Past Reviews

Monday Night Combat

Limbo

Alan Wake

Red Dead: Redemption

Just Cause 2

Mass Effect 2

The Saboteur

Assassin’s Creed II

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Reviews

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

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deus ex human revolution xbox 360 cover Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review (PC/Xbox 360/PS3)

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a hefty weight on its shoulders: the expectations and apprehensions of thousands of fans of the original Deus Ex released in 2000, a highly acclaimed RPG whose levels of complexity in both gameplay and narrative are a force to be reckoned with. But in another respect, it’s almost a new franchise that needs to win over a new generation that doesn’t necessarily remember PC games of a bygone era. Either way, half-baked isn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, the game has spent at least four years in development, showing Eidos is committed to giving the franchise a prequel it deserves….

Read my full review on Zath.co.uk

August 31st, 2011
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Reviews

Monday Night Combat

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade

Price: 1200 MS Points

Developer: Uber Entertainment

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Just hearing the title, Monday Night Combat, almost makes me want to invite all my neighbours over, even the weird ones, crack open some popular branded lagers and have a ruddy good time. Unfortunately my neighbours all hate me and I only have one controller but that’s beside the point; Uber Entertainment’s Monday Night Combat aims to deliver an online 3rd person shooter experience wrapped in the shiny exterior of a futuristic game show or sporting event, more accurately characterised by the flare of something like a demolition derby, as opposed to an afternoon cricket match.

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Monday Night Combat is a class-based shooter with a bold, stylised aesthetic; so needless to say, some of Valve’s loyal Team Fortress 2 fans immediately jumped to claim it was a shameless rip-off. Not so; Valve didn’t invent class-based shooters nor originate cartoon-like graphics, and anyhow, that’s where the similarities end. To their credit, Uber Entertainment have attempted something quite novel, marrying regular multiplayer shooter conventions with the dynamics of a tower defence game.

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There are two solitary modes: Blitz which is essentially you, and your friends online if you wish, against waves of varying types of robots and Crossfire, which tasks you and your 5 team-mates with defending your ‘moneyball’ from the ‘Pros’ (players) on the other team and escorting your bots to attack their moneyball. During gameplay you earn cash for killing both bots and players, allowing you to upgrade your stats, which are divided in to 4 separate sections and build turrets to aid you in defence of your base. This is all happening while a brainless and desensitized future audience watch on in glee and a suitably cheesy commentator fills the airwaves.

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From a conceptual standpoint, Crossfire mode is a surprisingly fresh take on the online shooter. Whether you’re vehemently pursuing a newly found nemesis, tearing through hordes of bots or strengthening your bases’ defences you’ll find it difficult to cite boredom as a symptom. And thankfully, strategy is justly rewarded, meaning teams who fail work together, build turrets and successfully defend and attack, will fall by the wayside.

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For an XBLA game it’s also incredibly intricate in its classes and bot features. Every one of the six classes is generously endowed with unique skills ranging from cloaking to personal firebases. Unfortunately there are some fairly pronounced issues with balance in regards to the support class at present, who is able heal and drop virtually unavoidable nukes amongst other things. But with any luck those imbalances should be ironed out soon, provided Uber Entertainment plan to provide ongoing support for their game, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, given its success.

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There’s a distinct feeling that they’ve endeavoured to flesh out its combat features as much as possible, which is admirable, considering the title and the nature of the game, and therein lies its greatest merit. The array of options when it comes to attacking and killing your foes is almost daunting when every class is taken into account. Even though it’s primarily a shooter, all the classes have melee tackling options, showcasing the finest animations in the game. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite so maniacally satisfying as hurling your opponent off the edge of the arena as he desperately tries to retaliate with gunfire in his last remaining seconds.

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Players are also able to spawn their own class-respective bots, at a cost, and annihilators that are as large and daunting as they sound. As you can imagine, with all these mechanical minions along with various explosions, the previously tactical battles can occasionally devolve into something of a cluster-fuck, not helped by the small maps, and may even lower the frame rate temporarily. Fortunately this isn’t too often the case and a little pandemonium doesn’t do anyone any harm!

