Shadow of the Colossus

Gamestyle Archive Intro: a game that has grown over the years in stature. That’s Ico and the follow up which Usman reviews here with much praise. I’ll have to return to Colossus, after Ico I was expecting something else; such was the impact of the original. This review dates from late 2005 being an import version.

Sotc_boxart

Everyone remembers the pre-release hype surrounding the PS2 all those years ago, with buzzwords like ‘Emotion Engine’ ringing somewhat hollow for the first generation of games – well, all except for one: Ico. Its setting, graphical style and atmosphere made it more akin to a work of art than a game. In fact, it was one of those titles where Gamestyle would just stop playing to zoom out the camera and let out a long sigh (a reaction not dissimilar to gazing upon the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo or Da Vinci’s The Last Supper).

Shadow of the Colossus is no less breathtaking; if anything, it’s more so. Imagine taking your PS2 controller to the National Gallery and plugging it into any painting – because each scene and location is like a masterpiece come to life, thanks in no small part to the wonderful animation of your horse and the living architecture of temples, ruins and fortresses. And we haven’t even touched upon the Colossi – true giants that inhabit this landscape. Indeed, their appearance makes Shadow of the Colossus one of the most technically astounding games of this generation. It’s hard to describe the impact they have when you first lay eyes upon them; because it’s not just their overwhelming size, it’s their presence. So much so that when you carry out the main premise of the game (ie, to seek out and destroy these Colossi), each one feels like an epic conquest.

First you’ll stand in awe, just observing them in bewilderment, before realising that these creatures are coming towards you – sensing you’re a threat and driven to eliminate you before you do the same to them. It’s such an overpowering joy being so small, having to evade something so big and seemingly invincible, needing to hunt for their weaknesses; their Achilles heel. The strange thing is you’ll never feel like killing a Colossus out of desire, only out of compulsion (because you need to in order to progress). They come across as a greatly-endangered species, and each time one is taken down it feels like a sin. (And a little bit of Gamestyle’s heart crumbled with every creature’s defeat.) But therein lies Shadow’s strength. It’s essentially a game about riding though barren lands on horseback while fighting enormous bosses – that’s all, and there’s no denying that.

However, it achieves this in such an entrancing and delightful manner that it feels like more; a feeling that Gamestyle has yet to experience in any other game. In fact, Shadow of the Colossus breaks the mould, and calling it a ‘game’ feels like an insult. In fact, for the very first time, the ‘Emotion Engine’ could be justified – because that’s what makes Shadow special, its transparent yet subtle impact upon your senses. For instance, the soundtrack only plays in stereo, but it is so beautiful and captivating that it doesn’t need a surround mode.

The visual beauty, as has already been suggested, is a sight to behold even when viewed through a composite lens – and is actually quite a feat considering the ageing PS2 hardware. Further, in spite of the fact that it features a complimentary widescreen and progressive scan mode (in the NTSC version), Shadow of the Colossus’ normal display output manages to mock the whole hoo-ha about high definition gaming being essential for taking things to the next level, such is the subtle artistry.

For ten magical hours (which is roughly how long the game – er, ‘transformation’ – will last), it is an eye-opener as to what can be achieved with the interactive medium (well, apart from ultra-sharp resolutions of the same old thing). It manages to enlarge its scope from being something which entertains on a functional level to becoming something that emits enchantment and appreciation on a purely ’emotional’ level. Welcome to the next real dimension of the gaming world; welcome to Shadow of the Colossus.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Advertisements

Top Spin

Gamestyle Archive Intro: the joys of tennis were for all, during a brief span of a couple of years on the PS2 and Xbox. Sega of course had their own excellent series as Gopinath explains in this review dating from September 2005.

ps2_topspin

Can a game perceived as a Virtua Tennis rip-off on Xbox still do the business on Sony’s machine more than a year after the original was released? Gamestyle takes to the courts. Top Spin plays very similarly to Virtua Tennis, the least you’d expect from a tennis game these days.

The serves are played using the usual power bar – pressing one button to start the bar going and another to play the serve. You also have the choice of different strokes, backhands, forehands and lobs, and both serves and normal shots are complemented by a risk shot. Pressing the R1 button just before you take your shot or serve activates the risk mode, and you have to aim for the centre of a moving meter. Hit the middle and you’re rewarded with a devastating serve or shot – and the further from the middle you hit, the worse the serve/shot gets (with you sometimes hitting it straight out). The better you’re playing in the match, the slower the meter moves, so when you’re playing with confidence you’re more likely to gamble and win. It’s a nice touch to the standard formula but because there’s always the chance of you horribly messing up a shot, it’s unlikely that you’ll risk using the option often.

Away from the actual tennis, Top Spin has several modes of play, although most of them are standard Virtua Tennis fare. There are the usual exhibition and tournament modes, which can be customised to a large extent (so you can play however you want – including the splendid four-player option). The game’s depth is provided by career mode – another Virtua Tennis throwback – where you can create a player and compete in different tournaments around the world, improve your player’s abilities and earn some cash. Your player can be customised to a large degree, so you can create a very good representation of yourself if you have a photo or mirror nearby; an excellent addition to the PS2 version is EyeToy compatibility, so you can map your actual face onto the avatar. The customisation even goes as far as allowing you to choose which hand your player hits with, your style of play (power, precision etc.) or whether you prefer a one- or two-handed backhand.

