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8:43 PM on 03.21.2010

Conviction does not imply reason: Thoughts on the Splinter Cell Demo

The idea of a spy turning on the agency that created him is nothing new. It’s a staple of film, TV and video games that goes waaaay back. In the case of Splinter Cell it’s going to draw comparisons to Bourne, especially since the visceral close quarters combat of the movies is something that would translate so well to a video game if only someone could figure out a way to do it right. Fisher aping Bourne would be no bad thing, but it’s got to feel right in the hands of the player.

Splinter Cell Conviction also seems to have had a bit of an identity crisis. The uncharacteristically long development time might have hinted at the difficulties of updating a franchise for the HD generation, but it might also indicate the design team’s desire to keep the character relevant, while taking the gameplay in a different direction. Early screens of Sam Fisher sporting an emo-fringe centre parting had fanboys in hysterics, but I felt a little sad that Sam’s attempts at cultural subterfuge were discarded in preference of a greying buzz-cut.

Ubisoft had made damn sure that Sam’s three-piece night vision goggles were the game’s calling card, a signature of the character that would rival Master Chief’s golden visor, or Snake’s sweaty bandana, so I did wonder if this had been discarded in the wash. There are echoes of it on the title screen with the three red swirls, and the loading icon in the bottom left, but it encroaches on another intellectual property altogether (Predator, anyone?). The music that accompanies the title screen is reminiscent of the Bourne movies.

The demo starts proper with a neat little intro, telling the bad guys (previously the good guys) that Fisher has been spotted in Malta and that they need to bring him in, without him killing them first. This is less of a cutscene and more of a trailer, as it blips through all the new things that Fisher has added to his repertoire. Most notable is the inclusion of the Centre Axis Relock method of shooting, or as you might have called it, “that jiggy way he shoots sideways from his chest.” It doesn’t really do anything for gameplay mechanic, but it’s just one of those inclusions that reminds you that Fisher is better trained and more deadly than anybody in the game.

The demo starts with Fisher ‘interrogating’ a guy for leads in a bar’s bathroom. Both Bond and Bourne have hoofed bad guys in the john before, so here’s Fisher marking his own territory on the convention. Which he does by ramming the guy’s head through the urinal. Once or twice. There are a couple of nice touches here, first is that different parts of the bathroom are interactive. Drag the guy over to the wash basin, and watch Fisher put the guy’s face through the mirror. Second, move the guy over to a wall, and Fisher just jams it right against it. It may be a glorified cut scene, but it’s a nice touch, and flashbacks play out as a projection on the wall.

The demo proper introduces you to a couple of those neat tricks you saw in the intro. There’s an active cover system, where pointing out the spot you want to shimmy to next and hitting A will get you there double quick. You can leap out and take people down by hitting B and doing so allows you to utilise the biggest gameplay mechanic to be added to the series, marking targets for an instant takedown. Tag up to three bad guys Rainbow Six style and then hit Y to watch Sam snap shoot them in the head. Hey, it’s a neat trick, but if you really want to do it yourself, you and the right stick can be buddies.

Sam runs with a nice fluidity, but his crouch speed seems to have taken a hit (he is getting old, and crouching in hard on the knees), which doesn’t sit with just how quickly he can spring up pipes. It wasn’t until I went from a pipe to a ledge that the controls seemed a bit spongey, as Sam just bounces around without much attention to gravity or his sinewy arms. It also made it difficult to line up the insta-takedown of pulling a bad guy out of the window. Also, the soft A button-does-an-action thing appears at first glance to be well implemented - look at something, press A, do it – in reality if there are two things very close one another, you can find Sam accidentally doing the other thing. However, when this hiccup isn’t apparent, there is a lot of grace in Sam’s movements, which benefit from being a kind of military parkour.

The demo places action above stealth, and while it is possible to get from beginning to the end without being detected, it’s not possible to do so without at least alerting them to your presence (or maybe it is, I dunno). I found that I was able to get past every bad guy in the underground section with strategic use of the EMP to knock out the lights, but of course this sends them into a blind panic. It’s not quite as satisfying as leaving no trace, which is what I strived for in the previous games, but Sam is on a revenge trip here, so perhaps he wants to leave a trail of bodies, just to make a point.

I also like the black and white filter that comes in to effect when Fisher is in the shadows, with the bad guys remaining in colour. One of my peeves about the previous games was just how visible Fisher was, with all his glowing green gadgets, but now he’s not quite so luminescent in the shadows. His nightvision/infra red combo has been replaced by the Sonar Vision, which pings out a sonar wave that highlights the enemies, which must have surely been stolen from The Dark Knight (where does he get his marvellous toys?), and will no doubt annoy the SC die-hards.

I can’t imagine that the full game is going to be bad. The demo certainly hasn’t put me off getting the full thing. It's got some nice new ideas, and a snappy visual style. It’s has been on my wishlist now for well over 2 years, and now I’ve had a go on it, it has left me wanting more, but secretly hoping that the gameplay and level design is a bit more varied.   read

10:12 PM on 02.11.2010

Endure Any1?

“Endure Any1?” reads the motto of my Xbox Live buddy Sabr3 as his avatar peers out from under the gold tint visor of the Recon helmet. You have got to be kidding me, right? I went out this evening to socialise, fuelled by the nagging suspicion that I might not meet the girl of my frickin’ dreams spending every Friday night with the curtains drawn playing Halo, and this is how I get paid? I did not spend time with real people of the flesh and blood variety so that my ragtag crew of ODST firefight achievement grubbers could steamroller ahead and obtain Endure in my absence. I’d been working on this all week.

You see, regardless of what the smug commentators of various Youtube guides will tell you, Endure is Not Easy. The achievement reads “In Firefight, on any mission, pass the 4th Set on 4-player Heroic LIVE co-op.” Sure, it sounds simple, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it even sounds easy, and I’m sure for all the dudes who eat, sleep, and ejaculate Halo, and have done since Halo 3 dropped over two years ago, it was mind numbingly, jaw-clenchingly teeth-grindingly easy.

Firefight in ODST is essentially survival mode. Wave after wave of Covenant spawn at regular intervals and you have to shoot them until they die. There’s five waves to a round, three rounds to a set, and each set is punctuated with a bonus round. You have to sail through four of these to get the Endure achievement. It takes about two hours if you and your three compadres spend every waking hour teabagging newbs in Team Slayer, and about two hours fifteen if you’re just a regular dude with a bunch of guys who completed the campaign on Heroic because Legendary would take all week, and you have other stuff to do.

There are three main obstacles to overcome in order to obtain the Endure achievement. These are: finding three other people with whom to attempt it, who do not suck, and have good (nay, reliable) internet connections. If you are lucky, the planets will align and all three conditions will be blessed upon you on your first attempt and Endure will simply be another achievement in the footnote of your Gamerscore and merely a pleasant way to pass one hundred and fifty minutes with some new friends. Chances are that one of these three criteria will be absent, but the only way to discover this is to first get deep into the firefight.

Finding people is fairly straightforward. A well-timed post on a forum, bathroom wall, or in the comments of a Youtube video will net you literally several responses. The difficulty comes in bringing all these disparate souls together in one lobby at the same point in time. This in itself can take an hour or more, with friends of friends popping in to say, “oh, you’re doing Endure? I just wanted a Firefight, I don’t have time for Endure,” before buggering off to meet whatever social or penal appointment they couldn’t shirk.
Finding people who are good is another matter entirely. You may not notice until you are forty minutes into the attempt that the guy who was quite chatty in the lobby hasn’t responded to a single instruction the whole time, and spent the entire time either dying, or firing a fuel-rod cannon up the adjacent player’s arse. The clue is that by the end of the first set, you have nearly a third of the score. If you have half of the current score, you are not doing well. Another clue is that you have only died once, but have less than ten lives remaining. The only real way to find out who is the weak link in your Xbox Live matchmaking exercise is to utterly fail and check the post-game stats. This is where you find out that one guy died over twenty times and contributed less than ten per cent of the final score. A regular Halo 3 buddy of mine put it like this, “there are two types of players going for Endure, people who are good at Halo who just got ODST cos it’s cheap, and people who suck at Halo.” I hoped that I was in the former category.

