When Lamps and Chairs Attack
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
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Publisher: Buena Vista Games
Developer: Amaze Entertainment
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.
Developer: Appaloosa Interactive
Long before Peter Benchley, the popular novelist who wrote Jaws, died earlier this year, he had changed him mind about Great White Sharks. In fact, with a great deal of passion, he told a group at the Smithsonian, "Today I could not, for instance, portray the shark as a villain, especially not as a mindless omnivore that attacks boats and humans with reckless abandon. No, the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for, world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.
Benchley backed up his opinions, saying, "Every year, more than a hundred million sharks are slaughtered by man. It has been estimated that for every human life taken by a shark, 4.5 million sharks are killed by humans. And rarely for a useful purpose." I know what he means. A few years ago, I flew into South Africa's Cape Town. After driving for about three hours in a cheap, three-cylinder Kia, I boarded a weak-looking 20-foot boat with two Great White Shark researchers. After about a half hour, we got to Dyer Island, populated by thousands of smelly seals, the white shark's favorite food. One of the researchers threw whale blood into the clear blue ocean near the island. Soon, four or five sharks circled about. Donning a thick wet suit and a 30-minute air tank, I went down in a cage. Into the cold waters. As they nudged the cage, I could see they were powerful creatures. They could be scary, sure. But they also had a grace, a beauty that only someone who's been down in the cage can understand. It is a magnificence that should be preserved.
I mention all this because I know just a little more about Great Whites than most folks who watch the Discovery Channel documentaries. So, when I cracked open JAWS UNLEASHED, a new game based on the classic Steven Spielberg movie, I had my doubts about authenticity. After all, the last Jaws offering, released in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, was pretty darn crappy. Almost two decades later, would the new game do the shark right? Would the sea look real or simply like a big aquarium?
Although the game's been trashed elsewhere, I really enjoyed Jaws Unleashedwith a few major exceptions. First off, you play from the perspective of the shark. That's right, you are the giant, prehistoric-looking beast, feeding on seals and fish, even a killer whale. And you wreak havoc upon any human in a boat or in a cage. Yes, you chomp up people like they were Starburst fruit chews (that's why the game is rated M for Mature).
The environments in which the white shark moves are complex and beautiful. They're a little too crystal clear and light-filled than the real deals, but they're fairly close to what you'd see down in the deep. The idea behind Jaws Unleashed is that, as a shark, you want your environment free of the uncaring humans and creatures who want to pollute and invade your home. In the eleven missions presented here, you'll even eliminate a giant squid.
Most of the missions let you go where you want to go in the undersea world. As long as you eat enough undersea creatures and diving humans (accomplished by repeatedly squeezing the right trigger in the Xbox version), you'll be able to roam freely to explore the deep. Plus, there are 'prizes.' If you consume four tin cans in a level, you'll open a clip from the original movie. If you chomp all the treasure chests you come across, you'll enable a mode in which you're indestructible (which is good because, in this game, smaller fishes like to take bites out of your body, causing a loss of health). Once you gain experience in the game, you'll be armed with extra moves that will permit attacks like dive bombing and kills with just one bite.
Jaws Unleashed isn't perfect, not at all. A real Carcharodon carcharias moves more quickly and lithely and is more accurate in targeting prey than the giant in this game. There's no way that a White would get stuck in the ruins of a boat, for instance, as he can do in this game. Also, while the camera angles aren't abysmal in the game, they could be a lot better. If you're in an area that's like a thin tunnel, you'll probably get stuck. You'll waste precious time and energy just trying to get out of these kinds of pickles. Remember, if you don't eat every few minutes, you'll die. Developers should never have allowed this kind of trap to occur repeatedly.
But what's great about this Great White Shark game is that it feels new and different. Innovation is really lacking in the game industry these days. So a game like Jaws Unleashed, in which you play one of the world's most feared and most misunderstood creatures, is a welcome break from the plethora of first person shooters that are constantly foisted upon the market. If only they had fixed the bugs and camera angles, Jaws Unleashed would have been one of the year's best games.
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