Condemned 2

XBOX 360/PLAYSTATION 3
Sega

www.sega-europe.com

If the recent Manhunt 2 debacle says anything about the current videogame climate, it’s that upcoming developers need to exercise extreme caution when approaching violent content. That game was made an example of, not simply due to its explicit content, but rather its unforgiving tone in which there seemed to be no explanation for the horrific acts of brutality the player is forced to commit.

You’d have been excused for foreseeing a similar fate for Condemned 2 based on early previews and screenshots. In actual fact, Monolith developed the game in close contact with the ESRB, and as such were able to release the game uncut and with an 18 certificate, on time and in full. No one wants to see their game made unavailable to the public in the pursuit of making an artistic or rebellious statement.

Condemned was a superb title and arguably the most terrifying videogame of all time. Monolith successfully blended psychological horror with the first person shooter format, toying with the senses in a torturous fashion that made the game at times almost unbearable to play. Footsteps were heard popping across the floors above, UV lights revealed the sinister scrawling of a serial killer, lipless bodies in lockers muttered and shop floor mannequins creaked to life. It was a real step forward for the genre, a new form of horror in which the player was placed at ground level, pushed reluctantly around some genuinely macabre and isolated environments and forced to engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Anticipation is understandably rife for the sequel; the player again returning to the mind of Ethan Thomas, now a hallucination plagued drunk forced back into work in order to save the city.

Aesthetically, Condemned 2 has taken a notable step-up from its predecessor. The rankness of the game’s opening environments is palpable if a little constrained, employing a sublime motion blur and swaying, bumpy camera to effectively evoke its first person viewpoint. The in-game audio is tuned to an astonishing degree; the city’s inhabitants have a lot more abuse to throw at you this time round; the game’s otherworldly creatures providing an unsettling soundtrack to their grotesque appearance. Crime solving is another area where the game excels, forcing you not only to accurately evaluate crime scenes, but also tuning you in to both the story and your own common sense.

As such, you’ll be deciding whether that bloody mess came as a result of an entry or exit wound, whether the body is male/female or police/SCU/civilian or even alive/dead, whether the deceased jumped or were pushed; it’s certainly an involving process for which Monolith must be applauded. There are a plethora of new weapons at your disposal, from bowling balls to medieval swords, foosball rails and the iconic electric conduit. The mechanics of combat have also been significantly enhanced. You’re now able to perform combos, QTE induced chain attacks, parries and counters, and of course the all-new environmental kills. Your skills can now either be taken online or into the Bloodshot Fight Club, in which you fend off waves of possessed bums in the hope of making it onto the game’s leaderboards.

Unfortunately, the game falls flat in the atmosphere department. Anyone hoping to return to the state of mind induced by Bart’s Department Store in the first game will be bitterly disappointed. Although there are a few jumpy and unsettling moments, there is a greater emphasis on gunplay in Condemned 2; Ethan’s dependency on booze to maintain a straight shot becoming a frustrating hindrance to the otherwise smooth flowing gameplay. As the nonsensical plot careers from one twist to the other, you’ll be dragged from a doll factory to a country lodge, a clinical morgue to a burlesque theatre, the enemy types adapting accordingly.

It makes very little sense, eroding the sense of logic and progression felt in the first game. Attempts to vary the gameplay a la Half Life 2 are occasionally inspired but more often than not feel broken and by-the-numbers, with one sequence involving a nailgun falling particularly short of expectation. Worryingly, there are moments in which the game becomes so dark it’s impossible to see where enemies are coming from, particularly in the hallucinatory ‘oil creature’ sequences.

Towards its unsatisfying close, Condemned 2 really begins to lose the plot; the game’s interesting additions to its forensics sequences and combat system buckling under the weight of an ultimately uninspiring videogame. You were terrified and enthralled by the first game, but by the time you’re using an assault rifle to shoot a helicopter out the sky or using a super-sonic scream to dispose of enemies in the sequel, you’ll be seriously wondering what could have been.

