Should I Buy? – LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4


This is a rather special edition of Should I Buy, as it’s being written to commemorate the release of the final Harry Potter film. Still, you all know of J.K. Rowling’s seven book phenomenon, so I don’t need to reiterate the premise or other such details here.

I did review this game before, along with several other LEGO games from Traveller’s Tales. However, they really do warrant being talked about individually so that’s what I’m going to do here.

LHP is the result of the LEGO game formula being refined through its four previous incarnations. And that’s really tangible here. Instead of trying to shoe-horn in unnecessary combat or stray from the events of the books or films to create dramatic sequences to the extent that the LEGO Star Wars games did.

The game derives most of its gameplay through using your various magical abilities to manipulate your environment so you can proceed. While this is hardly new to the LEGO formula, they’ve clearly learnt from past mistakes. While it can still be unclear what you’re meant to do at times, the game cleverly changes the aesthetics of the puzzle enough so that you never really realise you’re only ever using the same dozen or so techniques.

Instead of the traditional hub from which you jump into any of the available levels, the game takes a more narratively structured approach. Once you’ve gone past the first level, you’re free to wander around Hogwarts Castle to your next lesson or level by following Nearly Headless Nick. Or you can simply explore the castle, looking for secrets and unlockables.

A lot of these can’t be found until you learn new spells though, which in turn require you to play through the game to acquire from the various lessons. This means that the castle opens up gradually to you as you play, and at certain times of the plot it’ll be covered in snow or soaked in rain as it was when the events you’re playing through took place.

Diagon Alley is a location that you can return to at any time, and serves as a more traditional hub alongside Hogwarts. Here you can buy characters from Madam Malkin’s, play secret levels at Gringotts, replay levels from the Leaky Cauldron and many more. All of these feel very characterful and shows how much attention was paid to LHP in the design phase. My favourite touch though is that if you want to switch your character while exploring Hogwarts to somebody with a special ability you need, you have to brew some Polyjuice Potion.

There are a few frustrations with the game however. I can understand that they needed a lot of characters for us to find in the huge castle and all the levels, but why would I want to play as a Milkman? Or Harry’s Dragon Task outfit as opposed to one of the six other outfits I have for him? This kind of ‘reward’ is anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

Speaking of which, the levels do suffer somewhat from the lack of external conflict. What combat there is is very simplistic, with all enemies but Dementors requiring only a spell or two to defeat. And even then Dementors only require one hit from an Expecto Patronum, which only certain characters have and takes ages to cast. They don’t show up often either which is something I praised earlier and indeed it’s not something they should have changed but the levels don’t ever feel tense.

They’re also rather short. If the puzzle or solution is not obvious, blow up everything in site until it does. They’re fairly fun and never really dull, but outside of the context of the story, they don’t have the same excitement factor or length that previous titles did.

Still, the game has bosses! Surely they must heighten the atmosphere right? To an extent. They tend to just be puzzles you have to solve while under attack. They’re not terribly complicated, and don’t feel like bosses in the way ones from a Final Fantasy or a Zelda game do. They’re not bad, they’re just not bosses like you’d expect the Basilisk or Professor Quirrell to be.

All that aside, I do still recommend this game. It’s fun, charming and slightly more cerebral than the other LEGO games, though not too much so that a child playing the game couldn’t figure it out with some patience. The only reason I’d say not to buy it is if you’re looking for a way into the Harry Potter universe. It’s taken for granted that you know what’s going on and that knowledge will come in handy. Sure I know to touch Quirrell to harm him, but the game doesn’t tell an uninitiated to.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, then this is a great game regardless of your age. It has a real tangible affection for the source material and the trademark LEGO humour is as strong here as ever.

