The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gamestyle Archive Intro: slightly incomplete review this one, but I think its just the last line or few words, therefore felt best to release it online once again. Here Alex goes all dwarf and Tolkien on us with the Xbox version of the game. This review dates from October 2002, my goodness that’s almost 14 years ago!

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Who else could have managed to afford what is currently one of the hottest film licenses in existance, if not Electronic Arts? Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is hot property, and rightly so – few can argue that he hasn’t managed to capture the essence of the tale quite beautifully and delicately – and whilst EA weren’t quick enough to get a videogame out based on the first tale alone, they’ve settled for using the best action-based sequences from both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers; the marketing department clearly deciding that naming the game after the most current episode in the threesome would be most commercially rewarding.

So, the Stormfront produced title features what EA felt were the areas of the pictures that would translate best to the style of game they were developing; namely an action beat-em-up. This is in direct contrast to the Vivendi published game (on all formats) based squarely around Tolkien’s original books, which is much more of an action/adventure game that does not possess the New Line license, and so relies more on story-telling and character building. EA’s Lord of the Rings game does not attempt to tell a coherent story, or develop any characters (aside from some rudimentary RPG-lite levelling up) and instead opts for a disappointingly linear Gauntlet style affair, yet reduces what made Gauntlet enjoyable by stripping any notion of multiple players completely away – sure, you might very well be fighting alongside AI-driven Fellowship members, but there’s no substitute for some good old fashioned co-operative gaming (see the console versions of Baldurs Gate).

The Two Towers, then, is a small selection of levels based (fairly accurately) around the likes of Weathertop, Moria and (obviously) Helm’s Deep. However, on first booting the disk you’re first forced to watch through the prologue, taken directly from the first film’s introduction (but raped of the glorious anamorphic widescreen mode, both in pre-rendered and realtime graphics). The Battle of The Last Alliance looks good, still, but you’ve seen it all before; at least, that is, until the bit you don’t quite remember. It’s here that you realise what Stormfront have just done – they’ve melded the movie footage directly into the game – there’s a brief second before you work out what’s happening and then it clicks – you’re suddenly in control of Isildur, and there’s hundreds of orcs all around you.

Impressive? At first. Sadly your movement is severly restricted (a theme that’s continued throughout the other levels) and you can’t really die as it’s just an introduction, so you’re left mashing the buttons trying to work out what does what, and why. It looks great though, in a kind of Dynasty Warriors way, with lots of poorly AI’d friends and foe running about like 5 year olds playing football. Anyway, after Sauron appears and the game blends back into the film footage, it’s fast forward to Weathertop, and you’re placed in control of Aragorn against the Nasgul. Again, it’s a very small play area, and the combat is, at this stage, incredibly basic. It’s only after Weathertop that you begin to accumulate experience points (which can be used to buy new moves and a larger health bar) and therefore level up your character, because from now on you can select between the aforementioned ranger; Legolas the elf, or Gimli the dwarf. They play on the standard balanced player characters often seen in games like this – Legolas has good speed, excellent ranged skills, but is poor with close combat and his defense is lower than the others. Gimli, predictably, is great with his axe, and hard as nails, but is next to useless with his throwing action; Aragorn sits somewhere inbetween and is the safest option for the first play through (the game rewards those who obtain level 10 with all 3 characters).

The later stages do try to offer larger play areas, although Balin’s Tomb in Moria reverts back to the one room ethos used earlier in the game, although to be fair it does work in that particular instance – there’s just something enjoyable about being trapped in a room with all the Fellowship being sieged by hundreds of orcs, even if the obvious level boss is somewhat dull in it’s delivery. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the bigger stages offer a free-roaming aspect, though, you’re led down one path, through enemies that are always in the same place each run through and trigger exactly the same pre-set events, and for the most part are despatched in exactly the same way.

