Castlevania: Lament of Innocence

Gamestyle Archive intro: Gareth always covered the Castlevania release for us at Gamestyle and this is one that dates from February 2004.

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The Castlevania series has stretched back through the many years of gaming and for the most part has stuck to a two-dimensional formula. After some badly-received N64 iterations, Konami has once again seen fit to revisit the third dimension; and this has caused some grief amongst hardcore Castlevania fans – although in reality the series needed to try and capture a new audience while not alienating its core fanbase.

Gamestyle first laid eyes upon the new Castlevania at ECTS in 2003, and to say the experience was disappointing is a major understatement. So when the finished version arrived at Gamestyle Towers there was a lingering fear of calamity in the air. What did Gamestyle find? Well, let’s just say that our fear has transmogrified into something else. What at first appeared a complete mess of a title has been polished and refined to the point of near-perfection; quality assurance has taken priority and most of the bugs in early code have all been vanquished. At first glance it appears that Castlevania is nothing more than Devil May Cry with bells on – erm, make that whips. Once experienced however, it soon transpires that the two titles are essentially different: the key ingredient to any Castlevania game is atmosphere – and this iteration delivers unmistakably as soon as the title screen appears.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence looks absolutely stunning, with subtle shades used to build layer upon layer of detail into different areas of the castle. And these areas are made unrecognisable from each other – adding far more variety in location than Gamestyle could have hoped for. Coupled with these are dozens of unique enemy types that all behave in different ways; creating an incredibly vibrant, detailed and variegated canvas with which to emblazon the blood of fallen foes. Did someone say blood? Indeed we did: it’s remarkable how much blood a whip can coerce from the nearest eight-foot-tall demon – with every strike looking like it hurts and all the better for it. Accompanying the subtle dignity of the graphics is a pounding musical arrangement, which is of typically unsurpassed quality – and consists of what can only be described as a sort of classical-gothic-trance hybrid; very strange, highly atmospheric and totally unique.

Apart from the music, the sound in general is of a very high calibre as it works out vigorously to the strains of full Dolby Pro Logic II support. It is fair to say that Gamestyle has never winced as much when dealing out the punishment in this title. These weapons truly ‘sound’ hurtful. One of the main issues highlighted by ECTS was the lack of flexibility with Leon Belmont. Luckily, all this has changed: Leon can now double-jump in the air – which really does make a difference to boss battles – and new moves can be acquired as you play through the game. These take the form of new attack combinations and side-stepping blocks and rolls (thus making fleet-footed evasion of whichever object is currently targeting your person all the more easier). Add to this a nigh-on perfect combat system, and you have a repertoire that would make Dante cry on any given day.

The structure of the game is similar to recent Game Boy Advance outings, with our hero venturing through a huge castle in pursuit of the many fiends and creatures that make eternal work for our master of the night. The five main dungeons are accessed from a central area, and all lead to a unique monster-iffic experience topped with hidden treasures and climactic boss battles that make you wonder if defeating evil is really worth it in the end. The bosses you fight are predictably huge and very nasty – ranging from Medusa to fearless mace-toting golems – and you know you’re in for a tussle right from the start. While not the toughest of adversaries to defeat, you need to be on the top of your game to avoid incremental damage – as one mistake can see you lose control of the fight and be pummelled into oblivion.

Big monster with big, chunkier weapon versus small man with magical whip… theorise for yourselves the likelihood of attrition. Performing the basic functions will see you through the game in around six hours – but unlike most games, you really feel compelled to unlock a lot of the hidden bits in the dungeons (just to see what you’ll uncover). So, basically by ‘finishing’ the game you will miss all of the magic whips and just about all of the magic relics as well. There’s also an entire two levels of the castle that you will not be able to access; not to mention a host of things unspoken – trust Gamestyle: you most definitely need to know what’s behind that sealed door in the first-level basement. An ‘especially enormous evil’? Now that would be telling…although we can tell you there’s a host of unlockable characters that are actually worth playing for a change.

Overall, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence has turned out to be a change for the better – and much better than anyone could have imagined. It has the right feel, the right look, and the combat system has yet to be bettered in this genre. Granted, there’s a fixed camera but rarely does it exclude the player (bar one or two occasions). But really, hard as we tried, Gamestyle could find very little to complain about and the ‘finished’ game rather makes a mockery of our fears. When previewed at ECTS, there were utterances that we were entertaining merely above-average fodder (with the expectant grades to match) – however, time has gladly turned things around; and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence has arrived in far better shape than both Devil May Cry titles combined! In fact, it is hard to recall the last truly epic, monumental experience where Good versed Evil to such magnanimous applause (at least on Playstation 2). In closing, it’s simply magnificent.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

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SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals

Gamestyle Archive Intro: it seems hard to remember the era when online gaming was nothing more than a pipe dream. For Gamestyle and its followers in the early 90’s this was a period when the internet was only slowly becoming a possibility. Playing Quake 3 on the Dreamcast via a 33.3k modem was a memorable and impressive technical feat. The game that captured the true spirit of the internet and co-operative play was Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online; a magnificent experience.

The PlayStation 2 needed its own online experience and for Europe SOCOM was the launch title, going live almost a year after its American debut. Now games are dominated by online play and military combat. Gamestyle was fortunate enough to receive the review code for this title. It came as an impressive pack; perhaps the most impressive this writer can recall. Providing everything you needed to go online including the LAN adaptor and USB headset – which I occasionally still use today. In comparison the title has faded from memory unlike Call of Duty. This review dates from June 2003.

