Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 (PS2) Review

Developer: Neversoft / Publisher: Activision || Overall: 8.5/10

For those who have not played any of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games don’t waste your time with any except Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. THPS 4 has all the improvements from its three predecessors, but this time there is no time limit involved in skating sessions. Basically, it’s free-skate all the time. The whole premise of THPS 4, is to complete particular challenges given to you by zany characters and other skaters you will come across in a particular level. THPS 4 features nine pre-made maps, two of which must be unlocked through excessive gameplay. You’re given the chance to skate at a college campus, San Francisco, Chicago, a shipyard, or even a zoo. On each of the maps you’ll find one or two mini-games. The extra challenges help you learn advanced tricks so that you can use them on your own free skate time.

With THPS 4, you can make your own skate park and create your own skater with even more items to customize. When you create a skater, you can make your skater short and fat, tall and fat, or just plain fat. A lot of the modifications are not that realistic, but its still fun to mess around with. Speaking of realism, if you’re planning on beating this game, you’re going to have to do tricks that are basically impossible to do in real life (like launching off a ramp, doing four varial heelflips, then doing a manual as soon as you hit the ground).

The gameplay will take a while to master if you are not a Tony Hawk veteran. The game is all about timing and getting used to the in-game physics, as well as getting used to your particular skater’s trick outfit. Tricks are basically split up into four different types: Grab tricks, Flip tricks, Grind/Lip tricks, and the newest addition, Flatland tricks. Grab tricks are tricks that are made while in the air. Flip tricks are also made while in the air, but can be executed a lot faster than a Grab trick. Grinds are made on rails or edges of a sidewalk. Lip tricks also make use of grind-able surfaces; they must be at the top of a half-pipe or on the edge of a bowl or similar surface. Flatland tricks are made while on the ground, and require nothing more than balance, exactly like a grind. Flatland tricks are new to the series with THPS 4, as they all stem out from the manual. Through the series, manuals have become more and more important, allowing you to string together tricks one after another. The developer has been able to take advantage of Flatland tricks and put together some fairly challenging situations throughout the game. It may take you a day or two just to complete one particular challenge, if you have the patience enough to actually do so.

You advance through the game by gaining Pro Points and Cash. The more Pro Points you have, the more levels you’ll have access to. The more Cash you have, the more extras you’ll be able to play around with, such as cheats, movies, skateboard decks and more things to customize your create-a-skater with. You have to spend your points carefully, as time goes on it’ll be harder to get more points.

The multiplayer aspect of this game was a HUGE part of the game. Before they took it down, it may have even be more important than the single player mode, because nothing was more fun than snubbing your five billion point score in other people’s faces when you’re declared the winner. While the network play option has become easy to configure with THPS 4, it really doesn’t matter anymore since the online portion of the game is no longer supported. Not until you play a Tony Hawk game online do you know how good you are compared to other people — you could have completed all the challenges in the single player mode, but still get wiped on the floor. It’s really a shock to see people reaching scores of 3 million, 5 million, or even 10 million plus. When online was active, all of the offline multiplayer games were available for online play. However, as with any online game, the better your internet connection, the better the game play. Also, having a keyboard helped when communicating with other players. Sadly, all this is for naught as THPS4’s online is down for good – you’ll have to play split screen multiplayer nowadays if you still stick with this version of the Tony Hawk series.

The graphics in THPS 4 are still pretty good. Compared to the previous games, everything in the game has been given the extra effort in being polished. There aren’t too many frame rates drops, unless you’re racking up points that are literally in the millions for just one string of tricks, because the calculating of the numbers can slow the game down. They’re good graphics, no more, no less. Each level is detailed very well and full of unique objects you’ll only see on that particular map. There are also unlockables in which you see the actual skaters doing tricks in compressed skateboard videos.

Like the other games in the series, THPS 4 also has an impressive soundtrack by a mix of rap/hip hop artists (NWA), punk bands (Offspring), and even a little bit of the classic rock (AC/DC, the Cult) and classic heavy metal (Iron Maiden). If you don’t like a particular song, you can easily stop it from playing ever again. There’s also voice acting for the people that give you challenges. It isn’t all too bad, but in the case of some characters like Ollie the Bum, you’ll either love it or hate it.

With a Greatest Hits price of $19.99 or even cheaper these days, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 is well worth an investment when it comes to skateboarding games. The THPS series has always been the best games of their particular genre, compared to other “extreme sports” games. In my mind, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 is the perfect skateboarding game that encompasses all of the best things from the series before they went in a new direction with the Underground series. There hasn’t been another “Pro Skater” title since. The value of the game has been diminished since the shutting down of the online servers, and it will be missed by the few who still held this game as the pinnacle of the series.


Ultimate Ghosts’n Goblins (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Capcom || Overall: 8.5/10

A famous side-scrolling series from Capcom has made its way to the PSP in the form of Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins. Infamous for its difficulty, Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins is presented in beautiful 2.5D (2D in a 3D world). You take control of Arthur, a knight that must save a princess from the clutches of evil by battling through five hellish stages, collecting hidden golden rings along the way. Using the tools and weapons available along the way, UGnG has a very simple objective and requires little understanding in terms of how to play. Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins earns its rank of being one of the most difficult games to come out recently, capturing a retro feeling at the same time.

For new players to the series, Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins is flexible, but stays true to its objectives. When starting a new game, you are presented with three difficulty modes: Novice, Standard, and Ultimate. The game is basically the same through all of the settings, but how the game treats you dictates the difficulty. In Novice mode, you’ll start out with many lives, and after you die your weapons will remain powered up upon re-spawning. In Standard, you only start with two lives and no post-mortem powered-up weapons. In Ultimate mode, your armor is weak, breaking in only one hit, and when you die, you’ll restart at the beginning of the level (and with regular weapons) rather than re-spawning close to where you had died.

The frantic side-scrolling action that comes with the game might be hard to get used to at first, but when you learn what to expect from the game in terms of enemies materializing from thin air, it becomes more manageable. Crybabies will find no solace here — the whole point of the game is to be difficult. Enemies will pop out of nowhere, infinitely respawn, and attack you from all sides. Capcom pulled out all the stops to make the game as difficult as it can be, but they still managed to make it fun. While there aren’t many stages to work your way through, the difficulty and the randomness of the enemies and obstacles will work toward extending the game’s life. Not to mention there are quite a few items to collect and earn that will help extend the life of the title.

In a game like UGnG, story is not important — a basic “save the princess” scenario is laid out in the beginning of the game, and off you go destroying enemies. Many weapons, types of magic, and shields are available for use. Each weapon has its own advantage or disadvantage depending on what you need to accomplish. Some weapons can be used quickly while others take longer between each shot. Weapons include daggers, whips, arrows, and many more. Magic spells can also be used to your advantage and usually pack the punch needed to get through a tight spot. Shields also help with defense, but one shield in particular, the Dragon Shield, is an important one — it can be used to help you fly for a limited amount of time, helping you reach places that would otherwise be impossible to get to. Different kinds of armor are also available.

Throughout levels, random treasure chests of either a blue or red color will appear. Well, they seem like they’re “random” but in all actuality their appearances occur when you touch predetermined objects or areas. Within these chests are weapons, power-ups, or even new magic spells that can help you complete your journey.

The gameplay mechanics are tight and responsive. The game depends a lot on jumping over hazards or getting through an obstacle in a certain amount of time, both requiring a lot of skill from the player. Most of the game is played through the use of three buttons — Square for using weapons, X for Jumping, with circle being used to activate magic. Stage design is the absolute strong point of the title, even though it can be merciless at times. Many of the hardest parts of the game depend on timing and only having a limited amount of chances to make your way through obstacles. Boss battles, like the rest of the game, are challenging yet fun, and occur at right times to break up the pacing of the game.

Other shining aspects include the graphics and sound. Through and through, Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins is visually a great game to experience. Practically all the levels have at least some sort of eye candy, as can be seen in the screenshots. Sound effects and music are also of top quality. The soundtrack is very good as well. The full audiovisual package is quite amazing for a handheld, especially considering that load times don’t last much longer than one to three seconds at a time, and no loading or slowdown is seen at all when playing through a full stage. The game runs at a solid frame count, which lends itself greatly to the high action that UGnG prides itself with.

A number of things keep the game from being perfect, however. The most annoying of the flaws is not being able to control your double-jump while in mid-air. When you need to jump onto an exact spot, it is very hard to be accurate. For example, if you’re next to a gravestone and need to jump on top of it to activate something, you can’t go right up to it and then jump up on it. You have to go back a few steps and then jump onto it. It’s simply impossible to change direction while you’re doing a double-jump, enforcing the fact that you’ll have to look before your leap. Another disconcerting aspect of the game is the fact that there are quite a few elements not explained well, or even at all. For example, there is no explanation of what a shaking grave stone means or what to do with circular portal-looking things. Little things like this pull the final product down from being as enjoyable as it could be, because all it does is create more frustration (as if the regular gameplay didn’t do that enough as it is).

