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Mark Seymour's blog

11:48 AM on 04.14.2012

The DLC Brouhaha

In a week that saw Electronic Arts notch an award for being the Worst Company in America, no doubt due partly to the mega-publisher's DLC policies, Capcom too weathered flak for its handling of downloadable content. Irked gamers lodged complaints with the Better Business Bureau in a bid to stem the tide of on-disc DLC released at a premium post-launch.

Ever the clowns, Capcom formulated a response (aka, they dusted off their stock response to these matters) and it's indicative of a growing attitude among publishers:

"At Capcom, we value our customers"

Hold on. It's all a bit rich already. This from the company that sells 108kb character costume packs for £10, that farms out its core franchises to developers that go on to create things like Operation Raccoon City, that "HD-remake" such venerable games as Resident Evil 4 and put zero effort into doing so and that attempt to manipulate its fans into ratting out those who deviate around paying for those £10 costume packs.

"and make every effort to resolve customer complaints. We are sorry to hear that [censored] was so disappointed with the Street Fighter x Tekken game (''SFxT''), and would like to respond to his complaints."

"SFxT has an enormous amount of content, fully developed and available for play and enjoyment immediately on-disc. Given the 38 characters available for full play, as well as multiple play modes, SFxT provides great value for all players from day one. While Capcom is sorry that some of its fans are not happy about the chosen method of delivery for the DLC, we believe that this method will provide more flexible and efficient gameplay throughout the game's lifecycle."

This is PR guff and insulting PR guff at that. How locking content on the disc and selling it two months down the line "will provide more flexible and efficient gameplay" is beyond my reckoning. Does having costume packs pre-loaded on the disc decrease online latency? Of course not. That Capcom are willing to tout this drivel is a stinging testament to the respect it has for the people paying for its products.

"There is effectively no distinction between the DLC being ''locked'' behind the disc and available for unlocking at a later date, or being available through a full download at a later date, other than delivery mechanism."

It's sad to see a developer bearing such disrespect for its fans. Not only have Capcom tackled the original point with all the finesse of a vertigo-patient playing pin the tail on the donkey, they've managed to demean anybody who takes genuine umbrage with their DLC practices in the process. Clearly the point is not that the content is on the disc. The point is it's on the disc because it has been deliberately hacked from the main game to sell in the future. It's a fleecing act; one that is gradually becoming more prevalent in the industry and one at which Capcom are arguably the gurus.

It bears repeating. If the additional content is available as a full download at a later date, the implication is that content has been developed after the core game, not removed from it (The Ballad of Gay Tony certainly wasn't gutted from GTAIV). There's no good reason why developers that work on downloadable content post-launch or during the certification process shouldn't be rewarded for their additional work. The argument that all DLC should be free is folly. DLC should not be free the same way dessert should not be free because you bought a main course and a 7-Up. What should be free is costume packs, cheat codes, characters or whatever else that has been created in tandem with the game, that is on-disc and that has been locked as part of a deliberate swindle.

BioWare took this to the next level with its launch-day DLC for Mass Effect 3. Touted as content “completed while the main game was in certification and not available on the disc”, hackers promptly found that to be an outright lie. EA and its church of developers have been particularly offhand with DLC and when the publishing powerhouse responded to news that it had been voted worst company in America, rather than taking the opportunity to reflect on why so many of its customers were willing to vote it a worse company than the Bank of America, it emerged with hauteur:

"We're going to continue making award-winning games and services played by more than 300 million people worldwide."

What's particularly disheartening about EA's response and From Ashes is just how cynical they both are. Players invested in the Mass Effect universe are absolutely going to pay for the Prothean team member Javik included as part of From Ashes. EA and BioWare know this. It's why James Vega isn't the DLC character. It's why From Ashes is launch-day DLC. The Prothean story-branch is too enticing for anyone with a modicum of passion for the Mass Effect yarn to spurn.

Capcom are right in claiming there's no difference between accessing content on-disc through an unlock code or releasing it later as actual downloadable content. It's the notion of content being removed from the core game to be sold at a later date that is the problem, not the delivery mechanism.

Of course, the counter-argument in some respects is nobody is forcing you to buy anything and I wholeheartedly agree with that as long as the content isn't integral to the game. Capcom have every right to sell costume packs for £10 and if people choose to buy those packs, who am I to stop them? But developers shouldn't cower beneath a fortress made of bullshit and bile. If you're going to fleece your customers for every penny, don't insult them by pretending that there's no difference between creating new content after development of the main game has been wrapped up and removing content from the main game to sell at a later date. Don't lie about the practice. Companies exist to make profit and they're responsible to shareholders who give zero fucks about the people that are making them rich. Fine. But have the scrap of respect required to not to treat your paying customers like morons.

