Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | July 10, 2014

Retro Reboot: The ‘Strike’ Series

If you owned a Sega Megadrive (known as the ‘Genesis’ in the USA), then you’re likely to have played one of the ‘Strike’ games. It was the done thing, back then, like owning a copy of Sonic 2, or saying that everything was “Awesome”.

However, while my enjoyment of 90s slang terms has faded with age, my rose-tinted memories of blowing the crap out of everything in sight in the Strike titles – Jungle Strike, Desert Strike and Urban Strike – remain as strong as ever.

So, to help gamers who only vaguely remember the Strike titles and reboot your childhood memories a little better, close your eyes and listen to this:

 

There. If you’ve played any of these isometric helicopter-based arcade shooters, you’ll be reliving the laughs and explosions by now yourself.

Strike from the skies

The Strike games were simple shooters that masqueraded as espionage thrillers. The objectives in all three games – be it rescuing stranded troopers or destroying nuclear missile silos – were varied and interesting, as well as being worryingly accurate at times.

One of the levels in Urban featured an attack on the World Trade Center in New York city, for example.

The controls were easy enough for my then-7-year-old mind to grasp. Good thing too – these games were tough. Playing from an isometric perspective, the gamer had to steer one of a selection of helicopters (and later fighter jets or tanks) around a map, completing objectives, nabbing fuel and avoiding buildings.

The ‘boing!’ sound effect that played when I accidentally ricocheted into yet another tower block is burned into my memory forever.

The levels ranged from the wide vistas of dense jungle islands to the cloudy skies of San Francisco, and tasked the pilot with completing a series of objectives in any order you choose to do them.

Flying the chopper gave the player a feeling of immense power – but the game’s difficulty stopped the action short of becoming a turkey-shoot. Your foes could be deceptively accurate at times, and the amount of fire blasting up at you could quickly send even an experienced gamer scuttling back to the wide ‘H’ of your launchpad.

Naturally, with fuel a concern as well as ammunition, running out of gas and crashing into the jungle canopy never stopped being annoying.

Bringing war to the warlords

The plot of all three games centred around a warlord or two empire-building, and your cocky pilot and co-pilot pairing taking him down at every turn.

 

The plot of Jungle, for example, evolved around two rent-a-bad-guys who want to blow up America because… well… because. Ibn Kilbaba, son of predecessor game Desert Strike’s antagonist, and Carlos Ortega, a “notorious South American drug lord”, have nukes and are prepared to use them, and it’s up to the player to track them down and finish the fight.

Urban – the last of the traditional Strike games – saw the rise of ‘HR Malone’ – a name that’s hard to forget once the game gets to the twist in the tale…

Sure, the graphics and gameplay seem amazingly low-tech these days, but back in the 90s – in the golden age of 16-bit action – they kicked butt – and still do, if the copy I’m running on my PC’s emulator is anything to go by.

For the record, I don’t count Nuclear Strike as part of the series. It was naff.

Strike back

So, here’s my grand plan for a reboot of the series on eighth-generation.

Firstly, we’re going to need to go 3D – 2D isometric won’t cut it anymore, despite the value inherent in an Indie release on Xbox Live Arcade and the like. This is going to mean a decent flight simulator will need to be co-opted for the action – and this isn’t an easy ask on consoles.

However, I do have a solution. Back when I still owned an Xbox 360, I had the pleasure of reviewing Apache Air Assault. While it would have been easy to dismiss the title as another arcade shooter – this time helicopter-flavoured – the bad box art disguised a pretty amazing flight simulator game.

The controls were solid, the action intense, and the in-game helicopters handled like you’d imagine a multimillion dollar weapon would. Also, much like the Strike series, it had a kickass theme song.

So, if we’re rebooting the Strike series, we’re going to need Gaijin Entertainment. Nobody else will be needed – this company captured the essence of flying a high-agility helicopter and raining down fire from above perfectly, first time.

 

As for the plot, were Tom Clancy still alive, I think i’d tap him for a decent techno-thriller storyline to underpin the action. However, since Mr Clancy is helming a submarine in heaven, let’s get Dale Brown in here – nobody else can do a renewed plot for the Strike series justice.

However, I do have one caveat. HR Malone must return. He may have been a pixellated mess of a character, but he was truly eerie, and left quite the impression on my young mind.

Article first published at 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | June 28, 2014

The Impossible Game review

The Impossible Game is not impossible. That said, I think I might have titled the infuriatingly difficult platformer ‘The Insanely Irritating Game’ instead.

Originally released way back in 2009, the title has since escaped the Xbox 360 and found new life in the sweaty, rage-shaking hands of mobile gamers everywhere, before making the jump to the PC through Steam.

Upon booting the game (and with no little sense of trepidation), I found myself playing one of the most simplistic, yet incredibly challenging, rewarding and mind-numbingly difficult games I’ve ever played.

 

The design is simplicity itself. In the vein of so many other ‘runner’ games, TIG has you relying on your reflexes to bring a small, orange square from one side of a horizontal, linear level to the other, while jumping over spikes and pitfalls.
And all this while a brilliantly executed techno soundtrack plays in the background, with the notes often matching your jumps.

And that’s about it, really. There’s hours of fun to be had here – if you’re into punishing yourself pretty much constantly. Indeed, don’t be surprised if you end up breaking your keyboard when you impale your orange square on those damn triple spikes again… and again… and again.

