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Call of Duty: Black Ops – The Verdict

Call of Duty: Black Ops – The Verdict

Call of Duty: Black Ops looks as though it may go on to become one of the best-selling games of all-time. This is a worrying statistic.

Black Ops is not a disaster, it’s not the searing exposé of Treyarch’s failings as a developer many thought it would be. It’s well put together, slick and at times accomplished. The core package offers you a 6 hour single -player campaign, Easter eggs, zombie modes and the latest instalment of the ever popular multi-player component. But there is nothing exceptional about it. If the Modus Operandi of the early COD games was excellence, immersion and realism, then the MO for Black Ops was to insert enough explosions and cool shit like people bursting through windows on a grappling rope to make a bad-ass trailer. Consequently the single-player feels a bit like a Michael Bay film, with eye-candy, over the top set pieces and about as much depth as a toddlers paddling pool. The same criticism could perhaps be levelled at last years Modern Warfare 2, where a wilfully controversial level did much to mask the lack of any real substance. One of the main problems is that the core game, the shooting section has remained exactly the same for several years now. So much effort has gone into the set-pieces and even the story, that the actual first-person shooter section of the game is beginning to feel dated and neglected. Instead of being the glue that holds the package together, the shooting is beginning to feel like the dull bit between the set pieces that has to be endured.

The early game has enough variety that you may not immediately notice these problems, you’ll find yourself throughout the course of the game doing things like escaping a prison on a motorbike, piloting a heavily armed riverboat through the treacherous waters of Laos or flying a chopper around blowing up oil pipes. These sections don’t last long, which is probably a good thing as they are more about spectacle and the thrill of doing something new than actually being fun and interesting in their own right. But the very last part of the game is back to basics – run, take cover, shoot the bad guys, proceed ten meters, rinse, repeat. It’s here you’ll notice just how dumb the AI is, never surprising, never being much more than slightly an annoying roadblock that must be cleared before you proceed. You’ll get plenty of different tools to dispose of them, but each is as good as the next and the combat lacks any urgency or tension. Even the obligatory stealth scene in the game feels like little more than an interactive cut-scene. The story is marginally better than recent entries in the series, using a more personal tale as an excuse to visit various cold-war locations and blow them up. There are recurring numbers, crazed Russians, jail-breaks, torture scenes and a big twist at the end that is nicely foreshadowed, if a little obvious. All in all the story gives you enough incentive to keep playing through the campaign, but it would be nice if the game-play was reward enough.

The multi-player is probably the strongest part of the game offering a number of tweaks from Modern Warfare 2 that make it a worthwhile proposition. If you ignore the zombie mode (you should, it’s rubbish), what you’ll find is a mode filled with options for how you want to play, how you want to look and what kinds of games you’ll want to take part in. Choice, customization and one of the best multi-player arcade shooters out there make for a satisfying and long-lasting experience. With 15 levels of prestige to be attained, there’s always something willing you to keep on playing and there’s always something to unlock. Although the mode initially released on the PC with a horrible CPU issue that caused masses of lag, the problem seems to have been patched out now, although some people with lesser PC’s may still want to give it a miss. Guns have proper recoil now, kill-streak rewards are slightly harder to earn and you can slap a picture of a unicorn on your gun if you so choose, a feature sorely lacking from most online shooters. Perhaps the best new feature  of the multi-player is the inclusion of wager matches. Forget the pretence of playing to earn cash, you’ll earn enough through normal play that it will never be a great concern. Wager matches are essentially mods to the core game that ignore your level, weapons and perks and place everyone on a level playing field, each with some fun conditions. My personal favourite is Sticks and Stones, which gives everyone a crossbow with explosive bolts, a tomahawk and the ballistic knife. You earn points through getting kills with these weapons, the person with the most points at the end of the game wins. The twist is that tomahawk kills, hard to pull off but immensely satisfying cause your opponent to lose all their points. The game becomes a tense show-down where skill and timing is everything, you can’t camp or sit still for a moment in case someone comes along and sticks a tomahawk in your vertebrae. The Multi-player segment of Black Ops can be a genuinely good time, but it will still feel overly familiar to players of the last three Call of Duty installments, if you’re not interested in more of the same with new maps and weapons and gamemodes, this isn’t for you.

