Doug Elfman's video game column runs in daily newspapers from Hawaii to the Hamptons, Las Vegas, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, Portland, Kansas City and newspapers across America.
Call 702-336-2625 or email email@example.com to subscribe to Doug Elfman's nationally syndicated column, or to book him for speaking engagements and interviews.
If you’re looking to watch or listen to some previous TV and radio appearances, some are:
Here on “Good Morning America.” Here again on “Good Morning America.” Here on KNPR. Here on The National Mike Koolidge Show. Here on the national WGN Steve and Johnnie Show.
I write about all things Vegas — Britney, Monster Trucks, Miss America, The World Series of Poker, Concerts — in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
My video game column runs in 20-plus daily newspapers, from Hawaii to the Hamptons, from Vegas to Portland, New Orleans, Kansas City, Memphis, Boston and beyond. To subscribe, email me at elfmonster at yahoo dot com.
If you’re looking to book me for TV, radio or as a TV speaker, email me at elfmonster at yahoo dot com.
If you’re among the multitute who wants to pay my $5,000 fee to set up your game systems and give you a month’s of tutorials, email me at elfmonster at yahoo dot com.
Aug. 1, 2008
Everybody Wants to Rule the World in 'Civilization'
By Doug Elfman
My mother used to tell me I'd grow up to be president. Yeah, she was one of those moms. For decades, a small part of my brain kept thinking: I better kick butt in school and work, and not break the law, or else someday I might not run the country and, thus, the world.
This thought process is, of course, idiotically set in a megalomaniacal fantasy. But sometimes, big dreams can be productive. Thomas Edison fantasized he'd invent electricity. He did. Wilbur Wright fantasized he'd fly. He did.
On the flip side, Fidel Castro fantasized he would play professional baseball, and Hitler dreamed of being a great painter, and when both of them failed, they became dictators. The point is: Beware fantasists. They can lift us up or break us down. Thankfully, we now live in the video game world, where future Hitlers and Castros (and Wrights and Edisons) might be spending their time playing video games instead of using their energy to conquer the world.
Look at the bright side. Right now, some horrible guy, somewhere in the world, is obsessing himself into the role of despot in "Civilization Revolution," and that benefits us all, since he is not instead writing his own "Mein Kampf."
See, video games enrich our lives by destroying others'.
"Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution" is so magnificent and addictive, I can see how people would get lost in it for months. It's like "Risk." You can portray any of many fantasists in history: Gandi, Queen Elizabeth I, Abe Lincoln, Caesar, Napoleon or some other historical dreamer. Then, you control that leaders' country from the Stone Age to the Space Age.
You juggle your nation's resources to build armies, construct temples, universities and other structures, and fortify your cities with food, gold and walls.
At first, you merely send warriors into other territories to war, win land and sign treaties. But as hours move forward, you build tanks, planes and nuclear weapons. The winner is he or she who takes over the world and/or builds the United Nations first.
The coolest of many options is you can give gold to, say, Queen Elizabeth to egg her into starting wars with other nations. That leads to Britain and other countries getting bogged down by battles while you build bombs and invent discoveries that give your empire a leg up financially, militarily, culturally and scientifically.
Despite a few visual clogs (cluttered frame rate) near the ends of solo and online missions, this is a great game for students of history. You can play as a Russian pushing democracy, then start over as an American pushing communism. You'll find yourself winning somewhat easily.
And you can see how possible it could have been that those things that seem destined to us now -- holocausts, the Manhattan Project and the Magna Carta -- could have easily evolved in other nations.
Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution
Format: Retails for $60 for Xbox 360
Rating: E 10+ for alcohol and tobacco reference, mild suggestive themes, violence
Bottom line: Plays very fun. Looks great. Moderately challenging.
July 25, 2008
'WALL-E' an entertaining game with a touching twist
By Doug Elfman
I can get weepy watching "Babe," reading Stephen King's "The Dead Zone," or listening to "I'll Be Home For Christmas." But not a single game has ever toyed with my tear ducts. Games look great, sound great and play great. But they are not emotional.
Now here comes "WALL-E," the video game based on Disney-Pixar's summer film about a garbage-cleaning robot in the future. The plot: Since people fled stinky Earth to live in space, they left behind WALL-E and millions of other robots to organize garbage so people can return to a fresh world, someday.
The moment that almost makes me tear up arrives early in the game. WALL-E -- a wheel-legged little guy with robot eyes and arms -- comes in contact with a female robot named EVE, who has flown to the planet briefly for a purpose. Then, she begins to leave.
As EVE's spaceship prepares for liftoff, WALL-E -- the last, working garbage-cleaning robot in the world -- goes back to his lonesome task. He looks up at the shaking ship and begins to call for EVE not to leave. He sprints to the rocket on his wheels, wailing something akin to "goodbye" and "don't go."
This is a heartbreak, sumptuously crafted and musically scored, delivered as pixels, as created here by the Pixar talents and the game's designers. I came thisclose to losing it. Why?
WALL-E, with a spark of human sadness in his eyes, is the embodiment of animism, the innocent notion that souls or spirits live not just in humans but in animals as well as inanimate objects, ranging from boxes to rocks to robots.
You've seen animism in the robots of "Star Wars" and other sci-fi flicks, as well as the "Toy Story" toys, the boy and the teddy bear in "Artificial Intelligence," any Disney movie with a talking teapot, any "Harry Potter" film with a killer tree, and in the evil-animism films of "The Car," "Christine," "The Shining" and the "Evil Dead" series.
"WALL-E's" romanticized animism succeeds on philosophical levels. There's an allusion to the "ghost in the machine," since EVE is shaped like Casper the ghost and travels with WALL-E the machine. There's EVE's name, of course, paralleling the Adam-like solitude of male "WALL-E."
And commerce is brutally satirized as a destructive force. Wherever WALL-E goes on Earth, or on spaceships, he hears overhead announcements of sales pitches: "If you're not happy, you're not consuming!" When humans show up, they are obese and sitting robotlike in shopping carts.
These thoughtful deliberations are put to good use since "WALL-E's" game play is entertaining, breezy and fairly addictive. As WALL-E, you roll across garbage heaps, past dust storms, through spaceships and even zip around in outer space. It can be repetitive as you grab square blocks of trash and throw them at robots and other creatures that want to harm you.
But the repetition is overwhelmed by the beauty of the science of art, with lovely changes of scenery; sleek movements of WALL-E; well-borrowed game play from "Star Wars," "Frogger," "Asteroids" and other classics; and an extraordinary and melancholy music score that plays on your psyche.
It is a rare, humanistic adventure starring robots who seem human, and humans who seem robotic. It yearns for you to break free of a compartmentalized world, detached and depressed, for even if you have been left alone, you are not alone. Just look. Look at all this splendor before you, and breathe it in.
