Assassin’s Creed

I’ve played this game far too many times in recent years. Mostly because it is one of two games that reignited the flame for this past time. It was the PSN hack of 2011 that brought this to my attention. Everyone got a free months membership to the premium PS Plus service. At the time there was a selection of games available for a 1 hours free trial, this game among them. The rest is history.

The game itself is far, far, from perfect but it gets the core ideas out their and sets the foundations for what has become one of games best and most important open world franchises.

Originally developed as an entry in the then popular and well established Prince of Persia franchise, the story uses advances in DNA technology to unlock ancestral memories allowing the player to replay events of the past. This game is set during the time of King Richard’s Crusades and sets of a continuing feud between Assassin’s and Templar’s over control of the Holy Lands.

You play as part of the Assassin’s clan, hence the game title, and after an initial disgrace are given nine targets in three middle east cities to dispatch. It is played in the third person and relies heavily on the parkour mechanics originated in the previous Prince of Persia games. The focus is very similar to the earlier PlayStation 1 classic Tenchu: Stealth Assassin’s with the player blending in to the environment and aiming for a more stealthy style of gameplay.

This is were the first criticism comes in. Despite the words of the creed being rammed down the players throat the game actually doesn’t want you to play with any kind of stealth and actively goes out of its way to force combat. This becomes more and more noticeable during later stages as city guards are happy to pounce on you for merely breathing the same virtual air as them.

The real set pieces are the nine assassinations but you as a player a funnelled through a set piece sequence and not given as much freedom or imagination in completing your task as future games will offer. Again mostly these set pieces involve a somewhat less than stealthy conclusion.

Outside the main assassination sequences you have three fair sized (almost) fully open-world free roam medieval cities to explore. The cities themselves do very little to distinguish themselves from one another though and the whole experience does feel very same-y. During these moments you are supposed to be gaining clues from the natives as the location and motives of your target. This is a really great idea but unfortunately it comes of very cut n paste here. You have nine missions that ultimately all play out in the very same way. Alas once you’ve done a couple of missions you have seen everything the game as to offer.

Despite its short coming it is still a fun game and one I can still happily replay mostly because the setting and core ideas are there.

4/5

Call To Power II

The Civilization games have been a personal favourite since their inception on the Amiga back at the start of the 90’s. They pretty much invented the modern 4X strategy format that puts a heavy emphasis on exploration. You control a fledgling civilization born at the dawn of time and over a few hundred turns must guide them to world domination some 4-5,000 years in the future.

At some point between Civilization II and the release of Civilization III in 2002 the rights to the franchise some how split in a very James Bond “Never Say Never Again” way and Activision published two of the best games in the franchises history. The first Call To Power came in 1999 and was quickly followed by Call To Power II that legally had to drop the Civilization moniker.

Call To Power brings a few improvements over the then aging Civilization II and it would have been really nice to have seen this rival franchise develop further in competition with the primary Feraxis brand.

The two biggest features that really improve the overall moment to moment gameplay are the ability to combine multiple military units in to armies and the option to assign build queues to cities. You can even create custom queues that can be assigned to each city as required. Mayors are also an option in automating the assignment of the build queue and prioritising civic works but although I set Mayors for each city I did find myself resorting to micro-managing unit building, especially in times of war.

Call To Power II is not the perfect Civ game but it did make giant leaps in the right direction that I’m not sure Civ III, when it finally arrived, fully expanded upon. There are things missing that latter Civ games got right. Religion is one the things Civ IV brought to the field that really opened the dynamics of the basic 4X gameplay. Likewise connected empire bonuses and culture/religion flipping boarder cities. Add these features with hexagonal unit spaces to CTPII and I think there is the makings of the perfect Civilization experience.

4/5

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

This is a 5/5 game, it’s clearly a 5/5 game, it’s always been a 5/5 game. But, cut to the punch, I can’t in all honesty award it more than 4/5.

Abe’s Oddysee is one of the quintessential PlatyStation 1 games. It was one of the very first games acquired for the system way back in ‘the day’. I’ve played this many times over the years. Always one of the first games to be installed in any emulation. And this is the reason for its demotion into the 4/5 realms. At the end of Paramania there’s a level were you need to out run a nest of Paramites. At the start there’s some alternate platforms to wander and preview the layout of the obstacle course, but even with modern emulation cheats the course is impossible, I just can’t do it!

For those not in the know Abe is somewhat traditional 2D puzzle platformer. In style it feels very much the spiritual successor to the Amiga classic Flashback: Quest For Identity. You play loveable alien Abe who is a worker in a meat factory. It appears fellow members of his species are the latest product for canning. You guide Abe through a series of platform puzzles designed to take him on an adventure to free his species and bring down the evil mega corp.

At a time of the industry moving to and experimenting with 3D, a 2D platformer was a relatively brave thing to attempt. It pays off because Abe really does stand out visually among the pantheon of PS1 titles. The sprites, colours and animations the new generation of consoles could handle over the previous SNES and MegaDrive’s are really put to good use. There’s a very fluid feel to the animation that is extremely reminiscent of Flashbacks rotoscoping technique.

All in all a PS1 must play that only misses out on top marks thanks to an insane level of difficulty later on that even snapshotting in modern emulators cannot overcome.

4/5

Lemmings

There are few games that represent the 16-bit era as well as Lemmings. It did make a few ports over to the more popular, older, 8-bit machines, and on to games consoles of the time, but It never really translated well to keyboards, gamepads and joysticks. This is a game built for a mouse at a time when the mouse was new.

