Saturday, October 31, 2009

Forza Motorsport 3 First Impressions

I recently got Forza Motorsport 3 for the Xbox 360. As it is a racing game, I am completely hooked and will be for some hours to come, so you might well say my impressions are highly positive. However, while the game makes a few significant improvements over Forza 2, the game is far from perfect.

The biggest improvement is probably the calendar. While they seem to have misunderstood some of the things I was talking about when I said I wanted a calendar, it solves one of the massive problems with Forza 2: the whole single player feeling like a giant grind. Because of the calendar format, the game accepts failure and encourages you to keep going on regardless. No longer are you stuck on the same races to try and unlock some other ones, it doesn't matter how well you do, the game will give you more races in different cars and different tracks.

The other really big improvement is the track variation. There is a huge variety in the tracks, from windy villages set in stunning vistas to high speed circular race rings and everything in between. There are even point to point tracks up steep mountains. This is a huge step up from Forza 2 where the track set felt very restricted: either go in a dull looking track, or a dull-to-drive track.

The visual improvements are noticeable on the cars and on the tracks, but there are still a few areas that really grate the eye, such as the audience. However, the biggest problem is the loading screens. Is that really the price I have to pay for the amazing looking tracks, and isn't there some sort of compromise?

The multiplayer also feels a bit like two steps forward one step back. It is considerably easier to get in to a decent and competitive game. However, they seem to have stripped some of the features that made the multiplayer in Forza 2 so compelling such as tournaments and pink slip racing (where you bet a car on the outcome of the race).

There are numerous other gripes I could make such as the lack of dynamic weather, the misleading number of tracks (most of them are just sections of other tracks), the rewind feature - which I plan to write more about soon, still not being able to do split screen online and a poor music set list. However, it is a fantastic racing game simply because the people at Turn 10 have got the racing feel down to an absolute tee. Even with the rewind, races are incredibly tense experiences where you really feel like the slightest mistake could send you spinning.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Drawn to Life - The Next Chapter [Wii]

Drawn to Life is a platformer with a drawing mechanic that appears both in light puzzles and in decorating your world. The game draws (no pun intended) on a number of other games including flash mini-games you could find on Miniclip. However, I feel that the combination provides an enjoyable and varied single player experience.

The platforming is, on the whole, good. I could gripe about the controls, which don't feel quite as right as Mario. However, the game makes up for it with nice level design that provides a couple of new platform elements mixed in. One of my favourite bits was when you were trying to get down through a maze of trampolines that bounced you up whenever you touched them and you had to use your wings to glide you through. It put a different spin on a mechanic you had been using for the past few levels.

In the game you are invited to draw a number of things. These can be either puzzle elements or elements of the game world. Drawing parts of the world is quite a nice gimmick and makes the world feel your own with your wacky flowers and your bizarre spiders. However, each time you want to draw something, you must sit through a loading screen which really slows down the pace of the game.

You must also draw things to solve puzzles. You won't be stuck on any one of the puzzle for long and quite often they can be beaten using a brute force approach. However, they are quite rewarding. When you draw in to the world, your drawings take on properties based on where you have drawn them. For example, there is one colour where what you draw obeys the laws of physics so you must first build foundations for whatever you need. As I said, they aren't real head scratchers and a lot of the challenge is in the execution but they are still fun.

The game also has some vehicle sequences which are silly but highly entertaining. They require no thinking and minimal skill but they are an absolute blast to play them and provide variation from the platforming.

The single player is respectably long, coming in at about 10 hours. Each level is surprisingly long, normally about 20 minutes. This means that you will feel like you are exploring them. The drawback is, at that length, you never really feel compelled to try and beat your fastest time for them, which reduces the replayability. Each level has loads of coins hidden throughout them and some can be really challenging to get. However, the game doesn't distinguish between the really hard coins and ones that were simply on your path, which means there is no real satisfaction is collecting them.

