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Xbox 360 game reviews

Xbox 360 game reviews

Halo Reach - 92%
Release Date: September 14th, 2010
Review Date: September 19th, 2010
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC
Completed: Yes

Halo Reach game review

Halo Reach is actually a prequel to all the previous Halo games (where Halo Reach ends, Halo Combat Evolved begins). In case you’re not up-to-date on the game’s storyline, this means Master Chief is sleeping soundly in a cryo chamber on board the Pillar of Autumn during the events of Halo Reach. Yes, that’s right, no Master Chief in this one folks. Instead, you play as an early Spartan who bears a striking resemblance to Master Chief, fighting against the Covenant’s takeover of planet Reach. Your entourage doesn’t include any aliens this time—just human warriors who have unique personalities, and whom help draw you into the story. You’re character is reverently referred to as “Noble Six,” and yes, you see his face a few times, unlike Master Chief.

The game environments are visually striking, really expansive, and
noticeably sharper than the three prior Halo games. Starting with Halo 3, Bungie has put forth the effort to bring distant areas alive—confrontations raging miles away, banshees battling in the sky above, and the explosions of outlying battles. The gun metal shine is the best I’ve ever seen. Even the waterfalls are spectacular. Oh, and the explosions are top notch—one of which had an ultra realistic shockwave that left me in awe. One eye-candy level was downtown New Alexandria, a skyscraper-filled city that was obviously once a thriving, peaceful metropolis, but was now overtaken with Covenant troops, rampant fires, and ash-filled air. It was a really dense, realistic place—it looked lived-in. In fact, each level in the game is masterfully done, and crisply presented.

Gameplay-wise, you won’t really find many new elements in Halo Reach, and that’s not a bad thing. Basically, the developers seemed to have cherry-picked the best features and aspects of the prior three Halo games, and applied them to Reach. It’s that simple. With that said, there are a few interesting additions that we haven’t seen in Halo games before, such as the levels where you pilot a spaceship (third-person view) while defending a Spartan carrier, and piloting a Spartan copter in New Alexandria, and even getting to use a jetpack in a few areas. There is also cooperative play for up to four players simultaneously, and a firefight mode (think Horde mode from Gears of War 2).

In virtually every video game there is something we wish we could change, and Halo Reach is no different. For example, the AI can’t drive vehicles with any proficiency. Ok, not a big deal. I also thought the single-player campaign is almost too short at about 8-10 hours. Lastly, the first few levels are pretty slow-going (I actually started getting concerned that the
entire game was going to be that slow) before things start building to an exciting crescendo.

Bottom Line: Halo Reach is a superbly developed game, and the quality is visible everywhere. While the game content and gameplay are undeniably familiar, it’s like the taste of a filet mignon—you never tire of it. An obligatory cello-heavy orchestral core guides you through the meaningful missions and plot twists, culminating in an ending that you will remember (there’s also an easter egg that shows Master Chief in statis aboard the Pillar of Autmn). Oh, and as usual with Bungie games, be sure to watch through to the end of the credits!

Bioshock 2 - 90% 
Release Date: February 9th, 2010
Review Date: August 7th, 2010
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, PS3
Completed: Yes

Bioshock 2 game review

Bioshock left gamers’ collective jaw on the floor back in 2007, and while the sequel is essentially more of the same, it isn’t quite as impressive three years later. The events of Bioshock 2 take place ten years after the original, and as you progress through the game, you’ll learn much more about Rapture’s demented history.

Playing as Subject Delta, a Big Daddy in search of his pair-bonded Little Sister named Eleanor, you’ll face plenty of moral dilemmas along the way, including whether or not to dispatch some of the game’s main characters after you learn of their past ethical transgressions. The first-person shooter perspective hasn’t changed, and you’ll still be collecting various plasmids (some new, some not) and of course harvesting ADAM—but this time you can work with Little Sisters instead of harvesting them directly—it’s your choice.

A huge menu of weapons awaits, including some from the original Bioshock, and yet others we haven’t seen such as the rivet gun (pretty weak), the Big Daddy arm-drill (awesome), rocket launcher (shaweet), and spear gun (pins enemies to walls)—most with three types of projectiles! If you hold down the right-trigger and press B, you’ll perform a drill charge that usually sends enemies flying to the wall in a mist of blood. We also see the introduction of research, basically a video camera you run when you confront enemies. As your research abilities expand for each type of enemy, you’ll unlock bonuses such as greater damage and even tonics. Aside from that, there is plenty of hacking, and a multitude of vending machines, upgrade stations, and gene banks.

Bioshock 2 introduces us to Big Sisters (think Big Brothers, but female). They have an absolutely shrill, spine-tingling scream any time a Little Sister is harvested and, rest assured, they
will find you. Brute splicers are another new, and very aggressive, enemy (think an amped-up Juggernaut from the X-men). They love to charge you at high speed, and if possible, they’ll throw large items like garbage cans at you.

The elaborate environments seem more morose this time around (as do the enemies), and there didn’t appear to be any graphical improvement as some textures are pretty rough up-close. Being able to walk on the Ocean floor was new, but you’re limited in what you can do and the plant life looked alien, rather than from the Atlantic. The sharks look great, but some of the fish are paper thin (literally). The flood level really stood out to me as exceptionally well done, with water cascading down stairs and bursting out of pipes.

It’s difficult to speak much to the fascinating story without giving away the plot lines, so I’ll be succinct in saying that it’s quite engrossing, and you find yourself trying to anticipate twists and turns, as well as get an early read on pertinent characters.

