Video game review – Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 (Konami, 2017)

A personal history of football gaming

In 2003, I was in the middle of a hiatus from video games. Having grown up with the thrill of the NES, graduated to the vastly improved SNES and then enjoyed the comparatively mind-blowing PlayStation, by the time the PS2 arrived I’d lost interest. I got my first serious girlfriend in 2001 and with school exams also requiring my attention, I simply didn’t have time to commit to video games.

One of my go-to games throughout my initial gaming tenure was the ever-popular FIFA series. I had the first ever instalment. Titled simply FIFA International Soccer and featuring David Platt on the cover, the isometric visuals seemed like a massive improvement on Sensible Soccer, which I’d invested a dizzying amount of hours into. I didn’t know the word “isometric”, but what I saw was a 3D game of football on my screen for the first time.

The game grew with the consoles and no football pretender got anywhere near the brilliance of the one or two releases every year.

Such was my addiction that I even had a cheat printed for FIFA 2000 in gaming magazine CVG. I never did receive my £5 for that.

So, when I visited my brother at university in early 2004 and he and his housemates were playing a football game called Pro Evo, I was initially dismissive. It didn’t have any of the real team names or play names. It looked different. The controls were back-to-front. It was highly unlikely that in the two years since I’d given up video games that FIFA had been knocked off its crown.

But then I played it.

Instantly I realised why so much praise was being heaped on it. It felt so much more like a real game of football. It was also a lot more fun. It was more balanced. There didn’t seem to be as many cheap ways to score.

I was immediately jealous that I didn’t have access to the game, though I didn’t rectify the issue for another three years when I acquired an Xbox 360 and a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 6.

I’ve since dallied with both sides of the fence, keeping up with the various merits and failings of both series. Sometimes FIFA has edged ahead, but despite the constants that it will always have – primarily the licences and more players for online modes – the PES series has invariably been much more playable.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

So now we’re in 2017 and I’ve picked up a copy of the latest game in the PES series: Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. It’s the first time I’ve picked up a copy of a sports simulator on release weekend for as long as I can remember, so is has been interesting joining in the online buzz.

The FIFA and PES series have converged on a version of events that has landed with an extremely similar setup. There’s an exhibition mode, a training mode, a league mode and a cup mode. There’s also a mode, here called Become A Legend, which involves taking over the career of a single player. There’s myClub mode, which allows you to spend points earned in every game mode on random players to create a team you can take online.

Finally, there’s the ever-popular Master League, a challenge for even the best PES player and a mainstay of the game for well over a decade. In this mode you take over a team of generic and very average players in a lower league and try to progress up the leagues and impress the owner of your club to the point that he will invest in better players for you to challenge for the top trophies.

Every mode has an equivalent in FIFA and neither are particularly better or worse than each other, so comparing the two on game mode alone won’t help anyone.

Where PES wipes the floor is with the gameplay. It has done for years and, having played the demo version of the latest FIFA, continues to do so this year.

Players are responsive and the simple controls allow basic skills to be executed immediately. Trapping the ball and close control when receiving the ball are amongst the simplest skills to master. Guesswork punts up the pitch rarely come off, reflecting real life. Calculated build up and through balls to strikers you know will outpace the defenders will often pay dividends. Try the same attack three times in a row and the defenders will learn from your efforts.

Winning in online modes is obviously never easy, but doing so feels like a huge victory and will be a crowning achievement of your abilities in the game.

There have been a handful of drawbacks I’ve noticed. Online mode has been blighted with either lack of players or poor connectivity, the latter being the first example of poor connection in any game I’ve noticed in well over a year. It’s frustrating to lose a match because of connectivity when it irreparably affects your ongoing ranking.

Player switching can be frustrating. It appears that it will never switch to a player behind the opposition, even if they’re a couple of steps away. That has been the biggest cause of conceded goals for me as I’m forced to bring a well-placed defender out of position to combat an advancing attacker, often then to have the ball played in behind me. That and the fact that the computer almost never concedes a foul will be rectified in an upcoming patch from Konami.

