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 piñata 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

Gears of War 3 Review

'Big fat COGs'

The word 'blockbuster' is thrown around across various media platforms more and more these days. Often, it is the go-to tag line used to adorn promotional material to help shift units. It can be defined as,
Something or someone that is forcefully or overwhelmingly impressive, effective or influential.”
or as,
A motion picture, novel etc. especially one lavishly produced, that has or is expected to have wide popular appeal or success.”

There can be no doubt, Epic Games' Gears of War 3 is an emphatic and unapologetic blockbuster of the most brash variety.

Gears of War 3 spawns you two years or so further down the astral calendar from the end of Gears 2. Jacinto, the last known human metropolis of the planet Sera has fallen, leaving Marcus Fenix and his iron clad, Herculean Delta Squad, soldiers of a now largely nomadic human race. The Locust aren't going away and neither are their old foes and cousins, the Lambent. There's sure to be more trouble afoot courtesy of Sera's favourite malformed miscreants, bent out of shape following their exposure to a toxic ooze, known as 'imulsion'.

It's not long at all before, if you needed to dust down your rusty COGs, you're afforded the chance to do just that. Your ship, the CNV Sovereign, is boarded by a mixed bag of mutant militants pulled from a healthy cross section of Locust and Lambent. As you may expect, Gears 3's action is not unlike that of its hugely successful predecessors. Equipped with your trusty Lancer, it is up to you and your squad, with friends old and new in tow, to clear out those pesky Horde. The weapons are much the same as in past iterations and the cover based, third person combat is familiar while lighter on it's feet from point to point than Gears 1 and 2. Just minutes in, you will feel like you have never been away.

First time players need not fear, Gears 3 offers a steely yet steady learning curve. Prior to your initial foray into Lambent waters, you are treated to a stylish dream sequence, subtly recapping events from the recent Gears calendar, it is a vague nod that might be better appreciated by veterans of the franchise but it is still does a good job of giving newer players some warm up time, while going some way to explaining Marcus' mindset and motivations. Events may be new to you, but as you pace the Sovereign's lower decks, you will find yourself quickly reacquainted with, or educated in, Gears unique set up.
Gears 3's variety of difficulty options are also an appealing contributor to the story mode, an easy or normal play through can be romped around without particular care or credit paid to the option of cover, whereas a hardcore, or even more so, insane single player trek may have you wiping the sweat from your brow as you duck bullets and breath cool air on your red raw analogue jockeys. Swollen thumbs aside, Gears 3 delivers a rewarding and engaging combat experience, wherever your comfort zone lies.
If Gears of War 3 resonates familiar characters and combat, then it's echo is nothing less than 'Gears ja vu'. One hundred empty shells discarded, a brief cut scene and pause for dramatic swelling will follow before reloading and re-engaging, just as before. While the repetitiveness can begin to rub, there are some spectacular exceptions and these plot binding twists go a long way to ensuring Gears' best overall plot to date, even if it is often coated with brainless steel.

Gears of War 3 is a genuine visual treat. Certain moments are a joy, one sub oceanic voyage in particular, to behold. The feeling of breadth to the landscape is enforced throughout, and coupled with the bleak backdrop, succeeds in bringing home the baron nature of your task. It is scored beautifully too, moments of heightened tension are enhanced with climactic orchestral backing even if some of Gears 3's more tender moments perhaps miss a trick every now and then.
The story arc in Gears of War 3 is by no means the strong point of the game, there are some noteworthy anomalies however. An early sortie, where you will play as two separate COG squads covering the same mission from two different perspectives, one after the other, is a particular highlight. It's a shame that it falls so early on and never becomes a reoccurring theme.
Throughout, there are several occasions where a choice of position or route is available before key missions. There are often multiple split paths to take as you navigate each level as well. Again it is a shame that these merely pay lip service to a largely linear, set piece to set piece experience.

The combat itself is as fulfilling, if not more so, than ever before. Limbs dismember with bloody relish, the glowing extremities protruding from your Lambent pursuers will convulse and capitulate under heavy fire, and there are more varied and vicious executions than you can shake a Locust's bloodied upper arm at. By far the most appealing arena to take advantage of these executions in, is Gears of War 3's multiplayer mode. Gears 3 online is simply brilliant.

