Elite: Dangerous – A Gaming Review

Author’s Note: Hey there, first post in a few months – I was busy with my final-year college project and didn’t have the time to write up anything else. Now that I’m free again, I’m planning initially to move back to a monthly update schedule at first and investigate the possibility of a fortnightly schedule in the future.

Until recently, the space combat simulator genre of video games seemed to be moribund. Following the genre’s golden age of the 1990s, where such games as the Frontier series, the Wing Commander and Privateer titles, the Descent: FreeSpace series and the variety of Star Wars space sim titles enjoyed commercial success, the genre had descended into a niche where a few games kept the genre on life support, most notably CCP Games’ space MMO, EVE Online and Egosoft’s X series. Over the last few years, though, it appears that there has been a renaissance of the genre, with several very high-profile games currently in development. This includes the return of two of the masters of the genre during its golden age: David Braben of Elite and Frontier fame and Chris Roberts, known for Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer. Braben’s company, Frontier Developments, has returned to the space sim market after almost twenty years with Elite: Dangerous, while Chris Roberts has established Cloud Imperium Games with the purpose of making Star Citizen.

Star Citizen, known for its phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, is still in alpha, with a full release scheduled for this year. On the other hand, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous was released commercially in December 2014 and has recently received its first expansion pack, Horizons. (As I own, but have not yet played Horizons, this review will focus on the base game.)

Elite: Dangerous follows from the previous game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, set in the year 3300, in a Milky Way where three major factions, the Galactic Federation, the Empire of Achenar and the Alliance of Independent Systems, vie for control of the galaxy. In the midst of this, the player takes the role of a spaceship commander, who was recently, out of the blue, provided with a Sidewinder spaceship and 1,000 Galactic Credits with which to make one’s fortune by whatever means they desire.

The gameplay of Elite: Dangerous, as with its predecessors, revolves around three main aspects: Trading, combat and exploration. With trading and combat, it is possible to make money through both legal and illegal methods, with smuggling and piracy providing opportunities for those so inclined. One of the objectives of the game is to appropriately use your spaceship to make as much money as necessary to buy new spaceships or upgrade existing ones as to best deal with the challenges of the game and achieve success at trading, combat or exploration. The measure of one’s success is calculated by a number of ratings. The combat rating system, where a player starts off as Harmless and attempts to reach the exalted rank of Elite by defeating other spaceships in battle, returns from the previous games, while similar ranks for trading and exploration have been included in Elite: Dangerous.

Notably, the game focuses more heavily on exploration than its predecessors. In Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, the extent to which you could explore was limited by the possibility of critical components failing on one’s spacecraft, while the lack of incentive to exploration other than personal satisfaction meant that it was not explored as much as possible. In Elite: Dangerous, there has been a concerted effort, which appears as if it will continue into the future, to expand and give more purpose to exploration by providing financial incentives and a rank system based on the earnings from exploration, with a colossal game universe that expands on that presented by its predecessors.

Elite: Dangerous continues to use the same sort of first-person, cockpit-oriented perspective as with its predecessors, but updates it for the modern era. The game includes a wonderfully responsive diegetic interface, where holographic screens pop up around the cockpit as the player turns their head and a variety of options can quickly and relatively unintrusively be selected during the middle of travel and combat. Unlike the Frontier games, but like its earliest predecessor, Elite, the game steps away from Newtonian physics and uses a model more like a flight simulator, with a maximum velocity that can be achieved in normal flight and combat, but a Frame Shift Drive which allows for considerably higher velocities when travelling between different astronomical objects in the same system or between different star systems.

The game does, however, retain the model of thrust vectoring that existed in the Frontier games, allowing you to fire thrusters to the left or right for horizontal movement along with thrusters on the top or bottom for vertical movement. This provides a bit of unpredictability in combat, with an experienced pilot able to take advantage of these features to attack from unexpected angles, while also being necessary in order to successfully dock at the game’s space stations.

Combat in Elite: Dangerous is also unlike its immediate predecessors in that the spaceships are a lot more resilient to damage than in the Frontier games, resulting in generally more tactical battles which take longer to resolve. Combined with the flight sim-esque flight model (although this can be deactivated to some extent by choice), combat feels more like a traditional dogfight rather than the jousts that often occurred in Frontier: Elite II or Frontier: First Encounters, along with being more friendly towards newer players as they aren’t sitting ducks until they significantly upgrade their spaceship. As well as this, losing a combat is not punished as harshly as in the previous games, as there is an insurance policy implemented that allows one to buy back a spacecraft of the same specifications as the one they had for a fee of a few percent of the total cost of the spacecraft, or to buy a basic Sidewinder with the same specifications as they started the game with.