The final downside I’ve found is the inclusion of a handful of Legends in the game. This is great, but every copy of the game comes with Usain Bolt as a player in the myClub mode. When FIFA fans get Ronaldo but PES fans get someone who has never played professional football in his life, it does feel a little on the embarrassing side.

But that’s no problem for the wider game. When the gameplay and intelligent AI is this good, i can forgive the lack of real players. There’s always the extensive editing mode to rectify that anyway.

With an upcoming release of further game modes, including a career-spanning David Beckham career mode, this is a game that still has months of playability left in it and one I won’t be putting down for a long time.

Advertisements

Video game review – Yoostar 2: In The Movies (Namco Bandai, 2011)

The premise of this game is fantastic. Making use of the Kinect camera controller for the Xbox 360, the disc contains 80 movie scenes from famous films (and Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke) for the player to act out, placing their performances over those of the original actor or actress. Sound fun? Well, yes. Kind of.

The thought of acting out scenes from films may appeal to some, but for many even considering standing in front of a room full of people and attempting to deliver an accent-perfect Derek Zoolander just isn’t a good way to spend an evening. It fills them with dread.

Another crowd-pleasing Ben Stiller film scene. Great for crowds of Ben Stiller fans.

For those willing to get involved, enthusiasm doesn’t reward much. The technology causes many issues by just being generally poor: images are low resolution, the background of the playing environment occasionally make their way into the finished scene, the sound is hard to hear when acting and the cue points are really hard to predict.

Both the film choice and the scene selection leaves a lot to be desired. It may be fine if you really like Ben Stiller. Too often there are scenes where your character is looking sideways on. This only works if you know the film off-by-heart or you happen to have a series of strategically-placed mirrors allowing you to read the script as you look away from the screen.

When it goes right it has the ability to cause hilarity. The Terminator is one of the better scenes as Arnie remains relatively still and doesn’t say much. The Casablanca clip works well too, being that it doesn’t require perfect comic timing.

It has the makings of a fantastic party game but unfortunately the flaws mean it never really hits the required heights. Still, it kept my party entertained for about an hour and at the price I paid (£1.33) that is excellent value for money.

Yoostar 2 is available now. Pay no more than £3 for it.

スーパーマリオブラザーズ 2 / Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (Nintendo, 1986)

Following the success of Super Mario Bros. on the Family Computer in Japan in 1985, Nintendo decided to capitalise and release a sequel using the same game design and graphics. This one, titled Super Mario Bros. 2, didn’t initially see the light of day in Europe or USA, owing to the fact that it was deemed too difficult for gamers outside of the Asian market.

Instead, the Western markets got their own separate game, which might have had the same name but was actually a sprite update of Japanese game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. In 1986, nobody in the West cared because hardly anyone knew what had happened. We got a fantastic game in which you could choose to play as Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Toadstool. It introduced many gameplay elements and character traits that stuck with series forever more, as well as a host of enemies. It was simply the next in the series and a welcome one at that.

It wasn’t until the the Japanese game was released as part of Super Mario All-Stars on the Super Nintendo in 1993 that the wider Western public became aware of it. What they found when they began to play it was a game full of pitfalls and frustrating game design with the sole purpose of over-challenging anyone who dared continue to see if it got any easier.

The version most readily available nowadays – and the version play-tested here – is available on both the Wii and Wii U virtual consoles. It doesn’t cost the world (500 points) so may well tempt those unaware of its background.

Playing the game now it’s clear why it wasn’t unleashed on the Western gamers of 1986. It may well have killed the franchise. The difficulty picks up at around the same difficulty or World 7 or 8 of the predecessor, meaning that by World 3 the whole game is entirely infuriating.

