Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Editorial | Mafia: What made it a great experience?


By Sam Coles:

Period dramas in video games are somewhat of a rarity these days, but back in the PS2 and 360 era they were everywhere with games such as Assassin’s Creed and of course the subject of this article Mafia. First released in 2002 on PC, Mafia was a breath of fresh air and a big step for narrative driven experiences within the interactive art form. Yeah one could say it relied on tropes from Mafioso books and films, but it was the execution that propelled it into gamer’s hearts. With Mafia: Definitive Edition around the corner (at time of writing), I thought I would go back and talk about what made the original unique.

Let’s start off with the narrative as it is the driving force for the game, you step into the shoes of Thomas Angelo or “Tommy” which he is called by his friends. The difference with this game’s story compared to the sequels is that Tommy is just a normal person, he is not a soldier like Vito or Lincoln he is just a normal person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is a late night and Tommy is taking a break with a freshly lit cigarette as he has been doing the late shift in his taxi, he hears a loud crash and the finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He is then told to drive as fast as he can to help two gangsters to shake off their pursuers, he eventually does with his taxi filled with holes. He is then told to wait as Sam one of the gangsters goes to get Tommy a “gift”, which just turns out to be money as Tommy thought he was pulling a gun on him. Tommy drives home and looks inside the envelope and he is shocked to see how much there is and considered the offer of a job with Don Salieri and his associates, but pending the thought he declines and carry’s on the next day. After doing a few taxi fares he is tracked down by Salieri’s competition and beaten to a pulp as well his taxi once again being smashed to bits, so he runs to Salieri’s bar for protection and accepts the offer that he gave him.

Gameplay is where things kind of take a dive now it’s not bad just a bit clunky, playing it now and even at the time the controls were rather archaic and clunky. However I would argue that is kind of the point with the driving and shooting given the time period of the 1930’s, weapons and vehicles during that period were more unreliable and tend to feel less smooth. The shooting is a rather contentious topic in this game as some would say it is bad, while other state it requires patience and precision. I fall into the latter category as you are not supposed to be able spray bullets everywhere like someone who has incontinence issues, as you are a normal person who has rarely used a gun at this point. The shooting is about taking your time and assessing the situation, or otherwise you are punished for your stupidity.

Driving also takes a similar approach as you can’t drive recklessly and the game actually scolds you for doing so, as the police will chase for minor and major traffic violations. It adds to the immersion as it makes the world seem more reactive and alive, although the game overall is very linear.

Visually for the time the presentation was very good if you are playing on the PC, the PS2 version of the game had a lot of issues with draw distance and other graphical features being completely missing such as blood during gameplay. Character models for a 2002 game looked really good, it out did Grand Theft Auto in that regard as they looked more human. Voice acting was also great with the main cast, yeah you had the stereotypical Italian American accents as they spout “forget about it”, but it works and I was engaged. The voice acting from a lot of the NPCs is not so great, as it sounds like they pulled people from the street then shoved them into a recording booth. Overall though presentation and sound is still great!

Mafia was truly a unique experience at the time; it was a point where there weren’t many video game narratives based on organised crime (GTA being the exception). It has me very excited for the upcoming remake, as I’m hoping they can recapture the atmosphere of the cult classic.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 Review - The Bird Man is Back!


By Sam Coles:

We once again return to the next instalment of returning the comforting teat known as nostalgia, this time we dust off the old skateboards with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. After the disastrous release of the faecal ridden game known as Pro Skater 5 all hope was lost for the series, that is until the amazing people at Vicarious Visions who did the excellent N.Sane Trilogy back in 2017 brings us this fantastic remake and it is a grand return for the Bird Man in the video game space.

The game opens up with a nostalgic and excellent opening video introducing each skater, while Rage Against The Machine’s Guerrilla Radio plays. It got me all warm and fuzzy taking me back to a simple time, and yes I was head banging as the opening track played it is that good. It is a simple introduction to the game and gets you pumped and ready for the game, no gimmicks just showing you that this is indeed a new Pro Skater well a remake of a couple of classics.

Now let’s get to the gameplay and stop me if you have already heard this, but this is easily one of if not the best controlling Tony Hawk game I have played in years. It takes the foundation of the first two games as well elements from the Underground games, and turns it into this hybrid of what a modern Pro Skater game should be. It comes together with an engaging and additive gameplay loop, where racking up ludicrous combos. The first time I pushed off it immediately felt fantastic, very little to no input lack at all once you get going it just works and  is extremely easy to pick up and play but hard to master.