Gamers looking for a true challenge will find Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins to be one of the most enthralling side-scrolling experiences to come out for quite some time. As a throwback to the retro days of when the side-scroller was king, Ultimate Ghosts ’n Goblins is a game that shouldn’t be passed over. It’s a perfect portable game to have, with especially fast load times and quick starting gameplay that can easily kill time.


Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Square Enix || Overall: 9.0/10

Being a fan of pretty much any SquareSoft RPG from the PSOne era, it has always pained my heart that I was never able to experience the uniqueness that was encapsulated in the Tri-Ace-developed Valkyrie Profile, published by its future bedmate Enix. Square Enix answered my prayers with the re-release of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, a couple of months before the prequel Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Being a self-proclaimed hardcore fan of Final Fantasy games, I found VP: Lenneth to be a very jostling experience compared to the other products Squaresoft pushed back in the day. While the game could end up not delivering what you would expect after a full playthrough, it is a very fun 16-bit RPG nonetheless.

Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth’s setting is quite unique from what is usually seen for games based in mythology. It’s not uncommon to see Greek, Roman, or even medieval games, given that those are the most familiar mythologies American society has grown up with. Until VP: Lenneth, I had never heard of the lesser-known Norse Mythology, and that is what VP itself is based on. Without some background understanding about the words “Asgard,” “Valhalla,” and “Einherjar” I was simply perplexed by what any of the characters in the game were actually talking about, since it offers no explanation within itself (a theme in VP: Lenneth seems to be that it doesn’t explain itself on purpose).

However, a simple query online through one’s favorite search engine can answer the questions that may arise. Understanding the concepts of Norse Mythology might take a little more time, but you get my drift. Now, while saying that VP is “based” on Norse Mythology is true, it does not necessarily mean all of the concepts it introduces are exactly true to Norse Mythology itself. You’ll have to take the events that happen in the game as just that – events that happen in the game. It’s not a retelling of any particular story except the one that was fictionalized for the game, though it might be based on mythological figures.

The basis of the game’s actual story is that you are a Valkyrie named Lenneth. Valkyries are the female death servants of Lord Odin, ruler of the Æsir, who lives in a large palace named Valhalla. A Valkyrie’s purpose is to obtain human souls from Earth that exhibit a strong capability of helping fight the war in Asgard (Norse Heaven), which rages between the two rival groups of Gods known as the Æsir and the Vanir. Though in Norse Mythology Valkyries don’t exactly engage in combat directly as seen in the game, Lenneth is quite the badass when it comes down to her fighting skills. Lenneth also brings worthy human souls along with her into battle, who are called Einherjar. The term is used by the Gods to refer to the spirit of a warrior who died bravely in battle. For a religion thought up by Vikings who valued war, it’s not surprising that those who exhibit bravery in battle would be seen as special.

Lenneth, also referenced as just “Valkyrie,” must find enough Einherjar to help the Æsir before Ragnarok (the end of the world) comes about. You control Lenneth through all the different stories and dungeons that occur through the game’s progression in a Chapter/Period system. There are 24 periods in a “day,” known as a chapter, and eight days to go through before Ragnarok. So that means Valkyrie is on a tight schedule. Lucky enough for you, there is no traditional trekking through different parts of the world map before you get to the next event. Valkyrie can fly! So you can save lots of time by just flying to the next destination. You’ll also know exactly where to go, so there’s no guesswork involved in whether or not you should go to a certain town unless you feel the need to waste your allotted time. Even though the Chapter/Period system might seem a bit restrictive, when it comes down to it there just isn’t all that much extra stuff to do. Without intentionally wasting time visiting places you’ve already been to, you will be able to get through all the character’s mini-stories and dungeons within the confines of the given time. Still, you must transfer at least one (preferably two, since it’s the max) Einherjar to Asgard if you want to keep a good standing with Lord Odin.

Another unique aspect of the game is that it is almost exclusively in 2D. Save for the world map, there will be lots of platforming and running through doors on either side of a room. It is also multilayered – you can go to the “rear” or the “front” so there isn’t just one long string of rooms you progress through. The battle system is by far one of the most unique from the era and still is to this day. When in battle, each character is assigned to a face button, and when they are activated in a devastating-enough pattern, you are able to perform a special attack. Each character will have one unique special attack that they will use for the whole game, which can deal some very damaging blows that can make or break a battle in the desperate times. It is also important to note that special attacks can be strung together as long as a gauge in the bottom left of the screen fills up to 100 after any series of attacks.

Three kinds of items can pop out of an enemy as you fight them. There are purple orbs for using special attacks/magic more often, blue crystals giving 10% more experience each, and treasure chests symbolizing items you obtain after the battle is over. The way a battle progresses is in a combination of real-time and turn-based. When it is your turn, you can use all of your characters at the same time and get through your turn in a relatively short fashion if you choose to. It is a completely different system from the ATB system that was seen in FFVII/VIII/IX. The battle system is a very effective one, right up there with Xenogears’ implementation for non-ATB-based systems.

Another liberal idea that is executed in VP: Lenneth is the lack of any actual shops. That’s because Lenneth has the power to create items out of thin air by expending an amount of Materialize Points. As time goes on, stronger weapons and items will make themselves available for materialization. At the end of each chapter, you will be given another allotment of MP based on how well you did, which will have to go a long way considering that the next time you’ll get a significant amount of MP will be at the end of the next chapter. However, all is not lost, as you can convert items into MP if you’re just out of reach of a certain item’s price or simply don’t need a certain item. The whole item/weapon system is convenient, considering that you never have to hunt through a ton of different shops for a better weapon since you carry the shop with you. This Divine Item system, as it is known, can only be used on the world map or on save points.

Another interesting aspect of the game is that there are three different difficulty settings, as well as three different endings. The difficulty settings relate to how many dungeons you’ll be able to play and the level new characters start out with. Almost every help source I’ve seen suggests picking hard, for the fact that you can experience all of the dungeons that are in the game and see any of the three endings. The endings are referenced as “A,” “B,” and “C.” The “C” ending is the really bad ending, and is pretty easy to get. The “B” ending doesn’t explain anything that happened in the game, as you just get a pat on the back and off you go. The “A” ending is where the game should really be at, so do not play the game with the intention of getting any ending other than “A” if you don’t intend on playing this game more than once. Unfortunately for me, I knew nothing about which ending would be the most satisfying and ended up getting the “B” ending…resulting in a very underwhelming conclusion after pumping forty hours into the game. But I did have fun, and that’s the point, right?

When it comes to sound, it’s very cool to have a game from the PSOne era contain a decent amount of voiceovers in it. While it has become a de facto standard in my mind for most games I play now (especially dialogue-heavy games), I do have realistic expectations for games that were released nearly seven years ago. I found the voice work to be very satisfying, much like the graphics. Having a game that is entirely in animated 2D lends itself to having a sort of artistic beauty that is not hampered by a past generation’s typical look. There is nearly no frame rate slowdown in battles, as they play out with fluidity. Unfortunately, there is a noticeable slowdown in normal exploration as the camera scans left and right, not to mention the menu loading that is a bit longer than I would have liked, all of which can take away from the perceived quality of the emulation.

As for the portability of VP: Lenneth, I can say that it is the first and only portable RPG that I have sunk forty hours into. The record was previously held by Golden Sun, which I only spent around ten or fifteen hours with. Needless to say, VP: Lenneth works very well for portability, but if you’re looking for quick spurts of playing for five minutes, it might not be a great idea to play an RPG to begin with. If you’re away from a home console and have loads of time to kill, VP: Lenneth will be an excellent choice for RPG gamers. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to get through some of those long shifts at work without my PSP and VP: Lenneth.

VP: Lenneth is well worth the amount of money I spent to purchase the game the week it came out. I am glad that I am able to experience this game when it was nearly impossible to do such a thing for the past few years. For being one of the rarest PSOne games, it’s almost a steal to have it available at a normal price point.


WTF: Work Time Fun (PSP) Review

Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment / Publisher: D3 Publisher || Overall: 6.0/10

Jobs these days are too complex. Why can’t we be paid for simply adding numbers together, chopping wood or putting caps on septillion pens? Why aren’t there stupid jobs that would pay you in pennies rather than dollars? To that, I say WTF!!!! Not “what the fuck,” silly, I mean Work Time Fun, the game!

Known as “Byte Hell 2000” in Japan, WTF: Work Time Fun is a mini-game compilation published in North America by D3Publisher of America, and developed by Sony Computer Entertainment. It’s easy to tell how D3PA’s localization shapes the feel of the game, when it comes to what is being communicated to you through text or voice — however; those are the least important aspects of WTF. The real meat comes in the form of mini-games called jobs. The reason they’re called jobs is simple — many depict a form of labor or a task to be done rather than being an actual small game, so to speak.

