Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 28, 2014

Know Your Enemy

Loath as I am to admit it, I thought about Call of Duty the other day. Usually I try to avoid thinking about that once-great series, which has fallen far from its heyday (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare).

But, upon catching a few seconds of the trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and taking in the evil, megalomaniacal motion-captured Kevin Spacey, I thought about the nature of ‘bad guys’.

In fact, I realised that in the short time I’ve been a gamer, I’ve seen bad guys go from one-pixel blips to highly detailed enemies – and what I was especially surprised by was how they’ve ‘moved with the times’.

People inexperienced with videogaming as a pastime usually ascribe to the typical stereotype of the hobby – anti-social strange people living in their mother’s basement, shouting ‘pew pew’ at a screen. Sure, people like that do exist, but as gaming’s matured into a mainstream pastime, so have the games – and so have the bad guys.

Whereas in my youth, my enemies tended to be animals (Ecco the Dolphin), anthropomorphic mushrooms (Mario games) or enemy helicopters (the Strike series), these days my foes tend to be – often shockingly – human.

 

Keep your enemies closer

Though human enemies are nothing new, if you use Call of Duty as an example, the maturation of gaming – and its method of reflecting the geopolitical situation in the wider world to build gravitas – become clear.

While we once spent our time in the past, taking on the evil of the Nazi regime, Call of Duty gradually moved on to tackle the tricky subject of terrorism.

By Modern Warfare, the Western world was busily involved in wars all over the Middle East – and it was clear that Infinity Ward was more than aware of this. The plot of Modern Warfare brought the stark reality of war to light in full detail – this wasn’t some historical battle for you to be the hero – this was survival against a committed enemy who didn’t think or fight like you did.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present threat of weapons of mass destruction. Sure, the West didn’t find anything in Iraq, but the soldiers of Modern Warfare sure did – if you’ve played the game, I’m sure you remember the slow heat death of a nuclear blast.

The thought of that chilling, slow end remains a standout moment in gaming for me.

 

Later, as the wars continued, the people of the West started to question the morals and ethics of our own leadership.

By Modern Warfare 2, gamers – those who looked away from the incredibly addictive multiplayer – were rightfully distrustful of the government and the military. This was reflected in the plot – and though it was bonkers at points, it still left a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who was even a little distrustful of centralised government.

With the advent of Advanced Warfare, the nature of the ‘bad guy’ has shifted once again. Reflecting the changing nature of warfare itself, the new enemies to be tackled are no longer terrorists or evil man in faraway lands – it’s the growing, unpredictable threat of private military companies – mercenaries by any other name. Men who will fight for the highest bidder.

Sure, I may be generalising, and I’m sure the likes of Blackwater may well have done a lot of good – but exactly what goes on away from prying eyes remains to be seen.

Then, of course, there’s the rapidly shifting political situation in eastern Europe and the South China Seas. Suddenly, the idea of being at war with Russia or China in the real world – as opposed to the situation in Battlefield 4 – doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

I wonder where games – and the bad guys who give gamers something to shoot at – will be in a few years time?

What do you think about the changing nature of videogame bad guys? Leave a comment below.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 16, 2014

Retro Reboot: Dino Crisis

Fifteen year old Andy would never have admitted it, but Capcom’s survival-action thriller Dino Crisis scared the pants off me.
I keenly remember jumping out of my skin whenever I heard the distinctive noise of the raptors lurking around the corner, or the bone-chilling cries of the pterosaur as it circled above, waiting to ambush me, pick me up and toss me into the nearby air conditioning unit.

No, while I did extoll the virtues of the title to my high school peers, I never mentioned exactly how much Dino Crisis made me cower – and isn’t it about time it did so again?

Built on a similar engine to that used to create Capcom’s multimillion pound cash cow Resident Evil, Dino Crisis was Resi’s (in my humble opinion) far more entertaining twin sister.

Set on mysterious Ibis Island (which in no way resembles Isla Nublar from Jurassic Park), the game tasked you – as special forces operator Regina – with capturing a rogue scientist and solving the mysterious disappearance of an agent months before.

 

As part of the Secret Operation Raid Team (subtle name…) the player infiltrates the jungle with the aim of SORTing (see what I did there?) it all out and being home in time for tea.

Let’s do the time-warp again

The only problem is that the crazed scientist who forms the core of SORT’s mission has somehow harnessed a new form of energy – and ‘accidentally’ opened a time portal.

If this portal went to the 1980s the worst SORT would have to deal with is bad hair and power ballads – but no, the portal goes back to the age of the dinosaurs – and the big fellas do so love to explore.

Beforelong, the player finds themselves fending off waves of intelligent (for the time) AI-controlled dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes – all while putting the mystery together, fighting off traitors with goals of their own and desperately trying to find more ammunition for your shotgun.

Like Resident Evil before it, Dino Crisis was tense as hell. As Regina, the player faced a constant challenge to move forwards, exploring, while fending off surprise attacks at every turn. Added to this – and unlike Resi’s zombies – the dinosaurs would work together to flank you, meaning every shotgun shell became precious.

