Saturday, 27 February 2010

Gaming Reviews: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2
EA Games, Bioware
Xbox 360 (Version tested), PC
Available now - RRP £49.99 (Xbox 360), £34.99 (PC)
Review by Rob Wade

*Warning: This review contains spoilers for the original Mass Effect. Read at your own risk.*

When Bioware released their first game in the Mass Effect trilogy in 2007, it was a game that was received with elation by fans after their next big RPG fix. Detailing humanity’s turbulent quest for acceptance in a harsh and daunting universe, the game was undoubtedly an incredible storytelling achievement. Playing as Commander Shephard (whose appearance, back-story and even name you get to choose), you are humanity’s best hope.

Hunting down a rogue Spectre (the galaxy’s equivalent of James Bond) who has allied himself with a robotic race known as the geth, Shephard quickly discovered that the rogue Spectre, Saren, is up to something much more devious, which could spell disaster for the entire galaxy and the return of a fearsome enemy in the form of the Reapers. Throughout the first game, character development was important, with your character being forced to make many key decisions. In addition, the Paragon/Renegade system allowed you to essentially play a good or bad character; it was the difference between your Shephard being the greatest person on Earth or a complete douchebag.

It was only really established as the sequel’s development progressed just how much of an impact the choices made in the first game would influence subsequent instalments of the series. Players were told to keep their save games, but quite how many decisions were going to have repercussions was subject to speculation. This was particularly bizarre to hear, considering that the game was rumoured not to feature Shephard, particularly as a trailer listed him as Killed in Action. Thankfully, fears were allayed, and the reason for Shephard’s apparent demise is explained later on.

Playing once again as Commander Shephard, the game begins with the Normandy, Shephard’s flagship, being attacked by an unknown vessel. Your entire team from the first game is safely evacuated but for yourself and Joker, who perish in the crash. Two years later, Shephard awakens within an unknown research facility, but one thing he/she can hear is clear: Cerberus is responsible for the revival. Cerberus, for those who aren’t familiar, is an extremist pro-humanity organisation prevalent in the first game as an enemy in side-quests.

You are swiftly contacted by “The Illusive Man”, the man behind Cerberus, as well as Shephard and Joker’s revival. He has brought you back to life at considerable expense for one main reason: there is nobody better to protect the galaxy against a new threat. An alien race known as The Collectors have begun to target human colonies, abducting colonists for an as-yet unknown goal. Your objective, then, becomes to assemble a team of the best operatives throughout the galaxy, to take through the mysterious Omega-4 Relay to discover the reason for the Collectors’ abductions, and eliminate their threat in order to satisfy your saviour and save humanity.



If that sounds like a lot to take in, never fear. The game does a great job of acclimatising you back into the familiar surroundings, even going so far as to allow you to import your character verbatim into the second game, as well as giving the option to create a character from scratch and fill in the blanks yourself during a later scene. Obviously, the suggestion is that the better option is to use the first game’s character in order for further development and also bonuses depending on the character’s level at the end of the first game, but it’s nice that the game allows for players to experience it from the beginning of this game without the absence of the original causing storyline issues.

Character class creation is from six different choices, all with their own relative strengths, from different ammo types to biotic (think “Jedi” without the license) abilities. Of course, as before, you’re able to either keep the previous game’s choice or make use of the chance to change it, a nice little feature and certainly something that adds replay value later on.

Once you’ve accepted your mission, you’re given a new ship to command, as well as a new crew (along with some familiar faces from the first game) and off you go on your merry space-faring way. Along the way, you recruit a team of eleven operatives in total from various locations around the galaxy. This team is an equal mix of the new, the familiar (with some revelations that made me so happy I almost cried – sad, I know), as well as the downright surprising at times. Once your team is assembled, it’s on to the Omega-4 Relay, and the apparent suicide mission that awaits you on the other side.

The plot for this game, first of all, is absolutely bloody superb, progressing at a killer pace and keeping you engaged from the very beginning. The quests are handed to you at a more leisurely rate than the above text might suggest, as you are generally given three or four recruitment dossiers at a time to space them out more effectively. Each team-mate then has a “loyalty” mission, which you can complete to allow them to concentrate on the mission at hand and tie up any loose ends before the mission takes them to the brink of death. Each mission makes complete sense for each team-mate, and is easy enough to guess if you pay attention during dialogue (of which there is a considerable amount as well). You can also choose a romantic option for Shephard, a feature which has been expanded upon for the sequel from the first game, and is rumoured to have storyline significance for the final instalment of the series.



As you can see, the graphics are also of a high standard, with a tremendous amount of detail and a good frame rate despite (at times) manic fire fights and large combat arenas. The sound and voice acting also are just as good as they were in the first game, with the voice cast boasting some famous names hidden away here and there.

The side-quests in this game, too, have been improved from the first game. In Mass Effect 2, players must find side-quests by first scanning a planet using the ship’s sensor array (which is also used for mineral mining, an essential part of researching and upgrading technology) and then landing a team on the planet’s surface for anything from a simple reconnaissance mission to a search-and-destroy exercise for a person or installation.

In the quests, Bioware shows the true depth of its storytelling and the ramifications involved. In one quest, for instance, I was forced to face up to a relative of someone I’d been forced to kill in the first game, and in some cases the actions taken in Mass Effect allows some main characters not to appear at all in the second or indeed third game. Those things that seemed innocuous and minor in the first game could, it turns out, be anything but minor.

Some of the main complaints of the original game, although it was held in quite high esteem by RPG gamers, were mainly technical. The game showed signs of over-ambition, with some glitches and at times clunky weapons systems, as well as long loading screens inside elevators. What’s nice is that Bioware have clearly taken note of these shortcomings when developing the sequel. The engine runs smoothly throughout, and the loading screens, while still there, are a little more engaging than the previous iteration’s efforts as well as shorter.

In addition, to reduce the amount of customisation necessary to make the weapons viable, the developers have scaled down the weaponry system, instead allowing players to upgrade their different ammunition types as powers in place of items. Again, it’s a much easier process than in the previous game, and once you’ve been playing for a few minutes you’re definitely going to find that it’s more painless than you might think.

Upgrades, too, have been generally overhauled. Once your skill is upgraded to the final level, it then branches into one of two powerful variants of the skill, with either increases to power or radius for weaponry, or health against power recharging in the case of character upgrades. It definitely adds scope to the replay value, as one can theoretically vary each character’s abilities greatly from one game to another.



Now, nothing is perfect, and of course being a thing, Mass Effect 2 is no exception. The cover system’s improvements have fixed the majority of issues, but there are still some there, mainly getting stuck in cover during a melee fight, a sure-fire way to get you killed. At times, too, the side missions can be a little tedious or short. Having said that, they're designed be side missions for a reason.

All in all, however, the experience of playing Mass Effect 2 was an absolute emotional rollercoaster, and some of the decisions I made towards the end of the game actually caused me great difficulty (and got some of my team irrevocably killed). This game is an absolutely immense achievement, and with the prospect of downloadable content on the way, it looks like that's not all that's to come from this game before the final instalment.