The spellbinding but familiar violinist music is back, punctuating the ups and downs of your adventure, complimented nicely by an equally appropriate orchestral chore.

Ken Levine was not involved in the creation of Bioshock 2, but I did notice in the credits that he was thanked by the 2K Marin team for his efforts on the original masterpiece.

Remember the moral dilemmas I mentioned earlier? They’re important because this game has adaptive (and surprising) endings based on your decisions. It took about ten hours for me to burn through the single player campaign, at which point I gave the multiplayer (another first for the Bioshock franchise) a shot and found it was pretty average overall.

Bottom-line: While many elements are already familiar to fans of the original (the architecture, musical score, some enemies, some weapons), this return to Rapture was thoroughly gratifying. Developers kept many of the aspects we loved about Bioshock, and added enough new content and gameplay features to keep things fresh. Bioshock 2

Alan Wake - 84%
Release Date: May 18th, 2010
Review Date: July 25th, 2010
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: Yes

Alan Wake game review

This game has been in development since at least 2004, which is when I first remember seeing a promotional video for it online. You play as Alan Wake, a troubled author who is vacationing in a small coastal town in the bucolic Pacific Northwest. While there, strange things begin happening to both himself and his wife, and the player is eventually thrust directly into Alan’s enigmatic nightmares—this is where the bulk of the game plays out.

Early on I found myself riveted to the unfolding story, with frequent cinematic breaks slowly satiating my curiosity. Interestingly, at the beginning of each episode, you get a series recap, much like you see on some television shows. I would soon learn that it was a necessary feature as trying to put the plot pieces together became increasingly difficult as I progressed deeper into the story. Eventually, I stopped caring and just wanted to get back to the action.

The over-the-shoulder perspective works well as you traverse some seriously impressive terrain, including deciduous forests and mountainous backdrops. The small harbor town is charming, but I’d say 80% of the game takes place within his dreams, which means treading through gloomy forests at night. While the environmental detail is impeccably done, the night sections do start to feel rehashed after a few episodes. Same enemies, same forests. The still facial models looked pretty decent, but speaking looked somewhat unnatural. By the way, I thought Alan Wake bore a striking resemblance to Chris Redfield from Resident Evil 5.

Your primary weapons are standard fare: a revolver (hugely useful), two types of shotgun (great when you have the pump-action with ammo), and a hunting rifle (complete garbage). Headshots are key. The other weapons are light-based, as the ghost-like enemies you face within the nightmares can’t withstand illumination. Your flashlight is used almost incessantly to stun foes, which depletes the replaceable batteries quickly. Fortunately, you’ll also have flares and flashbangs that come in handy when you’re being overwhelmed. When things get out of hand, an excellent checkpoint system means never having to jump too far back.

In game advertising was situated believably throughout the game, including: Lincoln, SYNC, Verizon, and Energizer (you often find lithium batteries for your flashlight). Personally, I think subtle advertising can make a game seem even more realistic.

Bottom-line: I thought Alan Wake had Max Payne undertones (a distressed protagonist fighting for his family against a confusing evil force in a gloomy atmosphere), and the right director could actually make it into a decent movie. The macabre action gave me chills on more than one occasion, despite remarkably unvaried enemies. Gorgeous environments (namely during the daytime) were a constant reminder of an attention to detail that we’ve rarely seen in games. Simply put, this game has a style all its own. Oh, and the Wake’s apartment is awesome!

The Bigs 2 - 77% 
Release Date: July 7th, 2009
Review Date: August 19th, 2010
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PS2, PSP
Completed: not applicable

The Bigs 2 game review

While dyed-in-the-wool baseball enthusiasts will probably pass on The Bigs 2, casual fans will likely latch-on to its undeniably fast paced style and arcade influence. The cover player is Prince Fielder, the slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers and son of Cecil Fielder.

The gameplay is familiar and intuitive—definitely easy to learn. Certain star players can make “Legendary” catches, which boils down to a slow-motion button-press event—in my opinion they happen
too often. There are a few gimmicks thrown in such as a batter’s wheelhouse (a glowing red area of the strike zone to avoid when pitching) as well as a home run pinball game type (think batting practice on the vegas strip).

Graphically this game is really sharp and unquestionably fluid—no chugging or slowdown. The realistic ballparks modeled after each team’s home field are amazing and I found myself reminiscing when I played at the Metrodome where I frequently went to Twins games as a kid. Really, really well done.
The commentating is seamless, and frankly impressive at times. I recall one instance where I hit a shallow fly ball to right field. The outfielder dove for it, but the ball bounced off his body into the air, at which time the sprinting second baseman jumped in and caught the ball before it hit the ground. It was a rare play to say the least, and the commentator made mention of the second baseman doing a great job “catching the ricochet.” I was amazed that the developers were that detailed when programming the commentator events.

What I found consistently distracting was how unrealistic the game is at times. For instance, outfielders throw back to the diamond
so fast that a drive to the wall is usually only a single! Also, on routine ground balls, the first baseman looks to be coming off the bag way too soon. Maybe I’m being overly critical because I played baseball my whole life.

Bottom Line: While not terribly realistic, there’s no question that The Bigs 2 is an entertaining baseball game that definitely delivers some fun new features. Slick visuals and vivid commentating pull you into the action. Like most sports games, you can choose to play through a full season, or just focus on multiplayer matches with your friends. My proudest achievement: pitching a perfect game against the CPU.

