Version tested: DS
Race Driver: GRID
- Developer: Firebrand Games
- Publisher: Codemasters
Last year's Race Driver: Create & Race was a clumsily titled effort that nevertheless managed to squeeze an incredible amount of game into a small space. Online play, with a robust lobby system. A track editor, the fruits of which could be shared wirelessly. Oh, and a whole heap of courses and tournaments to play the old fashioned way. The only downside to Race & Create was the slightly bland graphics, but even those seemed like an acceptable compromise given the dearth of serious racers on the DS.
I don't know how they've done it (possibly voodoo, we're looking into it) but those busy beavers at Firebrand have managed to create a sequel that contains everything from the previous game, but now with far more impressive visuals. Trackside details have been vastly improved, and the addition of city street racing alongside the expected real-world courses is most welcome. From muscle cars in America to drift racing in Japan, GRID on the DS covers pretty much every base that race fans will expect.
You could, if you were feeling particularly unforgiving, level the criticism that this is simply the version of the game we should have got first time around. It's certainly true that apart from the graphical polish, this is essentially the same in terms of core gameplay, albeit structured slightly differently. But with new courses, new cars and the freedom to create your own content, it's hard to imagine too many DS-owning race fans being put off by such a piffling complaint though.
Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution
- Developer: Firaxis Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
Once developers twigged that the stylus and touch-screen combo was a remarkably effective substitute for a mouse, it was inevitable that a host of PC clicky classics would try their luck in handheld form.
For the most part, the results of these experiments have been mixed. Sim City floundered slightly in the transition, undone by shallow gameplay and finickety controls, while The Settlers simply made a right old arse of it, with a broken and butt-ugly effort that disgraced the series lovely heritage. Age of Empires fared best, and it was while reviewing that particular PC port that I typed these prophetic words: "Coming in a week when Sid Meier hinted at bringing Civ to the DS, it's a tantalising display of how much can be crammed onto one of those dinky cards."
Well, Sid Meier has brought Civ to the DS and he's crammed the bloody lot onto the dinky card. Yep, it's a fully featured conversion of a massive game, recreated in miniature with very few concessions or omissions. Although it shares its name with the recent console iteration of the venerable series, in both looks and gameplay Civ DS harks back to the very first Civilization games, in all their sprawling splendour. The goal is simple, yet daunting: starting in 4000BC, just build up a civilisation from one small city to the world domination. Whether you do this through economics, politics, warfare or simply by reaching outer space before anyone else, is entirely up to you.
You get sixteen Civilizations to choose from, each with their own unique bonuses during each era. Play then unfolds across a randomly generated map, according to which of the five difficulty settings you've chosen. If that long haul doesn't appeal then there are also ten preset scenarios, all of which start you off in some very clever situations. Beta Centauri, for example, casts you as an advanced race colonising a new planet, so you start with all the technologies. Golden Age, on the other hand, will appeal to those who favour science and culture, since those are the dominant forces rather than military might.
The game boasts a full complement of unit types, from trading caravans and spies to bombers, tanks and space rockets, and great people from history appear in successful cities to further your advances. Add a tech tree laden with over forty technologies to be researched, and it's clearly not a game that can be accused of dumbing down for the handheld crowd.
The interface is instantly intuitive, while menu choices are always clear and easy to find. There are multiplayer modes for both local and internet play, while you can also download a "Game of the Week" from the Civilization servers. There's really not much more you could ask for. It's Civilization, in all its glory, so if you take your DS on the bus you'd best start praying for traffic jams.
Top Spin 3
- Developer: 2K Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
Top Spin 2 on the DS was blighted by some major graphical burps, most obviously a frame-rate that left players stuttering their way through matches. For everyone who suffered through those problems, rest assured - it's all been fixed. Top Spin 3 may not be the best looking game on the DS, but it at least runs smoothly now, with mostly realistic animation for its small cast of real world tennis stars and user-created hopefuls.
