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Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!! (Windows 3.x)

By EboMike on September 29th, 2016

Alien Breed (Amiga)

By EboMike on August 15th, 2016

Far Cry 2 (Xbox 360)

Mediocre shooter, set apart by its exotic locale

The Good
I’ll disclose this up front - I’m a bit biased. I married into an East African family, so there’s a special place in my heart for a game set in Africa. Although the story is set in a fictional central African nation, the scenery looks very East African (and the development team went to Kenya for research).

And when I say “looks”, I mean it “looks fantastic”. The graphics are just gorgeous. Big, open plains. Exotic vegetation. Grass slowly moving in the wind. Zebras and other animals roaming freely. And a dynamic time-of-day and weather system. You’ll find yourself on a river, gazing at the early morning fog tinting everything in yellow.

So let’s get into the story - you’re a mercenary, sent to said country to assassinate an infamous arms dealer, the Jackal, who is selling weapons to two big warring factions. However, you've barely even landed and immediately contract Malaria (wow, that was quick?!) and pass out, waking up to see the Jackal mock you. With your mission now basically failed, you spend your time doing random jobs for the two major warring factions.

Those jobs are pretty similar - go somewhere, kill someone or destroy something. As you play, you’ll meet random NPCs who can become your buddies. Those serve several purposes: For one, they serve as a “get out of jail free” card - if you’re about to die in a firefight, a buddy will appear and save you. That works once every day or so. (The silly part is that a buddy will save you whenever you would have normally died, even if that was because you fell hundreds of feet. How does the buddy save you? Scrape you up off the ground and put you back together?!)

The other purpose of a buddy is to provide an alternate solution to a mission. Once you receive your assignment, your buddy will call you and offer you a different way, which usually includes additional waypoints, but results in an overall easier job.

I have to say that the buddy system actually works quite well. You always have one primary buddy, and you almost feel something like an emotional bond to them. They can actually die - you can save their lives, but only so many times. At some point, they’re mortally wounded on the ground, and the medication that used to immediately heal them stops working. That leaves you with the option to put them to rest by over-medicating them, abandoning them, or shooting them in the head, which allows them a final line like “I’m sorry, mama”. I was impressed how effective this is when you experience this scene for the first time.

There are side-missions as well, but there’s not much to them. You can receive assassination missions (go to position X, kill person), or jobs to destroy convoys (which conveniently drive in a circle, waiting for you to ambush them).

How you go about a mission is up to you. The map is open, so you can approach from different directions. You can be stealthy. Or just blow everything up. Engage in lengthy firefights or try to rush through the opposition.

The Bad
This game is repetitive! There are so many missions that feel identical: Go to contact person. Receive mission. Get call from buddy about alternate route. Go to waypoint A. Firefight. Go to waypoint B. Firefight. Rinse. Repeat.

What’s really annoying is that enemies always appear at the same location, even outside missions. Every major intersection and every checkpoint has a bunch of people out to get you. You can kill them all, but drive for a while and come back, and there’ll be another set of people waiting for you just where you killed (or ignored) the last bunch.

Really, it seems like you’re the most hated person in this country. Everybody is out to get you! Whenever you see someone, you can be sure that they’re about to take shots at you. There are no civilians in the game. Sure, it makes it easier to identify friends and foes, but it feels a bit weird.

The only mission that really stands out is the last one. It seems like all of a sudden, the level designers woke up. Why couldn't more missions be like that? Really, so many great things happen during the final 30 minutes of the game.

The enemy AI is a mixed bag. It’s touted as being super smart, and they sometimes appear to be tactical - they flank you, hide behind obstacles, etc. At the same time, they just look completely lost sometimes. There've been many occasions where I saw somebody in plain view, looking roughly in my general direction but not doing anything in particular. After staring that person in the eye for a few seconds, I wondered - was that an NPC? A civilian? Do those exist after all? So I walk a bit closer, almost touch him when he finally springs to life and shoots at me. So it was an enemy after all, just a stupid one.

As for the story, there are several problems: First of all, there’s the old problem of the silent protagonist. The entire game is played in first-person perspective. Even during “cutscenes” (i.e. people talking you, the camera never ever leaves the first person perspective), you’re fully in control of the player. You never say a word. It just feels weird.

