Version tested: DS
Warhammer 40, 000: Squad Command
- Developer: Red Lynx
- Publisher: THQ
I'm partial to a game with a title that also acts as the instruction manual. Squad Command: command squad. Simple. Life would be a lot easier with titles like Tomb Raider (raid tomb), and Dungeon Master (master, er, dungeon). Though surely none can match the inspired retro classic Stop The Express for sheer purity of intent. None of your Deus Ex rubbish here. Far too complicated.
The squad (which you command) in this self-explanatory Warhammer 40K spin-off is comprised of various Imperium units: Scouts, Space Marines, Dreadnoughts and others. Six pre-selected units take part in turn-based combat sans any form of resource gathering. No iron or gold to mine; it's just kill or be killed. Behind all this is a bare-bones story that pits you against the Word Bearers, soldiers on the side of Chaos. If you find all that meaningless, ignore it. Only know that each unit has a number of points to move and shoot, and a selection of primary and secondary weapons that make a suitable mess of the scenery when fired.
Nearly all of the criticisms addressed in the recent PSP review apply here (which certainly makes my job a lot easier. Cheers, Alec). It goes without saying, though, that the visuals on the DS are slightly downgraded and the cut-scenes cut down completely. Conversely, the added functionality of the touch-screen provides something the PSP never had. The stylus is used to select and order units, yet the small squads and sedate nature of combat don't necessarily make this feature essential. Often it's easier to use the d-pad and face buttons in order to avoid accidentally tapping to move when you should be shooting, especially as you can't undo commands.
In addition, it's often hard to direct your characters exactly where you want them to go. When you manoeuvre your cursor to the place you want your little chap to end up, there may not be enough space from the nearest piece of scenery to accommodate him, even though the game tells you it should be fine. While there's usually enough leeway to scrape by, it can sometimes leave you exposed to disaster if you're on your last legs.
The second screen offers a handy albeit non-interactive map of the overall area, allowing you to view nearby enemy positions. During an enemy's turn, it's the best way to see their movements, but if you're not in the right place, you'll miss any attacks against your men. The only indication at that point is the sound of gunfire and a splash of red on their portrait. While it doesn't ruin the game, it would certainly have been nice to switch over instantly see what was going on while you wait.
Just like the PSP version, the inability to choose which characters to take into battle in single-player rather limits the potential of its fifteen missions. The similar-looking maps and fluctuations in the CPU's intelligence don't do for continued exposure, either. This is a game that could have benefited from a level editor or random map generator at least. What redeems it are bite-size, non-complex chunks of WH40K action. There's a new weapon or unit to try out each level and maps are full of enough cover to try various approaches. It's competent enough to invest a week in, including a few rounds of multiplayer. Yet its lack of modes, characters and ultimate depth means it won't sustain for long.
- Developer: Cyan Worlds
- Publisher: Midway
Quick tip: if you want to be a successful critic in this blaggard world of videogames, you have to hate Myst. An exaggerated expression of revulsion in the presence of its name will get you far. It was a prominent baby boomer of the burgeoning CD-ROM revolution (Myst sold bucketloads), but arguably side-tracked the adventure game genre down an awful path that resulted in its current faded glory. For shame.
So-called Myst clones still survive to this day: beautiful, surreal landscapes clicked through picture by picture with no real explanation of where to go or what to do. Their means of progress are solving elementary puzzles with little in the way of obvious clues, usually involving matching symbols or pulling levers until something interesting happens.
Much to my own chagrin, I thought, perhaps, I was being too hard on Myst. Hadn't peer pressure led me to hating it? After all, I seem to recall being thrilled by it in the hours spent playing in the school library when I should have been studying. I was prepared to give this DS version a chance. If only nostalgia wasn't such a deceitful fellow.
Evidently my younger self was more eager to play Wolfenstein 3D than solve obscure logic puzzles. I'd never have given it another chance if, back then, I'd got so far as the part of Myst in which you end up trapped in an underground railway maze of identical tracks, only able to reach the exit by painstakingly mapping out the entire area. Mapping? That archaic, awful necessity in this day and age? Or even in that day and age? For shame.
You would think the DS conversion would have that covered. Sadly, no - its efforts to match the powers of the platform it's on are minimal, going for a like-for-like conversion of the puzzles instead. The mouse - sorry, stylus - is used to click through locations frame by frame, and to activate switches with a single tap or press. There's no scratching, talking, or anything special that couldn't be done a decade ago. A screen can be brought up to take notes, but this is text only, painstakingly tapped out on an on-screen typewriter. To not have the ability to freely scribble thoughts, diagrams, or even maps yourself is just plain silly. What could also have been another handy feature - the ability to snap photos of your current location - is let down by an apparent bug that only photographs the first page of any book you're holding instead of the page you actually want.
Glitches are prevalent in this conversion. Whether through sloppy programming or the inability to stuff the game onto DS, I wouldn't know. Suffice to say, as well as various parts of the screen appearing where they don't belong on occasion, the resolution is far too grainy for what should be a graphical showpiece. A magnifying glass used to zoom in for a closer look at scenes simply causes a useless pixellated blur to appear on the top screen instead. I'm sorry to say the DS can't handle this properly.
Even the staunchest of Myst fans can't deny that this is a pretty poor port. Despite being faithful to the original in sound effects and atmosphere, its glitches and lack of new, DS-specific functions ultimately inhibit its worth. That said, while Myst may be an inherently awful game, I've always thought it to be one of those games it's essential to experience first-hand for an education in the evolution of gaming. Its influence is still felt today, for better or worse. Don't bother with this version, though (or even the better-looking PSP one) - you can play the fully-3D update, RealMyst, absolutely free on GameTap.
Jenga World Tour
- Developer: Atomic Planet
- Publisher: Atari
"You don't have to pick up the pieces!"