Price: XBOX 360: £18 (CEX)
PS3: £15 (CEX)
Wii: £12 (CEX)
DS: £15 (CEX)
PSP: £10 (CEX)
PC: £5 (CEX) £19.99 (Steam)

Guest Review – Assassin’s Creed


Assassin’s Creed

Here’s writer Neil’s second piece

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”

Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft was a pioneering title in the whole parkour/sandbox genre of games. The story begins with a brief tutorial with the player taking control of Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, an assassin from the 12th century in the Holy Land. After a few minutes the screen whites out, and we are introduced to our second playable character: Desmond Miles, a bartender in the year 2012. When we first meet Desmond, he is inside a machine called an Animus. T

he Animus is a machine which reads the subjects DNA for memories of their ancestors. This serves as the main plot device in the main story. It is revealed that Desmond has been kidnapped by Abstergo Industries, a pharmaceutical company. They are using him to find a so called “Piece of Eden”, a clue to which is buried deep within his genetic memories. However, whenever Abstergo try to access the particular memory they require, Desmond and the Animus desynchronise. So, in order to build up synchronisation we have to follow the story of Altaïr. What’s that? Convenient for the story? Sure is!

Gameplay consists of several different varieties; Free-running/parkour, intelligence gathering, combat and stealth assassinations.

The bulk of the game consists of free-running, and travelling between the four main cities in the game; Masyaf, Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus. The free-running aspect of the game incorporates impressive motion capture programming as well as real world physics which gives it a very natural feel. If a wall, ledge or foothold looks slightly too far away for it to be feasible in a real world context, then the chances are the same is true in game. However, with the game being set in the middle of the third crusade, buildings are run down enough for walls to be generally easy to scale.

A slight dampener on the free feel of the game is the “inaccessible memories”. Basically these are areas that you can’t access at that point in the game. If you stray too far into these areas Desmond will lose synchronisation with Altaïr. The programming is very unforgiving in this respect, even triggering desynchronisation if knocked into one of these areas by an enemy.
At the start of each mission, Altaïr will have to prove to the head assassin in each town that he is well enough prepared for them to allow him to be able to go in for the kill. This means intelligence gathering. Generally this comes in three flavours; intercepting/stealing documents, interrogating witnesses and eavesdropping. After a few missions this can get very repetitive, and seems to just have been incorporated to draw out gameplay.

The game does allow for players who prefer to go all out and attack things head on, however. With two mêlée weapons to choose from, a sword and a dagger (each having pros and cons depending on the situation), combat works well within its own confines. Although it can feel artificial, with enemies essentially waiting in line to be dispatched by the player, rather than attacking all at once or with any real strategy.

Each mission culminates in a stealth assassination, using Altaïr’s hidden blade. There are obstacles to be climbed and guards to be avoided when approaching your target, with each assassination having different short cuts available for those who can find them. Essentially though, whether you decide to take the stealth route, or charge in is of very little consequence.

After each assassination, you are confronted by numerous guards and forced to either outrun or kill them all before you can go about your business.

Aside from several issues with the pace of the game, the story is pretty decent, albeit clearly only paving the way for the sequels, for which this game is a good jumping off point. That in itself would be a very good reason for you to purchase and play through this game, however you’ll have to take it with a pinch of salt. My suggestion, rent or borrow rather than buy if you can.

Price: XBOX 360: £6 (CEX)
PS3: £6 (CEX)
PC: £5 (CEX)

News – The strangest Final Fantasy ever


I’ve decided that in addition to the tri-weekly reviews to start adding news and opinion pieces to my blog as a supplement. These won’t be on any regular schedule, more of an ‘as and when basis’. I also can’t guarantee I’ll cover every pertinent piece of news going, just what I feel like.

I’ve chosen as my first such piece something that’s not exactly new, but it is something that I find very conceptually interesting. Now those of you who know Final Fantasy will probably know that it can be a pretty strange beast. Since its creation over twenty-five years ago its built up a rich internal mythology of themes, monsters, species, archetypes and injokes that can baffle outsiders at first glance.

