Monday, 30 August 2010

Plutos (Atari ST)

The more I delve into gaming history, the more it's becoming apparent to me just how influential a game Star Force was. I just thought it was a polished arcade shoot 'em up, and originally I thought I was the only one that gave a toss about it. Over time, I've found others who revere it as I do, which is great, but there are more clones of this great game than I'd realised, too.

Plutos is one such clone. Not a game I'd heard of until recently, but I was recommended it as a good game for the blog. The name was all I had to go on... I didn't even know what kind of game it was. So it was a very pleasant surprise to start the game and find a variant on Star Force... I just felt like a bit of a blast, as it happened.

Not a clone, but a "Space War Arcade Simulation", says the back of the box. OhhhhKaaaaay...

There's no doubting that source of inspiration. Right from the off, you've got a Star Force-shaped ship, Star Force-like enemy attack patterns, and Star Force-like ground bases and installations. As you progress, you've even got the question marks that you shoot to try and reveal extra lives. It's all very, very familiar.

Still, if you're going to steal, steal from the best. Plutos does add a hint of originality by giving you limited fuel, meaning that you have to keep your eyes peeled for fuel dumps on the ground, and naturally, in one of gaming's great anomalies, blasting these tops up your supply.

The message is clear. You know what you have to do.

It's standard fare, but it is very playable and, crucially, you make a little more progress with every game... an essential ingredient for any quality shooter. I would have loved to have owned this when it was released (and if I'd had one of the computers it was released on)... it would have made the long wait between trips to the arcade all the more bearable. And while it's not as good as the game that inspired it, Plutos is most definitely one of the better home blasters I've played from its time.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (XBox Live Arcade)

I vividly remember playing the first Tomb Raider game, on my Saturn. There had been a lot of hype before release because, hey, you played as a girl. With boobs, and that. A bit silly really, because the graphics were nowhere near today's standards, and she looked pointier than Madonna in that daft bra.

It was a bit of a shame that so much focus went on this, because Tomb Raider was a fantastic game. A true revolution, it helped to change the course of action-adventure games forever. There were some real, bona-fide jaw-dropping moments in there... the valley of the dinosaurs, where I genuinely dropped my controller in fright (hello, Mr. T-Rex), was especially notable. And there was a bit where the camera panned way, way back to reveal that you were standing on a Sphinx... stunning.

The way it used to be. One step closer, wolves, and the walls get a paint job.

So, Tomb Raider was a real landmark in gaming, and one that I played to completion and thoroughly enjoyed. Sadly, none of the many follow-ups captured my enthusiasm in the same way... the second game was decent (and preferred by many) but I couldn't get on with it, possibly because I was playing it on the PC. Subsequent versions varied in quality, getting worse and worse as the publishers concentrated on Lara's ample charms above gameplay and good ideas.

Lately, with the outsourcing of programming to Crystal Dynamics, things have taken a notable turn for the better. The last couple of games have been critically well-received, and have not been hamstrung by the awful control methods and tedious gameplay which were prevalent for a while. Lara has been getting back into top form. And now, in a very interesting move, she's making a splash with her first download-only game, on XBLA and PSN... Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

How d'you wanna die? Spear or gun? Either way, it's gonna happen.

There are several things about Guardian of Light that make it notable. For one, the Tomb Raider title has been dropped from the game. That's fair enough... Lara Croft is a big enough name that people know what they're getting from having that name in the title. Or do they? GoL throws enough twists at the formula to make this feel really fresh and different. Most obvious is the two-player co-op gameplay... which although not compulsory, is a brave and interesting move. I haven't had the chance to try it yet, but it promises to be a significantly different game to the single-player experience.

Easy... eeeeeeasy... left a bit... right a bit...

But how's the one-player game? I have to say, I think it's fantastic. Immediately obvious is the panned-out viewpoint. Instead of having the camera close to the action, and therefore all over Lara's curves, this has an isometric 3D viewpoint. It's kind of flickscreen... which sounds weird, but it scrolls when it needs to and then will have you go through a door and into a new area. It works perfectly well, and means you tend to focus on the best and quickest way through.

