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Review: The Settlers 7 (PC)

By Daniel Lipscombe

The Settlers 7 is a game about waiting, well; actually it’s a game about settling your people in a comfortable town and protecting them. But mostly it’s a game about waiting. I found myself waiting for much of my time with The Settlers 7. I started by waiting for hours while the game tried to install onto my PC.

Then once I’d installed the game I had to create an Ubisoft account and only then could I actually see the title screen. It’s a wistful one at that, full of hope and prosperity. Venturing forth from this moment I grinned from ear to ear at the wonderful character design and animations. Everything about the visual style of the game oozed charm, from the colourful cut scenes to the portly little men scurrying around town.

The same can be said for the games aural standing. The lilting bird call is only interrupted by the tutorial style voiceovers or occasional sounds emanating from your villagers. It’s all very pleasant, exactly what you want from an RTS style game. Although here’s where The Settlers differs so wildly from a game such as Age of Empires. There’s a lot of waiting around.

In a standard RTS you would have to monitor each of your villagers and make sure they stay on their path. If you point a citizen at a berry bush they will stay until there are no more berries, then you can point them elsewhere. In The Settlers they just sort of, well, get on with their lives. Which is great but it leaves you just watching.

If you want to build something that requires ten pieces of stone and you don’t have enough, you wait. But not just for a few minutes, for some time. Watching as the stone pile slowly increases and then you wait as the constructer waddles his way to the building site. Granted once he’s finished you have a lovely export office, but during those ten minutes, there is little else to do but watch and drum those little fingers on the desk.

There is a way to make them move and build faster, by giving them a better quality of food. To be honest I didn’t notice a vast difference and I learnt to watch snatches of DVDs whilst I waited. The overarching issue with the game is that, whilst it’s all very entertaining actually building these villages, once you’ve built what you want they just get on with things.

In a world with games such as The Sims, The Settlers flaws stand out far too well. These moments of down time could have been solved with a speed up button. Zipping through these waiting sections could have kept my attention for a lot longer. Another want would have been direct control over some of the people.

In one instance I found myself literally screaming at the monitor as the constructor stood outside his shack tapping his foot rather than working on the buildings I wanted. And it wasn’t even a lack of resources; he just stood there looking all smug.

When everything is running smoothly, The Settlers ticks along nicely with achievements popping up and the game congratulating you when you do something well. The mechanics of the game are deep and inspiring. It’s exciting to look through the build menu and see what will be coming up soon. It may be quite sad but I was genuinely excited to see that I could raise sheep, farm their wool and tailor clothes for trading overseas. But even when you open up more options later in the game, there’s more waiting and toe tapping than ever.

It’s only in skirmish mode that the waiting ends as you can move at more of a pace that you choose rather than one the computer dictates. And seemingly skirmish mode is a little more fun than the campaign. Given an expanse of land opponents of your choice and plenty of time, you can create lovely battles or devastating wars.

I could have enjoyed my time with The Settlers 7 a lot more if some mechanics had been implemented, but I was still blown away by how cute and approachable the game was on the whole. So would I recommend it? I’m torn by this game very much, whilst on one hand The Settlers is a solid game that is deserving of your time, on the other hand we have Ubisofts new DRM plan.

Now this is not the place to debate about such issues, but it needs to be considered. Playing on a desktop I only lost my internet connection once. The game froze and asked if I wanted to save the game in case the connection didn’t re-establish. Once the broadband had come back to life, the game continued. Now this isn’t an issue to me but a laptop user may struggle, Wi-Fi signals aren’t the best and constant drops in connection will hinder your progress.

This without even mentioning the Ubisoft servers going down leaving you with nothing more than a shiny coaster for your tea whilst you, once again, wait for the servers to reignite. Be aware of this when you approach this charming little game; remember that you can never play this game without your internet connection. But whilst the technology obeys, you can experience a gem of a strategy game.

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Review: Red Steel 2 (Wii)

By Daniel Lipscombe

All young boys want to be cowboys or ninjas, I was that boy. I could have easily been one or the other on a warm summer’s day; better yet you could be both rolled into one. Imagine a plastic six shooter in your pocket and a cardboard tube sword tucked through a belt loop. Whilst the fictitious bandits dart left and right the six shooters arid gun smoke wafts through the air as the blade is unsheathed.

