Thursday, 30 December 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns - Wii

It's been 14 years since Donkey Kong swung on to the Super Nintendo to rescue his banana horde from the evil Kremlings in Donkey Kong Country. It was a wonderful platform adventure which raised the bar for visuals in the 16-bit era and a title which spawned two sequels.

But the time has come for Nintendo to dust off the successful formula and deliver a quite brilliant title that will keep you entertained throughout the festive season. The plot is just as thin as it was in 1994, with Kong and his sidekick Diddy on a mission to retrieve their massive banana horde, which has been whisked away by the googly-eyed Tik Tak Tribe.

However, the wafer thin story hasn't stopped the team at Retro Studios from adding a few neat twists of their own to create a title that is instantly familiar, yet full of delightful surprises.

The biggest change here is that Diddy Kong - the agile little tyke whose nimble moves got me out of many scrapes back in the day - is no longer controlled directly. Instead, he clings to Kong's back, allowing the burly ape to jetpack across gaping chasms and provides the duo with an extra two health hearts.

There's a tinge of disappointment when discovering Diddy's been relegated to a bit-part role, but the feeling gradually dissipates when the genius of the level design and feel of the game begin to percolate through.

Retro Studios have really pushed the boat out and introduced new ideas as the game gambles along, including utilising the background to expand the levels. Kong and Diddy frequently find themselves blasted into the back of the scenery to collect bananas and coins, a gameplay twist which keeps the player on their toes.

The nods to the Super Nintendo games don't stop at explosive barrels, tree-top antics or madcap minecart rides - the soundtrack, too, is dipped in nostalgia. The atmospheric tracks from the Nineties series can be heard on every level and menu screen - something that will bring warm smiles from older players and delight younger gamers.

The 1994 game had more secrets to find than most other platform games of the time and this series reboot is no different. Exploring the levels to find all the hidden corners and secrets will take a while, while collecting all the elusive jigsaw pieces will keep players occupied well into the new year.

Graphically, the game is a triumph. Sporting bold and distinctive visuals, Donkey Kong Country Returns consistently looks stunning. A variety of graphical flourishes have been used, including an excellent silhouette effect, which gives each level a unique feel.

Despite the fact that the platforming action is wonderfully balanced, the control set-up does take a bit of getting used to. Nintendo's Classic Controller is unfortunately not supported, leaving the player to make do with either the standard Wiimote and nunchuk set-up or go it alone with just the Wiimote. The latter is definitely the preferred option, as making DK barrel roll and blow on objects while traversing the levels is much easier this way.

But despite this small niggle, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a quite brilliant game and the best 2D platformer on the system. It knocks New Super Mario Bros into a cocked hat thanks to its ingenious level design and tough challenge.
Magnificent from start to finish and a title well worth spending your Christmas cash on.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Gran Turismo 5 - PS3

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been putting a fair amount of time into Gran Turismo 5 on PS3. While the game feels a little clunky in places (especially the menu system) the photo mode is excellent. So here are a selction of my snaps - cars and scenery. Enjoy.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mr Moskeeto - PS2

Mr Moskeeto is a charming little game and one of those quirky little oddities which could only come from the Japanese gaming industry.

Released as Ka in Japan back in 2001, the little blood-sucking mosquito buzzed across to Europe the following year.

The game gave you control over the titular character, who found himself trapped in the Yamada family household. To survive, the player had to guide the big-eyed bug around the large and varied rooms attacking the human inhabitants and drinking their blood.

Tiny hearts and containers were secreted away throughout the Yamada's residence, and with no time limit, the player was free to explore the interesting abode.

Unfortunately for Mr Moskeeto - and for a large chunk of the gaming community - the lighter blighter’s adventures failed to sell in the West and he was swatted away without a second thought.

I picked the game up a few months after its European release. Lying on a dusty shelf in my local indie game store, I was intrigued by the three silly screenshots on the back and the quote: “Watch as the family’s relationship alters as they take their irritation out on each other.”