Most of the jobs are very simple, requiring you to only use one or two buttons. Possibly the best thing about the game as a whole, is that it takes very little time to load each job, and you can get right into playing each game. Usually taking less than a few seconds to get from the top menu and right into it, you’ll only be inhibited by your patience at working any one particular job.

To start a game, you’ll have to go to the Job Placement Office. There, you’ll be able to select one of four jobs to get paid for at any given time. Meaning, even if you’re able to work at more than four jobs, you’ll only be able to choose one of the four that are available when you go into the Job Placement Office, which will force you to play games you don’t exactly want to play. As you complete jobs, you’ll earn money and earn rankings for how far you get within particular jobs; its not too complicated.

Other than putting caps on pens, chopping wood, and counting in your head, there are jobs like sorting chickens, catching baseballs, collecting mushrooms while avoiding traffic, counting people as they pass by, cliff racing and others. One notable game is 4 Fingers, in which you smack a sharp object into the table in between your fingers, and as you pass your hands the sharp object will go faster and faster forcing you to change the rhythm of your button presses. My personal favorite game is Demonstration Round Up, a game that is similar to PC and cell phone favorite Snake, in which you’ll incite a riot by emptying colorized buildings full of people. Once you collect the people that come out of the buildings, they will be added on to your large chain of people. You have to be careful because riot police will break up your line, and make a large part of your effort be for nothing. If Demonstration Roundup were fleshed out into a larger game, it would be quite enjoyable, despite its lack of graphical impressiveness. Other original games are included, and some can be aligned to classical arcade games with a spin on them, or simply be seen as some of the worst “games” to ever be conceived. It’s really a mixed bag when it comes to the selection of games.

When you earn money, you can take it to the vending machines. With the vending machines, you can take your chances at getting new jobs, trinkets, and tools. Jobs are rather rare, as are tools. Tools are simple little programs that will help you do something rather meaningless. There are things like a multi-colored flashlight, easy bill splitter, and a ramen timer. The ramen timer is quite humorous. Depending on which version you choose and for how long, you can either see a buff Japanese guy saying “muscle muscle muscle” for three minutes, or a cute Japanese girl saying “goody goody” for five minutes; it’s certainly helpful when you want to make ramen, I suppose. The interesting thing about the ramen timer’s video is that it uses the PSP the long way, so their full bodies will take up most of the screen rather than being squished or only seeing part of their body in the normal way.

The graphics are mediocre at best. Practically all the games are in 2D, and look pretty bad to boot. WTF is not a game that tries to please the eyes, to say the least. The sound effects are quite annoying at times, and very little music is actually played through any of the games involved, usually letting you focus on the job at hand rather than anything else. The multiplayer options are quite nice. Game sharing can be a big part of the game if you let it be — any friend with a PSP can help you out with your jobs by having them “outsourced” and their earnings will be put into your pocket for use in the vending machines.

If you’re looking for a game to waste time with, WTF: Work Time Fun is not a bad choice. There is a sprinkling of humor, but as a game, it’s not that much fun. The main draw here is definitely the humor, but what you get out of it really depends on the amount of time you can sink into doing the monotonous tasks that are available; when there’s nothing to do at work, it probably can’t get any worse than this.


Micro Machines V4 (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Codemasters || Overall: 7.0/10

Micro Machines V4 from Codemasters is a follow-up to the somewhat popular mini-car racer Micro Machines V3. In a Micro Machines game, one races through courses that are a little bit unconventional to your regular racer, for the fact that you’re actually racing around on things like pool tables, kitchen counters, sand pits, gutters, and other locations of the sort. Quite simply being the best part about Micro Machines V4 itself, the courses are very interesting and arcade-like. However, an arcade racer wouldn’t be complete without power-ups and weapons, and Micro Machines V4 is no exception. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the game, but where it lacks is depth in the gameplay that will motivate you to keep playing the game. Not to mention it can get very frustrating.

Micro Machines V4 is a typical racing game in that you dive right in. Much of the game is focused on three different types of modes that can be played: Race, Checkpoint, and Battle. Race mode is your typical racing game; quite simply you beat your opponents doing whatever you can as you make it to the finish line after three laps. Checkpoint is more like a time-trial mode in that you try and get the best time you can going around a certain race track twice, except you have to make it to the next checkpoint before counter runs out. Battle is by far the most fun part about the game, and the goal is to simply beat the crap out of your opponents, laying traps, shooting missiles, and leaving them in your dust – you have to either eliminate your enemies or get far enough ahead of them in your race around the track to get a point. Once you get enough points in Battle mode, you’ll win. By playing through the game in a Tournament, you can unlock new modes, tracks, and collect more cars for your garage. The cars you keep in your garage can be used for trading with other people online so that you can get other kinds of cars. You can also play the game in an online multiplayer mode.

The graphics in the game aren’t too bad. In fact, the frame rate is almost a solid 60 FPS with very little slowdown. As you make your way through the track, the camera follows your car from far away and makes very smooth reframes, creating a cinematic sort of feel to the game. For some reason, the steady frame rate makes the game a lot more bearable than it probably should be, considering the gameplay itself is very unbalanced (even during the “Rookie” division!) and can be horribly frustrating, making the early stages of a race vital and requiring that you execute each race flawlessly. Though the game is on the PC, it’s clearly made for use with a controller, and can make things a lot easier, if not, more fun in the very least. Sound effects are quite annoying, there is always the high motor whine of the little Micro Machines as they zoom along the edge of the kitchen sink and get stuck in the blender, but with the sound off this problem will simply disappear. Music in the game isn’t very impressionable either.

There aren’t any “extras” that are actually included in the game right out of the box, the reason being that “microtransactions” do take their place in the game – at least in the PC version. To unlock certain bonuses in the PC version, you must go online and register your copy of the game with Codemasters, and proceed to pay a fee for the codes that are used to unlock the extras and different modes. Obviously, it’s kind of ridiculous to have to pay extra for things that are already on the disc, and clearly a way to squeeze the consumer’s wallet on this one. However, the extras that are available to be bought aren’t exactly vital, even though it would be nice to have them…hence their “extra” status.

Micro Machines V4 is a fun game to waste a few hours with every once in a while, but past that, there’s not much to enjoy. Balance issues make the game as a whole very disconcerting, giving a slant towards only wanting to play the Battle mode, as it is the more overly balanced mode in the game. Fans of the series might be a little bit disappointed, since not much in the formula was actually improved between each game. What MMV4 boils down to is your average arcade racer that has the unique status of being a game with miniature cars racing through everyday environments.


Spectrobes (DS) Preview

Developer: Jupiter Corporation | Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios

Spectrobes is a new action RPG from Disney for the Nintendo DS. Developed by the Jupiter Corporation in Kyoto, Japan, players assume the role of Rallen, a young officer in the Planetary Patrol. The Planetary Patrol keeps people in the galaxy safe from harm. Along with your fellow officer Jeena, you go from planet to planet keeping everything safe. When Rallen and Jeena find a capsule that encases an old soldier by the name of Aldus, that’s when they find there is more to the galaxy than it may seem.

World-eating creatures named the Kraul are coming towards Rallen and Jeena’s solar system, and the only way they can be defeated are by using the powers of dormant creatures named Spectrobes that are buried as fossils beneath planet surfaces. When used, the fossils create Spectrobes that can be raised into powerful allies. Rallen must go to each planet and excavate minerals to give them more power. To find fossils and minerals, Rallen uses a baby Spectrobe that is able to detect them. Moving around on the gameplay screen consists of using the D-pad, and when a Spectrobe finds something to dig out of the ground (you have to tell it to find something) you tap the screen where a sparkly little dot is and enter the digging mode. You use the stylus to “dig” by rubbing the touch screen. There are different tools for Rallen to use while digging for fossils and minerals, and using the right ones will end in a successful excavation.

Once you acquire a Spectrobe fossil, you’ll have to wake it up by using the microphone in the DS. The way you’ll wake it up is by singing or humming a tune at a sustained volume that is denoted on the screen. Once a Spectrobe is awakened, you put it in an incubator and feed it minerals until it becomes an adult. Once it becomes an adult, you can add it to your party as a battle Spectrobe. You can carry up to six at the same time, but only two can be used actively in battle with the remaining four supporting the two that are in battle. Eventually, Spectrobes will evolve into a more powerful form to further help in your battle against the Kraul. During battle, you can command the Spectrobes that are on either side of Rallen with the L and R shoulder buttons. You’ll have to use the Spectrobes in the correct order to get through battles, and as time goes on, the combos get more complicated.

