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Mortal Kombat X Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 18th of April 2015MKX_Kunglao_KotalKahn

In NetherRealm’s latest entry Mortal Kombat returns to your screen to slice, dice and entice players back into its uniquely gruesome brand of brawling. With every bone-crunching blow it’s easy to realise that this over-the-top arcade style fighting extravaganza is exactly what has been missing from the latest generation of consoles.

As the tenth instalment in the Mortal Kombat series there is a lot to build on and Mortal Kombat X does it well, using the now commonplace energy bar from 2011’s Mortal Kombat, Injustice’s interactive arenas and even the sprint bar from Mortal Kombat 4, longtime Kombatants will be met with a wave of nostalgia in an updated combat system. There is plenty here for existing fans but not so much that it feels inaccessible to new players. If this is your first Mortal Kombat experience it will be hard to be disappointed, and harder not to laugh maniacally when you perform your first fatality.

When it comes to returning characters, the game offers plenty of familiar faces to choose from, including classic Kombatants Scorpion and Sub-Zero as well as favourites from previous instalments like Kenshi. Not only does the game rely on past glories, but there are eight new characters introduced. Many of these characters have ties to previous MVP’s and some, like Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs, mimic their parents’ fighting styles with some changes just subtle enough to warrant a new character. Kenshi’s son Takeda and Shaolin Archer Kung Jin on the other hand feel unique with their incredibly diverse set of attacks, including dual chain-whips, energy swords, bow-staffs and throwing knives. The new additions who aren’t taking their style from a previous fighter are something to be marvelled at. These newcomers come with a massive range of combat styles complimented by the game’s new variation options. Each character has three unique variations that allow fans to change-up their favourite fighter or simply explore the enormous number of fighting styles at their disposal.

In terms of combat the controls are responsive and the range of attacks should please even the most sadistic of gamers. The combos require rapid and precise execution and the fatalities even more so, but in the single player mode learning the ropes doesn’t feel punishing. Returning to the series are the graphic but often delightfully violent X-Ray special moves, area attacks and evasions and the block breaker option can turn the tide in your favour, making for a fast-paced, brutal, but ultimately rewarding experience. The fatalities are as gruesome as ever and are sure to bring about the usual feelings of shock, disgust and complete awe in true Mortal Kombat fashion.

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The story mode takes a leaf out of fellow Warner Bros game Injustice, creating a grand interlocking narrative featuring all of the playable characters. It does an excellent job of weaving together old characters and feuds and giving new fighters a place in their world. Cassie, Jacqui, Takeda and Kung Jin are placed as an elite team under the command of Johnny Cage and they are plunged into a world filled with menace, betrayal and magic. At times the plot itself seems a little sickly sweet for the limb-shattering action that Mortal Kombat is known for, with an emotional focus on parents Jax, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade’s family relationships and a budding romance between Jacqui and Takeda. Whilst these scenes can be at odds with the high level of violence, the inclusion of emotional themes widens the scope. Kung Jin’s discussion with Raiden about who his heart desires highlights Jin as the series’ first gay character, and this is nothing short of a definitive step forward for fighting games, and is an example to the gaming industry as a whole. All in all, the dialogue can be sharp-witted, the voice acting is solid and the cutscenes themselves are nothing short of stunning. The result is completely charming and whilst the skin and bones of the fantastical story are not easy to follow, it ends up feeling like a classic fantasy action movie with a heart (although one that might not stay in its chest for long).

The story is only just the beginning, as Mortal Kombat X boasts a wealth of online content from player vs player, survivor and king of the hill modes. In a world where split-screen gameplay is dwindling, fighting games remain a multiplayer-friendly experience, and there is nothing better than taking it to the sofa, battling it out with friends and gawping together at the hyper-violent finishers that you’ll fight to land on each other. Faction wars are also introduced to the mix. All players must join one of five factions and will earn points for their chosen allies in every fight, gaining faction-exclusive abilities, unique fatalities, and becoming able to fight in faction battles. Your faction’s world-ranking can be viewed in real time and also gives daily challenges that can boost your alliance’s status. The Living Tower feature also makes its debut, a set of three player vs computer tournaments that are refreshed hourly, daily and weekly and are set to provide a huge amount of additional content with the promise of rewards if you meet the challenging points targets. In these themed towers unique effects will be active, whether it’s randomly generating tornados to catch both Kombatants off-guard, or added effects like vampirism, there will be much to explore for persistent players.

Since Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance the Krypt has been a staple for the series, developing into a good old-fashioned treasure hunt in which players use their in-game coins to open coffins, corpses and the like to unlock goodies such as concept art, finishing moves and character skins. The exploration is made more interesting by the addition of item-controlled shortcuts and attacks by the areas beasts to invoke a real time event. The Krypt adds an element of light dungeon crawling to the game and offers an enjoyable way to take a break from tearing people apart.

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As much as there is to do in Mortal Kombat X, there is also plenty more that is available to purchase as DLC, something which the player is made aware of fairly often. In the character select screen the original Mortal Kombat boss Goro is included, but only as an available to buy icon. Whilst there are more intrusive ways to promote your DLC (I’m looking at you Assassins Creed Unity), it sours your experience when you run out of coins in the Krypt and must grind to find more or pay out in actual currency (£15.99) to unlock all of the game’s pricey Kontent. Skipping levels and easy fatalities are also purchasable options, allowing for simple ways to execute the most complex of death-inducing special moves, or simply the ability to skip an essential fight altogether. Whilst this is nothing new, it’s a shame to see features that punishes the less-skilled players through in-game purchases in a game that takes such a light-hearted approach to its hyper-violent, larger than life gameplay.

