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Author: Ben Borthwick

Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe has a lot in common with a second hand Lego set. It seems like an awesome premise from the outset, is great fun for a while but is marred by the frustration of finding out that not all the pieces are there. Set in the titular Universe of the title, a dark force known as the Malestrom has taken over the world, and can only be defeated by the minifigs (characters) of the Lego Universe by restoring imagination to the world through battle and building.

The main facet that really holds most Lego games together – and moreso with this one – is the charm. There’s definitely something to be said about cute Lego versions of our favourite characters running around in the games based on movies and it’s comforting to know that the charm still exuberates from the Lego Universe even when it’s not tied down to another franchise. It’s clearly apparent that Net Devil know what they’re doing in this department, and charming little touches such as the Minifig that covers his eyes when you put in your password in the login screen really make the game feel like it has a sense of fun in the purest sense of the world, after all this is what Lego is all about.

Quite wisely, NetDevil have tried to stay away from the most obvious of MMO trappings, and combat is based around similar mechanics from the other Lego games, meaning the game does play more like an action platformer than the regular genre staples of pressing keys and watching pre-canned sequences. On the flipside however, this can mean fights feel a little samey and tactics become largely about proper health and ‘Imagination’ management – Lego Universe’s term for what is basically Mana. Imagination is used for many mechanics in the game, including building the preset stacks of blocks in order to reach previously inaccessible parts of the world.

So with all these touches, the game is a charming little action adventure – so the problem comes in the whole MMO aspect of it. There’s just not a lot of content at the moment. With three proper worlds in place total at the moment, it’s hard to feel as if you’re getting a true ‘Universe’ as such and more a small collection of areas to play in. Of course the developers might improve this over time as with all MMOs with their dynamic content, but by not having a mass of content to explore in the first place is leading to an already sparse population – which in turn doesn’t encourage future buyers and in turn doesn’t look good for further content. In a very tough post APB MMO market this makes it hard to currently justify the subscription fee – especially with Guild Wars and other, free to play MMOs that just feel like they have more to offer.

Of course, there is the building side to the game – every time you conquer so many missions you’re allowed access to a plot of land on which you can build using blocks gained from battles. Potentially it’s one of the best parts about the game, but it’s hampered by how fiddly it is to actually build anything in practice. And while understandable to protect the target audience of the game, it’s a terrible shame there’s no real ‘communal’ building areas and you are by and large restricted to viewing your friends’ creations which seem rather limited in scope when you compare them to things like Minecraft. It seems slightly off that the master of the physical creative building blocks should be bested in the virtual space by an essentially one man team.

Overall Lego Universe is a hard game to reccomend. It’s charming sure, and I can definitely see the potential within. But even for those planning to buy it for their kids – with a subscription of real money no less – parents may feel they’re getting slightly short changed by this deal, especially with other MMOs for children on the market that are free to play. If NetDevil can improve the game by adding more content and the like it may be worth a purchase in the future, but the tale of APB shows that Netdevil could be playing with a somewhat more fragile collection of bricks.

A few bricks short.

Mafia 2 – The Verdict

Mafia 2 – The Verdict

Comparisons are hard to live up to. It’s obvious, but it’s true. The original Mafia was a classic game with a deftly told story and an awesome open world that took us all on a brilliant journey and annoying race missions aside, is constantly recognised as one of the best alternatives to GTA in recent memory. Quite frankly, Mafia 2 has some mighty big shoes to fill in the eyes and minds of gamers, and sadly it doesn’t quite live up to them. But that may not entirely be the fault of the game…

Cutscenes are impressively directed.

The most unusual thing about Mafia 2 from the offset is that it’s quite frankly, the most linear ‘open-world’ game I’ve ever played. It seems like a heck of a juxtaposition to set this tale of guns and gangsters in a generously sized, bustling city only to then limit any exploration of said city itself by ensuring you follow a strict set of instructions: Go here, drive here, shoot these guys, drive back, go to sleep. This is pretty much repeated throughout most of the game, and you’re never encouraged to explore, which seems baffling giving the scope of Empire City. The only real opportunities to explore are during periods when you’re told to go to bed, but you’d have to be willing to ignore the instructions and prompts flashed up on screen. It seems very counter productive to the game, even if Mafia has always prided itself on it’s story. It’s like an artificial corridor has been placed around your enjoyment, and is very counter productive to those little stories that come from exploring the world itself and going off the beaten track that other open world games do so well.

