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

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | April 10, 2014

Depths of Fear: Knossus review

Crouched in a dark corner, you can hear the heavy, hoofed footsteps of the beast stalking you. Clutched in your sweaty palms, a doused torch is of little help, and the rusty dagger you pulled from the back of a previous tribute of little solace.

As the beast passes you by, you hold your breath – you’re certain it’s a huge, muscle-bound monster of immense power… or you would be, if the framerate wasn’t so choppy, and you were allowed to light your torch for a minute before being horribly butchered by gremlins in the shadows.

Leaping forward, you aim your blade for the monster’s neck… or you would do, if the controls allowed such accuracy.
Instead, flailing like a drunken loon on a treadmill, you ineffectually pass your blade through the patch of empty air behind the beast – who turns, and kills you instantly.

Such is a typical level of Depths of Fear: Knossus – a missed opportunity for an indie title to remember.

Into the black

Depths of Fear – produced by one-man-band Dirigo Games and Digital Tribe Games – is a Rogue-like adventure set in the labyrinth made famous in Greek mythology. As Theseus, you find yourself tossed into the depths of Crete, and forced to face a series of bosses, acquiring spells and abilities, before facing the Minotaur.

 

As with other titles in the genre, the levels are procedurally generated as you go, and offer their own set of challenges – the first being that the combat controls are awkward to use, and make taking on anything bigger than a demon bunny a seriously irritating challenge.
But I digress.

Dragged from your cell by a pair of mute, badly-rendered guards, Theseus is forced into an amphitheatre, where King Minos orders him cast into the Labyrinth. In text.

It’s funny how not hiring a voice actor can break the illusion somewhat, but seeing a character like Minos ordering me cast down in a small text box consisting of two paragraphs rather broke the fourth wall.

Upon splashing down in a pool of water – or blood, it’s unclear – I quickly discovered a few gold coins, and the convenient shop some enterprising soul had set up to sell weapons and gear.
Because that makes sense.

I also discovered a sword-in-the-stone, which a helpful note informed me was the only weapon capable of killing the Minotaur. First though, naturally, I had to defeat the minor boss-beasties infesting the halls of the Labyrinth.

And so the challenge begins – a dual challenge, I discovered, as Theseus controls like a bipedal tank on ice, and Knossus’s gloomy, buggy halls make what could have been a very scary experience one of constant irritation.

Halls of the dammed

According to the press release, Knossus is “inspired by the imagery and feel of classic Ray Harryhausen Greek epics and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as well as the synthesized soundtracks of John Carpenter”. What this translates to is that the action is buggy, the animation jerky, the score a little too modern for a fantasy dungeon-crawler, and the experience feels like a missed opportunity.
This then, is a great shame – as it’s very, very scary.

With little more than a torch in one hand and a club in the other, advancing through the dark butchering minor monsters is a tense and gratifying experience. The sound design is adequate enough that after a short while you find yourself instinctively hiding at the sound of cloven hoofs, and reacting to the cries of beasts who can slay you where you stand.
It’s just a shame that hitting them is such a pain in the arse.

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I can understand the need to play with light and shadows in the Labyrinth, but at points I got so lost that I had to go back to the hub zone (complete with charming shop) to reorient myself.

Plus, although hiding in the shadows is a 100% necessary move in Knossus, the fact that the smaller beasts can still find you and attack you – even as you hide from the apparently blind big bosses – is annoying.

It doesn’t help that the enemy AI is poor, and clipping is a constant problem. I’ve witnessed Medusae stuck in tables, and the Minotaur himself walking headfirst into a wall. All of which spoils the immersion and tension that the game does so well to create.

Missed opportunities

So the combat is poor, the AI weak and immersion nigh-on-impossible, but I will admit I still had fun in Knossus. The procedural levels are a nice mix of Greek architecture and underworld gloom, with the interplay of shadows and light making adventuring onwards a tense battle between courage and fear.

The score – which is also procedurally generated – is actually pretty well made, if out of place in a historical epic. Sadly though, this is let down by the lack of voice acting, and a pretty poor selection of sound effects. Using one, unending noise for running water gets old fast, and each Minotaur step having but one ‘hoof’ sound is just disappointing.

