Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Seven laps of 4K motorsport

Forza Motorsport 7



Platform tested: Xbox One S & Xbox One X

Review: This review will be kind of unique, as it's been released prior to the release of the Xbox One X, Microsoft's new and world's most powerful. Thus I have played it a while on my Xbox One S and then have waited to play it further until my Xbox One X arrived. I can then compare the two, and it will probably be my only review doing this, considering I'll be playing titles from now on with the XB1X.

Last year saw the Forza franchise reach perhaps it's highest critical acclaim with the arcade thrills that was the Horizon series third game. FH3 delivered a truly fantastic racer and gained a lot of well deserved popularity, even outside of the typical motorsport enthusiasts too. As for the Motorsport series, the change from going from the pretty, but barebones launch title FM5 to the fleshed out and huge FM6 was a big jump. FM6 was a game I put a serious amount of time into, probably one of my most played racing games in the last ten years. Lots of tracks, night and rain weather added and tons of cars. Going from FM6, and the recent FH3, was always going to need a large change to impress. Lets take a look and see if FM7 delivers this.





Homologation. It's a word you'll get familiar with in FM7, albeit it's aggressive wish to homologate your car; basically auto-tune your motor to meet a racing cup's rules. Luckily the amount of variation in leagues and racing genres make FM7's main singleplayer less forced and one-sided than FM6's. This time you can choose between lots of different cups to enter with a variety of car types within FM7's impressive 750+ cars. It's a huge amount of motors that has been built up an added to the total number throughout Xbox One's Forza games. These racing cups allow the player to play at their own difficulty and assist level. In other words, it's about winning cups to earn points towards unlocking new cars and even more cups to join.

The lack of awarding a player for not activating rewind, using no ABS brakes, no racing line etc. is a little disapointing though. I really liked the added bonus of extra XP for those willing to risk more for a difficult approach. The only difficulty you can earn more points in here is to adjust the AI level up. It's a sad omission and coupled with the forced homologation to enter a cup makes FM7 restricted in it's own way, as if adjusted towards more casual players. I don't mind all the assists and the gradual learning curve for casuals, no please do try to get more people interested in traditional driving on race tracks, but don't hamper down experienced players. They could easily have had a casual/veteran option to allow one or the other, plus rewarding players wanting to play the game more realistically.

There's a few very welcome additions outside of the varied singleplayer though, when compared to FM6; dynamic(ish) weather and new race tracks. Real life circuitss that are new for this iteration is the Japanese favourite Suzuka Circuit and Italy's Mugello, plus Virginia International Raceway, which was a DLC to FM6, have been added. Fan favourite fantasy track Maple Valley does a very welcome comeback to the series from way back in FM4 and a brand new Dubai circuit, winding it's way over deserts and into speedy motorway tunnels under Dubai Int. airport is a nice and beautiful looking addition. Where Prague was FM5's showcase race track and Rio was FM6's equivalent, Dubai is FM7's showcase, stunning circuit to speed around!

FM7 really has a nice balance between real racing circuits and fantasy ones, plus the weather can now be partially dynamic in singeplayer races. Going from nightime to early morning, sunsets rise, rain starts pouring and goes away again etc. It's nice additions to make a race feel varied and exciting to play after endless races. I would have liked fully dynamic weather though and options to add any type to custom races, as it stand the dynamic weather is mostly locked to the singleplayer cups.






Xbox One/Xbox One S vs. Xbox One X


It would only be fair to have a little comparison here since I've played the game on both systems. Firstly FM7 on the One/One S benefits from getting an anti-aliasing solution applied, probably carrying over from the Horizon series. Jaggies appear less harsh and the picture gets a softer look. Amount of grass and texture quality though, seems to be somewhat downgraded if I went all the way back to FM5. I'm guessing its just a matter of priorities and nothing you'll notice much when racing. FM7 is otherwise a fantastic looking title on the stock hardware and impressively has dynamic weather while maintaining that rock solid 1080p@60fps.

So how does it look on the X? The first and most apparent change is the extremely clean native 4K image, gone are the jaggies and flickering on edges and objects in the distance. Fences with lots of tiny details look clean all the way into the distance. Cars don't change their level of detail in the distance either, which is important when the viewing distance is so much sharper into the horizon in 4K. There's also a new texture set making all the environments and road surfaces look super detailed and sharp. Grass effects are boosted too. The lighting just shines better in 4K, allowing for tiny details like reflections on various surfaces seem much more pronounced, best example of this is how all the small individual stones in the tarmac reflect.

So it's all about the sharpness and cleaner picture, especially in the tiny details on screen. In 1080p they just blur into each other, in 4K they shine individually.  Everything from the tarmac beneath your car to rich of details like the cockpit with outstanding detail to it's material surfaces. 4K is perhaps most pronounced when you go closer to your screen, at a distance afar it isn't as clear apart from the vast reduction of shimmering and jaggy edges compared to 1080p. It's all about the viewing distance and size of TV really. 4K benefits strongly if you are close to a screen and have a big TV.




Going back the game review, regardless of system:

When it comes to downsides in FM7, my opinions may come down to slight franchise fatigue, or the fact that I played so much FM6 and FH3 that I feel FM7 doesn't really engage me as much as it should have. Sure, this is the version to go for if you have none of the previous Motorsport titles on your XB1, plus a showcase for your XB1X and 4K TV, but otherwise it just didn't blow me out of the water. Played yourself tired of FM6? Well then there isn't much here for you if you're still on a One/One S console.

