It's never a good sign when a publisher waits until release day to send out review copies of their game. This means they're buying time, hoping the game will at least get through its first weekend on sale before getting its face kicked off on the Internet.
But it's an even worse sign when the publisher doesn't send out review copies at all. Not even if you ask nicely. Seven times. This means they know the game isn't just bad, it's wretched. Perhaps it's unfinished, or unplayable, or has graphics that make the Coco Pops monkey look photo-real by comparison. Probably all three.
So what happens to these games? Where do all those promo copies go? Well, they get hustled away on a secret train overnight, like so much nuclear waste. The special secret train for games has a name, and its name is... The Shame Train
Join us now as we board the Shame Train and take a look at some of the games so bad their publishers wouldn't send us free copies. That's right, these games have been purchased with actual Eurogamer money. Money we'll never get back and could have spent on something much more worthwhile, like sombreros and cocaine. All aboard!
Crash Time (Xbox 360)
- Publisher: RTL Games
- Developer: Synetic
My first job in the games industry involved writing the words on the backs of the boxes. I liked it because it was fun and I got free games. I also hated it, because I got paid to lie. Often I was writing about games which weren't full of "non-stop adrenaline-fuelled action", and didn't feature a "deeply immersive storyline" of any sort, and whose "fun-packed mini-games" were packed with less fun than a shoelace. But I still wrote lies about them, because I was paid to.
So I have sympathy for the person who wrote the words on the back of the box of Crash Time. I know why they did it. And I think I know how. Here are some of the words they've used:
Here are some of the suggestions that come up if you feed those words through an antonym generator:
You can probably see where this is going. Crash Time is all of the above, and none of the things above the above.
As you've also probably guessed, it's a driving game. The story mode follows the adventures of two hard-driving highway cops. We appear to be in Germany, judging by the road signs and the number plates and the fact the police cars have POLIZEI written on them. However, the appalling voiceovers suggest everyone is either from Stoke, or from Stoke but pretending to be from Brooklyn. Or possibly Iran, it's hard to tell. They have conversations that go like this: "What was that?" "One of those jerks again." "You can say that again."
In fact, our extensive research on Wikipedia reveals Crash Time is a tie-in for popular German TV show Cobra 11, which sounds quite good. Crash Time is not good. The cars handle nicely enough, and the crash physics are acceptable. There's plenty of variation between missions, with high-speed pursuits, takedown assignments, checkpoint races, stunt courses and so on.
Unfortunately they're all boring. Everything on the road moves extremely slowly (apart from the missions where you're pursuing someone - you'll be amazed at just how nippy a Ford Transit can be when it's on the run in a rubbishy computer game). They're either stupidly easy or impossibly hard, and if it's the latter that's usually down to irritating gameplay design.
In the takedown missions, for example, one of the best ways to cause damage is to ram your opponent so they're trapped between you and other vehicles. However, they drive magic cars which are able to disappear and respawn behind you, while you are left to navigate your own way out of the mess. Similarly, if you find yourself trapped behind a barrier or turned upside down, tough - you won't be reset on the track, you'll have to start the whole mission again.
If you don't fancy doing the missions you could try out the offline-only race mode - except you have to complete story missions to unlock the tracks. This isn't worth the effort and they're so dull it's unlikely you'll be able to stay awake long enough anyway.
It doesn't help that the presentation is so poor. There are terrible pop-up issues, the buildings appear to have been constructed from a maximum of seven pixels each and the explosions are rubbish. Put it this way, when I first booted up the game a casual observer enquired incredulously, "Is this on Xbox 360?"
In short, Crash Time is mediocre, unimpressive and uninspired. The handling and physics are competent, but the missions are dull and the presentation is shoddy. The most fun to be had is in laughing at the voiceovers.
P.S. The "time" it took for Crash Time to "crash" after booting up was just over four minutes. Which brings us neatly to:
Godzilla Unleashed (Wii)
- Publisher: Atari
- Developer: Pipeworks Software
This alleged brawler stars Godzilla and chums as you have never seen them before, and will never want to again.
The story mode sees you playing as everyone's favourite giant lizard. You get to explore an extensive selection of cityscapes, i.e. about five, all of which look like they were drawn in the dark. "Explore" is a bit strong as they are all tiny and can be circumnavigated in the time it takes to do a yawn.
Most missions involve destroying a load of power crystals. Sometimes enemies will try to stop you, but you can generally just pound them to death without any trouble or ignore them completely. However, there's no targeting system to speak of, so you often find yourself swiping at thin air instead of at the poorly animated robot dinosaur attacking you.
Characters are incredibly slow to pull off moves and lumber around the screen like dying monkeys. Sometimes enemies will suddenly become bored, and will wander off mid-fight to paw pointlessly at a defenceless skyscraper - leaving you to get on with the exciting task of kicking over power crystal number 489.
In some missions there are no power crystals at all, and your objective is to defeat all the monsters in the city. Or, as you'll quickly realise, to stay out of their way while they stove each others' heads in. Then you can jump in at the last moment to finish them off and be left as the last monster standing.
In theory, you use the buttons on the remote to punch and kick, while the buttons on the nunchuk are for distance weapons (breathing fire, for example) and blocking. Shaking the controllers and pressing different button combinations performs different moves, such as grapple, uppercut, parry and jump.
In practice, you can just press whatever you like and wave the controllers in the air like you just don't care and you'll still win. In fact I didn't even realise shaking the controllers and pressing the nunchuk buttons did anything till I was about ten levels into the game. And that was an accidental discovery; I was actually engaged in a conversation with a friend at the time, and happened to be gesticulating wildly while explaining how I feel about what I do for a living.