At the start of the career mode, you have several options: you can choose to train with different coaches to improve various stats already bolstered by the mini-games (unfortunately, the developers didn’t study Virtua Tennis enough, as the mini-games aren’t in the same league – although they are entertaining the first few times); you can also play in several tournaments (which are limited at the beginning) and the better you do the more tournaments you can enter. To stand a chance, however, you have to spend quite a bit of time playing the training games to improve your player’s stats. Lastly, you can also try and bag yourself a sponsor (including real companies like Reebok and Adidas) who will provide you with cash (to pay for those expensive coaches) as well as fame and some nifty licensed equipment. Virtua Tennis… erm, Top Spin features a good variety of stadiums to play in – and includes all of the expected playing surfaces (which range from large courts like Wimbledon down to local courts next to your car parks).

Top Spin was the first Xbox tennis game to feature online play, and although it is very similar on the PS2 version, it lacks the great support of an online environment like Live! (however, this isn’t the developers’ fault). Since online PS2 tennis games are few and far between, this feature could well prove to be a great selling point for Top Spin, and fortunately it is implemented well; you can choose to look for a particular game or you can just join wherever someone’s free. Sony’s ageing hardware has taken its toll on Top Spin, leaving this conversion with decent graphics but not much else. A lot of the court textures look flat and the players are slightly angular (although it doesn’t detract from their life-like animation and appearance). Finally, the light sources don’t always correspond to the nice-looking shadows they cast.

The sounds are perfectly acceptable, with all of the usual grunts and groans, and a point of note is that the judge sounds very similar to the one featured in the Megadrive’s Pete Sampras ’96 (or perhaps we’re having flashbacks). The biggest problems with Top Spin are the incredibly bad loading times. It takes far too long to load up a match, considering how average the presentation is, and the transitions between menus are tedious. The developers have done a decent job, but not much more than establishing this as a good Virtua Tennis rip-off (with added online play and longer loading times). The best feature and probably the biggest selling point of Top Spin (at least over Virtua Tennis) is the online mode, so unless you plan on taking this online, grab a copy of the other title – the one which Gamestyle managed to mention eight times in the course of this flattering review.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

The Warriors

Gamestyle Archive intro: Andy takes us back to the video game of the classic film the Warriors. I know the film, but never played the game so maybe an overdue return myself? I do recall Manhunt though and those folks at Rockstar were never afraid of pushing boundaries.

the-warriors

It’s true. Gamestyle misses the beat ’em up – the halcyon days of Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Double Dragon. The genre was unable to make the transition to three dimensions without being marred by technical issues, and the few attempts to revive it have been badly received – both critically and commercially.

How odd, then, that one of today’s most influential publishers and developers, Rockstar (normally renowned for having their fingers on the pulse of gaming culture), have attempted to resurrect this near-dead genre. Even more curious is the fact that Rockstar’s latest effort is saddled to a film licence (think Catwoman or Bad Boys II). Oh dear. Can Rockstar breathe new life into two dead horses? Those who have seen the film (the viewing of which is by no means necessary to enjoy this title) will be impressed with the translation provided: given its fairly meagre 90-minute running time, the events of the film have had to be fleshed out to provide enough substance for a game and it’s here that Rockstar have excelled.

The developers have woven a compelling backstory which charts the rise of The Warriors through New York’s gang hierarchy, and which takes place three months prior to the events of the film. In addition, a number of ‘flashback’ missions are unlockable – which allows you to trace the very origins of the gang. This new material makes up for nearly half of the available missions, with the events of the film proper reserved for the last third of the game. Perhaps the best thing about The Warriors though is that Rockstar have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the celluloid original, perhaps more so than any previous film licence. The film’s opening intro is matched almost shot-for-shot in-game: the characters look just like their on-screen counterparts (even if their mouths do look like duck bills) and sound even better, thanks to nearly all of the film’s original cast reprising their roles.

The film’s unnerving score is also used to great effect, and the radio stations that provide commentary throughout can be listened to in The Warriors’ hideout (for example, to hear which ‘boppers’ – or gangs – are causing havoc). New York itself is almost as important stylistically as The Warriors. The city is portrayed as being dark and brooding: litter fills the streets, trains and buildings are daubed with graffiti, undesirable characters loiter throughout the levels; shops, car stereos and people’s wallets are all there for the taking, and passers-by will run for the police (or the local gang) when they see you misbehaving – but fear not as the streets offer plenty of secluded areas to hide until the heat dies down. However, regardless of how good the story and settings are, all good beat ’em ups need a decent control scheme. The Warriors doesn’t disappoint: the controls are deceptively simple, with only light and strong attacks and a grapple (although you can string together combos for added devastation and there’s a tutorial provided). Even better is that attacks are context-sensitive, so instead of executing a throw for example, you can smash your opponent’s face into a wall if you are close enough. It’s also possible to perform tag-team attacks with your fellow Warriors, as well as wield a variety of weapons – no guns though, although you might come across a knife (not to mention the assorted bricks, bottles and pieces of wood that are strewn about levels).

Sadly, there aren’t any whole roast chickens or hamburgers hidden in oil drums, but buying ‘flash’ can restore your health. Other Warriors will accompany you throughout your journey and they can be issued with commands – such as attack everyone nearby, or watch your back. Fortunately, their AI is pretty good and they can look after themselves in a fight (or handily destroy everything, should the mood arise). Of course, this being a Rockstar title, certain compulsory traits have exchanged hands: courtesy of Manhunt is the ability to hide in the shadows and use lures such as bottles and bricks to distract sentries (executing a particularly brutal attack induces a slow-motion close-up).

