Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: Fable 2

Lionhead Studios

Xbox 360

In 2004, Peter Molyneaux and the team at Lionhead Studios made some massive promises, and while the original Fable was an enjoyable action-RPG, the promised ‘anything and everything’ just failed to deliver – you could make the villagers like you, but once you’d done it once to see their reactions, there wasn’t really a pay-off to doing so. Changing your status from good to evil was a fun gimmick, but it didn’t add terribly much to the gameplay, beyond accessing certain quests.

Four years and many more promises later, Molyneaux still wants you to feel "very f***ing cool" when you’re playing Fable 2, he’s added a dog as your companion, removed stats from the different clothing you can wear, updated the graphics, and, for some odd reason, really screwed up the game’s menus. But it’s still an engrossing game, despite the flaws – you’ll hit the walls on the much-vaunted person-to-person interactions pretty quickly, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Set 500 years after the first game, Fable 2 sees the player set course on a classic revenge mission, to right the wrongs done against you (and your family) in the game's opening scenes. In doing this, you'll have to assemble a kind of dream team of Heroes - corresponding to the three experience trees the game offers - Skill, Will, and Strength. Seeing other Heroes fit into these categories did make me wonder where my Hero fit in, and it might have been interesting to see your Hero take the role of one of the three, but I suppose there's more to be gained by letting players alter their specialities than locking them in early on.

Molyneaux apparently made a point of removing the stat bonuses from clothes, which is an interesting design choice – after all, clothes should just be about appearance bonuses, and not good or evil – but as far as I can tell (sixteen hours into the game, my Albion-wide property portfolio all but complete), there just isn't a big enough range of outfits to justify Molyneaux's decision. Lucky, then, that you can dye your clothes any colour you want - provided you've found or bought the right dye. (There's even a goth Achievement, which you get after you dye your hair and all your clothes black, as well as putting on black makeup in a beauty shop.)

Another hyped design choice is the addition of a dog to accompany the player throughout (almost) the entire game, and this one really pays off – there's a real emotional bond with the dog, for all that it can't do much more than bark when there's treasure nearby, and attack enemies when they're on the ground. There's even a subset of emotions available to let your dog know just what you think of it, and a rubber ball you can throw for the dog, although the options available are slightly more complex than necessary, given the dog's reactions.

And that's just one more oddball thing about Fable 2 – for all of its supposed complexity, it still feels incredibly dumbed-down. It's an odd dichotomy; a lot of work obviously went into the game, and there's a lot happening behind the scenes, I'm sure, but binary choices (good/evil, corrupt / pure, male/female, rich/poor etc) are barely choices at all, because they don't result in any kind of real change in the world – at least not a change that matters, or one that alters the main storyline. Your 'relationships' with NPCs carry no emotional heft, even after you've 'married' or 'slept with them', and it's simple to reset their opinions of you by giving gifts, hitting them or simply throwing gold around willy-nilly. Yes, you can buy a pub, give the beer away for free and get everyone in town drunk, but it's the equivalent of turning on the disaster mode in Sim City, for all it means to you. And while at least there is a choice, all it really offers is a reason to play through the game one more time. And once you've gone through the game as a saintly man, or a downright evil woman (my first two characters – and what does that say about me?) I don't see a great reason to play it again. (Although that may change once online multiplayer is patched up, so watch this space for an update.)

The main storyline will last a good ten to twelve hours, after which you’re free to run around in the world you’ve saved (or doomed), buy property, run businesses in a very stripped-down fashion (you’re pretty much limited to raising or lowering prices), get married (as often as you like), have children (as many as you like), and work as a bartender, woodchopper or blacksmith. (Well, I say ‘work’, but it’s more like a rhythm game with only one button – when the dot is next to the green zone, press A, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, ad nauseaum, or ad repetitive strain injury-um.)

Of course, all of these sidelines are available while you’re polishing off the main quest as well, but I found that they simply served to unnecessarily complicate the game. Yes, Fable 2 has a rather large variety of gametypes and play styles, but the game focuses on the same types as its predecessor – story-driven action-RPG, and the open-ended world sim, and they’re best taken separately.

Also available at any point are the pub games, which were released separately on Xbox Live, and let you merge a Pub Games patron with your Fable 2 hero to win or lose massive amounts of gold. Of the three, there’s really only one that’s worth playing – Tower of Fortune. Spinnerbox is pure chance, whereas Keystone is too involved for casual gamers or anyone looking for a diversion. Better, and more profitable, to put your idle Fable hours into the jobs, where there’s at least a modicum of skill required. Short of getting all of the Achievements in the game, I don’t see a reason to play these games at all. Harsh words, but true.