This has lead to some pretty trippy games like Crystal Chronicles and Chocobo Racing. Recently it lead to the Dissidia games, a pair of fighters that combined some of the series most iconic characters in epic one-on-one battles. After the release of the second game project leader Tetsuya Nomura (who is also the brains behind Kingdom Hearts and a veteran videogame artist) announced to the chagrin of fans that if Dissidia was to return, it wouldn’t be as a fighting game.

And boy was he telling the truth. Instead it looks like its successor is what Square themselves have described as a ‘theatre rhythm game’. The game in question, titled Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, hasn’t had many details released for it yet but it looks to be the heroes from Dissidia on a quest to restore light to a crystal.

The game is planned for the 3DS, though there’s no word on a release date, plans for localisation or even any gameplay footage. What can be gleaned is that the game requires you to touch the notes on the screen with your stylus, with different colours requiring different techniques.

It’s been announced that fifty tracks will be present in the game, though only a handful have been revealed. It looks like this is intended to be a musical fanservice for fans as the released tracks include series classics like ‘Battle on the Big Bridge’, ‘One Winged Angel’ and ‘To Zanarkand’.

The graphics are appropriately cutesy, with the logo, a traditional emblem unique to each game, basically being semi-chibified version of the Dissidia logo.

Bizarre mashups seem to be all the rage these days, titles like Super Smash Bros Brawl and Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 as proof. And is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy the weirdest of them all? Oh dear Bahamut yes. Do I want it? Yeah. If only for the novelty.

Should I Buy? – Dynasty Warriors 5


Some days you don’t want to dine on fine cuisine, or even on on your regular culinary fare. You just want junk. It’s cheap, quick, tasty and satisying in its own way. And that’s pretty much how I view the Dynasty Warriors franchise. It’s my gaming junk food.

Despite this review being for number five, there’s no need to have ever played the previous entries as each game is set in the same conflict with the same characters, with each game adding in a new fighters and redesigning the maps. The conflict in question is the Three Kingdoms Era of Ancient China, both the actual history and the popular historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Basically, the previous Imperial Dynasty, the Han, fell out of power due to internal corruption and the lack of a strong successor to the line and China pretty much fell apart into a giant, bloody civil war.

And so the game places you in the shoes of one of 48 different fighters who you then lead through a series of historical battles. Exactly which ones is dedicated by the character you pick, with five for your average character and eight if the guy lead a kingdom. The intention was to give each character a storyline based on their historical actions but all too often a character’s actual goals are either so damn vague or gets completely forgotten that ‘uniting the land’ becomes their big ending.

A few characters avert this and almost forge credible storylines. Sun Ce’s story only goes as far as he historically lives, and then hints at the illness which killed him for example, and Zhang Fei’s stops after he rescues his sworn brother from what was historically his death. It’s ones like these that make for the better storylines, as they feel a lot more credible and almost manage something resembling a narrative arc.

Still, with characterisation so broad and voice acting so hammy plot was obviously not a major concern. Instead, this game is all about the battles. And yeah, these work. The maps are well refined and uncomplicated, each one will be teeming with enemies to fight and an effort is made to insert reasonably historically accurate events into each map like fire attacks, betrayals and ambushes.

A lot of these events require player intervention to turn out positively as the people necessary to accomplish them tend to die or fail to reach the required area in time if left to their own devices. While this can be annoying when playing the battle for the damn hundredth time, you’re pretty much doing all the work on every map anyway. If you go out of your way to activate the events that lower enemy morale your allies will start to eat through the enemy forces and kill the generals, but never while you’re onscreen and 99.9% of the time you’ll be the one killing the enemy commander.

The fighting itself is simple. Square is attack. You can mix this up with Charge attacks by pressing triangle. When your Musuo bar is full, press circle to do a really big attack. There are other things like archery and horseback riding that can mix things up, but not enough to ever be important.