Courtesy of San Andreas, there’s a gym in The Warriors’ hideout – the use of which brings small stat bonuses – and completing the bonus missions scattered throughout the game earns you extra power-ups and items. It’s not all good news though. Inevitably, even with all of the attacks available, the action can become repetitive by the latter stages of the game, and the camera often struggles to keep up with the action (although it’s fully-adjustable by the player). And the two-player mode isn’t all that it could’ve been: the screen splits if you move away from each other and whilst this is a good idea, the execution is flawed (with the split being too small and the screens failing to merge quickly enough when players team up again). Still, at least the option is provided.

Despite these flaws, The Warriors is a joy to play. Yes, it’s incredibly brutal and vicious, but then what did you expect from a beat ’em up – especially one from Rockstar, who have never shied away from copious amounts of violence in their games? It might not be the deepest experience, but for a shot of pure action, you can’t go wrong. And yes, apparently Rockstar can revive two fallen genres with an almighty kiss of life and in doing so prove once again that they have the Midas touch. (Oh, and be sure to finish the game for an extra-special scrolling treat!)

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Resident Evil Outbreak File #2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: once the online gates were opened titles appeared eager to take advantage of this new avenue. Ultimately these rookies were trial and error with some interesting results including this Resident Evil adventure. The review dates from August 2005 and from Jason.

ResidentEvilOutbreakFile2

While Resident Evil Outbreak: File #2 represents the second instalment in the series, for PAL gamers it is the first opportunity to go online. The first European release was stripped of its online functions, and this unquestionably detracted from its appeal – thankfully, Capcom have put things right with the sequel and included online compatibility that’s not dissimilar to its Monster Hunter experience; of course this means navigating menus and options before going online, but given the alternative, this is something that Gamestyle can live with.

Once again you find yourself in Raccoon City, desperately trying to escape the havok caused by the T-virus outbreak. The attraction of this breakaway series is that the story is demoted in favour of various scenarios that you must overcome to escape the city limits. For instance, you may choose to venture into the Raccoon City Zoo (in the hope of being rescued by helicopter or using the underground transport network). Certainly, the city environs have been used to good effect, and Capcom have pieced together an imaginative choice of locations to terrorise fans of the series. The online experience doesn’t deviate too much from the successful recipe created by SEGA’s Phantasy Star Online: teamwork, communication and item management are the key to good gameplay. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the formula has been diluted and served up with remarkable ineffectiveness. Whilst zombies are typically slow-moving and predictable, the pace has been livened up with some more unusual creatures. However, there is little character exposition or biographical information provided for the eight characters on offer: each has their own unique talent (strong melee, lock-picking etc.) and each carries their own signature item (which may or may not prove useful).

It is disappointing that Capcom have failed to introduce any new characters to Resident Evil Outbreak: File #2, as those featured were all in the first game. They have also tried to invigorate the narrative by placing files and documents around each area – but these lack the intimacy of the transcripts found in Doom 3, for example, and can easily be ignored. The lack of voice communication is a shame, given that the online portion relies heavily on teamwork and communication. At times the action can erupt quickly, and the last thing that any player wants to do is type messages (using a USB keyboard or the cumbersome virtual keyboard). Capcom have utilised the right analogue stick to allow helpful commands – such as ‘follow me’ or ‘help’ – to be uttered instantly; it’s a patchwork solution to a problem easily remedied by the SOCOM headset (as supported by other games). Resident Evil just wouldn’t be the same without the infuriating control system, and File #2 is just as inflexible as those that have come before: imagine the aforementioned difficulties of communication, but merged with one of the most despised control systems of modern times – it’s far from an ideal combination, and with noticeable load times and lag during expeditions, Resident Evil Outbreak: File #2 is not the slick and intuitive experience Gamestyle had hoped for.

Another major fault with the series is fixed camera angles: these online environments are expansive and contain dangers that often linger off screen until you stumble straight into their welcoming arms. Many camera angles are employed simply to show off the environment and hardly of benefit to players. Games such as PSO were spread across sizeable levels, but used natural or artificial barriers to allow you to follow, assist and defend teammates with ease; this benefit is lost as teams of four can run off in all directions – only coming together when the game calls for teamwork. And it’s these moments when you have to push an obstacle or open a door (in unison) that the only glimmer of satisfaction appears. There are some good ideas within the game, such as being able to swim during certain stages, but these asides are never exploited – they simply exist to get the player to the next point, and for no other reason.

The ‘virus infection’ meter shows how badly you are infected, and if the virus begins to spread the inevitable occurs. It’s a nice touch that is complimented by the on-screen quirks of your character (who slowly begins to lose pace before sinking to the ground). Resident Evil Outbreak: File #2 often plays and feels like a solo adventure, albeit with a few mates tacked on for laughs. This is its biggest drawback as the game has been touted as an online ‘multiplayer’ experience – but it just doesn’t deliver. In truth, Resident Evil was always single-player-focused, and somehow the atmosphere was more intriguing and unsettling because of it. Online you’re either left to guide rookies or follow experienced pros going through the level for the twenty-fifth time. Capcom have tried to inject some community feeling by organising special events where unique items can be collected – but all too often this just encourages greed and self-interest, particularly as the game is loaded with unique items for each scenario (and some specific to each character, although many verge on the ridiculous).