I have a few proper gripes, and they’re mostly to do with the game being rushed out the door to meet its shipping deadlines. It ships without online multiplayer, and you’ll have to patch the game as soon as you get it to enable the feature. At the start of the game the splash page loads in at least four separate chunks, leaving quarter of the screen black while the rest of the data catches up. Also, if you’re too rushed with your button-pressing to get the game up and running, you can actually stall the ‘load game’ progress, and freeze your system, necessitating a quick restart.

Once you’re in the game, you’ll find that menus load tortuously slowly – it’s not as crippling as the menus in the recent Force Unleashed, but when you’re trying to get to a couple of potions quickly, the load times are infuriating. Buying items is a bit of a trial as well, as there doesn’t seem to be a way to compare the traders’ weapons with those currently equipped, or even to see how may of a particular item you currently own. It seems bizarre that only Japanese RPG-makers (and Bethesda) can get the inventory management system right, but I haven’t seen a European RPG with a decent menu / inventory system yet. Still, if the game can be patched to allow multiplayer from day one, surely Lionhead can fix the other problems as well. Right?

Last on my gripes list – why can you buy potions that give you experience points? It’s fine if they’re limited to prizes or gifts from loved ones, but being able to buy experience? It’s all a little too close to in-game gold-farming for my liking.

Fable 2 is still stretching Molyneaux’s vision of a medieval world sim, and if you buy into Lionhead’s (typically European RPG) idiosyncrasies, you’ll find a solid timesink of a game. RPG fans won’t necessarily appreciate the menu oddities, but they’ll find a compelling storyline, slick graphics, satisfying magic and combat, and a faithful canine companion. And did I mention the lambskin condoms, designed to avoid unwanted pregnancies and 'social diseases'? They’re just weird.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Wipeout HD

Sony Liverpool


First things first: while it is brilliant, Wipeout HD isn’t a new game – it’s essentially a high-def conglomeration of the well-received PSP title Wipeout Pure and its sequel Pulse. It features the same vehicles and teams as the handheld games, and even the licensed soundtrack has the same mix of dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass and techno. Where HD shines, though, is in recreating and recompiling the two games in full high definition – 1080p, screaming past your eyes at 60 frames per second. It’s a gear junkie’s dream: simultaneous justification for hardware investment and supplier of bragging rights – the gaming equivalent of BBC’s Planet Earth, or Dark Side of the Moon in blistering stereo sound.

So it looks good. But there’s more to the game than just its visuals – there’s also the small matters of gameplay, enjoyment and Wipeout’s traditional punishment of newcomers.

As with most games designed in-house for the PS3, Wipeout HD supports the Sixaxis’ accelerometer controls. Unfortunately, as with most non-Nintendo games supporting motion control, the additional control method offers very little of substance to the actual game – simply put, you’ll be racing so fast that the very slight delay in the accelerometer’s controls will outweigh its coolness factor. That said, though, once you become familiar with the easiest tracks, steering by leaning into the corners is really quite fun.

Newcomers to futuristic hovercraft racing (and surely there’s someone out there who’s never tried it) can turn on the new ‘pilot assist’ feature, which basically forces the craft away from the edges of the track. Past the first two or three events, however, the helpful robots or magnets or whatever the hell they are become a hassle – you’ll want to cut some corners closely to pick up certain weapons or speed boosts, and getting a weak nudge away from the wall often hinders more than it helps.

As mentioned above, HD offers much the same as its PSP predecessors, right down to the track selection – Chenghou Project, Sol 2, Vineta K, Sebenco Climb, Anulpha Pass and Ubermall are in the mix from Pure, and the fantastic Moa Therma and Metropia from Pulse round out the eight available tracks. While the tracks have the same layout, and can still be played in both directions (with slight alterations), the transition to high-def really makes them shine. Zone races, in particular, are a visual treat – textures are stripped from the levels you race through, replaced with fluorescent colours, and your aim is simply to survive through as many ‘zones’ as possible, as colours change and your vehicle inexorably increases its speed well beyond the capability of mere human reflexes. Unlike the other modes, where you effectively choose your own skill level before the race starts, zone events are increasingly challenging; and, being able to survive longer and longer as your skill level increases is correspondingly satisfying.

