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3:15 PM on 08.26.2010

Through the Hourglass - A short history of Prince of Persia

Programming note - I must begin by apologising for my long, long absence. As it has a habit of doing, real life got in the way. Hopefully updates will be more consistent from now on.

To say that I am a Prince of Persia fan would be a slight understatement. As someone who owns five copies of The Sands of Time and considers it one of the greatest games ever made, my attachment to the franchise is long and highly affectionate. So let's trek back in time and take a little look at how my favourite franchise has evolved over the years. Bear in mind we're only covering the 'mainline' games here - there have been a ton of ports, alternative versions and handheld games, but they're too numerous for me to track here.

Prince of Persia (1989)

The first game was originally a one man coded job created for the Apple II in 1989. Said one man was Jordan Mechner, the father of the franchise who has been a perennially recurring figure across its lifespan. After his first game Karateka had been a success, Mechner was moved in create a platform game in the wake of the massive impact of the Mario series. His major breakthrough however, was the integration of fluid, lifelike animation to his main character. Famously, he achieved this by filming his younger brother jumping across gaps and animating over the negative frames, creating the idea of rotoscoping in videogames. Combined with some neat level design and fiendish traps (it's generally considered a very tough game) it was a huge success, selling a ton of copies and being ported to many different platforms, including PC, Amiga, MegaDrive and a later, enhanced version for SNES. The game was fully remade in 2007 into an 3D rendered HD version which took aesthetics from The Sands of Time and was released for Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. These days it's generally recognised as an important early evolution of the platformer and though it isn't held up as revolutionary in the same way a Mario or Sonic would be, it has the distinction of a minor classic.

Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame (1993)

A steady, workmanlike sequel to the original released on PC, Macintosh and SNES. It keeps most of the design points of the original, although it updates the graphics and provides a longer, richer experience. Notably, it introduces the concept of a 'Dark Prince' an aspect that would later return (heavily modified) in The Two Thrones. Unfortunately, there's really not too much else to say about it. It's by no means a bad game, and is probably technically better than the original, but it's arguably the least remembered of all the POP games. After this, Mechner left the franchise to work on his under-appreciated adventure game gem The Last Express.

Prince of Persia 3D (1999)

Oh dear. This is where it all went badly wrong for the franchise. Produced six years after the last game in an attempt to move in on the vibrant ground Tomb Raider had created for 3D platformers, it's a game even die-hard POP fans like myself prefer not to talk about. Developed by the unremarkable Red Orb Entertainment, whose only other product of note was a tangential involvement in Riven, this is a very bad game. What's even worse is that it's a bad game that had the potential to be quite good. There's some neat level design and the graphics were pretty for the time. But it controls like a drunk hippopotamus and some toddlers with ADHD appear to be in charge of the camera, which renders the final product near unplayable. It's also very buggy and it feels like corners were cut at every opportunity. These days it's mostly only referred to as an example of how not to translate a 2D character into 3D, and it's failure meant the franchise would lay dormant for a few more years.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)

For many modern fans, this is where the franchise really began. Ubisoft acquired the rights from the wreckage of POP3D. Seemingly determined to do right by their investment, they hired series creator Jordan Mechner to come back on as a creative consultant, and he was apparently integral in setting style, aesthetics and story. Ubisoft also put their up and coming Montreal studio, fresh off the success of Splinter Cell on to development, and the results speak for themselves.

Sands of Time was ecstatically received by fans and critics alike, and was showered with praise for its smooth platforming, excellent graphics, great level and puzzle design and charming story and characters. Particularly approved of was the clever time-rewinding effect that removed much of the frustration inherent to the platforming genre. The unique combat was more divisive (I like it a lot), but everyone agreed that the Prince's reinvention into a wisecracking adventurer and the interplay he shared with his female companion Farah were highlights of the game. Interestingly, this is also the last time any of the games in the series would be even remotely 'Persian' as after this different aesthetics began to take over. Commercially the game was a sucess, and revived the franchise's good name, but Ubisoft were mildly dissatisfied with sales relative to the outstanding review scores, and set about making a more marketable sequel.

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)

This game has acquired a reputation as the black sheep of the trilogy, and it's a shame because there's a lot of good stuff here. The dark, gothic design often blends nicely with some great environment puzzles, the new hack'n'slash combat system is a lot of fun and there's a neat plot twist that allows for some nice mind screwing. But unfortunately, it's reputation as a black sheep is largely deserved, because of Ubisoft's effort to appeal more to the lucrative teenage boy market. And that of course that means...more blood! More cursing! More nudity! It's a textbook example of how making something 'darker and edgier' actually makes it less adult, not more. There's also some unfortunate gameplay choices, mainly the introduction of boss battles, which simply do not work and aren't fun. The character derailment suffered by the Prince was another common complaint, with his playful charming personality replaced by, as Gabe from Penny Arcade put it, "a cookie cutter brooding tough guy with zero personality and a handful of poorly written and often repeated one liners." And the inclusion of Godsmack on the soundtrack was so laughable it's something of an in-joke even to this day. Jordan Mechner, who left Ubisoft after SOT was completed, went on record as being against the changes, and that was the general reaction from critics as well. Ubisoft Montreal has since apologised several times, but the damage was done. There's a good game in there, but you have to look beyond the rather ugly surface.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (2005)

This was essentially Ubisoft Montreal's mea culpa after the critical bashing the last game had recieved. An attempt to explain the Prince's sudden personality shift, a return to the more open, outdoor environments of SOT and a neat capstone to the trilogy were the aims here and for the most part they're achieved. The Prince returns to being a somewhat likeable fellow, aided greatly by the return of his charming British accent and a partner to riff off of. The 'Dark Prince' concept is a neat idea to explain the Prince's gradual change in character and provides a decent mixup to combat and platforming also. The combat from WW returns largely unchaged bar the addition of 'speed kills' which add a nice element of stealth. Unfortunately, boss battles also make another appearance, particularly unbearable this time. Overall, the game is a fine effort, a good recovery from the mess of WW. But it's also clearly subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the concept was beginning to wear a little thing. A radical rethink was needed.

