ZENO CLASH

Effectively the equivalent of brawling your way through a Heronimus Bosch triptych – of which Chilean developer, ACE Team, were greatly inspired by – Zeno Clash offers a very unique and original take on storytelling, gameplay and, most importantly, presentation, that can both enchant and disturb you along its twisted paths.

Initially released as a Steam download in 2009 using Valve’s Source engine, Zeno Clash can appear to be rather mysterious, if not confusing, in its content and theme. Through the eyes of its rebellious, yet sullen protagonist, Ghat, the player is immediately thrust into the Frankenstein world that is Zenozoik – a cobbled together assortment of everything but the ordinary. One of many children under the looming, birdlike hermaphrodite that is Father-Mother, Ghat is forced to flee his clan after discovering a dark secret about their universal parent that subsequently ends in him taking its life. Assisted by his female companion, Deadra, the two travel far from their home into the unforgiving, violent territories that make up Zenozoik’s landscape, all-the-while hunted by Ghat’s siblings who are hungry for revenge.

Although containing an assortment of crude melee and ranged weapons, this game is centrally focused on first-person hand-to-hand combat, embracing this wholly untraditional style of gameplay with very satisfying effects. Using a simplistic control map (punch, harder punch, block, dodge, etc.), the player is given a lot of freedom to experiment and formulate a fighting style over a series of linear maps that mark each stage of Ghat’s journey, as well as his retelling of the events that lead up to his banishment. The key to Zeno Clash‘s intense combat, however, lies in its firm grounding and brutal placement within this alien world: whilst playing I often felt a rush of contradicting emotions between each combatant, reluctantly delivering the final blow to some, whereas others I felt driven by my own hate and fear to destroy – a good example of this being against the grotesque cannibal, Gabel.

In terms of story, some players may feel a little bit disappointed in comparison to the game’s otherwise bizarre design and philosophies. It is not badly written, as such, however the characters – especially Ghat – can occasionally feel a little lacking and flat, which is not helped by the speed in which the journey progresses (I completed the campaign over a period of 3-4 hours in total). It is important to note that more focus is certainly drawn to the environment and its inhabitants who you will find recycled throughout and, surprisingly enough, happy to recognise in repetition. This close-knit, community feel definitely adds to Zeno Clash‘s atmosphere, creating a sense of isolation, yet intimacy within its cast – if pummeling anyone and everything repeatedly in the face is to your favour, that is.

Overall, Zeno Clash, despite its flaws, is definitely worth experiencing for its creativity and fresh take on first-person combat, combining many elements from other games that inspired its design – a cross between, say, the stage-based fighting of Double Dragon and perhaps the (tamed) brutality and perspective of Chronicles of Riddick – lacking in size and freedom, however. The core factors that support this title definitely lie in its organic and natural feel, which certainly left me intrigued and wanting for more insight into the beautifully dark realm of Zenozoik. After completing its campaign, players are also given access to a Tower Challenge mode akin to Soul Calibur‘s ‘Tower of Lost Souls’, in which Ghat must complete each individual floor of ascending difficulty – a deeply satisfying addition for any player who wishes to test their mettle further within the Zeno Clash universe. I highly recommend experiencing this title, especially so with its highly anticipated sequel’s release at the end of this month.

Buy Zeno Clash from Steam here

Visit the website here

Retro Rewind: Tomb Raider (1996)

I have always been, and probably always will be, a huge PlayStation gamer. However, my particular weapon of choice is the first and the original PlayStation (or PSX) – the world’s first 32-bit console, released in 1995. The range and depth of legendary games available for the system is unrivalled, in my opinion, and I have kept not only nearly all my games, but two working consoles, and I still source games second hand. Anyway, I digress.

This is the first in a series of reviews of those classic games. My first pick is a game that is dear to my heart – the original Tomb Raider.

