Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: PixelJunk Eden



PixelJunk Eden is the third PSN title released for the in-name-only PixelJunk series, and it’s another new direction for the Japanese developer Q-Games. PixelJunk Racers was a mediocre puzzle-slash-slotcar racer, PixelJunk Monsters was a critically acclaimed tower-defence and strategic resource-management game, and Eden – well, it’s an entirely new take on the burgeoning swing-em-up platformer genre.

You control a small creature called a grimp, and by using the three basic movements – gripping, jumping and swinging – you work your way through the levels in search of the 50 lost ‘Spectra’, which are scattered throughout the levels. As you’d expect, though, the Spectra aren’t easy to find: they’re often located at the highest points of the levels, meaning you’ll have to grow your own platforms to reach them. And that’s where the game starts to get interesting.

From a gripping position, you can make your grimp swing in circles on its silk strand simply by rotating the left analogue stick. This is pretty fun in itself, although the strand breaks relatively easily, and you’ll only last five or six full rotations before the silk snaps and you go flying off at whatever tangent you happened to be on. While spinning, though, you can catch the floating ‘Pollen Prowlers’, which explode in little puffs of pollen. Catching more than one Prowler on a single silk thread increases the available pollen; and, once you’ve hit at least five, you can also pick up oscillator crystals, which keep your grimp ‘in tune’, and give you more time in the level.

Pollen is the most valuable resource in the game, and the more you can get, either by catching the Prowlers or defeating the enemies in the level, the more platforms you’ll awaken. If you’re close enough to a seedpod when you’re catching pollen, it’ll get swept into the pod, and once it’s collected enough, you’ll be able to germinate the seed, and grow another flower, a patch of grass, or something that looks suspiciously like a turgid sea tulip. The constant cycle of germination, the omnipresence of pollen gametes in the gardens, and the grimp’s role as a vector for the pollen all add up to a pretty fertile experience. There’s a lot of ‘flowering’ going on – let’s leave it at that.

Once you’ve impregnated enough seeds and sprouted enough tumescent plants to reach the Spectra, you can unlock even more plants in your home garden, the titular Eden. These new plants let you climb, jump and swing your way to the entrances of more difficult levels, each of which has five additional Spectra to find.

Keeping your ‘oscillator’ ‘in tune’ is a major problem with the game, and one that almost breaks the experience. From being a relaxing platformer with fine-tuned jumps, Eden suddenly shifts to a nagging race against time, with the constant threat of failing a level. Once you’ve mastered the art of predicting the waves of the world’s fluid medium, jumping ahead of your target and timing your spins for maximum pollen and crystal collecting, though, the time limit becomes less of a problem as you work your way through the gardens.

This is a blessing, really, because the next big issue crops up as you’re working your way through. Each level has five available Spectra to collect, and for some reason you can’t get any more than one new Spectra each time you play through a level. At least for your first play through the game, this means that four out of five runs through any particular level are redundant, as the seedpods reset each time you revisit the level. That would have been fine, if slightly irritating, for the first garden you visit – heavy-handed simplicity as a training tool isn’t a new concept – but for it to happen in every single garden? It should have gone without saying, but level (and time) redundancy is never a good feature to enforce on players.

The game’s issues aren’t insurmountable; they’re just annoying. Perhaps a tighter editorial cycle near the end of the game’s development would have resulted in something more user-friendly. The obvious comparison to make is with thatgamecompany’s flOw, although it’s more of a conceptual frame of reference than any concrete similarities between the two. flOw, after all, went through the travails of being developed for the web before it went anywhere near a PlayStation console.

But where flOw could put the unsuspecting gamer to sleep, Eden demands your attention. Jumps are easily missed in the early stages of the game, and while you can still correct your course slightly mid-fall, it’s often difficult to reach the very top of the level again, particularly if you haven’t woken all of the seeds below you. Eden’s driving technotrance background music also helps keep the tempo going, and it changes in each level, as do the primary colours of the level.

All three games in the PixelJunk series hit different genres, which is a bit of a surprise, given most developers’ tendencies to stick with proven hits. What Q-Games offers, though, are fresh takes on proven genres, all wrapped up in clean and bright HD textures, packaged for sale for a bargain ($15.50) through a distribution network that doesn’t rely on the gaming equivalent of food miles, extra plastic packaging, or dealing with the multifarious behind-the-counter grimps at videogame stores. And that works just fine for me.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Soul Calibur IV

Project Soul

PS3, Xbox 360

In each instalment, Soul Calibur tends more and more towards the boob physics-based gameplay made infamous by Tecmo’s Dead or Alive franchise, and Soul Calibur IV is falling further and further into that same rut. As a fighting simulator, though, it still shines, despite the sheer improbability of many of the featured characters. But that’s hardly the point of the game.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what it would be like to be Nightmare, the Azure Knight who’s been fully corrupted by the evil spirit of the Soul Edge sword, but after playing SCIV, I have some idea how he’d react in a fight. So it’s less of a fighting sim (à la Virtua Fighter) than a collective orgasm for fans of the series, a fruitful (frightful?) mélange of improbable characters, fighting styles and costumes, all regurgitated in the caustic bile of Soul Calibur’s storyline. Look it up online – it’s utterly ridiculous and, in the best tradition of fighting games, entirely irrelevant to all aspects of the gameplay.