A practice mode is available this time round, however, allowing the player to drop respawn points before a particularly difficult section, for example.

That said, you still need to complete a run with no mistakes and no respawns if you actually want to ‘beat’ TIG.
Good luck with that.

The Steam version of TIG includes the five ‘classic’ maps packaged with the other versions of the title, including the one which is upside down – just to add additional pain to your play time.

Aside from the five levels, the Steam build also includes a level editor, which is a nice touch. The interface allows you to build a run out of the now all-too-familiar squares and triangles, while setting the action to your own music.

You can also share the levels with your friends. You know, if you feel like punishing them for some past mistake.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and finish this level.
I’m on attempt 1052.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | June 23, 2014

Watch Dogs review

It’s been a long time since E3 2012, when Watch Dogs walked away with ‘game of the show’, and left fans of open-world mayhem and cyberpunk stories alike champing at the bit. Of course, the hotly-tipped game was then delayed in November 2013, before finally escaping the lab on May 27.

So, was it worth the wait?
Yes. It really was.

Like many gamers, I’d been waiting for a game worth buying an eighth-generation console for. Having weighed up the competitors – the all-rounder Xbox One, stylish but simplistic PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s lackluster offering – I had finally settled on the PlayStation, but still lacked a game worthy of the considerable outlay.

As it turns out, for me, Watch Dogs was that game.

Hack and stash

Watch Dogs will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played an open-world game in recent years – especially if you’re familiar with any of the Assassins’ Creed games. Stepping into the combat boots of glum vigilante Aiden Pearce, the game centers around his relentless fight to bring down the totalitarian government ruling the city of Chicago, and get revenge for the death of his niece – killed by parties unknown.

The city itself is one of the stars of the show. Chicago has been realised in beautiful form, from skyscrapers to parks to windswept vistas – and almost all of it can be controlled by the player, with just a click of the in-game smartphone.

Indeed, this version of Chicago is threaded through and through by the branches of a centralised operating system, or ‘ctOS’. Ostensibly there for the betterment of its citizens, the system has invaded everywhere – home computers, traffic lights, trains, medical bookings, ID databases… the list goes on. And as a hacker, Pearce and his cohorts can corrupt and use this infrastructure for their own needs, turning the city into a weapon.

 

The lead male’s smartphone also allows the gamer to ‘profile’ anyone walking past, revealing little (often very private) secrets collected by ctOS. You can also hack into IM or phone conversations, or steal money from bank accounts on the fly. Hacking NPCs also allows you to craft ‘one-use’ hacks, such as ‘blackout’ – a favourite of mine, which kills all the lights and ctOS connections in the area, making stealth a must.

As for Pearce himself, he comes across as an intriguing character, having to walk a fine line between violence and abstinence. As a vigilante, he’s working for the people of the city – but he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. As a gamer, this manifests in an Infamous-style morality meter, with civilian and police kills, excessive violence and generally rabble-rousing turning the populace against you.

On the other hand, helping civilians, stopping crimes and beating the snot out of gangs nets you a positive public image, and makes moving around without constantly finding the cops called on you a breeze.

Pearce’s character is backed by an excellent supporting cast of shady folks, all of whom are living on the edges of Chicago’s 1984-like dystopia, and taking advantage of ctOS’s security gaps.

Familiar territory

So yes, Watch Dogs‘ interface and gamely owes much to the Assassins’ Creed series, while also touching on Far Cry’s tropes as well. Unlocking Pearce’s hacking abilities requires breaking into and accessing ctOS’s control centre in a certain borough, and then unlocking a number of relay towers to further expand the map. Basically, it’s Far Cry’s radio towers, or AC’s viewpoints all over again. Similarly, having to do this task over and over is still boring.

Thankfully, however, the game takes off once you’ve unlocked Pearce’s hacking abilities – big time.

In the course of the various main missions, dozens of side missions, racing contracts and gang hideouts, the gamer gets to approach the problems however you want, using ctOS to your own devices. Through the smartphone in Pearce’s pocket, you can use cameras to mark targets, raise cover for gunfights, detonate steam pipes, lift and lower bridges and more. Car chases become tense competitions to escape and evade through raising bollards in the path of racing enemies, or using spike strips to send them bouncing into a river.

Flicking all the lights at a traffic crossroads to green is a favourite of mine. Causing gridlock is an ideal way to escape pursuers, or halt a convoy in its tracks.

So, while hacking the city is a large part of the action, this feature is backed up by tight gunplay and relatively (for the Playstation 4′s still cack-handed system) good controls. Pearce has a bullet time-alike slow motion ability, and can run from cover to cover, picking foes off silently, or taking them down with his baton. Naturally, this is a dynamic lifted almost wholesale from another Ubisoft title – Splinter Cell.

The only part of the game that falls flat for me are the driving controls. The cars handle like they’re on ice at all times, and a deft touch is required to stay in control, while hacking the world around you to delay and destroy your target or pursuer. Also, not being able to point a gun out the window and shoot out some tires is an odd choice.

While in Chicago…

Aside from the campaign, the huge number of side missions, challenges and collectibles are sure to keep even the most excitable player busy. I particularly enjoyed solving a murder mystery and bringing down a gun-trafficking ring, but also had a blast in the game’s ‘digital trips’ (mini games), which include an awesome ‘Spider-tank’ simulator.

