Tuesday 31 May 2011

Game Review - Portal 2 (2nd opinion)

Finally, a full four years after we all became tired of 'the cake is a lie' memes, Valve returns with the sequel to 2007's sleeper hit and industry darling, Portal. Having wowed critics and gamers alike with Portal's mix of first-person shooting, lateral puzzles and unadulterated charm, Valve are tasked with creating a bigger, better and er, more charming experience. Will they be able to recapture the magic of the first game, or will it fall through like so many weighted storage cubes through so many portals?

Portal 2 picks up several years after the events of Portal, after test-subject designate: Chell has been stored in suspended animation. Having destroyed the malignant AI that ran the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, the facility has since fallen into disrepair. Following a daring escape with the aid of an unusual AI module named Wheatley (brilliantly voiced by a bumbling Stephen Merchant), Chell must traverse the abandoned test chambers and beyond using the Aperture Science Portal Device (a gun that opens inter-spatial portals between two flat surfaces). Chell must use all of her wits, intelligence and cunning to escape the deadly test chambers and navigate the labyrinthine depths of the entire Aperture Science facility.

Valve did well to develop the story and world of Portal, creating an engaging back-story through the use of environments, dialogue and pre-recorded messages. Nothing is explicitly pointed out to the player, but clues and inferences are given which make the player feel like they are piecing together a different kind of puzzle, the mystery behind Aperture Science. By dividing up the action between the standard test chambers and more 'behind the scenes' areas, Valve manage to keep the game-play fresh enough to last over a period much longer than the previous game, as well as giving the player hints as to how Aperture Science, GlaDos and Wheatley were created.

Valve have also given Portal a graphical overhaul, with more detailed environments and character models. The incidental animation of the facility rebuilding itself around Chell as she moves through it is really impressive, as well as the realistic fluid effects used for water and the new reactive gels.

The new gameplay mechanics, such as the aforementioned attribute-enhancing gels, add great variety to Portal 2's challenges. The player must use a combination of hard-light bridges, lasers, tractor beams and gels in concert with their portal device on order to progress. Combined with the added challenge of the new co-operative campaign, Portal 2 offers a wealth of cerebral game-play. Understanding the obstacles one faces when playing online, Valve has integrated multiplayer-specific controls that allow players to communicate with each other without the use of headsets. The only problem I can foresee with the co-operative mode is that if one player has passed that specific test chamber already (or has a massively superior intellect) the experience can be a little wearing while you wait for your partner to figure out the chamber.

All in all, Portal 2 not only improves on its predecessor in terms of a bigger and better game, but also manages to recapture that fragile magic that made Portal such an unmitigated success. The only bad thing is that I have to wait another four years for Portal 3.

Lukao gives Portal 2 9 Aperture Science Edgeless Safety Cubes out of 10. Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit BlinkList Furl Mixx Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo
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Tuesday 24 May 2011

Game Review – Brink

Formats: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Brink runs out of cover, leaps over obstacles and guns down a plethora of generic shooters to claim a place alongside some of the unique and different first-person experiences. While certainly not comparable to Call of Duty or Battlefield—Brink’s clever mix of first-person action and freestyle running helps create an enjoyable, albeit slightly diminished package. Minimal content, some unsavory visual problems and significant lag makes Brink’s impact rather short, although the time you will spend on Arc is downright entertaining.

A storyline is set in place to help structure what is predominantly an online experience. The last remnants of society fight over a once-utopian city called The Ark, and it is your decision whether you oppress the resistance or fight for freedom. This dramatic choice unfortunately does little to change your time with Brink, other than the visual aesthetics of your characters.

The majority of your time will of course be spent on the battlefield--where Brink simultaneously shines and falls short. Brink is a team-based FPS where the goal is to find and complete certain objectives on the map. Teams are required to disarm bombs, hold positions, eliminate enemy defenses, and a variety of other tactical objectives in eight available locations. An extensive tutorial system helps bring in gamers of every level, intuitive customization options keep aesthetics fresh and a three-tier class system helps keep combat versatile.

