Pinball FX2 / Zen Pinball Tables

We have a trio of tables from Pinball FX 2 / Zen Pinball for you as Steve gives you a quick run down on which of these is worth your time.

 

Star Wars Rebels

When all is said and done, pinball is pinball. Ramps, bumpers, ball locks, flippers, being completely unable to judge where the hell you’re supposed to hit the bloody ball because you have all the hand-eye co-ordination of a meth addict with a head injury, all that good stuff. What Zen do with their seemingly endless stream of downloadable tables is try and make them thematically interesting. I mean, chances are you’re going to buy them all anyway, because why wouldn’t you when each is less than the price of a coffee, but not all themes necessarily appeal to all people.

This is the case with the Star Wars Rebels table. After rinsing the living hell out of every other aspect of the Star Wars franchise for table inspiration, it’s no surprise that Rebels got the treatment as well. The table itself is fine, if a little uninspired, but not being familiar with the source cartoon (and thusly not giving a rats bollock about it) most of the character references, voices and mode themes are lost on me. It’s probably aimed at younger gamers, although I’m not sure how many kids play pinball. Also, as a table taken on it’s own merits it’s just not interesting enough to recommend. It’s all a bit too simple and bland, especially when you could be playing the excellent Empire Strikes Back table.

VERDICT: NAY.


 

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

The second of the trio of tables reviewed today is the Avengers Age of Ultron table, which suffers from pretty much the opposite problems that Rebels had. It’s needlessly complex in its requirements for Wizard Mode, the table art is really busy and makes it difficult to see what’s going and generally has too much extra gubbins that seem to be tacked on for the sake of it.

Take the choice of difficulty level at the beginning of the game, for example. It changes the score and time available in modes and the pitch of the table, but it just seems to serve no real purpose other than to make it unnecessarily convoluted.

Also, as bizarre as this may sound, it takes itself far too seriously. It’s a pinball table, for God’s sake, but the way the incidental dialogue is delivered (by a mix of credible and completely awful soundalikes) you’d think they were in some broadway drama or something. As such, it’s just no fun. Zen are capable of very entertaining tables, and Marvel has no end of licenses to pillage (as has been seen already with the multitude of licensed tables already available) so it’s just disappointing.

VERDICT: NAY.


 

Portal

The final table is a bit off an odd one. When the Portal table was announced most people went “Buh? Wah?” and then put their tin foil hats on and tried to extrapolate some way of it meaning Half-Life 3 was about to be announced but I gave a little squee of excitement as more Portal in any form isn’t a bad thing. It’s a simple table, probably more simple than Rebels is, but it has the bonus of being fun to play. I know I keep prattling on about fun but why the hell would you play video games if they weren’t fun?

One thing I like about the table is that it’s a high scorer. It’s easy to trigger the (thematically wonderful) modes and rack up some decent scores from them and there aren’t too many of them that lead up to Wizard Mode. The table is relatively clutter free, has some lovely set dressing and uses samples from Portal 2 as its dialogue. As it should be. Getting a soundalike to do GlaDOS would be easy given the post processing on Ellen McLain’s voice, but also a borderline heretical notion.

Out of the 3 Portal feels most fun, simply because it  isn’t over blown and it isn’t boring. Being rewarded with a decent high score despite being a cack handed chimp is always going to get a thumbs up from me, so if the Portal theme doesn’t float your boat then you might as well give this table a miss too. Saying that, if you don’t get on with Portal we can’t be friends anyway.

VERDICT: YAY

 

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse

Not being familiar with the Shantae series I had only rudimentary knowledge that I’d picked up from friends deep into the pixel-art-power-up-hunting-platformer genre. Sounds like something I made up to avoid saying ‘Metroidvania’ but I assure you, it’s a real thing. *Cough*

Look, in all honesty this is barely a review. Gareth reviewed it on the Wii U and gave it an astronomical 9 out of 10, so for me to go over it all again and blurt out my incredulity at how this game got a 9 is pointless. It looks great with fabulous animation and art direction (even if the abundance of jiggling pixelly boobs is a bit disconcerting) and the soundtrack is also rad as fuck, but it has all the problems this type of game has, like massive gaps without a save point so when you die you’re doing a large section again. Of course, one man’s problems are another man’s boons.

Basically if you like pixel-art-power-up-hunting-platformers with a strong aesthetic and a decent challenge, you’ll enjoy Shantae. If you’ve played the previous Shantae games, I’m assured you’ll enjoy this one. Personally, I wouldn’t pay £15 for it but I’m one of those heathen bastards that prefers enjoying games than being punched in the bollocks by them.

VERDICT: YAY…We Think

Sure, if you like this sort of thing. Whatever, man. I’m not your mum. It’s your money.

Zombie Army Trilogy Review

If you read the internet, everyone is sick of zombies. Sick and fucking tired of their pasty, shambling arses. If you read different parts of the internet everyone loves zombies. Everyone loves them to DEATH.

Opinions, eh? People said the same thing a few years ago about games set during World War II.

So Zombie Army Trilogy is probably the result of developers Rebellion going “Which two overplayed yet profitable tropes can we mash together to make a game that will overjoy some and boil the piss of others?” and someone piping up “World War II and zombies!”

Then Clive the tea-lad might have pointed out that people will be sick of both of those, to which Rebellion went “Ah, but you’ll be SNIPING the undead bastards! With gratuitous gore! And slow motion replays showing the vertebrae shatter!”

They then all had chocolate bourbons and tea while nodding to themselves at a job well done. Maybe.

To be perfectly honest there isn’t anything about the premise of Zombie Army Trilogy I don’t like, because I’m that kind of shallow prick that laps up remasters, shooting games and anything with zombies in it. So seeing as this has all three I should be in hog heaven. But I’m not.

The problem with Zombie Army Trilogy (or Nazi Zombie Army as it was known in it’s two separate incarnations on PC) is that its tight budget shows through on almost every level.

The game looks fine as it goes, although everything has a wrapped-in-plastic shininess to it, and the levels feel like a series of various sized boxes with a smaller variety of boxes skinned and acting as scenery, all of which are recycled extensively through each game.

The selection of playable characters all have a dead eyed look and absolutely no voice acting at all. The music is budget Carpenter synth, but thankfully used sparingly.

Not only are the protagonists dead eyed robot looking cretins, the cut scenes show four characters (like in Dead Island) even if you’re playing single player which would ruin the immersion if it wasn’t for the fact the game is ridiculously <relevant> preposterous and the plot paper thin bunkum.

But who cares about story and visuals, right?! It’s got a low RRP! It’s a remaster of budget PC games! You’re here to eradicate the undead in the most satisfyingly violent way you can; i.e. with high velocity lead encased in brass projected through the eye socket! Well…

The central mechanic of the game, the sniping, is lifted from Rebellion’s Sniper Elite series, and as such is solid and entertaining for a while. Perform what the game deems a particularly excellent shot and it will cut to a cinematic camera angle and follow the bullet in slow motion where it then enters the target and gives you a super gorey x-ray shot of their bones shattering and a gout of blood more gratuitous than a congealed cadaver should eject. And it does this a lot.

It’s a good job they put an option to turn down/off the frequency of the slow-mo as waiting 5 seconds for the shot to run it’s course after every 3 bullets fired took any shine off the moment. It’s good to still have on as it’s one of the few things in the game that provides you with any semblance of satisfaction.

It’s a shame that the rest is a shambling abomination of appalling game design. It breaks so many spoken and unspoken rules that it becomes a teeth grinding, pad throwing, soul crushing exercise in frustration.

The biggest problem with the game is that trying to make sniping entertaining for the running time of each game (about 4 hours apiece) is incredibly difficult, so Rebellion have slotted in sections where you’re required to dispatch hordes of the undead that lay siege to a closed location. You’ve got trip mines, landmines and dynamite to lay beforehand in the hope it’ll stem the tide somewhat, but all it really comes down to is you running around like a loon hoping to stay far enough away from them so you can get them in the sights of your rifle or so you can lob a stielhandgranate in the middle of a mob.

You have secondary weapons for close encounters, but they’re not very effective for crowd control. The shotgun is especially weak. You’d expect it to dismember a small group of zombies with it’s spread, but it pretty much just takes out one at a time.

There are a few variations on the siege, but they all boil down to the same thing; hold out until you manage to kill every zombie the game throws at you. This happens with alarming frequency and after the first 5 or 6 of them they get very tedious indeed, especially the ones with a turret to use as you’d have better luck eradicating them with an effing spud gun for all the damage the gun emplacement does.

In amongst the regular zombies there are some special ones with different powers to mix it up a little, and in the main they’re a decent stab at making you apply tactics but there’s still too many poor design choices, like the bullet sponge bullshit in the form of Super Elites. These big buggers just keep coming at you taking headshot after headshot after headshot while mowing into you with their LMG and being a royal pain in the arse. It’s less pronounced after the first game but it’s like they went “Oh, er, we need something to make the game more difficult. I know! A big zombie that takes like 7 headshots to kill! Ace!”, not realising it was an awful idea.

