Version tested: PSP
Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops +
Portable Ops +, an expansion to last year's mostly excellent game of the same name-minus-the-plus-sign, features eight hundred cut-scenes, each one over two hundred minutes long. Konami didn't want us to mention it, nor the fortnight long UMD installation, but there it is anyway.
Okay, not really. In fact, for a series so infamously encumbered by narrative bulk, Portable Ops + is weirdly devoid of storyline. We'd even go as far to say it suffers from a lack of scene-setting and plot purpose.
It's a strange situation that perhaps indicates Konami's desire to provide something a little shorter, sharper and more accessible to those players for whom Kojima's tangled, overbearing plot showmanship is the emperor's new sneaking suit. But, in removing this and other features from the original Portable Ops in order to emphasise and introduce others, the developer's achieved the unthinkable: an expansion that is worse than its unexpanded (flat-packed?) inspiration.
In main the problem is a lack of context for the single-player missions. In the original game you worked through stages recruiting characters plucked from MGS's tortured mythology in a story that mostly made sense, provided clear incentives for characters to join forces, and examined some interesting issues to boot. Portable Ops + offers the chance to add even more characters to your army (up to 200 of them), but offers no context or reason for the recruitment drive, leaving certain characters' defection to your cause a mystery, where before it was explained in interesting ways.
Infinity Mission, the game's single-player mode, sees you working through a variety of randomly chosen 3D environments, carrying out specific tasks that increase in difficulty as you progress. These range from simply kidnapping enemy soldiers to having to reach the exit while all enemies are in alert status. As you recruit new soldiers you can assign them to one of four different divisions: a medical unit, which develops healing items; a technical corps, which develops weapons and ammunition; spying, which grants additional information on maps and enemies; and your all-important sneaking team, the eight recruits you send directly into the field to accomplish new tasks.
Units gain experience, allowing you to upgrade their abilities in the RPG style. However, the sheer number of levels you'll be ploughing through, combined with the fact any characters you have left over from the original game will start powered up, means that soon enough you'll overwhelm the AI soldiers, removing much of the game's challenge.
The compelling interface between the single-player and multiplayer online modes remains. Soldiers recruited in the single-player game can be taken online and new game-types, maps and playable characters add further options for up to six players in ad-hoc or infrastructure multiplayer modes. Standard deathmatch joins an array of capture missions and shooting range game types (in which two teams compete for points by shooting targets) each of which can be played across a dozen maps (again are drawn from MGS games past and present).
Win a match and you can take any of your competitor's soldiers in what amounts to a kind of gigantic, aggressive trading card mechanic. The option to take in-game snapshots, a beginner's lobby for newcomers, as well as a new, um, salute animation, are new features that don't make up for the removal of the entire single-player game's storyline.
The menu design is also fussy and cluttered, especially when trying to host a match, an over-complication that extends to the game's core controls which introduce inter-match chatting, either via a keyboard or messy shortcuts that cause problems mid-play. Also removed is the option to recruit new soldiers based simply on your GPS coordinates; a gimmick, for sure, but one whose removal seems unwarranted.
With the story and some of the more interesting recruitment features from the original game removed and with an RPG experience system that ultimately breaks both the offline and online play, it's hard to recommend this over its forebear, even if it is cheap at half the price.
Ultimate Board Game Collection
"24 All-Time Classics," boasts Ultimate Board Game Collection's sleeve. "Half as good as '42 All-Time Classics' then?" I joked when Tom handed me the promo, which is drollery that probably would have been funnier if the maths was correct. Still, it's a poor choice of wording on publisher Xplosiv's part, drawing unnecessary attention to their game's limited breadth in comparison to its closest rival.
Reviewing videogame versions of board-games is total pain in the balls. Reviews of established classic board game mechanics are basically pointless to anybody who had a childhood. So you're left talking almost exclusively about the execution: the menus, soundtrack, slickness of interface and other presentational factors that make up far less than half of the whole.
In this regard UBGC is unremarkable. While 42 All-Time Classics (the much-loved DS game, in case you're struggling to place it) is hardly a rollercoaster tour of aesthetic wonder, UBGC's presentation and execution is wholly unmemorable. Sparse, functional menus are populated by tiny, fussy text and soundtracked by musak that does little to draw you into the game's varied experiences. Graphically every game is presented in stark 2D and the interfaces employed to manipulate game pieces swing from sensible to unintuitive.
Games are slotted into one of five categories. All Time Favourites is home to Backgammon, Checkers (standard and Chinese), Chess and Reversi/Othello. Words and Numbers presents Anagrams, Dice (Yahtzee), Kakuro, Sudoku and Word Cubes. Puzzle Games packs Concentration, Enigma, Jigsaws and Mahjong. Family Favourites houses 3D Noughts and Crosses, Battleships, Parcheesi (Sorry), Quattro and Snakes & Ladders while, finally, Strategy Games (as if there's no strategy to Chess) contains Dominoes, Go, Mancala, Gomoku and Shogi.
There's a good variety of games here to play and, in fairness to the developer, they avoid all of the forgettable card game variations that bulk out Nintendo's package. There are a few neat flourishes beyond the game's raw functionality, such as the ability to use music tracks from your own PSP library as a soundtrack, or to import photographs to use as jigsaw puzzles. But these moments of inspiration do little to flavour the overwhelming blandness of the whole.