Some repetition is avoided, however, as EA have thankfully allowed the gamer to restart at the level boss rather than at the very beginning of the level should the likes of the Watcher in the Water or Lurtz finish you off. I’d be surprised if they did more than once, though, the patterns are boring, predictable and somewhat an insult to the intelligence of the gamers the software is aimed at. The movie-fabricated Uruc-hai in-particular can be beaten by simply hiding behind a pillar and then using your fierce attack move (Y on the controller, as opposed to A which is a quick attack) when his blade is stuck in the rock. Some respite to the repetition can be garnered from the moves you can ‘purchase’ between levels – these take the form of button combos and holding down various charged moves, but there’s also improvements to your ranged attacks (barbed arrows being the first) and larger health bars. It’s not much, but it does offer at least a reason to replay the levels so you can attempt to collect them all.

Once you’ve reached the end of the game, which will take about 3 hours per character, there’s one bonus mission and a not-so-secret character, and that’s where the fun ends. There’s no backstory, no run-down of the Fellowship or even a map (whilst the Vivendi title had all these) and whilst there are a number of interviews and concept art, they pale into insignificance alongside those found on the various DVDs of the films available. This reviewer hasn’t seen or played the original Playstation 2 version of the game (of which this Xbox version is a direct port) so I can’t comment on how improved the graphics are in comparison; visually it’s somewhat of a mixed bag – half of the characters look great, half look nothing like their on-screen counterparts; animation is rudimentary and very fragmented, and most of the enemies are identikit models, something Jackson strove hard to avoid.

That said, those levels in the game that received most care and attention look great, and the climatic scenes are definately impressive, despite never really showing more than a few moving models on screen at once. Most of the feeling of immersion is handled aurally, though, and it’s here that the license has paid off the best – the characters are all voiced by the original actors, the score is intact and highly effective, and in Dolby Digital 5.1 the effect is quite unlike any similar game – through one sense at least, you really do feel you’re in the film.

Ultimately, though, EA seem to have missed the point slightly. There’s an overwhelming feeling that the movies have been bastardised into something they’re not – there’s no delicacy, there’s no flow between areas and the story telling is reduced to 5 section (badly) pre-rendered sections where the original film footage does not stretch. At the end of the day, you could buy the Extended DVD for the Fellowship and watch the second film a few times for the price of the game, something I’d much rather recommend. By all means rent the game if you wish, play through it then forget about it, but for (text ends)

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

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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.

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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!

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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

Blood Will Tell

Gamestyle Archive intro: did I review this in June 2005? That’s the sign of not a terrible game which would be memorable for all the wrong reasons but rather average. At Gamestyle we were big on scoring average experiences as average hence 5 out of 10. It still frustrates me that most sites score an average game as 7 out of 10, which instead is a very good game. That’s the problem with all scoring as it rigs the whole process and many punters I’m sure skip to the score and don’t follow the reviewers comments.

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With so many demons to exorcise, Japanese developers seem hell-bent on dissecting each and every legend, story or piece of pulp fiction that has ever tormented their psyche. Wow Entertainment is the latest to bring us a ferocious tale of a samurai – literally torn apart by demons and sent on a quest for revenge.

Taken from its Manga inspiration, you fill the role of Hyakkimaru, a samurai who has been damned since birth. As the prophesied child of light (aka potential demon slayer), the 48 ruling demons take a great deal of interest in Hyakkimaru’s arrival. And while they cannot prevent his birth, promises of power instead corrupt his family: once the contract is agreed, Hyakkimaru’s father could not envisage the sinister punishment to befall his son. Aware that they could not kill the child, the demons instead took 48 body parts – however, Hyakkimaru’s will to survive was sorely underestimated. Hence, as each demon falls, a body part is restored to the barely-human samurai. Hyakkimaru is initially a puppet-like figure with the frankly bizarre ability to pull off limbs that reveal weapons of varying devastation.

This instantly sets Blood Will Tell apart from other entrants in the samurai-adventure genre: the prologue and immediate missions are handled with aplomb (especially when the restoration of sight returns colour to the screen). But the appeal begins to wane, as Gamestyle realises – along with the player – that in spite of its outdoor decor, inside this is just a generic offering. Linearity soon announces itself, as you are forced along one-way streets and enemies appearing spontaneously. These foot soldiers of evil fall into the category of every other Japanese samurai offering, and are quite dispossessed of intelligence. Once they are harvested, you then face off against one of 48 demons that hold a body part taken from Hyakkimuaru. (At this point, Gamestyle must add that each body part is correctly placed into one of several systems that make up the human body; if anything, Blood Will Tell< actually serves as an educational tool for the ‘bloody’ familiarity it provides – although the game itself rarely bursts a vessel.) The various parts that Hyakkimaru wields improve with each and every kill.