While looking at the screenshots, the graphics aren’t anything to get too excited about. The art direction is very akin to Japanese RPGs, so if you like that kind of art style, the game should be up your alley. Controlling the menu screens were a little annoying to me since it was a combination of using the controls on the DS and the touch screen. An interesting aspect of the game is that you can acquire (buy?) physical cards that you can put on top of the DS’ touch screen and poke at the holes that are punched in the card to unlock a new Spectrobe. Kind of an interesting implementation of the touch screen, but I’m not sure if it’d be worth it if you have to buy these cards separately or whatever you have to do with them. Recently I had seen a GameStop advertisement about the game and it seems like they will give a card out for free, while supplies last, with a purchase of Spectrobes, but it also implied that there would be more cards to buy separately.

Spectrobes is due to be released this week in North America.


Red Jets (PC): The Editorial!

One Sunday afternoon about a month ago, I sat down at my computer to review a game called Red Jets. It’s a budget dogfighting game from Graffiti Entertainment, where you pilot Russian planes in mortal konflikt against fighter jets flown by people who are presumably not Russian. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, you see, because I never got to play Red Jets. I sort of skimmed through the manual and looked at the box art and then wrote a couple of paragraphs to review it. “But Dominic,” you say. “You are a game reviewer. How dare you review a game you did not play?” It’s actually pretty easy to do when you have an ego the size of a former Soviet Republic.

You see, Graffiti Entertainment shipped me a copy of Red Jets that was nigh-useless. The setup.exe file hard-locked my PC repeatedly, the copy protection accused me of using a duplicate disc, and not even a No-CD crack of dubious legality could help me break into Red Jets. I spent a few hours trying to get the game to run, until finally I gave up. I decided that if Graffiti Entertainment could not be bothered to send me a working game, I could not be bothered to review it.

However, Dear Reader, that would be too easy. I have received preview copies of games that chug along on my computer, or simply refuse to run. Europa Universalis III, for instance, was an unpolished gem in alpha form, when it first graced my hard drive. I don’t fault games or game companies that have less than perfect alphas. (Fun fact: EU3 cleaned up real nice, and is about to get a damn fine review from me.) But Red Jets arrived in a retail box, replete with UPC and MSRP. This was, officially, Graffiti Entertainment saying “all done!” They were going to charge you for trying to play this. My colleagues have pointed out that patches may be forthcoming, but I harbor an antiquated, Leave It To Beaver-esque belief that a man buys a game to play it, not to wait for it to be patched up to functionality. A game that arrives in a retail box is a sign to me from the publisher that I am free to take the kiddie gloves off.

So I did what any self-respecting journalist would do: I ripped Red Jets like an overweight gym teacher’s short-shorts when he bends over to pick up his clipboard. Let us be very clear: my original review did not make a single qualitative claim about Red Jets. The more educated among my readers will note that my “review” of Red Jets was an account of my attempts to install and subsequently run the game, during which I fail to state a single fact about Red Jets the game. I mentioned vomiting in a fictional white-water rafting game, I stated that I pounded nails into my thighbone, I “considered” burning down my apartment, and I professed to cursing so loudly that my dog now runs at the mere sight of me.

But I did not defame Red Jets. To do so without having played it would be irresponsible. The reader with even the most tenuous grasp on reality this side of a cult leader’s paper cup of Kool-aid will likely understand that none of those relate to Red Jets at all. The only parts of Red Jets I reviewed were the install CD crashing my computer, the license agreement, the copy protection refusing to let me play the game, and the No-CD crack not working. I explicitly stated on both pages of my review that I never played Red Jets. I felt secure in the knowledge that no one of sound mind and/or body could mistake my satire for a real review.

Fast forward to my receiving word that Gamer’s Mark is pulling my review at the behest of one Linda Shannon from Over the Moon Management; apparently, she takes exception to a negative review of a product she represents. Her claim revolves around the fact that I never played the game: she refuses to consider that I might be entitled to review other aspects of Red Jets beyond the graphics or controls or the sound or the adrenaline rush I get from engaging in thrilling air-to-air combat. You know, like the fact that it won’t do silly little things like “install” or “play.” The pluck of those kids at Gamer’s Mark!

I am disappointed that Graffiti Entertainment sent me a game that was unplayable. I am disappointed that Linda played the “how dare you” card about my review of their bargain-bin production. I am disappointed that Gamer’s Mark ultimately chose to react in the manner in which they did, and I am disappointed that this situation warrants this defense of a lackluster review of a lackluster video game.

So, in an effort to avoid this sort of e-drama in the future, here are some new ground rules from which I advise all publishers to take notes. Consider these words verily chiseled into stone hewn from the living rock of Mount Sinai’s bowels; such is their sacrosanctity and general awesomeness.

  1. Thou shalt not send me games that I have to try more than three times to install. This is because I have better things to do with my time than stare, slack of jaw, at a frozen setup program.
  2. Thou shalt recognize that everything you send me is fair game for review. This includes, but is not limited to the box art, game manual, poorly worded license agreements, the description on the back of the box, the screenshots in the manual, the way the box smells, the lame font on the CD, and the actual game itself. Attempts to apply this ex post facto have failed, but you may consider this fair warning.
  3. Thou shall not beget thy panties unto a bunched state if my review takes your game to task for its shortcomings. If your product isn’t very good, it will not get a very good review. This isn’t IGN.

In conclusion, I would like to announce my undiluted rage will be directed against the following people at a time and place of my choosing, but probably the next time a game company does something stupid like sending me coasters they plan to charge $20 for: these jerks. Also, maybe some of these people, too.

You can see the original review, re-posted, here:



Spectrobes (NDS) – My Fun Day at Disneyland!


This is an article that got me in trouble.  I wrote a frank, very sarcastic description of what happened during the day.  This was, I think, my very first gaming press event (that wasn’t E3) and I was unsure of what to do the whole time.  In retrospect, I should have done more to get on the right track, but at the same time I was not informed by the PR company I was working with as to who I should meet with and what exactly was going on that day — I was operating on very little other than knowing I was to go to Disneyland.

Because of not knowing what to do, I was not able to get much exposure or learn anything about the game I was actually supposed to preview, so I wrote a paragraph about the Spectrobes itself that was inaccurate and not representative of the game.  I’ve left it in in this article (indented it), but please note that pretty much anything about the game is not the full picture, and only a small part of the game itself based on about 20 minutes of playing aimlessly.  Otherwise, the rest of the day is as I described it!  I was pretty frustrated with the day, but writing a sarcastic and assholey article was terrible in retrospect.

As to how I actually got in trouble, the PR company read my article, as I posted the whole thing on NeoGAF (a gaming forum I frequented).  I don’t think it lasted on GamersMark very long if it was there at all.  As a result of the PR company not liking my article at all, we were “reset” in our relationship with Buena Vista Games (Disney) and would have to rebuild our relationship — no more games to review, no invitations to press events, and whatever else came with it.  It wasn’t a big deal since Disney made mostly kids games (outside of our writer’s desired demographic for their writing) and they would eventually scale back their publishing almost entirely.

Adventures awaited me the morning of Friday, February 23rd at Disneyland. I was invited to a Spectrobes game event in Tomorrowland where they would have fourth graders come to play the game and do some things in front of the camera. But that’s at the end of my day. My day started at 6:30 am, as I woke up from a nice dream about Spectrobes and digging fossils because I was THAT excited for playing the game…and because I’d get into Disneyland for free.

So on the way, I follow the instructions to get to Disneyland. Having not been there in four years, I was mildly interested to see the park again.

First problem – I had to park in Downtown Disney.   No big deal… except when I went into the area where I thought the parking lot would be, it looked like it was all blocked off. So I freak out, make a U-turn, and go the opposite direction. Then, I called a person (who we were supposed to call in case of difficulties) and left her a message. She calls me back, not having listened to my message, so I just ask her about the parking situation. She said the parking lot should be open and she’d find out what was up. Fifteen minutes later of driving, I figured out I just hadn’t gone far enough down the road and found a parking space. I called her back and told her I was sorry, just hadn’t gone far enough. After which, I began the long trek through Downtown Disney into the rising sun feeling like an idiot because I already had to call this person twice.

About fifteen minutes later, I ended up at the Media Tent outside the main gates of Disneyland. At which point, I got a ticket, a media badge, and a fifteen dollar meal voucher. Score! …Or not, considering how bad the food is there. Should have just gotten fifteen dollars worth of ice cream bars instead. So, like 2?

Anyway, I get taken into a backroom VIP Lounge place in the “Innoventions” building where they have a continental breakfast set up. I get a few croissants and a coke and sit there. No one talks to me, I don’t know what’s happening, I see some Japanese dude (the game’s producer) talking in Japanese to a some other guy, a few annoying kids walking around… next I know its about 8:30 am or so. At this point, the event was going to start soon. But I don’t know where it is, or really what to expect. I suppose I could have tried talking to someone, but it was way too early in the morning for me to begin with.

