By Stephanie Zacharek
By Inkoo Kang
By Voice Film Critics
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Aaron Hills
This is the big one for Microsoft. Since there's no new Halo to be released in the near future, Gears Of War is the biggest game Microsoft will release this year. Mammoth in scope and beautiful to behold, the third person shooter is expected to sell well over a million copies by Christmas.
But beautiful-looking games have been clunkers in the past. Is Gears worth the high price of $60? At a recent Microsoft event in Manhattan, the first thing I did was to try the online multiplayer portion of the game. I wasn't any good at multiplayer, probably because I generally don't like shooters all that much. Still, I can tell when a game is a step forward, and Gears is just that. You won't get any clues to where your opponents are in multiplayer. That's part of what makes it thrilling. Also, Gears feels more real than most shooters. The vibration mechanism makes the controller shake with each shot fired, as if a gun were being held in your hands. At one point, you'll have to cross train tracks to shoot. But one critic at the event moved so slowly, he was killed by the oncoming train. Not only do you have to look out for online opponents, but oncoming traffic too.
When I played the single player story mode, I was even more impressed. Sure, your cartoon-y characters are oversized, as if everyone was cut from the mold of The Thing from The Fantastic Four comic books. And, sure, the script isn't all that well written, although it does give you a feeling of excitement. I do love the voice of the main character who's been trapped in a cell for years, Marcus Fenix. (Get it? Marcus is like a phoenix rising from the ashes.) He is a big-voiced but brooding tough guy, like Sawyer from the TV show Lost.
From the first moment in Gears, you feel terror and horror. You're trapped in a cage-like prison cell with monsters on the top bars trying to get you. When a fellow soldier frees you, you have the choice of going right into battle or training for the missions ahead. Even during training, Gears is not that simple to playyou'll jump at the fearsome sights you see. The music is often foreboding, like Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" from the original Exorcist. At its best, Gears Of War is a kind of terrifying Indiana Jones adventure, a scary roller coaster ride that also happens to be a pretty darn challenging shooter.
As you play, you'll learn that the whole planet has been taken over by ugly monsters who've come from some forgotten realm under the earth. Members of the Locust Horde also look like The Thing, if The Thing married an ugly slug, that is. Spidery monsters, awesome in size as they fill the screen and dwarf you, are even more difficult to slay than the members of the Locust Horde.
Overall, this post-apocalyptic world is made up of teamwork with your fellow soldiers. After all, you can't fight these miscreants alone. And you do need help. It's the artificial intelligence programmed in the game code that bedeviled me and makes the game ever more challenging as I proceeded. That Locust Horde is very smart and canny. If you don't keep moving, and if you don't take the proper cover, and if you don't shoot to protect yourself, you will not survive. Finally, Gears is all about the cliché that most every adventure game is about: the goal is to save the world. Much of the time, and despite a weak-ish script, the makers of the game have twisted that cliché enough to make you believe saving the world is actually a new idea in games. Hillary Clinton. George W. Bush. John McCain. Nancy Pelosi. Here are the controllers. Now play. And make nice.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance
When I was a kid, Marvel and DC Comics were bastions of dreams. Not only were the superheroes amazing and like friends, so were the people who made the comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were larger than life, and when they'd write something in the letter columns of the comics, I'd hang on every word. Later, I read that Lee and Kirby didn't like each other much, and that Kirby didn't get all the money he deserved from Lee and Marvel. Marvel changed the world of superheroes, but it didn't transform one eternal maxim: money changes everything.
Still, the beauty of comic books is the same beauty found within all books. They may not be considered literary, but they do stoke the fires of your imagination. They let you dream the good dreams of power and ethics (and occasionally, the bad dream of vengeance) even as they offer over-the-top drama and adventure. If you love the world of comic books or simply want to remember the halcyon days of youth when comics made you believe you could be a superhero in real life, MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE is the game for you.
And if you're still a teen, I envy you. While you still love to read graphic novels featuring Marvel superheroes, Activision lets you play as Marvel's greatest characters in 3D in a story-rich, mission-filled game that reminds me of the roller coaster ride featured in the best episodes of TV's 24. Here, Dr. Doom and his super-villain minions have united to wreak havoc upon everyone from Thor to Spider-Manand the universe beyond. You and about 20 Marvel superheroes have got to stop this axis of evil. While it's not easy, you'll have a hoot of a time trying to thwart them in this game that will engage you for about 30-40 hours.
