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Product Reviews

Top 100 Games Reviewer Top 100 Gadgets Reviewer
85 (87% helpful)

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  1.  My, what a big one!


    Oblivion is massive. No, really. If it was any bigger, it would be sat blubbing on the Rikki Lake Show, lamenting its chronic cake addiction. It has taken your correspondent more than 90 hours to complete the main story and I've barely tickled the side missions.

    To the unfamiliar, Oblivion may look a bit, well, 'geeky', and in some respects it is. The story is classic RPG fare, with barbarians, lizard creatures and elves among others, living in a beautifully realised medieval landscape. The emperor of this once great land has been slain, and it now inadvertantly falls to you to discover his rightful heir and see him safely to the throne. But the forces of darkness are stirring, and across the region, firey gates to the plane of Oblivion are opening, releasing hellish monsters that want the country for their own.

    So far, so beardy. But those who have never joined a chess club or had any interest in corduroy needn't go running, as the gaming world and playing experience is more inclusive than you might think.

    Oblivion does a very good job of placing 'you' in the game. Your disembodied self glides the scenery with increasing ease and the numerous controls and commands are handled tightly and effectively on the control pad, reducing the need to jump in and out of pause menus.

    The combat is all real-time, just as any standard shooter, and while initially you'll be doing little more than stabbing sewer rats with a butter knife, you can grow to become enormously proficient at swordplay and spellcasting. Giant, two-handed battleaxes and claymores eventually become available, or if you'd rather specialise in blunt weapons, how about a weighty warhammer? Arguably more fun, however, is the magical destruction you can bring. Dependant on how your levelling-up is going, throwing a flaming ball of death or electrocuting nasties is a simple press of a button and really satisfies. Of course, your preferred tactics might be more sneaky, in which case you could use your increased magicka - the energy that governs these abilities - to work on more stealthy aspects of your character, such as invisibility or opening otherwise inpenetrable doors.

    There is an abundance of detail in everything you do, and hours are lost harvesting plants for potions, buying, selling or stealing items, including breaking into houses, or chancing your arm as a gladiator in the Imperial City Arena. Everything is open to experimentation.

    The brilliance of the game is in such development, suggesting ways to become more powerful but allowing you to make the decisions about how and how quickly. You could conceivably complete the main story thread within a handful of hours, but you will have seen precious little that your character is capable of and missed tons of action.

    The game is certainly not without its faults though, most notably the severe glitches that can occur. The 360 version is known for completely stalling when a certain sequence of events take place, usually after speaking with key characters that drive a quest forward. It is imperative to manually save often or hours of progress can and will be lost. There is also quite a lot of repetition with many areas looking quite similar, especially the Oblivion levels, and despite a truly mammoth cast list of non-player characters, they are only voiced by six or seven actors, which can detach you from the experience

    Otherwise, this title represents superb value for money. There is a staggering amount to explore and some side quests alone are longer than entire full-price games. It always feels as though there is something new around the corner and that your actions have a lasting consequence. If you have the patience, Oblivion has the rewards.

  2.  I hate to admit it...


    It was coming. A string of backward steps, glitches and the perennial licence and presentation issues has finally cost Pro Evo its crown. EA has been putting some serious work in on the training ground and the apprentice has become the master.

    The problem with the FIFA of old was that, to any serious football fan, it was just too scripted and arcadey. Every shot seemed to follow a predetermined route to goal and you could eventually guarantee that you will score from a specific angle. The players were far too rigid and regardless of real-world talent, often overly quick or skilful. The end result was an unbalanced goal-fest, giving away the developer's North American origins. The only upside - and surely the only reason it continued to sell - was the accurate presentation.

    It has to be said that this greatly improved FIFA owes much to Konami's former great. The comparisons in gameplay are obvious and for converts such as myself, the button layout can be adjusted to almost perfectly mirror those most familiar of controls.