Next, all the characters are completely and entirely interchangeable. I completely lost track of who is who. None of the characters have any distinguishing features or characteristics. Later on, you can somewhat side with one faction or another. But which one do you pick? I don’t know! They’re all the same!

Same with the buddies - they look different, but that’s the extent of it. If one dies, another one takes their place, but it doesn't seem to make a shred of a difference to the actual gameplay. You also have this reputation system, but it doesn't seem to serve a purpose. It seems like the developers initially planned a lot more depth but ended up cutting a lot.

At the same time, parts of the writing is actually nice - and the best parts are even kind of hidden. A little side quest is to find audio tapes of an interview with the Jackal, and those are great! But those tapes have no bearing on the rest of the game, so players are unlikely to find many of them. And it’s a shame, that’s where the writing really shines. It often feels like Far Cry 2 paired a great writer and a bunch of not so great level designers.

The map is big, which is nice. You can travel using jeeps or boats. The problem is that both are destructible, and there’ll often be random patrols on vehicles just chasing you and trying to take you down. It’s a matter of time until your car breaks down. You can either fix it if it’s not beyond repair, or you commandeer the vehicle of said patrol after you eliminate the owners, but sooner or later, you’ll be stranded without a car, forcing you to walk, run (which makes you dizzy after a few seconds due to Malaria), and eventually find a car. This can take a while.

This problem was solved in Red Dead Redemption with the ability to whistle, where a horse would appear within seconds. Grand Theft Auto avoided the issue by being set in a city where you are surrounded by cars (and starting in GTA IV, you could call for a cab on your cell phone). But here, in the big open plains, you’re forced to just walk for ages, in a huge open area with nothing but plants and a few animals for miles.

And for all the boasting about the game being so open and free, it usually ends up being pretty linear in the end. You go through the main missions one by one. In the end, there aren't that many different solutions to the core parts of a mission, and the game doesn't really handle you trying to outsmart it very well. In one mission, I was supposed to assassinate somebody with a sniper rifle from the building across. Instead, I managed to make my way into the building of the target itself... who simply stared at me, not saying anything, even after I started hurting him.

The Bottom Line
Again, I must remind you of my bias - I couldn't dislike this game. It does such a great job conveying the flora and fauna of sub-saharan Africa that I enjoyed just walking around and taking the scenery in. And the graphics are great.

The game itself isn't bad - lots of interesting guns, reasonable shooting mechanics, lots of driving and firefights. It just feels repetitive and unspectacular sometimes. The story barely moves at all (and the lack of cutscenes and the completely silent protagonist really don’t help here), and the characters are so flat that you couldn't possibly care about any of them.

And - don’t worry, this is not a spoiler - a word about the ending. A quick Google search reveals that it is universally hated. I personally loved it. It’s different and brings a nice touch to the whole storyline. But that may again be due to my attachment to Africa. People who don’t care much about the continent might not appreciate the ending.

By EboMike on November 4th, 2012

Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)

Interactive movies in the 21st century have come a long way

The Good
Interactive movies were this big thing in the 90s. It started off when people came up with good ways to compress videos made out of images with big, simple shapes of the same color - read: animated cartoons. Enter Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace.

Then, with the advent of the CD-ROM came the games that used live-action footage, shot with various levels of production value. Some were incredibly cheesy, some actually well made.

But the bottom line was the same - the game was playing back a video, and based on the user input (which was often as simple as clicking on a spot, or moving the joystick in one direction), it would branch off to another movie. Some games like The Daedalus Encounter tried to lighten it up by adding traditional puzzles to the mix so the gameplay was taking turns between movie playbacks and completely random puzzles, but after a few years, these kind of games faded away. They just sucked once you got over the hype of the “great graphics”.

Enter Heavy Rain. At its core, it’s an interactive movie, with some sections having almost the same lack of complexity as the aforementioned ancestors. But it’s a different league.

First off, the graphics are not pre-recorded, they’re rendered using a normal 3D renderer. You get to move the player in any direction you want. Once you get close to objects of interest, you can interact with them by making a certain movement or button press with your controller.

But what sets Heavy Rain apart from the rest is the narrative.