However, somewhere down the years, I lost the disc and subsequently forgot all about the little buzzing menace. But I recently found someone selling the game for a good price and my copy dropped through the letterbox this morning. Gran Turismo 5 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood were cast aside as I took a nostalgic trip back through the Yamadas' lives once again.

It still plays well, although Mr Moskeeto’s flying can be a little janky at times, while the camera angles can cause a few problems.

Part of the game’s charm was down to the environments. At eight years old, it’s no surprise to find the muddy textures haven’t held up particularly well, but it is still fun buzzing through the house watching the family go through their daily routines. The soundtrack, too, is simply wonderful, with a nice selection of funky tunes to give the game a lovely atmosphere.

Distracting family members by turning on the stereo, switching off lights and messing with the TV remote still feels great, while the act of attacking weak spots on the family’s body parts is handled remarkably well.

Once zoned in on the target area, a quick press down on the right stick causes Mr Moskeeto to latch on to a bare patch of skin. Then it’s a case of carefully rotating the stick to draw the blood. Do it quickly or too slowly and the victim will react angrily to your presence.

Should this happen, Mr Moskeeto has to attack pressure points on the humans to calm them down. It’s beautifully handled and it’s such a shame the game didn’t receive the love it deserved back in 2002.

Mr Moskeeto is definitely one of my favourite Japanese games from the last generation of consoles. It’s quirky, a genuine joy to play and I would urge anyone with a PS2 to track the game down.

Screenshots are hard to come by, so here's a look at the opening level, which gives an indication of how the game plays:

Monday, 22 November 2010

Deadly Premonition - 360

There's a good chance most gamers haven't heard of Deadly Premonition. It was quietly and unassumingly released a few weeks ago, slipping under the radar as 360 owners busied themselves with Fable III.

Now, following the release of Kinect and Call of Duty: Black Ops, there's every chance this bizarre and quite brilliant game could disappear beneath the waves without so much as a ripple.

But miss out on Deadly Premonition, and you'll be denying yourself the chance to experience one of this year's most refreshing and engaging titles.

Taking elements from games such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Shenmue, creator Swery 65 has also added a Twin Peaks-style backdrop and laced the experience with cheesy dialogue, incidental humour and a smorgasbord of interesting characters.

While the influences are clear for all to see, it's safe to say there is nothing quite like Deadly Premonition.

Protagonist Agent Francis York Morgan - just call him York, everyone else does - heads out to the rural town of Greenvale to investigate the brutal murder of a young diner waitress. But what awaits him is anything but your average homicide case.

The game begins with an uninspiring section which could have been lifted from any number of survival horror games. York sneaks about a rain-soaked maze, flicking switches on electricity generators and shooting backwards-bending, shuffling zombies.

But once dawn breaks and the town of Greenvale comes into view, things take a dramatic and completely unexpected turn.

Rather than a mere run-of-the-mill fright fest, Deadly Premonition blossoms into a delicious and overblown parody complete with hammy dialogue, pop culture references and a wonderful, off-beat sense of humour.

Star of the show is York, who is far from being a straight-laced FBI goon. He has an obsession with 80s movies and the murder of young females, has a split personality called Zach and takes daily advice from cups of coffee.

But to appreciate Deadly Premonition, you'll have to dig through the game's archaic array of gamplay issues. Chief among these are the game's driving sections and crude visuals.

Cars corner like buses, while trying to stay on the road is no easy task due to the slippery handling. The graphics are a mixed bag, too, with muddy textures and ropey backgrounds hard to ignore. At times it looks like a 10-year-old PlayStation 2 era game, but there are some lovely touches and places of beauty in and around Greenvale - the fishing spot near Velvet Falls is lovely, while some building interiors are well detailed.

However, despite these shortcomings, Deadly Premonition retains a charm which is absent from most big-budget titles. For a start, it's without doubt the most amusing game I've ever played - and it has nothing to do with the "so bad, it's good" mantra.

The game revels in its obscurity and takes great delight at not taking itself too seriously, with the title's music being a case in point.