The game does feature some multiplayer, however it is not worth the time it takes to load. It features 3 almost identical minigames with finicky controls and no replayability. It is a shame the game does not have any co-op, even if it was more like Super Mario Galaxy's as it means the game has virtually no replayability.

Technically this game is acceptable. The long loading screens are a massive pain, and the games graphics aren't going to blow you away. However, it integrates your artwork in to the game well. Sometimes things are a little small and lack the contrast required to make them easily noticeable. The drawing tools are fairly easy to use - even if some of the buttons are a bit small - and provide plenty of options. If you are a perfectionist, there are some things which you will irritate you like not being able to draw a perfect circle.

Overall, this is a really nice game. The lack of decent multiplayer is quite a considerable floor, but the mixture of platforming, puzzle solving and car driving makes for an enjoyable single player that will entertain and challenge most age ranges. The technical floors are a pain, but it is a quality title in many other respects that they can be overlooked.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Civilization: Facebook

It has been announced today, that a persistent version of my favourite game, Civilization, will be coming to Facebook. Without a shadow of a doubt this may be the most dangerous combination ever known to man. While I am not a Facebook user, social networking sites are super addictive, and we all know the powers of Civilization. I expect to see this game banned in many countries under the drug regulations act.

In all seriousness, I am always unsure about persistent games, but if any game is going to turn me one way or anther, it will be Civilization. I cannot wait and will certainly be signing up for the beta.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Halo 3: ODST

As many of my readers will well know, I regard Halo 3 as the perfect console first person shooter. It certainly isn't my favorite game, but that is merely a matter of preference. It does everything so well, from a fantastic to single player to an easy to use, pick-up-and-play multi-player with incredible depth. I could go on. However, this review is about ODST, the half game built off Halo 3. It, regrettably, is not anywhere near as good.

Halo 3:ODST has 3 main components: the campaign, Firefight mode - a co-op mode similar to Horde, and Halo 3 multiplayer with three new maps. You will get all this and the Reach beta for £35.

The campaign was advertised to be a new way of playing Halo 3. Bungie promised a dark story delivered in a novel way, more tactical game play and gritty characters. However, the campaign is dull, short and, particularly near the end, highly repetitive.

You play the part of "The Rookie" a voiceless, faceless entity who walks around a miserable and absurdly dark (in the literal sense) city finding random clues which transport you back to your other, less likeable but equally flat, squad mates. These missions are very much traditional Halo in style except the combat does not seem as fun.

As you have far less health, you cannot simply charge in a-la Halo. However, instead of making the combat more tactical, it simply makes it less enjoyable. It becomes a grind as you take out one enemy at a time, wait for your energy to recharge then take out the next.

The game often feels like it is having an identity crisis. It wants to try and be a more tactical slow paced shooter, which the combat system doesn't seem to support. The permanent health simply does not work with the auto-save system. If you have an auto save that leaves you with no health, and there are no health kits about (or worse, you have to protect some thing which is driving away from you), you are stuck.

The campaign has numerous other problems, ranging from a broken co-op respawn system in one level to copy-and-paste level design towards the end. However, for me, the fundamental issue is it never gets exciting. Everyone remembers the Covenant level in Halo 3 when you had to take down two scarabs, everyone remembers the Hornet sequence, the tank sequence and everyone remembers the end of the last level driving off the exploding Halo ring in a Warthog. There were loads of points were you heart was racing with the whole experience.

There are no such points in ODST. The only "" moment was when you blow up a bridge, and even that was decidedly underwhelming. This is epitomized by the closing sequence - killing the same old enemies that you have been killing for the past 8 years. You find yourself willing it to be over, despite the campaign coming in at under 8 hours. You have to fight off not 1, not 2, not even 3 but 4 ship loads (and checkpoints aren't guaranteed between any of them) of covenant before you can finally close the damn thing.

