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All reviews - Games (111)

Trackmania Sunrise review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 16 April 2013 07:51 (A review of Trackmania Sunrise)

Sunrise is, in most every way, exactly what you would want from a sequel to the original TrackMania.

The Good

One of the deepest track editors ever found in a racer
Crazy physics and ridiculous speeds make for some pretty exciting races
Plenty of lasting value, both online and off
A much-improved graphics engine
Good soundtrack.

The Bad

Track editor is a little hard to sift through at first, due to its lack of tutorial
Still no car collision
Periodically frustrating, especially during the puzzle mode.

Chances are you didn't play last year's TrackMania--at least, not if you live in North America. Despite being one of the most addictively simple and wholly enjoyable racers of last year (not to mention one of the only decent racers on the PC last year), TrackMania never found the same level of popularity here as it did in developer Nadeo's native Europe. Thankfully, because the game was a success across the pond, Nadeo and publisher Enlight have produced a sequel with TrackMania Sunrise. Nadeo has ramped up the wonderfully addictive style of stunt driving and expanded upon the community-driven elements of the original, creating more ways for you to share your own crazy creations and to download others. Throw in a better overall sense of presentation and an insanely deep track editor, and what you've got is a truly great sequel.

Despite being a racer at its core, TrackMania Sunrise isn't really about its cars--it's far more about all the crazy crap you can do with those cars via the completely insane roster of tracks. This game is all about stunt driving, with loop-de-loops, huge ramp jumps, massive bursts of speed, and general track layouts that seemingly only the most insane people could possibly concoct. The cars in the game have a very toylike feel to them, though the car physics found in Sunrise are a big improvement over the original TrackMania. Cars run at ridiculous speeds and tend to bounce a lot when they land. However, turning feels a whole lot better than it did in the original, and you no longer have to worry about overshooting a turn completely by putting just slightly too much pressure on the turnkey. Between the high speeds and wacky track designs, no two races ever feel quite the same, and each race tends to be a lot of fun.

When playing single-player, there are a number of different single-player race modes to choose from. Nearly all the races in the game are time based, so you'll find yourself racing against other cars. However, these other cars are actually only there to give you a visual guide of how close or how far you are to beating the required time for a race. Each opponent car represents the specific time needed to win the bronze, silver, and gold medals for a given race. There's also no car collision in the game, effectively making your opponents ghost cars--though, you'll also encounter a ghost car version of yourself if you've already raced once on a track. The different types of offline races are broken up into the categories of races, which are the aforementioned time trials: ramps, which are jump-heavy races where your goal is to only use a minimal number of checkpoint resets before you reach the finish line; puzzle races, where you are provided a certain number of road pieces and an environment, and you have to lay out those pieces in a specific way to get from point A to point B in the allotted time; and, crazy races, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like.

Each one of these races starts off easily enough, but then becomes increasingly challenging over time. Once you beat a series, a new series will open up, provided you've earned enough gold medals. And therein lies the primary challenge of the offline races. Reaching the goals so you can get a bronze or silver medal is not usually too tough, but getting a gold medal can be nearly impossible in some cases. Make no mistake, this can be quite a tough game when it wants to be, and at times it can become a bit frustrating--especially in the puzzle races, in which the solutions sometimes initially just don't make any sense at all. But even with that said, the frustrating portions of the game are dwarfed in comparison to the enjoyable portions.

There's also TrackMania Sunrise's track editor to play around with offline. Like the original TrackMania, you can create utterly insane courses of your own design using Sunrise's track editor, though now with more options. Trying to list everything you can do with this mode would take us forever, so we'll just sum it up quickly by saying that you can literally spend hours upon hours creating a track in this game, and the amount of variety you can throw into your creation is pretty staggering. Like the previous version, the actual variety of pieces isn't gigantic by itself, but where the variety does come in is more in the way that you can format the pieces to fit your own twisted design. The one fault with the mode is that it isn't the easiest thing in the world to grasp from the get-go, as the menus aren't super user-friendly and there is just so much to sift through. However, once you get the hang of it, you'll have a blast coming up with the wackiest tracks you can think of.

The best part is that you can take your tracks online, or you can just download other people's created tracks, if you're so inclined. All you have to do is pause during a race, select "save track," and voila, it's instantly downloaded into your game. If you just want to hop online and get into a few quick races, it's quite easy to do, thanks to the game's simple yet effective server browser. Those who are creating matches can set up basic time trial races, rounds matches, and even team-based races. Despite the fact that nearly everyone we played against was from Europe, we never had a single problem with lag playing online. The online play is just like the offline, in that again, you're racing against ghost cars without collision detection of any kind. But considering that the races are mostly all time based, that's not shocking, nor is it a problem. If you don't feel like playing the game online, Sunrise also features LAN play as well as hot seat multiplayer. The online play is really where it's at, but these other features are suitably enjoyable as well.

The biggest problems in the original TrackMania fell squarely with the graphics and sound. In TrackMania Sunrise, these categories are where the game shows the most improvement. Gone are all the muddy textures, overly simplistic car designs, and lackluster lighting schemes of the last game. The tracks look much, much better now, with nicely reflective lighting and textures that, while not overly impressive, are far more pleasant to look at. There are still only three types of cars, but each features multiple available skins, and there's also a customization mode that lets you paint and decal your car to your heart's content. Even better, the visual upgrades have had little effect on the frame rate, though occasionally frames do seem to chug ever so slightly here and there. Sunrise also introduces a more dynamic camera system, one that zooms out or in quite a bit depending on the situation. If you're going through a loop and need a close-up view of the road to make sure you stay on point, the game automatically does it for you. There are occasions when the camera shifts can be a problem, though, rather than a help, but these are infrequent problems at most.

The audio has improved mainly because the soundtrack has improved. Instead of the oversimplified, looping smattering of generic songs found in last year's game, in Sunrise you get a number of well-produced, licensed songs, though not necessarily from any artists you've ever heard of. Regardless of the lack of name value, the music is a lot more enjoyable and serves as good background ambience to the racing. Apart from that, the sound design features a lot of solid crash effects, tire screeching, engine noises, and what have you. Nothing that stands out too much, but the sound is still good in spite of this fact.

TrackMania Sunrise is pretty much exactly what you would want from a sequel to the original TrackMania. Nadeo has simply taken everything that was great about the last game, added a bunch more to it, and then killed off some of what wasn't so great. Like its predecessor, Sunrise isn't going to appeal to diehard driving fans, mainly because this isn't really a game for fans of racing so much as it is for fans of stunt driving and building the most ludicrous stunt tracks imaginable. Sunrise is more toy than racer, and that is in no way a bad thing. Fans of the first TrackMania will love the sequel, and any stunt-driving fans that ignored the first game really ought to give Sunrise a look, as they will find themselves pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer.


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Trackmania Original review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 16 April 2013 07:49 (A review of Trackmania Original)

The Verdict

To its credit, the game looks pretty good, with appreciable view distance, reasonably complex objects, good texturing, and widely varied, colorful track types. The problem with TrackMania is that it's not fun to play so much as being fun to play around with--a temporary diversion in until the next installment of Project Gotham Racing, Need for Speed Underground, or whatever your particular racing jones really is. With a dated racing model and keyboard-driven track editor, it just can’t compete with the big boys, although young gamers might get a kick out of it. If you want to check it out for free, FilePlanet has a multiplayer demo, which also comes with the editor.


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Need for Speed: Most Wanted review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 16 April 2013 07:15 (A review of Need for Speed: Most Wanted)

It's not quite the smooth, finely tuned speed machine it could have been, but Need for Speed: Most Wanted is still an exciting racer.

The Good

Terrific handling makes driving a pleasure
Police chases are usually intense and enjoyable
Billboards make for satisfying asynchronous competition
Online multiplayer races are fast and exciting
Beautiful and varied city.

The Bad

In slower cars, police chases can be a frustrating ordeal
Repetitive police chatter
Lacks any sense of narrative motivation
Building up a car collection is unfulfilling
Inconsistent, sometimes dull online challenges.

Vehicles glide along invisible roads in the sky. Cars are borne out of twitchy, twisty clouds of darkness. Groups of police cruisers perform coordinated donuts, twirling about like dancers in a Busby Berkeley musical. In the creative and unusual pre-race sequences throughout Need for Speed: Most Wanted, you get the sense that the city of Fairhaven is a surreal land with dreamlike logic that might allow anything to happen at any moment. It's striking, then, that the actual game here is so typical and unsurprising, and that although it delivers plenty of the hard-hitting, white-knuckle racing Criterion is known for, it doesn't do so quite as well as some of the studio's earlier games.