I’ll admit that Heavy Rain may as well be called Heavy-Handed. David Cage certainly didn’t spare any tricks to tug on your heartstrings, including lots of Mickey-Mousing. But I have to say - it works. Especially if you have kids.

The story revolves around Ethan Mars, having lost his elder son two years prior, whose remaining child is now abducted by the Origami Killer, a serial killer who targets young boys and drowns them after a few days of captivity. The story cycles between four playable characters, each chapter played by one or two of them.

And here lies the brilliance of it - each thread is pretty independent (although they’re all about the hunt for the killer), they all intersect at one point or another, with the inevitable climax that ties it all up. While the progression is pretty linear, some chapters do offer decisions that will make profound changes to the rest of the storyline. In fact, every character could die at one point or another, but the story will still continue.

I’m in awe as to how the David Cage was able to take the somewhat restrictive format of a linear interactive movie and add so much diversity into the story. There are 18 different epilogue segments that will play out based on what you did throughout the game!

From a technical point of view, the game is a milestone. The graphics are fantastic. The characters look stunning, and Quantic Dream likes to point that out whenever they can - the loading screens are close-ups of the characters, looking nervously around, moving their eyes.

The soundtrack does its part to sell the cinematic experience. Like in any good real Hollywood movie, it’s an absolutely integral part in sealing the atmosphere. It was scored by Normand Corbeil, who did music for lots of big movie productions.

The Bad
Let's not beat around the bush - it’s an interactive movie. You play the chapters in the given order, and you do what you have to do. Sure, you can walk around within the constraints of the current scene (which is typically one or two rooms), and there are a few extraneous objects you can play with (you can turn the light switch on and off! Whee!), but other than that, you’re basically being dragged along. The story will not progress until you do what needs to be done, and there are few options beyond that.

There are two parts to the gameplay - the normal parts where you walk around and basically just go through the motions, and the action parts with Quick Time Events, where failing will possibly get you killed, or make you miss out on something... or just ends up with a different animation. In fact, many sequences seem utterly important (like an action-packed shoot-out)... but the consequence for failing is simply a slightly altered scene. After that, the story moves on as normal.

There are dialogs too, but many of them are of the Mass Effect variety, meaning that you just go through all possible conversation topics until nothing is left - without ME’s blue/red options that have long-term consequences.

Now I mentioned how gorgeous the graphics are. And really, they are. But I’m simply upset about Guillaume de Fondaumière’s decision to claim that they conquered uncanny valley. Um, no, you haven’t. Not by a long shot. Some faces look fantastic, some just look good. Some animations are great. Some look incredibly unnatural. But they’re still wandering deep in uncanny valley.

The team is based in France, and as such, much of the voice talent is from Europe. Most of them did a good job putting up an American accent (and they’re overall good actors), but in many cases you can still tell they’re not really native speakers.

Speaking of which - there are other Frenchisms that made it into the game. The boys go to school on Saturdays, last names are often spelled in all caps. This is a bit perplexing, given that the team seems to have done decent research otherwise and created a beautiful version of what appears to be Philadelphia. Another Frenchism, by the way, is the unusual amount of gratuitous nudity, although I shouldn't necessarily mention that in the “bad” section.

The game also has a dynamic mixing system for the (fantastic) soundtrack to play the right music whenever that's appropriate. That however sometimes results in an abrupt start/restart/stop/change of music. It's usually not bad, but still noticeable.

The Bottom Line
Interactive movies have come a long way. I really enjoyed Heavy Rain. A major part of it was due to the subject matter - it’s an intriguing tale that any father can relate to, without any absurd supernatural nonsense (like in Quantic Dream’s previous Indigo Prophecy) or other otherworldly gimmicks (other than the FBI agent’s sunglasses that can identify people by their footprints and detect chemicals in the air).

The scenes have been polished meticulously, and the developers have made the most out of what could be done. In one scene, a character has to do something very courageous. Yes, it boils down to pressing one or two buttons, and as always, there are prompts on the screen to indicate exactly what needs to be done. But the controller is vibrating wildly as the character’s heart races, the on-screen prompts shake and twitch, the camera is unsteady and handheld, and then there’s of course the blood-pumping soundtrack. It’s an immersive experience.