Versus matchmaking, much like an over-inquisitive Locust, is split into six pieces, all right then... modes (look, that nearly made sense), from the particularly traditional and equally appealing solo and team death match modes to 'Wingman' a two v two v two v two affair, 'Capture the leader', a Mexican stand off, where the team that holds the leader of the other team by the metaphorical man veggies for the longest, wins. Let's not forget the most sadistically satisfying multiplayer mode of all, 'Execution' where each player on each team must strive for murderous glory using executions only, getting up close and personal can be a risk as in this mode, you'll have but one life.

Gears of war 3 embellishes it's multiplayer offering straight out of the box, certain weekends, for example, will carry with them specific rules, such as limiting you to a particular weapon, encouraging you to break from the norm and get even more creative, callous, vehement and violent. All sounds too much? Once again, don't worry, when you first dive head first into the multiplayer bloodbath, you have the option of swimming in shallower, if equally bloody waters. It's a beginner mode, of sorts, that requires a certain amount of time invested before you are forced to jettison your inflatable rubber ducky wings and hit the virtual deep end. Even then, the usual ranked and unranked match options are available, whichever you might choose to play, your home screen will look like the fall out of a drunken game of pin the tail on the donkey, with medals and badges tracking your every success and stumble. Gears of War 3 truly gift wraps it's multiplayer to suit hardcore and new fans alike.

And we haven't even mentioned 'Horde' mode yet. If you are yet to get your teeth in, feel free to get hungry and forget your manners. Fifty levels of cover based bliss await, in which you must fight to the bitter end against ever increasing swarms of slaughter starved enemies of varying shapes, sizes and snouts. Like in multiplayer, at launch there are ten maps to choose from. Every one genuinely different, both in it's individual aesthetic and physical composition. Each kill awards points that turn into cold hard space cash, using this wisely during the brief intervals between the impending waves, will help purchase or preserve your defences, buy new weapons, or invest in more unusual artefacts such as a decoy target dummy to draw the fire of your foes. Every ten waves will bring a climactic boss brawl too, a neat new addition. You can choose to engage the horde with the help (or hindrance) of up to three 'mutators' in a given match, selectable options that throw entertaining or challenging curveballs your way. These may be as simple as 'friendly fire' or the more humorous 'headless chicken', forcing your decapitated foes to attack each other for a while. All this glorious gore can be shared locally, or even better, online with up to four of your closest e-pals.

'Beast' mode is another exceptional evolution for the Gears of war franchise. Instead of defending your base, you must don your best Horde finery and assault the last strongholds of the 'Stranded' humans. Like in 'Horde' mode, your resources are dependant on the cash you earn. In 'Beast' mode however, your hard earned astro dollars must be spent not on defences, but on the wide variety of beasts you can choose to control. Each one will have a different monetary value, and each class will deliver it's own brand of devastation. You might choose to play as anything from the slow moving, melee oriented butcher, to the highly explosive ticker or take on the role of the more standard, lancer wielding, cover hungry, 'Savage drone'. You control only one at a time and using them wisely is vital.

The humans are bedded in, resistant and resilient and gaining the right balance amongst your party to ensure their swift demise is no easy task, attempting this mode solo is nigh on narcissistic. It's almost like a run and gun, third person, over the shoulder, cover based real time strategy, tower assault experience. Whatever it is, it's innovative, unique in mainstream video gaming, engrossing and hugely rewarding as you progress.

You and your Horde or hero mashing posse don't have to skulk off to bed after wave fifty is done though, oh no. For the first time in Gears history, you can play through the full campaign with up to three other players, just kick the guy who sucked most in Horde, yeah? You can get through an average campaign playthrough in as little as eight hours. Played through without due care, it can turn into a largely forgettable experience. Embraced for what it is with a full team on board, it will likely deliver far more.

Gears of War 3 is a blockbuster. In fact, it is an overwhelmingly impressive, lavishly produced adventure that will have widespread success, regardless of it's feather light single player journey.

It's prototypical of how a product of it's stature and content should be defined.

To play Gears of War as a single player experience would be to do the game and yourself a true injustice. The essence of the blockbuster is not to just watch the first ten minutes and leave before the action truly gets under way.

