Archive for February, 2011

Nostalgia Game Play: Final Fantasy 9 and Sound Track

Posted in Design, Fantasy, Games, General, music, opinion, PS3, reviews, scifi, Soundtracks, Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

I’ve always been a huge Final Fantasy Fan. In the days when I had no pocket money, (the 1980’s) I used to gawk at the images and reviews in games mags, wishing that I could afford to play the games. Then, at Uni, I clubbed together with a couple of other lads to buy a Play Station and one of the games that I bought for it was Final Fantasy 7. It was one of the best gaming decisions of my life.

I was blown away, not just by the graphics, but the gameplay and the story as well… no surprises there. Although Final Fantasy isn’t every gamer’s cup o’ chai, FF7 remains one of the series’ most idolised games and, I think, with good reason. I’ve played all of the later games bar FF11, which was released when I didn’t fancy online gaming and the subscription charges that can come with it.

More recently, I loved FF13 (I know, I know, but wait for it…) It was a great game, but it had serious problems. The most important were, I think, the lack of ability to really explore and the fact that the game only moved slightly off the rails of a predetermined corridor after about 20 hours of gameplay. A lot of people said, “It’s great, but you have to play it for that long until it get’s good.” I think that’s only partially true, the game has a lot going for it and a great battle system, but when anyone’s giving that advice to perspective players, that’s a serious problem. It’s also a more mainstream game, a kind of Final Fantasy Made Easy, but I digress.

On to Final Fantasy 9.

The week before last, I decided to give myself an early birthday present, and I bought FF9 from the Play Station Store, and I’ve had a fantastic time getting to know the game once more. From the cute, low-polygon characters to the beautiful pre-drawn sets, the fantastic soundtrack and the great battle system; this game took me back to a time when FF games were fun to play. The story, with its semi-medieval setting, has all the usual great components: thieves, kidnap, a Queen being manipulated into invading other countries, a princess trying to save the world and her mother’s mind and, that old favourite, a main lead with a big monkey-tail.

The battle system is enjoyable, even though some people would say that turn-based battles are a thing of the past. Levelling isn’t a chore, unlike FF12 and 14 where it simply took too long, this game lets you do it easily and earn new abilities at the same time. FF12 was annoying like that, the progression to better magics just seemed too arbitrary and too much to do with what the developers told you that you could do. The towns are charming and, unlike FF13, you can explore and talk to the characters – or challenge them to a game of cards.

The other mini-games, such as frog-catching, are a fun aside and, unlike FF12 and 13 in particular, you don’t get to the point where you want to quit the cut-scenes just to be able to play the game yourself, let alone fight. The balance is great and the game is absorbing. Effort has gone into creating a whole world and an engaging story, with characters that aren’t just whiny or crying because they’ve got super powers… please, no more Spider Man movie-like “boo-hoo I’m a superhero” moments, or characters forever whining “why me?

This game doesn’t do that, it tells a great story, the kind of adventure you liked to watch or read as a kid – something that was missing from the later games, when the stories just weren’t deep or gripping enough. Best of all, the game has the traditional FF end of battle fanfare that will quickly be transferred to my phone as my new-message alert.

This brings me onto the soundtrack, which is far better than I thought it would be. The in-game music is great, but somewhat of a lower quality than I’d like. Listening to it now, whilst typing, is wonderful. It’s relaxing, dramatic… and parts of it are going on to the playlist that I listen to whilst writing action sequences.

If you fancy some retro gaming that has plenty of charm, and if you love RPGs, I can heartily recommend you either revisit FF9 or play it for the first time. It’s on the Playstation Store for the PS3, but you can also pick it up through places like eBay if you’ve still got a PS1 hanging around in your cupboard. Go on, dust it off and immerse yourself in FF9.

You’ll have a great time.

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Kinect: Review… Into The Second Week

Posted in dancing, exercise, Fitness, Games, General, music, opinion, PS3, reviews, xbox on February 15, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

It’s almost two weeks since the Kinect arrived, along with Kinect Adventures, Your Shape Fitness Evolved and Dance Central. Since my first post ion the Kinect was the most read article on my blog, I thought I’d follow it up now that I’ve had chance to play the games and use the shiny black nodding camera some more.

So, like the rush of stars that heralds the entry into hyperspace, let’s begin… Don’t get dizzy now. It’s only a special effect.

Kinect Adventures

After my initial excitement had worn off, I came to quickly realise how much I’d misjudged this game. In a rough, overall sense, the game is fun, but once you start to pay attention to what’s actually happening it becomes obvious that this isn’t even a good game to give away as a freebie with the Kinect itself. The game is, to put it mildly, laggy as hell. Jump in the game and your on-screen character will jump half a second later. meaning that you often miss jumps whilst playing white water rafting, or miss the balls bouncing back at you in the Kinect Adventures 3D version of Breakout.