The Soul Calibur series has always been friendly to button-mashers, and it’s still very accessible for newcomers to the genre. SCIV is slightly more balanced, allowing guard breaks as well as a new function called ‘Soul Crush’, which punishes players who rely on ‘turtling’ – using a guard defence for too long.

There are 18 characters available to unlock, for feats as simple as beating certain sub-bosses, completing the story mode with other characters, or simply earning enough credits in the character creation mode. That mode, incidentally, is slightly improved from its appearance in SCIII, and allows for an amazing variety of homemade fighters complete with stat-adjusting accessories – whether the newly minted fighters look slightly different from their appearance in the game, or strikingly similar to Ronald McDonald, there’s a lot of scope for creativity.

Fans of the Soul Calibur series will appreciate the latest installment, although that’s a redundant statement, akin to saying that if you like anything, you’ll like something that’s almost exactly the same. As far as current-gen fighters, though, SCIV is probably the best available title in the genre, at least until Tekken 6 stumbles its way onto the PS3 at the end of next year. Fans of either series would do well to pick up SCIV either as a rental or at retail, as its distinctive use of weapons – and now, destructible armour – results in one of the most complete fighting games on the market. And with the added bonus of fighting as Darth Vader (only on PS3) or Yoda (360), as well as The Force Unleashed’s Secret Apprentice, the answer to an age-old question – who would win in a fight between a lightsaber and Soul Edge? – will be able to be answered.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Too Human

Silicon Knights

Xbox 360

Games that hide their bare-bones mechanics with flashy graphics, 2.0 shaders and pixel mapping rarely offer genuine appeal to anyone not running PC benchmark programs to six decimal places. In the locked-down hardware world of home consoles, however, even the questionable lure of FPS tests is denied to most users. It’s particularly interesting, then, that critically successful console games are those that manage to cloak basic gameplay, appealing directly to the hindbrain, with the trappings of a greater narrative.

Puzzle Quest, in its myriad iterations, took a popular jewel-matching pastime (à la Bejeweled), and built around it a gripping, if utterly clichéd, storyline. With Puzzle Quest, what had previously been a bare-bones three-in-a-row swap-and-match ‘genre’ – notable only for its ability to distract even the most hardened paper-shufflers – was suddenly clad with the comprehensive sum of all thing RPG, including methods to dramatically alter and subvert the pure luck and statistics on which the gem-matching game-type was built. The ludological component was still the same, for all intents and purposes, but with a dose of added player control and a pinch of narrative, the game became a compelling addiction.

Your typical hack-and-slash RPG isn’t typically bereft of narrative value, however, and Too Human doesn’t go against type. Developers Silicon Knights reimagined the Norse gods as cybernetically enhanced humans, their technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Players control Baldur, as he fights off the hordes of mecha that threaten the world of Midgard. There’s probably a moral buried somewhere in the game about using increasingly sophisticated technology to defeat highly complex mechanical enemies, but it’s glossed over easily enough. The story simply works, although it’s plagued by pacing issues, a distractingly disjointed chronology and a tendency to confuse the hell out of anyone not paying full attention to the cutscenes. Its end-sequence is almost without par in terms of narrative value, even if it all turned a little Halo 2, in terms of setting the scene for the next instalment.

Too Human also gets the loot equation exactly right, with so many increasingly powerful items that it’s impossible to obtain in a single pass through the game. (It might seem to be a negative point, but gambling against the probability of getting your class’s best item is like pure meth to RPG fiends.) Items and weapons fall back on classic Diablo nominalism, which is a familiar touch – you count on weapons with the same prefix or suffix having the same add-on effects, with runes modifying your items much in the same way Diablo II’s gems worked with socketed items. And the myriad branches on your character’s skill tree? There are so many, it’s more like Ygrrdrasil, the World Tree. (Mythical high five!)

The game’s major departure from its genre, to my eyes, is its abandonment of button-mashing attack controls in favour of a dual analogue stick approach. It’s probably too late to remap players’ brains from using the left analogue stick to control movement, and that’s fine, but Silicon Knights have offered a convincing argument for remapping the right analogue stick to player attacks. After all, there’s no need to continually press a button if you want to continue an attack when pushing in one direction will work just as well. The approach also works when switching between the enemies swarming all around Baldur, and is particularly useful if you happen to be using a weapon with a knockback effect. The right trigger on the controller fires projectile weapons, although these are generally too slow and too weak to do much more than put an enemy off-balance for a few seconds while it runs towards you.

