The Busted Controller

Your dose of dirt/news/rampant speculation on all things Video Game related.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Review: Dead Rising (xbox360)

There’s something funny going on in a sleepy little Midwestern town, and photojournalist Frank West (who’s covered wars ya know) is out to get to the bottom of it, or at least snap a couple of hundred photos and earn some good ole fortune and glory by selling the story. Unfortunately for Frank, his ride just dumped him on the roof of a shopping complex that’s filled to the brim with bloodthirsty zombies! Armed with a camera, and whatever he can get his mitts on in the various stores throughout the mall, Frank has to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and maybe save a few survivors, and photograph some carnage in the process.

There you have the setup for Capcom’s first “next gen” offering, Dead Rising. Rather than dip into the Resident Evil well yet-again, Capcom has gone back to their Romero soaked roots to deliver an obvious homage to Romero’s own seminal zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. The game does a fantastic job of throwing you into the setting with a fantastic intro sequence where you fly over the town taking snapshots of some action before you actually touch down on the mall. Once you get there, you’re dumped unceremoniously on the roof and given a 72 hour time limit to get in, kill some zombies, and find out what the hell is going on. You venture through several sections of the complex, including an outdoor courtyard, food court, and several blocks of stores. Along the way you’ll meet several survivors, whom you’ll have to lead back to the mall’s security room (which is usually pretty infuriating – more on that below) and psychopaths whom you’ll have to put down in some pretty inventive boss battles.

Variety is definitely a plus. As you wind through the various areas of the Willamette Mall you’ll find hundreds of weapon choices, from golf clubs and bowling balls, to chainsaws, lawnmowers, shopping carts, and even CD’s! (Batman soundtrack? Throw it!). There are a ton of outfits available, with a ton more available for free in the xbox live marketplace, there are books and magazines you can read for stat boosts and new special moves, blenders you can use to make all sorts of tasty (or not so much so) drinks which can heal or help you in other ways (pie plus orange juice equals temporary invincibility!) and there are hundreds of photo opportunities you can track down which work towards “leveling up” your character in RPG-like fashion. There’s no shortage of things to do, and part of the fun is experimenting with how specific weapons dice through the hundreds of zombies you run into, or how useless they are. The game unfolds in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek style to a point, and bashing zombies generally doesn’t get old – thanks to Capcom inserting some great boss battles in the form of less than mentally stable survivors called “psychopaths”. Some of these battles become marathons, and they all have a specific pattern or weakness to be exploited if you’re clever enough to figure it out. Some fine examples include a group of escaped convicts racing around the courtyard in a military Hummer (which you can hijack in true GTA fashion), or the family of aspiring snipers, or perhaps the loopy grocery store manager and his shopping cart full of pointy objects. The game breaks things up into two main modes, the 72 hour mode, which will probably take you in the neighborhood of 5-10 hours, and the overtime mode, which is a tad shorter. While both modes do remain pretty engaging, there are a few choices made with regards to the storytelling that baffle. One, plot points unfold based on the game’s internal clock, and if you aren’t in the right place at the right time, you can miss some very important goings on, which pretty much hamstrings the rest of the game and makes for a lousy ending. Two, there’s only ONE save slot – which means when you do screw up and miss something important, you can basically soldier on knowing you’re screwed, or start over (though you’ll keep your powered up character). It’s these decisions that keep the game pretty liner throughout the 72 hour mode, and if you really want the best ending, you’re either going to have to follow a strict walkthrough, play through multiple times, or you’re some kind of gaming prodigy. Luckily the action remains pretty fun throughout without getting monotonous or repetitive, which makes a repeat play through or two an appealing thought. Still, multiple save slots so that you could revert to a few earlier states, and so that someone else logged in under your profile doesn’t accidentally overwrite your own game, would have been nice.

