Should I Buy? – Papers, Please

One of the more interesting indie titles of late, in both premise and execution. You play as a nameless, faceless border control officer of Arstotzka who is tasked with following the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedure that is verifying migrants for entry into the country.

The idea of a game based around checking passport dates and work permits for a dystopian government is a hard sell, but I’m about to try my darndest anyway. The main bulk of the game is in its story mode. Over a period spanning about a fortnight in game, you begin your job and are forced to contend with the ever-changing rules, smugglers, terrorists, recurring characters, a shadowy organisation and the volatile political condition of the world away from your desk.

Much like Super House of Dead Ninjas, there’s a perfect blend  of game-making at play here. Mechanically, the strict time limit to each day, the necessity to pay for food, rent, heating and occasionally medicine for your family of five and wage based on applicants processed juxtaposes with the necessity of taking your time to check, double check and cross reference every last detail of what can be up to half a dozen forms. This ensures you’re always on edge and never quite have enough money to make all ends meet.

Then comes in the moral choice aspect. Some scripted characters have sob stories that may or may not be true, and as the adjudicator of who enters the country it’s up to you whether to deny the possible murderer, or admit the woman who claims to be the husband of the man you just admitted. Nice as it might be to play hero, doing so works against your own interest, as an incorrect entry or denial will cost you money out of your own wages. And the family is so very hungry, your wife is sick and Tiny Timyevski’s birthday is just around the corner…

The world you inhabit is a grim place. As bad as Arstotkzka is, there’s a reason people are fleeing the region enmasse to gain entrance. This is where the game’s narrative strength comes into play. At the end of each day, you get your wages and pay your expenses. Hopefully you can pay for food and heating after rent, but maybe you can’t. Uncle Festeronyev may have to forgo his medicine, if it means the rest of the family get to eat tonight. There are one off events that happen here too that will tax your moral centre, like your niece needing a new home.

There are other events during your work day that serve to create a plot you can participate in, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It does, however, serve as proof that even the cardinal rules of storytelling can be broken. You have only limited agency in the mess that is this region. You’re not the hero of any of the game’s stories. You’re a minor character at best, just trundling along, trying to keep your family alive while others are involved in murder, terrorism, rebellion and desperate romances.

To give the game’s story mode even more recommendations, it also has a branching personal story for you. By making certain critical errors or proving your loyalty to different groups, you can achieve twenty different endings. Many of them are variations on the same event, but others can radically change not just the ending but some of the in-game days. My first play through, I took a large bribe and got tattled on by my neighbours and sent to a debtor’s prison. The second time, I tried being helpful to the scary Ministry of Information officer and got myself arrested and interrogated for my trouble. The third time, however, I got through to the end of the very last day with a squeaky clean record of loyalty to Our Great Arstotzka. Even if Tiny Timyevski and Uncle Festeronyev did die of disease along the way.

If you get Ending 20, you’ll unlock the Endless Mode. In this, you choose one of three challenge types and one of four levels of complexity. In Timed, you try to process as many applicants as possible in ten minutes. Perfection will fail you for making a single mistake. Finally, Endurance sees you earn a single point for every correct judgement, with every mistake losing you a set number based on its severity and ending the game when you enter negative points.

I’ll admit that after finishing the story I just wanted to process some more paperwork, and once you find the challenge and difficulty to suit you, it can have that “just one more game quality” but without the narrative framework and moral complexity, the game loses a lot of its charm.

That said, once you’ve unlocked a day in Story mode, it’s available for reply any time you want form the main menu. And the story is so unobtrusive that any reply of the Story mode doesn’t have that “ugh now I have to do THIS mission and watch THAT super long cutscene” problem a lot of larger games have.

Papers, Please is  a bit pricey for a 5-6 hour Story mode’d indie title at $10, but it’s an intelligent game that deserves to be played and discussed far more than just about every AAA release of this generation. It’s available on both Windows & Mac OS X from Steam &


Should I Buy? – Super House of Dead Ninjas

Before Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure I was never a platforming fan, but I had to try that one out because, well, take a look for yourself:

So I gave Super House of Dead Ninjas a try on Steam when it was their Daily Deal and I am so very glad I did.

SHoDN is a retro throwback to 2d platformers full of fast paced ninj-ing where you die a lot A. Lot. It’s a quasi-sequel to the flash game House of Dead Ninjas, so if you liked that this is strictly an improvement.