While the Marvel Ultimate Alliance lets you play from a third person perspective in which you look down at the action, it still feels like you're moving within the pages of a comic book. The writing is full of that signature Marvel macho humor and the usual world-ending gloom and doom. There are explosions everywhere you go, fiery, fireworks-like balls of who-knows-what wreaking havoc as you try to proceed. You'll never die from getting hit by them or by the evil criminals like Loki and Mephisto who assault you. And sometimes, you'll get to fly and attack from mid-air. But you will get knocked out, and your team of four superheroes will have to proceed without that character until, say, Thor, has recovered from his injuries. For those who like pop culture history, the makers have even woven Marvel trivia into the game. Answer them correctly and you'll garner powers and experience for your character.
Plus, with each mission you complete, one of the heroes in your team of four will get some fantastic new superpower. You shouldn't use these magical attacks with much regularity, however, or your superhero will get winded. After a few levels of play, you'll get to customize your hero. And as you get deeper into the game, you'll encounter everyone from blazing, skeletal Ghost Rider to introspective, cosmic warrior, the Silver Surfer. You'll travel from universe to universe, too, from the majesty of Thor's heavenly Asgard to the creepiness of Mephisto's lair. I like Murder World the best, a creepy amusement park where evil lies around every corner. The game isn't perfect, though. Until you master it, you'll sometimes get lost. And you'll occasionally be plagued with camera angle issues.
Activision has been fairly quiet this year when it comes to major releases. But with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, a game that will be released for the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii as well as for the current systems, they prove they've been a sleeping giant that's now awakened. Heck, this game even beats the classic X-Men Legends, released a couple of years ago. And that's saying something.
Publisher: Take 2
Back in junior high and high school, I was a constantly sickly, little odious smartie who lived in mortal fear of getting less than an "A" on anything. Reading, writing, and learning were the only things I cared aboutaside from dying from being chronically sick, which terrified me daily. As a kid on high doses of steroids, I never was sure if I was coming or going. So, I was a favorite mutt of the local bullies. But at some point, after being spat on from above constantly, I figured enough was enough. I put on some pointy boots one morning and when the biggest of the bullies spat down on my pale forehead from the stairwell above, I casually walked up the stairs, aimed directly under his kneecap and kicked as hard as I could. The bully limped so badly for days later that no one bothered me much after that. I realized they really couldn't hit me: there was no pride in that since I was knockin' on heaven's door.
So it was with some trepidation that I cracked open Bully, the controversial new PlayStation 2 game from Rockstar, the makers of the even more controversial Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I didn't want to relive my life as a bullied high school student. It was too darn traumatic, even if a lot of those former toughs are drunks or criminals now.
When I watched the opening movie of Bully, the scenes tried hard to make me feel sorry for a runty delinquent who is being dropped off at a private school by his evil stepfather and uncaring mother. As the parents go on a lengthy cruise for their honeymoon, young Jimmy Hopkins is introduced to the torment-filled, oppressive ways of private school. It's an almost-cliché opening. Though it isn't badly written, it made me wonder why Bully had received all the hype it had from the game critic crowd.
Once you play the game, you'll see why there's a grand fuss about it. While part of the game is about bullying others when they pester you, there's humor and social satire here that's about as good as any game gets. And you get to exercise your brain muscles, too. In English class, you'll be given a bunch of letters and you'll have to make about 10 words in your allotted time. That's not easy, even if you play the Will Shortz puzzle game on NPR every weekend.
There are lots of missions to finish and many bullies and prefects to thwart you from completing them. Having said that, the world of Bullworth Academy is not as big as the universe within Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yet, it's large enough, surprise-filled, and graphically rich. What I love most about Bully, however, are the weird and troubled students that you meet along the way. Sure, there are bullying giants with negative IQs. But there's the overwrought, overweight girl who has lost her chocolates and can't stop crying. There's the nice kid who's called a 'girl' simply because he's kind. It all makes you wonder how anyone, especially the weaker kids, survived those school years.
While Bully is not perfect, it's one of the last great games for the PlayStation 2, which will be considered old school by mid-November when the PS3 is launched. For those of us who left school years ago, Bully is a hard-edged, often-touching reminder of how school can be about survival of the fittest. For those current high school folks who consider themselves nerds and geeks (even though they aren't), Bully will probably be a triumphant experience in which they live vicariously through young Hopkins. The nerds won't have to wait until they graduate into adult life to succeed among their peers. They can rule the roost right now in Bully. At least, they can try. For they are like the pig's head in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Like the pig, "their half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life. They assured Simon that everything was a bad business." Until you get out of school.
The makers of horror, whether they're from the publishing, movie, or gaming worlds, make their livings as parasites of sorts. They prey on people's deepest fears, gorging themselves like ticks as your nerves fray. That's what I love about this time of year, daring people to scare me until I'm as withered and paranoid as Hawthorne's preacher from The Minister's Black Veil.
