With fuck all out on the PC right now, and the old skool consoles going through their annual new year's slump, all my time is being spent on the 360 right now. With that in mind, here's a triple whammy review sesh of those games I've been concentrating on these past few weeks; Condemned, Ridge Racer and the long-awaited Dead Or Alive 4.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
I've finally managed to finish the horrendously terrifying Condemned since posting my initial thoughts
last month, and in the wake of its completion my opinion of the sucker's shot up considerably.
|Condemned makes fab use of lighting and crazy filters to enhance its really quite scary look|
You see while Condemned's opening half is fine, I really don't think it truly comes alive until 4 or 5 of its 10 chapters in. What starts out as a somewhat interesting yet incredibly repetitive offering, slowly but surely mutates into a truly captivating psychological thriller that draws you in on a level seldom felt.
As previously mentioned, you play an FBI agent, one framed for a double homicide in the game's opening chapter, and thus must prove your innocence by seeking out the real killer and putting an end to him. In practice it's a first person shooter meets adventure game, but certainly unlike any first person shooter I've seen before. Guns are a rarity for one, meaning weapons are more of the long, metal, bashable variety, which turns Condemned into more of a first person beat 'em up than a traditional SMG blaster.
There's also strong emphasis on finding clues and gadget use, with one riddle solving sequence towards the end a particular highlight. In that respect, it feels like the game Fahrenheit should have been...a dark, mature, crime solver choc-full of style and scares. Unlike that mildly disappointing
title though, Condemned also boasts absolutely slammin'
action on top, combat that feels so damn hardcore that every smack of a lead pipe you take to the teeth makes you wince in pain and squirm on the sofa.
|Although guns are rare, you'll still see an assortment of pistols, shotties and even the odd machine gun. My fave's gotta be the rifle though|
It's also the only first person shooter I've ever played that makes guns feel so genuinely deadly and realistic too - so much so that every single scrap of ammo you manage to salvage in these horrifically seedy basements and crack-dens, feels like a gift sent from god himself. An all too rare 9mm pistol with just three bullets in the clip makes you feel invincible in this game, a feeling further compounded by the fact that when you fire off that last round, dread creeps back in as you start swinging around planks of wood in order to survive.
Condemned similarly dabbles in the supernatural like Fahrenheit did, pretty much my single biggest gripe with the otherwise gripping storyline, and one I kinda wish wasn't present. On the plus side though, it handles that side of things considerably more adeptly than Fahrenheit's overblown and convoluted whackness, with a spooky, unexplained, almost-Twin Peaks feel to the craziness, which thankfully is all the more better for it.
Level design and art direction impress hugely. The mid-game department store level is an all-time classic, and the penultimate level set entirely within a single house - with you examining rooms for clues while crapping pants at ominous bumps coming from upstairs - is also one of the freakiest fucking levels ever. The graphics are some of the 360's best yet, with strong emphasis on exceptional light and shadow work, joined by fab (if minimal) physics and awesome animation.
|Condemned's first person combat is brutal, harrowing, noisy and disorientating, just like the real thing|
Sound fares just as well, with impressive voice acting ("Fuck you, pig!") and horrendously scary "music" cues that marry the likes of white noise with chalkboard scrapes, in an unholy satanic assault on your ears that's destined to empty bowels. In a good way.
Condemned is short at around 10 hours, give or take, and at £40 a pop that may seem somewhat worrying, but for such a linear game it surprises in its longevity. For one, numerous collectibles peppered throughout the levels have the side effect of unlocking bonuses and Gamerscore achievements, and tracking 'em down is actually pretty darn fun, certainly making the game worthy of an immediate replay for snagging those you missed on your first run through.
Much more importantly though, Condemned is a game that is just so damn gripping in its atmosphere and overall journey that much like a decent horror flick, it's one you'll wanna "watch" again and again further down the line.
If you're the kinda guy who's tired of the FPS genre, convinced there's nothing new and original out there in this day and age, Condemned is most definitely for you. Not only is it gloriously original, incredibly absorbing and one of the scariest experiences ever - in game or not - but it's also one the most polished and impressive of the 360 launch titles by far...and really one that should have been on my recent end of year faves list
Ridge Racer 6
Ridge on the other hand, is very disappointing to me. While it's not a terrible game, it just feels oh so simple and incredibly basic in light of the supreme bad arse that is Project Gotham Racing 3.
Perhaps a comparison is in poor showing though, as despite the inclusion of, ya know...cars, these games couldn't be further apart if they tried. Ridge after all, is about as arcadey as they come; a racer where you rarely - if ever - even consider
touching the brake button, instead drifting crazily around bends as if driving ice-covered tires.
|While enjoyable and fun enough for what it is, Ridge is just way too simplistic and dated to contend with the competition|
For that high speed drift racing of the Outrun 2 style, it's kinda fun I guess, and certainly a more accessible racer for newcomers than the more hardcore approach that Gotham opts for, but I guess what bums me out the most about Ridge is just how god damn similar it feels to last year's PSP version.
That was actually a game I loved to death, and one of my fave PSP titles period, but on a cutting edge next-gen system running in high definition with 5.1 sound, I would just expect something a little more advanced. Instead, Ridge Racer on the 360 is almost identical to its PSP cousin, handling and even looking pretty much the same, only with an extra layer of shine placed upon everything.
