The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gamestyle Archive Intro: slightly incomplete review this one, but I think its just the last line or few words, therefore felt best to release it online once again. Here Alex goes all dwarf and Tolkien on us with the Xbox version of the game. This review dates from October 2002, my goodness that’s almost 14 years ago!

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Who else could have managed to afford what is currently one of the hottest film licenses in existance, if not Electronic Arts? Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is hot property, and rightly so – few can argue that he hasn’t managed to capture the essence of the tale quite beautifully and delicately – and whilst EA weren’t quick enough to get a videogame out based on the first tale alone, they’ve settled for using the best action-based sequences from both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers; the marketing department clearly deciding that naming the game after the most current episode in the threesome would be most commercially rewarding.

So, the Stormfront produced title features what EA felt were the areas of the pictures that would translate best to the style of game they were developing; namely an action beat-em-up. This is in direct contrast to the Vivendi published game (on all formats) based squarely around Tolkien’s original books, which is much more of an action/adventure game that does not possess the New Line license, and so relies more on story-telling and character building. EA’s Lord of the Rings game does not attempt to tell a coherent story, or develop any characters (aside from some rudimentary RPG-lite levelling up) and instead opts for a disappointingly linear Gauntlet style affair, yet reduces what made Gauntlet enjoyable by stripping any notion of multiple players completely away – sure, you might very well be fighting alongside AI-driven Fellowship members, but there’s no substitute for some good old fashioned co-operative gaming (see the console versions of Baldurs Gate).

The Two Towers, then, is a small selection of levels based (fairly accurately) around the likes of Weathertop, Moria and (obviously) Helm’s Deep. However, on first booting the disk you’re first forced to watch through the prologue, taken directly from the first film’s introduction (but raped of the glorious anamorphic widescreen mode, both in pre-rendered and realtime graphics). The Battle of The Last Alliance looks good, still, but you’ve seen it all before; at least, that is, until the bit you don’t quite remember. It’s here that you realise what Stormfront have just done – they’ve melded the movie footage directly into the game – there’s a brief second before you work out what’s happening and then it clicks – you’re suddenly in control of Isildur, and there’s hundreds of orcs all around you.

Impressive? At first. Sadly your movement is severly restricted (a theme that’s continued throughout the other levels) and you can’t really die as it’s just an introduction, so you’re left mashing the buttons trying to work out what does what, and why. It looks great though, in a kind of Dynasty Warriors way, with lots of poorly AI’d friends and foe running about like 5 year olds playing football. Anyway, after Sauron appears and the game blends back into the film footage, it’s fast forward to Weathertop, and you’re placed in control of Aragorn against the Nasgul. Again, it’s a very small play area, and the combat is, at this stage, incredibly basic. It’s only after Weathertop that you begin to accumulate experience points (which can be used to buy new moves and a larger health bar) and therefore level up your character, because from now on you can select between the aforementioned ranger; Legolas the elf, or Gimli the dwarf. They play on the standard balanced player characters often seen in games like this – Legolas has good speed, excellent ranged skills, but is poor with close combat and his defense is lower than the others. Gimli, predictably, is great with his axe, and hard as nails, but is next to useless with his throwing action; Aragorn sits somewhere inbetween and is the safest option for the first play through (the game rewards those who obtain level 10 with all 3 characters).

The later stages do try to offer larger play areas, although Balin’s Tomb in Moria reverts back to the one room ethos used earlier in the game, although to be fair it does work in that particular instance – there’s just something enjoyable about being trapped in a room with all the Fellowship being sieged by hundreds of orcs, even if the obvious level boss is somewhat dull in it’s delivery. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the bigger stages offer a free-roaming aspect, though, you’re led down one path, through enemies that are always in the same place each run through and trigger exactly the same pre-set events, and for the most part are despatched in exactly the same way.

Some repetition is avoided, however, as EA have thankfully allowed the gamer to restart at the level boss rather than at the very beginning of the level should the likes of the Watcher in the Water or Lurtz finish you off. I’d be surprised if they did more than once, though, the patterns are boring, predictable and somewhat an insult to the intelligence of the gamers the software is aimed at. The movie-fabricated Uruc-hai in-particular can be beaten by simply hiding behind a pillar and then using your fierce attack move (Y on the controller, as opposed to A which is a quick attack) when his blade is stuck in the rock. Some respite to the repetition can be garnered from the moves you can ‘purchase’ between levels – these take the form of button combos and holding down various charged moves, but there’s also improvements to your ranged attacks (barbed arrows being the first) and larger health bars. It’s not much, but it does offer at least a reason to replay the levels so you can attempt to collect them all.

Once you’ve reached the end of the game, which will take about 3 hours per character, there’s one bonus mission and a not-so-secret character, and that’s where the fun ends. There’s no backstory, no run-down of the Fellowship or even a map (whilst the Vivendi title had all these) and whilst there are a number of interviews and concept art, they pale into insignificance alongside those found on the various DVDs of the films available. This reviewer hasn’t seen or played the original Playstation 2 version of the game (of which this Xbox version is a direct port) so I can’t comment on how improved the graphics are in comparison; visually it’s somewhat of a mixed bag – half of the characters look great, half look nothing like their on-screen counterparts; animation is rudimentary and very fragmented, and most of the enemies are identikit models, something Jackson strove hard to avoid.

That said, those levels in the game that received most care and attention look great, and the climatic scenes are definately impressive, despite never really showing more than a few moving models on screen at once. Most of the feeling of immersion is handled aurally, though, and it’s here that the license has paid off the best – the characters are all voiced by the original actors, the score is intact and highly effective, and in Dolby Digital 5.1 the effect is quite unlike any similar game – through one sense at least, you really do feel you’re in the film.