This is important, because GoL encourages replaying each level by dishing out extra in-game rewards for speed runs. I've never been a great fan of speed runs or replaying games, but I must have completed level one six times now, and still haven't milked it for everything. I happen to think this is an ingenious way of expanding the life of the game, and am very impressed with its implementation.

Lara goes Robotron... or maybe Black Widow, given the horde of attacking spiders.

And what of the gameplay itself? Well, that may be the most radical change of all. The best way to describe it (seriously) is as a twin-stick puzzle-platforming arena shooter. That's a fair old hybrid, but GoL manages to blend all of those elements into a perfectly cohesive and very enjoyable game. The zoomed-out viewpoint means that more attention is paid to the game than the protagonist, and that focus has helped to ensure you get a cracking gaming experience.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light costs 1200 points on XBLA. It's a huge download... 2.02GB. You can't help but wonder if a disc-based release might have been better, but then again they'd have had to charge more for that, and it represents really good value for money as it is. That hard drive space isn't wasted... there are fourteen levels in the game, and they're a good size too. There's a heck of a lot to do, it's all entertaining stuff, and there's plenty of replay value too. It's easily one of the best XBLA games so far, a damn good game in its own right and a really pleasant and welcome surprise.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Vanquishing the Unplayed Hordes.

OK, OK... I give up. When A Game A Day started, playing and writing about one game every day was a challenge, but it was doable. Now, it really isn't, and I've stopped kidding myself that it is. I simply don't have the time or the energy to commit to that any more.

I do, though, still enjoy playing games, and I still enjoy writing about them. And I've still got stacks of unplayed games sitting around the house. So the reason for the blog still exists, and I'll still be writing it. It's just that the frequency of posts will lessen.

So, keep me bookmarked, and keep checking back. The quantity might not be there, but the quality should be.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Scratching an itch.

You know how there are occasionally times when you just have to play a certain game? I've had that lately. In fact, I've had a hankering for some Burnout. Not Paradise, though... fine game though it is... but one of the more old-school efforts. I can't be bothered to go hooking up old systems to scratch this itch, though, so that left me with Burnout Revenge. Pity I didn't own it... but when you have that itch, you have to spend, and I popped out and (eventually) found a pre-owned copy. Aaaahhhh... I could almost feel the relief on the bus journey home.

The funny thing is, I had Burnout Revenge on the PS2, and didn't really like it. I was kindly sent it for review purposes by a lad at EA Canada, but I was so on the fence about it that I never completed the review. That's one of the problems with getting free stuff to review... it makes you feel bad if you don't like the game. Spend your own money, and you can say what you like. Anyway, sorry, EA Games lad.

Ahhh... the open road. Well, there's that car in the distance, but you can just ram that out of the way.

My main problem with Burnout Revenge was the racing. There have been a few problems with Burnout games over time... but I think I feel a feature coming on to discuss those. With Burnout Revenge, the problem lay with the introduction of "traffic checking". What did this mean? It meant that you could basically drive straight through most vehicles that were travelling in the same direction as you. It removed a lot of the skill from driving, and turned Burnout into Advanced Turbo Snowplough Simulator.

That's what you want to see... cars wrecked by your own fair hand.

Still, I bought it. The other modes are fun, and I was just in the mood to ram some cars and figured even the traffic checking wouldn't be too annoying. And I was right... I found myself enjoying the whole package, this time. The racing is still a bit silly with all the ramming going on, but it was just what I fancied. Road Rage is still great, although it seems much harder for some reason. Crash Mode is better than it was in Takedown... from what I've played of it, it seems that they've removed stupid stuff like the heartbreakers, which is definitely a good thing.

So, my itch is truly scratched. I've even enjoyed the two-player game this time around... Aidan was only four when I last played it and wasn't really up to the challenge. Five years on and he's a worthy adversary, and we battled to an epic 5-4 victory... in my favour. There will be much more of this in days and weeks to come. Good stuff.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Alpha Protocol (XBox 360)

The name's Thorton... Mike Thorton.

Nah, that wouldn't work. Fortunately, your character in Alpha Protocol, the aforementioned Mr. Thorton, has a line of patter all his own. And in becoming the latest videogame spy, you're going to make full use of it.