Conclusion

Overall, Depths of Fear: Knossus had the opportunity to become a scary, challenging indie title – and to be fair, for a one-man development team, it’s not bad. That said, the shoddy controls, poor graphics, bad AI and immersion-breaking bugs drag the title down into the Labyrinth from whence it came, never to be seen again.

Article commissioned by 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 30, 2014

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 preview

Although the beta build of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 (wow… long title, let’s call it Van Helsing) I played was very limited indeed, the time I spent in NeocoreGames’ steampunk-derived world was a real blast.

Picking up after the conclusion of the first game in the series, Van Helsing 2 sees titular witch-hunter and all-round badass Van Helsing – the son of the notorious vampire hunter – once again battling to restore the world to the status quo. Naturally, as this is an action RPG, the way you do this is by strapping on your magical boots of uberkill, and hitting everything nearby with a sword.

Usually I find games like this a little dull – I’m not one for fetch quests, loot gathering or having to save up to buy the green-lined cloak of megamurder – but although I’ve only spent a couple of hours with Van Helsing 2, I was drawn into its mythos instantly.

Class act
Choosing one of the game’s classes (I went for the all-round ‘hunter’, but there’s spellcasters and arco-mechanics as well), the beta dumps you in a dirty industrial zone of the world’s capital city, Borgova, and tasks you with holding back the attacking legions of ‘General Harker’ as he assaults the Viaduct Junction sector.

I’m sure that might mean something to some of you, but all I heard was ‘go hit stuff’ – and so I did.

 

The combat is predictable action RPG fare. As usual, keyboard commands can be mapped to specific keys, and get used to your fingers hurting from having to frantically tap the left and right mouse keys to attack. All the usual inventory and map menus are in the right place, and I can honestly say for once I didn’t find them too overwhelming.

One of the cardinal sins of action RPGs is to overcrowd and confuse the menus, so actually being able to clearly see what the various items I was picking up actually do was a plus. Granted, as this is a closed beta they were mostly labelled ‘Boots V2′, but the various magical effects were spelled out clearly.

Once you’ve got your various attacks mapped out, combat is a breeze. You can link various combo attacks in one menu, and I found it incredibly useful to link melee and ranged attacks as I charged into combat, supported by the townsfolk, and started using the selection of spells in my repertoire to support my frenzied swinging.

Location, location, location
The game’s magic/steampunk setting is well realised – at least it is in the small section of it I got to explore. Giant cogs turn in the depths of the world’s capital city, as the legions of ectoplasmic ghosts, knife-claw wielding fanatics and gun-toting monsters engage in brutal combat with the city’s Cockney rabble. This clash of genres works well, and I had a lot of fun slashing my way through beasties as automated, steam-powered turrets raked them with bullets.

Added to this, the characters seem a broadly enjoyable bunch to spend time with – even though the voice acting is (predictably) a bit shoddy. Van Helsing’s ghostly side-kick Katarina is enjoyably Russian and has some great lines, and the townsfolk quote their one-liners in an amusing array of accents.

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That said, a Phantom of the Opera pun was a little forced – and after hearing it once, I never wanted to hear the NPCs quoting that one line from Skyrim ever again.
You know the one… it involves an arrow… and a lower leg joint…
I know the developers probably think they’re funny, but just… don’t.

Looking good

Graphically, I enjoyed the fidelity offered by Van Helsing 2, even at this early stage of development. The action is all very colourful, with spells and rocket fire throwing splashes of lightning across my screen, and the depths of the city obscured by a pleasing green patina of murk and smoke.

The numbers that flash up as you battle your foes are a constant distraction, however, and make some of the more intense combats rather difficult to follow. I know including the damage details is a big part of these titles, but the font couple simply be a little smaller.

Both the NPCs and enemies are well designed and true to Van Helsing 2′s world. The humans are all wearing clockwork devices and huge hats, while the monsters are a pleasing selection of the bizarre, massive and truly frightening. Although the isometric viewpoint doesn’t allow for a closer inspection of the action, it’s certainly fun to watch, even from a distance.

