Petty Annoyances (#1 in an occasional series)

Apologies to non-gaming nerds. Drive through, there is nothing to see here.

After a terrifyingly long, 70+ hour struggle with Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV on the Xbox 360, I find myself crowned Champion of Tolkiensville, after completing the main questline and reaching the conclusions of the Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, Fighters Guild and Dark Brotherhood storylines.

I have, in short, torn the arse out of it.

Despite this, the game does not show up as “complete” on the 360 dashboard, even though all off the 1000 possible Meaninglessnumberpoints have been extracted from it. Why?

Because, gentle reader, an expansion pack that I do not own exists, adding an extra 250 completely unobtainable gamerpoints to the tally.

This is nothing less than a tax on the obsessive-compulsive, especially given that the expansion pack download costs considerably more than the main game itself, these days.

Of course, I’m going to get a hold of it anyway because I enjoyed the game. It just the principle of the thing that annoys me.

The petty, petty principle.

Advance Guardian Heroes – Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Something of an odd choice for Japanese game design deities Treasure, this. Departing from their recent run of Triple A shooters to do a sequel to the top notch Sega Saturn Guardian Heroes, an RPG tinted side scrolling beat ’em up characterised by huge, er, characters, fairly spectacular spellcasting effects and the kind of graphical zooming trickery that set jaws dropping amongst those who hadn’t yet subscribed to the prevailing wind of 3D killing off 2D gaming. Above all, it was a tremendous amount of fun as we’ve come to expect from that particular codehouse. Jaws dropped again when the news came that Nintendo’s humble pocket system would play host to this welcome yet unanticipated sequel. Surely it could never do the original justice?

Sadly, no, it can’t. But it has a damn good go at it, and in the process pushes the hardware beyond the limits anyone had thought possible. The game starts with your death, which would seem unfortunate but allows the legendary Undead Hero to inhabit your body, the design of which owes more to Gunstar Heroes than Guardian Heroes. This big dead fella you may remember as your large sword swingin’ golden armoured CPU controlled helper in Guardian Heroes, and while the newest incarnation relies more on fisticuffs than swordplay you’re by no means defenceless.

In terms of moves available to you it’s hardly Street Fighter Alpha 3 but it’s certainly streets ahead of Final Fight One, probably its closest contemporary on the handheld. Standard ground punches chain into combos so it’s easy to start baddie bashing, although you’ll need to start mixing up attacks to survive the onslaught. Overhead attacks send enemies flying around the screen and a ground pounding attack that would seem more suited to the Hulk knocks down those around you. Aerial attacks prove effective also, and if that’s not enough you could always start laying the smackdown with one of your spell types, which differ slightly depending on your character choice. Homing attacks and lasers? What is this, R-Type?

All of which would probably get you off the first level but not much further unless you learn how to block and counter. The shoulder button when held creating a barrier from most attacks. A swift tap just as a blow is about to land not only stops any damage but knocks your attacker into a stun, or if it’s a projectile it’s returned to sender with extreme prejudice. This is so vital towards the game’s later stages it’s the only way to play it, which does make a short game harder (a good thing) it limits the amount of fun you can have with it (a bad thing). Defeating your attackers earns you crystals, which can be used to level up your characters attack, defence or magic stats as you see fit.

Oh yeah, the plot. There’s not as much pontificating as I remember clicking through on Guardian Heroes, but the Advance incarnation still has more development than you’d expect or probably want from the genre. A thousand years have passed since the last game, and the Heavens have decided it’s time to have another final battle, with mankind on the extermination agenda. You take on a huge but not too varied army of miscreants the heavens have thrown your way headed by Zur who inexplicably looks like a goofish Shakespearean extra but who’s also raised Guardian Heroes‘ fiendish magician Kanon from the dead. You’ll have to deal with the sword swinging footsoldiers, giant ogres, huge robots and mirrors. Don’t ask. In a canny reference to the original / recycling of assets you’ll have to have versions of the heroes of the first game, now unwilling soldiers of the Heavens, who are trying to raise the ultimate warrior.

Lovely, but somewhat superfluous. I suppose it has a better ring to it than ‘Walk right. Kill everything that gets in your way’, but it’s all faintly ridiculous and ultimately breaks up the action. At a short but challenging six levels, there’s a slight suggestion it’s only there to bulk up the playtime. In terms of additional lifespan you can unlock near enough every sprite in the game to play as, either through repeated playthroughs donating the crystals ordinarily used for levelling up your character to a research fella or by having a blast of the survival and time attack modes, themselves unlocked after completing the game on varying difficulty levels.

It’s not enough. There’s no real incentive to unlock all of these characters, no benefits apart from a sense of completion for the dedicated or anal amongst us. It shows attention to detail that essentially every character in the game is properly playable if you put the effort into it, but you’ll still be playing the same game through every time. Unlike it’s elder brother there’s no branching stages, no alternative paths through the game which made Guardian Heroes a viable prospect to replay through a few times. Understandable format constraints make such a scheme impossible on the GBA, but after you’ve spent four or five hours playing this through a couple of times there’s no added incentive to come back to it again.