 

Watch Dogs’ focus on hacking also extends to the game’s multiplayer offering. As well as a fun team-based ‘capture-the-data’ mode, you can also invade other players’ games, and try to hack or shadow them without being found. These modes are tense and exciting, and well worth a go. That said, since other players can invade and hack your game as well – often at times you wish they really wouldn’t – it can occasionally be an annoyance.

iPad owners can also play a fun mini game which tasks a player on a console to a race, when the police, traffic lights, bollards and bridges et al are controlled from the iPad. A nice idea, but the lag between the console and the tablet computer makes this one all-too-easy for the console gamer.

Nuts and bolts

Graphically, Watch Dogs looks beautiful on the PS4. The neon lights shine in the night, throwing shadows and colour on the damp pavement in the rain, and I can’t recall one instance of texture loading issues – impressive, considering the size of the game world.

The character animation is excellent, and backed with a strong voice cast – Pearce can be a little grating at times, but the supporting characters are all great fun.

The sound effects and score are also top-notch, with some great bands blasting from the radio even making me buy their album.

Conclusion

Overall, Watch Dogs was worth every penny. While not a perfect game, its blend of stealth, open-world mayhem, fun multiplayer, addictive minigames and solid shooting action make it a must.

8/10

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | June 7, 2014

Retro Reboot: Chase the Express

As one of the five people who played Chase the Express (also known as Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn in North America), I can honestly say the title didn’t deserve the bad press it got at the time.

Sure, the player character controlled like you were driving a humanoid tank, the graphics looked like something Pac Man vomited up and the voice acting was hilariously hammy, but the game was far more than the sum of its parts.

Riding the rails

Stepping into the role of chisel-jawed NATO soldier Jack Morton, CTE saw the player foiling a terrorist plot to hijack a massive armoured train and generally cause havoc along the way. Naturally, there was more to the story – the requisite number of plot twists and multiple endings saw to that – but it was the location that really set CTE apart from its contemporaries. Also, it had a cracking intro cutscene (horrible voice acting aside…)

 

The Blue Harvest was a vast playground for Morton. While you’d imagine a train would literally be an all-too-linear setting for a videogame, the varied nature of the train’s many compartments kept things relatively fresh. As well as the sleeper cars there were scientific research cars, a hospital car and a few other, classified cars.

Exploring the varied nature of the train, solving puzzles and defeating terrorists kept things interesting – even if waiting for the fixed camera to catch up with the action got old fast.

Plus, like the Dino Crisis games of that era (and there’s a subject for a retro reboot if there ever was one), the controls were instantly familiar to anyone who’d played a Resident Evil game at the time of CTE’s release – way back in the mists of time that was the year 2000. In fact, CTE felt exactly like an old-school Resident Evil game – just with less zombies and more terrorists.

As you’d expect, you had your inventory and a delightful selection of weaponry to discover and employ. Then there were the usual Resi-style selection of odds-and-ends you needed to complete the game’s puzzles – all of which you could store in a box in the train’s many toilets. Yes, the save point was in the toilet. I always found that funny.

 

So while it would be easy to dismiss CTE as a Resi-clone, with the usual bad controls and shoddy voice acting, something in its execution has stuck with me for a long time. The game’s combination of a Tom Clancy-esque espionage thriller storyline and half-decent gameplay pushed just the right buttons for me, and I’d love to see a HD-remake, or possibly a new title entirely, set in the same sort of environment.

Bring it back

So, who should helm a reboot of a beloved (to me and the four other people who actually played it) game?

Well, first off, we’re going to need Naughty Dog.
One of the best ‘train’ levels I’ve played in recent years was this mission in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves:

 

Naughty Dog got the excitement of train-based blasting just right – including the train-hopping sections, and the constant fear of falling off and becoming red paste on the sleepers. So, that’s graphics and level design covered.

BioWare, meanwhile, would be ideal for the gameplay itself. Far from shoehorning in Mass Effect-style conversation wheels, getting the geniuses behind the series to build the player interface from scratch would be a step in the right direction.

That said, I’d leave the plot itself to someone more qualified. We all know what happened the last time BioWare tried to finish a videogame plot.

Mass Effect-style cover-based shooting with plenty of NPC interaction, set on a train with varied levels and fiendish puzzles, backed by a techno-thriller plot that keeps you guessing. You’d be on to a winner.

(Article originally published at 6aming.com)

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | June 3, 2014

Guest Review – X-Men: Days of Future Past

My fellow wage-slave and movie critic Link Hall steps in to review Brian Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past… Enjoy!

It was with some surprise that I realised X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) was actually the seventh outing for the Marvel franchise – one that’s maintained a consistently high bar since its inception in 2000. The only possible exception, for me, being 2013’s slightly lacklustre The Wolverine, though when you’re up against Man of Steel, even adamantium dulls.

The third way

This is the third version of the DOFP storyline. The original comic serialisation – issues #141-142 of The Uncanny X-Men – saw the adult Kitty Pryde’s mind sent back by a telepath to her younger self on Halloween 1980.

This was in effort to prevent a pivotal incident when Mystique and the Brotherhood of Mutants assassinate Senator Kelly, prompting a ferocious backlash and the employment of gigantic mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels, which drive mutants to near extinction.

