Thursday, 31 May 2012

HTC One X

 
Foreword

This time last year I had become bored of IOS. I had decided it was time to leave the good ship iPhone and embark on new OS seas. I decided on an Android, one reason for this was that I felt (and still do) that Android feels like a more complete package than say WP7 (that’s not to detract from WP7’s design, which I do find gorgeous). The other reason was the HTC Sensation that I had fallen slightly in love with. It was a mistake. Within three weeks I was using a replacement handset that was 3 years old. Whilst my incredibly buggy Sensation was at HTC HQ. The worst thing about the 3 weeks I had my Sensation for though was the moment the H fell off the HTC branding on the back. The Sensation was…well…not sensational. So when I approached this review of HTC’s new flagship it was with some trepidation. I was however, in for a surprise.

Design

Just look at it, it is a thing of beauty. It’s up there in terms of beauty with the Lumia 900 (which to my mind is the best looking Smartphone on the market right now). The One X though feels more understated than the Lumia, the Aston Martin to Nokia’s Lamborghini. The One X feels more solid than previous HTC phones and is made in the Unibody design that has been popular for some years now. This means that unlike the Sensation it does not have a battery cover that is removable. The Unibody design actually makes the phone feel a lot sturdier than others. But with its 8.9mm thickness it never feels unwieldy in the hand. In fact just to give you an idea of the lightness of the phone, when it turned up at my door I actually thought it was a pair of skate socks I’d ordered the previous week, it’s that kind of lightness. Some of the details on the phone really do give this a top quality finish. For example the earpiece and loudspeaker grilles are individually laser drilled into the polycarbonate.


Hardware

The One X boasts a Quad Core 1.5Ghz CPU and an NVidia Tegra 3 chipset. Coupled with its 1GB of Ram the specs really do make sure this phone packs a punch. The One X is capable of playing some truly great looking games with no frame rate drops and on this screen they do look amazing. One thing I have noticed is the fact that the One X does get a little hot on its back panel when playing some beefier games. I would imagine this is down to the chipset and whilst it’s a little annoying it’s really not too much of a deal breaker.
The One X’s screen is a Super IPS LCD2 capacitive touchscreen, and it really does shine. I’ve used AMOLED screens in the past and some colours have seemed too saturated and unnatural but in comparison the One X with its new Super IPS LCD2 display colours feel natural. The viewing angle is also almost 180degrees and when held at this degree Apps still appear really clear and seem to almost hover near the surface of the display.  At 720p the screen is comparable to the beautiful Retina displays of current Gen Apple products for quality.
The Camera is 8MP with Autofocus with facial recognition and an LED flash. Video is 1080p @ 30fps and also has a feature in which you can take still photographs whilst recording HD video, it’s a really nice touch.
Sound wise the phone is ‘powered by Beats’ audio and the system works well. While listening through decent headphones the system provides some great sound. The loud speaker however just doesn’t seem to cut it and at times when the volume is turned up it underperforms noticeably.
Some have complained that the battery life on the One X is pretty low. Honestly though, I haven’t really run into too many issues. I usually get through the day with no real issues and charge over night.

Software

Sense. For those of you that don’t know, Sense is the name for the android skin used by HTC on their devices. If there’s one sticking point with this phone and previous HTC’s its that Sense is not close enough to a stock Android experience like on say, the Galaxy Nexus. The latest iteration (Sense 4.0) is an improvement on previous iterations. It’s been slimmed down somewhat and doesn’t feel as cumbersome as in previous versions. But there are little annoyances. One example is the revamped keyboard of Sense 4.0, which still feels kind of clunky in comparison to the iPhone keyboard and the stock ICS keyboard of the Galaxy Nexus. There is no game breaking part of the software however and these are small niggles; overall Sense 4.0 is a large improvement on previous versions.

Conclusion

There is no denying it. I promised myself that it wouldn’t happen. But I have fallen a little bit in love with this phone. With its superior looks, amazing power and software improvements (which has been one of the fundamental issues of previous HTC’s) it’s a phone I would certainly recommend. It feels like a rebirth for a company that was becoming somewhat stale and predictable. So if you’re looking for a great phone that really does hold it’s own in this ever changing market, you really can’t go too far wrong with this model.

8.5/10
Reviewed by your friendly neighborhood otaku, Makoto.


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Monday, 28 May 2012

Starhawk

“A clever combination of third-person shooting and tactical construction makes Starhawk more than a generic run-and-gun game and perhaps the most enjoyable shooter on the PlayStation 3.”


I have always said and will emphasize once again that PlayStation 3 exclusives are more often than not the best home console titles. Starhawk is a third-person shooter from LightBox Interactive and spiritual successor to 2007’s Warhawk that continues this wonderful trend by bringing together exciting action with intricately woven real-time strategy mechanics. Together these two key gameplay elements ensure PlayStation owners will have a blast both in single player and online in Starhawk’s brilliant multiplayer modes.

Starhawk tells the story of a ravaged planet succumb to decay and poverty. Reminiscent of Borderlands, you take on the roll of Emmett Graves, a man who’s goal lies in the removal of all those who disturb peace and get in his way while distancing himself from the negative connotations associated with those affected by ‘Rift’. The story told in Starhawk’s campaign while short, is surprisingly engaging using beautifully animated cut-scenes that take you across a variety of beautiful environments and emotions.


More importantly however, the campaign acts like a tutorial to prepare you for Starhawk’s fantastic online multiplayer. Before you even set foot online, the campaign teaches you basic shooting mechanics, how to use the variety of different vehicles and most importantly, the engaging in-game building mechanic. What can be considered Starhawk’s trump card, the building mechanic allows players to call down building drops from barricades, to turrets to whole structures as you attempt to change the flow of battle with more than just basic weapons. The campaign does a very good job introducing you to all the different possibilities available and even puts you in situations to show off when and where to best use these drops, which comes in very handy when you do eventually make the bold move online.

