All posts by James Hamilton
Lumines by
published Thursday, Aug 07th

I Still Play Lumines

What a letdown the PSP turned out to be. It didn’t reach anywhere near the levels of success that the Nintendo DS has enjoyed. The upcoming release list is depressingly scant. Better portable systems have already made it practically redundant as a music or video player. Even the Playstation brand couldn’t save it from its drawn out, agonising demise.

Is this really how it is? As with most things, it depends on how you look at it. You probably see it through the eyes of other games journalists: a failure, an embarrassment; a lifeless, dead console that deserves to be overlooked and ignored, because, let’s face it, there’s bugger worth playing out for it.

Here’s how I see it: even now, the PSP has plenty going for it. Perhaps “especially now”. The PSP scene may seem quiet (because it is), but there aren’t truckloads of baby simulators and Luv Your Petz games coming out for it, either. If you look below the surface, there’s plenty of gaming fun to be had on Sony’s portable – and you don’t have to look far, either.  Forget the media functions for a few minutes. Sales figures don’t matter either – they’re still good, apparently, but they don’t matter. The games are what matters, and there’s more than enough to keep most discerning gamers happy.

I still play Lumines. It’s still an incredible game. Most people treat games as being far too disposable these days – partly because most of the gaming media is a glorified buyer’s guide, and partly, one suspects, because of the preowned games market – but Lumines was a wonderful game when the PSP launched, and it’s still wonderful now.

I was an early adopter of the PSP, and I sold mine on soon after. There was nothing worthwhile to play after the launch period, and while the DS was showered with wonderful games, Sony’s machine, it seemed, began to flag. Fast forward a few years, and all the good games for Nintendo’s console have been played – there’s still a few kicking about, for sure, but the DS has seen its day. The PSP, on the other hand, has a treasure trove of great games – original, exciting and fun games buried amongst the rubbish – that begged to be played.

Let’s not pretend for one second that the PSP hasn’t got loads of crap on it too, because it does. But it also has Exit. And God of War. And Patapon – one of the most refreshing and engaging games I’ve played for ages. And Echochrome. Crush is good, too. LocoRoco is fun, if sickeningly cute. Ratchet and Clank. Daxter. Flatout. Space Invaders Extreme really shouldn’t be incredible, but it is. Worms Open Warfare 2 is on my shopping list, as is Crazy Taxi. And then there’s the games that I don’t like, but everyone else does: Wipeout Pulse, Everybody’s Golf, Crisis Core, Jeanne d’Arc, Monster Hunter 2, MGS: Portable Ops, Virtua Tennis, PES, Ridge Racer, and so on, et cetera, et cetera.

Granted, it’s not the greatest back catalogue a games console has ever had.  But they’re all great games, and they’re all worth playing – by most people’s standards, at least. And surely such a list is good enough for most people? The PSP is a portable console, after all. Most people don’t play their handhelds unless they’re taking a very long trip, or they’re going on holiday, or both. You don’t need a massive list of games: you just need one or two to keep things fresh now and then; a few passé-temps. And after starting to feel more and more like the best has been had out of the DS, I’ve been keen to discover the best of the PSP. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.

And when I’m done with all of that, I might do what most other people seem to have done with their PSPs – crack one open like a nut, and enjoy the full back catalogues of every console from the PS1 back to the NES, thanks to custom firmware. It’s the trendy thing to do at the moment with PSPs, apparently, and while it may be illegal, I have few qualms about downloading all the wonderful games from yesteryear that I’ve already paid for once upon a time, and giving them all another go on a portable console.

My opinions might not gel with the rest of the gaming community (it’s just me and the mums playing the Wii these days), but with the PSP’s excellent back catalogue, along with the huge wealth of games that custom firmware can offer, I don’t think my decision to buy a new PSP three months ago was a bad one. They still have plenty to offer, despite what the gaming press would have you think. (And they’re still damn sexy machines, as well).


Battlefield 2: Modern Combat by
published Monday, May 01st

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat Review

Playing Battlefield 2: Modern Combat online on a full server is an experience akin to finding yourself in the middle of the Apocalypse. There are soldiers running around in every direction, firing their weapons in every other direction. Helicopters circle the air above you and occasionally opt for the good old “kamikaze” approach to combat – crashing down and taking out as many people as they can with them.

