Friday, 24 September 2010

Ancient Trader - 360/PC

This cracking sea-faring adventure is available either from the Xbox 360's indie game marketplace or for PC direct from the official website.

Taking place on a beautiful sepia-toned naval map, the aim is to be the first to take on and defeat the game's boss - the Ancient Guardian.

First, however, you have to significantly upgrade your ship and to do this you need cash - and lots of it. Working out the most lucrative trade routes throughout the archipelagos is vital, then, and as you are up against other players, it's a race for supremacy.

Players buy and trade exotic goods, sink fearsome ocean-dwelling monsters, collect waterlogged cargo, upgrade their hulking galleon and do battle with rival captains on the high seas.

Each upgrade to your ship not only enables the player to traverse greater distances across the map, but also increases the power of your cannons, muskets and swarthy sword-carrying crew mates.

Even when your vessel has been upgraded, three artifacts must be purchased from various ports before taking on the gargantuan beast of the deep. As you are always up against other players, deciding when to make your final push is often fraught with peril. Take the plunge too early and chances are you'll be unsuccessful. But leave your preparations too late, and you'll find a rival has already beaten you to the punch.

Along with this main game mode, full online multiplayer throws in a few more objectives, such as accruing the most wealth quickly. Unfortunately, I found getting an online game was particularly difficult. Not because the match-making system was flawed, but because there weren't many people playing - a crying shame as this is a brilliant and well-balanced gem of a game.

Battle takes the form of a simple rock, paper, scissors card based affair, but what it lacks in depth is more than made up for by the game's beautiful presentation and easy to navigate menu system.

It's a truly wonderful title and with plenty of maps of varying sizes and sharp, simple gameplay, Ancient Trader stands head and shoulders above other similarly priced games. Make it your next online purchase.

Ancient Trader is available from the Indie Games Marketplace on Xbox 360 for 240 Microsoft points. PC owners can buy the game from here

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Final Fantasy XIV - PC - Preview

On May 16, 2002, Final Fantasy XI was released in Japan on PlayStation 2. It was a radical departure for the long-running series as the franchise ventured into the online world for the first time.

The game was ported to PC later that year, while European audiences would have to wait until September 2004 before they could experience Square Enix's MMO debut.

It was a huge success, with hundreds of thousands of players descending on the magical land of Vana'diel to be part of a thriving online community set within the Final Fantasy universe.

The game still boasts a healthy player base but all that could be about to change with Final Fantasy XIV Online on the horizon.

I've been taking part in the beta for the last few weeks and my experience with the game has been hugely enjoyable, leaving me desperate to get my hands on the finished version.

Here, I take a look at the opening portion of the game to give you a flavour of what you can expect when Final Fantasy XIV's servers go live on September 22.

Starting on the beautiful character creation screen, the player is presented with a choice of five races and an incredible 18 classes. From Lancers, Archers and Conjurers, to Blacksmiths, Leatherworkers and Alchemists, the range of job classes available eclipses most other MMOs by a considerable margin.

After choosing your starting city - I plumped for the woodland setting of Gridiana - the player is whisked off to begin their adventure.

Unlike other MMOs such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online, Final Fantasy XIV controls much better with a control pad rather than the standard keyboard and mouse set-up.

I hooked up my Xbox 360 controller and as you can map specific actions to any face button, everyone should find a comfortable set-up. This control scheme bodes well, then, for the game's forthcoming release on PS3.

After an airship crash involving Yda and Papalymo - two characters who were aboard the stricken vessel - the player is coaxed through a standard battle tutorial which covers the bare bones of combat. The on-screen input commands are easy to understand, while screen clutter - the bane of most MMOs - is thankfully kept to a minimum.

In this opening segment it's clear how much work has gone into making Final Fantasy XIV the best looking MMO on the market. The Bloodthirsty Wolves who surround you and your new companions are well designed and animated, but it's a deliciously evil bug-eyed Treant who steals the show. His twisted roots make short work of the remaining wolves before he turns his attention on your party.

Thankfully, a merry band of harp-playing Moogles float into the scene, leading this wooden freak away from you and your companions and into the depths of the forest.

The attention to detail is exquisite, and the dazzling graphical effects aren't just reserved for eye-popping set pieces. The world of Eorzea in general is beguiling; Pouring rain covers the land, trees sway in the wind and soft light burns from city lamps. It's a stunning looking game.

After the bout of Treant trouble, the player is swiftly introduced to their starting city via the Adventure Guild. Here, Mother Miounne gives you a quest to venture out to nearby Camp Bentbranch.

Upon arrival, some of the game's finer points are explained, before a class specific quest is dished out. Once completed, it's then back to the Adventure Guild where more quests await and the world of Eorzea slowly begins to reveal itself.

It's also at this point I discovered the flexibility of the class system. The player is free to chop and change their chosen skill set depending on what gear they have equipped.