Control-wise, Dead rising handles pretty well. Frank moves a little slowly, which can make some of the faster paced battles, particularly with the psycho bosses, a little difficult. It feels like Frank is walking with a strut or a limp, which doesn’t help much (maybe he twisted his ankle or something when he jumped out of the helicopter… idiot.) Regardless, combat is fast, and pretty accurate without being frustrating or unintuitive. The Camera system could use a little fine tuning, as it’s a little slow to switch from fighting to the camera, snap a nice shot, and then go back to hacking, but it is serviceable and not altogether terrible. Zombie AI, or lack thereof, is convincing enough, and their behavior changes realistically, from passive and stumbling to aggressive when you get close. Human AI on the other hand is lackluster, which makes the survivor escort missions a major pain in the ass. Having to stumble through the mall with a wailing woman or a stupid guy clinging to you, trying to keep them alive while they stop and wait for every clump of zombies to chow down on their collarbones, or get stuck in store counters, is a frustrating experience that drags the game down somewhat. Even when things aren’t so hectic, you’ll find yourself constantly calling out to your follower, and hanging back waiting for them to catch up. It’s frustrating, and drags down an otherwise totally engaging experience. What’s worse is these survivors are essential to getting the better endings in the game. You can arm them with weapons, but it generally doesn’t help much.

Dead Rising is a gorgeous looking affair, with great texture work and some subtle but well implemented effects. Facial features are excellent, animation is smooth and crisp, the varied stores in the mall are much more than flat textured polygons, and everything has a nice three dimensional look. The gore effects are also amazing, with blood spattering over everything, including Frank. The variety of zombies is impressive, with suitably juicy open wounds and decaying flesh, wonderfully textured clothing, and convincing animations. All of Frank’s attacks and special moves look great, from running on the heads and shoulders of a tightly packed group of shambling undead, to caving their skulls in with a 20 pound Sledge Hammer. Everything about the graphics is wholly satisfying. The game does feature some of the trademarked “shadow shimmer” that we saw in a lot of later Xbox games (like Fable) and even many of the current crop (Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter), which seems to be something that can’t be avoided, but overall the game looks stellar.

In the sound department, the effects are excellent. Each and every kill gives you some wonderfully juicy squish and crunch sounds to accompany the great looking gore. Each and every weapon sounds great. Voice acting is passable, but ultimately typical of your average horror game, hokey and overacted (Frank in particular comes across as a total idiot). Music is your average fluffy light stuff that might accompany a trip to a happy, sunny, mall. It really sets up a pretty entertaining vibe, there’s something surreal about hacking zombies with a katana, or cutting loose with a shotgun, while you listen to a sort of loose interpretation of “The Girl from Ipanema”.

Overall, in spite of some critical missteps with the save system and narrative structure, and perhaps thanks to an absurd batch of characters and an equally absurd plot that fits the game to a tee, Dead Rising does it’s best to become one of the more enjoyable experiences on the Xbox360. It is technically excellent, with a rock solid game engine that stays pretty much bug free and wholly stable throughout the duration. It’s a fluffy and engaging experience that is, on it’s surface, simple and quick to play. Yet it’s RPG elements and the amount of things to do add significant depth. If you’ve ever geeked out to a Zombie picture, or worship at the altar of George R. Romero, then this game is definitely for you. A trip to this mall is almost sure to entertain. There’s plenty of blood and gore spattered about, hence the M-Rating, but in truth, I’d say its fine for Teens as well.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Review: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (pc/xbox360)

The Elder Scrolls series has long been a niche franchise, a series mostly known amongst PC gamers in the mid 90’s. The first few entries were decent performers, geared towards a very particular crowd. In 2001, Bethesda Softworks, the founders of the series, attempted to take these long and arduous odysseys through fantasy worlds a tad closer to the mainstream. The result, Morrowind, was a critically praised game in most respects, and became, at least for a short while, one of the few reasons to own an Xbox in those early days of the system’s life. After its success, Bethesda went back to square one, looked at what worked and what didn’t work, and, factoring in the added resources that a hit title gave them, began work on what would become one of the first truly classic experiences of the next generation, Oblivion.

Right from the opening cutscene, a sweeping fly over of the imperial city accompanied by suitably epic score and Patrick Stewart voiceover, Oblivion sinks its teeth in. It seems that Emperor Uriel Septim is under siege by unknown forces, and it just so happens that his escape route from the city leads through your prison cell. By the end of the first hour, the Emperor is dead, and you’re left standing on a river bank, bearing the Emperor’s amulet, and instructions to find his lost heir. From here, the world of Oblivion, the entirety of the province of Cyrodil, is yours to explore. You can set out on the quest given to you by the dying Emperor if you wish, and attempt to thwart a legion of invading demons, or you can simply kick up your heels and start walking. Either way, the world of Oblivion is a huge and daunting place at first, with much to see, and even more to do.

