Friday, 28 August 2015

Volume Review (PS4/PC)

We first came across Volume a couple of years ago at the Euro Gamer Expo. It was in a fairly early state and we struggled to get to grips with the mechanics and the general flow of the game. Now the finished game is here and it tells the story of a modern day Robin Hood trying to steal from a corrupt ruling class in a near future England.

The idea of the game is to navigate around enclosed maps in a pseudo-top down perspective and collect loot. Once everything of value has been obtained you need to reach the levels exit. There are of course a host of traps and enemies to avoid along the way and some wonderful gadgets that help you do just that.

The first thing that strikes you about Volume is that it has a wonderfully distinctive look to it. If the Vectrex was a modern day system running Metal Gear Solid VR missions then it would probably look something like this. The clear design keeps the play field uncluttered and allows players to easily identify loot, items and enemies. The only slight issue is that in tight levels it can be difficult to see everything as objects can be hidden a bit behind walls. It’s only a minor point though and for the type of game this is the visuals work just about perfectly.

Diving in you will find that your hero controls very well and the system is easy to pick up and get used to. You’re only really walking around but you can also crouch behind walls and whistle to attract attention. There are some fun gadgets to use as well and not a gun in sight (at least for you). There are gadgets that let you run quickly and silently across trigger traps and various things you can throw at walls to distract enemies while you sneak by. Our favourite is the first one you get which is the bugle. This allows you to fire a sound pellet across a planned path and then activate it at any point to lure guards away.

Each level has somewhat generous check points throughout and while this does reduce frustration it can also mean things are little too easy sometimes. You have unlimited lives and restart at the last point you passed when you get shot. That’s fine in itself but there were a number of times where it was easier to grab loot by running straight through it, dive through a checkpoint, get killed by the pursuing guard and then just start again from the point with everything reset and the loot still obtained. In a couple of levels we even managed to get through the checkpoint as we were dying, only to pop up seconds later with guards now back in place and everything fine. Again, it’s not a major issue but can make escapes feel cheap and often removes the need for the more intricate stealth sections the levels are designed for.

Level design is excellent throughout and players are always being given new things to play with, new enemies to avoid or new ways to think. The feeling of repetition never really kicked in for us and we played the game for quite sustained periods of time each time we picked it up. There’s clearly some intelligent planning going on here and with stealth games like this it is all important to get it right and Volume does.

Sound effects are kept to a minimum but work well with the stealth premise. Anything that makes a noise is crisp and also gives an indication of how far the noise is traveling. The uncluttered soundscape again acts well to help the player in their loot collection. What doesn’t work so well is the voice over with the protagonist talking to his AI companion throughout. Not only does this mask sound feedback at times it also drops a text box on the screen which can be irritating when you are trying to sneak around traps.

The story is not exactly told in a subtle way either and the script could really have done with a few revisions. Unfortunately it comes across as rather overbearing during play and the protagonists voice over never really fits in with the actions being carried out on screen. Instead it seems like someone talking to you in the room while you’re playing (and we all know how annoying that can be).

Overall, Volume is a very enjoyable and well-designed experience. It offers something a bit different in the current market and succeeds at most of the things it has set out to do. We would have liked to see a bit more of a challenge later on, the checkpoints need a bit of a placement rethink and the story can grate but it’s full of ideas, plays well and looks great.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Dungeon Keeper Review (PC)

Deep underground something is rotten and festering and it’s about to rise up and choke all the good out of the land. That something is you and your hordes of underlings as you scratch away at the roots of the world luring in heroes and torturing and murdering them for their trouble. Dungeon Keeper places you in the role of the bad guy and in the process set the ball rolling on games that show you just how good it can be to be bad.

A god game at heart, you have to build your dungeon from scratch to lure in different types of monsters to work for you. You start out with a few imps who will dig tunnels, claim squares and collect gold. It is up to you to direct them to dig out rooms and then fill the rooms with different types of tiles to attract other monsters. You’ll need a treasure room to start to pile your wealth and then a lair for monsters to sleep in. They also need food so a chicken hatchery will be next on your list. After that you can decide what else you need.

