Mass Effect

Mass Effect feels like strange game. It seems to spend most of its time slightly missing the mark. A lot of the game feels very similar to the New Washington level of the excellent 90’s 2D platformer Flashback with lots of running backward and forwards stacking objectives to complete a mission. At the same time the overarching RPG mechanics and storyline give a very Chrono Trigger like feel to the proceedings.

Add to that a universe traversal system not too dissimilar to something like Elite that opens up a galaxy and a number of worlds to explore. This is certainly the right way to present a mutli-world space opera and one wonders why more space games haven’t exploited this method of focusing interworld travel on the galaxy map.

So far, so good, and yet something still doesn’t sit right. And the reasons are all niggly little things that add up and detract from something that should be seen as space RPG excellence.

It starts with player models and animations feeling more original XBox than 360, which isn’t too surprising given how early in the 360 generation this game was released. This is swiftly joined by some very questionable voice acting of a script written by a collective of pre-teen Dr Who fans. It’s all somehow vapid, shallow, and predictable. So much so that it quickly made Eastenders feel like Shakespeare and I soon descended in playing missions for playing missions sake rather than wanting to progress the underlying narrative.

Which brings us to combat. Maybe I’m spoiled by modern games but this felt like an early FPS struggling to use a gamepad instead of a mouse. During fighting there didn’t seem like much agency with the character model drawn to the screen. It really may as well had not been there. And as common with many early FPS aiming and shooting lacked accuracy, descending quickly into “fire in rough direction of enemy and hope enough rounds connect”.

This culminates in the final boss battle that even on the easiest difficulty setting manages to stay the wrong side of frustrating as the enemy zips around the screen and your scatter gun pot shots barely connect with your opponents health bar.

3/5

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

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

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

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

Hitman: Blood Money

The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. This was to be an XBox 360 version review but alas I’ve been defeated by modernity! A modern TV and an ‘E’ version of the console do not make a good combination for one of the very few early 360 titles that struggle to auto-switch into PAL60 mode over HDMI. It’s an annoyance rather than an issue. Easily fixable with the right cable (not to hand) but anyway the game is on the Series X backwards compatibility list so there’s a better long term solution. Anyway I actually completed the game last on the PlayStation 2 around a year a go so I feel safe going off that playthrough and a YouTube 360 walkthrough as a memory refresher.

I actually first played this game back around 2012/3 time when I first got back into videogaming as a hobby. The Hitman Trilogy on the original XBox were part of a key group of games I was playing and discovering retroactively on that system. It’s one of the games that showed me what I had been missing out on a decade earlier. All three games are among the best gaming experiences on offer and Blood Money, the third game, is the absolute pinnacle of that era.

While there is a story being played out through intermission cutscenes, something about the CIA trying to hunt down 47, but honestly I’ve always found the back story best ignored in these games. Just give me a target list and let me loose!

And this is were, frankly, all the Hitman games excel. You are given a pretty wide openworld sandbox to explore and reek whatever mayhem takes your fancy. You play follicly challenged Agent 47, an assassin for higher. Played in the third person you are given one or more targets and objectives to complete and are left to get on with it.

Here is were the real genius of the series comes in. There’s no right or wrong way to play, no correct answer. Every level, every kill, every target, has multiple options for you to discover in completing the mission. The fun of the game is in the trial and error. Watch timings of this NPC, try that disguise, experiment with a kill style. Doesn’t go the way you plan? reload a previous save point and try again, alter your tactics slightly. And once you’ve completed any level go back, replay, and try a different assassination method.

You can go in guns blazing and clear out every level pretty quickly using a machine gun and rapid fire – but were is the fun in that? The first game wasn’t called Stealth Assassin for nothing. A lot of the game is about waiting, hiding, sneaking, getting the right disguise, getting in to position, creating an accident, administering some poison, garrotting, or pushing over a ledge.

Every level is Blood Money is well designed, huge in scale, and almost always very rememberable years after playing. Flock of Birds with the unique carnival costumes and impressive NPC density, the maze of Curtains Down, rolling down the Mississippi on a steam liner.

Finally, based of some YouTube footage and a year old memory from the PS2 version, I’d say the 360 does have a noticeable graphical uplift over the two previous generation consoles. Much as you’d expect. It is the exact same game in every detail, you’re not really gaining anything material, but the resolution is noticeably sharper, the environments seem a little more detailed and the lighting is improved.

5/5