- Publisher: THQ
- Developer: Heavy Iron Studios
Those who follow my internet ramblings (my mum and the FBI, basically) will probably know by now that one thing guaranteed to make my blood boil is crap games for kids. More specifically, crap licensed games for kids. I'm not just talking about generic design or uninspired construction, but games that have no concept of how to entertain a child. The result inevitably leaves children frustrated and parents out of pocket. And that makes me fume.
Those of you with the gift of precognition may have already guessed that this intro does not bode well for poor old WALLE.
This latest Pixar spin-off has once again been developed by Heavy Iron Studios, the developer responsible for Ratatouille, arguably the worst children's game in living memory. WALLE isn't quite as cruelly frustrating as that horror show, but it's still a depressingly sub-par product that will irritate experienced adult gamers, let alone the intended audience of youngsters who are still mastering the peculiarities of game control.
Alternating between WALLE and Eve, the game roughly follows the plot of the movie [a cute thing that learns a valuable lesson - Ed], padding matters out with horrible checkpoint races, timed fetch quests and a hideously paced shoot-'em-up level that drags on and on. If you can think of a game design sin, chances are this game commits it. Let's tick them off.
Awkward camera. Poorly signposted objectives. Twitchy aiming. Frustrating checkpoints. Instant death obstacles. Pointlessly restrictive time limits. Long-winded puzzles. Confusing level design. Countless graphical glitches. Constant scenery snags. Ugly graphics ported from a less powerful system. There are even frequent game-crashing bugs, in which WALLE gets stuck in doors, ceilings or simply falls into an inky black abyss and falls forever, forcing children to face the Nietzschean void that dwells within us all.
It's a textbook example of how not to make an enjoyable game, made all the more infuriating because it'll doubtless be snapped up by na´ve parents and suffered by despondent kids who'll doggedly bang their little heads against this brick wall of lazy design in the vain hope of recapturing some of that big-screen magic. It never ceases to amaze me that Pixar clearly lavishes huge amounts of care and attention on its movies, yet apparently exerts almost no quality control over the interactive entertainments that bear the Pixar name. That the game offers Achievements for mindlessly crushing hundreds of trash cubes suggests that the inspirational spirit of the movie has been spectacularly missed.
With games like LEGO Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda readily available - games that actually seem to care about entertaining youngsters with proper gameplay, not just servicing a lucrative licensing agreement - there's absolutely no reason to put up with half-arsed dross like this.
Lost Planet Extreme Conditions: Colonies Edition
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
In hindsight, it's fairly obvious that Lost Planet benefited from being one of the first titles on the 360. Launching in that early adopter period, when players are eager to get their hands on anything for their new toy, can turn even a rather bland and forgettable third-person shooter into something resembling a blockbuster triple-A title.
At least for the game's platinum budget re-release Capcom has dug deep into its virtual pockets and come up with a rejigged package that offers more features for less money. Whatever the merits of the game in question, in this era of premium priced DLC, it's hard to be too down on that sort of thinking.
So what extras have been added? Most notable are a slew of new game modes, for both single-player and online amusement. Score Attack mode is a lot like The Club, in that you keep shooting monsters and scenery, trying to increase your score multiplier. Multiplayer benefits from the rather fun Akrid Hunter mode, in which randomly selected players spawn as alien monsters and get to stomp about slaughtering puny humans.
There's even a first-person mode, which is pretty awful. Changing the viewpoint of a game designed for third-person play doesn't make it an FPS. You also get a bunch of smaller extra features, such as new multiplayer maps, ten new weapons and additional characters. Alone, none of this material is enough to justify another purchase, but the cumulative effect is quietly impressive - in terms of quantity if nothing else.
Unfortunately, at the heart of all this generosity is a game that hasn't aged particularly well. Lost Planet is a decent enough blaster, and well suited to its new price point, but it's nothing worth dashing out to buy. The pace is achingly slow, and it relies far too heavily on repetitive battles against waves of identical monsters that slow the game down even further. Controls are stiff, and your gun-toting character - with a mysterious past! - is never as agile as you'd like him to be. The new Unlimited Mode beefs up both the firepower and speed, but it's a shame that such gameplay tweaks come in the form of an unlockable bonus rather than as improvements to the core game itself. It's also worth noting that your old save file won't be compatible with this version.
