- Publisher: Midway
- Developer: Midway
Wrestling games have long been dominated by one brand - WWE - and that's meant there's only been room for one wrestling videogame series - the one officially endorsed by, and licensed from, the WWE. Yet SmackDown has been treading water for several years, bloating its back-of-box claims with lots of peripheral fluff but doing little to address the fundamental flaws in its now-creaky game engine.
TNA iMPACT! wreaks havoc on my spellchecker, and now hopes to land similarly painful body blows on THQ's lumbering franchise behemoth. Based on the televised rival to Vince McMahon's gaudy carnival, the pace is faster, the glitz a little less overbearing and the wrestlers themselves...well, they still have mullets, growly voices and tight pants. One step at a time, eh?
There's no denying that iMPACT! (and that's the last time I type it like that) offers a more immediately satisfying gameplay experience than SmackDown. It sounds a little ludicrous, but it's much closer to being an actual wrestling game, rather than a race to see who can pull off the most outrageous submission moves. Submission holds have come to dominate SmackDown, but here the focus is on wearing your opponent down through sustained attacks before going for the pin when they're at their weakest.
Counter-moves and reversals also play a big part, with all your defensive options wisely mapped to, or modified by, the RB button. At its most basic, hit the button when it flashes during a hold, and you'll instantly turn the tables on your opponent. Get two well-practiced players in the ring and there's a real back and forth as they grapple for the upper hand.
Where TNA loses marks is in its rather featureless presentation. Multiplayer is decent, but the no-frills framework doesn't leave you with much to do. The story mode is fun, but no replacement for a genuine career mode, while the available options can't help but pale alongside SmackDown's over-stocked buffet. That's not always a bad thing, but with a similar weakness for clipping effects and occasionally awkward animation interactions, it's not enough to topple the champion just yet. TNA does offer a robust and instantly gratifying wrestling engine, however, and future instalments should see it become the Pro Evo to SmackDown's FIFA.
Baja: Edge of Control
- Publisher: THQ
- Developer: 2XL Games
There's an elephant in the room where Baja is concerned, and the elephant is called MotorStorm. Baja may be more faithfully based on the real-world desert race of the title, but in doing so it ends up being more simulation than fun. Trucks and buggies tear up the sand and mud, but whereas MotorStorm was free to take the concept to all kinds of audaciously outrageous extremes, Baja feels tethered to reality - a decent rattle around some less than inspiring tracks.
The subtitle certainly proves prophetic, since the game is an absolute bitch to control. A certain amount of difficulty can be passed off under the simulation banner, but with simulation comes a greater demand for physical accuracy, and Baja goes off course badly in this area. Handling is heavy, but it never feels particularly realistic. I've never driven in the Baja 1000 race, obviously, but I have driven buggies and off-road vehicles and I've never experienced anything that handles quite like this.
Vehicles will suddenly veer to one side, even though there's no clue in the terrain to explain why. In fact the environments are almost entirely featureless, the tracks looking like brown margarine with tyre lines scraped through. It never looks or feels like you're driving on a tactile surface though, something which is crucial in an off-road game, and something that MotorStorm got deliciously right. Here, you simply get a series of nearly identical courses or rally sections, punctuated by an occasional cactus or tumbleweed. This may be how it looks in reality, but reality can be a dull place when it's rendered on-screen.
You need to have the confidence that mud will act like mud, that bumps and cambers will nudge your vehicle in a certain direction. You need visual feedback to create the connection between what you see and what the vehicle is reacting to, and that element is sorely missing here. The vehicles often seem to have a life of their own, which isn't what simulation should be about.
For those who can battle through the sludgy control, however, there's a lot on offer. The career mode is hefty, with plenty of vehicles to unlock, even if they all look much the same. There are plenty of opportunities to tinker and upgrade, and the sponsorship system is rather clever. Your sponsors only pay up if their adverts are still visible after a race. A cute idea, but rather annoying when you can't do anything to stop your bodywork getting knocked off.
Baja is a fussy racer, held back by twitchy control and incredibly dull design. Truly dedicated fans of the real race, or hardcore racing nuts with vast reserves of patience, may well get something out of it. Most people looking for a grimy, gnarly rock-hopping racer will be quite happy with something like Pure.
Warhammer: Battle March
- Publisher: Deep Silver
- Developer: Black Hole Entertainment
If the control scheme is the front door through which a player enters the gaming experience, then this adaptation of Games Workshop's beloved tabletop game is a dead-bolted steel door, three inches thick. And it's covered in spikes. With poison on them. And when you open the door an angry bear pops out and punches you in the kidneys.
Wearing its traditional role-playing roots like a badge of pride, Battle March has a control scheme so daunting and convoluted that it's almost as if the game is daring you to come any closer. While every other RTS game is trying to find ways to simplify things for consoles, this goes the other way and forces you to hold down three buttons while doing a handstand just to use rudimentary features. And that's the Basic system. There's also an Advanced option that seems to require a blood sacrifice before it'll even let you start.
None of this is helped by a wilfully opaque tutorial that explains roughly one quarter of the numerous icons cluttering the various menus, which you conjure up with different combinations of triggers and d-pad. The manual, usually the bulging thick repository of all the additional info, is but a slim pamphlet more interested in filling you in on Warhammer's dense back-story than explaining the difference between four apparently identical icons with grey arrows on them. Even the buttons to advance or select menu options change with each screen, leaving you to exit when you meant to continue, or start a battle when you meant to apply your experience points.
