winSPMBT (PC) Review

Developer: The Camo Workshop / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 7.0/10

WinSPMBT, otherwise known as “Windows, Steel Panthers, Main Battle Tank” is a PC turn-based strategy game with a simple premise: capture points on the map, and beat the crap out of your enemy… strategically, of course. WinSPMBT isn’t necessarily a bad game, but it has a horribly outdated feel through and through. Everything, including the user interface, the gameplay mechanics, all the way down to the graphics feel this way.

WinSPMBT feels like a trip taken in a time machine set to 1995. The game looks on par with the first Command & Conquer. There is a reason behind this, as winSPMBT is the Windows version of a mod for a game called Steel Panthers 2: Modern Battles. SPMBT was originally a DOS game, but it has been ported to Windows for compatibility’s sake and resolution. Fans of the original SPMBT would certainly appreciate this, since they can now play the game on modern-day operating systems. What’s even better is that people can download the game for free from the Shrapnel Games site, so it’s not like you’d lose anything by giving it a shot, but you can also buy the enhanced CD version for $39.95. Both versions are the same, but the CD comes with a printed quick start guide, higher resolutions and a map editor.

Gameplay is a bit less than enthralling, to say the least. When you’re not directing units around on the hexagonal map, you’re watching units attempt to destroy each other with tiny animations of flying lines, little orbs, smoke, and sparks all from a top-down aspect. Sad to say, but that’s about it. There are more advanced commands and different ways to go about it, but you’ll have to play out your strategy without any exciting explosions or things of that sort. There are many different types of tanks, infantry, artillery, and the like to use during the game, and each is accompanied by low-res picture to represent it. To win a battle you need to occupy as many “V points” as possible while eliminating your opponent’s units and keeping your units intact. V points are basically points of interest on the map that help your side if you hold, or at least occupy them at some point. At the end of eight turns, the battle is over and the results are shown to you.

The sound is boring and can even be annoying. All that’s heard are the gun and explosion sound effects with absolutely no music to accompany them. It gets irritating when you hear the same sound effects over and over. One of the worst cases was fifty seconds worth of air strike sounds in one mission. There’s also no music. The graphics follow the sound — as I said before the game looks like it’s from 1995 (in truth, it’s from 1996). Still imagery far outweighs any animations or any real noticeable movement, and really promotes the idea of the game being just another boring strategy game. The maps you play on can look quite complex in texture, like one level in Germany, but the map’s graphics can collide with the sprites of your actual units, making it hard to see where or what your units are, making you wish for a desert level with no textures at all.

WinSPMBT will really only appeal to nostalgic gamers, fans of the original game, and hardcore strategy gamers. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that anyone who isn’t in one of those niche crowds would have an interest in the game, but the possibility is greater since it is available for free. WinSPMBT really would have done well with a major overhaul, but in its current form it’s in the awkward position of being an outdated game made available again. But because it’s obvious that they wanted to keep the integrity of the original game intact as much as possible, winSPMBT is all it is and nothing more.

 

Guitar Hero (PS2) Review

Developer: Harmonix Music Studios / Publisher: RedOctane || Overall: 9.5/10

I’ve never been a fan of beat games, half the reason being that I completely suck at them. The other being I really had no interest in playing any — that was, until Guitar Hero. At first, the biggest factor for my interest had been the guitar controller that actually came with the game, since I play the bass guitar; I found the novelty of playing with the guitar controller appealing. When first playing Guitar Hero you don’t have to have any previous experience playing a guitar (though it could help), as the game slowly builds on difficulty as progression is made. There are plenty of awesome songs available to play, each with four difficulty levels. Not only is Guitar Hero fun to play, but it actually feels like you’re playing the song. Guitar Hero can be appealing to a lot of different people, just from my own anecdotal evidence, and gives people the chance to experience how it would be like to play a guitar without actually having a real one.

There’s no story involved with Guitar Hero, you dive right into the Career mode with nothing more than the name of your band and the guitar controller in hand. As you play through the career mode, more songs will unlock, allowing you to play them any time you’d like in the Quick Play mode or during multiplayer. In total, there’s about thirty songs made by famous artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Jimi Hendrix, and Incubus – all redone by a different band, not the original artists, but it could be hard to tell the difference at times. Once you master all the famous songs, there’s a ton of bonus songs recorded by lesser-known bands.

The guitar controller that comes with the game has numerous features to it. Five “fret” buttons are played by your left hand (if you’re right-handed), a wammy bar, a “strum bar” that is played by your right hand to actually play the notes, as well as start and select buttons that look like volume knobs. There’s a guitar strap that you can put on if you want to play standing up. The guitar is also tilt-sensitive, so when you tilt the guitar while playing the game you can activate something called “Star Power” which will be explained later on. The guitar controller is about half the size of an actual guitar, so it doesn’t take a lot of space while you’re not using it. The box that you buy the game with can actually be used as a guitar case for storing the guitar controller when you’re not using it, if you so desired. The guitar controller can’t really be used to play any other game except for Guitar Hero, since it doesn’t have all the functionality of a Dual Shock 2 – but it doesn’t hurt to experiment.

The basic functions of the game are quite simple. You hold down a fret button and strum the strum bar at the right time to play a note as it appears on screen. When you start the game on easy, it’ll only use three of the fret buttons, adding on a fret button for each difficulty level higher. As you increase difficulty level, more advanced techniques must be used, like holding notes, hammer-ons, and pull-offs — just like on a regular guitar. As you increase difficulty level, more notes are tossed into songs you’ve already become familiar with, making it feel like you’re playing the song a little bit more realistically, as well as making it seem like the song you played before is completely different from what you’re playing once you increase difficulty. This gives you incentive to go back and play the easier difficulties in the game to get perfect scores during Free Play, just to see how high you can get.

When you hold notes, you can use the whammy bar on the guitar controller to make the note distorted, and make the song sound a little bit different each time you play it. Using the whammy bar at certain times will also help increase your “Star Power” that, when activated, will give you twice as many points for each note you play while it lasts. The more notes you play without any error, the higher the multiplier is, as well. Without using Star Power, you can get up to a “X4” multiplier, and with Star Power a “X8” multiplier. Using Star Power at the right time will result in higher scores, especially when you use Star Power when there are a lot of notes to be played. Another way Star Power can help is when your Rock Meter is low. The Rock Meter is basically the approval rating the audience is giving you, which equates to how many notes you get right. If you miss a lot, your Rock Meter is going to be in the red. Conversely, if you get all the notes right, you’ll be in the green. Star Power helps you get back up toward the green by giving you a higher boost than normal for each note you get correct.

When it comes to aspects other than the guitar and actually playing, Guitar Hero suffers just a bit. The graphics are what you’d expect from a late-generation PlayStation 2 game, but there are better looking and more interesting games that have come along recently. The sound, quite obviously, is spectacular. Since all of the songs are not by their original artists, but redone for the game, it’s amazing how alike they can sound to the original songs. Another really cool thing about the sound is that when you miss a note, the song actually misses a note, so you hear what you actually play (or don’t play). There are a lot of songs to keep anyone busy with, and how the songs have been designed really helps with immersion. A multiplayer mode is included as well, so that when your friend brings over their Guitar Hero controller, you can “duel” by trying to play songs better than each other. Multiplayer games can be come pretty heated with one note being the difference between loss and win. Multiplayer mode really required a stereo TV/sound system, since one speaker will be one player and the other speaker will be the other.

Guitar Hero is one of the most fun games I have personally played on any console to date. I’ve played it so much that my left hand felt like it was sprained for a month because I couldn’t stop playing it for so long. Not only that, it takes a lot of skill and practice to beat every song on expert, so the game doesn’t get old as fast as other beat games might. The only drawback I felt the game had was the limited amount of songs it had, while there was a good selection to begin with, it would have been nice to be able to download more songs to play. Guitar Hero is also a bit more expensive than a regular game due to the guitar controller being included, but in the end it’s worth every penny you spend on it and more.

 

Marine Park Empire (PC) Review

Publisher: Enlight Software Inc. || Overall: 6.0/10

Marine Park Empire, developed by Enlight Software, is a simulation tycoon game for the PC. What Marine Park Empire sets out to do is provide another “build-your-own-thing” game, much like those we’ve seen before so many times. Unfortunately for this title, it isn’t nearly as compelling as games that have helped define the genre in the first place. It also doesn’t help that there’s a curious emphasis on land animals, which is really out of place considering the title and apparent main theme. At the end of the day, Marine Park Empire is just a basic zoo tycoon game.

As is common with the genre, there’s no overall story; rather the game is scenario-based. There’s a little background about why a park needs help or how it’s doing to create some conflict, thus giving motivation for the player to make a conscious effort in rectifying the problem with the zoo you’re trying to complete goals for. Each new scenario is pretty basic: you’re given a chunk of land to mess around with, and a trunk full of cash. After that it’s just you buying animals and putting up fences so you can watch little people walk around the park, stare at the animals, then walk around the park some more.