Oblivion’s biggest appeal is in its open ended gameplay. The land of Cyrodil is huge, littered with literally hundreds of ancient ruins and old fortresses to explore, small towns, caves, hidden shrines to forbidden gods, and all manner of surprises. Outside of that there are 7 cities and the immense Imperial City to venture through, each with their own quests to accomplish. Add to that the game’s main storyline, which you can weave in and out of, and various factions that you can join, each with their own selection of quests, and the entirety of the game becomes positively immense. The open-endedness extends even to your character, whose facial appearance is entirely customizable to an insane degree before you start playing. You can choose a character class from many of the fantasy game mainstays, create your own class from scratch, or just switch gears from spell tosser to archer to sword slinger throughout the game with minimal effort. Never does the game coerce or corral you into a particular action, the very well implemented quest journal can act as a guide to keep the inordinate amount of tasks you can come across straight, but you need never follow a set path. The amount of freedom is unparalleled in this sort of game, and the fact that Oblivion still manages to tell such a fantastic story while remaining non-linear is a minor miracle of game design.

As open-ended and free as everything is, the game is equally immersive. The people you run into in towns are well represented, with a detailed and deep artificial intelligence that gives them an agenda, a schedule, and a predisposed disposition to your character, which can be altered through bribery or other means. The environment is littered with all sorts of flora and fauna that may come in handy for crafting potions or making a few coins. Soldiers patrol the major provincial roadways on horseback, and can act as a friend if they happen to be close by when a bandit decides to jump you from the bushes. You may come across conflicts that don’t directly involve you, and you may even cause entire towns to turn on one another and draw swords. It’s amazing really. The game follows a full day/night cycle, and sunrises and sunsets look stunning, you’ll see wind, rain, and snow, stars in the sky, and a blinding noonday sun. The world of Oblivion is a truly realized virtual world that dwarfs anything that has come before it, it feels alive. Yes, you can get lost in Oblivion’s world, it’s more engaging than any online roleplaying game, and it could even pry you away from that nasty World of Warcraft addiction.

Technically, Oblivion excels. Graphically, the game is a jaw dropper. It employs all of the pretty next generation tricks you may have heard about to present a world of intimate detail. The trees and landscape look stunning, weather effects are excellent throughout, and the lighting and special effects are absolutely beautiful. From the moss covered white stone walls of the Imperial City, from one side of the map to the other, Oblivion doesn’t miss a beat. The landscapes change as you move from north to south, going from snowy Alps to dense temperate swamps, and the world in between is lush forest. The water effects are excellent, character animations are generally smooth and well executed, and excellent physics have been applied to everything you can interact with in the game world. You can play the game from either a scalable third person view or first person camera view, I prefer third person, but both are equally playable and look incredible. There are occasional drops in framerate, and the occasional stuttering for load times does occur, but neither detracts at all from the experience. There have been reports of some serious bugs and glitches, which are to be expected in a game of this size, but I haven’t personally encountered anything.

In the sound department, again, Oblivion is top tier material. The score is sweeping and majestic when it needs to be, subdued and peaceful at other times, and always beautiful. Composer Jeremy Soule is developing a worthy reputation in gaming circles for his music, and this is quite simply one of his strongest efforts. Sword swings, grunts, slashes and clangs are all excellent; with a power behind them you don’t often hear. Voice acting is excellent throughout, though many voices do repeat fairly often amongst the non-player characters.

Overall, Oblivion is truly a classic gaming experience. From the technical brilliance to the gorgeous art design. Bethesda have managed to cram anywhere from seventy to a couple of hundred hours of gameplay into the game, gameplay that will change from player to player. It’s not only the very best of the “sand-box” games (a term coined by Grand Theft Auto), but is one of the deepest, most imaginative, and classic gaming experiences ever. It lends itself well to both the “pick up and play” style of gamer, or the 48 hour marathon hardest of the hardcore. A wealth of options, near endless quests, additional content available online (or over xbox live), and true freedom. This is one heck of a package. Bethesda can rightfully take their place amongst the elite, shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Blizzard, Bioware, Id Software, or Bungie. Oblivion is just that good!