The reasons why Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t really work are as numerous as the dead shuffling through the levels. It’s a horde game designed around a mechanic which doesn’t work with large volumes of enemies. Zombies are legion, there are thousands of them, and the idea is to make you feel overwhelmed by the tide of corpses looking to rip your head off and suck on the stump, but the challenge only comes from finding a way around the ravening horde to get far enough away to pick them off.

Between inconsistent checkpoints, awful forced horde-mode battles, repetitive one-note gameplay and generally low production values it’s just not worth the time or effort to put Hitler and his armies back in the ground.

NOTE: at this time the co-op mode hasn’t been tried out, as the game has sucked my will to live/the desire to give it a go. I will try it out and if by some miracle it drags the main game out of the mire I’ll put a review up for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Victor Vran Preview

Well, you do now) first foray into the murky, bloody, button mashy, loot pooping world of action role playing games. And if there’s something gaming needs it’s ARPGs, because loot really does make the world go round. Shut up, it does.

Well, it needs ARPGs like Victor Vran, because reasons. Like when looking to redefine the key bindings and preparing my Razr Orbweaver and mouse for a sound button mashing, I noticed there was a pad configuration option. Diablo III on consoles worked incredibly well and it makes me a little sad that Blizzard have no plans to put the pad control method into the PC version, but that’s probably because it would take some major ground up reworking the UI and what have you. So having that in Victor Vran was a pleasant surprise.

Going by the boss battle in the first dungeon you encounter, the pad seems to be the control method that the developers want you to use, because dodging (mapped to LB on the 360 controller) is completely essential to staying alive. The addition of a dedicated jump button and mapping a movable camera just adds weight to the notion, especially in a genre where a locked isometric camera is the norm. How notoriously change averse PC gamers will take to that remains to be seen.

Much of the game is business as usual. You stomp through the various gothic looking locations, laying waste to all and sundry and looting their corpses for weapons, potions and gold. The combat is a little lacking in feedback, but is generally fine with you being able to switch between two weapons sets each with 3 moves. Dodge and jump can be used to ‘cancel’ abilities, and switching between weapons while hacking up the evil hordes becomes a skill worth learning to make the most of the cooldown periods.

There are no classes as such, nor skill trees. Haemimont have taken a rather daring approach, letting the loot drops enable creativity to take precedence in your builds. With the attack abilities being locked to the weapon types, the variety comes from mixing your two weapon loadouts. In addition, there are varieties of potions, outfits and Demon Powers (essentially super abilities) to equip into one of the two dedicated slots for each type. The downside to this is you have to wait for the loot drops rather than unlock them through considered skill tree management, but it has the potential to be a very flexible system.

The last component to the character build is Destiny Cards, which add variables like critical hit chance, extra health, extra damage and the like. Each one has a fixed cost, and you can equip as many as you want as long as you have the slots and you don’t exceed the amount of Destiny Points you have to spend.

Victor Vran is an interesting prospect. It brings some intriguing variation to a well tread genre in the character building, if not the combat. But there’s something missing, some spark that makes it fall short of being a compulsive bugger, preventing it from really sinking it’s teeth into you and refusing to let go. In its current state the compulsion to grind gear and replay areas isn’t there. In theory the challenges for each area are a good idea for replayability, but the rewards don’t make it worthwhile. Hopefully Haemimont can find that elusive compulsion with tweaks and balances to what’s already there.

If you want to try the game in Early Access you can get it HERE

 

Ironclad Tactics Review

I love collectible card games (CCGs, for you acronym lovers). I love the tactile nature of them, the artwork, the interlocking mechanics of a well designed system. I love the thrill of opening packs of cards and the crushing disappointment when you get no rare ones.
I want to love real time strategy games (or RTSs. I’m not writing ‘real time strategy’ every time it occurs in this review). I can see how deep and tactical they can be; ordering armies and gaining resources, thinking 3 steps ahead to try and curtail the enemies approach and attack, laying waste to your foes.

 

I’m awful at CCG and RTS games. If it doesn’t involve smashing shit in the face really hard with something blunt I’m left running around in little circles flapping my arms, screaming “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!”. I can see what I’m supposed to do in both, but I inevitably fall back on throw all my guys at the enemy and hope for the best.

You might see where this review for Ironclad Tactics, a tactical real time strategy game with card based mechanics, might be going. And you might be right. But maybe not…

 

Set in an alternate steampunk version of the American Civil War, you control human infantry and steam-powered mechs, the titular Ironclads. The story is a bit thin and forgettable, but is nicely told through illustrated comic panels between battles.

 

Before entering a battle you can edit your deck of cards using a library unlocked by fulfilling certain criteria during missions, be it just finishing the mission, completing the puzzle mode for that mission, killing a certain enemy and so on. Some of these cards can be upgraded by fulfilling different criteria, which adds another level of tactical play. Each upgrade comes with it’s own benefits and detriment, for example increased health, but increased cost to play.

The battlefield is split into lanes with the enemy advancing from the right and the player from the left. The win condition is usually acquire x Victory Points, which is achieved by getting your mechs to the opposite side of the battlefield. Sometimes to unlock cards you’ll need to get the points by other means, such as using mortars to bombard the enemy.

 

Combat and movement is in real time, controlled by an unpausable timer which is split into 4 sections; Play, Act, Kill and Move which are worth explaining, no matter how obvious they may seem.

 

The Play phase is when any card you’ve chosen from the row of 5 cards in front of you is put into play and activated, such as putting a unit on the field, arming that unit, or healing that unit. The Act phase is where the unit activates any weapons or buffs that have been applied to it. Kill is where if fatal damage is dealt the unit dies and Move is, well, where the units move. You can pause units at any time to block the lane, though your units only move through enemies if they’re significantly smaller than your unit, such as infantry (which results in a pretty nasty squishing noise and a little pixelated gore).

 

It’s a simple sounding system, but an effective one as it makes you think on your feet and do your utmost to make the best use of the cards that you have. It’s a fast paced system that can feel a little fraught, but mainly in a good way.

The problem is Ironclad Tactics doesn’t really explain much to begin with. In a time when tutorials are bandied around like super-strength lager in the park at night between tramps, sometimes they’re necessary and while Ironclad does have tutorials, they’re not overly detailed on how the mechanics of the game work.

 

Still, persistence and practice mean that soon enough you’re arming your units and preparing the next one mentally to try and sway the battle in your favour, and when you do pull off a well-planned strategy to deal with the tide of mechanical death marching your way it can be very satisfying.

 

But it can also be incredibly frustrating. The resource for playing cards is Action Points (or AP). AP is generated at a rate of about 1.5 per Play phase, although some levels have points you can control to gain more AP per turn. These levels generally start with a lower AP generator, so getting cards out can be infuriatingly slow. It feels like you’re permanently urging the timer to advance quicker so you can get your Ironclads and Infantry out to stem the tide. It’s not helped by the controls, which while fine in general, lack the immediacy of the mouse that the PC version has. Sometimes you select a card because you finally have AP to play it, but you find it’s slid off the row of cards by the time you’ve moved the cursor to the unit you were going to apply it to, or the timer has moved beyond the allotted phase where you can play it.

Another frustration is that you’re at the mercy of the random nature of card draw, so not only are you screaming for more AP, you’re hoping to whichever deity of your preference that the card you desperately need comes out.

 

But that is the nature of CCGs. That’s part of the thrill. The deck limit in Ironclad Tactics is 20, so building a deck to reduce the variance is much simpler than, say, Magic: The Gathering or any other ‘proper’ CCG you could mention, but you can never truly eliminate it. It’s the luck of the draw.

 

Ironclad Tactics is a bit of an odd beast. It took me a good old while to get my head around it, to work out it’s little quirks and nuances and there is a good game in there, but not a great game. It’s packed with content as it includes the 2 extra DLC campaigns from the PC version, it’s charming and the mechanics are sound, but there’s something missing from it. It never elevates itself to the “one more mission” compulsiveness that games of a similar ilk have and, in all honesty, it rarely made me want to play it for any great length of time. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just…Fine.

 

Ultimately it’s a game that feels like some of the mechanics are a little bit too wonky to be truly great, but if you have a knack for real time strategy you’ll get a good deal of enjoyment out of it. For the rest of us who lack any kind of tactical planning ability, there’s always Shootymans XXIV round the corner.

Carmageddon Reincarnation Preview

Nostalgia is a fickle mistress. Or master, whichever your preference. Especially when it comes to gaming. There’s plenty out there who hanker for a simpler time, and occasionally I do too. The trouble with the desire to throw yourself back to that nebulous grander age universally known as ‘the good old days’ is that it shifts as time marches inexorably on, and so the experience you hanker for is also eternally shifting. The other problem with gaming nostalgia is that sometimes you get exactly what you wished for.