("WALL-E" retails for $50 for PS 3, Wii, Xbox 360; $30 for PS 2, PSP, DS -- Plays fairly addictive. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "E" for cartoon violence. Four stars out of four.)
Jul. 18, 2008
Song remains the same for plucky new 'Guitar Hero' titles
By Doug Elfman
Since "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" evolved into an addictive pop-culture phenomenon, game makers are now shoving a new batch of "Guitar Hero" titles at us. They're nearly perfectly crafted, but when they fall short, they fall way short.
The most astonishing development is "Guitar Hero: On Tour." You pop the little game into your hand-held DS. It comes with a four-note guitar fret that you snap onto your DS. And then you can play "Guitar Hero" as a portable game in bed, on the plane or secretly at your desk while your boss thinks you're typing TPS reports.
Jul. 11, 2008
This is almost the most innovative idea to hit the hand-held gaming market in a few years. But that's a big "almost." The problem with "On Tour" is, every time I play it, my left pinky and ring finger go numb. And my left wrist begins to hurt while I'm destroying the game's expert levels.
Oh, how frustrating is that? All I want to do is play Nirvana's "Breed," OK Go's "Do What You Want," the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut" and 23 other songs on easy to expert settings. And I'm even a better guitarist than usual on the DS's "Hero," because there are only four button-notes to mash (instead of the usual five), one for each available finger.
But this numbing business is annoying, so I keep turning instead to the new music games for TV consoles.
"Rock Band" now has come to the Wii, and I can highly recommend it if you're lucky enough to A) find a Nintendo Wii to buy for $250 (they're still hard to come by), and B) have $170 to drop on the full kit, which comes with a wireless guitar, wired microphone and wired drum set.
If you've played "Rock Band" before, the Wii version won't surprise you. It's the same thing. You get 40-plus songs. The game figures out if you're playing the right notes on all three instruments. And when you can't beat Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" on the hardest setting, you'll want to smash everything against a wall.
Then there's "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith," which seems best-suited to hard-core fans of either Aerosmith or "Guitar Hero." I don't love or hate Aerosmith. Therefore, playing the band's "Make It" and "Draw the Line" inspire only shrugs from me. What that means is, I can't get into the groove, and I mess up a few notes out of musical boredom.
What I've found with "Guitar Hero" is I really have to like a song for it to pump my adrenaline so I can pay full attention, and play 100 percent of a song correctly.
But here's the huge bright side. It is super cool that "Guitar Hero" is branching off into "Aerosmith"-like fan favorites. The moment I get to play a "Hero" game dedicated to Nirvana, or Prince, or Liz Phair, or Stone Temple Pilots, or Depeche Mode, or Nine Inch Nails, or Led Zeppelin -- that's the day I'll go into a dazed and confused "Guitar Hero" seclusion until the world ends with purple rain falling from a heart-shaped box.
("Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360; $50 for Wii, PS 2 -- Plays fun, although it seems best-suited for "Hero" fanatics and fans of the band. Easy to challenging, depending on settings you choose. Rated "T" for lyrics, mild suggestive themes. Three and one-half stars out of four.)
("Guitar Hero: On Tour" retails for $50 for DS -- Plays fun, though it cramps my wrist and makes my pinky and ring finger go numb. Looks good. Easy to challenging, depending on settings you choose. Rated "E 10+" for lyrics. Two and one-half stars.)
("Rock Band" retails for $170 for Wii, Xbox 360 and PS 3 -- Plays very fun. Looks good. Easy to very challenging. Rated "T" for lyrics, mild suggestive themes. Four stars.)
'Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots' the game to beat this summer
By Doug Elfman
Guns, guns, guns. The Supreme Court says they're as desirable as apple pie. They're certainly advantageous in video games. If there were no guns, there'd be no semiauto rifles to plow through cops in "Grand Theft Auto IV." There'd be no shotguns to blow away farmers in "Manhunt 2."
Without guns, there'd be no fully automated weapons to fetishize and fantasize over in "Metal Gear Solid 4," which is so patriotic, it has the word "guns" in the subtitle, "Guns of the Patriots."
"Guns of the Patriots" is clearly the solo-mission game to beat this summer, and it should be regarded as a great work of art. I'll get to that in a second. But it's newsworthy that, since the Supreme Court just ruled in a 5-4 throwdown that the Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms, we are bearing them.
In "Guns of the Patriots" alone, you can equip yourself with: three submachine guns, five assault rifles, four sniper rifles, two shotguns, a machine gun, a missile launcher, a tranquilizer gun, five handguns, two hand grenades, a stun grenade, four smoke grenades, two mines, C4 explosives, and you can top off your guns with scopes, suppressors, laser sights and rifle grips.
You need all those guns, because the year is 2014, and you are an old hero soldier who must shoot through heavily populated battlefields in the Middle East, Africa and beyond in a very long action-adventure where villains and their expendable troops are rising up to conquer territory, yada, yada.
The futuristic guns of this war are technologically locked. That is, each soldier's gun fires only for him or her. If you pick up a dead man's rifle, it won't shoot, because you don't have the right computer chip to unlock it, although you can hire a gunrunner to fix it for you.
Pretty nifty, right? Maybe the Supreme Court could approve a law demanding such technological safety chips someday. That way, children won't grab daddy's gun and accidentally kill each other with it. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
"Guns of the Patriots" is pretty close to a masterpiece and contains some of the most addictive gaming of 2008. Battlefields come fast and furious. The game lasts forever. Cinematic film scenes go on for so long that as one scene rolled on my TV in the background, I cooked lunch, ate it and fed my cats. There may be a whole movie of scenes in "Guns."
Then you go online to find the same level of artistic detail accompanying multiplayer battlefields, which are littered with broken autos, half-destroyed homes and concrete rooftops that look strikingly like concrete rooftops, right down to sun stains and oil splatters.
There is serious thought to ponder in the plot. Narratives and dialogue depict a world at constant war. Characters explore literary themes of mortality, individualism, the rise of machines and interpersonal relationships.
Most of this is credited to co-writer-director Hideo Kojima, a legend in the gaming industry who retired a few years ago after he created the often stunning "Metal Gear Solid 3."
Alas, some gun-crazy fans of the "Metal Gear Solid" franchise were so upset, they forced Kojima out of retirement to make this new game. How did they convince him?
They sent him death threats.
Guns. Aren't they just awesome?
("Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots" by Konami retails for $60 for PS 3 -- Plays addictively fun. Looks amazing. Moderately to very challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "M" for strong language, suggestive themes, violence, blood, crude humor. Four stars out of four.)
