Saturday, November 29, 2008

N-gage review : FIFA 09

Pele : Ambitious. Lots of content for a mobile game. Decent presentation.

Denilson : Horrendous AI. Poor controls and responsiveness. Not fun to play.

Good from far, far from good. FIFA 09's player models look fine from a distance, but oddly blocky when zoomed in.

FIFA 09 is the new king of football games on consoles – the XBOX 360, PS3 and PSP versions have gained universal acclaim for great gameplay, amazing presentation, and the usual slew of great features found in the FIFA franchise. The gameplay has forced even hardcore PES loyalists like myself to admit that, in many ways, EA has finally wrested the crown from Konami.

However, I'm sorry to report that the N-Gage version is quite rubbish.

I wanted to like it. I'm a believer in N-gage, as is known to regular readers of this blog. I want the platform to succeed, I want it to have great games. Bu FIFA 09 does the platform a grave injustice – it's one of the high profile releases, and could have propelled the platform to greater levels of acceptance. But it sucks.

The essence of a footy game is fluid, responsive gameplay. By responsive, I mean that the players you control should do the things you want them to do. You press the pass button, they should pass to the player in the direction you point. You press 'switch player' the control should switch to the player logically nearest the action. FIFA 09 on N-Gage doesn't even get the basics right, making for frustrating, annoying gameplay that will make you want to throw down your phone in anger.

I picked Italy and played against China on the default difficulty level. My players kept passing to the wrong guy. The AI defenders would just stand still and let the opposing forwards waltz right through. I'd be frantically hitting the 'switch player' button and hope, ususally in vain, that I'd get control of the right player. China 2 , Italy 0.

FIFA 09 features a simplified control scheme that uses just the d-pad and the two gaming keys (I played on an N81 in landscape). Which is great in theory – but the problem is, it doesn't work. It's unresponsive and erratic, making the gameplay more of a blind, button-mashing lottery than a precise game of flowing football. I have nothing against simple control schemes – PES 2008 mobile uses a single-button scheme that works perfectly well. Even the PSP version of FIFA 09 offers a simplified control scheme that's fluid, and a pleasure to play for casual or new players. But this one's a total mess.

The AI is broken as well. Players run around aimlessly, or stand still. Defenders will stand by and let opposing forwards run past them. Players will run back and forth near the ball without picking it up. While it's possible to eventually gain some semblance of accuracy when attacking, defending is a complete nightmare. All in all, FIFA 09 is a chore to play.

Which is a great pity, since it otherwise packs so much content and so many ideas. There are several game modes – including the leagues, tournaments and scenario based challenges from its console counterparts. As usual, there's an excellent roster of teams and players to choose from, albeit not quite as expansive as the console versions. But it still features pretty much any team you'd want to play as.

It features a fairly decent range of strategies – formations, player attributes – but these are pointless when the basic gameplay isn't up to scratch, so there's no sense in dwelling on them.

The graphics are also spotty – while the presentation is great overall, the player models look strangely blocky when close-up. From the evidence from other titles like One and System Rush, it's probably fair to assume that the N-Gage is capable of handling better graphics, so I'll count this as a problem. They look fine when zoomed out, but if you zoom the camera too far away, the system struggles to keep up when drawing more polygons / sprites on screen, and slows the gameplay to below-acceptable levels.

Also - there's no muliplayer, which is understandable since the game barely manages to chug along on single-player, so online play may have reduced it to slideshow levels. There are some rankings and the like - but I honestly didn't pay much attention to these, annoyed as I was with the basic gameplay.

I've been playing football games as long as I can remember, beginning with Pele's Soccer and Realsports Soccer on the ATARI 2600, through Sensible Soccer on the SEGA genesis, to Kick-Off and early iterations of FIFA and Virtua Soccer on the PC. I've played every version of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer for the past five years or so. I've even played the Java versions of PES and Real Football on the mobile phone. It's fair to say that I love my footy (haven't missed much since 1982), and I'm reasonably well qualified to comment on the quality of football games.

Hence, I'm sorry to say that I can't remember the last time a football game disappointed me as much as FIFA 09 on the N-Gage. Sorry EA, this one's a red card offense

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More than just Reset Generation.