Before the other games, the movies, the spin-offs, and the reboots, there was this game. I loved it when it came out and I still love it now. As a then ten-year-old girl, Lara was a likeable and relatable heroine at a time when not many of them were around. There have been many debates regarding Lara’s feminist status versus her sex appeal, but she was a strong and confident female protagonist, who just happened to have big boobs (that were later reduced). And sure, the game’s graphics may be completely laughable by today’s standards – consider the iconic T-Rex battle in the third level, The Lost Valley.

Here’s the original:

 

And here’s the 2008 remake:

But in my mind, the dated visuals don’t detract from the game at all. In fact, it’s part of its charm for me. The game is still completely immersive and sucks me right in. So what if the entire game is comprised of boxes and squares around Lara’s height? So what if the textures are tiled straight onto the grid, including the water? So what if Lara’s famous breasts are triangular and they can’t animate her long plait? It’s just polygons!

The environments are still lovingly detailed and lush. The sound design in this game is second to none – the music is used sparingly and in just the right places. The Jaws-like cellos that start off the action theme still never fail to scare the crap out of me. The effects, ambient sound and creature noises are bang on the money. And of course, there is the hauntingly beautiful main theme – hearing it in the pool rooms of City of Vilcabamba never fails to give me chills. The later games became much more action-focused – Lara gained many new abilities and even friends to help her along the way. I still prefer the puzzle-based gameplay, with hints of action every so often to wake you up. The joy in Tomb Raider for me is exploring the levels, soaking up the ambience, and trying not to break your neck doing a tricky jump. I take immense satisfaction in performing exactly the right series of manoeuvres, manipulating the environment to get where I need to go.

This game also has the best story of the lot: a mystical artefact from the lost continent of Atlantis and a fallen god revived in the modern day wreaking her revenge (spoilers!). Lara’s flashback to the destruction of Atlantis is still chilling to this day. The thing I love in this game is that it is genuinely scary in some parts – not just in an oh-my-god-there’s-a-Trex-kill-it sort of way, but in a shivery, skin-crawling way. The moving fleshy walls of Atlantis and the skinless enemies are truly disconcerting. And you can’t tell me you didn’t get vertigo the first time you saw St Francis’ Folly.

Of course, the game still has its flaws. The Save Crystal system implemented for the PSX is a huge pain in the arse, forcing you to save a limited amount of times in certain locations. Later games introduced more lenient systems. Sometimes the camera angles suck, especially if the game turns Lara’s head to look in a certain direction when you don’t want it to. And some levels are prohibitively dark, which was also solved by the introduction of flares in later games. The only ability that I miss in the first game is being able to roll in mid-air, which is very handy in the midst of combat.

Overall, this game is an absolute gem, and a wonderful introduction to the series. The other games are immensely good too, but this one is still my favourite and in my opinion, the most accessible (the opening levels of TRII and III are quite difficult for a novice – hell, even difficult for me!). The levels are mostly short and sharp, which doesn’t let the game get bogged down, and later levels are just difficult enough to enjoy without (much) frustration. I dig it out every so often for a run around, and it’s time for me to attempt another play-through – once I find my PSX memory card!

 

Tomb Raider is still available second hand for PSX (PS2 compatible), or for download from the PlayStation Network. It is also available for PC download, but you will need a DOS emulator.

Borderlands 2

Pandora. A world taken over by Handsome Jack, The owner of the Hyperion Corporation.

ImageImage

You are a Vault Hunter, come to Pandora to find, well, The Vault. But so is Handsome Jack. It is up to you to stop him.

Borderlands 2 is, of course, the sequel to the 2009 game Borderlands, developed by Gearbox Software and produced by 2K Games.