    There is a lot more subtlety this time around. Gone are the seven-hour animations you can't interrupt for every single move, replaced with more fluid, life-like touches, flicks and passes. There is still the opportunity to belt a winner in from outside the box, but by and large, you will need to plan your attacks for success, adjusting your team's attacking/defending mindset as a match unfolds. Shooting and passing has seen huge improvement with satisfying weighty physics, but also because you can adjust the power to suit your need. This is especially effective with the through balls, which can be hit further if needs be for instant counter-attacking.

    At the same time, nothing is so easy to pull off that it feels like you're cheating. You can practice every skill to your heart's content in the new training mode, but if you're going for the top corner at 40 yards with Gary Neville, you can expect someone in Row Z to be going home with a souvenir shortly afterwards. There is a noticeable difference in the players now; Lennon is fast. Torres is clinical. Tevez is ugly, etc. The game will also adjust a player's stats depending on where you position them on the field, so any budding Benitez's beware that trying to play all your strikers out wide might not work here.

    The options are almost bewildering and now include a fairly comprehensive management mode. The Virtual Pro concept works surprisingly well once you are used to playing as a single man, and it feels like a real achievement if you go on to be selected for your national team. The usual round-up of league and cup tournaments are on offer, and you can choose a team from every major - and most minor - leagues in the world, all with the correct kits, if not the stadia.

    Perhaps the best feature though is the opportunity to engage in a 'real' season on Live. All the up-to-date real-life fixtures can be played and replayed so that you can iron out all those niggling defeats of recent times and challenge for silverware. Unless you're rubbish, of course, and simply plummet into relegation.

    This is as complete a football package as there has ever been. Sure, there's some occasional overzealous refereeing (but nothing like the Nazis in Pro Evo), some nonsensical and repetitive commentary and the AI can be unforgiving, but the improvements are more than compensation.

    Pro Evo hasn't become a bad game overnight, but it has allowed FIFA to catch up to the point where it can be ignored. There's no need to suffer dodgy kits, ridiculous names and unwieldy tournaments anymore, and unless there are dramatic improvements, FIFA is going to top the league for many seasons to come.

  3.  Hitman in tights, anyone?


    Normally derivative platformers or rushed GTA rip-offs, licensed games are almost invariably a cynical ploy to wring another few quid out of an already wheezing premise. Occasionally, however, there is an exception to the rule, and this is one of the finest examples in years.

    Arkham Asylum doesn't follow the action from any one specific film, cartoon or comic, but there are obvious influences from each media and the experience is all the richer for it.

    There are shades of Tim Burton's dark and surrealist vision in the level design, a wide breadth of characters cherry-picked from the comics, and then there's the stalk-your-prey approach, reminiscent of Christian Bale's interpretation of the Dark Knight. Batman himself is a tough, grizzled but fallible amalgamation of his every previous incarnation, nimble and pleasingly simple to control.

    The combat is quite a departure from any game to date. Instead of looking to isolate and then pick off a goon from a group, Rocksteady have pioneered a fluid system whereby Batman will seamlessly dash, jump or somersault to the most immediate threat with a simple nudge of the analogue stick and a tap of a button, regardless of whether the target is standing next to you or all the way across the room. You are encouraged to keep combos going to stun and then finish opponents off in style, and ever more brutal moves can be unlocked as you progress. Admittedly, some fights are so hectic that strategy can take second place to good old fashioned button mashing, but accidental or not, your victories will look good.

    The stealth mechanics, however, are very tight and extremely satisfying. In order to achieve certain objectives, you are often forced into areas where you must carefully pick off henchmen, one by one, trying to avoid alerting their colleagues and bringing about your demise in a hail of bullets. Using the excellent detective mode, you are able to X-ray your surrounds and monitor each goon's activity, plotting the perfect attack. Will you sit atop a gargoyle and wait to hoist a passing thug up by his ankles? Do you wait for a couple to walk past a wall and then detonate the explosive gel you placed on the other side, knocking them unconscious in a shower of bricks? Or do you simply sneak up behind them? The options are superbly varied and there are always more to learn.

    The narrative is superb and immediately engaging. The voice talent really adds to the experience, especially Mark Hamil's crazed Joker who taunts Batman throughout the game on random monitors. Cut scenes all use the game's impressive graphics engine and further the clever, twisting and distinctly adult story while keeping the player fully immersed.