The blatant disrespect for the customer and his intelligence is equally as unsettling as Capcom's tacky policy of selling costume packs for £10 or EA's increasingly shoddy and gutted DLC.   read

6:50 PM on 11.24.2011

A Belated Happy Birthday to you, Xbox

What the Xbox - and mostly Halo - meant to me, growing up in bumf*ck nowhere, UK


The dawn of a new millenium. The release of the Playstation 2. Tony Blair is 3 years into his Prime Ministerial reign. More importantly, Jamie Oliver's career is in full swing following his endorsement deal with supermarket J. Sainsbury's. Together they'd make life taste better (Jamie's life anyway, the deal netted him two million queen pounds a year). It wouldn't be until 2005, however, that The Naked Chef began meddling with school menus through his "Feed Me Better" campaign, a campaign that sought to eradicate junk food from UK schools.



Our secondary school canteen sells cheeseburgers, sausage rolls, pizza, cookies, sweets and Panda Pops. In summer it puts on a BBQ. Jamie Oliver weeps the tears our vital organs cannot. In the Tuck Shop the scene is grimmer still. It sells feed-an-army sized bags of Maoam, titan-size Twix and Mars Bars, bumper packs of lollies, Smarties when they still had the smiley faces on, Tootie Frooties, Dolly Mixture, Haribo - the ones coated in sugar, no less - Toffee Crisp, Lion Bars, Fruit Tella, Chewits, Galaxy, Freddos for 10p, Caramel Freddos for 10p, Fudge Bars for 15p, Dip Dab for 20p. It also sells mountain spring water. Cheer up Jamie.

You have to fight for your right to gorge, though. The Tuck Shop is a room no larger than a decent sized bathroom. Access is prohibited to all but a few middled-aged women who, behind locked doors, provide hormonal teenagers with fatal doses of E-numbers, artificial colours and flavourings through two small windows. There is no queueing system at the Tuck Shop. There is no policing of the Tuck Shop area. It is Darwinism in full motion. The weedier kids are lifted by their backpack handles and placed at the back of the ruckus by the larger boys. The weedier ones then slither through the gaps left between the very same boys that, moments earlier, hauled them out. It's a wonder nobody dies.

We hit puberty early. We earn our Maoam through testosterone. We are Darwin's prized fighters.



The Tuck Shop continues to feed the school. Jamie Oliver continues to carve his baby-face into the public conscience. Avril Lavigne releases Let Go. Sk8er Boi and Complicated rule the airwaves. The United States invades Afghanistan. We no longer frequent the Tuck Shop.

Every Friday night I uproot my Xbox, the horrendously obese breeze-block of aesthetic doom, from its nest and with it and two ergonomically unfriendly controllers bundled into my buckling rucksack, I mount my bicycle and make the pilgrimage to my buddy's house. His is a nice house. His is a really nice house. We used to play rugby in his back garden that dwarfed mine by a ratio of at least 5:1, sparring at midnight with his younger brother. During the day we'd trampoline or watch TV on his colossal 32" standard def television. Now we play Halo: Combat Evolved co-operatively on Legendary difficulty in the spare room.

We're pretty good, but then so are the Covenant Elites so during the toughest altercations we take it in turns. One of us loiters as far removed from the pandemonium of battle as possible while the other charges in without much consideration for himself. Inflict as much damage as possible and then die is the meticulously pondered over and formulated tactic. The dead Spartan respawns and the spectator then embarks on his rampage. The Elites can't win. They are valiant in their effort but their smarts are no match for ours and our friendship blooms across these innumerable nights spent bringing pain to the Covenant and inflicting friendly-fire onto our eyes until 3am.



The Tuck Shop is under threat of closure. Too many injuries. Too many items hurled through those windows in disdain. Too many sugar-riddled 14 year olds in fifth period, setting fire to gas taps or belting through the Crush Hall. Too many letters of complaint. Elsewhere the war in Iraq kicks off. Avril Lavigne's Try to Shut Me Up Tour is a huge success. The final chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga nets New Line Cinema $1.2 billion. Arnold Schwarzenegger turns his back on the movie industry and is elected Governor of California. Jamie Oliver earns himself an MBE.

Halo 2 is primed for release in one year's time. The hype train has been in transit for months already and is half way to its destination. Our MSN conversations bubble with talk about Master Chief's second outing. Would the Flood return? Would the multiplayer be any good? How quickly could we smash through Legendary? Sorry my dial up disconnected.

My buddy and I polished off Halo's Legendary campaign months back. And then again. And again. And again. But still we play. We no longer hide from the Elites. We have mastered everything, seen it all. The dance of the Hunter had been etched into our muscle memory, one pistol shot to the back after dodging its lumbering assault. We had dedicated hours to inching close enough to hijack a Covenant Wraith on Assault on the Control Room only to be slapped by the cold palm of disappointment. No such option was programmed into the game. We unerringly performed 360 degree spins through The Maw's gigantic jump sequence. We strove to fend off Captain Keye's invincible army unleashed should you shoot the exalted servicemen with his own pistol. And all the while we play on my weathered Xbox which, at this point, has been on more journeys than my Gameboy Advance SP.