Carmageddon Reincarnation, originally a Kickstarter which funded in June 2012 and aimed for a Feb 2013 release (which was hilariously optimistic in hindsight), has been kicking around in alpha form for a while. It didn’t have a structure as such, but after 3 years in development the recent release into public beta is the full game, ready for us all to hurl ourselves back to 1997 and get knee deep in knob gags, Carry On levels of innuendo and terrible puns. And, y’know, turning pedestrians into a red paste with outlandish vehicles.

Carmageddon Reincarnation (Car Promo Graphic)

Carmageddon Reincarnation is a conflicting beast. For those of you who never played Carmageddon 1 or 2 (we don’t talk about TDR), imagine Destruction Derby with weapons, developed by someone who watched too much Bottom, but completely misunderstood why the knob gags were funny (because Rik Mayall, obviously). The game was a bit one note and the AI incredibly stupid, but there was something fun about it all.

In its fundamentals, much of Carmageddon Reincarnation is almost exactly the same game as Carmageddon 2. The cars handle the same, the humour is the same, the mechanics and power ups are the same and, thanks to some horrific optimisation at this point, it almost looks the same. I had to run the game on the lowest settings to get a vaguely steady frame rate despite my PC being within recommended spec, and even then there were frequent frame lock-ups.

The gameplay has been tweaked so instead of just having to kill peds, destroy all the other players or somehow manage to complete X laps, there are different game types to mix it up, like Stampede where you have to be first to get through 10 randomly spawned checkpoints on a map, Ped Chase where you have to be the first to, er, kill 10 randomly designated pedestrians… OK, so far there’s not much variety. And the humour, while highly amusing in 1997, now seems incredibly crass.

A Carmageddon car splatters some cows.

Or maybe I just got old. A little from column A, a little from column B.

There’s also the issue that the AI is fantastically stupid, to the point of providing zero challenge in any way, shape or form. Turning the difficulty up (to ‘Harder Than Rimming a Rhino’, sigh) makes the AI more aggressive but not much more intelligent.

And yet… and yet there’s something about Carmageddon Reincarnation. Something that makes it fun, in the same way that 80s Schwarzenegger cheese-fest Commando is fun. It’s wonky as hell with a hideous frame rate and draw distance, but smashing up opponents is just as satisfying as it was 18 years ago. Running over pedestrians is more fun than any well-functioning member of the human race should enjoy. Having your car bounce around the level after you hit a bump when the Pinball power-up is activated is cackle-worthy even when it’s the 10th occurrence.

So in its current beta state it needs a lot of work. I doubt the gameplay and structure is going to change very much, but as it stands it’s looking to be what all Carmageddon fans were hoping for. Whether Carmageddon Reincarnation will find an audience that isn’t wearing rose tinted spectacles, however, remains to be seen.

Castle In The Darkness Review

Castle in the Darkness is another in a long line of 8-Bit styled bastard hard platformers that seem to grace Steam with increasing frequency. Taking its cues from Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, Megaman, Cave Story (you get the idea) it’s a bastard hard, nostalgia gland massaging piece of software that many love simply because they hanker for a time before 3 gigabyte day one patches and pads with more than 4 buttons.

And it certainly looks and sounds the part. The graphics are simple but lovely with a muted colour palette, and the soundtrack is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a game such as this. All bleepy bloopy awesomeness, albeit quite a repetitive, bleepy bloopy awesomeness.

castle1
Lovely visuals that throw back to the good old days

The gameplay certainly follows the tack set by the looks and the sound, with tight controls requiring perfect timing to make those jumps and hit those enemies with your oversized sword and navigate those falling, insta-death spikes. Or avoiding and hitting that boss that has no consistent triggers or pattern to learn. Or running into that enemy that drops from the sky each time and you know exactly where it is but the placement makes it difficult to avoid it as soon as you come on the screen. Ah.

You see, the problem with bastard hard retro-styled platformers is that they require a deft hand in development to stop them from being teeth grinding chores, and Castle in the Darkness unfortunately seems to fall on the side of being frustrating rather than fun.

Plenty of skill is required in Castle in the Darkness
Plenty of skill is required in Castle in the Darkness

The first clue that you’re in for some pain is the counter that records your death. It goes to 6 digits. But dying a lot isn’t a problem. Dying a lot is practically the first design choice on the list when it comes to bastard hard retro-styled platformers, but there’s dying a lot because you’re not playing the game correctly (or rather, you’re not learning how to play the game correctly) and there’s dying a lot because the game hates your guts and will do all in it’s power to make sure your dreams remain unfulfilled.

Another peculiarity is the placement of save points. You can save and change equipment at them, and when you pass through them you regain all your health. However, they’re placed inconsistently throughout the game. Sometimes you’ll reach a save point and have to fight through about 10 screens of enemies to get to a boss. And when you kill the boss, you have to fight another slew of enemies to get to the save point. During which, of course, you could die and have to do the boss again.

There’s nothing wrong with the game being difficult, but the inconsistency in the placement of save points just leaves an unpleasant taste. At the very least it makes the game tedious. Repetition through lack of your own skill is fine. Repetition because the game wants to punish you for no reason isn’t.

castle2
How you cope with the difficulty will determine your enjoyment.

There are many more elements that I could list, like the curious instadeath spike placements, or the regular enemies that seem a little too hard to kill without taking damage, but it’s at this point I wonder how much of my dislike for Castle in the Darkness is down to me or the game.

Take the Frog Prince boss, for example. Logically speaking I should be able to trigger when he falls down, but I couldn’t find any consistent way to make him trip over. There’s a long winded way to kill him (which may or may not be the right way), but it took me many deaths to figure that out as I was trying to do it the way that seemed a little more apparent.

So is it me or is it the game? Well, there’s a problem with these bastard hard retro-styled platformers, in that it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re just a cack-handed idiot with all the hand/eye co-ordination of a lobotomized sloth on morphine, or if they’re just not very good.

In all honesty, I think it’s a little of both. I thoroughly enjoyed Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy, but they aren’t my usual go-to type of game. This game feels off in many ways, like it could have done with a couple of extra pairs of eyes and hands to point out some of the flaws and to tweak some of the gameplay elements; someone else to refine the game from unfair bastard hard to fair bastard hard. It’s kind of telling that of the nine Steam Achievements the game has, one is for dying 100 times and another is for dying 500 times.

It’s very easy to fall into that awful reviewing cliche of “if you’re a fan of the genre, then you’ll enjoy it.” That’s really no way to review games, but it’s the best I can come up with. I didn’t enjoy Castle in the Darkness. It felt mean spirited, harsh and unbalanced. However, if you’re into games that harken back to a time when fun went hand in hand with the notion of being kicked in the spuds by a large navvy wearing hobnails and game balancing was for softies, then please feel free to add an extra couple of points to the score. As it is, even at the undoubtedly bargain price it’s going for, I’d struggle to recommend it.

Bayonetta 2 Review

By all sensible and logical business reasoning, Bayonetta 2 shouldn’t exist. The first didn’t sell anything worth a damn, despite it (insert ‘probably’ here for the  opinion-as-fact-Nazis) having the best combat system of any third person action game made and being absolutely bashit mental in many of the right ways (and, unfortunately, some of the wrong ones). It tapped into niche gameplay mechanics lots of people don’t care about and made obscure references from SEGA games anyone under 30 may not have played. It didn’t help that SEGA can’t market their way out of a paper bag.

For a long time fans of the first game held empty hope for a sequel, secretly resigning themselves to a future without one. So when it was announced that there was indeed going to be a sequel and it was exclusively coming to Wii U there was a strange elation/disappointment dynamic for a lot of people. It’s a sad fact that without Nintendo picking it up out of SEGA’s dumpster there would be no Bayonetta 2, so be grateful.

Bayonetta 2 doesn’t alter the template too much from the first game, but when Platinum got it so right it’s difficult to see why they would. Just in terms of aesthetics Platinum are practically untouchable. That much you can see from the first game, Vanquish and Wonderful 101 to name three but Bayonetta 2 takes that cool and turns it up to deafening levels. Character design, environments, colour pallette, animation, weapon design, enemies, costumes. I could go on. But I won’t. If you bought the edition that gives you the first game you’ll see the difference in fidelity between them. The first Bayonetta looks very washed out compared to the vibrancy of the second. This may be a byproduct of porting from older systems, but the difference is immense.

The story is usual type of nonsense we expect; Umbra Witch Bayonetta is off on some ridiculous journey to save her fellow Witch Jeanne from Inferno after one of the Demons that Bayonetta controls escapes its portal and kills Jeanne.

A screenshot from Bayonetta 2.