The Call of Duty series seems to be at a point now where it has transcended criticism. Activision are not a particularly popular company. Their CEO is something of an internet hate figure . Yet this seems to have little impact on their record-smashing sales figures even with a series that runs the risk of becoming mired in mediocrity. The worry is the message Activision and other publishers must be getting from those figures. A yearly release, churned out with a good trailer and a celeb-studded launch party are fast becoming more important than a game being any good. Black Ops is not a bad game, but it’s not the greatest of all-time. But why strive for greatness when middle of the road reaps better rewards? If you don’t care for multi-player you’d be better served avoiding Black Ops, it will leave you reminiscing of the days when the Call of Duty name was a seal of quality.

Cry of Disappointment
Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe has a lot in common with a second hand Lego set. It seems like an awesome premise from the outset, is great fun for a while but is marred by the frustration of finding out that not all the pieces are there. Set in the titular Universe of the title, a dark force known as the Malestrom has taken over the world, and can only be defeated by the minifigs (characters) of the Lego Universe by restoring imagination to the world through battle and building.

The main facet that really holds most Lego games together – and moreso with this one – is the charm. There’s definitely something to be said about cute Lego versions of our favourite characters running around in the games based on movies and it’s comforting to know that the charm still exuberates from the Lego Universe even when it’s not tied down to another franchise. It’s clearly apparent that Net Devil know what they’re doing in this department, and charming little touches such as the Minifig that covers his eyes when you put in your password in the login screen really make the game feel like it has a sense of fun in the purest sense of the world, after all this is what Lego is all about.

Quite wisely, NetDevil have tried to stay away from the most obvious of MMO trappings, and combat is based around similar mechanics from the other Lego games, meaning the game does play more like an action platformer than the regular genre staples of pressing keys and watching pre-canned sequences. On the flipside however, this can mean fights feel a little samey and tactics become largely about proper health and ‘Imagination’ management – Lego Universe’s term for what is basically Mana. Imagination is used for many mechanics in the game, including building the preset stacks of blocks in order to reach previously inaccessible parts of the world.

So with all these touches, the game is a charming little action adventure – so the problem comes in the whole MMO aspect of it. There’s just not a lot of content at the moment. With three proper worlds in place total at the moment, it’s hard to feel as if you’re getting a true ‘Universe’ as such and more a small collection of areas to play in. Of course the developers might improve this over time as with all MMOs with their dynamic content, but by not having a mass of content to explore in the first place is leading to an already sparse population – which in turn doesn’t encourage future buyers and in turn doesn’t look good for further content. In a very tough post APB MMO market this makes it hard to currently justify the subscription fee – especially with Guild Wars and other, free to play MMOs that just feel like they have more to offer.

Of course, there is the building side to the game – every time you conquer so many missions you’re allowed access to a plot of land on which you can build using blocks gained from battles. Potentially it’s one of the best parts about the game, but it’s hampered by how fiddly it is to actually build anything in practice. And while understandable to protect the target audience of the game, it’s a terrible shame there’s no real ‘communal’ building areas and you are by and large restricted to viewing your friends’ creations which seem rather limited in scope when you compare them to things like Minecraft. It seems slightly off that the master of the physical creative building blocks should be bested in the virtual space by an essentially one man team.

Overall Lego Universe is a hard game to reccomend. It’s charming sure, and I can definitely see the potential within. But even for those planning to buy it for their kids – with a subscription of real money no less – parents may feel they’re getting slightly short changed by this deal, especially with other MMOs for children on the market that are free to play. If NetDevil can improve the game by adding more content and the like it may be worth a purchase in the future, but the tale of APB shows that Netdevil could be playing with a somewhat more fragile collection of bricks.

A few bricks short.
Medal of Honor: The Verdict

Medal of Honor: The Verdict

Medal of Honor is a game that is unsure about what it wants to be. Before release we were treated to numerous interviews from EA where they stated their primary intention was to recreate an authentic soldiering experience. Well from any military perspective that is clearly nonsense. I’m hardly a military expert but I’d imagine that during a dangerous stealth operation a degree of silence might be required, perhaps employing hand signals to indicate patterns for attack and to indicate when to move. Here however a stealth mission is guided via the medium of breathy whispering and repeated commands. I don’t know about you, but if I were lying under a bridge during a stealth mission as a number of enemy soldiers suddenly homed into view, that last thing I’d need to do as a seasoned combat veteran would be to repeatedly grunt “Stay Down!” to my trusted team-mate.

