Month: November 2011

Alan Wake

Firstly, let me introduce you to Hidden Gems before I start my review. This section of the website is all about games that the team have played and thought “Hey, this game deserves more recognition than what it’s getting!” Have you ever found yourself going into your local gaming store or browsing the internet, looking at a game, picked it up cheaply and after playing it thought it was a really good one but none of your friends have heard it even existed? I’ve found myself in this situation so many times and I feel their missing out on fantastic games that have just gone under their radar due to bigger games being released on the same day.

For this piece, I’m going to be discussing Alan Wake which, because it was out the same day as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, I feel got shunted to one side as everyone frantically bought the bigger title. Personally, I didn’t think much of RDR but that’s for another day – let’s talk about Alan Wake!

Alan Wake is a thriller game which will provide you with an enjoyable yet scary gaming experience. The game starts as your character; Alan Wake, a best-selling author decides to take a break for a week in the small town of Bright Falls with his wife. But alas – there’s always something that goes wrong isn’t there? Unfortunately, Alan’s wife goes missing unexpectly and now Wake is set to uncover the truth behind her disappearance. Not only is there this, but Wake starts to have blackouts and sees characters from his latest novel, that of which he cannot remember writing. Oh dear – things are not looking too good for Mr Wake are they?

One of the main features of the game that you can even notice from the game cover is that it’s very dark. I’m not talking Goth’s, witches and everything in-between but, there is the constant battle against darkness in the game. Equipped with only a flashlight for the most part of the game, this did make me feel uneasy as you can’t see anything around you apart from where the flashlight is pointing. Whilst playing, I was forever checking over my shoulder and doing the typical movie move of pointing the flashlight in every direction I could within a short amount of time. As well as the darkness, the visual effect of the game were very well done in my opinion. Whether there was something that actually moved or just my eyes playing tricks on me I will never know but it certainly does add to the experience that you’ll get from playing this game.

One of the main enemies you’ll encounter in the game is humans who have been beaten by the darkness themselves – these are called ‘The Taken’. Lovely chaps if they wouldn’t scare the living daylights out of you for the most part of the game but I’m sure they’re just after a big hug. If so – I didn’t give them much of a chance to extends their arms and embrace me. To defeat The Taken, you must, yup you guessed it, point your flashlight at them until they die. Thankfully, like any human being, they don’t like bullets either, so find yourself a gun or two and you should be fine. With The Taken coming at you from anywhere, Alan Wake really does keep you on the edge of your seat during the whole game. Some nights, I thought to myself “Yeah I’ll pop on to the Xbox for a little while before bed” however five minutes later I found myself curled up in a corner with my Tigger teddy never wanting to sleep until morning. Okay that’s an exaggeration but you do feel the adrenaline pumping through you more and more with every scare you get in the game.

One feature of Alan Wake that people are either going to love or hate is the fact that the game is being portrayed as a TV show. With this, it has it’s perks with cliff hanging endings that keep making you want to play more however, at the end of each episode you loose your precious weapons somehow does get a little annoying.

The game itself is a short but could be expanded out by looking for the collectibles in the game and doing some exploring of the scenery that is really beautiful if you bother to take the time to look at it. Personally – I was more concerned about getting to the place where there was most light to save me from ‘The Taken’. The story line within the game can be a bit of a challenge on the brain to try and keep up with what’s going on with Wake’s wife and where he is with regards to finding out more about her disappearance but once you do get your head around it – you’ll be glad you did.

After playing through it on Normal, I did find the game pretty easy to get through and sometimes did feel as if the game was holding you hand as to where to go next and creating no challenge to the player as to figure out where to go to next. This aside though I really enjoyed playing Alan Wake and would easily play through it again for a similar experience as what I’ve mentioned above. I’m not one to give out spoilers but it does make you think and wonder even several hours after completing the game.

There as been rumours of a sequel to this game so I highly recommend that you pick this up and play it if you’re into survival horror/thriller games or just fancy a bit of a scare! Alan Wake is out on Xbox 360 and PC and is available to play now.

My Retro Years: Kirsty Fraser

As a contributing writer to – it’s obvious that I would have an interest in games so I’m here to talk about how I first got into them and my first experiences of gaming.

