What a decent Harry Potter video game would look like

The Harry Potter video games have been, for the most part, distinctly average. Far too preoccupied with mimicking key moments from the films, or trying to force game mechanics that have been successful in other franchises. It’s all been a bit of a mess, accumulating in a final instalment which many consider to the be the worst of the lot.

Although it’s easy to blame short development cycles or inexperienced teams, Electronic Arts should really know better. They’ve been in the business a long time and were entrusted with a brand that has millions of fans around the world. Surely they could have done a little more with the Harry Potter video games?

The concept for this piece was inspired by a recent post on Kotaku. They ask a simple question: If you could create a perfect Harry Potter video game, what would it be like? Both Jen and Sam bring up some interesting (and hilarious) ideas for their own prospective works, but what I really took away from the article was the need to go beyond the original source material.

From a business point of view, each Harry Potter game was designed to coincide with the films. That’s fine. Once a child leaves the cinema, they’re likely to spot the game in a shop and then want to do a little magic conjuring of their own. The difference is that these games don’t have to be a scene by scene representation of the films. They could be about an entirely different part of the Harry Potter franchise. Simply call them ‘Harry Potter 7’ and slap Daniel Radcliffe’s absurd face on the front cover. It’ll have the exact same effect on sales, regardless of the content inside.

Sam mentioned a prequel game, similar to what The Force Unleashed did with the Star Wars license. I think this is a fantastic idea, introducing characters who were mentioned in the books/ films, but never given the chance to be explored fully. I would consider taking this one step further – how about a game documenting each stage of a particular character’s life, such as in Assassin’s Creed? Let’s take James Potter for example.

James Potter started out as a pupil in Hogwarts. This chapter could be presented in a similar fashion to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with an open world school and classes to attend at your leisure. Small cut scenes could tie it into the original literature, such as meeting Lily Potter and making friends with Sirius, Lupin and Peter Pettigrew. Otherwise it could deviate into new territory, using platforming and dialogue trees to show how the school once operated.

Upon graduation, James then fought in The First Wizarding War as a member of the Order of the Pheonix. Marking the original reign of Lord Voldemort, this section could show Potter senior in a new, older light. Upgraded powers could be used to take on missions from either the Ministry of Magic, distressed muggles or the Order directly. This would provide the opportunity to explore previously unseen locations from the books and films, allowing level designers to create worlds that actively benefit the gameplay.

Each console offers a wealth of opportunity for controls and input. Motion controls are an obvious place to start, but should be handled delicately and intelligently. No waggle Wii mote flailing, please. Using the Wii U as the Marauder’s Map is a great idea offered by Sam, allowing players to design their own routes or track important enemies. Taken one step further, the map could be used in game to offer online player hints and tips in a similar fashion to Demon’s Souls.

Most importantly, put the franchise in the hands of a capable developer. Bioware is already doing a fantastic job with Star Wars: The Old Republic Republic and shows the quality that can be produced with a little creative freedom. Perhaps it’s too late for a decent movie tie-in, but it’s certainly not too late for a decent Harry Potter video game.


Race, trick and survival modes demoed for new SSX

The development team behind the new SSX presented their latest build at a community event yesterday. The presentation showed fans all three gameplay modes and announced that Psymon Stark would be a returning character.

SSX is still in early stages. Creative Director Todd Batty describes the title as being in a ‘pre-alpha’ stage, which means that some of the content and gameplay mechanics are yet to be put into the game. It’s refreshing to see the game’s continuous progression, but I worry that the fan criticism will disrupt the development and direction of the final product.

First up was a sneak peak at the Psymon Stark. It was only concept art at this point, but to be honest I was a little bit disappointed by the chosen styling and gear. Psymon has always been the insane maniac of the franchise, cackling wildly with spiked hair and aggressive one liners such as “Gimme Air Or Gimme Death!”. This version has seen his eccentric personality curbed significantly, with a tame tuft of brown hair and combat trousers. Hopefully some of his unlockable outfits will give players the chance to kit him out with some more of his more famous garments, such as the straitjacket from SSX 3 or the white vest in Tricky.

