Friday, 11 June 2010

Doom II (XBLA)

The original Doom, released at the end of 1993, was such a revolutionary event that the inevitable sequel could only ever really hope to evolve the template, rather than blast out further into uncharted gaming territory. This wasn’t a problem of course. Doom’s innovations were so significant – its use of technology, subject matter, FPS world design – that with it id Software earned themselves a virtual lifetime pass of goodwill. While we wouldn’t go so far as to accuse them of resting on their laurels, Doom II certainly bears the hallmarks of a young, upstart developer vindicated in their pursuit of such a radical approach.

That was in 1994, some 16(!) years ago. Doom II played today is inevitably found lacking when compared to today’s mega-budget offerings, with its original un-embellished visuals squashed into a smaller screen and the ironic perkiness of the MIDI tunes maintained, but that of course is besides the point. Whereas 4J Studios’ conversion of Perfect Dark was an effective attempt at giving Rare’s 2000 title fresh relevance, Doom II on XBLA is unashamedly focussed on preservation.

The sheer speed of movement and absence of a vertical axis will be familiar to veterans of this era, as will the maze-like non-linear nature of the levels. Though there’s a familiar feel to the play now, these are factors I was unprepared for when I started to play the similarly authentic XBLA conversion of Nazi-slaying classic Wolfenstein 3D (in my defence, having grown up without a PC for gaming, my FPS education effectively began with GoldenEye 007).

Despite the leap in what developers can now inflict on space marines, there still can’t be many games as genuinely nerve-wracking as Doom II; on the higher difficulties the ratio of enemies to ammo regularly reaches Resident Evil-like heights of panic, something compounded by the disorientating design of the levels. If the absence of signposting and often confusing array of corridors and locked doors will be a shock to most modern gamers, then the satisfying crack of a shotgun to the face of a Cyberdemon will speak to any gamer who’s ever laughed manically while killing a Brute/WWII grunt/Helghast in the name of digital justice.

Played in the right spirit Doom II is still a cracking action game. This XBLA re-release, at 800 points, represents good value for money. The generous bonuses include online multiplayer, a co-operative mode and an extra chapter entitled No Rest For The Living which fits neatly with the tone of the original. Recommended for anyone interested in discovering where the roots of contemporary FPS gaming began.

Original D+PAD Magazine review here.

EDGE 200 - #74, Mini Ninjas

Prestigious UK-based gaming magazine EDGE celebrated their 200th issue last year with the world's first split run of 200 different magazine covers. Only 200 editions of each of the 199 images (plus a subscriber-only LittleBigPlanet cover) were issued; I ended up getting an original 80s OutRun cover. Even better, they released a limited postcard set of all 200 covers to new subscribers, which I couldn't resist. Now I've played my fair share of games, but with so little time and a semblance of a social life to also try and manage, there are many titles that have passed me by. To make up for this I'm using the postcard set as a framework, and am going to try and play through all (or as many as is possible) of the games featured in the list of 200 that I have yet to experience. The order I get through them is random, but it'll be interesting (and hopefully fun). However there aren't actually 200 individual games, which will make the task slightly easier (some games run across several postcards - Final Fantasy VI has four images to its name, for example).

For a full list of the EDGE 200 images click here.

Name: Mini Ninjas
Developer: IO Interactive

Touted as a self-conscious step away from the deeply serious and 'mature' likes of the Hitman and Kane & Lynch series of games, Mini Ninjas pays a little tribute to the developer's past (well, there's a tiny focus on stealth), but is mostly an attempt at building a new franchise. The Mini Ninjas of the title, each of who have different characteristics, are gradually unlocked as you progress and should - in theory - have made for a dynamic, varied experience. In practice that isn't the case. You never really need to take control of any of the other ninjas, although Futo - fat ninja with a wooden mallet - is handy at taking down the larger enemies. So the other five characters (you start out as the youngest, Hiro), ranging from flute-wielder Suzume to Tora, who cutely thinks that he's a tiger, are ultimately cosmetic; by all means play as them, but the overall experience of Mini Ninjas doesn't change enough as a result.