However – and again like Resi – the camera was an utter pain in the arse, and quite often would make it very difficult to find the raptors stalking you, let alone fire at them. Plus, the voice acting was hilarious bad.

 

Dino Crisis was also the first game I ever played with quicktime events – not that the invention of that gaming trope was a good thing.

However, despite its problems, Dino Crisis’ decent story, tight gameplay and constant tension made for a memorable adventure indeed.
While it would be easy to brush the game off as ‘Resident Evil with dinosaurs’, the game held together well on its own – and even spawned two sequels. Granted, they were a bit naff – Dino Crisis 2 was dull, while Dino Crisis 3 (dinosaurs on a spaceship) was frankly insulting.

Bring it back

So, how should Capcom resurrect the series?
Well, firstly, Capcom shouldn’t. We’ve all seen what they did to Resident EvilRE6 was utter tosh, largely alienating its audience and forgetting what the series was known for.

In fact, I think control of Resident Evil should be wrested from their cold, money-grabbing fingers until they can be trusted with a beloved videogame franchise once again.

No, I’d hand the rights to Dino Crisis to Naughty Dog – the folks behind Uncharted and – more importantly – The Last of Us.
If anyone knows how to do survival horror right, it’s them. Imagine a Dino Crisis with the same slick combat and stealth as TLOUs – but while retaining the series’s inventory management and feeling of isolation.

Naughty Dog would also do well to polish up their AI coding before creating an army of time-displaced dinosaurs, however. TLOUs was fraught with dumb enemies who would blunder into your path, or get stuck in walls – I don’t want to see any raptors deciding it’s fine to stick their heads inside a shipping crate to avoid trouble.

A co-op mode would be good too – but you’d have to force the two players to share resources and actually work together. That is when they’re not fighting off wave after wave of tiny biting critters – or T-Rexes.

So yeah, Naughty Dog, get on it.

What games would you like to see rebooted? Leave a comment..

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 9, 2014

Andy’s Top Ten: Videogame Technology (part two)

More fun with technology… go read part one here.

Number Five: The Ebon Hawk (KOTOR)

Well-shielded, well-armed, well-stocked and well-sexy looking, the Ebon Hawk would be my selection for interstellar transport in an instant. It’s got all the mod-cons – air conditioning, power steering, massive laser cannons – and plenty of room for your band of unruly misfits to jet around the galaxy in.

Number Four: Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (Portal)

This one’s a no-brainer. Having the ability to shoot portals would make everything so much easier. Imagine going shopping, for example. Shoot a portal into your kitchen wall, then drive to your favourite supermarket (preferably in the Ebon Hawk, for added coolness factor).

 

When you get to your chosen grocer, shoot another portal into the floor, and simply drop your purchased goods through – cake, perhaps.
Plus, commutes to work would be made so easy – the London Underground would be out of business overnight.
Just be careful where you shoot your portal – remember, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

Number three: Nanosuit 2.0 (Crysis 2)

Prophet’s Nanosuit is a marvel of technology. Constructed of an alien-derived nanofibre weave, the suit can absorb gunfire, leap to immense heights, turn invisible, run really fast, help you breathe underwater and – crucially – will save your life if you’re essentially otherwise completely dead.
I’m looking at you, Alcatraz.
Imagine having this little puppy on under your work suit. Your lunchtime run would be a right to see, what with you leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Plus, if you head to your local park for a kickabout, imagine the expression of horror on the goalkeeper’s face when you go ‘Maximum Strength’ on a penalty shootout.

Number Two: The Amulet of Time (Prince of Persia: Warrior Within)

Ever had one of those moments when you’ve wanted to turn back time? Perhaps a job interview that went wrong, or that time you got your girlfriend’s name mixed up?
That’s where the Amulet of Time comes in. At the press of a button, you can rewind up to about 15 seconds of time, allowing you to try that line about your skillset and qualifications one more time – this time without the admission that you’re a big fan of Lady Gaga.
Plus, being as you’re carrying the Amulet of Time, and not the Dagger of Time, the government can’t get you for carrying a concealed weapon. Clever, eh?

Number One: Metal Gear Rex (Metal Gear Solid)

Slightly more obvious than the Amulet of Time, and definitely not road-legal, I’d nevertheless like to head out to my garage in the morning and hop into Metal Gear Rex.
Surely stomping about in such an immense weapon of war couldn’t be anything less than the most orgasmic feeling ever experienced by mankind? Plus, since you’re piloting a highly-mobile, bipedal tank with the ability to fire completely undetectable nuclear missiles, you’d be able to end wars with merely a threat – you could bring peace to the world through deterrence.
That is, if you’ll stop pancaking cars for two minutes…

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 6, 2014

Andy’s Top Ten: Videogame Technology (part one)

Ever played a game and thought “Wow, I wish I could do that”? I know I have – and with the advancement of technology, someday I may be able to do all those things our videogame heroes take for granted. Here’s my pick for the top ten best videogame tech I wish I could play with.

Number Ten: ‘Trident’ goggles (Splinter Cell)

NSA agent and all-round badass Sam Fisher’s ‘Trident’ goggles have gone through many variations over the years, but since their first appearance in Splinter Cell, i’ve wanted to own a pair. Granted, you might look a little odd wearing them as you walked down your local High Street, but having the ability to see perfectly at night would more than make up for it.