The Emotionally Fourteen Games Rating

Graphics: An all-round smooth and beautiful-looking game. The planets and landscapes are lush and well-rendered, with very few technical issues. Certain things are a little difficult to read on Standard Definition TVs, but it’s all still relatively easy to follow.
Sound/Music: The same sort of soundtrack and sound effects as the first game. Music is of a Blade Runner/Terminator vein, and with 90 voice actors and over 31,000 lines of dialogue, the voice-acting is top-notch.
Gameplay: The same frantic action-packed RPG gameplay we know and love from the first game, with a large amount of focus seeming to be on fixing the gripes and grumbles from the first game. A much-improved experience, which was already pretty damned good to start with.
Lasting Appeal: My first playthrough was 32 hours finding all side-quests, but then there’s obviously the option to play a second playthrough as either a Renegade or Paragon, and with six different character classes each with their own strengths and weaknesses, you’re not going to run out of game anytime soon.
Summary: An absolute masterpiece in game design, and a true privilege to play. One of the absolute greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had, and an example of how to make a truly superb series even better! 10/10

Friday, 26 February 2010

Dickass DM

Remember good old-fashioned gamebooks? They promised all the fun of a role-playing game, with none of the social interaction - what more could an teenage boy desire? The thing is, that while the gamebook became a great gaming experience in its own right, the only RPG it could possibly have simulated was one being GM'd by Satan himself. 90% of decisions led to certain death, and combat was often fatal.

Satan wasn't available, so Brad will be GMing Rob through an RPG based on the classic Keith Martin Fighting Fantasy gamebook Vault of the Vampire.

Brad is the GM, and Rob plays his character, Abraham Van Bragging.

Previously on Dickass DM: Whilst travelling through the village of Mortvania, the fearless adventurer Abraham Van Bragging learnt of a supposedly vampire infested castle, and the hot yet relatively trampy babe the evil Reiner Heydrich had recently captured. Entering a chamber, Van Bragging has discovered a new resident of the castle...

Read Part One
Here
Read Part Two
Here

Brad: He is middle-aged and has a mane of greying black hair tapering to a widow's peak above his face, which is dominated by his pale green eyes.
Rob: The widow's peak has eyes?!
Brad: He is dressed simply in white and grey robes, and he carries a tray with a decanter and goblets, which he puts down as he greets you.

Gunthar: I am Gunthar Heydrich. What is your business here?

Brad: He seems kindly enough.

Van Bragging: I recognise that name...

Rob: I make small talk with him.
Brad: Gunthar gives you some food and wine and tells you of his work as a healer. He is well aware of his brother's evil and denounces Reiner as a cruel vile creature. But Gunthar claims to be no fighter, and in any event he could not bring himself to kill his own brother!

Van Bragging: I'll do it.

Brad: Gunthar seems weighed down by the evil of the Castle, almost in a state of despair. You take a chance and announce that you are going to do away with Reiner Heydrich. His eyes light up with hope, and he says he will give you the one thing he has which could help.

Van Bragging: Is it a ManoWar album?

Brad: From a carefully concealed pocket inside his robes he pulls out a silver crucifix on a chain, adding that, to destroy Reiner, it will be needed.

**Van Bragging has acquired Silver Crucifix**
**Should have thought to bring one on a vampire hunt, really**
**Fuckwit**

Brad: You will also need a stake to drive through Reiner's heart as he sleeps in his coffin, but Gunthar does not have one; you'll have to find this elsewhere.

Gunthar: Unless, of course, you find Siegfried's sword, Nightstar, for that would also destroy him, but it has been lost for many years.
Van Bragging: Nightstar? Win.

Rob: He seems the bookish type. I show him the Book of Healers I picked up.
Brad: Gunthar thanks you profusely for returning his book and rewards you with a magical potion of healing, which he has cunningly concealed in a secret drawer in a cupboard. Thanking Gunthar for this valuable gift, you leave and open the West door on the landing. You see a corridor stretching out before you. It is well lit, and a thick-piled crimson carpet runs along the centre of the tiled floor. There is a door close by you on the north wall, and another a little further along; you can also see that there is a door facing you at the end of the corridor, and that the corridor also turns south at that point.
Rob: I follow the corridor around.
Brad: You follows right round. Baby, right round. Like a record baby. Right round.
Rob: I get it.
Brad: The corridor turns south, and there are four doors before you: two to the east, one to the west and one at the end of the corridor, facing you.
Rob: Fucking hell, I thought this would reduce choice...
Brad: You could open the first door to the east, nearest you; open the second easterly door; open the door at the south end of the corridor; or open the door to the west. This is like that fictional game show american comedians like to reference. "Let's see what's behind DOOR NUMBER DEATH!"
Rob: I pick the second easterly door.
Brad: "First, let's see what you could have had kill you...". You open the door and stride into a spartan room with just a couple of tables and plain chairs, a bunk bed, and similar humble furnishing - a small chest of drawers, a plain wardrobe, and the like.
Rob: Spartan!
Brad: What is your profession? Looking up from his writing-desk is a tall, well-built man in his early thirties with light brown hair and brown eyes. His crooked smile greets you as you enter.

Man: Greetings, stranger, are you so lost that you have come to this wretched place?
Van Bragging: Yeah, why not?

Brad: You could chat with him, or kill the pudding out of him.
Rob: I'll talk with him.
Brad: Wuss.
Rob: I can't just attack everyone...
Brad: You tell Lothar (which is apparently his name) of your quest: to kill Reiner and rescue Nastassia...Wasn't Lothar one of the Defenders of the Earth?
Rob: I see no reason to disbelieve that.
Brad:
He totally was. I am to Saturday Morning Cartoons what Paul Selman is to Marvel.
Rob: Fucking superb.
Brad: Lothar seems a trustworthy man.

Lothar: It is not only the Count you must beware; keep away from Katarina. His sister is every bit as evil as he is. If Reiner were slain, I think that Gunthar, that's Reiner's brother, the healer, if you haven't met him - and I could deal with her. But you shouldn't make a hard task impossible by tangling with her as well!

Brad: He tells you that her rooms are beyond the west door at the north end of the corridor outside, and you make a note not to go in there! Make a note, Rob.
Rob: Shall do.
Brad: Now.
Rob: I already have!
Brad: Lothar also says he has some items which will improve greatly your chances of success. He asks you to turn round whilst he gets something from a wall alcove with a secret door. Do you have something to bite down on? He comes back with a bunch of keys and a wooden stake with a silver tipped point.
Rob: Right.

Lothar: These will get you into the Count's rooms.

**Van Bragging has acquired Castellan's Keys**

Lothar: The Count sleeps in the Crypt, but the Crypt Key is in his rooms to the south. You'll need to go south and open the door at the end of the corridor outside.

Brad: The Silvered Stake, he explains, can destroy the Count as he sleeps in his coffin.

**Van Bragging has acquired Silvered Stake**
**Hate your face**

Brad: Lothar puzzles for a moment.

Lothar: I've overheard the Count mutter to himself about something he's hidden not far away with a magical lock on it. "Forward and back," he said, "forward and back". He repeated that several time, and then laughed to himself. I don't know what he could have meant, but surely he meant something by it - he may be evil, but he isn't mad!

Brad: The story makes no sense to you now, but who knows what you may find later?
Rob: Indeeed....
Brad: You thank Lothar for his invaluable help, wish him well, and follow his directions to the door at the south end of the corridor outside. You push past the unlocked door, and find yourself standing on a stone balcony overlooking the courtyard. This balcony stretches to east and west of you, and also continues round towards the south at its eastern edge. There are three other doors leading away from the balcony. One door is to your right and clearly leads into a chamber next to the south-western tower. A second door is halfway along the southern spur, on the east side. The final door is at the extreme south of the balcony, furthest away from you. Which do you wish to try?
Rob: I go for the second door.
Brad: You find the lock; the key slides smoothly in and the door opens readily. Is it just me, or is there a sexual undercurrent to that?
Rob: Sounds kinda gay.
Brad: See, I think "sexual", and you think "gay". Where do you live again?
Rob: Brighton...? Last time I checked.
Brad: Uh-huh. The room beyond is well lit: there are carpets on the floor, pew-like benches and, on the eastern side opposite you, a great pipe-organ, its sides obscured by heavy purple and black wall-hangings. A set of massive silvered candle-sticks - dozens of them - stands to one side of the organ. The large, hot, pulsating organ.
Rob: Again...
Brad: You can see a door in the north wall of this music-room; as you enter to investigate this, a dismal droning arises from the organ, although it has no player!