The difficulty is well-placed, but with so many foes offered for slaughter the experience eventually becomes mundane and even futile. Unlike other games where you must seek out confrontations, Blood Will Tell shoves them down your throat; there is no escaping the treadmill of points, as you gradually reach the end (and some sort of peace). Nevertheless, this is a Sega game – and the developer notoriously knows how to entertain gamers. Adding a little spice to the proceedings is a co-operative mode that takes the form of the standard ‘buddy’ dynamic. The faithful sidekick (Dororo) is available for the bloodthirsty missions that make up story mode, but certain junctions require sole possession of the character. These are perhaps the weakest link in the adventure (and an otherwise poor attempt to break up the monotony – as are the incidental mini-games on offer).

At this stage of its lifecycle, Gamestyle would expect Playstation 2 releases to offer solid, well-built environments that show flair or some graphical distinction. Alas, what seemed extraordinary two years ago is somewhat ordinary today – with only the in-game cut sequences rising above and beyond the confines of a dated landscape. Similarly, camera issues again raise their lethargic head: Blood Will Tell quashes the onscreen view of the player by limiting camera control to a 180-degree angle. Normally, one might toggle the right analogue stick for correction, but Blood Will Tell offers a somewhat unorthodox alternative – giving you relative freedom only during boss encounters. But even this ‘freedom’ is hamstrung by repetition. Imagine, if you would, 48 bosses in one game; creating 10 novel bosses would be hard enough, but 48? Gamestyle rests its point. Outside of boss missions, the camera hovers at angles that make close combat unpredictable (as you lunge with hope, rather than precision).

In conclusion, Blood Will Tell falls into the same trap that has ensnared similar releases. It lacks the vital spark to set it apart from others already on the shelf. And, despite the best efforts of its marketing gurus, Blood Will Tell looks set to remain indistinguishable at retail; no doubt inviting but ultimately middling.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Killzone

Gamestyle Archive Intro: if you ever wanted proof that GS stood by its approach and ethics then here’s the perfect example. Whilst the mainstream media were falling over themselves to praise Killzone the reality of the gaming experience was somewhat different. You can never win reviewing these games – you’ll have PR companies moaning you only scored it a 9 when it deserved a 10. We never bowed to such pressure and on the flipside these more realistic scores pushed down the game on ranking websites, much to the fanboys annoyance. Oh yes, a review such as this I’m sure in November 2004 did receive criticism from the Killzone-fans and it wasn’t the first, nor is it the last. I can recall another PlayStation exclusive in the shape of Gran Turismo prompting a similar backlash.

This review comes from Chris Pickering and overall proves that taking your time with the gaming experience and summing up the package stands the test of time. Too many sites tried to be first out of the blocks with a hashed review, not Gamestyle.

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So, it’s here – the Halo beater is finally here. The game that’s set to propel Sony’s PS2 to the next level (and urinate from a great height upon Bungie’s Halo series). The game that truly defines the FPS genre and takes games, and gamers, to that dizzying new level we’d never thought possible. Why, even Edge harped on about Killzone’s immense potential – so how could it be any different?

Well, it is. It’s quite difficult to calculate just how many superlatives had been whipped up prior to the game’s release; proclaiming Killzone to be ‘heir apparent’ to the FPS throne (well, at least on consoles). And, let’s be honest, many of those utterances would’ve been made after witnessing early clips of the in-game action. However, drawing a line in the sand, we here at Gamestyle expect a little more substance to accompany our gaming hype. It all starts reasonably enough: an attractive introductory sequence clearly shows you how the game will play out.