The premise is simple. There’s a giant tower full of monsters which many people enter in hopes of finding great treasure, but never return from. You play as Ninjette, a female ninja not looking for fame or fortune but instead investigating the disappearance of the legendary One-Armed Ninja who previously entered the tower.

You progress down the 350 floors of the tower, fighting enemies and bosses, collecting powerups and trying not to die. Ninjette is certainly fleet of foot, and she needs to be as you’re on a timer that summons Death should you let it run out. This is where the principle difficulty of the game rears its head. Taken by themselves, the individual enemies and traps are really kinda easy and predictable. But you need to keep moving at high speed, meaning it’s your own damn fault if you forgot that enemy needs two hits, or you didn’t press the down attack in time, or you weren’t patient enough to wait that extra fraction of a second.

Luckily this isn’t a one-hit death sort of game. You get a large life bar and three continues, with no insta-deaths in the game. Though death is frequent, the fact that it stems from your own mistakes instead of some ridiculous challenge makes it that much less frustrating, and when you’re ‘in the zone’ and kicking ass, you’ll feel like an unstoppable badass.

But this alone isn’t enough to give SHoDN enough replay value to justify the purchase. That honour goes to the horde of unlockable weapons. Ninjette has a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a bomb and a magic spell at her disposal. Each of these has a range of different weapons to unlock and experiment with.  Do you want to use the Katana of Miffed Barbarians for that extra attack power, or will the longer reach and speed of the Taming Whip of Many Nuns win you over?

Trying to unlock all the new toys to play with will give you a good few hours more play time. Some are easy, some very difficult. Combined with the other unlockables like greater ammo capacity and new powerups, SHoDN has a lot to find.

As for the graphics, they’re a kind of pseudo 8-bit that look pretty darn good. They are kinda completely cheating by doing things not possible with 8-bit hardware, but the game looks great and the soundtrack is atmospheric and enjoyable. A free copy of the soundtrack for download is also one of the unlockables, by the way.

The game isn’t really that long. The main tower can be completed in well under half an hour if you’re good at the game, and while there are two difficulty settings and a few bonus areas this game is all about the replay.

The hardware requirements for SHoDN are low enough that you won’t need a powerful machine to run it. Though if your machine is really low end, you may still get some lag. SHoDN is real cheap on Steam, and easily worth the low price for plans of platformers and of hard, retro games.

Should I Buy? – LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7

A brief look back over my posts will show that I’m quite the fan of Traveller’s Tales  series of LEGO games based around famous franchises. I was quite taken with LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 in particular for its emphasis on puzzles and exploration instead of the more linear, simple formula the earlier games had relied on. It wasn’t their best game, sure, but it was a fun experiment. So surely Years 5-7  must be a refinement on the original and a true classic of the series, right? Eh, not really.

It’s not a bad game by any means. It will occupy your time. It’s not that there’s a whole raft of problems holding it back, it’s more that Years 5-7 is just…going through the motions.

It recreates the films pretty faithfully, with the slapstick humour the LEGO games are so well known for. This does lead to some odd choices in order to fill out the necessary twenty four levels, but seeing a they’re pretty much all based around solving puzzles it’s not as noticeable or annoying as with other games.

A weakness of Years 1-4 was that the minimal fighting and lacklustre bosses meant levels often felt free of tension or danger and that’s certainly still present to an extent. There are more enemies added in when it makes sense, but the bosses aren’t really improved much. Most of them are just the same ‘puzzle’ recycled.

There is a true improvement on the combat, though, as Duelling has been added. You and your opponent stand in a circle and have to cast the appropriate spells to hurt each other. Again, it’s recycled without variation and is basically just another puzzle, but it does help to add variety and keep things fresh.

By far my favourite part of Years 1-4 was how Hogwarts was full of secrets to uncover, and as you learned new spells and abilities you could explore more and more. It helped pace the game and  give a real sense of growth to your main trio, seeing as you were almost always stuck with playing as them.  And yes, your characters do have to relearn a lot of their spells and there are special abilities you’ll need to get from buying other characters, but there isn’t the same sense of exploratory wonder any more.

Partly this is because your characters, despite the depowering, still have a large selection of powers off the bat. By the time you’ve played a good chunk of the story levels, you’ll have almost all of them. And finally, either finding all the collectibles is that much easier in this game or I’ve become some sort of LEGO game Zen master. Regardless, I got 50% in under two days without even trying.

