The Legend of Heroes
Trails of Cold Steel
Posted by James at 16:00

Balancing the growing demands of ever larger and technically ambitious projects with good craftsmanship is never easy, particularly with a genre like the RPG, where worlds are often bulging in size to the point where individual locations sometimes see just minutes of screen time.

Hereís an example: Bandai Namco went big on scale with Tales of Zestiria. But it was scale for the sake of it, leading to a faux-open world which felt far less than the sum of its parts.

The development team seemed to lack the time, resources and sound management to fill out that gameís world with the kind of little details that the series arguably stood for in the first place.

On the other hand, we recently had Xenoblade X, which, despite its lofty ambitions, did manage to fit itself together quite nicely, likely in part due to ample development time and good project management.

So itís also a good thing that Japanese developer Falcom, who have been around for a good 35 years, have maintained the right balance with Trails of Cold Steel, the first part in a new, modern series to succeed its predecessors (Legend of Heroes VI and VII) from the last decade.

Expectations have changed: despite Cold Steel sharing many of the same core underpinnings in game design, those detail rich environments now need to be rendered in 3D and animated, dialogue must be voiced Ė so the lengths and budget required to deliver such a project have grown considerably since the last duology of Legend of Heroes games on PSP.

Luckily Falcom have still been able to garnish Trails of Cold Steel with the usual design conscious details that they are known for, and itís this that helps give the game a unique, appreciable flavour despite it being a largely traditional RPG at its core.

Indeed, battles are turn based, exploration is mostly decoupled from the combat itself, NPCs stay put until you speak to them. But classic design never grows old when itís this good, and Falcom are still implementing battle systems and narratives that are the best of their class.

Take the battle system for example. The positioning of both characters and the Arts (magic) and Craft (skills) abilities that they unleash have just as much relevance as the statistical underpinnings of the attacks themselves, or any elemental weaknesses in play.

These extra mechanics, and the fine balance between them, lead you to think questions like: ďIs there going to be much use in unleashing that mega space-elemental art if, by the time youíve finished charging up the attack, my targeted foe has moved away from your pre-calculated line of fire?Ē or ďIs it worth waiting a few turns until my foes huddle together so I can eliminate them in one fell swoop for a handsome EXP bonus, or should I eliminate the immediate threat?Ē

Thatís the result of a battle system that keeps things fresh and engaging Ė youíll rarely be able to coast through most encounters, but the core systems in play are intuitive and understandable enough that they never feel like work.

Battling monsters aside, the main draw in Trails of Cold Steel is the shift to a military academy setting, which, as youíd expect, involves spending ample time socialising with your fellow classmates, Persona style.

Just like in that game, this setup has its advantages Ė a moving school term, socialisation, an academy to call home Ė and the narrative can now primarily progress from a moving calendar rather than shifts in location.

Combine this set-up to Falcomís usual attention to detail and you get something special. Characters you interact with always tend to bear some sort of relevance to the surrounding environment or plot, or even reveal their own little side stories that develop over time.

So when you intermittently return to Thors Military Academy every now and then, more often than not youíll actually want to do the rounds and chat to each and every NPC again, because youíll know that interesting developments will have happened. Likewise, the quests you undertake across each location all tend to serve some sort of purpose, subtle or otherwise.

Trails of Cold Steel has been developed with both PS3 and PS Vita in mind, and playing the game across both platforms works well for the most part. Cloud saves are managed from a separate option in the gameís system menu, and the game is almost visually identical across both systems, save for a higher resolution and more advanced shadowing from characters and objects on PS3.

What doesnít work so well is the gameís interface, which feels at home on the big screen on PS3 but, comically tiny at times on Vita. This leads to a slightly odd feeling where the gameís 3D visuals have been designed with Vita in mind, but the gameís menus and interface are clearly made for the big screen.
Sure, some of the quests may make you play the role of errand boy, but they tend to be designed that youíll learn something along the way Ė even the most mundane, eye-rolling missions have the potential to feel fruitful here.