Aiming squarely at the younger gamers so entranced by Traveller's Tales' excellent Lego Star Wars series, Mini Ninjas doesn't have the luxury of that game's pretty-famous license to fall back on. There's a similar emphasis on collecting things, and although the journey from village to ultimate showdown is linear, the levels are commendably open and encourage exploration, while combat is brisk, a simple two-button system of stun and attack, upon which an array of magic spells and power attacks are built. All this, coupled with the crisp storybook-style visuals, mean the opening hours fly by. This opening section is all very pleasant, and quite relaxing.

In the later sections of the game Mini Ninjas almost throws away all this goodwill - there's a boss battle against a large samurai owl that exposes how bad the camera is in situations that involve any degree of dynamism, a final castle that is tedious in the extreme and possibly the most infuriating section of any game I've played in recent months: an escape from an avalanche in which progress feels like an extreme case of trial and error. Or maybe I'm just rubbish at games.

Hopefully any sequel - and the end of the game certainly hints that Mini Ninjas 2 wouldn't be the most unlikely event - will push forward the idea of a gang of ninjas, perhaps in the form of online/offline co-op. Overall Mini Ninjas is worth playing, if only for the boss whose attack is a deadly fart.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sonic And The Black Knight

Hopefully Sonic The Hedgehog 4, which looks this delicious...

...can finally break the infamous Sonic Cycle, as detailed below:

It will surely be an improvement on Sonic's most recent platformer outing, the Wii exclusive Sonic and the Black Knight. I reviewed it for D+PAD Magazine back in April 2009:

As predictable as it may be, no Sonic review these days is complete without an introduction bemoaning the current state of this once great series. It has now been 10 years since SEGA launched Sonic Adventure onto the world, amid the developer’s unconvincing battle cry that it would be the “best game ever” and provide the much-needed sales boost Dreamcast would have appreciated at the time. Back then this writer had nothing but cynicism for SEGA’s pre-release hype, driven in part by an ingrained Nintendo fanboyism, but largely because in the preceding 24 months both Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time had utterly redefined the design possibilities for taking beloved characters into a third-dimension.

Sonic Adventure was neither the world-beater SEGA had hoped for, nor was it Dreamcast’s initial death-knell (it remains the console’s biggest-selling game in the U.S.) – with the benefit of hindsight it was instead the first sign that everyone’s favourite blue and white hedgehog was flailing to keep up with the rapid rate of change in the industry. In the ensuing decade only a handful of Sonic titles have arguably managed to retain some of the brand’s respectability (and even they were far from perfect): Sonic Rush on the DS, the recent Sonic Unleashed and the first Wii title, Sonic and the Secret Rings.

Sonic and the Black Knight is the follow-up to Secret Rings, and the second in what has now been christened the Storybook series. Where that first game focused on the Arabian Nights, Black Knight takes the legend of King Arthur and his round table for inspiration. The medieval setting is a quantum leap from the world of Dr. Robotnik and pinball machines; here Excalibur talks, Tails has found work as a blacksmith, while Shadow and co are all armour-wearing knights. Not only this, but the bizarre story appears to act as a flimsy device/handy pretext for the introduction of swordplay. It’s a traditionalist’s nightmare.

The sword that Sonic carries with him at all times is a cheap use of the Wii’s unique controls. The poor response times and very limited move set lead us to believe that the feature only exists because Sonic Team think giving the player another reason to shake the remote adds a layer of immersion; it doesn’t, it just makes the experience that more annoying.

One way the sword does adhere to conventional Sonic principles is that half the time you never really feel in control of the weapon. Boss fights descend into inelegant flailing, and the QTE prompts lack any generosity – your movements don’t seem to be matched on-screen, which more often than not ends up in the loss of life. Sometimes the response is so bad it makes you think the remote itself is the problem – a quick blast on MadWorld and Twilight Princess confirms that it’s the game.

The rest of the gameplay, when you’re not struggling with the weaponry, fares marginally better. Black Knight’s world map isn’t especially huge – after all, it’s possible to see the ‘first’ end credits well within two hours. Divided into several locales, each of which feature smaller levels and challenges, this design betrays a fondness for padding, as well as stifling any emerging interest; many of the levels feature identical layouts, with a straight sprint to the goal first time around replaced by a challenge to defeat 50 enemies the next. It’s all a little dispiriting when played for any stretch of time.