Still, although the missions are very similar, I have to admit that there’s nothing particularly bad about them as such. Occasionally you’ll be beating down people in a fistfight, or transporting a dead body to a grave without the cops seeing or indeed just chasing down greasers in a car, which is pretty standard fare these days for this sort of game. This is however broken up by some interesting little asides, including selling cigarettes, helping a lady with a broken down car. However, there’s a continuous nagging feeling that this would have been far more organic if these sort of things didn’t happen during the course of a mission, and could be undertaken as a minigame in-between the main storyline. Combat is brief enough to not feel like a chore, but there’s rare variety in firefights, especially when most of the standoffs take place in places filled with the old chest high scenery syndrome. It’s slightly more believable than most games of it’s ilk, but once you’ve found a go-to gun you rarely feel a need to switch for all but the most difficult of fights.

This wasn't the flame paintjob Vito had in mind...

Not that you’ll run into difficulties that often. The game is fairly straightforward, even on Hard difficulty. There’s certainly no infuriating race mission like in the first game, and it’s only in the very latter stages you’ll really run into much bother from using the same tactics – the final fight utilizing the only notable way of changing the norm of firefights by ensuring goons can come in from all sides, forcing you to move out of cover and take a more dynamic approach to the combat. The driving is also pretty easy to get used to, even in different cars which don’t feel massively different from one another except at the extremes. The thing is, at the end of the day the way the game feels in terms of combat and overall gameplay isn’t particularly bad – it’s not shoddy and it’s extremely rare you’ll feel cheated by the AI – it’s just most of them are not particularly memorable for being beaten in any way other than ‘find one good piece of cover and stay behind it’.

The thing is though – and it’s a fact that can be easily forgotten – is that Mafia 1 wasn’t a particularly flawless game. Far from it, irritating missions, tough to the point of unfair combat and slightly too eager police AI meant that it too was a game that was flawed. The diamond in the first game’s rough was it’s story. Deftly told, and ending on an amazingly sombre note it was one of the best examples of storytelling in games, particular in a genre not usually famous for amazing stories. The problem with Mafia 2 is that the flawed game is also pretty flawed in the story department. Like before, our protagonist is wanting to go from nobody to made man, and like before he has a best friend that helps him along but is rather headstrong. This time around though, beats are predictable and Vito himself just isn’t very likeable. He’s a lazy man that just wants to fast track to the top, and while that is a change from most stories about good-guy doing bad things for a greater good, it leaves you not really rooting for Vito, and more pushing his story along just to see the conclusion. Again, the linearity prevents you from truly exploring what his new status as a made man actually means for him other than just a different save room at the end of each mission. More disappointingly is how stunted the story is. It seems like a far shorter game than it’s predecessor, and most of the game is geared towards Vito and Joe getting into the Mafia rather than the drama once they’re in there – it all happens a bit too fast, and when key story moments happen, you end up feeling slightly more disconnected than you should, as we’re never quite given the time to get to know any other characters than the two most important ones.

'Vito, I think the Consigliere is in another castle'

However, when it comes down to it it seems a little unfair to compare Mafia 2 to it’s predecessor when it’s forefather is held in such high regard. Mafia 2 isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination and it is at heart a competent, visually impressive shooter. The problem is that it’s not quite as good as the earlier game, but for us to truly appreciate it we may have to wipe our memories of the last eight years. It’s certainly one of the best games of the -pretty damn quiet – summer, but the niggling doubt it could have been a lot more is hard to shake off.

Feather in it's Capo

Turba – The Verdict

Turba – The Verdict

Music makes the world go round, or so we’re told. It certainly seems to be an adage for many ‘casual’ games released on Steam lately, as we’ve seen with titles like Audiosurf and Beat Hazard using your music to create new gameplay experiences. Now Turba gets in on the act by combining music with the old mainstay of the puzzle genre – block matching. But how well do Turba’s blocks rock your beats?

In Turba the aim is to get a high a score as possible, by selecting groups of four or more connected blocks of the same colour, and then remove them by right clicking. You get bonus points for clearing on the beat of the music, if you can get a group of each colour at the same time and through multipliers which can be cleared with any colour block, while being wary of bomb blocks which must be cleared within the number of beats displayed, lest they turn themselves and surrounding blocks into unmatchable black blocks. Free Play presents you with a board full of random blocks that you must clear, with the bottom row being replaced on every fifth or so beat. Ascend, as the name suggests starts with an empty board, and new blocks being added from the bottom, while descend is as expected, similar but in reverse. However, while there is no punishment for the board filling up in descend, on higher difficulty levels, allowing the board to fill up in Ascend will incur a game over. In these modes, the blocks that appear are apparently decided by the song, and thus are – in theory – the same for every player.