It certainly isn't to question the over the top dialogue set amid an ostinato of explosives and expletives. It is to buy the ticket and take the ride. Gears of War 3 is the best third person action shooter money can buy, with the most engaging and addictive overall online experience of any game, ever. It is unlikely to start apologising now.

Mecha Score: 8.8

Supremacy MMA Review

'Protect yourself at all times'

Fans of mixed martial arts have had it pretty good in the last few years. The days of harking back into console gaming lore for their MMA fix became a distant memory upon the release of THQ's UFC:Undisputed 2009. Hot on it's heels, EA sports MMA fattened up the buffet by providing an intuitive and alternative control system while drawing on a wider, while possibly less well known, roster of fighters. UFC:Undisputed 2010 proved to be the most complete MMA release to date and the chaps in suits at THQ will surely be salivating at the prospect of big numbers for their third instalment, due in early 2012.

Worming it's way into the, newly pulsating, mixed martial arts video game arena is 505 games 'Supremacy MMA'. Make no mistake, not only is this the worst MMA product available on current gen consoles, it is also among the most dire and uninspired in the beat 'em up genre as well.

Supremacy MMA presents itself as a no holds barred, bone breaking, skull cracking, underground slugfest, where only the loss of blood and consciousness will determine a winner. Mind you, it also boasts that it is the first MMA game to have female fighters. It does, two of them, and they make up two of just twelve playable fighters overall.

If popular outdoor varnish 'Ronseal' was a superhero, it's arch nemesis would be Supremacy MMA. The most grating element of the game should be that it drags MMA back into the dark ages by embracing a decidedly misguided standpoint of 'fighting to the death' or some other similar twaddle. It's most repugnant stench however is emitted from the fact that this is merely what it claims to be, when in fact, it is a wet, bare bones beat 'em up on the very bottom rung of the championship ladder.

Initially, Supremacy MMA presents itself quite well. Opening cinematics, cheap and cheerful though they are, look quite edgy and cool. Sketchy and cell shaded, supported with unrelenting metal audio, the opening does it's best to get your blood boiling, ready for war. The quality of visuals deteriorates as soon as you step in to the cage, however. You can choose from several different kinds of venue, from cage to ring to dojo canvas but each environment is as bland as the last. Surrounded by a generic and largely motionless crowd, you and your opponent, exchanging rigid blows, resemble rock em sock em robots rather than ripped, rugged cage warriors.
'Supremacy' furnishes itself with a small variety of modes, each one as brief and bland as the next. Story, tournament, training and femmes fatales – unfortunately the mode most bare of all of Supremacy MMA's anaemic bones.

You can play as one of two female fighters, each story mode lasts two fights. Actually, less than that if you play as the champ, defend your title once and, well that's it, job done.

It's disappointing and deflating and the theme reoccurs throughout. Your success in the cage is dictated by filling a power meter, allowing you to unleash your most devastating attacks when full. Every time you counter a move, it fills up a little more and tapping the shoulder button will utilise a special move specific to your characters fighting style, the fuller the bar, the more effective it will be. This is rarely needed as fights are often over far too quickly, it is very rare to find a fight that makes it out of round one. This is largely because of the indiscriminate nature of the way damage is absorbed. Essentially, your body becomes one large punching bag, where a kick to the leg will contribute to your overall damage taken just as much as say, a kick to the face.

There's a good nod to some of martial arts most decorated and it is a surprise to see playable pugilists such as Jerome LeBanner and Jens Pulver, a fighter under the UFC banner not too long ago. Sadly the story modes available, which should embellish your favourite fighter's back story, are just five fights long and are broken up with some truly bizarre interludes.
Such as, for example, where former UFC champion, Jens Pulver talks about how his father held a gun in his mouth as a child. This kind of story is absolutely unsuited to an international sport. Imagine such a story mode in a popular football game, perhaps Thierry Henry could give a candid interview about being flogged as a child or David Beckham could tearfully lament his experience of being made to force read prose. It's entirely unnecessary and quite fictional.

So Supremacy MMA lacks substance and story, no surprise, to be fair no current gen (or old gen) mixed martial arts game has quite given us an 'Uncharted' narrative quite yet and nor should we expect it.