Missing stuff like the coop option, custom numberplates or fully customisable cups from FH3, disappoints me too. I would have enjoyed being able to activate a more pro setup to the singleplayer modes, letting me build cars from scratch myself. Focusing on choosing the right parts to tune the most out of a standard car rather than be forced in to homologation. I'd also have liked to see more new car models, not previously seen in Motorsport or Horizon games, but I guess they are locked away in DLC car packs. They might all be small complaints, but as a eager Forza player, they are ones I wish they'd took into consideration. Oh, and I need to mention the loading; it's terrible. Although it's slightly faster on the XB1X, they are just so long. Navigating menues during the loading doesn't really negate the fact that the loading is beyond acceptable.

Although the most obvious jump from FM6 to FM7 will be on the XB1X version, it still offers a nice racing package for those on One/One S platforms. The added AA helps keep the game from looking aliased and the new tracks and dynamic weather are a welcome sight, the jump in resolution, draw distance and texture quality though make the XB1X version the most desirable for console owners. It helps give the game a sense of a technical jump from FM6 too, while the standard version doesn't do this as much, though this is expected being the third game on the same hardware platform in a series.

FM6 was going to be a hard game to surpass, thus perhaps dampening my excitement a little for FM7. It's by no means worse or a bad game compared to FM6, in fact I'd recommend this over it any day. But it doesn't feel like a significant jump other than the extra technical improvements the XB1X brings to the table. A must-have for new X owners for sure, I mean it's a beautiful looking native 4K game running at 60fps locked which is mighty impressive when looking the competition like Project Cars 2 or Gran Turismo Sport, but for One/One S owners there are other cheaper options to purchase if you look at the older Forza games.

Rating

★★★★

    + Plus points

    • Singleplayer is a lot more meaty and varied this time around, the number of cars and tracks is huge.
    • Although limited, the dynamic weather brings visual variety and excitement to races.
    • Super sharp and rich 4K graphics for those that upgrade to a Xbox One X, stunning detail for those with a base One and One S too. 

    - Minus points

    • Very strict vehicle rules to races, homologation feels more limiting than necessary.
    • Not a huge upgrade for One/One S owners over FM6.
    • Insane load times, there's a ton of waiting around for each race to begin.

      Wednesday, 29 November 2017

      Diving into the world of 4K

      So I bought a Xbox One X...



      ...and here's a quick and dirty update to give my impressions of the Project Scorpio edition that arrived perfectly on time on the worldwide launch on 7th of November.

      First impression out of the box is that it's quite a bit heavier than the S model. Same shape and, impressively so, size. Considering the vastly improved hardware that's inside the weight isn't really a shock; they've crammed in a lot of power in here! Design wise it's the same minimalist and stylish design idea brought over from the One S. In fact the two share a very alike appearance, with the the ability to be placed vertically or horizontally.



      My version of the X is the Project Scorpio limited edition with a printed fade from black to grey across the length of the console. Printed in green is the Project Scorpio logo, this is also printed on the controller which has black face buttons rather than coloured ones. Inside the box was a vertical stand, but other than that there's little else unique to this edition apart from the visual fade to grey theme. Project Scorpio was the codename for the Xbox One X project, rumoured also to be the name of the final product. It's cool to have a reminder of the Scorpio build up before launch with this specific edition. The normal XB1X has a plain black colour and includes a standard Xbox One black controller with coloured face buttons.

      Swapping out your old Xbox One or Xbox One S is super easy if you use an external harddrive: simply transfer all games, pre-download 4K assets prior to moving console and then transfer you profile via an option to the external HDD. Power down the old console and simply reconnect it up again on the X model. Quick and easy. If you are new to the Xbox One family, well, enjoy; you are about to get the best visual experience of all the unique games to the system, as well as the best version of multiplatform games on console from now on.



      What does the X do though? For starters it's a huge power upgrade in the Xbox One family. Going from the One/One S, we're talking almost six times the GPU power (that's the graphics card) and a increased CPU to run games in native, or close to, 4K. Four times the resolution of 1080p, but there's also a large increase in available memory; meaning better textures and more detailed environments in games. One could almost consider it a new console generation entirely and one can wonder if distinct generations will fade out to more progressive hardware upgrades in the future, but that's a discussion for another day.

      The X is fairly steeply priced, it's looking to aim for those customers who still want to play on consoles but want a share into the superior PC visuals. All Xbox One games run on both standard One and One S, with specific X patches that enhance the games in numerous ways. Rest assured, all games can be played on all systems in the Xbox One family, it's just the visuals that separates the games running on the X from the One/One S. The first line-up of enhanced titles give us a indication that the visuals are right up there with the high/highest settings on current PC games, a treat for us console players that want to show off some pretty visuals on our TV's!

      Older Xbox One games that don't specifically receive a X enhanced patch will have forced V-sync with more stable framerates and 16AF texture filtering for clearer and less muddy visuals, making even those older titles look improved. Games with framedrops should also run better on the X thanks to the increase in hardware power. Backwards compatible games benefit strongly too, some 360 games have even got X specific patches that run them at 9x the original resolution, making them look incredibly sharp, including the aforementioned 16AF and locked v-sync. Original Xbox games run at an increased resolution too, further boosting their visuals as they are two generations apart and need these benefits for modern HDTV's.