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There appears to be a heavy focus on short-term progression, within each game, as you’ve plenty of skills to upgrade and ‘juice’ to collect (to allow for an ungodly rampage) as you go along, but alas, there’s very little in the way of advancement over any prolonged period. You can change your tag and eventually buy custom classes, but they only allow for minor alterations of stats and don’t affect weapons, skills or appearance whatsoever. I’m well aware that this is just an arcade game, but it seems that a little further development could have dramatically increased longevity and even immersion in the world of pro combat, perhaps allowing players to compete for sponsors and customize their armour etcetera.

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The thematic elements of the game present a bit of quirkiness; there’s some sort of obsession with bacon, which frankly, there’s nothing wrong with and the commentator has some horribly corny lines. This aspect would be bearable if there weren’t so few that you’re hearing the same forced jokes twice in one short game, and god help your ears if you plan to play for any prolonged period. I did really like that idea that your stat upgrades are like sponsorships from the drug companies, but some elaboration on the idea would have been well received, because as it stands it’s just a slightly more interesting skin on an age old feature.

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There are no complaints in the graphical department. The strong, bright colours embody and compliment the arcade-y atmosphere as well as fit in thematically with the futuristic game show. The sound design is slightly odd with seemingly random pieces of music beginning to play while you’re waiting to respawn from banjos to rock guitars but it certainly doesn’t detract from anything. My only complaint in regards to sound pertains to weapon noises, in that it’s often difficult to hear your own gun firing where there are other things going on which is a little off putting for me personally, but it’s a minor issue.

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Monday Night Combat is a whirlwind shooter experience, which I should mention, takes a little practice within each class, to get used to. The titular combat is brilliantly implemented and exceptionally creative, cleverly mashing classic tower defence with a chaotic shooter experience, even though it’s tarnished temporarily, by a few balance issues. If you’re looking for something to do while we wait for triple AAA titles, MNC is perfect fit, in a line of brilliant XBLA titles this summer. I could almost forgive the lack of progression if it wasn’t for the very few (and small) maps and so reluctantly I must cite those flaws. Right now it remains an enjoyable throwaway experience – you get the bang and the bots for your buck, but unless there are some serious updates or DLC in the works, don’t expect to be smelling the bacon once the holiday season sets in.

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7/10

August 19th, 2010
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Reviews

Limbo

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade

Price: 1200MS Points

Developer: Playdead Studios

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The Xbox Live Arcade ensemble isn’t widely recognised for its contributions to the horror genre, but then again neither are 2D sidescrollers. But then its often the atypical and unfamiliar that proves the best offering and in that spirit Limbo is born; the sidescrolling puzzle-platformer from Danish indie developer Playdead Studios. The first thing to point out about Limbo is it’s very minimalist, in terms of design and narrative, in fact there’s virtually no story at all. The description on XBLA offers a rudimentary outline, but I advise you to skip reading this, as I inadvertently did, because it plays out slightly better when you’ve literally no clue to begin with. It’s also in the interest of letting Limbo speak for itself, as once you open the game, you’ll see they’ve deliberately omitted a prologue or introduction.

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So it starts out simple enough, with the player, waking up as a young boy in this dusky forest, painted in gray-scale, with only your avatar’s bright white eyes to distinguish him from his surroundings. Right from the beginning and from there on, queries and questions as to the context and events that occur will engulf your mind. Limbo has but two actions: grab and jump. Yet with these manipulations, Playdead have concocted some of the most brilliant puzzles I’ve seen in a 2D game, from simple to the highly complex. But I must qualify that description because every single puzzle is, in essence, bearing in mind the basic laws of physics, simply constructed; but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy.