My biggest problem with Years 1-4 was that if you needed another character’s skills while roaming Hogwarts, you had to backtrack all the way to a Polyjuice Potion in order to do it. Thankfully, Years 5-7  lets you use any cauldron in the Hub areas as any of the four available potions, and using a Polyjuice Potion gives you a wheel of characters who cover all the skills (provided you’ve bought a character with the necessary skills) to flick between with the press of a button. Problem though, why do I need to use a Polyjuice Potion before I can use this feature? It’s unnecessary busywork.

Should you buy Years 5-7? If it’s going cheap and you want a light distraction or are/have a rabid Potterhead in your life, sure. But it’s not one of the classics of the series. It’s an also-ran. It fixes a few problems of the original but fails to offer anything substantive or new enough to make it stand out.

In Which I Don’t Review Katawa Shoujo

A freeware visual novel/eroge based on the drawings of a doujinshi artist, developed primarily by 4chan users in which the player romances and, yes, sleeps with one of five disabled girls. Oh, and the title’s best translation into English is “Cripple Girls”.

Here’s a link to it.

Depending on what corners of the internet you inhabit, that was either a stream of useless gobbledegook or a series of alarm bells. But I’m here to tell you today that such fears are actually pretty unfounded. I’m not sure I can really say I’m a fan of Katawa Shoujo, but it is a brave, bold game that deserves credit for even trying to tackle its subject matter in the way that it does.

Yes, 4chan looked at porn and said “let us come together to make a respectful game about love, relationships and disability.” Also, dear 4chan users out there, I know I am riffing on the bad reputation the site gets but I know that you and the site are not the greatest hive of scum and villainy on this side of the galaxy. You guys do have some freaky porn, though.

And yes, while I’m addressing things I feel the need to point out two things Katawa Shoujo has. Romance, and sex. If you’re not into romance, then only a real interest in the representation of disability and disabled characters could possibly get you interested in this game. If you’re just here to get your rocks off with the sex scenes, they are both brief and rare. This game is not porn. And finally, if the inclusion of sex is a dealbreaker for you, then…well there’s an option to turn the sex scenes off but I wouldn’t recommend it as the sex scenes help give us insight into the characters and they can be just as important, if not more so than a lot of the surrounding scenes.

Down to business. You play as Hisao Nikai, a third year Japanese high school student who has a heart attack when a girl asks him out. Insert joke here. As it turns out, Hisao actually suffers from a form of arrhythmia and this is just the first time it’s ever amounted to anything. After four months of depressing hospital care, his parents transfer him to Yamaku High School for the rest of his final year, as Yamaku specialises in providing care and assistance for physically disabled students.

While there, events contrive to ensure he meets five girls. Hyperactive sporty Emi (a double amputee with prosthetic legs), artist and all around oddball Rin (who was born with no arms), Student Council President Shizune (who was born a deaf mute), severe social anxiety sufferer Hanako (whose right side of her body is covered in severe burns) and the half-Scottish Lilly (who was born blind). Your actions will set you on the path to a relationship with one of these girls.

I’m no expert on the subject of disability in general or any of the specific disabilities the cast have, so I can’t really say how good the representation of disability is here. From what I can gather, there aren’t any major criticisms people have with this game’s handling of its subject matter from a representational standpoint.

Still, this is the internet and I’m sure somebody does have a problem with it. Nothing jumped out at me, and to be honest the way that the game incorporated both the practical issues of life with these disabilities as well as using them to inform rather than define the characters was what kept me playing well after the point when the saccharine romance was losing its charm.

For example, in Shizune’s path, Hisao starts learning Japanese Sign Language so he communicate with her when her friend Misha (her usual interpreter) isn’t around. He realises how the loss of vocal tone means that a lot of conversational nuance is difficult or impossible and comes to understand why Shizune can be so blunt. He also realises the difficulty in using a rather rigid language to articulate complex thoughts and emotions, and how something like holding a box or eating lunch renders you unable to communicate. Through this, we’re given hints as to why Shizune is the way she is without it ever having to be stated through character conversations or ever outright confirmed as the truth as it relates to Shizune.