Training rooms are used to level up your monsters, Libraries are used for research and workshops construct different things. Each also attracts different monsters such as warlocks and trolls. You can also build rooms like prisons where enemy units can be starved to death in order to have them rise as skeletons or torture chambers to try and attract dark mistresses or try and turn enemy units and heroes to your side. There’s a wide range of monsters to attract and they all serve a purpose. Some will also attack other monsters so it’s important to think about who you want in your dungeon.

The ultimate monster is the Horned Reaper who is a huge, red scythe wielding demon prone to going crazy and killing everyone and everything whether they are friend of foe. They can only be summoned via sacrificing creatures in a temple. If you do get one it’s normally best to keep them out of the way as much as possible until they are needed. 

There are other things at work here as well. Monsters need food and will also require paying. Certain creatures like dragons need to live by lava to grow strong and Bile Demons will eat you out of house and home so you’ll need to balance how many you can cope with at once. It’s a great little eco system to manage and trying to balance everything is always fun and rewarding.

Dungeon Keeper is rich with a dark and twisted humour gleefully narrated by an evil booming voice that tells you what is happening in your dungeon. There are little touches everywhere which keep it tongue in cheek and the right side of psychotic. The stupid town names and descriptions of the locals always raise a smile (who doesn’t want to destroy a town that worships fluffy bunny rabbits?), and things like being able to slap your monsters to make them work harder are also highly amusing.

Most importantly, the mechanics of the game are pretty much perfect. The opening levels give you enough time and space to get to grips with everything while also allowing you to deal with unwanted hero intruders. New features are added gradually and it never becomes overwhelming for the player. The maps are varied as well with hidden treasures to find and different types of opponents to take on. Sometimes you’ll be trying to lure the lord of the land in while other times you may be facing off against rival dungeon keepers. It never stops being fun and you’ll always want to press on to the next stage.

Overall, Dungeon Keeper has never really been bettered. The sequel is good but not quite to this level of perfection and the game has influenced titles like Overlord but the thrill of the original is still something unique. It’s one of the best strategy/God games that has ever been released and remains fun from the very start to the final, screen filling, battle. If you’re into the genre then it’s a must play and the ageing graphics aside, it still plays and feels as good as it always has.

Overall 10/10

Monday, 24 August 2015

Discworld Review (PC)

Back in the mid-nineties when point and click adventure games ruled the world there was a never ending supply of quirky games to take on. The Discworld series of books by Terry Pratchet was seen as a rich source from which to draw and develop something in the genre and three PC games were made. It brought a new audience to the books and many gamers who had never read a Discworld novel still played and enjoyed the game.

Players take control of the hapless wizard Rincewind (continually followed around by his walking luggage chest), as he is tasked with getting rid of a troublesome dragon. Voiced by Eric Idle you need to go around picking up objects and then using them to solve puzzles. Very obscure, logic defying, puzzles.

Looking back it’s amazing anyone ever finished the game without a guide as there are some unbelievable leaps of faith in there which could only realistically be solved though using everything you have in your inventory on everything else until something happens. There is at least a small mercy in the fact you can’t die

It’s testament to the games script though that despite the insane difficulty that the game is still incredibly enjoyable. The voice acting and humour keep the game afloat and there are lots of things to see and interact with which cause one liners or animations. The vocal talents of Tony Robinson, Rob Brydon, John Pertwee and Kate Robbins are also on show which keeps the dialogue at the highest quality.

In a strange way, playing with a guide doesn’t really detract too much from the experience. It will certainly lesson the frustration while allowing players to enjoy the beautifully drawn environments and humour on display. The biggest sin the game commits is a succession of tiny objects that players will need to find. The worm in the square, people’s pockets and the golden banana (hidden behind a characters ear and only visible when he turns his head for a split second), are by far the worst offenders and will require pixel by pixel scanning of the screen. How anyone found these things playing on small PC monitors is anyone’s guess. The first act of the game isn’t impossibly difficult but as soon as you get into act 2 you’ll be running for a guide almost straight away.

