Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Kirby's Adventure Wii

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Format: Wii

Score: 6.7

Kirby’s Adventure Wii is a game of sickening ultraviolence wrapped in the aesthetic of a loveable children’s platformer. At one point our titular pink blob unleashes a machete almost as big as the screen, slicing through harmless-looking sleeping enemies with barely disguised glee. Later on, a devastating flame attack is responsible for the biggest moment of rampant deforestation in videogaming history. This is without mentioning the automatic cannon you frequently stumble upon – held above your head, it decimates everything in your path as you nonchalantly walk ahead, the in-game massacre massaged by trippy, vibrant colours. Kirby’s Adventure Wii is, in these moments, a game of primal, unabashed joy.

Almost six years in the making, HAL Laboratory’s latest treatment of their most iconic character (Epic Yarn, released earlier this year, was a co-production with Good-Feel) is, as the North American title of the game may suggest, a Return To Dream Land. It’s a return to both the classic Kirby feel and design – a 2D platformer, in which the central mechanic remains the power to inhale enemies and, as is often the case, absorb and copy their abilities. These copy abilities are as ever the star of the show, and for the initial hours of play there’s great fun in discovering the latest new power, and the different ways in which they can be used to wreck havoc on the unsuspecting denizens of planet Popstar.

Needle, for example, leaves Kirby looking like an extra from Apocalypto, all vicious spikes and melee attacks, while the sword ability dresses our pink friend in a green Link-style hat. It’s a cute nod to other videogames that is also reflected in the fighter power, which all but turns Kirby into Ryu, replete with dragon punches and fetching bandana. These abilities aren’t all as gratifying to use as the examples above, and once the period of finding new powers finishes it’s likely that you’ll settle on a trusty select few for the majority of your playtime. There’s a great deal of wit in evidence here (see the various poses that Kirby pulls using the stone ability for a good example), with this emphasis on vibrant personality working in tandem with the bold, clean visuals.

Although copy abilities remain the focus of Kirby’s Adventure Wii, the biggest advancement is in the addition of four-player co-operative play. This runs on an instant drop in/drop out system, and pushes the game closer, as an experience, to the knockabout chaos of Super Smash Bros compared to the relatively sedate platform game that the single-player is. There are three other classic Kirby characters for the other players to choose from – Meta Knight, King Dedede and Waddle Dee – but they lack the copy ability power of Kirby. To compensate there is the opportunity for every player to control a Kirby, of varying colours, but by balancing out the character selection in this way the game loses a sense of camaraderie that exists when only one Kirby runs the line, frequently taking control of progress within a level.

That’s not to say it’s all harmonious; one of the highlights is the way Kirby can inhale the other players and fire them at enemies, an interference in their play second only in the hilarity stakes to the way that, in the similar New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you could pick up and throw your friends from the level (one such moment earned me a painful punch on the arm from my girlfriend at the time). With multiple players Kirby’s Adventure Wii is knockabout fun. There’s also no tangible effect on the difficulty, with the extra firepower compensated for by busier activity on-screen.

As is traditional with the Kirby series, Adventure isn’t at all tough, but this serene pace of play is balanced with a successful emphasis on exploration and collectables. Each level has a varying number of energy spheres scattered around, with certain totals opening up various challenge rooms and mini-games. Although it would be possible to race through each stage of Adventure in a small number of hours, to do so would miss the point of HAL’s level design, in which each power comes into play to solve spatial puzzles and reach previously hidden spheres.

There are also several alternative boss stages hidden on a number of stages, in which the normal day-glo world is replaced with a monochrome palette, and sees Kirby needing to escape a scrolling wall of purple which is bad news if touched. While these sections aren’t all that tricky either, they do at least provide a welcome change of style. The various challenges are also decent distractions, although the two mini-games (one a ninja-star throwing contest, the other a robot shooting gallery) will quickly pall. It’s also worth pointing out that the music is frequently amazing.

Although Kirby’s Adventure Wii lacks the dazzling visual inventiveness of Epic Yarn, its chunky, vibrant look is never less than charming, and is complimented by a style of play that eschews challenge for a subtly enveloping comfort blanket of Nintendo delight. After all, it’s hard to overstate the destructive pleasure that comes with wrecking an uber-cute 2D world armed with merely a screen-sized katana, in control of a gluttonous, break-dancing pink bag of air.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Developer: Infinity Ward / Sledgehammer Games
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 8.2

For three years now, in the first week of November, our routine has been almost identical: day off work, the new Call Of Duty game and several uninterrupted hours in which the single-player is usually completed, the set-pieces fawned over, multiplayer dabbled in and the gnawing feeling that what was spectacular just moments ago will likely pale in time, the instant thrill replaced by a pseudo-critical detachment. It’s quite a feat which Activision have pulled off, hardwiring gamers into this annual ritual (judging by the numbers I’m not the only one in this position). It’s videogaming on a Pavlovian level. One well-edited trailer and we’re there. The cynical, not unfairly, will likely point out that Activision’s design and release schedule is as clockwork as ours described above.

There are two things I think I always mention in a Call Of Duty review, which might as well be dispatched now: one, that it’s difficult to see how the next entry in the franchise will be able to usurp this year’s edition without the excitement becoming a victim of diminishing returns and two, that Call Of Duty needs to innovate to stay relevant. The facts, the hard numbers, suggest that these two ideas are wrong – if anything, it’s likely that any major deviation from this proven template would create more (financial) trouble than it’s worth. Besides, innovation for the sake of innovation (as opposed to a genuine desire for progression), can often be just as bad, and it’s perhaps unrealistic for a franchise as big and ‘dependable’ as Call Of Duty to experiment in any meaningful way. Leave that to, y’know, the little arty games, the ones you tell girls you play to impress them.