In the game world this year, the games aren't as terror-filled as in years past. Still, they hit the essence of Halloween, that idea of dressing up as someone else for a night of mischief and mayhem. Here's a look through the sometimes creepy peephole of horror.
DESTROY ALL HUMANS! 2This Teen-rated game is so full of fun and humor, you'll almost forget there's a creepy alien involved who wants to kill every human alive. Last year, THQ released a 50s-themed Destroy All Humans! This year, it's a 60s-themed release. Not only are the PlayStation 2 and Xbox games full of shooting fun, they're rife with on-target parodies of hippies, British rock, and miniskirts. There's even a section called "The Rage of Aquarius."
ULTIMATE GHOSTS 'N GOBLINSWhen Capcom decided to update one of the best, old-school side-scrollers of all time, the blogosphere went wild. In this PSP game with beautifully rendered backgrounds, you'll have a load of new weapons and magic potions to play with. And if you're really masochistic, you'll try to play it on "Ultimate," the hardest way to play a creepily challenging game full of weird, undead monsters.
MORTAL KOMBAT ARMAGEDDONSince this fighting franchise from Midway has been around since 1992, it's had its ups and downs as far as quality goes. This year, the Mature-rated game lets you create your own fighter and your own gruesome way to die. For those who don't want to see so much blood and guts, there's a mini game called Motor Kombat in which you race with the evil characters you play against in the game. While the fighting is great (you can even fight in the air), the racing isn't.
JUSTICE LEAGUE HEROESEach Halloween, you see a spate of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman comic book character costumes. Wouldn't it be terrific if you could play as all these superheroes, and more? In this Teen-rated game, you'll even have Green Lantern on your side. This action-filled role playing offering lets you get inside the minds and bodies of the superheroes as you never before have (unless you're a comic book geek who knows all the trivia from back in, say, 1977).
Scarface The World Is YoursThere's long been a cult of folks who love Brian De Palma's 1983 film, Scarface. In this game for the PSP and PlayStation 2, you get to play as Al Pacino's Tony Montana. You haven't died, as was the case in the movie. Instead, you're back with a vengeance to reclaim your turf. In super powerful Blind Rage mode, Tony becomes one of the scariest monsters Halloween has ever seen. And his henchmen are pretty terrifying, too.
DEVIL SUMMONERIn this atmospheric offering, you're a teen detective who can summon the devil in this, the only game of the bunch which evokes real terror. Set in Japan during the prosperous Taisho era, you'll find the streets reek with demons. Not only can you make the demons your allies in this Mature-rated, PS2 game, you can mix demons together for some really scary super powers.
THE GRIM ADVENTURES OF BILLY & MANDYWry and full of ascerbic wit, this game based on the quirky Cartoon Network show not only features the Grim Reaper. You'll have 14 other characters who make their way through 45 twisted missions. In this PS2 game everyone can play, the sarcastic geniuses behind the show even parody some of the more recent Hollywood horror films.
The Season's Top Sports Games
So I'm sitting at the Helen Hayes Theater, listening to ventriloquist Jay Johnson weave his life story into 90 minutes in the sometimes magical "The Two And Only." What's important about Johnson is not only that he's one of the last of a dying breed of voice-throwers. What's important is the fact that you suspend disbelief, feeling that there are two or more characters on the stage at the same time. You even feel that a tennis ball is a real, feeling human. I'm not saying you feel like a ventriloquist when you play a video game. What I am saying is that you feel like a multitude of characters when you play: from Mario to Shaq. I have no idea what these thousands of personalities have done to my paranoid mind. But I do know that when I play one of the better sports games below, I feel like a thick legged hockey player or an eagle-eyed basketball player. I ain't makin' the millions, though, that's for sure. Then again, I don't have LeBron's elbow in my nearsighted eye when trying to make a shot under the basket.
NBA 2K7 (2K Sports)There are three companies vying for your console dollar this year. I choose NBA 2K7 because of the sheer variety of moves, the outstanding graphics where you can see the players sweat and react, the many modes of play and the ever-smarter artificial intelligence. But some new moves can get you down occasionallyespecially when it come to free throws, which are hard to master. And they've got to pep up the boring and occasionally mistake-filled banter by the announcers. Aside from these errors, NBA 2K7 has it down and is the one to buy. The bonus? The online play is almost seamless with very little lag time.
NBA 07 (Sony)If you're looking for a basketball game to take along with you on your travels, give NBA 07 a try this year. Not only is the gameplay superior on the little wide screen, there are carnival-like mini games to help you hone your skills, and make you smile. Be aware that the Artificial Intelligence is very tough on you, maybe too tough when you play against the computer for a full season. It's better to wage war against your pals in the Wi-Fi mode.