Elite: Dangerous takes the first steps in the series towards multiplayer, with an MMO structure and a persistent universe populated by a mixture of AI NPCs and human player characters. It is possible to play the game in a single-player mode or a private multiplayer group, but as various elements of the game will still be dictated by the actions of other players, the game requires an internet connection along with a persistent connection to the game’s servers. That said, because of the size of the game universe, along with the low player count compared to most MMORPGs, it is usually not that detrimental to jump into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There’s also a mode of the game for those who prefer to get up close and personal in combat rather than exploring the universe. The CQC Championship mode is structured more like a traditional first-person shooter in terms of multiplayer, with a maximum of eight players engaging in Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch or Capture the Flag with a variety of spaceships and equipment that gets unlocked as you gain experience and ranks. The ranking system in this game mode is separate to the combat ranking in the main game, which means those who prefer not to engage in that sort of game mode are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

As with its predecessors, Elite: Dangerous has a lot to do, between the multitude of activities and the massive universe. Most of those activities are also quite well-polished, with things working quite well together. However, a common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that these activities are not especially deep and that the game is “wide as an ocean, but shallow as a puddle”. Indeed, in some respects, the game has less depth than the Frontier games, with planetary landing only available (and quite limited at present) in the Horizons expansion pack and a lack of gritty military missions like the photography missions of the Frontier games. There are plans to expand the game much further with expansion packs over the next few years – and perhaps up to ten years – but at an additional cost compared to the base game and with no guarantee that interest in the game will last that long. If Frontier Developments manage to achieve their expansive goals – bearing in mind that Frontier: Elite II took five and a half years to complete in the 1990s and the goals of the developers seem to be set out well – it will lead to an incredible game. At present, though, the game has a lot more potential for development than features currently implemented.

Speaking about polish, something that Elite: Dangerous does get very right is its aesthetic elements. I’ve already mentioned the diegetic cockpit interface, with its context-sensitive menu screens. This is beautifully laid out, but also functional and easy to navigate. The graphical polish here extends to the rest of the game, with beautifully glowing stars, elaborate space stations that look fit for purpose and a range of spacecraft designs which pay tribute to the previous Elite games by being somewhat blocky, but each achieving their own distinctive aesthetic based on their purpose. The game also manages to achieve fairly good performance despite the outstanding graphics; on my AMD R9 290, I manage to achieve 100 or more frames per second during nearly all aspects of the game at 1080p and maximum settings, although there is an issue on AMD cards which can drop performance drastically during supercruise between different planets in the same system.

Another place in which the game excels is its sound design, enough so that I think it’s one of the few places where sound in space is justified despite its lack of realism. The Frontier developers claim that the sound heard by the player is based on what is being picked up by sensors and scanners around the ship and include various pulsing sounds from the ship’s engines, whooshing sounds as the ship prepares for supercruise or hyperdrive, or when scooping fuel from a star and even muffled radio chatter when close to a space station. The sounds that are in the game are exquisite and are backed by a great, yet subtle soundtrack that plays in the background based on various events, including supercruise travel and combat events.

As it is, then, Elite: Dangerous is a solid and beautifully presented title that achieves the goals of being a space simulator in the vein of its predecessors. However, the game has a huge amount of untapped potential, especially with a universe as large as it has. It remains to be seen whether the game can live up to that potential with future development – and whether, with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, for instance, in development, interest can last for long enough for Elite: Dangerous to be given a chance to live up to what it can achieve.

Bottom Line: Elite: Dangerous is a solid and enormously broad space simulator which brings the Elite formula into the 21st century, but lacks depth and has a huge amount of untapped potential with expansion packs necessary to fill the gaps.

Recommendation: Despite previously giving my unreserved recommendation for Frontier: Elite II, a game that is more than 20 years older, I would recommend waiting for a sale if you’re interested in Elite: Dangerous, as you will require a $60/€54/£40 expansion to get the full potential of the game at present.

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Fallout: New Vegas – A Comprehensive Review

Bethesda Softworks’ release of Fallout 3 in 2008 went a long way in reviving a series which looked to have been milked for all it was worth, and brought a new set of fans for the series. Yet, while the new fans were being entertained by Fallout 3, some of the older fanbase – including myself – bemoaned the game for its poor story and dialogue, the liberties taken with the canon, and the disappointing ending. When the development of Fallout: New Vegas was announced, I must admit that I felt a bit of trepidation. Obsidian Entertaiment was composed of members of the Fallout development team when Black Isle was at its prime, but were they the right people to take up the mantle of a new Fallout game?

Fallout: New Vegas directly follows the story of Fallout 2, in a world where the New California Republic has expanded from its beginnings from Shady Sands and the denizens of Vault 15 to absorb and subsume other parts of California and Oregon, including Vault City, New Reno and Redding. The NCR’s expansion plan takes them east, into the harsh and unforgiving Mojave Desert in search of a city which appears to have survived the Great War intact. Their search brings them to Nevada and to the city of New Vegas, its shining lights beaming through the Mojave as in the Old World, and to Hoover Dam, the massive hydroelectric plant still in repairable order. However, as NCR troops enter New Vegas, they are encountered by representatives of three tribal families and a small army of robots, all working under the authority of the enigmatic and mysterious Mr. House.

Trade agreements with Mr. House enable the NCR to redirect power from the dam to the home states of the Republic, along with allowing NCR soldiers and citizens to enter the Strip for recreational purposes. Mr. House also allows the NCR to establish an embassy on the Strip, with the proviso that no NCR citizen could be prohibited from entering the city. However, the NCR’s attempts to repair Hoover Dam are nearly halted in their tracks by the arrival of Caesar’s Legion, a large, organised group of slavers who extol the characteristics of the Roman Empire. An attempt by the Legion to conquer Hoover Dam was only barely halted by the NCR, and the two sides have formed an impasse, with the NCR on one side of the Colorado River, at bases at McCarran Airport and along the river, and the Legion on the other side, in a large fortification known as Fortification Hill, or simply The Fort.

