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The “official games” of major sporting events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup have traditionally been terrible. Short on polish or features, the games have felt like they were made on the basis that people were buying them more as a souvenir and without any regard for whether they provided any actual entertainment.

EA Sports FIFA World Cup 14

“Official” games have often had wonderfully rendered stadiums but offered very little interest inside of them.

I had heard however that the 2010 FIFA World Cup game was actually quite good. So I decided to make the investment this time and see how the game is. The short answer is that it is a good game, but you can get that from any other review. What I am going to look at here, is whether the game actually makes the whole ‘experience’ of the World Cup better.

In my opinion, there are two main things that a game like this needs to do. Prior to the tournament it needs to enable you to get ready and hyped up about the games ahead, and during the tournament it needs to allow you to play the games you are about to/just watched as realistically as possible.

This game achieves both of those very well.

Prior to the tournament

The obvious thing which the game needed to do out of the box was make it possible to play through the World Cup tournament. Unsurprisingly, it does this quite well. All the basic things are there, the stadiums, fixtures, the 32 qualified teams and their correct uniforms.

Beyond that, it also needs to make it possible to play through the tournament with a few “what if” situations, for example, you should be able to play through with teams that didn’t actually qualify, or using players for whom your personal attachment doesn’t match the opinions of the actual real-life manager (e.g. Carlos Tevez). The first part of this it does quite well, pretty much every single nation in world football is represented. Unfortunately it isn’t so good on the latter. The squads for nations, while larger than the final 23-man selections, don’t go far and have some strange omissions, so you can’t call up Tevez for Argentina.

Want to experience the World Cup the way it is in Zlatan's head, now you can!

Want to experience the World Cup the way it is in Zlatan’s head, now you can!

In addition to enabling you to play the finals tournament itself, the FIFA World Cup game put a lot of attention into telling the story of the qualifiers. This is a common inclusion, but always a bit interesting, since qualification was well over by the time the game came out.

The game presented qualification in not one, but two ways. Firstly, it allows you to play a complete qualification campaign with any team from any confederation. The best part of this was the presentation, which came complete with excellent radio commentary between the games, talking through the significance of each match and providing general interesting banter. The low point of the qualifying campaign is that there are apparently some nations, particularly in North America, where the scheduling is broken, so they can’t actually qualify for the World Cup. A fairly fatal flaw, made reasonable only by the fact that those nations are for the most part the smallest of minnows.

The other qualification-related mode is the “Story of Qualification”, a series of scenario-based games which cover over 50 of the most interesting and significant games of the qualification campaign. For example, it allows you to play both sides of the decisive playoff game between Sweden and Portugal. For anyone who has played FIFA games in the last few years, these scenarios should be familiar from the game of the week scenarios that you get – typically they boil down to needing to score a crazy number of goals in a very short amount of time.

The Story of Qualification mode allows you to play through some of the great games and performances of the qualifying campaign.

The Story of Qualification mode allows you to play through some of the great games and performances of the qualifying campaign.

The game genuinely has absolutely helped me build hype and excitement for the tournament. I have played through three world cup tournaments, full European and South American Qualifying, plus a large number of scenarios. Between these, I have been able to get a much deeper understanding of the squads and how they have made it to Brazil. In particular the Story of Qualifying scenario mode was excellent. I don’t think many people, even fairly serious fans, ever truly get an idea of what qualification is like in confederations beyond their own. But now I feel I have a fairly good idea.

During the Tournament

As I hinted earlier, in my opinion the key function of the game during the tournament is to allow you to “play along”. Again, this is something that the game does quite well.

Firstly, it was quite easy to set up a tournament in such a way that I can play the World Cup as every team. This allows my mates and I to play an “alternate reality” version of the tournament where we play every game between us and see how it goes. As it turns out, our version is a little less interesting, the first three games were draws and then Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0.

It is also very easy to play one-off games. You can pick your teams, pick the right stadium and even select the right round of the completion (group stage, quarter final etc). The teams are quickly and regularly updated for injuries and current form, so if you want to play out tonight’s big game, or get revenge for last night, you can do that well. You just might struggle sometimes, because Casillas will probably be as bad for you as he was for Spain.

With regular form updates you too can put five goals passed Casillas in the World Cup.

With regular form updates you too can put five goals passed Casillas in the World Cup.

Finally, they have also extended the scenario system through to the Finals, called, unsurprisingly, “Story of the Finals”. Within hours of each day’s games finishing, they put up scenarios which allow you to play out the morning’s action. Sometimes this is about repeating reality, such as coming back against Japan as the Ivory Coast, and other times it is about changing it, such as winning the game as Australia, or making Argentine put four goals past Bosnia. In general this is excellent. I applaud them for making them available so quickly, and unlike in previous games, making them available permanently – previously they would just have the previous night, so you could miss out if you didn’t play them immediately.

I do find however that the whole “score lots of goals in a short time” which most scenarios tends to boil down to is not only samey, but also quite annoying, and only representative of the attacking aspect of a game. I often find I have to play the scenarios at a much easier difficulty level than I normally do, simply to make it possible to achieve without replaying the scenario 100 times.

