Project: Snowblind

Gamestyle Archive Intro: time flies doesn’t it and when faced with the review of this game I couldn’t recall a single thing. Developed by Crystal Dynamics this is a gaming experience that has been consigned to the dustbins of time whereas it deserves a better fate. This review is from March 2005.

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Project: Snowblind marks a departure from the third-person adventures we’d usually associate with Crystal Dynamics, as it now enters the first-person market with mixed results. However, given the current state of first-person shooters on the Playstation 2, even mixed results can make for a potential purchase.

For those unaware, ‘Snowblind’ is military jargon for a complete shutdown of biomechanical and electrical systems (in the event of an EMP blast). And the name is particularly relevant because Project: Snowblind attempts to rival its nearest stablemate Deus Ex in terms of futuristic setting and human experimentation. In fact, it appears that the character modellers and environment designers have migrated to Crystal Dynamics (although initially the game had been feted as an extension of the Deus Ex universe – and even features a poorly-implemented hacking dynamic, should you question the connection).

Gamestyle welcomes releases that pitch themselves against the best in genre, and let’s face it, Deus Ex: Invisible War was pretty much the standard-bearer in 2004. However, this is no thoroughbred tale of classic cyberpunk, because the story requires no mental agility from the player. You simply assume the role of Nathan Frost who, for all intents and purposes, is the ‘Master Chief’ of this Playstation 2 outing. Interestingly, events take place in the Far East, which is in the grip of a civil war that is spilling out of control into neighbouring areas. Crystal Dynamics is well-versed in creating intricate storylines (see: the long-running Soul Reaver series), yet here any semblance of emotion and intrigue is suffocated by the high-octane action – which never lets up. Another drawback is the emphasis placed on feeding the character information and story nuggets during actual gameplay: you never really have a chance to soak everything up, and while the characters are futuristic, some have a decidedly ‘comic book’ air about them.

Nathan Frost is Snowblind’s catalyst and his actions trigger developments and sequences on a scale that is commonplace amongst World War II shooters. Unlike the Medal of Honor series, however, there is a real sense of danger and claustrophobia as you hug walls and corridors. Levels are well-designed, and full of opportunities to explore and learn from your mistakes. Nathan Frost may be a formidable fighter (complete with his own ballistic shield), but the volume of enemies and their AI certainly keeps you on edge. Adding to Nathan’s ‘human’ constraints are the lack of available save points – only when you’ve completed a level will you be offered a saving dispenser. Imagine progressing through a particularly difficult level, only to be sent back to the beginning again because of an error.

Gamestyle uses the word “error” loosely, because sticking your head around a corner to judge the terrain (only to have it blown off by a mech), doesn’t normally correspond with making a “mistake” in gaming terms. Crystal Dynamics’ inexperience with the FPS genre is shown by the physics model and use of weapons: everything feels too light (including vehicles), and there is a distinct lack of satisfying recoil and punch. In an era dominated by Halo and its dual-weapon principle, reverting to ‘one-armed’ payloads proves to be detrimental. And Project: Snowblind offers up a huge arsenal (including a physics-based weapon which no doubt owes a debt to Half-Life 2) – having to cycle through your weapons or bio-enhancement options whilst seeking cover is never a winning tactic. In fact, Gamestyle would question the viability of these weapons. Are they merely ornamental – or is it simply a case of quantity over quality?

This dilemma tends to impact upon replayability of the game, despite its stature as one of the better Playstation 2 shooters. For those able to, Project: Snowblind includes the option for online deathmatches. Here the game makes commendable use of a limited service by offering support for sixteen players (although Gamestyle would recommend a lesser number for a smoother experience). The modes themselves offer nothing new, and are typically a rehash of what we’ve come to expect from the genre. The strong visual style is yet again backed up by the all-purpose Renderware engine; environments are highly-detailed, the resolution is crisp and the lighting effects are startling. The sound too is impressive, with the lone exception of stilted voice acting (which reminded Gamestyle of the dire Street Fighter movie).