The game is split up into three tours, you have Pro Skater 1 maps, Pro Skater 2 maps and a single session tour with the mix of the two to rack up the best score you can. Like the original titles there are various challenges and objects scattered across the maps, where you have to keep up momentum and agility to get to secret areas. Now I know this may come across as a strange comparison, but think of it as an N64 platformer but you are on a skateboard. Yes this might sound a bit leftfield but think about it, you are in an open somewhat hub based map where you have to collect various MacGuffins as well complete various challenges to progress forward. I know you are probably thinking I am a madman but the parallels are somewhat there.   

You gain money and experience after completing various goals; you can use money to unlock new clothes, skateboards and other cosmetics for your custom skater or pre-existing skaters. Not only that you gain stat tokens which are in hard to reach places, you can use these to upgrade abilities such balance, ollie height and much more. This incentivises you to replay levels over and over again, plus it just feels good to try and beat your own score.

Visually the game looks superb they have built everything from the ground up, while it runs at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second with no hitches. Each location looks spectacular, with the warm glow of the sun as it sets in Venice Beach to the darkly lit streets of downtown. It all looks modern and wonderful, but it is what you thought game looked like as child. They did an outstanding job with the presentation; there is so much care and attention with the detail.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 was a blast from the past, it retains the feel of the older games while sprinkling in some needed modern elements with graphics and controls. If you are looking for a fun injection of nostalgia or you are playing it for the first time, then this game is a must have. This is easily one of my favourite games of 2020!

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Editorial | Tony Hawk's Pro Skater's Influence in Gaming.

By Sam Coles:

When you think of sports games you tend to roll your eyes as your mind reminds you the recycled nonsense each year, but they are not always bad and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is one of them. Now I know what you are thinking “Sam Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is not a sports game”, well it falls under extreme sports so I am counting it. Anyway digressions aside, I want to talk about what made the Pro Skater games special with the remake just around the corner (at the time of writing).

In the late 90’s skateboarding was on the brink of fading out of popularity, but Tony Hawk was invited to check out a prototype for a game by the folks at Neversoft. Tony loved the idea and began to give it his endorsement, every time a new build was made Tony would play it to check if it was okay and slowly it became the game that we would finally know as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater released in 1999 on the PlayStation and other platforms later. To say it was a success would be a massive understatement, what made it special? Well there are many factors.

Let’s start off with gameplay which was and still is exceedingly fun to play, the controls are extremely simple to pick up and get the hang of, but on the other hand they were difficult to master. The gameplay loop in the Pro Skater games was fast, fluid and very addictive as it caters the arcade gamer where you want to keep besting your or other player’s high scores. It wasn’t particularly realistic, but that was not what they were going for, simplicity is the key to these games.

Pulling off a long string of combos was immensely satisfying, coupled with the cathartic audio ques when you leap across a gap or pull off special moves. The original game it was a bit harder to pull long combos, but in the later instalments they added in the manual a subtle but important change to the series. This increased the possibility of combos, where you would see almost absurd high scores which looked to be inhuman levels of ridiculousness.

The campaign mode is what also kept people coming back too, now it’s not like they had stories which they didn’t (mostly) but the different challenges in each location which kept things fresh. You had the usual ones such as get this high score or find the secret video tape which was a staple in the series, but you would have certain challenges in each level that was thematically appropriate. This mix of player freedom and structure at the same time, crafted an additive gameplay experience that is still fun to play today.

Pro Skater had a cultural impact too, lots of gamers played these games despite them having no interest in skateboarding and some even picked up a deck and tried to get into it myself included. It paved the way for a new generation of skaters and music, where you would hear Superman from Goldfinger playing at several parties a week.

Now this wouldn’t be an article about Pro Skater if I didn’t mention the licensed soundtrack, this game brought a lot of punk bands into the mainstream back in the day such as Lagwagon, Bad Religion, NOFX, Rancid, Goldfinger and many more. This is how I experienced these bands the first time round, and it being a PS1 disc I would frequently put it into a CD player and listen to the music. Even later down the line it would introduce different genres such as heavy metal and hip-hop, with bands and groups such as Motörhead and Jurassic 5 making appearances in playlists.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is truly a great series of games (except 5, we don’t talk about that game), and it makes me so happy to see the first two games make a comeback with the current generation of gaming. Maybe once again it can create a new generation of skaters, we shall see. 