With nothing like 42 All-Time Classics' meta-game structure to compel you through each game at increasing difficulties, there's no greater purpose to scoring victories in the single-player 'campaign'. With Pass the PSP multiplayer as well as an ad-hoc wireless mode (available if all players own the UMD), the options are there for group play and the games are obviously more enjoyable when played like this. Even so, the presentation and execution makes for an uninspiring package, recommended only to non-DS owners with less time than money.
Riviera: The Promised Land
If handhelds were girls then Riviera would have a port in every girl.
Nope, that doesn't quite work. There's definitely a sweet pun in here somewhere though. Anyway, the point is that Riviera is a cute, weird little RPG that started life on Bandai's WonderSwan before being ported to the GBA in 2005 before being ported to the PSP in 2008. It's been around a bit. Nevertheless, as this is the first version of the game to appear in Europe and to enjoy a sizeable print run, there's cause for both notice and celebration.
It's pushing it a little bit for 505 Games to call this an 'enhanced remake'. Aside from an extra dungeon, a few bonus scenes and, of course, upscaled graphics to fully furnish the PSP's widescreen, this is pretty much the same game that first wowed a tiny group of RPG nerds when Atlus brought it to America a few years ago.
It's an interesting game though as, despite the cutesy Japanese sprite work, it plays out more like a pen-and-paper desktop RPG than the traditional videogame representation of the genre. For instance, you don't take direct control of your character's movement with the analogue stick. Instead, movements, exploration and battles are all executed using menus. In each screen your character Ein finds himself on, there are one or two arrows pointing off in different directions and selecting these arrows moves Ein in that direction.
There are two modes to examine every location you find yourself in: 'move' and 'look'. The second of these modes allows Ein to spot objects of interest that aren't otherwise visible. These items show up as red menu items and if you want to examine the item and pick it up you'll need to spend 'trigger points' to do so. Trigger points (TP) must be earned through fighting monsters and, as soon as you run out, you won't be able to examine environments until you've earned some more. This is a neat idea that rewards methodical players with bonus treasure chests and items. However, not every 'look' item rewards you with an item. Some simply trigger a line of prose describing your surroundings so every time you spend TP it's something of a gamble as to whether you'll see a meaningful return.
Battles are more straightforward. You're allowed to choose four items to take into battle including weapons, spells and restorative items which must be shared amongst your squad. From here it's simply a case of picking the right object for the right job and trading blows with enemies in a war of attrition until one of you falls over. Special moves can be learned through repeated use of items and you're awarded grades for how quickly and efficiently you dispense of your foes and, the better you do, the more TP you'll earn in that turn.
Animations are sparse so the game looks better in screenshots than it does moving but nevertheless it's a pretty game that presents pleasant places to explore. The story goes Norse for its mythology but you're essentially on a mission to save your island (Riviera) from imminent destruction, same as it ever was. The PSP version boasts extensive voice acting and, almost every screen and scene seems to have bespoke dialogue recorded for it as commentary. This technique certainly builds emotional attachment to the world and its characters and the voice acting itself, while neither poor nor exemplary, isn't offensive enough to be turned off.
Overall, it's a solid and unique JRPG which, thanks to some brave and interesting design decisions is worthy of attention, even if it will do nothing to convince genre detractors of that fact.
Forty minutes into Off Road and the PSP's battery dies. It's a coincidence rather than a game design decision, we presume, but still, it's a situation that begs the question: were we not playing this game for money, would we bother plugging the machine back in and making up the lost ground? The answer's probably no, which is probably the answer you were expecting, which will probably tell you everything you need to know about this, the handheld's only Ford-branded 4x4 off-road racing game.
It's not that Off Road's a particularly bad experience, because that would imply this is a game to inspire strong feelings. It's rather that, despite the heavy in-game Ford presence, the gentle service to Land Rover fetishists and the perfectly functional racing, this is a characterless experience. Not every new racing game in 2008 needs a clever design conceit (although, after a fortnight stuck in Codemasters' excellent GRID we did find ourselves reaching for the rewind button every time we struck a boulder). But those that don't have one (other than a car manufacture's badge) do require style and pizzazz to stand any chance of getting noticed.
Off Road relies almost exclusively on its licence to stand out. With eighteen models of car available in the game (only four are available from the start) this is a game that's narrow in focus and purpose: no drift or stock car excursions to be had here. For a game designed to appeal specifically to one type of car fan there's not much in the way of in-depth stats or tweaking. You accrue money with which to buy off-roaders, each of which is graded simply on Acceleration, Speed and Handling. Enthusiasts hoping for officially-licensed car porn will find little here to titillate.
However, PSP owners just looking for a straightforward, off-road racing game will be better off. The car models are solid and realistic-looking, and terrain is interesting and surprisingly accomplished, with shortcuts and other points of interest. The way the cars handle also makes for an enjoyable if unremarkable experience. Inside your speedometer there's a gauge which shows how much damage you've incurred and, in a shy hop away from realism, medikits can picked up to restore your vehicle to its former self.
The main 'campaign' mode is structured a little like a super-simplified version of Ridge Racer 6's event-based map. Race types, in addition to straight racing, include 'Gold Rush' in which you have to win the race and collect gold coins along the way and 'Damage Challenges' in which victory can only be had if you manage to keep damage below a certain level. With 12 tracks, each of which can be raced in reverse, it's a relatively small package that, other than its licence, is lacking in any sort of interesting game design to mark it out. With a budget price tag it's an inoffensive proposition but, don't expect to return to it when your battery runs out.