Which would be a problem if this were a fun game to play, after all Final Fight One offers approximately nada in terms of extras but it’s still a great game to dig out for a half hour rampage now and again. The mechanics of Advance Guardian Heroes make it a more complex game, but also detract from the fun to be had from it. Quickly, and almost immediately on higher difficulty levels it become apparent that the only way to progress is to wait for an opponent to attack, stun him with a block/counter and then unleash a quick flurry of attacks. Repeat until bored. This quickly saps the fun from the game, reducing it to a mechanical exercise in timing.

Fine if you like that sort of thing, but I’m sure it’s not that significant a portion of the population. Technically it’s a very impressive game, pushing the sprite handling and scaling capacities of the GBA past what limits were imagined for it, although it goes a little to far. Slowdown rears it’s ugly head a few times when the spells are sent flying amongst dense crowds, and while it’s rare that it presents a hindrance to gameplay it does tarnish the presentation a little.

The main thing that’s bothering me about this game is that it really doesn’t feel like Treasure made it, despite the obvious reuse of their IP. The touches of personality that raised things like Guardian & Gunstar Heroes and Bangai-o above the normal genre standards was what made them legendary, and there’s only a precious few moments in this latest outing that come close to that. The rest seems somewhat…perfunctory, I suppose. It’s by no means a bad game in any sort of technical sense, just a rather joyless one that’s too mechanical and too short lived to be recommended to all but hardened beat-em-up fans.

Why piracy is necessary.

So I’m at a loose end t’other day, being in the rare position of having a few hours to kill and no immediate idea of what to do with it. Glancing around my immediate environs I spot a copy of ye olde EA game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, part of the long-running, surely needs no introduction from me RTS series that’s about as old as I am. Seeing as I never quite got round to finishing this back when it was first released, I figure I’d slap it on the ol’ hard drive, fire it up and give it a quick blast.

Theoretically, this is an excellent plan hampered only by EA’s coding being so, shall we say, sub-optimal that the thing just wouldn’t work. Installs to hard disk fine, then just falls over on having the temerity to attempt to play it. Patched to the latest revision. No worky. Do the usual messing around with the never-yet-useful compatibility options of WinXP. No worky. Download and install 60-odd meg of the latest graphics drivers, a ludicrous size itself worthy of another rant. Still no worky. Consult Google. No answers, but lots of whining about it’s status as ‘fuxxored’.

I have, naturally, solved this problem. I have solved this problem and can now happily make mincemeat of red commie scuzzbuckets to my little heart’s content. How have I solved this? Why, by heading off to the ever useful Megagames website and downloading the No-CD patch, which in this case is perhaps better described by calling it an ‘Actually Make Game Work’ patch. So despite having paid good money to the corporate monolith for a legit copy of the game, the reward that gave me was a few hours of needless head-scratching that I wouldn’t have had to endure had I just downloaded the damn thing of a newsgroup in the first place. Grrr.

It’d be unfortunate were this an isolated incident, but hardly noteworthy. Of course, it isn’t, as between plain poor coding and increasingly ludicrous DRM and anti-copy measures all of which are defeated by serious pirates within days, anything you buy has a better than evens chance of falling over at some point. Some of the ruder schemes will even see a game refuse to install if you’re running perfectly legitimate CD image mounting software like Daemon Tools or Nero Drive Image, for no readily discernible reason I can come up with. Again, if you’d taken the dark path and downloaded it this is handily stripped out for you. Sure, the publisher doesn’t their pound of flesh but at least you can play the damn thing.

Piracy is often sited as the force that will destroy software development, typically by, er, software developers and their Federation Against Software Theft PR branch. If so it’s taking a damn long time to do it, as any number of playgrounds with any number of C90 tapes stuffed with ZX Spectrum games will attest to.

Piracy had better not be stamped out. It’s the only way most of us can actually play the damn things even after buying them.

I suppose they could just be coded to work in the first place…….Bwahahahahahaha! I crack myself up, sometimes.

Advanced Lawnmower Simulator – Zx Spectrum

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Of all the classic games in this current retrogaming fad lauded for their playability in lieu of the graphical fripperies that many more clock cycles are devoted to in this age of technological wonders, one example stands head and shoulders above all others. One game that scrambles Chuckie Egg. That flies higher than Jet Set Willy. That sends Sabrewulf Head Over Heels. That really needs no more cut-rate puns to enhance its reputation. That game, of course, is Advanced Lawnmower Simulator.

Tapping into the Great British obsession with all garden based activities, this barnstormer was released to an unsuspecting world in April 1990 to the astonished silence of all, particularly publishers Codemasters who had their own prolific line of ‘Advanced’ prefixed games but crucially not in the lucrative lawnmowing sector. Providing the most comprehensive grass cutting simulator that has yet to grace the world, you take the role of young, idealistic uphill gardener Fingers McGovern as you try to take your company to the top of the gardening world. Starting off with only the standard issue ‘Patio Sprintette’ mower you have to build up your reputation and equally importantly your bank balance as you progress up the ziggurat.

Upgrading your lawn tending technology as you go, you’ll have to face stiff competition from your rivals and the never ending forces of nature in your quests to keep lawns the country over neatly cropped. Will you be able to join the halcyon ranks of the gardening elite such as Percy Thrower and Alan Titchmarsh or will your burned out career end up on the compost heap? Perhaps a more important question, will you be able to tear yourself away from one of the best games ever created?You almost certainly will, given that the game revolves solely around holding down the ‘m’ key for a while.

