Latest Video Game Columns
Dec. 28, 2007
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
The Oscars, Grammys and Emmys always come too late, months after the turn of the year. Meanwhile, the video game world already has ushered in awards season, and most of the right games are winning respect.
The big victor, "BioShock," won Game of the Year from both the Spike Video Game Awards and the G4 "X-Play" awards. "BioShock" wasn't my favorite fun. But it deserves the honors, and I'll tell you why in my 2007 Game Dork Awards.
Game of the Year: Xbox 360's "BioShock" isn't just a scary horror game with girls in pigtails sucking spirits out of corpses with the tips of medical needles. It's a broadly cinematic outing, populated with crazy-talking demons living in a creepy art deco otherworld, where you sneak around and kill your way to the end. Being ambitious is great. But succeeding at every ambitious turn makes this a masterwork. "BioShock" (rated "M") also is the Adventure Game of the Year.
Couldn't Have Lived Without It: Xbox 360's "Shadowrun" ("M") operates unlike other online shooters. After every 10- to 20-minute battle, you lose all the guns and magical powers you just gained, and you start over from scratch. This sounds pointless. But once it got under my skin, I wanted to play nothing else all summer and fall. It's also the Online Game of the Year.
Interactive: "Rock Band," for Xbox 360, PS 3 and PS 2, can be had for $170 (yikes). You play this "Guitar Hero"-patterned musical ("T") on guitar, microphone and drums. You also can get friends to join you for a full rock band experience right there in your living room. That does sound complicated, doesn't it? It kind of is.
Overlooked: "Raw Danger!" for PS 2 ("T") looks terrible and seems unbelievably simplistic at first. But it's a lot of fun, playing a waiter guiding people to safety during torrential flooding. Also, "SingStar Pop" (E 10+) is a fantastic karaoke series. And "Kororinpa: Marble Mania" ("E") spruces up the marble-madness style with easy to impossible challenges.
Racing: "MotorStorm" ("T") is an artistic achievement for the PS 3, both as a solo racer and as an online competition. Nothing else came close to providing this much car fun this year.
Fighting: "Mortal Kombat: Armageddon" ("M") translates the popular franchise for the Wii by letting you swing the Wii wand to beat people up. Pretty cool.
Action: "God of War II" ("M") for PS 2 lived up to the pressure to look, play and feel as good as the original, and it met expectations just a little more than did the also-excellent, superhyped, best-selling "Halo 3."
Sports: "Major League Baseball 2K7" ("E") combined realistic baseball player movements and attributes with smooth batting and fielding. It's available for every console and hand-held system.
Shooter: "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" ("M") pretties up "Call of Duty" graphics for solo play and introduces the second-best online shooting of the year, for Xbox 360 and PS 3 (and DS).
Reissue: "Resident Evil 4" ("M") for the Wii reminded everyone why it's one of the best four games of all time. It's scary and intense, now interactively murderous with the Wii wand.
Kids: "Super Mario Galaxy" ("E") turns you upside-down as you run around planets to kill evil mushrooms and such. Looks familiar, but the game play is sleek.
Maverick: "Manhunt 2" ("M") looks like the future of PSP games. It maximizes characters' bodies so they don't look like little tiny fellas on the hand-held game system. Also, the playing system is a blast.
Dec. 21, 2007
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
There are times when you feel like you're not in step with critics. I can't stand the acclaimed "Lost." Eric Clapton makes me sleepy. And I didn't see what the big deal was about "The Departed."
You can chalk moments like this up to, "There's no accounting for taste." My Grandma Nana used to say that whenever I asked her why in the world she was watching "Murder, She Wrote."
And so, a few very ambitious video games are garnering extremely good reviews, but I don't want to play them for one more minute after writing this column. They're not terrible. They're just not for me.
"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" is a semi-epic adventure that would remind you of "Raiders of the Lost Arc" and especially "Tomb Raider."
You trek along a many-hour tour of jungles, caves, waterfalls and submarine wrecks. You jog past leafy greenery and scuttle across ledges by fingertip.
You play as a treasure hunter who thinks he's a descendent of the childless explorer (and slave trader, I'd like to add) Sir Francis Drake. Once you (as Nathan) find Drake's supersecret map, the journey is on.
My big problem is the pacing. I play games to play them, not to watch them. In "Drake's Fortune," there's a lot of watching of people talking in filmlike scenes. The guy and the girl are hot for each other; chat, chat, chat. Drake's mentor gets shot; yada, yada, yada.
Normally, I'd applaud the effort of a game's striving for good dialogue. The script for "Drake's Fortune" is at least written well. It just goes on forever, when instead I want to climb stuff and practice aiming at people's heads. Also, the shooting is a fairly sloppy and slow-going, aim-and-fire process.
What's worse is I have to walk over every inch of the game to try to find small, hidden treasures in the grass, like a silver fish charm the size of a pendant. Tedious.
So if you're looking for a pretty game, with lots of light quests, maybe you'll like it. If not, I doubt it.
The other ambitious semi-epic is the sequel "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction." It's even more breathtaking in its scenery than "Drake's Fortune." You travel through extravagantly busy places throughout the universe, where cars fly and such.
Our hero, Ratchet the Lombax (a bobcatlike, sci-fi biped) runs around with his robot buddy Clank. As you press them onward, you bash and shoot bad guys (space pirates, bugs, "Troglasaurs," robots), whose "souls" (body parts) break up and enter your body spiritually, to give you more power.
"Tools of Destruction" is probably a good kids' game. It's cute. Parts of it are funny. But you beat up and shoot evil robots all the time. Mash two buttons for six hours straight, and you get the gist.
It's as repetitive as algebra class, with all that problem-solving. I agree with Prince that there's "Joy in Repetition." I just don't think this "Tools of Destruction" business is the repetitive act Prince was talking about.
("Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction" retails for $60 for PS 3 -- Plays redundant. Looks fantastic. Easy to challenging settings. Rated "E 10+" for alcohol reference, animated blood, crude humor, fantasy violence and language. Two and one-half stars out of four.)
("Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" retails for $60 for PS 3 -- Plays OK. Looks very good. Easy to challenging. Rated "T" for blood, language mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco and violence. Two and one-half stars.)
Dec. 14, 2007
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
My fiancee played cute Wii games at first, such as "Table Tennis" and "Rayman Raving Rabbids." But it was a bloody fighting title that turned her into a game nut for the first time in her life.
There she was, stomping people, punching them in the throat, and trying to rip out their spines.
"What is this game?" Stephanie asked excitedly.
"Mortal Kombat: Armageddon," I said.
"Oh!" she called out with a shock, knowing the great old game only from its controversial "bloody" headlines a decade ago. "This is what 'Mortal Kombat' is?"
And so, the video game industry often presumes new women gamers only will be interested in bunnies, sudoku and sparkle ponies. But the truth is, women enjoy anything good (just like men do), if they're enticed to give it a chance. And the Wii magically draws in women.
"The standard game console makes no sense to us," Stephanie says. "All those buttons and controls. And we give up easily. The Wii is far less intimidating, and we can easily master the controls."
The controls also vibrate, and this is cool, she says.
Lately, there's a whole slate of violent games for the Wii. Nintendo even has an excellent new gun device called the Wii Zapper for $25. It looks like a small rifle. You snap your Wii controllers into it, and you point the whole thing at the TV, which reads your aim and trigger finger.
You can use the Zapper if you want to dive into a typical "guy's game," such as "Medal of Honor: Heroes 2." It's a fairly entertaining, rather difficult World War II shooter. You crouch. You gun down Nazis. You walk some more. And this goes on for many hours.
If, however, you're like Stephanie and prefer fighting games, "WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2008" is the standard bearer of wrestling matches. It's good fun.
You use whichever wrestling style you like -- technical, dirty, submission -- to punch, kick and pile-drive burly men.
You want to stay away from "Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles," because it's just an arcade shooter. The game forces you down various paths, things pop up in front of you, and all you do is aim guns and blast them in the head. It's OK, though very utilitarian, like a shooting gallery.
And it's just not on par with the Wii's "Resident Evil 4," one of the best games of all time.
"Resident Evil 4" is very hard. Crazy farmers act like zombies as they come at you with pitchforks and other weapons. You snake your way through a very long story, killing the farmers and some anti-American religious cultists.
But the Wii game that seems destined to appeal to women is "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Anniversary." It's a masterpiece.
You explore tombs and cities by running through them, climbing ropes and walls, swinging across open spaces from a grappling hook, swimming underwater and, of course, shooting anything that gets in your way, which includes bears. Poor little bears.
New women gamers also will see why guys have been into Lara Croft so much visually. When she shimmies poles and does heaving-bosom splits while climbing ledges, it looks like the cleanest dirty game ever. So it seems like it's made for a man, but it's strong enough for a woman.
("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Anniversary" retails for $40 for Wii -- Plays very fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "T" for violence, mild suggestive themes. Four stars out of four.)
("Medal of Honor: Heroes 2" retails for $50 for Wii -- Plays fun, if routine. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "T" for violence. Three and one-half stars.)
("Resident Evil 4" retails for $30 for Wii -- Plays very fun. Looks great. Very challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, language. Four stars.)
("Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles" retails for $50 for Wii -- Plays rote. Looks very good. Challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, violence. Two and a half stars.)
("WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2008" retails for $50 for Wii -- Plays fun. Looks good. Challenging. Rated "T" for blood, mild language, suggestive themes, violence. Three stars.)
New in Lagniappe: video game reviews
When Doug Elfman was growing up in New Orleans and Athens, Ga., adults kept telling him he was wasting his life by playing video games. But he stayed his course, killing virtual Nazis and angry-eyed mushrooms. And now he writes the biggest, self-syndicated video game column in America, and perhaps the world. He's like the Roger Ebert of video games.
In Friday's Lagniappe, Elfman's weekly video game column, Game Dork, launches with a lineup of holiday gift ideas for the gamer in your life.
Elfman, a graduate of Louisiana State University, interned at the Times-Picayune in 1990, then explored newspapers throughout the South, covering hurricanes, presidential campaign stops, and lots of court cases involving indicted mayors and criminals who pummeled store Santas.
Then, in 2000, Elfman, now 40, became a nationally recognized music critic at The Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he also began writing about games. It was there he earned three first-place awards -- for feature writing, and arts and entertainment criticism -- from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. But he came to prominence mostly for coining the phrase "suckity-suck-sucked" after experiencing a Britney Spears concert.
For the past few years, Elfman -- whose family is rebuilding in Gentilly, post-Katrina -- has been critiquing TV shows on staff at The Sun-Times in Chicago. Occasionally, he appears on "Good Morning America" to talk about TV.
"So my job, in essence, is to sleep in, then watch and play TV," Elfman said. "Whenever college journalists ask me how to attain such a lifestyle, I paraphrase Mariah Carey, whom I never listen to, by saying, 'You gotta make it happen.' "
Doug Elfman blogs at http://www.DougElfman.com. His column will feature the latest in video game titles and news. For for it each Friday at http://www.nola.com/entertainment
Saturday, December 01, 2007
Rock Band is one of this holiday's most ambitious new video games
The Game Dork
This holiday's most ambitious new video game is a rock band in a box. Rock Band retails for $170. Yes, that's insane. But it comes with a game you can play for months. Plus a guitar. Plus a microphone. And a drum set.