The player takes the role of the Courier, hired by the Mojave Express to deliver a package to Mr. House. However, as the Courier enters the New Vegas area, he – or she – is ambushed, robbed of their delivery package, shot and left to die in an unmarked grave just outside the town of Goodsprings. After being removed from the grave by Victor, a robot of the hitherto unseen Securitron variety, and treated by Goodsprings’ doctor, Dr. Mitchell, the Courier goes out into the Mojave once more in order to retrieve the Platinum Chip that was stolen. The NCR and Caesar’s Legion have assembled their forces for a final showdown at Hoover Dam. The scene is set for a titanic showdown which looks set to determine the future of New Vegas, of the dam and of the Mojave Wasteland.

In the development of Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian drew in elements from the incomplete game which was to have been the third instalment of the main series, Van Buren, with various changes to their implementation to deal with the smaller geographical area. Gameplay-wise, though, Fallout: New Vegas strongly resembles Fallout 3, and could be best described as a refined variant of the first/third-person action role-playing action that distinguished Fallout 3 from its predecessors in the series. The skill set has been cleaned up somewhat, removing the Small Guns and Big Guns categories, and placing their weapons into the Guns and Explosives skills accordingly. The new Survival skill ties into the expanded crafting mechanics, and is of particular concern to the new Hardcore mode, in which the character must eat, sleep and drink, in which ammunition has weight as in the original Fallout games, and in which healing takes place over time, rather than being instantaneous.

In an increased attempt to make non-weapon skills useful, the crafting mechanic has been expanded to include the ability to hand-load ammunition using shell casings, powder and lead at a reloading bench, along with cooking and the production of poisons at a campfire. The reloading mechanic is particularly welcome, allowing for the recycling of excess stockpiled ammunition, as well as the casting of rare ammunition types, including certain enhanced ammunition exclusive to the reloading bench. Meanwhile, the cooking mechanic gives a new use to those boxes of Cram which seem to be littered around the wasteland, allowing a skilled player to produce food which can heal more effectively and, in Hardcore Mode, which satiates the character’s hunger for longer.

Another new addition to the series is the “true ironsights” configurable option, which ties into a general tightening-up of the shooting mechanics. VATS has been weakened from Fallout 3, and in its place, the shooting mechanics feel somewhat more satisfying, at least at long range, where long rifles feel a bit more useful than they did in Fallout 3. Indeed, weapons under the Guns skill feel a lot more capable of getting one to the end of the game than in Fallout 3, and it is perfectly possible for somebody to focus on one weapon skill – apart from possibly Explosives – and to have few problems proceeding onwards.

The biggest way in which Fallout: New Vegas is distinct to its immediate predecessor is that it feels like a character- and dialogue-oriented game, rather than the exploration-oriented approach of Fallout 3. One of my biggest disappointments with Fallout 3 was its rather poor storyline, in which one felt railroaded into a set of actions, even when they didn’t make logical sense for your character, and which worked to the detriment of the rest of the game. Fallout: New Vegas, on the other hand, allows for a greater amount of flexibility with the storyline, with four distinct paths for one to set on, a lot of choices to make in the wasteland, and far more logical consistency than Fallout 3. This does come at a cost, as the start of the game is very linear in terms of exploration, with powerful creatures making progression directly towards New Vegas difficult, but as this approach was taken – albeit more subtly – in both Fallout and Fallout 2, so this will only be a big concern to the players who enjoyed Fallout 3 primarily because of the exploration elements.

Another area which Fallout: New Vegas improves on is the portrayal of its characters. Unlike Fallout 3, in which most of the main characters felt bland or clichéd, Fallout: New Vegas takes more care with several of its characters, giving them a bit more life beyond being simple quest markers. This is of particular note when it comes to the leaders of each faction, and also with the companion characters, all of which possess a well-crafted backstory and a personal quest which progresses their characterisation further. This makes a good comparison to the pack mule approach taken by Fallout 3, and even, to a lesser extent, by Fallout and Fallout 2.

A welcome change to the dynamic of the game is the lessened importance of the karma meter, displaced by the Fallout 2 approach of community reputations, which has been expanded to allow for a broader variety of different reputations. A greater logical consistency is created with NPC reactions, something which felt lacking in Fallout 3. What’s more, this allows for a bit more moral ambiguity within the game universe, a far cry from the rather binary set of moral interactions which resulted from Fallout 3‘s reliance on the karma meter.

Aesthetically, Fallout: New Vegas is not particularly impressive. Fallout 3, also built on the Gamebryo engine, was not particularly graphically impressive when it made its appearance in 2008. With no significant improvements to graphics, Fallout: New Vegas looks mediocre, particularly in the wake of extremely GPU-intensive but especially flashy game engines for the PC in the interim. Sounds are effective, but not particularly striking, and simply serve their purpose without going beyond the call of duty.

Inon Zur’s backing music from Fallout 3 returns, with a few extra tracks added to the mix. Again, I’d argue that this music is just there to create the right sense of ambience, and rarely goes beyond that purpose. Some Fallout and Fallout 2 players will note the return of some of the music of Mark Morgan from these games, but again, this music always seemed to just serve a purpose with the exception of a few tracks which didn’t make it into Fallout: New Vegas.

