Serious Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Rally Fusion: Race of Champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

FIFA 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us out for a few waves and some Beach Boys antics trying to catch the rays. Trick based games were hugely popular for a while and this one offered a new setting. This review dates from October 2002.

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I like Treyarch. Their conversion of Tony Hawk 2 for Dreamcast stands out, for me at least, as the best game for the machine throughout it’s entire life. In fact, barring Pro Skater 2X, there’s not a better skateboarding game than the 2nd version of Activision’s flagship extreme sports game running on Sega hardware in existance, and that includes later iterations of the series.

Activision must, therefore, be well aware of what the boys at Treyarch can do, as they’ve given them their own niche in the ‘Pro’ franchise of extreme sports games, surfing. With their indisputable graphical talent and an eye for pure addictive gameplay can the Kelly Slater-licensed title live up to the mass-market appeal of the Tony Hawk games? Well, kind of. There’s no denying that Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer is a superb game – it’s tightly produced, visually appealing and sports the single greatest soundtrack ever to grace a video game (and is well worth the asking fee just for the music alone) – but unfortunately the very sport itself doesn’t quite ignite the same emotions as the rail and pipes of skateboarding. That’s not the fault of Treyarch, at all, because Pro Surfer is perfectly accessable to newcomers (partly due to a well-written training section), is perfectly pitched in terms of difficulty and thanks to the screwed-on suits at Activision, is marketed alongside it’s stablemates as being an equal.

So where are the problems then? Well, it’s not as straightforward as that because the only problems with the game are those inherant with making a game that’s little more than a niche title that’s only ever going to enjoy limited success (despite talks of a sequel already) compared to the likes of Hawk and Hoffmans’ games. It’s presented in much the same way as those titles, and plays out similarly too – there’s your career mode where you’ve got to fulfill a set amount of objectives (which thankfully, for the most part, stay fairly grounded in reality), there’s a set of multiplayer options and there’s a free surf mode too.

There isn’t a better surfing game around, either, so it’s not down to competition. Pro Surfer offers much more than the likes of Transworld Surfing because it has been produced with surfers in mind, that’s evident from the huge amount of professional-quality videos; 14 real-world surfing locations (and an indoor practice one, too) and some top-ranking names to play as. It doesn’t just end with fan-service, though, the game looks brilliant (and runs at 60 frames a second constantly), sounds superb and best of all controls well, meaning gamers themselves should find no room for complaint. The marketing proudly states that you’ll never see “the same wave twice” and to a certain extent this is true – every wave of every level looks different, and therefore your approach to how you’re going to tackle this particular wave changes on the fly, giving a fresh approach to the whole grounded extreme sports genre. They look fantastic too, especially given the liquid-smooth frame rate – the waves look like waves, from the break and from inside the tube, and the water around each wave reacts intelligently and convincingly, although they do sort of spring up from nowhere right behind your character.

The surfers themselves benefit from excellent modelling and animation, and they too interact accordingly as you’d imagine. Controlling the characters on-screen is a doddle, once you’ve gone through the training section of the game. I’m not going to embarass myself by pretending to know the names and styles of all the tricks, but rest-assured that they are both easy to pull off and highly rewarding when you start to learn how to string combos together – indeed, learning how to work the trick system fluidly is essential to scoring big in Kelly Slater.

There are face tricks, tube tricks (where the camera moves in behind you and provides a handy balance metre as in Neversoft’s games) and air tricks (including both grabs and flips) and linking these together builds up your special meter which as you might expect unlocks even bigger tricks, as is the norm these days, really. It’s just a shame, then, that it’s going to be overlooked. This is disappointing, as at it’s heart lies a superbly playable, highly addictive, intelligent surfing game. Maybe that’s the catch – it’s a surfing game, but please don’t miss out on this in favour of This Month’s New Game because when that wears thin you’re going to be wishing you’d picked out something with a little more lastability – something Pro Surfer offers in abundance: long lasting, enjoyable gameplay, much like Pro Skater 2. Which reminds me, back to Venice Beach…

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Rocky

Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of the most memorable reviews on Gamestyle was a one-off review from a forum character known as the Marquis De Sade. After all these years I’ve forgotten his real name (maybe Steven?) however he was one of the hardcore supporters of Gamestyle and its forum, which was a great place to engage with. This unique review dates from November 2002.