Advanced Lawnmower Simulator was a practical joke perpetrated on unsuspecting readers of the popular and deeply funny Your Sinclair magazine, receiving a glowing write up in the April 1990 issue from Duncan MacDonald, one of the most popular Speccy writers of the time, now an author having recently released the novel S.C.U.M.. Confirmation of the gag came in the next issue, with Advanced Lawnmower Simulator appearing on the covertape with a writing credit of none other than MacDonald.

As the screenshots show, even for a Speccy the mechanics and graphics were …minimal. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game itself was its line of insults on completion of a lawn, as your poor pixel avatar slowly proceeds block by block and line by line up a poorly realised lawn. The game rewards your tolerance with statements along the lines of ‘Call that a mow-job?’ and ‘That’s a bit of an erratic cut. Hellen Keller could have done better’. Still, mow well and you could earn yourself a nice corned beef sandwich.

Hardly a glowing recommendation for a game, or even a passable concept in the first place, but it spawned a wealth of YS reader produced knock-offs all of which being the same game with a few colour codes changed. Striking a chord with the ever quirky British sense of humour, Advanced Lawnmower Simulator lived on not only in the timeframe of its initial release but in a baffling array of ports for platforms as disparate as the VIC-20 and the Gameboy.

Among the admittedly slim ranks of great gaming April Fool wind-ups (the only other enduring ones I can think of off the top of my vacant little head being EGM‘s Photoshopped Street Fighter 2 screenshot claiming the inclusion of the legendary Shen Long, their ‘Lara Croft nude’ codes and the idea that Duke Nukem Forever will ever be released), Advance Lawnmower Simulator stands above all else in terms of invention and endurance.

If this has taken your fancy and you’re up for a spot of hot mowing action, there’s a very decent online Flash version for your delectation and Duncan MacDonald’s original review is archived for posterity and the shrine of all things YS The YS Rock’n’Roll Years.

Hey – it only took around five years from the writing of this for Duke Nukem Forever to finally appear – and boy wasn’t it worth the wait? No. No it wasn’t.

Ninja Cop – Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

You wouldn’t look twice at this game if you saw it sitting on the shelf in your local gaming suppliers. At least in the U.S. it gets the slightly more exotic name of Ninja Five-0, but for it’s British release Konami no doubt thought we’d assume it’s a football game and they’d missed out ‘Preston North End’ off the end of the name. So we get a generic title, a generic and unimaginative cover picture and a generic write up on the back that really isn’t going to convince the idle browser to splash out thirty notes on it. That’s a great pity, as it’s one of the best games that’s yet graced Nintendo’s pocket rocket.

As the title suggests, you take control of a ninja who happens to be a cop. Fair enough. There’s some tortuous plot to justify the fact that you’ll go up against a coalition of common thugs, military types and other ninjas, but it’s hardly essential to your experience. Something about masks and the quest for power and whatnot. To this end, or because of this, or perhaps in spite of this (I wasn’t paying much attention. The important thing is that there was ninjas present in some capacity) this alliance of evil takes over certain buildings key to their plans, whatever those happened to be, such as the airport, the factory by the docks, the banks and, err, a cave. Your job is simple, rescue the hostages they’ve taken in each building by simple means of slicing and dicing the bad guys until they’re reduced to small puddles of blood.

The goons come in the usual assortment of gun toting baddies and knife wielding thugs, as well as some chaps who rather care freely lob sticks of dynamite in your general direction. However, you are a ninja and this kind of mundanity isn’t going to be too problematic to deal with, seeing as your shurikens can not only do a serious mischief to miscreants but also knock their bullets out of the air. A swift tap of the left shoulder button whips out your chopper. Ooh-er, missus. Your katana can rather usefully slice through both the flesh of your assailants and the dynamite sticks, neutralising them. Your ninjitsu avatar Joe Osugi can dish out a two hit slice combo with another tap of the button, or if he’s in the middle of a jump he does a rather nifty somersaulting slice of doom that does some serious damage.

These low level goons aren’t too much of a problem, although you’ll have to be a bit more careful with the ones holding a hostage across them as a human shield. Wait for them to shove their captive aside and attempt a few pot shots before either slicing them up or inserting a shuriken in them, or sneak up behind them using the usual assortment of crates and barrels as cover and take them from behind. Ooh-er, missus. You may have a little more bother with later foot soldiers with a penchant for flame throwers, assault rifles and laser cannons however. Also standing in your path are a selection of evil ninjas, who look rather similar to Joe and can attack in similar ways which will present more of a challenge for you to counter. There are also a few lumbering mecha-ninjas wandering around who can take a bit of a beating, but their sluggishness means you ought to be able to dispatch them.< The areas themselves harkens back to the days of Revenge of Shinobi and platformers of it’s ilk, with supposedly commonplace buildings having been designed by someone with scant regard for the safety of anyone inside it. Even as a highly trained police ninja you’ll have difficulty progressing through some fiendish levels that are as difficult as any I’ve seen in recent years. You have one skill above all that’ll help you with this – your ninja grappling hook. Taking inspiration from Bionic Commando and combining it with the acrobatic antics of Spiderman, this enables you safely swing over the various pits of spikes and dangerously placed exhausts that game designers seem to think lurk at every turn in everyday life. You’ll need to learn how to swing over pretty much the entire length of the level in some cases, which is initially a little tricky but very gratifying when learnt. This also enables you to pull out some nifty ninja moves, jumping at the end of your upwards arc to soar in the area and drop down on some unsuspecting thug, slicing him up like a baloney.