Whilst the in game purchases are a disappointing sign of AAA gaming, the rest of Mortal Kombat X offers a stunning action experience and an incredibly satisfying fighting game. It combines the levity of retro arcade fighters, the multiplayer couch-gaming of previous console generations and the sharpness of modern AAA titles to produce a truly special fighting game experience. With so much to accomplish throughout, a unique style in its storytelling, a gore-factor like no other and a multitude of fighting styles to choose from, the latest Mortal Kombat is the definitive all out brawler of its generation and an absolute joy to play.

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Bloodborne Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 28th of March 2015The hunt is on

There are many mysteries to be uncovered in Bloodborne, FromSoftware’s unique action-RPG from veteran game director Hidetaka Miyazaki (Dark Souls, Demons’ Souls). But finding out how to put it down is not one of them. Set in a beautiful and densely detailed gothic nightmare, Bloodborne takes its daring players on a journey of discovery that will challenge, consume, immerse and captivate.

The game begins as you might expect, your intrepid hunter finding themselves thrust into a world full of terrifying creatures and wonderful secrets. Once you’ve created your character and chosen your origin, which determines your starting attributes, you’re ready to start exploring, dying, learning and repeating in the fashion that FromSoftware has championed for years. The first thing that’s impossible to ignore is just how stunning the world of Yharnam looks. From the sprawling buildings to the ornate graveyards the entire world could have been plucked from a gothic masterpiece.

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In terms of design Bloodborne is in a class of its own. The level design is nothing short of perfect; each area seamlessly folds over itself as hunters battle through the dangers Yharnam has to offer. Like its predecessorsBloodborne is intimidating at first, but once you sink a few hours into its perilous cobbled streets you get a feel for how to make progress, and from then on its impossible to stop searching for that next item, checkpoint or boss. Finding a shortcut that leads back to a lamp or a safe place gives a sense of relief, triumph and added determination to push forward. With each attempt you progress further through incredible sprawling environments learning trap locations, local enemy placement and attacks all whilst gaining blood echoes, which act as both experience and currency in the Hunter’s Dream. The Hunter’s Dream is the central hub of the game, offering a mysterious doll-woman who levels you up, a wizened hunter offering sage advice, a weapon upgrade station, messenger item shops, storage and gravestones that will warp you to one of the various lamp checkpoints placed sparingly across Yharnam’s enormously varied landscape.

The only gripe that comes with this style of play is that in order to travel from one lamp to another you must always go back to the Hunter’s Dream and then back to Yharnam, which initiates the game’s loading screen twice. It’s impressive such an enormous game only has so few loading screens, but they can take up to forty seconds to load. In such a richly detailed game it’s not a deal breaker, but staring at the ominous title of the game as opposed to Dark Souls’ varied and interesting item description screens can seem like a punishment after losing a boss fight a few times. When it comes to the bosses and enemies themselves, however, the inhabitants of Yharnam are so painstakingly detailed their terrifying presence gives an atmosphere unlike anything else. Whether it’s the fast and furious Cleric Beast, a vicious monstrosity that relentlessly attacks your hunter as you scrabble for breathing room, or the horrifying collection of bones and faces that make up ‘The One Reborn’, there is an incredible attention to detail that speaks volumes about the depth of this game visually and mechanically.

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This is echoed in terms of story as Bloodborne takes a ‘show but don’t tell’ approach. When traversing through the broken alleyways it’s up to you to find out what’s cursed this land. Item descriptions and the design of the enemies and environment can lead you to some conclusions, but ultimately the game is shrouded in mystery and all the better for it. There is a thrill in discovering the lore behind the incredible world in front of you by delving into it head first that engages the player from beginning to end. The game mechanics are largely the same, challenging you to figure out what items upgrade weapons, how to leave notes for other players and even how to use the multiplayer features. It all takes some time but nothing compares to those wonderful moments when it all clicks.

The combat system makes a bold change from the Souls games, removing shields from the fray and introducing firearms. This combined with the new health regain system, where hunters can gain health back from enemies a few seconds after being damaged, forces players to take a more offensive approach. The result is blisteringly fast strategic combat in which your goal is to hunt the beast before you become the hunted. In true FromSoftware fashion, players wishing to cling to the old ways of hiding behind your trusty shield will find themselves rightly punished. The new aggressive style of play gives a real sense of danger when battling the game’s sinister bosses; one slip up and you’re lunch for a deadly beastie or two (or seven if you run in head first).

In this absolutely enormous adventure it’s difficult to run out of things to do, whether it’s simply exploring until you run into a boss, searching for hidden pathways or scrapping your way through to a new area, you’ll be spoilt for activities in the main game. FromSoftware’s unique multiplayer experience gets an update too. By using up insight points and ringing bells players can call other players for aid, whilst their fellow hunters can help or hinder depending on which bell they ring. The system makes for a high-risk high-reward way to defeat bosses or get past difficult enemies, with hunters you’re inviting both types of players into your world. You can receive invaluable help or be thwarted before you even begin.