Oblivion is rated “T” for teen, but in reality, the subject matter doesn’t lend itself well to the younger set – Oblivion is a game for adults.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

E3 - parting thoughts.

The whirlwind of gaming related mayhem that is E3 has come and gone for another year. Sony has pulled the wraps off of their next uber-console, Nintendo has done likewise. Microsoft didn't steal much of the spotlight, and yet they had quite possibly the strongest showing. The following is an account of how each company fared in the end:

Sony - The undisputed leader of the previous generation has certainly lost a step or two going in this time around. Their press conference at E3 was a solid affair, but little in the way of actual software was shown, and many are criticizing the price of the Playstation 3. The big guns from last year's show (Kill zone, Devil May Cry 4, among others) were either altogether absent, or nowhere near the level they appeared last year. The PS3's motion sensitive controller was a pleasant surprise, and there was definitely some killer software on display (including the jaw dropping Assassin's Creed), but the momentum just wasn't there. the relatively passing mention given to Sony's PSP, which, by rights, really should have come into it's own this year was also very disappointing.

Microsoft - With a full year's head start in this generation, the Xbox 360 is really coming into it's own. While Sony and Nintendo focused on new hardware, Microsoft had a solid showing of software. They have done a good job of bolstering the 360's lineup, a diverse selection of amazing looking product, as well as sequels to some of the Xbox's biggest hits (on display were trailers for Fable 2, Forza 2, and of course, Halo 3!). Also of note, Grand Theft Auto 4 will ship simultaneously for Xbox 360 and PS3 in October of next year, definitely good news for Xbox 360 fans!

Nintendo - Word of mouth behind Nintendo's Wii console (stupid name notwithstanding) has been overwhelmingly strong. Nintendo did a great job of showing that, yes, they're all about fun. The Wii still strikes me as more of a curiosity than a "hard core" gaming machine. The software on display was typical of what Nintendo has been doing with the Gamecube and Nintendo DS, which is to say accessible and breezy software built around the gimmick of a motion sensetive controller. The promising sounding Red steel was actually a major let down for me, and graphically the system severely lacks the visual punch of the Microsoft or Sony product. Nintendo seems poised to hit the mainstream, while Microsoft and Sony are sticking with the gamers. Surprises included TWO versions of the new Legend of Zelda title, one for Gamecube and one for Wii, both available on the Wii's launch day, and not much else. Nintendo also had a very strong DS showing on display, which bodes well for fans of the popular handheld.

The game watch - The most promising titles on display at the show that will see release in the not to distant future (we hope!):

- 8 Days (ps3)
- Heavenly Sword (ps3)
- Warhawk (ps3)
- Resistance: Fall of Man (ps3)
- New Naughty Dog project (rumored to be called Iron and the Maiden) (ps3)
- Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP)
- Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
- God of War II (PS2)
- Mortal Kombat Armageddon (PS2)
- Valkyerie Profile: Lenneth (PSP)
- Valkyerie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)

- Gears of War (xbox360)
- Forza 2 (xbox 360)
- Bioshock (xbox 360)
- Fable 2 (xbox 360)
- Splinter Cell: Double Agent (xbox 360)
- Mass Effect (xbox 360)
- Too Human (xbox 360)
- Lost Planet (xbox 360)
- Dead Rising (xbox 360)
- Mortal Kombat Armageddon (Xbox)

- Legend of Zelda: The Twiglight Princess (Cube, Wii)
- Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)
- Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
- Children of Mana (DS)
- Final Fantasy III (DS)


- Bioshock
- Crysis

Overall, what should have been the biggest E3 of all time wound up disappointing me more than impressing me. I'm disappointed with the seeming lack of drive behind the PS3 from Sony, and the dwindling PSP support. I’m very very disappointed that we didn’t see Killzone for the PS3 (the talk of the show in 2005). I'm disappointed that Nintendo didn't approach the software for their new machine with the same creativity and originality they placed into their hardware, as we just saw more of the same fun, but ultimately shallow sort of experiences we've come to expect on the Ds. I'm also very disappointed that Nintendo didn't nail a release date and price. I'd expect more from both Sony and Nintendo. Ultimately, for the discerning gamer, Microsoft really had the most interesting stuff on display.