      Other than that, Xbox one X is familiar territory; same menues as the other Xbox One family of hardware, controllers are the same and all your digital and physical games work. Included is also a UHD drive, jsut like the One S has, making it possible to use the console as a media hub for UHD Blu-Ray movies and 4K streaming services.

      If you don't previously own a console from this generation I would highly recommend going for this one, as it's the one built for the best visuals and equipped to handle the graphical upgrades for many years ahead. If you already own a One or One S it's all about the question of your need for a 4K and visual upgrade or not. If you are a owner of a new 4K TV it's worth it to have the benefits from that, although 1080p TV owners get a sweet and very clear supersampled picture though the X.

      All in all, an impressive and powerful piece of hardware from Microsoft, the most powerful console yet made with a lot of focus on making older titles improved and offer a lot of options regardless if you own a 1080p TV, a 4K one or even a 1440p PC monitor. There's a ton of games getting updates to really sweeten the deal and with Microsoft's latest focus on making Xbox and PC players play together across platforms even PC players looking into upgrading a gaming PC could benefit from buying this and setting it up with a monitor on a desk.

      If power, super sharp resolution and graphics, plus great posiblities for going back to older generation titles is your thing; well then I'd highly recommend the X. Not only have they merely future proofed their console franchise with beefier hardware, but Microsoft have also gone the extra mile to let gamers upgrade their current Xbox favourite titles and let developers choose how to use the power the way that suits them.

      Tuesday, 31 October 2017

      A handful of horrors

      The best seasons for gaming



      So it's autumn, Halloween, dark nights and the winter cold is sinking in. In other words the best season to be playing videogames; lots of new releases, no guilt for refusing to leave the house and a perfect atmospheric backdrop for the scary games in your collection. I usually dig into one or two horror titles through the autumn and winter months, and probably will this year too. Last year saw me replay the first Resident Evil for the uncountable time, uniquely enough on the Sega Saturn for the first time, and the sequel RE2 on PlayStation.

      Let's take a look at five of my absolute favourite horror games then, warmly recommended to be played on a freezing night, under a warm blanket, headphones dialled up loud and with the lights turned down low. These games hit the sweet spot between horror, atmosphere, unique elements and an interesting story I feel. So in no particular order, lets dig in:


      Alan Wake



      Remedy's dark, Twin Peaks, Stephen King and Scandinavian summer inspired horror game takes it's own take on the genre and turns it into something unique and cinematic. Heavily narrated, you play the author Alan Wake as he's pulled into his latest novel and has to live through it. This is probably my favourite of Sam Lake's scripts in Remedy's games, where it's perfectly balanced between a captivating story and engaging gameplay.

      It's as much about surviving the dark as it is understanding the significance of light; both when playing and understanding the story. The desperate fights against viscous enemies coming out of the dark keeps you at your toes as you are required not only to shoot your enemies, but weaken them beforehand with a light source. This combination of attack methods helps the player from becoming to powerful and the game less one-sided on just serving the player gun battles. Juggling the torch for light and firing the gun at the right time is challenging in a good and unique way.

      Traversing the beautiful american countryside with lakes and pine woods gives the player a great sense of how well nature is depicted, how large and daunting it can seem and pulls you in to show how dark it can become too. Scandinavians alike will recognise this atmosphere too with the same type of grand and unforgiving nature.

      Alan Wake is one of my favourite horror games as it combines jump scares with a more desperate survival approach as you fight your way to the next light source lost in woodlands or an old buildings. All while feeling like you're actually taking part in some Stephen King like horror novel written about you playing and discovering things. Alan Wake's strong side lies in the atmosphere and the way it builds it up and conveys a believable world without necessary being having the most gameplay depth or variation.

      Alan Wake is available on both Xbox 360, Xbox One (hopefully with a resolution boost on the X) and in it's prettiest form on PC of course.


      Resident Evil



      It may be the textbook answer to all things horror in gaming, but nothing quite beats that feeling of turning up at a seemingly abandoned mansion in the middle of the night after being chased there by wild dogs though a dark forest. There's a curiosity that constantly drives you further into the creepy mansion, even though you are scared as hell. You want to know what the hell is going on, and why you encounter zombies roaming the many rooms and halls.

      I love the non-linear and open approach to exploring, where puzzles and enemies keep you at your toes throughout. One new key found unlocks the previously locked doors and so on. It's breath of fresh air from the A to B games of modern times.


      RE1 still stands as an amazing and unique game even today, with a fantastic ambient music score to build the eerie tension and atmosphere even further. Although the control scheme may be dated, it works well with how the pace of the game goes and the fixed camera angles. While I always have the fondest memory of the absolute original from 1996, the REmake from 2002 does an equally fantastic job for new players to convey the exact feeling of horror and excitement new players did back in the 90's.


      RE1 is easiest available for the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn in it's original form, but I strongly recommend a CRT screen to play on considering the pre-rendered backgrounds. The REmake is widely available for the Nintendo Gamecube, though I'd strongly recommend the HD remastered version on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC as a easy way to play it with the best picture quality and even a simpler control scheme for those intimidated by the old tank controls.



