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All posts by Dan Phillips
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published Friday, Sep 26th

Burnout Paradise – Bikes Review

It’s not often that DLC warrants a review all of it’s own, but it’s not often that DLC, or indeed a game, like this comes along. Since the game proper launched in January, Burnout: Paradise has established a solid reputation as the best hidden gem frequenting Xbox live and PSN. Shying away from the hyper competitive arenas dominated by the likes of Halo and Call of Duty, Burnout instead offers something entirely different to its fans. Inside the joyous concrete playground of the titular Paradise City, players are given the freedom to race, do a series of co-op challenges or play a variety of quickfire games- stunt runs, cat and mouse chases or just about anything else the host can think of. The result is an accessible, purely enjoyable multiplayer experience that at times, when all the players are screaming along winding mountain roads purely for the joy of driving the games’ series of preposterously amusing super cars, feels like a Sunday driving club for adrenaline junkies.

Burnout’s reputation for a unique online experience extends in to the games’ fantastic DLC offerings and this, naturally, brings us to The Point. It’s become customary for console gamers to expect to pay for their downloads these days, so it came as no small surprise to discover that Burnout would be sporting a massive series of upgrades to the core game for free, with a schedule spanning an entire year. The latest in the series, following the release of a content patch for the multiplayer modes, is the addition of Bikes to the heady roster of vehicles available. This is a first for the franchise and it’s nothing short of an absolute pleasure to find out that Criterion have pulled out all the stops for the event, making this update one of the best pieces of DLC this generation.

In short, this feels like an entirely new game as much as a mere freebie. Most developers would be content with adding the bikes to the existing game structure and letting you get on with it. Not so here: to welcome in the new rides, Criterion have included 38 single player time trial races and 70 new multiplayer co-op events to do with friends. Although this won’t take you too long to finish, especially on single player, the fact that it’s included at all, and that it’s so fun, deserves huge praise.

But more importantly, how do the bikes handle? The answer is ‘utterly brilliantly’, which is nice. Ridiculously fast, the bikes feel responsive, weighty and exhilarating to drive and, with a smaller profile on the road and reduced traffic in the streets, feel hugely empowering as you explore the city afresh, roaring through previously difficult short cuts and dangerous back roads with ease- even in the darkest hours of the game’s new and customisable day/ night cycle.

In fact, it’s arguable that the bikes make things a little too easy- for experienced players particularly the single player content is far simpler to complete than the challenge presented by the cars. All the events are time trials from A-B and the problem simply seems to be that the allocated time limits are too slack. In one instance, I finished an event with fifty seconds on the clock going spare- enough time to cover half the city in vehicles this fast. Multiplayer, however, feels more substantial with 10 tasks to complete for every different player count from 2-8. These are still quite easy, but they’re particularly well designed anyway. Criterion clearly know their city inside out, and quite possibly the driving habits of their players too so many of the challenges are cunningly designed to send you down particularly fun parts of the map to tackle on a bike- be it gently swooping mountain passes or hairpin city rat runs the team make sure you see it all and doing so with a host of other bikers on screen, racing as a pack, is pure gaming hedonism, sparking that old Paradise feel of driving for the pure pleasure of the experience alone.

Sadly, there comes a point where driving for the sake of it is all that remains of the bikes update- bar the challenges, the bikes do not come with any other kind of multiplayer game, and the single player does not include any other kind of event, either. Stunt runs and racing are conspicuous by their absence. Online players, then, will be left to their own devices. Perhaps we’ll see more modes and games in the ‘Eastwood’ update which will conclude the ‘year of paradise’ DLC extravaganza by adding a whole new island to the game. Untill then, Burnout Bikes provides a brilliant, if possibly short lived, alternative way of playing an already impressive title.


Viva Pinata: Trouble In Paradise by
published Friday, Sep 05th

Viva Pinata: Trouble In Paradise Review

Viva Piñata is the kind of game that’s very hard to create a worthy sequel for. Partially this is simply down to the sheer quality of the first instalment of the series, but also due to the formulaic and self limiting nature of the gameplay mechanics. Of course, the same can be said of any number of strategy games in the same vein: The Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon or Sim City. After all, beneath the cute, childlike exterior; Viva Piñata has always been a surprisingly tight, tactical affair that challenges spatial design and micromanagement like the best of the genre.

This always leant a surreal, paradoxical edge to the original game: Despite it’s family friendly marketing, adorable, child enrapturing visuals and simple presentation, the actual game was, at times, savagely difficult stuff that often stumped older, experienced players-never mind the supposed youth market Microsoft hoped to rope in to it’s web of tv series’, lunchboxes and soft toy ranges. In a strange way it was as if Rare had made the wrong game, and a much better one for it.
Onwards to the inevitable sequel, then. Moving on from the oddly placed original, Rare have made pains to preserve their almost mistakenly acquired fanbase of hardcore horticultural designers while making a huge effort to really expand the accessibility of the game to include a younger audience that may have found the original simply too hard. The main game remains generally unchanged: players must advance through RPG lite levelling up to acquire increasingly extravagant means of developing their garden space to accommodate an ever expanding roster of loveable, papery animals. Fans of the original will know what to expect here, although a sizeable jump in Piñata numbers pushes the number of animals past the one hundred mark- incentive for all but the most stoney hearted cad to investigate such is the quality of character design and animation on display.