Van Bragging: In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby....

Brad: As you wonder what is happening, a scurrying and scratching noise begins, and you seethat the balcony outside is swarming with black rats, vile things with fierce, sharp, yellow teeth which are said to carry the plague - and they're heading towards you!
Rob: I close the door quickly.
Brad: Unfortunately, rats are beginning to swarm in through holes behind one of the wall hangings and they attack you. You lose one stamina point from a nip from a particularly vicious specimen.

Van Bragging: Buggeration.

Brad: You have to make a run for the north door. You reach there just in time and slam it shut to keep the rats out. You're standing in a workroom of some kind. There are unfamilar tools on tables and work-benches prisms and lenses mounted in iron rings, and small caskets made of sandalwood and other exotic and aromatic woods. Did they call it sandalwood because you make sandals from it, or is it the other way around?
Rob: I think it gives you wood when making sandals?
Brad: Searching around, you deduce this may have been a jeweller's workroom; certainly, you find a tiny silver and amethyst pin, worth two gold pieces.
Rob: Pikey Pikey.
Brad: And some bars of silver which are, alas, too heavy to carry.
Rob: So it goes.
Brad: The rats are still scurrying around outside, so you have time to make a really thorough search. You are in luck!
Rob: Rat Poison?
Brad: In a secret drawer in a desk you find a magical Ring of Regeneration, which you can slip on your finger.

**Van Bragging has acquired Ring of Regeneration**

Brad: The ring surges with power whenever you land the killing blow in battle, and you regain 2 stamina poins.
Rob: Sweet.
Brad: Little bit evil, by most definitions, I guess.
Rob: As I said, sweet.
Brad: It's like a Soul Edge Special on QVC...Something nags in your mind about the size of the room you are in.

Van Bragging: This room shouldn't have such wide ceilings...Is that even a feature of any room?

Brad: You guess that is is next to Gunthar's, and you know where Lothar's are, and - there is a missing room in the area, if your hunch is correct.
Rob: Right....
Brad: Checking the west wall very carefully, you find your hunch is right; there is a secret door here. You open it, and use your lantern to peer into the darkened room beyond. This bare room contains only a pinewood coffin. You walk in, like a badass, and tip it over, breaking the wood with the hilt of your sword, and scattering the black earth over the floor.
Rob: Balls.
Brad: What?
Rob: Nothing in it.
Brad: You have destroyed one of Reiner Heydrichs's coffins! After a while, the rats start to retreat to their lair - wherever that may be. You re-emerge onto the balcony and head for the door at the south end of it. You use the Castellan's Keys to open the door, and enter a reception room. Lavishly decorated with comfortable armchairs, a chaise-longue and scattered cushions, this is a very comfortable place...OF HELL!
Rob: Dude, does it say "OF HELL"?
Brad: Maybe. There are some decanters of wine, which could be refreshing, and some sweet round sponge biscuits topped with thin, dark chocolate, which look appetising...OF HELL!
Rob: Come on...I head for the west door.
Brad: Not hungry? Or rape-victimy?
Rob: Nope, I figure after House of Hell I'm gonna fast unless I brought it with me.
Brad: You push open the door into Count Reiner Heydrich's living room. Rich walnut-wall panelling and oak furniture tell you that he is a creature of taste, at least. But you have no time to dwell on details, for two of his pets are racing to attack - a vicious Vampire Weasel - No, I am not shitting you with that one...
Rob: I figured you probably weren't.
Brad: You know what, gimme a sec, I'm gonna scan in the illustration for you. Readers can click on it for a larger image (as you can with all of our pictures).

Rob: "And a Were-Marmot!"
Brad: and an evil-looking, leathery winged - horned vampire bat...FROM HULL!
Rob: I can only imagine the conversation between the artist and the writer
"So Dave, what enemies do you need illustrated?"
"Well Barry, I need a vampire bat with horns..."
"Done."
"And a Vampire Weasel..."
"..."
"..."
"...What?"

Combat:
Bat bites Van Bragging.
Van Bragging twats the Bat.

Van Bragging: Taste rhyming bitch!

Van Bragging slices one of the Bat's wings off, causing it to only fly in a circle.
The Weasel bites you on the leg.

Van Bragging: Taste...Easel...Weasel! Better yet...Hey vampire, taste camp fire! I set it alight.

Brad: You incinerate the bat, and the weasel runs off, but it takes a while for the weasel's bite to stop bleeding. Ring of Regeneration heals you.

Van Bragging: Vampire Weasel lives again...

Brad: You search the room and pick up some small trinkets worth 4GP. There is only one other door in the room, so you decide to open it.
Rob: Makes sense.
Brad: As you unlock the door, a small, sharp blade whips out from the doorframe and very narrowly misses inflicting a very unpleasant wound on your hand. You push the door open. You enter the count's bedroom, a nightmare of garish horror.

Van Bragging: Oh. My. God. Who did the decorating? They must have been undead...

Brad: A large mahogany coffin with silver hinges and handles stands in the centre on a high wooden table, surrounded by black and crimson coverings.
Rob: Oh, bollocks.
Brad: On the walls, tapestries and paintings show the count's ancestors, all with the black hair and widows peak which betrays their vampiric nature. By that criteria, I have a vampiric nature...
Rob: You come from Sittingbourne, and your dad's a Driving Instructor...
Brad: That's still only a tenth as lame as the Cullens, dude. Some are show gloatingly draining their victims of blood, and one even stands next to a Fire Demon! They seem to glower with menace at you as you look in. Walking round the room, you also find a locked safe underneath a second table, and a writing desk with two drawers and a pile of neatly stacked vellum and quills on top. Fearfully, you move to the coffin, and throw it over. One day you'll do that and there'll be someone in it, and there'll be tears before bed time...
Rob: Doubtless.
Brad: The wood splinters, the top falls off, and rich black earth cascades over the floor. You smash the coffin lid with the hilt of your sword. These coffins are made of fucking nothing. Are they fucking Argos flat pack jobs or something?
Rob: You know, I honestly thought he'd be in that.
Rob: I open a desk drawer.
Brad: Top or bottom?
Rob: Top.
Brad: The desk drawer is unlocked and you find a small leather bag with four fold pieces in it.
Rob: Pikey pikey. I open the safe.
Brad: You unlock the cunt's safe. Inside you find a pile of credit notes, all bearing Reiner Heydrich's signature; but these have no value to you, worse luck! Hunh. I guess that should be "Count's". Rummaging around the papers OF HELL, you lay your hands on a large black iron key...The key to the crypt where the evil vampire dwells!
Rob: Hunh. "I must hide this where nobody will find it... my bedroom. And now to leave indefinitely and allow a random moron to wander around.

Brad: The hairs on the nape of your neck rise as you sense that something intensely evil is in the room!

Van Bragging: I'm nervous and have a stomach complaint...

Brad: Spinning around, you see a green, ghostly, human shape beginning to take form in the doorway. You cannot run - combat is inevitable - but you do have time to perform one action before you are forced to fight.
Rob: Hmmmm....Hmmmm...Pondering doesn't count does it?
Brad: I'll allow it for the mo.
Rob: Eat food. Fuck grammar. In hurry.
Brad: Lose one provision, +4 stamina. Your weapon is useless against the Spectre, which strikes you. -2 to Stamina. You run from the room, trying to get back to the balcony, and the swiftly moving Spectre easily keeps pace with you, striking at your back.
Rob: That's just summoned up the best mental image. Me being chased by a ghost screaming "Quit it!".
Brad: The monster strikes you once, and you lose two further stamina points. You run out to the balcony with the Crypt Key and back to the Northern part of the Castle. Fortunately, the Spectre won't enter this well-lit area to the north - but less fortunately, even though you're still alive, you have lost one point from your Skill through the life-draining power of the undead horror.
Brad: You run down the corridor towards the landing. You follow the corridor north and then east, towards the stair leading down. Just before you get to the landing, you reach a closed door on the north side of the passage. From behind it you hear a brief noise, some kind of crunching sound.

