Monday, December 17, 2007

Reviews Archive: Perfect Dark Zero

Original Publish Date: February 10, 2006

Microsoft’s super-hyped launch shooter Perfect Dark has finally landed on the Xbox 360. As a huge fan of the original N64 hit Perfect Dark, I can attest to the fact that there is a tremendous amount of hype surrounding this game. After nearly six years in development and three platform changes, does PDZ merit the hype? Well, yes and no. The multiplayer is simply awesome. It does more than build on the foundations set by the original PD, which had four player split-screen play with up to eight simulants or bots as they’re called today. The online component is one of the best on the system and will likely remain that way for a few months. The single-player campaign is a bit disappointing. After playing games such as Halo (and to a slightly lesser extent Halo 2), which featured a strong single player campaign with a gripping storyline and varied gameplay, Perfect Dark Zero’s single player game pales in comparison.

The graphics are definitely next-gen. Of the many Xbox 360 launch titles, this is one of the best looking. The lighting engine is spectacular. Each light looks and behaves like it would in real life. The weapon models are also very good looking and considering you’re going to be looking at one pretty much the entire time, it’s great to see how realistic they look. The outdoor environments are particularly stunning. One level in particular that is set in a South American jungle blew me away with the level of visual detail. Every leaf, vine, tree and weed is impeccably modeled and beautifully detailed. Even the wood paneling in an enemy outpost looks realistic. Perhaps one of the best-looking aspects of the game is the explosion effects. Shoot an explosive barrel in the game and you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of things that blow up in this game so you’ll be seeing a lot of it.

Although the graphics are mostly great, there are a few problems. One of these problems is that someone went a little crazy with the reflection mapping. Seriously, everything reflects. This isn’t a bad thing when looking at something like a metal wall or other surface that would otherwise reflect but it’s not so great when looking at a brick wall. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’ve never been able to see my face in a brick. Another problem is with the framerate. It’s generally good running at about 30 fps but sometimes, in the thick of an intense shootout the framerate can bog down. Thankfully, the framerate is usually smooth and it didn’t slow down enough to ruin the experience.

The physics engine is good but it does have its flaws. Some things animate a bit strangely. For example in a multiplayer game when you’re killed, sometimes you’re character will bend over while still appearing to be standing up and then the character seems to lunge forward and complete the fall. On some occasions the rag doll physics look great and animate nicely but mostly, characters take a little too long to fall over, as if gravity somehow lost it’s effect on you. Another odd but thankfully rare issue with the physics is that on very rare occasions, after you kill an enemy (this most often occurs in single player) their body will begin to pinball around the area. I don’t know what’s happening in the physics engine that causes this but it’s really weird to see an enemy bouncing around the stage like a superball on steroids.

The single player game is a bit disappointing. It’s not necessarily bad but it could’ve used some fine-tuning. For me, the most disappointing aspect of the single player game is the storyline. After playing games such as Halo, Halo 2, and Half Life 2, all games with great storylines, I was expecting the same from PDZ. Simply put, the story is just bad. The plot is incredibly weak and clich├ęd, involving the search for an ancient artifact that imbues its possessor with superhuman powers. There are some interesting plot twists but they’re not enough to make this story any better (some might think they make it worse).

Luckily, this is a FPS. No one plays them for the story. Players play them for the intense shoot outs. PDZ has plenty of those. One particularly intense scene (perhaps the lengthiest and most challenging combat scene in the game) takes place on a bridge. You fight your way across against a seemingly endless horde of enemies. As you progress, things are exploding around you. Although the explosions don’t pose much of a threat to you, they really add to the intensity of the battle. Another intense shootout takes place in the jungle level I raved about before. As soon as the mission begins, the dropship you arrived in is being attacked by enemy troops and you have to defend your ride. Really intense stuff. Trust me, once these battles begin you’ll be sucked in.

The A.I. is hit or miss during the single player campaign. Later in the campaign the A.I. characters have pinpoint accuracy at long distances. On the other hand when you get close, sometimes they won’t even notice you until you put a bullet in them. It’s annoying to see enemies that are supposed to be shooting you running into walls. It’s also annoying to see them take cover behind explosive barrels. I guess they’re thinking the barrels won’t explode when you shoot at them. Even though they’re clearly marked (you know, red color, warning logo), they think they’ll be safe. The A.I. is generally good but the problems listed hamper the experience a bit.

There’s one last problem about the single player that really worked on my nerves. This problem is the lack of a decent checkpoint system or save feature in the single player. It is incredibly frustrating to play for about ten minutes through a particularly difficult section only to have to repeat it if you die or otherwise fail the mission. Each mission has only one checkpoint about half of the way through. After playing games like Halo that create checkpoints as you go through the level and others that allow you to save every few steps if you choose to, this is extremely frustrating and should’ve been addressed.

Okay, enough about the single player game, what about the multiplayer? Is it good? That’s a definite yes and the reason it deserves my score. I love the multiplayer. There are so many things it does right that it overshadows its shortcomings. Perfect Dark Zero’s multiplayer is perhaps the best of the launch games. By offering support for up to 32 players, it is certainly the biggest of the launch games. The maps expand and contract based on how many players are in the game. When there are a full 32 players in the game, the map will be playable at its full size. The player has full control over the map size however, so for faster paced battles, they can shrink the map or expand it for more tactical contests.

There are so many options you can adjust to create the game you want to play in with the settings, weapons, map, map size, and the number of bots you want. In this game there are a total of 28 weapons in the game ranging from pistols, to rifles to SMG’s and even a sword that can deflect incoming fire. There are so many weapons to choose from. There are a large number of available weapon sets including four you can customize to your liking.

