Thursday, January 28, 2010

Men of War: Red Tide

Being a Black Coat must have been very annoying. This is one of the lessons we’re taking away from Red Tide, a WWII RTS with an eye for historical accuracy and realism that focuses on the exploits of these little-known yet resourceful Russian marines. Here’s another lesson we’re taking away: the Black Coats had to quicksave all the time.

That Red Tide selects Easy mode by default is telling. While plenty of missions provide an enjoyable challenge (on Easy, once you know what you’re doing), some don’t. The astonishingly unfair second mission could put you off for life: you and eight guys are dropped in a forest outside a village with 60 or so enemy soldiers, who have two machinegun emplacements, an armoured APC, a tank and two armoured cars.

In a house is a Romanian POW. You wipe out the enemy troops, get the POW, and then a convoy rolls up and you have to obliterate it. Then you jump into some vehicles to escape, but your route is littered with obstacles. By the end of it, your eight men have slaughtered an army. Imagine an orange, and when you peel the skin off it there’s more skin underneath – and then when you get that skin off too, underneath it is a bomb. Our quicksave finger is calloused.

In what can only be a nod to the lack of professional training afforded to Russian officers, there’s no tutorial or tips of any kind. That lack of training is also re-created in your troops’ pathfinding and AI. It turns out that despite their fearsome reputation for night-time amphibious bayonet assaults, the Black Coats had great trouble getting in and out of their boats. Even on land, our marines would go for tactically unsound walkabouts.

But it feels like being a Black Coat could be a great time. The same realism and attention to detail that make Red Tide so hard also create a hugely engaging and satisfying experience that ticks over in your head long after you’ve stopped playing. Each time your plan comes together, it feels like finding a chink in the armour of some faceless khaki goliath, and the pop and slump of every felled enemy soldier becomes a balm to your soul. At these times you can relax a little and enjoy the mass of new vehicles that are Red Tide’s only concrete addition to Men of War, plus the simple pleasure of your little soldiers commandeering a big gun and blowing sizeable holes in a garrisoned building.

Shame you’ll be doing it alone. In a decision we’re not sure is historically accurate at all, Best Way have removed all multiplayer from Men of War. Gone are the host of competitive multiplayer modes and the fabled co-op, rendering Red Tide no more than a hastily put-together standalone mission pack for a better game. Twenty sprawling, multi-part missions that beg to be solved, true, but also ones that eschew a difficulty curve in favour of a difficulty mountain range.

Men of War A4, the other standalone expansion for Men of War, is currently in development. You might be best off waiting for that.

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Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War

In Rise of Flight the brutal honesty is confined to the physics, damage models and virtual cockpits. Russian outfit Neoqb have created a fleet of fake Fokkers, Albatrosses, Spads and Sopwiths that deceive the inner ear as consummately as they do the eye. We’ve flown every WWI sim since Red Baron and have never experienced anything quite this raw, exhilarating or believable.

The first air warriors perished in numerous hideous ways and RoF lets you try most of them. Burn alive after taking a gas tank hit, drop to your doom after shedding your wings in an over-eager dive, or break every bone in your body after spinning out of a duel. Piloting these wiry war machines is actually pretty straightforward, even with realism options such as engine management active. The challenge is flying them at their limits while some bedroom Boelcke riddles your tail with sizzling lead.

Multiplayer is at the heart of the sim, and most of the servers are ‘full realism’ and crawling with canny aces. The good news is that half those aces will be on your side. Until Neoqb patch-in a dogfight mode, all scenarios are team-based.

Sadly, there are a few lice nestling in the seams of this exquisitely stitched sheepskin flying jacket. Louse number one is the DRM. To fly RoF – even alone – you need an active internet connection. ISP playing silly buggers? Oak tree KOed your phone line? You’re grounded, old son. Louse number two is the spartan single-player mode. Call us old-fashioned if you must, but we like our sky sims to come with configurable dogfight generators and enveloping, dynamic campaigns.

A mission editor, a sprinkle of single sorties and a campaign engine that randomly generates its challenges but doesn’t encourage freelancing or foster a sense of squadron don’t quite cut it. If you demand a rich, colourful career mode, stick with Over Flanders Fields or the venerable Red Baron II, or wait and see what external DCGs the community cook up (there’s already one in the works).

You may also want to hang back if you like your hangars well-stocked. RoF ships with just four flyables: the Fokker D.VII, Spad XIII, Albatross D.Va and Nieuport 28. Extra birds such as the iconic Camel and Dr.I cost money for each. Ah IL-2, how we miss thy generosity.

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Ninja Blade

Urgh, what a slog. There’s just no joy at all to be had from playing this game, even though you’ve got all sorts of whizz-bang action and swords chopping at enemies with wanton abandon. But there’s no soul there, none at all.