At its heart it is a fairly straight forward puzzle game. A number of rodents will appear through an entrance on one side of the screen and you need to guide them to safety through the exit on the other side of the screen. Simple enough. However these are Lemmings and any hazards between entrance and exists won’t be avoided. These critters will happily march to their death.

To avoid this you, the player, have the power to upgrade any Lemming in to a super-Lemming with a special ability. It’s the use of these special abilities that allow you to guide the little fellows away from danger and herd them to the exit. Lemmings are upgraded by selecting the required power from the menu at the bottom of the screen and then clicking on the Lemming needed to perform this task.

Improvements include climbing obsticles, parachuting (with an umbrella), bashing through rocks, digging out the ground and just stopping other Lemmings from going were they are not wanted.

There are around 100 levels in the original game at various difficulty from really easy dig a whole to highly frustrating falling to their death immediately out of the entrance, and everything in between. All levels are really well designed and the puzzles leave the player with that all important ‘one more try’ feeling as you spend most of your time learning from your failures.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this games was made for the mouse. It’s hard to think of another game that really thought about its design language and gameplay loop so well and married perfectly to a new input method. Much like Solitaire being given away by Microsoft with every copy of Windows 95.

5/5

Atic Atac

Back in the late 1980’s I only had a ZX Spectrum for a year. Even then it was only the 16K model and I only remember two main games from the time. All my ZX Spectrum experience either comes from ports for the Amstrad CPC or games I’ve found in the years since using emulation.

Atic Atac is one of the later. As far as I know this was a Speccy exclusive and never found its way to the Amstrad micros. Shame as this is easily the Stamper brothers finest moment. In the early 80’s the Stampers, through their company Ultimate Play The Game, dominated the ZX Spectrum gaming market thanks to a production quality their competitors struggled to rival.

Atic Atac offers a psuedo-3D top-down view of the action. The heart of the game is a very standard for the time maze affair. Though it is a pretty big maze set in the environs of a fairly large mansion. The maze is traversed in a typical for the era flip screen approach walking through doors to flip the action to the next room.

The object of the game is to open the main door in the lobby where you actually begin the game. You do this my finding the three parts of the main door key that spell out ACG (Ashby Computer Graphics – another company name used by the Stampers). This is made harder by random monsters appearing to drain your energy which can be fended off by pressing the fire button.

As you travel around some doorways will be blocked and can only be passed if you are holding the appropriate colour key. Adding to your difficulties is the fact you can only carry three objects at a time. So there’s an element of going back and forth, finding what you’re looking for, dropping main key parts in the opening lobby, while fending on energy sucking nasties.

Your energy also depletes while you move, but thankfully there’s plenty of food to pick up as you travel around, and three lives if you need then (hint: you will).

The only real negative I found in playing this game was the controls. Remember this game was made for a computer with rubber keys, that most would not have added a joystick to, by a company that had just recently released the brilliant Jetpac with very userfriendly keyboard perfect controls. In this game they choose to line up the movement and fire in one line – Q,W,E,R,T. Not even the horrid Speccy standard of cursor control on the number keys. Trying to get used to moving up and down in that layout is a right mindbender. Literally a game breaker. If we review the game from here, as we probably should, it falls from grace down to a 2/5 experience.

However, I can’t do that. Plug in a Kempston compatible joystick (not really that uncommon for the time) and this game easily becomes one of, if not the, best gaming experience on the Spectrum. Later Ultimate games have better looking 3D (like Knightlore) but honestly randomness hinders those games where they enhance this one.

5/5

Gunfighter

This is easily one of my favourite games from the earliest main era of video gaming. The late-70s arcade period supported by very basic home consoles like the Videopac, VCS, and Channel F but before games like Space Invaders, Pacman and Donkey Kong lifted the Atari machine above its rivals.

The game is very simple, as they all where, and very Pong-esque. You play one of two wild west gunfighters and must simply be quicker on the draw than your rival. Known as Boot Hill in the arcades, you must guide your cowboy around the screen and quickly press the fire button when you think you’ve lines up the perfect shot on your opponent. First to 10 wins.

One nice feature of the Videopac version is the choice of opponents. The default is a straight two play match against a friend, one on each joystick. However without a friend you can use either joystick to play and the Videopac will detect the other joystick is not being used automatically and take over control of the rival gunslinger, giving you a single player computer controlled opponent.

More interestingly, start the game without touching either joystick and the Videopac will play against itself!

5/5

Alien: Isolation

There seems to be some unwritten law that when I review a First Person game I have to mention how much I generally dislike the view point and how rare it is for me to play such a title. I then go on to explain how this game is an exception to the rule and a welcome surprise.

Alien: Isolation is one of those games. And a very welcome surprise it was too. The draw is obviously the Alien franchise and the love of the first two Sigourney Weaver movies. I’m pleased to say Creative Assembly, the makers of this masterpiece, have treated this source material with nothing but the upmost respect.

The game is set upon a space station that has come in to possession of the flight recorder for Ripley’s ill-fated ship from the first movie. You play Riply’s daughter, Amanda, in search of answers to what happened to mum. You arrive on the space station only to discover a world in disarray and the possibility that more than the flight recorder has survived the Nostromo.

In moment to moment gameplay it is very, very reminiscent of Dead Space just with an Alien franchise skin applied and a switch in perspective. This of course is no bad thing.