Even when addressing a serious plot point or somber set piece, Deadly Premonition injects light-hearted jazz or an infuriatingly catchy whistling tune to drown out the dialogue. It never fails to raise a smile and simply adds another layer of weirdness to this fascinating game.

When York isn't zooming around town in madcap checkpoint races, picking up collectable trading cards, playing darts, drinking cocktails, chain smoking, peeking through windows and raiding mailboxes for ammo, the game meanders into dark and depressing dungeon-style crawls.

These grimy episodes are fairly pedestrian, although they do contain nuggets of evidence which are vital in piecing the story elements together.

It's also a genuinely unsettling experience when faced with the game's cover star - the red-hooded Raincoat Killer. He kicks open creaking doors with gusto and leaps at York when he least expects it. These showdowns lead to Quick Time button prompts and furious stick waggling to escape the crazed killer's clutches. Not the most refined system in the world, but it does lead to tense and frantic moments of panic.

While most games would simply fall apart due to the basic gameplay and shoddy visuals, Deadly Premonition's environment, atmosphere, cracking story and off-kilter cast of characters keep things ticking along.

Greenvale's residents are a ramshackle bunch of misfits, each one adding to the general weirdness of the town; the creepy twins who appear as angels in York's dreams, Thomas, the sensitive cooking cop who works part time in a bar called Galaxy of Terror, finger-snapping rocker Keith who helps run the general store and unhinged loon Sigourney, The Pot Lady - it's a delightful mix of weird and wonderful personalities.

As if the gripping main quest wasn't enough, 50 optional sidequests are peppered throughout the game, each one rewarding the player with unique items. These vignettes also give the player an insight into the town's residents, fleshing out their background stories and adding another layer to an already richly rewarding game.

And the madness doesn't stop there. To add to the game's strange flavour, York has to change his clothes - and get them cleaned - and shave at regular intervals. He also has to stave off hunger by chomping down pickles and crackers and grab naps to keep him focused on solving the complex case.

Despite its clumsy gameplay, archaic touches and lack of polish, there's something truly remarkable about Deadly Premonition. It's a touching, melancholic, humorous, gripping and at times disturbing yarn that succeeds in trumping games such as Alan Wake at almost every turn.

It's not for everyone, that's for sure, but those who are willing to embrace its quirks and rough edges are in for a very special experience that will live long in the memory. Hats off to Rising Star for releasing the game in the UK.

The best £20 you'll spend all year - so says Mr Stewart...

Deadly Premonition is only available on Xbox 360 in the UK. A PlayStation 3 version was released in Japan under the title Red Seeds Profile.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - 360/PS3

Set 150 years in the future, Enslaved takes place in rubble-strewn post-apocalyptic America. So far, so cliched, but dismiss this Ninja Theory game at your peril as Odyssey to the West is far from your run-of-the-mill post-war adventure.

Based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, by Wu Chen-en, Enslaved features protagonist Monkey as he's roped into helping tech wizard Tripitaka escape slavers and get back safely to her village.

If the story of Monkey and Trip's quest rings a bell, then you'll no doubt remember classic Japanese TV series Monkey, which was screened in the UK in the early Eighties. The character names may be the same, but the setting here couldn't be more different from the cult classic TV show.

While the opening segment of the adventure loses its way due to some dodgy camera angles and a laborious and long-winded intro level, Enslaved soon blossoms into one of the finest action adventures you'll play all year.

Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis brings his abundant talents to the project, breathing life into the acrobatic lead character, while the writing skills of Alex Garland (28 Days Later and The Beach) have been called upon to weave this re-imagining of the classic tale.

The destroyed ruins of New York set the scene for the opening portion of the game and while post apocalyptic worlds are nothing new in gaming, they have never looked quite as good as this.

It's a riot of saturated beauty, with bright greens, vivid reds and eye-watering blues mixed together to create a visual feast. The colour seems to spill out from the screen creating an interesting and inviting gameworld to spend time in.

It's a relief, then, to find that the core gameplay more than matches the game's stunning visuals. Not only is Monkey a dab hand at beating down enemies with his staff, he is also proficient at clambering up vertigo-inducing structures such as skyscrapers and windmills with ease.