Through the course of me reading through press materials that were laid out on the small table in the center of the room, I’m left alone with people who don’t know anything when I finally get the balls to ask someone what the fuck I do. I end up calling the same person I called earlier when I was trying to get to Disneyland, and basically told her I didn’t know what to do and was still in that room. She told me to just go outside where the event was, so I did, and watched what transpired. It should be noted: I never met this person on the phone.

Basically, all that happened was filmed by a crew from the Disney Channel. And guess who was there??? Jason Schooley!!!!! Actually, I never heard of the kid before today, so I didn’t understand why he was famous at all. He was signing lots of autographs for the kids and the camera. There was also a host for the Disney 365 thing they were doing. His name was Chester and he was so fake-happy it made me want to puke on him after beating his face in. But that’s Disney TV for ya, I guess. Not his fault that he has to act like a douche.

They had the game’s producer, Kentaro Hisai (the same dude that I saw earlier), talk about the game to the kids…in Japanese. So they had to have a translator, the quality assurance lead for the game, say what he said. I understood the things they were talking about, but I doubt any of the kids really did. Afterwards, Jason Schooley picked five kids out of the audience to open black bags with goodies in it. What was in the bags? A DS and a copy of Spectrobes. Turned out, all the 4th grader kids would get one of those bags when they left for the day. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get one of those goody bags.

So after they unleashed the 4th graders to play Spectrobes, I just waited around and watched Schooley sign autographs and get oogled by preteen girls standing outside the filming area taking pictures of him, and watch Chester jump around and smile from ear to ear like an idiot.

Eventually, the kids got bored of the game (it probably took less than ten minutes) and they started crowding around Schooley so the cameras could make it seem like he was really popular. During which, I got some time to play the game. What follows are my impressions of Spectrobes:

Spectrobes is a simple, yet fairly unique “action” RPG. I say “action” because there is no action in the classical sense of the word as it applies to RPGs. From what I gathered in the twenty minutes or so of play time I had, you dig fossils and gain experience for whatever you find. Spectrobes basically help you find these fossils/items to begin with, and you dig them out with your stylus as you rub the touch screen with it. There’s also a timer for each fossil digging, which may or may not affect your experience gained. I’m not sure, really. I don’t know what you do with the minerals/stones you find, but you can use fossils to get more Spectrobes.

When you Awaken a Spectrobe fossil from the Lab, you choose which fossil to wake up, and then say “wake up” (or maybe you can say other things, not sure here either) into the DS’ mic at the appropriate sound level and it will “wake up.” Unfortunately I didn’t really want to yell wake up into the DS in front of a bajillion 4th graders in front of a camera and ruin their shots, so I kept quiet. Moving around on the gameplay screen consisted of using the D-pad, and when a Spectrobe finds something to dig out of the ground (you have to tell it to find something) you tap the screen where a sparkly little dot thing is and enter the digging mode.

The graphics were bland at best, and there didn’t seem to be very much “exploring” to do at least in the areas I had access to. Even though I found the graphics to be unimpressive, considering it’s the DS I suppose they are decent. Controlling the menu screens were a little annoying to me since it was a combination of using the controls on the DS and the touch screen. As far as I could tell, the whole game is about going around and finding fossils and digging them out as you gain levels and get more Spectrobes in your party. An interesting aspect of the game is that you can get (buy?) physical cards that you can put on top of the DS’ touch screen and poke at the holes that are punched in the card to unlock a new Spectrobe. Kind of an interesting implementation of the touch screen, but I’m not sure if it’d be worth it if you have to buy these cards separately or whatever you have to do with them.

As I was playing, the camera crew, 4th graders, Chester, and Schooley made their way toward the booth I was at. I hadn’t noticed that happening until I heard Chester’s stupid-happy voice. I looked away from the DS and saw Schooley looking at me with a weird expression…probably wondering why a 21 year old (I’ve been told I look much older, though) wearing all black was playing a kid’s game. I acted like I didn’t care who he was (cause I didn’t), and looked back down to the DS. Eventually, I looked back up and he was looking at me again… this time he looked like he was scared of me or something. Whatever. Just hope he didn’t pee his pants or something. Wouldn’t want his huge belt buckle getting rusty.

So, afterwards I just left, and ate a crappy burger made by fake Jedis, and walked around Disneyland for a couple hours.

The end.


Red Jets (PC) Review

Developer: InterActive Vision | Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment || Overall: 2.6/10

Editor’s Note: the following article is our reviewer’s account of his attempts to install and play Red Jets. At the request of the publisher, GamersMark would like to clarify that at no point was our reviewer actually able to play Red Jets.

The least satisfying part of white-water rafting down the Nukutaku rapids 12,000 feet above sea level is when the guy right behind you in the raft gets sick to his stomach and vomits on you, and it drips down your life jacket and you can feel it every time you move. At least, that’s what I’ve been told, because I’m terrified of flying anywhere, and if I did manage to walk (not over any bridges) to white-water rapids, I’d be too afraid to hop in the raft for fear of drowning/vomiting on someone.

I’m much more the armchair type. I sit in a comfortable armchair, install Microsoft White Water Rafting Simulator ’98 (the apex of the genre, in my expert opinion), and hit the “vomit” button over and over again until my character passes out from dehydration. As an aside, I’m fairly sure that there are entire fetish magazines devoted to this very scenario in Amsterdam. Of course, why shouldn’t there be? Sometimes, a man just wants to vomit his way into unconsciousness.

And this is precisely what happens when he installs Red Jets, the hip new combat flight simulator (which, for my money is no MS WWRS ’98) from developer InterActive Vision. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I haven’t played this game. It might be great fun. The idea of pulling massive Gs and doing a barrel roll shortly before screaming “GOOOOOOOOSE!” and shooting down like thirty tangos with a slingshot is pretty thrilling. But installing Red Jets is an exercise in vomiting on the guy in front of you while simultaneously being vomited on by the guy behind you.

You see, upon inserting the CD into my computer, the autoplay mechanism started the install process. This is normal. The setup.exe file hard-locked my computer and I was forced to reboot. This is not normal. When I restarted and double-clicked on the setup.exe file, my computer locked up again. My third attempt was to copy the file onto my hard drive and try the setup file from a different location, because perhaps I had incurred some vile “bad mojo” (the technical term) that had secured itself in my CD-ROM tray.

Finally, I was able to run the installer, and I was greeted with the traditional EULA screen. For one reason or another, I skimmed the first paragraph, which I can only assume was written by a Nigerian scam artist, as it was of dubious grammar and unending capital letters. “MOST WISE PURCHASER,” it began, “WE WILL LICENSE THIS GAME TO YOUR PERSON ONLY UNDER ALL THESE TERMS.” It went on to say that if I did not accept all the terms of the agreement, I should return the unopened CD at once.

When my “oh god I’m surrounded by idiots” laugh subsided, I had enough presence of mind to check the manual: perhaps this was just making sure I had a chance to read the terms. Sadly, my first impression was correct. I had to insert the CD into my computer to find out the license terms, and if I did not accept those terms, I was to return the unopened CD. Of course, everyone ignores those terms, but after my problems just trying to run the installer, I felt like I had wandered into an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life.

The game was finally successfully installed; exhausted, I walked off to do something more entertaining than attempting to outwit a game into letting me install it, like hammering nails into my thighbone and seeing how many I could do before I passed out. When I awoke in a pool of my own blood, I went back to Red Jets like a beaten spouse who desperately wants children and says to herself “maybe he hits me because he really loves me; maybe when we have children, he’ll stop.” Maybe, just maybe, I would find happiness instead of an unwanted cameo on Cops, sobbing on my front lawn with mascara running down my face as Officer Moustache asks me over and over if I want to press charges.

I sat down at my chair, again, and double-clicked the Red Jets icon. SecuROM, the game’s copy protection tool, informed me that I was using a duplicate CD, and that I ought to insert the real CD into my drive if I wanted to play. I contemplated burning my apartment to the ground and painting pagan symbols of ancient woe on my body with the ashes of my computer, but then I decided it might violate my lease. So, I followed SecuROM’s instructions for making sure my drive wasn’t malfunctioning.

Sadly, the instructions were written for a different version of Windows, as my version of Device Manager had none of the options or tabs listed by SecuROM’s walkthrough. That’s okay – I was fourteen six months ago once, and I know where to find what are referred to as “crackz” and “warez.” Yes, that’s right, dear reader. Such is my devotion to reviewing this game for you that I ventured into that unseemly corner of the internet to hack my way into this goddamn game for you.

Of course, the crack was for version 1.0 of the game, and I have, well, not version 1.0. So I never did play Red Jets, but I did look at the box art and skim the instruction manual. What follows is my review for Red Jets.