Given that the stunningly simple control change requires a lot of concentration while players adjust to it, it’s disappointing that the automatic camera control is so distracting, and there’s little independent control available in the middle of the action sequences, bar an auto-centre button. Players who simply need to have independent camera control should probably pass on the game, but they’ll be missing out on what could be a watershed moment for hack-and-slash RPGs. Too Human – it’s Geometry Wars meets Diablo meets Lawnmower Man. What more could you ask for?

(You could ask that a scant ten minutes into your second playthrough, your 360 console doesn’t decide to overheat, resulting in it being unusable for more than six minutes at a time. Too Human was the straw that broke my beige plastic camel’s back, and while that doesn’t count against the game itself, it’s stunningly disappointing that the hardware it’s exclusively released upon is still dramatically unstable. I’m currently hoping that future installments of the Too Human series will be released cross-platform, although by the time it takes Silicon Knights to make another full game, Microsoft Customer Support may well have come through with a refurbished console to last me another few months.)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Braid

Number None, Inc.


Controlling a character as he jumps through complicated levels, bounces on his enemies’ heads, and tries to rescue a generically cute princess in a castle is an all-too-familiar trope for gamers. While Braid, released for digital distribution on Xbox Live Arcade and PC a couple of weeks ago, seems to start off retreading this familiar ground, almost every one of seven short worlds you play through adds a new gameplay mechanic, as a complex story unfurls.

Initially, you’ll need to cope with the idea that Tim, your character, can rewind time – all the way back to the start of the level if you want – in order to reattempt particularly difficult jumps or timed sequences. (Think a more difficult Super Mario World with Prince of Persia’s time-based mechanics.) Now, that’s all well and good, and a less involved (and dedicated) developer than Jonathan Blow, who spent five years working on the title, would have stopped there. Once you reach the second major world, though, you’re introduced to the concept of time-immune objects, which manifest as objects whose state takes precedence over their position. For example – you can fall down into a pit to collect a time-immune key, then rewind time to ‘jump’ out of the pit, key (whose state becomes ‘held’ as soon as you touch it) safely in tow.

There are also levels where time runs relative to your horizontal position on screen – instead of rewinding time, all you have to do is move back to the left of the screen. If I’m being honest, while fun, this is one of the cheaper mechanics of the game – your rewind function is reduced to just what it was in the Prince of Persia series; a way to ameliorate the (sometimes extreme) difficulty.

Most difficult to wrap your head around, though, are the levels where your ‘future shadow’ re-enacts the movement and actions just prior to your last rewind. It’s confusing as all hell, but the satisfaction when you deliberately kill your character, rewind, then watch as your shadow dies and you make the most of the resulting position of your enemies is very rewarding (if equally difficult to explain in this medium).

In later levels, as you near the (hidden) denouement, time simply begins to run in reverse, and it takes several attempts to reach the desired end-state. Once you’re there, though, you’ll experience a huge twist in the final level, where the (by then) simple ability to rewind time tells more of the story than any of your character’s actions can.

While gameplay is key to Braid’s success, the art direction of the game also stands out – painted (frame by frame, in the case of the character design) by artist David Hellman (A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible), the distinctive and organic painted backgrounds complement the structured mechanics of the game, and several layers of parallax scrolling really play up the developer’s and designer’s love of classic 2D platformers.

It’s rare that you’ll find a videogame that actively tries to hide its true story from you, or one with such an obviously unreliable narrator. Once you start looking for hidden aspects of the game, though, you’ll be rewarded, albeit with subtle inferences that all is not as it seems. The patterned flags that fall as you cross each level’s finishing lines at the end of each level correspond to nautical symbols for ‘stop’, ‘negative’, and ‘danger’, for example, and even the tomes that tell Tim’s backstory as you progress through the game get insidiously complicated. To add yet more shades of grey, some of these tomes are objectively discussing with Tim’s story, some are very subjective, and some are completely hidden from view, their contents ridiculously indistinct.

One thing is clear – the Princess you’re chasing after represents something more than a person, but the muddled and obscurantist narration confuses the matter somewhat. Shades of the Manhattan Project, theories about time travel, and reflections of love and loss abound, and while you’re likely to be left with more questions than answers after finishing the game, that’s usually the mark of a good piece of art, in any medium.