Combat is a simple combination of heavy and light attacks, with Monkey also able to stun enemies and fry them using plasma blasts. While the close quarter battles can occasionally turn into button mashing competitions, they are generally fluid and a visual treat. Later adversaries also require a bit more thought to take down and pose a much greater threat to the fleeing duo.

Brightly coloured orbs are peppered throughout the lavish gameworld, and collecting these enables Trip to upgrade Monkey's abilities. From health boosts to attacking prowess, every element of Monkey's skill set can be enhanced by seeking out these glittering neon treasures.

While Monkey is built to withstand the constant attacks from the mechs and slavers who have invaded America, Trip is a bit more delicate. Monkey has to protect her but can also call upon her to distract enemies while he nimbly flanks them before reducing them to chunks of scrap metal. She can also use her skills to highlight deadly traps on the road ahead and turn her hand to a variety of other useful endeavours.

Puzzles present themselves at regular intervals, each one requiring at least a modicum of teamwork to solve the conundrum - although they lack variety and often feel tacked on just for the sake of it.

The quality of the voice acting and the on-screen mannerisms of the characters is impossible to ignore. There are no wooden performances here, instead the relationship between the two characters unfolds beautifully and every in-game cut scene is a treat to watch.

The delicious blend of stunning visuals, great story and satisfying gameplay is tied together by the spellbinding soundtrack. Written by composer Nitin Sawhney, the musical score is simply breathtaking and is one of the finest collections of tracks I've heard all year.

The game might be linear in its structure, and tread old ground in many places but that doesn't stop Enslaved from being a thoroughly entertaining journey across war ravaged America.

Ninja Theory have learned from the mistakes of Heavenly Sword and have delivered one of my favourite games of the year. The Christmas games rush has already started, but whatever you do, don't let Enslaved pass you by.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Ancient Trader - 360/PC

This cracking sea-faring adventure is available either from the Xbox 360's indie game marketplace or for PC direct from the official website.

Taking place on a beautiful sepia-toned naval map, the aim is to be the first to take on and defeat the game's boss - the Ancient Guardian.

First, however, you have to significantly upgrade your ship and to do this you need cash - and lots of it. Working out the most lucrative trade routes throughout the archipelagos is vital, then, and as you are up against other players, it's a race for supremacy.

Players buy and trade exotic goods, sink fearsome ocean-dwelling monsters, collect waterlogged cargo, upgrade their hulking galleon and do battle with rival captains on the high seas.

Each upgrade to your ship not only enables the player to traverse greater distances across the map, but also increases the power of your cannons, muskets and swarthy sword-carrying crew mates.

Even when your vessel has been upgraded, three artifacts must be purchased from various ports before taking on the gargantuan beast of the deep. As you are always up against other players, deciding when to make your final push is often fraught with peril. Take the plunge too early and chances are you'll be unsuccessful. But leave your preparations too late, and you'll find a rival has already beaten you to the punch.

Along with this main game mode, full online multiplayer throws in a few more objectives, such as accruing the most wealth quickly. Unfortunately, I found getting an online game was particularly difficult. Not because the match-making system was flawed, but because there weren't many people playing - a crying shame as this is a brilliant and well-balanced gem of a game.

Battle takes the form of a simple rock, paper, scissors card based affair, but what it lacks in depth is more than made up for by the game's beautiful presentation and easy to navigate menu system.

It's a truly wonderful title and with plenty of maps of varying sizes and sharp, simple gameplay, Ancient Trader stands head and shoulders above other similarly priced games. Make it your next online purchase.

Ancient Trader is available from the Indie Games Marketplace on Xbox 360 for 240 Microsoft points. PC owners can buy the game from here

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Final Fantasy XIV - PC - Preview

On May 16, 2002, Final Fantasy XI was released in Japan on PlayStation 2. It was a radical departure for the long-running series as the franchise ventured into the online world for the first time.

The game was ported to PC later that year, while European audiences would have to wait until September 2004 before they could experience Square Enix's MMO debut.