I wish that they would make the scenarios either much longer, or much shorter. Allowing you to play the entire opening game with the objective “Win as Brazil” with bonus points for doing so without conceding a goal would allow you to actually appreciate the ebb and flow of the game. Alternatively cutting the scope right down to “Replicate Neymar’s stutter-step penalty” would show-off little features like that in the game which you otherwise might not notice or use. In both cases, it would also make it easier to simply enjoy playing the scenarios at my normal level, rather than have to get bored hammering in goals against the dumbest version of the AI simply to get through them.

Conclusion

Despite a few minor foibles, the game genuinely does make the whole World Cup experience more enjoyable!

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It’s been mentioned before on this blog that Tropico is my favourite game/series of games in the world. Shortly I will be reviewing the recently released Tropico 5, but before I do that, lets quickly recap how the series has developed thus far.

Taverns of Tropico

The taverns of Tropico, Top left – Tropico, top right – Tropico 2, bottom left – Tropico 3, bottom right Tropico 4

Tropico – 2001

It’s important to remember that the Tropico series dates back to a time when building/management sims were actually AAA games. Games like Sim City, The Sims, Railroad Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon were all serious franchises that dominated shelves and discussions.

Tropico was from the makers of Railroad Tycoon and came into that market offering a quirky island version of a sandbox management sim. You picked a historical dictator (or created one of your own complete with backstory, talents and flaws) and tried to survive ruling a Caribbean island, complete with lush plants and impeccable Cuban music for the allotted 50 years. Your final score was based on not only how big and wealthy your island was, but also how much you managed to stash away in your Swiss bank account.

It was a remarkably deep simulation. You were forced to adapt your approach to economic growth in each game based on the skills of your dictator and the available resources of the island. As your island took off, immigrants would arrive looking to take advantage of the jobs and general idyllic lifestyle offered by your tropical paradise. Every one of these migrants had needs, a family and political leanings And so began your political problems. You needed to find ways to keep enough of them happy to survive regular elections, or risk being voted, Survivor style, off the island and into an instant game-over failure.

It was also a very small game. Unlike other similar games which could go for weeks, a game of Tropico was a pleasant 3-4 hours. Your island and population were also very small, around 200-600 citizens. It felt like everyone and their family mattered. With such a small population you seldom had enough time, money or construction workers to build everything the game had to offer.

This gave the game an amazing truthiness, you really felt like you were running a small, petty little island. Rather than gaming everything to min-max your economy and work out the perfect build order for everything, you instead would spend the whole game dealing with a list of strangely realistic problems. These might include winning a string of elections through micromanaging faction politics or dealing with rebels who would hide out in the jungles before attacking your favourite cigar factory. Most feared of all was trying to wrestle control over the economy back from the World Bank, who insisted on taking control of citizen wages (and hence general happiness) if the island went too far in the red. None of these were preset challenges or scenarios, they were just what happened to occur due to whatever area of the island’s development needs you weren’t quite able to keep up on.

Your problems might also be much smaller. In keeping with the island feel, Tropico managed to capture the idea of lazy tropical island life. Rupert the dockworker was going to go to the pub, go home, go to church and get his shots at the clinic no matter what. If that meant he wasn’t around when the trade ship came in, well, he’d help out on the next one. This made you care, to a ridiculous degree, about Rupert’s daily life.

Unfortunately, that significance of individual citizens was also the source of the game’s biggest frustrations, as an entire regime could be brought down because Pedro the 48 year old teamster died of a heart attack while pushing his wheelbarrow containing two years of cigar production down to the docks.

The combination of a quick, deep game that just felt perfect made Tropico being what I described as a “booty call” game. I would just get these random cravings to play one or two games, and then put it away for another couple of months.

 

Tropico 2: 2003

Tropico 2

Tropico 2 – completely different look and setting to the rest of the series.

In hindsight, Tropico 2 is very much the odd one out in the series. Unlike all the others, which take place primarily between the Cold War and today, Tropico 2 was set during the golden age of piracy.

Essentially you played the role of a pirate king. You provided a safe port and various ‘services’ to pirates who would go out, plunder the seas and bring back their treasure to spend and store on the island. By making them happier, and providing merchants to kit them out with cutlasses and parrots, you increased the potency of the pirate fleet, who in turn would be more successful and bring back more loot.

To complicate things, you essentially had two different populations. The aforementioned pirates stayed on the island, drank, visited bawdy houses and generally desired a good amount of “anarchy”. The other population were captives, who actually did all the work serving the alcohol, building buildings and providing, well, personal services. They were borderline (perhaps not so borderline in some cases) slaves who needed to be kept in check with “order”.

To explain the quotation marks, “Order” and “Anarchy” were actually a kind of aura generated by buildings and decorations. Brothels and taverns created the “anarchy” atmosphere that the pirates craved. Alternatively, making the place look like the set of Game of Thrones with the gratuitous placement of gallows and skeletons provided the necessary “order” to keep the captives in line. It was frankly a strange system, which was downright problematic with respect to captives who had to work in the pirate areas. It is a good thing that this design feature didn’t make it into any of the other Tropico games, but it did at least have the aesthetically pleasing effect of making you develop areas of the island a bit like a theme park.