In summation, the game can only be seen as a disappointment for those expecting an online extravaganza (or for series veterans looking for something new). Gamestyle could argue that an online multiplayer Resident Evil game should never work – but File #2 suggests that with a solid design and grasp of what makes online games so enjoyable, the series could well thrive in the next online generation. However, if Capcom persists with the same cumbersome control system and predictable dynamics, then Resident Evil will remain true to form – best enjoyed on your own, and offline.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Golden Age of Racing

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Andy takes us back to a golden age of racing on the PlayStation 2 for this budget historical release. Ready, set, GO!

golden_age_racing_ps2

Something is happening on the PS2; something that usually only occurs in the PC games market – that something is a veritable explosion of budget titles. Not only are budget re-releases of the platform’s most popular titles selling like hot cakes, but there also exists a thriving market for new games from smaller independent studios and publishers.

Golden Age of Racing falls into this latter category and, as the title suggests, harks back to a time when the Grand Prix was just that (and not the two-hour yawnfest it has become). Men were men and didn’t need things like ‘aerodynamics’ or ‘downforce’ – just a bloody great big engine strapped into a fibreglass tube. Golden Age ditches arcade-style action in favour of a more realistic approach, and whilst the game doesn’t feature any licensed cars or tracks, what it does do is successfully evoke the spirit of one of motorsport’s bygone eras.

First impressions of Golden Age of Racing aren’t particularly good, as the presentation has a distinctly ‘low rent’ feel about it. There’s none of the usual introductions we’ve become accustomed to, just a loading screen followed by a menu screen. The bare minimum of game modes are on offer: time trials, exhibition, championship, and two-player split-screen (although this mode was disabled in the code provided to Gamestyle). There’s also a trophy room where you can gloat over your silverware – or more likely shed a tear at your inability to win any meaningful trophies.

The first thing you’ll notice when you start racing is that there’s no map of the circuit – that’s right, apparently ‘proper’ Grand Prix drivers didn’t need puny reminders of where they were going. It takes mere moments to realise what a dreadful omission this is, as corners are poorly defined or not signposted. This means that more often than not you’ll carry too much speed into a bend and find yourself hitting the gravel (or a wall). This is frustrating, to say the least, and until you’ve really learnt the tracks, there’s little option but to slow almost to a complete stop when attempting corners.

The handling of the cars can also prove to be exasperating. The overpowered rear-wheel beasts fly in a straight line, but try and manoeuvre them at any sort of speed without first-hand knowlege of their handling, and you’ll find yourself spinning off the circuit – a lot. There’s a handful of different cars on offer, but there’s very little between them (except for the predictable variations in top speed and handling ability). It’s also possible to visibly damage your car, inasmuch as you can smash the front or back suspension – making cornering more difficult or reducing your car’s top speed, depending on what you break. These two flaws combined mean there is virtually nothing here by way of a ‘quick-fix’ (as one might expect from a racing game, or indeed for the novice racer).

Hours of practice are required to really get to grips with the game and to mount a credible challenge in championship mode. Of course, this also means that by the time you get to the championship, you’ve probably seen more or less everything the game has to offer (save for a handful of unlockable extras). The championship mode does have a variable difficulty setting, but this only extends to the AI of the other drivers. Bizarrely, for a game pitching itself as a realistic interpretation of Grand Prix racing, the crash physics are almost improbable; after some collisions (where carnage is expected), nothing else happens. At other times, low-speed impact results in cars flying wildly into the air, only to land and continue racing.

Gamestyle suspects that this provides fuel for Golden Age’s replay feature (which allows you to stop and review the action at any point in the race). Whilst amusing the first couple of times you use it, the novelty soon wears off. At first glance, the game looks pretty enough; the cars are realistic and well-detailed – skidding round a corner results in tyre tracks being left on the road and smoke coming from the tyres. Look a little deeper though and you’ll soon notice that the backgrounds are very unconvincing, replete with cardboard crowds and abhorrent trees. Everything’s very jaggy as well and when things get busy on screen the framerate drops – not good.

Sonically, Golden Age of Racing also fails to convince: there’s only one short loop of lounge-styled music played ad infinitum over the menu screen, and that’s it. The cars mostly make the right noises in all the right places, although there’s a peculiar ‘knocking’ noise too; Gamestyle has been unable to determine if this constitutes suspension rattling or the brakes being applied. Golden Age of Racing ultimately disappoints with its difficulty. Whilst Gamestyle agrees that games should provide a sound challenge, that challenge shouldn’t come at the cost of excluding all those who haven’t already sunk hours of practice into the game.

Worst still, a budget price tag shouldn’t equate to cut-down graphics and presentation. Nevertheless, there is something here for hardcore racing fanatics or those truly willing to put the hours in. For the rest us however, this game is best given a miss – because the cheap price point doesn’t compensate for the control pads you’ll destroy in frustration.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Ace Combat: Squadron Leader

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  here’s a rarity where Richard tackles a PlayStation 2 title. Richard or Mr Ten as I like to think of him now was most at home on a Nintendo console or later on the Xbox. He loved to give out a ten score particularly for the Gamecube and rattled up quite a few perfect reviews! 

