Capcom Publisher Virgin Interactive Gladiator Ready! Hardcore beat-em-up fans aside, few games players in Europe will be familiar with Star Gladiator. Probably the least famous fighting game to come from the Capcom studios, the original was one of the companys abortive forays into 3D beat'em'up territory during the PlayStation era, and was a complete flop outside of Japan. Indeed, it didn't sell particularly well in Japan either by all accounts; the only aspect of the game to achieve any kind of popularity was the central character, Hayato, a sword-wielding young chap with a metal plate riveted to his forehead and a torn vest. Hayato can be found in many of the "Capcom Versus" games (including the recent and rather wonderful Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 on the Dreamcast) and there was talk at one point about a spinoff anime television series featuring the character, although whether this ever came to anything is unknown. It is possibly in order to promote this potentially valuable franchise that Capcom have decided to return to Star Gladiator on the Dreamcast - although, perhaps mindful of the low regard in which the original Star Gladiator is held, Star Gladiator Chapter II has been renamed to "Plasma Sword". Like most modern beat-em-up games, the plot is tenuous to say the least; essentially, the action is all set in a Star Wars-esque universe, which is threatened by a terrible evil which was defeated in the first game but has conveniently reawakened in order to provide an excuse for a sequel. This evil seems to rotate around a chap with a ridiculous hat and a bizarre robot that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Buck Rogers; how exactly the galaxy is threatened by this pair of jokers is never quite revealed, but we can assume that they are evil beacuse they're collectively referred to as the "Nightmare of Bilstein", so they can't be very pleasant people. In order to save the galaxy from this unspeakably evil person with poor taste in headwear, a band of heroes need to fight against each other in an apparently random fashion. I use "band of heroes" loosely here, because it's never made particularly clear which characters are heroes and which are villains; Hayato is clearly a hero since he rides a motorbike very fast in the intro, thus marking him down as a Good Guy, but aside from that the characters are a motley crew of furry Chewbacca lookalikes, birdmen, and green cone-headed creatures who wear far too much cheap jewellery. Trick Deck I'm not really sure why beat-em-up developers even bother trying to create a plot any more; Soul Calibur may have had quite an interesting plot that built up the more you played the game, and Street Fighter and King of the Fighters may have built up great chronologies and backstories over the years, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. The overall effect of Capcom's attempts to make the characters in Plasma Sword unique, to give the game a serious backstory no less, is not as they may have desired. Rather than adding additional depth to the game, it makes makes the whole thing seem cheesier than the most luxurious Quattro Formaggio pizza you've ever seen. (That's quite a claim, milladio -Ed) Every beat-em-up game has joke characters which you can unlock, or a specific character who is meant to provide light relief; be it the Panda in Tekken 3, or Maxi in Soul Calibur (who manages to knock himself out with his nanchaku during a particularly spectacular bit of showing off). One of the basic problems with Plasma Sword is that every single character in the game feels like one of these joke characters; the type of character who, like the playable piece of tofu in Resident Evil 2, is laughed at briefly before being dumped for good, never again to leave the prison-like confines of the character select screen. Only Hayato plays like a reasonably competent fighting character, and even that is at the expense of having any particularly decent special moves. Take, for example, Saturn - a "loveable" green-skinned character who has a cone-shaped head and a lot of multicoloured bangles. He fights using, believe it or not, a pair of yo-yos! Ho ho, isn't this amusing! He hits you with his yo-yos, and even uses them as an impromptu grappling hook! One of his special moves makes you do a little dance before he blats you! As you can imagine, the indescribable hilarity of this wears off very quickly as you realise that not only is Saturn a main character in the game, he is actually relatively normal as Plasma Sword characters go. Others sport laser rifle, light sabers and plasma-edged axes, and all of the characters have ludicrous special moves. As character selections go, playing Plasma Sword for any length of time feels like accidentally picking up a trick deck of cards - one in which every card is a joker. Count those Polygons! Poor fight mechanics are unforgiveable in a beat-em-up, and there's no doubt that Plasma Sword has some of the poorest fight mechanics I've ever seen, making the likes of the risible Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi look enjoyable and deep. In fact, the fighting system in Plasma Sword makes Kate Moss' lingerie look deep. Frankly, it's appalling that a company like Capcom can on one hand produce wonderful beat'em'ups such as Marvel Vs Capcom 2 and SNK Vs Capcom, and yet turn around and produce low-grade dross such as this at the same time. Some of the poor gameplay could be excused