Buildings are important, as they are in any real life zoo. Concession stands and employee offices are just a few of the buildings that can be built. Some help you maintain the park while some help you build revenue. With the money you make or loan out, you can buy animals and customize their habitats. Animal habitats can be customized to your liking by placing trees, rocks, water, and of course animals, to make your park come to life. Unfortunately that life is pretty depressing all around, as the user interface is a lot more ineffective than it really should be. The management bars themselves take up about half of the screen making it very hard to do anything at all.

As with all other tycoon games of the sort, you try to earn money, keep customers happy, tend to your park as it is needed, and try and complete goals that need to be completed in a particular scenario. There’s also the option to take pictures with a “camera” in-game, as well as take video– I’d say it would be a useful addition if the game was actually interesting to look at, like Roller Coaster Tycoon, but Marine Park Empire doesn’t evoke that feeling. The graphics have a cartoony feel which are moderate at best, and the sound is on the same level. You can run the game in both 800×600 and 1024×768 modes, so it can be tailored better to what resolution your computer can run at.

Marine Park Empire has a lot of playability problems, however. It takes a very long time to load a new scenario — you can be waiting around two or three minutes at times. Even when exiting a game it takes a long time to leave. The game, being in full 3D, has to make use of a full 3D camera, but unfortunately it’s clunky and even a mess at times. For some reason, the game feels like making the camera do exactly what it isn’t supposed to do, like when trying to tilt and pan ever so slightly, it’ll fly into a tornado resulting in an unintended angle. One thing that is kind of nice about the camera is that you can zoom all the way into the “action” that’s happening in your park. Even though this is a zoo game, I couldn’t cage the lag that runs rampant most of the time, even with all the visual settings turned down.

Basically, Marine Park Empire comes down to being a generic tycoon game with an overly complex management system. It isn’t that exciting to play because most of what you do is watch animals mate and pay back the huge loans that you get dumped with in the beginning of a scenario. Being a budget title, Marine Park Empire could be right up the alley of tycoon game enthusiasts or even for a young kid who hasn’t played any other tycoon game yet, however, if you stick with a Roller Coaster Tycoon game, you honestly won’t be missing out on much at the end of the day.

 

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 (PS2) Review

Developer/Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 8.9/10

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 is the direct sequel to Atlus’ Digital Devil Saga. DDS2 marks the first time I’ve experienced the series, so I didn’t know what to expect. Since I hadn’t played the game that had set down the original storyline and introduced the characters I actually play as, the beginning hours of the game left me completely clueless as to what was going on. There is absolutely no summary of the first game – DDS2 starts right after the original ends. DDS2 is an interesting RPG, nonetheless, and with a little research online you can catch up with at least some pieces of the story you’re already supposed to know before putting the game into your Playstation 2.

As mentioned before, to truly understand what is going on in DDS2, you’ll have to have played the first game. While the bigger picture might leave you in the dark if you start with the second game, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on to some degree. There are some seemingly random concepts thrown about, like “the Junkyard,” A.I. being implanted into soldiers, “The Karma Society,” cannibalism, “Nirvana,” a black sun that turns people into stone – the list goes on. Not much can really actually be said without spoiling both games. Non-battle gameplay consists of mazes and puzzles that you have to complete to get through levels.

DDS2 takes a few pages out of the classic turn-based RPG handbook. Random battles, magic, and experience points are just a few of the concepts in the game that aren’t new. What actually makes or breaks an RPG is how it’s implemented, and DDS2 does a great job at doing so, so much that it can actually be enjoyable to play through the tons of random battles you’ll encounter. The best thing about most of the random battles is that they go by very fast, especially when going against weaker enemies. An “Auto” function can really speed up the battles you enter when you just want to have your characters all use their regular physical attacks and beat the crap out of the enemies without having to press the X button repeatedly. You have five characters to fight with, and only three at a time can be active in battle. At any time (even when a character has fallen) you can switch out one character for another. The benefit of being able to get through battles faster means you can get more leveling up in less time, and in turn, getting on with the story at hand.

When it comes to regular battles, your characters assume the form of a demon called an Atma. Each character will have a unique demon to transform into, and can “revert” to his or her human form at any time. In their human forms, the characters will use guns as their weapons. Most of the time, you’ll enter the battle in your demon form, which allows you to use all your normal skills and magic. In the event you get ambushed, you won’t “have enough time” to transform, and be left to either fight in your human form or take a turn to transform into the Atma. On an even rarer occasion, you’ll enter battles in a “berserk” mode, in which your characters “can’t control their power” and are stuck in between transformations. Berserk mode boosts the attack of your characters immensely, but greatly lowers their defense. While in Berserk mode, a class of skills called “Hunt” will work the best. The Hunt skill class itself allows you to eat your enemies and gives you a large amount of ability points cleverly called Atma Points. AP is simply used to gain new abilities; to earn these new abilities, you have to buy a “Mantra” and download it. The different types of ways you can enter battle definitely makes the game more interesting when leveling up, because you won’t keep entering battles the same way hundreds of times and can take advantage of the different situations to give a feeling of more variety in the gameplay.

Most closely in relation to how the Sphere Grid worked in Final Fantasy X, a hexagonal grid called the Mantra Grid allows you to pick which Mantra (and in turn, abilities) that you want to buy. Once you master a Mantra, you download another one and the process repeats itself. Mantra can and will be very expensive down the line. Once a Mantra on the grid is mastered, the other hexagons around the newly mastered hexagon will “unlock” and allow you to buy and download them to gain their skills. The grid will expand as you move toward the outer edges, and unlock one layer at a time. There are also “locked” hexagons on the Mantra grid that must have all the Mantra around them mastered before they can be downloaded – as long as a character has mastered any of the hexagons around the locked hexagon, it’ll count towards unlocking it basically meaning all your characters can work together at unlocking a hexagon. Having the skills displayed on a grid makes ability earning a lot more interesting; there is a visual representation of what has been earned making randomly earning abilities seem more restrictive.

A ton of abilities are available to be earned, and with five characters there’ll be a lot of effort put into acquiring all of them for everyone. However, as time goes on, each character will inevitably end up diverging into different directions and have unique abilities. As if that weren’t enough to do with your characters, combos are thrown into the mix. If two or three characters have compatibly equipped abilities, they work together to make a more advanced skill to use together. The rest of the backend battle system doesn’t involve much more than ability management. The only thing you have to worry about equipping is ammo for guns that you use in your human form (which can actually be surprisingly expensive) and rings. Rings aren’t too complicated; they just enhance certain stats and if you combine jewels in the rings’ slots they’ll boost your stats even more. The extra layers of complexity are definitely aimed towards the hardcore RPG crowd, and it’s definitely nice to feel like you’re playing a game that actually takes some skill to play.

By far the most attractive aspect of the game will be in its general presentation and graphics. The game really looks like it’s an anime, though some parts might look a little stale or unnatural, it’s really amazing how it looks for the Playstation 2. The world they create is obviously science fiction, and there are some interesting concepts shown, as per its setting. The game is very pleasing to experience from a visual standpoint. The sound effects and soundtrack are also another strong part to the game. The music is very good, and sound effects aren’t annoying. Sometimes the characters will talk when you’re entering a battle, but their voices are so low you can’t really even hear what they’re saying. What drags the overall sound’s experience down is the curious lack of actual voice acting in anywhere except for CG cutscenes. During story scenes where it seems like there should have been talking, there just aren’t any, which is unfortunate and definitely takes away from the overall experience. As for the actual voice actors, none of them are annoying, and that’s really all you can ask for in an RPG. The main character doesn’t talk, so there’s no voice actor for him; it just gets kind of annoying during cutscenes when he looks at a character with a blank expression and seems to transfer all his thoughts on the issue at hand to the other person with no sound.

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 is definitely an RPG aimed at the niche hardcore that enjoy Japanese RPGs and have played through the first game. In effect, DDS2 really is the second half of one game, and to really get the full experience this “side story” of the Shin Megami Tensei series has to offer, both must be played in succession. Otherwise, DDS2 is a solid RPG that is fun to play regardless of whether or not you understand the story.

 

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (PSP) Review

Developer: Rockstar Leeds / Publisher: Rockstar Games || Overall: 9.5/10

Grand Theft Auto has finally made its way to a portable system in pure 3D. Only possible by taking advantage of the Playstation Portable’s technology, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is an amazing transition of this generation’s Grand Theft Auto games from console to handheld. Regarded as the first major release on the PSP, Liberty City Stories is a major reason for owning the pricey handheld.

Taking place in Liberty City, the same city as in Grand Theft Auto III, you take the role of Toni Cipriani. For Grand Theft Auto III patrons, you’ll remember Toni Cipriani from nearer to the beginning of the game that had the mom who’d yell through the window during the cutscenes where you would take missions from Toni. Being part of Salvatore Leone’s gang, Toni will visit many familiar places and will see familiar faces that you will instantly recognize from GTA III. But, since Liberty City Stories is a prequel to Grand Theft Auto III, all the events that had actually taken place in Liberty City during GTA III haven’t actually happened yet. As such, certain buildings will be under construction to reflect that Liberty City Stories is a prequel. Not to mention certain people still being alive. However, Liberty City is still intact just as it was played on the Playstation 2, but there are enough changes and shake-ups to the city that will make Liberty City Stories unique.