6/10

Jon Beach

Burnout Paradise

PLAYSTATION 3/XBOX 360
EA

www.ea.com

The Burnout series has never really dipped below anything less than complete excellence since its EA takeover. Constantly moving forward, the franchise has done for racing what Gears of War and Resident Evil 4 have done for third person shooters. Sitting comfortably between the hardcore appeal of Gran Turismo and the rampant fun of Mario Kart, the series has constantly innovated since its conception in 2002, throwing a middle finger to traditional racing convention. Burnout Paradise is no exception.

In this latest installment we have a Burnout title that feels both entirely familiar and completely different to previous updates in the series. Criterion has taken the Burnout concept (drive extremely fast, smashing into as much as possible) and dragged it kicking and screaming into an open world environment. The experience is seamless, devoid of menus or loading times.

Each event is accessed by stopping at traffic lights within Paradise City, accessed entirely at the player’s leisure and personal preference. The city itself is a sprawling metropolis, teeming with jumps, shortcuts, tunnels, hills, skyscrapers, junctions and streams of traffic, the locations of which are discovered through extensive play. It’s a dip-in, dip-out experience, evoking a wonderful sense of evolution within the proceedings, though not one which will sit immediately well with everybody.

As your knowledge of the city becomes greater, your skill improves alongside it. A failed race will be eventually won by a country mile once you know the locations of the jumps, boost-filling gas stations or the life giving qualities of the Auto-Repair. It’s certainly a bold move, especially considering the fact that you can’t restart an event once you’ve entered into it, nor are the racing routes explicitly defined. The lack of hand-holding may irritate those who want to trash the competition from the outset, the irony being that no event in the city is too irksome once the city is learned to a moderate degree.

There is immense satisfaction to be had by dipping into a subterranean shortcut discovered only moments prior, watching the rest of your opponents speed blindly off into critical second sapping territory. Fail an event, however, and you can simply drive to the next, each one taking you further into the gameworld, ensuring that each traffic light-instigated smash up remains fresh and exciting, enhanced by the sheer beauty of the city itself.

Paradise City simply begs to be explored. Running at a gorgeous 60fps, sun rays and sparks have never looked quite so exquisite, and Burnout has never felt quite so fast. It’s quite breathtaking at times; a feeling enforced by the lack of course boundaries. Keeping a firm eye on the compass and an ear out for the automatic indicator can mean the difference between a mark on your licence or a pile of rubble.

There have been a number of content revisions alongside the radical change in structure, too. ‘Show-Time’ mode replaces the crash junctions of Burnouts past, activated at any time or location; dollars awarded for the amount of destruction and the length of the chain. It’s easy to start pining for those preset crash junctions, but this is a satisfying and welcome addition to the series, easily fulfilling one’s desire to tear vehicles apart. Cars are no longer awarded with progression in the same way as previous titles, but rather must be hunted down; appearing at random locations throughout the city after the player has successfully engaged in a number of scenarios. New event ‘Marked Man’ sees you hunted down from one end of the city to the other by a trio of sinister black vehicles, hell-bent on smashing you up before you reach your destination. Learn the locations of those Auto Repairs, folks.

The emphasis on exploration and player evolution alongside some galling omissions such as the Signature Takedown, Aftertouch mode and the Crashbreaker mean Burnout Paradise will sadly never satisfy everyone. It’s a bold decision from Criterion, taken in parallel with the ever evolving face of the industry. Critically, this is exactly what next-gen Burnout needed to be; those willing to make the journey to Paradise City will find a manic playground from which they may well never depart, engulfed by a sense of sheer smashtastic excellence typified by the series. One can only wonder where Criterion will take us next.

9/10

Jon Beach

Manhunt 2

Playstation Portable
Rockstar Games

www.rockstargames.com

Those lovely people over at Rockstar Games certainly know how to create a stir. Their titles are consistently dragged over the coals by sections of the media, fuelling anxiety in the minds of concerned parents and politicians the world over. Titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Canis Canem Edit are key protagonists in a fervent debate dealing with the supposed harmful effects of interactive media.