This is not to say that most of your time will be spent surveying the battlefield trying to build bases like some sort of Command & Conquer game. Battles can be won with sheer brute force but a balance is certainly required. Those of you who prefer to grab a machine gun, strap a rocket launcher to your back and jump into a Starhawk are more than welcome to use that approach. The Starhawks are another fun novelty as these metallic birds jet through the sky and with the press of a button can transform into lethal mech-walkers descimating all that stands in your way on the ground. If these aerial beasts aren’t for you, then jumping on a hover-bike or maybe grabbing a jet pack is your preferred mode of transport? Ultimately it is very clear that LightBox Interactive wanted to make sure there’s variety available for players who would like to tackle Starhawk in a variety of different ways.

You’ll be done with the campaign in a mere 6-hours or so but that’s not a problem considering we know it was designed as a warm-up for Starhawk’s online endeavor. When you first set foot into a global game you will be surprised at how fast and frantic the combat can get. Resembling M.A.G. large maps can accommodate for many players and lots of destruction, especially considering every player has the ability to construct mid-game. It will quickly become apparent that the campaign mode perhaps didn’t provide as much preparation as required, but what better way to learn than to jump straight into the deep end? It is true, you will have to adapt quickly to survive and perhaps reevaluate the strength of certain gameplay styles you have adapted throughout your time with the campaign mode, but this is by no means a deterrent with Starhawk proving to be a whole load of fun online.

For a game that so obviously relies on teamwork and communication, it’s a real shame to see that other than voice chat, there’s really no way to rally your troops and issue commands online. Being able to work together effectively is the essence of victory in Starhawk and a group of mindless players running around doing their own thing will pretty much always lead to failure of your particular objective. So those of you looking for an engaging and cooperative online experience, make sure to pick up a headset if you don’t have one already.



Fortunately once you pass that immediate awkward stage of getting blown to smithereens for the first few games, you will find Starhawk to be one of the PlayStation 3’s most enjoyable and exciting multiplayer experiences. The variety in maps impress both from design to visuals, gameplay is quick, fast-paced and can change in a heart beat while the genius building mechanic intertwines the whole package together to keep everyone busy and on their toes. This is clearly a game that emphasizes tactics and teamwork over big guns and with that in mind, it deserves serious recognition.

To change the pace again slightly, Starhawk also offers split-screen gameplay and a cooperative horde mode. Playing online with a buddy sitting next to you means at the very least you two can communicate with each other and horde mode lets you get offline and just enjoy some casual, yet challenging gameplay against increasingly different AI opponents.

Starhawk impresses on numerous levels and that’s why it’s so easy to recommend to gamers. This PlayStation 3 exclusive builds upon 2007’s thoroughly enjoyable Warhawk by providing great and unique gameplay alongside well-designed terrains to do battle on. Starhawk’s brilliant pacing and savvy in-game building mechanics make it much more than your basic shooter and that is what sets it aside from other run-of-the-mill gun games. If you’re looking for something that little bit deeper, that little bit harder and that little bit more technically efficient, then look no further PlayStation 3 owners, because you’re on to a winner here.

9.0 | Gameplay |
Starhawk’s gameplay is absolutely fantastic. The basic campaign introduces you to all the ideals required to enjoy and participate in Starhawk’s terrific online experience. Once you get online you then truly appreciate the balance between combat and in-game construction, which can very easily be the foundation to a solid victory. Variety is certainly a key word to describe your potential involvement with Starhawk as there are numerous ways to tackle situations here from offense to tactical defence, but ultimately a balance is required to ensure victory.

6.0 | Presentation |
Starhawk’s story and environments deserve particular praise. The beautifully woven animated cut-scenes are pleasing to look at and the varied locations you do battle in are absolutely stunning. The same can’t be said for character models and due to the Western and industrial tone of the game, the bland and rusty colours makes Starhawk quite dull and depressing to look at. I will emphasize however that this is a game where graphics hold no real significant meaning and will absolutely not take away from this fun experience.

9.0 | Replay Value |
The game only really begins when you venture online and once you’ve played through your first few games and taken those training wheels off, you will find yourself immersed in a deep, expansive and thoroughly addictive multiplayer experience that clearly has a lot more to offer than your generic shooter. This is the kind of game you can find yourself invested in for a long time and Starhawk will continue to thrive as long as the community sticks with it.

8.0 | Final Thoughts |
I keep saying it over and over but I never seem to be proven wrong, PlayStation 3 exclusives are always bloody awesome. Starhawk is a breath of fresh air amidst a whole bunch of Call of Duty-like games – taking the first to the third-person perspective and adding a genius gameplay mechanic makes this sci-fi shooter already stand out as an engaging alternative. Add in a whole host of weapons, vehicles and tactical capabilities and you have yourself what I can only describe as a genius blend of Borderlands, Command & Conquer and M.A.G. I highly recommend PlayStation 3 owners to seriously consider Starhawk as a viable contender to at the very least, keep you amused until the next Call of Duty comes out in Q4.

Igor Kharin.


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Thursday, 24 May 2012

Akai Katana

It’s not every day you see a game like Akai Katana getting shelf space. As only the third disc-based Cave game to hit European shores, Akai Katana (or Red Sword to English speakers) is a rare breed of game. It’s a conversion of a 2D arcade shoot ‘em up that even in 2012, somebody thought worthy of a retail price tag rather than taking the cheap and obvious XBLA route. Those somebodies in question are Rising Star Games and they make a business out of bringing obscure Japanese curiosities to the west, with oddities including No More Heroes 2, Deadly Premonition and Cave’s very own Deathsmiles on their CV. Is their confidence well placed or is Akai Katana destined to be misunderstood?


Unless you’re a dedicated follower of the genre Cave isn’t going to be a household name. Though they’ve achieved a modicum of recognition with their recent iOS ports, the vast majority of their output will have gone unnoticed by western gamers. Over the last seventeen years Cave have been tirelessly perfecting that obnoxiously difficult sub-genre of shooting games intimidatingly known as "bullet hell". Even if you haven’t sampled them yourself, you might be one of the four million-plus YouTube viewers to be amazed (or perhaps frightened) by the legendary HARDEST VIDEO GAME BOSS EVER!!

.

Don’t let that put you off – it’s the most extreme of the extreme and not really representative the challenge you will face with Akai Katana.

