bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Phantasy Star Universe (PlayStation 2)

In the past couple of years, its seemed as though the online role playing game is the sure fire way to make some cash, this is unsurprising, considering the following these things receive, and the opportunity to have potential players buying a subscription to play your title. A lot of these are released purely for the PC and tend to be extremely life consuming affairs that require a lot of time and patience for you to reap any benefit for playing the game. With this in mind, Phantasy Star Online has always been a mildly popular title. Its an Online Role Playing Game for those that don’t have the time to spend many many hours reaching the next level increase. Its a simple, Diablo 2-like area explorer, where there’s always plenty of items to pick up and do what you want with, and the latest release, Phantasy Star Universe is no different to this basic set up.

There’s a lot thats been changed between the many versions of PSO and the newly released PSU. The action no longer takes place on Ragol, which was the setting for all 4 episodes of Phantasy Star Online. Universe instead takes place in the Gaharl system, a universe made up of 3 planets and a space colony. Another major change is also how the game is separated now, PSO allowed you to make a character and use it in both an offline mode and an online mode, this led to alot of cheating problems, plus a lack of direction for anyone wanting to play single player. With PSU, Sonic Team have included a completely separate story mode, it still uses the same controls, but has pre-determined characters and scripted events.

This gives the game a feel of having two games for the price of one, which is a good thing, and the Story Modes only draw back is average voice acting and uninteresting characters. The story is interestingly set out into chapters, which are played out like a television serialisation. With each one being roughly an hour to an hour and a half to play through, there are 12 missions in all, and you’re gradually introduced to new characters and locations, as well as being able to do all the other stuff you would normally do online, such as partake in none story missions, buying, selling and synthesising weapons, armour and items, aswell as dressing Ethan in clothes bought from the stores on each planet, the same also applies to your room on the Space Colony.

This is one of the best parts about the online mode, the sheer customisation, depending on whats available at the time. You see, as things stand at the time of writing, there has been one update, released a week before the games European launch, this allowed you to play on the Beat planet of Moatoob and also unlocked some new missions for the other 3 areas. But SEGA have promised an update each month, and that seems to be the case in Japan where they are, I think, on their third update.

Enjoyment of any online game will come from the company you keep, and the problem with Phantasy Star Universe is that it doesn’t seem to have taken off in Europe, meaning unless your willing to wait up until silly times of the day, theres not going to be a lot of people to party with. Plus with the series’ history of cheating, its difficult to trust anyone you run into in the games lobbies and cities, even though online cheating hasn’t been properly accomplished yet.

Here’s the part of the review where you need to have played a fair bit of Phantasy Star Online to read. This is because it involves a lot of technical changes over the older titles in the series. You see, theres a lot of more complicated item stuff this time, weapons have to be approached differently, as does your class and MAG’s are no more. But I’ll go through these things in the order I’ve listed them.

With weapons, you buy your basic weapon, and then add something called a Photon Art to it, this is going on the example of a Ranger class character, so, for example, if you buy the long ranged gun type Rifle, from there you can buy various elemental Photon Arts such as Plasma Shot, which you then use as a normal item to learn and then link to your weapon, this gives your Rifle an elemental bullet made of lightning which can also shock and creatures you shoot with it, temporarily disabling their attacking abilities. You’re also limited in how much you can use these (think of TP in PSO and you’re pretty much there) but you can level them by using them as much as possible. This adds an element of strategy to the game, leaving you to learn what Photon Art would be best in each given situation and switching between them as and when you can.

Classes are still split into the old Hunter, Ranger and Force types of old, except now any species can take one of those jobs, but obviously some are better than others at each one. Also, you can also change your class at any point, for a small fee, and as you complete missions you receive Job Points which gradually raise the level of your job. Later on, when your jobs reach certain levels, you will be able to choose an advanced job, making your role in a party more specific.

