Monday, 30 March 2015

3D Out Run Review

For many a retro gamer mentioning Out Run conjures up memories of racing at high speed through a host of idyllic locations in a Ferrari. There have been numerous remakes over the years but only the Xbox version in 2004 really managed to capture that spirit of freedom and speed that the original had. That’s all about to change as this could well be the definitive version of Sega’s much loved classic.

For those not familiar with Out Run – the goal is to race through the stages against the clock while avoiding traffic and other obstacles. There are multiple routes that can be taken and up to five possible final roads to travel down should you reach the last stage. Hitting traffic slows you down, while hitting obstacles at speed can flip and roll the car causing the driver and his blond passenger to fall out and eat up much needed time. 

Though fairly simplistic at heart – it can also be tough to complete at times. You have a high and low gear to help control your speed but sometimes those corners come out of nowhere and you’ll be flipping into the nearest corn field. Luckily for us the controls are wonderfully responsive so anytime you do find yourself viewing the brutal crash animations you know it’s your fault. It’s about speed and control and if things get too tough (or easy), you can alter the difficulty and your time allowance in the options menu. 

This is a conversion of the arcade game so you are getting the original experience with some nice enhancements. The two most obvious of these are the framerate and new 3D effect. The framerate has been bumped up to 60FPS which makes everything zoom by at breakneck speed and certainly captures the thrill the original game had upon first release. The 3D effect is also impressive and really adds to the experience. These two additions coupled with the classic graphical style really help to elevate the game and it makes everything a whole lot of fun.

There are a few other things thrown in as well such as some new songs and the ability to track your times and scores on each course. It all shows that a fair amount of care and attention has been put into this and someone clearly cared about the franchise during the process.

Overall, 3D Out Run is both a wonderful version of a classic game and something that is still fun and relevant today. It’s a game that always brings about a smile when playing and it comes from an era when the sheer joy of the experience was heralded above all else and there is no better game to illustrate the point than this.

Overall 8/10

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain Review (PS2)

Wrestling is a strange beast – most people simply don’t understand the appeal; for the rest of the world it provides an entertaining spectacle that simply cannot be matched by your average episode of East Enders or Coronation Street. Imagine how much more entertaining an episode of the popular cockney soap would be if in one episode Phil Mitchell and Dot Cotton started hitting each other with steel chairs before both were power-bombed through a table by an angry Alfie Moon – now that’s entertainment! 

Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain is the fifth instalment in the (at the time), generally excellent Smackdown series and was where, instead of resting on its laurels, THQ have tried to develop the franchise through a number of changes to the core gameplay. A very brave move, considering Smackdown! already contained possibly the most flexible fighting system available in a wrestling title(aside from Fire Pro and No Mercy of Course), –this, along with a few new additions, means the revision bears less resemblance to its predecessors than many were expecting.

The first thing that grabs you upon booting the game is how much the graphics have improved. Characters are far more detailed than before and feel a lot more solid when moving and fighting. This is a good thing, although we feel this may have contributed to issues regarding the roster and some of the superstars’ entrance music at the time. 

However, THQ were always onto a loser in terms of inclusions this time round, because this is where the two brands of Smackdown! and RAW  split; meaning the roster is divided straight down the middle. This leads to ‘sub-par’ superstars being involved in minor storylines and, despite a roster of over fifty-five wrestlers, there are still a number of glaring omissions for the time such as then, women’s champion Molly Holly; ex-tag champions La Resistance; and the world’s strongest man Mark Henry, to name a few.

Problems also exist with music on the superstars’ entrances with some of it being very date and particularly suffering through loss of lyrical content – leading us to believe that corners were cut during development. Perhaps it would be unfair to lay these problems squarely at THQ’s feet, because it relates moreover to limitations placed upon the ageing PS2 hardware, which it must be said, delivers to the best of its abilities – once you have explored what is actually in the game.

Spurious and cosmetic concerns aside, almost everything that matters in the game has been improved; the grapple system has been updated and though it feels strange at first, soon proves more flexible than before – allowing players to have a greater idea of what sort of move they are going to pull off in the heat of battle. A further improvement is evident in the way superstars’ attributes are applied as now there is a huge difference between a lumbering big man and a nimble small man, and if a weaker character tries to lift a heavyweight it will physically be prevented – likely injuring their backs and ending in (animated) pain. A nice touch.

