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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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As is somewhat traditional around here, the middle of April has seen the start of the end of something embarrassingly expensive and the end of the start of something expensively embarrassing. Yes, reports suggest the Queen is going to stop dragging hubby abroad to inadvertently mock the locals, and yes, we've only got a couple of weeks before our politicians stop talking bollocks on television and let us pick and choose. And watch Paxman laying into arseholes of the week again.

More importantly, the period at the beginning of the year that sees a volley of big and new games turn out on all sorts of formats is also tapering off, with only a few items of serious note on this week's European release list, while the spectre of E3 is starting to loom menacingly over the horizon with hundreds of new ways for you to spend the money you're all earning by slacking off and reading this column.

But enough about E3. And the Queen. And Paxman. (Although not enough about Pac-Man; I still haven't finished Pac-Pix.) You all want to know what's out this week.

First up there's the subject of this week's hilaaarious frontpage gag - The Matrix Online. The view from the MMORPG fraternity is that it's flawed, but some people like it. The view from our massively enjoyable friend Mr. Gillen is due to burrow into the backs of our heads shortly. Expect to be jacking in to that later today.

And if you're wondering why, in a paragraph featuring the words "gag" and "jacking", your tediously juvenile correspondent didn't crack off at least one masturbation joke, you clearly haven't realised that Nina Williams' skintight PS2 Tekken spin-off Death By Degrees is finally coming over here this week. Oof. It's a third-person game that involves, er, being on a boat and sunbathing in cut-scenes, from memory. But obviously also killing people and using their fingerprints to open doors and other puzzles. It's been pretty severely panned in the US (one review said it tried lots of things and failed at all of them), and probably isn't worth bothering with unless you're a Nina Williams die-hard or dying to get hard about Nina Williams.

Moving away from your groin for a second, Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition is out this week, and arrives something of an enigma. Naturally, this being Rockstar, we only received review code this morning, but we already had big questions. The second game was really good. We loved it. But this one seems to be trying to muscle in on the world of baby-oil roads and neon undercarriages (not a groin thing) that EA has been dominating with Need For Speed recently. Frankly we're a bit worried that two really good racing series seem to be more interested in paint, breasts, nitrous systems and the like than what happens on the roads themselves, but we're encouraged by the US reaction. Expect us to take a proper look next week.

Elsewhere on this side of the Atlantic, World Snooker Championship 2005 arrives to little fanfare, and seems - critically at least - to be something of a victim of its genre. A lot of people we've spoken to about it bang on about how great it is, only to brush it off because snooker games "aren't worth it". Well, within the genre this is the best we can remember playing in ages, and has just about everything in it you could possibly want - right down to unlockable footage of brilliant shots and customisable commentary duos. Short of including new publisher SEGA's back catalogue as unlockables, it's hard to imagine what else could be done to make it significantly better.

Moving away from these shores (if only), US gamers have this week been revelling in BioWare's latest Xbox title, Jade Empire, a slightly more action-oriented RPG that has been picking up the biggest scores we've seen over there since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. 9.9? Jebus. It's out here next Friday, and Rob's itching to do some dicing.

As for little old yours truly, it's Archer Maclean's Mercury all the way. The US reviews haven't been overly kind or unkind to it, but we reckon there's more to this than meets the eye. On the surface it's pretty simple - tilt a level, Monkey Ball-style, to move a blob of liquid metal through various maze-like courses. But there's plenty of variation - some levels are timed affairs, others demand that you avoid splitting your blob up too much on the way, whilst others still involve hitting switches to change the colours, blending them and the like. And, beyond that, it becomes one of those absolutely obsessive high score and show-off quests - in much the same vein as Monkey Ball or TrackMania - and has hidden depths that, it would appear, not many people have bothered to seek out yet. Hopefully you'll see more evidence of that in our write-up next week.

Anyway, enough Mercury. For the full list of new releases, check out the murky depths instead:

  • PAL Releases
  • Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars (PC)
  • Cross Racing Championship (PC)
  • Death By Degrees (PS2)
  • Kao The Kangaroo Round 2 (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
  • Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition (PS2, Xbox)
  • Predator: Concrete Jungle (PS2, Xbox)
  • The Matrix Online (PC)
  • Transport Giant Gold (PC)
  • World Snooker Championship 2005 (PS2, Xbox, PC)

  • Key US Releases
  • Archer Maclean's Mercury (PSP)
  • Dead to Rights II: Hell to Pay (PS2, Xbox)
  • Jade Empire (Xbox)