Prince of Persia (2008)

Affectionately dubbed Fresh Prince of Persia by myself and others with poor taste in puns, this was the most radical rethink of the franchise in years. Still in the hands of Ubisoft Montreal, they decided to go back to square one and rebuild the franchise from the ground up, as indicated by the title. The result was one of the most divisive games in recent memory.

Everything started again. Based on their stunning Anvil engine (developed for Assassin's Creed) the developers drew a brand new world in gorgeous pastel and watercolour shades, and with it a new Prince and a new mythology. Emphasising a super fluid style of movement, the platforming was reshaped to be simpler and more intuitive, and the world redesigned to be open, with backtracking and upgrades required to traverse its whole expanse. Out went group combat, to be replaced by one-on-one duels with recurring boss characters. And out went the time rewinding sand, replaced by new character Elika, a mystical magician who accompanies you on your journey and facilitates the greatest and most controversial change of all - you can't die. Literally, every time you die she'll save you.

Naturally, opinion on the game has been furiously divisive, and split almost entirely down the middle. Its sizeable force of critics claim it's dumbed down, insultingly easy and removes the intricate puzzles and assault courses of earlier games. Me, I think it's a masterpiece, a textbook example of how to reboot a franchise and focus on core strengths, and that the game rivals The Sands of Time. The debate rages to this day, but clearly Ubisoft were disappointed by what they saw. Though there have been many claims this iteration has not been abandoned, for the next game Ubisoft decided on a step back into familiar territory.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (2010)

An 'interquel' that's set chronologically between SOT and WW, Forgotten Sands also reverts to those games's play style, reintroducing the time rewinding concept and the character of the Prince from SOT. It isn't related to the Sands of Time movie, although the timing is surely just a little too good to be true. Most likely Ubisoft were looking to take advantage of the added publicity swirling about. I'm not going to go into too much detail on this one, because I'll have a review up in the next couple of days.

So, that's the history of the mainline Prince of Persia games up to this point. What's next? Well, it's difficult to say. As critically and commercially successful as the Sands of Time games have been, surely this is as far as the story and concept can be taken. At the same time, given the mixed reaction that surrounded it, there's a undeniable reluctance by Ubisoft to embrace the continuity created by Prince of Persia (2008). Whether they ultimately do decide to continue that story or go for another full-on reboot. I expect a gestation period of a few years as Ubisoft Montreal plans and works on the other projects it has on the go. No matter how long it takes though, I and many others will eagerly anticipate the Prince's next adventure.

P.S. I hope it looks a bit like this

Any and all feedback welcome please, you can't improve without criticism! Next time up - Forgotten Sands review   read

9:23 AM on 07.30.2009

Blu-Ray review - FFVII Advent Children Complete

The original Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was an extremely odd film. Lauded for its superb art direction, outstanding animation and excellent action scenes, it ticked all of the major boxes, especially the one marked 'fan service'. But it was also poorly scripted, incredibly confusing and generally really really difficult to follow, and went down as a failure in most people's eyes. Several years on, Square have released this new 'complete' version, offering not only an upgrade to blu-ray disc but also around half an hour of restored or newly created footage. So how well does this new version stack up to the original?

Let's start with the first thing I noticed - visually, this remains an absolutely astonishing film to look at, even more so in the new 1080p transfer. The original footage makes a near faultless transfer to HD, while the new footage is even better. Square's team made efforts to improve the texture quality, particularly on items like metal and cloth, and the addition of blood and dirt adds a bit more bite to the action scenes. The images frequently go into uncanny valley territory, with some tremendous landscape shots (most notably the establishing shot of the city of Edge). Overall, it's a brilliant upgrade, and if watched on the right equipment should blow you away. Sound has been upgraded into a Dolby Digital TrueHD mix, and pleasingly there is a high quality mix offering both English and Japanese voiceovers. I think the quality of the dub is extremely good (though issues with lip synching remain) but it's nice to have the original language track there if necessary.

However, the real question is 'Is it a better movie than the original?' and fortunately I can safely say that yes it is. The new footage mostly goes towards a bit more fleshing out of the story, and clarifying some of the confusing points, such as the exact nature of the geostigma disease and the motives of the mysterious Rufus Shinra. Make no mistake, it's still very much a film for those who have played the game, dealing as it does very heavily into the backstory, but that was never really a problem for fans of the films. There's also a welcome increase in screen time for some characters, particularly the assemblage of the original cast near the end of the film. The biggest increase in depth goes to the character of Denzel, who was so intangible as to be largely irrelevant in the original cut. Here he benefits from much more backstory, balancing his inclusion far better.

