Latest Game Columns
Apr. 04, 2008
GAME DORK: Bugging Out
'Rainbow Six Vegas 2' looks good and plays fun but tests gamers' patience
Video gamers are not a litigious bunch. But a few players are blogging that they're thinking of suing Ubisoft because the company's newest "Tom Clancy" title for the PS 3 is a little buggy.
No one will be suing anybody, probably. But it's no mystery why gamers are anonymously threatening a big, faceless company like this. After all, gamers attack corporations within the plots of video games. It's what we do!
Anyway, here's the beef. Quite a few online players of "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2" are having trouble accessing the game at first, because the PS 3 keeps making them download long patches.
When you do get the online game to work, it lags, so you point at someone and shoot a shotgun, a rifle or a pistol, but it takes a moment for the bullet to spring forth like a pretty daisy, and by then your prey has run away.
I've been having these problems, too. It's annoying. Even more aggravating is that normally I would just play the game on my Xbox 360 instead. But my Xbox 360 just imploded due to the widespread, notorious "red ring of death."
For me, this situation requires patience to wait for Ubisoft or Sony to clean up "Vegas 2" online, which could be fixed by the time you read this. Or it requires patience for Microsoft to repair my 360, which could take longer.
If I weren't a reviewer, I would just return the game to the store for a refund, then buy it again later when the dust settles.
Or I would simply play the game for now the old-school way: offline, which works fine, is a lot of fun, and is very pretty with Vegas sites, from the fake Eiffel Tower to velvet-red theaters and billboards of silhouetted female forms.
The plot of the offline game is routine. You play as Bishop, a highly trained anti-terrorist agent. Terrorists have infiltrated Vegas again, just as they did in the first "Vegas." You kill them, and you guide fellow soldiers to kill, as well.
The beauty is how well it's all structured. Every time you turn a corner, you must be prepared for another dumb terrorist to shoot at you. To combat this, you lean against walls and peek first, then strategize your approach.
"Vegas 2" is a more realistic and more challenging death game in that you die if you get hit with a bullet or two, unlike games where you get shot and shot and live and live.
At the beginning of "Vegas 2," you can choose an option to play the "casual" difficulty level, but even on "casual," it's quite daring, because you have to kill a lot of terrorists in many corridors before the game saves your progress.
To win, you need patience. So to recap, if you're not waiting for the PS 3's "Vegas 2" to work online, then you're waiting offline for a terrorist to turn his back so you can bloody him. See how shooting games teach us to calm down and wait?
("Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2" by Ubisoft retails for $60 for PS and Xbox 360 -- Plays very fun offline, but the online version shipped a little buggy. Looks great. Very challenging. Rated "M" for blood, intense violence, strong language. Three stars out of four.)
Mar. 28, 2008
GAME DORK: Know Your Role
Skill level setting, from newbie to pro, makes games fun for everyone
It's so crazy how many different kinds of video game people there are. The other day, I was watching this amazing 8-year-old on YouTube strum all the complex chords on the hardest "Guitar Hero II" song. That's a song I gave up on, and I was a violin whiz.
Meanwhile, as you know, there are hordes of new gamers who have a crush on the Nintendo Wii, because the Wii is so simple and easy, for the most part, and newbies can catch on fast.
Caught in the middle are pretty good, casual gamers who play football and baseball games while their wives sleep.
If you buy a game without researching it, you don't know if it fits your type. Games should bear labels such as "For Newbies," "For Casual Gamers" and "For Hard-Core Freaks." That's why I rate games as "easy," "moderately challenging" and "challenging." You gotta know what you're in for.
A good development along these lines is "Major League Baseball 2K8." Like many recent games, it lets you choose to play as a "Rookie," a "Pro" or a "Legend." But more telling, "2K8" is way easier on Wii than on Xbox 360 and PS 3.
That feeds into the stereotype the Wii is for beginners, but so be it, and it's so complex to pitch on the Xbox 360 version. It goes like this: You use your left thumb stick to point where you want the ball to cross the plate. You pull the right thumb stick in one of many directions; then twirl the stick in one of many complicated directions; and let go of the stick when a circle on the TV screen compresses to a perfectly timed sweet spot.
If you're into baseball games, memorizing these numerous pitch routines, and perfecting them, becomes second nature, in the same way that that 8-year-old has spent countless hours memorizing "Guitar Hero II" notes and finger positions.
