Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

January 30, 2010 by Thomas Mulrooney  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

Release date: 13 January 2010

Developer/Publisher: Croteam/Majesco Entertainment

Genre: FPS

Platform[s]: PC, Xbox Live Arcade

I have fond memories the original Serious Sam: The First Encounter. I played through the entirety of the game a couple of times over LAN with a friend. Those hours sat at two computers were probably the most fun-filled co-op experience I’ve ever had, and making me incredibly jealous that I didn’t have a good enough PC to play it myself.

Since those days plenty of FPS games have been released; some of them wowing,  like the multiplayer mayhem of Timesplitters 2 (being in the same room as your opponents will always be the best way to experience those games), and some of them stinking to high heaven, such as the awful Daikatana. So, with that in mind does the HD re-release of Serious Sam: The First Encounter live up to preconceived standards? I returned to what used to be one my favourite FPS games to find out.

Storyline

This is one of those games where the storyline doesn’t really matter, as you won’t really be paying much attention to it but you need some kind of justification for doing the things you’ll be doing. Basically Sam gets sent back in time to defeat Mental, an enemy obsessed with eradicating humanity, and alter the course of history so humanity was never attacked. The setting for the ensuing mayhem caused by Sam’s appearance is Egypt, and you’ll be going from one monument to do the next while fighting off hordes of Mental’s strange but deadly army.

Gameplay

The game is packed with a host of fun weapons and weird enemies. You’ll be using the usual assortment of machine guns and shotguns (which pack quite a punch) but you will eventually come across a laser gun and a cannonball gun that fires large cannonballs and squishes your enemies into a nice gory mess. In the latter stages of the game you’ll want to be using a gun that can cut through hordes of enemies with ease, such as the minigun, or you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. Thankfully ammo is abundant, but you’ll often get ‘rewarded’ for picking up items through the game spawning another wave of enemies to throw at you. So, you’ve just picked up all that health and ammo and then you have to use it all on a wave of enemies without making much progress through the level. That’s Serious Sam for you, and it’s something you’ll quickly become aware of and end up actually backtracking while the enemy draws ever closer;  although there are times when this is impossible as the game closes you into space, which is sometimes confined or will be when the enemy completely surrounds you.

The enemies are a mixture of your common soldier (although ‘common’ in the sense that they’re actually dead and they carry their heads in one hand), armed with rocket launchers, chainsaws or grenades depending on the type (or just holding bombs and running towards you screaming before they blow themselves up, which starts to get highly annoying), to flying winged beasts that remind me of Flash Gordon and gigantic walking fish armed with lasers or rocket launchers. All of these enemies may look strange but they hold nothing back – and by god are they brutal!

In fact the whole game is brutal, and even on normal difficulty you’ll find yourself dying a lot (I haven’t tried it on co-op or a harder difficulty setting, but it’s my understanding that even more enemies are thrown into the mix). Thankfully you can just hit Y for a quick save, which arguably makes the game far easier than it should be. I still lost count at how many times I had to restart the game though, especially at one particularly nasty part of the game. This consisted of being attacked by hundreds of galloping skeletons while I was quickly running out of ammo. You could cut down twenty and they’d just be replaced by more, so it required some quick thinking other than just standing there and pumping bullets into the masses. I’ll let you figured it out for yourself.

The last level of the game is, quite understandably, a mass of enemies and bullets flying around everywhere. However, the best is definitely saved until last and when I and my friend originally saw this beast our jaws dropped. The appearance of the final boss is still one of those ‘wow’ moments even today, but I won’t go into the technicalities as you really have to see this for yourself.

Graphics

For its time Serious Sam: The First Encounter was a pretty good looking game. Of course, it’s nothing by today’s standards and Croteam wasn’t content with just re-releasing the game in its original form to make some quick cash. Instead they put the time in to upgrade the graphics to HD, and while it’s still not going to wow you by any means they’ve still done a great job with it. Everything is shiny, with some work done on the lighting effects and the look of water (although this is no Bioshock), but the fact of the matter is you won’t have much time to appreciate when you’re getting charged at by hordes of bulls. You’ll still appreciate that it looks better though, even if it’s only to get a better look at the bull that’s about to knock you halfway across the level.

Audio

One frustrating thing about the game is that you’ll often be attacked from all sides and you can’t really tell when you’re going to get attacked until it’s up in your face. The audio goes some way to fixing this, as you’ll often hear the scream of, for example, suicide bombers getting closer to your position as the scream gets louder. This allows you to figure out what direction they’re coming in without spinning around all the time when you’ve got other enemies to contend with. Sometimes this gets lost in all the gunfire and sounds of other creatures though, so you still have to be constantly aware of your surroundings.

Music wise it’s nothing special, with the dramatic rising tempos kicking in when you’re about to be attacked. Due to this you will always know when something is still alive in your area due, but the periods where the music stays at the same sound level are few and far between.

Overall Score & Replayability

The problem with this re-release is that it doesn’t try to be anything other than a slightly better looking version of its original form. There’s no extra meat here, with nothing included in the XBLA release that wasn’t already in the original. In fact the XBLA version of the game has been is slightly inferior to the PC version in that only four players are supported in co-op, with sixteen on the PC version. There’s also no competitive multiplayer, but that probably isn’t a bad thing as I don’t think the game would have grasped people’s attention long enough for them to stick around.

However, none of the above makes it a bad game and for what’s on offer it’s certainly worth the price. For people, like me, who have played the original it’s a nice little blast from the past where FPS games were far simpler, but also a lot tougher. Those who haven’t played it get a glimpse at what FPS gamers enjoyed in the past, and it may also make them delve deeper into gaming history. For everybody it’s an fun-filled action packed ride that never gives you a breather. It’s a pure arcade game at heart, and that’s precisely the type of game that suits XBLA.

Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1

January 15, 2010 by Thomas Mulrooney  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1

Release date: 16 December 2009

Developer/Publisher: Team 17

Genre: Isometric shooter

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade, PSN (2010), PC (2010)

Storyline

Alien Breed Evolution’s storyline isn’t going to win any awards, as it’s little more than a justification for what you’ll be doing in the game. The basic gist (which, erm, is pretty much it) is that your ship, the Leopold, crashes into a mysterious gigantic spaceship whilst returning from a diplomatic mission. Of course, this isn’t just any old ship and soon enough the Leopold, and the protagonist Conrad, is under attack by aliens. They swiftly go about killing 99% of the crew, leaving Conrad pretty much alone apart from his ‘lover’ (I think so anyway, see how ‘great’ this story is about explaining things?) Mia, who regularly contacts him.

The story is expanded upon between the five levels, using narrated comic-book-style cutscenes, but it’s very basic at best and you won’t really pay much interest to it. When I did take an interest I found that the story didn’t even try to explain what’s going on, but I suppose this is episode one. Although, if you didn’t really care enough about the story in the first place then would you really be interested in what’s going to happen in episode two? I’ll let you answer that one.

Gameplay

The first level tries, and largely fails, to build up suspense by not having you meet one of the aliens for a short while and, instead, teaching you the controls. Speaking of the controls I found them to be quite fiddly. You use both dual-sticks to move and aim your weapon, making it actually pretty easy to sweep your aim around quickly whilst also moving to avoid being eaten. So what’s fiddly about them? Well, you use the d-pad to select weapons and items. The problem is that the ‘up’ and ‘down’ selects weapons, while ‘left’ and ‘right’ select the items. Simple enough, but it’s too easy to hit ‘right’ instead of ‘up’ in the middle of a battle, meaning that you’ll end up losing half your health while you desperately try to select a new weapon. Due to this it’s inadvisable to try to change items or weapons during battle, but you often have to because running away isn’t really an option. Each alien dies easier with different weapons, such as the small ‘facehugger’ creatures that are easily dispatched with your unlimited pistol, but you quickly learn that you’ll die if you change your weapon for every single creature type in a horde.

The aliens seem a mixture of creatures from Alien and the arachnids from Starship Troopers (which some of them are actually called). There are various types; ranging from the previously mentioned ‘facehugger’ rip-offs that are easy to kill but usually come in swarms, to your normal tanks and the long range spitting beasts. There is only one main boss, unless you count a chase scene which is one of the only one-off occurrences. Yes, that means that the entire game is the same thing over and over again.

Not only are you blasting through constant hordes of aliens, which I suppose is fun for a short while, but the end level destination (an elevator) is always blocked by a series of dull objectives. For example, you have to go through a room but find it’s on fire. Cue you going around half the level to press a button that gets rid of the fire, all whilst being attacked every ten seconds. When you finally get through the door another door blocks you away, and now you need to trek down another five hundred corridors to find the keycard. The names and destinations may change, but the actual objective is little more than pressing a button that just so happens to be still working whilst the entire ship falls apart. You can also top all this off by having to search lockers and bodies in every room, or else you’ll quickly run out of ammo and health kits. It’s not that easy though, as – surprisingly enough – you are usually attacked just as you start your search. The same thing goes when you press a button, and after the third time you just expect it to happen.

The weapons range from a simple machine gun and shotgun, to a flame-thrower and laser gun. I found the laser gun largely useless, since the shots bounce off the walls around you (and these corridors are thin) and end up hitting you half of the time. I had to use it when desperate though, and the same goes for the pistol, because I always seemed to run out of ammo. You honestly don’t need anything other than the machine gun, but it eats up ammo pretty quickly and it can be hard to find. Even when searching bodies and lockers you usually seem to get the message that ‘there is nothing of interest here’. I now feel like I’m playing an RPG!

As for difficulty I played the game through on ‘veteran’ (the game’s medium difficulty level) and I died less than ten times. It’s not a hard game if you have enough ammo to fight off the hordes, and even then you have your unlimited pistol as a last resort. You are also told where to go, so the most you have to do is destroy a barrel blocking your way or find a window to smash through. I didn’t try the game on the hardest difficulty, but obviously I assume it’s going to be harder – not that it really takes much.

Graphics

The graphics are decent enough, but a game like this was never going to be about spectacular graphics. The problem is that it’s often too dark to make anything out, even when you’re shining your puny torch light on them. This is playing on full 1080p resolution, so I dread to think how people forced to play on standard definition TV’s will find it. Instead you’ll largely grow accustomed to using the Alien style radar in the top right hand corner. Enemies and objectives show up as blips; red and blue respectively. You can see what direction an enemy is approaching you (and that’s mostly from all sides), so I just tended to point my gun (you can also rotate the camera by one angle each time you tap the ‘LB’ or ‘RB’ buttons, but I didn’t use this too much because I prefer a smooth rotate rather than a snap rotate) in that direction and pump bullets into the darkness (which, on reflection, is probably why I ran out of ammo all the time). This also means that you can’t really tell which type of alien you’re facing, so all tactics go straight out of the window. Pure button mashing at its ‘best’!

When you can see what’s around you 80% of rooms and corridors are largely the same. They could use the excuse that Xbox Live Arcade games usually have smaller file sizes, but that excuse doesn’t really roll anymore. Textures and objects are reused time and time again, and there are only a handful of destinations that at least try to stand out (such as the Hydroponics lab, although it doesn’t seem to have that many plants). Apparently space is very bland.

Thirdly, I know this ship has crashed but there seems to be a random explosion every five seconds. I’m not sure if these are supposed to scare you or not, but they quickly become annoying and most of them don’t actually do anything. It’s also worth noting that they look pretty crap.

Audio

Firstly the voice acting is awful. It sounds like some guy has recorded it in his bedroom and has tried to sound like Solid Snake. The woman is marginally better, but she’s not about to win an Oscar. All other speech is done through text, which you’ll often miss popping up at the bottom of the screen while you concentrate on shooting aliens. Not that you’re missing much anyway.