The first game Need for Speed: Most Wanted may make you think of isn't a Criterion game at all; it's Need for Speed Most Wanted, the 2005 game with almost the same name. But while both games take place in open-world cities and involve plenty of police chases, the similarities aren't as significant as you might expect. One of the earlier game's most memorable elements was its hilariously over-the-top tale, told using some cheesy cutscenes, of a newcomer to the city of Rockport who has a personal vendetta against local street racer Razor Callahan. The premise gave you a terrific motivation for rising through the ranks of Rockport's street racing scene and taking Razor down.

Here, you also have the goal of defeating a number of street racers, but there's no narrative to back it up. The 10 racers on your list are identified only by their cars--they don't have names or faces or personalities--and without a personal investment in defeating them, doing so isn't nearly as satisfying here as it was in the 2005 game. It is merely a structural hoop to jump through; you do it simply because the game tells you that this is what you are supposed to do.

Well, that and the fact that driving, racing, and eluding the police are really enjoyable, for the most part. If you've played Criterion's earlier Need for Speed game, 2010's Hot Pursuit, the handling here will feel immediately familiar. Despite the stable of real-world cars, the driving isn't realistic. Cars have a great sense of weight and momentum to them, while still being extremely responsive, and as you'd expect from a Criterion racer, judicious use of the brakes and a bit of practice will have you blissfully drifting through corners at high speed.

Unexpectedly, cars don't start out with boost, but fear not; boosting is a big part of racing in Most Wanted. Each vehicle has five events associated with it, and by taking first place in the easiest of these, you unlock the burn nitrous mod for that car. This enables you to boost after you build up your nitrous bar by doing things like drifting, taking down cops and rivals, and driving in oncoming traffic. Victory in each of a vehicle's events nets you speed points, which you need to earn a set number of before you can challenge each of the most wanted racers. Winning events also gives you access to other mods, including chassis that make you more resistant to impacts, gears that increase your acceleration or top speed, and tires that reinflate if popped by spike strips.

Winning events and making a good car better is rewarding; curiously unrewarding is the process of building up your car collection. In Most Wanted, you don't buy cars, and with the exception of the 10 cars driven by the 10 most wanted racers, you don't earn cars by winning events or doing anything else of significance to advance through the game. You simply find them all over Fairhaven. They're easily spotted thanks to the illuminated headlights and the manufacturer logos that hover in the air above them; you just pull up to a drivable vehicle, and it's instantly added to your collection. After that, you can warp to its spawn point and get behind the wheel, no matter where you are. The fact that you can and will so easily find yourself with a sizable stable of cars simply by cruising around Fairhaven, without having to do anything to earn some of the game's fastest rides, means that car collecting in Most Wanted lacks the sense of accomplishment so many racing games instill by letting you gradually gain access to better vehicles.

The upside of having cars waiting at set points (called jack spots) across Fairhaven is that if you get the cops on your tail as you're roaming about the city, you can pull up on a car's jack spot and, provided that you've got a bit of distance between you and your police pursuers, hop into the other car, reducing your heat level a bit. Your heat level determines just how much effort the police are putting into bringing you down. At the lowest level, you might have a few cop cruisers on your tail. As it increases, the police start setting up roadblocks in your path, and more and better law enforcement vehicles join the fray. Heavy SUVs might try to ram you head-on, and Corvette Interceptors speed along in front of you, deploying spike strips that, if hit, can seriously diminish your car's handling.

All is not lost, however; repair shops are all over the city, and driving through one instantly fixes up your car and gives you a fresh coat of paint to boot. Like using jack spots, speeding through these repair shops reduces your heat level. Your heat level increases automatically as a pursuit goes on, and taking down police cars with a satisfying shunt into oncoming traffic, a swift T-bone collision, or whatever aggressive, effective option presents itself, makes it go up significantly faster. If you get enough distance between you and your pursuers, you enter cooldown, during which your heat level declines. Stay in cooldown long enough, and the police call off the pursuit.

You earn speed points during police pursuits, but you get to keep them only if you eventually escape; if you get busted, you earn nothing, so the stakes can get quite high. Escape from the cops, and you feel great; see the speed points you earned over the course of several risky minutes disappear as you get busted, and you may be crestfallen. It's a good risk-vs.-reward system that leads to some extremely tense moments. Unfortunately, shaking off your pursuers can often feel as much a matter of luck as of skill. Police are tenacious in their pursuit of you--maybe a little too tenacious, because it sometimes seems as if no amount of changing direction, catching big air, going off-road, or anything else is enough to lose the cops. In the game's faster cars, speed can often be your savior, but in the more everyday models, it often feels like you don't have a fighting chance.

Additionally, some parts of the city don't have many areas that are off the beaten path; you might enter cooldown but find yourself with nowhere to hide from patrolling police who soon spot you and reinitiate the pursuit. The balance between making it very possible for you to be spotted again during cooldown and giving you good options for eluding the police was better handled in 2005's Most Wanted, which provided you with more spots that cops on the hunt for you might or might not investigate. That earlier game also did a better job with police chatter; here, the police are irritatingly repetitive. Several times during the same pursuit, you might hear cops, awed by your driving prowess, come to the realization that they're "not dealing with joyriders."

The available events for each car come in a few varieties. There are standard checkpoint races against other cars, which sometimes attract the attention of the police. In speed runs, you try to maintain the highest possible average speed on a course. And ambushes start with you surrounded by cops; your goal is to lose them in as little time as possible. Though fun in faster cars, ambushes can be maddening in the game's more ordinary autos.

And then there are the 10 one-on-one showdowns against the most wanted. These races always involve the police, and always follow great routes that have you speeding on numerous surfaces through varied parts of the city. In addition to racing on the road, you might find yourself speeding across dirt, gravel, or rickety beach boardwalks. Your opponents are skilled but fallible, and you never quite know what's going to happen. You might be approaching the finish in first place, only to have victory snagged from your grasp as a police car takes you down, but conversely, you might be trailing behind your opponent when a police car does you the favor of taking him out, leaving you home free. These elements of luck don't diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with winning; they just add some unpredictability to these races. You must still drive skillfully if you're to have any hope of winning.

Winning the race against a most wanted driver isn't the end of the struggle, though. You must then do a takedown on the car to add it to your collection. This sounds like a satisfying way to cement your victory, but it usually doesn't play out that way. As soon as you've won a race against a most wanted car, it starts driving incredibly poorly, often wrecking itself in head-on collisions in its attempts to stay away from you. As a result, what should have been a tense game of cat and mouse frequently turns into you waiting for your suicidal quarry to respawn after a wreck and then hoping that this time you can destroy it before it destroys itself yet again.

Some of the most fun you can have in Fairhaven happens not during events, but just when you're cruising around town. Cameras all over the city track the highest speed at which you zoom past them and show you how your top speed measures up to your friends' top speeds, but these are too inconspicuous and ubiquitous to make dominating any one of them, or all of them, worth caring about. The smashable billboards all over town, however, you will almost certainly care about. Fairhaven is filled with billboards that have the names of EA game studios on them, at least until you drive through them. After that, they become notices about one of the city's most wanted drivers.

If you get more air when crashing through a billboard than any of your friends have gotten, you can take pride in seeing your own gamerpic or avatar gracing the sign. However, if one of your friends has soared farther than you when destroying that billboard, it will be him or her you see displayed, and few things are more motivating than the prospect of smashing your friends' faces and their records, and claiming those little pieces of Fairhaven as your own. If you crave more competition, you can always easily access Autolog recommendations, which keep you apprised of events that friends have bested you at, or that you haven't tried yet, so opportunities for friendly competition are never in short supply.

You can also hop online with friends or strangers for traditional, simultaneous multiplayer competition, but this is frustratingly uneven. Of course, it's fun to host or join a game with friends and just roam around the city, smashing billboards and taking each other down. You can participate in races, team races, speed tests, and challenges, though you can't just start one of these events as a one-off. Oddly, you must do events in groups of five, which are called speedlists. In public games, speedlists are initiated automatically; in friends games, the host can use premade Criterion speedlists, or build his or her own. Particularly in public games with players who are more interested in messing around than completing objectives, a single five-event playlist can drag on for 45 minutes.

Traditional races are great, though the absence of police in online play feels like a missed opportunity, since dodging spike strips, finding the gaps in roadblocks, and taking out cops are defining aspects of the single-player experience. Challenges leave a lot to be desired, however. Though they were great fun in Burnout Paradise, here, their design often makes them a chore. You might head to a specific location only to find that your goal is nothing more interesting than speeding off a cliff a certain number of times, and vague instructions sometimes result in your spending a few minutes just trying to figure out exactly what it is you're supposed to do. Of course, some challenges make coordinating with friends to pull off a strange feat (20 near misses on a bizarre, loopy art installation, for instance) enjoyable, but like the proverbial box of chocolates, until you try one, you never know what you're gonna get.

