Lolocaust One Hour Play-Test Triple Bill: Tennis, Future Soldiers and Dirt.

This week saw the release of four big games – six if you count Sorcery and Doctor Who and the Infinite Clock, which I’m not – and of the four I managed to get a good amount of time on three of them, namely Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS, Dirt Showdown on the Xbox 360 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, also on the 360. One was a surprise hit, one was as expected and one left me jaded and miserable.

Place your bets now please.

We will start of with Dirt Showdown, a game that can only be described as the bastard child of Dirt 3 and Burnout Paradise. With most of the emphasis on the rally side of the Dirt franchise store away until Dirt 4 proper, the Ken Block infused rampaging cars and destruction derby gameplay takes centre stage – literally in some cases – proving the gamer with a series of races, challenges and destructive events, all in some vague attempt to appeal to the angry folk who just don’t get enough excitement from drifting on a cliff top desert road. The idiots.

Dirt Showdown is unapologetically masculine, and in many ways is more of a spin-off from Dirt 3 than a new franchise in its own right, and that’s fine by me. As someone who loved the YouTube integration on the third Dirt game, and it’s commitment to community statistics and the like the addition of Racenet – Codemasters’ version of EA’s Autolog, that penetrated the Need for Speed games like a horny rabbit on Viagra – is not to be ignored. Community challenges are a great way to not only include the gamer in something greater than their own pitiful social circle, it also can aid in the longevity of a game. While fiddling with the YouTube video option after a race I managed to upload this with a few button presses.

Even first party Kinect games can’t manage that as easily.

What Dirt Showdown proves to me is that Codemasters really know how to knock it out of the park when it comes to this franchise, and appealing to the more casual racing fan with some carnage is a step that we can only approve of. Dirt Showdown is possibly the quintessential bench mark for other spin-off titles. There, I said it. I can confidently say that a group of like-minded gamers could find this title being at the top of their ‘Game to play while boozing and chortling’ pile for a great many months to come, and that’s without touching on the games visual flair. It’s a pretty game.

Across the board Dirt Showdown impresses, and I can gladly recommend it to anyone who likes a good meaty racing game, but also wants to have fun. Add seven more recommendation points if you have friends. Heck, even if you haven’t the YouTube editing options and the community challenges will also appeal to you, you sad, wretched soul.

Next up is Mario Tennis Open, a game that until last week wasn’t even on my ‘Games I Give A Shit About’ radar. In fact it was clogging up my ‘Oh Really? Another Mario Related Game That’s Not Actually A Mario Game?’ pipes like a week-old foetid old turd. I was wrong to think like that – I blame Nintendo for this – and instead I should have been told about the fact that it is the demon spawn of Guitar Hero and Virtua Tennis, and that I could give my Mii a pair of shorts, hell, I could see actual legs!

This may sound odd but the game does happen to play like a Guitar Hero game – if you choose to play that way, more on that in a minute – in the sense that there are power zones on the court, that match a move you can perform. Now this being a 3DS title it has to do three things to justify the system’s on-going existence, namely a) have 3D as an integral part of the experience, b) Use the gyro controls and c) Use the touch screen in some way. What is surprisingly pleasing is the lack of emphasis on point a. The 3D in the game works well in some areas and wouldn’t work so well in others – case in point the option to bring the 3DS closer to your face to move to an over the shoulder position, allowing for greater serving accuracy. Now while some would argue that this would have been the perfect time to have a sense of depth, the developers have wisely ensured that the game turns the 3D off automatically to stop the blurry ghosting that can often happen in games that encourage movement of the system while playing. This was wise, and has no negative impact on the game at all. The touch screen controls take a similar approach to the excellent Street Fighter IV port that featured pokable special moves and combos on the poking area. With Mario Tennis Open the screen becomes a cornucopia of tennis manoeuvres, and with a little practice you are soon flinging your balls around with gay abandon. Blend in the power zones – hitting the corresponding move/colour with that of the zone to increase the effectiveness of the shot – and you have a game that skirts the line between fun sport title and quick time event fuelled mania. It’s brilliant. The multiplayer is suitably manic and there are a lot of customisation options there to be unlocked – not to mention a range of region specific QR codes that allow the gamer to dress as a variety of Yoshi characters. Put simply Mario Tennis Open deserves its place in every discerning gamer’s collection. It’s in mine.

Finally we come to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier, or as I’m going to helpfully abbreviate it to, TCGRFS. TCGRFS is obviously a follow on from the original Ghost Recon titles, yet it also manages to dress up as a Call of Duty game, and a Medal of Honor game, and any other seminal shooter that has made money in the last few year, and its hard to blame the developers for scrapping some of the more tactical elements of the franchise and concentrating instead on more action oriented gameplay. That’s not to say it feels like a misstep, not at all, instead I think it is very comparable to the steps taken from the early Splinter Cell games to the rather good Splinter Cell: Conviction. I’m never critical of a series going for a wider appeal, especially as the more niche titles often come with the double-edged sword of potential financial failure, even if it is a critically loved title. What TCGRFS gets right is it’s emphasis on the multi-player element of the game, which while I’m never a fan of the single player element of a menu screen not being the first option on the list, in a game that pushes for team work and co-operation it is almost essential – see also Left for Dead.

What it doesn’t get right, or at least didn’t in the limited time I spent on the game, is to separate itself from the field in any way at all. As I said before there are many moments early on that feel like a Call of Duty game, and while it is natural that any developer will crib from successful approaches, the early moments of a game define the experience for many, and if I am playing a new game, I want it to feel like a new game. I didn’t get that vibe, instead it felt like an – admittedly competent – rehash of the same of shooter fare that’s out there, and this disappointed me greatly as I adored my time in the TCGRFS multi-player beta test. In fact I’d go so far as to say that I’d have preferred the game omitted the whole single player campaign to concentrate on what I genuinely felt was a progressive step for online multiplayer, mostly thanks to the future war setting, soon to be seen in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

I can’t fault Ubisoft for their inclusion of their ever evolving, and improving, UPlay service, and I’m even happy to accept the one time activation code required for online interactions, but I can’t ignore the campaign’s short comings, which is saddening. I will return to the game when it hits the sub £20 mark, but for now I’m not feeling the vibe.

So there you go, Dirt Showdown was brilliant, as expected, Mario Tennis Open was a surprisingly fun title and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier did nothing for me. A literal mixed bag of reactions. So are you plonking some wonga down on their games? Let us know, and what your views are in the comments field.

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