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

Hidden And Dangerous

This has to be one of the most frustrating gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s a core game here that is really, really good and interesting and you want to play and experience. And yet what you have to work with is a nigh on unplayable mess.

The idea is simple, guide your four man SAS team in a mixture or strategy and stealth 3rd person gameplay to complete each given mission. The general style is of that of a classic 3rd person cover shooter but you also get some RTS and 1st person shooter elements thrown in. And here in lays the first issue. The game doesn’t know what it wants to be.

The RTS ideas are the most interesting, and remind me of an old 8-bit (CPC/Spectrum) game called Laser Squad. However it’s very much half baked and it doesn’t take long to realise that when not under your direct control the player characters AI are incredibly dense. Happy to commit suicide, ignore enemies, and do anything other than work as a team. In a three vs one fire fight your three men will die.

Which brings us to the enemy AI which is just plan brutal. Draw distance is of the era crap anyway, but the enemy NPC’s can be less than a pixel high in the distance and be happy to see your guys laying flat and single shot kill them with very high precision accuracy. A game quickly looses it’s charm when your troops can’t shoot for toffee with a high powered machine gun but the enemy can dispatch you at 200m with a single shot from a handgun.

The first mission was to merely cross a guarded bridge. That was it. Kill some guards and cross a bridge. I did it first try on medium difficulty with two of my four man team surviving. However the second level looked a little more complex involving rescuing prisoners and blowing up a depot. Let’s start again on easy, think I, give myself a fighting chance…

Just couldn’t complete level one on easy. Couldn’t cross the bridge without my men diving in to the river, diving under a train, or throwing themselves at enemy bullets without bothering to return fire. Three hours of move, save, move, die, load, move, die, load, move, save, die, load, move, save, etc. And I’ve two surviving men at the end of the bridge. One man dies, god knows how, the other throws himself under a passing train.

2/5

Watchdogs: Legion

A flawed game full of interesting ideas and missed opportunities. Legions is the third game in Ubisoft’s modern day Assassin’s Creed spin-off franchise – Watchdogs. The first game was set in Chicago, the second in San Francisco, and this entry leaves the US for the first time and arrives in post-Brexit London. The games centre around an hacker/activist group called Ded-Sec and a capitalist shadowery tech company called Blume modelled after the likes of Facebook, Google and Capita.

The first game was sold on the ability to use your (virtual) mobile phone to hack everybody and everything. Raise barriers, disable cars, steal money from passers buy, etc. The story centred around a masked vigilanty, Aidan Pierce, going after those responsible for the death of his niece. I found the game lived up to it’s promise and was very enjoyable, but most critics thought Pierce’s character was a little flat and criticised the disconnect between Pierces character in the story and many of the antics a player would engage with in any GTA-like openworld.

Game two tried to answer the criticisms by going for a more youthful protagonist and shunning the guns. Introducing a snooker-ball laidened sock as the main weapon of choice and drones. For me this game fell flat as it seemed to quickly devolve into driving a lifeless city between two mission locations and then doing the exact same drone actions before driving off to the next. Of particular annoyance was the loss of being able to CCTV camera surf your way to a solution. You’d get so far and reach a dead end as the game required the drone to proceed.

For the third game the big gimmick is being able to build your own Mission Impossible-like Ded Sec team from absolutely any NPC you encounter within the game. And, once recruited, they all become playable characters that you can easily switch between at will. It works surprisingly well but unfortunately is the root of pretty much all the games ills.

The lack of central character to bring the story together around (other than the disembodied AI voice of Bagley) is the first hole you’d notice after you’ve picked up two or three new Ded Sec operatives. And this then extends to each and every character being very cut and paste generic. It really, for the most part, doesn’t matter which character you use. The ability differences are fairly minor and if you really need something you can get it as any character. Everyone’s an A-grade hacker.