Despite its inconsistencies and disappointments, there's a lot to like about Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Fairhaven is a lovely and varied city that looks gorgeous no matter how fast or slow you're going. Police chases provide plenty of reckless, high-speed thrills, and seeing friends dominate the billboards in your city fans the flames of friendly competition in an innovative and very effective way. Need for Speed: Most Wanted isn't quite a return to the racing paradise of some earlier Criterion games, but it's a mostly exciting ride nonetheless.


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Pure review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:52 (A review of Pure)

Pure doesn't blaze many new trails, but this off-road racer still delivers an intense, tricked-out thrill ride.

The Good

Breathtaking environments
Trick system is straightforward and compelling
Good track variety
Excellent online play .

The Bad

Doesn't offer much in the way of originality.

All-terrain vehicles are something of a niche interest, but you don't need to care about them in the least to enjoy Pure. All you need is an appreciation for breathtaking environments and intense racing action. In Pure, Black Rock Studio has crafted an accessible, wildly tricked-out game that may feel a bit familiar, but it pulls off its concept so well that you won't mind feeling like you've danced with this lady before.

In fact, Pure has more in common with EA's SSX series of snowboarding games than it does with your typical ATV racer. At the heart of Pure is a system that rewards you for pulling off spectacular tricks with the ability to boost. Performing tricks is simple--you just push a button and a direction on the thumbstick as you soar through the air--but the built-in risk-versus-reward aspect keeps things interesting. Pulling off longer, more complex trick combinations nets you more boost, and you can tweak your tricks with a shoulder button or simultaneously flip your ATV forward or backward to dramatically increase the payoff. But if you don't finish the trick before you touch ground again, you'll wipe out and lose boost, not to mention valuable seconds. And the game's presentation makes it all very visceral. Not only do the tricks look totally insane, but the way the ground flies up to meet you creates a real sense of danger. This makes successfully completing your trick milliseconds before you land exhilarating, while wiping out will have you wincing in vicarious pain as your rider goes tumbling across the rough terrain.

There are three event types on offer. Sprints are the most technical: These short races around small, tight tracks provide scant opportunity for pulling tricks. The focus on maintaining your speed and sticking to a smart racing line keep sprints fast-paced and fun. In freestyle events, tricks are all that matter. You keep going until your rapidly draining gas tank is spent, linking tricks to rack up multipliers and score big points. The tracks are decked out with ramps to provide more opportunities for catching big air, and power-ups are liberally scattered around that refill your gas tank, add a multiplier to your score, or instantly hook you up with the ability to perform a special trick. (More on those in a bit.) Freestyle events are the weakest of the bunch because the trick system--while robust enough for the race modes--isn't as compelling when you remove it from that context and make it stand on its own.

Standard races are the most interesting events because they balance the finish-line focus of the sprints with the need to pull tricks and earn boost. And, you'll need to make some important decisions on the fly. As your boost meter builds up, you earn access to more complex trick types, which, in turn, earn you more boost, so there's constantly a trade-off at work. Boosting is often necessary to pull ahead of your opponents, but draining the boost bar costs you the ability to pull off the more advanced tricks. It creates a surprisingly complex dilemma. There's added incentive to max out your boost bar because doing so will give you access to a special trick. Special tricks are the most outrageous in the game, involving physically impossible (but nonetheless awesome) stunts, such as standing on the seat of an ATV and doing a backflip as it soars through the air. Pulling off one of these tricks will refill your entire boost bar, but they take several seconds to complete, so you'll need to catch some serious air. Landing one of these tricks at a critical point in a race can make all the difference, so it's fitting that they're neither easy to earn nor to perform.

Pure's main mode is the World Tour. Here, you'll start off competing on ATVs with relatively weak, D-class engines, and these early events can be a tad too easy, but the competition gradually heats up as you rise through the ranks. The later stages, which find you racing faster models against more aggressive opponents, are also consistently thrilling. You choose from one of six riders, but there's no functional difference among them. It's all about the ATVs, and as you complete events, you'll constantly unlock new parts for your ride, which you can put together, piece by piece, in the game's garage. Armchair grease monkeys will appreciate the number of customization options Pure offers, while others might find it almost silly--many of the parts have no effect on performance, and your opponents aren't going to take the time to admire your taste in radiator scoops or handle-bar guards. Still, too many customization options certainly beats too few, and the game's autobuild option, which lets you toss together a ride optimized for race or freestyle events just by holding down a button, means you can avoid the business of ATV construction altogether if you'd like to get right to racing.

Aside from the World Tour, you can hop into any single event, though you'll need to unlock tracks in World Tour before you can access them. And the online play, which supports up to 16 players in an event, is outstanding. Even in races with 16 people on the track, the action stays fast and smooth. Again, though, you'll need to unlock performance parts for your ATVs in the World Tour mode to access them in online ATVs, which makes jumping right into online games a recipe for defeat.

Despite taking loads of inspiration from the SSX games, Pure capitalizes on the fact that it is, in fact, an ATV game. Although the action here is far from realistic, the physics feel convincing--your ride will dig into the terrain as you slide through curves, and the dirt roads that make up many of the tracks feel as rough under your wheels as they look. The tracks offer an excellent amount of variety, both visually and structurally--the hairpin turns through the airplane graveyard at Ocotillo Wells in California provide a sharp contrast to the gentle curves that take you through the lush coastal landscape of Kosa Phi Island in Thailand. And the tracks have alternate routes you'll discover that can shave seconds off your time, which makes familiarizing yourself with them rewarding. Still, the action isn't without its rough edges. It's not always clear where the track ends, so you may find yourself going out of bounds and being penalized a few seconds of time when you thought you were just taking a shortcut.

Pure's visuals are nothing short of breathtaking. Every detail, large and small, contributes to bringing the environments to life, from the grass and flowers right underneath your wheels to the roaring rivers you might see frighteningly far below. Your ride also realistically kicks up dirt, splashes through puddles, and leaves tracks in its wake. (Nearly every level has helicopters hovering overhead, and, of course, helicopters make anything more epic.) And the game creates a thrilling sense of speed, without any noticeable drops in the frame rate, even when the screen is filled with other riders. The game's sound is great as well. The raucous rock songs on the soundtrack by such artists as Jeff Beck, Wolfmother, and The Futureheads seem to have been chosen with care to create a cohesive backdrop for the action. The whine of the ATVs is authentic, and there's a sickening sinking sound that makes the game's insane jumps that much more likely to induce vertigo. The only problem with the game's sound is that the narrator tends to repeat basic tips ad nauseam, but thankfully, you can shut him up at any time.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are almost indistinguishable from one another. The 360 version has achievements, while the PS3 version lacks trophies; on the other hand, the larger shoulder buttons on the Dual Shock make it ever-so-slightly more comfortable for tweaking tricks. Ultimately, if you know more people playing one version or other online, that's the one you should choose. Pure isn't the most original game out there, and it might have been nice to see it build on the trick system in SSX instead of just copying it wholesale. But nonetheless, its focus on tricks, boosting, and larger-than-life jumps over gorgeous environments pays off. This is an exciting racing game that seriously delivers on its promise of high-speed, high-adrenaline action.


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FUEL review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:47 (A review of FUEL)

This expansive arcade racer may be ambitious, but it doesn't nail all of the basics.

The Good

Hundreds of different challenges and career races
Cool vistas and weather effects
Some of the courses are clever and satisfying.

The Bad

A big open world with too little to do
AI doesn't play by the rules
Racing lacks thrills.

Fuel is an ambitious game that tries to do a lot, but it doesn't deliver where it counts. There's a lot to like in this postapocalyptic, open-world driving game. Some of the races are cool and clever, there are a mind-boggling number of different courses and dozens upon dozens of different vehicles to drive, and the atmospheric environmental effects make for some fun moments. Yet by focusing on the bigger picture, developer Asobo Studios didn't nail down some of the basics that make for fun driving. The racing doesn't feel as thrilling as it should, the artificial intelligence is fundamentally flawed, and the enormous world gives you precious little to do in it. There's a great game struggling to emerge here, but Fuel's strengths are too often overshadowed by its shortcomings.

Fuel's greatest asset--and biggest liability--is its sprawling open world. Every career event and optional challenge is carved out of the enormous, often gorgeous landscapes. There are hundreds of offline races in which to partake, and none of them are exactly the same. Some of these courses, like the occasional circuit race, are cleverly designed and fun to compete in. Circuit standouts include a bridge littered with ramps and debris, and a course that cuts a winding path through an abandoned farm. Some of the longer, broader courses are also designed well and are even exciting on occasion. Racing a motorcycle down the steep inclines of a rocky cliff and improvising a shortcut through a dense forest (and emerging unscathed) are terrific and memorable moments. It's a staggering number of races--and a healthy list of challenge types as well. There are checkpoint challenges in which you have limited time to get from one point to the next; helicopter chases that encourage you to look for good shortcuts; seek-and-destroy chases in which you need to catch up to and eliminate AI opponents that are given a head start; and plenty more.