It was a huge success, with hundreds of thousands of players descending on the magical land of Vana'diel to be part of a thriving online community set within the Final Fantasy universe.

The game still boasts a healthy player base but all that could be about to change with Final Fantasy XIV Online on the horizon.

I've been taking part in the beta for the last few weeks and my experience with the game has been hugely enjoyable, leaving me desperate to get my hands on the finished version.

Here, I take a look at the opening portion of the game to give you a flavour of what you can expect when Final Fantasy XIV's servers go live on September 22.

Starting on the beautiful character creation screen, the player is presented with a choice of five races and an incredible 18 classes. From Lancers, Archers and Conjurers, to Blacksmiths, Leatherworkers and Alchemists, the range of job classes available eclipses most other MMOs by a considerable margin.

After choosing your starting city - I plumped for the woodland setting of Gridiana - the player is whisked off to begin their adventure.

Unlike other MMOs such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online, Final Fantasy XIV controls much better with a control pad rather than the standard keyboard and mouse set-up.

I hooked up my Xbox 360 controller and as you can map specific actions to any face button, everyone should find a comfortable set-up. This control scheme bodes well, then, for the game's forthcoming release on PS3.

After an airship crash involving Yda and Papalymo - two characters who were aboard the stricken vessel - the player is coaxed through a standard battle tutorial which covers the bare bones of combat. The on-screen input commands are easy to understand, while screen clutter - the bane of most MMOs - is thankfully kept to a minimum.

In this opening segment it's clear how much work has gone into making Final Fantasy XIV the best looking MMO on the market. The Bloodthirsty Wolves who surround you and your new companions are well designed and animated, but it's a deliciously evil bug-eyed Treant who steals the show. His twisted roots make short work of the remaining wolves before he turns his attention on your party.

Thankfully, a merry band of harp-playing Moogles float into the scene, leading this wooden freak away from you and your companions and into the depths of the forest.

The attention to detail is exquisite, and the dazzling graphical effects aren't just reserved for eye-popping set pieces. The world of Eorzea in general is beguiling; Pouring rain covers the land, trees sway in the wind and soft light burns from city lamps. It's a stunning looking game.

After the bout of Treant trouble, the player is swiftly introduced to their starting city via the Adventure Guild. Here, Mother Miounne gives you a quest to venture out to nearby Camp Bentbranch.

Upon arrival, some of the game's finer points are explained, before a class specific quest is dished out. Once completed, it's then back to the Adventure Guild where more quests await and the world of Eorzea slowly begins to reveal itself.

It's also at this point I discovered the flexibility of the class system. The player is free to chop and change their chosen skill set depending on what gear they have equipped.

For example, a Culinarian can create stat-boosting food but when it comes to battle, an old weathered skillet and a pocketful of rocks just isn't going to cut it. Simply equipping a weapon such as a bow will turn the character into an archer, therefore giving you a much better chance of survival. Once battle is over, you can switch back to your Culinarian class and continue to bake acorn cookies to your heart's content.

It's an incredibly versatile system and one which especially makes tradeskilling - one of my favourite aspects of MMOs - a tantalising and deeply rewarding prospect.

While Final Fantasy XIV does a fabulous job of immersing the player in the gameworld, those weaned on World Of Warcraft may find these initial stages bewildering.

There are no golden exclamation points above NPCs' heads, and only by asking around - or properly reading your journal - will you be able to keep track of what's going on. Off putting for some, no doubt, but this lack of hand-holding is a plus in my book and gives the game a real sense of adventure.

While you don't need a monster rig to play the game, it certainly helps to get the most enjoyment out of the experience. I was able to run the game without problems on my fairly modest PC. For those whose PCs simply won't take the strain, a PS3 version is planned for release - but not until next March.

Final Fantasy XIV is shaping up to be something special and with Square Enix's dedication to their product, there's every reason to believe this latest in the long-running series could blossom into one of the best MMOs on the market.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Sports Champions - PS3 Move

Today sees the launch of Sony's motion sensing peripheral, Move. While a handful of games accompany today's hardware launch, most people will undoubtedly focus on Sports Champions - a game from the same mold as Wii Sports Resort.

