Tuesday, May 26, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PS3, 360) - Activision

Comics and gaming are two things that would seem like they would be as successful as salt and vinegar, however it has only been recently when game developers have actually got the feel right.

Released in tandem with the new film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine puts the gamer in the admantium soaked bones of the Hollywood-friendly Wolverine as he seeks out his former comrades in a mission of revenge and redemption – I think. The reason for this unfaithful recollection of the plot is that despite some very well done cut scenes that effectively copy the composition of the comics the story is not what makes this game unique.

What does make this game great however are the (mostly) smooth gameplay and the sheer bloodlust generated from slicing an enemy into two before digging you claws into his buddy's face. The controls are simple enough for any gamer to pick up quickly with heavy and light attacks as well as throws and spearheaded leaps that can be put together to create some brutal combos. On top of this Wolverine can also do the token double jump and block/deflect foes’ attacks creating an all-round varied and solid fighting control scheme as well as handily having the ability of regenerative health. The more creatively you slice the cannon fodder of foes you collect what the game refers to as Rage that can be used to unleash Wolverine’s impressive Rage abilities that are unlocked as the game progresses. For example, simply slicing and dicing someone to bits will only give you one or two rage points, but if you throw them into another foe/off a cliff or even into a sharp spike, you will get a hell of a lot more. In addition to this there is a slight RPG element in the use of experience points earned for defeating foes and nabbing collectable items – such as dog tags. Aside from simple gratification levelling up grants you ability points that you can assign to boosting your health, the effectiveness of certain attacks as well as boosting the damage dealt by your shiny claws. As well as upgradeable abilities the game also includes what it calls Mutagens, these are power-ups hidden throughout the game-world that, when equipped, grant the player extra bonuses to damage resistance, extra experience from foes and extra Rage among others.

Activision, thankfully, have realised that Wolverine’s claws are really, really sharp. So when you take out an enemy they do not always simply flop to the ground in a random pre-rendered animation – they can be decapitated. In fact, so often does this happen that within the first ten minutes it soon becomes apparent with the amount of blood, flying limbs and curdling screams of pain that this game is R18. This therefore makes X-Men Origins: Wolverine one of the goriest superhero games out there today – something that will surely quench any player’s bloodlust.

It isn’t all just mindless hack and slash fun, aside from the normal cannon fodder soldiers you will have to employ some level of tactics in order to effectively take down stronger foes who range from machete-wielding African natives (oh so tastefully racist) to robots who fire lasers and missiles. The range of foes throughout the game keeps the game fresh and stops it from falling into a trap of boring hackuntilyourarmsfalloff gameplay, and then there are the bosses. There is certainly no shortage of boss fights in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is good because once you get past the simple ones at the beginning of the game you will come across some absurdly epic and fun matches that provide a great challenge. The most memorable of which had to be an epic fight with a Sentinel that climaxed with Wolverine skydive-chasing the mech monster through the air while avoiding its debris.

As great as the gameplay is it will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the God of War games on the PlayStation, so much so that it can detract from the X-Men comic book charm. Games’ protagonists wield a pair of really sharp things (claws versus the Blades of Chaos), both games are total gore fests warranting age restrictions and both operate on similar semi-RPG levelling and skill systems. The result of this is that despite X-Men Origins: Wolverine being arguably the best of the movie tie-ins, it largely feels like God of War in a different skin and therefore falls just short of effectively standing on its own to non-comic-loving gamers. It is because of this that brings me to the conclusion that non-X-Men-loving PS3 owners should refrain from buying this, saving it for a rental and instead buy any of the two previous God of Wars until the next comes out after more light is shed on it following E3 in June.
3.5 stars

Friday, May 22, 2009

21st Century Breakdown - Green Day

2004 was a significant year for Green Day: with the release of American Idiot it was clear that one of the biggest punk acts had chosen a new direction strongly influenced by pop-punk energies combined with a grand, almost progressive, musical score theme that was reminiscent of rock opera. Now, five years later, Green Day offers us the follow-up to their newfound style that might as well be a second album for what feels like a completely new band.