But if "2K8" sounds scary to you, then you should try it on the Wii. To pitch on Wii, you simply pick a pitch type, like fastball or slider, then hold up your Wii wand and motion your wrist forward at the right time. Easy-peasy.
The problem with Wii, of course, is its simple "2K8" is not very alluring for a hard-core gamer like me, unless I'm playing against a friend in my living room. And there's no online "2K8" gaming on Wii, unlike on the 360 and PS 3.
Also, Wii graphics are blockier-looking cartoonery, compared to the Xbox 360 and PS 3's much more realistic artistry.
The challenge of Xbox 360 and PS 3's "2K8" is you really, really have to love baseball games to tackle its "Total Pitch Control," the difficult new "Swing Stick" settings, and the "Precision Throw Control," which makes you learn how to manage each fielder's arm strength when trying to toss out runners.
I do love baseball games, so "2K8" is good enough for me, except it doesn't always respond to pitching and defensive throws. I'm playing it on the "pro" setting, for now, and not on "All Star" or "Legend." I'm good, but I'm not 8.
("Major League Baseball 2K8" by 2K Sports retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3; $50 for Wii; $30 for PS 2 and PSP -- Plays fun, but controls aren't always responsive. Looks very good. Moderately easy to very difficult, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "E." Three and one-half stars out of four.)
Mar. 21, 2008
GAME DORK: Team Effort
'Army of Two' revives, strengthens cooperative gaming
Salem and Rios started their careers as U.S. Rangers. But they got talked into working for a corporation as mercenaries, doing contract killing for the U.S. administration. Unlike government soldiers, their post-9/11 battles are bloody lucrative.
And so, video games -- from "BlackSite: Area 51" to "Tom Clancy" titles -- continue to make political statements. "Army of Two" is the latest, not the greatest, battlefield outing to chime in on how America conducts itself militarily.
If you've paid any attention to real-life events, "Army of Two" immediately reminds you of how America has signed up private contractors to carry out all sorts of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The privatization of the real Iraq war has led to women being raped without recourse, the physical loss of billions of dollars in cash, and sundry deaths of nonmilitary Americans.
Salem and Rios, on the other hand, are superskilled guns-for-hire, bent on doing the right thing for their nation, as long as they collect big cash. They gripe about how they don't get credit for killing enemies, while government grunts take the honors.
The tone of "Army of Two," created by EA's Canadian offices, is mostly anti-corporatization. Occasionally, Salem and Rios hear heavy-handed news reports of how Congress is considering replacing the armed services with corporations.
"To fear the military industrial complex is to fear progress," a U.S. muckety-muck tells the media. Some call this profiteering, he says, but "I call it 'progress.' "
None of this commentary likely will matter much to gamers, except to provide basic story lines, character development, campy dialogue about kicking butt, and intermittent film cuts of beefy guys chatting at each other.
What matters, of course, is the gaming, and it's a good and solid entertainment of shooting many enemies crossing desert terrain and caves and such.
The best thing about "Army of Two" is its strength as a cooperative game. You can play solo. But you're better off teaming up with a gamer friend in your living room for a split-screen experience, or online for a full-screen game.
This style of two-person team-gaming has dwindled over the years. "Army of Two" revives and evolves cooperative mode by making it seamless and smooth.
If you get shot, you press a button, and the other guy comes running to pull you to safety and pump you with some kind of magical first-aid potion that brings you back to full health. You can do the same for him.
You help each other climb tall walls. And you press your backs together to fire bullets at baddies when they circle-ambush you with gunners, while suicide bombers run at you.
If you're playing solo and you team up with the game's autobot, he will not kill many people for you, and you'll do most of the heavy hitting with rifles, revolvers and sniper rifles. Also, my PS 3 copy freezes, making me reboot.
And even your weaponry is impacted by capitalism. In other shooters, you earn points to upgrade guns. In "Army," you get paid for killing people, then use that money to buy better machine guns and rocket launchers.
That seems only as far-fetched now as current privatization efforts would have seemed 15 years ago. Is "Army of Two" fantasy or future?
("Army of Two" by EA retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3 -- Plays fun. Looks great. Challenging to very challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "M" for strong language, blood, intense violence. Three stars out of four.)
Mar. 14, 2008
GAME DORK: Best of the Best
'Chains of Olympus' a stunning visual masterpiece
I want to describe for you a sequence in "God of War: Chains of Olympus," one of the best games yet made. The imagery is so vibrant, screen shots could be displayed in an art gallery. But here they are in a video game.
