Thursday, 23 February 2012

Red Faction: Armageddon [PS3]

Urgh. With so many elements going in it's favour, it's sad this game got it SOOOO wrong.

The destructo-scenery adventure moves from surface to underground and goes all shadowy. 
Oh, and now there's tons of splatty aliens that need splatting.

Lots of big guns to take down lots of big monsters - the system works.
Total Recreation
The plot to Armageddon is that the human colonies on Mars are being overrun by aliens. Well, actually they're being overrun by locals - and the aliens are all getting killed and eaten (that being us humans). This has something to do with what one particular alien - Darius Mason - accidentally did while on a mission. He was duped into it by some evil-doer who needs to be brought to justice and the human military are powerless to help. Basically all of this is relayed in cutscenes that are acted out by wooden CGI characters, while the rest of the time you run from dark cave to darker cave blowing things up and shooting aliens.... er, locals..... er..... monsters (damn you political correctness).

Darling Darius - this is pretty much how he delivers all of his lines in the game's cutscenes.

In the end, you are aiming to restore an atmosphere to Mars which will kill off all the ali....monsters and let the lovely humans live happily ever after on the monsters' homeworld. Hang on a minute..... Is this really a game where humans invade somewhere, kill off all the locals and the big Hollywood finale is the hero smiling as they all die? Yes. Yes, it really is.

To summarise, the plot is pretty boring - exactly like Total Recall only with all the mystery, Schwarzenegger and triple-boobed prostitutes removed. Oh, and you don't get the girl at the end. She dies. [Spoiler Alert] It wasn't a surprise to me and I doubt it'll come as a surprise to you.

This is Kara - Darius's honey. She dies. Surprise surprise.


Good Looking, So Refined
Actually the enemy colouring and visual style isn't too bad - each monster has a pattern and markings that make them easier to distinguish against the dark backgrounds and from each other. There is a hell of a lot of dark backgrounds though, so they really needed some colour in the mix just to prevent serious eye strain. The monsters do stand out from each other well enough and it makes for a better spectacle when they come flying towards you - which they will do roughly every ten seconds.

There's yellow ones and red ones. I'd deal with the big one first though.
The mix of colours in the aliens starkly contrasts with the bland and depressingly bleak set of environments that you have to fight your way through. All the caves are black and brown, all the buildings are grey and black, everything is just dark and colourless. This can make things a bit of a chore to get through: 

  1. Head down the corridor to the base, it's dark and grey. 
  2. Next run to the power generator, it's dark and grey. 
  3. Then run to the dark, grey escape tunnel. 

Bleeeeuuuuuuugggggghhhhh

Somebody please turn the lights on! 
Or at least give me a paintball gun!


I can build a rainbow...build a rainbow... smash your face in too...


Lava Lamp
Then in later levels they throw some lava into the palette. Now this would be fine in theory - and certainly brightens the place up - except that the main grunt enemies are coloured in yellow and red. The lava therefore renders them impossible to see as it splashes around and the heat distorts your vision, so you're back to straining your eyes trying to make out where the hell the baddies are before they leap out at you. Aha! There they are!


While spicing things up slightly, the lava is certainly not an improvement.


Level and Game Design
As mentioned above, this is bland bland bland. I honestly couldn't pick out any of the environments that I played through, other than making educated guesses that there was a military base, a power generator and bridge at some point. 


The only tasks you will be expected to complete are as follows:

  1. Kill the monsters
  2. Blow up that target
  3. Go to point X
  4. Repair that target
That really is about it. Sometimes you're escorting some military guys, sometimes you're in a tank, sometimes there will be lava - but you'll still just be heading to a big flashing arrow, pressing the trigger button and running off down yet another dark corridor. Yippee.



This screenshot doesn't do it justice - usually it's a lot darker than this.


Use of Destructo-Scenery
Distinctly average. You can blow a very limited number of things up - not walls or floors or anything like that - and once you've blown a building up you'll normally have to repair it so that you can continue in the game. It's like when you get annoyed with your building blocks and smash them apart - it feels like you're a powerful giant - until a parent comes along and tells you to pick them all up.


The addition of the "magnet gun" is about the best thing I can say about the destruction - this works by latching firing two separate tethers, which then are drawn to one another. There is plenty of scope for fun there - fire one at a monster and one at the ceiling to watch it go flying - fire one at big tower and one at a building and they'll collide in spectacular fashion.


The only issue with this is that all of the places where you get to try this out are so dark and the buildings so drab and grey that it doesn't carry much impact - it just looks like a grey blob hitting a grey blob and forming a new grey pile on the floor. The destruction on show in the game's predecessor Guerilla was brighter, more varied and on a much larger scale.