A final, tiny creative flourish which I particularly enjoyed was the ability to name many of the buildings on the island. This allowed you to really add character to your game as Pirates visited the SCUMM Bar or the Llama and Pickle.

Most important in the context of the Tropico series was that Tropico 2 was primarily built around a campaign. The campaign was a series of islands and scenarios that took you from your first little island through to a bustling pirate stronghold. This was to be an idea that would dominate subsequent games.

Tropico 3: 2009

It had been a long time between rum-based cocktails when Tropico 3 was released in 2009. PopTop the original developer ceased to exist in 2006 and it was generally assumed that we would never see another game. Somehow however the Tropico franchise found itself in the hands of a Bulgarian game developer called Haemimont Games.

Tropico 3

Tropico 3 – a visually stunning reboot/reskin of the original

Much as I loved the original two games, I was very nervous about how good the game could possibly be. Although I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that it was now coming out of a nation with relatively recent experience of dictatorship.

Fortunately I had no need to be worried. This was still Tropico, lush, green and infected with a terminal case of the mambo. Haemimont had been extremely faithful to the original, and most of the buildings, edicts and mechanics were identical to what they had been in 2001. As we wrote at the time

“It looks better, runs better and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs”

Of course, after 8 years, presentation was a notable upgrade. The game was now fully in 3D and had an impressive day/night cycle. There was also a bunch of really nice touches. Your Presidente was now an entity in-game who could visit buildings to improve production, or stand on the balcony of the palace to deliver speeches. And OMG the radio. I loved the addition of the radio. Tropico had always had amazing music, but now it was delivered interspersed with quirky radio DJ commentary on how life was going on the island. Simply awesome.

El Presidente

El Presidente is now a customisable avatar who appears in the game world. Here he is portrayed by a greaser in a top hat.

Then there was the addition of vehicles, which completely transformed the game cosmetically and structurally. By dramatically reducing travel times it solved the “Pedro’s heart attack” issue mentioned earlier. Vehicles also made it possible to develop an entire island, rather than being trapped in the tiny corner that Rupert could reasonably walk to. Incidentally, and a little ironically, it also finally enabled your island to look like the opening sequence to the original Tropico.

There were negatives to the change however. With larger islands and populations, now easily over 1000 people, faction politics became significantly less personal. The game transformed from being about appeasing 200 or so people on an island into a game about supply chains and traffic management. Essentially it went from being a ginormous game of The Sims into being a tiny version of Railroad Tycoon.

The balance was also completely different. Where previously a larger island made life really tough politically, in Tropico 3 your island could just keep growing in a state of perpetual happiness once you nailed down the economy and traffic flow. Now you pretty much could, and would, build every possible building and solve every possible problem in each game. Tropico had turned from a pretty but flawed banana republic into an utopia.

This probably would have made for quite a dull sandbox game, which may be why they decided to take the scenario idea from Tropico 2 and run with it. The game now became very much about building an island according to the requests and parameters provided by the game, more so than the resource availability or needs of the island.

Despite these changes, it felt like the developer had Tropico 3 was a refined but faithful homage to the original game.

Tropico 4: 2011

Tropico 4 felt like it was when the developer really started to commit to the idea that Tropico could be a significant commercial franchise.

Despite the fact that the two games looked very similar, Tropico 4 was a lot more sophisticated in almost all areas. The roads and traffic elements were balanced and no longer needed the obsessive control that they did in the previous version. The campaign was longer, more detailed and structured around a cast of jokey voice acted characters like Reverend Esteban the drunken priest and Brunhilde Van Hoof, a spoof of Margaret Thatcher.

The game also had a large amount of downloadable content (DLC). The previous games, going all the way back to the original each had expansions, but this time there were also ten small $5-15 packages that typically provided a building, a new scenario and some cosmetic changes.

In terms of actual gameplay, not much was different. The main change was the introduction of progress over time. Certain buildings would only become available later in the game. This continued the trend of increasing the potential island population size and reducing the importance of the island’s resources. By the end of the game you replaced your traditional resource gathering and dwellings with aesthetically ridiculous biofarms and ziggurats which enable you to house and feed a population the size of Shanghai on Nauru.

Tropico 4 ziggurat

The ziggurat – a visually ridiculous addition to your island utopia.

Another change, not huge in terms of gameplay, but significant in terms of the series was adding a sense of character development to your Presidente. While previous games had you pick a series of talents and flaws – eg an administrative genius with flatulence and a gambling problem, you now picked from traits which would “level up” and provide more powerful effects as you played more games. Now even Presidente could be perfect.

Conclusion

Tropico has evolved and developed much like one of the islands it lets you run. At the beginning it was a tough, tight little political simulation in which, like Civilization 5, you had to balance the strengths of your leader with the resources available to you. Islands were small and your objectives were focussed purely on satisfying the needs and desires of each citizen if you hoped to finish the game and not get voted off the island.

Over time the gameplay has experienced somewhat of an urban sprawl. By Tropico 4 it has become a game about managing traffic and supply chains to build incredibly large and densely populated cities. Winning/finishing the game is now achieved by completing a series of pre-ordained quests. It now feels like an anachronism that it is possible to lose the game instantly by losing an election, not that it is ever likely to happen since it is now also possible to build a tropical utopia ruled by the most talented person on the planet.