In the cartoon series the roles were altered, with Bishop – a former mutant hunter – travelling back in time to warn of the coming massacre.

Bryan Singer’s reconceptualisation, bringing together the original and the First-Class generations, takes elements from both of its predecessors, granting Kitty telepathic powers to send Bishop’s consciousness back a few hours to warn of any Sentinel attacks, and so avoid them.

When the decision is made to extend the timeframe by decades back to 1973, to stop Mystique murdering and martyring the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask, the only candidate capable of enduring such a mental stretch is Wolverine.

Once back in his younger body, he must then unite a burned-out young Charles Xavier with a vengeful Magneto imprisoned in a concrete cell deep under the Pentagon.

 

Rewriting history

X-Men movies are a formidable undertaking, not just in terms of the de rigueur stunts, fight scenes and state-of-the-art effects, but also because of a problem particular to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s mutant creation.

With such a spectrum of superpowers on offer, it’s an exacting task to come up with a plot tight enough to fend off a welter of ‘But-hang-on-couldn’t-so-and-so-have-used-their-abilities-to-do-such-and-such’ critique.

There are inevitably opportunities for this kind of conjecture in DOFP – particularly with the introduction of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who can act – and clearly, think – at supersonic velocity, and provides one of the standout sequences of the movie, shot at a reported 3600fps.

The film is also not without its unexplained or over-convenient elements. Why does Kitty suddenly have a telepathic ability she’s never manifested before? Why does Charles now look like Charles, having transferred his consciousness into another man’s body at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. And why is he still unable to walk? (Careful now. That’s a slippery slope with a massive plot-hole at the end you’ll never escape from. A)

But it seems churlish to focus on these minor distractions, in a movie that gets so much right. The X-Men, with its mutant metaphor for society’s disenfranchised, comes with a natural gravitas which puts it in an immediately more interesting space than other, more frivolous enterprises. At the same time, humour runs right through it, and with more texture and subtlety than its Marvel cousin, the one-toned, punchline-saturated Avengers.

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Poster-High-Res

Pretty dramatic, huh?

No maniacal caricatures here either, with Peter Dinklage giving a refreshingly understated performance as Trask, deftly negotiating the sensitive, post-Vietnam political landscape to cultivate increasing support for his personal vision.

The Sentinels are a brilliant adversary, swarming and relentless, with their menace multiplied in relation to the comic and cartoon by the ability to adapt countermeasures to any mutant power. As familiar as we’ve become with the main cast’s powers, we see them put to new, creepy and/or amusing use. The audience audibly recoiled as we saw Magneto stitching up his own head, and later on devising a particularly excruciating torture for one unlucky mutant.

They’ve learned

There are also notable improvements on previous episodes. Beast now looks appropriately, well, beasty – having ditched the fairground face-paint vibe seen in First Class. (I liked that look!… A) The cheesy yellow uniforms, having served as an affectionate nod to the comics, are now gone. (I liked those too! A.) And Banshee is dead. (Spoiler aler….too late… A)

While dear old thesps like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are always good value, of note for me is Jennifer Lawrence, who’s brought a very welcome depth to the role of Mystique. It’s a more gymnastic performance this time, echoing Rebecca Romijn’s iconic stint, but so removed from the jealous, hollow Magneto groupie of the first films.

Also, considering the percentage of screen time Mystique spends in the buff, it was good to see some balance on the male front. Well, the male back.

After a sprinkling of nude scenes in previous films which employed strategically placed objects, careful posing, blurring or shadowing to obscure Hugh Jackman’s ‘nether ye’ – as Chaucer would’ve termed it – the audience is treated to Wolverine’s naked backside, sans 20th Century Fox coyness.

Days of Future Future

Audience members generally fall into two distinct groups. Those who shoot out of their seats the moment the credits start rolling, and those who stay to the bitter end.

With post-credit treats becoming an abiding feature of the genre (and annoying cinema staff the world-over… A), the latter group seems to be growing. Sit through the pillars of amusing and unpronounceable names and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of the forthcoming X-Men Apocalypse.

(A glimpse that makes no sense unless you’ve read the comics. Be warned. A.)

Link Hall

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 29, 2014

Moral Quandaries

It’s not often I stop to question what I’m doing when I’m gaming. In fact, how many gamers actually consider their actions in-game when you’ve got your hands on a controller, really? Not many, I’d wager.

Could you honestly say that before you gunned down a wave of enemies playing Call of Duty, you paused to consider the actions behind the enemy forces firing repeatedly at you and making your screen bloody? No, they’re just a bunch of terrorists, or aliens – hardly the disenfranchised populace of a country left broken and confused by the invasion of another culture bent on forcing democracy upon them. Right?

And true to form, when playing through 2012′s sleeper hit Spec Ops: The Line, I took the run-n-gun title at face value – until it started screwing with my mind.

For those of you who haven’t played the title (hint – go buy it, it’s like £3 in the shops), The Line ostensibly appears to be a bog-standard shooter with some crummy squad mechanics and a tacked-on multiplayer. But beneath this banal exterior lies a Heart of Darkness-like tale which left me questioning my own morality, as I watched the sanity of the player character fray before my eyes.