Buildings still fall to pieces when the correct force is applied.

In order to get some proper destruction time, you'll either have to play the vehicle sections - which I'll get to later - or the separate destruction mode (known as Ruin mode). This is unlocked using a game code - so not sure if pre-owned gamers will actually be able to enjoy this. 

Ruin mode gives you a small map and a limited time, and you go nuts trying to smash as much as possible. In order to get the best scores you need to cause maximum destruction, but there is a fairly arbitrary points system associated with each building - massive structures fall and give mere hundreds of points, whereas one wall at the end of the map can be worth millions. Getting the best scores is therefore a case of "find the valuable structure and fire everything at that". 

Ruin mode feels like a tacked-on gimmick than a fully-playable game mode - nothing like the free destructive fun that you were able to enjoy in Guerilla.

Nano Forge Rebuild
The nano forge in action. It's blue.

The new piece of equipment in the scenery-destruction series? A device that puts it together again. Lame. If that really is the best that the guys at Syfy games could come up with to move the series forward then they really ought to give up now.

Not only is it a poorly-conceived idea, it was badly executed as well! There were several sections in the game where I thought "Yeah, this could be alright actually. Monsters are  blowing this walkway up and I have to navigate my way across, repairing it as I go". Could have been exciting, yes? Well it wasn't because it took 30 seconds to get across to the end of the walkway and that was the only section of it's kind in the game. What a missed opportunity - the one time the new mechanic works and they hurry past it as if they're ashamed of it. Well, yes, you should be ashamed. Poor show, Armageddon.

At least it looks a bit flashy when you are made to repair stuff.

Vehicular Fun?
Armageddon gets to the point where the vehicle sections are actually welcome - sort of a "Yes please, for goodness' sake just let me blow some shit up!".


Doesn't he look menacing in his giant metal suit?



Around 10 percent of the game is spent either in a walker suit or a tank... and your objectives are? Blow shit up. 


Yay! At least they got that right. Not that you'll be able to appreciate it much as all brainpower has been drained out of you in the corridor shooter sections.


In case you hadn't noticed by this point - Armageddon really drained all the life out of me. In fact, I'm having difficulty even writing about it because I found it that thoroughly boring. Bugger it. Here's some screenshots of shit being blown up:


This is actually from a spin-off vehicular game - Battlegrounds - but the idea is the same. Broom broom. Boom boom.

Armageddon is one long slog through dark corridors - there's just a real void in terms of diversity and personality.

Although this sounds on paper like a classic action-horror, or perhaps a bit like one of Arnie's finest works - it's thoroughly dull and ruins any appeal it may have had with it's repetitive tasks and bland environments.

Even the multi-player destructive fun and vehicle sections can't redeem what is a shameful addition to an already floundering series. They really need to go back to the drawing board and get their priorities right.

Here's a hint - number one is massive destruction. 
It is not caves and aliens... er... local monster thingys.


Between this image and the one below - doesn't this look like a soap romance between Daruis his grumpy alien wife?

YOU LEFT ME TO DIE... AND I SAW YOU SNOGGING SANDRA! YOU BITCH!


Images in this review are copyright of THQ and can be found at: 

Gotye - Making Mirrors [CD] [QUICK&SHORT]


Overview.
The third album from Belgian-born, Australian-based multi-instrumentalist Wouter De Backer - known better by his stage name "Gotye" - was released in August 2011. Gotye is well-known in Australia, making the headlines for being the first Australian artist since Silverchair to hold the number 1 spot in both the singles and albums charts. Gotye has enjoyed massive success in the UK and America since the release of the single Somebody That I Used To Know, which has received over 80 million views on Youtube. Also, you heard it here first - he sounds a lot like Sting when he sings this song!


Major Points.
Eclectic - It's almost as if the album was made for this reviews site - it is a wonderfully eclectic and diverse set of tracks spanning from pop to indie, from soul to ska, from upbeat anthem to chillout tune. The format and ambition of Gotye could be likened to Peter Gabriel - not afraid to experiment with new or unusual combinations of sounds and appreciating that a diverse set of styles and instruments can combine to create something wonderful. Special mention to the third single from the album, I Feel Better, which is like a Stevie Wonder/Lionel Ritchie hybrid and it's brilliant. Lyrically, it's not deep, complex or subtle - I Feel Better just tells it like it is:
"A friendly face will bring you around and you'll feel better".