Ultimately, though, EA seem to have missed the point slightly. There’s an overwhelming feeling that the movies have been bastardised into something they’re not – there’s no delicacy, there’s no flow between areas and the story telling is reduced to 5 section (badly) pre-rendered sections where the original film footage does not stretch. At the end of the day, you could buy the Extended DVD for the Fellowship and watch the second film a few times for the price of the game, something I’d much rather recommend. By all means rent the game if you wish, play through it then forget about it, but for (text ends)

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

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Panzer Dragoon Orta

Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of those rare moments when GS awarded a perfect 10 score to Sega’s shooting epic. This review is from Alex and dates from December 2002.

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Sega, eh? Despite producing some incredible hardware they’ve never really been commercially successful with their own consoles since the Megadrive era. They’ve had their hardcore fans (this reviewer included) but for the most part gamers have ignored the Saturn and the Dreamcast in favour of the relevant PlayStation iteration. Reasons why folk chose to do this is sadly beyond the scope of this review, I’d be here for hours lamenting over the whys and wherefores, and it’s all sadly academic anyway, as Sega’s own-branded machines are confined to history, their software reduced to the bargain bin and the oft-seedy realms of the bearded collector.

Regardless, they’re still pumping out some amazing software, and whilst the Xbox hasn’t received the very best of Sega’s current generation games, titles like Jet Set Radio Future and House of the Dead 3 at least look the part, even if the gameplay isn’t quite up to scratch. Gamers old enough to remember Rainbow, though, will no doubt fondly remember the Panzer Dragoon series back in the day, when Tomb Raider was a Saturn exclusive and Wipeout looked gorgeous on the black box – and there isn’t a set of games in history that has a stronger following of dedicated fans, gamers willing to fight to the death over the sadly mistaken beauty of the titles.

It’s hard to describe the Panzer Dragoon series (Saga aside) without upsetting someone. At it’s heart they are a cross between Space Harrier and Rez, viewed third person and directly into the screen. Orta is a direct follow up – although not necessarily in terms of storyline – and doesn’t move too far from the tradition. You’re still on the back of a dragon and you’re still up against thousands of enemies. Your dragon has 3 freely-interchangable types.

Firstly, you start out in Base mode, which has a large number of lock-on targets, a decent rate of fire for your normal gun, and average defense. You can also store up to two glide moves which work a little like the brake and boost in Starfox< for the N64. A tap of the Y button switches to Heavy mode which is a bulkier version of the dragon, with fewer lock-on targets and a slower firing rate, although both missiles and the gun dish out higher damage; your defensive capabilities are lower, though, and you can’t glide. Finally, you have the Glide Mode, which is a small, nippy model, with a automatically targetting machine gun, up to 3 glides, heavy armour (oddly enough) but no lock-on missiles.

As you can tell, selecting which mode to use at any given time is a requisite, and it’s a skill you’ll need to have mastered by the end of the first of ten levels. The game’s split into ten levels, although Sega like to call them ‘episodes’, and within each of these is the level boss. Brilliantly, the bosses don’t always appear at the end of the level leaving you to delicately nurse your post-boss battle wounds through other scraps before you get to the end of the section.

Whilst early on in Orta the tale follows something of a rudimentary storyline, later on in the game the various cutscenes dissolve into a sub-Rez level of storytelling: ultimately, of course, the whole thing revolves around 360 degrees and the final boss shouldn’t really come as any surprise, but to get there you’ll be led through some fairly preposterous levels. This shouldn’t cause too much concern, though, as graphically, well, Orta is a thing of beauty. People often like to link games with art, but this truly is the next generation. Without a solitary doubt, Panzer Dragoon Orta is the single-most visually impressive videogame in existance – it really is that good looking. Everything from the liquid smooth 60 frames a second to the gorgeous models, the amazing graphical effects like smoke and fire, the way the game effortlessly throws hundreds of things at you at once without a single stutter – it’s breathtaking, and the only downside is that nothing is going to come anywhere near for a long time yet.

If you’ve seen the screenshots (especially those from level 2 that are full of trees, water and plants) and you impressed then wait until you see it in motion. Wonderful. Sadly, not every level is quite as beautiful as some of the others (the penultimate level is somewhat of a disappointment visually), but there’s more than enough here to justify maximum marks for aesthetics; it really is that far ahead of the pack, and hats off to Smilebit who must be feeling very proud with what they’ve managed to pull off. Aurally it’s almost as impressive – the music is certainly epic and orchestral (and most definately lives up to the high standards set by the previous Dragoon games), and the sound effects match up just as well, but there’s something oddly dumbing about 3 hours of gameplay with only 3 different samples for your guns. It grates, not massively, because you do need to fire almost constantly, but it’s a shame Smilebit couldn’t have varied the sounds a little more. It’s all in Dolby Digital, though, and for fans of the series it’s quite delightful.

Those worried about the lack of first-run gametime need not be too troubled, though – whilst you can reach the end in under 3 hours, it’s a different story entirely on the higher difficulty levels – Sega really do cater for the hardcore and this reviewer was forced to re-asses his gaming skills after facing the final enemy on any level above easy. Of course, this being a Panzer Dragoon game there’s plenty of things to see and do once the main game is over – the Pandora’s Box in Orta features not only a complete sub-game (with multiple levels, cutscenes and it’s own storyline) there’s also a number of side-quests featuring episodes that run concurrently alongside those in the main game, but with different characters and so on. Glossaries and encyclopedia’s make for essential reading for PD fans, too.

Orta stumbles slightly in the presentation stakes though. Whilst the English subtitles, menus and appendices are greatly appreciated (despite this being a Japanese release) the menus themselves aren’t as attractive as the rest of the game, and the Pandora’s Box feature becomes far too messy to really appreciate fully without wading through realms of text and menu options. There’s also loading delays that tend to get in the way slightly. However, it’s not my intention to let these niggles get in the way of what can only be described as the finest on-rails shooter in existance.

