Heavenly Sword (PlayStation 3)

Ninja Theory’s second game after their delightful debut title Kung Fu Chaos on the original Xbox (as Just Add Monsters) suffers from the hype. If it was never called the flagship title of the PS3, I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone down better.

I have enjoyed my time with Nariko, the game’s well-designed protagonist. The story is very basic, but told with exceptional confidence and elevated by supreme acting. As hyped, the visuals are truly next-gen, something no game has attained before. Especially the faces are stunning. But as with everything else in the game, the actual gameplay falls a little short. I am disappointed by the framerate. The action would be so much more spectacular if they could’ve reached a solid 60 frames per second – as it is, I’m not sure if they can even hold the 30 frames per second steady. Otherwise, the post-processing, the lighting, the depth of field, the animation, the effects – everything is absolutely better than anything we’ve seen before.

The gameplay is enjoyable, but it suffers from the fact that you can hammer the triangle button for over 90% of time and do just as well as playing with the numerous combo attacks. Some have criticized the fact that Nariko blocks automatically. I don’t know why that would be a problem. You still need to select the correct stance to block and the automation just gives you time to focus on how you’re going to attack next. The whole game system is an evolution of Kung Fu Chaos. This is a good thing, because the two-button attacks, counterattacks and the three stances (speed, heavy and ranged) just work – it’s just complicated enough to keep your interest up.

The problems are repetition and shallowness. You basically advance from one gated arena to the next – there’s no exploration of any sort, no running battles, nothing to break the form except the identikit throwing puzzles (which begin to grate very fast) and the enjoyable shooting sections. The likes of Ninja Gaiden are vastly superior in this respect. The enemies are too alike to encourage tactical play. That said, they have nailed the massive furball of a melee they’re going for, with swords flashing, dramatic close-ups, enemies flying and furious kung fu moves abound. It is very satisfying to play, and spetacular to watch.

The game has been accused of being too short. I haven’t yet quite completed it and already it’s feeling long enough. There’s some incentive to go back to scenes you’ve completed and improve your grade – and some of the scenes are so stunning it’s a joy to revisit them, just for the spectacle. But overall there’s a feeling that they’ve put together a beautiful world, designed great characters, set the stage for a legendary swordsman adventure, and then lacked the strength to allow the player to, well, play in their world. I do hope they make a more fleshed-out sequel.


Mudslinger (Sega Rally, PlayStation 3, PSP)

Sega Rally is back and all expectations have been met. Sega’s new Sega Racing Studio in the UK and Bugbear in Finland have brought us two very different, stellar takes on the Tetsuya Mizuguchi original (1995!).

Last night I was chasing the lead car through a muddy riverbed in an African gorge. The sun was glaring down above the torrent of mud. It was the last lap and our six race cars had ploughed a deep, uneven path through the dirt. I was bursting on so violently, it felt like driving in a massive, ongoing explosion, riding the blastwave. I laughed. I haven’t had this much fun in a videogame in ages.

And it’s so beautiful. Every track is full of vibrant color and lively details, the cars are caked in mud in a very convincing manner, dirt and gravel is flying in your face every second of the way – bonnet camera being, of course, the only real way to play Sega Rally.

The track deformation is really something new. It changes the gameplay lap to lap, as you look for the path others have made to find grip on the loose surface, but on the other hand a seriously shredded section can throw you around so hard that you lose control.

Just make sure you switch from the default control config to one using the face buttons for throttle. Your hands will cramp fast if you don’t – the Sixaxis triggers are absolutely not fitting for prolonged application of pressure. And don’t be alarmed by the twitchy handling. It can take some getting used to and you may actually find the D-pad a better alternative to the analogue.

The PSP version is not a kid brother. They’ve taken a different route, and it’s just a different game. Overall, it’s closer to the original in speed and feel – the simpler graphics enforcing the feel of really going back in time. Visuals are excellent throughout, recreating the same vibrancy and dirt-diggery of the PS3 version, but of course limited by the hardware’s muscle. The handling is spot on, at least with the D-pad.

Regardless of version, forget other rally games as you go in. This is not a simulation of the sport, this is Sega Rally, a parallel universe re-imagining of the same ingredients. You will harmlessly bounce along the sides when coming in too hard for a turn, you will wrestle shoulder to shoulder with five other cars, you will grin as you attack the dirt.


