Saturday, 22 December 2012

Ratchet & Clank Q-Force: Review - The Gamers Hub

There’re certain things we all know to expect from Ratchet & Clank by now: fantastical weaponry, zany antagonists, vivid explosions, witty dialogue, and most of all, fiendish and fulfilling platforming. Notwithstanding one or two critical turkeys along the way – most notably those farmed off to sister-studio, High Impact Games – Insomniac’s stable of offerings over the last decade has been consistently thrilling and engaging. 

Ratchet And Clank Full Frontal Assault Robot Warrior

Read my full review

Alien Breed: Review - The Gamers Hub

Believe it or not, the term ‘retro’ wasn’t originally fashioned for video games. It’s odd then that, for better or worse, no other industry seems to embrace the idea so wholeheartedly. Now, in 2012, a marriage of convenience has blossomed between consumer and publisher – the bastard-child of which is a landscape buttered with re-releases, and new properties flogging their wares off the back of 8-bit images and chip-tune audio.

alien-breed Logo
Read my full review here:

Farming Giant: Review - The Gamers Hub

Farming Giant has it all. Assorted buildings, sprawling landscapes, animals, resources, economics and dozens of different vehicles and attachments – all programmed to carry-off their specific function. There’s a buffet of fruit, veg and seeds to plant and cultivate, as well as relationships to build with prospective clients and multiple ways to develop your burgeoning farming empire. In the end though – in the most absolute sense of the word, it’s all completely meaningless.

farming_giant thumb

Read my full review here:

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Game of Dwarves: Review - The Gamers Hub

Not unlike its bumbling gaggle of impossibly rotund sprites, it’s hard to pin A Game of Dwarves down. Watching your autonomous hive bulge and swell is often a joy, but tackling its literal and figurative layers can oftentimes be both a pleasure and a chore.

A game of Dwarves concept art dwarf

Read my full review here:

Red Johnson's Chronicles: One Against All - Review - The Gamers Hub

Have you ever seen Ghostbusters 2? You have? Great! You haven’t? Well, basically, they’re just done beating up Marshmallow Man and then there’s all this pink ooze just bubbling under the surface of New York City – and it’s really bad – and everyone is getting all pissed off all the time and it makes them want to kill each other. Hold that thought.

Read my full review here:

Hungry Giraffe (PSM): Review - The Gamers Hub

Did you know that giraffe sick is multi-coloured? Neither did I. In the gluttonous world of Laughing Jackal’s Hungry Giraffe there are plenty of quirky foibles – luminous chunder included. There’s anvils, dumbbells, vomit-inducing elixirs, hardhats, psychedelic experimental drugs, and food – lots and lots of food.

Read my full review

Tritton Kunai Headset: Review - The Gamers Hub

In ancient Japan, the kunai was originally conceived as a common farming tool. Over time, it became synonymous with the Ninja, who developed it to be used as a multi-functional martial arts weapon for both inflicting injury and scaling walls – presumably as a prerequisite for inflicting further injury. A highly stylised symbol of Japanese culture – reflected in everything from museums to Manga – the kunai is evocative of ingenuity, functionality and adaptability. That’s a reasonably tall order for the new TRITTON Kunai headset to stand up to, then.

Read my full review here:

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Interview: Introversion Software on alpha uncertainty

Whether it’s necessarily true or not, a lot of interviews are prefixed with the term ‘we sat down with’. Last weekend, at Eurogamer Expo, London, TheGamersHub actually sat down with Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software. One of my few criticisms of this years’ Eurogamer Expo was that there probably weren’t enough seats – so we sat down on the show-floor, to talk about the biggest gamble of their careers.

Read my full article here:

Q&A - Prison Architect: The next big thing - The Gamers Hub

Prison Architect has been in development for two years. Introversion Software, the team behind Darwinia and Multiwinia, launched the Alpha build that recently garnered over a hundred-thousand dollars in the first seventy-two hours. Not bad for a game that only has its first chapter completed, so far. Having spent some time with it at last weekend’s Eurogamer Expo at Earl’s Court, London, it’s not hard to see why people have been so willing to invest. TheGamersHub took the opportunity to engage in some mutual ear-bending with Mark Morris and Chris Delay, of Introversion Software, to find out just what Prison Architect is all about.

Read my full interview here:

Kojima Productions' L.A. studio working on new MGO project - The Gamers Hub

Speaking on the opening day of last weekend’s Eurogamer Expo, at Earl’s Court, London, Hideo Kojima confirmed that his newly-formed L.A. studio is currently working on development of a new Metal Gear Online franchise.

Read my full article here:

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Metal Gear Movie: Kojima prefers unknown for lead role -The Gamers Hub

Addressing fans questions at last weekend’s Eurogamer Expo, at Earl’s Court, London, Metal Gear Solidcreator, Hideo Kojima, took time to bring some clarity to the future of the recently-announced Metal Gear movie.

Read my full article here:

Friday, 5 October 2012

Capcom: Continuity with previous DMC titles 'Very important' - The Gamers Hub

Addressing another developer full-house, on Sunday at Eurogamer Expo in Earls Court, London, Capcom US Producer Alex Jones and Ninja Theory Communications Manager Dominic Matthews took time to talk fans through what they can look forward to from the next instalment in the Devil May Cry franchise.

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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube - detailed - The Gamers Hub

Speaking on Sunday at Eurogamer Expo, London; former Microsoft stalwart and games development godfather Peter Molyneux, hosted fans and press alike for a talk about his new company, 22 Cans, and their first project – Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube. It’s a game, sort of, but it’s also an experiment – one of twenty-two due before the launch of 22 cans first official game. Detailed below are all the key points about his intriguing new project.

(Not the video, *below* the video - that's a teeny-tiny video with a question mark and a massive cube.)

Read my full article here:What's inside the cube - detailed

Molyneux: 'There're a billion potential gamers out there, and at the moment - they're playing shit' - The Gamers Hub

Peter Molyneux is on a quest to make a truly great game. The games industry design-veteran of well over twenty years said as much while speaking to an assembled crowd at this past weekend’s Eurogamer expo, at Earl’s court in London.
His face is fookin' massive!

Read my full article here:A billion potential gamers

Rock Band Blitz: Review - PS3 (PSN) - The Gamers Hub

'Blitz hits the fan'

Since the now infamous plastic instrument tsunami of 2008, there have been a few years of peace and quiet on the toys-for-big-boys front. Like many of the great bands (and shit ones) a temporary hiatus doesn’t necessarily mean that a successful comeback can’t be made. Usually when it happens, the individuals in question don’t look quite the same as you remember them. More often than not, at least one of the group has got a bit fat, and the ratio of fake tan, hair plugs and highlights per capita has increased. And so, if 2012 is the year that strum-em-ups make their comeback – and not quite as we might remember them – then it couldn’t be more fitting that the proposed reinvention of the genre comes courtesy of Harmonix – the original conceivers of the landscape-changing Guitar Hero – and their new-born baby Rock Band Blitz.

