Friday, 26 February 2010

Heavy Rain - PS3

Can videogames mirror films when it comes to delivering rich, compelling narrative? It’s a question that’s been doing the rounds for years, with some titles make a decent fist of bringing a cinematic experience to a home console.

However they are few and far between, with gamers and developers seemingly more interested in first-person shooters than delivering interesting games with a well written plot.

Quantic Dream’s last game was 2005’s Fahrenheit, a title which tried to blend the worlds of film and videogames together. It was an acquired taste and had its fair share of flaws, but when it worked, it delivered a gaming experience like no other.

So to Quantic Dream’s latest title, Heavy Rain. The title focuses on four main characters, each one central to the game’s gripping plot. Each well developed figure is linked to a serial killer known as the Origami Killer, and unravelling the mystery behind this cold-blooded murderer becomes utterly compelling.

It’s a dark, twisting story, peppered with adult themes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for some light-hearted moments along the way.

The core gameplay involves a new way of thinking about the PS3’s controller. The left stick is used to position whichever character is under your control, while deftly moving the right stick and following on-screen prompts allows the character to interact with highlighted objects. From opening fridges and drinking cartons of fruit juice, to rocking a baby to sleep, striking matches and taking a shot of Scotch, it’s intuitive and keeps the player connected to the on-screen action.

Ancient quick-time button prompts raise their ugly head again, but unlike fast-paced action titles such as the recent Dante’s Inferno, they are better handled here. There are still frantic moments, of course, especially when involved in a bout of fisticuffs or driving a car headlong into oncoming traffic. But the unfolding drama keeps the player glued to the pad just in case something nasty awaits.

The one fly in the ointment is the direct control of your character. Pressing the R2 trigger moves your on-screen charge, but coupled with the left stick, the set up is incredibly clunky and leads to moments when you find yourself moving in completely the wrong direction. This is especially noticeable when in confined areas, or when trying to move around tables and other static objects.

Strangely, though, this cumbersome control method didn’t really hamper my overall enjoyment, as I was so engrossed in the story, characters and the game’s incredible visuals.

Heavy Rain is presented with incredible flair, a studious eye for detail and features some of the best graphics yet seen on PS3. Clean cut office floors give way to rain-washed streets, grimy abandoned warehouses, fizzing neon nightclubs, sprawling mansions, and seedy motel rooms.

The slightly stiff characters don’t fit quite as well as the environments they inhabit, but despite this, you do feel a bond between you and the on-screen cast.

The sense of depression and loneliness in one scene is quite incredible, and the pain etched across faces is hard to ignore. It’s a spellbinding experience and one of only a handful of games I’ve played which has resonated emotionally with me as I played through. I wanted the characters to achieve their goals and felt a sharp sense of disappointment when things didn’t go quite according to plan.

While the game is linear in its structure, it really has to be to tell the story properly. However, there’s a smattering of Dreamcast classic Shenmue in places, too, allowing the player to explore some locations at their leisure and play about with various on-screen objects.

Quantic Dream have created a wonderful and ambitious piece of digital entertainment and they should be heartily congratulated.

It’s flawed in places due to its archaic control method, but Heavy Rain is without doubt one of he most thrilling and emotive pieces of software I’ve ever played. As soon as I completed the game, I started again - something I've not done for quite a while.

It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. But those looking for something deeper than standard console fare should definitely take a look.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Tatsunoko vs Capcom - Wii

While all gamers know the Capcom name thanks to titles such as Street Fighter and Resident Evil, a lot of people will never have heard of Tatsunoko. That's because Tatsunoko is a Japanese animation company, whose closest links to the Western world lie in Seventies series Battle of the Planets.

Fortunately, despite a range of unfamiliar characters, you don't need to know anything about Tatsunoko to be able to enjoy this fabulous tag team fighter.

Just three attack buttons are used: light, medium and heavy, and together with directional inputs introduce a host of moves to experiment with. A fourth button is used to call a second character into the fray. This substitute can either be called in for a quick attack, or can be swapped on the fly. It's a simple and elegant control system, allowing players to input quick-fire combos with ease.

Each time your character unleashes an attack or receives a punch in the guts, the Hyper Combo Gauge fills. This bar can be topped up to a maximum of five times and can be triggered to deliver a potent series of special moves. If the bar is filled to capacity, each fighter can pull off a visually spectacular and devastating attack.

Just because unleashing flashy combos is easier here than, say, Street Fighter IV, it doesn't mean the game is shallow button-mashing nonsense.

While novice players will be happy to hit any old button and hope for the best, there's more than enough to keep fighting game veterans happy. Cross-over assists, hyper combos, cross-over air raids, and Baroque combos are just some of the special moves to be learned.

The riotous action is made all the more special thanks to the brilliant and colourful cast. There are more than 20 characters to select from the start, while more can be unlocked as you progress.

Well known Street Fighters Ryu and Chun-Li lead the way for Team Capcom, but there are some wonderful characters from the company's games represented here - Mega Man, Darksiders' Morrigan, Viewtiful Joe and housecleaning Mega Man robot Roll take center stage - look out for her amazing special moves. Even square-jawed journalist Frank West takes a break from mass zombie killing in Dead Rising to put in an appearance.

On the Tatsunoko side, the most recognisable pair are Ken the Eagle and Jun the Swan from classic Seventies series Battle Of The Planets. Joining them is an assortment of truly off-the-wall characters. Chief among them is Doronjo, who along with her Dorombo gang, unleashes havoc with bombs and mechanical gadgets.

The bold slabs of colour used and fantastic animation add to the visual polish, while the game's slick framerate remains constant throughout. It really is a gorgeous game and one of the best looking titles on the Wii.