As with Fallout 3, a healthy number of licensed tracks make their way into the game via the Pip-Boy 3000’s radio. Some players may prefer this music to the standard soundtrack, while others may tire quickly of the repetition of the small library of tracks, but it’s nice to see the option retained. The music also creates the ambience of civilisation within communities, so in that sense, it’s still worth having within the game.

Unfortunately, there is one very negative area in which Fallout: New Vegas has followed in the footsteps of its predecessors. Even with the several months having progressed since the launch date, Fallout: New Vegas is still a buggy game, with graphical glitches and clipping issues still remaining. While the Fallout series has not had a reputation for faultless programming, partially a consequence of its extensive scope, it’s disappointing and jarring to have an enemy – or worse, yourself – stuck in the side of a rock with no way to escape.

The PC version’s integration with Steamworks may also cause problems for some players, particularly those with unreliable or slow internet connections. While the system has merits, and certainly beats Fallout 3‘s connection to the maligned Games for Windows system, it’s not a comforting precedent to have games intrinsically tied to a single distribution service, even if that service is superior to some of its competitors.

Nevertheless, Fallout: New Vegas certainly progresses the series, working on the framework of Fallout 3, while taking more influence from the preceding Fallout games and instituting some of the visions that were planned for Van Buren. Paradoxically, in terms of the series progression, it may have made more sense to term this to be the third instalment in the main series, and have named Fallout 3 something along the lines of Fallout: Capital Wasteland. Either way, Fallout: New Vegas is a reasonably well-crafted and frequently fun game which only suffers from the minor disappointment of persistent bugs.

Bottom Line: Fallout: New Vegas progresses the series nicely, refining the gameplay elements of Fallout 3, while furthering the canon of and taking influence from the first two Fallout games. Bugs are still a present and frustrating element of the series.

Recommendation: Fans of Fallout 3 may be mixed on the game, with its emphasis of dialogue and social interaction over exploration. Nevertheless, it’s worth a try, especially on the rental-friendly Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms. Fans of the first Fallout games will get more out of this than Fallout 3, and should buy the game.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn – A Comprehensive Gaming Review

Camelot Software Planning’s Golden Sun, released in 2001, along with its 2003 sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, was among the most critically acclaimed games on the Game Boy Advance, and represented one of the best RPG experiences seen on a handheld console. A dedicated group of followers grew up around the series, waiting patiently for a sequel to the first two games. In late 2010, their waiting paid off, with the release of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for the Nintendo DS.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is set thirty years after the Golden Sun event, caused by the relighting of the Elemental Lighthouses which held the secret to Alchemy, a powerful force which held the world of Weyard together. The protagonists of the first two games became world-renowned heroes, known as the Warriors of Vale. Two of the protagonists, Isaac and Garet, live on Mount Aleph, the former home of Sol Sanctum, a holding place for the Elemental Stars which held the trapped forces of Alchemy when the Elemental Lighthouses were extinguished.

Alchemy rules Weyard again, saving the world from imminent destruction, but creating other problems at the same time. Firstly, the revival of Alchemy has forged empires which seek to control the world, and some of which have begun fighting for control of the world. Secondly, the release of power from the Golden Sun event drastically changed the conformation of Weyard, causing entire sections of the world to be completely redefined, along with the formation of Psynergy Vortexes, which suck away alchemical power from the world – and the Adepts which can manipulate Psynergy, the manifestation of this alchemical power.

Isaac and Garet live with their two sons, Matthew and Tyrell, protecting the ruins of the erupted Mount Aleph from the world. The daughter of Ivan, another of the protagonists of the first two games, has joined them. When Tyrell, in a moment of rashness, destroys the Psynergy-driven soarwing which Isaac and Garet use to explore the ruined mountain, Matthew, Tyrell and Karis are told to journey to find a feather from the legendary Mountain Roc in order to repair it. However, their journey soon becomes fraught with trouble, and they end up in a scenario which could decide the fate of Weyard once again.

If the above summation has confused you, don’t despair: While the game’s plot is easier to understand if you have played the first two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is largely self-contained, and it’s possible to play it without any knowledge of the prequels. That said, you’ll probably enjoy the game quite a bit more with prior knowledge of the series.

Gameplay-wise, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is very similar to its predecessors, with a standard turn-based system differentiated through the use of Djinn, small creatures linked to the elements and granting additional power to characters. As with previous instalments of the series, the Djinn can also be set to enable powerful summon attacks, and different selections of Djinn on different characters can unlock powerful master classes such as Ninja or Samurai. A few minor changes have been made to combat as a whole; all weapons now have special critical hit actions which become enabled as the characters become more experienced with the weapons, and the inclusion of bows into the weapon mix adds a bit more variety to weapon selection. What’s more, a character targeting a creature which has been previously destroyed doesn’t automatically defend, removing an outdated and irritating element of the original games.

As befits the move to the more powerful Nintendo DS platform, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has undergone a substantial improvement in graphics over the Game Boy Advance instalments. Full 3D graphics replace the isometric sprite-based graphics of the original game, but thankfully, the game retains the vibrant, vivid colours of the original games. It makes a good counterpoint to the “real is brown” movement found in too many games today.