Finally on this technical review of the new parts of the game, as said previously, MAG’s are no more, they have now been replaced by something called a Partner Machine. Unlike with MAG’s your Partner Machine is limited to staying in your room, storing your items, synthesising new weapons and items you have found boards and synth ingredients for feeding. Yes, you still feed them. This time round, you don’t feed it 3 times every five minutes or whatever it used to be, but you can feed them up to 100 times every 12 hours. Also, the stats which you level up determine the PM’s strengths in synthing certain item types, for example, if you raise your PM’s Striking stat, it will have more success at synthing Hunter type weapons. Also, once your Partner Machines level reaches level 80, it takes on a humanoid form and can be brought into a party in place of a human controlled character, so long as you are the party leader. This is good for when you really need that extra body to draw away some of the attention from the various creatures in the game, but it was an irritating mistake on Sonic Team’s part to give them the ability to shout out random sentences every couple of minutes.

Now we have all that out of the way, I’d like to say this, Phantasy Star Universe will no doubt be a disappointment to those who were expecting something as big as Phantasy Star Online was the first time it was released on Dreamcast, but approach it as a fan wanting more of the same but slightly different, and you will be extremely pleased. It still has that life sucking ability to draw you in and not let you go that the Dreamcast, and to a lesser extent, Gamecube, XBox and PC versions of Phantasy Star Online had, and is still incredibly enjoyable for those that may have tired of the ways of the older games. Its not a revolution, but its certainly an evolution, and that, in my eyes is a good thing.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: NAMCO Museum: 50th Anniversary Collection (PlayStation 2)

Ten years ago, MAME was in its infancy, “retro” gaming wasn’t that big a deal, and Namco released its first ever arcade compilation. Back then, the idea seemed a great one for the small community of retro gamers that were around, the chance to play all their Namco arcade favourites on one home system was an instant draw, and Namco released six volumes of their arcade collection packs.

Being given the chance to wander around the virtual arcades and check out all the promotional material felt like we were stepping into a time machine and going back to the 70’s and 80’s. But then, MAME took off and it was possible for people to get their hands on thousand of classic arcade games, all run off of their PC’s.

Obviously, this isn’t the most legit route of playing classic games, so, you’d think Namco would take the approach of offering something over what you can get on MAME, just to warrant the price of buying their latest arcade collection (which have all appeared on their older arcade compilations). Something like developer interviews, making of features, unreleased games thats sort of thing, but instead all Namco have delivered is a collection of their most loved Arcade titles on a DVD with no extra’s.

Its not as though the same games aren’t available elsewhere, legitly, for a fraction of the price. Regarding the collection, few need any kind of introduction, which is a good sign at least. In the ‘classics’ camp, you’ve got some all-time must-haves in the shape of Pac-Man, Ms Pac Man, Galaxian, Galaga and Dig Dug. On the periphery, there’s the likes of Mappy, Bosconian, Rally-X, Sky Kid and Xevious, and a couple of reasonable unlockables like Galaga 88 and Pacmania, while the less impressive Pole Position, Pole Position 2, Dragon Spirit and Rolling Thunder help make up the numbers. A poor 16 titles compared to last years Taito Legends which featured a huge 29 games.

The 16 games that feature make this the largest Namco collection available, but, in many cases, its the worst of the lot. Digital Eclipse who compiled the collection seem to have done a rush job of the compilation, with nothing evident that celebrates Namco’s 50th Anniversary in any particular way. You cant help but think along the lines of “Why not include at least one game from each of those 50 years?”

The standard of the emulation here is pretty strong, although some of the games are really showing their age and others dont control too well. Rally-X, Pole Position and Pole Position 2 dont lend themselves to the Dual Shock to very well, leaving the controls feeling extremely twitchy, and the shooters tend to feel extremely slow and sluggish, and hardly exciting. Although, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are as fun as ever and are easily the highlights of the pack, often resulting in the famous “one more go” syndrome.