The whole game is over mercifully quickly, but with an unacceptably large proportion of your time walking round the city and getting lost as you must navigate with a stupid 3D map in a world which is so dark that even your night vision has trouble in some areas.

The one good thing I can honestly say is, when you are able to turn your night vision off, the sky is absolutely amazing. In fact, a lot of the environments are some of the best in Halo yet. The city environment is one that is underused in Halo universe and the game portrays an excellent sense of post-invasion desolation

So once you have finished the campaign you can play Firefight; a cooperative mode for up to 4 players fighting endless waves of Covenant. You actually have to unlock some of the levels, which is very un-Bungie like. This mode is really good. Not because Bungie have done anything to help themselves, simply because Halo combat is fun. It's OK on your own but the multiplayer is intense. Vehicles, tons of grenades and a wide variety of enemies really set this Horde copy cat apart from Horde et al.

So it is a real shame that it has some really basic problems. Things like no saving/continuing mean that each time you must go from the start. Given that to get a half decent score requires about 1 and a half hours, it is as much an endurance challenge as a skill challenge to get far. There are a few pet wishes I have - Forge, play as Master Chief, choosing weapons and skull settings - which are a nuisannce, and most of them are things that Bungie normally do really well. However, by the far the most annoying (and the thing that Bungie is best at) is Matchmaking. The game gets really good with 2 people and the fun just increases as you add more people. However, I don't know 4 people with ODST, let alone have 4 people who are all on at the same time to play Firefight for a couple of hours. I do not know what was going through Bungies mind when they decided to not include Matchmaking for a mode that so obviously needs it.

Which leaves us with the final element; 3 new maps plus all the maps released via Xbox Live Marketplace since Halo 3s launch. If you don't have any of the maps, this is fantastic, but for me, it is 3 maps that are, well, fine. They are Halo maps, they don't stand out as awesome maps like Avalanche or Sandbox, but they were perfectly enjoyable to play on.

Maybe I am being harsh on this game because it is Halo, if it was any other game, maybe I would be pleased. But given that they want a full price for a game where they already had the engine and have been sitting on for 6 months, I think I am being perfectly fair.

If you own Halo 3 and all the maps, this game is simply not worth £35 or even £25. You (and I) can hope they release the maps and Firefight as DLC for ~£15. If you don't own any of the maps, then you should certainly consider it; but only if you plan to use the maps. If you don't own Halo 3 (*shock*), then get Halo 3 because the campaign really is a lot better and there are plenty of maps to be getting started with there. Bungie, I am disappointed.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hearts of Iron 3

When I wrote my first impressions for Hearts of Iron 3 a couple of weeks ago, I didn't sound very pleased with the game. Which is a first when it comes to new games. Normally I start liking it then go off them when I realise a couple of days later that actually it is boring and repetitive.

In truth, my negative impressions didn't disappear the day after I wrote that. Hardly a time went by without me cursing the game numerous times. Playing it became a chore. I only persisted for three reasons:

  1. Troy Goodfellow, a reviewer I respect greatly, said it was good
  2. The concept filled me with a buzz, I wanted to be a commander in a massive theatre of war
  3. I had spent money on it, I wasn't about to chuck it away
However, as you may have guessed, I am now thoroughly in to the game. It is far from perfect, and there are still plenty of elements I curse for just being so stupidly convoluted. However, I now feel comfortable that I am playing it right, and hence write a review.

However, I won't be attaching my normal scoring system to this review like I do with every other game I have ever reviewed. The reason is simple, the score will be completely different depending on who you are. I am not going to lie to you, if the concept of the game does not fill you with excitement you will never get in to the game. Even if it does, you will still need a large amount of patience. Even then, the game is far from perfect. For this reason, I shall not give the game a score. For some of you, it would be an 8.5 whilst for others it would be a 0.

As I have said, the game has numerous flaws. These range from frustrating glitches, poor memory management (the game will lag, unless you are running some kind of super computer, I have 4GB of RAM, which should be more than enough), and plenty of user interface floors.