However, Supremacy MMA should absolutely be expected to deliver rewarding combat. After all, there is serious quality to be enjoyed in modern MMA games, every other recent MMA release has had great combat and an extensive roster of licensed pros.

'Supremacy' fails to deliver anything even close. Aside from the mis-marketing, the lack of good game modes available and the bizarre stories, the combat is awful.

Each fighter carries his or her own fight style from boxer or kick boxer to jiu jitsu, judo and others and with it their own individual move set. While stood up, you can throw punches and kicks as you might expect but beyond that, the combat is built around tedious counter mashing in what ultimately feels like a far too drawn out quick time event.

In an attempt to avoid a given attack, you will need to counter with a timed button press. Sometimes this might be a take down, whereas with other fighters it may be a right hook. Each press will determine the next stage the combat reverts to. The problem with this is that any element of strategy is completely removed, instead of adopting a winning game plan, you rely almost entirely on luck and circumstance, not to mention the hilariously inconsistent in game AI. The system is designed to make the experience of playing as a wrestler different from that of a boxer, for example, instead it creates a series of imbalanced and irritating contests. The button press required varies too. It may be one to defend that pesky takedown, then another to defend the same move, pressing the appropriate button as it pops up on screen determines your success or failure.

It can be quite satisfying to drop increasingly emphatic hammer fists on a freshly mounted opponent but getting there is as soft as that fighters' freshly mashed cranium. It pays to be reckless, throw with abandon and you will find yourself countered and escorted to the canvas. No matter, as the over simplified ground game mechanic will restore you to an advantageous position within micro seconds. Simply flick your analogue up or down (whichever you prefer) and you'll advance your position. From stand up to ground to full mount and knock out in fifteen seconds. The teeth grinding pleasure that you should feel, instead comes over more like a lazy, quick win.
The fact that Supremacy MMA has included online as a game mode is like a cruel joke. Attempting to connect at all is essentially futile. If you do get on, you are in for more of the same as the stifled single player experience. Online should be avoided like an Anderson Silva front kick.

Supremacy MMA represents everything that a Mixed Martial Arts game should not be. Selling itself on a worn out stereotype, promoting the myth of cage fighters being from violent backgrounds, participating only because they had no other choice. The derived narrative is fitting as 'Supremacy MMA' does it's best to drag the beat 'em up genre back to the bad old days, relying on limp and imbalanced combat coated with a wafer thin layer of content to endure rather than enjoy. 'Supremacy' brings with it neither an MMA experience nor does it deliver even remotely enjoyable play.

If it had launched four years ago, with no other MMA releases out there, it would have been wise to avoid Supremacy MMA completely. Launching with three quality offerings already available and a fourth on the way, 'Supremacy MMA' should be ducked, by everyone, like a spinning back fist.

Mecha Score 4.8

Driver: San Francisco Review

One could argue that fans of the Driver series have had something of a roller coaster ride over the last 13 years. From the ground breaking highs and critical acclaim received for the first Driver instalment on PS1, to the embarrassing and broken mess that was 'driv3rgate', via the opinion splitting Driver 2 and the entirely forgettable Driver: Parallel lines. It's fair to say, that ardent fans of Driver games are true fans indeed. It's been a while since the series' enthusiasts have had a chance to grab central protagonist 'Tanner' by the shoulders and in recent years you could be forgiven for having had your head turned. After all, the variety and quality of racing games available across the current-gen formats is surely more impressive and expansive than ever.

So when Ubisoft announced that they would be wading back into the murky water of Driver's lineage by taking it back to where it (partly) all began it's fair to say that, not unlike San Francisco weather, the reception was slightly foggy.

You play as detective John Tanner, covering San Francisco's slanted gradient. Arch nemesis (and old foe) 'Jericho' is behind bars but he's not sticking around. An elaborate prison break, with the help of a few friends means that San Francisco's streets are going to need saving once again. Jericho, it emerges, has his sights set firmly on turning the inhabitants of the bay area into toast, if he is afforded the chance.

It's eminently clear from the outset that Driver presents itself well. The cut scenes are delicious to look at, even though a rocket-propelled grenade from a news helicopter to engineer the afore mentioned prison break is a little far fetched. It doesn't matter though, the rhythmic, energetic yet soulful soundtrack steers you coolly into the rustic, grainy San Francisco Bay area.