All the things that might have helped you in the first in the series are either toned down or flipped to trick you. In addition to the 1-UP and power-up mushrooms, there are now poison mushroom that cause you damage. In addition to the Warp Pipes that you’d expect to help you every time, there are additional pipes that take you backwards to earlier worlds, meaning that unless you do your research (remember how difficult that would have been in 1986?) you could end up going backwards. The number of coins available is greatly reduced as well.

The fun-dampening doesn’t end there. Many of the jumps are near-impossible leaps of faith that often don’t leave much confidence prior to trying them out. Doing so is a trial and error situation that can quickly cause you to game over. Trying to speed through a level? Good luck – the game designers have placed a smattering of hidden mystery boxes that usually cause instant death by knocking you off balance. The platform lengths are unforgiving too, meaning both run ups and landing spaces require pin-point precision or else Mario will fall into another pit.

There are also several levels that require a particular pathway to reach the end goal; running from left to right will just cause an infinite loop and the final goal will never be reached. The only solution is to either hope you get it right by chance or give in and search for a solution on YouTube (always a disappointment).

This is the first Mario game to introduce the concept of hidden worlds post-completion. If you manage to complete the game without using a Warp Pipe then you’ll be rewarded with World 9, which is a fantasy world that utilises a psychadelic colour scheme and some bizarre game mechanics. It’s entirely straightforward and requires no concentration whatsoever despite the fact they remove all your hard-earned lives before the start. In additional to World 9 are Worlds A-D, which were also available to anyone willing to persevere. However, anyone that wishes to see how they play (apparently they’re even trickier than the main game) will need to complete the game eight times in the same save file.

Are you FUCKING kidding me!?

Are you FUCKING kidding me!?

The one saving grace is that on the Virtual Console versions there is the opportunity to save at any point throughout the game. This will no doubt be implemented by most quite a lot towards the end of the game, as an absolute necessity. When tackling a single jump takes ten or more attempts, the thought of trying to do this without a save option will fill anyone with dread.

 

This is what many hours of misery will reward you with

 
This game will suit die-hard fans and people with sadistic tendencies. It is a form of self-punishment and is seldom enjoyable. Completing the game won’t fill you with joy, but it might give you more confidence to tackle the hardest levels on Mario Maker when it arrives later this year.

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is available now on the Wii U virtual console.

Yoshi’s Woolly World / Yosshī Ūru Wārudo ヨッシーウールワールド (Nintendo, 2015)

The latest entry into the Yoshi game series, Yoshi’s Woolly World, has been released in Europe and Japan as a Wii U exclusive. Due to a delay in the release of the Wii U Legend of Zelda game it is also getting a little more focus as one of two big games released by Nintendo this summer, the other being the unexpectedly popular Splatoon, released in May of this year.

The game is set in a thoroughly gorgeous knitted world made entirely of wool. The aim of the game is to take control of Yoshi and rescue your friends following an attack by the evil wizard Kamek, who has turned the rest of the Yoshi species into balls of yarn.

If you're looking for a challenge, you're in the wrong place.

If you’re looking for a challenge, you’re in the wrong place.

Gameplay

If you’re picking this up as a fan of any of the Wii U Mario games and hoping for a new challenge, you may well be bitterly disappointed. The core gameplay is very slow in pace. The lack of time-limit gives players the opportunity to appreciate the environment around them, which sets it apart from, say, New Luigi Bros U, which gives a 100 second time-limit to each level and ensures you have no time to look around at any point. There is no way to significantly speed up a playthrough, at least not until all the collectables have been discovered.

Another factor that means players have an easy ride is the fact there is no way to die. If Yoshi meets his demise, he simply respawns at a convenient position earlier in the level. This respawning has been commonplace in the increasingly forgiving world of video games – especially those considered to be for hardcore gamers – for the last few years but has been conspicuous in its absence in the Mario franchise. It’s a disappointment to see it here and with no lives to manage it is lacking in any concern for success at all.

Remarkably, there is also an additional Mellow Mode, which allows players to fly through the stages. Literally. Yoshi grows wings and takes flight to find all the collectables and avoid all of the obstacles in half the time. Fantastic.