Panzer Dragoon Orta is most definately the best of it’s genre and for shooter fans it’s absolutely unmissable. Those with even a passing interest in Sega’s most commercially underrated series, though, will already have it pre-ordered, and if you haven’t, you’re going to be missing the ride of your life. Orta oozes playability and style, and is a real graphical tour-de-force for the Xbox. Enjoy.

Gamestyle Score: 10/10

Serious Sam

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  Serious Sam seems like a fun concept and romp. Steven Scheidel prepares to enter the CRAZY world. This review dates from November 2002.

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Bulls. When was the last time you stared down a pack of stampeding bulls? A neverending stream of Sirian Werebulls, no less, seemingly hellbent on taking you down. Or foisting you high above the Spartanic gameworld beneath? The answer, seriously? Only if you were playing Croteam’s maiden Xbox title – the crackingly off the wall, pants-splitting adventures of Serious Sam.

As with the aforementioned bulls, much is made of surrounding you with pleasurable, if not memorable, gaming moments. Because the ‘old skool’ dynamic at work here singularly evokes old skool responses. Twitch gaming, as the Americans have coined it. Revisionistic First Person Shooting (FPS), for everybody else. True, there are those among us who would baulk at Sam’s “simplicity”, eg, depress the Fire button, hold for the duration of game, but this review is not directed at those without a healthy appreciation for the fundamentals. Because, in the current landscape of technology-driven titles, there is a place for Serious Sam – and his outlandish attempts to keep you entertained. Take for example the bane of contemporary game design: those (sometimes) superfluous Cut Scenes.

It is here where we are introduced to the “physicality” of Sam’s character: his tree-trunk torso, his white emblematic, ‘superhero-styled’ T shirt, his anachronistic stride. These things are important to the player, because typically the FPS remit puts you ‘inside’ his skin. And typically, when you’re tasked with clearing battlefield upon battlefield of marauding alien nasties – or stampeding Sirian Werebulls – you need to know that Sam is seriously up to the job. The cutscenes strongly reinforce this fact. (And occasionally evoke a laugh.) So, characterisation in hand, you’re then dropped into the sprawling gameworld.

The first thing you notice is the vista, the well-lit environment, the wide open spaces. In fact, spend long enough searching and you can just about reach any compass point of a map, such is the freedom. On a purely aesthetic level, the static, bitmapped sky is a little disappointing. As is the weird, out-of-synch polarity that sometimes accompanies the screen update. It’s as if the bottom half of your screen mismatches with the top. One supposes it was necessary to accommodate the open areas. Forgiveable then. You press on. Within moments, you’ve upgraded your Colt 45 to a dual pea-shooter. The enemies appear. Simplicity itself. What differentiates Sam’s stylings is the “arcadey” feel of proceedings.

Atypically, you have a score counter in the centre of your screen. Every kill, every uncovered treasure (including routine pick ups and replenishments), every secret yields you big game Points. And for every 100,000 points, you gain an Extra Life. Some secrets aren’t really secrets at all, and can range from the banal (finding a “hidden” staircase which is blindingly obvious by its placement) to the delightfully unhinged – a ‘niteclub’ hidden deep within a Mayan sanctuary, topped with ballroom lights and a stand-up programmer! Another level gives way to a “Secret Watcher” activation, whereupon you find two beady eyes suspended in the heavens. Take a pot shot at them (naturally) with your RAPTOR 16mm Sniper rifle, and the eyes beget a giant “Secret Kamikaze” statue. Shoot this again (naturally), and you lose a life. D’oh! The piecemeal humour flows freely, and is accentuated by a ‘sentient’ computerised notepad, aka your NEuroTRonically Implanted Combat Situation Analyser (NETRICSA), which also gives you “obvious” solutions to tempo-stifling cruxes. Not really necessary, but nice to have.

Ditto for Sam’s accumulated Life-Ups (or old skool Continues, natch), which generously regenerate you on the playing field. Oh, there are single-player Save points periodically dotted throughout the game, but if you’re playing co-operatively, you lose these. You also lose the cutscenes. And incidentally, in what must rate as Croteam’s only ‘serious’ technical faux pas, when playing co-operatively (on a split screen) you do lose a good-sized portion of your gaming windows (read: unsightly black borders).

On the flipside, however, you are given complete autonomy of movement – unlike the co-operative play mode of Halo, for instance, where independent progress is hampered by hot spots. Regardless, if you’re halfway ‘serious’ about multiplayer shebangs, you’ll be pleased to know that Sam supports both System link and Ethernet hubs. But don’t be expecting a ‘Battle Royale’ in the party-hard department; there are only 10 maps, 8 character skins, and nil variety beyond straight Deathmatching. TimeSplitters 2 this ain’t! But let’s don’t lose focus of Sam’s raison d’etre. This is his (lone) adventure, his game. And there’s more than enough to uncover. Essentially consisting of Five Chapters (some 36 levels, including hidden areas and programmers’ easter eggs, the latter making a contribution to the game’s FMV denouement), each provides an apocryphal slice of human history – and each is apparently overrun by marauding alien nasties (and stampeding Sirian Werebulls).

Here perhaps is where spoilsports may point the finger of scorn, and argue that you’re essentially obliterating wave after wave of ‘identikit’ monsters. This is true, but Serious Players are in this for the duration, the thrill of the ride, the sheer barking madness of overcoming obscene numbers. And, as pointed out earlier, the developers show a healthy appreciation for ‘Spartanic’ scale in their work. Maps are akin to virtual colliseums, their sense of occasion simply begging you to stay, to bask in the ‘ceramic’ detail (note: bump-mapping is in effect here, get close enough to a wall or rock texture and you’ll notice subtle surface gradations), even when devoid of enemies.