Having a good connection is vital. Lag is okay, and good players will compensate and it won’t slow them down too much, but if the connection drops out and one player’s machine doesn’t keep up, then the whole thing will crap out dumping you back in the lobby. There is nothing worse than rounding the second set with twenty lives remaining having just won an Invincible medal to have the whole thing freeze up while the sound loops for three minutes before returning to the lobby where the guiltless facades of your teammates stare back at you.

I have suffered all of these pitfalls. Last Monday I was the witless newb holding everyone back. Tuesday I found some good players and started to find a rhythm, but no real plan had emerged and we still struggled to make it through the first set. Things gelled on Wednesday, but we crapped out in the ultimate wave of the fourth set. Reconvening on Thursday, a new player in the fourth spot brought connection problems resulting in a good run going bad at the beginning of the fourth set.

So Friday is when I eschewed Endure for socialising that didn’t involve a plastic headset, only to come back at 4am and find out that my Halo teammates with whom I’d spent a week developing and honing my skills had big fat done it without me. Which kind of made me feel like the weak link that was just holding everyone back. “Yeah mate, we just sort of breezed through it. Had about twenty lives by the end of it, simple” they said as I scrabbled around trying to find some people who were good, with good connections, who would let me piggyback their achievement. No such luck, as I found myself back at square one, but this time being the good player in a team of swill, watching the lives count circle the drain attempt after attempt.

I finally found some good players, and got deep into the fourth set, but the lives count was always precariously a single figure, and after each round someone would say, “oh we’re not gonna make it” having spent the round charging everything down with sticky grenades and a grav hammer, chewing through lives like a second stringer quarterback chews gum. Unhelpfully, one of the dudes had his mic set to ‘friends only’ (“too much Modern Warfare 2” apparently) so I didn’t hear a word he said and vice versa. The post game carnage report highlighted why we had failed so miserably. My eight deaths and fifty-to-one kill/death ratio was seriously undermined by their having 60 deaths between them. The Modern Warfare dude had an impressive 35,000 points and 23 deaths, to my 115,000 and 8.

Previously, with the guys who then went on to complete Endure without me, I had reached the final wave of the fourth set, only to watch our eight lives evaporate like dog-piss on a hot pavement. Checking the leaderboards told a similar story for some of the other guys I’d played with previously. Team scores of 600k, but no cigar. People who said, “oh yeah, I got that on my second try” got struck from my friend list. Most telling was the time I joined a party just as the four players had completed Endure (to ask them if they wanted to do Endure, great timing as ever), and amongst the self-congratulatory whoops and hollers, one of the players said, “guys, I gotta go, I should call my girlfriend. I think we broke up…” to which his Xbox Live buddies consoled, “why do you care, man? You just got Endure!”

It became something of a daily ritual, same bat-time same bat-channel, trying to grind out Endure with the same couple of faces. Give it the best attempt, and if lag or lack of skill did us in quickly, take another stab at it before calling it quits for the night. I did finally get Endure, but it wasn’t without incident. Firstly, it took a good hour to assemble a team in the lobby. Ahead of time, a friend binged me a message to say that he was ready, willing and able, only to disappear for 40 minutes into Team Fortress 2. Just as he finally joined, my router decided to throw a wobbly, and boot me out of Live. Rather than risk this happening during our Endure run, I hunted around for a long enough patch cable to run from my box right into the router. This took about 10 minutes, and of course to my buddies, it looked as though I’d just upped and left. So it was no surprise to find that one of my team had logged off for the night, so we had to wait another 15 minutes for a fourth guy to appear. An unknown element, who could very possibly suck and drag us all down.

To make matters worse, the party-chat that was hunky-dory in the lobby, but went to shit as soon as the game started. I only had one guy in my ear, and had to assume he was the only one who could hear me since the other two guys didn’t respond to any of my instructions, startling wit, or cracks at their expense. This continued until the end of Set 1 where I could no longer converse with anyone at all. It took me until the beginning of the final round to pull out my headset and realise that I could then hear everyone talking to each over through my speakers. I plugged my headset back in when we quit out of the fifth set in anticipation of the post-game lobby debrief, only to find that it worked and I could hear everyone again. One guy said, “I have a friend who wants me to help him get Endure, but now I’ve actually got it, there’s no way I want to go through all that again.”

I know how he feels. It explains perfectly why all the guys who forged on without me and offered to help me get it later on all ducked the invites when I sent them out. It’s the same reason that when someone who has been reading the bathroom walls in the service stations off the M4 bings me a message that says, presumptuously, “Endure?” that they get a swift reply of, “Never Again.” So if you got it first time, second time, or thereabouts and in your eyes anyone who took a little longer to reach those dizzying heights is a grotty no0b suckling at the taet of your milky greatness, good for you. Seriously, I mean it, you’re awesome. Don’t take any time off! If you’re still slugging away at it, or will take a stab when you finally get round to playing ODST, good luck – you have my very best wishes. And no, I will not help you…


4:47 PM on 01.18.2010

Dark Void Demo is Null and

There is a school of thought, and one to which I subscribe, that states: do not name your video game after something that can mean something else. Be it a double entendre, a backhanded compliment, or an unwitting acronym, this is the same school of thought which states that if your surname is Head you do not name your first son Richard. Likewise, if you are making a first person shooter based on the trials and tribulations of the Eleventh Airborne in the Pacific theatre, you don’t call it Airborne Rifle Squad Eleven. Indeed, if you are compiling a CD of the greatest hits of the greatest hits of all time, you don’t call it, HITSHITS.

Which makes me wonder why this game is called Dark Void. A couple of things spring to mind, and the first is that the obvious meaning of void is ‘empty space’, a black hole, or an abyss. If something is truly comprised of nothing, then that includes light, which makes the prefix of ‘Dark’ completely superfluous. It’s like saying ATM Machine or sweet honey, or high mountain. Unfortunately, void has other meanings, which mostly revolve around lack of content, being vacant, useless, ineffectual and in vain. Problematically for the creators of this game, void also means to evacuate, as in, void one’s bowels. This voids (if I may) the above-mentioned school of thought that states, that one should not name one’s prized intellectual property upon which one will stake their very reputation, after the act of taking a shit.

The splash screen doesn’t give much of the game away. It’s reminiscent of Aliens, insofar that it has a glowing slit of light in the centre, which is hardly reflective of the ‘dark’ part of the title. The first words uttered in the opening cutscene, “aw, crap,” echo the alternative meaning of the word ‘void’, and the main character, who looks like a downed WWII bomber tinkers with something with a large wrench. The game gets going, and without much explanation the main dude is running along with a BFG and a jetpack. A voice in his ear explains how to use the jetpack, implying that he’s never used it before, and as you leap from a waterfall halfway up a cliff, you do wonder how he got up there to begin with if he hadn’t used the ‘pack.

I spent the first few seconds of flight bumping aimlessly down the face of the cliff, and no amount of input on the left or right stick would point me in any other direction than jagged rock. I finally managed to right myself and still have no idea what I’m supposed to me doing. Voice in ear says something like, take out a communication tower? I bounce into a glowing dome with some important looking stuff underneath it. Obviously, I’m not supposed to go that way yet.

I find out that by pressing A I am able to hover in one place and fire my normal weapon instead of the guns attached to the jetpack whilst in flight mode. The only problem with this is that the recoil on the BFG I’m hucking about is much that a perfectly aimed shot will not find its target on account of the gun bucking so far up, and the tracers illustrate this lack of accuracy by zipping over the top of the comms tower.

Flying is a bitch to control. The left stick controls the pitch and yaw (up down, left right), like an aeroplane, up is down and down is up, and the right stick controls the roll (spinning on the forward axis) with left and right. This is a monumental clustercuss for me to get to grips with. Not only that, but something in my house smells reminiscent of an exes’ perfume, and I’m pretty sure she’s not hiding anywhere. It’s distracting to say the least.

I somehow manage to destroy all the communication towers without flying into their mangled wreckage and I await further instructions. Unfortunately for me further instructions require pulling off ‘manoeuvres’ with the ‘pack and this involves pressing the right stick down and then pulling the left and the right stick in some combination and my guy does something. It doesn’t give you much more to go on than that, but I guess this is an Important Part of The Game, because I’m getting a mini tutorial on it.