Brink’s character customization is certainly worth boasting about--the two different factions allow plenty of variation in costume, with masks, tattoos and armors of every shape and size at your eventual disposal as you progress. Once you spend some time with Brink you will also have the opportunity to change your characters body type--choosing from light, medium and heavy. The light characters maneuver with precision and speed across the battlefield, spraying enemies from all angles, but at a price of minimal health. The heavy tank unit traverses the battlefield at a slow pace, but with powerful weapons and a meaty health bar to match. The neutral medium body type encompasses a little from both counterparts, simply not to the same extent.

The body configuration is not the only thing that serves to change your characters’ in-match abilities. Reminiscent of Team Fortress 2, unique class types, ranging from medics, engineers, standard grunt infantry and others--all have their own special skills to add to the war-effort. This alongside Brink’s unique freestyle running makes combat for the most part, an enjoyable experience. Movement is an essential tactic in Brink--picture Mirror’s Edge but with guns as you run and leap across obstacles while gunning down enemies from every direction. This sense of speed has been accomplished before and frankly, to a better degree in Mirror’s Edge. There are moments in Brink when the fluidity breaks down and you find yourself stuck behind obstacles that you should be able to traverse with no issue, but when it does go right, it is a satisfying game mechanic.

It is safe to say that Brink is at its best when flooded with human players. The in-game objective wheel helps to keep every player in the loop of the current objective, who is doing what and where the action is taking place. With only eight maps available, you have to wonder how long it will take before players will get bored of playing on them. The majority of the maps are quite well thought out, with most having multiple entry points to key areas, helping to keep combat exciting and varied. The absolute last thing you want however, is to play with Brink’s AI. The horribly inconsistent robots literally kill the experience, but with relatively consistent lag problems online, it begs the question of what is the greater evil?

When things go well for Brink, they really do go well. Unfortunately, there are just so many opportunities for Brink to fall flat on its face, that it is very hard to recommend it to a gamer looking for a consistent experience. Brink’s well thought out and implemented upgrade and class systems will keep you coming back, if you can handle some occasional lag issues, inconsistent in-game physics and eight playable maps alongside four challenge modes. This is a prime example of developers simply not polishing out the edges of a game that could have been something special.

7.0 Gameplay – Has some excellent moments, filled with frustrating inconsistencies.

7.0 Graphics – A very cool artistic design especially in cut-scenes,
but in-game suffers from awkward and bland colouring.

5.0 Replay – You’d think there would be lots of replay value, but fully maxing out a character is
really easy, the game becomes repetitive and a short supply of maps makes this easy to forget.

5.0 Tech – Online issues with lag, inconsistent in-game
physics but controls and audio are both good.

Overall – 6.0

Igor, CeX UK Contributor

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Monday 16 May 2011

3D: Gimmick or Progression?

3D. The third dimension in media terms can mean a number of things. It has applied to the growing number of animated films using computer generated image (CGI). In video games, the term 3d was applied to market the advancement in game graphics and technology (see titles like Duke Nukem 3D, Gex 3D etc.) In more recent years, the term has applied to the stereoscopic effect seen in cinemas. It creates the illusion of depth perception in the moving image. More films, including the aforementioned animated films, are giving viewers the option to view the film in 3D.

Now 3D is taking form in more than one visual media. The medium has found its way into some households. This has been in the form of televisions, cable/satellite providers, games consoles, and more recently cameras and camcorders. Youtube has now shown signs of 3D support. But is the world ready for this sudden advancement? Especially since most of us only recently upgraded to High Definition in the last 3-5 years.

The process is nothing new. The most common form of 3d is the where the film appears doubled-up; separating primary colours like the blues and reds. This is achieved through either a special projector, or now more commonly through CGI use in post production. The image refocuses only with the application of special glasses. This creates the depth of field effect in the image.

The effect was used in specific productions,events and theme-park attractions from as early as the 1950's. Cheesy b-movie flicks and certain horror movies come to mind. These include It Came From Outer Space (Universal, 1953) and House of Wax (Warner Bros. 1953.) It is only in the last 10 years that the medium has seen massive success. Now with massive axes flying at your face in the case of My Bloody Valentine 3D (Lionsgate, 2009.)

The modern 3D production started with the use of the massive IMAX cinemas. To begin with, the IMAX's were restricted to short hour long features shot on massive 60mm film. Hollywood eventually utilised the massive cinemas to show feature films. By doing this, future productions were made to meet the requirements of such places. One of the requirements was the compatibility or conversion to 3D. Arguably, since the success of James Cameron's Avatar has the 3D film become a commonplace in cinema. More and more films have opted for the 3D effect. Some better than others. You could argue some films are being just as tongue and cheek as earlier 3D attractions. On the whole, it seems the film industry has found a good enough stipulation for people to see films in the cinema.