This careful, calculated, economical approach to design sets up the right kind of expectations early and encourages exploration and discovery Ė quite the feat when you consider how segmented the gameís worlds are, and how the narrative mostly unfolds in the background.

However, while the gameís primary emphasis on fleshing out its characters and environments is more than enough to engage anyone playing out of curiosity, there is one caveat Ė itís fairly easy to get lost amongst all the world building, which often relates back to lore and political events from the previous Legend of Heroes trilogy and duology.

So if some of those games aren't fresh in your mind then you might struggle to keep up with some of the political developments that link back to the events, lore and locations from those previous games.

This is compounded by how the main plot has a tendency to move along at a snailís pace for the first forty hours. Thereís a bigger barrier to entry to get the most from the gameís plot than most titles, then, but thereís also enough here that anyone with no prior knowledge will still feel mostly engaged, just a little lost at times.

Trails of Cold Steel may not break new ground, but it carries with it a design-led approach to almost everything it accomplishes. There's a lot to appreciate here, which has become rare in a genre that's very much been commoditised at this point.
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Persona 4
Arena Ultimax
Posted by Duane at 10:12

I'll hold my hands up, as I have done on previous occassions I believe, and admit I'm not a huge player of beat-em ups, I love a bit of Tekken and adored Soul Calibur back on the Dreamcast, but my ability only seems to extend as far as NAMCO's output. Stuff that could be argued by some as being more technical leaves me looking like a right idiot when just facing standard AI opposition let alone a human opponent and thus I've never really clicked with the genre. This didn't stop me buying the first Persona 4 Arena, however its position as a kind of sequel to Persona 4 made me hold back from playing it. Things are different with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, a straight up sequel to Persona 4 Arena and whilst I did try the story mode in this I mostly stuck to the games more fighting focused (rather than text heavy) moments, one of the reasons behind this was the chance to see the cast of Persona 3 again.

First off, this being a sequel, it does what all fighting sequels do, the plan appears to have been to balance out characters from the previous title whilst adding new members to the rota, and all of this has been attached to a rather frantic 2D beat-em up with some beautifully rendered HD sprites of the likes of Junpei, Rise, Chie and Akihiko (amongst others). I found the entire thing incredibly technical and the games tutorial section does little to make newcomers to the genre at home. Ignoring the games reliance on that fighting staple that is the Quarter-Circle (whereby you input a quarter circle of directions on whatever input device your using), you are forced to not only watch your health bar but also try and increase your SP in order to unleash more powerful attacks.

My favourite aspect of the game is the newly added mode "Golden Arena", a sort of beat em up equivalent of dungeon grind if you will. You pick a character (my case, Chie) and work your way through a series of fights earning exp to increase that characters stats, it really encourages you to stick to one character and learn how to use them efficiently and makes the game so much more enjoyable than if you decide to go through its rather staid story mode that focuses far too much on rather long text based sequences than it should do for a game of this type. That sort of thing felt perfectly at home in Persona 4/Persona 4 Golden as the writing was always exceptional and you were growing with the characters as the story progressed but by this point you kind of know how each is going to react in each given situation. Not only that but it often feels the need to explain every minor detail every time it arises and it soon begins to frustrate and send one to sleep only for proceeedings to be briefly interupted by a one round fight thats over far too quickly before the next long sequence of conjecture.

Obviously Persona fans will lap this all up (and as I'm still working my way through Golden at a rather pedestrian rate I didn't want to go too far into the Story mode) and thats fine, but the main attraction here is being able to have the likes of Yosuke take on Junpei and thats where the game really excells, unfortunately it just takes a while to really get the grasp of it which will put many off that may not be big fans of the genre considering the series' routes.
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Posted by Ben at 15:59

In the fighting game genre it's important to find your niche, your USP, the reason someone should pay attention to you. We might not have the glut of fighters we've had in the past, but we've still had Persona and Smash Bros in the last few weeks. Arcana Heart 3 Love Max's identity is probably that itís a mix of various styles from within the genre.