This then brings us to recruitment and the first thing you’d notice is the casual racism and stereotypes. Black characters must have a Caribbean accent, Asians are bad impressionists idea of Indian, and then there’s the army of Polish and Irish accents for white characters. I know London is multicultural and multi-ethnical but this games procedure based character generation system somehow completely misses the mark on this and descends into something rather embarrassing.

And, just like the second game, all the recruitment missions where very cut and paste. I’m sure I did the exact same missions three of four times while building my team. And again camera surfing was only good for a quick look around. Everything set up specifically for the spiderbot, or getting in up close to push buttons. Indeed this criticism did follow for the wider game. Many a time I found myself at a carbon copy location, exact same are layout, with another mix of stealth takedowns and spiderbot to hack some central computer.

London itself is very superficial. All the major buildings are there in roughly the right locations and essentially correct major street plan. But the surrounding buildings and side street filler is all rather generic and doesn’t really feel of the London I know. It’s as if they wanted to invoke the essence of London without capturing the spirit. Like the last game it quickly descended into fast travel between carbon copy mission objectives. One issue even more noticeable than previously, highlighted by NPC actions, contributes to this feeling and that’s the lack of buildings you can randomly enter. NPC’s come out of buildings but unless its required and one of the very few carbon copy environments it’s incredibly rare to see the insides. No shops, tube stations, etc.

A lot of this can be put down to the fact this is very much a last generation, PS4 era game, and given how much they are trying to achieve the limits of those systems do ultimately come in to play. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of the that era when Assassin’s Creed Black Flag felt like you were getting a new experience over what the previous PS3 version could offer. There’s just nothing on offer here that doesn’t feel possible on the PS4Pro, and indeed games like Red Dead Redemption 2 have done better.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a fun enough game to play. It is worthy of the experience, if only once. It just lacks any real soul.

3/5

Die Hard Trilogy (Part One)

I actually still have a copy of a contract signed with my younger brother back in April 1997 whereby we agreed to fund the purchase of a brand spanking new Sony PlayStation along with five whole new 3D games. Tomb Raider was, obviously, the entire reason for the enterprise. But what of the other four titles? Well, yes, Die Hard Trilogy was there on the list!

As per the title Die Hard is a compilation, a trilogy, of games based around the three hit Bruce Willis Christmas movies. When the disc first loads you select which of the three games you want to play. This review is for the first, best, and most played of the Die Hards (much like the movies really).

Anyone unfamiliar with the films should disconnect from the Internet right now and go watch the first two (only the first two mind, they jumped the shark after that) before coming back. But, if you insist, you play NYPD cop John McClann (Bruce) on hols visiting estranged wife working in LAPD (way out of your jurisdiction). You roll up in front of her workplace in a limo hoping to rekindle the marriage. Unbeknown to you German thief (not terrorist) Hans Grubber (Alan Rickman) has other ideas with the company high rise.

Loosely based on the plot of the film you start exiting the limo in the garage (car park) beneath the building and have to shoot you way passed waves of mobsters, rescuing the odd hostage on the way, to get to the top of Nakatomi Plaza and rescue your darling wife. Each level of the game comprises of a single level of the skyscraper you need to clear of goons before rushing to a lift to disarm a bomb before the time goes off.

The game is a open area (non linear) third person 3D environment. The camera follows John from a fixed position behind and up in the ceiling somewhere. Being confined to a traditional D-pad movement is the traditional tank system but given the nature of the game and the positioning of the camera actually does work surprisingly well here. Character positioning is still often a pain but since you’re mostly running forward the tank controls don’t become cumbersome in the same it does in contemporary titles like Resident Evil.

In play it’s just your standard run and gun affair like Turrican or Gryzor just transposed into a 3D environment. The demands of 3D processing makes everything less detailed than contemporary 2D equivalents but the speed and fluidity of the 3D movement, and just having an open 3D space to explore, more than makes up for what’s lost in definition.

