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.

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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

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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!

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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

Viewtiful Joe 2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: what we think is another writer debut with Arron Hanley who tackles the sequel to a much-loved classic. Can Viewtiful Joe deliver on the PlayStation 2?

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Gamestyle fancies a challenge, although it’s rare to find a challenging title that is also enjoyable. It’s fair to say that we weren’t disappointed with Viewtiful Joe – originally released on the GameCube and a format exclusive until Capcom decided to bring the cries of ‘Henshin-A-Go-Go Baby!’ to the Playstation 2, via the colourfully-titled sequel, Viewtiful Joe 2. The original game saw you fighting your way through levels attempting to rescue your girlfriend – who wasn’t controllable at the time – however, Capcom have now teamed Joe and Silvia so they can help each other out with the simple tap of a button. After a humorous introductory video that outlines the story, you are transported to a prehistoric setting (don’t ask) dressed as Normal Joe in his T-shirt and cap – and where you’re tasked to recover seven ‘Rainbow Coloured Oscars’.

Both Joe and Silvia return in 3D form (along with the enemies), although the standard backdrops look like pieces of cardboard – hardly a revelation, given that the original game had the critics applauding it. Also returning is Joe’s ‘viewtiful’ style of fighting and his range of special attacks; Silvia however is not a victim this time but Joe’s able companion. Initially, her style of fighting is a simple kick and extendable boxing glove (thus ensuring she won’t break any nails), however as you progress both will receive their hero suits and be ready to take on the new villain. Although Joe doesn’t have any specific moves at first, his Viewtiful style is soon upgraded with even further moves. The game is straightforward: beat up enemies and bosses, jump, dodge and continue forth. However, this simple formula requires that you perfect your timing and moves. The game has some very simple puzzles but they can become frustrating – timing is the key here, as some of the puzzles require you to switch between Joe and Silvia in order to progress. Joe can use his powers to slow down time, and this proves effective in many ways (such as increasing the power of your hits upon enemies, or simply landing more precise hits).

Any help proves to be invaluable as Viewtiful Joe 2 is not an easy game – in fact, the difficulty settings have been changed to Normal and Hard (whereas before ‘Kid’ setting could’ve passed as easy and ‘Adult’ very hard). The game only has seven levels – or reels, as they are officially known – but they are quite large and will take some time to complete. The levels have varying themes, from the prehistoric beginning (which is 10 million years B.C.) to an ice age, and even a ninja-themed level – all of which look superb, but prove superbly difficult. Each level consists of acts, which are then split into several missions. At the end of each ‘reel’ there’s a boss that you must defeat in order to gain an Oscar; on completion of each reel you’ll be ranked on time and defence, and awarded Viewtiful points for using your VFX and destroying multiple enemies.

As with its predecessor, the trend for using cel-shaded graphics continues. The sharp visuals on each of the main characters (including enemies) look as ‘viewtiful’ as ever, although the levels themselves don’t look to be pushing the Playstation 2 hardware. The environments are appealing and well-presented, with distinct features pertaining to the levels (such as dinosaurs and lava erupting from volcanoes); these bring the game to life, almost as if Joe and Silvia have been caught on film. Capcom have also continued their trend for providing superb sound. The voice acting, the explosions and tunes that are played whilst combating the enemy remain outstanding. Joe and Silvia have real personality, as do some of the bosses (who might chit-chat for a while and provide some light relief). However, despite the comic book explosions and madcap music, all of this was replicated in the prequel – so it doesn’t really bring anything new to the player.

While Gamestyle enjoyed the challenge that Capcom threw at us, we couldn’t really spot the differences from Viewtiful Joe (bar the new adventure): it has the looks, style and sound of the original, but doesn’t make it any better nor worse. It’s simply more of the same, and gamers who have played the first one will know what to expect (although newbies may be put off by the revised difficulty). As a bonus, players can unlock the ’36 Chambers of Viewtiful’, a side-quest that will take even longer to complete. Gamestyle thoroughly enjoyed Viewtiful Joe 2, but it was nothing new to us. Slightly easier this time around, with the same energy as before, but not enough to reinvigorate the series.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Brothers in Arms Road to Hill 30

Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of the pet hates during my time during the gaming years was the arrival of these on the rails World War combat experiences. It all became too fashionable with shallow gameplay but there were some exceptions. This review dates from March 2005.