Though the renowned action scenes have had less done to them, they benefit greatly from the increase in resolution and the aforementioned 'dirtying-down'. Extra footage has been added to several fights, including the Bahamut battle and the final confrontation with Sephiroth, but the biggest change comes to the highway chase scene, which is hugely expanded and includes a fantastic moment of motorbike/helicopter interaction which is probably worth the price of entry alone.

Extras are a bit thin, but the quality is generally high. Two documentaries cover the original game's storyline and the legacy it left behind, while a third investigates the 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII' which comprised of the film itself, the anime Before Crisis, the PSP game Crisis Core and several other sources. The main draw here is the half hour anime On the Way to a Smile - Case of Denzel which is a traditionally drawn piece focusing on the history of the character Denzel. Surprisingly bleak and melancholy, it offers a pleasing contrast to the slightly flighty main film and is well worth a watch. There's also the usual assortment of trailers, and a long and impressive Final Fantasy XIII teaser, which replaces the demo from the Japanese edition. It's worth noting that many of the special features from the collector's edition of the original Advent Children are not here, including the animated short Last Order.

Overall then, this isn't a disc which is going to convert any new fans to the Advent Children cause. What it does do is present those fans with a significantly better version of the film. Even if, like myself, you aren't a super hardcore FFVII fan, this is well worth watching for the outstanding audio-visual experience and some killer action scenes. For anyone who already loves the film, or is interested in seeing it for the first time, this is the version to go for.

[8]   read

8:54 AM on 06.11.2009

My E3 Predictions - How wrong was I?

OK, so just before E3 I made a series of predictions about what would/might/wouldn't happen. Let's go back and see how far off base I was.

Things that were definitely going to happen

Sony announces PSP Go - Hardly needed a rocket scientist to figure this one out and it was actually confirmed before the show got underway. CORRECT!

Nintendo hypes the hell out of MotionPlus - There definitely was another extensive Wii Sports Resort demo, but Nintendo didn't show any third-party titles that involved the peripheral, and the three new Nintendo games revealed all seemed to be MotionPlus free. WRONG!

Microsoft announces motion-sensing camera - Again, quite an easy one, although the software that was shown turned out to not just be 'crappy family friendly casual games' but some interesting and exciting stuff. CORRECT!

Sony and Microsoft go head-to-head on software - Definitely true, although the titles I picked were off. Heavy Rain didn't appear at the press conference at all, neither did Mass Effect 2, and Assassin's Creed II actually appeared at Sony's press conference when I called it for Microsoft's. Also, nothing shown of The Ballad of Gay Tony.

The Beatles:Rock Band to be playable and a show stealer - Mostly correct, although Harmonix didn't reveal a full tracklist. But it was a big sensation, and there certainly were Beatles appearances galore. CORRECT!

Something to appear out of nowhere and blow us away - This did of course happen, as it always does. For me, Final Fantasy XIV took the surprise of the show award, with Metroid:Other M close behind. CORRECT!

Things that potentially could have happened

Nintendo makes partial return to the hardcore - Very much so, with Nintendo debuting several titles for gamers. The WIP of Zelda was so in-progress it only appeared as a piece of art, but Metroid:Other M and Super Mario Galaxy 2 filled the gap admirably. CORRECT!

Sony show 'Project Trico' - I predicted that this would be held until TGS, which was of course totally wrong. The Last Guardian as we now know it, wowed the crowds and almost certainly wold have stolen the show had it not been for the leak. WRONG!

Final Fantasy Versus XIII breaks cover, goes multiplatform - Oh dear. Kind of missed that one. WRONG!

Kojima unveils new Metal Gear, goes multiplatform - Yup, spot on. I also correctly predicted he'd show more than one game, borne out by the three Metal Gears and also his involvement with Castlevania:Lord of Shadows. CORRECT!

Alan Wake returns, is substantially different - It definitely returned, although whether you'd call the differences 'substantial' is up to personal opinion. I'll give myself the benefit of the doubt on this one. CORRECT!

Things that probably weren't going to happen

PS3 price cut/PS3 Slim announcement - Sure enough, no sign of either. CORRECT!

Zune HD integrating with XBLA titles - Apart from the eponymous marketplace coming to Xbox 360, no mention was made of Zune. CORRECT!

DSi Virtual console featuring GB/GBA games A lot of people thought this was a dead cert, and it'll probably still happen at some point, but for now not a whimper. CORRECT!

Beyond Good and Evil 2 shown - I wish this one had been wrong. CORRECT!

Duke Nukem Forever revived - Looks like we'll have to make jokes about Huxley now. CORRECT!

Final Fantasy VII remake announced - Admit it, in a dark shameful corner of your heart, you want it to happen. CORRECT!

These games are shown - I was doing fine until I said 'any Metroid title'. D'oh.WRONG!   read

4:51 PM on 06.05.2009

The best goddamn birthday present ever

It's my 21st birthday on Tuesday, and as a result, my longtime friend and co-conspirator Corporal Rutland, messed around a little with the Rock Band 2 poster editor and Photoshop, and came up with this...

The most awesome thing ever. But then there was also this...

He printed them up and had them laminated, and I'm going to frame them and hang them in my room. Most amazing presents ever.   read

1:01 PM on 05.28.2009

Things that may or may not happen at E3

Hey, welcome to a blog full of E3 predictions. In no way are these predictions based on anything other than my own fevered imagination and questionable powers of reasoning. And with that, let's start with...