Without much feedback on how I did, a cutscene arrives telling me that I have to take out an anti-aircraft gun. My understanding of AA guns is that they shoot down planes, so with that thought in mind, I fly my fleshy bag of blood and bones directly towards Instant Death with the rocketpack guns blazing. Clearly this Rocketeer wannabe is made of sterner stuff than the WWII plane he looks like he was shot out of, because he sucks up the high calibre rounds like they’re tapioca pudding.

I land on the platform where the AA once stood, and some UAVs turn up to shoot at me. Now clearly, standing upright and shooting them down is not what I’m supposed to do, because the unforgiving recoil of the ridiculous gun I’m carrying ineffectually pisses ammo into the air with a 100% miss-rate. I take to the skies to take these bastards out. Or at least, bounce off the cliffs for a bit. Even then it takes me a while to find the things to shoot at, because while the radar is helpful enough to tell you where these things are in relation to me on a 2D plane, it doesn’t give any indication of their third axis, i.e. their height, so I still have no idea where they are until they shoot at me, and even then it’s touch and go.

Inevitably my guy dies, and I wish I’d chosen to play this on casual setting so that the game plays itself and I might stand a chance. This is when I realise that pressing LB locks onto a target and then I get the difficult task of lining my guns up with it. Thanks for telling me I could do that, where was the tutorial for that one? I die again because even though I can now see the badguy, I can’t actually kill it cos I have no concept of how to control my guy in relation to it. If I get close enough, a large red B appears over the flying saucer, which if pressed launches my character into a quicktime event, presumably so I can take it out without shooting it down.

And that’s where I have to leave this demo. It would be unkind to call this an unplayable mess just because I can't get to grips with it, but a lack of intuitive control and little exposition or guidance as to how to do anything makes for a particularly jarring experience. I’ve said before that demos either allow you play a game that you’re giddy with hype about before you buy it, or to confirm that games you’ve never heard of aren’t worth your time or money, and this demo definitely falls into the latter category. My interest in this game is void, as in null and.   read

1:22 PM on 01.10.2010

Peter Molyneux Hates Demos

Foreword: I wrote this piece back in November last year to accompany a job application I made to a well known video game magazine and I'm posting it now verbatim, which is why it's a little out of date. I was going to expand on it, but it gave me an idea for another post altogether, so will work on that instead.

The headline “Peter Molyneux Hates Demos” exploded across gaming blogs last month after the new creative director of Microsoft Game Studios in Europe sat down with Edge to discuss Lionhead’s decision to release Fable II on Xbox Live in five episodes. As comment boards across the blogosphere rushed to the defence of game demos with adolescent sarcasm, I couldn’t help but feel that they had largely missed the point.

Molyneux described demos as “the death knell of experiences” and I agree that sometimes demos don’t properly represent a game’s core mechanics well enough to offer the gamer a unified experience. Consequently they don’t enjoy it and so they don’t buy it. Molyneux’s bold experiment is to take a game which is already wholly developed and offer it to consumers in episodes, allowing the consumer to purchase additional content as they progress into the game. Lionhead need only break the game into chunks and work out the finer details of delivery.

Despite the simplicity of the idea, episodic gaming has a poor track record, where the promise of smaller, more frequent updates gave way to the reality of infrequent larger updates. As much as I loved Half Life 2 back in 2004, it’s been a clear two years since Episode 2 and details of Episode 3 are still thin on the ground. With even less success, SiN Episodes had the admirable intention of releasing an episode that comprised of six hours of gameplay every six months, but since the release of the first episode in May 2006 all development on future episodes has ceased. In the meantime, the core concept has morphed into the far more successful guise of downloadable content, with Fallout 3 and GTAIV being notable titles to carry quality episodic expansions.

So Molyneux’s hatred of demos is reasonable when you consider that they perform an unreliable promotional role. They fill the gap left between previews, reviews and actually buying the physical product and playing it yourself. I can’t think of a demo that I’ve played which has made me want to buy the whole game, but I’ve played plenty of demos for games I already knew I wanted to get, and in some cases the demo was enough to convince me otherwise. So while they can be counter-productive, demos remain enduringly popular because they give eager fanboys who are drunk on hype the chance to taste a game ahead of the release date. Savvy developers then attach these blockbuster demos and betas to otherwise anonymous games, giving such titles a hefty sales boost on the back of a ‘free’ demo.

Molyneux’s new vision for demos in a modern content delivery service is reliant on the flexibility and scalability of online services like Steam and Xbox Live. I can imagine turning on my machine, choosing to play any game on the market and at a certain point in proceedings, paying to unlock further sections of the game. When a game like Fable II is offered in this way, it’s not so much episodic as incremental. Its merit is that I pay only for the content of the game I actually consume, and should I lose interest in it, I haven’t paid full whack to play half a game.

As a concept, it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary - being a conceptual mash-up of shareware, retro coin-ops, episodic gaming and downloadable content. The convenience comes from having that fatband, always-on, datapipe pumping gigabytes into your living room, like the technological soothsayers always predicted. Infinium Labs attempted to provide just that back in 2002 with their appropriately named Phantom game system, before disappearing six years later having failed to bring the product to market. It was always going to be the heavyweights who finally created the infrastructure to provide content in this manner, as it serves their interests to short-circuit piracy, and strip games of their resale value.

If I were cynical, I would say that Lionhead’s decision to give away the first episode of the game is a demo by any other name, but despite Molyneux’s propensity for aggrandised assertions, it might just work. As an experiment in selling games incrementally to the end user, it’s the kind of ambition I’ve come to expect from Molyneux, and provides a genuine glimpse of the future of digital distribution. I will have to sit this one out however, because I’ve already bought Fable II, played it, and flipped it on eBay, all without once playing a demo.   read

8:21 AM on 12.07.2009

Cut yourself on Angels' Hair - Bayonetta Xbox Demo

There are two kinds of demos that I review: those for games I have never heard of and are invariably rubbish, and those for games that I want to play so badly that I’m prepared to partway spoil my future enjoyment of them by sneaking a glimpse of them in demo form.

Bayonetta is somewhere in between, as it’s a game I know very little about, and didn’t have much interest in playing, that is until Edge Magazine gave it a clear 10 and made it the most important game on my horizon and must be sampled at any cost. This, in the same month that they also reviewed Modern Warfare 2, Assassin’s Creed II and Left 4 Dead 2, the only game to push past a 9 into the near legendary Edge 10 score was the one game in the line up I hadn’t heard of.

Having not played Devil May Cry since the first outing on PS2 back in 2001, or any game like it since, I have no genuine idea what to expect with Bayonetta. The intro movie does nothing to clue me in. Something about evil and never being allowed to run amok and so on. It’s probably a fair assumption that all this gets largely overlooked in order to let Dante’s female equivalent kick vampire equivalent ass all over the shop. For this is light and dark, heaven and hell, ying and yang, marmite and jam.

The short tutorial introduces you to the combat concepts required to navigate the game. Simple punches, kicks and gunplay meld seamlessly into impressive combos that you can easily break out of at any time. Add to the mix a nifty little evade/counter move that if timed correctly will a trigger a ‘witch’ (read ‘bullet’) time slowdown for you to exact maximum return damage on your hapless foes.

Then take all that and chuck it out of the window, because as soon as the game starts you will have no idea what the fuck is going on. Bayonetta, you see, is riding the face of a giant crumbling clocktower as it tumbles into the abyss, and winged angels flock to her with bladed sceptres.The camera swoops down to where she stands, not unlike a sexy librarian with her sensible glasses, which act as a foil to her leathery garb and gun barrels for high heeled stilettos. She elegantly sashays into a fighting stance and the epileptic explosion of phantasmagoria that peals out in all directions like an electric storm, dazzles and confuses. You, the player, exist merely at the event horizon of this particular blackhole of wanton and inventive destruction, but still retain unparalelled control over the proceedings.