The replay value is relatively low. Of course you’ll want to replay some chapters to trigger different sequences and endings. But chances are, you’ll look up the remaining endings and death sequences on Youtube, where they’re all available.

Hardcore gamers are likely to snub this title. It’s just a different kind of game. It’s barely a game at all. It’s a story, very well told, and the audience gets to be some of the characters. I enjoyed it immensely.

By EboMike on February 21st, 2012

Shadow of the Colossus (PlayStation 2)

A fantastic, immersive experience like no other

The Good
Before I get started, let’s just consider this scenario.

“Okay guys,I have this new idea! We’ll make a game that’s entirely made out of boss fights!” “Nothing else?” “Yeah! Just really awesome bosses!” “So you just teleport from boss level to boss level and fight them?” “No! You have to ride to each boss for several minutes from the starting point first!” “Ah, I see! Any enemies on the way there?” “Nope.” “Obstacles then! Tough platform challenges?” “No.” “That’s..... nice. Anyway, we’re doing sushi for lunch again?”

I can picture a similar scenario in a lesser studio, where the concept of Shadow Of The Colossus would have been shot down in a heartbeat. However, we’re talking the brainchild of Sony’s (ex) trump card, Fumito Ueda, who came up with this very idea, and Team Ico went through with it.

And made one of the best games in video game history.

The premise itself is quickly told - you, the young hero, travel with your trusty horse to a place virtually at the end of the Earth, trying to appease the divine forces there to resurrect the girl you love.

You are given a chance to win her life back by defeating 16 colossi. And thus begins your adventure.

Following the light reflected off your sword, you head in a direction in the vast barren land until you encounter the next colossus to battle. The actual fight typically involves climbing up the body of the huge colossus, finding a weak spot and plunging your sword into it until the monster is dead.

This is not easy, given that you can only climb on the furry parts of the beast, that you can only hold on for a certain duration, and given that these giants thrash about like crazy when you start getting on their nerves, forcing you to hold on to your dear life.

Let’s go to those colossi - they are the substance of the game, and they are fantastic. Each one is very distinct in look and behavior, each one requires a different approach. The game will give you just enough clues to figure out what to do without being too easy or too cryptic. Most of them are absolutely huge and intimidating, with the camera placed strategically to emphasize their dimensions.

Paired with that is absolutely gorgeous and atmospheric music, great particle effects and visuals. Every single battle is nothing short of epic, and I mean that in the classic sense of the word.

Even the rides to the bosses I made fun of in my intro are great. While they might appear a bit hollow, gameplay-wise, they’re fantastic to set the scene. You get to experience the vast landscape with swamps, mountains, and sheer drops that appear almost endless. They are complemented by a fantastic soundscape - loud winds in the canyons, roaring waterfalls, and the rustling of leaves in the forest. The graphics themselves have a minimalistic sense to them, as you would expect from Ueda, but they’re by no means ugly. While simple in geometry, they are nonetheless enormous - the plains are spacious in side, the mountains are tall, the dangerous cliffs span miles.

The story, while simple, has a fascinating twist to it that slowly unfolds as you progress. There is no sense of repetition, every fight presents you with a new area, a new nemesis, and a new strategy that you need to find. I don’t want to go into the resolution of the narrative, but it works out great.

The Bad
There’s really not much that I didn’t like about the game. At best, I can find some trifles to nitpick about. And just to keep this section wordy, I will.

The controls can be a bit tricky sometimes. One of the silliest exercises is trying to mount your horse - you’ll usually spend some time hopping up and down next to your horse while it looks at you with confusion.

This is more of an issue in the short platform sections right before you get to a boss, the worst one being a long ascending walkway over a big lake that forces you to make two jumps at the top, which you’re likely to miss... causing you to plummet down into the water, where you have to slowly swim back to the beginning of the walkway and try again. I think I ended up with some bite marks on my controller.

You think you’re clever and save the game at the top of said walkway? Nah, you can only save at the end of a boss, or at a few save locations sparsely scattered around the world.