Ninja Blade is as corporate a game as you’re likely to ever play, with virtually nothing to identify it from the hundreds of other games that block up the shelves with their inane drudgery. And, on top of all of this, it’s riddled, nay, infested with quick time events, those three dreaded words that plague all right-minded individuals.

You play a character called Ken Ogawa, who likes to wear ninja clothes and do ninja things. The question of why global organisations are recruiting ninjas to battle ‘infected’ creatures across the globe is left unanswered. (Argh, even the choice of bad guy is so thoughtless, it makes us angry just to write it.) Anyway, as our Ken chops up shambling entities, upgrades his weapons and presses Space when prompted to by the game, he has to contend with that most hideous of things: the shoddy console port effect. Yes, when you save the game it says, “Do not turn off your console”. Would it have been too much trouble to change that word to “machine”? Really?

All the controls are marked in Xbox 360 control pad symbols, so you have no idea what key you’re meant to be pressing. Yes, we could have plugged in a pad, but what if we didn’t have one or ours broke? So we had to guess which keys did what, because there’s no way the game’s going to actually make it easy for us. Press RT and move the left stick to wall run. Right, we know WSAD is the left stick, so what’s RT? Quick check of the controls reveals nothing, so we’ll just spend five minutes pressing all the keys and falling off a ledge to find out which one it is. Ah ha! CTRL! At last, you little rascal.

As you can see, we hated playing this game. The unendurable boss battles, the combat, the ridiculous American accents for the clearly non-American characters, the astonishing number of QTEs and, finally, the lack of anything approaching an original idea contrives to make this one of the most ghastly games we’ve had the misfortune to play. Refuse to accept a game with such little creative effort put into it and vote with your wallets.

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God Of War Collection

God of War Collection – comprising the original PS2 games, repackaged on one handy blu-ray disc and remastered in HD – looks like a PlayStation 2.5 game. It may be a purely cosmetic overhaul – astutely handled by Bluepoint Games, the developer behind PSN’s Blast Factor – but Kratos’ PS2 adventures have lost little of their brutal substance.

The disc comes with the brilliant God of War and the even better God of War II, except the visuals are delivered in 720P. Nothing has been lost in translation from the PS2 version to PS3, so it plays exactly the same. For the uninitiated, GOW set the benchmark for hack and slash ultra-violence, twinned to epic screen-size boss battles. Oh, and anti-hero Kratos is a mad man. Armed with the Blades of Chaos (read: massive slicey blades) and coated with – in a plot twist that goes some way to explaining why he’s so furious – the ashes of his scorched family, he wades through harpies, minotaurs, screaming sirens and most other mythical beasts you care to mention. He’s also packing magic spells including Poseidon’s Rage – an electric blast radius that fries all within it or Typhon’s Bane – basically a glorified bow and arrow.

In GOW he’s a mortal working with the Gods to knock Ares – the original God of War – down a peg or two. Problem is, Ares stands taller than the Empire State building, which is pretty tall. Thus begins an adventure through Athens and down to Hades in search of the tools to eff him up. In GOW II, Kratos is tricked into relinquishing all his powers by the vengeful Gods, so he teams up with the Titans to teach his old holy chums a lesson in revenge. Across both games you’ll kill thousands of enemies without batting an eye-lid. OK, maybe you’ll wince a little when he pulls an archer apart with his bare hands.

Aside from the glossy visuals, both games being on one disc and the obligatory Trophies, God of War Collection doesn’t contain anything else you could call new. But it’s not like we expected new levels, weapons and a custom soundtrack. Hell no. What we want, and what we’re pretty sure you’ll agree with when you play it, is a stunning reminder of why God of War made such an impact on PS2 in the first place.

From the opening moments of both games, you can’t help but marvel at the beauty – and scale – of the environments, reveling in glee at the undimmed, visceral brutality of Kratos’ attacks. Countless games have tried and failed to match the epic scale and stylish kills of God of War since it first appeared in 2005 and they’ve all been left bloody-nosed. But while God of War Collection highlights how some of the visuals haven’t aged well (especially the untouched cutscenes) these HD remakes still play great and don’t feel out of place on PS3. For us, the opening to God of War II, where you methodically take down a giant angry statue, stills ranks as one of the greatest openers in any game we’ve played. And with this collector’s edition’s spit and polish, it looks even better than before.

