Monday, 18 November 2013

Killer Is Dead Review

   This generation we have seen a good many franchises and series take a firm foothold and become hugely successful, so much so that sequels have become a common order of the day. We have seen new IP in the form of Gears of War and Uncharted trilogy’s, both becoming hugely successful and significantly raising the bar in standards for each respective genre they’re in. We have also seen series from the previous generation such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo and Killzone all go from modest success to global dominance, while other series like Tomb Raider, Medal of Honor and Resident Evil have had to fight it out to stay relevant and fresh with varying degrees of success.

   Fortunately there are still plenty of original and down right quirky games being released, more so than the amount of sequels filling shelves this generation if only gamers would dare dig each consoles library a little deeper. So at the tail end of the longest console generation on record, and at the twilight of a new one set to be even longer, ask yourself whether you’re satisfied that you have played and experienced all this generation has to offer before moving onto the next? Bored and choked with disinterest with the same old sequels, are you sure there aren’t any other types of games and genres left to discover and tap into from this generation, before spending in excess of £400 on the next to try and fill your waning interest?

   Well here is a suggestion, try playing Killer Is Dead as it might just put a smile on your face and more than likely result in a raised eyebrow or two, as its unique over-saturated cell shaded look and sheer quirkiness will keep you going back for more. This is a game set in a familiar genre (hack-n-slash,) that happens to be less hardcore combo heavy in its gameplay than say Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but rather more easily accessible to a wider audience without falling into the trap of being mind numbingly boring and hemmed in by genre constraints. While other games in the genre like the aforementioned are extremely over-the-top flamboyant and exuberant in their gameplay elements, relying on multiple combos and quick time events in dramatic succession to pummel and pound enemies into submission, Killer Is Dead is more reserved in that respect. While this game does have its combos, they are simple and nowhere near the extreme as other games, as the gameplay in this game is fashioned more towards block, avoid and counter attack to fend off multiple enemies, dance around them, and hit their weak spot to take them out as quick as possible. But rest assured that Killer Is Dead is just as action packed and bloody as any other game in the genre as enemies get dispensed and impaled on your characters katana.

   This reserved approach to the gameplay transfers to the upgrade system in the game to as its all kept simple and minimalistic in its approach. Your Characters Health and Blood gauge (the latter used when replenishing health or using the arm weapon) are upgraded automatically as you work your way through the game, while the upgrade menu allows you to buy or upgrade certain abilities. Upgrades and gauge replenishment come from crystals and gems emitted from dead enemies and destructible scenery, Moon Crystals are collected and used as currency to buy upgrades while Blood Roses and Health Gems will slowly increase the blood and health gauge.

   The game is split into four different game types for you to choose from on the world map which acts as the mission menu screen; these are the main story missions, sub (side) missions, gigolo and challenge missions. The main story is 12 acts long and probably lasts somewhere between 8-10 hours long if that, but when you add all the other different missions to choose from it can far exceed this in length. Sub missions are off-shoots from the main story though not necessarily related to it; they become unlocked and are set in an area of the game you have just completed. Sub missions all tend to vary from one another, some are very small story’s unto themselves, others mere challenges such as fighting through an area within a certain amount of time or finding various hidden items throughout a level. Scarlett, a Nurse in a skimpy revealing outfit holding a giant syringe can be found hiding somewhere within a level of each act of the main story, finding her will not only rejuvenate your characters health and blood gauge, but unlock various challenges. These challenges take part in an arena where you will have to meet certain criteria to win such as defeating only one type of enemy out of a swarm or killing a certain number within a time limit and so on. Finally gigolo missions are basically where your character meets up with various women he has met during the story and it is your job seduce them to receive a reward. This is achieved by staring at various parts of a woman’s body like her cleavage for example, the longer you stare without her catching you, the more points you acquire to fill a gauge. Once the meter is filled you can offer her a present (bought from the gift shop,) and you will receive more points towards another gauge depending on how much she likes the gift, fill this second gauge up and you have successfully seduced your lady. Honestly I’m not making this up; it really is in the game!

   In Killer Is Dead you take control of Mondo Zappa, a suave and sophisticated ladies man who is as sharp with a katana as he is with his one liners. He is part of a state sanctioned executioner’s office run by Bryan and Vivienne who take on contracts to hunt down and execute various monsters and creatures that have begun to inhabit Earth and the moon. The story, the way in which it is presented to the player and the style of it for that matter is quite different to your conventional game, its nothing new by any means, but certainly one some will like while others will not. The story will not be altogether clear at the start of the game, sometimes confusing even especially at the beginning as you try to wrap your head around the sheer quirkiness of it all. But this distinctly Japanese story becomes clearer the further through it you progress, as it slowly unravels and opens up with each mission the less perplexed you will be with a firmer grasp of the bigger picture.

   Grasshopper Manufacture (Suda 51) has done a great job with this game and don’t let anyone persuade you any different, as this game is just as good in its own right as any other game from this company. If you have played any other recent Suda 51 games such as No More Heroes or Lollypop Chainsaw then you should know just what to expect (or not to expect) here, and if you enjoyed them then you should enjoy Killer Is Dead. However if you have played a Suda 51 game before and ended up not liking it for one reason or another then there is a strong chance you wont like this game. What I like about Killer Is Dead is that they chose to make a hack-n-slash game without the pomp found in other games of the genre, with gameplay focused on avoid, defend and attack rather than constant super combos. By taking this direction in the gameplay they have managed to make the game stand out and stand tall on its own merits rather than following the same tried and tested formula and becoming lost in the genre. Yet the game hasn’t lost out, it packs a punch just as much as Bayonetta does with crazy bosses and swarms of enemies, Killer Is Dead just follows a more subtle yet quirky path with a different approach, this game is without doubt a must have for fans of the genre.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Wii Classic Controller Pro

   With the Wii now being discontinued by Nintendo and the Wii U on store shelves (which is still to hit any kind of stride though there is plenty of time yet,) some may think it a bit odd to be talking about the Wii’s Classic Controller Pro. But with so many great games in the Wii library (yes there are a great many of them,) there will ultimately come a point, at least there did for me anyway, when certain games will come along which will make you carefully consider whether to buy this particular controller or not?