Each level holds a boss of various fiendishness, some looking more or less like inexplicably large ninjas and one looking like a normal sized ninja on the back of an inexplicably large frog. Uh-huh. Some of their attack patterns can seem as fiendish as the level design on first encounters but they’re all beatable once you work it out. It’s a good job you’ve got unlimited continues as there is the occasional section that has a slight reliance on trial and error (or trial and death) which can be get annoying, and it’s about the only significant flaw the game has.

An advantage of being a ninja is that you’ve got some ninja magic to dish out. Once you’ve killed enough goons to fill a power bar or grabbed the appropriate pickup you can tap A + B to destroy any common or garden chappie on the screen, or do a chunk of damage to a boss. There are also a few power ups knocking around in addition to health bonuses, which allow your ninja to fire three flaming shurikens in a spread formation rather than your basic variety and eventually to fire one very powerful, almost laser like shuriken that’ll take down any of the normal guys instantly and do some real damage even to a boss.It is, I suppose, not all that different to a lot of platformers, but it’s more fun than the majority of them. The control method is probably responsible, it’s terribly intuitive and it’s easy to be lost in a little ninja based world. The graphics have some nice animations and a couple of ropey ones, but there’s always a trade off between character detail and how much playfield you can squeeze of the GBA’s ickle screen. It’s a balance that I think Konami have got right, although you do have the ability to scroll the viewpoint by holding down the left shoulder button. This is rarely needed and it’s easy to forget it exists, which is probably the cause of a few of those trial and error scenarios I was bitching about earlier now I come to think of it.

I suppose if we’re being picky it can’t be a five star game. While it’s the best platform game I’ve seen in years it’s also blatantly nicking Revenge of Shinobi and crossing it with Bionic Commando and the old Megadrive Spiderman games. That alone wouldn’t stop me doling out the top marks but a few additional niggles with some of the levels almost ensuring that you take at least a few hits on a first play and remember to avoid something or jump as soon as you enter a room take the shine off a little. The lack of more than one tune for the normal levels is plain sloppy, and it features another of my pet hates with games such as these. When you as much as brush against a bad guy you lose a chunk of health. Why? Are they coated in acid? Are you allergic to them? Are they undercover porcupines? Were their suits made of scorpions? Likewise killing a hostage by accident or design results in an inexplicable loss of health. Not the sort of thing a skilled ninja should be doing to be sure, but why does this dishonour result in your own disembowelling?

Slight flaws perhaps, and it’s still a fine game. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give it is that with so many varied and interesting ways of pirating games in this age of lasers and particle accelerators (and internet newsgroups, emulators and flash writers, more to the point) I still ponied up the dough to buy a legit copy. If you’ve got a GBA, I’d recommend you do the same. Easily the best ninja based game on the platform given the balls up THQ made of Revenge Of Shinobi.

Tekken 5 — Playstation 2

Within around four minutes of loading up Tekken 5 on your PS2, at least assuming you skip the traditional impressively rendered and entirely pointless intro sequence’s attempt to graft a semblance of storyline onto a genre that really doesn’t need it, you will meet with the inescapable, title case demanding thought that, “This Is Certainly More Tekken“.

Not that “More Tekken” is necessarily a terrible thing, but I can’t help but wonder exactly who was hanging on tenterhooks for another minorly updated revision of Namco’s long running, bafflingly popular pugilist simulator. ‘Popular’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘best’ and it’d be a brave man who nails their colours to the Tekken mast for the latter. It retains the usual spit ‘n’ polish the series normally has lavished upon it, with the exception of the rough-around-the-edges Tekken Tag Tournament, and carries out the usual incremental upgrade threat of being slightly prettier, slightly shinier and a few more characters slapped into the box.

If I’m going to have the nerve to call this a review, I suppose I’d better at least mention the game mechanics. You select a character and punch, kick and throw an opponent character in a vaguely unsatisfying way while trying to ignore the silly translucent explosions of colour that accompany every hit to mask the fact that it still doesn’t look like characters are making contact even after umpteen years of development. If you hurt your opponent more than they hurt you, you win and go on to the next round. Repeat this often enough and you win.

Surprising, this is not. Also, Yoda, I am not so why write I this like know I not. Anyhoo, why do we play fight-o-games? As much as we’d like to think of it as a pure test of skill and reflex, really it’s all about the staisfying crunching of bone and skelping of the head. Thing is, Tekken 5, in common with all of its predecessors, has an annoying, floaty, indifferent fight engine that never looks, sounds and thus feels like there’s any pain being dealt out which really stymies proper bloodlust. The entire series has never once made me dole out a sympathetic “ouch” on behalf of my poor little pummeled avatar, something even games as geriatric as Last Bronx can achieve.

I am not, I suppose, the best person to tell you about any intricacies and tweaks made to the game engine. I’ve long considered Tekken to be Virtua Fighter‘s clunky, unwieldy, sluggish, tactically naive younger brother and Tekken 5 proves not to make much of a dent in that opinion. Hell, Tekken even struggles to make it into my top 3D fighters, with VF, Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive all being a damn sight faster, fluid and fun. It’s probably better than King Of Fighters: Maximum Impact and Street Fighter EX. Just.