The other big offender is the world map. Some of the locations are so tiny that you will be very lucky to stumble upon them. The inn on the West side of the map and the Broken Drum pub were things I stumbled upon completely by accident as they inhabit a tiny square in the city. Realising the back alley continued past the elevator stone thing is also not exactly obvious.

When the puzzles aren’t being impossibly obscure they are actually pretty inventive and strong. If you can get your head around the logic they provide some real ‘eureka’ moments that few other point and click games can match. Getting the Dragons breath is a fairly simple but inventive exercise and my personal favourite is stealing the chefs pancake mid-flip so he leaves the kitchen to complain about wizards altering gravity. 

Overall, Discworld is an exceptionally presented game which fans of the books will love. The graphics and voice work is top class and up there with the best in the genre. There are big downsides to the experience though with the impossible logic and difficult to find objects and locations. Don’t let that put you off though as this is a great adventure with tons of humour and things to see. If you find yourself pulling your hair out go to a guide, chances are there’s some tiny thing you’ve missed. It’ll make the whole thing seem so much better and when the game is good there’s nothing else that can match it.

Overall 8/10

Monday, 17 August 2015

Rollcage Review (Playstation)

Back in the days of the N64 and Playstation there were a host of racing and car combat games hitting the market. Every week seemed to bring something different as players hunger to race around at break neck speed (and normally shoot at things), seemed to be a gold seam easily mined. The Playstation alone had Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8, Gran Turismo, Wipeout and of course Rollcage among a host of others vying for players attention.

While Wipeout was the cool kid that helped shape the Playstation generation, Rollcage was the niche alternative for the speed heads that wanted something more physical, grittier and that bit more obscure. It still has a licensed soundtrack and all the bells and whistles but, if anything, it requires even more skill and concentration to play well.

Much like Wipeout the game has you racing around a series of futuristic tracks against a host of computer controlled opponents. There aren’t a massive amount of tracks but as Wipeout 2097 proved it’s all about quality rather than quantity (and there’s significantly more than found in that game). They are drawn from a base of four locations with you racing around variations on a neon lit city, tropical island, snow covered mountain and Mars mining colony.

Tracks don’t have the loops you might find in Wipeout but do have lots of walls and tunnels, destructible scenery, speed boosts and jumps. The reason for all the walls and tunnels is of course part of the main draw of Rollcage – that being you can drive on ceiling if you really want to. 

Your car is basically a flat vehicle on four large wheels that can operate either way up. This means you can bounce around the levels like a lunatic and as long as you land facing the right way you will keep going. In practice this is easier said than done as you’ll most likely end up spinning around to such a degree that sea sickness will set it.

Rollcage is not an easy game to play when you first start. Any bump or twist in the road is likely to send your car either barrelling across the track or spinning around in a circle and it will take some time to get used to the handling system. Once you have learned to read the track and keep the vehicle balanced it really does begin to show its strengths. Some consolation comes in the fact that the computer is just as likely to spin out as you are so at least you are all in the same boat.

The real key to lasting appeal of Rollcage is the sense of speed that still remains. These tracks are fast and chaotic and that means you have to concentrate all the time. If that wasn’t enough there are a host of power ups to contend with as well. Ranging from shields to scenery collapsing rockets and teleport beams there is everything you need to keep races competitive. Your car is indestructible (a small mercy), so the only thing to worry about is getting back on track after being blasted into a wall.

The Playstation version has league and time trial modes to play with as well as a two player mode. Sadly though it lacks the Arcade mode of the PC version which means a couple of tracks aren’t actually playable in single player against the computer. A strange choice no doubt brought about by the limited power of the host machine.

Overall, Rollcage may lack the refinement and sleek racing lines of the Wipeout series but it makes up for it in sheer aggression and attitude. This is a rough and ready racing game that requires players to drive well to keep their car on the track let stay in the lead. There’s no doubt it can be frustrating and it certainly doesn’t look as sharp as you probably remember but its fast, brain meltingly fast. It’s also very chaotic in the best way. If you’re into racing games and want to try something unique then getting hold of it should be a priority.

Overall 8/10