The aliens make, erm, alien sounds? It’s all screeching and roaring, but what else do you expect? You’ll also often hear screams in the distance which, again, fail to bring any sort of atmosphere to the game. Sometimes you’ll see a person getting killed, but you can’t save them and you’ll learn not to care (and you’ll probably miss it too, since it’s so damn dark).

As for the music, it loops. You will get rising tempos and crescendos when under attack, which I guess adds to the tension, but it’s the same damn thing every time and it quickly got boring – plus they even had the cheek to play it again during the ending!

Overall Score & Replayability

If you’ve read this review then I think you’ll be clear of my position on this game, but let’s sum it up anyway.

Replayability wise there’s a co-operative mode that adds a second player (duh!), but this only means four of the same levels with more enemies and more ammo. There’s also a free play mode that allows you to play through the levels you’ve already completed, but unless you’re going for the achievements I don’t really see why you would bother. That’s it though, and if you do buy this (don’t!) I recommend you get the achievements and delete the game.

Alien Breed Evolution may try to be the ‘evolution’ of a classic game, but it even fails at that. The game is firmly rooted in the past, and what was once the cutting edge of games is now dull and unoriginal to a crowd used to blockbluster shooters (which, ok, may not be entirely original either) and even Xbox Live Arcade games that dare to try something new. You will get a retro feel for the game at first, especially if you grew up on such shooters, but this will last about as long as a chocolate button in your mouth (and I hesitate to compare the two, because one gives you pleasure while the other one certainly doesn’t). I was ultimately relieved when the game ended, since I was bored to tears by doing the same thing over and over again.

Crap is still crap, whether it has a lick of paint on it or not.

Diner Dash

November 30, 2009 by Laura Broome  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview


Title: Diner Dash

Release Date: 18th November 2009

Genre: Casual

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade

Developer/Publisher: Backbone Entertainment/Hudson Entertainment INC

Storyline


Guide Flo while she masters her restaurant career. In “Story Mode” you aid Flo through four stages to complete her restaurant empire. Help her gain stars throughout the game by impressing critics and serving up food and drinks to varied customers. You are responsible for seating customers, taking their orders, serving them their food and and clearing away after them; whilst ensuring they are happy before they leave. Each new group of customers come along with their different demands and their varied likes and dislikes. Progress through the game and earn more money to see your restaurant improve and grow.

Gameplay


This game has been available on PC for many years and is available in quite a few episodes. I have personally spent way too many hours playing this game and so was rather excited when my favourite game was suddenly available on my favourite console! I had no idea how well it would work and I have to say I have been very impressed.

There are different modes to try out. In singleplayer mode you can play story or endless shift. Story mode guides you through lots of levels which increase in difficulty as you progess. You have two money based goals to meet the first is the initial goal to be able to continue to the next level and the second is expert which is fairly easy to achieve in the early stages but increasingly more difficult as you get to the higher levels.

The game is fairly basic and, although the difficulty does increase the general gameplay, stays the same throughout, however there are some ways in which you have to change the way you play to be able to achieve your set goals. In endless shift mode you play the game at a higher pace and you progress by meeting monetary goals and gaining upgrades. The upgrades you choose will depict on how long you survive in this mode so pic them carefully.

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In multiplayer mode there are various games to play. You can choose between tip wars where you and another player fight it out to seat, serve and clear up after each customer to gain the tips. You can play head to head which is fairly self-explanatory and (my personal favourite) which is team battles which a friend and I managed to master by ignoring our personal scores in favor of getting a higher team score which we did by concentrating on having specific jobs, for example I was in charge of taking orders and serving while she concentrated on seating people and clearing away.

By adding multiplayer and co-op play it completely rejuvenates a classic casual game and makes it more addictive than ever before. Generally the game is easy to navigate and is easier than using a mouse and keyboard. It is very responsive and everything seems to flow easier than on the PC.

Graphics


The graphics for this game are good. I was pleasantly surprised and personally think it is much better than the graphics on the PC. Everything is clearer and more defined and makes it easier to play. I have played this using both HD and without and of course HD is better but to be honest it works just as well without. All in all it is a bright cheerful game that is of course basic but clear.

Audio


The audio it is repetitive and can be annoying, especially for anyone else in the room who is not actually playing the game. In fact, I lost count of how many times I was asked to turn the volume off. This is not to say that it is bad but more that it is similar to any other casual arcade game and so the audio does not stand out as anything special. After playing with the audio on I soon turned it off and put some music on instead as playing without the game audio does not take anything away from the game’s playability.

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Wallace & Gromit Episode 2 – The Last Resort

November 12, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under PC, Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

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Overview

Title: Wallace & Gromit Episode 2 – The Last Resort

Release Date: 04/11/2009 (XBLA), 05/05/2009 (PC)

Developer/Publisher: Telltale Games

Genre: Family, Puzzle & Trivia

Platform[s]: XBox Live Arcade, PC

Storyline

After ridding West Wallaby Street of the Giant Bee menace in the relatively successful Fright of the Bumblebees, Wallace & Gromit are all set to embark on a well-deserved holiday – but a freak thunderstorm and a burst water main in the basement force the plasticine duo to stay at home. A brutish Scotsman and dastardly plot threaten to ruin things further, but as usual W&G set out to save the day in their own bumbling, innocent fashion.

Gameplay

For anyone who played Fright of the Bumblebees, you’ll be pleased to know that the control system remains exactly the same (a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), giving an overall feel of consistency to return players. Newcomers will find things easy to grips with however, using LS to control your onscreen character, the left and right bumpers to cycle through the onscreen objects and X to call up your inventory.

Your job is to guide the title characters through a series of charming puzzles, using a combination of items and NPC’s in order to make it through each one. For instance, the first major hurdle you’ll come across is ridding Felicity Flitt (your neighbour and possible love interest) of an amorous Scotsman attempting to take her to the beach for the day. Felicity refuses to budge due to the weather, but the Scotsman will not leave her doorstep until he’s convinced a thunderstorm is on the way. Using Wallace’s love of cheese and a conversation elsewhere, you receive a delivery of Stilton that causes his stomach to rumble, dampening the Scotsman’s advances on poor Felicity and sending him on his way.

