Gamestyle Offline: The Missing Issue

Gamestyle Archive Intro: just looking through some old music discs and have come across a batch of reviews from 2008 and beyond – a nice wee discovery. Here is the intro to the lost Gamestyle Offline issue which dates from January 2008.

After a successful run, the Gamestyle Offline Magazine (otherwise known as GSO) was put to rest, as the demands of producing each issue alongside website content became too much.   Yet the story of GSO did not end with issue nine, as many readers believe.

In late 2005 plans were afoot in Gamestyle Towers to take GSO in a new direction, complete with a new visual design and issue editor.   Unfortunately the design never progressed beyond a few draft pages, pictures of which are shown here for the very first time.   While the design may not have been completed, the issue was practically bursting full of content.   Since then some of this material has been released online at Gamestyle, as ‘the nine lives of games developers’, ‘the cult of thrill kill – and others’ and ‘remake them, we have the technology’ to name but a few.

Today five features remain unpublished amidst our submissions, lurking with no real intent and now outdated by the ravages of time.   Under the series banner ‘Gamestyle Offline: The Missing Issue’ these few remnants will be released and finally close the door on the GSO era.

The Italian Job

Gamestyle Archive intro: Daniel James takes the Italian Job for a spin in June 2003 and fails to find top gear. 

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A Hollywood blockbuster-remake of a classic Brit-flick is hardly likely to please fans. Similarly, a licensed videogame cash-in (spread thinly over the three main console platforms) is hardly likely to win over any serious gamers either. Loosely following the latter part of the new movie’s plot, The Italian Job sees you take on the role of Charlie Croker and his gang of talented partners-in-thievery, on a mission of revenge and reward to reclaim a stash of stolen gold bars.

Despite the obviously misleading title, the set of The Italian Job is based in a recreation of Los Angeles and Hollywood – not Italy – and certainly consists of more than one ‘job’. Split into fifteen different missions, you take control of various vehicles (not restricted entirely to the infamous Minis) and cruise the streets using a primitive radar to guide you to your target. Variety is sadly lacking however, as most objectives consist of a ‘get-from-A-to-B’ situation, with little scope or reward for deviation. Furthermore, with most missions split into three sub-objectives, the player is forced to perfect them all and complete them in one go, or face a frustrating restart. Whilst preliminary stages are more forgiving, later levels can be a very patience-testing experience, where seemingly unfair and unknown forces – and traffic – work against you to remove your vehicle from its path and into the failure lane.

One particular stage (that will no doubt keep most occupied for several hours) requires you to run a perfect race through an underground subway system against rival Minis, with only your memory of the path ahead and quick reflexes to save you from the perilously placed pipes and protruding walls. Practice, however, does make perfect. But one must ask themselves if they really do want to be retrying the same section over and over again, for the simple pleasure of seeing the next one. And therein lies another problem. The game’s structure is so linearly laid out before you that no missions can be overtaken; there are no detours on this drive. But thankfully, a sleek and fast user interface sees navigating your chosen level become a breeze, and instant reloads prevent any impatient finger-tapping. Visually, The Italian Job is good and solid, though nothing that will trouble the conscience of any Polyphony Digital staff. What the game lacks in detail it makes up for with impressive framerates and sharp, clear picture quality. This is even more noticeable after the mid-mission fly-by cinematics that purposely run at a reduced 25 frames per second (or thereabouts) with a grainy movie-style filter overlay, to replicate that cinematic feel.

When the action begins, it all appears to positively fly by. It’s only the slight aliasing, V-synching, and very occasional slowdown that ruins an otherwise solid-looking environment. But whilst solid, The Italian Job’s locales seem nothing but dead, due to the total lack of pedestrian activity. Not a person in sight, and this doesn’t stop at just the environments; even the cut-scenes are devoid of hired actor activity, with only stills of the vehicles and the voice of Charlie as the narrator to give the impression of any humanity at all. Why this apparent distancing from human contact wends its way into The Italian Job, Gamestyle can only speculate. But the stars of the show are definitely those Minis, and they certainly do get the chance to flex their acting muscles. Despite their size, the cars feel positively weighty, with plenty of wheel friction making for some very satisfying handbrake turns and generally decent handling.

Climax Studios is no newcomer to vehicle reproduction (two-wheeled or otherwise), and The Italian Job – whilst rough around the edges – is no exception. It seems a glaring oversight then, that only the (right) analogue stick offers incremental acceleration control, when the touch-sensitive face buttons could have done an improved job of replicating the same feature. Gamestyle brings this up because of the ‘dead space’ around the Dual Shock’s movement range, the delayed response of the car to throttle increments, and the occasional necessity of slower movement at key stages of the game (particularly the Stunt Course mode). But a substitute ‘tapping’ method proves adequate for the most part. The Stunt Course mode (abovementioned) strangely seems to offer the most addictive part of the overall package, saving the game from a pit of mediocrity.

Even Reflections’ dedicated ‘Stuntman’ could learn one or two things from TIJ’s approach. No commands screamed at you, no frustrating checkpoints, just a clearly marked route from A to B (again!) via all varieties of ramps and pipes – indoor and out – that really push what those versatile Minis can do. Certainly not easy, but any perfectionist will revel in the chance to boost their score and grade. The Stunt mode is actually criminally under-exploited with only a handful of courses to try, but with every level of the story mode featuring a grading system as well, one can easily turn familiar areas of the city into practiced and perfected courses – not too unlike the real thing then. The Italian Job loosely follows the plot of the movie, whilst filling in arbitrary plot points with samey mission objectives and a sloppy reward structure. Its few missions aren’t likely to last a long time, notwithstanding the rewards (unlockable vehicles) for higher grades upon replays. The competently tacked-on Racing mode features a decent enough one or two-player game, but lacks the depth of dedicated titles. Fans of the new movie will probably appreciate it more, however Gamestyle has to ask; was it all really necessary?