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The newest feature for Bloodborne is the ability to play through Chalice Dungeons. These procedurally generated multi-tiered dungeons can be accessed from the Hunter’s Dream with the right items and add an entirely new dimension to the game. With the option to tackle your Chalice Dungeons solo or with other players, hunters can delve deep into the underground facing new bosses, harrowing enemies and a number of traps and obstacles that will never be the same twice. These randomised dungeons can be shared between players if theirs has some particularly good loot, and MCM’s own labyrinth was nothing short of incredible. With a challenging variety of enemies and swinging blade traps and three bosses (one on each tier) to face it was exhilarating as you fight your way further into the depths in search of goodies.

Bloodborne really is something special. Unlike many modern RPGs that focus on huge amounts of similar content, (succeeding with only 23 weapons to choose from) Bloodborne places gameplay and immersion above all else to create a truly unique experience. You will die again and again, but because of its incredible design, depth and execution those who dare to soldier on will wonder at its darkest secrets.

Bloodborne is out now for the Playstation 4

Grand Theft Auto V: Taking Mayhem to the Next Generation

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 22nd of November 2014

13 months after the initial release of Grand Theft Auto V, which blew us away in our review, Rockstar have given violence and villainy enthusiasts the chance to return to sunny Los Santos in glorious 1080p for PS4 and Xbox One. The result is a beautifully polished version of an instant classic to next-gen that gives new players a definitive edition of the game whilst still offering veteran Santos sinners enough new content to sink their teeth into.

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The most notable new feature is of course the first person mode, a first for Grand Theft Auto that already feels like it belongs in the franchise. Completing a heist in first person drastically heightens the tension, whilst the gunfights place you at the centre of the action (shooting demonic clowns or evil alien spawn has never been so immersive). The most surprising delight of this new viewpoint is that you can truly experience just how detailed the world is that Rockstar have created. Whether that immense sense of detail is found whilst walking downtown and gazing into the shop fronts or simply gazing out at the city following a quad bike excursion up the Vinewood hills, this game is indisputably the most stunning iteration of a Grand Theft Auto title to date.

Additional content has been added, including a new murder mystery mission for Michael that unlocks a couple of noir-style filters for the game, for those who want to get their Hitchcock on. Players on the PlayStation 4 will experience some features exclusive to the Dualshock 4, such as intuitive swipe controls (including a swipe to throw grenade feature), an atmospheric red and blue flash from its light bar if you become wanted and the audio for your in game phone and the police scanners run through the controller’s speaker. These touches alone are not game changing, however they are indicators of what Rockstar have achieved, which is something far beyond a 1080p port of their past success.

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GTA Online returns in a big way, after the problematic start on last-gen consoles it’s incredible to see the full potential of the online mode from the offset. In the ambitious online mode your created character is let loose on Los Santos and there are hundreds of hours of fun in deathmatches, races, jobs and of course just running riot with friends or fellow miscreants online. Hours can be lost as players scrimp, save and steal to get that dream car, plane, boat or tank as you make your mark in Rockstar’s city of sin. The variation of every gameplay is growing with every update, yet heist missions are still unavailable in Grand Theft Auto Online at the time of writing this review. With a PC version coming in January heists are expected to enter into the fray soon, yet in the meantime tons of additional content in the form of clothes, vehicles and weapons are being released.

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Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto hits the next-gen with more than just a ripple, offering a variety of new features and another chance for gamers to experience the stellar storyline and the hilarious, absurd, sharply satirical, manic and beautiful world that Rockstar Games have created. The story still flourishes and remains one of the strongest and most entertaining in video game history. All of the devilish joys that are found in the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are back in force (I missed Trevor’s utterly insane rampages more than I knew was possible), and there really is a fresh new perspective to be found in the first person mode. If you are returning for a second time, get ready to be engrossed all over again, and if this is your first journey into Los Santos, prepare to be blown away. Sometimes literally.

Grand Theft Auto V is now available for PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360, with a PC release slated for the 27th of January 2015.

The Wind Rises Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 10th of May 2014.

"All I wanted to do was make something beautiful"

This is it. Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises marks legendary animator, director and inspired storyteller Hayao Miyazaki’s final voyage, and what a voyage it is. This partly autobiographical tale reimagines the life of aeroplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, innovator of  some of the most iconic World War II fighter planes. It draws from Miyazaki’s own love of aircraft and the fantastically serene tone of Ghibli animations to produce a refined and visually astounding masterpiece. This could well be the last film of its kind.

The film follows Jiro from childhood to the heights of his success in aviation, taking on all of the themes that the world has come to expect from Miyazaki and studio Ghibli alike. From the value of kindness to the futility and destruction of war, life is shown to be complex but always beautiful. The story itself is bittersweet from start to finish, yet ultimately it is a celebration of all parts of life that urges you to be creative, determined and caring.

The animation itself is simply stunning, showcasing gorgeous watercolour landscapes, charming character designs and captivating flight scenes that boast vibrant colours and an incredible and classic style. Miyazaki’s direction shows a cinematic sensibility that is unmatched, not only in the world of animation, but in cinema as a whole. The Wind Rises masterfully captures the peaceful beauty of flying. Jiro’s ethereal mentor and Italian design pioneer Giovanni Caproni muses that “engineers turn dreams into reality”, and this is certainly true of Miyazaki and the endlessly talented Ghibli animators. The score is also truly astounding, bursting from peaceful silence into wave after wave of emotion throughout.

