Armored Core 2 Another Age

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Ollie was our resident mecha expert initially direct from Japan before returning to the UK. During that time we had comprehensive reviews, interviews and features from Japan including the Tokyo Game Show. This NTSC review dates from sometime in 2001.

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Sequels are all fine and dandy, but cashing in on a sequel just seems a tad cheeky surely. Armored Core 2 Another Age falls into this slightly capitalist category. Set directly after the events of Armored Core 2, the Nerves Concord is undergoing drastic changes and the purpose of the Ravens is becoming less and less clear, now that the warring corporate factions have exhausted their resources. More importantly, we are back on Earth now, or what is left of it.

Armored Core 2 is a bad game. Armored Core 2 Another Age is, therefore, an equally bad game. On the surface, this is true to a certain extent. However, for all the game’s faults, Armored Core 2 Another Age has a few surprising tricks up its mechanical sleeve. Armored Core 2 Another Age is a mission based game through and through. The Arena has gone, but in its place are double the number of missions(about a 100). Mission selection is done by navigating a world map. The further you progress through the game the more parts of the map, and consequently more missions, you unlock. Another big development for the series is that of the game’s difficulty. It is hard, damn hard. Many veterans of the series may recognise the return of old foes, but in the original games they were easily conquered. In Armored Core 2 Another Age they will hand you your battered metal ass on many an occasion. Even the regular missions are tough too. Thankfully the use of parts (and money!) that you acquired in Armored Core 2 are transferable. So unless you want a hard fight ahead of you, purchasing of the previous incarnation will be a must for most players.

It goes without saying that unbalanced parts have been, partially, tweaked. The Karasawa Mk.2 is not quite the cheese fest that it was in Armored Core 2. There are also a swathe of new parts too particularly the “turn booster” extensions, which are a welcome addition to the franchise. It is also worth noting that all the parts from Armored Core 2 are instantly available in the shop (even the secret parts). “Human Plus” is also present, but only if you have transferred it across with your original Armored Core 2 game save. The game also includes, in the Japanese release at least, direct dial Modem VS. In short, you dial into a friend’s PlayStation2, or vice versa, and battle it out. The lag is pretty poor though and you need a USB modem in order for it to work. Another interesting addition is Mission VS. This is, essentially, two player missions where you can either be friend or foe. Unfortunately there are only a few missions available in this category. The fact that you cannot choose from the 100 or so missions available feels, to this reviewer anyway, like a lost opportunity. Naturally iLink VS is still available, for those with the requisite hardware anyway.

Despite the sub-par game engine, Armored Core 2 Another Age still has its own bad points. The loss of in-game e-mail is particularly unfortunate, simply because there is very little left to explain the intricate narrative (of which there is a lot). Another bad point is that of the loss of the Arena. Admittedly the large number of missions available partly counteracts this but most veterans will realise that the Arena is the perfect testbed for new designs (the “AC Test” simply doesn’t cut it), and it’s absence will be sorely missed by those who take their mecha tweaking seriously. In closing, Armored Core 2 Another Age tried to innovate but fell short due to a now defunct game engine. Admittedly the graphics have been, marginally, improved but Armored Core 2 Another Age is merely more of the same which, in this case, is not a very good thing. If you liked Armored Core 2 then pick up Armored Core 2 Another Age, otherwise wait for Armored Core 3.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Chris takes to the ring with a ferocious yell and this review from November 2002.

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RRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!! Said the angry Panda, representing himself in court, and lo and behold Vince McMahon’s ass was royaly kicked. The Panda, with his chums the lesser spotted marmoset and the dodo are threatening to stop the previous efforts in the Smackdown series (using the WWF name) because they’re milking their fanbase like Mrs Panda milks her young.

Wrestling is still and always has been popular. The origins are in the competive and physical legends of Greece and Rome, through Europe to America, but only since the inception of the WWE has the ‘sport’ been transformed into a global franchise. I’m aware that wrestling has its fans. In truth, I’m not one of them, so for this review I’ll start by using semiologist Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) to help. Why is it relevant? you rightly ask- well, his work involved analysing the context of language use, and in the first essay in Mythologies he uses wrestling to begin his case: “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle… there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight… the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” Barthes wrote in 1950’s France, but the concept still seems relevant today, where the various shows of the WWE mix wrestling with soap operatic narrative arcs and plots to gain a captive audience.

That audience laps up the Smackdown series like a baby bearcub laps at his lukewarm porridge, as so here we are on the fourth title. I’ve only played WWE games sparingly in the last few years. In my cupboard I find a dusty copy of Championship Wrestling by Epyx: “The action is fast, fun and very, very realistic” said C&VG. I remember it being slower than a snail on gravel and only concerned with waggling my joystick. The leap forward that Smackdown 4 takes not just from that but the PS wrestling games is monumental. On a presentation level it rivals FIFA for the quality of the facsimile. Start a career mode and play through a season: watch how the camera angles and introductions almost exactly mirror the TV series. The graphics are great on close ups where the wrestlers, or ‘Superstars’ as they want to be known have been acutely digitised. There are some overlapping issues where arms that should go under heads end up going straight through them, and the creation of a decent audience will only be achieved on machines more powerful than the current crop, yet overall there are few gripes to be had. The animation and fluidity of the wrestlers is mostly great although some movement is a bit slow.

