Thursday, 31 December 2009

A look ahead to 2010

Christmas has traditionally been a time when developers release their blockbuster titles hoping to maximise sales as people scour the shops looking for presents. But there has been a shift in focus this year, with many big name titles set to land in the first half of 2010 instead of the usual pre-Christmas rush. I've highlighted six games which I'm really excited about that will launch in the first half of the new year

Heavy Rain - PlayStation 3

The spiritual successor to 2005's Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream prove they are the masters of storytelling with Heavy Rain - a rich and complex narrative-driven experience which sets the benchmark for visuals and animation in video games. Heavy Rain is a psychological thriller, which puts you in control of four characters, all bound to the activities of a murderer known as The Origami Killer. Through interacting with people and objects, the player slowly unravels the mystery, with each choice having a lasting effect throughout the game. The story is beautifully crafted and thanks to the jaw-dropping visuals, the player is sucked into the dark world Quantic Dream have created. I've had preview code for the last few weeks and can confirm the game is set to be something truly special. Its slow pace might put some people off, but those looking for a deep and rewarding experience will find Heavy Rain irresistible when it launches next month.

Mass Effect 2 - 360/PC

Bioware's original sci-fi epic was launched in 2007 and became a worldwide success. The sequel once again puts you in the shoes of Commander Shepard, as he and his team investigate the rise of a new enemy who are abducting human colonies in deep space. Mass Effect's galaxy has been expanded for the sequel, while gunplay looks to have been tightened up - something that was desperately needed after the original's slightly flimsy shooting action. Character interaction was one of Mass Effect's high points, with dialogue choices impacting on how others perceived your character. Knowing Bioware, this feature will again play a central role in the sequel. Mass Effect 2 also looks spectacular, boasting better animation and improved textures. With a raft of improvements right across the board, sci-fi fans looking for an epic adventure should be well catered for when the game blasts off on January 29.

Final Fantasy XIII - PlayStation 3/360

After years of waiting, the 13th installment of the most popular role-playing game on the planet is almost here. It's already shifted 1.8million copies in Japan since it launched in the middle of December and it's clear this will be one of the biggest titles of the year in the West. Following Final Fantasy XII's free-roaming, action-orientated approach, FF XIII returns to a more linear format. The Japanese demo only gave a small taste of what we can expect from the combat, but turn-based battles return, although random encounters have thankfully been canned. The art team at Square Enix have been hard at work and the sumptuous visuals are incredible, while gamers can expect another epic musical score to set the tone. Final Fantasy XIII is released on March 9.

Monster Hunter Tri - Wii

Monster Hunter has been the saviour of the PSP in Japan, where people simply can't get enough of the series. Millions of copies have been sold on Sony's hand-held, but for the first time since the PS2, the series is coming to a home console. Unlike traditional role playing games, Monster Hunter doesn't feature a main story to wade through. Instead, the player takes on a series of quests to slay wild creatures, and use their remains to craft elaborate and effective armour and weapons. Hundreds of items can be crafted, and it's this kill and craft gameplay which is so compulsive. Full online play will be included, with up to four hunters taking on quests together. This should make the Monster Hunter much more fun than trudging through quests solo.

Yakuza 3 - PlayStation 3

Following months of speculation, Sega announced they will be bringing part three of their celebrated series to the West. The Yakuza games focus on Kazuma Kiryu, a hard-hitting Japanese tough guy with a heart of gold and fists of steel. The storyline in the first two PS2 games was wonderful stuff, delving into the murky depths of the violent Japanese underworld, with plenty of twists, turns, backstabbing and memorable characters. While the combat was satisfying, it wasn't perfect - with the player often taking fresh air swings due to slightly clumsy controls. Judging from the Japanese demo, nothing much has changed in that regard. Still, with beautifully polished visuals and plenty of side quests - including golf, pool, darts, roulette, Black Jack, dice throwing, hostess clubs, videogame arcades, karaoke bars and 10-pin bowling, Yakuza 3 is definitely one to watch when it launches across Europe in March.