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When the Playstation 2 finally made its online debut, the flagship launch title was SOCOM: Navy Seals. This taut anti-terrorist game became the most functional online release and until recently remained the best reason for overcoming the hurdles between an offline and online playing session.

Gamestyle is aware of cheap Ghost Recon comparisons, however both titles offer a different perspective on tactical warfare. In SOCOM you control a SEAL unit, which is a highly-trained elite American unit, often engaged in anti-terrorist activities. Such a premise allows the team to be inserted into various environments with differing goals – showing good imagination and variety throughout. And unlike Ghost Recon, when you die here you are not conveniently transported into another body; even virtual life is precious. Releases such as these can be overcome with realistic demands, and to a certain extent lose the immediacy of a quick ten-minute session.

While SOCOM is faithful to its real-life counterpart (and is well researched, offering a satisfying blend of existing weaponry and tactics), it is thankfully not an American military training simulation. Zipper Interactive has managed to create a game which successfully bridges the gap between both camps, and proves engaging enough for the experienced warfare connoisseur or the most casual recruit. In retrospect, this is something that similar releases have failed to achieve to any great extent. Offline, the missions are well-planned yet remain forgettable, offering little reason to return. The opposition AI is decidedly average and shows rudimentary awareness of human foes. Mission goals can be tackled in any set order, and allow for a variety of different approaches. Even the gung-ho action fan will find much to savour, as the squad can be left to fire at will. Adding to its universal appeal is the implementation of the third-person view, which allows for easier squad control. (A first-person camera is included, however given its clunky nature and relative framiness, is an option best avoided.)

As the flagship title of the PS2 online experience, SOCOM has embraced everything that the new medium has to offer – albeit with mixed results. Being the first title to support the much-vaunted voice communication feature, means that this trailblazer was never going to technically satisfy (but only because it was the first). The communication – offline – is reasonably accomplished, and allows the player to direct his squad independently of position. Even with a thick (northern-Scottish) accent, Gamestyle managed to guide the elite troops with Lemmings-like precision. SOCOM is an evolutionary step forward from (Dreamcast’s) Seaman, which hinted at the possibilities afforded by the in-game microphone. For those uncomfortable with such a feature – or let’s face it, unable to afford the headset – intuitive menus exist as a back-up. Not content with merely directing troop movements, Zipper Interactive has enhanced the headset feature by using it for communication updates from HQ during play. A simple touch, but one that really drives home the practicality of the peripheral, which is more than just a two-way communication device.

Again, it serves to heighten the realism and immersion, but without increasing the learning curve. Unfortunately, the quality of the audio signal – online – leaves a great deal to be desired. In this game, it lacks the free-flowing clarity of its rival (Xbox Live), but second-generation (PS2 online) titles will no doubt overcome this tentative drawback. Visually, SOCOM is again functional, as the real gameplay cannot be measured by exotic environments or realistic-looking enemies (although the fogging can become rather intrusive). Moreover, any sustained interest stems from what is going on beneath the visuals – such as the aforementioned communication. Given the memory limits imposed by the strictly online environments obviously chastises any grandiose design – which perhaps explains the disappointing textures and low-level detail. After all, creating a wonderful environment full of life, incidental objects and multi-routes does not translate well online, and with sixteen players involved.

SOCOM: Navy Seals manages to avoid the main drawback associated with taking your Playstation 2 online because a thriving community of regular players supports it. Sixteen players – divided into two camps – facilitates highly-charged matches where good guys versus bad guys. Whether you play terrorist or army hero, expect an addictive experience (regardless of clan membership). Xbox Live users are aware that when Ghost Recon: Island Thunder participants hit double figures, the server can go into meltdown. Amazingly, the functionality of SOCOM avoids such a problem; and the only price to pay is the long sequence before joining or starting a match. Gamestyle feels that this indeed is a small price.

So, there you have it – a game that manages to deliver an online experience which completely overwhelms the single-player mode. If you have not yet endeavoured to go online with your Playstation 2, this perhaps provides a compelling reason to do so.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Flipnic

Gamestyle Archive Intro: an overlooked title and the GS review that arrived in January 2004 from Daniel. I might have to keep an eye out for this game.

flipnic

“Flipnic is an enjoyable simple-action amazing pinball game for you!” You’ve got to love how well ‘Engrish’ manages to put across the feel of a game far better than any western blurb could ever hope to. Sony Computer Entertainment Japan have tried many times to bring over their in-house projects to the rest of the globe, and Flipnic is the latest.

Pinball is an odd choice for a conversion from the real world to the digital one. It’s happened before though, with varying levels of success, but never has it been portrayed in quite the way it has in Flipnic. Gamestyle can only describe the attempt as ‘Pinball Evolved’ – whilst retaining the basic ethos, Flipnic introduces new elements to the mix of bumpers and silver balls. And, coming from the makers of the PS2 launch title, Fantavision, this bizarre hybrid is likely to pull in similar, like-minded fans…

Each level (or table) has a certain number of objectives that must be cleared in order to progress. These objectives are split across several sections of the table, each with their own flippers, and usually connected to the maze-like entirety of the table via metal runners (the kind you’d normally see on a real pinball table). Objectives might require hitting a certain number of bumpers within a certain time limit, or collecting some coins, or travelling though a ramp a prescribed number of times. Certain areas of the tables open up once objectives have been met, and allow you to continue to explore. And what sights lay awaiting!