For example, a Culinarian can create stat-boosting food but when it comes to battle, an old weathered skillet and a pocketful of rocks just isn't going to cut it. Simply equipping a weapon such as a bow will turn the character into an archer, therefore giving you a much better chance of survival. Once battle is over, you can switch back to your Culinarian class and continue to bake acorn cookies to your heart's content.

It's an incredibly versatile system and one which especially makes tradeskilling - one of my favourite aspects of MMOs - a tantalising and deeply rewarding prospect.

While Final Fantasy XIV does a fabulous job of immersing the player in the gameworld, those weaned on World Of Warcraft may find these initial stages bewildering.

There are no golden exclamation points above NPCs' heads, and only by asking around - or properly reading your journal - will you be able to keep track of what's going on. Off putting for some, no doubt, but this lack of hand-holding is a plus in my book and gives the game a real sense of adventure.

While you don't need a monster rig to play the game, it certainly helps to get the most enjoyment out of the experience. I was able to run the game without problems on my fairly modest PC. For those whose PCs simply won't take the strain, a PS3 version is planned for release - but not until next March.

Final Fantasy XIV is shaping up to be something special and with Square Enix's dedication to their product, there's every reason to believe this latest in the long-running series could blossom into one of the best MMOs on the market.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Sports Champions - PS3 Move

Today sees the launch of Sony's motion sensing peripheral, Move. While a handful of games accompany today's hardware launch, most people will undoubtedly focus on Sports Champions - a game from the same mold as Wii Sports Resort.

Sports Champions offers up six events: Disc Golf, Gladiator Duel, Archery, Beach Volleyball, Bocce and Table Tennis. And while this sports showcase only offers half the events that appeared on Nintendo's compilation, you definitely won't feel short-changed.

Archery is first up and it's one of the stand-out events on the disc. Simply point the Move controller at the screen and press the trigger button to send the arrow speeding towards its target. But this event really comes into its own when two Move controllers are in play.

This way, the player has to reach back with one arm to grab an arrow, nock it in the bowstring, then draw back one controller and release the trigger. It's intuitive and precise making the event immense fun to play.

Archery isn't limited to set targets, either. Some bullseyes are in constant motion, while fruit targets and gravity-defying money bags test your dexterity and speed.

Beach Volleyball is another event which is more fun with two controllers. Serves, digs and spikes are easy to pull off and as the game plays at a leisurely pace, rallies are common place. However, as you stand motionless even during the most frantic games, it's easy to feel detached from the on screen action while playing. Still, it's fun but will probably be the least played game out of the collection.

Table Tennis is next up and it is perhaps the most accessible game in the collection. Because Move tracks depth as well as left-to-right movement, the player has to reach in to return shots dropped just over the net.

It's also advantageous to move around pinging shots to all angles to open your opponent up before delivering the killer stroke.

Putting spin on the ball is effortless, while mistakes always seem to be the player's fault, not because of the tech. Give a first time player the controller and they'll pick up the gameplay mechanics instantly.

The same intuitive play is one of the features of Disc Golf. Set in the middle of a woodland retreat, the aim is simply to throw your frisbee towards the target in the fewest throws possible.

Hazards such as trees, shrubs, rocks and stretches of water do their best to impede your progress, but with a flick and a change of trajectory it's possible to pull off spectacular tricks.

Gladiator Duel is the only non sport in the game and takes the player away from the clean-cut comfort of the table tennis gym and idyllic Hawaiian beach volleyball setting and plonks them in the middle of a coliseum to do battle.

Again, while this event controls adequately with one Move controller, two definitely makes the experience more fun. One hand is used to hold your weapon, while the other controller utilises your shield. Blocking your opponent's thrusts before countering with a series of swift attacks is incredibly satisfying.

Prolonged play exposes the events weaknesses, however. Trying to go in for the kill too quickly sometimes results in a series of fresh air swipes. Sadly, even when the player makes contact with their opponent, the attacks can often feel weak.

Still, as a proof of concept, Gladiator Duel succeeds. It's hard not to think of an Oblivion-type adventure with this type of control scheme woven in.

Finally we have Bocce - the wildcard of the bunch. It's a simple variant on petanque, where the aim is to get your ball as close to the pallino - or jack - as possible.

What makes Bocce stand out from the crowd is the various ways you can manipulate the ball. A simple upwards flick lobs it down the play area, but it is also possible to roll it towards the pallino by stooping and gently releasing the trigger. Again, with a simple flick of the wrist, spin can be added. It's a great little game and is perfect to play when you have a few mates round.

Added longevity to the package comes from the game's multiplayer modes, while the single player events have bronze, silver and gold cup competitions to work through.

While all the events offer varying degrees of entertainment, it's the Move controller which is the star of the show. Not only is it incredibly accurate, but the slight pop when returning a ball in table tennis or the rumble which accompanies a bash to your shield in Gladiator Duel gives the player tangible feedback to the on-screen action.

Sports Champions also serves as a great introduction to Move and gives an indication of what Sony's new hardware can do. Definitely the best game in Move's launch line up and a must buy if you plan on picking up Sony's new controller.