Only once, on the first Molten Mine level, does the game reach the euphoric highs that we’d hoped for. Here the balance of grinding on rails, dazzling speed and player timing is almost perfect – we only wish such a combination was followed more frequently. The other conventional stages are sporadically enjoyable, but only if you’re willing to overlook the dodgy collision detection, the poor analogue control and the overall insubstantial and lightweight impression.

As a package Black Knight is competent: the frame rate is consistent while the visuals, taking their cue from Secret Rings, suggest that Sonic Team’s capability with squeezing results from the modest hardware is more successful than their understanding of how Sonic should feel as a game. There is also a fairly throwaway multiplayer mode and a system of post-level rewards that will satisfy collectors (there are 247 in total, while duplicates can be traded between friends: you’d be mad to try and find them all). The power-metal soundtrack is also laughably great. But all these bells and whistles can’t hide the fact that Sonic and the Black Knight is another example of the franchise falling far short of expectations. Every successive game only seems to highlight how wide the gap is between the past and present, something the endless retro compilations painfully underline. If things keep heading this way then it’s hard to see Sonic surviving another 10 years.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Daytona USA

Watching Daytona USA on a full-size cabinet was a personal arcade epiphany to rank alongside playing, in a café in Pakistan, Street Fighter 2 for the first time (admittedly a brief moment, as I recall simply hammering buttons without any awareness that there might also be a necessity for learning some actual moves), or even this one time when half of my Year 6 class, whilst on a bowling trip, watched in awe as I got halfway through Virtua Cop on just one measly credit. In that bygone age, circa 1994, when the idea of playing arcade-perfect conversions at home was about as likely as ever seeing Mario and Sonic sharing disc space, Daytona USA felt truly revolutionary - a massive step over what had come before.

I can now understand Daytona USA’s impact in boring technical terms, but at the time its effect was purely sensory; games can throw all manner of impressive specifications at you, but all too few still have the power to stop you in your tracks and make you simply watch. So whereas now I can tell you that Daytona USA was the first title to use Sega’s iconic Model 2 hardware, back then all I would be able to articulate, possibly as a series of excited, geeky exclamations, was the fact that this game looked unlike anything many of us – and the only cabinet in my town would regularly attract a crowd of spectators - had ever seen before. Running at an astonishing 60fps, the use of full texture-mapping lent the game’s visuals a solidly colourful, vivid aesthetic; a far cry from the more recognisably videogame-esque likes of Virtua Racing and Ridge Racer, which looked bland and almost abstract by comparison. The gorgeous flat screen of the premium machine obviously helped accentuate these qualities, but underneath this not-insignificant bonnet was the engine of a true racing classic.

Then there’s the music – because you can’t discuss Daytona USA without mentioning the ridiculous, unmistakable music – and, for example, the wonderfully camp opening chorus of “ROLLLLLLING START!” Namco’s Ridge Racer, very much Daytona USA’s nemesis, directly helped push Sega’s team to greater technical heights, as composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi explained in an 2008 interview with GameSetWatch: “During the development of Daytona USA, Namco released Ridge Racer. We received executive orders from Sega that we had to make something better than Ridge Racer, so the team really hunkered down, taking on the spirit of a sports team, to create the best possible graphics and music.” Ridge Racer may been the purer game, but it didn’t have someone singing “Game over...yeah!” in the style of a David Brent-approved lounge singer EVERY TIME you failed to complete a course.

Even though my brother and I would look forward to family shopping trips (Daytona USA was the centrepiece of the Sega-branded arcade which, rather improbably now, took up significant space on the top floor of Debenhams) just so we could stand in the presence of Daytona USA, I never had any real urge to sit in the car-shaped cabinet and actually play this wondrous creation. For a start it looked too daunting, the sole preserve of moneyed guys in their mid-twenties with significantly more bravery and hair gel than my own 11-year old self possessed; one hand on the steering wheel, one on the gear shifts, they would relish the attention that playing Daytona USA brought them, a showmanship driven by gaming that would only really make sense to me several years later. Then, and perhaps more importantly, there was also the fearful prospect that playing Daytona USA would somehow puncture this perfect graphical bubble, that suddenly being put in control of these visuals that I had admired from afar for so long would reveal the whole game to be an ill-designed mess, reducing its magical aura as a result.