Another aesthetic element where Golden Sun: Dark Dawn invokes memories of its antecedents is in the exciting soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba. While the soundtrack isn’t as technically impressive as the ones in the first two games, where amazing things were done with the relatively crude sound systems of the Game Boy Advance, the music in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is just as enchanting. The soaring main theme has been remixed, and the energetic battle themes and atmospheric music in the dungeons, towns and overworld tops off an excellent set of music.

All of these features will come as welcome additions to the game by existing fans of the series. The Psynergy-based puzzle gameplay is also retained, although this is where the game starts to show a little weakness – none of the puzzles is particularly difficult. While this means that there is no tedious analogue to the second game’s Air’s Rock, it’s still a bit disappointing to see the puzzles take such a drastic drop in difficulty, particularly given that Golden Sun demonstrated the use of its equivalent of magic outside of combat, a logical step which surprisingly few JRPGs have taken.

It’s not just the puzzles which have become less difficult – the combat has taken a step down in difficulty as well. There aren’t as many bosses as before, and most of them can be dispatched without much difficulty, making the summon features of the Djinn look quite a bit less important than in previous instalments.

The plot isn’t the most riveting in the genre either. While it will satisfy fans of the series, who will be happy to discover what happened in the years after the Golden Sun event, but the game takes a while to really build up and ends rather abruptly with a pretty obvious sequel hook. The antagonists aren’t properly defined until the end of the game, and even then, a lot of questions are left unanswered by the end of the game. This isn’t through lack of dialogue either, which shows up in pretty hefty quantities throughout Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.

Ultimately, though, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is still a fun game and an enjoyable experience. It may not be the strongest entry in the series, but it still manages to capture a lot of what made the first two games worth playing. It does appear that the game is more targeted towards the fans, who will be more equipped to understand certain elements of the story, but the game is still a serviceable JRPG nevertheless.

Bottom Line: More of a game for the existing fans than any new audience, but still a decent JRPG regardless.

Recommendation: Fans of the series should consider buying Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, while people who haven’t played the previous games might want to wait for the price to drop.

ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead – A Comprehensive Review

Since the breakout success of 2001’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, Bohemia Interactive have found themselves at the forefront of the military simulator genre. Building on the experience gained with their previous games, the developer has been able to present an increasingly authentic and realistic picture of modern combined-arms combat, and have even been involved in the development of fully-featured military simulators for the world’s militaries.

ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead is the latest game from Bohemia Interactive, set in the fictional country of Takistan. Task Force Knight, a detachment of the United States Army, has entered the country with the aim of deposing the previously USSR-backed socialist regime which has threatened the neighbouring country of Karzeghistan with the use of chemical weapons in an attempt to secure a vital piece of oil-rich land. The player takes control of four personnel in Task Force Knight, from a rifleman in the airborne infantry to an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot.

Operation Arrowhead is marketed as a stand-alone expansion to ARMA 2 which can also be integrated with the content of the original game. This seems to be a sensible marketing decision by Bohemia Interactive, allowing new players to immediately experience the new content without having to purchase both titles, while also enabling players of ARMA 2 to carry over their data from the original game into a more expansive package.

The changes which Operation Arrowhead makes to the game engine are more evolutionary than revolutionary, with new features such as the ability to adjust gun sights to compensate for bullet drop, a variety of new weapons, including several variants of the FN SCAR, and a fully-comprehensive simulation of thermal imaging sights taken from the VBS line of professional military simulators. Along with this, the game comes with three new maps from the country of Takistan, with far-stretching deserts, mountain ranges and compact urban terrain which present a substantially different sort of combat to the forested grasslands of Chernarus, and a sort of combat more reminiscent of current engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly all of the Takistani buildings are modelled inside and out, which grants an extra dimension to urban combat.

Unfortunately, the campaign isn’t really long enough to take full advantage of these little improvements in the game engine. With seven or eight missions, depending on your actions throughout the game, and none of them as substantial as some of the missions in ARMA 2, there isn’t enough time to really explore the new terrain of Takistan throughout the campaign. It’s hardly a large enough campaign to be spread out between four characters either. Overall, this seems to be a case of the same problem that has applied to all of Bohemia Interactive’s campaigns since ArmA: Armed Assault, with several intriguing and interesting elements to gameplay, but not enough focus or polish to be regarded as classics.

Fortunately, the campaign makes up only a small amount of the game, and there are plenty of places to really use that new terrain to its full potential. The simplistic-but-addictive Armoury mode allows the player to try out equipment and vehicles from the game, while the expansive Editor mode continues to grant players a powerful and useful tool. Indeed, between these two modes alone, there is the potential for dozens of hours of gameplay, and the multiplayer game remains hugely entertaining.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to long-time players of Bohemia Interactive’s games that Operation Arrowhead continues to present a realistic and authentic picture of modern warfare and combat, but despite the development team’s efforts, this still isn’t the most accessible game for new players. A rather idiosyncratic control system can occasionally frustrate, particularly when it comes to issuing commands, and a lot of key bindings may have to be reconfigured in order to keep the game in line with your personal preferences. An improved training mode does enhance the process of learning these difficult commands, but the complexity of the game may frustrate some players beyond the point that they may be used to.

The graphics of Operation Arrowhead remain exceptional, capturing all of the little details on soldiers’ equipment, vehicles and the terrain. Consequently, the game needs a fairly hefty machine in order to play properly, particularly at higher resolutions or higher view distances. While the game can be played with a less powerful machine, a slow frame rate can be dangerous in a game where a single shot can kill, and there are a few graphical glitches associated with slow graphics processing which become jarring when they occur in the middle of a firefight.