None of these plastic, almost life-size instruments are playable in the real world. You hook them up to your Xbox 360 or PS 3. Then you play the instruments exactly like you would in Guitar Hero. Notes scroll on the screen. You play them.
You can even hook up four instruments at the same time and invite three friends to play guitar, bass and drums while you sing.
To tell the truth, I'm kind of over the whole Guitar Hero phenomenon. I've been tinkling with variations of it for a few years.
So it's an awesome change of pace to bang on four drum pads and a foot pedal in Rock Band. There you are, sort of playing rhythm on Nine Inch Nails' "The Hand That Feeds."
Even more fun: singing. I can't stand karaoke, which was designed to entertain one person at a time. But Rock Band's vocals are reminiscent of very fun Karaoke Revolution and SingStar games. It does a fantastic job of recognizing when you sing in pitch, in key and in time.
I don't want to sound uppity, but years ago I won a partial violin scholarship, and I sang in a garage band that never left the garage. So I conquer large parts of Guitar Hero fairly easily.
Even so, it's especially gratifying to sing the lead to Nirvana's "In Bloom" and Radiohead's "Creep."
There are gender-based obstacles. The vocals are female for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps." I can barely hit the high notes, so I sing in a lower octave to get the job done.
If you have scant musical talent, you can breeze through most songs by turning the settings to "easy." "Medium" is tougher. "Hard" and "Expert" seriously test the skills of, say, an ex-violinist.
What stinks is dealing with songs you don't like. I could do without Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" and even Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly" (not the Foo's finest day).
Song choices are also the problem with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. It's entertaining (it comes with a guitar, no drums and no mike) and features 71 tunes. But oh, the horrors of Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" and Slipnot's "Before I Forget." Boo, hiss.
The bonus potential of Rock Band and Guitar Hero is this: Game makers are selling more songs online. Rock Hero (58 songs) will soon offer downloads of whole albums, including Nirvana's Nevermind. I can't wait for that.
But I have a plea for the people behind Rock Band. Don't forget other music from alt nation and electronica land. Please pretend you're Santa, and consider my wish list of Liz Phair, Portishead, Olive, Bjork, Peaches, Andrew Bird, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and Regina Spektor. Thanks, you're real pals.
Game Dork Doug Elfman is also the TV critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. He blogs at DougElfman.com.
By DOUG ELFMAN
The Game Dork
There's no shame in poverty, but there's no money in it, either.
And buying video game stuff for holiday gift-giving can require lots of cash. This irritates me, since I remember what it was like growing up poor.
So I'm splitting this year's gift guide into two categories. One is for cash-strapped gift-buyers. Another is for people flush with cash. Happy holidays, players!
Low on funds?
Go to a used-game store like EB Games, GameCrazy or GameStop, where you can find a "refurbished" Nintendo DS ($80) for a kid younger than 10 or for a newbie gamer who likes puzzle games, which are available in abundance.
If you're shopping for a hard-core gaming teen or adult, you might want to go instead with a refurbished PlayStation 2 ($80) or hand-held PSP ($130).
Refurbished machines are used but spruced up at factories, as dependable as new. Do not buy an old Xbox (which is the pre-360 Xbox). No one's making games for the original Xbox ($80) anymore.
Next, you need games. You can sift through used-game bins for $2 to $20 bargains. Used games always work. And if your gift receivers don't like the titles you pick, they can usually exchange them, no fuss.
Instead of buying, it might be cheaper to rent games from stores like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, for just a few dollars for weeklong rentals. Video stores offer gift cards for renting.
Another pricier but cooler option is GameFly.com. It's like Netflix for games. GameFly mails games you pick out online. Cost: $16 per month to rent one game at a time; $23 a month to rent two games at a time.
Money to spare?
For a hard-core gamer, buy the new Xbox 360 Elite ($450) if your gamer doesn't already own an Xbox 360. Check out store ads in the newspaper. You'll see that some offer Elite bundles with free games or other extras.
If you're buying for an online gamer, you can't go wrong with a one-year Xbox Live subscription card ($50).
If you want to get someone a second system, the PSP ($170) is my favorite, since it's like holding a PS2 in your fingers. The DS Lite ($130) is great for kids and fans of puzzle games. But the trendy system is, of course, the Nintendo Wii ($250, or up to $500 as a multigame bundle). The interactive system thrills female and kid gamers en masse. Supplies are good. This season, you should be able to actually get your hands on one in a store.
Personally, I'm falling in love with the Sony PlayStation 3 ($500 for the 80 gig; $400 for the lacking 40 gig). It's a stronger computer than the Xbox 360 and Wii. It plays Blu-Ray and DVD movies, plus PS2 games. And PS3's online gaming is free, as opposed to the fee-based Xbox Live.
The bad thing is the PS3 isn't selling great, so its future is relatively weaker than Xbox 360. The problem: there aren't tons of great PS3 games yet. And games released for multiple systems usually take weeks or months longer to hit the PS3 than the Xbox 360.
Doug Elfman is a TV columnist for Chicago Sun-Times. Game Dork appears biweekly.
Here's the year's hot titles -- just make sure your gamer doesn't already own them:
* "Guitar Hero III" for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii (guitar simulator, rated T for teen)
* "Rock Band" for Xbox 360, PS3 (and PS2 mid-December) (guitar, singing and drum simulator, T); be careful, this one's $170 for a full bundle.