   I like the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and don’t have a problem with using them because as a Wii owner, I know that not all games will make me wave my arms about nonstop all day long. I also believe that they (Wii Remote/Nunchuk) still have great potential as a control method, and when utilised properly they can really add to a game and make the overall gaming experience a whole lot better, the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 is a prime example. Unfortunately we all know that for every game that got the controls right, there are probably two or more that didn’t for one reason or another. One issue with the Wii Remote is that it was never as sensitive or precise enough than Nintendo would have us believe all those years ago, and for some genres it wasn’t the revolutionary control method it should have been. It seemed the Wii Remote, Nunchuk and the first person shooter genre were going to be a match made in heaven, surly this was the perfect control method for such a genre? I still believe it is, or at least it was, if only coders had worked their magic better, and it still could be in the future if the tech was redesigned and beefed up somewhat. But as time has shown, it has never really panned out all that well with the odd exception that is, with many games in the FPS genre feeling as though they had received ported mouse and keyboard controls.

   This is the point where you start lamenting the lack of a second control option (at least I did,) and wished there had of been one right from the very inception of the console itself. Eventually a more traditional controller did appear in the form of the weirdly shaped Classic Controller, and then later with the much better shaped Classic Controller Pro. But the question for any Wii owner is whether it is worth buying one considering how they still seem to hold their price like any coveted Nintendo product? The answer really lies in the number of games you want to play that actually support this controller and whether or not you frequently use a moded Wii for emulation. If there are enough retail, virtual console and WiiWare releases that will outweigh the cost of buying one and you do use the console for emulation, the Classic Controller Pro is essential. Its worth pointing out that any game which supports the Classic Controller also supports the Classic Controller Pro as they are essentially the same product in different shells. 

   As a general controller goes, or a traditional controller in Nintendo’s case, this is in my humble opinion, the best the company has ever produced. I have never been that struck on Nintendo controllers, even when I had a SNES when I was younger, I always preferred to use a third party pad instead of Ninty’s very own. As for their other controllers through the generations, I find the NES pad extremely uncomfortable to hold for any length of time, I didn’t like the feel of the N64 analog stick and found the general design of the GameCube pad just weird. So for me at least, I find the very by-the-numbers design and button layout very comfortable and pleasing, especially when playing a game for several hours.

   The grips sit neatly in the palm of each hand and the shape lets my fingers naturally curl around the top of the pad onto the shoulder buttons while I find the two analog sticks perfectly placed apart for the thumbs. The face buttons are quite large and have a nice pop to them, and thankfully the d-pad is rather large for a Nintendo controller which gets a big thumbs up from me. That’s another complaint I had with the N64 and GameCube controllers, the d-pads on them were tiny and felt just something awful, so I’m very pleased Ninty didn’t do the same on this pad.

   This pad isn’t without its quirks though, and while I understand the reasoning behind them, it would have been nice to have had a pad featuring the rest of the bells-and-whistles we have all generally become accustomed to over the last two generations. This controller is not wireless, so to pass its inputs onto the console it plugs into the bottom of the Wii Remote and piggybacks off its wireless signal. It’s better than plugging the pad into the console and stretching a lead across the room, but annoying all the same as going down this cost cutting route means it also lacks rumble and a built in speaker. I’m sure the mandate behind the Classic Controller Pro was to produce a traditional style controller that would meet the needs of the target consumer it was aimed at, yet be produced for significantly less by stripping its features back to the core basics.

   This controller is well worth getting even if it does feed off the Wii Remote and lack several features, especially if you can find one cheap enough, though they do tend to hold their price. If you plan on playing The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, Call of Duty games or the madcap No More Heroes 2 then you will find this controller a worthwhile investment and hard earned money well spent.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Three Laptop Cooler Reviews

   The UK has finally seen some sun this summer, so much so the country is experiencing a very rare and unusually long heat wave. Anyone wanting to play on their PS3 or 360 can forget it in this weather, unless that is you want to see the systems overheat and melt before your very eyes. But the same can be said of PC’s as well, whether you use them for playing games, surfing the web or other more demanding work, the weather has made computers all over the country break into a sweat and slow, not to mention cause their users to perspire due to the heat emitted from them.

   Unfortunately for laptop/notebook owners, the heat is somewhat of a more dangerous and pressing issue for their systems as they don’t contain anything like the exuberant and luxury driven cooling systems found in a typical PC. The kind of heat the UK has experienced over the past month has perished most peoples will to hit the on button, yet the UK will continue to experience the high temperatures and uncomfortable humidity for some time, making notebook owners like myself having to limit the use of the computer in case of overheating. I personally haven’t had any issues, but I have been keeping a close eye on the systems temperature gauge, and made a conscious decision not to do anything too demanding on the system, especially during the day.

   So since the start of the summer I have been on a quest to find the best laptop cooler for my laptop, I didn’t expect to buy more than one, but I am now currently on my third, so I have decided to write a review of each one and explain along the way why I have gone through several in a short amount of time. But before I continue I will set out the temperature benchmarks of my computer to show you the reader, just how much of a difference these 3 coolers have made if any.

   During winter and spring, before I decided to get a cooler, I would regularly check the temperature of my CPU using my computers monitoring software, what I found was it ran at about 35 degrees while idle, and around 38 running demanding programs such as a video editor or a game. During this summers heat wave (again prior to getting a cooler) my CPU temperature was around 40 degrees while idle, but 45/46 running games or my video editor. 

The first Cooler I Bought 

Belkin Cooler Stand

   This was the cheapest of the three cooling stands that I bought, weighing in at around £14, and designed for 15” laptops, it also just happened to be the most powerful of the three coolers that I bought. With a convex design that allows it to support a laptop from each corner while keeping the space directly underneath empty, and with the fan centred in the middle of the cooler, it allows the cool air to flow underneath and exit either side of the laptop. The Belkin Cooler Stand rests at a slight angle, propped up by a pull-out stand at the back; this is obviously to allow the fan to take in the maximum amount of air rather than from side vents that you see in other cooler designs.