What we didn’t remember about either game is how hard they are. It seems unlikely that Sony would’ve advised Bluepoint Games to up the ante in terms of difficulty, but there’s a Trophy specifically called Getting My Ass Kicked, which is a bronze award for dying so many times that you’re offered Easy mode. We don’t remember the beasts being so tricky to dispatch the first time around, especially the super-strength minotaurs. But we see this extra difficulty as a new challenge for us to enjoy and absolutely not a steady decrease in our gaming skills.

One slightly annoying thing about God of War Collection is that once you enter either game’s menu, you can’t simply drop out and fire up the other one without quitting out all the way to the XMB. It may just be a flaw in the version that we’re playing but it’s pretty grating if you fancy a change halfway through. Another gripe is the fact that the challenge rooms aren’t unlocked from the off. These bastard-hard rooms consist of special challenges like firing a giant stake into as many undead creatures as you can in a set time limit. Or fling as many enemies off a flying platform as possible with your throwing skills. But alas, you’ll have to work Kratos’ grey dangly bits to get them.

If you’re in any doubt about God of War’s importance to gaming, let alone the PlayStation brand, here’s the perfect chance to get acquainted with the titles that pushed PS2 to its limits – uniting arcane, but precise, Japanese play dynamics with Western accessibility and production bombast. You won’t be disappointed with Kratos’ HD adventures. That ashen grey look was meant for 720P. A hulking reinvention? By Zeus’ ragged beard, no – but you’ll sure like Kratos when he’s angry. If you're in the UK, you could wait for the official release or import it (the game’s already out in the US and runs on a UK PS3).

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Dark Void

Groan, groan, groan to the high heavens. Is this truly all we have to look forward to for the next 10 billion years? Do we just have to watch some guy who looks pretty much the same in every single game trudging about scenery rendered in Unreal Tournament 3’s engine? Are developers deliberately failing to come up with anything new whatsoever to shape their games? And no, we don’t just mean “make the same game and then stick some bloody gimmick into it so people think it’s different from the last one.”

That’s exactly what’s happened here, yet again. Dark Void, a game that had the potential to be something special if it hadn’t been crushed underneath the hammer of unoriginality. Just because you’ve got a jet pack in the game doesn’t mean it’s going to hide the fact we might as well be playing Dark Sector, Damnation, or Terminator: Salvation or... well, you get the picture. It doesn’t help that said jet pack sections are very difficult to control effectively using the traditional mouse and keyboard setup. It’s better with a pad, but it’s still pretty weak and imprecise. We’ll concede that when it does work it feels pretty cool, but it’s so fiddly, you always feel that this facade could shatter in the blink of an eye.

The best thing about the game is the plot and setting. While the idea of “humans stranded in rebellious bondage seek saviour to break free of chains” isn’t an original one, the whole tie-in with the Bermuda Triangle is interesting. You feel more could have been made of this – why didn’t they really play on this aspect and have more than just a cameo from a scientist based on Nikola Tesla? There’s all sorts of missing celebrities they could have had, but enough of that. We could go on for a long time about it. So yeah, the setting is good and you just wish the game could back it up, as is usually the case with these over-the-shoulder titles we’ve been seeing so much of.

There’s a cover system, which is of little surprise to anyone, and there’s also a ‘vertical cover system’, which just involves flipping the viewpoint to face up a surface, and your character performing prescribed moves by pressing the C key. It can serve up some pleasant visual moments, but other than that it’s just an unnecessary gimmick.

Speaking of visuals, they are bland and washed-out, especially with the ever-present distance fog blighting the land. To add to the uninspiring visuals, the crux of the game – shooting Geth-like creatures with big slugs controlling them – is vapid and tedious too. Every enemy seems to take about 40 bullets to the face before they go down in time-honoured “stretch-the-gameplay-out-artificially” tradition until you upgrade your weapons using the obligatory upgrade system that every game has to have now. You don’t actually get to make many upgrades, as the points you collect to enable them take ages to accumulate.

There must be something good about this game, though. There has to be. As we mentioned, there’s the “when it works” air combat. Once you get used to it, it can feel fluid and exciting, but the line between success and failure is much too fine. If you’re using the mouse and keys, the temptation is always to use the WASD keys to move around – but when flying, you need to use the mouse, which is criminally sluggish and imprecise – the very opposite to what it should be. So, definitely use a gamepad, as it’s clear the mouse support was added as a very last-minute afterthought. If you can use one, or if you can force yourself not to press A or D to strafe left and right, then it’ll be good fun soaring around in the clouds. Just don’t expect to be too accurate with your gunfire and you’ll be fine.

Dark Void is a criminal waste of time and energy, as standard and generic a game as you could hope to find, with a couple of little things that raise it out of the meat grinder and back into the land of the living. The flying side of things is reasonable but not worth all the hype, as the main game is a total bore and the plot is wasted on the rest of the package. That about sums it up.

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