Killzone is yet another homage to the ‘bloody war’ scenario (somewhat akin to the Medal Of Honor series, but set in the ‘near-future’ rather than the past). The Helghast – the masked enemies you’ll have seen all too often in the previews – are the baddies of the piece. They wish to take over, and obliterate anyone who isn’t part of their super-race. As is usual for this type of action-FPS, the storyline isn’t particularly interesting – but it does at least get you mildly intrigued for what is to come. Things take a slight turn for the worse when the game ‘proper’ actually begins. Unfortunately, playing on the normal difficulty or below, the enemy displays some mightily-unimpressive AI. On these lower settings, it’s something of a throwback to simpler times – when bitmapped sprites proceeded to run full-pelt towards you without a second thought to their existence on the spectral plane. However, to Guerrilla’s credit, if you wish to take on the game at its most difficult, enemy intelligence does ramp up; foes often come at you in a semi-realistic manner (even to the point of overwhelming you with some impressive routines). Of course, at the end of the day, it’s ‘artificially’ hard for the simple fact that it wants you to lose.

Killzone’s enemies (or should that be clones?) become something of a detriment to the title overall. After the first hour or so of play, you’ll be screaming out for a little variety as far your opponents are concerned. Your screams go mercilessly unanswered, of course, as wave upon wave of identikit soldiers come tearing towards you. Don’t get us wrong, Gamestyle is partial to the Guerrilla style – but the FPS fashion stakes could’ve been upped considerably with a dash of spice on the playing-field. Even worse ‘fashions’ are yet to come, however, with the design of the levels. After witnessing and playing through some of the most exhilarating and incredibly-vast levels in Halo 2, there’s nothing but disappointment laying in Killzone’s wake.

Half-Life 2 showed us that levels need not be overly-simplified and obvious to stave off frustration; but here, there’s very little sense of actually being able to shape your own destiny – and more of a feeling that you’re being forced against your will through channels of hardness. Matters aren’t helped one tiny bit by the aesthetic design; these are some of the most drab and lifeless stages that Gamestyle has ever visited. The endless collage of browns and murky greys are quite depressing in fact, almost to the point of despair. Okay, so it does support the ‘warzone’ motif quite well – but there’s no excuse for inactivity outside of immediate battles. Guerrilla needs to remind players that the rest of their world is actually alive.

Despite the overly critical tone we’ve taken with Killzone, it’s not a game that can’t yield the occasional highpoint. When we say highpoint, we don’t mean to imply that it reaches the heights of multiplayer Halo 2 (although Killzone is fully playable online) – perhaps ‘highpoint of relief’ is the better expression. Relief that arrives in the aftermath of a bad purchase; knowledge and the implicit hope that someday Guerrilla will rise above the ruins of a dismal and overhyped package.

In the meantime, media interest which at first raised the game up to unreachable levels looks almost certain to implode – killing off Killzone in the process. The potential for Guerrilla to develop a truly impressive FPS title on the PS2 is obviously there, but it’s a learning curve that players won’t be scaling anytime soon. The PS2’s answer to Halo? Don’t make us laugh.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

The Simpsons: Hit and Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

The Italian Job

Gamestyle Archive intro: Daniel James takes the Italian Job for a spin in June 2003 and fails to find top gear. 

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A Hollywood blockbuster-remake of a classic Brit-flick is hardly likely to please fans. Similarly, a licensed videogame cash-in (spread thinly over the three main console platforms) is hardly likely to win over any serious gamers either. Loosely following the latter part of the new movie’s plot, The Italian Job sees you take on the role of Charlie Croker and his gang of talented partners-in-thievery, on a mission of revenge and reward to reclaim a stash of stolen gold bars.

Despite the obviously misleading title, the set of The Italian Job is based in a recreation of Los Angeles and Hollywood – not Italy – and certainly consists of more than one ‘job’. Split into fifteen different missions, you take control of various vehicles (not restricted entirely to the infamous Minis) and cruise the streets using a primitive radar to guide you to your target. Variety is sadly lacking however, as most objectives consist of a ‘get-from-A-to-B’ situation, with little scope or reward for deviation. Furthermore, with most missions split into three sub-objectives, the player is forced to perfect them all and complete them in one go, or face a frustrating restart. Whilst preliminary stages are more forgiving, later levels can be a very patience-testing experience, where seemingly unfair and unknown forces – and traffic – work against you to remove your vehicle from its path and into the failure lane.

