By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
Marv Levy, the most thoughtful coach the NFL has even seen, said something stirring in his autobiography, Where Else Would You Rather Be? The erudite coach wrote, that on game day, "a wave of ethereal serenity will wash over you, orat the other end of the spectrumyou will become the victim of a despair so gripping that you can feel it physically."
This year, MADDEN 07 lets you feel what Marv Levy felt. That's because the developers paid attention to the details that make football seem authentic. Its high definition visuals are full of cut scenes that make you feel part of a hyper-real football experience. The in-game scenes look like something out of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, except they're better.
That's right. Some of Madden is better than a highly stylized Hollywood sports film. You see the gritting of teeth as the line strains just before the ball is hiked. You see what goes on in the huddle. One camera angle even looks up at the huddling players from the ground, making them look like mythical gods planning a Grecian war.
On the Xbox 360 version, the audio makes you feel as close to being in the huddle and on the line as you're ever going to getunless you're drafted by the NFL. The chatter, the crowd's excitement, the trash talking of the opposition: I've just never heard in-game audio that is this thoughtfully executed. And there are audio options, too. Don't like Madden's folksy charm? Use EA's excitable radio announcer. Don't like him? Try just the stadium announcer and the crowd with the players talking.
In fact, Madden is all about options. This year, you can control your lead blocker individually at the line. In fact, you can pretty much control any player you like. You can even see the game from their point of view.
What about Madden, the man? Madden himself makes more sense this year. When he helps you choose some play you've never encountered even if you played college ball, he'll explain why it will work for you. For instance, defensive plays with the word "Spy" in them lets your players keep an eye on a quarterback who has running abilities. No matter what your level of football knowledge you have as a fan, Madden will give you more.
Want to take a break from the game? There's a virtual Hall of Fame here. Not only do you get biographies of greats like YA Tittle. Many of these player sections have short movies rife with their finest plays. Again, you'll play and have fun. But you'll learn something, too, something you can talk about with your friends.
Yet Madden 07 is not without its glitches, especially when it comes to issues of what game makers call artificial intelligence. For instance, when I was on third down, had inches to go for a first down, and was 21 points ahead of the New York Giants, Madden suggested that I throw the ball. Now, Madden in real life is a fairly conservative guy. He'd surely suggest a running play in such a situation. Plus, your EA radio announcer makes mistakes, saying things like you had an interception in the last series of downs when you didn't. These things are not game breakers. In fact, they don't stop a great game from being great. But the mistakes are indeed disappointing, especially when you're paying $60 for the Xbox 360 version.
Additionally, the game isn't completely updated as far as players and coaches go. The injured Curtis Martin is still playing for the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills have the wrong quarterback. So do the Jets. You can change the players easily with a few presses of your controller buttons. But you wish you didn't have to, and that this function of player updates was available with a click of the button online.
If you want to take Madden 07 with you, try the PSP version, which is also compatible with your PlayStation 2. Even the Nintendo DS version makes better use of the touch screen than it did last year. Even if you hate Madden, EA may have a football game for you. This summer's release of NFL HEAD COACH makes you the leader of the team. It's not just about playing; it's about simulating everything that happens around a team. Plus, you can even communicate to your players on the field via a headset.
If you haven't bought Madden in a few years, this is the time to get it, especially the Xbox 360 version. Despite the apparent flaws, it makes you feel the tension, the passion, and the camaraderie that go into the best games of football. In other words, with "Madden 07," each game of the season has the palpable excitement of a playoff game. Even Marv would love it.Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
In Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide, the author asks, "What will you doend your existence in passive acceptance, or stand up and shout, 'I will not be their victim! I will survive!'" You'll need that kind of tough-minded, Gloria Gaynor-endurance philosophy to deal with Dead Rising for the Xbox 360.
As you look at the box, even before you play this mother of all zombie games, you can almost imagine the excitement at the pitch meeting. 'Hey, guys. What if we made zombies meets Grand Theft Auto? Not only that, what if we put hundreds of zombies on the screen at once?'
