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Gratuitous Space Battles – The Verdict

Gratuitous Space Battles – The Verdict

I’ve never liked the word ‘gratuitous’. It’s one of those words that is impossible to say in anything other than a Mary Whitehouse tone. It’s one of the elite cadre of words that has a reputation, and ‘gratuitous’ has a reputation for bad.

Yet here it is, in full, capitalised glory, amongst the title of a new indie game about things exploding in space. Even better, it flies in the face of gratuitous’s reputation. Gratuitous Space Battles is not only good, it’s rather charming with it.

For those not in the know Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter GSB, acronym fans) is the brainchild of noted indie darling Cliff Harris, responsible for Democracy and Kudos. The main focus of the game is to take all your favourite parts of science fiction films (the exploding space ships) and cram it all into a game worth £16. It’s an interesting move in this regard, as though he’s taken Galactic Civilisation or Imperium Galactica, cut out all the bits with numbers, and dropped what’s left into a tidy little package.

The game part of GSB comes from designing your own armada of shiny death machines and arranging them prior to open conflict. In fact, true to its name, this pre-battle set up is the only time you have any input into what your ships will do. You can give your vessels standing orders, order them to support one another or defend a specific ship for instance, but once you click go that’s your job done. As you might expect from such a system, there will be moments where you will want to get on the phone and order a ship to shoot at the battleship right under his nose, but those moments are never too stressful thanks, in no small part, to the battles themselves.

I want you to stop for a minute and picture your favourite sci-fi film/programme, one with spaceships please otherwise this won’t work. Got it? Right. What you are thinking of there is almost exactly what you get in GSB. I say almost because I’m pretty sure you’ll be thinking of high-speed, stomach churning acrobatics accompanying your lasers, and GSB doesn’t do that. What it does do, however, is some rather delightful light shows. Lasers bounce of shields as capital ships crawl into range of one another, fighters explode as a wry shot from a cruiser catches the pilot off-guard, and torpedoes are shot out of the sky by point-defence lasers with seconds to spare. It’s simply beautiful.

It’s also rather hard at times. Get out of the tutorial missions and the game immediately expects you to understand how things work. Build your own ships, spend your cash and go out there and win. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a little while getting blown into captivating stardust before you finally start cobbling together a ragtag fleet of competent spacers. It is in defeat where the game shows yet more clever design however.

Losing, even in a game that makes it look good, will eventually wear out its welcome, and in games where battles can take a considerable amount of time there may come a point where it is clear to you that victory is impossible. Those irritating minutes where knowing that there is nothing you can do to reverse this trend can sap all the fun out of a game. GSB can detect when a battle has become unwinnable for one side, and presents you with a handy box to skip to the end. It should also be said that this box will pop up when you’re winning too, but at that point you will want to see your enemies explode into a twisted hulk of debris. While this feature itself is not new (the Total War games have something similar) it seems more intelligent than its predecessors, forcing you to play less of a losing game and get back to the drawing board much faster.

There is a very easy way to sum up this game: if you like Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, or any other show with ‘star’ hidden in its title somewhere, you are going to love Gratuitous Space Battles. It’s both simple and complicated in equal measure, and at the correct moments, allowing you to see the game for what it is: a chance to build your own little space opera. Design, refine and conquer, and do so with some damn fine pyrotechnics.

Set faces to stunned, gentlemen

Solium Infernum – The Verdict

Solium Infernum – The Verdict

Solium Infernum is a new turn based strategy game from Vic Davis of Cryptic Comet, the brain behind the excellent Armageddon Empires. When I say new, I mean it in the sense that, trust me, you haven’t played a strategy game quite like this before.

Satan has vanished leaving the throne to Hell empty. It is your ambition, as one of the many Princes, Dukes and general denizens of underworld, to take the throne for yourself. To do this you will have to lie, cheat, steal, deceive and bully your opponents until you have enough Prestige to impress the all-powerful Infernal Conclave.

Here’s the rub: Hell has it’s own rules, it’s own morbid beaurocracy and a general code of conduct to which all demons of the underworld are expected to adhere. You can’t just declare war on an Archfiend who’s in your way and invade their lands without a good and proper excuse. So it’s a game of goading your foes, making demands you know they can’t meet and then using their refusal to comply as an excuse enough to declare a Vendetta.