Read my full review

Kung Fu Strike: Review - Xbox 360 - The Gamers Hub

'Site for sore RISE'

The problem with being an ancient Chinese folk-hero is that you always end up being tasked with some honourable quest in the name of your people – one that you, and only you, can endure. Such is the burden of General Loh – a man battling to bring an end to civil unrest in his native China. Playing as the aforementioned General, you go about this specifically by fending off wave after wave of angry Chinamen, using only your fists and feet to keep the peace. There’re more than enough baddies to keep your palms sweaty, but in the words of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, ‘Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one’.

Read my full review

Hybrid: Review - Xbox 360

No one paints an optimistic picture of the near future, do they? Script writers across any given medium would have you believe that a few years from now we’ll all have been boiled down into future-goo, fueling the hosepipe-veins of our new sentient overlords. Hybrid paints a similarly bleak portrait of events to come. You choose one of two warring factions: The Paladins, a gaggle of renegade Master Chief wannabes; or The Variants, a cybernetic race who look like what might happen if those cute dancing robots, that Japanese companies keep making, decide to overrun humanity.

Read my full review here:

Wreckateer: Review - Xbox 360 (XBLA) - The Gamers Hub

'Tower Power'

Wreck and Tinker love smashing stuff. The central protagonists of Iron Galaxy’s Wreckateer combine a hearty lust for architectural dereliction with an unhealthy disdain for the green-skinned, pot-bellied goblin tenants of the sixty-plus stages contained within. If there’s one thing that they’re most enthusiastic about, it’s the prospect of firing big rocks – of varying shapes and sizes, at even bigger castles. In their field, they are captains of industry.

Read my full review here:

Thursday, 3 May 2012

FEZ: Review - Xbox 360 (XBLA)

 'HAT-eral thinking'

Do you remember the days before the internet? No? Well, congratulations you young buck, you'll outlive me by decades. Yes? Then you'll remember retro gaming as it was - a halcyon time of excited pausing and feverish scribbling of codes, cheats and solutions into the back of your gaming manual, and excited phone-calls to friends to discuss your latest discovery. Father Time is a rather changeable fellow, though. The days of paper and pencils stored near the console, and even the presence of full gaming manuals in boxes, are fading. In spite of the natural evolution of the medium, though, there remains a place in our hearts for almost anything that promises to take us back to those better times, back when gaming was magical.
One might argue that, with that, has come a kind of slow-cooked saturation of the gaming landscape, amid a plethora of pixelated protagonists. Every game and its Grandma seems to have its own fuzzy little sprite and quirky old-school mechanic. Where once there was Mario, there are now many.

It wouldn't be a great surprise, then, if Polytron's long-in-the-making labour-of-love - FEZ, were flush with made-to-measure nostalgia-trip convention. While plenty of FEZ's charm is tightly knotted up with the archetypes, far from submitting to the tropes of the genre, FEZ establishes itself as an atypical organism, pulsing with life, under a familiar skin. Met with the cutesy, pudgy, bleached shell of FEZ's lead – Gomez – a sperm-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in for another soft-core retro love-in - bright colours, blue skies, and tiered, grassy verges await. Right away though, FEZ reveals itself to be more.

FEZ is a 2D-cum-3D platformer. After sacred, cubed artefact – The Hexahedron is shattered into lots of little bits, Gomez's world is turned from a 2D hamlet, into a 3D land of discovery, throughout which, you must endeavour to retrieve each of the hexahedron's 32 splintered fragments.

At FEZ's core, lies a very simple, yet brilliant gameplay mechanic, around which the world literally revolves. Pull the left trigger to turn it clockwise, and the right trigger to rotate counter-clockwise. Each spin will expose a whole new surface area of each of FEZ's monolithic stages, granting access to previously hidden platforms, and unobtainable areas – even your physical position within a given level might change at the flick of a trigger, without ever forcing Gomez to callus his soles.

FEZ's second big reveal comes in the form of its puzzle-heavy dynamic. Far more than in any other platform game in recent memory, you are required to think your way from A to B. From almost the first moment that you are set free among the available dimensions, you are challenged to think laterally about, what in most of FEZ's peers, would be rudimentary hops from one platform to the next. FEZ boasts a bevy of secret wonders, often uncovered by looking at your world differently than other games might have you used to. Starting out as it does – with a decidedly creative approach to even the games' most basic elements, acts as both a measuring-stick, and a big fat warning-sign, for what is still to come.

At its most devilish, FEZ is bastard-hard. Not for its platforming elements, so much as its puzzles. Collecting most of the rogue yellow pieces is straightforward enough, and is usually a matter of exploration and typical platforming action. Accompanying these cubes are 'anti-cubes' - invisible until specific actions have been achieved, and very hidden. In many games you'll be met with a tangible route to the answer on screen, even hints after a period of stasis. FEZ makes no such commitment. Often enough, a puzzle won't be apparent so much as an empty room, with absolutely no ostensible objective, no evident hint or clue, and no apology. With no alternative but to show the room in question a reluctant pair of heels, you'll head elsewhere. And FEZ has a lot of elsewhere.

Unusually, FEZ is as non-linear a platformer as one could wish for. Pausing the game will fire you out into a wide-angle view of FEZ's universe. At first only your immediate surroundings will be visible, along with the nearest unexplored level – highlighted in grey. As time progresses and stages are ticked off, the amazing extent of zones – spread across different lengths, breadths and depths becomes clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Each level you encounter feels like it has one hundred secrets, each side of the stage will have a number of doors, some will lead to a room with a little yellow cube fragment and nothing else, some will lead to a whole new plot, with another hundred mysteries to solve, you just don't know until you go. FEZ is a Russian doll, exposing more intricacy with every button press, and never quite revealing its end.

It's a shame that the physical map itself, is slightly tricky to use – often it will be needed to plot your course. Zooming right out will show everything, but sometimes the 3D nature of the map will make it hard to establish which stage is linked to which. The map can be rotated and twisted, but these functions never seem to give you the freedom to properly fly through the terrain. These gripes could be forgiven but for the fact that orienting yourself in the world often, is necessary given its three-dimensional build. That aside, FEZ does a great job of making the experience of testing the possibilities across the land a compulsive and rewarding one.

Back-tracking can become cumbersome until all available warp-gates have been found – these act as fast travel portals from hub to hub. That said, the environments you'll encounter along the way make each step one worthy of wide-eyed contemplation and drawn breath. Sun rises and sets with a serene, real-time ebb in FEZ's coastal vistas, underground sewer levels – viewed through a murky-green haze juxtapose with candy-pink trees and purple village buildings. The variety is staggering – one moment you'll be at the foot of a twittering woodland backdrop, the next, climbing on jet-black blocks - only exposed by flashes of lightning and rain, falling from freshly-soldered skylines and microchip clouds. Other levels offer everything in their aesthetic, from the bizarre to the surreal.

All the ocular-candy is only further embellished by some simply dazzling sound-design. At times ethereal, other times subterranean – drips and drops in the sewers resonate and echo, and always carrying a digital vibe. FEZ's audio is an 8-bit whale-song, always there but never intrusive, every twist of the terrain, or thud as you land from a jump, the squeak as you brake and change direction, every lap of the tide, each tiny part - and the aural elements as a whole, are masterful.