The Combat Arena multiplayer mode is great featuring all the standard gametypes you’ve come to expect from multiplayer shooters. You’ll find Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Territories. My current favorite out of this lineup is the Team Deathmatch mode. With 32 players participating in the game at once, it’s incredibly fun and intense.

The Dark Ops mode is awesome. Dark Ops is a tactical, round based mode in the vein of the hit PC and Xbox shooter, Counter Strike. Before each round, you use credits you have earned from the previous rounds to purchase weapons. This is perhaps the most intense multiplayer mode and encourages, no, demands teamwork.

The online or split screen co-op play is a blast to play. It actually makes the cornball story bearable. It goes beyond just inserting a carbon copy of the main character in each level. For instance, on the fourth level, in the single player campaign you’re charged with protecting your father, who is an NPC in this case, by providing sniper fire from the rooftops. The co-op version of this level actually gives the second player control over the other character who then actively defends themselves with cover from the first player. I found this to be very intense and very innovative for a FPS.

All that being said, I am very happy with the way this game turned out. The single player game could’ve used a couple more development hours to add more checkpoints and make the story more sensible, but the multiplayer makes up for it big time. The graphics are great, and the only big problem I found was the rampant reflection mapping. Overall, this is a great game. If you’re going to be playing it over Xbox Live, buy it now. If not, you might still want to look into it if you’re a fan of the series or First Person Shooters in general.

Gameplay: 8
Graphics: 8
Sound: 9
Value: 10
Tilt: 9

Overall Score: 8.7

Monday, December 10, 2007

Reviews Archive: Perfect Dark

Editors Note: I'm going to begin periodicaly posting reviews from my archives alongside my new reviews. All future archived reviews will feature the letters "RA" in the title and labeled under "Reviews Archive". These reviews (aside from a few gramatical errors) will be left completely unedited to show how far I've come since writing them.


Perfect Dark (Nintendo 64) Original Review Publish Date: June 16, 2006

Perfect Dark is the spiritual successor to developer Rare’s hit shooter, Goldeneye 007. Goldeneye set the standard for multiplayer First Person Shooters on consoles and will go down in history as one of the best First Person Shooters of all time, regardless of platform. This is a lot to live up to. Perfect Dark has succeeded in building on the foundations laid by its predecessor and is an even better game in the end.

Goldeneye 007 was a great looking game in its own right, but Perfect Dark blows it away. The visuals are incredibly crisp with a level of sharpness that puts every other Nintendo 64 game to shame. The characters have very fluid animations (most of which were taken from Goldeneye). Perfect Dark definitely pushes the envelope visually. Unfortunately, all that envelope pushing comes at a technical price. The framerate, while mostly smooth, dips when there is a lot of action on screen. Try as it might, the Nintendo 64’s hardware can’t quite handle it. Perfect Dark also has support for High-res visuals, which make the graphics appear even sharper than normal. Aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, this is still by far, the best-looking game on the Nintendo 64.

The single player game is excellent. The single player campaign revolves around Joanna Dark, a secret agent working for the Carrington Institute in the not so distant future. The Carrington institute has recently made contact with a peaceful alien race called the Maians who resemble the stereotypical bigheaded grey space people portrayed in movies and television shows. Your main enemy, the corrupt dataDyne corporation has aligned themselves with an alien race known as the Skedar, who practice war as a religion, making them natural enemies of the peaceful Maian race. The storyline has a few twists and turns but doesn’t really stand out in any way. In other words, if I had to describe it in one word, I’d say “meh”.

There are around 20 missions in total, including some that are unlocked elsewhere. Each mission varies in length and features an adjustable difficulty setting, which introduce new mission objectives and make the enemies considerably tougher.

The Carrington Institute serves as a base of operations. It’s sort of like a level in itself, as there is much to explore and do within the confines of the building. Between missions, you can stop by the shooting range to brush up on your targeting skills by completing some of the many training exercises. There are other training programs to complete that help you improve your maneuvering and combat skills (both armed and unarmed) as well.

I did notice a few problems though with the single player campaign. Sometimes, the mission objectives are poorly described or otherwise unclear. Often times, you’ll find yourself wandering around, hoping you can find what you’re looking for. Another problem is that there is no mid-mission save or checkpoint feature, so if you screw up one of the primary objectives, you’re forced to start the mission over from the beginning. This gets annoying on many of the longer missions.

One thing Perfect Dark excels at is impressive enemy AI. They are considerably smarter than the enemies in Goldeneye and are much less predictable. Running around a corner and expecting them to follow you into your trap, often times, will not work. When you disarm them by either ripping the gun from their hands or shooting it from their grasp (another new feature), if you leave them alone, they will go for another nearby weapon. Of course, everything you can do to them, they can do to you. They can also shoot your gun from your hands with a well placed shot, and if they are disarmed, sometimes, they will try to snatch their weapon right back from you. Very impressive stuff to be sure.

Another area that was particularly impressive was the soundtrack. It is simply excellent and an astounding achievement for the developers. This is one of the best soundtracks of any game, on any system. The music really kicks in at the perfect moment in a mission to really fit the tempo of that particular point.

Now, Goldeneye was revered for its multiplayer component. With its many weapons, varied environments and fun multiplayer modes, it is no surprise that the only game to provide a more entertaining and deep multiplayer experience on the Nintendo 64 was Perfect Dark. Its multiplayer features everything that made Goldeneye great and much more.

There are a couple of multiplayer modes for two players, the conventional Co-op mode and the innovative Counter-operative mode. Co-op throws another player in the level so the two of you can tackle the mission objectives together. Counter-operative on the other hand pits the two players against each other. One player takes on the role of the main character and advances through the mission. The other player takes on the role of the enemy characters in the mission. The second player’s objective is to prevent the main character from completing their objectives by incapacitating them or otherwise making the mission objectives impossible to complete. The second player has all the weaknesses that the A.I. characters do, such as the low amount of health and limited ammunition. If the first player gets too far ahead of the character the second player is possessing, they can take a suicide pill and respawn closer to the main character. This mode is very innovative, and one that should be featured in future releases.