One particular stage (that will no doubt keep most occupied for several hours) requires you to run a perfect race through an underground subway system against rival Minis, with only your memory of the path ahead and quick reflexes to save you from the perilously placed pipes and protruding walls. Practice, however, does make perfect. But one must ask themselves if they really do want to be retrying the same section over and over again, for the simple pleasure of seeing the next one. And therein lies another problem. The game’s structure is so linearly laid out before you that no missions can be overtaken; there are no detours on this drive. But thankfully, a sleek and fast user interface sees navigating your chosen level become a breeze, and instant reloads prevent any impatient finger-tapping. Visually, The Italian Job is good and solid, though nothing that will trouble the conscience of any Polyphony Digital staff. What the game lacks in detail it makes up for with impressive framerates and sharp, clear picture quality. This is even more noticeable after the mid-mission fly-by cinematics that purposely run at a reduced 25 frames per second (or thereabouts) with a grainy movie-style filter overlay, to replicate that cinematic feel.

When the action begins, it all appears to positively fly by. It’s only the slight aliasing, V-synching, and very occasional slowdown that ruins an otherwise solid-looking environment. But whilst solid, The Italian Job’s locales seem nothing but dead, due to the total lack of pedestrian activity. Not a person in sight, and this doesn’t stop at just the environments; even the cut-scenes are devoid of hired actor activity, with only stills of the vehicles and the voice of Charlie as the narrator to give the impression of any humanity at all. Why this apparent distancing from human contact wends its way into The Italian Job, Gamestyle can only speculate. But the stars of the show are definitely those Minis, and they certainly do get the chance to flex their acting muscles. Despite their size, the cars feel positively weighty, with plenty of wheel friction making for some very satisfying handbrake turns and generally decent handling.

Climax Studios is no newcomer to vehicle reproduction (two-wheeled or otherwise), and The Italian Job – whilst rough around the edges – is no exception. It seems a glaring oversight then, that only the (right) analogue stick offers incremental acceleration control, when the touch-sensitive face buttons could have done an improved job of replicating the same feature. Gamestyle brings this up because of the ‘dead space’ around the Dual Shock’s movement range, the delayed response of the car to throttle increments, and the occasional necessity of slower movement at key stages of the game (particularly the Stunt Course mode). But a substitute ‘tapping’ method proves adequate for the most part. The Stunt Course mode (abovementioned) strangely seems to offer the most addictive part of the overall package, saving the game from a pit of mediocrity.

Even Reflections’ dedicated ‘Stuntman’ could learn one or two things from TIJ’s approach. No commands screamed at you, no frustrating checkpoints, just a clearly marked route from A to B (again!) via all varieties of ramps and pipes – indoor and out – that really push what those versatile Minis can do. Certainly not easy, but any perfectionist will revel in the chance to boost their score and grade. The Stunt mode is actually criminally under-exploited with only a handful of courses to try, but with every level of the story mode featuring a grading system as well, one can easily turn familiar areas of the city into practiced and perfected courses – not too unlike the real thing then. The Italian Job loosely follows the plot of the movie, whilst filling in arbitrary plot points with samey mission objectives and a sloppy reward structure. Its few missions aren’t likely to last a long time, notwithstanding the rewards (unlockable vehicles) for higher grades upon replays. The competently tacked-on Racing mode features a decent enough one or two-player game, but lacks the depth of dedicated titles. Fans of the new movie will probably appreciate it more, however Gamestyle has to ask; was it all really necessary?

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2

Gamestyle Archive intro: some of my favourite gaming explorations were across the Kain landscape. This review from JJ dates from November 2001.

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As expected the story of the Soul Reaver and Legacy of Kain continues onto the Playstation 2 in the form of Soul Reaver 2. The first title provided to be very popular when released for the Psone and subsequent rival formats. Driven by a strong story, character design and implementation the game sold very well and provided a reasonable if monotonous challenge to the player. Now that Raziel finds himself on a more powerful platform, has the game evolved as well?