It’s not quite as simple as that though, nothing ever is in Solium Infernum. There’s always another layer of strategy to be considered. It’s hard to ever truly know what another player is up to and there are many ways for your enemy to take your declaration of Vendetta and turn it against you, making you look foolish in front of the Infernal Conclave and losing you Prestige. This makes every encounter with your enemy a tense and fascinating exchange.

Much of the tension stems from the fact that you can only give two orders each turn. An order includes bidding on a Legion in the Infernal Bazaar, creating a Combat Card to buff a Legion, moving a Legion on the game board, casting a Ritual or even collecting resources from your minions. Being restricted in this way gives rise to an endless amount of internal debate. I need more resources to bid on a powerful Relic in the Infernal Bazaar, but I need to move my Darkwing Legion to take a place of power before Beelzebub nabs it for himself. I’m also concerned that another Archfiend is becoming a little too rich for my liking and I want to play an Event card to raise the minimum cost of all items in the Infernal Bazaar, discouraging a spending spree that might see his Military become unstoppable. Alternatively I could bully a weaker Archfiend, taking his resources and gaining Prestige at the same time. There’s so much that needs to be done, and I have to choose. Making the wrong decision can prove costly.

This is especially true in Multiplayer. You can play Solium with friends (who won’t be friends for long), by email. It’s a bit of a faff to get it working, particularly for the host who has to amalgamate all of the player’s files at the end of each turn, but if you get past that irritation there’s a superb multiplayer experience to be had. The AI works perfectly well, but isn’t a patch on a human opponent, especially one you think you know. There are many ways to gain Prestige, many ways to win the throne to Hell. Human opponents are innately more devious and unpredictable, able to use the game’s systems to create an emotional response. Having a more powerful human Archfiend demand that you hand over resources will make you angry. Knowing that you aren’t powerful enough to risk a Vendetta with that person and having to hand over those resources, that’s humiliating. But then that just makes your eventual revenge all the sweeter. Add some humans to the mix and it all gets that bit more intense. It gets personal.

All this complexity can mean that, to begin with, Solium is a confusing and slightly overwhelming game. This is the first time in many years that I’ve had to read a game manual. That pdf file tucked away in the game files is absolutely essential reading and it should be more easily accessible for new players. Even with the manual a basic tutorial or pop up help tips to introduce the player to each screen would go a long way to easing any initial frustration. It’s a testament to Solium’s originality that it needs to teach you so many new concepts, but it could definitely help the player out a little more from the get go.

Once you’ve got to grip with the mechanics Solium feels distinctly like a board game, albeit one that would have too many bits and pieces to really work as a physical product. There’s something pleasingly tactile about shuffling your resource cards around and moving your Legion tokens across the game board. There’s some great artwork, too, remeniscent of images you’d see adorning a deck of cards from Wizards of the Coast. After a while though you’ll be so focused on your grand strategy that you’ll barely notice the interface but for the essential number values that denote the effectiveness of a Legion or the competence of a Relic. It’s one of those games that will suck you in and have you falling for the age old ‘just one more turn’ schtick.

If Machiavelli were alive today, he would tell you to play Solium Infernum. As he’s probably conning Lucifer out of his throne as we speak, it’s left to me to deliver a verdict. I’ve given three vials of Ichor and a pillar of Flame to the Infernal Reviewing Machine of The Reticule and it’s still chewing quite happily on what’s left of my soul. It hath decreed, by the black fires of eternal damnation, that Solium Infernum is devilishly good.

Plotting to become Master of the Universe? Use Solium Infernum as practice.

Zombie Driver – The Verdict

Zombie Driver – The Verdict

First thing’s first: you’re not a Zombie, you’re a driver. There are Zombies though. Millions and millions of them out there on the open roads just waiting to be steamrolled into oblivion. On the outset this could prove to be a nice slice of budget hyperviolence. Zombies? Cars? Zombies being run over by cars? What’s could possibly go wrong?