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“Laaaadies and Gentlemeeeeen, welcome to the clash of the titans. Tonight, we proudly present the contention for the heavyweight championship of the woooorld!!!!!!!” In the red corner, hailing from the northeast of England, and from the corridors of Rage Newcastle, wearing the blue shorts with red and white trim, is Roooccccckkkkkkyyyyy!!!!!!!!”

Crowd politely clap

“And in the brown/yellow corner, currently residing from the Bastille prison in France, and clearly needing a wash, is none other than the sick, the twisted, the boy-ass buyer, the Marrrrrrquis De Sade!!!!!!!!” Rapturous applause from the crowd

ROUND ONE

Ding-ding

De Sade is initailly impressed by the opening sequnce of moves by the contender, displaying clips from the movie, with THAT music, and perfectly getting the gamer into the spirit of the proceedings. After a flurry of jabs and hooks from Rocky, De Sade delivers a strong uppercut when at the end of the intro, a shameless plug for the DVD boxset appears.

Ding-ding

ROUND TWO

Ding-ding

Seconds out, and the user is given the option for Exhibition, Sparring, Tournament (which has to be unlocked), and the ubiquitous Movie Mode, which is the meat and potatoes for the single player. Decent rendered cut-scenes permeate the action, with the sound sampled from the actual movies, which perfectly recreate the mood of the celluloid outings. A series of quick punches to the ribs, causes concern to the debauched one’s trainers.

Ding-ding

ROUND THREE

Ding-ding

Round three then, and the first impressions are good. The graphics are superbly realised, with each fighter looking as you’d expect them to be (special mention of course, to Clubber Lang’s infamous mohican), replete with sweat-soaked skin and bulging muscles. Each punch delivers a convincing connection, and you’ll wince as blood and sweat spray from the pores of the receiving face. The depiction of the boxers grow more bloody as the fight wears on, and you’ll often find blood strewn around the canvas. The arenas too, are worthy of mention, and grow as you move from backstreet gyms, to fully-fledged halls. Unlike most other sporting games, the crowds are polygonal, and far more realistic looking than the usual cardboard cutouts. De Sade is surprised at the movement of the ‘Italian Stallion’, as he ducks and weaves, pounding the libertine with blows to the side of his head.

ROUND FOUR

Ding-ding

As soon as the bell sounds, De Sade is straight out, with nothing to lose. He has been impressed by this young American, but having tried the game on default (Contender), and finding the game frustratingly difficult, he leads in with a barrage of punches to the ‘Stallions midriff. Initially, the game is found to be very unforgiving. These boxers are tough, and show no mercy. Furthermore, it helps to learn some combos to rattle in, but further play reveals quite a strategic game. Training (should you ignore the standard points added to speed, stamina etc, and gamble to try manually) is tough too, and you’ll stumble on each lesson until you’ve had a fair few goes. Unfortunately, you can’t practice any of these training lessons from the main menu. The bell sounds, and Rocky retreats to his corner, surprised at the deftness from De Sade, but wondering why his breeches should be undone.

FINAL ROUND

Ding-ding

Both fighters, eye-balling for the last time, meet once again. After a few hours play, it really clicks in. The buttons are mapped to your brain, and fighting each boxer reveals their weakness. And you exploit it. You see the opening, and try to lure your oppenent into the corner. And you get him there. And you realise that this is your chance. The uppercuts rain in, his mouth spurting blood, as you rain in a few combos. His energy bar rapidly dropping, as you unleash a volley of superbly timed punches. And in a spasmodic twist, his body impacts upon the canvas. The sensation is incredible, and in the Rocky context, you’ll want to topple the arrogant Creed, the ox-like Lang, the towering Drago, the upstart Gunn, alongside the other 20+ opponents.