I vaguely remember sitting in my living room and playing my next door neighbours Sega Megadrive that I had borrowed for the weekend. I would be playing as everyone’s favourite blue hedgehog – Sonic, a very old version of FIFA ( this was back when I did actually bother playing football games, nowadays – I don’t see the big hype) and a game called James Pond.  James Pond always amused me to be honest – I think it was the title mostly due to the many spin-offs of James Bond in the game through mission titles etc. This was my first ever interaction with games and I must of only been perhaps 4 or 5.  I hated every time my parents told me they wanted to watch something on the television resulting in the MegaDrive having to be turned off as I loved sitting on the floor for hours playing on it.

There was one week I was coming home from being at my Grans during the Summer holidays in which I was glad to be going home because I could play the Sega Megadrive again for hours – yippee! Instead, my Dad took me to my room and showed me that they had bought me my own television for my bedroom. Instantly my mind wandered to “Yes, I can play the Megadrive up here and not have to worry about the parents wanting to watch some stupid documentary!” however, there was a bottom attachment on this new TV. To be honest I just thought it was part of the stand, no big deal, so when my Dad started laughing at me as I turned it on to watch The Simpsons (had a bit of an obsession with them as did any kid growing up in the 90’s), I was rather confused. Turned out the ‘attachment’ was actually a storage drawer with a lovely new gaming console for me by the name of Playstation One. This became my new obsession. I loved playing so many games on that including Spyro, Theme Park World where I would cause countless hours of chaos on the little visitors entering my park, V Rally 2 that my Dad officially was rubbish at and the game also featured a heartbeat sound that was at the start of every race when it was loading up that I got really scared of . Throw in a couple of the odd WWF wrestling game (where I could never learn all of the moves which is where I soon learnt the wonder of ‘button bashing’ ) and I was on my way to becoming addicted to gaming.

I vividly remember playing a game called Croc 2 and this soon started my rage at games when I found them difficult. I would spend hours playing  a cheap copy of it (I got my Playstation chipped for around a tenner which meant I could play copies of games for around a fiver each – perfect for my Dad who was buying me all my games at the time to feed my new found gaming addiction) It was always a game that even though I was getting annoyed because I couldn’t get past certain points, I would forever go back to it in the hope that some miracle had happened so that I would manage to get past that frustrating point. This only lead to me chucking the controller onto the floor twenty minutes later and shutting the Playstation off and never speaking to it again for several hours.

Apart from this, with a games console that was actually mine instead of having to borrow my next door neighbours – I really couldn’t be happier. I could honestly loose days being in my disgusting looking room (sickly looking yellow with posters of 90’s pop bands… yeah, you can imagine *cringe* ) just merely sitting playing video games and completing them. The first ever game I completed was the tie in game for the Harry Potter and the Philosphers Stone movie. I was honestly so happy that day that I had managed to fully complete the game as me and my friend had a small competition going to see who would complete it first. Instantly I was on the phone to her bragging about it. Even to this day, I get a warm feeling in my stomach whenever I complete a game, which grows depending on whether I’ve obtained 100% in the game, or got all the achievements for a game. To me, the game doesn’t stop after the campaign, there’s so much more to do in games these days.

Soon after this introduction to gaming, I became aware of more and more consoles and was highly impressed by Nintendo’s GameBoy. It was portable. You didn’t have to hook it up to a TV but just go through countless amounts of batteries just to play a black and white pixelated game on the tiniest of screens. This  solved the problem of being bored at my Grans during the summer holidays – no more watching four channels for a whole week. One of my favourite games for the GameBoy was indeed the Pokemon series. The music was always a thrill to listen to and I am still purchasing the latest instalments of the games even today when I’m twenty years old. Over the years I’ve gone through so many different games consoles including the Nintendo 64 spending hours on 007 Goldeneye multiplayer with friends, Playstation 2 and seeing the Guitar Hero series taking shape (The third instalment will forever be the best one for me) and playing the amazing GTA series. Finally, after months of saving up, my beloved Xbox 360 called Charlie got bought and put through its paces. This was when I first got introduced to the Assassins Creed series and I’ve never regretted playing them.

