Sunday, 17 October 2010

Guitar Hero: Warriors Of Rock

If 2009 was the year in which the music game threatened to collapse in on itself through oversaturation (Beatles Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, Band Hero, Guitar Hero 5 and – deep breath – Guitar Hero Van Halen all launched within a mere three month period) then 2010 could prove to be something of a revitalising, watershed moment for the genre/mini-industry. Similar to the annual battle between Pro Evolution and FIFA, with their new games both Harmonix and Activision’s axe-wielding franchises seem to have found their niches – both are now diametrically opposed in philosophy, both undeniably successful in their approach.

While Rock Band 3 forges ahead with the dizzying prospect of a Pro mode and new keyboard peripheral, Guitar Hero has been continually refining – as well as adding to – its core mechanics to a point where this latest title, the sixth in the core series, leaves us wondering where the franchise could possibly go next. But then we probably said that in the review of the last Guitar Hero game, such are the easy clich├ęs of writing about videogames. Warriors Of Rock (we’ll come to those titular warriors in a bit) has learnt from recent mistakes both legal – no more Cobain singing Bon Jovi! – and musical – with the unsatisfying setlist of Guitar Hero 5 giving way to a monumental 91-track heavy list of songs that will assuage the average heavy rock obsessive, whilst still leaving enough names for the more casual fan to recognise.

Best choices include Drowning Pool’s stupidly fun/plain stupid Bodies (much beloved of Iraqi prisoners of war), Buzzcocks’ What Do I Get?, and several pleasing curveballs in the shape of The Dillinger Escape Plan, R.E.M and Phoenix to name just three. There are also the inevitable duds, particularly Nickleback’s How You Remind Me (warning: you’re forced to play this when progressing through the quest, but then your remote does have a mute button). Rush’s seven-part song cycle 2112 is perhaps the overwhelming standout; it’s the centrepiece of the aforementioned Quest Mode, and does a fine job of highlighting Warriors Of Rock’s strengths.

Indeed, it’s odd in a game – and genre – so heavily orientated towards the social experience that the Quest Mode should prove so significant, but it’s a well designed campaign that neatly deconstructs the core components of Guitar Hero one stage at a time, whilst embracing the silliness that lies at the heart of the music – the stage sets, the dress code of its most iconic singers, the ridiculous album covers – in a way that wasn’t quite achieved when all you were playing as was a small band slowly trying to make it big. The story, such as it is, involves you having to awaken each of the eight Warriors Of Rock, with the eventual aim being to form the ultimate band and take down the evil Beast by, er, playing a Megadeath medley(nope, us neither).

The one big advancement that Warriors Of Rock makes is the introduction of new special powers for each of its eight central characters. Rotten-alike British punk Warrior Johnny, for example, doles out extra stars for staying above a certain multiplier, whilst Echo Tesla awards star power for every ten-note streak. It’s an approach that helps keep the play nice and dynamic, whilst also acting as an effective introduction to all things Guitar Hero for those four gamers who haven’t played it before. Without spoiling too much, by the end of the Quest the unlocked characters powers combine to wonderfully overblown effect, and the end result is simply lots of fun.

Where Rush’s 2112 fits into all this is that it acts as the point in the story where the characters find the legendary guitar, but also hints at a future direction for the series that shares much in common with Harmonix’s beautiful Beatles videogame. Bespoke, lovingly drawn background animations and the sense of inhabiting a band’s singular vision and world, however strange, were just two of the strengths of last year’s special Rock Band, and they’re qualities present here; members of Rush even narrate the unfolding tale within this mini-epic.

Elsewhere, the full offering of Guitar Hero 5’s multiplayer and party play modes return, as do the addictive mini-challenges for each track (there’s even a challenge which uses the Quest powers). The ability to import songs from the previous two Guitar Hero games is also welcome, while the note charts have, as far as this writer can remember, never been as uniformly strong in a post-Harmonix Guitar Hero game as they are here. So, all well and predictable. But then, just as the series looks like it’s finally realising its strengths and reclaiming a lofty position in the rhythm genre, Activision have moved development duties from Warriors Of Rock makers Neversoft to Vicarious Visions, who previously handled just the Nintendo conversions. What this means for the future of the series is unclear, but it would be a shame if the fine work achieved here – as knowing as it is familiar – were to be wasted. The best Guitar Hero game yet? Oh, go on then.

Originally published by D+PAD Magazine.