In summation, Project: Snowblind is a tad better than we’d envisaged, but somehow lacks the finesse to be considered an essential purchase. However, don’t be dissuaded because there is much to enjoy if you can overlook its obvious design issues. Those who enjoyed the Red Faction series might consider trying this after the disappointment of Killzone.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

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Alien Hominid

Gamestyle Archive Intro: apart from the visuals I cannot recall much of this game today. What I did find amusing is the ‘kudos’ insert towards the end which is a word I’d never use in a review and must have been a post-edit insert. The game did finally arrive in the UK though but this NTSC release dates from December 2004.

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It’s all too easy nowadays to dismiss simplistic games in favour of those lavish blockbusters. Yet sometimes the simplest of ideas can translate into something beautiful and evergreen that flourishes long after the thrill of the ‘new’ has subsided. Alien Hominid is such a release, and consists of nothing more than shooting multiple opponents as you criss-cross the screen – Metal Slug style. Yet the energetic remit and vivid colour palette sears itself into your memory and burns ever longer because it’s been delivered at a budget price (well, at least in the US, where it’s also available on Gamecube).

Unfortunately, Alien Hominid has yet to appear on European shelves – and perhaps never will. This is indeed a bitter pill to swallow, as the game has clearly been cultivated by a loving and dedicated team. The storyline is different from the original Flash download (seven million freebies and counting): taking on the role of a yellow alien, you find yourself stranded on earth after the FBI brings down your spacecraft (and who thoughtfully remove any trace of debris and witnesses to the actual event). Without a direct route back home, you must now cross a series of challenging levels whilst being pursued by FBI agents who wouldn’t look out of place in The Matrix. Your goal is to reach the end – no mean feat, given the masses of opponents and huge bosses – and reclaim your ship before blasting off into outer space.

The hand-drawn graphical motif of Alien Hominid has been overshadowed these days; the novelty of the side-scroller perhaps being mistaken for the popularity of Viewtiful Joe, but the developers haven’t forgotten to include plenty of quirkiness (check out the screenshots for confirmation of this). Another blow is landed with the subtle humour on display, giving Alien Hominid a double dose of attitude; unmistakeable character that is rarely seen and certainly harking back to older platforms. Perhaps a reason for this is that Flash games tend to exist in a realm where normal releases do not. What Gamestyle is trying to say is that Flash animation relies on inventiveness, eye candy and lots of over-the-top violence. Translating this experience to a home console makes for something, well, a little explosive. And Gamestyle can’t help but attach itself to ’emotional’ experiences.

Alien Hominid might lack a scripted storyline, but trying to reach the end is a wellspring of emotion – for example: the joy of completing a level, the frustration accompanying failure, the self-deprecation or performance anxiety, the attendant fear of another boss encounter. By our reckoning, all of these emotions are fantastic – because far too many releases slip by without making any impression whatsoever. Without question, the game poses a real challenge for SNK devotees; at times the odds are impossibly stacked against you, and maintaining control in the midst of a bloodbath is nigh on impossible. In spite of this, Alien Hominid constantly stirs new challenges and options into the mix, thereby keeping itself fresh and interesting (where many other games would languish in difficulty).

If frustration boils over, then Behemoth have seen fit to include additional PDA games and a level editor. The PDA options are played out through a mock-screen interface with basic graphics, and offer more levels than Gamestyle might dare to count. But Behemoth didn’t stop there; adding several mini-games that adopt the visual style of the main story – including Pinata Boss and Neutron Ball – with more becoming unlocked as you progress through the game. It is also possible to play through the entire story with a friend, which does help to overcome those frequently-taxing moments.

At a time when the industry is becoming increasingly dominated by EA and other leviathan publishers whose portfolios are indistinguishable from licensed and generic brands, it’s refreshing to realise that games such as Alien Hominid are still being created. Kudos to the underlings.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Syberia II

Gamestyle Archive Intro: the joys of the point and click genre may be lost on the current generation. However it was a thrilling and challenging experience. Even after all these years I remember playing Syberia II just like it was November 2004 all over again.

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Point ‘n’ click adventures have never really found a home amid the confines of current consoles; their pace, difficulty, static screens and quirks are everything that our newfangled entertainment centres would rail against. The Broken Sword series may have found a receptive audience, but far fewer releases have dared to stray from their PC stable (with the obvious exception being the behemoth Myst series). So, with this in mind, Gamestyle opens its mind to Syberia II.