This plot itself excellently paced, taking the viewer through critical moments in Jiro’s life whilst keeping the wonderful fantasy of Ghibli’s previous features alive through gorgeous dream sequences and a sense of positivity, which creates a level of quiet maturity none of its predecessors can compete with. The characters are brilliantly fleshed out to the point that it becomes easy to forget they are animated. From Jiro’s cynical but loyal friend Honjo to the kind-hearted but comically irritable Kurokawa, every person Jiro encounters feels honest and proves to be memorable and inspiring in their own way. It is hard to forget the absurd but hauntingly aware figure of Castorp, a visitor to Japan who warns Jiro of the impending war. The adult complexity of the film is often found in the tension between innovation and destruction, from Jiro’s contribution to war as a result of his inspired pursuit of a profound dream.

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Whilst flight gives The Wind Rises a sense of scale and incredibly well crafted visual spectacle, the emotional aspect of the Wind Rises shines through Jiro’s understated but intimate relationship with the strong willed and compassionate Nahoko. Their story is inexhaustibly charming, and the direction their lives take together is both captivating and heartbreaking. In many ways their love reflects the film’s depiction of flight, as it is both beautiful and harmful, but Jiro’s inspired optimism shows how the wonder that is found in life is well worth the pain. Miyazaki’s own experience comes through here as much as in the environmentalist and pacifist tones that emerge throughout Jiro’s adventure.

The Wind Rises stands out as Miyazaki’s most personal picture. It confounds you with beauty, complexity, love and loss and dreams and heartbreak, all the while reminding you that life is a wonderful thing. This message is all the more important considering that this marks the last film directed by one of the great cinematic pioneers of the century. Despite the absence of any nature spirits, magical creatures or wicked witches, Miyazaki’s last outing as a director is inspired, magical storytelling at its absolute finest.

The Wind Rises soars into selected UK cinemas on the 9th of May.

Grand Theft Auto V Review

Originally Published by MCM Buzz on the 28th September 2013

The Devil is in the Detail.

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Welcome to Los Santos, where being bad has never felt so good. In Grand Theft Auto V, developers Rockstar North have created nothing short of a masterpiece, an engrossing, exciting, dizzying tale of friendship, atrocity and insanity that succeeds not only in providing opportunities for high-octane mayhem, but produces a layered storyline packed with blockbuster action, humour and tension centred around our lovable band of criminal misfits.

The game follows three criminals at different stages in their lives, a retired thief who struck a shady deal with the Bureau, Michael; a young, ambitious car-booster Franklin; and the mentally unstable crystal meth distributor and “entrepreneur” extraordinaire Trevor. The story sees the three thrust together, Trevor and Michael after a long separation and a job that went south for the two, and Franklin as a new kid on the block, looking to shadow some more experienced (but not wiser) members of the Los Santos crime underbelly. In a town filled with corrupt government agents, private militia, drug kingpins and every criminal in-between, the three try to make it and take it in a world where no one can be trusted and everyone’s a threat. The scope of GTAV is beyond cinematic blockbuster, this game is massive, in every sense of the word.

Let’s start with the first thing you notice when the game begins, acting on your most twisted and violent impulses has never looked more incredible. Every area in the game, from house interiors and smaller details to the mountains of Blaine County, is gloriously detailed and perfectly done, the lighting in the game gives a cinematic feel that is really brought home by the pain-staking effort placed in developing realistic faces and very human expressions. From the start the player can see Michael’s frustration, Franklin’s cocksure swagger and quick flickers of insanity behind Trevor’s eyes. The cinematic mode that can be activated whilst in a vehicle really demonstrates what Rockstar were trying to achieve, and they have succeeded in spades. If you’re in the middle of an elaborate heist, driving through busy streets or taking your chop for a walk, the game takes hold and catapults the player into the devilish world of Grand Theft Auto.

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Aside from the missions, in true GTA style there is no shortage of things to keep you occupied, with randomly activated events, optional side missions gained from people you meet and even hobbies to adopt, this game keeps you busy between heists and story events, not to mention all those spontaneous killing sprees. The vehicle list grows ever larger with cars, bikes, lorries, quad bikes, off-road vehicles, planes, helicopters, jet skis, speedboats, ribs, pushbikes and even submarines in the vast setting of Los Santos and Blaine County. The world itself is of course huge, but the buildings are all so immensely detailed that the city has a much bigger impact than any of the previous games. As if the game wasn’t big enough, there is an online mode that will be released in the near future set before the events of the story mode.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor

The characters themselves are a central part of what makes this game great. Each character is associated with a different kind of crime. Whether it is Michael’s has-been bank robber, Franklin’s aspiring car booster or Trevor’s meth-cooking, weapons-smuggling anarchist, one of the great triumphs of the game is that players begin to change their gaming style depending on who they are controlling. Trevor is one of the most perverse but also entertaining characters to ever appear in a videogame, yet he quickly becomes a guilty pleasure as the game continues. As well as having their own in-game abilities their stories all have decent themes, and the quick-change system that has you jumping between characters is yet another part of the game’s control system that keeps everything flowing and fast-paced.

The controls are sharp and intuitive, which is important in a game with such varied modes of gameplay. Whether it’s shooting, scuba diving, playing golf or tennis, running a triathlon, playing the stock market, stealing a helicopter or manning a submarine, the game manages to seamlessly switch to a control system that is perfect for that particular activity, although bring some deep heat for your thumbs on any of the running activities. These immersive, accessible controls help to give Grand Theft Auto V something special, a feeling that anything can be done in this game.