This review dates from February 2005 and the game was released as Ace Combat: Squadron Leader in Europe but was known as Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War in other territories.

acecombat5

Ace Combat: Squadron Leader (or Ace Combat 5 as we’ll refer to it) is the latest instalment in the long-standing Ace Combat series which began life as a launch title for the original Playstation – then entitled Air Combat – and has since become the most popular flight simulator series on console.

Although Ace Combat 5 doesn’t take huge strides to advance the series, it most certainly will not disappoint fans. Like Ace Combat 4, there is a story-driven narrative that follows the single-player campaign. At the beginning it is a time of peace, however, after a short skirmish between fighters, two neighbouring countries are thrown into war. Throughout the campaign you will move up in rank and take control of more pilots and their fighters (you will even gain insight into the politics behind the war). Unlike Ace Combat 4, the storyline here is intertwined with the missions, and these vary greatly throughout the game. Some will be simple air-to-air missions, while others will involve jamming the aircraft that hide your targets.

Some airborne missions even require you to weave between radar coverage areas and lead a friendly plane to safety. Air-to-surface missions may include land and sea battles against a variety of targets (such as ships, tanks, and personnel carriers). However, most of the missions include a mix of air and land targets: an example of this would be a C130 deploying tanks by parachute, requiring you to fend off their escorts while providing close air support to friendly ground troops. The variety of missions keeps things fresh from beginning to end. Upon beginning the game, you will be assigned a certain fighter plane. Throughout the missions you will acquire credits which will unlock planes – over fifty licensed planes are available, including many different loadouts of special weapons. Special weapons, such as advanced air-to-air missiles for taking down long-range fighters or cluster bombs for multiple ground targets, are used periodically to add a layer of strategy to the game.

One aspect of Ace Combat 5 that surpasses its predecessor is the graphics. The fighter planes are all photorealistically-modelled, and details such as missile contrails, jet exhaust, and auto cannon-tracers add much to the visual experience. The skies and clouds have received a small makeover from the previous game and sun flares are as beautiful and blinding as ever; you will notice this the first time an enemy fighter uses the sun to evade you. Your plane’s lighting effects are all done in realtime, based on the positioning of the sun. Since many of the missions take place over the ocean, much attention has been paid to how the water looks – light reflects off the ocean and other bodies of water as well.

Another characteristic of the Ace Combat series that sets it apart from other flight games is the controls. Although you can choose a more simplistic control scheme, the default settings are the closest yet to how a plane is really piloted – pushing to the left or right will only make your plane roll, to turn you will need to use this in combination with your pitch controls. Lateral motion is possible with the yaw controls, but with the left and right shoulder buttons it is severely limited, and used mostly for small corrections, mid-air refuelling, and zeroing in for auto-cannon kills. The map button doubles as your radar button, and uses analogue sensitivity to show more of the area the harder you press (you can also issue commands to your wingmen using the directional pad).

The controls, while numerous, are very well laid-out and afford complete control over your aircraft. The only issue that keeps this game from greatness is the lack of multiplayer gameplay.  Ace Combat 4 continued the series’ staple of split-screen versus play; at the very least, Ace Combat 5 should have taken advantage of current technology to provide online play – but instead there is neither. Namco has included an arcade mode (featuring wave upon wave of planes) that should placate those who have finished the single-player campaign. Ace Combat: Squadron Leader is a worthy successor to the Ace Combat series in almost every respect. Fans will love this game and many more may succumb to its charm. The one major flaw is its lack of multiplayer options, however, if you are a flight game fan, there can be no doubting the veracity of the Ace Combat motto: “Nothing else comes close.”

Gamestyle Score:  8/10

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Gopinath takes on the thankless gig of reviewing Charlie and the Chocolate factory in 2005.

ps2_charliechocolatefactory

A game based on the enigmatic, zany and (when played by Mr Depp) dark Willy Wonka could have been great, but developers High Voltage have chosen to focus instead on Charlie for this videogame cash-in, unlike the film. Have they created a delicious gaming morsel, possibly worthy of the great Willy’s factory, or have we instead ended up with another film cash-in more at home on Electronic Arts’ factory line?

The first thing that should be made clear is that this game, plot wise, has nothing to do with Tim Burton’s film. There’s no eccentric Johnny Depp Willy Wonka and no Oompa Loompa songs about mischievous children – instead, the plot revolves around Charlie. The game begins with you chasing a ten dollar note (yes, dollar; unfortunately the game fails to keep to the book’s original British setting). This then eventually leads to Charlie winning one of the famed Golden Tickets – an invitation to tour Willy Wonka’s famous Chocolate Factory. The game changes Charlie’s role in the plot completely: unlike in the book, once one of the greedy children have performed their naughty deeds and are reaping their just desserts (intended pun), the player, as Charlie, is then expected to try and rescue them or clean up the mess they leave behind, aided by a band of Oompa Loompas. Therefore, the game’s levels consist of having to clean up the machinery that sucks Augustus Gloop up the chocolate river, or stopping Veruca Salt from being incinerated. There are different types of Oompa Loompas, each conveniently fitting the role required for each of the tasks set before you.

The player has to choose when they should use a ‘gatherer’ Oompa Loompa or a ‘welder’ Oompa Loompa, etc. The correct selection of Oompa Loompa determines the success or failure of the task. Far from being a complaint about the game not following the original plot, the above comments should instead be taken as praise for the developers’ initiative to explore a different side of the license; however, what High Voltage have failed to do is to take an interesting concept then apply it in an interesting way. Each level requires the player to follow a sequence of tasks to achieve an end goal, and then repeat those tasks several times to finish the level. Having to do the sequence twice is boring and repetitive: the player often has to do them four times.