Sporting a new slinky, impish haircut and an amazing array of retorts that will either make you chew your knuckles or bark with laughter, you lay waste to the denizens of Inferno and Paradiso while listening to some God-awful accents from insufferable secondary characters. So far, so Platinum and by God it’s glorious.

The gameplay remains much the same but tightened within an inch of it’s life. All new animations mean combat flow is improved and the already impressive combo system has been expanded upon. The wonderful thing about Bayonetta’s combat is that any cack-handed chimp can chain together a string of punches and kicks and it looks spectacular. Mash that pad and you’ll make it through the game fine, but the real trick is to do it all flawlessly, with variety and style. Each combat section is graded with medals from Stone to Pure Platinum depending on time taken, combo multiplier and damage taken, and it’s here where the replay factor is with Bayonetta.

The desire to actually be good at the game is immense, and the combat is so much deeper than would you would initially guess (if you hadn’t played the first game, obviously). The Witch Time dodge, Dodge Offset and even the use of Taunt being essential to racking up the combo multiplier. There’s the addition of a magic meter consuming Umbran Climax move you can trigger instead of Torture Attacks, as well as switching between weapon sets mid combo. I could try to explain it all in depth here, but I don’t have a word count high enough and I’m still rubbish at the game myself.

There are people out there who won’t play it because they don’t (or won’t) own a Wii U, or don’t agree with the powerfully overt sexualisation of the main character (I’ll leave that discussion to people more intelligent than I), or they simply don’t get on with third person brawlers. They’re missing out on one of the most inventive, gorgeous, sheer-off-of-its-tits experiences modern gaming has to offer.

Bayonetta 2 is an outright fantastic game. It’s another very good reason to own a Wii U and it outclasses practically every other game of this type by a considerable margin.

 

The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition

Once upon a time obtaining ‘Art Of’ books was a nightmare, usually having to import them from Japan at ridiculous cost. Of course, this means a lot of Western games were overlooked and the reams of concept art were consigned to crappy, tiny A5 books that came with limited editions. If you were lucky.

These days that’s not the case, with book publishers snapping up game rights to put all that glorious behind-the-scenes processes for us to feast our eyes on, while we lament that we’ll never be a fifth as talented. One of the finest of these publishers is Dark Horse. Usually with a Dark Horse published book you’re in for a seriously high quality treat, and The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition is no different.

It’s absolutely bloody lovely. I mean, most art books are lovely, but the detail and breadth of processes shown is gorgeous.

dragonart1

One of the great things it shows is the intricacy to detail that you can’t really appreciate when you’re playing the game. Sure, you look around the world and go “This is gorgeous. I like her armour. That looks cool.” but the processes behind the look of the armour aren’t apparent until you see them break it down into the layers that make it up. The variations of the armour for each faction and the characters is extensive as well. It’s always wonderful to see what could have been.

The explanations behind the design decisions sometimes leave you wishing there was a bit more text in the book to give you more insight into the influences and flow of process (especially into the characters), but the book is massive and packed with designs from tiny things like helmets and scabbards, to the stained glass in various buildings which you may not notice when tramping around the cities, to massive double page environmental studies.

There’s a ridiculous amount of work in here and it shows that the worlds Bioware build are born of an incredibly talented team with an abundance of imagination and attention to detail that many developers don’t (or can’t) match.

VERDICT: Absolutely YAY.

 

The Art of Destiny

Destiny might have its problems, and those problems might vary depending which side of the divide you sit on with the game, but I think most people would be hard pushed to say the art direction is nothing short of fantastic. If they do say otherwise, they’d be wrong. So there.

The Art of Destiny is a lovely hardback filled with the gorgeous kind of art you’d expect from a company like Bungie, being the size of company that has the money to bring on board super talented folks.

It’s always nice to see the processes that lead to the final in-game renderings, but here there’s also quite a bit of what didn’t make the cut, some of which makes you go “Aw. Shame.” like the giant robot hand poking out of the wastes of Mars. It’s also feels a little sad to see the kind of time and effort that’s gone into giving the various races, characters and factions of the game a history which is almost completely ignored by the awful story. It makes you wonder how much they actually cut out.

It's lovely, just look at those pages!
It’s lovely, just look at those pages!

Still, there’s a frankly glorious section on the iconography and graphic design for the various symbols, logos, banners and markers as well as some small insight as to why the 3 classes armours and aesthetic accoutrements are designed the way they are. Apparently the Hunters cloak varies in length depending on how high a level the item is. Huh.

It has the usual environment concepting and promotional paintings you expect, and overall it’s a gorgeous book. Definitely as an accompaniment to the game but also for anyone who just likes sitting and staring and lovely concept art.

VERDICT: YAY

South Park and Venom DLC – Zen Pinball 2 / Pinball FX 2

South Park

Pinball junkies rejoice! It’s time for more glorious flipper hammering action and bumper bashing insanity with Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball! Warm those fingers up and let’s get down to some righteous high score chasing chicanery and put our foot to the floor for a Wizard Mode activating extravaganza!

No, you can’t make Pinball table releases sound exciting. Ah well. Anyway, two releases to review, and a total of 3 tables. First up is the South Park pack. A little belated as the backlog got the better of me and it’s been languishing on the hard drive, but now I’ve put some time into it it’s an interesting pack, and pretty decent value.

For the frankly paltry sum of £3.99 you get the South Park Super Sweet Pinball table and Butters Very Own Pinball Game table, and what’s nice is they’re actually very different experiences. Well, as different as 2 pinball tables can be.

The Super Sweet table is, initially, off putting. The music is obnoxious and the entire table seems incredibly convoluted and complete sensory overload, with busy artwork and 9 separate triggers you have to complete to activate the Wizard mode. However, spend a bit of time with it and you find a deep and involved table which is actually a good slice of fun, especially if you’re a fan of the show. If you’re not, well, you can always turn the music off.

The Butters Very Own Pinball Game table is also fun, but a much more sedate and open table, with modes based around Butters’ apparently over-active imagination. It’s actually quite charming, which is something I never thought I’d say in relation to South Park. It’s a good thing they decided to reign this one in, because if you had the same Volume-Turned-To-11 aesthetic as the Super Sweet table it might have driven some to throw their pad through the TV.

VERDICT: YAY

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Venom

The Venom table (Venom as in the Spider-man villain, not Venom the geordie black metallers. Although, thinking about it, I’d pay good money for that table) is a bit of a let down after the South Park pack, and also compared to the abundance of other Marvel tables available to download.

Thematically it’s fine if you’re a fan, with plenty of references to the various incarnations of the Venom Symbiote and its offspring, but as a table it feels cramped and disjointed. It’s difficult to explain, but the various sections feel very compartmentalised and not cohesive as a whole table and as such makes attaining Wizard Mode more convoluted and troublesome than the South Park Super Sweet Table.

Also the overuse of ramps is marred by some very strange physics that don’t plague other tables. Either the ramps are too steep or it’s an actual bug but they’re very ‘sticky’ and often the balls stop halfway or don’t make it the whole way around, say, the Carnage orbit despite you being sure you’ve timed it correctly.

It’s a shame because the Marvel license has brought some excellent tables to the game, but this one just seems cobbled together. It’s only £2.49, so chances are you’ll buy it and get that much out of it if you’re one of those compulsive buyer types (*cough*) but if you’re not bothered about a full pinball library there are other tables more deserving of your two hundred and forty nine pence.

VERDICT: NAY

 

The Crew Review

An open world, myriad distractions, a main storyline that is entirely forgettable and secondary to the world created around it. This all sounds awfully familiar…

The Crew is dull, frustrating and not worth your time or money. That’s it. Wait for the £20 price drop if you’re jonesing for a next-gen racer. 5/10.

Are you still here? God almighty. Look, it’s probably best if you take my word for it, because I’ve spent hours writing, re-writing and re-working this bloody review to try and explain why the game’s so spectacularly mediocre, and it just ends up being 2000 incredibly protracted words about how the decisions and workings of The Crew crunch and grind against each other like a broken machine.

OK, fine, I’ll try to be concise. But I’ll fail.

The story is tedious and boring. It’s actually terrible. I understand criticising the story of a racing game is basically pointless. It’s not like we’re expecting War and Peace with Aventadors and Dodge Chargers, is it? It’s just the backbone narrative of the so-called single player portion of the game is such piss-poor, bog-standard, super-generic revenge story hokum it should come with a warning on the box about putting you into a coma.

Of course, plot can be ignored. You just get through that shit to enjoy the game, right? Well, yeah, if the game’s fun to play. The thing is, the gameplay is also boring. There are a few reasons for this, foremost being the handling of the cars and the physics engine are teeth grindingly frustrating. The cars lack any kind of feedback or friction, and as such you never really feel in control of them. You can mess up a whole race because you twitch the stick slightly to the right, hit the curb and completely lose control by over compensating for the bounce and roll of the car.