With Halo 2 peeking over the horizon, for my friend this will no longer do. He gets a paper round, delivering one of the local rags each night after school. But results don't come quick enough so he helps me with mine. He does half the work and I pay him a third of the wage. He wants his Xbox. I'm a tosser. But still he needs £129.99 (or there abouts) and he's impatient like thirteen year olds are. So we return to the Tuck Shop. Not, this time, for sweets, but instead to scour the periphery, to brave the rumpus and carnage, to gamble our very lives sweeping up any money relinquished from the grasp of our sugar-craving peers. You'd be surprised how effective a tactic this was and at 13 our sense of self-worth wasn't in peril. We were doing what we had to.



Jamie Oliver's "Feed me Better" campaign is the final nail in the Tuck Shop's bloated coffin. It had, in fact, been closed months prior but its spirit lived on in the canteen where Smarties and cookies and other nutritionally bankrupt foods were still sold. No longer.

But it matters not. My buddy has his Xbox. We have our Xbox Live accounts. We bring sweets to school from home and play Halo 2 online every night after school. "Are you doing your homework?" "Yes, 22 divided by 5 is 4.4." And, incidentally, my K/D ratio in that last match.

Others join in as well. In fact, every other weekend we bundle into a tiny room with those two Xbox's, 6 or 7 or 8 or even 9 of us sometimes crammed into a single bedroom. We hook two of those gigantic machines up to a couple of gaudy 21" standard-def TVs and we play 4 on 4 Halo 2. We call it Slu, short for system-link-up. Between bouts of violence we feast on Tesco's own sausage rolls and Value pizza and gigantic bags of Maoam and the sugariest brand of Haribo. The spirit of the Tuck Shop pulses away in each of us as we play "Bad Boys" (SWAT, pistols only) on Lockout, or drive a Warthog into the ocean on Headlong or annihilate one another playing Rockets Only on Foundation. We moan, we joke, we laugh, we bond. For an afternoon nothing else matters, not GCSEs or homework or other teen strife.

The Xbox brought us together in a way only alcohol and the promise of a free house on a Friday night could in the subsequent years and it did so through its System Link technology. Halo may have changed the first person shooter scene, but the Xbox changed how I played games. Some of my closest friends, 7 years on, are the people I relied on to cover my back on Burial Mounds or Ascension or Midship. Perhaps we would have still been friends anyway, we certainly didn't meet through the Xbox, but our friendships' unfolded partly through it.

And so, to the console that played a vital roll in the second decade of my life, for better and for worse, a very happy, belated, tenth birthday indeed.

And to Jamie Oliver, cheers chap for waiting until 2005. We needed that Tuck Shop, even if our kidneys didn't.   read

4:07 PM on 11.20.2011

Section 8: Prejudice Review

Despite boasting the haughtiest battlefield entrance since those guys rode into battle to the deafening cry of Ride of the Valkyries, TimeGate Studio’s Section 8 proved a victim of a burgeoning shooter market. In a year playing host to the gluttonous Modern Warfare 2, what chance did a game called Section 8 stand?

Fortunately for those who appreciated it, TimeGate have returned with Section 8: Prejudice, a direct sequel and one they’ve smartly opted to release on XBLA.

Best of all – if you’re as easily pleased as I am anyway – Prejudice features that very same battlefield entrance. For those uninitiated, Prejudice takes place in a future where dropships, transport helicopters and APCs are more passé than VHS and Chumbawamba. Instead, as an orbital supersoldier you whiz down onto the battlefield from space, crashing into no man’s land and heading in whichever direction signals a firefight. It’s every bit as good as it sounds.

But there was more to Section 8 than grand entries and Prejudice’s 8-mission campaign resumes the romance of blue burly space dudes shooting at red burly space dudes.

You fill the boots of silent hotshot Alex Corde. Following a tutorial starring a bunch of gruff American beardy types, the bad guys (conveniently garbed in red) invade the tropical paradise the good guys (swathed in blue) are stationed on. The blues don’t much like this and so it’s down to you to make sure the reds are made to regret their decision to annex Blue Land by murdering every last one of them.

It’s all superficial sci-fi hoo-hah. Earth’s recourses are depleted, humanity has colonised space, a band of angry soldiers have gone rogue and all these deadbeat sci-fi foibles do is act as a paper-thin excuse for the player to shoot stuff again and again. So you follow waypoints brawling with red guys while a crotchety colonel and your irritant AI buddy blabber on about saving the world. TimeGate try and make this rickety ride enjoyable but there’s no masking the fact that it heralds from the 90s. The 1790s (and even George Washington would have been rolling his eyes.)

So you’re funneled through a series of lackluster environments, hopping from one arena swarming with unscrupulous space pirates to another, restricted from even setting foot off the beaten path by garishly marked red zones on the mini map. Dare enter these areas (which border you on all sides) and you’ve all but declared your wish to stop living.