The only thing keeping this from being a very easy interpretation of a Mario-esque 2D platformer is the inclusion of four different collectables. To fully complete each stage you must collect five balls of yarn, five flower heads, finish the stage with full health (you start each stage with half-health) and collect twenty stamp tokens. It’s quite a lazy way to make a game challenging but it does ensure that there’s a degree of replayability.

With its handmade feel it looks very similar to the Wii game Kirby’s Epic Yarn / 毛糸のカービィ, probably because it is from the same development house, Good-Feel. Indeed, they also share a producer in Etsunobu Ebisu and the same composer in Tomoya Tomita. That game itself was inspired at least in part by Yoshi’s Story on the Nintendo 64, so it’s nice the design has come full circle. If there is one redeeming factor it is the wonderfully realised world it inhabits.

Amiibo Support

The amiibo support is minimal at best. All that can be accessed is a reskinning of the controlled character with unusual character colours. It’s a nice touch but doesn’t really add much after the initial chuckle (which lasts around two seconds).

The amiibo support is minimal at best.

The amiibo support is minimal at best.

The amiibo functionality isn’t clearly explained in-game. It is activated by tapping an amiibo on the gamepad (the one with the screen) during the playing of a stage. In single player, this causes an additional second Yoshi to appear to assist Player 1. In Co-op mode, Player 1 Yoshi will simply be reskinned. The amiibo can also be activated in the amiibo hut on the main map.

Summary

It’s difficult to determine how popular this game will be. It definitely has a market out there. It is perfect for younger players and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by parents wanting some entertainment for them to enjoy with their children. For those players who enjoyed the likes of Champions Road in the excellent Super Mario 3D World, there’s not much to be found here.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is available to purchase in Japan and Europe now. It will be released in USA in October 2015.

Atari: Game Over (Zak Penn, 2014)

The Video Game E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is an infamous piece of video gaming history. Everyone knows how it went: in 1983 Howard Scott Warshaw (Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was given five weeks to produce a game for the Atari 2600 system alongside the release of the film and in time for the Christmas market. An over-confident board pushed to produce a market-saturating amount of cartridges based on the game being a best-seller, but when the reviews came in and everyone discovered that the game was terrible, the sales dried up. Atari started getting large amounts of returns of the cartridge and realised they were haemorrhaging money, so (the legend has it) they decided to dump some 700,000 cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.

This film covers the history of the gaming industry, specifically Atari, the background to the game’s release and Howard Scott Warshaw’s part in the game. The main point of interest, though, was built around the highly anticipated excavation of the landfill to uncover the truth behind the cover-up and see if the burial really happened. I won’t ruin the result of the excavation, though it was a huge news story when it happened.

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now "go home".

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now “go home”.

The film was of huge interest to me and the subject matter was something I was happy to dedicate an hour of my life to. The director, as the film clearly lays out, is of great stock, having recently help screenwrite several huge Marvel films (including The Avengers). However, in comparison to Blackfish (which I watched in the same sitting), the storytelling failed to get me hooked. It has a short running time so there was no padding, but it just lacked the emotional power that is so evident in the great documentaries or modern cinema. There was nothing terrible about it – there was some good analysis of Atari in their booming year, a great side-story with Ernest Cline (author of the excellent Ready Player One) and a very brief cameo from George R.R. Martin. I just didn’t make the connection I hoped I would.

I perhaps wonder whether the short running time wasn’t enough. there was easily a further ten minutes on each of the two main topics: the history of Atari as a company being the first and the excavation of the landfill site being the second. I left wanting to find out more and though the information is available on the internet I don’t think there was a better platform than this to tell the whole story.

For a more engaging and humorous take on the excavation, check out Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, which pays no attention to the facts and spends its time trying to keep us entertained instead. Atari: Game Over counts as a near miss for me.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Netflix.