The moral panic leading up to a new Rockstar release is simply profound, but perhaps more striking is our inability to avoid the arguments whether you play games or not. Of course, the hardcore gaming crowd are unlikely to be swayed in their opinion by the deranged rants of the Daily Mail, but with Manhunt 2, it seems the other side have won. Banned outright in the lead up to it’s release in this country by the BBFC, but eventually released in the States on condition that several cuts were made to the game’s content, Manhunt 2 may never have seen the light of day at all. It’s not the first time a videogame has been treated in this manner, but rarely has a gaming product caused mass debate on this level.

Should responsible adults be prevented from playing the game? Is it not down to bad parenting if a title clearly aimed at adults falls into the wrong hands? Is pixellated violence any less harmful that the ‘real’ violence we see on our cinema screens? These questions will never be definitively answered, and i’m certainly not going to try. The question I intend to answer is one that has probably been overlooked amidst the rows and court cases, and it’s one that many critics of Manhunt 2 and gaming as a medium would do well to try and answer, once they’ve calmed down and had a cup of tea. What’s the fucking game like?

Let’s answer that question with another question. Remember when your parents told you about how terrified they were by The Exorcist, or how sickened they were by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Remember the disappointment when you actually saw these films decades after their original release? That’s what playing Manhunt 2 is like. This isn’t to say the aforementioned works aren’t great pieces of cinema, or even that Manhunt 2 is a particularly bad game, because it’s not. It’s just an incredibly average one.

Playing as mental patient Daniel Lamb, it’s clear that the game’s opening environments are just as menacing as the BBFC made out. The flickering lights of the asylum and an S+M club lifted straight out of Hostel are two particularly striking examples of the game’s dark side, but once you move out of these atmospheric, dread soaked settings the game turns very bland very quickly. This isn’t helped by the fact that the storyline simply doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor. The deranged whisperings of Starkweather in the original Manhunt were genuinely threatening, but Daniel Lamb’s story simply isn’t as engaging. The narrative jumps back and forth throughout the game which marrs any sense of immersion offered by the game’s early stages.

Crucially, there’s not as much reason for the violence here. Lamb does not have a psychopath breathing down his neck every inch of the way forcing him to commit the brutal acts witnessed in Manhunt 2, though the game significantly ups the ante in terms of violence. You’ll get the chance to burn, suffocate, bludgeon and even castrate your victims at various points in the game, but ultimately there’s less reason to do so. Cynics may be tempted to accuse Rockstar of resorting to shock tactics to sell the game. They could be right.

However, Manhunt 2 does feature some interesting mechanics to compliment the stealth based gameplay, most notably the QTE’s which occur as an enemy stares into your hiding place. They add a considerable level of tension in the game’s closing stages, especially as the gangs become more powerful and numerous. You’re also able to perform ‘environmental’ executions which require an added level of skill. Luring an enemy near these areas takes patience which is ultimately rewarded by the brutality of these types of execution, and you’ll have to know the environments fairly well if you want to perform them. Good ones to go for are the manhole covers and industrial mangles. Ouch.

Sequels can go either way. The problem with Manhunt 2 is that it exploits the aspects of the original which gave it notoriety rather than those which made it an entertaining videogame. As such, the sense of threat which made the original feel like a snuff movie is lacking here, and the nagging feeling that Manhunt 2 is a wasted opportunity is resident throughout. This title could and should have revitalised the stealth genre; inventive in part as the game is, it’s a shallow, depressing and ultimately dull experience.

5/10

Jon Beach

Super Mario Galaxy

Nintendo Wii
Nintendo

www.nintendo.com

The year is 1997. There’s an excitingly large present under the Christmas tree. It’s rectangular, bulky, exactly the shape it should be to fit your dreams. You’ve been thinking about it for months. The day finally arrives, and in front of your smiling family you tear off the wrapping to reveal a brand new, factory sealed Nintendo 64 console and a copy of Super Mario 64.

You deal with the lesser priorities of the next few hours with difficulty. Grandma has had her kisses, the Bond film draws to a predictable close, and the cracker toys are discarded on the carpet with the Quality Street wrappers. Christmas dinner feels like forever. Your parents give the all clear, and you tuck the lusciously weighty package under your arm and bolt upstairs.