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The heist system is something to be admired, taking RPG-style tactics selection and applying it to the usually unadulterated mayhem makes it all the more engaging. If Michael makes the wrong choice or hires the wrong guy, you are going to pay for it. The stakes are higher, and the fact that each choice has an impact on the mission really adds tension to every single job. The game also has a replay mission function that not only allows players to retry missions and gain gold classification on each, but allows you to choose the alternative heist options to experience your other options. Sometimes the smartest way to go is going to be focused on stealth, but you can go back and get your fill of explosions the second time round. This mode is available at any time (outside of a mission) in the game, and is accessible from the start.

Rockstar North have taken Grand Theft Auto to the next level, but the mammoth scale, incredible style and complex storytelling are not the reason for its success. The incredible thing about this game is that it takes every great aspect in the free roaming parts of its predecessors and implements them in the narrative, enabling the player to unleash hell upon the unknowing citizens of Los Santos whilst adding weight to your most maniacal exploits through a focused and engaging story. The variety of the gameplay, the incredible detailing and the charismatic characters from our protagonists to the people we simply love to hate all make this game what it is.Grand Theft Auto V is the last instalment in the franchise on the current-gen consoles, and it is perhaps the most explosive send-off in videogame history. Simply put, this game is a perfectly crafted, enormously addictive one-stop-shop to all things violent, devious, deliciously immoral and outright insane.

Grand Theft Auto V is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with an online mode launching on 1st October. 

Pokemon X and Pokemon Y Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 23rd of October 2013Official Xerneas Illustration

Pokémon is a rare franchise; few titles have had the steady, impossibly colossal impact on the role-playing, pop culture and entertainment industry that Game Freak’s flagship title has boasted for nearly ten years. The latest additions to the series, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y keep up the tradition, showcasing a completely engaging, engrossing and wonderfully charming experience. With a host of new features and some welcome changes in one of handheld gaming’s longest-running adventure series, the latest title builds on some of the most endearing adventure RPG’s to create something truly astonishing. Whether you are a super nerd when it comes to Pokémon or a complete newcomer to the games, this is an essential title for 3DS owners, and a reason for any Slowpokes without Nintendo’s handheld to buy one.

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The adventure begins once again for our ambitious would-be trainer in the Kalos region, a stylish and beautifully crafted 3D world that is overflowing with activities for aspiring trainers, breeders, collectors and even fashionistas as you set out on an adventure that will completely absorb players. Our budding trainer begins their tale in true Pokémon style; starting in a new town the ambitious young Pokéfan sets off on an adventure, makes some new friends, challenges the warped leader of baddies Team Flare and goes on to make history in the Pokémon League. The story is a familiar one, but as usual this does little harm to the experience, instead you are catapulted into a journey of discovery through a vibrant world with strange and wonderful creatures, and Pokémon X and Pokémon Y certainly is that. In saying this, however, there are some moments of real intrigue in this story; the tall old man is a beautiful and eerie addition to the plot, and X and Y is certainly one of the more action-packed Pokémon tales. That being said, the real merits still lie with building up and getting to know your team, catching new Pokémon and interacting with your friends.

As the first RPG Pokémon game for the next generation of handheld consoles it’s visually all fans ever hoped for. In Pokémon battles the sprites are animated and your Poképartner’s moves look incredible, whether it’s a Blastoise leaning in to shower an opponent with a hydro pump, or a Pikachu darting across the battlefield with its agility, each Pokémon’s attacks feel like they are coming from the creatures themselves as opposed to the forced movements of stiff sprites. For such a long running series with so much history, there really is something special about playing with your all-time favourite Pokémon as a three dimensional character. The towns are so impressive you might think twice before jetting off to the equally gorgeous mountains, caves and landscapes set out in between, the world creation is nothing short of marvellous.

Whilst the plot may stick to a tried and tested formula, there are many features that breathe new life into a previously rigid structure, the most obvious of these is Mega Evolution. In Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, certain Pokémon have the ability to mega-evolve into more powerful versions of themselves for a short time, changing form and turning the tide in a battle. The ability to mega-evolve gives both new and classic Pokémon the chance to become some of the strongest fighters in the game, as well as giving fans an interesting look at mega versions of favourites such as Charizard and Lucario. Charizard even has two mega-evolutions depending on the game version purchased. You can also customise your own clothes, add accessories and change your hair from a wide range of options, allowing gamers to express themselves through their character. On top of this, Sky and Horde battles have been introduced. Sky battles take place in mid-air and can only be carried out by Pokémon that can keep off the ground, and Horde battles take place when five weaker Pokémon attack the player all at once. Both are fun additions to the game that creatively vary the different ways for a trainer to battle. Another huge addition is Fairy Type, which provides an edge against Dragon types and challenges even the most experienced players to rethink type advantages.