Jul. 04, 2008
Dodge bullets, shoot bad guys in newest 'Battlefield,' 'Enemy Territory' releases
By Doug Elfman
Well, well, well. The Cold War is back. Or more accurately, it's a Hot War with actual gunfire. "Battlefield: Bad Company" resurrects our long-ago nemesis, the Russians. Apparently, terrorists and modern desert armies weren't interesting enough to anchor "Battlefield's" battlegrounds.
"Bad Company," a worthy sequel to some pretty awesome "Battlefield" games, sets you down upon the green and hilly landscapes of a fictional European nation where Americans and Russians are shooting at each other.
And yet, our military also is contending with mercenaries who have stored gold bars all over town squares and barns.
In fact, your side mission in "Bad Company" is to find that gold and become rich, even while you're trying not to get killed by whizzing bullets. As every game writer understands, this cinematic narrative is reminiscent of the films "Kelly's Heroes" and "Three Kings."
To pull off such a cynical story line, the war you are engaged in must seem potentially, morally iffy. Otherwise, you'd be a bad guy, looting towns, instead of merely fighting for freedom and other trademark, apple-pie Americanisms.
So the narrator says at the start, "War's fought for a number of reasons, but on the battlefield, every soldier has to find his own."
Our soldiers are fittingly characteristic of such stories. They are, as in "Kelly's Heroes" and "Three Kings," expendable misfits. They gab stupidly, but in a legitimately funny way. They're greedy. And the ethically compromised sergeant is to retire in a few days. All that's missing is Danny Glover.
This setup gives the game an oomph of a meaty plot. More important, the game play is stellar. The battlegrounds of "Bad Company" are huge, sprawling terrains. You drive tanks, helicopters and boats. And you jog across hill and dale, shooting bad guys with machine guns, sniper rifles and shotguns.
The most promising action is going online to join battles of up to 24 people in showdowns where you alternately play on offense, trying to blow up the enemy's bases, or on defense protecting your own bases. I don't love this online game mode. It's like waging war on a football field, one team at a time.
But the game's designers realize fans of previous "Battlefield" titles prefer online "Conquest" modes, where you battle on both offense and defense at the same time, trying to capture and protect a bunch of bases simultaneously. We shooting gamers love that sort of kill-the-man-with-the-ball chaos.
So to satisfy us, game designers have promised to release a "Conquest" mode as a free downloadable upgrade, although they didn't say when. Within weeks? Months?
Meanwhile, you can alternately play some other good, not great, online battles in another big war sequel out now, "Enemy Territory: Quake Wars," which has no serious plot to speak of as an offline solo game, except that aliens have invaded Earth and they're pointing weapons at your throat.
"Battlefield: Bad Company" is more fun. But "Enemy Territory" is solid, and it also excels online. The "Monster Truck"-like ads for the game are hilarious and accurate, saying you can steal weapons from the alien invasion destroying Earth, and each battlefield is a "square kilometer."
If that doesn't satisfy you, as the ad says, "How about calling orbital air strikes from outer space!?" Hell, yeah!
("Battlefield: Bad Company" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3 -- Plays fun. Looks great. Starts easy, becomes challenging. Rated "T" for alcohol reference, strong language and violence. Four stars out of four.)
("Enemy Territory: Quake Wars" retails for $60 for Xbox and PS 3 -- Plays fun, though not great. Looks very good. Moderately easy to moderately challenging. Rated "T" for violence, mild language. Three stars.)
Jun. 27, 2008
'Kung Fu Panda,' 'Indiana Jones' games offer very familiar fun
By Doug Elfman
Hey look, I salute capitalism, and I can wrap myself in the flag with the best of them. But it seems like America has gone into overkill to create business tie-ins with kids' entertainment in an effort to built a nation of corporate-children-zombie lemmings.
The new movie, "Kung Fu Panda," features actor Jack Black delivering excited voice-overs for the main character, Po. And Black reprises Po in a cartoon TV ad for a computer. Plus, Black sasses up Po for the video game "Kung Fu Panda."
Meanwhile, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is being cross-branded with a soda, a Web search engine, a fast-food restaurant, a chocolate candy and lunch snacks for kids.
But wait, there's more! Another big summer game is "Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures," which plays off the latest hero blockbuster by presenting characters, locales and even alligators in the form of LEGOs. That's why it's officially called "LEGO Indiana Jones."
Let us remember "branding" was originally that which cowboys seared into cowhides. Do you prefer to think of children as sear-able livestock?
For the purposes of this column, here's the next question: Are these video games any good? Well, they're good enough. "Kung Fu Panda" and "LEGO Indiana Jones" excel and stumble for similar reasons.
If you've ever played any of the LEGO "Star Wars" games, the long adventure of "Indiana Jones" seems very parallel in game style. You play as various LEGO people from the Indiana Jones universe, and you crack a whip at LEGO bad guys and LEGO snakes, and so on.
This is actually a lot of fun for stretches of time. Even though LEGOs are blocky, the motions move fluidly, and so do journeys through villages and buildings. The story line hems closely to the movies, although Harrison Ford was not required for voice-overs, since these LEGOs don't talk.
The problem with "LEGO Indiana Jones" is, as you remember from LEGO "Star Wars" games, you constantly have to build things with LEGOs, like bridges and airplanes, and this action has become tedious unless you've never played a LEGO game before.
Now check out "Kung Fu Panda." It is a new adventure with a new hero to video games, and Black's voice-overs are superbly spirited, yet the game play is very old hat. It is essentially a deep-focus version of a two-dimensional platform game.
While portraying Po, you run left to right, and up and down, and the TV screen looks like animated maps of goals. You punch things until they disappear. You run through floating gold coins in order to pick them up. And occasionally, you turn into a ball and roll quickly over buildings and other obstacles, a la Sonic the Hedgehog.
Black, reading the writers' silly-fun dialogue, saves the game from being boring, since he issues childlike, enthusiastic exclamations, like "totally awesome" and "bodacious!"
I have played -- and I have watched my nephew play -- much, much worse movie games than "LEGO Indiana Jones" and "Kung Fu Panda." They are cute and enjoyable to a degree, and could even prove addictive for a lot of kids. But they also are teaching old tricks to new consumers.
("Kung Fu Panda" retails for $50 for Xbox 360, PS 3 and Wii; $40 for PS 2; $40 for DS -- Plays fun despite being limited as a glorified 2-D throwback. Looks good. Moderately challenging. Rated "E 10+" for fantasy violence and mild language. Three stars out of four.)
("LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures" retails for $50 for Xbox 360, PS 3, Wii; $40 for PSP and PS 2; $30 for DS -- Plays fun but a tad too familiar to LEGO "Star Wars" gamers. Looks very good. Starts easy, becomes challenging. Rated "E 10+" for cartoon violence. Three and one-half stars.)