You play as Kratos the Spartan, a warrior sent into battles by Zeus and the ancient gods of mythical forever-ago. You're bald. Your shirtless torso flexes Herculean. You slay nasty creatures with blades of fire which extend by chains from your bloody hands.
And here's the sequence at hand. In a richly ornate temple-castle, you race up a gigantic, circular marble staircase. The camera angle at this point is overhead, so you can witness Kratos making his way up the "Vertigo"-like swirl of stairs.
You reach the top, and the camera angle gently lowers to a cinematic movie cut. You see yourself standing on an official seal bearing a face; it has been cut with delicate care into the seal's rock.
A narrator informs you of your progress on this journey to save humanity from an evil godlet. All around, water fountains gush into streams. Broken idols lie dead near cracked tiles. And ugly, evil monsters lurch as treachery.
A hellish ghoul attacks you with chunks of fire, but you grab him, lay him on the ground, stab him in the mouth with your fiery blade, then split him in half down the middle, from jaw to groin.
A panther-thing the size of an elephant claws at you. You scurry out of its way, jump 10 feet in the air, twirl your blade-chains down onto his head, wrap your chains around his skull, and yank the panther-thing's noggin until it explodes.
This sequence lasts but a few moments. But it is representative. Almost every aspect of the game is just as exhilarating. "God of War: Chains of Olympus" is the PSP's finest hour. Or, it's the PSP's finest 20 hours or so. It's a huge, long, sprawling masterpiece.
Mind you, this is a sequel, or officially a prequel, yet it is the most creative new piece of art I've seen in a year or two. For "Chains" not to end up as the game of the year will take a powerful groundbreaker to surpass it.
Fans of the "God of War" series will recognize the thoroughly addictive game play. You explore sweeping vistas of castles and bridges, climb rock walls, swim underwater among mythical ruins, and most of all kill, kill, kill.
It is flawless. Perfect. As an orchestral score booms, cinematic cuts look finer than whole movies, taking place on amazingly detailed sets, employing camera pans and scans reminiscent of early Spielberg and middle Hitchcock.
It is a full fantasy experience. There is sex off screen, but barely. There are shirtless goddesses and enormous statues who talk to you, and puzzles that sometimes stump you for a half-hour. Even if you skip the easy and hard settings to play on the medium-hard setting, you will be challenged to stay alive.
Taking it all in, you wonder: Where have all the artists gone? Have they all abandoned canvases to work on "God of War" games? It seems so when you adore the splendor of this, the defining PSP game we've all been waiting for.
("God of War: Chains of Olympus" by Sony retails for $40 for PSP -- Plays addictively fun. Looks phenomenal. Moderately challenging to extremely challenging, depending on which settings you choose. Rated "M" for nudity, sexual content, blood, gore and intense violence. Four stars out of four.)
Mar. 07, 2008
GAME DORK: Stuck in a Rut
Break away from slew of sequels with quirky 'Patapon'
If there's one crime the video game industry is supremely guilty of, it's selling sequel after sequel. The game industry is worse than Hollywood at trotting out familiar follow-ups instead of inventing new adventures.
Game Informer magazine recently ran a terrific story detailing how deeply game designers are stuck in this rut. But if you want to study the sequel trend, just glance at the latest top 10 lists of game sales and rentals.
There are only three nonsequels -- "Assassin's Creed," "Rock Band" and "Lost Odyssey" -- on the top 10 sales or rental lists. The other 17 of 20 top titles range from "Call of Duty 4" to "Devil May Cry 4," "Halo 3" and cynically "Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games."
The reasons for these retreads are simple. Sequels sell well. They're often good games. And if they earn tons of money, game companies not only rake in cash, they can afford to invest that profit in making untried titles.
One of those new untried titles is "Patapon." The other week, I wrote a small, very positive preview of "Patapon" in this space.
But I think it deserves a fuller review. It's a somewhat extraordinary little achievement. It's finally on the market. And the Sony game bravely sails into the storm of sequels.
"Patapon" is receiving rave reviews universally, with credit going to designer Hiroyuki Kotani, art director Rolito, and a cadre of demanding game testers for Rolito/Interlink.
Yet it faces an uphill battle in the marketplace, just like recent new-name games such as "Katamari Demacy," "Pikmin" and "Psychonauts."