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When Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30 arrived at Gamestyle Towers, the thought of wading through another World War II-themed first-person shooter was not uppermost on our agenda. Indeed, over the past few years we’ve fought the good fight on the beaches of Normandy and survived Pearl Harbour, so another tour of duty would have to be compelling, to say the least.

To Gearbox Software’s credit, they’ve pulled out all the stops and delivered a credible, unnerving experience that surprised even the walking wounded at Gamestyle. Brothers In Arms follows nine days in the life of the 101st Airborne Division, who played an important part in the allied invasion of France. We’re all aware of the outcome of those historic WWII battles, but what about the skirmishes and less-immortalised tales and triumphs? Again, this works to Brothers In Arms’ favour because you never know what awaits in the next village – or even beyond the next hedgerow. All too often there is little character exposition in this genre; too much emphasis is placed on realism and authenticity.

Gearbox has certainly attempted to replicate the period – as a sortie through the extras section, full of archival photos juxtaposed with modern times, will affirm (even a retired army expert was involved, thus ensuring further attention to detail) – but most pleasingly they have invested heavily in the backstory which brings these troops to life. Your own character (Sgt Matt Baker) is a troubled soul, given responsibility for seeing that his squad survives each chapter. Characters come and go throughout the tale, but refreshingly they live outside of the player’s perspective – triggering their own in-game events (which somehow don’t feel as ‘scripted’ as others in the genre). However, Brothers In Arms does make one concession to the ‘atrocities’ of fact: it has removed all trace of blood and human suffering (presumably to avoid a harsh rating).

Speaking of harsh, there is an ‘Authentic’ difficulty setting available – which certainly imposes hardship upon the player – but it’s best to begin on Easy ground as there’s an element of tactical play involved (albeit not as engrossing as Full Spectrum Warrior), whereby you’re actively encouraged to exploit one manoeuvre: trying to suppress and outflank your opponents. While it pretty much becomes de rigueur throughout the game (and extremely important when commanding large numbers of men), its appeal is shortlived – utilising the same tactic can become tiresome. Conversely, Brothers In Arms does provide variety when it comes to level design; oftentimes you’ll be surrounded by scenic French countryside as you press through villages into town. The standard of your opposition also improves, as you’ll overcome inexperienced conscripts before moving up to the very elite of the German army. A point of contention for many will be the ‘realistic’ nature of aiming and firing – this definitely leans towards simulation, and lacks the arcade (and user-friendly) flavour of the Medal of Honour series.

Visually, the Playstation 2 makes a decent stab at suspending your disbelief – although it would’ve gone much further without the invisible walls, blocked passages and checkpoints. However, the attention to detail and the character models are of a consistently high standard for the system (witness the facial modelling and general movement). The colour palette can sometimes become mired in greens and greys – although war was never meant to be pretty, was it? Ditto for the lack of colour in the accompanying soundtrack; orchestration is minimal, with only the sound of mortars et al for company. Again, this may prove refreshing and highly atmospheric for some.

Offline, multiplayer options are limited to split-screen competition against a friend (each taking command of a squad); online things are a little better – provided you can find somebody to play against (Gamestyle tried on several occasions throughout the week, but active matches could only be counted on one hand. Could it be the small percentage of online-enabled PS2 players have been swayed by ‘greener’ pastures?) Regardless, online play is a far more intimate style of warfare than the lavish, take-no-prisoners approach of Halo 2, for example.

Upon completing its reluctant tour of duty with Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30, Gamestyle can honestly say it enjoyed the stimulation. Not only has it renewed our faith in the WWII-themed first-person shooter category, but it’s something of a ‘tour de force’ for the emotions (not to mention an heartfelt homage to the pages of history).

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Jak 3

Gamestyle Archive Intro: its about time we had one of the great PS2 series’ in the archive and so Jak arrives thanks to a review by Anna dating from November 2004.