Conclusion

After spending a little time tramping around the dark corners of Van Helsing’s world, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the full game. Here, I think, is an action RPG that will hold my attention by simply not being a dungeon-crawler, and revelling in its own mythos. Although the closed beta was very closed indeed, I can’t wait to see more of the game and start my own journey in the boots of the deadly Van Helsing.

Whether you’re a newbie to the genre or not, there’s a lot to like here. Plus, if you’re an old-hand at the Van Helsing games, you can import your old character and continue their story, which is a nice touch.

Article commissioned for 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 20, 2014

Retro Reboot: Syphon Filter

They don't make 'em like this anymore...

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore…

Man, did I love the Syphon Filter games. There was just something about their easygoing, intense action which kept me coming back for more – despite the hilariously blocky graphics of the 90s making everything look like it was made out of various shades of cardboard box.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Syphon Filter 2 is one of my favourite games of all time – it was the first in the series I played, and its bold mix of free-roaming (for the time) shooting and strong story hit a nerve in my 15-year-old self’s busy brain.

So, if any game deserves a next-gen reboot, I nominate Syphon Filter – but only if you get the original Gabe Logan voice actor back.
Nobody does ‘gravelly-voiced, monotonal, disinterested secret agent’ quite like him.

 

What made Syphon Filter and its sequels so great (mostly – The Omega Strain wasn’t all that hot), was the pace of each game. You constantly felt like you were being chased, or chasing someone in turn – there were no cover mechanics, all you had was a backpack full of guns and a flak jacket.

That and a taser. A taser with an astonishingly long range and the ability to turn any enemy into a burning pyre of liquified flesh. I dimly remember using only the taser to clear the first game, I remember its distinctive ‘thwoop’ firing noise well.

That and the ‘bloop’ of the grenade launcher of Syphon Filter 2 – the ultimate offensive weapon for competitive multiplayer at the time.

This freedom to run and gun was a feeling recaptured neatly by handheld-only titles Dark Mirror and Logan’s Shadow, which bought back both Gabe Logan and ‘The Agency’ well, but were sadly never ported to more mainstream systems.

Of course, another strength of the series was its plot, which meshed conspiracy theories with terrorist threats, and added in a dose of sexy Russian agent for kicks.

I think anyone who chased Mara Aramov around knows what a pain in the arse she is. And just who the hell did she work for anyhow…

Supersmall superweapon

Naturally, at the heart of the action was Syphon Filter itself – a programmable virus which could target people, or entire races of humanity, on DNA alone. For the 90s, such a weapon seemed laughable, but nowadays, i’d be very surprised if such a tool wasn’t already secreted away somewhere, ‘just in case’.

Granted, it would be a shame to throw away the good work of the previous games, so why not reboot the plot years after the events of Logan’s Shadow, and have players assuming the role of an agent in a reborn Agency – ala Omega Strain, but… good.

Blocky graphics, yes, but great action nonetheless...

Blocky graphics, yes, but great action nonetheless…

You could have Gabe Logan calling the shots, or maybe have him become the bad guy, just to throw longtime fans completely. It certainly couldn’t cause any more fan-rage than rebooting Devil May Cry with a main character whose hair wasn’t a stupid shade of white. (For the record, I liked DMC – a lot.)

Going viral

So, in today’s terrorist-obsessed, ultra-paranoid world of information warfare and bushfire wars, a straight reboot of the venerable shoot-em-up conspiracy thriller would fit in perfectly.

Imagine some crazed warlord getting a hold of a programmable genetic virus, and threatening to use it wipe certain races off the planet – it’s like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, and bound to get hearts pumping.

Combined with this, if you could get the likes of Naughty Dog on side to make the core gameplay, you’d have great shooting mechanics as well. Sure, the Uncharted series’ trademark dry humour would be a bad fit for a reborn Syphon Filter, but Nathan Drake’s fluidity would be a worthwhile addition to a new title. I could even get used to some cover mechanics – I don’t think constantly strafing around your target is going to cut it any more.