That got me thinking about the other moments in my video gaming career which made me pause to consider what I was doing – what I was actually doing as the player character, or even as me, myself.
Here’s just five of the moments I remember best – and be warned, HERE BE SPOILERS.

Spec Ops: The Line – White phosphorus
As the most recent of the five moments I’ve experienced, this one is foremost in my mind as of this moment.
Having fought their way into the sand-devastated morass of Dubai, Captain Martin Walker and his squad find themselves unable to advance, hemmed in by rogue American soldiers armed to the teeth and out for blood. That is until they find a mortar – and a box of white phosphorus rounds.

Despite having experienced the flame-coated horror of white phosphorus for themselves, Walker and co unleash hell on the soldiers, burning them to a crisp, destroying them utterly – and believing the ends justify the means.

Later, descending to the burning ground below, they find utter devastation – with one horribly burned soldier asking merely “Why?!”, before adding “We were helping…” It was at that point my heart sank – something was terribly wrong.

 

Around the next corner, the burned carcasses of 47 innocent civilians lay, holding each other in death – a sight which broke Walker’s mind, and left me questioning my own motivations for choosing to play the game.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – No Russian
I was warned that this particular scene would leave me feeling a little sick – and still I felt disgusted afterwards.

Despite Infinity Ward’s efforts to provide a ‘skip’ button, I had to see the pixellated atrocity myself, as an undercover American agent is part of the merciless slaughter of civilians, to maintain his cover with a terrorist sect.

 

First time round, I didn’t fire a shot – only to be shot in turn by the terrorist mastermind for being a traitor. Second time – and being forced by the game to do so – I joined in, gunning down whole families, old folks and the police officers sent to protect them with wild abandon.
Publicity stunt or not, I felt it was a particularly low moment for gaming, and not one I partook of again.

Metal Gear Solid 3 – The river of Sorrow
Wounded and on the run, Metal Gear Solid 3′s Snake (Big Boss) is forced to hurl himself off a waterfall – probably to his death. Or is it?
Awakening in the waters of a ghostly river, Snake finds himself under ‘attack’ by ‘spirit medium soldier’ The Sorrow – a warrior who can commune with the spirits of the slain. Slogging forward through the mud, the gravely wounded Snake finds himself forced to dodge the angry, resentful spirits of every person he’s killed throughout the course of the game – boss characters, NPS soldiers, the lot.

 

“Now you will know the sorrow of those whose lives you have ended…,” The Sorrow intones, as the dead lurch at you, grasping, sobbing their last thoughts, trying to drag you down to hell with them.

‘Creepy’ doesn’t even cover it – especially after it’s explained that the number of ghostly apparitions you face tallies exactly with the number of enemies you’ve killed up to this point in the game. If you went nonlethal, you have little trouble surviving the encounter.
Naturally, I had more than a little trouble…

Mass Effect/2/3 – The Genophage
‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ is a theory the Mass Effect games call into question many times throughout their considerable run time – and never more poignantly than when the nature of the Krogan Genophage comes to light.

The Krogan – a warlike race with the potential to overrun the galaxy – have been deliberately made sterile by technology, and are dying out fast. But despite the horrible nature of this crime, without the Genophage virus they might have already reduced the galaxy to cinders, since (each male having four testicles) they breed really, really fast – and don’t follow orders gladly.

 

In the Mass Effect games, several moments test the gamer’s morality regarding the Genophage – do you manage to calm Urdnot Wrex, or are you forced to shoot him? Do you help troubled scientist Mordin Solus undo his work to perfect the Genophage, or ensure that the menace the Krogans could pose is forever banished?

Or, do you give them the chance at redemption, when you see the beauty their world once held.
Difficult stuff, and truly heart-rending at points.

Bioshock – ADAM
All the ‘Shock’ games play with your sense of morality and force you to question the nature of right and wrong, but Bioshock really hit the nail on the head for me.

Harvest the Little Sisters, and you’re granted nearly endless power – and the means to smite your enemies. Or you can save them, restricting your advancement and heaping yourself with challenges.

 

The first time I found myself with a Little Sister in hand, I didn’t hesitate – it’s a game, right? It doesn’t matter. So, I watched as my player character apparently murdered the young girl, and tore out her insides to feed his own needs.

I didn’t harvest another Little Sister after that – I saved every one. But, thanks to Bioshock’s black-and-white morality, it was too little, too late. And this was just one unforgettable moment, in an unforgettable gaming experience.

What are your favourite gaming moral quandaries? Leave a comment below.

(Article originally published at 6aming.com)

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 10, 2014

Retro Reboot: Psi-Ops – The Mindgate Conspiracy

Anyone remember Midway Games?

Now long defunct, at one time the developer had a decent stable of titles under its wing – the original Killer InstinctRampage and Spy Hunter, to name but three.

Then, of course, like so many other publisher/developers, it hit tough times, went belly-up and sank forevermore.

So, what game would I like to see rebooted from Midway’s once-prize stable? A game I doubt anyone else played at the time: Psi-Ops – The Mindgate Conspiracy.

All in the mind

It’s been just under a decade since I first got my hands on Psi-Ops – and I still remember just how much creepily vindictive fun there was to be had in possessing, burning or throwing everything I could find in the area.

One comparison to draw would be anarchic powers of Starkiller, from The Force Unleashed – but Mindgate did it better.