The sheer depth of visual detail is staggering, and it’s almost a shame that the camera is set so far back from the witch, because it feels like you only snatch glimpses of her grace and beauty from afar in those rare moments between doling out chunks of the old ultraviolence to dogooder angels. Slinking towards enemies with a catwalk strut, one hand on her hip and the other at full stretch strewing bullet cases in all directions, Bayonetta is the personification of sex and death. A grim reaper with designer glasses and a skintight leather catsuit.

The Bullet Climax is exactly that, a vivid orgasm of flying shells and gunwank carnage. As the camera whips around Bayonetta’s lithe forms, it’s hard not to feel to feel that this is sexualised violence at its most penetrating. She looks as though she is cast in vinyl. Dispatching angels turns them into the fine mist of claret we’ve all come to enjoy in such games, and they spew forth gold rings that Bayonetta gobbles up like an S&M Sonic the Hedgehog. The so called Torture attacks allow her to heel enemies into conjured traps such as the Iron Maiden, or grind their fair features onto nearby furniture. Angels drop weapons which you can happily wield, even those which seem too cumbersome or oversized for your slender frame, magically morph into more manageable items.

The scene is as busy as a street in New York, and there is so much going on in the background that you will only pay it proper attention when it encroaches your personal space. Floating behemoths slam down onto the arena, and catapult the witch to new surfaces, linked only by a graceful cutscene which mercifully doesn’t require any quicktime input from you, the player, so you can simply take a breather and marvel.
This is merely the prologue it seems, a teaser for the main event. The story starts proper with Bayonetta seated in a Victorianesque train into an art deco station. This would appear to be Heaven, where most of the fetishistic bloodshed is to take place. She kicks her heels, shoots her cuffs, and smirks, “and they call this paradise?”

It might just be, for the visual flair is astounding. The way butterflies splash from her heels as she lands, tassels and sleeves snaking her every movement. Ethereal forms haunt the quiet paths and Bayonetta is free to walk through their very spirits, and they shimmer into a less discernable form to accommodate her. When the angels descend and the action kicks off, a mere nod and her twin pistols are unholstered, brandished with a flourish of confetti whilst she stands ankle deep in daisies. A double jump produces a set of butterfly wings that keep Bayonetta juggling gravity for just a moment longer and when you are low on health, demon hands claw the edge of the screen. This really is like no paradise I have ever seen in a video game.

Bayonetta is a rare demo indeed. On the basis of the Edge review alone, I was prepared to pre-order this game without a second glance, and rather than convince me otherwise, the demo has confirmed that the full game is going to be nothing short of batshit insane. It has convinced me, I am sold, sign me up, I’ll eat a slice.   read

8:44 AM on 12.01.2009

Mail 4 Order: or Why Tesco Upset a Lot of People last Weekend

I am in the grip of some kind of zombipocalypse fervour. This all came about when I read on that Tesco Entertainment, which is the media mail order arm of Britain’s largest supermarket, were offering Left 4 Dead 2 on Xbox for a mere £15 ($25) with free delivery. This was then followed up by Steam’s Black Friday/Cyber Monday extravaganza during which the original Left 4 Dead cost a mere £6.50 ($10), so I snapped that up too. As if this tasty brainathon couldn’t get any more exciting, Threadless had their Black Friday sale, where all tees were £5.50 ($9), which meant I could pick up this gem among a few others.

So for less than £30 spent a whole host of zombie butchering mayhem awaited. However, it didn’t exactly pan out that way as you could probably imagine, as Tesco realised that selling a brand new game for £15 was a wild and scurrilous mistake. In days gone by a witless online retailer may have simply honoured the deal rather than upset those concerned, but with the advent of twitter and blogs such as savygamer, they must have had thousands of orders at this price.

So I got an email saying that my order had been cancelled and here was a £2 voucher for my inconvenience. I’d already been playing L4D on the PC for 24 hours by this point, such is the convenience of digital distribution. Steam didn’t clock me after the fact to say, “oooh, £6.50, what were we thinking? The boy who enters the prices is going to get quite the whipping… it should have read £25! £2 off instead sound good?” and then delete my rights to play it (grrr, DRM).

It’s a bit of a no brainer (no pun intended) for Tesco to pull the plug on all those orders. Contrary to popular myth, a retailer in England and Wales is not obliged to sell mispriced goods at the price advertised. Making a mistake on the price of an item does not amount to misrepresentation, and any retailer worth his highstreet salt would argue that prices are not an offer of sale, which you accept when you use the checkout, thereby creating a contract , but rather it is an ‘invitation to treat’.

Very simply, a contract exists only when there is offer and acceptance. Someone may offer to sell you something, and you accept by agreeing to buy it. Conversely, if you offer to buy something, the contract is formed when the seller accepts your offer. An invitation to treat is simply fancy legal speak for a seller making his product and price known to the buyer so that the buyer can be the one to make an offer.

The other thing to bear in mind is that online retailers are wholly automated, so even if the price is wrong, simply checking out will result in a conformation of the order, which would be an acceptance in any other circumstances and a contract would then exist. However, retailers are wise to this and know full well that while a contract almost certainly exists at this point, they can add terms to that contract that favour their rights over yours at the point of confirmation. When you first checkout for the first time, many retailers will have you check a box that says that you agree to the terms and conditions of the sale, and this means that once you complete the purchase those terms and conditions are incorporated into the contract and are binding on both parties.

So where does that leave me and L4D2? Tesco were kind enough to have a clear and concise terms and conditions displayed on their website: “If, by mistake, we have under priced a product, we will not be liable to supply that product to you at the stated price, provided that we notify you before we despatch the product to you. In those circumstances, we will notify the correct price to you so you can decide whether or not you wish to order the product at that price.”

Yes, it’s annoying, yes it would have been nice for Tesco to automatically dispatch my copy before they realised the error, but I can understand why they backtracked very quickly. I won’t be utilizing my £2 voucher, thus saving the Big-T even more money on their damage limitation, mainly because £35 for the full-price game isn’t much of a bargain. I’ll just keep an eye out on and pick it up when it hits the far more reasonable £20-£25 mark. I’ve got plenty to be getting on with in the meantime, not least my £6.50 copy of L4D and a suitable tshirt to wear whilst playing it…

Postscript. Checking the twitterstream, it appears that some people did indeed get the £15 price honoured. Lucky them.   read

6:32 PM on 11.23.2009

Life is Short, Wear a Tropico Shirt

A lot of games have dropped in the past few weeks that have enjoyed the kind of pre-release hysteria that persuades publishers of lesser titles to consider foregoing the holiday season sales rush and launch their own offerings in the New Year. These are the kind of games that enjoy such juggernautingly, bone-crushingly, behemothanical, titanic hype that they don’t need to float a demo to meet their colossal sales estimates. So, in this curious winter garden, cast in the dark shadow of recent monoliths, I find the demo of Tropico 3, a game so good and so well marketed, that I’ve never in fact heard of it. Consequently, I had to dare myself to download it. You don’t want to know what the forfeit for not doing so was.

There must be at least five games I’d rather be playing right now that the Tropico demo, but since I do not presently enjoy gainful employment, I have to be a little more frugal in my video game expenditure. I really did expect 2009 to be the year in which I gently tanned on the rotisserie grill of Beelzebub’s own satanic barbeque, yet it would appear that even my best Faustian intentions were well and truly scuttled. Indeed, as it happens I now have plenty more time to play video games, but no means by which to acquire them. And this is a painful and cruel irony that is not lost upon me.

The intro Tropico 3 illustrates a conflict on a tropical island in 1949, and then again in 1952, and 1957, then 1961 (tourists with nuclear explosions), 1965, 1970 with industry and construction, 1973 dudes being chased by army types, 1978, very urban, some simcityesque driving about, 1982 and its dépêche mode and more tourists. Once this has played through once, it invites me to ‘press any button to rule’. This introduction has given me absolutely nothing to go on gameplay wise, and instead alludes to a foul dictatorship full of wanton debauchery, opulence and human rights violations. It is a clear nod a certain Carribean Island’s chequered history, throughout the cold war. It’s a thin veil of obscurity, which won’t fool anyone who has read a history book. It’s Cuba, okay? Let’s move on.