Todd Batty started out with the hub menu, which was sparsely populated by a rotating globe and selections for ‘campaign’, ‘explore’ and ‘global events’. It looked a little bare to be honest, although I imagine that it’ll feel more impressive once all of the online features and feeds have been put in.

It’s been known for a while now that the SSX team are using data from NASA to recreate some of the mountain ranges and snow conditions. However, this presentation was the first time that I recognised the scale of the data and just how influential it will be on the level design. It won’t mean that each level is a boring, real life depiction though. The developers used this technology to construct the core of each mountain, later sculpting and changing them into the surreal, over the top courses that we have come to love in the SSX franchise. Todd Batty promised that each mountain range would be extremely open and have specific themes that make them unique.

The race event was set on Kilimanjaro, pitting Kaori against Mac and Elise in a quick descent. The starting gates are gone this time around, replaced by various drop points that bring each rider together. What ensued was classic SSX gameplay, encouraging players to earn boost by tricking along the way. A section through an underground cavern felt particularly impressive, offering multiple paths and jumps. Todd Batty stressed that he wanted the speed to feel like ‘Burnout on snow’, edging players to a point where they would always feel slightly uncomfortable. For the most part it seemed to work, although I would stress that the race felt very short – nothing like the all peak rides found in SSX 3.

Unrealistic and mind blowing stunts are a staple of the SSX franchise. The trick segment of the game took place on a mountain with the great wall of China, allowing Mac to take each obstacle at his own pace. The character animations and flow of the game looked particularly impressive, although a minimalistic HUD seemed to play down the role of uber tricks. Todd Batty later explained that there would be a series of signature tricks that could be unlocked after ubers, taking influence from past iterations. Fingers crossed for guillotine, eh?

‘Survive it’ is the new mode for SSX this time around. It represents the trend toward big mountain riding and peak descents in modern snowboarding, acting as ‘boss stages’ throughout the campaign. Players are pitted against extreme environmental conditions, such as cold, darkness, thin air, gravity, snow, rocks, trees and white out. The demonstration showed off snow, launching the rider in front of an avalanche in North America. A reverse camera angle was used to show off the scale and atmosphere of the disaster, which was undeniably impressive and over the top. The viewing angle meant that it looked quite hard to control the direction of the character, although I’m sure this will be addressed before shipment.

The feedback section brought up a whole host of smaller announcements such as custom soundtracks, new riders and organic snow models. Although none of these would make headlines, I recommend checking out the Ustream above if you’re interested in the game. I came away from the presentation happy, but not blown away by the how the game is developing. The development team has a lot of great ideas, but I’m sceptical that they’ll be able to execute them all in the final product. The colourful personality of SSX (or lack of) was what concerned me the most, with characters and levels looking subdued and reserved. There’s still plenty of time for development though, so hopefully these issues will be addressed in the coming months.

SSX Deadly Descents is renamed as… SSX?!

EA has added yet more confusion to the strangely defined SSX Deadly Descents by announcing that the game will now be titled simply ‘SSX’. A quote from Creative Director Todd Batty in Gameinformer (and found subsequently via videogamer.com) says:

“We wanted to make sure we hit the over-the-top arcadey gameplay in all of these different gameplay modes. We decided to lead with the new Deadly Descent gameplay in that trailer, but all of the classic SSX style will be there, too.”

Fans had been dubious and worried since the initial trailer for SSX Deadly Descents dropped earlier in the year. A dark skyline and edgy visuals suggested that the developers were aiming for a more hyper realistic game in line with Stoked or the original Amped games. It looks like the SSX team has taken the fans’ concerns on board and tried to reassure them with this broader description of the game.