The main problem with wrestling games is that if someone is pummelling you into the canvas, there is little you can do about it. The normal difficulty setting should pose few problems for experienced players, so the hard and smackdown settings will push your special moves and your patience. It does feel as though the moves are generated by random button pressing, though this method does create a good number of different moves that you can pull off, and spectacular they are too. Kicks, holds, piledrivers, throws, each more elaborate than the other. There are an enormous variety of gaming modes for you to indulge in, from royal rumble to cage matches through to last man standing, triple threat tag & fatal 4 way. All use the same rules and all offer a significant shift in rules or structure to merit inclusion, although some work better than others.

All the ‘superstars’ are present and correct, from Mr Nanny star ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan, Scotty 2 Hotty, stereotypical Brit William Regal, thwarter of smugglers The Hardy Boyz, a few busty wimmin and of course the king of the camp expression himself, The Rock. If you think that these lycra-clad lads are far too hetrosexual for you, then you can design your own in the create-a-wrestler feature. It’s easy to do and comprensive, but the loading times are unnecessarily long. The music is effective but the selection of tracks is very small, although thankfully one of them is Marilyn Manson’s excellent Beautiful People. The sound effects are atmospheric, the crunch of chair upon skull or of flab on canvas makes your actions more enjoyable.

Even more enjoyable is the appearence of a multitap, as the multiplayer aspect is head and shoulders above the single player mode. Overall, Smackdown 4 is probably the most impressive wrestling game I’ve played. Barthes never played Smackdown, let alone watched it, but I’m sure he’d appreciate the spectacle recreated, although that’s more Baudrillard territory. Anyway, the worst thing about the game is the title, which echoes the somewhat vile attitude of the WWE series itself, or the incredibly annoying way it uses ‘decision’ instead of ‘yes’. Despite this, I enjoyed it, though the longevity will really stem from being a fan or having a bunch of mates around. The package is far more comprehensive than WWE Wrestlemania and is more than enough to satisfy the pseudo-bloodlust of any WWE smackhead.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

NBA Jam

Gamestyle Archive intro: its always a delight to bring you a debut writer into the archive and here’s another with Gopinath Chandran giving us his verdict on NBA Jam from September 2003.

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Some of Gamestyle’s favourite childhood sayings were, “Is it the shoes?” and “BOOMSHAKALAKA!” And now the game that brought the world those sayings returns for its first incarnation on the Playstation 2. But does the veteran franchise still retain the magic on court? Originally an arcade game, <i>NBA Jam</i> hasn’t lost any of its arcade feel in the conversion to home console.

NBA Jam has done away with a lot of basketball’s rules – including back-passing, the three-second rule and even the number of players on each team. Reduced from five (on each team) to three-on-three games, NBA Jam doesn’t try to be a basketball simulator. Instead, it replaces them with huge, impossible dunks and super-quick gameplay. The game is easy to learn and electrifying to play. Within a few minutes, you’ll be performing awesome dunks and flashy passing moves. The rules are simple basketball ones (which just about everyone knows): two points for getting the ball in the net – from inside ‘the key’ – and three points from outside. Players can perform the normal moves and tricks, shots, fakes, spins and even alley-oops (where one player throws the ball towards the basket and another player dunks it in).

True to its arcade roots, there’s a turbo button – which gives players a minor power-up for a few seconds at a time. They can suddenly run faster and shoot better, and shove opposition players to the ground (which is legal in NBA Jam). Manage to get three consecutive shots in, and your player is now ‘on fire’; while in this state, his stats are maximised and he has unlimited turbo for sixty seconds. He can also perform even more outrageous dunks and shoot from just about anywhere. The only way to douse his ‘fire’ early is if the other team makes a basket. But these are all features that were in the older incarnations of the game. One of the new additions this time is the inclusion of ‘hot spots’. Each team has a Jam Meter that needs to be filled; Jam Points are awarded for scoring points, dunks, three-point shots, alley-oops (or basically, by just being great on court). Once the meter is full, you can press R3 to place a hot spot on the court. If you take a shot from the hot spot, your player makes a gravity-defying shot. With each hot spot, your score goes up in value – but so does the number of points needed to fill the Jam Meter; making it increasingly difficult to get a hot spot as the game progresses.

There are three modes of play on offer in NBA Jam: a standard Exhibition mode, where you can take on the computer (or a friend) in a one-off 3 on 3 match; Tournament, in which you take on each of the 29 modern NBA teams to become the “Jam Champion”; and finally (and perhaps uniquely), a Legend’s mode. In Legend’s mode, you take a modern team back in time to challenge the best NBA teams of the old-school generation. The graphics even change to reflect the era; adopting a grainy black-and-white TV style. The courts change to the old type of courts, and the (Legend) players can be seen wearing authentic ‘short’ shorts. Who likes short shorts? Legends do, apparently. Generally-speaking, the graphics are only bog-standard (and could even be described as outdated). The player models are good, although some people might find them a little too ‘cartoony’. The player movements and animations aren’t really up to much and are a little choppy.