While at times, the platforming can feel a little awkward, and Gomez doesn't posses the array of onesies of, say, a Mario, or the dexterity of Banjo and Kazooie, FEZ supplements it's offering with nice variety in its basic gameplay. A wealth of levers, switches, gyrating or moving platforms, hidden doors and treasure chests will all help keep your attention for long enough. The environments aside, there are some thrilling moments of frantic action - a bum-clenching getaway from rising lava is particularly memorable, timing each jump to the second. Moments like these in games make for great platforming, because in their construct, they create such tension that even a simple press of one button can become a challenge, and deliver an intense satisfaction when completed. Sadly, these moments of levity are rarer than they might be, considering just how much FEZ does offer. Most of FEZ's jumpy-bits are rather more steady-as-she-goes, as you endeavour to get to point x and grab that collectible. Aside from the cubes, there are maps and artefacts to accrue, all of which are relevant to the bigger picture.

The variety of ways FEZ will encourage you to complete puzzles is astounding - all the information is there for you, if only you can see it. Some of it is hidden in plain sight, some is more subdued, but when those eureka moments happen, FEZ feels as rewarding as it gets. Further to its credit is the New Game + feature, one that far from a tertiary inclusion, is essential to your hopes of fully beating the game.

While you might find yourself fed-up with the head-scratching nature of some conundrums, and FEZ does walk a tightrope between challenging and impossible, overall, the game offers a variety of levels of challenge, without ever having to pause and change a difficulty setting. FEZ's puzzles are hard, sure, but aren't all necessary to complete in order to reach a second run through. Similarly, there'll be plenty of times that you'll plummet to your doom, but FEZ's frequent auto saving and never-death mean that should you turn yourself into a pixel-pizza, you'll instantly respawn at the platform from which you fell. The cheev-lovers among us will certainly want to put the time in to getting that last item, but Polytron has put in an admirable shift in ensuring that while, at its height, FEZ is as taxing an experience as you might dare to wish for, it is still accessible to those with a more casual bent.

The lack of hand-holding certainly runs deep, though, and it's worth pausing on whether the level of obscurity and nebulous nature of just what the hell you are meant to be doing, will alienate some, rather than embrace. There is a bigger picture to the world of FEZ, and the game becomes a different beast when, whether through guile or simple luck, you stumble across it. While not resorting to diegesis is a positive step, the danger Polytron face, is that there are a whole heap of more instantly gratifying products available on the marketplace, just a couple of flicks of your analogue away. There are few real gripes to be had, FEZ's unique challenge is one that could be viewed a number of ways, occasional frame rate slow-down is a detractor, too, but is a rarity, unlikely to damage your experience much.

The scale and greater meaning of the fibres that complete FEZ's digital universe are such, that it is unlikely that any one man or woman will ever uncover all of FEZ's mysteries, unaided. While the formula isn't perfect, FEZ does something astounding. Far from relying on it's magnificent blend of old-fashioned audio and visuals to carry itself, FEZ casts an inexpungible water-mark on the Xbox Live Arcade. FEZ takes your hand and leads you back to what it used to be like, pencil and paper in tow. To experience the enormity and true significance of this wondrous achievement, you'll have to pick up the phone (or use the internet) and talk to your friends. A game that might challenge the way you look at gaming itself, FEZ is a single player game alright, but one you simply won't be able to truly play alone.

Mecha Score 9.0

Friday, 16 March 2012

Beat Sneak Bandit: Review - iOS

'Sneak?.. Sneeaaaak!!'

In the densely populated landscape of iOS gaming, spending a penny more than absolutely necessary, can be quite a commitment. Good job, then, that fiscally well-endowed tap-em-up Beat Sneak Bandit is a game with the shelf life, art style, and just-one-more-level gameplay that will turn it from something to kill time with, on your daily commute, to a full-time obsession.

The town of Pulsebury (that's right) is under threat from the maniacal Duke Clockface. In a turn of events that probably should have been foreseen, the Duke has made off with all the clocks, leaving the townsfolk without any way of knowing when the hell it is. In order to prevent the Duke's crazy conceit – using the clocks to whip up some kind of time-freeze device, you'll don the mask of titular hero Beat Sneak Bandit and his unplayable companion Herbie.

Beat Sneak Bandit is a game of throwaway simplicity. At first glance, it might appear as if little effort was ever required to sew together the cogs and dials that are its make-up. The more time spent with BSB, however, the clearer it becomes that, in truth, it is an intricate network of precisely crafted interior components. Beat Sneak's controls rely on simply tapping any part of the touchscreen in time with the music, each press will move Bandit one step forward, and hitting the screen's walled edges will cause him to flip around, facing the other way. Each level offers a perpetually more awkward array of potential pitfalls. Security guards, searchlights, and hovering vacuums attempt to derail your progress, while manipulating time-stopping levers, pressure-pads and teleporters properly, will help smooth your passage to each, multi-tiered level's end. Every note is relevant, should you fail a level, stuttering piano keys will clunk to a halt. The timing of a portal, or the moment a security guard will turn around, are all tied to the relevant musical note in the track. The game forces you to learn the tune and time your move based on audio cues, rather than what can be seen on screen.

Beat Sneak Bandit is a bastion of accessibility and addictiveness. Each level holds five clocks, scattered at various longitudes and latitudes, each one collected just by stepping on top. Four of them are entirely optional, you might choose to take the easy route, ignoring some in pursuit of the larger, level-ending timepiece and driving your progress forward. Each of the smaller clocks act as collectibles, the reward for their successful assimilation, is the unlocking of shadow stages at the end of each of BSB's four level-heavy chapters. These deviate nicely from Beat Sneak Bandit's bright, colourful, pitch-perfect pastel aesthetic, heavy with head-banging background artefacts -picture frames and candlesticks nodding along to the tune. These are replaced instead by stripping away the bracken and smoothing it out with ice-cool silhouettes.

There are one hundred ways to muck it up amid the mire of rhythmic booby-traps BSB has on offer, one push too many might leave you one step either direction from where you intended, and renavigating or even restarting the set piece might prove the quickest option. In spite of this, Beat Sneak Bandit possesses the caution-to-the-wind enjoyment of games such as Super Meat Boy or Joe Danger. Restarts might mean a longer haul back to your objective than these games, but delivering a press-perfect passage through a given level, is more often than not, just too juicy an offer to turn down. Beat Sneak Bandit's real joy is one of discovery, moments after being confronted by a fit-inducing canvas of flashing security lights and teleportation devices, at a glance, seemingly impassable, you'll afford yourself a self-satisfied grin as the rhythmic brick-road to clocks four and five unravels.