Overall then, Namco Museum 50th Anniversary is an underwhelming disappointment of a retro collection. Theres no bonus features, no real celebration and the controls on some of the games are downright poor. This is one retro collection to avoid.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Magna Carta: Tears of Blood (PlayStation 2)

With the Final Fantasy series taking a little bit of a break, well we’re not going to see FFXII on these shores till at least the end of the year, other companies have decided to try and grab the RPG torch to highlight games that would otherwise get ignored for Square Enix’s popular series. In the years between the release of FFX and the coming release of FFXII we’ve seen series’ like Shadow Hearts and Shin Megami Tensei released in an attempt to put their own unique style to the genre. That is exactly what Magna Carta is here to attempt, and for the most part it does just that, with a compelling story, fairly interesting characters and a unique, complicated, yet fun battle system

Magna Carta: Tears of Blood takes place in a world called Efferia, a land where two different races, humans and Yason, are locked into a bitter battle for control of their land. The two species are pretty much the same, aside from the Yason having strange looking ears and are more in touch with the nature around them. During the game you control Calintz, a hot headed, permanently sarcastic teenage lad, who is the captain of a mercenary group known as the Tears of Blood. The game throws you into the story just as the humans launch a massive attack on the Yason in an attempt to end the war once and for all. The attack is foiled, the Tears of Blood retreat, Calintz is attacked and knocked out and then meets a strange girl with an enormous set of breasts known as Reith.

Unsurprisingly the two form an awkward romance that remains through out the story while you try to figure out who Reith is, where her powers came from, and how she help bring peace to Efferia (she too received a knock to the head and cant remember a thing). The story is full of mysteries and unexplained coincidences, but there are a lot of political points during the game too. The game features a bizarre yet interesting and well developed cast of characters that you will grow to love.

As is normal with a lot of RPG’s everything starts a little slow, despite you being thrown into the action for the first hour or so of game play, but thankfully there’s plenty going on throughout the game to hold your interest until the final credits roll, interestingly, the story doesn’t back off at all, with it taking on stronger subjects such as death and betrayal while throwing plenty of twists in your direction to keep you permanently interested.

At times the game feels very linear and restrictive, there’s not a lot of opportunity to stray off the path the developer has weaved into the story, there are a few side quests, but for the most part you’ll be walking along a narrow path to each destination that the story wishes you to visit. This is the games main downfall, as it feels like your being directed through the game but an unseen hand rather than embarking on a epic quest to bring peace to a war torn land.

A lot of the quests are basic RPG fare. Quite a few of them require you to travel to a town to gather information, only for you tog et there and discover the information you need is actually in another town. As is normal in RPG’s on your journey you will run into plenty of monsters that you can fight to earn experience points and level up your team, and like with the Grandia games, the creatures you get to fight appear on the map, allowing you to either avoid them, sneak up on them or let them attack you first. The battles aren’t random, which is one complaint permanently thrown at the genre despite a few titles not featuring random battles, and the creatures are set out at specific points, so if you return to an area, chances are, the same creature will be at that point, this however makes it difficult to power level your squad to make the game easier later on.

What’s interesting about the battles though is that the game uses a mechanic similar to the judgement wheel in Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Your allowed a party of three characters in a battle, but you only control one character at a time, if you want to line up other moves, you need to switch characters manually. To attack an enemy, you simply have to run up to an enemy until a Trinity Circle appears, taking you into a rhythm action style piece of game play to execute a move. If you hit the correct button at the right time you’ll receive the obligatory “good” or “great” rating. Do this with all 3 buttons and you will be able to attack. Miss the timing of any of the buttons and you’ll miss your attack,, miss your turn and will be forced to have to wait for another round. Getting “Great” on all three button presses will increase your trinity drive gauge, which is basically like a limit break or overdrive that boosts your attack. Also by achieving Great on the Trinity Wheel you can perceive new attacks for your characters to use. Only the X and Circle buttons are used during this technique however, so the combo’s are never too complex, and after a few goes, its extremely easy to get the timing down perfect so you always receive a Great rating.