The primary gameloop is built around stealth and crafting. Getting in to any kind of fight and/or running out of essential supplies is often very, very deadly. Each level gives you a series of puzzles to complete while you desperately avoid just about every other inhabitant of Sevastapol Station.

5/5

Lego Star Wars II: A New Hope

Traveller’s Tales Star Wars Lego games are a compilation of smaller mini games, much like the Die Hard Trilogy on the PlayStation 1. Each mini game focusing on the events of its respective film. The first Lego Star Wars collection, on the original XBox and PlayStation 2, focused on the newer prequel trilogy of films. This sequel is based around George Lucus’s classic trilogy from the late 70’s and early 80’s.

There’s something very endearing about Travelers Tales Lego games. Over the years I’ve seen it in their Batman Series, Star War Series, City Undercover, and Marvel Superheroes. In every case they manage to pull off the seeming impossible by remaining true to the source material, true to the foundations of Lego as a brand, and had a spice of knowing humour with references to keep Dad happy while also keeping Junior amused.

This section perfectly recreates the plot of the 1977 original movie over 6 entertaining chapters. Gameplay is very much a modern wide-linear third person action adventure variety with you guiding various lead characters through key sequences lifted directly from the movie. For those of use knowing some of the dialog almost word for word it’s particularly fun seeing the Lego miniatures act out many of our favourite scenes. Nothings is lost in translation and in some ways successfully builds upon the original source.

While one or two puzzles left me head scratching for a moment or three, for the most part the difficulty is kept relatively low so even your average 5 or 6 year old could pick up a controller and not get overly frustrated over progressing through the action. That said these games are very much designed for co-operative multiplayer. Plug in two controllers and suddenly the game really opens up. A real father-son bonding experience.

Even so, if you’re in your mid-40s and going in for some solo gameplay there is still plenty of value to gain from the experience offered here.

4/5

RISK II

Believe it or not I’d never heard of the board game RISK until I was in my early 20’s. My sister’s boyfriend of the time introduced it to us and I very quickly become addicted to it. In some ways it is a highly simplified version of Warhammer which I was vaguely aware of at the time (and still have never tried playing).

The board game offers up a simplified map of the globe for up to 6 players to battle it out. Each player controls an army and is given a mission card with an objective to complete to win the game. Examples include “Capture Africa and North America” or “Eliminate The Green Player”.

RISK II is Deep Red Games second recreation of this board game for home computers. The first game came out in 1996 with this version arriving four years later in March 2000. Out of the box it offers a very faithful and highly playable recreation of the original board game. The first noticeable bonus of computerisation comes from a worthy roster of A.I. players. Since gathering six humans for a good game has always been a challenge it’s really nice to be able to enjoy a single player match against good computer opponents or mixing some AI unpredictability for a smaller number of human opponents.

But RISK II doesn’t stop there. They actually attempted, and succeeded, to improve upon the original. As well as the classic board game there is now a “Same Time” version of the game that allows players to issue their orders simultaneously (for networked and/or AI players). This is designed to get rid of the slow pace nature of turn base gameplay and reduce the wait between play.

The other addition allows for some optional rule changes including adding some additional countries/connections to reduce the isolation of Australia and South America in particular. There’s also options for auto allocating territories at start and playing capture the capital or domination games instead of using the traditional mission cards. There are also options to alter how the reinforcements are allocated.

All in all Deep Red did a fantastic job of expanding the basic board game and providing a good amount of variety and longevity. And this is all topped by the piece de resistance – Tournament Mode. For single players there’s a 16 level ladder to complete that pits you against ever increasing difficulty in AI opponents. Each level offers a different challenge and regular mix up of the various rules and options available.

5/5

Pandemonium!

The mid-90’s was an interesting time for the video gaming industry, and a particularly difficult time for games creators. Technology had reached the point to allow the shift away from 2D animations that had been the foundation of all video games since their inception just 20-years earlier, to a more realistic 3D art style. The problem is nobody really knew what this meant and how to create game in three dimensions. The software developers where discovering and designing the rule book for the games we’d be playing for the next 20-years.

Platform games in particular struggled with this transition. By the end of the 80’s they had become probably the primary and most popular genre of video games. Mostly due to the phenomenal success of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, which all but wrote the rule book for this particular genre.

There’d be several attempts at making this transition from the first person Jumpin’ Flash!, to the fully 3D Crash Bandicoot and a number of, what we call today, 2.5D (halfway between 2D and 3D) including both Abe’s Oddysee and Pandemonium! before Nintendo once again wrote the rule book for 3D platformers with Mario 3D and then the world slowly come to the realisation that 2D is best for this genre and 2.5D is the compromise.

Pandemonium’s take on 2.5D Platforming is to fully build everything is lifelike 3D but restrict the player movement to standard 2D left-right and fixing the camera to the side of the player. This exposes the biggest issue with 2.5D games and that’s camera positioning. Abe’s Oddysee solves this but going for a single screen flip-book affair similar to 2D platformers prior to Super Mario.

Pandemonium attempts to completely recreate the side scrolling Super Mario experience in 3D and camera positioning is vital for this to work. The main issue, which Pandemonium does succumb to, is the player not seeing enough of what is to come to give them suitable time to react. Instead relying on the old, old, Platforming trope of player repetition to learn that “when I turn this corner there’d be an enemy/jump/gap/etc”.