That restriction makes the campaign a laboriously prescribed affair when there are clear motions in place to send it in the other direction. Features like ordnance, which lets you deploy turrets and such, should rid the journey of some monotony – nothing says ‘down with thee, space bandit riffraff’ quite like a tank the size of a manor house. Yet you’re never afforded carte blanche to request these dramatic battlefield pawns – something that would lend the game an air of pep rather than plague it with predictability. Instead, every now and again you’re let off the leash but always at TimeGate’s tyrannical discretion.

Firefights are made passably interesting due to a couple of other features loaned out from the multiplayer. Corde is outfitted with a jetpack, which is put to good use thanks to Prejudice’s automatic targeting system. Auto-targeting allows to you to nominate an enemy and enjoy a brief spurt of auto-aiming. Cheating you might cry but with enemies cavorting around the world like children let loose in a padded play area it’s a valuable quirk.

But beyond that it’s a campaign beset by weary genre conventions: defend the tank, assault the base, hack the console, defend the console, destroy the console, blah, blah, blah. It’s fireworks and nonsense, first person shooters painted by numbers and worse still it has the antiquated checkpoint system of a 20th century shooter to boot.

Prejudice’s campaign then is cursory; a protracted romp about gruff space dude killing machines being gruff space dude killing machines. There’s no denying that the game reneges on its multiplayer so if you’re buying this on the pretence that the single player is worth the admission fee alone, well… it’s not.

Fortunately the multiplayer far exceeds the humdrum campaign. Borrowing its fair share of ideas from Halo, it’s a mash up of Bungie’s science-fiction juggernaut and TimeGate’s own Section 8 and there’s nothing quite like the first time you hurtle down from space and the wonderful sense of inertia as you scramble to reunite with teammates already dotted about the battlefield getting shot to smithereens.

With two modes (although there is another incoming) and four maps (each split into smaller versions totaling 16) Prejudice comes up a touch light on content but never fails to satisfy in execution. The onus in both modes rests on teamwork, which never really bodes well on Xbox Live, so it’s a tribute to TimeGate’s design decisions that it actually works out in Prejudice.

Swarm is the de-rigeuer horde mode in which players defend a structure that in no way appears significant from waves of angry enemies. It supports four players but you’d be fortunate to stumble across anyone playing it, which we’ll kindly chalk up as a monument to Prejudice’s flagship mode, Conquest.

Conquest tasks teams with capturing four key areas on the map while completing a spate of auxiliary missions that combine to make up the team scores. While these missions are far from thrilling alone (token variations on VIP, capture the flag and other objective based challenges), when segued in the same vein as Killzone 3, the constant flow of challenges gifts the matches a capricious tone as the battlefield evolves and warps based on the objective at hand.

Capturing the four quasi-fortresses remains the backbone throughout matches and requires little more than standing idly near a computer terminal in the heart of each. Once captured, the team can set about strengthening their newly secured property by calling in ordnance.

You are free to request ordnance at any juncture but before you’re given the green light to pick ‘n mix missile turrets, mech suits and all other varieties of merrymaking devices you have to amass funds. Points are dolled out for all the usual things: kills, assists, fulfilling objectives and destroying enemy ordnance and with 32 player games it’s not long before the maps are awash with little packets of joy hailing from the sky.

The mech suits, bikes and four-man tanks are the titillating rewards but they ask a hefty price. What with the burden on teamwork, much of the ordnance is geared toward aiding your allies. Resupply booths allow comrades to stock up on ammo and equipment through osmosis while anti-air turrets play 25th century Duck Hunt with any players attempting to drop-in to areas under the turrets’ jurisdiction.

Ultimately, ordnance helps temper the blistering firefights. Fortresses act as handy checkpoints to launch the next offensive so there’s a decent element of strategy underlying the shooty shooty parts and that allows Prejudice to stake a claim in the bustling playground of like-for-like shooters. It’s a nifty combination of manic shooting and composed strategy, best played with friends.

Add to that a deep well of customisation options extended over from the campaign and a bevy of rewards tailored to each of the weapons and you’re left with a startlingly robust and extensive multiplayer experience, one bolstered by an overarching ranking ladder that lingers on for what feels like forever. Prejudice being as smashing as it is, online at least, that can only be a good thing.

Once upon a time you would have found Section 8 crushed somewhere beneath the stampeding heavyweights of the fps scene. Not anymore. With Prejudice, TimeGate has found its series a snug home on Xbox Live Arcade. Go say hello.

7/10   read

3:55 PM on 07.31.2011

Sega Rally Online Arcade Review

The important thing to remember about Sega Rally Online Arcade – particularly if the camp bawling of the words: “game over yeah!” fails to spur to life any memories in your mind – is that the pivotal word is arcade. It certainly is not rally. Which is no bad thing, Sega’s slippery rendition of driving cars really fast on dirt roads is enthralling, just don’t expect to be utilising the brake much.