For those who've been curious about this not-bad game, this edition makes for an affordable way to see it at its best and enjoy some extra stuff to boot. For those who already own it, the value is less apparent. There are new Achievements, and lots of new things to tinker with, but not a lot of incentive to plod through the campaign missions again or start over ranking up your multiplayer stats.
Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit
- Publisher: Namco Bandai
- Developer: Dimps
Maybe it's because of the link to the often-impenetrable TV series, but I've always been surprised that the Dragon Ball Z games have never made more of a splash with fighting fans. Burst Limit marks the series next-gen debut, and continues the trend of increasingly complicated combat married to retina-blistering anime presentation.
After the introduction of fancy new viewpoints and collecting capsules in previous games, things have been reined in for this version to make it a more traditional fighting experience. Combat is mostly on a 2D plane - though you can dodge and feint around your opponent - and the camera angle adopts a more traditional side-on view.
Livening things up are oodles of short cut-scenes stitched seamlessly into the gameplay. Each character can have up to three "drama pieces", triggered by certain in-game conditions. These can refill health, cause damage or raise stats and take the form of tiny narrative interludes, created using the game engine. It sounds distracting but it actually works incredibly well. These moments don't break the flow of the fight, but really do enhance the action. Coupled with the bold and colourful graphics and hilarious excessive punches and energy blasts it really does warrant digging out that old "it looks like you're playing a cartoon" chestnut.
Gameplay has apparently been simplified to allow inveterate button-mashers some measure of success, but I still had to play through the multi-tiered tutorials several times before I even began to retain the numerous combo types and their multiple offensive and defensive uses. It's not that the combos, counters and blocks themselves are complex - most simply involve a button and a direction - but that there are so many of them, requiring various trigger and shoulder button modifiers to work. You can progress fairly well simply by mastering the basics, but the effect can still be fairly daunting.
The same is true of the story, which will only make sense to those who religiously follow the series. Chopped up into bite-sized chunks of combat, and culling over twenty playable characters from throughout the cartoon's epic timeline, trying to follow the story can be a thankless task. One minute you're fighting against someone, in the next section you're playing as that character, with absolutely no explanation as to who they are or why they (or you) have switched sides. There's lots of grunting and shouting and Shatner-esque voice acting, and it's all very amusing and visually exciting for the layman, but also utterly bewildering. In a fun sort of way.
There's online play, which is okay if a little laggy at times, and the expected Survival and Timed modes. These aren't quite as streamlined as you'd hope - Survival mode really needs to speed up the transition from one fight to another, as it drags a little - but as bonus practice sessions they do the job well enough, and allow you to see some of the characters you may not have unlocked yet.
It's a comment that seems to be made every time a Dragon Ball game arrives, but despite the stinky stigma that generally - and understandably - lingers around cartoon adaptations, this is another meaty and enjoyable fighting game. Its kinetic manga style makes for a refreshing change compared to the more earthbound Tekkens and Dead or Alives of this world, and for those who are willing to invest time in the deep combo system the rewards are numerous.
- Publisher: Activision
- Developer: Torus Games
From the makers of Dracula Marmalade! Sadly this isn't a game about turning creatures of the night into fruity preserves, but yet another attempt to translate the adolescent allure of trucks with enormous wheels into something worth playing on a console.
Apparently based on what passes for a sporting event in America, you must take part in a series of leagues, competing in outdoors races and arena showcases in order to earn the required points to take home a shiny gold-plated Budweiser baseball cap. Or something equally inbred.
In theory, it should be an absolute hoot. All the thrills of a destruction derby, beefed up with the power of mechanical testosterone! These trucks were made for smashing, and that's just what they'll do. But one of these days these trucks are gonna rise up and crush the fragile human bones of the slippery-fingered fool that programmed their handling.
Yes, the trucks handle like remote-controlled cars on a soapy kitchen floor. The slightest twitch on the stick is almost enough to turn the truck through ninety degrees, and there's absolutely no sense of weight behind their manoeuvres. Seeing these supposedly vast powerful machines fidget and jerk past each other would be hilarious, if it weren't so pathetic.
