SSX Review (Sort of. More of a witter, really.)

When I first played the demo of SSX last month, I knew that I’d be adding it to my personal library of games come pay day. The incredible speed, style and luscious graphics were very difficult to ignore. So, after playing the game for around five hours, do I regret buying it?

I was quite daunted at first, once I’d cleared the tutorial ‘drop’. (Note: Drop is the term used for a section of mountain a player will play on. The SSX equivalent of a racetrack.) As it quickly became apparent that I’d need to develop quicker reflexes in order to be any good at the game. The obstacles in your way, even in the early drops can be pretty frustrating if you haven’t worked out the controls. Once you’ve mastered them, the game becomes a lot more satisfying to play as opposed to clunking through levels, smashing into trees and the occasional downed airplane.

It’s very easy to keep your finger perpetually pulling back on the boost trigger, which isn’t a clever idea at all. For starters, you can’t turn as effectively while boosting, and you’re going to need to be able to manoeuvre through the drops before even considering tricks or boosts.  Another thing is that unless you are continually tricking down a slope, you don’t get an awful lot of boost. So you need to use it wisely. Like a racing game, it’s going to do no good boosting as you’re about to take a corner, because you’ll, like, totally wipe out. Dude.

You also need to get out of the habit of holding down the jump button for ages to prepare for massive spins. You can’t turn very well while crouched, as holding down the jump button and turning will prepare your character for a very quick spin, instead of turning the board.

The problem is, with the breakneck speed of the game and how many obstacles there are to overcome, it can be difficult to get to grips with initially. I’ve been playing for five hours and my fingers still want to boost through a level, jumping at any given opportunity. Resisting that urge and planning your route through a level is rewarding and satisfying. SSX gives you the potential to pull off some really crazy tricks, and charge through a level without breaking a sweat. Providing you can put the time in to get comfortable with the setup.

The levels themselves are mostly cleverly designed, and offer multiple routes down. And when I say multiple routes, I mean loads. On one mountain, you can grind a pipe that takes you past a thick tangle of trees and posts, but doing this will set back what tricks you can perform. The other route would be to hit all the ramps and risk wiping out on the scenery. Or you could just flip over that part of the course and hurtle down a vertical drop to get to the finish. Your strategy will vary depending on what kind of event you’re playing. There are some really difficult courses as well, with lots of hazards and death drops as opposed to the clean lines and ramps older SSX gamers might be used to. This can be frustrating and I wish that there were more accessible drops for a nice, fun ride.

There are three events to choose from; race, survival and tricks. Race and tricks are self explanatory, but survival is something entirely new in the SSX franchise, and isn’t always to its benefit. Pitting you against natural obstacles and dangers, each survival drop has a characteristic of either ice, avalanche, trees, oxygen or whiteout. To combat these levels, you will need to spend the points accrued in previous races on new gear. Disappointingly, this doesn’t include the level of customisation offered in SSX 3. Clothes models stay the same but have different skins, which seems lazy considering customising your character almost a staple of modern gaming now, and it was a very cool feature of SSX 3.

The gear available to buy is split into armour – when you’re expecting to bounce off trees for most of the level, ice axes – for effective turning on ice, pulse goggles – for vision where there is whiteout and an oxygen tank for really high drops like Everest. There are additional items like wingsuits (there are some levels with bottomless pits to cross) and headlamps (there are some levels with pitch-black tunnels).

The problem is, aside from the wingsuit, these new options aren’t much fun to play. I didn’t like having to press a button to take a breath from my oxygen tank in the middle of a tricky few jumps. I liked the idea of the reverse camera and escaping from an avalanche, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s coming ahead and how high your jumps need to be to avoid obstacles.

The graphics aren’t anything special, they’re not ugly by any means, but nothing really stands out. I’d probably appreciate the engine more if there were replays that I could take time in appreciating. As you’ll be moving so fast and trying to pay attention to lots of things at once, the graphics are easily missed.

The soundtrack is probably the weirdest selection of songs I’ve (never) heard. There are a couple of fast paced drum and bass tracks that work well with the game, but a lot of them are ambient or just irritating modern ‘grime’ tracks. Thankfully, SSX gives you the option to use your own music mixed into the game instead of playing it through the media blade. This is quite an impressive feature, with the music fading out as you get huge air and slamming back in as you land. It also gets mixed in with the remixed Run DMC track ‘It’s Tricky’ when you activate tricky mode.