Putting the player in the dusty combat boots of PSI-Operative Nick Scryer (I see what you did there, Midway), the game centres around his infiltration and destruction of a quasi-religious terrorist group led by a squad of highly-strung psychics.

As a psychic himself, over time Nick gains control of his nascent powers – telekinesis, remote viewing, mind control, pyrokinesis (turns your hands into flamethrowers) and aura view. Also ‘mind drain’, which recharges your own stores of psychic power – and explodes the head of your target.

The true challenge of the game was gradually learning to control and exploit your powers, while mowing down legions of foes in the process.

 

Nick’s otherworldly skills turned what was essentially a Syphon Filter-style third-person shooter into something truly special – especially when the developers turned the Havok physics engine up to full, and gave you free reign to approach the missions however you liked.

A personal favourite of mine was mind controlling a soldier, nonchalantly wandering up to his friends, gunning them down and then jumping my meat puppet into the nearest electric fence/acid pit/hive of bees.

Alternatively, hurling statues as weapons – after having set them on fire – never got old. Even the heavily armed and psychically charged foes took umbrage when a huge, Indiana Jones-style boulder I wrenched off the statue of Atlas came flying towards them.

It was this sense of power that made Psi-Ops so addictive – once you reached the heights of Nick’s abilities, nothing could stop you. Sure, you could grab a rocket launcher and mow down your foes, but why bother?

Mind-blast from the past

So what would I like to see in a reboot? Put simply – turn it up to 11.

Nick was already astonishingly powerful, even back with the limited processing power of the Playstation 2. As a result, you’d imagine that with the beefy processors of the PS4 and its ilk, you’d be able to rip buildings to shreds and hurl cars like chaff.

To that end, you’d want Sucker Punch in on this. With the Infamous series under their belt, there’s nobody else I’d like to see handle a third-person destruction derby. Perhaps a few DICE developers might get involved too – you’d need the building destruction to be top-notch – although some of the Red Faction folks may well still be looking for work. Sure, Nick doesn’t use a sledgehammer, but the theory is the same.

 

Throw in a twisted plot written by the minds behind Deus Ex and you’d be on to a winner – especially if you can bag a good team to come up with a decent multiplayer.

Perhaps a few co-operative missions running concurrently with the main game’s plot – throw three PSI-Operatives together with varied powers, and see how quickly they can destroy an enemy missile base, or sink a super carrier.

Then there’s a competitive multiplayer to think of – teams of psychically-charged agents going at it, hurling fuel tankers around like toys, using helicopters circling overhead as melee weapons.

This needs to happen, and soon.

Article originally published at 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 6, 2014

Titanfall Review (Xbox 360)

When you think back to those few titles that changed gaming forever, what comes to mind?

For me, Half Life, Gran Turismo and – oddly – Lemmings all stand out as adventures which rewrote the book on video games. They broke the mold and tried something new – and in so doing, became legends which endure to this day.

Titanfall, while falling short of the industry-changing greatness of these titles, is nevertheless a breath of fresh air and a kick up the arse for a genre that has become altogether too stale of late – first-person shooters.

Killer app

While originally planned as the system-seller for Microsoft’s struggling Xbox One, Titanfall has done equally as well – if not better – in its Xbox 360 format. Originally developed by Call of Duty-tearaways Respawn Entertainment, that company handed the reins over to Bluepoint Games for the port to the eighth-generation system’s predecessor, the Xbox 360.

The 360 version was then mysteriously delayed for two weeks, and a special bundle deal of Titanfall with the XBox One appeared on shelves. Subtle, Microsoft, real subtle.

But, it doesn’t take long to see why the company pulled the 360 version for a couple of weeks – Bluepoint did such a good job portingTitanfall to the older console that the differences between the gen-eight and gen-seven versions are negligible. Whoops.

Indeed, and having played both versions, the only differences I can see in actual gameplay is a slight graphical downgrade on the XBox 360 – which results in barely-noticable texture pop-in – and the occasional bad animation.

Everything else – and I do literally mean everything, good and bad – is pretty much the same. And I loved every minute of it.

Welcome to the Frontier

Set in the far future, Titanfall sees a plucky resistance movement – the Militia – battling to slip the yoke of corporate authority and repression, played by the private military arm of the IMC. All of which are voiced by South Africans, for some reason.
Aaaand… that’s about it. If you were looking for an in-depth plot, you’re going to badly disappointed.

 

The nature of Titanfall as a multiplayer-only game means that the two campaigns – which play identical missions from the viewpoint of the warring sides – has to function as both storyline and high-intensity shooter. It fails in the former, considerably.

It’s surprisingly difficult to care about the game’s half-arsed plot when a massive, mechanical monster is trying to punch you into red paste, or watch the spectacle of collapsing buildings while you’re sprinting along a wall, firing an automatic grenade launcher. It simply doesn’t work. So, it’s good news then that the core multiplayer gameplay of Titanfall is so good it can carry the game on its own.

Playing like a cross between Call of Duty, Prince of Persia and MechwarriorTitanfall sees teams of six human-controlled ‘Pilots’ duke it out in well-rendered, nicely designed maps, taking on each other and the myriad AI-controlled ‘grunts’ that stand in your way.