The original Syberia managed to fill a niche on the Playstation 2, and although the sequel has hereto arrived on Xbox, it’s hardly likely to be usurping the top shelf. With virtually no marketing or any form of public awareness, Syberia faded away – and while the sequel is perfectly enjoyable in its right, the first half of the story owes a debt of continuity to the original. It goes without saying that point ‘n’ click adventures are nothing without internal dialogue, and Syberia II’s opening moments lack any reprise for those who are new to the series.

Thus, you again adopt the role of Kate Walker, a New York lawyer taking sabbatical in a remote permafrost region of Europe. She has left everything behind to join Hans Voralberg on his lifelong quest to find the legendary Syberia (note: this partnership is already formed and outlined in the first game). What does become clear is that Kate’s former employers are desperate to have her back in New York – and many co-opted locals will stop at nothing to prevent this enterprising duo en route.

The storyline was penned by Benoit Sokal, a notable European comic strip creator, and Syberia’s world is very much his oyster; the characteristic designs, technology, and architectural style are all very distinctive. If Gamestyle were to draw parallels, then Sokal’s nearest contemporary would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet – the director of City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, and (unfortunately) Alien Resurrection. Thankfully, the genre allows you to fully appreciate his clockwork apparatuses spread amongst four principal areas; these devices evidently inform the practices and history of the region and are truly mesmerising – and the snow (which is everywhere) adds an ethereal touch.

Syberia II offers no surprises in gameplay terms, and remains fundamentally true to its ‘point ‘n’ click’ roots: there are no quick-timed events or periodic bursts of activity required here. What awaits the player are a series of logistical tests (aka: puzzles) that must be overcome in order to progress. Initially the goal may seem simple – such as fixing a train – but the tasks sporadically branch out to incorporate a host of characters and town locations. Unfortunately, this does require a great deal of trial-and-error (and even more backtracking); the genre infamously takes no prisoners – so, if you are already cringing at the thought of it, then Syberia II is certainly not for you.

The difficulty curve is steep, and will prove extremely frustrating for the unwary (as there is no in-game help or hint system to speak of). The key is dragging your cursor across every inch of the screen – waiting for it to change appearance – then engaging in conversations and breaking down tasks by a simplistic ‘division of labour’ approach. Connoisseurs of such adventures will no doubt find Syberia II fairly straightforward to play – if it weren’t for several intrusive (or hereditary, given its PC lineage) factors.

Where should Gamestyle start – as a fair degree of testing should have highlighted the following problems: firstly, pathways are never clearly defined and are often hidden behind objects (or compounded by the white blanket of snow in certain areas). To discover that hidden route – typically off-screen – it is best to let Kate run in a circle; eventually she’ll spin off in another direction. Adding to this frustration are invisible walls that are in plentiful supply at nearly every location; a need for pinpoint accuracy (when opening objects or activating items) which is not served by console controllers; and each screen takes far too long to load – which, married to the quality of backtracking involved, only serves to infuriate players.

Notwithstanding, Syberia II is worth playing for its wonderful story and desire to overcome these obstacles. There’s a real sense of satisfaction when a cut-scene ensues, but even these moments can be short-changed by some dreadful editing (and sequences sometimes finish abruptly; the direction here is certainly amiss and the scripting could’ve been more polished). On a more positive note, there are some picturesque locations (and hand-drawn visuals) accompanying Syberia II, and the soundtrack is suitably evocative. Gamestyle certainly enjoyed its time in the snow, and would advise point ‘n’ click travellers to wait until the retail price falls a notch before taking a chance on this distinguished adventure.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Mercenaries

Gamestyle Archive Intro: developers do get carried away with graphic engines and new possibilities. These fads soon pass but physics was high on some titles experience back during the PS2 era. This review is from January 2005 and JJ.