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Reviewers are often criticised for giving sequels lower scores than the originals – ostensibly on the grounds that the sequel lacks the groundbreaking impact that the earlier games had, even though the sequel is in many respects a superior game. As a stand-alone title, Jak 3 is pretty astonishing, not to mention very pretty and all the more remarkable because a vast world has been created with zero loading times; there are in fact two primary landmasses – Spargus City and Haven City – which can be shunted between in the Airbus. However, even as a stand-alone game, there are a few issues which can dampen one’s enjoyment of a ‘stand-out’ title that is to platformers (sorry, character-action platformers) what Pokey is to penguinkind.

As was the case before, Jak 3’s graphics are amazing – especially the stupendous draw distance and the environmental lighting which changes from dawn to dusk to nightfall on a six-minute cycle. While this doesn’t make any difference to the gameplay (a missed opportunity there), it does look bastard-woo – as does the heat-haze above flaming torches, the lovingly-crafted rolling vistas and dilapidated cityscapes, the sparkly fragments that some missions require you to pick up, and the intense blast radii of some of the weapons (especially the cackle-inducing Wave Concussor). The Concussor is one of several new additions to Jak’s arsenal. The Morph gun from Jak II makes a comeback, but now has many more mods available for it. To recap: the Scatter gun fired short-range pulses that threw enemies back several feet, and was powerful but had an ass-hat reload time; the Blaster was your basic equally-good-at-all-ranges pistol; the Vulcan Fury had lousy targeting and chewed up ammo like John Prescott at a pastie buffet (but its awesome rate of fire pinned enemies down and could deal with swathes of them at once); and the fluffy-sounding Peacemaker was Naughty Dog’s rendition of the ‘BFG’ (albeit ammo was rarer than chooks’ teeth, the pay-off was utter plasmic devastation).

Jak 3 sees the four amigos return, with a further two upgrades for each. One upgrade releases a little flying saucer that shoots enemies with Blaster ammo – leaving you free to use your other guns or else kicks and punches. Another mod uses the Scatter gun to create a ‘wave’ of energy that ‘concusses’ enemies (clever, see?). As for what happens to the Peacemaker… well, it’d be churlish to spoil it. The guns can be upgraded in other ways: when you find Precursor Orbs (little eggy things that are awarded for exploration, cool-handedness, or beating mini-games assigned to you by the Freedom League or the wise Precursor statues), you can choose to spend them on increasing your ammo capacity or reload times.

Also available are extra vehicles (which are disappointingly nothing special compared to the standard ones, which include the very cool Dune Hopper that can make such stupidly-huge leaps across canyons that you’ll never tire of riding it), cool stuff like character viewers and scene and level select; and silly stuff like characters in nappies (and the obligatory, unfunny-as-always, ‘big head’ mode). Chances are you won’t find all 600 Orbs on your first playthrough (at least not without a player’s guide), so choose carefully. Saving up for extras is a great deal of fun; exploring every nook and cranny for errant baubles might sound tedious, but it helps you settle into Jak’s mindset (and really lets you appreciate the magnitude of the gameworld). Finding an Orb after following a hunch, or carefully planning to reach a high or distant place, almost always leads to shrill satisfaction. They’re hiding in places you really wouldn’t expect the average gamer to find. Nevertheless, note to Naughty Dog: it’s not the size of your game – it’s what you do with it. Even without the slick continuity of Renegade and The Precursor Legacy to act as a benchmark, Jak 3 would still feel like a bunch of levels stapled together instead of one big adventure.

In their quest to be innovative, the developers have flung in so many different tasks that there’s no cohesion between them – no real ‘reason’ for anything to happen. You’ll feel like an harassed office boy: go and destroy that machine, go and race in that dune buggy, go and race on lizard-back (yes, two race missions in a row), go and round up those lizards, go and fight those men in the arena, go and drive to that oasis… sometimes, less can indeed be more. The desert surrounding Spargus City is intimidatingly vast; as was Haven City in Jak II (impressively, nearly all of Haven is in this game too, but it and the surrounding countryside are charred and war-torn), but this desert is very boring and featureless – so much so that you’ll more often be navigating by map than familiar landmark. It needed only be two-thirds the size, and would’ve helped to lessen the boring drive to the Hora-Quan’s (ie, vicious creatures nicknamed Metalheads by the natives) lair or the Monk’s temple.