What colours my judgements on this game more than anything else is that after two hours of uneventful, uninspiring play I felt I’d seen quite enough of it. A few more hours confirms this. It’s just More Tekken, and by this point in my life I think I’ve seen Enough Tekken. Unless the inevitable next-next-next generation Tekken 6 does something radically different, I suspect that this will be my Last Tekken.

Max Payne — Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Perhaps the only frustration in owning a Gameboy Advance is the number of ports released for the system. Indeed, it’s something I’ve felt compelled to comment on every time I’m moved to write about Ninty’s little baby. While most of the ports are simply conversions of the similarly powered SNES or Megadrive, jaws dropped and sanities were questioned after a port of PC/PS2/XBOX Max Payne was announced. How could the nifty but far less powerful GBA cope with Remedy’s hi-caliber bullet-time shooty shooty bang bangs?

The answer was to turn the game into an isometric shooter, a forced third person perspective that’s been happily utilised since the ZX Spectrum was a jumpin’ and a jivin’ around with Batman. After falling out of favour for a while it seems to be enjoying a mini revival of late, also used in the recent resoundingly average GBA version of Terminator 3. While the developers Mobius have managed to achieve level layouts that are at time scarily reminiscent of the original PC versions, they’re ultimately hamstrung and defeated by a sheer lack of horsepower.

Unsurprisingly taking the same plotline as the original version, the broad details concern undercover cop Max Payne avenging his murdered wife and child by infiltrating the local Mafia outfit, cracking the case of new designer drug Valkyr with extreme prejudice. Seeing as I’ve already regurgitated the storyline in excruciating detail in my previous review I think I’ll spare those gory details this time through, but rest assured that despite a trimming to fit the cartridge space the story is as noir-riffic and enjoyable as the previous versions.

Dealing with the first thing that’ll strike you on flipping the power switch first, the presentation remains exceptional and frankly astonishing given the space limitations. The glorious graphic novel artwork that made the games’ name remains albeit in slightly less resplendent form, and the overblown gravelly voiceovers are in full effect. Well, as long as you can take ‘full effect’ to mean ‘raspily overcompressed’, but this is still an impressive and largely audible addition to the atmosphere. It’s the presentation of this game’s bigger brother more than anything else that made it one of the most talked about and fondly remembered games of recent times and Mobius deserve great credit in translating as much of this as possible to the handheld version.

The palpable atmosphere ported over allows the player to perhaps be a little more forgiving of the actual gameplay mechanics, which while maintaining a certain amount of fun are flawed enough to prove exceptionally irritating on occasions. On stepping off the train at Roscoe Street station in the games first level, it’s quite likely you’ll be perforated by bullet holes rather quickly. The reason for this is simple, your Mafioso enemies can see you well before you can see them. Being shot at (and more often than not hit) by ne’erdowells that lie somewhere three screen lengths ahead of you and certainly not in your field of vision isn’t exactly an optimal gaming experience.

It’s the best the graphic engine could hope to do, really, as it already struggles when the bodies start piling up. The polygonal mini-Max runs and dives around with commendable fluidity while dispatching lead salads, and somehow Mobius have contrived to have fistful of slowdowns only after the action has subsided so I’m inclined to let it off on this charge, although it does knock some of the polish off the game.

There’s a full range of weaponry to dispatch your enemies from the humble Beretta to the M4 assault rifle, although strangely the Ingram seems to have the best accuracy and firing rate, which is more than a little odd. Max seems to be a little more accurate in this version, auto-aim generally doing a good job of taking down your targets as long as you’re pointing in roughly the right direction that you’ve guessed those targets are in. I can only guess that he’s been doing some heavy lifting recently and Max has strained his arm muscles, because aiming at anything above waist height seems to cause the engine a few problems. Several times you’ll be attacked by bad guys upstairs from you, and several times your bullets will fly harmlessly into concrete resulting in your untimely demise.

It’s an extreme annoyance and perhaps unduly so, because for most of the game there’s a lot of fun to be had diving around shooting wildly. Shootdodging is certainly recommended, as it seems to render you more or less invulnerable. Perhaps it’s easier to forgive it its flaws given the presentation, the style making up for the substance. And certainly there’s not a lot of substance, the already short original being fairly drastically abridged in its newest form. Poor Vlad, dearest amongst all my friends, is almost excised from the story entirely and does nothing more than offer Max a lift. The essential plot progress remains, although how well it’s received by those not familiar with the original is a question I can’t answer.

Judged as a direct port of the original Max Payne fails on several points, but that’s hardly a fair comparison given the vast gulf in power between the formats. As an arcadey shooter it has far more success, although it still fails in several crucial areas. The presentation is solid as a rock, and by far the most accomplished on the GBA. It’s failing is a basic one, you just cannot see who’s shooting at you and this does mean you’ll spend most of your time shootdodging around firing test shots hoping to hit someone. Viewed as such it’s surprising that the game is any fun period, and Mobius really deserve a lot of plaudits for pushing the envelope of what’s possible for the now underpowered handheld. It’s just taking on a task too big for it, but hopes have to be high for the studios next release.