Now to criticise a game for giving the player direction is churlish. Perhaps if I was forced to learn a series of hand signals to be able to play the game correctly I’d be sat here complaining about that instead. But Medal of Honor is not an authentic experience. It may feature facets of military operations that have some relation to reality, and it may be that the game is seeking to give us a facsimile of the modern soldiering experience in terms we as gamers will understand. But it still isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Let me give you an example. For much of the game, the interface is minimised, on-screen indicators for ammo and team-mate positioning, by default fade from your screen allowing you to immerse yourself in the action, only recalling those details if you require them. That’s fine by me. Except every time you perform a headshot, an icon pops up to congratulate you, accompanied with an exaggerated brain splattering sound effect. So on the one hand we have this minimal interface, well designed and immersive and on the other we have something so inherently ‘gamey’ that it undoes all of the good UI design in an instant. It’s as though at the last moment someone thought ‘this would be cool!’ and shoved the headshot indicator into the game without a thought for the hard work that had gone before it.

The above might seem like nitpicking but in the early parts of the game it can frustrate you that the game is trying it’s darnedest to pull you out of the action with it’s immersion killing ways, just when it should be sucking you in. The constant chopping and changing of the character we are controlling should be familiar by now to veterans of the Call Of Duty series, but early on in Medal of Honor, all it serves to do is frustrate as you move between scenarios. You never really get to know the team-mates who fight alongside you, no matter how epic their beards are. At one point your commanding officer saves the life of your character after a scripted sequence leaves you at the mercy of a Taliban soldier. On brutally killing the Taliban soldier he snarls at you “I just saved your ass”. As a gamer being shepherded through a scripted sequence, in order to make an AI character look heroic, it felt cheap and made me actively dislike ‘Mother’ (or was it Voodoo? I couldn’t tell them apart) for much of the game.

You may have noted that in the above paragraph, I repeatedly used the word ‘early’ which carries the implicit suggestion that things get better as the game progresses. And they sure do. The game can roughly be divided into three acts and the second act is where things start to come together. Instead of being whipped from one scenario to the next, plucked out from the action and displaced, things start to become seamless. The player will be controlling an under siege US Ranger one moment, then whipped into the cockpit of a helicopter in the gunners seat to offer said Ranger air support. Just as it looks as though things might go awry for the chopper, we’re called into action as a sniper saving the day before turning attention to an under-fire team of Navy SEALs. It’s at this point the games message finally starts to come through, it’s not about being a soldier from a technical perspective so much as it’s about being a soldier and supporting your fellows in trying circumstances. If Medal of Honor is anything, it’s a love letter to the armed forces in game form. While that might sound execrable to you, the sequence mentioned above features some truly thrilling moments. The stand-out moment of the game comes as a team of US Rangers tasked with flanking an enemy firing position gets into serious trouble, forced to use a small stone hut as protection against an underestimated Taliban force. RPG fire blows the hut apart as you desperately cling to what little cover remains, mowing down countless foes with your M249 SAW. But for each enemy you kill, it seems like another three appear and the situation quickly becomes unmanageable. It’s a truly tense moment and the game manages to keep up the tempo for the next hour or so. This is when the game is at it’s strongest, piling on the combat thick and fast and moving between different types of warfare in a way that helps you understand how the different battles being fought link together into a bigger picture.

The general gunplay in the game is meaty and satisfying with some excellent sound design. I like that when you’re close to an ally you hear both their actual voice as well as their radio voice from your earpiece, it’s a small thing but shows an attention to detail lacking in lesser titles. The main problem with the single player experience is simply that it’s too short. Five or so hours and you’re done. Longevity could potentially have come in the form of the Tier One mode, which challenges you to repeat the story missions against the clock, with the clock pausing for head-shots and melee kills. This is probably supposed to provoke you into doing your best Rambo impersonation, and diving around corners popping enemies in the face with your pistol is all well and good, but unfortunately the mode doesn’t work. Due to the fact the single player campaign is heavily scripted and relies on the NPC actors being in the right place at the right time to trigger the next sequence, it all too often falls apart. In my first two attempts at Tier 1 mode, all was going well until a scripted event failed to fire (due to me leaving team-mates behind in my frenzied search for blood!), leaving me no choice but to start again or just quit in frustration. I chose the latter.