I'm particularly saddened by the death of the current generation; The Xbox in particular had a dismal showing. Sony's PS2 remains the strongest of the current crop by a huge margin, though the Gamecube does still have Zelda winding down the pipe sometime this fall.

I must say, both the Halo 3 teaser and Konami's 15 minute look at Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots were ultimately the most satisfying experiences of the show, even if both games are a long ways off.

Game of show:

Assassin's Creed by Ubisoft (ps3)

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia team, Assassin's Creed lets you take control of an Assassin in the 1100's during the Third Crusade. Venture between three cities in an open ended game world, and murder key targets to even the balance between Christianity and Muslim alike. Daring subject matter wrapped around some incredible looking technology that allows for interaction with crowds of hundreds of people, all with realistic Artificial Intelligence. The sheer amount of innovation present in this title is what "next generation" is all about - it's due out in January for PS3, and will follow by about 6 months for the xbox 360.

Honorable mention:
- Gears of War
- Bioshock
- Resistance: Fall of Man

Dud of the Show:

Shadowrun by Fasa Studios (Xbox 360 / Windows Vista)

What was a cult hit RPG on both the Super Nintendo and on the Sega Genesis (two very different games too), and a popular pen and paper RPG since about 1989, has been re-envisioned for the Xbox 360 (and PC) as, a Counter-Strike clone??? What the hell were you guys thinking? And don't get me started on the graphics that look like they came out of 2002.

That's it for this year.

Monday, May 08, 2006

E3 - Sony's press conference!

The gloves are off: Sony has just throwndown in a big way. The highlights:

- PS3 system launch is scheduled for November 17th, in two configurations (a 20 gig HDD or 60 Gig Hdd)

- Price = 499.99 US/549.99 CAN for the 20 Gig model - or 599.99 US/659.99 CAN for the 60 gig model!

- Two new titles shown, 8 Days (SCE London), which was a very impressive looking action game with driving elements. Much of the footage was realitme and looked very very nice. and an Unnamed Naughty Dog project whcih looks jaw-dropping, an action/adventure title in a similar vein to Tomb Raider.

- Also looking VERY good were Heavenly Sword, Metal Gear Solid 4, Resistance: Fall of Man, and Warhawk.

- Best of all, the new PS3 controller - exactly like the old PS1/PS2 Dual shock design, only ... *GASP* Motion Sensetive along 4 3d axes, exactly like the much trumpeted Nintendo Wii Control Wand. And all of this without a god awful external sensing device! Amazement is the word. One of the creators of Warhawk gave it a go and it looked like a bit of fun.

The PS3 has materialized, and it looks VERY VERY promising. Sadly, i was a tad dissapointed by the software on display (Where the heck was KILLZONE???). On the other hand, much of what was on offer looked splendid, and the system seems like it very well could live up to the insane amount of hype it has been generating. And I must hand it to Sony, gimmick or not, the motion sensetive suprise was not unlike a total gutpunch to Nintendo, very well played. We'll see what they have up their sleeves tomorrow!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nintendo gives the Revolution a new name - Wii

This from Nintendo's official site:

If the print is to small, click on the image to view it larger - they've also got a really great little flash movie up there.

Just curious, where's the line that says "Wii've lost our freakin' minds!" ?

Ohhhh Nintendo... at least it can be said, they always march to the beat of their own drum.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Review - Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (xbox 360)

The year is 2013; the army is staging a military coup of Mexico City. The Canadian Prime Minister has been killed, The Mexican President is in hiding, the US President is missing, and Tom Clancy's long running Ghost Recon is making it's next generation debut. You take the role of Capt. Scott Mitchell, commander of an elite group of covert operators called The Ghosts, and armed with the latest in military technology, your mission is to take care of a deposed Mexican general, and put things back the way they should be. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is the first game for Microsoft's fledgling Xbox 360 system to truly scream "Next Gen!", and rightly belongs on any action fan's shelf.