The leadership gauge allows you to have the advantage in battles, the gauge is constantly filling up during battle while you stand still, once it reaches a certain point you can attack. This gauge is affected by how many enemies are in the battle, their overall strength and how much the members of your party trust you. If your controlling a character that doesn’t trust you for example, you’ll need a lot of leadership points just for them to attack. Obviously, this can mean a lot in battle, so its important to keep an eye on the gauge and your relationships with the other characters, as this one particular mechanic can be the difference between victory and defeat in battle. If you play your cards right, you can often get two or three attacks for every one the enemy gets to perform. To gain the trust of your allies, you simply have to talk to them and say things that gain their trust and friendship, or give them gifts, although material possessions only raise their trust in you for a short while, its very much like one of those dating sims that are so popular in Japan.

The battle modes attacks revolve around something called chi, there are eight different types of elemental chi, which you can replenish by using talismans. Every battlefield you fight in has specific elemental properties that you really need to pay attention to, because if the area your in doesn’t have a specific type of chi, you wont be able to use certain attacks. there are multiple fighting styles with different chi associations, allowing you to switch between different styles depending on the levels of chi in the area your in. A lot there is a problem with the Chi system, and that is in the fact the icons used to represent each element aren’t very intuitive. It takes a while to memorize what each letter stands for.

During the whole time your in Efferia you’ll be treated to plenty of nice sights. At first glance, you could quite easily mistake this for a Final Fantasy title, as the visual style is very similar to that in Final Fantasy X. The lush vegetation and structures all share the same look, although there’s a bit of a quick change that suddenly happens when switching between new areas, as movement between different areas takes place on a map rather than in the world created for you. The characters are all highly detailed and the battle animations look great. What is fun to note is that a lot of the men have that feminine look that is apparent in a lot of Eastern RPGs while the women all look a bit like Porn stars. The only visual problem with the game is in its fixed camera angles, sometimes during battle you can’t even see your own characters.

Unfortunately, the sound in Magna Carta doesn’t live up to the standards set by the rest of the game, the voice overs are delivered without any feeling behind them, leaving the characters seeming a little wooden and lifeless. The games title song is awful, sounding like a B-Side from one of Celine Dion’s backup singers. The sound effects throughout the game don’t have the solid, polished execution that we’ve all come to expect from RPGs. The only thing going for the sound within the game is the music (not including the title theme) is fairly well done, there’s plenty of orchestral themes and choral chants thrown in to give the experience a little sound based depth.

If your looking for an RPG to fill the gap until the next Final Fantasy game comes out, the Magna Carta: Tears of Blood isn’t a bad choice, its probably not the best to go for, but thanks to some really nice visuals, a intriguing plot and some interesting characters, its easy to lose yourself to the game. The story is definitely the games strong point, although it would of been nice if Efferia had of been fleshed out a bit more.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Madden 07 (PlayStation 2)

I’m not a follower of the NFL, I don’t really know anyone who is. I’ve never really understood the sport, to me its always been a bit of a “Rugby with padding” that so many British people stereotype it as. However, after playing Madden 07, my opinion has changed, I’m still not a fan but I now understand that its not a “Rugby with padding”, its more based on tactics than anything else. Player movements, feints, distractions and strength. It’s all about getting that one player in enough open space for him to receive the ball and run for the end zone, still, I dont understand why they call it football.

EA are “infamous” for releasing the “same title every year with only changes to the squad line-ups/rosters” while that may have been true in the past, in more recent releases, although still yearly and still featuring squad updates, they’ve tried adding new features to each of their sports titles, in the hope that something may work and the general gaming public wont shoe horn their latest release into the same old box.

I’m not aware of past Madden’s attempts to revolutionise itself, but I feel, this is definitely a game that will reward those who play it, especially those who dont even know what the sport is all about. I took on the Superstar mode and immediately the team I was rostered into were performing well, and my Superstar was getting some good recognition, and that was on the medium setting.

Some of the controls are a bit awkward, especially when defending, and half the time its actually easier to leave the defending to the computer AI while you get the hang of whats going on around you. Attacking is easier, something you’d expect from an American sport, with you basically taking control of spotting whos in the best position, pressing the relevant button to throw it to them and then running for your life as god knows how many men chase you down.