   This cooler made a noticeable difference to the running and idle temperature of my CPU, it managed to shave off at least 3-4 degrees which I was honestly impressed with. The downside is that this cooler was extremely noisy, with it being comparable to how noisy the original model Xbox 360 was, but then the fan was pretty powerful and did a great job at its main task, cooling my laptop, so there is an obvious trade-off here.

   As good as it was at cooling my system, I quickly returned the Belkin Cooler back to the store I bought it from for a refund as I had a few issues with it. Firstly, the cooler did not like running off my laptops USB port, as it kept powering up and down constantly, so I had to power it from the mains using a USB mains adaptor. I’m not really sure if this issue was due to the product being faulty or whether it was down to the powerful fan and it being a case of my laptop couldn’t or wouldn’t supply it with enough power. The second issue I had, although intermittent, was with the fan itself, it was making a horrible grating noise, presumably from the fan coming out of its centre alignment and scraping the sides of its enclosure.

   I was disappointed that this product was faulty and that I had to return it as it did a great job of cooling my laptop. A 3-4 degree reduction in CPU heat might not sound like a great deal, but for an external cooling device, and one where the fan wasn’t positioned over my systems hotspots, is more than any user could hope for. I would still recommend this cooler though, and if the fan noise is not a big deal breaker for you, then its cooling effectiveness coupled with its cheap price could be a sure fire winner for you. 

The Second Cooler I bought 

Belkin V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge

   This cooling solution was slightly more expensive than the previous Belkin cooling stand at around £20, but has turned out to be the most used and reliable of the bunch thus far. Its not technically a cooling stand as such that’s meant to sit on a desk, but is designed to be more of a lap table that also features a fan cooling system. It is designed pretty much the same as the Belkin Cooling Stand, it has the same shape and form factor, allowing your system to sit on a bed of air, and it is perfectly sized for 15” laptops. The V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge differs in that while the top of the device is plastic, the underneath is cushioned to make it comfortable to rest on your legs.

   I wasn’t aware it was cushioned when I bought it, or that it was meant as a lap desk rather than a proper cooling stand, but I had paid for it so I wasn’t deterred and was willing to give it a go. It quickly became apparent however that there was a significant flaw in the design of this Cooling Lounge, one I find hard to understand how the designers failed to spot. At the back of this device there is a vent system running along the length of the unit, and this is supposedly where the centrally placed fan is meant to draw its air from, or a certain portion of its air. The problem is, as it’s a lap desk, there is a good chance that the fan will be obstructed underneath the Cooling Lounge from resting on a persons lap, which means the fan is starved of air and cant draw a sufficient amount of air through the vent at the back to make the fan effective at cooling, which defeats the point in putting a fan in there in the first place. So as you can imagine, using this resting on a desk to cool my laptop would be pointless, but I found a way to get around this little problem by resting the back of the device on a book to prop it up at an angle, and thus allowing the fan to breath and become effective at cooling again.

   The fan in this cooler is only half as powerful as the one in the previous stand, but it did at least have a noticeable effect on the temperature, but I only noticed a drop of a few degrees. It’s not anything amazing, but during a heat wave such a small drop is more than welcomed, and I guess the fact that you can use this as a comfortable lap desk is an added bonus.

   I have been using the Belkin V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge an awful lot, and once I propped it up I was more than satisfied with the performance of it. But although I like this cooler and haven’t experienced any problems with it, I cant say that it is one that I would necessarily recommend as a cooling solution to be placed on a desk, but I would recommend it if your after a lap desk though. 

The Final Cooler I Bought 

Cooler Master NotePal U3

   Firstly there are two versions of this cooler you should be aware of: the U3 which I’m reviewing here and the previous iteration the U2, the only difference between the two are the amount of fans they come with, the U2 having two and the U3 having three (more on the U2 later.)

   The U2/U3 NotePal design is a pure stroke of genius, there’s no two ways about it, and it makes me wonder if there could ever be a better designed external laptop cooler. The NotePal design is simple, minimalistic and for the most part well thought out, and with the U3 being the most expensive of the three laptop coolers that I have bought at £30, it is (thankfully) sturdy and really well made as it feels weighty and expensive rather than a cheap piece of imported plastic.

   The idea behind this cooler is that it comes with three movable fans, so the user can place each fan under a hotspot or vent on their specific laptop, which in turn helps to cool the system better than other coolers on the market that generally have centrally located fans. Each fan is held within a plastic bracket, and it is the bracket that clips onto the underneath of the NotePal’s aluminium mesh stand. All the fans can be removed from the brackets which is handy, especially where this cooler is concerned, and all three are connected to a fan speed controller that also doubles as the USB power plug. The U3s box says it supports laptops from 17” up to 19” and it is certainly the largest of the three coolers that I have bought, but I found it was fine for supporting my 15” laptop as the rubber pad at the bottom of the stand, coupled with my computers rubber feet, easily stopped it from moving anywhere.

   So you would think that with such a winning design that this cooler would be without a doubt the best of the three and a sure fire winner, well you’d be wrong. This cooler certainly ticks all the right boxes, but than manages to mess everything up in a crucial element of its makeup that would make it all work great. That element is the fans, which frankly are just really crap, they might be whisper quiet, but what good is that when they are significantly underpowered. I’m not sure if they are lacking the power they need to run at their true full speed, or whether they are funning at full speed and are just a rubbish choice of fans to use with this cooler. Adding a speed adjuster to these fans was silly because at maximum speed the fans barely draw enough air through them to move a thread of hair, and when set to minimum speed they are utterly pointless, as you would be more likely to feel a gentle breeze in space than from all three fans combined on this setting. Just how these poor quality fans made it into this unit that has such a great design is beyond me, as from the testing I did with this cooler it made absolutely no difference to the temperature of my laptop with the fans positioned under two hotspots and a vent. In fact my computer ran hotter during the heat wave so I quickly switched back to the trusty Belkin Cooling Lounge, so as you can imagine, this cooler was a real disappointment for me and the least used of all three.