A major difference in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y from previous titles is the larger number of characters you interact with throughout the game. Now your group of friends have their own interests in the world of Pokémon, and encourage you to explore different ways of playing. The characters seem more present in the story, and although most are not complicated people, it is no bad thing to have more than one companion on the journey ahead. One thing that the characters contribute to is the overall difficulty of the game. Many long time fans may be surprised at this, as it feels considerably easier at the start. There is no drawn out quest for Poké Balls, the first gym is quicker to beat, a friend offers healing in the forest and the story is regularly given direction through the supporting characters. The game itself feels more linear. For the old school fan, it needs getting used to, but after taking a step back these changes don’t always make the game less enjoyable, but gently remind you of the story whilst the player explores this new world. There are less new Pokémon too, with only 69 originals the game pays more attention to revisiting both classic and often under-appreciated Pokémon of previous generations. The result is an incredible balance, encountering both new and old favourites really highlights both the discovery of new friends and remembers old companions kindly.

One of the biggest draws that Pokémon has always possessed is the relationship between a gamer and their team, and Pokémon X and Pokémon Y are perhaps the best games in the entire series to show this. On top of the wonderfully created moving sprites and the perfectly balanced variety of old and new monsters, new featurePokémon Amie allows players to play with their Pokémon in a way they have never been able to before. The mode not only allows for a closer look at the stunning graphics, but is the perfect platform for strengthening a bond with a Pokémon in the game, as well as for the gamer themselves. The new feature also includes some mini-games that help to increase the happiness of your squad. The bond you have or how happy your Pokémon are has certain effects that make this a welcome addition for both serious trainers and affectionate adventurers.

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y has one other feature that really makes things easier for hardcore trainers and evens the playing field for newer or casual players, and that is Super Training. Like Pokémon Amie, Super Training takes the once difficult task of training specific stats for Pokémon, makes it more accessible and frankly, eliminates hours of fighting the same Pokémon over and over. Super Training introduces both active and passive features, where a player can increase a Pokémon’s particular stat by giving it the matching punching bag in the game, or play another mini-game in order to instantly boost a certain value. Though it may seem trivial, this is a real game changer, especially for online battles, allowing every player the chance to get the best out of their favourite Pokémon.

Another impressive development here is the significance of online play. With in-game access to the online features the process feels more fluid and with the improved wireless capabilities of the 3DS console the game can reach its full potential as both a global and local experience. For players who have missed a few generations, the online mode will be staggeringly impressive, as Pokémon X and Pokémon Y build on the improvements of each version making a vibrant community full of life and shared enthusiasm. Online exclusive Pokémon events such as the recent Torchic giveaway are also much easier to access, and players can battle and trade in dozens of ways almost instantly with few restrictions and against both friends and other players from across the world.

As the first central Pokémon games in their generation and dimension, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y had a lot to live up to, and largely they soar past expectations. Whilst keeping many of the greatest features in the previous games, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y take some important steps for the development of Pokémon games as a whole, and demonstrate incredible promise for the future. With a vibrant world to explore, memorable new Pokémon and positive enhancements in almost every aspect of the Pokémon title, the games’ greatest achievement has to be pushing new features whilst keeping the feeling of friendship, nostalgia and discovery, earning its rightful place in Pokémon’s own Hall of Fame.

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y are available now worldwide for Nintendo 3DS.

Batman: Arkham Origins Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 31st of October 2013

The Batman: Arkham series has set the precedent for stylish, engaging comic book games for almost five years. Warner Bros. Games Montréal’s first original crack at the series (after porting Batman: Arkham City to the Wii U) is a strong addition in the same vein as the others, whilst also exploring the rich and often unexplored tale of Batman’s development past the origin story and before the height of the Dark Knight’s powers. The game sees Gotham’s caped crusader around two years into his career, a more inexperienced vigilante getting to grips with one of the world’s most dangerous cities as he encounters lifelong friends and mortal enemies. On Christmas Eve, Black Mask puts a bounty on the head of the Batman that attracts eight of DC Comics’ most dangerous assassins. This night has a huge part in shaping our hero Bruce Wayne as a crime-fighter, and what a tale it has to tell.

It is crystal clear from the very beginning that Batman: Arkham Origins is ruthlessly faithful to the previous games. It is the first game to be set in Gotham city in its entirety, and yet it just feels like an expansion of Arkham City. This reveals two things about our masked hero’s latest outing; either it is playing it safe and lacking in any groundbreaking creative input, or the game is seeing a new studio successfully coming to terms with Arkham lore. Warned Bros. Games Montreal have successfully recreated the look and feel of an already expansive game world, but when a new studio makes a prequel for an existing series, some may be focusing more on how the game has moved on from its predecessors.

The gameplay itself is almost identical to that of Batman: Arkham City, with a few additional gadgets taken from your defeated assassins. The strange part about this is that the player is provided with stronger weapons, particularly electric shock gloves, that make the most difficult crowd control situation a walk in Gotham city park. One thing that could have been really incredible to see was Batman learning to use his gadgets, and how he coped without them, or at least how he coped if the prototypes didn’t work. The combat system is the same albeit for some new enemies, as is the detective vision system, although entering a crime scene mode has made some significant changes. Here the world’s greatest detective can flex his thinking muscles as the player uses evidence around the area to reconstruct the crime scene and produce a video interpretation of what happened. It is not used much in the game, but it adds to the cinematic feel of Arkham Origins and really absorbs the gamer into the investigations.

One way in which Arkham Origins builds on its predecessor brilliantly is the storyline, everything from the cutscenes, characters and core gameplay feels like being thrust back in to the wonderfully dark world created by Rocksteady Studios. In fact the game does develop the universe immensely when it comes to the addition of this engaging, rich and fulfilling plot as you refine Gotham’s protector. Where Batman is more inexperienced, when he faces up against his lifelong adversaries it is all the more nail-biting as he struggles to fight heavyweights like Bane or understand the Joker.