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Amplitude

Gamestyle Archive Intro: hugely playable title on the PS2 and a key component of the popularity of music and rhythm that was taking over the format. Eventually after several guitar hero’s and band titles the genre fizzled out but left us with some challenging and addictive experiences. This review dates from September 2003 and JJ.

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Sony has transformed the videogame industry by reinventing the niche market as a leisure activity. Games are quite simply cool, and as such accepted by the mainstream, which until recently were extremely sceptical of anything videogame-related. Amplitude is the ultimate fusion of everything Sony has stood for since its arrival in the industry and continues the good work laid down by Frequency. But what is Amplitude?

The premise is simple, and this is what creates its addictive quality. There are three buttons to press in sequence to onscreen events, and by doing so you build up a musical track from nothing to the complete version – or a variation, which you may prefer. There are a few similarities with the Beatmania craze, which has gripped many PSone and Playstation 2 owners. Admittedly, you do have to press a button at the correct moment, but with Amplitude you are firmly in control of where you want the track, and therefore your journey, to progress. Forget the implementation of a futuristic craft as your means of building these songs; it’s immaterial and a disappointing use of creativity. Rather, every song (regardless of genre, artist and era) is built from layering tracks, and putting these together forms a finished song. Studios of old may have offered only 8-track capability, but nowadays artists can layer sounds and instruments, constructing new and devastating soundscapes.

In Amplitude, by completing the onscreen sequence successfully, that particular element (vocal, guitar, drum, bass etc.) will be absorbed into the track currently playing. Thus you can add more sounds as dictated by the song, before returning to sequentially place them. The ideal way to paint such a picture of the manic happenings onscreen – and the dangers of failure – is to think of a common magic trick: the spinning of plates on poles. Here the aim is to maintain as many spinning plates as possible, preventing any from falling off. This creates a frantic scenario of dashing from plate to plate, maintaining its position whilst being totally aware of the other plates (or in the case of Amplitude – tracks). Missing or failing to complete a button sequence removes a little more health, creating a little more pressure. Progress further and the tracks become faster and more complex, upping the creative challenge (albeit one with few rewards, save for the odd bonus track or pointless character model). Yet power-ups and special abilities can be collected and utilised during play, with slowing down and the automatic completion of tracks being particularly useful.

Combining futuristic visuals with a star-studded cast of original artists may sound initially like another trick from the Wipeout book, however anyone who has played the original release (Frequency) is aware that Amplitude is something else, and a particularly attractive addition to any Playstation 2 library. Whereas Frequency found favour with the club generation (thanks to its dance-infused track listing), Amplitude trades upon a new roster of household names – such as Pink, David Bowie, Blink 182, Garbage, Weezer and many more. The clout of Sony as a record label is partially responsible for this sudden upsurge in identifiable artists, but also the desire to take Amplitude beyond the core users who so obviously embraced Frequency. However, rather than granting unlimited freedom to experiment, many of the tracks are laid out in such a way that it curtails the player, forcing them to follow a linear path. This is where the Freestyle or Remix modes should come to the rescue of those wishing to break through the confines of the main game – but both fail to offer a viable alternative.

For those able to connect their Playstation 2 to the Internet, there is the opportunity to engage in a refreshing online mode (obviously contingent upon suitable opponents). Still, Gamestyle welcomes the chance to play a game online which does not rely on big guns or stealthy tactics, and perhaps hints at what Microsoft may attempt with its music release next year. Amplitude is bold and colourful but the ‘technicolor’ palette creates an ugly world, one that lacks the brilliance of Rez or the design strengths of Ikaruga. The icon system is cluttered, and during play does nothing to assist the player – especially superficial inclusions like the character dancing. It may look aesthetically pleasing, but the onscreen action is presented in such a way that at certain times your view is hampered, with dissolving track titles producing unintentional errors.

The normally robust framerate will occasionally dip, and in a game which relies on the premise of timing, this is unfortunate but not detrimental. To Gamestyle, it appears Harmonix tried to squeeze a little of everything into this release to accommodate the mass market. A messy mistake, and after the sweetness of EyeToy: Play, one that could have easily been avoided. Take, for instance, the harder difficulty settings – most will not have the opportunity to glance at what track they are about to attempt. Rhythm is everything in this game, and the true test of skill is not purely about reaching the end of the course, but about delivering and maintaining your preferred interpretation of the song on display. Negative issues aside, there is no disputing this release is fun, challenging, and appealing. In this respect Harmonix have succeeded in delivering another captivating instalment, but one that ultimately may have fans of Frequency favouring the original while simultaneously failing to capture the imagination of the mainstream. Amplitude is without question a fantastic release, but not the glorious and blinding achievement that many have proclaimed.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Galerians: Ash

Gamestyle Archive intro: another review from Gareth, this time a game that doesn’t register at all in my memory bank. I suppose that was a problem with the PS2. If your game didn’t make an impact within the first few days of release is was soon lost amidst the avalanche of titles for the system. This one dates from April 2003.

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Stirring to life on the PSone, Galerians was a ‘survival horror’ game with a difference – namely, your character was a complete lunatic who had been genetically modified by a master computer named Dorothy. Rion would inject himself with mind-expanding drugs that allowed him to summon up fires and repel enemies with a shock wave of energy, among other things. The downside to his dependency, of course, meant that withdrawals were particularly nasty – with those close to him getting blown away by unstable psychic energy. In this sequel, Rion has returned to save the world from the threat of the all-conquering Galerians, and to smite his inner demons.

