Serious Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

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Rally Fusion: Race of Champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

FIFA 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10