As long as it’s not a chopped down Max Payne 2.

Pinball of the Dead — Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Sega are clearly a rather thrifty company, certainly if their use of the House of the Dead 2 assets are anything to go by, Having saved a boatload of cash by hiring some of the most lackadaisical and unintentionally hilarious voice actors for the game proper, further funds were raised from the arcade, Dreamcast and PC versions, with it even showing up as a bonus in the Xbox House of the Dead 3. All fair game, although using the game as a basis for a touch typing game, The Typing of the Dead was an inspired if abstract move. With this zombie killing pinball game, I think they’ve pushed the name as far as it can go.

Thankfully Sega have graced the Gameboy Advance with a rather decent little pinball game in so doing, three tables full of shambling monsters along with the more common spring loaded flippers and bumpers. Rather reminiscent of ye olde Megadrive pinballer Dragon’s Fury, Pinball of the Dead provides a stiff challenge, multiple subtables, three main tables and many of the sound clips we’ve come to know and cherish so to my perverse pleasure I can also ‘suffer like G did?’.

Along with the usual ball bouncing antics that computerised pinball generally provides, Pinball of the Dead will also see you taking on various pint sized versions of the bosses, although the limited strategy of the lightgun based bigger brother translates to an equally limited ‘keep the ball in play until it dies’. However, seeing as that’s largely the point of every pinball game I’m sure we can let it slide.

As a genre, pinball games are largely limited by the fact that they’re pinball games. Little call for Fancy Dan 3D affairs and photo realism, which means that there’s hardly been a tremendous shift in the genre since they made the leap to computers. While purists will still argue that only a real bricks ‘n’ mortar table will provide a true p-balling experience, Pinball of the Dead is as good a portable solution as I’ve found. Cribbing graphics and sounds from its bigger brothers gives it a sense of continuity despite the disparate genres, an if you can’t stomach the shame of buying Pokemon Pinball this is a rather neat alternative.

Command and Conquer: Renegade — Pc

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Every once in a while, a game comes along that’s revolutionary. Despite being little more than an advance on the Dune series on a superficial level at least, Command and Conquer was one of those games, bringing realtime strategy to millions and engrossing them in the battles between the GDI and NOD forces.

After Westwood’s absorption into the EA collective, expansion of the franchise into other gaming realms seemed inevitable and the concept of a first person shooter set in this now firmly established gaming world didn’t seem like a bad one. Panned and ignored on its initial release, the game is proving to be one of the more successful budget titles of recent times. Rightfully so, as while it’s not without a number of significant flaws there are enough points of interest to make it worth a fiver of even the casual FPS fans cash.

Set sometime in the seemingly eternal wars between terrorists and the coalition of the willing, you step into the combat boots of the GDI’s most dangerous commando, codenamed Renegade. As good an excuse as any for some one man vs everyone else killing. There’s the usual forgettable linking device of a plot, something about a kidnapped scientist and tiberium research and mutants. Mutants with guns. Needless to say, they must be stopped.

In doing so, you’ll have to traverse the game’s unique selling point – some of the biggest maps seen to this day in a first person shooter accompanied by a near unheard of phenomenon – load times that are to all intents and purposes negligible. Anyone who’s had the unfortunate experience of trekking through the especially awful Postal 2 and its quarter hour waits round every corner will appreciate this concept. Perhaps the downside of this is the occasional long slog through mostly empty terrain, but this is still a novel experience and that’s not something to be taken lightly in this day and age.

Critics would point to the mildly sparse texturing and occasionally basic geometry of the buildings entered as huge flaws, which I always thought a tad churlish. In truth, it’s not that bad and as far as I can see it’s not far off state of the art, at least on its 2000 release.

More disappointing is the A.I. routines used by Westwood’s codemonkeys, as in truth they’ve little in common with intelligence. Sniper rifles provide the usual fun ‘n’ games, but it’s a shade disappointing to surgically down one guard from a handy vantage point to have his mate standing nary five feet away, looking directly at the bloody scene to steadfastly bat neither eyelid. While it’s not alone in the substandard A.I. routines by any stretch of the imagination, when something as geriatric as the N64’s Goldeneye can get it right ninety percent of the time it’s sad to see later games get it wrong ninety percent of the time.

Renegade is graphically and sonically decent without ever hitting the realms of spectacular, which I suppose has to count against it in the final analysis. In this day and age it’s easy to become blazé about the quality of games, as we’re absolutely spoilt rotten. Like most people who’ve seen the bulk of the computer gaming revolution unfold under our very thumbs it’s only on the rarest of occasions that we take stock of how far thing have progressed since Pong.

Given that this is a FPS where you can run along vast outside landscapes, enter buildings, clear them room by room, blow the smegger up and hijack a tank for your escape, shelling guard towers from a safe distance, remaining unimpressed seems almost churlish. It’s a testament to how many excellent games there are out there that even something as technically impressive as Renegade is regarded as merely ‘alright’.

It must be said that I’m a bit of a sucker for FPS games. I’m also a complete sucker for the Command and Conquer games, so an FPS set in the C & C universe, single handedly achieving what ordinarily took a small army to do was always going to be in danger of floating my boat. While it’s far from perfect, there’s more than enough goodness present for most casual FPS player to pick this up on the budget labels and not be disappointed at all with the investment.