Things rarely get more complicated than this, and despite a few random solutions, answers are generally handed to you on a plate – but then W&G is primarily a family franchise, so it’s the sort of thing you can see the kids sticking on with Mum and Dad after a Sunday lunch, suiting the core demographic quite nicely.

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Graphics

Consistency runs throughout The Last Resort, with it clearly using the same graphics engine from Episode 1. We believe Telltale have given the gameworld a bit of a spit shine too, with everything looking crisper than before – the small dimples and imperfections in the plastecine characters are there, and in certain situations you can still easily forget you’re playing a game and are watching an interactive version of the show. Despite the small odd graphical glitch and dodgy bit of lip-synching, we really can’t fault TLR’s graphical flair.

Audio

The Last Resort excels sonically as well, with the guy standing in for Peter Sallis making another star turn out as Wallace. All the characters from …Bumblebees return, along with Duncan McBiscuit, the rampant Scotsman and this episode’s bad egg. Each of the characters are still voiced impeccably and don’t sound out of place in the W&G universe, but certain sections of the dialogue do feel a bit hackneyed and are, in some cases, actually quite cringe worthy.

Overall Score & Replayability

Wallace & Gromit fans will love The Last Resort, and anyone who played and enjoyed Flight of the Bumblebees will too. Its instantly accessible interface and big, bold style overall will entice kids and (dare we say it) casual gamers in for a quick bash, and in some ways it’s a funnier, better looking  and more enjoyable jaunt through the W&G universe. However, it really is just more of the same and those looking for a more cerebral challenge or who found nothing attractive about Episode 1 will have no need to download this. We would, however, recommend this over and above …Bumblebees for anyone looking for a few hours respite from the upcoming onslaught of Modern Warfare 2.

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Tower Bloxx Deluxe

October 29, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under PC, Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

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Overview

Title: Tower Bloxx Deluxe

Release Date: 21/10/2009

Developer/Publisher: Digital Chocolate

Genre: Family, Puzzla & Trivia

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade, PC, Mobile Phones

Storyline

The city of Sunnyvale is in decline. The population is shrinking and its shops and businesses are closing down – and that’s where you and your avatar come in!! Using the cheap and affordable Tower Bloxx of the title, you’re tasked with rebuilding Sunnyvale’s towns and villages in an attempt to improve the population count and get the wheels of industry turning once more in this colourful, kiddie-lite puzzler. Digital Chocolate are well known for making simple, fun and kid-friendly titles on both PC and Mobile, and Tower Bloxx Deluxe is it’s first foray into console gaming. Based on a simple flash game for the PC where you have to drop living quarters (or Bloxx, if you prefer) on top of each other to create blocks of flats, the Deluxe version takes things into the third dimension and adds a few different game types to mix it up a bit.

Gameplay

In keeping with the original, TBD’s gameplay is extremely simple – your Avatar controls a crane that drops levels in a tower block on top of each other, with the key being to place them as squarely as possible – press A to drop your block, new residents begin to fly in on umbrellas (Mary Poppins style), Sunnyvale gets its economy back and everyone’s happy. But, things aren’t that simple – successfully landing your blocks on top of each other requires a keen eye and quick reactions, as off-centre placements will cause your building to start swaying (disturbingly, this doesn’t discourage people from brollying in) and you’ll soon find yourself locked into a battle of wits as you try to predict how sharp the sway of your building will be compared to the swing of the block you’re waiting to drop.

Points are scored for every block you drop successfully, and if you manage a perfect drop it encourages more new residents to move in to your building, increasing your overall population and score multiplier. If you miss a block it tumbles to the ground and, if you’re very unlucky, it may even knock a few levels off your tower, decreasing your population and score. It’s a fairly annoying prospect at times, particularly if you’ve spent ages antagonizing over the perfect time to drop your block only to watch it sail off into the distance, knocking out a few floors as it goes.

As you progress through the main story mode, you unlock new tower types offering more floors and extra residential spaces, adding a subtle strategy element to the proceedings – each town is made up of a grid and you decide which colour towers to place in each slot. Each tower has to be placed correctly (red can only sit next to a blue, for example), and some micromanagement is involved with rebuilding old towers with new blocks that encourage more residents to move in, capitalizing on space and resources.

Alongside the main game, Digital Chocolate have thrown in a local co-op mode (presumably in an attempt to get kids and their parents gaming together), where one player drops the blocks whilst the other nudges the off-centre ones into place. There are also 4vs4 local matches available, Time Attack modes and a Single Game where you’re challenged with building as big a tower as you can, eventually ending up in space where new residents zoom in wearing astronaut suits and jetpacks. Surprisingly, there is a complete lack of Online play – but you can send your friends a challenge to beat your score in the single build-as-big-a-tower-as-you-can mode, but we can’t help imagining what an online co-op session would be like.

Graphics

Matching the simple gameplay, TBD’s graphics are bright, bold and undeniably colourful – making it an instant winner with the kids. The overall look and feel is very My Sims, and the addition of Avatars as residents is a nice touch. Progressing from the hustle and bustle of the city into the sky and then into space is quite an amazing journey, and the little touches (like the astronauts and jetpacks) make a big difference and show some care and attention to detail has been taken. The Avatars themselves aren’t overly well animated, as most of them seem to statically glide across the screen into the buildings, but most of the time you won’t even notice.