Tanks roll around on the ground, clumsily trying to manoeuvre themselves out of the crevice they’ve trapped themselves in and firing into the ground and the sky. Somewhere down there, there you are – running and shooting, twisting your rifle towards anything that moves and praying you kill that fucker behind the crates before he kills you.

Online, with the full complement of players, Battlefield 2 is at its brilliant best. With more multiplayer modes than America have nuclear missiles, and the option of forming clans to really take it to your opponents, Iraq-style, the game really does eclipse the likes of Perfect Dark Zero and Call of Duty 2 online. Even with less players, the multiplayer modes are exciting and absorbing, with stunning visuals let down only slightly by occasional lag and the odd jagged line.

The game may be a port, but EA have really spruced the game up for its powerful new host. You can detect areas here and there which haven’t been touched up quite as well as others, but the game still looks the business. The controls aren’t quite as intuitive as you might like, but within ten minutes you’ll be able to run and gun quite happily without any problems.

Though there is a tactical element to game, Battlefield 2 doesn’t require as much methodical planning and strategising as some other shooters. You have to tread the line between finding effective cover and gunning down your foes, but there’s rarely more forethought required.

The tactical side of the game is brought into sharper focus during single player, which is rock hard and unforgiving throughout. Dying isn’t always the end of the world, as you can flit between different members of your squad with a tap of the X button – effectively giving you extra lives or, if you’re looking for a strategic advantage, an alternative viewpoint. However, it’s all too easy to let your guard down for that vital few seconds and lose one or more members of your team. The game requires you to be focused and aware at all times.

Thankfully, then, the game is varied and captivating enough to constantly hold your attention. Starting your opening parachute drop into the first set piece, you’re taken through a range of missions that encompass all aspects of warfare. The sniping mission early in the game is a memorable highlight, albeit one of the game’s more challenging levels. Taking out the airborne terrorists dropping in from helicopters while checking for hidden counter-snipers can take several attempts to get right, but remains wholly satisfying throughout.

And by remaining consistently challenging without being too frustrating, Battlefield 2 delivers a highly competent single player mode on top of its very accomplished online multiplayer. With disappointing AI in both teammates and terrorists and a couple of badly designed levels being the game’s only major downfall, Modern Combat is highly recommended.


Top Spin 2 by
published Monday, Apr 17th

Top Spin 2 Review

Now that the so-called “next generation” of gaming has arrived on our shores with the Xbox 360, gamers are settling down into what looks to be a fairly promising future for the console. The hardware is certainly impressive, as are a few of the games, but it only takes one title to knock you back down to earth and highlight just how little games have really progressed.

The future may look bright for Microsoft’s new console, but if we have to put up with games like Top Spin 2 in the meantime, you might want to consider packing your new 360 away for a couple of months. Top Spin 2 isn’t a terrible game by any means. However, it’s so painfully average that you come away from it feeling let down. It may be a next generation title, but it feels devoid of any real thrill or excitement – factors that competitors such as Virtua Tennis deliver in abundance.

2K Sports, despite their best efforts, have failed to make the game anywhere near as accessible as SEGA’s acclaimed series. The career mode, in which you create your own custom player and lead him through various tournaments to make him the world tennis champion, is particularly difficult to truly sink your teeth into. A combination of confusing menus and very slow progress make for a game that almost feels like it doesn’t want you to play it.

Although there is a wealth of customisation options when creating your player, which does hold your interest for a short while, the training matches are tedious, and building up your player’s skills feels more like an exercise in your patience than a form of entertainment. This is coupled with graphics that don’t look half as good as they should do, given the Xbox 360′s capabilities. As your tennis match begins and your players begin to walk onto the court, you begin to wonder if this isn’t a half-arsed attempt by the developers to earn some extra cash off the back of the hype surrounding a new console. Although the game’s tennis stars do resemble their real-life counterparts to some extent, there’s barely enough detail in the environments or the players to warrant a “next-gen” label. With visuals this poor, you also question why the extensive loading times present in the game are truly necessary. With a game that’s hardly pushing the 360 to its limits, such intrusive interruptions in the flow of the game and its menus are unforgivable.