The most important thing to mention about the game is the controls. Unfortunately for the PSP, it just doesn’t have as many buttons or analog sticks as the Dual Shock controllers do. But the hardware limitations don’t stop the game from having good enough controls to make those limitations almost not be a factor. Almost. There are two pre-set configurations in the Controls menu which will change the functions of the shoulder buttons for car use. SETUP1 will make L the “Look” button, that when pressed you move the analog stick the direction you want to look at while driving, and the R button the hand brake. SETUP2 will give a closer feel to the controls of the console games, making the shoulder buttons look left, right, or behind when both are pressed. There are no differences between the setups for when you’re on foot. There is also the option to change how you control the character – either with the analog stick or the directional buttons. Whatever movement selection is not used for primary movement, it will become less important, yet necessary, controls such as honking the horn, starting a special mission, radio station cycle, weapon cycle, and target cycle. Since the analog stick on the PSP is just about at a perfect sensitivity for moving and driving around, it’s more beneficial to use the directional pad as the other functions. But any way you slice it, the only real problem you might have is when it comes to shooting and targeting with weapons. When you get into instances where there is a requirement for high-speed shooting and targeting action, the PSP’s controls are not as responsive as a Dual Shock controller’s and you may get frustrated having to try something over and over again.

Plenty of the aspects of the Grand Theft Auto games actually work well for the handheld arena. Mostly the Taxi, Ambulance, and Vigilante missions, as well as a few other special non-story missions can easily be initiated and completed within a very short amount of time. Even story missions are finer tuned and shorter to complete. Another big point to the formula is the loading times. The only time you’ll see noticeable loading times are when you first start up the game, move around to other parts of Liberty City (which are the same as Grand Theft Auto III), and right before missions. While it could get annoying when you constantly retry the same mission, the loading times are very acceptable in the end and typically don’t take out a chunk of your playing time. There is also a slight lag between switching radio stations as the audio loads, but nothing too out of the ordinary. As a consequence the UMD will be spinning most of the time, since the data will stream off, resulting in less actual playtime unless you’ve got an outlet nearby.

As for graphics and sound, they’re exactly what is to be expected from the series. Not only that, it is truly amazing how they could pack it all in into such a small package. Compared to GTA III, the game looks to be on the same level, if not better. The cars look realistic, as well as the damage to the cars. Buildings themselves also look exactly how they should be remembered. The most impressive thing about it all is that the actual distance that you can see is a whole lot better than what had been done in almost any other GTA game. You might also notice a little bit of ghosting and frame rate, which is very solid, can drop at points. Radio stations are just as diverse as they were in GTA III, not to mention a couple more were added, along with the ability to play custom tracks off your memory stick. To utilize the custom tracks, however, you have to download a free program to your computer that will convert CDs into a format that the game can read – MP3s can’t be directly used. Voice work is also nothing short of what is to be expected. All the voice actors that played reoccurring characters from the series have reprised their roles, and while it may sound a little tinny at times, there really isn’t anything to complain about in that regard.

Besides a little bit of a shake-up in the control scheme, everything about the game gives the same experience of its console brethren. There’s a great story in a huge city filled with tons of things to do for everyone, even veterans of the series that will spark enjoyment on some level, and you can take it anywhere you want. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is by far the best game you can spend your money on at this point in the PSP’s life.

 

True Crime: New York City (PS2) Review

Developer: Luxoflux / Publisher: Activision || Overall: 8.3/10

In my experience, it has been hard to appreciate any free-roaming style game as much as the Grand Theft Auto series. Since the inception of the formula into many recent games, in practice, games including free-roaming never really compared to Grand Theft Auto’s execution. It’s even more apparent when a game is in an urban setting, such as the True Crime series or other “GTA clones.” True Crime: New York City, the sequel to True Crime: Streets of LA, from Activision and developer Luxoflux, obviously are out to tap into the large fan-base GTA has acquired over the years.

True Crime: New York City has a few things going for it, the most important being the story. Just like what you’d expect from a movie or an episode of a popular crime-drama, you’ve got the set-up: the main character, Marcus, once a gangster, becomes a cop. A detective named Terry, who was a father figure to Marcus, is killed in a mysterious explosion on Terry’s first day of becoming a detective. Not knowing why Terry died, Marcus is motivated to find out why when he is confronted by the FBI asking him to bring in some people and solve some cases to figure out why it happened (and if there is a mole in the police department) on his own with basically no support. The story is delivered very well with a cast of voice actors including Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, and Traci Lords. Being a Christopher Walken fan myself, it makes me happy to have his voice accompanying the story.

True Crime: New York City, quite obviously, takes the approach of you being a cop. As such, when you break the law it goes against you, rather than “for” you, like in a Grand Theft Auto game. Aside from the story, TC: NYC can basically be summed up as a fleshed out Vigilante mode to GTA fans. There is a satisfying aspect of being able to arrest or stop “perps” (as the game calls it) committing crimes. While you could question what good will come out of smacking two people in a domestic dispute (who are beating each other up) with a sledgehammer repeatedly and then arresting them both, the general idea is to beat up whoever is breaking the law. There are lots of different crimes to stop, from hostage situations, drug raids, investigating food poisoning — you get the picture. Most will just end up with you beating the crap out of people though. You can also frisk any person walking around and if you get lucky you’ll find something on them and put them away for whatever illegal item they had on them.

While you’re not cleaning up Manhattan of its lesser-important crimes, you’ll be taking on major cases. Other than finding out why Terry was blown up, there’s an illegal street racing circuit to take down, an illegal fighting syndicate, and several “informants” that will give you particular jobs to do. As a total, there are basically five things to do during the whole game, since exploring the city isn’t exactly as fun as you might think it should be. One thing True Crime: New York City has over the Grand Theft Auto games is in its combat system. TC: NYC’s combat is quite fun – more like beat-em-up-oriented with more than just one button to hit. The only unfortunate part about the combat is that it isn’t as responsive as it should have been; there’s a feeling of being “held back” as it were. Because the controls aren’t as fluid as they feel like they should be, the more and more you play the combat becomes dull.

There are many different types of guns and melee weapons to buy. When you buy a weapon, you basically have can use the gun forever, but can only carry a certain amount of ammunition for the gun. You reload by opening the trunk of one of your personal cars. Unfortunately, you can’t collect weapons you find – you have to buy anything before being able to freely use them, though you can use them until they’re out of ammo. There are also some skills to buy that will enhance your current skills. When it comes to cars, you have to buy the ones you’re able to use from the Police Station as well as at car dealers. Cars in True Crime: New York City hold more value as the police cars you buy will retain the damage that was dealt to them the last time you used the particular car, meaning you’ll have to repair them when they gets shot up or you crash too often into oncoming cars. There are also a number of car skills that you acquire as you progress.

An ethics scale in the game describes your behavior as you play the game. You can either be a bad or good cop. If you take bribes, extort money, or kill people you shouldn’t, you’ll earn Bad Cop Points. If you arrest perps or solve crimes, you’ll earn Good Cop Points. As you collect evidence from different crimes and from searching people, you’ll be able to either turn in your evidence for legitimate pay or sell it at a pawn shop for illicit cash. When you turn in your evidence and gain more career points, you’re paid through a salary that you collect while at the police station.

The graphics in TC: NYC are quite impressive. The game exhibits very nice lighting effects and damage shown on cars is always accurate-looking. Character models are nice; they’re generally what are expected. The graphics are easily the second most important aspect. Sound is quite exceptional as well. Other than the great cast of voice actors, the gun sounds, car sounds, and general atmosphere all comes off well. The things civilians say become redundant after a while, unfortunately. There are also a lot of cuss words tossed around during the whole game, as its M rating surely implies. The police siren (which you use quite a bit) is not nearly as annoying as the one used in a GTA, though, and I prefer it immensely because it doesn’t pierce your eardrums every time it squeals. The soundtrack has a nice selection of songs, and music can be bought at actual music stores through the city. The soundtrack is basically divided into about 60% rap and 40% other styles, the category of “metal/punk” taking the biggest chunk of it. There aren’t any radio stations, but there is a “music player,” which can allow you to listen to all the songs without just hanging onto one radio station playing one style of music.

What racks up against the game is the general interactivity of the city of Manhattan. While you’re able to go into practically any door in the game, most places look exactly the same as another depending on the type of store or establishment it is, meaning a hotel will look exactly like another hotel with barely any changes in what is in the interior. But it’s not like you can really do much when you go inside; it’s only important when you go to solve crimes. Many items in the game are breakable, and can be made into makeshift weapons if you just so happen to be able to break something.

Do I like True Crime: New York City? The answer would be an emphatic yes – but I would take any GTA over it. I truly didn’t expect it to be that great originally, but the game is a nice diversion in between releases of Rockstar’s flagship franchise, providing for a nice bit of fun to free-roaming game enthusiasts. While it may not be perfect right now, the True Crime series holds potential to become an absolute must-buy in a future incarnation. Its second outing, however, falls a bit short of that status.