Flipnic is a ‘flippingly’ beautiful treat for the eyeballs. The graphics are vibrant and colourful, and the animation and framerate as smart as you could hope for – considered how much is happening on screen at any one time. The style of each level varies considerably too; from the Biology level (a jungle environment replete with trees, flamingoes, chameleons and a stunningly-rendered waterfall), the Metallurgy level (made from metal components and frequented by UFOs), and the Optics level (a virtual reality table with semi-transparent neon features). Throughout each of the levels are similar metal rails – presumably to showcase how SCEJ have really gone to town with the rendering of metallic surfaces – and the reflections on the ball and rails look superb!

Unfortunately, after the overwhelming first level, there does seem to be a degree of laziness apparent with the designs of the tables. The organic visual details are dropped and the structure becomes less forgiving. Luckily, there are plenty of extra ‘missions’ per table – so replaying the first table over and over is often desirable, even if it just to enjoy whizzing around the jungles of the Biology world. Very relaxing. Until, that is, Flipnic begins to drive you slowly insane…

There is a fundamental flaw with the game of pinball itself which, despite Flipnic’s best efforts to counteract, remains in place here. Control is the problem – or rather, the lack of it. Your only interaction with the ball comes when it is in contact with the flippers at the bottom, therefore the vast majority of the time you have very little control over where the ball goes. Losing lives (by losing the ball through any of the gaps) is not always the fault of the player. Sometimes it will simply be beyond your physical capabilities to prevent it, and this causes frustration. Flipnic tries to address this by positioning extra bumpers in key locations – such as the gaps either side of the table – thus blocking the ball for one bounce and allowing it to return into play. These extra (blue) bumpers can be ‘recharged’ by hitting the blue power-ups that usually appear nearby, but they can also be swapped from their in/out position by using the ‘left flipper’ button when available. Unfortunately, this also means that simply using the left flipper can leave you totally defenceless (through losing your ball down the side of the table in a moment of brief panic). The left flipper button will also toggle other bumpers along the table – which begs the question: how did SCEJ manage to get a two-button control scheme so very wrong?

The left D-pad pulls the left flipper, and the Circle button fires the right one; simple enough, but this leaves all other buttons open for use – and yet two (essential) commands actually share a button! It’s totally unnecessary, and a rare example of how a simplified control system can overcomplicate the gameplay. Bewildering, to say the least. And, not content to let that gameplay rest upon the outcome of fate, there is also the ability to ’tilt’ the table (nudge left or right) by using the shoulder buttons. It can prove mildly useful – as long as it isn’t overused – if your ball is heading directly into a hole and you have a second or two of warning. However, as thoughtful a gesture this is, there is often too much action occurring too close to the bottom flippers for the ‘nudge’ action to have any sort of effect.

With UFOs flying around ground level in one example, Gamestyle’s spherical silver warrior was flipped up into one of them – only to be ricocheted back through the resulting gap faster than it took for the flipper to return to its relaxed position. Quite irritating. However, that’s not to say this is a skill-less game – far from it, in fact. The Help mode talks the player through various techniques that can be used on the tables. Pinball enthusiasts will probably already be fairly proficient with techniques such as ‘holding’, ‘transferring’ and ‘half pushing’ – and the demonstrations really do show you how it is done. Taking these techniques back onto the tables will gradually see improvements, but newcomers must be aware that Flipnic is an unfairly challenging (and often frustrating) game to play without first knowing how to handle the ball.

In addition, each new table can only be unlocked once the required missions have been cleared from the previous table; so the five-minute trial run available for new tables – before they are fully unlocked – is a nice taster, but there isn’t enough time to properly explore every avenue. So this means that each table must be mastered in turn before the next one can be tackled – meaning if you happen to get stuck, there’s not much you can do about it (other than practice)! The tables are a joy to explore, however since many routes can be taken accidentally, you might end up going around in circles. If you happen to miss a route or flip up into the wrong one, it can take an age to find your way back again – and this adds to the irritation when you miss a key mission item by a few millimetres through no fault of your own.

Certainly Flipnic is not a game to be rushed through; the small number of tables (with huge amounts of extra missions per table) and aimless bouncing to-and-fro make that perfectly clear. A different frame of mind is required to really ‘get into’ it – and a relaxed attitude is essential. Thankfully, Flipnic has its own relaxed attitude; there are zany mission introductions (“Watch out, a big UFO is coming!”), some bright and breezy tunes, and the comical voice-overs will no doubt bring a smile to your face. Indeed, the production values in general are very high, and for a budget title (Flipnic retails at less than half the normal RRP) it is quite surprising to see such lovingly-crafted detail and effort brought forth. The fourth table is an interesting change – as it converts to a two-dimensional ‘Breakout’ style game, where you control sliding paddles instead of the usual flippers (but you still have to complete similar objectives). The geometry and sense of gravity is strong – despite the simplistic visuals of the stage – which again makes for a compellingly-playable experience.