“We’re a little challenged with how many levels we can put on the disc, honestly, but we’re thinking it will be somewhere in the vicinity of 70 mountains. By comparison, SSX 3 had one. The hub works kind of like Google Earth. You can spin the globe around and pick a mountain range you like then zoom in on that and pick a mountain you like from there, then you get to race down the crazy arcade courses that we’ve built on top of real-life mountains.”

Creating 70 mountains from scratch will be no easy feat. I absolutely loved the mountain from SSX 3 and would prefer to ride a small number of phenomenal courses than a dozen uninspired ones. Still, EA Canada have had this game in development for some time now – so who knows what kind of snowboarding madness they’ve been brewing.

This ‘behind the scenes’ trailer offers some insight into the style and reinvention that they’re aiming for. Racing and insane tricking will be present and accounted for, although this time they’ll be supplemented with the threat of natural disaster. Avalanches and cave-ins were a couple of examples shown in concept art. Todd Batty emphasises staying ‘true to the franchise’ – I really hope that he can deliver on this one.

Brutal Legend

Charm, but no substance

The demo and trailers screamed perfection. Tim Schafer had done it again, producing yet another witty classic to add to the likes of Psychonauts and Grim Fandango. Something in the back of my mind told me to be wary of this title though, steering me toward the safety of renting Brutal Legend. Oh, how thankful I was. Not to say that this is a bad game – but it’s certainly not the gem I had yearned for. Click on the ‘more’ button to find out why.

Combine slick heavy metal, real time strategy, an open world environment and some of the funniest script writing in the last decade and you’ll have some idea of what makes Brutal Legend a potential hit.

Creative director Tim Schafer (known for his work on Psychonauts and Grim Fandango) has finally been given the chance to gain public recognition due to the huge ‘Rocktober’ marketing push of EA. With a stellar cast of voice actors ranging from Jack Black to Ozzy Osbourne, there’s understandably a lot of pressure for Schafer to deliver a cult classic. Is this the game that metal heads have been longing for? (More)

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. With so many games pushing the bar this winter, my standards are predictably going skyward. Maybe it’s just the RTS elements that really grind against my teeth, but something fundamental isn’t quite right in Brutal Legend. Anyone else feel the same way?

Mirror’s Edge

Being innovative in a video game is something of a tight rope. You can either get it gracefully right, or very, very wrong. Mirror’s Edge is a brand new-IP from EA based around free running, hoping to add a fresh take on the FPS genre. The vibrant presentation and minimal controls seem creative enough, but this doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable romp from start to finish.

The opening cut scene introduces us to Faith, a ‘runner’ who is attempting to liberate a lifeless city bound by authoritarian government. She explains the idea of ‘flow’, the ability to see rooftops as pathways and ladders as a means of escape from the police. We’re also given glimpses of Faith’s childhood, but there is never an explanation for why the city is so tightly controlled. The themes of rebellion and underground protest constantly arise in the story and you’ll quickly begin to feel like a part of this movement as the game progresses.

Taking gunfire from helicopters; it's all in a day's work

Taking gunfire from helicopters; it's all in a day's work

Rather than assigning every command to a different face button, Mirror’s Edge gets its control scheme right by mostly using just two bumpers (LB/RB or L1/R1). One is for ‘up’ movements, such as jumping, vaulting fences and pulling Faith up ledges. The other is for crouching, sliding and anything else associated with going ‘down’. It’s deceptively simple, but works well once you’ve got to grips with the absolutely vital tutorial.

The city is made up of ridiculously clean, white buildings, contrasted with the stark red of objects you can use to your advantage. This setting feels instantly refreshing and a hundred miles away from the mud colour palette that haunts most next-gen shooters. The engine does a good job at making the city feel like a sandbox ready to explore, but the truth is far from it. Your route through each chapter is surprisingly funnelled and linear, encouraging you to always keep going and build your momentum. It needs to be, as straying from the path for a bit of exploration nearly always breaks the illusion of a life-or-death chase.