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I spent an eternity trying to fathom many of the puzzles, including the very first one, but discovered that in each and every one, the answer lay in just thinking laterally and not trying to think like a game designer or jump the gun. However, Limbo’s brilliance in puzzle design really shines through when you come to realise that the solutions, no matter how long it’s taken you to arrive at them, never seem frustrating or unfair and rarely involve looking for some object deceitfully hidden away – there’s almost always a logic to be followed. Thus the many inventive physics-based puzzles Limbo has to offer almost always grant a sense of accomplishment upon completion, as well as relief.

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One thing the player has to accept is that dying is a part of the world of Limbo, and dying gruesomely at that. There are a few parts that will almost undoubtedly end in your prompt dissection or crushing, but they’re like that for a reason, and are often a result of a misjudgement within the platforming aspect of the game. It’s not so much for trial and error, rather an emphasis of the dark world you’re trapped in. Playdead have though, managed to make sure the threat of death is terrifying and very much round every corner. [mild spoiler ahead: skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to be completely and utterly oblivious to your fate in the early sections of the game] Bear traps litter the opening puzzles and snap you up at a lightening-fast pace, if set off, and perhaps most notably testicle-retractingly petrifying, at least for me, was the giant spider, who blocks your path fairly early on and is able to skewer you with sinister precision. Equally, the world itself evidences its harshness with corpses and carcasses forebodingly cluttering your path, and occasionally becoming part of the solutions to your puzzles. Indisputably, Limbo’s world is savage and callous, but if that sort of thing puts you off, try turning the gore off or just give it a miss.

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If there’s one word that comprehensively sums up the feel of Limbo, it’s atmospheric. The striking monochrome visuals set Limbo apart from not only other games, but from any semblance of dateability because there’s no way it could ever look or indeed need to look any better with higher graphical capability. The fact that you can often only place your character on the screen on account of his eyes establishes a grave sense of being irrevocably lost, and struggling for contact or companionship. The sound design also draws from the minimalist theme, sounding only your footsteps and the traps you come across. As you can well imagine, the marriage of this bleak aesthetic and choicely interrupted silence, masterfully creates a unique and deftly menacing world.

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Limbo is also excellently animated, perfectly mimicking the way in which a small boy would move along and dangle from ropes. As I mentioned earlier, the deaths are unrelentingly grisly, which is an impressive achievement given the very limited colour palette. The rag-doll nature of the body and its various parts do a great job at showcasing both internal organs and solid physics.

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The first half of the game purposefully begs many questions and presents some harrowing, frustrating (from the point of view of the character) and mysterious moments, shocking and scaring you, interweaving each scene with engaging gameplay, that has you on the precipice of death continually. Unfortunately, Limbo’s major flaw lies in its pacing, as the surprising little encounters that are dotted through the first half dissipate quickly into endless puzzles and little else. I suspect Playdead are trying represent the increasingly difficult struggle for our protagonist, but sadly and ironically, it begins to become a little colourless. This doesn’t, however, detract from the fun had from solving these puzzles.

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The great thing about Limbo is you can take it at any level you wish to; as creepy and captivating puzzle-platformer or as a shadowy tale of struggle and confusion. You can ponder over the context and as to why the boy is there, and attempt to extrapolate what you will, or take it for what it is. I noticed a number of reviewers complaining that there’s no big reveal or explanation, but there’s no dogma that dictates a game, or any book or movie for that matter, is obliged to expand upon and explain every detail. The unknown is where the intrigue is and leaves room for plenty of conversation, and it undeniably has got people talking.

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As far as games go, Limbo is definitely on the artsy side, but I implore you to not let it put you off. That label is often synonymous with pretentious and over-complicated which is not what Limbo needs to be, it’s enough to simply enjoy the experience. So call it artsy fartsy if you must, but any pretensions to some convoluted allegory are purely the result of player conjecture.