The idea of a plain old platformer raising questions about time, space, love and death – all at once – hadn’t seemed possible before I’d played Braid. After playing it, I can’t seem to shake the in-game feeling of security at being able to rewind my mistakes, and the real-life feeling of being incredibly unsettled by the game’s unfolding story. Suffice it to say that the game’s a must-play, and even at 1200 Microsoft points ($20), it’s comparable in narrative scope (and in time investment) to an emotionally charged film. Braid’s much like the fan favourite Portal, in that sense. In the same way, though, you’ll end the game wanting much more, and that’s something that just can’t (or won’t) be delivered. Braid is one of the best releases on XBLA this year, and its only shortcoming is its story – like Portal, since it wraps itself up so well at the end (or is that the beginning?) of the game, there’s little chance we’ll see downloadable extra levels or a sequel in the future.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Ninja Gaiden II

Team Ninja

Xbox 360

Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden: Sigma were both hard; the diamond-coated disc kind of hard that made me snap controllers due to utter frustration at my own lack of skill. I knew, though, that I was the weak link. Practise makes perfect, as twitch gamers well know, timing is everything, and there’s a lot to be said for repetitive tasks in terms of building muscle memory. (Also, to paraphrase my patron saint Neal Stephenson, I knew that if I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard, I could still become the baddest motherfucker in the video-gaming world.)

Ninja Gaiden II, though, is a different sort of hard; the kind that kicks players in the teeth for no good reason. It’s ironic, I suppose, because the actual fighting is much easier than it has been in previous games – scroll techniques are easier to pick up and chain together, enemies seem to have more obvious weaknesses and it’s almost a joy to run through the environments. ‘Almost’ being the operative word here – the game’s graphics, while pretty in that overly smooth current-gen way, aren’t a huge step forward from previous titles, combat can freeze for a second or so when enemies are engaged in close-quarters and projectile combat at the same time, and the game’s camera actively discourages players from continuing. So we’re back to gaming’s version of the camera obscura. Le sigh.

Also obscuring the prospect of a fun experience is the game’s plot, although that’s never been the highest selling point of the series. This episode, set one year after the events of Ninja Gaiden, sees ninja Ryu Hayabusa jet around the world, trying to stop the Black Spider Ninjas from summoning the ancient Archfiend Vazdah. Of course, the Black Spider clan need the Demon Statue kept in the Dragon Ninja village – Ryu’s hometown. What follows is more an attempt to juggle the disparate plot elements than any logical progression of events, but as long as it ends with a climactic battle on top of an erupting Mt Fuji, the fanboys will still be happy. More discerning ludonarrative critics would probably disagree, but said critics are unlikely to have got past the first couple of hours of gameplay, marred as it is by the indelibly poor camera control.

A lack of options to change the control scheme really compound the matter – depending on where Ryu is in a level, the camera will swing wildly to show him at his most ‘cinematic’ angle, with no apparent thought given to the shocking disconnect this shift in viewpoint engenders in the player. As a result, the camera restricts player movement and combat equally. To be fair, there is a button to centre the viewpoint behind Ryu’s head, but I’d hazard a guess that most people would be too busy dealing with hordes of lookalike evil ninjas to spare a regular button press to centre the camera.

Although frenetic and actually enjoyable at times, Ninja Gaiden II will likely be remembered as one more casualty of the shift towards cinematic games (or interactive cinema?) – one more flagstone on the road towards that golden future of gaming. (Which should kick in at any point now, right?)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Ecochrome

JAPAN Studio

PSP, PS3 (download only)

In their very nature, third-person games have a major hindrance – the camera positioning, relative to the character you’re controlling. Some games (Mario 64, Gears of War) manage this relatively well by minimising camera clipping, locking the camera close to the main character, and effectively hiding the problem; for others (Ninja Gaiden II, Sonic Heroes) the shifting, impossible-to-control viewpoint simply negates any positive gameplay aspects the games may have had. An actively obscuring camera obscura, if you want to (re)coin a term.

Ecochrome, a recent release for PSP and the Playstation Network, demands a literal paradigm shift from the player, although it’s one that isn’t difficult to grasp. Initially, there’s the disconnect from the on-screen character – it’s not under your direct control, instead continuing to follow its path as far as it can. Like The Trials of Topoq or Super Monkey Ball, you’re aiming to move an object (in this case, literally a mannequin) through several goals (echoes), until you reach the end-point of the level. Unlike those two games, however, Ecochrome’s movement constraints are determined not just by the objects around you, but also by the camera’s perspective of the level.

For example, if there’s a hole blocking the Walker’s path, you can simply shift the camera so that the hole is hidden – using the game’s ‘law of perspective absence’, the hole simply ceases to exist while the camera holds its position. The ‘law of perspective presence’ means that if a gap between two pathways is blocked from your view, and appears to be connected, it is. Similarly, if two separate pathways seem to be touching, they are, and the Walker can cross between them. Finally, the Walker falls and jumps according to the camera’s two-dimensional interpretation of the 3D levels – he’ll land on whatever appears to be beneath him, and jump up to whatever appears to be above him.

The above five ‘laws’ of the game generally hold true, but controlling the camera so minutely – swinging your perspective to a pixel-perfect point where paths converge – is actually pretty difficult, albeit less so with the PS3’s thumbsticks than the PSP’s nubbly analog stick. Individual results may vary, of course, but some of the later levels are so mind-bendingly difficult (on either hardware platform) that you’ll be perfectly happy to blame the controller.