In slow motion, De Sade, now tiring badly, swings with all his might to Rocky’s face. But his opponent is more powerful and agile than any other boxing game he has saw before, and he dodges. Dodges well enough to reply with a stunning counter-punch that sends De Sade reeling on his heels, and onto his stinking back. The crowd rise, and instead of jeering, they chant the new heir to the throne “ROCKY, ROCKY, ROCKY!!!!!” Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the best boxing game in the world.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Sega Soccer Slam

Gamestyle Archive Intro: way back in the early days of the Xbox, I enjoyed Soccer Slam as it was something different to all the Pro Evo versus FIFA chat that dominated the pitch. Perhaps over scored slightly now but hindsight is a wonderful thing! This dates from October 2002. 

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We’ve been playing this one for a while now, and seeing as it’s been around on the shelves of importers for far too long we thought it was about time for a review. Sega Soccer Slam is an incredibly over-the-top representation of what we like to call football – it’s 3 a side (plus goalie) Midway-style madness, in fact developers Black Box are responsible for the recent Midway branded NHL Hitz 20-02, and Soccer Slam plays (and to some extent, looks) very similar.

Of course, that’s meant in the lightest possible sense, as nothing around at the moment is anywhere near as outrageous as this game – it really is complete mayhem from start to finish, and manages to incorporate the best bits from the likes of Red Card, Virtua Striker and oddly enough, The Matrix all into one game. Each team is based around a particular stereotype (without being too offensive) and each player is entirely individual with their own appearance, playing style, special moves and voices – and we don’t just mean a different face texture either – these players really are as different from each other as they could be without actually leaving the team colours.

Once you’ve picked a team and a game mode, and set up the sides depending on how many friends you’ve got over, it’s into the match. You’ve got the obvious pass and shoot buttons, but there’s also a deke move and a defensive block too, plus power-ups and turbos assigned to the triggers, and skillful use of all these is often the way to succeed. The pitches seem tiny to begin with, and it’s possible to get from one end to another in less than 3 seconds, but once you start to appreciate the moves and get used to the pace of the game it’s much more manageable. There’s not just one-off exhibition matches either, Soccer Slam comes complete with a full compliment of leagues and cups, and success in these events unlocks the usual array of extra teams, player statistics, additional (equally-mad) stadiums and other nice treats, which seriously helps the one player life-time as you’ll find yourself playing Soccer Slam alone just as much as you would with mates just to unlock more features for the next multi-player evening!

Unique on-the-pitch moves include holding down shoot for far longer than you need to which results in a spectacular volley, bicycle kick or header combo, and best of all if you manage to keep possession for a few seconds a spotlight in your teams colours will appear and randomly circle the pitch for a while. Get your player in that area and tap the shoot button to pull off the bullet-time feature which enables you to carefully pin-point the exact area to shoot at whilst everyone else is frozen for a second or so – a superb touch and one that fits the whole theme of the game. Surprisingly, graphically Soccer Slam is the best looking football game around, on any format – the players are drawn from massive amounts of polygons that give each of them their own unique appearance, and are equally expertly textured and shaded.

The same brilliant presentation extends to the rest of the pitch, and even the hundreds of people in the crowds are all fully 3 dimensional, and all this at a rock solid 60 frames a second – a sight that really has to be seen to be believed. The sound department is equally impressive, with laugh-out-loud funny commentary, excellent spot-effects and some cheesy but perfectly placed music snippets whenever you pull something off – it’s all very arcadey yet consistently entertaining and never annoying, a feat that must have took some serious play-testing from Black Box. If you’re looking for something more exciting than the usual dull ‘simulations’ out there, or just want a quick blast with a few mates, Sega Soccer Slam is unbeatable, and highly recommended.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Sega GT

Gamestyle Archive: now we’re into Xbox territory and we’re kicking off with an import review from Alex who joined us from Gamehub when they decided to thrown in with Gamestyle and take on the world. This NTSC review dates from 2002.

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Sega’s last attempt to knock Gran Turismo off the top of the realistic sim-based racers was an ambitious but ultimately flawed title on the Dreamcast a few years back. Despite superiour graphics and a much better structured game progression people just couldn’t deal with the atrocious handling and sluggish first few hours.