Shortcuts are the key to winning most races, though you can't get too carried away with them, lest you miss a checkpoint or try to zoom into the woods in a vehicle that performs better on asphalt. Generally, but not always, the AI racers will stick to the obvious path indicated by Fuel's waypoint system (more on this later), giving you a chance to get creative. And creative you'll need to be when it comes to leaving the bizarre AI in the dust. Simply put, the laws of physics that apply to you have only a vague influence on your artificial competitors. The AI racers seem practically glued to the road at times, taking corners without much drifting and avoiding most obstacles. You may see a motorcycle get stuck against a cliffside and then leap dozens of feet in the air onto the path above. Sometimes, competitors will burst forward at insane speeds, or they'll run out of steam in the last mile of a race, letting you pass right by when they seemed capable of impossible speeds a moment before.

The artificial intelligence doesn't seem to be "rubber band" AI, where the competition is meant to stay close to you and provide a sense of competitive excitement. For example, in endurance races you might take an early lead and race 10 miles without glimpsing another vehicle. Rather, "cheating" seems to be a more appropriate term. As a result, Fuel's difficulty level is all over the place. An easy shortcut in the early moments might lead to a quick lead that you'll never relinquish. At other times, you might seemingly deliver a perfect race, yet still manage to lose. This isn't always because of the AI, however. A few checkpoint and timed challenges are too punishing, requiring not just perfection, but ultraperfection. Mistakes are made even more costly by one more element: To make progress, you must finish first. This inconsistency of challenge can be infuriating, because you might cruise along for a few satisfying races, only to hit a roadblock. You can choose the lowest of three difficulty levels if you're having trouble getting past a particular career race, but doing so earns you fewer stars, which in turn slows down career progression.

Ironically, the enormous postapocalyptic wastelands that inspire the incredible variety of courses and vistas also make Fuel's open-world exploration its least engaging feature. It's certainly a gigantic world--5,000 square miles, according to the manual. But it's a gigantic world that gives you very little reason to explore it. You'll discover liveries that earn you new vehicle designs and paintjobs, and vista points that will also lead to unlockable items. These are scant rewards, however, for the long drives through the lonely world required to get to these scattered locales. You can make things less lonely by taking your free roaming online, in which case you'll encounter other players wandering about in the vicinity. It can be a bit more enjoyable to group up with friends or even strangers this way and go hunting for rogue AI drivers together. However, even if you are able to find other players wandering about (a difficult proposition, given the PC version's small online population), you'll be struck by how little there is to do while free-roaming. It begs the question: Why bother creating such a huge wasteland, if you don't give players much reason to explore it? Certainly, no one would play a massively multiplayer online game if all you could do was jog around looking for new clothing designs.

Perhaps if the driving were more exciting, checking out the world would be a bit more interesting. Fuel's driving model isn't bad--it's just unspectacular. Some of the vehicles are really fun to drive, such as the cool-looking Deathwing quad bike or the bouncy Knightmare dune buggy. Yet while there are occasional exceptions (screaming down the side of a mountain in your Shuriken), racing doesn't feel fast or thrilling. You might glance down at your speedometer to see that you're zooming along at 90 miles per hour, but it doesn't feel like you're going that fast. This is due to a combination of factors: the way the AI vehicles don't bounce and drift around as you would expect, the minimal blur effects, and the passable engine noises that are too frequently interrupted by ticks and sputters. The circuit courses feature more clutter, so they offer a better sense of momentum than the more barren courses, because there are more objects rushing past you than just bushes and sand.

Nevertheless, Fuel does offer occasional bursts of excitement, many of them by way of its cool weather effects, which feature in a number of set-piece races. Sand- and windstorms not only fill the screen with gritty debris--and the speakers with authentic whooshes--but may also lead to scripted events, such as trees falling and partially blocking your way. In one of the most memorable races, an entire tornado weaves about, limiting visibility and toppling towers in your path. The environmental effects are highly atmospheric, which makes certain races much more enjoyable than they otherwise would be.

You'll never worry about getting lost at least, even in the darkest and windiest of races. The GPS navigation arrows will be perpetually in your face, giving you a generally good idea of how to get to your destination. This moving trail of arrows looks rather disruptive at first, though eventually you'll get used to it and even occasionally appreciate its guidance, though you can turn it off if you prefer. Most of the time, it works well enough, guiding you down the path of least resistance (though hewing out a smart shortcut is the best way to win many races). Other times, the GPS just flat-out breaks, trying to lead you across lakes or up cliffsides that no vehicle in the game can navigate. It might even give up completely, pointing to one spot, then pointing back a few feet, and then pointing to the original spot again in an endless loop of inadvertent hilarity. These issues are memorable because they're so blatantly obvious, though to Fuel's credit, the GPS functions rather well considering the scope of the world. In free roam, you can set a waypoint anywhere, though it's odd that hovering the map's reticle over an exact target, such as a livery or a vista point, doesn't place the waypoint directly on that target as it does in most games with such a feature. If you want to be exact, you will need to zoom in on the map and be precise about waypoint placement, which just makes no sense considering that most waypoints you will want to place will be directly at these targets.

Environmental effects aren't Fuel's only visual standout. While there are a lot of plain-looking areas, the game as a whole looks great. You'll glimpse ruined cityscapes, race across snowcapped mountains, and navigate through fallen windmills, and it all looks extremely impressive. Vehicles didn't receive as much attention as the landscapes did; there is no damage modeling, and some vehicle textures and reflections don't look right. Yet the visual fidelity is high considering how much terrain is covered. The long loading times and occasional frame-rate jitters of the console versions are much less of an issue on the PC. However, antialiasing support on the PC is nonexistent; Although there are AA options in the menu, toggling them has no appreciable effect on how the game looks. You might also find yourself vexed by the day/night cycle. Transitions between day and night are abrupt and frequent, and it gets so dark that nighttime driving is an annoyance that comes with no obvious benefit. The cycle was likely meant to make free roaming seem authentic, but it just feels like one more reason to avoid the open world altogether.

Free roaming isn't the only way to play online. You can play career races against other drivers, and it's a pleasure to leave behind the inconsistent AI and take on some real opponents. Playing online can be great fun, and it's also a good way to discover cool new shortcuts to follow in your next online race. Lag is an issue in Fuel, though, causing vehicles to teleport around on occasion and even disrupting the countdown timer. Also an issue is that you are bumped back to free roam after completing an online race. It's mind boggling that developer Asobo Studios didn't allow players to remain together in the race lobby, or at least drop them back to the online menu. Nevertheless, the number of online courses is impressive, and using Fuel's race creation feature, you can add to that staggering list. It's a cool feature, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than dropping checkpoints behind you from within free roam, you place them on the overhead map. This makes it hard to gauge what the terrain is like, which in turn makes it difficult to make a fun and clever course to race on. Additionally, you can't practice on your course against the AI (you can test it all by yourself, though) or limit the types of vehicles available to the players who join. The idea of creating your own race is good, but as delivered, the feature feels half finished, and it's unlikely that most players will get anything out of it.

If you want to get the most out of Fuel, you should plug in an Xbox 360 controller. Other gamepads and wheels may work, but many players are reporting difficulties with their racing hardware of choice. But even given this drawback and others, some players will embrace Fuel's overall ambition. Nevertheless, if you're interested in racing--and there's a good chance you are--then you'll likely be disappointed by the game's shortcomings. Sure, there are a lot of races and vehicles, and there's a huge, unpopulated open world to check out, if that's your thing. Yet Fuel often seems to go out of its way to invite goodwill, only to let you down. If you're the patient type, it's worth checking out, but if you're looking for offroad excitement, games like Pure and Dirt are better choices.


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Juiced review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:42 (A review of Juiced)

There is nothing exceptionally bad about Juiced's design, nor is there anything laudable about it.

The Good

Lots of licensed cars
Team racing mechanic is interesting
Technically proficient graphics
Good soundtrack.

The Bad

Driving model lacks any measure of excitement
Car customization options are pretty lackluster
Career mode is deep but suffers from some frustrating design flaws
Drab tracks and slightly strange-looking car models
The style races aren't fun at all.