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Battletoads (2020) Review - A toadally good time.

By Sam Coles:

We seem to be in the era of retro revivals with the past couple of years since classic games from the 90’s are making a comeback, such as Spyro, Crash, Resident Evil and of course Battletoads. It has been 26 years since their last game which was released on the Super Nintendo; the series is mostly notorious for its insanely and somewhat unfair first outing on the NES. Now it has made a return on the Xbox One simply named Battletoads, a naming convention that is teetering on testing my patience, but I digress. Is the return of the bipedal amphibians a great return? In short yes.

The narrative in Battletoads is surprisingly funny and self-aware, it takes place 26 years after their last game and they find out that they are not that popular anymore. People no longer know the Battletoads so it is their question to become popular again by any means, it sounds rather stupid and ridiculous but the execution works. The writing is on point and made me laugh out loud a few times throughout my play through, don’t get me wrong there were a few dud lines which had my eyes rolling like dust bin lids in a washing machine but it is mostly good.

Gameplay is a typical 2D brawler sprinkled with some vehicle sections and light puzzle solving, but the meat of the game is combat and it feels great. When the game was first shown off it looked slow and clunky, but now it feels zippy and responsive with great feedback as you deck enemies when your hand as it turns into an anvil. You can punch, kick and head-butt foes typical stuff in this genre, but you can transform in objects that make no sense but it is entertaining to watch. You have moments where you turn into a shark because science, to you playing a Battletoads arcade cabinet in the middle of the fight which does damage. It is completely ridiculous in a good way, as the game’s combat is over the top but it never gets incoherent or messy as the main characters standout on screen.

You can either play the game solo or with two other friends, but unfortunately at the time of writing the co-op is local play only and you can’t play online which is baffling to say the least. The game is perfectly viable solo as you use the other toads if one dies, where each have their strengths and weaknesses. You have one fast, one slow and one in between both, which ironically correlates with their size. When one of the toads dies they get put on a timer where they will respawn which sounds like it would make the game easy, but far from it as this game can get rather challenging in places not unfair like the original but challenging enough where I died a lot.

The presentation was a contentious point with the community, there are some that loved the new look and others who thought it looked like a Saturday morning cartoon and didn’t fit the series. I think the game looks great yeah it takes the aesthetic of a cartoon, but so did the original to a certain extent as it was a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The colours are vibrant and really pop out of the screen, the expressions are over exaggerated and the animation in the general is smooth and looks fantastic. I don’t understand how someone can say this art style looks bad, it looks amazing and is a nice palette cleanser from playing serious games.

Overall Battletoads was a fun a time, hard to believe it has been 26 years since their last game and this return was great. It has funny writing, beautiful visuals and gameplay that it is fast and snappy. It’s a great time and I recommend it, so grab now or if you have Game Pass you can download it now!

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Editorial | Wolfenstein The New Order: A series that matured.


By Sam Coles:

There are certain franchises in the video game industry that lie within dormancy; this has been the case for the Wolfenstein series for the past two decades. Since its big success in 1992 with Wolfenstein 3D where it basically invented the first person shooter genre, it often struggled within the shadow of its younger brother Doom. It got constant reboots throughout the decades with the excellent Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the lukewarm 2009 title Wolfenstein from Raven Software and the topic of this article Wolfenstein The New Order.

First announced in 2013 with a teaser featuring Jimi Hendrix’s Watchtower, it was a surprise as no one was asking for a new Wolfenstein game. At this time id Software and their properties were in a bit of a slump and were at risk of falling into obscurity, this was mostly due to the release of Rage back in 2011 which was a fine game but didn’t really resonate with audiences. The reaction to Wolfenstein: The New Order was a resounding shoulder shrug, but when more gameplay and story elements were revealed people began to warm up to the game. When it finally released on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3 and PC in mid-2014, it quickly became the best game of that year.