The first Soul Reaver game was one of the first to use constant streaming from the game disk, leading to a fluid and uninterrupted experience. Everyone will remember moving from the Spectral and Material realms and on the Playstation 2 this is just as impressive second time around. There is no doubt that the team at Crystal Dynamics are a talented bunch and once again loading times are kept to a minimum. Other Playstation 2 developers please take note as it can be done. Again setting a first is the inclusion of several bonus features, which take advantage of the DVD format. In fact the game has a whole section devoted to this and for any fan of the series it increases the value of the package.

Nice, but Gamestyle is more concerned with the game proper and how it plays and as you soon discover it is a mixed bag all round. To explain the background of the Soul Reaver/Kain story would take a series of features within itself even though it only recently started life on the Psone with the release of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Since then the stories of Kain & Raziel have become intertwined even with separate releases to their name and the trend will continue with Bloom Omen 2 released later this year. If you have not played the first game you will perhaps struggle with the story at first because of its richness but as a tale Soul Reaver 2 could exist on its own.

The beauty of this sequel for those who enjoyed the first game is that it allows you to go back to locations you have visited before. This time however you are visiting them at their prime, The Pillars of Nosgoth stand before you unbroken by Kain. You also discover the physical form of the Soul Reaver and explore the land, which you knew before you were cursed. The story centres on the Pillars because these are the source of power to Nosgoth and give life to all and starts where the previous game ended. Due to a chain of events that you will discover whilst playing the game Kain has become tied to the pillars, forced to become Ariel’s successor. Kain needs Raziel to free him yet you are driven by revenge, a very powerful emotion. Should you help Kain and impale the plans of Moebius (Guardian of Time with his own agenda) or succumb to your emotion? As its stands you must explore Nosgoth in both the Spectral and Material realms to answer this paradox.

Visiting lands that you knew when you were human and exploring places only accessible to the one who has the Soul Reaver – wary that there is another force at work with their own agenda. The design and presentation of the series has always been first class and once again this does not disappoint. Forget Jak & Dexter as this game has some of the most stunning environments and designs on the system. If you want gothic architecture in all its medieval glory pick this instead of Devil May Cry. Whilst playing the game I often found myself standing at a vantage point and looking back upon the land that I had just explored. The added bonuses are the graphical effects employed and constant frame rate (60fps), which are pleasing to the eye.

Character dialogue and recorded speech is often the subject of much ridicule from various sources and rightly so but Soul Reaver 2 is the game that brakes the norm. All the main characters are voiced with a style rarely seen in videogames and show what we should expect from everyone in the future. The game includes a Dolby Pro Logic soundtrack, which won’t win any awards but does reinforce the atmosphere. Character designs, animation and FMV sequences are of a high standard throughout the game although if I was being critical perhaps the former lacking any progression from the original. As mentioned earlier Soul Reaver 2 is a mixed bag, but why? For all the visual splendour and high standard of presentation the hard work is ruined by a few niggling problems and one serious drawback.

The main drawback to Soul Reaver 2 is the gameplay, which frankly is seriously limited and at times would test the patience of any player. Gameplay is simple – explore a level fighting enemies using a hack n slash approach, find the entrance/lever, progress. The story amidst some stunning environments is the only thing to keep you entertained and engaged in the game. There have been countless games which used a similar approach but did not have the story to put the game above anything else but poor i.e. Nightmare Creatures. The game is very much a one trick pony even though Raziel has many skills and abilities at his disposal.

At times the game is very much FMV driven, sequences while essential can go on for a long period of time but this is a common trend amongst games today i.e. Metal Gear Solid 2. It is a matter of personal preference and if you want a deep game with an engaging storyline then it is the only approach. The enemies in the game suffer from a distinct lack of AI, reducing the game to nothing more than a button bashing frenzy. Adding to the repetition is that they regenerate meaning that if you have to retrace your steps they will be waiting once again. Whilst playing the game on several occasions the monsters would become trapped in the walls and would remain there. Almost all of the levels and scenery is wonderful to look at but the level design itself in game terms is fairly straightforward and unimaginative.