That could be characterised as an evolution into a more focussed, tightly designed game with a defined and desirable objective. All of which are good things and make Tropico 3 and 4 games I love to go back to on a regular basis. And to be honest the original Tropico, like many retro games, is now practically unplayable due to its old bugs and limitations.

But I do miss the days of seeing if an entrepreneurial former-nightclub singer with a severe case of kleptomania could survive ruling an island of 150 religious nutters.

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I’ve just finished three delight-filled weeks of gaming with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

This was entirely expected. AC4 was pretty much guaranteed to be a good time.

Image

Hijinks on the high seas

For starters, as the title of this blog may indicate, I love pirate games in general. Over the years, I’ve managed to enjoy some pretty mediocre pirate games – including almost all the Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-ins, simply because they reminded me of Monkey Island.

So suffice to say, AC4 was set up to succeed. It was my first game on the PS4 so it was almost certain to be a stunning game, showing off rich tropical environments on the most powerful computing hardware I’ve yet connected to my TV. Furthermore, I already knew that I enjoyed their sailing/naval combat mechanics from ACIII.

I’m sure I was not alone on many if not all these points.

For many games and game designers that would have been enough, but unlike many of its pirate protagonists Assassin’s Creed 4 does more than profiteer from easy wins.

The gameplay is excellent. Tight, focussed and with enough high-seas swashbuckling to keep me interested for 50 hours. I can’t give it any higher commendation than to say that this was the absolute first game where I’ve gotten 100% across all the challenges and collectables. Quests, location of collectables, reasonableness of the additional challenges and the level design were all extremely well designed and executed.

I really have to talk about the shanty system too. Simultaneously one of the best collectables and music implementations I’ve ever seen in a game. The shanties are essentially little pages strewn around the world that you have to chase through the wind, it’s basically a test of your parkour skills as you sprint across rooftops and tree-branches to catch them. But, best of all, once you catch one you have a little double-entendre laden sea shanty to read. Even better, your sailors sing from the list of the shanties you’ve collected while you sail around! I’ve never come across a collectable that contributed to an audio cosmetic before.

Beyond the level design, they also deserve massive commendation for the world they have created. The game steers clear of pirate cliché’s, hardly an Arrr! is uttered as the game instead sticks to a quite historical portrayal of the period – including a cast of characters straight out of the seminal 1724 tome A General History of the Pyrates.

While many characters seem motivated, pretty much unavoidably, by gold, booze and women, the game does also make some effort to fall on the right side of social issues. It deals with the slave-trade history of the Caribbean, including a substantial part of the main story and making the liberation of slaves the central focus of both the single-player DLC extensions that currently exist to the game.

AC4 even does a decent job at having a pair of strong female characters, and just, barely, passes the Bechdel test. And importantly, despite being a sailor, the main character doesn’t make cringingly lewd passes at every lady he sees. It’s not enough to call it a feminist game by any stretch, but it’s not a laddish game like GTA either.

It does somewhat undo its good work in the moral/social conscience stakes by encouraging you to harpoon whales.

Moving on to the storyline. As pirate yarns go, it starts out a little dull, but really picks up as it goes along. It’s the classic tale of man finds ship, man wants treasure, man meets shark, man finds treasure, treasure turns out to be different from what man expected, man needs to save the world from what he unearthed by finding the treasure. It’s a good enough tale, and putting the Assassin’s Creed twist on top of a pirate yarn prevents it from being too derivative.

One of the problems is that I found the main character Edward Kenway to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He has very simplistic motivations that don’t really develop much through the game. You never really feel like you ‘know’ him, although to an extent that does make it a little easier to project yourself into the role. Fortunately, the other major characters are much better and you develop quite an attachment to some of them. Setting up Blackbeard, who by most accounts is one of history’s great psychopaths as a sympathetic character was an interesting, brave and ultimately quite rewarding decision.

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Just some of the motley cast of characters in AC4

But something irked me. Unlike Arkham Asylum, where I really felt like I was Batman, or the Saboteur where I felt I was back in wartime Paris, I never felt like I was a pirate of the Caribbean. This was surprising because on paper a game which allows ample opportunities to unbuckle your swash in a historical world should have been an easy sell. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, I attribute this primarily to two things, the overall feel of the world, and the way the central character progresses.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the game world is probably the most beautiful, historically accurate representation of the golden age of piracy ever developed for a game. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t quite feel alive? This is a game that has largely missed the current trend for ambient/environmental storytelling. While the larger locations like Havana, Kingston and Nassau do have distinct and recognisable architectural styles which contribute to the overall feel of the Caribbean, the little villages around the world felt very same-y, existing only as a source of collectibles and side missions. This was not a Bethesda or MMO-style game where every town has a storyline and progression of its own. With the exception of Nassau which does transform along with the main storyline, none of the other locations were really anything more than a place to visit.

