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Our super-duper reivews.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade – The Verdict

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade – The Verdict

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is not to be confused with Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, the latter is a slightly odd hack and slash RPG, notable for its use of the Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L system and very little else. The former is Neocore’s follow up to last year’s King Arthur: The Role Playing game, that they’ve chosen a title so similar to Legacy of the Crusader, is probably evidence that I was the only person foolish enough to actually buy it.

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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

Mount&Blade: Warband – The Verdict

Mount&Blade: Warband – The Verdict

An interview by the universe

You’re late.

I know.

It’s been fucking five months.

Yeah, I noticed.

So – what the hell?

I was busy. Er. Playing Spelunky? You should play Spelunky.

Did you even get round to playing Warband?

Of course!

What prompted you to finish it now?

It’s on sale on Steam, and you should buy it. You still have time!

Oh. So now that you’ve had lots of time to think about it, maybe you can at least tell us what it is first?

It’s an RPG about horses and hats, largely. And swords and arrows and ladies and mercenaries and honey and villages and kingdoms. Or khanates, if you are so inclined. Despite what I said about hats last time, here they’re a reasonable addition to the game, as they’re mainly made out of metal.

Ladies? There weren’t any ladies in the original game besides the useless wives of the lords.

It’s not just the original game with added multiplayer. They’ve redone almost everything to some extent, not to mention all the additions. They’ve gone to lengths such as redefining how much happiness a jar of butter inspires in your soldiers. If you’re used to the vanilla M&B, the changes in the most minute details will strike you at times. It’s not often you see how difficult it is to balance a single-player game.

This might be a good time to remind you that there’s absolutely no point in buying the vanilla version of the game. There’s not one area where the original is better. Everything feels like a better thought-out game and they’re also heavily supporting the game. New, large patches are sent out every few weeks, even though the game is quite old. And unlike with The Creative Assembly, the patches don’t meant that the underlying product is broken.

I want ladies, not game balancing.

But yeah, ladies. It’s perhaps one of the most prominent, if also one of the least useful additions. Wives can serve as a secretary of state of sorts, but that appears to be it. Strictly no sex. Hilariously, when I married my in-game wife, her relationship to me got a severe hit and stayed at -14 until the end of the game. I’m actually rather happy that they didn’t give women a more strategic part in the game, as you generally don’t want those kinds of distractions in M&B.

Then again, you can now play the game as a female character, and it’s more than a cosmetic change. The game warns you that it’s actually a (mildly) sexist bastard and will treat you differently if you choose against beards.

Ladies are more boring than I hoped. Any war stories instead?

How convenient that you’d ask that. Let me walk you through a short period of one of my kingdoms.

Only three nations remain. The Khanate does not count as they hold no cities and most lords have been captured. The Rhodoks, despite their majestic spears (pervert), pose a minor threat with three cities close together and no easy access to my territory. The Sarranids are a different matter as i have never actually fought them for long. Can they keep up with our war machine? How will their mamlukes fare against our knights? Do they have any considerable super units that i don’t know about?

A far-away land until recently, both our and their conquests have now bound the borders of our nations. Minor skirmishes by bored lords over looted villages and attacked caravans have been raising the tension for a while. Open war is near. It’s just a matter of who mans up first.

The Sarranids invade. I lose three cities on the first day of the war. Fortunately I’m a sore loser and end the game, so I don’t get to see how I’m utterly murdered, probably to death.

Your kingdom?

Mine, yeah. Gone are the days of simple rebellions and the other kingdoms take upstarts relatively seriously now. It’s as you’d expect of course, with huge territories being increasingly difficult to maintain and control. In the end, I was losing as many castles to treason and my knights deserting me as to direct enemy action. Unfortunately, the mood of your knights and lords has more to do with your interpersonal relationships than the success of your kingdom. There’s also an annoying see-saw effect: if you get along well with one of your lords – say you give him a village – your relationship with the rest of your subjects will suffer.

So I found myself in an idiotic position where I didn’t want to designate rulers for my lands as my relationships would suffer too much. Besides pillaging, lands are the best source of income, so I was struggling to raise anything but very basic armies.

Fortunately that brings me back to the good parts of the game, as they’ve actually greatly streamlined the way you actually gather money from your lands. It was really satisfying to see that it’s now automatic, so you don’t have to travel from one side of the map to the other to get money from a few poor villagers. Mount & Blade: Warband officially features automatic horrors of feudalism!

Actual war stories, as opposed to this strategy nonsense? I want to kill men with sharp objects.

As I’m sure you will. While the battles have improved, they’re still somewhat basic and get repetitive after some time. But not more than other in most other action games! I really think they’re excellent, but could be much better. As of this iteration, they don’t make for wonderful war stories. You tend to try to single out enemies, kill them during short dogfights and then turn to the next. The fighting mechanics are still really fucking good and that’s what the game originally shot to fame with. It just puts any other medieval/fantasy game to shame. I’ve been playing Oblivion lately and it’s just completely pathetic in this regard.

Right. And that extends to Multiplayer?

Yes, it’s got multiplayer.

Yeah, but, you know, talk about it. This is supposed to be a comprehensive review.

Nay. I specifically decided not to talk about it at all besides saying that in my opinion, it’s different and excellent. If you want the details, go read other blogs or reviews. It’s all the web is talking about.
I’m a terrible salesperson. CAN YOU SEE? Telling people to go read other resources online. Sorry Chris.
I’m also out of ideas on how to end the revi

Lego Harry Potter – The Verdict

Lego Harry Potter – The Verdict

Lego games are big business, a whole host of big franchises have turned their characters into those amazing little blocks. I suppose it was only a matter of time really until we saw Harry Potter get turned into a Lego game. It is a good thing too as Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is one of the most enjoyable Lego games to date.