      Silent Hill



      Another PS1 classic I fondly remember, it's Konami's take on survival horror following Capcom's huge Resident Evil success. SH1 takes the jump scares from RE in a far more psychological direction with a constant eerie feeling of the unknown. SH1 is more about  holding the player uneasy in a world that gradually becomes more dark and weird. It shifts fantastically from the normal, foggy world of the Silent Hill town, to a harsh, dark and metallic other-world. These transitions make the game unique and incredibly unnerving. SH1 is very unpredictable, changing the game world as it pleases, never letting the player settle to safe areas or known variables.

      Where the original RE trilogy was a scientific approach to horror, SH1 is a unatural and haunting approach. Often delving into the consciousness of the main character, questioning if what you are seeing is reality or not. What I love about SH1 is how it puts you in this seemingly deserted town, then begins shifting between the light and dark, slowly pulling you deeper into the other-world. You want to escape, but you are simply pulled further in and become increasingly exhausted and worn down by being there, both for the main character and player alike.

      It blends a small open town, with different buildings to explore. Locations like an old school and hospital have their own mini-maps and help shift the environment locations around. While the main game moves you through determined locations, within each they feel distinctly non-linear, just like RE1 it's about being fairly open to players, with a constricted structure behind it to help drive the story forward.

      SH1 is either available to play in the original PS1 format or as a downloadable game on both the PSP, Vita and PS3.


      Dead Space



      The first and best of a series that went for an action approach that ruined the concept for me. DS1 places you on a spaceship where something has gone terribly wrong. Crawling with nasty alien creatures that transform the dead into horrendous creatures roaming the ship. DS1 looks incredibly disturbing at times; dark rooms, flashing alarm lights and creepy aliens crawling and shaking uncontrollably around, as they rise up out of most open cracks in the walls, ceilings and from dead crew members and attack you. It's definitely many disturbing memories I have from this game!

      The shooting mechanics make the game play differently from other third person shooters; it's about cutting up the aliens with your blade firing weapons. Chopping off their limbs in the right way to take them down. It's brutal, requires precision and leaves you vulnerable when your ammo is low. Key factors done right to keep the tension high and your character vulnerable and less over powered.

      The spacestation is designed with lots of detail and interesting areas, there's also some really cool exterior, no-gravity, space walks along the way. Although you're always in one set locations they have made a lot of visual variety regardless. The only factor which brings a damper is that the game separates itself into mission screens for each area, breaking some of the tension. The strange thing is the whole spaceship is available to travel too, regardless of what the current mission wants you to complete.

      Easily available for Xbox 360, which works backwards compatible on the Xbox One, PS3 and PC. The latter is probably the way to go to get the prettiest result, but all versions work.


      Alien: Isolation



      The best movie tie-in game I have ever played. Alien Isolation is blueprinted after the first and best Alien movie. The environments and spaceship interiors are painstakingly close designed to the 70's sci-fi interiors of the movie. Everything feels like you are playing and being in the sci-fi classic, only with a unique story that follows after the events of the first movie. The atmosphere  is done fantastically, the first few hours alone before the even meeting the Alien are great too, supporting the fact that this game is incredible at conveying fear.

      You're stripped of weapons in Alien: Isolation and it's the key towards not only desperately feeling what survival is but actually understanding vulnerability. The pure fear of seeing the Alien creep out of a ventilation shaft with the metal scraping sound they have as they open, is just something that sends chills down my spine. Constantly being hunted by a vicious creature that suddenly can start running towards your location is just terrifying. 

      The game brilliantly succeeds at breaking your nerves down as you are physically sweating while looking down at your radar and seeing if the Alien is nearby as you are desperately trying to mend something for your escape. Probably the scariest game I have ever played. There were times I was completely nerve wreaked, giving no notion to being quiet anymore and simply running for an exit, behind me the sounds of the Alien running towards me! The immersive camera shaking and tilting around corners let the player really feel immersed into the surroundings.

      It does outstay it's 20-25 hours lifespan in some parts and could maybe have done with some more variation, but it doesn't weigh down the sheer intense atmosphere this game delivers. Alien: Isolation is strongly recommended and available for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC. If you're on console I'd recommend going for the current generation versions though.


      Bioshock



      Just like how the first Resident Evil pulled you into this unique setting, making you wonder what the hell is going on, Bioshock times this by ten. The impressive in-game graphics and playable intro that sends the player from a plane crash into the sea, discovering a lighthouse and then taking a mechanical lift to a city beyond beneath the surface; is just as incredible as it sounds. Standing there, in this 1920's inspired Art Deco world where everything has gone to ruin without the outside world knowing and wondering how you get out is just a perfectly unique experience and what horror games is all about.

      While it may not be as horror focused as the other games here, there's a consistent atmosphere which builds an unsettling feeling throughout. There's always some new and messed up discoveries of the underwater world that takes your comfort zone away. It's about survival, exploring, fixing things with puzzles on your road to escape which makes Bioshock a perfect game for this list. There are jump scares here too though, keeping you at your toes. And what are these small, creepy little sister girls walking around, guarded by huge Bid Daddies wearing old fashioned diver suit and wielding a huge drill?!

      Although Bioshock is first person shooter, it blends in a form of magic and limited ammo. These extra abilities make gunfights very different from your average shooter. Enemies standing in water? Electrify the water. Or maybe they're standing in oil? Ignite and burn it! How about sending an insect warm at them or hypnotising one of the Big Daddies?

      Bioshock is available in original format on the Xbox 360, also backwards compatible on the Xbox One, PS3 and PC. There's also a remaster available on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.