    Despite being set essentially on one location, Arkham Island is beautifully realised and every new area feels fresh and full of hidden extras. You are rewarded for exploration with all sorts of fanboy extras, including eerie interview recordings of each of the sinister inmates at the Asylum. They won't change the gameplay but they do serve to flesh out the characters and their motivation in such a fantastic way that you'll want to find them all.

    For all the praise though, Arkham Asylum cannot claim to be perfect. Boss battles are enormously underwhelming and save for the more imaginative encounters with Scarecrow, little more than jump left, jump right, throw batarang to succeed. This in no way ruins the game, but you can't help but feel let down when the rest of the game is so epic in scale.

    It matters not. Sublime graphics, superb controls and a consistently engaging story will have you glued to the screen and begging for the sequel come the end. Thoroughly recommended

  4.  Contender


    At some point in a pub, most blokes have fancied themselves as a boxer. Sadly, drinking 15 pints and windmilling into your opponent with a selection of expletives is frowned on in the professional game, and is likely to acquaint you with the canvass before the echo of the first bell has died out. If anything, boxing is more about defence; about movement and carefully choosing when to expend precious energy chancing a potentially telling combination or otherwise leaving yourself open to punishment. As such, the question for developers has always been 'how do we turn that into an entertaining game?'

    Fans of relentless action and gentle learning curves need not apply. This is a simulation and demands that the gamer pays attention to detail, whether that's with one of the established real-world boxers you can fight with or if you have created a monster in your own likeness in the quest to top the rankings.

    It's important to stress that nothing is guaranteed in the Legacy mode. Starting out on a new career does not automatically mean that you will eventually end up as No.1. In fact, it is entirely possible that your boxer will never get near a belt, retiring when age or too many defeats take their toll. Your training regime will be key in this respect and how you decide to build a boxer around your preferred fighting style. Selection of opponents is also critical. Get out of your depth too early and you'll end up getting knocked out in every fight, but play it too safe and you'll never challenge for top spot. Again, the details on what you're facing - whether you should aggressively come inside or stand off and patiently wait for a points decision - need careful consideration.

    The controls are well laid out and after some initial hit-and-hope bouts you will learn to differentiate your hooks from your jabs on the analogue stick. Blocking, bobbing and weaving soon become second nature and form an essential part of your strategy, as faster, tougher opponents stand in your way. You might be able to out-muscle the first few chumps, but expect to go the distance frequently in your long professional career. If the balance really doesn't feel right, the game generously allows you to adjust punch strength and speed and boxer health and stamina accordingly at any point in the pause menu.

    There are some problems with the mechanics though. No matter how weak your opponent, each of them is capable of downing you with a single punch, regardless of whether you've pummelled them without sustaining a scratch in reply up until that point. Naturally, computer-controlled boxers know exactly when to throw these punches and it can seem very unfair.

    Overall, the Legacy mode is somewhat limited. Training feels detached, laborious and lacks variety, and there is little else happening between fights, save for a few uninteresting emails about who is beating who and winning awards.

    But the fights are what you'll buy this for and by and large they really shine. The graphics are superb, with noticeably sweatier, bloodier protagonists as the rounds unfold and nigh-on faultless collision detection. Accomplished fighters can really work to a chosen strategy and amend it accordingly as a fight progresses, making some distance victories taste just as good as a crunching knockout. Two-player and online fights are of course the most enjoyable tests and present the opportunity to set up some classic clashes from past and present, without the niggles present with the AI.

    This is slick, entertaining boxing that really captures the big-fight atmosphere as you progress and offers plenty of options. You'll need patience and determination, but nobody became The Greatest overnight.

  5.  Essential


    If there is one title that proves the PSP can do lasting, engaging, graphically accomplished games, this is it.

    It has been frustrating in the past when an eagerly awaited port turns out to be a heavily diluted affair, missing key features, simply because the developer assumes a handheld gamer is only looking for quick-fire action (Gran Turismo, anyone?) Either that, or they're just lazy. I am delighted to report that there has been no such skimping here.