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Victoria II – The Verdict

Victoria II – The Verdict

The age of iron, steam and gunpowder! Of great games and nation building, peeling back the last curtains of the uncivilised world to shine with the glorious light of European enlightenment, while back home people and politicians forge national identities that stand into the modern day…

That’s what the history books would have you believe. They were wrong. So very wrong. Nobody really got much done. They were too busy mopping up Jacobins every time they fell from the sky. Whenever anyone tried to invade Iraq they were immediately taken up in arms against by raving packs of Anarcho-Liberals. The Tzar had a particularly hard time. By 1860 or so the whole Russian state was chequered with anarchist banners, shedding states in a desperate effort to maintain national unity. He’d have probably dropped more, but I don’t think they actually exist. At least the bleeding heart  liberals would be pleased with the complete European disinterest with Africa. Though who could blame them. It’s a big blank mass interspersed with those tribal groups cinema has been gracious enough to donate screen time to.

Victoria II then, is plagued with issues. First and foremost as I see it is the afformentioned intermittent Jacobin storms that rage around the planet. One of the major distinguishing features of Victoria II from Europa Universalis 3 or Hearts Of Iron 3 is the POP – a representation of social groups within your nation, and their concerns. Should you fail to sufficiently cater to the needs of your various POPs, and sooner or later the more militant POPs begin amassing, intermittently sprinkling your nation with stacks of angry rebels. Sure, the 19th and early 20th centuries were an age of such movements – the Paris commune, or the Russian revolution’s multitude of armed political groupings for example. But as Victoria II handles it, there’s little respite, and little strategy to defeating them besides periodically sending your armies on a roadshow when the clouds break. Unless you’re the AI. The AI just cannot cope with these rebel movements; I saw Russia basically all but taken over – the rebels don’t actually seem to be able to take over a state, even if they’ve captured most of the lands. Mexico is basically awash with enemies. Curiously, both nations were still in the top 8 of the leaderboards, which seems to indicate another of Victoria II’s problems: The economic side is too easy.

In the 80 or so years – game time, mercifully – I played through my campaign as Sardinia-Piedmont, later Italy, I scarcely once hit a major budget problem. It’s just too easy to keep accumulating funds once you’ve got set up. In 50 years I didn’t once have to public spending, or touch taxes. I might have had it a little easier because I opted to go with Laizez-Faire economics, meaning you don’t have to build factories, instead leaving it to the whims of the free market and it’s capitalist champions to lay down the capital… even so, it’s just too easy. The result was seemingly a budget that basically never went into the red, besides the odd dip – a minor blip – when I needed to raize new particularly large armies. My grand railroad scheme to cover the whole country in tracks scarcely dented the books. I literally couldn’t spend fast enough, and evidently other nations were not struggling despite their economies allegedly coming under siege by militant factions.

The opposing AI doesn’t put up much of a fight either. The early half of my campaign – the unification of Italy – put up a little challenge, requiring me to carefully time my military acquisition of Austrian held territory with wars against an ascendent Prussia, later Germany, while slowly acquiring the allegience of the rest of the peninsula. This was quite fun; until it became clear that the Jacobin invasion of Austria had ended their hope of halting my aggression and I sailed into statehood, putting Austria underfoot, to boot. Awash with money, I had little to do but accumulate armies and ponder where to go next. Skimming over to Africa I quickly notice that – despite it being 1870 – scarcely one change had been made to the political borders in Africa south of the Sahara, and only token efforts north – mostly by the French. It gets worse. Britain seemed disinterested in it’s Imperial mission, doing little more than slowly accumulating allies worldwide. Enough to keep it number 1, granted, but not much else besides the occasional invasion of China. Resigning myself to boredom, I slapped a quick invasion force together and conquered Iraq, only to find those wiley Anarcho-Liberals there too.

All these weaknesses come all the more bitter because there’s a lot of potential in Victoria II. In depth politics adds a refreshing dimension to shaping your ability to influence affairs compared particularly with Hearts of Iron 3, requiring you to attempt to meet -or reject- your citizen’s clamour for political or social reform as the game progresses. I particularly enjoyed the diplomacy game, especially during the afformentioned unification of Italy, requiring you to compete against the other great powers for influence – and thus power – over lesser nations. If the game lived up otherwise, I could certainly see myself enjoying a campaign as one of the powers competing in the great game for Afghanistan and Persia. The economics focused heart of the game certainly shows some potential, requiring you to decide on – or indeed, have elected- the economic principles guiding your nation, and focusing your acquisitions on economic goals – the sub-par balancing however means it’s rarely taxing enough. There’s a lot of promising features added to Victoria II that definitely show it has potential.

All said, in it’s current state of release however, Victoria II is a weak offering. The extent of it’s failings is demonstrated quite clearly by a stickied thread on the official forums pointing out fan made fixes, which certainly demonstrates what a sorry state of affairs it is in. It will be made all the more galling when Paradox inevitably release patches masquerading as expansion packs maps a few months down the line. It’ll be a particular insult if they charge for a complete political map / mechanics for Africa. I hope things improve. As any Paradox game however, it seems we must wait a year and a gold edition down the line before it’s any fit state to play.