The controls also don’t help: you’ll often find yourself pressing buttons several times in frustration, trying to get an Oompa Loompa to do your bidding, while he just stands there shrugging his shoulders. Once you’ve finally got your Oompa Loompa to carry out your orders, your patience is then tested again as you have to watch them trying to navigate their way around (but most often into) the scenery. Unfortunately you can’t tell them exactly how to get to their destination, you just have to sit back and hope they work it out for themselves. The poor controls, including the feeling of unresponsiveness, flow over into the platform sections too: you may end up button bashing in the hope that, for instance, Charlie will eventually understand that he’s supposed to be jumping now.

The camera is also poorly implemented and moves around a lot, then gets stuck behind scenery. The plot is presented by stylish cartoon movies that narrate the story very well and in an interesting way; these are definitely one of the few plus points of the game. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the in-game graphics, as they don’t seem inspired at all by either the distinctive visuals of the film, or the imaginative descriptions of the book. Instead of a busy and vibrant factory, you are often presented with levels that are devoid of detail, and one of the game’s main stars, the sweets themselves, only come in two generic types – bars of chocolate or power dots. Another of the game’s few highlights are the music and sound.

Considering the general disappointed tone of the review so far, it may be a surprise to find that the entire cast (minus Johnny Depp) is included in the game’s voiceovers, and they do a very good job of bringing their characters to life. The addition of some Oompa Loompa music would have done wonders for the game, so it’s a shame that they’re completely missing. Unfortunately, despite the great effort that seems to have been put in the sound department, the rest of the game is very poor. The game play is too repetitive and a combination of poor controls and poor visuals make it frustrating to complete the levels.

It’s hard to imagine many people, whatever their ages, having the supreme patience to actually sit through more than a few hours of this game. If you really do have to buy this game, the Xbox version would be the console version to go for (the PC version was made by a different developer and is quite different to the console versions), as it features Dolby Digital sound and support for high resolution video. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is potentially a great licence for a game, but unfortunately High Voltage have failed to live up to that potential.

Gamestyle Score: 3/10

God of War

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Usman takes us through the first release in what would become a classic franchise for the PlayStation 2. Hugely popular at the time, God of War went down exceptionally well at Gamestyle Towers receiving a 9, which is about as good as it gets. This review dates from the summer of 2005.

ps2_god_of_war

Breasts. Yes, breasts. That dubious BMX release, The Getaway, The Guy Game; they’ve all used bare boobies to catch the attention of the male-dominated gaming market. They were also all crap. They used female chests in the same way a game can use a movie license, and we all know where that can lead.

God of War has bare breasts on a small number of occasions; hell, one time you even get a mini game where you get rewarded if you pleasure two women at once! Yet God of War has broken away from the nudity curse; it is an epic from start to finish and, aside from a few frustrating moments, it’s a ‘pleasure’ all the way through. The game takes its foundation on Greek mythology, and it carries this off surprisingly well to provide an atmosphere and world that’s both faithful to its setting and yet not lacking in flair or imagination.

You play a warrior of the Gods, Kratos, whose story in the game is revealed piece by piece in an enticing manner which doesn’t get in the way of the action, yet holds the interest of the player. His journey takes you across a seamless set of locations which mesh together beautifully. There is no noticeable loading which is a ‘godsend’ in this day and age and, bar the boat at the start, the game feels like one huge level. It can be compared to Devil May Cry in gameplay terms due to the vantage point of the combat and the combos that can be racked up; but God of War is a lot more close-up and ultimately brutal; you can approach your enemies, grab them and rip them in half by tearing their torsos apart. In fact when you see fear-stricken humans running about, cold old Kratos can stab them several times while holding them up to gain extra life.

The game reeks “oomph” when you pull off these execution moves and, with the more difficult enemies and bosses, QTE button prompts will mean very visually entertaining ends to the foes you fight. While you begin the game with few moves, more become available, as well as a limited range of magic by collecting red orbs (sound familiar, Dante?). While there is no huge range of weapons (just the two), you always get your upgrades just when you need them. Regardless, by no means will you spend time in the menu upgrading or learning the moves; the game, aside from a few puzzle sections, is non stop nosebleed action. You’ll be using the same moves a lot and fighting the same enemies, but it does not become repetitive. So let’s see: not many weapons, not much variety, and it’s not very long either (the longest it will take you is 10 hours). Oh, and there are one or two moments which will have you tearing your hair out with frustration. And yet, it is probably the most memorable game that Gamestyle played this year. Why? It’s how God of War is presented and the atmosphere it poses that makes this game so much fun… and a jaw dropper to boot.

The score could easily be mistaken for one of a Hollywood epic and the game itself looks amazing on the ageing PS2; if you get hold of the import version, and you have the appropriate display means, you can even play the game in progressive scan. Yet, aside from that, you have widescreen and surround sound options to pay homage to the grandeur of God of War. The scale of the locations is breathtaking. At one time you’ll be walking down the path of a burning Athens, and you’ll see such a huge battle taking place in the background that you’ll probably stop to gawp at it. And the first time you find out where “Panadora’s temple” is will actually have you smiling. The cut scenes follow the same polished standard and are a joy to watch, but all in all God of War is like a tourist attraction simulator with a great action game thrown in. It’s definitely the former that makes the latter so great. Despite that, there will be times when you’re fighting a score of enemies at once and you’ll rack up a 200-hit combo without taking a hit; you’ll have a huge grin across your face, and if you’re enjoying the game too much you may even throw the controller down and scream in a brutish manly way (not that Gamestyle did of course).