I think one of the things that always made me love games is the fact you could be controlling a purple dragon one minute and with the change of the disc be driving around in snowy Monte Carlo with a lovely Subaru Impreza and this feeling had never gone away.  I’m always being surprised on how much gaming has changed and expanded especially in recent years bringing more and more people into it and enjoying gaming as well whether it’s by themselves or over Xbox Live or Playstation Network.  I only hope in 15 years’ time I can look back and talk about the Xbox 360 as I’ve spoken about all of the older generation consoles that I’ve mentioned in this retro years post.



The Greatest Video Game Music – Album Review

The Greatest Video Game Music – London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Video games have been around for nearly 40 years now and only within the past 5 years have they really started to make a breakthrough into the mainstream. Yet even now they do not get the respect they deserve in the way that other forms of entertainment media do.

One area of gaming that does garner a lot of respect, both from players and peers is the music. Music in games has come along way from simple beeps to full-blown symphonies and a few bars of a tune can instantly trigger memories in gamers that we didn’t even know we had. It’s this feeling that the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Skeet, are hoping to ignite with this album.

There are 21 tracks, or 22 if you have the Bonus track edition, which cover every possible aspect and genre.From the FPS worlds of Modern Warfare and Battlefield to the RPG summit of Elder Scrolls and even the portable gaming of Angry Birds. All colours, creeds and tastes are catered for. The album covers 20 different video games with combined total sales exceeding 1 Billion units globally.

A  favourite of mine is their take on Final Fantasy VIII’s Liberi Fatali, just a few notes and I’m transported back to that opening scene of one of the series most under appreciated games. Bioshock: The Ocean on his Shoulders is a hauntingly simple piece that does well to convey the sense of isolation and insanity that the game provides.

The Tetris and Super Mario Bros. themes both get an orchestral makeover, with the latter ending up with a very jazzy sound that wouldn’t seem out of place in the background to one of the recent batch of 60’s style Tv shows.

The rousing strings and horns of the Call of Duty and Battlefield themes are a brilliant accompaniment to Halo 3’s: One Final Effort, each bringing that sense duty and achievement.

You have to wonder what the inspiration was to make this album and you can’t help but look towards Nintendo’s own Symphony efforts as part of the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary. This album does have a Legend of Zelda Suite and they do it justice but in my opinion it does fall just short of what you can hear on the CD included with Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

That is just a small blip on what is otherwise a fantastic album and a great introduction to classical music. Classical music might not be to everyone’s liking but any serious gamer has been listening to it for years in between loading screens and during opening cinematic. What this album shows is just how wonderful these tracks are and how talented the people who create this music are.

The album is available now from Amazon and iTunes.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls. When I say, or shout that to you, what do you envisage? Sweeping lands of beauty? Dungeon crawling your way through the massive single-player? 2D sprites and about a million NPC’s (non-playable characters) you can interact with? Every iteration of The Elder Scrolls brings a new perspective on the game and on a wider scale, your life. Your job/girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids go straight out the window, now only Bethesda’s masterpiece means anything to you. I even remember reading a post on the Bethesda forums a day after release asking one of life’s greatest questions: “How do I get Skyrim off my wife and still get laid?” The modding community goes nuts, another Bethesda game to edit! Under a week from release one mod has been downloaded 100,000 times. 250,000 people were playing the game on steam at release day alone. There is a reason for this.

There is a legacy that The Elder Scrolls has left, starting with a small and very hard game on Microsoft DOS (disk operating system) called The Elder Scrolls: Arena. You can download that game for free at though you will need a DOS emulator to run it. It became an instant hit with the hardcore RPG players which were some of the more common gamers at the time, showing that even the west could make a massive, challenging masterpiece. Even though it had no icon, no big name legend in gaming on the front of the box, all of the sequels sold; even if they did run into a bit of financial trouble before the stunning 3D world in Morrowind.