Flowing Tempo - The album also works very well as a whole - the quieter early tracks build up to the singles in the middle which move seamlessly between pop, indie and ska-influenced sounds. These tracks tread a fine line between being unusually inventive and off-puttingly unsettling - tracks such as Don't Worry, We'll Be Watching You and Bronte stand apart as distinctly downbeat for a pop release but still work well on this album. They are counter-balanced by tracks like In Your Light and Save Me, which bring the upbeat feel back with glorious cheers and thumping drum beats.


The future - Although the album works very well, and several tracks stand out as modern pop gems, the lack of a coherence or "sound" does make me wonder where Gotye will go from here. How does he emulate the successful sound for future album? Having another eclectic mix is risky, as he is likely to alienate more of the mainstream audience the more he dips into other genres. Trying to create a full album of singles such as Somebody That I Used To Know and Eyes Wide Open, which are certainly the most commercially-viable, may sound slightly stale in comparison. For my part though, I'll be happy so long as Gotye keeps trying to make diverse, interesting albums that push the boundaries of pop music.


Conclusions.
Making Mirrors really came out of the blue for me (thanks to a recommendation from my mum and brother actually). 
Having the singles stuck in my head led me to try out the 
rest of the album, and boy am I glad I did! 

This is as eclectic and diverse a pop album as you could ever want. Still manages to have continuity between tracks even when spanning many decades and genres - this is the mark of a very talented musician.

Where Gotye can go from here though is a worry - if he deviates from diversity it may sound stale, if he mixes it up more then he might lose the majority of his audience. Only time will tell...


Videos in this review are from Youtube and are courtesy of:

Nintendo DS Downloadable Games [Vol. 2] [DS] [QUICK&SHORT]

Bird & Bombs



PROS:

  • Cheap - only £1.80 from the DSi Store.
  • Enjoyable story - you are a special forces bird sent in with your bombs to rescue the president's daughter from a house full of ghosts. It's for kids but it's still fun.
  • Simple premise and controls - you only control the angle and power of your bombs in each level to bounce off the walls, ceiling and obstructions to get the bombs into the ghosts mouths, thus blowing them up.
  • Good for a while - there's 50 levels to get through with bosses at key points to keep the action varied. Aiming for perfect scores will take you a fair while longer. After you beat the main story there is Story+ mode, where you have limited bombs to complete the story levels, again increasing lifespan. Finally there's Challenge mode - essentially a tough survival mode to see how many levels you can get through before you fail.
CONS:
  • Sometimes annoying definition of what "going into the ghost's mouth" actually is - due to the nature of firing bombs that bounce off walls, sometimes a bomb can pass over the mouth of a ghost and not go in. On other levels, it's almost like the ghost has a magnetic mouth drawing the bomb into it.
  • The more difficult levels may make you want to smash your DS onto the floor. The deflated sigh that Bird with bombs makes every time it misses is saddening - and on the tougher challenges you will find that you fail a whole lotta times before you get it just right.



Cut The Rope



PROS:

  • Cheap enough - £4.50 on DSi Store.
  • The idea here is that you have to cut the rope that is holding a sweet such that it falls into a worm-thingy's mouth (bit of an object-in-mouth theme going on here). That's pretty much it - only the rope will be attached to a whole bunch of stuff that will make this a lot more tricky than it sounds.
  • Some pretty complex physics puzzles later on - elastic bands stretch, balloons rise and pop and gravity keeps things in check. There are around 8 distinct puzzle elements that you will need to master - and you'll need to complete them speedily if you want the best scores.
  • 125 levels of increasing difficulty - with 3 stars to collect on each level. Getting 3 stars on all 125 levels is not impossible but certainly a challenge.
CONS:

  • Touch controls aren't perfect - this means that the more complicated levels requiring quick, coordinated responses regularly end in failure.
  • This is a casual game, admittedly, but what exactly is the motivation to play this? To feed a fairly annoying green blob. 125 times. Could of done with a bit more than that really.


The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords


PROS:

  • It was free! The whole thing cost precisely zero pennies off the DS Store!
  • It's a colourful affair that has all of the fun and creativity of a Zelda title.
  • Great use of the touch screen for controlling the characters - using the gadgets and interacting with the environments works well.
  • Excellent multi-player and online features - playing with other gamers to fight through dungeons and earn the most treasure is enjoyable and rewarding.

CONS:



    • Not quite a fully-fledged Zelda. There's a lot on offer here - and I can't really complain because it's free - but although it will keep you going for a few hours it isn't as ridiculously enormous as a usual Zelda title.
    • More than once I have had level elements not work - usually in online games. This means that you can't go any further and the level timer ticks on regardless. Restarting the level normally sorts it out but it's still a pain when it happens.
    • Possibly not available now to download - can't see whether it is available to purchase now that the free download period is over.