Alpha Protocol is not a game that was ever on my radar. Even the words "Espionage RPG", although alluring, were not enough to even make me consider it as a purchase. But last week I felt bad for Aidan, as he was looking forward to playing out one day and it pissed down with rain the entire time. I popped into GAME to try and pick up a cheap consolation for him, but that didn't work out. I spotted a Club Penguin game for the DS in the 2 for £30 offer, and knowing he loved Club Penguin on the PC, I thought I'd get him that. But what would be the second pick in the offer? It had to be something for me, but nothing really stood out... but then I saw Alpha Protocol, remembered reading a few positive accounts, and another impulse buy had taken place. Had I wasted my fifteen quid?

Fuck you, Craig! You're too old for this part!

Normally I wouldn't have answered that for about nine months. Games bought in that fashion tend to sit unplayed for yonks. For some reason, though, this one was calling to me. That doesn't mean I can answer the question though, because at this point in time, I'm not entirely sure.

There are certainly flaws. Your character is a bit unwieldy at times, for starters. There will be maddening occasions when he's stuck moving to the left, even if you're not touching the controller. For a spy, that's a hell of a character deficiency. A quick flick of the stick stops him in his tracks though, and all becomes well again.

Fuck you too, Diesel! You're not muscling in on my action!

Another time, I climbed a ladder after the guard had vacated it and scooped up some cash. I then wanted to vault over the little fence and sneak up on the two patrolling guards. But there's no jump button. You can only jump if the game gives you a prompt. And by the time I'd figured that out, I'd taken a headful of lead. I had to climb back down the ladder and go the long way around. Maddening.

So far, it's all negative. But those are niggles. And considering I've never been into stealth games at all, I'm finding Alpha Protocol quite addictive, and somewhat endearing.

Get out. Of my. ARCADE!

The game is pretty dialogue heavy. You'll be sitting through a lot of conversations, but you get to influence them. You don't choose sentences, just your character's attitude in replying. This is done really well. You don't get to pause for ages to consider how you'll reply; instead, a timer ticks down as the other character is speaking, and you have to choose your nature of response before that expires. As a result, the conversations really flow, and it feels pretty natural.

You have to consider your responses carefully, too. You can gain the trust or admiration of characters from the way you talk to them, which can result in perks that help your game, alter the way characters treat you (important, as you might need their help when you're out in the field), or even woo the laydeez. It's not really like any game I've played before, although I'm sure it's not original. It's probably a system used in Mass Effect, but I only played that for half an hour before I got stuck, so I can't remember. If anything, it kind of reminds me of the classic Law of the West.

Gordon Burns was sure that Mike had the ten points in the bag in this round.

The rest of the game is fairly standard action fare. I like the way you can use your connections to make the missions easier... if you have the money. You can "go online" to buy black market weapons, or to pay contacts for information that you can use for your advantage. It's pretty cool, and it does help to draw you into the world of espionage.

With guns, stealth, diplomacy, laydeez, lock-picking, code breaking, international jetsetting, computer hacking, hand-to-hand combat and laydeez all thrown into one package, Alpha Protocol is quite a decent way to spend some gaming time. You probably haven't got anything that compares, and will be a nice change to the rest of your collection.

PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain (XBLA Indie Games)

I've got loads of games still unplayed, and yet I can't help buying more, whether it's a full-priced retail release in a sale, something reduced on Steam or GOG, or a 70p cheapie on XBLA's Indie Games. PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain is one from the latter category, snapped up on a whim after a quick go of the demo. Yep, it's another 80 pointer.

I'll be honest, the main reason I tried this was because I thought the main character reminded me of a character from a Mastertronic game. Points awarded to anyone on the same wavelength that can tell me which game, but no prizes. Sorry.

Jesus! A ghost! And the reason the game is forced to be played as a speed run. The bastard.

PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain is... drumroll... a platform game! Noooooo! Really? OK, so far, so obvious. It's a bit different to the norm, though. If you've trawled much of the internet for games-related stuff, you've probably seen sites devoted to speed runs on various games (Super Mario games being very popular for this). Well, PLATFORMANCE is a game that is designed to be played as a speed run. In fact, you have no choice in the matter.

