You know that jones. You know it too well. Sometimes you gotta have a full pound bag of Skittles; sometimes you gotta drink coffee until you grind your teeth. And sometimes you gotta play until you drop. That’s the way it is with OBLIVION. And that’s because the developers, Bethesda Softworks, have carefully crafted their Elder Scrolls games since 1994. Beyond craftmanship, they have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to using new technology seamlessly. So when Oblivion, the lastest installment in the series, was postponed for the Xbox 360, gamers everywhere drew heavy sighs of sadness. Without doubt, it would have been the killer app when the 360 was released last fall.
Two weeks ago when Oblivion was finally unleashed, palpable joy was everywhere. Not only is Oblivion filled with the most beautiful graphics to date for Microsoft’s next generation hardware, it’s rife with compelling play that takes the RPG genre to a new level. That’s why it’s the top selling game in the country. That’s why bloggers have moved from ecstasy into rapture when they talk breathlessly about it.
For me, what matters most in Oblivion is its compelling story and the way it unfolds. After an opening movie full of expansive scenery and massive architecture worthy of Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings, you start out in a dingy cell being browbeaten by a prisoner whose body you can’t see. Suddenly, the embattled emperor of Tamriel (who looks a little like Sen. John McCain after he’s made nice with Jerry Falwell) appears with an entourage, and they move through a hidden tunnel in your cell to run from assassins. Although you’re told not to, you follow through creepy, catacomb-like recesses beneath the prison. You can almost smell the dankness.
After you choose the kind of character you’d like to be, you’ll begin with a tutorial that shows you how to kill: You start with an RPG staple, giant rats. They die easily, but their bites do cause wounds. (By clicking the right controller stick, I moved from the first person perspective to the third person just because it’s easier to see the rats attack.) You’ll find a bow and arrow, and you’ll learn how to shoot. And you’ll cast magic spells full of wild animation.
The key to enjoying the rich experience of Oblivion is to have a wide-eyed sense of discovery and a nagging need to explore everything. Because of the circuitous routes you take, you’ll probably get lost now and then. The game itself helps you to find your way with everything from a compass to various maps. You’ll also encounter zombies and goblins early on, and the way they pop out of the darkness frightens you in the way the Doom 3 did. As you move forward, you’ll end up in Sancre Tor, which is full of the undead. Ghosts here will help you, and scare your pants off, too. Tip: To fight off the ghosts, you can’t use just any weapon. You’ll have to find a silver weapon.
If you’ve never played an RPG before, this really is the one to buy. You’ll also want to search the Web for some needed help when things get tough (various walk-throughs are available, and so is a guide you can purchase in bookstores). Oblivion is truly an immersive adventure of sword and sorcery. Novices who take the time to play will be hooked in about an hour. And the hardened gamers? Your hearts will melt as your quest becomes more and more complex and graphically intense. You will play until you drop, and when you get up, you’ll play until you drop again. Even when it’s done, it’s not done. As George Carlin mused, “Just ’cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 3 Advanced Warfighter
Developer: Tiwak/Ubisoft Paris
Damn, if W. had these guys from Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 3 Advanced Warfighter in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, we’d have won the stupid war within three months. Think of it: no 2,000 plus dead Americans. No 30,000 plus dead Iraqis. Just an elite squad making the world safe with supreme stealth and high tech power. You can dream, can’t you? That’s about all you can do right now.
Advanced Warfighter whisks you to the year 2013 in Mexico City when the Army creates a new breed of soldier. You’re equipped with the latest technology: that means truly precise and explosive weaponry. The press release for the game says that this new kind of solider is yours to command. It’s more than command, however. You feel you’re a part of the action every step of the way. From the sounds of looming helicopters to the way the bright sun sometimes makes it difficult to see your target, you’ll appreciate the attention to detail and computer coding that’s gone into the latest Clancy effort. In fact, the game itself is so high tech, it makes you update your Xbox 360 system before you play. Don’t worry: it’s just the press of a controller button.
Here’s a game full of elite strategy as you try to halt the coup of a crazed Mexican general who threatens all of North America and captures the U.S. president. It’s up to you, as with most video games, to save the world (well, at least the Western hemisphere). But don’t be too aggressive in this stunning single player campaign. If you try to run toward your target and shoot without considering serious military tactics, you’ll bite the dust immediately. You have to be stealthy, too, in this urban terrain. Carefully, duck behind cement blockades and look around corners quietly. You’ll use smoke grenades to dismay the enemy, sure. But you’ll also have the countersnipe rifle, which lets you get to hidden enemies behind walls. So precise are the futuristic weapons that you often have to press a button to hold your character’s breath. This steadies your aim and lets you fire accurately.
You can call in for support, too, including air strikes, which make for quite the visual fireworks. Even better than the single player mode are the online multiplayer capabilities of the game. These will definitely keep you coming back for more. You and your pals can really make the online experience as highly customized as you wish: everything from the way your character looks to the kind of action that happens onscreen. The customization abilities here seem almost endless. Because of the nearly infinite variety of things to do online, this is one of the great games for the Xbox 360.
By Steven L. Kent
Ace Books, 400 pages, $7.99
Speaking of high tech war battles, dean of gaming journalism Steven L. Kent has switched his talents to the novel writing game. The Clone Republic (Ace), Kent’s military science fiction epic, is released this week. The plot? In the year 2508, a human clone called Wayson Harris has an independent streak that serves him well early on as he makes his way through a world of elite (though servile) clone soldiers. But Harris’s individualism is not appreciated by the higher ups in the Unified Authority, which has a hammer lock on Earth’s colonies. The first sentence gets you immediately: “‘You picked a hell of a place to die, Marine,’ I told myself.” From there, the action begins fast and furious with dark musings, lavish battle scenes, and complex characterizations.
Not only does The Clone Republic feature taut writing and a truly imaginative plot full of introspection and philosophizing (Kent even quotes Plato), you can tell Kent had video gaming on his mind when he took on the project. Muses Kent, “The Clone Republic can make a good game, if it falls into the hands of a good team. All the elements are there. It has combat epic sequences and smaller man-to-man skirmishes. It has a wide range of locations that will lend themselves varied gaming experience. The battles in the book have unique goals and characteristics—and most of them are not the clichéd battle types you find in so often. The text leaves room for a wide variety of mini-games. Also, like the ‘Half-Life’ series, The Clone Republic starts with the premise that a fleshed out storyline will lend itself to a richer gaming experience.” Kent’s book begins a new series for Ace: the followup, Rogue Clone, will be released in September.
Developer: Ready At Dawn Studios
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.
Developer: Kojima Productions
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.