The reason Elder Scrolls didn’t have a figurehead is because it is your own game, you can make it what you want to within reason. You can be a rebellious handsome Nord, hunted by the Imperials for joining the Rebels and massacring all of their troops using only a blunt sword; or you can be a well mannered Elf, just trying to get by in a world full of tyrants, making a name for himself by being an expert blacksmith, even though on the inside he is a softie who just wants to save up for a house, meet the girl of his dreams, marry her and kill dragons. Unfortunately the dragon massacre is part of the structure so I would not recommend getting this game if you are a die hard fictional-animal rights activist, or if you think imaginary creatures that have nothing but an urge to devour you and your chums should be treated well, given free homes and carefully tended to.

The combat mechanics in Skyrim are perfect, you can have fun and slay dragons, whether you have a battleaxe or balls of fire in your hands. The controls felt a bit slow and imprecise but after several hours going through the game you get the precision pinpointed right down to a tee, with a brilliant lock-picking system returning from The Elder Scrolls V: Oblivion and several Fallout games. The all-new favourites menu helps you swiftly select another spell, or if you are out of magicka switch to your trusty melee weapon or bow without having to go into your inventory and sort it out like that, making otherwise awkward moments that interrupt the flow of battle into a even faster paced and more exciting experience with a maelstrom of guards, wizards and the undead clawing at your face even more rapidly! How delightful does that sound?

The main quest, a big hook for many, is magnificent and will make you choose between not right and wrong but your perception of it, with many grey areas in there for added confusion, not for the weak willed with an attention span of 5 minutes before setting something on fire. The basis is you are a dragonborn, this kind of guy who from what I can gather by Skyrim’s citizens’ constant gasps and asking “Is that really him/her?”   This dragonborn seems to have a knack for dragons, especially murdering them and collecting their souls to shout at people and things, which makes said things and people fly and fall over and do various other things depending on which of these shouts you unlock. Back onto the main quest, there are 2 main factions you can join. These are the crumbling Imperials who are starting to lose a grip on their land and the rebels who hope to have some freedom of the tyranny by rising against the Imperials. Whichever side you choose will pave the way for the rest of the story and the outcome of the war between the 2 factions.

You can also join Guilds as a side adventure. Each one focuses on a different proficiency. For example: Winterhold College is a school of magic for mage classes, but you could also join the Dark Brotherhood, a shady group of assassins that pay you to kill less beastly targets than you will be required to do in the main quest. The side quests are very expansive and can help get a leg up on your enemies, offering a fair amount of game time. Not a game to lightly skim around the edges.

Bethesda sticks to the no multiplayer for multiplayer’s sake format.  Even though some form of playing this game with your friends would be gladly appreciated, the game does give the feeling of company with all of it’s NPCs; be it a novice guard who you cannot interact in any significant way with or the Imperial leader who is commanding and intimidating to even the most battle hardened of soldiers.  Nobody creates an interactive world quite like Bethesda, and what a world they have created.

Sweeping lakes, twisting rivers and the highest mountains make this game look stunning. Even those who have a psychopathic hate of the white stuff (snow, not milk or the other thing you thought of, disgusting man!) will fail to not fall in love with this world.  Even if finding a way to climb up a mountain is stressful, especially when you find an actual road leading up it when you finish the great climb. Bethesda have accepted that more people will want to roam freely and you can find a way from point A to point B, regardless of the terrain in your path; which is a big step up from when you were led along paths in Fallout: New Vegas.

Never before have I said there are too many perfect games coming out. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim may not be perfect, with it’s bugs and glitches; however it’s unbelievably close and nevertheless perfection does not make it a 10. Charm, wit, elegance, beauty and making you love it does, which is what Skyrim manages to execute so perfectly.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

November eh? Must mean it’s time for the new Call of Duty game and this year it’s a sequel to the bat shit crazy, yet bestselling, Modern Warfare 2. After they split the remnants of Infinity Ward and all of the all new, brought in studios Sledgehammer, Raven and Sandy Isle Games have been working for a while on this one and every Call of Duty (COD) fanboy and fangirl (why the odd looks? I know some) has been lining up to get it. In fact over 9 million people around the globe have pre-ordered it so the new developers have to really step up the metaphorical plate and kick some ass with this one.