Where the game starts to full down is that it is a pure traditional arcade game. Arcades are designed to get you pumping coins in to the machine. Die Hard follows all the same design mechanics which leads to plenty of frustration on a home system. Shooting is a little difficult to line up with no crosshair and relying on positioning Johns body correctly using the tank controls. Getting through a level requires finding the power ups dotted around to replenish health. But worse is to come. With no game saves die at any point and it’s instant death. No lives, no second chances, no restart current level. And this includes not getting to the right lift with the bomb within the prerequisite 30 seconds at the end of each level.

Die and it’s back to the very beginning to do it all again from Level 1. Thankfully modern emulators allow us to bypass this flaw. The only way I was seeing Level 3 was hitting the emulator snapshot button on completing Level 1 so I didn’t have to constantly redo that level every time I failed Level 2.

3/5

Battle Chess

Thirty years later it’s probably save to admit that when I finally got my hands on an Amiga the first thing I did was hop on a train and visit some old Amiga owning friends with a handful of blank disks and a copy of D-Copy. Battle Chess was one of the big must get, must play titles of the time.

I’ve played chess badly since our class teacher introduced us to the game during the penultimate year of primary school. We also played chess a lot during lunch breaks, in the library, at secondary school. All this youthful practice never made a player of me. Always struggled to see even one move ahead.

Still despite always being on the loosing end, even at the lowest difficulty settings, Battle Chess makes this ancient game thoroughly enjoyable thanks to some canny use of character animations. Every move sees your piece come alive, get up, and walk to the chosen square.

Better still when a piece is taken, time for some one on one combat. A short set piece animation shows the two combatants duelling it out. Each combination (pawn vs pawn, bishop vs knight, queen vs castle, etc) has it’s own unique animation depending on the two combatants and who is set to win. Most with a very good comedic value. Castle vs Knight is a particularly nice one with the poor knight receiving a nasty bang on the head.

4/5

Cruising On Broadway

Back in 1986 my next-door neighbour introduced 9-year old me to the world of computers, offering up a 16K ZX Spectrum to monopolise the family television with. There was only a handful of games, being the 16K model most Speccy games were too big to play. Cruising was one of those games.

It was this game and Jetpac that the whole family would obsess over for the next couple of months. Especially Sundays while Dad was cooking dinner. We’d set high scores, he’d pop in while the yorkshires where rising and try to beat us, and on it would go. We’d get up the next morning with the Speccy still preciously turned on, a new high score set with parents having been up all night battling against 5 chasers.

The game itself is very simple and in presentation is nothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the previous Atari and Philips systems. In fact it’s really just a variation of the Pac-Man theme. You have a maze/grid of lines that you must pass over and change their colour from white to green. The maze is complete when all the lines have turned green.

Attempting to stop you are the chasers who move randomly around the mazes. They move much, much faster than you and when you collide it is game over. There are only four mazes with just one chaser on the first playthrough. However each time you successfully complete a set another chaser is added to make matters harder.

4/5

Ten Pin Bowling

One of two games on the sixth cartridge released for the early Videopac games console. It’s a fairly basic implementation of this popular sport. A ball moves from side to side at the bottom of the lane. The player presses fire when they are ready to release the ball and then can move the stick left of right to add spin and alter the shot direction slightly.

It’s all fairly simple stuff even for this era of gaming, barely more advanced than the Tennis/Pong games of the previous era. Still it was on par for what was being released during the first couple of years on contemporary systems such as the Atari 2600 or Fairchild Channel F.

It’s a competent enough version of bowling giving a full ten frames and both one or two player options. A couple of minor gripes around how scoring/play is worked for spares and strikes, and the impossibility of the 7-10 split. But given an 8Kb game cartridge on a late-70’s 8-bit system it’ll be a bit much asking for a full on simulation.

3/5

Soccer

Going into it I was expecting a better, more interesting, challenging experience from Soccer (aka Hockey) over the original Pong. The original was a take on Tennis – two bats and a ball. Soccer is for all intents and purposes the exact same game but each player gets a second bat that moves in time with the first, and the edge of the screen is narrowed into a more soccer like goal aperture.