ImageImage

Like the first game, there are different classes that you can play.  They all have their own special skills that you can upgrade as you wish. First there’s Axton, The Commando. Like Roland, from the first game, Axton throws out a large Sabre Turret, which is like having another soldier on the field, and if you beef it up right it will do all the fighting for you. Second we have Maya, the Siren. If you played as Lilith in the first game you’ll remember her ability Phasewalk, well it turns out all sirens have a different ability. Maya’s is Phaselock. Phaselock gives you the ability to hold your enemy in midair giving you time to reload, deal with other enemies, or focus on them. Maya is known as the healer in Borderlands 2 whereas in the first one it was Roland, but if you level up her skills just right her Phaselock can be one of the deadliest weapons in the game. Next there is Salvador, the Gunzerker. In Borderlands there was Brick the Berzerker who when Berzerking, would use his fists to pound his enemies. Well when Gunzerking Salvador can dual wield ANY TWO GUNS. Yes, that means you could dual wield a rocket launcher and a shotgun if you wanted. That is definitely not one little man you want to piss off. Then we have Zer0, the Assassain. This is one of the newest classes to the game. There was Mordecai, who was the Hunter in Borderlands but they are nothing alike. Zer0 has the ability to send out a hologram of himself (Yes it still does damage to enemies) so that he becomes invisibile and can do damage to his foes without being seen. This is a more difficult charachter to master and most people that play as Zer0 don’t exactly understand how to use him but when played correctly he can be one of the strongest characters in the game. And last we have Gaige, the Mechromancer. The newest edition to Pandora. Gaige is a tech wiz, and she has the ability to summon a bot named Death Trap. No matter what tree you decide to level up Gaige and Death Trap are unstoppable.

ImageImage

One thing that was taken from the first game was the importance of loot. Loot is one of the most important parts of game. The higher the level the better the loot. The more people you play with (up to 4) the harder the game the better the loot. There are numerous factors that affect the level of loot you get. Never just look over anything because even if you can’t and/or don’t want to use it doesn’t mean you can’t sell it! Money is also a big deal. Never hesitate to open anything either…there is always some kind of goody hiding inside!

Image

Borderlands was definitely a different style game when it was released in 2009 and of course like all games it had its bugs and glitches but somehow Gearbox managed to fix them, all of them. I have only noticed one glitch in one area and its because the graphics can get incredibly intense. Other then that I haven’t noticed anything wrong with the game and neither has anyone I have talked to about it. Also unlike the first one, Gearbox has given Pandora a complete makeover. Pandora has become a more colorful planet. In the first one Pandora was a very dry, desolate place so very bland colors were used. Once the Vault was opened in the first one an element called Eriduim was being found all over and Pandora became a more beautiful planet.

Image

Also something new that Gearbox integrated into Borderlands 2 was character customization. Sure in the first one you can choose from a basic color palet but in Borderlands 2 you can unlock new heads and skins for your characher. All you need is a customization station and your character can be whoever you want them to be.

Image

Overall Gearbox Software did an amazing job with Borderlands 2. Be careful when you enter the Caustic Caverns because the game will be a bit glitchy but not enough to cause problems. I highly reccomend you give the game a chance. Revisit Pandora, find old friends, meet new ones, and above all save Pandora from Handsome Jack.

STACKING

Double Fine Productions are very much renowned for making games with a hell of a lot of character – most notably in the form of Psychonauts, which has received almost cult status amongst those who have played it. Stacking is certainly no exception to this rule.

Set within the dawn of the industrial age, you are placed in control of Charlie Blackmore, a small Russian doll setting out to free his family from child labour – orchestrated by the secretive and evil ‘Baron’. Using your ability to stack into dolls of larger sizes than yourself, there are a range of logic puzzles and challenges to overcome in a variety of different ways, with a multitude of different dolls. Each doll, it is also important to note, has its own unique ability which can be used to aid your quest – or even to just have a little bit of fun.

The first thing I really noticed about Stacking was how stylised it is: absolutely everything has been tailored to fit within the time setting, down to the costumes, environment and sounds, and all with a brilliant sense of humour running throughout – especially within each doll’s characteristics. There is a lot of fun to be found (and side challenges, known as ‘Hi-jinks’) in demonstrating a unique doll’s ability upon a selection of others – for example, clearing rooms with flatulence, or shouting out childish insults. However, as much as Stacking can make you laugh, it also makes you think. Set within this Victorian era, there are still very noticeable class divides, and in controlling dolls of higher status it is obvious as to which are more accepted within certain areas, or indeed allowed to pass through them.