If I were selling this game and trying to come up with short, snappy reasons to buy it, that would be the bullet point I'd put in bold on the back of the box. And it's true. Jenga is the modern parlour game that involves taking it in turns to pull bricks from a teetering tower until the unlucky player topples it. What a mess. Its beginning is tedious set-up; its conclusion is clattering, humiliating destruction and tedious putting away. But that's the point: the element of risk in toppling the blocks too soon is there because of the time it takes to prepare, and the videogame version does not replicate that.
Furthermore, Jenga's very nature is to be a tactile game of steady nerves and steadier hands. Pulling bricks out by dragging the stylus cannot match that sensation, nor does it provide an alternative, entertaining approach. It's far too simple and what little challenge there is becomes negated by the game's insistence in indicating by colour which block will be easiest to pull out.
The various extras like immovable blocks and distracting objects add nothing to the experience; the single-player 'story' mode can be finished in an hour; and the multiplayer rather stingily asks for more than one card to play together. Low scores are usually given to bug-ridden games with little imagination, designed with incompetence. This game gets a low score because there is no point to it.
Mind you, you don't have to pick up the pieces.
Ultimate Mortal Kombat
- Developer: Other Ocean Interactive
- Publisher: Midway
Despite knowing that Mortal Kombat was influenced by Jean-Claude Van Damme, we prefer to think of it as being a little closer to Steven Seagal: inexplicably popular among a moronic subset of the public; continues to receive work despite being a product of a more gratuitous past; and recently became rather bloated - the last console sequel, Armageddon, had a bigger cast than an elephant with a broken leg.
For a game that feels like it's been trapped in the nineties, perhaps it's wise for this DS version to be a port of the revised 2D arcade version of Mortal Kombat 3 from 1995 instead of something new (incidentally, UMK3 also appeared on 360's Live Arcade last year). It's a surprisingly good fit. The blocky, digitised characters that made MK's name work well on the small screen, and the angular d-pad captures the nostalgic essence of bashing away on an inappropriate 16-bit joypad.
The game wisely eschews touchscreen controls, and the second screen is used only to display each fighter's special moves and fatalities. It's something of a thoughtful addition when the alternative is either pausing to go into the options menu, or scrabbling around for the manual.
Single-player is a relentlessly brutal affair. AI is rather harsh, even on the easiest level, and even projectile spamming or button pummelling doesn't always result in a victory when your competitor gets into a rhythm and starts blocking your show-off moves. There's at least some challenge to getting better. Those annoyances don't necessarily crop up in multiplayer, though, and general combat is able to improve with a tiny bit of practice (there are no modes other than a few tournaments of various difficulties). Like any fighter, there's scope to learn more in the way of combos and such, but then again, the Mortal Kombat series never really was about providing the complexity to reward high level play, and character design generally isn't solid enough to inspire devoted mastery anyway.
There's still pleasure to be drawn from a game that was arguably at the peak of its powers on its original release. Inasmuch as while it had the heart of a serious beat-'em-up, it also had a sense of its own ridiculousness, and its ludicrous OTT violence and its silly babalities and animalities lend a sense of lightweight fun to proceedings. Such an incongruous mixture has a stupid charm, even if the overall package proves less nutritional than some other fighters. There may never be a beat-'em-up of its type again, so it's nice to be entertained by its bull-headed presence on a handheld format once more, at least as long as the online multiplayer sustains an audience.
Also included on the card as a double feature, is Puzzle Kombat, last seen in last-gen's MK: Deception. It's entirely reminiscent of Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo, being a block drop-and-match challenge against super-cute versions of MK characters. Like the main game, it can be played online. If only its sedate beginning and dreary atmosphere didn't make it a throwaway extra, we'd probably recommend it. But we won't.
- Developer: Coyote Console
- Publisher: Majesco
While it might be a no-brainer to some, the world's still waiting for a decent handheld version of Cannon Fodder. There was valiant effort made by the Gameboy Color many years ago, a mobile phone game, and a recently planned PSP version which was quietly cancelled. But still we wait for a definitive DS update.
Volunteering to fill that desirable gap is Operation: Vietnam, a blatant homage to Sensible's classic. A squad of cartoon-looking soldier sprites battle through a top-down jungle. Like CF, it wants to play arcade-serious while still having time to wedge its tongue in its cheek with various homages. In O:V's case a sly nod towards 'Nam movie clichés and classic quotes. All comparisons to Cannon Fodder stop here, however, as this is an inevitably inferior clone.
Each of your soldiers possesses a different weapon - the soldier with the rapid fire gun; the sniper with the long-distance rifle for picking things off; the bazooka-wielder for slow but heavy damage; and the medic, whose pea shooter is a little bit useless, but who gets a boost for using medipacks. Characters can be switched to and fro at will, letting you choose the right character for the right situation, or sometimes splitting your team up on different missions to force you to use only what you've got. No character-specific puzzles, though; just shooting.
Stop and go commands can be issued to team members by touching the bottom screen, which also contains a rudimentary map to tap on to view. Unfortunately that's as far as stylus use stretches. Shooting at enemies uses a rather irritating automatic lock-on feature instead of letting you use touch screen targeting, or even fire where you want with the face buttons. The lock-on's handy when staying still, but quickly moving away can break contact, leaving you confusedly firing towards nothing. When big, orange bullets are zipping every which way, it's important to be in control and O:V incompetently wrenches that control away most times.
Maps are too long and slow-paced when they should be frenetic and bite-sized. You're also cruelly put right back to the start should you lose all your men - a considerable threat when the difficulty eventually ramps up later on in its ten or so missions. While the low-budget concessions may allow us to forgive it some faults when it behaves itself, we won't be having flashbacks over this one.