As ever with the genre, making narrative sense of Cave’s games is often as difficult as surviving the bullet patterns, but the tl;dr version basically involves planes transforming into kids, blood swords demanding human sacrifice, and an empire that needs to be blown to oblivion by said kids with said swords. While making light of the story is an easy (and irrelevant) jibe, the world Cave’s designers have created is beautifully realised. It’s steampunk, Japanese style. Set in the Taisho period of Japanese history when tradition started to be eroded by western industrialisation, Akai Katana takes that juxtaposition very literally. Each of the armed-to-the-teeth fighter planes can transform in to traditionally-garbed sword-wielding humans, and the bulk of the stoic-looking samurai bosses have the ability to pluck hulking great mechanical battleships or trains out of space and time. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but yes, it is quite spectacular.

The same could be said of all aspects of Akai Katana’s visual design – the game is absolutely beautiful. Unlike the majority of lazy 2D ports, Cave didn’t opt for a cheap cash-in that would look ugly on HD displays. Instead they’ve taken the assets of the 2010 arcade original and drawn them in eye-popping 720p, and the results speak for themselves. Cave’s sprite work truly shines. As one of the few horizontal shoot ‘em ups in Cave's catalogue, Akai Katana doesn’t have to worry about confusing modern gamers by only occupying the centre of the screen and it benefits from a full 16:9 transition. Each of the seven levels is meticulously detailed – the underwater beauty of level four, teeming with aquatic life, is especially memorable. Then there are the bullets – Cave demonstrate absolute mastery in the language of bullets, consistently drowning the screen in colourfully creative torrents of the things.


Undeniably beautiful as they are, Cave games are all about scoring systems, and Akai Katana really delivers in this department. You could even say it over-delivers. Those that associate arcade games with simplicity and accessibility are in for a rude awakening – Akai Katana is fiendishly complex. There are three play modes on offer: Origin (arcade replica complete with authentic  4:3 ratio), Slash (a 16:9 version of Origin with the 256 combo cap lifted) and Climax mode (a drastically different arrange mode that tasks you with building Katanas and releasing them into enemies for a massive score bonus).

A detailed breakdown of the scoring system is more the preserve of a strategy guide than a review, but at its core Akai Katana focuses on meter management, ideally ending in banking huge wheels of gold that encircle your ship. There are a daunting number of tools at your disposal to achieve this, including two different forms, four different shot types, two different collectibles, multiple meters, bullet reflecting and bullet cancelling. All must be manipulated cleverly if you hope to get anywhere with scoring. Even by Cave’s standards, this is a seriously obtuse system and it's certainly not for the faint-hearted. The difficulty level is pitched lower than the complexity level, though it still puts up a mighty challenge thanks in no small part to the laser-happy bosses. When it does click, it’s immensely satisfying and incredibly rewarding, but you should definitely know what you’re getting into. Once you do manage to topple the game on a single credit (and if you're not playing it that way, you're playing it wrong), there's plenty of long term challenge through the online leaderboards and downloadable replays to learn from.


Akai Katana is the work of masters at the height of their craft. It is as artistically accomplished as it is devilishly brutal. It’s also the kind of game that will be commercially ignored, critically misunderstood and go sadly unplayed by the majority of Xbox 360 owners. With the arcade industry on its last legs in Japan, it’s unlikely we’re going to see many more games like it. Sure, Akai Katana is stubbornly traditional, and in truth, it's not going to draw new players in. Those brave enough to embrace Cave's vision however will find a game of genuine value. A game that exposes the poorly conceived light shows masquerading as shmups on XBLA for the pretenders that they are. Akai Katana is the real deal – complex, beautiful and rewarding, and worthy of space on any self-respecting gamer's shelf.

Rupert Higham.


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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Pandora’s Tower

Pandora’s Tower is one of three traditional role-play games that are an absolute must have for the Nintendo Wii. With the release of Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and now Pandora’s Tower, Nintendo’s home console can bow out gracefully to the Wii U knowing that while it hasn’t wholeheartedly served the hardcore gaming demographic, it has still provided breathtaking games to keep veteran gamers busy and the Japanese RPG genre alive.


Pandora’s Tower is an action-adventure and role-play hybrid combining elements similar to The Legend of Zelda and Shadow of the Colossus. This game tells the story of a beautiful damsel who is slowly turning into a monster. It is your role as Aeron to traverse twelve towers and slay twelve demons to then bring back their flesh for Elena to eat and break her demonic curse.

This premise sets up an engaging and enticing adventure that shows off some very interesting and unique gameplay mechanics. First of all Elena’s curse continues to worsen throughout your adventure and as a result, a bar at the bottom of your screen shows the level of the curse. Time mechanics have been known to cause games serious issues; Dead Rising is a fantastic example of a game where timed gameplay simply ruined the fun-factor. Well here luckily that’s not the case because Pandora’s Tower is structured so well that rarely are you forced to frantically race around every area but keeping one eye on the clock ensures you’re always wary of your progress and Elena’s health.


When you do get an opportunity to sit back and take in Pandora’s Tower’s environments you will truly appreciate the well-crafted dungeons. These areas are full of different enemies, puzzles, traps and short cuts to keep you moving forward and constantly in battle. You can always return to Elena should the clock drop down too low and you spent that little bit too much time exploring, but this is a rarity as the game rewards you for pushing forward and finding different paths that help your accessibility throughout the environments.

You may be wondering what the gameplay mechanics are like in Pandora’s Tower. To be honest with you after playing I had a real reminiscent feeling of Team Ico’s work on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Your main weapon in Pandora’s Tower is the Oraclos Chai, a mystical weapon that offers a whole lot of variety to the gameplay here. Beside your normal swords, spears and other weapons you come across, the Oraclos Chain allows you to grab enemies, throw them around the screen, sweep their feet, combo moves together, grab distant items and other cool manoeuvres. It also serves as your main weapon for defeating each tower’s final boss.

The Masters of each tower can only be defeated by pulling out their weak flesh that Elena must consume. The use of the Oraclos Chain here is a lot of fun and although the way you are forced to finish them off is similar, there is enough variety in the bosses to make sure each battle is unique in its own way.

Outside of the exploration and towers, there is plenty to do in the Observatory. Pandora’s Tower provides a gripping love tale between Elena and Aeron, which can be explored by keeping in contact with the female lead as frequently as possible. You can also find out more about the story in the Observatory, which really invests you into the game and makes you want to continue exploring the towers.