THQ's offering to the street racing genre, Juiced, was originally due out last year. The Juice Games-developed racer had initially been picked up under the Acclaim banner, but once Acclaim's bankruptcy became a sudden and immediate situation, Juiced was sold off and subsequently delayed. Thus far Juiced is the only former Acclaim property to get picked up, though after playing it, it's hard to understand what the attraction would have been for any publisher, let alone two different ones over time. Juice Games has certainly made a competent arcade-style street racer, one with a lengthy career mode and online play to boot; but that's all it is: competent. There is nothing exceptionally bad about Juiced's design, nor is there anything laudable about it. It simply exists in an inoffensive and unexciting realm of commonplaceness that makes it incapable of standing out among the pack of infinitely better racers available for any of its chosen platforms.

Juiced's style of driving is more akin to the trafficless, cordoned-off track driving of something like a Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo game than the frenetic driving found in any of the Midnight Club or Need for Speed Underground games, where you'd find yourself dodging traffic all while trying to outwit the city's top street racers. However, the game's roster of cars is made up almost exclusively of the kind of tuner rides you'd find in those games, and the driving is very much an arcade brand of racing, rather than anything realistic. And therein lies the problem. The game tries to throw you into a fast and loose style of driving in an overly controlled and generally bland track style. The few instances of realism in the driving mechanics also rob it of some of its thrill, as you'll have to carefully plot your turns so as to not wipe out (although you'll want to take the game's braking advice with a grain of salt, as it is often inaccurate), and bumping up against other cars has a negative impact in multiple sections of the game, removing that kind of visceral thrill from the picture. The races don't have a great sense of speed, so even when you're busting out with your nitrous tank to blast past the competition, it comes off as pretty underwhelming. What you're ultimately left with is a driving model that's off-kilter and generally not very exciting.

Most of the driving you'll be doing, at least in the early goings of Juiced, is in the career mode. Here's where you'll be doing all the things you're generally supposed to do in a street racer: buying cars, throwing down cash bets on races, occasionally racing for pink slips, and mostly just trying to earn the respect of rival racing crews. Once you start a career, you begin by picking out some crucial details, like your name and what licensed brand and model of cell phone you want to use, and you are immediately challenged to a race by TK, the head of a crew called the Urban Maulerz. Beat him, and you're on your way to purchasing your first ride. The initial selection is scant, to say the least, but as you play, new cars will open up and become available in the game's dealership. Half the point of the game is to build up your collection of cars and trick them out in as many ways as you see fit. Unfortunately, the developers decided to make this a somewhat frustrating process.

Cash is not an easy commodity to come by in Juiced. In the early sections of the game, your calendar of upcoming race events is populated mostly with races that don't require an entry fee. That changes rather quickly as you begin to upgrade your cars and get into events that require cars with higher classifications. And even when you do participate in a free event, it's rarely free, as any damage taken during a race translates into an upkeep fee that you'll have to pay to keep your ride in perfect working order. The races become quite challenging as time goes on, so it becomes increasingly impossible to have any expectation of coming away from a race with prize money. To try to counterbalance this, you can attend events and place bets on who you think will win, or you can bet against other racers in events you're participating in. You can even challenge crew leaders individually to pink slip races, as well as some special challenges, which happen to be the only risk-free events in the entire career mode.

The problem is that apart from the individual challenges, none of these events or bets are any easier, making it even more difficult to get ahead in the game's economic system. You can go from having a nice cache of cars and a good wad of cash to practical bankruptcy over the course of just a handful of races, all because you needed the money to upgrade your cars to win races but couldn't upgrade because you couldn't win the races required to get the money, and you lost cash in the process. It's a vicious circle. Of course, it isn't impossible to succeed in Juiced's career mode, but it's a more frustrating process than it ought to be.

It might be a frustration worth dealing with if the career mode had anything more to it than it does. Apart from a couple of unique things, for the most part you'll be running circuit, point-to-point, and sprint races over and over again. The couple of unique events are an interesting touch, but neither is really that great in the long run. The first thing is the game's team element, which plays into team race events. Racing crews are more than just a logo and a name in Juiced, as you'll be able to pick up somewhat generic racers to join up with you and race alongside you. During single-entrant events, you can opt to have one of your drivers race for you to gain some experience in the process, and during team events, the winner is determined by the team that has all its cars across the finish line first.

While that all sounds well and good, the mechanic itself is woefully underdeveloped. Having guys race for you in certain events is neat, but there's no way to bypass the race itself or even speed it up, so you have to sit through one boring CPU-controlled race after another if you want to up your team's skills. During team races, you have the ability to control the aggression level of your teammates, but only to a minimal degree, and most times you'll be better off just leaving the setting on high, since otherwise your team tends to underperform.

The other unique event Juiced has to offer is a sort of style-based mode where the whole point is to drive around, performing various moves and ultimately impressing the crowd, thus earning you a higher score. While, again, that sounds neat in theory, there isn't a lot you can do here. The tricks range from donuts and 360 spins to just achieving high levels of speed and drifting. In fact, you mostly earn your points by how tricked-out your car is. Cars with more mods and customizations earn higher score multipliers, thus making it a lot easier to get points. What's doubly distressing is that this is the only serious motivation in the game to focus on customizing your cars, as the game just doesn't have a spectacular variety of customizable items. It might have been a more impressive roster, say, a year ago, when the game was originally supposed to come out. But with games like Need for Speed Underground 2 and Midnight Club 3 around, the customization list pales by comparison.

Apart from the career mode, the game features a simple arcade mode, a custom race builder, and multiplayer. The arcade mode and the custom race mode are pretty self-explanatory, and neither is good for more than an hour or two of distraction, at best. The multiplayer on consoles comes in split-screen, system link, and online varieties, and it fares a bit better. The online lets you play both custom and career races, and in the career races you can use your career mode cars and teammates. The online performance is just fine, and the mode itself is decent enough for an online racer, but it doesn't have many features beyond simple competitive racing. Incidentally, the PC version lacks the split-screen functionality, though that's hardly surprising.

Juiced isn't a bad-looking game for the most part, though it has some quirks that drag down its visual presentation. The biggest offender is the tracks, which are beyond repetitive. Every street environment looks exactly the same, as do the few other varieties of environments, so no matter what track you're on, they all might as well be the same one. Also, the tracks are pretty archaic looking, like something you might have seen a couple of years ago in a racing game. The cars are definitely better, but even they have a slightly weird look that doesn't quite look right when compared against the real-life car models. There aren't any technical issues to speak of in the game, as the frame rate holds steady on all three versions, and apart from some jerkiness when your car shifts, the race camera works fine. The PC version is decidedly less impressive looking than the console versions, simply because it looks just like the Xbox version with only a marginally cleaner look.

The audio is pretty much more of the same. The car sounds come off as generic, and the few scattered bits of voice acting that come from the crew leaders isn't very good. However, on the plus side, the soundtrack is enjoyable. Featuring name artists like Xzibit, Paul Oakenfold, Dub Pistols, and Kasabian, as well as a lot of stuff you've probably never heard of, the soundtrack fits the scope of the game nicely and rarely sounds incorrect for the style the game is going for. And, of course, Xbox owners can always use their own custom soundtracks.

In the end, it's hard to understand what, if anything, the developers of Juiced did with that extra year between publishers. The whole thing feels antiquated to the point of obsolescence, and the few interesting things the game does to try to set itself apart are counteracted by stupid problems that seem like they could easily have been fixed with just a slightly different design philosophy. As it is, there's no shortage of street racing games on consoles, and even on the PC, where the competition is less of a factor, Juiced does very little to impress. Regardless of your platform of choice, Juiced isn't worth your time.


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Street Racing Syndicate review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:27 (A review of Street Racing Syndicate)

SRS tries to deliver an authentic street racing experience, but really only delivers an unexciting series of races.

Driving games--especially the subset of driving games that go after the import tuning and underground street racing scene--are on the rise. Thanks to the success of films like The Fast and the Furious and games like Midnight Club 2 and Need for Speed Underground, this subgenre is now in full swing. The British developer Eutechnyx has developed several racing games over the years, including Test Drive Le Mans and Big Mutha Truckers, and now it has an import driving game to call its own in the form of Street Racing Syndicate. The game tries to deliver an authentic street racing experience, but the racing itself tends to be rather unexciting.

Street Racing Syndicate breaks down into a few different modes. Arcade mode lets you choose a car, a race type, and an area so that you can get right down to business. The multiplayer mode lets you race on a split-screen, and it functions pretty well. But the game's depth is found in street mode, which starts out with some inkling of a story but quickly boils down to a fairly standard career mode. Here you'll buy cars, you'll buy parts for your cars, and you'll engage in a variety of races for cash, respect points, girlfriends, or some combination of the three.

When you enter a race, you can also make side bets with the other racers in an attempt to make more money. Money is probably the most important element in SRS, because you'll need it as an ante to enter races. You'll also need it to pay for repairs for your car between races. This makes driving cleanly pretty important, since it's definitely possible to squander most of your race winnings on repairs if you smash into walls and other cars a lot during a series.