      Summary


      Well there's a handful of classic horror titles to play, if you haven't done so already. Warmly recommended for the dark and cold seasons of the year. Just remember to play them in the right conditions to soak up that atmosphere; dark room, preferably with earphones and during the evening or night!

      Friday, 13 October 2017

      The fall of futuristic racing

      Retroactive review(s): Four futuristic, generation six, racers


      The futuristic racing genre was beyond doubt at it's most popular peak in the fifth generation of consoles. The popular wipEout games by Psygnosis inspired many other developers to jump on the bandwagon, with various results. WipEout lead the way as it focused on a more mature age group, blending in the music and visual style from the rave culture, with a dark and gloomy futuristic vision of racing.

      The true beginning of the genres popularity though, began a whole generation before on the 16-bit Super Nintendo with F-Zero. A technical showcase for the SNES' Mode 7 pseudo 3D graphics and an incredibly solid anti-gravity racer to boot. With it's fast pace, catchy music and fun, but unforgiving gameplay, it inspired titles like wipEout and the racing genre in general, immensely.



      While the 32/64-bit consoles in the fifth generation offered a F-Zero sequel, four individual wipEout games and other classic series like Rollcage and Extreme-G. The rumours of a new generation of consoles built excitement for how the next step in the genre would be. How would these fast futuristic racers look on far superior hardware and with developers being far more familiar with 3D games? One could only imagine.

      Yet, when they arrived something happened, while some failed to deliver good quality in general and others were highly praised titles, they failed to create a huge impact. The commercial success of the genre fell from grace. Gone were the system sellers, launch day specials and technical marvels that were F-Zero for the SNES and wipEout for the PS1.

      This write-up is about four of the main titles in this time period, that grew out of the rise and craze of the 90's. Wishing to build the popularity and push the technical envelope further into the early 2000's, but ultimately sparked the fall of that very genre they wanted to progress. While there are other examples in the sixth generation, I've picked out four I feel represent the genre the strongest in their own ways. Spanning across the three main consoles from that generation.


      The bargain bin gem: XGIII: Extreme G Racing



      Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
      Release year: 2001

      Beating all the other three titles I feature in this article to the finishing line; XGIII: Extreme G Racing was the first released. WipEout Fusion had been postponed a year after an intended PlayStation 2 launch game schedule, opening up an opportunity for this fairly popular Acclaim racing series from the Nintendo 64, to slip in and take it's throne as the first true futuristic racer on the PS2.

      The two previous Extreme G titles had risen as competitors to F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64 during the huge wipEout craze on the PS1. They featured futuristic motorbikes rather than anti-gravity ships like the competition. The first game even predates wipEout 64 and as such became N64 players alternative option to the genre and with a wide range of titles in it, made the N64 a fine futuristic racing home if you didn't own a PS1. While the Extreme G games received fairly positive reviews, they were always looked on as slightly b-list third party titles.

      XG3 delved onto the PS2 early on then, most likely aiming at capturing all those early console buyers seeking for a similar experience on new hardware. XG3 would later see a release on the GameCube too, keeping to it's Nintendo roots. This early PS2 release was a smart move, and one that I would miss entirely as I waited for my wipEout fix. As such, I played this game for the first time recently, without those thick, rose tinted, nostalgia glasses on.

      I found the game visually appealing from the get go, especially considering it's such an early PS2 release. It has a sharp picture quality and what seems like a fairly okay 60fps framerate. The tracks are large and scale into huge bends far into an impressive draw distance. There's this orange and purple colour scheme with a neon-lit city going on in the first track, which pulled my attention in quickly. really like the flame and heat effects behind the motorbikes as you race too! Since XG3 is based on motorbikes, the camera tilts a lot in first person view, working much like how most motorbike racers do. I found the outside camera more appealing though and easier to race with, especially when the motorbikes and their flame effects look so cool!

      Accompanying the pleasing graphics are probably the best designed menues of the bunch of games I'm reviewing here. They look stylish, are easy to navigate and read, plus they have some of that flair games like this need. Although they don't quite hit the design highlights of The Designers Republic's WipEout 2097/3 menues, but then again they were in a league of their own. Hired in for the soundtrack are the electronic music gurus of the time; British record label Ministry Of Sound. Sporting a thumping techno soundtrack to accompany the fast gameplay, rivalling one of wipEout's most prominent features: quality licensed electronic music.

      XG3 controls nicely with the analogue stick on PS2, letting you lean the motorbike at various angles into the corners. I tried the d-pad but found it too twitchy and less precise, so extra points for the developers making those loose PS2 analogue sticks work well. Turning in XG3 is unforgiving to begin with, requiring you to hit some air brakes to tackle the more challenging bends of the later race courses. Yes, there are air brakes here, something that seemed to become a genre standard since the first F-Zero. Rather than pulling the craft in a direction though, they send the bikes into a sliding motion. A tricky manoeuvre to perfect.

      Racing rules reminds me somewhat of F-Zero; there's a sort of recharge lane with a glowing colour at various points of the track. You must drive over it to regenerate the motorbikes shield, and in a typical dilemma of usage; it's also your boost meter. Boost is needed to tackle those steep hills in each track, otherwise you'll slow down considerably. However, XG3 offers weapons too, so along a typical course there's at least one recharge lane with weapons aswell as the shield recharge. Shield lanes are green, weapon ones are purple. The tracks are incredibly long, so using boost and weapons tactically is advised.

