Category Archives: Games

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3The final battle has arrived for Commander Shepard, and for life both organic and synthetic across the galaxy. The Reapers have attacked Earth and their aim is to destroy all life that has reached a certain level of development in a process that cycles every 50,000 years. Shepard now has to build a war fleet and find out information in order for a weapon to be built, based on plans that have been passed down from previously annihilated species, called the Crucible. During this quest, moral decisions have to be made based on what you consider ‘life’ to actually mean.

The third of the Mass Effect games, which completes a series that began back in 2008, forms a fascinating climax to a story which builds you up as a character from first coming across the evidence of horrific mutilation and modification of humans on the planet of Eden Prime to turn them into synthetic zombies called husks, through making decisions as to whether killing 300,000 colonists is right in order to save billions in the long run, to finally having to make the ultimate decision of whether technology should be destroyed altogether and reducing human development back by over a thousand years, controlling the reaper threat and therefore stopping the immediate war but knowing that wars in the galaxy will continue for subsequent generations, or physically leaping into the unknown and forging a new future where synthetic and organic life is combined.

It’s a lot to take in when you’re lying on the couch in your dressing gown on a Saturdaymass-effect-3 citadel morning, but that is what makes the Mass Effect games so good – you get involved in the very heart of decision making that will change not only human history but the history of all of the races in the galaxy. It works so well in my opinion because it gets the balance right between action and plot. Yes, you have all sorts of guns to blast things to bits with and you have a range of biotic powers to make fights more interesting, but there’s also character development, particularly if you play them in order and move your character and the decisions you made in previous games over to the next. Relationships can be influenced and you choose who accompanies you on missions, so you end up caring for at least some of those who fight alongside you. This works better with some characters rather than others; Garrus Vakarian in particular is a great character who is a good mix of being a ‘good guy’ but also not being afraid of stepping over the line into more dubious moral territory if needs be and you know he’ll be with you to the bitter end.

Mass Effect 3 reapersI think the core question of what life is is handled really well because even though you may look at a Geth robot and think they’re no more than a walking laptop with a gun, it gets murkier when one of your crewmates is the ship’s control system in a metallic body and asks you questions about what the point of synthetic life is if there isn’t the basic need to procreate to pass on genes, or when you consider that Shepard in the second and third games is no longer pure human and has been rebuilt with synthetic additions. Humans are implanting biotic components into themselves to enhance their natural abilities and to give them a range of powers, so at what point do they stop becoming human and become a machine? This has been raised before in the Japanese anime filmMass Effect 3 leviathan Ghost in the Shell where the main protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg and the only human part of her left is her brain and brain stem with the rest made up of synthetic material. This film and its sequel bring up questions around consciousness and sentience, which I think have been used to great effect in Mass Effect because it is combined with the more basic instincts of preservation of Earth and humanity and the sheer scale and visual impact of giant squid-like mechanic monsters crashing down next to the Houses of Parliament and vaporising everything in sight.

Who know what eventually happens to Shepard – the next Mass Effect game will not Garrus ME3feature him or her depending on how you played the character and will just be set in the same universe – but although I got attached to the character and the game made me feel that considering the choices to be made really did matter, the finale was one of the best endings to a game, and the trilogy as a while, that I’ve ever seen and I think lets you move beyond Shepard as an individual to consider the far greater idea of existence itself.

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Fez

Quite sweet, and sometimes quite flummoxing, Fez is a 2D platform puzzle game from Polytron, rendered in a 16-bit style, where you take charge of a little white blob called Gomez which wears a fez and you make it run, scramble and jump its way up, down and around a cascading maze of vertical levels. However, although you move through the world in 2D, the levels are in 3D, and with a tap of a trigger the world spins a quarter turn, presenting a range of new possibilities as walkways are brought together, openings revealed, and gaps too wide to jump are narrowed.

Gomez has no weapons, can only run, jump and occasionally push levers or boxes, and can’t die. If you drop off a ledge that is too high for it, Gomez splats onto the floor with a discord, and then appears again from where it was cast, and there are no enemies apart from strange black holes that appear randomly in levels that make Gomez disintegrate if you walk or climb into it. It’s an incredibly simple idea, but it’s done so well. The levels radiate out from a single central point, so you have to make your way around levels using various means, and find doors to lead you to linked worlds.

Gomez has been given a quest by a hexahedron, which gave him the magical fez to perceive the 3D world, and the aim is to collect 64 cubes scattered across the levels in order to save the world from being torn apart. Many are in reach, but others need a more abstract method to reach, making it extremely satisfying when you finally work out how to get to it. A tiny Tinkerbell-like cube helps you on your way, giving you occasional hints in an inarticulate murmur like characters in Zelda.