    Images on this review are copyright of Nintendo and can be found at:
    http://www.nintendo.co.uk/NOE/en_GB/games/dsiware/bird__bombs_16120.html
    http://www.nintendo.co.uk/NOE/en_GB/games/dsiware/cut_the_rope_44901.html
    http://www.nintendo.co.uk/NOE/en_GB/games/dsiware/the_legend_of_zelda_four_swords_anniversary_edition_44936.html

    Thursday, 16 February 2012

    Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PSN] [QUICK&SHORT]



    Overview
    A remake of the 2005 Xbox title that forms part of the marvellous Oddworld series - now updated with HD graphics, better character models and improved sound. The game is a first/third person adventure that puts you in the shoes of Stranger, a bounty hunter who is trying to make enough money for the surgery that will sort him out for life. On your journey, you will meet all kinds of crazy characters and villains who will either lead you to riches or to your doom.





    Major Points
    Kooky Colourful - The Oddworld has always been a weird and wonderful place and this 3D high-definition update only serves to remind you of just how bizarre and beautiful this world really is. Environments, enemies and weaponry are all visually superb, and the best example of this is the ammunition you use in game. Rather than standard bullets, you pick up creatures from the game world and load them up into your crossbow - as you can see in the video, the critters you fire at enemies are equal parts cute and freaky. It is unique and quirky features like this that make the Oddworld games stand out above other titles.
    Cartfuls of Comedy Everything in the game has a unique humour to it - often lost in modern games. The bounties you go after have names like "Jo'Mamma" and "Fatty McBoomBoom". All the dialogue is filled with tongue-in-cheek humour, and makes the cutscenes enjoyable to watch. Having the comedy at the core of the game, diffusing through everything from place names to dialogue, enhances the fun that can be had playing this game tenfold.
    Updated or Outdated - As previously mentioned, this is a HD update of a game from 2005 -  so how does it hold up with today's standards? Well, remarkably well. The game mechanics and theme needed no adjustment and so are thankfully left untouched. The updated graphics and audio only improve upon this - now the game looks, sounds and plays fantastic. Add to this new features such as trophy support - offering some extra challenges should you find you need them - and this is a top-quality package.






    Conclusion
    One of those rare titles that succeeds in being both creative and playable - Stranger's Wrath works as both a reminder of a brilliant older title and as a shining example of how a HD update should work. 

    The unusual humour, characters and environments that are the trademarks of the Oddworld series are all here. Better than that - they're all in HD with  remastered sound!

    When this kind of gameplay is combined with a low price tag on the PS Store, this becomes an unmissable experience. Seriously. Go buy it. Now.

    Videos in this review are from Youtube and are kindly provided by:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/sonyplaystation and 
    http://www.youtube.com/user/FMVGuy

    F.3.A.R. [PS3]

    The third official title in the F.E.A.R. horror franchise is similar to earlier titles, only now you've got your dead psychic psycho brother with you at every step of the journey. 

    Don't you just love getting the chance to bond with your evil, psychic little brother?


    A Bit of Background.
    If you hadn't worked it out yet, this is the third FEAR game, although you'd be excused as putting the number in the word is just stupid.


    OK, I should start by saying that I'll be judging this title fairly critically as I'm a massive fan of the first 3 F.E.A.R. releases (the original F.E.A.R., Perseus Mandate and Extraction Point) but less so of F.E.A.R. 2. Really as they've got the high-definition consoles to test out, this should be an absolute roller-coaster. It *should* be.


    These games generally involve you spending half your time shooting clever AI enemies and the other half walking down corridors where the walls start to bleed. Horror-Shooter. Get it? 


    The themes are pretty dark here, the back story being so yucky that I'm not even going to go into it, sufficed to say that the freaky girl on all the cover art is totally justified in going all kill-rampage-y. If you're that perverse/curious then go play the first game. Then read the guide to the story. Grossed out sufficiently? Good. I shall continue.

    Why The City Blew Up.
    The story this time round is that you have now got to team up with your dead, psychic brother to go and save/kill your mother. She's about to give birth to another evil, psychic baby (who will probably cause Armageddon at some point) so the best thing to do would be to go and kill her. Pretty sure this was exactly what we've been up to the past 5 games... but whatever.


    Your brother is actually trying to save your mother 'cause he loves the whole psychic murderer vibe. In the end, either you will kill your mother, your brother and the evil sprog, or alternatively your brother will kill you and save her and the baby. Win-win, right?


    This is the cloud gathering as Alma prepares to blow up the city.....again.

    It's Bullet Time.
    The actual action is the same as in the older games (and now pretty much every FPS in existence) - you find cover, shoot a bit, run, duck, shoot, blow something up, run etc. etc. etc.