   As it stands I can’t really say I would recommend this cooler, purely on the basis that the key components that are imperative to make it work (the three fans) are useless, so no matter how good the design of this cooler is, its pointless and a waste of money right out of the box. There is a saving grace to this system though, but only if you are prepared to spend another £20-£30, this systems potential can at least be salvaged. Because the fans can detach from the plastic brackets that hold them onto the stand, you can buy your own faster more powerful and effective fans rather cheaply off EBay or Amazon and either try rewiring them up to the NotePals speed controller, or buy a separate speed controller altogether. The other option is to try buying the U2 version of this cooler as I have read in a few places that the fans in that particular model are much better than the ones in the U3, but I have no way of verifying this so buy at your own risk.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Xbox 180

   The recent 180 that Microsoft has done regarding its restrictive Xbox One console features and policies has taken many by surprise, not only because no one (including myself) believed they would revise their standpoint, but simply because they seemed to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or budge on the matter in the face of overwhelming opposition and anger. But under pressure, and facing commercial annihilation, Microsoft finally relented and dropped their very controversial restrictions they had so vehemently defended over the past several weeks.

   Gone are the restrictions placed on lending/selling/trading your games, where games were tied to an account and nothing more than pay-to-play licences. Now consumer ownership seems to be restored, leaving consumers to do with their games what they wish, as the system for game ownership and used games will work as it does currently. Gone is the dreaded 24h mandatory software validation, as the console no longer needs the internet to function, though an internet connection is required upon first time setup of the Xbox One console, swings and roundabouts people! The region locking has also gone up in smoke as the console will be region free, good news for importers, that’s if there is anything worth importing on the system that is.

   While this story has a good ending in that gamers have brought about a good meaningful change, just like in the case of the Mass Effect 3 ending, for Microsoft at least, it was a simple business decision born out by simple financial fact: if they didn’t drop the console restrictions and recant, the Xbox One would turn into a financial disaster, one that would only add to the Windows 8 debacle. Microsoft still want to block used games, have an always on machine and have a controlled eco system, but seeing how little pre-orders were being placed for their console, and little interest in it outside of the controversy, they had little choice but to change tack.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Microsoft’s Xbox One: Army of None

   Cast your minds back folks to the launch of the Xbox 360, it had a spectacular launch with a bunch of great games. It sold well, and it would go on to do very well over the years, even in the face of the RROD debacle, with many gamers considering their gaming experience on the console so good, they would part with their hard earned cash for a second, third and umpteenth 360 after the one previous overheated and died. Though some publishers have been sadly doing their uttermost to sour that great experience in the latter half of the consoles lifespan, with all kinds of malign practises to bleed wallets dry from what were (up until that point at least) loyal customers. It’s a shame that Microsoft (MS) has had such a hands off approach to these practises been implemented through software on its platform, when discontent about such things have been growing since their inception into the marketplace. But then after recent events surrounding MS Xbox One, a hands off approach was probably for the best when all’s said and done.

   Anyone thinking that MS has all of a sudden dropped the ball with its new console is much mistaken, for in the hallowed halls deep within the company, all has not been well for a long time, the ball was proverbally dropped many moons ago. To see just where they went awry you have to look at the Xbox 360 and a lifespan that can essentially be split up into two half’s: pre-Kinnect and post-Kinnect. Pre-Kinnect MS was pushing gaming first and foremost and making sure that the 360 delivered the best gaming experience the ‘hardcore’ gaming crowd could want. Sony was on the back foot, 360 exclusives were plentiful, XBLA was coming into its own, indie games were to add another dimension and XBL was generally the place to be for hanging out, co-op and multiplayer. Its not like the whole all-in-one media box idea appeared out of nowhere with the Xbox One either, as MS wanted to bring the media side of online computing (films, TV, music) to its console by having the 360 be the best media streaming box out there. But of course, the media streaming side of the 360 was always a healthy distant second to gaming, which is the way it should have stayed.

   Things would change however when Nintendo’s Wii console really started to take off, so much so Nintendo’s machine was vastly outselling all competition, and supply couldn’t keep up with demand. The buzz words were definitely in, and they meant money, lots of money, ‘motion controls’ were now where all the action seemed to be, and MS and Sony both decided they needed to show up to the party. The only problem was, they both showed up late, to a party they were not invited to, and to one which their friends and supporters were trying to reason that they had no business even being present at let alone considering going to. But some companys in the gaming industry are adamant they know best, even when their target audience and loyal customers say otherwise and show evidence to the contrary (Mega CD, 32X anyone?)

   In the end Sony’s motion control aluminous vibrator shaped sex toy inspired ‘Move’ for its PS3 moved about as much as the PS2’s EyeToy. In the end with gamers on the platform showing little to no interest in it, Sony quietly let it slide away to the back-burner rather than keeping it going with a dose of Viagra and pushing it upon everyone, right move Sony! MS twat inspired Kinnect made for wealthy sized living rooms, that wouldn’t actually work in anything less than a grand hall faired much the same fate, as gamers the world over gave the unwanted add-on the two fingered salute and opted not to swirl their hips in front of TV’s and look like tits in front of their mates. The only difference here is that MS refused to acknowledge one of gaming’s most sacred commandments that never ceases to be proved wrong, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy console with add-ons,’ as they refused to let the Kinnect die off with some dignity still etched to it. The company has done less than stellar for the 360 and its loyal user base post-Kinnect, and has choose to neglect the consoles core experience (gaming,) in favour of continually flogging a dead horse (the Kinnect,) and concentrating merely on its media and social capability’s above all else.