Developed jointly by Ubisoft Paris and Ubisoft's Red Storm Entertainment studios; Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) really pushes the series beyond what has been seen on the PC and consoles before now. Technology wise, the game is a marvel of game design; it brings elements to the single player game that haven’t been seen in the crowded third person shooter market in the past. It also provides for a near seamless game play experience. Gone are the standard fare, Return of the Jedi-style briefing screens complete with bleep bloop computer readouts and holographic maps that have become so tired in the tactical shooter genre, and say adios to those between level cut scenes, all have been replaced with in game briefings and an extensive heads-up display to keep you oriented. Nothing breaks the flow, the game continues to feel like one seamless experience, and keeps the urgency ratcheted to the max, throughout the duration of the runtime. When you leave one area, you jump onto a Black Hawk, you watch the city move below and lay down some fire in some instances from the Hawk's mini-gun, then you dismount at your destination with naught but a 2 second black screen, day turns to night and then to day again throughout the duration.

GRAW uses a 3rd-person, over the shoulder view by default, similar to the precise aim mode in splinter Cell or the view in Resident Evil 4, but you can switch the camera to left or right shoulder at will, you can also switch to a classic "gun-less" first person view a'la the original Ghost Recon, but I feel that 1st person heavily restricts your view, and hampers situational awareness, it's really there to silence the old school fans of the series I figure. Movement wise you're looking at the now traditional dual analog config, with a number of bells n whistles. The first time you click down on the left stick to crouch or lay prone while you happen to be in a full run you're in for a treat. Your character convincingly slides into the crouch position or drops foreword onto his stomach. Weapons and such are also realistically portrayed, the attention to detail is astonishing, soldiers will cradle their weapons in the crook of their arms while low crawling, and will roll left or right to retrieve spare ammo or grenades while prone, it's a subtle touch, but it adds greatly to the realism. The controls are functional, and beautifully smooth, this game plays like a dream.

Mission objectives are outlined using an interface tool called the cross com, which essentially is an LCD device that overlays tactical information in your field of view. You'll get objective markers which outlay where you have to go next, as well as enemy and friendly positions, and other tertiary locations. It may sound daunting, but it's really very user friendly. You can also bring up a tactical map, a 3-d representation of the current mission area, and see precise locations for all of these markers in a 3-dimensional space. You can perform recon using either your squad mates, or the military's Cipher drone. Send either of these elements ahead, and as enemies are spotted they'll appear as markers both on your HUD and your tactical map. It makes things much easier than rounding the corner and being taken down, and believe me, any help is good help, as this game is a difficult bitch, especially on the "Hard" setting (which is a ton of fun if you're looking for a game that keeps you on your toes). Despite the difficulty, the game never really falls into the "Trial and Error" rut that plagued some of the previous entries, you genuinely feel that when you get owned (and you will get owned), it's because you fouled something up, not because the game is punishing you. The missions are also not your average "go here, do this" missions either. The structure and objectives are dynamic, and can change amidst the chaos without a moment's notice. Squad mate control is handled very well, simply tapping on the cross pad will issue orders to either your squad, your Cipher drone, or one of the support units you may pick up along the way (like an M2 Bradley APC or a Black Hawk Helicopter) Issuing orders is a breeze, and the AI does a great job of following your instructions, or holding their own when you're hands off. Yes, your boys may sometimes run into a firefight, but it usually feels like a natural foul up rather than any fault of the AI, and Incapacitation is handled quite well. You're given a minute or two to get to your downed squad mate and patch them up before they expire, but if someone dies, they're gone.

