SAINTS ROW IV review

Publisher: Volition (Red Faction)

Platforms: PS3 (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PC

Release Date: 20 August (US), 23 August (UK)

Anyone daring to make comparisons between Saints Row IV and Grand Theft Auto V clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. Sure, the Saints Row franchise began as a fun if somewhat unoriginal sandbox crime game. But with every iteration, the series has tried to distance itself from its inspiration and form its own identity. And now with Saints Row IV, it has gone so far off its roots that there is no way you can now say it’s ripping off GTA. But does this individuality make it a better game, or has losing its identity caused it to lose its mind?

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For those who pay attention to the ludicrous stories of the Saints Row games, this one is a doozy. I won’t go too far into detail but it involves aliens, superpowers, virtual realities and giant sentient energy drink cans. Find that wacky enough? In all honesty, the quality of writing in a Saints Row is about the same as your average episode of Family Guy and contains a similar sense of humour. Expect plenty of sex gags, bodily function humour, extreme profanity and more pop culture references than you could possibly dream of. The game parodies movies such as The Matrix and Armageddon, and other games like Mass Effect and Fallout. Long time followers of the franchise will get a kick from all the throwbacks to the previous games, but even newcomers should be able to understand the proceedings without too much trouble.

Pretty much almost everything from Saints Row: The Third is back in IV. The city of Steelport has only received a slight touch-up in its paintjob, so if you played the previous game you’ll find all the stores exactly where they were left. The customisation options have been expanded slightly, and fiddling around with your character’s look and clothing can consume hours of gameplay by itself. The gun system has been overhauled, allowing for more exact upgrades and even the ability to pick skins and paintjobs for your arsenal. Shooting and driving mechanics also work pretty much as you remember, but so much more has been added. The big addition is, of course, superpowers. By the end of the game, you’ll be gliding across the skies, running faster than any car, throwing fireballs and levitating cars to your hearts content. Sure, the game can become a little imbalanced at times and makes the driving mechanics basically useless, but the fun factor makes you forget these problems and just running across the city becomes a joy. The game ends up feeling more like Crackdown or Prototype, and I know some may find that perplexing. But for those who dig those kind of games but just wish they were even more ludicrous, this is the game for you. Mission variety is similar to The Third: lots of go here, shoot this, guard that. But every time it starts to get monotonous, they give you a new toy to play with or switch up the mechanics. The side activities are also here, and many of them have been improved by the addition of powers, most notably Insurance Fraud and Fight Club. Completing side objectives and missions will now also unlock new costumes, weapons, powers and gang members, giving much more incentive to go do them. I beat the game in about 12 hours (though that is with plenty of pissing around doing side missions and hunting collectables), but there is still a lot more for me to do before I get anywhere near 100% completion.

The Saints Row series has never been graphically proficient, and IV is no exception. The game looks pretty much exactly the same as The Third, perhaps worse. The frame rate can sometimes chug during hectic moments, and there are plenty of glitches. But the game makes up for it with good design, and that’s the more important thing in the end. The voice acting is still excellent, with most of the cast from previous games returning with some exceptions. Whilst actors like Michael Dorn and Neil Patrick Harris return for very minor reprieves, its sad that others like Eliza Dushku and Mila Kunis have not. Terry Crews takes over for the late Michael Clarke Duncan and does a decent job at making the character his own, and fans of Keith David should enjoy his self-deprecating performance and a mission that recalls one of his more famous films (and it’s co-star). But it’s JB Blanc’s performance as the villainous Zinyak that steals the show whenever he pops up. The soundtrack is also top-notch, and whenever the game ties a song to a particular mission it is just beautiful. Nothing is more badass than taking out a nuclear missile whilst Aerosmith blares in the background, or as odd as escaping an alien spaceship as “What is Love” by Haddaway plays. Plus, any piece of media that includes “The Safety Dance” AND “The Touch” instantly earns my affections.

Saints Row IV isn’t smart or pretty, but it is so much f***ing fun that you won’t care. Every time I picked up this game and started playing, I just smiled. There is plenty here to keep you occupied until GTA V and much long after. Saints Row IV proves that all you need is fun solid mechanics to make a game enjoyable, but makes the effort to back it up with a story, characters and a disturbed sense of humour. If you thought Saints Row: The Third went too far, you are most likely not going to like this one. But otherwise, just pick up the game and have fun. You won’t regret it.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

THE LAST OF US review

Developer: Naughty Dog (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception)

Platform: PS3

Release Date: 14 June

 

From the creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted comes The Last of Us, an action-horror game set in a post apocalyptic United States. That may seem like a pretty generic set-up, but The Last of Us is anything but. It’s an absolute marvel on every level, and a must play for anyone who owns a PlayStation 3.