The shipping suffered a similar malaise of pointless presence. Aesthetically it was amazing, you sail along and see ships with their national colours, occasionally even engaged in combat with each other. But as you watch them more closely the illusion is quickly broken. Ships seem to just be sailing aimlessly around, you never really get the sense that the various treasure fleets were going anywhere, or that you’d be able to get more rum by striking shipping near a port with a rum distillery rather than somewhere else. Instead there is a simple mechanic that the various regions of the ocean have ships of differing type, nationality and level, and that’s basically the extent of the variability. Even Sid Meier’s Pirates back in the black and white days had a treasure fleet which had to be tracked as it travelled across the Caribbean.

And then there’s the progression. Both your character and your ship develop in a very quick, linear fashion. You acquire resources, mainly gold, from quests and piracy and then purchase upgrades like better swords and pistols for yourself and cannons and hull siding for your ship. Within about 10 hours of playing the game both I and my ship were far superior to anything around me, meaning that there was little tension. So much so that I wound up accidentally taking one of the toughest forts in the game really early on. It shot at me, I shot back, 10 minutes later it was all over.

Character and ship customisation is a similar story. There’s a reasonable amount of options for outfits, sails and ship figureheads, which normally would allow me to make a character feel like my own, but I just never got there. This may have been partly because it was very much a case of choosing from pre-set options, rather than being able to do anything really creative like design a flag, or choose a combination of hat and coat. Not to mention the fact that it is simply impossible to find an outfit that looks equally at home behind the wheel of a ship and on top of a church steeple.

Assassin's Creed 4 outfit inconsistency

I can only assume the hat is glued onto his head.

So overall, it’s a great game. If I was scoring it on the traditional graphics, story, gameplay type categories then it would seriously be hard to give it anything short of perfect scores across the board. But unfortunately it’s like playing a game on the set of a movie. Everything looks perfect, almost too perfect, but inhabit the world for any length of time – something that you really want to do with this game – and you quickly start to see that there isn’t quite as much behind the façade as you initially thought.

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I didn’t go into God of War III expecting an entirely new experience.  Coming hot on the heels of Bayonetta, even if  developer Sony Santa Monica had’ve  tried something entirely different it probably would’ve fallen flat on its face in the wake of the exhuberant style and fast paced action that Platinum‘s game exuded in spades.  So while God of War III follows a path well-trodden, that path to Mount Olympus , as it turns out, is one made mostly of gold.

God of War III is the final game in Sony Santa Monica’s trilogy that follows Kratos’ persistent war against the Gods of olympus, and the game starts off fittingly, as Kratos heads toward the final battleground with Zeus and his crew of pissed off gods.  To say that the game feels like a conclusion right from the get-go is a severe understatement – think of the start of this game as something akin to the Allies landing on Omaha beach in World War II.  Just as in the previous two games (and the fantastic Chains of Olympus on Sony’s handheld) God of War III has you controlling Kratos as he mames, decapitates, disembowels and de-eyes his way through endless legions of enemies based on ancient Greek mythology.  Everything from Minotaurs to Centaurs and from Chimeras to Cerberii are represented in God of War’s bestiary.  While there’s not a whole lot new in the way of enemy types, the new enemies that are in the game add some very nice multi-staged fights into the mix, with the Chimera probably being the stand out newbie.  Although some of the enemy behaviour has changed from previous entries in the series, Kratos’ fighting style with his standard ‘blades on chains’ moniker definitely hasn’t, and again as with those games, the secondary weapons fail to form a permanent part of your battle plan, even if the Nemean Cestus’ are rather fun to use.  If you played the hell out of the first two games, chances are, you’ll slip right back into the rhythm of the combat relatively quickly.  In fact I found myself falling back into the swing of things so much so that I found the game on its default difficulty to be a much easier game than its predecessors, and in fact much easier than similar games in the genre.  This potential lack of balance of combat (albeit in your favour) shows up no more so than in the boss battles, where a simple strategy of spamming with a simple combo will do the trick in most cases.  This isn’t by any means a criticism of the game, but be warned that if you’re looking for a challenge, you’re not going to find it here.  But for most fans of the series, the familiarity of the tried and true combat will be enough to gain enjoyment from the game.

Kratos hates when people watch him dismember his enemies over his shoulder.

What seperates God of War III from the rest of the series is its incredible sense of scale.  Not that the other games in the series didn’t have scale, in fact at the time the sense of scale was indeed what separated them from the rest of the action game pack even back in 2005, but everything they did is bigger, better and overall more realised in God of War III.  At times, Kratos’ battles against the armies of Zeus seem somewhat secondary to what else is happening on the screen, and the primary role that the Titans play in the overall plotline of the game allowed the developer to create some incredible dynamic environments for Kratos to wage his own personal war in.  A major part of this can obviously be attributed to the fact that the PS3 is streets ahead of its predecessor in terms of power.  But it feels like the developer really pulled every trick out of the proverbial hat in order to create something that fans would be willing to accept as the final chapter in Kratos’ tale.