    Vice City Stories is a full game in every sense. Yes, it uses the same beautiful surrounds of the PS2 original, but the storyline, missions and even the radio output are all completely unique to the PSP.

    There is every type of vehicle at your disposal, including motorbikes, boats and helicopters and every one handles in a way that really satisfies. You can swim. The weapons are as varied as ever and there's even the opportunity to sport some new threads.

    The graphics and draw distance are spot-on and loading times are kept to an absolute minimum. The cut-scenes and writing are of an equally high standard to any game in the series and still manage to convey the same drama and humour the games are famous for on bigger screens.

    If anyone is going to take issue with anything, then it is likely to be the on-foot controls. The much maligned single analogue stick on the PSP makes for a more clunky experience when compared to the console versions. But Rockstar definitely knew this, and have introduced the best possible lock-on system to assist you in the heat of battle. There are still some errors when targeting, and GTA IV's cover system unfortunately does not feature, but given the gentle way into which you are initially guided along, only the most ham-fisted will fail to master the controls and make the best of each situation.

    That really is about it for the negatives. All the exploration, the hours you can invest in the campaign and the side missions, or otherwise the enormous amount of just messing about, is all present and correct and it looks great.

    This is a great advert for the PSP and every owner should be taking a look. Here's hoping that San Andreas gets the same treatment.

  6.  Identity crisis


    Need for Speed used to be a simple affair. You chose an exotic car and raced it on equally exotic circuits. Every now and again the police would chase you for speeding. That was about it. It was fun.

    Then someone in a hooded top and enormous jewellery decided the franchise needed to be more 'urban'. The series was re-imagined to reflect the underground scene, where spoilt teenagers blow daddy's cash on vinyls, roof scoops and spoilers so big, it makes them look like they are trying to smuggle humpback whales.

    More recent incarnations of the game have been something of a hybrid of the two approaches, culminating in arguably the finest title in the series, Most Wanted. But having hit this peak, EA have suddenly become victims of their own success. How do you put a fresh spin on the drive-cars-fast formula, enticing new people to the series while maintaining the existing fan base? It doesn't look like you can. But contrary to popular belief, that's not to say this game is without merit.

    Starting with limited funds and a couple of bangers, you are Ryan Cooper, a man on a mission to accumulate wonga and earn a reputation that will get you noticed by racing's elite.

    Events are largely circuit-based and certainly varied, including races, time trials, drag, drift and wheelie challenges. Winning unlocks further race meets and cars and eventually presents the opportunity to go head-to-head with the event king in each category and the game's overall master, Ryo, stripping him of his beloved ride if you beat him.

    There is a lot of racing for your money here and the customisation options read like the classifieds from Max Power magazine. This is a game about details; shaving tenths of a second off your lap times. Compared to the games of old, Pro Street feels much more serious and not as immediately accessible.

    Once deeper into the game, some events become very heavily focused on inch-perfect execution. Needing to progress with a certain number of points means you can end up in the same event, drifting round the same corner again and again until you top the podium. Such perfection demands that you spend serious time and money in the garage to find the vehicle and set-up that works.

    There's certainly nothing wrong with that kind of experimentation, in fact it's really good fun to know that each car you buy will handle so differently and it's up to you to unlock its potential. You will grow to have favourites - perhaps a trusty 4WD Subaru for tighter races or a brutal Viper for setting off the speed cameras on point-to-point events. But for every plus there is a glaring minus.

    The tracks in general are fairly small and unimaginative. In trying to keep things realistic, the thrill of racing in the luscious environments of Need for Speeds past has been sacrificed for barren fields, empty dockyards or the desert. Some circuits are so small, your vastly overpowered Porsche or Lamborghini is like bringing a greyhound to a snail race and renders their awesome power redundant. The point-to-point Top Speed runs are disappointingly sterile affairs, almost as if you're on rails, while drag events can become plain tedious.

    Also adding considerable annoyance are a vague career progression screen and an American announcer, dribbling endless inane nonsense over a tannoy. Fortunately you can silence him in the options.