 

The Controversy of Video Games in Modern America

In recent years, controversy in video games has heightened to unprecedented levels. Every once in a while, a gigantic outburst is made in regards to controversial content matter in a video game. With increasing realism being worked into video games, they have matured into a viable mainstream media comparable to movies and television. However, just like its longer-existing counterparts, video games have hit their proverbial puberty – major scrutiny and an attempt to squelch its expression of speech. Certain groups aim to control the industry through laws and sales restrictions, citing that children could get their hands on mature-rated games.

One of the first truly controversial games came in 1983 in the form of Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600, a home gaming console. Custer’s Revenge depicted General George Armstrong Custer raping a Native American woman tied to a fence post. The amazing irony of the controversy was that the graphics for the game were so bad that it was barely distinguishable what was going on. However, activist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Indian Community House still made an outcry against the game. Not knowing who to point the blame on, the activist groups blamed Atari, the maker of the console, instead of the developer named Mystique. After the controversy had blown over, Mystique went on to develop other “X-rated” games that didn’t garner the same amount of attention as Custer’s Revenge had.

Criticism against video games declined when more sophisticated video game consoles came to market. Nintendo, a very and still popular video game console maker, brought about a licensing system that required games to pass their various tests of blood, nudity, and other such themes to ensure the moral quality of the games released under their license. The Nintendo “Seal of Quality” was featured on games approved and released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The licensing system did its part to establish some sort of barrier against any bad publicity for a game with controversial content matter.

In 1992, a game called Mortal Kombat attracted activist groups for its simulated violence and exaggerated amounts of blood. Though fighting games were not uncommon during the time, it was the first to use animated pictures of real people, making it more realistic than others during the time. Senator Joe Lieberman had even spoken out against the game during a Senate investigation into video game violence. Mortal Kombat is usually credited with being the vehicle for the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which is now the governing rating body of the video game industry. The ESRB uses an age-based system, similar to the MPAA’s certification for movies.

The ESRB has become the video game industry’s self-governing body that approves games and slaps certain ratings on a game to show its appropriateness. By use of five different ratings and 32 descriptors, the ESRB aims at giving the buyer a good idea of what to expect in the title. Titles rated eC for Early Childhood have content for children ages three and older. A rating of “E” for “Everyone” has content that is suitable for people six and older; the equivalent of a rated “G” movie. A rating of “T” for “Teen” has content that is suitable for people ages thirteen and older; the equivalent of a rated “PG-13” movie. A rating of M for “Mature” has content suitable for people aged seventeen and older usually containing intense violence or sexual content; the equivalent of a rated “R” movie. For titles that are basically on the level of pornography, a rating of “AO” for “Adults Only” is given. The AO rating is the highest rating to be given, and a very limited amount of games have ever actually been given the damnable rating. AO games are not carried at major retailers and you would be hard pressed to even find an AO game other than ordering it online. The reason behind this is because the major retailers agreed together through an organization called the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) that they would not sell games that were rated AO as to avoid the game from falling into the hands of children, similar to how porn is not usually sold at major retailers. The ESRB’s rating system has become the prevalent and only rating system widely accepted for video games in America. Other countries deal with their rating in different ways, some just having the same rating body as movies and music rate video games as well.

Ratings can themselves be seen as a way to advertise a certain product. A game aimed at children will want to have the E rating, being apparent that it is more family-friendly. A game that is rated M is advertised as a game that for older people, and has suggestive themes not found in a lesser rated game – it appeals to people because mature themes like violence and sex make people interested. Many of the wildly popular games to have been released recently have had an M rating and are perceived as ultra-violent. One of the most popular M-rated game series is a series named Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Starting life as a two-dimensional top-down game on the Sony PlayStation with GTA and GTA 2, it wouldn’t be until Grand Theft Auto III that the series really made an impact on the way video games were perceived.

Grand Theft Auto III was the first game to show the world that video games weren’t for kids anymore. While there had been other Mature rated games in the past, they generally flew under the radar because they just didn’t sell an amazing amount of copies to warrant the attention. To date, the Grand Theft Auto series has sold around fifteen million copies. Grand Theft Auto III was the first game of the series to be in full 3D, being a nearly realistic rendition of a boundless world where you could do as you please. The most common stereotypical summary of what is said to be done in a Grand Theft Auto game is that you murder, steal, and destroy anything you want to, healing by having sex with prostitutes which afterward you can beat them to death and take their money to recover the funds spent on them. And if it were any more of a consolation, it is also described in a way that players are allowed to wreak as much havoc as they like without progressing through the game’s storyline, as if it would be more acceptable to those stereotyping it if you progressed through the story while wreaking havoc. However, the description of the game picks at parts of the game that are the most miniscule of the game’s features, such as sleeping with a prostitute to heal (which should really be taken as more of a joke than anything). A player could go through a whole game without ever picking up a prostitute to heal, and the description avoids the aspect of the game in which you choose to actually do things in the game, or even play the game to begin with. At the end of the day, nothing included in Grand Theft Auto III was any worse than a rated R movie.

The newly found controversy that came with the Grand Theft Auto III subsided, as its sequel Grand Theft Auto: Vice City flew relatively low under the radar. The megaton bomb that would set in motion legislative action against the industry would come in the “Hot Coffee” scandal of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Hidden on the disc packaged with the full version of the game, a mini-game in which you could have sex with your in-game girlfriend interactively was discovered. Not intended to be a part of the final game, the only way to actually access the mini-game is through the long, arduous process of wooing your girlfriend into liking you enough to invite you in for some hot coffee. In the normal version of the game, all that would be shown is a wide shot of the house and some moaning, but if a hack was employed (which had to be intentionally found, downloaded, and applied), the scene would be replaced by the sex mini-game. Since the mini-game was actually on the disc and the game was rated M as by the ESRB, the ESRB’s own credibility came into question — especially about their rating procedures. The ESRB, under political pressure no doubt, re-rated the game as AO, effectively banning it from major retailers. Whether or not the ESRB was right in overruling their own rating and not standing by their ratings, they showed that as long as there was enough controversy about certain aspects of a game they could possibly force the ESRB to re-rate other games. Had the “Hot Coffee” mini-game actually been included in the main game itself, instead of being hidden, there would have not been as huge of a controversy. Whether or not the whole thing was a publicity stunt, awareness of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas very much hit the mainstream and sent the message that games aren’t for kids anymore.

Proponents of legislation restricting the sale of games with controversial matter cite that they want to protect the children from getting their hands on particular games, and make it the retailer’s responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen. Legislation has been passed in many states already, but is being challenged by the video game industry on the basis of the laws restricting First Amendment rights. Lawmakers who vote for these types of sales-restriction laws want parents to be involved in the purchase of the games, by saying what games kids can or cannot buy. The lawmakers want to protect children because they feel that it propagates violence in young children, such as school-shootings and murders.

Opponents of legislation, such as most of the video game industry, view any sort of sales-restricting laws as going against their First Amendment rights of free speech. They view it as unfair, as well, since the music and movie industries (pornography aside) do not have any laws in place to sanction sales of product. If sales-restricting laws become more common, video game publishers will be forced to self-censor themselves to sell their games to the largest audience possible, similar to how the movie industry will commonly release a seemingly should-be-rated-R movie as PG-13 to get the largest audience possible.

It isn’t surprising that there is controversy over video games. Video games are not accepted in the mainstream as a serious form of media, and are often seen as a toy rather than a viable form of entertainment. Video games have hit its boom, with sales being higher and higher every year. Analysts predict that the video game industry will eventually make as much as the movie industry and political figures aim to get easy brownie points with their constituents while video game companies continually push the envelope on their end. Whether or not the legislative actions being taken during video games’ early days affect the full maturity of the media remains to be seen.

References

Anderson, Craig A. April 2000. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 78(4), pp. 772-790.

Gonzalez, Lauren. Gamespot.com. 2005 November 13. “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy.”

http://www.gamespot.com/articles/when-two-tribes-go-to-war-a-history-of-video-game-controversy/1100-6090892/

Wikipedia. 2005 November 13. “Video Game Controversy”

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Video_game_controversy&oldid=27936616

 

Infected (PSP) Review

Developer: Project Moon Studios / Publisher: Majesco || Overall: 8.5/10

Just in time for the holidays, Infected is the right game to spend your free time with. Instead of killing your zombie-like family members, you can kill computerized zombies on your PSP in the corner of Aunt Suzy’s house with no one ever being the wiser. If your Aunt Suzy happens to be tech savvy, you can take your zombie shooting obsession online with the PSP’s wi-fi capabilities. Just be careful, because the PSP screen is so big it might attract the zombies of your real life — your family members.

The story of the single-player mode in Infected is very simple. A disease breaks out that turns people into mindless zombies, and they start causing lots and lots of problems. Like eating and infecting people. It’s basically run-of-the-mill when it comes to that much. Before each new mission, you’ll get a dose of humor in one way or another – either through voice-only briefing or an actual cutscene. After the preliminary story material, you proceed to select and finish the next mission.