Van Bragging: Shreddie Monster!

TO BE CONTINUED...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

DVD Reviews

M
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann and Inge Landgut
Director: Fritz Lang
Eureka

Available Now - £19.99 (DVD) and £24.99 (Blu-ray)
Review by Brad Harmer

Of all Fritz Lang's creations, none have been more innovative or influential than M, the film that launched German cinema into the sound era with stunning sophistication and mesmerising artistry. A spate of child killings has stricken a terrified Berlin. Peter Lorre gives a legendary performance as the murderer Hans Beckert, who soon finds himself chased by all levels of society.

From cinema's first serial killer hunt, Lang pulls back to encompass social tapestry, police procedural, and underworld conspiracies in an astonishingly multi-faceted and level-headed look at a deeply incendiary topic.

The thing that always struck me about M was its excellent use of silence. Every now and again, a scene would be shot in total silence – for a medium that was just beginning to popularise sound, it’s doubly brave, almost seeming to scream “Sound? We don’t need no steenkin’ sound!”.

M is paced almost like a novel, slow burning, but relentless at the same time. From the moment you start watching, you’re involved...you’re in it to the end.

The new DVD and BR release is an absolutely brilliant package, bursting with extras, and a very informative wodge of liner notes. For film historians and students, this should be an essential purchase – but M is unlikely to win over any newcomers. It doesn’t hold the more mainstream appeal that other German Expressionist pieces such as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or Nosferatu have. It’s just sometimes a little too dark and political in its subtext to be casual entertainment these days.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some scuffling, some off-camera child-murders.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: A milestone in cinema, which has been given a fantastic presentation by Eureka, but will still not appeal to everyone. 9/10

The Day of the Triffids
Starring: Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard
Director: Nick Copus
Showbox Home Entertainment

Available Now - £19.99 (DVD) and £24.99 (Blu-ray)
Review by Brad Harmer

With traditional global fuel sources dwindling, mankind’s search for an alternative has led to the cultivation and harvesting of the Triffid, a relatively newly discovered plant rich in oil extracts. Capable of seemingly intelligent behaviour and able to move around on their leg-like roots, these dangerously carnivorous plants possess a poisonous sting enabling them to kill and feed on their victims.

When a highly anticipated, worldwide solar storm results in the billions of spectators who witness it being rendered totally blind, civilised society begins to collapse leaving those few sighted survivors to watch helplessly as disorder unfolds. Amidst the chaos, the once-captive Triffids find freedom and, with a voracious appetite for human flesh, begin roaming the planet, evolving and breeding rapidly as they descened upon towns and cities in search of food. With mankind facing imminent annihilation, it is left to a select few people to take a stand against the Triffids’ reign of terror and fight an epic battle to save the future of the human race.

This is what can happen when the BBC focuses on doing a proper sci-fi show, rather than Dr Who. The setting is quickly established, and the cast, special effects and production is absolutely top notch. Eddie Izzard, in particular, makes a fantastic bad-guy – you’d have to see it to believe it, but he’s really rather good. The cast in fact, are so strong, that you’ll often realise that you’ve been watching nothing but dialogue exchanges in a room for five minutes, and it’s still exciting.

The only real disappointment in the series is that the first episode is so strong, that the second feels rather weak – albeit only by comparison. The pace flags a little around half-way through the second episode, but it does pull it back by the end. The tension is great, the action is great, this is damn good TV.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Several vehicular collisions, shootings, explosions, and some Triffid related death.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: An entertaining sci-fi mini-series, although the second episodes is a disappointment after the first. Recommended to show what UK television can achieve when it’s not farting around with that other sci-fi show. 9/10

Doctor Who: Peladon Tales
Starring: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Elisabeth Sladen
Directed by Lennie Mayne

Available now - RRP £29.99
Review by Rob Wade

Two classic Doctor Who adventures set on the planet of Peladon, starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.

In the four-parter The Curse of Peladon, the Doctor finally seems to have escaped his exile to Earth when he manages to transport Jo in the Tardis to the planet Peladon. The pair are mistaken for Earth delegates at a conference to decide whether Peladon should join the Galactic Federation, and discover that someone is attempting to use the legendary royal beast of Aggador to trigger off a war.

In the six-parter The Monster of Peladon, the Tardis arrives on the Planet of Peladon half a century after the Doctor's first visit. The planet has now become of great tactical importance because of its focal position between warring factions. The Doctor and Sarah have to act as peacekeepers between rival ambassadors and they must also find the truth behind 'the spirit'.

Now, I'll happily admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Doctor Who, but I retain some fond memories from my childhood of particular story arcs that I was fond of, particularly from the Jon Pertwee era, so when this one came our way, it seemed like I would be in for something enjoyable.

Sadly, this was not entirely the case.

If you like your shonky science-fiction, then there is plenty here to keep you entertained. Peladon Tales combines both mini-series using the same planet as a setting, and there is around four hours of total viewing time here. If you're a dedicated collector, definitely worth picking this up, as there is plenty of stuff here to keep you occupied.

The visuals are unchanged from the previous run in the 1970s, which I did find slightly disappointing, as no efforts seem to have been made to even touch up the visuals in the same way as many TV series and films are updated for their re-release. The sound is as terrifyingly bad as ever, with most ambient music sounding like 16-bit videogame classics. To the composer's credit, however, the music does an effective job of setting the atmosphere necessary.

However, this is the 1970s Doctor Who you've come to expect, with the same level of cheesiness and shonky effects. The only thing that I remotely enjoyed was when the monster of Peladon turned on someone (not saying who that is, for the purposes of keeping the review spoiler-free) and my inner wrestling fan screamed "Face turn!"

Ultimately, it wouldn't be so bad if the episodes were entertaining. From assassination plots to fights of honour between the Doctor and a local resident, all the scenes are just devoid of excitement, and really did nothing to keep me entertained.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: Very little to speak of, mainly run-by furry creature maulings of little blood or gore. Hardly surprising really.
Sex/Nudity:Would you believe "none"?
Swearing: None.
Summary: For enthusiasts only, not a particularly exciting DVD collection otherwise. 6/10

XIII: The Conspiracy
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Caterina Murino, Greg Bryk and Val Kilmer
Director: Duane Clark
Lionsgate UK

Available Now - £15.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

The first female US President Sally Sheridan is shot dead by a sniper during her Independence Day speech. Her assassin narrowly escapes the scene with his life, national security hot on his heels - or so it seems. Three months later, a wounded man is found. The young man (Stephen Dorff – bad guy from Blade) cannot remember the slightest thing about his own identity. The only clue is a tattoo on his neck, "XIII". Could his lightning reflexes and killer instincts betray him?

XIII: The Conspiracy is a pretty good action story. The feel is very much that of a generic 90s/00s action movie, although the story itself (based on a comic/video-game franchise) is pretty original. What is probably the most crippling factor against it is the production decision to make it a three hour TV mini-series rather than a two hour movie. It rather unfortunately results in padding like you would not believe.

