Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation2 (Square/Disney) £39.99 ****
Just in time for Christmas, and thanks to some excellent developers, the PS2 is being swamped with a glut of really first-class 3D platform games. If it's part of a concerted effort to steal Mario's thunder, it's working.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is sure to do well, but for younger audiences, Kingdom Hearts has seasonal smash written all over it. It's the result of a rare collaboration between Square and Disney and marries the two companies' inimitable styles. It could have been a bit saccharine, but the two developers avoid that. Kingdom Hearts is achingly good to look at. The scenery, characters, animation... all gels into probably the best visual treat on the PS2.
The plot follows a quest model, with the worlds based on familiar Disney themes. The characters are instantly recognisable. The game offers a very original cross between action and roleplay, but the gameplay has so many original features (artificial intelligence of your team members, etc) that you do get a sense of watching the prototype for an entirely new type of gaming. The puzzles and experience-point system will be broadly familiar to hardcore roleplay fans, but are carried out with enough humour to counter any familiarity.
No game is perfect, however. The audio is not as sharp as you'd expect. The voices are acceptable, but leave you wanting that little bit more. That said, Kingdom Hearts should be on all gamers' wish-lists.
Haven: Call of the King, PlayStation2 (Midway) £39.99 ****
If Kingdom Hearts has competition from anything, it will be Haven, a hugely original platformer whose sole aim in life seems to be to squeeze every drop of power from the PS2.
The driving factor with Haven is its story. Games are having an increasingly tough time persuading players that they really need to carry on into the small hours, but Haven manages to do it with plot alone. It shouldn't be spoilt here, but the general theme is that a planet needs saving and you control an unwilling hero attempting to do just that.
The game is massive and gives an overwhelming sense of freedom to go anywhere. The plot is linear, of course, but there is nothing too directed about the action. The line-up of goodies and baddies is excellent, and each character is surprisingly involving given that none of us has ever met them before. The action is intense, and takes full advantage of the glorious graphics in each scene – vehicles and special power-ups are thrown in to keep everything varied. The developers – a UK outfit called Traveller's Tales – have really gone to town on special effects such as wind and heat distortion.
Complaints? A few. The controls are basically fine, but lack the intuition that makes, for example, Ratchet and Clank so easy to pick up. The other gripe is the camera, which has that sporadic ability to bring tears of frustration to even the hardiest gamer.