Wipeout HD clocks in at $33.90 – great value for such a range of content, even if you’d played through both of the PSP games before. And since the PSP games had such great downloadable content options (new packs with extra tracks and vehicles were made available to PSP owners every six months after the games’ release date), there’s a great chance that even more content will be added to the title over the next few months.

Despite its obvious roots in the handheld genre, Wipeout HD feels more like the spiritual successor to the three games released on the original PlayStation – it’s not every day that a game comes out so perfectly suited to a hardware platform that it can define a console. As Wipeout 2097 flooded the market and became a given purchase for PSOne owners, so should Wipeout HD – and, at the low price point afforded only to downloadable content, why would it not?

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed


PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2 (and stripped-down versions for PSP, DS, iPhone)

Many Bothans died to bring you this review. Well, it was just one, but in my defense, he was being kind of a dick.

Released to a collective fangasm – the equivalent of millions of voices whimpering in pleasure as one – The Force Unleashed fills in the blanks between the old (good) trilogy, and the new (shinier, less good) Star Wars trilogy. You take the role of ‘Starkiller’, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice – through the course of the game you’ll hunt down numerous rogue Jedi knights, kill hundreds of storm troopers, bash a few wookies over the head, and – of course – fall in love in the cheesiest possible manner. So it’s par for the LucasArts course, then.

After a couple of decades of an ever-expanding Expanded Universe (EU), every possible gap after the original trilogy has been filled in. (Did you ever wonder what Han Solo and Princess Leia’s children would be like? Turns out they were force-sensitive twins, one of whom – Jacen – got broody, fell to the Dark Side, changed his name to Darth Caedus and was killed by his sister Jaina in a dramatic sequence worthy of Days of Our Lives.) But while the animated Clone Wars films filled the gap between episodes two and three, there’s a correspondingly large gap – say, 18 or 19 years – between episodes three and four, just begging for a George Lucas-approved plot filler.

I’ve often wondered just what happened to eliminate the Jedi who survived the Clone Wars. Could Vader really have hunted them all down himself? How would he have balanced all that Jedi-hunting with the effort required to keep his black robo-suit nice and shiny? These are the things that keep me up at night. And this is one reason why The Force Unleashed is one of the best releases this year, on any console.

Gamers like acting out through vicarious violent games, and Unleashed supplies plenty of fodder for your force lightning throughout – since Vader wants to keep knowledge of his new apprentice secret from his own master, you’re given carte blanche, and simply instructed to kill everyone you run into, storm troopers and rebel scum included.

While the force isn’t exactly ‘unleashed’, Starkiller is an incredibly satisfying character to play from the very first level. Picking up crates, explosives, droids and TIE fighters at the press of a button never gets old, and flinging them towards your enemies for maximum ‘splosiveness is a heck of a lot of fun. Even if the targeting system for choosing the right barrel isn’t exactly accurate, the auto-targeting of enemies is flawless.

Not quite so flawless are the controls, however – Starkiller’s steps don’t map onto his movements, it’s all too easy to fall off cliffs in the middle of (epic) lightsaber battles, and no angled surfaces in the game offer any kind of purchase for your character’s feet, which pushes the game into punishing platformer territory. But it’s a testament to the power of the IP and the game’s original story that even these nearly crippling issues don’t mar the experience.

Graphically, Unleashed delivers a stunning show for the major consoles – the PS3 and 360 versions are really slick, showcasing textures with fine details, impressively long draw distances and a solid framerate. Due to the Wii effectively being one-and-a-half GameCubes duct-taped together, the Wii version suffers a little in terms of its graphics, although being able to use the Wiimote’s motion controls for lightsaber battles makes up for these losses.

Since it’s a banner title, Unleashed has also been released on all currently active consoles, including the DS and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the iPhone. Neither of these handhelds can offer the same graphical fidelity as the top-end consoles, but both still offer something different. The DS version, put together by developer n-Space, runs in full (blocky) 3D, while also using its touchscreen and stylus for force powers. Clocking in at around two hours all up, the iPhone version offers a much shorter game, but it’s correspondingly cheaper – around $15 to $20, compared to $80 for the DS version, and upwards of $100 for the flashier consoles.

Taking hardware limitations into consideration, in each different port The Force Unleashed’s art direction is utterly brilliant – like the films, it hits the visual high notes. However, unlike the films (and episodes one through three, I’m looking at you), Unleashed avoids most of the lazy plot holes and head-slapping pratfalls. If there were ever a post-Timothy Zahn argument for someone (anyone?) other than George Lucas to write stories set in the modern Star Wars universe, Unleashed is convincing evidence indeed.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]