If only someone could make this fantasy into a videogame – in steps Ubisoft. Brandishing a Wii remote with a fancy new motion plus you can live that dream, although the fantasy didn’t arrive unmarred.

This sequel is beyond better than the first iteration and it shows with every step. The new graphics engine is the stand out winner of this new step in the franchise. With a similar look to Borderlands, the colours are vibrant and each part of the Wild West world appears to be full of character. The characters ooze a charm that is reminiscent of the Sergio Leone movies mixed with a Sci-Fi twist that Hollywood would beg for.

Our mysterious hero is the Clint Eastwood of the plot, a man with no name and a world on his shoulders. His clan is wiped out; you fill his shoes as the last member of the Kusagari and must eliminate the threat of the Jackal gang that has taken over the city. The story opens up in an impressive fashion with our hero being dragged behind a motorbike and is genuinely exhilarating, the downside to this wonderful opening is the monotony that follows.

As the dream of being a samurai cowboy floats out of the window, a reality of mundane questing and repetitive training sets in. Your first training mission is simple, here’s how you swing a sword and guard. It is a little off putting that Ubisoft felt the need to add a young woman in the stereotypical white outfit in a video boxout to teach you how to play. It jars you from the game world and reminds you that you really are a grown man standing in your lounge swinging a piece of plastic and not a katana after all.

The worst part of this training is that it takes forever to end; in fact the first few hours of the game sees you trudging back to the training grounds in order to learn a new move. This becomes such a chore that the idea of swinging a sword becomes dull.  Admittedly the motion plus does a great job of making the swordplay fun and the precision of the Wii remote guarantees a wealth of headshots. So the combat should be great and at times it is, but every once in a while the attachment to the game world is broken again when the calibration goes wonky and you r sword is not following your movement.

The sword fighting is enjoyable though, when it works, as each scrape of metal clangs from the Wii remote speaker it brings a smile to your face. The same can be said for the mini game like additions, a favourite would be the safe cracking. Holding the remote up to your ear as you turn the dial on screen and listen to the pins dropping in, it feels like a clever and intuitive mechanic rather than the forced “waggle” that we’ve seen in other games.

The whole game sets out to prove that “waggle” can work and it almost makes it. Red Steel 2 looks and sounds great on the Wii, the waggle works for the majority of the time but with so many promises it’s hard to keep them all. The biggest disappointment has to be the story, it lacks any real focus and with a topic that should be ever so endearing it feels vapid and lifeless.

After your interest has piqued the plot becomes trite under the strain of boring characters and cut scenes. It doesn’t help that the actual mission structure is repetitive and you dread checking the mission board for your next trip around the city. The structure of the game is simple: walk, kill bad guys, train, mission board, walk, rinse and repeat. I was hoping for more from such a rich looking world, in fact the QTE sections were reasonably impressive and I, for once, wanted more of those.

Red Steel 2 is a flawed game, but it keeps you entertained throughout if only because of the shooting and occasional sword fight. The story may be a little bland but the world is absorbing and looks lovely. You may not be living out your childhood dream, but it’s as close as you’ll get.

There was one thing that did hinder my experience and was no fault of Ubisoft. It should be noted to anyone who experiences motion sickness when playing a first person shooter may want to either steer clear of this title or at least give it a try somewhere first. The sickness forced me to take a break every 15 minutes which, of course became a problem.

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Review: Metro 2033 (Xbox 360)

By Daniel Lipscombe

Metro 2033 is an ambitious game, not because it really tries to do things differently but because it is a title venturing into a crowded market. Post apocalyptic games or those containing mutants of some kind are becoming a frequent “go to” when creating a game world and Metro 2033 is attempting to wow an audience that has seen it all before.

This is a problem. In this generation of games we’ve been treated to such rich and involving worlds and environments that it would be hard to compete. Metro 2033 has a ‘hook’ of sorts as the game is played in the underground train system, or Metro of Russia. Whilst initially appealing, the game suffers from a lack of inspiration as you trudge down hundreds of deep and dark tunnels carrying out missions.