As such, it's really good fun. It's hard, at least to me... in fact, there's a point I'm stuck at. The word "pain" in the title is quite apt, both for the player and the main character's many violent deaths. So I've never actually completed it yet. And it's not a long game... research has shown that you should be completing it in five minutes or less.

And that, right there, is the entire game. How quickly can you finish it?

Five minutes? So why should you buy it then? Well, I certainly can see it as being a game you'd play repeatedly after completion. With it being a speed run, you'll constantly be trying to shave seconds off your best time. And there are different difficulty levels to try, adding to the enjoyment/frustration. Yes, you'll get frustrated, but in that classic 8-bit "should have made that pixel-perfect jump" way.

PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain is a charming little game. It's got 1985 written all over it (even down to not having online leaderboards, sadly), but turning it into a speed run changes the dynamic into something approaching the present day, and fun is fun, whatever era it comes from. It might be a Mastertronic game at a sub-Mastertronic price, but it's no less worthy for it and will have you shouting abuse at the tell for many an hour.

Hydorah (PC Indie game)

I can't remember where I read about Hydorah. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that I have it, and I can play it. And you've probably never heard of it before now, either. You're probably at a complete loss as to what I'm talking about. So I will elaborate.

Hydorah is the best arcade game you've never played. You've never played it because it wasn't actually in the arcades. But from just one play, you'll feel as though it should have been. You'd have ploughed countless tens into it, and come away bruised but satisfied. Just like you did with most of the best arcade games.

It all looks quite sedate here. Aren't the trees pretty?

At this point, I should actually describe the game. It's Nemesis. Or Gradius, if you prefer. That's the core (haha! See what I did there?), although it's got a few bits of R-Type in there too, but yes, it's pretty much a new, independent entry into the Gradius series. And it's absolutely awesome.

The programmers have deliberately made Hydorah as 80s as possible. And they've done a stunning job. It looks, sounds and plays the part to absolute perfection. That means it's hard. Very hard. It's sixteen levels of arse-kicking. Well, they say it is... I haven't seen a quarter of them, if that's the case. But it's not unfairly difficult. I knew what I was doing wrong every time, I was just too rubbish to cope.

Eye-eye! What's going on here, then?

In fact, if anything, Hydorah is quite generous with its difficulty. There's never too much filling the screen, there's no harsh collision detection, no cheap deaths. Just a feeling of "next time, I'll do better". It's a bit naughty in one way, I discovered... shoot the wrong stuff, and you'll lose points. Again, it's not done in a cheap way... if you think about it when you're playing, you should know better.

It does have a bit of a weird weapons upgrade system, which might be a detraction for some. You collect tokens, much like in Gradius, but you can't instantly "spend" them on stuff... you have to accumulate a certain number of them, and once you have, your lasers are powered up. If you die, you lose some of your tokens, setting you back a bit.

It does all look a bit familiar, but comfortingly so.

There are some insta-perks though, such as shields or an extra ship. And as you progress, there's a nice choice system in effect, where you can take your pick of earned weapons for the next level. It might have been nicer to go out there fully tooled-up, but it would also be easier...

Hydorah is a really lovely Gradius-type game. It looks and sounds absolutely superb, and it plays like an 80s dream, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I guarantee that if you have any kind of love for these kinds of games, you'll lose best part of your first afternoon with it, and will re-develop that long-lost trigger finger cramp. Best of all? It's absolutely free. There's no reason not to play this at all. So head over to developer Locomalito's website, and download Hydorah right now.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


Hey! I'm back again. The house has had its work completed, and things are slowly getting back to normal. So I might be able to start regularly playing and writing again!

And that's good... I've been going through my XBox 360 games, and I've got 23 that I haven't even started playing! If you add in all the games that I've played for maybe an hour or less... that must hit somewhere around 50. That's ridiculous, and I need to either play them or sell them.

Or both... I'd hate to get rid of them untouched. After all, I bought them to play in the first place, and that's exactly what this blog is for. So if I can get some good use out of them in the next three months, I can sell a good number of them to make a bit of cash for Christmas. Perfect!

Actually, the 360 list of unplayed games is down to 22... I started one up just this afternoon...