if the game was a graphical triumph, but sadly this is less of a triumph and more of a full-scale disaster. The graphics of Plasma Sword are not only clunky and outdated by Dreamcast standards (after all, with technically stunning games such as Soul Calibur and Dead Or Alive 2 on the system, it's becoming increasingly difficult to look ground-breakingly stunning on the Dreamcast), but they would look poor on a modern PlayStation game. Not exactly high praise for a title running on the fastest currently-available console system! (Over here anyway, tomorrow is the 26th of October lest we forget -Ed) The characters themselves are very low-polygon - they look chunky and blocky, and shading artifacts mean that the edges of the polygons are easy to see. The low-quality textures used don't do anything but exacerbate this and the poor-quality animation of the characters doesn't help much either. Character movement looks jerky and I suspect that the game doesn't bother to use tweening frames in animations, or that their tweening system simply doesn't work. Either way, the characters look terrible when they stand still, and even worse when they move. So where, you may ask, is the processor power of your Sega-built superconsole going? It isn't the game mechanics, it certainly isn't the character graphics, could it be that the play areas are breathtakingly lush and detailed? I'm on a Plane Whatever your Dreamcast's power is doing while playing Plasma Sword (I would imagine that "not a lot" pretty much summarises the answer to this question, actually), it isn't being pumped into displaying lush backgrounds. The backgrounds are, in fact - wait for it - 2D images that scroll around as you fight. Yes, good old hand-drawn 2D. The ground on which you fight is similar to Dead Or Alive on the Playstation - a rectangle that mysteriously fades into the distance about 3 metres away from your feet. Somebody on the development team must have been drinking a lot of coffee while creating some of the stages, however, because they have completely outdone themselves by having the characters fight in a giant puddle - with ripples and reflections! Actually, what this boils down to is that two small circles appear beside your characters feet every time they step anywhere, and the buildings in the background are mirrored into the water with a slightly wavy modifier applied to them. This has the presumably unwanted effect of making it look as though your characters are doing battle on a stretched piece of cling film suspended over a futuristic city; however, this is about as special as the "special" effects in Plasma Sword get. After all, when other graphical highlights include "pasting a random texture all over the floor during special moves" (I call this the "vomit in a compost heap" effect) and "a slowly expanding circle with multicoloured bits", one does start to wonder about the use of the word "highlight" in the first place. As far as aural stimulation goes, Plasma Sword is not actually substandard; it is just very, very average. The music consists of endless looped samples that sound like, well, every single other beat-em-up game you ever played. There are "thunk" noises when you kick somebody and "thwap" noises when you slap them with your weapon, as well as "grunt" and "argh" noises when something particularly painful happens to a character onscreen. One of the few positive things to be said about the game is that the Japanese voices have not been redubbed for the Western release. The addition of terrible American voiceovers would have been a final dash of awkwardness which would probably have reduced this reviewer to tears of pain and desperation. As it stands, the voiceovers, like the rest of the audio in the game, is completely unremarkable. Conclusion The Dreamcast is a wonderful console. It is powerful, well-supported, reliable and has a superb library of top-notch software titles. Any owner of a Dreamcast will probably be bankrupted in the coming months by the deluge of quality software for the platform. Put bluntly, Plasma Sword is not one of these pieces of quality software. If your Dreamcast is going to bankrupt you in the run up to Christmas, then at least make sure that you're bankrupted due to purchasing good games. Take it from us - this travesty isn't worth the walk to the rentals shop, never mind the risk of financial insolvency. 2
Although the Star Trek television and movie franchise seems to be at its lowest ebb in many years - Deep Space Nine has finished, Voyager is on its last legs, and there's no new movie due to hit our multiplexes any time soon - it's nigh-on impossible to move these days without tripping over a computer game based on the Trek universe. From first person shooter to real-time strategy, space combat sim to turn-based strategy, Magic-style card trading to graphic adventure, every gaming genre has been infiltrated by the Trek franchise at some point. The latest to gain a Trek game is the third person action-adventure genre, with "Deep Space Nine : The Fallen" due for release in Europe next month. We took a look at a beta version of the game to find out more... Tachyon Mud-Flinging, Captain? Traditionally Star Trek is a license that tends to produces lacklustre games, especially in comparison to the rival Star Wars license. Recent relaxation of the rules governing the franchise though has meant that the occasional gem is to be found amongst the new glut of Trek games, such as Raven's