Fast forward to 2002 and it’s looking likely that Sega’s brand new racer will suffer the same fate, but this time it really does deserve to do a whole lot better. Up against the likes of Project Gotham and Rallisport, regardless of Sega GT actually being a better game than both of them, it’s unlikely to fly off the shelves mainly due to the reputation of the original Dreamcast version. As with the original, Sega GT 2002’s main career mode features 2 distinct series of races – the Official races (which make up the majority of the game, split into several tiers of 3 races each, with license tests between each level) and Event races featuring such treats as drag racing, circuit battles and races divided up into cars from the last 3 decades, all good stuff and there’s plenty to do.

Again, the path through the game is far more structured (without necessarily being more linear) than the likes of GT3 – you certainly won’t be driving the top-end cars within a few hours in this game – you really do need to be both careful with your cash and more importantly – a good driver. Cash won from races and events can be spent in the much improved garage area – this is (at last) a fully 3 dimensional portrayal of your garage, complete with your current car selection and any medals and prizes you might have won on the walls and the desks. Another neat feature is the ability to purchase items that don’t actually affect your cars – plants, badges, guitars and amplifiers are the first few goods you’ll be able to dot around your own garage and these are in addition to the free photographs you’re able to take of replays after each race that also get pinned up on the wall.

Parts for your car can be bought brand new or for the budget concious there’s also a second hand section where mufflers and tyres can be bought cheaper, although be aware that they won’t last quite as long as the new kit would. And that’s another area where Sega GT excels – damage. Not only can you damage your car (not visibly, sadly) during the races, which then has to be repaired out of your winnings, but you also need to watch out for expensive bolt-ons actually breaking and wearing out. You might well have a highly specification turbo kit installed but if it blows on the final lap and the engine overheats you’ll be in trouble. Far from being frustrating, this just adds another dimension to the garage section of the game which offers you the chance to keep on top of the repairs as and when you need to. The engine parts do make a considerable difference to how the car handles (and sounds) – buy nothing but horsepower and you’ll find the car a nightmare to drive, but play safe with some decent tyres and suspension and a little engine tuning will pay dividends in the long run, and for the record, this version handles much, much better than the Dreamcast version.

Elsewhere there’s a superb Chronicle mode which gives you classic cars and classic challenges to overcome (complete with the colours drained from the display) from the yesteryears era of racing with points win in each stage allowing you to improves parts of the car you selected. The quick battle and time attack do exactly what they say they do and thankfully multiplayer is equally smooth as the single player mode with no noticable lack of graphical detail. It’s far to say that in game, Sega GT looks absolutely wonderful with some superb, incredibly solid car models and excellent environment mapping and whilst the courses themselves aren’t exactly expertly designed in terms of actually being all that fun to race on they are graphically rich and chock full of trackside details and high polygon features – lighting is also top notch and the heat blur from the engines is convincing too and unique to this game.

Sadly it all looks a little bit low resolution and slightly blurry (much like Wreckless) but it moves at a constant 60 frames a second without ever dropping a single frame, even when all 6 cars are on screen and with the game running in anamorphic 16:9 mode. Sega GT’s standout feature however is the sound – whilst the in game and menu music is the usual MIDI-jazz nonsense we always tend to get in these games (you can use your own soundtracks, thankfully) the actual engine sounds are second to none, surpassing even those found in GT3 on the Playstation 2. The sounds are realistic, meaty and clearly definable from one car to the next, and in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound the experience is delightfully encompassing and most definately draws you further into the game.

The sheer number of little touches in the game only serve to highlight the amount of time and effort that went into creating the game, and whilst the loading times can get in the way a little bit (even between menu screens) we have no reservation in recommending Sega GT to anyone who has the ability to play US imports on their Xbox – it’s a superb, long lasting game and one that petrol-heads will no doubt enjoy from start to finish. This review formerly appeared on Gamehub.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

The Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

Ace Combat: Squadron Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamestyle Score:  8/10

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

Gamestyle Archive intro: you know I cannot remember much about this game that I reviewed just over 10 years ago now. Splinter Cell was a fine series and offered an entertaining challenge away from the usual gung-ho blasting titles. This review dates from March 2005.