In Infected, you shoot zombies, and as if that isn’t obvious enough, with weapons. As you upgrade your weaponry through the Upgrades screen, you’re able to use more powerful weapons and power-ups. Every time you start you’ll begin with the least powerful weapon, the Pistol. As you kill more and more zombies, you’ll build up your Ballistic weapon gauge, and as it fills up more and more you’ll work your way up to a shotgun, machine gun, and two types of rocket launchers.

In the single-player mode, there are different kinds of objectified missions. They range from evacuation of citizens, defending a certain target, simply eradicating all of the zombies in sight, or a combination of types of objectives to make a mission harder and more complex. The concepts of the objectives are very easy to learn and understand through straightforward tips given. Because the single player mode is not story driven, the motivation to play the game comes from the gameplay itself. The game is easy to learn, but to master it you’ll need to learn how to use the controls almost by reflex to get further in the game. Luckily for those who require a little more or little less challenge, you can change the difficulty between missions with no penalty. Infected is a fun game, and when it starts getting less than that, you can fix it. There are quite a few single-player missions to go through, but they won’t take too much time to complete. There is also a ranking of how well you do a particular mission, so you can go back and get that gold medal in the mission you originally got a silver or bronze on.

Multiplayer is a fairly important aspect of the game. While it isn’t as technically immersive as the single-player mode, multiplayer does arise some interesting concepts. Other than just combating against other enemies in deathmatches, when you beat an opponent, you will infect them with a “virus” named after you. By infecting your opponent with your virus, you can spread it around farther and around the world; when a player gets infected by a virus, to clear that virus they must either defeat three other people in multiplayer or three tagged single-player missions. By defeating other opponents in multiplayer, they spread your virus to the other players, and the process repeats. But if you play the tagged (called “infected”) levels in single-player mode to replay, you can stop another person’s virus from getting spread farther. It brings up a new kind of massive competition, and if you really got into it, you could work up to the point of having your virus the most infected. To keep track of these stats, Infected uses the PSP’s web browser to check all the stats corresponding with your stats and also the overall trends through all the copies of Infected spread through the world. It’s definitely a cool thing to see a game use the PSP’s web browser and have this kind of interactivity level for a game. Not to mention it doesn’t cost anything extra for it.

As for graphics and sound, the graphics are pretty cool. The textures shown in the game could have been a little less bland, but they’re tolerable. Between shooting zombie mall Santas and the like, it’s not going to matter as much. Cutscenes are nicely animated and generally well-made. As for sound, the voice acting included in the game isn’t bad at all. Sound effects are awesome since there’s lot of explosions and guns shooting. The best part hands down is the soundtrack. Full of hard rock and death metal (if that’s what they can be called) songs, a large selection of which are composed by Slipknot, it genuinely creates an overall feeling that is needed in an M-rated zombie-shooting game. It might not float many people’s boats, but if you’re like the music that is on Slipknots latest album, Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, you’ll dig the other few songs by other groups in the game as well. In total, there are 22 songs and all can be turned on or off in the options screen.

Your character’s appearance is a fun aspect of the game. You can basically create your own character or unlock different “avatars” by buying them or finding them through the game. Other than being able to make anyone from a goofy lookin’ nerd to a person who looks like he could be in a Good Charlotte-Green Day band, you can play as all the members of Slipknot! What fan would pass up the opportunity to go around shooting a bazooka with Corey Taylor?

Where Infected really does suffer is in its controls. While it can be considered part of the challenge of the game to get used to the controls, the game really would have benefited from a second analog stick. It’s just an unfortunate fact that camera angles and control hold the title back from being better. As a consequence, the controls in general aren’t very sympathetic to your inability to adjust the camera, especially since the view is locked to being right behind your character showing the waist up.

If there’s one thing to say about Infected, it’s that there’s definitely fun to be had with it. While on its own, it isn’t a console-selling “killer-app,” Infected does bring out a concept or two to show what is possible with the PSP. Infected shouldn’t be overlooked — it’s a fresh experience, filled with humor that will make you either burst out laughing or cringe in embarrassment.

 

Suikoden Tactics (PS2) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 8.9/10

Konami’s Suikoden RPG series has finally gotten its own strategy RPG offshoot, in the form of Suikoden Tactics for the Playstation 2. Rather than comparing Suikoden Tactics to widely known staples of the genre, it would be more appropriate to compare it to another recently released strategy RPG — Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, from Atlus. If you’re in the market for a new strategy RPG, Suikoden Tactics would be an excellent choice, even on its own merits.

Suikoden Tactics takes a while to set up the story; it takes nearly two hours before you can really start to catch on to what might (or might not) be happening. From what you might be able to gather from the first couple hours (as to not spoil anything later on) is that the story has something to do with a band of travelers trying to find information about Rune Cannons, the main character being named Kyril. The traveler’s interests in Rune Cannons are not explained, but during their search they stumble upon, presumably, a Rune Cannon that changes people into fish-human hybrids. However, the origins of the protagonists and their interests in Rune Cannons becomes a subplot (or takes a backseat, rather) to events and conspiracies revolving around Rune Cannons in general. Even more puzzling is the weird goat girl that never says anything and doesn’t partake in battles, but follows the main character wherever he goes. The beginning stages of the story are fragmented, and take place over a number of in-game years, however, its not all that complicated. The most important point about the story is its ability to keep the interest in playing the game.

Suikoden Tactics takes all that has made strategy RPGs great in the past, and rolled it up into a neat, polished package. Not only that, but it adds on a level of complexity (in the form of elements), forcing you to be more tactical in your approach to each battle. In regards to controls, Suikoden Tactics uses the tried and true command-menu. Unfortunately, after experiencing the “Direct” control scheme implemented in Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, which sped up battles considerably by making buttons shortcuts to individual commands that would normally be on the command-menu, it makes it seem like Suikoden Tactics is lacking in that department. However, Suikoden Tactics is considerably more complex, and there are aspects of the game that make battles go faster, so it evens out the playing feel in that regard.

As said before, the usual features in a strategy RPG are present. There are the side quests in which you can send a party member to accomplish, side quests that you can actually participate in, the building and maintaining of an army of personality-less allies, and other bits and pieces. But it is the unique aspects of Suikoden Tactics that make the game shine, namely the elements. Elements are your usual magical properties in any RPG like Fire, Earth, Lightning, Water, etc. Each element has its own opposite, no surprises here. Where it gets more complex is that each character has an “affinity” to a certain element. So if a character had a Fire affinity, and they were standing in a square that had the elemental property of Fire, they would get “powered-up” – attack and defense are noticeably higher as well as the prospect of healing after every turn while in the friendly elemental field. Keeping that in mind, it becomes wise to try standing in friendly elemental areas, avoid opposites to your affinity, and manipulate the battlefield to your advantage. Enemies are also able to use elementals in the same way. Besides the elementals, there are other nifty aspects such as switching out party members for fresh troops (allowing you to exploit your whole army in a battle if need be), and mounting party members on animals you find along the way. There are also a number of battle skills that characters can learn that allow you to customize each of them in a way that will be optimal.

There are parts of the battle system that give leeway to speeding up each battle, as well as stepping out of the norm of regular strategy RPGs. There is no use of Action Points, normally seen in strategy RPGs, to dictate each character’s turn. They basically get to move and then act, but if they act before they move, they aren’t allowed to move again (unless they have the specific battle skill to do so). There are also no Magic Points, as the special skills and magic are lumped into a category called Runes; you can use a specific Rune skill a limited amount of times in each battle and the number you’re allowed to use them increases as you level up. If you equip the battle skill on a character to do so, a character can attack more than once during his or her action, speeding up the battle quite a bit compared to what it could be if the battle skill weren’t equipped.

The town and back-end systems aren’t too out of the ordinary. There are five different places in a town that are of interest: the Outfitter, the Blacksmith, the Quest Guild, the Rune Master, and in certain areas a training ground. The Outfitter is the place to buy your equipment and items; armor and hand gear being the most important, they can affect the status of a character. There are also about ten extra slots for each character to hold items or extra equipment as you so desire. At the Blacksmith, you simply upgrade the weapon each character has (there’s no weapon-choosing here, it’s just straightforward upgrading). The Rune Master is the place to go for your special skill and magic needs. When you acquire an orb you have to pay a Rune Master to equip or unequip the Rune Orb. There is also a training ground of sorts every so often where you are able to level up and find treasure. Oddly enough, a permanent death situation is presented in the training levels of the game, while not integrated into the story battles. So, what it basically means is you shouldn’t push the capabilities of your group so far as to have someone in your party die, making them not playable anymore.

Sound and graphics do take a place in the fold as well. Most notable for the sound portion of the game, the voice acting is either a hit or a miss. Many might not like the choice of voice work for the main character, because he comes off as a young adult with the voice of a ten year old, but any fan of the .hack series will recognize Kyril’s voice as Kite’s. You’ll probably be more able to accept the voice of Kyril if you played through the .hack games, like I have. Other voice work is moderate at best, sometimes falling lower than that. Graphics-wise, the game is modest at best. The characters are cel-shaded, and scenery isn’t that striking either. The entire story takes place with in-game animation; CG movies will be admittedly hard to come by, if there are any to speak of. However, we should probably be grateful they took the time to have in-game animations rather than still pictures talking back and forth a la Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity.