Things that will definitely happen:

Sony announces PSP Go! - Pretty self evident, but the rumours have been flying about for months from umpteen sources, so I think it's safe to call this one a fact.

Nintendo hypes the hell out of MotionPlus - Nintendo will push the new addon in a big way. There'll no doubt be another Wii Sports Resort demo, plus a huge reel of thirdparty games with support. I'll also say that there'll be a new title announced which is MotionPlus compatible (see below)

Microsoft announces Motion-sensing camera - Again, pretty much a given after the huge number of rumours that have leaked out. It's what software that is announced alongside which will really make the difference. I'm going to predict several crappy family friendly casual games.

Sony and Microsoft go head-to-head on software - For Sony, it'll be all about the huge exclusives - God of War III, Heavy Rain, MAG, Uncharted 2. Microsoft will have a few of their own, but I predict them to follow last year's example and lean heavily on third party presentations. There's no doubt Modern Warfare 2 will be at the Microsoft conference, and I expect big showings from Assassin's Creed II, Mass Effect 2 and Splinter Cell Conviction also, as well as maybe the first footage of the new GTAIV DLC.

The Beatles:Rock Band to be playable and a show stealer - Harmonix will pull the trigger and unleash full details including an on the floor demo and full track list , and it will take the show by storm. I wouldn't rule out an unexpected Beatles-related celebrity appearance either.

Something to appear out of nowhere and blow us away - It happens every single year. Inevitably the biggest talking point of the show will be something we never saw coming, be it a new game announcement, or a piece of industry news. Remember the FFXIII bombshell last year? Better get your flame-resistant jackets ready.

Things that might happen

Nintendo makes partial return to the hardcore - After taking a great deal of flak for last year's conference, and the subsequent (relative) failure of Wii Music, I predict Nintendo will throw a few bones to the hardcore Wii gamers. There'll still be tons of casual stuff of course, but I think we will at least see a WIP trailer of a new Zelda plus at least one other franchise revival, probably F-Zero or Starfox. Kid Icarus, if it ever existed, is dead and buried.

Sony show 'Project Trico' - I'm unsure about this one. It would provide a huge PR boost, which Sony desperately needs, but at the expense of distracting from important titles like Uncharted 2 for what is at the very earliest a 2010 release with relatively niche appeal. This will come to light for sure at TGS but I don't think we'll see it here.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII breaks cover, goes multiplatform - The first part is a reasonably safe bet, with Square needing to keep the hype machine running and Versus still an unknown quantity at this point. The second one is more of a shot in the dark, but it makes commercial sense, and I think Square and Sony's love affair is well and truly over at this point.

Kojima unveils new Metal Gear, goes multiplatform - I actually think Kojima will reveal something else as well as Metal Gear, but whatever he does, it's bound to be multiplatform. With increased western influence on both himself and Konami, and the furore over MGS4's non-appearance on 360, it would be silly at this point not to. Plus, his teaser site's countdown runs out on the same day as the Microsoft press conference. Coincedence?

Alan Wake returns, is substantially different - Every year we expect this, but the rumours have been swirling stronger this year. For all the vapourware tags, Remedy are a top developer, and the fact that inerest has held together this long shows the excitement about the concept.

Things that probably won't happen

PS3 price cut/PS3 Slim announcement - Sony will stretch out the current PS3 price as long as possible as they look to claw back every last penny and cent. There will be a price drop this year, but it's likely to be much closer to Christmas. Meanwhile, while I'm beginning to believe the PS3 Slim exists, it's no doubt far too embryonic to be shown off yet.

Zune HD integrating with XBLA titles - Too many technical headaches, too many licensing issues and too much wishful thinking. Bonus prediction - Zune HD will again not see release outside of NA.

DSi Virtual console featuring GB/GBA games - Not something I think Nintendo is prepared to put time and effort into at this stage, and the market would be a bit more niche. Maybe at TGS, but it's a little early in the DSi's lifespan.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 shown - Ubisoft seem to have locked it away in the basement, once again the unloved child of the publisher that brings you Imagine Babyz.

Duke Nukem Forever revived - Although 3D Realms has shown signs of life, I think it's best that this one stays dead and fades away, and I'm pretty sure any straight thinking publisher will think that also.

Final Fantasy VII remake announced - Look, can we just let it go already?

These games are shown - Pikmin 3, Kingdom Hearts III, Fallout New Vegas, Deus Ex 3, any Metroid title, Kid Icarus Wii, Half Life 2:Episode 3 and many, many others...

Agree? Disagree? Leave comments telling me how accurate/WRONG I am.   read

5:13 AM on 05.15.2009

What are your greatest gaming accomplishments?

I don't mean achievements or trophies, though they can count obviously. What I mean is - What feats have you
accomplished in games that have made you super proud and satisfied? They don't have to be particularly
difficult or obscure, just stuff that you think would look good on a gaming CV. For example, a few of mine
would be:

- Completed Halo:Combat Evolved on Legendary difficulty

- Got 1000 gamerscore in Prince of Persia

- Defeated Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II and the Lingering Sentiment in Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix +

- Chose 'The Needs of the Many' at the end of Fable II

Edit - How could I have forgotten completing the figurine collection in The Wind Waker? That took

You get the idea. Like I said, doesn't have to be hard, just something that you feel proud of. Let me know in the
comments.   read

6:55 AM on 05.13.2009

Putting on a Show - MLB09 Review

There's an important preface to this review - namely that fact that I'm British. Here, Baseball ranks just below lawn bowls and hitting your head against the wall as sports we're interested in. It literally has no presence here whatsoever, the game isn't played on any level above enthusiatic amateur, and TV coverage is non-existant. The only reason I'm a fan of the sport is that I've got relatives over in Canada, and thus whenever I'm over there I take the opportunity to see the Blue Jays play as much as possible. Nevertheless, without access to the regular reports, highlights and analysis that are available in North America, I'd call myself a casual fan at best. Bear that in mind as you read the review. Also, since this game isn't available in Europe, this is a review of an imported NA copy.

