After awarding a score of 7.5 to Ratchet & Clank Future, 8.0 to Uncharted and, most notoriously, 8.8 to Twilight Princess, GameSpot haven’t exactly been popular with the fanboys recently. I’ve rarely seen such bile spewed on forums over a review than for the Ratchet and Zelda scores in particular.

But however you may feel over a difference of opinion on a game that you happen to like, the news that Jeff Gerstmann (he of the Zelda review) may have been fired over an accurate review of Kane & Lynch should be considered a travesty. Especially so if it comes out, as has been implied, that it was because of complaints from sponsors who threatened to pull advertising. Not only have GameSpot lost one of their most popular and likable editors, but they will have also done irreparable damage to their reputation.

The site has a reputation for revisionism – notoriously the bump in their Shenmue score after complaints – but any past changes have been made because of genuine error or misjudgements from people who have played the game objectively themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it doesn’t become a habit, but to kowtow to advertisers over a score that is in the same ballpark as everyone else (besides the fact that 6.0 isn’t a ‘bad’ score, as their own scale says) is just unacceptable. There are other advertisers and ones like Eidos should take note of the fact that this wasn’t an anomalous score and any backlash will hurt them as much as it does GameSpot.

I hope that we get some official comment from GameSpot soon, because I know many won’t be going back if this really happened as has been reported.

Mario & Sonic at the Wii Flat

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games

I think I’m with most gamers when I say that my biggest question regarding this unusual collaboration is what exactly Mario is doping to enable him to match Sonic in a foot race. After having spent an afternoon with the game at the Wii Flat in London, I’m even more confused. Mario was pretty brisk if you held the run button, but when Bowser, Wario, and Eggman can keep up…well…it’s madness!

Once I was over my apoplectic fit and could put aside my inner fanboy, however, I couldn’t stay angry with it. I was too exhausted to…

Continue reading Mario & Sonic at the Wii Flat

Super Mario All-Star

At the risk of attack from the Nintendo fundamentalists, Mario Sunshine really wasn’t that great. It was good, but compared to the almost unimpeachable Super Mario 64 (as far as I’m concerned, the best game of the 32/64-bit generation), it felt soulless and disappointing.

Super Mario Galaxy

So we arguably haven’t had a truly great Mario in over a decade – come on, New Super Mario Bros was hardly Mario 64 – aaand…now that Super Mario Galaxy is here, we do. The hit ratio may have dropped since we had Super Mario Bros 1-3 plus World in five years, but now, even without Miyamoto at the helm, the standards for Mario have been put back as high as they should be.

While I think that those calling this the greatest Mario game ever are simply wrong, the comparisons that have been made between this and Super Mario Bros 3 are apt. Both games took the fairly conservative design of a previous game and just went a bit mental, but whereas the limits of SMB3’s madness were enemies with gigantism, flying raccoons, and a tanuki suit that inexplicably transformed Mario into a statue, Galaxy runs with it.

Such concepts as gravity – surely essential to a platform game – become meaningless. And while the race against the penguin in Mario 64 had some context, Galaxy’s equivalent is to have a community of penguins who surf on a smiling manta ray. It gives no explanation and clearly delights in the bemused expressions that such flights of fancy will induce. It’s a wonderful game that’s gloriously fun to just go with. And the space setting, unbounded by any real level structure (you can get completely different level designs within the same galaxy), has let them take a pile of concepts that couldn’t be expanded into a whole game and simply use them as single, throwaway levels. It seems almost profligate to use some great ideas in such a manner, but really it’s better that they go here than in a minigame compilation.

My one complaint would have to be that the mechanics sometimes can’t keep up with the design. Things haven’t really moved on since Mario 64’s benchmark for a 3D camera, and it sometimes doesn’t work with these far more complex level designs. The camera will more often than not be impossible to move manually – I don’t remember this ever being the case in Mario 64 – and just occasionally this will leave you looking at Mario’s shadow through a solid structure or with an awkward angle on a jump that could lead to oblivion if missed. It doesn’t happen all the time by any means, but it happens just enough to annoy.

Similarly, the human brain (or mine at least) can occasionally seem as incapable of keeping up as the camera. Mario can continually flip and take the controls with him, while I occasionally spent half a second flapping around in an effort to work out whether up was still up. Call it my failing rather than the game’s, if you like, but the fact is there is some inconsistency, such as when one double-sided surface in one galaxy will let you run seamlessly around the edge and onto the other side, whereas one in the next galaxy that is identical in all but theme will dump you off into a black hole if you try the same manoeuvre. As with the camera, it only happens enough to be an irritation.