Turba's visuals are very colourful, but can get confusing

The major problem with Turba is that it’s really hard to actually feel any connection between the music and the game. Most of the time it never really feels like your music is more than a backdrop to a very average puzzle or block matching game. Suposedly matching combos ‘on the beat’ heightens the score, but the difference between what your ears pick up as the beat and what the game decides can be vast. Admittedly, it was improved slightly in a recent patch, but when such an integral part of your game mechanic is resting on the technology, it’s a deep flaw that feels very hard to shake off.

There are, of course, special powers, of which Turba lets you pick one of five at the same time you pick your gamemode and one of these abilities is unique to each game mode. For example, Auto Combo helps you out by clearing some of the already made block formations for you, while Laser shoots a laser to clear blocks, breakout style from the board. However, the actual helpfulness of some of these powers can vary. Whereas some are activated automatically, many require you to actually stop concentrating on clearing blocks while you use the power, which can be almost impossible to do on the higher difficulty levels as frantic as they are already. It can sometimes be difficult remembering how to use certain special powers as well, especially as once you’ve picked them you’re not given any reminder in game which one you’re using for the most part. A major bone of contention on the higher difficulty levels is the need to select every block manually in a sequence to clear them – when the blocks themselves are moving and with the middle mouse button often moving columns or blocks to other locations, it can lead to some very frustrating situations.

Bombs create unclearable black blocks if allowed to detonate

One nice touch of the game is that the powerups and indeed yourself can be ‘upgraded’ by playing and using the abilities more, such as increasing the time your powers last, and slowing down the amount of time before a level is failed. This does encourage you to play more, although to say that the longevity of the game rests more on how long it takes you to max out these powers than your music collection does make these additions feel like they’re artificially extending the game’s lifespan. Achievements, leaderboards and last.fm support are also included, but again they feel like very token additions – they certainly don’t add very much to the experience.

Which is the main flaw with Turba. The experience is essentially, very shallow – and no amount of dressing, game modes or powerups can truly hide that. And unlike other rhythm action games, it feels oddly disjointed and disconnected from the music. There’s no real connection, and the basic game isn’t really much more than you’d expect from a free browser game. If anything, Turba feels like a bit a cash in on a fad. It’s not out and out awful, but you’ll soon find you’d rather go back to Bejewelled and stick on your own music in the background.

Not Turba-ble, but not great.

Blur – The Verdict

Blur – The Verdict

Take a popular ‘realistic’ racing game. Add the over the top powerups from kart racing games. Throw in a tiny amount of Modern Warfare 2’s Multiplayer progression system. You’d be coming close to holding a copy of Blur in your hands. Unfortunately, the only ingredient you’d be missing is the bitter disappointment of the game’s technical PC shortcomings hampering what could have been a brilliant twist on the racer genre on the PC.

Let’s start with the positive. Bizarre Creations have done a good job on the stylistic aspects of the game. It’s become somewhat of a given that most racing games featuring powerups are commonly associated with games aimed at a younger audience. In some respects you would think we’d be sick of the whole nighttime/underground-esque racing scene. However when you see how well this ‘exaggerated neon realism’ style works immensely in it’s favour, and it’s hard to see how any other choice would have worked without veering into the very stylings they were clearly trying to avoid. With this style, Blur manages to appear as a slightly more ‘mature’ racer while allowing for the exaggeration from the power-up based gameplay pretty well.

Agressive drivers benefit from using the Battering Ram mod.

The powerups themselves are a nice rounded selection, despite appearing to be few in number. Bolt gives you three unguided, weak shots to fire straight ahead or behind you, Shunt fires a homing missle at your opponents, Shock lays down electricity based traps to the front of the pack, and Barge shoves anyone next to you out of the way while Mine, Shield and Repair do exactly what they say on the tin. They’re all powerful enough to really feel like they have an impact when you use them, while still weak enough that you think you can recover from them, at least in single player. However, at the same time Blur is the sort of racing game where you can race a perfect line all the way through, only to get shunted back to last place because of a last minute deployed powerup which can frustrate immensely if you’re the recipient.

Cars are numerous and varied. It’s certainly true that Blur caters for many driving styles from those who like to drift to those who like to muscle their way through the pack. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s great to see a game with licensed vehicles that actually lets you smash them up. In addition, the game also provides a ‘mod shop’ where you can add various perks to your car granting bonuses such as making your car able to take more hits or granting more fans when you hit others. This provides an interesting level of tangible customisation to your cars, possibly moreso than say visual customisation would provide in a driving game, when you’re spending most of the time concentrating on the road and the positions of the other drivers as opposed to if their paint job matches their rims.

Last minute boosts are a common sight online.