There are few flaws here. FMV sequences and in-game play interchange like snow on ice and the learning curve is just as smooth. After a chaotic opening, we burn rubber hand in hand with John Tanner, learning the tools of his trade, with a few welcome surprises. Driver is keen to engage your nostalgia, which is no bad thing, we should be glad to come back to San Francisco after so long away. The City is bustling as always and its peaks and troughs make for a pleasant back drop. Driver does a great job of reminding you that it is still Driver but is just as quick to pull rabbits out of it's hat.

Driver: San Francisco, unlike any of it's predecessors, allows you to jump from car to car with just a quick button combo. Pressing 'a' (360) or 'x' (PS3) will fly you free from your motorised shackles and float your view high above the sprawling metropolis. Pointing the left analogue and re applying said button will bullet you into an adjacent vehicle of your choosing. As events unfold further, you're required to make better use of John's new found abilities by exploiting higher heights, jumping you streets, rather than feet away. The theme grows with the game, by the time the story reaches it's hyperactive peak, you'll be able to negotiate the entire bay area in seconds from mile high club altitudes.
Behind the wheel there's plenty more neat new features, pushing up the left analogue will give you a speed boost and holding down the left modifier will charge a ramming meter, designed to take out your nearest nemeses. These skills can all be upgraded by completing missions, whether central to the story or sub missions. Generally they are non-essential but hugely beneficial, not only will they unlock new vehicles but they grant access to further upgrades to your new found skills. You can also fund your purchases through in game currency. Every near miss, drift or completed mission will fatten up your bankroll, the top right hand corner of the screen tracks your cash clock and there's no upper limit.

It's one of the many great incentives Driver provides you to just keep playing. As one mission ends, you're left floating above the city with San Francisco as your oyster. To scroll to the next story based mission across the landscape can be laboured at times but, oddly, this serves the experience well. More often than not, you'll find yourself sidetracked from the main event to waste a few minutes nailing a cheeky jump or burning off the local constabulary.

The map is dotted with assorted blue icons wherever you look. It feels as though, if a detour to take you away from the central plot thread was needed, one can be found effortlessly. There are challenging missions aplenty, it's not to say Driver: SF is an easy game but if it's ever getting too much you can change up your experience with a quick handbrake turn and speed boost down another street.

Driver: San Francisco's game modes are truly expansive; chases and mass chases, involving running from the Feds. Dare, encouraging completion of high speed challenges or jumps. Races, from point to point, via a set path or through your own chosen route, as well as 'shift races' where you command the destiny of two vehicles alternately, with a view to finishing first and second in your given race.

There are unlockable 'movie challenges' too. These are a gem in an already glowing game, collecting ten movie icons, dotted around the map at random, will unlock a specific challenge. Upon entering this mode, all mod cons are removed and it's time to get old school. Everything is strictly 'Seventies' from the car you drive to the boys in blue that chase you in their nostalgic, periodically accurate fuzzmobiles. The funky 70's backing music and the faux film grain on screen are lovely, but stripping away the frenetic car hopping and speed boosting does just as much to tip it's hat in acknowledgement of where Driver began. Scores are logged instantly with online leader boards in what proves a nice bridge for the reluctant on-liner.

Driver: SF is so well presented it hurts, every car we drive is fully licensed and there is no generic handling model present. Every car has it's own way of behaving while not being so niche that the more arcade oriented elements , such as boosting, ever feel misplaced. An Aston Martin DB9, for example, will feel no more relevant than it's rustic sibling the DB5, it may handle better and feel a touch speedier though.

We are treated to flashy cut-scenes too. At intermittent points throughout, Driver: SF will throw stylish '24' style recaps of key character and plot developments, set to yet another slick seventies groove.
The story recaps are very well done indeed. It's a shame though that the story is such a bizarre and convoluted affair. Post prison break, Tanner's world is thrown into internal combustion. The off shoot for you, faithful Driver lovers, is that we slip between fantasy and reality in a way that makes itself apparent almost immediately but never commits. Frustratingly, it takes John Tanner nearly the whole game to figure out what was apparent to everyone else from the start.

To be more fair the story is flashy, funky and fun yet delirious and draconian. “Madman intends to gas San Francisco” was done some time back.