The Observatory also gives you the opportunity to interact with another main character, Mavda. Mavda serves as your inventory shop and also as a dark and menacing entity, providing you with everything you need throughout a role-play adventure. Pandora’s Tower offers an extensive upgrade system for weapons and armours too, so fans of getting the best and most rare items will really enjoy this part of the game too.

From a technical perspective Pandora’s Tower generally does a great job to impress. Occasional issues with the camera can be frustrating, but this is never serious enough to be a real issue. The control mechanics are quite unique and force players to point on-screen and aim when using the Oraclos Chain etc, which can take some getting used to. Pandora’s Tower is a beautiful game with a wonderful soundtrack to boot, both of which dramatically enhance the experience. Pandora’s Tower offers approximately 20 hours of gameplay in total with a bunch of different endings to unlock. On top of this it’s well worth going through a New Game + as new content is unlocked to get involved with.

Pandora’s Tower is a shining exemplar of role-play adventure and it truly shows that the genre is far from dead. This unique, engaging and thrilling game brings together a set of lovable characters and intertwines a beautiful story with fun and interesting gameplay mechanics. As a result you’re left with a well paced experience, one that’s brilliant fun getting stuck into and difficult to put down. Pandora’s Tower gives you the opportunity to put in time and effort and in return rewards you with one of Nintendo Wii’s best games of 2012.

8.5 | Gameplay |
Pandora’s Tower provides engaging and entertaining gameplay mechanics alongside a beautifully woven story with believable and enlightening characters. The Oraclos Chain offers fans of role-play games something a little different than mere dungeon crawling and the clever use of a time-management mechanic ensures players are always on their toes and worrying about Elena and her terrible curse.

8.0 | Presentation |
Pandora’s Tower is a technically impressive game in gameplay, visual design and audio. The story however is definitely the highlight here as a romance blossoms between a valiant protagonist and a plagued female lead. This relationship gets ever the more interesting the deeper you dwell into the varied towers scattered around the Observatory. The ominous and dark tone of Pandora’s Tower forces you keep faith while at the same time battling the ideas that perhaps Elena might not be able to defeat her curse …

8.5 | Replay Value |
With 20 + hours of gameplay immediately present, five different endings and a New Game + mode well worth undertaking, there’s no reason not to keep coming back to Pandora’s Tower. With a host of upgrades and special weapons and armours also available, there’s all the more reason to keep hunting down rare items and forging the best equipment.

8.5 | Final Thoughts |
Nothing makes me happier than a brand new IP in a genre that desperately needed a breath of life. Indeed between them Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower have shown that the RPG is not a dead genre, in fact it one of the only types of games that can provide a real emotional connection in a beautiful fantasy world. If you’re looking for an immersive and engaging experience, then this is absolutely the game for you. Perhaps the time of Final Fantasy and turn-based games are a thing of the past, with this being the modern way to play role-play games.

Igor Kharin.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Kinect Star Wars

Has there ever been a franchise more iconic than Star Wars? Indeed the magnificent sci-fi story transcends mediums from film, games and even to music – Star Wars is in the blood of modern culture and I believe always will be. With this in mind, nothing pains me more than taking the characters, the environments and the ideals that I love, mashing them into an incoherent mess, sticking a Microsoft Kinect Sensor in the middle and calling it a video game. Make no mistake, the sense of adventure you were probably looking for can’t be found here, instead Kinect Star Wars offers a linear third person on-rails adventure coupled with a bunch of basic mini-games and wait for it, a dance rhythm game.


Your first stop should naturally be the campaign mode Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising – set between Episode One and Episode Two, this adventure puts you in the shoes of a young padawan hoping to move up the ranks of Jedi-hood. From the offset things look pretty good for Kinect Star Wars as you pick up a lightsaber and that reminiscent sound fills your living room as you activate your weapon. The Kinect handles your movements quite well as all your swings are recognized and implemented on screen. Things take a pretty strong turn for the worse when you actually put your Jedi skills to the test in real combat however.

Things immediately feel off as you tackle your first set of droid soldiers on Chewbacca’s beautiful home planet. The Kinect has a very difficult time keeping up with fast-paced movements forcing you to slow your swipes down so it can register and catch up. Not only is this frustrating and inconvenient, it’s also irrelevant because any swiping movements will take out groups of enemies as absolutely no skill is required – this is nothing more than a frenzy of flailing hands. While later levels do introduce some more advanced enemies that can block and maneuver more efficiently, a challenge rarely ever arises and nothing more than flailing is ever required. Even the pseudo-boss battles against the Sith are dull and uninspiring. In an attempt to change the tempo of the combat even more, Kinect Star Wars forces you to parry an assortment of slashes from your foe in times sequences and then when their guard is broken unleash a barrage of arm flails to finish them off.



Environments throughout Kinect Star Wars are for the most part visually appealing – it’s a shame however that the on-rails mechanic constricts your movements significantly. When you are unleashed into a small area to do battle, you once again are limited to small movements and dashes to get near your enemies and finish them off. A nice touch however is the ability to use the Force to move objects around the battlefield. A similar mechanic was implemented in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed but this time you have the ability to command the Jedi powers with your non-sword wielding arm. The item detection is certainly hit and miss and it’s very difficult to aim precisely where you want something to land, but you can’t help feel pretty awesome after you’ve successfully hurled a massive object across the map – pretty impressive for a padawan!

These gameplay elements are all supplemented from time to time with vehicle sections, be it the Millennium Falcon, Pod Racer or a Speeder – these segments are relatively entertaining as you use specific hand gestures to avoid destruction and finish off your enemies. Ultimately however all these gameplay elements combine into one rather mundane, forgettable and monotonous package. The story that intertwines these elements is lacklustre and attempts to play off various key moments of the films but with no avail. It’s just a real shame to see such a poor attempt at bringing Star Wars to life on the Kinect, which is potentially a very nifty piece of kit.