      Speaking of the games premise, here's the more interesting part though; money earned in races can be used for upgrading motorbike parts and weapon systems! A nice touch and it's quite well made, offering a lot of items in the shop to purchase.

      To my surprise I quite liked XG3. I regret not picking it up back in the day. For the best futuristic racer option on PS2, this is it in my opinion. It takes a lot of lessons from what made the original wipEout trilogy great, understands them and takes it's own style on them based on the Extreme G series own style. The use of flashy visuals, stylish artstyle in the scenery, modern menues and licensed music makes XG3 one of the stronger contenders in the genre for the sixth generation. A solid game to play if you're into the genre.

      Rating


      ★★★★

      The last-gen king: WipEout Fusion



      Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
      Release year: 2002


      My expectations after the ever-improving and fantastic WipEout trilogy on the PS1 was sky high for it's debut on the PlayStation 2 system; WipEout Fusion. Such a crushing realisation then, when Fusion turned out to be a sloppy and broken title. While it indeed on paper brought a healthy amount of new ideas to the table; larger and wider tracks, loops, ship upgrades and three track layouts for every location. It seemed to be the game WipEout fans had long been waiting for on paper. The problems however, lay waiting for the release day. Blind as fanboy, I instantly went to buy it on day one.

      I still fondly remember the longest track of the first location in WF, I specifically remember this one because it was featured in a screenshot from a gaming magazine prior to release; it depicts a large mountain with the track climbing steep up it, then the track drops down into a foggy dip in the middle, out of sight and then up again from the fog far away into the distance. I was blown away by the immense draw distance, rounded edges of the track and mountainsides, plus the sheer scale of the screenshot. This particular environment and it's tracks, turn out to be alongside the orange and purple coloured ones with the underwater tunnel, the best the game has to offer. But that's about it, the problems lay plenty ahead.

      Firstly, the issue of making wide tracks with open areas; it simply takes away the intense and claustrophobic feeling of passing other opponents in tight spots from the earlier WipEouts. The open sections are particularly badly made; like a comical scene of letting twelve Bambi's out on plain ice. Instantly the ships are just all over the place, ramming into terribly placed obstacles and hitting the edges. They quickly become the dreaded and hated parts of each track.

      There's a sensation that the sides of the tracks seem covered in magnets, the nice side scraping from WipEout 2097/3 nowhere to be found; many races simply lead to ripping your ship apart as your are crushed against the sides, desperately trying to manoeuvre into the middle of the road. The horrible open area design truly highlights the lack of precise ship control, as if the physics engine is immediately broken in these sections. In generalm the controls feel extremely floaty and become evidently more so in the fast classes.

      Secondly, it's all the small issues; the loops feel nothing like being on a roller coaster of any sort and are just visually bland to race through. The ship upgrading system is a meaningless affair, the controls areso floaty the upgrades mean nothing. The super sharp, air brake control from the old WipEout games are completely altered for a slower and much looser control scheme. Going straight from any of the PS1 WipEout games to this just immediately strikes you as a inferior controlled game with loose controls and odd physics.

      The visuals, while far more detailed than before and running closely to 60fps, suffer from slowdowns and look muddy on a lot of the later and ugly designed track environments. All in all though, Fusion is ambitious in it's visuals, especially with it's huge draw distance and scale to tracks, but at what cost? Often I would encounter game breaking bugs too, like the ship falling through the track into oblivion or suddenly speeding off the track as it gains some weird momentum bug.

      I could literally have bled disappointment way back in 2002 as the dark realisation quickly sank in; this WipEout was a broken mess of it's former self.

      How is it to revisit now? Well let me just get it out of the way and say that it's as terrible as ever. If not worse. Even more apparent are WF's problems when compared to more refined control schemes through the years gone by and better performance in general among console games. The floaty ship handling and annoying track layouts bother me just as much. There's no nostalgic love covering over it's flaws either, and that's from a person who still loves playing the original WipEout trilogy to death on the PS1. Hell, even the less impressive Wipeout 64 offers far more fun, but Fusion? Fusion is just a mess and feels like someone tried to make a cheap WipEout game clone and failed miserably. It's definitely the one to skip if you plan on revisiting the entire series.

      This might be a slight stretch; but I still believe Fusion is one of the main reasons the futuristic racing genre began it's downfall. It promised so much, it became a delayed development hell and held the dangerous torch of being best at what it did prior to it's release; ultimately revealing itself as a badly controlled, buggy and just broken sequel in general. It disappointed so many fans and for whatever reason, I can only imagine was too little playtime by reviewers back then, actually managed to get a bit of unworthy praise. Only Edge Magazine coming to mind as being the more sceptical one, and good thing that was; because this is WipEout's darkest hour and just plain bad.


      Rating


      ★★


      The expensive newcomer: Quantum Redshift



      Platform tested: Microsoft Xbox
      Release year: 2002


      New to the console wars in the sixth generation was the Xbox console, filling the vacuum left by Sega as it's Dreamcast crashed and burned. Microsoft realised the popular futuristic racing demand of the late 90's and set off to create it's very own, expensively so, title. Though it would end up only being this one release, as it failed commercially, it's a forgotten title nowadays. Built by a newly hired team from many of the old WipEout series veterans, it set off to bring anti-gravity racing home to the Xbox as the better alternative to PS2's WipEout Fusion. Is it a hidden gem though?