The real meat of the multiplayer game is in the “Combat simulator” mode. There are a few gametypes to choose from including the standard deathmatch, Capture the flag (dubbed “capture the briefcase” here) and king of the hill. One of the major upgrades from Goldeneye 007 is the inclusion of bots or “Simulants”. There are multiple stimulant types, such as the KazeSim, which tries to kill its target at all costs, even if it means killing themselves in the process and the VengeSim, who goes after the last player that killed them with (you guessed it) a vengeance. Up to eight Simulants can be added into any game, alongside up to four human players. The human players can also form teams with or against the Simulants. I found the Simulants to be very challenging and are great if you want to practice by yourself to improve your skills.

In the end, Perfect Dark has succeeded in building upon everything that made Goldeneye 007 such an excellent game. On the Nintendo 64, it is simply unmatched in many ways. From the excellent Single player campaign, to the even more excellent Multiplayer game, to the amazing soundtrack, Perfect Dark has it all. On consoles, this experience is unparalleled, and is a monumental achievement. This game may not be completely perfect, but few games have come closer to reaching it.

Gameplay: 10
Graphics: 10
Sound: 10
Value: 10
Tilt: 10

Overall Score: 10

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Super Mario 64 Wii Review

Back in 1996, with the launch of the Nintendo 64, gamers witnessed the birth of a new era for one of gaming’s most powerful and well-known franchises. Before then, Mario did his platform hipping in the second dimension, traversing from one side of a stage to the other. Now, with a new dimension and a new perspective on the platforming genre, it becomes clear that this is the way Mario games were meant to be played.

Seeing Mario jump out of his trademark warp pipe into a three dimensional world for the first time is a pretty amazing thing to a gamer who’s grown up playing the traditional side scrolling platformers such as Super Mario World. The gameplay has evolved from the platform hopping of yesteryear and many new variables come into play here. Alongside the usual method of stomping on an enemy’s head to defeat them, Mario now has a number of physical attacks that, despite their short range, are handy for defeating certain enemies.

There is a wide variety of interesting and challenging platforming stages you’ll encounter throughout the course of the game. These worlds are housed within paintings scattered throughout the castle, which serves as a centralized hub. These stages are some of the most unique ever seen in a Mario game and practically oozing with charm and unforgettable moments.

Unlike the 2D platformers of yore, the objective here isn’t simply to travel from one end of the stage to the next. Each of the sixteen levels presents its own set of six unique challenges, as well as a seventh for collecting 100 coins in one trip through the level. Completing each of these goals rewards you with a Power Star. As you gain more and more stars, more of the castle opens to you, unlocking more stages. Throughout the game, you’ll run into a host of mini bosses, which all require different tactics to defeat. Eventually, with enough stars in tow, you’ll face off against Bowser.

Boss battles all play out well but the most suitably epic are the encounters you’ll have with Bowser. Bowser is certainly the most challenging foe you’ll face and a real sense of accomplishment accompanies your victory, having bested Mario’s most famous foe.

The game controls quite well using the classic controller or a regular Game Cube controller. For those who use the latter, the controls should feel instantly familiar to gamers who played its spiritual sequel, Super Mario Sunshine. No matter which of the control options you choose, controls are tight and responsive. The camera may be a bit difficult to wrangle in a tight spot and the controls do force you to use the oddly placed and rather small Z buttons (on both controllers) a bit often, which can be annoying but those are the only real sore spots.

Graphics wise, this is the best-looking version of the game you can buy. On newer televisions and especially in 480p, the game is incredibly sharp, almost to the point that it looks like it’s somewhat detached at the seams. The colors appear deeper and more vibrant and while the textures aren’t exactly amazing, you have to take into consideration that the game did come out over ten years ago and still looks rather nice.

There is plenty of challenge to be found for new players and nostalgic gamers who are looking to relive the excitement they’ve already experienced on the Nintendo 64. Collecting all 120 stars is a rather lofty goal but certainly achievable for those willing to ferret out the castle’s many secrets and delves deep into each of the sixteen levels. This is a must buy for Nintendo fans, new and old and is certainly among the best the Virtual Console has to offer and a fitting inauguration for the service. Ten dollars is a small price to pay for one of the best games ever created.

Graphics: 8
Gameplay: 9
Sound: 7
Value: 9
Tilt: 9

Overall Score: 9.0

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fuzion Frenzy 2 Review

Throughout a console’s lifespan it sees its share of bad games, games that are bland, uninspired or just plain boring. Well, Fuzion Frenzy 2 is an unfortunate combination of all three. One begins to wonder who bought enough copies of the original (which is much better in comparison) to warrant this sequel. It’s a shame that this game didn’t build upon the foundations its predecessor built because it could’ve perhaps competed with the legendary Mario Party series for the party game crown.

The presentation itself isn’t that great to begin with, featuring a bland and unattractive front end menu. There are some green lasers dancing about in the background but besides that, the translucent panels do nothing to spur you onward. Maybe this is a good thing, because things don’t improve much from there.

The tournament mode, in which up to four players compete for the control of two to five planets by winning minigames sports a highly counterintuitive interface compared to the rest of the game which is rather streamlined and well executed. You start by choosing one of six generic, color-coded characters. There is an option for up to three additional players to play alongside you throughout the tournament, and this is highly favorable. If human players aren’t available, CPU players will fill in what spots remain. After choosing the number of planets that have to be won before a winner is declared. Anywhere from two to five planets can be chosen, but be warned, anything longer than three can stretch on far longer than you’d want them to.