MLB09 The Show review - Playstation 3

It's been a long time since a demo sold me on a game, but after Samit's super-gushing review I felt I needed to give this one a go, so I logged onto my US PSN account and downloaded the demo. A couple of hours and a few playthroughs later and I had an order ready to go. It's a testament to MLB09 that so much of what makes it great can be showed of in such a short space of time.

Let's start with the presentation, which is simply extraordinary. Graphically it's up there with the best. All of the players are instantly recognisable, uniforms are super accurate and stadiums are highly impressive recreations. There's a fantastic lighting model and some great graphical flourishes, such as the splinters which go flying when a player breaks a bat, or the way baserunners get progressively more dusty as they make more slides. It's complemented by superb animation, every pitcher having their distinct throwing style recreated, and outfielders in possession of a vast library of dives, catches, throws and tags to make the play move together organically. My only criticism is that the skyboxes outside of the stadiums can look a little patchy, but you won't really see them too much anyway. Sound is also a highlight, the commentary team sounding very natural, while the crowd will cheer and boo enthusiastically (certain players are greeted much more excitedly, for better or worse) and the stadia sound effects will sound out over certain plays.

In terms of playing, MLB09 feels pretty rock solid. Batting remains as simple as it ever has been in baseball games - press X to hit - but features like an instant swing analysis, which lets you see exactly where the last pitch was, your contact and how early or late you were make it an enjoyable tactical experience. Pitching is excellent, different pitchers noticeably pitching in different styles, while a power meter controls speed and breaking. If you've got a Dualshock there's excellent use of rumble, getting stronger as you move further out of the strike zone, and the array of different pitches and pitchers is huge, with each club having its full bullpen to draw on. Fielding keeps it simple, with each base assigned a facebutton, but this means that you'll always know hwere to throw, and plays and outs quickly become intuitive. Fielding is also enhanced with options to dive for balls or jump at the wall to deny home runs or fouls. There's an in-depth defensive menu to position the fielders, and far more tactical depth than I could ever hope to go into.

There's plenty of different modes to try out in, as your basic single game exhibition is joined by a dedicated league mode. Even more in depth is Franchise, which apart from playing on the field also hands you total control over every aspect of the club - drafts, salaries, trades - you name it, it's in there. There's also Road to the Show, in which you guide a single player throughout his entire career, from starting off at AA teams all the way up to the big leagues. It's a fascinating mode, and great fun to play, although the sheer number of games involved can be wearying. Elsewhere, online works much as you'd expect, the games I played being steady and mostly lag free. One thing I'd definitely like to see in a lot more games is the 'Friendly quit' option, which allows you to forfeit the match if you have to leave for any reason, making things a lot more civil and providing far fewer accusations of ragequitting.

Beyond these back of the box bullet points though, it's in the details where MLB09 really shines. There's tons of little tweaks that make the game special, I'll throw out just a few. The fact that each side has their full roster of uniforms to choose from, including vintage kits. The ability to import music into the game to use as walkup tracks. The fact you can record your own chants over headset and put them into the gmae. The way the commentators have recorded so much commentary that they have a unique comment for nearly every player on the field. The ability to take your own screenshots, and replay and exports as an MP4 any play in the game. The list goes on, but the point is this is a game saturated in detail, right down to the way the pitchers hold the ball, or the dimensions of each park. What matters even more though, is that even without those wonderful touches, MLB09 would still be a rock solid, super fun game. They're just the icing on a particularly tasty cake.


P.S. Also, Samit, if you read this, I hope you enjoyed last night's game :-D   read

7:51 AM on 05.07.2009

Christmas comes very early

I would have waited an eternity for this moment...and I sort of did to be honest. Back in February, I spent a lot of money. And then nothing happened for quite a while. But then, without warning, this turned up on my doorstep this morning.

What could this be? Of course, a little bit of rapid unwrapping ensued, to reveal this

It is of course a Street Fighter IV Tournament Edition Fightstick, which are considerably rarer than hen's teeth even at this point. As I said, I ordered it back in February, before the game came out, and it's only just reached here now. I kind of feel guilty about it to be honest. Over here in the UK they cost 150 (at current exchange rates that's $225), but my justification is...well, I don't have one, apart from the fact that I had the money and they are totally awesome. It's fantastic to play with, and though it doesn't improve my near hopeless skills at Street Fighter, it makes everything a little bit more tactile and enjoyable. Build quality is magnificent, it weighs a ton and looks very swish, and I'm really lookig forward to trying out upcoming releases like KOFXII and BlazBlue on it. I'll leave you with a few more shots.