This is doubly frustrating as the Missions tend to lean heavily towards escaping from the police/enemies and chasing people down to ram them off the road. Replaying those in particular becomes a chore as the handling, inconsistent traffic and rubber banding AI conspire to make them about as much fun as smashing yourself in the vitals with a lump hammer.

As you start unlocking more upgrades for the cars they start being more interesting to use, and the alternate tuner specs add some variety to the handling despite the underlying problems, but there’s a larger issue with the ‘economy’ in game and it’s quite a convoluted one so bear with me. Or skip to the end and read the final summary if you haven’t already. Spoiler: I gave you the score at the top of the page so if you’re not even going to read the summary, you’ve already lost 5 minutes of your life reading this far.

There are five tuner specs for different race types (Street, Dirt, Perf, Raid and Circuit), and you can upgrade various parts of your car in those specs. You do this by accumulating car parts by achieving Bronze, Silver or Gold in ‘Missions’ or ‘Skills’ (challenges dotted around the game world). This is essentially a loot system; you get a Bronze, Silver, or Gold level upgrade to a part (for example Tyres) which improves the overall rank of your current spec and also gives a random tuning bonus (for example Braking). You are awarded that part and can instantly apply it to the car you’re in, but it’s also put into your garage so you can install it later or buy it for a different car of the same spec. With me so far? Good, that makes one of us.

The specs are unlocked with each new area as the main story takes you through the map. Each area tends to focus on these new specs, but also throws in some of the previous ones to help unlock upgrades for them. Because of this way of gateing parts, you’ll find yourself repeating Skills and Missions often just trying to keep each spec as high as possible to deal with the missions. You can unlock upgrades beyond your current player level to equip or buy them later, which is nice, but you’ve still got to replay the bloody things as you’re stuck in a loop of needing Gold parts but not having a car good enough to get Gold parts.

So like most MMOs of any creed or colour there’s grind involved. Fine, it goes with the territory, but there’s a seam of insidious cynicism to this grind that I don’t like, and it involves the games currency. In the game you have 2 currencies, Bucks and Crew Credit. Bucks (complete with it’s own little symbol that looks like a B dollar sign) are stingily doled out from Missions and Skills, although you can replay (*cough* grind) them. Money is more generously given from online races, but I’ll get back to that, because I need to get the thing about the Crew Credits off my chest.

Crew Credits are, to all intents and purposes, microtransaction money. The game gives you 100,000 but you don’t seem to be able to obtain them through any other means than buying them with real money. And everything in game from cars to parts to paint jobs can be bought with Crew Credits for about a third of the price of what you pay in Bucks.  In single player, this isn’t much of a problem as you get a boost to your cars every 5 levels to make them competitive, but when you consider  the cost of something like the frankly bonkers RUF CTR-3 was 260,100 Bucks or a meagre 67,993 Crew Credits then the disparity is glaring. That is, to put it bluntly, a bit fucking ridiculous.This disparity really comes to the fore online.

The online games I’ve played on The Crew have been all but white washes as matchmaking is an apparently alien concept to Ivory Tower. The poor handling model makes the inevitable shunts that people give you (because nobody turns the option for collisions off) a frustrating inevitability. Each area has its own themed online lobby, with Faction vs Faction (which faction you belong to is chosen during the main game and can change at will) or Free For All. I haven’t been able to get a single game of Faction Vs Faction at all. Free For All is much quicker, but also frustrating as hell seeing as you’re dumped in with people who can easily have cars 1000 points higher than your car has (the rating determined by the parts fitted and the base stats of the car). Obviously the parts have to be unlocked in the first place, and as I mentioned there’s a boost to all the cars every five levels, but because the Crew Credits make all the parts and cars so much cheaper it only takes someone to stump up £39.99 for 600,000 in Crew Credits to put them at a serious advantage. It’s borderline pay to win. In a game that costs the best part of £45 that is fucking abysmal. The tragic thing is it’s not the first game to do this and it sure as hell won’t be the last.

The singular thing about The Crew that impressed me was the map. It’s huge. A condensed caricature of the United States filled with prominent landmarks, cities and lots of roads in between. The problem with massive maps is that they can be overwhelming. A large map does not equate to large amounts of fun, especially when they’re filled with things to discover and do like all Ubisoft open world games are. There’s so much in there you’ll get fed up of driving on your own to some forsaken wilderness to look for another landmark that gives you bugger all XP.

However, if you have a couple of friends with you hooning around, simply driving from Detroit to Las Vegas just because you bloody well can you kind of forget the odd handling, and you can definitely forget the awful story and you just take in the sights, talk rubbish and grab some collectables along the way and for that tiny instance there’s a glimmer of brilliance.

But when you don’t have friends around you can try and fill those gaps with other players who inhabit the always-online world (when it’s not breaking or kicking you out for no reason because Ubisoft’s servers can’t handle the load despite at least one closed alpha test and 2 beta tests. Aaaaand breathe.) and this is where the brilliance fades. Out in the God knows how many hours I’ve played I’ve only ever had 1 other person join me for story missions, and he buggered off fairly quickly.

And this is it with The Crew; it tries to do so much and excels at nothing. It falls apart on almost every level, and given the potential it had that is a damn, damn shame.

Toybox Turbos Review

There are some things which are best left buried, like cursed Nazi gold, or the fact that you saw Uncle Gerald dancing in your mum’s stockings and suspenders through a crack in the door while babysitting you when you were little. The table top racer is one of those things.

Well, maybe not as creepy as Uncle Gerald but definitely something you want to squirrel away in your memory, only to be ferreted up when the Police come knocking and you’re called as a witness.

That analogy was pretty drawn out. Sorry. Anyway, Tabletop Turbos attempt at trying to resurrect the sub-genre is brave enough but falls short of being the nostalgia filled love in some of us hoped it might be.

The game starts out making all the right noises; it’s bright and colourful, it has a jaunty (if repetitive to the point of wanting to put the pad through the TV. Or simply just turning it off) soundtrack, lots of very solid, rounded, chunky vehicles with handling to match, and tracks created from and littered with household goods. So far, so Micro Machines.

However, the problem lies partly in the fact that the genre never really succeeded in the leap from 2D to 3D. In 2D the field of view afforded enough distance to make snap turning decisions but, until you learned the tracks, left enough of a surprise with obstacles and turns to keep you on your toes. In 3D if the camera isn’t done exactly right then it can ruin the whole thing, and even if it doesn’t ruin it entirely it can make the experience frustrating as hell, and that seems to be the case with Toybox Turbos.

The camera is functional, but in some of the single player game modes it can feel a little spongy and indecisive, leading you to some frustrating scenery entanglement. It’s not game breaking as such, but doesn’t feel much better than, say, Micro Machines V3. However, the developers  have included 2 other top-down camera modes which try to emulate the old style, but somehow fall short.

The single player offers up a variety of game modes, with classic staples such as 3 lap races and time trials, with the additions of elimination rounds (like the classic Micro Machines multiplayer), Overtake (where you must overtake X computer controlled opponents to gain the bronze, silver or gold) and Boss Battles(1v1 elimination), through which certain vehicles are only obtainable. You collect coins around the courses to add to the total gained when you place, and you use these to buy the funky dinky toy cars to pad out your garage, although once you’ve found one you like the feel of there’s not much incentive to go back and buy the rest.

The game is rather satisfying in its chunkiness of handling, and the environments and types of vehicle are enough to set the nostalgia glands pumping but there’s a couple of things which just keep it shy of being thoroughly enjoyable and in the realms of a mildly fun distraction.

The camera has already mentioned, but in addition to that there’s the inclusion of weapons which feels quite cheap and tacked on without adding much to the proceedings, only to give you a reason to hate the AI . The mines dotted around the courses in time trial just feels outright mean. They’re not randomly generated, but they feel like an unnecessary obstacle when all you should be worrying about getting round the course in the most efficient manner possible.

At this point there needs to be a caveat made about the multiplayer part of Toybox Turbos, seeing as it’s a Micro Machines game in all but license. Codemasters went to the lengths of adding joypad ports into the cartridge (on the Megadrive releases at least) on the original series to make it easier for you to play against your chums and as such was a very large part of the game but here, unfortunately, local multiplayer wasn’t tested because, to be depressingly honest, I have no friends to test it with. Seriously, no-one. When I tried Online Multiplayer I actually couldn’t find a game. So, there’s a chance this might be a cracking party game, but as it is it has to be taken as a single player game and in that it’s an ok distraction, but wears itself thin pretty quickly. It’s a shame.

There’s a feeling that had there been a bit more time thinking about the weapons and camera and even maybe something like a Hot Wheels or Matchbox license, this game could have been a great revival. But given that licenses cost lots of money and the leader boards aren’t massively populated it seems that this might be the eulogy of the tabletop racer.