New game: tutorial. Why not? After all, I probably ought to know how to play it before I get stuck in. The loading screen has quotes by Robert Orben and Victor Hugo, which give me some clues as to the game’s political and comedic leanings. The tutorial tells me one thing and one thing only. This game would be easier to play with a mouse and a keyboard. And with the music turned off. And with the tutorial voice actor turned off.

Tropico as it turns out is a 3D topdown managethemup in the vein of SimCity, Ceasar, Settlers, SimCity 2000, and er, every game since that has aped SimCity in any shape or form. This is probably a good thing, because if could have back all the hours I’ve sunk into SimCity in one of its many guises, I’d have enough time to make my fortune, start and raise a family, or at least build a small wall. However, all these experiences have been on the PC. Shuffling through menus of citizen stats and telling minions to go off and build stuff has never transposed especially well to the console controller.

So I’d love to give this demo a fair crack of the whip, but I’m damned if I’m gonna sink a couple of hours into learning how to play a game with a controller that I could just pick up and play without much introduction on the PC. There’s still some mileage to be had from Civ4 instead, and the myriad expansion packs I got with the complete edition. I feel that I’ve only scraped the surface of the extra content on that one, and what about Empire Total War? Looks like I have some busy days ahead of me before I get stuck into something different.

The whole not having a job thing is weighing heavy too, since I found myself refraining from dropping a mere slice on Rolando 2 because I hadn’t in fact successfully conquered the first one. As with Tropico 3, there’s no way I’m gonna drop any cash on the full game because a) games like this suck using a controller, b) I don’t have any cash, and c) I didn’t complete the first two games. Not that jumping into a series isn’t worthwhile further down the franchise (can’t think of an appropriate example), but as time-sinks go, I’m not especially enamoured at the prospect of putting a jaunty latin spin on what essentially boils down to SimCity Cuba.   read

8:11 AM on 11.05.2009

Left 4 Demo 2

It was a cool reminder for me to hear the Valve splash motif when the demo starts up. It’s been a while since The Orange Box and this is irrevocably linked in my mind with Half Life 2, so when I hear it I’m already expecting Gordon Freeman to show up. It’s a bit like no matter how many episodes of The Wire I watch (appropriately I was playing as Coach, who will bang your mom), when I hear and see the HBO ident, I expect to hear the intro music for Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now I’m imagining Gordon Freeman running around City 17 committing social faux pas and making it worse with a crowbar and headcrabs.

If Curb your Enthusiasm is a show about people’s differing social conventions, then Left 4 Dead 2 is similarly about trying not to upset your teammates. As much as it’s about shooting hordes of fast paced zombies as they bear down on you, it’s just as much if not more about looking after the three people at your shoulders. In the thick of it, it’s pretty easy to get carried away hoofing vicars that you neglect the safety of your teammates and rip through them with whatever automatic weapon you’re currently toting.

One of my friends was playing the demo, so I jumped straight into her game. She tweeted earlier in the evening that she was going to try it, and hoped that she didn’t get nightmares. I am certainly gonna have nightmares tonight, about being shit at video games. Having never played Left 4 Dead until this very demo, I had no idea how difficult it was. It also didn’t help me, or my allies that my mic headset is busted right now, which made me a bit like Rob Lowe in The Stand. Deaf, mute and devastatingly handsome, if a little annoying.

Ordinarily when I write up demos, I try to describe things as I see them. Study the intro, critique the menus, and point out the obvious and the not so obvious. I didn’t really get that chance with L4D2. You see, it kind of drops you right in it, and then doesn’t let up. After an hour I found that a good way to recover was to press start and choose “Take a Break”. This brought me into spectator mode, and the AI took over my character. Being able to jump in and out like this is nice for toilet breaks, beer breaks and lying on your side and crying breaks. It wasn’t that I was bored, it kinda felt like it, but it wasn’t until I sat out for five minutes that I realised what it was. I was exhausted.

Those first few rounds, where I deduced we must have been playing on the Bastard Hard difficulty, I felt like the useless dude holding everybody back. They had to constantly get me back on my feet, as I bumbled about trying to figure the controls. When I managed to get my shit together, I realised just how much I had been holding them back, and even no words were spoken between us, the resentment was palpable. I felt guilty every time I used a medpack and my teammates were themselves circling the drain. I felt like I owed them. I don’t usually feel like I owe people in real life. Let alone in a video game. Let alone in a demo.

With the amount of opportunities to save my compadres from the unrelenting zombie horde I found myself falling over my teammates in an attempt to revive downed allies, either with some harsh words (“You telling me that scratch was keeping you down??”) or with a handy disposable defibrillator. The satisfaction of helping your buddies out with medpacks is that when you’re on the fine-dining end of a big plate of zombie mixed grill, they may swoop in and return the favour.

Or they may not, because for all the buddy-buddy, I got your back, you got mine camaraderie, at the end of the day everyone is trying their best to take care of their own shit. If that means that by the time you’ve dragged yourself to the ammo drop all the medpacks are gone and your so-called allies are looking pretty well fed, you can rest assured that when the shit inevitably hits the fan, they will be chewing off the end of that health picking your sorry ass out of the zombie juice and dusting you off. As painful as it can be to constantly be looking out for the other players, it’s a damn sight easier than running the gauntlet with a man down.

So the experience of playing with friends was completely overshadowed by playing with douchebags in a quick match fixture. Despite having near 100 health in the park, getting hit by a hunter was game over for me, because the other players weren’t too interested in helping me out. It also didn’t help that at the first checkpoint, someone closed the door before I made it through, and every time I opened it, the jackass on the other side closed it immediately. This went on for about a minute, which in the Zombiepocalypse, is a really long time. The exact same thing happened when we made it to the truck, but this time with two people on the outside. It culminated in the other player inside the truck shooting the doucheplayer, and when we got in and managed to finish him off, the fourth guy revived him, but not me. WTF is up with that? When we finally managed to kick him, he just came straight back in to pick up where he left off.

Left 4 Dead 2 strikes me as a game of social niceties. I had a lot of fun playing with the guys who stuck together, helped out every chance they got, and understood that part of the reckless charm of a good co-op game is just trying to get shit done, even if sometimes that means you have to hog the last medpack. Considering I was micless, they were pretty sporting when I bumbled around a corner on my own to disturb witches. Playing with douches utterly derailed the whole experience for me, because this game simply does not work with a deathmatch, every man for himself, teamkilling mentality.   read

7:45 PM on 10.21.2009

New Wave of Brutal Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)

Brutal Legend has been a long time coming. I’ve spent quite a bit of my life playing games that were created by Tim Schafer and I can still give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete Monkey Island 2, even after sinking a few beers. I'd then drunkenly explain why Psychonauts is still worth shelling out for on Xbox Live and why I love you.

So true to form, I’m reviewing this demo at least 10 days after the game is on general release, and if I weren’t presently so embarrassingly destitute I would have no doubt bought it already. Unfortunately for me, times are tough, the recession marches on, and I have to make-do with whatever Tim Schafer Esq cleared for ‘promotional purposes only’ on Xbox Live.

The Double Fine splash screen has the ever-endearing conjoined twins Axl’d up with bandanas and leather trousers. A suitably glam voice screams “Dooouble Fiiiii-aaaayn!” after a little guitar crunch. This cuts to a wooden tabletop where some real-life hands (Jack Black’s one would believe) place a Brutal Legend LP front and centre. Some diegetic Judas Priest/Iron Maiden-esque metal is played low in the background, like a turntable in another room. I recognised Sabbath’s Symptom of the Universe. The LP looks to be well loved, with nice worn edges. The grimy price sticker in the top right reads “6.66” and the Brutal Legend motif is reminiscent of any number of METAL! insignias. A big red sticker glows “Press Start.”

This is no splash screen: the LP is the menu. This is a Nice Touch. The music gets a little bit louder. Flipping the left stick right cycles through the menu, and Jack Black’s hands explore the whole LP. Back cover, pulling out the sleeve, then the disc, and then the reverse of the disc. It is neither premature, nor needless hyperbole, to hail this menu as the “Best Menu Ever” – a work of staggering genius. I recognise Metallica’s Diamondhead's “Am I Evil?”