One of the striking things about Arcana Heart 3 is that all the key cast are female. There's males in there, but they tend to be more incidental characters and sidekicks. Initially it's refreshing how respectfully the characters are treated, they aren't there for titillation. I say 'initially' because the After Story mode does centre around the girls heading to a hot spring, complete with steamy bath scene (you don't see anything, it's just clichťd and unnecessary).

Talking of the designs, there's some inventive characters here. You've got your standard human females, a bunny girl piloting a giant robot, girls with bat wings, angels, a girl riding a wolf, a girl inside a muscle-bound bubble, a girl who's drawing has come to life, and a girl who is dragged around by a demonic staff. There's no shortage of variety there. The charactersí move sets take their cue from established fighting games, with the likes of Terry and Guile represented.

The truth is, Arcana Heart is a bit of an odd mix of a fighting game. Youíve got some of the more absurd characters, super jumps, and huge special moves, but then system after system. Youíve got your standard super meter, which fills as you land attacks, unusually though using a special doesnít wipe it out, only drains it before it quickly refills. It means youíre never far away from being able to launch another super. After picking your character you also get to chose an Arcana, the Arcana can alter your stats and imbue you with new moves. Every arcana will have a host of special moves that can be used with no cost, and is usually your solution if you want a projectile attack. You have a meter in the top left of the screen, again it quickly refills, but when activated your character will enter a boosted state, this can have a negative or positive effect on their attack and defence depending on the Arcana, but it allows for some very powerful supers to be thrown out.

One of the peculiarities of Arcana Heart is how slow it moves. Combat takes place in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with banners either side of the action, by rights this should make the game feel tight and close. Instead though the characters feel tiny, giant robots aside obviously, and you can find yourself a long way from your opponent. This is where the gameís slow movement speed becomes noticeable, itís an odd choice, and presumably why the game has a homing button to rush towards your opponent. The problem is it leaves you vulnerable, but then so does walking or hopping in

The arcade mode is mostly a breeze, although by picking certain fights you can make it more difficult, right up until the penultimate boss fight, then itís SNK levels of difficulty. Right after that though youíve got a boss not dissimilar to something from Marvel vs Capcom. Itís not helped that the game does absolutely nothing to train you, thereís nothing about the systems, only a basic training mode with no instruction on how to complete its tasks.

Thereís a lot to like about Arcana Heart 3, but its mish-mash of styles count against it. If it threw itself head on to the more nonsense side of the genre I think it would find its niche, Iím not sure the more serious side is strong enough to keep an audience playing. Arcana Heart 3 is fun though, difficult at points, but thereís enough to it youíll progress, and defined enough characters youíll have a favourite. Itís worth playing, and itís nice to see some worthwhile stuff still coming out on PS3.
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Posted by Duane at 16:43

TellTale Games' output has (deservedly) begun to gain itself a reputation. Obviously most of that is from their work on The Walking Dead, what with its really rather excellent and surprisingly relatable characters, not to mention the decisions that really put you on that spot, whilst The Wolf Among Us has turned out to be a rather excellent detective drama. This year see's the launch of two new titles in the developers armoury, one of those two is Tales from the Borderlands, developed alongside the team at Gearbox and set after the events of Borderlands 2.

Gameplay takes on the typical, tried and tested we have come to know from Telltale's output. The game pretty much plays along by itself with input only required during key moments in either the dialogue or action, the former gives you various options that you have to choose from within a pre-determined amount of time which could also lead to other events later in the series. The latter are all quick time events, requiring a reactionary input from the controller that matches the on screen icon. In this respect it seems unfair to judge any of Telltales more recent output as just a game.

That would be until The Wolf Among Us came along which, to me at least, felt like it had begun to dig up some of the studio's roots from the likes of 2009's Tales of Monkey Island which featured strong puzzle elements. Okay so it TWAU wasn't quite as much of an adventure game as Monkey Island, it still placed a heavy focus on dialogue, but that dialogue felt like it had a purpose and that you were trying to unravel the events of the game. Tales of Borderlands never really gets to that, not in this first episode anyway, nor does it have you caring or routing for any of its key characters either.