Killing enemies earns time off the build clock for your Titan – massive, bipedal tanks armed to the teeth and coated in high-tech armour. After getting enough kills, stealing enough flags or generally slaughtering the useless infantry serving your foe, you can call in your Titan, which slams into the ground from orbit and waits, like a huge metal gorilla, for its pilot.

One would imagine these core gameplay tenets would grow boring fast – especially with the lack of a true campaign mode – but you’d be very wrong. It’s simply hard to get bored when the degree of movement available to you is unlike any FPS seen before.

Verticality

With a parkour-pack strapped to your armoured hide, playing as a Pilot offers feelings of immense speed and agility. The multilevel arenas offered by Titanfall see the nimble pilots wall-running, double jumping and mantling all over the place – chokepoints become a thing of the past when you can simply run up a wall, cloak yourself and go all Lara Croft to get around.

Gunfights become vastly challenging chases across rooftops – and all while grunts and Titans battle on the streets below. One moment you can be jetting up a zipline (gravity is no problem here), and the next running along a wall, firing grenades below you. The speed and dexterity required is tricky to learn at first, but once you free your mind from the traditional restrictions of an FPS, Titanfall is a playground of brutality.

Later, when you call your Titan, the action shifts once again. You go from agile sprinter to lumbering behemoth in an instant, trading blows, jetting about and fighting for your life’s worth against your enemies and their Titan cohorts. Sadly, however, the customisation options available this early on in the game’s life are limited. There’s only three Titans on offer – the nimble Stryder, slow-but-tough Ogre and all-rounder Atlas, each of which can be armed with a primary weapon, missile launcher and various defensive aids.

You can also dismount and have your Titan follow you like an obedient, murderous pet, which is a nice touch.

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Sadly, there’s no options for Titan decals or part customisation, al-la Armoured Core or Mechwarrior – a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

Customisation is more prevalent for the Pilots, with the small selection of weapons each having a number of add-ons to unlock, such as scopes and suppressors. Different types of grenades and anti-Titan weapons can be tweaked too, as well as tactical abilities, such as a cloaking device – so far, so familiar to anyone whose played an FPS in the last decade.

Weirdly, however, you can’t name your custom Titan and Pilot classes, which is a heck of an oversight, considering the developers’ pedigree.

Graphical fidelity

As a port from the XBox One, you’d expect Titanfall to look and run a whole lot worse on older tech – but you’d be wrong. Bluepoint did a great job with the port – the game runs smoothly, the scenery looks wonderful and the action is thrilling. As mentioned, there’s a few graphical issues to report, but on the whole, Titanfall simply looks great.

The sound design is also top-notch, especially some of the audio cues you learn to listen for when piloting your Titan – the sound of straining shield generators, the siren to indicate an enemy Pilot is ‘Rodeoing’ you and shooting at your vital wiring. It all simply comes together in a multiplayer experience that has managed to reboot my enjoyment of the genre

Conclusion

While stymied by the lack of a decent singleplayer campaign, Titanfall’s mutiplayer madness is more than enough to carry the price for admission. The action is fast and furious, and the freedom offered by the parkour-pack makes the old corridor-shooter dynamics entirely redundant. Despite its bugs, Titanfall is absolutely worth your time.

Stand by for Titanfall.

Originally published at 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | April 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

‘Less is more’.
That’s an odd little phrase – but one which rings true in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Less is more. Shame there wasn’t fewer plotlines, less bad guys, less hammy acting, less nonsense – and more Spider-Man action. (Excuse the bad grammar. I’m making a point.)

We’ve been here before, as it happens. Those of you who remember the original Spider-Man trilogy will no doubt recall how badly received the third movie in the series was – too many characters, too many plotlines, too little subtlety. How the Amazing 2 screenwriters, led by Alex Kurtzman, could make the same mistakes perplexes me. But I digress.

Webb-sling-yer-hook mate

Once again directed by the ironically-named Marc Webb, Spider-Man 2 sees Andrew Garfield return as the titular web-slinger – this time with even more of an attitude problem. Having dispatched Dr Curt Connors in the previous movie, the young superhero is happily hamming it up as New York’s webbed wonder – but naturally, this isn’t going to last.

No, Spider-Man must contend with many villains this time around, starting with Electro (a delightfully unhinged Jamie Foxx). Foxx does an admirable job of playing both nerdy electrician Max Dillon, and the supercharged, psychopathic Electro – who was naturally created in a convenient accident.
Seriously, does no-one take health and safety seriously in movies?

However, being as there’s two more villains waiting in the wings – and a shadowy figure behind the action, of course, the main horrible threat Spider-Man has to contend with is… the badly-written plot.
(By the way, don’t be fooled – the trailer and the film are… really very different)

 

As well as battling Electro, Spider-Man must also deal with his on-again-off-again relationship with science genius Gwen Stacey (a brilliantly ballsy Emma Stone), the return of his old friend Harry Osborn (a wonderfully creepy Dane DeHann) – who has some serious daddy issues – and a quest to discover the truth behind his parents’ disappearance.

This alone – the quest to explain what happened to his parents, and what their work represented – could have been the core of an adventure to remember.

The long way down

This, then, is where the movie fell apart for me. Rather than a solid storyline, with Peter Parker blossoming into the conflicted superhero we know and love, what we were presented with was a messy plot which meanders from scene to scene, raising more questions than it answers – and resolving none of them.