Jun. 20, 2008
'Incredible Hulk' stomps through familiar mayhem of New York
By Doug Elfman
As I am "The Incredible Hulk," I can kill people with a mere punch from my big, green hands. But at this moment in time, I have decided to crush an enemy soldier by picking up an air-conditioning unit and utilizing it to smash this gentleman's head. Squish.
This is satisfying for its linguistic value. You see, people say "utilizing" when they ought to say "use." They say they "utilize" a hammer by hammering a nail. But "utilizing" more fittingly means to use something for a purpose other than its original intent.
Ergo, I am "utilizing" this air conditioner by bashing someone's brains in with it. And this is linguistically fulfilling.
Or perhaps, I simply like creaming bad guys with heavy equipment. "The Incredible Hulk" certainly gives me ample opportunity to utilize ordinary and extraordinary objects in the pursuit of justice and national safety.
I pick up cars and heave them at villainous robot men. I utilize concrete blocks as shields to protect my muscular torso from incoming bullets.
Absolutely, the most pleasing utilization comes when I grab an enemy soldier by the waist with my huge palm, let him struggle and kick his legs with fruitless fits, then toss his twisting body at yet another bad guy aiming a gun at me. That is killing two nerds with one throw.
"Hulk" is based on the summer movie, and it features voice acting from the film's stars. But there is no captivating story line in the game. You are Bruce Banner. You've been turned into this large green fellow by gamma rays. U.S. soldiers and evil robot things try to slay you.
But really, who cares? You kill stuff that goes splat. Hurray.
Other reviewers have made much ado about the lack of originality in "Hulk," saying it hems closely to its predecessor, "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction," from three years ago. This is true, but since I didn't overdose on "Ultimate Destruction," this "Hulk" seems like good times.
As the Hulk, I sprint across traffic in New York City. I am such a big beast that when I brush the sides of a city bus with my arm, the bus breaks and bends. When I run near trees, the percussive power of my feet pounding the ground destroys the trees.
So, yes, my carbon footprint is considerable. But there are evil creatures killing New Yorkers. You have to save the Earth from intruders before you can save it with a hug, or so I've heard.
It is not a long game. You can finish it within 10 hours if you're a regular gamer. And there is no online gaming, which is a big stink. The game also looks old, as if no one could be troubled with beefing up the artistry for high-definition TVs.
But "Hulk" moves a lot like the "Spider-Man" games, which is a good thing. I speed through gigantic New York adroitly, on foot as opposed to Spider-Man's web. I climb buildings and jump crazy distances, as does Spider-Man. And I destroy 50-story buildings by punching them. That is super cool.
What is most fascinating is that no matter how many monsters and robot fights are destroying the city, pedestrians continue to jaunt down the sidewalks, getting crunched by my feet and other violent tendencies. Also, thousands of yellow cabs transport commuters amid the mayhem.
That is just like New Yorkers. They've seen it all. They won't just stay home or flee town, because they refuse to succumb to fear. They will not be intimidated by any old giant, green utilizing man.
("The Incredible Hulk" retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360; $50 for Wii; $30 for PS 2 and DS -- Plays fun, if short and without online gaming. Looks adequate. Easy to challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "T" for violence, mild blood, mild language. Three stars out of four.)
Jun. 13, 2008
New games ramp up the violence, tone down the sex
By Doug Elfman
You probably didn't hear about the following low-level news, so let me catch you up: "Leisure Suit Larry," the only video game series that includes some sex scenes, will not include nudity in its next sequel, subtitled "Box Office Bust." This is odd. Imagine if Playboy were the only nudie magazine in the world, and suddenly it began nixing naked photos.
"Leisure Suit Larry" is putting on clothes because it can't make as much money as a naughty tale. Whenever there's a mild sex scene in a game, even though it would be considered PG-13 material in a movie, it risks getting an "A" (for "adult").
Games such as "Leisure Suit Larry" have been targeted by political groups, which use the media to lash out at game makers and game retailers, which don't even sell "A" games.
Think about the consequences. There are very few love stories or romantic relationships in video games, because they can barely show two people kissing heavily without getting smacked down by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which operates slightly less puritanically than the Hays Code did with movies in the 1930s.
So console games have gone down the path of many movies in the 1930s and become reliant on gangster lore. Those fatal games get rated "T" for "teen," or if they're super bloody and contain one scene featuring a half-naked woman, they get an "M" for "mature."
This is where the new "Ninja Gaiden II" comes in. Billed as the sequel to perhaps the greatest action sword-slicing game ever, "Gaiden II" has ratcheted up blood and gore beyond its predecessor.
This time, you lop off people's heads by the hundred, and watch blood squirt profusely out of their necks, arms and torsos, after impaling or dicing them with swords, a metal staff, metal talons attached to your hands, a steel club, projectile stars, a knife and a bow and arrow. You then stand amid bloody piles of arms and legs.
I am not saying "Ninja Gaiden II" is too violent. It is acceptably violent in its own context for fans of the genre, just like "Kill Bill" and "Scarface."
"Ninja Gaiden II" is addictively fun, not necessarily in its butchery, but in epic game play. You can spend a dozen hours (if you're very good) or 60 hours (if you're not good) running through a series of beautifully drawn locales in Japan, New York and elsewhere, while fighting many tough villains.
There are two downsides. Camera angles mess up a lot, then you're not sure which evil monster you're slicing. And the game doesn't come with online, multiplaying fighting.
If, without playing it, you think it sounds too gory for kids, well, you are not alone. The ESRB rated it "M." It is not to be sold or rented to kids under 17. If a kid plays it, it is the responsibility of parents or adult supervisors. And remember, most gamers are adults, anyway.
So here's my question: What would you prefer our nation of adult gamers to be, killers or lovers? While you're thinking about that, feel free to go slice someone's head off in "Ninja Gaiden II." It's a lot of fun.
("Ninja Gaiden II" by Microsoft retails for $60 for Xbox 360 -- Plays fun and addictive. Looks great. Very challenging. Rated "M" for partial nudity, suggestive themes, blood, gore and intense violence.)
Jun. 06, 2008
Soccer games tiring unless you're a fan of the sport
By Doug Elfman
The plodding pace of playing video game soccer is just like the plodding pace of watching real soccer on TV. You run, dribble, pass and (if you're lucky) kick a ball at a goaltender, who will almost always stop the ball from scoring. Then time runs out with a zero-to-zero tie, the end, snooze.
In other words, it's boring unless you score. If you do nail a goal, it's a little more exciting. But let's be honest. Ever since video game soccer became more realistic, it's become a yawner unless you enjoy watching soccer on TV. This is unlike, say, golfing games, which are entertaining even if you hate real golf.