A lot has been made of the absence of any ‘real’ multiplayer mode. SSX tries to innovate with a system that allows you to play against your friends even if they’re offline. I think it works well. I like being able to compete in global events without having to listen to smack talk from people who are a lot better than me at the game. You vie to get the highest trick score or clear time possible, and the game puts you in a bracket depending on the scores of other participants. Anyone within that bracket gets a share of the SSX gold, which you can use to buy more gear or unlock new characters or drops. This is all upated via the RiderNet system, an information hub that you can bring up at any time. It’s inspired by the awesome Autolog system from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, so you challenge your friends at any event, any time.

Closing Comments

I like this game a lot, and even though I’d like split-screen like the older titles in the series, I’m not sure I’d be missing a whole lot. Download the demo, if you’re not interested by the end of it, then this game isn’t for you.

I don’t know how to rate games accurately, so I’ll just say:

Awesome, and well worthy of your time.

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I Am Alive – Review

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Six years in the making. A troubled development cycle. Is I Am Alive a survivor?

I’m a sucker for post-apocalypse fiction. I love the idea of an exciting and dangerous new world, I guess. Okay, so billions will have to die so I can have my fun, but you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. I Am Alive is a post-apocalypse survival game, where you play a normal man trying to survive in an anything-but-normal world.

So, the end. I Am Alive takes a leaf out of Cormac McCarthy’s book (pardon the pun) and doesn’t explain exactly what ‘The Event’ is. All that we are told is a number of earthquakes shook the planet for weeks, causing buildings to collapse and a thick layer of choking dust to appear on ground level. The Event killed millions, though the game isn’t clear on how much of the planet is affected.

You play the role of an unnamed man trying to get through the skewed and dangerous landscape to his wife and child. The problem is that the dust shaken from the earth is impossible to survive in, so much of the game is spent traversing toppled skyscrapers and climbing around modern day ruins in order to survive. The other big danger is the other survivors who – after a year surviving in the wreckage – have grown to be untrusting of others as society has become survival of the fittest.

i-am-alive-pc-ps3-x360-screenshots-2-580x323The climbing sections of the game are tense to say the least. Rather than being some kind of superhero character like Ezio from Assassins Creed, you have a stamina meter that slowly decreases during your ascent. When it reaches zero, you will fall and die. This is a game changer for the climbing/platform genre as you need to prepare which way you will go first. You have a few helpful items on hand, like pitons that you can shove into the face you are climbing for a life-saving rest, but they are few and far between. The climbing isn’t hard to control, but planning your route up the side of a skyscraper can be difficult when your stamina is diminishing in front of your eyes. When you finally plant your feet on the roof, you and your character will sigh with relief in unison. The only real complaint I have with the climbing is it can occasionally be difficult to see what is climbable, which can cause some frustrating retries of a section.

Another feature to keep the tension up is the lives system. For each checkpoint, you have a base amount of 3 retries. Once those are used up, you go back to the last auto-save, which are also pretty scarce. In the hardest difficulty mode, you have no retries. Once you die, you start again from the beginning of the game. I Am Alive likes tension. And frustration.

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I Am Alive isn’t all climbing. You will come across groups of survivors who may be hostile, cautious or in need of help. While these encounters aren’t all that varied, they do take some thought to beat. For example, you very often have no bullets for your gun. So, you can bluff by pointing your weapon at the enemy. They will back off and raise their hands in the air. You can tell them to move back, giving you time to run, or you can kick them off the edges of buildings. Occasionally, they will drop to their knees and surrender, giving you a chance to knock them out instead of killing them. Other times, they will see your bluff and come at you, machetes in hand.

Sometimes you will need to feign surrender. By default, your character will raise his hands and try to placate the hostiles. They will move in to surround him. During this time, you need to prioritise who is the biggest threat. So, the guy with the gun comes up close, you slash his throat with a surprise attack and collect the ammo from his body. You can then shoot the next closest enemy and force the other one to surrender. Whilst this combat isn’t overly fun, it fits the mood of the game nicely and is another tense addition to the survival.