Equally impressive is Beat Sneak Bandit's sheer quantity of content. Four chapters, containing ten stages with four shadow stages each, that's fifty six stages. But wait, there's extra stuff too, without spoilerising (not a word) proceedings, there's more. Even if BSB is a relatively costly iOS experience, value for money is something it does very, very well. Its not as if its more of the same, either. Aesthetic, challenge, and audio, evolve nicely as each level passes. The go-to funk of the early mansion stages is replaced by upbeat, yet comically spooky echoes in the clockwork mansion's basement. The static humming, and clinking of test tubes in the laboratory levels, escalates into the whimsical tick-tock clock chimes, of the clock tower phase, and the unlockable shadow stages pulse with finger-snapping bass.
There are very few gripes to be had with this game at all. To nitpick, the music throughout is not for everyone, and while it stops short of being the same, most of it plays out to variations of the same eight-bar beat. There's not much in the way of story, either. That said, Beat Sneak Bandit doesn't need one. Clock-loving extrovert steals clocks, sneaky bandit steals them back, big fight, end. At times, Beat Sneak Bandit can be merciless, too. Usually though, it stops short of frustration, in spite of plenty of grimaced, wry smiles.

Beat Sneak Bandit is as unforgiving as it is self aware. At regular intervals, you'll be invited to pick up the phone and exchange dialogue with Duke Clockface – an unapologetic narcissist and typical wealthy super-villain. At other times, you'll chew the fat with your bandit buddy, Herbie. Aside from explaining the method behind the madness in the early stages, Herbie drops in by phone, every now and then, to offer some largely useless words of advice, more often than not, he serves as a witty commentator on events, as they unfold. From the opening frame, where he references the collectible smaller clocks as something 'like in a videogame' to the preamble to the end game, pointing out how it would be awesome if there was a 'big freaking boss battle' around the corner. The final fight in question is typically unforgiving, but stays true to BSB's pause-for-thought dynamic.

All of this is really just seasoning for, what at the centre of it all, is a cute, simple, engaging, joy of a title to behold. All you'll need is one thumb and a few minutes, actually maybe a few hours. It's more than likely that Beat Sneak Bandit will go from your go-to on-the-go game, to play-at-home game. From foot tapping on the train, to racking your brain, Simogo's Beat Sneak Bandit is a stylised, addictive, stealth-em-up, unlike anything creeping around your iOS device.

Mecha Score 9.0

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Darkness II Review

'You're really growing on me'

Since the 2007 release of The Darkness, the first-person-shooter climate has changed. In the world of Mafia-haggled mainstay Jackie Estacado, two years of darkling denial have passed. In the real world however, five long years have gone by, a console generation has evolved, and a sequel, five years in the making, needs rather more weapons in its daemonic dresser drawer than Digital Extremes' The Darkness II has been able to muster.

It's entirely fitting that your born-again baptism back into the Italian-American ambience of The Darkness Universe is played-out on rails. Schmoozing your way through the grossly opulent gangland backdrop of (presumably) Jackie's favourite eatery, your cohorts lead you to your table, shaking hands with old friends along the way, while interchanging a slice of staid mob movie dialogue. Events turn cold quickly, as you dodge bullets and suck turf, dragged away from the fray, amid a firework display of stage-managed gunfire. A few grim visions later, not to mention a near death experience or two, the darkness will have you right back in the palm of its slobbery, serrated jaw.

While the sinister, mob-ruled world of the Darkness: part one remains, its muted, ashen palette has been replaced with a rather more glittery, swashbuckling facade. Jackie has undergone something of a makeover, his poker-straight goth-locks replaced with a more ruffled, late-nineties, Bon Jovi barnet, in black. With two years passing since the untimely demise of Jackie's long time squeeze Jenny, Jackie has taken on a more optimistic and brash outlook on his world, reflected in the The Darkness II's relatively bubbly cel-shaded art style.

Far from fighting the mob, Jackie is now at the head of his family, in order to survive the attempted hit, you're forced to embrace your ungodly gifts in defence of all that you hold dear. Pressing forward with your piranha-like puppets in tow, you'll set out in pursuit of a mysterious limping man, last viewed amid the chaotic restaurant scenes of the opening stanza.

As you snuggle back in to The Darkness' familiar pattern of quad-wielding craziness, you'll notice that the frenetic nature of the gunplay has been coal-filtered into a warming blend of flailing limbs and flying bullets. As before, the left and right bumpers, (or '1' buttons – depending on your console of choice) control your free-spirited appendages, while the triggers dictate your bullet control. Weapon selection is neatly tied together with the relevant d-pad press, letting you choose from one of two, one-handed weapons, or both, plus the option of a two-hander, a shotgun for example. While much of your blood-lust could be satisfied using only your collection of Saturday-night specials, headshots aside, the incentive to kill with Jackie's demonic extremities lies with an increased return of essence compared to a standard rifle or Uzi kill.

Gathering essence, a purple, gaseous discharge, released from each oven-ready corpse will add points to what is an obtuse XP meter of sorts. There's no real frame of reference for what it is meant to encapsulate, what it does however, is act as currency to be spent at soul wells, a kind of purple black-hole, acting as an other-worldly ATM, at which you can upgrade one of four available talent trees. Rather than defining your character's DNA in the way that other games do, instead these prune your talent trees to fine-tune your preferences. One might focus on your weapons, while another will effect your limbs directly, the next might increase the effectiveness of black holes and darklings (my personal favourite). However you choose to specialise, if you spend enough of your time performing executions, the goriest of ends to the various stooges standing in your way, you'll build up enough demon-dollars (not the actual in-game currency) to fully leaf out all of the available branches. Each level also provides a small number of collectible relics to give a shot in the arm to your available essence, should you find yourself lagging. In truth, there is no tangible relevance to their presence, and taking the time out to hunt down any but the ones you stumble across is best reserved for the cheev-gobblers among us.

While instantly gratifying, the teeth-gnashing glee of splitting a goon in two, or constricting and dissecting your foes, is deadened by the speed at which these fantastic executions become habit. When unleashed upon the world, almost everything you'll see, you'll probably have seen in the first half an hour of The Darkness II's brief campaign. The only real incentive to press on with these elaborate, and relatively time-consuming moves is to ensure your essence clock keeps on ticking. The more practical choice is often to adopt a rather more Samuel L. Jackson-like approach and, “kill every motherfucker in the room” (using guns – such as an AK47). Often, grabbing a shield and a shotgun will take care of business quicker than using your awe-inspiring powers. Taking this approach will leave behind corpses with still-beating hearts, available as an all-you-can-eat thug buffet.

Your presence in the mortal realm is dictated by a healthy diet of dismemberment and heart-consumption, each instance of amateur cardiology restoring a tiny portion of Jackie's health. However, should you choose to spend most of your killing time using your serpentine extensions, you'll quickly find that the oh-so-useful hearts stop dropping, and surviving becomes more of a chore. While the sound of enthusiastic heart munching never grows old, it's a shame that the more immediately practical option is to embrace the rudimentary shooting mechanics, just to keep moving forward. When you remove the glitter of the four-pronged assault, The Darkness II becomes a rote, linear, tunnel chugger.