The two newest soccer games -- "UEFA Euro 2008" and "Pro Evolution Soccer 2008" -- make "European football" fairly manageable. At times, they're even kind of fun. I'm not saying they're addictive. But they don't make me want to gouge my eyes out due to ennui or anger.
Yes, anger. Video game soccer unleashes the fury. I've been complaining for five years or so that soccer games won't allow you to truly control your defensive players. As soon as you position a defender to steal a ball from a rival, the game automatically switches your controls to another defender on your team.
That's frustrating. Here's an analogy. Imagine if you were playing a baseball game, and just when you were guiding a left fielder to chase a ball, the game switched your controls to your center fielder. Yeah, that would cause you Major League rage.
The solution to this soccer-defense problem in both "UEFA Euro 2008" and "Pro Evolution Soccer 2008" is to constantly hold down one "apply pressure" button that forces your defensive players to automatically attack rivals who have the ball. This is a simple fix that makes you stop screaming from your couch.
Fortunately, both games boast good game play, otherwise. "Euro" and "Evolution" are fluid and intuitive to learn. They come with plenty of teams and leagues. And you can play multiplayer games online.
But here's the bittersweet bottom line. As much fun as "Euro" and "Evolution" can be, even for amateurs, it is a nightmare to determine how hard you should kick a ball to score. The slightest kick can either send a ball flying 20 feet over the net, or can merely dribble the ball toward the goaltender's feet.
Worse: You have to memorize up to 145 button combinations to make use of all the game's maneuvers. That includes simple things, such as shooting and passing, to complex moves such as "first-time shot/head ball," "stationary feint" and "Marseilles turn."
You can win without memorizing every step of the soccer field. And if you're a huge soccer fan, you'll probably love the details. But me? I'm moving on to a game more suited to my simple, action-crazed American brain, like golf, maybe.
("Pro Evolution Soccer 2008" retails for $50 for Xbox 360 and PS 3, $40 for Wii, $30 for PSP, PS 2 and DS -- Plays fun and deep if you like soccer, but complex and slow if you don't. Looks good. Challenging to very challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "E." Three stars out of four.)
("UEFA Euro 2008" retails for $50 for Xbox 360 and PS 3, $40 for PSP, $30 for PS 2 -- Plays fun and deep if you like soccer, but complex and slow if you don't. Looks very good. Challenging to extremely challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "E." Three stars.)
May. 30, 2008
'Wii Fit,' 'We Ski' make kids get off their duffs, move around
By Doug Elfman
If you want to make your children play a video game they could possibly hate, "Wii Fit" is the perfect game to force them to shape up.
"Wii Fit" comes with a wireless "balance board" you put on the floor in front of your TV. It looks like a scale. And at first, you stand on it, and it tells you how much you weigh, and what your body mass index is.
In other words, it is an emotional torture device that will wreak havoc on your psyche.
Next, you decide which activities to engage in to lose weight. You can do stupid stuff, like hula hoop. You twirl your hips, which causes the balls of your feet to twirl, then the board figures out if you are hula hooping like an imbalanced amateur or like a pro.
The great worth of "Wii Fit" comes with its more serious workouts. You can do yoga, aerobics, step aerobics, push-ups and other strength training on the balance board, while a cartoon fitness trainer on the TV teaches you the correct stances while issuing motivational cheerleading.
This isn't a new concept. "Yourself!Fitness" has been on the market for years and is a more powerful instructor. But "Yourself" doesn't come with a balance board to keep you honest about whether you are standing correctly, and it doesn't gauge when you're taking a cheat-break. "Wii Fit," on the other hand, keeps its eye on you.
"Wii Fit" is mostly for beginners, since you can't string together a full workout program from "Fit's" short bursts of downward dog-type challenges. Sure, you can work your way up to more demanding routines. But I'm a longtime yoga-doer, and "Wii Fit" seems like kids' play to me.
That said, I did sweat on the push-ups and a few advanced stages, so even though I was complaining that "Wii Fit" is for kids, it kicked my butt a little.
The best reason this would be great for your kids is it comes with a calendar check-in feature. You can tell your kids you're not going to let them play other games until they've finished their "Wii Fit" program of the day. Afterward, you can look at the calendar that keeps tabs on them to make sure they worked out fully.
Once you own the "Wii Fit" balance board, you can use it with future Wii games. You already can use the "Fit" balance board with the new "We Ski" game, which is a straight-up skier with a workout benefit on the side.
In "Ski," the board reads your foot motions, as if on skis, while you hold the Wii remote controls as if they were ski poles. This makes for a fun, and fairly genuine, interactive ski game.
Then again, if you don't buy the "Wii Fit" to get the balance board, then "We Ski" is just OK without it, since you otherwise would just sit on the couch and feverishly row the remote controls.
All of this exercise business is partly what the Wii promised us it would deliver when it was launched in 2006. We still haven't seen the perfect Wii games and workouts, but the balance board gets us deeper into sweating while gaming.
("We Ski" by Namco Bandai Games retails for $30 for Wii -- Plays fun with the "Wii Fit" board, less so without it. Looks very good. Easy to moderately challenging, based on slopes you choose. Rated "E" with alcohol reference. Two and one-half stars out of four.)
("Wii Fit" with balance board by Nintendo retails for $90 for Wii -- Plays like exercising homework. Looks good. Starts easy and becomes very challenging. Rated "E." Three and one-half stars.)
May. 23, 2008
Movie heroes 'Iron Man,' 'Speed Racer' fall flat in video game realm
By Doug Elfman
This spring and summer will bring another onslaught of movie-based video games. We've already seen "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." Coming soon: "Kung Fu Panda," "Incredible Hulk," "The Bourne Conspiracy" and "LEGO Indiana Jones." Yes, Indiana Jones hates LEGO snakes.
This week, there are more marquee titles, "Iron Man" and "Speed Racer: The Videogame." And neither is good enough to rent, let alone buy.
"Iron Man" had a lot of potential. The main cast members from the movie do voice-overs in cinematic scenes. Iron Man fires missiles, he flies and he scorches bad soldiers to death with flames that shoot out of his arms. Theoretically, this sounds like a pleasant afternoon of death.
But other than the cool weaponry and nicely designed battleground sets, everything about "Iron Man" fails.
Robert Downey Jr. and Terrance Howard, two excellent actors usually, sound like robots, as if they are sight reading the script for the first time.
There are zillions of jerkwad bad guys who fire missiles and guns at you relentlessly (and from an annoying distance) to the point where all you do is run, hover and fly in your big iron suit, and get blasted a lot while you try to get closer to slaying idiots who stand there waiting to perish.