The sounds are good; although the commentator is funny the first time around, he quickly becomes very, very repetitive over the course of even one match. The music is typically urban and entertaining, and creates that much-needed B-ball atmosphere. Extra features include a create-a-player mode, unlockable characters and a Jam Store. This allows you to spend points earned through playing the game on extras such as outfits and player’s accessories (and even outdoor courts). NBA Jam’s main selling-points are the easy-to-master controls and frenetic gameplay – but as well as it does these things, it also fails in many other areas. Major ones. While the graphics, player movement and animation are all quite functional, what really lets the side down is the AI. Your team-mates cope quite well offensively – independently creating alley-oop opportunities – but on defence they sometimes just stand around, allowing the opposition team to dribble right by them. And they also rarely try to grab the defensive rebound – leaving the opposition to pick up the ball after missed shots.

Although the controls are well thought out, trying to steal the ball away from an opponent is very difficult; reducing it to a combination of button-bashing and praying. Much of the game’s enjoyment comes from your first few goes, or from multiplayer. You have the option of playing with a friend (against the computer) or playing against each other. However, playing with a friend quickly gets old as two players can often destroy the computer-controlled team. With the return of NBA Jam comes the return of pick-up-and-play gameplay and quick, fast-paced (and exciting) basketball entertainment. However, it is also accompanied by lacklustre AI, repetitive commentary and a short lifespan. Casual basketball fans will probably find a great week’s worth of entertainment in this – and committed fans will love the Legend’s mode – but for a longer lasting challenge they’re better off looking elsewhere. “Is it the shoes?” No – it’s mostly the (unsatisfactory) AI.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

The Simpsons: Hit and Run

Gamestyle Archive Intro: older formats were littered with poor licensed titles and I do remember this Simpsons cash-in having limited appeal; it certainly wasn’t too bad compared to what we were used to.  This review dates from December 2003 and is from Gareth.

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In recent memory, The Simpsons’ licence has been tacked onto just about any old piece of tat going – from the ‘alleged’ ripping-off of the Crazy Taxi formula to rubbish wrestling games. In fact, the last time The Simpsons got a proper run-out into the world of gaming goodness was way back in the day of 8-bit gaming, with platformer Bart vs. The Space Mutants.

The latest effort comes in the form of a Grand Theft Auto-inspired game (Simpsons’ Manhunt anyone?), which on the surface may seem a strange choice (and a fair few changes have been made to keep everything from getting too violent). So, GTA without the violence in a PG-rated Simpsons’ world… dear lord, what have we let ourselves in for? The Simpsons: Hit and Run may well be a copy of yet another popular and commercially viable formula (with a tacked-on gimmick), but it would be harsh to dismiss the title out of hand. In reality, Hit and Run only borrows certain things from GTA, but otherwise bears little resemblance to Rockstar North’s classic title.

The game sets players a number of missions in prescribed areas – driving from one place to another – and driving somewhere else is generally all that is needed to complete these tasks. There is little in the way of the on-foot sections found in GTA, and even the driving missions are only recognisable in an abstract sense. Each area of the game has players controlling one of The Simpsons brood, as they go about their driving tasks. Once a set number of missions have been completed, it’s onto the next area where a different member of the family does much the same. While there are things to do apart from the main missions, the freedom offered by other titles in this genre really shows up Hit and Run; indeed, apart from looking for collectible cards and the odd hidden gag event to trigger, there is not much else worth aimlessly wandering the streets of Springfield to find. This hampers the long-term appeal of the title, as the missions will only take the experienced gamer a couple of days to get through. However, for what the game strives to do, it does relatively well.

The Springfield environment is well represented, with everything more or less where it should be – and recognisable characters from the series all make themselves available at one point or another. The handling of the cars is very much in the realms of arcade-like, but the vehicles handle well and generally do what you want them to. At least this time around the basics have been delivered in a competent fashion – something that cannot be said of almost every other Simpsons’ title in recent years. Unfortunately, there is just not enough to make the game a worthwhile purchase in its own right. After the first few areas missions begin to feel repetitive, and moments of trademark humour come far too infrequently to keep players wanting to press on and see what happens next. This, coupled with the fact that most missions seem to have nothing to do with the overall plot (and that the plot is so dull that you do not care anyway), only pulls the title further down into the realms of the exceedingly average.

For fans of the series, there is the odd bit of replay value – new costumes and vehicles can be purchased, and there is always the hope that the next gag event will actually amount to something more than simply falling over or blowing up. For truly diehard fans, there is an unseen episode of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon to be bought – once all the collectible cards have been found. Apart from these odds and sods, there is little else here apart from the samey missions; even going on a wild spree of knocking down innocent people holds little reward as the cops simply come and fine you (before letting you loose again). Also, due to the licence needing to have ‘gratuitous’ violence removed, there are no guns to be found – so, unless you want to go around kicking people along the pavement, it all wears thin rather quickly.