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Naughty Dog has always had a penchant for telling familiar but well-crafted stories, and this is no exception. The tale of The Last of Us takes elements from many wasteland stories such as Children of Men, 28 Days Later and The Road. The story is bleak as you’d expect, but the humour the developers are known for is present though in a much more muted way. Protagonists Joel and Ellie are very much archetypes, but ones you spend so much time with and develop so much over the course of their journey that you can’t help but care. By the end of the story, you’ll for Ellie’s life just as much as Joel does, even when forced into morally questionable situations. Whilst the story is very linear with no choice in what way the story goes, the situations you must face and the choices the characters are forced to make puts you right into the experience. A particularly memorable sequence in a burning restaurant truly encapsulates the raw and terrifying nature of the game on both a story and gameplay level. What The Last of Us’s story lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with strong writing and excellent atmosphere. It’s not just “good for a video game”; it’s excellent on any level of the storytelling medium.

Survival horror games are a rare breed these days, at least in the classic sense. Most games that bare that name are really just shooters with jump scares. And though The Last of Us isn’t a pure horror game, it brings back the element that feels lacking from most games in its genre these days: desperation. Ammo and supplies aren’t handed out freely; you must scavenge them and use them sparingly, otherwise you’re going to end up dead. That combined with the fact Joel can only take so many hits encourages a much more patient play method, utilising stealth whenever necessary and meticulously planning the way forward. This really puts you into the mindset of a survivor and makes the confrontations with both the infected and the hunters that much more desperate. This is further amplified by the game’s decision to not pause during any action. Need to craft a Molotov or apply bandages? You’d better make sure the coast is clear or you will die. Continuing off the camaraderie aspect of the story, puzzle sequences frequently break up the action and force Joel and Ellie to work together; they are simple but bring some quiet relief from the threats of the world as well as emphasising the relationship between our protagonists. The game is very replayable and you most likely won’t unlock everything in your first playthrough, making the option of New Game Plus a very welcome feature. I’ve yet to play through the game yet, but I’m sure I will in the near future and probably several times after that. And yes, I did encounter the occasional glitch, but none of it is game breaking and I’m sure they’ll be ironed out with future patches.

The game’s singleplayer, which took me about eleven hours to finish on normal difficulty, is worth the price alone but Naughty Dog has increased the content value by adding multiplayer. In accordance with the nature of the main game, this isn’t simple deathmatch. Ammo and resources are again scarce, so a much slower and careful playstyle is required in order to survive, evocative of the multiplayer found in the Assassin’s Creed games. The expected perk and upgrade options are here, but the addition of metagame where you must collect enough supplies to keep your own camp of survivors fed adds some originality It’s addictive but punishing, constantly crushing you down but always making you want to come back for more.

Naughty Dog’s work on the Uncharted series has produced some of the best graphics in console history, and whilst the technology doesn’t seem to have progressed hugely since Nathan Drake’s last outing, the game is still a technical marvel. The design of the world, particularly the fungal freaks you must gun down on your adventure and the varied vistas you visit, are all executed flawlessly. Expertly handled voice acting and motion capture further adds to the story, and the soundtrack is simple but oh so perfect.

The Last of Us is honestly one of the best games I’ve played in a long, long time. Naughty Dog has by no means revolutionised the gaming landscape, but they have made a game that does so many things and does them at a level some game creators can only dream of. It perfectly melds together the story and gameplay to create an experience that truly draws you into the story and makes you never want to let go of the controller. It uses the mechanics of action and horror games in a way that appeals to fans of both genres and is just plain gorgeous to look at. Don’t delay. Pick up this game at your earliest convenience and just play it for yourself. It is an experience that you won’t forget.

 

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

TOMB RAIDER review

Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Tomb Raider: Legend)

Platforms: PS3 (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PC

Release Date: 5 March (US, UK)

I’ve never been a big follower of the Tomb Raider franchise. I’ve played bits of the previous games, and I saw the first movie, but other than that I’m mostly a stranger to the adventures of Lara Croft. As with pretty much everything these days, the franchise has gotten a gritty reboot. Can an old dog learn new tricks, or is this new beginning actually the end?

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A new tale with no ties to the previous titles, the story of Tomb Raider works mainly because so much attention had been paid to the character of Lara Croft. The game spends time letting you get to know her and shows how she developed from an innocent explorer, to frightened survivor, to hardened badass. I’ve not felt this much connection or sympathy for a character in a game since John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. Otherwise, the story is your basic Indiana Jones-type fair, but one with a lot more edge. This is a violent game, and earns its 18 certificate. From grizzly sacrificial murders to a scene where Lara wades her way through a river of blood, there is more shocking imagery in here than most horror films. It’s like a more f***ed-up version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since we last saw Lara, the adventure platformer genre has been co-opted by the Uncharted franchise. Tomb Raider takes obvious queues from its contemporary, but adds elements from other games as well. Unlike Uncharted, Tomb Raider has a somewhat open world to explore for XP and treasures, much like Metroid Prime or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Also like those games, Lara gains and modifies her weapons and tools over the course of the game, which encourages you to backtrack to old locations to reach areas you couldn’t before. The platforming sections are brilliant, treading a fine line between classic Tomb Raider’s leaps of faith and Uncharted’s almost on-rails approach. The gunplay, whilst inferior to the platforming, is still a lot of fun and very challenging at points. There’s nothing more satisfying than headshotting an unsuspecting enemy with your bow and arrow before mowing down his buddies with a shotgun and finishing your last guy off with an arrow to the knee (I’m not making a Skyrim joke there. You can literally stab a guy in the knee with an arrow). Sure, it kinda goes against the whole “reluctant killer” thing, but it’s still fun. The puzzles are still here as well, and they are also fairly challenging. The game also has a multiplayer suite, but it’s pretty generic and feels tacked on. That, however, doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a fun and thrilling single player with enough length to be enjoyed playing through once without returning to find all the hidden gems.