Once the tournament begins, one of the most annoying aspects of the game rears its ugly head in the form of the announcer who gives the tournaments a game show style vibe but as you play the game, you will likely grow to hate the obnoxious, repetitive and frequently annoying announcer. Obnoxious because of his laughably bad and wildly overdone voiceovers. Repetitive because of his habit of repeating the same lines of commentary over and over. For example I’ve heard him say “I’ve never seen a battle this crazy!” five times. Keep in mind that this was just during one minigame. Frequently annoying because of the inability to skip his long, drawn out, not to mention poorly dubbed comments in between minigames during online tournaments. Thankfully, some salvation comes in the ability to skip these scenes in local tournaments. Outside of the announcer, a few bland techno/rock tunes play in the background.

Visually, the game doesn’t impress in a technical or artistic way at any point. The backgrounds and character models are decent (save for the fashion challenged announcer) but are generally uninspired and lack significant detail. While unimpressive, they do their job decently enough. The lighting is one of the better aspects of the game, but in some spots it’s a bit overdone.

Before beginning your first minigame, the announcer instructs you to choose the first of seven planets you’d like to attempt to control. These planets all feature rather generic themes and uninspired names (Amuseth, Icicle, Machina, Moisture, Blazer, Eternite and Earth) corresponding with the planet’s theme. These different planets serve their purpose of expanding the game’s universe and providing a backdrop for the minigames but don’t have the spark of creativity this game desperately needs.

One of the new features, billed as an “improvement” over its predecessor is the card system, which is introduced here. These modifier cards dramatically change the scoring system to a point that things like balance and fair play are thrown right out the window. Before each minigame, you’ll be able to use a card from the cards in your hand, which are obtained through short card collecting game thrown in between minigames games and the effects of the card you’ve chosen are applied after the upcoming minigame is played. The most common type of card you’ll encounter is the multiplier card. These cards come in 2X, 4X and 6X varieties, and multiply your score accordingly. Scores are doled out after minigames based on placing awarding 10 points for first place, 6 for second, 4 for third, and 2 for a fourth place finish. The obvious problem with this is that players can score a first place win without actually winning the game. If you place third and use a 4x multiplier then boom, you’ve got a first place win. This is especially frustrating when you win a minigame and someone uses a multiplier or, worse yet, steals the multiplier you’ve just used for themselves and knocks you off the podium.

Finally, we reach the focal point of the game…the minigames. There are more than 40 minigames to be found here and it’s a shame that, in a game centered on these games, most of those forty are rather boring and repetitive. Many minigames are un-fun exercises in button mashing. Hand cramps galore await you in the “Power Surge” minigame. Others are nothing but slight variations on the same themes such as the mindless beat em ups. To its credit, all the minigames featured here are accessible and easy to pick up and play. A few of the better minigames from the original return, such as the American Gladiator-esque Sumo Clash, which has you rolling around in a giant ball, attempting to knock other players off the platform. There are a few standout games such as the snake-esque Tail Blazer and Tower of Judgment, which has you inputting button combinations as fast as you can to beat the other players. There are a few other standout games, but they are few and far between, making the whole package suffer.

Outside of the tournament mode, there exist the minigame frenzy and custom modes, the latter allows you to choose specifically which games you’d like to play and play to a set number of wins. The absence of the almost broken card system here makes this mode competitive and encourages skill. The minigame frenzy mode allows you to play all of the game’s minigames in any order you like. Both these modes, as well as the tournament mode, are playable online, which can be fun and competitive if you’re playing the right minigames.

One of the (slightly) redeeming factors in Fuzion Frenzy 2 is in its achievement points. There are only 14 of them, and comprise 1000 of the easiest achievement points you’ll ever get. Collaborate with a friend for a few hours and you’ll have an extra 1000 points added to your gamerscore lickety-split…though you may not like yourself for it.

The biggest reason I’m so disappointed in this game is that it hails from Hudson, developer of the famed Mario Party series. This series has long been known for its fun and original minigames and has been considered the originator of the party game genre. Considering the developer’s pedigree, there is no excuse for Fuzion Frenzy 2 to be as bad as it is. That is, unless just they weren’t trying.

Fuzion Frenzy 2 is just one of those games you’ll want to avoid. If you’re a rabid fan of achievements, rent it. Even then you should be wary. $50 is simply too much to pay for a game like this. If you see it in a bargain bin sometime in the future, skip it. The few truly entertaining minigames just can’t balance the scales against its below average and at times, just plain bad overtones. This is definitely the worst game I’ve played on the Xbox 360 to date and at the end of the day, it just makes me wonder why they even bothered.

Graphics - 5
Gameplay - 5
Sound - 3
Value - 5
Tilt - 4

Overall Score: 4.5

Friday, June 22, 2007

Crackdown Review

On the surface, Crackdown may seem like another fish in a sea of clones of the quintessential open world, sandbox series, Grand Theft Auto. The core gameplay is similar to that of Grand Theft Auto in that there are cars to hijack, a decent selection of weapon a large open environment….and the similarities end there. Crackdown’s differences are what set it apart from the crowd. For instance, instead of assuming the role of a criminal, you play the role of a genetically enhanced super cop, whose sole job is to make sure those on the wrong side of the law are brought to justice. But you won’t be making arrests or pulling people over for speeding. In this city, breaking the law is only punishable by death. Now that’s what I call “justice”.

From the very beginning of the game, you are given the freedom to go anywhere and do anything you want. Unlike the GTA series, which usually limits you to a certain district of the otherwise open world in the beginning, here, there are no restrictions. This concept of truly being able to go anywhere and do anything from the outset is certainly refreshing and a welcome addition. As it stands, this is probably the most open sandbox game out there and having this essentially limitless freedom is a very good thing.