Do you like to fly around and shoot down enemy planes in an adrenaline-fueled dogfight with tracers lighting up your plane like a piñata on Christmas Eve? Dodging missiles like they were phone calls from one-night stands and pulling so many Gs that your testicles touch your toes more authoritatively than you have since you were 8? Well, for the love of all that is good and holy in this world, buy something else, because this game is not for you.

The graphics in this game are probably pretty good, but the screenshots on the back of the box look kind of muddy, like someone didn’t know how to resize a JPG file or something. That’s a pretty easy concept, so I wouldn’t trust InterActive Vision to be able to do the complicated stuff like vertex shaders or volumetric smoke or installation. There were a lot of things the manual had to explain about the HUD, and I think the game would probably have been a little more fun if it were easier to pick up and start flying, but fighter jets are kind of complicated, so it’s forgivable. Still, the screenshots in the manual were even more fuzzy than the ones on the box, so that didn’t help their case.

There were a lot of files in the “sound” folder, so I’m going to assume that they put a lot of effort into the music and sound effects of missiles screeching by you. It was probably pretty exciting. As for the controls, well, those were just laughable. I mean, I kept hitting the “eject” button, but I still had to reach down and hit the button on my drive. I think I kept dropping F-bombs, which seemed to do a lot of environmental damage, because my dog keeps running away from me now. Overall, the game is a pretty lousy value, because installing games is the least fun part of actually playing them, even if that is the big challenge.

In conclusion, thanks for wasting my time, InterActive Vision. Your game makes a fine coaster, and your manual kept me and my family warm during the first cold snap of the new year – the cheap ink used on the pages burns long and brightly.

(Note: this game, while a triumph of incompetence, still receives a higher score than The Star and The Crescent, purely out of spite.)


Gitaroo Man Lives! (PSP) Review

Note: I am unsure if I finished this review or not.  It now serves as a little blurb about just the port of the game from PS2 to PSP, and not that much of an analysis.  Generally, it was worth playing.

Developer/Publisher: Koei || Overall: 8.5/10

The transfer of Gitaroo Man from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation Portable is quite impressive.  The visuals have taken little noticeable hit in terms of actual quality and the visuals are akin to how they are expected to be on a home console. The only downside to this, however, is that it takes a good ten to fifteen seconds before each song to load, which is quite a wait by any standards. Fortunately, if you fail at a song, the song can reset without any loading whatsoever, so you can get right back into it.  I’d gladly take an initial hit in loading rather than it having to be done repeatedly through the course of new attempts. The controls on the PSP, as opposed to the PS2 version can be a little bit more challenging, especially since the buttons are smaller and the analog nub is simply not as forgiving as a Dual Shock’s analog stick would be.

Gitaroo Man Lives! is an enjoyable game, just like its PlayStation 2 counterpart. While you’ll definitely have to keep an open mind for the types of songs that you’ll be playing, fantastic sound quality and an interesting way to play a music/rhythm game allows for a unique package that can’t easily be found elsewhere. The availability of Gitaroo Man Lives! will make it a good buy if you want to see what Gitaroo Man is all about.


Star and the Crescent, The (PC) Review

Developer: ProSIM Company | Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 2.5/10

Some guy in some movie with guns and really handsome actors pretending to be ordinary soldiers once said “war is hell.” Which, as I’ve been told, is pretty accurate. I mean, sure, it looks good when Matt Damon shoots some guy in the face, but any soldier who has been there will tell you that war is long stretches of boredom broken up by brief moments of sheer terror. Kinda like spending Thanksgiving with your girlfriend’s family: you can’t really remember why you signed up to be there, the person next to you won’t stop yelling, and some morbid part of your brain hopes that a lunatic in a fighter jet will drop napalm on your location and end your misery.

But I digress.

The Star and The Crescent is ProSIM Company’s newest tactical simulation for the die-hard war-game aficionado. Published by Shrapnel Games, it comes with the brazen proclamation that the realism of their game is such that both a helmet and flak jacket ought to be included in the package – fortunately for my local postal carrier, there’s just the manual and the installation CD. It zeros its sights, compensates for windage and bullet drop, leads it target, and shoots for realism: is The Star and The Crescent a hit?

Set in the Middle East, The Star and The Crescent offers players the chance to step into the boots of an officer in the Israeli army, commanding platoons, companies, and brigades of tanks and infantry in epic battles against a variety of foes. When you first start the game, you can begin one of the four campaigns ranging from the historic (like the Yom Kippur War) to the future (now try to imagine that there might be a war in the Middle East sometime this century). In keeping with the other Armored Task Force-engine games, when you’ve completed all the missions the game comes with, you can import new scenarios and continue the carnage; similarly, the included mission builder gives the game virtually unlimited re-playability.

The actual game boasts unparalleled realism. Before you even move your tanks, you have the option to set no fewer than eleven different formations, nine different ammunition types, and commit each of your units to ten different varieties of fire mission from “company attack to breach” to “platoon breach.” Your troops are arranged quite authentically in heirarchies denoted with real military abbreviation like “2/3 Bde / 11th Ugda,” and instead of graphics for any of the tanks or jeeps or soldiers, the actual N.A.T.O. symbols are used.

Cartographically speaking, you get your choice between a topographical or geographical map. You have your pick of eight different Standard Operation Procedures, governing how your units react to enemy contact. You can control each platoon separately, plotting out assigned paths down to the individual tank if you choose, or create custom hierarchies among your companies with brigades of units hand-picked to compliment one another, taking into consideration seemingly obscure factors like the reverse speed of a T72 Main Battle Tank, or the turning radius of a jeep when affixed with a 104mm rocket launcher.

Now, this next part is important. I have absolutely no idea what I said in those last two paragraphs. None. I spent hours trying to decipher the manual enough to follow along with the tutorial, but there’s a certain level of knowledge that is presupposed by the game designers. For instance, I had no idea which was bigger, a platoon or a company. The manual doesn’t bring it up at all. Further, that whole military abbreviation stuff, like “2/2 Bde / 12th Ugda” – I haven’t a clue what any of those numbers mean. I’m pretty sure that Bde stands for “brigade,” but the rest of it’s a mystery.

And while Wikipedia can be of some use for simple questions like whether a platoon is made of companies or vice versa, and while I don’t mind a game that’s going to teach me new things about stuff I’m not knowledgeable about (hello Gran Turismo), there’s only so much you can excuse from being absent in the manual. In a game that touts the ability to devise your own companies out of platoons and units from other companies, please, guys: don’t skimp on the explanation. Some of us didn’t go through boot camp. Now it’s not like these are all arcane concepts that are beyond comprehension: no military designs a command structure to be incomprehensible to those within it. The manual is, to put it bluntly, woefully inadequate.

If you’ve ever played one of ProSIM’s games on the ATF engine, you’ll be pretty well-prepared. For one, you may have already called your local armed forces recruiting office for some much needed explication. Or, if you’re halfway through a furious email to me, explaining the difference between an all-out enfilade and an entrenched defilade, you’re probably sleeping with a loaded AK-47 under your pillow more than ready to play this game. And hell, the manual isn’t completely useless – like the Rosetta Stone, someone of a keener intellect and sharper wit than myself could probably make use of it. But a game of this magnitude and complexity absolutely needs to have a much better helping hand for new players.

But really, you don’t play a game with your nose in the manual forever, so let’s move on to the other travesties of The Star and The Crescent. The next sentence is one that all the die-hard fans and the designers and the publishers and my grandmother who can’t even turn on a computer will see coming. The graphics are horrible. Now, I spent the better part of my afternoon today playing Final Fantasy for the original NES. I prefer the original X-COM to any other title in the series. I prefer an obscure and graphically sub-par boxing game to any Fight Night on any console. My last review was a glowing endorsement of a 2D side-scroller without a polygon in sight. I am not a 16x AA/AS diva, nor do I thump my chest and cry for HDR and the omnipresent Bloom in today’s titles. My point is that I firmly believe in gameplay superseding graphics. But oh. My. God. These graphics are horrible.

ProSIM has always focused their effort on creating sophisticated AI (more on this later), a ridiculously robust damage modeling system, and simply the deepest military sim I’ve ever seen. It was a monumental task, and all Armored Task Force-engine games bear the proud heritage of the process. But the graphics are unbelievably dated and present a further challenge in surmounting the already steep learning curve that poor documentation creates.

Blue boxes are the good guys, and red boxes are the bad guys. Got it. How do I tell all my blue guys apart? Some of them have ovals, some of them have ovals with dots, or ovals with a slash, or ovals with two slashes. Some other ones have three dots above the box, which probably means they’re captains or corporals or commanders or something. I dunno. To add to the realism, and so that the player may further appreciate the skill of the commanders in the actual historical battles represented in The Star and The Crescent, the icons you’ll use are the real N.A.T.O. symbols. This means they don’t make any sense.