Perhaps if the these points had received the same amount of attention as the story and presentation Soul Reaver 2 would be an essential purchase but it is only half the game it should have been. Soul Reaver 2 does not represent the leap that many would have expected and follows a trend of improved graphics and audio on the Playstation 2 with no comparable improvement in gameplay and AI. Blood Omen 2 is already a dramatic leap forward in the visual stakes and we wait to see if the game itself can match the progression.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

CART Fury Championship Racing

Gamestyle Archive intro: back to September 2001 with this open wheel racer that I cannot remember anything about!

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Taking a break from the endless supply of Formula One licensed games was an attractive proposition, more so than Jennifer Lopez by herself in a hotel room. The game is based upon the American sport known as Championship Auto Racing Teams – also known as CART. Of course living over in Europe I was never aware of American racing (apart from those awful Nascar games which EA constantly releases which no one here really cares about) and the annual Indianapolis 500 race.

As you would expect from an official license the game comes with all the teams from the series and their respective drivers, names like Christian Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti and Mark Blundell – reads like a list of Formula One rejects. In total there are ten drivers from the series with another five hidden away for you to reveal. Midway even though having access to the license have chosen not to go down the predictable route every other licensed game takes these days. Instead they have taken the opportunity to restore the fun element into racing rather than realism because this is a game, and therefore it should be enjoyable! How many official Formula One games are ruined by the over-emphasis on realistic handling and physics? Just one wheel on the grass, a bad corner or poor overtaking manoeuvre and its race over or at least no points. Fun? Not really.

It may be morbid to confess but some of the most enjoyable and stunning aspects of any type of motorised race are the crashes and crazy overtaking; something this game offers in abundance. The game offers seven real life tracks (Long Beach, Surfers Paradise) and eleven fantasy tracks for you to enjoy such as Airway Raceway or the fantastic Skyway. There are five different modes available; simulation, arcade, season, Driving 101 and Sub-games. However the arcade nature of the game is prevalent throughout and makes for a more fun experience than Gran Turismo 3 ever has. This is very much a foot down, no brakes – flat out burn type of racer with oval and street tracks.

The inclusion of a boost feature just goes to show how detached from reality this can be; a super boost results in a trail of flames being left by your car as you race along the track. The boosts are available in all modes except simulation and must be mastered if you wish to finish in the top 3. Instead the simulation mode offers a variety of car customisation modes so you can tinker to your hearts content. The game moves at a constant and quick rate, I do feel that many of the backgrounds seemed flat looking; harking back to older consoles in order to keep the frame rate high. When the carnage and traffic on screen increases the frame rate will noticeably shudder, which is unfortunate to say the least.

The emphasis is very much focused on what is happening on the track, so you won’t really have the opportunity to enjoy the scenery as in other games. Yet the PS2 as its already shown is capable of much more even if there are 24 other cars on the track; mostly being destroyed. The crashes themselves are spectacular at first with cars breaking up in front of you but soon become routine as you try to avoid them. Even though the handling isn’t what it should be (your car feels jerky and unresponsive at times) your opponents will only really provide a challenge when they become debris on the track. The little challenge offered from your opponents does reduce the lastability of the simulation mode, however to Midway’s credit they have added replay value through the form of several hidden extras and a solid enough multi-player mode. Some of extras you can unlock excluding drivers and tracks are the death car & wall, fog, night drive and many more besides.

The AI of your opponents is increased due to the nature of the difficulty setting; increasing the difficulty does not affect their performance only your own car. A different approach certainly, but it does not work here. The presentation of the game is basic to say the least, cheesy photographs of women in team uniforms appear everywhere. The static nature of the front end does not create a good impression and should have been improved greatly before release. The sound also is a let down with generic music and terrible sound effects affecting your enjoyment. Everything is very much over the top and is instantly forgettable which is why this paragraph is so short. Cart Fury Championship racer is a solid enough racing game which is above average in certain areas but let down badly in others. With a bit more care and attention it could have been far better however as a fun licensed racing game it’s a welcome relief.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

StarFox: Assault

Gamestyle Archive intro: Richard tackles a classic Nintendo franchise that fails to live up to expectations .