But what else can Flipnic offer besides ‘Pinball Evolved’ (i.e. the main mode, which itself is strewn with mini-games and sub-missions)? Well, there’s the two-player mode, and although it too suffers from the tragic fate of unlocking newer tables, each one features a different and unique type of gameplay based loosely upon sports. Football, basketball and tennis have been morphed into ‘Pong-like’ competitive games, where the winner is the one that scores the most. A nice addition, if somewhat limited.

Flipnic almost manages to attach itself to the amalgam of classically-obscure, quality PS2 titles – such as Rez, Frequency, Fantavision, Gitaroo Man et al – however, due to one or two structural flaws and frustrating play mechanics, falls slightly short of such nobility. But it cannot be accused of being anything other than a unique and refreshing experience that mostly pushes all of the right buttons. And at a budget price, it deserves to picked up by anyone suffering from over-familiarity with the usual ‘blood ‘n’ guts’ paradigm.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Ratchet & Clank 2 Unedited

Gamestyle Archive Intro: yesterday we welcomed back the published review of Ratchet & Clank 2, however during the restoration from 2 sources, the differences between the submission and the final edit were noticeable. So perhaps as first and potentially with more reviews to follow, here is my original 2003 draft.

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Ratchet & Clank 2 is a release that Gamestyle finds hard not to love.  This is the quintessential modern day platformer, which covers all bases and ultimately leaves its potentially taxing platform foundations behind.  This is bubblegum, mirthful gaming and ultimately the game that delivers the fun, which Mario Sunshine could not.  Seriously, Ratchet & Clank 2 is that good.

Whereas Jak II went all “bad”, Ratchet & Clank continue their merry exploits, forging ahead with little regard to market trends. Is there a story?  Well, yes there is of sorts, but it only serves as an opening for a space carnival.  The characters are firmly tongue in cheek with well-pitched speech.  Receiving a distant call for help, the heroic duo set out to aid Abercrombie Fizzwidget – the chairman of Megacorp.  A devilish thief has snatched a secret experiment from the giant company, and obviously Megacorp wants it returned.  On route Ratchet & Clank are given new training (hence the “Commando” subtitle) in preparation for their new galactic adventure.

A bog standard storyline is given a new freshness by the cartoon influenced character designs and cut sequences; some of which just exist to put a smile on your face.  Insomniac has buffed this game to perfection, and the evident humour and nods to influences are splendid, as are storylines to the original release.  If Pixar created videogames, then Ratchet & Clank 2 would be exactly what Gamestyle would expect from the talented studio.

Initially Ratchet & Clank 2 only fleetingly rises above average, offering the standard shooting, jumping and exploring scenario, which Gamestyle has seen on countless occasions.  Then things begin to develop.  You see, the main game isn’t about skill or challenge (there are extra modes that cater for such niceties) instead its about grasping the largest, funniest and most extreme weapon in your arsenal and going out into the galaxy and having fun; blasting everything.

Thoughtful level design adds to the enjoyment; as if you cannot progress further on one planet, why not take a hike to another?  Whereas in the original weapons could be bought and no more, in the sequel Insomniac has given more thought to proceedings.  Again, most can be bought, but special platinum bolts (hidden cunningly throughout the levels) can be spent on incredible enhancements.  Not only this, but by using a weapon consistently, its experience grows until it evolves into another devastating weapon.  With a multitude of weapons available, killing and demolition has never been so much fun.  Sometimes though, Insomniac is a victim of its own brilliance, as weapons (such as the therminator and tractor beam) can only be used when conditions allow.  Why not break the shackles completely?

Weapon strength and deployment at times is vital to conquering some more populated planets, but with infinite continues available experimentation is encouraged.  Beyond weaponry other tools are available, such as backpacks, gadgets and armour.  Discovery of a new weapon or tool often facilitates the need to return to an impediment, and opens up new avenues on completed levels.  Disappointingly the levels are again (like so many releases) based on natural states such as ice, desert, swamp and forest.  This is however a minor quibble, as the general design and construction is extremely strong, vibrant and engaging.  The levels are linear but qualities such as these disguise any shortcomings in freedom.

Linking several of the planets are space dogfights, which again suffer from that age-old problem of positioning and sense of direction.  This is the weakest aspect of Ratchet & Clank 2, as if it wasn’t key to progressing and the collection of vital minerals (for ship modifications), Gamestyle would not have bothered.    The racing sections fare better, but with such a game of such a high standard as this, a microscope is required to find any mentionable issues.

If one becomes shell shocked by the constant destruction in the main game, then there are various challenges (racing, dog fighting and combat) that not only provide vital currency but also serve a little more variety, as well as secrets.  Clank has his own levels but again the “buddy” dynamic isn’t high on the agenda, but when it is expect some fantastic moments such as the transformer mini-planet battle.

As Insomniac have a sharing agreement with Naughty Dog, you’d expect Ratchet & Clank 2 to be visually striking, and it certainly delivers.  From the moment you pick up the controller you are guaranteed an interruption free experience.  Animation, size, clarity, textures and frame rate, form an enchanting package.  After Ghosthunter, Gamestyle continues to be impressed by what the Playstation 2 is capable of delivering.

Without question Ratchet & Clank 2 surpasses Mario Sunshine as the best genre offering of the current generation.  And with strong sequels to Jak and Ape Escape already available on the Playstation 2, it’s with strong company.  Insomniac has given us easily the most enjoyable release of the year, and a title that puts the fun back into gaming.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Ratchet & Clank 2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: here’s another example of a restored review using 2 sources. On the original backup spreadsheet the text suddenly ends with about 3 paragraphs to go. Fear not, as I had my original draft as part of the archive.