In short, Godzilla Unleashed is a terrible mess.
A-Train HX (Xbox 360)
- Publisher: 505 Games
- Developer: Artdink
Billed as "the ultimate city and train simulator", A-Train HX presents you with a series of cityscapes which you develop by building a transport infrastructure. However, it does not present you with any instructions as to how to go about this.
There's no in-game tutorial, which is a serious oversight for a game as insanely complicated as A-Train. The manual is useless; there's no quick start guide, just 40 pages of sentences like, "If you set the cutaway to the underground level, it is possible to build a materials yard underground (apart from inside or under mountains)."
You start out with a city that's already been built. After extensive fiddling with the game's seven billion menu screens, it's possible to work out how to build a train station and lay a track. But then you have to decide what kind of trains to run, and how frequently they should run, and whether they should carry cargo or people and so on and so on. You even get to draw up your own railway timetables.
Then there are buildings to construct, assuming you can work out how you're supposed to obtain the resources to construct them. You also can buy and sell shares in companies that process frozen foods and sell oats. It's not clear what this has to do with anything.
All this might sound highly appealing if you like trains, fiddly sim games and/or are mad. And I expect there's reward to be had here if you can be bothered to spend 17 hours working out what is going on, what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to do it.
But there are much better sim games out there that don't cause huge frustration and confusion before you can even begin to enjoy playing them. Plus, they don't look ten years old. The visuals in A-Train are appalling, all flat buildings and dreadful textures and more pop-up than one of those websites with the free videos of ladies doing scissors.
The music's nice, all orchestral and swelling and when it snows you hear sleighbells. So one point for that. Otherwise A-Train HX is badly designed, poorly presented, overly complicated and utterly tedious.
Coded Arms: Contagion (PSP)
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
In which you play as Rococo McSpuffers, a half-man half-killer whale who must defend Earth against the forces of evil using only four rubber bands and a coconut.
Of course that is not really about what Coded Arms: Contagion is about. That was just put there to get you to at least start reading this review. Would you still be reading now if I'd explained how Coded Arms: Contagion is about an elite Special Forces agent called Jake who likes to fire guns and hack computer systems?
Unfortunately that is of course what Coded Arms: Contagion is about. It's a first-person shooter for the PSP and the dullest game I have played since A-Train HX. (More on Rococo McSpuffers later, by the way - don't go.)
The plot revolves around something called A.I.D.A., an "abandoned combat simulation program". There is lots of nonsense about "bringing the system back online". You don't "quit" the game, you "jack out". Weapon upgrades are called "plugins".
Playing as Major Jacob Grant, who looks like a cross between Sam Fisher and someone who spends a lot of time in velodromes, you must trudge from boring room to boring room taking out thick enemies with boring weapons. There are crates to jump on! And fuel containers to blow up! And doors to open!
The door opening is particularly tedious. You have to "hack" computer systems, which actually means "look at two sets of numbers, and find the number common to both". Things do get more complex as the game progresses (sometimes there are more numbers! Sometimes they move!) but no more thrilling.
And that's it. Trudge, shoot, hack, repeat. You can always attempt to relieve the boredom with a bit of multiplayer action, either ad hoc or online. Eurogamer certainly wasn't prepared to cough up more than once for a copy of Coded Arms: Contagion, so I took the latter option.
It was easy enough to get online, and I even found two people to play against. But the multiplayer experience is no more fun than playing solo. The maps are small and feel empty, with few places to hide. As with the single-player game, it all gets repetitive and stale very quickly.
Coded Arms: Contagion isn't a bad game. The controls work fine and the visuals aren't hideous. But there is nothing to set this apart from every other mediocre first-person shooter you've ever played, and nothing to make it worth recommending. It's certainly no Rococo McSpuffers.
Bleach: Shattered Blade (Wii)
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: Polygon Magic
Time for another Wii fighting game based on an anime TV show I've barely heard of and couldn't care less about. This one is called Bleach: Shattered Blade and it features plenty of familiar stuff - Episode, Arcade and Versus modes, 32 characters to unlock, women with unfeasibly pneumatic breasts and men with hair that'll have your eye out.
But unlike, say, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3, Shattered Blade's control system is pretty straightforward and easily grasped by playing through the short tutorial. Swishing the remote about performs slashes and stabs, and there are a handful of special moves to pull off via basic button combos. You can also perform extra-powerful Bankai moves once you've filled up your Bankai meter. As the meter is topped up when you give or receive damage, and whenever you shake the nunchuk about, this isn't too difficult to do.
The combat system works a lot better than that in Godzilla Unleashed. Characters are a lot quicker to respond to instructions and pull off moves, and keener to attack actual enemies than inanimate objects. However, it eventually comes down to who can pull off the most Bankai moves the fastest, and gets repetitive very quickly. There's a serious lack of complexity and depth to the game. As a person who is seriously simple and shallow this didn't bother me too much, but hardcore fighter fans won't enjoy Shattered Blade.
There are a few highlights. The nonsensical cut-scenes where characters bang endlessly on about "the Sokyuko shards", whatever they are, and say things like, "Let's have a classic fight to the death." The wolf in a dress who can summon a giant Samurai robot from the depths of the Earth. The bizarre loading screen where a half-woman, half-tank fights a teddy bear in a nightie. The character who prefixes his special move with the pronouncement, "By the honour of the Quincy!", conjuring up exciting visions of a katana-wielding crime-solving medical examiner.
But silly things like that do not a good fighting game make. What makes a good fighting game is a well-designed combat system offering at least some degree of challenge and long term reward, and that's missing in Bleach: Shattered Blade.