popular first person shooter "Voyager : Elite Force", and the rather excellent space combat game "Klingon Academy". This isn't to say that there aren't a lot of terrible Trek games being made though, and you need look no further than the likes of disappointing real-time strategy clone "Star Trek : New Worlds" for examples of this. Indeed, the cynics among us might almost claim that Paramount's overall policy with the current crop of Star Trek games is very much a mud-flinging exercise; release enough games, and there are bound to be some good ones in there. It's interesting to note, however, that despite the huge space battles and extended warfare of the Deep Space Nine TV series, no Star Trek game has taken on that particular area of the license .. until now. All that remains to be seen is whether The Collective's "Deep Space Nine : The Fallen" will stick to the wall, or slide down and join the growing pile of substandard Trek titles at the bottom... Fallen Angels "The Fallen" sees you taking on the role of one of three popular Deep Space 9 characters - station commander Sisko, the Bajoran Major Kira, or the Klingon Starfleet officer Worf. Each of the characters progresses through the story arc of the game in a different way; indeed, one of the cleverest things about The Fallen is the interaction between the actions of the three characters. At points in the game your character will come across obstacles that have already been moved to permit further progress; then, when playing through as another character, you will find that you actually have to go through the process of moving the obstacle, thus interweaving the different threads of the story. As with Elite Force, the game works hard to make itself seem like a plausible episode of the TV series on which it is based. As well as the three playable characters, all of the other popular characters from the series are also present in non-playable form, and the actual actors who played them on television voice their own dialogue for the game. From a fans standpoint this adds greatly to the quality of the game, although sadly the actors for two of the major characters, namely Sisko himself and Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien, were apparently unavailable for recording, and their places had to be taken by stand-in voice actors. Building The Station Adding further to the overall Trek experience of the game is the ability to use your personal communicator to talk to other members of the Deep Space 9 crew during the missions, not to mention the inclusion of the Tricorder! Yes, the ultimate piece of Star Trek pseudo-science is indeed available for you to use, in this case presenting the player with an unusual 3D spheroid representing the surroundings with points of note such as structural anomalies, life forms or hidden items marked out quite clearly. The potential for using such a device - especially the system for detecting structural anomalies - is clearly superb, although it will be interesting to see how well it is used in the final game. Each character also has his or her own unique weapon - a standard issue Phaser for Sisko, a modified Bajoran hand-pistol for Kira, and a Klingon Bat'leth (a bizarre hand-to-hand weapon which looks more like an obscure kitchen implement than a tool of death and destruction) for Worf. Aside from the different weaponry, however, the characters are all very similar in terms of controls and abilities; they all carry the same equipment, and their movement seems to be entirely the same. While this does certainly make the learning curve of the game easier - master the control of one character and you have effectively mastered them all - it would certainly have been nice to see a little more distinction between the different playable characters. Model Citizen Graphically, The Fallen certainly impresses - The Collective have made many improvements to the Unreal Tournament engine which, combined with the beautifully constructed levels, makes The Fallen one of the best-looking 3D games in a good while. The models of the different characters are very life-like and accurate - more so, in fact, than the admittedly impressive ones in Elite Force. The weapon effects are not overdone, but rather are modelled accurately after those in the TV series, and the lighting manages to steer well clear of the gaudy "disco dance floor" effects for which many Unreal engine games receive so much stick, going for more muted colours and a realistic feel instead. The animation of the various characters is worth a special mention as well, making The Fallen feel more alive than many third person games. Animations are much smoother and more natural looking than almost anything we have seen before, especially during the idle animations which occur when a character is simply standing around or gesturing during speech. One to Beam Out Deep Space Nine : The Fallen is shaping up to be a very impressive 3D action-adventure game indeed. Fans of the TV series will be delighted at the level of accuracy and detail in the game, and it's clear from the outset that The Collective themselves are massive Star Trek fans. Even those who wouldn't recognise a tricorder if they tripped over one will be able to enjoy the game though. The question of longevity remains unanswered, especially as the game will not feature any multiplayer modes; but aside from that, this sci-fi romp could be the perfect antidote to the inevitable new Lara outing this Christmas.