The biggest new additions exist outside of this mode, however. Foremost on the list is the addition of Just For Fun Mode. Designed, according to Rare, to allow for younger or inexperienced players to sample and enjoy a simpler game of Viva Piñata, Just For Fun plays like ‘God Mode’ is switched on. Infinite resources and a vastly simplified set of requirements for Piñata to settle and a fully unlocked feature set turns Viva Piñata in to what the original only became very late in to the game- a vast, ridiculous toybox that just begs to be enjoyed with reckless abandon as, expense be damned, players can warp and craft a garden limited only by their imagination rather than the sometimes claustrophobic regimen required to maintain a play space in the main game. It lacks the substance of the main game but it does offer a kind of brilliant freedom that’s hugely enjoyable.

Multiplayer, too, has received something of a shot in the arm- 4 player Live co-op features and plays exactly as you suspect- a host invites 3 friends in to one of their gardens and can select a variety of permission grades to limit any possible vandalism threats from rakes and knaves they may associate themselves with. On a single machine, the dynamic is changed considerably, however. Here, player 2 is, rather than a second player in full, a kind of magic helper whose abilities are powered by doing good deeds in their host’s garden. It’s a clever design choice that was implemented, like just for fun mode, to encourage interaction from younger players, particularly if they want to play with a parent or older sibling.

There are, of course, niggles. One major gripe is that the new environments of sand and ice seem a bit half baked in to the process of the main game. The two dedicated zones outside of your main garden don’t function as new play areas; they’re just empty squares that you can go to in order to capture wild piñatas and take them back. Sadly, once they’re there the means of keeping them happy (sand or snow instead of grass) feels luke warm. Unless the ability to add distinctive furniture sets arises, the game seems to have missed a huge opportunity for creating some of your own playable environments.

In the end, Rare have come up with a very well rounded sequel, despite some concerns. Faults in the original feel remedied for fans of the series, but don’t expect anything new. If you didn’t like the original, there’s no reason you’ll like this more as, fundamentally, this is just more of the same, only better. This is no problem for enthusiasts, and for them the game is hard not to recommend as highly as possible.


Geometry Wars by
published Tuesday, Aug 05th

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 Review

Geometry Wars 2 is a perfect sequel. It’s a bold statement to make, but it’s true.

When the game was announced scant weeks short of its release on to Xbox Live, speculation was rife about just how developer Bizarre Creations intended to develop their pet shooter and, more specifically, how those changes were going to warrant a price tag that doubled the cost of the original.

The answer lies in a meaty fleshing out of a core concept that, while accomplished and entertaining, was somewhat basic.


Nanostray by
published Tuesday, Apr 18th

Nanostray Review

Nanostray is a game with a lot to prove. As the first scrolling shooter on the DS, it has a certain level of expectation. Unfortunately, what could be a decent game has been badly damaged by some dubious design choices that try a little hard to be innovative.

The first problem this title has is control. In the scrolling shooter genre, a lot of a games success relies on a level of precision that allows the player to excel throughout the level, and the game. Unfortunately, Nanostray disobeys this rule and ends up being quite frustrating. Chief amongst these design flaws is the use of the touch screen. In Nanostray the touch screen is used as a control panel by which you select from a series of readily available weapons, each with different abilities.

While the weapons are quite fun to use and graphically impressive, the simple fact that you have to use the touch screen, and by which you have to take your eyes off the action and your fingers off the fire buttons means that any attempt to change to a more useful weapon on the fly is likely to result in instant death. This design choice alone really takes a lot away from Nanostray and left me frustrated and deeply annoyed almost every time I died as a result of it. Perhaps the most mind boggling aspect of this decision is that as a vertical shooter, the game would be perfect for the DS if they had left out the idiotic control idea and just made the playing field really tall instead. Call me pedantic if you will but the idea strikes me as more intelligent and obvious.

Control is also something that causes troubles. The simple fact is that your ship just isn’t very nimble, and it also feels a bit on the fat side too. When trying to dodge incoming fire or (more likely) annoying suicidal dive bombing enemies it always seems that you simply can’t dodge fast enough or there just isn’t room for your sluggish ship. A compromise seems to have been made by Shin’en here because unlike most shooters you do have a life bar in Nanostray. In many ways this is an act of mercy as it’s doubtful that anyone could really play this game without it. Even with this addition however, the rare instances of genre hallmark ‘bullet hell’ still feel awkward and most of all just downright unfair.

Not to sound too negative, this game is at least very pretty. The DS seems well suited to doing elements of 3D in 2D games and Nanostray takes good advantage of this while throwing around some decent weapons effects like huge destructive beams of doom. The game runs at a nice pace too, with no hint of slow down, even with a few big ships, explosions, pick ups and laser beams going off at once.

The sound is not so good. Considering that the DS is capable in delivering aural delights like Mario Kart’s infectious melodies or the thundering gunfire of Advance Wars, Nanostray seems to be content with delivering ‘that laser sound’ and a few generic slightly futuristic midi tracks. It’s the kind of attitude that seems to infuse Nanostray. It simply is a scrolling shooter- one that fills a few genre tick boxes but unlike truly exceptional games from the likes of Treasure it lacks the focus and genuine force of an idea to really make it interesting like Ikaruga’s intriguing polarity mechanic or R-types modular weaponry.

Nanostray is not a terrible game. There are a lot of unfortunate ideas, like the touch screen and the cop out energy bar, but underneath all the mistakes there’s enough going on to keep you amused for a while. The problem is that it’s just frustrating, and a result, it’s probably only worth picking this up if you’re really into the scrolling shooter genre; or have a third hand for the touch screen. I imagine that was what Shin’en had in mind.