There are the expected modes of play, including a quick-start option for jumping straight into a match and a more beefy tournament option, where you can define the rules and sets for a longer game. There are also mini-games, such as knocking barrels off the court or running to buttons to make a robot fall down trapdoors. They sound ridiculous, but beneath the wackiness they are teaching you valuable tennis skills.
The meat of the game is the career, however, where you get to guide your own created player up the tennis ladder. Broken down into weekly segments, you can choose to spend your time training on the mini-games, taking part in one-off events, checking your emails for bland hints from your coach and creepy encouragement from anonymous fans. And, of course, you can enter into professional tournaments and try to improve your standing in the tennis world.
It's the best tennis game on the DS, but that's not much to be proud of. The main problem is that the AI players are rock hard, and will force you into long, protracted rallies for every single point. Aiming your shots is also something of a hassle, depending more on timing than any button presses. It doesn't help that the DS d-pad often isn't up to the job of a long energetic game.
This unforgiving approach may well please dedicated tennis enthusiasts but it will only frustrate those just looking for a fun experience.
- Developer: Tragnarion Studios
- Publisher: Pinnacle Software
Expelliarmus Plagiaristo! Yes, we're going to magic school, the College of Runes no less, where kids learn to cast spells and use magic but if JK Rowling's lawyers ask it's got nothing to do with Harry Potter, okay?
You're a new student, lured into the forbidden Doodling Club, which is more dangerous than it sounds. It's where naughty children battle using their runes, you see, and the teachers do not approve. Play takes place on a magic circle, with you at the bottom and your opponent at the top. You draw the shape of a rune on the touch-screen, and it begins to travel anti-clockwise towards your foe. Different runes have different effects, and finding the right timing and combinations to deliver the most effective attack is the key to victory.
The drawing mechanism works very well, with the game able to recognise most symbols even when sketched at speed. Perfectly drawn runes become super-powerful attacks, but you're just as able to deliver sequences of scruffier but faster spells if the mood takes you.
There are tournaments and challenges, and wireless multiplayer where you can pit your wits against a friend. It's all shamelessly aimed at the post Yu-Gi-Oh crowd, swapping cards for collectible runes, and the art style fits in perfectly with this audience.
There's just not enough to the game, and by the time you're frantically scribbling increasingly complicated symbols in order to chip away the health of some super-blocking AI opponent, the initially appealing simplicity of the concept proves a hindrance rather than a help. While there's an attempt to tack a story onto the constant doodling, it never really takes hold and you're left with the feeling that this would make an excellent combat system for an RPG, but isn't quite enough to support a standalone game by itself.
Pirates: Duels on the High Seas
- Developer: Oxygen Games
- Publisher: Oxygen Interactive Studios
Already released on WiiWare, to an ambivalent response, this nautical shoot-'em-up has a certain old-fashioned charm but fails to provide enough convincing reasons to stick with it to the end.
In charge of a skull and crossbones galleon, your task is to sail around a series of narrow corridor levels, taking out enemy ships with your cannons and special weapons while scooping up crates of bonus goodies and overboard crewmen who can offer short-term status boosts. It's the sort of rudimentary gameplay that proves fairly amusing over five or six levels, but the game's inability to develop its concept any further really saps the fun from things all too soon.
Control is slightly more awkward than it was on the Wii, with left and right on the d-pad rotating your ship and the shoulder buttons accelerating and reversing. Yes, this is a galleon with a reverse gear. Movement is sluggish, however, which turns what should be exciting shoot-outs into fussy fumbles to get into a better position for a broadside assault. By the time the game introduces enemies that can actually cause serious damage, the ponderous responses become an unavoidable problem rather than just a minor irritation.
Pirates is a classic example of the sort of game with no compelling reason to exist. It's certainly not terrible, but then there's absolutely nothing special or interesting about it either. It costs almost three times as much as the version on WiiWare, without offering anything of note to justify this discrepancy, and yet will fade from memory within minutes. Bland and ultimately pointless, Pirates really isn't worth your attention.