The cinema cuts are worse than terrible. There's no online multiplayer. Iron "Chef" would be a better time.
Why is it that many video games, such as "Grand Theft Auto IV" and "Call of Duty 4," can be more engaging than most movies, yet games based on movies are generally less-appealing than Donald Duck outings from a decade ago?
"Speed Racer: The Videogame" is a little better, but it's not even a cinematic movie-based game. It's just a confusing and slight, unfair racing game.
You find yourself saying, "I've got the fastest car on the road. I'm using every single speed boost available to me. And yet, slower cars just passed me? What? I think I'll play something else."
Since it's just a racing game with cool autos and sci-fi, "Wipeout"-like tracks, "Speed" lacks many of the appealing things from the anime cartoon. There's no story line starring Speed, Trixie and Racer X, and you can't use Speed's Mach 5 steering wheel to jump, submarine or shoot.
There's no plot to speak of, although like the new "Speed" movie, roads are lovingly curvy, twisting tracks, painted in zippy cartoon colors of shocking blues, reds and yellows.
And the cars look fantastic, with all those female curves. You can pick 20 cars and drivers to portray, and they all drive with excellent steering controls. I still don't understand why I can't buy one of these things at a local dealership.
The worst thing, though, is it's impossible to maintain a lead. You jump out front in the best car, but it doesn't matter. "Speed Racer's" artificial intelligence forces rivals to catch up and smash you. That's a fine element in silly Nintendo car games, but it ruins the more sober "Speed."
Or maybe the worst thing is there are no cinema scenes where you can ogle Speed's hot girlfriend, Trixie. Yeah. That's the worst thing.
("Iron Man" by Sega retails for $60 for Xbox and PS 3; $50 for Wii; $30 for PSP, PS 2 and DS -- Plays dull. Looks OK. Challenging. Rated "T" for alcohol reference, mild language, violence. One star out of four.)
("Speed Racer: The Videogame" by WB Games retails for $50 for Wii; $30 for DS -- Plays too easy and simple to be consistently fun. Looks very good. Starts easy, becomes more challenging. Rated "E" for fantasy violence and mild language. One and one-half stars.)
May. 16, 2008
GAME DORK: Mario Kart Wii, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue
Track Time: 'Mario Kart,' 'Gran Turismo' racing games plenty of fun, especially online
By Doug Elfman
My brother Brad used to race cars, and he once gave me some good advice I use all the time in driving games like "Mario Kart Wii."
Brad said if you see cars wreck in front of you, drive toward the spot of the accident, because by the time you reach that point, the ruined cars will be crashing someplace else. And you don't want to be at that "someplace else."
Crashing is, obviously, an integral part of driving fast. But in "Mario Kart Wii," it's constant and whimsical. This is another cutesy Nintendo Wii adventure set in a colorful land of deep-blue cartoon skies and puffy faced, comical characters.
You race and crash often as the usual suspects: Mario, Bowser, Donkey Kong and so on. You speed in cars and motorcycles. Choosing an auto or a character doesn't give you a leg up on the competition. Vehicle dynamics are the same, more or less.
But if it makes you feel better to win as, say, a girl named Peach in a hot rod, more power to you.
There's nothing surprising inside "Mario Kart Wii," but its 32 tracks are definitely super cute. Cows graze in your way. Mushroom heads and gophers pop up at you. And Mario lets out his silly "woohoo!"
More important, you can toss bombs and banana peels at rivals to slow them down. Or you can pick up a speed burst that catapults you ahead of cars.
The thing about this kind of kiddie title is it's way more fun to play with other people than alone. If you race solo against the artificial intelligence of the Wii computer, you're basically just memorizing hairpin turns and weapon upgrades.
But if you battle against people in your living room -- up to four players at a time -- then you've got yourself a little parlor game. And thankfully, you can take "Kart" online against up to 11 other gamers.
The opposite of "Mario Kart Wii" is "Gran Turismo 5: Prologue" for PS 3. It's a sober, unforgiving racing simulator featuring street rods, from Mazdas to Ferraris.
In "Mario" and other racers today, if you mess up, other cars slow down so you can catch up. But in "Prologue," you have to race as perfectly as you would in real life. If you blow a turn or two in a three-minute race, you are toast.
The steering is impressively intuitive. You control the direction of the car by pressing your thumb against the left joystick, and you control speed by thumbing the right joystick. Easy-peasy. Downside: The few tracks get repetitive in no time.
Like "Mario," all the best action is online or in multiplayer. That's where you get to drive against real people, and the feel of the game completely changes, as cars steered by people, not a computer, zigzag and knock you around. Oddly, though, there's no crashing. Your "GT 4" cars are indestructible.
Personally, I prefer "Mario Kart Wii," even though it's super easy. It's just funner. Plus, I like to play as a Peach in a hot rod. I'm all for girl power.
("Gran Turismo 5: Prologue" by Sony retails for $60 for PS 3 -- Plays fun but the low number of tracks get old. Plays most fun online. Looks fantastic. Starts challenging, gets more challenging. Rated "E" for mild suggestive themes. Three stars out of four.)
("Mario Kart Wii" by Nintendo retails for $50 including racing wheel for Wii -- Plays fun. Looks cutesy-cartoony. Easy offline; moderately challenging online. Rated "E" for comic mischief. Three stars.)
May. 09, 2008
Much like NYC, everything in 'Grand Theft Auto's' Liberty City is a hassle
By Doug Elfman
Ex-New Yorkers always tell me how hard it was to leave the city, because it was rewarding to survive their challenging, daily routines -- a grind I call "foraging."
New Yorkers forage for food, transportation, coffee, love, groceries and 500-square-foot apartments costing less than $2,000. When they move, they suffer emotional turmoil, adjusting to an easier, more affordable lifestyle, as if they don't deserve comfort.
In other words, New Yorkers get Stockholm Syndrome. They fall in love with their captor, an unforgiving city.
I don't like to forage in New York or in the New York-patterned boroughs of Liberty City in "Grand Theft Auto 4." Everything in Liberty City is a hassle. You hijack a car, then cops drive after you, and it's nearly impossible to navigate roads, because they're troubled with traffic, obstacles and darkness.
I change the brightness settings on both my Xbox 360 and my 55-inch high-definition TV just so I can see other cars, street turns and where bad guys are coming from, especially when I battle real gamers online.
To keep perspective, this is my long complaint about an otherwise great game, even if it does start slow and boring. (Do you really have to shoot pool and go bowling? Seriously?)
This latest "GTA" offers another 60-hour offline adventure packed with extravagant cinematic scenes and murderous missions. It's also the first "GTA" with online shooting, which is nice, but body movements are sluggish. And you start each level with the worst handgun imaginable instead of a good machine gun.