One of the more interesting aspects is your ever evolving super agent. You begin the game with abilities that surpass those of a normal human being due to your genetic enhancements. Your five core skills are at their lowest point, and you’ll want to upgrade them, quickly. You can jump about ten feet in the air vertically and while this may seem impressive, compared to what’s in store, it isn’t. Your skills are developed by utilizing them. Kick enough criminals to death and eventually, you’ll level up and be able to throw heavy objects, such as cars. Blow criminals sky high with rocket launchers and grenades enough and your explosive skills will increase, causing your explosive ordinance to increase in power and blast radius to increase, and so on for each of your five core skills.

Perhaps the most important skill to develop is your agility skill. Only then will you really appreciate the care and detail that went into designing the city. The verticality of the city can only be experienced with a high agility level, so you’ll want to take time to seek out the 500 agility orbs scattered throughout the city to level up your agility skills.

Once you level up your agility skill, you’ll find that hopping from building to building is a quick and enjoyable way to crisscross the city, which is good, seeing as the vehicle handling is a bit iffy, even when you level up your driving skills to the maximum. Before then, you feel a bit disconnected from the car, and overall vehicle handling is slippery. Developing the skill does have its plusses aside from increased vehicle handling as well. You gain the ability to control some cars movements in the air, to perhaps level off after a hard jump and Agency vehicles transform and increase in performance relative to your driving skill level culminating to the maximum skill level, in which agency vehicles gain vehicle specific abilities, such as mounted machineguns on the Agency Supercar and a jump mechanism on the Agency SUV.

Pacific City is divided into three districts, each under control of a different street gang. The Los Muertos, Volk and Shai Gen gangs all have to be eliminated and can be tackled in any order you choose although it should be noted that the Volk and Shai Gen gangs are respectively more difficult to handle than the Los Muertos, so it’s recommended that they are the first gang you pursue. All of the gangs put up a good enough fight, and there are times when you’ll find yourself in over your head. In the event that your agent happens to die, you will instantly take control of a carbon copy of your agent and resume playing at one of the agency supply points you’ve liberated.

As you make your way through the streets, you will receive updates to your gang dossier from the Agency, giving you your assignment. This assignment never changes. You’ll receive the name and location of a gang general and you’re assigned to take them out. There is no specific pecking order as far as which gang generals you pursue so players can bypass the gang generals altogether and immediately pursue the kingpin if they wish. Killing each of the gang generals does weaken the resistance of the kingpin’s personal guard and makes them easier to take down so in that, there is a decent benefit. As far as mission variety, this is it. Missions never stray from the basic “go here, kill that guy” framework established early on in the game. This is a bit disappointing when compared to other sandbox games that have much more varied mission objectives. After killing yet another gang general for the umpteenth time, you’ll be pining for more. There is no set method you must follow to eliminate each general, allowing more of that oh so important freedom (seems to be a recurring theme here) to seep in. There are side missions in the form of checkpoint vehicle and rooftop races to test your driving and agility skills, respectively, that serve as a serviceable diversion when you finish the main campaign.

Another gripe I have is that there is a lack of a real challenge worthy of your enhanced abilities. After all, shouldn’t a super cop have super villains to contend with? Throughout the game, the only opposition you’ll encounter is endless waves of heavily armed thugs with varying layers of body armor. It’s a bit disappointing that there is so little variety in the enemies, compounding with the general lack of mission variety.

Those looking for a gripping storyline to uncover as they progress through the game should look elsewhere as Crackdown doesn’t have much of a plot that unfolds as you kill off the gang generals. There is a story within the game, but it’s not something to get really excited over. The story is presented in a brief cutscene prior to the beginning of the game and serves mainly to inform you of the series of events that transpired to lead up to the point the game begins. After completing the campaign, one final cutscene is presented which wraps up the story, unveiling an unexpected twist.

Single player campaign aside, the game truly shines when you’re bounding through the city with a friend. The co op system works similarly to the system implemented in Gears of War in which a second player can join your single player campaign at any time. One major drawback is that it isn’t as seamless as it should be. You can set the game up to allow others to join your game (random folks or friends only) and once they attempt to connect, you’ll be prompted that they are trying to join. This pulls you out of the game you’re currently playing and allows the second player to join, meaning, if you’re in the middle of a mission or anything else, you’ll have to quit, starting fresh. When the second player joins your game, they join your version of the city and vice versa when joining another player’s game. This can be a problem if you have already taken out all 21 gang generals and cleaned up the city because you and the second player won’t have much to do.

Playing through the campaign with a friend is great fun though, whether you’re taking out the gang generals one by one or tooling around the city causing random havoc, there’s plenty of fun to be had. Both players are given free reign over the entire city and are free to do whatever they choose, even if that means attacking one another. There is a lot to be seen and done in the city and given your super agent’s abilities and the plethora of weapons and items at your disposal, it really flexes your creativity and allows you to create your own fun.

Crackdown has a very unique visual style that blends realism and cel shading to great effect, creating a sort of virtual graphic novel. As a result, the graphics are crisp, well detailed and do their job quite well. In a game filled with explosions, it’s only fitting that they look fantastic. These are some of the better looking explosion effects in any game on the Xbox 360.

The audio presentation is pretty decent. The soundtrack consists of more than 100 songs that play through the in car radio meaning that you probably won’t hear many of them unless you really like driving. Once you leave the car, the music will continue to play with a nice positional audio effect relative to your proximity to the car. The “announcer”, your Agency contact, chimes in every now and then, offering tips, useful information and the occasional non sequitur. In the first few hours of play, these quips can be helpful, even funny, in a campy sort of way. Unfortunately, like most jokes, most are only funny the first time you hear them. After that, they begin to wear thin as he begins to nag you about killing too many civilians (even though they have a bad habit of being in the way…a lot…) or says something completely irrelevant to the situation at hand. A big example of this is the remarks he makes after you’ve ascended the Agency tower. Even when you’re halfway across the city, or indoors, he’ll randomly comment on your feat, which tends to be a bit annoying.