The plot is complicated: initially you are trapped within the data banks of a computer, trying to escape the vigilant gaze of Dorothy. After an early bid for freedom, it is revealed that Dorothy has a backup memory which constantly regenerates, and you are sent back to the starting point. From here you begin again, only to encounter a Galerian sent into the computer to erase your data. Things get progressively more confusing, but it all helps to build up the unique infrastructure you inhabit. Cyberpunk is very much the motif which attends the Galerians world. Through a mixture of external apocalyptic settings (as viewed through security cameras), and the sterile interiors which resemble those of ‘Minority Report’, there exists a juxtaposition of narrative between the rational thinking of those struggling to survive and the outright insanity and morbidity of your enemies.

While the graphics reasonably convey this tone, you can’t help but feel everything lacks a finishing touch. Long periods are spent wandering in locations that become increasingly familiar. Furthermore, characters seem to lack any real identity due to poor rendering, meaning after a while everything gets very monotonous as the action and enemies are not radically different throughout the game. What separates this title from others in the genre is the way in which combat is handled.

Galerians: Ash is not about finding ammunition for guns, but about using chemicals to enhance Rion’s abilities and thus destroy enemies in far more sinister ways. Unfortunately, the combat system itself is problematic: by holding down the attack button your energy gauge charges up and once it reaches maximum, your chosen power can be unleashed. However, while doing this Rion must remain stationary. This does not lend itself to being a fast and flexible system – especially when battling multiple opponents and bosses. Coupled with the equally loose targeting (which sometimes leaves you firing your powers into thin air) and the neverending boss battles (which require long and repetitive actions to overcome), the Galerians experience really does sour at times.

Rion himself is much more manageable; while focusing on enemies may be a little tricky, at least you have a variety of moves at your disposal. Firstly, your character moves much faster than standard monsters, with only the Galerians being able to keep up with you in terms of speed. You are also equipped with a diving roll that really proves useful if a creature lunges at you unexpectedly. Unusually for a survival horror title, the in-game camera is not fixed, and instead tracks the forward path of your character. However you cannot adjust the camera manually, which means there are still numerous occasions where the action is presented at an awkward angle; for instance, running away from an enemy means you have no idea where it is so you must stop and turn around – not exactly ideal if it’s right behind you, because Rion has no time to charge up his powers and retaliate.

Overall then, Galerians: Ash is only ever going to appeal to a niche market. The game mechanics have barely changed since the original and the sequel loses a lot of the tension and genuinely disturbing aspects as well. While the story is complicated and filled with reprehensible creatures and people, it loses something in the retelling. Fans of the original may well choose to continue the story but newcomers will find little to shout about. Gamestyle’s advice is to seek out the original Galerians on PSone for a truly warped experience of twists and psychoses.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Xenosaga

Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of the games that topped PAL-owners most wanted for a release across the pond, Xenosaga was an epic, classic RPG. This review from February 2002 is the first into the archive from Garnett Lee. It might be incomplete but the sheer size matches the source material.

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Regardless of preparation, sit down to watch a favourite anime and interruptions come as a given – watching the commercials, grabbing a snack, answering the phone when it rings right as the action gets to the best part, or any number of others.

In the case of Xenosaga, a new entry gets added to the list: playing a game. Story-propelled cut scenes, a staple of role-playing games over the past few years, play such a central role in the experience that it almost becomes unclear whether they support the game or vice versa. Either way, together the combination enables the telling of an elaborate tale that transcends either piece by itself. Better stock up on the popcorn – this one lasts longer than just a couple of hours. Judging from recent offerings, it appeared that ‘role-playing game’ had come to mean sword-wielding warrior and robe-wearing spellcaster defeating the big, bad evil of a fantasy world. Xenosaga eschews that rut in favour of a sci-fi setting thousand of years into the future where humanity feels as comfortable amongst the stars as standing on solid ground. However, the departure ends there as at first glance the game appears to follow some secret, official Final Fantasy-styled narrative.

Fortunately, refined execution of the gameplay aspects along with the strength of the story negates any feeling of it being a simple clone. Just enough underlying sense of familiarity remains to ensure that the game mechanics never become a distraction. First of a proposed six-game series, Xenosaga leaves little doubt of its intent to become the pre-eminent space saga of gaming. After barely enough introduction and tutorial to get comfortable, the game plunges into a battle on the front lines of humanity’s struggle to survive against the attacking Gnosis, a seemingly unstoppable alien race. This dramatic style continues throughout the game; events unfold offering glimpses of a struggle amongst powerful factions (the intent of which remains mostly unclear) manipulating the events of the day. Likewise, bits and pieces slowly reveal themselves about the six characters that eventually make up the group, inexorably intertwining each of them in some way in the complex web of intrigue playing out behind the scenes.

Without fail, each shard of acquired information only invites more questions; thus heightening the appeal of the enigmatic story. Epic production styling makes for some truly enjoyable sights and sounds throughout. Without question, Xenosaga sets a new standard for the use of cinematics in games. Professional voice acting compliments excellent animation and gives each segment production values capable of standing on its own as a video. In fact, with some stretching upwards of 20 minutes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in them and forget that they are not an episode of an anime series. Their success in capturing the imagination enables the delivery of this elaborate tale. Environments and battles alike deliver a wealth of eye-candy, as has come to be expected of modern role-playing games. A variety of special attacks, ether magic and even mech combat offers numerous visual treats; helping to keep combat fresh and avoiding the monotony of watching a few dominant specials repeated over and over. Not to be left out, an orchestral musical score completes the sensory experience in grand fashion.