Then there's the multi-player portion of the game, which is deep and robust enough to be a stand alone game that’s all its own. All of the typical modes are there - your standard free for all and team based death matches, capture the whatever, king of the hill, all that jazz. Like the single player game, where the multi excels is in what it brings to the table that hasn't been seen before. What’s the best of the bunch? How about 16 player co-op against a swarm of AI opponents? Far from the typical bot-matches of Timesplitters or Perfect Dark, this puppy is a fully featured 4 level campaign that can take up to 4-5 hours to play through completely. These suckers are HARD, you'll need a crack team of players here, and the experience is always a blast. Throw real-time speech with your teammates with your snazzy Xbox Live headset, and this thing is just amazing. Not only the best multiplayer experience on the 360 right now, but one of the single best multiplayer games to ever grace a console. It's that good! Some of the control features of the single player game get the axe, but the multiplayer game play is tuned a little faster and a little more ruthless, which renders some of the more methodical control aspects useless anyway. Rest assured what's needed is there, and what isn't is left in the single player game. You can also play some great scenarios using the standard multiplayer options - nothing like you and 4 or 5 of your buddies trying to wipe 40 hostile troops off of a large map in under 10 minutes with no respawn options. Intense? You bet your ass! If someone gave me a choice between this and Halo 2, I’d pick GRAW 10 times out of 10.

Graphically speaking, GRAW is a showcase for the next gen. All of the snazzy effects you've heard about and can't pronounce are in full effect. Mexico City looks downright gorgeous, baking in the equatorial sun, or under cover of darkness. Textures look photo real, and lighting effects are stellar throughout. Characters are well detailed, with fully bump-mapped uniforms and excellent animation throughout. The transitions from run to walk, to prone positions etc are all seamless. You won't see any robotic or stiff movement. The environment also wears under the weight of firefights, bullet hits send fragments of dust and brick, wood, or whatever spraying in a realistic fashion, bullet holes appear on virtually all structures, windows shatter, and best of all, explosions look downright gorgeous! The first time a stray grenade impacts with a parked car and sends it flipping end over end in a stunning display of smoke and flame, you'll be floored. Take a look at the palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, or debris shuffling around the vacant streets of Mexico City, or notice that you can see the machining of metal pattern on the inside of your sniper scope when doing a little headhunting, and you'll understand just how fantastic a job was done with these visuals! Physics are applied to all objects as well, making death animations and the disruption of stationary objects look equally awesome. The multiplayer game does take a slight hit graphically, losing the mad high dynamic range (read "blinding sunlight") lighting of the single player game (which makes sense considering the multiplayer shifts location to Guatemala, and features a more overcast look), but still looks excellent, one level takes place on a few ships in dry-dock during a nighttime rainstorm, and my god it looks incredible. To split hairs, it's a little bit of a drag that weapons are rendered as a single object, which makes reloading look a little fake, as character models grab invisible clips and insert them into weapons visibly holding magazines already, but this is nitpicking of the highest caliber, the game looks bloody amazing, probably the best looking action game available on the 360, and truly a next-gen spectacle.

Audio is every bit the equal to the graphics. The 5.1 sound is beautifully separated, sharp enough to puncture your eardrums, and employs all sorts of neat effects. The way a grenade explosion, or standing too close to a firing tank, causes the sound to drop out, reverberate around you, and whine slightly is perfectly executed, the rattle and hum of gunfire is near perfect, not too overbearing, not too subdued. Even silenced weapons have a wonderful effect. The streets of Mexico City in the single player game resound with environmental noises which, even though the city is all but deserted thanks to the fighting, make it seem alive. Music doesn't play a huge role, but when it does come into play, it does a great job of drawing attention to itself, particularly cool is how they use licensed music in some of the helicopter runs, starting as an adrenaline pumping soundtrack to set the scene, fading "into the game" as such, sounding like it's coming from a ghetto blaster or something tucked under one of the Black Hawk's benches while the crew chief issues orders or shoots the breeze, then blaring back to life. The orchestral stuff that appears throughout the game is your standard fare Tom Clancy military thriller stuff, which is to say it's great, if not entirely original. Voice acting ranges from solid to excellent. This one is a great showpiece for an expensive home theatre setup.

Bottom line, there's really not too much to complain about. Yes, it's still a third person tactical shooter, if you didn't like Socom or Ghost Recon 2, you're probably better off ignoring this game's existence. On the other hand, if you like playing a bit of soldier-boy alone, or online with friends, it just doesn't get any better than GRAW. The weapon load outs are extensive, and the technical aspects of the game are unparalleled. If you own an Xbox 360, and you're an action gamer, you need this game. If you're a huge fan of the whole Tom Clancy military shtick and you don't own an Xbox 360, well, you need to get one, and you need this game!