The girlfriends aspect of the game is about as shallow as it could possibly be. As you work through your racing career, you unlock respect challenges. Each one is a specific task that is attached to one of the 18 girls in the game. You'll do things like complete checkpoint races, catch air for a long period of time, or follow a car closely without passing or hitting it. If you complete the challenge, you unlock that girl. You'll have to race well to keep girls interested, but bear in mind that you can also steal girls from other drivers by winning races. You can then head off to the warehouse to change girls at any time. The girl you're currently "hooked up" with serves as the flag girl when you race, and she can be lost if you drive poorly, but if you drive well, you can unlock hilariously awful videos featuring these real-life import models.

There are 50 licensed cars in Street Racing Syndicate that come from manufacturers like Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Lexus, Subaru, and Volkswagen. The lack of the Honda brand sticks out like a sore thumb, especially given the fact that cars like the Civic have, for many, become synonymous with the import racing scene. Still, there is a decent variety of vehicles, and each one handles fairly differently.

You can even further alter the way the cars handle by tricking them out. In street mode, you have access to a lot of different customization options, from weight reduction to exhaust systems. The game uses real brands and lets you run your car on a Dyno to get a look at how it's performing in its current condition. Unfortunately, the impact of a part on your car's horsepower, acceleration, top speed, or other statistics isn't shown as plainly as it should be. If you aren't paying close attention when moving from part to part, you'll miss the numbers as they change. A simple "+2" or "-0.4 seconds" that shows exactly what each part does would have been a huge help here.

Once you get through all of the different modes and options that surround today's driving games, the core of them is all that remains. How well do the cars handle? Does a specific car deliver a good sense of speed? Are the other racers intelligent? These sorts of gameplay questions can make or break a racing game. SRS, to its credit, does a nice job of differentiating its cars from one another. The cars also handle well, approaching simulation in some ways but still focusing more on exaggerated sliding physics than on purely realistic approaches. The cars take damage, but the crashes in the game are unrealistic and extremely dissatisfying. The impacts look soft and weak, and the damage done to the car models doesn't move too far beyond a cracked windshield and a loose hatchback. The physics behind the crash are also subpar. Even a head-on collision just results in a slow spinout that, more often than not, merely gives the other three cars plenty of time to pass you. On top of that, you can often avoid the spin by hitting your nitrous button as you collide, thus letting you power right through the crash with only a drop in speed to hinder you.

The artificial intelligence that governs the racers in SRS is pretty good. You get the impression that the other racers are put on equal footing with you, so you won't catch cars suddenly gaining huge boosts of speed to keep races close, and the drone cars won't mindlessly stick to one line as they race. They move around the track like real racers, and they occasionally make mistakes.

If the AI gets old, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of SRS contain online support for up to four players. There are a handful of different race modes, the most interesting being a pink slip race. When you race for pink slips, you can win your opponent's car--or lose yours. It's an interesting risk vs. reward sort of mode that gives meaning to the online gameplay. SRS performs well online, but unfortunately, playing the game against other players doesn't make it more interesting.

Graphically, Street Racing Syndicate has good car models and decent environments. The pavement has that telltale wet look to it that screams "this is an edgy import racing game," and there's a decent blur effect that kicks in when you push the nitrous button. However, the game doesn't have a particularly good sense of speed to it. As a result, 150mph feels more like 50mph. Even the blur of the nitrous boost doesn't help much here. The game is available on all three console platforms, and the differences between the versions are pretty standard. The Xbox version looks the best and has support for widescreen and progressive scan displays. The PlayStation 2 version isn't as sharp, but looks comparable. The GameCube version of the game has a sketchy frame rate and a rather washed-out look.

With all the different exhaust systems in the game, it's nice that SRS has a good variety of exhaust notes. You'll also notice some subtle differences, such as different shifting noises for different cars. Unfortunately, most of the points earned on the good car sounds are nullified by the game's weak music. The music crosses a few different hip-hop subgenres, but the bulk of what you'll hear sounds like someone decided to start a bad Limp Bizkit tribute band. It doesn't fit the action and is, for the most part, unlistenable. While Xbox users can normally find solace from bad music with the custom soundtrack feature, the Xbox version of SRS doesn't have support for custom soundtracks.

There are some decent ideas in Street Racing Syndicate, but the fairly uninspired interpretation of racing in the game makes it pretty boring overall. SRS attempts to "get real" by including parts, a Dyno, and other items that make it appeal to real-life racers, but the uninteresting action on the streets means that you'll probably want to look elsewhere for your underground street racing thrills.


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DiRT 3 review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:20 (A review of DiRT 3)

Dirt 3 is a superb off-road racer that adds some great new features and improves upon its predecessor at just about every opportunity.

The Good

New event types add even more variety to both solo and multiplayer sessions
Difficulty and assist options cater to new and experienced drivers alike
Cars, buggies, and trucks all look great and handle superbly
Fantastic presentation
Supports both online and split-screen multiplayer.

The Bad

YouTube functionality is limited.

When Dirt 2 was released in 2009 it boasted a lengthy and varied career mode, numerous multiplayer options, and uniformly excellent presentation. Its sequel loses none of those things and also makes some great additions to the formula. Split-screen multiplayer is now an option, there are more vehicle classes to choose from, gymkhana events and snowy conditions pose fresh challenges, and new multiplayer modes put interesting automotive spins on some first-person shooter favorites. Dirt 3 brings a lot of superb content to the table, and because it offers a plethora of customizable difficulty settings and assists, newcomers and veterans alike can enjoy its excellent off-road action.

Regardless of which difficulty level you play at and whether or not you take advantage of stability and braking assists, Dirt 3 handles like a dream. There are dozens of great-looking modern and vintage vehicles in the garage, and you race them on all manner of surfaces and in changing weather conditions, but getting behind the wheel of one that you haven't driven before is never a problem. The controls are responsive, and while it's certainly possible to mess up so spectacularly that your ride loses panels and becomes deformed to the point that it's unrecognizable, there are gameplay mechanics in place that ensure you don't feel the need to hold anything back. Even as you hurtle along narrow dirt trails and around icy hairpins, Dirt 3's cars, trucks, and buggies encourage you to push them harder by using excellent audio and rumble feedback to let you know that you're not quite on the edge yet.

Demanding new gymkhana events in which you're challenged to perform tricks in specially designed arenas reinforce how excellent Dirt 3's controls are. In these exciting sessions you score points for crashing through carefully positioned destructible blocks, and for performing donuts, spins, slides, and jumps. String different tricks together to get the crowd pumped, and you build up a score multiplier; display anything other than masterful control by colliding with something, and your multiplier goes down. It's not entirely dissimilar to performing combos in a skateboarding game, except that the tricks are significantly less complex. Stringing successful tricks together against the clock is still plenty challenging, though, and as a result, gymkhanas are great practice for other events. Once you can make a car dance around a cone and slide at speed through a gate or underneath a truck, getting it around a corner in a race doesn't seem like such a big deal.

Every event in Dirt 3, whether it be a point-to-point rally through a Kenyan desert, a head-to-head race in the Aspen snow, or a circuit-based rallycross event that weaves in and out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, demands precise driving. You can get away with a few collisions here and there, particularly if you take advantage of the five flashbacks at your disposal to correct your mistakes, and it's entirely possible that you might find finishing in first place too easy if you're an experienced player. Turn off some of the assists, crank up the difficulty, and switch from cosmetic damage to realistic damage, though, and you'll find that Dirt 3 is exactly as challenging as you want it to be. At the other end of the scale, if you're new to off-road racing and looking for a way into the genre, Dirt 3 has you covered. In addition to the aforementioned assists and other options, it's the first game in the series to offer a dynamic racing line like those seen in both the Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo series.

That racing line can be invaluable as you learn your way around Dirt 3's 100-plus circuits and stages; position yourself poorly as you take a turn or jump over a crest, and you might make a subsequent corner unnecessarily difficult. Also invaluable in the events where she's available is real-life co-driver Jen Horsey, who always delivers the information you need in a clear, concise, and timely fashion. (A male alternative is also available, as is an option to have either co-driver use more complex and detailed language.) If you listen to her carefully, rally stages that wind through the forests of Finland or around the lakes of Michigan don't seem nearly as daunting. You still won't have much time to admire the impressive scenery or to contemplate the foolhardy fans that occasionally run across the track ahead of you, but you're far less likely to wrap your car around a tree or crash through a barrier and into the crowd.

