Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 6.6

It may be difficult to appreciate the significance of Tintin’s big-screen debut, especially if you weren’t brought up on Herge’s classic comics (which were released from 1929 right through to 1983) or even the ace early-90s animation – but Spielberg’s interpretation of the young Belgian reporter is, for a particular demographic, a very big thing indeed. The reaction to The Secret Of The Unicorn has been generally aghast at the perceived liberties taken by Steven and co, alongside misgivings with its use of technology, culminating in one writer claiming that he had left the cinema feeling “as though I had witnessed a rape”.

It’s safe to assume that nobody, after a few hours spent with Ubisoft’s affectionate take on Tintin, will be comparing the experience to, er, rape. Thankfully the game takes greater inspiration from the aforementioned comics and animated serial, as opposed to from Hollywood’s big-budget outing. Lovely touches abound; selecting the next level involves traversing a charming hand-drawn map, while the loading screens see Tintin and Snowy running together in front of a yellow spotlight instantly familiar from the show’s opening titles.

The success of Tintin the videogame is based on a simple design philosophy. Instead of heading down the thorny path towards CG ‘actors’ and 3D special effects, Ubisoft Montpellier (the studio from which this year’s superlative From Dust emerged, as well as playing host to the creative talents of one Michel Ancel) have instead embraced the aesthetic upon which Tintin’s success was first based: two-dimensional panels, crisply drawn, the trace of human involvement intentionally present. The visuals may lack the line-drawn clarity of Herge’s work, but they have a warmth and personality that is also reflected in the boisterous pace of the gameplay.

This is manifested in two central areas: the control over the player’s experience and the mechanics of combat. Of the former Ubisoft have, in the main story mode at least, adopted an unapologetically linear approach. Freedom does come in the shape of regular single-screen location-based puzzles in which the aim is to usually figure out how to clear the screen of enemies, but otherwise Tintin’s single-player adventure is tightly controlled, albeit punctuated by enough witty little ideas to keep the momentum zipping along. One minute you’ll be using a flashlight to illuminate a darkened room, the next you’ll be swinging along the side of a boat; Ubisoft have good form in 2D platform game design, and it’s a knowledge used with great effect here.

A simple control system supports the neat visuals and level design. In general the ‘A’ button is used for most functions, its context-sensitive nature allowing for jumping, rolling and climbing wherever necessary. Combat meanwhile is on a separate button. In general Tintin can take on the bad guys with basic punches, but it’s more fun to make use of various environment-specific attacks. These include banana skins causing enemies to slip straight into a wall, or a well-aimed projectile causing a chandelier to crash onto an unsuspecting group below. Of course, in Tintin nobody tends to actually die, but collapse to the floor in slapstick fashion, stars circling their heads.

Aside from the single-player Tintin also includes one further game mode of note. Co-op is a series of specifically designed platforming sections that take place in the booze-addled nightmares of Captain Haddock. The developers, presumably free from having to reflect the film’s narrative, here embrace surrealism with great effect, and there’s great fun to be had in playing through with a friend. The disappointing aspect to this is that online isn’t supported, as it would be easy to see an online supported co-op mode becoming something of a cultish pursuit.

The Secret Of The Unicorn is an extremely successful tie-in to what is a controversial film. It’s a slight shame that, whether for reasons of budget or resources, it feels a little truncated (the aforementioned lack of online co-op, and the necessarily limited nature of the single-player mode are the two most notable flaws), but then that just brings forth the tantalising image of how good a Tintin game based purely on Herge’s comics, with no filmic tie-in to consider, would be from the design team behind Beyond Good & Evil… Possibly the best family-orientated game of the year and certainly a must for Tintin fans.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

F1 2011

This moment, when Lewis Hamilton overtook Timo Glock on virtually the last corner of the last race of the 2008 season to win the F1 World Championship, remains one of my all-time favourite live sporting moments; a truly exhilarating moment to have watched unfold, and testament to just how exciting a contest F1 can still be. Also, jump to 1:37 for some comedy.

F1 2011 marks only the second ‘proper’ multiple-format outing for the Formula 1 license under Codemasters’ current steady stewardship, following several years of games exclusive to Sony and 2009’s surprisingly fun Codemasters/Sumo Digital collaboration, the Wii release F1 2009 (the titles of Formula 1 games leave a lot to be desired). F1 2011 comes at an opportune moment, with the sport enjoying something of a mainstream renaissance over the last few seasons following several changes in rules, car requirements and the awarding of points. Vettel on paper may have dominated this year’s pack, but that doesn’t tell the full story of what has been another intriguing season in the world’s most glamorous sport.

Codemasters were always the obvious choice to inherit the Formula 1 videogaming license, their track record in the racing genre, in terms of the breadth and consistency of their work unsurpassed in the last decade. What they did with last year’s Playstation 3/Xbox 360 debut F1 2010 was bring their strengths to a world in which the emphasis on racing models and minute details (two of Codemasters’ key strengths) is second to none. In this context F1 2010 was a great, albeit somewhat unsurprisingly great, debut HD excursion into the field. As well as being good it also sold extremely well, proving the appetite for F1 amongst gamers, and paving the way for this year’s entry.

It’s again unsurprising to report that little has drastically changed with F1 2011. The overall framework of the game remains pleasingly intact, with the customisable career mode once again the central focus. Your route to stardom begins in one of the lower-ranked teams, and it’s through grinding out results and slowly feeling your way into the car, much as you would in real life, that you eventually start being courted by the big names. More than many other racing games, F1 2011’s career mode rewards a large investment of time. This is best demonstrated by playing career races using the settings for a full race weekend, with practice and qualifying sessions; by the time you’re on the grid for the actual race not only do you have a better understanding of the track, but there’s also a palpable tension in the awareness that all your preparation comes down to these next 50-odd laps. After all that hard work how frustrating must it be for a crash on the first lap to send you straight back to the paddock? Well, F1 2011 does an extremely effective job of answering this question. The actual between-race exposition isn’t as successful however, with odd-looking character models and limited interview segments undermining the on-track atmosphere.

The handling model is geared towards simulation, as any discerning F1 fan would have hoped, and depends a lot on the type of tyre used (there’s a very good reason the tyre choice has its own central menu option). It takes some getting used to, and feels slightly more refined than in last year’s outing, especially when combined with the realistically dynamic weather system. Again, like the example of the involving career mode earlier, the strengths that mark out F1 2011 as different from the rest of the racing pack are as a result of the format of the sport itself. It’s to the credit of Codemasters that they’ve harnessed these and made an excellent videogame out of the ingredients.

Elsewhere there’s an online mode that allows for full races, albeit with eight of the 24 cars computer-controlled, and a new Time Attack mode that is a substantial diversion from the main single-player. A few faults do hold back F1 2011, such as with the approach to your between race career progression and visuals that are a little muted, but if Codemasters are intending to establish the franchise annually then we’re confident that the series can only get even better. For now though this is the definitive Forumla 1 videogame, and pretty damn essential for fans of the sport.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.