Reset Generation is a fantastic title – great graphics, original and addictive gameplay, and a great sense of humour. Easily one of the freshest, must-play experiences on the N-Gage. You can try the free online version right here on this blog.

Part One : The Review!

At its heart, Reset Generation is a strategy game, but it's quite unlike any other I've played. It's as if someone took a gigantic blender, threw in the grid-based gameplay of Advance Wars, the crazy weaponry and humour of Worms, a slew of original ideas, and some hilarious videogame in-humour, and somehow, impossibly, managed to make a great game out of it.

A lot happens. You have to drop tetris-like blocks and create paths to walk around on the tiled map, and you're faster and stronger on large contiguous areas of your own coloured tiles. You'll run around gathering insanely funny power-ups, fighting your enemies, summoning monsters, throwing grenades, rescuing princesses, shooting things, and avoiding annoying chickens running around on the map. All with a clock ticking, so you can't wait forever to work out your plan – you'll be strategizing and executing your moves in a tearing hurry. This breathless pacing in what is basically a turn-based game means the action is rather frantic, especially for the genre. It's all quite mad, and deceptively deep. For a detailed review of the game mechanics, head over to pocketgamer. And then back here for the rest of the post ;)

Make no mistake – Reset Generation, despite its friendly, colourful appearance, is a pretty hardcore strategy game that will take you quite a while to master. Since the gameplay is so wholly original, there are no 'genre-staple' strategies to fall back on, and you'll lose a lot of games (especially online), before you come into your own as a player. But Reset Generation is never frustrating – I haven't enjoyed getting my ass whipped repeatedly this much in any other game.It makes you believe, and rightly so, that you'll win the next round, so you're raring to have another go. Outstanding stuff. Take a bow, Red Lynx, you've just topped Pathway to Glory. This is your best yet.

Also, Reset Generation is a loving, adoring homage / parody that will delight the original 'Reset Generation' - those of us who grew up loving Space Invaders, Mario, Pokemon and the rest of the gang on an assortment of retro platforms. But there's something for everyone – fans of Tomb Raider, MMORPG players and FPS deathmatchers will also find laugh-out-loud moments and references to their favourite genres. The graphics are consistently high-quality, and the writing really nails the humour.

While there's a single player 'Story Mode' that's essentially a long and entertaining tutorial that preps you for the meat of Reset Generation – the online Multiplayer. Playing human opponents, of course, is exponentially more interesting than playing AI, and Reset Generation comes alive in Multiplayer. There are always a lot of players of varying skill available, and you'll never want to stop.

And wait . . . this brings us to . . .

Part Two : The Key Thing. Cross-Platform multiplayer!

Sure, reset Generation is enjoyable, challenging and addictive. And funny. But there's something far more interesting about it.

Reset Generation offers cross-platform multiplayer. This means that people playing on their phones can play against opponents who are playing on a PC, through their browsers. Nice. And what's more, the online version of the game is completely free to play.

Being an N-gage owner, and having fallen in love with Reset Generation's gameplay, I was keen to get my friends to try it, and then take them on in multiplayer battles. Thanks to the cross-platform feature, I can play against my buddies, none of whom own N-gage compatible phones.

In an age where 'proprietary' is the mantra, and companies like Microsoft and SONY making it increasingly impossible for gamers on both platforms to play together, it's delightful to see NOKIA take a step like this. They're not always known to make great marketing decisions for their gaming properties, but this one's pure inspiration.

Preventing cross-platform online play is a short sighted, narrow brand of corporate thinking that helps nobody. Why can't I play a cross-platform game like COD 4 on my XBOX against someone else who's using a PS3? Imagine a situation where five friends who own different consoles all wanting to race each other online. Thanks to Microsoft and SONY's policies, this is impossible. Ridiculous, really.

It certainly isn't technically impossible, and it's even been done before (Phantasy Star had common servers for PC, Mac, Dreamcast and Gamecube users, for crying out loud ! ). Instead of having a broader perspective and expanding the market together, heavyweight gaming companies insist on fighting over the existing market, making things harder for us gamers.

Returning to the Reset Generation example, the end result is that NOKIA benefits greatly by this open approach. In fact, a couple of friends, including fellow Zeitgeist columnist Videep Vijay Kumar, are even considering getting a NOKIA phone to play Reset Generation, and other N-gage titles, on the go. Their experience with Reset Generation has helped them discover N-gage as a platform – something that would never have happened if NOKIA had forced them to buy a new phone just to try the experience. Brilliant. Everyone's happy.