Overall, The Simpsons: Hit and Run is both a surprise and a disappointment. It is nice to see a Simpsons game that is finally worth playing – unfortunately, it is only worth playing for a few hours because anything after that sends the player tailspinning into a cul-de-sac of repetition. The basic gameplay and dynamics have been implemented well, but is that really enough in this day and age? Well, critically it isn’t – but it does bring hope that one day a truly great Simpsons’ game will come crashing through the creative barriers. Until then, it’s back to Bart Vs The Space Mutants on the old (8-bit) pavement… or Bart’s Escape from Camp Deadly (on the Gameboy).

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Gamestyle Archive Intro: a fine reboot of a classic gaming series and an excellent review from Daniel James. Very few games received a 9, never mind a 10, at Gamestyle. So when the site gave out such a score, you knew that it was going to be a high quality gaming experience.

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It’s been eight years since Lara Croft set foot into her first temple, in what was to become one of the finest examples of precise traversal through 3D space. The marriage of preset movements, cleverly-structured environments and wide range of manoeuvres gave Tomb Raider (and its audience) a unique sense of spatial awareness that no amount of ‘Lara-pimping’ from Eidos has ever managed to recapture. Basically put; 3D games got lazy.

Gamestyle only brings up the legendary Tomb Raider as an example, because it’s clear to see how Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia update continues with the ideals and themes of Core Design’s original vision. Indeed, if Tomb Raider was the natural progression of the original Prince of Persia motif, then The Sands of Time is the genre evolved. The Prince, son of King Shahraman, has acquired a magic Dagger; a mystical artefact that uses sand to control the fabric of Time. An unfortunate accident occurs when he is tricked by The Vizier (a traitor to the Maharajah’s service) into unlocking the Sands of Time from the Forbidden Hourglass, which proceed to devour the souls of the inhabitants of this medieval Persian kingdom. Thanks to the magical Dagger of Time, the Prince is able to avert death (by rewinding time to undo any further unfortunate accidents) or to wreak it (by thrusting it into the now-soulless evil inhabitants of the palace). But use of the dagger is secondary to the core dynamic of the game, which thankfully, is one of the most solid Gamestyle has ever come across.

There have been very few games that offer a sense of place like The Sands of Time does. Structured into individual rooms/sections, the Prince must navigate a series of environmental hazards laid out in precise arrangements that match his abilities perfectly. Much like the original Tomb Raider did, you can walk into a room and immediately recognise the route you will need to take based on what you know you can achieve. However, where Prince of Persia ‘evolves’ the idea is in the fluidity of how it all occurs: Lara was rigid – both her physicality and her personality. Precise as she may have moved, there was no panache, no style, no fluidity. You knew where you stood because she wouldn’t go anywhere else. Walk, run, stop, roll; all computationally preset. The nimble Prince doesn’t suffer from any such ‘robotics’. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal have done an exceptional job in taking Tomb Raider’s basic mechanics and articulating movement that fluently disguises the computational gymnastics. Ledges, precipices, swing bars, pillar columns, pits – all are positioned at precise distances from each other, as if to assure the player that their jumps, runs, climbs and swings will solidly connect. And they do; consistently.

Prince of Persia allows you to look effortlessly cool, running up walls, back-flipping, rolling, swinging and grabbing, all performed with style and precision. Indeed, it often feels as though the Prince knows exactly what you want to do even before you do. A tiny misalignment here and there will be ignored in favour of properly executing the desired move. Wall runs can be linked into jumps, jumps into grabs, grabs into swings, swings into jumps and jumps back into the perfect landing. Of course you’ll always run into the occasional problem, be that due to the (very rarely) obscured camera or simply a misjudged distance; but this is where the aforementioned Dagger comes into play and offsets any minor frustrations. When filled with sand, a tap of the L1 button triggers a ‘time rewind’ function (complete with impressive visual warping effect). Holding the button for a maximum of ten seconds can rewind your fate until you’ve sufficiently reached a safe section of your timeline. In this respect, any slight (and Gamestyle means slight) risk to the tentative nature of acrobatics can be overcome – or rather, your fear of them can be – by ‘undoing’ them. This encourages the player to take more risks than perhaps they normally would.

Considering the control and environments are so finely-tuned in the first place, the added bonus of less risky manoeuvrability places Prince of Persia into the upper reaches of classic game design. Where Prince of Persia chiefly differs from Tomb Raider is in its modular level structure. Though linked together throughout, the environment puzzles are very much self-contained in relatively small areas. Furthermore, a tap of the L2 button zooms the camera out to show a ‘landscape’ view of the current area – extremely useful for getting one’s head around the spatial puzzles. Another (far more noticeable) area where it differs is in the way combat works. ‘Works’ may not be a generous enough synonym for the combat system.