When first venturing out into the tunnels, the game impresses with great lighting and atmospheric sound but this soon becomes tiresome and loses its spark. Monsters lurking in the shadows or spying on you from unseen corners are a dime a dozen in current gaming worlds and nothing ever really stands out as being different.

When the game does push you above ground, things become a little more interesting as your eyes scan the ruins of Moscow and new dangers present themselves. A constant threat is the lack of breathable air, forcing you to rely on a gas mask and monitoring its filter usage. It is a great mechanic that adds a sense of fear that your air may run out and leave you as carrion for the creatures that await you.

The story is intriguing and genuinely interesting. As we follow the story of our protagonist, Artyom and his interactions with “the dark ones” an enemy that attacks your mind rather than your body. There are several great sequences that feed off of your fears and disorientate you as you play, each of these moments pull you further into the plot and leave you wanting to know more.

Metro 2033 has strong leanings on the horror side of gaming and is always making you think twice about venturing into sections and causing a genuine fear. Although the enemies are a bit bland and cliché Metro goes to great lengths to create a sense of doubt in your abilities by throwing several of these beasts at you at once and heightening the panic.

To add to this is the distinct lack of ammo. In fact ammo is actually used as currency in this game, you can use military grade ammo to buy or trade weapons at metro stations or if things become really tight and you run out of regular ammo, these bullets can be used dealing slightly more damage than usual. There are many small touches that try to pull Metro out of the crowd such as a mobile generator that is used to recharge your flashlight and cracks appearing on your gas mask to indicate that it is taking damage and you could be left without one.

All the positive nuances in the world can’t help you though if your basic shooting mechanics are clunky and poorly implemented, something that Metro also brings to its audience. None of the guns feel as if they carry any power, when faced with five or six enemies at once only precise shots will drop your foe in only a couple of bullets whilst at other times you’ll pump 30 shots into them before they expire. It doesn’t help that the hit detection isn’t always on target, when aiming for a headshot and seeing the bullet hit home only for the enemy soldier to spam you with grenades.

Oh yes, there are human enemies too most of whom cower behind cover and relentlessly spawn soaking up more and more of your ammo as you tirelessly try to kill them. It’s another aspect of Metro 2033 that soon wears down the player and makes you rethink your stance on the game itself. It’s only in the final quarter of the game when you’ve become accustomed to the weaponry, that you can begin to have real fun with them.

It would’ve been nice for Metro 2033 to deliver more on the fear of its world and concentrate on scaring the player, during my time with the game I often felt that my time would be better spent in the Capitol Wasteland or on Pandora, rather than in the darkened tunnels of Moscow. Therein lies one of Metros biggest issues, aside from minimal moments of imagination the game is already quite stagnant due to how many post apocalyptic games on the market.

There are only so many times that we can venture through poisonous gas clouds, take on mutants and deal with disgruntled NPCs, Metro 2033 shines with its story and original game mechanics but falls short on gunplay that leaves a lot to be desired and a game world that we’ve seen a dozen times before.

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Heavy Rain Review

By Daniel Lipscombe

It’s wrong to call Heavy Rain a game, it isn’t really. Yes it requires inputs from your fingers to your controller, but beyond that, what you’re living is a cinematic experience like no other.  David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream have created an emotional work of art that connects with the player on a level never before realised. It’s hard to talk about Heavy Rain without really giving away any plot points or scenarios, but I will try to make this as free of spoilers as possible.

Playing Heavy Rain is akin to being the editor on a serial drama, it’s up to you to move through each section of the story and reach a satisfying climax. Do you save that person or did you dislike them enough to let them die and ultimately change the fate of the characters? Controlling the fate of the cast is rather daunting really; just one wrong move can see any of the four characters die, for good.

The interactions of the cast inspire real feelings within yourself, push your kid on a swing and you’ll smile as much as them, head into a near death situation and find yourself tense and twitchy. The beauty and simplicity of the control system really goes to highlight that too. When opening a door, just push the right stick in the direction on screen, if your character needs to control their breathing then slow movements of the stick are needed. After time you find yourself moving your thumb with as much caution as the situation needs.