The game remains smooth throughout. There was one time where Gamestyle hit some slowdown, but that was because there was an unprecedented amount of enemies on screen and it didn’t happen again. There were also a few bugs when Gamestyle could hit enemies through walls, but this proved to be an advantage and not something irritating as such. Gamestyle suggests playing the game on Spartan (hard) mode, as normal seems a tad too easy and the game is a lot more fun when it’s challenging – besides, you’ll want to savour every moment and every battle. There’ll be extras when the game is over, which provide another hour or two of entertainment. It’s unlikely that Gamestyle will be returning to play God of War anytime soon, but the memory of it will always stay in our hearts. It is by no means a perfect game, but it is one that simply must be played by every PS2 owner. It’s like that blockbuster movie that you know won’t be too deep or make you think, but nevertheless will be an essential experience to go and see it. Don’t miss out on this at any cost. If you need a bit more convincing, just remember: you get to have a threesome.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

killer7

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Gareth takes us back over this Gamecube classic from Capcom, which is already in the archive with the GC version. This review dates from July 2005, over 10 years ago – how times flies!

killer7ps2

Not so long ago, Capcom announced five games that they said would bring back gaming innovation to the industry. First up was the rhythm-action styled shooter PN.03, and then came the sublime slice of description-defying slow-motion brilliance that was Viewtiful Joe. These two gems were followed by, what many people feel to be, the best game of the generation – Resident Evil 4. Somewhere along the way ‘Phoenix’ sadly bit the dust, and now after months of rumours and smoke and mirror shows we have the last instalment… killer7.

killer7 is set in the year 2003. A terrorist group know as the Heaven Smiles are causing death and destruction across the globe using strange demonic laughing bombs. The only solution to combat them is Harman Smith and his seven highly skilled assassin personalities. It is fair to say that the plot starts out obscure and confusing, gradually feeding you information about both the killer7 group and the treachery that is going on in the governments of the world. It is only during later sections of the game that things begin to tie up a little more coherently.

The first thing that strikes you about killer7 is the game’s neo-noir tinged anime style; truly there has never been a title presented with such gloriously detached visuals. To begin with it can be hard to feel part of the playing experience as the game keeps you at arm’s length with the obscure visuals, meaning many gamers will see nothing to relate the on screen experience to. After a while the killer7 ethos begins to wind its way into the subconscious, and once you have become accustomed to it, you realise there is actually an interesting game underneath it all. Separating the visual aspect of the game from the gameplay is impossible. Capcom’s title turns what we perceive a game to be on its head.

killer7 is as much about what you are taking in visually and sonically as it is about what you are doing. Controls are simple: press one button to move forward along a pre-determined path and another to turn 180 degrees. That’s essentially it. At junctions you can choose which route to take by moving the analogue stick (something that can be awkward). Combat involves holding R1 to move into a first person perspective then pressing L1 to scan for enemies; once discovered, they can be shot at. It works like an on-rails light gun game, but with a controller, and after a while will become second nature to you.

More so than most titles, killer7 is a game you have to become accustomed to – mainly due to it being rather obscure. It requires players to re-evaluate how they use their gaming skills and many may become frustrated early on. Really you need to make it through the first mission before you will know if you like the game or not, and for a lot of people that may require too much effort. Once the first mission is out the way you should find that thinking in the ‘killer7 way’ is as instinctive as double jumping or duel wielding. Helping players along is a very useful (if spoiling) map that shows the location of objects, save rooms and where each member of the killer7 will be needed to use their unique abilities in order to proceed. It does take some of the adventure aspect away from the title, having everything pretty much laid out for you, but there is so much for your overwhelmed senses to take in that most will be glad of it.

Each level varies nicely in terms of location and enemy type so there is always something new to see and explore. Your personalities can also be levelled up with the blood taken from fallen Heaven Smiles, giving them new skills along with the usual health and power upgrades. Couple this with the excellent cut scenes that appear during and between levels and you may find you just have to know what happens next. The further you go into the stylish-yet-twisted world, the more interesting it gets and the more accustomed to it you become. It is fair to say that killer7 has probably turned out pretty much exactly how the developers wanted it to. There are definitely no broken controls or gaping flaws outside of the player’s inability to gel with the subject matter or not being able to adapt their skills to it. It is hard to imagine any way the game could be changed to make it better; there simply has never been anything like this before. It is testament to the development team that it actually works when, for long periods of time, no one could quite work out how on earth there was going to be any actual ‘game’ in there.

With the PS2 version come a few technical problems however. The console shows its age at an ever increasing rate these days, so it was always going to struggle with a title initially designed for the Gamecube. The visuals have not really suffered at all but, no doubt as a result of this, there are long loading times. This would not be so bad but every new room or section you enter triggers a four second (at least) loading screen. As you will need to move back and forth a lot to change personalities and use objects this can become annoying. The PS2 version also suffers from bouts of slowdown during combat; this is both very noticeable and highly off-putting. Luckily it only seems to occur after a shot has been fired so at least it will not trouble your aiming when you are under pressure. The best thing we can say about it is that you get used to it and it does not detract from the experience too much.