Also, with Syphon Filter’s propensity for trotting all over the globe chasing a conspiracy, you could code in some fantastic levels with ease. How about pitting Logan and co against having to escape from a sinking enemy submarine, or remaking SF2′s brilliant train level?

Plus – at the financial level – such a reboot could also be a big money-spinner for publishers. Today’s Call of Duty-obsessed teens would likely find a lot to enjoy in Syphon Filter’s fast-paced shooting, and if you threw in a competitive multiplayer addition, complete with team-based story missions, you could make a mint.

What retro games would you like to see rebooted? Comment below and have your say.

Article originally published at 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 1, 2014

Drunken Robot Pornography Review

Have you ever done a double take? I’m sure we all have, at one point or another. I certainly did when I saw the name ‘Drunken Robot Pornography’.

My initial though was ‘is this something the editor found down the arse-end of the internet’. My second? ‘Whoops i’ve just set off my office’s internet filter by Googling it’…

So, odd name aside, what is DRP? Well… in a word, the one i’d pick is ‘hard’.

This game is ‘throw your mouse out of the window’ hard. The kind of difficulty one gets from knowing you can achieve the goal – but not without two-dozen attempts, and a long-term study of boss behaviour.

Aside from this punishing difficulty, DRP is a horribly beautiful mess of psychedelic nonsense, intermixed with a jetpack, legions of multi-coloured robots and a possible psychotic breakdown.

Titans fall

Ostensibly a ‘bullet-hell’-style shooter, DRP puts you in the space-boots of bar owner Reuben Natsumoto, as he battls hundreds of drones, giant Titan-class bosses and several mechanised ‘centrefolds’ he accidentally created after he gave his robot bartender sentience.

And that’s about it for story. Moving on.

 

Essentially, DRP is a first-personshooter which relies on the player using speed and dexterity to avoid the endless bullets, beams and bombs your foes throw at you, while also challenging you to strategically destroy enemies one after another.

This all takes place in a psychedelically re-imagined city of Boston which seems to be made entirely of neon lights – and is likely to give you a migraine if you play for long enough.

The combination of speed, beautifully esoteric art design and difficultly should make for an ideal ‘bullet hell’ shooter, but for one thing – it’s in first person.

Taking on one of the larger Titan-class robots is where the game starts to fall apart. While taking the enemy apart is as easy as shooting the glowing bits in sequence, it’s a lot harder to do when so much firepower is coming at you.

Sure, avoiding the stuff coming from in front of you is easy enough (understatement of the year, there), but since it’s in first person you obviously can’t see behind you. And this is a deal-breaker.

Shot in the back

Since the arenas of DRP are so big, and the player character so mobile, more often than not enemies that spawn behind you can gun you down with impunity, despite how many of their seemingly endless number you’ve demolished in your front arc of vision.

The game’s punishing difficulty aside, keeping moving is the only way you’e going to survive in DRP when so much enemy firepower is coming from behind you – so the thrill of gunning down a centrefold while bouncing from jump pad to jump pad can be crushed instantly when a tiny drone shoots you in the back, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

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With such an unforgiving challenge ahead of you, getting blasted from behind wrecks the fun.

This is a great shame, as DRP really is a lot of fun. Its fast pace and addictive nature should appeal to any gamer who enjoys a challenge, and though you’re gifted with only one gun (which can be powered up, intriguingly), the blasting is made all the better with the high mobility and beautifully unhinged graphics.

That the developers have made it quite so unfairly difficult is a shame. I can understand the need to make a game a challenge, but surely this shouldn’t be at the expense of the fun to be had for the gamer.

A little more gameplay time can be found in the game’s included ‘Giant Robot Construction Kit’, which allows you to build both bosses and arenas to battle through, but the same issue pops up once again – the wrong viewing angle.

Conclusion

Overall, Drunken Robot Pornography’s stunning art style and challenging, well designed arenas should be a lot of fun blast through (if frustrating at times). However, getting shot in the back and killed gets old fast, and though the high speed nature of the action keeps things thrilling – and it’s always tempting to hit respawn – the game is simply too hard at points, and can quickly become a grind from which it struggles to recover.