Making matters worse is a bewildering physics model that makes almost any collision potentially disastrous. You can plough through giant iron water towers and trailers loaded with tree trunks and suffer absolutely no negative effect to your speed or direction whatsoever, but then you can hit an invisible acorn buried under a leaf and be flung twenty feet in the air, facing the opposite way when you land. This would be enough to lose many a race, if your opponents weren't simple-minded idiot drones. Provided you can escape the scrum at the start of the race without becoming hopelessly snagged on another vehicle, you can easily cruise through the laps without ever using your boost and still not see another truck.
And if the outdoor levels are bad, the arena sections are worse. Divided between short one-on-one races and freestyle smashing events, the twitchy controls become even more of an issue in this enclosed space. The races, which generally last less than a minute, simply become a question of memorising the twists and turns of the route and repeating it until you win. The freestyle simply involves driving around and around, hitting the same obstacles in different combinations, trying to keep your score multiplier from dropping.
Monster Jam is a terrible racing game, and a laughable attempt at recreating the hefty impact of monster trucks to boot. With zero challenge and aggravating control, I don't think MotorStorm 2 has much to worry about.
- Publisher: EA
- Developer: EA Tiburon
Aah, the noble art of driving really fast in a circle in order to appease sponsors like Billy Joe Bob Buckwheat's Discount Ammunition Store. I always forget that EA sometimes releases NASCAR games in Europe, presumably in order to make their NHL games look more popular. Unlike other EA Sports updates, I suspect the 09 isn't the year but the number of European NASCAR fans eagerly awaiting this release.
As with every other EA Sports franchise, the presentation is buffed to a luminous shine with options galore and extra fancy interactive doodads out the wazoo. Jeff Gordon is the obligatory named star, gently introducing you to the world of professional stock car racing via filmed segments integrated into the game using green screen. It's a neat concept, and his agreeable chatty style certainly helps to ease you into the game. Once he buggers off and lets you find your own way, however, the opaque menu system becomes a problem. After choosing the wrong sponsor, for example, I found myself taking part in truck races with no obvious means of switching back to the car I'd just painstakingly designed.
Yes, you can design your own car, using a Paint Booth feature clearly inspired by Forza's suite of decoration tools. You can download a template to your PC, do whatever you like to it in Photoshop or whatever paint package you prefer, and then port it back to the game. Other familiar features include a web of linked challenges, much like that found in the Tiger Woods games, to earn additional respect and points with which to upgrade your car. The upgrades themselves are a fairly broad series of sliding scales, so anyone who enjoys really tinkering under the hood would best look elsewhere. There are no licensed car manufacturers either, which seems extremely odd considering EA is usually so hot for licensing everything right down to the gloves their virtual sportspeople wear.
Despite my immature jibes at the "going round in circles" nature of NASCAR races, it's not quite the problem you'd think once you're actually on the track. It's a different style of racing, putting the emphasis almost entirely on overtaking and blocking rather than cornering, but that's no bad thing. Holding a thumbstick never quite conveys the enormous concentration and stamina needed to hold a speeding vehicle steady against the camber of the track for the long haul, but the game wisely defaults to the steering wheel viewpoint which is exciting and atmospheric.
Where the nature of NASCAR does let the game down is in the stop-start pace of the action and the annoyingly fussy rules. Forget what you've seen in such famous documentaries as Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights - spectacular crashes are all but absent from this game, replaced by tame spin-outs, and every time this happens the race is halted and then resumes from a slow rolling start. Even though stock car racing is best known for its rough and tumble, aggressive driving is severely punished and you're forced to drive sensibly, which rather goes against the natural instinct to shunt and grind your way to the front. A position, incidentally, that pretty much guarantees victory provided you use your mirrors to prevent overtakers sneaking up the inside.
There are moments as you roar around the tracks when NASCAR 09 is vastly more entertaining than you'd expect. Sadly these brief thrills are almost always muted by the typically sensible EA Sports corporate sheen, which ultimately reduces the game to another technically minded racer of limited scope rather than the over-the-top metal-shredding redneck rumble of the real thing.