I’ll briefly mention the PS3 version - it’s definitely an improvement over the PS2 version, mostly in terms of framerate (the PS2 can get very laggy during boss fights, which is precisely when you don’t need it), although the graphics themselves haven’t been updated much. The textures could have really benefited from a higher resolution. Overall, you could say that the PS2 version is on the upper spectrum of the console’s capabilities, while the PS3 is on the lower end. If given a choice though, you should obviously go for the PS3 version.

The Bottom Line
Shadow of the Colossus is simply stunning. From the intro sequence down, it oozes atmosphere every second. It doesn’t waste time with gameplay fillers like mini-bosses or waves of enemies. Instead, it tells a story and delivers carefully tuned gameplay where it matters.

If there is any doubt as to whether games are art or not, this game should eliminate any possible doubt. It has everything you could possibly ask - fantastic atmosphere, great visuals, a film-like score, solid gameplay, and a touching story.

By EboMike on January 25th, 2012

L.A. Noire (Xbox 360)

By EboMike on June 1st, 2011

Red Dead Redemption (PlayStation 3)

By EboMike on October 26th, 2010

Princess Maker 2 (PC-98)

By EboMike on July 12th, 2010

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

By EboMike on May 28th, 2010

Weird Dreams (Amiga)

By EboMike on September 5th, 2009

Patapon (PSP)

By EboMike on April 4th, 2008

Brain Age²: More Training in Minutes a Day! (Nintendo DS)

More a remake than a sequel.

The Good
If you liked Brain Age, this game is technically good news for you: Brain Age 2 takes the same formula and refreshes it with new games that are once again designed to boggle your brain and train your mental muscles.

Once again, you can exercise your brain with a variety of mini-games that involve arithmetic, music, words, selective hearing, and more. As you keep playing, you unlock more games.

Most games are fairly quick, allowing you to spend anything between 1 and 30 minutes for your daily dose of brain training.

The US version has a Sudoku section thrown in again which is unchanged from the prequel.

The Bad
Yes, Brain Age 2 is in the same vein as Brain Age. That means: The games are a bit too similar. The old arithmetic problem (calculating the result of a simple arithmetic problem) now became sign finder, where you find the sign of a simple arithmetic problem. Time Lapse, where you figure out the amount of time that passed between two analog clocks, became Clock Spin, where you have to tell the time on an analog clock that is rotated or mirrored and barely labeled.

Some games are completely new, like Piano Player, but those are completely unrefined. Piano Player is somewhat a knock-off of the rhythmic game type (such as Dance Dance Revolution) where you have to press a piano key exactly the moment it is playing. However, the execution is horrible - in easy mode, the music stops and waits for you if miss the key, and you only ever lose points if you hit the wrong key (thereby taking the sense of rhythm completely out of the equation). In hard mode, the keys are not labeled anymore and the music doesn't wait for you. Still, the game uses the same retarded logic where hitting a key slightly before it's due is fine, but if you don't hit it in time, it's considered "missed". Without any visual feedback for good measure. Maybe Nintendo should have asked their friends at Konami how to do games like that right.

All the flaws of Brain Age 1 have been faithfully retained. The handwriting recognition has been criticized as being a bit flaky in the first part - and it still is in the second part. Unfortunately, it is even more important now - many mini-games depend on you entering words. To make things more frustrating, those games are timed and the recognition takes over a second to process each character. A simple virtual keyboard would have made things much easier and saved the programmers a lot of work.

Another micro-game that occurs every now and then if multiple profiles are in use has one player draw something and the other players guess what it is. However, the player who has to draw is usually the first one to log in - so if you have a routine in your household regarding who logs in first, that player always ends up being the one having to draw. A simple round-robin algorithm would have addressed this.

My biggest beef of all however is the same flaw that plagued the first installation of Brain Age - while most games have a Normal mode and Hard mode, the high scores are not kept separate. Now keep in mind that Normal and Hard mode are astronomically different - Sign Finder in Normal mode is usually completed in 15-20 seconds, but I dare anyone to complete Hard mode in less than a minute. What's even worse is that Brain Age makes a big deal about your scores, letting you see your progress over the weeks and months and letting you compare your scores to those of your three other contenders. This is all completely and utterly useless if Normal mode and Hard mode scores are mixed.

The Bottom Line
I'm sounding pretty negative here, so I should set this one straight: Brain Age 2 is not a bad game. It's as much fun as the first part, but it missed a lot of opportunities for improvement that could have made the second installment a lot better - and fresher.