Article comissioned by 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | February 21, 2014

Farewell, Irrational Games…

Like Psygnosis before it, it seems Irrational Games is set to sail off into the darkness of memory.

However, unlike the ill-fated G-Police studio, Irrational helmed some of the most beloved games of the seventh console generation, and was all set for a big jump to the eighth.

So, what on earth happened?

“I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it,” said co-founder Ken Levine. “I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two. That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team.

“Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before.”

Levine – one of the key brains behind such titles as Thief, SWAT 4 and System Shock 2 – ostensibly wants to return to a style of games he has had to put aside since his titles went ‘mainstream’.

Quoted across the internet, Levine said: “To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. “In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.”

My question, however, is ‘weren’t you already doing that’?

Ulterior motives?

Irrational was hardly a video gaming titan, in team size at least – it wasn’t a sprawling operation. I think it’s far more likely that Levine was fed up of the pressure from on high (specifically Take-Two Interactive and 2K – the now sole-owners of the BioShock franchise), who no doubt wanted yet another title in the series ASAP.

A victim of its own success?

A victim of its own success?

If that is the case, it’s understandable that Levine might want to cut the strings a little, and focus on what he does best – creating enthralling games, which just happen to be blockbusters.

It’s just a shame that to do that, you have to lay off a number of staff – and all at apparently very short notice. That said, there have been promises that the staff will be helped to find news jobs both within and outside of parent company Take-Two and 2K Games.

That may be little comfort to the staff, however. Having been on the redundancy line myself, I can sympathise.

So what now for the BioShock franchise? 2K already has the ability to make games in the series without Levine’s nod – BioShock 2 is testament to that.

However, that game is also a reminder of what can happen when you drag an IP away from the brains behind it. Far from being a worthy sequel to the brilliant original, BioShock 2 was merely ‘okay’. Sure, it was a fun shooter, but it didn’t exactly break new ground.

“I’m handing the reins of our creation, the BioShock universe, to 2K, so our new venture can focus entirely on replayable narrative,” Levine said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll build something half as memorable as BioShock.”

Whether this will be the right decision remains to be seen.

Universally loved

What was it that made the ‘Shock’ series so memorable and universally applauded, then?
In a word: imagination.

BioShock introduced gamers to the dystopian, underwater ‘paradise’ of Rapture, and had you traipsing through the abandoned hallways, gradually learning the truth behind the barbarism within.
The city truly felt lived in – despite the fact that it was now a wasteland of drugged-up psychopaths and wandering, murderous little girls.

The art-deco style grabbed the eye from the first moment – there were no cloned hallways and blown out buildings here (I’m looking at you, Call of Duty), and even the small touches added to the overall feeling of terror and isolation the game created so well.

I remember studying the placards left on the floor amid the blood and bullets of a brutal repressive regime as soon as I stepped out of the bathysphere: “Let it end. Let us ascend”.

 

The game had you asking questions from the first moment, and drew you into its narrative expertly.

As for the story itself, Levine and co created a deep, disturbing tale that left you questioning your own motivation – and what you’d be willing to do, to do the ‘right’ thing.

Years later, Levine and Irrational once again achieved success with BioShock Infinite, creating arguably an even better game than the original BioShock – complete with mind-bending finale.

Creating worlds

They didn’t craft games – they created worlds, and let the gamers explore at their own pace. That’s something special, in this era of high-octane shooters and shiny racecars.

So, would you kindly all wish Irrational Games a fond farewell.

Whether you’ve been a die-hard ‘Shock’ fan since System Shock’s blocky wonderland, or you’ve only recently ascended to the heights of Columbia, it’s easy to respect a company which worked so hard to make games less about merciless slaughter, and more about the journey.

Thanks for the memories.

Article originally published at 6aming.com

Good times, sadly gone...

Good times, sadly gone…

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | February 10, 2014

Rekoil Review

Rekoil had a simple goal – to resurrect old-time multiplayer first-person arena shooter dynamics, and restore the excitement of an Unreal Tournament “Mmmmmmonsterkill…”

In this aim, developer Plastic Piranha’s ambitious shooter failed – spectacularly.