      I had never played QR previously, or heard of it for that matter, discovering it by accident on a Twitter post. As a huge fan of the genre I immediately bought a used copy to run on my Xbox 360, as it's backwards compatible with that console. It's a fairly easy title to get hold of on Ebay and a cheap one at that. Just look past it's horrendous box art though!

      Much like WF, QR also offers a more wide track approach and boasts some great looking visuals that only the Xbox could deliver in it's generation; being the far more powerful console. It looks like a game built on a large budget graphically, while the overall artstyle, game layout, menus and racing ships lack a design flair that do the visual quality of the graphics justice. The game looks great and the tracks are spectacular, but the art design is bland.

      So with it's wide tracks one could imagine we would be looking at WFs similar problems, but QR actually seems to succeed where WF did not. It's the one game of the four represented here that doesn't rely on airbrakes, but a standard brake button. That may sound like a negative, however for QR it actually helps the anti-gravity ships navigate the open tracks more easily and precise. It's nice to see the open approach actually work if the controls are right. The ships feel distinctly like their floating above the ground even with normal braking, giving it the right sensation of a anti-gravity racer.

      As I mentioned, QR has some fantastic looking tracks, and it's visually where it perhaps takes the throne here. The textures on track surfaces are bump-mapped and look very impressive for their time. There's a lot of visual diversity for each track and the lighting is well done. Tracks range from dark and neon lit cities to orange clad sunsets in industrial areas. They're huge, often with multiple routes throughout.

      Weapons are featured in QR too, being large energy balls in blue, yellow and red spread around each track to pick up. Blue gives energy to your front firing lasers, red energy lets you fire up to two heat seeking missiles. The yellow energy will power a temporary shield. It's a simple weapon system, that can offer you are large advantage if used right. However it feels a little sparse with only three types of pickups, and there's perhaps a tad too many energy orbs lying around to make any tactical use of them. Their design sadly have this early 2000's cheapness. I found the whole weapon system a bland and forgettable affair.

      QR came out of the unknown for me and delivered a solid experience, in some areas it excels the competition. But the overall gameplay, especially the weaponry, and design is a little stale. It would have been nice to see a sequel fixing these issues, but as it stands it's just a generic game with nothing really standing out as remarkable or memorable. I do recommend people that like this genre to check QR out though, if only to see how they visually pushed the genre of the time and have a few hours of fun with. The faster racing classes, coupled with learning and obtaining a nice flow to racing around the pretty tracks, gave me at least a pleasurable adrenaline kick when playing it.

      Rating


      ★★★

      The classic old timer: F-Zero GX



      Platform tested: Nintendo Gamecube
      Release year: 2003


      The latest release of the games I feature here is of course Nintendo's answer to the genre; a new F-Zero, titled GX. Built from the new software focused Sega, showcasing how fast Sega switched away from it's failed hardware attempt at the beginning of the six generation to being a software-only company delivering a ton of titles to both PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox.

      GX boasts a solid and sharp 60fps, unlike the other games featured here. Running at high speed with impressively styled tracks. Visuals that finally gives an F-Zero game the edge to stand out. While it's not technically as advanced with textures and visual effects like QR, or as large scaled, it has a more well rounded graphical approach focusing on speed and an overall more consistent design. The environment detail is on the sparse side, feeling more like a backdrop to a floating track than actually being connected with it. This isn't half as bad as the previous F-Zero games, but it still separates the actual track from the backdrops. The design of the tracks however, is varied enough and look flashy when you're speeding along.

      Right from the bat the controls are the least daunting of all the games mentioned here, instantly you realise there's a far more solid feel altogether. Combined with superior quality and stiffness of the GameCube analogue stick compared to PS2's cheap ones. You can move the stick quite a ways with a more weighty sensation to the racing craft. It's a nice break from the twitchy controls in the other games mentioned here. Don't get me wrong here though, the ships move super fast and sharp, but the controls feel solid and precise.

      Much like XG3, F-Zero holds back the use of boost until one round has passed of the race. For me it's a strange decision. Perhaps it's meant to create a more stable race start and remove some of the randomness that occurs in WF and QR as weapons are fired immediately. Removing any advantages in the first lap helps avoiding running into a terrible accident that puts you in an unfair disadvantage right from the very first seconds of a race.

      FZGX has in fact no weapons, much like the SNES original, though it has a ramming move which was introduced in FZX on the N64. I mostly used my shield energy for boost personally and never really utilised the ramming. Boost can be restocked at certain refuelling strips lighting up in neon pink strips along each course. The strategy, much like how XG3 and the third WipEout game on PS1 did; lies in utilising the energy at the right moments to gain speed ahead of your opponents. Using it too much puts you in a dangerous position of emptying your shield and exploding when rammed by competitors or crashing into the track's sides.

      There are negative issues in FZGX too though, the difficulty level is insane. I only managed to even complete the lowest Grand Prix types, never mind the story mode which was just impossible in my opinion. It's beyond the point of entertaining and challenging difficult, it's just dialled too high. The extremely high number of vehicles on track is somewhat questionable at times too. 40 racers seems like a over-crowded number, especially when failing to get anything but 1, 2 or 3 place just seem pointless as you badly need the points to win the Grand Prix in total.