Capcom, the makers of the still amazing, zombie-ridden Resident Evil, didn't settle for mere a hack and slash killing game for "Dead Rising" for the Xbox 360. They were thinking big, really big. There's a wide-ranging story in which Frank West, a freelance photographer, gets a tip about zombie in a small town mall. The wise-cracking Frank, who's shot some war pictures in his time, is a big character and fairly ego-ridden (certainly unlike the proud, but psychologically-changed war photographers I've met).
Frank has his hired a copter pilot to drop him on the rooftop of the Willamette Parkview Mall in a nowhere town of 53,000 people. Outside, slow moving zombies by the thousands want to get in. Why are they lured to the mall? You don't know. Why are there zombies in this particular small town? You don't know that, either. Inside, those trapped in the mall are freaking out. There's a mystery to solve and you have three days in which to do it (there's a timer in the game that keeps ticking down to add tension).
You won't kill any zombie in the first twenty minutes. During that time, however, the drama builds as you make your way from the roof into the mall itself. When Frank does encounter the humans within, you'll see amazing detail in their facial reactions as they speak. The game play graphics themselves are less thrilling, but pretty intense nonetheless.
In order to unravel the mystery, you must complete various missions which come at you fast and furious by cell phone. As you run through the outdoors, trying to keep zombies away with a sickle or devour them with a lawn mower to try in a quest to save one guy, your phone rings with more missions. It's a little distracting, but it gets your adrenaline going nonetheless.
This is an action game, not a horror-based game. Even though there's blood and guts when a zombie dies, there's no real fear here. What you feel is a race against time and a need to solve the mystery to make a big name for yourself in the dog-eat-dog world of photojournalism. As you snap photos along the way and get points for doing so, you'll search the inner workings of the mall. But the mall itself is a strange place for a zombie game. I understand the need to disrupt a placid suburban lifestyle with the undead and I understand the need to have a huge place in which to set the game. This one has five bookstores and over 20 clothing stores. It's a lot to explore. But the mall is a little bland to me, as all malls are.
One problem encountered within the first hour dealt with saving the game. If you haven't saved at various save points in the game, and you get bitten by a pack of zombies, you'll die. And your progress within the game will die with it. That means you'll have to start all over again. Capcom should have added an automatic saving feature to Dead Rising. Having the gamer save along the way temporarily impedes the flow of high adventure that the game is so full of.
In Dead Rising, you have a ton of weapons from which to choose, and even a bowling ball will knock down zombies like they were ten pins. When you eat food to increase your health, each food item helps you differently. Potato chips are a quick fix. OJ's better. When you do encounter a massively powerful enemy, killing him or her will reveal an often-fascinating story. There are about 80 characters in the story with whom to interact, about as many as you'll find in a good mystery novel like Devil In A Blue Dress.
I'm still trying to deal with the massive, open-ended, go-anywhere essence of "Dead Rising." In scope, it's like one of author Neal Stephenson's books in his Baroque Cycle. It can take a while to get used to the nature of, well, everything. But once you get the gist of Dead Rising, you'll be well rewarded with rich gameplay and, sometimes, a first-rate story, too.
Tekken: Dark Resurrection
Publisher: Bandai Namco
How many times have game players dealt with the evil house that wants to kill you? Dozens of times, at least. You've had to deal with it since The Seventh Guest in 1993, and even The Fool's Errand from back in 1987. So why review MONSTER HOUSE, a movie-into-game that follows in the semi-banal tradition of anthropomorphized scary houses?
Well, it's creepy and it's kookie. Really. One of the unexpected delights of the summer is the animated kids' movie, Monster House. Actually, the idea doesn't sound so hot: a strange house comes to life, angry and hungry. But the way the flick is so deftly animated and the way the story keeps you interested and thrilled makes it a winner (especially if you see it in 3D).
I didn't know whether game maker THQ could pull of the frights in the movie. That's because its last movie-into-game, Cars, was bland at best. Yet I was pleasantly surprised when I played Monster House. Not only do you feel as though you're moving through an amusement park fun house where lamps try to grab you and trees break through windows to squeeze the life from you, you'll get scared, too. That's right: adults will be frightened. So, while this is a game for kids, adults will enjoy playing it with their sons and daughters, too.