The game follows the footsteps of the previous entries to create a wholly immersive experience. The supporting characters themselves are grandly fleshed out, adding even more depth to the lore of the Arkham series. There is something deeply interesting about the way the game explores Batman’s relationships with his future allies, including a young Captain James Gordon. The best example of this, however, is found in Alfred Pennyworth. In seeing an Alfred who doesn’t understand Bruce’s cape and cowl, their dynamic in this game feels much less stable than in his later career. His questioning of Bruce’s methods placed at odds against their bond that came out of so much grief is beautifully handled, and makes for some of the best moments in the game.

The Joker has always been central to the Arkham series, and in this prequel it is no different. Whilst all Joker origin tales should be taken with a pinch of salt, as you never can trust the blighter, the beginnings of Arkham lore’s Joker are told from the psychiatrists chair, which give a brilliant and interactive beginning to Batman’s anarchic arch-nemesis. The Joker’s origin brings in elements of the tale told in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but the plot itself (even when drawing from other incarnations) creates a specific lore for the Arkhamverse, one that goes deep into each character’s backstory and shows the layer that defines them.

Batman’s world is filled with iconic characters, and with the departure of both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s voice talents many were left unnerved. Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite) does a sterling job of bringing back the devilishly delightful villain to Arkham Origins, keeping the same vibrant energy and (literally) razor sharp humour. On the other side of the field, Roger Craig-Smith (Resident Evil, Assassins Creed II) brings the required raw emotionality that is absent in the later, more experienced Dark Knight. Both actors manage to keep in sync with their previous incarnation, and yet still bring something new to Arkham Origins, which is no easy task.

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Another significant gameplay difference is the boss battles. Early in his career, the enemies Batman faces are a mix of classic villains and new faces from the comics, including Deathstroke and a now female Copperhead. For each boss the player has to implement new tactics in order to overcome their adversary depending on their own abilities. The game combines these brief flashes of new gameplay modes with quick, beautiful cutscenes, again adding to the cinematic feel of the game, but taking you out of the fight and slowing down the pace for the player. In many cases the last moments of the fight are not actually played by the gamer. Whilst the effects are stunning, it is slightly dissatisfying to work through the boss only to have your moment of triumph snatched away by some dazzling footage. This, however, is only a bad point because it takes away from some of the best gameplay moments that are present.

The largest new feature in Arkham Origins is the online mode (which for Xbox 360 is inconveniently on another non-downloadable disc), and sees Bane and the Joker’s gangs face off against the other, all whilst being picked off by Batman and Robin. The idea itself is promising, and whilst it is gleefully amusing and surprisingly challenging to take down your friends as a hero, when playing as a thug the combat system seems less polished and the gameplay clunky. There are rank systems in place that allow for players to become more advanced, which gives you a better chance against the dynamic duo, but with few players online at the moment the teams are often unbalanced. With only four maps available at launch, the multiplayer could do with some more variety in an update soon, otherwise this game mode with some serious potential will grow stale quickly.

Taking the game as a whole, there are some real gems in Arkham Origins, with a whirlwind story that shapes Gotham’s finest and perfectly portrayed characters, as well as a wealth of side quests and little secrets, especially features like the Joker’s Christmas song and a Dark Knight Returns-esque news commentary played during the credits. The game gives fans of the series a solid foundation for the Arkham universe. Batman: Arkam Originsmay not push the envelope when it comes to innovation, or change much when it comes to gameplay features from the previous games, but it has to be said that it has not lost any of the exceptional features either. With a stunning plot to follow for hardcore batfans or casual admirers the game succeeds in giving what is one of the best comic book game franchises a different origin story that is not often told and hours of action, detective work and stealthy skirmishes that will have any Gothamite left breathless.

Batman: Arkham Origins is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

Gravity Review

Originally published by MCM Buzz on the 7th of November 2013Gravity1

Gravity begins in the way every film should, with a list of simple facts about space. Most of this information is already common knowledge, but if you don’t work for NASA and are not a physicist, these things are never dwelled on for too long. The brainchild of director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), alongside his son Jonas, this dazzling shuttle ride starts as it means to go on, emphasising the very real and rarely explored fact that space is an abyss of deadly silence. The last fact about the final frontier reads “Life in space is impossible”, and this wonderfully dizzying, brilliantly executed, unfathomably beautiful film truly puts that to the test.

The story sees innovative medical engineer and first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) sent out to install her device to the Hubble Space Telescope, under the command of easy-going space veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). After the destruction of a satellite orbiting Earth causes debris to scatter and pick up pace, shooting around the planet with rapidly increasing speed and ferocity, their shuttle is destroyed and the two are left in the staggeringly stunning void, fighting to survive in the dark.

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From the very first sequence, Gravity asserts itself as a major player in the world of film with one of the most dazzling, disorienting and rousing scenes in cinema, certainly in the last few years. In one gloriously extended shot Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki introduce the characters, perfectly capture their personalities and demonstrate an entirely new method of technical filmmaking all while showing just how intoxicatingly beautiful space itself can be. Even when the setting becomes the deadliest place on the planet it is never in question that this deadly force is simply breathtaking, from the beginning Cuarón creates a sense of awe that just doesn’t go away. Danger really has never been so astonishingly gorgeous.

