Wednesday, 24 September 2008

LittleBigPlanet - Beta

The website Eurogamer ground to a halt on Tuesday night, as word spread they were giving away 5800 beta keys for the PS3's showpiece title LittleBigPlanet. After much ranting, raving, liberal swearing and desperately hitting the refresh button every few seconds, I finally got a key and I'm now in the beta.

Of course some money grabbing buggers were quick off the mark, and put their beta codes online - charging around $100 a pop.

As I sit here typing with a mug of tea and a packet of Hob Nobs by my side, my download is at 61 per cent and a night of fun lies ahead. Who cares about my pounding headache or the stomach cramps I've been suffering from all day? This is LittleBigPlanet, folks. And, seeing as the beta doesn't finish until October 12, I'll be amazed if I play anything else over the course of the next few weeks.

I'll report back when I've had some quality time with my most anticipated title of 2008...

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Opoona - Wii

Given the global success of the Wii, it's somewhat surprising there is a lack of decent RPGs available for the system. So when a new title comes along, I always like to take a closer look.

The latest game to appear on the system is Opoona, and while it's not without its problems, it proves to be a charming little RPG. It's refreshing to see developer ArtePiazza and publisher Koei taking a chance on the title and releasing it in the UK, so good on them.

Opoona and his family are on holiday when their spacecraft is attacked. Opoona's parents bundle you, your brother and your sister into escape pods, which are jettisoned into space, eventually landing on the planet Landroll.

Landroll initially seems an idyllic place. The planet's inhabitants live in huge closed off domes which are scattered across the surface. However, after waking up following his crash landing, Opoona discovers that a menace called the Rogues roam the wild lands between the domes. He then sets out to discover what happened to his family and take on the Rogues that threaten peace on the planet.

You control every action in the game using just the Wii's nunchuk. The larger 'Z' button accesses the menu screens, while the smaller 'C' button is used to interact with other people and objects. To scan your surroundings while indoors, you hold 'C' and rotate the analogue stick.

Combat is somewhat unusual, too. Opoona has an orange ball above his head called a Bonbon and he uses this to attack his enemies. Moving the analogue stick back then flicking it forward fires the Bonbon at the enemy. Some strategy is required to dispatch enemies with shields or those who hide behind others by moving the stick left or right before firing it. This adds spin to the Bonbon, allowing you to curve the projectile around objects to reach its desired target.

While battles are random, this unusual control method keeps them ticking along and it's refreshing to see something different.

While roaming the wild lands and taking on the evil Rogues takes up a significant chunk of the game, Opoona will also find himself taking on a variety of jobs - serving in a fast-food restaurant, taking dogs for walks, working in a clothes shop, cleaning up rubbish, fishing, mining and playing musical instruments are just some of the things Opoona will find himself doing as the story unfolds.

While the majority of these jobs are nothing more than fetch quests, they provide a nice change of pace in the game, and it's fun to explore the different domes, taking in the sights and sounds as you go about your business.

While the Wii is not known for its graphical punch, there are some lovely moments in Opoona. Lead artist Shintaro Majima has previously worked on the Dragon Quest games and some of the scenery is beautiful. The lighting effects in the Artiela region deserve particular mention, with the sunset bathing the entire area in beautiful warm colours. The blue-black skies of Paradiso, complete with rays of sun piercing through the clouds, while a flock of birds fly across the horizon is another particularly lovely sight.

There will be times when you stop in your tracks just to spin the camera around to gaze at your surroundings. The team at ArtePiazza have done a fantastic job in making the world a joy to explore. You never know what's around the next corner and the game throws visual surprises at you at every turn.

You'll wander through gardens filled with waterfalls and artistic sculptures, you'll come out of a lift to be confronted by a massive satellite dish, beaming TV signals to the stars, you'll open a small door only to find yourself in a sizeable concert hall and you'll find museums peppered throughout the domes, each one displaying fantastic and original exhibits. My favourite is the sculpture entitled 'Eternal Ice Cream' in the museum on Artiela. There's definitely more to Opoona than initially meets the eye.

