Expansion Review – Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas

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At long last, the game mode that Hearthstone fans have all been waiting for – Curse of Naxxramas is finally here! Hearthstone has taken the gaming world by storm, bridging the gap for everyday gamers to engage in competitive card gaming and pave the way for a more casual CCG option. Until Hearthstone launched, the majority of competitive card games were viewed, from the outside, as being complex and difficult, with wave after wave of convoluted game mechanics, meta-rules and procedures that, for many, created a barrier to learning the game properly. Titles like Magic: The Gathering and Duel of Champions have done extremely well, but over the course of Hearthstones launch week, it quickly stomped over its competition, creating an eSports following, fansites, deckbuilder apps and all sorts; it truly solved the CCG problem.

One thing, however, was missing. Most competitive card games teach players the general rules through a story mode, or a campaign, that lets you ease yourself in and enjoy the game, with the pleasant distraction of a plot, to break the game into more digestible chunks. Despite Hearthstone’s ease of access, you really didnt have much choice when it came to how you player the game – play the computer, or play the community, in exactly the same manner. Or, at best, play “Arena”, which has a few minor differences, plus the added thrill of pseudo-gambling, but it really wasn’t a far cry from the standard game mode. That’s where Curse of Naxxramas came in, promising to give the World of Warcraft themed game some lore unto its own, a plot and some substance, for players to get stuck into.

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After playing the trial for most of its launch day, I was disappointed, and have remained underwhelmed by it ever since. Naxxramas, admittedly comes with a bunch of new stuff and the new cards are a refreshing addition to the game, but was the campaign itself all that it had been played up to be? Not a chance. Other CCG videogames take you on vast adventures across maps; creating rivalries, telling stories and giving hour after hour of enjoyment, as you lead your card-wielding protagonist through a labyrinth of tests.

Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas, by comparison, was a straight line. You are introduced to very few new characters, a couple of slightly tweaked mechanics and literally no plot at all, besides a cursory speech bubble at the start and end of each battle. Within a day I had grown bored and, even with all of the new cards and combos to experiment with, got the feeling that the other pay-to-play chapters of the game would be left to gather dust for some time.

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On the plus side, there are a couple of nice features, such as the “home advantage” given to your opponents and the challengin Heroic mode, which will teach you a thing or two about deck building along the way, as you regroup, in search of its coveted, new card-back. The new content is nice, especially since it’s free, but the $6.99 expansions are less than attractive right now and, from a competitive perspective, the time in the Naxxramas Necropolis feels like it could have been better spent in the Arena or in Ranked.

The second wing of the Curse of Naxxramas expansion goes Live tomorrow, and you can still get the first part for free, but, be sure to try it before sinking money on the sequels.

Strider and the Return of Arcade Difficulty (Review)

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I’m not going to be one of those retro gamers who claims to have been there from the beginning; I wasn’t, I’m 26.

I did grow up retro gaming though, I had a good stint in the arcades, and due to some awesome school friends got to borrow Mega Drives, SNES’, NES’ and even a Master System at one point, while they all ran off, gallivanting with Lara Croft on the newfangled, original Sony PlayStation. At this point, I saw the games console as a home arcade; in many ways, I still do, refusing to forgive these “interactive experiences” that so many games are now, rather than something challenging, and often, controller-bitingly hard (yep, proud owner or a SNES controller with teeth marks in it).

Streets of Rage, Outrun, Space Harrier, these were my guides. No save-game function, no easy setting, just the game as the developers intended it.

Games were always supposed to be hard; that’s how they made their money in the arcades. There had to be a fine balance so that as you played, you lost, but knew what you needed to do differently next time, in order to win. You became a more intelligent, and better gamer this way, and the owner of the arcade machine made his money.

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Then, gradually, starting with the save game function and the “novice” setting games became more friendly. Since you, the gamer, now owned the game, it was almost as if you had a right to be able to see it right through to the end, like a movie or an album. Thankfully, although old-school developers like SNK, Neo Geo and Namco (now Namco-Bandai) cater to the home-gamer, they still stay true to their arcade roots, and put out a tough enough challenge, if you’re still up for it.

