Games got music, too, and I don’t mean the background soundtracks. They rock; they roll; they jazz. Don’t take this lightly: I mean these three new PSP games would be welcomed, to paraphrase Wynton Marsalis, in the high houses of erudite scholarship and in the houses of ill repute as well. They are sometimes so creative, they can be like Wynton going out at Lincoln Center, doing Jelly Roll, singing “What Have I Done?,” playing the washboard, and bringing out a trio of tap dancers as a surprise. This week, games for the PSP got the jazz on them.
I confess: I was never really a big fan of the Jak and Daxter franchise for the PS2. Certainly, I liked Jak’s sidekick Daxter, the fictional, genetic anomaly of an otter mixed with a weasel. But I found Jak to be too one-dimensional. In fact, I sometimes wished the series would die.
DAXTER gives the deserving, wisecracking ottsel his own platform in an intriguing, action-filled game that is one of the best this year for the PSP. With Daxter, you’ve got a highly detailed, Bugs Bunny-inspired creature whose every move is fun to watch and even more fun to play. Call it aggressive lunking and skulking full of lopes, scampers, and lunges.
In a way, playing is like hearing Curtis Stigers do scat. As Daxter moves through a sci-fi world rife with lurid colors and mammoth, Blade Runner-like flying objects, you’re transported into futuristic but wacky environments where the ottsel must take the lowly job of pest exterminator in order to find his buddy, that boring Jak. From the beginning, the puff-chested Daxter has to use an electric flyswatter to kill bugs. Step lively; step lightly; do the Daxter dance with alacrity because there’s more to come. Daxter gets his weapons upgrade quickly as the bugs become gigantic: everything from an electric fogger to a flamethrower. From the on-target camera angles to the sweet-yet-thoughtful writing, you just feel the assertive attention to detail every step of the way. If you think the game is a little slow at the beginning (you have to do a lot of crouching, walking, and running), don’t sing the blues. Daxter gets a scooter to make navigating the delightfully massive world of Haven City much easier.
Call this one electric jazz on acid. I’m always a sucker for a 3D gimmick, especially when it’s part of a smart game. That’s the case with METAL GEAR ACID 2, one of those card-based tactical games. Don’t let the 500 cards stop you from playing. The 3D mode lets you view game play and trailers for a wonderful spatial effect that will make you want to reach out and touch the virtual world of tough guy Solid Snake. You can even link the game to MGS3: Subsistence (but only after you acquire the camera option on the first disc).
Here’s how ACID 2 works. The cards you draw help you move along in the game. These cards are often like power-ups and they enhance the abilities of Solid along with his varied weapons. You’ll need these powers to complete the missions in the game. But don’t think of this game as something like poker or bridge because it has cards. It’s full of action, very good graphics, and an easy-to-use interface. Add those very engaging 3D moments, and you’ve got a game that’s much advanced when compared to its predecessor, last year’s Metal Gear Acid.
Here’s the jazz fusion. With the exception of annoying load times which sometimes seem endless, MX VS. ATV UNLEASHED: ON THE EDGE is an exciting, challenging racing game. The variety here is impressive, if not staggering. You’ve got so many tracks and vehicles from which to choose, you feel like a kid in a candy store. Add a pulse-pounding soundtrack which features the likes of The Black Eyed Peas and Nickelback, wild vehicles like monster trucks, and physics that rival the game’s console version, and you’ve got the recipe for hours of gritty racing enjoyment. Sure, it’s tough to master your clutch and do the necessary tricks to win. The bonus is that On the Edge feels like real racing despite the arcade essence at its core. It’s your turn to solo, so make it intricate; don’t play with ego; and, most of all, make it swing.
Onimusha: Dawn Of Dreams
I tend to go on about the writing in games as if it’s a crusade, but that’s because so much is two grades below the writing in the reality TV show Average Joe. Same goes for the times they try to offer a movie-like experience. Half the time, it comes out like a F-grade Uwe Boll (Uwe himself is D grade). But Onimusha: Dawn Of Dreams is a happy exception. It’s not only a superior game. It’s a constantly cinematic experience with a compelling story line and a good (if not amazing) script.
First, make believe you’re at the Ziegfeld. The complex and lengthy opening sequences last for over ten minutes (plus, there’s time for some essential time for game play). The movies are real feasts for the eyes as the sorrow and carnage of war meet natural disasters in medieval Japan. Think legendary director Kurasawa meets all-action-all-the-time producer Jerry Bruckheimer. You think, that’s gonna suck wind like a boxer who got a nasty haymaker, right? It works nearly perfectly.
The Onimusha franchise, a tight combination of adventure story, combat, and puzzle-solving, is now five years old. In this two-disc set, you’re still fighting evil and demons that are hell-bent on taking over Japan in the 1500s. But there’s so much that’s new that seasoned players will feel the franchise is fresh. And the tutorials early on will appeal to the novice who hasn’t played an Onimusha previously. In the process, you’ll learn how to fight and how to parry, and you’ll whack some nasty demons—including an ugly, easy-to-kill giant.