* "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" for Xbox 360, PS3, DS (war, rated M for mature)
* "Assassin's Creed" for Xbox 360, PS3 (action-adventure, M)
* "Super Mario Galaxy" for Wii (action-adventure, E for everyone)
* "BlackSite: Area 51" for Xbox Live (shooter, T)
* "Mass Effect" for Xbox 360 (action role-playing game, M)
* "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction" for PS3 (action, E 10+ for everyone 10 and older)
* "WWE Smackdown! Vs. Raw 2008" for Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, DS (wrestling, T)
* "Rayman Raving Rabbids 2" for Wii, DS (mini-games, E 10+)
* "The Simpsons Game" for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, DS (adventure, T)
* "Manhunt 2" for PSP (horror, less great for PS2, Wii, M)
More can't miss games
"God of War 2" for PS 2 (action-adventure, rated M)
"NBA 2K8" for Xbox 360, PS 3, PS 2 (basketball, E)
"Resident Evil 4" for Wii (horror, M)
"Shadowrun" (shooting, awesome only in online gaming, M)
"Major League Baseball 2K7" for Xbox 360, PS 3, PS 2, PSP, DS (baseball, E)
"MotorStorm" for PS 3 (off-road racing, online especially, T)
"Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2" for Xbox 360, PS 3, PSP (shooter, T)
"Super Paper Mario" for Wii (action-adventure, E)
"Halo 3" for Xbox 360 (action-adventure, M)
"BioShock" for Xbox 360 (horror action, M)
"Medal of Honor: Airborne" for Xbox 360 (war, T)
"Tiger Woods PGA Tour '08" (golf, E)
"Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow" for PSP (shooter, T)
"Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" (shooter, especially online, M)
"The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" for PS 3 (fantasy action, M)
"Skate" for Xbox 360, PS 3 (skateboarding, T)
"Crackdown" for Xbox 360 (shooter, M)
"SSX Blur" for Wii (snowboarding, E)
"New York Times Crossword" for DS (puzzles, T)
"MLB '07 The Show" for Xbox 360, PS 3 (baseball, E)
"Nervous Brickdown" for DS (puzzles, E)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Nov. 23, 2007
As harmless small stars fell, like candy from a pocket in the sky, onto Mario's idyllic town, his longtime love, Princess Peach, waited joyfully for him in her castle. But like so many tragedies that befell Peach before, Bowser the brute swooped in and kidnapped her.
And so, nothing short of Mario's saving the universe will lead to her emotional rescue. That's how Mario tales wag. The damsel in distress is most in peril whenever her mustachioed hero is away.
But in Wii's "Super Mario Galaxy," Nintendo's crafty gamesmanship once again makes a familiar-looking Mario game seem like one of the best kids' titles of its year.
Mario (in your hands) explores fiery and watery planets in distant galaxies. There's nothing special about that. But the way you travel the universe is cool and new.
Planets are little things, appearing in the center of your TV screen as if they're just large globes. They're merely the sizes of an Earth house or an Earth neighborhood.
This keeps you on your toes. It's harder to avoid death when you're walking and jumping upside-down, sideways and diagonally around a violent orb.
The usual cutesy Nintendo villains try to snuff you out: Mushrooms squint cruel eyes at you; toothy giant flowers attempt to smash you with heavy heads.
I have to disclose I didn't finish "Galaxy" before writing this review. I ran out of time while playing it and two other great new releases -- each of which could take 20 hours just to speed through -- so I can give you impressions of all three titles, in time for holiday shopping.
The other two superb games will appeal to hard-core gamers who love to shoot things to death.
"Mass Effect" is an action-role playing game from BioWare, the maker of fun "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" and "Jade Empire."
The look of "Mass Effect" is a cinematic feat. Like cinema, you watch the game's graphic films just about as often as you play the game. Sci-fi soldiers and aliens from the 22nd century chat gravely about a complex political and military struggle. You pick your responses during these conversations, issuing snippets of curt dialogue such as "What did you find?" and "Why is Williams here?"
Yeah, that's odd, but fans of role-playing games eat this stuff up. The fun comes from saving the universe by shooting evil robot-looking aliens, or whatever, across space stations, foreign planets and finely detailed capitols.
As shooting goes, though, my favorite war game in a while (especially online) is "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" on Xbox 360 and PS 3. Bad guys are terrorists (a little heavy on the Arabic, if you ask me). And the game play and illustrations are excellent, seamless and rich.
I just shot two guys in the back, in a dingy makeshift war zone littered with blown-up buses and fences, after I sniper-rifled a loser in his torso. I have to say I feel pretty good about that.
So there you go. You can save the universe from terrorists in "Modern Warfare," or from aliens in "Mass Effect" or from mean mushrooms in "Galaxy." God bless America and its violent choices.
("Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3; $30 for DS -- Plays very fun, especially online. Looks great. Moderately challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language. Four stars out of four.)
("Mass Effect" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 -- Plays fun. Looks stellar. Moderately challenging. Rated "M" for blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes, violence. Four stars.)
("Super Mario Galaxy" retails for $50 for Wii -- Plays fun. Looks very good. Easy to moderately challenging. Rated "E" for mild cartoon violence. Four stars.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Nov. 16, 2007
In the video game world (just like in films and TV), story lines offer heroes Six Justifications for Murder, so protagonists can kill people with moral rationalization. You see these killing excuses in "Manhunt 2," a game so gruesome Britain banned it.
Britain banned a fun game.
The plot is simple: You portray a bespectacled scientist named Danny who was institutionalized by a nefarious group conducting secret experiments. You escape by slaying people in dark alleys and grungy buildings.
The Six Justifications for Murder come in handy.
1. Self-defense: After hacking several villains with axes and shovels, the narrator says to you/Danny in a voice-over, "It was either them or you. Remember that!"
2. Vigilantism: After you stab a guy in the back of the head with a syringe, the narrator says, "You stopped him from harming others!"
3. Revenge: I don't want to give too much away on this plot point.
4. Obedience to authority: The insistent narrator urges at times, "Kill him!"
5. Collateral damage: If you desire, you can let certain people escape alive, but more likely you will kill them accidentally or on purpose, because they get in your way.