The original bat now represents your goalkeeper and the new bat is in a forward position representing a striker. In theory it is now harder to score with the narrower goal area and you have chances for some more tactical play with the additional forward bat providing quicker volleys and angles on the ball.

Unfortunately all that really happens is added confusion. It can be hard in the moment to see which bat is yours, whose moving and hitting the ball. Alas it seems maybe a hint of colour for player differentiation might have helped.

3/5

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

The game to buy (I bought) a PS4 for! Often wonder about peoples eye-sights when they talk about “diminishing returns” when talking about video game graphics. Coming from The Last Of Us and Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 3 this was amazing, the cost of a brand new generation games console and a suitable plasma 1080p television to go with being more than worth entry fee for experiencing this Assassin’s Creed in name only in it’s best available rendition.

It’s possibly the least “Assassin’s Creed” of the franchise and widely regarded as the pinnacle entry. You play Edward Kenway, a pirate and accidental assassin roaming the waters of the Caribbean Sea. It’s the full on pirate life of plunder and the whole sailing experience marks the cornerstone the rest of the game is built around. So much could have gone wrong, especially with the combat, but Ubisoft truly aced it here.

Navel combat is a treat. Simple enough to grasp and get the hang of, but complex enough for skill, options and strategy to come to the fore. Circle your quarry trading cannon fire until you have them by the gang plank. Once you’ve hammered them to submission it’s time to swing over and board their vessel taking for your fleet or repairs to your own Jackdaw (name of your pirate ship).

On land this is pretty much regular Assassin’s Creed fare with the standard range of targets, synchronisation towers, loot boxes, and tailing missions. What’s cool is the seamless transitions from ship to shore. For the size of the map and the number of islands to discover it’s a wonder how you are almost never barred by artificial barriers (only used for current mission ringfencing reasons) and won’t see any obvious loading screens or transitions.

Black Flag is a huge open world experience that is just plain fun to play. This is the game where you want to go off story and just bum about with the side stuff, and there’s plenty of it. The variety of island locations really helps keep the necessary cookie cutter nature of the activities fresh. It’s fun to sail between islands, pick off a few ships, and then disembark to liberate another plantation or solve a Mayan puzzle before jumping aboard ship and setting off for the next dot on a map.

I last played this game about a year or so back. On that playthrough I was mostly running fast through the story missions. This left me with a somewhat underpowered ship at the start of the final mission. I quit the game there rather than grind out the necessary upgrades. This time I loaded up that old game save and had a whale of a time grinding through a few fortress take overs, assassination missions and general pirating to gain the money needed to refit the Jackdaw and finally complete the game (again).

On a side not this does show the importance of reliable game save backup’s availability. I’d switched from my old PlayStation 4 (where I was playing the last story run) to a new PlayStation 4 Pro (where I enjoyably grinded to the ending). This, for me, vindicates my choice of XBox Series X over PlayStation 5 for the next generation. While both consoles now force you to use their own cloud servers for backing up game saves, at least on XBox it’s a free service (PS5 requiring a Plus subscription).

5/5

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

Grim Fandango

Back in January 2016 the remastered edition of this game was given away free with that months PlayStation Plus subscription on the PlayStation 4. While I had heard of the game before it was the first time I’d actually seen it and played it. I must say it captivated me right from the outset. Such is Tim Shaffer’s excellent story writing.

This version is the 1998 original for Win9X era PC’s. It’s a classic adventure game that clearly has it’s roots in the early text adventures of the 1970’s and early 1980’s like Colossal Cave and Zork. The evolution away from text input through to fully realised 3D worlds being seen clearly through the likes of Everyone’s A Wally on the ZX Spectrum and Beneath A Steal Sky on the Amiga.

Like many games of this nature it lives and dies on the quality of the puzzles the player needs to resolve to progress the story. Thankfully the majority of the puzzles are, while not obvious, entirely logical in their setup and design. That said I did find the puzzles on just the wrong side of having to get lucky and stumble upon a solution out of frustration. Indeed I actually reverted to playing the game with an IGN Walkthrough open in a web browser to pick up some hints and tips whenever, I far too often, got the feeling of having tried everything. Still I never felt cheated by the solutions. They were always of the – now why didn’t I think of that – nature.