Getting an overview of what is going on is nearly impossible. The game does a poor job of choosing what information you need to see (like provinces being taken) and what is utterly irrelevant (like minor research developments). You have to manually choose what information you want displayed and how, which simply isn't practical. When you are going through the game for the first time, you don't know what will be important. However, you neither want to be overwhelmed or missing out on key bits of information. I felt both of these as getting in to Hearts of Iron.

They have implemented a fantastic system to break down your troops in to divisions and then companies then brigades, but offer no group selection other than drag and drop, meaning that divisions serve no practical purpose. They also allow you to put theatres or divisions under control of generals. However, it is neither obvious how you do it, nor is it clear if there are disadvantages for using less talented generals.

You start the game with numerous units, but the game lacks a clear overview screen so you must spend the first 45 minutes of any game going through all your units so you have a clear idea of what you have and where they are. I found that unless you are prepared to micromanage everything, your units will not be organised in to any kind of hierarchy and you will simply move

The game gives you control over loads of things, but each screen is overwhelming when you first look at it, with only the ever tempting "Give AI Control" element making sense! Fortunatley, the most important screen, the production screen, where you choose what to build, is fairly intuitive and helpful tool-tips clear up any confusion. However, one of your tasks is to split your resources between various different things through sliders. However, between a bug that means they reset every 5 seconds if you don't close the screen or pause the game, and the fact that there is simply not enough options for controlling them (for example, I want to be able to set some of them to track their minimum value) it becomes a frustrating balancing act, and takes you away from the fun of the game.

Despite all that, once you understand what is going on, the game is fun. Managing your troops and conquering the world is great, once you have got over the oddities of simple things like selecting and transporting troops etc. Because the game models things like supply routes, you have so much more freedom when it comes to strategies. Doing things like encircling your enemy as they run out of supplies make you feel like a real war general. And when the enemy does the same to you, dropping in supplies by plane or using the last of your troops supplies to make a mad dash to re-establish routes creates a real sense of war that no game I have ever played has managed. The World War 2 feel is captured perfectly and the boxes that look like you would find on a generals map help the war aesthetic.

So in short, a really interesting grand strategy game hides behind numerous problems that means this game is going to be a big time investment to get in to. Frustratingly obvious things that seem so simple to fix really detract from the whole experience, even after you have got in to it. As I said at the beginning, you will only get past the huge learning curve if you really want to. If you want a light grand strategy game with immediate rewards, play something like Sins of a Solar Empire, which is much more instantly gratifying. However, if thinking about managing supply lines, moving vast armies and playing the diplomatic game in the epic setting of World War 2 fills you with excitement, then there is a really interesting, deep and rewarding game here.

It it worth noting that the manual is particularly useful and, at time of publication, the game is not cheaper on Steam than at retail shops. As such, if you are going to get it, I strongly recommend purchasing it in real life. I am hopefully going to write a very short noobs guide to getting in to Hears of Iron 3 over the next week.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Peter Molyenux Interview - Fable 3 to use Natal

Peter Molyenux has given an interview (which you can view here, first 30 seconds or so in Dutch, but the interview is in English)

Among other things, Molyenux states that, while Fable 3 will use a standard Xbox 360 controller, it will also make some use of Natal, Microsoft's forthcoming camera controller. As I said when Fable 3 was originally announced, I think the Natal element will be in communication. I think it is clear from their work with Milo that Lionhead believe they can make some sort of communication model work in Natal. Also, given that Fable 3 requires you to start a revolution and run a country, talking to people could be central to the actual gameplay. You only have to look at real politics and see that charm and good public speaking skills can be more important than actual policy.

Obviously, Fable 3 is still some time away, and Peter does have a tendency to promise things which don't wind up in the game. None the less, I am already excited about this release.

"All your base are belong to us"