6. Body control: Someone uses drugs, the paranormal or mind control to cause you to kill.
For the entire nation of England to put the kibosh on "Manhunt 2" is, of course, an exercise in selective enforcement of anti-violence in art. "Manhunt 2" ranks about as violent as a collection of killing clips from "The Sopranos," which played on public TV in Britain.
"Manhunt 2" starts with Danny's sneaking behind an evil henchman and slipping a suffocating plastic bag over his head. Danny's vision blurs red.
"I killed him," Danny says. "I feel sick." Then he pukes.
From there on out, you creep behind bad guys, terminate them (sometimes by putting a gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger) and move on.
The ever-escalating panoply of weaponry at your fingertips begins with a syringe and the plastic bag, and advances to knives, meat hooks, baseball bats, crowbars, bricks, a pistol and a gun whose bullets set men on fire. Sometimes, you chop off heads with a fireman's axe, then carry the head around on your belt loop.
Yet for an adult hard-core gamer such as myself, "Manhunt 2" doesn't make me blink at its graphically interfaced "blood" and "guts." The only thing that surprised me was watching my pistol ammo blow red brains on a wall.
As in almost every violent game ever made, you are a good guy, or an antihero. Here, the killing can feel a bit like a one-trick pony: hide in a shadow, sneak, kill, repeat. But in Rockstar Games fashion, it's entertaining for those of us not offended by what others call crass.
What is crass? That's a subjective determination, you know. I didn't flinch at the possibly crass joke where, when you're offing a guy, he pleads, "Who'll feed my cats?" That just made logical sense, but I have cats.
("Manhunt 2" retails for $40 for Wii; $30 for PS 2, PSP -- Plays fun. Looks good. Moderately challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs. Three stars out of four.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Nov. 09, 2007
Our government is taking flak not just in film, TV and music. Now it's being satirized to great effect in "BlackSite: Area 51." This fun shooting adventure mocks the unpopularity of the president and the Iraq war. It hints a draft lurks around the corner.
"BlackSite," being released Monday, is so subversive in a lighthearted way, the story line suggests government doctors are fusing space alien DNA with that of soldiers to turn them into super disgusting killers, who accidentally go on the loose.
It's up to you, the player, to portray an elite American soldier, trying to save our great land from ... us. You shoot machine guns, rocket launchers and plasma rifles to take down DNA-corrupted U.S. soldiers and big, ugly aliens running amok around Area 51.
But first, we begin with a back story in Iraq, where you shoot at people who are shooting at you on a makeshift battlefield at an oil refinery.
"Is everyone in this place armed?" So asks a soldier buddy of yours. "Who gives assault weapons to refinery workers?"
"Um," a fellow U.S. soldier responds. "I think they bought this (weaponry) from us," meaning the United States. "I hope they got some good money."
On and on, the statements roll. There's even a nod to the political tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, an allusion to how people in New Orleans thought the government would help them.
If you're familiar with video games, it's not terribly surprising to find one so anti-establishment. Game makers are a paranoid bunch. Two years ago, developers with a good sense of humor parodied the supposedly glorious 1950s by creating really repressed idiot Americans in "Destroy All Humans!" Also in 2005, the unrelated and awesome "Area 51" played on fears that the moon landing wasn't real.
Before the 2004 election, three Vietnam games reminded us of the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, just when Vietnam vet John Kerry was failing in his bid for the White House.
Even "Call of Duty" World War II games flash forboding quotes on the screen, such as one by 15th century humanist Desiderius Erasmus in "Call of Duty 2": "War is delightful for those who have not experienced it."
Many war games are, by definition, implicitly pro-killing if not pro-establishment. Explicitly pro-establishment games are harder to come by. The big exceptions are "Tom Clancy" games, where villains are the liberal media and terrorists of various skin colors. "Clancy" titles are, by the way, quite fun.
Politics aside, Midway has delivered here an entertaining escapade. It's long and beautifully drawn, sending you scurrying to search and destroy through detailed trailer parks, Nevada neighborhoods and canals.
Online, you can tap into death matches, team death matches, capture the flags, and human vs. alien levels, where you try to slay alien-morphing humans before they corrupt you.
In offline solo missions, you save some civilians who refuse to leave their government-destroyed, alien-infested towns.
"Yeah, they told me to evacuate, but I'm up to my eyeballs in a mortgage for this place," a Nevada resident says.
A few seconds later, a two-story alien bursts from the ground and eats Mr. Mortgage. Regardless of politics, this is cool. Death is almost always cool in video games, no matter how wrong it's supposed to be, because killing is the nature of the beast.
("BlackSite: Area 51" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 -- Plays fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "T" for blood, language, violence. Four stars out of four.)
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By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Nov. 02, 2007
The Simpsons Game" is fun, cute and fairly funny. But just like "Simspons" games have done in the past, this one tries to have it both ways. It's a satire of clichés and gaming styles found in other games; yet it simultaneously profits from using those exact same clichés and styles.
Just for starters, "The Simpsons" parodies (and "borrows") from "Frogger," "Grand Theft Auto," "Medal of Honor," "Everquest" and "Guitar Hero." One of the only fresh ideas is that sloshy, burpy Homer collects Duff beer caps.
You might think this amalgamation of homages is unoriginal, so to combat this notion, "The Simpsons Game" goes out of its way to mock the very game challenges it borrows, such as breakable crates, and standing on pressure pads to make doors open.
When you first encounter giant blades trying to kill you, the game stops for a moment so the comic book guy can appear on the screen to say, "Worst video game cliché ever."
But enough with my gripe. "Simpsons" is mostly an entertaining, if short, exploration of the "Simpsons" universe. The only real issue is camera angles can be iffy and frustrating.