Every now and again a prompt to press Y to “watch” will appear, and these opportunities focus in on an Avatar wandering around on the ground to an aeroplane circling your building – they’re all delightfully random but we can imagine little ones will enjoy these minor diversions. The swing of the buildings is also convincing, but it makes you wonder A) why they don’t topple and B) people keep moving into them, even when you’re 150+ blocks deep and in outer space…

Audio


Sonically, TBD continues the kid-friendly feel with cute (see: grating) music that bumbles happily along in the background, convincing you that the wheels of industry and turning and that you’re actually getting something done. In outer space the soundtrack goes all “out there” with the kind of weird noises that you would hear (we imagine). When you place a block perfectly, a whole bunch of Avatars fly into your building with a Lemmings-esque “wheeeeee”, which never fails to raise a smile, and the other incidental sound effects (aeroplanes buzzing about, for instance) all fit nicely into the game.

Overall Score & Replayability

Although it’s an extremely simple game, it does take some getting used to, and it won’t be long before you’re retrying towers over and over again, or challenging your friends to see who can build the biggest – plus there’s some tantalizing achievement points on offer (build a tower of 100 blocks, for example) which are worth hunting down. The lack of online multiplayer is a downer, and we can only see Tower Bloxx Deluxe being played in small bouts – it doesn’t lend itself to long play sessions as things can get too repetitive, even for the least ADHD-affected kid you can muster. To be fair, the 800MSP price point is a bit high when you look at the overall quality of the game, and bar something to keep the little oiks occupied over half term we can’t see this having much long-term value.

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Panzer General: Allied Assault

October 22, 2009 by Susan Taylor  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Panzer General: Allied Assault

Release Date: 21st October 2009

Genre: Strategy/Card Game

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade

Developer/Publisher: Petroglyph Games / Ubisoft

Storyline

Panzer General Allied Assault follows the last two years of World War II. It is June 1944 and America has joined the Allies in the war against Germany. It is up to you to gather your troops and march across the battlefields to defeat your opponent. You will take the beaches of Normandy, fight for victory in the Battle of the Bulge and seek to take control of strategic German cities in Operation Lumberjack.

Gameplay

If you loved Magic: The Gathering, than this is the next game for you to buy. Panzer is a strategical card game played on top of a board game setting. The object of the game is to commander a large unit of troops across the board to defeat your enemy. As this is a strategy game you really need to concentrate on thinking tactically, as one wrong move could cost you the lives of your men.

There are three game types for you to choose from – Campaign, Skirmish and Multiplayer. The campaign is your basic singleplayer mode as you work through the story of the war up to it’s end. Skirmish gives you control over what map you play, which faction and side you play on and even the objectives for the game. Multiplayer is what it says on the tin, online gameplay with others.

It is clear from the start that Petroglyph Games have put a lot of thought into how they would set up Panzer. With an in-depth “How to Play” system and a tutorial that is very easy to understand, this game can be easily picked up and enjoyed by gamers who are new to this genre. I personally found  Magic: The Gathering, to be a bit overwhelming, but Panzer has given me the chance to get my teeth into a decent card-based strategy game that has clear and concise instructions on how it is meant to be played.

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“Prestige” is the currency of the game, which is can be earned by taking over neutral/enemy tiles (which is rewarded to you at the end of your turn) and destroying enemy units. Prestige is used to buy new cards to add to your hand. You are given four new cards at the beginning of each turn and may hold as many cards in your hand as you like, but you cannot purchase new cards once you are holding ten. There are two types of cards that you can hold, Ability Cards (Action and Combat) and Unit Cards.

Unit Cards hold the key to game, without access to your troops you would have no chance in beating your foe. Units range from light infantry to heavy artillery. Each card has important information about your Unit; it’s health, defense, attack and any special support bonuses they offer the rest of your troops.

Action Cards can only be used during your main turn and not during combat. They require you to select a specific target on the board depending on it’s action. For example, you may want to call in a bombardment to destroy an enemy unit that has taken hold of a town you need.

Combat Cards can only be used during combat and never your main turn. You can use as little or as many combat cards as you please during combat, just thinking carefully about your choices.

Before each game you are given a mission briefing and objectives that need completing. Most games have more than one objective, but you do not have to complete them all to win the round. In fact, all you need to do is complete ONE objective to win.

The game begins with each person setting up their units onto the board and each player takes a turn to begin moving their troops across the map to achieve their goals. Combat arises when a unit is adjacent to an enemy and the decision is made to attack that enemy. This is where you can now use your combat cards to influence how the battle goes. Panzer has a very useful combat display at the top of the screen that shows the health, attack and defense values for the two units locked in combat. This game also goes one step further and shows you the potential values if you use X, Y or Z combat card.  So instead of a unit being able to retreat, you can select the correct card to use and the display will update to “Unit Will Die.”

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Once your combat card selection is done, you are then given a chance to sacrifice any card from your hand to further increase your attack or defense values. You may think you have the upper hand in combat with an attack of 20 versus your enemy’s defense of 10 and health of 5 – But if your enemy then sacrifice a card which increases it’s defense to 15 and you’ve not increased your attack power, than you have wasted a whole turn as you will not damage your enemy at all! So think wisely and seal their defeat by picking the right card to sacrifice in the moment of need.

Don’t think it’s over yet, there is one last aspect to combat that can be the make or break of your attack and that is the die roll. Once you’ve played your combat cards and sacrificed a card a single die is rolled, with a range from -2 to +3, which is then added/removed from the attack value. I was all prepared for a unit to die, but with the roll of the die my enemy’s attack value was decreased by 3 points and my men lived to see another battle.

Another great aspect of this game’s combat system is the supporting unit structure. For example, if you have a group of Paratroopers trying to destroy an enemy tank (which would be impossible to do alone), any of your units that are within range (tanks, artillery etc) are able to take part in the combat and increases the attack value, working in your favour. This means that placing your units around the board randomly is a bad idea – You need to think tactically!

Once you have successfully destroy an enemy unit, you are given the choice to either gain a certain amount of Prestige or to take that amount from your opponent. You are also faced with the decision of advancing forwards onto the tile where you enemy just stood. Sometimes it is in your advantage to move onwards and take it over, but if your enemy wasn’t defeated and merely retreated back than you may be in for some trouble.

