rather excellent. Overall the mini-games bring some much appreciated diversity to the main dungeon crawl in the game.

As I finished the game I was rather dissappointed to find that it was quite so short. Most of what’s there is fun and engaging and I was sad that there wasn’t any more to come. The level design and progression is excellent and the bosses are large, engaging and imaginative. The graphics and sound are great. And additionally I especially appreciated the general lack of incidental NPCs as it cuts down the immense amount of interminable, unreadable incidental dialogue that the Japanese feel has to be included in any RPG type game. All in I’m eager to see a sequel with a larger more developed story.

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Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

Posted by D on July 22, 2008

For me the point-and-click adventure marked a high point in games design that has seldom been equalled. At their best they combine truly great story telling with a challenging puzzle game. It’s not for no reason that people go all misty eyed, and then bore you to tears, telling you about how “games were better back in the day” at the merest mention of Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island. I’ve always thought it was a shame that Lucasarts abandoned making original and engaging games, instead prefering to produce “Yet Another Generic Starwars Game 12” (because that particular cash cow hasn’t quite been milked dry) but one consequence is that I’m always on the look out for a decent point-and-click adventure game. Yes I was that person who bought all the Myst games (incidentally, Riven was the best). So you can imagine how delighted I was to hear of Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure on the Wii. A point-click-adventure about young boy, Zack, who wants to become a pirate and to do so he must complete a range of tasks and finally face off against a dreaded ghost pirate. It’s like somebody somewhere was channelling all I loved about point-and-click adventures, so it’s rather unfortunate that the plot of Whack & Slippy is incoherant, disjointed and almost totally abritrary. As though someone swept up and kept all that was discarded when they sat down to design Monkey Island 2.

Slack & Sticky monkeys with the old point-and-click adventure format by dividing the game into levels and awarding you points for how well you complete each level. This means you can return to any given puzzle as often as you want but in turn this removes much of the continuity from the story and means that the game is more of a puzzle game than it is an adventure game. And this, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, it’s a perfectly functional and mostly diverting puzzle game. The object of each level is to solve its Rube Goldberg challenge in order to access the treasure chest at the end. Subsequent levels increase in complexity, largely by increasing the number of steps required to reach the treassure chest. That’s not especially unexpected but what is novel is that many of the puzzles or sub-parts can be solved in multiple ways, with the ideal solution scoring the greatest number of points. I’m not entirely sure what a points system brings to this game other than a mechanism whereby bonus bits can be unlocked, and what gets unlocked doesn’t appear to serve much purpose.

Crack & Drippy streamlines the point-and-click puzzle game by greatly reducing the number of item types in the game. Each item type frequently reappears between levels so the challenge lies in how you combine these parts to solve the levels. As this is a Wiimote extravaganza each item requires a particular type of demented flail to utilise. That’s mostly pretty neat until you get to the levels where you have to do something exactly right, first time, to score maximum points at which point the game will completely and utterly refuse to understand exactly what manner of demented flailing you’re trying to execute.

And speaking of flailing, that brings us onto the character of Wiki. Wiki is a magical, golden, flying monkey and by flailing the Wiimote around like a parkinsonian campanoligist Zack will ring Wiki like a bell. This causes all nearby objects to transform. All the items in the game exist in one of two forms, an animal form or as the useful item. Ringing Wiki converts them between those two states and this power of transformation underpins most of the game’s puzzles. It’s an odd game mechanic and my only real issue with it is that you can’t actually ring the life out of Wiki. Wiki is pretty close to the most nauseatingly and irritatingly cute character to be inserted into any form of children’s entertainment. Ever. His irritatingly cute voice made me long for something sharp with which to poke out my ear drums and I couldn’t skip the cutscenes fast enough. Come back Scrappy-doo all is forgiven.

The game also contains a whole load of secret treasure objects to collect. Quite why, who can say. They don’t provide anything useful nor do they change anything about the game. There is even a “minigame” (if you can call it that) where you “send” an NPC character to “visit” quadrants of a treasure map and bring back more of these items but the whole process is rather tedious and seems to have little bearing on the main game itself. What purpose it serves is anyone’s guess.

Overlooking the wholly detesable Wiki character, Slap & Spitty is mostly quite diverting and it has the appropriate level of polish. The interface is fine when it works but can be a little annoying when it just won’t do as it’s told and the story is inane to the point of stupidity. The graphics on the other hand are excellent, but then again I’m always a sucker for the clean matte stylings of cell-shaded graphics, so you may wish to take that with a pinch of salt. Fundamentally the game lacks a certain depth and as such it’s hard to draw any real level of satisfaction from completing it. The puzzles aren’t really up to much and the limited repertoire of items means that they are often amenable to a brute force combinatorial solution. Suffice to say there’s little or no replay value, except on those levels where you have to do something first time in order to do it right. All in all if you have nothing else to play you might want to give this a go but otherwise I’d save your pennies for something a little more deserving.

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Bioshock

Posted by D on April 7, 2008

RaptureApologies for the hiatus but now I must break my silence. I just completed Bioshock. “Well done but do keep up”, I’m sure you are all saying and it was kind of great – kind of.