Mirror’s Edge is at its best when you’re running at top speed, watching Faith’s arms and legs pump back and forth as she hurtles towards the next checkpoint. Being able to see parts of her body from a first person perspective (when appropriate) goes a long way in portraying the game’s sense of urgency. She’ll throw the weight of her shoulder into a door to open it, slide down a ladder without using any of the rungs and skid under a closing garage door. As long as you don’t falter your momentum keeps increasing, rewarding you with speedier times and an addictive screen blur.

Unfortunately your not always going to get the level right first time. Sometimes the solutions needed to survive a SWAT team or access the next area are unnecessarily prescriptive, forcing you to redo a sequence again and again until you get it right. If you’ve just been hurtling through a subway system on the euphoria of instinct and quick reactions the experience comes crashing down when you’re forced to stop dead like this.

This game should be commended for making players feel they shouldn’t get involved with combat. Faith is exceptionally fragile and weak, often losing fist fights if she’s outnumbered by more than two foes. You can use punches and kicks, or attempt to disarm enemies with a very tricky reactive button press. Weapons are available but rather cumbersome, slowing you down until you ditch them on the floor. After the first couple of hours gamers will quickly learn that the best bet is to avoid them altogether, taking much more enjoyment from sprinting past their confused faces. However, there are times when your forced to take on the ‘feds and its these moments that actually make up the low points in the campaign.

Defeating your persuers is no easy feat

Defeating your persuers is no easy feat

Where Mirror’s Edge really shines is in it’s more elaborate set pieces. A subway escape has you jumping from roof to roof of speeding trains, while another has you jumping from a building to the safety of a moving helicopter. These scattered moments lift the game higher and tease gamers at just how monumental this title could have been. Or how, if given the chance, Dice could make a sequel even better.

The cartoony cut scenes are poor and could have been improved by sticking with the first person perspective for all of the narrative. The soundtrack is superb though, conveying an ambience and personality only equalled by the high end visuals.

Unfortunately there’s no multiplayer mode, apart from a time trial leader board that lets you download various ghosts to race against. The DLC pack includes eight hyper stylised maps, brimming with colour and the opportunity to set speed run records.

I always want to praise a game that strives for innovation, but for everything Mirror’s Edge gets right there’s an annoying irritation. I love the concept and setting, but the narrative needed to be told better. The gameplay is generally fantastic, but could have been even better with its combat and repetitive structure ironed out. This is a recommended rental, if only to show support for what could be a phenomenal sequel.

Skate 2

I’m sorry Birdman, but the Tony Hawk franchise is well and truly dead. I’ve played every version of your franchise up until Project 8, where I realised that no truly new innovation was going to come out of the series. Tacked on control gimmicks and slightly prettier graphic models simply don’t cut it in the gaming world anymore. I’m actually quite glad that Activision have let the series go, hopefully a new developer will pick up the mantle and take it somewhere new.

Rob Dyrdek and a host of Pro's feature in Skate 2

Rob Dyrdek and a host of Pro's feature in Skate 2

In the meantime we have Black Box’s latest offering, Skate 2. The original Skate came out in 2007, a refreshing experience that threw out arcade combo’s for physics and realism. All of the tricks were mapped to the analogue sticks, offering a system that was both fluid and challenging. Spearheaded by Danny Way, the game won the hearts of skating fans everywhere by capturing the culture and feel of their favourite past time. Skate 2 attempts to expand upon this in every way possible, offering a game that challenges your skating, rather than learning it all over again. The big question for me was is this game worth playing, or simply cash in for a successful experiment?

The plot puts you back in the shoes of your skateboarder from the original Skate. You’ve just been released from prison (for reasons which are never truly explained) and expected to hit the streets to regain the mantle of best skateboarder. A nice cinematic introduces the entire pro cast in the game as inmates, most of which you probably won’t recognise unless you’re really into your boarding. The story is never going to win any awards, but it’s better than last time and does a good job at setting up the new city for you to explore.