You play in various double-teams as Bart, Homer, Marge and Lisa. At times, you crawl through tight spaces as baby Maggie, just like mechanical spiders did in EA Games' awesome "James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing."
EA made the "Simpsons," and designers pulled off another remarkable little job, offering a zippy, easy-to-manage "Simpsons" game with 16 episodes that makes use of two decades of "Simpsons" sets and characters.
Each episode is a quest. As Homer and Bart, you eat and punch your way through an eating contest in an Epcot-like theme park of international "countries." As Marge, you convince townspeople to join your angry Frankenstein mob, to demand the mayor ban a "Grand Theft Auto"-ish video game.
Each character has little powers that are actually more fun than they are endearing. Homer turns into a giant, destructive ball. Lisa blows a sax that stuns enemies, and her music entrances them to fight each other.
And there's some great satire of Mario, "Donkey Kong," "Street Fighter" and other classics. I laughed the most at seeing, in one background, a representation of speedy Sonic the Hedgehog looking very haggard while stuck on a kind of hamster wheel.
While playing as Bart and Lisa, they try to stop environment-destroying loggers who call them not just "tree huggers" but "Gore girls."
Funny and left-leaning, yes, but it's notable this is the overly marketed cartoon's 22nd video game. "The Simpsons" complains about capitalism, while capitalizing off of it. To wit, there are six different box covers for this game. For "Simpsons" collectors to own them all, they'd shell out $280 plus tax.
Yet, Bart snipes, "The only Simpsons game I can think of is the one where we pretend Dad's not an alcoholic."
Maybe "Simpsons" game No. 23 can send dad to rehab. I haven't seen that in other games, though, so don't count on it.
("The Simpsons Game" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3; $50 for Wii; $40 for PS 2 and PSP; $30 for DS -- Plays fun. Looks very good. Easy to moderately challenging. Rated "T" for alcohol and tobacco reference, animated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes. Three and one-half stars out of four.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Oct. 26, 2007
Nariko, the feisty fighter of "Heavenly Sword," is extra motivated to kill lots of nasties, while she's on her journey to punish their evil King Bohan. The king has kidnapped Nariko's father; there's nothing so wrathful as a warrior with daddy issues.
PlayStation 3's "Heavenly Sword" has piqued the interest of many male gamers because this heroine is a lovely young redhead whose dress seems to have made up its mind it will not cover the sides of her hips or the upper reaches of her chest plate.
Nariko is prophesied to save her kingdom. Here she is a female, and everyone in her village thought their savior was going be a dude.
"They said I was a portent of doom. Maybe they were right," she says in voice-over narration.
No, I bet "they" were wrong. Nariko slices and dices rival clan members of the king's allegiance. She bloodies them using a "Heavenly Sword" that must weigh what she weighs. It's enormous.
King Bohan wants to gain possession of that big bad blade, because it's magically powerful, like a "Lord of the Rings" ring. The point of the game: Can she defeat his majesty in all his jerky glory?
"Heavenly Sword" has been compared to the masterpiece "God of War" games, because it's a deliciously pretty action-adventure set in a grand, fantasy past of rope bridges and ornate castles.
But "Heavenly Sword" isn't nearly as fun as "God of War" titles. "God" games beg you to run quickly across vast lands, while sleekly slaughtering evil underlings, one or five at a time. However, "Heavenly's" journey is paced slower. Plus, she's constantly killing 20 people at a time, too quickly.
In other words, "Heavenly" blurs its beautiful action too much while standing still, and the hacking and slashing resembles "Ninja Gaiden" more than "God of War." "Ninja Gaiden" games are fun, but they suffer the same problem. Killing becomes routine button-mashing. Monster mashes are entertaining for a bit but they glaze the eyes.
Fantasy heroes in such games are always in search of a perfect sword, a doomed romance and a prophesy that proves they are The One.
Ergo, "Dragon Blade: Wrath of Fire" for the Wii also stars a prophesied hero of a guy who is poorly named Dal. His betrothed was killed by villains he seeks. (How romantically tragic.) He must slay six dragons and steal their powers, including their red fiery fists. Along the way, he beats up a forever-series of giant spiders, ram-headed bipeds wielding huge axes, and other nefarious scumbags.
The promise of "Dragon Blade" is in its Wii remote, not in the Wii's subpar visuals and sounds. You the gamer swing the wireless remote as you would a sword or fist, and Dag swings his weapons thusly.
But "Dragon Blade" settles into even more repetition than "Heavenly Sword" does. I sit passively on the couch, twirling the Wii remote in circles at all times to beat up devil dogs.
So, yes, I've slain dragons and laid waste to men whose faces resemble lizard skulls. But I haven't broken a sweat or felt an ounce of excitement. In gaming, that kind of redundancy is the real portent of doom.
("Heavenly Sword" retails for $60 for PS 3 -- Plays alternatively fun and repetitive. Looks great. Moderately challenging. Rated "T" for blood, language, suggestive themes, violence. Three stars out of four.)
("Dragon Blade: Wrath of Fire" retails for $40 for Wii -- Plays repetitive. Looks OK. Easy to moderately challenging. Rated "T" for fantasy violence. Two stars out of four.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Oct. 19, 2007
If I were still poor and could afford to buy only one video game machine, I might go with Sony's hand-held PSP. It's an extraordinary little miracle on par with the PS 2, and now there's an even slimmer, lighter PSP on the market.
Sony just started selling a redesigned PSP. It doesn't weigh much more than my Blackberry. The excellent screen is still a 4.3-inch LCD, which beams movies and games with a crispness that beats iPod and other techy devices.
It's $170, though $200 bundles come with the fairly fun cartoon adventure "Daxter" and "Family Guy: The Freakin' Sweet Collection." Another new bundle comes with "Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron."