Case in point: You’ve just entered the courtyard of Chapter Four’s Tower of Babel. You take note of the historical hanging gardens, the sun-kissed beauty of its columns. You survey the parameters, stand agog, and for an endless moment bathe in the minute detail surrounding this eighth digital wonder. And then the VIOLENCE ensues. Let it wash all over you, and feel satiated. Supreme in the knowledge that Croteam have taken you there. Serious Sam may be unashamedly ‘old skool’ in its approach to mowing down marauding alien nasties – or stampeding Sirian Werebulls – but just wait until you get a taste for the SBC portable Cannon, and proceed to BOWL OVER your opposition. Now that’s when the real fun begins!

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Rally Fusion: Race of Champions

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  Chris takes us out for a spin in Rally Fusion on the  Xbox, which dates from November 2002. This is from an era when racing was going off-road and thankfully so.

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In terms of all the types of motor racing available to man, rallying surely is the most fun, aside from motorbiking up oversized Tango cans and hopping onto other oversized drinks cans. I mean what would you prefer to do- go around and around a giant concrete oval circuit a hundred times or speed through the woods of South Wales at a hundred miles an hour?

Having said that, it’s also the most demanding motorsport, aside from driving with women (joke), and thus the range of excellent rallying games are also the most demanding. Concepts like ‘damage’ and ‘braking’, alien to the arcade racer are given pride of place here. As the latest in the Colin McRae and WRC series have appeared to rave reviews, what hope has Rally Fusion?

As it happens, there’s a lot going for it. The Race of Champions, on which most of the game is based, is an annual event held in the Gran Canaria where drivers from different disciplines compete against each other on specially constructed side-by-side tracks. It’s certainly a unique selling point, yet the core of the game doesn’t rest on the license. The bulk of the single player mode is in the Roc Championship mode where you have to prove your driving prowess in a qualifying round before moving onto three tiers of racing- classes A, B and C. The latter contain easy to control vehicles with small engines like the Ford Escourt Mk1 whilst class B uses recent winning cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and the Peugeot 306, and finally the class A’s are the most powerful, and include the Lancia 037 and the snappily-titled Saab 93 Turbo 4×4.

Nineteen cars are there in total, although you start each category with only a couple open and have to unlock the rest. The structure comprises traditional live versus stages mixed with Rally timed stages, special course rules and driving challenges like slalom and parking. No, really, that wasn’t even a joke. The controls are very good and allow some excellent skids despite being a tad lightweight, though they are immensely preferable to the hypersensitive Colin McRae controls. The physics aren’t totally realistic, which reflects the arcadey approach Climax has taken, yet I have to say I like it.

There is a bit of leniency with rock walls (in allowing your wheels on them) but apart from that any knocks you take will translate into car damage. The system known as DYNE is used here. It’s a very clever system that means what part of the car is hit it will be visibly affected. Commonly doors will flap open, gaming shorthand for a warning before flying off after the next incident. As you play, you’ll notice how effective it is, and that the precise parts of a car will be affected by collisions- bumpers, bonnet, and wheels. You can check in the bottom corner for any damage in the time-old yellow/orange/red system.

There are inconsistencies with some objects affecting you less than others but overall it is very impressive. The arcade aspect is really the attitude towards racing. Want to cut a corner? Go on then. You’ll slow down a bit, but you won’t arbitrarily be forced back like the horrible headmistress way MX2002 makes you. However, I could do without seeing the words ‘biggest jump’ and ‘record lap’ appear all over my screen in an incredibly distracting manner at the relevant points. I’d also liked to know how well I’m doing in a stage- on the timed stages if I’m under the qualifying time or how the guy behind me is doing for the racing stages.

Graphically, Rally Fusion is sumptuous. The developers claim 16,000 polygons per car, but in real phraseology it looks good, very good. Sunbeams rain down through rock faces in a Gran Turismo style in a realistic looking sky, an avalanche will blow snow across your path, and a handbrake turn produces a mean skid on the ground. There’s just the merest hint of pop-up in distance but it’s not really noticeable. The only other criticism is of the camera drifting slightly on certain points- the Gran Canaria track over the bridge and the beginning of the first driving challenge, shaking you out of your driving line. The better you do in the main game, the more features are unlocked. Rally Fusion is full of these, such as ‘hill climb’, ‘elimination’, ‘relay’, ‘follow the leader’ and a ‘custom championship’ function. All these are excellent variants although ‘follow the leader’ is biased against you because you start in sixth place (out of six) for every race you have to catch up to first, here anyone who isn’t the leader is punished by energy depletion. As it is the end of class C you have to play it again and again, it isn’t an easy challenge.

Sonically the game contains good use of surround sound and FX and adequate co-driver commentary. Not enough was recorded, and you’ll hear the same things come up again and again (not just ‘easy right’ and ‘medium left’ either) and if you drive really badly he’ll get lairy: “you’ll kill us both”, “you’ll wreck the f*****g car!” which is unnecessary. In terms of tunes you get three from Cornish wailers Reef and no use of the Xbox hard drive.

The multiplayer will allow up to eight friends to take part in the Race of Champions, four to race head to head and two or three to enter the Nations Cup as a team, and try to beat seven other teams. There’s lots that I haven’t mentioned yet, like the real-life drivers you race against or how hard class A is, but what you need to know is that Rally Fusion is an incredibly playable and enjoyable racing game that takes an arcade approach to the rally sub-genre.

The use of the Race of Champions license is an interesting and unobvious choice, and it’s relative unknown status means the pressure isn’t there to make it the centre of the game, yet only the unique Gran Canaria versus track is. The graphics are great, the controls are fine, the racing action packed and the features are full to bursting point. This is the Rallying game for people who don’t like Rallying. Colin who?

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

FIFA 2003

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes a swipe at the Pro-Evo casuals and fits the corner for the FIFA boyz with deep pockets. We’re heading back to November 2002 to mark the start of a new season. To put this into context during the 2000-2001 Premiership season Manchester United were crowned champions and Manchester City relegated!

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It’s currently in vogue to put down EA. From inside the industry they’re the very epitome of what’s wrong with publishers – endless sequels with very little improvements; lazy film tie-ins and cheap multiplatform ports.