Stealth suit and bad-boy attitude optional

Stealth suit and bad-boy attitude optional

Plus, if you have the version found in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, you can see through walls using a kind of ‘sonar’. Don’t tell me that wouldn’t be useful for tracking down your missing dog, or if you needed a little help evading your boss at the Christmas party.

Number Nine: Omni-tool (Mass Effect)

Combination lockpick, computer terminal and offensive weapon, Mass Effect’s omni-tool is the ideal device for modern life. Rather than having to carry around your mobile phone, tablet computer and assorted cables, the omni-tool would do all of this and more – and since it’s made of a seemingly hard-light hologram projection, it’s weightless too.
Plus it looks pretty damn cool to boot.
Also, if you happen to be under attack by a race of starfaring battleship-squid hybrids, it can manufacture a handy disposable dagger-like blade – but this is only turned on in times of war, so it’s safe too…ish.

Number Eight: ‘Glass-shield’ cloaking system (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)

The ability to turn invisible on command would definitely rank highly on my scale of useful videogame tech. How easy would it be to escape from your pushy ex-girlfriend, or sneak into that nightclub you don’t have an invite to. In fact, no-one would be able to stop you – because no-one would be able to see you. Genius. (The tech is in the trailer about 2min 10sec in – and this is still one of the best videogame trailers ever…)

 

Granted, you need to surrender your humanity and have a series of high-tech emmiter/transmitters implanted under your skin to make this one work. Also, you need to constantly eat chocolate bars to use the system.

Could be worse…

Number Seven: Harry Potter’s wand

Anything is possible with a magic wand – and if that magic wand happens to be rather good at protecting you from the world’s deadliest Dark Arts user that’s doubly handy. Need a ride? Summon your car. Need some cash? Summon some moolah – what’s not to like?
Plus, you’d be able to milk your skills on talk shows forevermore.

Number Six: Titans (Titanfall)

Big-ass walker bristling with attitude which falls from the edge of space and has the two legs and two arms you’re used to? Sold.
Imagine walking to work in one of these bad boys. Hell, if you work in retail, you’d be able to stack the highest shelves in the supermarket without breaking stride. Then there’s the emergency services to consider – cat stuck up a tree? No problem. Need the roof ripping off a car? Just let me get that for you.

 

Of course, being a super-killy death machine, you might also find a use in the armed forces – but not as much as the big boy in the number one spot.

Read part two! Click here!

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 4, 2014

Andy’s Mad Month

Going three weeks without updating my blog is anathema to me. I’ve been running it since university (an astonishing six years, roughly), and I’ve never gone more than two weeks without updating it with something.

But then, I’ve never worked an air show before.

This year I was sent in my capacity as a sub-editor for Reed Business Information to Farnborough International Airshow for a week and a bit. In fact, the entire office basically upped sticks and moved to Hampshire. Reporters, production, sales, marketing – hell, even the catering staff.

Setting ourselves up in what basically equated to one of those marquee tents you get at weddings – with no toilet and poorly positioned air conditioning – we then proceeded to work our arses off for a week. The movers and shakers from the aviation industry descend on Farnborough to throw their money around, and Flightglobal was on hand to scoop the competition at every turn, and put out a series of daily newspapers – this was my part of the operation.

As a sub, I was part of a team reading reporters’ copy, writing headlines and captions, editing photos and generally keeping things ticking over as we pulled together four daily newspapers (Flight Daily News), and topped it off with a weekly magazine (Flight International). Now, being as the dailies ranged in number from 119 pages to about 70, this was hard work. Throw in another 80-odd page magazine and it became a true struggle.

Reporters and production staff alike hacked away for that week, starting at 7am and typically finishing between 8-10pm. At one point I realised I worked 31 hours in 48, snatching a few hours sleep before reappearing the next morning at 6am, to board a bus and go back to my desk at the show.

But, despite the stress, the noise, the lack of sleep and the constant headaches, I will admit I enjoyed the challenge. I am, I remembered, one of those stupid people who enjoys being stretched to my limit – and after Farnborough, a normal weekly magazine (and the two monthlies I’m responsible for sub-editing) no longer seem the daunting challenge they once were.

That said, I’m not sure I could do such a week from hell more than once a year. Thankfully, Farnborough is a biannual event. That said, however, the Paris air show (a far bigger event, I’m told) is coming up fast. While I don’t know if i’ll be sent or not, I know now what’s expected – and like the work-sadist I am, I’ll be ready to face the challenge again. Just… grumpily.

After Farnborough, and a couple of troubled days at home – I kept waking in a cold sweat at 5am, and panicking I was going to miss the bus to the air show – I flew out on yet another bloody plane to Northern Ireland, where I now have family.

I won’t go into detail, but I will say this – what a beautiful country. I can see many more restful holidays for me out there.

So that’s why I’ve been so tardy in my blog posts. Normal service will resume shortly, entertaining your lunchtimes with nonsense about videogames and geek culture.

It’s good to be back.

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

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