For the most part, the game does a great job of keeping the momentum going by introducing new and varied areas into the mix.  Its just a shame that around eight or nine hours into what will probably be around thirteen hours for the average player, the game falls into routine of uninspired environments and often tedious environments and level design.  Luckily the very end sequence of the game is satisfying enough to redeem these weaker parts of the game, so much so that despite some very by the numbers game play for three or so hours, by the end of the game I had forgotten about the negatives and was ready for another play through on the hardest difficulty mode.  Although it is worth mentioning that although the game itself has tight controls that are easy to pick up for a newcomer, the double-jump at times felt unresponsive and was probably responsible for half of my deaths in the game.  So prepare yourself for some often frustrating platforming sequences.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about God of War III is that despite its flaws, some of which are annoying enough to mention in short conversations about the game, I was hooked by the cool blend of action, exploration and decent storytelling from the moment I loaded up the game.  Although God of War III isn’t going to set the world on fire with new ideas, gameplay mechanics or control schemes, what it does do is give every game from this point onward something to aim for, not just in terms of sheer production values (this is one pretty game), but also in how to treat a critically and commercially loved franchise.  God of War III is one of the more impressive games of this generation, but the formula is starting to wear thin, so kudos to Sony Santa Monica for doing dignified thing and finishing off Kratos’ story with the release of the third game. It is certainly a fitting end to a playstation legend and a game that I would recommend all but the most sensitive gamers pick up.

OG

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After around 15 hours of game time, I can safely say that Final Fantasy XIII was worth the wait.  Put all the criticism that has been festering on this here playground we call the internet aside, and you’ve got a mighty fine game.  The first thing I certainly noticed was how stunningly beautiful the game is.  Everything from the glisten of particles in the air as you traverse the epic environments to the impressive architecture contained near Lake Bresha feels every bit as special as Balamb Gardens did in Final Fantasy VIII more than ten years ago.  The truly fantastic thing is, you have a degree of control over the camera, so none of the effort the developers put into adding spectacular detail to the world goes to waste.

The second thing I noticed is how epic the soundtrack is.  Of particular note is the minor boss battle tune, Saber’s Edge, which really does manage to create the feeling of heroism that, thus far at least, the story is trying to convey.

I don’t particularly like to talk smack about games – and every game has its detractors, but I am having some trouble understanding why this particular entry in the series is stirring such debate among Final Fantasy fans (and why people that don’t play Final Fantasy games feel the need to weigh in on the issue).  I guess I tend to expect something different from each iteration – and to be honest, its not exploration, towns or over-world maps that draws me to these games, its the battle system. And in that regard, for mine Final Fantasy XIII absolutely succeeds, because the Paradigm Shift and chain systems are a whole lot of fun and adds a whole lot of depth and strategy to fights.  Its awesomely reminiscent of Final Fantasy X-2’s (that’s Ten-two) dress sphere system; which frankly is an underrated gem of a battle system.  So for what its worth, Final Fantasy XIII is definitely living up to my somewhat open expectations. And all that coming from a man who considers Final Fantasy IX the best game in the series.  So talk of Final Fantasy XIII changing things up too much, be damned.

On the downside though, I wish Vanille would die – maybe its that god-awful Australian accent.  Do we really sound like that?….

Final Fantasy XIII <www.siliconera.com>

This is a rather bleary-eyed late night rant – it may not make any sense, but hey that’s rather indicative of my erratic thought process a lot of the time.  For a more coherent and insightful view on the equivalent of the gaming world’s Avatar, visit Gamespite, a site run by Jeremy Parish, editor at 1UP.com.  Personally I think it contains some of the best discussion of Final Fantasy XIII around.

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Loading Bioshock 2 onto my machine, was like being an Olympic athlete travelling to a new bobsleigh course.  On one hand, there is an expectation of “sameness.”  You start at the top, end at the bottom and experience only minor variations of scenery and twists in between.  But at the same time, there’s a fear and apprehension.  You’ve made it through previous courses all right, albeit with some scrapes, but could this be the one that brings it all to an icy… hmmm, this is an overly dramatic opening.  Suffice to say, the previous Bioshock was very hyped and ultimately slightly disappointing, and after 6 months of almost sublime gaming I was a little nervous that this might be the unexpected snowman at the end of that excellent run.

Happily, Bioshock 2 is a good game and playing it start to finish (as I did) is an almost perfect use of a wet weekend.

Now, in order to talk about this game properly I’m going to need you to know what happened in the original back in 2007.  Here’s the basic idea of the original, needless to say, spoilers will abound, but you won’t care.  If you somehow resisted the hype and didn’t play the game back when it came out then honestly there’s no chance you’re going to get into it now.

In Bioshock 1, your character arrives, after a plane crash, at a lighthouse in the North Atlantic.  On further investigation you find a bathysphere that lowers you into an underwater city called Rapture.  This city was founded by Andrew Ryan on some very firm Ayn Rand derived principles that people are entitled to the sweat of their own brow and should be able to benefit from their work without being held back by things like taxes, morality and national duty.  The city rapidly made some very important discoveries and developments, specifically ADAM which is a chemical/biological substance derived from an underwater slug.  It enables almost limitless editing of people’s DNA and is used to give them superpowers and the ultimate plastic surgery.  It also turned out to be highly addictive.  Everything fell apart, and by the time you get there the place is over-run by junkies called “splicers” (think Heidi Montag) who live to get hits of ADAM.  ADAM is a rare resource but can be extracted from dead bodies of enhanced individuals using a complicated procedure involving little girls, called “Little Sisters”, who have been morphed with the ADAM slugs and go around drawing blood from the bodies, and ingest it to extract the ADAM.  To protect the little girls while they perform this important duty there are gigantic “Big Daddies” who defend the Little Sisters against the splicers or anyone with a flesh coloured beard.  Your character goes through this world, gains a lot of ADAM through either harvesting or releasing the Little Sisters (unfortunately killing a lot of Big Daddies either way), becomes extremely powerful, and ultimately overthrows Ryan and all the other people of power in the world.  Woohoo!