Tickling ambient music provides a sweeping score that gives a more expanded feel to very constrained levels, which change through various themes from horror, to a neon-signed Chinatown, to ancient ruins, all floating in thin air or on water whilst the sky moves through a cycle behind it, providing stunning colours. It works well as a game to dip in and out of, though you may find several hours flit by as you beetle your way down to the edges of the cascade of levels, finding chests and keys to open previously locked doors. Also, when a certain number of cubes have been collected it forms a larger cube that then need to be picked up, and the joy on Gomez’s pixelated little face is probably worth the price alone.

Overall, a fun little game. A lot of people think it’s brilliant, I wouldn’t quite go that far as the music can get a bit irritating occasionally and I don’t feel a desperate need to continuously play it, but it’s good fun, and a bit different.

The Bard’s Tale

The Bard’s Tale is a 2004 RPG spoof released by InXile Entertainment, which it says is a modern interpretation of the original 1985 Bard’s Tale. It’s basically a tongue-in-cheek look at the tropes of fantasy RPGs, with its big-busted barely clad women, random wild animals attacking you in forests and chests of gold lying about to plunder.

Instead of being an intrepid adventurer, you’re a bard, who’s more interested in bedding the barmaid and then robbing her than saving the world. And it’s not a bad idea, but you know it’s just going to be the usual hack and slash with added sarcastic wisecracks from your character. You start off in a bar in the delightful Scottish village of Houston, which you can walk around an explore although there’s not a right lot in it. The camera angle in the game is very annoying – it’s vertically above the bard, so you just see the top of his head and a circle around him, rather than being able to look over his shoulder. This makes navigating around places more difficult than it should be, especially because the village is mainly made up of round identical huts. An inset map only gives a general outline of things, but does highlight areas of interest.

The game really is just a basic RPG with the minimum of story. The adventure unfolds with a voiceover being a storyteller describing the journey of the bard as though it’s supposed to be epic, but it really isn’t apart from the giant fire-breathing rat in the tavern’s basement. Why are we wandering about a random Scottish village? Presumably to make money if he’s a bard, but the gameplay is of a warrior going around fighting animals for the locals. There’s a forest that you can enter at one end, but again there’s very little in it apart from a ridiculous number of wolves.

Your bardic power seems to have more use through the character’s ability to conjure up creatures with a lute. However, this means you have to pause whilst being attacked to strum your instrument to get a new creature to appear, which is another annoyance, along with the long loading pages you have to sit and watch every time you walk in and out of a building or move from one part of the world to the other. If you’re exploring all of the buildings in the village, this ends up being a lot of loading pages.

The bard himself is a scruffy cockney, who during conversations can either give somebody a nice reply or a nasty one, depending upon which button you press. More entertaining is the elderly richly-voiced narrator who tells the bard’s story as you move through the game and provides a bit of wry commentary now and again. The main thrust as it were is to make fun of fantasy games with comments that mostly make you roll your eyes, though now and again can be quite clever. However it sometimes comes across a bit laboured, with long lingering shots of the barmaid’s ginormous breasts barely constrained by the tiny outfit she’s wearing, for example.

The graphics aren’t bad, the ground is well textured and water when you step into it is done quite well, but it can sometimes be difficult to see loot for example, or even where the thing attacking you is coming from because if you run near a tree, you can’t move the camera under it, so your view is blocked, and the colours are quite muddy in the forest areas. The fighting is very basic as well – you can block and you can hit and that’s it.

So, overall, for the money (17p on Amazon) it’s probably worth a go to have a bit of a chuckle at how daft it is.

Fable III

Here I go again…

Nothing like a bit of Whitesnake to start the day. So, here we are with the third game in Lionhead Studios’ Fable series, released for Xbox in 2010.

This time we’re launched into a world of industry and invention, of guns, steam engines, and child labour. This time, rather than kicking chickens around the streets of Bowerstone, you’re the charming prince or princess depending upon your predilection, and you are the offspring of your character from the second Fable game.

John Cleese is on hand as your butler to give you directions as you learn your first moves, and start off on a story of rebellion and tyranny. Your elder brother, Logan, rules the kingdom, but he’s clearly not doing much of a job of it because you take on the lead in a revolution, leave the castle, and begin your quest to wrest power back for the people.

The game really is very similar to the previous titles in that you carry an axe or sword and a gun, you can do magic, and you make your way around Albion’s settlements, fight things and then bring down the baddie. There are a range of side quests you can do, you can chat up the villagers and have offspring with them, and spend your time getting tattoos and dressing up in different costumes if you wish. However, this game has something a bit different up its sleeve, which I’ll tell you about later.