Okay, enough of this, let’s hit New Game before I tear up in wanton nostalgia. The difficulty levels come up. I’m a little disappointed that they’re not worked into the LP menu, but they come in three flavours: Gentle, Normal and Brutal. I’ll just go with Normal in this instance.

It zooms into the mountain on the LP, all the way, and it becomes a stage and backstage, we see Eddie Riggs hunched over a guitar smoking a cigarette. The pop culture references are spread thick, like peanut butter on a bagel, and this is undoubtedly a Good Thing. Not just because it’s a witty sideswipe at the rap-metal-electro-emopop-teenybashers, but because it illustrate perfectly just how medieval leather-strapped, oversized-beltbuckled, black-number-one’d Heavy Metal is in comparison. I’m gonna guess that most people’s exposure to Ozzy is through MTV’s The Osbornes.

The cutscene continues and one of the bandmembers bounds up the giant stage monument and out on one the protruding beams. Eddie Riggs doesn’t like this, so clenching his fist he cries out to the hapless popstar, “Get down from there you stupid motherfu…” and a neat little menu comes out of his mouth. It gives you two options regarding swearwords: “I want to hear every nasty syllable” or “It’s funnier if you bleep it out.” I’m gonna be honest with you here: having just referenced The Osbornes, I think it probably IS funnier to bleep it out. Even so, this is a very novel and unpatronising approach to game censorship.

In saving the teenybopper, our hero manages to unleash a giant metal helldog when he bleeds onto his beltbuckle. Another choice pops up, this one regarding gore: “Okay, but only when it really would look very awesome” or “No gore, please!” I’m not prudish about the old ultraviolence, so I hit the claret option. The crowd go wild for this shiny chrome helldog and it all fades to black, spare his burning eyes. Another nice touch, the “loading” font in the bottom right is reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s logo.

Eddie wakes up in another realm, there are some badguys, they go right for him, and in a perfect Benny Hill moment, they come up one flight of stairs while you peg it down the other and grab a giant axe, Sword in the Stone style, out of a burning crack in the room’s floor. He holds it aloft, and the screen overlays a comicbook style introducing this weapon as “The Separator”. I could cry. I'm definitely welling up.

Having hacked and slashed the metal-wraiths into red mist, you get hold of Eddie’s Flying V guitar, “Clementine” – the range attack element. Hitting X wails out some truly face-melting solos, and the wraiths promptly vaporise. Those strings get pretty hot though, and Eddie blows on them to try and cool them down. A giant range attack literally brings the house down.

And that is really all I need from this demo. If it ended here, I would be completely fine with that (it doesn’t, there’s a demon bossfight you may remember from the trailer). This is certainly the first demo I’ve played on Xbox Live where I knew I wanted to buy the game anyway, but this has done nothing to dissuade me. Now if only I could scrape together the cash to do so.

Update: I played through the rest of the demo, and it has all the elements of a Tim Schafer game including a nice little nod to Grim Fandango. The combat gameplay is no more involved than Psychonauts, but to call it simple or repetitive would be to miss the point. I'm gonna guess that like Psychonauts, this game is going to be about exploring another world, and from what I've seen of it thus far, I'm in.   read

8:42 AM on 10.03.2009

Forza Love of the Game...

Firing up the Forza Motorsport 3 demo for the first time is an unnerving affair. I never played Forza 1 or 2, preferring to get my racing game kicks by drifting around Super Mario Kart. I have only recently assuaged my driving sim desires by picking up an old copy of PGR 4, so I am either in the perfect position to judge whether this demo is any good, or so thoroughly sick of braking for corners that I will be pawing for my SNES controller before I’ve even finished a race.

It’s unnerving because the intro is essentially a giant advertisement for Audi and their rather Minority Report looking RS8 V10. Audi have certainly been getting their product placement kicks at our expense, and I’m just thinking of their turn in Ironman as a recent example. As it happens, I had been thinking of getting an Audi as my next car for a while now (just putting it off), perhaps an A3 or A4, but I overheard a self-righteous clothing store clerk in a trendy baseball cap say “Audi, they’re the new car that’s only driven by complete cocks” which clearly means that BMW M3 owners can breathe easy. Well, as easy as you can through all that aftershave.

The intro that loops after the splash screen finishes with the new concept Dodge Challenger literally bucking off the line. Can rear wheel drive cars create so much torque from standstill that the front two wheels will actually lift off the asphalt? I’m gonna have to check youtube for this one, because I call bullshit. Yeah, bullshit.

Hitting start drops you straight into the Car Select menu. It’s nice an clean and it has a few cars which are mostly red. There’s a Mini, an Evo, a Ferrari, the R8, and a 911 which looks like someone vomited decal all over it after a boozy night out.

I went for the R8, and the screen drops away to give me a full Audi Logo which dissolves into a slow pan across the CAD lines of the car itself. It’s nicely rendered, but it doesn’t look real. If you squint slightly, it might even be cell shaded. I can only assume it’s accurately portrayed and the inside of the car looks like it might be real, but there’s definitely some uncanny valley stuff going on here. Also, this car lust session is an infinite loop, so you’re stuck with the calming relaxation music and the floating red car until you hit a button. But you’ve already done this, cos you wanna drive cars fast. And rightly so.

A menu of options, for difficulty and all the bits on the car that come as standard in real life so you don’t die (ABS, traction control etc) and that you’d only turn off if you were on the Top Gear test track and you were filming a section for Top Gear and your name was Richard Hammond, or Jeremy Clarkson. James May would keep all that stuff switched on, and choose Easy, which is what I’m going to do. Easy mode got me through PGR 4 and it’ll get me through this demo.

There’s only one course to try and it’s the Camino Viejo de Montserrat. Now obviously the mountains of Montserrat are far too bloody dangerous to be sliding a fast car about on, but this is why man invented video games, so that his every greatest wish and desire could be pixellated and made very very safe.

There’s a Rewind button? Ala Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? This should make for some interesting game sanctioned cheating, on account of my inability to miss the jutty out sections of the railing which turn my car into a flat spin.

Alright, so I whipped through my 2 laps without too much trouble. The car feels nice and heavy and responds well to input. I clipped a few cars and walls and the damage model shows my R8 to be less than pristine. This is already a marked improvement to PGR 4, where I could drive at 200mph into a wall and the worst that would happen is the windscreen might crack.

Having never played Forza 1 or 2, I don’t know if this guide line is new or not (I’ll assume it’s not), but it’s new to me. A series of green arrows guide you through the best line for each corner. When you’re going too fast, the arrows go through the traffic light colours and return to green when you’ve got the right speed to hold the line. This is a capital lettered Nice Touch. However, it does take a great deal of the skill out of it, what little skill is left having chosen the Easy difficulty, and reduced all the complex nuances of driving to accelerate, brake, turn left, turn right. Which is what driving boils down to I suppose, so er, bravo?

The Rewind function doesn’t work quite as I expected. I thought it would be like rewinding live TV, so that you’d hold the back button until it spooled to the part you wanted to pick it up from, but instead it rewinds a certain distance and then asks if you’d like to pick it up from that point or go back further. When it drops you back in, it doesn’t seem to do so cleanly, almost as if the position of the car gets corrected a degree or two. It’s a bit disconcerting, but I like that idea that you don’t have to redo a whole race just because you borked a corner, or clipped the wrong car. I tried to drift one corner, and the heavyset R8 did not like that. I’m sure like all driving games, it’s a knack that’ll come with a little practice.

The screen stills in the loading screens look nice, but everything in game seems a bit sparse in detail. I kind of expected the driving sim genre to be near photo realistic by now, at the very least the cars, but I guess they have just a little way to go yet.