It's a shame, because once you batter your way through the aggressively unfriendly structure there's actually a very satisfying strategy game cowering inside. There are few of the traditional videogame RTS trimmings - no resource harvesting, no factories to keep spitting out new units. You just have a small army, and an objective to achieve. New units can be hired, and occasionally acquired through the game's three campaigns, but for the most part it's all about keeping your men alive to fight another day, not just tank-rushing the enemy to swarm them with sheer numbers.
The campaigns aren't huge, however, so it won't last a dedicated strategist more than a weekend or so. You do get a sizable cast of fantasy races to mix and match, along with a pleasing array of unit types, from simple archers and swordsmen, to siege cannons, giant eagles and dragons. There are also Hero units, whose RPG levelling system allows you to pass their status effects on to normal soldiers by attaching them to other units. Should one of your heroes encounter an enemy champion on the battlefield, they enter a duel, during which specific attacks and abilities can be used to ensure a moral-boosting victory.
There's loads of depth here and, controls aside, it's all surprisingly accessible to novice players on the lower difficulty settings. Ramp things up a notch and it provides a fearsome challenge, but the online play is where the real longevity lies. Creating your own army, and then constantly improving it with the spoils of skirmishes against live foes, is what will keep players coming back for more. With a more streamlined control system, and some tidier graphics, Battle March could be one of the best console strategy games. As it stands, it's strictly for the hardcore.
SBK-08 Superbike World Championship
- Publisher: Black Bean
- Developer: Milestone
Back in June, when I previewed Black Bean's wannabe MotoGP rival, I opined that "there's clearly a lot of work to be done before SBK '08 is ready to mount a serious challenge for the console biking trophy". The finished result probably still isn't going to be enough to convince the serious biker to jump the fence, but there's enough here to suggest that ditching the simulation angle and going hell for leather on an arcade bike game could well be the answer in 2009.
You get the expected raft of gameplay options, from simple Instant Action to a meatier Career mode. Similarly, all the usual suspects are available in the track selection. The environmental graphics don't do a particularly good job of recreating the buzz of Monza on race day, but the tracks themselves are decent enough to pass muster.
All the stats and riders are as up to date as they can be, and for those who like to monkey about with a spanner there's an impressive amount of technical options to drill into, to the extent that you can even make your rider's weight a factor in balancing the perfect racing bike. It's just a shame that the engine itself doesn't quite live up to these lofty expectations. The physics are good but never exceptional and, as I mentioned in the Baja review, simulations have a much lower tolerance for imperfection.
Where the game really finds its niche is when you switch off all the technical data, and play it as a straight arcade racer. It's still just realistic enough that corners and chicanes require a deft touch to get past, but the sense of speed and danger is suddenly much more thrilling. Crashes, in particular, are vastly improved from the rather timid preview build I played in the summer, and it's possible to shimmy through some ferocious pile-ups to take pole position.
Given the option of a good bike simulation and a great arcade bike game, I'd actually prefer to see SBK head further down the latter path for future instalments. Heresy, perhaps, but on the evidence here I'd even be open to the idea of Black Bean being tasked with reviving Road Rash for the HD generation.
Madden NFL 09
- Publisher: EA Sports
- Developer: EA Tiburon
In its determination to shed the image of annual roster updates masquerading as new games, EA Sports has been on a crusade over the past few years to reassure players that every year brings amazing new features and ever deeper subtleties of play. It's an admirable stance, in many ways, and when it works the results can be enough to blow away entrenched scepticism.
When it doesn't work, you get a game that feels like a lot of noise about not very much. So it is with Madden's 2009 offering, which has a patchwork feel thanks to a bold boast of 85 new features. It's a ridiculous number, clearly, and elements old and new from the series are thrown into the mix to make up the figure, along with gridiron variations on features introduced in other EA Sports titles, most obviously the new Tiger Woods game.
So we get an all-new Virtual Training Centre, which works in a similar manner to Tiger's Club Tuner. It's a VR simulator, where you get to practice your offensive and defensive skills, or try out new plays. It's also where you'll take Madden's Test, a series of challenges not unlike those set by Hank Haney in Tiger Woods 09. Some are grotesquely simple, little more than Quick Time Events by any other name, which mean that anyone can get maximum marks without actually displaying any genuine football skills.
More successful is the Total Control Animation System (isn't it great how everything has an official capitalised title?). This essentially means that player interaction is a lot more sophisticated than before, with players able to wriggle out of tackles or retrieve fumbled plays in a commendably realistic way. It introduces a pleasing amount of ambiguity into the game, that ever-present feeling that some unlikely moment of nimble footwork can rescue the game at the last minute. There's also Backtrack, which allows you to rewind the game and try a different approach if things go tits up. For those who balk at such chicanery it is, like all the features, purely optional but it's a welcome feature for those more interested in the tactics than the action, allowing you to play "what if?" with your playbook.
The presentation is, as always, polished to a dazzling shine and perhaps more than any other EA Sports title there are moments here where you could be watching ESPN. Add in some convincing weather effects and a foot-stomping soundtrack and you've got a game that understands, and recreates, the epic sturm und drang that NFL fans expect.
There are criticisms, of course. The gameplay balance is mostly right, but when it feels wrong, it feels really wrong. Playing against the AI in single-player mode can be a gruelling chore, with some of the sport's best players unable to make more than eight yard dashes, while online play against human opponents can veer the other way, with superhuman feats a common sight.
Like most EA Sports releases, Madden 09 is a good re-entry point for anyone who's skipped a few years, but less than essential for anyone who picked up last year's edition. The changes may be numerous, but few feel essential and you're always aware that many of them will be back next year, in a further refined form.