On the surface, Rekoil is a poor-to-very middling shooter along the lines of Counter Strike. Two teams of interchangeable terrorist-alikes battle over maps covering everything from wooded solitude to a burning oil terminal, blowing chunks out of each other at speed.

Everything is unlocked from the get-go – from loadouts to weapon skins – and after that, it’s just a case of finding the enemy and shooting at them until they stop twitching.
This, of course, is where the game falls apart.

Tumbleweed city

Finding a game on the 50 Rekoil servers isn’t too difficult, but there’s rarely any large number of gamers online.

Those that are in a game find themselves inhabiting a buggy, glitchy mess which feels horribly unbalanced and rushed – and this might explain the declining player base.

 

Whether playing in team deathmatch, regular deathmatch or Rekoil’s dull versions of capture the flag (this time with added briefcase…), the core gameplay is so poor that any fun you could have – and there is a little to be had, trust me – gets sucked out fast.

Spawning, for example, is utterly rubbish. More often than not the game will spawn you in the middle of a firefight, or directly in front of an enemy player, or sometimes inside them (ooh matron), resulting in constant spawn-killing.

Even if you do manage to move off the spawn point, the shot-detection is so generous that vaguely firing in the direction of your foe will normally get a kill – aim a little higher and a headshot is pretty much simplicity.

Then there’s the weapons. While I can’t deny that unlocking all the kit from the off is a rare treat these days, the firepower is extremely unbalanced and requires little skill to use. Sniper rifles are astonishingly accurate, even at short range with no scope in use, and most games quickly degrade to sniper-only matches in just a few minutes.

Shotguns, meanwhile, are useless at short range as the hit detection is spotty at best, while all assault rifles are brilliant at long range – even the ones which state they’re inaccurate at anything over a metre.

This makes most games damn tricky to enjoy, as death is constantly right around the next corner – even more than usual in multiplayer games.

Not a looker

Although the menu interface is pretty neat and tidy – getting into a game needs only a quick click – once you’re in the game, the poor graphics, low framerate and dodgy animations sully the experience.

Shoot, reload, repeat... ugh...

Shoot, reload, repeat… ugh…

Every player character – while customisable – has stereotypical bad/good guy written all over him. Characters look blocky at a distance, and only become marginally less blocky as they stumble closer. Death animations run the gamut from dramatic, bullet-laced backflip to hilarious, sky-launched ragdoll – there’s no realism here.

The weapons, meanwhile, are also blocky, and sound worse – little thought was put into the sound design. The hilarious death screams are a rare highpoint, however, although the hilarity may have been an accident, rather than by design.

But, despite the stream of downers i’ve covered so far, the level design is a rare high point.

On the level

It’s clear the developers have put some thought into angles of fire, and just how sneaky players can be. There’s tight corridors one minute and open plazas the next. Hills and low walls offer a savvy gunman a little cover while strafing around in circles, and bullets blast through open windows as you cower in an abandoned prison block.

Sure, the game lacks the tenets we’ve come to expect of a modern FPS – there’s no destructible environment, perks, killstreaks or drivable vehicles here – but the simple twitch-based shooting makes up for it somewhat.

It’s low-rent, and buggy, but there is still fun to be had. Indeed, at its best, Rekoil captures some of the intensity of old-school multiplayer shooters – it’s just a shame that the rest of the game falls far short of that goal.

The level design is one high point...

The level design is one high point…

I certainly would avoid paying full price for it.

Granted, the inclusion of modding tools could offer a little life to the game, but whether any modder would put their time into such a buggy mess remains to be seen.

Conclusion

Overall, Rekoil could have been a fun, easy to play title which recaptured the easy intensity of Unreal or Counter Strike, but instead falls very short. It’s buggy, glitch, hard to enjoy at its best, and since hardly anyone is playing it, I expect it will go free-to-play very quickly.

“Missed opportunity” doesn’t even start to describe what this game could have been.

Article commissioned by 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | February 1, 2014

Dead Space dead?