The sound recordings all work well, and despite not being as visceral or loud as they might be on an actual battlefield, Bohemia Interactive have done a good job of performing the difficult task of recording firearm sounds. They’re substantially better than the rather effete sounds found in the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Machine sounds are all well done, particularly when it comes to the aerial vehicles, and the effects of environment on the sounds continue to be portrayed accurately and usefully.

While Operation Arrowhead works well as a stand-alone package, it works even better when played in association with ARMA 2 in the Combined Operations package. Not only do you get the comprehensive features of both games, but you also get full access to the work of the extensive modding community. Most add-ons should work straight out of the box, while more expansive mods seem to only need a little bit of work to carry over to the Combined Operations package.


The ACE 2 team are among the groups of modders in the process of porting over their content for use in Operation Arrowhead.

Overall, ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead continues the ambitious and realistic action found in Bohemia Interactive’s other military simulators. The action is stunning, as are the graphics and the attention to detail, but the short campaign is a bit of a disappointment, and while there’s plenty of gameplay to be found elsewhere, it sometimes seems as if the game was expressly designed as a sandbox, leaving players to create their own content. The editor makes this very possible, but it may prove to be too much effort to those who are looking for a more cohesive playing experience.

Bottom Line: ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead is a very ambitious game, with plenty of potential gameplay, but requires a lot of effort to unlock its full potential.

Recommendation: This game is a must-have for fans of military simulators, or of Bohemia Interactive’s other games, but other gamers may want to try the demo before deciding whether this is something they want to plunge into.

Tourist Trophy – A Comprehensive Gaming Review

When it comes to Sony-exclusive developers, there is one in particular who has been at the forefront of gaming almost since its first game was released on the PlayStation. Polyphony Digital, developer of the Gran Turismo series of driving simulators, has been one of the most successful developers in the computer gaming market for years, over several different platforms. While the company rose to success by focusing on automotive racing, in 2006, Polyphony Digital decided to take up the challenge of simulating another type of racing.

Tourist Trophy focuses on motorcycle racing, a sport which the Japanese are particularly renowned for, particularly in the development and manufacturing of motorcycles. Most of the game’s 135 motorcycles come from Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Suzuki, but European and American manufacturers have some representation in the form of manufacturers such as Triumph, Ducati and Buell.

The game is built on the same engine as Gran Turismo 4, which gives a characteristically authentic feel to all aspects of the gameplay. While the game engine may be a bit too forgiving and altogether too modelled around traction control and stability management to be called entirely realistic, it’s accessible while not compromising too much on accuracy. Tourist Trophy manages to demonstrate the differences between two motorcycles of different characteristics, from the acceleration to the weight of the motorcycle, and overall gives a good perspective on what it would be like to ride a real racing motorcycle.

Of course, riding a motorcycle is not comparable to driving a car – with controls in significantly different places and the necessity to lean into the turn rather than turning a wheel, a vastly different presentation is required to accurately depict motorcycle racing. Fortunately, the GT4 engine proves capable of presenting the differences between cars and motorcycles, allowing you to imagine every shift of weight of the virtual rider. The game also gives a lot of customisation into how the virtual rider shifts weight, from MotoGP-style “knee-to-the-ground” leaning to more shallow road-style riding style. All of this gives a racing model which doesn’t unduly punish beginners, but which rewards the people willing to put effort into the game.

Like the Gran Turismo series, the game has two separate game modes, with the Arcade Mode presenting quick racing action with the available motorcycles, and the Tourist Trophy Mode, where the real substance of the game is contained. Also as in the Gran Turismo games, the objective is to pass licence tests which are aimed at improving the skills of starting players, which will enable you to unlock new motorcycles and compete in races.

Unlike the often-maligned licence tests in Gran Turismo, you’ll probably need the extra bit of training before they can become successful at Tourist Trophy, as the action of motorcycle racing isn’t necessarily intuitive to the neophyte. Thankfully, there are fewer licences to acquire than in Gran Turismo 4, and fewer licence tests per individual licence, which accelerates the gameplay somewhat and allows you to get into the business of acquiring motorcycles and winning races more quickly.

It’s when it comes to the business of collecting motorcycles that Tourist Trophy diverges most from its automotive cousins. Instead of receiving money for winning races, the game has the Challenge Mode, where most of the motorcycles in the game are acquired. In the Challenge Mode, the player is pitted against comparable motorcycles, and has to make up a gap of several seconds in an attempt to overtake them for a given period of time.

It’s a pity that Polyphony Digital didn’t use the same money-based system as they did in their preceding games. While the Challenge Mode gives the player a chance to experience their motorcycles before they use them in the races, it removes the feeling of personalisation that was present in the Gran Turismo games, where you really had to choose their cars carefully in order to avoid wasting money and where you would feel rewarded as they progressed to more and more powerful cars. With the Challenge Mode system, it ends up just being a case of choosing the quickest motorcycle in a given class which best suits your riding style. Only those desperate to collect all of the motorcycles are really going to be rewarded by persisting with the less powerful or less race-suited motorcycles.


Motorcycles like this Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R will be your mainstays during the game.