Unlike the Croftian method of draw-and-shoot, the Prince uses the more traditional sword (and dagger) weapon for close-range brawling, but borrows stylistically from contemporary sources such as The Matrix. The Prince can jab, slice and block (as you’d expect), but also launches and flips himself over enemies’ heads by running up and over them – flipping in mid-air and landing behind them, bringing his weapon down on their unsuspecting rears. He can also use the environment to his advantage, performing various wall-launched attacks (as well as rolling sideways or flipping backwards to safety). All this is performed with the same ease and agility of normal movement, and is very satisfying to watch. The Dagger is the only means of permanently dispatching undead foes, as thrusting it into their downed bodies absorbs the sand within them – and fuels the very dagger used to defeat them. And then there is the two-character dynamic, as mirrored by Sony’s own ‘Ico’. But rather than being a helpless and fragile angel, Farah (daughter of a conquered Indian Maharajah) is quite skilful at running and jumping herself (though not to the same degree as the Prince), and adept at using her bow for self-defense. Her presence is frequently required at signposted areas, and thankfully, the AI routines that govern her actions are solid (along with some tightly-scripted dialogue).

Prince of Persia doesn’t skimp on the graphics-side, either. In addition to the very solid character models are the natural-looking environments which feature swaying palm trees, crumbling stone balconies, and reflective rippling water. A luminescent glow constantly emanates from everything, and a rustic haze overlays every scene. The effect is quite beautiful, even before the supplementary zoom and special effects. The sound, whilst atmospheric, can sometimes be a little too quiet. Voice-overs aren’t as clear and crisp as you might expect, and music is either totally absent or quietly ambient rather than pronounced – but all sound is more or less above-board and quite in keeping with the atmosphere.

Ubisoft have presented this game extremely well; the tale – as narrated by our hero (in well-spoken Princely tones) – is paused, interrupted and continued, as if the story was being told in retrospect. When death occurs, the Prince will stop and correct himself on the misrepresentation of events, and when you save your progress, he informs you that the story will continue from there next time. Those save points (displayed as pillars of sand from the ground) trigger a future vision, showing the area ahead in vague glimpses, giving you some idea of what to expect between there and the next save point. This method of storytelling (and being led by the hand) gives Prince of Persia an almost linear structure, however in this instance, such a form is wholly welcomed. There is no getting lost at any time, no wandering without aim; just sequences of superbly-crafted 3D environmental puzzles and combat situations – and although a little on the short side, it is long enough to keep you enthralled but ends before boredom has any chance to set in. Forget the (forgettable) Angel of Darkness. Lara needs to be laid to rest in her last tomb; The Prince of Persia is everything that Eidos’ once illustrious heroine had sought to become (and more besides). It is one of the finest 3D games ever produced; nay crafted. At last, this is the ‘third place’… this truly is the third dimension. History has just been rewritten.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

A Dog’s Life

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Chris reviews a unique gaming experience with A Dog’s Life that dates from the end of 2003. They don’t make them like this, now, before or any time soon.

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A Dog’s Life is one of the few games where the protagonist can openly defecate and urinate on the surroundings. Had a certain Dave Mirra been a bit more rebellious, of course, then this might not be the case. Gamestyle wonders who else’s mind went all scatological when told of a game centred in the ‘realistic’ world where you control one of man’s best friends.

You play as Jake, a lovable hound who was nearly dog-napped by two imbecilic dog catchers. Unfortunately, despite failing to nab you, they’ve stolen your bitch. So you’ve got to rescue her by tracking down those pesky catchers and doing things that only animals (and Tom Green) would do. Let’s start out by congratulating Frontier, the development team fronted by David Braben (co-creator of the classic Elite) for actually getting to create and (more importantly) publish something slightly unusual. And we’ll continue by looking at how you play as a dog. There are two views that are interchanged; a third-person (sic) view and a first-person (sic) view known as ‘Smell-o-vision’, where you see the world like the pedigree chums do – through the medium of smell. Thankfully smells are colour-coded, which may not be biologically accurate, but this is a small concession to make for gameplay.

In the levels – based around the village of Clarksville, the snow resort of Minniwahwah, and the urban sprawl of Boom City – you need to use your Smell-o-vision to track down different scents. The largest volume of scent will get you a bone as a reward, while others will enable you to compete in a selection of mini-games involving the dog relative to that level. The mini-games mix between the energetic (chasing) the rather obvious (repeat the sequence) and the scatological (marking your territory – need Gamestyle say more?). Each level has a mixture of smells and direct missions. Certain humans require some doggy power to help them out; like the boy whose toy helicopter is on the roof, or the farmer with a fox problem. Jake can’t do all the missions required, so after you win a mini-game the local hound will allow you to take control of its body and perform tasks on Jake’s behalf.

Although the body-changing isn’t an especially innovative idea, the way that it’s incorporated into the gameplay is excellent. There is a problem of structure, however – as you may find a certain scent on beginning a level, complete the mini-game and are now in control of a dog with a time limit, but without knowing what to do. Maybe the stone-cold sober approach would be to find the 50 purple scents from every level (if you will, the ‘common scents’) – thus completing the levels – then moving onto the other colours. The flaw could be that you’re thinking like a dog; running about like a rocket on wheels. That isn’t even a major flaw in the game. Arguably, it is the repetitive nature that will put off more experienced gamers, though former fans of platformers will find some solace here. The puzzle aspect is well-judged, and a sense of reward is pleasing.