Certificate of authenticity, signed by the game's producer Yohinori Ono and some bloke from Mad Catz

The unboxed stick in all its glory

A very very happy me.   read

9:49 AM on 04.30.2009

For Those About To Die - Organisation XIII

Kingdom Hearts is obviously a generally rather juvenile series, but some of its deeper and more
interesting aspects are contained within the group of villains that form the main opposition within Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II, a set of mysterious black robed figures known originally only as 'The Organisation' and later on as Organisation XIII. In a series where good and evil tend to be divided in very clear-cut ways, as befits its Disney based origins, the Organisation represent an intriguing shade of grey, embodying concepts such as duplicity, cruelty and the search for identity.

To explain the basic idea behind Organisation XIII, it's necessary to delve slightly into KH lore - I'll try and keep it mercifully brief. The main antagonists of the series are the so-called Heartless, created when people succumb to the darkness in their hearts and are transformed into monstrous creatures. Kingdom Hearts II put a spin on this idea - the body left behind when somebody becomes a Heartless eventually begins to act with a will of its own, creating a being called a Nobody. Nobodies exist between light and darkness, and are often said to barely exist at all. Lacking hearts, they are incapable of emotion or any form of attachment, and are often said to barely exist at all. Organisation XIII is formed out of 13 of the most powerful nobodies, who were strong willed enough to retain their human form and memories of their past lives, and command many of the other Nobodies.

OK, lore lesson over. The reason why the Organisation makes such a fascinating set of opponents lies in the characterisation of the individual members. Unlike many secret cabals in videogames, the Organisation is neither entirely dedicated to your destruction, nor ironically particularly organised at all. In their very first appearance in Kingdom Hearts:Chain of Memories they are already conspiring against each other, and the player is essentially caught in the middle of a civil war between the more established members and newer upstarts. The various members take delight in double crosses and confrontations, and see the main player character Sora as merely a tool to be used in this internal struggle rather than a major threat that they need to band together against. There's even a double agent involved, the No. 8 Axel, who plays both sides against the middle before later himself betraying the remaining members. The result is an enemy group who comes off less as a faceless army and comes out as a set of individual characters. Neat little touches are inserted to reinforce the idea of individuality, such as the flamboyant and unique weapons each member wields (complete with corresponding titles) and the particular tweaks to the uniform black cloak they all wear.

The Organisation's emotionless nature also gives an interesting insight into their actions and motivations. They are by far the most 'evil' of all the entities who appear in the series and are capable of quite serious action (Axel personally executes the 12th member Larxerne and the 6th member Zexion has the life forcibly drained out of him), but there's considerable difference in character between the lesser members, who carry much stronger memories of their past lives and thus display much more obvious 'character' and the more senior members who are clearly more cold and unfeeling. This difference is also mirrored in the Organisation's motives. Their ultimate goal is Kingdom Hearts, the source of all power within the universe of the game. While the Organisation's leader Xemnas follows the old 'claim ultimate power and conquer the world' cliche, the others have a much more touching aim - they hope that Kingdom Hearts can restore their own hearts to them and make them complete beings again. Yet they seek to accomplish this goal through evil means, since they have no sense of morality or conscience left anymore.

There's one final reason why the Organisation is much more than a standard set of villains, and that's because they have a very unique relationship to the lead character Sora. Sora himself briefly became a Heartless in the events of the original game, and thus a corresponding Nobody was created named Roxas. His existence is not revaled until KIngdom Hearts II but it is also revealed that he joined the Organisation as their No. 13 and was key to their plans. He rejoins with Sora during the prologue of Kingdom Hearts II, but the other members repeatedly try to reawaken him, particularly Axel, with whom he was particularly close. Axel eventually betrays the Organisation in the hope of reuniting with Roxas, and ultimately sacrifices his existence in defence of Sora in the memory of his friend.

There's much still unexplained about the Organisation, and the part of the lore they occupy is arguably the most interesting aspect of the Kingdom Hearts story, and niche that is set to be explored further in the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. But they already represent a brilliant fusion of character, concept and plot. Even in a series filled with famous faces from the world of animation, they stamp themselves firmly as an iconic and interesting set of antagonists.   read

9:01 AM on 04.29.2009

PSP - What needs to change, what needs to stay the same

With rumours of a new PSP again swirlinbg round the internets, I decided to take a brief look at what I'd like changed if a new PSP did come along.

Things that need to change

- The death of UMD

This is the one everyone goes for, but it's probably one of the biggest issues dogging PSP at the moment. People who buy the PSP are generally tech-savvy enough to grasp the concept of the downloadable game straight away, and the platform is more than capable of supporting it technically. UMD's are expensive to produce and are warming shelves the world over. Digital distribution would allow Sony to cut costs and consumer prices, and determine what they want to push marketing-wise.

- Fresh IP

Although the entire game industry is worried about being stuck in sequelitis at the moment, this problem is especially bad on the PSP. The platform has many fine games, but almost all are franchise extensions from it's bigger PS2 and PS3 cousins, and this is true even of the new big hitters Sony announced earlier this year. The console desperately needs a defining game to call it's own, in the same way the 360 has Gears and the DS has *grinds teeth* Brain Training. For this to happen developers need to see it as a viable leading platform, and that leads on to...

- Getting developers onboard

At the moment it seems developers aren't to fond of the PSP It's too advanced to support the more simplistic stuff found on DS, yet apparently not sophisticated enough to produce truly 'next-gen' stuff. What Sony really needs to do is get developers to focus on PSP and produce high-class, original ideas and less lazy PS2/Wii rehashes. There's a ton of genres left to be explored, and recent software like Resistance:Retribution and Dissidia:Final Fantasy have shown just how far the machine can be pushed technically. The key is that the software has to be tied in to the machine's strengths, just as developers had to learn to do with the DS. The PSP is more conventional, but the same lessons must be learned.