Many of the events in Dirt 3's lengthy Dirt Tour career mode span multiple back-to-back races at the same location, but the game does an excellent job of keeping the action from feeling stale. After finishing the first of three rallycross events in dry conditions, for example, you might race the next during a grip-changing downpour and then the final in wet conditions after the rain clouds have passed and your visibility is improved. And in point-to-point rallies, racing the same stages in different directions can make for a very different experience, especially if you're under a desert sun one stage and having to use your headlights to cut through the black of night the next. Also lending variety to your career is that you invariably have several different events to choose from. The dozens of events that compose the Dirt Tour are organized into four seasons that must be completed in order, but your progress through each season is anything but linear, and you always have the option to return to events that you want to replay in an attempt to improve upon your position or best score/time.

Your progress as a driver is measured in reputation points, which are earned after every event. You score points for podium finishes, for not using your flashbacks, and for completing any team-specific goals. Teams aren't a big deal in Dirt 3; where in some games you're expected to commit to them for entire seasons, here you can drive for a different one every time you get behind the wheel, if you wish. Early in your career only a couple of teams have any interest in you, but as you earn reputation points and level up, more teams (and by extension, more cars) become available to you. Your choice of team before any event is likely to be motivated by its car first and foremost, but the number of reputation points that the team is offering for completing its bonus objectives is also a consideration. Sadly, you don't get to see what the actual objective is when choosing, so your decisions aren't nearly as well informed as they could be. Regardless, none of the challenges are so difficult that you're filled with regret for choosing a particular team; most involve simply reaching a certain speed, finishing with no damage, or making it through an entire event without ever spinning or rolling your vehicle.

On top of the events that form the four seasons, Dirt Tour mode boasts a number of unlockable extras that add to its longevity considerably. For starters, there are world tours specific to each discipline; choose to race and subsequently do well in point-to-point rallies, and you unlock a rally world tour with dozens of those events. Furthermore, you can unlock a playground of sorts in the form of London's Battersea power station and its surrounding area. Here, not only are you free to practice gymkhana techniques, but you can also complete a number of varied challenges to earn extra reputation. These challenges include everything from completing jumps and performing tricks in specific spots, to crashing through fences that divide the different unlockable areas and locating hidden Dirt 3 logos. Visiting Battersea makes for a welcome change of pace, and it's also a great way to prepare for some of Dirt 3's more unusual multiplayer offerings.

In addition to online versions of all of the conventional races, rallies, and gymkhana events, Dirt 3 features some unique vehicular versions of modes that you might already be familiar with. Transporter, for example, is a capture-the-flag game, while Outbreak is an Infection-style game of tag in which your car turns bright green when you're hit by an infected player. Another highlight of Dirt 3's sizable multiplayer suite is Invasion, a game in which you score points for crashing through cutouts of alien robots but lose points for causing collateral damage when you crash through cutouts of buildings. This mode, perhaps more than any other, puts the skills that you pick up in gymkhana events to great use, because you have to be both fast and precise to beat other players to your targets. Some of these multiplayer modes can get a little too chaotic at times (when everyone descends on the flag at the same time in a relatively confined space, for example), but it's still a lot of fun and hugely satisfying to win or even score a single point in a closely contested session.

Split-screen multiplayer for two is also supported, and like the online play, it's practically indistinguishable from playing solo where the game's performance is concerned. The only noteworthy difference is that you don't get the option to drive using the cockpit camera. With the exception of gymkhana events and joyrides around Battersea, split-screen races with a friend in any of the available disciplines (rally, rallycross trailblazer, head 2 head, landrush) can support up to six AI drivers competing alongside you. Advanced options, which are also available when you host unranked Jam Session games online, include allowing custom vehicle setups, forcing manual gears, and choosing between visual and full damage. Basically, whether multiplayer or solo, you can play Dirt 3 however you like; it can feel like a forgiving arcade game, a challenging simulation, or just about anything in between.

Regardless of how you play Dirt 3, there's no denying that, like its predecessor, it looks and sounds fantastic. Despite the fact that you rarely get to stop and admire the environments, the level of detail in them is great, and the cars--while not quite up to the standards set by the best that Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 have to offer--are even better. Seeing these brightly colored vehicles get caked in mud and snow and take believable damage from impacts is a treat, and the incredible noises that their engines make never leave you in any doubt about the amount of power you have at your disposal. Audio is impressive across the board: you get plenty of feedback from whichever road surface you're driving on to let you know how well your tires are gripping, and the licensed soundtrack with tunes from the likes of Chromeo, Drive A, Hudson Mohawke, RJD2, and We Are Scientists is appropriately eclectic and energetic.

Dirt 3 improves and builds upon its superb predecessor at just about every opportunity. The new multiplayer modes and gymkhana events are great additions, and if you're interested primarily in traditional racing disciplines, it has more than twice as many routes to race in more varied weather conditions and in an even greater selection of vehicles. The option to upload replays to YouTube isn't as exciting as it could be, given that you're limited to 30 seconds and there's no other way to save them, but this is a small blemish in an otherwise superb game. Whether you're a veteran of the Dirt series and the long-running Colin McRae Rally series that preceded it, or someone looking for a way into off-road racing, Dirt 3 is the game you should be playing.


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DiRT 2 review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 08:12 (A review of DiRT 2)

If you have any interest whatsoever in off-road racing you'd do well to take this beautiful and thrilling game for a spin.

The Good

Variable difficulty caters to players of all skill levels
Lengthy career mode is tough to put down
Multiplayer is loads of fun and mostly lag-free
Audio and visual presentation is superb.

The Bad

Driver relationships feel tacked on.

In Dirt 2, you assume the role of an up-and-coming race driver who's competing on the off-road circuit against such pros as Ken Block and Travis Pastrana for the first time. That's a daunting prospect, but one of the many great things about Codemasters' latest racer is that you can have a lot of fun with it and end the lengthy Dirt Tour career mode a champion regardless of your skill level. Your opponents aren't pushovers; in fact, they put up a believable fight from start to finish, but the vehicle handling and damage is forgiving, the difficulty level can be altered before every event, and a slick flashback feature gives you the option to instantly replay portions of a race if you make a mess of them. Dirt 2 isn't as realistic as some of the other excellent off-road racers that have come before it, but it's as accessible and exciting as any of them.

Your career gets off to an auspicious start when you're presented with your first car: a Subaru Impreza that belonged to the late, great Colin McRae. Like all of the 35-plus cars in the game, its performance is measured in ratings from one to 10 for acceleration, top speed, and handling. Your rides are relatively slow as your career gets underway, but as you move up through the ranks, you get to upgrade them; not one part at a time, but with the purchase of kits designed for different event types. Those upgrades are mandatory, but you also have the option to tinker with settings before each race, and the good news is that even if you don't know your downforce from your differential, there's a good chance that you can do so with some success. That's because there are only seven variables, which are all clearly explained to you, and there are only five different settings for each. It's not deep, but it's fun to play around with, and any changes that you make are immediately noticeable once you get behind the wheel.

Regardless of whether you're driving a rally car, a trophy truck, or a buggy, Dirt 2's responsive controls are up to the job of keeping your wheels where you need them to be as you navigate tight corners, big jumps, expanses of shallow water, and transitions between loose surfaces and tarmac. Playing with a gamepad is recommended, but even the default keyboard controls work great. Every vehicle in your ever-expanding garage handles differently, but not so much so that climbing out of one and into another is ever jarring. All of the vehicles look great (both inside and out), can be customized with different unlockable liveries and interior decorations, get covered in great-looking dust and mud as you drive them, and can be damaged and deformed beyond recognition if you lose control even for a second. You can choose to play with damage that's purely cosmetic or that'll have an impact on your car's performance, though it's worth mentioning that even if you opt for the latter, the adverse effects are quite minimal. Sure, a wobbly wheel or a damaged engine will slow you down a bit, but you're never going to be limping around the track and fighting to keep yourself moving in something resembling a straight line. It's possible to total your car if you crash headlong into something at high speed, but even that doesn't necessarily have to mark the end of your race if you haven't used all of your flashbacks already.

Depending on which of the six difficulty levels you're racing at, you have up to five flashbacks at your disposal that you're free to use at any point during a race. Using them could hardly be simpler; you initiate an instant replay of the last 10 to 15 seconds, and then resume playing from any point. While not entirely original, it's a great system because even minor mistakes can be extremely costly when you're racing at speeds well in excess of 100 miles per hour with your tires clinging to the very edge of traction. Having to start one of the lengthier eight-lap races over because of a small error would be frustrating, and while the flashbacks might seem like cheating, knowing that you have them at your disposal encourages you to push yourself rather than just get to the front of the field and then drive more cautiously to the finish.