There’s also the issue of how the camera follows the player and moves around the course. Pandemonium went for something a little rigid to the course flows through the camera rather than the camera flowing around the course. This creates instances were pushing right on the controller moves your player away or left as the character follows the flow of the course. Controller Right in this instance being used to “move forward” rather than “move in direction”.

Thankfully Pandemonium manages to transcend the issues it faces from its embryonic move into the 3D play space. The core game is a fairly competent if somewhat average run’n’jump sidescroll platformer in the vain of Castle Of Illusion, Rayman, or Cool Spot. However its saving grace is an art style reminiscent of those older 2D games that fully suits the limitations of the 3D hardware of the time. In a word its about presentation.

Pandemonium nails presentation and gameplay. Because of this it’s very easy to forgive the restrictions imposed by the camera positioning.

4/5

Star Trek

The best way to describe this highly rated (both at the time and today) Amiga game by German Star Trek aficionado Tobias Richter is “Elite with a Star Trek skin”. This is a freeware public domain game released for the Amiga around mid-late 1989. The programmer, TJ Richter, was already highly regarded for making Star Trek related demos and animations when this game was released. He has since gone on to become a well regarded CGI artist and has done much work in the Trek universe.

The game itself is a pure openworld (universe) sandbox affair. You are placed in the role of Captain James T Kirk aboard the original NCC-1701 USS Enterprise. As you fly around the galaxy Starfleet HQ will check in and present you with missions to complete. Very elite like. Go here, pick up that, delivery it there. Along the way you’ll pretty randomly bump into other starships, enemies (both Klingon and Romulan), and other hazards like meteor storms and magnetic clouds.

The game is played via a GUI representation of the original enterprise bridge with you in the captains chair. You lease with AI in the various tradition bridge crew roles to manage your ship and complete your missions. Get the missions from the Comms officer, Tell the Navigator to fly to location, Instruct the Helmsmen in removing impeding obsticles, etc.

Given its source material, when it was released, its freeware nature, and sandbox experience it is a really good quality, polished experience that comes highly recommended to any Amiga and/or Star Trek fans. And certainly this was the view of popular publications of the time.

However the lens of history is a little more critical. Alas missions from Starfleet HQ come thick and fast with little breath taken to engage in one task before another three are queued up. Random encounters happen a little too often. Most annoying being fellow UFP starships just there for a fly by that is cool once but distracting for the fifth time en route to location 1. Likewise helms controls can be a bit finicky needing you to click on three different screen locations to fire off one shot to an encroaching asteroid of Romulan cruiser.

Still for small blasts the subject matter, sandbox, and presentational polish all shine through enough to make this a recommended Amiga experience.

4/5

Manic Miner

This game was released in 1983. A time before game saves. You had lives. Run out of them and it’s game over – back to the very beginning to try again. How anyone ever completed all 20 levels of this game prior to the emergence of emulators on more modern hardware in the mid-90’s I’d never know. Maybe a cheat device like Romantic Robot’s Multiface to hack in infinite lives? Without that I’m sure it’s impossible, at least not without going completely insane. You see having three lives and dying on level 8 meant working flawlessly through the previous 7 levels //again// before having your next shot and working out how to beat that difficult level you’ve just encountered. Even with modern emulators allowing me to save state and instant reload at the start of the current level I bowed out at level 8 (Miner Willy Meets The Kong Beast).

You might reflect on all that and consider this all a bad thing and feel negatively about the game, and yet somehow its not. Maybe because this was fairly unique for its time. It’s loosely based on the Atari 2600 game Miner 2049er and similar early platforming experience like Donkey Kong (the head nod being giving by the aforementioned level 8). Maybe it was the number of levels, having gone from just 4 in Donkey Kong to 10 in Miner 2049er to 20 in Manic Miner. Or maybe it’s just the addictive fairness offered by the ‘just one more go’ mentality of Matthew Smith’s fiendish level designs. The game is difficult, but it’s fun.

Each level plays out the same way, jump between platforms and collect the flashing keys to open the door and exit while avoiding just about everything else on the screen which will kill you and remove a life. With only 3 lives on offer for the whole game and plenty of pixel perfect timing to be had there’s a lot of practice needed to get even close to the half way point.

Really this game gets its much deserved reputation for a combination of era timing and presentation. A couple of years later and the graphics would be considered dated and the difficulty too hard and this game would be in the garbage pile of history. Thankfully this game along at just the right moment in time. Along with Jetpac and Attic Attac, Manic Miner makes up a trilogy of top class, unique, arcade games brought to the ZX Spectrum for the Christmas of 1983 and ushered in a new era in video gaming far removed from the basic offerings of previous systems like the Atari 2600 of VIC-20.

5/5

Race

One of three games included on the pack-in cartridge given away with every Videopac console purchased. This game simulates, or tries to, the excitement of some fast paced Formula One action.

You take you red car, at the bottom of the screen, and tear along the track at blistering speeds for two minutes. Your objective simply to avoid collisions and successfully overtake all computer drivers for two long minutes.

The issue with Race is really down to its pure simplicity. You’re simply dodging left and right for two minutes and on Level 1 you get to know exactly how long those two minutes really are since the pattern of the oncoming cars is incredibly easy to manage and the fastest speed it fairly pedestrian.

On Level 2 there is a bit more of a challenge since you can travel a bit faster and so the timing of the pattern becomes ever so slightly harder to navigate. Scoring is simply a case of amount of time you’ve not collided with another car. That said scoring does increase faster at high speeds so for the best scores a flawless run at Level 2 is needed at breakneck speed.