Max Payne — Pc, Playstation 2, Xbox

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Since the engine’s inclusion in a Matrix-aping section of the 3DMark benchmark, gamers everywhere were drooling for a game to be based on it. It took approximately forever, but when it arrived few were disappointed. You may think the bullet-time feature little more than a gimmick but it’s effective and enjoyable with a solid plot to link the action. Beautifully presented, Max Payne is an absorbing bullet fest from beginning to it’s unfortunately all too soon end.

About four years in the making, this third person shooter is notable in that it delivers one of the most cinematic gaming experiences yet seen. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 2, merely taking the approach of having a thumb-twiddling gamer sit through cut-scene after cut-scene, Max Payne feels like you’re in the middle of a cross between Se7en and Hard Boiled. Level transitions and important in-game plot points are relayed in the form of a mock-graphic novel, with grandiosely overblown prose and a suitably gravely voice over provided by Mr. Payne himself (voiced by James McCaffrey with story and screenplay writer Sam Lake providing the body). The developers go for a pulp fiction dime novel feel to the story and it’s certainly absorbing and atmospheric, which makes it possible to invest far more emotion in the character than some nameless action figure normally seen in this type of game.

Presentation is meaningless unless the game is any good, but thankfully Max Payne delivers more than enough bang for your buck. The third person perspective is generally seen in platform games, which may or may not have shooting elements bolted on a la Tomb Raider. It’s comparatively rare to see it in what is at heart an out and out kill fest, and there’s a solid argument to be made that this might have worked better as a first person shooter. Of course, were that the case it would both feel less cinematic, the third person camera giving it a look a little more reminiscent of a movie, and also would render the real point of the bullet-time feature null and void – showing off.

Despite it’s solid game play mechanics, this game is about looking cool. It’s about drawing dual Berettas from your scuffed leather jacket, diving in flo mo round a corner and shooting a bunch of goons through the eye. It’s about taking some henchman out with a shotgun and watching him slowly be blown away as the camera pans round his jerking body. It’s about shooting a Molotov cocktail out of a gangsters hand just before he’s about to lob it and watching him burn. It’s about being attacked by a goon standing on a flight of stairs beneath you and shootdodging over him, shooting him in the front, top and back of his head as you gracefully glide over him doling out the cranial perforations. It’s about being in a movie. A very blood-soaked, violent movie.

As so often happens in videogames, Max in on a quest for revenge. A prologue has you arriving home one night to your beautiful wife and bouncing baby to find them slaughtered by a bunch of junkies all hopped up on the new designer drug, Valkyr. Wanting to get the bastards behind this drug, Max transfers to the DEA, now reporting to his best friend, Alex. He goes undercover into the mafia under the tender mercy of Jack Lupino, until a call from Alex brings him to Rosco Street subway station for a rendezvous. The place is crawling with mobsters and as Max rightly ascertains Death hung in the air. He reaches Alex just in time to see him killed.

Framed for his murder after being placed at the scene of the bank heist the mobsters were undertaking, Max goes on a one man mission to discover who’s trying to dispose of him, working his way up the henchman chain of command killing them as he goes. He’s on the run from the police, staying one step ahead of Deputy Chief Jim Bravura. The media starts talking him up as some kind of heroic vigilante, much to his distaste. As he say in typically cheese laden fashion, “I hadn’t asked for any of this. Trouble came to me in big dark swarms. The good and the just were like gold dust in this city. I had no illusions. I was not one of them. I was no hero.”

The first chapter of the story is a work of art. Missions, such as they are, flow gracefully from one to the next with few if any sudden jumps in location. The plot is revealed slowly as Max find leads and hounds them down with dogged inevitability. Dealing with the smaller fish make uncovers minor details about Lupino that make the lead up to the episode’s final showdown with the Satan-obsessed mob boss inside his gothic nightclub all the more creepy. It’s usual to actually be shooting anyone with a defined personality in a video game, as they tend to fall back on Hellspawn or some such nonsense.

It’s a great shame that the other two chapters can’t quite match this narrative continuity. Presumably with publishers snapping to get this game out, finally, time that might have been devoted to the plotting and structure was diverted elsewhere. It hits all the plot points necessary, but they don’t have the flow of the first chapter, they don’t mesh in quite the same fashion. A lot more location jumping and less detail in some areas of the story leave much of the rationale for the third chapter seeming tacked on, as though hints were meant to be more integrated in the first chapter but never added. It’s worthwhile pointing out that it’s only (marginally) failing by it’s own high standards.

The gameplay mechanics remain as sound throughout the course of the game however, so we can probably forgive this. The mechanics are much the same on any version, with the usual forward/back, strafe right/left controls with direction and aiming dealt with via mouse / analogue stick. Ducking is only of much use for steadying yourself when sniping, and don’t expect to get a tremendous amount of use from Max’s jumping skills – this isn’t Super Mario Brothers, we have guns for dispatching enemies.