Condemned: Criminal Origins - 83%
Release Date: April 11th, 2006
Review Date: September 12th, 2006
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Sega
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC
Completed: Yes

Condemned game review

Movies don't frighten me—never have. Condemned, on the flip-side-of-the-coin, had me turning lights on—go figure. While the game could reasonably be categorized as a FPS, the action is actually structured into short bursts—far less chaotic or action-packed than a standard FPS. Maybe FPD (First Person Drama) would be better nomenclature. While the fright element is undoubtedly evocative of Doom 3, I found Condemned to be much more tense; almost disturbingly so.

The object of the game is to find evidence (using CSI-esque tools) to clear your name, as you are a detective framed for a crime you did not commit. Early on, you find yourself wandering through a shoddy, abandoned urban building, but you're obviously not alone. You hear things all around you, but can rarely react quick enough to catch more than a glimpse of what caused the commotion. The sound of a person stumbling over a 5-gallon plastic bucket, footsteps across the floor—it's really unnerving. Every so often, out-of-the-black, you are brutally attacked by someone with a board, a pipe—or worse. The sound of a 2x4 making contact with your character's head is unsettling—almost to an extreme degree. I'm man enough to admit that there were several occasions when I just plain had to turn the lights on, shut the game off, and play something less creepy. Most combat is melee-based, although you occasionally get to use a pistol and shotgun, both with very limited ammo. Collecting evidence does seem mildly gimmicky at times, but it does play into the overall story fairly well. Length-wise, this is a short game, but it packs a real punch. The game does an excellent job of appearing non-linear, but make no mistake, it is rigidly linear. Definitely not a game for kids, due to the brutality and language.

Bottom-line: It's fair to say that this is the most chilling game I have ever played. If you like slower-paced FPS games and enjoy being scared out of your skin, give this game a shot—but you may want to leave the lights on.

Perfect Dark Zero - 85%
Release Date: November 17th, 2005
Review Date: February 27th, 2006
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: Yes

Perfect dark zero game review

Have you ever tried playing a sequel without inevitably comparing it to the original? If this were possible, which it's not, it would be good advice for those who purchase PDZ. While its N64 predecessor was undeniably impressive, PDZ is much less so. This is due in large part to the notion that it is essentially a generic shooter, but with Ms. Dark at the helm instead of some nameless ex-military brute. There is little, if anything, notably unique about this game, and the graphics are not what I would term remarkable (especially for the 360). The linearity is irrefutable, yet it is still necessary to have an arrow point in the direction of your next objective because the maps can still be mildly disorienting.

The weapons are standard (this includes some obligatory spy-gadgets), but definitely fun to use. The game itself is challenging at times, although I had no difficulty playing through it in a few days time. I will say this: the music in between missions (and at the menus) is absolutely fantastic, and very Bond-esque. What did I like best about PDZ? Easy—the multiplayer on XBL. While the maps tend to be too large if you have fewer than four players, the various vehicles added an element of enjoyment that I thought spiced-up the experience—especially the jet-pack machines (these also allow you to traverse large areas very quickly). If you’re an achievement point junkie, you should know that the vast majority of this game’s points are earned online. In the end, I had the distinct feeling that I had done this all so many times before.

Bottom-line: Solid—but been there, done that. If you’re looking for a stylish but standard spy-based FPS to pass some time or, better yet, to play on XBL, I recommend this title without hesitation.

King Kong - 79%
Release Date: November 21st, 2005
Review Date: March 2nd, 2006
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellie
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC
Completed: Yes

King kong game review

Do you recall walking through your local electronics retailer in late 2005 and seeing a 360 on display (prior to the November launch) with a short playable demo of King Kong? It was exhilarating to play—being chased by an indomitable T-rex, intense roaring that made the screen quake, and seemingly nowhere to hide as the boulders you used for cover were being crushed by the furious beast. It ends up that the demo was arguably the most exciting section of the entire game, but does in a way act as a harbinger of thing to come.

You play as Jack Driscoll and, interestingly enough, even the arch-rival himself: King Kong. As Jack, you will trek across the mysterious island battling prehistoric creatures with pistols, shotguns, rifles, and rib-bone spears which you can pick up from the ground when you run out of ammo (it will happen often). The gloomy atmosphere, dense foliage, and inexorable sound of rainfall really added to the immersive nature of this cinema-based adventure (I recommend playing it in a dimly-lit room). While rigidly linear in its entirety, you experience so many differing scenarios that it is less perceptible. The section where it’s necessary to maneuver to safety amongst a brontosaurus stampede was especially cool. Some of the dialogue is frequently repeated (most noticeably from the character played by Jack Black), which can be somewhat annoying, but the movie actors voiced these characters themselves and that deserves some kudos (as opposed to playing a Bond game with Pierce Brosnan’s face, and another man’s voice—give me a break EA!).

A seaplane flies overhead dropping supplies at various stages, and I thought that was a unique touch. As Kong (most of the game is played through Jack’s eyes), you will dash along cliffs, climb vertical walls of vegetation, swing on vines, and battle several perturbed T-rex dinosaurs. When confronting an angry T-rex, you will need to pound it repeatedly with your giant fists, and can even tear its jaw in two with a cringe-inducing crunch. Kong’s path is always scripted, but graceful nevertheless. If I had to estimate, I’d say that less than 20% of the game is played as Kong. If you’re into achievements, completing this short game will net you an easy 1,000 points.