Mario Party 10 / マリオパーティ10 (Nintendo, 2015)

marioparty10banner

No new Nintendo console system would complete without the release of updates of several mainstays of their library. We’ve had excellent and perhaps definitive versions of Mario Kart and Smash Bros., and a fantastic 3D platformer in the form of Super Mario 3D World. So, what’s next? Mario Party, that’s what. The Mario Party games have been a regular since it debuted on the N64 console in 1998. It was no surprise when Mario Party 10 was announced for the Wii U.

It’s a series that seems to fill everyone with indifference. The releases always get middling sales, probably due to the average reviews each receives. Indeed, the MetaCritic score received by each title had been getting progressively worse since its debut, though Mario Party 9 reclaimed some ground with some innovative gameplay and presentation techniques. The graph below ignores handheld games Advance, DS and Island Tour, but you can see it resembles something of a ski slope.

MetaCritic results for Mario Party franchise (console only)

MetaCritic results for Mario Party franchise (console only)

The following graph shows the sales for the same console games as a percentage of the total console sales. The results are again quite interesting – with the exception of Mario Party 7 the sales of the games on each console peak with the debut release then decrease in popularity with each release (source: Video Games Sales Wiki).

Mario Party sales as a percentage of total console sales

Mario Party sales as a percentage of total console sales

So as we can see, there’s a market for the games, but it’s not particularly massive in comparison to the big hitters like Mario Kart. So what reason has Nintendo given us to invest our hard-earned money in the latest release, given almost everyone who has a Wii U has one of the earlier releases, or did at one point? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.

One of the big angles is the use of asymmetrical gaming (remember that?) through Bowser Mode, which actually provides a lot of fun, especially if you’re using the gamepad. The fun comes from the fact that you have a real person screwing you over instead of the computer, and it makes it even better when you can hear them laughing away at your misfortune. To play out in this mode you have one person using the gamepad, whilst up to four others control play via remotes and work as a team to try to escape Bowser. Each regular player rolls a die on their go and gets to move a cart forwards and individually reaps the benefit from whatever space they land on. Then Bowser rolls four dice in one and more often than not catches them up, leading to a mini-game.

The mini-games are a lot of fun, and usually leads to a lot of swearing from four people in the room and a lot of laughing from the other one. One drawback to this is the waiting time between mini-games. I think Nintendo got too involved with the animation and activities between the mini-games and didn’t take step back and realise that all it is doing is delaying the time before we get to play more mini-games. You know, the fun bit. 

Six Mario Party 10 Amiibo have been released as a tie-in.

Six Mario Party 10 Amiibo have been released as a tie-in.


Another angle Nintendo are employing is the use of Amiibo. This isn’t a unique selling point as much as a way to get people that have already invested heavily in the Amiibos to buy the game. There are six launch Amiibii – Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bowser, Peach and Toad, in his Amiibo debut – that interact with the game, though I understand that the Smash Bros. versions of the Amiibo also function in the same way. As I’ve previously discussed, Amiibo are incredibly, almost unfathomably, popular and linking in this game they will be able to increase games sales. Additionally, the Toad Amiibo will function with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (which I have previously reviewed) and Yoshi will function with Yoshi’s Woolly World.

The downside of this is that using the Amiibo with the game is a complete pain. The Amiibo Mode involves using your model to unlock a specific character-related board game. Then you and up to three other players battle out around the board to play mini-games to earn coins to buy stars. The winner is the one with the most stars. When playing in this mode, everyone else in the room was able to roll the dice with a quick flick of the remote, whilst I was sat in the corner switching between the gamepad (which had to be plugged in due to the unimpressive battery life), the remote and the Toad Amiibo I was using. The action to get it to register also wasn’t too great and I was the one slowing the game down drastically by using the Amiibo. A quick update would remove the need to use the Amiibo to roll the dice and would severely speed up this process.