The graphics engine is a little dated, using the LEAD engine that was used in Splinter Cell: Conviction. But we’re talking about an XBLA game, not a full release. It looks great for an arcade game. The animations are mostly smooth, but the lip-sync during dialogue or cutscenes is terrible.

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The dust layer works well as a mask for the obviously limited draw distance, and is suitably bleak and moody also. There are never more than a couple of colours on screen, as the colours are all but de-saturated. This has been criticised in other reviews, but I think it lends itself well to the atmosphere of the game.

The sound is so-so, and probably the weakest part of the game. It sounds like the directional sounds aren’t working correctly, so when you hear a voice in the distance that sounds like it’s coming from in front of you, it’s actually above and behind you. It takes a while to get used to and is a bit jarring. The voice acting is average, with no real emotion given to any of the characters, but there aren’t any dodgy accents here either.

The game lasts around 6-7 hours and has a strange, out-of-place scoring system that gives you a percentage score that takes into account how often you’ve died, how many survivors you’ve saved and items collected. I’m not sure if this would make me want to play it again, however.

I Am Alive probably isn’t all that it could have been, but it provides an interesting, tense experience that you’re unlikely to forget for a while. Having said that, with the dated engine and limited combat options, I hope Ubisoft will work on a full retail release over the next couple of years.

9mm – Android Game Review

Is a lot of swearing, Max Payne styled shoot-outs and a storyline heavily inspired by The Shield a formula for a great game? Well, no.  Read why.

After watching a three season marathon of The Shield, this title seemed worth a go. It was my first foray into the world of mobile 3D gun action games. Turns out for every plus, there’s a minus…

So, I can deal with cheesy names, but John “Loose” Kannon is a pretty overpowering cheese-fest. You play as the owner of this facepalm worthy moniker, and you are – in fact – a renegade cop. You and your ethnically balanced team of corrupt cops steal some money from a drug dealer. And his brother swears vengeance will be his. Or something.

To be fair to the game, I didn’t watch the cutscenes after the first couple. They’re detrimental to the game in my opinion, with some really shonky voice acting and a pretty incoherent script. Usually, I won’t even bother talking about cutscenes in my reviews, but 9mm makes such a point of its graphics, and ‘gritty’ dialogue that I have to point out that unless you’re twelve, you’ll not likely appreciate it.

Also worth noting is I tested the game on a HTC Desire S. A mid-range Android handset.

CONTROLS

This is what killed the game for me, if I’m honest. With a similar system to Modern Combat, you have a virtual stick on the left to control forward, backwards and strafe movement. You swipe the screen left or right to turn left or right, and there is a dedicated fire button at the bottom right-hand side. The weapon icon in the top changes weapon if swiped. There is also a dive stick on the right hand side. If you swipe over this then you will dive in slow motion in that direction.

So as you can see, quite a lot going on here. Now, I’m no newbie to games in general. But my hands were all over the screen, 90% of the time during firefights. This approach may have worked in FPS games, but it definitely does nothing for this one.

I sprint out into an enemy-infested corridor. I pull out my 12 gauge, and flick all over the screen like I’m playing Fruit Ninja. It probably takes a lot of practice to be any good at this, but ultimately with the complete lack of charm offered by the other aspects of the game, I didn’t feel compelled to.

GRAPHICS

For a mobile game, 9mm looks pretty good. It’s on a par with Grand Theft Auto 3, I’d say. So it looks nice, when you’re not watching the cutscenes. These can be skipped, so I’m not going to complain about them too much. Quite a lot of frame drops on my Desire S, though.

SOUND

The weapons sound pretty good, but there is terrible voice acting throughout. An example is the Mexican crews that you shoot your way through. They will shout things out during battle, but it sounds like a white guy doing a slightly racist impression of a Mexican. There are all sorts of things like this with the sound. I think they would have been better off just having text instead of voices, as this really shows the limits of a budget for developers. The soundtrack has few licensed tracks and suits the mood really well. Mostly urban hip-hop stuff.

MULTIPLAYER

There is a multiplayer function, and it seems to work rather well over Wi Fi. I just kind of wish I could control my character a little more! Pretty bog-standard deathmatch options.

OVERALL

Feels like a tech demo more than a game. The graphics will make you say “ooh, I can’t believe my mobile can do this”, but the actual controls and terrible audio experience will have put you off long before you finish the story. The Shield this isn’t.