Bottom-line: Movie-based games have the general stigma of being complete garbage, but King Kong manages to buck the trend. While it may not blow you away, it should keep your attention for a few days—a good rental. If you have a good surround sound setup, you really do owe it to yourself to hear that T-rex roar.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted - 79%
Release Date: November 16th, 2005
Review Date: July 13th, 2006
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, Xbox, PS2, PSP, DS, Gamecube, GBA
Completed: Yes

Need for speed game review

At the time of this review, the 360 seems to have a lopsided number of racing games, and I consider NFS:MW to be at, or near, the top of the list. Crisp visuals throughout, this game is laced with beautiful environments ranging from breathtaking mountain roads to foggy coastlines to densely constructed metropolitan areas. The varying weather was a pleasant surprise, and was done very well (rain on your screen, for example). When you are bombing down the highway at 171mph, the feeling of speed is palpable and exciting—intensified by an excellent blur effect.

The object of the game is to outperform 15 rival street racers, rise to the top of the blacklist, and get your car back (you lost the pink slip in a race, but discover your vehicle was actually sabotaged by the winner beforehand). You will slowly rise to the top of the blacklist by completing a variety of enjoyable challenges, and all at your own pace—this includes everything from time trials to wreaking complete havoc on the city. You can buy and sell vehicles, and will be able to upgrade practically everything—from decals to spoilers to transmissions. After you win cash from an event, it’s fun to visit the safehouse to purchase the aforementioned upgrades—then get to see how they affect your vehicle immediately afterwards. The frenetic police chases are a blast, and all the while you listen to the realistic-sounding cops talk to each other about you over the scanner—great touch! The upbeat music is top quality and aligns with the game very well. My only complaint is the incessant e-mail you receive, which is both distracting and completely unnecessary. The split-screen multiplayer is fun (you drive on the same roads as in the single-player game), but there is nothing overtly original or exclusive to be experienced. You will receive 1,000 achievement points for beating the single player campaign, which should not take more than a few days.

Bottom-line: If you’re a racing fan who prefers driving on the open road, as opposed to being confined to circuits like Project Gotham Racing, this is a no-brainer. Beautiful vehicles, great customization options, and exciting police chases.

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition - 83%
Release Date: January 12th, 2007
Review Date: March 19th, 2007
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, PS3
Completed: Yes

Lost planet game review

Despite having one of the most difficult-to-follow plots in video game history, not to mention some really absurd character hairstyles, Lost Planet redeems itself with gorgeous visuals, amazing smoke effects, and absolutely colossal bosses that literally fill the screen. Playing as a converted snow pirate named Wayne—yes, odd choice—you will wage battle across various sub-zero locales to rid the freezing planet of both the Akrid (resident snow bugs) and NEVEC (requisite evil corporation).

The graphics are stellar—most notably while you fight through desolate snow-covered plains, as well as several abandoned neighborhoods being utilized as rebel strongholds. Some gamers have lauded the giant cave sections, but I personally found them to be very run-of-the-mill. The weapon selection is fairly standard—nothing new here—but things get a little more interesting when you have the opportunity to pilot various mechs (think weaponized armor). These mechs can jump quite high, fly for short distances, include two interchangeable weaponry slots, and are invaluable for defeating bosses. This is due in part to their over-sized weapons such as gattling guns, rocket launchers, electronic-pulse guns (great for destroying enemy mechs), and grenade guns. In a jam, Wayne can pick-up (or detatch) these huge mech weapons and use them on his own, which is a nice feature. It’s entertaining to see him lugging around a weapon that no doubt weighs twice what he does.

Here’s an interesting tidbit I inadvertently discovered: in most levels, you do not have to kill the enemies, but can instead just run by them to the end boss. Speaking of bosses, they are usually very large, some very difficult, and most importantly—very unique. What kept me playing this game was a genuine curiosity of the next behemoth I would encounter. Incidentally, it was refreshing to have boss battles at the end of each level—a nostalgic nod to earlier gaming protocol.

One unique aspect of this game is the concept of thermal energy, which is an orange cold-resistant substance released by each enemy you defeat. You begin each level with a predetermined amount of this thermal energy, which you will use up as you play, thus acting as a type of glorified “timer.” The only time I actively managed by thermal energy was during the epic boss battles, which can be brutally difficult. Plot-wise, Lost Planet is all over the map, but I don’t buy games like this because I think they will have an intriguing plot. As an added bonus, the dialogue is poorly written and mind-numbingly boring. Aside from these small gripes, I enjoyed playing through Lost Planet’s single player campaign—an effort that took approximately ten hours.

The multiplayer community for this game never really took off, but I did spend some time playing on XBL and found it to be marginally enjoyable. I would have appreciated being able to move faster—characters are just too slow for my tastes (this holds true for the single player mode as well), unless you are manning a mech.

Bottom-line: Aside from being one of the few snow-based adventure games, the best parts of Lost Planet are the ambitious boss battles and the realistic smoke effects. My advice: don’t waste your money on the Collector’s Edition. The multiplayer is fun, but does not in itself provide a compelling reason to purchase the game.