Once you get out of the campaign mode there are a host of mini-games you can try, at your own peril. Perhaps the most enjoyable of these is the Rancor Rampage – giving players the opportunity to cause serious Godzilla-like destruction. This mode is very similar to games like Rampage: Total Destruction where there is no depth, just pure carnage – accumulate points by causing as much havoc as possible and surprisingly it’s actually quite entertaining.

A spot of pod racing is also on offer if you’re looking for something a little more engaging. With a bunch of tracks to check out and a cool set of motion controls to implement, the pod racing is actually very similar to the experience in Episode One and as a result, is probably the most nostalgic game mode present in Kinect Star Wars.

I warn all of you now, take a deep breath before continuing with this paragraph. There are times in all of our lives when something we loved and cherished growing up, gets completely destroyed, forever tainting our fond memories. If we’ve learned anything about Star Wars in the past decade is unfortunately, the series is ripe for abuse. Well ladies and gentlemen, the Kinect Star Wars ‘Dance Mode’, yes you read it right, ‘Dance. Mode.” Does just that. Taking our favourite characters and forcing them to dance while listening to classic pop songs with Star Wars themed lyrics, is just, well unbelievable. This next sentence is neutral, I promise – the dance mechanics are enjoyable and precise, the songs are nostalgic and quite fun and playing with friends can be entertaining. This sentence however, is bias – what were they thinking, seriously?



Ultimately this is a very disappointing Xbox 360 exclusive. I admire Microsoft’s willingness to support their Kinect peripheral and games like Child of Eden in particular really do suggest that motion control has a future in the market, but not when it’s packaged with a pile of shallow, repetitive and at times quite visually offensive games. Kinect Star Wars does everything to an absolute average, nothing more, nothing less. Those of you looking for a nostalgic Star Wars trip will find it here in bits and bobs but overall, it’s very difficult to recommend. It says something when the most efficient gameplay mechanics of a Star Wars game, are the dance motion controls…

5.0 | Gameplay |
There is no depth in Kinect Star Wars, and that’s a huge problem. The campaign mode is mindless as you swing away pointlessly, which is a real shame considering that’s the meat of the game. Pod racing and Rancor Rampage are also relatively shallow in depth, but at least they provide some instant gratification and fun. Finally, as much as I hate to say it, the dance element of the game is technically very tight (which is not surprising considering 50% of Kinect’s library is dance games), but that’s not to say I’m not angry with them making a mockery of Star Wars. If you like to boogey and enjoy cheesy music whilst watching Han Solo thrust his manhood all over the show, then go for it you’ll have a blast.

7.0 | Presentation |
There is absolutely a Star Wars vibe present here. From the orchestral soundtrack to the familiar sounds of lightsabers clashing against each other. A visually pleasing artwork was used for the characters that doesn’t necessarily go along with the tone of the movies or the animated series Clone Wars, but is nevertheless quite pretty in its own right. For the most part the Kinect controls do suffice, especially in the mini games but unfortunately they suffer in Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising.

4.0 | Replay Value |
There is literally no way you’ll ever go back to the campaign mode so you might as well forget about that straight away. The pod racing and Rancor mini-games can provide a small level of replay value but unfortunately again, it’s the dance mode that sits on top of the pack as the only game mode worth reliving, if you dare.

5.0 | Final Thoughts |
I think the major issue with Kinect Star Wars is it rarely ever feels like a complete package. I also get the impression that it’s almost a bad tech demo for the Kinect camera. If this came out as a launch title I’d understand the issues regarding difficulty in picking up fast movements and so forth, but there’s been plenty of games that have technically excelled with Kinect, so why does Kinect Star Wars feel so rushed and below par? There are glimpses of entertainment here but overall there’s more here that can and will frustrate, rather than entertain.

Igor Kharin.

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Friday, 11 May 2012

Kid Icarus: Uprising

There has always been something deeply mesmarising surrounding almost all of Nintendo’s iconic characters. Pit (the lead protagonist of Kid Icarus) in particular has been sitting in the development pipeline for quite some time now but retro fans and 3DS owners don’t have to wait any longer. Kid Icarus: Uprising is not only a tribute to Nintendo’s rich and wonderful heritage, but also a testament that a 21-year-old franchise can be reinvigorated into a deep, immersive and satisfying experience. Nintendo 3DS owners will be absolutely delighted with what is another fantastic addition to their catalogue of games.




Uprising once again brings about Nintendo’s iconic angel Pit to the forefront of a heated rail-shooter and platforming hybrid. The story sees Pit tackle a barrage of dark and brooding enemies lead by Medusa as he attempts to save the day. Nintendo have such a wonderful way to mix their charming story telling with an essence of Greek mythology, making for an engaging and interesting tale. Before we even discuss the gameplay it’s immediately worth noting the quality in voice acting and story telling – each character is likable and your adventure moves along at a decent pace with plenty of comical moments surrounding the more serious fictional tone of the tale. This in classical Nintendo fashion is of course supplemented by a beautiful score, which pays homage to the classic Kid Icarus while also introducing some wonderful new pieces. Finally, it seems that with every new 3DS game out, the graphics keep getting better and better. Uprising is a truly vibrant game that is elevated by the handheld’s 3D capabilities. Right from the offset you will be blown away by the stunning visuals and gorgeous pallet of colours that helps this story come to life.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with Pit will not know that he is in fact a flightless angel. This forces the Goddess of light Palutena to offer her powers that give Pit the ability to fly for a short period of time. This serves as a clever game mechanic and makes the opening segments of each chapter an on-rails shooter. These sections are fast-paced and very entertaining, with you having the ability to move Pit quickly and efficiently across the screen as he avoids enemy attacks and hurdles himself towards a whole host of enemies including giant ships and hordes of monsters. A balanced and at times challenging difficulty curve in these sections make them feel like an in depth element of the game, as opposed to simple filler content. Pit can only do so much flying however and when you land at first, some unfortunate control issues will take you back.