Unfortunately, though, they’re not alone – there are other companies doing exactly the same thing, and although the Pro Evo fanboys might like to think otherwise, Konami are as guilty as anyone for just throwing out another lazy semi-sequel of their football game a month back. Which is ultimately academic, of course, because Pro Evolution 2 isn’t available on the Xbox, and as such FIFA 2003 becomes the best football game on the machine, by default. However, don’t think that it’s not a viable game in it’s own rights, though, because the latest version of EA’s long-running franchise is certainly a playable, good looking rendition of the beautiful game, and the Xbox port is question is definately the best of the versions available.

See, FIFA has always been about superb presentation, realistic graphics, believable commentary and the all-important official license, and the 2003 iteration is no different. In fact, it’s improved in every single one of these areas. On the Xbox the presentation really shines – the game loads quickly, the menus are slick and the licensed music is current and fashionable. The graphics are gorgeous – smooth animation, realistic renders of the best players, convincingly huge stadiums and all flowing at 60 frames a second.

The sound is great too – there’s not a football game in existance that can hold a candle to FIFA 2003’s atmosphere – and even the often-flawed commentary is impressive, if not a little repetitive after a few matches. The licenses are present and correct: there’s no Lake District team here, there’s no Backhem or Schools running up and down the pitch. This, as you’d imagine, does make a huge difference to the immersion whilst playing the game, regardless of what Konami would have you believe. There are several authentic stadia too, all modelled well and convey a real feeling of awe when you first run onto the pitch with the crowd screaming all around you in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. But football games are all about the gameplay, right?

Panic not, because FIFA delivers in this area too – the passing is much improved and requires much more thought and foresight; the through-ball plays a larger roll but again cannot be relied on alone. Sprinting has been toned down (and each player has varying levels of stamina in this respect) and best of all, shooting has been tweaked practically to perfection – you won’t be scoring the usually high number of goals often found in past FIFA games, and it’s not just a cheap tactic of upping the keeper AI – you need to think about shots, aim and choose the kicking power very carefully.

Tackling, however, doesn’t quite work as well as it might, although it’s much better than ISS’s automatic tackling that ruining that particular game for me. The shoulder barge doesn’t produce entirely useful results, yet the sliding tackle is often judged unfairly, on both sides of the coin. This means, ultimately, that against better skilled teams (and players) the defense can often be split apart with a well placed pass purely because defending is so difficult. In addition to this FIFA have implemented a brand new Freestyle Control method which is activated via the right stick. Brilliantly, the results of tapping in a direction on the control stick is different for each player depending on their dribbling skill, but for the most part a quick flick in the direction you’re heading will produce a small burst of speed with you pushing the ball slightly ahead. There’s plenty of scope for mastering this new control scheme, which will please those prepared to invest considerable time in the game.

FIFA 2003, though, comes into it’s own in 4 player games – whether it’s 2 on each side or all 4 of you versus the computer the passing engine really starts to shine and you’ll be pulling off impressive set pieces and hopefully scoring some goals. It’s all great fun and a superb way of showing off the power of the Xbox to some mates. If there’s any other niggles, the dead ball controls need some practise before you start to use them successfully, and the keepers can often be too unpredictable, but it wouldn’t be a FIFA game if there wasn’t something to improve on in the next game. It’s good – very good – and well worth spending the cash on if you’re looking for a football game.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us back to the beginning of a great series which all started on a cold November evening in 2002. At the time it was a hugely impressive from a technical and visual standpoint.

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Third Echelon. Your secret, NSA-sponsored government agency employers – they won’t acknowledge you if you get caught, but when you’re silent and invisible you’re not supposed to even be seen, nevermind captured or injured.

You are Sam Fisher, and you’re crouched, back against the wall looking down a short alleyway, you’ve got 3 rounds left in your silenced pistol, and it’s pitch black. There’s not a light source around because you’ve shot them all out. This wouldn’t necessary be a problem to some, but in this case you’re supposed to be breaking into a police station and you can see a figure just at the end of the alleyway. You can see him because you’ve got your night vision equipped – it reduces everything to blurry monochrome, but without you might already be dead. You don’t know if the figure has already seen you – you don’t even know if he’s hostile, but he’s definately facing you, not moving. You need to get past him, and with only 20 feet between you edging closer still would alert him for sure – every step on the wooden planks makes a noise you’re positive he can hear.

Thankfully, you’re a deadly shot with the pistol, and you’re definately within range – two taps to the chest or one to the head and he’s down – but he might not be hostile. If he’s a civilian the agency will pull the plug and it’s game over, literally. If he’s not, and he fires first, it’s the same story. You edge forward another step, sights aimed right at the centre of his head. The planks beneath you creak, just a little, and he hears you – calls out blindly – and you instinctively pull the trigger. It’s a tense situation, but it’s only one of hundreds you’ll have to face throughout Splinter Cell.

There’s a Chinese proverb that, paraphrased, says that if you see a snake and don’t kill it there and then, you’ll regret it later. Well, Snake’s dead – Sam Fisher is the new king of stealth. Ubi Soft, in a single fell swoop, have single-handedly rewritten the whole third person genre. Splinter Cell not only features the most impressive state of the art graphics yet seen on Xbox (and how they’re going to get it running on a PS2 I’ve no idea) and some stunning, atmospheric sound effects and music, but quite probably the most thrilling gameplay seen for a few years. I’m hyperboling, of course, but it’s all deserved. From the very start to the final scene, Splinter Cell delivers everything it was hyped up to do.

Whether it’s simply running up pipes or infiltrating the CIA headquarters Sam Fisher is a brilliantly controlled hero – the left stick moves Sam and the right stick moves the camera freely, with the triggers used to fire. X brings up your gun (and moves the camera almost to a first person view) and the other buttons are used to activate items, crouch, and so on. It’s a slick interface, and it needs to be because you’ll be asked to perform in and around a large array of buildings and streets.