Opoona's soundtrack was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto - best known for his work on Final Fantasy XII - and is one of the best I've heard for some time. It features various styles, from laid-back electronica and folk themes, to jazz fusion and upbeat summery pop. Coupled with the game's distinctive look, the atmosphere the soundtrack creates is simply wonderful, bringing to mind the Dreamcast classic Phantasy Star Online.

A few niggles slightly sour the experience, though. First is the inability to change the camera angle when you're out in the wilderness. This means you'll be hard-pressed to find treasure pods scattered about the locales which can be annoying.

My second gripe is the confusing layout of the first dome. It's needlessly complicated and you'll spend a while trying to learn where everything is. Also be warned, there is a fair amount of backtracking involved, which can begin to grate after a few hours.

However, if you are willing to overlook these slight annoyances, you'll find a lot to like about Opoona.

It's the sort of game the Wii desperately needs and it's a pity it will probably sink at retail without a trace. With a push in the right direction and a little TV advertising, Opoona could be a success. It's a great family game and for younger gamers who may not have experienced the RPG genre before, this is a great place to start.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Afrika/Hakuna Matata - PS3

First off, let me apologise for the lack of updates recently. I've just not had time to update the blog due to real life getting in the way of my precious gaming time. So without hanging about, let's get the blog back on track with the wonderful Afrika/Hakuna Matata on PS3.

My copy arrived from Japan this week and although I ordered Afrika, I received Hakuna Matata instead. The difference? Well Hakuna Matata is the the Asian version of Afrika, but aside from the name change, the only difference between the two versions is that Hakuna Matata has two pages of English in the instruction manual relating to the controls. Everything else in the manual and on-screen is still in Japanese.

So what exactly is Afrika/Hakuna Matata? Well, plain and simply, it's a wildlife photography game. As I've mentioned previously, think of Hakuna Matata as a grown-up version of Pokemon Snap.

You begin the game by choosing a male or female character and then you are whisked away to base camp - a small location nestled in the south of the Duma Steps. The camp has a bed, a map, a bookshelf - where you can view your progress - all your tools, such as tents and your collection of cameras. There's also a laptop, which acts as the hub for all your African adventures. You'll receive missions via the laptop, each one accompanied by a small video clip of what animal picture the client is looking for.

As the text is in Japanese, this makes things much easier to understand, although a little trial and error is required as you get further in. Every photograph you take is also uploaded to the laptop, and you can pick and choose the best picture to send to the client. Every successful mission rewards you with a grade and a cash bonus, which is used to buy new equipment from the laptop's online store.

When you venture outside the camp for the first few missions, all you'll have to your name is a bog-standard camera, which takes slightly fuzzy pictures. But don't worry, as you progress through the game, new cameras and lenses become available. In fact, it doesn't take long to get a cracking little digital camera, which takes beautifully sharp pictures. Incidentally, all the pictures featured here are my own creations, so I hope you like them!

As the gameworld is sizeable, the preferred mode of transport is a jeep. At first you will be taken to points of interest by your driver, but later in the game, you gain full control of the jeep and can drive it anywhere.

Your first assignment is to take pictures of general wildlife, and you'll be dropped off near a watering hole, where zebras, antelopes, giraffes and vultures like to gather. However, care must be taken when approaching animals, as most are easily scared and will run off if you get too close. You can sneak by pressing down on the D-Pad, and finding some cover in the shrubs and bushes enables you to observe the wildlife going about their business without disturbing them.

Snapping pictures is very straightforward - pressing R1 takes the snap, while turning the Sixaxis 90 degrees changes your view from landscape to portrait - very handy for taking pictures of giraffes! The right analogue stick is used to zoom in and out, which is vital for getting great close up shots without frightening the animals.

After taking your pictures, you'll be taken back to base camp, where you can send pictures of new species back to central office. Each new species photographed and recorded earns you 3000 points, and taking snaps of new creatures opens up fresh missions and challenges.