If companies are to ever stop whining about piracy and how nobody buys enough of their brilliant games, they have to figure out ways to get gamers on their side. I'm not talking about idiot fanboys, but mature, educated gamers who will have a far greater influence over broader and potential markets. Their voices on online forums, blogs and communities are a very significant force in game marketing today – having the capability to seriously impace game sales, reputations and market worth.

Pro-gamer initiatives and attitudes, such as what NOKIA has done with Reset Generation, will go a long way in reassuring customers that the big corporations really do care about their customers, and not just about sticking it to the competition, collateral damage to customers be damned!

Of course, I have a selfish angle to this as well. I just want to play great games with more of my friends, without each of us shelling out for every possible platform. Is that too much to ask ?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Play Reset Generation for Free.

Yay! Bossfight's first playable game! And it's the excellent Reset Generation. An all-new strategy game with original, intense and addictive gameplay, and some laugh-out-loud humour. You have got to try this. My gamer ID on N-gage is bigfatphoenix - so add me and bring on some Reset Generation!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Game Invader : Great Java games for your phone

This article first appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express

Old technologies never die, they just make their way to mobile phones. That sly devil John Carmack is at it again, pushing technology where it hasn’t gone before.

This time, it’s on those Java games that make mobiles so much fun.

Using old school techniques that were used to crank out PC games in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he’s delivered games like DOOM RPG and Orcs & Elves on the mobile platform. And boy, are they fun to play.

Remember these guys? Now you can get your butt kicked by them on your phone as well.

These games resemble old RPG classics like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master, which were early examples of first-person RPGs on the PC.

These pioneering games were very popular at the time and paved the way for the eventual success of games like Morrowind and Oblivion.

Now, the same gameplay that charmed people 20 years ago is weaving its magic on mobile phones appealing to new gamers and nostalgia buffs alike.

Orcs and Elves is a must-play for hardcore RPG fans who possess a "Mobile Phone of Gaming +1".

This just goes to prove an old chestnut Gameplay is Everything. Show someone on a PC a game like Orcs & Elves and they’d scoff at it. “Ugly graphics” and “simplistic gameplay” would be among the abuses hurled.

However, put it on a mobile phone, a platform on which expectations are considerably lower, and the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ return. So the emergence of mobile Java gaming as a growing platform has opened the floodgates for games with proven gameplay mechanics, but technology and techniques from a bygone age.

Since today’s mobile phones are roughly as powerful as PCs from an earlier era, this is an absolutely brilliant idea. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, deve-lopers have a ready-made reservoir of ideas and content to quickly deliver great gameplay to eager gamers. People get fantastic games at a low price, which will run on very average handsets. The old games get a new lease of life, and a new generation of gamers is introduced to their magic. Everyone wins.

I’ve seen almost every successful gameplay mechanic and engine repurposed with varying degrees of success on the Java platform. Classic arcades? Check. Eight and 16-bit console era? Check. Isometric PC RPG? Check. 2D adventure? Check.

My currently installed games list reads like a library of PC classics Pro Evolution Soccer. Doom, The Sims 2, Age of Empi-res, Civilization 3, Baldur’s Gate, Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty 2. These are all enjoyable adaptations of their more famous PC and console counterparts.

The price is sweet as well, with most of these titles costing anywhere between 5 to 10 dollars online. If you look around hard enough, you’ll also find a lot of free demos and giveaways.

What this means is that there are tons of great games to turn your mobile phone into a device that offers endless gaming pleasure. Whether you’re looking for simplistic, quick-hit gameplay or more involving experiences, there’s something on offer.

The thing is, you don’t even need a fancy high-end phone to play these titles. Any mid-range Java-enabled handset will do. So you actually have no excuse not to try these games.

And the future looks bright, too. Maybe, after 20 years or so, we’ll be rediscovering Bioshock and Fallout 3 on tiny mobile phones, which will by then have the power to run our current favourites as ‘retro’ classics. Isn’t that a delicious thought?

Monday, November 10, 2008

N-gage review : One

Chuck Norris : Great graphics. Great brawling system. Rewards skilful play.