The pros: For this PSP, you can buy an AV cable that hooks up to TVs, so you can put PSP images on a big screen. Games load a little faster. And the system comes with a nice, 1 gig memory stick.
The cons: If you already own peripherals for your old PSP, they probably won't work. My amazing, 15-hour Blue Raven battery booster ($80) doesn't fit my redesigned PSP. Neither does my Griffin iFM radio adapter ($30; to receive radio signals), nor my Griffin iTrip ($25; to send PSP audio to my car radio).
Plenty of gamers complain the PSP doesn't offer as many great titles as do the PS 2 and Xbox 360. This is true. But there are enough games, such as "Tiger Woods PGA Tour '08," to keep you busy for months
And a handful of new and recent games spin spectacularly.
"NBA '08" is just as fun as the slate of basketball games on Xbox 360 and PS 3.
This summer's "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" lets you zip through a huge and showy action-adventure, both as a solo mission and as an online shooter.
And perhaps the best of a new bunch is "Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow," a sequel shooting game that looks better than most PS 2 games. It allows you to shoot and stab bad guys with aplomb. You even scald a guy's face against a stove top. The online shooting is fairly fun, too, though it's nothing like a great Xbox 360 experience.
The hand-held system may get a boost next spring with the release of "God of War: Chains of Olympus." I haven't been able to play all of "Olympus," but Sony sent me a demo so I could flip through several completed levels. And "Chains of Olympus" looks like it may be the greatest PSP game of all time.
It's a filmlike beast of an action-adventure that moves, feels and plays every bit as exciting as previous PS 2 "God of Wars."
Once again, you play as antihero Kratos, the strongest, most vicious warrior in history. He's a Spartan who swings blades of fire attached at the arms, slaying soldiers, dragons, giant mythical beasts, and even bigger mythical beasts (the size of airliners) that go around eating the merely giant beasts in their way.
In essence, "Chains of Olympus" could do for the PSP what "Halo" titles did for the Xbox 360: give gamers a massive reason to invest a lot of money in a system just to play one title. Or you could jump onto the PSP now, and get ready for its serious gamesmanship.
(Redesigned Sony PSP retails for $170 -- Plays fun. Looks great. Easy to very challenging games. Four stars.)
("NBA '08" retails for $40 for PSP -- Plays very fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "E." Four stars out of four.)
("Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow" retails for $40 for PSP -- Plays addictively fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "T" for language, violence. Four stars.)
("Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" retails for $40 for PSP -- Plays fun. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "T" for blood, mild language, violence. Three and one-half stars.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Oct. 05, 2007
Yes, "Halo 3" is an instant classic in an otherwise mediocre year. But leave it to me to nitpick: When you play against other gamers online, it takes forever to get a game started, and occasionally you can't even get a game to start.
Granted, this is a minor complaint that mostly will be straightened out pretty soon, as these things do. But it is annoying that every online game for a console -- even oh-mighty "Halo 3" -- begins with sporadic kinks in its computer servers.
The delays keep me from playing even more of the awesomeness that is "Halo 3," with its rocket launchers, rifles and "Needler" guns (which shoot killer icicle thingies into enemies' bodies that then explode within them).
Winning is all about finding the best guns lying around randomly (battlefields are strewn with weapons). This "Halo" also comes with better energy-sword fights than before. You clash against a rival, and the swords stun you both. Good luck not dying.
If you're not a gamer, here's the deal. Thanks largely to the first "Halo," the Xbox became a big seller in 2001 and 2002, when no one was sure if Microsoft's first game machine could compete against Sony's humongo PlayStation 2. "Halo" did for Microsoft what "Donkey Kong" and "Mario" games did for Nintendo.
Flash forward to now, and the Xbox 360 clearly is outselling the PS 2 and PS 3 in the serious gaming market, partly because "Halo 3" is available only on Xbox. This spells trouble for the otherwise excellent PS 3.
Once again, the sci-fi adventure is fantastic. "Halo 3" had the artistic advantage of time (three years in the making) and development money (plus a $10 million marketing campaign).
When you play the solo game against the computer, you travel across space stations and planets -- deserts, snowdrifts and everything green in between -- to kill evil soldiers who answer to the nasty Prophet of Truth.
I won't go into all the dorky details in the end of this trilogy, but essentially you are Master Chief, the marine (wearing an iconic green spacesuit) who can save humankind. You kill thousands of space dudes who want to destroy humanity and, I suppose, the universe.
Regular gamers will be satisfied playing just the nine levels of solo missions, because they are extravagantly drawn. And shooting your way through baddies is fun. (It's easy, moderately hard or very hard, depending on which setting you choose). This could take between 10 and 20 hours, based on your skills.
But many fans are going right to the online multiplayers, where you compete on 11 huge battle maps. You can join a team to capture a flag, protect bases against attack, or merely kill everything in sight. Or you can play a teamless free-for-all.
Two big new features live up to the hype. You can capture video of any moment you want -- like taking down several enemies with a single blow -- and share these images with anyone on Xbox Live, to prove how super duper dorky cool you are. And on another level, you can design parts of maps, not the locations but where weapons are placed and where you spawn back to life.
This is all pretty crazy and wondrous, which is why I feel slightly bad about slagging the game for its opening-week server slowdowns. But whatever. I want to jump in online now, now, now. I'm already sick of hearing gamers, through my headphones, say, "Why does it take so long?"
Hang in there, "Halo" heads. Everything will be perfect, any minute now, I hope.
("Halo 3" retails for $60 for Xbox 360 -- Plays fun. Looks great. Easy to very challenging, depending on settings. Rated "M" for blood, gore, mild language, violence. Four stars out of four.)
By Doug Elfman
The Game Dork
Sep. 28, 2007
We live in such a weird world. One minute, you're watching a Miss Teen USA contestant on TV who fails to string together a run-on sentence about geography, and you weep for our nation.