The kingdom of Albion

Albion, especially Bowerstone, has apparently entered the Industrial Revolution. Bowerstone Market still makes up the main town here, with the castle built beside it, but Bowerstone Industrial shows the filth and squalor that has comes with it.

Once more you can buy and rent out houses, but this time their condition declines throughout the game, and you stop receiving rent, so you have to go back now and again and patch everything up. You can choose one for your marital home, have a big shindig down in Bowerstone and start popping out the kids, who then run around after you demanding a doll. The various towns and areas are smaller and most of time easier to work your way round than in Fable II, and thankfully you now have a map with the location of all of the areas, and you can fast travel between then, as well as zoom in to view all available houses, and buy, sell and repair them. People with quests also appear so you can see who wants what.

Most of your time you’ll spend in Bowerstone, because that is where all of the shops are. Once you’ve been through random little places at the start of the game, such as the miner’s camp, there’s no need to go back, which makes it look like you’ve got a large world to explore, but in reality once you’ve been through once a lot of it becomes redundant. There should be specialisms in the different areas, like the cities in Oblivion, such as the miners camp making a particular kind of armour for example. However, this also crosses over into my problems with the weapons and armour side of the game.

Fighting

This is the age of industry, so there’s a steampunk element to the design of the game, which includes the weapons you can use. There are limited spells that are cast through wearing gauntlets, and it has the same effect as in Fable II. However, you don’t get style points this time on how well you dispatched an enemy, but there are some awesome moves that your character does when fighting which makes up for this, and which get more elaborate as the game progresses.

Interactions 

Again, you can boast, tickle or play pat a cake with villagers, as well as give and take gifts. By becoming friends or lovers with NPCs, you can earn points or ‘guild seals’ to spend on your ‘Road to Rule’, which marks particular points of achievement in the game and lets you unlock new expressions or stronger spells etc. You can also earn these through fighting.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the interaction element is as good as Fable III, basically because it’s a lot less entertaining. In Fable II you can stand in the town square and flex your muscles or flirt with people and get a large cheering crowd forming. That isn’t possible in Fable III, instead you have to shake hands, dance or chat with people one on one, and then when you’ve done this three times, undertake a friendship quest which every single time means you have to go and find something buried in the next town or take a package to somebody else again in another town, then go back to become friends. To get further you then go on dates and have to take them somewhere that they like. It’s just a bit tedious, and one date vanished when we were attacked by wolves and then bandits whilst I was leading her down to some lake she wanted to go to. No idea where she went, so I had to go and tickle somebody else instead. The process is too protracted and needs developing a bit more. Maybe once you get to become friends with somebody, you then open up new quests, or go into business together or something.

Reaver

The character of Reaver, supposedly a ‘Hero’ in the last game, is still around being his usual obnoxious self and is voiced one again in an unctuous smug drawl by Steven Fry. He has taken full advantage of the revolution and has made himself a captain of industry. I can’t remember how he manages to remain unchanged in the 50 years that have passed, something to do with sacrificing somebody else’s life force so he can stay eternally youthful, but this, along with the fact that he knew my mother or father depending upon how you played in the previous game, isn’t acknowledged at all. Which begs the question – what is the point in having him back? The story does involve him at one point, but not enough to justify his particular character being there.

Quests

The main quest is pretty straight forward to a certain point, which is gathering various peoples to your cause by promising them that you’ll do this, that and the other once you’re king, and then battling through Bowerstone to face your tyrant brother. I did a lot of messing about buying houses, doing jobs and undertaking side quests so was expecting this to be the end, so when you march into the audience chamber and he goes without a fight, I can safely say that I was definitely not impressed.

However, hold your horses because in fact this is where the game kicks up a gear and moves away from Fable II to something a bit different. You are now king, but there is a bigger and far more deadly force on the horizon than your brother. Pure evil is sweeping the land, and you have one year to make important decisions and raise the capital to fight and defeat it. The treasury is empty, so you can rule as your brother did and explore every opportunity to make money in order to save more lives in the long run, or create an Albion to be proud of and keep all of your promises, despite the lives that will be sacrificed.

Unfortunately, despite this far more gripping second half to the main quest, the ending still isn’t that satisfying, and this is a major problem with the Fable games. I want a series of successively more difficult battles. I want to start off with a screaming hoard of defenders and hack, slash and blast my way through demons, take down the henchmen, meet the main bad guy mano et mano and then take him down in the most epic final battle the Xbox has ever seen. I want houses exploding, blood flying, ducking, diving and a final death blow in slow motion. They do turn Bowerstone into an atmospheric hell on earth where the things you fight are winged shadows looming out of a sandstorm, and there are explosions, but where are all my people? I’m a king! I want an army to order about!