The original Bioshock had a brutal but remarkably detailed world.

I was among the many people who felt that the original Bioshock did not easily lend itself to a sequel, but I was wrong.  That mistake came from thinking that a sequel would need to revive the stories of the original characters who had largely exhausted their narrative potential by either dying or leaving Rapture.  Instead, they took a much more intelligent option and simply made a sequel to the story of Rapture.  This in itself is quite original, I can’t think of an example of any game, book or film which has actually gone back to a dystopia, they tend to be one-offs.

While relatively innovative, that’s not to say that the return is perfect.  One of the strengths of the original was the unusual nature of the dystopia.  Using the Rand philosophy to create a “tyranny of liberty” gave Rapture a unique feel.  In Bioshock 2, everything seems that bit more cliche.  The look and feel is 1984, but with few of the themes.  Andrew Ryan has been replaced by Sophia Lamb, a psychiatrist who has developed a cult around her, known as “the family”.  This cult has an obsession with butterflies and metamorphosis, an idea appropriate to a world where genetic transformation is the norm.  The whole city is under her extended control, “Lamb is Watching” is written all over the walls, as are messages of adoration for their leader.

Watch out! it's a Spiedy splicer!

Philosophically, it is a great transformation.  Andrew Ryan’s vision perfect liberty with no limits or expectations.  Lamb is almost a polar opposite.  Lamb has an altruistic streak to her beliefs, arguing that people should ignore the self in favour of serving others.  A reference in an interview with the designers has led to an idea that her philosophy has echoes of John Stuart Mill.  But, as a frustrated liberal arts graduate who rather liked Mill, I personally don’t see much of a link.  I accept the general idea that she had a similar cloistered “genius-maker” upbringing to Mr Mill, and ultimately winds up with a philosophy that could be viewed as utilitarian.  But there the similarities cease.

The only conclusion I could draw, is that unlike Mill who resented being forced to live up to his father’s expectations, Lamb must have revelled in it.  There is no sense of “liberty” in Lamb’s world as she seems happy to inflict her own upbringing on others.  As the game goes on, you learn that she develops a real appreciation for the protagonist of the first game, serving others blindly with no option to determine his own needs and desires.  Mill with his heavy emphasis on maximising the choices and power of the individual would certainly disagree.

So basically all we wind up with is a utilitarian cult with altruistic expectations, a reasonably logical reaction to the original Rapture, but not a terribly satisfying world in its own right.  And one that is a little too close to the “Children of God” at times.  The only thing that really separates it from them is the lack of Christian references, which might explain why there are very few this time, where they were common in the original.

The mighty hero of Bioshock 2 - artists impression, actual experience may vary.

This sense of a world that is slightly less interesting than in the original is also seen in your protagonist.  As mentioned earlier, in Bioshock 1 you played a person who had no free will at all, you just blindly followed any orders given to him in a certain format.  That was a stroke of genius, creating a great “gotcha” moment and twist, as well as making a bit of a statement about just how blindly players are willing to follow the orders a game gives to them.  Bioshock 2, however, is all about giving you choices.  You play as one of the few “Big Daddies” with free will, and are given many opportunities to use it.  These range from the very formal “harvest or release the little sisters” to much smaller tests such as an entirely optional cage with a prisoner and a button that allows you to give them a little jolt.  The game does a good job of recognising these choices, representing their outcome substantially in the last hour or so of gameplay and the final video.  Unfortunately however, like almost all “morality” based games, it comes up short in terms of final punch.

One day I hope to write on my disdain of morality systems in games, but in short I see them as the “uncanny valley” of interactivity.  Videogames are without doubt the most interactive medium currently available, but the moment you add in morality, we’re right back to “choose your own adventure” books.

The most frustrating thing about the whole free choice/morality aspect of Bioshock 2 is that it actually gets in the way of the story.  Most games add those elements in as a substitute for story, a way of adding narrative where originally there was none.  But Bioshock 2 didn’t need it.  While lacking in the originality and punch that it had the first time, Rapture is still a captivating place to spend 20 very-odd hours in.  Every level has a nice mix of its own story and a contribution to the overall plot, and when everything is finally brought together at the end I felt neither cheated nor unsatisfied, rare feeling!