As it stands, Brain Age 2 is a rehash of the first part. Different enough to keep people who played the first part busy for a while - but not for long.

By EboMike on January 5th, 2008

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (PSP)

By EboMike on January 8th, 2007

Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! (Nintendo DS)

By EboMike on January 3rd, 2007

Rayman: Raving Rabbids (Wii)

By EboMike on December 23rd, 2006

Dungeon Master (Amiga)

By EboMike on December 22nd, 2006

Excite Truck (Wii)

By EboMike on December 16th, 2006

Red Steel (Wii)

By EboMike on November 29th, 2006

Murders in Venice (Amiga)

By EboMike on March 13th, 2006

Automania (ZX Spectrum)

By EboMike on February 11th, 2006

Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows (Xbox)

By EboMike on February 6th, 2006

Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows (PlayStation 2)

By EboMike on February 6th, 2006

50 Cent: Bulletproof (PlayStation 2)

A standard shooter, special only because of the 50 Cent license

The Good
Love him or hate him, 50 Cent has bec--- wait, scrap that. If you don't like 50 Cent, forget about it. You won't like this game.

If you like 50 Cent, this game may or may not be for you. It does offer the continuation of everything 50 stands for in his music and his recent movie: He once again manages to sell himself as a hardcore thug from the streets of New York City, riding with his crew and plugging caps up people's asses who had it coming.

Unless you haven't played any shooters recently, this game doesn't offer you many surprises: You control the muscular protagonist in a 3rd-person view through dark, gritty streets, shooting hundreds of goons that appear from behind corners and doors.

You have a wide array of guns at your disposal, from the standard "gat" to the assault rifle. Some of them can be used akimbo (although the interface for that is awkward). Most of the weapons handle okay, but some of them - like the shotgun - simply feel much too weak.

Consistent with both his own name as well as the name of his first major album, money plays a big role here. Not only can you use it to purchase better weapons and health kits in-between missions when you're back in your hood, you can also buy music tracks and videos that you can play back in the menu and optionally use as the background track during gameplay. Additionally, you can buy more counter-kills, which are graphic ways to kill at close range in stylish slow-motion.

Apart from 50 Cent, whose virtual counterpart looks quite impressive, many missions include members of the G-Unit, namely Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck, each one of them having his own skills. They'll assist you in the missions, taking out enemies and performing tasks like blowing stuff up or picking locks.

The Bad
First of all, the story. The ad blurb makes a big deal out of the script having been written by executive producer of the Sopranos. Big deal, he's the EP, not the writer, and the script is a mess. Even though it is simple in its structure, I still had problems following this retarded conspiracy story which ended in some childish nonsense that involved the DEA and Afghan terrorists.

Of course, a big deal is made out of 50 Cent being shot nine times towards the end of the first level, because, hey, 50 Cent has been shot nine times in real life, so he's hardcore, yo. The problem is, this just doesn't work in a video game. Before I got to that point, 50 had already been shot several dozen times, and he shrugged it off and instantly healed himself by proceeding to the next checkpoint. Making a big deal out of getting shot seems overly convoluted after that.

I pointed out the detailed models of the protagonist and his sidekicks earlier. They rock. Unlike the rest of the graphics. Most of the settings try so hard to be dark and gray that it gets to a point where it's annoying. Neither the geometry nor the textures are particularly good. The environment simply looks boring and dull.

What's even worse is that the dark graphics often obscure the enemies. The later levels introduce some "masked assailants" who wear black, and they are standing in front of a black ship at night, 100 feet away. If that isn't bad enough for, check this out:

Shooting enemies (arguably the main element of the game) can be clumsy at times. Aiming can be a pain, especially when enemies get too close. You'll spend a lot time turning while the enemies run past you and shooting at you while you still have your muzzle nowhere close to them. There is no locking feature whatsoever, and this is pretty much what breaks the entire game. Think of the masked assailants mentioned above who represent just a few pixels on an already near-black screen. To shoot them, you have to ge-e-e-e-ntly aim at them with your right analog stick. If they move, you have to re-aim. Of course, they have no problems firing at you.