 

Sunset Overdrive Review

If you had to boil Sunset Overdrive down to a sentence it’d probably sound something like “Sunset Overdrive is probably what would happen if Jet Set Radio had a one night stand with Crackdown and then the offspring fell into a vat of Mountain Dew and Doritos.” It’s both as wonderful and as cringe worthy as that sounds.

Video games by their very nature are (or bloody well should be) escapist nonsense. Wish fulfillment of the highest order, even if you didn’t know you wanted those particular wishes fulfilling, with the sole intention of wrenching you out of your miserable, humdrum existence into a world of fantasy. Even games supposedly grounded in reality are a means of partaking in an activity or sport or whatever that you normally couldn’t or wouldn’t have the means to do, and so often a lot of games try so very hard to play down their video gamey-ness, to try and convince you you’re not sat in your settee with a lump of plastic in your hands, slack-jawed and ignoring your other half’s screaming to get off your arse and mow the lawn. Or something. So it’s always wonderful when a game comes along, screaming blue murder in bright, day-glo primary colours, most likely on fire, and reveling in it’s inherent ridiculousness. Even if it sometimes tries too hard and misses the mark.

You take control of a fully customisable, yet nameless, avatar who has a long line in needlessly sarcastic retorts and scathing, over-reaching, video game trope mocking one liners. After escaping from the release party for super-corporation Fizzco’s new energy drink after it goes belly up (by turning most of the population of Sunset City into mutants the game calls OD) you’re dumped into a massive sandbox play area. It’s then up to you to complete the missions set by the people not turned into OD and try and escape the sun-drenched hellhole you’re trapped in before you get your face eaten off.

There’s a slightly contradictory nature to Sunset Overdrive. For example it’s structure is incredibly formulaic, with a repetitive mission structure which it tries to play down by making constant gags about how rubbish and predictable the quests are. It’s constantly riffing on the stereotypes you find in video games and pop culture, but doesn’t really push them far enough to lampoon them effectively. Also, the gags more often than not fall flat and come across as trying way too hard to be ‘whacky’ or cool. It’s a shame because there’s definitely some funny stuff in there, it just seems to miss more than hit.

That’s not to say the game is charmless though, because it isn’t. The structure and gags can be patted on the head for trying, but the style and gameplay itself is like a big sack of neon coloured Labrador puppies, all exuberance and irrepressible energy bounding along at 100 mph while weeing on the carpet.

If nothing else, the game traversal should be roundly applauded. Running around Sunset City is a general no-no, because running is boring. There’s no sprint button for a start. Instead you grind on telephone wires, bound off cars, wall run, air dash, pole swing and slide on water to get around the environment. At first this is a little clunky because your brain is trying to think in terms of simply running and climbing, but once you realise that a tap of the X button attaches you to much of the scenery and you’ve got a handle of where the camera needs to be pointed you start chaining leaps and grinds like nobody’s business. This is essential as this builds up your Style meter, which in turn powers your Amps and Overdrives to make you an OD slaughtering maniac.

Hero Amps enhance your character with special abilities. Weapon Amps power up your weapons and add effects, like freezing enemies or shocking them with lightning, and Overdrives add effects and powers like reduce damage from certain enemies, increase damage to enemies or reduce the moves needed to boost your Style meter. The various Amps only trigger when you’ve sufficiently filled the Style meter by performing traversal moves in a chain without hitting the ground. The more varied the moves, the more it fills and the higher your move combo which in turn fills the meter even faster.

It’s difficult to overstate how much fun and how satisfying it is to use pretty much any piece of scenery to bound off and grind on. You could grind on one wire to get about, but that doesn’t keep your combo up and so you start instinctively bounding of a car into a wall-run which you leap and air dash into a grind, then undergrind, then pole swing… it’s wonderful. It also sounds more complicated than it is, but because it’s a button to grind and wallrun, a button to jump and a button to dash it’s simple but not overly so.

Of course, all this combo-ing would be pointless if the combat and weapons were dull, and while the shooting is a little one note, the means of dispatching the various OD, Scabs (the human antagonist faction) and Fizzco robots is varied and shows off Insomniacs pedigree of inventing ridiculous weapons. You’ll have to switch between different weapons to eliminate the different enemy types, and playing with the different types of Amps you can plug into them makes for some ridiculous effects. The only problem with them is you might find 4 or 5 weapons you really like and are really effecting and not bother with the rest, although trying them all out is entertaining.

There’s a lot to like about Sunset Overdrive. It’s a ridiculously overblown and primary coloured slab of entertainment that refuses to take itself seriously and revels in being a video game, which seems to be a rare thing these days. It’s a game filled with character, collectables, pop culture references and amusing respawn animations. The down side to this is it tends to be a little boorish in its humour and intent to be whacky, off the wall and irreverent and that alone seems to have put some people off. That’s fair enough but it’s also a shame, because in many ways Sunset Overdrive is a game SEGA could have easily made had it not been obsessed with driving Sonic into the ground. Still, it’s a good 20 or so hours of blue-sky fun with enough distractions to keep you playing for a good while, even if the replayability is, sadly, almost zero.

 

Forza Horizon 2 Review

Forza Horizon 2, the offshoot of Microsoft’s flagship racing IP evolves and sets the bar for the new generation of racers.

Forza Horizon is one of the best racing games from the ‘last’ generation of consoles in anyway you want to slice it. Bright colours, satisfyingly chunky arcade-style car handling, a good sized open world, and that all important XP system for those that need to see the numbers as a quantification of their time and skill invested in a game. All married in perfect tandem to create a superlative racing experience. Or some such cobblers, basically it was ace. Well, once you got past the appalling DUDE BRO presentation of it all. That bit was rubbish. Oh and the slightly wonky online bit of the game, but the rest? Golden.

So it’s no real surprise that Forza Horizon 2 doesn’t deviate far from the template set up by the first, and instead builds on what was good and alters what was bad. Relocated from Colorado to Southern Europe, you’re given an approximation of the south of France and northern Italy to charge about in a variety of cars ranging from old school to the very peak of modern vehicular technology.

First though, you have to sit through a short-but-really-way-too-long intro of beautiful 20 something hipsters (or maybe that’s how all young people look these days, Christ only knows) having the time of their live at raves while careening about gorgeous countryside in ridiculous cars and looking gorgeous while a willowy voice over spouts some rubbish about the summer of your life. Or something. It has to be said, attention tended to wander as it went on because you couldn’t skip the bloody thing.

To be perfectly frank, this is almost the only thing wrong with Forza Horizon 2. This and Sean Maguire and the woman that fixes your car that calls you ‘dude’ all the time. Fortunately the DUDE BRO nature has been dialled right back, and the game is much better for it.

Forza Horizon 2 has a lot in common with classic Xbox racer Project Gotham Racing 2, not only in handling style, but also with the (now overhauled) skill system resembling that games Kudos system. XP earned from driving like a professional lunatic and performing skill chains, such as drifting, drafting, smashing objects, overtaking, clean racing and generally hooning around without breaking the chain is put towards levelling up. Attaining a level awards skill points to put into the Perk grid, unlocking online and offline benefits for you, as well as Wheelspins which award credits or even a car if you’re lucky.

The game does a good job of keeping the races varied, with the conceit being you’re on a road trip around southern Europe, and you partake in a Championship when you reach one of 6 hub locations. You can choose from a group of Championships at each location, such as Supercar, Offroad, Hot Hatch and Classic Muscle to name a few. Each of these groups has 2 to 4 sub categories which breaks the car classes down even further, providing easy variety. All 28 Championships can be completed individually at each hub, but you need much less to hit the Final.

One of the games biggest added features is the near complete free roam of the map. Best exhibited in the Cross Country races, you’re encouraged to stick your foot to the floor and drive just to see what’s over the hill and beyond. This could have been crippled had Playground Games been daft enough to to limit this to 4 wheel drive, high clearance cars but nope, you can go off road in a Countach just as easy as a Bowler.

Aside from the actual racing it’s also chock full of other brilliant distractions, such as Barn Finds (barns hold rare cars where you’re given an approximate location to search), XP and Fast Travel discount boards to smash, speed cameras to find and break the limit on, the Bucket List, where you’re usually given a super bonkers car to perform specific task in a certain time limit, and even a Pokemon Snap style side mission to photograph every car in the game. The photo mode needs a special mention, simply because it showcases the games ridiculous good looks. There’s a big hoo hah about 30 frames per second these days, and to be honest it’s not getting touched with a barge pole here, but if the 30 frames sacrifice was to keep it rock solid and looking this good it was worth it. Maybe Horzion 3 will be 60 frames and people can let it go. We can hope.

The Online portion of Forza Horizon 2 is substantial and incredibly well integrated, moving you seamlessly from single player to multiplayer with a couple of button pushes but it’s pretty incredible and sets a very high bar for games to follow. You can free roam with access to every course in the game, do co-op Bucket Lists and join Road Trips.