The game does have considerable charm, and is pleasant to play (a compliment, by the way), which is not only down to some well-written one-liners, but also to the music. The score is excellent; comprised of lo-fi instrumental – almost chill-out tracks – utilising guitars and some marvellous xylophone sounds. It’s very relaxing. The flaw would be the size of the game. Whilst not exactly explorable, the levels can be gotten through fairly swiftly and there are no multiplayer options. Completion in a week will be easy, and although not every bone will have been unearthed – nor every scent unearthed – with no multiplayer, A Dog’s Life barks ‘Rental!’ more than anything else. It feels petty so late in a review to bring up graphical issues, yet there are many here that do nothing to damage the game, but enough to diminish the experience of exploring this world. Although not vital, when creativity conjures up an atmosphere such as this, the small infractions are noticed. The memory card save is also rather hefty, taking nearly one-sixth of a memory card.

As an experience, as well as a smartly-written and smartly-presented game, A Dog’s Life is a great example of off-beat European software. Gamestyle greatly enjoyed being Jake for a while, and hopes that more imaginative titles will come around. However, kids – the doggy game is more for Christmas, and not for ‘life’.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Ghosthunter

Gamestyle Archive Intro: a visually strong title but beneath the luxurious hood was a Lada car crash of a game. This review is from December 2003 and JJ.

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Only a few Playstation 2 releases can hold their ground against SCEE Cambridge’s Primal, for it was a showboating and technical extravaganza. Admittedly, it did have its flaws as a playing experience, but a little frustration can make for a satisfying journey none the less. Now, only a year has elapsed and Ghosthunter has arrived from the same team; can experience make for an improved adventure?

Set in Detroit, you take the role of Lazarus Jones (originally based on Fight Club’s Tyler Durden), a young cop only on his first week of the job. Called out to a reported disturbance at an abandoned high school, Lazarus and his partner (Anna Steel) make a chilling discovery linked to the infamous murders (which had forced the school to be abandoned). Before Lazarus can comprehend events, he is forced into the role of Ghosthunter as a means to save his partner. By visiting specific locations through special gates, Lazarus has to clear each area of ghostly spirits whilst hot on the trail of Professor Richmond (see our preview for more information). This allows SCEE Cambridge to call upon a variety of unique levels, from the typical Shadowman-influenced Deep South, to the more intimate confines of a ghost ship.

Only when you see titles of this calibre in action (Primal included) do you realise what the Playstation 2 is capable of – given its escalating years. However, SCEE Cambridge proves yet again what is possible with a little talent and investment; on several occasions, Gamestyle had to stop and re-evaluate what system the game was being played on. Ghosthunter maintains the aura of a high-specification PC release that overshadows most Xbox and Gamecube titles. Detailed environments, clear surroundings, fluid animation, exceptional lighting effects and much more – this is a technical demonstration (aka ‘showboat’) of how to program for the system. Unfortunately, a videogame is not specifically designed to hang in a modern art museum; it’s an interactive tool created to stimulate, experience and enjoy. This is where the gloss of Ghosthunter begins to wear thin rapidly. As with Primal and many other releases, today it’s the basics that are poorly-implemented.

Gamestyle will begin its critique with the camera, which has been improved somewhat since the ECTS demo we’d played previously; however it is still very erratic and headache-inducing. At times, the camera doesn’t know which angle or position to take up – often veering too close to Lazarus, giving an almost first-person view. The facility to override such devious tracking is welcome, but only serves to highlight just how much (manual) salvaging is required. The problems continue apace with the control system, which is convoluted and extremely taxing – especially during confrontations. Add together the annoyance factor of controls and camera, and Gamestyle soon pines for Primal. While the levels are gloriously detailed, the route through each is the perfect depiction of linear. An example of this is the “buddy” dynamic – otherwise known as Astral – which can only be activated at predetermined points (as opposed to Soul Reaver, for example, which uses the same principle to populate two worlds). This makes for a predictable journey that fails to push the player in all but one direction.

Every so often Lazarus will reach a dead end that requires some form of action to resolve. Bizarrely, there are no real clues to each solution; the only practical way of overcoming obstacles is by calling up your gun-sights and scanning the environment (effectively looking for something that turns the sight red). SCEE Cambridge has tried to develop a more elaborate combat system than the one used in Primal, which only required a lock-on function and hit button. The move has not been successful. The difficulty not only lies in switching weapons (shoulder button and analogue stick) but in defeating the various types of ghosts – albeit some of which are exquisitely-designed. A stealth element too has been tragically realised; while Lazarus appears comfortable with slinking beside walls, most weaponry (such as the sniper rifle) requires a first-person view to be activated.

Unfortunately, this action is rendered useless, as Lazarus cannot move whilst in it – therefore, to make a shot the Ghosthunter has to expose himself to fire. With all of these elements in play, Ghosthunter can be testing even at the best of times. The limited availability of health and ghost ammunition pick-ups, combined with continent-spanning checkpoints, makes for a troubling game. The Achilles heel comes in the form of ‘transparent’ ghostly AI, which allows Lazarus to back off to a safe distance (or height) before picking off each hapless foe. Alternatively, where the game excels is through the utilisation of the Dolby Pro-Logic II soundtrack, which creates a disturbing atmosphere in perfect partnership with events on screen. Sound effects, chilling voices and passable voice-acting builds upon an engaging tale that is fraught with an air of tension.