Not knowing much about the sport, I can’t really go in depth, but for someone whos only real interest in sports games is the odd game of Pro Evolution Soccer to get some enjoyment out of a game featuring a sport thats never interested him, I feel this has to be good..

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Gitaroo Man (PlayStation 2)

Aside from the Dancing Stage series, Rhythm games are a bit of a niche market, although, generally they do make fun games that anyone can just simply pick up and play. Normally they’re peripheral based,like the previously mentioned Dancing Stage games (a Dance mat) or Samba De Amigo (a pair of plastic Maracas), but occasionally you get one thats a little different. Generally though, the genre has become a bit stale in terms of gameplay, with nearly every title just featuring licensed songs that you press various button combinations in time to, although its thanks to games such as Frequency that keep the genre ticking over by being that little bit different, despite the fact its commercially ignored.

With this in mind, someone else was always going to innovate, this time in the form of KOEI’s rhythm game dev team 326, and their effort titled Gitaroo Man.

From the off its obvious Gitaroo Man is something different, offering a odd anime/western cartoon done in 3D visual style and featuring some odd-ball charactes in its opening stages such as a talking dog that turns into a robot and a blakc devil like creature that has an incredibly squeaky voice. Thats without mentioning the main protagonist, U-1/Gitaroo man, who comes across as a bit of a waste of space, but eventually grows on you as he begins to find his own confidence.

Everything in the game is well animated and the camera is very rarely static, focusing on various parts of the level your currently on, moving from Gitaroo Man, to your enemy and showing various background features along the way. Not that you’ll really notice this while playing as your main focus will be on what instructions your being given to get through that particular stage.

Gitaroo Man is a difficult game to describe to someone in gameplay terms, as it features the normal “press this button as it hits a certain marker” gameplay that features in all Rhythm-Action games, this is used when your enemy is playing their part in each level, and getting each button press right results in you dodging their attack. When it comes to your attack however, your given a theoretically simple method of control. Using the X or Circle button, plus the left analogue stick, you follow a line through various pitches, while using a button to simulate you plucking/strumming the strings on a guitar. This sounds easier than it really is, as you soon have to start varying the tempo of play during each song, sometimes resulting in soft ballad’s with long button presses or thrash metal style numbers that involve complicated combinations of short and long button presses that quickly change and require a high amount of concentration.

Gitaroo Man then, brings something a little different to a genre thats pre-occupied with attracting young girls from the bowling alley dancing machines to playing the same game in their homes, it offers something that many people who have played a Rhythm game before will be used to, but also offers something slightly fresh and new. Its difficulty will no doubt put some people off, as may its visual style. But if you stick at it, you will uncover a real gem of a game.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Dead to Rights 2 (PlayStation 2)

Dead to Rights 2 is a strange beast, it seems intent on distancing itself from the original game but also wants to be associated with it. This may sound contradicting, but thats how Dead to Rights 2 plays.

The original didn’t receive favourable reviews when it was released 2 or 3 years ago, so its understandable that the developer wants to change things around a bit and take a slightly different approach, although, with it being a sequel, or in this case a prequel, it has to be the same style of game, and in this case its a generic third-person shoot-’em up.

Although the game offers nothing new, it is a fairly decent shooter at times. The game is fast and frantic and isn’t complicated to get to grips with at all, and is ideal for the odd quick play when you cant think of anything else to play. This short play method is accentuated by the level design, which at best is repetitive and almost purely corridor based.

It literally gets to the point where every 5-10 minutes you are confronted with a loading screen thats lasts just as long as each section of level. So on average an entire level can take between 15-30 minutes including 3 loading screens which makes the game feel like a throw back to some early PlayStation titles, especially when you look at titles such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas which use disc streaming to create and entire State that only has 3 or 4 load points. This is also a problem when it comes to the graphics, as although the graphics in the GTA titles aren’t great, they’re quite a number of rungs above those of Dead to Rights 2, which at best looks like a high-end PlayStation 2 launch title.