It’s a fun enough game given the era and the fact there are two other games on the cartridge as well. But even so it is all just a little too basic and lacks any real long term appeal.

3/5

Practice

This is the forth variation of the classic Pong game offered by the General Instruments widely used Pong-On-A-Chip. While the chip itself officially supports 6 games (technically 7, 2 being light gun games), most Pong clones based of these chips, indeed most Pong clones, only offered these standard four game – Tennis, Soccer, Squash, and Practice.

Practice is essentially a single player version of Squash, and the only single player game on these systems. It’s function is, exactly as it says on the tin, to allow the player to practice their volleys ready for two player challenges in one of the other three games. As in Squash the ball bounces off a now solid left hand wall and your goal is simply to return the volley 15 consecutive time.

You score for every volley you return and your score is reset when you miss a volley. Miss a total of 15 volleys and it’s game over.

As expected Practice is a mostly unexciting game but it does happily offer enough to get your eye in when friends are not abundant for a real match.

3/5

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

After the one set in ancient Egypt (Origins) I’d kind of reached the end of my passion for UbiSoft’s premier openworld series. While I enjoyed the game the direction had moved far from it’s peeks with Brotherhood and Syndicate. The developers had chosen a move away from the stealth mission assassination gameplay and focused more in to the sprawling openworld RPG arena not a million miles away from games like The Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Much like Watchdogs: Legion it was easily the setting that drew me back. But also much like Wachdogs, as a life long resident of the areas depicted, the setting was also a bit of let down. There’s a certain amount that can be forgiven taking into account known geographical changes since the time the game is set, such as the Norfolk Broads being built in the 1800’s and drastically reshaping the landscape. But then you get things like no real feel for being in the Peak District and the Pennines. And Essex felt much hillier than I recall from living there and Maldon finding its way closer to modern day Southend.

Still there were plenty of nice touches that made it very easy to overlook and forgive and topological anomalies found. Things like jump off a synchronisation point in Essex and bumping into a local Braintree based band with a pretty funny reference to one of their more well known songs. Or seeing some possible ancient beginnings to a certain festival just south of Stonehenge.

Valhalla is a huge, huge game. Easily the longest game I’ve played to date. Most modern ‘AAA’ games tend to take me around a month to play. Just over two months later and I get to what appears to be the end of the main story missions. It all happens in such a damp squib way that if there is more then I was just happy to leave here because the game had long outstayed its welcome.

Not that the main gameplay isn’t fun. The game is very similar to Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ghost Of Tsushima in it’s moment to moment action but Ubisoft really have mastered the art of giving these games a deep breadth of activity and making encounters seem fresh and different which Tsushima in particular struggled with.

Ultimately though it’s the focus on RPG progression and the endless side objectives that brings the game to its knees. Most of the time to properly progress your characters skill level needs to be within the vicinity of the recommended level for the area or task you are heading in to. This puts a big focus on constantly levelling up and that means busy work. By the end of the game my characters level was around 260 and the game was asking for a level of 340.

Thankfully the story missions rarely needed close matches so completing that part of the game was easy but I certainly never completed all the members of The Order or got close to “The Father”. But I suppose that just gives me somewhere to start up from again when I next come round to playing this one.

3/5

#Watch_Dogs

This is the very first game in Ubisoft’s Watchdogs franchise. The games are a Grand Theft Auto style fully open world spin off from their hit Assassins Creed series set in an alternative modern world where a major new big tech, Blume, has sold it’s revolutionary ctOS city control system to big cities around the globe.

Over the years I’ve played all three Watchdogs games and this was my third complete playthrough of the very first game. And I must say despite unjust bad press at the time, they got it right first time. On release Ubisoft where promising a fully interactive open world environment in which you could quickly hack various aspects of the city and the phones of passing NPC’s with your in game mobile phone.

Many expected too much from the pre-release hype and on release the game was rubbished for not offering that fully hackable experience promised. Gamers and reviewers alike where quick to complain. Having played all three games though my opinion today very much matches that on release. They nailed it. This game is far more enjoyable and lives up to the city hacker promise far better than either of the sequels did.

The first game follows the exploits of hacker Aiden Pierce and his quest for vengeance following the death of his niece following a botched hit attempt on his life after a failed robbery. The game starts in the lobby of the Merlot Hotel with Aiden hacking the cameras with his trusty hacker phone and attempting to steal some cash. This sets up the cutscene with his niece’s death and the start of the quest for revenge.

Watchdogs plays much like GTA V and Sleeping Dogs with you travelling, usually driving, around a representation of a modern US city (Chigaco) getting to the next waypoint that starts the next story mission which is the same general mix of camera hacking and cover shooting. As with any good open world games you have the ubiquous tower location to unlock map detail and plenty of optional side missions to extend game time and distract you from the task in hand.

Chigaco is a fantastic city to explore. I’ve never been there but there’s something about the high tower blocks, transit system, surrounding suburbs, and road network that just lends itself to this type of open world experience. Much like the multitude of games centred around New York. It’s certainly a far better location than San Francisco in the next game.

As you progress through the game just about everything is hackable. Every passer by has a unique bio and it’s fairly simple to steal money from their bank accounts, which you can withdraw from conveniently placed ATM’s. You can switch traffic lights, raise bridges, and explode under road steampipes. One of the best aspects is the L-Train. Chigaco’s overhead light rail system. You can catch a train and ride the L. You could use it for fast travel, you can control the trains themselves, or you can just hop on board and enjoy the ride.