Road Trips are 4 event mini tournaments consisting of races and more offbeat events like Infected and King, where you have to be the last person to not be touched by an infected player and you have to hold the King title longest to win respectively. After each event you’re awarded XP, then you’re hareing off to the next one. Whoever has the most XP amassed at the end of the tournament wins. It’s also ace how the XP counts toward your single player total as well. It’s an incredible amount of fun, but comes with the usual caveats of level really is no indication of the skill of someone, and beware of people playing the game like it’s Destruction Derby.

The antisocial so and so’s.

The Xbox One has had a rough start, and in some ways deservedly so. It was created by a company who completely misunderstood their target audience with an emphasis on TV and multitasking with a peripheral almost no-one wanted. As such a lot of people plumped for the PS4, with it’s proven greater performance on multiformat titles and general ethos of “For The Gamer”. However, Driveclub has been dismally let down by PSN’s awful reliability and some seemingly terrible design decisions, and even though one game is not enough for many to fork out another £300+ for a second console, Forza Horizon 2 makes a very good case for those looking for an amazing racing experience to taking the plunge.

An amazing example of online and offline racing built around an engaging, satisfying handling model with the looks to match. Very, very nearly worth buying an Xbox One for alone.

Castlestorm: Definitive Edition Review

After being released on most formats already in 2013, Castlestorm has arrived on Ps4 and Xbox One with the subtitle Definitive Edition, slightly upscaled visuals and DLC from the previous releases included as part and parcel.

Castlestorm follows the story of Sir Gareth, a noble (if slightly greedy) knight in his endeavours of commanding his troops and entering the battlefield to protect his king, kingdom and peoples formerly at peace for a century from the Viking menace that has turned up at the castle door hell bent on kicking it in and looting, pillaging and generally being unpleasant. To do this you must master seemingly disparate systems that, at first, seem completely incompatible.

The first is the ballista which is mounted on the front of your own castle. This is used to take down enemy troops (or your own if you’re not careful) and destroy the enemy’s base using a variety of projectile types. The second is sending the troops out themselves, such as footmen, archers, clerics <check this name?> and paladins who all perform various roles, such as healing, long range combat or just smashing things in the face. Third is using Sir Gareth himself to hack and slash through the enemy fray, usually to cull numbers when it gets a bit hairy, and also throwing some magic around.

The levels are won by fulfilling certain win conditions, such as destroy the enemy castle, or prevent the enemy from breaking through your defences. Secondary conditions aren’t essential but give you extra money which is spent upgrading your units or castle, which is totally customisable and can be arranged and altered to become your own personal impenetrable fortress.

The way the game throws you into the first level and tells you precisely nothign is bizarre. It’s only after you’ve done the first level that you’re given a series of tutorials explaining how the systems work and mesh, although it never really explains how the castle building and customisation works and how it affects your game, that’s only found out through trial and error.

Once into the game proper it starts to make sense, with you learning which troops to deploy and when best to get Sir Gareth out into the field, but while the systems do start to work in tandem there’s some clumsiness with the control methods that take some getting used to. The camera only pulls out so far and while this is a seemingly conscious decision to keep the sense of holding the battle together and instilling a sense of danger for your base and defense, in reality you just find yourself stringing curses together and frantically panning about the battlefield .

Also the ballista aiming is incredibly twitchy with no option to reduce the sensitivity. You can use the d-pad to tweak your aim, but with the game moving at the pace it does it’s an inadequate solution due to its glacial pace of movement.

This sounds overly negative, and maybe it is a little. There’s a lot to like about Castlestorm. The story is gentle hokum, and the game overall has a nice sense of humour which, while it’s not side splitting hilarity, is still worthy of a smile and chuckle. The art direction is reminiscent of Warcraft 3-era Blizzard with bold colours and chunky, distinct character design, and the variety given to you in the objectives, customisation, weapon, troop and spell loadout has to be commended. The castle customisation never feels forced but adds a depth to the strategy if you want to delve into it. There’s also a decent amount of replayability with each level having a 5 star rating to achieve based on difficulty, time, accuracy and objectives completed.

There are  decent amount of extra modes to grind money for the main game (such as a wve based Hero Survival mode), and multi-player is well represented.

Castlestorm is a decent enough game that’s a little unsure about what it wants to be. It’s not exceptional enough to demand your time or money above the billion other games vying for your attention, but nowhere near being awful as to want  to stomp into paste and fire into the sun, never to darken your door again. If you’d like Angry Birds married to a pseudo RTS with  healthy dollop of hack and slash then it’d be right up your street.

Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm Revolution Review

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Revolution is not a welcoming game for those not familiar with any of the previous 14 iterations and, in all honesty, it doesn’t need or intend to be. 

The game is under the huge assumption that you’ve played at least one of those games and are familiar with it’s strange mix of fighting, world roaming, item grinding and mission based distractions. It takes a LOT of wading to just to understand how the hell you’re supposed to play the bloody thing effectively.

Chances are if you don’t like, or even know about, the insanely popular Naruto manga/anime series then this game won’t have even touched the periphery of your awareness. As such, this review is written from the view of someone who has never played a Ninja Storm game and will possibly be of more interest to those who also have never played one rather than the fans of the series who have had it pre-ordered since it was announced.

What it boils down to is this: If you’re not a fan, don’t bother. There, that was easy.

You’re still here? Hnnnn, alright, alright.

It allegedly continues the story from the third Ultimate Ninja Storm game, but in what sense it’s difficult to tell as the main mode doesn’t have a story as such. The premise is you’re partaking in the Ultimate Ninja Tournament, where you chose from an initially small roster of characters (which expands to 100+) and you battle to determine who is the Ultimate Ninja. The battles are ranked, and split into Qualifying, Preliminary and Main. In between the battles you roam the limited open world to unlock characters, collect money, items, do a little shopping and play the lottery, which gives you costume, customisation options, videos, online card borders, titles and other trinkets to scratch that gambling/hoarder itch.

Around the free-roaming space are characters who ask you to complete tasks for them, and in return they’re generally unlocked and are able to be chosen as playable or support characters, which can also be used as Network Clones. The network clone is a customisable character with moves and items that you leave for other players connected to the internet to fight against, which is a pretty novel and interesting feature.

The Ultimate Ninja battles take place as a 4 person free for all rumble,  whereby you beat the snot out of your opponents and collect the Orbs they scatter like confetti. Whoever has the most orbs at the end of the round is declared the winner.

There are also one on one battles (it’s usually this type of battle during the missions and ‘Jobs’, another of the myriad distractions in the game) where you choose two support characters (a little like in the Marvel Vs Capcom series) and one of 3 fighting powers; Ultimate Jutsu, Awakening and Drive, each of which perform in different ways but all consume your Storm meter. You build the Storm meter through various means of collecting dropped Chakra or generating it while holding the Y button, but this method leaves you defenseless as you charge the meter.

The first large problem with this game is it doesn’t have an ‘easy entry’ tutorial to guide new players in. In this day and age Tutorials are a given at the beginning of any game, and many people bemoan the fact there are tutorials that slow down the pace of getting into the meat proper, but in this instance a clear and comprehensive tutorial would have been welcomed with open arms. Fanfare even. A parade would have been thrown for it, in all honesty. As it is there are tips and minor pointers on the loading screens which are also available in the start menu, but they aren’t nearly comprehensive enough to make sense to a complete newcomer. For example there’s instruction on how a Chakra Dash is effective in battle, but doesn’t actually tell you how to do the Chakra Dash.

There are other confusing design decisions, like the actual tournament. Complete the battles in a rank and the game seemingly ends. Then you load it up again and it welcomes you back to the tournament, unlocks more of the free roaming world, adds new items to the store and unlocks challenges where you have to fulfill certain criteria to win, but you can do all this with a completely different character to the previous rank. All the customisation unlocks are still there, all the items, but the game doesn’t differentiate between which character you pick. None of the NPCs call you by your characters name; there’s no contextual speech in that respect at all. It was odd reading a character refer to Naruto in the third person while being stood there playing as Naruto.

Then there’s the combat itself, which at first seems incredibly skill-less and after a while seemed just as skill-less. Each character seems to have minor variations on the same move set, the only differentiation being their Jutsu (special ninja moves to you and I). It seems the abundance of characters is simply to provide people with the opportunity to play as their favourite from the series. In the matches where you can build a team there are benefits to joining up characters which share certain keywords (Originals, for example, are the characters from the very beginning of the series), but it’s never really explicitly explained how it works.

In the four man battles there’s a toggleable lock on, but it’s not as spry as it needs to be and  you frequently find yourself locked onto a character on the other side of the arena while trying to figure out which way you’re supposed to flick the right stick to lock onto the guy that you’re aiming to clobber.

The AI is erratic as hell as well. Sometimes one of the opponents will attempt pound the tar out of you, or all 3 of them gang up on you and attempt to pound the tar out of you, or they’ll just stand there like a bump on the lawn and do absolutely nothing at all.