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Can it be that the third Splinter Cell release is already upon us? An incessant and unforgiving impetus to deliver the next annual instalment can sometimes mean the kiss of death for many a series (and novelist). Yet somehow Tom Clancy and his Splinter Cell always manage to come up trumps: constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of stealth and co-operative play, this is a premier series that deserves all the recognition it gets. And, once again, Chaos Theory is no different. The storyline casts you into an international crisis which Third Echelon finds of interest – because North Korea, China and Japan are intent on kicking off the next world war. However, this is merely subterfuge, as there is something far more sinister underway: information is power; throw a troublesome algorithm into the proceedings and there is only one man that can hope to win the battle. Cue Sam Fisher and his next adventure.

While Gamestyle cannot criticise the storyline (despite its overfamiliarity) or the dynamics at work, we can find fault with the host: this should be the final Splinter Cell on the ageing Playstation 2, and it’s about time. For two instalments now, the format has tried to cope with the ambition and sweeping design of the development team; the loading issues associated with Pandora Tomorrow have improved greatly, yet there aren’t enough alternate routes or commanding environments within the ten levels that comprise Chaos Theory. The checkpoints are also badly positioned; thankfully a quicksave feature has been implemented, but in retrospect the changes don’t always facilitate a more user-friendly experience (despite its easiest setting being ‘normal’).

Speaking of experience, Sam Fisher can boast of several moves added to an already bewildering stock-in-trade. Because of this, the control system can sometimes feel forced, lacking an intuitive edge and forcing a scramble for the instruction booklet. Of course, each Splinter Cell performance is reminiscent of James Bond; more fantastical gadgets arrive with each new script. Sam now has a scrambler attachment for his pistol (which can knock out various devices) and, perhaps predictably, a commando knife. Previous Splinter Cell missions could be approached systematically (eg, “no that didn’t work, I’ll try this instead”) until a successful outcome was reached. Perhaps in reply to criticism of Pandora Tomorrow’s difficulty, Chaos Theory allows for alternate ‘approaches’ when loading up for the next mission; the flaw here is that both sets of equipment (ie, stealth or assault) are predetermined – there is no Ghost Recon-like freedom to kit out as you please. Regardless of approach, the AI in Chaos Theory is responsive (but not overly so), and a tad more forgiving than ‘one slip-up and you’re dead’.

Upon inserting game code into the PS2, one can almost visualise the machine’s inner rumblings, perpetual growling at having to stomach ever more complex routines. The improved menus initially offer hope that the digestive tract is clear, however optimism – and optimisation – is clouded because Sam works almost exclusively at night (or dusk) – and Chaos Theory plunges the player into eternal darkness, with nary a speck of radiance that this version so obviously needs. Animation and character models are admittedly top-notch, but in comparison the surrounding textures are somewhat chunky and ill-defined (and perhaps indicative of the multiformat appetite which so distends the comfort zone of the Playstation 2). The arrival of Amon Tobin to score the soundtrack has been beneficial, as Chaos Theory boasts plenty of atmosphere (although the music somewhat detracts from the excellent sound effects and dialogue – including the in-game directions from Lambert – and the stealthy remit). Taken as an ensemble production however, there is a place for everything – and everything is audibly in place. If Pandora Tomorrow hinted at what could be achieved online, then Chaos Theory is the natural extension.

Offline, there’s the featured addition of co-operative mode, whereby you and a friend can partake in a bit of espionage gymnastics: it’s a thoroughly breathtaking experience in overcoming obstacles through co-operation and using the environment to your advantage. Played online, co-op relaxes its grip and instead promotes mental agility – knowing the map can often hold vital clues to victory. Again, played online, Chaos Theory benefits from the limited number of participants; it is a fluid and self-assured experience – and given the popularity of the title, matches are never too hard to find (although it’s perhaps too reminiscent of the previous game, and even includes many of the same maps).

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory matches the high intrigue of previous releases, and even throws a few new tricks into the rucksack. Conceptually, it is a journey worth taking – but with the next round of consoles waiting in the wings, Gamestyle anticipates not merely another chapter, but instead a whole new beginning.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10