It’s interesting comparing both as the word document is the original submission. Reviews on Gamestyle were put through the editing system to clean up any text issues. Sometimes the editing when too far. Certainly when reading both sources here the differences are surprising. The issue with the excel file is that paragraph spacing are lost – using another source gives the original breaks – but in this case I’ve noticed the 2 versions are different. Maybe tomorrow I’ll put up the rough and ready form?

The Ratchet & Clank series was one of those unique examples of a franchise that united all ages and appealed to all levels of skill. Looking back now, it’s one of my PlayStation 2 highlights and the series itself was of a consistently high standard. This review dates from November 2003.

ratchet 

Ratchet & Clank 2: Locked and Loaded is a release that Gamestyle finds hard not to love. This is the quintessential modern-day platformer, which covers all bases and ultimately leaves its potentially-taxing platform foundations behind. This is bubblegum, mirthful gaming that basks in the primary delivery of fun – something which Mario Sunshine, for example, could not.

Seriously, Ratchet & Clank 2 is that good. Whereas Jak II went all “bad”, Ratchet & Clank continue upon their merry exploits, forging ahead with little regard to market trends. Is there a story? Well, yes there is of sorts, but it only serves as an opening for a space carnival. The characters are firmly tongue-in-cheek (and with well-pitched speech). Receiving a distant call for help, the heroic duo set out to aid Abercrombie Fizzwidget, the chairman of Megacorp. A devilish thief has snatched a secret experiment from the humongous company, and obviously Megacorp wants it returned. On route, Ratchet & Clank are given some ‘commando-like’ training in preparation for their galactic adventure.

A bog-standard storyline is given a new freshness by the cartoon-influenced character designs and cut sequences; some of which simply exist to put a smile on your face. Insomniac has buffed this game to perfection, and the evident humour, subtle nods and external influences are splendid (as are storyline references to the original release). If Pixar created videogames, then Ratchet & Clank 2 would be exactly what Gamestyle would expect from the talented studio.

Initially, Ratchet & Clank 2 only fleetingly rises above average; offering the standard shooting, jumping and exploring scenario that Gamestyle has seen on countless occasions. Then things begin to snowball. You see, the main game isn’t about skill or challenge (there are extra modes that cater for such niceties), instead it’s about grasping the largest, funniest and most extreme weapon in your arsenal and going ‘locked and loaded’ throughout the galaxy; having fun and literally blasting everything.

Thoughtful level design adds to the enjoyment – if you cannot progress any further on one planet, why not take a hike to another? In the original game, weapons could be bought and simply stockpiled, whereas in the sequel Insomniac has lateralised the proceedings. Again, guns can be bought, but special platinum bolts (hidden cunningly throughout the levels) can be found and sold for incredible enhancements. Not only this, but by using a weapon consistently, its experience grows until it evolves into something more devastating. With a multitude of weapons available, killing and demolition has never been so much fun. Sometimes though, Insomniac is a victim of its own ambition; weapons (such as the therminator and tractor beam) can only be used when conditions allow. Why not break the shackles completely?

At times, weapon strength and deployment is vital to conquering some of the more populated planets; but with infinite continues available, experimentation is positively encouraged. Beyond weaponry, other tools are available – such as backpacks, gadgets and armour. Discovery of a new weapon or tool often facilitates the need to return to an impediment, and opens up new avenues on already completed levels. Disappointingly, the levels are routinely (like so many releases) based on natural states, such as ice, desert, swamp and forest. Albeit this is a minor quibble, as the overall design and construction is extremely robust, vibrant and engaging. The levels are linear, but qualities such as these disguise any shortfalls in freedom.

Linking several of these planets are dogfights in space, which again suffer from the age-old problem of positioning and sense of direction. This is the weakest aspect of Ratchet & Clank 2, and if it weren’t key to progressing (i.e. the collection of vital minerals for ship modifications), Gamestyle would probably not have bothered. The racing sections fare much better, but with a game of this distinction, even ‘microscopic’ problems become hard to detect.

If one becomes shell-shocked by the constant chaos of the main game, there are various challenges (racing, dog fighting and combat) that not only provide vital currency, but also serve up a little variety – as well as secrets. Clank has his own levels but again the “buddy” dynamic isn’t high on the agenda, but when it is expect some fantastic moments such as the transformer mini-planet battle.

As Insomniac have a sharing agreement with Naughty Dog, you’d expect Ratchet & Clank 2 to be visually striking, and it certainly delivers.  From the moment you pick up the controller you are guaranteed an interruption free experience.  Animation, size, clarity, textures and frame rate, form an enchanting package.  After Ghosthunter, Gamestyle continues to be impressed by what the Playstation 2 is capable of delivering.

Without question Ratchet & Clank 2 surpasses Mario Sunshine as the best genre offering of the current generation.  And with strong sequels to Jak and Ape Escape already available on the Playstation 2, it’s with strong company.  Insomniac has given us easily the most enjoyable release of the year, and a title that puts the fun back into gaming.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Lord of The Rings: Return of the King

Gamestyle Archive intro: 2 sources combine to restore a previously lost review. This is a technique I’m sure we’ll see more and more of over the lifespan of the archive. In this case the review dates from November 2003 and JJ. The spreadsheet backup ends suddenly right after ‘the PAL version is disappointing’ but using our resources it’s all good now.