   While the Kinnect may have proved a hit in technology and science labs the world over for its practical uses and implementation in new and forward thinking technology, for 360 owners, there was just no point in owning one. There were and still are no games for it that make it a must have worthy of owning, and further more it never worked as well as MS would have had everyone believe. Besides that, the motion control bubble was ready to burst, and burst it did as people realised that the technology in use was less than precise on any of the consoles than the big three would have us all believe, as well as developers poorly implementing and tacking on dreary control mechanics to games. The motion control bubble was brief and rose-up quickly, but like a night out of too much beer and merry making, once it was all over, the sobering realization dawned that it wasn’t all that great and practical for gaming after all. So with the Move and Kinnect arriving so late, gamers realized that adding these add-ons to their consoles was not in their best interests as they added nothing to their systems but a wasteful expense that they could do without.

   Now fast forward to today, after years of complacency and a heavy media focused strategy, MS have come out fighting with the Xbox One, with a console reveal of, well, a much meatier media focused strategy, oh and Kinnect 2.0, yay… anyone? But some would say that MS complacency of the last several years has now morphed into outright arrogance, as many loyal Xbox users that have been around since the original Xbox now feel rightly angered. We all know that they have announced 15 exclusive games for their new system, but does anyone care in the face of having draconian restrictive features built into the Xbox Ones hardware to limit and control our gaming experience at the end of an iron first? Well it would seem not if the massive backlash that erupted after MS conference is anything to go by.

   Many companies today listen less to their consumer base, if at all, and instead try and bend and mould their customers to their will, even when it’s contrary to everything their customers want, it’s like the New Coke debacle of the 80’s never even happened. Yet these same companies scratch their heads with confusion at any backlash and failures that inevitably head their way as a result, and no more so than those companies that are in the gaming industry. From EA and Activision wondering why they are hated so much, to Capcom and Square Enix wondering why they are beset with poor sales performances. Hell, even MS with Windows 8, the OS that nobody wants, and the soul reason why PC and Laptop sales have dropped off the map and into oblivion as soon as every PC came packaged with their Metro OS. MS fundamental problem at the moment is that they are not listening to customers, hence much of the backlash over Windows 8 and the Xbox One. In the end, they have a certain vision, and to them it matters not that people don’t want or understand their vision and products, because they are banking on being able to bend consumers to their will and consumers giving in without a fight. So it comes to pass that rather than reject any and all notion and implementation of much of the shallow practices that have plagued many games of this generation on the PS3 and 360, much of which has angered gamers over the years, they instead choose to embrace it with open arms, much to the sinister delight of EA.

   With the Xbox One, there will be no such thing as game ownership as we have always traditionally had it, that’s something that will be consigned to the past, replaced instead by licences that will last only as long as the console does or the publisher sees fit to support them. The disks you will pay £40-£50 or more for will be nothing more than licences to play games and in no way will the consumer be paying to actually have any ownership rights over them. A physical disk and case will be nothing more than a delivery system, worthless and useless bin material after a game has had its mandatory hdd installation. The disk cannot be used afterwards to resell or to lend out to friends and family, it will be an empty vessel, and the licenced game will now reside on your hdd and locked down to your account. To lend the game out to others would mean giving others access and or control over your account.

   Since the disastrous conference however, MS have been busy doing its utmost to save-face, backtrack and allegedly pay companies to work damage control limitation on their behalf after the massive backlash its received. So now its emerged that they are shifting the heat onto publishers by saying that the no used games restriction is an optional opt in/out scheme, and its up to publisher whether to restrict the re-sale of their games or not. But at the end of the day they are still building that feature into their console, and the games are still licence to play games. They have also said you can play a game licenced to you on another Xbox One console when signed in with your account, but will only be able to play for one hour and that’s your lot. If the thought of that wasn’t enough to excite you, then how about the console needing to connect to the internet once every 24 hours to scan and verify the console and software, and no connection means no gaming at all.

   The reasons MS have given for doing this are the same old bullshit publishers such as EA tried to rational the practise of locking out parts of game content stored on disks. Where by a game bought brand new would need to be registered, meaning access to all content on the disk was available to the first time buyer. However if the game was then sold or lent out, the second-hand buyer or lender of the game would have to pay a fee to unlock a segment of the content on the disk, which in this publishers case was typically the multiplayer part of the game, but other publishers have worryingly started to lock out parts of the singleplayer portions of games. These practises, we are told, are to give publishers and developers a cut from any used game sales, as the used games market is supposedly crippling the industry in ways we just cant imagine, as well as the fact that many companies in the gaming industry today believe they have a right to take a percentage made from any used game sales. The former has been well and truly disproved over the years, just the fact alone that the used games market has always been around since the inception of gaming just proves its less harmful to the industry than the big publishers would have us believe. The latter really comes down to content/software ownership, if you pay for it does that mean you own it and can lend or sell it, or does it just mean you are temporarily licencing it, this is an issue that has only heavily come to the fore over the last 4-5 years and was never such an huge issue in the past as it is today.

   The problem here is that this is the clashing point were publishers/developers and consumers meet in gaming, and things look set for a showdown with the Xbox One being the defining battleground for the future of console gaming. Gamers/customers want to own what they pay a lot of hard earned money for, as apposed to paying loads of money for something they don’t (a licence to just play a game.) They also feel it is their right as consumers to then be able to do what they wish with their games afterwards (sell, lend and trade,) much as they have always done with video games and any other worldly goods since the passage of time. Some (not all) publisher/developers want games to be nothing more than a temporary paid for licence, to be pulled at a later date or at their convenience. In this way they would force everyone to buy a new game (or licence) at full price as the used games market would effectively be wiped out; this way they will have ultimate control over what they at this present moment do not. MS obviously shares in this licencing dream held preciously by the likes of EA, who recently abolished its hated practise of content blocking licences, claiming it had listened to feedback. Funny then how they went on to pull out of making games for the Wii U completely, and that such an announcement coincided with the Xbox One reveal. But no ones really that fooled, as everyone and their mother knows it’s because they can’t force their no used games market dream on the Wii U or current gen consoles. If publishers and certain console manufacturers such as MS can ultimately control the whole facet of the market place, it would freeze out consumer freedom and market competitiveness, and the big companies would be in a position to monopolise and control price, delivery and freedom at their whim.