Each level offers a variety of ways to get through it – it’s up to you most of time whether you opt for the stealth approach or the gung-ho shooting style, and although there’s not the replayability there of the likes of Hitman 2 you’ll not have any issues with starting the game all over again once you’ve finished it. However, Splinter Cell is much better paced than Eidos’s classic – you’ll be forced to run blindly through unfamiliar territory from time to time – something that really gets the pulse racing, but there’ll be times when you’ll need to take your time to survey the surroundings, watch the patrols and make the most of your technology.

With the inspired inclusion of fibre-optic cables, lock pick, sticky cameras and microphones you’ll never be at a dead end – it just might require a little lateral thinking. Of course, this is all in addition to the amazing graphics. Running of the Unreal engine just wasn’t enough for Ubi Soft – it’s a highly customised version that features the very latest visual technology – there’s dynamic lighting and shadowing, fair enough, but Splinter Cell re-writes the textbook for what’s possible on Xbox – vertex shading, volumetric lighting, texture rendering, per-pixel shading and superb shadow mapping on and from every item in the game. In short – it looks stunning. Constantly.

With a well written story full of the Tom Clancy magic, professional voice acting and convincing environments, along with great controls, stunning visuals and fantastic sound, it’s hard to fault Splinter Cell – there’s even additional levels promised – the US version can download levels via Xbox Live next year but we’re also told future missions will appear on disk, hopefully via the Official Xbox Magazine. There are a few niggles, though, sadly. There’s clipping issues here and there, Sam’s arms in particular like to melt through walls, and sometimes Sam tends to float a little above the ground, especially on stairs, but they’re certainly nothing to panic about.

It’s also worth mentioning that the game is extremely hard – and it’s not for everyone – you’ve got to be meticulous with covering your tracks, for example. If you do choose to knock out or shoot someone you’ll have to hide the body, but hiding it in a dark room won’t help because the guards will switch lights on, so you’ll have to shoot the lights out too. Ammo is rare, though, and you can’t pick up enemy guns – this isn’t a shooter and you need to keep that in mind. But don’t let that put you off – it’s won numerous awards, cleaning up at E3 this year and the final version is universally acclaimed, and we have to agree. Not only is Splinter Cell is unmissable, it’s also the second game worth buying an Xbox for. Halo finally has a rival.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us out for a few waves and some Beach Boys antics trying to catch the rays. Trick based games were hugely popular for a while and this one offered a new setting. This review dates from October 2002.

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I like Treyarch. Their conversion of Tony Hawk 2 for Dreamcast stands out, for me at least, as the best game for the machine throughout it’s entire life. In fact, barring Pro Skater 2X, there’s not a better skateboarding game than the 2nd version of Activision’s flagship extreme sports game running on Sega hardware in existance, and that includes later iterations of the series.

Activision must, therefore, be well aware of what the boys at Treyarch can do, as they’ve given them their own niche in the ‘Pro’ franchise of extreme sports games, surfing. With their indisputable graphical talent and an eye for pure addictive gameplay can the Kelly Slater-licensed title live up to the mass-market appeal of the Tony Hawk games? Well, kind of. There’s no denying that Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer is a superb game – it’s tightly produced, visually appealing and sports the single greatest soundtrack ever to grace a video game (and is well worth the asking fee just for the music alone) – but unfortunately the very sport itself doesn’t quite ignite the same emotions as the rail and pipes of skateboarding. That’s not the fault of Treyarch, at all, because Pro Surfer is perfectly accessable to newcomers (partly due to a well-written training section), is perfectly pitched in terms of difficulty and thanks to the screwed-on suits at Activision, is marketed alongside it’s stablemates as being an equal.

So where are the problems then? Well, it’s not as straightforward as that because the only problems with the game are those inherant with making a game that’s little more than a niche title that’s only ever going to enjoy limited success (despite talks of a sequel already) compared to the likes of Hawk and Hoffmans’ games. It’s presented in much the same way as those titles, and plays out similarly too – there’s your career mode where you’ve got to fulfill a set amount of objectives (which thankfully, for the most part, stay fairly grounded in reality), there’s a set of multiplayer options and there’s a free surf mode too.

There isn’t a better surfing game around, either, so it’s not down to competition. Pro Surfer offers much more than the likes of Transworld Surfing because it has been produced with surfers in mind, that’s evident from the huge amount of professional-quality videos; 14 real-world surfing locations (and an indoor practice one, too) and some top-ranking names to play as. It doesn’t just end with fan-service, though, the game looks brilliant (and runs at 60 frames a second constantly), sounds superb and best of all controls well, meaning gamers themselves should find no room for complaint. The marketing proudly states that you’ll never see “the same wave twice” and to a certain extent this is true – every wave of every level looks different, and therefore your approach to how you’re going to tackle this particular wave changes on the fly, giving a fresh approach to the whole grounded extreme sports genre. They look fantastic too, especially given the liquid-smooth frame rate – the waves look like waves, from the break and from inside the tube, and the water around each wave reacts intelligently and convincingly, although they do sort of spring up from nowhere right behind your character.

The surfers themselves benefit from excellent modelling and animation, and they too interact accordingly as you’d imagine. Controlling the characters on-screen is a doddle, once you’ve gone through the training section of the game. I’m not going to embarass myself by pretending to know the names and styles of all the tricks, but rest-assured that they are both easy to pull off and highly rewarding when you start to learn how to string combos together – indeed, learning how to work the trick system fluidly is essential to scoring big in Kelly Slater.