Graphically Fandango is a game of its era. It’s clearly a PlayStation 1 era game. A time when, despite Tomb Raider showing what’s what two years earlier, game designers were still struggling to find how to present games in 3D environments. This game opts for the fixed camera and tank controls of contemporaries such as Resident Evil. This really is the most frustrating aspect when going back to replay over 20 years later.

If it was just for the puzzles and controls this game would have been a mediocre disappointment. What lifts it up and set’s it for many among the best games ever made is the story. Sure if you sat and thought about it for five seconds you can drive a bus through the plot holes but the characters are all spot on. The dialog feels natural. The voice acting is first class. You just can’t help but fall in love with the diverse cast paving your way through the ninth underworld.

4/5

Tomb Raider

Going back 25 years later and there’s a lot not to like about this seminal classic. Being the first of its kind there’s a lot of rough edges that stand out today in a way they didn’t way back then. For this reason we need to take care how we judge games like this. It is an early PlayStation 1 classic and everything that goes with that after all.

Importantly Tomb Raider really was the first of its kind and set the ground work for everything that has come since. 3D games existed way back before the early ZX Spectrum days. Machines like the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC where pioneering this kind of solid 3D rendering in the mid-late 80’s. But it’s very difficult to think of another game that offered this kind of third person action-adventure platforming prior. A couple of contemporaries, Die Hard Trilogy and Fade To Black, come close but it was Tomb Raider that defined the language of 3D third person gameplay that game makers would spend the PlayStation 2 era perfecting.

In Tomb Raider you play Indiana Jones-like adventurer Lara Croft on a mission to locate the missing pieces of the Scion. A quest taking you to fully realised 3D worlds set in caves and tombs around Puru, Greece, Egypt and Atlantis. The majority of the gameplay involves platforming climbing, swimming and leaver pulling to solve a variety of puzzles impeding your progress. This is interspersed with a touch of quick gunfire to ward of dangerous critters and the old rival adventurer.

Looking back from a modern perspective the low screen resolution, minimal texture detail and flat 2D sprites in place of 3D objects do stand out but all were incredibly impressive to gamers at the time coming from, at best, flat shaded 3D models on earlier 16-bit machines.

Likeways the tank controls can be a trial. Being used to modern dual analogue thumb controls with control over camera positioning. Tomb Raider hails from an era where the venerable D-pad was the only option. Still once you get used to the controller layout it is an incredibly responsive and fluid game to play.

One area where Tom Raider really excels over modern games is in it’s level and puzzle design. It’s the Goldilocks design of puzzle platforming. Modern games tend to be a little to hand-holdy. Earlier puzzle platformers could be a little obtuse in their solutions (get jerry can and take to Fred fill with spring water before pouring on magic bean to grow beanstalk to climb!?!). Tomb Raiders puzzles revolve mostly around finding the platform path, pulling the right leavers, and locating fairly obvious keys.

All in all the game still stands up. It’s a little clunky today but once you get used to the controls the revolution gameplay design shines through and remains every bit as enjoyable and challenging as when it first hit the shelves.

5/5

SimCity

Every now and then a game comes along that does things a bit differently. Throws out the rule book and and takes a bit of a risk given the player a new gaming experience. SimCity is one of those games.

SimCity isn’t a game with a definite goal. It does tell you what you should do. There’s no right or wrong way to play. There’d been management sims before and games like Elite but this is the first real sandbox experience. Here’s the tools you need, get on with it.

You are provided with a birds eye view of some undeveloped landscape. As the resident town planning department for the newly formed city council it’s up to you to provide zoning rights for A.I. builders to develop in to a living, breathing metropolis. Where do you want the road network? How is the light rail (think DLR/Trams) connected? Power stations? Sport stadiums? Shopping precincts? Factories? Housing? It’s up to you to lay all this out how you feel.