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LOTR: Return of the King is the third and final instalment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, although Gamestyle suspects Electronic Arts is already concocting new and devious ways of ‘alchemically’ rebranding the licence. The battle for Middle Earth has finally begun, and only the Fellowship of the Ring can prevent evil from winning through.

Gamestyle will not divulge the storyline – which obviously allows players to experience parallel events – before the film reaches cinemas. All that needs to be said is that key moments from Return of the King are broken down into the form of fifteen levels. These are punctuated by in-game sequences and footage from the film itself – guaranteeing spoilers all the way. Those familiar with LOTR: The Two Towers will be on common ground, as unsurprisingly, the hack ‘n slash ethic is retained. The combat system is extremely shallow, and Gamestyle can find little in depth to favourably commend it. Chopping through waves of automatic foes is simply a means of enjoying the cinematic sequences, which inevitably lead to those valuable experience points. These can be spent between missions on special moves and combos (when you have reached the applicable level).

Of course, how the members of the Fellowship made it this far into the trilogy with only a simple spell or chopping move to call upon is something of a mystery. In spite of this, the upgrade system is enjoyable, and presents the best evidence yet of replay value; especially as each character only has ten skill levels to work through. As some character selections are forced upon the player (depending on the level), the curiosity value is piqued somewhat more than it should be.

The branching structure of the mission layout allows for some variety when approaching the grand finale. However, Gamestyle completed every level before progressing up the tree, and expects others to effectively do the same. The layout does however sprinkle some much-needed freedom of choice into a melting-pot full of constraints and repetition. The appearance of bonus extras are a welcome diversion, and given that Electronic Arts has contractual agreements with New Line Cinema, includes access to the actors and storyboards from the trilogy. It is unfortunate that such interludes are extremely brief, and The Hobbit’s interview for example is entirely risible. The levels themselves are bursting with action, movement, and the riposte of death.

The execution is a tad disappointing, given the introduction and rousing soundtrack, as you are left with a totally linear and limiting experience. Everything is very much set in stone, with a reliance on scripted events that so castrated EA’s Medal of Honour. An example would be the convenient location of explosives, placed right near the guard towers. If it wasn’t obvious enough, the camera suggestively pans around to provide the optimal view to triggering their detonation.

LOTR: Return of the King is an exceptionally dumb game, and fails to elicit any thought from the player – save for slash and stab. Some may enjoy switching off all thought processes for an hour or so, but Gamestyle expected much more, given the rich vein of source material. LOTR: Return of the King excels though when it comes to visuals, and like any Hollywood blockbuster, is loud, brash and superficial. The screenshots back up this verdict, as the game is very much like wandering through a museum. There is plenty to see, but you are unable to touch or qualitatively interact with the majority of objects on show. The main reason for this is linear constraints; no doubt needed for hitting that November release date. The camera too is likewise fixed, and its aloofness does not improve matters; always hinting at what might be possible, but never revealing the true texture of its canvas (though the implementation of backdrops is cleverly recognised). Regardless, EA’s programming proficiency is unquestioned, and does help to camouflage the shortcomings of the game to a certain degree.

The PAL version is disappointing – especially for Playstation 2 owners and should have been subtitled Hail to the Thief.  By this Gamestyle highlights the expected black border, which fills the bottom of the screen, however this is minor when pitted against its American counterpart.  The DTS soundtrack has vanished, and despite the excellent remaining Pro Logic soundtrack, a missed opportunity to experience what Xbox players take for granted.  Most devastating of all is the removal of the online co-operative mode.  This proved an opportunity to play online with another, work through the game and communicate through the USB headset.  Instead European players will have to make do with the offline version, yet still pay the full retail price.

The lifespan of Return of the King is very much debatable, as the single player mode can be completed in only a few hours, and that is sizeable chunk of this release.  The removal of the online co-operative mode, scuppers any long term interest that co-op offered potentially.  There are no exclusive levels for this mode, only the ability to play with a friend.  Why such a feature was removed is unknown – perhaps an attempt to avoid the problems that have plagued FIFA 2004 and its online mode.  Thirteen levels may sound impressive, but the actually playtime for each rarely rises above twenty minutes.  Add to this a dubious level such as King of the Dead, which is nothing more than a glorified boss encounter, and Gamestyle beings to value such things as a ten-day return policy.

Return of the King is enjoyable while it lasts, but there is little progression as the third game in a series. Without the flair of Electronic Arts presentational skills and the attached license this would be deservedly overlooked.  The tragic realisation is that at the final hurdle, the series has run dry.

Gamestyle Score: 4/10

Wreckless

Gamestyle Archive intro: Apologies for the downtime recently, but now the Archive is back and we’re in March 2002 with Chris about to take us on a tour in this wrecking experience.

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The generic name ‘Driving game’ has become a label for many different games with wildly differing requirements. There are straight first past-the-post racing (Gran Turismo), racing around cities perfoming tasks (Driver) games that use realistic physics and rules (Ferrari F355) and those that don’t (Midtown Madness).