Barry Horowitz : No variety in fighters, moves. May not appeal to hardcore fighting fans. No online play.

One is the sequel to the 3D fighter that appeared on the original N-gage. That game appeared too late to save Nokia's much-maligned platform, but was universally recognized as a great looking game that truly showed-off the N-gage's potential.

This one is better in every way.

The first thing that stands out about One is the 3D visuals. My friends, without exception, have marvelled at the outstanding graphics - without parallel on a mobile phone. The environments, player models, animations all combine beautifully towards making One a title that looks almost as good as early generation PSP games.

Which would be useless without great action, but thankfully One delivers that as well. It's a solid, if unspectacular, fighting system that rewards tactical, skilful fighting over frenzied button-mashing. And, in my book, that's the mark of a good fighting game.

At first look, One's fighting system looks bland and unexciting. Every fighter is exactly the same - except for cosmetic changes (you can customize your fighter with a variety of clothes, accessories, hairstyles etc.). There are only two 'styles', which give your fighter two sets of moves - so basically every fighter is an instance of one of these two templates. There are no special moves for each fighter, or super-combo systems, or any of the stuff found in more hardcore fighting games like Mortal Kombat or Soul Calibur. People who are looking for a large roster of varied fighters with unique moves, combos and specials, you won't find any of that in One.

But what you will find is a simple, yet challenging fighting system that, since it eliminates the differences granted by varied characters, boils it down to who is the more skilled fighter. Hardcore players who have gone through the practice of choosing the same fighter (Mitsurugi vs. Mitsurugi) to level the playing field will instantly recognize and appreciate this. And you will need to be skilful to master the fighting system of One - it may be simple, but it's not easy by any means.

There's a story mode that pits you against a variety of fighters from locations all over the world. Beating opponents in story mode unlocks them for play in the Versus mode. There's also a standard survival mode. In all, enough to keep you occupied endlessly if you enjoy fighting.

One also uses the oldest trick in the videogame book to keep you invested - the good old high-scores system. It does this by including a chess-like ELO rating system, which keeps track of all your victories and defeats - awarding and deducting ELO rating points from your score. You can then upload your scores to N-Gage Arena, and compare your standing against other fighters from your country, continent, or the world. However, this doesn't quite compensate for the lack of online play, which is a disappointment considering the N-Gage is being pushed as a community gaming experience.

One isn't a Street Fighter / Mortal Kombat / Virtua Fighter kind of traditional fighter with crazily overpowered fighters, insane moves, and grotesque violence. What is is, is a realistic, skill-based brawler that offers hours of fun for those willing to get into it and master the fighting system. And, it's a great way to show off your NSeries phone.

Mega Multi-platform Gaming Weekend : Fifa 09, Orcs and Elves, One

Whew. Epic weekend.

Many hours of GTA IV and Spore, which is clear to anyone reading these pages.

But quick takes on the other games I played this weekend :

Fifa 09 (PSP) :

I hated Fifa 08 on the PSP. PES 6 remained my footy game of choice on the go. With FIFA 09, that's changed. And any PES loyal knows how hard it is for a PES loyal to say this.

The basic footy gameplay is now really, really solid. It's not quite as frantic and fast paced as PES, but it's a lot more realistic. The gameplay is measured, forcing you to think about the game as you play, instead of depending on mean ball-playing skillz alone. I think this is actually better suited for portable gaming, and once you adjust to the fractionally slower-paced gameplay, FIFA 09 is a lot of fun, and very satisfying to the serious footy fan. And it looks miles better than PES, with the new collision animations so realistic that my Dad thought I was actually watching a game. Nice.

The Be A Pro mode is also brilliant, especially if you want to get the feeling of what it's like to play in an actual football match. I've actually played some footy in school, and thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being just one player, as opposed to controlling the entire team. I picked Kaka of AC Milan, and had a blast making off the ball runs, supplying defense-splitting through balls for Sheva and Ronnie, and occasionally running past defenders to score myself. The sense of being part of a team with other great players is amazing, and this is a mode that offers a whole new take on playing videogame football. May not be for everyone, but you owe it to yourself to try.

There are some nice quizzes and a manager mode to round off the most complete football package on a handheld platform. Of course, PES 09 may just change that opinion, but for now, FIFA 09 is the game of choice for PSP Peles everywhere.