   I don’t know about you, but this prospect doesn’t sit well with me, and I have never been so unenthusiastic and discouraged about an impending new generation of console ever. MS dream of an ideal console future in their eyes is an oppressive Orwellian one in mine, and one I won’t support. Every facet of the Xbox One that MS are championing is a restriction and an obstacle, and every carefully worded statement and press release by them won’t hide that fact. Console gaming has always been about simplicity, ease of use and fun, all three things that the Xbox One is definitely not. It’s a shame MS have messed everything up so bad, but that’s what happens when you don’t listen to your own customers, the Xbox One is DOA (to me at least,) and now Nintendo and Sony have everything to play for.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

What’s In the Box? Alone In the Dark Limited Edition Xbox 360

   Released in 2008 for the Xbox 360 and PC, with an altogether different version released for the PS2 and Nintendo Wii that same year, (though with a similar plot line to the 360/PC versions,) the game was embattled by a mixed reception from critics, which then ended up in a mire of controversy. But no matter what axe Atari and the review critics were trying to grind with each other at the expense of gamers no less, the game itself got buried between the two parties, shame really because if both parties had stopped trying to score points off of each other, this great horror game might have reached greater success. 

   Alone In the Dark 5 (or 2008, not to be confused with the original game of the same name) was actually a really great horror game that sadly few have bothered to play, though it did apparently sell quite well. Its surprisingly one of the better horror games of this generation, more so than the very dismal Resident Evil (RE) offerings that have been served up to disenchanted RE fans. This game can be bought at a super cheap price, and it’s worth every penny, so if you have the chance to grab a copy then do so, you’ll enjoy this game.

   This Limited Edition version was only available to European gamers, and only available through the video games retailer Game here in the UK, so if anyone in the US likes the look of this then you will have to import it. 

Alone In the Dark Limited Edition Xbox 360

CD soundtrack by Olivier Deriviere
Making of DVD
Edward Carnby figure
Hardback art book

Thursday, 2 May 2013


   In the early to mid ninety’s Nintendo and Sega were going head to head with their respective 16-bit consoles for the hearts of gamers across the world as they each sort to dominate the market. In 1991 Sega released the Mega CD add-on which took advantage of the new medium of the future the CD, as they sort to expand upon and widen the Mega Drives range.

   Nintendo already had previous experience with add-ons as they had already ventured down this well worn path with the Famicom Disk System for the Famicom (NES.) This add-on was never released outside of Japan because it wasn’t a resounding success amongst other factors, such as piracy and unreliability to name a few. But Nintendo wanted to compete and take advantage of this new storage medium that offered so much more potential to gaming, and so they approached Sony to produce what would be dubbed the SNES-CD.

   Sony, having experience with this new CD-ROM technology, and Nintendo having used the Sony SPC-700 processor for the SNES sound output, it seemed like a natural fit for both companies. But it was mostly thanks to the relationship built between Nintendo and Sony through engineer Ken Kutaragi that such a processor was created and used in the SNES, and that there was even an open channel for dialog between the two companies at all, as Sony management didn’t like being bedfellows much with other companies at the time. So it come to pass that with a prior business deal, and a mutual business relationship (of sorts) well established, the two companies agreed on a deal.

   Where things fell apart, essentially dooming this add-on never to see the light of day on a production line, is essentially when the powers that be at Nintendo HQ realised that the contract they had signed off on with Sony for the SNES-CD, also handed complete control of all software produced on it to them, freezing Nintendo out of retaining control of the software. With the Nintendo top brass less than happy with this seemingly one sided venture, they secretly formed a deal with Philips and put a stop to any further work on the SNES-CD with Sony. At the 1991 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Sony announced that it was working with Nintendo on the SNES-CD add-on. But the following day Nintendo announced that they wasn’t working with Sony on the CD add-on for their 16-bit console, but instead had formed a deal with Philips. Sony was left red faced with embarrassment at their announcement the day before as Nintendo had neglected to tell Sony that the SNES-CD deal was dead in the water.

   Sony could have killed all further work right there and left the video games industry to itself, but with a few different prototypes of the CD add-on produced, they decided to further research and develop the project and release a standalone CD-based console themselves. They eventually ended their on-going tumultuous relationship with Nintendo and went onto release the PlayStation, and the rest they say is history.

   Although it can be said that if Nintendo had read the contract they had signed with Sony properly, then it might not have been signed in the first place. Or perhaps it would have been amended to allow Nintendo to retain control and rights over all the software for the add-on, there for it would have been signed, and the SNES-CD would possibly have been produced. Both these could have kept Sony out of the console hardware business that it ended up being the dominant leader in, but the truth is, it was Nintendo backing out and backtracking on their original agreement that caused Sony to further its development into a standalone console that would become the PlayStation. If they had honoured their contractual agreement with Sony for the SNES-CD, their decision to pull out and embarrass Sony (whether intentional or not) wouldn’t have come back to bite them, as they would slip into second place in the console market with the N64, and then third place with the Game Cube, all as Sony remained at the top spot with its PlayStation consoles.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron Review

   El Shaddai is easily the best platformer I have played since the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Master System, which is a game I honestly never thought would be equalled in the genre, let alone surpassed. I have of course enjoyed many platform games over the years since, but while many are and were brilliant, none of them have come close to matching Sonics first Master System outing. Until that is when I finally played El Shaddai, a platformer that didn’t equal it, but surpassed and smashed it. Yet I have found myself staring at the box for the best part of ten minutes before starting work on this review, just contemplating on how best to go about reviewing this game. I have never felt daunted at the thought of reviewing any game, or felt so lost on how to approach one, but I find myself in just such a position with this amazing title. Not because its bad, or because I don’t understand it, but because it has overwhelmed my expectations of it by breaking free from shackles of decades old tradition, undermining my tired notion of what a platformer should adhere to be, while leaving me unable to wrap my head around various parts of it and quantify the game into a neat tidy label at its spectacular conclusion.