Getting back to that ‘saccharine’ comment…Don’t get me wrong, there are external and internal problems for both characters in every romance path that complicate and impede things, but the prose here is rather purple.  Thus, when things are happy or contemplative, saccharine. When they’re downbeat or introspective, angsty purple. While the dialogue won’t win any prizes, it’s not a purple as Hisao’s internal monologue and each character has a distinct voice. A professional editor would gleefully take pruning shears to the script, but it’s by no means unreadable.

Though for a freeware indie title from a team of non-professionals, the production values are rather high. Each character has a range of expressions and poses, the background music is pleasant enough and each path gets its own little animated sequence. The backgrounds do kinda suck, but I can forgive that.

This not a review is starting to sound an awful lot like a review, but I’m not really here to critique or pass judgement on Katawa Shoujo. Instead, what I really want to say is how glad I am that this title exists. Also, SPOILER ALERT.

Yes, each girl does have an ‘issue’ that their relationship with Hisao helps them face. This issue is always ‘letting somebody get close to me’, and may or may not be related to their disability. Instead, it’s Hisao who has to grow and change to ensure the happy ever after. He comes to Yamaku as literally and figuratively a broken-hearted boy, and each of his relationships help him find a way of coping with what he’s going through. And in doing so, he develops the kind of unhealthy trait you get from putting all your eggs in one relationship basket. Then it’s the girl he’s romancing that helps him snap out of it.

Take Hanako. She suffers heavily from social anxiety in addition to her burn scars. When the game starts, the only people she can bring herself to talk to are Lilly and Lilly’s sister and she regularly skips class to hide away in her room or the library. When you romance her, Hisao is too afraid of acting on his feelings for her because he sees her as too fragile for such things and is happy with just taking care of her. When you finally get to the big climactic moment of her arc, she tells you that it’s exactly that kind of condescending ‘care’ that’s stopped her from wanting to enter a relationship with you. She calls you out on seeing her as some scared child, and not a person and equal who, yes, sometimes needs time to herself or that little extra bit of TLC. The only way to achieve the happy ending is to have recognised throughout her path that your smothering approach might not be right, leading to your ability to truly realise your mistake and want to change.

Contrast this to when you’re romancing her friend Lilly. Because Hisao isn’t worrying over how to treat her or whether to make a move on her he treats her much like any other person, but becomes mindful of the fact that she likes her space and that not every silence has to be filled, or every absence checked up on. Because she has this new friend that shows she can interact with the world around her and her past experiences won’t necessarily be indicative of her future, she becomes much more open and outgoing than she started out as. She even joins a club and makes a friend outside of her little trio with Lilly and Hisao, something that is done firmly on her own terms.

Also, with regards to the sex scenes. They’re not porn, or even really erotica. Yeah, there is plenty of amazing first times and simultaneous climaxes to go around but there’s also scenes that are uncomfortable for the characters, whether it’s because they’re not emotionally ready or they’re trying something physical that doesn’t pan out.

And like I said earlier, the attitudes of each of the girls to sex and their actions in the scenes aren’t the sort of stuff harem animes are made of. The sex scenes are, by and large, used to inform the characters. Any titillation is really more a side bonus than an intended effect.

Also also, the  most you’re going to see is some boobs. Everything else just so happens to be out of shot.

Katawa Shoujo deserves to exist. It has earned its place in this world more than any of the dozens of mediocre AAA titles that get shovelled out every year. It deserves to be played and examined and debated. There are plenty of reasons not to like this game, be it the premise, its handling of disability, relationships, sex or female characters, the writing, the setting, the genre or the characters themselves.  But that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a go.

If you’ve got time to spare that is. Seriously, there’s a damn lot of reading to do to get through this one. It can be a good few hours before you even start a romance path. Thankfully there are dialogue skip buttons available in the menus for repeated playthroughs.

Should I Buy? – Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3

I don’t make any secret of the fact that I really like the Dynasty Warriors games and the associated spinoffs, something which is not common among a lot of professional reviewers due to how “formulaic” and “repetitive” the games are.

Usually I take umbridge with those words attached to a Dynasty Warriors game as I roll my eyes and go through the mental Rolodex of redesigned maps, new mechanics, tweaked movesets, overhauled weapon systems, brand new characters or gradual improvements in storytelling each iteration brings. But with Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3  those words really do feel applicable, at least to the game itself.