Sports Champions offers up six events: Disc Golf, Gladiator Duel, Archery, Beach Volleyball, Bocce and Table Tennis. And while this sports showcase only offers half the events that appeared on Nintendo's compilation, you definitely won't feel short-changed.

Archery is first up and it's one of the stand-out events on the disc. Simply point the Move controller at the screen and press the trigger button to send the arrow speeding towards its target. But this event really comes into its own when two Move controllers are in play.

This way, the player has to reach back with one arm to grab an arrow, nock it in the bowstring, then draw back one controller and release the trigger. It's intuitive and precise making the event immense fun to play.

Archery isn't limited to set targets, either. Some bullseyes are in constant motion, while fruit targets and gravity-defying money bags test your dexterity and speed.

Beach Volleyball is another event which is more fun with two controllers. Serves, digs and spikes are easy to pull off and as the game plays at a leisurely pace, rallies are common place. However, as you stand motionless even during the most frantic games, it's easy to feel detached from the on screen action while playing. Still, it's fun but will probably be the least played game out of the collection.

Table Tennis is next up and it is perhaps the most accessible game in the collection. Because Move tracks depth as well as left-to-right movement, the player has to reach in to return shots dropped just over the net.

It's also advantageous to move around pinging shots to all angles to open your opponent up before delivering the killer stroke.

Putting spin on the ball is effortless, while mistakes always seem to be the player's fault, not because of the tech. Give a first time player the controller and they'll pick up the gameplay mechanics instantly.

The same intuitive play is one of the features of Disc Golf. Set in the middle of a woodland retreat, the aim is simply to throw your frisbee towards the target in the fewest throws possible.

Hazards such as trees, shrubs, rocks and stretches of water do their best to impede your progress, but with a flick and a change of trajectory it's possible to pull off spectacular tricks.

Gladiator Duel is the only non sport in the game and takes the player away from the clean-cut comfort of the table tennis gym and idyllic Hawaiian beach volleyball setting and plonks them in the middle of a coliseum to do battle.

Again, while this event controls adequately with one Move controller, two definitely makes the experience more fun. One hand is used to hold your weapon, while the other controller utilises your shield. Blocking your opponent's thrusts before countering with a series of swift attacks is incredibly satisfying.

Prolonged play exposes the events weaknesses, however. Trying to go in for the kill too quickly sometimes results in a series of fresh air swipes. Sadly, even when the player makes contact with their opponent, the attacks can often feel weak.

Still, as a proof of concept, Gladiator Duel succeeds. It's hard not to think of an Oblivion-type adventure with this type of control scheme woven in.

Finally we have Bocce - the wildcard of the bunch. It's a simple variant on petanque, where the aim is to get your ball as close to the pallino - or jack - as possible.

What makes Bocce stand out from the crowd is the various ways you can manipulate the ball. A simple upwards flick lobs it down the play area, but it is also possible to roll it towards the pallino by stooping and gently releasing the trigger. Again, with a simple flick of the wrist, spin can be added. It's a great little game and is perfect to play when you have a few mates round.

Added longevity to the package comes from the game's multiplayer modes, while the single player events have bronze, silver and gold cup competitions to work through.

While all the events offer varying degrees of entertainment, it's the Move controller which is the star of the show. Not only is it incredibly accurate, but the slight pop when returning a ball in table tennis or the rumble which accompanies a bash to your shield in Gladiator Duel gives the player tangible feedback to the on-screen action.

Sports Champions also serves as a great introduction to Move and gives an indication of what Sony's new hardware can do. Definitely the best game in Move's launch line up and a must buy if you plan on picking up Sony's new controller.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Games Media Award nomination

I am thrilled to tell you that I was nominated for a Games Media Award earlier today. I've made the shortlist for Regional Games Columnist for my weekly games column in the Scottish Daily Record.

This blog is a small aside from my main job - a place where I can write about games which interest me, away from some - but not all - of the more mainstream titles I review for the paper.