There are face tricks, tube tricks (where the camera moves in behind you and provides a handy balance metre as in Neversoft’s games) and air tricks (including both grabs and flips) and linking these together builds up your special meter which as you might expect unlocks even bigger tricks, as is the norm these days, really. It’s just a shame, then, that it’s going to be overlooked. This is disappointing, as at it’s heart lies a superbly playable, highly addictive, intelligent surfing game. Maybe that’s the catch – it’s a surfing game, but please don’t miss out on this in favour of This Month’s New Game because when that wears thin you’re going to be wishing you’d picked out something with a little more lastability – something Pro Surfer offers in abundance: long lasting, enjoyable gameplay, much like Pro Skater 2. Which reminds me, back to Venice Beach…

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: well I never, here’s another review from the Marquis De Sade himself. Dating from around August 2002, here he relives his childhood bike fantasty.

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Pity me. In my youth, I spent many an hour learning to ride a bike the hard way. Not that I was performing handstands whilst steering the bike, I hasten to add – that’s for Wave Race afficionados. Instead, my parents sadistically bought me a Raleigh Chopper. The bike that when you fell off, you required two firemen and a blanket to catch your fall. The bike that had all of the turning cicle prowess of a juggernaut, and the bike that, most worryingly, was mocked at by many a schoolkid, as they’d upgraded to BMX’s, whilst I had painfully remained in the 70’s. But thanks to the wonders of videogame entertainment, I can now forget about the past, and make up for that lost time, courtesy of Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2.

From the stable of Activisions’ O2 series, Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2 (MHPB2) is insantly recognisable to those who have played other ‘extreme’ games such as the eponymous Dave Mirra or Tony Hawks. Sadly, the game offers nothing new, as if content to offer more of the same. After a lengthy FMV opening (you know the drill; ‘dudes’ performing ‘zany’ stunts) accompanied by the dulcet tones of Iggy Pop, the main menu is presented with the usual options: Road Trip (the story mode), Session (an imposed time limit to rack up as much points as possible), Free Ride and Multiplayer. A park editor is included too, and it won’t take long for any budding creators out there to conjure up a decent park. Road Trip is the core of the game, and from here, you choose from one of the ten ‘real’ BMX’ers (though more can be unlocked), as you make you way across the ‘States, demonstrating your prowess.

Predictably, only one area is unlocked at the beginning, and in order to move to other locations, you have to amass ‘trip points’, which are gained via completing objectives on each level, as well as fancy combos. One each level is cleared, its onto the Hoffman’s tour bus, and a brief, documentary-style FMV clip is shown, highlighting the man himself, along with his friends commenting on the scene etc, and these are actually quite interesting. And it’s here that the lack of imagination is severley evident. Chanllenges range from attaining so many points, to collecting gas cans, or hitting switches etc. Many of the challenges are therefore simply a memory test, and lack any zest. As is usual with many of the ‘extreme’ games, a time limit of two minutes is imposed for each run, so there’s not much time to get used to the levels intricacies (though this is alleviated by the Free Ride option).

MHPB2 is playable enough, although biking feels more inflexible compared to skateboarding, and it does take a while before any decent combos can be racked up. Graphically, it’s a mixed bag. The bikers themselves are detailed, and instantly recognisable for the enthusiasts out there, and the bikes move with convincing grace, and for a game that requires a lot of precision, the frame rate is thankfully very fluid. But the levels are drab, and lacking in real detail. Colours are washed out, and textures are simplistic. There’s no doubting that Microsoft’s console could handle far more than what is thrown at it here. If the game had been designed with the Xbox solely in mind, one would’ve expect prettier visuals.

As for the music, well you can expect the usual smattering of nu-metal, angst-ridden tunes, but if it’s not to your taste, tracks from your hard disk can be used instead.(which oddly, cannot be selected from the main menu, but from pasuing in-game). The sound effect are convincing, though hardly outstanding. And therein lies the problem with MHPB2. It reeks of mediocrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, nor is there anything that’s going to grab your attention. Whilst there is always a curiosity as the next levels design, you know that you’ll be still trying to complete the same challenges, and it’s all a bit tedious. Designing your own park offers a little more longevity, but the game remains rather sterile.

It goes without saying that if you enjoy your ‘extreme’ games, then enjoyment will be gained for those who like to rack up high-scoring combos and manuals, but for anyone about take their first plunge in the genre, the best bet looks likely to be Tony Hawks Pro Skateboarding 4.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Rocky

Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of the most memorable reviews on Gamestyle was a one-off review from a forum character known as the Marquis De Sade. After all these years I’ve forgotten his real name (maybe Steven?) however he was one of the hardcore supporters of Gamestyle and its forum, which was a great place to engage with. This unique review dates from November 2002.

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“Laaaadies and Gentlemeeeeen, welcome to the clash of the titans. Tonight, we proudly present the contention for the heavyweight championship of the woooorld!!!!!!!” In the red corner, hailing from the northeast of England, and from the corridors of Rage Newcastle, wearing the blue shorts with red and white trim, is Roooccccckkkkkkyyyyy!!!!!!!!”

Crowd politely clap

“And in the brown/yellow corner, currently residing from the Bastille prison in France, and clearly needing a wash, is none other than the sick, the twisted, the boy-ass buyer, the Marrrrrrquis De Sade!!!!!!!!” Rapturous applause from the crowd

ROUND ONE

Ding-ding

De Sade is initailly impressed by the opening sequnce of moves by the contender, displaying clips from the movie, with THAT music, and perfectly getting the gamer into the spirit of the proceedings. After a flurry of jabs and hooks from Rocky, De Sade delivers a strong uppercut when at the end of the intro, a shameless plug for the DVD boxset appears.

Ding-ding

ROUND TWO

Ding-ding

Seconds out, and the user is given the option for Exhibition, Sparring, Tournament (which has to be unlocked), and the ubiquitous Movie Mode, which is the meat and potatoes for the single player. Decent rendered cut-scenes permeate the action, with the sound sampled from the actual movies, which perfectly recreate the mood of the celluloid outings. A series of quick punches to the ribs, causes concern to the debauched one’s trainers.