It took about 1,000 people to make "GTA 4," including programmers, developers, producers and actors. You can see the depth. There is a big plot and awesome dialogue.
You play as Niko, a Serbian immigrant who has been coaxed by his cousin Roman's lies to move to the big city. But stupid Roman brings irate Niko into the crime world. You collect protection money and shoot rival cons with rifles, shotguns and machine guns.
As usual, you drive old muscle cars, ambulances, helicopters, cop cars, stretch limos and tons of horrible beater-cars that barely turn corners.
The best part is the writing. There are no better conversations in games than in "GTA" titles, except maybe for the "Destroy All Humans!" series. In "GTA," New York-y pedestrians say things like, "I'm late for therapy!" A woman you sex up says, "I've never dated a foreign guy before. A lot from another planet. But never from another country."
You buy lap dances from two strippers grooving to Goldfrapp's "Ooh La La," and you ask, "Are you, like, sisters or cousins or something?"
Radio stations in your hijacked vehicles play scores of classic and pop songs, but DJs also act as evil parodies of the real thing. DJs are racist, sexist and conservative, bemoaning even the loss of separate drinking fountains. This is not face-value cruelty, but rather a stinging, liberal satire of the right.
The liberalness makes me wonder why Democrats such as New Yorker Hillary Clinton assail games, which are generally to the left. I'm guessing she's never played a "Grand Theft Auto." Then again, she's got her own Stockholm Syndrome to keep her busy.
("Grand Theft Auto 4" by Rockstar retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3 -- Plays fun, though it starts slow offline, and the online gaming is sluggish, featuring terrible handguns. Looks great. Begins moderately easy but becomes challenging. Rated "M" for intense violence, blood, strong language, strong sexual content, partial nudity and use of drugs and alcohol. Four stars out of four.)
May. 02, 2008
GAME DORK: Love and Hate
Though flawed, 'Frontlines: Fuel of War' is a compelling, addictive game
By Doug Elfman
Playing "Frontlines: Fuel of War" online is like dating someone who's great but troubled. At first, it makes you happy you've found something new. Over time, you realize how compatible you are. But eventually, you spot the annoying flaws, and you have to decide if you can deal with those flaws.
As in any good relationship, you play as a team. Every now and then, you die a little when your teammate doesn't get your back. You grow disappointed and disenchanted at times. You fall back in love with it. And try as you might, ultimately, you might have to seek therapy if it upsets you too often.
Apr. 25, 2008
To be more specific, "Frontlines" is a simple, short war game where you shoot rival soldiers in a near-future war for oil, capturing flag posts along the way. It features some of the best machine guns, rocket launchers, tanks and helicopters you'll ever see in a game.
"Frontlines" has been out for the Xbox 360 for a while, but I'm visiting its online component now, because the game has serious legs. No matter how many dozens of hours I spin it, I want to play more, making it one of the most compelling online games so far this year.
It's the guns and the body movements that make "Frontlines" so addictive online, where you and your team of up to 16 people battle against another team for up to an hour.
It's an incredibly smooth experience to make your soldier run, turn, spot a bad guy and shoot. It's just as manageable to find a tank or a helicopter, and to fly it and fire its weapons.
As longtime readers of this column know, I hate guns in real life. They scare me. But a good virtual gun can make your month. And the armory of "Frontlines" is exquisite. The sniper rifle and shotgun are weak. But machine guns, rocket launchers and tank cannons blow massive holes in rivals.
Now for the flaws: As good as the guns are, the best way to kill a soldier is to walk up to him and punch him in the head with the butt of your weapon.
This kind of attack happens all the time in games. But in "Frontlines," this is especially silly. Sometimes, it seems you can plug a soldier with 10 bullets before he dies. On the other hand, one gun butt to the noggin, and he's a goner? One punch? Really?
Even worse, when your team is losing a battle, the game makes it super easy for the other team to camp out near the place where you get spawned back to life. So you just want to re-spawn, but all these nasty rival soldiers are waiting for you to reappear, right in front of their guns.
This is why playing "Frontlines" is like maintaining a fun but frustrating relationship. Just when you think you can't take the flaws anymore, you remember you're in love. And just when you think you're in love forever, something aggravates you.
The question you have to ask yourself is, is it worth the heartache? The answer here is an unqualified yes. You don't come across a "Frontlines" every day. And so, I keep playing the game, because what would I do without it? I'm smitten.
("Frontlines: Fuel of War" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 -- Plays fun offline, and addictively fun online. Looks great. Easy to challenging offline; challenging online. Rated "T" for blood, language, violence. Four stars out of four.)
GAME DORK: Hook, Line and Sinker
'Sega Bass Fishing' lures you in for night of reel fun
By Doug Elfman
Christine and I used to fish in my living room. She'd go first and cast into shallow waters. We'd watch fish swirl around her hook, tempted by metal tackle, staring at it until it would chomp-chomp its fat mouth down upon fate and misfortune, then get reeled in.
Christine was a better fisher than I on some nights. I walloped her on other evenings. Occasionally, we'd make strange but just-friends bets, which never amounted to more than bragging rights. She'd do a victory jig at 2 in the morning. Christine was an ex-raver, so these were jigs with serious moves.
That was "Sega Bass Fishing Duel," six years ago. In video game time, that's an eternity, because games have progressed vastly ever since. But it's also a long time in friendship years. Christine moved to San Francisco for softer days. (It's hard being a woman.) My hair's grayed some prematurely. (It's hard being a man.)
Meanwhile, the kind of fishing game that made us laugh and jump and brag has grown prettier and wiser with age. The new "Sega Bass Fishing" for the Wii is a sleeker sport than what Christine and I toyed with. Now there are grander-looking rain marshes, bridges, caves and parks.
You use the interactive Wii wand as the pole. Jerk the wand forward to cast. Tug it to the left to reel in bass from the left. It's simple.
To tell the truth, I'd rather arcade-fish than fish-fish. Virtual fishing goes faster. The camera angle dips underwater and follows fish faces chasing my hooks, lines and sinkers. You can see the whole process play out with omnipotent vision. You don't have to slap mosquitoes nipping your nape.
And in "Sega Bass Fishing," an offscreen narrator tells you when to "turn the rod left," to help you battle large fish that tug hard against your purpose.
Surprisingly, you don't catch and release, even when you nab a little one and the narrator exclaims, "It's a baby!" Aww, poor little baby fish. Yeah, it's dead now.
The point is simple. You pile up as many fish as you can in time trials. Fish either rush to your tackle or they hide in dark corners, depending on basic factors: the depth of the pond; the time of day or night; and sunshine-to-rainy outings.