The amount of attacks you can string together is determined by your weapon. The only way to acquire new ones is to pick them up from certain crates or defeated officers. Whether or not this weapon will be useful is random, you can get an awesome top tier weapon on your first battle or never encounter anything beyond your base weapon in your entire playthrough. This rarely happens, but it can be incredibly frustrating and really cripple your performance.

For the most part the characters are unique enough for the game to get away with its ridiculous roster size. A few like Xiahou Yuan and Huang Zhong are a bit too similar, and some like Diao Chan feel unbalanced or just plain bad. Their personalities are pretty much all one note as well. Ma Chao is ‘angry honour guy’, Cao Ren is ‘doesn’t like war guy’ and Sun Shang Xiang is ‘tomboy’ etc. Characterisation isn’t too much of a concern, but the game constantly tries to make you care throughout their storylines. At least you can laugh at the bad voice acting.

Despite the fact I’ve spent pretty much the whole review finding flaws with this game, I still recommend it. Like I said, it’s junk food. The gameplay is solid enough to play this for hours and even the battles you’ll see dozens of times like Chi Bi and Hu Lao Gate never get truly annoying. Plus, through playing these games and reading the in-game encyclopaedia I’ve learnt a lot about what is a really fascinating period of Chinese history and that’s always a plus.

Price: PS2 – £3.50 (CEX)
XBOX – £7 (CEX)

Should I Buy? – Dawn of War: Dark Crusade


Now there’s actually three expansion packs to Relic’s Dawn of War, but only one that’s really worth talking about. While the first one, Winter Assault was a so-so standard addition only really significant for introducing the Imperial Guard faction and the third one, Soulstorm, was a rushed, unbalanced, incomplete piece of trash from a different studio. Which is a real shame because it also introduced the perennially overlooked Sisters of Battle and Dark Eldar.

Dark Crusade was almost a game unto itself. Each of the three expansions technically are, they’re stand-alone additions which mean that you don’t need the original to install it or play the campaign, but you do need the Activation Key from the others games to use the factions not introduced in the game in multiplayer.

So why is Dark Crusade such a worthwhile addition to the Dawn of War experience? First off it adds some properly balanced factions, the anime-esque Communist influenced Tau, the tabletop game’s newest addition renowned for their shooting prowess and close combat squishiness and the living metal, soulless automations the VAT Inspect-er the Necrons who themselves were fairly new. Think Cybermen, but competent.

These two races had obviously had a lot of work put into them to differentiate them from the other factions. The Tau, like their tabletop counterparts, use their Fire Warriors and powerful vehicles to decimate the enemies from a distance and rely on their Kroot allies to engage enemies at close range. However, about halfway down their tech tree (gaming term used to describe the progression of research and upgrades in a strategy game) you get to choose which of two military doctrines to follow based on the Tau’s two basic army compositions from the tabletop game. One path gives you access to more close combat orientated choices and are suited to drawn out battles of attrition while the other lets you spam firepower to hit the enemy hard and fast, but doesn’t give you much in the way of defensive options.

The Necrons are even more unique than any other faction. They don’t need Requisition, instead their slow, inevitable rise is embodied by the fact that so long as they have power they can keep building. They don’t have much variation in their units and the strategy is pretty much “wait until you can overwhelm the opposition in an endless tide of undying genocidal death”. Does feel good though.

These factions aren’t enough to make this game worth buying a Dawn of War collection though, this is because of the new campaign. Instead of a set of pre-programmed missions you instead choose one of the seven factions to lead and set about conquering the planet of Kronus. Each of the seven factions wants it for a different reason, and everyone’s fighting each other for it. Even the two Imperial factions.

Each turn you move your army to a different territory to attack and try to take it from the other faction in a battle on that map. Some of these are more important than other, offering members of your Honour Guard for purchase or conferring special abilities onto the controlling faction. After your turn, you can be attacked and the computer will attack itself, not just have all six other factions gang up on you, though they won’t remove any of the other factions from play.