Along with the default Arcade Mode, there are a variety of play modes to explore and even a shop where artwork and extras can be purchased with in-game currency.

Tatsunoko vs Capcom can even be taken online, although the experience for me was slightly laggy, but certainly nothing game breaking.

The stilted slide show rewards for completing the game with each of the characters are a bit of a let down. I was hoping for slices of animation and some worthwhile rewards. It jars slightly as the rest of the game is such a visual treat.

Various control methods have also been added, including support for a Gamecube pad. I played with the Classic Controller, which proved to be more effective than the standard Wiimote/nunchuk set-up.

Tatsunoko vs Capcom manages to cater for hardcore fighting fans and beat em up novices, with enough content to keep players going for months. It's accessible and a joy to play. Snap it up and experience something a bit special.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Shiren The Wanderer 3 Portable - PSP

With America due to get Shiren The Wanderer 3 on Wii in the next week or so, I've been insanely jealous. After all, no European publisher has picked Shiren's latest adventure up, which is a bloody disgrace if you ask me.

So, I've plumped for the next best thing - Shiren The Wanderer 3 Portable on PSP. I ordered it last week from Japan and it arrived this morning. I've put around five hours in today and it's wonderful stuff.

Shiren's first outing on PSP is a port of the Wii version, although I understand there's a handful of extra dungeons - too early to say for sure, as I'm still fighting my way through the game's early levels.

The biggest difference with Shiren 3 over the last two outings is Chun Soft have made the game more accessible to newcomers. The player has the option of two difficulty settings. Easy allows you to keep all your items and level when you die, while normal strips you of your items when you kick the bucket, but your level remains.

It's a radical departure for a series which is famous for being a ruthless challenge. Of course, I've plumped for the normal setting, as one of Shiren's charms has always been the fear factor.

Like Shiren 2 on DS, Shiren 3 features a hub town. Although I've had a nose about, I haven't come across much to do in the town yet. There's a warehouse, a bank and a merchant but little else. Of course, I'm sure more will open up as progress is made.

My first game ended when I starved to death - there doesn't seem to be a place in town where I can buy riceballs, so that was fun! Nice to see some things never change :)

I've also discovered there is a 1000 floor dungeon - although again I will need to clarify.

The language barrier is throwing up a few problems as far as the story goes, although thanks to the Shiren 3 Wiki, I can at least identify items.

I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that a company such as Rising Star pick the Wii version up and release it in Europe. Considering the amount of sub-standard software sitting on store shelves, it would be a crime if a quality title such as this didn't make it to Europe.

I'll post back when I discover new things.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Endless Ocean 2 - Wii

The sequel to one of the Wii’s hidden gems has arrived - and it’s a breath of fresh air on a system which is depressingly becoming full of average software. 
Endless Ocean fleshed out ideas from PS1 cult classic Aquanaut’s Holiday, giving the player a whole ocean to explore at their leisure. The mixture of laid back gameplay, soothing sounds and lovely visuals wasn’t for everyone. However those who dived in were well rewarded with some breathtaking sights, making it the perfect game to kick back and chill out with.

That was two years ago, and I’m delighted to say the sequel improves on the original in almost every area. The first game's open-ended structure didn’t click with many gamers, so developer Arika have given the sequel a bit of direction this time around.

Starting out as a fledgling diver for a small scuba diving company in the Southern Pacific, the tale begins innocently enough, with what amounts to an enjoyable tutorial splashing about in a bright coral reef. Soon, however, you’ll be exploring deep caverns, murky rivers and chilly Arctic basins as you and your small team travel the globe trying to unravel the mysteries of the fabled Song of the Dragons.

The yarn is typical fare for the most part, but it does give the game a sense of purpose. It also draws the player gently along, dishing out new rewards such as a camera and underwater pen as the story progresses. It’s still possible to dive and explore at your leisure between the main plot points, and it’s here where you’ll spend much of your time. Treasures lie scattered about the ocean floor and as each item, fish and mammal is catalogued when discovered, it becomes something of an obsession scouring every nook and cranny.

The control system is identical to the original’s with just the Wiimote needed to play. It’s a comfortable set up and one most people will find easy to get to grips with. The biggest difference here is the area of exploration. The original game limited the player to a small circumference around their boat, with tedious trips back aboard required to move to a new area. Not so with the sequel.

The player is free to explore the oceans, although more care is needed when it comes to you oxygen supply. Another new introduction is a danger meter. The first game carried no hazards, but Endless Ocean 2 arms the player a Pulsar Gun which is used to repel dangerous creatures such as sharks. Strangely, it also doubles as a healing kit to nurse sick fish back to health. It’s one of the game’s weak points, as most players will simply want to explore without the threat of danger hanging over their heads.

It’s also possible to visit islands and secret coves, where land-based animals and birds reside. These excursions offer a nice change of pace and it’s always exciting discovering a new location. You have a base of operations, too, where you can keep track of your progress, get items evaluated, change diving gear, alter the time of day, read up on all the aquatic life you’ve discovered and develop any photographs you’ve taken. All pictures can be saved on to an SD card and uploaded on your PC.

Endless Ocean 2 also features some of the most impressive graphics yet seen on the Wii. While character animation above the water remains laughably wooden, the underwater sights are truly breathtaking. It’s gorgeous, packed with detail and some of the locations you visit are simply jaw-dropping. Coral reefs, shipwrecks, sunken palaces and crumbling ruins are just some of the sights that await.

Endless Ocean 2 is not a short game either. There’s dozens of hours of gameplay packed on to the disc, while online co-op returns to add a splash of longevity.

Those looking for relentless, all-action entertainment should seek their thrills elsewhere, but for gamers looking for something a bit different, Endless Ocean 2 is an underwater paradise.