In the end, underneath its flaws, there is a great game to be found. Despite my complaints, I found the game to be highly enjoyable playing alone, and even more so playing with a friend. The co op mode is probably one of the best in recent memory and offers hours of fun as you wreak havoc around the city with a fellow super agent. It just seems like there was a bit of wasted potential in the lack of mission and enemy variety. There’s no use griping over what could have been though, when the game is as good as it is. If you’re an Xbox 360 owner and you’re hurting for a good sandbox game or want something you can play with a friend, don’t hesitate to pick this one up.

Graphics - 8
Gameplay - 8
Sound - 7
Value - 7
Tilt - 9

Overall Score - 8.1

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops Review

The Metal Gear Solid series has been around since its glory days on the original Playstation, to the excellent Playstation 2 sequels, and the fourth incarnation in the series is set to be released on the Playstation 3. This highly lauded and critically acclaimed series has seen its share of different consoles, but has never ventured into the realm of portable gaming. Sure, there have been a few spin off titles for portable consoles in the past, and there have been the recent Metal Gear AC!D games on the Playstation Portable, but never a Metal Gear Solid game. Well, for Metal Gear Solid fans who quite get their fix with the two previous games, Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops is about as close as to a true Metal Gear Solid adventure as you can get on a portable system.

This new adventure takes place in 1970, six years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Naked Snake, also known as “Big Boss” has been attacked and captured by his former team, the FOX Unit. The game begins with a short cutscene involving Snake being interrogated and tortured by a member of the FOX Unit, looking for the other half of the Philosopher’s legacy. After this cutscene concludes, Snake discovers he is imprisoned in a cell next to a lone surviving member of the Green Beret squad deployed in the area to neutralize the FOX Unit, and he turns out to be none other than Roy Campbell. After a brief conversation between the two, the player gains control of Snake and the game begins.

The story alone makes this a must play for fans of the series, as it fills in a lot of the series’ already complicated storyline. After the thought provoking storyline of Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima and company once again puts together an excellent narrative, rich with incredible plot twists and political intrigue without coming off as over wrought or forced. The story is told incredibly well throughout the game, through the cutscenes that pop up every now and then.

As a sharp contrast with the console games in the series, the story is told through hand drawn, mostly black and white images presented panel by panel, in the style of an animated comic, instead of being rendered by the game’s graphics engine. These highly stylized scenes present the game’s excellent story in a way never seen before in the Metal Gear Solid games. This gives the cutscenes a very unique look that is highly attractive. It’s also worth noting that the cutscenes are a lot more balanced with gameplay than in previous Metal Gear Solid games, which were rather longwinded by comparison. These scenes, while appropriately heavy with narrative, don’t drag on endlessly, which is good, and fitting with the game’s portable nature.

Unlike the previous Metal Gear AC!D games on the Playstation Portable, this looks and plays more like a traditional Metal Gear Solid adventure seen on consoles. The crisp and highly detailed graphics are some of the best you’ll see on the PSP and really show what the system is capable of. The control scheme is vastly similar to that of Metal Gear Solid 3. Although shoehorning the series’ complex controls of that game onto the PSP’s limited (at least by comparison) button layout was likely rather difficult, the developers have done an admirable job. Simple actions such as walking around, crouching, placing your back to a wall, and shooting are performed easily, but once you step into the arena of aiming in the first person view and moving at the same time, a new feature, things can get a bit difficult. Performing complex actions such as the aforementioned moving while in first person view is hand cramp inducing, and don’t come off nearly as easily as they should. But, even with these minor control issues, this is still one of the better control schemes I’ve encountered on the PSP.

Even though this is pretty much the direct Sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, many of that game’s key elements are gone, most for the better. In Metal Gear Solid 3, much of the time spent playing was in menus, curing Snake’s many wounds and injuries and eating food you’ve found or hunted for in the jungle. It was a wise choice for the developers to ditch those elements of the game for Snake’s portable outing, as they likely would’ve taken up to much of the player’s time. The camera system from Metal Gear Solid 3 Subsistence has thankfully found its way into this game too. Using the D pad, you can freely manipulate the camera to give you a better view of the action and with a press of the L trigger, the camera will center behind you. Instead of that particular gameplay mechanic, MGS PO has its own unique draw, which differentiates it from the rest of the games in the series. Soldier recruitment. Early in the game, you will be tasked with recruiting a soldier to your cause. After you knock out and bring back your first soldier, you are treated to a quick and very well done interrogation and recruitment cutscene in which you gain the trust and cooperation of the captive soldier. This becomes a major aspect of the gameplay from then on.

Recruiting soldiers within missions is as easy (or as difficult, depending on the situation) as knocking them out and dragging them back to your truck. From there, they are sent to the prison, where they will remain for a set period of time until they are convinced to join your squad. Besides the previously explained method of acquiring soldiers, there is another way, one that is incredibly addictive and simple to perform. Using the PSP’s wireless capabilities, this game allows you to scan Wi-Fi hotspots new soldiers to add to your crew. Using unique IP addresses to generate soldiers, the scan system is likely the easiest method of adding soldiers to your roster. In addition, using the PSP GPS receiver, which is currently only sold in Japan, you can recruit soldiers based on your geographical location.