So, overall, I rate Bioshock 2 rather highly, certainly more so than I expected to.  It’s not perfect, I found the learning curve of the game to be particularly frustrating, going from very difficult about 1/3rd of the way through to quite easy at the end.  But to me, the real test of an action games is in the middle section.  That’s where the novelty has worn off off, the big finish feels far away, and everything turns into a bit of a meaningless grind.  In many games that’s where I’ve switched off and haven’t returned.  The great strength of Bioshock 2 is that even though this was the part where the game was most frustrating to play, I was still happy to keep going because I really wanted to see where the story would go next.  It seems strange, but the best way to describe it is “a real page-turner”.

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Deadly Creatures - review

Deadly Glitches?

I am a gamer that doesn’t think that originality has run dry of late.  In fact to the contrary I think that in essence, video game mechanics haven’t changed that much since the inception of the 32-bit era in the mid nineties – or even before that. What has changed however has been the way that game designers choose to tell their stories.  Whether it be through playing the anti-hero in a sandbox world or a space marine in a first person shooter, developers make a conscious decision that the way their game takes the player through the narrative is the best way to see the story.

So how would you tell a story surrounding a search for civil war era treasure in the Desert in the remote United States?  How about through alternating the perspective of a spider and scorpion?  This is the way that Rainbow Studios, the developer of Deadly Creatures decided that their story could best be told.  Through the course of the game, you take on the role of two arachnids that happen to be following the same path of the two treasure hunting humans, superbly voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Hopper – easily the highlight of the game.  And it works.  It manages to tell a believable and mature, if short, tale that is as violent as it is humorous.

The game play in Deadly Creatures is pretty standard fare for a third person adventure with the aim being to get from one end of an area to the other, encountering various rival insects, arachnids, rodents and reptiles in the process.  So while one half will have you exploring caves, hollow trees and garbage tips, the other will have you feasting on other arachnids, injecting venom into rats and pouncing on (and eating) grasshoppers.  The Scorpion even has brutal finishing moves that the player can initiate once an enemy has been damaged enough by standard attacks, that will have you waggling your Wii remote and nunchuk around, similar to the quick time events in Shenmue and God of War (and pretty much every other game since).  There is no doubt about it Deadly Creatures is not for the faint-hearted and the combat, although simple, just reinforces that this game is not for the younger gamer. Playing through the game though I couldn’t help but feel that the combat was merely a distraction, and never felt like it melded in with rest of the game. In many cases it actually felt like a chore that was just an obstacle to what you really wanted to be doing, exploring the environment.

But to give credit where credit is due, the combat was still mindless visceral fun.  That is until an enemy gets stuck in a wall, or you mysteriously fall to your death through an invisible chasm.  Now lets get this straight, I enjoyed Deadly Creatures so much so that I made my way through the game despite these rather severe and frequent glitches.  I must admit though, the words “Quality Assurance” ran through my head on numerous occasions, and for a game that has such high production values in its presentation (the game looks good, especially running at 480p) and sound – it seemed strange that potential game breaking glitches would remain in the game all the way to retail.

For those afflicted with arachnophobia - here's why.

For those afflicted with arachnophobia - here's why.

Glitches aside though, as mentioned when it comes to Deadly Creatures, the main draw is the game world. The idea of exploring the world that we live in from a different perspective has always been somewhat of a novelty in video games, particularly those that pull it off.  It is no different in Deadly Creatures but with the added bonus that you get to do it as two ultra cool eight legged predators.  But for every locality that is instantly recognisable, like the brilliant level including a dumped pick-up truck in a garbage tip, there are areas that could just as well be a standard cave or dungeon level in your average game based in the human sized world. At times the developer fails to fully capitalise on the game world with there often being almost zero visual cue or emphasis put on where exactly you are, which is a shame given the familiarity of the all of the environments to most people. And the game’s rigid linearity (which does open up toward the end of the game once the Spider gains the ability to reach out of reach places with its web) certainly doesn’t encourage you to fully explore these extremely cool environments, with the realisation that ‘oh, it was an old graveyard!’ often coming right at the end of a level. Really that is one of the main problems with the game; while it does a tremendous number of things well, it does none of them brilliantly which made me come away thinking the game was in a sense a missed opportunity.

The sections where you encounter the two human characters are particularly cool.

The sections where you encounter the two human characters are particularly cool.

All criticisms aside though, Deadly Creatures is an instantly likeable game, and one that should certainly be picked up if your Wii has been gathering dust since Super Smash Brothers Brawl or you’ve played the hell out of Madworld.  It may not be the groundbreaking title that I’d hoped for, but it does enough in this space to make it a unique one-of-a-kind experience. Its just a shame that it ends so quickly, with the games relatively short eight chapters ending just as it seems to reach a climax, and you have just seemed to get into the rhythm of the game.

The sad thing is that it isn’t getting the attention it deserves at retail. And there are some very apparent reasons.  For one, the box art is appalling.  But I think more worrying is that the main reason is that the trend of mature rated (that’s M and MA here in Australia) titles like Deadly Creatures and Madworld not being successful seems to be widespread. Which is a shame, because its safe to say that outside the first-party Nintendo offerings, Deadly Creatures is one of the best titles to be released on the Wii in the last 12 months.  Its far from a perfect game, but the premise has enormous potential, and with a little fine tuning a sequel could well be a game to look forward to.

Old Gaulian

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