For the singleplayer portion they have, if you excuse the pun, gone above and beyond the Call of Duty’s of old and created a truly enjoyable singleplayer experience that new players and veterans of the multi-million selling franchise can sink their teeth and bullets into. If you have not played the previous Modern Warfare instalments then I suggest you swiftly watch this timeline video updating you on the events of the last Modern Warfare games

 The singleplayer is not what you expect to find really fun in Call of Duty, more like the younger brother with stunted growth, compared to the beefy, handsome older brother that outshines it’s sibling in everything it does. In this game that is so far from the truth. For once in a Call of Duty the singleplayer lasted more than 5 hours (7 to be precise) and the plot actually made sense. Imagine just how good this games already fantastic singleplayer could have been if it hadn’t had to mop Modern Warfare 2’s stupid and unfeasible plot off the bloodstained carpet. Hats off to the new developers, they know how to put a story together as well as putting together the moments that I refer to as “MichaelBay’s porn”. What I mean is those enchanting moments, usually filled with emotional trauma or explosions that make you whisper “Oh wow!” There are about 5 moments in Modern Warfare 3 that have that desired effect, amongst them seeing the biggest explosion ever followed by the Eiffel tower falling over and in a cutscene the saddest scene since that little girl clawed at her parents’ dead bodies in Homefront.


The story picked up exactly where Modern Warfare 2’s bled out, with Captain “Soap” MacTavish in need of urgent aid, while Captain Price and ally Nikolai try to save him. All 3 have been disavowed and are top priority targets to theUSmilitary. In smaller news,Russiais launching a full scale assault onAmericaand later,Europe. Playing as the non-disavowed army trooper of Delta Force “Frost” you need to kill some enemies that are a bit clearer than in Modern Warfare 2, because they are an army with tanks invading your country not some shady looking Brazilians who you’re not entirely sure why you’re shooting, and the only explanation you get is it helps you defeat a Russian person that one of your company could have shot when he went undercover before that Russian massacred an entire airport and shot your mate anyway.


Nevertheless the past is the past and some great city missions ensure that the majority of the stuff you do is in a recognisable real world location not a field in the middle of Ukraine, hence making the action a lot more intense and leading to more of “Michael Bay’s porn” with a lot of stuff getting blown up or collapsing. For once Call of Duty has a stellar campaign that everybody can like and enjoy from start to finish.


Multiplayer is back and the reason everybody plays Call of Duty has been a bit revamped this year. Now you get to choose between 3 packages – Assault, just like the killstreaks of COD 6, kills with your earned streaks count towards your next streaks and if you die your streak resets. Support is a little different, if you die your streak continues on but the rewards with support are less kill orientated as Assault and help your team more. The third strike package, specialist, is really different; as it gives you some perks instead of killstreaks and at an 8 streak you unlock all perks.


As opposed do previous games you can get your streaks without even shooting a bullet. Some actions like capturing a domination flag for example will reward you with a point towards your streaks, as well as getting kills. The rest of the multiplayer has stayed the same though, but with poorer quality multiplayer maps and unbalanced guns with built in lag ensure that this is the worst Call of Duty multiplayer to ever see the light of day. That may seem like I am damning the multiplayer to hell but I’m not. It’s just the only Call of Duty game so far whose multiplayer has failed to capture me and draw me in, trapping me in that game for 90% of the year.


A multiplayer feature to spend time on instead of the competitive multiplayer is the returning co-op mode from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Being my favourite feature of that game it certainly makes the cut in this title as well, with not only the returning mission based gameplay but an all-new mode entitled survival. Imaging the famed Nazi Zombies of the Treyarch games and then those zombies are people with guns, dogs with C4 strapped to them, helicopters and men in hulking suits of armour. All this and a co-op levelling system mean you can have fun with your bestie for hours!


MW3 is flawed but still lovable. And still the same game as the original Modern Warfare. Thats why it gets



Uncharted 3

Another year, another flock of November games. Wanting to get in the big sales and not be left behind at the starting block by franchises such as Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 and Elder Scrolls Skyrim, (reviews up soon for both aforementioned games) Naughty Dog released Uncharted 3 on the 1st of November making it the an attractive prospect to spend all that hard earned cash on. If you are reading because you want the game this and still have some November money left you will in no way be disappointed by this evolution of the third person wall climbing smash hit.