Graphics wise, Tomb Raider is exactly Crysis 2 but it still looks great. A lot of attention has been paid to the environments, which all look distinctive and beautiful. The game seamlessly transitions between gameplay and in-game cutscenes; only the opening cut-scene is pre-rendered (and is pretty much just the initial trailer for the game anyway). The voice acting and motion capture here is excellent, particularly Lara herself, and the music perfectly matches the tone.

Tomb Raider is a fantastic game and one well deserving of your time. If Crystal Dynamics continue down this road for the rest of the franchise, I think they’ve found themselves a new fan. Whether you’re a Tomb Raider fanatic or just wanting something to hold you over until they announce Uncharted 4, this is the game for you.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES review

Developer: Gearbox Software (Borderlands)

Platforms: PS3 (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PC, Wii U

Release Date: 12 February (US,UK)

I am a massive fan of the Alien franchise, the first two films in particular. James Cameron’s Aliens has had a huge influence on the world of sci-fi, especially on video games. Games such as Doom, Halo and Gears of War have taken obvious influence from that movie, so how original can a game based on the original source material be? In the hands of Gearbox, it would be easy to assume this game would be certified gold. This couldn’t possibly go wrong. Right?

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First off, the story. Oh, the story. Taking place after the events of Alien 3, the game returns to the dreaded LV-426 for a story that is supposedly now official canon. And to that I say this: BULLS***! This has got to be one of the most contrived, lazy and downright awful attempts at making a proper sequel to Aliens that could have been attempted. The whole endeavour comes across as bad fan fiction, squeezing in every possible thing that was so great about the movie in an attempt to please fans, only to come off as pandering bollocks. The characters are flat, the scenario unoriginal, and the story never bothers to explain the most basic of questions. How did the Sulaco end up back over LV-426? (this is a question brought up several times in game, but always quickly shrugged off with a “I don’t know”. Point to writers: if there’s a plot hole, DON’T POINT IT OUT!) How did so many Xenomorphs manage to get on board? This and more plot holes are littered throughout, one of which I can’t bring up because of spoilers. But trust me, this isn’t that interesting a story. You’d be better off watching Alien Resurrection.

But the gameplay is what counts, right? Well, it’s your typical run-and-gun first person shooter. Not much more to it than that. Just go from room to room, blast some Xenos, and repeat for about six to eight hours. No real strategy or thought involved, just hold fire until everything dies. While this can lead to some cathartic fun, by the halfway mark the game runs out of ideas. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game wasn’t so piss easy. I played on hard and breezed through the game with the same amount of struggle I would get from playing any Call of Duty game on easy. This is mainly due to the absolutely retarded AI. The Xenomorphs, supposedly the most lethal killing machine in the galaxy, are dispatched with little effort or fear and their tactics never ranged more than “run up to you and smack repeatedly”. The game also has you fighting Weyland-Yutani soldiers, which just causes the game to lose all originality and just become another military shooter. And after a rather pathetic final boss, the game ends with little fanfare and, worse still, a f***ing cliffhanger. One of the few bright spots of the game is the multiplayer, which can be fun for a while but the severe lack of maps and the balancing issues between Marines and Xenomorphs causes this to become old way too quick.

This game has been in development for six years, and it shows. The graphics are severely outdated, with stiff character animations, muddy textures and some of the worst lip-synching this side of the PSone. The game is also incredibly buggy and unpolished. Among the problems present are: blatant clipping issues, audio drop-outs, poorly disguised load times behind really slow opening doors, people getting stuck on objects, the list goes on. The only good thing I can say about the visuals is that at least the lighting is pretty good. On the audio front, the game’s sound effects are spot on, especially the Pulse Rifle. Nothing is more satisfying than that sound followed by the squelching of alien flesh. The music is also great, both original and the tunes taken from the movie. The voice acting, however, is passable at best. They aren’t exactly given good dialogue to read, but even major players from the movie like Lance Henriksen sound bored out of their minds.

In the end, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a massive disappointment. The story is utter tripe, the gameplay is generic and unchallenging, and the graphics are outdated and unpleasant. After this and Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox really needs to sort themselves out and put as much effort as they put into these games as they do into their Borderlands games.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10