You could equally blame the repetitive music, I suppose. Sound design really isn’t a strong point, with discordant and unsettling classical music looping again and again. Not that it doesn’t suit the game – you’re likely to make the Walker fall off the edge of the level often enough that a looping track seems entirely appropriate. The lack of alternative music is disappointing for a black-and-white game streaming off a UMD or hard drive, but there’s always a volume control if it gets too much.

Take-home message? Ecochrome is a Reutersvärd-meets-Escher feverdream, at times infuriating, but packed full of so many different levels that you’ll easily overlook the fact that it’s compromised of almost pure theory.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

Hothead Games

Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac, Linux

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve spent the past decade building up a hobby of writing and drawing comics into a self-sustainable business, with legions of fans worldwide waiting for your biweekly updates on You have the power to ‘wang’ all but the biggest corporate servers, with a link, faint praise and a casual flick of the wrist. After the cataclysmic failure of the E3 convention to simply do right by gamers, you start your own convention, by gamers, for gamers, and by following the cardinal rule of ‘not being a dick’, end up with the premiere gaming expo in North America. Oh, and you’ve also kicked into gear a charity for sick children, raising millions of dollars worldwide by harnessing the bountiful goodwill of gamers sick and tired of being characterised in the media as violent misfits. So what’s next?

If you’re Mike ‘Gabe’ Krahulik and Jerry ‘Tycho’ Holkins, you hook up with Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame) and Hothead Games, and design your own episodic RPG game with the longest title imaginable, all set in a Lovecraftian-cum-steampunk world. It’s the stuff a certain subset of dreams are made of – and as if to prove that a) cross-platform releases are entirely plausible, if not the best idea since sliced bread, and b) we are living in the future, Hothead released the game simultaneously for three different home computer operating systems and the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade store. Any day now, they’ll come up with a downloadable flying car. Probably.

Episode One of On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness kicks off with a rather basic character creation system, which lets you choose a gender, gives you a few choices of skin and hair colour, as well as a limited number of wardrobe options. It’s actually a disappointing beginning to the game, but the restrictions are likely to cover up for the fact that, somehow, your 3D character is also transmuted to a perfect rendition of Krahulik’s drawings, for use in the 2D cutscenes. Particularly for fans of Krahulik’s online offerings, seeing your avatar come to life in these interstitial comics more than makes up for any shortcomings of the creation.

The game kicks off with your character’s house being destroyed by a gigantic steam-powered Fruit Fucker, which Krahulik’s and Holkins’ alter-egos Gabe and Tycho have been tracking. Armed only with a simple rake, you team up with the two detectives, and quickly find yourself embroiled in a world where the twin evils of mimes and Cthulhu are hilariously conflated, where hobos with shiny hair rule supreme, and where evil clowns, barbershop quartets and sexually vigourous juicers run amok on the streets of New Arcadia.

Holkins and Krahulik are obviously trying to cram a lot in here, and it’s not really until you reach the end of the game that you realise just how much humour is packed into a scant three environments. While Penny Arcades’s humour can be a hit-and-miss affair, there’s no single line of dialogue that Holkins hasn’t tweaked to a sharp edge. Similarly, Krahulik’s skill and flair are obvious throughout, in both the level and character designs.

When it comes to gameplay, Precipice is basically an adventure game (get item A, use it on / give it to NPC B) with solid turn-based battle mechanics. Each of the three characters you control have three gauges, which fill at different rates – the items gauge fills first (useful if you need to heal an ally or throw a cheap grenade), followed by the attack gauge (each character has a different attack to complement different enemy weaknesses), and then the special attack gauge. Special attacks, while effective, try to incorporate minigame elements to decide on the exact amount of damage done to your enemies, but these aren’t challenging enough, and waiting a long time to see the same attack animations gets boring after a while – it’s more satisfying to use your normal attacks and finish off that roving barbershop quartet faster.

Despite its minor flaws (and brevity, although 6-8 hours of gameplay for $30 isn’t such a bad deal), Penny Arcade Adventures is definitely onto a good thing. Later episodes can only improve the already-solid battle system, and as long as Holkins continues his Lovecraft pastiche and reveals the origins of the so-far unexplained Fruit Fucker Prime, the story will lead the way. Overall, it’s a great start to what’s likely to be a classic series, and with such a strong focus on equalising different gaming platforms and emphasising the end of the bricks-and-mortar retail experience, it’s also a sign of things to come for gaming.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Burnout: Paradise

Criterion Games

PS3, Xbox 360

After Burnout: Revenge was ported to the 360 mid-way through last year, adding a couple of HD splash screens, a pinch of native 720p resolution and healthy dose of shinier-than-thou next-gen attitude, there must have been a sense in the Criterion offices that the franchise had reached its logical conclusion – after four solid hits, there wasn’t much more the developers could do, working in the same framework. So what’s next? A series reboot, of course.

Burnout: Paradise keeps the gist of the series – missions in the game include typically shiny graphics, a near-overwhelming motion blur effect, the now-standard arcadey racing through busy traffic, and vehicular combat.