This is also the only Watchdogs game with a truly engaging story. Many complained of Aiden’s character being bland or miserable. And there was the long standing disconnect in all open world games between the story narrative and player agency which results in running over civilians and firing grenade rockets at police going against the overall hacker good guy story narrative. But it’s in trying to fix these things in later games that led to the series loosing its soul and ultimately highlights how good the first game really was.

There’s a lot in the way hacking and profiling works in this game that got lost in the two sequels. The push to use non lethal weapons and over promote the toy boys – either drone or spiders. And all the locations felt different. Unlike the third game which lost its London feel to a lot of cloned cut’n’paste environments.

I’d love to see a future game set in New York, centred around a good story driven central character, and a return of many of the core game mechanics that made experiencing this hacker world so enjoyable for the first time.

5/5

Crackdown

Catching up on games I foolishly missed when I first upgraded to the 360, my first impression of Crackdown is to compare it with Sony’s Infamous on the PlayStation 3. I think this is the earlier release but almost certainly they were both secretly in development around the same time unbeknownst to one another.

Like Infamous this is a slightly cartoonish take on the GTA III open world formula using a similar cell shaded 3D art design, flamboint over the top action and a superhero flavour to the action. Where Infamous focuses on the superhero with super powers and the player becoming either good or evil with their new found talents, Crackdown put you firmly in the role of the police cleaning up the city. However you are no ordinary police officer. You are a specially designed cloned officer with enhanced abilities, especially leaping tall buildings in a single bound, that grow as you progress.

The major difference is Infamous sticks closer to the GTA format where Crackdown veers back towards the run’n’gun action of the likes of Metal Slug. Indeed while it is certainly a full open world game, the actual design of the world feels more like an arena in a first person shooter like Quake. Pretty much the entire game is running and shooting while leaping from platforms and dodging rocket fire.

Rocket fire itself really is the big annoyance in this game. You get hit and the rag doll physics over exaggerates and sends you bouncing around the map. Half you health gone almost always the NPC would have reloaded in this time and have sent the second shot of to completely dispatch you before you’ve recovered and was ready to fire back.

Ultimately the game itself is very shallow and missing any real plot to properly tie the whole thing together.

3/5

Railroad Tycoon II

I love this game! It’s that open-ended sandbox experience offered up by the likes of SimCity and Civilization. It’s a chance to let out your inner Pete Waterman. Not all of us as the time, money and space to layout a Hornby set in our homes. Railroad Tycoon lets you live this fantasy electronically. The core fun comes from that same laying out of your own tracks and watching passenger carrying locos steam along them.

Like many of these style of games there is the option to delve in to the sandbox as deep as you want. At it’s heart it is really a business management sim like Rockstar Ate My Hamster or Theme Hospital but it’s a testament to the game design that you can delve in and out of this aspect much or little as you want. For me I was just interested in enough money to lay more track to transport more passengers. The deeper scenarios of hauling specific products between destinations and keeping an eye on competitors and stock market positions being more than I can handle.

The game does have one or two minor annoyances but again tis a testament that none of these, either individually or combined, are enough to take dull the core gameplay loop of laying track and watching trains travel between cities.

The initial menu UI is a little confused. The difference between Scenario and Campaign not being overly clear at first. Scenario being more the sandbox experience and Campaign the more mission target level design. That said true Sandbox is an extra tick box away as each of the Scenario’s, maps, have their own start date and game ending requirements.

There’s also a pretty mean challenge jump. After the first couple of Campaigns the game pushes you you juggle more factors with each level. Likewise moving up from Easy in Scenario mode quickly pushes the aggression of any computer controlled players and asks you to manage the cargo runs more closely. For me this is a game that just cries out for the player to experiment around the wide breadth of wordwide maps in Easy Scenario mode.

5/5

Crash Bandicoot

Like many this was the first time I heard the words “Naughty Dog” and it’s very interesting looking at the developer and their evolution through to The Last Of Part II. You can really see the evolution in their games from Crash, through Jak and Uncharted, to Last of Us. While there are early ND games, this is the one that pretty much kicked started the company and sold them as a by-word for quality on the PlayStation platform.

Crash is one of a few games from the 95-7 period that was experimenting and trying to find an answer to the big question of the day – how to make a Super Mario like platform game, the most popular genre of the previous 5-8years, in 3D. And to be fair, with a couple of very minor issues, ND nail it first try.

The more cartoon-like art style makes for a more pleasing, high quality look and feel, 3D than the more realistic but blocky 3D of games such as Tomb Raider. The game plays in the third person and handles just like any previous 2D platformer using an over the shoulder camera. The game runs linearly and pretty much entirely “on rails”, other than jump and move forward there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for player movement, which is kind of what you want from a platform game.

You need to run through the levels breaking boxes and collecting apples. 99 apples equals one extra life, so there’s some good incentive to try and get all the apples you can find. A few nasties like skunks and man (Bandicoot) eating plants will try to impeed your progress but you have a nice spin attack that timed well will dispatch them.

The game has some problems with timing jumps which can be tricky turning in mid air and getting pixel perfect landing in a 3D environment (these things can be hard enough and frustrating in 2D platformers). Also running into the screen where you can’t see what is coming next (the boulders level) wasn’t really that good an idea.