When you invade a faction’s home territory you’re thrust into battle against massive fortifications and several unique challenges. These are huge, characterful battles that fall in the tough-but-fun challenge bracket.

So if that sounds appealing to you as a fan of 40K or strategy, then this is a game for you. And if you are planning on buying it I recommend getting it in a pack with the original and Winter Assault.

And seeing as I’ve said that, I should give a brief paragraph to that expansion. The Imperial Guard focus on large bodies of ordinary men that rely on massed firepower and heavy vehicles to compensate for their poor firepower. While they don’t require the same level of micromanagement as the Eldar, they’re still a more strategic proposition than the Orks or…anybody but the Eldar. The campaign allows you to play as the IG, Eldar, Chaos or Orks in preset missions like the first game while the Space Marines are relegated to cameos and support roles.

Price: £5 – CEX
Dawn of War Anthology: £8 – CEX
Dawn of War Platinum Edition: £9.99 – Steam
(Note: The Anthology and Platinum editions are both the original game and WA & DC, just under different names.)

Should I Buy? Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright


This was originally going to be a follow up piece to Monday’s Dawn of War review by talking about the expansions but I got news that made me delay that.

Capcom, why do you do this to us? You make Resident Evil 4, then follow it up with the much worse and accidentally racist 5. You make like six versions of every Street Fighter and charge full price for them. You cancel Mega Man Legends 3. You announce Ace Attorney Investigation 2 and Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright then say you’re not releasing them outside of Japan. Just as the world writes you off as a giant evil money-hungry megacorp like EA you go and announce that Phoenix Wright as a playable character in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. Now I just can’t bring myself to hate you.

So in honour of that news that’ll be three days old by the time this goes up, I’m going to try to convince you all to buy a text heavy, character focused DS game based on logical deduction and lateral thinking.

The Ace Attorney series originated in Japan as a trio of GBA games that Capcom rereleased on the DS due to their popularity. They also decided to give it a chance overseas, and it proved to be a cult hit. Written and directed by Shu Takumi, the mind behind Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, Ace Attorney puts you in the role of the eponymous defence attorney Phoenix Wright and has you defend people in court.

I know, I know, it doesn’t sound like much but it really is. An exceptional translation turns every character into either a deep, complex and sympathetic individual, a memorable ball of quirkiness and insanity or sometimes even both. Throughout this, rookie lawyer Phoenix remains the quintessential everyman viewpoint character while his assistant (a spirit medium of all things) Maya provides a stable source of emotion and humour.

To give anything more than a vague overview of the plot would ruin several of the many brilliant twists and character beats but what I can tell you is that events conspire to reunite Phoenix with his childhood friend turned ruthless prosecutor Miles Edgeworth while laying the foundations of an entire trilogy of this brilliance. And once the plot of the game is over, you get a bonus fifth case created especially for the DS iteration which is one of the longest and most popular in the series. It even has several new gimmicks such as forensic techniques to take advantage of the DS’ capabilities.

The gameplay can be divided into two sections. The investigation portions wouldn’t get particularly interesting until the Gaiden game Ace Attorney Investigations years later, and instead consist of Phoenix and Maya wandering around various locations talking to characters involved in the case and searching for clues. There’s a few problems with the game not moving on ’til you’ve shown precisely the right piece of evidence to somebody or clicked on some seemingly innocuous piece of the environment.

Where the game really shines are the courtroom sequences. You have to cross-examine whatever crazy witness holds the key to proceeding in the case. This is done by ‘pressing’ a statement for more information or showing contradictory evidence. Tearing apart somebody’s testimony is made even more satisfying by being able to shout “HOLD IT!”, “OBJECTION!” or “TAKE THAT!” while doing this, complete with giant red letters and the characters shouting along with a lot of dramatic finger pointing.

I just hope you like reading, cause you’ll be doing a lot of it.