Seriously, the aiming system always finds new ways to mess with you. Hitting people who are somewhat far away can be next to impossible, especially when they move. Hitting people who are close is also impossible, because these people are more likely to run or strafe, forcing you to precisely match their movements with the analog stick.

The action button has been ridiculously overused. You use the square button to kill people up close, use buttons, reload, lean against a wall, and pick up a weapon. It happens often that you do something you didn't intend on doing, so instead of reloading your weapon, you pick up a weak weapon lying on the ground. Also, leaning against the wall looks cool and could have been useful, but it often turns out to be your downfall: If you lean too far, you get shot at. Because of the blind spot, you often don't see people coming. You can't shoot people who are out of your line of sight. Now if somebody snuck past you (or just spawned near you), you need to get away from the wall to get them. This, however, is done by moving away from the wall for one second, during which you will come under heavy fire. Then you have to move the camera until you find the person shooting at you. Usually, once you're being shot at while in wall mode, you're doomed.

The AI is a mixed bag. The enemies sometimes seem reasonably smart, hiding behind objects and running for cover. At other times, they simply stand around and do nothing. Sometimes I saw something in the background and wondered whether it was an enemy or not, since that thing was standing perfectly still for a prolonged time.

Your friends' AI is similar. Sometimes, they seem capable, but then again, they get stuck in pretty dumb places. However, they are apparently invincible, so sometimes you can sit back and relax and wait for the AI to clear out the area (hoping that they don't get stuck first). In fact, I found it amusingly ironic that the only G-Unit member who was not bullet-proof turned out to be 50 Cent himself.

The developers licensed the havok physics engine for this game, and as weird as it sounds, it seems like a mistake. There is simply no point in having a physics engine here, given that there are no complex physics going on. The entire scenery is very static, you can't even shoot windows. There are a few mobile objects that can be used as cover (like dumpsters on wheels), and those objects can be pushed, but this is usually so awkward that you'll barely ever use it. However, your AI can be trapped by those mobile objects. One time, I heard some noise to my right and turned to see a crew member walking next to me, pushing three large potted plants and two trashcans in front of him. Another time, a cut-scene played where an object was blasted away by an explosion. However, Lloyd Banks happened to be in its (straight) trajectory, so the object just stopped as it touched him. Havok sure was money well spent.

And the sound? It will probably not surprise you that the soundtrack features "4 CDs worth" of 50 Cent music. However, the implementation wasn't done very well. The game tries to be smart and has a dynamic music system that switches the background track depending on the mood, so when enemies appear, a more hectic track plays. However, the mood seems to change several times per minute, so the music switches back and forth. To make things worse, whenever a track switches, it rewinds back to the beginning, so even when you set up a playlist of your favorite tracks, you'll only hear the first 30 seconds of each song.

Pressing SELECT shows you the currently playing song. This would have been a useful feature to help you decide which of the songs to buy (for an exorbitant lump of money). However, the SELECT button only works for songs you already bought, which is pointless. So you'll end up buying lots of songs (there are over 20 songs just called "Ambient" and 30 called "Action") for nothing.

Speaking of the ambient tracks: You can buy pretty much the entire 50 Cent/G-Unit repertoire and all the ambient tracks made specifically for the game. If you don't buy them, the game will choose from them automatically, but it usually picks lousy songs - about 90% of the time you hear the ambient tracks which are generic and awful. It's feels kind of dumb to have a game with a big selection of music that you most probably enjoy but end up hearing some pathetic muzak.

The sound effects are standard fare, but they work. The voice-overs are surprisingly good, and man, are they ever profanity-laden. If you like hip-hop, you won't be disappointed. Some of the standard voice-overs get boring quickly (like the enemies dissing the G-Unit), but some other little phrases are still funny even after hearing them many times.

The Bottom Line
It's not a bad game. It's simply not a particularly great game. There is nothing that's really standing out, except for the 50 Cent license. If it wasn't for that, this game would probably be forgotten somewhere amidst a pool of other mediocre titles. In fact, the aiming system probably pushes it towards the bottom end of mediocrity.

So if you're a fan of 50 Cent and look for yet another shooter with solid M-rated content, you could check this out. Don't think about it if 50 Cent is not your thang.