    The Need for Speed brand has become confused. It doesn't know whether it's an arcade racer or something more serious these days. There is certainly fun to be had at this price, but Dirt 2 does glamour racing better and Forza has cornered simulation. As the recently released Shift continues to highlight, EA would do well to get back to basics.

  7.  A deal with the Devil


    Let's be clear about this; the 360 is a truly shoddy piece of engineering.

    Millions of dollars spent on R&D, millions more correcting the 'red ring of death' problems, and still the one company synonymous with all that is computing can only peddle a design that would embarrass a Japanese schoolchild. In rushing the system out to steal a march on Sony, Bill Gates et al have created the most unreliable games machine to date.

    Hardware failures remain commonplace, even after a number of rethinks for newer models or when older consoles have been returned to Microsoft for inspection. And don't think the problems are one-offs. As I write, my late-2006 X-Box has completely failed for the second time in 18 months. Of course, the warranty has also expired, and so the cost of sending the machine away for the second time? £92.

    It doesn't matter which version you go for - they're all the same bar simple aesthetics, HDD capacity and basic packaged peripherals - the fact remains that a crusty, wheezing, eight-year-old PlayStation 2 is still infinitely more reliable than a 360 can ever dream of.

    But stepping outside for some air, and allowing the anger to slowly drain, there remains a compelling case for owning this machine above all others.

    Take a look at that price. The 360 is by far the cheapest way to get into next-gen, high-definition gaming, and for the uninitiated, there really is a difference. For the same opportunity, Sony will ask you to part with 250 English pounds to acquire the new PS3 slim model, and it is not backwards compatible with the vast library of PS2 titles many people still own and love. Microsoft have kindly offered, indeed, insisted upon, a free downloadable upgrade to enable immediate access to all their last-gen treats.

    The quality of the graphics and sound, coupled with the comparitively easy negotiation of the impressive online features makes for the complete experience, regardless of whether you're new to games or if they've completely destroyed your life after years of abuse. The future promise of Project Natal is also indicative of a company intent on prolonging the lifespan of the current model, and after the Wii's success, the 'controllerless control' could open the final doors to every last family member with games that offer more than simple novelty value. But hardware means nothing if developers fail to support you, and this is where Microsoft takes an idignant driving glove to Sony's chiselled features.

    Much is made of the PS3's superior processing power, but having slowly established themselves again it is clear that the Japanese giant are woefully reliant on tired old franchises. Where is the killer game that will force the undecided into a purchase? Surely after 15 years (yes, 15) it can't be Tekken? As pretty as they are, the indestructible cars of Gran Turismo must be thinking about a cosy garage after a decade on the (same) tracks? And as for Metal Gear Solid, some of the cutscenes are six months long - people have been born, died and reincarnated as a squirrel in the time it takes to listen to the extended drivel in those games. Anything new?

    Halo, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, Grand Theft Auto downloadable content... there's only one home for them all at present. The simple fact is that the 360 is matching the PS3 game-for-game and then trumping it with some genuinely exciting exclusives, and that, above all else, is what matters.

    Yes, this machine will almost certainly let you down at some point. But if you can forgive the fact that it was apparently designed by chimps with a giant Crayola, and that the technology does at times seem no more advanced than a boiled potato, you will enjoy the finest gaming currently on offer.

  8.  Some great ideas...


    This is one of those games that had little fanfare on its release. You'll see it on the shelf from time to time, you'll look at the grisly pictures on the back... and then you'll put it back down again. And certainly at the full RRP, you were right to do so.

    From the twisted mind that brought you the cinematic horror classic Hellraiser, Jericho follows a team of crack US military types as they attempt to close a breach that will otherwise spew forth the Firstborn, a deceptively aggressive infant who was shunned by God as his first failed creation.

    From that point onwards the story becomes progressively more ridiculous, but unless you list satanic worship among your hobbies, you're unlikely to care.

    The first hour of this game is a write-off. After a reasonable CGI intro movie, you're dumped into a succession of dark corridors with only the occasional ghoul and a limp machine gun. What's worse are the continual loading screens that seem to pop up after every few hundred metres, despite there being very little on screen that would demand such frequent interruptions. But just at the point that you're trying to decide whether this disc would make a better coaster or frisbee, things become more interesting.