Complementing the brilliant script is an exceptional soundtrack and absolutely charming character models. If you like your games to have great story or actual thought required to proceed there is absolutely no excuse not to buy this game.

Price: £20 (CEX)

Guest Review – Ocarina of Time


This is a special post, as it’s the first of Should I Buy’s new writer Neil. He’s starting his own personal opinion blog over at: http://corneilius5188.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/annoyed/ too, so go check him out. Also, it’s a celebration of the rerelease of one of the medium’s true classics. Feel free to hunt down the original N64 cartridge online or in stores, but here I’m just gonna list the price for the new 3DS release and the Wind Waker/Ocarina of Time Master Quest bundle for the Gamecube. (Note: the Master Quest version is slightly harder.)

Hey Listen!

Yes, that’s right; it’s time for a review of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If you haven’t heard of this game then where have you been for the past, what, thirteen years? Scratch that, if you’ve not heard of the LoZ series you’ve definitely been living under some kind of rock since about 1986.

For those of you who don’t know, the Legend of Zelda is a long running staple of the Nintendo juggernaut. Each game in the series follows the same basic formula: You play as a brave youngster by the name of Link, the princess Zelda is kidnapped by the evil thief/sorcerer Gannondorf (also known as Ganon in some titles). As Link you must travel across the land of Hyrule in search of the Master Sword, which is the only weapon capable of killing Gannondorf. Are with me so far? Complex stuff, I know.

Now, while Ocarina of Time follows this basic pattern, it’s such a milestone game not just for Legend of Zelda, but the entire medium for a number of reasons. This title was the first in the series to go 3D, giving the game designers wider freedom with the dungeons and puzzles which made the series so popular. It also blended mechanic and plot in ways games had struggled to before and delivering a cinematic experience unlike pretty much anything seen before.

The titular Ocarina of Time is a magical artifact you gain that allows you to play a number of songs with differing effects. Time also plays another role as you’re required to jump between your childhood and seven years in the future. These two things are key to developing the storyline, as Link travels between his past and future selves. This adds more depth to the narrative and offers up two subtly different Links to play as. You can see the juxtaposition between the two worlds, the blissful ignorance of the past and the dystopian struggle of the future.

One of the key aspects of gameplay that is new to this incarnation is the lock on system. With 3D environments giving enemies more room to manoeuvre the Z-targeting system adds a new dynamic to the gameplay that wasn’t in gaming before, though it seems pretty standard now. It makes combat much more fluid and introduces a fairer learning curve. Some enemies can only be defeated using certain tactics or weapons for example, and the dungeon bosses are the best example of this. Challenging foes that force you to rely on a different gameplay technique.

The game contains ten dungeons, spread across the seven in-game years. These consist of classic Zelda puzzle solving as well as introducing newer problems which utilise the 3D aspect of the game. Like the crazy ceiling-walking in the water temple. The old formula is still in use, Link must find a map, compass and boss room key in every dungeon before he can move on.

While this can be repetitive at times, the differences between the dungeons can be refreshing (and somewhat frustrating at times, if you’re familiar with OoT’s Water Temple, you’ll know what I mean). Each dungeon culminates with a boss fight. Each weak to the special item you gained in that dungeon, handy that

As well as the dungeons, side quests and mini games abound in this game. Whether it is trading items with people for a powerful sword, or shooting galleries for quiver upgrades, there are hours of content to distract you from your main quest.

That’s the thing about this game, whenever you play it through you get a sense of freedom. You could rush through all the temples to the final confrontation, not touching the sides on the way. Or you can take a more nuanced approach, finding everything the land of Hyrule has to offer, before continuing with your larger quest.

At any rate Ocarina of Time, in one form or another, is something every gamer should have under his or her belt.

Price: £30 – CEX (Nintendo 3DS)
£14 – CEX (Gamecube)
1000 Wii Points – Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console

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