NHL 07 (EA)No hockey game is going to make you feel as though you're playing on real ice. Yet NHL 07 comes pretty darn close on your gaming console. Why? The new controller system gives you the heady feeling that you're getting a real skating workout. Your right analog stick gives you so much control over shooting and skating that you'll get an ego and think you're the next Gretzky. While this is truly an amazing step forward for hockey games, there's a problem. The rest of the game isn't that much improved over last year's offering. It needs to feel newer, spicier. Still, you won't get any better than this when it comes to a hockey game for your console.
NHL 07 (EA)If you're a PSP fan, you'll also be happy with the depth of NHL 07. I have a hard time using the PSP's controller stick because it can be imprecise. But this game packs much of the console game into its smaller UMD disk. Not only will you play electrifying hockey against the PSP, you'll also be able to manage your team with precision. Be warned that the online play with friends is fairly choppy, however.
NASCAR 07 (EA)While there are some forward-thinking improvements to Electronic Arts' NASCAR franchise this year, there really isn't enough in these offerings for the old Xbox and PlayStation 2 to satisfy the eager racer in you. Sure, you've got driving that often feels fast and accurate. And you have to love the career mode in which you start out as a naïve racer with stars in your eyes. You work hard to compete and climb the rungs of the NASCAR ladder. But the graphics and gameplay don't seem substantially different from last year's model. You'll wish the company had waited a year and created a really amazing NASCAR for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Nintendo DS Roundup
On Sunday, I sat on a barstool whose leather was cut up by a pocket knife. I was in Buffalo, drinking and getting drunk on trashy Mike's Hard Lime-aritas while watching the hapless Buffalo Bills get beaten by the marginally better New York Jets. When it became clear that the Bills would lose the game, the rueful fans began smoking cigarettes. Suddenly, someone set off a smoke bomb. Then, a pack of extraordinarily noisy firecrackers were tossed on the dance floor. If the home team had won, there would have been bottle rockets, according to one tipsy fan. I love Buffalo.
Strangely, it all reminded me of some of the better Nintendo DS games of the season. (I know, I should get out more: but I was trying by traveling to the dive bar). DS games are a lot like fireworks. They explode with lurid color and momentary excitement, the same kind you get when exploding a firecracker. So herewith is a look at some of the better video game fireworks for the DS this season.
MARIO VS. DONKEY KONG 2 (Nintendo)The backdrop for this game is an exciting opening day for the Super Mini Mario World theme park. But Donkey Kong, that nefarious ape, has absconded with the pretty Pauline, the park's guest of honor. Here you'll use your DS touchscreen and stylus to control a small army of tiny Mario toys to rescue the damsel in distress. The bonus I like the best? You can create your own game levels and send them to your friends via the DS' Wi-Fi capabilities.
COOKING MAMA (Majesco)Forget Rachel Ray. If you're into taking the kitchen by storm, check out Cooking Mama. In the game, the stylus is your knife, your fork, your blendereverything you need to create the cool recipes from Mama. Thing is, the recipes get pretty hard, just as recipes in real life do. (Ever try to make a lobster bisque? Darn thing will take you all day.) Cooking Mama won't require all day sessions for your virtual victuals, but with 76 recipes to make, you'll be playing the game for quite some time. Want to kick it up a notch? You can share your recipes with four others like-minded culinary contestants. You can even use your DS microphone to cool down food that's hot from the oven.
MECHASSAULT PHANTOM WAR (Majesco) One of the ever present trends in video games is giant robots that shoot and blow things up. Can you have a blast with such a game on the smaller DS screen? Yes and no. While the variety of Mechs make you feel like a master of this 32nd century universe and the interface is easy to use, the gameplay isn't all that on the small screen. Nor are the graphics.
MEGA MAN ZX (Capcom) Mega Man has been around since the game industry was in its infancy back in 1987. This particular iteration has beautifully drawn backgrounds mixed with the old side scrolling style that made the sci-fi hero-warrior popular back in the day. Here, you're a human using various robotic suits to accomplish missions and restore peace to your particular universe. The play takes some getting used to and you don't use the touchscreen very much. However, if you want a challenging game based on some rich video game history, give ZX a shot.
MARIO HOOPS 3 ON 3 (Nintendo) This is basketball Nintendo style, and that means it plays fast, humorously, and magically. Many of the Nintendo characters, including Princess Peach and Bowser, duke it out on the courts with crazy dribbling and powerups that would amaze the likes of Shaq or LeBron. The cool extra? You'll run into characters from everyone's favorite role playing game, Final Fantasy. You can play wirelessly, too, and enjoy a load of minigames.
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