Though the transitions are jerky and unpolished, many of the missions are lovely. There’s one in which little fuzzy Daxter (Jak’s mouthy companion – who used to be a human but in the first game turned into a mustelid after falling in a vat of malignant purple goo called dark Eco) rides a missile around a harbour, using it to pick up blobs of powerful red Eco in order to make the missile battle-worthy. This is certifiably insane genius, and definitely one of the most fun missions in any of the Jak games. If you’ve unlocked the level select for that portion of the game, it’ll probably be your most replayed too. Other highlights are shooting down reptilian Hora-Quan and using your new Dark and Light powers in the Monk’s temple. In every other respect, however, this game is bloated.

Jak 3 is an overwhelming experience, but in a wearisome way. It needed to prune around a quarter of its missions in order to become the taut and terrific experience we would’ve expected of a sequel-to-a-sequel. A couple of the missions are just plain stupid: one of them sees Daxter getting beamed into a computer (yes, really) and then having to complete a round of what would’ve been ‘Pacman’ (had Pacman been designed whilst drunk). Another is an unremarkable on-foot shooting mission made irritating by its clumsy top-down perspective.

There are also a few missions that are minor variations of a past one, but simply in a different location. It’s clear that Naughty Dog wanted Jak 3 – the final game in the series (unless blondie gets pimped out like his predecessor Crash) – to be the most amazing and the most spectacular, but they’ve simply made it the ‘most’. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to shelve any of the (unused) ideas they’d had for Renegade and Legacy, so instead have unceremoniously dumped them here (and this certainly fits with the plot, being such a contrived bag of blah). On balance, however, this is a great game that outperforms most others in the field, but it’s also obvious – painfully so – that it could have been so much more.

Gamestyle Score 7/10

Legend of Kay

Gamestyle Archive Intro: well, here is a real rarity a review from Richard Meerman that doesn’t involve a 10 score, which was a running gag in Gamestyle Towers that Richie loved to give anything on the Gamecube platform the perfect score. Hence why this PS2 title doesn’t achieve top marks. Ok, I’m kidding as hailing from the Netherlands Richard was a vital part of the GS team and a great guy to have onboard. This review dates from June 2005.

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Funny that: whenever there’s cartoon animals in videogames, chances are they ‘know’ some form of martial arts. Perfect examples of this apparently-trademarked trend are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, less famously, The Samurai Pizza Cats. Of course, trends are there for the taking – and will doubtless spawn many followers and even more ‘copycats’ (pun intended). Please welcome: Legend of Kay.

The Legend of Kay takes place in an idyllic world where different groups of animals live harmoniously together in their own little communities. In each town is a magic well that, as long as the animals follow “the way”, will always produce water that nourishes both their flesh and spirit. The tranquility is soon shattered however when the animals begin to neglect their way of life – forcing the wells to dry up, and providing the perfect excuse for the evil emperor Shun and his gorilla army to invade and occupy the lands. The villagers seem to have abandoned all hope… save for the exception of a young cat called Kay who has been following the teachings of a once great master, and has taken it upon himself to free the animals from their captors.

The game is best described as a platform-RPG, with a little action and adventure thrown in for good measure. Playing as the ever-agile cat, you quixotically roam the landscape – completing main quests to move the story along and partaking of side-quests in order to earn a few extra goodies. Kay is your average, slightly arrogant, adolescent hero who thankfully shows a little more enthusiasm in his moves than he does in his lackadaisical chatter. In true platform tradition, Kay is able to jump, double-jump and somersault-jump (enabling him to reach high ledges and make long distance jumps). He can also swing from ropes, ride other animals, fight and even use an element of ninja magic during his travels. As with most platformers, you begin your adventure with a basic wooden weapon and limited fighting abilities… but these soon improve as the story moves along, where you’ll acquire better weapons and the wherewithal to learn stronger combos. There’s also the opportunity to buy treats from the various shops (ie, potions, armour, weapon upgrades and gadgets that will aid you in your quest).