I'm absolutely delighted that my weekly ramblings have been deemed worthy of a place at the awards bash in October, and no matter what transpires on the night, this is a tremendous honour for me.

I'd also like to say well done to all the other nominees, and I would just like to wish everyone all the very best.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty - PC/Mac

Real-time strategy games are something of an acquired taste, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of gamers going nuts for Blizzard’s StarCraft II.

The original title has long been hailed as a perfectly balanced example of the genre, while the game is still incredibly popular in South Korea.

There, multiplayer face-offs are televised, while thousands cram into arenas to watch the top professional players grind out epic matches for huge cash prizes. So the sequel has a job on its hands if it hopes to usurp its 12 year old sibling.

Thankfully, the team at Blizzard have dissected the original, tinkered with the game mechanics, overhauled the visuals, lengthened the story mode and integrated their system for a near flawless multiplayer experience.

StarCraft II features three races: Terran; mech-suited humans with access to a hefty arsenal; Protoss, an alien species with telekinetic powers; and the Zerg, multi-limbed, fast-moving abominations.

Much like the original, the core gameplay revolves around gathering materials to construct buildings and units, before dispatching them in waves to conquer rivals or complete set objectives.

But much like a game of chess, there is an incredible amount of depth to StarCraft II. The sheer amount of units and tactics at the player’s disposal ensures that no two matches play out the same way.

The single-player campaign mode is perfectly pitched to cater for new players and rusty old veterans of the series. Taking the perspective from the Terran side – the Protoss and Zerg campaigns will be sold separately at a later date – you command Jim Raynor, a freedom fighter who is drawn ever deeper into an all-encompassing galactic war.

The missions are well-balanced, each sliver of action introducing the player to new units and combat tactics. Whether your defending a convoy of civilians, sneaking in to swipe an alien artifact, repelling Protoss forces to steal their precious gas supplies, or simply going gung-ho against the nippy Zerg, each chapter mixes up the objectives to keep the player on their toes.

The storyline might be a little on the weak side - complete with cheese-laden lines and gruff meathead marines - but the way the yarn has been presented is near flawless.

Between missions, players can interact with various locations on board Raynor’s ship, the Hyperion. Along with researching unit upgrades and hiring mercenaries, the player can play previously completed missions and talk to key members of the team – there’s even a tasty top-down space shooter to play in the corner of the cantina.

While this mode is polished entertainment, StarCraft II’s main draw is its multiplayer. A range of options and modes are open to the player. From delicately balanced one-one-one encounters, to four player skirmishes, hundreds of hours can be ploughed into the game.

While each of the three races is radically different, all are well balanced to ensure fair play across the board. Although you may stumble across a seemingly unbeatable strategy against a friend, you’ll find those same attacks thrown back in your face by another player. Mixing strategies up and having a few key plays up your sleeve always pays off.

Beginner maps are constructed to ease first-time players into the action, and although the online experience can be daunting, these are a blast to play. Be prepared to lose a lot, though, as StarCraft II is a game where practice makes perfect.

To get to grips with the multiplayer modes, Blizzard have included Challenge scenarios. These detail troop movements, hot-keys and basic strategies to get you on your way and should be played before jumping online.

Blizzard’s mantra of easy to learn, but difficult to master has been adhered to, making the game utterly addictive. I found whole evenings slipping away as I experimented with tactics and mixed up unit sets.

Multiplayer match-making plays a vital role, with Blizzard’s service used to find your online mates and personalise your StarCraft experience. Scores of built-in achievement points can be displayed for the world to see, while 90 personal profile pictures can be unlocked by completing a range of varying objectives.

However, this range of customisation comes at a price. You have to be online to play StarCraft II, even if you only intend to play the single player campaign. While the majority of gamers will be already be online enabled, it’s a strange decision to make it a mandatory requirement.

However, for the multiplayer focus, does a sterling job holding the various elements together. Finding friends is a piece of cake, while the transition into the skirmishes is smooth and hassle free.