- The Firmware updates

This is one of my personal bugbears, but I know a lot of people find it annoying. The continued, often mandatory firmware updates are impossibly irritating and often do little other than put up another wall for the hackers to smash down. Sony needs to learn to build it's software competently in the the first place, and learn from the Microsoft example of only updating to add functionality, and allowing patches to be incremental rather than the need to download the whole firmware every time. The fact that you can't do anything unless you have the latest version is utterly ridiculous.

-Things that need to stay the same

- The hardware

By this I don't necessarily mean 'don't change the machine' - rumoured addons like a slider or an inbuilt camera sound intriguing and could help push the multimedia functionality. But the heart of the hardware, the processor and the GPU, were far ahead of their time originally, and still stand up well today. There's no need for a graphical or computational update, that stuff all still looks great.

- The functionality

A lot of people say that the PSP's status as a multimedia player has distracted from it's true purpose as a gaming machine, and while that may be true in terms of the way it's been marketed, I don't think that's the case in terms of anyone using it. I have plenty of other stuff to play my music and movies, but the PSP is an excellent multimedia device, with the added benefit of remote play functionality (especially good with PlayTV).

- The games

While everything that has been said about software on PSP is true, it still has some remarkably good games. Franchise extensions may not be great for the longevity, but they make for some very good games. Chains of Olympus, R&C:Size Matters, Crisis Core, there's tons of good stuff available. Though I advocate more original experiences, here's hoping upcoming games like Birth By Sleep and Dante's Inferno continue the trend.   read

3:48 PM on 03.27.2009

5 games that would make great cartoons

1 - Psychonauts

Tim Schafer's crazed masterpiece couldn't be better suited to a TV adaption. It's already widely praised for having a fantastic cast of kooky characters, and with the game's distinctive visual style it would be a doddle to translate them onto the small screen. Add a truly unique premise that allows for practically unlimited variation in tone, setting and situation, as well as a chance for some more serious commentary, and you've got a series waiting to be made. It helps that the game is practically a cartoon itself, what with its cracking script and flat-out weirdness. There's a goldmine waiting under this one

2 - Team Fortress 2

Valve's already gone halfway here with its series of 'Meet the...' shorts, and has announced a comic book based on the Red and Blu teams' antics, so why not go the whole hog and start up an animated series? Wouldn't be for the kids obviously, but I can imagine a lot of fun to be had in a series of 5-10 minute shorts taking the piss out of the generous range of sterotypes on offer, combined with some fun cartoon carnage, and maybe a few sly inside jokes.

3 - Persona

I'm thinking either 3 or 4 here. You've got a readymade schoolkid cast, secret societies, mysterious dungeons and a whole heapload of monsters. Plus the neatly divided moon cycle/weather cycle of the games absolutely lends itself to an episodic format, with the overarcing mystery being solved across the course of the season Some of it wold need toning down (the shooting-yourself-in-the-head bit springs to mind), but there's so many clever ideas in the Persona games I'm sure you could still make something super-interesting out of them.

(Yes, I know there's already an anime, but it's only loosely connected to the game. Plus I'd be fun to see a more western take on it. Is that sacrilege?)

4 - Kingdom Hearts

Bear with me on this one. You'd need an army of lawyers to untangle the rights and several hundred rewrites to polish the godawful dialogue, but at the end of the day you've got a truckload of Disney characters pouring out of every orifice. The games themselves are essentially divided neatly into episodes that would perfectly fit a 'world of the week' format, the non-disney characters are at the very least inoffensive and the series's plot is both insane enough to sustain several seasons and simplistic enough to promote the whole truth-n-love message a cartoon is expected to. Would be difficult to pull off but would also be the most likely to succeed. Also, the world could always do with more Winnie-the-Pooh.

5 - Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure

Bit left field this one, but the game has such a gorgeous aethetic its hard to pass up. I'm thinking that this one could skew a lot younger than the others. Again, there's a simple premise to string out - find all the bits of the pirate Captain - that would be easy to break down into episodic chunks. If you kept it short, maybe 15 minutes-ish and made each episode simple, bright and colourful, I can easily see tis appealing to younger children. Plus it has pirates. What's not to like?

6 - Street Fighter

...OK, maybe not...   read

2:29 PM on 03.16.2009

Fear you can forget - Resident Evil 5 review

Resident Evil 5 is a game with a problem, and that problem is an identity crisis. It's at the same time a bold step forward for the franchise and a game rooted in frustrations of the past, along with a whole new set of frustrations that have been brought in.

Oh man, those things would have been useful in the original game.

Any discussion of Resident Evil 5 must inevitably begin with a discussion of its illustrious predecessor. Resident Evil 4 was a revolution not just for the franchise but for action gaming in general. It found the triumphant combination of factors to make the definitive experience - more action, bigger weapons, smarter enemies, nastier bosses, new setting. The fact that it moved to a more action orientated stance and switched to a fully 3D camera made it appeal to a far larger audience than before, and it's rightfully acclaimed as one of the best games ever made. For Resident Evil 5 Capcom has wisely decided to build on the solid base that game provided. The interesting thing is how it has chosen to do this.