Since January, when Paradise was first launched, the game has actually changed considerably. In any other console cycle, this simply wouldn’t have been possible. Now, however, developers can release patches and updates to any title, just by making the game ‘phone home’ through the player’s broadband connection as it starts up. (This would be also a nifty but intrusive anti-piracy measure, should home consoles be plagued by counterfeit discs.) It also means that developers can still meet shipping dates without getting all the features nailed down, and in extreme cases, developers can be more sanguine about releasing buggy games – if it can be fixed with a quick patch, what’s the big deal?

Recent software updates to Paradise (oddly named ‘Bogart’, ‘Cagney’, ‘Davis’ and ‘Eastwood’ – collectively known as ‘Freeburn 2.0’) have resulted in the addition of motorcycles, day / night cycles and any number of online bug corrections, sequencing errors and gameplay balance tweaks. In a way, it’s a confluence of increased online play and the democratisation of gaming – developers Criterion have truckloads of data from ranked matches to sift through, and anyone who whines loud enough about the game’s balance on forums is likely to have their complaint checked out.

Now, a non-updated retail version of Paradise doesn’t have bugs per se, but the 180-degree handbrake turn away from the series’ common fallbacks has resulted in a few shortcomings, one of which still hasn’t been addressed through software updates. Instead of being based around individual missions, everything now takes place in one huge city, meaning that players have to drive around to find missions. Failing a mission means that you have to retrace your steps (or follow the smoking trail of wreckage, if you will) to the start of the mission – there’s no quick ‘retry’ option. For a series whose original appeal lay in its quick accessible nature, the biggest barrier to new and returning players is its fancy new feature – and it’s a big enough problem to make the game border on tedious. Paradise City is fascinating and exciting at times, but it’s as if the developers stopped halfway through making a sandbox game, and are periodically patching the thing to recreate their initial vision.

Driving something straight out of Back to the Future doesn't hurt, of course.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Race Driver: GRID


PS3, Xbox 360, PC, DS

When you’re framing the concept of an ideal racing game, there’s a fine line between the pixel-perfect windscreen wiper simulations of Gran Turismo and the Burnout series’ lightning bolt from the arcade gods. Whatever shortcomings Race Driver: GRID may have, it toes that line throughout, taking enough positive attributes from each extreme to make a complete driving experience. Without getting bogged down in collecting seven hundred makes and models or causing as much damage as possible to innocent civilian vehicles, GRID just works admirably as both a racing and team management game. Although, for a driving game, it sure does have a pedestrian title.

GRID follows in the footsteps of the crowd favourite TOCA Race Driver series, and uses a very similar graphics engine to stablemate DiRT (which, incidentally, is the reason there are no off-road tracks left in GRID – they all got shipped off to a different game). Developers Codemasters rewrote parts of their Neon engine from scratch for GRID’s Ego engine, paying particular attention to the already-solid damage modelling. Unlike GT5: Prologue, which refused to show a single scratch on your car, even if you drove off a cliff, GRID’s damage shows every single ding, dent or scrape, and even minor damage to your car will impact its performance. Another feature that will appeal to literal-minded gamers is persistent damage modelling, meaning that the bumper bar you shed on the first lap will continue to be a hazard for you and the computer-controlled drivers each time you pass it. (Given the time penalty inherent in hitting a wall and getting back up to speed, though, there’s no question of tactically spreading debris across the course to gain an advantage in the race.)

Upon starting the game, you’re thrown head-first into a race, and told not to concern yourself with placing, and only to finish. Once you cross the line, though, you’re given a worse car – a beaten-up Mustang, and told to go and seek your fortune. It’s a common enough method of starting up, although it has an air of the ‘abilitease’ about it – start the player off with a souped-up monster for the smallest possible amount of time, and then reduce them to a shell of their former selves. Despite this, the effort involved in building up a car, reputation, and (later) a racing team are among the most fun parts of the game – it’s kind of like Super Burnout: RPG.

The cars handle very smoothly on the courses, and feel slightly less fine-tuned than those in Gran Turismo, although there’s still a hell of a learning curve. This difficulty is ameliorated somewhat by the addition of the new ‘Flashback’ feature, effectively letting you rewind the action after any crashes serious mishaps, and take control again from the point you screwed up. It’s as if all game developers these days liked the 3D Prince of Persia games so much that they’re shoehorning in a ‘mulligan’ feature wherever possible, regardless of genre expectations or plot. Why call it a flashback when the point of racing games is immediacy, and the rest of the game is based, necessarily, around forward motion? Braid (reviewed here) plays with and subverts this concept, but GRID seems to just throw the feature in to flatten out the rapidly spiking difficulty curve. Accessibility isn’t usually a concern of racing game devs, though, and while inexperienced gamers may appreciate a do-over, the inclusion of flashbacks comes across as surprisingly patronising, if occasionally useful.