Believe the hype. StarCraft II is one of the finest titles available on PC. Polished and bulging with enough content to last for years, it’s an absolute triumph.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Under The Garden - PC

I've been playing Paul Greasley's Under The Garden for most of the evening and it's superb. The game is set in a harsh, unpredictable outdoor environment, and the goal is to survive for as many days as you can. You can cut down trees for lumber to make fires, hunt animals for their meat, mine rocks for useful items and rebuild your small cabin in the heart of the countryside.

When you're out and about scavenging for useful items to help you survive, your stamina bar slowly drains, but when the weather is particularly bad, it drops at an alarming rate. However, standing next to a fire restores lost stamina, and exploring the wilderness while leaving yourself enough time to get home is a delicate balancing act.

Under the Garden has a wonderful atmosphere thanks to its stylised visuals and beautiful soundtrack, which tinkles away in the background as you desperately try to last for one more day. The game is free to download, and you can get it from here

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies - DS

Along with Monster Hunter and Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest is one of the biggest franchises in Japan. The games date back to 1986, when the first title made its debut on Nintendo’s NES system. However, the series has only become truly international over the course of the last few years.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King arrived on PS2 in 2006, while Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (2008) and Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (2009) were remade for the DS, helping to introduce European audiences to the series for the first time.

While some elements in this ninth instalment are still firmly rooted in the dark days of ancient role playing games, developer Level 5 have streamlined the experience making it easily the most accessible game in the long-running series.

You take on the role of a fallen angel, whose wings have been clipped by a dark and mysterious power. Regaining consciousness on terra firma, your character finds his halo and wings gone, and sets out on a mission to help others in the hope his angelic aura will return.

While the central tale throws up traditional dungeon crawls and end of level bosses, the player is generally free to explore and take on dozens of sidequests. And you’ll want to explore every inch of the land, as not only does exploration throw up delightful surprises, but the quality of the whimsical script is rather special.

There’s a strong emphasis on character design, and the localisation team have done a sterling job in bringing each of the main figures’ personalities to the fore. The range of regional dialects shines through, and Scottish players will take great delight in reading through some of the Tartan-tinged dialogue.

The game caters for four-player co-op, but unfortunately it is only for local play, not a full online experience. However, solo players need not worry, as three other computer controlled comrades can be recruited - each one adding strength and tactical nous to the battles.

Standard classes such as warrior, mage and priest are available from the start, but later in the game, these can be swapped, mixed and changed to give you band of adventurers a unique flavour.

Each story along the course of the main quest is beautifully presented, every one throwing up new and unique situations. Reuniting a knight with his true love, curing a small village from a deadly plague, and encouraging a fishing community back into work are just some of the tasks woven into the game.

There’s a fair amount of sadness peppered throughout, too, which belies the sugar-coated presentation. The monsters who inhabit the world are a colourful bunch, and their vivid and expressive style is a far cry from Final Fantasy’s poe-faced adversaries. Creatures might have kid friendly names such as Badger Mager, Mummy Boy, Knocktopus and Ragin’ Contagion but they’re no pushovers.

Mixing up party attacks is key, but it’s this area which is a a bit disappointing. While the game does away with random encounters, there is no way of knowing which party member will strike next. This leads to unavoidable deaths, which is incredibly frustrating as it’s a problem which could have been easily rectified. Still, with a bit of forward planning and approaching boss encounters cautiously, success is well within reach.

One of the game’s trump cards lies in the way every weapon and piece of armour is visually represented on your character. This gives the game a Diablo/World of Warcraft feel and with hundreds of items in the game, and an online store, everyone will be able to create their own unique look.

Another great addition is the inclusion of the crafting system. Gathering ingredients on your travels is worthwhile as they can be combined with other objects to make new weapons, armour and items. This part alone will occupy you for hours and it’s another nod to online games such as World of Warcraft.

Dragon Quest IX is a truly wonderful game, and the best role playing game I’ve played in years. It oozes charm, looks and sounds fantastic, and has been perfectly tailored to suit Nintendo’s hand-held system. One of the most magical experiences on the DS and a contender for game of the year.