Xenosaga’s beauty goes well beyond skin-deep. Multiple layers of character development provide the freedom to custom-tailor the party to fit different playing styles. Beyond the traditional gaining of experience to increase levels, characters earn points towards tech, ether and skill improvements. No fixed path of progression exists within each of these areas; instead, choosing how to spend the limited number of points earned amongst the various available options determines the specifics of how each character uses their strengths and in turn the role they fill within the party. This complex system may seem daunting at first, but it rewards perseverance with a sense of personal involvement in the characters’ growth that strengthens the bond with them.

Further adding to the mix, some of the party members possess the ability to pilot mechs, or AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems) as they are known. Outfitting them from the broad selection of available weaponry and equipment affords a similar degree of construction alternatives to match individual preferences. A substantially enhanced turn-based combat system provides the pay-off for the effort put into customising the party. New wrinkles – like variable bonuses that change each turn, action points that can be used immediately or saved to launch a more powerful attack in the next round, and a boost gauge that once filled allows characters to act out of turn – add the necessary depth. The ensuing challenge of matching the characters’ tactics with the strategic opportunities in battle keeps combat fresh for the duration of the game. Almost as valuable (in keeping combat fun) is the simple feature of making enemies visible while adventuring, and thus avoids the frustration of random battles which are far too common in role-playing games. Sadly, aside from the coolness factor, few battles actually warrant bringing in the AGWS. A few too many limitations when piloting them reduces their usefulness to that of a giant shield. With little incentive to focus upon their development, their potential to play a more involved role in the game goes unnoticed.

Taken as a whole, Xenosaga finds itself dangerously close to perishing under its own weight. The same mysterious style that fuels the intrigue of the story impedes connecting with the characters. Questions purposely left unanswered surround each of them to avoid giving away future plot twists. With no clear central character around which to rally, even those about whom something is known seem less significant with the uncertainty of their ultimate role. Fortunately, the ensemble strength of the group pulls it back from the brink; relationships develop between characters, which helps bridge the connection to really caring about what happens to them. An emotional tie feeds the continuing hunger to find out what lies around the next corner of this labyrinthine tale. But perhaps the best measure of its success comes with the profound disappointment and anticipation felt as the spectacular conclusion fades and the prompt screen asks for confirmation – to save your party for use in the next chapter.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Tour De France

Gamestyle Archive intro: GS was way ahead covering cycling back in June 2002 whereas now you cannot drive around a corner without meeting a Chris Hoy taking up more of the road than he should. This is a rare example from Michael Lysons.

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Le Tour – one of the most gruelling adventures in sport: three weeks of cycling; twenty stages of cat-and-mouse strategy and bike wobbling bursts of speed; and over 3,350 kilometres in the saddle. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Le Tour and looming in the distance like the legendary peaks of L’Alpe d’Huez is the latest Tour game from Konami. But can they deliver a game worthy of claiming the Maillot Jaune?

The game dynamic is simple: press X to pedal; press faster to pedal faster; pedal faster and you lose stamina faster; lose all your stamina and you can’t pedal. Energy drinks (of which you get five each race, plus a further two from a team mate if you ask for them) will replenish some of your stamina. Riding in the slipstream of other riders’ also replenishes stamina: opposition riders may not like you taking such liberties, but you can call for a teammate to ride ahead to create a slipstream. And so riding in a race is about the balancing of stamina and lung busting bouts of pedalling. It works well – get it wrong and you’ll be dropped on a hill or found wanting in a sprint for the line. The game centres on a 5-year career mode (TDF mode), with each year split into 12 months. The year culminates with Le Tour, which you can choose to enter if your rider is ready. So how do you ensure your rider is ready for the rigours of the ultimate bike race?

Each month sees you able to do one of the following; enter a one-off bike race, train your rider, or rest. Bike races earn you prize money to spend on training and equipment; training improves your rider’s stats, but at the expense of losing stamina at the start of races; resting recovers stamina lost due to training. As each of these takes a month to complete, it is important to combine them effectively so that your rider is constantly improving and yet still has enough stamina to win races. Equipment is also important and it’s possible to upgrade your bike from the dodgy lump of lead you start with, to a piece of lightweight perfection. Strategy plays its part here, as it is imperative that your rider is in peak condition, with the best equipment possible when Le Tour arrives. The same as any other title in this respect then, Gamestyle wonders when we’ll see more attention to the game rather than the banal pursuit of upgrades.

Sure, the upgrades are important because the game is created that way, but why not give us the bike and the rider ready to go and then give us a game worth playing? It’s like buying a real bike and riding it for two weeks before you unlock the third gear cog. Arcade (one-off races), Time Trial (against the clock) and 2-player options offer a break from the TDF mode and give you more chances to unlock such important items as a new helmet or wheel skin. Time Trial is probably the most demanding aspect of the game, because there are no riders to slipstream and no team mates to get extra energy drinks from. In this mode it is important to pedal and rest at the right moment or you won’t get a fast time. It is strange that Time Trial stages – so important in Le Tour – are missing from the TDF mode of the game.

Racing deep into the peloton Gamestyle found a few rogue riders riding roughshod over the whole experience. Despite the excellent dynamic, the races are too short to really exploit the strategy on offer. In TDF mode you start way behind the leaders in each stage (and the current holder of the Yellow Jersey), thus reducing it to a mad dash to the line. You won’t find yourself cruising in the pack, keeping an eye out for breakaways; you’ll be going hell-for-leather for the majority of each stage. This makes for exciting racing, but it’s no reflection of Le Tour. There are not even as many stages as the Tour proper and overall it’s a shallow experience.