Eventually, I got it down, but I’m a gamer. Call me a prima donna, but ever since 1988 or so, I’ve been spoiled by software that tries to represent an object’s function with its appearance. The Star and The Crescent thumbs its nose at this convention, and the learning curve suffers for it. That’s okay, right? Just remember that you’re the blue guys and you want the red guys to die, right? Sadly, no. Because the unit/formation icons, as unwieldy as they are, actually look good compared to interface. Graphically, the interface is a series of all but unintelligible 16x16px buttons lined up in a single bar that grows and shrinks when you press certain buttons. Confused? Wait till you actually try using it.

Firstly, as I said, the buttons are too small. The minimum requirements for this game are a 700 Mhz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and Windows 95. On a computer that old, the screen resolution would be adequate for 16x16px buttons. But on a computer built in this millennium, you’ll want to turn down your resolution while playing so you can actually see the buttons. Of course, you’d probably do about as well squinting like Great Aunt Gertrude doing needlepoint at the buttons: they suffer from the same sort of graphical malaise that your unit icons do. When you can see them, however, the buttons do a good job of representing functions for the most part. And really, I can’t blame ProSIM for not knowing how to express “defilade” in 256 pixels. Hell, I didn’t even know what it means, so even if they could represent it in a tiny little icon, it’d be lost on me.

This brings me to the least excusable facet of The Star and The Crescent yet: the interface. Say for the sake of argument, that you actually figure out which blue boxes are which, and you’re the world’s greatest tactical genius, who could actually pull off a land war in Asia. None of that matters, because the interface to this game feels like an afterthought. It’s a brilliant piece of work, really: there’s a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’d love to take a peak at the source code and see what this tactical orchestra of precision calculation is doing while it’s busy destroying my tanks over and over. But when you play this game, you get the sense that all the programmers signed up to design the game engine, and afterwards, they realized that one of them might actually have to design and interface and they all drew straws to determine the unlucky sod.

Simply put, I have never played a game with more than sixteen colors that has a less intuitive interface, full stop. At some point, it’s probably true that I’ve played a game with an even more incomprehensible means of controlling the action, but I find it hard to believe it was in either of the last two decades. Here we are in the year 2006, I have 104 keys on my keyboard, I have 8 buttons on my mouse, and I have almost two million pixels of screen real estate at your disposal, gentlemen. Please, please, please spend more than an afternoon designing and implementing an interface.

I love the idea of being able to custom-craft missions for my units, and the ability to copy-paste unit paths amongst all your units is mercifully well thought-out, but the actual implementation feels like a cold, uncaring spouse that has slowly grown apart from you over the years; she no longer cares about what you want, because fifteen years ago you forgot to call before you were going to be late coming home from the office, and now she’s convinced you’ve been cheating on her, so she goes out of her way to “forget” that you asked her for whole milk, and not this skim milk bullshit every week for the last decade.

If it seems like I’m harboring a grudge, I am. The interface is beyond counter-intuitive, the manual was crafted in an alien tongue, and the graphics looked bad when I was still in puberty. If you’ve been paying attention, all of these are not problems for real generals experienced players. But if you’re new, by now the learning “curve” is about as curvy as Lindsay Lohan on a coke binge running the Boston Marathon (i.e. not), and you’re banging your head against your monitor, screaming “Why?! Why didn’t you shoot? Why did you just drive up to them? Oh god the agony!” And the game has one last brick through your living room window for you.

The A.I. is vicious. While you’re trying to learn how to actually play (not how to win, how to actually play), the computer is going to make the strongest possible case that you should never be drafted and put in command of anything more complex than a dishwasher. And a damn fine case it is. Remember that “land war in Asia” crack? I think the computer could do just fine where Napoleon and Hitler failed: there is an absolutely savage beatdown that it’ll place on your units. Get ready to write thousands of letters home to some very distraught ladies, and tell them why Little Johnny is coming home in a box, because this game is hard. Having defeated poor gameplay design, lackadaisical (at best) graphics, a manual that’s little more help than a solar-powered umbrella, and the toughest A.I. this side of Deep Blue, the satisfaction you get from beating even the tutorial is unparalleled.

The bottom line? This game is not for you unless you have never played a strategy game worthy of your clearly superhuman tactical forebrain. This game is not for you if you’ve ever put down a strategy game for having too many damage tables to remember. This game is not for you if you do not seriously entertain notions of enlisting for the armed forces and studying four hundred years of tactical theory and practice. But if you’ve played ProSIM’s games before, and you know what you’re getting into, this is more of the same (unpolished) gem that you know and love, with an authentic historical vibe that can’t be beat. Of course, if this is your first foray into the world of ruthless military sims by ProSIM, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Metal Saga (PS2) Review

Developer: Createch / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.5/10

Createch’s Metal Saga, brought over to North America by Atlus, is an interesting RPG. While breaking the mold of traditional RPG storytelling, it’s more akin to the traditional RPG, in terms of gameplay, than most nowadays. Metal Saga is as “choose-your-own-adventure” as an RPG can be without any sort of adventure to actually be told. Put simply, you can venture through the world with little-to-no restriction; the only boundary is the level your characters currently are. Bosses are dispersed throughout the world, and can be taken down at one’s leisure, contrary to any regular RPG.

How Metal Saga starts out is with a choice: to become a Hunter or a Mechanic. Your dad is making a living as a Hunter and your mom is a Mechanic. Your mom tells you about your dad, and hopes for you to become a Mechanic, as it’s dangerous to be a Hunter. Chosing the Hunter class means you will be able to explore the world and make money by collecting bounties and killing enemies. Being a Hunter is obviously what the game is about, as there are many different “endings” that are available through the game – of which choosing to become a Mechanic will show you. The different endings available throughout stress the open-ended aspect, allowing you to pretty much are able to finish the game at any time — sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, marrying someone will produce a few “story” scenes, but after those finish the credits roll. If you play your cards right you may actually be able to play this game as long as a regular RPG. The world of Metal Saga is post-apocalyptic – once a very high-tech world, a catastrophe occurred that created a low-tech society with high-tech items here and there. While the foundation of the game is based in its lack of story, there are times when I felt myself calling out for there to be a compelling story to be coupled with the things you could do in the world.

Your job as a (bounty) Hunter is to make money by defeating wanted criminals and improve your vehicles, which you find throughout the world. By equipping your vehicles with stronger weapons, modifying them to hold heavier loads, and by diversifying their offensive capabilities, you’ll make your way as a Hunter who is feared by all who cross your path. Unfortunately, battling is very boring. It can’t get much more ordinary than Metal Saga when it comes to a battle-system; very rarely will you really need to pay careful attention to what is happening in a battle, as you can “fast forward” through all the battle animations. This creates a fast-paced feeling while fighting through any enemies that you encounter. The only time you really need to focus on a battle is when you are facing off against a boss, or if you’re collecting a bounty – but even then you could skip through the battling animations to make everything go faster.

Through your travels you’ll acquire a few unique party members. You’ll be able to choose a mechanic to have by your side, but you can only choose one of two possible choices; later on you will even be able to pick a dog (out of a possible four) to travel along with your party. Having a dog with a bazooka strapped onto its back is quite silly considering you’re occupying a tank right next to it. Magic and abilities are not acquired through normal leveling up – rather, they are bought by visiting “masters,” who will train you in whichever art they are equipped with. Instead of using any sort of “magic points,” your abilities will deplete a certain amount of value from your funds as a price for using the ability. The game allows you to go back to where you selected your party members and trade them with another if you feel so inclined as to do so.

The audio-visual experience isn’t exactly top notch – the graphics look like they could fit in with PS2 games from a couple of years ago, so the game definitely isn’t trying to push your PS2 to heights not seen before. The most noticeable lack from the sound category is the lack of any voice acting whatsoever (not to mention the main character is a silent hero). While it could be seen as a throwback to a time when RPGs didn’t have any voicework, it’s just unfortunate to not have anything except for a few yells during battle. Otherwise, the sound effects in the game aren’t bad, but they can get annoying during battle, especially when one considers how often you have to fight. The soundtrack isn’t exactly large and diverse, but what is there is pretty nice. It really doesn’t make much of an impression, however, which could be seen as a negative – RPGs usually have some of the best soundtrack work.

What I personally didn’t like is that the game can get quite monotonous at times, especially when there’s an area of the world you want to go to, but can’t yet because you have to go through a hundred more battles to get to the appropriate level to get through the area alive. The required amount of experience can be very disconcerting given the repetition. The lack of story also causes the game to come across as unfocused. It’s not a good sign when you don’t feel compelled to go in any one direction or are at a loss for a general place to head towards. Events that you take part in as you play also create too limited an impact on the world around you, so it’s less rewarding than it should be to do much of anything. There are plenty of mini-games to be occupied with, however, so occasionally there is some difference in the gameplay. The humor that is written into the game is pretty cool as well, and can leave you chuckling or even laughing out loud, which is very welcomed.