By the way, if you’re a Gundam fan looking to see if your favourite characters, Mobile Suits, musical tracks or whatever are recreated for you to play with I’m afraid I hadn’t seen a single episode before playing this game so I can’t help you there. Also, I haven’t played the two preceeding DWG games so I don’t know how much has changed for this third installment.  I’m sure it’s a big deal to some of you out there that Ribbons Alamark and Char Aznable can go Mobile Suit-to-Mobile Suit or have Setsuna and Amuro fighting hoardes of Zukos back to back.

Despite the same huge cast of loosely connected characters and frantic button-mashing combat being in place from the DW franchise, this game feels a lot different from the main series.

All the battles take place on a handful of small maps, made up of connected “Fields” that you battle for control for. Whenever one side loses a Field, their special gauge at the top of the screen drops by a certain amount. Once below 50%, an army’s Ace Pilots can no longer respawn and the powerful laser cannons at their Headquarters are powered down, making it that easier to move in for the kill.

In and of itself, this promotes moving fast from Field to Field, taking them from your enemies and claiming neutral ones in a furious, explosion filled tug of war. Thankfully, this isn’t all there is to it, as certain Fields are special bases that confer bonuses to the army that control them and provide incentive to pick a certain route through the battlefield and prioritise your target instead of just hitting everything you come across with laser swords.

Given that the special objectives in missions are both rare and seem to revolve entirely around which random Ace Pilots seem to be on the field (i.e. only Seabook ever gets ambushed by ‘Bugs’ that you have to save him from) this rinse and repeat formula of field claiming isn’t enough to sustain long missions. Which probably makes it a good thing that this game *has* no long missions. It’s always the same few small maps to scrap your way through.

I can’t really call that a problem though, the game doesn’t go all out on a story mode that would make such missions necessary and the fast pace of the game will probably ensure you don’t notice. Given that you’re into effortlessly slicing through hords of giant robots with laser swords on Easy, or mastering combo strings and block timing and emergency dash on Hard, that is.

Often Dynasty Warriors games bore me because their pace can be too slow depending on my mood, so pumping the action to a break-neck  pace is pretty much the perfect method of enrapturing me. Of course, everybody’s tolerance for repetitive missions and button-mashing is different so while it worked for me better than just about any previous DW titles, you know your own limits on the subject way better than I could.

I mentioned the story mode not being up to much above, and it’s really not. Each character (seemingly at random) is part of one of several groups who band together after finding themselves in some mysterious alternate dimension, and start battling over control of several self-replicating facilities. Each group goes through exactly the same motions, so only the characters spouting the lines are really any different. I’m sure all the people forced together by the whims of fate means something to a Gundam fan, but as I said before I don’t have that connection to the source material.

Aside from the story missions (which will probably take you a few days to get all the way through, just going by the sheer number of them), there’s an array of extra ones for specific purposes. History missions let you replay battles from the different shows, Collection missions let you fight themed collections of Mobile Suits to get the Plans for certain types, Relationship Missions let you get a huge boost to your Friendship with certain characters, etc.

Oh yes, Friendships.  You can forge one with each character in the game and levelling it up to certain levels confers bonuses, like being able to call on them for special attacks or unlocking them as either your mission control or a playable pilot. The system for levelling them up isn’t entirely explained and as such seems a bit random, but I can’t really think of a better way it could have been done that wouldn’t have made the production team cry for a week and go on crunch for an extra six months.

The music? The same high octane metal guitars DW games are famed for. The visual design? A cel-shaded approach which often comes off more as a really great 3d anime than it does a cel-shaded videogame. Seriously, it took me a long time to realise it even was cel-shaded.

Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 is no work of art, but it’s a fast, fun experience full of giant robots, laser swords and plentiful explosions. Except for the final boss. Seriously, even on Easy, that guy is some of if not *the* biggest bullshit, fake challenge I’ve ever come across in a videogame. Seriously, fuck that guy.

Should I Buy? – LEGO Lord Of The Rings

Who’d have thought that not only would the  gimmicky idea of mashing up LEGO and Star Wars into a videogame for kids not only work, but endure for nearly a decade without stagnating and branch out into some of the most beloved nerd culture franchises of all time? So far it’s taken on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, DC Comics, Harry Potter, Pirates Of The Carribean and now Lord Of The Rings. There was even that Rock Band spin-off that was actually better than Rock Band (not that that’s hard) .

Oh, and next for the franchise? Marvel Comics. No really, they’re making a LEGO Marvel game that will have over 100 characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Deadpool, Loki and Galactus. I know!