By EboMike on December 31st, 2005

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (PSP)

Back to Liberty City - in more than one way

The Good
I guess I'm not the only one who started considering buying a PSP only after this game was announced. After all, who doesn't start drooling over the idea of having all the fun and excitement of the GTA series on a portable console so you can play it as you're on the go, or, for the perfect irony, while waiting in line at the DMV? It sounds too good to be true.

That's one thing I can tell you right away: It's not. Liberty City Stories really delivers. Rockstar has managed to capture what was good about the GTA series onto the small handheld.

We're back in Liberty City, this time in the later 90s. Today's protagonist is Tony Cipriani, and we're back at the familiar scenario: He's a small-timer, working his way up to control Liberty City. Nothing has changed: You go from mission to mission, performing tasks like secretly taking pictures, delivering goods, protecting people, or simply whacking someone.

The graphics are on par with earlier versions on the PS2 - and it looks better than the original GTA3. The graphics are nice and smooth, the environmental effects (such as day/night-time and the occasional rain with light reflections on the ground) are present.

The controls work perfectly on the PSP. It takes mere seconds to get acquainted with all the buttons and their functions, and the game design does a great job of gradually introducing you to all the features.

The soundtrack is once again made out of a bunch of radio stations, each one with a certain theme; however, Liberty City Stories' soundtrack is no match to the incredible San Andreas playlist. Many of the songs are somewhat generic and bland, but at least the wacky radio station talkshows are still prominently present.

The streaming data system seems to work nicely - you barely notice new data getting streamed in. I couldn't say that about San Andreas on the PS2.

Even the locking system (one of my pet peeves of San Andreas) isn't too bad. You do run in trouble locking onto people sometimes (especially when they're close), but generally speaking I had few problems with it.

The Bad
One thing that gradually improved over the series was the story. Unfortunately, this part is a big step backwards. The characters in the game are cardboard cut-outs with very little backstory to them; the plot isn't very exciting and doesn't move along as nicely as it did in San Andreas.

The AI is okay. It is admittedly very hard to program good AI in a complex environment like this, but it can still be annoying sometimes. In rare occasions, you might fail a mission because the car you were supposed to tail crashes into a truck that happened to drive along, forcing you to replay the entire mission.

Liberty City Stories employs the same retarded save system I had complained about in the previous installments. This is an even bigger issue on the PSP, where you usually don't play for a long time. You can only save in-between missions, and even then, you have to be at a safe-house. This is particularly annoying towards the beginning of the game when there is only one safe-house. The game at least supports sleep mode, so you can freeze the game at any time and restart later on. This is fine if GTA is the only game you play, but if you plan to switch back and forth between several games, you're out of luck.

The stupid save system is also made worse by the loading times. They are not too long, but they just add up, especially since it usually makes more sense to reload a game after you fail a mission so you don't lose all your weapons. So here we go: Play a mission and die. Reload game. Load time. Exit safe house. Load time. Go to mission. Load time. Skip that stupid cut-scene. Load time. Okay, the mission starts now. Finally.

With the game using a streamed world and playing music off the disc, there is a lot of UMD action. This is unavoidable, but it might affect your battery power.

For simplicity purposes, the role-playing aspects that were introduced in San Andreas have been cut. It is probably a question of taste whether or not you enjoyed the little stats system in the first place, but the lack of a fully customizable character is a slight downer. Other than selecting one from a few pre-built outfits (which you usually only do for the purpose of a mission), you can't change your appearance.

The Bottom Line
The bottom line is: There is GTA for the portable PSP, and it plays just as its grown-up predecessors, so people who want to play GTA "on the go" can rejoice.

However, I wouldn't go so far as to consider this game the next iteration in the GTA family. Technically it is, but it is a step backwards in many ways: Some new elements of San Andreas were removed (like the RPG system and the dynamic and customizable player), the story is much more generic and seems hastily written, the soundtrack not very memorable. You can tell that the game was put out in a hurry to fill a void in the market.

But don't let that scare you: Just keep in mind that this is simply a move from the series to the world of the portables, not the next big step in the series. If you remember that, you won't be disappointed.

By EboMike on December 31st, 2005

We ♥ Katamari (PlayStation 2)

By EboMike on December 14th, 2005

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