The other more major annoyance is how the game handles save points. You need to collect three girlfriend tokens to enter a bonus stage. You then need to successfully complete the bonus stage to be able to save to memory card. And the save point itself then is at the very start of the current level, not the point in the game you reached when you entered the bonus stage. This makes it very hard to manage progress and makes for a very unfair hit when things go wrong. Why not just setup regular games saves at the beginning of each level?

4/5

Puzznic

Funny how things go round. Of late I seem to be playing games dear old Dad used to enjoy. Videogaming was never really his thing. Mum was always more happy to get involved and show some interest. So games like Jetpac, Cruising On Broadway, and much later Puzznic, do hold a very special place and fond memories.

This one came about because I upgraded my bedroom micro to a state of the art AGA powered Amiga 1200 (a second hand Commodore model at a time new Escom models were entering the stores). I needed to do something with my previous micro and the A600 had the perfect form factor to sit under the family TV and play the part of a game console much like the Mega Drive’s and SNES’s that were becoming popular at that time.

Alongside Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker, Puzznic proved an instant family hit in this environment where anyone could easily switch it on, insert a disk, and get playing. Puzznic itself is a traditional block style puzzle game made for the arcades by Taito and ported to just about every home micro and console of the time by Ocean. It follows the general style/principle of game like Tetris, Columns, Sokoban, and Plotting.

Your task is simply to match the tiles. Putting two tiles of the same pattern next to each other make them disappear. All you need to do is make all the tiles on the screen disappear. Simple? For the first couple of levels it really is. Move yellow diamond on top of yellow diamond, then red circle next to red circle, and grey cones. And then the game offers up odd numbered tiles and the difficulty quickly ramps up. How do you get three, or more, tiles together when the first two disappear when they touch leaving you with an odd one?

As you get used to odd numbered tiles the game throws moving platforms at you to make it harder to get tiles of the same design in the same neck of the woods. And all of this happens under a minute/minute-half time limit with a claxon sounding and the music increasing it’s beat when you hit the 30 second mark to ramp up the pressure to complete the screen in time.

It’s a perfect puzzle game. Everything is very simple and yet, on higher levels, the obvious solutions may feel just slightly out of reach. And here in lays the games only real problem. It was made for the arcades so there is an coin eating hangover with the two retries and a limited number of continues (where you’d pay more to play on an arcade machine). Run out of continues and it’s back to Level 1 to battle through what you’ve already solved to have another attempt at the next screen that is keeping you awake a nights.

There is no saving your progress or password entry system to jump to your current progress point. You just have to start from the beginning and redo all the old puzzles before you can continue. And the game is a lot like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, in that you only need to complete 10 levels but after an easy 2-3 level false start the puzzles (questions) suddenly get much harder. I’ve made it as far as Level 6 using a few Continues.

Thankfully the level structure is set up as an expanding pyramid almost to combat this obvious criticism. After Level 1, which is always the same, each level has branching direction for you to take to Level 10. Each time you play you can take a different path and see different puzzle screens. This helps keep the game fresh and adds to the long term replay value. There are about 120 puzzle screens in total between all the branching paths for you to solve.

4/5

Jetpac

This game has a very special place in my heart. It’s probably not the very first video game I ever played, there are a couple of other good contenders for that (Galaxian, Breakout, Cruising On Broadway) but it is definitely up there. Like Cruising this was one of the very few games my Dad actually took an active interest in. It was among the three or four cassettes with a 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum given to us by our next door neighbour when I was 9.

It was also the game that showed the most longevity and was the highest quality in visual appeal and gameplay. Other games, like Throu’ The Wall (Breakout) and Cruising On Broadway were very simple line drawn and blocky graphics reminiscent of an unknown previous era. Jetpac was a fall on arcade quality game (though I’d never seen or heard of what an arcade might be back then).

The reason for Jetpac’s high production values comes from the writers Tim and Chris Stamper. The brothers wrote the games and run the company behind the then popular Ultimate Play The Game label which later went on to produce very high quality games under the RARE label for several Nintendo consoles. Jetpac’s arcade values wasn’t by chance, Tim and Chris actually got their start porting arcade games from NTSC to PAL. Converting games from the likes of Konami and Sega gave them the grounding needed for a certain production quality that they brought to all of their ZX Spectrum games.

During a time many commercial games where being written in BASIC, Jetpac was an early poster child for pure Machine Code programming. The detail of the sprites, the use of the Spectrums colour palate and attribute system, and the speed of fluidity of the animations showed a game that could have happily succeeded next to the likes of Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the arcades.

You play the eponymous Jetman character and must guide him around a simple single screen with three platforms. Your task is to build your spaceship and refuel it before taking off from the planet. While doing this you’ll be under constant attack from the locals that you’ll need to fend of the locals with your lazer fire.

The size of this game compared to anything else at the time is breath taking. There are 16 whole distinct levels before the game wrap rounds and starts again. Every fourth level (1,5,9,13) have a new spaceship design for you to build. And there are 8 different alien designs that repeat (1-8,9-16), so you need to make it back round to level 17 before you see the same spaceship and alien combination.

How they got all of this in just 16K of RAM is mind boggling. And it’s a great game to boot. At no time does the gameplay suffer for high quality of the graphics and animation. If there’s a complaint it’ that there really is only one level design, but since you have four different ship designs and each of the 8 aliens have their own unique attack patterns it really doesn’t matter. Each level has it’s own unique feel regardless.

The Stampers captured that important – just one more go – magic of the early arcades. The need to see what’s next and set the new high score.