   El Shaddai is a game inspired by religion, taking much of its inspiration and story from the Old Testament and The Book of Enoch in particular. It is inspired by all the great stories, myths, places and people found within, and you will see and hear this religious Judo Christian influence throughout the game as it is the makeup and binding force that makes the game what it is. Apart from its Jewish and Christian influence, you will also come across others in the mix as well, Buddhism and Hinduism for example, though not nearly as strong they are clearly there, in some chapters they are apparent in the visuals, in others the music, but they are woven in there and are rather more subtle. Don’t think of this game as one that wears its religious influence on its collar and tries to force some belief upon you as that’s not what this game is about. Think more of ancient history and some of the old myths and stories, as the developers take that Old Testament good story telling aesthetic and feel and make a game influenced from it, and an amazing job they have done to, as El Shaddai feels like an ancient story about God, Angels and Man, one that doesn’t feel at all out of place.

   The way in which the story is told and presented also does it in such a subtle way that follows the ancient astronauts theory that God and Angels are, or were, extra-terrestrials, aliens if you will, who came to Earth, created mankind, had a plan for their creations and influenced their development throughout history. Furthermore heaven and hell are different areas where they preside and Enoch’s (Enoch is the main protagonist in the game) weapons from God as well as other things are nothing more than alien technology that ancient man interprets as god-like instruments. This isn’t something that is openly suggested or put to the player in any way, its just a subtle thing that’s there that is open to interpretation by the player. Whether this was intentional by the developer or whether I’m just projecting my beliefs upon the game and its story I'm not entirely sure. But what’s cleaver is that the game in itself can be left to this kind of interpretation by the player, (perhaps because of the religious theme and story, and religion itself being open to many ways of interpretation itself,) and what one may see within it may be different to what someone else will interpret from it. Again whether this aspect of the game and its story was an intentional element or not is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a unique and interesting side to the game I haven’t come across before.

   The story goes that God has a purpose for Man, one that was put into place when he created mankind and placed them upon the Earth. God appointed his loyal angels, the Grigori to watch over mankind from Heaven, who over time had become besotted and captivated by the lives of man. They eventually descended from the Heavens and lived amongst man, influencing them and procreating with those they once watched over. The Fallen Angels corrupted man with sin, causing them to deviating from the plan God had laid out for them, creating a false path for man to follow. Angered by the Fallen Angels betrayal of God, the Council of Elders in Heaven decided that the only way forward was to wipe the Earth clean of man corrupted by evil and sin by creating a great flood upon the Earth. One man, a scribe named Enoch brought to Heaven by God, pleaded before the Council of Elders against flooding the Earth. They agreed to spare mankind on the condition that Enoch returned to Earth, find the Fallen Angels and bring them back to Heaven to face Gods judgment. So Enoch returned to Earth on his quest, guided by the Archangel Lucifel, he must find the Fallen Angels and cleanse man of their sin.

   El Shaddai is a 2D/3D hack-n-slash platformer, it seamlessly blends both 2D and 3D platforming elements together to such a degree the game has nailed the formula with its first go. In this game the transition between the two different perspectives has quite literally been worked to a fine art. One minute you will be in the 3D perspective, often with the viewpoint from an interesting angle, running, jumping and fighting enemies, then before you even realise it’s happened the perspective has stealthily transitioned into its 2D side on form. Its not always as subtle as this, there are of course parts that are all in one perspective or the other, but when the game transitions so seamlessly, it makes you wonder why it hasn’t become the norm in the genre already as it feels so naturally done.

   Each level is a varied mix of elements always changing as the game progresses, keeping things fresh and making sure the player can always expect the unexpected as far as level design goes. Some of the 2D parts are designed in such a way that they are superbly geared for speed runs, where a player is supposed to become so finely tuned into the level that they smoothly glide Enoch through it with ease. Other 2D parts are slower and perhaps a little more traditional in their makeup, these platforming parts are about being more careful and are certainly slower paced, having you fight enemies, avoid many of the pitfalls, lurking dangers and timing those all important jumps. The 3D parts can follow the same route, with levels designed for speed flow, with others about meticulous precision platforming and danger avoidance.

   The 3D parts however are where most of the games hack-n-slash fighting will occur, but rather than force the player to fight for every step en route, down narrow corridors and from one large area to the next, the fighting will take place in rounded type sections effortlessly blended into parts of the levels. You will quickly learn to identify these little areas dotted about each level, and upon entering them they become like small arenas, fenced off until you have defeated all of the spawning enemies or the end of level boss. Some players might not take to the way in which the developers have choose to implement the fighting in such a way like this, and I must admit it sounds more detached than it actually is, more so down to my inability to quite put this game into words than anything else. But believe me when I say that this really does work more in its practical implementation than it sounds, as El Shaddai is a game where all its sum parts seem to blend and flow together, fitting perfectly, and this particular area is no exception. You do of course face some enemies en route through the levels, but these are nothing more than fodder, they are there specifically to pose as an obstacle, to knock Enoch off his footing and into danger, nothing more nothing less, the real enemies lie in wait in the arena type areas.

   Combat is pretty simple, just as you would want it to be, with two buttons for two different types of attacks which when held down will make Enoch dispense more powerful variant attacks. Special attacks can be implemented by pressing RB and X, and later in the story a special overboost attack bestowed upon Enoch by the Archangel Uriel can be used when your boost level is full and by tapping LB and RB. Enemies can also be whipped up and attacked in the air and dealt multiple hits to wear them down, as well as being attacked on the ground by a hovering Enoch, allowing him to go on the offensive yet avoid any ground based attacks. There are no special powers as such in this game bar the overboost, and there are no over flirtatious and exuberant combo’s to endlessly string together that you find in other such games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, nor can you collect, assign, build or equip different powers and power-ups. As far as the hack-n-slash fighting element is concerned, El Shaddai takes things back to its core roots, keeping things simple, uncomplicated and minimalistic. But this does not suck the fun from the games veins, far from it in fact; the game is just as fun and challenging as any combo power-up driven game in this genre. Stripping the excess from this area has made the fighting in the game feel fresh as much as it is in keeping with the style and flow of the game, while also ensuring the fun and challenge remain intact.