21st Century Breakdown is not the album that old school Green Day fans are looking out for, it is, in fact, a strong continuation of their new direction that favours the more melodic and anthem-based songs that American Idiot introduced. While not nearly as progressive at times 21st Century Breakdown remains to prove that Green Day have matured into what can only possibly be described as one of the most unique pop-rock bands churning out anthems today. The songs ‘Christian’s Inferno’, ‘Horseshoes and Handgrenades’ and ‘American Eulogy’ provide energetic guitar driven pop-rock anthems that are sure to please their more angst-ridden and pop-loving audiences, while the sorrow of ‘Restless Heart Syndrome’ provides a great contrast. The pop-epics of ‘Holiday’ and ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ make a return with ’21 Guns’, the My Chemical Romance-inspired ‘Viva La Gloria’, and closing track ‘See the Light’ reinforcing that Green Day have found a new direction that suits. Numerous times throughout the album there are catchy tinges of early rock’n’roll pop (‘Last of the American Girls’, ‘Static Age’, etc) that would not be out of place at American high school proms whilst being contrasted by the likes of ‘Peacemaker’ with its fast-tempo acoustic guitar that oddly would suit a stage production. In fact the album’s subject matter would almost certainly provide enough material for some kind of musical with its (albeit pop-infused) commentary on the state of Western society at the beginning of a new century – hence the album’s name.

While hardcore Green Day fans of old will not appreciate the continuation of American Idiot’s pop-rock anthems, 21st Century Breakdown is an album that will grow on listeners who are not initially hooked by the melodies and altogether proves that Green Day have found a winning formula.
4 stars

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Race Pro (360) - Atari

Only a few years ago there were just two players on the race-sim battleground conveniently opposing one another: Xbox’s Forza Motorsport and PlayStation’s Gran Turismo. These two titles provided stunning visuals and an immense range of licensed cars. But now it seems that the big players in the gaming industry are clueing on to the fact that these games are not only infuriatingly difficult to master but are also a lot of fun. Cue Atari, offering 360 owners another exclusive in the form of the imaginatively titled Race Pro.

Gameplay-wise Race Pro feels dated and arcade – something a current-gen simulation should not be. There are two major faults that haunt this game’s claim to simulation: the first is that in a straight line your car will be the quickest on the track no matter what; the second is that unlike what Granny Turismo’s licence tests and Forza teaches you the racing line can be ignored in favour of driving aggressively. A lot is borrowed from the gospel of Forza featuring a default race-line with turn-notices a la every-rally-game-ever-made, adjustable difficulty in the form of driving assists and almost the exact same rotatable camera controls. In fact the only aspects of Race Pro that make it stand out from the race-sim giants is that every car in the game is an actual race car that belongs on the track (no whipping your Corona around Road America here) and hidden away in the options menu are adjustable steering, throttle, brake sensitivities as well as other mindless technical jargon. The latter feature could be the only significant selling point of this game, as only perfectionist mechanics and wannabe motorsport fanatics would actually care about this.

To further your career as a Race Pro you race in championships for teams who initially require you to beat a set time on a particular circuit in their car before you can purchase their contract at a discounted rate. Upon completion of championships not only are you rewarded credits per-race but also trophy-car versions of you team’s motor, after a few completed contracts per class (normally two) the next class is unlocked granting access to more contracts with faster cars and some more tracks. Back in the days of the original TOCA games this may have been acceptable, warranting no complaints, but in this day and age this method of progression proves linear and is a repetitive grind. Other offline modes include Single Race, Championship (which is essentially a few Single Races thrown together), Hot Seat (offline multiplayer), Time Attack and Open Practice all of which involve simply selecting a track, a car and gunning it – something that, again, brings nothing new to the racing table. Online, however the game box boasts “extensive” Xbox Live races against 12 other budding Race Pros. While this is a pretty major promise, and the most intriguing out of the features boasted, when logging on Xbox Live to test this out I found at most six opponents to take on – far from extensive.