Within the bowels of the house, you'll play each of the three characters in the game, the occasionally bold hero, DJ, can-do smartie Jenny, and Cowardly Lion-like Chowder. Each character is armed with a water blaster gun to destroy, say, evil chairs that come to life and attack you. You'll be traipsing through a house that's full of the detritus of the years, even a greenhouse that, says the grossed-out Chowder, "smells like my grandfather's trailer." It's this kind of humor (voiced by the movie's three child actors), interspersed with the action-horror aspects, that makes the game (and movie) a winner.
That's not to say Monster House is one of the year's best games. At certain points, the monsters in the house repeat: you'll be fighting against a lot of chairs, and that can be boring. While the game has been assailed elsewhere for its unstable targeting, I didn't find this to be that much of a big deal. What the game lacks in camera angle stability and targeting, it makes up for with ease of play and imaginative action that makes you want to continue on in the game. You can finish the Monster House fairly quickly, in about 10 or 12 hourswhich is a consideration if you expect more game play for your buck. However, there's a fun unlockable once you collect a bunch of toy monkeys along the way. You'll get to play an old school, 2D side scroller game called Thou Art Dead.
But what did bother me constantly was the lack of the ability to save the game whenever you want to. As an obsessive 'saver,' I didn't like the fact that you must move to save points in bathrooms to reclaim your progress should you decide to quit. Saving things at a bathroom checkpoint should have been flushed before the release of Monster House. It's a waste of time.
In the Nintendo DS version of the game, you'll have 54 rooms to explore and shoot up. What I was most enthused about was the amount of monsters that ends up on the screen at the same time. They've really squeezed a lot out of the tiny DS' processing power. You won't get the same audio as you do in the console versions, however. Instead, you'll have to read lines of dialog. But there's nothing wrong with reading. Unless it's James Frey you're looking at.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Venom Games
Platform: PC, Xbox 360
Turn on, tune in, shoot 'em up. If Timothy Leary and HR Giger spawned a video game, they surely would have come up with something like Prey. That's because Prey is like one long night with various entheogens courtesy of the Mazatecs of Mexicowith a dash of Alien to add some horror-rich paranoia.
Certainly, first person shooters can be more boring than watching reruns of The Simple Life. But when it comes to Prey, the creepy, long-delayed game from developer Venom Games, the action comes fast and furious.
And like your mother's fanciest birthday cake, the level of detail and care here is impressive. In fact, in the first hours of the game, you'll be awed. You'll even get a War of the Worlds panic attack as you listen to real-life radio talk show loon Art Bell as he takes calls from freaked-out Americans.
The premise? Everyone has been sucked up into a mammoth, living spacecraft, the blue whale of UFOs, bigger than anything you've ever seen.
That's not so different. So, why was Prey worth the decade-long wait? For me, it was the promise of a complex story. Yes, Prey conjures up thoughts of the Alien movie series since it takes place in a spaceship filled with monsters. But there's a spiritual tale here, too. Tommy, the Native American garage mechanic you play, is an anti-hero with a mystical side. As Tommy, you'll be armed with a Hunter Rifle, the first weapon you'll use. The rifle has long range ability and, with your sniper scope, you'll aim with the precision of Jesse James. Other weapons are, well, alive. Grenades are actually crabs, for instance. Strange, but the idea works.
Tommy has a Spirit Walk mode which allows him to separate from his body and move along the environs in a way that enemies won't notice. But stay away too long and your flesh and blood body will be attacked. At times, you'll need the help of Tommy's grandfather, a wise teacher named Enisi. You'll have to give up the ways of the new and be open to the ways of the ancients in order to learn from Enisi.
You'll manipulate computer-like consoles to solve puzzles. And you'll eventually have a kind of space shuttle at your disposal, too. The hazards in the game are occasionally, well, disgusting. Growing in the ship are Vomiters which spew nasty acidic waste. Stay away: these things will diminish your health. The monsters, too, are gross and mutated. Meekly dubbed Hounds look like vicious skeletons with oversized brains, sharpened fangs and long, thick tails.