Sega Rally Online Arcade (herein known as SROA) bears the hallmarks of other classic arcade racers - Outruns come to mind - but it’s a slim, quietly refined version of Sega Rally. As a result it’s chock full of colours in that glorious Sega way tantamount to dunking your face in a bowl of Lucky Charms, is served incessantly by an adrenalized soundtrack and you can accelerate by holding down the ‘A’ button. Vintage.

It’s also geared entirely toward going really, really fast. Cars careen off walls like you’re racing through the world’s most elaborate bouncy castle and there’s scarcely a corner in the game that requires anything more taxing than dropping down a gear and easing off the acceleration. This is about as Byzantine as a microwave meal but SROA isn’t a game about vanquishing rubber-banding AI (although it has its fair share). Instead it’s one about mastering every turn, gearshift and jump until you’re knocking at the door of perfection. This takes about two hours.

Endowed with just five tracks, 13 vehicles and a modest suite of modes, SROA certainly isn’t going to be eating away at your time. But it's the best kind of brief; the Vanquish kind and so you're never resigned to beavering through a seven-hour marathon, pushing around a half-mile lap 493 times. It’s brief, incisive and saccharine and it knows when to shut up and stop trying to be your friend, rather than limply urging you to show it some attention by including dozens of identical races. The limited number of tracks means the game is about refinement. You'll learn where to apply the faintest touch of brake and when to just burn through a corner like Mel Gibson. On Sega's part it's an astute move and comparable to DICE’s Battlefield 1943.

Courses do get progressively more complex – for want of a better word – some even include hairpin bends. Opening track Tropical has precisely one corner that you’re required to release the accelerator for before drifting casually through but the later winding mountain trails of Alpine and the perilously curvaceous Lakeside (about the only track where hardcore braking is necessary), amplify the difficulty.

Maps are gorgeous to plunge through at speed though. Even those resigned to the desert are somehow imbued with more primary colours than you’d catch in an entire November release schedule. Plumes of smoke billow on Canyon in the wake of a space rocket launch while snow-capped mountains loom in the distance of Alpine and yet, even half buried beneath snow, Alpine is still a jamboree of colour and feel-goodery. The tracks are each lifted from various iterations of Sega Rally but when they’re this enjoyable to cavort around and as lovingly detailed, that’s no hitch.

Included are the familiar blend of quick races and time trials prevalent in most racers. The meek collection of time trials can be raced against leaderboard ghosts and an auxiliary “classic” mode has you racing mano-a-mano against one of two traditional rally vehicles with the mode boasting its own unique track.

The undeniable highlight however, is the championship: an unorthodox deviation from the standard tournament format. Over the course of three two-lap races you have to work your way from 22nd (last place) into first. It’s impossible to do so over the course of just one of the events and so you gradually ease your way into pole position over the full three. The whole ordeal is done and dusted within 12 minutes but a sprinkling of unlockables and achievements ought to entice you back if you’re that way inclined.

Championship is rather easy, even on the arcade difficulty. When I crashed, everyone else seemed to slow down courteously and the AI drivers rarely seem to make it out of fifth gear leaving you to breeze on by assuming you remember to keep the right trigger held firmly down. SROA accommodates all.

You can't really fault the AI when it’s relaxed because this is a game about throwing your car around a mountain bend at a hundred miles an hour and getting away with it rather than squaring up earnestly to your computer adversaries. The joy stems from the mechanics and the tracks and the AI almost seems like an afterthought.

Should you win the championship you’re entered into a one-on-one race around the bonus Lakeside map to decide the tournament champion and it’s here that the bastard rubber banding rears its Elephant Man face. AI drivers rocket around right angle bends without releasing the accelerator and hurtle off from the start line leaving you wondering who sabotaged your car. Even by SROA’s physics-defying interpretation of driving metal boxes at 130mph, it’s absurd.

A humble multiplayer component that fails to live up to the game's title rounds out the package. Split-screen races as well as online support for up to 6 players – or less, with bots filling the vacant positions – are about as deep as the social experience goes but there are few people frequenting SROA’s scene anyhow.

That’s okay though. The heart of the experience lies firmly in learning and mastering those taut and beautiful courses, even if Sega thought otherwise. Its brevity may deter some but the quality here more than masks the pithy length and Sega Rally Online Arcade's blissfully adrenalized interpretation of rally is a dashing throwback to the classic racer, one that revels in its reminiscing ways.

8/10   read

8:02 PM on 07.09.2011

Evil Robot Review

Black Moon would probably like to think that with Evil Robot they’re telling the tall tale of a valiant and noble gent, fighting gallantly to rescue his hapless lady-friend from the clutches of the diabolical machine by the same name.

But that's a shabby, wonted tale and Evil Robot tells a much better one. Beneath the semblance of boy-rescues-girl lies the legend of a man dogged in his neurotic ways, one who appreciates nothing quite as much as he appreciates tidiness, system and order. That man is you.