Gears of War - 98%
Release Date: November 7th, 2006
Review Date: January 3rd, 2007
Developer: Epic
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC
Completed: Yes

Gears of war game review

The talented cadre at Epic has created, in my opinion, an incontrovertible masterpiece in Gears of War. The story begins as you are broken out of prison in the midst of man’s darkest hour. Your planet (Sera) has been utterly ravaged by the profligate Locust—a diverse group of treacherous aliens who are close to extinguishing all human life. After being accused of ignoring orders during a military operation, and subsequently thrown into a penitentiary, military personnel have no other choice but to utilize you in a last ditch effort to rid Sera of the Locust occupation.

The graphics in this game are the finest I have ever witnessed, and truly display the power and promise of the next generation consoles. The intricately detailed old-world style architecture and war-ravaged urban neighborhoods look absolutely incredible. There are even crumbling statues of humans placed sporadically throughout the game, presumably depicting past military leaders, which seem to suggest that a rich history is being lost and simply added to the overall realism. The entire world is just so believeable. Most environments have a distinct European panache, and this was in fact the intention of lead designer Cliff Bleszinski. The color palette is a bit on the dull side, but it flawlessly fits the overall aura of despondency. While playing through this game, in both the single and multiplayer modes, I found myself in awe of the graphics, especially the distant areas—no fog here folks.

The gameplay is primarily from an offset third-person perspective (think RE4), but switches to first-person when you engage the zoom button for a more precise shot. While utilizing cover is a primary concern, you will have the opportunity to operate some really malicious weapons including an assault rifle (the Lancer) that doubles as a chainsaw (things can get messy in a hurry), a torque bow that shoots explosive arrows, and a satellite-based “Hammer of Dawn” which can instantly vaporize multiple enemies with a powerful beam from the sky. The copious on-screen blood-splatter that results from using a chainsaw on your enemy, or from a close-range shotgun blast, will leave you smiling.

Enemies are resilient, grotesque, and will grunt and mumble as they converge upon your position. The single player campaign set on the easiest difficulty is fairly short at approximately eight hours, but if you are man enough to tackle “insane” difficulty, the game will take nearly double that amount of time to complete. The multiplayer mode is what really sealed the deal for me—never before have I been as addicted to online play. The maps are unique to multiplayer, and of the perfect size. Ideal for 3-on-3 or 4-on-4, the matches are short, fast-paced, and utterly enjoyable. If you are fortunate enough to outgun your opponent, he will drop to his hands and knees at which time you have three options: execute him, curb-stomp him, or let him bleed-out and collapse. While a bleed-out may draw in your opponent’s teammates, the risk lies in the fact that in both single and multiplayer modes, downed enemies can be resuscitated. Come on people—does it get any better than this?

I expect the Gears of War online community to continue expanding, as this is expected to be the first installment of a trilogy, much like Halo. While the language and gore are intense at times, Epic took the time to include a language and gore filter that gives you the option to tone things down—just another example of Epic going the extra mile for gamers. The achievement points are brilliantly designed to ensure you experience all the game has to offer, and are not overly difficult to attain. At the moment I have 950 of the 1,000 points.

Bottom-line: Gears of War sets a new benchmark from both technical and level design standpoints, and is a unmitigated blast that single-handedly warrants the purchase of an Xbox 360—regardless of whether or not you are inclined to play on XBL. I recommend the collector’s edition, as the additional content is well worth the extra $10.

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter - 83%
Release Date: March 9th, 2006
Review Date: February 17th, 2007
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, PS2
Completed: Yes

Ghost recon game review

Ghost Recon is a brand that prides itself on realism and strategy—and it has a strong worldwide following, especially online. In GRAW, you will attempt to suppress a rebellion in Mexico City after a disastrous summit meeting between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The core gameplay in GRAW has not changed much from prior iterations—give orders to teammates, kill the enemy, rescue the hostage—but the new visuals are outstanding, and I think many gamers unfamiliar to the series were drawn to it as a result.

The maps are gorgeous, but several are quite dark and I actually found that using the infrared goggles was much easier than relying on standard in-game eyesight. The game is definitely challenging, but rarely frustrating. While the controls are slightly more complex than a standard shooter and take a little getting used to, they eventually become second nature. Choppers and tanks will periodically become available for you to command, and watching them take out some of the tougher enemies is pure bliss.

But, as much as I enjoyed this game, there are a few things I thought could use some extra work. Firstly, the teammates are essentially boneheads and rarely provide much support. Secondly, the environments are beautiful, but empty—where are the civilians? I think the addition of scurrying citizens would have added more realism and difficulty. Lastly—and this is a small one—why do they play modern rock music during the helicopter rides between missions? Other reviewers have pointed this out, and I agree that it takes you out of the game for a moment…it is just so out-of-place.

Regardless, GRAW is brimming with quality single-player content, as well as top notch multiplayer modes that will provide lasting enjoyment. Over the past few years, it has been my experience that the Ghost Recon multiplayer community is very extensive, and usually a bit more mature (ie. fewer idiots) than many other online game communities.

Bottom-line: If you enjoyed past Ghost Recon games, you will no doubt enjoy GRAW as much or more, as its gameplay has remained true to its roots, while the graphics have been vastly improved. The quality multiplayer experience helps vault this series to new heights.

Just Cause - 85%
Release Date: September 27th, 2006
Review Date: January 15th, 2007
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, PS2, Xbox
Completed: Yes

Just cause game review

Imagine GTA in a picturesque tropical island setting, then render physical laws inept, and you’ve got a fairly accurate portrayal of Just Cause. While it’s easy to poke fun at the extreme stunts your human character can perform in a seemingly realistic world, it’s important to remember that this is a video game—it’s not real! Just Cause doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. I really enjoyed playing through this game in its entirety, and frankly I’m not sure why it was so disparaged by other reviewers.