The recipe for Wreckless is one city, fleshed out and populated and trafficated, where you play as either elite cops (known as the Dragons) or spies, both vying to take down the Hong Kong mafia- the Yakuza. So far, so like Driver. Add in some Midtown Madness-esque physics, such as the ability to take out a bus with a mini, and cook for the Xbox at launch. Put portion in fridge, and unwrap at Christmas for PS2. Check recipe again, and cook another helping of portions for this edition, but bear in mind that the outer cover won’t look as good as it once did. Serve liberally, for one to two eaters.

Wreckless is a fast and a furious game which requires you to drive at high speeds through a Hong Kong styled city with little regard for its populous. Scenery, citizens, cars- they’re all tyre fodder. Buildings and concrete walls will stop you, but everything else is more of a distraction than a barrier. The citizens do get in your way though there is no GTA-style blood, they just scream a bit and roll over your bonnet. Forget them though- your car doesn’t take any damage, so crashing and hit n’ runs are okay. In Wreckless, slapstick rules ok. I’ve mentioned quite a few generic comparatives, and to describe the gameplay here’s another one; Smuggler’s Run in Hong Kong, which is what most of the action comes to. You chase cars and ram into them and then have to do something else. There’s a lot of imagination and variation that has gone into the levels to reduce repetitive actions. You’ll chase cars for stolen number plates, race accross town with blood for the hospital, find your superior’s broken down car in the sewers, engage in a late night street race and destroy trash cans on the top of a huge dumper truck.

The sewer level is worth the asking price alone, bearing more resemblance to a platformer than a racing level and marking perhaps the most diverse objective. Many of the others require you to learn the layout of the city, while others restrict you to a specific path. This is made more difficult by the mini-map in the corner of your screen being the main form of navigation, and not an entire city map as in Driver. The other form of navigation is the straight line arrow, which Crazy Taxi veterans will atest, is not to be trusted. On levels with multiple targets it doesn’t know which to choose from, and the nearest is not always the most logical. With experience of the city, you’ll learn the shortcuts and back alleys, yet you have to learn the hard way. There are double the number of missions than the Xbox version including sub-missions on every level.

The bonus missions are unlocked after you beat the ‘hard’ levels, and they reward you with a selection of cheats and bonus cars. Eight two-player levels are available for versus and co-operative play, such as a Speed rip-off. These are played without split screen, which is a novel, if not bizarre idea. Initially it is confusing, and it means that not all the levels work- especially the strange (and mainly unhelpful) rolling starts in some levels- yet it adds a further reason to play. In fact the game seems to have had an entire overhaul from it’s Xbox incarnation (see review here) and it’s for the better.

The handling is great, the controls are responsive and the play screen less cluttered than before. If you want to count a list of games that are superior on PS2 than Xbox then Wreckless will be on it. Graphically it’s very impressive, showing many objects onscreen without slowdown, though sometimes the visual cacophany is too much and your eyes will care not for the many cars, obstacles and visual effects that almost overbear the game. It’s well presented with cut scenes which are well animated, though annoyingly voiced. Be warned, the game takes an exorborant time to load. The gameplay isn’t especially deep and the arcade aspects may put some people off, though fans of Crazy Taxi will be right at home.

Sometime Wreckless is too chaotic for you to properly digest it. There can be too much onscreen action and it blends into one big mess. The sounds have been well mixed and there are lots of toppings. It won’t fill you up and is more of a microwave snack than a main meal, though it’ll take you a while to eat it all- be aware that it is an acquired taste.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Superman: Shadow of Apokolips

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us into the dubious territory of an Atari Superman title. This dates from November 2002.

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Superman, eh? We like the films (as everyone does, right?) and even the cartoon series has it’s merits, but the games? The Nintendo 64 played host to what is widely regarded as one of the worst games in existence, and this reviewer would personally rather play ET on the Atari than relive the dire experience of said title.

Thankfully, there’s an even better option – the brand new PS2 Superman game from Infogrames, which bases itself around the aforementioned animated series and provides not only a decent representation of the Superman world, but it’s also suprisingly good game in itself. Not immediately, mind, but then that’s why you’re reading Gamestyle – the game’s clunky at first as you get used to the controls (much like Activision’s Spider-man, if you will) but once you’re a few half-hours into the game things start to even out, although the game’s numerous ‘little’ bugs will always be there niggling into the immersiveness of the adventure: there’s some horrible clipping and even worse, there’s invisible walls all over the place, and not just around the boundaries of the level causing much confusion and straining the already struggling camera. However, if you can overlook these issues, the good bits of the game will shine through.

Good bits like the inclusion of Clark Kent as a playable character (in his less Super role), Livewire Parasite, Metallo and Lex Luther as baddies and a wide variety of special powers, all of which add to the Superman-ness of the game, even though it’s mostly the Heat Vision power you’ll be used to come the end of the game such is the way the other features are played down. These powers are also finite in their use, although resting them for a little while allows them to recharge, reducing their effectiveness to a more strategic level rather than just constant use. Alongside Breath Blast (which acts as a short range weapon) and the Heat Vision (which is similar) there are other moves including Speed Dodging (complete with motion blur) and the game’s first person moves such as Super Vision (with zoom) and X-Ray Vision, although to be honest it would have been handier to have such a perspective as a more playable feature – particularly given the third person camera has some real problems inside buildings – rather than just a standing still mode.