It's not as if The Darkness 2 is without its charm. The brilliant Darkling companion makes a welcome return, adorned in his union flag miniskirt, gleefully pissing on the recently disassembled ensemble from the outset, and turning the air gremlin-fart green at any given moment. He's responsible for some of the Darkness II's throwaway sense of humour too. Finding him humming Great Britain's unofficial back-up anthem 'Rule Britannia' to himself, is particularly amusing. Hearing ladies of negotiable affection muttering “Hotdog down a hallway? What does that even mean?” while visiting a dank brothel, go over well too. The score is another strong point, orchestral and dramatic backing peaks appropriately, even if sometimes it is noticeably repetitive. During the hospital scenes, tentative piano complements a warm, pulmonary baseline. Weaponry clicks and clacks with authentic cartoon realism, and at its best, The Darkness II has moments of climactic, post-Gotham fusion.

Digital Extremes shouldn't feel too bad about their attempts to keep things interesting, they have made a good fist of blurring the line between fantasy and reality, as Jackie awakes repeatedly in the bright-white halls of what appears to be a mental institution, at points throughout, only to find himself back in an unwelcoming back alley within minutes. As the story concludes however, the density of any of the occurring distractions proves to be wafer-thin and unimportant. Jackie's longing to be reunited with his departed soul mate Jenny should strike a chord, as fond memories of their time together are brought to the fore, but these moments rely too heavily on the poignant romance of the first game. If you sat through much of To Kill A Mockingbird, or watched the emphatic nature of Jenny's end while playing through The Darkness, the sense of what could have been in The Darkness II will be palpable. If not, there is nothing to engage you emotionally with any of the frequent faux-dream sequences, lamenting her passing. The bigger picture suffers in the same way, when finally confronted by the limping man, he is inexplicably familiar with your entire life story, and in spite of the logical reasons he has for wanting your attention, the venom of his anti-Jackie rhetoric misses a step, somehow.

The Darkness II is a product of good will but very little invention, imitation rather than iteration seems to be the stock-in-trade. The winding snake-arm set pieces of the first instalment have been replaced with some first-person darkling plays. Much like the main partition, these prove to be something of a one trick pony, experienced in full within minutes of their birth. The moody subway interactions with NPCs, while relevant first time around, take place in Jackie's luxurious mansion this time out, but really could have been omitted entirely. The result is damaged pacing and reduced suspense. The Darkness II even features an attempt at replicating the shock factor of part one, with one particular moment coming close. Like much of its subject matter, this turns out to be little more than a faint echo of what came before.

In truth, The Darkness II isn't challenging as much as it is chastening, brainless AI and flawed boss-fights, confused terrain and chaotic scrambling for ammo leave limited chances to play out a battle using observation, timing or method. Either that, or they turn out to be a game of, who can shoot who the most, fastest. While when the quad-wield sensibilities fall into place, the feeling of complete combat exists, often this will descend into wild slashing and indiscriminate object hurling.

A game with a five to six hour campaign (on an average difficulty play-through) should have a narrative that leaves you wanting more at its conclusion. While the latter stages are a break from the routine, beneath their shiny coating, lies a very familiar skeleton. The particularly anticlimactic end-game is a welcome relief when finished with, rather than an achievement to be reflected upon. A quasi-cliffhanger ending, alluding to the possibility that a fuller campaign was always possible but never achieved, exacerbates the emptiness, save for one last moment of sentiment, this one worthy of its predecessor.

The Darkness II unleashes its fifth limb in pursuit of some interesting multiplayer content, also playable solo. Two game modes and four fantastic, racially stereotypical wannabes (Eastern European, Scottish, Chinese and Black) await. Each one equipped with a different weapon set, plus a darkness speciality unique to their character, imagine each talent-tree personified. Hitman mode will see you skirmish with an easily dispatchable (that's not really a word - never use it) gaggle of goons, in a tired attempt at what is now known as 'horde mode', before re-enacting the relative tedium of the boss jousts you might just have been fortunate enough to have forgotten. Campaign allows you to ride the same railroad again, in much the same way as in the central story, but through sterile environment and with less killer skills.

It's great to see extra content included, and it does provide a variety of sorts, the most enjoyable part found playing as Jimmy Wilson. His recallable dark-axe and wilful alcoholism are great fun, as are the developers attempts at sounding like they know what Scottish people talk about. The additional executions available, beg the question why there aren't more for Jackie to embrace, these limited highs aside. Largely, powers feel limp when compared to Jackie Estacado, mostly because limbs three and four are missing from the tertiary toons.

The Darkness II is a game of should-have-been. Your quad wielding should make you feel like the semi-mortal man-demon you are, the effortless ruining of your foes should feel gratifying every time. Instead, every bland jaunt feels like an opportunity lost. Guilty of excess padding around its midriff, The Darkness II is equipped with all the gameplay tools you could ask for to make a genuinely inventive and interesting shooter, instead it reloads the same-old rusty side-arm and fires blindly into the light, bleeding missed opportunities and asphyxiating its victims, in game or otherwise.

Mecha Score 7.0

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Binding of Isaac Review


The Binding of Isaac is a work of subtextual intercourse. Chewing it's way through society's underbelly, and the macabre, blood spattered basement of one unlucky little boy. Set amid six subterranean levels, packed with fleshy ghouls and deformed, morose monstrosities, The Binding of Isaac is a triumph for indy gaming. Brought to you by one half of Super Meat Boy's Team Meat, in association with flash game enablers Newgrounds (Alien Hominid), The Binding of Isaac is one of 2011's definitive indy offerings.

You play as Isaac, an infant forced to flee the sanctity of, and cast himself into the depths beneath, his once happy homestead, in an attempt to flee his deranged mother and her particularly ill intentions. As a happy mother and son, Mom and Isaac lived peacefully together in a solitary house on a hill. Following some particularly puritanical propaganda from the lord above. Isaac's mother takes a turn for the mental and murderous, convinced that only the sacrifice of her son can sate God's desire for proof of her devotion. In an entirely practical move, Isaac heads to the dark and gloomy basement, via a handy trap door, in a desperate last ditch bid for safety. Little does he know, that this will be just the start of his problems.

You control your eponymous protagonist twin stick style, W, A, S and D moving your infantile hero accordingly, and your arrow keys showering all before you with er... arrows, initially in the form of Isaac's freshly shed tears. That's right, if you're looking for an uplifting cheer-athon, look away now. The Binding of Isaac's layout is straightforward enough. Upon your initial descent into the innard-pink caverns below, you will be presented with an empty room, this room like every other, will have from one to four exits, one on each of the four walls. Each randomly generated room will offer a selection of varying baddies plus some potential prizes up for grabs.

Within each of the six basement levels, one room will contain a boss that must be defeated before opening a trap door to continue downwards to the incrementally more difficult levels below. The one luxury afforded to you is the option to navigate these rooms as you see fit. With boss rooms identified by a demonic doorway, you may choose to get straight in there and smush up some satanic bags of flesh, or take the time to explore each room first, risking your life in the hope of gaining further perks and boosts. Staying on your toes is paramount throughout, rooms will often be populated by five or six monsters or more, charging, spitting and jumping all over each locked area, the doors to each confined space will remain shut until you can clear out all the freaks within.