Nowadays every FPS needs to have a multi-player mode worthy of it’s single player and for MOH’s multi-player Battlefield supremo’s DICE were called in to assist. Considering DICE are respected as some of the best craftsmen of thrilling large-scale online violence, it’s understandable that expectations were pretty high for the multi-player portion of the game. On first glance it seems as though all boxes are ticked. Graphically, particle effects and gunfire are spot on, with the dusty Afghan environments brought to life expertly. Sound, as with the single-player is excellent, with each gunshot and explosion carrying real weight, the game does a great job of making the player feel as though they are in amongst the blood and bullets. However, from the half dozen or so hours I’ve spent in the multi-player it has become evident that there are a few flaws. For one, many of the maps are very narrow, meaning you’re forced down some pretty tight corridors of fire, often ruled by snipers. In fact I’ve seen whole games turn into one massive sniper battle, as players give up on taking the actual objectives and instead content themselves with the occasional headshot. Smoke grenades are your friend if you’re brave enough to try and play as anything else than a sniper. The spawn system too can be annoying, especially on the Combat Mission game types, where you can try and spawn on the frontlines of battle next to a team-mate. However, unlike the squad based spawning of the Battlefield games, which relies on a clever team-mate staying alive behind enemy lines and in cover, about 70% of the time here, you’ll conveniently spawn right in front of a snipers cross-hair. My main lament is that if they’d carried over the destructible terrain and cover of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the sniper issue wouldn’t be so bad. You could simply destroy enemy cover, forcing the opposition to fall back or try to re-base themselves, giving you the chance to advance. As it is, the Multi-player is quite slow-paced and relies on rare feats of individual excellence, or even rarer moments of tactical cohesion amongst team-mates to get past the sniper slog.

Medal of Honor overall is a package containing both excellence and mediocrity. The single-player takes a while to get going, but when it does you won’t want it to stop. It’s perhaps unfortunate then that it’s such a short experience with little replay value. Multi-player has a lot of potential, but map design and weapon balance can turn it into a real chore. With regular DLC being released it could yet become a classic, but the multi-player FPS arena is a tightly contested battlezone, show any signs of weakness and your various opponents will pounce. With Black Ops just being released, Brink coming next year and Battlefield 3 announced, Medal of Honor may struggle to survive as a serious competitor, at least in its current form.

An honourable attempt.
Civilization V – The Verdict

Civilization V – The Verdict

The Civilization series has been hailed as many different things by many different people. A board-game writ large. An all-encompassing empire building masterpiece. A shit turn based combat game. Well finally with Civ V you can scratch that last one off the list. The combat has finally caught up with the ambition of the rest of the pieces in the Civilization puzzle. Hexes and single unit per tile rules have made a striking change in how the game plays, without allowing military action to overpower everything else about the Civilization series that has earned its place as one of the PC’s all-time greats.

And earn its place it has. For a PC gamer from a young age, I can think of no other series which has consistently batted away rivals for a space on my hard-drive. For me, Civilization has been a constant, igniting an interest in world history that remains to this day. Although I could debate the usefulness of having a large array of dull historical facts at my disposal (thanks Civilopedia!), let’s instead say that for a game to have a profound effect on a persons interests even outside gaming is a remarkable achievement. The Civ games you see, are educational without being preachy and in your face. You can take it simply as a game, a finely tuned balancing act of the multiple strands of human achievement, from culture, to science, military and the economic. Or you can take it as an engrossing experience that weaves a unique historical narrative every time you play it. Now I’ve just gone and done the exact opposite from what I was attempting to do with this review, I made Civ sound boring and worthy. Civilization is first and foremost an engrossing and enjoyable game, it’s horrifically addictive and makes unreasonable demands of your time that you’ll be only too happy to provide it with. But beyond that, beyond the ‘really good game’ part is something more. And for me that’s what makes Civ a truly special series and Civ V a truly special game.