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[mild spoilers ahead: skip this paragraph to avoid fairly mild spoilers] There are certainly some interesting questions to be asked about the nature of the boy’s quest and his motives. On the surface, the spider is vicious and terrifying, yet you’re the one who’s attempting to get past it, pulling it limb from limb – at first it has no intentions of chasing you. Equally questionable is the moment when you run over to what appears to be another boy sitting, and inadvertently cave the floor in, causing the body to hang from a noose – there’s no indication if the boy was alive or not. Did you kill him? It’s a haunting thought.

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Limbo is a remarkable and unmistakably unique experience that clocks in at a modest 4 hours, perhaps less if you’re not mentally challenged by puzzles like yours truly, but costing 1200MS points and with an experience of this quality, I would classify it as a ‘must-buy’ without hesitation. The graceful simplicity of the gameplay works superbly with the atmosphere of strange cathartic terror, thanks to the 1920s archive film-esque visuals and Lord of the Flies vibes. It’s difficult to find games with this level of thought, flawless game design and style in general, let alone on Xbox Live Arcade. I’ll end this review with an excellent quote from the review of John Teti of Eurgamer, because I couldn’t have put it more accurately: “[Limbo is] a game that has very few humans, but a surplus of humanity”.

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9/10

August 3rd, 2010
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Reviews

A Prospective Glance At Portal 2

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Portal. Portal. Portal. It’s been three excruciatingly long years since Aperture Science put us through our paces for the sake of science, but in true Valve signature style, the sequel has been snatched from our anxious grasp thanks to a delay pushing any test chamber frolics we have in store forward into 2011. But like a cute yet marvelously ingenious, game-award-touting puppy we can’t stay mad at them, but we can frivolously speculate! Now that Gabe Newell has somewhat nervously announced that Portal 2 is headed to the PS3, there’s no excuse for missing this assuredly brilliant title and with the entire Orange Box package available for £20 on Steam, you should tuck your tail between your legs and be thoroughly ashamed of yourself if you haven’t played the critically acclaimed original!

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So what do we know about Portal 2 so far? Well we know for sure that our main characters, Chell and the irreverent GLaDoS will make a triumphant return. It’s supposed to be set hundreds of years after the original, when a detached and now independent personality core called Wheatley re-awakens Chell from stasis in the hope she will help him out of the now overgrown and neglected enrichment center. Chell must travel through the facility into different sections under control of various personality cores, as GLaDoS begins to rebuild the center and further test her counterpart. So Valve has advanced the narrative considerably, while maintaining the dynamic between the main characters that made it so successful in the first place.

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True to their subject matter, Valve began the Portal 2 campaign with nuggets of esoteric messages embedded in updates to the original game and more recently, have released full gameplay demonstrations, detailing a number of new features, but Eric Johnsons’ description of the approach to the sequel leads to me to believe we haven’t heard the half of it. Johnson was adamant that Portal 2 would once again set out to achieve what he understood to be the original’s greatest strength: surprise. And hell, Portal was a surprise, for everyone, Valve bundled it with the Orange Box as a safety net, and no one saw the ending coming or expected the unique interplay between GLaDoS and the player. Needless to say, the creators want this sequel to have the same impact, perhaps an even greater one, now that they’ve got the capacity of a full retail title to play with.

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What can we conjecture in terms of the story? Because aside from a brief introduction, it’s understandably been kept under-wraps, as we were whisked away to see gameplay features. One may theorize the latter sections of the game will introduce the player to the outside world or at least more of the research center that’s off limits to test subjects. One of the almost eerie, aspects of the original was the complete lack of any other human presence, something we’re not used to in first person shooters. This device may be turned on its head, to toy with us. Will we find other test subjects or someone searching the ruins of the Aperture Science? Who ruddy knows? Anyone invested in the Half-Life saga will be intrigued to see if there are any links with episode two or three, pertaining to the Borealis. We could see both franchises interlace more tightly providing deeper back stories for each other if not advancing the main narrative threads.