To the player then, the girlfriend is neither here nor there. She's glimpsed early on being whisked away and that's her role satisfied until the finale. But between those bookends rests a whole world of frantic organisation, dramatic box pushing and more cursing than the entire cast of The Sopranos would be comfortable with as Evil Robot remains bent on making a mockery of your pathologic tendencies.

At its heart Evil Robot is a smart riff on Tetris with an element of platforming layered on top. Boxes rain down from the sky and you have to coerce them across the screen to form solid rows. Completed rows then evaporate, leaving you one step closer to arriving face to face with Evil Robot, the nefarious litter-fiend.

You’re free to move around the screen with character movement governed by two directional buttons in the bottom left corner and a jump button on the right. You hustle boxes left and right by walking into them or, if the box is still airborne, colliding with it in mid-air (although this comes with the threat of completely mistiming the maneuver and ending up wedged between two presumably heavy crates.) The caveat to this is our little clean-freak knight is only burly enough to shove one box at a time meaning boxes perched snuggly together are cemented there until they vanish with their row.

Failure comes when enough boxes have fallen onto your head that your life supply runs dry. You begin with 5 but by pushing together special med crates you’re granted additional lives – invaluable as the game speeds up and Evil Robot himself peers over the horizon.

But managing to bring three medkits together in the heat of boxy battle is like trying to persuade a cat to take a bath and there’s nothing as cruel as the irony of being crushed by the very same medkit you’re endeavoring to use to increase your life cache.

This process of relentless tidying goes on until 100 rows have been formed at which point Evil Robot himself manifests to duke it out proper. You won’t be battling out of vengeance because Robot snatched your betrothed, but because he constantly blighted your neat box world. At arms demon of detritus!

The whole ordeal is undermined somewhat by the fact that you’re never explicitly required to do anything but dodge falling crates. Eventually rows will form out of the mess of randomly dropped boxes and darting about lining them up is precarious work, particularly as the game increases in speed. Admittedly it’s not much fun moving from left to right like a frustrated goldfish but it’s often the most efficient way of reaching the finale.

There’s a score system in place to combat that but without leaderboards or Game Centre support the lure of super high scores is non-existent.

But then, having vanquished Evil Robot and restored orderliness to the world (and inadvertently rescued some girl along the way) you’ve seen everything the game has to offer.

It’s terse but quietly brilliant, a delightfully quirky take on a senile game. And with a thumping soundtrack and endearing artwork to boot, it comes highly recommended.

Far more importantly though, Black Moon has concocted the greatest tidying simulator on the App Store, if not anywhere: Tetris for a new generation of chronic neurotics.

8/10   read

10:45 AM on 06.12.2011

#2: The Dishwasher Vampire Smile Review

When all was said and done and the curtain fell on the morbid stage of The Dishwasher (assuming you made it), there were only two things that could be gleaned regarding the man himself:

Firstly, once upon a time he washed dishes.

Secondly, in psychotic ninja form he took no man prisoner; left no man standing; allowed no man, nor machine, the pittance of hope that he may cling to during his final, fleeting moments of life. Vehement barbarity like this hadn't reared its head since Ryu Hayabusa stood tall and proclaimed: Death to all deprived of blonde locks and jumbo boobies.

But hey, it was long overdue.

The good news then is that during the between years precious little has changed. Vampire Smile is as much a game about running from left to right while slaughtering federal agents, belligerent robots, chainsaw brandishing pumpkin men and anything else posing an infinitesimal threat to the titular hero as The Dishwasher ever was. In fact, ostensibly it’s indistinguishable from its forbearer but there’s a bevy of smart adjustments lingering behind the jamboree of slaughter and familiar macabre artwork whirring to make Vampire Smile a more accessibly brutal game; a game that likes to see you cry, but at least doles out the tissues.

Pivotally, it’s a better-balanced, fairer game than The Dishwasher. ‘Pretty princess’ is the new difficulty incorporated to allay the tyrannical ways of the former title and it does an apt job of making you feel like one. That’s partly because it’s incontrovertibly easy, but also due to it being one of several compromises made to entice tender players back.

Even played on the middling difficulties, Vampire Smile is rarely as harshly tough as before. Enemies hand out health readily on demise while food items no longer exceed the price of a diamond encrusted Nintendo 3DS, meaning it’s okay to heal in battle. There’s a liberal supply of combat perks in the form of hidden beads - of which you can equip up to four - and when it’s your turn to be lopped into meaty chunks you return with a significant dose of health and magic.

Which is all grand but the bastard heart and soul of the franchise survives through the ninja and samurai difficulties, so no worries there, and the devilishly tough arcade mode returns, pitting you against waves of enemies with a prescribed array of weaponry.

The Dishwasher himself doesn’t reprise the starring role this time round though (returning only as an additional playable character). That decoration belongs to his sibling Yuki.