Now we are seeing yet another attempt to bring the cinema home. Massive flat screen televisions have been beefed up into 3D ready flat screens. Brands such as Samsung and LG have led the charge on the new TV's. It would appear that 3D is being marketed as the new HD. The 3D TV's have been divided in two categories: Active and Passive. Active requires expensive liquid crystal shutter glasses, while passive calls for cheap circular polarized glasses. We've certainly come a long way from those paper red and blue glasses.

3D TVs are not without their issues. In some cases there have been issues with the glasses overlapping the images. A colleague of mine mentioned his first 3d TV, an early production Samsung d7000, gave off too much “Ghosting.” This is where the image is superimposed and offset, giving off a transparent replica of the same image, effectively doubling it. In my short experience with a displayed UE46d7000, I noticed the images would occasionally flicker from one eye to other. This could have been based on what I was watching, where I was sitting, or the sequential rate of what was being displayed. It may have also been down to the fact I was wearing my prescription glasses too (glasses over glasses would be at bit strange to look at.) However most of the demonstration was crystal clear.

But it's not just TV's that have been given the 3D treatment. The recent 3DS console utilises the effect with out the need for those expensive glasses. This is an auto-stereoscopic device does not require additional accessories. Modelled after the Nintendo DS lite models, this looks and feels very much like one. The major difference is the top screen has all the 3D glamour going on. Upon booting up the device, it gives a countdown to when the effect is enabled. From there you witness the Nintendo 3DS logo drop into the depth illusion. It's at this point who will start to feel your eyes cross as you focus in on what's going on. It's from here I can understand why some people may get a little queasy. Its almost like trying to go cross-eyed whilst looking at something up close. Lucky, there is a filter to adjust the amount of 3D depth you want to see.

Once again Nintendo has made a games console based on one major unique selling point. Before it was the touch screen of the DS, or the motion sensor technology of the Wii. Now we are seeing the company has caught up with the desires of some futurists out there. But with a limited selection of games on offer, we have yet to know of the console's lasting appeal. There are a couple of games that have my interest. These include upcoming remakes of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid 3.

So far we have two major mediums that have mesmerised their way into retailers. 3D broadcasts are already being transmitted with certain programmes. And there is a small but growing amount a 3D enabled movies being fitted on blu-ray disk. The same can be said for the games industry. As well as the 3DS, Certain PS3 and Xbox 360 titles (such as Crysis 2) have settings built in to make them 3Dtv ready.

What more can we expect down the line? Recently Sony launched the HDR-TD10 camcorder and the MHS-FS3 Bloggie 3D HD camera. These two devices feature twin lenses in their design to provide the depth necessary to replicate the 3D effect. Both devices feature an HDMI out and playback and compatibility on 3D TV's. So far I've seen video clips of standard things like people's pets in 3D. These can be found on youtube (glasses will be required.) The company also has plans to utilise the 3D effect in its new range of Vaio laptops. Imagine searching for your picture files or using the internet with that added dimension.

From what we have seen so far, the 3D movement seems to be a serious one. Once it was only a small attraction. Now 3D is definitely trying to find it's place among the people. First it was a small cinema delight, now the medium is being made to be a little more intimate for you and me. But it is still in its early stages, only just reaching your nearest department store without yet being commonplace.

Are we ready to be dizzied by the wonderful illusion of 3d tech in our everyday use? Or is it purely a gimmicky option for those who are tired with boring, flat 2d? With a limited amount of 3D games and film available on the retail market, it may be too soon to tell. Plus I've only just managed to grab my own 32inch LG HDTV. Does that make me behind the times a little?

John, CeX UK Contributor.
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Thursday 5 May 2011

Game Review - Portal 2

Formats: PC, PS3, Xbox360

Valve is one of those development companies that seems to know how to hit all the right notes in gaming. They gave us the acclaimed Half-Life games, Counter Strike and the Left 4 Dead games. In 2007 they released The Orange Box for PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. This was a collection of games bundled together for the retail price of a single game. It contained Half Life 2 and it's expansion episodes 1 & 2. Also featured was the long-in-development Team Fortress 2 multiplayer game. But the biggest surprise of that package was Portal.