The production is great, and manages to achieve a very “comic book” feel, without having to resort to that hideous split-screen stuff Ang Lee used in the abysmal Hulk, or the cartoon garishness of the director’s cut of The Warriors. The central story is fun (if, as mentioned, overlong) and the action sequences great.

Unfortunately, some of the set-dressing doesn’t pay off. The science-fiction elements often feel like tacked on techno-babble with no real grounding in science, and keeping track of who’s trying to kill who and be a nightmare if you’re not into these sort of things.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Lots of fights, explosions, murders and gunplay.
Sex/Nudity: Some topless male nudity.
Swearing: Nothing special:
Summary: Fairly generic sci-fi/action/thriller that is too long for its own good. A shame, as it’s not bad otherwise. 7/10

Reno 911!: Most Wanted
Starring: Cedric Yarbrough, Niecy Nash and Robert Ben Garant
Best Medicine

Available Now - £9.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

Roll with Washoe County Sherrif Department’s finest deputies as they stumble through seven of their favourite mishaps and misadventures in this compilation of the “very best” of Reno 911!.

The Reno 911! crew of serious crime fighters are led by Lt. Jim Dangle, a straight down the line cop, whose indecent interest in his male colleagues and uniform of tight shorts suggest that he might not be that “straight” after all.

A spoof of shows like COPS! and others of that ilk, Reno 911! is often well-observed, frequently surreal, but unfortunately very rarely funny. Whilst the camera style, and the acting is on the spot, and showcases some pretty good comedic ability from the cast, the script and the gags themselves are usually so telegraphed that you’ve already predicted the punch line and not laughed at it before it actually arrives.

Even the running gags aren’t that good. Rather that laughing the second time they arrested Big Mike (and featuring another oversold surreal scuffle), I actually found myself annoyed by it, as it wasn’t being sold like a running gag - it was like they were just trying to pass the same joke off twice.

There are much funnier shows on TV, and it hardly fills me with confidence that this gagless compilation is being sold as a “Best Of”.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some scuffles and explosions.
Sex/Nudity: Some references, but nothing explicit.
Swearing: Some mild, TV friendly language.
Summary: Observational comedy without the comedy. 2/10

Zach Galifianakis: Live At The Purple Onion
Starring: Zach Galifianakis
Best Medicine

Available Now - £9.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

Yes, he's the guy from The Hangover.

I’ve been doing stand-up long enough to know a really crappy stand-up comedian when I see one. And I see one here.

This DVD runs in at sixty minutes. Approximately half of that time is footage of Galifianakis performing stand-up, and the other is indulging itself in the current trend for stand-up comedians to cut sketches and skits into their CDs and DVDs. They probably think it’s quirky and original. It’s not. All it says is that you didn’t have a material to do a good sixty minute set, and you’re trying to hide that behind really, really unfunny sketches that centre around private jokes between you and your friends. It only worked for Chris Rock, and he’s the exception, not the rule.

Galifianakis appears to actually have about four or five jokes prepared for his set, and desperately tries to wing his way through the show Robin Williams style, forgetting two things: A) he’s not Robin Williams and B) never will be. If you want to watch an hour of a comedian desperately trying to think of surreal and/or offensive things to shout at a unimpressed audience whilst he dies on his arse, then this DVD is a valid your time and money.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
None.
Sex/Nudity: Some mild references.
Swearing: Frequent and strong.
Summary: A pitifully weak stand-up set, with a very weak editing job. Very few laughs. Avoid. 2/10
In the west the vampire myth is widelythought to have been based on the life of Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Wallachian warrior-prince whose devotion to cruelty and killing made the lives of his subjects meserable, bloody and short.

However, bloodsuckers of all shapes and sizes feature in many cultures. The most famous of these is the chupacabra, or "goat killer", a creature that is rumoured to have attacked and mutilated as many as 2,000 animals in Puerto Rico and Latin America. The chupacabra is variously described as half alien, half tailess dinosaur with quills running down its back, a panther with a long serpent's tongue and a hopping animal that leaves and unbearable sulphurous stench in its wake. Whatever his form, one thing is for sure, the chupacabra shares little with his dark-cloaked, virgin-biting, garlic-hating, European cousin, apart from him lust for blood.

Charlotte Montague's Vampires - From Dracula to Twilight: The Complete Guide to Vampire Mythology explores these diverse myths and legends, their impact upon popular culture and the possible explanations behind such phenomena.

Thanks to our friends at Sphere, we've got five copies of Vampires - From Dracula to Twilight to give away! For your chance of winning one, send us an e-mail to vampiresgiveaway@rocketmail.com with your name and postal address before midday on Thursday 4th March (UK time). The first five names drawn out of the electronic hat will win a free copy!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Worst Games I Have Ever Played

Oh, my fucking life, I hate you Mickey Mouse. I’ve never liked you. You were never funny. You were downright irritating from the off with your stupid fucking voice and your gay-arse little red shorts. God, I hate you. Bugs could wipe his arse with you, but he wouldn’t, because he doesn’t need you, because he’s too busy watching Daffy rape Donald.

When I was nine years old, my brother and I were given a present of a Sega Game Gear, which also came with a bundle of three games: the awesome Sonic the Hedgehog, the patchy Golden Axe: The Legend of Ax Battler and the oh-my-god-why-do-we-even-own-this Mickey Mouse’s Castle of Illusion.

The game started with the following text appearing on screen:

Once Upon A Mouse...

Instantly, even at the age of nine, my Cunt Radar went off. Did you get it? Clever, right? They took the classic line “Once upon a time” and changed it to “Once upon a mouse”! They changed the word “time” for “mouse” because...because they’re comedic geniuses, that’s why! They were playing on the similarity between the words “time” and “mouse”! At age nine I was a lot less rage filled than I am now, as my poor young soul had yet to experience Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and the veracity with which other people my age took to them, but even then I knew that was some pretty lousy work.

There then followed a brief animation detailing Mickey and Minnie Mouse frolicking in the forest, when, all of a sudden, the evil witch Mizrabel flies down and kidnaps Minnie. This incites Mickey to go Rambo as only a squeaky voiced, half-naked mouse can. Journeying far to the Castle of Illusions, he bumps into a weird gatekeeper who tells him needs to find the crystals or diamonds or topazes of such and such to defeat the yeahwhateverletmekillsomethingnow.

Entering the castle, Mickey is faced with three doors, which each contain a different world, and all of which contain a crystal or diamond or topaz. Mickey has two functions he can perform, in addition to walking and jumping. Firstly, he can launch a bottom attack.

By double-tapping the jump button, Mickey was able to tuck his knees up in mid-flight and crash on top of his enemy’s head with his butt crack. Now, the “jumping on enemies heads” attack is a staple of platform games, firstly, because it requires some degree of dexterity to pull off, and, secondly (and more importantly) because it’s “non-violent” and won’t upset parents.

Mickey’s second function was to pick up and throw rocks, which he could use to solve puzzles, trigger traps and defeat monsters like a participant in a Disney Dungeon Crawl.

Within the Castle of Illusion, Mickey bumbled and butt-bounced his way through more bizarre realms, including one made entirely of chocolate, and one where there was like...one or two villains in the entire level – both unicycle riding, juggling clowns.

I mean they were clowns riding on unicycles whilst juggling. Not that the villains were sat on unicycles, whilst juggling clowns.

There’s was something about this game that has irked me for years, and it was only really whilst watching the YouTube playbacks for research for this article that I managed to figure out what it was. It’s the downright cockiness of the Mickey Mouse sprite.

He jogs along with a big smile on his face – as though actually pleased that his missus has been kidnapped by an evil witch. To stop, he actually makes a skidding animation – as though he’s offended that you – a mere player of the game, would deign to tell him what to do! Don’t you know who he is? He’s Mickey Mouse, the least funny cartoon character this side of Betty Boop!