The graphics aren’t the only major letdown though, as the game’s presentation on the whole is extremely poor. Aside from the awkward menus and loading times, the music is uninspiring and fails to start the adrenaline pumping, like any sports game should. It’s here that the 360′s custom soundtracks feature really comes into its own, allowing you to add a little much needed spice to your matches.

When it comes down to the match itself, despite the realistic game physics that are Top Spin 2′s only saving grace, the whole affair feels like your average, by-the-numbers tennis game that provides no real edge over its competitors on less powerful consoles.

The only time the game kicks things up a few notches is in multiplayer, which pleasingly (unlike the game’s predecessor) has no lag when played online. If you can fight your way through the awful presentation, ignore the disappointing visuals and force yourself to persevere through the Career mode, this game does have some value. However, it’s more advisable that budding tennis champions wait for Rockstar’s upcoming Table Tennis rather than force their way through this.

Top Spin 2 may be a tennis game, but it simply doesn’t have any balls.


Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter by
published Wednesday, Apr 05th

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter Review

Imagine walking down your high street to pick up the groceries one bright, sunny day. There’s a spring in your step, the sun is shining and the air is calm and still. You turn the corner, and suddenly everybody on the street pulls out a machine gun and swings it towards you. Even that old lady you helped cross the road is packing heat. You probably wouldn’t even have time to hurl an orange towards the nearest person before they blow you, and your shopping, to pieces.

You can’t be too careful these days – especially in the world of Ghost Recon. There might not be any pensioners waving 9mm pistols in your face, but there’s every chance of an ambush waiting for you around every corner; in every building; down every street. You might have laughed when the Boy Scouts told you that their motto was “be prepared” with the most serious expressions on their chubby little faces, but it’s crucial if you want to survive in this game. Only the speed of your reflexes will tell whether you hit the dirt to avoid fire, or after taking it.

It is this aspect of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfigher that makes it so enjoyable. Combat situations can arise out of relative calm, and you can’t always be sure where the next attack will come from. When you aren’t shooting, you’re in suspense; moving slowly, constantly alert, waiting for that red diamond to crop up on-screen and pinpoint approaching targets. The adrenaline rush that comes from realising you’ve walked into a trap, then dropping to the floor and rolling behind cover to return fire is what will keep you coming back to this game – especially on the harder modes. The atmosphere flits from stillness to chaos within seconds, and you have to make sure you move to safety before you’re blown away.

If you aren’t blown away by terrorists, however, you probably will be blown away by the spectacular visuals. This is about as close to realism as videogames have reached, and while it isn’t perfect – the odd floating enemy can spoil things slightly, for example – it’s realistic enough to completely draw you into the game world. Everything also sounds fairly authentic, with the possible exception of the weapons – which don’t seem quite meaty or powerful enough. Some of them just give a pathetic little “ratatatat” when fired at an enemy, and while your target will groan and drop to the ground convincingly enough, it takes a lot of the satisfaction out of gunplay. When pointing a gun at a terrorist and pulling the trigger, it feels more like you’re handing out party poppers than dealing damage. As is stands, fighting back against the terrorists isn’t always as exciting as it should be. Maybe the red diamonds that pick them out are part of the reason – there’s no real entertainment value in shooting red diamonds, after all. Overall, the combat feels quite lacking in comparison to the much more accomplished strategic side.

At least, it’s lacking as far as the single player is concerned. When played online, everything’s kicked up a few notches. Knowing there’s an actual person on the other end makes gunning down opponents much more fun, and the wide variety of modes will undoubtedly keep you going for months after completing the single player campaign – a task that won’t exactly be over and done with in an hour.

But while the campaign is entertaining and engrossing enough while it lasts, you always come away from G.R.A.W. feeling a little empty. While the game is often keeps you on your toes and holds your attention (despite the nonsensical plot), it’s missing something that’s quite difficult to pin down – soul. It feels impersonal and almost takes itself too seriously at times. It’s something you experience rather than something you enjoy – in single player at least. You’ll keep returning to it, but you’re never quite sure why. G.R.A.W. is a barrel full of laughs online, but in single player it sometimes feels like a barrel of empty shells. It’s a great game for the moment, but not one you’re going to look back on fondly in two years. Thus, it’s quite difficult to truly recommend the game – unless you really want to pretend to be a big tough army man, you might want to rent it first. But when you go out to do so, think twice before helping that old lady cross the road.