I’ve always been a little late to the party when it comes to Dead Space. I missed the original game when it was first released, somehow (despite it being exactly up my street, what with all the space and scary monsters), and I’ve been scrabbling to play the games in sequence ever since.

But having recently finished the third game, it seems the developers and publishers have come to the same conclusion I have – Dead Space has lost its way. And of course, since Dead Space 3 raked in a smaller payday than Electronic Arts predicted, the shareholders are turning their back on the series.

So, is Dead Space dead? Possibly – but like one of the game’s villainous Necromorphs, there’s life in it yet.

Memories of Ishimura

So, what went wrong?

The first Dead Space was a cracking title, a truly scary, shocking, trendsetting experience which channelled Alien and Dawn of the Dead in equal measure. As starship engineer Isaac Clarke, wandering the deserted halls of the immense USG Ishimura was utterly terrifying – especially as the monsters stalking the halls don’t seem to notice being shot with bullets.

So then, the use of dismemberment becomes the key to survival – and your pitiful collection of mining tools are barely enough to do the job

 

Sure, the missions were rather boring at times – ‘Isaac go here’, ‘Isaac fix that’ – but you genuinely felt terror as you worked towards your goal. As for the plot, the clever, twisted mess of it started out as something manageable (relatively) – but as with many EA-produced titles, the next instalment was bigger, but not necessarily better.

The Sprawl

With the original Dead Space being a critical and sales success, Visceral Games quickly put out Dead Space 2 in 2011. The game answered some of the issues which dogged the first title – giving Isaac a voice – and dived much deeper into the bizarre religion of Unitology.

The combat was sharpened, the weapons improved, the enemies made more deadly, but something was nagging at reviewers – it’d all been done before.

The basic format of Dead Space was largely unchanged, other than to throw in a few set-piece, dramatic moments, and try to ramp up the gore.

 

It wasn’t that the game wasn’t scary anymore, simply that we knew what was coming – every air vent was a potential ingress point for a gribbly, and lo and behold, the game became predictable.

The tacked-on multiplayer didn’t help either. It was ‘okay’, but could have been so much more.

Meanwhile, like Assassin’s Creed before it, Dead Space was now being milked as a franchise. There were tie-in movies, badly-ported mobile games and awful on-rails shooters on the Wii – it was all weighing down the core survival-horror nature of the game. Something had to be done.

Marker Homeworld

Dead Space 3 was developer Visceral Games’ and EA’s answer to the game’s declining popularity at this point. Critics were slamming the lesser titles, and sales of the animated movies weren’t great (which is a shame, as they’re really rather good).

With the third ‘main’ game the dynamic changed completely, adding a co-op campaign, weapon crafting and an attempt to wrap up Dead Space’s now completely confusing storyline.

They forgot that Dead Space is a survival horror game, and made it a co-op shooter in line with Army of Two.

That’s not to say Dead Space 3 wasn’t a good game. Far from it. I loved blasting my way through legions of Necromorphs with my combination shotgun/line gun with an electrified exploding blast. I loved the experience of working with my co-op partner, facing off waves of enemies, yelling as we worked to bring down the bigger foes with combined fire.

It was genuinely good fun. There’s just one problem – it’s a Dead Space title, and it was no longer scary.

 

Sure, you could play through the campaign alone, and that recaptured a lot of the isolation and fear the series is known for, but even then, it’s same old-same old.

As for the plot… well… it got ludicrous. Even for Dead Space.

Sales dropped, and EA started to look elsewhere to make their huge piles of cash.

Reanimation

So what now for Dead Space? Having lost the core audience of survival-horror fans and changed the series into a buddy co-op shooter, how best to revive Isaac and friends?

Personally, I feel a back-to-basics approach would be best. Strip Dead Space back to the core action it’s known for. Change the main character completely, for a start – the galaxy is a vast place, there are other tales to tell – and have several storylines and playable characters all rolled into one.

On top of that, include a co-op campaign (because they are a lot of fun, despite the side-effect of making Dead Space no longer scary), and retain the weapon crafting for this mode only.

