The Simpsons Game
Despite the relatively meagre amount of actual gameplay on offer, this release is well worth checking out if only the fact that it's the funniest episode of The Simpsons we've had for the best part of ten years. Classic Simpsons humour is used to shamelessly send-up the absurdities of video gaming, mercilessly poking fun at classic clichés while gently mocking some of industry's most popular franchises.
What could have been one colossal games industry in-joke is elevated to something a lot more special, and that's down to two factors. Firstly, the choice of targets is impeccable, the gags funny even if you're not a hardcore gamer. Secondly, the use of the Simpsons characters and the choice of episode elements taken from the TV show are spot-on. It feels like a natural off-shoot of the original show, and from when it was actually funny to boot.
The only real problem with EA's impressive effort is that while the humour itself is exceptionally well-judged, the fundamental game itself is basically a very mediocre platformer: somewhat ironic considering the targets of many of the jokes. Play it through once to enjoy the gags, but don't expect to come back to it again unless you can find a second player to take on the co-op element of the game. In short then, The Simpsons Game is perfect rental fodder but not really worth considering otherwise even at a budget price tag.
As you might expect, with a game as technically simple as this one, both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are basically like-for-like. They look the same, they play identically; to all intents and purposes there's nothing to tell them apart.
There are two ways you can view Conan - either as a lacklustre knock-off of God of War, or else an accomplished, slick update to Golden Axe. Both work for me, but I can't help but think that with just a little more variety in its ideas and a touch less of the basic hack 'n' slash gameplay, Conan could've been elevated from a bargain bin impulse purchase to a serious contender.
Certainly, it's a game that carves out a strong identity for itself with a unique graphical style: one part cartoon, one part CG render. It's also completely shameless in its eye-winkingly ironic appeal to the baser male instincts. Damsels in distress are invariably topless and bend over enticingly once rescued, savage limb amputations are plentiful, and gratuitous decapitations are all-but mandatory. It's excessively blatant, completely over the top, painfully transparent, but still highly amusing. Conan enthusiasts are obviously well catered for too. Arnie likeness aside (there isn't one) the only thing likely to be missed is a rousing 'to hell with you!' rant at the almighty Crom himself before battle commences.
The good news is that the very solid game engine that powers the game is essentially identical on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Both versions run at sub-HD resolutions - 1024x576 upscaled to 'normal' 720p, but the visuals are heavily post-processed, combining to create its unique cartoon CG look. Frame-rate is locked at 30fps throughout, adding to the game's solid feel. Side by side, it's essentially impossible to tell the difference between the two versions, and crucially they both play just as well too.
Conan is far from being an essential purchase, but as a rental or a cheapie bargain you could do far worse regardless of the console you might happen to play it on.
Assassin's Creed is a total enigma of a game for me. I simply cannot disagree with any of the points in Tom's review; it's a classic example of developers getting lost in their own cleverness to the detriment of the core gameplay. The basic notion that you've seen all but one of the sub-missions by the time you've completed the first assassination is a chilling fact about the sheer lack of variety Ubisoft Montreal has offered up in piece of software that is otherwise revolutionary.
However, despite my initial misgivings about the game, I couldn't help but stay rooted to the console right through to the bitter end, completing every side mission, scaling every viewpoint. Even now with Super Mario Galaxy and Call of Duty 4 begging for my attention I still want to return to the Animus and find those 15 remaining Templars and put them to the blade.
I've come to the conclusion that there are two key elements that make me love this game: the technology behind it and the freedom it affords you. Assassin's Creed is utterly beautiful, an astonishing achievement and the most fully realised, atmospheric open world devised to date. Like Crackdown, the notion that everything in the game is scalable and that the world is as open vertically as it is at ground level is utterly compelling. It's a game that begs you to try out new things just to see what happens, and I'll never grow tired of the combat that just looks and feels so cool once you've mastered every technique open to you. A flawed classic then in my view, but the inevitable sequel is one of my most eagerly awaited games of 2008.
However, clearly some aspects of the development are in dire need of improvement over at Ubisoft Montreal. In addition to basic schooling on game design, the team also need to work harder on their cross-platform development because as much as I love this game, the PS3 rendition is a mocking shadow of the Xbox 360 version.
A patch is apparently forthcoming to fix 'freezing problems' but of far more consequence would be a complete optimisation of the game engine. While the 360 game drops the odd frame here and there, by and large it's refreshing at a steady 30fps. Not so with PS3 where even the most basic action on-screen sends the refresh rate tumbling dramatically. While the detail levels and texture quality appear to be identical cross-format (though PS3 has harsher contrast), the Sony machine employs a different anti-aliasing method than 360. The result is softer edges (good) but an unnecessary blur that masks a lot of the intricate detail you'll find on Xbox 360. The blurring effect is amplified still further should you play in 1080p, which I strongly recommend you avoid if your display accepts standard 720p - as all 'HD Ready' sets do.
Scaling and blurring aside, it's the frame-rate that is the key concern here, not just in terms of visual smoothness - essential in maintaining the in-game illusion of reality - but also in the perceived response from the controls. Sometimes, especially during combat, the game just feels sloth-like and cumbersome. Combo kills and counter-strikes depend on a split-second timing, and the muted response on the PS3 version makes this much more difficult.
In short then, one word sums it up for me: gutted. Despite its undeniable array of shortcomings, Assassin's Creed is definitely in my top ten titles of the year, a testament to the sheer ambition of developers today and a tantalising glimpse at the technical possibilities of the games of tomorrow. The fact that this ambition doesn't extend to offering the same quality experience to PlayStation 3 owners is bitterly disappointing.
Hyperspace ultra links to save your precious fingers
Previously on Eurogamer.net...
To catch up on the previous clashes check out rounds one to five below.
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