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Tales of Monkey Island Episode 5 – The Verdict

Tales of Monkey Island Episode 5 – The Verdict

A matter of grave importance. (You're fired - Obvious Pun Ed)
A matter of grave importance. (You're fired - Obvious Pun Ed)

So here we are, at the end of Telltale and LucasArts’ daring resurrection of the Monkey Island franchise. Has the gamble of bringing back much loved characters Guybrush, LeChuck, Elaine and many others paid off? Quite simply: yes! The final episode almost manages to be the exclamation point on what has been a wonderful series. Now before I go any further, it should be blindingly obvious but this review – along with the screenshots – contains MASSIVE SPOILERS to the rest of the series so far. So those of you who are a bit funny about things like this might want to jump to the last couple of paragraphs where I’ll talk about the series as a whole.

So we find Guybrush in pretty much the condition we left him in last episode: dead. Having been slain by LeChuck who has finally revealed himself to be as evil as he always was all along, he seeks to suck the voodoo energy from the pirate afterlife known as the Crossroads. Of course, anything LeChuck can do, Threepwood can do better – and as LeChuck has been resurrected more times than your average soap character – it’s up to the now Ghostly Threepwood to save the day, thwart LeChuck’s plans and save his wife Elaine. But first he must find a way to return to the land of the living to do so.

Well Dr Threepwood, is it serious?
Well Dr Threepwood, is it serious?

The entire series has seen some rather brave and bold moves from Telltale, and taking on the pirate land of the dead can be seen as yet another. Although it suffers from a rather dark palette – which is a bit of a theme throughout the episode – the locations are very clear and seem even more attuned to function than previous episodes. In a sense of playing the game, this makes the locations pretty easy to navigate but it does mean there are slightly less incidental object jokes in this final episode. Luckily no such comprimises are made in the rest of the dialogue – as it’s still packed with some great lines from both Guybrush and LeChuck.

The main thing that this final episode seems to drive home is that it is a bit of a ‘best of’ compilation of the previous episodes with some of the better characters and similar puzzles making an appearance from previous episodes. Thankfully the jungle maze having already been used twice in the series does not get a return, but the feast of the Sponge from episode 3 returns with a new twist, along with an interesting yet pretty clever take on the famous insult sword fighting. As has been the case for the entire series the voice acting remains brilliant with all the original cast in their roles, although it is a bit of a shame we don’t see Murray or Stan return for one last time.

How far will LeChuck chuck Threepwood?
How much would LeChuck chuck Threepwood if a LeChuck would chuck Threepwood? A: Lots.

However it’s certainly not the strongest episode this series. Some threads in the story are a tied up with slightly too much stretching, once again it makes little sense on it’s own without the previous episodes and it does seem to end a little too abruptly. However, it does manage to round up this first series well enough and it’s safe to say that Telltale should be proud of what they’ve achieved this series. So for this episode I will give it the following score:

A Pretty Good Game
Jumping the plank with a splash!

HOWEVER it would be wrong of me to not give you a verdict on the entire series. Funny, charming and with just the right amount of brainwork required to make the game fun, Telltale have done the Monkey Island franchise justice. It’s legacy is well known and the series is more than good enough to stand alongside it’s forefathers and dare I say it – is even better than LucasArts 3D attempt, Escape from Monkey Island. As modern day adventure games go, Tales of Monkey Island is a must buy for fans of the genre and comes highly recommended. I’m just hoping there’s a second Telltale Monkey Island series to come, because Telltale have made an episodic series that they and anyone who calls themselves a fan of the Monkey Island series proud.

So Tales of Monkey Island – The Complete Series gets an extremely well deserved headshot:

A Pretty Bloody Good Game
Swashbuckling Good Fun

Modern Warfare 2 – The Verdict

Modern Warfare 2 – The Verdict

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is The X Factor of the world of video games. It’s not all that clever, it has a component that divides public opinion masterminded by a savvy businessman who needs to work on his people skills, and is in no way going to move their respective genre forward. Yet it’s very polished, is a great spectacle and is still going to get a massive audience no matter what the critics will say about it. So in a lot of ways, it’s a pretty tricky game to review.