One of the delights of the first two Dead Space games was the feeling that the mining tools you’re forcing into combat simply aren’t up to the task – the game needs that. Being able to craft the ultimate killing weapon sucks the scrambling-to-kill-your-foes vibe from the game (much like giving all the characters a machine gun, Resident Evil 6…)

So that’s my two cents. What do you think needs to be done to help Dead Space recover? Comment below.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | January 25, 2014

Theatre Review: ‘Lost Boy’

Tucked away in the arches near Embankment Tube station is a small theatre. Inside that small theatre – and for a strictly limited run – is a small musical with big ambitions.

Springing from the pen of Phil Willmott, ‘Lost Boy’ is a new musical set around the familiar characters of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, but also the real-life inspiration for the titular rabble-rouser himself.

Never-NeverLondon

Opening in the Great War, the action sees Captain George Llewelyn-Davies (an excellent Steven Butler, who also plays Pan) – one of JM Barrie’s adopted sons – serving in the trenches, being beaten to a pulp by fear and the never-ending grind of war.
Facing ‘going over the top’ the next day, Davies settles down to sleep, and dreams of Peter Pan – the childhood hero he came to love so dearly.

It’s this dreamworld that the majority of the musical is set in, as Davies juxtaposes the Great War with the pirate-battling troublemakers, now all grown up and living in London.

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What follows is a surprisingly well-written musical which mixes youthful fancy with the darker nature of both Pan himself and the horrors of World War One. The Lost Boys, now adapted to London life (mostly – they still like a scrap on a Friday night), welcome their returned leader with gusto, finding that Pan – who is still charmingly ignorant of real life – needs a hand adapting to the real world.

Pan quickly reacquaints himself with his now-adult friends, finding that bookish John Darling is now a devotee of Carl Jung (the noted psychotherapist), and little Michael has become a trapeze artist, and has made a number of ‘discoveries’ of his own.

Tinkerbell, meanwhile, has fallen on hard times – but continues her ragged campaign to tear down Wendy and steal Peter.
As for Captain Hook? (a spooky Andrew C. Wadsworth) Well… Lord Kitchener would be proud…

How best to be a man?

Pan also needs some pointers for wooing the heart of the now beautifully adult Wendy Darling (a clear and crisp Grace Gardner), who cannot see the boy for the man he could be. To rectify this perceived inability to ‘be a man’, Pan and his merry men enlist – and this is where the story takes a turn for the darkness.

The third act sees Pan and his Lost Boys on the front, and is a chilling comparison between Pan’s vigour and excitement, the realities of war and the events of the Great War itself.

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The audience’s attachment to the Barrie’s beloved characters allows an insight into the horrors of war which has a poignancy all of its own, and as Captain Davies wakes once again, the dream world he escapes from and the real one he wakes in collide in a touching moment of humanity.

Aside from the plot, some 20+ songs carry the action onward, most of which are thoroughly enjoyable. The considerable number does occasionally derail the action, however, and I would of dropped at least five and had a little less singing, and a little more exposition.
Dreamworld or not, you don’t need to sing about everything every two minutes.

There are, however, a few numbers which left me wanting to pick up the soundtrack – especially John Darling (a delightfully nerdy Richard James-King) singing of Jungian Dream Analysis – the opening to the second half, and a good spirit-lifter for the inevitable crush of World War I’s sheer insanity.

In the trenches

The stage, though small, serves the purposes of the story well, and the musical score – provided in part by three live musicians – slips in well to both the real and dream worlds. The sound on the principals’ mikes could have done being turned up though, as they were occasionally drowned out by the trio playing loudly at the back of the stage.

As for the rest of the cast, they were all obviously enjoying themselves, and the cosy confines of the Charing Cross Theatre allowed each one to show their acting chops, which they do with aplomb. Bravo, all of you.

Final Act

‘Lost Boy’ is a thoroughly enjoyable romp with some excellent writing, strong actors and an enjoyable score.
It’s well worth a look, whether you’re a Pan-fan or not, and since its run here in the Capital is limited, you’d best think a happy thought and fly on down soon.

7.5/10

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