Everything is instinctive and flows wonderfully, the only time you will find the button presses becoming more complex is when your character is struggling. They struggle, so you must struggle, holding down a combination of buttons that would usually cripple your hand. It would be easy to say that Heavy Rain features hundreds of Quick Time Events (QTE) but this the inputs here carry more weight, after all, if you miss that crucial button press, you could have your head smashed in.

This isn’t particularly a tough game and many people will easily stroll through each section, there are however times when you may be left scratching your head as to where to go next or who to talk to whilst trying to push the narrative along. Quick reactions are needed however for fight scenes and it’s worth nudging anyone in the room with you and hushing them whilst you concentrate.

Heavy Rain is so wonderfully engaging, there is a constant feeling of connection with the game world, and even the loading screens display the marvellous visuals of the main characters as they simply exist. And it’s these visuals that help create such a cohesive environment, being able to see a smirk or a furrowing of the brow helps to heighten the connection between player and character. This is let down occasionally by glitches in the graphics such as a strobing of a background character or screen tearing, as these moments remind you that you’re playing a game.

Some moments in Heavy Rain may cause some confusion, why should I need to make Madison go to the toilet? Why does Ethan need to be able to drink from the orange juice carton? Because it goes further in building a real world, adding your own quirks to these people. Does it make a difference to the story? Unlikely, but small increments /can/ change events, will you miss a scene because you didn’t look out of a window, will you find something your friends didn’t? The wonder of Heavy Rain is simply experiencing what it has to offer.

Heavy Rain is, at its core, a murder mystery. We have a killer on the loose – The Origami Killer who kidnaps children and drowns them in rain water. Each character has their own way of tackling this crime, Madison is a journalist who moves outside the law in her own way, Ethan is a father in distress and must test himself, Norman is an FBI agent with a mysterious past and the ability to find any clue and Scott, a private eye who has been hired by the families of the murdered to track down clues on the killer.

Everyone will inevitably have their own favourite character, but each of them shines regardless. The cast is well fleshed out and each twist and turn in the plot takes its toll on them as well as you. Not surprising as they will have to overcome some dreadful situations on their journey, fistfights are plentiful and enjoyable, obstacles are overcome with complex button presses and at times the atmosphere will become troubling and intense.

The story moves along at a frenzied pace to a satisfying conclusion, the playtime itself will run you around six or seven hours depending on how quickly you solve issues or find clues. With many endings possible there’s plenty of scope to replay the adventure, whilst this will still be fun it will of course lack the original spark as you will know the crux of the story. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem as the ending that I personally received left me all warm and fuzzy, but I was left wanting to see the many other outcomes.

For anyone interested in narratives for games moving forward or drama in general, you will revel in Heavy Rains storytelling and marvel at its characters. The latter is slightly hampered by weak voice acting at times, but this can be forgiven in respect of just how much emotion they are trying to deliver.

Never before have I been so moved by a game, by the conclusion of the game I desperately wanted these characters to survive and reach their end. I cared about them, not just because they might die, but because they were real to me. They cared, they got scared at the same time as me and we travelled the same ups and downs as a team. Despite a few minor flaws along the way, Quantic Dream has created a masterpiece of gaming and it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in gaming should experience.

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MAG Review

By Daniel Lipscombe

256 is a big number, in fact in gaming terms, it’s a bloody big number, 256 different players running hither and thither with large guns across much larger maps. A first for console gaming, to see such a number going to war with each other, doubts have to creep into mind. Will the servers cope? Will there be any latency in the matches? Will there even be enough people online?

Approaching such a title with trepidation is understandable, it’s not every day we see an online only shooter released for consoles and if we do usually they fall into insignificance quickly. Team Fortress 2 is rather empty most of the time in its console outing and Shadowrun failed despite being a robust shooter. So why should MAG succeed where others have failed, perhaps it’s generic war shooter styling is a good thing, pulling people over from the Call of Duty’s and Battlefield’s.

Despite the aesthetics making me feel at ease when I first launched the game, my enthusiasm waned a little as I moved from the robust tutorials and into the real battlefield. Learning the basics is as simple as moving your way through an obstacle course and training how to use your weapons and equipment, but no matter how helpful you find it, you’ll still get your face blown off when you get online.