After that? Almost definitely a Hobbit game. Another DC Comics game to capitalise on the planned Justice League film also really likely. Somebody gets these guys the rights to do Doctor Who and Star Trek. Not just the new revivals either, both new and classic versions of both shows should be made into LEGO games.

Anyway, the question you clicked on this link to have answered is “is LEGO LOTR any good?” Rest assured, it is. Maybe not the best, but certainly up there with titles like LEGO Batman 2 LEGO Star Wars 2.

Squeezing Peter Jackson’s three Lord Of The Rings films into one videogame took a fair amount of compression that really shows at times. Sure, all the key scenes and plot points are recreated but this is one of if not the first time a LEGO game has cut out parts of its source material that could have made great levels, rather than expand small action beats into full levels.

This is most readily apparent with the Return of the King section, where Denethor is completely absent, and there’s no night raid on Osgiliath, no attempt to reclaim it, no trying to take over the Black Fleet, no lighting of the Beacons and no battle in the streets of Minas Tirith.

While it is a shame that both these and sections that weren’t in the film like the Barrow Wight aren’t in the game, the levels that are there are fun, varied and of a good length. Unfortunately, not all the characters are as great. Oh sure, their designs are all spot on but some like Merry and Pippin don’t get that much to do while others like Legolas, Gimli and Sam are so incredibly useful you’ll spend most of your time as them.

While it is fantastic that they’ve recycled the audio from the films, with both Howard Shore’s music and the original actor’s voices, none of the voices were re-recorded to make them better match the heavily shortened cut-scenes. It’s not a huge problem, but the flow from one line to the next isn’t quite as natural as it was in the films in terms of emotion or emphasis.

They’ve made a fairly big deal out of how Middle-Earth is a completely free roaming experience, and you can literally walk from Bag End to the Crack of Doom on the world map, passing through all the key locations. It’s scaled down just enough so that it feels big enough to encompass all those locations and secret collectibles yet not so big that it’s a chore to navigate and even if you do feel that way, there’s also a fast travel system in place.

While there’s just about every character you can think of from the films and a few more like Radagast and Tom Bombadil thrown in, most of them don’t have any innate special skills that make them useful in Free Play, and there’s basically no enemy exclusive skills you’ll need to collect so it can often seem like you’re doing it for its own sake.

There is a way to remedy this, however, with the also much vaunted item forging system. By collecting Mythril bricks, which replace the traditional Gold Bricks, and the appropriate schematics you can craft a large variety of items that give your character access to abilities they don’t normally have. By the time you’ve forged a good chunk of these items, you can pretty much demolish the entire game as characters like Arwen, Eomer, Rosey Cotton, Faramir or Lurtz.

But even this throws up a new problem. That’s not an option until you’ve already completed a good chunk of the game and fun as it is to replay levels and the like, a major part of the fun in LEGO games is going back to find all the crazy secrets as characters you love and/or didn’t get to use the first time round. Sure, the inventory system means that almost every character is precisely as useful as every other, but it takes a damn long time for that to happen. Time you’ll spend playing primarily as Sam and Legolas.

To talk about the controls, there are some problems there too. In order to access the inventory, you have to hold down a button to bring it up, from which you scroll through the items which seem to have no real order to them and pick one out. This is often way slower than just quickly switching to an on-hand character.

Also, most Mithril items can only be wielded one at a time and can’t be placed in a character’s own inventory, so every time you want a new one it’s back into the confusing menu. The only items that do get placed in your inventory (other than ones you pick up from the world map in the levels) are the various cosmetic items like the Goggles, Shimmering Armour and Statue Hat.

Switching characters is something which should be perfected by now, but LEGO Lord Of The Rings contains the most infuriating problems yet. For starters, the ‘press button to open character wheel, hold to bring up big menu’ thing quite often doesn’t register that you’re actually holding the button and just plain switches you over to the other character (at least on the XBOX 360 version). This isn’t too bad in and of itself, but when you’re in the middle of a particularly long or difficult platforming section and when you accidentally switch to Samwise waiting at the bottom and the character you were playing as has jumped halfway back to you by the time it switches back, it is really annoying.