Clearly the Playstation 2 is not being pushed to its limits with Le Tour and while there are no technical pile-ups, it’s not exactly busting a gut to sprint for the line: loading is long and plentiful and as noisy as ragged breathing after a 30 mile ride; graphics are functional and fast (although you’ll never be in a pack of more than six or seven riders, again nothing like the sport); sound is less than functional, being something of an afterthought it seems; the overall presentation almost crashes into the fence marked poor, but recovers sufficiently to cross the finish line of acceptability. It’s bland and lifeless, although the spinning cog sound effect of the rotating menus at least helps mask the loading noises. What we have here is a game engine that is suited more to pursuit cycling than the endurance test of the world’s premier bike race.

Le Tour De France is not to be recommended as an accurate depiction of the sport; it’s too shallow and one-dimensional for that. But it does deserve praise for delivering a well implemented dynamic and a fun, although ultimately short lived spot of gaming. There’s enough here to make Gamestyle think a further iteration could deliver the goods, but peddling second-rate wares so a sequel can be justified happens too often these days.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Guilty Gear X2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: We should have more reviews from Gareth in the archive so lets put that right with a classic gaming experience in Guilty Gear X2. This review dates March 2003.

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The traditional 2D fighting game has more or less disappeared from the gaming landscape in recent years with players choosing to go for the 3D delights of games such as Tekken, Virtual Fighter and Soul Calibur. You could argue that the genre has not moved on since the sixteen-bit days of Street fighter 2 but titles such as Street Fighter Alpha 3 and the more arcade orientated Marvel vs Capcom series show that if done well the ageing 2D format still has a lot to offer.

Story wise if you have ever played a fighting game you will already know that it is about various fighters gathering for some great purpose. Without question you have heard it a million times before, but you would hardly expect anything else. A true example of gaming Ronseal if ever there was one and yes it does exactly what it says on the tin. Where Guilty Gear X2 differs from the thousands of other titles that all look and play the same is the shear amount of attitude it shows. This is a game for players who are confident in their ability, and a better player will always beat a newcomer as the range of moves and counters on display is stunning.

Graphically Guilty Gear X2 is beautiful, it looks like a Anime film, from the intro to the build ups between fights, everything is geared to making you believe you are taking part in a graphic novel rather than a dull fighting game. During combat everything moves at such a pulsating speed that you get lost in the action, forgetting about everything except taking down your opponent, so much so that if you watch two people battle it out you will notice they just stare at the screen silently until the bout is over. There simply is not time for smart comments when engaging with Guilty Gear, You play to win, and friendship comes second. In game graphics are as glorious as those in the intro with well-constructed backgrounds backing up ingenious character design and eccentricities.

There is not one character out of place in the Guilty Gear universe; no matter how weird they are they just seem to fit in somehow. Characters range from the slightly odd to the down right strange, with a cop who looks light a cross between a Jedi knight and a cyber punk being the most normal and a witch with a heavy metal guitar, a bloke with a bag on his head and a guy taken over by demons being among the more unique. However strange though, it is the characters that make Guilty Gear stand out from the crowd – no easy Ryu or Ken characters here. Each is different enough to ensure that it would take a small lifetime to master them all. This adds a more flexible approach to the genre as players can choose to stick with one of the easier to master characters or go for someone who fights very strangely, and with twenty characters to pick from there are enough freaks to find the perfect fighting partner for anyone.

Gameplay is where the game will either have you jumping for joy or leave you puzzled at all the different commands at your disposal. The game plays brilliantly as moves are easy to pull off and your characters leap around with the energy of a Sega Zealot who has just found Panzer Dragoon Saga in his local bargain bin. What Guilty Gear X2 does is offer a whole new range of possible ways to fight. The majority of us are bored to death with special moves and extra special moves that you need to fill a bar up to pull off and various other things, which have been milked to death other the years, but a Death move which instantly kills the other character at any time in the match is something not so common.

The skill comes from landing this killer blow as if you miss your health and special moves bar disappears – meaning chances of winning the fight are greatly reduced. Beyond death moves you receive other little innovations such as the ‘burst’ move that can be used to stop or start a variety of situations, a ‘dust’ button that stuns the opponent or when pressed with a different button causes other effects, ‘Roman Cancel’, combo sequences and countless other things you just do not get outside of a Guilty Gear X game. While the mass of moves to learn will likely put off a rookie to the genre, put in a bit of effort and you soon find everything begins to feel like second nature. Of course there are the standard modes here as well, arcade, survival and a host of others. As well as these though you get a story mode that adds greater depth to the backgrounds of each characters and medal mode, which rewards combination scores, not essential but nice touches all the same.

Guilty Gear X2 is a stunning game with great graphics, sound and outstanding gameplay that adds up a top class fighting game. In addition to this characters that are both innovative and original, a fighting system that adds depth to a 2D fighting game and the breakneck adrenaline pumping action of it all. This is a title that is essential for anyone who likes a good fight. The big question will be if Guilty Gear X2 can hold its own against Soul Calibur 2, but on this evidence Soul Calibur may have a struggle on its hands. Guilty Gear X2 is the quirky king of fighting games, but one that deserves to hold the next generation crown if only for a little while.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

NBA 2K3

Gamestyle Archive intro: the 2K series gave EA a good run for its money back in the day but it came down to licenses and sheer brute financial might. This review marks another debut with Michael Lysons writing in March 2003.