Superman can also pull off Super Power Moves by holding down two face buttons, and there’s such a move for when he’s walking, hovering and flying. Of course, Superman can also punch, lift and throw objects (but not friendly civilians, sadly) and these can be used to solve the games puzzles and against enemies. Flying’s the best bit of the game, though, and whilst it’s not easy to track enemies and hit them as you’re required to do (especially early on) it soon becomes instinctive and chasing the bad guys around the (admittedly large) playing areas is great fun. Things turn sour when you’re back on the ground though – there’s never much more to do than run around and punch identikit robots and that horrible camera returns with a vengeance, although the game’s lock-on feature (a quick tap of L1) goes someway to help the gamer keep the screen on what’s actually attacking him.

Whilst Superman: Shadow of Apokolips often plays out slightly ignorant of the advances currently happening in the games scene (and hence resorts to almost retro-like tasks, such are the simplicity of what you’re asked to do) it’s quite pretty in places, and certainly faithful to the cartoon series it models itself around with some great cell-shaded characters, a fairly smooth 30 fps frame rate and some decent animation. It’s not all good, though – some textures are quite low resolution and there’s a fair amount of repetition, especially on the buildings and walls. Rest assured that the music’s directly taken from the TV show, though, and most of the voices retain the same level of authenticity.

One for the fans of the series, then, but to the rest of us it’s entirely average – fun for a while, and then it’s over – Shadow of Apokolips isn’t anything new; it’s not genre defining; it’s certainly flawed and there’s not a great deal to do, given the relative ease (and low number) of the missions in the game, but it’s without a doubt a far superior game to it’s N64 older brother (and it’s preferable to playing ET, too).

Gamestyle Score: 4/10

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Tom Knowles takes us back on the skateboard just like it was November 2002 all over again.

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Tony’s Back to show us all the multifarious uses of the skateboard. Stringing tricks and special moves together to outdo ones fellow skaters is the series mainstay but the Hawkster and chums are a community spirited bunch too. The four wheeled plank saves the day countless times across America and beyond. Skitch car thieves, grind pesky tourists and even combo a great white shark back to the depths whence it came. Emergency services the world over are bound to catch on with the metropolitan police being among the first to benefit from compulsory half-pipe training.

Tony 3 was a let down for many. The same magic gameplay was present but little more than an update was on offer meaning Nervesoft’s next installment had to up the ante’ in order to compete with the current crop of extreme sports sims. Happily the fourth in the series has injected much needed vigor into the old dog. First we take in the graphical progress; much improved character models are smoothly and realistically animated around massive, attractive, free roaming skate parks. Despite being visually a little bland by comparison to the Cube and Xbox offerings in terms of a steady frame rate and draw distance the PS2 edition outdoes its cousin on Nintendo’s more powerful machine. Not surprising as the title was obviously planned with Sony’s box of tricks in mind, evident again in the fact that this is the only version with online support.

Shadow, lighting and water effects bring to life the arenas and impart each location with its own atmosphere. Add to this more customisation of your chosen skater, more missions ( 190 to attempt before reaching the pro challenges), all new tricks such as the spine transfer, a nifty skate park editor and more area’s to traverse and you’ve got quite an update. The usual mix of Hip Hop, Metal and Punk by turns chills you out and pumps you up and there should be at least a few tunes on here for everybody. However the size of the game may have you wishing you were sat in front of an xbox so you could rip your own tracks; they will start to annoy eventually. Faithfully recreated is the magical gameplay producing either great satisfaction by pulling of a huge scoring combo or hair tearing frustration as you fail to land that last manual to walk away with first place in a skate compo. If your a fan of the series you’ll know the score, if not then check it out; it is sublime.

Fine so far but it sounds like another update doesn’t it? Well the major difference here is the structure – a small change that makes this the best installment yet. Gone are the timed areas of the previous games and in place are the aforementioned free roaming parks. Missions are available from the various pedestrians / fellow skaters dotted about the levels and these are timed but if you chose you are free to wander and experiment within the level as you please. There is plenty of cash carelessly left floating around for you to collect and you can use this to purchase new levels, skaters, clothing and cheats.( I am still saving up the $100,000 needed to unlock the “skater babe”) What this means in terms of gameplay is a much more relaxed feel (when not engaged in a mission) and a new feeling of freedom, minimising the hair loss and allowing you to skate about to your hearts content without fear of the ticking clock.

Eventually of course you are going to want to progress to the pro tournaments and the challenges are nicely paced on the whole with a good learning curve. They range from the mundane to the inane and feature old favorites such as “collect the combo letters” to new additions like “skitch the stolen car”. The controls as ever are simple and well thought out leaving you to worry about having lightning quick reflexes and remembering a massive repertoire of tricks. Despite enjoying the previous installments I was never an avid fan and it is this installment that has persuaded me to invest some serious time in getting digital scabby knees. It’s the best yet but it ‘aint perfect.

Predictably the voice acting is horrible and incredibly annoying. The many missions can become tasks as they are increasingly repetitive. It is also quite likely long periods of play will consist of “shit!”, start, retry last goal, repeat, repeat, repeat. Of course you have the option to simply skate on and find another goal but eventually your going to come back to it and this can become a bore. Although not as apparent as the Cube version there is still an unfortunate amount of clipping on some levels. Irritations aside this is an enjoyable romp and essential if you are new to the franchise. Veterans may wish to wait and discover what the online capabilities have to offer but still worth a look if you need you Hawk fix.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10