As for what is disappointing about the game, it mostly comes in its overall package. While yes, Suikoden Tactics is very recommendable for a strategy RPG, it doesn’t have that extra “oomph” to push it over the edge and make it one of those games you’ll cherish forever. If there were a better story (and to a lesser extent a stronger overall voice cast), the end product would have been better balanced between it and gameplay. Nevertheless, Suikoden Tactics is a refreshing experience for the strategy RPG fan.

 

Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2) Review

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment || Overall: 9.2/10

Sly 2: Band of Thieves is the follow-up to Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus. A major overhaul was made between the two games, and while the basic gameplay has transitioned over from the first game, Sly 2: Band of Thieves is an improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way. What had also made the first so great in terms of atmosphere and overall feel was carried over in almost every way, capturing the unique feeling that is to be expected for a sequel.

The story in Sly 2 follows up two years after Sly had defeated Clockwerk the Owl. After Sly Cooper was able to defeat Clockwerk (he was made of metal parts), his mechanical pieces were stored in a warehouse. That is until the Klaww Gang stole the Clockwerk parts to use for their criminal plans. Because Clockwerk was a super-evil owl that was bent on destroying the Cooper clan, Sly Cooper made it his mission to steal back all the Clockwerk parts as to avoid any kind of reincarnation of his nemesis.

The major gameplay change in transition to Sly 2: Band of Thieves comes in the basic level design; it is all free-roaming and mission-based. The sectioned-off areas from the first game are gone, as all the missions you’ll play are in a large “city” that is unique to the episode you play in. The game itself is segmented into episodes, like the first, and the overall story is presented in a way as if it were a cartoon. Another important change comes in the perfection of the controls — the ailments of gameplay that were present in the first (mostly in association with the special moves) have basically disappeared. Instead of cycling through special abilities to use by pressing the triangle button, you assign the moves to the shoulder and trigger buttons, allowing for better control. Not only that, the L3 and R3 are also utilized – it immensely streamlines the control interface by putting functions you don’t use often to less accessible buttons. The refinement of the control scheme from the original to the sequel is definitely a welcomed change. A new default ability added to the game is crawling under items (like tables and cars), which aids in your sneaking around.

Health is also a major change to the game. As opposed to the one-hit defeat that was prevalent in the first Sly game, you’ll be able to take as many hits as it takes for your health to fully deplete. What this also means is that your enemies will also take more than one hit to be defeated. There is also the complete eradication of any sort of life-gaining system, since there is no concept of “lives.” You’ll just be able to retry over and over again, which definitely does decrease the difficulty of the game. Since coins used to be only used to gain lives, they have taken on an actual purpose for being money in the first place – being able to buy things with them. What you can buy, exactly, are more moves (known as gadgets) to use during the game. Making money becomes an important factor as you’re able to loot guards and actually have an incentive to collect more money.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves doesn’t stop there in its gameplay changes, however. Though the game is named after the main character Sly Cooper, you’re able to take control of Sly’s friends, Bentley and Murray. While most of the game you’ll play with Sly Cooper, Bentley and Murray take active roles in missions made specifically for them. They’re not as “useful” per se as Sly is, but Bentley and Murray have their own fleshed-out set of moves that really signifies them from each other. There are also some missions where all three characters will be out to complete the objective (such as two defending the other while he does something), and it mixes up the variety of missions and how they’re completed. Other pieces of variety added into the game include mini-games which are very similar to retro genres (such as the shooter) and are worked into the game.

While the free-roaming level designs in Sly 2 are very intuitive, some of the advantages to having linear levels are lost. In the first Sly game, the levels were full of action, forcing you to think fast and use timing to get through the levels, but while these elements are still present in Sly 2, they just don’t seem as diverse. But saying that there are absolutely no linear-style stages in Sly 2 would be a farce; there are some worked in to diversify the gameplay. The way the missions are laid out in the game is in a nice format. Typically, you’ll be completing a bunch of missions as you set up the “big heist” that is at the end of the episode you are on. It actually makes you feel like you’re part of the planning process and by completing the big heist at the end of each episode you see what all your previous work came down to, giving a great sense of accomplishment.

Sly 2 also improves in the amount of things to collect. If you remember from the first one, you had to collect 30 bottles for almost every stage – that made about 120+ bottles to collect, in effect making the game a collectathon — but no more! You only have to collect thirty per stage, and it’s completely optional to do, as the clue bottles will help you open safes for special moves you can get through the game fine without. Only if you wanted to complete 100% of the game is it really necessary to collect the bottles.

The graphics are pretty much the same as were used in the first except with a definite polish. Since the whole game is cel-shaded, it really makes everything look good, especially if you like cel-shading. The cel-shading accompanies the animation scenes to create the feeling that you’re playing a cartoon. Most of the sound was also carried over from the first game, except of course the voice acting. Voice acting also received a definite sort of “polish” from the first as well in terms of audio quality, and the actual actors’ acting abilities. The biggest changes that were noticeable to me were Carmelita Fox’s voice and Sly Cooper’s voice. Carmelita Fox’s voice was a big change because, well, she lost her almost stereotypical Latina accent that was used in the first game. Sly Cooper’s voice actor must have had voice acting lessons during the development of the second game because his voice is definitely a lot better than what had been presented in the first.

There really isn’t anything bad about Sly 2: Band of Thieves. It’s a game that you can definitely get your money’s worth out of, especially because you can find it at a budget price now. And while the story isn’t exactly a masterpiece, it definitely keeps you going. Sly 2: Band of Thieves is one of the greatest platforming games to be released, and it really encompasses the evolution of the genre itself.

 

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (PSP) Review

Developer: Raven Studios / Publisher: Activision || Overall: 8.5/10

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse for the PSP has made the transition from console to portable almost flawlessly. Though it is a port, it’s by far the best kind of port as it preserves the game’s original build in practically every way. Aside from a few annoyances, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is a great action RPG; one you can really get a lot of play-time out of.

The story of X-Men Legends II starts up in the middle of a mission where the X-Men and the Brotherhood have seemingly joined forces to rescue Professor Xavier, who is being held hostage. It isn’t until later do we learn the reason why – a mutant known as Apocalypse has arisen and plans to do things that aren’t exactly approved by the X-Men or the Brotherhood. Xavier and Magneto realized the only chance they had to defeat Apocalypse and his minions would be to join forces and set aside their differences, for the time being, to do so. Story progression is a strongpoint in the game, and really drives the motivation to play.

X-Men Legends is your more or less simple action RPG dungeon crawler. For those who have played Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade, there will be recognizable similarities between the two. X-Men Legends II can be viewed as a superior version of Untold Legends, with almost all the aspects of gameplay executed in a better way. Just like in Untold Legends, you’ll be beating on a bunch of enemies, collecting equipment, and getting new quests to go on constantly. Unfortunately, they both share some similar problems, first of which would be the loading times. There’s quite a bit of loading involved in the game, and can last up to about fifteen to twenty seconds depending on what level is loading. The load times alone make the game unable to be played in short bursts; you’ll have to have a bit of free time to make any significant progress. Another similarity between the two games that is striking the large spiders you fight in the first part of the game. They look exactly like the spiders in Untold Legends, and it’ll almost feel like you’re playing Untold Legends with the X-Men.

The control scheme is fairly simple. You have two buttons that are your regular melee attacks, one button to pick stuff up, and one to jump. And just like in the console version, you hold down the R shoulder button and select one of four assigned special skills to use. Special skills are attained just by simply adding on levels to your characters, and if you let the game control what skills are assigned and what stats are upgraded after each level, it’s very easy. You can take things into your own hands, but it might be more trouble than it is really worth. There are practically no real camera issues, as the camera is automatic and will always be positioned in such a way that it will show you most of what you need to see at all times.

The graphics and sound in Legends II are very impressive. In general, the game is very comparable to the Playstation 2 version graphically. The CG cutscenes are also in widescreen to compliment the PSP’s screen, not to mention they’re at a very high quality; you won’t see any pixilation in the CG cutscenes. It isn’t cel-shaded like its console counterparts, but this stylistic change really doesn’t affect the look — you can’t really notice the difference. The soundtrack and sound effects are great, but where the sound falls is in the voice acting. There is a great cast of voice actors, and even Patrick Stewart lends his voice talent as Professor X. However, the fault isn’t exactly in the voices (though some voices could have been better), but the actual things they say. When you’re watching a mission briefing, you’ll often sit through at least a stupid exchange of witty quips by members of the X-Men and the Brotherhood. Sure, it gives more character to the overall game in some way, but the mission briefings end up being more corny than useful.

X-Men fans will definitely enjoy X-Men Legends II. If it comes down to the question of which version of the game (console or PSP) to get, something to take into consideration are the extras tossed into the PSP version — nine exclusive missions and four new playable heroes. Also, the inclusion of local (Ad-Hoc) and online (Infrastructure) WiFi multiplayer modes is nothing to look over either.