Orcs and Elves (Mobile)

When John Carmack makes a game, you fucking pay attention. This is a delightfully charming, deceptively complex and challenging RPG for hardcore fans. It's in the Dungeon Master / Eye of the Beholder school of first person dungeon crawlers from the old skool era. Loads of monsters, puzzles, quests, spells, potions and equipment. Kill monsters, rest, shop, kill more monsters. Perfect. And it's on a mobile phone. Double perfect.

Orcs and Elves is a stellar example of how companies are taking old school gaming ideas and technology and finding that it's just perfect for mobile phones. Which brings me back to that old chestnut - gameplay is everything. Don't miss this if you have a Java enabled handset and are looking for a great RPG on the go.

One (N-Gage)

One is the best looking game on a mobile phone. Period. And it plays great, too. A difficult, skill intensive beat em up. Complete review coming up.

Game Invader : Spore and GTA 4 usher in Next-Gen.

This article first appeared in my Game Invader column for the New Indian Express

Finally, after years of waiting, we have next-gen games.

Sure, we've had a whole bunch of games with Next-Gen production values. Bioshock, Halo 3, MotorStorm, Heavenly Sword and a bunch of others were eye-popping games that were great to play, but didn't really take gameplay forward in any significant way. Nintendo's Wii and DS systems ushered in control schemes that were unique and innovative – but we're still to see games that use these input methods in completely revolutionary ways.

But GTA 4 and Spore do just that. They're next-gen games, pure and simple. Both titles take the gameplay experience forward by leaps and bounds – delivering experiences that are quite unlike anything that has come before, and give us a glimpse of the future of gaming.

GTA 4 lets you chat on the phone with friends, surf the internet, watch TV and play darts. When you're not in car chases or gunfights. It's probably one of the greatest games of all time - and I don't make such pronouncements easily.

Playing GTA 4 is the closest thing you'll ever experience to actually living in an alternate, virtual reality. MMORPGs are either just stunning 3D chatrooms, or merely rat-races for loot and equipment. Adventure games restrict your actions and ultimately, the experience. Only role-playing games, notably Oblivion in the recent past, give you anything close to living out an alternate reality. But even Oblivion, for its massively detailed and intricate world, didn't quite give you a strong emotional connect to the characters you interacted with.

No such limitations for GTA 4's liberty city and its inhabitants. The game effortlessly draws you into the shoes of Niko Bellic, and within minutes,you're not merely controlling him, you become him – empathising with his joy, pain, hopes and ambitions. This is a game that you actually live. Between missions, you'll watch TV, surf the net, go out on dates, hang out with friends, go shopping, and generally cruise around. The sheer quality – graphics, writing, acting – that has gone into making Liberty City such a believable, plausible and immersive gameworld creates a gaming experience like no other. Not since Baldur's Gate 2 have I cared this much about people and places in a game.

Spore, on the other hand, is a genre-blending experiment in game design that could only come from the mind of Will Wright. This is an action-adventure-real-time-turn-based-strategy-space-simulation title that defies simple explanation, yet somehow manages to magically put these diverse elements together to create a charming, enjoyable and revolutionary game.

Seeing your creations evolve from a single cell (top) to a mighty civilization offers an unprecedented sense of scale and ownership. Sorry. Pwnership.

The joy of seeing your creation evolve from a single cell organism with just a mouth and some cilia, swimming around in a pond, into a mighty race of space-faring warriors develops a sense of ownership that I haven't experienced in any title since Wright's previous creation, The Sims. Since you design and guide your species and its tools and technologies with a degree of customisation absent from any other games that fall within any of its sub-genres, this is a game that gives you a better God-complex than Black and White or Populous.

The only criticism that SPore has received is that each stage isn't really very deep (The Tribe stage isn't quite Warcraft and The Civilization stage isn't quite, well, Civilization IV). I find that more than just a bit silly – Spore isn't about depth, it's about scope. And it boldly takes a step in a direction that can quite possibly spawn a whole new bunch of genres altogether.

If you're even remotely interested in the possibilities of videogames as an art and entertainment form, you owe it to yourself to play both these incredible games.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Game Invader : The Third Dimension.

This article first appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express.

While 3D is the de-facto standard for today's games, it wasn't always the case.