Just in case you’ve been trapped in a deep underwater dystopian social experiment for the last year, the game is set in a deep underwater experiment to create the perfect society, which soon devloves into a hellish dystopia as a consequence of the discovery of a drug-like mutagen. You begin the game crash landing near the entrance to this underwater world and as the game progresses you are drip fed snippets of information that fill you in on what went on there. The back story centres on one man’s (Andrew Ryan’s) dream to create a prefect city state where everything will be perfectly governed by everyone’s fully self-realised rational self interest. A veritable Ayn Rand-ian, objectivist paradise. See! Andrew Ryan – Ayn Rand: do you see what they did there? Ho, ho. My sides are splitting, that must have been a hilariously smug script writers meeting that day. At some point they discover a sea slug which allows you to alter your DNA and give yourself fantastical super powers, the only catch is that once you use it the more addicted to it you get. The place soon devolves into utter chaos and the “perfect” society falls to pieces with Ryan on one side trying to maintain control and a criminal overlord, Fontaine, on the other. At the start of the game you arrive and get caught up in helping a chap save his family, which fails, and then eventually trying to help said chap assassinate Ryan. The plot is interesting and fairly adult and the voice acting is excellent, both of which really push the bar on what what games can achieve as art. So saying, it’s a shame the twist in the plot about two thirds of the way through is pretty obvious by the time you get there and the anti-objectivism, anti-laisse faire capitalism polemic that the game represents does get a little heavy handed. Or perhaps it’s an over long anti-drug parable – “Don’t do slugs kids”. But even given those minor niggles you’d be hard pressed to find a game whose plotting, staging and world are as well realised and engrossing.

Which brings us on to the game. For the most part it’s a pretty standard FPS fair with an unhealthy dose of Pipemania included. You get the usual range of FPS weapons, a crowbar/wrench, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenades etc… Not a great deal to write home about and not half as imaginative as the story. Is there some kind of law that requires all FPS games to include a crowbar/wrench? I appreciate that the crowbar is an iconic part of Half-life, but enough is enough. Just because Valve have done it doesn’t mean everyone else has to but I am looking forward to portal guns in Bioshock 2.

The psychic/psionic powers, called “plasmids” by the game, on the other hand are pretty cool and well realised but for me they went largely unused, a couple of them have specific indispensable uses (stopping gun turrets and cameras so you can “hack” them) but the rest just seemed like window dressing. Switching between the weapons and the plasmid powers was a little over fiddly, especially in the heat of the battle, so I had a tendency to just lay into things with the guns, rather than do clever stuff with the plasmid powers. Also there was no pressing need to explore the range of them in the game, so over all I found I didn’t, which struck me as a shame. Also the plasmids constitute almost all of the much touted RPG element of the game. If being able to select which powers you have available constitutes an RPG these days then I feel we’re stretching the concept of RPG until it’s a very, very long and stretchy thing indeed.

Which bring me to the “hacking”, throughout the game there are things to hack, automated gun turrets, security cameras and money safes mostly, and the hacking consists of a mini-game based on Pipemania. Once you’ve hacked something, then they’ll attack your enemies rather than you, hurrah! Now, Pipemania is a good puzzle game but you spend an inordinate amount of time playing it in Bioshock. I suppose you don’t have to do all the hacking but it does make large areas of the game easier and you’d be a fool not too. Don’t get me wrong, I like Pipemania but I’m not entirely sure I paid hard earned modern day cash to play a 20 year old puzzle game. I can’t help feeling that a different puzzle based mini-game for each class of hackable object would have been better. For instance, last time I looked safes use mechanical locks and not water to keep them shut, so a puzzle like Klotski might have been more appropriate. In real terms that is a minor gripe but then again you do end up playing a lot of Pipemania and I kind of thought I was done playing Pipemania about 15 years ago.

The graphic, visual and level design for the game are impressive to say the least and alongside the story and sound design they act to make the world fully realised and fully engrossing. The water, lighting and particle/smoke effects are especially impressive and I stopped just to stare at several points in the game. They are great and they bode well for the future of immersive computer games and interactive story telling. If I have any criticism it’s that the visual design can get a little much after a while. A lot of the game is dark and shadowy with pools of light illuminating small areas. This works well to heighten the tension and suspense when you can’t really see what’s going on but often the pools of light are illuminated by bright neon colours and the effect of all the bright garish colours, contrasted against the dark can get a little wearing after a while.

enemiesThe gameplay is pretty standard FPS stuff, although a little more sluggish feeling than the likes of Half-life or Timesplitters and that goes for both the PC and xbox360 versions. This isn’t really an issue as there’s nothing in the game that requires super fast reactions or accuracy. The combat also lacks the clean precession that you find in the likes of Half-Life 2 or Team Fortress 2 but that might just be whinging about things I’m not used to, nevertheless it does feel very different to what you might be used to especially if you’re used to playing FPSes on PC rather than console platforms. Overall the game is very easy even on the hardest setting and this is compounded by the lack of penalty for dying, you just get sent back to a restart point. If you were in the middle of a hard fight you can just go and rejoin it where you left it but your oponents now have much less health. Once you realise this it totally removes all the tension from any of the harder fights, which I’d say spoils the game a fair bit by removing much of the suspense and claustrophobic anxiety. It also means that there’s no incentive to learn to play the game well or use your weapons or plasmid powers intelligently. You might as well just set about everything in the game with the wrench and be done with it. This could be solved by recharging the health of your opponents if you die and if I were in charge I wouldn’t let you save if there are aggro‘d mobs about, just to make life a bit more difficult.