In some ways, Prey borrows its sci-fi innovation from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Where Alice went through mirrors and fell down rabbit holes to enter her worlds, Prey takes you through different environs via portals that sometimes look like black holes. Portals aren't there only for your game play. Monsters use them, too, so step lively. If you think you have a good grip on reality, think again. Not only are the monsters in "Prey" occasionally terrifying, the environment often throws you for a loop. And not only do you need quick reflexes to protect yourself, you'll need to think on your feet. Otherwise, you'll die. But dying is a kind of sweet sorrow. You'll be transported to a spirit world where you'll play a mini game with a bow. Kill the enemies and you'll be taken right back to where you left off in the game. What a smart twist.
While you wish there was even more story, you'll get a treat toward the end of the game. Here, the levels are packed with surprises and you'll be taken out of the usual maze-like passageways into some unusual, dreamlike gameplay.
One word of warning before you play: if you're prone to a feeling of motion sickness during a game, this one is going to make you pretty ill. If Doom is the roller coaster in the kiddie section of the amusement park, Prey is the scream-inducing, legendary "Cyclone" at Coney Island with a little of the turn-you-upside-down "Enterprise" ride thrown in, too. That's because in Prey you'll be walking on walls and ceilings. There are times when gravity seems all twisted or non-existent.
When you think about it, the game makers were wry and ironic when they chose the title. Prey is the perfect name for a first person shooter in which there's gore and a Mature rating. But, by introducing the spiritual element, the homonym 'pray' comes into play. You'll not only get into the mysticism and religion of Native American culture. You'll be praying you'll survive all the eerie things that come at you during the game.
Prey surely has some flaws, especially in its online multiplayer version on the Xbox 360. But at its best, it's like what Leary described in his 1964 The Psychedelic Experience. It "is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity."
Urban Chaos: Riot Response
What good is a first person shooter, really? Is it like never-erotic masturbating just to get to sleep? I mean, is the real purpose of a shooter to calm you down and to relax you as opposed to the prevailing opinion that a shooter gets you going and makes you violent?
Those of you who peruse this column know that I don't really care for first person shooters. The reasons? First, we're in a fake war that I never believed in, and there's enough shooting going in that to last a life time. Beyond this, most shooters haven't changed all that much since Doom and Castle Wolfenstein. Even more, they don't have the full stories I need to keep my attention. With the exceptions of the Halo and Doom series, I haven't enjoyed a shooter for some time.
Having said that, the next two columns will be devoted to shooters that have gone above and beyond aiming, blasting, and running around. URBAN CHAOS: RIOT RESPONSE not only has a good story, it has an intriguing back story. Nick Mason has been sent to the Middle East to fight the never-ending battle on terrorism. He receives a frantic message from his father's friend: Nick's dad has been killed in a horrible gang attack. To complicate matters, violent gangs have taken over Nick's town, which is pretty much like the Big Apple, New York City. Nick is asked to return to the city to avenge his Dad's death and to rid the place of the marauding gangs. Despite the fact that you'll question how Mason got out of his military duties without snafus, you'll understand Mason's motivation to return and fight on his home turf.
Urban Chaos mimics Halo in the sense that you'll have a tough-talking superior, Sgt. Adam Wolf, to tell you where to go to accomplish various missions. It also includes TV news bulletins which introduce these missions. Although the emotionless newscaster seems to be on Prozac (she should have watched newscasters in New York on 9-11 or drunk some coffee), the TV setup does get you juiced to join cops and firemen as you deal with the gang violence. However, the web site made in tandem with the game, channel7news.tv, is full of fury and angst including a terrorist video from the leader of the despicable gang, The Burners. With his Jason/Halloween-like mask, he's one scary guy.
There's complexity here. Everyone seems to be embattled, from Wolf, whose riot unit is constantly criticized to the city's mayor, who's lambasted for his bloated spending policies. All of this makes for a game that's rarely one-dimensional. There's satire here, too, which makes Urban Chaos all the more fun to play. Add to this the kind of high-tension banter that occurs during frantic moments on TV's ER, and you've got a real winner.
Beyond the nicely-presented story, two elements make Urban Chaos a superior game. The first is the precise aiming and targeting technology. It lets you home in on your quarry with such amazing specificity that you'll be able to hit your man as he cowardly hides behind an innocent hostage. This kind of shooting makes me feel better about gunning someone down. It's not just shooting to move forward in the game. You feel like you're saving someone, and that's a good feeling.
