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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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Mass Effect 2 – The Verdict

Mass Effect 2 – The Verdict

In the last week I have done the following: vanquished hundreds of alien antagonists; saved humanity (again); flown spaceships; pushed people out of windows; laid a honey trap for a particularly dangerous and horny alien lady; delivered a perfectly placed right hook to a nosy journalist; played the Bad Cop (badly) and fired a nuke at a giant robot. In short: Mass Effect is back, and it’s brilliant.


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King Arthur – The Verdict

King Arthur – The Verdict

The land of Brittania in the age of Arthur and Merlin is a strange one, various Sir’s, Ladies, Knights and Kings travelling around various provinces with footmen, bowmen and other-worldly creatures in their retinue. It is a world where Scotland is but a note in a Chronicle, a place where the mystical Bedegraine forest guards hidden secrets.


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Mass Effect – Looking Back

Mass Effect – Looking Back

Ok so it’s been out on the PC for over a year now. And on the Xbox 360 even longer. But I only just got round to playing Mass Effect, and speaking as someone who has become gradually disillusioned by the RPG genre, I was completely blown away by what is an absolute creative masterpiece. It’s also the first console port I’ve played that isn’t a total, head-spanking mess.

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Having been weaned on the proverbial teat of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect was the ideal vehicle for my re-entry into the fantasy saturated world of RPGs. Not a single mention of an elf, a goblin or a magical spell of any kind, which, when you tot up the ratio of fantasy to non-fantasy RPGs and MMORPGs being released, is actually an incredibly refreshing thing to be faced with.

Although not the primary appeal of the game, I was very excited about getting stuck into the combat, as this was the first RPG in some time whose combat wasn’t semi-turn based, with you and your opponent standing in front of each other taking it turns to click the attack button and bop the other with a big sword. Incidentally, this is also why I have never played a single MMO in my entire life. As narrow minded and ill-informed as it might sound, the whole World of Warcraft phenomenon passed me by entirely because it, and others like it, are completely hinged on this dice-roll combat, which usually results in static battles that are very dull to watch. That may seem like a petty reason not to play a game, but I remember feeling incredibly disappointed, angry almost, at how misleading the cinematic trailer for Warhammer Online was. There was a Dwarf breathing fire on hordes of charging Orcs, an Elf ducking and diving in combat with another Orc, some Priestly looking fellow clashing metal with a tall, angsty looking guy, blocking and parrying attacks, growling some incantation that ignites his hammer into flames as his head gets impaled by a mace. “Great”, I mused, “this really captures the raw and gritty spirit of Warhammer”. Wrong. I later discovered after watching a clip of gameplay footage that, once again, combat consists of you standing in front of your opponent, queuing up attacks and abilities, taking it in turns to hit each other.

The idea behind all this is obviously that the battles are supposed to be representative instead of literal, and the focus is on preparation for them; maximising your chances of victory by gaining the right abilities, items and skills beforehand by doing quests and gaining xp. With so much focus on the preparation, however, the battles themselves seem like foregone conclusions and woefully anti-climactic.

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Mass Effect, on the other hand, manages to maintain this fundamental role playing format whilst integrating an action-based, third-person shooter mechanism. Although not the first to do it, it blends the two together beautifully, and in spite of the occasionally cretinous AI, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable system that doesn’t undermine the importance of either preparing for the fight or your own personal skill employed in the fight itself. This formula works perfectly, as much like Deus Ex, it rewards adequate preparation as well as good aim, with both being equally important requisites for victory. Squad management took too much of a back seat, however, with very little direction for your comrades actually being required (with the exception of the occasional remedial request, such as moving out of the way of incoming gunfire).

I can hear the WoW fanboys protesting already, and I do realise that I am making a somewhat tenuous comparison here. But there is really little reason for developers to rigidly stick to this dice-rolling mechanism anymore, especially with APB and Dust 514 on the horizon promising to raise the bar and successfully blend action with role-playing in an MMO context. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Neverwinter Nights fan- but I enjoyed it in spite of its combat system, and don’t see any reason to grudgingly cling to this for sentimentality’s sake. With this in mind, is a Mass Effect MMO really that difficult to imagine? If implemented in a similar way to EVE, with varying concentrations of AI controlled ‘police’, then it is perfectly feasible, with no changes to the fundamental principles of the game or the addition of the traditional dice roll-combat being required (hint hint Bioware).

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It has been generally agreed that Mass Effect is a great success both critically and financially, but in the year after its release it was still subjected to a continued torrent of criticism, some justified and others not so.

Amongst the most baffling was from Eurogamer’s very own Kristan Reed, where the game was accused of failing to gradually ease the player into the world and prod them in the right direction when things became a little overwhelming . Not only does this show little awareness of science-fiction and of RPGs in general, it criticises the game for something that is actually one of its biggest strengths. Mature players don’t want to be patronised with continuous explanation, exposition or “prodding”. They want to be plunged into the world they are interacting with headfirst and allowed to explore it at their own pace without having the illusion shattered with reminders of what you ‘should’ be doing. That may well turn off the more impatient players, but this isn’t a game about action necessarily- it’s a game about dialogue, narrative and exploration, which Bioware have achieved to near-perfection in almost all of their titles, particularly Mass Effect.