This is a strange ending really because I’ve spent the game bringing various tribes together, as well as becoming king, and yet at the end it’s just me, my mentor and a random soldier bloke who has some speaking parts earlier on. Where the hell is everybody? Why couldn’t I choose how to position people in order to defend Bowerstone? Opportunities were missed I feel.

I also think the industrial side to it could have been developed a bit further. At one point you enter an old cable car station, and this faded Victoriana was a great style, but most of Albion is very similar to the last game. Where are the first automobiles? Steam ships? Trains? Where’s the dialogue of people looking to the future, and where are all the wacky inventions and patent cures that you see on the posters on the loading page? Apart from Bowerstone Industrial there’s very little sense that anything has happened in the past 50 years at all.

Side quests occasionally throw up something interesting, but most of the time it’s go there and find this missing thing, or go there and kill this guy. You can comb Albion for rare books, escaped gnomes and rare flowers but I’m not going to bother searching every crack and cranny for these things because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter. I think that is a very important point. You can’t die. If you’re knocked out, all that happens is that you loose your progress to the next guild seal. I think that makes a lot of what’s available for you to do quite irrelevant. The jobs in particular are basically a waste of time for the pitiful amount you get. Once you have some rent coming in from houses, these make you rich enough to do or buy anything you like.

Clothing and weapons

At the beginning of the game, you’re given fantastic weapons your mother left you, which you then improve as you go through the game. This means that you don’t need to buy increasingly better weapons throughout, which also means that the awesomeness of your weapon is limited. Yes, the point is to cause more damage per blow, but having different styles of kinds of weapon would make it more interesting – something done well in Darkstone and Oblivion.

With clothing, you can run around in a woman’s nightie with a bathing cap, yellow stockings and red shoes if you so wish, but there’s no protection given to your character, so there’s no need for armour, and no need to look through shops for better outfits. Again a wasted opportunity because shops are basically irrelevant as well – you can buy potions but as you can’t die it’s not that important, your magic doesn’t run out, you don’t need to eat, and expressions, etc. you unlock on your road to rule rather than learn from books.

Gnomes

In Fable II, as you travelled around the towns and villages of Albion you were roundly insulted in a broad Scottish voice by gargoyles hiding in eves and under bridges and things, which you then had to find and shoot. There’s pretty much the same side quest in this game, but this time gnomes which have been brought to life have escaped and you have to go and find them in their hiding spots. However, instead of shouting things like ‘I could paint a target on me arse and you’d still be aiming at your shoe!’ or casting aspertions on your ability to shoot a crossbow, these horrible little things hunch against walls defying gravity bawling ‘What a lovely day… TO DIE!’, or ‘I’d like to get to know someone like you… And then drown them.’ I find it a bit harsh myself, and not that funny.

Inventory

Fable II’s inventory was a bit of a mess, where everything you had was in categories, but it took you forever to scroll through to find what you need. In this, you are transported to a dressing room style place, with your butler going ‘Ah, hello!’ every single bleeding time you enter it. It gets very tiresome. If you want to change clothes you go into your dressing room and scroll through your outfits and so on. Mainly I used it just to look at the map and list of quests. So, thumbs up for the map, but I’d prefer an inventory I didn’t have to translocate to and then run into different rooms. 

Overall

I think overall the plot works well, particularly because of how the story picks up once you’re king. The ‘evil’ that you encounter when making your way through a cave system and through the desert is an interesting addition, and I think very well done with your character’s sanity being tested as he battles to safety. The evil does have a strange resemblance to the ‘Teacher’ in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall music video, but you never really find out what it is and where it comes from. An influence seems to be the darkness in Zelda Twilight Princess, it has the same feel to it with the oil-dripping-upwards movement to the blackness as it spreads. However, this actually only makes up a small part of the game and I think a greater use of this opponent would have made a more cohesive story, rather than using the generic werewolf-style monsters that sit around in groups of five in the woods and at the Millfields crossroads, and the groups of bandits who all look the same, and who again always appear in the same place. Like in Oblivion where cult members appear and try to kill you whilst you’re walking around town, if people start gradually succumbing to the darkness, it would break down the barriers between the towns and the wooded areas and show more clearly your progress through the game.

Also, the ending could have been developed more using the evil spreading, by allowing you to ‘free’ different towns from it, and then you work your way up to the final battle for Bowerstone. So, there was an imaginative concept, and a good evolution of the game in the second half, but the first was too similar to what has been done previously.

The next chapter

Fable IV or Fable: The Journey as it has been announced, is expected for 2013. Lionhead presented the concept of the game at this year’s E3, and apparently they want us to feel ‘100 times more involved’. It looks like nameless evil has appeared again, so the general concept is still very similar but hopefully the story will be more epic.