One company that’s always steeped its games in arcade pedigree is Capcom; whom I’ve stuck by through and through. From Mega Man, to Street Fighter II, to Resident Evil, their games have always rewarded the thinking gamer, in particular with their intuitive boss-battles. Again, typically a boss in these games will require many deaths from you before you learn how to correctly defeat them and from what I’ve played so far, Strider is no different.

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I didn’t play the original Strider on the Sega Mega Drive or Master System, now did I play its sequel on the Sony PlayStation, but I’ve done some homework, and from what I can tell, they’ve stayed true to the originals, in terms of story and overall theme. I recognize a lot of shiny remastered bosses and cityscapes from the Mega Drive version, and despite the modern soundtrack, there something very “1989” underneath it.

Even in Normal difficulty, it begins to push back quite early on, and you’ll suffer a few frustrating deaths, but push through in the end. As you pick up new skills, such as double-jumps and air attacks, the game opens p, giving you new places to explore and new ways to take on enemies. In true Capcom fashion, an enemy that starts off as quite a challenging, single boss, will become a common nuisance that attacks you in packs of 2 and 3 within the space of a couple of stages, as you become more adept at picking them apart. Hard Mode (known as Special-A) however, feels like the arcade game it was meant to be and will reward you greatly. There’s no better feeling than learning a perfect speed-run style route through a level in any game, and in Special-A mode, you pretty much have to learn it, in order to get by.

You’re thrown straight into the action in Strider, with no significant plot or goal, something that I found particularly refreshing. Until the second act, it’s hard to even tell if you’re a good guy or a bad guy!

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I must admit, i bought this game almost out of pity at first. Rumors have floated around for a while that Capcom is struggling, and lacks the budget to venture into new games, but with Strider, I really see a way out of the darkness for them. Rather than trying to create deep storied games with elaborate cut-scenes and narratives, a simple “there’s the enemy, go get them” kind of game every so often simply reminds you of the brand you’re buying into with Capcom, and will surely push players to support them.

If you’re looking for a quick to get into, instantly engaging game, this is definitely something for you. Also, if you’re not a retro gamer, but would like to experience old-school gaming with modern graphics and an awesome soundtrack, give it a go, you might just like it. At £11.99, it’s a little pricier than most games in Xbox Live Arcade, but you really get what you pay for with this one. Just do the game some justice and steer clear of Easy Mode.

 

Review – Final Fantasy on your phone

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The Warriors of Light return! My first Final Fantasy experience was, infact, Final Fantasy VIII. Most people my age herald Final Fantasy VII as their first, and unequivocal best, but my first experience was with the eighth; Squall, Quistis, Triple Triad, it swept me into a world of JRPG, followed by the likes of Grandia, Skies of Arcadia, Phantasy Star and so many more.

To see the Final Fantasy catalog slowly porting onto Windows phones was a pleasant surprise for me, and with the first FF at half price, costing £5.99, how could I say no?

The mobile version appears to be similar to the GameBoy Advance remake, with tidier graphics and slightly tougher bosses than the NES original; to balance the game out slightly. As one of the pioneering RPG games, even with the balance tweak, it is a tad easy gameplay-wise, but it’s far more about exploring the world and testing out your detective skills, as you hunt down the four crystals and, of course, save the world from darkness.

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It’s a little bit glitchy from time to time. Certain combinations of buffs confuse the hell out of it and occasionally a sprite will phase though a pause screen, but besides that it feels as close to the original as any.

Controls are clean and straightforward, and as far as a touchscreen goes; pretty robust, allowing you to zip through the dungeons with minimal fuss.

Price-wise, Final Fantasy appears to get a lot of negative press, with many giving it a poor review for costing £6/£12, stating that it’s way too much for a mobile game. What they’re forgetting is that this is not a mobile game. It’s a full console game, as true to the original as possible and, as a JRPG, will be responsible for hours and hours and hours of your life, should you invest in it. I’ve played it through before, and have still managed to get 10+ hours out of it. If it wasn’t on sale, I’d have still happily paid the retail price of £11.99. I have since bought Final Fantasy III for Windows Phone for full price, as a result of being so impressed with Final Fantasy.