Now I’ll admit that the following only happened twice out of a week of playing off and on, but the connection can be a little flakey. Playing on an average 4meg broadband connection saw me experience swathes of bullet lag as I shot the opposing team for them to simply walk through the hail of lead and knife me and this was if I could even shoot. Another issue caused me to die but not bleedout or respawn simply lay there throwing grenades and shoot with no kills or harm coming to anyone.

This is a rare occurrence but needs to be kept in mind; if your connection is slightly unstable then you have no single player game to fall back on here. This is also a problem when learning the ropes. Whilst the actual pulling of triggers is enjoyable with each gun feeling weighty and satisfying, it is hard to really get to grips with each weapon as the learning curve is quite steep. With most shooters you can dabble in the single player while you learn which guns you like and what the arc is on the grenade throwing, this is tough when you have six snipers aiming at your cranium.

If you do find yourself getting fragged all the time then getting better will mean an endless assault on your foe trying to dodge headshots and grenade storms. If you do of course manage to hold your own then MAG is a very solid shooter. Starting with a robust character creation section, you can choose whose cause to fight for, SVER, Valor or Raven and then tinker around with your loadout selections too.  Once all of this is decided it’s then time to start ranking up and opening new games modes.

Starting with your basic team deathmatch, you can play until your level is high enough to unlock other traditional online modes, Capture the flag, territories and such. Experience is earned in the usual ways, killing people, assists, healing your squadmates and of course ranking up then means new weapons and quite importantly, being able to become a leader on the battlefield. The latter means that you can use abilities on your teammates and generally lead the team in battle.

This brings me to the most important aspect of the game and one that Zipper Interactive cannot really take fault for, teamwork. Currently when venturing into a firefight the warzone is a scatterbrained event with people running around like headless chickens. Squads with too many snipers and not enough cohesion between people, this is down to one of two things. Either people don’t have a headset in the first place or, and this isn’t meant as a jibe, but they may not speak your language. This is obviously a problem when playing a game so heavily based on teamwork, as running around like Stallone on a power trip will find you bleeding out and waiting for a team member to heal you, thus costing your team the win.

For all its efforts, MAG is a confident shooter, and when it works, it plays very well, when your team is working as a unit, you will win games, but be prepared to slog through countless deaths to get there and be prepared to run around in despair as your team all go their separate ways. If you’ve got a bunch of friends with the game, create a clan and have a blast but as a lone soldier, the battlefield could not feel more cold and lonely.

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Hustle Kings Review

By Daniel Lipscombe

Everyone loves Billiards, yes you do, don’t try denying it. We’ve all professed at being terrible at pool before swallowing a few jugs of ale and picking up the cue, chalking the tip whilst lining up the simplest shot, muttering something about how John Virgo is a noob. The same principle goes for videogame pool too, everyone loves a pool game and Hustle Kings has come along to fill a long empty void on PSN for a decent pool game.

Quite an easy one to figure out, but Hustle Kings is all about billiards games, 8 Ball, 9 Ball, trick shots, tournaments, everything is included here and this game is bubbling over with things to do. Starting with a career mode that sees you taking on various opponents in different games for HKC (Hustle Kings Credits). One person may challenge you to a game of 8 Ball and the next may set up a trick shot for you to master before you can claim your lovely money.

It’s a pretty simple affair that is boosted by being able to purchase different types of balls, cues and even chalks. In fact you can actually buy chalks that help you play your shots, with real life money, that’s right 20 pence will buy a chalk to help you make longer shots or many other things. You can use your HKC in this way if you choose or you can place wagers on your matches and try to build vast piles of cash to help buy those top upgrades. This cash is needed for your online domination too; this is ‘Hustle’ Kings after all.

It’s in the online integration that the concept of the game really takes hold, by entering the ‘rooms’ and placing your cash on the line against real life players. Bet too much and it may be seen as showing your experience, meaning you can’t ‘hustle’ anybody, bet too little and never be taken seriously. A very rewarding system that gives you the thrill of winning and gets your adrenaline surging, if you’re any good of course.