Regardless of the strong visuals and design, Ghosthunter only feels like a half-hearted attempt, and a flawed one at that. If only SCEE Cambridge could harness a playable concept alongside its customary technical flair, then we’d have something rather special. A ‘spooky’ thought.

Gamestyle Score: 4/10

Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain

Gamestyle Archive intro: This review from Gareth includes a dedication at the end and dates from November 2003.

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Wrestling is a strange beast – most people simply don’t understand the appeal; for the rest of the world it provides an entertaining spectacle that simply cannot be matched by your average episode of East Enders or Coronation Street. Imagine how much more entertaining an episode of the popular cockney soap would be if in one episode Phil Mitchell and Dot Cotton started hitting each other with steel chairs before both were power-bombed through a table by an angry Alfie Moon – now that’s entertainment! Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain is the fifth instalment in the generally excellent Smackdown series; instead of resting on its laurels, THQ have seen fit to try and develop the franchise through a number of changes to the core gameplay. A very brave move, considering Smackdown! already contained possibly the most flexible fighting system available in a wrestling title – this, along with a few new additions, means the revision bears less resemblance to its predecessors than many were expecting.

The first thing that grabs you upon booting the game is how much the graphics have improved. Characters are far more detailed than before and feel a lot more solid when moving and fighting. This is a good thing, although Gamestyle feels this may have contributed to issues regarding the roster and some of the superstars’ entrance music. However, THQ were always onto a loser in terms of inclusions this time round, because the two brands of Smackdown! and RAW have split; meaning the roster is divided straight down the middle. This leads to ‘sub-par’ superstars being involved in minor storylines and, despite a roster of over fifty-five wrestlers, there are still a number of glaring omissions – most noticeably, women’s champion Molly Holly; ex-tag champion La Resistance; and the world’s strongest man Mark Henry, to name a few.

Problems also exist with music on the superstars’ entrances; some of it is very dated, and particularly suffers through loss of lyrical content – leading Gamestyle to believe that corners were cut during development. Perhaps it would be unfair to lay these problems squarely at THQ’s feet, because it relates moreover to limitations placed upon the ageing PS2 hardware, which it must be said, delivers to the best of its abilities – once you have explored what is actually in the game. Spurious and cosmetic concerns aside, almost everything that matters in the game has been improved; the grapple system has been updated, and though it feels strange at first, soon proves more flexible than before – allowing players to have a greater idea of what sort of move they are going to pull off in the heat of battle. A further improvement is evident in the way superstars’ attributes are applied; now there is a huge difference between a lumbering big man and a nimble small man, and if a weaker character tries to lift a heavyweight it will physically be prevented – likely injuring their backs and ending in (animated) pain. A nice touch.

Other noticeable improvements with the physics engine sees players prone to taking damage upon specific areas of the body. This helps with both submission-holds and also limits the movement range of your opponent. Injure someone’s head badly enough and a well-placed blow will see the superstar bleed – not massively, but enough to inspire organic belief that realism is flowing through the title’s gaming marrow. Additionally, Gamestyle is delighted with the improvements made to the submission system; instead of characters just performing a move for mere seconds, now depending on your submission-rating the move can be held for long periods of time (and by hitting any button). Likewise, your opponent can try and escape the hold by doing the same – a small touch, but one that makes a huge difference to the feel of matches. After listening to fans’ grievances from previous titles, a number of bona fide legends have been included in this version of Smackdown!

Admittedly, you can’t please everyone, because over the years there have been thousands of WWE superstars, but it’s fair to say that most would be pleased with the inclusions; Superfly Jimmy Snukka, The Legion of Doom and Roddy Piper (along with others) deserve their place, but Gamestyle raised an eyebrow at the inclusion of Hillbilly Jim, and a couple of others. Speaking of irregularities – Hulk Hogan was with the WWE when the game went into development and appears in early promotional shots of the title, yet when Hogan left he was removed from the title. Honestly, Hulk Hogan is possibly the most popular wrestler of all time, surely he could have been included as an unlockable legend? Gamestyle suspects the reason he was omitted has something to do with “financial” limitations imposed upon the game’s development – or either a colossal Breakdown! in communications.

Notwithstanding, Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain features just about everything you could want from a wrestling title (presentational issues aside). New match types such as the elimination chamber, and a revised control system, mean that unlike other WWE titles appearing on other formats, this one can stand up in its own right as an accomplished game – and one that people outside of its hardcore fanbase should have some fun with. Technological barriers prevent Smackdown! from reaching its full potential, but nonetheless this is a great release that would even appeal to those who own the last instalment in the series.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Michael Hegstrand – also known as Hawk – who passed away not so long ago. A true pioneer of wrestling entertainment and a great man, whose fans around the world will always remember you and love you forever.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Madden NFL 2004

Gamestyle Archive Intro: here’s a review from Garnett Lee who was a member of the GS team despite being based Stateside; an aspiring game writer he took the Gamestyle opportunity to showcase his work and has never looked back. This review dates from August 2003.