Although the aforementioned Ridge Racer would usher in the real home console revolution with its debut on Sony’s Playstation, it was Daytona USA’s appearance on Sega Saturn that confirmed everything I had previously thought about this ‘unbridgeable’ gap between what I could play on my TV and what could be played in arcades on machines that seemed to cost more than a house. Funnily enough I remember not being too disappointed by the Saturn Daytona; it was, after all, an approximation of the game I fondly remembered even though it ran less than half as fast as the arcade game, and had one of the worst draw distances in videogaming history.

This somewhat curtailed and undeniably rough outing is now put down to the Sega Saturn’s rushed launch, and things improved with the Championship Circuit Edition, which was an updated version of the original game developed by Sega-AM3 (the second-party outfit responsible for my favourite home conversion of all time, Sega Rally, also on the Saturn). While technically it was the better of the two games, even finding the space to fit in a split-screen two-player mode, by this time – late 1996 – the Saturn already felt like a dying console. The ‘Wipeout effect’ had already taken hold of mainstream consciousness while the Nintendo 64 was, for UK gamers, just a few months around the corner. As a result CCE proved to be somewhat symptomatic of the Saturn overall: overlooked and underappreciated.

Daytona USA would end up getting the fabled ‘arcade-perfect’ treatment that I had thought impossible all those years ago, in the shape of Daytona USA 2001 for Dreamcast. It’s an irony though that by now console games were regularly - relatively speaking - outpacing the achievements of the arcade, while in terms of game design the year of Daytona USA 2001’s release saw the likes of Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Gran Turismo 3 effectively lay the blueprints for much of the decade ahead; suddenly we were a long way from SegaWorld in Debenhams. The Dreamcast version of the game is a mixed experience – while the handling is extremely sensitive, the visuals are, even today, slick and pleasingly evocative of the original arcade machine, what with the lack of screen tearing, slowdown and the ability to actually see the track ahead. Daytona USA 2001 is in many ways the ideal end to this series’ arc, finally bringing to the living room the visual quality of the original whilst retaining just enough flaws to preserve the memory of seeing that machine for the first time. It also features the track Circuit Pixie, which is as pure a distillation of the Daytona racing brand – no fussy turns, pleasingly wide stretches of tarmac and regular overtaking – as there has ever been. In this respect Daytona USA 2 is almost an anomaly: it’s still, almost 10 years later, technically astounding, yet seems to retain little of the nostalgic appeal.

Playing the Dreamcast version again reminded me of the innate pull that the original game exerted on me all those years ago; being transfixed by Daytona USA is a moment that is as influential in shaping my passion for videogaming as all manner of Zelda and Mario adventures. In hailing successive games for their graphical achievements we are all perhaps subconsciously looking back to that first encounter with our own Three Seven Speedways, in disbelief and awe of what we’re watching and the subsequent possibilities for the future of videogames contained therein.

Here’s a postscript: A TV and hi-fi retailer now occupies the space in Debenhams where the arcade used to be. The horse cheat in Daytona USA on Sega Saturn made me cry with laughter the first time I used it. I did eventually get over my fear and play Daytona USA in the arcades; it’s still one of the few games my friends and I will actively look out for should we pass the odd random games centre. And yes, I have mastered the art of holding the steering wheel and gear stick with separate hands.

YouTube video of the horse in Saturn Daytona USA, just to prove that I'm not making it up: link.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Samurai Shodown: Sen

"With all due respect, you have no idea what you are talking about. This is what happens when you have WoW geeks playing and reviewing fighting games. They love the simple inputs of 2D fighters. First and Last of all, no respectable 3-d fighter would even think about using the analog stick! To say anything else to someone woefully unqualified to render judgment on this IMO is pointless."