Shaky story aside, there are few reasons to gripe at an otherwise fulfilling and challenging game. Driver: SF supports local split screen play with a friend as well. It's the only mode that seems to experience slight slowdown, however it should be praised for its inclusion nonetheless. The online play in Driver: SF is another pleasantry, a genuinely varied and enthusing selection. Trailblazer, where we follow behind a careening vehicle while shoveling other players out of our way. Tag, essentially an automotive capture the flag with no bases. Jump, where we jump stuff, and you can race an free roam too. If you find a group online you like, you won't be booted after each race or 'best of' series. We got to hang in there for instant shots at revenge after yet another second place finish until we were, voluntarily, ushered back to single player amid feelings of tedium and inadequacy.

Never mind though, online progression is every bit as rewarding as single player. You level up with every race or challenge you finish, and you're rewarded with further game modes to tackle as you climb that well greased, online leveling ladder.

Driver is most definitely back and San Francisco is the place to be. It's fast and ferocious yet stylised and sentimental. You should sweep aside the brevity and insanity of the story and instead contemplate the sheer scale of the awaiting world. Hours of replay value lie ahead with a wide range of licensed vehicles and upgradable abilities that cast you on asphalt streets, extensive as you dare to make them. Driver: SF is a faithful, gas guzzling, nostalgic cruise that should be experienced by fans both old and new.

Mecha Score: 8.2

Friday, 10 February 2012

Dead Island Review:

Dead Island is full of Zombies. Shambling zombies, flaming zombies, knife wielding zombies, bile spewing zombies, exploding zombies, charging zombies even giant, slow moving zombies, all set against the stunning backdrop of the fictional Australasian island of Banoi.
There are more zombies here than you can wield a freshly upgraded monkey wrench at. That said, it's not like we're starved of zombie based action these days. So does Techland's first person zombie brawler RPG have the meat bait required to entice the slovenly hoards?

Awaking from a drunken slumber following a wild night of island partying, it's clear from the outset that all is not well. Eerily lit hotel rooms and classic zombie ear candy penetrate your surroundings early on. It would appear that this was a wilder night than usual, as 'the infected' have taken quite keenly to chomping on human flesh.
You can choose from one of four, equally clichéd, characters to start your adventure. The Jock football player, career ruined by injury and alcohol, or the Asian woman fighting for honour and her father's memory. It's tiring to read their bios but essentially these are just shells for four different styles of play with which you can approach your adventure. You can choose to specialise in four types of combat; thrown weapons, blunt weapons, sharp weapons or firearms. Each of these provide a different combat experience, rewarding you the more you use the type of weapon best suited to your character of choice. Of course you can pick up and wield whatever miscellaneous article happens to drop into your path, but it may prove less effective.

These weapons are dotted around Banoi's winding, leafy mesh of sandy carriageways and dishevelled buildings. Bathed in the midday sun, Banoi's primary setting 'the resort' is truly pretty. Your brave party of adventurers must attempt to escape their seemingly doomed luxury island surrounding, via a local off-shore prison, where a mysterious voice offers the promise of an air lift to safety. Venturing out into the open, equipped only with assorted household items for protection, it won't be long before the streets are turned claret red....
...and turn them red you must.

Dead Island's post mortal wanderers are intent on helping you out as best as they can one way or another. Herein lies this games primary triumph, gore.

There's seemingly endless ways to dismember, disable or disembowel your foes and it's your choice as to how much of your free time, spent roaming around Banoi's sand box environment, is devoted to it. Every quest you complete rewards experience and every level you gain will enable you to invest one point into one of three talent trees to help boost your re-animated, corpse crushing credentials.

Zombies are varied enough in their offence to keep things interesting. Early on, most will topple upwards to their feet looking to chomp you from the ankles up, but as time elapses, shambling turns into sprinting and spitting and a well time swing of your machete will feel satisfying as cranium is cut from corpse.

Levelling up and talent trees aside, the name of the game in Banoi is money, undoubtedly fitting for a luxury holiday resort. Most of the infected bags of bikini clad bones you smite seem to have some cash on them, specifically in their pants it seems, almost as if the outbreak started at a giant stripper convention.