Naturally, the game becomes much harder as you progress but also features a unique saving system which comes in the form of a magic lantern that automatically saves the game as you pass it (without any intervention from the player). Graphically, the Legend of Kay is brilliant with excellent reflection-mapping that is showcased perfectly inside the Japanese buildings (where you can clearly see everything in the shiny floors – except curiously for Kay’s own reflection. Hmm). The sprawling game environment is awash with beautiful colours and textures, creating a near-perfect fantasy world with varied themes throughout the different levels.

Character animation is very smooth and detailed – from general movement to the combat sequences – and Kay is as agile as you would expect a cat to be (further demonstrating the developers had paid full attention to this aspect of the game). Unfortunately, the camera can prove a little troublesome – randomly switching its view and making some jumps almost impossible to execute properly. A minor drop in framerate was also detected at various points in the game, but it’s certainly nothing to impinge upon the overall experience.

On the audio front, Legend of Kay again receives top marks, with the disinterested and typically-teenage warblings of Kay mixed into the clamour of combat and orchestral backing track. In the end, Legend of Kay is a solid game set in a beautifully-created world brimming with life and atmosphere. While it begins unassumingly, the game soon finds its ‘furry’ feet; posing a challenge for even the most experienced of players (and the varied side-quests and mini-games are enough to keep you interested until the very end). Although obviously aimed at a younger audience, this game will undoubtedly please anyone who enjoys platformers and perfectly-playable RPG crossovers. Well worth the asking price.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Project: Snowblind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Mercenaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Daniel takes us back to the successful realm of Prince of Persia as Ubisoft unleashed the Warrior Within. This review dates from November 2004.

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If you’ve not played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, do so now. Seriously, stop reading this review, hunt down a copy of the game on any format (it’ll be pretty cheap now) and lose yourself in one of the best games this generation has to offer. For those remaining, you’ll know what to expect – but you might not expect that Gamestyle is disappointed with what Ubisoft has done. Sands of Time was a game for a mature and appreciative audience; it was a game for those of us who cared that thought and consideration (for the player) had been lovingly invested. Warrior Within, on the other hand, is a game that has been driven by pubescent angst and lust for gritty ‘attitude’… oh, and blood. Lots of blood.

After releasing the ‘Sands of Time’ from its hourglass, the Prince is now on the run, destined to die. Pursued by a shadowy creature known as the Dahaka – who is attempting to seal his fate – the Prince must travel to the castle where the Sands were originally created, thus stopping them and undoing his fate in the process. Once again, the game makes exemplary use of the third dimension: the agile Prince can precisely time and execute his jumps, grabs, swings and wall-runs. Once again, the game’s environments are perfectly configured for these specific abilities, and allow you to scan ahead for the correct path. Once again, the controls are perfectly in-sync with your commands, allowing the Prince to do exactly what you want him to do; and once again you can rewind time and undo your death should your jump miss, your grip slip or your body become impaled by spiky booby-traps. No amount of falling foul could possibly ruin these steady foundations, but by the gods, Ubisoft has tried.

Although graphically astounding (Warrior Within looks slightly better than its predecessor), the stage is slightly mired by murky brown and grey dungeons. The Prince is no longer colourfully-attired, but instead dons armour plates and ‘leathery’ disposition; in fact, the misty, almost surreal, ambience of the first game has been replaced with a ‘gritty’ style that is wholly uninspired. And the music? Repetitive heavy-metal riffs kick in whenever combat initiates, and are punctuated by horrible one-liners that attempt to sound all ‘grown-up’ by cussing inappropriately. The Prince is royally pissed – and this makes him instantly unlikable; his originally sweet, charismatic (and sometimes sarcastic) persona buried beneath a facade of scar tissue and a suspiciously American-sounding accent. But a style is just a style; and although a game’s style (wink) is important for drawing you in, the way it plays is what truly matters. So, let’s take a look at how Ubisoft has messed things up… The first thing you’ll notice is the emphasis on combat.