Facebook Games – Super Drift 3D, The Lance, Word Trouble, Stickshot 2

Super Drift 3D

A car racer where you can choose the difficulty and whether you want to time trial or play arcade. I went with an intermediate car on the arcade to see what was going down. The music is mental, the kind of thing you get on a dance mat, as in super speed electronic bopping. You use the arrow buttons to accelerate, break and turn, and apparently the shift button to drift, however I was banging away on every shift button I’ve got and nothing happened at all. The graphics are very blocky and the control of the car itself it quite pitiful – I just drove full speed at bends and slid round them Burnout-style. At one point a pixelated McDonalds sign flashed past so to end it all I slammed my finger down on the gas and headed for the next brick wall. I bounced off it and the game calmly placed me back on the track… you can never leave…

http://apps.facebook.com/silvergames/play/super-drift-3d


The Lance

Produced by Armor Games, the start menu starts off with some delicate haunted-sounding music with a couple of monks humming and aahing away. You name your knight (I went with Geoff) and you’re invited to a bi-decadely jousting tournament for a chance to win ‘The Lance’. Now the ye olde merry jester medieval music comes in and we have to charge. I think you click your mouse to speed up the horse, but I click once not realising, I then have to hit the space bar and everything freezes. It then zooms in and you have to choose where to hit the other person. I receive massive body damage. They lose their shield. Clearly I need more practice at this. I go in for another round, the clicking thing doesn’t seem to work this time either, I get a horse contact warning and then get booed off the paddock. Yeah, third match I knock the other one off his horse and get some experience points. I also realise that I’m actually riding what they call a ‘silly donkey’. This is pretty good fun, just a shame the clicking to speed up the horse (or donkey) freezes the game.

http://apps.facebook.com/silvergames/play/the-lance


Word Trouble

A kind of mash up of Scrabble and Scramble, where you have a large board of letters and you need to click adjacent letters to form as many words as you can. There is a letters requirement for you to move up to the next level, and a time bonus for every word you find, as well as bonus letters placed around the board for extra points. Every letter used disappears, and more fall down from the top of the board. It’s not bad, but is missing the addictiveness of Scramble. You also have to watch adverts.

http://apps.facebook.com/mindjolt/games/word-trouble?nav=newest.play-now


Stickshot 2

In this detective/shooter game you start off watching a comic segment which give you a bit of information and you find out what your mission is. In a fit of multi-apping I whipped out Shazam on my phone to find out what the piece of classical music was that was playing, but it failed to identify it. Isn’t worth the memory space it takes up half the time. In the first level you’re leaving retirement and coming back to deal with a thug getting too big for his boots. And the game begins. You choose whether to buy explosives, ammo or a new gun and from a rooftop you begin your deadly assault. It’s all comic drawn and the people you have to shoot are little stick men who run about, hide and shoot back. Also you only have a limited number of bullets so you have to be quick, but also accurate. Phoning gives you the location of the people you have to shoot, who show up highlighted in red, and you get money for a job done. If you get hit your health decreases, another incentive to hunt them down fast. It’s a really fun little game, I was very impressed – it’s particularly good fun to try and hit them on the run. By the third level it’s getting pretty difficult as you have to protect somebody moving through the city, where gunmen appear out of nowhere. Very good fun, and very well put together.

http://apps.facebook.com/silvergames/play/stickshot-2

Winner of the week: Stickshot 2

Oblivion

This game is massive. Gigantic. I’ve been at this for two years now on and off and it just keeps going. A recent highlight was completing a shrine quest and watching a rain of burning Alsatians drop from the sky as a present from a trickster daedra. I definitely didn’t expect that. I’d only come across this quest by wandering about the countryside in a far corner of the map because the horse I’d bought earlier and left outside a ruin whilst I went in to steal everything not bolted down I then found dead when I came out of it again, apparently gored to death by a warthog. In what other game would your horse be attacked by a rampaging warthog? Or invisible rats? Making it fall off a cliff? I seem to have particular bad luck with horses – the super duper lean mean fighting machine of a horse that you get when you work your way through the assassins guild quests was so gung-ho that it charged at an Oblivion gate and I never saw it again, landing me with having to use inferior horses that can’t even face down a warthog.  

All of the minutiae of Oblivion and the other Elder Scrolls games can be found here in this incredible resource, but here’s a quick overview. Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series, released in 2006 to follow Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994), Daggerfall (1996) and Morrowind (2003), as well as various expansion packs. Sandbox in style, you can go pretty much anywhere within the bounds of Cyrodiil, the heartland of the continent Tamriel, which contains the capital city as well as eight other cities and numerous villages, small settlements, pubs, ruins of old towers, temples, caves and even a haunted shipwreck.