    Suddenly you're a ghost, able to inhabit any of your six team mates and take on their weapons and powers. These are fantastically varied, from a samurai sword to mini-gun, and from the ability to control enemies with the power of the mind to throwing a flaming dragon around the screen. Each character has the traditional strengths and weaknesses and save for one or two points where you're forced to use a particular individual, it's up to you to pick a favourite.

    Using an extremely basic command system, it's possible to control your men in groups of three, asking them to stand their ground or go ahead and attack. This can work suprisingly well if you're ambushed by a larger creature or a group of smaller ones, as one unit can provide a distraction while the other launches an all-out assault.

    Sadly, the potential here has been all but wasted. The better powers on offer are largely redundant until specific set-pieces, at which point you're given a step-by-step guide on who to use and how to use them. Only the very final levels ask that you think for yourself a bit more when dealing with a rare puzzle.

    The levels are pleasingly gruesome but their design is never more clever than a few rooms linked with corridors, and there is zero exploration. The enemies quickly become too familiar and one particular beast that explodes just before it dies, normally spelling your demise, is a consistent annoyance.

    Each character can revive the other should they fall, but in so doing, they are often killed themself. Many fights degenerate into a succession of deaths until you're either far away enough to be safe or every man has kicked the bucket and you start over at the last checkpoint. The team AI is so weak that most, if not all of the characters will run headlong into ill-advised confrontations and their deaths, essentially leaving you to fight alone against the odds.

    If you stick with the game through to the bitter end, you will finally encounter (and defeat with ease) the Firstborn. At this point, after such a build-up, you might be expecting a decent ending movie. You will be disappointed. Having completed the ending of the game twice to be sure, I can confirm that there is nothing but the credits.

    You'll want to like this game, but it will let you down. If you've completed every other title in the genre and still crave some first-person shootery, then there might just be enough novelty for a few distracting hours, but only on the cheap. At £40, it's bargepole time.

  9.  Grandad, what did you used to play?


    £1600. That's the minimum it would have cost you to own that list of games during the Mega Drive's heyday, when penny sweets were actually a penny and mobile phones were roughly the same size and shape as Outer Mongolia. Not, of course, that you would have wanted to have owned every one of these titles, as no matter how rose-tinted our glasses, some of them are awful.

    I remember playing Super Thunder Blade in the arcade, complete with flight stick and hydraulic chair, rushing low through the buildings, grinning like a madman as explosions rang in my ears. Great memories, and they shall remain as such, but playing the game again at home some 20 years on is entirely pointless.

    Those psuedo-3D graphics now look like a juddering succession of primary school paintings and the game itself is nothing more than left-a-bit, right-a-bit, while holding down the fire button. At least it is for the three seconds before you're blown out of the sky by another unavoidable hail of fire.

    Games like Super Thunder Blade hark back to a time when longevity meant ramping up difficulty to insanely - and unfairly - hard, and this is evident in a few of the titles on offer here. The difference now is that gamers brought up on a diet of Grand Theft Auto are unlikely to want to suffer more than a couple of frustrating attempts.

    But it would be churlish to dismiss the 16-bit era for its place in what was a fledgling games industry, and between sips of cocoa, Uncle Mega Drive still coughs up the occasional gem.

    Sonic the Hedgehog never had the depth to rival Mario, but it still delivers immediate satisfaction, as do most of the sequels. Ecco the Dolphin remains a curiously soothing and original adventure, while Comix Zone and Shinobi 3 are excellent examples of their kind and worthy of your continued attention.

    The glut of non-Sonic platformers are unlikely to interest beyond novelty value and whether Phantasy Star still stands up in a post-Final Fantasy VII world is open for debate, but for the modestly bearded, Shining Force could prove a surprisingly valid distraction.

    If there is one stand-out game here, however, it has to be Streets of Rage 2. This superb sequel was never bettered in the now forgotten scrolling beat-'em-up genre, featuring four very different characters, each with their own wide array of moves that could be combined in a sublime two-player mode. This is one old game that laughs at your polygons and is rude to high-definition's mother.

