With all of the hoopla surrounding E3, the lurid, seven-deadly-sin-filled video game convention in Los Angeles this week, you might miss a brand new game featuring Nintendo’s big superstar, Mario. The omnipresent Mario is for Nintendo as Mickey is for Disney. He’s not only a cuter-than-the-Olsen-twins-as-toddlers character; he represents everything for which the company stands: wholesome fun for kids and adults alike.
The mustachioed Italian plumber has been a cultural icon of the video game world since his birth in the 1980s with a series of exhilarating running and jumping games. While Mario releases have occasionally been hit and miss, Nintendo never fails to come up with some innovative idea within each game—whether it’s the frantic nature of the “Mario Party” series or the creative “Warioware” mini-game spinoffs for the GameCube and the DS.
Now for the DS comes NEW SUPER MARIO BROTHERS. It’s an old school 2D game with a lot of new twists. And because of all the new power-ups, you get a kind of Alice In Wonderland feeling as you play. That’s not to say that it’s full of biting satire of Carroll’s classic tome. But mushrooms make Mario huge, a giant among plumbers. And when Mario grows, he has the power of Godzilla, wreaking havoc upon the small world below for the short time he’s huge. Here, as in past Mario games, Princess Peach is being held captive. So Mario and his brother Luigi must join forces to save the young royal.
Mario is rendered in high tech 3D in a luridly-colored 2D side scrolling world. You won’t be using the touch screen much in the single player mode or in the two-player wifi mode. Nintendo’s saved the touch screen aspect for a variety of mini games. The one that’s the most fun asks you to roll a snowball via the touch screen to a goal in 20 seconds. Make sure you miss the obstacles along the way, or you’ll never get there on time. The variety of mini games is vast, including puzzle games, action games, and an addictive version of poker featuring Mario’s brother, Luigi, as the dealer.
While it’s disappointing that you can’t use the touch screen in the single player game, the adventure within the side scroller is occasionally thrilling and often challenging. You’ll find various creatures along the way to head stomp and butt stomp. And there’s even a new control which lets Mario cling to walls a la Spider-Man. I have to say I really don’t like the happy music, which becomes repetitive and annoying. I just turned down the sound when I didn’t like the tune.
Ultimately, what New Super Mario Bros. contains is a tried and true fairy tale full of humor—and the realized dreams of saving the beautiful damsel in distress. As the hero, you get the girl in the end—although you might not in real life. But that’s what games are for: to live out your fantasies.
Tomb Raider: Legend
Developer: Crystal Dynamis
If you think about the legendary female characters in TV and in the movies, you think the bright, witty Emma Peel from The Avengers, even the quiet power of the Bionic Woman or the steadfast nature of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. You can even look at Julia Robert’s Erin Brockovich as a kind of hero. You don’t think of Lara Croft as a well-rounded character, really, not in movies, or in games. That’s because Lara Croft is more Wonder Woman meets Indiana Jones than a thoughtful heroine. Lara Croft has been a comic book-inspired action heroine from the get-go. So when the cliché Angel of Darkness showed up as an abominable iteration in 2003, I’d had it with Tomb Raider games.
About two months ago, the good people at Eidos came over to the house to demonstrate their biggest game in years, Tomb Raider: Legend. I have to say I had my doubts, especially since the series has had its ups and downs, especially with Angel of Darkness. And, franky, the movie versions of Lara starring Angelina Jolie were good, though not life-changing experiences. But the moment the demo came on the screen, I could see how much care had been put into creating the latest Lara. And you know what? This Lara character is pretty darn deep.
Immediately within the game, the graphics shined. There was Lara in all her glory, stealthily making her way in around a raging waterfall in one of the early levels. The beautiful Lara seemed almost human, and the waterfall was stunning to behold. I don’t want to dwell on the environments and graphics for too long, but when they’re this stellar, you really want to delve deeply into a game. When I took the PS2 controls and moved Lara around, negotiating the falls was easy, and the controller reacted properly, just like the most recent Prince Of Persia games. She moves smoothly and seamlessly. Also, I saw very few camera angle issues, which boded well for the future release.
When the games finally came, even the blurbs on the boxes were compellingly written, if not grammatically correct: “In a race against time, Lara must travel across the globe to unearth history’s greatest weapons. A legendary artifact of such immense power it could threaten humanity’s very existence.” Once I played finished copies of “Legend” in all formats, one thing became clear. Not only is Lara back, she’s better than ever.