No shoot-em up would be playable if the targeting system was terrible, and while Dead to Rights 2 isn’t awful, its nothing special either. Holding down a shoulder button will lock onto the nearest enemy with either a green, yellow or red icon depending on how likely your bullets are to hit the guy. This would be great if it actually made an impact on your shots, but Jack Slate seems so cock-handed with a gun that you miss just as many shots when the target is green as you do when its red. Its just as well that you recieve plenty of ammo whenever you kill someone then.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Canis Canem Edit (PlayStation 2)

Canis Canem Edit, or Bully as the general public know it, has already stifled up alot of controversy because of that particular former title, that Rockstar have decided to still use in the ol’ US of A. It’s actually becoming a case of wondering if Rockstar are actually paying these people to name drop each of their titles in a “All Publicity is good Publicity” manner.

But in Rockstars favour, none of the games that have been criticised by the anti-violent videogames parade have been truly awful. With the Grand Theft Auto being the main series that gets the attention.

Canis Canem Edit is very much GTA “Lite”, it’s not as brutal, the playing area isn’t as big and the characters are much younger, which is unsurprising considering the games setting. But unlike most “Lite” products, the flavour is all there, Canis Canem Edit doesn’t suffer, in fact this particular author feels its a more complete experience than Rockstars seminal series, purely for the fact that its not so big as to make you feel like its impossible to finish. It’s much like dating the stunning but gorgeous Prom Queen, then after that’s finished or she’s dumped you for the latest trendy guy, dating her almost as pretty sister who you can actually hold a conversation with without having to flatter every five seconds, and less likely for you to want to start force feeding her a dozen hamburgers or something.

From the off, you can tell this game is incredibly similar to Rockstars leading franchise, Jimmy has the same attitude and swagger of the lead characters in the Grand Theft Auto series, the missions are along the same lines of “go fetch”, “go fight”, etc. But how it differs is in its structure and in the ways you can get into trouble. Merely staying out past a certain time can have prefects (and even police officers) on your tail, as can truancy.

there’s always something to do. Lessons (as previously mentioned) can be missed as you feel like it, but each time you only delay getting another reward for completing each lesson, you can return to them any time that particular lesson is available (it all works in a similar way to a normal school time table). But each time you attend, and manage to complete the various different mini games that each lesson is made up of (English for example involves you making words out of a certain group of letters, Gym see’s you taking part in wrestling to learn new fighting moves or playing Dodgeball) you are rewarded with various things, as previously mentioned, Wrestling gives you new moves to use when fighting, Shop earns you a new faster, better handling BMX bike to use from the school garage. These also in turn open up new things to do occasionally, for example, unlocking the BMX allows you to partake in bike races in the neighbouring towns. These in turn earn you more and more cash, which you only really need if you’re wanting to collect every single purchasable item in the game, as you earn enough money from missions to buy the odd outfit and haircut, chocolates and flowers for wooing the girls and cans of coke to heal you.

All the controversy surrounding the game would lead you to believe that Canis Canem Edit is a despicable experience that glamorises bullying. All of this has come about because of the games former title and the fact that those in “higher up positions” only really hear what they want to hear, The game tells the tale of a boy who’s been expelled from a number of schools, mainly for violence, being dumped at Bullworth Academy by his money grabbing mother who’s just married another rich man and his heading out on her 58th honeymoon, which happens to be the same length of time as a school year.

Once there, you are befriended by a boy called Gary, who wants to use your strength to bring down the bullies and various factions within the school, as he story progresses though, it seems he was simply using you for his own gain. By the final chapter, the schools in chaos and only the normal final confrontation can fix things.

Surprisingly, the story is quite compelling, and easy enough to imagine going on within any school, you feel increasingly pleased as things seem to be going your way only for it to completely rubber band in the opposite direction. The gangs system of GTA 2 and San Andreas appears in the various forms of the school factions (Jocks, Geeks, Greasers, Preps) and doing one thing for one faction will only piss off another, although each chapter is set out to try and win a particular faction over to your side.