Yuki is an absolute pain merchant, vigorous and perversely violent she’s the anti-Jane Eyre and her rapidly deteriorating sanity sparks some wonderfully unpredictable quirks that help shake up the routine battles.

Despite alternate weapons and a unique arsenal of violent executions, the game plays almost identically with both characters. You blaze through a melancholy world populated by evildoers with a lone goal to maim them all. There’s a light element of exploration but it would be a stretch to dust off the Metrovania tag. Vampire Smile is anchored by its combat but it’s taut enough that if breakneck speed hack and slash titles are your ticket, the four hour campaign simply does not tire.

Yuki’s exclusive trait is her blood-dash teleport, which essentially grants her carte blanche to fly about the levels with a flick of the right thumbstick. The mechanic is indistinguishable from The Dishwasher’s but he remains shackled to the standard samurai sword when teleporting. Yuki’s free to zip about without much constraint. It’s brilliant.

The blood-dash is the backbone of the combat and like Bayonetta, duels are as much about inch-perfect evasion as they are bludgeoning a robot shark with an eight-foot hammer laced with barbed wire. And there’s a similar teeth-clenching palpability to the swordplay. When you’re straddling a giant squid, pummeling tentacles into sushi with a syringe fit only for penetrating the deepest fathoms of an elephant, each pressing of the button feels like another tendon tearing.

Just like how Ninja Gaiden so effectively evoked the uninhibited cool of being a samurai and Bayonetta made you feel like a voluptuous wholesaler of suffering, Vampire Smile’s ad lib combat is gloriously and utterly empowering.

That’s helped massively by a camera that converts the vicious foray into something even more beguiling; swooping in to capture every disembowelment, impaling and execution, shuddering with each slice and tracking Yuki’s zestful movement like a magnet. While most side-scrolling cameras take a passive role, trundling alongside the player, Vampire Smile’s is a blood-lusting fanatic practically wiling you to bask in the aura of blood, entrails and bone marrow. Which is fine because that’s what Yuki likes to do in her free time.

Truth be told it can become a touch chaotic when the screen is rammed with enemies and gory effects, but 95% of the time it simply adds to the rampant ass-kicking.

Yuki’s story, on the other hand, is garbled nonsense. Revenge against the evil corporations on the moon - just about encompasses the spaghetti junction of emo-warbling and naïve anti-establishment piffle. The gibberish is relayed through some chic comic book cut scenes and harbors an air of vengeance-film but, thankfully, rarely intrudes on the carnage.

Unless you die during a boss fight, in which case you’re forced to sit through a painful five-second re-introduction. Yes, this is what happens when you crossbreed a man with a giant squid. Now let’s turn its intestines inside out, wring its throat and serve it on a platter.

Because that is what The Dishwasher is all about and frankly, it’s never been better.

8/10   read

2:33 PM on 06.04.2011

#1: Homefront Review

For veterans of the first person shooter, being ordered around is nothing to write home about and some of the subtler commands present within the genre have even come to represent a quasi-code of sorts. For example, stumbling across a crate of RPGs is generally a good indicator that you're about to be duking it out with a helicopter. Tool up or die. Bundling into a vehicle, you can expect a vapid and utterly dull turret section and even something as benign as opening a door has become the cue for absurd bullet-time sequences.

These are – to lesser and greater degrees - genre tropes, as much at home in your everyday modern combat fps as loincloths and long swords in a fantasy rpg. Homefront is down with that, hell Homefront thrives on that. It's never remotely subtle though.

Pick up that gun. Get out of the parking lot. Destroy that turret. Follow me. Get down. Climb that ladder. Cover me. Wait. Toss me off. Just a selection of the unavoidable commands present in the game.

Homefront drags you kicking and screaming through its war-torn suburban vision of future America and if you don’t play by its rules, you aren't fit for duty. Unfortunately it takes that a little too far. Case in point the befuddling: press X to jump in mass grave.

Press X to jump in mass grave is a genuine and unavoidable command in Homefront, a game about as sly as piss in the swimming pool and as intelligent as a Michael Bay rendition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest might be. It dedicates its introductory ten minutes to thrashing home the bleak atrociousness of war before tossing out the rifles and ooh ah’ing back to stupid land. Every now and again however, it remembers that it tried to make a profound point and throws in a gratuitous 'war is hell' moment. You're forced to jump into the mass grave to conceal yourself, but you could have probably hidden behind the nearby shipping containers. Or just, you know, shot everyone like usual.

Let’s rewind. It’s the year 2027, Kim Jong-il checked out a decade or so prior and his successor, Kim Jong-un, has united the two Koreas. Asian Bird Flu rocks the western world, oil prices rise, America enters financial turmoil and the newly Unified Korea goes all Third Reich on the world’s ass and invades the glorious You Ess of Ey. It’s a thoughtful and mildly captivating set up. American on the back foot? I can go for that.