There is a section for you to customise your deck (which feeds the hand you hold), but the system itself is quite confusing and Panzer has lost a few points from me here. As you progress through the Campaign you unlock new cards to use and, if you’re anything like me, you want to give those new cards a test-run on the battlefield… Good luck finding them!

Graphics

As this game is an Arcade game, don’t go expecting mind-blowing graphics with top-notch cinematics, because there aren’t any. None of this take away from the game itself as, to be fair, Panzer is a board game and I don’t think you could really make the game look anymore like a board ‘n card game than it already does.

Each map is based on famous battles and battlefields from World War II and although they aren’t exactly picture-perfect, they are interesting nonetheless and the terrain tiles match the terrain of that location. Panzer is a very colourful 3D game which doesn’t have cringe-worthy pixel in sight.

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Audio

The musical score is very similar to what you would hear in other movies and games based around World War II, big brassy sounds and notes that inspire you to battle onwards to victory!

Sounds effects include troops shouting commands such as “Return fire!”, the sound of the waves, a seagull flying above, planes overheard and the sound of gunfire off in the distance. It’s the small details like this that really get you into a game and I am glad great attention was paid to this.

Overall Score & Replayability

Panzer General: Allied Assault is a highly addictive game if you’re the type of gamer who loves a) card games b) strategy games and c) World War II games. With a very steep learning curve, even the novices of this genre can pick this up for 800MS points and enjoy the pleasures of taking down their foe through their mind alone. Be sure to try out the multiplayer side of Panzer as well, especially if you’re an achievement whore looking to get a few new points to their name!

It is a shame that this game can be fully completed in a very short amount of time and has very little replayability within the single player mode and unless new maps are released (highly unlikely) than even the multiplayer mode will soon grow repetitive and tiresome.

That being said, if you’re looking for a nice little game to get addicted to for the meantime, definitely give this game a go.

Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space

October 21, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space

Release Date: 14th October 2009

Developer/Publisher: Telltale Games

Genre: Action & Adventure, Puzzle & Trivia

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade

Storyline

Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space is the follow up to Sam & Max Save The World, the undeniably well-received rehash of LucasArts’ classic point and click adventure series. Consisting of five brand new episodes centred around Alien abduction, Christmas and Easter, Beyond Time and Space carries on the classic Sam & Max tradition of zany humour and off the wall puzzles as everyone’s favourite Dog/Rabbit combination continue to carry out their esoteric brand of personalized criminal justice…

Gameplay

Fans of Save The World will be pleased to know that Telltale Games have left the control system well alone, meaning that the same sublime, easy to use interface is still all present and correct. This means moving your cursor (cleverly designed as Sam’s hand) over objects and NPC’ s and interacting with them via a push of the A button. Some objects are collectible (which then usually end up being combined with some other obscure item), while most are just there for Sam or Max to make some random (and regularly laugh out loud funny) comment on. When interacting with the other colourful characters in the S&M cast, a dialogue box containing a range of amusing and off the wall questions and statements will appear. Some are useless, while others must be selected in exactly the right sequence in order to progress, and it’s here that the game begins to slip up a little.

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The meat and bones of any decent adventure game are its puzzles, and again, Sam & Max has them in spades – ranging from the obvious to the downright unbelievable, we guarantee you will spend many a frustrating hour trying every single combination of object; retracing your steps and scouring every room just in case you missed something beforehand. Anyone who played the first game will know the kind of off the wall humour and puzzles a Sam & Max adventure will bring, while new players may struggle getting to grips with the regularly too-big-for-it’s-boots dialogue and twisted reasoning behind a large portion of the brain teasers on offer. Obviously pre-empting this (and perhaps from listening to feedback from the first game), Telltale have dropped in a number of amusing min-games to keep you occupied and break up the clicking action while pondering your next move. From driving sections to Whack-A-Rat, these are a welcome and fun distraction when you’re totally stumped with the main game, but potentially risk conjuring up that tagged-on feeling in diehard Sam & Max aficionados.

Graphics

Bouncy and cartoony in style, Beyond Time and Space retains the stylized visuals running throughout the entire universe, capturing the comic book feel superbly. Lip-synching is a sore point, as not much effort has been put into making the cast “speak” their dialogue, but most of the time you won’t really mind as the whole thing just looks so damned beautiful.

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Sound

As before, all the characters in Sam & Max are voiced wonderfully – and no expense has been spared in delivering another snappy set of scripts, which beggars belief as to how the writers manage to come up with this stuff in the first place, and just how much they’ve got stored in their locker for future releases. A minor complaint (if you must have one) is the quality of some of the speech is a bit “bitty” in places, sounding like a dodgy mp3 file played through a bad sound system.

Overall Score and Replayability

Fans of the series will love Beyond Time and Space, as it delivers the same insane puzzling action and characterization as before, and offers a good 20+ hours of gameplay across the five episodes. The fact that the overall package doesn’t bring anything new won’t make much of a difference to those fans, but in this age of accessible achievement points and all too easy gameplay, some people may just be put off by the 1600MSP price tag.

South Park: Let’s Go Tower Defense Play!

October 21, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

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Overview

Title: South Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play

Release Date: 7th October 2009

Developer/Publisher: DoubleSix

Genre: Action & Adventure, Strategy & Simulation

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade

Storyline

Once again the peace and tranquility of everyone’s favourite Colorado mountain town is in jeopardy as Ginger Kids, Hippies, Cows, Aliens and a variety of other colourful characters from the South Park universe launch an unexpected attack, and (as usual) it’s down to Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and Stan to build the last line of defense and save their town from total annihilation…

Gameplay

As the name suggests, Let’s Go Tower Defense Play is a Tower Defense game – but instead of being restricted to just building and upgrading towers (like Defense Grid, for instance), you also control one of the four main characters as well. This adds a slightly different dimension to the gameplay and opens up brand new strategy options, whereby you fight alongside your towers as well as racing between them to build more and upgrade the ones you already have. Coins are dropped when you kill certain enemies, and these are the resources you use to build and strengthen your defenses. Towers fire a range of different projectiles, from Baseballs to Lasers, and later on in the game a range of enemy specific towers become available, changing your strategies even more.