There’s also an odd problem where the game seems to want to keep you as having one Hobbit sized and one human sized character at all times, perhaps to further enforce that Samwise and Legolas are the Gods of LEGO Middle-Earth. See, if you’re playing as Legolas but want to switch over to say, Frodo for his Vial of Earendil, the game will switch you to playing as the Hobbit in the player 2 slot and then change *them* into Frodo whenver you’re in Free Play or wandering the world map after finishing the story. Again, this doesn’t really become a problem until you’re in the middle of a platforming section, but they make up a a fair portion of the levels and a huge chunk of the post-story collect everything stage of the game.

None of this is insurmountable or game-breaking, merely frustrating. Oh, and like all the other LEGO games, there’s a fair few mostly harmless bugs to be found in this game.

Again, I feel like I’ve been way too hard on a game I actually really like. LEGO Lord Of The Rings has all the charm and polished design the rest of the series has, and a greater reliance on sight gags has meant they can keep their trademark humour without compromising the serious tone of the story.

There’s a lot of content, most of the collectibles can either be plainly marked on your world map, or are hidden in easy-to-find places and behind puzzles with an obvious start point in the levels themselves, so you can work through it all at a sold and productive pace without getting it done in a few dedicated sessions.

The puzzles and boss fights have by and large been simplified, but giving that this is a series aimed at kids being more readily accessible to both children and people who don’t frequently play videogames is really a plus rather than a negative. Actually, it’s probably one of the most easily accessible LEGO games out there.

In a sense, it is to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy what the Jackson trilogy is to the books. After a long time, finally a truly great conversion to another medium that cuts, changes and compresses where it needs to in order to fit itself into a new medium.

If it being a fun, long-lasting and well designed game isn’t enough by itself, let it be known that what you see below is real in game footage of an item that actually exists.

Should I Buy? – Saints Row The Third

Saints Row II surprised everybody by actually by not only good, but pretty damn funny too. Ultimately the process of grinding the same four or five side missions to be able to play the actual story annoyed me so much I gave up about three quarters of the way through so my expectations weren’t particularly high for the third game.

But rest assured, Saints Row The Third is still fun and humorous. It seems to have taken the sequel trope of “go big or go home” a little too much to heart. You begin the game by robbing a bank and firing an assault rifle with infinite ammo at dozens of SWAT troopers and attack helicopters, and ten minutes later you’re dumped in a new city and expected to take on the kinky mafia, a gang of luchadors and one whose design philosophy seems to have been “what if TRON had an anime series.”

There’s pretty much two games going on here, one is an over the top third person shooter that mixes the afformentioned gimps, luchadors, anime cosplayers and army dudes that seem to have been ripped out of Starship Troopers that, while goofy is still fun and the set pieces manage to impress most of the time.

The other is most of Saints Row The Third, the actual sandbox element. Remember how in GTA: Sand Andreas you could get in shootouts with other gangs to take over areas of the city and expand your gang’s influence? Well instead of doing it all in shootouts, The Third lets you buy up properties and take on special Activities as well.

I say “lets”, but “really, really wants you to” is closer to the mark.  Some of the missions consists of support characters introducing you to the activity as contrived ways of taking on the different gangs of Steelwater, and earning money is an important task. See, missions and Activities don’t pay that much and money is now used to buy upgrades to your character and gang, as well as guns and ammo. Each chunk of territory you take control of both gives you a higher income and cuts down on the number of enemy gang members on the map.

The economy system actually works quite well. You can’t buy an upgrade until your Respect has reached the appropriate level, and even then the increasing cost means you have to pick and choose the upgrades you want. Even by the end of the game, I’d conquered the entire city and bought some top tier stuff but needed rivers more cash to buy up everything.

That said, the upgrade system is not perfect. Some options are just kinda useless, like decreasing falling damage. Any time you actually fall from high enough to take damage, you can just use your infinite use parachute yo glide to safety. Or the ability to get cash from bumping into people. It never seems to top triple digits, and would take far longer bumping into random people to pay for itself than the game actually is.

As for the combat, the range of weapons is quite small. There’s the usual array of weapon types and some of the Special weapons are hella powerful, but not all that necessary or practical. Melee combat is quite fun, if only for the “groin attack” button and Heavy Melee button which sends you into a quick time event of graphic wrestling moves and physical violence. Combat is most of the game, and while not the Arkham Asylum kind of so fun you can play just that for hours on end it’s perfectly functional.