      All in all, F-Zero GX is probably the best game of the four here, the solid ship feeling and the precise controls combined with fast and pretty visuals make the game stand out as the one with the most polish. While the brutal difficulty really pulls down most players from enjoying all it's features, the amount of modes and content should keep you coming back. I just wish I could play it with a super easy setting!


      Rating


      ★★★★

      Summary


      I'm kind of glad that F-Zero GX became that last major release of futuristic racers in the main waves of the craze, it's deserving of it's praise and makes the genre go out with a fairly large bang. While I may not quite understand the huge hype GX has since recieved, it's still a solid title.

      We have later seen efforts of games like Konami's mediocre Fatal Inertia and the attempt at return to 90's glory with the PSP wipEout games and wipEout HD, Fury and 2048 of more recent years. Though, I find they've all belonged more in a more niché market, with only the latest wipEout releases making any sales impact worth noticing and even then it's nothing spectacular. The glory days  of futuristic racers being on top is well and truly over.

      I'd recommend going back and checking out some of these games out if the genre interests you, they're all fairly common games to find for a low price. F-Zero GX is the best one to check out, it'll run on a Gamecube or the first Wii model. if you really want to see it shine though, you could always check it out in Dolphin emulator for a PC, running it at high resolution to really bring out it's best side!

      Until a futuristic racer ones again thrones the top of the charts; have fun playing the good old ones!

      Sunday, 10 September 2017

      Lost in the female legacy

      Uncharted: The Lost Legacy



      Platform tested: PlayStation 4

      Review: I enjoyed my playthrough of last years Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy was intended as a singleplayer DLC expansion. However, it grew into a small standalone title of it's own. Having bought it on launch, I played through it quite intensively on it's first weekend after release. I'd read some previews that indicated the approach this time around was less linear than UC4's. Therefore my interest sparked me into a pre-order deal which included another Naughty Dog favourite of mine; Jak and Daxter. More on the latter in another review! Now lets talk a bit about how the ladies of Uncharted do a better job than the men!

      My main complaint about UC4 and that goes for quite a few of Naughty Dog's story driven and cinematic focused games; is that they tend to be extremely linear. There's basically a game going from A to B, and while the travelling and varied locations is a positive experience, it also brings down the need to explore. For a series that's heavily inspired by Tomb Raider, missing the exploration freedom is a downer for me. The newer TR games have shown that larger, less linear and more exploration focused hub worlds work quite well with the formula. Luckily, Lost Legacy has taken the complaints about UC4 to heart and perhaps the delivered the best Uncharted experience I have come over.




      ULL takes place after UC4 and leaves Nathan and Sam Drake to focus on Chloe Frazer from UC2 and Nadine Ross from UC4. Unlikely partners in personalities, they find themselves needing to help each other out to retrieve an artefact named "the tusk of Ganesh" in India. Chloe is the master thief and archaeology expert, while Nadine is the weapons specialist. Their conversations bring some really memorable and funny moments to listen to, much like how Nathan and Sam chatted away together in UC4. Although you only control Chloe, you are often in need of Nadines help. It's a great sense of frienship building up along ht way, with small story pieces of the their earlier lives. Chloe and Nadine are some fantastically written, strong female leads. 

      Apart from the opening cityscape of an Indian town set at night, the game is set in one location the rest of playtime. While this is a slightly more budget title, with a large reuse of visual environments from UC4, it makes up for itself by introducing a fantastic open-ended gameplay structure midway. It opens into a fairly large open area with a large tower in the center. Here you need to explore different locations surrounding it and activate triggers to gain access to an ancient door. This open structure leaves lots of hidden places to find and tiny tombs to be solved. It's a small but wonderful nod towards the two last Tomb Raiders. This part alone made up for the linearity that brought UC4 down for me.

      While the open-ended structure doesn't last through-out, there's enough breathtaking places to find in the latter, more linear, half of the game to make up for it, for one reason alone; the game focuses on solving ancient puzzles in a larger degree. ULL understands where it's heritage evolved from and embraces it. Focusing less on generic shooting and more on good old tomb raiding without an obvious linearity. With this focus on exploring freely, the gunfights actually felt more welcome this time around.




      Don't get me wrong here though, this is not a full sized game unlike UC4, the vast location variation and grander build up of story is at a lower end of the scale here. Look at it more as an indie sized title with a triple A budget in development. In fact, it's a generous one at that, clocking in at around 8-10 hours of gameplay. UC4 was about 16-20 hours in comparison. ULL lasts longer of course if you go searching for secrets, and in fact it rewards you so in a better way. The exploring in the open-ended area is highly recommended and kind of the essence of this expansion. I would recommend playing UC4 first in any case though, to get your head around the UC4 world and gameplay, but this is a absolute must-buy afterwards.

      Once again, like UC4, ULL delivers some of the most beautiful visuals in the genre around- Showcasing that Naughty Dog are some of the best when it comes to character animation especially. This game is a welcome surprise and a fantastic experience that fixed that itch for a new Tomb Raider game. I guess exploration is just better when women take the lead role!

      Rating

      ★★★★


        + Plus points

        • Less linear than UC4 and a welcome open world approach.
        • Fantastic main characters, Chloe as a newcomer in the UC4 universe is a great heroine throughout the game.
        • Breathtaking visuals and locations to explore, this game engine is just incredible visually.

        - Minus points

        • New designed areas, but lends a lot of the visuals directly from UC4.
        • Shooting mechanics and enemy AI still feel simple.
        • Climbing still feels a too automated at times.