As much as I can recommend this game, it is important to note that, being classed as adventure/puzzle, it is essentially a series of Find & Retrieve quests which can (more often than not) leave you feeling a little bit lost within each richly-furnished world. For each challenge you are allowed 3 hints to aid you, but with no setback in doing so. In comparison to another puzzle-based game – say, Machinarium – hints and tips are purposefully hard to access, forcing you into really assessing a situation before attempting a solution. With this in mind, Stacking can become repetitive after some time – mostly so when an area is actually complete, but there are unique doll collections to still be found.

Crossing to PC from its Xbox origins, Stacking is definitely an interesting and humourous title to explore. This game is as much about discovery as it is about the actual puzzle-solving – if you are not inclined to seek out each detail and doll within a level, then there is no real excitement to be found, as the true beauty of Stacking lies in its subtlety and the way the environment reacts to a specific action or doll. If, like myself, you do find yourself drawn into Double Fine’s elaborate windows into the industrial era then, by all means, please go out and experience this game! However, those of you who are looking for a fast-paced, thrilling adventure, I’m afraid that you’re reading the wrong review.

Visit Double Fine’s website here

Visit Stacking‘s website here

Buy it on Steam here

NEXUIZ

If you liked Quake 3, you’ll love Nexuiz. No, seriously – it started off as a mod for it back in 2005. Now, updated on CryEngine 3 with a whole range of new graphics, weapons and mutators (think Unreal, but with a lot more variety), Nexuiz has certainly entered the modern age of arena combat.

Right, before I go all fanboy on this game, I’ll deal out some of the faults that I have encountered so far. Firstly, it can crash. A lot. I had to do 3 installs through Steam before I could even get to the menu screen and that’s not just me. It would appear that those of you boasting a shiny new AMD card will get the smoothest experience – the game having been built in collaboration with them (about 10 minutes of company logos on start-up will reinforce this into you a good number of times). Furthermore, it seems that people have been having trouble finding games to join, but I managed to get everything running perfectly and, my God, does this bring back that intensity of the past. A very big concern that I should bring up especially is that there doesn’t yet seem to be a real system of filling player spots in matches. When someone disconnects, no one takes their place. Simple as that. A couple of times I’ve felt compelled to switch teams manually, just to bring back a fair balance. Obviously, this is really an issue that needs to be addressed – and soon!

Developer Illfonic (having bought the rights from original creators Alientrap) did a really good job at finding the sweet spots that worked so well for Quake 3 originally, especially so in Nexuiz‘s pace. You’ve still got your ridiculous run speed and jump height bundled in, making every corridor a deathtrap and every open space a bouncy castle of pain. This is what really sets arena-based games so far apart from any other genre: there is a high level of skill and reaction involved if you actually want to be doing any serious damage – or indeed avoid constant death. I would certainly say that this form of fast-paced combat has been missing in a lot of recent titles, and it’s definitely been exciting to experience it on such a level again – even now I’m typing at about triple the speed, my brain still rushing from the sheer excitement of ‘Quake 3 Still Lives’.

One aspect of Nexuiz I’m not so geared up on, however, are the mutators. I haven’t noticed any kind of tutorial as of yet, but otherwise it seems to be pretty random in selection – please correct me if I’ve been horribly blind here. You’ll receive positive effects, such as infinite ammo and fast regeneration, and even whole team boosts. In some senses, the mutators are almost comparable to Mario Kart, with a whole range of crazy outcomes – enemies take damage when jumping, for instance. Personally, I’ve had enough of my screen being constantly put into greyscale (I’m so sorry, guys – when you all look the same, I’m going to shoot you regardless).