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Mercenaries is Rambo for a new generation. Pretty much everything within the sphere of the game can be obtained, utilised and destroyed. There is no distinction between friends or enemies; they only exist to offer contracts, and only care about the results. And this freedom is what makes the playground of Mercenaries so enjoyable. Cast into the wasteland of North Korea by your employer (Executive Operations), you are an elite mercenary given more chance of success than a whole army. By playing off four political parties against each other, you will obtain contracts and intelligence that will lead to the capture (or extermination) of wanted individuals in the North Korean regime.

Your targets are numerous, but they are conveniently listed in a deck of 52 cards (and mirror the US strategy for the war on terror). You have no political agenda – only a corporate desire for cash, and plenty of it. Anyone entering Pandemic’s playground will instantly be reminded of an infamous series by Rockstar North. And, while Gamestyle acknowledges the similarities, Mercenaries is moreover redolent of an earlier title by Rockstar – when they were previously known as DMA Design. Body Harvest, on the Nintendo 64, was an open-ended battlefield where the player waged war against alien invaders; where vehicles and missions could be juggled as the player saw fit. It is this blueprint that Pandemic has lifted and transformed into latter-day Mercenaries.

In terms of performance, the Playstation 2 engine is impressive, but the multi-format roots of this release have somewhat inhibited Pandemic’s expression. Mercenaries is played out over a commendably huge area – which is constantly streamed from the disc – yet the draw distance is distracting. It’s almost as if North Korea is suffering from industrial smog; taking to the skies wholly obscures the land mass and makes your flying experience a complete washout, while on the ground there are plenty of obstacles ready and willing to hamper your enjoyment (be it fences, lamp posts or some badly-textured foliage). The civilian population of North Korea is extremely sparse: residents march along pre-determined routes, bumping into buildings and such like. They have no real impact upon the player, save for becoming collateral damage (and costing the mercenary dearly in terms of cash penalties). Nevertheless, it can be fun finding the beginning of their route – where they suddenly pop out of a building – and then watching them shuffle about like Dawn of the Dead extras.

The controls are fairly well-implemented, although the lack of any lock-on option does prove frustrating. Every type of vehicle handles differently, and this also requires concentrated effort from the player (especially as the physics modelling would make Einstein weep). Mercenaries makes use of the ever-popular Havok engine, but collisions and explosions have been ‘jerry-rigged’ for theatrical effect; the casual observer may be spellbound, but the embattled player will have to battle on regardless. However, the soundtrack and staged effects are of the highest standard – suitably epic and providing a robust atmosphere. And, while the locals may not be up to much, the various occupying forces are authentic and accurately-voiced. Pandemic has avoided the pitfalls of relying solely on missions by introducing challenges and hiding secret plans across the landscape – completing or uncovering these will yield a helpful bonus (the opportunity to play as Hans Solo or Indiana Jones, for example).

However, the real highlight arrives in the form of the sinister ‘Merchant of Menace’ organisation (which shares a humorous subtext with the Ratchet & Clank series); here you can purchase commodities from their extensive catalogue, and have vital supplies flown in by helicopter. These are especially helpful if you find yourself outgunned, or low on heath or ammunition. Yet the merchants offer a good deal more in the form of air strikes and vehicles – rest assured if they can ship it, you can buy it. Having filled this virtual war zone with several conflicting sides, missions, and more weaponry than Saddam could ever dream of, it’s somewhat baffling that Gamestyle eventually grew tired of Mercenaries. For all of the shock and awe-inspiring excitement gleaned during the first few hours, the hunt for each wanted card (or playing off the Mafia against the Chinese or whomever) became tiresome – as did the relentless destruction. Mercenaries paints a vivid picture of freedom and choice, but the reality is much more vanilla: missions are unlocked and key North Korean personnel are triggered simply by your progress. There isn’t any skill involved in tracking down your next target – simply head to the location highlighted on your map.

Mercenaries is literally a ‘blast’ for a few hours, but it isn’t underpinned by the same qualities that defined the GTA series (or Body Harvest, for that matter). Like an empty warehouse it may be huge and imposing, but once inside your options are limited – and disappointingly so.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

La Pucelle: Tactics

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  a glut of tactical games arrived on the PS2 around 10 years ago and offered a new challenge for gamers. La Pucelle: Tactics isn’t the cream of the crop by far, yet acted as an introduction and tuning mechanism for future delights. This was an NTSC review from 2004 by JJ.