Testing the mortality of Isaac's various mutants is made all the more enjoyable with a bloody rainbow of power-ups effecting, health, firepower, rate of fire, armour, and even character aesthetics. These prove definitive in your quest for success and particularly in rewarding your hard graft effectively. Certain randomly generated drops will yield new kinds of projectiles. These might turn your tears into blood or a chargeable mega bullet sicked up from your gut, more effective the longer you hold down the arrow key. Finding certain articles, for example a magnet, will modify the effect or trajectory. The aforementioned magnet, usefully, will encourage your arrows to home-in on your foes should you miss. The variety of modifiers available could do with being accompanied by some on-screen guidance. Most are clear, but the wealth available is hard to keep on top of, particularly the one-use playing cards, often you might find yourself using one at in inopportune moment, and only repeated use of each will help keep their specific uses in mind.

Power-ups can be purchased from vendors using coins found scattered around (often retrieved from piles of poo – don't ask), you can also use these to drop into a slot machine should you choose (the coins that is, not poos), with extra bonuses a potential, but far from guaranteed reward. This in itself, is a microcosm of the roguelike brilliance of The Binding of Isaac. When you die, you are dead and it's back to the start all over again. Learn by doing is the order of the day, risk equals reward. Only through hours of respawning will the idiosyncrasies of that one mob become clear, and when to duck and when to weave. The inevitability of your demise is key to the equation, and rarely does a death ever feel unduly harsh. While relentlessly punishing, the hardcore learning curve is as rewarding as it is addictive and infuriating. More often than not, should you fail prematurely, Isaac leaves you with the realisation that you were the one to blame, if only you hadn't gone into that one room in pursuit of loot, it could all have been so different. In all likelihood, your next run will be your best, as slowly but surely, your bloodied moth, drawn again and again to the flame, will gradually develop into a basement badass.

Isaac offers up well over one hundred collectible items, too. Even if you are able to beat The Binding of Isaac in just a few plays through (which is unlikely), the randomly generated nature of the rooms, monsters, items and loot means that it's essential to complete multiple runs, just to experience the game for what it is, never mind grabbing all the goodies. In addition, The Binding of Isaac boasts four unlockable characters, each with their own balance of speed, stamina and attack power. Not all of these require completion of the game, and provide some nice alternatives depending on your preferred play style. If you needed more reasons to keep playing, Isaac offers no less than ten different endings, apparently (I have not, repeat not, seen most of them).

The Binding of Isaac's art style is ostensibly that of Team Meat's Edmund McMillan, deliberately simple designs, brutally snuffed out as quickly as they are brought to life. The brief loading screens between levels depict a set of childlike sketches of one of Isaac's chilling memories of rejection, ridicule and neglect. These snuggle up wonderfully with the mournful nature of Isaac's bleak basement setting. Each fleshy-pink room seems to pulse with sorrow and sadness, many of Isaac's afflicted antagonisers carry themselves with a destitute and disconsolate disposition. From babies crying tears of blood, to sorrowful husks cowering in corners while belching out flies, The Binding of Isaac is punctuated heavily with morbidly fascinating creatures. Not least of these are the fantastic bosses, Monstro – a giant head of sorts, flinging himself into the air and burping out blood (he's got a big brother too), The Duke of Flies – a fly-infested, rotting ball, and in particular, Gemini – a deranged, charging humanoid, dragging behind it a deformed baby, still attached by it's umbilical chord.

Some of the bosses are subject to one of The Binding of Isaac's very few flaws, though. Once you have got to grips with how they play, some of them can be incredibly quick and simple to defeat. The bizarrely named Larry Junior- a pair of segmented snake-like creatures, will almost always navigate the room with no particular desire to attack, leaving you free to quietly dispose of your reluctant assailants. That said, the grim themes of each battle are enough to make every one of them worthwhile.

At times, The Binding of Isaac could be faulted for a slight imbalance in the drops, as well. A dungeon might be generated with tons of locked doors to rooms undoubtedly full of goodies to collect, but very few, if any keys will drop from Isaac's enemies. The random nature of the rooms can lead to some pretty sharp difficulty spikes, too. Cruising along nicely one minute, calmly taking out floating heads, might suddenly be replaced with a room full of mental, jumping, headless bastards, hell-bent on chewing off your face. While the general difficulty across a given level is fairly steady, room to room can be a bit of a rotting rollercoaster.

If you like your themes clean cut, then you could criticise that of The Binding of Isaac heavily. Isaac is an unwanted toddler, his mother wants him dead and her actions force him to retreat naked to his basement, where he will fight, as mentioned, babies crying tears of blood who will often continue to meander around having been decapitated. Some of the pickups are particularly close to the mark, a wire coat hanger that Isaac chooses to wear through his head, in a rather overt reference to aborted pregnancy. It's worth pondering whether or not such themes would be quite so passable in a more mainstream game, then again, that's what age ratings are for.

The Binding of Isaac carries plenty of religious connotations, too. Isaac's mother is a devout and misguided Christian, instructed by God, according to the eerie intro sequence, to sacrifice her only child, referencing the Bible story of the same name. Each of the sporadically sourced sub-bosses are themed around one of the seven deadly sins, it is as if to suggest Isaac must battle each to cleanse himself of their relative impurities. The Binding of Isaac makes no real attempt to clarify it's meaning or personal point of view. It simply puts the content out in front of you and leaves it there for you to infer whatever meaning you choose. However you view it, Isaac's content is some of the most interesting produced in an indy game, or in any game for that matter.

If thematically, The Binding of Isaac is ugly, then it's score is beautiful. A tense digital heartbeat, pumping blood through Isaac's desolate veins, the haunting yet soothing 8 bit drums and wailing synthesiser grow into predatory guitar riffs at will. In moments of heightened tension so grows the music with it, in the latter stages, the sinister ostinato becomes more noticeable and dramatic, thunderous drums and a more orchestral tone replacing what came before. Great music in games is often subtle enough to not be noticed but powerful enough to effect drama, tension and atmosphere, The Binding of Isaac achieves the ultimate happy medium.

The Binding of Isaac is a brilliant slice of Indy gaming satire. It's everything an indy game should be. Quirky, funny and controversial, challenging yet easy to pick up and even easier to keep playing. Fiendishly difficult at times but universally rewarding. It has flaws, but not many. Any it does have can be forgiven thanks to what, at Isaac's core, is a frenetic and addictive gameplay experience requiring quick thinking and even quicker reactions. While, technically, The Binding of Isaac might be completable in around just an hour, you'd have to be crazier than a deluded Christian housewife to spend any less than hours of your time unwrapping this gory indy gift.

Mecha Score 8.0

Battlefield 3 Review

'Battlefield, Battlefield, Battlefield'

Battlefield 3 is serious fun. DICE have contrived to create the most unforgiving and challenging, yet engaging and enabling, on line first person shooter experience on consoles to date. If you want to do it the hard way, and reap the rewards thereafter, then “It's on you Marines”.

Battlefield 3 is a game of two parts, one forgettable, the other a work of exquisite design.

Battlefield 3's single player campaign is far removed from that of it's close cousin, Bad Company 2. Upon release, BFBC2 was lauded for it's not too serious, camaraderie oriented, vernacular. Likeable characters would exchange 'Tet a tet' to lighten the gloom, the emphasis laid square on the shoulders of 'team' and the collective, rather than that of the the lone wolf. BF3 makes no such commitment to character or story.