In between missions, you can assign recruited soldiers to one of six squads, each with a different purpose, such as the medical unit, which develops healing items and speeds the healing of your soldiers in between missions and the spy unit, which locates weapons within their assigned territory and can supply you with vital intel. The most important unit to develop is the sneaking unit. This is the unit that is actually deployed in the field. Placing captured soldiers in this unit can really give you a tactile advantage when it comes to tackling these missions, because in some cases, the soldiers will blend right in with their former comrades, as long as they aren’t discovered performing any out of the ordinary actions. Adversely, placing your soldiers on the battlefield is a risk. If a major story character, such as Snake, is killed in a mission, they are sent off to the infirmary to recover and will be unable to participate in the next mission without time to recover. If a recruited soldier dies in the field, they are gone forever. This gives you reason to remain stealthy and keep your soldiers in good health. If you choose to forego stealth and wind up getting one of your valuable soldiers killed on the battlefield, there is always the option of restarting or aborting the mission, should the loss be too difficult to bear.

The missions themselves are presented in an instant action sort of manner, once again, fitting with the game’s portable nature, giving you five to ten minute bursts of play. Although the story is presented in a linear fashion, Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops takes a much more open ended approach than any other Metal Gear Solid game, giving you total control over which missions you take and when. From the menu between missions you are given the opportunity to redeploy to any location you have previously encountered. One of the major strengths of this game is its wealth of missions, perfect for portable play. There’s never a shortage of missions to play, and having the option to pick and choose which of them to play is a great addition. Keeping with the tradition of previous Metal Gear Solid games, boss encounters are just as exciting and epic as they are in other games in the series, each fight boasting its own unique charm. These battles are challenging though, requiring you to think outside of the box in order to come out victorious.

In addition to the single player campaign, there is a satisfying multiplayer component. There are options for up to 6 player play via an ad hoc network and even a game sharing option which allows up to five additional players to play even if they don’t have a copy of the disc and you can even trade your soldiers with friends. All of that aside, the real draw here is the online multiplayer modes. Using the Metal Gear Online infrastructure established in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, players face off against each other in a standard array of multiplayer modes, such as deathmatch and team deathmatch. The online modes are directly tied in with your progression in the single player campaign. Before battle, you choose one of your four groups from the sneaking unit to send into the field. Before jumping into an online match, you are given the option to choose between a “virtual” or “real” match. When participating in the latter, if your soldiers die in battle, they will no longer appear in your roster, as they have “died” on the battlefield, just like the single player campaign and your opponent can then recruit the soldiers you have lost. To save your valuable soldiers and prevent them from being killed and subsequently captured, you have the option of waving a white flag and withdrawing that soldier from the field and sending out a new one, giving them time to recover and wait until the next deployment.

The problem with this is that these modes don’t have much staying power. There are already a slim number of modes to choose from in the first place and you can add that to some rather shallow third person shooting. Sure there are the stealth aspects from the single player game, but they are often overlooked by the majority of players in lieu of locking on to their closest target and blasting it to hell. There’s very little strategy involved and the small number of modes don't bode well in terms of replay value, meaning the online modes are just fairly decent at best.

More interestingly, one of the best multiplayer modes is one you don’t directly control. The cyber-survival mode is sort of like an online simulated strategy game, in which you choose one of your sneaking units to deploy into the field. From there, they will do battle with other players’ teams. Your team will fare better or worse depending on your soldiers’ stats and equipment, so performing well is conducive with your own pre-battle planning. Also, keeping with the general theme of the rest of the game, if your soldiers are killed in cyber survival, they will not return. If they fare well, you might be presented with captured soldiers to recruit upon their safe return.

In the end, the fresh and unique single player campaign does wonders to differentiate this from other Metal Gear Solid games and proves to be a worthwhile and engaging experience. Metal Gear Solid fans will get the most from this game due to its excellent story and plot development, but non fans can enjoy it all the same because of the classic Metal Gear Solid gameplay and solid suite of enjoyable modes. Soldier recruitment makes for an entertaining little minigame and the squad management options set this apart from the crowd. Bottom line, this is truly one of the best PSP games to date and can easily hold its own with any of its console predecessors.

Graphics - 9
Gameplay - 9
Sound - 9
Value - 9
Tilt - 9
Overall Score: 9.0

Wii Sports Review

Thought to have gone the way of the dinosaur, the pack in game has made a triumphant return in the form of Wii Sports. Everyone who buys their Wii console (in the US at least) goes home with a free copy of the game. But, does it play well? Well, the game looks, and in some ways plays, like a glorified tech demo, designed to get you accustomed with the Wii remote functions with virtual renditions of tennis, baseball, golf, bowling and boxing. Calling it a sports “sim” would be giving it too much credit. At times, the game is surprisingly short on depth but as a result, is far easier for non gamers to get into and have fun.

One of the game’s selling points is how easy it is to get into. The interface is clean and simple to navigate making jumping into a quick game to kill time quick and easy. The individual sports use the Wii remote and in the case of boxing nunchuck to emulate the most basic actions in the respective sports such as swinging a bat in baseball or throwing a punch in boxing. There is a bit of a learning curve to each sport, but many players will acclimate themselves to the control scheme of each game rather quickly. The included training modes are fun and a great way to improve your skills between games.

Tennis plays pretty much like the real thing, as the player holds and swings the Wii remote like a tennis racket. To serve, you flick the remote upwards and swing. To return the ball to your opponent, you swing the remote, creating a forehand or backhand swing, depending on your handedness. The actual game consists of a two on two doubles match with no option for singles play. On the field, the AI automatically moves your two characters to put you in the best position possible for returning the ball and the AI usually does a good job of getting you into position. These are likely design choices to simplify the game and make it more accessible. As a result, it does cause the game to lose a lot of strategic depth. You never have incredible accuracy or control over your swing, and the direction the ball goes in is entirely dependent on your timing.