As a member of the riot response team, you'll be outfitted with a special shield which takes damage as bullets hit it, but also protects you. Plus, you can use it as a battering ram and as a weapon when Burners get a little too close for comfort. You'll also have a stun gun and some Molotov cocktails. Finally, while you'll be killing often, this is no mere run-and-gun. Sometimes you'll have to bring a gang member in for questioning. When he fesses up to authorities, new missions will be unlocked.
Urban Chaos: Riot Response isn't a stunningly new game. But it's made with more than enough care and more than enough tweaks to the old shooter genre. It's a solid, thoughtful game full of action and humor that will keep you going for hours after which you won't have to masturbate to get to sleep.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: 7 Studios/Buena Vista Games
It's inelegant and definitely not p.c. to say it. But across popular culture, in the movies, in pop music, and in literature, everyone loves and even admires a cool drunk (except occasionally the drunk himself). Critics marvel at the ludicrous ways of Keith Richard and his death-defying habits that make it seem he's made a deal with the devil. Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men portrays the cool drunk who gets the girls and spews witty one-liners. Way back when the 20s roared, drink was the stuff of depression and a kind of muse for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Later this week, Johnny Depp reprises his role as the cool, drunk pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, replete with the signature Keith Richard hipness and the Joe Cocker stagger. (Dead man's chest, by the way, is a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which appears as part of the 'bottle of rum' song in the second paragraph of the first chapter.)
In tandem with the movies come the games, and this time, Bethesda with its PS2 title swashbuckles against Disney's Buena Vista game with its PSP title. Who has the cooler, plastered pirate who can gather up all pieces to a treasure map (your goal in the games)? Ultimately, neither. Sure, in both games, the developers get the surprised, alcohol-ridden moves down in their animations, so much so that you occasionally feel that you are Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. In Dead Man's Chest for the PSP, you're not out to rescue the governor's daughter as in Black Pearl. Instead, Jack Sparrow has his own demons to deal with as he tries to save himself from becoming an undead pirate/slave to the ghoul with the octopus-tentacled beard, Davy Jones.
In the PSP offering, the action comes fast and furious as soon as you start the game. Taking a page from the book of Devil May Cry, you'll fight against numerous pirates by pressing buttons madly. There are blood-curdling screams and spooky echoes and unsettling rattling which induce anticipationeven fearas you enter each room to fight your enemies. You'll climb up ropes and slide down ropes, all of which makes you feel like you're on a roller coaster ride. Or a Disney ride.
Yet there's so much hacking and slashing in Dead Man's Chest, the game becomes repetitive. The developers try to staunch this by having you do some puzzle-like tasks such as carrying a barrel full of explosives to a locked jail door, then lighting it so you can get inside for some loot. And the graphics are particularly nicely rendered with shading and crisp outlines, all done in widescreen format. But the swordplay becomes banal about halfway through the game, and you wish there were more story here. Heck, even in the movie, which is good, the swordplay can become tedious.
There are also camera angle issues here. If you get into a corner, you seem to become one with the wall and you can't see enemies that are coming at you. By using the buttons on the top of your PSP, you can move out of this predicament. But, really, the software should do it for youseamlessly.
In the PS2 version called The Legend of Jack Sparrow, you have a similar game of hack and slash. But there are more cut scenes to give you a better sense of story and action. Still, Johnny Depp (yes, they got Depp to voice act) seems somewhat lackluster when reading the lines of a script that's admittedly not up to the same sharpness as the movie's screenplay. In addition, the graphics suffer somewhat. Developers know that they can pack a huge amount of detail into the art in a PS2 game in this, the last year of the old console's popularity. Yet the visuals here aren't that much better than the PSP game.
If you're a big fan of Johnny Depp and of the humorously punky pirates based on the famous Disney ride, these may be the games for you. But I began to reread Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island in preparation to see Dead Man's Chest and to play the games. Just one sentence shivered my timbers more than anything in the software: "On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions." That's what the pirates in these games need: more "diabolical expressions." If only Stevenson were still alive to help out. Heck, if only the game makersor at least the games' writershad read Stevenson.
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