New San Vanelona is no longer the skater’s paradise from before, taken over by Mongo Corp to protect the best parts of the city. This means a lot of the stair cases will be capped and security guards are in much higher numbers. I never really felt like I was ‘liberating’ the city, but it’s definitely more vibrant and engaging than last time. Your sidekick phone will allow you to hire out services now that either fix spots or clear guards for those all important challenges. On an initial play through, I was a bit disappointed because I thought the city was much smaller than before. The 4 districts from old San Vanelona are gone and you can’t zoom in to access train stations, or take a better look at the location of spots. You can also teleport between challenges with incredible ease now, taking away any form of travelling between each objective.

By the end I was actively avoiding this tool just so I could explore and enjoy the city. Each task is varied but it’s nice to just stray from the career path and experiment with the controls. The biggest addition in terms of gameplay is the ability to get off your board. Although it’s been incorporated in the Tony Hawk franchise for years now, the original Skate didn’t have walking and this was sorely missed. Just being able to walk back up a stair set saves a significant amount of time and frustration. Unfortunately, the ‘off the board’ mechanic is incredibly unnatural and clunky in Skate 2. After seeing it done so well in other titles, it’s a glaring disappointment when you compare it to Skate 2’s fantastic ‘on board’ controls. Perhaps a little more time in development could have smoothened this out.

However, the ability to get off your board isn’t just for walking around or pulling off nifty caveman moves. In this instalment you can grab onto objects using the right bumper/ R1 and move them around at will. Using park benches, railings and dumpsters you can now create your own spots and save them in the world. You can then upload these directly to the internet and invite your friends or the Skate community to beat your best scores. It’s a great way of adding user generated content and potentially gives an infinite amount of ‘own the spots’ to use this time around. When it works it’s great, but all too often moving objects is frustrating and time consuming. There’s no immediate way to rotate objects, so I frequently spent up to five minutes trying to make a kicker ramp line up properly. Anything you move can be respawned to their original location, so you’ll end up using this all the time when your plans go wrong. Nevertheless, creativity is definitely possible here; it just needs a lot of patience.

The other new gameplay addition is the increased Trick Bible. Skate’s original ‘flick-it’ controls were rightfully praised, so it’s no surprise to see them tweaking here instead of going for a complete overhaul. By holding the push buttons as you grab, you can now take your feet off the board for fastplants, boneless’ or one footed grabs in the air. Invert stalls are also available by pressing the right bumper, which adds to the creativity and finesse at your disposal. With a little research, hippy jumps, skitching and no complys are also new to be abused.

The soundtrack is pleasing, but never once becomes groundbreaking. Although presented in a better way to ‘EA trax’, at the end of the day Skate 2 is using a very generic playlist. It covers every musical genre (so there’ll be at least a couple of tracks for everyone) but a lack of identity or continuity means that it never adds to the experience or personality. Games such as the electronica infused Jet Set Radio Future, or J-Pop filled Persona 4 show that by taking music seriously you can immerse a gamer further. Here though, developer Black Box just doesn’t reach those heights. On the flipside though, the ambient sounds of the skateboard have been recorded with excruciating detail. The pop of an ollie, the screeching wheels of a powerslide and even bones breaking have obviously seen some time and care.

Taking a leaf out of Burnout Paradise’s book, the online modes have seen some serious fine tuning. Rather than exiting to the main menu, you can now be immersed in career mode and switch to online with a quick button press. Online freeskate activities are brand new, requiring you to team up with other skaters and work together to complete a wide variety of challenges. The hall of meat has also been added to existing trick and race modes, allowing you to go head to head as you perform the most gruesome fall. Even where the career path is over, there is now a thriving online community and selection of modes to get your teeth into.

If you weren’t impressed with the original Skate, this probably won’t do enough to win you over. Rather than revolutionising skateboarding games again, Black Box has played it safe and decided to flesh out, tweak and fine tune. The result is still slightly flawed, but easily the best skateboarding game to date. It doesn’t feel as original, but if you’re like me and already looking for another dose of wood pushing; this is your answer.