BioShock 2 - 360/PlayStation 3/PC


I'm not the world's biggest fan of first-person shooters, but 2007's BioShock completely changed my opinion on the genre. Let loose in an atmospheric underwater city, full of genetically modified freaks, was a thrilling experience and BioShock 2 - which is set 10 years after the events of the first game - is set to eclipse its predecessor. Taking control of the original Big Daddy - a hulking brute clad in ancient deep sea diving gear - the player will stomp their way through the decaying city of Rapture. Plasmids return, with these genetic super powers able to unleash chaos through the Art Deco inspired underwater city. With full multiplayer included this time and 2K's usual attention to detail, BioShock 2 is set to be one of the highlight of 2010 when it's released on February 9.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Games of 2009

Persona 4 - PS2
Despite being 10 years old, the creaking PlayStation 2 can still produce wonderful games. Persona 4 was a much more streamlined experience than its predecessor, but it retained the appeal that's made the series such as success. Unlike regular RPGs, Persona 4 mixes things up to create a unique experience. By day, your character goes to school, attends after school clubs and hangs out with friends. But at night, you explore randomly generated dungeons with the aid of your Personas - magical creatures which help you in battle. Persona 4 looks fantastic, and its fusion of social aspects and dungeon crawling make it one of the most memorable RPGs in recent years.

Flower - PS3
Flower is one of the most remarkable games of 2009. Controlling the wind by moving the Sixaxis, the aim is to open flowers that lie scattered about the game's beautiful locations, collecting petals as you go. Visually stunning with a beautiful relaxed atmosphere, Flower is perfect for late night gaming sessions. Lush, grassy meadows under bright blue skies give way to rocky canyons, sun-drenched amber vistas, midnight blue fields and rain-soaked plains - it's a marvellous experience.

Wii Sports Resort - Wii 
Nintendo bundled Wii Sports with their console to show off the Wii's motion-sensing capabilities. While it was fun, there's it lacked lasting appeal due to the shallow nature of the events. Wii Sports Resort features 12 events compared to the original's five and comes packed with the Wii Motion Plus - a device giving the player a greater degree of control. The events take place on sun-kissed Wuhu Island, and the game is instantly appealing thanks to bright blue skies and the island's cheery atmosphere. Table Tennis, Archery, Swordplay, Air Sports and Frisbee Golf were personal highlights, but everything on offer was a blast to play. It's still selling by the truckload and I'm sure Wii Sports Resort will be wheeled out in homes across the country after Christmas dinner this year.

New Super Mario Bros - Wii 
Super Mario Galaxy remains my favourite Mario title, but there New Super Mario Bros is a cracking game. Back to his 2D roots, Mario's latest outing on Wii is platform perfection. The old school single player action brings memories flooding back of Mario World on the Super Nintendo. Up to four people can take part in the fast-paced multiplayer mode, but the single player is no slouch. Later stages are a real test of nerves, but a handy help feature has been included to guide you through the more difficult sections.

Street Fighter IV - 360/PS3 
The best one-on-one fighter ever got a whole lot better in 2009. The culmination of years of fine tuning by the team at Capcom resulted in this spectacular brawler. While old combos and tricks from the past remain the same, the eye-popping graphics and sprinkling of new features make this the definitive Street Fighter experience. The announcement of Super Street Fighter IV might have taken the spotlight away from this in recent weeks, but this remains the best fighter on the market at the moment.

Batman: Arkham Asylum - 360/PS3/PC 
Games featuring superheroes have been a hit and miss affair in the past, but the Dark Knight's appearance this year proved to be a definite high point. On the trail of the Joker - who has taken over Gotham's famous Arkham Asylum - the Caper Crusader is drawn into a quest to bring the Crown Prince of Crime to justice. Arkham Asylum is an amalgamation of genres - with stealth-based sections, environmental puzzle solving, and bouts of good old-fashioned fisticuffs fused coherently together to produce a slick and well-rounded package. The visuals are excellent, and coupled with the asylum's oppressive atmosphere, create one of this year's most distinctive titles. With a second game announced this week, there's plenty for Batman fans to look forward to.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - PS3
Great things were expected of Uncharted 2, and developers Naughty Dog didn't disappoint, pulling out all the stops to deliver the finest action adventure to grace a home console this year. Packed with epic set pieces and thrilling gunfights, charismatic protagonist Nathan Drake's latest outing was a visual feast. Thanks to brilliant voice work, impressive in-game cut scenes and Naughty Dog's attention to detail, Uncharted 2 featured all the trimmings of a blockbuster film. The 12-hour single player campaign was a success, but for gamers craving more, a robust multiplayer mode was also added. The online fun is still incredibly popular and makes a great alternative to first-person online experiences. Uncharted 2 quite simply set the benchmark for future action adventures.