Anyway, moving on, for all my griping in the last couple of paragraphs the game is actually great and something that should be experienced by anyone who cares about computer games and who cares about them as a maturing form of art. It’s engrossing and intelligent but you could argue that it’s let down by the binary nature of the morality that it portrays. For me that isn’t such an issue and if anything it is merely an indication that games aren’t yet mature story telling vehicles but if you want to see where that process of maturation starts then you don’t really have to look much further than Bioshock. All in all I look forward to Bioshock 2 but given the “good” ending for this one I can’t help but feel that it’s going to be some kind of Sims like dating and marriage simulator.

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Super fast gaming reviews: round 2 – Yat sa!

Posted by D on December 7, 2007

Final Fantasy III DS

Boring and lacking in cool cinematic cut scenes – 4/10

Super Mario Galaxy

Exceedingly polished and satisfying yet overly easy platformer – 8/10

Mario Strikers Charged

Engaging if slightly lacklustre Speedball 2 clone – 5/10

Super Paper Mario

Superb dimension switching idea ruined by being shoehorned into incredibly tedious RPG – 4/10

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows

Tedious – 4/10

Portal

Truly excellent if short lived futuristic puzzler – 9/10

Half-Life : Episode 2

Polished and engaging middle episode of the tale – 8/10

Yoshi’s Island DS

Hard but satisfying platform action – 9/10

Sorry there hasn’t been a full review on here in a while, I promise there will be soon.

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Things I hate in computer games

Posted by D on October 11, 2007

It struck me whilst playing the first of the secret Yoshi’s Island DS levels (Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower) over and over and over and over and over and over that I really, truly and completely hate “probability grinding”. “But what is probability grinding?” I hear you ask. Ok, I don’t actually hear you ask that because that would mean that I was either mad or omnipresent and the last time I looked I was neither. Probability Grinding is a the feature of many games where the completion of a task is based on a randomly generated in-game event. Two good examples are the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level in Yoshi’s Island DS and the “Facility” level time trial in Golden Eye on the N64. Probability grinding is also a common feature of many MMORPGs (i.e. drop rates).

In Yoshi’s Island to get a perfect score in each level you need to collect 30 stars. In the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level the 20 stars you need (you start with 10) are hidden in 4 clouds. When you burst a cloud the stars scatter in random directions and often 1 or 2 will fall off the edge of the level. This means that you have to repeatedly attempt the whole level, because the final 3 clouds are right at the end, and hope that the stars scatter in just the right way for you to pick them up. Unlike all the other levels in the game there are no middle restart points so the entire level has to be done over and over if the stars don’t scatter in the right way. It doesn’t help that this level is one of the hardest in the game.

In the “Facility” level of Golden Eye the time trial must be done on the hardest level of difficulty and the time required is very short indeed. This challenge is already incredibly difficult but one of the objectives is to rendezvous with a scientist NPC. Unfortunately the scientist is randomly placed in one of three (four? I forget) locations but only one of these locations provides a path through the level which would beat the time required. If he’s not in the right location you just have to start again.

The greatest problem with probability grinds is that the game is no longer about skill, it’s about whether or not the planets have moved into a favourable alignment. It’s especially annoying in games which were previously all about skill (Golden Eye, Yoshi’s Island) as it completely changes the basis on which you succeed. In contrast the “Super hard acrobatics” level on Yoshi’s Island took me a while because it was difficult and required a lot of practice. Games such as Guitar Hero or Mario Kart (snaking is allowed – L2P nubhats) purely reward skills based play. Attempting to get through those games with blind luck won’t really get you anywhere. In the end of the day probability grinding is a totally artificial way to make a game “hard” or in the case of MMORPGs to make the game take longer.

But there is one thing that could be done to alleviate the problem: reduce the amount of time it takes to complete each fresh attempt at the “hard” portion. Both the Yoshi’s Island and Golden Eye cases compound the frustration by having the random event happen at a late stage in the level. This means that each attempt takes a long time. In the case of the Golden Eye Facility level the scientist could have always been placed at the same at the same location, or the level could have been reworked so you met him at an earlier point. For the Yoshi’s Island level the four star clouds could have been near the start. This would have reduced the turn around time for each fresh attempt at the level and would have changed the task to one of “can you keep hold of all the stars throughout the whole level”. Or a middle restart point could have been added meaning that you only had to probability grind the latter half of the level, again reducing the turn around time. I’m not really sure what you could do to save many MMORPGs, it’s hardwired into their very fabric that they are time sinks rather than skills based.

Now excuse me while I go and slog away at Yoshi’s Island some more and possibly even throw it on the ground and smash it in frustration.

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