The intro/tutorial literally throws you into a fracas with several demonic foes (presumably unrelated to the creatures from the first game). Whilst Gamestyle rather liked the original bust-ups, we nonetheless came to the conclusion that less would be more for the sequel. Ubisoft didn’t listen. Instead, combat has been tweaked, rebuilt, made more advanced… and even more frequent. Using one main weapon and a secondary weapon (which can be thrown for instant kills and replaced as new weapons are found), you can pull off an impressive range of combos: foist yourself into the air, swing around pillars, jump off walls, thrust your blade forward… block, parry, and what-have-you. It’s all very balletic, but there’s very little need to do much of this, as button-bashing will inevitably whittle down foes.

Unlike the previous game, there’s no need for a ‘deathblow’ either, as enemies will perish after enough hits. We rather miss the simplistic elegance of the original combat – although we can’t deny the tremendous flourish of lobbing your sword fifty-feet hence and chopping somebody’s head off. The second major change is the removal of ‘premonition’ scenes. For those unaware, these gave a glimpse of the (linear) path ahead; not having them in the sequel is a major omission because they were almost irresistible before – entreating you to play ‘just a little bit farther’ until you’d reached the next one. Instead, Warrior Within gives you ordinary save points that are poorly-placed… as frequent combat will cause many annoying deaths and makes you restart sometimes large sections again. But it isn’t all bad. As mentioned, the combat is very satisfying, and although it occurs far too often is well-integrated into the levels; and the gradual learning of new moves just about keeps things interesting. Also new are the boss fights – but these aren’t anything special, they’re just long and tedious battles.

So, is there anything Prince of Persia: Warrior Within adds to the original template that’s actually an improvement? Duration might be one thing (given the criminally-short length of its predecessor). There are also ‘time portals’, which cleverly split the castle into two timelines; one an exuberant past, the other a desolate present. This makes the game less linear and offers a small amount of exploration. Environmentally, there are sights to behold that hearken back to the very best of original settings… fabulous, well-rendered sections that are a joy to negotiate, but these aren’t quite as numerous as we’d have liked.

What’s most saddening is that Warrior Within has to seemingly resort to showboating to generate interest. Instead of well-written dialogue, we have semi-naked female characters with implausible breasts; instead of any sort of well-rounded lead character, we have a dislikeable chap with ‘attitude’; instead of complex, beautifully-designed puzzles that continually flow from room to room, we have combat and decapitations at every corner. To truly appreciate the genius of Prince of Persia, you have to dig a lot deeper than you really ought to. It’s definitely there, and it’s definitely brilliant, but you’ll likely cringe more times than you’ll applaud.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Spider-man 2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Daniel takes us on a unique perspective tour of New York as Spider-man in this game sequel. This review dates from September 2004.

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To be honest, Spider-man 2 surprised Gamestyle. It isn’t every day a developer puts their best effort into a licensed videogame (knowing fans will soak it up regardless). But Activision brought their ‘A’ game for the web-slinger’s latest outing and in so doing went above and beyond the call of duty. Adopting an open approach, you are free to swing, jump and climb your way around an impressively huge rendition of New York City.

You ARE Spider-man; the city is yours to explore as you wish. And thanks to an absolutely superb web swinging system, getting around the city is one of the most enjoyable, exciting and downright addictive experiences Gamestyle has ever had. In spite of the seemingly complex nature of the web swinging (particularly if you choose ‘Manual Swinging’) a single button controls the whole thing. Pressing R2 fires out a web (assuming there is something for it to latch onto) and Spidey swoops into his swinging; pressing and holding the web button again fires a second web line, suspending you in mid-air. Release the button and you swing off ready to fire your web again and continue on like a pendulum. The result looks and feels exactly how it should – just like the movies. You can also jump between web lines to alter direction more quickly, use webs as zip lines to pull yourself forwards or hit the sprint button mid-swing for that extra burst of speed needed to find the upper reaches of the rooftops.

Spider-man’s super physical abilities also allow you to jump exceptionally high (with a charged-up jump); and it’s easy (not to mention controllable) to leap from rooftop to rooftop. Should you ever miss, slip or even fall you can quickly zip off a web to catch yourself or swing to safety at the last second. Spidey will receive damage if your fall to street level is too severe, but he can survive some pretty stomach-churning drops. In order to not infuriate the player, Spider-man 2 puts no limit on the amount of webbing you use. However, a limitation is put on a Matrix-like slow-motion gauge that fills up over time so you cannot abuse it. Alongside your ‘Spider-sense’ (which will warn you of impending attacks and allow you to dodge them by tapping the Circle button) this Matrix-like feature slows everything down around you, giving you time to dodge punches and bullets while making your own attacks more effective.