The pace picks up immensely along with the shuttle debris, and because of the inconceivably fluid direction, convincing performances and state of the art special effects, it’s impossible not to be swept away with it. The action is so fast and well executed that Gravity really does pull you in. There is something of a balance in the action sequences, with the intense speed at which everything is shooting across the screen you only find your feet when the camera does, which creates this terribly exciting feeling of being hurled into space and laid at the mercy of the film. After a barrage of entertaining stasis, silent dread and lightning fast action this film is powerfully and brilliantly unpredictable when it comes to pacing. In the scenes where shrapnel is on the horizon, even in the zero gravity conditions, you could hear a pin drop. In fact the film as a whole is continuously surprising and refreshing in an industry becoming ever-crammed with remakes, sequels and re-imaginings. Here it is inspiring to simply see an imagining.

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The back and forth between Clooney and Bullock is nothing short of sublime. The amiable, free-spirited Kowalski is perfectly matched for the sceptical, wounded Dr. Stone and it is truly interesting to see their very different reactions to the hopelessness threatening to engulf them. As the two bounce off each other both verbally and, at times, literally, their dynamic makes for a complex and touching relationship in the nothingness of space. The film is as much about the two characters interactions as it is about the disaster surrounding them. Clooney has his charm levels set to maximum as he captivates the audience and manages to be a strong and guiding force before the first sequence has even finished. Bullock is expertly cast and succeeds in portraying the troubled engineer’s vulnerability, but is also versatile enough to handle the impossibly broad spectrum of emotion explored in this terrifying, enthralling and often sensitive journey.

The soundtrack is powerfully understated, really bringing to the fore the contrast that is constant in the film between silent beauty and subtle emotion, and with it an eerie and malevolent darkness when disaster strikes. The sound itself is an integral part of the film for the very same reason, there is no sound in space, and so when it is present it has a staggering impact that feels so heightened. Everything about this film feels right and remains in keeping with the rest of its parts, it would not be a stretch to say that Gravity exhibits a masterclass in tone. But even without the acting, the direction or the effects, Gravity succeeds first as a film about life, and not simply on a physical level. The film sees Dr. Stone undergo a life-changing transformation that focuses on the value of a life, and why it is a very part of human nature to fight for our lives even when hope is entirely lost, creating a film that is both rare and immensely moving.

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The Big Kowalski

Gravity is visually stunning and wonderfully written with a layered plot, likeable characters and technically revolutionary camera work and visual effects. One thing that has to be noted is that whilst being all these things it remains to be a completely engaging thrill ride that has never been done before in quite the same way. From the initial idea to the cutting room Gravity succeeds in releasing a breath of fresh air into the vastness of space. If you are a seasoned space-veteran or a rookie astronaut, this film has something for you; it captures a glimpse of humanity where there is none, and how it gets there is one hell of a story.

All images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

World War Z Review

Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 23rd of June 2013.

Marc Forster’s World War Z, loosely based on Max Brook’s zombie novel of the same name, follows ex-UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) through the events of a deadly worldwide epidemic. Lane fights to protect his family and uncover the secrets behind the undead pandemic that is tearing civilisation apart, but does this summer zombie blockbuster leave you on the edge of your seat or at the end of your wits?

World War Z (26)The film starts off sprinting, as do the zombies, and once the scene is set and the characters are briefly introduced things take a turn for the worst. You wont find any of Romero’s zombies here as the ravenous creatures hurl themselves at the crowd, even running and jumping with superhuman speed. Another radical change for Forster’s living dead is their motivation, instead of the usual desire to eat your brain or rip out entrails these zombies seem to just have a bite, and when their victim is bitten they move on.

There are a few moments where the frenzied infected will cause brief jumps in the audience, the zombies look the part and the teeth clicking is a great unnerving touch, but ultimately the tension is hindered by the toned-down gore and PG-13 action. In the place of nail biting suspense there are huge action sequences involving swarms of zombies, here the infecting becomes more a global game of tag than a gritty fight for survival. Even a scene where Lane has to save a soldier’s life by cutting off the source of her infection, it seems more of an inconvenience than a serious threat to her survival.

Although World War Z begins in Philadelphia, it quickly moves across the globe to various locations from South Korea to Israel as Lane single-handedly begins to prevent the extinction of the human race. Not only do the wide variety of locations allow for impressive set pieces to take place and some large-scale CGI to be used, but the sets also nod to the sheer attention to detail supplied by Brooks about the different methods of survival each nation would employ. These grand scenes are certainly exciting as zombies begin to form masses of flesh-eating waves beating against cities, but the film can’t seem to find the balance and shifts erratically between small skirmishes in hospitals and apartments to scenes that take place through entire cities, often moving on before the effects of the zombie plague in that area can be fully seen or appreciated.

World War Z (13)There seems to be a nod to the zombie films of old with a concluding skirmish in a quiet and closed off environment, but it seems out of place in this large scale blockbuster. This global scale tale of a plague spreading across the world is definitely entertaining, and the plot itself is not lacking, but it seems that the film itself had not found its footing before it was released.World War Z sets out to thrill audiences in the broadest sense possible; it may be lacking a focus on the arguably essential horror element of a zombie movie, but as a global thriller about one man stopping a deadly virus it’s a fast paced and engaging film with plenty of action and sharp visuals to top it off.

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