X-Men enthusiasts and action RPG fans will definitely find a game worth their time in X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. Just for the sheer amount of time you could spend on playing the game, it is definitely worth a purchase. The portable version of the game allows you to take the game anywhere, which might compliment your needs more than a console version, with no loss in the integrity of the game. Its one thing to port a game, but it’s another to be a good port. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is an excellent port of an excellent game.

 

Serious Sam II (PC) Review

Developer: Croteam / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 7.8/10

Serious Sam II is the latest from Serious Sam development company Croteam. Serious Sam II has a bit to live up to as the previous games in the series have earned it reputation in the genre they are a part of – the first person shooter (FPS). In a market saturated with FPSs, there are stand-out names that you’ll recognize as a “canon” FPS game; unfortunately Serious Sam just might never be as recognizable of a name as Half-Life, Quake, and Doom because of the unfortunate fact that it does little to really distinguish itself and lacks the quality of the top-rung FPSs out today. Serious Sam II is a step in the right direction for the Serious Sam series, but it’s just not enough to be considered anything more than second-tier.

Serious Sam II starts its single-player mode with Sam being summoned to destroy an ultimately evil guy named Mental, who is the commander of the evil forces that “came from nowhere” in the first Serious Sam. Basically, the goal is to blast your way through all of his minions that come your way on five different planets while in search of a piece of an artifact. When joined, the five pieces hold the key to destroying the seemingly invincible Mental. It’s not a very compelling story to say the least, but there is a sporadic amount of silly humor that can get a few laughs to break up the large amounts of action involved through the game.

So, what separates Serious Sam II from all the other first person shooter games out right now? Not much. The formula of Serious Sam II rides on the droves of cartoon-like enemies (characterized in the Hell motif) that are to be killed. Enemies will constantly appear in large groups and seemingly never-ending amounts. There are solid graphics with pretty scenery, interesting-looking enemies, and aside from the guns the game is full of weird sound effects. As said before, you’ll go through five different planets which will basically just be different in terms of particular enemies you’ll see and possibly guns you’ll pick up. It should be noted that every part of the game is fairly visually pleasing, and as a consequence very demanding on your hardware.

There are plenty of weapons available for use throughout the game. The standard issue radial chainsaw, plasma gun, and dual magnums have unlimited ammo, and at the beginning of each new planet you’ll be reset to the basics. Guns you’ll pick up along the way in each level include the single-shot shotgun, double barrel shotgun, plasma rifle, rocket launcher, and dual Uzis, among others. In first person mode, the guns look very nice, but in third person mode, they won’t be as flashy since you’re looking down from a few feet behind Sam. One thing about the weapons is that you don’t technically reload; you just have to keep your guns fed with ammo to keep them working.

If there’s one thing to say about Serious Sam II, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. Really really hard. If you play the game on normal or more, you’ll be wasting gobs of time retrying certain parts of levels over and over. I had originally played the game on Normal; about two hours into the game I couldn’t pass a part where an armada of enemies just kept coming and I would keep dying. I got so frustrated that I restarted the game at a lower difficulty and within twenty minutes I was stuck at the same place. If you’re looking for a challenge when it comes to testing your FPS skills, you’ll find it in Serious Sam II.

There is also the possibility of playing multiplayer. There’s not much to it, since you’ll just be playing cooperatively through the whole single player mode with unlimited ammo for all weapons. You can turn friendly fire on or off, but you can’t play a makeshift deathmatch-mode in this way since everyone’s lives feed off the same pile. Believe it or not, that’s all there is to multiplayer — Co-op.

There are parts about Serious Sam II that take a toll on the overall game. First, the frame rate will take a dive when you’re in the middle of huge battles with lots of enemies. What’s even worse is that when you’re NOT in huge battles and there actually are no enemies at all, you’ll still be suffering from a low frame rate. Thankfully, the frame rate isn’t so low that the game is absolutely unplayable, but it does get annoying. The reason behind it is probably because the whole level you’re on is loaded before you play since there are only load screens at the end of the huge stages. Another annoying thing is the sound in pre-rendered cutscenes — it hiccups or cuts out every couple seconds which is also very annoying to say the least. Thankfully, however, there aren’t that many pre-rendered scenes and the real-time cutscenes don’t have sound problems at all.

The level designs also don’t allow for much strategy in how you undertake certain areas such as hiding behind walls or the like. More often than not you’ll be in a somewhat open area fighting the onslaught of enemies rather than fighting a small amount of strategically placed foes. What the game basically comes down to is how good you are at surviving rather than relying on strategy with weaponry, and that gets pretty repetitive. At least there are a lot of levels to play through, however. At times, you’ll have to move items by “picking it up” and if you use certain things to your advantage you can get to certain areas you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Not to mention there is a bit of clunky platforming integrated into the game.

What’s presented here might be all that’s really expected from a Serious Sam game, but with weak multiplayer modes, a very lacking story, and difficulty levels that would put escaping from a natural disaster to shame, Serious Sam II ends up not being much more than a first person shooter with tons of enemies to kill amidst massive amounts of frustration. With all that aside, if the culmination of performance problems weren’t present, and it included some more multiplayer options, Serious Sam II could have been a very fun game.

 

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2) Demo Preview

Developer: Level 5 | Publisher: Square Enix ||

It’s been a while since a Dragon Quest game has come out. The last Dragon Quest (also known as Dragon Warrior) game to come out was Dragon Warrior VII in 2000 for the original PlayStation. Needless to say, the old Enix canon franchise now sees its latest incarnation under the guise of Square Enix and developer Level 5. Level 5 has already built up a reputation with Sony’s Dark Cloud series, one that I am very fond of, and the same cel-shading style used in Dark Cloud 2 shows through in Dragon Quest VIII.

I had the opportunity to actually play the demo for Dragon Quest VIII because GameCrazy gave me a copy of the demo disc when I finally got one of their cards to get discounts on used games. So, naturally, I decided to play it. I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing any of the previous games in the series, so I started Dragon Quest VIII with a clean slate. I was an avid fan of the Dragon Ball Z series back when it was in its popularity spike in America, so I noticed the art style of Akira Toriyama right off. Coupled with the cel-shaded look of the whole game, it gave a very anime-esque feel to the game that is very similar to Toriyama’s previous works in animation. The environments don’t fare as well from what is shown. Even though it is a demo, the areas available weren’t very impressive or breathtaking to say the least; rather, the environments in the demo were more or less just trying to accomplish what they were trying to do and little more. The areas available were an open field, a cave, and a town.

Like what was mentioned earlier, the field and the cave aren’t all that spectacular. The field had some nice colors with trees and hills, so the features of the field weren’t all that boring. The cave also had some nice colors in certain parts, but most of it was just brown. The town was also colorful, but it just felt like it didn’t have anything special to it. Of course, being a demo, it doesn’t usually reflect on how well the game will look in all instances, and I expect that Level 5 has made some nice-looking areas, and of course, to some extent, utilized the help of Akira Toriyama in that regard. The sound is nothing less than what you should expect from a Square Enix game; simply, it’s a nice fantasy-oriented orchestrated soundtrack. The limited amount of voice acting present was only available during the very important parts of the story mode. The voice acting isn’t half bad either. It should also be said that the automatic stand-out for best voice in the game is the character of Yangus, who sounds like some guy that would be in The Getaway. The main character doesn’t talk, though.

As far as gameplay goes, Dragon Quest VIII is pretty much a run-of-the-mill RPG. There’s not a lot shown in the demo to distinguish it too much from regular RPG gameplay, but there are a couple of unique things to it that go toward making it more than just normal. There are random battles — this is nothing really surprising. But what is different is that there are also extra enemies on the map that you have a choice of fighting on the map as well. Sometimes you can be forced to fight the enemies that appear on the field. So, they could be guarding a treasure or present an extra battle challenge. Battles are also fast-paced and you can get through them relatively fast if need be. What helps this is the use of tactics that you can assign to your other teammates, whether you want them to automate in a certain way or if you want them to follow your orders. So if you had your allies automated (and you can change their tactics mid-battle) you’d only really control the main character and be supported by your allies’ decisions according to the tactics you selected for them.

As for the actual story, it’s a charming adventure they have going. Even though they drop you into the middle of the story (which is probably not even in the real game as it is presented in the demo), it did interest me, and I wanted to find out more about the problem at hand (which was something about a king being transformed into a monster) and who the non-speaking main character really was. The town structure also reminded me of the 16-bit era RPGs; it wasn’t really anything in particular, but there was just something about the way the buildings were laid out, as if we were still in 2D. I also had the same feeling when running around on the field outside of the town. Whether or not the developer tries to keep that feeling through the whole game could be questionable.

The Dragon Quest VIII demo has cemented my decision in definitely getting the full retail version. If you’re able to get your hands on it, take the demo for a spin, as it’ll definitely show off some of the style of Dragon Quest VIII and what’s to be expected from the game. Judging from the demo alone, Dragon Quest VIII is sure to not disappoint.