The Playstation Network experience (PSN, PS3, Warhawk)

I have made my first purchase from the Playstation Store, the downloadable, full-size game Warhawk. It wasn’t too difficult, although it wasn’t nowhere near Xbox Live’s ease of use, either. At 30€ ($40 USD equivalent), I think the price is okay, considering that it’s closer to a retail title than what we’ve come to expect from a downloadable game. The lack of a demo baffles me. Based on my brief brush with the game proper, a taster would only whet appetites for more.

Because consider me whetted. While on paper it sounds a lot like Battlefield 2, in practice there are major differences. To begin with, it’s more videogamey. Battlefield 2 is videogame conventions draped in realistic military clothes, Warhawk throws realistic aspirations out of the window and replaces them with fun. The overall look is more cartoony, which is a great thing when it comes to the arenas, which are just more interesting, with huge height differences and dramatic lighting. Another major visual departure is that Warhawk is played entirely in third person, which serves to set it apart from the FPS ethos of the Battlefield series. It doesn’t take itself quite so seriously, which is fine by me but obviously a turn-off for some.

And speaking of looks, this is clearly next-gen stuff. Battlefield 2 on the 360 was… okay, but never pretty. Warhawk pushes the boundary much higher. It’s no jaw-dropper, but I’m impressed by the rock-solid framerate.

Based on three rounds, you need to be interested in dogfighting in order to enjoy the game. I haven’t see anyone on foot or in the land-based vehicles, and from the ground, the arenas aren’t too exciting. But it’s a beautiful furball of a fight to see sixteen (or up to 32, I think) jets at each other.

The online infrastructure feels solid, the servers are found fast and I noticed absolutely no lag. Functionally, it’s an even match for Xbox Live, but Live’s unified structure makes the whole online hassle effectively invisible to the user, which is a great thing. Looking forward to lots of flying hours!


Killzone 2

I am not yet contemplating the purchase of a Playstation 3, but this Killzone 2 trailer (below) with gameplay footage is finally giving some reasons to get interested in the platform. Of course a lot of people still remember the shitstorm the original Killzone’s trailer kicked up, what with the actual Playstation 2 outing being a far cry indeed from what was promised – or so they say, I haven’t seen it yet myself. But the concensus is that it certainly wasn’t the Halo killer it was propped up to be.

I’m interested in Killzone mainly because it has terrific visual design – the Helghast are excellent enemies, having that envied Star Wars Stormtrooper quality about them. This new trailer shows a commendably muted color palette, something I am partial to dig after the overdone bloom effects of the current crop of action titles. Also the city setting the trailer’s (boring) squad is deployed in is muy interesting visually, with a sci-fi shanty town thing going, something from between Aliens and Hong Kong.

Eurogamer’s preview mentions a somber mood, something we can’t really see in the clichedly gung-ho trailer. If fear is actually the foremost theme, I like where Guerrilla is going with this game.


Playstation 3, Score: 1 (Super Stardust HD)

It took some time, but there is now one reason to get a PS3 – apart from having a current-gen console in the house when the Xbox 360 is taking a trip to Germany for repair – Super Stardust HD. Eurogamer’s review (above) gave it a whoppin’ 9/10 and Penny Arcade’s Tycho said it’s “fucking fantastic”.

Okay, I’m not buying a PS3 for a single downloadable, old-school shooter, but this is still the first time I’ve felt a little bit tempted. It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside to know that the downloadable game is Finnish in origin. Nice going, Housemarque. I wonder what you’ve been up to since Transworld Snowboarding though. I loved Supreme Snowboarding on the PC – actually, I think there hasn’t been a decent snowboarding game on the PC since.

PC PS3 Xbox 360

Fallout 3

The Fallout 3 teaser went live this week. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, although it doesn’t really reveal anything besides the planned launch time, which is fall 2008. In my opinion the concept art gallery they had before the video did a better job at setting the scene.

People are expecting it to be Oblivion with mutants, but we’ll see. Not that I would actually mind that.

What is certainly interesting is the most recent news of the franchise branching out to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While I do have a gaming PC, I’m most likely to buy this for the 360, the same as pretty much all games these days.