Open-ended, you can tackle the gameplay in any way you wish once you’ve made the initial flight through the Imperial Sewers. You could kill a randomer and begin the assassins guild quests, join the warrior or mages guilds, follow the main quest, walk off down the road and see what the bloke living in that house over there is doing, or steal a horse, defy the guards and gallop to the other end of the land. Completely up to you.

It all began at the beginning

The game starts off with the events that instigate the main quest, with you following Emperor Uriel Septim VII and his bodyguards as they escape from assassins through a secret passage in your dungeon cell, picking you up along the way. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart who voices the Emperor doesn’t get long to work the role as the assassins – members of the daedric cult Mythic Dawn – catch up with your party. He entrusts you with the Amulet of Kings, which keep the dragon fires alight and the daedra at bay from entering the land. With him dead, the dragon fires have died and the daedra from the Plains of Oblivion start to invade through opening burning gates across Cyrodill.

To complete the main quest you have find and defend the Emperor’s heir, Martin (voiced by Sean Bean, who unfortunately rarely gets to be more than extremely apologetic about the whole thing), and defeat the Oblivion gates to restore him to his throne. He’s a monk who didn’t know he was heir to the throne so fair enough if he’s less blood and fury and more ‘let’s take a slow sensible approach to this and only if you’re happy to, come along with me’, but he spends ages sat on his arse in his mountain hideout waiting for me to show up and give him some daedra artifact or other, then saying that actually he also needs blood from armour hidden at the bottom of an ayelid ruin protected by some bad-ass zombie. Many people have tried to retrieve it but none have succeeded he cheerfully adds. Cheers Martin, so no offer of a few guards then to help me out? That’s an impressive amount of faith you have in somebody who only got caught up in this because they happened to be in the right jail cell.

Oblivion

The Plains of Oblivion, or river of Oblivion, comes from Greek mythology. The river Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades, and any who drink from it experiences complete forgetfulness. However, unlike this world of sleep and forgotten memories, the Elder Scrolls’ Oblivion is a world of burning lava seas and spiked towers of blood red metal. Rather than being one land like Cyrodiil, random plains appear that are quite small but highly convoluted and seething with all sorts of headbutting dinosaurs, ice monsters and towers that throw fireballs. The idea in each is to find the sigil stone which closes the gate, but you have to move along the winding tower corridors, coming face to face with blood fountains in the rending halls, and burning corpses hung from the ceiling. Decorative.

You could, however, completely ignore the main quest and spend your time working your way through the vast array of side quests and guild quests. The guilds of assassins, thieves, warriors and mages all have a series of quests that you have to work through before you become head of the order, and there’s the arena where you can fight as a gladiator to thrill the spectators of the Imperial City, or bet on other fighters to make money.

Character building

At the beginning you can choose your appearance, race, birth sign and style (mage / wizard / thief etc.). It’s quiet complex with a lot of different options, but your birth sign gives you a particular gift, such as The Lover, which allows you to paralyse with a kiss, and your race can grant you greater resistance to magic for example. The race element is also used when gaining information from NPCs, as they may be more or less disposed towards you depending upon what race you and they are. Good and evil deeds, or renown, also contribute towards people’s reactions to you, but this is more subtle than in Fable for example where you actually start to look evil and people run away from you. You can also improve somebody’s opinion of you by playing a sort of mini game where you admire, boast, joke or coerce, where the character hates one, dislikes another, likes one and loves one. Failing this you can often bribe your way to information.

Money and items

All of the cities have shops where you can buy various goods, such as armour, weapons, books, spells, jewellery, home decorations and a place to sleep for the night. You can also sell back what you’ve found on your travels, and haggle prices, though they’ll refuse to serve you if you drive too hard a bargain. You might even find some quests if you talk to the right people.

As you work your way through the game your speechcraft and merchantile skills improve, meaning you can get more for your money. However, even thought it’s a pretty straight forward system, I think there are some flaws. You can make loads of money by robbing ruins and completing quests, but there’s not that much to spend it on once you’ve stocked up on potions and recharged any magical weapons. You can buy a house in each city and decorate it, but there’s not really much need to do so because it’s still just a bed for the night in fancy surroundings. You can go to any inn and get a bed for at the most 20 gold pieces, which is peanuts once you’re bringing in weapons that sell for hundreds, and there are camp sites across Cyrodiil, as well as the guild headquarters in each city, that you can sleep in for free, so owning your own houses is irrelevant apart from the Anvil house which you can do a quest in. Also, the best weapons and armour you can get is in the ruins and on the quests, so shops don’t offer you anything you can’t beat yourself by plunging down the nearest mine shaft.