In events too shocking to comprehend, that’s where you come in. You play as Mr. Jacobs – an unspoken character vacuum and ex-marine pilot. At the onset, Jacobs is doing his best to blend in with the crowd and avoid inevitable death but that’s no fun and so within a few paltry seconds of peace he’s ousted from his dingy hiding place and herded onto a school bus.

But this is no jaunt to the monthly PTA meeting and in true COD4 style you’re left to observe anarchy as the bus trundles through occupied suburbia. Cut of the jib: Koreans are a nasty bunch. They butcher parents in front of munchkins, whack women with rifles and shoot honest American men (who, incidentally, all chose to sport black jumpers and jeans on this terrible day). Invisible orphans cry, people are ushered into slave camps and someone on the bus profoundly remarks, “This is fucked.” Fucking boring more like.

Wouldn't it be nice if Belgium invaded the USA? Or Switzerland ditched the poker face and nuked us all into a parallel universe? Maybe even us Brits could reignite our passion for imperialism and embark on a new murderous crusade. I haven’t been to Korea but I’m sure they’re not all USA hating, kiddy-killing sadists.

Anyway they are in Homefront. Luckily for Jacobs resistance fighters Conner and Rianna liberate him from impending slave duties and so the fun shooting times commence. Which is why that opening imagery doesn’t sit right. Ten minutes of battering in the tragedy followed by hours of mindless murder. Hmm.

You've got to hand it to Kaos though, they've addressed one irk gnawing away at the heart of most modern combat fps titles. In Homefront your allies actually aid your fight. In fact they do most of it for you.

So much so that a task as menial as opening a door is Conner’s domain. You cannot open doors nor walk through them before everybody else in your party has and the invisible Jacob-barring wall parts way. I’ve never played a game that harbors such unbridled contempt for its player. Conner narrates the war like he’s playing Red Alert 2; his every line a directive whether it’s to follow him, risk your life darting across the front lines so he doesn't have to or simply stand still and wait while he builds another airbase back at HQ. Conner is an ignorant, narcissistic jackass.

But he serves a valuable purpose because Homefront's campaign stretches across a paltry 5 hours. Without an extended pause at every door, ladder and molehill the game probably wouldn’t make it beyond the four-hour mark. It’s really that short. The artificial elongation is at its most erroneous when you reach the exit of a flaming, rapidly crumbling building at which point you’re forced to pause for thirty seconds while the flames of death tickle your ear cavities. Why? So Conner can catch his breath and kick down the door. I could have done that. SHUT UP MAGGOT.

That wouldn’t be quite the catch-22 if those five hours boasted the greatest burst of gunplay, vengeance and ass kicking since the equally brief Vanquish. But this is a hackneyed corridor shooter, fettered by its desire to be Call of Duty and loaded with platitudes: instant death, grenade spamming, infinite enemies, awful checkpoints, etcetera. This is old Call of Duty, set to the admittedly intriguing backdrop of war-torn suburban America.

And with its hardware stores, elementary schools and baseball parks, white-picket-fence-ville proves to be a refreshing milieu. But any interest in it is quickly suffocated by sluggish mechanics and a vestigial story endeavoring at every turn to tug at the heartstrings without ever putting something on the line. At one point you turn up at a collection of civilian houses, a cul-de-sac free from the blight of the Koreans. Turns out those Koreans followed you and proceed to machine-gun the civilians into oblivion. Oops. But who cares? You’re never given any reason to.

There are moments of slight brilliance. A scene spent inside a makeshift pocket of old America (aptly named Oasis) shines from beneath the muck. Contrasted with the bleak outside world, Oasis, with its busy playground and working society, is an oddly intelligent inclusion. Suddenly there’s something at stake and with the inner workings of a society in motion the world feels likely. The residents have built tunnels to conceal their entry and are at work cooking, fixing radios and filtering water. There's a sense of community and comradeship completely absent when you're hanging out with Conner and the other one. Why didn't the game start here? Unlike Jacobs' dismal bachelor pad, Oasis makes holding off on that suicide note signature seem like the rational choice. Like Metro 2033 and Half Life 2 there’s real thought gone into this microcosm of the old world and Conner’s nowhere to be seen.

But moments like this rarely puncture the nondescript firefights and prolonged, pointless walks. Save for a few pansy sniping missions, the shooty stuff fails to reach the exhilarating heights of Homefront’s contemporaries.

It looks pretty enough, with blue skies and white picket fences juxtaposing the raw barbarity of body bags, burned out Fords and deserted homes. But there’s nothing here to make you clamber to the rooftops and sing its praises. In the first level alone I Rambo’d at least 50 bad guys and probably utilised a dozen different weapons. Where next? Oh right, more of that. Where's the foreplay?

There's no nice way of saying this and no reason to be nice, beneath the crippling support cast and turgid story quivers a vanilla Call of Duty replica. And there are plenty of them out there already.

Press X to eject disc then. Freedom Fighters did America-invaded better.

4/10   read

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