    The "unique" selling points are the bullet time - wow a game where you can slow time down(!) - and the scary sections (which I'll come on to in a little while). 


    The bullet time is now pretty redundant as most enemies move so slowly that you almost want the option to speed them up! Adding to the problem is that now enemies are now thick as pig shit, standing like squishy targets for you to carefully line up your aim and making minimal effort to hunt you down or flush you out of cover.


    The environments have all been seen before too - ooh a subway, ooh an office, ooh a street - and so this gets pretty repetitive and dull very quickly, as well as being thoroughly dull and repetitive.


    They swarm around you menacingly, and then wait to be killed like lemmings.


    Horror? Don't Worry, You Have Nothing To F.3.A.R.
    Tickets please.... no?.... then I will be forced to eat your head.


    As you may have guessed from the pun in the heading, the horror sections aren't even scary any more. In previous games, these sections appeared out of nowhere and featured some unsettling psychological trickery - in one level you open a door that disappears in front of you, then a door appears in the floor, then your vision blurs as a little girl walks across the ceiling. It played upon your human side, confusing you and having things in the corner of the screen make you doubt you saw anything at all. It was frikkin' freaky - trust me.


    In F.3.A.R., they use advanced horror techniques that may be a bit difficult to explain - things jump out at you. Er... OK that was pretty simple to explain, and about as scary as a chocolate eclair. They don't even make any effort to add some suspense into proceedings - move from the bright sunshine indoors to a grimy apartment block and surprise surprise a monster appears.


    Two Sides To Every Story.
    Hold the phone though! 


    There's another part to the gameplay that I haven't touched upon yet - playing as your brother (who is evil and psychic, did I mention that already?).


    This basically involves sending out evil psychic mind-talons to grab enemies and suspend them in mid-air. You can then blow them up with your brain, or allow your brother to take them out for you. And that's it. 


    Wow. A real game-changer there. 


    The depressing thing is that as you play through as the shooty brother, you are unlocking the levels so that you can go back and play them through again as the psychic brother. Why on Earth anyone would want to subject themselves to that, I do not know.


    Even worse is that the game is marketed as a "co-op" title, implying that you should bring a friend along to star in the role of useless brother. A friend who you are trying to hint at to go home and never call again, perhaps.


    The awesome might of your brother's air guitar impression has caused this guy's leg to fall off.
    God mode to Pwnd mode.
    These guys spawn out of walls. Clever AI isn't needed when you can just appear out of thin air.


    Although the enemies all stand around like plonkers, the game still manages to be ridiculously difficult in places. Not throughout - so that you might consider turning the difficulty setting to "easy" - but instead just for one or two fights in the whole game.


    You can run and gun through the entire level, only to be killed repeatedly by one awkward enemy who hides on a rooftop with a sniper rifle. Because of the way the checkpoint and ammo works, you can often find yourself with thousands of rounds of pistol ammo but with nothing useful like a simple rocket launcher. Not much to ask, surely?


    Then to top it off, there's the buggers in the picture above - teleporty spawny armoured gits. Whenever you start to get a few hits in they run off and portal through a wall, appearing directly behind you. When there are TWO OF THEM jumping out of walls right behind you and blowing you up, only to run away through the wall again when you manage to turn round to face them, you can imagine that these sections go on for a while.


    So basically, the developers thought that a few obnoxiously annoying sections would suffice to balance the difficult level out. They were so, so wrong. What is left is an unbalanced mess, where I played the majority of the game at the hardest difficulty and only turned it down for the rare levels where the teleport twins would appear.


    The Climax
    With all the destruction in the build-up, you would expect something pretty spectacular for the ending, wouldn't you? 


    So what do you find when you finally confront dear mother? Is it:

    • A giant, final boss fight?
    • A freaky horror section so gruesome that run away screaming?
    • A nuclear detonation levelling half of America?
    No. A walkthrough section where you see a few cutscenes and then it ends. It totals up who has been the most evil brother to decide the winner and therefore the ending, and if you have been playing in single-player then this section is totally redundant as you will always be the winner.

    So the child lives or dies, as does the mother, as does your brother.... urgh. I'm getting bored of this now. If you are too, DO NOT PLAY THIS GAME. It's pretty much just 10 hours of this crap.

    What am I doing? I'm dying. Great.
    And if you hadn't had enough in the main story, there's an online multiplayer section too. It plays out something like a barricade defence game, boarding up windows of your building to prevent hordes of baddies from getting in and eating you. 

    Now either I didn't get the point, or I was playing with some players who have recently undergone a lobotomy, but basically after 10 minutes it was impossible to hold off the waves of nasties on my own. So... Dead. Bored. Switch off.