The game is divided into three sections, the Single Player, Multiplayer and Special Ops mode. The first of these picks up from where the single player mode of the first Modern Warfare left off – the story following six months later – and par for the course for the CoD games, you are placed into the boots of various soldiers throughout the warfare of the title. Along with other surprises, the player character from the first game, Soap McTavish returns as one of your commanders, and you follow a very convoluted plot which plays on the fears of the US being invaded. It’s very much on the 24 version of ‘realism’ with plenty of ‘Did you see that?’ moments. Of course there’s your obligatory stealth section, and the on rails shooter bit which are expertly executed and polished to a gleam, a snowmobile chase being a particular highlight.

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The thing about the single player is, it’s all very well and good and showy, but it’s firstly incredibly short. You’ll probably scream through the campaign in about 4 or 5 hours, and it’s only certain annoyances with higher difficulties that may cause you to gain a few minutes. Fair play to Infinity Ward, they’ve made the enemies slightly less finite by adding the possibility of them spawning behind you, but it sure is frustrating if you’re taking your time to get somewhere, get into cover only for someone to spawn behind you and kill you while you’re taking a breather. Another massive annoyance for me was the fact that – especially in the latter half of the game, it plays out almost exactly like Modern Warfare 1 did, but with the locations changed. Perhaps I’m getting a bit full of myself, but with the last game it felt as if the scriptwriters were in control. This time it feels a lot more like the scriptwriters were just trying to think of a different plot to tie the levels together, which is a massive shame. And the infamous No Russian level literally adds nothing but controversy – I would say more but it’s pretty much been extensively covered elsewhere.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad game. Special Ops and Multiplayer are the real heart and indeed meat of the game, and are probably where you’re going to get the most enjoyment. Spec Ops mode can be played solo or co-operatively, and challenges you with a series of missions ever increasing in difficulty in order to earn stars and unlock more missions. It’s certainly addictive for those with the obsessive tendencies, and the missions picked are certainly the best ones from the single player game – with a few twists. But if you really like showing off your skills, multiplayer is certainly where it’s at.

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Like the last game, MW2 comes with a persistent stats system. As you play more, you gain experience points which in turn helps you unlock new weapons, perks and entirely aesthetic – but also entirely awesome – badges and titles for your ‘callsign’. The popularity of hats and unlocks in games like TF2 is taken to it’s natural evolution here, and there’s something deeply compulsive about completing the massive list of challenges on offer. Covering all the game modes available – Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Domination – there’s literally something for everyone, and even the worst players can rack up the experience (you still get some even if you lose) and still complete challenges. The main advantage MW2’s multiplayer has over the first game is the amount of accessibility to all skill levels, there’s even Deathstreaks which give a perk to those players not doing as particularly well as others and customizable killstreaks so you can pick what you can aim for. The first Modern Warfare’s major problem came in the very best players would get enough kills for a devestating helicopter, which would then keep racking up the kills and usually resulting in the weaker players leaving as there was no chance for them to retaliate. The scales have been massively pushed in their favour now, as the randomly dropped bonuses in an airdrop package require far less kills and could contain rewards usually reserved for much better players. I cannot stress how much more accessible this has made the game for inept players like me.

As for negatives for the MP, well – here I was going to decry the lack of dedicated servers for the PC. It still is a massive shame that you’re unable to host true custom matches, with all the rules set how you want, disabling Killcams etc and the other benefits that dedicated servers provide. But to be quite honest I’ve not really had massively debilitating problems with IWNet. It does work – even if it’s claims of stopping cheaters are still dubious even to today – but functionality wise it at works on a broadband connection, and fairly well about 90% of the time. Be warned though, on the other 10% it’s incredibly irritating to see everybody lagging except the host. So yes, knock some marks off for the rather poor idea and thought processes behind it, but probably not as many as you’d think.

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So overall it’s a bit of a mixed bag really. If you’re only buying this for the single player, wait until it’s much – MUCH – cheaper. But if you want a deceptively addictive and engrossing multiplayer, and are willing to put up with rare technical issues, then Modern Warfare 2 does come recommended. But despite all of this if you wanted this game you’ve probably got it already, and like the viewing figures for The X Factor prove, it’s not budging from the top for a while.

A Pretty Bloody Good Game
No marks for originality, but what it does it does very well indeed