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We also know next to nothing about our protagonist, Chell, leaving yet another wide gap in Portal’s lore to be explored. GLaDoS tells us “You are not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don’t end up here.” in the original as justification for a fiery death, as opposed to a gleeful celebration, so it’s plausible that we might see Chell discover more about her background, perhaps hack into the Enrichment Center’s records. Now that Valve have a full game length to flesh out, we’re likely to see a lot more depth in the narrative to pace the gameplay, as the flinging of yourself through numerous portals will need to be appropriately broken up. Portal 2’s story could stray in so many directions that speculating is enjoyable but ultimately futile. However, with such an expanse of lore to fill out, from origins to context within the Half-Life universe, you can bet that it will be unpredictable in its culmination and progression.

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And cake? Nope. Nine. Nil. Erik Wolpaw, co-writer on Portal 2 told Gama we will not see the return of the notorious meme concerning the veracity of the promise of a certain sponge-formed dessert. “If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you.” The man has a point, it’s old and every kid and his mum are rolling off cake jokes nowadays; and no doubt Wolpaw and his team will once again bring their outstandingly quirky writing to the table, and continue to pull out pearls of hilarity in keeping with the idiosyncratic humour they’ve carved out for themselves.

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Now that we’ve established what we don’t know about the main narrative, there’s plenty of gameplay we know equally little about. But thanks to the E3 videos, we’ve got a pretty clear idea the direction Portal 2’s headed: more of the same little test chambers with added layers of complexity to keep things fresh, all which utilize the portal gun in some fashion. The Thermal Discouragement Beam will require the manipulation of a hazardous light beam to solve conundrums as well as act as a makeshift weapon and the aptly named Aerial Faith Plates help to negate any dissatisfactory inertia along with repulsion gel and propulsion gel, which can be thrown through portals as large globules, to help you jump farther and move faster, respectively.

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These are just a few awesome additions and the videos (below) show the full array of comically labeled testing pieces, all of which show a marked effort from Valve to capitalize on the fantastic physics of the Source engine within the Portal series. It’s also going to be really interesting seeing Chell interact with the decaying Enrichment Center, no doubt meaning certain test chambers won’t be as simple or safe (as safe as machine-gun-laiden robots can be) as originally intended, and will require some lateral thinking. I only feel sorry for those who have to playtest the full-length game, as it seems Valve employ a rigorous testing method, akin to Aperture Science’s, ensuring the answers to puzzles are neither overt nor too baffling.

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But it isn’t all just about refining and expanding on the established Enrichment Center escapades; Portal 2 has a completely new supplementary experience to debut, something that was widely requested by the community and that’s Co-op. Thinking with portals is purportedly going to a lot tougher with a companion, as you’d imagine. The characters designed for co-op are a modified sentry bot and personality core, complete with portal gun-yielding appendages. The reason behind this casting is apparently that having considered that this would be the first time you could see the horrific deaths of companions upon failure, by crushing or some equally gruesome end, the team figured they’d spare test subjects such sights in favour of the more comic demises of loveable robots. It’s unconfirmed how these two chaps will fit into the story but I’d be very surprised if they didn’t pop up in the singleplayer at some point, if only as a brief cameo. The potential for co-op is even more incomprehendable and put together with the cavalcade of new features and you’ve got a sure winner.

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Thankfully, we are safe in the knowledge that Portal 2 is in the steady and talented hands of Eric Johnson. And although Valve have a tentative relationship with release dates, they have never squandered a good IP. Aperture Science’ test chambers will open once again sometime in early 2011 filled with brand new chances to hurl yourself off of ledges, but until then I’ll keep you up to date on any related news and you’ve always got the sweet but short original. The Enrichment Center reminds you that your copy of Portal will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak.

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Portal 2 Indepth

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Propulsion Gel

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Repulsion Gel

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Meet Wheatley!

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Excursion Funnel

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Aerial Faith Platform

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Thermal Discouragement Beams

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Pneumatic Diversity Vent

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E3 Gameplay Trailer

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July 14th, 2010
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