Assassin's Creed 2 - 360/PS3
The original Assassin's Creed was a great looking game, but was bogged down by repetitve tasks and awkward gameplay mechanics. The sequel mixes things up to give a better experience, making this journey through Renaissance era Italy a joy to play. Lead character Ezio is thoroughly likeable, which adds some much-needed personality to the series. Free-running across rooftops, scaling towers and exploring the beautifully rendered cities of Venice and Florence is wonderful, and with plenty of optional trinkets to collect and tombs to discover, Assassin's Creed 2 is head and shoulders above the original.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Pixeljunk Shooter - PS3

The fourth game in the excellent PixelJunk series is not only an elegant and engaging shooter, it's one of the best games to appear on the PS3's online store.

Armed with a gun, missiles and a grapple shot, the player whizzes through a series of subterranean caverns, rescuing trapped scientists and prising gems from rock faces. It's beautifully simple, but the genius of Shooter's level design becomes apparent after delving down through several layers.

Environmental hazards hinder your progress, blocking your path to the human survivors and your means of escape. Fortunately, impassable magma flows can be cooled by unleashing torrents of water, while chunks of ice can be melted by guiding magma on to slippery surfaces.

Carefully blasting chunks from rock faces allows the player to instantly change the cavern's layout and access new areas, but those with an itchy trigger finger should be warned that firing without thinking can spell disaster for the trapped scientists.

As progress is made, levels become fraught with hidden dangers and new hazards to overcome. Every new cavern is packed with wonderful ideas, keeping the game from ever becoming stale, while finding secret caves, hidden gems and locating special survivors adds to the overall package.

The wonderful electronic soundtrack fuses perfectly with Shooter's bold slabs of colour to create a delicious and strangely laid back experience.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Sword of Fargoal - iOS

Back in 1982, Jeff McCord created Sword of Fargoal - a beautifully crafted dungeon crawler on Commodore’s Vic-20. It’s been ported to other systems since then, but this iPhone version deserves special mention. 

Fargoal is a Roguelike, a game with its roots deep in the early days of computer adventures. Despite primitive visuals, Rogue and other similar games that followed, offered deep and rewarding experiences and are still popular today. They feature randomly generated dungeons and perma-death. When you die in a Roguelike, there’s no going back to a previous save. Once your dead, the adventure is over and you need to start again from scratch. To today’s modern gamer, such gameplay mechanics are archaic, but recent games such as Shiren the Wanderer on DS and Sword of Fargoal prove this type of game can be immensely enjoyable.

Fargoal has you fighting your way ever deeper through a devious dungeon in the quest for a fabled sword. However every step you take is fraught with danger. Elves armed with bows lurk in the shadows, grotesque gargoyles pounce when you least expect it, monstrous dragons try and roast you alive, while numerous pitfalls and traps hinder your progress.

Even when the sword has been collected - no easy task - the player must make their way back up through the dungeon to escape.

The iPhone’s touch screen has been used well, with finger swipes sending your hero towards his goal. Attacking another creature is simply a case of moving your hero towards the foe. Combat is instantly engaged and while early encounters are easy, care and intelligent use of spells is needed to best creatures deeper into the dungeon.

Gold lies scattered about the levels, which can be traded at temples in exchange for much-needed experience points, while bags can be unearthed which allow you to carry more loot.

Presentation is slick, with lovely lighting effects and a deliciously creepy soundtrack. Special mention goes to the descending stairs animation between levels which is wonderful.

For just £2.99 you’re getting one of the best games on the iPhone and with more updates promised, this is one adventure you should definitely undertake.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Avatar: 360, PS3

Hot on the heels of James Cameron's visually spectacular film comes the inevitable videogame tie-in and while it's better than the majority of movie-based games, it still falls well short of the mark.

The game doesn't follow the film's script, opting instead to flesh out the background story to the big-screen blockbuster. While the visuals hold up well, the repetitive missions, linear structure and loose combat mechanics suck most of the life out what could have been a great game.

There's an interesting twist when the player has to choose between fighting for the human-based RDA or side with the indigenous Na'vi tribe, but the game never rises above mediocrity. It's average at best and only die hard fans of the film will glean any enjoyment from Avatar's shallow gameplay.