Writer: RM

Published: April 2005

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One year after defeating the diabolical Dr. Andross and saving the planet Sauria, Fox and his team-mates are recruited yet again to stop a renegade member of the mercenary StarWolf team who’s managed to assemble a small troublemaking army on the planet Corneria and rattle the Cornerian fleet. As they battle the army on Corneria, the Starfox team uncover a sinister and grander plot involving a strange race of bio-mechanical lifeforms…

Many of you will remember the original Starfox, released in 1993; with its Super-FX chip, it was a shrewd marriage of technology and timing, allowing a 2-D console (the original SNES) to display crude 3-D graphics. The game took only an hour or two to beat, but the novelty of its gouraud-shaded polygons and reflex-driven gaming won over players and critics and established the series for its next two incarnations. Unfortunately it’s been a slow slide downhill since 1993, mixing traditional on-rails gameplay (Starfox 64) with more varied Zelda-style adventuring (Starfox: Adventures). Starfox: Assault is a further step back, dishing up a great-looking shooter with a few addictive levels, but one that can’t keep its priorities straight.

Nintendo has once again handed out its Starfox franchise to a third-party developer (this time Namco’s Ace Combat team). Starfox: Assault is an action-adventure blend, combining space combat with third-person action sequences that take place on a spread of planets and orbital stations. The series has always been at its best in space, and that’s never been more evident here. The Arwing’s controls are spot-on, facilitating tight turns and quick lateral rolls with ease. On the higher difficulty levels, enemies display passable tactical skills and present a rousing challenge, and the end-stage enemies are fantastic: cackling jigsaw machines waving transforming appendages around with destructive aplomb that make the most complex transformers look like grade-school action figures. While a few of the scripted space sequences are too brief and easily beaten, the two or three open-ended space battles (such as the one between the Starfox and Starwolf teams) hint at where the series could go in more capable hands.

Starfox: Assault can be played in single or vs. mode, with up to four players participating in split-screen combat. As missions are completed in solo play, new levels are unlocked in multiplayer mode. Players assume the role of Fox McCloud, leader of the Starfox team, in “shooting” and “all-range” stages. Shooting stages involve piloting a space fighter called an Arwing along a pre-scripted path, while “all-range stages” allow free-roaming control of Fox himself within a small area, and sometimes requiring the use of either an anti-aircraft tank (the Landmaster), the Arwing, or both. On occasion, Fox’s team-mates experience trouble and must be assisted lest they resign from combat, lowering the final rating. The Arwing is manipulated with the control stick and can turbo forward or brake, but never fully stop, while the Landmaster is capable of limited hover-flight and can be exited at will. Destroying certain creatures, or groups of enemies, unlocks items such as shield rings (restores shields), smart bombs, power upgrades and a variety of weapons such as homing launchers, plasma cannons and sniper rifles. At the end of each mission players are rated on items collected and enemies destroyed, and locating 10 silver badges in story mode unlocks a bonus copy of Namco’s 1982 arcade shooter Xevious.

Ground combat is a less pleasant affair, turning Fox into a super-sprinter racing through tiny arenas to collect power-ups and destroy guarded nodes. For some reason, Fox can run about three or four times faster than in Starfox Adventures but turns from left to right like a tank in molasses, cramping combat and frustrating the navigation of narrow walkways. And while Fox’s team mates occasionally show up to help out, getting them to move around is impossible, making one wonder why they were included at all, beyond the occasional bit of radio chatter or as liabilities for the player to protect.

This is a decent rental, and if it was just another game, it might warrant half a mark higher. But this is Starfox, and it needs to catch up with the times. Players want games that speak to a franchise’s strengths – in this case, the space-combat sequences, preferably in open and dynamic 3-D environments, not clinging to yesteryear’s rails. At medium difficulty, it takes five hours or less to blow through, and considering its other missteps, that’s just not enough to recommend.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10