Nevertheless, the Challenge Mode can be very good fun, with some of the head-to-head battles being very enjoyable and challenging indeed. Because you compete against motorcycles of approximately equivalent capabilities, you never end up storming into the lead because of your superior power, and it rewards skill and accurate cornering.

Once you win motorcycles in the Challenge Mode, you can then compete in race series, most of them having vastly different entry requirements. It’s nice to see that the developers have taken some steps to prevent the situation found in some races in the Gran Turismo series, where you can simply purchase an car far ahead of the competition and storm into the lead by virtue of your car rather than your skill. Unfortunately, despite the game being dominated by road bikes, there are only four racing series out of twenty-two which allow the use of road bikes, leaving the vast majority of the machines in the game useless for anything outside of Arcade Mode.

The actual racing action is a lot of fun, as challenging as the head-to-head battles in the Challenge Mode, but the limitations of the PlayStation 2 just serve to diminish the impressive technical details of the racing itself. Racing-model bike races are limited to four bikes in a game at any one time, while the road bike races are merely head-to-head battles, just like the Challenge Mode, but with the potential of having a faster bike than the competition, which really removes some of the difficulty and requirement for skill in the few road-bike races there are. The limitations really seem rather ridiculous, and it negates some of the challenge of winding around rivals and backmarkers.

Perhaps the limitations are thanks to the graphics of the game, which like Gran Turismo 4, are sensational for a PlayStation 2 game. Having to simulate the rider in addition to the complex motorcycle models adds strain to an already-overworked system, and one can imagine that any more motorcycles in a race would have compromised smooth gameplay. Indeed, there are some very impressive graphical details, and the motorcycles don’t look far removed from their real-life forms. The graphics aren’t as consistent as they were in GT4, though; the over-the-handlebars view, which is really the only way to play the game accurately, is a nice addition to the game, but suffers from blocky textures lacking anti-aliasing, with low-resolution shots of the speedometers and rev counters and mirrors which don’t operate whatsoever.


The underwhelming handlebar graphics contrast badly in-game to the more impressive scenery.

The number of bikes in a race isn’t the only thing that’s been compromised in Tourist Trophy. Instead of the impressive and substantial number of options available to Gran Turismo players for tuning their cars, Tourist Trophy gives you only a few rudimentary set-up options, and no upgrade options at all for any bikes. Again, the personalisation and customisation of vehicle choices has been diminished, to the detriment of players who played the GT games for the ability to make a standard car into a fire-breathing racing machine.

As well as that, the multiplayer not only has a limit of two players, with no provisions for online play, but also limits the players to racing-model motorcycles. The graphics take a massive turn for the worse, looking about as good as the poor-resolution handlebar models all over the track. It’s hard to see why the addition of another player into the equation would cause the graphics to take such a drop in quality, particularly as this wasn’t an issue in Gran Turismo 4. It’s apparent that this was a secondary concern for the developers, and more than anything else, just looks hacked together.

Having said all of this, Tourist Trophy is not a bad game. The technical achievements of managing to simulate motorcycle dynamics as well as automotive dynamics must be commended, and the racing is both challenging and fun. However, the game often feels like a technical demonstration, more like a test-bed for future games than a stand-alone project. If this is the case, a Tourist Trophy game on the PlayStation 3, with more motorcycles per race, improved graphics, more races for road-based motorcycles and a generally improved presentation could be a fantastic game. Until then, though, Tourist Trophy is merely good – and limited.

Bottom Line: A superb technical demonstration let down somewhat by the limitations of the PlayStation 2. Feels compromised in a lot of areas, but still a fun game.

 

When it comes to Sony-exclusive developers, there is one in particular who has been at the forefront of gaming almost since its first game was released on the PlayStation. Polyphony Digital, developer of the Gran Turismo series of driving simulators, has been one of the most successful developers in the computer gaming market for years, over several different platforms. While the company rose to success by focusing on automotive racing, in 2006, Polyphony Digital decided to take up the challenge of simulating another type of racing.

Tourist Trophy focuses on motorcycle racing, a sport which the Japanese are particularly renowned for, particularly in the development and manufacturing of motorcycles. Most of the game’s 135 motorcycles come from Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Suzuki, but European and American manufacturers have some representation in the form of manufacturers such as Triumph, Ducati and Buell.

The game is built on the same engine as Gran Turismo 4, which gives a characteristically authentic feel to all aspects of the gameplay. While the game engine may be a bit too forgiving and altogether too modelled around traction control and stability management to be called entirely realistic, it’s accessible while not compromising too much on accuracy. Tourist Trophy manages to demonstrate the differences between two motorcycles of different characteristics, from the acceleration to the weight of the motorcycle, and overall gives a good perspective on what it would be like to ride a real racing motorcycle.

Of course, riding a motorcycle is not comparable to driving a car – with controls in significantly different places and the necessity to lean into the turn rather than turning a wheel, a vastly different presentation is required to accurately depict motorcycle racing. Fortunately, the GT4 engine proves capable of presenting the differences between cars and motorcycles, allowing you to imagine every shift of weight of the virtual rider. The game also gives a lot of customisation into how the virtual rider shifts weight, from MotoGP-style “knee-to-the-ground” leaning to more shallow road-style riding style. All of this gives a racing model which doesn’t unduly punish beginners, but which rewards the people willing to put effort into the game.