This is an area that I feel could be improved. However, the sheer number of items, plants, potions and scrolls is astounding so you never know what you’re going to find next. You could be wandering around the edge of a lake and pick a plant, just to find out that you can undertake a quest related to it. Plants and food items can also be combined to create magic potions, depending upon their various properties.

Graphics and characters

Cryrodiil truly is beautiful to look at. I found myself on a bridge recently to the north in the mountains, looking down upon the Imperial city and the lands beyond, whilst the sun set in a stunning pink and orange sky. If you head up the mountains it begins to gently snow, and throughout the game the weather changes, which really gives atmosphere to the game. I’m not a designer as you can tell from these reviews, but it’s incredible none the less when you compare it to older games. Unfortunately there’s one part where this falls down slightly, and that’s the faces of the characters. There are various races in Tamriel, but people’s faces are often lumpy, broad and frankly unattractive so hopefully this will be improved in the next Elder Scrolls game due out in November 2011 – Skyrim.

Another problem with the design is that caves can be incredibly tedious. They all look the same frankly and yeah, you could argue that how different can a hole dug in the earth look from another hole dug in the earth, but I think a greater array of styles would be far more interesting to investigate. I’ve heard that this is also being addressed in Skyrim with each cave being individually designed, so bring it on.

The number of individual characters is impressive, all with their own names and faces apart from the guards and strangely the porters in each of the fighters guild houses who are all identical. Unfortunately though there are only so many voice actors to go round it seems so you’ll hear the same voice applied to a whole range of characters. Occasionally you’ll even get two voices for the same character. One of the beggars once slipped from a whiney guttersnipe to the voice of a guard when they were asked a question. Work also needs to be done on the tone of voices, as a guard might dislike you for some reason and give you a generic ‘What?’ when you walk past and not engage in conversation, but they can be as nice as pie if you talk to them. However, again if you compare this to games even being made now, this is still an impressive feature that characters react to how you play the game. 

Fighting

How well you fight depends upon your endurance and agility, as well as strength and accuracy. These you can develop as you level up, as well as through the gameplay itself. There are basic skills that you increase in this process, such as strength and magic, but during the gameplay itself there are a whole range of secondary skills that you improve the more you use them. For example, if you run everywhere your acrobatics skill increases now and again as you work your way towards becoming a master of this skill. In this case for example, you can jump higher and further and fall from greater heights without damage. There are also trainers throughout Cyrodiil who will teach you to improve your skills for gold.

Endurance decreases rapidly in a fight and it can often descend into a slugging match with my female character making the most terrible noises, which sound like a cat with a cold having something heavy dropped on it.

I tend towards building up my characters as warriors rather than mages so I can only comment from the point of a player who uses heavy weaponry to fight. I think there needs to be more variation because it gets boring just thumping creatures repeatedly with a broadsword. That could well be my own fault for not using the magic side more, but I wanted to concentrate on improving health and strength, so I think a greater variety of moves would make this more interesting, like for example the fighting in Fable III where the character itself does a variety of moves when in combat, that become more complex as you move through the game.

The map and travel

Thankfully the map and travel system are very simple and convenient. I haven’t played Morrowind but in that you have to travel to places using various modes of transport rather than the fast travel option to points of interest used here, which sounds extremely tedious. It’s the best map I’ve seen in my years of gaming, and it’s a shame all games don’t have something so good (Fable game designers – I’m looking at you here).

Creatures

There are a wide range of beasties across Cyrodiil, which grows larger the more you play the game. You’ve got the normal wild animals such as rats and wolves, which increases to include lions and bears, but there are also the fantasy staples of goblins, trolls, skeletons and ghosts, all of which have stronger versions the further you get, so wolves become timber wolves, etc. However, there are some really good unusual ones as well, particularly once you start exploring the plains of Oblivion. Flame Atronachs are a good example – these are lithe human-shaped creatures that are made of fire and either throw fireballs at you or leap and scratch like big cats. An interesting development that I’ve heard of with regards to Skyrim is that if you leave certain creatures alone, they won’t attack, unlike in Oblivion where all creatures apart from farm animals try and kill you. This is an interesting development, because in Oblivion when you wander the countryside things like a solitary lion or will-o-the-wisp will just appear and attack, where in Skyrim, apparently, there’ll be a pack of wolves living together but if you skirt around them they’ll ignore you. It’ll be interesting to contrast the two.

Conclusion

Being a huge fantasy fan and a gamer who always goes for the RPG end of the scale, this game clearly had my name all over it. I can barely wait for Skyrim to turn up as Dragons + Oblivion style gameplay = many, many, many hours of awesome entertainment as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t have the time to put in though I’m not sure how much you’d get out of this, takes a hell of a long time.