Baseball is one of the deepest of the five sports, giving you the most accurate and deepest control over your swing and the pitch. Swinging the Wii remote like a baseball bat controls the swing and emulating an overhand swing controls the pitch, as you would expect. Timing and power of your swing is the key to knocking the ball out of the park and there is a bit of a learning curve to adjust to before you’ll be able to do that. Pitching is similarly deep, allowing you to choose from a number of different types of pitches. The standard fastball is performed by just making the overhand motion and you can throw curveballs, screwballs, and splitters by pressing and holding either the A button (screwball), B button (curveball) or both (splitter). You can also control the direction of the pitch, be it inside, outside, high or low by pressing and holding a direction on the d-pad. Each game consists of a three inning warm up instead of the traditional nine inning stretch of a real game. Unfortunately, this suffers from lack of depth in everything besides swinging and pitching, since that’s all you have control over. It really feels like he game is playing itself when the AI handles everything from catching fly balls, to running the bases. It almost seems like the length of time between making contact with the ball and it being caught controls how many bases you run. After a while of playing, you’ll be able to predict how far your character will run solely based on the time the ball is in the air. When you consider things like this, it almost feels like the game is playing itself whenever you aren’t actually throwing or taking a swing at the ball.

Golf is pretty weak in comparison to many of the sports in the collection, particularly due to the sometimes finicky controls. Holding the Wii remote down, pointed at the ground and swinging like you would a real golf club is simple enough, but swinging can be fussy at times. The game does detect your handedness and realigns your character accordingly, but doesn’t take into account which way you will actually swing the club, be it right or left. As a result, many accidental swings can result from simply setting up to make your swing. Swinging itself is rather difficult to control. On the screen is a power meter which is comprised of four dots at regular intervals, which appear on a minimap, and figuring out how hard you need to swing is a simple matter of figuring out which of the four dots you need to hit on the power meter. Simply swinging as hard as you can when driving for the fairway is not a wise course of action as the ball will automatically hook or slice. Getting a powerful shot without managing to max out the power meter and hooking or slicing the ball is rather difficult, particularly since, for some reason, the power meter continues to rise even after the ball has left the tee with any upward motion of the Wii remote until after a certain point. Once you grow accustomed to the controls, you will find nine holes of golf here, split into beginner, intermediate and expert courses. While they are all entertaining and rather challenging, one does begin to wish there were more than just nine holes to play on.

Bowling is perhaps the deepest and most entertaining sport of the bunch, because it plays well and has most of the strategic depth of the real thing. You start by holding the Wii remote directly in front of you, with it pointing straight up. To throw the ball, you hold the B button, and emulate the down, back and forward again motions of the real sport, releasing the B button again to send the ball down the lane. Twisting the Wii remote to the left or right as you throw the ball puts a spin on the ball, which you can counteract by moving your character to the right or left and changing the angle of your throw before making your approach.

Boxing, the only game to use the nunchuck attachment, is perhaps the weakest sport in the package simply because it’s generally unresponsive where it counts. Throwing punches. Your fighter moves in accordance to your movements with the Wii remote and nunchuck. Dodging punches by moving your character forward, backward or side to side are accomplished by moving the Wii remote and nunchuck in the appropriate direction. The position of the two controllers also govern your ability to block incoming hits and by moving them, your character will mimic the position of both controllers with their hands. Everything controls pretty well except for the one thing that should control best, the actual punching. Throwing punches is pretty unresponsive some times and really detracts from the entire experience. When the game does respond well to your movements and you begin to consistently land punches, it is fun and has a decent amount of depth, as you’ll have to actually aim your movements high and low to land head or body punches. In combination with the dodging and blocking movements, this could’ve been the best sport in the package, but its limited responsiveness also limits the fun.

The Mii avatars, which populate the game, add a bit of spice to the collection. At the outset, you’ll be asked to choose a Mii from your collection to pose as your virtual avatar when playing any of the sports or training modes. Statistics are saved to that Mii which include your Wii fitness age, records held in training games and your Wii Sports “level”. This level is measured in points. Performing well at each of the five sports gives you points towards your Mii’s level in whichever sport you’re currently playing. Performing poorly subtracts from your level so this gives players an incentive to practice and get good at each of the five sports. Once you exceed 1000 points, you gain “Pro” status, which, other than a “PRO” icon next to your name, doesn’t offer any real benefits, but it makes for a nice touch.

Another element of the game is the Wii Fitness training. This mode is similar to the “Brain Age Check” mode in the Nintendo DS game. The mode consists of three events, each one being one of the many training modes mentioned earlier. When the player completes all three games, the game measures your performance in the form of a Fitness “Age” ranging from the best possible age of 20 to the worst, 80.

The multiplayer in this game is pretty much what makes this game stand out. Up to four players can participate in tennis, golf and bowling and two can play boxing and baseball. Golf and bowling even support hotseat play using just one remote between up to four players. The multiplayer modes add a level of fun and interactivity that the solo modes just don’t have. It’s as if Nintendo clearly intended for players to play this game with their friends and family. It feels like it was made for multiplayer , which is certainly a good thing if you can manage to corral enough people to play alongside you.

In the end, even though this collection of sports titles may be a bit light on the simulation aspects of each sport and in turn loses a bit of depth because of it; it’s fun and accessible by nearly everyone. Even those who have never played a video game before in their lives can easily play and enjoy this one. Serious sports fans won’t get much enjoyment from these games but everyone else can find something to like. It’s a great pack in game and despite the feeling of playing a glorified tech demo; makes for a pretty fun game overall.

Graphics - 7
Gameplay - 7
Sound - 7
Value - 8
Tilt - 9

Overall Score: 7.8