In fact, this movie feels like little more than an effort to set up the next one – and not only that, at points I simply grew bored. I shouldn’t be bored in a superhero movie – especially one whose trailer promised so much, and delivered on little of it.

That said, the action is solid and the fight scenes are enjoyable. There’s a little too much slow-mo for my liking, and since I was watching in 2D, the moments where the 3D was supposed to take centre stage were painfully obvious. Also, there were more than a few moments which had me rolling out my best critic’s ‘haughty laugh’ – including one scene that sees Spider-Man being beaten up by dubstep.

Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 falls flat on its promises. While a watchable popcorn flick, it doesn’t build on the momentum its predecessors brought to the struggling series.

5/10

For an equally harsh – but much more intelligently phrased – review, head on over to James Parry’s This Is Entertainment.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | April 15, 2014

Retro Reboot: TIE Fighter

Space strategy titles are enjoying something of a renaissance of late. The impressive, crowd-funded Star Citizen, for example, has given me hope that my favourite gaming genre isn’t completely dead – although whether the title will actually live up to its promise remains to be seen.

So then, surely it’s a good time for the new owners of George Lucas’s universe, Disney, to bring back arguably the best Star Wars game of all time – TIE Fighter.

I pretty much lost a summer to TIE Fighter when I was around 14. I’d played a number of Star Wars titles before I stepped into the flight suit of Imperial ace Maarek Stele, but none of them could hold a candle to TIE Fighter. It helped that the version I played was the ‘complete’ title – with all the (really very good) expansion packs included.

Although at the time the game was the latest in a series of excellent Star Wars space-simulators – the X-Wing series had blazed a trail with ease – playing for the ‘bad guys’ was something truly exceptional.

Starting with basic training under the wing of harshly British-accented Imperial officers, Stele gradually becomes the Galactic Empire’s finest fighter ace. That said, it’s a long journey – and one fraught with intense, difficult missions and constant challenges.

It’s also a journey that starts out with simple picket-line patrols and general peacekeeping duties.

Greenhorn

The player starts out piloting a small, one-man TIE Fighter – a nippy but poorly armed and armoured spacecraft that is best used in waves. These early missions were a delight to me – being ordered around to scan various freighters and root out rebel sympathisers was a great way to get used to TIE Fighter’s clever controls.

The difficulty in mastering your spacecraft’s energy distribution in combat, for example, ramped the immersion factor up considerably. You could push all your power into your engines if you needed to run, or ramp up your laser recharge rate when on a strafing run.

An additional layer came in the use of shields – forward arc, aft, or balanced.

Then there was wingman controls, squadron controls, ordinance and hyperdrive, as well as targeting systems and complicated manoeuvres to practice.

Sure, the early missions dragged on a little too long, but as an educational tool and a way of building your character, they were priceless.

And considering how hard the game go as time went on, you’d be needing every skill you’d picked up along the way just to survive.

Ace pilot

Beforelong, Stele (and the player) found himself promoted up the ranks, taking on more and more difficult missions, commanding his fellow pilots and generally helping the Empire ‘bring peace’ to the galaxy.

Plus, fight hard enough and you could find yourself inducted to Emperor Palpatine’s secret order as ‘Emperor’s Hand’, with a brand burned onto your forearm, kept hidden beneath your uniform.

Through this, rather than just dropping the player into the action, TIE Fighter made you feel like an integral part of the story – a story that weaved expertly into the Star Wars universe’s film storyline.

As you rose through the ranks further, you’d find yourself piloting iconic spacecraft and undeveloped fighters alike – you became a test pilot of newly minted, deadly gunships, running complicated, challenging missions into enemy territory and thrashing all opposition before you.

I have fond memories of my favourite mission – as one of a squadron of bombers, I was ordered to approach a Rebel Alliance-held space station, launch bombs by eye – so they wouldn’t be able to be shot down by automatic tracking – and then break and engage the fleeing Rebel ships.

The orders being barked over your intercom, combined with the omnipresent Star Wars soundtrack, took my breath away. Simply amazing.

Back in black

So, how could TIE Fighter fly once again? Well, easily, as it happens. I’d start by engaging Egosoft and Deep Silver – the people behind the ‘X’ series – to build an engine for the title. There’d need to be less of the trading and mining, and more combat-oriented gameplay.

That said, an ‘X’-style game set in the Star Wars universe would sell like hotcakes – get on it, Disney.

As for the plot, you’d want to hire Kevin J Anderson – of the Expanded Universe ‘Jedi Academy’ book series – or Timothy Zahn, of the ‘Heir to the Empire’ series.

Give either of these two carte blanche to set a TIE Fighter game anywhere in the Galactic Civil War era (not the prequel era, please…), and you’d be on to a winner.

Also, make sure to keep the ‘hub’ sections. I know they’re a little old-fashioned, but being able to click around the decks of your parent Star Destroyer, chatting to the shadowy figures representing the Emperor’s interests was a delight.

Plus, be sure get the voice actor behind that damn haughty Imperial officer back – his put-downs made me laugh every time, and he did a fantastic ‘I’m pissed off you failed that secondary objective’ voice.

That said, i’d definitely tweak the targeting computer controls. Having to scroll through every target in range to find the one you needed to be shooting drove me crazy…

Come on Disney, make it happen.

Article originally published at 6aming.com

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