There are a couple of head nods to traditional video gaming – IF you want to engage with them. Each year there’s a budget where you raise money through taxation to finance your ongoing building projects. You set the tax level and how much you fund the various city running costs. The other gamification is disasters. As your city grows you may have shipwrecks, plane crashes, tornados, etc, that seek to destroy parts of your hard labour and challenge you in to fixing the damage caused.

However both gaming mechanics can (for the most part) be safely ignored if, like me, you prefer concentrating on the basic no restrictions sandbox of city planning. There are a couple of simple cheats that reduces budgeting to an annual tax fiddle. As for disasters, on later versions of the game they can be permanently disabled in the main menu.

SimCity isn’t a perfect game. But it does come close. It is a very strong first outing paving the way for more complex future city building sims. The choices and variety of zoning types are a little limited. Later games will give you things like water supplies, zoning densities, etc. Likewise the annual budgeting (if you do want to engage properly with it) is very limited with just a single income tax and percentage funding for three city departments.

Despite it’s of the time low resolutions and limiting building options, the first SimCity remains a surprisingly fun and engaging game play today loosing none of its original charm.

4/5

Spectrum Cross

Another classic staple of the Arcade scene expertly brought to the home TV screen. Frogger follows in the steps of Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man in providing unique, simple, addictive gameplay. All you need to do is guide the frog across the road and in to one of the free home squares at the top of the screen.

Spectrum Cross is not on only an unofficial port from the Arcade but a magazine type-in listing written in BASIC. Even so the few issue that arise because of this are entirely forgivable because the resulting game is a nigh perfect port. The frog flashes a little too much, the movement is a tad slow, as is user input in the game loop, but nothing to a point were the game is broken.

Graphically the game looks very good when looking at what was being sold commercially just a year or two earlier, even the original official Frogger, on machines like the Atari 2600. The programmer making very good use of the Spectrums bright colour palette and higher screen resolution.

5/5

Space Monster

1980 was a turning point in home video gaming. Proper games consoles like the Atari Video Computer System and the Philips Videopac G7000 had been on the market since the height of the Pong craze back in ’77 but a combination of high price and lack of killer app largely kept them out of the wider public consciousness. This all changed with Space Invaders.

Space Invaders was the breakthrough Arcade hit from 1978. The game sees you defending the Earth from the titular alien invaders in a manor that bears more than a passing resemblance to Atari’s 1975 Arcade smash Breakout (and from their the roots firmly go back to Pong).

With the cost of these gaming systems moving into the affordable £100 category and the release of Space Invaders type games to these systems meant the time had finally arrived for a new entertainment media.

Space Invaders itself, through licencing with Taito, was an Atari property and only (officially) available with their home entertainment system. To get around this rival manufacturers produced their own Space Invader like games for their respective systems. Space Monster was Philips/Magnavoxs answer.

The game is very noticeably Space Invaders but with equally obvious differences that unfortunately, in this case, do detract from the original. Not that Space Monster is in anyway a bad game, it’s just it doesn’t manage to live up to the source material. The issues really stem from two places. The first is the barrier between you and the enemy. This makes lining up and timing shoots more critical and hence leaves you more open to attack.

But it’s the second problem, when combined with the first, that is the games ultimate downfall. There’s no player scoring. Sounds like a simple thing and very common to the majority of the Videopac game library, but in this instance it’s a major obmission. Instead you play best of 10 against the computer. Either it kills you 4 times our you clear the screen. There’s no reward for hitting the alien monster, stopping lasers, having bases or completing a screen. No kudos. No bragging rights. Nothing to challenge your mates to better.