Nothing screams exciting and classy like a good old east end bar fight, am I right? Of course I am, Uncharted puts you punching a load of “geezers” within 2 seconds of starting and it only goes uphill, can you believe. With not only a fantastic premise and plot but also the constant action, interrupted only by cutscenes of such quality that we haven’t seen since Metal Gear Solid 4 and a bucketful of showing off the mechanic which almost defines Uncharted: climbing. If you placed the previous 2 Uncharted games in front of me and asked me to find 1 thing different in climbing I honestly couldn’t because they nailed it first time round.

That’s not the only thing they got right and decided to include again, a lot of the missions are concepts from the previous games revisited with some extra jazz and story added. You won’t really care though because it’s perfect. From the stunning views to being able to see every last grain of sand like its there in front of you it is so sublime.

The old cast of Nate, Sully, Chloe and Elena are right in there all the way for the singleplayer which may have only taken 7 hours to complete, though some characters are more prominent and get more camera time than others. As per norm there is another new sidekick arrival to the franchise in the shape of cockney hard nut Cutter (played by Graham McTavish who has appeared in hits such as Lost, NCIS and Prison Break as well as voicing Uncharted 2‘s antagonist Lazarevic). Cutter deserves instant thumbs up for really bringing out some amusing and witty dialogue, even better than in previous games.

Twists and turns in the story manages to keep it varied and not predictable like the last 2 but some things could get rather tedious very quickly but it manages to not dwell on those points which could and really switching it up differently in the enemy terms towards the end, unlike Uncharted 1 & 2 which did exactly the same thing making you have to go through an ordeal of shooting clips into them before they would finally topple, so much that they felt like mini-bosses.

A perfect inclusion at the start was some flashback chapters about our protagonist when he was younger, as well as how he came into league with Sully and introducing a new power crazed antagonist, Catherine Marlowe. Flashbacks in a video game? How original I hear you sigh ever so sarcastically. An origins story? That hasn’t been done before in entertainment. Well although it’s focuses are old hat tricks used by pretty much every form of storytelling entertainment it really does work, giving you an insight on why and when Nathan Drake ended up on such a stray path as he is and also a shocking revelation that may be used in the Uncharteds to come.

The flawlessness may not continue into the multiplayer section (excluding the co-op) because Uncharted isn’t a shooter prepared for that league but it certainly gives some more longevity to the game. Obviously balanced and well though out you can’t complain that it’s not been planned but the maps feel like somebody will always be ready to shoot me square in the back, though that does significantly reduce any “campers” thinking this is still Call of Duty because you shoot a gun. If I die it feels fair and it doesn’t take 2 shots with an assault rifle to kill me. The gargantuan amount of health you get separates this from any other multiplayer and leaves a surprisingly unique experience which only it’s grittier, Xbox 360-ier competitor Gears of War 3 can match.

The returning co-op mode from Uncharted 2 is much in the same style, with an arena mode for the 3 people who want to take on the world of AI, mindlessly killing them all on your multiplayer maps or a story mode for those that want to relive those singleplayer moments with a couple of mates. Though there are only a few co-op story missions they are all insane amounts of fun and I highly recommend you check them out.

I just can’t find a word to sum up this game. Fun is an understatement. Spectacular and emotional rollercoaster describe parts but fails to see the bigger picture. Maybe legendary would do. Years from now we will be old people, talking to our grandkids and telling them “In my day we didn’t have games where you felt exactly like you were really in them. But there was this one. Back in the days of 360 and PS3. It was damn close to feeling I was right there, next to a plethora of my best friends. Sometimes I was. It was the best game I ever played. It was Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception.


Dragon Age: Origins

What’s the best game you’ve ever played? That’s like asking someone to choose between his or her favourite books, films or children. (The clever one, obviously.)

I pondered for not very long and my mind was firmly stuck on Dragon Age: Origins. While not without its flaws, this was the first game I fell in love with. It was the first game I sat, tears rolling down my cheeks during the credits after some 60+ hours of gameplay. After watching them, immediately selected ‘new game’ from the menu. So, how did those lovely and clever bods at Bioware achieve this?