Each slot of a new connector into your television set feels like sex. The adrenaline is palpable. It’s on. The first sounds: a coin being collected, and ‘It’s a-meee, Maaaarioo!’ You don’t know whether to follow the on-screen command and press start, or spend hours bending Mario’s stunningly rendered face. You do it with a sense of vague reluctance for a couple of minutes, chuckle slightly, and press start. You load your first game. Peach has a voice too. ‘Mario….please come to the castle…i have baked a cake for you’. Lakitu gives you a lengthy tour of the castle grounds accompanied by some sweeping orchestral music.

Come on, come on……Mario bursts out of the apple green pipe with the same sound effect you’d been hearing for years past. The camera settles, and your thumb gently pushes the analogue stick. Mario moves. Your heart is in your fucking mouth. Mum pushes her head through the door. ‘What’s it like then, Graham (or whatever)?’ You tell your Mum in not so many words that you can barely contain the sense of wonder and awe, let alone describe it. You share the next few hours with your new favourite video game, grinning from ear to ear with every second that passes.

The year is 2007. A decade has passed since your original experience with Super Mario 64, and you’ve been gagging for a sequel ever since. The Gamecube brings with it an element of hope in the form of Super Mario Sunshine, and although the game holds your attention for a good few months and is undoubtedly a superb videogame, it doesn’t quite bring the same magic as that original leap into 3D a few years ago. You’re not that fussed on the F.L.U.D.D. mechanic, nor the strangely trippy character design. You scour the gaming media for any new information on a true sequel. Miyamoto seems content to toy with the hardcore fans; hinting that a true heir to Mario 64 is indeed in the works. The Gamecube era comes and goes. Finally with the first real details of Nintendo’s revolutionary new console, it’s announced. Super Mario Galaxy.

You’re not quite sure what to make of the new gameplay elements seen in the new demos, or the fact that it’s set in space. You wonder whether placing their new project in space is the ultimate last resort for creative moguls running out of ideas. Your anticipation, however, remains feverish. Each month that passes brings new delays, but finally, nearly a year after the Wii’s launch, Mario Galaxy hits shelves. Early reviews suggest that this is Mario’s true return to form, but you attempt to restrain any hope until you can experience the game for yourself.

You are astounded to find upon playing the game that you are experiencing those same feelings of pure joy as you did a decade ago. The storyline is typically thin, but this is Mario, not Tom Clancy. You find yourself chasing small bunnies on a sphere, and are surprised to find that though this is an inherently simple act, there’s something so right and yet so alien about Galaxy that you can’t put your finger on.

Maybe it’s the disorientating feeling of running underneath the planet, knowing the game’s gravity system will keep you in place as tightly as you attempt to keep Mario in his. You’re not sure. Your first few galaxies are met with similar joy. The wonderfully playful, awe-inspiring soundtrack seeps its way deep into your brain. Each ten minute segment of play seems more enjoyable that the one before it, and within these are a further series of classic moments that you know you’ll be experiencing again and again in attempt to recapture that original sense of splendour.

You marvel at those gameplay mechanics you doubted back in March, whether it’s using the remote steer a ball-riding Mario through a frustrating yet immensely satisfying obstacle course, or dragging him through a spike infested ghost chase. Each hugely entertaining yet slightly short-lived boss encounter, inventive new environment, secret and surprise entices you to rifle through the game, poking your fascinated nose into every nook and cranny. It occurs to you that you never want Super Mario Galaxy to end. You realise that once again, you can barely contain the sense of wonder and awe, let alone describe it. You share the next few months with your new favourite video game, grinning from ear to ear with every second that passes.

10/10

Jon Beach

Skate

Playstation 3 / Xbox 360
EA

www.skate.share.ea.com

When the first images of Skate appeared in the gaming media approximately one year ago, an entire community covered their mouths, stifled their gasps, and clenched their fists. Their reactions were perfectly justified. In an era where it is impossible to underestimate the power of the screenshot, Skate‘s minimalist but lavishly detailed preliminary images set forums alight.