Although to the casual observer (casual – there’s a word you don’t hear often with regards to COD) the release of Modern Warfare 3 must feel like a simple formality, its gestation has been anything but. The firing of senior Infinity Ward heads Jason West (former president) and Vince Zampella (co-founder) on a charge of “insubordination” following the stratospheric launch of Modern Warfare 2 compounded the feeling that the game itself was a disappointment, especially when compared to its narrative predecessor, Modern Warfare (still my favourite first-person shooter campaign of this generation). MW2 may have broken all sales records, for a year at least, but something wasn’t right – both in a corporate and creative context – under the surface.

With over forty staff leaving Infinity Ward in the wake of the West and Zampella affair, Activision were forced to hire Sledgehammer Games (formed by the creators of Dead Space) to aid development and ensure MW3 hit its expected early November date. However, if the development process for MW3 was turbulent then it certainly doesn’t show. Modern Warfare 2’s single-player was evidence that the franchise’s trademark of overloaded action sequences counts for little when it comes at the expense of narrative cogency; the sensory bombardment should ideally be anchored by a definition of what role you play in the bigger plot. Story orientation linked with visual disorientation, would be one way to put it. This is a front that Modern Warfare 3 has vastly improved on.

Whereas MW2 was confusing, over-the-top and ultimately unsatisfying, MW3 is clinical, focused and, to my mind, by far the best COD campaign since the first Modern Warfare back in 2007. It has the requisite moments that are technically amazing, where physics, scale and aesthetic combine to fantastic effect (the hijacking of the Russian President’s plane, in which the aircraft splits with you inside, is probably the pick of these), but also many missions that, perhaps mindful of previous excesses, recall the studio’s early World War 2 period. These, especially the later levels such as the German beach landing and a night-time trek through Prague feel like local skirmishes, with the sense of resistance unmoored from a wider geopolitical plot, the rhythm of play and the feel evoking, to my mind, Call Of Duty 2.

Indeed, the whole game runs like a greatest hits of Infinity Ward’s COD with everything from assassination missions to vehicle sections to a bit where you crawl under trucks making an appearance. In this, coupled with numerous narrative threads being tied up, there is the strong suggestion that the Modern Warfare sub-title is being put to bed, a full stop hinting at bolder approaches to come in future games. But we won’t hold our breath. There are also, once again, some striking narrative tricks used throughout, including a memorable spin on the iconic nuclear bomb scene from the original game, and an attempt at undermining player agency which is far more successful than No Russian was back in 2009.

So much discussion about MW3 invariably revolves around the content of the game, because the foundation upon which this spectacle hangs feel like they were refined ages ago. The ever-present objective marker, the generous health system, how way your gun snaps to target – all these facets of COD are present and correct, coupled with a robust game engine that, despite its age, is still capable of delivering the experience with the necessary impact. It’s the cry of “forward!”, which you hear more than any other in-game, which encapsulates the much-derided design philosophy of the series, a forward march towards invisible checkpoints, fuelled by panic and urgency.

Elsewhere Modern Warfare 3 welcomes the return of the excellent Spec Ops mode, as well as introducing a new Survival mode. There are 16 new missions in the former mode, including some neat twists on campaign levels – in one early mission, for example, you play the terrorists attempting to kidnap the Russian Presidents, as opposed to the soldiers attempting to defend him – while the latter is the franchise’s take on Horde, as successive waves of enemies need to be cleared. It proves great fun in co-op. In tandem with the single-player mode there’s enough content here to placate those gamers not interested or, more likely, too intimidated by Call Of Duty’s famously hostile multiplayer component.

For nearly everybody else it’s likely that the multiplayer portion of Modern Warfare 3 is the sole reason that they’ve bought the game, this annual tradition driven by persuasive forces no more complicated than simply wanting to play the same game as your friends, and seemingly as everyone else in the world: after all, nobody likes to be left out, do they? The addictive pull of experience points is of course ever-present, this time even extending to weapons (in the form of weapon proficiency) and other items. The more you use your guns, the more customisable they become, and it’s an effective carrot to get you as a player to experiment with your arsenal before eventually settling on a preferred style.

This new flexibility also affects the system of killstreaks, which are now renamed as pointstreaks and placed within three different packages, which are chosen at the outset of matches. These packages balance multiplayer, easing somewhat the introduction of new players – so whereas the Assault package is COD business as usual, the Support package sees rewards accumulating over the duration of a match and not disappearing after every death. It’s an intelligent shift, and one that doesn’t upset the core dynamic of COD multiplayer, which is otherwise as pacy, tight and aggressive as ever. It’s furious stuff, but crucially the reasons why it’s built such a huge following are still clear, even to those who may have had a curious interest before but haven’t had the confidence to jump in until now. The thrill of picking up a series of kills, the ever-present stats reminding you that the more you play the more you unlock: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer rounds off a fine, clinical package that sees Infinity Ward bringing the series back to something approaching its roots.

The ripples of the first Modern Warfare are still being felt in today’s videogames, some four years later. Back then – and it seems so long ago now – it was hard to imagine just what a towering, divisive series this supremely well-engineered, cunningly designed and quietly audacious little videogame would become. For better or worse Modern Warfare is, for many people, what videogames in 2011 are. Whether this is a good thing or not doesn’t stop us from acknowledging that Modern Warfare 3 is amongst the most exciting, instantly gratifying entertainment of the year. So, same again next year. Who thought being manipulated could be this much fun?

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.