3/5

Tennis

There’s at least one older video game (Space War) and certainly a fair few older computer games (OXO and Nim simulations dating back to the 1950’s) but this, Pong, is widely considered the grandaddy of modern video gaming. The game itself has its roots in an early proto-home console released in 1972 called the Magnavox Odyssey and developed by Ralph Bear during the late 1960’s. The Tennis game on the Odyssey (not quite Pong) was seen by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell who later, as the story goes, described it to Atari engineer Al Alcorn as a learning project. Al’s resulting game, Pong, was considered so good it was released as Atari’s first official arcade cabinet in 1972.

Home versions of Pong have their roots around 1974 in popular electronics magazines giving circuit diagrams for make your own systems to circumvent Atari’s pricy arcade licensing. Following lawsuits between Magnavox and Atari, and the development of silicon chip technologies, the Pong craze exploded between 1975 and 1977 with thousands of companies get in on the act. Most of which were built around General Instruments AY-3-8500 series ‘Pong-on-a-chip’.

That’s the history, but what of the game. Well, it is, was, and remains a classic for a reason. It’s not so much it being the first but how it’s shear simplicity fully and perfectly encapsulates everything it is to be a video game. Every video game since, at it’s core, has been trying to dial into to that inherent gameplay addiction that was perfected here.

The game it self is a very rudimentary visualisation of Tennis. A player bat on either side of the screen and a (square) ball bouncing between them. Your task as a gamer is merely to return the shot and maintain the volley. Miss the ball and your opponent scores a point. First to 15 wins.

Ultimately, one you master the analogue movement of the controls (just up and down), get two good players together who can maintain a some good volleying and the result is still some of the best and most addictive gameplay you’re likely to experience anywhere. It’s just pure fun.

5/5

Ghost Of Tsushima

Tsushima is a game of three halves – the good, the mediocre, and… the not so good. It’s in no way a bad game, but it does struggle for greatness once you scratch below the surface. At its heart it’s a fairly generic open world set in one of the best open world locations. For years Assassin’s Creed fans have been shouting for medieval Japan and now if it ever happened it would face stiff comparison with what we have here, as this does with Ubisoft’s franchise.

The good starts with the graphics. Possibly the best seen on PlayStation 4 and likely the crowning achievement of this generation. A true high to go out on. Like The Last Of Us, Sucker Punch weren’t aiming for photorealism, choosing instead a slight cartoon feel to the art direction that always keeps the right side of the uncanny valley and allows the rest to shine. In this case it is entirely about physics and lighting which never, ever ceases to impress.

Particle physics and wind is what it’s all about. Everything in constant beautiful motion. Grass, hair, leaves, fire embers. The amount of small onscreen items moving independently is jaw dropping. You can spend hours just watching cherry blossom falling from the trees. Especially during some of the magical sun sets. Colour plays a huge part of this game and is often times nothing short of stunning.

All this visual splendour is crowned by lack of onscreen UI. A odd choice that having experienced you wished more games would attempt. The use of the wind to guide you to waypoints not only fits aesthetically with the overall styling of the game, but works. It’s absolutely brilliant in its implementation.

Moving to the passable we come to the combat system. It’s a good combat system that does work surprisingly well. Change stance, block, sweeping attack and jabbing. In some ways it reminds me of what Bushido Blade was trying back on the original PlayStation. The fighting feels more involved and realistic. More focus on defence and parrying. A refreshing change from the Arkham style combat systems that have become popular in recent years.

One thing I did find, early on, was taking the hit and finally accepting “easy mode” greatly improved the gameplay experience. Sure in this mode combat is just that little bit too easy, but it gives the time needed for the combat mechanics to shine and allows the player some breathing space from faffing with the controls.

The story is interesting but nothing special. A generic tale of reclaiming your land following a Mongol invasion. And the gameplay itself is pretty standard stuff. Bordering on the bad you pretty much move from one cut and paste enemy encounter to the next. The open world serving to do little more than add a little travel between each encounter that is only ever a slight variation on the last.

As the first act progressed and the game, slowly, started to reveal itself I started to find the silver coloured (on the game map) side story waypoints to be a little more interesting as, while the encounters remained very cut n’ paste, their stories give the island and game world the depth and colour the main game craves.