Metal Saga takes traditional RPG gameplay to the point where the game itself could be classified as retro, despite its year of release. The game almost exclusively appeals to hardcore RPG gamers who want a throwback into the way RPGs were back in the day. Metal Saga delivers a unique experience though it is one of the most traditional games to be released in the genre for quite a while.


Defcon (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer/Publisher: Introversion Software ||

Defcon is the newest game from UK developer Introversion Software. Introversion has already established a great reputation with Darwinia making Defcon a game to look forward to. Defcon is nuclear war on a global scale – you pick your country and your alliance with the intent of defeating those who aren’t aligned with you.

Defcon takes place on the world stage. While the game is real-time, it looks like it also integrates some aspects of traditional turn-based games to give the game a different flavor. The thing that instantaneously sets this game apart from other strategy games is the unique graphical style. Anyone who has played Darwinia, will instantly see the relation between the two games’ visual styles – which look like enhanced “retro” graphics.

The game itself takes place in a time where the world’s super powers are entrenched in all-out thermonuclear war. For those who have seen the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick, this game is basically based off of the idea in the movie in which Broderick’s character hacks into a military computer and initiates a “war game” simulation. When I saw that movie for the first time, I thought the prospect of being able to actually play a game that looks like what happened in WarGames would be an exciting experience – an experience that has become a reality with Defcon. Multiplayer gaming is pretty much the key to the game, though you can play the game against bots. A tutorial mode is included as well. The game promises to be easy to learn yet hard to win.

One of the main aspects of the game is that it is very minimal by nature. Your units, countries, missile silos and all other components of the game are represented by simple shapes. There are barely any real sound effects except for slight rumblings when nuclear bombs go off, all taking place while ambient music plays. The game feels like its quiet when it actually isn’t.

Defcon is currently scheduled to release in September 2006.


Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 9.0/10

Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel (MGS DGN) from Kojima Productions and Konami, is a very unique product for the PSP. Not exactly a game per se, the MGS DGN is a very interesting addition to the Metal Gear Solid library and for PSP owners, a unique way to experience Metal Gear Solid.

In the same vein of The Silent Hill Experience, the MGS DGN’s main feature is the comic adaptation of the Metal Gear Solid story. While there isn’t any voice acting, the comic captures the awesome feeling of Metal Gear Solid’s story perfectly. Practically every event and detail has been included in the adaptation, save the gameplay portions, which are improvised into semi-action scenes with sound effects and action being drawn. The story is changed ever so slightly so that the adapted parts of Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay make sense. The end of the story is also changed from the game, creating a combination of the two possible endings from the original.

The art is absolutely spectacular. It’s very stylistic, and is true to its graphic novel calling card. What’s different about the MGS DGN from The Silent Hill Experience is that it’s interactive. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly that easy to pause the action going on so that you have more time to read the speech bubbles, but an extra mode that is included makes use of the interactivity in the regular story mode. With a press of the Square button at any time, you can stop the comic from playing and “search” the pictures with a set of crosshairs. Once you find something that is highlighted, a “Memory Element” is added to your collection for later use. Memory Elements could be anything from a person to a gun to a scrap of paper in someone’s hand. Anything is fair game for being a Memory Element.

Memory Elements are used in the slightly more complicated “Memory Building Simulation Mode.” The purpose of this mode is to fully understand all the elements of the Metal Gear Solid story and all the connections between characters, events, and things of that sort through the whole series. If you want to get a full understanding of the story, this is the mode to spend most of your time with. To unlock all the connections, however, you’ll have to watch the story mode very closely and make sure you get all the different Memory Elements so that you can use them. Memory connections are made by directing a line coming out of a box towards another box floating in 3D space. It’s a little hard to direct the lines to the next connection, but the whole concept of the mode isn’t hard to make sense of.

The reason I personally liked this title so much is because of the way the graphic novel is presented. I appreciate the way the art looks and how the music and sound effects make me feel and remember the experiences I had when playing Metal Gear Solid. The collecting of Memory Elements allows for more player interaction and gives me a more thorough understanding of the series if I had missed something.

The Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel is a very cool item to have in the PSP’s library. It might not be a traditional Metal Gear Solid game, but Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops should help out in that department. I found the whole product to be very well worth it. The Metal Gear Solid story is a very enthralling experience in comic form, and it would be great to see the other games have the same treatment as the first did.


Field Commander (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment || Overall: 9.3/10

The PSP has proven to be my favorite way to play strategy games. With games like Metal Gear Acid, Metal Gear Acid 2, and now Field Commander, it’s shown me that playing turn-based strategy games on a handheld can be a lot more enjoyable than on a home console. What sets Field Commander apart from the other strategy games I’ve mentioned is that it’s more of a regular strategy game, which prides itself on its gameplay rather than its story. Containing a challenging campaign mode along with online multiplayer play and a random battle mode, Field Commander is the strategy game to have on the PSP.

Field Commander is a very full featured game with a roughly thirty-mission campaign mode that will train you from being a green CO (Commanding Officer) to the savior of the world. The campaign mode’s story starts out with a terrorist organization called Shadow Nation, and through the skirmishes you undertake against their multiple COs, you’ll slowly learn about their fanatical plan that they aim to put in place to destroy the world. The campaign is cleverly designed but overall is not that hard for seasoned strategy gamers. There are a couple of annoying missions sprinkled throughout the game, but they can easily be completed once you figure out what needs to be done.

The game is played with all types of units. Ground, sea, and air units allow for all kinds of strategy to take place. To give you an idea of what units there actually are, there are snipers, tanks, helicopters, stealth fighters, submarines, and battleships to name a few.

Each unit has a weakness and a strength that if you utilize effectively will make you a formidable force on the battlefield. Stealth units are also a major strategic advantage (and disadvantage if used against you). The units that can go into a “stealth mode” are the snipers, concealed tanks, stealth fighters, and submarines. For the snipers and concealed tanks, their range of fire is increased greatly, which allows for major damage of an enemy unit with no counterattack. For stealth fighters and submarines, they are able to creep up on enemy units that normally would be able to destroy them if they weren’t in stealth mode. The major disadvantage for stealth units are their movement speeds – they can only move one square at a time, which not only results in them moving slow but uses up a lot of their fuel.

Fuel and ammo are a very important part of a unit’s upkeep – if they run out of fuel, the unit literally blows up and dies. Without ammo, the unit becomes practically useless. Units can re-supply at towns or if supply trucks are nearby, they can get a more local servicing. Every unit in the game has a maximum of ten HP. If a unit is damaged, they must either go back to a town and heal for a few turns or join with another damaged unit of the same type so the HP can be added on top of whatever unit is being joined. Other times, it might be beneficial to destroy a unit and reacquire a percentage of the funds you spent on creating it and use it on building a new unit at a Factory, Airport, or Seaport.

As you play through missions, you will unlock new COs, divisions, maps, and units to use as you progress through the campaign as well as in the other modes the game has to offer. Which CO you choose doesn’t matter as much as which division you chose. There are a huge amount of unique divisions to choose through, and each have two of their own Division Powers. Division Powers vary but basically fall into three different kinds of categories: unit spawning, attack/defense increase, or damaging an enemy unit. Every time you activate a division’s special power a description will pop up allowing you to understand how to use it effectively.

The battle system for the game is almost perfect. Its fun to play, easy to get a hang of, and doesn’t have horrible load times either. The only bad parts about the game are the times when the enemy takes anywhere from ten to twenty seconds to think about what it should do. Though it doesn’t happen all that often, its still a problem since you’ll just be sitting there looking at a bar constantly fill up and empty to show that the computer is “thinking” about its next moves. Occasionally, you do hit a small load time when you put your cursor over a unit or even when you press the start button, but once it loads the first time, it doesn’t usually require another “loading” pause. Unfortunately the game does have some freezing issues as well. I encountered two freezes later on in the campaign mode, on the more advanced levels, which aren’t particularly that easy, especially when you have to do it again due to the game freezing. The game does offer the ability to save a battle (as long as it’s your turn) so that you can go back to it later, which not only allows you to (hopefully) circumvent any huge damage resulting from a possible freeze but allows you to come back later and play the game from where you left off without having to put the PSP in sleep mode.

The online capabilities for the game are enticing for those who want more after beating the campaign mode. You can check your leaderboard status and see how you compare to other people who play online, in single and multiplayer. Also, you can download a ton of custom missions made by other people on your PC and download them to your PSP. If you’re done with the campaign mode and want to play some more missions, hop onto the Field Commander site and check out all the extra content there is to play.

Field Commander is an awesome PSP game. Though the campaign is a bit short, the alternative modes allow for more game time to be put in. The game packs a lot of value for a portable game, and is well worth a look for any strategy game fan.