 

Burnout Legends (PSP) Review

Developer: EA London / Publisher: EA Games || Overall: 9.3/10

The PSP’s first Burnout game isn’t an entirely new title in the Burnout series; rather, it is more like a compilation of all of the best parts of Burnout 1, Burnout 2, and Burnout 3, using the physics and gameplay engine of Burnout 3. Burnout Legends is a perfect arcade racer for the PSP, capturing the feel of its console counterparts amazingly well. Burnout Legends works perfectly for a portable without skimping on what makes the Burnout series great in the first place.

To put it bluntly, Burnout Legends is a great game. Just like every other game in the series, it revolves around high speed racing action full of dodging traffic and crashing into your competitors as you try to place in an event. The basic formula for Burnout is amplified by the sheer amount of modes and things you can do in the game; you’ll never be bored. For PSP owners that haven’t gotten around to buying any of the Burnout games prior to Burnout Revenge, Burnout Legends is a must-have. Even for people that have all the Burnout games, Burnout Legends’ value will come with its portability and its truthfulness to its console roots.

As for the modes and events you’ll see in the game, they should be familiar to any Burnout fan. There are the World Tour, Single Event, and Multiplayer modes with the events of Race, Time Attack, Road Rage, Pursuit, Crash, Eliminator, Grand Prix, Face-Off, and Burning Lap – it’s all here. In World Tour mode there’s also the different car classes of Compact, Muscle, Coupe, Sport, and Super. Each World Tour class has its own set of challenges that includes a mixture of the previously mentioned events, with each class getting more difficult and speeds reaching higher levels.

As for the events: In Race, you’ll go up against three other opponents and try to get in first place. Time Attack is a Single Event mode-specific event in which you just try to get the fastest time you can for a particular track. In Road Rage you’ll attempt to get a certain amount of takedowns before your car is destroyed. In Pursuit, you’ll drive a cop car and attempt to chase and bring down another car within a time limit. For Crash, there are exactly 100 levels in which you try to rack up as much damage as you can, by crashing. In Eliminator, it’s like a regular race except that the racer that places last in each lap is eliminated. Grand-Prix offers a run-of-the-mill tournament mode in which you’ll race through a certain amount of tracks and earn points based on what you placed in each race. Face-Off is a one on one race, and Burning Lap is basically like Time Attack except you’re in a supercharged car with the nitro gauge filled up the whole way. Needless to say, there’s plenty to do in the game.

The PSP’s analog nub isn’t plagued by sensitivity issues, and feels just about perfect control-wise. The only thing that might make a difference, though, is your thumb could start to hurt after a long hour or so of playing. Because of the absence of a second analog stick on the PSP, you’ll have to resort to pressing a button for your gas.

The graphics in Burnout Legends are really some of the best you’ll be seeing at this stage of the PSP’s life. It’s nothing short of eye candy (for a handheld) and looks very similar in terms of graphical quality compared to Burnout 3. The sound also compliments the game very well, on the sound effects and music side. Though there are 21 songs in the soundtrack, it isn’t very diverse after long amounts of playing and you’ll start wanting to hear stuff that is a little bit different than the punk/rock repertoire included. Sound effects overall are very nice as well, but during Crash mode, the sound can get a little bit irritating when you sit there waiting for the end of a Crash event. It is just the long monotonous noises of car horns that can get on your nerves, especially since the volume isn’t decreased in-game while the monetary damage is calculated.

There are a couple of nifty points to the game, such as the amount of cars and game sharing. As a total, there are 89 cars to unlock and if you can find a friend you can challenge them a “Collector Challenge” in which you can win a car they have that you want in your quest to collect all the cars in the game. Game sharing allows you to play with a friend in a one-on-one race or let them play a single-player demo of the game. So, anyone with a PSP (no UMD required) can play a game of Burnout Legends against you.

As for what’s bad about the game, there really aren’t many things to pick out. The game can be buggy at times, the most apparent bug being shaking floor texture panels. Once during a Crash event, I hit a car so hard that I opened up a portal to a void in which my car just kept falling. Even after Crashbreaker (if I had even thought in the first place it would do anything), I wasn’t able to get out of the void until the end of the event. It may have just been a fluke to discover the void, but the floor textures shaking around should have been fixed. What could be seen as a discerning point about the game is that there is no Infrastructure mode present that would allow you to play the game over the Internet.

Burnout Legends is a recommendable game to any PSP owner who likes arcade racers. For what is included in the game and its myriad of challenges, modes, events, and amazing value of gameplay, it really is worth the price. It can’t be stressed any more that Burnout Legends is one of the greatest PSP games on the market right now.

 

Sly Cooper And The Thievius Raccoonus (PS2) Review

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment || Overall: 8.9/10

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is one of those games that remind me why platformers are so great. The game is relatively simple, and while not perfect, it is definitely an enthralling experience that doesn’t take too much of your time. Since 2002, two more sequels to the original have come out, with Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves just being released last month.

The first thing that strikes you about the game is its completely animated style and presentation. You’ll feel like you’re playing through a cartoon movie spliced into “episodes” featuring a variety of beautiful landscapes and some very cinematic elements during Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is one of those games that remind me why platformers are so great. gameplay. As a fan of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, I enjoyed this style of presentation greatly, as the influence really shows at times. But don’t let the game’s cel-shaded appearance dupe you; there is a spectacular platforming engine that drives Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus.

What could be called more of an “introduction” to the character of Sly Cooper and how he learns his amazing thievery skills is a very involving game on its own. The five different episodes of the game create the feeling, as mentioned before, that you’re playing through a cartoon series/movie hybrid of sorts. Each of the five different episodes will take you through its own unique areas with its different challenges, as should be expected in a game like this. As you acquire more skills through the levels, you’ll increasingly be expected to know how to use the skills masterfully and in conjunction with each other. When you get to the later levels of the game, you’ll have to get your timing perfect and know exactly what you’re about to do to complete the task.

There being only one mode, story mode, you’re plunged right in the middle of a robbery, introducing you to the main characters and the basic mechanics of gameplay. Sly Cooper’s cohorts Murray the hippo (the driver) and Bentley the turtle (the brain) back up Sly when he needs help. Carmelita Fox, the hot Latino fox character, will appear from time to time and chase Sly and attempt to capture him. All the characters, including the bosses, are well voice-acted for, though Sly Cooper’s voice could have been a little bit more unique when it comes to personality in regular speech. With all the platforming fun you’ll be having, it’ll be easy to overlook it.

Gameplay is very much a strong point of the game. I’d call it pretty much a perfect platformer if it weren’t for a couple of things. The first and foremost is the way in which special abilities are used. Instead of having one of the R or L buttons assigned to a special ability, the triangle button becomes the designator of the special ability button. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that there are a couple of abilities that require you to hold the triangle button to use, and to take advantage of it also press another one of the face buttons. Of course, you can use two fingers instead of your thumb to remedy the problem, but it doesn’t feel as natural and rightly so. It seemed like the trigger buttons were wasted, with the L1 and R1 bringing up your “Binoc-u-cam” (which are binoculars) and the L2 and R2 are used to shuffle through the abilities. With a little bit of better planning, the buttons could have been utilized in a better and more natural way, or the abilities becoming user-assigned. The other smaller problem is the camera. Sometimes you aren’t able to move the camera in a way that will really help you out, making you resort to your Binoc-u-cam to look for something (which allows for free look). More than a couple of times the camera actually got caught behind a wall or something and couldn’t follow Sly Cooper around anymore.

Sly Cooper is also a collectathon. You’ll be collecting as many coins as you can, smashing things open and going out of your way to obtain “clues” that lead to gaining new abilities. Sometimes it’s easy to miss the vital “clues” because they could be hidden. Even though there is something you can obtain for each world (which are Blueprints of the area you’re in) which unveil the location of coins and clues when looking through your Binoc-u-cam, it could be a pain when you’re looking for the clues that you need to get the Blueprints, which makes it sort of a Catch 22. Saving and loading throughout the game are so well masked that you practically don’t know it’s going on. After each level or new ability gained, the game will save but won’t stop the game asking for your permission to do it. You’ll go right on not even being asked to do anything and it happens in the background. This is the first game that I’ve seen that doesn’t have a dialog screen up when saving. Loading is also seamless and is barely noticeable as you move between areas. There aren’t even any loading screens to speak of. The loading and saving aspects of the game should be praised and become more widely used if possible.

As said before, the voice acting is quite good. On top of that, the regular sound effects are excellent and satisfying. The graphics and presentation style also push the title to near visual perfection, as most cel-shaded games are. The graphics really couldn’t be made much better for the Playstation 2’s hardware. The movies and “briefing” scenes are also all animated, never taking you out of the experience of feeling like being in a cartoon.

While almost obviously appealing to the younger crowd, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is definitely something a gamer of any age can enjoy. Since it is a pretty aged title, you can probably pick it up for a few dollars used or get it new at the Greatest Hits price or even lower. If you’re in for a relatively short, fun game, Sly Cooper 1 would be a wise decision.