DA:O was released in Europe November 2009, published by EA as a multi platform release. I played the 360 version and thought that the controls and mechanics were mapped out very well, despite it being a port from the PC. PC gamers will never be convinced and it’s not my job to do so, but I got on very well with it on console. The developers describe their work as a ‘high dark fantasy RPG’, set in the mythical land of Thedas, specifically Ferelden.

The story centres on the movement known as the Grey Wardens sworn protectors of the people and the scourge of the malevolent Darkspawn,which plague the land. There is a change in the air. The Darkspawn are about to unleash the fifth Blight, and the Archdemon (an Old God, manifested in the form of a huge Dragon) unto the world. On top of this, the land is engulfed in civil war, with Gondor and Rohan, I mean Redcliffe and Denerim refusing to come to the other’s aid.  Yes, it’s like LOTR, but so what? LOTR is awesome. Essentially, it’s up to you to reunite a warring land, whilst battling your way through various situations, gathering companions along the way and ultimately defeat the Archdemon. This takes place alongside an ongoing backstory and rich lore hinting at the rivalry between the mages and the templars, humans, dwarves and elves which makes the world seem even more real.

Choice is King in this game. In most WRPGs, there is an aspect of character customisation at the beginning, but Bioware like to go one better. The background and class that you choose will actually shape the first hour or so of gameplay in a way I had never experienced before. Your opening experience will be vastly different depending on your combination of choices. There are six possible beginnings, human noble or Mage,  dwarf noble or commoner, and City or Dalish elf. I predictably went for the Mage option first, so I’ll take you briefly through that experience.

You begin in ‘The Circle’, a great tower where mages are ‘kept’ for both study and safety (from others and themselves). The opening hours, as you come to expect from an RPG, are tutorial based standard fetch quests or kill some giant rats/ spiders to get you used to the combat. Something Bioware pokes fun at during the human noble questline “Giant rats? It’s like the start of every bad adventure tale my Grandfather used to tell.” The combat system is highly geared towards a tactical, strategic approach, with the player being actively encouraged to step back, analyse the situation and adapt and act accordingly. It is, however possible to take a more slapdash approach and make your way fairly easily through the land of Ferelden, if you play on the easiest setting, although you will still get caught out with some of the more difficult enemies. There’s no shortage of things to kill.  You will find yourself battling many different enemies of varying standards, ranging from those pesky Darkspawn, Drakes, Dragons, Hurlocks, rogue mages, rogue templar and werewolves, amongst others.

Home Sweet Home.

The left trigger pauses the game. It brings up an in combat menu by which you can heal party members, revise tactics and very usefully rotate the camera to assess your targets whilst still being paused and safe. There are a couple of negative aspects of the combat, however. The link between you pressing a button for a sword strike or a spell cast is rather delayed, which somewhat detracts from the sense of immediacy. Indeed, on the easier settings in some of the longer battles you find yourself absent mindedly pressing the ‘A’ button repeatedly in a rhythmic fashion. I, at times found myself playing one handedly, surfing the web at the same time to get me through a particularly long and tedious encounter. On the whole, though the combat is enjoyable enough and allows you, of course, to level up.

As a fairly traditional RPG, there is a lot of focus on looting and levelling. There are a myriad of available weapons to use for your character and your companions, and the inventory system can seem a little daunting at first glance with there being so many options for customisation. However it is far from the most complicated I have seen, and does become extremely manageable as you invest more hours into the game. Levelling up is based on the XP you get from winning battles or completing quests, and is nicely balanced. You won’t find yourself levelling too quickly and reaching the cap long before the end of the game. In fact on my first playthrough I missed the achievement for reaching level 30 by mere points.

In each of the origin stories you eventually are approached by a Grey Warden. Duncan has a proposition for you. You’ve turned some heads in the quests you’ve done so far and he wants you to sign up. Me? A Grey Warden? *bats eyelashes* Well, why the hell not? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Oh Duncan, you sneaky snake.

Before you begin your mammoth quest to unite two warring cities and gather all that you can to come to your aid, you must undergo ‘The Joining’, This is the ceremonial ritual necessary to join the Grey Wardens and the part the Duncan conveniently negelected to tell you about. In order to join the Wardens, you must drink Darkspawn blood. Which will either kill you instantly or infect you with ‘The Taint’ (the means by which the creatures communicate and organise themselves) which enables you to sense the spawn and the Archdemon, but will kill you in 30 years or send you mad. Nice one, Dunc.