One of the great things about race-sims is that the graphics are very pretty: trees and buildings reflect with stunning detail off the cars and the lighting effects of the sun and street lights serve as great distractions when hurtling down a straight at 200km/h. This is probably where Race Pro most notably drops the ball though. While some effort has gone into the car models and the realistic depiction of the race tracks it all comes off sub-par compared with the graphics of, well, damn near every game offered on the current generation consoles bar the Wii. So bland are the visuals that the game appears as if it belongs on the original Xbox or even on the aging PS2...in fact even the original Forza and Gran Turismo 4 were far more pretty.

Lastly, there is practically no soundtrack in this game aside from a Scottish voice out of no-where congratulating you on finishing and telling you off for doing something wrong. While Atari may have intentionally done this in order to gain the full race-day immersion, again, all that results is a feeling that the game is unfinished.

While there are not that many race-sims available to gamers the very high standard of quality in those available makes it very difficult for any newcomer to stand a chance at keeping toe to toe with the big boys. Unfortunately due to mundane graphics, grinding career progression and very little in the way of a unique experience Race Pro falls behind the behemoths of the racing genre. If you own a 360 and you are looking for a racing sim buy Forza 2 or GRID and avoid this like the plague.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Halo Wars (360) - Ensemble Studios

As the flag-ship game for the 360 it is not surprising that Halo developers Ensemble are pushing the franchise to new limits in order for it to seep into everyday gaming culture, which has largely been successful thanks to the franchises three critically acclaimed games. Now, in what is a very interesting step, the latest offering in the Halo franchise is not first-person shooter but a real-time strategy.
It is a well known fact in the global gaming community that if there is one genre of gaming that consoles have continually failed to get right it is strategy: this is because a PC’s keyboard plays a monumentally important role in a l337 term known as ‘micro-management’; however a console controller is obviously hampered by its lack of buttons. Ensemble have addressed this problem by allowing you to cycle through different types of units using the left and right triggers and by using the shoulder buttons to select local (on screen) and all units. While this is a good idea Halo Wars still manages to lag behind its PC brethren due to the fact that you cannot arrange your units into specific squads for further micro-management. The use of the left, right and down buttons on the game pad serves the use of quickly jumping you to selected units and map events but thanks to the lack of a mouse allowing you to freely click on the mini-map itself results in a general feeling of restriction. While this may seem like a minor quarrel it can make a big difference later on in the campaign with the difficulty cranked up or on a fairly hectic skirmish when you are multi-tasking between constructing units and managing those already in the thick of battle.
Halo Wars is set 20 years prior to the events of the first Halo game (referred to as ‘The Halo Incident’) pitting you in control of UNSC forces as they valiantly struggle against the fittingly evil Covenant alliance. One of the main selling points for the 360-fanboys in la la land will be the opportunity to control armies of American-accent-totting UNSC forces or even switch sides in a skirmish to take control of a few Hunters, Banshees and the formidable Scarab. While both goodies and baddies hold forces of adequate variety that can be upgraded through research, not to mention that in Skirmish mode each general holds specific unique units; there is a persistent feeling of limitation. This is largely down to the limited visual and artistic differences between certain units; even with the ability to zoom in controlled through the right analogue stick it is difficult to tell them apart. This was particularly a pain when in one mission I continually found myself sending useless artillery tanks into the thick of battle mistaking them for something far more useful (and short range). The result: a certain Mr Cracka screaming at the aforementioned artillery in frustration, cursing the fact that they were almost identical in appearance to the more useful Scorpion tanks. This leads me conveniently to another issue I found with the game play: despite the presence of an adequate range of units to combine into an army it was all too easy to fall back onto the old amateur tactic of tank rushing. With this lack of strategy consistently employable throughout the game’s campaign save one or two missions it kind of defeats the purpose of a strategy game, and results in the fact that Halo Wars is not something that the die-hard RTS fans out there should be rushing out to play but instead serves as a good introduction to the genre itself.
All up Halo Wars is an interesting new take on the 360’s ‘killer app’ that provides a control scheme that, for once, actually works for a console RTS and is a fun game to play because of this. Unfortunately due to the simplicity in the units’ range and the dumbed-down difficulty thanks to the lack of strategy actually required, Halo Wars is a game that should only really be bought by the hardiest of Xbox fan-boys or those wanting an introduction to the strategy genre.

3.5 stars