The soundtrack remains unchanged, and the Xbox Achievements that have been added break up the longer slogs, rewarding you for things like steps taken and places visited.

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Should you get it? I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t. Final Fantasy is available on so many platforms, but is always worth going back to after a few years. The phone version is available on Windows Phones, iOS and Android platforms and despite costing more than a typical mobile game, it delivers enough to justify itself. Due to the basic mechanics in the original RPG, it can be chipped away at casually, or played start to finish over a couple of days.

If you’re the kind of person who only downloads free and dollar-or-less games on your phone, hear me out. It’s worth so much more. It’s a full game; no ads, no pay-to-play, pay-to-win or “share your achievements on Facebook for a bonus coin!” in sight. It’s a retro classic that every gamer needs to experience at some pint.

One of my favorite things: It’s not addictive; you’ll play it and get over it, because unlike the standard happy/flappy/angry/clumsy/crushy bird saga-style games, you’ll actually get a sense of achievement from it (something that “addicting games” thrive off never providing, hence their so-called success). Furthermore, yes, there are some poor games out there that you’ll pay for, and if this is your first time spending a proper amount of money on an app of cellphone game, it’s one that’s guaranteed not to leave you with your fingers burnt.

Wizard’s Choice and the return of old-old-school gaming

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My first ever Dungeons and Dragons-style experience was through Ian Livingston’s 1985 book, Freeway Fighter.

Freeway Fighter was a “game book”, a genre that hit significant popularity in the mid 1970’s to 1980’s; around the same time that Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy computer game, Zork rose to fame.

The CYOA, or Choose Your Own Adventure book scene was huge, and featured mechanics such as Hit Points, Mana, Pen and Paper, Gold and even D20 Dice variables like a true tabletop role-player, but all contained within the confines of a paperback. Even as a kid, growing up in the 90’s, I felt their allure and quickly plowed through as many as I could find, but always returning to Freeway Fighter. Freeway Fighter was not only my first game book, but also my first minor act of crime; as I returned to it so many times in my school library, in an attempt to better my score, that I ultimately ended up graduating with it still in my possession; accidentally stealing the tattered, abandoned book outright!

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All of my memories of Mad Max-style endeavors in Freeway Fighter flooded back to me recently, upon the discovery of Wizard’s Choice; a mobile game for Windows phones and Android by Delight Games.

Although it’s a mobile game, it plays out just like a classic game book; with simple text, pictures and a list of role-playing options at each turn. In Wizard’s Choice you take the role of a semi-savvy wizard with his slow, but battle-ready, warrior friend, on the hunt for a lost damsel.

The “book” itself is written really well, albeit amateur. Despite the odd slip, it rolls along quite nicely, and has a reassuring air of humor behind it, allowing the writer to get gritty and gory from time to time without getting too dark. The decisions in it are well thought out, and reward the keenest of readers, by ensuring that the consequences relate to the text (for example, you can lose morale by taking the advice of a stranger over a trusted friend, or fail to complete a command, as a result of not heeding subtle advice written between the lines).

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The story changes scenery at a good pace, keeping you engaged and on your toes, and, although intuitive, will still manage to surprise you from time to time, like a good game book should, particularly a fantasy one. The only downfall, for me, was the lack of a dice mechanic. I think they’ve really missed a trick there, and it’d add a more random element to the overall game, not to mention pay homage to its predecessors.

If you die; you get the option to restart from the last checkpoint (page of inconsequential text), or from the beginning altogether and at the end of the chapter you’ll be rewarded with a score, rank and summary, encouraging you to go back and attempt a perfect run.

Delight Games have a library full of CYOA-style games and offer a premium membership, which grants you access to all of their titles, plus updates. I’ll be investing in it shortly…after another read of Freeway Fighter, for old time’s sake.