The next, you're finding out that one of the most popular video game genres in our little country is logic games, which have nothing to do with shooting people and everything to do with testing the depth of your cerebral cortex.
No, seriously. You must go figure, in one "Brain Age 2" minigame, the descending numbers correlating downward by seven from the number 78. And you must do so in very rapid order.
"Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day!" also makes you beat a quick clock while reading sheet music and pressing corresponding musical notes on a one-octave piano. This is not easy-peasy for nonmusicians.
Some "Brain Age 2" tests are somewhat less intimidating, like playing "Rock, Paper, Scissors."
Among the more moderately difficult minigames, you decipher how many dollars and coins to give back to a customer during a transaction.
But even those minigames gauge how fast you spin your logical mind, including sudoku puzzles. If you succeed quickly, the game says you have a young brain on the level of, say, a 22-year-old. If you're slow at math, you might have the brain age of a 55-year-old, even if you're much younger than that in real life.
Such logic games are awesome on the interactive DS, with its penlike stylus. Two other big winners are the summer releases "Picross DS" and "Nervous Brickdown."
"Picross" is a fill-in-the-blank puzzle, like sudoku but simpler. The board resembles "Battleship." There's an "X" axis and a "Y" axis, and you put a certain number of dots on each axis in a way that they correspond. I can't describe it any better than that.
It's a bizarre game with bizarre rules, and each round can last just 49 seconds or a full hour.
But trust me, "Picross" is mildly addictive if you're a math nerd like I am. (Most of my electives in college were calculus and such.)
Then there's "Nervous Brickdown" for the DS, a very creative and fascinating reinvention of "Breakout," the paddle-and-ball game. It comes with a handful of minigames, but what's exciting is how artistic these variations of "Breakout" are.
In one side game, you draw your own paddle shape (a "U," a "V" or whatever form you desire), and you push the paddle up and down (like you would on an air hockey table), and your ball destroys pretty, two-dimensional art paintings.
All these games are pretty cute, yet quite challenging. "Brain Age 2" is kicking my rump. On a weekend drive, my fiancee watched me playing it constantly and said, "You're gonna be, like, 18 by the time we get there." Nope. I had a brain age of 56.
I don't even want to do the math on how much older that makes my brain than my body.
("Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day!" retails for $20 for DS -- Plays addictive. Looks fine. Very challenging. Rated "E." Four stars out of four.)
("Nervous Brickdown" retails for $30 for DS -- Plays fun and cool. Looks great. Challenging. Rated "E." Three and one-half stars.)
("Picross DS" retails for $20 for the DS -- Plays intriguing if you're a math dork. Looks workaday. Easy to challenging. Rated "E." Three stars.)
By Doug Elfman
Sep. 21, 2007
You don't have to wonder much if "Stranglehold" is Asian-centric. Let's see. The action takes place in neon Hong Kong. One of your goals is to collect paper cranes for no good reason. And you're often taunted by a Hong Kong flute sound. This is a bit of a stereotype in stereo.
The game is officially titled "John Woo Presents Stranglehold," because it's based on characters from John Woo's 1992 action flick "Hard-Boiled." So the game is a sequel to a movie, and Chow Yun Fat stars in both. That's how the film-to-gaming universe spins lately, as anyone who has played a Vin Diesel game knows. (Vin Diesel movies: bad. Vin Diesel games: good.)
"Stranglehold" is a one-trick pony, but sometimes it's fun to ride a one-trick pony. The fun trick of "Stranglehold" is you must do the same thing over and over: Press a few buttons to kill thousands of baddies. But the killing methodology is intriguing and paced well enough to keep it from feeling like a sluggish donkey ride.
Our hero from Hong Kong to Chicago is Inspector Tequila. He drinks, he smokes, he kills. He's a sin tax with legs.
Tequila also slides across things. You can't stop this cat from scurrying his butt over kitchen counters and tabletops, or running up and down stair rails. These surfaces appear everywhere. And merely pressing the joystick near a room service cart forces Tequila to skimmer atop its surface. (Who knew Hong Kong alleys are riddled with room service carts?)
There are two good reasons for this surface surfing. First, it's harder for mob dudes to shoot you if you're gliding about. Second, the game goes into slow motion during such scenes, so you can aim precisely at heads, hearts and groins. (Ouchy.)
Its cool gun features are reminiscent of my two favorite solo-mission shooters of all time, "Red Dead Revolver" and "Max Payne." Most fun of all, you sometimes enter standoff showdowns, where you try to dodge super-duper slow-mo bullets traveling at your face while you simultaneously try to aim at your opponent's eyeballs.
But as I said, this becomes a one-trick pony, and it's a short, easy ride. If you're moderately talented, it can end in fewer than 10 hours.
Story lines come with cinematic scenes, but they're dumb. And rogues operate under the mistaken impression their bullets will hurt you. Little do they know you have the ability to outlive many, many bullet holes. If you do get blasted too much, you can walk up to almost any wall and find a first aid kit that immediately heals all wounds. How magical.
I'd give the game a better review if only it were twice as long, or if the online multiplayer weren't limited to a maximum of six people waiting for short, sad rounds to begin.
All in all, it's worth a few hours, if only to see how you interact with random objects littering streets and buildings. In fact, I think I just set a watermelon on fire then sat down on a basket of bananas on a room service cart in an alley. That's pretty cool; also, a waste of watermelon and bananas.
("John Woo Presents Stranglehold" retails for $60 for Xbox 360; and launches for $60 on Tuesday for PS 3 -- Plays fun but short, and the online play is disappointing. Looks great. Easy to moderately challenging. Rated "M" for blood, drug references, intense violence. Three stars out of four.)