The Caribbean islands of San Esperito, which form the interconnected world of Just Cause, are utterly beautiful and rich with life. While your missions are based on fostering the overthrow of a corrupt dictator through violent means, there are a multitude of side missions you can embark upon to extend the single-player campaign substantially. While the weapons are standard fare, you will eventually gain the use of a grappling hook that you can use to latch onto moving cars, boats, helicopters, and even airplanes. Once attached, you can take control of the vehicle or deploy your ever-ready parachute and essentially parasail around the islands. Unique? You betcha.

As you may have guessed, vehicles play a major role in Just Cause, and aside from the various means of transportation you can commandeer randomly, it’s also possible to have your agency airlift you a car, helicopter, motorcycle, or speedboat in a matter of seconds. My absolute favorite activity was taking a fighter jet far above the clouds, ejecting, and then freefalling for miles before deploying my parachute. No music, no ancillary noise—just the sound of the wind ripping past you. As an added bonus, you can simultaneously watch the plane you just jumped from crash to earth. Awesome! Some of the most amazing graphics are visible while driving one of the power boats—the wake, the water splashing your screen—gorgeous.

Enemies are your basic drug dealer types and rarely pose much of a threat. In fact, ignoring most of the side missions allowed me to finish the single player campaign in approximately ten hours. No multiplayer modes are available.

Bottom-line: Just Cause really flew under the gaming radar, but I’m not exactly sure why. It has a lot to offer in terms of tropical beauty, fairly unique gameplay, and a varied assembly of vehicles.

Hitman: Blood Money - 81%
Release Date: May 30th, 2006
Review Date: November 20th, 2006
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Xbox, PC, PS2
Completed: Haaayl no

Hitman blood money game review

Hitman: Blood Money is the fourth game in the Hitman series, and frankly not much has changed from prior versions. While the graphics have been revamped to take advantage of the 360’s added horsepower, much of the game feels like an expansion pack. I suppose what I’m saying is, if you’ve played prior releases of Hitman, you’ve already played this game. The good news is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The same tense gameplay is present, this time with a few more weapons and methods for taking out your target. The AI is still weak and at times distracting, but that does not mean you can run-and-gun through a level—in fact, that simply will not work. Stealth is still the strategy of choice, and is the mindset Hitman games are designed around.

Most missions can be completed in a variety of ways, which earns this game above average marks for replay value. As usual, you are thrown into a mission, given the objective, and need to figure out how to achieve results. This game could be described as quite difficult, but you can now use earned money to purchase extra information that will be useful in completing your objectives. The new in-game ranking system assigns you a point value for each mission based on how inventive, and efficient, you are at finishing the job. While this is an intriguing feature, in the end it feels gimmicky. No multiplayer modes are available. Achievement points are sparse.

Bottom-line: Fans of the Hitman series will no doubt embrace this release, as it provides more of the same on-edge suspense they have come to expect. The great-looking locales are varied and provide a welcome respite from darker, more industrial atmospheres that seemed to permeate prior games in the franchise.

Quake IV - 88%
Release Date: November 18th, 2005
Review Date: May 18th, 2006
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Activision
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Unix
Completed: Yes

Quake 4 game review

The decade-spanning Quake series has a concrete reputation of excellence, and the lineage of quality stridently forges on with Quake IV. While not explicitly stated, this game appears to pick up where the renowned Quake II left off—you play as Matthew Kane, a member of the elite Rhino squad, sent to Stroggos to quell a growing resistance. The first-rate opening cinematic sequence [one of the best ever] seamlessly places you directly into the chaos, and it really put me in the mood to kick some Strogg ass.

Using John Carmack’s much heralded Doom 3 engine, Quake IV is replete with beautiful graphics, smooth animation, and detailed environments that are at times quite remarkable. The distant mountains and overhead aircraft are two exceptions to the graphical beauty—they both look dated which is in direct contrast to the rest of the game. Most of the game takes place deep within a variety of Strogg strongholds, which you will traverse utilizing a wide array of upgradeable weapons very reminiscent of Quake II. In fact, one of the best facets of this game is the sound of weapon-fire; the bass-heavy resonance of the nail gun is an audible delight.

The Strogg are large, tough, repulsive-looking beasts who have been programmed with AI that will keep you challenged, yet driven to see what’s around the next corner. The boss battles are introduced seamlessly, something I always appreciate. The lengthy single-player campaign has a bit of a plot twist mid-game, but I won’t spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say, I did not see it coming.

The strength of the online multiplayer mode lies in the pure, unadulterated deathmatches. The maps are large, well-designed, and remain true to the popular formula of its predecessor. This includes a remake of perhaps the most popular deathmatch level ever: The Edge. I don’t even want to think about how much time I spent playing Quake IV on XBL. Id Software has not hinted at whether or not there will be a Quake V.

Bottom-line: The prominent Quake series has developed a devoted following over the years, and for good reason. Quake IV is a superbly made game that will provide lengthy enjoyment for newer FPS fans, as well as a touch of nostalgia for the more experienced Quake player—you get to fight the Macron again! The 360 version contains a bonus copy of the venerable Quake II, which I thought was a nice touch.