    Conclusions.
    There's games that deserve praise for what they bring to gaming in general. There are other games that are carried by the sentimentality that you feel towards their predecessors. 

    F.3.A.R. is neither - it is a bland shooter that defiles the brilliance that was the earlier F.E.A.R. titles both shamelessly and carelessly.

    I am having real difficulty thinking of anyone I could recommend this to - OK - if you like all 400 Jason  films, you might like this game. 
    Though, let's face it - that's pretty unlikely.


    I do not own the copyright to the images in this review. They are all copyright of WB Games and can be found here - http://www.fear3.co.uk/image-gallery.html

    Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You [CD] [QUICK&SHORT]

    Overview.
    The most recent offering from ageing Californian funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Released in August 2011, this album was the first since 2009's Stadium Arcadium. It is also the first album to feature new guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, who replaces the long-serving John Frusciante. The album was received well, reaching number one in the UK charts and several of the singles have also reached number one. Notably, The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie (below) gave the Chilis a record-breaking 12th number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart.



    Major Points.
    Funkadelic - The album certainly seems to move away from the trend that the Chilis were working themselves into: By The Way and then Stadium Arcadium were firmly in the "pop-rock" genre, perhaps hoping to gain a more mainstream fanbase. I'm With You on the other hand is much funkier, louder and more energetic - slightly more akin to the 1980's Chili sound. Look Around, for example, is an explosive track that grabs your attention with its chunky bass and pacy drums. Did I Let You Know (below) is another catchy hooking track that is overflowing with energy which feels more like it was written by the bold young scamps the Chilis used to be.




    Hollow - Sadly, the album as a whole feels lacking in personality. Although the sound is much more vibrant than recent offerings, the energy on show doesn't mask the fact that a substantial and positive musical influence is missing - John Frusciante. 
    Now, I don't need John in the line-up to enjoy a Chilis album - the first few albums with Hillel Slovak before Frusciante joined were great, as was One Hot Minute. 
    The problem is that now John is gone, there is nothing to fill his place - Josh Klinghoffer doesn't bring any discernible charisma to the sound and this is painfully visible in the Look Around video (below) where each band member is in their own room filled with personal effects but Josh Klinghoffer, failing to introduce himself in one of the first videos he appears in, stands in a blank room and does nothing (with the camera even skipping over him to move onto someone more interesting!).
    Mish-mash - Other than the lack of the glorious musical talents of Frusciante, the album also fails to offer a coherent sound to it. Several tracks are bland and instantly forgettable, blending into the latter half of the album without making a mark, which really lets the attention-grabbing early tracks down. If they were able to keep that pace going for the full 14 tracks, or if they could balance the album slightly so that it doesn't feel so lop-sided then this could have been a modern gem.

    Conclusions.
    I'm With You is certainly a good album. The problem is that when you are one of the biggest bands in the world, a "good" album just ain't good enough.
    If this is the best the Chilis can muster without Frusciante, then I'd recommend that they pack it in. 
    Just re-release the greatest hits every few years and we can remember the Chilis as the legends that they were.

    Videos in this review are from Youtube and are kindly provided by:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/RHCPtv and
    http://www.youtube.com/user/PasquotankMusic

    Thursday, 9 February 2012

    Final Fantasy XIII-2 [PS3]

    The latest incomprehensible, shiny adventure from Square Enix is a much more playable experience than its predecessor.


    Exploration and time travel are the key words of the day here - trekkin across space and time to save the future.


    New features keep play varied and engaging - and thankfully the combat is still intense and visually stunning.


    The ABC on the new J-RPG, FFXIII-2
    For those who haven't completed the introductory course in pseudo-Latin game numbering systems, the title of this game is Final Fantasy 13 - number 2 (that being, the direct sequel to Final Fantasy 13).


    That means that this game is a Japanese fantasy role-playing title, with a focus on exploration and character development. There game offers around 20 large areas to visit during several time periods, with each specific time and place having unique enemies and treasures to find. Due to the convoluted nature of the story, you will be revisiting these areas several times each in order to get all the hidden story items and complete all quests.

    Story: An Introduction to the Beginner's Guide
    The story here is that the time line has gotten messed up. Something, or someone, has mixed up time such that there are anomalies everywhere which our heroes, Serah and Noel, 
    resolve to sort out. Once a time glitch (or "paradox") has been fixed, our heroes earn crystal fragments which can then be used to open new time periods and find new paradoxes and then sort those out as well.