For a long, long time, videogames played out in a flat, 2-D world. You could run sideways, climb up ladders, slide down poles. You could duck under obstacles or jump over them. And everyone was happy.

After that came the Battlezones, the DOOMs and the racing games, and their simulated 3D action. Suddenly, you could go into a screen. Things came flying out of it, and straight at you. It was wonderful. And everyone was happy.

Then, the evil genius John Carmack created Quake. And you didn't have to cheat your way through 3D anymore. The object, and the world, were all true 3D objects, with depth. Gaming was never the same again. 3D meant that suddenly, artists didn't have to draw a creature or an object from every possible angle the gamer would see it from. They just created a model once, and then, with a simple rotation of the camera, could view it from any possible angle. This cut development costs down, and gave developers the power to cretae more believable, immersive environments. Everyone was delirious with joy.

Eventually, 3D became the only way to make games. And, mostly games were the better for it. FPS titles suddenly could create ramps, moving obstacles, enemies that could attack you from above and below. Level design went through a major renaissance, and FPS became the world's most popular type of game. RTS was another genre to benefit greatly – you could suddenly zoom in and out, and rotate the camera to get the best possible view of your raging battles. Role-playing games were better off for the revolution – huge worlds such as those of Morrowind and Oblivion were a delight for role-players to explore every inch of. And everyone knows what happened when GTA went 3D. Even traditional 2D stalwarts such as the Mario and Metroid series were brilliantly reinvented to take advantage of 3D enviroments, eventually resulting in all-time classics such as Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime.

Worms never quite made a successful transition to 3D

But was it all good and happy chocolate cake all around?


Worms is my favourite example. Team 17's beloved series never quite made the jump – Worms 3D being a failed attempt at taking the classic Worms gameplay and ruining it by needlessly adapting it to 3D and losing the plot altogether. Thankfully, the series returned to its tested formula for further iterations. Escape from Monkey Island, though a fairly good game taken at its own merits, was a come-down in terms of sheer quality from the impeccable Curse of Monkey Island, that most gorgeous and enjoyable of 2D adventures.

In both cases, the designers compromised several core values that made the originals great, simply to accommodate the third dimension. A case of introducing 3D, just for the sake of 3D. What's the old saying about not fixing things that ain't broke?

Thankfully, games like Braid and Bionic Commando Re-armed are showing us that people will buy and play great games, regardless of whether they're in 2D or 3D. Which just goes to prove that the medium must serve the message, and it's more about gameplay than about technology, whatever developers and publishers may like to believe.

I just hope no-one's working on a 3D remake of Tetris.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Spore : Evolution of the Peeblosaur

Spore is incredible so far. I'm only at the creature stage, but my creature has evolved from a helpless, single-cell organism into a strong predator which hunts its prey by shooting poison at them. From its tits!!

Some pictures, to demonstrate the evolutionary path :

This little guy actually did quite well. He was a better predator than he appears to be.

This iteration started seeing some problems. He was too weak, gawky and slow to be an effective predator.

The current version. A mean combination of three great badasses - The Rhino, Lobo and Madonna!

The brilliant thing is that many of the weaknesses and challenges were more in my head than in the actual creature. I didn't want him to look wimpy and goofy and walk funny, so I bulked him up to appear meaner. And added the Tit-Shooters, horn and shoulder-pad-spiky-mean-looking things. Now I perceive him to be tougher and better equipped to handle the bad world of predator-ing. The personal connect you have with your creation is really strong. As a creator, you feel it's your responsibility to give them the tools and abilities to prevail. And you share in their trials, tribulations and triumphs.

This is fun. Watch for more updates on tribe, civilization and space stages. This is genuinely an important, revolutionary game that takes the art form forward.

N-Gage App : Updated Impressions

Some readers to my previous post on the n-Gage app (in the comments section) with some disagreement - pointing out bugginess of the app.

I've used the app extensively over the past fifteen days or so after that first post, trying out all its features. I'm pleased to report that, apart from a few minor niggles, I stand by my view that the app is fun and easy to use.

In this period, I purchased ONE, Reset Generation and System Rush, using a credit card. Twice, the system reported an error (I suspect that the problem was with the internet connection rather than the app itself) and couldn't activate the game. However, on both occasions, it went through fine on the next attempt.

I've also been adding friends, messaging them and updating my profile online with no problems at all.