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The freak show has rolled into town and it takes the form of Sega’s NBA 2K3: seven foot, three hundred pound mutants lumber up and down the court performing backboard-breaking dunks at either end; six-foot-six ‘dwarves’ weave in and out of traffic and bank lay-up’s off the glass; and like the exception to prove the rule, sub-six foot midgets parade prodigious handling skills and dribble through the legs of everyone else before draining three-pointers from beyond the arc.

NBA 2K3 brings basketball to your Playstation 2, wrapped up in a package looking and sounding like an ESPN broadcast. From the menu screens to the in-game action, everything looks the part. Player animation is excellent as they perform an array of basketball moves and the commentary team provides an atmospheric and humourous accompaniment. The analysis is superb – half time, full time, pre-game, post-game – as a good attempt at context-sensitivity is made to avoid repetition. However, the action can be a bit juddery on occasion and although not serious enough to ruin the game it doesn’t sit well with the excellence elsewhere. The basic nature of basketball is this; you have 24 seconds to shoot the ball or you lose it, and then the other team get a go. It’s this simplified explanation that often results in cries of “You score, they score, it’s so dull,” being levelled at the sport; little do they know.

Basketball is played very tactically (aren’t all US sports?) and approaches vary: running down the shot-clock before trying to score; playing a fast-break game, running the floor and trying to score quickly; emphasis on team play and spreading the scoring around to outfox the opposition; relying on the talents of a supremely gifted individual. NBA 2K3 allows for these styles, but Gamestyle found that, as with other hoops games, the most effective way is to get your shooting guard to swish three-pointers all game. The analogue control is excellent. Walking, running, posting-up (turning your back to a defender and trying to back them down to the hoop) can all be done with just the thumb stick. A turbo button – which seems standard in sports’ games, but why bother when you have an analogue thumb stick? – is provided for an extra burst of speed. If you combine this with the crossover button – the ball carrier performs a quick crossover dribble – you can blow by your defender and drive to the hoop for the show-off finish.

Four major things dominate hoops; shooting, stealing, blocking and fouling. Ultimately the combination of these parts is what sees NBA 2K3 clang off the rim. Shooting follows the same dynamic seen in many hoops games: press shoot, release when the shooter is at the highest point of their jump. It’s tried and tested and it works, but you spend too much time looking how far your shooter’s sneakers are off the floor rather than eyeing the hoop. There’s no feel for the shot and you can’t delay or quick-release it to fool defenders so consequently it feels shallow. Stealing is the art of taking the ball off the opposition. But in NBA 2K3 it’s more luck than skill. Press the steal button and your player will snake out a hand to try and get the ball. The nature of basketball means that you’ll often give up a foul though. You never feel in control of the stealing process and it becomes frustrating.

Gamestyle decided – and this is surely a statement on the sport itself – that turning off the petty foul rules resulted in a much better, though still flawed experience. When a player shoots you’d better have someone trying to block it. Again NBA 2K3 doesn’t give you much feeling of control. You are always left with the impression that a player’s stats are more important than your own skill. In truth, shots are rarely blocked in NBA games, but you need to feel that you failed the block rather than your stats were not good enough. Fouls are a very important part of basketball. Unlike football where fouling is considered a breaking of the rules, fouls in basketball are a strategic element in their own right.

Each player can commit a certain number of fouls before being ejected from the game, while if the combined number of fouls for a team reaches a certain limit the opposition will take a trip to the free throw line with every subsequent foul. The longer you play the more fouls are committed. And as you near the end of a game it can degenerate into a tit-for-tat battle of fouls and free throws. This can make for either an exciting end to a game or a stop-start, plodding finish. Gamestyle found these times mostly plodding. Perhaps to counteract some of the inherently boring aspects of hoops the game can be customised to an incredible degree: specific rule violations can be turned on or off; referee leniency can be tuned; AI can be tweaked; game length, playoff series length and even simulated game length (games involving teams not under your control) can be set.

Gamestyle found the most enjoyment was to be had by turning off the pernickety foul calling, but then some of us sucked at free throws. NBA 2K3 is also well served by the various game modes on offer. The ubiquitous tournament, playoffs, season, and franchise modes are present, offering varying degrees of complexity and depth. A welcome addition is the Street mode, where you can venture outdoors and play a little 2-on-2 and it’s a welcome relief from the more demanding NBA game.

It’s hard to fault NBA 2K3 for its recreation of basketball. It does everything so well that it seems churlish to not like it as much as it deserves. However, basketball doesn’t translate to console too well, because the fundamental physical aspects (shooting, stealing, blocking) are not realised with a sufficient feeling of control. If you love hoops, then this is a great simulation that will last until the next iteration, but Gamestyle feels that the real fun is to be had out on the blacktop and not in the comfort of your La-Z-Boy.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Primal

Gamestyle Archive intro: this was an incomplete review on the PS2 spreadsheet that we’re working our way through currently, but my own documents have revealed the full review. I actually thought Primal was a game that could have been so much better; it looked fantastic but lacked gameplay. This review dates from April 2003 and is from JJ. We actually played an early preview of the game during the PlayStation 2 show the previous year – remember those shows in London?

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Unquestionably words in the English language are abused daily, thereby devaluing their true meaning.  Yet as I stand on this broken cliff path, gazing down on what was a once vibrant city, which now lies broken, and shrouded in darkness, I utter the word epic. For this is what Primal truly represents – an epic adventure and a formidable piece of artistic design and programming.  I may have lived through Morrowind and slain Halo, but this is equally impressive.