Unlike previous Telltale games, you are placed in "control" of two protagonists, Hyperion employee Rhys and Pandorian con-artist Fiona in a tale that, so far at least, is all about back stabbing and trying to figure out who to trust and when. Neither of the two leads, nor the supporting cast, are particularly likeable and the two characters I was most intrigued by have only featured a little at this point.

This all sounds really rather negative, but in fairness, "Zer0 Sum" is actually quite likeable, its just that its too reliant on the Borderlands humour to carry it and the concern is obviously there that it could continue to do so as the story progresses through the remaining four episodes and whilst humour is a big part of Borderlands' charm, it'd be great if we could see more elements of the series appear in some manner here.

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Posted by Duane at 07:27

So another month and, seemingly, what feels like another Compile Heart RPG has been released on a PlayStation format. Thankfully they've all had something about them to enjoy even if they haven't been ground breaking entries to the genre and all pander to the standard tropes and stereotypes that one associates with the genre. Fairy Fencer F is really no different in either of those elements.

So stop me if you've heard all of this before, Fairy Fencer F focuses on an old tale of a battle between two gods, cunningly named "The Goddess" and "Vile God", who have managed to Tie their bout like two equal opponents may do in a Street Fighter match-up, these two enetites become bound up in magical swords (here they're called Furies, which I originally misread as "Furries") that also contain beings, which happen to be the titular Fairies. The swords then become scattered across the lands and anyone who locates and wields a Fury is then able to conjure the Fairy from within the Fury, with the Fairy then taking on a similar role to the Genie of the Lamp by offering to grant the wielder a wish if they manage to release whichever deity the Fairy is alligned to.

So, ancient battle, gods within weapons, other beings within weapons, a protagonist who isn't really that interested in the quest initially but gradualy wants to achieve the ultimate goal all tied into fairly typical JRPG/anime/manga visuals. Fairy Fencer F really does go out of its way to tick all of the boxes in a rather uninspired manner. Admittedly, its a little unfair to just point the finger at Fairy Fencer F for all of the above, but it has begun to feel like Compile Heart have been working from a checklist for their past few releases.

Thankfully then, the battle system on offer here isn't all bad. Again its not likely to make any massive changes within the genre. A large part of the system at play here is in the positioning of your party members. Each character can move within a specific radius before unleashing their attack, as actions are performers a bar is filled, once it is filled you become more powerful and can unleash more devastating actions. Its an entertaining little system which, thankfully , makes the battle sequences the most enjoyable part of Fairy Fencer F. Unfortunately, as is the case with alot of these (sort of) middle budget JRPG's the interactions between characters goes on for far too long and is written and performed in a barely entertaining manner.

So, if you really must have another JRPG in your collection and have exhausted most other options, then pick up Fairy Fencer F. Its not really that it doesn anything particularly wrong, its just that its doing absolutely nothing thats new.
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Posted by Duane at 06:28

There is one element of gaming that, in my opinion, has been pushed aside as part of the movement towards Online play and thats getting a bnunch of mates round to your house all crowded round the one TV with a few cans of beer to help add to the mood. Of course, with the ability to play against millions of people, the concept of local multiplayer does seem like a bit of a dinosaur, but for me and many others growing up with videogames, it was a huge part of our youth. Thats where Italian developers Forge Reply come in as they appear to agree and have no released their local multiplayer only space battler "In Space We Brawl" onto PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

From the offset Forge Reply seem t have drawn upon a few classic influences, I remember sitting down with my step brother to play a two player "space battle" game on our shared Atari 2600, and it appears to me that games Space War have provided a large part of what makes up the core gameplay of In Space We Brawl. The core concept of the game is that you have between two and four players, all controlling their own neon coloured ship on one screen, shooting at each other until one of you emerges as the winner. It's a concept that has been applied to countless games over numerous decades and its a concept that is still enjoyable today.