If you literally just wanna play good old Ridge Racer on your 360 and expect nothing more, that's fine, with #6 here offering extensive online options that fans will be sure to mop up for many months, but for those wanting that genuine next-gen racing experience with glorious graphics and, in my opinion, far more gripping gameplay, skip this one and grab Gotham. It kicks its arse pretty much across the board.
Dead Or Alive 4
I'm not exactly Mr. 3D Fighting Guy, much more at home with a 2D fighter like Street Fighter II than anything with that dreaded third axis of evil, but DOA4's early footage looked so damn glorious I just couldn't keep myself away.
|The long running Japanese beat 'em up returns, just as beautiful as ever to look at...but has the gameplay evolved?|
As a 3D fighter, I still find the game focuses way too much on knocking people over, then pummelling them with endless unblockable barrages of combos while they sit there grinding their teeth in frustration, yet while DOA4 doesn't reinvent the 3D fighting wheel and fix every last problem I have with the genre, it is
by far the best it's been yet in my opinion. The underlying fighting engine has had some wonderful (if minor) tweaks that really spruce up the feel for one thing, and it handles considerably tighter, faster and harder than any of its peers.
The game also sports wonderful depth for what on the face of it looks like a button basher. Every punch and kick can be aimed by attacking in tandem with the analogue stick, and the counter-attack system has been drastically revamped too to make blocking these attacks and counter throwing far more in-depth. The animation on all these moves is pretty 'effin' spectacular it must be said, made all the more impressive by the fact each counter move has been tweaked to work in conjunction with every single attack from every single character. As a result, seeing your toon execute a flying kick to the head, only for the CPU to grab your ankle, snap your leg down and punch you in the balls is gloriously cool. Everything feels very organic in that respect, with moves and counters slotting together flawlessly like perfectly sliced jigsaw pieces.
Of course, this is Dead or Alive, so the T&A quota is out in full force. Some of the ending sequences even border on softcore porn, so make sure you keep some lotion handy. Finishing story mode with all the available characters actually has the pleasing side effect of unlocking a playable Halo Spartan, a kinda cheap concept in theory, but one that works beautifully in practice. It's a chick - naturally - but at this point it's the closest glimpse we've had of Master Chief on the 360, and I must admit it does indeed get the blood pumping to see her kicking high-def arse in all her next-gen glory on the perfectly modelled Halo stage.
|DOA4 spruces up the counter-attack mechanics over its previous games, but they can be so tricky to pull off as to border on pure luck|
Unlocking her will be a trying feat that said, as in case you didn't know...DOA4 is really
frickin' hard. In keeping with Ninja Gaiden
on the first Xbox, Team Ninja prove themselves adept at crafting a fighting experience that requires the player to drastically improve their skill quickly, or they just won't win a single fight. Much like Gaiden though, perseverance and some major practice will sure enough turn you into an absolute bad arse, thanks to skilled, yet always fair AI on the CPU's part.
Unfortunately that all goes straight out the window on the final end of game boss, a dreadful and ill-conceived biatch who is about as much fun to fight as having a sandpaper circumcision. It really is the only point of the game where your victories drift more towards luck than raw skill, and had me dangerously close to popping cyanide pills.
One thing I do feel desperately missing here is a Soul Calibur III-style "create your own character" feature. It'd be fab to conjure up an arse kicking robot lesbian with massive wazzer jugs and a huge strap-on attack, but I guess Dead Or Alive's timeless toons more than fill that void, an eccentric and varied bunch presented even better than ever here on 360. They really do look and feel like living, breathing cartoon characters.
|The same old Dead Or Alive characters return in full force here, with one or two new additions on top|
That said, as fleeting as my experience has been with previous Dead Or Alives, this fourth incarnation doesn't seem hugely different from those that preceded it. Improved, definitely, but hardly reinvented. The graphics look beautiful on the whole, displaying stunning detail on its massive levels, while forever retaining a never faltering 60 frames per second. At the same time it's ever so slightly let down by some rather flat lighting in my opinion, which unfortunately pulls down the visuals to about roughly the same level as any other 360 launch title. It's a looker, don't get me wrong, but I have my suspicions that Team Ninja have only just scratched the surface of what they'll soon be pulling off with this system.
Lastly one has to mention the online component. With DOA4 not out in Europe yet, finding lag-free games has been near-impossible, but based on the few bouts of "winner stays on" I've actually managed to get through, I can certainly vouch for its potential if little else. The new lobby feature is dead cute too I must say, giving you a customisable avatar to chat and fuck around with while you watch fellow players duke it out on live-fed in-game monitors. It's all a little gimmicky and doesn't add anything to the actual fighting, but is a nice, original take on the traditional spectate mode, and I personally dig the heck out of it.
On the whole, despite my own misgivings for the genre, DOA4 sets a high bar as the 360's first beat 'em up. I can't wait to see Team Ninja using this machine for new, and hopefully more original games - specifically a brand new and heavily revamped Ninja Gaiden - but I must admit in the meantime, I'm finding myself pretty damn addicted to this.
High praise coming from me, I assure ya.