Even my initial excitement at being able to animate and voice an unlocked character proved to be woefully embarrassing. The animals barely move, no matter how much you shake and jig, and the in-audio capture is terrible. I’ve got a low amount of background noise and the game only picks up a muffled, noise-filled signal. It’s dreadful and the game is hard to play. I got the distinct feeling that the Kinect was released before it was really ready for market… and perhaps that is still the case, but seeing as Dance Central and Your Shape were so much better, I think that it’s really just Kinect Adventures being a real stinker of a game.

It even gave my partner a headache watching me play with the lag. Launch games rarely make use of a system’s full capabilities, but there’s no excuse for Kinect Adventures, Microsoft. Truly diabolical.

Your Shape Fitness Evolved

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is finest fitness game or product that I’ve ever used, besides the home gym and dumbbells.

There are a handful of personal training fitness programs ready for you to try, alongside ‘Zen’, boxing and a number of gym games, and Ubisoft have promised more on the way. I have to be honest that I’m a little wary of Ubisoft software, as they have released several games in the last year that I don’t think were fit for market – and where fixes were either heavily delayed or did nothing to sort out problems. (Yes Splinter Cell: Double Agent, I’m looking at you).

Your Shape, however, is an excellent product. The routines seem to be well thought out and, even if they seem focused on your lower body, they do give your torso and arms a workout too. The software is simple to use, though a little confusing in some areas. My only issue is that on completion of one of the personal fitness routines, it tells you that you have eleven sessions left until the end of that program… but if you decide to do another personal fitness program, you lose any progress made so far. You still keep your calorie count, and you gain nothing special by completing the full twelve sessions from each set, so you don’t lose anything at all… but it’s confusing and the official forums are full of questions about how this works. It’s just misleading, is all.

There has been some criticism from people saying that the Kinect doesn’t recognise moves, but you simply have to make sure that you’re doing what the trainer is doing – and they provide an on-screen mirror for you to see the trainer from the front as well as a two-thirds view from the back. Match their moves and face the camera and it’s great. If the trainer criticises you for not being in step when you know you are, just make sure your form is spot on and that you are face-on to the camera.

This isn’t Wii Fit, by any means, but in the best way possible. Wii Fit is, by Nintendo’s own admission, aimed at making people more aware of how much exercise they do and what foods they eat. It’s exercises are really only maintainance exercises. It won’t really give you any tone and you won’t lose any weight unless you go overboard with it, or do other exercise as well.

Your Shape, however, is much more the full on exercise program that I’ve been after. It’s demanding, but you’ll want to come back to it. It helps tone as well as burn carbs and, whilst I think I’ll stick to my weights routine away from Your Shape for muscle-building, the programs in Your Shape are great and I’ll continue to use them every day. I’ve used it eight times in fourteen days (it was my birthday, so hang overs have prevented more use)… but I’ve lost nearly an inch and a half off my waist in that time. I look slimmer, feel slimmer and I’ve even had people notice.

If you’re after a fitness program with some variety, whether it’s to compliment an existing routine or for something that you’ll use as your only main source of exercise, I couldn’t recommend Your Shape enough.

Dance Central

Wow! I’ve been playing on this almost every day, hang over or no hang over. It’s great fun, the dances range from easy to very challenging and there’s a reasonable range of music, with more to come for purchase through the Xbox Marketplace.

With its neon lights, colourful settings and funky dancers with attitude, it never ceases to entertain… and there’s a calorie counter on there too. I track the estimate number of calories I burn in any physical activity because it helps keep me motivated, and if I’m dancing in the living room for half an hour I certainly want to know where it’s got me. It’s easy to break out into a sweat playing Dance Central and the Break It Down tutorials make it easy to follow the dances – especially with the Slow It Down option for when it’s hard for me to track what each limb, hips and head are meant to be doing in one go.

I read on a forum that someone, a guy, was looking to get the game but was worried that some of the moves might be a bit too feminine. You shouldn’t worry about this at all. Some of the moves are pretty feminine, but so what? If you’re playing on your own, then just have laugh and get into it… the same if you’re going to play Dance Central as part of a group… and the more you put into the movements, the better your score.

I love this game to bits, and would cry if it were taken off me. Anyone that tried would face a dance-off, and if i still felt threatened I’d kick them in the shins. It’d serve them right. Dance Central deserves to be owned and, out of all three games, the motion controls for the game’s menus are the most easy to use and well thought out.

My only hesitation is that there are a few too many rap or hip-hop songs on the song list; for the most part, it’s just not my type of music. You can’t please everyone all of the time, though, and I think the team at Harmonix have done an excellent job at trying. There’s certainly plenty of other songs in there to keep me happy… a few more tracks (pop or disco, please Harmonix) at the easier end of the challenge scale would be appreciated though, but perhaps I’ll laugh at my noobiness to the game in six months time.