Occasionally you will have to take on a Big Hunt. These are scripted events, the first of which sees you taking pictures of a cheetah chasing down an antelope. These are great fun and offer a nice change of pace from the rest of the laid back gameplay. As far as I'm aware, there are 20 Big Hunts to discover throughout the game.

As you progress, the missions start to get interesting - you'll start by snapping giraffes drinking from a pool, but soon you'll be face to face with a charging elephant and dealing with angry bison. Incidentally, you can't die in Hakuna Matata. If you anger an animal, it will charge you. This results in you being knocked out, but you'll come round back at base camp, ready to try the mission again.

As you can see, the graphics are excellent and although animals in the distance look a little stilted, up close they look incredible. Because the draw distance is so good, it's impossible not to be impressed with the backgrounds just as much as foreground objects. There's also a day/night cycle at work and the effect as afternoon turns to evening is breathtaking. The music is equally good, with a soundtrack composed and conducted by Wataru Hokoyama, which gives the game an epic feel.

Hakuna Matata is a great game to chill-out with. If you don't want to dive into the missions, you don't have to. In fact, most of the images you see here were taken when I was just exploring the game world. There is also an option in the main menu called Afrika viewer. When in this mode, you select a landscape, time of day and background music. Then you just sit back and watch the wildlife going about its business. You can also speed up time so the colours of the landscape gradually change from day to night. You can also manually change the view or let the PS3 flick between them. It's lovely to have on in the background late at night and is a great inclusion.

Sony also teamed up with National Geographic for Hakuna Matata, and as a result, every animal in the game is featured in the National Geographic Library - an album crammed full of glorious hi-res pictures and videos of the featured wildlife.

Sony have obviously gone to a lot of trouble to create Hakuna Matata, which makes it even more baffling when they announced they have no plans to publish the game in the US or Europe. I'm still confident they'll change their minds, as this is a game which will appeal to gamers and non-gamers of all ages.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Ratchet and Clank: The Quest for Booty - PS3

Last year's Ratchet And Clank: Tools Of Destruction on PS3 proved to be one of the system's highlights. Its perfect fusion of platform fun, excellent action and jaw-dropping graphics proved to be a huge hit for Insomniac Games.

And while we wait for the next full game in the series, which is expected to arrive in 2009, Insomniac have given us this tasty morsel to whet our appetite.

Costing £9.99 from the PlayStation online store, Quest For Booty offers all the classic Ratchet and Clank humour and gameplay we've come to expect from the series and, although the game will only take a few hours to complete, it's well worth your time and cash.

The story takes place immediately after Tools Of Destruction, so if you've yet to delve into one of the PS3's finest games, now is the perfect chance - especially as Tools has been re-released for £19.99 on the new PS3 Platinum range.

Our long-eared Lombax friend is off on his travels again, this time hoping to discover the whereabouts of his metal sidekick Clank and the location of the mysterious alien race, the Zoni.

The Ratchet and Clank series has always been known for its over-the-top weapons, but unfortunately Quest For Booty doesn't really offer much in the way of cool new gadgets to mess about with - with the one exception: the Kinetic Tether.

This new device is used for a variety of acrobatic endeavours, such as pulling bridges and platforms and setting giant springs which send Ratchet soaring through the air.

The solid series gameplay remains intact and Ratchet fans will discover new additions, including cute glow-in-the-dark monsters that can be grabbed with your wrench and used as a light source - essential if you want to navigate your way around dark and gloomy pirate coves.

Graphics, as you would expect, are nothing short of spectacular and Insomniac's attention to detail puts many other developers to shame. The opening scene sees you thrown on to a rocking ship in the middle of a thunderstorm, with the torrential rain making metal surfaces appear slick and slippery. Later you'll discover the tropical beauty of Hoolefar Island, complete with gorgeous water effects and soaring creatures that fly high over the sun-kissed land.

While the game should take you only three to four hours to complete, every minute spent with Quest For Booty is a pleasure. The main problem is that just as you get into your stride, the experience is over. 

Still, for £9.99 you will get a thoroughly enjoyable and well thought-out game and once again, Sony are leading the way in delivering quality content from their online store.