Talking To Real Girls About Videogames

Z: Hello Natalie.
N: Hello!
Z: Hello…Erm, do you like videogames?
N: Love it.
Z: Really?
N: Some of them.
Z: Okay. What videogame is your favourite videogame of all time?
N: Um…Mario Kart.
Z: Which version?
N: N64.
Z: Oh really? Okay…
N: Although I love EA as well.
Z: Oh really? Are you saying that because it’s your job?
N: No. Definitely not.
Z: Definitely not. Okay. Erm, so what was your favourite part of your N64 Mario Kart experience?
N: Um, probably winning Battle every single time with Bowser.
Z: Oh really? Okay. I like Mario Kart N64 as well! Um, any other N64 games you like or…?
N: Um, Snowboard Kids, definitely.
Z: Yeah, I like that as well.
N: GoldenEye, Oddjob…
Z: I’d beat you, but…
N: We don’t know that because we haven’t played.
Z: Well, we can play so…
N: Um, okay, but let’s just agree to disagree for the minute.
Z: No, no, no, no…let’s just assume that I’d win.
N: Let’s make no assumptions at present.
Z: I think it looks like I’m going to have to invite you to my place to play GoldenEye.
N: Okay…
Z: Okay. So, does that mean we can swap numbers?
N: Yep, no problem.
Z: Okay, can I have your number please?
N: Yep, but it’s all being recorded so do you want me to just say it out loud?
Z: No, no, no…let’s, um, swap the numbers after the recording finishes…
N: Okay then, great…
Z: Fantastic, so…girls that like videogames, excellent!
N: Thank you very much.
Z: Thank you very much, cheers. Bye bye!
N: Bye!

First heard on One Life Left, episode #128, which you can listen to/download here.

You should listen to One Life Left on Resonance 104.4 (or via podcast) every week. Here is their website:

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo 2010

Highlights from this year's Eurogamer Expo. We start with a picture of the moment I finally got the chance to play Rock Band 3 keyboards, to Devo's Whip It:

Rock Band 3

The decision to place the standard five coloured keys in amongst the rest of the Pro keyboard initially felt a little odd, so my first play didn't feel as intuitive as it perhaps would have if given a keyboard designed in a more traditional Rock Band style (though perhaps five big coloured buttons on a keyboard-shaped peripheral would look a little too much like something from Fisher Price). That said, it's startling how such a small difference in gameplay can have such a thrilling impact within the familiar template. Pro mode, for both guitar and keys, also looked as daunting as it should, and if seen through to its potential will transform the Rock Band experience, effectively creating two separate games. I wouldn't hold my breath for keyboard parts to be added to tracks from The Beatles Rock Band, as welcome as that would be, but otherwise this is looking like the definitive social gaming experience for late 2010, Kinect and Move be damned.

Killzone 3

Steven Ter Heide's developer session was a chance for the Killzone 3 producer to demonstrate the game's Move controls, as well as generally show off the game's visuals. Firstly, Killzone 3's use of Move looked very impressive; it was interesting to see how little movement Steven made whilst using Move, and a lot of thought appears to have gone into how to keep the experience as seamless and unobtrusive as possible (for instance, not using the Navigation Controller to throw grenades because of the problems this would cause with the camera). Latter-day Wii FPS have shown how effective this set-up can be for console, and Killzone 3 should be the best implementation yet. Secondly, Killzone 3's visuals are stunning. It's the little environmental details that stood out in yesterday's presentation, like the lens flare shining through a boat window, or the perpetual snow flakes obscuring your vision. With this and LittleBigPlanet 2, Sony have an extremely strong start to 2011.

Yuji Naka

Yuji Naka is something of a legend, so his developer session on Saturday afternoon was something of a high point. He's also known as the guy who made Sonic The Hedgehog, something he seems to be reminded about at every opportunity. Ostensibly in attendance to present his new game, Ivy The Kiwi?, it was of course fascinating to hear him (well, via a translator) discuss 2D gaming, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, his favourite Sonic game, and the genesis for his latest title. So, in order the answers were:

- "2D still has many more things to do"
- "It was actually my idea. I approached Nintendo...I always thought it would be fascinating (to have both characters in the same game).
- The first Sonic The Hedgehog game.
- The birth of his first child.

The trailer for Ivy The Kiwi? - yes, the '?' is intentional - doesn't reveal much in the way of varied gaming mechanics, but the gameplay's central focus, which sees you draw vines on screen to propel Ivy through the levels, looks as disorientating as it does tricky, and potentially ripe for drawing out high-score obsessives. Here's the trailer:

The finale, a hall-wide game of Rock-Paper-Scissors in which the prize were signed Ivy The Kiwi? picture books, was also, outside of Rock Band 3, the most fun I had playing a game during the whole event.

Other highlights:

Playing MotorStorm Apocalypse in 3D, despite not actually being able to see the 3D because the special Sony glasses wouldn't fit over my normal pair (this is why the 3DS is a good idea); Medal of Honor online (sans Taliban); inFAMOUS 2 (looking very dynamic); and losing to my friend on Move Table Tennis, from Sports Champions, by a humilating scoreline of 7-2 (excuse: he's already something of an expert, but it was the first time I had played).