Many will complain that Canis Canem Edit is too short, and compared to its older siblings, this could be seen as true. But with the story complete after around 14 hours and 70% of things done, there’s still plenty there to keep you going for at probably another 6 hours. Enough for anyone to be able to complete it 100% without feeling like your not getting anywhere and getting bored.

If you’re a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, you will have no doubt already have purchased this, if you’re not a fan, I still think this is a worthy purchase, in fact I’d go so far as to say its a better game than the infamous crime-Sim. The smaller elements that bring fun are alot more innocent than they are in GTA, I for one spent alot of my time pinching girls bottoms, snogging girls and waiting for a pupil to enter one of the cubicles in the boys toilets before throwing a firecracker down the neighbouring toilet.

Canis Canem Edit is incredibly well presented and acted, its a really fun game with only two minor niggles, both of which lie with the controller and exist in most games of this type.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (PlayStation 2)

Ever since the mid-90’s and the original PlayStation, console owners wanting a fix of aerial combat have turned to the Ace Combat series, simply because theres been nothing good enough to knock it off its throne. It’s helped, of course, that with each installment, the series has gone from strength to strength. Sure it’s not a flight simulation, as PC gamers will always point out, but its never meant to be seen that way.

So, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War then, is the sixth game in the series, but contrary to its name, its not where it all began, instead its a prequel to the story told in Ace Combat 5. Visually, theres barely any difference, those that aren’t die-hard fans of the series certainly wont be able to tell the difference. The similarities aren’t just in the visuals though, this is good and bad, fans will be pleased as it means their much loved series hasn’t been messed with, but some people may just be waiting for that one big advancement to the series that will give them the kick they need to get airborne for the first time.

There are very slight modifications to the engine, but it still plays the same as Ace Combat always has, no bad thing thats for sure. Advanced moves like rolls, banking, reverse loops and such are easy to pull off, even for a complete novice, but the game still remains a challenge. With the weather affecting your vision meaning you can be pushed right to your dog fighting abilities limits in order to complete just one more mission.

Missions can vary greatly, at times you can be taking on numerous other aircraft in dogfights that look impressive on the games replay function, other times you’ll have to systematically take out ground units, meaning the skies are always full of something that could potentially harm you, although some weapons feel a bit too out of place, such as laser towers, considering the games 1995 setting.

The Ace Combat series has always had a pretty impressive story and narrative, and The Belkan War is no different. Missions never feel pointless and you really want to achieve the goals your set in order to gain your side another footing in the war.

Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan war is a fine addition to the series, but rather than following the established template, Namco have moulded a new one. Almost like car designers enhancing their original design year after year. In addition to the normal missions you undertake, you occasionally come across groups of pilots known as Aces, there are several different groups, who are all mercernaries in the same manner you are, but happened to have chosen the opposing side. These aerial battles can take upto half an hour just to even land 1 missile on target, never mind if your trying to take them down with your guns instead! This increases the difficulty of Ace Combat Zero by quite a bit, but not in the frustrating way it sounds as these particular dogfights never get boring.

So, for fans of the series, Ace Combat Zero is everything you’ve followed the series for all these years, possibly more. For those who are waiting, why? This is by far the best installment yet, I’d go as far as to say its easily the best aerial combat game available, better than anything the over-serious PC market has to offer.

Gaming

20 for 20: Dreamcast

This week the Dreamcast turned 20 in Japan, it wasn’t released here in the UK for almost another year and I wouldn’t get one for myself until a further year later, by which time SEGA had all but abandoned the console, but the little white system with the blue swirl (European region) left a massive mark on me as a gamer. Actually I’d say the Dreamcast is what made me into the gamer I am today, the PlayStation was where I cut my teeth but the Dreamcast is where I decided this was the hobby for me.