Like the Gran Turismo series, the game has two separate game modes, with the Arcade Mode presenting quick racing action with the available motorcycles, and the Tourist Trophy Mode, where the real substance of the game is contained. Also as in the Gran Turismo games, the objective is to pass licence tests which are aimed at improving the skills of starting players, which will enable you to unlock new motorcycles and compete in races.

Unlike the often-maligned licence tests in Gran Turismo, you’ll probably need the extra bit of training before they can become successful at Tourist Trophy, as the action of motorcycle racing isn’t necessarily intuitive to the neophyte. Thankfully, there are less licences to acquire than in Gran Turismo 4, and less licence tests per individual licence, which accelerates the gameplay somewhat and allows you to get into the business of acquiring motorcycles and winning races more quickly.

It’s when it comes to the business of collecting motorcycles that Tourist Trophy diverges most from its automotive cousins. Instead of receiving money for winning races, the game has the Challenge Mode, where most of the motorcycles in the game are acquired. In the Challenge Mode, the player is pitted against comparable motorcycles, and has to make up a gap of several seconds in an attempt to overtake them for a given period of time.

It’s a pity that Polyphony Digital didn’t use the same money-based system as they did in their preceding games. While the Challenge Mode gives the player a chance to experience their motorcycles before they use them in the races, it removes the feeling of personalisation that was present in the Gran Turismo games, where you really had to choose their cars carefully in order to avoid wasting money and where you would feel rewarded as they progressed to more and more powerful cars. With the Challenge Mode system, it ends up just being a case of choosing the quickest motorcycle in a given class which best suits your riding style. Only those desperate to collect all of the motorcycles are really going to be rewarded by persisting with the less powerful or less race-suited motorcycles.

Motorcycles like this Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R will be your mainstays during the game.

Nevertheless, the Challenge Mode can be very good fun, with some of the head-to-head battles being very enjoyable and challenging indeed. Because you compete against motorcycles of approximately equivalent capabilities, you never end up storming into the lead because of your superior power, and it rewards skill and accurate cornering.

Once you win motorcycles in the Challenge Mode, you can then compete in race series, most of them having vastly different entry requirements. It’s nice to see that the developers have taken some steps to prevent the situation found in some races in the Gran Turismo series, where you can simply purchase an car far ahead of the competition and storm into the lead by virtue of your car rather than your skill. Unfortunately, despite the game being dominated by road bikes, there are only four racing series out of twenty-two which allow the use of road bikes, leaving the vast majority of the machines in the game useless for anything outside of Arcade Mode.

The actual racing action is a lot of fun, as challenging as the head-to-head battles in the Challenge Mode, but the limitations of the PlayStation 2 just serve to diminish the impressive technical details of the racing itself. Racing-model bike races are limited to four bikes in a game at any one time, while the road bike races are merely head-to-head battles, just like the Challenge Mode, but with the potential of having a faster bike than the competition, which really removes some of the difficulty and requirement for skill in the few road-bike races there are. The limitations really seem rather ridiculous, and it negates some of the challenge of winding around rivals and backmarkers.

Perhaps the limitations are thanks to the graphics of the game, which like Gran Turismo 4, are sensational for a PlayStation 2 game. Having to simulate the rider in addition to the complex motorcycle models adds strain to an already-overworked system, and one can imagine that any more motorcycles in a race would have compromised smooth gameplay. Indeed, there are some very impressive graphical details, and the motorcycles don’t look far removed from their real-life forms. The graphics aren’t as consistent as they were in GT4, though; the over-the-handlebars view, which is really the only way to play the game accurately, is a nice addition to the game, but suffers from blocky textures lacking anti-aliasing, with low-resolution shots of the speedometers and rev counters and mirrors which don’t operate whatsoever.

The underwhelming handlebar graphics contrast badly in-game to the more impressive scenery.

The number of bikes in a race isn’t the only thing that’s been compromised in Tourist Trophy. Instead of the impressive and substantial number of options available to Gran Turismo players for tuning their cars, Tourist Trophy gives you only a few rudimentary set-up options, and no upgrade options at all for any bikes. Again, the personalisation and customisation of vehicle choices has been diminished, to the detriment of players who played the GT games for the ability to make a standard car into a fire-breathing racing machine.

As well as that, the multiplayer not only has a limit of two players, with no provisions for online play, but also limits the players to racing-model motorcycles. The graphics take a massive turn for the worse, looking about as good as the poor-resolution handlebar models all over the track. It’s hard to see why the addition of another player into the equation would cause the graphics to take such a drop in quality, particularly as this wasn’t an issue in Gran Turismo 4. It’s apparent that this was a secondary concern for the developers, and more than anything else, just looks hacked together.

Having said all of this, Tourist Trophy is not a bad game. The technical achievements of managing to simulate motorcycle dynamics as well as automotive dynamics must be commended, and the racing is both challenging and fun. However, the game often feels like a technical demonstration, more like a test-bed for future games than a stand-alone project. If this is the case, a Tourist Trophy game on the PlayStation 3, with more motorcycles per race, improved graphics, more races for road-based motorcycles and a generally improved presentation could be a fantastic game. Until then, though, Tourist Trophy is merely good – and limited.

Bottom Line: A superb technical demonstration let down somewhat by the limitations of the PlayStation 2. Feels compromised in a lot of areas, but still a fun game.