I couldn’t argue that Castle of Illusion was a technically flawed game, as it wasn’t. As blatant rip-offs of Super Mario Bros go, it was pretty good – if uninspired. What it boiled down to was, even at the age of nine, I was sickened by the sugar coated cutesiness of it. Mickey Mouse goes around non-violently defeating clowns in a chocolate and marshmallow wonderland? Get me Tex Avery right fucking now!

But, for all that...I still played it. This is because when you’re nine years old, it doesn’t matter how bad the games you have are – if you only have three of them, then you’re going to play them. This is also the only explanation I have for Battletoads.


Tuesday, 23 February 2010

DVD Reviews

Blood and Bone
Starring: Michael Jai White, Julian Sands (wow, I haven't seen him since Arachnophobia
!), Eamonn Walker and Dante Basco
Director: Ben Ramsey
Momentum Pictures

Available Now - £15.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

A mysterious drifter becomes ensnared in the seedy world of underground street-fighting. In the back alleys of Los Angeles, life is cheap, and to go against the grain is to take on the most powerful criminal organisation on the West Coast.

You’ve seen movies like this before, right? If not, we’ve reviewed what’s basically the same move
here, here and here. The “Underground Fighting Movie” is what the Reality TV generation has done with the Kung-Fu movie. There’s still the fight sequences, the same characters, and the same plot...no wait! Instead of a plot, which would result in the writers having to actually come up with some excuse as to why there’s all these guys fighting, it always just so happens that a huge martial league/tournament is on next week! We can enter you, so you can raise the money to pay off your daughter’s operation/orphanage repairs/David Carradine memorial tattoo!

As a genre, they’re lazy, sloppy and appeal to the lowest common denominator, and they need to stop.

Blood & Bone isn’t a bad film by any stretch. If anything, the production and cinematography is actually head and shoulders over every other Underground Fighting Movie that I’ve seen. The fight scenes are pretty good. The acting is, for the genre, okay. But it’s just a movie I’ve seen a hundred times before, and always with the same cliched narrative.

Oh, except for the kung-fu sequences shot from a first-person perspective. Don’t do that ever, ever again.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Several scenes of strong, although comic-booky, violence.
Sex/Nudity: Some.
Swearing: A reasonable amount.
Summary: Underground Fighting Movie by the numbers. Far from technically flawed, but such a tired formula you may fall asleep before the end. Occasionally fun, maybe even good, but there are so many better examples of the genre. 4/10

Pontypool
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly
Director: Bruce McDonald
Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment

Available Now - £15.99 (DVD) and £19.99 (Blu-ray)
Review by Brad Harmer

It appears to be just another humdrum winter’s day in Pontypool, Ontario as shock-jock Grant Mazzy goes on air to present his morning phone-in radio show from a studio in the basement of the town’s church. But amidst the minor news items regarding school bus cancellations and missing cats being reported by Mazzy’s listening public and his “Eye in the Sky” reporter are a series of bizarre reports of local people developing strange speech patterns and committing acts of horrific violence.

With no confirmation of these events on the official news wires, Mazzy, his producer and assistant suspect that an elaborate hoax is being played. However, it isn’t long before the radio team realise that the reports are real and that something terrible is happening beyond the studio walls. Trapped inside the church as bloody chaos reigns outside, they must decide if they should stay on air in the hopes of being heard and eventually rescued, even though they suspect their broadcasters may be contributing to the madness infecting the residents of Pontypool.

Pontypool is a pretty gripping and original zombie movie, because instead of focusing on the gore and zombies, it focuses on the survivalist characters. A zombie movie with great dialogue and great acting and...wait for it...virtually no zombies on screen (for the most part)? If that doesn’t sound great, then it should.

Taking place in a single location, with a core cast of five (one of whom is only heard, never seen) Pontypool is not only tense and immersive, but it’s also a damn original way of telling a zombie story. Some minor plot holes mar what would have been an otherwise great movie, but other than that, this is well worth a watch.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some unarmed combat, blood and gore.
Sex/Nudity: Some kissing.
Swearing: Frequent and strong.
Summary: A well put-together horror movie that shows great potential, but leaves too many questions unanswered to be truly satisfying. 8/10

Misfits
Starring: Antonia Thomas, Lauren Socha and Nathan Stewart Jarrett
Director: Tom Green and Tom Harper
4DVD

Available Now - £19.99 (DVD)
Review by Charlotte Barnes

Who wants a superhero with an ASBO? A gang of five teenage outsiders - party-girl Alisha, hard-as-nails Kelly, one-time sporting hero Curtis, painfully shy nerd Simon and smart-aleck Nathan - get caught in a flash storm while on Community Service and suddenly find themselves saddled with strange superpowers.

Unlike their more conventional counterparts, they don't swap their mobile phones and ankle tags for capes and tights. Instead, they discover just how tough life can be when you're all that stands between good and evil. Well, that and your curfew order...

It is a really fine line to walk between serious superhero action series which is darkly comedic such as The Punisher and Batman and parody such as the hilarious Mystery Men; this show lands somewhere between the two. Don’t get me wrong, the concept for this series is pure genius and the acting is beyond reproach, there are just the moments within the series when it seems to flounder and wonder what to do next or even worse seem like a trashy soap opera. That said, the majority of the episodes are a joy to watch and the dialog between the kids is hilarious. I also believe that once this show really gets into the swing of things it will move onto bigger and better things.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: There is plenty of violence, this show is not for the faint hearted.
Sex/Nudity: Plenty of that, you even get to see a pair of Granny boobs.
Swearing: I think half the dialog is swearing, but this only seems to add to its realism rather than seem fake or in your face.
Summary: This is a fun and gritty show that I believe will do well and will improve with every series to come. 7/10

Ben 10: Alien Force - Volume 2: Max Out
Warner Home Video
Available Now - £9.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

Following straight on from the end of the previous volume, this second collection presents are fair few twists as the meta-plot develops, including the disapperance of Grandpa Max, the arrival of Ship, and the true secret behind Gwen’s magic powers.

What makes Ben 10: Alien Force better than the average Saturday Morning cartoon is its willingness to stick with the rules of the genre, whilst also pushing its plot into darker and more adult territories. Some of the stories in the series are worthy of a harder sci-fi television show, and this is awesome not just for us adult viewers, but also because it’s a kids’ series that doesn’t pander to kids. Kids hate being treated like kids, and that’s a good reason why they, I, and hopefully you too, love Ben 10.

In this compilation the overall story arch progresses ever further. The quest to discover what has happened to Grandpa Max reaches its conclusion, and the second quest – to reunite The Plumbers begins.

In terms of quality, overall the episodes aren’t as strong as those in the previous volume – it always bugged me that Ship arrives, and then isn’t seen for several more episodes, and The Gauntlet really does feel like filler material.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some Saturday Morning Cartoon style combat and explosions.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: Another good installment of the series – not as strong as the previous volume – but still essential due to the storyline progression. – 8/10

The Big Bang Theory: Season Two
Starring: Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco
Director: Mark Cendrowski
Warner Home Video

Available Now - £24.99 (DVD)
Review by Charlotte Barnes

Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of "beautiful minds" that understand how the universe works. But none of that genius helps them interact with people, especially women. All this begins to change when a free-spirited beauty named Penny moves in next door. Sheldon, Leonard's roommate, is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with their socially dysfunctional friends, fellow Caltech scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. However, Leonard sees in Penny a whole new universe of possibilities... including love.

If you loved the first season you will love this one even more, with its snappy quick witted writing and hilarious scenarios The Big Bang Theory makes geekiness the new cool. What is better about season two is that it moves away from Leonard’s infatuation with Penny, which allows for greater expansion upon the other characters within the show.