Looking at it from a purely objective, newbie, non-fan point of view it’s a pretty bad video game. The combat systems clash and jangle like a vehicular pile up, each one grinding against the others and making little sense on their own. There are so many items to choose from you can’t tell what’s useful in battle and what isn’t, and that’s before you get to things like Bento, food items which act as a buff during the battle, raising your attack, or chakra generation, or increasing your defense. The inventory is confusing as well, as there are a finite amount of items you can carry and should you go over that limit (which isn’t displayed anywhere, at all, ever) the items gained in, say, the Lottery are immediately sold. Or so the game says, it’s just another example of it being obtuse and ill thought out.

There’s also so much stuff crammed into the game intended to add distractions and means of unlocking and collecting stuff you can’t help but wonder if they’d spent less time on the fan service and more on the actual game and mechanics they could have made something ‘outsiders’ could enjoy. As it is, this game serves no other purpose than to give Naruto fans exactly what they want.

The Walking Dead – Pinball FX2 Review

More bumper bashing, flipper hammering and ramp shooting score chasing from the only name in console digital pinball that matters.

2 new tables in as many weeks? We are spoiled, Zen Studios.  Taking its theme and appearance from Telltale Games’ excellent adventure series rather than the comic or TV show (and thankfully not from the God-awful FPS) The Walking Dead is the newest table for Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball.

After the relative generosity of the Guardians of the Galaxy table in terms of activating modes and acquiring score (see the review HERE) , The Walking Dead is not unlike being kicked in the knackers by a large navvy wearing hobnails.

It has to be said at this point reviewing pinball tables is quite difficult. There’s no real story or characterisation to comment on, the base mechanics are largely the same from table to table and the visual and audio fidelity tends to be consistent across them all because they all run on the same engine and aren’t particularly resource hungry hogs. It largely comes down to the design of the table and the mode activation, which is highly dependent on the skill of the person playing it. If that person seems to be a potato fisted idiot then it’s difficult to get a handle of how well designed a table is or isn’t.

The main problem is the ramps seem to be difficult to hit, especially the skill shot ramp on the right which seems to require almost pixel perfect timing (there’s a phrase from the 90s for you). The name implied by ‘Skill Shot’ means that it should be difficult to hit, but this is erring on the side of ridiculous with almost every attempt ending in Lee wondering “Did I miss something?”

The modes are triggered by hitting a walker (zombie to you and me) in the face until he drops back in his hole, then hitting the socket revealed by him. Then you’re asked to use the flippers to choose a mode, all of which are named after the 5 episodes in the first season of the adventure game, and after being asked to make a decision by the dot matrix display, for example ‘Save Shawn or Duck?’ or ‘Look for help or wait for night?’ you’re into the mode. It’s not actually clear what these decisions actually do should you complete the mode, so it feels like they had to crowbar the notorious decision making from the Telltale games in somewhere.

The modes are generally varied instead of just being of the “hit these ramps” variety, with you knocking down walkers that appear on the table, hitting the pop up zombie and then targets and then zombie again and even going into the Sniper mini game where you use the flippers to aim left and right and the launch button to shoot them down.

There are the usual ramp hitting modes, though, which are triggered by shooting for orbits and ramps, which have marvelously relevant  themes like searching for ammo and food, playing football with the kids to keep their spirits up (and the ball skin changing from silver to a football) and searching for paths around walkers.

All the modes seem incredibly difficult, with very tight countdowns and will only reward the most accurate of players. The Scout Ahead mode especially, as you have to hit specific ramps which are guarded by a walker-ball. If you hit it your main ball is reset and relaunched, losing seconds while it gets round the orbit and back to the flippers, which can be infuriating. Thinking about it though, all this is in keeping with the down-to-the-knuckle theme of the Walking Dead universe, where life, decisions and surviving are all difficult.

Zen can’t be knocked for keeping true to the Telltale games on which the table is based. The music, the vocal cues and the look of the table are all atmospheric and pretty unique, and, as played out as the genre is, it’s pretty great to have a zombie themed table that’s based on a decent franchise instead of something generic they could have churned out or, God forbid, based around Dead Island.

If you’re a Zen fanatic, chances are you’ve bought the table as soon as it was available and this review is a bit moot. Still, it’s a decent table, it’s just one of the crotch punchingly hard ones.

Pinball FX2: Guardians of the Galaxy Table Review

For those not familiar with the crack-like glory that is Pinball FX 2 (also known as Zen Pinball on some formats) maybe a little background is needed. It is a pinball game (yes, really) that has been released on practically every format currently available and has an expansive library of tables, some of which are themed around licensed properties such as Marvel titles, Star Wars, Plants Vs Zombies and Street Fighter, as well as some that are original concepts.

If you’re a person who is predisposed to Pokemon-esque mindsets of catching ‘em all, buying all the tables available can be a bit costly, but the creativity broadly displayed in the tables makes it worthwhile. With Pinball FX 2 being a digital pinball game it gives Zen Studios license to be a bit off the wall with the ramps, table scenery, mini games and the like that they couldn’t create if it was a metal and glass physical table.

As movie tie ins go, to say the Guardians of the Galaxy table is low key is something of an understatement. Still, it beats a crappy, rushed 3rd person shooter any day of the week, and it’s also nicely timed with the release of the aforementioned Pinball FX 2 on Xbox One. After some soul searching (or more likely after an avalanche of displeased screaming from the people who already own the game on Xbox 360) it turns out Zen Studios have decided to go back on their initial stance of not allowing you to import purchases from the previous generation so you don’t have to fork out all over again! Fabulous! Seeing as Sony’s Cross Buy purchasing system has allowed PS3 owners to download their purchases on the Ps4 version, it’d make Microsoft look a little bit stingy.

Before the table could be downloaded and played though, the old tables needed (as dictated by that Pokemon mindset mentioned up the page) to be imported to the Xbox One version. The first reaction was “It desperately needs an import all feature”, but it could be that the way the Xbox store works doesn’t allow that, so each table has to be ‘purchased’ individually. It checks whether you have the tables in your Xbox transaction history and then adjusts the cost to £0.00 accordingly. It’s cumbersome, but relatively painless. Unfortunately not all tables are available at launch (the first Marvel table bundle and original table Earth Defense, for example) and some aren’t coming at all (Ms Splosionman and Pinball FX 1 tables). Hopefully all the missing tables confirmed as being ported across will be available in short order.

For now, though, the newest addition of The Guardians of the Galaxy table continues Zens trend of producing solid, fun tables while handling the license with as much care and fan service as possible. The decision to use the the recently released movie as inspiration for the tables theme rather than the Abnett/Lanning comics is probably very sensible, though there are no licensed music tracks or and the snippets of dialogue has been re-recorded to the usual standard fans of the game can expect (I.E. terrible).

The table starts with a multiball, where the display records how many inmates you’ve defeated and credits you’ve earned, but it’s unclear as to what either of these things mean. Fortunately, the rest of the table is more transparent in how to unlock the modes and features, usually by the tried and tested method of hitting ramps to light up letters, thereby triggering modes. The two long ramps that are easiest to access have the longest names, both of which start multiball modes, the other ramps having names of characters from the movie like Yondu, Gamora, Rocket and Drax which you need to light up to trigger the 6 modes needed to start the Wizard mode. You don’t have to complete the modes to make them count towards Wizard mode, but if you do complete them you get an Orb Bonus mode which awards large amounts of points for shots, and the more you complete the higher the multiplier when you trigger later versions of the Orb Bonus as well as the bonus for if you complete the Wizard mode.

Guardians of the Galaxy is great fun to play, and it’s one of the clearer tables to get to grips with as the field is relatively uncluttered. It’s a little drab to look at, what with the aesthetic being pulled from the movie so it lacks the brash, primary coloured bombast of other Marvel tables. There are character balls for each mode like in the Avengers table, but you can only swap them out in certain modes.

If you’re a fan of the movie you’ll appreciate the little touches, like the skill shot out of the initial Kyln mode at the beginning of each game, the ball lock for multiball being The Collector (because he collects stuff *cough*), and the extra mini table in the Gamora Vs Nebula mode, but these things might be lost on those just buying the table because they want another one to play. Also, the frantic multiball at the beginning, though impossible to fail on because of ball save, feels a little like delaying getting to the meat of the table for no good reason. Of course, it could have some impact on something else in the game but it’s unclear as to what.

There are other tiny niggles like Quill’s incessant, repetitive quips which lack the charm of Pratt’s delivery, and there’s a piece of scenery dressing that obscures the third flipper a little in certain views. Also, the music is incredibly repetitive so chances are you’ll be muting that once you’ve played the table a few times. Still, they are only tiny things, and for the price of less than a coffee (or cup of tea, or a pint, or something else that costs more than £2.50) Guardians of the Galaxy is a great addition to the Pinball FX library.