Ding-ding

ROUND THREE

Ding-ding

Round three then, and the first impressions are good. The graphics are superbly realised, with each fighter looking as you’d expect them to be (special mention of course, to Clubber Lang’s infamous mohican), replete with sweat-soaked skin and bulging muscles. Each punch delivers a convincing connection, and you’ll wince as blood and sweat spray from the pores of the receiving face. The depiction of the boxers grow more bloody as the fight wears on, and you’ll often find blood strewn around the canvas. The arenas too, are worthy of mention, and grow as you move from backstreet gyms, to fully-fledged halls. Unlike most other sporting games, the crowds are polygonal, and far more realistic looking than the usual cardboard cutouts. De Sade is surprised at the movement of the ‘Italian Stallion’, as he ducks and weaves, pounding the libertine with blows to the side of his head.

ROUND FOUR

Ding-ding

As soon as the bell sounds, De Sade is straight out, with nothing to lose. He has been impressed by this young American, but having tried the game on default (Contender), and finding the game frustratingly difficult, he leads in with a barrage of punches to the ‘Stallions midriff. Initially, the game is found to be very unforgiving. These boxers are tough, and show no mercy. Furthermore, it helps to learn some combos to rattle in, but further play reveals quite a strategic game. Training (should you ignore the standard points added to speed, stamina etc, and gamble to try manually) is tough too, and you’ll stumble on each lesson until you’ve had a fair few goes. Unfortunately, you can’t practice any of these training lessons from the main menu. The bell sounds, and Rocky retreats to his corner, surprised at the deftness from De Sade, but wondering why his breeches should be undone.

FINAL ROUND

Ding-ding

Both fighters, eye-balling for the last time, meet once again. After a few hours play, it really clicks in. The buttons are mapped to your brain, and fighting each boxer reveals their weakness. And you exploit it. You see the opening, and try to lure your oppenent into the corner. And you get him there. And you realise that this is your chance. The uppercuts rain in, his mouth spurting blood, as you rain in a few combos. His energy bar rapidly dropping, as you unleash a volley of superbly timed punches. And in a spasmodic twist, his body impacts upon the canvas. The sensation is incredible, and in the Rocky context, you’ll want to topple the arrogant Creed, the ox-like Lang, the towering Drago, the upstart Gunn, alongside the other 20+ opponents.

In slow motion, De Sade, now tiring badly, swings with all his might to Rocky’s face. But his opponent is more powerful and agile than any other boxing game he has saw before, and he dodges. Dodges well enough to reply with a stunning counter-punch that sends De Sade reeling on his heels, and onto his stinking back. The crowd rise, and instead of jeering, they chant the new heir to the throne “ROCKY, ROCKY, ROCKY!!!!!” Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the best boxing game in the world.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Sega Soccer Slam

Gamestyle Archive Intro: way back in the early days of the Xbox, I enjoyed Soccer Slam as it was something different to all the Pro Evo versus FIFA chat that dominated the pitch. Perhaps over scored slightly now but hindsight is a wonderful thing! This dates from October 2002. 

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We’ve been playing this one for a while now, and seeing as it’s been around on the shelves of importers for far too long we thought it was about time for a review. Sega Soccer Slam is an incredibly over-the-top representation of what we like to call football – it’s 3 a side (plus goalie) Midway-style madness, in fact developers Black Box are responsible for the recent Midway branded NHL Hitz 20-02, and Soccer Slam plays (and to some extent, looks) very similar.

Of course, that’s meant in the lightest possible sense, as nothing around at the moment is anywhere near as outrageous as this game – it really is complete mayhem from start to finish, and manages to incorporate the best bits from the likes of Red Card, Virtua Striker and oddly enough, The Matrix all into one game. Each team is based around a particular stereotype (without being too offensive) and each player is entirely individual with their own appearance, playing style, special moves and voices – and we don’t just mean a different face texture either – these players really are as different from each other as they could be without actually leaving the team colours.

Once you’ve picked a team and a game mode, and set up the sides depending on how many friends you’ve got over, it’s into the match. You’ve got the obvious pass and shoot buttons, but there’s also a deke move and a defensive block too, plus power-ups and turbos assigned to the triggers, and skillful use of all these is often the way to succeed. The pitches seem tiny to begin with, and it’s possible to get from one end to another in less than 3 seconds, but once you start to appreciate the moves and get used to the pace of the game it’s much more manageable. There’s not just one-off exhibition matches either, Soccer Slam comes complete with a full compliment of leagues and cups, and success in these events unlocks the usual array of extra teams, player statistics, additional (equally-mad) stadiums and other nice treats, which seriously helps the one player life-time as you’ll find yourself playing Soccer Slam alone just as much as you would with mates just to unlock more features for the next multi-player evening!

Unique on-the-pitch moves include holding down shoot for far longer than you need to which results in a spectacular volley, bicycle kick or header combo, and best of all if you manage to keep possession for a few seconds a spotlight in your teams colours will appear and randomly circle the pitch for a while. Get your player in that area and tap the shoot button to pull off the bullet-time feature which enables you to carefully pin-point the exact area to shoot at whilst everyone else is frozen for a second or so – a superb touch and one that fits the whole theme of the game. Surprisingly, graphically Soccer Slam is the best looking football game around, on any format – the players are drawn from massive amounts of polygons that give each of them their own unique appearance, and are equally expertly textured and shaded.

The same brilliant presentation extends to the rest of the pitch, and even the hundreds of people in the crowds are all fully 3 dimensional, and all this at a rock solid 60 frames a second – a sight that really has to be seen to be believed. The sound department is equally impressive, with laugh-out-loud funny commentary, excellent spot-effects and some cheesy but perfectly placed music snippets whenever you pull something off – it’s all very arcadey yet consistently entertaining and never annoying, a feat that must have took some serious play-testing from Black Box. If you’re looking for something more exciting than the usual dull ‘simulations’ out there, or just want a quick blast with a few mates, Sega Soccer Slam is unbeatable, and highly recommended.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10