Even upon landing Uprising is at its core a score-accumulating shooter. When you hit the ground the game takes on platforming elements where you control Pit in melee encounters or distance shooting. Unfortunately the control mechanics don’t work quite as well in these sections as they did when Pit was in the air – the 360-degree aiming makes using the stylus difficult and the packed in plastic stand to position the 3DS correctly for the game is awkward and inconvenient, especially for left-handed gamers. Furthermore, if you have Nintendo’s other 3DS peripheral that adds another analogue stick, this doesn’t fit on the stand either. Ultimately the need to use the stylus as a target system although absolutely essential in this type of game, has unfortunately resulted in a very uncomfortable situation for a considerable amount of gamers. You do have the option to customize the controls like using the face-buttons to control the reticle so once you finally find a control method that suits your preferences; you can continue enjoying this wonderful game. You will be happy to hear that it’s far from impossible to get to grips with Uprising’s controls and this really is nothing more than a small stumbling block in what is otherwise, a well crafted game.



Uprising’s platforming sections provide variety in level design, enemies and combat. You’ll face enemies each with their own attack styles and weaknesses while still engaging in a similar affair to the on-rail sections. The balance between the on-rail and platforming is a sheer delight with them complimenting each other so smoothly. It is in these latter sections to that Uprising’s class and weapon systems really shine. You have the opportunity to choose from a host of weapons, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, for example some weapons are slower but pack a more deadly ranged punch, while others are better for close-encounters. These customizable loudouts are further enhanced by Uprising’s weapon fusion system that allows players the opportunity to combine weapons together to create new and more powerful tools of destruction. You can purchase new weapons using Uprising’s currency in the form of hearts, or even acquire certain gems through Street Pass, whichever way you choose to go about it, there’s plenty of variety here to try out. These options extend even further with Pit’s support abilities. A Tetris-like mini-game allows you to equip a variety of different ‘perks’ to help Pit through each level. The above elements all help to increase Uprising’s replay value while at the same time provide the depth that this game constantly shows off.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Uprising’s terrific story mode is the highlight of this package, but there is a versus multiplayer available to play either locally or online. These free-for-all and team based game modes allow players to take their customized weapons into battle in these fairly entertaining brawls. There’s not much here that can keep your attention for long periods of time but it is relatively fun with friends and gloating about your rare weapons is also rather enjoyable.

Ultimately Kid Icarus: Uprising is a very good game. The unfortunate dip due to the controls when you attempt your first platforming section is frustrating, but this really is the only bump in the road for this terrific handheld game. Obviously the importance of controls is vital but if you can get to grips with how the gameplay then Kid Icarus: Uprising provides a very satisfying and enjoyable story that is coupled with varied, engaging and fast-paced action. This really is a top quality Nintendo 3DS title that truly does Kid Icarus justice – it really was worth waiting 21 years for this sequel.

8.0 | Gameplay |
Kid Icarus: Uprising provides a thrilling on-rails experience with more complex and in-depth platforming sections. While the former is a whole load of fun, the latter is unfortunately marred early on with frustrating control issues. However, once you get to grips with the button layout, Kid Icarus: Uprising is a very smooth, well-paced and wholly entertaining experience.

9.0 | Presentation |
Kid Icarus: Uprising is a beautiful Nintendo 3DS game that is complimented by the 3D visuals. In typical Nintendo fashion the game is vibrant and full of life. A terrific story intertwines a great set of voice actors and the package is rounded off by a beautiful score that pays tribute to the classic Kid Icarus while moving the series into this generation of gaming.

7.0 | Replay Value |
The heart currency system can be used to either reduce the difficulty level or gambled to increase it. This unique way of allowing players to choose their own level of challenge provides significant replay value and also tension as you avoid losing out on all the hearts you put down. Aside from that the multiplayer is quite entertaining and available both locally and online – while not very substantial, there’s definitely plenty of reason to get online and battle against other players. 

8.0 | Final Thoughts |
I rarely review handheld games but when I do they always show me why handheld gaming is such a popular market. Kid Icarus: Uprising is just a beautifully filled out package, one that you wouldn’t have any problem at all playing on your home screen, let alone on the Nintendo 3DS system. From beautiful visuals, incredible story telling and fun gameplay, Kid Icarus: Uprising really has it all and it’s simply another top title that needs to be in your 3DS catalogue. If you’re still reserved about Nintendo’s 3D machine but are curious how Kid Icarus has evolved after 21 years, then now’s a fantastic opportunity to get yourself a 3DS.

Igor Kharin.
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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fez and the hipster platformer backlash

Fez is the kind of game that was into things that you've only just heard of before they were cool. It's the kind of game that only takes pictures using Instagram, listens to progressive vegan grindcore and wouldn't even think twice about wearing a plunging, chest hair-exposing V-neck with a scarf. That’s right; Fez is what they patronisingly refer to in the biz as a hipster platformer.


The hipster platformer is a far different beast to the platformer of yesteryear. The wide-eyed innocence of marquee mascots like Mario and Sonic are nowhere to be seen. Striking art direction and concept-driven gameplay rule the hipster platformer. Narrative themes and character motivations are far more self-aware and introspective than their forebears. The hipster platform game hero is more likely to be troubled by the regret of a lost relationship or the insecurity of uncertain social situations than a missing princess.  If Fez wasn't so gosh-darned brilliant, there might be the temptation to spend many a paragraph more poking fun at its arty genius. But it is.

Fez bears many of the hallmarks of the hipster platformer:  the concept-driven gameplay (the 8-bit 2D world with a literal 3D twist), the meta-puzzle solving that requires you to act outside of the gameplay, the complete lack of penalty for failure focusing instead on the “experience”, and most controversially of all, the egocentric developer only too happy to rile up the fanboys.

The mainstream press have all but caused a shortage of one and zeros with all the straight 10 scores they've been throwing at it, but there are some corners of the internet that believe that Fez represents a vapid and hollow experience that prizes art direction and gimmickry over tried and tested design fundamentals. So what’s the truth?

The truth is that much of the criticism levelled at Fez falls firmly at the feet of the games’ creator, Phil Fish. In addition to having a name that makes him sound like an aquatic Marvel character, Fish caught the attention of the press at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year when he publicly blasted a Japanese developer that was foolish enough to ask him what he thought of the current state of the Japanese games industry.  “Your games just suck!” replied Fish, which according to some accounts was taken in good spirits, despite the apparent harshness.