The liberal cash smattering is handy, as one of Dead Island's most frustrating elements is the rate that your shiny new weapons deteriorate. This does add to the tension, as what was once a mighty zombie mashing tool minutes before, may prove almost useless when faced with a ravenous horde moments later. You can repair and upgrade any weapon at work benches throughout the land. The more damage your weapon takes, the more repair costs. Although Dead Island does well at keeping the tension high as you scramble for your next weapon, it would be nice if one or two weapons lasted a tad longer than they do.

The main reason to digress from the central story is to keep the cash flow coming. There are almost as many side missions to complete as there are zombies to kill, not to mention hours to spend driving around pretending to be a zombie lawnmower. You could, should you choose, increase your game time many times over by not rushing through the story and taking the proper amount of time to roam. It's a shame that so many of the missions, whether side missions or not, are so uninspired. It would not be uncommon, for example, to be sent to retrieve supplies from a petrol station in a key plot quest at the start of the game, only to find yourself spending time doing something not dissimilar within minutes of completing the final stages of the story.

Leaving the scantily dressed young woman at the side of the road, begging for help, to her fate has never seemed more logical.

It's fun to smash zombie skulls on the way past but it seems at times that this is all Dead Island really has to offer. It also seems at times that it's not quite enough. One of Dead Island's key failings is that the risk to reward ratio is hopelessly misguided. It's not just all about money, it's too much about money. The penalty for death? Lose money. Kill a zombie? Get money. Break a weapon? Lose money. Sell a weapon? Get money. Do a side quest.... you get the idea. Respawing after death happens within seconds at random points near to where you last fell, there is no challenge to this, other than to be immediately swamped by infected, only to die again and lose yet more cash.

While Dead Island has hours of replay value for you achievement guzzlers out there, it may not carry the same appeal for the more narrative hungry. It could be argued that you could best experience Dead Island by playing so many side missions that you become a cash hungry mercenary, no longer able to contemplate human emotion. This will make Dead Islands story feel only slightly less tedious.

Killing zombies is the most intelligent conversation you will get from your time with Dead Island. The story, or more acutely the characters within, fail to capture any sense of real purpose and the quest givers any sense of urgency or circumstance. It would also be best for anyone of Australasian decent to play the game with no sound. Think 'Neighbours' on helium.

As beautiful as Banoi's opening 'resort' set piece and latter 'jungle' areas are, the mid and near end game forays into the sewers are dank, uninspired and broken. The free roaming, sand box experience is replaced by a linear and irritating drudge through misconstrued muddiness. It is often simpler and strangely more rewarding to play a game of cat and mouse with your dishevelled fan base by charging past undead and uninspired alike towards daylight once more.

Dead Island deviates at random from what it generally does best. Mid way through, zombies fall by the wayside, as without warning, Dead Island turns itself into a terrible first person shooter. The brainless AI fitting the games theme and the gun-play streets away from the fulfilling melee combat. It's fortunate that these moments are brief but barely believable as they become more integral as the story concludes.

Dead Island's most endearing feature is possibly it's drop in drop out co op for up to four players at any one time. Whenever another player at a similar point or on a similar quest is nearby, the option to hit the d-pad and join in will pop up on screen. It's a non intrusive outlet that may help you through a sticky spot or two. The unfortunate theme here is like much of the single player experience where no good deed quite goes rewarded.

Online co-op is the most buggy game mode of all. Lag, stuttering visual slow down and graphical pop up or sometimes grouping with players that aren't attempting to accomplish your same goals are all common. It's another idea that should work and with a little more time working out the kinks, it surely would add further hours to the experience.

Dead Island is Marmite, it's Charlie Sheen. Not brilliant but not bad, it'll leave an odd taste in your mouth. It's insane and flawed but strangely enjoyable to behold, at least for a while. It's pretty too, but mostly uninspiring, predictable and forgettable.

Dead Island has enough content to take up 30 hours of your time, but not enough unique and enjoyable content to demand that you stick with it for that long.

If you want a zombie game with the most zombies and weapons, Dead Rising has two iterations with a third on the way. If you want the maximum co op experience, Left for Dead (at least for Xbox 360) has got your back.

If you want an intense but brainless first person melee combat experience with smatterings of glitter and bucket loads of blood, then maybe, against all the odds, Dead Island might be what you're looking for.

Mecha Score: 6.5