Portal was a unique first-person, story-driven puzzle game that stood out from the gun-crazy mayhem presented in the rest of the box. It gave you the Portal Gun, a device that projects portals on walls and floors to help you get from point A-B. It was a simple concept made complex through deliberate and dangerous testing rooms. The tests were set up in the Aperture Science Facility and monitored by an unusual AI named Glad0s. Glad0s had no trouble giving you misleading words of encouragement and promises of cake after testing. The game became a popular part of The Orange Box. Many of my geeky friends still quote the blurbs found in the game's writing such as “The Cake is a Lie!” I saw it as the toy you get in a McDonald’s happy meal box. Portal presented unique and sustainable gameplay with a consistent sense a humour from the game's antagonist Glad0s. For a six-hour game the puzzle and platforming elements always felt fresh.

Four years on and Valve has projected a full-length sequel. And it is just as much a puzzling game as it is comedic. The game comes with a full price tag as well as an excuse to return to the Aperture Facility. You get a much longer single player game packed with more portal tests and a bigger plot woven in for good measure. This is coupled with an all new two-player co-op mode.

If you've played through the original Portal, you'll recognise that much of the gameplay elements remain the same. The Portal Gun is brought out to solve puzzles and get through meticulous tests often set up by Glad0s. New inclusions in the game are gels. These certain gels paint surfaces that allow you bounce ridiculously high or run ridiculously fast. These are combined with the same progression elements from the first instalment. For example, if you jump through one portal at the bottom of a deep pit and another portal on a high surface chances are you will be thrown at a silly distance. Glad0s interprets this as Newton’s laws of motion by describing it as “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

Glad0s is still very much the sarcastic, funny and very much evil rouge AI you left her to be. You are joined this time by another rouge AI named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant of the Ricky Gervias show.) The two characters alone make up a great portion of the game's plot and funny dialogue.

The tests are challenging enough without being too frustrating. This is backed up by a well placed auto-save system that becomes necessary though those more deadly tests. Valve are no strangers to puzzling elements. Half-Life 2 had it's fair share by using the in-game physics engine to create a fair share of progress blockers. These were solved based on the weight, force or buoyancy that the game demonstrated. With Portal 2, you will be spending your time using your brain to progress. This may be off-putting to fast-paced first-person shooter fans (so those under-age Call of Duty fans can jog on.) However, there is enough content and depth to the game that will keep players interested right to the end of the single player mode.

And then there's the two player co-operative mode. Normally I don't pay much attention to these types of modes. I like to get immersed in the single player design of any game. It becomes a challenge to move that sort of experience into a multiplayer niche market. Some games have forced in a co-op mode without much content to sustain the attention of more than one player. High profile games like Fable 2 (Lionhead Studios) and Too Human (Silicon Knights) are examples of this. They both attempted to introduce a two-player mode in a game designed for a single player use.

The co-operative mode in Portal 2 does not at any point seem forced. The mode has its own challenges and mini-storyline. It is played either through Xbox Live or through split-screen. The level design is certainly more complex. All of the puzzle elements you experienced in the single player mode return in full force. This is one of those modes where communication with the other player is definitely required. You will be timing jumps and directing where your partner should be placing portals. Valve included a commutation system that includes useful portal marks as well as various taunts to amuse yourself (and possibly anger your partner.)

On the whole, Portal 2 is a game that manages to capture the appeal of the first game without stretching it too thin. The game manages to throw obstacles and tests at you without ever becoming irrelevant or boring. The same goes for the two player mode as it offers a rare challenge for two players to pick each-other’s brains. Valve has once again exercised its need for bringing out games for the thinking man just as much as for the thrill seeker.

Jump once more through the portals to find that the cake is still a lie.

Jack Maguire, CEX UK Contributor

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Sunday 1 May 2011

CeX in Norwich Evening News

The news section reports "CeX is a retailer of used electronic and digital products with a unique trading programme enabling customers to be paid cash for their goods or take vouchers to exchange against other products on sale in the store. The Norwich store is the company's 130th in the UK. The St Stephens branch has created more than 20 new jobs".

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