The narrative was a real surprise when this game first came out because when you think of B.J. Blazkowicz you don’t think of a deep character, the most characterisation we got were various gurns at the bottom of the screen. However he is fleshed out in this game where he comes across as sympathetic and tired, after a final push in 1946 he ends up in a coma for 14 years and wakes up in 1960 where the Nazis won World War 2. Struggling to take this in he wonders if it is worth fighting against a huge super power, there is this constant sense of weariness from B.J’s dialogue with his internal monologues during gameplay. The story was a complete surprise as most were expecting another meathead shooter, and yes it does deliver that in the gameplay but the story makes you really care about B.J’s struggles.

Gameplay was something of a revival of old school design, however it mixed it with modern design principles. You had the ability to aim down sights to do precise shooting, but it wasn’t required to get through the game as the guns didn’t really have bloom or spread which encourages you to go nuts in firefights. Health regenerated to a certain extent, but they reintroduced health packs to help you get back to peak physical condition.

It aimed to pleasure two audiences, fans of old school shooting design and those who are used to modern gameplay elements and it worked. Not only that levels were not linear by nature, I mean there were still linear set pieces but it balances it out with stealth and sprawling level design with multiple routes that housed secrets. Speaking of stealth this was a nice call back to the original Wolfenstein released in 1981, it was possible to get through sections without raising alarms.

Now one would say that it goes against the nature of Wolfenstein, but given the nature of world within context it makes to take a more quiet and guerrilla warfare approach with combat. How this works that there will be two Nazi captains for you to shoot with a silenced pistol, throw a knife into their back or whatever body part you feel like that day or stab them in the throat. If they spot you they raise an alarm with tougher reinforcements for you to take down. It gives you multiple options in each scenario, which ultimately makes the game re-playable.

Now visually the game didn’t look amazing even for its time, but you have to realise that A. they were compensating for Xbox 360 and PS3 and B. They prioritised high framerates over visuals. Not to say it doesn’t look good especially on PS4, but it suffered and still does with bits of pop in with its textures as it uses a modified id Tech 5 which ran Rage which had similar issues. Not to say there are not plus points about the presentation, the gore effects as you blow a Nazi’s head, leg or arm off is extremely satisfying especially when you are duel wielding automatic shotguns. The visuals were never a deal breaker to me as the art design really shines, with big oppressive sky scrapers that dominate the world as the monotones of concrete of the Nazis rid the world of colour and saturation it really sells the world.

Overall Wolfenstein The New Order is a game that shows a series that can mature as time goes on, it wouldn’t be the only series within this time frame that would go in this direction. It shows that games grow up alongside the gamers, and it was a great move by Machine Games to take.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Editorial | How Insomniac Games made the best Spider-Man game ever.


By Sam Coles:

When you think of Spider-Man in the video game space the consistency of their quality is like me before I have had coffee, not exactly the best. Not to say there are not any good Spider-Man games, we have the movie tie in for Spider-Man 2 from Treyarch and Spider-Man on PS1. However in 2018 Insomniac Games released a game simply titled, Spider-Man, and it is one of if not the best Spider-Man game ever and now I have said Spider-Man so many times it is starting to sound weird, but I digress.

Now let’s start off with the story as you will know I’m not a huge fan of Spider-Man as a character, as I tend to find his quips in most circumstances to be as pleasurable as a kick to the gonads. However in this game he is older and more mature, and to be honest some of his quips made me laugh but he is also a human and can show other emotions. I have to say this is my favourite version of Peter Parker; he knows when to shut up when the situation calls for it and shows other emotions besides smug git. Not only that the transformation of Doctor Octopus from humble scientist to villain is a terrifying one, because again they show the human side of him he wants to change the world but Normal Osborne stops him from doing so.

The gameplay is what really makes this experience as it feels like that they took elements from their previous project, Sunset Overdrive. They took the concept of constant movement and momentum from Sunset Overdrive, as you swing from building to building at the speed of sound and it feels graceful and smooth. It takes a more realistic approach (hear me out) where you can only swing a web if there are buildings and trees in the nearby vicinity, it creates a layer of believability in the world as it always looked silly in the older games where Spidey would cling to thin air.

Combat is instantly familiar if you have played any of the Batman Arkham games, where you are up against a huge group of enemies where they will attack you from all corners, where you will dodge and counter. However fitting with Spider-Man’s speed and agility it is faster compared to the Batman games, and honestly can get tricky in parts when they introduce multiple enemy types because you can’t just counter attack out of the situation. It keeps the combat fresh and honesty never found myself bored with the combat in the game, compared to the Arkham games where it started feel like routine.