The app works better if you're using a Wi-Fi broadband connection, but is actually very serviceable over a normal GPRS (I'm on airtel) connection as well.

So overall, I'm facing no major problems so far. If any of you have different experiences to report, we're listening.

N-Gage Review : Star Wars : The Force Unleashed

by Anand Ramachandran

The Light Side : Cellweaver is oddly addictive. Nice looking backgrounds.

The Dark Side : Completely on rails, no freedom of choice. John Williams' famous score sounds a bit tinny.

First out – this isn't an exercise in comparing the N-Gage version to its console counterparts. This is a wholly different game that shares the same name – so attempting that would be pointless and stupid.

Having got that out of the way, here goes.

Is Star Wars : The Force Unleashed the best mobile game ever made ? No.

Is Star Wars : The Force Unleashed a fun to play game that's worth the price of admission? Hell, yeah.

The basic hook for the N-Gage (and mobile) version of The Force Unleashed is the much touted 'Cellweaver' input system, which is the heart and soul of the game. Essentially, you need to 'weave' patterns using the d-pad, which correspond to actions your character will then perform. Think of it as a hybrid of the 'gesture' based systems used in games like Arx Fatalis and Black & White, combined with the quick button matching sequences from Shenmue and God of War. In fact, it's really just a sequence of button presses, the 'pattern' just serves as an easy visual way to remember and identify the input sequence.

All this sounds a bit complicated and clumsy, but it really isn't. A few minutes into the game, and you'll be using Cellweaver effortlessly to unleash your awesome force powers on hapless foes. The game also does a great job of easing you into the controls – introducing new powers gradually, so you're never overwhelmed. Throughout my playing time, I never found myself forgetting the pattern for even a single force power. Once you get used to it, it's a pretty comfortable and interesting system.

Okay, okay – enough about the input system, what about the game?

The Force Unleashed on the N-Gage is a fun, mildly addictive and wholly enjoyable title that will doubly appeal to Star Wars fans, of whom there is no shortage.

The story is a very abridged version of what happens in the console versions – tracing the journey of Darth Vader's secret apprentice as he helps the Sith Lord hunt down and eliminate the last of the Jedi. I don't want to include spoilers, but rest assured that all is not as it seems. For Star Wars fans, the storyline fills in what happens between 'Revenge of the Sith' and 'A New Hope', so that in itself is a good reason to play through.

The graphics are a mixed bag – the pre-rendered backgrounds look absolutely stunning, and bring to life the Star Wars universe. Locations like the legendary Kashykk and Felucia make for a very pretty gameworld. The 3D character models and animations do look a little jaggy and rough around the edges, but thanks to the surprisingly relentless action, this isn't as big a problem as it seems.

The action itself is completely on rails – you have no choice in moving your character or choosing a path. You'll begin on one screen, dispose off a few enemies using your force powers (no lightsaber action, sadly), then your character will automatically run to the next screen. Wash, rinse, repeat. A lot of critics have panned the gameplay as repetitive – and yes, it is. But it isn't boring by any means. Consider Diablo as an example – gameplay can't get more repetitive than that game's endless 'clicking'. But was it boring? There's your argument.

The Force Unleashed is nowhere as addictive as Diablo, but the combat is surprisingly intense and tactical, especially on a higher difficulty setting. You'll have to quickly decide which enemies to dispatch first, choosing ideal force powers to deal with them. You'll have to use defensive powers such as heal and shield smartly. It's all great fun, if you enjoy this sort of game.The boss battles and certain specific scenes also call for some amount of puzzle solving using a clever combination of your force powers. This adds some welcome variety to the gameplay as well.

Once you're done with the story mode, there are also a bunch of survival challenges to be played, where you'll have to fight off waves of enemies and survive for the longest time. You can also replay any of the specific chapters in any order.

Being a hardcore Star Wars fan, I quite enjoyed my time with The Force Unleashed on N-gage. If you're not into Star Wars, I'm not sure how much the game will appeal, really, but it still holds up pretty decently as a standalone experience.

Final Verdict : Star Wars : The Force Unleashed on the N-Gage is an unusual and enjoyable game in its own right. Those who expect an action game similar to the console version will be disappointed, but if you approach it with an open mind, you'll find many hours of fun.