Fable II

The 2008 Xbox 360 game Fable II is (unsurprisingly) the second instalment from Lionhead Studios of the Fable series. This time, rather than starting off as some country bumpkin watching your village burn down, you’re a guttersnipe, living on the street with your sister Rose in the town of Bowerstone, dreaming of what life is like for the Lord of Castle Fairfax.

The game starts off with you running around a couple of streets doing small tasks for the other folk around, but there’s also a travelling trader who happens to have a magic box. This box is what will destroy your old life, and launch you into your new one as a Hero.

American / British actress Zoe Wanamaker does the voice acting for your guide, Theresa, a mysterious traveller who sets you off on your journey many years after your first, terrible, meeting with Lord Lucan, who rules over Bowerstone. As an adult you are now set on your quest to defeat him as he seeks to control the Spire – a monolith structure rising from the sea, which he wants to use to channel incredible power. To do this, you need to enlist the help of three other Heroes.

Set around 500 years after the first Fable game, it’s got a familiar feeling but there’s a feeling of greater freedom in where you can go, and with your interactions with the other NPCs in the game. You can weald an axe and a gun or rifle, as well as develop your magic and you are rewarded in fights if you use a mixed combination to defeat your enemies swiftly. As in the previous game, there’s a strong influence on good and evil – if you strive to help others and do good deeds, as well as eat foods such as tofu where nothing was harmed, you can glow. However, if you turn off the safety and kill innocents and try and burn things down, you’re going to end up growing horns and people will react to your presence differently.

Eating too many pies will make you put on weight, and this was a bit of a niggle for me, I have to say. I ate a couple of ‘bad’ things near the beginning of the game, and my character started bulging, but this weight didn’t come off throughout the rest of game, despite not eating anything and spending all of my time running the length and the breadth of the land, slaughtering monsters. This was daft in itself but the design of the character just made it look ridiculous at some points, especially in certain items of clothing. You also age and I’m not in favour of this level of ‘realism’. I’m playing a game where I run down Hobbs, smack them with a double-headed axe and then conjure up a fireball large enough to incinerate anything within five feet of me, I’m not expecting it to be that realistic. By the end my face looked like it was sliding off me. Combine this with the glowing lines which appear from magic use, and all of the scars you acquire from being knocked out, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Another niggle was the map system – there are a whole range of towns and places you visit in your travels, and there’s a scroll-down list to use to travel to each. But you’re not going to remember where everything is in relation to one another, and what if you want to spend your time exploring all of the exits from a particular town? You’ll need an overlay map of some sort, and an overall map showing the location of everything in relation to everything else. I found the whole inventory and map system pretty cumbersome, near the end you’re going to have so much stuff that it takes forever to scroll through it.

However, the overall game play is swift and fun, charging up a level five fireball in particular was awesome, I could’ve sat there burning things into oblivion all day. The designers were definitely on the button with that one, and there are all sorts of spells and skills you can learn to improve your fighting, aiming and magic casting.

Coming back to the interaction with the other characters, this has improved significantly from the first game. There are a whole range of entertaining, social and mean expressions you can do to influence those around you. If you start posing or waving your trophies around in Bowerstone town square you’ll quickly get a crowd gathering and people will be falling in love with you all over the place. However, this does mean you’ll start getting followed around by Gary the Househusband who keeps giving you loaded hints about needing a wedding ring. Though the interactions are entertaining, and you can take characters back to yours to get better acquainted and marry and have children with them, this means that you have to install them in one of the houses that you’ve bought and pay them an allowance. Minimal gain and significant monetary loss as far as I’m concerned – I have to pay them for being married to me, and I can’t rent out the house to get some cash! They also get a bit arsey with you if you spend too long away from home doing annoying things like saving the world, or if they find out you’ve actually also shacked up with a couple of other people in other towns. Ball and chain, I don’t recommend it.

A fun addition to the game is your dog, who you pick up at the beginning and who follows you around barking whenever there’s a dig spot or treasure chest near. It does mean you’ll spend a lot of time digging up bottles of yellow clothes dye, but now and again something useful turns up.

As well as all of your side quests and the main quest, you’ll come across Demon Doors, who have the face of a bearded old codger who gripes at you about something or other and wants you to do a series of expressions or play the lute. If you win, you’ll enter another realm and get something snazzy to chop other people up with.

So overall it’s a very good game. There are minor points which could have been better executed, and finding you can’t go and have a look down the side of the castle because you’re confined to the main road is annoying after you’ve been playing games such as Oblivion, but for what it is I highly recommend having a go. Also, keep an ear out for something insulting you in a Scottish accent, it’s worth taking a look up in the eaves now and again.