Full of greedy warlords, mythic magic, and mayhem, Dawn Of Dreams comes complete with an arsenal of weapons for your protagonist, Soki, The Blue Demon. Soki can also absorb the souls of the dead to gain power. Some decent (though not perfect) companions help you slash your way through the nasty, armor-clad skeletons which come at you in hordes.
24: The Game
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: SCE Studios Cambridge
Wanna be like Jack? If you fantasize about being counterterrorist Jack Bauer, 24: The Game may be for you. While the game play has been trounced by various crits, I have to say that for a true 24 addict who thinks the show is one of the greatest damn dramas ever to hit television, it’s not all about the game.
It’s also about the story, about the rising tension and heartbeating drama that mount as the seconds tick away. With plot and nailbiting aspects, the developers have worked hard and it shows. I kept wondering how things would unfold, and I wasn’t disappointed when they did. That’s partially because a writer from the actual TV show worked on the game and because you feel Bauer-like pressure as the game unfolds in real time. You’ll be playing during the tenure of the powerful, ethics-minded President Palmer during a time between the second and third seasons. In other words, there’s nothing stolen from shows you’ve already seen: it’s all new—with acting from most everyone involved in the show. Yes, that means Kiefer Sutherland.
But Jack, stop this crazy thing! Here’s a game that throws everything at you in its 100 missions: You drive, you move with stealth, you kill, you shoot, you strategize, and you blow things up. But the game aspect does pale in comparison to the presentation. In other words, if the developers had spent another six months to make, say, the camera angles work properly and the vehicles drive smoothly, this could have been one of the best games of the year.
Jack Bauer, beyond everything else, is a workaholic, utterly consumed with saving the world. Even though I love 24 on TV, and even though I like the game’s story, the upshot is the game makers should have been more like Jack. They should have been obsessed. Unlike Jack, they didn’t give us one hundred percent.
Developer: BigBig Studios
Yeh, yeh, yeh, talk to the hand: game makers wanna be like Peter Jackson and Jerry Bruckheimer. They want the accolades, the respect, the props. Everyone says, the game business is young; it will get the respect it deserves as it evolves. But approaching age 25, the industry ain’t so young anymore. And if you compare it to the movie industry, after 20 years of moviemaking the Oscars were events that everyone from kiddies to grannies cared about. No one but gamers care about the game award ceremonies on that insipid Spike network. For the last 10 or 12 years, the developers in the video game industry have yearned to be like their producer counterparts in Hollywood. With the advent of the PS2 and the Xbox 360, it’s true that some of the best games offer production values and special effects that rival Hollywood’s action films. But if games were really like movies, they’d have terrific stories. Nine out of ten don’t.
Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with trying to emulate Hollywood. Pursuit Force takes its action cues, which are relentless and many, from Tinseltown action flicks, everything from The French Connection to The Fast and the Furious. What makes this PSP game new is how you, as a rookie cop, capture the criminals from five gangs who run amok in the fictional Capital City. To apprehend the baddies, you can leap from car to car with astonishing, frog-like power and accuracy. That small innovation makes Pursuit Force a thrill to play. With cars that go 150 mph, 55 vehicles to drive and 10 types of weapons, the 30 cases to solve are full of teeth-gritting skirmishes. You won’t wanna take your Ambien and play this one.
Your boss is the kind of no-nonsense tough guy that you played for in Halo 2 and in Mercenaries. He’s gruff and humorous, but one-dimensional. That’s my reservation regarding each of the characters, and the story, too. It’s as cliché as Uwe Bolls movies. Yet it’s the game play that will get you through Pursuit Force because it’s so fast and furious. If you stop to take a gander at the gorgeous artwork as you drive and leap, you’ll lose these timed challenges. And the crabby boss will belittle you—an attempt to get you to do better the next time: call it the Bill Parcells Effect.
While it certainly doesn’t have the Hollywood frenticism of Pursuit Force, I really like Exit, a fascinating 2D puzzle game for the PSP with a mammoth 100 levels. Here, you play an heroic escapologist who must save people from dire situations like fires and floods. You are Mr. ESC, a wispy, caffeine gulping hero who needs to save just about everyone, from the young to the infirm. In the game’s early stages, everything’s easy enough as you learn to save people from burning buildings and the like. You’re something like a 9-11 hero meets Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
Once you’re at one with the mechanics, the puzzles can be trying and, occasionally, full of tribulation. In other words, they’re fun but maddening: especially when the room you’re in goes completely dark. Handy maps help you negotiate the levels, but there are constant obstacles along the way like live wires that will electrocute you. Beyond the game play, the character rendering is inspired and hand drawn, a few steps up from stick figures. And yet, you find them cute, powerful, and compelling as you always try to find the exit and become the hero. And you know what? With the right writer, it’d make a terrific movie.
Both Pursuit Force and Exit prove one thing: the games for the PSP are getting better and better. And that’s great news for handheld fans who suffered through the first year of the PSP as dozens of paltry offerings were released. They should not have seen the light of day. But that’s the game industry: You get the cutting edge hardware early. Then you have to wait for what seems like an interminable amount of time for the best game technology to catch up.