Hustle Kings seems to have the whole package, the visuals are crisp and the light plays off of the balls and cloth well giving the whole game a sense of atmosphere. The actual game mechanics are intuitive too, moving your cue around and taking your shot is simple and easy to pick, adding backspin is as simple as moving a thumbstick, similarly to adding curves or jumping balls.

There are a few hiccups along the way however. Personally I am someone who always plays in the top down view, which is not the default here. You can easily change it with the press of a button; however it would have been nice for an option to make it the default, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who plays this way. Another issue for me is the music, which is a horrendous drone of Nu-Jazz stylings, after a short period it’s enough to make you tear your hair out, luckily there is an option of listening to your own music on your hard drive.

These are the only stumbling blocks in what is a genuinely great pool game, something that was sorely needed on the PS3. With an extensive single player mode, great online modes, even youtube integration meaning you can instantly upload your best shots to the internet; Hustle Kings is a complete pool hall package. The only thing missing is the smell of stale beer and the choking smoke.

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An Open Letter to Terry Cavanagh – A VVVVVV Review

By Daniel Lipscombe

Dear Mr Cavanagh,

Can I call you Terry? I hope this is ok to do, because Terry, I’d like to talk to you about your videogame VVVVVV. Do you hate me? Do you hate all of the videogame community? I don’t believe we’ve ever met, if we have, I’d like to know what I did to you. Did I tread on your foot? Spill your pint? Why did you make this game that hates me so much?

I’m going to admit, I love it. The visual style is second to none, reminds me of bygone days and sitting at my Atari 2600 watching the pixelated colours dance by. What you have created here is a portal to my childhood and for that I thank you. Even the music reminds me of jaunts to the local arcade, with its chip-tune sounds, it’s hypnotic, vibrant and it taps into the gamer in my heart. The character design, whilst basic due to its style, is wonderful; the optimistic smile on the captain’s face despite the peril is charming. It also helps to see a smiling face whilst being tormented by your satanic creation.

VVVVVV is easily one of the hardest games I’ve played and as much as I hated you for every minute while I was playing, I sat down watching the credits and smiled. That was one the most intense and amazingly organic experiences I’ve had. From the simple mechanic you created, pressing the action button to flip to the ceiling and run around like a fly chasing the light, you’ve made a game that is so basic in its premise but stunning in its uses.

It’s an easy thing to learn, hit the action button and bypass traps on the floor by running on the ceiling, oh but then you pull the rug out from under me, now the area I’m in is moving upwards constantly. I’m scurrying around to hit the checkpoints as I dizzily jump from floor to ceiling manically and avoid the never ending spikes on the floor. Then you introduce those trampoline moments, bouncing from floor to trampoline, over some spikes, avoid the enemy and hit the ground onto a moving platform. Wow, you really tried to cripple my hand.

I have to admit, you kept me on my toes, or should that be fingertips? I had to stop every few minutes to shake the feeling back into my ever worsening clawlike grip on the WASD keys. You make it worse by designing each section, with the myriad of checkpoints causing me to break down and say for the hundredth time “just one more go.” But let’s get this straight, I played your game, collected my missing crew and I enjoyed each and every moment in the story, but it’s a shame it was so short. It took me a shade under three hours to finish the game; I could’ve played much more had my fingers allowed it.

But VVVVVV hated me from bizarre beginning to the haywire ending; I died 872 times all in all. I don’t think I died that many times in every 16-big game I’ve ever played added together. However with each death I kept on chugging away, I wanted to save that crew, I wanted to beat those puzzling platforming sections and I wanted to see what broke first, the game or my keyboard.

Thank you for such a wonderful game, thank you for hating me and the general gaming public. What you have created is a game that gives you a sense of achievement with every step, with every press of that action button. After dying 80 times on one particular section, I punched the air with satisfaction and felt a rush of adrenaline that pushed me through the next infuriating section. I thank you Terry, when I reached the ending screens of VVVVVV I left my chair in celebration, but when I came back down, I felt a little sad. It was over. Thank you for hating me.

Yours,

A frustrated gamer in Awe

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