Combat is a lot of fun, with different stances to deal with different enemies.

Which brings us to the not so good. I found myself constantly fighting the controls. Button allocation felt wrong. Certain actions have long held button memory. Pressing ‘X’ as the main action button for instance, moved to ‘R2’ here. Instead of getting on my horse I found myself taking swipes at it. Want to go faster? hold down ‘L3’. Even tapping the touchpad for listening mode instead of bring up the main map. Everything always feels counterintuitive. I see it’s all for the combat system but I can’t help thinking the combat could have worked just as well while keeping certain generic functions where the game expects to see them.

Assassin’s Creed wants the player to be stealthy and then goes out of its way to push the player in to head on combat. Tsushima is the exact opposite. Honour, as the game explains at the start, demands facing your enemy head on. The rest of the game then pushes you in to being stealthy. Trying to maintain honour just lead to being quickly outnumbered and overrun as 5 or 6 enemies would pile into me at once. Dodge, attack, defend becoming incredibly difficult very quickly. Especially when arrow rain down while a couple of spears are prodding in your direction.

Putting the game in its easy difficulty mode and focusing on side story missions completely turned the play experience around. Suddenly we have a living, breathing, world ripe for exploration. It also allowed better time to understand gameplay mechanics that perhaps weren’t fully embedded early on. A future replay on medium difficulty shouldn’t be so challenging with a clear idea on where and when to focus your efforts.

4/5

The Last of Us, Part II

Videogames have long struggled with the trade-off between story and gameplay. It’s a dynamic that arcs back to the very birth of the medium. Jumpman rescuing Pauline from Donkey Kong (or Dizzy, Daisy, and Wizard Zaks if you will). Over the last couple of generations great strides have been made at pulling these two strands together. Highlights like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and the first Last of Us particularly showcasing the art of storytelling within a videogame framework.

Part 2 wants to tell a story. It’s very much the story that needs telling following the climax of the first game. Unfortunately this leads to similar issues faced by Red Dead Redemption 2. The need to tell a story often times feels as it’s getting in the way of gameplay – switching between playing character, extended cut scenes, and the like.

That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with the gameplay when you take control. Much is what you expect and learned from the original. Focusing on stealth movements, exploration and crafting. However hats of to Naughty Dog who here give a masterclass on how to introduce player controls and gameplay mechanics. Tuition sequences carefully crafted and seamlessly integrated within the main story/gameplay narrative.

Still, even once the game really gets going, there were no real standout moments. No encounters that are going to live on in your memory and excite you on a replay as in the first game. In Part 1 you remember your first Bloater in the Sports Hall, Ellie being given the rifle on top some scaffolding covering Joe below picking off the army. One or two moments in Part 2, the sneak through the park with whistling Scars, come close but are quickly over and pale in comparison.

The game is centred around two main characters. Ellie from the first game and new comer Abby. Abby’s story is the focus of the second half of the game. Overall I found Abby to be the more likable and relatable character, she had a much stronger story arc and the better, more memorable, encounters all occur under her watch.

Graphically my first impression, loading up in 4K HDR, was how magnificent the original was in 720p on the PlayStation 3. We’ve come a long way – much can be scene in character models and animations in particular, especially the faces, but you certainly see why we keep hearing about “the law of diminishing returns”. Well that is until you arrive at the start of the Seattle, Day 1 chapter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so jaw dropping gorgeous from a video game on my TV screen.

The Last of Us, Part 2, is a good game worth playing. However it does live in the shadow of the first game, a masterpiece, and is mostly more of the same but not quite as memorable. The reason is the game is more focused on its story telling. Naughty Dog had a story to tell and telling that story was the top priority over all other elements.

It is game that doesn’t know how to end however. It reaches a natural, if somewhat damp squib, conclusion and then just keeps going. You think you’ve seen an unnecessary prologue then it keeps going again. And keeps going. Making the final ending (spoiler: same damp squib; sorry) have even less impact.

4/5