Regardless of how the comment was perceived at the time, that was enough to incite the internet to equip pitchforks and launch a hate campaign aimed at Fish, branding him a racist, a hypocritical plagiarist and a pretentious hipster, even going as far as defacing his Wikipedia entry. He clearly demonstrated a severe lack of tact, but his sentiment is one echoed industry-wide, and one that Japan’s own Keiji Inafune (ex-Capcom big cheese) has publicly stated on numerous occasions. In fact Inafune was one of the first people to leap to Fish’s defence, championing his comment as “brave”.

Furthermore, it’s patently obvious that Fish’s outburst referred purely to contemporary Japanese games, as Fez owes such an obvious debt of inspiration to Japanese games such as Cave Story and even more recently, Super Paper Mario. A fact that Fish confirmed later, stating his obvious love for the classics.


If you do manage to separate the art from the artist however, how does Fez measure up on its own terms? In the spirit of Fez’s optical illusion-driven world let’s examine the main criticisms from another angle and see if we can’t gain some perspective.

“There are no enemies. There’s no penalty for failure. There’s no impending threat or sense of danger.”

Hey that’s three criticisms, but okay, here goes: Fez isn’t Super Mario Bros., it’s not Castlevania and it’s clearly not Mega Man. The problem here is in defining Fez’s genre. While it appropriates many platform game staples such as jumping and, you know, platforms, that “hipster platformer” header is a bit of a misnomer -- it’s not actually a platform game at all. It’s not an evolution of the arcade design that tasks you with getting from one side of a world to another in a limited number of tries while a cast of bad guys attempt to stop you. It’s a puzzle game. The challenge in Fez comes from your ability to solve visual puzzles and think in abstract terms. They require jumps in logic that play with your spatial awareness. To put it plainly, they’re a bit of a headache and present a significant challenge to overcome, in and of themselves. They require experimentation and multiple manipulations of the camera – something that would grow extremely frustrating if you were constantly under siege from enemy forces. Would Portal have been improved by the addition of enemies? No, because Portal was a first person puzzle game, not a shooter.

“The controls are clunky and it moves too slowly.”

The controls are there to facilitate the game’s design. You don’t need complex physics or inertia routines to perform death-defying feats of manual dexterity because there is no death to defy. The controls need only allow moving from one platform to another – a feat they accomplish quite comfortably. Did Another World suck because Lester couldn’t turn on a pinhead like Mario? No, because he didn’t need to.

“Fez is a typical hipster platformer. All style and no substance.”

Hey, what did I say about Fez not being a platformer? Anyway, there’s a recurring argument that always rears its ugly head whenever games are praised for their “atmosphere” or for the “experience”. As if a combining a striking visual style and memorable soundscape with more measured and relaxing gameplay can’t combine to create something that resonates with the player – something that’s more than just the sum of its parts. The notion that a game’s merit can only be attributed to obviously tangible elements is a false one, and one that countless games including Silent Hill 2, Ico and Deadly Premonition disprove. And while we’re here, to say that Fez lacks substance is absurd. It’s packed so densely with hidden features and secrets that it will take a lot of thought and dedication to uncover its many treasures. Unlike the majority of modern video games, it guards its secrets surprisingly well too, refusing to hold the players hand, and rewarding exploration.

In today’s video game landscape there is plenty of room for variety. For every Fez, Braid or Limbo there are more traditional alternatives like New Super Mario Bros., Mega Man 9 or Super Meat Boy. Labelling anything that deviates from these design blueprints as pretentious or hipster is lazy and short-sighted.

So what do you think? Which side of the debate do you fall on? Is Fez the indulgent fancy of a pretentious designer or a refreshingly ingenious idea that repurposes a classic genre?

Rupert Higham.

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Monday, 7 May 2012

CeX Boston buying again

CeX Boston is buying in again! The best cash prices and unrivalled exchange prices, not to mention some fantastic taste in instore music, are waiting at 44 Winter Street.

 CeX Boston, buying again 7 days a week.

Find your nearest CeX Store. 

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Thursday, 3 May 2012

More CeX - Now open Banbury, Hackney & Gravesend

May already? This year is flying by and it's time for a new CeX UK store roundup. So far in 2012 we've opened new CeX stores in St Helens, GlasgowPoole and more recently in Banbury Oxfordshire, Gravesend Kent and Dalston Hackney. Find your nearest CeX store here.


 
These are in addition to new CeX stores that have swung open their doors in 2012 in Spain and the USA. We've got lots of CeX stores opening across the UK too. But that's only the start.....

Find your nearest CeX store here.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

CeX wins Best Newcomer in Ireland Business Awards

We started CeX in London nearly 20 years ago with a firm belief that there was a huge market for second hand for computers, gadgets and video games. Increasing obsolescence was rapidly increasing the need to recycle. As Custies, we wanted to buy and sell with a store where the people, just like us, had a passion and knowledge for gadgets, games and movies. Since 1992, we’ve grown CeX across the globe. In 2011 we launched CeX in India and Ireland.

Our partners in Ireland have brought innovations such as Nokia phones to the Country in the past, so we knew were in good gadget loving company. CeX opened the first Ireland store on Liffey Street Upper, Dublin 1 and the geeks, gamers, gadget fans and movie lovers have swamped the shop ever since. This will be the first of 20 CeX shops we plan to open across Ireland in the next three to five years.

Award winning CeX on Liffey Street Upper, Dublin 1, opened in 2011.

The Irish Franchise Awards have also recognised the huge potential in CeX. They have just voted CeX Best Newcomer International Franchise in Ireland in their 2012 awards. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts and want them to know CeX is here for them when they want sell their old Blackberry’s and other gadget paraphernalia too or trade then for a copy of a tycoon game and a pile of DVDs maybe?

If you’re keen to join our mission for a better way to shop for gadgets, games, phones and movies by opening a CeX store we'd love to hear from you. We have great opportunities for passionate partners in Ireland ie.franchisingteam@webuy.com, the United Kingdom and Spain.


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Twisted Metal

Can you believe that you’d have to go all the way back to 1995 for the launch of the original Twisted Metal on the PlayStation? Indeed it’s been 17 years and a host of sequels and spin-offs since SingleTrac released their iconic destruction-derby style racing fiasco and now under the name of Eat Sleep Play, the series has been brought back to life better than ever. This PlayStation 3 exclusive brings action in abundance and while not the best game ever, it certainly holds its own by being a fun divergence from your generic types of games flooding the current market. If you’re looking for nostalgic value or something a little bit different to play, this could very well be the experience for you.