I’ve got to do what now?

But you do it, because it’s your destiny to be a hero. This is where the adventure really begins. As a HUGE fantasy fan I can honestly say that this is one of my favourite stories of all time, and wouldn’t want to spoil it too much, because it’s a fantastic experience that provides some genuinely jaw-dropping, heart- wrenching moments. Safe to say that if you like swords, shields, orcs and dragons you will not be disappointed. You travel through various beautifully rendered areas which look gorgeous. Whether you’re in the sprawling wilderness of the Korcari wilds, hanging out in the lively inner sanctum of Denerim, or exploring the royal palace, it’s a breathtaking world, with only the occasional frame rate issue that interrupts the atmosphere.

The added crux is that these heart wrenching moments are your doing. You make the choices that will inform which factions ally with you and are against you. You decide who joins your party. You decide on the fate of people and ultimately the fate of the world. Bioware do such a good job of making you care about the characters (and feel such animosity towards the antagonists) that I have no trouble admitting that on numerous occasions I sat, controller in hand, going over the decision with a pained expression, characters motionless on the screen awaiting my choice. I could hardly believe that my choices were having such a far reaching impact in the world. There was one point where I felt real rage at a character’s betrayal. I actually went and bitched about this character. “How dare they?! After all I’ve done for them!”

The story, characters, back story and the way they are conveyed to the player, are quite simply brilliant. The voice acting is superb, with some big names delivering standout performances, Steve Valentine as the dashing Alistair will always be a genuine crush of mine. And you thought it was just sad teenage boys who had crushes on videogame characters. Turns out sad twenty something women do, too. The dialogue is elegantly written, and at times is laugh out loud funny as well as cry out tears sad. Amongst the other protagonists (or potential antagonists depending on how you treat them) you have Zevran, a member of the Antivan Crows Assassins, with a penchant for the kinky things in life, Leliana, a member of the Chantry who was formerly a bard with a less than holy background and Morrigan, a wonderfully sarcastic, bitchy and sexy witch of the wilds whom many will take it upon themselves to try and tame.

I think it’s safe to say this guy got a rather large punch round the chops.

The relationships are yet another aspect that draws you in. Treat someone badly and they may leave your party. Treat someone well and you may hear whispered conversations of how they respect you or even have a crush on you. There is a possibility for romance (or a one night stand) with most characters, and each has their own sexual preference. Everyone is different. Some people (for example) will appreciate a compliment, while others will see it as suspicious. This is often a minefield of trying to please everyone, which ultimately as you can probably surmise from that distraction called real life, never works. Alistair and Morrigan are delightfully pitted against each other and have some hilarious conversations when you are wandering the world, constantly trying to get one up on each other. That conflict comes to a wonderful, epic conclusion at the end of the game, something I would not wish to deprive anyone of experiencing themselves

This entire epic, ranging experience requires an appropriate soundtrack. Inon Zur, a prolific composer in the videogame industry with game scores like Fallout 3, amongst others under his belt, delivers a fantastic accompaniment to the game. It’s that special kind of music that instantly takes you back to a moment in the game, whether it be a particularly sad moment or an intense battle, the atmosphere is captured perfectly and translated into music for your listening pleasure.

Overall, this game is for RPG fans, first and foremost. It’s an immersive, epic, beautifully crafted world that can’t help but suck you in. The story and conclusion are worthy of that illustrious Bioware stamp and if you play it, it will stay with you. It is not without its pitfalls, but the frame rate and some issues with the combat are mere minor complaints.

My first playthrough, as I mentioned took me about 60 hours. I have subsequently played it twice more with all of the expansion packs and DLC (all of which are excellent) and sunk an additional 140+ hours into it. It is still on my shelf in pride of place and I will never trade it in. It holds a special place in my heart as the first game I truly loved and, just as it will stay on my shelf it will stay in my heart. It made me laugh and cry, and it has the power to make you do so too.


Someone pass me my staff, I’m off to kill some Darkspawn.

Follow me on Twitter: @iguanahat and of course follow Zero1Gaming if you don’t already: @zero1gaming