Spider-Man is not just bound to his standard web shooters, you can upgrade them to do all sorts of crazy things such as electric webs to short out transformers (no not those ones), concussive blasts that sending enemies flying and totally not killing them and many more. These also come into play with suit powers, you can unlock different suits from the many eras of Spider-Man, but they are not only cosmetic as they can have gameplay differences. This is fantastic as it gives you an incentive to finish side quests, which in most open world games most players will probably do a few and not bother with them but not the case in this game as it rewards you appropriately.

The presentation is masterful, honesty when they first showed this game off back at the PS4 reveal I thought to myself “there is no way that this game is going to look this good” but I was very wrong. The detail on Spider-Man’s suit is incredible, you can see every bit of stitching on his suit I couldn’t believe it when I first booted up this game. The streets of New York look beautiful, with the excellent lighting at night as the rain beats down onto the pavements with the street lights reflecting to the orange glow of the morning as Spidey looks upon the horizon. This is Insomniac’s best looking game, it is insane all the details I would just swing around the city appreciating the beauty of it all.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man is easily one of if not the best Spider-Man game to date; it gets everything right about the characters and the world which leap from the comic panels onto the screen in the virtual world. I can’t wait for the standalone tale of Miles Morales on the PS5.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Destroy All Humans (2020) Review - Time to do questionable things with probes.

By Sam Coles:

Remakes and remasters have been rather ubiquitous in 2020 with certain events putting new productions on a slow burn, but it has been great revisiting classics with a new coat of paint as well tighter and more modern controls. Destroy All Humans was somewhat of a cult classic when it first released on the PS2 and Original Xbox in 2005, originally developed by Pandemic Studios who made the original Star Wars: Battlefront games and the mindlessly fun Mercenaries series. It was a fun third person shooter making fun of B-Movie tropes as well as the mind set of America in the 1950’s, which makes for a fun tongue in cheek adventure. It is worth a revisit as well as for new comers? Absolutely, and I will tell you why.

You play as the extra-terrestrial Crypto who has been tasked to scout out Earth for research, and when I say research I mean cause havoc on the planet while extracting human’s brainstems for genetic research. Now that sounds morbid, but fortunately Destroy All Humans does not take itself seriously at all. It completely makes fun of the 1950’s American society, so you have the classic and idyllic white picket fences as well as everyone talking about their distaste for communists every five minutes. It is very self-aware about how absurd the scenario is as it takes jabs at B-Movie conventions, with probes, flying saucers and ray guns that would make Michael Bay blush. If you are looking for a story that will make you laugh then this is your game, even 15 years later the writing still holds up.

Gameplay is mostly a third person shooter but it is also a mix of other mechanics, there are times where you have to take a more stealthy approach by donning a disguise as a human to gain intel. It adds a good mix with the gameplay coupled with the really fun moments where the game lets you go nuts as you unleash destruction with your ray-gun, or you can hop into your flying saucer as you do your best maniacal laugh as you destroy buildings.

As you terrorise the local populace you must extract their brainstems which makes a nice popping noise when do it, anyway this is in aid for upgrading your weapons and flying saucer. This gives the player an incentive to actually collect things within a level as you can upgrade your weapons to do ridiculous damage, which make your rampages more fun. To be honest it’s one of those games where it is fun to collect stuff, as well as shooting anything that gets in your way. The gameplay loop of Destroy All Humans is addictive, this stems from the upgraded controls which feel very tight and responsive.

Visually it has been given a huge bump in visual fidelity compared to its original PS2 and Xbox release, lighting looks superb with the sun setting on the beaches to the bright sunny days in a the suburbs. Character models look great and standout more with their exaggerated and cartoonish look, which work well with the better lighting and more saturated colour palette. Honestly it is astounding what they have done to bring this obscure gem into the modern era; it is just a joy to look at and appealing to my eyes.

Destroy All Humans is a fantastic game that doesn’t take itself serious, with a really funny story that still holds up 15 years later coupled with the chaotic gameplay it makes for a really good time. If you are looking for something fun, over the top and more light hearted then I high recommend this game.

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