Twisted Metal’s environments reminds me of the Escape from New York and L.A. movies staring Kurt Russell – cities are ravaged by groups of lunatics in an attempt to win a tournament held by the strange and obviously evil man named Calypso. Vehicles are of course are at the centre of this manic experience but a fine balance has to be implemented between durability, maneuverability and firepower. There is a variety of vehicles to choose from, each leaning toward a particular strength and showing off a rather obvious weakness, for example picking a huge truck will make you bulky, but there’s no doubt you’ll be quite slow and a pretty easy target for the more nimble cars, bikes and even helicopters. Twisted Metal is all about finding a play style that suits you and balancing your abilities to ensure you are the last road warrior standing.

Overall it doesn’t really matter what type of vehicle you choose because the game does an excellent job balancing them out. Fantastic control mechanics make even the biggest of vehicles a joy to control with a whole bunch of ways to move quickly and efficiently along the varied terrains to avoid oncoming fire. This is made even more enjoyable by Twisted Metal’s terrific stage design with a whole host of tracks taking inspiration from real cities with shall we say, some extra additions to spice the carnage up a notch. Levels are decent in size and offer plenty of opportunity to explore as well as find interesting and advantageous ways to tackle your enemies.



The cars and environments aren’t the only things beaming with personality in Twisted Metal. The character roster in particular shines with insanity as you can choose from an insane clown driving an ice-cream truck, a motorcyclist resembling the Grim Reaper and lots of other classic characters including Minion, Hammerhead and Darkside. Personality is definitely the aim of the game here as each gruesome psycho is a joy to play with as you find out all their nifty little quirks and holes in their personalities.

Once you get on the battlefield Twisted Metal does very little to change the classic formula concentrating primarily on destruction. While there are a few different game modes, the ultimate objective is to destroy your opponents and be the last car driving. Twisted Metal ensures that this isn’t simply a chaotic mess and certainly gives you the opportunity to choose whether to play conservatively or go in guns blazing. Each character has their own unique power alongside generic weapons that are thrown across the battlefield. Being able to defend yourself while picking off enemies is a tactical game and while at first glance you may have a hard time keeping up with the carnage around you, once you get to grips with Twisted Metal’s ‘twisted’ philosophy, you will see that underneath the rubble and destruction, considerable skill and tactical gameplay can be extracted for a more in-depth experience.



The main mode present in Twisted Metal is campaign. In previous installments the evil Calypso would grant the winner of his tournament any wish they desired, normally with an inhumane and cruel twist strung alongside. This time however, the campaign specifically targets 3 characters Mr. Grimm, Sweet Tooth and Dollface. You will find variations of different game modes present throughout your time with the campaign, including racing, which makes for a fun departure from the usual destruction style deathmatch experience. Rather oddly however, even though Twisted Metal’s campaign specifically concentrates on 3 characters, you are given the opportunity to use a variety of vehicles instead of sticking to their traditional wheels. While this provides variety and versatility, it moves away from Twisted Metal’s traditions and although it’s only a minor issue, it still might bug a few gamers out there.

Outside of the campaign Twisted Metal provides significant entertainment for you and your friends. While no cooperative online campaign is present, players can go at it split-screen, which is a very welcome addition. Aside from that Twisted metal also offers 4 player split-screen game types but really the most enjoyable mode is going online and battling it out with 16 other human players. All the classic game modes are present along with some very interesting additions including an offense / defense style game called Nuke where players must capture and sacrifice a particular enemy player to launch a rocket at your opponents base. To be honest all of Twisted Metal’s multiplayer modes are a whole heap of fun because it’s such an unpredictable yet balanced game, which causes enjoyable havoc amidst human players.

I think it’s very obvious why Twisted Metal is such a well-rounded and successful title – not only is it a technically solid and enjoyable experience, but it’s also a breath of fresh air providing gamers with a genre that has not seen the light of day in a number of years. Games like this should be welcomed with open arms because the development team clearly knew it was producing a game that had no guarantee of popularity but due to the sheer technical prowess put behind it, has certainly come out a winner in my eyes. Twisted Metal is an all out vehicular war and if that sounds like something that will get your engine going then give this a go because it does everything other than disappoint.

8.0 | Gameplay |
Twisted Metal for many modern gamers will be something they’ve not really experienced before. The age of the first-person shooter has overshadowed many genres so the idea of vehicular combat may come as a shock to some players. Saying that, it’s absolutely worth a go because great control mechanics, variety in cars, environments, weapons and game types make this a real treat and as I’ve said before, a breath of fresh air to the modern gamer.

8.0 | Presentation |
All PlayStation 3 exclusives are beautiful and this is no exception. Twisted Metal is a devilishly delightful game to look at it right from the offset – carnage and mayhem rarely looks this good. I’m bias as I’m sure many gamers are who have played games like Uncharted 3 where the graphics are of an absolutely different caliber, but this still competes as a very pretty and smooth game. What is especially impressive is the frame-rate that holds for the most part even when the action is at a boiling point.

8.0 | Replay Value |
Not only is the combat balanced and a whole load of fun online, but the maps are so versatile and dynamic that it’s difficult not to want to jump straight back in and really learn all the different paths and shortcuts. A host of different game modes both online and offline split-screen means you can always play with friends at any given time, which is a fantastic bonus. There’s definitely something for everyone here.

8.0 | Final Thoughts |
Twisted Metal brings a smile to my face for numerous reasons. Not only is it a technically impressive, efficient and challenging game, but also it’s a brave release. I keep emphasizing this but in this modern age the green light is not always given to ambitious, niche or non-popular genre titles. There was absolutely no way in guaranteeing that a vehicular-shooter would be a successful game in this current market but quality development and faith in the franchise pulled through. Twisted Metal is an iconic series, one that deserved to be reinvigorated but I think no one thought it would come to life in such an impressive fashion. If you want mayhem, destruction and heaps of fun with your friends, then this is absolutely the game for you.

Igor Kharin.








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