   There is a blocking system in El Shaddai, but it’s tricky to implement and will take some time to master and pull off. Blocking is split into a two tear system, holding RB will block some attacks but not all depending on the enemy and how they attack you, and you will still take damage here, but not as much. Tapping RB just before an enemy strikes Enoch will repel their attack and leave your foe off guard and open to attack so timing is everything. The blocking system in this game is partly like the one implemented in the melee survival horror game Condemned released by Sega back in 2005. Condemned, (while in the first person perspective,) also relied on perfect timing to block enemy attacks that when successful would repel enemies and leave them off-guard. The only difference between the two games being that Condemned didn’t have a two tear blocking system like El Shaddai.

   As well as being able to throw punches and kicks when finding himself without a weapon on rare occasions, Enoch has access to three different weapons through most of the game, though he will start off with one and the other two will become available when the game progresses. The Arch, Gale and Veil are the only weapons in the game and the only ones Enoch can use, each one very different to the other, with each better suited to different situations and enemies than the other, and each assigned its own unique special attacks. The Arch is like a Klingon Bat’leth, yet sounds exactly like a Lightsaber and is swung about like its essentially a sword, it’s the go-to weapon of the game that I found myself using the most as it also has an air glide ability when Enoch jumps, which come in pretty handy for all the platforming elements of the game. The Gale is a long range weapon akin to the bow and arrow, circular in nature like Xena: Warrior Princesses Chakram weapon, but with tiny metallic bolts that circle Enoch which he is able to control and fire in any direction. Finally the Veil, a weapon that is made up of two shields, one on either hand that are both used to pound enemies into submission. This weapon is the most powerful of all three, allowing Enoch to deal the most damage, but its trade-off is that it’s slow and cumbersome, leaving Enoch more open and susceptible to being attacked.

   There are a variety of different enemies in the game, and as you progress further you will start to encounter more powerful and challenging enemy variants, but the three core types are ones that use Gods three weapons. You won’t encounter them all from the beginning of the game; they will appear in battles once you have reached a point where another of Gods weapons becomes available to Enoch as the Arch is the only one available to him at the start of the game. They also become more powerful and challenging throughout the course of the game, so an Arch wielding enemy of Sin might pose a challenge and become easily conquered at the start of the game when you are getting to grips with things, but a faster, more powerful and nimble Arch wielding enemy will take its place in another chapter, and the same can be said of the other enemies.

   The highlights of the fighting are the many different boss encounters you will face in the game, all of which are varied, different and always surprising. At first you will never know whether you are in a boss fight for real or not, or at times whether you’re facing a mid-chapter boss or end of chapter boss as they can pop up and challenge Enoch at random. These seemingly random challenges will make short work of Enoch before transporting him back into a level, and serve as an element to keep you always second guessing which encounter will be the actual proper fight. As always in these kind of games, you can expect variety in the boss designs, the weird and wonderful, with multiple stages of attacks and attack patterns to learn and overcome, with each harder and more difficult than the last. My favourite boss encounter has to be Armaros, as it was not like any boss fight I have encountered before, with the seamless transition between cut-scene and gameplay, Armaros dancing in the foreground up against the TV screen as though he was dancing for a camera, and having Enoch fight dancing enemies in the background. To say this boss encounter was different and surreal is an understatement, and although Armaros might not have been the most spectacular and all conquering boss fight in El Shaddai, or in gaming history for that matter, it was surly the most memorable and stylish to ever be conceived.

   With all that said and done there are but only a few things about El Shaddai that I found to be amiss, nothing major or significantly game changing, just a few very small things, as the game is pretty much as polished as you could hope for in a game on todays current systems. You can either play the game with Japanese voice acting with English subtitles (much better and preferable to dub in my opinion,) or English voice acting and turn subtitles off, or set them to Japanese. The problem with the English voice acting doesn’t rest with the acting itself, as the voice work in the game is superbly done, but lies with the lip-sync, as is common with dub, it can be out of sync and noticeable. This shouldn’t be a problem in games really as the lips for in game characters and cut-scenes can easily be synced to the voice, but in El Shaddai it hasn’t been done, at least not in a way it should be done with a game, but more like English dub you will find in movies. It’s not all that bad, but it is noticeable in the cut-scenes, you wont notice it in the game though as the camera is to far away from the characters.

   The only other complaint is that when you get caught in an enemy attack, or stringed attack, it’s almost if nigh on impossible to break free. Once enemies get hold of Enoch and whip him up into their attack patterns, then he is essentially locked in for the duration until it’s over, so no matter how you try and break free, you just have to accept the punishment and wait until it’s over. More than anything else this is just frustrating; it’s not a bad mechanic, its just punishment for not successfully blocking in the first place or dodging an enemy move.

   The game didn’t leave me furrow browed, more like slack jawed, I appreciated every minute of it, yet was left with my head wrapped within its meandering story and gameplay. You don’t play El Shaddai, as it’s not a game to be played; you experience it, as it’s a rare gaming experience that doesn’t come around too often. El Shaddai is a game to be seized upon if given the chance to play it, as it’s not often a game ebbs and flows so serenely, yet will always keep you second guessing every twist and turn of your journey through it. El Shaddai extends its hand to you, offering a journey and an experience, where story and gameplay are inseparable and intertwined, one indistinguishable from one another. If you have reached that point where you truly crave a unique gaming experience set within this familiar of all genres, which is not constrained by its formulaic tradition and rules, then you may want to extend your hand to.

   I’m hoping that if anything I have at least peaked your interest in El Shaddai, enough to make you want to give it a go, as I could have wrote at length about the graphics, but I think the screenshots will speak for themselves, so let’s just say the visuals are quite breathtakingly beautiful. I have tried my best to put into words as much as I could and give you, the reader, a simple understanding of what to expect from the basic makeup of this great game, but El Shaddai can’t be fully explained. Its like that one thing that’s always on the tip of your brain, but you can never fully grasp and pin down into words; it’s always just out of reach, which is why it can only be fully understood by experiencing it for yourself.


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