Overall, Capcom has delivered another unique title that makes us think about gaming in a different way. No doubt hardly anyone will buy it (much like the other members of the ‘big five’) but that is their loss. killer7 represents an original and highly risky concept that could have gone horribly wrong; but due to the skill of the development team we have a highly innovative and visually visceral title that pushes both our senses and the boundaries of what we consider a game to be. We can only hope Capcom keep making such wonderfully unique titles long into the future. There is no denying that it takes some getting used to, but give killer7 a chance and you just may grow to love it. Chances are though, with reduced loadings times and no slow down you may love the Gamecube version more.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Anna takes us down a popular PS1 title in new surroundings from this review towards the end of 2004.

spyrohero

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail (ho) is easily the best post-PS1 Spyro title, and it’s obvious that the developers have really thought about some parts of the game. However, push the PS2 et al to their limits this doesn’t. Graphically, this game is decent. That said, it’s nothing at all impressive: we’ve all seen much better, and the draw distance is at times disconcertingly short.

Baddies also teleport into existence when you approach their patches, which may be intended to surprise but it seems more like laziness with regards to animating distant enemies. There are also a few irritating invisible walls around platforms that one should otherwise be able to reach. Perhaps the developers didn’t expect the player to try and explore off the game’s path so much, but it’s nice to have the option.

This game’s a first for the Spyro series in that the worlds aren’t broken up into discrete levels accessible only via portals: each of the four realms (obligatory ice one and lava one included) and its sublevels are all part of the same landmass, and one can walk from any part of a realm to another with no loading times. But it’s often quicker to just teleport there, which one can do with the aid of a ticket bought from Moneybags (a bear in a fez) for 100 shinies a pop. As well as teleport tickets, from the shop pads one can buy all manner of things including more ammo for super-attacks, keys for opening chests, and magic butterflies to restore Spyro’s health (bizarrely, Sparx the dragonfly eats them but it’s Spyro who benefits). Whilst the pads are very useful, they get irritating very quickly: every time you approach one, a green holographic Moneybags pops up and spouts a one-liner. Every time. Make him stop!

The rest of the game is surprisingly non-irritating for a magic land populated by faerie, magic crystals, and fluffy sheep, and in which even the baddies look harmless and cuddly and as though they would probably prefer discussing your differences over a plate of biscuits (and when you do choose to end their existences, they explode in a cloud of pretty bubbles). The dialogue is often genuinely funny (especially of note is the very camp Elder Magnus, who is also pink) and the voice-acting isn’t chummily goofy as has been the case in past titles. As is the standard for Spyro’s adventures, and indeed for most platformers, the main object of the game is to collect various artefacts; in this case being light gems, dark gems and dragon eggs. Light and dark gems lead the way forward, with light gems powering machines and dark ones opening boss areas. The eggs are optional and collecting them unlocks goodies, such as concept art and the ability to play as Ember or Flame (basically Spyro in drag) instead of El Purple One.

Eggs and light gems can be found hidden in cunning places or in locked chests, but a lot of them you’ll get as rewards for helping the inept natives. Their errands include using cannons to defend baby turtles from vultures, activating water-wheels so that an otter can go surfing, and pushing rock-monsters off cliffs to avenge a disgruntled hyena. In addition to Spyro, there are a few short sections in which Spyro stands aside to allow another character a moment of glory. Sadly, these aren’t much fun compared to the main levels, playing rather like a gaming equivalent of cutting room floor sweepings. Furthermore, their sections are all separate from Spyro’s. This, in Gamestyle’s opinion, makes the idea of multiple characters rather pointless: they can’t help each other bypass obstacles or assist each other in combat. Hunter the cheetah and Blink the mole have free-roaming sections, mostly involving jumping from platform to platform (a lot of which is buttock-clenchingly pixel-perfect in its demands). Both of them also have long-range weapons with zooms, and use explosives to break down doors. They’re only really set apart by the fact that Hunter can climb walls whereas Blink can brachiate (rather nimbly for a talpidine, too).

Sparx the dragonfly and Sgt. Byrd the tanked-up penguin are both flying shooters; Sparx on rails and the Sgt. (whose levels are easily the most enjoyable of all the non-Spyro ones) in an open-air assault course with hoops to fly through and aloft enemies to gun down. Whilst Spyro in the hands of Insomniac showed that cutesy games can still be challenging and testing (a formula taken to excess by the saccharine-flavoured but corundum-hard Croc games), A Hero’s Tail unfortunately doesn’t try as hard to overturn first impressions. Whilst this game is thankfully not patronising and does have a difficulty curve, and is pretty unforgiving checkpoint-wise, it really won’t have one foaming at the mouth (or any other orifices) with frustration. The final boss is laughably easy, even though failure will take you right back to the beginning of the battle and not just the start of the round.

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail is a nice game. It’s brightly-coloured, cheerful and inoffensive, and is a great title with which to unwind when you’re too feeling too frazzled or cack-handed to attempt a manlier game like Devil May Cry or Onimusha (although you may want to play some of those afterwards to get rid of the cute and sparkly aftertaste). If you’re not generally a fan of platformers, you’d be better off with a title that better showcases the genre, like Jak (a few ideas from which have been sneakily ‘borrowed’ for A Hero’s Tail) or Ratchet. Otherwise, this is a pretty little game that platforming fans shall find an enjoying diversion.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10