I think if I give myself a little space between Forza 3 and PGR 4, I might actually enjoy this game. First impressions are good, but the thought of sinking another 30+ hours into a driving sim fills me with a certain degree of travel nausea.   read

8:18 AM on 08.31.2009

Some people walk in the rain, others just get Wet

It's been a while since I reviewed a demo from Xbox Live, so I've taken a look at Wet, which is described as a “highly stylized third person shooter that seamlessly blends gun play, sword kills and over-the-top acrobatics to create the ultimate interactive action experience.” Although none of that guff actually motivated me to download it. Instead, I downloaded it because the cover features a saucy leather clad fembot and the title is Wet. I'm gonna imagine 'Wet' refers to the gameplay being bloody, like CIA 'wet work', but let's be honest – this is the cynical internet world of teenage fantasies here and I'm absolutely convinced that 'Wet' is just subtle enough to maybe be a single entendre. Will it earn its 18 certificate?

I admit, I've never heard of this game, which is pretty rare for a new release. Booting it up for the first time, it clearly wants to play like a 70s exploitation movie. The splash screen has the main female hero, a sword toting MJ Smooth Criminal looking dude, a Sam Jackson shotgun guy with flatcap and aviators, a sword chick on a motorbike, and a Snake Pliskin eyepatch longhaired almost halo'd by the sun. The screen has film lines, pops and crackles and every 8 seconds on loop the whole thing blurs like the crummy projector lost focus as someone nudged it.

The tag line is “Get Read for Monkey Business”. I don't even know what monkeys have to do with stylized violence, but I'm gonna hit start and find out.

The Story Mode selection has a Bruce Lee (of course) looking character with a Triad suit, a sub machine gun and a suspiciously long cigarette. There's a real wild-west motif that permeates all the typeface and the background decals. I think it would be a bit obvious to say that this isn't an unfiltered view of exploitation movies, but rather it's once or twice removed through the hard boiled lens of a more contemporary filmmaker, who professes a deep-seated love for such Grindhouse cinema.

A title card explains Wet as being sort for Wetwork. The kind of work where you have to get your hands bloody. I get the feeling that this isn't going to be cold clinical execution carried out by well trained assassins, but pulpy messy squirty violent twitchy bloodbath stuff.

The demo opens with some kind of deal. An exchange of suitcases, guys brandishes large handguns and the inevitable double cross. The game's female lead observes all this from the rooftop and upon seeing the antagonist scarper with what she claims is her briefcase, she swan dives through the glass ceiling (feminists rejoice) with dual wielded pistols like a den-of-inequity Lara Croft. Before relinquishing control of this cutscene to me, the game helpfully freeze-frames the girl to identify her as “Rubi” and then explains “JUMPING: Attack enemies while jumping through the air.” Ok, here we go.

I shitcan one dude, whilst performing a floaty-light, no-physics-of-this-world jump and the game immediately cuts again to say “SLIDING: Attack enemies while sliding on the ground.” I already get the impression that this will be sort of game (like Max Payne) where every single person you meet will require you to dispatch them in relentlessly violent ways.

Next is Wall Running. So this demo is a glorified tutorial after all. Wait, what? I unnecessarily ran along a wall (inside no less), capped the bad guy in the gut and the whole thing rewinds with the timestamp reel (1, 2, 3...) and I get to try the thing over. It seems I didn't quite shoot him enough. Try again.

Ok, so once that's nailed, it drops you into it proper and asks you to take out the remaining baddies. So to recap, I can jump, I can slide along on my knees, and run up walls should I choose to. It's a good job that she can do all these things because she's gonna have to keep moving because there's no fucking cover system. Hey, that's a perfectly good table, why don't I flip it over and use it as cover, or movable cover? Nope, I can jump over it though (can't slide underneath it). The bad guys also take a lot of shooting. You really gotta fill these guys up before they keel over. So I found myself running up to them and shooting them in the face. Luckily Rubi can eat up a lot of lead too, and it's much easier to shoot them in the face from close range. I even managed to run up one dude and do a backflip off him whilst shooting him in the face and even though I was impressed by this acrobatic feat, I felt it was fairly unnecessary given that since I was close enough to run up him, I was already close enough to simply shoot his face off. I'm gonna assume that Rubi has had a high carb breakfast and needs to burn it off. I had a little fun with it by knee sliding across a table full of party cakes and glasses. I didn't shoot anyone, but it made me feel good.

The next section (as the main bad guy 'Simmons' legs it) introduces 'Split Targetting' whereby you can target two baddies whilst performing an acrobatic stunt, in this case, jumping. Jump up, click down the right stick and this will lock on one of the goons leaving you free to target the second guy and shoot them both. When your health gets low, or at least when it's down to one bar, the quality of the 'film' degrades. The jutter becomes pronounced, the lines and pops more constant and you begin to see the reel appear at the sides of the screen. Yeah, that's not fucking annoying at all. I'm gonna take a wild leap here, and predict that when you die, the film burns up as though the projector's stuck.

In the middle of the room is a toy monkey bashing a cymbal. In running over it, it breaks up and the caption reads something like, “try to find all the hidden toy monkeys”. Hidden? I couldn't help but run over it. I imagine that this 'collect them all' was added to the game for no other reason than they were short on achievements to include.

I guess that I'll have to find out what it does when you die later on, cos the very next thing shows how you get your health back. Now bearing in mind this is an 18 cert, what could it be? Munching down tylenol would be a bit too Max Payne, and injecting painkiller would be a bit pulp fiction, but booze? Hell yeah, it's whiskey just like the wild west! You are invited to 'take a swig' but given that she takes the bottle and tosses it in the air just to shoot it in half implies to me that she necked the whole lot. This chick is tanked. If only booze really did bestow young women with magical health gaining properties and allowed them to still function well enough to pull of remarkable acrobatic feats (and shoot straight). Friday nights in the city centres up and down the UK would make for pretty great CCTV clip shows on ITV3.

The next part involves standing on a glowing sigil on the floor and pressing Y which then prompts you to press X which makes Rubi stick her sword between the locked doors and prise it open. So far, so unnecessary, given that the doors are set in a wall barely 8ft high with no ceiling. If she's so acrobatic, why didn't she run up the adjacent wall and leap over this one? Jackie Chan could do that, and he's a good foot shorter than Rubi. The element of surprise would be retained, rather than 8 goons watching the door get slowly ripped open.

The game then introduces the sword, which from what I can tell it pretty much a one hit kill as she whips it around the bad guys. I could probably have put this to better use back in the first room, because it's a ton easier than trying to shoot them in the face. However it does suffer from wild targeting, as Rubi happily locks on to nearby crates (oh the crates!!) instead of slicing open the lower intestines of, you know, the guy with the gun.

You can slide down ladders backwards! Leaning backward and shooting people in the face from distance. It's difficult not to be impressed by this. Oh so now she can run up walls to vault over them. Just not when there are doors in them, huh? The sword has pretty much taken over here, given that it's easy to cut people up than to shoot them 12 times. I wondered earlier if you could slide under stuff, and it would appear that the answer is yes you can, but only when the game says you can. I knee slide (like Angelina Jolie in Wanted) under some pipe and then up a dude into an automatic backflip, completely failing to hit him anywhere near his face, so once back on my feet, cut him up with the sword. It occurs to me now that I haven't seen an ammo count, or even a reload. I think it might have dispensed with such processes as a sly nod to the exploitation films it apes. Or it's just been overlooked by the designers.

After a quick cutscene the game kicks in to what it refers to as 'arena combat'. A wide open space in Chinatown where bad guys endless pour out of doors until you can get above them and slash a junction box with your sword. Really? I have to lock the doors so that they can't get out? What kind of genius henchmen are we dealing with here? “Oh the door won't open, I guess we're stuck in here.” Well that was rubbish. You can pretty much just run around and ignore all the bad guys while you smash in the junction boxes to make the metal shutter fall. I then had about 4 guys to mop up after this was done. Inexplicably the game allows your health to automatically regenerate at this point, so the whole strategy of ignoring the baddies cost me only a quarter of my health. The perpetual flicker of the screen and vignetting of the edges has become an eyesore by this point. There's also no penalty for my just standing around while Simmons gets away. Rubi does nothing when left alone other than look left and right and unnaturally wave her arms.