Highly recommended.

As for the Kinect itself, I think it’s a great product with a potentially interesting  future. I’m not a MS, Sony or Nintendo fanboy, I want all three consoles to do really well, but would be great to see some more compelling titles for the Kinect and the PS3 move, though. At the moment I feel that all my Wii has to offer me is Mario and, whilst I love Mario, the other two consoles seem to have much more going on for them right now.

Motion control, when implemented in games like Dance Central, is definitely compelling and great fun.

2011: A Kinect Odyssey–First Impressions

Posted in Fitness, Games, opinion, reviews, Uncategorized, xbox on February 2, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

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With much fanfare, at least inside my own mind, the Kinect arrived today, courtesy of a fantastic boyfriend with the desire to get me a really cool birthday present. My birthday’s still over a week away, but I couldn’t contain my excitement and the shiny black camera is now sitting in front of the TV, occasionally bobbing its head to attract my attention.

I have to admit that I was very sceptical of how good the Kinect would actually be. A poor history of peripherals throughout the history of all consoles, coupled with the disappointing launch titles for the rival PS3 Move made me wonder if it was worth the money.

Three things have gradually things persuaded me, however, pulling me in like the promise of a duvet, three big pillows and a Scooby Doo marathon.

Kinect Adventures (bundled with the Kinect), Your Shape Fitness Evolved, and the soon to arrive through my letterbox, Dance Central.

I was impressed by the Kinect as soon as I hooked it up to the 360. It’s shiny, hassle free and the interactive tutorial is simple, brief and pleasant to watch. It guides you through where to stand and will let you know if you have enough floor space; there’s been some discussion about how realistic Microsoft was in releasing a peripheral that requires a moderately sized living room, and thankfully I qualified. I did take up the tape measure prior to buying the Kinect, so I wasn’t worried – the Kinect site has a reasonably good guide to how much room you’ll need.

Onto the games…

Kinect Adventures is the most fun I’ve had with a game in a long time. Essentially a mix of mini-games, it’s a good title to be included with the machine itself. From white water rafting to assault courses, the game is a barrel of fun and as you might expect, it requires a lot of jumping around. It’s easy to break out into a bit of a sweat too, and a little hard on the shins if you’ve been out for a run that day. But, kids and adults alike should have a whale of a time. It’s cute graphics are simply gorgeous, and its surprise photo-taking (with you mid-jump) is a good laugh.

On completion of the first two rafting levels, I was awarded with a toy animal that I could then animate and voice through mo-cap and the Kinect’s microphone. Great, great fun!

Your Shape Fitness Evolved, too, surpassed my expectations. I’ve not used Wii Fit Plus for nearly a year, concentrating instead on building up weights, running and cycling to get fit and get rid of my belly. My routine’s been a bit hit and miss, though a freshly researched routine seems to be hitting the mark. I need variety in my workouts, and on a day like today, when it’s freezing cold and chucking it down, I need something I can do indoors without having to venture into the horrors outside.

I was looking for an alternative to running, cycling and my weights routine that can work my heart, help me tone and burn some carbs; and Your Shape, initially at least, really seems to give me plenty of options.

Your Fitness is a definite step up from Wii Fit, with a much more varied set of exercises, and a tailored fitness routine that I felt were missing from Wii Fit. The Kinect’s camera tracks you in real time and the trainer gives you encouraging feedback and tips on good form without getting annoying.

It kind of feels like a science fiction experience; the cool, white look combined with the energising, yet inoffensive music and great visual layout feel thrilling to interact with. I am a bit of a technology whore, and a very visual person to boot, but this software really works for me.

I’ve only played for a half hour, but the workouts were fun, with great demos of the exercises and a nice variety; whether you want cardio, toning or some Tai Chi, there’s plenty there. The workouts feel more like gym classes too, with plenty of energy but great 1-on-1 feedback, which I guess is the aim.

I think that because I was really into Wii Fit when it came out, Your Shape really shines in comparison. There’s no annoying, repeated health warnings or uninterruptable messages . The trainer’s voice doesn’t easily grate. You don’t need to repeatedly pick up and then put down a controller, so the flow of your workout isn’t broken. It treats me like an adult, rather than patronising me… and, at least so far, it isn’t telling me to hold my arms higher when they’re as high as they can go.

Both titles, with just over an hour and a half playtime between them so far, are really great fun and I can see them helping me to get off my butt some more; and wanting to. It feels like the initial thrill of the Wii, only more so, and with more promise to keep providing great titles.

With Dance Central in the trusty hands of the postman until tomorrow, I can can see that this is going to be a tiring, but fun, week.