Once you finish an early level, you can explore Croft Manor, which holds secrets and information on game play. But be careful of one thing: games are not automatically saved, so save your progress often. And you’ll want to use the “Safety Grab” feature which prevents Lara from falling off ledges.
Along the way, you’ll be driving a sleek motorcycle for missions that are fun, if a little too simple to complete. And you’ll use Lara’s powers for varied melee attacks, including a slide attack, which knocks enemies off balance, an aerial attack, in which she lands on an enemy, and a power kick, which gives enemies the boot. You’ll also have a PLS, Personal Light Source, for the dark catacombs you must courageously explore. The one thing I don’t like is Lara’s PDA, from which she gets her latest missions. The PDA has been around since video games came on CDROMs back in the early 90s. There should be something a bit higher tech than a PDA and a headset to herald Lara’s return to gaming.
As Lara travels around the world, the lands she visits are lavish and lush or cold and foreboding. It’s also fun to make Lara swim underwater. But I liked the level which features an old English amusement park the best. The feeling you get is creepy and scary, like there’s some monster about to jump out at you from inside an eerie haunted house. Finally, developers Crystal Dynamics have created some terrific puzzles. Some of them just tease your brain, while others attempt to turn your gray matter to mush.
Ultimately, Legend creatively revives a series that some said was in its death throes. But Lara proves she has more lives than a cat. She just might be around fighting baddies when we’re old and gray.
Kingdom Hearts II
Publisher: Square Enix/BVG
Developer: Square Enix
In a last great orgasm before an E3-enforced detumescence, a plethora of games have been released that are like powerful little super-sperm. Play these suckers and you’ll be screaming in ecstasy. So turn up the volume: you don’t want the neighbors to hear your rapture. Truth be told, I can’t recall a late March/early April period in which so many good and occasionally great games were foisted upon the market. This week, a trio of good-to-great games jump the bones.
The long-awaited and long-delayed Kingdom Hearts III has finally landed. With synchronicity that often isn’t seen between Hollywood and game makers, Disney has teamed up with the RPG magicians Square-Enix, the people who make the Final Fantasy series. They’ve lent everyone from Mickey Mouse to Johnny Depp as crusty Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean to unleash a really thoughtful and deep adventure story. It makes the delay completely worth the wait.
This is a game of full of modern myth, Disney style, in which you travel between various worlds to help the local hero, whether it’s Mickey or the Little Mermaid. From the voice acting (which includes James Woods as the big-voiced ruler of Hell) to the soundtrack which includes the Little Mermaid‘s Jodi Benson, the game is full of pleasant surprises. You’ll also meet some of the greatest characters from the Final Fantasy series. Plus, Square-Enix has made some terrific graphics on the soon-to-be-old-school PlayStation 2.
The only game play problem I can see is that to access various abilities and magic gleaned from hanging with the Disney characters, you have to scroll through various menus. This slows down the action. And you sometimes encounter problems with the camera angles, a game development challenge that’s generally too ever-present in the world of video games. But the story, full of everything from fairy tales to sword and sorcery magic, makes you feel like kid again. To really understand the worlds of the game, you might also buy the original Kingdom Hearts, which you can get online for as little as $13.
Developer: Ubisoft Romania
Although it’s been criticized as not quite deep enough, I like Blazing Angels for the Xbox 360. Here, you’ll “feel like a pilot in a great WWII movie.” Sure, it’s got great graphics from a pilot’s eye view, and you’ll love flying over London and Big Ben as you battle. But with 42 different kinds of aircraft and the ability to play with 16 others online, the word ‘intense’ becomes an understatement. I went out and bought a mouth guard to stop grinding my teeth from the tension I encountered. If you haven’t played an arcade-like WWII war game before, try renting the game before you buy. With attackers coming from every direction and good graphics that are sometime great, you’ll have a lot of fun with Blazing Angels.
Far Cry Instincts Predator
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal/Crytek
The best buy of the week is Far Cry Instincts Predator. Not only does the Xbox 360 game include the original (albeit wonderfully enhanced) Far Cry Instincts, the brand new Predator comes with a wild story that leans toward horror and sci-fi. It’s full of action and shooting as you make your way through mysterious islands full of mercenaries, pirates, and warriors. Your character, Jack Carver, has decided to move to the islands for a life of ease and margaritas. Instead, he’s injected with a mysterious serum that gives him the power of various beasts. You’ll enjoy Predator even more if you have online capabilities. Online, you’ll be able to create your own game by editing maps that essentially make for a player-defined game. All three of these games will keep you occupied for weeks on end. Are they better than sex? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, that depends on what the meaning of sex is.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
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 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.