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I would, however, be the first to concede that the Mako is probably the stupidest vehicle ever designed in any game. Ever. Seemingly indestructible, it has a mounted gun that can only aim horizontally as well as having the mind boggling ability to climb almost sheer cliff edges with ease. It does some of the most ridiculous things that not only defy gravity, but tell it to fuck off and give it a big kick in the nuts. The side quests became somewhat repetitive after a while, and the DLC has added little in the way of substantial material. These are forgivable flaws, however, as the fully-fleshed out plot, reactive narrative and diverse, detailed characters redeem it spectacularly, and make it one of the most enjoyable titles I have played in years.

It also has a pretty good sex scene. What more could you want?

Drakensang – NOT a Verdict

Drakensang – NOT a Verdict

First things first. This is not a review/verdict or anything similar. I set out with the intention of giving Drakensang a fair, long and ultimately helpful review, but I can’t. I just can’t get far enough into the game to give it a proper review, so this is an impressions piece.

That said, what this piece will also attempt to illustrate is the need for the first chapter of a game to be engaging and, above all, entertaining.

It’s not that Drakensang is a bad game, but it certainly doesn’t have the most exciting opening scene. RPGs often fall into this trap, especially fantasy ones. The game begins with you being sent to a town for some reason that wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember, when, surprise surprise, there’s a quarantine on. Stuck outside the city, a guard helpfully informs you that he might let you in if you get some references from citizens who happen to be outside the city. Off you toddle to go and grab them.

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Almost every fantasy RPG I’ve played has something like this in, and it is always annoying. I’m going to use the Witcher for this example, entirely because Chris is playing it while I write this. The exact same situation happens in the Witcher, but is mitigated by not being the very first thing that happens. The Witcher introduces you to its world by having you fight a giant insect beast in a decrepit castle before bonking a witch, then sends you off to Quarantine City, Fantasyland. You get a taste of what the rest of the game will be in that first half hour, manic combat against big opponents, boobs, and the occasional smarmy dialogue line.

You don’t get that impression with Drakensang’s opening. It may be somewhat childish of me, but in RPGs I tend to start judging the quality of something by ranking the awesomeness of the basic spells. When given a choice, I am always some form of wizard; I blame this on the romantic notion of strolling around hurling fireballs at people I don’t like. When playing a magical class, that’s what I want – fiery death. What I don’t want, as became quite quickly apparent in Neverwinter Nights 2 for instance, are spells that look pathetic. I don’t want to bring Warcraft into this, but I feel that I must. The spells in Warcraft look powerful. Yes, they do start to get repetitive, and a great deal of it is just levelling up the same spell to make it’s animation bigger, but they are still impressive. Not so in Drakensang.

I understand that starting spells are supposed to be a bit crap, being, as they are, training spells and all, but they can still look impressive. The fantasy equivalent of a card trick, they should have an effect. My experience of the early spells in Drakensang was very much one of disappointment, my bland looking spell glancing off a generic wolf with nary a scratch. It made me sad.

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Also, I hate the camera. Seriously, I really hate it. There’s a strange voyeurism about it that makes the game a little disjointed. It’s not tied to the movements of your character in the same way as other RPGs, instead it clumsily follows you as you run away, like an overweight documentary crew, consistently requiring you pause the game and forcibly move them into a better position just so you can see what you are doing. It’s annoying and was possibly the main reason I lost interest in the game.

It is important that you understand, however, that I’m not saying Drakensang is a bad game. I am in no way entitled to make such a judgement with what I’ve played. You’ll notice I’ve not touched on the plot, or characterisation or any of that business, and that’s because I couldn’t get far enough to get my teeth in.

People will probably say “give it a chance, it gets better once you sink a few hours in” and that may be true. I myself have said that about a number of games in the past. But Drakensang has caused me to rethink this position somewhat. When considering the whole nature of the medium, the vast catalogue of video games currently and soon-to-be available, it is important a game grab you from the outset. Games are all about living a dream of some description, and you need to be sure that the dream the game is going to provide is the one you want. Good games use the first level as a sort of taster of the sort of thing you will reach at the end; they’ll show you a powerful wizard decimating foes, give you a brief play as an ultimate bad ass character, boobs, whatever, then stick you back in noobsville with the knowledge that you will, eventually, become that good again. Sticking you in tedium and saying “the game will get better eventually” without any proof doesn’t provide the necessary hook to draw you in.

Sometimes, I’m glad I don’t get paid for reviewing games. If I was being paid I would have had to have played through Drakensang in its entirety, and I really don’t want to. I have other, more exciting games to play with my time. But still, this is an important point that I think all developers need to understand, from consumer to developer, the first scene of you game must categorically be engaging and interesting, otherwise how do you expect people to stay around until the end?