There are fifty events to complete in the single-player game, ranging from the hilly streets of San Francisco (complete with a shiny muscle car, a la Steve McQueen), drift tournaments in Japan, Touge events that will see you measuring your performance in microseconds, a Le Mans 24 endurance mode, and, to wean players off Burnout (as if Paradise hadn’t already done that), you can even take part in some very satisfying demolition derbies.

Visually, GRID again toes the line between current-gen versions of GT and Burnout on the major consoles, while still offering moments of level design and art direction that catch players’ breath – in particular, the glowing, hypnotic night-time levels in Japan and the crisply defined open-wheel street levels in Germany spring to mind as magnificently designed and laid-out set-pieces.

In comparison to the morass of menus in GT5, navigation through GRID’s options is incredibly straightforward. Want to buy a new car for your team? It’s only ever a couple of button presses away, and the only real clanger in the process is the branded eBay Motors screen – easy enough for New Zealand audiences to ignore, perhaps, but the hefty product placement still mars the (otherwise independent and accomplished) game.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Warhawk

Incognito Entertainment


Also burning the DLC oil is PS3-exclusive Warhawk, one of only two PS3 titles available as both a download and retail product. It’s also a reboot of an earlier series, although the name is pretty much the only thing it has in common with the original PlayStation version.

From its release, Warhawk was a brilliant game for those with overflowing PSN friends lists, and as it’s decidedly multiplayer-only, not much fun at all for players without broadband. (Unless, of course, you have that recurring dream where you’re the last person left alive on a deserted island that just happens to be well-stocked with planes, tanks and ammunition.)

As it stands, though, it’s a solid multiplayer game straight out of the box, depending on the speed of your broadband connection. It allows for 32-player online matches, and four players can use the same PS3 console on split-screen mode for non-ranked matches, and few experiences compare to flying around an island controlling planes with a SixAxis’ motion sensor. (Alternate control schemes are available for those unimpressed with the imprecise nature of motion controls.)

Updated, however, Warhawk is a shining example of what multiplayer console games can be, given enough development time and continued support after shipping. April saw update 1.3, which included a rebalanced mode for players who preferred not to use vehicles, new weapons, additional (free) customisations for planes and troops, and new chat modes, including cross-team chat. Updates 1.4 and 1.5, due later this year, promise new game modes, in-game music, and support for Sony’s nascent Trophies.

If the free updates aren’t enough for you, there are also two expansion packs available for download through the PlayStation store for less than twenty bucks each, which offer new maps and vehicles. Operation: Broken Mirror and Omega Dawn aren’t interoperable, sadly, but the decision to monetise these packs means that the free software updates for the core game will keep coming, at least until Warhawk 2 rolls around.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Uncommon Arrangements

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939
Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, daughter of first-generation feminist Anne Roiphe, vaulted her way to a semi-permanent spot on the list of America’s intellectuals with her first book, The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism On Campus, which was simultaneously hailed and reviled for its unapologetic and polarising subject matter – sexual politics among young adults. Heralded initially as the “first intellectual of her generation,” later relegated to simply being a part of the post-Reagan young Conservative movement, and then grudgingly accepted back into the ranks of post-feminist writers who felt they owed little to their antecedents, Roiphe the younger has made a successful career out of toeing the line between her mother’s more overt feminism and a peculiar kind of logical individualism.

Uncommon Arrangements, too, is a boundary book, and delves into the grey area between popular literature, historical biography and academic criticism, giving Roiphe the chance to revel in the ‘soft’ genre of literary biography. The book focuses on the marriages, long-term affairs and friendships that linked a group of writers active between 1910 and the beginning of the second world war, featuring well-known (and often-referenced) pairs such as Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but also stretches to cover couples such as H.G. and Jane Wells, as well as H.G.’s mistress, Rebecca West.

In analysing these lives, Roiphe seems completely at home, safe with the hard-copy evidence of piles of literary detritus, and a comfortable prose style possible only when writing about deceased subjects. With such material, then, Roiphe recovers from the jarringly callow observations to which she was prone in her earlier work, although the few that still slip through likely say more about the author than she would like readers to take from the book. She approves wholeheartedly, for example, of the understanding letter Jane Wells wrote to her husband after he walked out on her and their young son, in which the long-suffering Jane blames herself for being too possessive, and not understanding her husband’s needs. Roiphe is harsher on H.G.’s mistress, Rebecca West, who simply “wanted someone to fuss over her.”

There’s an odd double standard throughout Roiphe’s editorialising – in the narrative she constructs, her subjects manage to defend the traditions of marriage at the same time as they infer the social benefits of extramarital affairs. Reconciling this is no easy matter. The book keeps coming back to the idea that strong (and fiercely intellectual) feminists can still find an appeal in brutish masculinity, just as Roiphe comes back to her favourite themes – accountability and personal responsibility, sometimes in the face of all logic. In her steadfast refusal to cast women as victims, it seems that Roiphe has internalised the male gaze in her writing, while simultaneously professing to agree with the logic of feminism. And all of this bleeds through the literary value of Uncommon Arrangements.