Whilst the focus is largely placed upon the shared multiplayer experience, there is a single player mode, this mostly consists of tutorials to help teach you the games mechanics and nuances. This is where the entire concept of In Space We Brawl begins to fall down. As mentioned, its been designed to be played multiplayer, however in order to get the most out of that you have to unlock the eleven different spaceships and weapons that you can choose from. This is all done via the games rather dull and slow Challenge Mode, which is only available to solo players. Now admittedly there isn't a whole lot to play through, but one would think that having the option to unlock the extra ships and parts through playing multiplayer (such as a co-op multiplayer) would have suited the concept of the game much more.

Thats not the games only problem either, battles feel sluggish and lack the high octane competetive nature that all the best local multiplayer games have had. If you think of games like Smash Bros or Power Stone 2 (admittedly the two standout 4-player games from my own youth) you think of fast, responsive gameplay where the difference is all down to the players skill. In Space We Brawl limits that element somewhat by making the ships feel sluggish and the turning circles of the craft often leave you in trouble, there's also a lack of gravity/atmosphere which is rather jarring.

Thats the saddening thing here. I love the idea of having a simple but fun local co-op game, something I can stick on with my kids and we can all instantly have fun with no learning curve to get in the way. However, I found, on repeated plays, that what the game seems to want to do just doesn't match up with what it actually achieves and ultimately we all found ourselves wanting to do other things instead.

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Posted by Ben at 14:10

If you look above this sentence, just above the header image, youíll see the words ĎPlaystation 3 Reviewí. I want you to remember that because this is very much a review of the PS3 version of Risen 3. Iíve no experience with the PC or 360 versions, Iíve no idea how well they run or play, all I know if that the Playstation 3 version is a mess.

Thereís probably some universal truths, like I donít think Risen 3 does a good job of setting you up for whatís ahead or filling in the blanks of whatís gone before. You start off in an Ďepicí pirate battle fighting against an undead pirate, youíre not told who he is, at least not really, or why heís important. You arenít really even told who you are. Once you get in to the core game itself the mechanics arenít particularly well explained either. It seems like thereís no benefit to sleeping, or if there is itís passed me by at least. Even the combat, extraordinarily simple, leaves you with a sense that youíre missing something, as itís just the wrong side of difficult. Youíre presented with magic spells early on, but many hours in to the game I still donít have a regular enough source of magic to want to waste using them, and the shadow swords Iíve equipped seem to do absolutely nothing.

While the game doesnít exactly judder along as a framey mess, Iím sure itís not running at 30fps. Thereís something sluggish about the control, a real problem in combat. The parrying and dodging could really bring something to Risenís combat, but because you simply donít have time between seeing an incoming attack and having your input recognised and acted upon itís useless, better to just hammer the roll button until an enemy has finished its attack chain then land a few shots of your own.

The game will just freeze as you enter a new area and it autosaves, itís not just a momentary thing either, weíre talking 2-3 seconds every time. Even when you manually save, you wait for it to start and finish saving, then it tells you to hit O to go back, which you do and more often than not it just sits there. The draw distance is Dreamcast era, the smoke effects not out of place on the PS1. Oddly thereís skulls and the like laying around that can be kicked about, which just seems out of place, incidental physics in a game that feels creakingly ancient. Character models are poor, and when a character who isnít the focus creeps in to shot theyíre downgraded to look like blurry jpgs (think the people who stand at the side of the track in old rally games and youíre not far off). Itís not an exaggeration to say that I canít think of a worse looking game Iíve had to review than Risen 3 on the PS3, relatively speaking.

The missions are not exactly inspired either. Generally itís just walking to a point and fighting some creatures, heading to a point, talking to someone, then coming back, at best youíll probably have to steal something. Some of them are set up pretty well though, and the script isnít without its moments.