The fact that these grabs consisted of little more than two feet on a board was largely irrelevant; the cultures were unified in their pursuit of a skating game without 10,000,000,000 point combos, fantastical web-slinging flip tricks, guns, cars, or the always insufferable Steve-O. The promise of a back-to-basics approach to skateboarding which focused on capturing the very essence of the culture and of the technicalities of the sport was met with wild anticipation. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Birdman’s monopoly over videogame skateboarding is in serious jeopardy.

Skate effectively revitalizes the skater’s videogame with a sense of cool that is impossible to ignore. You’ll realize this as soon as Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions begins playing over the impeccably stylized menus, but it’s not until you hit the park that the full extent of EA’s work here can be realized. Skate uses a control system similar to Fight Night’s Total Punch Control, and thankfully it’s just as intuitive. It’s called the ‘Flickit’ system, and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. Flick the analogue stick sharply upwards, you’ll ollie. Gently push it backwards, manual. Forwards, nose manual. Your thumbs effectively become your feet, and though controlling your skater in this manner will seem slightly unwieldy after all those years of single-button Hawk tricks, you’ll be grabbing and grinding in no time.

The perfectly implemented control scheme is one thing, but the real triumph here is the feeling of genuine satisfaction when you finally nail a trick that has previously been bailed several times. It’s testament to the quality of the development and the scope of the environment that even skate veterans will be able to challenge themselves over and over again; each grind, jump and flip requires pinpoint timing.

And with skate, there’s even more reason to do so. You’re able to initialise a 25 second recording session at any point in the game, which once recorded is yours to edit and toy around with as you wish. Once you’ve perfected a trick and sorted out the camera angles, why not upload it to skate.reel? There, you’ll find a flourishing online community in which only the most eye-watering bails and sickest-of-the-sick runs are applauded. Who knows, you might even make trick of the week.

Aesthetically, the game is in a class of its own. The animation, cloth physics and sheer scope of San Vanelona in all its gritty urban glory are sights to behold, but the sounds are equally as impressive; featuring both a stellar soundtrack and sublime in-game audio in which every surface is represented with a unique sound. It’s a shame, then, that the PS3 version features a nagging drop in frame rate, particularly when viewed against the seamless quality of the 360 version, but it’s safe to say that even these issues will do little to pick your jaw up off the floor.

Skate is an achingly satisfying videogame experience, marred only by a slightly limited career mode, but in terms of its representation of the sport as a technical endeavour, the title succeeds with aplomb. For now, it’s simply peerless. Bring it on, Birdman.

9/10

Jon Beach

Heavenly Sword

Playstation 3
Ninja Theory

www.heavenlysword.com

Just like the summer months they rode in on, the first wave of Playstation 3 titles has come and gone. Whether we were marveling at Motorstorm or simply resisting Resistance, the prospect of playing Singstar all Christmas is not sitting well with PS3 owners who are rightfully demanding a yuletide plethora of triple-A exclusive titles to play on their shiny black behemoth. And whilst this golden waterfall of games may not be engulfing the sea of unhappy gamers just yet, they can certainly pass some of the time with Ninja Theory’s much hyped Heavenly Sword.

This latest PS3 exclusive is an action adventure in the vain of Ninja Gaiden, God Of War, and Devil May Cry, and though its worth mentioning that Heavenly Sword never quite reaches the giddy heights set by the aforementioned franchises, it is certainly an enjoyable videogame in its own right. The generically overblown plot places you in control of an attractive redhead named Nariko, and chronicles her attempts to protect the sacred Heavenly Sword from the evil tyrant King Bohan.

It’s worth mentioning that the story is told particularly well; the game makes use of some refreshingly convincing and passionate voice acting which compliments Heavenly Sword‘s jaw-dropping cut scenes. In terms of in-game visuals however, it’s likely that a few PS3 owners will be left wanting, though the destructible environments and sheer number of enemies on screen at once are certainly impressive. It’s just not quite what we’ve been led to expect, either from Sony’s high-spec machine or the title itself, which has undoubtedly fallen victim to the hype machine in this respect. The scale of the environments on show here have been humilatingly bettered by its influences from the generation past, namely God of War, although there are rare occasions where Heavenly Sword is reminiscent of even Ico in its majesty. Strong words indeed.