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is rated "T" for Teen. It's not overly gory, but yeah, you shoot people. 8 year olds shouldn't be fighting a war, online or off.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Review - Grandia III (ps2)

The Japanese RPG is a dying breed on this side of the ocean. Recent entries in the genre have met with a chilling reception at best, and many a game has suffered critical backlash in the very fan-circles who once embraced them. Game play doesn't seem to be the central issue; rather it's the way these pseudo epics tell their stories that has fallen into question. That's where Grandia III comes in. No, it doesn't do things drastically different from its JRPG brethren, it features a colorful cast of characters with funny names fighting to, what else, save the world. Where Grandia III excels is in its execution.

In Grandia III, developed by series creator Game Arts, with the muscle of Square-Enix behind them, you take the role of Yuki, a young boy who dreams of flying, like his hero, Sky Captain Schmidt. When his mother stows away on Yuki's first real flight, and Yuki runs into a young elfin girl named Alfina, the real adventure begins. For the first 12 hours or so you are joined by Yuki's mother Amanda (who barely looks old enough to be Yuki's sister), Alfina, and the rogue-ish sailing captain Alonzo. Things take a change (in a pretty touching scene) at about the 12 hour mark, and from there some new characters come along. Throughout, the storyline remains quite engaging. Not everythign is wrapped up overly neatly, but fans of this sort of RPG experience should be pleased overall.

Grandia III's biggest strength is in it's game play mechanics. The combat system is one of the most robust and well developed systems I’ve ever come across. During combat, much of the top left corner of the screen is occupied by a large circular wheel, which displays icons for each character involved in the conflict. The icons spin slowly around the wheel, and when one enters a specific section, you know it's about to attack. What makes things interesting is that you can view the order in which other characters will attack, and if you can manage to land a heavy attack at the right time, you can knock an icon to the rear of the procession, thus canceling it's attack or disrupting the nasty spell it was about to toss your way. It's a deep system that plays very well, and it's actually much more effortless to play it than it is to describe it, and there's a great tutorial during the first fight that does a wonderful job of teaching the inns and outs.

Graphically Grandia III is a solid effort. Character designs are universally excellent, easily the best seen in the Grandia series thus far. Level design is also solid and many of the outdoor environments look absolutely gorgeous, featuring blooming sunlight or low hanging mist. Some of the more beautiful environs unfortunately, are also given only fleeting glimpses, lasting literally minutes in game time. You'll also see some pretty heavy alias shimmer on many displays, but after 6 years with the PS2 we should all be used to that by now, and it honestly doesn't do much to harm the otherwise very pretty eye candy.

The Grandia series, and Game Arts themselves, have always been known for their music, and Grandia III doesn't disappoint, even the pseudo j-pop song that opens the game is a catchy affair that does a wonderful job of portraying the mood of the game. Battle themes are rousing, and regions have themes that suit them well. The English voice acting is also quite solid; about as good as you'll hear outside of AAA affairs like Metal Gear solid or Soul Reaver. Amanda's voice is suitably brash and overbearing, Yuki's is that of a despondent teen, Alfina's is a subdued whisper for the most part, and the villain is menacing and, well, villainous. All of the characters are well represented. Action sounds get the job done, with the customary clanking of swords and whooshing of fireballs, but there's nothing exemplary there.

Overall Grandia III is a JRPG that follows the formula more or less, it's linear to a fault, and the story is nothing new, but it's hoisted beyond "also ran" status by the exceptional production design and its wonderful combat system. It's a game any fan of the genre shouldn't miss. It doesn't push the envelope, but it doesn't have to. It's quite simply the best title in the long running Grandia series (the first game was originally released in Japan on the Sega Saturn, and had a low-key Playstation release in North America at the tail end of that systems lifespan, and Grandia II made a splash on Sega's Dreamcast console before being ported "quick and dirty" to the PS2 and PC back in 2001). It's really a solid RPG experience that fans shouldn't miss. If nothing else, it'll help pass the time until Final Fantasy XII hits North American shores.

Grandia III is rated "T" for Teen, and contains some violence, but if the little ones can grasp the complexities of its game play, they're welcome to give it a try; it's a fantastic story that's suitable for most ages.