"Patapon" is crafty, creative and quirky fun that becomes increasingly difficult to beat. You play as the god of little warrior dudes whose bodies are stick figures, drawn in thick black lines. Their torsos contain one giant eye. At first, you merely hunt prairie animals with these guys, armed with swords, spears and hatchets.
As your battles continue, you build up money and armor to create more soldiers, topping out at about 18 warriors. That's the basic strategy.
But here's the cool, crazy part. To make your men move forward, attack or protect themselves with shields, you press a series of three buttons, which mimic three different drum sounds.
So your warriors sing a four-measure rhythm on their own, then you drum a four-measure rhythm in reply, and this seesaw of music empowers your army to fight or huddle into a protective circle. This call-and-response rhythm goes on for the entirety of each battle.
For a long time, I thought this song cycle would grate on my nerves until I'd quit, but it never pushed me over the edge. It's kind of a catchy tune to inspire you to slay dinosaurs, humongous crabs and dragons.
Most important, you are allowed to backtrack to previous battles to earn special magical skills, which you'll need to defeat the final bad bosses.
"Patapon" is a little wonder. It's perfectly paced and drawn. It's ingenious and intuitive. It's so good, I'm hoping it makes enough money for Sony to deem it necessary to create, sure, a sequel.
("Patapon" by Sony retails for $20 for PSP -- Plays addictively fun. Looks cool. Begins easy, becomes challenging. Rated "E." Four stars.)
Feb. 29, 2008
GAME DORK: Suicide Solution
Sometimes killing self in a game teaches newbies a lesson
The psychology of shooting fake men in the back of the head is complicated.
In games such as "The Club," you run-and-gun on a battlefield armed with the motto "kill or be killed." But now and then, it's OK to let other gamers kill you on purpose -- either to be nice to let them build their skills, or to assert your power by reserving it.
For the first time in my life, I've been letting some online gamers kill me, while I've been testing "The Club." It's a very good online shooter, where you just run around mansions, prisons, boats and other locales. You pick up weapons lying on the ground to fire away at rivals.
This online half of "The Club" is so good, I played it for 10 hours on my birthday after testing it all week. At first, I did the same thing everyone else did. I tried to win. I scoured each battlefield in search of the biggest rocket launcher or automatic shotgun, then hunting through hallways and alleyways looking for gamers to punish.
But I was winning every battle, beating as many as eight gamers at a time. Usually in shooting games, I range from ranking above average to great, because I play games for a living. But this was ridiculous. I was winning every match.
Apparently, my style of shooting suits the occasion: sprinting, memorizing weapon locations and finding spots to hide briefly, before sneaking up behind clueless victims.
You'd think winning all the time might get boring. Nah, that wasn't the problem. The problem was, I started feeling sorry for everyone.
So there I was, on a battlefield set in Venice, watching how sadly some gamers were performing. They would just stand in one spot and shoot poorly at me, while I strafed my body around them and punched them to death.
Venice is beautiful (as are all levels in "The Club"), and it shouldn't be marred by amateurs. But newbies need to be taught a lesson. And in gaming, a good lesson can begin by showing others how you're killing them.
So I stopped sprinting. I started walking and not shooting much. That way, they could follow me. I showed them how I was killing others. They probably didn't realize it, but I was letting them shadow me at work.
Within an hour or two, their games picked up. They got in the groove. I was still killing them half-easily. So I moved onto my next phase, which was more fun: I promised myself I would try to kill them only with grenades.
This was a tough assignment. To kill with a grenade, you must stay out of danger of being slain, while positioning yourself exactly to toss a grenade perfectly ahead of a running person so he or she steps into it.
Suddenly, I didn't feel like a teacher. I felt like a master, proving superiority by metaphorically winning with one hand tied behind my back. I prefer playing with equals, but I admit, it was good to be the king.
I don't want to give the impression everyone who plays "The Club" online is bad. Most are good. Some ate my lunch. And "The Club" also has an offline adventure you play against the computer, though the offline "Game" is merely a third-person arcade shooting gallery, without any compelling narrative. If you play offline, you're best playing a split-screen two-person game against a friend.
Occasionally, though, I am inadvertently tossed into online battle against casual gamers who just want to lay me low. And wouldn't I be a sore winner if I didn't let them win a little?
("The Club" by Sega retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360 -- Plays addictively fun online, though the offline arcade shooting gallery levels aren't compelling. Looks great. Easy offline, challenging online. Rated "M" for blood, strong language, violence. Four stars out of four.)