A tap on the jump button along with a strafe key results in a useful rolling dodge, but it’s liable to be passed over in favour of his bullet-time shootdodge. This has a clear advantage in that you can happily blast away while avoiding whatever flavour of lead is being dispensed your way. And it looks damn nifty diving away from an exploding grenade. throughout the game you’ll pick up a number of nifty weapons, from the Berettas, Desert Eagles and pump action shotguns of the early sections to the high powered sniper rifles and Colt Commando machine guns gained from your Russian ally of sorts Boris Dime. Oh, and never forget the dual Ingrams. Tasty.

Tap the bullet-time button while standing and you’ll enter bullet-time until either cancelled or your time meter runs out. Time is earned back by killing enemies in the method of your choosing. Basically, your enemies and their bullets slow down, as does your actual motion but crucially you can spin your viewpoint and hence aim and shoot those nasty goons no matter how outnumbered you are. Gimmick? Of course, but it’s an effective one. It’s impact may have been diminished somewhat by the multitude of other games bolting similar systems on but Max Payne still has the best integrated and useful system, even including the recently released Enter The Matrix, in a strange circle of inspiration / rip-offs.

It’s a simplification to say that you run through a linear level shooting goons until you reach the next level, but that makes it no less true. There’s no branching storylines, no puzzles to speak of, even few of the fps mainstay ‘find a red keycard’ variety. This game pretty much bypasses your higher level brain functions, relying on reaction times and reflexes more than analytical logic. It’s no less engaging because of it though, and that’s the point. Max Payne is fun, pure and simple. From the ballistics to the overblown dialogue it’s a great, utterly enjoyable bullet fest.

The graphics still hold up to scrutiny today. More recent shooters may have move detailed models and slightly more fluid motion, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the explosions and detail in the game. The locations are a tad barren but that’s only to be expected given the nature of the places Max finds himself in, so we’ll let that slide. The sounds are suitable meaty with deep, rumbly bass explosions and satisfying gunfire effects. for a videogame the score is suitable haunting and cinematic which is still rarely seen in video games.

The only problems the game has are the somehow less detailed and less well integrated plots for chapter two, pitting Max against the mafia again, but a higher authority, and chapter three with Max uncovering dirty government secrets and black operations relating to his wife and child’s death and the Valkyr drug. These chapters are over too quickly as well, and for any competent gamer won’t present much of a challenge to fly through in the default and only difficulty setting available. Once completed, it unlocks two more modes, Hard Boiled which is exactly the same but with more resilient guards, and New York Minute, which is exactly the same but with a tight time limit that’s only extended by killing goons. I’d have appreciated the opportunity to try the Hard Boiled mode from the off to extend the games longevity but there’s little to encourage you to immediately play the game through again. New York Minute is interesting but bloody difficult.

A very few of the levels are a shade annoying. The last level of chapter one and the prologues for chapter two and three rely at points on walking over narrow beams and paths. While the control system works perfectly for frantic gunplay it’s less effective for tight manoeuvring, resulting in a few frustrating falls from grace. This is largely dependant on the version you’re playing as well, the PC version suffering a little less than the console ports. This alone is enough to take the gloss off the experience, and the exceptionally irritating level in Jack Lupino’s restaurant that’s being torched as a trap is a masterpiece of scripted event annoyance and random death, with no real hints given as to which way to go. This leads to multiple reloads after trying a path, burning to death, trying another way, getting a bit further, burning to death, lather, rinse, repeat. Frustrating in the extreme.

Versions exist for the PC, Playstation 2 and the Xbox. The original PC version is the best and the standard the all others must be judged by, but they do a good job matching up to it. The keyboard/mouse combo is unquestionably the best way to control it but the analogue nature of today’s joypads mean it’s possible to retain much of the accuracy in movement and aiming. There’s a very slight jerkiness on some of the PS2 levels but it’s never intrusive, and some of the textures have succumbed to it’s memory limitations and it’s a little less detailed as a result. Again, nothing major. The only real difference is that a few of the additional ‘dead end’ corridors that Max can explore in the PC version that generally only house a few more bad guys to off are mysteriously blocked off in the console versions due to memory limitations, presumably.

The PS2 version is therefore a very good conversion given the machines age. The Xbox port shares all of the PS2’s minor flaws, but it’s a little harder to forgive it. After all, the Xbox is arguably more powerful than the PC’s many played Max Payne on on its release, so there’s certainly no excuse for fobbing off Xbox users with a (even very slightly) cut down port when they could have had the full-fat Max Payne experience.

Niggles aside, Max Payne remains one of the most memorable and enjoyable games you’ll complete, and it’s just a shame that there isn’t more of it. Still, given it’s age and the impending release of Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne (strangely subtitled a ‘noir love story’, presumably with added bullets) you’ll be able to pick this up for somewhere in the region of twenty quid at the absolute most, and around a tenner if you shop around.

As an aside, here’s a few more of my favourite Payneisms…

“The sun went down with practiced bravado. Twilight crawled across the sky, laden with foreboding.”

“He was trying to buy more sand for his hour glass. I wasn’t selling any.”

“I was so far past the point of no return, I couldn’t even remember what it looked like as I passed it.”

“Valkyr had been meant to be a white-winged maiden that would lift you to a warrior’s heaven. But it turned out to be a one-way demon ride to hell. The devil was in the drug. I knew. I had met him.”

“Collecting evidence had gotten old a few hundred bullets back.”

and the attention grabbing opener…

“They were all dead. The final bullet was an exclamation point on everything that had lead up to this moment. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over.”