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The tactical element in games has come ahead in leaps and bounds. Kick-started by Final Fantasy Tactics, and helped along by Advance Wars, the true masters of the genre are a hitherto little-known Japanese developer called Nippon Ichi Software.

Following in the tradition of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (and Phantom Brave), La Pucelle: Tactics pitches the player within a world of grid-based battles – those expecting a challenge will not be disappointed, as the precursor to Disgaea is a worthy combatant indeed. Assuming the role of Prier, a young trainee, La Pucelle’s story captivates immediately (despite the somewhat dour presentation). Prier’s aim is to become a Maiden of the Light (the controlling church), and this will be achieved by overcoming demons and gaining new skills – notwithstanding the battle against her own personal demons.

There are some links with Disgaea (Prier was a secret character, in fact) but both releases can be thoroughly enjoyed as separate ventures; the danger currently facing the kingdom is a series of dark portals through which evil creatures have been unleashed. So, your ‘apprenticeship’ will be fairly hectic as new skills and tactics are introduced via steady ritual. The strength of the story is key to your motivation in La Pucelle: Tactics – as battles do become lengthy and formidable. Character interludes and revelations sit well within the scope of action, however the presentation isn’t all that it could’ve been (and perhaps would’ve looked more at home on the GBA or a 16-bit format). Nevertheless, it is an enchanting tale, and confirms that lengthy cut sequences are not always required when the story is so convincing. And perhaps the primitive, hand-drawn graphics – together with some accomplished voice acting – prove slightly refreshing in this all-too-predictable era of videogaming.

If the idea of constant levelling up and gaining experience points is not what you want from a game then La Pucelle is certainly not for you: this is heavy-duty statistical analysis and item-juggling, and probably explains its popularity with disenfranchised RPG players who are suffering hunger pains of late. The game is split into chapters, and only when you have completed one ‘epic’ stage, can you move onto the next morsel of exposition. There is the option to return to previous battles (if you fancy levelling up some more), but with newfound skills to exploit, it can become a little tiresome. The battles themselves are based on a grid structure, where everyone takes their turn – killing all your adversaries or throwing a necessary switch will typically expedite progress. However, demons will sometimes reappear and force a sudden re-evaluation of tactics; nothing ground-breaking to be sure, but the real paradigm is being able to purify enemies and harness their dark energies via a map – once this is achieved, a ‘miracle’ can occur.

Ultimately, the combat system provides greater strategic riches but it isn’t foolproof: you are able to move indefinitely (provided no action is taken) or otherwise control the flow of a dark portal (aka: movement of an opponent) if you’re conversant with the system. For all of its niceties, La Pucelle: Tactics is far from perfect. The interface is decidedly cumbersome and a nightmare to utilise, and there’s a great deal of additional information lurking beneath (details on enemies for instance). But it’s not freely available – you’ll have to go looking for these pearls.

Again, in keeping with other RTS titles like Front Mission 4, if you haven’t levelled up enough then eventually you’ll hit a wall: a battle from which you’ll have no hope of emerging victorious. And you’re certainly not helped by controls which are muddled and fiddly – in fact, it’s far from a conventional layout, and on several occasions you’ll find yourself cancelling moves rather than instigating them. This can make the pacing of battles seem extremely slow (and it does seem like an eternity has passed before your characters have levelled up). And, while the graphical style works, there is no denying that backdrops become repetitive and lack variety.

Gamestyle appreciates the grid-based limitations, but Future Tactics: The Uprising and Front Mission 4 managed so much more whilst shackled to the same formulae. Finally, even the story itself can be criticised for introducing too many side-quests (which might artificially elongate the playing time). La Pucelle: Tactics feels like an add-on pack which has been stretched too thin between the cracks of a cracking good yarn (see: Disgaea). While it’s a pleasant enough journey to take – before reaching the neighbourhood of Phantom Brave – unless you really love the work of Nippon Ichi (or indeed the genre), don’t expect to be revisiting this locale after you’re done.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10