5/5

Cosmic Conflict

If you can get over the high pitched whine that is supposed to pass for lazer fire then you can relieve your inner Luke Skywalker fantasies and dispatch passing emperial Tie-Fighters from the comfort of your Millennium Falcon cockpit. Cosmic Conflict is a basic 3D first person shooter. You have our crosshairs in the centre of the screen, Enemy ships will appear from almost any direction and you simply line up and press fire.

You have 1000 shield points that are counting down continuously and loose 50 points every time and enemy ship crashes into to you. All you need to do is dispatch 15 enemies before you loose all your shields.

It’s a fun enough game but, common complaint for Videopac games, without any real scoring there’s little real point in the action. Ultimately Space Monster is a little more interesting for blasting aliens.

3/5

Squash

The third version of Pong for systems based around the General Instruments chip. Pretty much the same as the previous two, white on black, two bats and a ball. Analogue controllers move each players bat up and down. The difference with this variant being both bats are on the same, right hand, side of the screen.

The ball comes in from the right, from behind the bats, and bounces off a now solid wall on the left. Each player takes it in turn to return the volley and bounce the ball off the left side wall. If a player fails to return their shot then their opponent scores a point. As with all Pong games first to score 15 wins.

It’s not quiet as confusing as Soccer in keeping track of whose controlling which bats, but the two bats are close enough together that it’s not as simple as the basic Tennis game. There’s not really a whole lot that can be done with Pong and the two main variants aren’t really doing their job of giving variety in gameplay.

Just play Tennis, it’s a classic for a reason.

3/5

Resogun

Save all the humans! For the first two or three years, while the gaming community awaited Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, there was a running joke of this being the best game on the PlayStation 4 platform. While not really true the tongue in cheek humour does betray how good this reimagining of the 80’s classic Defender arcade really is.

I first come across Defender in the mid-90’s although I didn’t realise exactly what it was at the time. Public Domain libraries were a really big thing on the Amiga and it was common to send off a few Pounds in Postal Orders and get some high quality software through the post. There was a series of games disks called The Assassin’s collection and it was on one of those I got one of my favourite games – Oblivion, a spot on Defender clone.

Resogun was a launch title for the PS4, alongside Assassin’s Creed IV, so it was an important and much played title when the console first came out.

Housemarque did quite a bit more than merely remake a beloved arcade classic. They totally modernised and updated the experience for the modern era. If seaside arcades where still destination locations for the latest gaming experiences then this is exactly the type of game you’d want to play there. It’s a very pure arcade experience.

The game is a twin-stick shooter with your left-analogue stick controlling the player ship flying around a circular/donut hub planet, and the right-analogue stick controlling the direction of fire. If you’ve played any big 80’s shooter like R-Type, Scramble, Gradius or Xenon 2, then you’ll know what to expect with waves of enemy aliens spawning and flying around the screen in tight attack patterns while you dodge their hellfire of bullet storm and pick them off.

While all this is going on you need to protect the humans from being picked of. Those that are released from their boxes need picking up and carrying to safety before the enemies can abduct them and carry them off screen. Much like the original Defender. It’s this combination of classic Defender saving the humans and their take on how that games play area also rotated around, mixed with a modern update of the twin stick firing system and a more traditional SHEMUP waves of alien attack that comes together to produce a modern day classic.

The game also really shows off the power of this new generation of games machine. There’s a lot happening on screen, the (3D model) sprite count seems insane. And as the bullets hit the particle physics is just plane bonkers. You’d expect lesser machines to slow to a pedestrian crawl with all this happening at once, the PS4 merrily continues on at a leisurely 60fps.

And the new speaker built in to the Dual Shock 4 controller is amazing. It really pulls you into the action hearing constant action updates being given in this way. It’s a real shame more games never utilised the speaker to enhance the overall atmosphere. Even on the more modern Series X the speaker is something noticeably missing from the XBox platform that really should have become an industry standard by now.

5/5

Gears Of War

Oh dear! This game stands in start contrast to the last. Hidden And Dangerous was (or at least looked) a really good game that was very badly executed. Gears is the exact opposite, a really bad game design executed to the highest standards. I mean I seriously can’t fault the quality of the workmanship here. I just wish the developers spent all that labour time on something with a bit more depth.

Unfortunately what we have here is a game where you walk away feeling like you’ve played yet another generic first person shooter aimed a very certain audience. And if you are that 12 year old boy who likes the testosterone leaden design ques then you probably come away happy. For everyone else it’s probably not what you’re after when you think of playing a third person cover shooter.

The moment to moment gameplay is just far too simplified and bland. Run, hide, shoot, run, hide, shoot. There’s nothing about the enemies or the locations that break up the pace or offer any meaning variety in experience. It’s really just a fairly generic run’n’gun that isn’t a million miles away from Metal Slug or Virtual Cop. And that would be all fine and dandy if the art direction and story pulled what little is on offer together.

The location design is stunning. The world you are running through, while littered with cover locations that would feel at home in an Operation Wold remake, feels like a decaying old world empire that you can almost feel at home in. This is then overlaid with a character design and dialog that is cringeworthy. It’s all overly macho and the product of steroid abuse. These square jawed meat head Schwarzenegger types descend far to quickly into parody for a game that feels like it wants to be serious.

And it’s this unfortunate combination of stagnant gameplay mechanics with locker room jock characters that just kill all the developers hard work stone dead.

2/5