You take the role of Jennifer Tate (Jen), a reluctant heroine, who finds herself the victim of a vicious attack from what can only be described as a demon.  Released from your deep sleep whilst in hospital, you are offered the opportunity to track down your assailant and much more besides.  Your companion throughout this journey of discovery is Scree, a gargoyle and fountain of information and energy.  Together this unlikely duo forms an effective team, with their abilities allowing you to overcome a variety of problems.

As your attacker is not from this world, you find yourself cast into the underworld, where recent events threaten chaos.   Not wishing to spoil anything, I will only add that you must defeat Abbadon (chaos) in each of the four underworld realms.  Here begins your long trek of crossing each of the four kingdoms, solving puzzles, killing enemies, restoring the balance and discovering your true self.

Jen is an ingenious character, not only in terms of her inner strength and feisty temper, but because she should appeal to a wide cross-section of gamers.   A strong female lead should attract male and female alike – along with those who favour loud metal.  Strong design runs throughout Primal, commencing with the memorable architecture, natural environments and characters.  For anyone who has seen the film Nightbreed, I’d suggest that SCEE Cambridge has stormed through those cemetery gates and made the demon world their own.

Avoiding Primal recently has been an uphill struggle, with various adverts and reviews appearing everywhere.  I do not heed the words of others, but you can safely say that Primal has been received with varied responses.  This is a release, which you will either cherish or loathe.  Admittedly the first few hours are solitary and unrewarding as you wander aimlessly trying to learn your new abilities and adapt to puzzles from the viewpoint of two controllable characters.  Apart from asking Scree, there is no help on hand, which probably explains some of those negative reviews.  We’re used to being helped easily through games, as formulated by Nintendo, and if I was to write a review after only three hours play it would be totally different to the one you are now reading.

First I want to discuss the faults of Primal, and honestly these do not take much effort to pinpoint.  This is an ambitious project and one that perhaps has proven to be far more difficult than expected. Primal is a grandiose version of Soul Reaver, stronger in every sense, offering new elements, but ultimately still flawed.  The much-maligned combat system, which relies on the shoulder buttons, is a part of the game, but this is not Soul Calibur and should not be judged as such.  Yes, it’s very limited and can rely on luck or the poor AI of your opponents; but combat can be enjoyable, if shallow.

A major problem with games of this ilk is the reliance on back tracking to boost the length of the title i.e. Shadowman.   Primal avoids such a trap, by putting the emphasis back onto the player, but the lack of direction means that many of us will wander looking for the next stage.   The main issue with Primal is the game design, which allows for puzzles and enemies, but nothing in between.  Your journey consists of nothing more than triggering cut sequences, fighting enemies whom exist around monuments or key points and solving the occasional puzzle.  This may be the underworld, but the lack of life apart from warriors is noticeable.   Zelda represents the same battle against evil, yet manages to fill its world with sub missions and local life.  Not only does this hide the shortcomings of the story; it provides a welcome distraction from the conquest by offering variety.  Primal does not, and you do begin to question if these kings and queens actual rule over anything apart from land and empty buildings.

Elsewhere the camera has improved and manages to keep up with events on screen, although occasionally you are forced to intervene with the right stick.  The presentation is exceptional but there are noticeable delays in speech when asking for advice.  This is offset by the excellent dialogue throughout which includes the vocal talents of Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas.  The effort of the actors is shown in an informative featurette once you complete the first realm – the first of several bonuses.

One area that has been overlooked is the use of the rumble function, which only kicks in when your health is low.  With buildings collapsing and brutal fights taking place, you would think that the function would have been implemented better.  Most problems can be categorised into the finding of a key or lever, and these seem timid in comparison to the huge scale of Primal, which would have benefited from more elaborate set pieces and problems to overcome.

Faced with such a list of charges, the plaintiff would have no other option but to plead guilty and take the punishment.  However Primal contains much to savour, but like so many releases you have to put the effort in first.  Technically the game is unquestionably a tour de force: a glorious technical demo thanks to the involvement of the Performance Analyser.  There is no loading after starting the game, and the level of detail, lighting effects and draw distance really shows that the Playstation 2 has some tricks left.  It’s made all the more impressive by the sheer size of the levels and architectural detail.  The inclusion of 60hz and progressive scan options, rounds off a formidable package, but a game needs more than just visuals to sell these days.

Primal’s main strength for me is the story, which can so often lift a release above merely average.  We all crave for an engrossing story, with twists, revelations, characters and decent voice acting.   Not only that, but the game posses atmosphere, thanks to the dark and brooding setting and effective use of music.  Duos are becoming more popular in releases and Primal offers the best usage yet.  Jen has her expanding demon qualities whilst Scree is able to climb walls and posses statues – although it must be said only certain walls and statues.  This feature is well implemented and again lifts the game above the likes of Shadowman or Soul Reaver.

My overall feeling is a huge adventure such as Primal suffers because there are no distractions from the by the numbers game play.  The variety of kingdoms and demon abilities are solid enough but the progression is entirely linear.  If only the same level of planning went into the game dynamics as the programming, then we’d have something truly memorable.      To get any satisfaction from Primal takes a great deal of effort and compassion, and this price will be too high for some of us.

Graphics – 10

Sound – 9

Presentation – 9

Lastability – 7

Gameplay – 6

Gamestyle Score  – 6

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Gamestyle Archive Intro: earlier this year we brought you the Metal Gear Solid 2 preview and now we’re pleased to complete the journey with the review from Dan Kelly. This dates from November 2001.