Driving works a lot better than Grand Theft Auto with cars having something almost approaching steering and being able to stand a few knocks. Strangely, the game provides two types of vehicle entry. One, where your character walks up to the door at an agonising pace and risks getting stuck on stray textures and another where you can you dive kick in through the window for half a street away. I see absolutely no reason why you’d ever use the first one.

The Activities themselves are a mix of wanton destruction, psuedo-racing and a few eclectic odds and ends.  Each one gets six different iterations  and in some cases, like the Insurance Fraud this is a shame as they’re inventive and fun. In other cases, like Trafficking (which doesn’t actually involve any drugs) are more just chores you’ll slog through. At least you’re often given indestructible vehicles or infinite ammo weapons for them.

While nothing in the gameplay ever really rises above pretty good, The Third is one of those games that’s very playable. I got through it after two and a half days of dedicated playing and still spent most of the next day playing it with a new character. It’s that same comfortable level of being diverse and competent enough to engage but comfortable enough to be able to half zone out and just unwind.

The story and characters are another matter. I was sad that the lack of different walking animations and reduced makeup options meant I couldn’t recreate my British Joker from Saints Row II, so instead I cranked the age up to maximum, gave him floppy hair, a tacky suit and all the facial scars I could and decided I was playing Evil Mick Jagger.

I grew attached to Evil Mick. The Boss has mellowed from II‘s wanton sociopathy into a more level headed character as part of a plot thread about the Saints selling out and becoming celebrities and losing touch with their criminal roots. The male British voice option is very snarky and enjoyable. The other characters don’t endear themselves as much, however.

Your beginning lieutenants are Shaundi, who is angry, and Pierce, who likes selling merchandise and playing chess. Alter on you’re joined by Oleg, who’s pretty much Team Fortress 2‘s Heavy without the gun, Zimos, some kind of ultra-pimp who talks with an obnoxious golden autotuning cane, Kenzie, an ex-FBI computer genius shut in and Angel, a grimly serious ex-Luchador.

The only ones who made an impression on me were Oleg and Kenzie. Knexie especially, seeing as she was a lazy, anti-social shut in who prefers the company of her laptop. Yeah OK, obvious points aside, there were hints of agoraphobia and such that gave her at least a veneer of depth.

Though you don’t strictly have to, you’ll often want to take breaks from the missions to earn cash, conquer territory and upgrade your skills. All sandbox games run this risk, of being unable to tell a cohesive story because of how stop and start players can be about actually doing the missions. The Third falls into it not necessarily by not keeping things episodic enough, but by being too non-linear.

Strange as that may sound for a sandbox game, as soon as you finish Act 1 you gain access to three new lieutenants, each of whom offers missions against one of the three different gangs and while you’re faffing about with them, the actual plot gets put on hold for a few hours. Not only that, but you can have two actual plot threads going on at once depending on which order you play the missions in. Though I’m glad they don’t lock off the islands until you’re done with each one like GTA, it wouldn’t have hurt to lock off the mission threads into a preset order.

The story works best when embracing its silly aspects and just goes for broke, which is a shame because it too often attempts to be serious. It’s a pleasantly coherent silly that plays it so nobody bats an eye when the city’s crime boss is a luchador with ‘roid rage who never removes his mask, or bats an eyebrow when the military start using laser rifles.

Some final points, but the game is bugged up the wazoo. I don’t know if this is just a problem with the XBOX 360 version or because I hadn’t downloaded any patches, but it was certainly a problem. Characters would get stuck inside textures, Follower AI pathfinding was terrible and sometimes Gang Operations would fail to trigger amongst other niggles. But really, niggles is all they were.

Also, the difficulty levels of an Activity is not always truly indicative. Take Mayhem, where the Hard versions are far easier because you get an infinite ammo rocket launcher, or one Medium version of Escort which is by far the hardest because you start at the airport, where all the one lane roads make it much easier for the news vans to hem you in.

Finally, when will a GTA or GTA  style game include radio stations that actually cater to a wide range of tastes? Even the stuff in the genres I actually like was boring and forgettable. I know licensing pop culture classics is expensive, but licensing nothing is better than licensing 98% crap, as you can tell by playing any Guitar Hero style game after III.

So that’s Saints Row The Third. A flawed and sometimes infuriating gem. If you can overlook the slightly wonky design choices and disjointed story there’s a lot going for it. I certainly recommend it if you want a timesink.

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