The TV series could easily go down the route of flat typical American comedy (e.g. Dharma and Greg and King of Queens) with the only interesting about it being that they are geeks living next door to a beautiful woman. Thanks to the brilliant writing and the wonderful acting, every character have so many dimensions to them that even Sheldon can appear endearing even when he is the most anti social of the group.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Comedic violence, no guts and gore.
Sex/Nudity: Very mild.
Swearing: Nothing stronger than "crap".
Summary: This is a truly wonderful show, with great writing and character interaction and with 23 episodes you couldn’t ask for more for your money. Bring on season 3! 10/10

James May's Toy Story
Starring: James May
4DVD

Available Now - £19.99 (DVD)
Review by Charlotte Barnes

James May goes on a mission to reconnect today's youth with some of Britain's best loved toys of yesteryear. In an effort to get kids to put down their games consoles, the technology-enthusiast introduces the new generation to the pleasures, frustrations and ultimate sense of accomplishment found in Plasticine, Lego, Airfix, Scalextrix, Meccano and model railways. Each toy is explored in a group project on a giant, often surreal scale, designed to unite family members of all ages and reawaken the big kid in all of us.

I have always believed that James May is the most underrated member of the Top Gear team; always seeming to be the ‘sensible’ one or the ‘grouchy’ one, this TV series blows those notions out of the water. This show is so endearing, enthralling and so damn cute you can’t help but smile and succumb to May’s charm.

What is so great about the show is that you get to see in detail the processes which May and his team of children and adults have to go though in order to pull off some mammoth activities. You can see the struggle and the effort that each team have to go through rather than it seeming like a relatively easy task, that some documentaries make the mistake of doing. You get that genuine sense of community, passion and team work that you don’t get by playing your X-Box or Playstation.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
None.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: This is a great fun show for all the family to watch and brought out the kid in me all over again. Plasticine here I come! 10/10

Gunparade March: Volume Three
Starring: Natalina Maggio, Akira Ishida and Akemi Okamura
Director: Katsushi Sakurabi and Fumihiko Takayama
MVM

Available Now - £15.99 (DVD)
Review by Brad Harmer

The Genjyu step up their campaign of destruction as the dawn of the new millennium approaches. Hayami and Mai find themselves in the spotlight when the news media takes an interest in Unit 5121's war against the alien menace. Things take an abrupt change when another HWT unit requests Mai as a replacement pilot. Hayami has until the clock strikes twelve to admit his feelings for her, or she'll be transfered out of his reach. In this war, it could mean forever.

Gunparade March is a series that has impressed me in the past. I admired its focus on characterisation and development rather than constant mech-on-mech rucks. Now that this final volume has arrived, it’s an immense disappointment to me that it’s such a damp squib.

The character based focus on the previous episodes seems to be rather lacking in this compilation – and not for any good reason. The attention focuses rather too much on Mai and Hiyami, to the rather unfortunate exclusion of the rest of the cast. The plot lines falter and flounder, and the whole things drags to its conclusion. There are one or two entertaining episodes, but even they aren’t as strong as the series’ start.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some scrapping and mech combat.
Sex/Nudity: None
Swearing: Some light uses.
Summary: An overly sentimental collection of episodes that never really reach an effective conclusion. – 4/10

Monday, 22 February 2010

Greatest Games I Ever Played: Part The First


As many of our regular readers will note, over the past year or so I've been making a list of The Worst Games I've Ever Played. Well, it seems like the time has come that either one of two things has happened.

1) I've run out of games that I've played that were so bad they deserved to be on this list.
2) I can't remember any.
In all honesty, the second one is most likely.

I thought, thus, that this week would be as good a time as any to begin my list of The Greatest Games I Ever Played. My first entry on this list comes from that often overlooked classic console, the SEGA Master System II.

Admittedly, the difference between the MSII and the original Master System is comparable to the difference between the PS3 and the PS3 Slim, in that it's largely a size change more than anything else. Mine came with Sonic the Hedgehog built in as well, which wasn't bad. Truth be told, I'm not a tremendous Sonic fan, as I've found that often you're forced to speed ahead and actually don't get to look around. I'm one of THOSE people that likes to be able to explore an open world in games, so things with a decent overworld are generally more likely to hold my attention for hours upon hours (in some cases up to 100 depending on the game). For those flabbergasted by those numbers, it's the same number of hours as watching the entire Star Wars Saga 15 times. Sad, really, when you consider that I've done that as well.

Anyway, my game of choice this week for your viewing and critiquing pleasure is generally one that's held in quite high esteem by Master System gamers, and was in actual fact first released in 1990, a full year before Sonic first found his way onto SEGA Mega Drive and Master System. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you:

Castle Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse.


Now, for those who've never played it, this game has a very very simple concept. Players take the role of Mickey, and are going through the Castle of Illusion in order to save Minnie (Mickey's "bitch") from an evil witch named Mizrabel. You know, what's sadder than most things at this very moment is looking at the name of the witch and realising that when I was a kid I didn't get the relevance of the name. Looking at it now, it's like calling your character Captain Badd or General Grie...oh wait.

Anyway, the idea of the game is a very straightforward platform game, in the vein of Mario Bros or indeed...most of the games on NES and Master System. I had no access to a NES growing up, so I had little way of knowing how many great Nintendo games awaited me. That's a story for another time, however, as this game did a more than capable job of filling in the space.

Ultimately, the gameplay was simple, as Mickey you would destroy various Disney-esque enemies (There weren't really any licensed enemies as such - at least on the Master System version) by bashing them on the head. What was interesting (I don't know if it qualifies as "good" or "bad" in its way) was that Mickey had an arse attack. It's an interesting take on the stomping mechanisms, at the very least, and it's quite impressive really considering the technical limitations that were in place at the time using the hardware.

Ironically, it's partly for this reason that Castle of Illusion makes it onto the list. So many games at the time were doing their best to try and push the boundaries of what could be done. Some games worked, such as the Legend of Zelda on NES, and some were abject failures such as the oft-lamented Back to the Future adaptation for NES. What was nice about Castle of Illusion was simply that it wasn't trying to do anything beyond making the game enjoyable, which it did in spades.

Nowadays, I do like my expansive game world with a large amount of choice, but purely because nowadays developers have the hardware in place to make those games work technically. A big expansive game on Master System was more difficult to pull off, and bearing in mind I only went on to own two cartridges for the Master System due to finances, difficult to pull off on my system for sure.

Besides which, it probably was wise not to put too much choice into my hands at age 7. The reason I say this is very simple: at age 25, what I decided to do when given choice in The Sims 3 was make my Sim senile, to the point that when everyone else was enjoying their retirement, my Sim was out looking at the stars. Nice eh? Yeah, during the day.

In his pants.


Saturday, 20 February 2010

Gaming Reviews

Undead Knights
Tecmo Koei
Available From 26th February - £29.99 (PSP)
Review by Blake Harmer

Undead Knights is fun, there is no denying it. What other game makes you a shambling undead abomination with the ability turn your enemies into your own undead minions and have them feast upon the rest of the bad guys who happen to be still breathing?

The game has a similar graphical look and feel to the Dynasty Warriors franchise, except that rather than being able to fire arrows and unleash super attacks, you give orders to your zombie horde such as "eat these people", "smash those buildings up" etc, and turn bad guys into the undead when you have softened them up a bit. You can also pick up your minions and perform different attacks such as a powerful area based attack all around you, although this does turn the zombie into mush.

This leads to a fun satisfying experience where you can order your minions to do your evil bidding, but you can also do some serious damage yourself in a punch up, so you don’t have to rely on them. Also, it’s immensely satisfying when you defeat some of the larger enemies and convert them to a zombie as well so they run clobbering everything left right and centre.