I feel bad completely writing off Risen 3 because Iím sure a lot of the problems Iíve had with it wouldnít be there in the PC version. That said I will adamantly state that if you want to play Risen 3 you should not play the PS3 version, itís really not worth your time or your money. That all being said, I didnít despise the game, Iím not sure I ever had fun at any point during my play through, in fact it was mostly hard work, but I didnít hate it. Which is why Iím a little reticent with the score, itís a terrible game in every way except the gameplay, which is so-so. If youíre desperate for a janky-euro-adventure then Iíd say Bound By Flames might be a better bet, and that was hardly a classic
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Posted by Duane at 08:34

I've got a bit of an odd relationship with scrolling shooters, be they horizontal or vertical, I genuinely enjoy playing them, but by and large I'm ridiculously rubbish at them and often find myself covering the same area over and over again with no progression and thus end up tossing them aside. This doesn't stop me playing them however, over the years I've done this with a few different releases of R-Type, Ikaruga and a few releases of Tecmo Classics, plus others, and when the opportunity arises, I usually come back for more only to leave them discarded for the reasons mentioned above. Why do I do this? Its one of life's little mysteries, and yet here I am, with a R-Type Dimensions on PlayStation 3, sat on pause whilst I type out these thoughts and opinions in order for me to stick a number on the bottom of the screen that I feel somehow matches my undoubtedly frustrated experience of ineptitude on my behalf.

If you aren't aware then, R-Type Dimension is a "HD re-release" of the absolute stone cold classics: R-Type and R-Type II. The bundle was originally released way back in 2009 on the XBox 360 and has, for some reason, taken 5 years to head over to Sony's equivalent console.

R-Type challenges you with the task of navigating a set of auto-scrolling levels, shooting at anything that gets in your way and dodging anything fired in return. By rights, its not a "Bullet Hell" shooter, which means that in theory its not difficult to avoid getting shot. I say in theory for a reason, because as you have probably guessed, I'm not particularly good at R-Type or R-Type II and thus I've been shot down a fair number of times, despite the levels being fairly short by the standards of other similar more contemporary titles. Thats not technically true, as whilst the levels don't fill the screen with bostacles that you can only dodge (although there are always a fair number of enemies to take down), boss fights do like to throw projectiles at you, usually whilst you try and concentrate your attention on hitting a rather small weak spot, something that my ageing brain and fingers seem to be getting even worse at that they were before.

As this is a HD pack, the visuals have been updated to include non-pixelated artwork. This, in my personal opinion, is to the detriment of the gameplay experience. Now, R-Type has never been a quick shooter, but it feels much slower when being played with its updated visuals, I thought I was imagining it at first but after getting others to play it whilst I watched we were all in agreement. Its not hugely different, but it is noticeable. The sluggish-ness doesn't display in a kind of "slowdown" manner where the frame rate chugs along, nor does it feel less responsive, and if you were coming to R-Type completely fresh then you probably wouldn't notice it. However, when you switch to either titles "Classic Mode", its becomes more noticeable and I found myself pretty much sticking with the old pixelated visuals for this very reason, which to me at least, kind of defies the point of such an update.

This is Dimensions' only real issue, the core concept of the game remains in tact and everything feels incredibly faithful. The updated visuals do make things look more interesting and colourful and its nice to see a developer giving such loving attention to classics such as this, however, the drop in speed kind of hurts it and it does throw you off your game a little if you have experience of these titles from prior versions, which if its enough for me to complain about, must be more noticeable to someone who's really into this series and wanted the exact same game they know and love just with a new lick of paint, which in theory is the kind of customer these games are marketed at. If thats you, then you'll find dissappointment in R-Type Dimensions, however, if you want the old game, just on a platform that you can have sat under your TV in the lounge, the Classic Mode is a very faithful version of Irems classic shooter, I just find it difficult to say "yeah, go buy this" purely because, on a whole, the full title doesn't quite meets its brief.
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Posted by Duane at 14:21

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines! Or so says SEGA's Arcade classic "Daytona USA". However, whilst this isn't the high adrenaline cabinet racer featuring the "Sonic Turn" our story does start at the infamous circuit in California. For this I decided to dig out my old "Beer Hat", bought from the Gadget Shop over a decade ago, pick up some cans of a popular American beer and sit down for a few extended, arse numbing days of that past-time that was created by the countries Probation era bootleggers.