It's always ponderous when they decide they're smarter than you. But this is pretty great, to see them play hard to get. I have found myself talking at these fake prey, since Christine's not around for me to share jokes with, at the expense of the fish's fragile egos.
"Why won't you take the bait?" I ask.
They do not answer. Haughty fish.
And so, alone, "Sega Bass Fishing" is a fine little excursion from reality, to be spent in bursts of time-killing, rather than as all-night affairs.
I'm sure there are bigger lessons to be learned in fishing, and philosophizing to be had. But really, I just want a fishing partner to point at me and laugh, "In your face!," while grooving a victory dance to music memories in her head from parties long relinquished.
("Sega Bass Fishing" retails for $30 for Wii -- Plays fun, if limited. Looks fine. Easy. Rated "E." Three stars out of four.)
Apr. 18, 2008
'Pinball Hall of Fame' breathes new life into classics
By Doug Elfman
Roger Sharpe saved pinball. It's hard to believe now, but pinball machines used to be illegal in cities around the country, even Chicago, the pinball manufacturing capital of the world.
Pinball bans came into effect in the 1940s, because some machines were used for gambling, with lucky payoffs built in. Eventually, pinball makers got rid of the offending elements of chance. And in the 1970s, gaming companies challenged government bans in court.
The chief witness was Sharpe, a one-time managing editor of GQ magazine. With a Tom Selleck mustache stretched across his face, he walked into courtrooms, pointed at the shots he vowed to pull off, a la Babe Ruth, and flipped them perfectly.
This proved pinball was a game of skill, and soon Sharpe's prowess convinced politicos to lift bans around the country.
Three decades later, Sharpe thinks pinball is harder and a younger man's game, especially when he goes to international pinball championships such as the one that hit Las Vegas a few weeks ago.
Sharpe still rocks the Tom Selleck mustache. He tries to tell me about the spirituality of pinball, but I'm more interested in the fact that his wife adorned a pinball machine's back glass while dressed in a bikini.
You see, when he became a star in the 1970s, manufacturers hired him to design pinball machines. His first foray was SharpShooter. The back glass featured Sharpe wearing Western gun wear. Next to him were photos of two women in swimwear. One model was his wife, Ellen.
"She's the woman with her hand a little higher up on my thigh," Sharpe says, grinning.
The other model was the president of the pinball company. Was she also hot in real life? "Oh, yeah," he says, as if I'm crazy for asking.
SharpShooter isn't around anymore. But some machines Sharpe mastered years ago are featured in the addictive little Wii video game "Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection."
If you're old enough to remember these "Williams'" titles, they'll shock you with flawless reproductions. They look exact, down to the grungy 25-cent slots.
On Wii, you "push" the table by shaking your hand controllers. If you push too much, you tilt. This perfect game play makes "Williams" the best pinball video game I've seen.
There are just enough classics to keep you busy for hours at a time: "Jive Time" (1970); "Gorgar" (1979); "Firepower" (1980); "Black Knight" (1980); "Sorcerer" (1980); "Space Shuttle" (1984); "Pinbot" (1986); "Taxi" (1988); "Whirlwind" (1990); and "Funhouse" (1990).
Several classics aren't here. But these make a fun gift, with multiball bonus extravaganzas, great sound effects and unquestionable physics.
In real life, Williams doesn't make pinball machines anymore. It creates gambling machines for Vegas. Today's sole manufacturer is Stern Pinball Inc. in Chicago. Like many companies, Stern is dealing with the recession and, oddly, smoking bans in watering holes, says company head Gary Stern.
"Now," he says, "they may stop at the store and buy a six pack, instead of going out to play in bars."
Or they might stay home and pretend to be Roger Sharpe, playing "Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection." There are worse fantasies.
("Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection" retails for $30 for Wii, $20 for PSP, and $15 for PS 2 -- Plays very fun. Looks great. Easy to challenging, depending on the pinball game. Rated "E." Three and one-half stars out of four.)
Apr. 11, 2008
'Dark Sector's' flying blade one of the coolest weapons ever
By Doug Elfman
Let me describe for you the almost-pretty place where I'm standing. I'm in the middle of a dingy courtyard in Russia. Pretty flowers sway with the breeze. Green vines cascade from brick balconies over ornate archways.
And I'm covered in toxic sludge.
Here in "Dark Sector," some jerkwad named Mezner with too much time on his hands decided to use biochemical something-something to metamorphose regular people into zombies, snarling dogs and killer soldiers who hate me.
Then Mezner injected my right arm with toxins, too, so here I stand, polluted. But the joke's on him, because his toxins turned my arm into a murderous slime weapon that throws a toxic boomerang at his idiot henchmen.
This boomerang weapon, a spiky glaive, is one of the coolest military arms you'll ever see. You throw it at someone, and while it's midflight, you control where it goes in slow motion, and the camera point-of-view changes to the blade's perspective.
This means you carefully guide a flying blade to cut off someone's legs or head, causing this dying prey to scream, "Arrrgh!" Which sounds frightening on my home theater system.
Also cool: You can combine the glaive with fire from burning cars, electricity from shorted-out circuitry boards, or ice from frozen barrels. You can throw your burning, electrified or iced glaive at villains and detonate it like a bomb on top of their heads. Then the boomerang returns to you in one piece.
That glaive helps make "Dark Sector" stand out from the crowded field of chop-shop blood fests. The game also is playable for its intense and detailed battlefields. You see every line in every brick and burning car littering this guerrilla war zone.
The difficulty range of "Sector" hits a sweet spot. If you're a hard-core gamer, you'll find it frustrating at first, then pretty easy to beat within a day. If you're a casual gamer, I bet it could take you a month to solve all of the puzzling challenges.
It's a good thing that villainous henchmen aren't easy to slay. They are fairly powerful and resilient against your handgun bullets and glaive. So as bad men try to stop you on your quest to kill Mezner or whatever, you really have to pay attention to your surroundings to avoid machine gun fire and swinging sledgehammers.
The downsides: You can do more damage by glaive-ing someone's legs off than if you slice him through the heart. Chalk that up to video game illogic. It's also less fun online. Plus, the turret guns are bad. And you can barely run; you end up walking a lot.
There are the many puzzles, which can confuse you without annoying you. At one point, I was stuck for a half-hour trying to figure out if I should turn my glaive into a fireball to break into a building along my route. Finally, I realized I could just open the door with my hands. Duh.
That's the joy of an entertaining game like "Dark Sector." It makes you learn so many tricks to succeed, you begin to overthink a level or two and psyche yourself out. It can make you feel dumb, like watching "Jeopardy!" But that's OK.
("Dark Sector" retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360 -- Plays quite fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language. Three and one-half stars out of four.)