That something more is the narrative, weaving history and a very personal fiction together to create a unique story each time you play. As a veteran of the series I could probably bore you for hours, explaining how in Civilization IV my preference was the Mongol nation, with whom I’d bully and conquer my way across the world. I could detail my glorious French nation in Civ V, cultured and benevolent in their interaction with the city states, propelling me to glory despite having started out on a small island.

The story of my sad little Indian nation is my favourite Civ V tale though. Having decided to have no more than 3 cities and be a pacifist, all was going well until neighbouring USA and England decided to form a ‘special relationship’ with one another. The basis of that relationship was my utter annihilation unfortunately and any plans for pacifism were soon shown to be rather naïve. Fortunately they underestimated me and the nearby Iroquois proved a useful ally in the ensuing war, my magnificent Trebuchets proved to be the undoing of both nations and I razed each of their cities with a baleful sigh, all the while wishing we could have been friends instead. In fact both the English and Americans turned on each other at the last, presumably in a pathetic attempt to win my favour. I turned my back on them in disgust, leaving the Iroquois to finish them off, while I turned my eye towards the domestic and continued down my path towards a cultured and refined society.

The years following the war were prosperous for India, my happiness and culture reached new heights and a long Golden Age propelled me towards a cultural utopia. The friendly Iroquois meanwhile were expanding across our continent growing into a large thriving nation building over the ruins of the backstabbing English and treacherous Yankee scum. I was once more guilty of being horribly naïve and it was not long before the once noble Hiawatha’s hordes were spotted on my borders. They overran me completely. Though the battle of Mumbai left many Iroquois corpses at the foot of my small, proud nation, my refined and docile peoples made for poor soldiers. Delhi, my capital was the last to fall, the rivers surrounding the bustling and happy city ran red with blood as unit after unit of Iroquois warriors bombarded her walls. Delhi’s walls shattered and my once proud nation fell by the wayside, destined to be little more than a footnote in the history of the world. Fuck you Hiawatha, next time I’m going Aztec!

Civilization V isn’t the perfect entry in the Civilization series, the AI has issues with its use of units (though a recent patch has certainly made it better at combining arms and using naval units) and the general AI focus on war and war-making can be tedious. Fair enough if you share a border with Ghengis Khan, but there’s something slightly wrong about having Gandhi as the head of a despotic state hell-bent on world domination. Multiplayer still isn’t fully implemented and veterans may find their options fairly limited (play by email for instance, is not yet possible). Worse, the lag and simultaneous turns mean that combat between two human players loses a lot of the tactical intricacy. Instead of concerning yourself with unit placement, flanking and terrain advantage you’ll be chasing shadows as units flit about randomly, with both players desperately trying to gain the upper hand.

The introduction of City States changes the pacing of the game, giving more personality to the world map and experimentation reveals they can be utilised in a number of different ways. At a basic level allying with them can bring you bonuses to food or culture, with the militaristic States gifting you free military units. But the clever tactician can use City States in other subtle ways; from having them protect your borders, supplying them with units for proxy wars against other civilizations or maybe you’ll just see them as easy targets for annexation. Once again this feature is slightly undone by the AI. Your AI opposition doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the importance of City States and the tactical or material value they can provide to a civilization. This makes it fairly easy to get all of the City States onside as long as you have a decent economy, which is an easy road to a diplomatic victory.

Civilization V, flaws aside is another fantastic entry into the series. It combines a clean, easy to use UI with crisp graphics and tactical depth. The stories that unfold in each and every game are unique to the player and it will root you to your PC for many many hours. It’s a patch or two away from being the master-piece it could, and perhaps should have been, but it still stands tall and proud alongside the very best gaming experiences you could hope to find.

You were expecting some kind of Civ-based pun here weren't you? A rather good game.
Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade – The Verdict

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade – The Verdict

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is not to be confused with Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, the latter is a slightly odd hack and slash RPG, notable for its use of the Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L system and very little else. The former is Neocore’s follow up to last year’s King Arthur: The Role Playing game, that they’ve chosen a title so similar to Legacy of the Crusader, is probably evidence that I was the only person foolish enough to actually buy it.

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