NASCAR 14 takes you through the career of being a NASCAR driver. No surprises there, upon starting the game your asked to input a few details, your name, country of birth (Great Britain, not England...) plus some other things like which manufacturer you favour (from Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota) to what number you'd like to be associated with during your career (my normal picks of 34, 27, 22 or 18 weren't available as already established real-life drivers already had those), I went with 30. From there you head to Daytona for the first of two races, thats, of course, after a few practice and qualifying sessions. This obviously allows you to get to grips with the games handling. Thankfully, the Daytona International Speedway is a traditional Tri-Oval and isn't too challenging as there are area's of the games handling model that leave alot to be desired. This doesn't become apparent until you head to Phoenix for the third race of the season and you're suddenly in need of actually using the brakes. Now I'm no NASCAR expert, hell I've only ever actually watched a few laps of any given race at any time but the cars must have better brakes than are available here. I found it near impossible to slow the car down enough to get through the corners at the Phoenix circuit let alone bring the car to enough of a crawl to prevent me receiving penalties when trying to enter the pits during the Daytona races. The cars also wobble a fair bit under braking, which feels incredibly odd as there really isn't any sensation of speed or inertia apparent in the game, which gives the overall experience a really odd feeling.

But back to the career. At this point its important to note that you dont get to pick to be in one of the top teams, you're essentially creating a brand new team, so your car is pretty basic. For the first few races of said career you're left with the choice of either using refurbished parts for each race or buying a stock part at a time to try and push you up the field. This does make it sound like you'll be among the back-markers, but this is NASCAR and as much as horse power is important here, so is being able to use the circuit and your opponents to your advantage. In the first race, which I set to a full race distance of 60 laps, I managed to get as high as 8th and was catching 7th when the two cars I was battling with tangled, bringing out the safety car. Now anyone who's watched Cars or Days of Thunder knows this usually results in a rush of pitlane activity, and this time things were no different. Once out of the pits it was time to follow the safety car for the final half of the lap and this is when things went wrong for me. I accidentally overtook when you're not supposed to do so and was trying to yield the place I'd taken, but did so too cautiously, ultimately finding the rest of the field flying past me and leaving me dead last. A few unwise choices in positioning my car within the pack led to me and a few others dropping back and it took the remainder of the race (some 20 laps) to claw my way back up to my final position of 12th.

This was actually rather enjoyable, every position felt fought for and like it was a combination of my own skill and the work of my "team". The latter is largely thanks to all the indicators you're given, namely the HUD icon that tells you where cars are around you and who's drafting you, plus the vocal communication of your race engineer telling you where you're clear, how aggressive you should or shouldn't be or where to take your car (high, low etc) in order to work your way through the pack. There's also added strategy involved in fuel management, tyre wear and engine temperature, all with their own HUD indicators, and despite there being so many different things on the screen to watch, it never becomes confusing or cluttered.

As you progress you'll gain sponsorship, which grants you more cash, which can ultimately be spent on R+D for your car, plus gives you a bunch of stickers to plaster all over your machine. The appearance of your machine isn't limited to just putting corporate brands all over it though. Theres also a fairly weighty livery mode where you can create layers and decals to make your car your own. If you've played any of the Forza Motorsport titles then its pretty much the same as that but isn't half as user friendly as Turn10's package, but it does its job.

I've actually been taken aback by NASCAR 14, I was expecting it to feel a little lazy, look damned ugly and be mind numbingly dull, however Eutechnyx have managed to do a comendable job with the license, and whilst there's no escaping the pins and needles I began to feel in my right hand after going for full race distance on a few of the races (although there was no way I was doing a full distance Daytona 500 event!) thats hardly the developers fault as they've given a fairly accurate (from my understanding of the sport) portrayal of NASCAR racing with a few neat ideas that could be built upon for future instalments.

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Posted by Duane at 11:08

We're not going to get into a debate on here on bitparade as to whether or not Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is "worth" is retail price, as thats an incredibly personal thing defined by ones own financial abilities. Instead, we're going to just discuss the game, because after all, thats what a review is supposed to do, not tell you all what you should and shouldn't play due to varying social situations.

So, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place after the events of the PSP title Peace Walker, Big Boss has set up Mother Base and things didn't quite go to plan. Paz has been captured, as has Chico and Ground Zeroes main mission tasks you with rescuing the pair. Now its easy to dismiss Ground Zeroes as being short as this initial mission does appear to guide you quite easily to its targets, leaving little encouragement to actually explore and take your time. There are an additional set of "Side Ops" missions, which task you with performing different tasks in each one. There are 4 additional side op missions in total, with a fifth that is platform exclusive. The PlayStation (both PS3 and PS4) version being called Deja Vu whilst the XBox version (again, both 360 and One) is titled James Vu.

Aeshtetically, Ground Zeroes is stunning, the weather effects on the main mission, complete with flapping tents and Boss' sneaking suit getting wet, are highly impressive, whilst other missions set during sunset are astonishingly beautiful. This, however, comes at a price. Whilst I never noticed any issues with the framerate there was a fair bit of pop-up, most noticeably the shrubbery, which on a number of occassions I was surprised to see was appearing about 10 feet in front of me. The other issue is the draw distance. A huge part of Ground Zeroes is the removal of the soliton radar, instead Boss relies on a pair of binoculars so you can scout out the area, highlight vehicles and guards and act accordingly, and whilst the distance that you can view in this manner is more than workable, its a little jarring being able to see a watchtower in the distance, zoom in on some of its vital details but notice there is no guard there, move to another vantage point, look again and there'll be a guard there. This is obviously the technical limitations of a game thats straddling two different generations of hardware, and I don't really know if the same applies to the PS4 and XBox One versions of the game, but it is a slight dissappointment.

There are another couple of elements that I found dissappointing too, firstly, the plot isn't as ridiculous as one would expect from a Metal Gear, admittedly this is probably due to its Prologue nature and Kojima is certainly one for keeping his cards close to his chest (as we witnessed with the build up to the release of Sons of Liberty), the second point is that there are huge chunks of gameplay, that for me at least, are synomynous with the series that aren't here. The game has a couple of area's where you'l find a small number of lockers and even a bunch of portaloo's. This is where Metal Gear is normally in its element, using them to hide or hiding bodies that kind of thing, slipping a bit of toilet humour. However all of them remain as location furniture and unusable at all. Likewise, walls are just walls, you can't knock to distract guards and in some ways your options feel a little limited than in previous iterations. Thats not to say you can't distract guards and have a bit of fun with them, when you grab hold of one you can get him to call out to his mates, you can still hold up a guard and now get them to hand over their weapon and lay prone on the floor, but it feels odd having more technically accomplished actions that require a little more skill to pull off at the expense of actions that have been a staple since the first two games since the series established its "...Solid" title.

This all doesn't mean that Ground Zeroes is in any way a lesser game, it feels as difficult as Snake Eater and there are hugely promising elements there that you may not even consider happening. On one occassion I came across a group of PoW's in an encampment, I wasn't able to get out the same way as I got in and I could only see one route out, which was protected by 3 guards, my plan was to release the PoW's and see if the guards would react. However, the PoW's stayed in their makeshift cells and the guards didn't react, twisting the idea a little, I carried one and left him in close proximity to the gate and quickly dashed to one side before a guard could turn round. Upon spotting the "escapee", he radioed for advice, was told to wait, he waited then grew impatient and radioed in again, he was once again told to wait. An audible huff of frustration broke through my headphones speakers just before another call came over the radio, he was ordered to "dispose" of the PoW, which I totally didn't expect and ruined my escape plan. I did get out but it ultimately involved triggering an alert.

But if this is the direction Kojima wants to take the series, dropping some of its humour and trying to challenge difficult situations (its the only big budget game I can think of that openly places the USA as the enemy), then I'm still on board. I'd, personally, like to see a little more old-school Metal Gear Solid touches but what we have here shows incredible potential for a new future for the franchise and Ground Zeroes, on its own, is highly enjoyable to play.
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