    So is your £1582 saving with this disc in 2009 worth it? Just about.

    As a definitive collection it's missing some heavyweights from companies such as Konami, EA and Capcom (the latter two have their own retro collections out), and that's not to mention Treasure's fantastic Gunstar Heroes. The highly subjective list could go on, of course.

    I would direct PSP owners to the Mega Drive collection already available on that system, as most of the games on offer here lend themselves well to quick-fire handheld bursts. The smaller screen is certainly more kind to the graphics - Sonic looks crisp. It's just unfortunate Streets of Rage doesn't feature.

    Anyone born in the mid-90s onwards is just not going to get this, and even some of us of a certain vintage are equally likely to be left cold by the comparitvely weak graphics and simplistic gameplay. But there are around 10 titles here that have transcended time and still stand up to reasonable scrutiny today, and it might be that you find yourself occupied with one or two lesser-known games.

    The X-Box and the PS3 may rule the streets now, but it was the Mega Drive that... erm.. laid the pavement...

    Or something.

  10.  An RPG for those who don't like RPGs


    I'm going to get stuck into the controversy straight away: I don't like RPGs.

    I don't like the fact it takes three hours of conversation to extract half a point from a meaningless character. I don't like the fact that the combat is so detached with bizarre 'you-slap-me-then-I'll-slap-you' turn-based nonsense. And I really don't like the fact that most RPGs are based around some obscure anime so that only people with beards large enough for nesting kestrels understand what's going on.

    I'm pleased to report that by and large, the game's narrative errs on the side of clean shaven. As the enigmatic commander on board your ship, it is your task to uncover the intent of a rogue agent who is roving the galaxy collecting artifacts relating to a long-dead race of vicious machines, and appears happy to dispose of anyone asking questions.

    Along the way you are instructed of various activities on a number of different planets worthy of investigation. Aside from a few narrative corridors, it's entirely up to you how you proceed. Some worlds will further the over-arching storyline, some will prove distractions to acquire bonuses and power-ups, while some of them are great mountainous swathes of naff-all.

    On face value, Mass Effect ticks most of the standard boxes. You acquire XP to power up your character and your team, there is the opportunity to take on or ignore as many of the assorted tasks as you choose, and there is of course the opportunity to engage with any number of galactic oddities. But where many titles of this ilk become bogged down in stats and pointless dialogue, Mass Effect hand-picks the finer points from the genre and weaves some more modern twists into an altogther more satisfying whole.

    For a start the combat is real-time and far more reminiscent of any current third-person shooter, featuring the obligatory over-the-shoulder view. Tactical cover has been ripped straight from Gears of War and the many fire fights coupled with the basic commands you can issue to your squad are involving enough without becoming confusing.

    There is an impressive sense of scale thoughout and production values that would make an executive at EA smile. The scriptwriting largely forgoes the annoyance of repetition and every line is delivered with conviction by a number of established actors, including Lance 'Aliens' Henrikson and Seth 'Buffy' Green. It really does make a difference to have professionals on board and some of the scenes, often dictated by your responses, are genuinely cinematic.

    Action fans shouldn't get carried away, however. The story does take time to become fully engaging and your initial squad, weapons and missions are not going to trouble Red Faction: Guerilla. Indeed, much of the action is shoe-horned into segments separated by lengthy spells of exploration, as opposed to random scuffles when the feeling grabs you.

    In the main, each planet and base looks fantastic with plenty of aesthetic variety, though it must be said that some trips in your exciteable dune buggy can turn up very little of interest when straying from objectives.

    Give this game the time it deserves though and you will enjoy a rich experience. The transformation into one of a variety of specialists, from gun-hungry mentalist to mind-bending magician is a joy to experiment with, and the choices you make individually and as a squad do have a noticeable impact. The story - so often a tiresome aside - is told in as credible a manner as games allow for, and is worthy of repeat plays.

    Sometimes sparse, but infinitely more accessible than Final Fantasy and no less deep, this could be the game that makes you start thinking about facial hair.