You'll play as Sergeant Henry Blackburn, a decorated U.S. Marine. Returning from recent overseas operations, he has become aware of an impending terrorist threat to New York City.

The blot on BF3's copy book is the limp single player campaign, easily completable in a not so terrible eight hours. This would be dramatically reduced if cut scene usage were minimised. In an ironic twist, the cut scenes themselves, at least from a technical standpoint, could be considered the most impressive pocket of BF3's campaign coating. The voice acting therein, and the facial animations in particular are perfectly done. Amid the dank and drawn office backdrop, Blackburn, who dominates most of the campaign play through, is temporarily retired from duty as he answers some taxing questions following his squad's recent operations in the middle east.

The opening frame, in which you hurl yourself through a subway train carriage window and drop kick your balaclava clad foes to the floor, before equipping and making your way forward, begins proceedings. The train, plagued with post mortals, slumped in their seats, permeated with bullet holes, is an eerie but enjoyable start.

It is a real shame that the BF3 campaign has so few moments of such excitement. There are shocking moments however. While BF3's single player is much like an overly milky cup of tea, at points the caffeine kicks right in. The ultimate fate of one or two soldiers in the story is adequately reminiscent of the true nature of war. The key failing of the narrative is that it doesn't deliver any connection beyond simply fighting a war, for the sake of winning a war. When these impactful happenings occur, there is never any reason to care. Battlefield 3 does little at all to make it's central characters either memorable or likeable, and when your squadies are consumed by the fog of war, it feels like no more than the unavoidable statistical inevitability that is war in the modern age.

DICE shouldn't be faulted for their humble attempts at creating a varied campaign. Use of no less than four separate protagonists on foot, in tanks and by air, across the middle east, Paris and New York all sound good around the brainstorming table. On paper, it also sounds good to include quick time events and levels with varying content to break up the rote nature of extended first person play. It is in the execution of these fine ideas that BF3's biggest failings are exposed. Paris and New York are visited, but for one notably brief foray each. The time lapse directive throughout the story adds no drama or suspense. The quick time events are overly straight forward, sparsely used and uninteresting.

Some of the variety DICE attempts, for example, a stealth mission under the cover of night, through down town Tehran, feels like a watered down silhouette of some of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's stand-out moments. 'Night Shift' in particular radiates emotionless, tick box grinding. Told to take cover before being hit by the swelling glare of enemy vehicular head lights, seems to be a suggestion, rather than an imperative. Further on, you will be instructed to sneak up and complete a stealthy knife kill on a stationary insurgent, a trying test of patience and a shattering slice of broken gameplay. As you reach a certain point, a few feet behind him, whether or not you are spotted, you will trigger automatic insta-death. Keeling over and submissively adopting the foetal position without being shot is one thing, doing it without even being looked at is another, but doing it four or five times (especially with BF3's not particularly swift loading times) before you get it right, serves only to sabotage any feelings of suspense you may have had. Dwelling in Battlefield 3's attempts at variety, you will catch yourself wistfully recalling the halcyon days of Modern Warfare's outstanding, suspenseful Chernobyl missions. Moments that, unlike in Battlefield 3, will live with you forever, at least for the right reasons.

Beyond the bright but poorly executed ideas, lie some flaws worthy of rather more vehement criticism. Battlefield 3 has a malnourished narrative, it's sobering weaponry and gratifying gun play serve to fatten up single player, but the lack of technical coherence, and in truth shoddy workmanship, do more than enough to render these qualities mute. You might well gaze upon the plethora of BF3's single player bugs and glitches, with wide eyed, slack jawed abandon as other worldly failings punctuate the campaign. Moments like when your squad should kick down a door and move forward to cover, before taking on the encroaching enemy forces. Instead, running straight through the unopened door, they leave you behind. A few seconds pass, before of it's own volition, the door pops open, complete with the sound of it being kicked by a size 16 military boot. Already acquainted with the outdoors, the friendly AI, confused as to where they should be, rush headlong in to the sights of the enemy before changing tact from outright suicide and adopt a rather more reserved approach, returning to their cosy doorway where they re enact their manoeuvre as originally intended. That kind of military set play is quite likely to leave you flailing on the floor, covered in your own blood, picking bullets out of your face. Either in game, or at home if you have quick access to a loaded gun. These bugs should prove laughable, but in a game built upon the foundation of EA studios' financial sinew, more often they deliver a frustrating single player experience. Every time you are engaged, there is a reason to disengage, every maniacal smile you dare to let creep across your features, will be antidoted with a confused frown, as story is reduced to incoherent babble.

Even when the friendly AI does what it is supposed to do, sometimes it isn't all that helpful. At one point, bogged down, defending a supporting character fighting for his life, you must fend off waves of advancing enemies with the able assistance of a fellow Marine. Assistance that is, or lack thereof. While the critically wounded character exchanges H2o for Co2 for possibly the last time, and you send bullets with intent over multiple levels and in many directions, support is not forthcoming. While you hard-headedly defend your station, under particular duress, your partner stands firm, rifle ready but ultimately unused. He has a big old rifle all right, but he's absolutely not using it, for anyone. Not only would some assistance in situations such as these be helpful, but it feels a little rude to not fire a single bullet, or even attempt to administer some basic CPR. 'Oh you didn't bring a bottle? No, no that's fine. Come on in and help yourself to the buffet.” What a Dick.

The climax of Battlefield 3 is entirely deflating. DICE would do well to take note of the fact that the difference between a 'cliffhanger' ending and a bad one is extremely fine indeed. Several hours of solid gun running is not enough to make the vague warble of the ultimate scenes even remotely plausible. A confused and slightly pretentious final stanza awaits, you have been warned.

The laundry list of technical misgivings and BF3's flawed fable aside, it bares mention that at the core of the solo playthrough, lies some genuinely well balanced and intuitive gun gaming. A run through on 'Normal' difficulty will prove challenging enough, and while the icing has gone bad ,the cake in the middle is still pretty tasty. There are two very important elements to BF3's core chronicle that make it more or less enjoyable, gripping weapon mechanics and simply stunning audio. While they are the two parts of single player, they are just two of the fantastic ingredients that make up the exceptional on line experience. Battlefield as a series has never been synonymous with plot, it has however, always been a champion of online combat to compete with, and often outdo, the very best.