    Serah is the Lightning's sister from FF13, now not frozen in crystal an in need of rescue, but instead heading off to save Lightning, who is trapped in Valhalla in an eternal battle with an  evil time-travelling bloke (what is up with this family - can they not go 5 minutes without some interplanetary catastrophe centred around them!?!).


    Noel is a bloke who dreams about Lightning and Serah before falling through the timeline into Valhalla. It is there that Lightning tasks him with finding Serah, and making their way through time to meet up with her in Valhalla (get the 4 o'clock bus, change at Hammersmith, then get off and walk at civilisation's ruin).



    The time travelling theme means lots and lots more unpleasantly corny dialogue.

    The big bad guy is called Caius Ballard, and is closely involved with a freaky girl called Yeul who sees every possible future. Noel knows Yeul (well, "a" Yeul - er - I'm just not going to go into it) so anyway he gets all emotional about seeing her. Then Sarah does. Then Yeul does.


    The scope for puns based on names is so wide thanks to there being characters called Fang, Hope, Snow, Lightning, Noel and Yeul. I mean, the Christmas puns in both Noel and Yeul scream out at me and some sort of drug and spike pun out of Snow and Fang would be good. Some very quickly, and poorly, conceived examples are below but the possibilities are endless:


    Happy Noel Noel!
    Ah, Happy Yule Yeul!

    You got a number for Snow?
    Yeah, call this guy. Say Fang sent you.
    Cool... I'm gonna get Snow with Fang's help...

    O.K. maybe I'm trying a bit too hard to have fun with the characters here but you can cut me some slack - they're all bizarre, annoying and so you just cannot connect with any of them.


    On that note, the co-dependant, emotional party of characters from FF13 no longer follow you around everywhere you go, however they do all pop up at some point along your travels to greet you. This offers some closure to their stories - at the end of FF13 everyone celebrated the completion of their journey and then the credits roll. Now you get to see what they got up to in the years that followed - if you were at all bothered which I doubt you are. I wasn't.


    The Art of War
    The combat is played out in a semi-turn-based style, that being that your team fights enemy characters in turns. The turns are not a fixed "player one fights, then player 2 etc." sequence, but instead an action bar fills up over time and once you this bar has filled sufficiently to carry out your selected action then your turn starts.



    Battle sequences have much more variety and play out on a grander scale than in FF13.

    Coupled with this, you normally have two other team members who you have indirect control over. You get to choose what they will be doing by selecting the appropriate "paradigm" for the battle. Paradigms are basically the current team ethos, so you can have offensive, defensive, healing, or any combination of these to suit the battle at hand.


    Skills are improved by earning Crystarium Points (C.P.) which you spend equally on Noel and Serah's skills. There are bonuses as you level up through the skill trees but how you develop depends on upon the roles to which you assign your Crystarium Points, for example spending points on the Commando role gives big bonuses to your character's overall strength. Similarly, spending points on the Medic role gives bonuses to healing and overall health.


    One issue I found was that the characters become very high level very quickly, and from about 15 hours in the game offers no challenge. Even the final boss battle was no problem, as I was level 99 in most roles (the maximum possible!). Perhaps the difficulty level is better balanced if you have not played FF13, but in any case the main story battles were far too easy.


    I have yet to play through with the "Paradox Scope" ability turned on - this is unlocked once you have completed the final battle and ramps up the difficulty while you hunt for the rest of the 160 crystal fragments (of which I had found 44 at the time of finishing the main story).


    Gotta Catch 'Em All
    As you only have 2 team members to work with, you enlist the help of creatures that you fight along the way. Once you have beaten and caught a creature, you are then able to use it in your line-up. This is actually a welcome mechanic, offering some more variety to play and allowing you to vary your combat style without having to make massive changes to Noel and Serah.



    The large creature on the right side of the screen is actually on your team!

    When you acquire a monster, you are free to upgrade its abilities using upgrade parts found in battles, to make it wear a custom item of clothing, and to change its name to something more memorable. I quite enjoyed the naming aspect, as they had a nice selection on offer - from your "Butch" and "Viper" fighting names, to "Furball" and "Gobstopper" for monsters more comfortable in their toughness.


    Again, these creatures get far too tough once you have upgraded them fully. These are upgraded using items picked up in battle or bought from the shop. With careful buying and selling, you can have more than enough of these to fully upgrade whatever monsters you want before the end of the main story - making the final battles a breeze.


    The monsters also have unique abilities that can be unleashed in battle - in the form of a Quick Time Event. While not adding much to the gameplay, these have very handy perks that if used cleverly can allow you to turn battles around in an instant. 

    The Broken DVD Player Effect
    On that subject - now Quick Time Events pop up throughout some of the cutscenes. Mercifully, an effect on screen does warn you when one of these is about to pop up but there are few times when it feels necessary for you to be involved at all. 