But of course, all these good points are negated by what has to be said, is a lacklustre port of the game to PC. First off, graphics options are limited to three choices and the level of anti-aliasing. That’s about as in depth as it gets – want to turn off the motion blur while leaving other effects untouched? Sorry. Would you like there to be slightly less particle effects when cars are hit while leaving other options intact? Not happening. Additionally, the game only supports one gamepad – the XBox 360 controller. If you haven’t got one of those, there’s no allowance of control reconfiguration, it just simply doesn’t detect the gamepad. Of course, third party software would allow you to use other controllers by convincing the game you’re using the keyboard but in this day and age this shouldn’t be so convoluted, especially for a driving game. Even if you do have a 360 controller plugged in, the game doesn’t even bother changing the tooltips to accommodate, so with prompts like “Insert” telling you to post your achievements to Facebook or Twitter, you’ll end up pressing every button until you work out exactly which one it means – or ironically enough revert back to the keyboard to navigate through the menus.

But the worst thing about the game may not even be the fault of the developers themselves. Blur prides itself on having a great multiplayer aspect of the game. You can race others and -borrowing a little of what keeps people playing Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer – you can earn ‘Fans’ and rank up, unlocking new cars, mods and different sorts of paintjobs by completing a number of different challenges with objectives such as Shunting 100 opponents. In addition to this the Singleplayer also has a neat ‘Rivals’ function, where you can pick a friend whose scores and times you will see during your singleplayer campaign, encouraging you to beat them, and offering an incentive when you do so. However, Blur’s biggest deficiency on the PC – aside from the poor porting issues – is the lack of people playing to take advantage of these features.

Blur is a visually striking game, when it works.

See, before the game was released there was allegedly a spat between Activison and Game in the UK, which also owns the Gamestation brand. As a result, the game was hard to find during it’s launch in the two biggest shops in the UK for any platform. The situation has reportedly improved now on console, but on PC finding a copy of Blur is a bit of a daunting task. The game was supposed to be on Steam, but there’s been no sign of it for weeks. During my play from the first two weeks since the game has been released the most players I saw in total across all the game modes was 100. The majority of those were in the first few gamemodes available from the start. Of course, reviews like this very one probably don’t help matters, but for me to recommend a multiplayer portion of a game that lives or dies on the number of people playing it in this state would be completely unprofessional of me.

It’s a terrible shame because the potential there is great. It’s just a shame that the execution of Blur on the PC is so flawed. Blur could have been one of this summer’s biggest racing games on the PC. As it stands, Blur feels like a massive missed opportunity, left spluttering at the starting line before the race has even begun.

Parked-life

Preview – Frozen Synapse

Preview – Frozen Synapse

It’s a rather overused adage now to compare games to chess. But if any game fit into this comparison so snugly, it’d be Frozen Synapse, the new strategy title from three man indie team Mode 7 Games. Not that you would be able to immediately guess that from first glance.

Utilizing a visual style somewhere between Defcon’s minimalist blueprint style and Tron, Frozen Synapse is essentially the modern day homage to turn based combat seen in games like X-COM UFO Enemy Unknown, but with everything stripped down to the essential components. Two teams face off against each other on randomly generated maps, with the aim -at least on the default gamemode – to kill the other team. Once players have made their moves, they send them to the server, and if the next turn has already been made by their opponent they can see their actions immediately. Otherwise when the turn is sent you can get on with other tasks, and the game will email you when the next turn is ready. After five turns, a victor is declared, based on how many of your team are still standing against your opponent.

The spark of genius comes in that the game actually allows you to thoroughly plan your moves, even down to anticipating your opponent’s. In the default mode Dark Extermination, you are shown the inital starting point of your enemy, and then after that only if you see them again. However, their last known locations not only stay on the map, but you can also move them in anticipation of where you think they are going to go before you commit your move. This means you are far more informed of decisions before you actually make a move, if you think an enemy is going to duck behind a wall but you can hit him with a well ricocheted grenade, you can try out your theory. If it’s unsuccessful, you can try something else without worrying about your move being comitted. A lot like how in chess you know pieces can only move in certain ways, this really helps to inform your stratagems, and victories really feel earned through both intelligence and skill. Of course, the enemy might not actually go the way you thought they would go, but as such defeats feel fairer because you feel as if you didn’t plan for it, not as if you couldn’t.

There are various units, each with their strengths and weaknesses. For example, snipers are more accurate at long ranges but take time to line up a shot. Rockets create a massive explosion that can destroy the scenery but they can only be fired at walls, never at opponents. It’s little nuances like this that make Frozen Synapse deceptively complex while being fairly straightforward to grasp – the hallmark of the best strategy games. Other game modes include an ingenious mode where you have to bid on areas of the game to attack and defend. Whoever makes the highest bid then has to make good on their claim.