Nexuiz was really a refreshing change for me, and I urge anyone of similar interest to try it out. Of course, there’s no real storyline or plot behind this (red vs blue in space), but there would never really need to be. This is a lovely package of online, team-based combat, packed full of all the usual gametypes you’d expect – capture the flag being a personal favourite of mine. If you can bring yourself to look past its faults and crashes, I think you’ll definitely come to love Nexuiz and the old-style intensity that it so lovingly has crafted. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hell of a lot of fragging to do.

Visit the website here

Buy it on Steam here

TAKE IT OFF THE SHELF: LEFT 4 DEAD

Left 4 Dead: it’s a well-known franchise that, to be honest, I had never actually played – until last week, that is. I was with a friend playing some Xbox when my eyes happened to glance over at his video game shelf. His collection sucked, but I did notice Left 4 Dead sitting up there, hardly touched. It took me an hour to convince him to play it, but once we’d started, we were hooked.

This was the most fun I have had playing video games in a long time. The game play is extremely fast-paced; that “edge of your seat” feeling as hordes of zombies rush at you from every angle. But, before I go on and on, let me explain the game a little bit. You’re a group of 4 survivors stuck in Pennsylvania with one goal: survive. Actually it’s more like escape but, with all escapes, survival is necessary. Additionally,  there are a large variety of different, special zombies for you to take on.

You have the normal horde, which can really suck in large groups; the Boomer, which vomits its bile on you that attracts the horde; the Hunter, which sneaks up and pounces on you, pinning you to the floor; the Smoker – he can grab you from far away with his tongue; the dreaded Tank, which screws over anything in its path (this takes all 4 of you to kill); and the Witch. Don’t piss her off, she will mess you up.

L4D is split up into 4 separate modes: Single campaign, Co-Op missions, Online mode, and Survival mode. In my opinion it’s all about the Co-op missions and Online, where you can just grab a friend and get killing. Individual campaign missions take about an hour to complete and are split into 4 parts, each with their own settings and difficulty. Online play is basically the same thing, except other players are given the chance to take the role of the special zombies and attempt to end the Survivors’ progress.

I’ll admit, I haven’t really completed the single player campaign – as you can tell from my crappy game description. Because, to be honest this game is not really about single player at all. Left 4 Dead is 95 percent about team work. In my opinion that is the campaign – learning to not be an asshole. If you’re the stubborn, lone wolf type, don’t pick up this game, because it’s all about communication and sticking together as a group: if you rush ahead, you’re gonna get killed. If you hog the med kits, you’re gonna get killed (if I don’t kill you first.) Stick together as a team, kill as a team, share resources and you will love this game.

I am hooked on Left 4 Dead and I’m sure you will be too. You can still find it at any GameStop for cheap (probably less than 20$), and it is available on the Xbox, PC, and Mac.

Thanks for reading the first edition of  “Take It Off The Shelf.” Got an old Xbox game you want me to try? Email me at:

tristan.haight@gmail.com

or tweet me at:

@tristan_haight

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad

On February 10, 2009 a Japanese title by the name of Onechabara: Bikini Samurai Squad made its debut on the Xbox 360 in the United States.

A spinoff of the original Japanese title Simple 2000 Series Vol. 61: The Oneechanbara, which came out for the PS2 on August 8, 2004 in Japan, you play as Aya, and if you’re tag teaming with a friend sometimes her sister Saki, as you fight through hordes of the undead and other ghoulish enemies as blood sprays and your Katana fills with blood (make sure to clean it regularly otherwise it becomes useless against your foes!).

When my boyfriend brought the game home I was hesitant to play because all he could tell me was it was interesting, but after giving it a try that really is the only way to describe it. Yes, there are numerous games about zombies and the undead but this was before the era of the Zombie, and although it is an older game ,and the graphics look like they are from the early 2000s the game is definitely worth the time to check out. Although I would typically avoid a game with women in skimpy clothing, the “reason” for the ‘skimpy-ness’ definitely makes the game that much more intriguing, but of course I can’t tell you why! You’ll just have to find out for yourself.