I was there early on, a friend, Aaron, brought a copy of EDGE into school one day. We both frequently brought gaming mags in, his were mostly PC and mine were the Official PlayStation Magazine and we both loved C&VG. “SEGA is Dead, Long Live Dreamcast” the cover of EDGE #60 declared in white text on a bold orange background. We spent our lunch break that day reading through the article and absorbing the pictures rather than joining in with the game of football that was taking place on the concrete netball court, we’d occassionally have to dive out the way to avoid being hit by the ball (or a rogue shoe as it was the trend to tuck your laces into your shoes and thus a shot would usually be followed by someones shoe flying goalwards). As the weeks and months from that article passed, we’d absorb everything G&VG would publish about the console, particularly anything from Ed Lomas and Aaron covered his GCSE art folder in screenshots and artwork from Sonic Adventure.

Once the console did arrive he was the only one to get one right away, both Steven and I had PlayStations and Richard an N64, I remember Steven, his brother Chris and I all going over to Aarons to have a go on it and I’d frequently be over there try to advance on my save file of Sonic Adventure, one weekend we stayed up through the night and played through Mission Battle mode on Soul Calibur a number of times. We’d usually congregate at Stevens after school and Aaron would normally bring his Dreamcast, he’d gone all out and got multiple pads so we could play multiplayer (it also helped his brother also had a Dreamcast but rarely used it so Aaron would often borrow his controller to make sure we could play four player games). Early favourites were Toy Commander and Red Dog, whilst Fur Fighters and Re-Volt were also added to the mix, plus a bit of drunken Samba de Amigo.

I remember going with him to Gamestation to buy Crazy Taxi when it was finally released and being absolutely blown away, not only did I love how the game played it also came at a time when I was really getting into music. Then came Phantasy Star Online, I had a character on a VMU at Aarons, but then Steven bought a Dreamcast so they could both play online together, feeling left out I managed to scrape enough together to get a second hand Dreamcast (which were plentiful as people were desperate to get their hands on the PS2) alongside a copy of Phantasy Star Online.

Nothing else has grabbed me like this game did, I forged new friendships, fell for people I’d never met (nor meet) and become well and truly addicted, I would sit and grind in the offline mode on my shitty 50hz colour TV that I had in my bedroom until my Mum and Step Dad had gone to bed then take the Dreamcast downstairs, hook it up to the “big TV” and the phone line and go online, usually only signing off shortly before my Mum would get up for work and packing it all away, pretend to be asleep and let her “wake” me up to go to college, which I’d begun to bunk off from without her knowledge, each month the phone bill would come through the door and each month I’d get a scolding from her for the size of it, sometimes I’d get banned from going on but I never really gave it up until I moved onto MSN Chat Rooms almost 2 years later. During this time I was playing with a group that included a player  I really liked playing with, it was well known within the group that this particular player was female, I cant put my finger on why, but maybe it was because this girl gave me attention as I’d never really been able to develop more than a friendship with girls at school and other than my younger sister (who only played platformers, which didnt count) I’d only gotten to know one other “girl gamer” (who also happened to play PSO but was also a few years older than me). There was nothing there to suggest she liked me back but one day she asked if she could phone me, I gave her the house number and we both logged off, I plugged the phone back in and it rung shortly afterwards, we chatted for a while, I dont even remember what about, but I became a little obsessed afterwards and essentially ruined our friendship, and became ostracised from the group of people I’d been playing with due to my behaviour. It was a major moment in me growing up and eventually played a part in me leaving PSO (that and we got Broadband when NTL rolled that out so I couldnt take the Dreamcast online any more).

Its funny thinking of SEGAs last console now, in a way it feels right that it was the console that I played most of during my adolescence and the console still means alot to me even now. for a short, intense period of my life the Dreamcast was the main social hub of my development, my core group of friends would gather to compete against each other or share new experiences, and due to the small catalogue of titles it was easy for everyone to be playing the same things or recommend stuff to each other. That it was abandoned before it had barely gotten started by both the market and its creators meant titles were easy to get hold of for an age group that was starting their first jobs and had little else to spend money on other than booze. It was also our window into a much bigger world, our first experiences of going online were via the Dreamcast and it also led first Aaron and then later myself down the path of writing about games.