The first thing which strikes you about RE5 is its setting. Capcom has cranked glorious visuals out of its proprietary MIT engine, and RE5 uses these in the best possible way to create a hugely effective environment. The dusty, ramshackle town of Kijuju oozes menace, its angry inhabitants throwing malicious glances at you as they kick writhing objects in sacks on the ground. Similarly to RE4, you get the impression of a civilization that has fallen off the edge into barbarity, its rural isolation being a lot more scary than any typical zombie apocalypse could be. The problem is, as impressive as this environment may be, you don't spend a great deal of time here, with only the first act being set in Kijuju. This in itself isn't the issue, it's the fact that subsequent environments lack flair and interest. When the mandatory Resident Evil underground laboratory is the most interesting things that crops up you know you're in trouble. Each of the six acts has its own setting, but within each of these there's too much repetition and sameiness, with little feeling of progression. At its worst the environments can degenerate into bland Quake - style killboxes.

Yes, Wesker is back. No, he won't tell you what Ziggy Stardust was all about.

This neatly brings us to the combat, which has been one of the most controversial aspects of the game, debate raging over the remaining of the stop and shoot controls. There's definitely reason to keep them here. They crank the tension up and force tight and precise aiming, always important when taking on the hordes of 'zombies'. And it's definitely hordes - the enemies now pour out in overwhelming waves, flooding combat areas and boxing you in, forcing you into alleys and onto roofs. It's a shame then deja-vu hangs heavy over all of them. The basic Majini are exactly the same as RE4's Ganados, same animations, same tactics, just with spears replacing pitchforks. It doesn't help that there's a far greater proportion of 'super enemies' who basically are colossal ammo sinks, disrupting the essential 'crowd control' tactic that applied so well and created so much tension. Despite this enemy design is pretty poor, with nothing as iconic or terrifying as RE4's Regenerator or Iron Maiden. The game seems to have issues with balancing its combat correctly, never better illustrated than at the end of act 3 when, having thrown a chainsaw wielding miniboss at you, leading to a protracted battle, it immediately goes and throws out.

It's here then that the identity crisis comes to light. As so many have said, this is now no longer a survival horror game. It is an action game, its entire being concentrated on shooting action and big combat set pieces. This wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for the fact that so many of the old hangovers exist. Tank controls and slow movement are fine when they are in service of a slow paced scary game, but they are a real and irritating detriment to blowing up as much stuff as possible. A limited and clunky inventory isn't suitable for such a higly paced game (why has the option to use things straight away without picking them up gone?). The introduction of a limited cover system halfway through the game smacks of half-arsedness and is poorly implemented, only necessary because there are gun toting zombies with machine guns and rocket launchers everywhere in the latter stages. It honestly feels like a bad Gears of War clone at certain stages.

Alongside this crude evolution into action is the loss of almost all the traditional qualities of Resident Evil. The game is almost never scary, the constant presence of a second player and the fact that they can revive you from your near death state killing almost all tension. In single player the AI is a valiant attempt but is clumsy and makes certain boss battles supremely irritating. Said boss battles lack imagination and generally require the use of a specific weapon or environment conveniently found only in that arena and discarded straight away. The story, so cleverly rebooted in RE4 to revive the themes of infection and possession that made the series so distinctive, returns to a tangled mess of backstory and convoluted science. The supposedly world destroying Las Plagas are basically reduced to an excuse to have Ganados in the game, with an infuriating mix of viruses (I counted T, G, T-Veronica, Progenitor and Ouroboros viruses) taking centre stage once more. Worse still is the game's refusal to even slightly acknowledge its pulpy origins. The sarky quips of RE4's Leon S. Kennedy are replaced with Chris and Sheva calling each other 'partner' at every opportunity and generally playing it dead straight. The merchant is gone, and the game just generally feels very po-faced, as if it's trying to make a serious point in a game where you battle against an evil David Bowie lookalike. Oh, and there's a plot twist so telegraphed that a blind man down a coal mine could see it coming. If you've played it you know the one I mean.

However, the game still has several redeeming features. Foremost among these is the inclusion of co-op, which utterly destroys the experience as a Resident Evil game, but makes it into a far more fun game to play overall. Any game is more fun with another person, but the specifically co-op design makes RE5 a total blast. And every so often, a set piece crops up that reminds you simply how very effective a game like this can be. A trek through a darkened mine where one partner has to hold the spotlight, the opening levels in Kijuju where the bright sunlight offers a startling contrast, the triumphant return of Mercenaries mode. And at its most base level, it is built on bones and mechanics which remain sound, and the strengths that characterised RE4 remain here. The level of polish remain high also, graphics, sound and voicework being excellent. It's important to emphasise that the core gameplay here are still good fun in its own right, the crowd control shooting and set piece battles often being tense and exhilarating. Still plenty of fun to be had here.

Ultimately, this is a game which struggles to find what its purpose is. It cannot escape the shadow of RE4, yet it tries to by cranking up the action factor, without realising that this causes it to discard a great deal of what made that game special. The greatest fear before release was that this game copied Resident Evil 4 too much, ironically it turns out that it simply didn't copy the right things. It's a good game, a fine game to play through in co-op especially, but it lacks imagination, and coasts by on being merely competent rather than extravagant. The polish and fine gameplay raise it above average, but there's nothing here that makes it special, nothing here that inspires.


PS As this is my first review on here, I'd appreciate feedback. Too formal? TLDR? Troll me in the comments :)   read

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