Far Cry Instincts Predator - 74%
Release Date: March 28th, 2006
Review Date: June 3rd, 2007
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: Yes

Far cry game review

Far Cry was a runaway hit for Ubisoft in 2004, but was made solely for the PC gaming market. In an effort to capitalize on its growing popularity, Ubisoft decided to create a console version for the xbox. Rather than simply porting the original, they decided to create an entirely new game (admirable), which they named Far Cry Instincts. A year later, they created a brand new campaign—albeit a short one, and released it as Far Cry Instincts Evolution. Then, in 2006, they wanted a piece of the xbox 360 pie. So, they took Far Cry Instincts, tacked on a few new levels, and renamed it Far Cry Instincts Predator. History lesson complete…on with the review.

Far Cry Instincts Predator is really two distinct campaigns in one—the original Instincts, plus Predator, which is about half the size of Instincts. In Instincts, you play as the smart-aleck Jack Carver, who finds himself stranded in the tropics with a madman who is creating human/animal hybrids—yes, just like Dr. Moreau. The graphics were not next gen, and seemed unimpressive overall. The lush jungles do an excellent job of hiding the linearity of this game.

In addition to an assortment of standard weapons, you can now set tree-branch traps. While this is a complete gimmick and rarely comes in handy, it is fun watching an unsuspecting enemy get slashed. During one bizarre plot twist, Jack is injected with a serum and consequently acquires primal abilities, which are indeed aptly named. This includes a lethal claw attack, added speed, and even the ability to see scent trails of recent passersby. Personally, I preferred using the automated weapons, but I did like the option of mixing it up. Ubisoft deserves some credit for actually putting some effort into the plot, as the cutscenes are in fact somewhat entertaining and keep you up-to-speed on what’s unfolding.

It took me around ten hours to finish this game, at which point I started the Predator campaign. Now, Predator is an expansion pack if there ever was one. So, expect more of the same, with a couple exceptions. Firstly, this shortened campaign allows more freedom in selecting what path you would like to take in order to complete the given objectives. Secondly, there is more jumping involved and frankly I could have done without it. Other than that, there is nothing new. The excessive profanity in Instincts seemed forced, and no doubt surprised a lot of fans who were used to the PC original (which was better in my opinion).

The multiplayer is a lot of fun, although the maps are generally quite large and can result in more sporadic action. Plenty of vehicles will allow you to travel quickly from one place to the next, but using the hang gliders was a blast—I highly recommend it. The lack of anything new, combined with subpar graphics, dooms this title.

Bottom-line: The magic is gone. In addition to having last gen graphics, this is essentially a glorified port and provides nothing new aside from a short expansion campaign which, at times, is simply boring.

Kameo: Elements of Power - 85%
Release Date: November 7th, 2005
Review Date: September 14th, 2006
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: Yes

Kameo game review

In Kameo, developers at Rare have created a uniquely stylish game that very successfully blends the aspects of multiple genres into one cogent package. You play as an elfin princess who must quell a violent Troll uprising that threatens to destroy the peaceful kingdom forever.

One of my favorite things about this game is the prominent musical score, which the credits later reveal to be none other than the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite some haze in the distance, the graphics are not only relevant to the elfin world in which you play, but colorful and vibrant. In the very first level, you find yourself surrounded by grandiose dark castles, with countless giant fire-breathing dragons flying overhead—which are piloted by ugly green trolls.

The various characters you will accost, both good and evil, have distinct personalities that help bring them to life. This even includes a snobbish little “Wotnot” book that verbally assists you with very pertinent advice (this can be invaluable), character upgrades, and in-game options. Your mission is to recapture ten stolen elemental warriors that will aid in the ultimate defeat of the enormous Troll King. Each elemental warrior not only looks unique, but contains unique abilities that you will need as you progress through the game. Kameo can instantly morph into any of these respective elemental forms as she frees them, one by one, from the shadow demon at the end of each stage. This makes completing each level even more exciting, as you will receive another interesting tool to use against the evil trolls. My personal favorite is Thermite, a tiny creature who carries around a giant lava cannon while making miniature grunting noises. Major Ruin, another useful elemental warrior, looks like a clumsy little elephant with a spiked turtle shell.

The controls are simple and intuitive—no button-mashing here. You will regularly be asked return to the rolling Badlands to aid soldiers against hordes—and I mean hordes—of troll combatants. This provides a nice change of pace, but best of all, a horse to ride! You can use the horse to charge through large groupings of trolls, and to get from point A to point B in a hurry. The bosses are usually gigantic and never alike, but operate in detectable patterns that can be fleshed-out fairly quickly. Certain parts of the plot are warmly predictable, but there are factors you do not anticipate. Not only is this game of the perfect difficulty, but a flawless in-game save system will automatically preserve progress at frequent intervals. The single-player campaign took me around ten hours to complete, and netted me 600 achievement points, but I hated to see it end. Fortunately, the lengthy ending paves the way for a sequel. There exists a two-player cooperative mode, but the novelty wears off rapidly.

Bottom-line: Charm and style put this game ahead of its competition, not to mention some great music and likable characters. If you enjoy cheery adventure games and don’t mind a fairy-tale twist, you may want to pick up a copy—I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed.

Prey - 82%
Release Date: July 11th, 2006
Review Date: December 2nd, 2006
Developer: 2k Games
Publisher: Human Head Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC, Mac
Completed: Yes

Prey game review

Prey pleasantly surprised me. Yes, it has been hyped since the late 90’s, but now it’s here. In it I found a FPS that was rich with content, not only from a gameplay standpoint, but also plot-wise. Yes, it had a plot. You play as Tommie, a Cherokee Indian who wants nothing to do with his heritage, but is forced to embrace it in an effort to save his girlfriend from her alien abductees. The environments immediately reminded me of Doom 3—dark atmospheres, some genuinely creepy moments, and a metallic sheen to most surfaces. Graphically, Prey is in the same league as its peers—impressive and sharp.