It would be churlish of me to call this anything other than a great game because of a couple of qualms, though. This is still by far the best game on the Wii (no jokes, please) and, like its forebears, it will stick in the memory well beyond most of the big hits of this generation. This game reminds you what Nintendo can be when they stop thinking about minigames.

The Assassin’s Creed Cop-out

Assassin's Creed 2: Altair in Space!

First, a warning: if you haven’t been paying attention, this post could spoil certain aspects of Assassin’s Creed for you. In any case, rest assured that the ‘twist’ discussed here occurs minutes into the game, so put the pitchfork down.

And so, here we go. As you probably know if you’ve been following the development at all, the 12th Century setting of Assassin’s Creed takes place within a futuristic setting, exploring the idea of genetic memory. Expect a plethora of sequels set in various time periods (World War 2, here we come!) throughout the next couple of console generations.

As one of the early standard-bearers for this generation, Assassin’s Creed had a lot of hype behind it. And really ever since that showing at X06, when we saw an early version of the game looking and playing like most finished games at the time, it’s looked like one of those truly ‘next-gen’ games from the start. But what I liked it for more than anything was that it was doing something different in its setting. When it seems like every game is either a space marine shooter with a main character named like a Steven Seagal character or a fantasy epic, a game based on a relatively unexplored period of history was a breath of fresh air.

More like a hot blast of arid, desert air…

Maybe it’s understandable given development costs nowadays, and that coupled with a notoriously conservative industry (creatively speaking) means that working outside the comfort zone is even more of a risk, but it was the Third Crusade setting that first attracted me to the game simply because it was something that I hadn’t experienced in a game. And the overarching sci-fi elements wouldn’t bother me if they were limited to some kind of level hub or as justification for a sequel, as if they needed one.

But no. Areas between missions are truncated as the memory gets ‘skipped’; the HUD is all cool blue futurism; digital interference appears during holes in the memories. And that’s just what I saw in the first few missions. It’s like they got cold feet and considering how secretive they were about this plot element – a few public slips aside – I find it inexplicable. Sci-fi fans aren’t going to know about it and those interested by the history behind it, like me, will find it obtrusive and unnecessary .

I hope now that embargoes are up and the secret is out we might get some serious interviews on why this decision was made. I just can’t fathom it. Why would you make a game about genetic memory and keep that fact secret? Surely it’s an interesting enough concept to feature prominently. Why would you spend years showing a Prince of Persia-meets-Hitman game when most people are going to walk in and get something completely different? There’s no indication on the box that it’s anything other than an historical adventure, and thanks to the aforementioned embargoes it’s not mentioned in any of the reviews. Someone who hasn’t been following the development certainly won’t know about it.

As I said, it’s not going to impress the history buffs (because they won’t want it), and it’s not going to impress the armchair scientists (because they won’t know about it). Sci-fi games are the ones pushing the big numbers so far this gen and Ubisoft seem to be trying to tap that demographic by the back door. Ultimately, will they please no-one by trying to please everyone? We’ll have to wait for next month’s NPDs, I suppose.

Phase: A Harmonix Game for Less than $170


Anyone who downloaded the iTunes 7.5 last week probably noticed something in the change list about a new game called Phase. It’s now out on the iTunes Store (link), priced at £3.99, and it’s a rhythm game from Harmonix.

Yes, that Harmonix. And yes, it’s an iPod game.

It’s basically Amplitude in miniature, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it allows you to import your own music. Hopefully this is an indication of where we’ll be going with the next Rock Band – or the next Amplitude? – because if an iPod can do that analysis of a song (actually it’s iTunes that does the analysis, but let’s not be so pedantic that I ruin my point) there’s certainly no reason that a modern console can’t do it. It’s probably the only possible feature that would make me entertain paying £170 for Rock Band.

The quality of the experience really depends on the music – dance music and anything with a prominent, repeating rhythm works well; more subtle music not so much – but when it works well it works very well and what it could represent for the future of Harmonix’s rhythm games is very exciting. I just hope that the implementation of mass DLC in Rock Band doesn’t cause dollar signs to blind them to the potential of importing one’s music collection manually.

Phase isn’t as good as Guitar Hero or Amplitude, but on this showing I see potential in bespoke iPod games that the ever-nascent mobile phone gaming market continually fails to fulfill. And Guitar Hero and Amplitude, least of all Rock Band, aren’t £3.99, are they?

Sega Rally Review

Being that it’s now available for as little as £30 (apparently going up against Halo 3 wasn’t such a good move), I’ve posted a review of Sega Rally. I personally thought it was better than PGR4 which got nothing but top reviews and briefly lit up my friends list in the way that big new 360 releases tend to do, so I implore you to try the demo and jump in if you like it.

I had a great time with it even without being a big racing fan.