Mode 7 Games really seem to have the outwardly simple yet deeply complex thing down to a fine art. From the straightforward controls that allow everything to be done on just the mouse, to the accessibility of one button game joining and the ability to export your best games straight to YouTube; It’s clear Mode 7 have made user-friendliness peak of their agenda. Even though it’s still in beta, it’s a very polished product – so much so that ordering it right now from their website nets you two copies of the beta to play with a friend so you can try it yourself. It already seems fairly complete, but with a map editor, single player campaign and more promised for the final release, Frozen Synapse definitely seems like one to keep an eye on in the time to come.

Frozen Synapse is available to pre-order now from the website from £16.99 which gets you a free copy for a friend.

Bejeweled Blitz – The Verdict

Bejeweled Blitz – The Verdict

For nearly a decade, Popcap’s flagship game Bejeweled has been the definitive casual game. Simple to understand and yet horrendously addictive, the game has appeared everywhere. From browsers to iPhones and even making an appearance in World of Warcraft, and spawning countless imitators and variants it seems that surely everyone has played it once by now. Yet here we stand with a brand new standalone flavour of the Facebook version of the game. Is it worth the dough, or is it ultimately a flawed gem?

For the 0.1% of the population reading this who don’t know Bejeweled, you’re given a 8-by-8 grid of gems from which you have to select gems to switch places with adjacent gems in order to get similar gems to match up in groups of three or more. Do this and the gems disappear, and the ones above fall down to take their place. In Blitz, a 4 match will produce an explosive gem, which when cleared will also clear all gems around it, regardless of colour. A match of five will produce a rainbow gem, which doesn’t have to be matched but when you click it followed by any colour gem, ALL gems of that colour are removed from the board. With these three methods you can cause massive cascades and rack up a massive score. The main pull with Blitz is that you only have one minute to get as high a score as possible.

You’re of course rewarded for managing to make matches without stopping thanks to a speed bonus, get enough of these in succession and you’re rewarded with the Blazing Speed perk, which for a short time makes every match explosive and really racks up the points, as of course do combo matches from falling gems falling into further matches, eventually making the grid a cacophony of exploding gems. Visually and aurally it’s very bold, bright and easy to understand. There’s a vibrancy that pours from the visuals, while not being overstimulating which could put you off further matches. Some gems also contain coins, which can be spent on up to three of five powerups providing extra time, a free multiplier and the chance to explode any special gems on screen, amongst others.

The main pull of Blitz is of course, the ability to import your Facebook friends, and compare scores. It’s good to know that a game like Bejeweled has such mainstream appeal, as it’s far more likely many of your Facebook friends have played it and thus their scores are there to be played against. You can track how well they’ve done on a weekly basis and I have to admit it adds a lot knowing that you’ve beaten that guy you used to know from school who you always thought was a bit too cocky… Of course there’s the obligatory posting to the wall options, with added replay functionality so once you goto Facebook you can see how your friend pulled that extra 100,000 points out of seemingly nowhere.

However, we get onto the main bugbear of Bejeweled Blitz – is it worth it? It gets a little hazy here. See, the only real extras that the standalone version provides is the chance to play the game in whatever resolution your monitor supports, and the Badges/Rank system. Basically like achievements, these are awarded for certain tasks such as destroying so many rainbow gems or getting enough Blazing Speed bonuses. For these two features plus one million bonus coins, Popcap are charging £15 at the time of writing. For these extras bolted onto a game which the real meat is playable for free on Facebook, it seems a very expensive privilege to play it on your own. Sure, it’s very addictive, an excellent timewaster and a lot of fun – but for this price surely Popcap should be offering something more substantial – it’s not as even as if you can post your badges or achievements on Facebook to brag about them, so they’re purely for your own sense of self worth.

So Bejewled Blitz then. It’s a great game, and I highly recommend you give it a go if you’re on Facebook. But whereas paying a premium may be justifiable for playing it on an iPhone or portable device that can’t use Flash, it’s really hard to truly advise you pay that to play it on a device that can just as easily play online for free.

A little too flash for the cash

Plain Sight – The Verdict

Plain Sight – The Verdict

Striking is the word that comes to mind. Both in visual style and gameplay, striking is a word that pretty much encapsulates Plain Sight. It’s a multiplayer game with a fairly simple, if unusual, concept – playing as ninja robots (which alone is a hybrid that automatically makes the game 15.8% more awesome) you gain points by killing other players. So far, so straightforward. However, to actually convert those kills into a cold hard score, you have to kill yourself by self destructing.


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