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For many, this would’ve been the game that first made them purchase Sony’s little black box, and it was also one of the deciders for me as well. With the first trailers of Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece causing waves of interest and excitement throughout the gaming world, it was hard for anyone not to get engulfed within the hype surrounding what was, and is one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of all time. But there are many amongst us who feel that during the games development it has been somewhat over hyped, and overexposed, with newer, more plot revealing trailers arriving free with other Konami titles and on magazine dvd’s, I myself also found it hard trying not to lose interest over the 1 and a half year gap between the release of the first trailer and the release of the game.

Now the big question…was it all worth it? Read on. At the time I got this game, I also had Final Fantasy X to deal with, so unfortunately MGS2 had to take a back seat. Arriving at a rather difficult point in the new Squaresoft epic, I thought it was about time to take a break and try another game, and decided to delve into MGS2. The first hour or so didn’t seem all that astounding at first, yes it was very pretty, and the rain was nice etc. etc. but we had seen and played most of this early part of the game months before, in the form of trailers and Zone of Enders’ playable demo. But as soon as you start playing parts of the game that weren’t in the demo, it all gets interesting, and from then on never ceases to hold ones attention. It was at this point that FFX had to take the back seat.

Anyone who has played the previous incarnation in a series that will last for a long time no doubt, will most likely agree with me, that although not the longest title ever produced, showed the signs of a true espionage masterpiece. Stealth, precision aim, button mashing, and puzzle solving played large roles in the game. But it wasn’t a straight through all out killing affair, there were more than enough opportunities to enjoy oneself, like sneaking up on the urinating guard in the toilet and strapping C4 to his back, standing in front of a guard in the stealth suit, and suddenly revealing yourself before once again disappearing into thin air. These opportunities to mock the highly trained enemy still lurk around, shooting him in the head with a tranquilliser gun many times, then taking a photo for your own personal album, touching the posters of ladies in perverse ways, alerting any nearby enemies, as well as many others which I have undoubtedly been unable to find thus far. But amongst all this tomfoolery lurked a deep engrossing storyline, with more twists than lasts years Levi’s dealers. Friends turn out to be enemies, and enemies turn out to be friends.

Metal Gear Solid, set in Alaska, has you out in the freezing weather as Solid Snake. On a mission to rescue important people, and to stop whoever gets in your goddam way. As it turned out, you had to stop a large mechanic monster, save potential love interests, all the stuff you’d expect in everyday life for a man with immense rubber pectorals. Back once again is the renegade master… Yup, MGS2 heralds the return of Mr. Rubber pecs ’98, after another metallic monstrosity. You start off on what appears to be an ordinary oil tanker cruising along one of America’s seaboards, but hidden deep within its steel shell is a newly developed nuclear weapon. Along the way you’ll meet some new characters as well as loved, and not so loved old ones such as Ocelot and Otacon. But as incredibly hard and styly Snake is, you spend most of the entirety of the game as Raiden, the nu kid on da block. But Snake is never far from the action. Alas I could sit here and tell you about the storyline until you knew all the monologues and mushy love chat as well as I, but I’d hate to spoil such a game as this for anyone, go out and check it out yourself.

Graphically, well what else can you say other than breathtaking? No detail has been spared, everything is how you would want it to be, bottles smash as bullets fly, fire hydrants spew out there contents when ruptured, wet footprints, everything is there. But by far one of the greatest inclusions, and a fairly surprising one when discovered, is plummeting to your death, after accidentally slipping on bird faeces. Rain drops glisten on the floor, swimming fast under water causes air bubbles to get trapped against the screen, cold causes Raiden/Snake to sneeze. I could go on about the graphical detail, and amount of scenery interaction all day, but ill summarise by saying that it is simply superb, (simply superb: somewhat of an oxymoron wouldn’t you say?)

The music has been composed by Mr. Gregson Williams, of Enemy of the State fame, it adds atmosphere with a military touch. Suitably heroic at such times, and tear jerkingly saddening at others. The voiceovers, as you’d expect have returned, and like FFX’s, add another dimension to the characters, a true sense of realness, to what usually in other games, just seem like characters within a game. I know there aren’t many voiceover fans out there, who can blame them with examples such as Grandia. But without this, games like FFX and MGS2 wouldn’t seem as engrossing or realistic, and have been well done in both titles. All sound affects and music are truly treats to the ears. Gameplay is much the same as the first, in fact its pretty much identical, shooting, running and the like, are performed in the same way as the last, but the developers have made good use of the pressure sensitive PS2 pads, instead of having to shoot whenever you aim, slowly and gently releasing your “trigger” finger causes Snake/Raiden to lower his gun, and not waste a single round. There’s a new first person mode, for pulling off those one-kill headshots with your socom, running jumps and much more. Scaring guards into giving up items, or their dog tags, snapping necks, and beefing up with some pull ups, all done with the greatest of ease and enjoyment.

Longevity is normally where a game of 12 hours or so storyline wise would lose marks. But there is a lot more to do than just following the linear path. You can get on the codec and have long interesting, although occasionally irrelevant conversations with some of the characters, try and find all 360 odd dog tags, throughout the various difficulties, and much, much more. And not forgetting the replay value of the game, you’ll wanna play it again and again. Well I would like to anyway.

Overall, well, what else is there to say, truly astounding. Not tarnished at all by all the hype, and truly worth the wait. It does get a tad weird towards the end, but that’s intentional, and all is explained. Some of the explanations and cut scenes tend to waffle, using long technical terms and military mumbo jumbo. Relating with the characters is unavoidable, and having fun with the hapless guards is as well. Get out there, buy this game, and have some fun, but wipe the dust away first. Now i’m going to go hang from the landing ledge wait for my sister to walk under, then drop down and snap her scrawny little neck, before following my brother to the toilet in order to strap a plastic explosive to his back. Wish me luck!

Gamestyle Score: 9/10