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Each of the four main characters on offer fire a range of snowballs (Cartman’s snowballs are slower but more effective, while Stan sacrifices strength for a higher rate of fire, for instance), and each has their own special ability which can be triggered when enough enemies have been killed. Cartman can clear the screen, Smart Bomb like, while Kyle increases everyone’s rate of fire and strengthens their attacks.  Flicking between the characters is easy, with a simple tap of RB moving to the next character inline. This is a handy mechanic, as you can move your teammates around the screen and once placed, they will not move but attack any enemies that come near them – and with the sheer number of enemies on screen at any one time your allies position can be crucial. If an enemy slips past your defense, then they damage the town – and once the town’s health drops to zero (represented by a bar in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen) it’s Game Over.

Graphics

LGTDP is absolutely spot on and true to the series in look and feel, with clearly the same animation techniques used in the TV shows employed here – perhaps even harking back to the early (slightly better, in our opinion) days in places. The range of enemies on offer can be daunting, and with such a rich universe to draw on they are varied and many. Death animations are suitably gory, with heads and body parts flying all over the place in spectacularly bloody style, with not a hint of slow down to be seen at all. All your favourite South Park locations are here as well, from Stan’s front yard to the School playground and so on. It all adds up to a visual feast for the eyes that should get the fanboys and girls salivating, although those expecting animated cut scenes will be disappointed, as levels are introduced with a series of still, comic book-style panels with voiceovers instead.

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Sound

Despite the lack of the full South Park theme tune, 99% of the time the action on screen is so hectic that it’s hard to notice the incidental music that skips along happily in the background to each level. As the game was developed in conjunction with South Park Studios all your favourite characters are voiced as they are in the series, and each has an amusing repertoire of comments depending on the situation they’re in. Although it doesn’t play a big part in the game, there are a few swears (usually from Cartman) which parents should be aware of before letting their kids get involved in the action. The little bits of waffle between levels is also pretty amusing, with Cartman providing most of the laughs as usual.

Overall Score and Replayability

To start with, Let’s Go Tower Defense Play is great fun as you build and upgrade your towers and pelt enemies with your team mates, all wrapped up with the trademark South Park humour and stylized animation. Things do get very boring very quickly, as games invariably degenerate into serious A button abuse as you hammer snowballs at your enemies, and unless your preparation is spot on before the match starts the amount of bad guys that slip past you and damage your town is frustrating, to say the least. There are 15 playable characters to unlock as you progress, as well as short video clips and other bits and bobs that become available when you earn medals and complete challenges, but even fans of the series will find working their way through the game to unlock them all hard going.

Star Trek: D.A.C.

September 21, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

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Overview

Title: Star Trek: D.A.C.

Release Date: 13th May 2009

Developer/Publisher: Naked Sky Entertainment/Paramount Digital Entertainment

Genre: Shooter

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade

Star Trek. You either love it or you hate it. You’re either one of a legion of millions of Trekkies around the world who go to conventions regularly dressed as Sulu, Data, Uhura or Bob from Engineering, or you’re one of the millions of people who cannot stand it or the one billion spin off’s the franchise has spawned since the original series premièred back in the sixties (even though Deanna Troi made The Next Generation very watchable). I fall into the latter category, and despite my generally dismissive attitude towards the Star Trek universe as a whole, the fact that J. J. Abrams has got his very talented paws in on the action (and not forgetting that I’m also a sucker for a big Spring Blockbuster at the Cinema) sparked my interest enough for me to volunteer to review Star Trek: D.A.C., which is available for download now on XBLA.

Disappointingly enough, the game is only based very loosely on J. J.’s film or the universe as a whole. It features none of the original cast, none of the new cast and almost certainly Bob from Engineering will NOT be making a cameo appearance – but instead, Star Trek: D.A.C. (Deathmatch-Assault-Conquest) does exactly what it says on the tin and avoids following the usual tried and tested third person action/adventure movie spin off angle by crafting a rather nifty little top-down online Team shooter.

Gameplay

First of all – DO NOT play this on your own. The computer controlled AI is rubbish, and you’ll find yourself swearing at it in anything except Team Deathmatch. Star Trek: D.A.C. is designed as an online multiplayer, and should be treated as such. Right…there are three different (but very standard) types of timed game on offer – the first being Team Deathmatch (self explanatory), followed by Assault (a two-round game, with the first round consisting of you trying to take down your opponent’s four bases while they try to defend, while the second round reverses the roles) and then Conquest (a Capture the Flag style game, where each team has two bases each and must defend their own whilst taking over their opponents bases).

The idea is again a very standard one, pick a side (Starfleet or Romulan), pick a craft and get stuck in. You die, you respawn elsewhere on the map. Each side has three different types of Craft on offer, although they are the same in everything but aesthetics, regardless of which side you pick.The slow but powerful Flagship (which looks like the Enterprise, if you play on the Starfleet side) takes a lot of damage and uses a targeting system with the reticule controlled with the right stick, but requires a modicum of pre-emption as it will only fire in the direction of your reticule and does not lock on. The Bomber is fairly nippy and prone to damage more easily, and is held back by the fact that you can only drop bombs behind you, requiring a slightly more tactical approach (laying covering bombs around the outside of an enemy base while your teammates capture it inside, for instance), while the Fighter is a very nippy little bastard packing the only “traditional” laser style weapon in the game, only let down by exploding too easily.

Each craft uses RT to fire, LT for a short-lived speed boost and the left and right bumpers to use your power-ups. These appear as yellow glowing orbs around the maps which, once collected, give you different powers such as a cloaking device, smart bombs or a doppelganger that mirrors your movements.There are also health packs you can collect, indicated as white glowing orbs. Pressing Y brings up a realtime overview map of the action as it happens.