The other modes are pretty cool. The standard Mario Party was what you’d expect and a lot of fun, and the Coin Challenge mode simplifies the gameplay a little too by removing the chance aspect and rewarding the one with the most coins at the end of seven mini-games. The mini-games themselves really weren’t repetitive (the box claims there are more than 70 new ones). I think it took about three hours before we encountered a game we’d already played.

Watch out for Bowser - he's a total asshole

Watch out for Bowser – he’s a total asshole


Another big downside is the inability to make a custom playlist where you can select a series of mini-games from the total list with no breaks in gameplay between, which would mean you could select just the ones you enjoy based on difficulty and personal preference. Instead we are in the hands of the console and often have to play through games that are too easy before getting a real challenge.

I have enjoyed my time with Mario Party 10 so far and I’m sure it will be used many times in a party situation soon. However, I think some critically slow loading times and too much between-mini-game faffing will cause the game to be a bit of a drain on the excitement at a party rather than a catalyst for more enjoyment. Couple that with a lack of online multiplayer and you have a game that has potential but falls short. Though I’m sure that will be sorted out when Mario Party 11 is release in 18 months.

Mario Party 10 is available now, along with all six Amiibo (which as usual are rapidly increasing in price due to lack of availability).

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker / Susume! Kinopio-taichō 進め! キノピオ隊長 (Nintendo, 2014)

Release date: 21st December 2014
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Players: 1

I’m not much of a gamer any more. I probably play about two or three games a year. Last year it was Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2 and South Park: The Stick of Truth. I also bought Earthbound and never got ’round to playing it. This year is looking about as quiet on the gaming front – I’m interested in a couple of the new Wii U releases and I’ve still got The Walking Dead games to play, but nothing set in stone. I moved in with my fiancé in May last year, we got married in June and then both moved jobs within two months. Between DIY and redecorating, and working to pay for everything in the house, we don’t have the time or money to invest in games. When we do, we try to get co-operative titles we can enjoy together. 

So when Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was announced, we immediately decided it wasn’t for us. Captain Toad’s levels were our least favourite part of Super Mario 3D World game, and these were clearly just more of the same, set in the same universe and using the same visuals and engine to power it. It was only when I realised I had a significant amount of points on a supermarket card that I decided to take the plunge, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised.

Each of the 70 levels takes the 3D jumpless platforming and puts a unique twist on the action, be it moving blocks with a press on the controller screen, getting through a pitch-black haunted house or traversing platforms that disappear on a timer. Completing each level requires a decent amount of brain power that is achievable by all but not so easy to make it feel condescending.

Special mention has to go to composer Mahito Yokota, whose score is just brilliant. He’s a regular fixture now with Nintendo, and it’s easy to hear why. You could easily listen to it in isolation from the game and thoroughly enjoy it. To be fair, almost all of the songs are recycled from its parent game Super Mario 3D World, but if you’ve heard that then you know how special it is.

There is one huge disappointment though, and that is the total playing time. You get several different tasks in each level: collecting the star concludes the level, collecting three diamonds helps unlock further levels, completing a unique one-off challenge (such as taker no damage, find a hidden gold mushroom, kill all enemies or collect a certain amount of coins) gives you 100% completion. Even so, some of the levels are extremely short and are done in a matter of minutes. I felt like I had to put the controller down after five completed levels just to drag it out a little. 

Does it work as a co-op game? Well, obviously only one person is controlling at any given time. However, a little like Braid and Limbo, the puzzle elements led to a lot of excited shouting and guided discussions as we worked out the solutions together. Perfect for a couple of engineers.

The reduced price point will help with sales (without the points I used it would have been £28, but it can be found for £25), so the length of the game isn’t such a terrible thing. If you enjoyed the Captain Toad sections of Super Mario 3D World, or you’re in desperate need for a Mario fix ahead of Mario Party 10 next month (or Yoshi’s Woolly World or The Legend of Zelda later in the year) then you’ve got a perfect stop-gap solution in this game.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is out now on the Nintendo Wii U.