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Madden NFL 2004 takes the field for an unprecedented 14th season, poised to add another year to its dominance of virtual gridiron. While EA likes to tout their sports games with the ‘It’s in the game’ tag, in the case of Madden that falls short of describing how much a part of the football season Madden has become. From the pro players who play it on the road to the Madden Bowl Championship during Super Bowl week, Madden ‘ownz’ its own spot in football culture – as confirmed by this year’s unprecedented induction of the game into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Turn up the lights and cue the music because it’s time for kickoff. Only one question remains: “Are you ready for some football?” This all-pro looks to be in top form, with that immersive quality that really creates the sense of being in the game right from the first kickoff. With the graphics already looking great in prior versions, attention turned this year to improving the animation. Gone are the awkward jumps from one movement to another, and now replaced by natural transitions: the smooth way quarterbacks drop back, scramble, set and pass – the running backs’ cut, spin and juke without losing a step – gives such a realistic look it almost approaches watching live TV.

Controlling that action gets a new boost from the addition of EA’s Playmaker system (over the usual football controls). By using the right stick on the controller, it allows quick changes in the action based on the situation. While it sounds good the actual results are a mixed bag. At its best, prior to the snap Playmaker works like a quick audible, changing the direction of a run or the route of the primary receiver. Coming up to the line it’s a great way to exploit a hole in the defense. On the other hand, once the action starts, adding another control to the eight buttons and a thumbstick already in use approaches overload – especially to just direct blockers’ or receivers’ tasks that the game should handle without extra input. Despite the attention paid to creating the look and feel of the NFL game, the final product plays decidedly out of balance in favour of the offense.

Defensive control feels one step behind and too often defenders who appear in perfect position fail to make a play as the ball carrier goes by them. Combine that with an unrealistically high tendency for broken tackles, and every play can turn into a parade of defenders trailing the guy who got away as he streaks down the field for another score. Making the defensive changes needed to account for these game issues – like keeping extra help back on every play artificially – changes the defensive gameplan and undermines the simulation aspect of the game. EA Sports’ signature presentation-style, featuring current music gives a hip, polished feel to the game; although with only 23 songs repetition sets in all too soon. NFL fans will love the new favourite team feature. Not only does it add team colours and player pictures as backgrounds, it uses the console’s clock to get the date and sets the default quick game to reflect the current match-up in the season for that team. Ironically, the commentary (including that of Madden himself) is perhaps the single weakest part of the game. Unlike the witty observations heard on Monday nights, Madden’s voicework feels lifeless and frequently repetitive, coming across like a bad caricature. Similarly, Al Michael’s play-by-play comes off as mechanical, complete with audible changes in his voice within phrases where soundbites are spliced together.

A wealth of features gives Madden appeal beyond just the singular ‘Game of the Day’. Franchise mode goes well past the usual play-a-season affair, and the new owner mode offers an all-encompassing team management sim. Building a champion means improving your players each season in training camp, where performance in mini-game drills earns increases in player stats; and further involves making trades and signing players within the confines of the salary cap (you can even generate revenue complete with a sim-stadium, featuring the thrills of setting concessions and parking prices). Sadly, those looking to quickly setup and play a season will find themselves out of luck. Wading through the numerous menus, along with long save and loading times, further conspires to make the franchise mode a more frustrating endeavour than is necessary to play out a season.

Although online play also enjoys enhancements this year, it stumbles short of a touchdown. Lobbies and EA Messenger make finding friends, chatting and setting up games as user-friendly as possible, even if stuck without a real keyboard. A new, easy to use tournament system sets the stage for some epic “friendly” competition amongst buddies. For those enjoying a broadband connection, gameplay feels as tight as if both players were in the same room, and the new EA Sports Talk allows for in-game voice chat using a USB microphone. Clearly a sales-motivated decision, the inclusion of 56k dial-up support only degrades the experience for anyone unfortunate enough to try it. Even if one player connects via broadband, gameplay jumps in fits and starts making it all but unplayable. In complete disregard for their fans, EA’s continuing feud with Microsoft over control of the online servers means that once again Xbox players get denied online play.

As the reigning champion, Madden could easily recycle last year’s game with new rosters and sell another few million copies to the thrill of reviewers the world over. Their hard work improving the animations and adding new features shows a real commitment to keeping Madden at the head of the pack. Yet somehow they’ve lost sight of what put them at the top in the first place – the football game on the field. Sure, the ability to run 40+ seasons of a franchise offers an amazing amount of interaction, but how many will genuinely take advantage of it beyond playing a few seasons and thinking, “Wow, what a cool feature”? Meanwhile, along with the balance issues, unrealistically high numbers of turnovers and frequent worst-moment-possible penalties shatter the illusion of simulating an NFL game. While these points are a matter for tweaking, bugs like blocked passes that become fumbles and a nasty feedback drone when removing the disc slipped through in the rush to release, which further tarnishes this year’s effort. <i>Madden’s</i> veteran execution still delivers its compelling game of football, but in a league of fierce competition, the miscues potentially leave the door open for the challengers to take the title.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10