However, as the game progresses, the main flaws of the game quickly become apparent. It’s too easy to get stuck in a corner and clobbered to death by some of the larger minions, as dodging blows can be quite tricky to time it right. Also, with the larger monsters, it is always the same two ways of killing them, it is either by picking up zombies and throwing enough of them at them until they are so overwhelmed you can do critical hits on them. Or using a zombie smash when you are near them repeatedly until they die. Despite these flaws, and the irritating fact that you can’t issue orders when you are being attacked, and you must stand still to have the zombies complete a task, Undead Knights is still fun as it’s quick "pick up and play" havoc, with enjoyable bite sized levels for those trips to and from work.

The Emotionally Fourteen Games Rating
Graphics:
Similar graphics to the Dynasty Warrior games, where the emphasis is more on the number of enemies on screen, rather than looking pretty.
Sound/Music: Enjoyable groans and munching noises from your zombies, voice acting could be a lot better.
Gameplay: Simple hack-and-slash gameplay with some light tactical elements. It’s fun but not as deep as I would have liked it to be.
Lasting Appeal: If the online mode gets fixed and you have lots of mates to beat up, then potentially endless, however you will soon quickly tire of the single player experience.
Summary: An enjoyable game let down by some frustrating flaws that stop it jsut short of brilliant. There aren’t many games on PSP that will give you this experience so I recommend this for people who want to try something different whilst waiting for the next big release. Just don’t scare people on the bus with your evil laugh as you play. 7/10

Democracy Falls
Judge Dredd
Campaign
Mongoose Publishing

Available Now - £15.00 (Paperback) and £11.66 (PDF)
Review by Brad Harmer

Democracy Falls – a hub of opportunity for those in the Cursed Earth with the skills, gear and guts to try and survive within its gang-patrolled wall. Located a few hundred miles west of Mega City One on the ruins of one of America’s ancient heartland capitals, ‘D-Falls’ is a dream for Cursed Earthers…and a nightmare to the Justice Department. It has always loomed in the distance, standing as a reminder that the Mega Cities are not the only civilisations to thrive in this day and age.

The Justice Department has always turned a blind eye to the existence of Democracy Falls, choosing to use its resources more efficiently than laying siege to it. The appearance of a new criminal game in the lower blocks has changed the status quo, forcing the Chief Judges to take action. This new game, called Bloodrace, is well-known to have started in Democracy Falls – and it just claimed its first Judge’s life.

Now the Justice Department needs a small team of Judges willing to leave the safety of Mega City One to bring justice to the Bloodrace organisers – those who brought the game to MC-1’s streets. Everyone is allowed to enter Democracy Falls, even Judges…the only problem is getting back out again.

In many ways it’s a shame that Democracy Falls is so heavily embedded in the Judge Dredd universe, because a crime scenario like this would be a great one for many different crime/investigation RPGs. The plot of the mystery is very linear (don’t investigations have to be?), but the potential for exploration and subplots is virtually endless.

The pacing of the adventure will be spot on for most groups, providing a pretty even 50/50 split of role-play and investigation, and shoot-outs and high-octane chases. Even if that won’t keep all of your PCs happy all of the time, it’ll at least keep some of them happy some of the time.

As with other releases from Mongoose, its only real problem is that it’s absolutely stuffed with things to do and investigate. In many ways that’s great, as there’s oodles and oodles of extra backgrounds, ideas for sequels and some really great one-shots here. However, the editing of the book seems a little odd, as the wealth of the information about Democracy Falls is dumped in the middle of the book, when the Judges arrive there, and it really interrupts the flow of the narrative. Once I’d got passed it, it took me a page of so to remember what was supposed to be going on.

Maybe Mongoose should take a leaf out of Chaosium’s books and put a narrative summary at the start, and all the campaign setting stuff in an easily referable appendix at the end.
With that said, this is a well-rounded, packed out campaign. Mongoose have done it again. 9/10

Strontium Dog
Traveller
Sourcebook/Campaign Setting
Mongoose Publishing

Available Now - £25.00 (Hardback) and £18.14 (PDF)
Review by Brad Harmer

Earth, the late 22nd century. Following the atomic war of 2150, Britain has been devastated by nuclear holocaust. The survivors rebuilt their lives, but many were warped by the mutating effects of Strontium 90 fallout. Unable to live or work amongst the ‘norms’, mutants were forced to grow up in ghettos and take the only job open to them – bounty hunting. These Search/Destroy Agents hunt the criminals too dangerous for the Galactic Crime Commission. One such Strontium Dog is Johnny Alpha, whose eyes emit piercing Alpha rays and enable him to see through solid objects - and into men’s minds.

Using the Traveller core rules, Strontium Dog allows players to take the part of mutant bounty hunters, combing the galaxy for their prey – dead or alive!

Personally, I think it’s a real shame that both Judge Dredd and now Strontium Dog are relegated to being campaign settings for Traveller, rather than solid RPGs in their own right. Traveller is an okay system for them, but aren’t there enough gamers out there to justify making them full RPGs?

With that little grumble done with...this is an excellent sourcebook. It’s size, scope and dedication to its setting only really underlines the point that this should have been a full blown game. The character creation system, for starters, is excellent. Containing some echoes of the Leading Edge Aliens RPG (only without the clunkiness), the wealth of possibilities for your hero’s background (generated randomly) is endless. You could be a grizzled, scarred veteran, or totally green – both are possible!

On top of this the mutations list (also rolled randomly during character creation) is excellent, and the sheer number of possibilities should keep most groups happy indefinitely.

Some of the later elements boil down to basic sci-fi, but then again, so does a lot of the Strontium Dog universe. If you have access to a Traveller rulebook, and some friends who dig the comic, then you could have a blast with this for a long time. If not, however, don’t fork out for the core rulebook just to play this. 8/10

Dark Fall: Lost Souls
Darkling Room
Iceberg Interactive

Available Now - £24.99 (PC)
Review by Blake Harmer

If any of you are wondering where the adventure games genre has been over the last ten years (aside from the odd piece of episodic brilliance in the form of Monkey Island and Sam & Max), you’ll be happy to know that they are still being made, although not in as high a budget as the big releases of today.

Lost Souls is the third instalment in the Dark Fall series, but can stand on its own perfectly fine if you haven’t played the other games. You play an inspector in search of Amy, a missing girl in an abandoned and haunted train station.

The game likes to keep things simple by keeping the game in a first person perspective and having you looking for clues and solving puzzles whilst the clever use of sound and the occasional apparition attempt to scare the pants off you.

However, the game is let down by some poor dialogue in places that hampers the storyline and even spoilt my immersion into the game a couple of times. Also, some puzzles, as they are to do with the supernatural, are annoyingly difficult, with very imaginative solutions. However, look past these flaws and this is an enjoyable budget title that is worth a look at if you like your horror and your point and click adventures.

The Emotionally Fourteen Games Rating
Graphics:
Sub-Par considering other games out there. But for a game created by such a small team, a lot of credit has to be given for what they came up with.
Sound/Music: Excellent use of creepy sound effects to scare you whilst you play. But some poor dialogue in some scenes can spoil the experience.
Gameplay: Simple point and click adventuring with some horribly difficult puzzles made up for by lots of atmosphere and a story compelling enough to hold your interest.
Lasting Appeal: Depends how you find the puzzles, I found some very difficult but some point-and-Click lovers may breeze through the game in a few hours.
Summary: An experience filled with scares and imagination despite its obviously low budget. If you liked point-and-click adventures, this will not disappoint you. But be prepared for some incredibly difficult puzzles, and some scarily bad dialogue. 7/10


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