Battlefield 3 has nailed it. Delivering not only an enjoyable on line partition, but one more than worthy of the series' thoroughbred lineage. Up to 24 players on consoles, and more on PC (depending on your choice of mode) are deployed across nine maps at launch. These vary, from the arid 'Operation Firestorm' to the urban 'Seine Crossing' and 'Operation Metro' or the rather more leafy 'Kharg Island' and 'Caspian Border'. There is great variety in scale as well, 'Tehran Highway' for example, is shackled by tight, claustrophobic corridors, the sprawling expanses of Caspian Border or Operation Firestorm, are a welcome contrast. As you might expect with Battlefield 3, how you choose to navigate your terrain effects your gameplay experience greatly. Vehicular combat is a hook that Battlefield has carried with it for a generation, and never has it been more effective and important than in Battlefield 3. There is no hand holding if you are taking your first, tentative steps. The first face you see might be that of an opponent with the best gear, the highest level and god-like familiarity with the map you frequent. Battlefield 3's vehicles act as a fantastic equaliser for the uninitiated. So long as you can press 'forward', 'back', 'left', 'right' and 'shoot', you have every chance of effecting the flow of battle. As well as serving as a gamebreaker, the vehicles contribute aesthetically too. Don't be surprised, when as you spawn, the sky is painted red with dogfighting jets or helicopters transporting troops and raining vengeance down from above. Nothing gets a sniper out of his comfort zone quite like shrapnel from a nearby mortar. Destructible buildings crumble and crack as the force of each bullet or shell leaves lasting impact on the environment. While buildings can't be entirely destroyed, each multiplayer canvas will inevitably be painted a darker shade as each skirmish progresses.

It's no surprise that BF3 has a healthy variety of modes to play. Death Match and Team Death Match aside, Squad Death Match provides a place for the truly team oriented. In this mode you can compete in a four-a-side, sixteen man bloodbath where the pack animal is king. Possibly the two most well worn modes in this year's instalment are 'Conquest' and 'Rush'. The former an outstanding capture the flag format. Spread over three or four bases, each successfully defended, neutralised or captured flag will yield experience with an ultimate goal of capturing all available flags and triggering a bleed effect on the enemies reinforcements. If you have less than half the flags, then even if no one's getting shot, your backup resources will gradually deplete, faster still for every base that escapes you. Rush is a last line of defence back and forth. You must capture and destroy two separate enemy M-COM stations, doing so will allow you to advance to the next set and so on until they're all neutralised, or your forces have been squashed.

It is rare to find two runs that feel the same. Conquest and Rush alone, spread across the nine available maps, provide hour after hour of excitement and the exquisite level design never feels restrictive or too open and roomy. This can change in the rare instances that you find yourself waiting for a vehicle to respawn, while the passing seconds can feel like a lifetime in the heat of battle, it is unlikely to spoil your fun. If passing time is your thing, extensively customisable appearance and loadouts, depending on your level, are a nice way to pass the time. You also have the option of playing as one of four classes, 'Assault', 'Support', 'Engineer' and 'Recon'. The first two will generally carry assault rifles, MP5s, Ak 47s and the like with engineers specialising in heavy weapons, explosives and repair. Recon carry sniper rifles and a generally more cautious disposition. Each class has his own array of unlockable gadgets that can turn the tide in your favour. Mobile spawn points, ammo, medic kits and rocket launchers among the tricky treats available.

Battlefield 3 online gives you reason after reason to return. You might be shot down with frustrating frequency over a forty minute blitz, but BF3 rewards the overall impact you have on the game, more than it rewards kills to deaths, as is often common elsewhere. As is commonplace in the on line FPS market, each kill of any kind, with each individual weapon and each base defended or captured will bring reward, as ribbons are dished out like candy at a piƱata party. Repeat these feats enough and you will receive medals and dog tags to commemorate your achievement. As in previous instalments, dog tags can be procured from any unwitting foes who let you get behind them. This adds some nice tension at times and helps to encourage those of a pro camping disposition to kick up some dirt. Experience is given out in spades, but you never feel like you are being fast tracked through the early levels. BF3 is a grind. Xp is there to be had when you capture or defend a base, kill someone, assist a kill, blow up a vehicle or follow an attack order to name a few. If you keep busy, that bar will raise fast enough, but it's unlikely that you'll feel that you ever had it easy.

Beyond levelling, BF3 rewards your commitment to you closest friend out in the field, your gun. The longer you play on with your weapon of choice, the more unlocks will become available. This can lead to you being vastly outmatched against more experienced players initially, but over time the playing field levels out nicely. As you invest time with your boomstick, new sights, scopes, grips and gadgets will become available. This acts as a nice stop gap between the times your character's actual level increases. If you choose to take advantage of the vehicles at your disposal, their frequent use is rewarded as well. A tank for example, can be modified to include, gun turrets, smoke grenades or zoomed in reticules among others.

Battlefield 3 is a fairly good looking game over all. If you have a nice, shiny, high end PC, then that should represent your platform of choice. While it's not the only game that looks better on PC than on it's console counterparts, unlike most games released this year, there is a distinct and noticeable visual up step from console to PC. On console, when the dust of multi disk installation has settled, BF3 looks okay. More than the pure graphical fidelity, it is the scale and nature of the happenings in your periphery that make up BF3's visual biography.

Battlefield 3 carries two particular qualities across all platforms and game modes. DICE has a long standing tradition of ground breaking audio design and BF3 happily continues this trend. If there was an award for 'Best Aural Ear Candy 2011', I would not hesitate, for even a second. It is absolutely spectacular, bullets whisper sweet nothings in your ear as they whistle by. The far off crackle and pop of gun fire and explosions is quite removed from the violent, in your face, vulgarity of a proximal detonation. The muted score when sat behind the wheel of a tank is abruptly burst, noticeably so, upon your exit or even worse, it's explosion. A rocket launched nearby will sound quite different when fired in an open desert environment as opposed to the confined space of a subway tunnel. If you like listening to things, you owe it to yourself to experience this jaw dropping audio first hand.
BF3's gun play is intensely rewarding and equally gratifying. The variety of weaponry at your fingertips is part of the appeal. The feeling that every rifle, shotgun or explosive you carry is distinct from it's closest cousin, defines BF3's quality. Bipods and grips will steady your aim, every weapon has different sights best suited for varying ranges of combat. Recoil feels realistic and taking shots from the prone, crouched or standing position feels tangibly different. BF3 feels fair at every turn too, at no point are unrealistic weapon mechanics responsible for withdrawing you from the utter immersion that BF3 online provides.
Battlefield 3 has to compete with Call of Duty, it's no secret. Modern Warfare 3 is a shoo in to be Christmas number one this year, odds on with any bookmaker, not run from a cellar somewhere. As such, more than ever before, Battlefield 3 is coated from head to toe in glitter. Shiny distractions from it's spectacular core. In truth, Battlefield 3's story mode is poor, it's inclusion was never warranted. Perhaps, after the relatively warm reception BFBC2's narrative and characters received, it felt like a logical step to break ground and include the mode in a 'Battlefield' game for the first time. It was a misguided decision, whether in it's conception or in it's execution, it feels like nothing more than a kiddies run of what MW3's campaign promises to produce. When the glitter is stripped away however, and Battlefield 3 goes back to what it has always done best, the shrinking violet at the heart of BF3 finds it's voice. And what a voice it is.

BF3 is a ballet of beautifully orchestrated violence and earth shaking audio. While it's single player portion is flawed to the core, so it's multiplayer component is a pulsating drum beat of well crafted weaponry, enthralling action, constant gratification, and spectacular variety and replayability. Steer as clear of the campaign as you can but you owe it to yourself and your friends to get on line together and experience, what so far at least, is the best on line FPS endeavour of this year. When Battlefield does what it was born to do, nobody does it better.

Mecha Score 8.5