Samurais haven’t had a great time of late, what with last month’s notorious recipient of one measly star, Way Of The Samurai 3, now joined by SNK Playmore’s latest attempt at franchise resurrection, the rather lacklustre Samurai Shodown: Sen. The series’ latest foray into 3D is a peculiar one; so bland is the presentation, so unwieldy are the controls, that you wonder if the developers were stuck in some late-90s mindset whilst making it, unconcerned with competing against today’s more accomplished and feature-heavy titles.

o even describe Sen in three-dimensional terms is approaching something of a trade-descriptions baiting act. The fighting may take place in a format where an impression of depth is created, but in reality there isn’t much opportunity afforded to use this extra plane. Unlike in Soulcalibur, where moving vertically through the battleground is smooth and usually encouraged, Sen makes this simple tactical manoeuvre extremely difficult to pull off using the analogue stick (it works better with the d-pad). If it’s through choice then one of the key foundations for a 3D fighter are lost, and the game is poorer as a result; if it’s through the sluggish nature of the controls – as seems more likely – then it’s just another flaw to add to several others that ultimately serve to stifle much of the base enjoyment.

Even the practice of moving your character forward and back only seems to be achievable with an effort at odds with the desired on-screen action. Much of the blame seems to lie with the animation: whether playing as Jinbei (the standard wise master archetype) or the recognisable Charlotte (whose key trait is supposed to be speed) you’ll struggle to see much difference in character movement. The problem may be aesthetic, but in a genre where matches can often be decided on the minutest of frames, it’s a rather large one. In fairness though, Samurai Shodown: Sen is meant to be a far cry from the pyrotechnics and oddities of Namco’s hugely-successful if overrated weapons-based fighter, but it nevertheless feels frequently clumsy.

Played at the pace the developers have, possibly inadvertently, forced upon you, Sen is mostly tolerable. The fighting system is, much like the rest of the game, starved of detail, resting as it does on the fundamentals of grabs, slashes, kicks and blocks. There is a POW meter that is slowly charged as damage is taken, which unlocks special attacks, but that is about as fanciful as it all gets. Unfortunately newcomers to the game will, we guess, be put off far quicker by the considered pace and average looks than they will be the way the game actually plays. Certainly against friends and online it’s solid if a little disposable; the problem with the latter is that we struggle to see a community developing. Sen will mostly trade on nostalgia, but this in itself is a precarious position, as fans with fond recollections of the earlier games, whether from arcades or those ridiculously expensive Neo Geo ports, may find themselves looking for the depth and technical inspiration of old that is sorely lacking in Samurai Shodown, model 2010.

Not that you would be able to date the game as a new release based purely on its visuals. It’s a shame that the impressive hand-drawn art from the character selection screen and, er, the front cover of the box, doesn’t carry over into the main game. The characterful and cutely stylised drawings are suddenly replaced in-game by bland, often downright ugly, rendered models. The environments are slightly more impressive, with small pleasing touches such as the windy fields of Mikatagahara and the twilight blossoms of Amori Castle, but it’s not enough to save the poor work elsewhere. This unimpressive presentation is carried over into the game’s paucity of modes, and their poor execution.

The story campaign doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make you care about the ensuing rounds of combat; each character’s journey starts with a scrolling screen of text and Japanese narration, with the few weak cut-scenes used thereafter recycled between characters. Say what you like about Tekken’s absurd way with a story, but at least its CG work is impressive; Sen’s approach, in comparison, is pitiful. Survival mode takes a similar no-frills approach, while the training feature isn’t particularly instructive, though it is a helpful way to examine how tricky the AI can quickly get. This lack of detail, evident in the entire package, quickly becomes dispiriting

For all its problems Sen is just about salvaged by the fact that it isn’t completely broken. The fighting style, taken on its own stubborn terms, is serviceable; SNK Playmore have at least also thrown in a few cute gestures to please fans (Achievements, for example, poke fun at the series’ reputation for poor translations, with one description reading: “To have Xbox LIVE fighting for once”), and the new ability to dismember limbs never gets too old, if only because the subsequent spurts of blood are so comical. But Samurai Shodown: Sen exists in a context where the fighting genre has seen something of a renaissance, spearheaded not by technical showcases looking to dazzle with the promise of 3D, but 2D masterpieces – Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue – of rare depth and class. Sen fails to satisfy either of these camps. It’s artistically weak, lacking in substance, and as a result is somewhat cut adrift from the rest of the battling pack.

Originally published over at D+PAD Magazine here.