Unfortunately for Heavenly Sword, the gameplay also falls somewhat short of expectation. Nariko’s sword feels flimsy; you never feel like you’re truly kicking enemy behind in the same way as Dante or Kratos. Couple this with a combo system which only reveals its true potential some way into the game, poorly implemented Sixaxis control (I found it easier to simply turn the motion control off during the game’s many ‘aftertouch’ sequences), tedious boss encounters, repetitive puzzles and troubling pacing issues and you’re left with a title that struggles to live up to both consumer expectation and the passion that’s clearly gone into creating it. Furthermore, forty pounds is a cheeky demand in exchange for the six or seven hours of adventure experienced with Nariko and Kai. The game is far too short.

There is enjoyment to be had with Heavenly Sword, but there’s a nagging feeling that the title needed to be twice as long to fully exploit this. The game doesn’t feel rushed however, what’s here is worthwhile despite its flaws, but any gamer worth his salt will wait for the imminent return of Dante and Ryu to satisy their brawling tendencies.

6/10

Jon Beach

Medal Of Honor: Airborne

XBOX 360
EA

www.ea.com/moh

It is difficult to imagine a gaming landscape devoid of the World War 2 sub-genre; such is its popularity with consumers and the alluring quality of its key titles. The current generation is a perfect place for the legion of the genre’s ardent fans to shoot, snipe and stab their way through WW2 locations and re-enactments, and titles such as Call of Duty 3 and Battlefield 1942 have come closer than ever before to fully realizing the war experience.

Medal of Honor, however, is the title that started it all. Never before had war been so accurately or strikingly realized than when the original game appeared on Playstation back in 1999, and after a few dips in quality (Rising Sun, anybody?), the series is blasting its way into the current generation. Can WW2 gaming’s flagship title do enough to revitalize a rapidly stagnating genre?

The answer is, for the most part, a resounding yes. You can tell from Airborne’s outset that its developers have been asking themselves the right questions. The difficulty with the WW2 genre is that the nature of the subject matter leaves little room for innovation by definition; other than realizing different cosmetic ways of fully immersing the player in the experience. Airborne introduces an entirely fresh gameplay mechanic, and drops you from a sweaty air carrier into a living, breathing battlefield. Gaming does not cut in and make the process any easier; this is WAR, and war stops for no man. As such, the action occurs on all sides of you constantly, your only safe landing spots marked out by green flares.

The developers effectively show you the melting pot, and then ask you where you think you should be landing without getting too killed to shit in the process. This naturally calls for a more tactical approach; drop too far from a safety zone, and you will be shot. Lots. It’s all gravy though, because getting shot is something you’ll have to get used to doing in Airborne. The enemies in the game’s sprawling battlefields will not hesitate to pop caps in your Allied ass if they find you meandering across open space, shooting wildly in every direction. Take cover, make the most of your squad members, aim carefully and effectively, and you might just live to see your wife and kids again.

Airborne is an incredibly immersive videogame, gleaming with typically stunning EA presentation in every aspect of its makeup. Attention to detail in this title is second to none. Bullets crack and whistle past your helmet, your squad members bark instructions and chatter amongst each other, your character’s muddy hands grab for nearby support should you botch a parachute landing; the title has clearly benefited from the grunt of the new generation of consoles.

The game is by no means perfect, however. There are occasions upon landing when your squad are nowhere to be seen, miraculously reappearing after several minutes of solitary battle against the incredibly accurate enemies (how the HELL did he see me from all the way over there!?), the heads-up indicator that informs you how far a recently thrown grenade is from your person does not appear whilst sniping, meaning you have to listen for that awful clinking sound to avoid getting blown into effing Narnia, which is not always that easy due to the amount of in-game noise at any one time. The game is also over far too quickly, expanding over just six chapters and the take-it-or-leave-it online options.

Ultimately though, this a stunning return to form for the Godfather of the WW2 shooter. Challenging, immersive, and genuinely playable, Airborne should set the precedent for forthcoming titles of the genre. More please.

8/10

Jon Beach