Other noticeable improvements with the physics engine see players prone to taking damage upon specific areas of the body. This helps with both submission-holds and also limits the movement range of your opponent. Injure someone’s head badly enough and a well-placed blow will see the superstar bleed – not massively, but enough to inspire organic belief that realism is flowing through the title’s gaming marrow. Additionally, we are delighted with the improvements made to the submission system; instead of characters just performing a move for mere seconds, now depending on your submission-rating the move can be held for long periods of time (and by hitting any button). Likewise, your opponent can try and escape the hold by doing the same – a small touch, but one that makes a huge difference to the feel of matches. 

After listening to fans’ grievances from previous titles, a number of bona fide legends have also been included in this version of Smackdown! Admittedly, you can’t please everyone, because over the years there have been thousands of WWE superstars, but it’s fair to say that most would be pleased with the inclusions; Superfly Jimmy Snukka, The Legion of Doom and Roddy Piper (along with others) deserve their place, but we raised an eyebrow at the inclusion of Hillbilly Jim, and a couple of others. 

Speaking of irregularities – Hulk Hogan was with the WWE when the game went into development and appears in early promotional shots of the title, yet when Hogan left he was removed from the title. Honestly, Hulk Hogan is possibly the most popular wrestler of all time, surely he could have been included as an unlockable legend? 

Notwithstanding, Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain features just about everything you could want from a wrestling title (presentational issues aside). New match types such as the elimination chamber, and a revised control system, mean that unlike other WWE titles appearing on other formats, this one can stand up in its own right as an accomplished game – and one that people outside of its hardcore fanbase should have some fun with. Technological barriers prevent Smackdown! from reaching its full potential, but nonetheless this is a great release that would even appeal to those who own the last instalment in the series. It’s probably the peak of the series as the games only seemed to get worse after this.

Overall 8/10

Friday, 27 March 2015


Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

With a back story featuring a futuristic past-time (1989) and straight-outta-the-hat faction names (the Neo Loran Order, anyone?), Armed Seven conceptually nods... nay, headbutts toward a certain area. It is a to-the-gunpoint side-scrolling schmup featuring mechs, lasers, bullets and guns.

Genres can rise and fall, and then re-rise, changed and mutated, such as the point-and-click adventure. Time changes tastes and this is the same with the side-scrolling shooter. Armed Seven does everything by the book, even to the point of it having a clunky inelegance. It actually plays like something from my childhood that I would curiously boot up from a demo disk or a collection of shareware, pre-internet.

In control of a floating mech, you can pitch your guns at angles, but not move them once firing, adding the only other element of tactics outside of moving. You can pick your load-out, with a primary, secondary and chargeable special weapons. These come in the expected varied formats of machine guns, lasers, missiles and so forth. Curiously, I found, when you start a level, be it a traditionally war-torn past-future landscape or space-action-battlefield, the game tells you where your weak-spot is. The player mech is surprisingly large on the screen, but the hit-box is rather small. You can drift closer than it feels reasonable to incoming fire, harmlessly passing through your metal legs. This somewhat broke the connection for me between the character and controls. Hard to judge in the midst of battle.

This hints at the larger problem at the core of this game and just about forgivable at the price (a cheerful £3.99). The vehicles are a dull mixture of planes and mechs, and that's just about it. None of the thrill of the bio-mechanical R-Type, or the bizarre otherwordliness of Tyrian, or my personal favourite, the grungy, gory and brutal Gradius: Interstellar Assault. Hell, I feel Beat Hazard has a more varied approach and that's essentially an audio-'em-up game. A story as hammy as this deserves more craziness, more badassery... just more.

The side-scroll-schmup exists in pockets, occurring occasionally melted onto other game forms, or as pure and vicious shooters with an avid fanbase. These games, to succeed in the modern game biome, need to have adapted, whilst retaining what is essentially fun about the format. Pulling in some new ideas does not jeopardise the “retro” or “old skool”, I just want a bit of creativity. A customisable load-out is simply not enough to hold my attention for sustained periods. I simply do not buy that this is any more than a solidly made throwback. Like rockabilly music adopters who, with all the swagger and grunt, rarely stray from what can be a staid musical experience. It is a shame, but Armed Seven probably won't last too long in my memory. Maybe this is the point, but I wasn't moved to much more than a passing smile of nostalgia.