I was tempted to exit to the dash at this point. This game seemed to offer nothing new and the controls are dreadful. Then it surprised me. Rubi goes into a corridor, shoots a guy in the face (he dies with one shot, mind) and his blood sprays all over her face. Rather than being horrified by this, it sends her into a bloody rage, and here is where it gets interesting. The game takes on a animated feel with a black, red and white motif, the environment turning red and all the character models silhouetted in black with dashes of white. It looks pretty cool, and sliding around on your knees in slow motion whilst shooting these black and white cut outs and watching them atomise into a black mist is pretty damn sweet. However, the sword is still your one-hit-kill friend here, and the controls are still like three day old leftovers. The music that kicks in at this point livens things up, with the memorable lyric “Zombie Killers of the Wild Wild West” which sounds like the kind of exploitation movie I'd like to see.

Unfortunately, Wet isn't. It's derivative in the worst way. I said it earlier, but this is twice removed from the source it tries to emulate. Once through the parody pastiche of Tarantino, and also through all the other games that tried before it. Playing through the demo, it's very hard not to think of Kill Bill, with Rubi aping the bride character, but without any of the charisma or motivation. Bad guys just appear for you to slice through while you try to chase down the suitcase mcguffin.

With the inclusion of a quicktime event along a highway, I've gotta bin this off. At least when you fail it shows Rubi's body ragdoll down the central lines, but there's nothing that can make me play a quicktime event these days. The game has style, there's no doubt about that, but it never really feels like a gelled experience. The weapons seem unbalanced, the signature acrobatics unwieldy, and the bad guys are flimsy stereotypes. Expect a sequel.   read

9:57 PM on 05.22.2009

God of Frak, or Why Battlestar Galactica can Jog On

I’ve just done watching the third season of Battlestar Galactica on DVD. It’s not the best TV show I’ve ever watched, but I haven’t got a job at the moment, my 360 is largely bereft of decent games, and I’ve already watched all five seasons of The Wire (which cured the cold I had at the time, incidentally).

If you haven’t seen the third season of Battlescar Gelacticus then you might want to stop right here. That’s the only spoiler warning you’re gonna get.

I stopped watching Heroes because, let’s face it, the quality took a serious nosedive around episode 1 of the second season. If I had to point to a moment where it absolutely positively jumped the shark, it’s gotta be when the new Spock killed Veronica Mars on the beach. For the love of all that is holy, did she piss off one of the writers? Incidentally, if you’re reading this Tina Fey, and you want me to stop watching 30 Rock, likewise, kill off Katrina Bowden’s character, Cerie. I’ll just watch Arrested Development on DVD for the rest of my life.

So Battletoad Spartacus most certainly nuked the fridge (ooh, how up to date I am) at some point in the third season. There are so many possible candidates for nomination, let alone the actual prize, that it’s difficult to know where to start. It could be the Cyclon three-way between the British dude from Bridget Jones’ Diary, the Ford model and Xena Warrior Princess (I had to look her up on incidentally, cos I had no idea who she was, oh it’s Lucy Lawless). It could be the babbling precog in the vat of KY-Jelly who everyone seems to ignore for spouting gibberish, until the posh British dude says, er hang on, you might want to actually listen to the lubricated muppet. Perhaps it’s the fact that they didn’t just allow Helo to carry on getting biblical with the defective vending machine, instead of conveniently sucking him and the misguided replicant out of the nearest airlock, but instead allowed him to get away with manner of mutiny and murder.

Or how about Brit in disguise Jamie Bamber wearing a fatsuit and shedding what looked to be about 4 stone in an episode and a half with just a mere mention of a skipping rope (and it explains how he managed to get so fat so fast, whereby in a later episode there is a fleet-wide food shortage). I could also mention the ridiculous boxing match between Peewee Adama and the blonde fighter-pilot chick which ends with them in a good old fashioned clinch, punch drunk and whispering sweet blood-bubbles in each other’s ears, while everyone walks off in disgust, mirroring the reaction of the audience at home. Also ran is the female Kirk Benedict (Faceman from the A-Team, yeah!!) bursting into a misty cloud of space-debris only to pop up in the rousing season finale of All Along the Watchtower as if nothing happened. Which let’s face it, means she’s more than likely a frakkin Cylon.

Which brings me neatly to the Starfleet Academy Award for biggest thing wrong with Season 3 of Battleship Potemtica, and the award goes to, blah blah and so on… the Human Disease which Kills the Cylons! Hear me out on this one, because it goes to the very root of why that for all the things Battlemoth Spatula gets right, they are utterly undermined by this shocking piece of near-sighted writing.

Ok, so if you recall, there is a Cylon base station floating about full of the thus-far revealed seven Cylon ‘skinjobs’ (Phil K Dick called, he wants his dignity back) all keeling over and being generally quite poorly, because they pulled in some beacon from outerspace that some filthy human had sneezed on 2000 years before. Okay, so far so Andromeda Strain. I can buy all this, cos the milk ain’t sour, and finally the pathetic meatbags have a weapon they can use against the machines. Hurrah and rejoice.

Then there’s the whole thing about how this biological disease could become biomechanical and that should any of the Cylons die and respawn into their bathtub of lubricant it would infect the whole Cylon race. So the Admiral’s bratty son comes up with the sublime idea of sneaking up on the Cylon’s KY-Jelly factory and spraying the floor of the brig with the poorly Cylons, thus infecting the whole Alien Resurrection ship in the process. A genuinely decent idea, only marred by Helo suffocating them on the behest of his terminator girlfriend before they can get in proper download range (Cylon wifi is good, but not that good). Everyone looks a bit silly, but not as silly as they do to the audience at home sitting on their cheeto-stained couches, when they collectively decide not to do a frakkin thing about it. Oh well, they say, best be moving on. Helo’s alright by us.

So the colossal and unmitigated dick-move error on behalf of all of the writers, producers and directors of the show is this. If they have a disease, described by them as a ‘biological weapon’, then why after the above plan goes tits-up, is it never mentioned again? Humans are immune. Conveniently, so is the Battlebarge’s pet Cylon (something to do with a placenta?), but they know full well that are still plenty of Cylons running around any of the other numerous ships in the fleet. So knowing this, and having taken blood samples from all of the infected Cylons that they had in the brig, and further knowing that this virus happily lives in a vacuum for a couple millennia, why not, I dunno, PUT IT IN THE WATER. Or on all the door handles, or in the food, or in the washing powder, or on the tip of sharp sticks. If it doesn’t hurt humans and is cyanide to Cylons, I dunno about you, but I’d be using it as wallpaper.

That way, the pedestrian humans could have continued their quest for Earth (I hope it’s a present day one, and they have to infiltrate the academic institutions of the world it to bring its technology up to date before the Cylons arrive, er hang on…) safe in the knowledge that there are no friggin stowaway Cylons on board. And more importantly, they’d immediately uncover the remaining five unrevealed Cylons, about when they start coughing, falling over and dying, thus avoiding the utter catastrophe that was the final episode of Season 3. There would be no nasty surprises, and just in case you haven’t seen it, it reveals that four of the main characters, who have had the temerity of walking around in front of the camera for most of the season (or more), are in fact toaster-loving skinjob Skynet replicants of the Cylon variety. In all manner of douchebaggery, it’s 3 of the main-main characters, and 1 minor recurring character, who have all between dispatched their share of Cylons in the past, making them dirty great hypocritical morally-ambiguous motherfrakkers. Which is just a giant writing-by-committee clusterfuck. It’s a good job no one watched this show, cos otherwise they might have organised one of those internet petitions (that so work) to get it cancelled.

Just so you know, it’s Chief, the Jock from Caprica, the drunk XO and the President’s new Miss Lyningham (cos she died in a car accident). Yeah, I was as insulted as you are. My intelligence took some pretty hefty jabs that day, I can tell you. Not least of all, because my intelligence was telling me that all these frakkin idiots should be dead already.

I’ve not watched the fourth season yet. I’ve half a mind not to, but I’ve got it on DVD and it’d be rude not to. I have the giddy delight of finding out who the fifth and final Cylon is. As I said above, it’s probably the girl Faceman, but that might be too obvious. In fact, I’d bet a squeezy bottle of pancake mix that the hot Ford model Cylon points directly into the camera and says, “It’s You. You’re the last Cylon” and the whole thing ends with a Vaudeville dance number.

Or someone will spoil it for me in the comments.   read

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