It’s very much Online Team Shooter business as usual, but it’s execution is very smooth and even though it takes a while to get used to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the different Craft on offer you will find yourself assessing the situation at each spawn point and attempt to pick the right Craft, before giving up and just opting for the Flagship instead as it takes more damage.

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Graphics

There’s not much to say about the graphics apart from they are simple but effective. You’d be best off playing this game on a large HD telly, as the minuscule fighters can be hard to pick out against some of the backdrops at times. Each map has a theme, however they all really just look the same but with different colour schemes and obstacles in the way – although they do look nice and get the job done well enough. Some of the explosion graphics are quite satisfying (unless it’s you being exploded), and each of the power-ups have their own distinctive thing going on.

Audio

Again, not much to speak of – the usual “epic” score (presumably lifted from the film) and laser/explosion sound bites, but you will have to rely on your Live Friends impersonating Scotty badly (I cannae do it, Cap’n – I just doont have the poo-er!) to give it that authentic Trekkie vibe.

Overall Score & Replayability

So there you have it, nothing groundbreaking and (potentially) a waste of a good licence but at least Naked Sky decided to do something a bit different with it instead. Priced at 800 points it may be seen to be a tad on the expensive side, especially when it offers nothing new – but if you’re bored of GoW2 or Halo and fancy something different in a multiplayer stylee it may be worth a look, although I would suggest grabbing the demo for a taster first.

Now, where’s my Bob from Engineering costume…

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Defense Grid: The Awakening

September 8, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Defense Grid: The Awakening
Release Date: 02nd September 2009
Developer/Publisher: Hidden Path Entertainment
Genre: Strategy & Simulation
Platform[s]: XBLA

Storyline

Defense Grid is a tower defense game – for those of who don’t know what that means (and I expect that’s the majority of us out there), remember the scene in Aliens where they set up automatic machine gun units to see off the Xenomorphs?  That more or less sums up the genre. Obviously, this game isn’t that easy, but it is based around the premise of your home planet being under attack from aliens, and while everyone else has (wisely) done a runner, you are the only one left ready to take on the aliens, with the help of your onboard computer, who sounds suspiciously like Geoffrey out of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

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Gameplay

Your job is to protect your planet’s power cores from the Lost Planet/Starship Troopers-esque aliens on a variety of differently staged maps – each map holds your power cores, a series of empty spaces for you to place your weapon turrets and entry and exit points for your adversaries. Simply select an empty slot for a turret, hit A to bring up the weapon select screen and then A again to build your turret – it really is that simple. The kicker is that as you progress through the levels, each map springs newer and progressively harder layouts for you to decipher – with the onus on getting you to think strategically about where to place your turret, and which type of weapon to go for.

Weapons range from your basic gun turret up to Tesla Cannons, Rocket Launchers and Flamethrowers – each with its own strength and weaknesses, and each needing to be precisely located in order to get the best out of its firepower. This leads to a large amount of frustration as your best laid plans go to waste within minutes of the aliens entering the map, as they nab all your power cores and run off laughing at you. If all your power cores are removed, the Defense Grid powers down and that’s it, game over. The aliens themselves are many and varied, and range from annoying little blighters who are easy to dispatch, to massive boss-type characters who are slow and meandering, but heavily armoured and able to take a massive (and quite disturbing) amount of damage before giving up the ghost.

Defense Grid is all about resource management – you begin each campaign with a preset amount of money which you can use to place turrets, and each time you frag a bad guy, your resources go up and you can purchase more turrets or upgrade the ones you have. You can trade in (or sell, to quote the game) any turrets you currently have on screen, but by doing so you will only receive a percentage of their worth back into your resource wallet, encouraging you to think long and hard about each turret’s use before you place it – which, in the heat of battle, is not always an easy thing to do. For a game that only requires you to point and click, Defense Grid is one hell of a frantic experience, causing untold amounts of panic as you watch that unbeatable defense you spent ages strategizing over cause less than a blemish on your enemies – but when a plan does come together, it produces a warm, fuzzy glow and is quite simply one of the most rewarding effort to payoff ratios of anything currently on Xbox Live.

Graphics

Simple, yet effective was obviously Hidden Path’s mantra when creating this game, as you view the action from a diagonal-top down angle quite similar to Populous or Theme Park. Each map is well designed and looks different, and range from industrial areas to volcanoes and so on – you have three zoom levels, and even when you’re focused right in on the action with literally hundreds of aliens and weapon effects on screen at any one time, there is next to no slow-down. Loving touches like heat haze coming from your flamethrowers or the alien’s shields add to the effect, and you can quickly identify each alien type as it runs on screen. The only complaint we had was making out exactly what was going on when things got particularly hectic – at some points it’s literally impossible to see your enemies amid all the flame, Tesla fire and explosions, but as long as they don’t come out the other side then hey, that’s a good thing!

Sound

Defense Grid sounds good – each weapon sounds different and even when you’re on a completely different side of the map it’s comforting to hear your Lasers and Rocket Launchers firing off elsewhere. Add to this the suitably urgent musical score and it’s very easy to feel that you are actually orchestrating a massive defense bid against a seemingly unbeatable alien force. And your computer’s Hooray-Henry English accent is brilliant.

Overall Score and Replayability

All in all, Defense Grid is a very tasty package – along with the 20 standard maps, Hidden Path have also included the Borderlands expansion pack, offering an additional four maps for you to defend. Each map from the main campaign and the expansion pack has several challenge modes added on top of the standard story mode, which offers you well over 100 different scenarios to conquer. Add to this the 800MSP price tag, and the fact that XBLA is responsible for bringing yet another hidden gem onto our HDD’s and Defense Grid is pretty much a must-buy. It harks backs to the halcyon days of yore when games were as they should be, simple yet effective – it will draw you in and keep you there until you’ve conquered that map and believe us, you will WANT to conquer each and every map…download, now.

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