Because your opponents in Dirt 2 want to get to the front of the field just as badly as you and they drive in an impressively believable fashion, you might even use flashbacks as a result of their errors from time to time. Sometimes the AI drivers will collide with you or impede your progress just by getting in your way; at other times, they'll have their own spectacular crashes and you'll have to act quickly to swerve around them. Opponents are less of an immediate concern in the staggered start rally stages, but in just about every other event type, you're going head-to-head with up to seven other drivers whose attitudes toward you (and comments during races) become increasingly respectful as your career progresses. The concept of you having relationships with the other drivers on the tour is an interesting one, but it feels a little tacked on because their development is linked only to your results rather than to how you drive. Forcing opponents off a track into the side of a building should at least be grounds for them to get angry, but once you've befriended them, their only response to your blatant disregard for their safety during an overtaking maneuver is to ask if you're OK.

A more successful element of the Dirt Tour career mode is the way that all menu navigation is handled from within your RV and in the area immediately outside it. This first-person menu system not only adds to the feeling that you're a pro race driver taking part in a world tour, but it also lets you seamlessly navigate both the single-player and multiplayer modes without ever breaking that immersion. For example, the desk in your RV is where you pick your next event on a world map. If you turn to your right, you can step out of the RV to look at the vehicles in your garage, purchase new ones, and check magazine covers for news on the progress that you and any of your friends with a copy of the game have made. If you turn to your left, you find a notice board on the wall where all of the multiplayer options are listed. Unsurprisingly, there's no split-screen functionality, but the online options delivered via Games for Windows Live are impressive to say the least.

Every event type, track, and vehicle that appears in the Dirt Tour can also be selected online. Point-to-point and circuit-based races, as well as staggered start rally stages, are joined by a couple of more inventive modes that, while relatively rare occurrences in single-player, could well end up being the most popular online. The best of these is Domination; in this race, points are awarded not only for your finishing position but also for recording the fastest times in any of the four sectors into which every track is divided. The same number of points (10 for a win, eight for second place, and so on) is available for each sector and for the end result, which makes it entirely possible to win a Domination event without even placing on the podium. That's great because, unlike regular races, it gives you an incentive to keep trying even if you wipe out (or get taken out) on the first corner and have little hope of catching the rest of the field. Last Man Standing is a fun event as well, though because the driver in last place is excluded every 20 seconds after the first minute has passed, finding yourself at the back means you subsequently have to spend a couple of minutes watching your opposition in spectator mode.

Given how superb both the cars and the various environments they race through look, it's impressive that the frame rate never drops below 30 frames per second. The sense of speed is great, whether you're racing through a jungle in Malaysia, across the Utah desert, on the streets of London, or inside a Los Angeles stadium. The attention to detail at all of these locations borders on excessive given how little time you have to take in the scenery, but it makes watching the action replays all the more satisfying--even if there's no option to save them. Dirt 2's audio design is also worthy of praise because while much of your time is spent listening to the awesome revving of your engine and the energetic soundtrack that plays anytime you're not racing, there are also ambient noises to listen out for at every location and the cheer of spectators as you pass them. Perhaps the most impressive audio of all, though, comes courtesy of your codriver who, anytime you take part in a rally stage, does an excellent job of telling you what turns and hazards you're approaching. He or she (you get to choose) does so well that, unlike during other events held at the same locations, you hardly ever feel the need to glance up at the minimap of the course. Furthermore, your codriver will react believably to your driving, so if you slam sideways into a wall, you might hear a scream, while after brushing against a tree, you might be reassured that your car suffered only a scratch.

It's not details like these that make Dirt 2 such a superb racing game though. What makes Dirt 2 so special is the fact that its multiple difficulty levels and forgiving gameplay mechanics make it accessible to newcomers while offering a significant challenge for veterans of Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally series and other off-road racers. There's also the single-player mode that spans no fewer than 100 events (often comprising multiple races), a suite of multiplayer options that includes plenty of different modes and leaderboards, and, of course, your sweet RV, which fills with souvenirs from all of the locations that you race at as your career progresses. If you have even a passing interest in off-road racing, you won't regret a second spent behind the wheel of Dirt 2.


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Wheelman review

Posted : 4 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2013 07:59 (A review of Wheelman)

Wheelman offers plenty of movie-style thrills, although it's hamstrung by terrible on-foot gameplay.

The Good

Slo-mo gunplay can be exciting
Great cinematic chase music
Finely tuned driving controls
Easy to jump between missions.

The Bad

Terrible on-foot controls
Cliched script and dialogue
Short story length
Static environments limit the 'open world' appeal
No multiplayer.

Ever since it was announced as both a movie and video game, Hollywood's influence on Wheelman has been clear. The game certainly panders to action game fans, finally answering the question, "What would it be like to spin a motorcycle onto its front wheel and shoot a truck in slow motion?" While the driving is fun and exciting, the on-foot sections are terrible, mired by poor control and weak enemy AI. These weaknesses prevent Wheelman from reaching its potential, and the uneven 6-8 hour campaign leaves you wanting more good content once the game wraps up.

You play Vin Diesel as Milo Burik, an American driver who arrives in Barcelona to go undercover and infiltrate the city's three biggest gangs. The game works hard to make you feel like you're an amazing driver, empowering you with a number of special abilities that not only help you survive, but look cool as well. You can perform "vehicle melees" using the right analogue stick, swerving into enemies or ramming them from behind. You can also steal civilian cars by "air-jacking" them, jumping from car to car like some sort of urban Tarzan. Then there are the aimed shot and cyclone moves, where you can shoot at enemies in slow-motion from an over-the-shoulder perspective.

These special moves are the most enjoyable part of Wheelman, as they really capture the essence of the Hollywood movies that inspired the game. While they can become repetitive over time, the focus meter ensures that you have to be driving well in order to pull them off, and the steady supply of enemies and police means that you're always under pressure. The control system makes it easy to slide around corners and perform donuts, and the game definitely succeeds in making you feel like a Hollywood action hero.

You can either play Wheelman as a free-roaming game in which you find missions yourself, or you can use the map to jump to the relevant locations. The missions often revolve around escorting, capturing or stealing cars, but there are some particularly memorable assignments, such as driving through a newspaper editor’s office, and smashing up rival advertising billboards. Things get repetitive as you progress, and the game can be beaten in around six hours, but there are optional side missions that extend the longevity and give you an opportunity to increase your focus meter, vehicle health, attack power, and performance. Fugitive missions are particularly good; planting you deep in enemy territory and then challenging you to make it to a safe point alive.

There are only a few missions involving on-foot gameplay, which is a good thing, given how badly the game plays in this area. There's no cover system, so you have to protect yourself by ducking behind objects, and it's a real pain to target enemies and free-aim. Even more implausible is the lack of a jump button, meaning you have to walk around obstacles. The enemy AI is also painfully stupid, positioning itself next to explosive barrels, which are inexplicably scattered in locations that include a church graveyard.

The storyline for Wheelman is cinematically styled, but it's predictable and stuffed with risible dialogue. The gangs are staffed with the sort of thugs you've seen a million times before, and while they often speak in Spanish or Russian, they lack any sort of believable motives or intriguing relationships. Diesel's character is pretty arrogant, although that could be described as his style, and when the whole thing wraps with the tease of an inevitable sequel, you're not really sure who's working for who or why.

Wheelman captures the style of Barcelona for its setting, but it's devoid of the same sense of life. Take La Rambla for example--a vibrant mix of market vendors, tourists and street performers in real life, but an abandoned collection of park benches, coffee tables and generic shacks in the game. That said, Wheelman keeps the pace moving by making nearly everything destructible, even if you're on a bike. On the downside, Vin Diesel's 'good guy' status means that he can't kill any of the civilians in the game, as they jump to avoid getting runover and are completely invulnerable to bullets.

Thankfully, the music fits perfectly, with a Spanish-influenced soundtrack for the game's many loading screens, and an orchestral score that adds to the urgency of the chases. The music is locked when you're on a mission, but you can flick between seven radio stations if you're just cruising around. They're split into genres like classical, urban, and American, and though they lack licensed tracks, the music quality is serviceable. The sound effects are also good. You can hear fan belts screeching from clapped-out vehicles, and the voice acting is much better than the script deserves. On the other hand, the graphics vary from unremarkable to just plain bad, particularly when it comes to the characters. It's hard to believe that Vin Diesel was happy to be represented like this; he has dead eyes, strange lip movements, and rough shadows across his face during many cutscenes.

Wheelman introduces some neat ideas to the open-world driving genre, and when you're moving at high speed, it's a lot of fun. The slow-motion gunplay and air-jacking work particularly well, and really make you feel as though you're blessed with superhuman driving abilities. Nevertheless, there are also some big problems, particularly the on-foot combat and complete lack of multiplayer. If you're a fan of Vin Diesel or movie-based car chases then you'll get some enjoyment out of Wheelman, but only if you can vehicle melee your way around some significant flaws and omissions.


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