Overall 5/10

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Midnight Club 2 Review (PS2)

While driving one night you come across a modified sports car weaving through traffic and causing havoc on the road. Intrigued you investigate determined to find a way into the allusive Midnight Club. After bringing the mystery driver to a halt he dares you to meet him at midnight, the stage is set, pride, glory and some very expensive cars are yours for the taking, all you have to do is win….

Set across Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong, Midnight Club 2 sets you in a huge free roaming environment. As well as the usual arcade and two player modes you get a much more interesting story model. In the story mode you must travel around a city looking for other racers before following them to the race location. Races come in a variety of types, some are simply a case of racing from one point to another as fast a possible, while others see you needing to hit a number of checkpoints spaced out around the area meaning you have to plan the most effective rout to succeed.

What the developers have pinned their hopes on in the over crowded world of racing games is the twist of being able to go anywhere you want as long as you reach the end before the other racers. Furthermore, beat a racer and you then get to use their car meaning you have a large selection of super vehicles to choose from each with different strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that even though you have the whole city at your disposal there is really only one rout for each race as moving off in search of short cuts often leads to you ending up in completely the wrong place.

First of all lets make something very clear, Midnight Club 2 has some of the worst graphics we have seen in a PS2 racing game. When you first turn it on you may well think you have dropped Driver 2 into the machine instead. Unsurprisingly, everything looks a lot like GTA: Vice City, however it seems as though the detail has been removed leaving somewhat empty shells of vehicles and surroundings. Having said that though after a couple of plays you begin to see through the graphics and they begin to take on a certain charm. Though lacking in detail there is no noticeable pop up, blurring or dodgy draw line distance to be found, essential to a game based around speed and sharp turning- so at least it is understandable why cosmetic graphics have been reduced as it allows the real core elements of the game to function properly.

Car handling is the most important thing with racing games and in this respect Midnight is both sublime and slightly off key. In game controls are incredible responsive allowing the player to perform exactly what they want to, when they want to with such an ease that even novice players will be hand brake turning round corners on virtually their first attempt. A few nice touches have been added that help to keep the element of fun in the game as well, for instance drive behind an opponent and it fills up a slip stream metre allowing you to boost past them at an opportune moment.

Where the game fails slightly though is with the way individual cars handle. While this is a game based more in the arcade area than that of simulation you cannot help but think that the cars handle a little off. We weren’t expecting Gran Turismo levels of realism but when model handling feels more lose than in the GTA games you know something is slightly a miss. Again this is nothing that really detracts from the game and can be easily forgiven as official licenses are not used for the cars and Midnight Club 2 never claimed to be the same type of game as Gran Turismo anyway.

However, what could sour the experience for gamers is the insane difficulty level, being a cross between Burnout 2 and Stuntman in style, things move very fast and races must be negotiated to near perfection in order to succeed. The amount of obstacles in the way could prove too much for novice racing gamers and courses become as much about learning where things are going to appear as beating the other racers. Every race follows the same pattern, you move along until you hit something that has just pulled in your way, you have to restart as once you have crashed catching up is incredibly difficult. So you set off again avoiding the first obstacle, before crashing into the next one and repeat until you reach the end of the race, just like in Stuntman, all you need is the voice telling you what is coming up ahead and you could well forget what game you’re playing at times.

Overall, Midnight Club 2 is a good game, yes it has flaws, it is far too difficult and the graphics and overall feel of the game do not seem quite right. But it still delivers incredible fast and controllable action with a slight twist that no other racer can really claim to have. The problem is most PS2 race fans will own Gran Turismo 3, Burnout 2 and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Each game excelling in realism, speed or pure arcade action, Midnight Club 2 tries to incorporate a bit of each into the gameplay but ends up falling a touch short in each area. A huge improvement on the original game but Midnight Club 2 still cannot quite make it into the racing elite, all the elements are there, all that is needed is a bit more polish.

Overall 7/10