New Zealand audiences familiar with the cottage industry C.K. Stead has built up around Katherine Mansfield will find little new information, although Roiphe contextualises extremely well, and Uncommon Arrangements provides a grounding in the complex public and private relationships of writers around the same period as Mansfield. Roiphe gradually builds up a picture of what she sees as the (tempting and attractive) flaws and (safe) inhibitions of the Victorian age. Marriage, she says, was a socially acceptable convenience that enables a queer sort of freedom in the newlyweds, the freedom that can come only after they have accepted the constraints of society. The tie that binds can also loosen, it seems.

It may appear so, but Uncommon Arrangements isn’t a dry history of married life – rather, it’s a very involved account of several intertwining relationships, as seen through the eyes of an equally involved writer. The power dynamics between couples clearly fascinate this author, and investing her time into scholarship rather than polemic allows for a much more balanced book than her previous efforts, if one that is still an introduction to the literary letters scene.

To revert to a more Victorian parlance, Uncommon Arrangements acts as A Young Academic’s Primer: a point of departure for further study, rather than a destination in itself. Those following the overarching Roiphe story – how the author revises and reiterates her idiosyncratic mindset over the course of writing her different books – will, however, read much of interest into the book.

This article was first published in Critic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review: Metal Gear Solid 4

Kojima Productions


Fans of Hideo Kojima’s confusing, complex and downright compelling Metal Gear series will lap up every last overly cinematic second of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, although newcomers to the series may have an adverse reaction to the series’ final instalment.

It’s just over twenty years since Kojima’s first stealth game, and Guns of the Patriots is a worthy successor to the previous games in the series, as well as providing a capstone to Kojima’s career as he redefines not just a genre, but an entire medium. A grandiose statement, to be sure, but that’s exactly what he’s done – MGS4 is possibly the best example of an interactive movie that’s ever been produced. Just under half of the game, in terms of total play time, takes place in in-engine cutscenes. This is a hefty chunk of time to relinquish control of a game, particularly one retailing for upwards of a hundred dollars, but Kojima’s story carries quite an emotional weight, especially for players already invested in the series.

The game begins five years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, as a prematurely aged Solid Snake (now referred to as Old Snake) shuffles his bones along a dusty road with a militia convoy, and fights alongside them against one of many private military companies (PMC) owned by his (ridiculously named) arch-nemesis Liquid Ocelot. These PMCs fight an endless series of proxy battles on behalf of business interests – in effect a stock market of human lives and territories – and, coincidentally, provide a usefully obfuscating background of violence, weapons and dust for Snake to do his now-familiar sneaking. Called out of retirement for one last shot at assassinating Liquid Ocelot, Snake grumbles through the opening stages of the game, but for an old man, he’s remarkably agile, throwing himself into battle with aplomb and no small amount of panache.

Allegiances are fluid on the battlefield, and throughout the game Snake can win over separate militias by fighting alongside them against the better-equipped PMC soldiers. Players new to the series will likely have some difficulty taking the time to identify targets before attacking, as mistakes are punished very quickly, even on the easiest difficulty level, by hordes of hostile soldiers suddenly switching their allegiances and seeing you as a target.

Experienced players will be more comfortable with the idea of being between a rock and a hard place, but it’s a maddening feeling, have to hide in various darkened corners while endless streams of enemies file past. Try to pick them off one by one, as you would in any normal situation (for certain console-based values of the word ‘normal’), and they’ll switch to high alert mode and try to flush you out. Even if your retooled camouflage suit is doing its job and the PMC soldiers can’t find you, there’s a seemingly infinite number of them to replace the ones you’ve killed. Progress, then, is best made by timing short runs between hiding places, judicious use of grenades and petrol-filled bottles to kill, maim and confuse, and the familiar gaming fallback of dying enough times that you begin to learn the patrol patterns of enemy soldiers.

It’s infuriating. But what starts to happen, after the first dozen failed missions, is that your attitude towards the game starts to change – the PS3 controller becomes an extension of your hands, you mirror Snake’s stress meter, and become much more comfortable moving along at a snail’s pace. And the tension that bedevils you earlier on in the game will be released by the lengthy cutscenes. It all becomes very zen, really.

In terms of replay value, MGS4 is good for at least another two or three run-throughs, if only to catch the final plot points that sailed over your head the first time. It’s also remarkably fun skipping all the cutscenes and restricting your weapon use to the handy old tranquiliser gun – a hell of a challenge, but it stops you from treating the game like a garden-variety shooter. And for a stealth game, MGS4 does make a terrible shooter.

Judging apples against oranges is difficult enough in normal circumstances, but MGS4 is different again – difficult for some gamers to swallow, it’s truly its own strange fruit.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]