    A few times, as shown in the picture below, there is a choice to be made in the video. If there were more of this type of event, where different options allowed the video to pan out in different ways, then it may be more engaging. Unfortunately these moments are few and far between, and most events simply have "succeed" and "fail" within the time limit.


    Cinematics now include Quick Time Events - now this is what I call progress.


    The dialogue choices available are absolutely appalling as well - you sometimes get a 4 way dialogue choice but 3 of these options are clearly "wrong" and you are meant to keep asking until you ask the "right" question. In one case, where I was figuring out what the hell the story was going on about, the conversation went like this: 


    Me: Could there be more than one World?
    Hope (an old friend): Well an ancient civilisation, which lived in these ruins,
     believed that there was only the one World - this World.
    Serah: Oh, so there's just this one World then?
    Hope: That's right.


    I beg your pardon? What? Just because someone off-handedly remarks that an ancient civilisation had a "One Universe" theory, that means that we can't discuss a "Multi-verse" theory in a place where I can time travel across thousands of years to various places in this World and elsewhere? Fair enough. Alienate me further.


    One scene had us walk into the lair of a big bad called "The Arbiter of Time", who told us to get out or we will be destroyed. I believed him. Anyway, we asked him for a crystal fragment (pretending to do him a favour) and he gave us the fragment and told us to leave immediately.


    Noel then decides to stand around there for a few minutes, bitching about Serah's boyfriend. Why? Just get the hell out of there! Stupid emo kids.


    In most conversations, the best way to go is emo. In fact, one battle doesn't require you to think of a clever strategy, it only lets you win once you have "Screamed at Hope" (who wasn't even in that time period!). It worked though - Hope changed history to end the battle because Serah had a hissy fit. This game is pretty stupid.



    I Remember Doing The Time Warp!
    The Historia Crux - the new map selection screen - is a
    tangled web of areas and time periods for you to explore.

    You search across the time line using this menu - The Historia Crux - which is thankfully quite easy to use and functional. The time line opens up and branches off as you unlock more, completing quests and earning fragments in unlocked time periods will open up more areas.


    The good thing about this is that you can warp to the Historia Crux from virtually anywhere, and your position in that area will be saved. That means if there is a fragment you need to collect from another time period you just open the Historia Crux menu, travel to the required area to collect the fragment, then warp back to the place you left off. This saves a lot of unnecessary faffing about in later missions.


    Conversely, there is an annoying habit in some menus to freeze for about 15 seconds. Just shows the message, generally "Do you want to step into the flow of time?" but doesn't let you select "Yes" or "No" for a really long time.


    Anyway, another handy feature is the return of Chocobo! Yay! Not only can you use Chocobo to speed you around the map, avoiding those short battles you once had, and your position with a Chocobo will be saved if you warp out as well.


    You can also catch and train Chocobo to fight with you and to use in a Chocobo Races mini game. Apparently you can earn a lot of money on this but my Chocobo is obviously lazy because I got beat every time and lost a lot of money I bet on the bloody thing. That'll teach me to have faith in giant bird monsters....


    Should've Gone To Specsavers
    Your friendly marshmallow pig, Mog, will help you look for rare items out in the World.
    A lot of the main bulk of the game requires you to trek around the World map completing quests and finding awkwardly hidden items and fragments. You find such items by using an old Final Fantasy favourite - Mog - who waves his wand and bring things into reality. 


    These are quite carefully hidden as well, items are camouflaged such that finding the buggers takes a long, long time on the more complicated maps. 


    One main quest in the second half of the game requires you to find 5 hidden items spread across the timeline, and it is this searching that took the majority of the play time. 
    Well, cutscenes and searching. About 40% searching for hidden stuff, 40% watching glass-eyed hair stylists talk about emotions, 10% playing mini-games and a depressing 10% of your time actually spent fighting.


    A higher difficulty setting from the start would have been welcome, or I would equally settle for cutting out around 10 hours of the cutscenes. I'm still playing after the main story is complete though, just because for the first time in a long time, I am playing a good old Final Fantasy.

    Conclusions
    Surpasses its predecessor by far - this has a much more open and exploratory theme - more akin to earlier Final Fantasies.

    Although the plot is no less baffling, this is a much more accessible FF adventure and so should appeal more to newcomers to the series.

    While it kept me playing to the end, the game was far too easy once I'd upgraded my characters. 
    I guess this was SquareEnix trying to put as few people off as possible, but it will not gain favour among the hardcore FF fans.

    I do not own the copyright to these images. And to appease the Amazon gods, go take a look at buying it!
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