The technical aspects of Spider-man 2 both disappoint and intrigue in equal measure. On first glance, the city looks aesthetically appalling. Buildings look like cardboard; traffic fades in and out; pedestrians have numerous clones of themselves all over the place. But the draw distance is incredible. It’s the lack of detail that keeps everything running smoothly. Textures are applied as they’re needed; far away scenery is blocky until you reach it. Actually, the entire city is streamed into view as and when it is needed. More impressively the 3-dimensional nature of the game world dictates that this stream-in flows upwards as well as horizontally. Likewise, from a great height traffic is rendered flat; but when you get down nearer to street level cars transition to ‘true’ 3D versions. A clever motion blur effect does a reasonable job of convincing you that it is all happening in real-time. The cityscape is far more visually impressive once day fades into night (those bland textures are less obvious amongst the twinkling lights). Of course if you really want to top off an evening of adventure nothing beats watching the sun rise the next morning perched high atop a skyscraper.

The game is split into chapters each of which requires completion of certain mission objectives to advance. Usually these are simply a matter of getting somewhere in the city or buying an upgraded ability; but within each chapter you also have to acquire a certain amount of Hero Points. These Hero Points are what ensure that along with (your) great power comes great responsibility, because they are awarded for completing good deeds. Around the city opportunities to stop crime on the streets, chase down bank robbers, rescue people falling from buildings and generally clean up the city wait – all of which will award you Hero Points. Other than setting a required total of points to earn for each chapter you are free to pursue your crime fighting career in any way you want. If you don’t want to push the story along, you don’t have to. The only disadvantage to this is that you won’t be able to buy the new ability upgrades as they become available. Sooner or later you will probably end up going where it tells you to, if only to improve Spider-man’s powers.

Predictably enough, it is the story that forms the weakest link of the game. Loosely based on the events of the movie, you go up against Doctor Octopus as well as some other notorious villains chosen to give some variety. Voice work by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina (as well as helpful hints by Bruce Campbell) help complete the movie to game connection. The Indoor ‘boss fights’ that are the centrepiece of the story hardly make use of the strengths of the swing system (it suddenly becomes quite fiddly in enclosed areas). A weak camera system only compounds the problem making targeting and fighting repetitive and dull. The only story sections that feel worthwhile take place out in the city again. Surely it would have been better not to shove unnecessary indoor bits into the game with such brilliant city-swinging possible. (Un)Fortunately the main plot of the game is all over pretty quickly; but even after this the city itself offers much to see and do. In addition to criminals to bust and citizens to save there are secret items hidden all over the city, on top of buildings, down alleyways and in obscure corners of the map.

A GTA-inspired status menu keeps stats on everything you’ve done: items collected, combat moves learned, upgrades received, criminals thwarted, pizzas delivered (Spidey as the pizza guy ranks high amongst the all-time mini-game list) and secrets found. The brilliance of it all is you can have fun just trying to be the best super-hero you can and always improving. There’s very little pressure and so much pleasure. It’s a dip-in/dip-out kind of game; the loading times are rarely of major concern and you can play for as long or as little as you like. Sadly that turned out to be less than Gamestyle had expected due to a lack variety in the random missions around town. Chasing a car down a highway might be fun, but how many times can you take the same man to a hospital or stop the exact same police shoot-out before you get bored with it? Similarly, Spidey’s wisecracks and banter with the pedestrians can begin to grate too. But these turn out to be the worst of the problems.

It doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights that the likes of Goldeneye and Bladerunner achieved as film/game tie-ins, but what Spider-man 2 does is create one of the best super-hero games of all time. If you can forgive the rough around the edges presentation and look past the repetition and occasional frustration, Spider-man 2 will not disappoint. It is literally leaps and bounds ahead of the first game and fully deserves all the success it will no doubt receive.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10