The opening bar sequence was enjoyable—playable arcade games (slots, poker, Runeman), a functioning TV, and a working jukebox that plays Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, The Countdown, Soil, Clutch, and many others. Getting abducted by an alien ship while “Don’t fear the Reaper” plays is a nice touch. After being abducted with your girlfriend and grandfather, you are brought to the mother ship in a sequence that was eerily similar to HL2. Once you free yourself, you will need to fight through 22 levels of havoc, guided by both your grandfather (he is in the spirit realm) as well as a falcon you had as a child (also a spirit). The falcon comes in handy as it will help steer you in the right direction, as well as attack and distract enemies. You will also gain the ability to “spirit-walk,” which means you can leave your body (equipped with a bow and limited arrows), and gain entry to areas that are off limits to you as a human. This is useful for solving many of the elementary puzzles, but also for battling enemies as you cannot be hurt while in your spirit form.

Prey is replete with slick-looking circular portals, as well as walking paths that will bring you up walls, across ceilings, and back again. It was a new experience to battle enemies while walking upside-down on the ceiling and, overall, Prey really does offer some fairly unique gameplay elements. The weapons have an alien flair (with the exception of your wrench), and are effective at bringing down the various creatures you will encounter. The AI will not win any awards, but it was decent overall.

The controls are refreshingly uncomplicated: primary fire, secondary fire, spirit-walk, and jump. The levels feel continuous, so when the infrequent boss appears, it’s an unexpected treat. Another unexpected facet of this game is how often you will have to pilot a small aircraft to get from point A to point B. While flying is interesting at first, the novelty wears off quickly. Your character (Tommie) is an annoying jerk—there, I said it. Why couldn’t they have made him somewhat likeable—less whiny? He never stops bitching. I have some advice for whoever voiced Tommie for the game: KEEP YOUR DAY JOB. Oh, and when he swears (and it is often), it sounds forced. But, the good thing is, this means you won’t feel bad when he dies. This isn’t only because he’s a schmuck—Prey contains a truly unique “continue” feature. When you die, you go to the Cherokee spirit realm and must use your bow and arrows to shoot other spirits. This takes just 20 seconds or so, and you are then transported right back to where you died. Not only that, you don’t start over if you were in the middle of a fight—you pick-up where you left off. So, some would complain this makes a game too easy, but I really liked it—it kept the game moving.

Others complain that Prey is too short, but I found it to be a tad long for my tastes. Once you think the game is coming to an end, it opens back up. When I thought I beat the game for the second time (and was wrong for the second time), I literally said, “Come on.” While I did enjoy the game, I’ll probably never play through it again. Here’s a tip: remember to watch through to the end of the credits—there’s a surprise. Prey’s multiplayer had promise in theory, but in practice, it sucks. It sounds fun to be able to run up and down walls in a deathmatch, or wait for your victim while standing on the ceiling, but my cousin and I found it disorienting and frustrating. Completing the single-player campaign will net you 655 achievement points.

Bottom-line: A lot of time and money was spent on Prey, and the quality is evident. While I think the game should have been shorter and could have mixed-up the environments a bit more, it sets itself apart by successfully blending sharp graphics, a decent plot, and unique gameplay. The vulgarity was extreme—more so than any game I can recall—but 3D Realms’ George Broussard and Scott Miller both told me (via e-mail) that due to time contstraints, they were unable to implement the language filter (for the xbox 360 version) that exists in the PC version. Definitely not for kids. Good for a rental. Oh, and there it supposed to be a sequel.

Ninety-Nine Nights - 64%
Release Date: August 15th, 2006
Review Date: July 7th, 2007
Developer: Phantagram
Publisher: Q Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: I finished all of one character's episodes

99 nights game review

This game has one of the most graphically-impressive opening sequences I have ever witnessed. In the spirit of Dynasty Warriors, Ninety-Nine Nights thrusts you into the position of having to kill series after series of enemy hordes. Tons of them. An optional tutorial allows you to learn basic weaponry tactics before you start the game, but frankly this is unnecessary.

There are six characters who can be used to play through the campaign (and one mystery character), but initially you will only be able to use Inphyy. No, that is not a typo—there are some really weird names in this game. As you progress through the levels, you will unlock the other characters, each with his or her own version of the same basic campaign. While each level is kept fairly short, none of them can be completed without stacking up significant kill counts in the 1,500 range—comprised of goblins, frogmen, orcs, dragon commanders, and more. While these “horde” enemies rarely prove difficult to defeat, they are often led by mini-bosses who can be a bit more resilient. Together with your trusty sword, you have a plethora of available combos, and the list just gets longer each time you level-up (this is done by killing enemies, etc). Some say this game degenerates into button-mashing, but I disagree. In much the same way Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox was played, you will end up relying on a few choice combos. I will admit that some of the combos are ridiculous, such as X+X+X+X+Y+Y+Y+X, most are easy to execute and as fluid as the day is long. In fact, some of them are just plain awesome—I once had a 1,789 hit combo, and that’s mediocre compared to some players.

As you dispatch enemies, your red orb meter will continue to fill, and will eventually allow you to execute a devastating slow-motion power attack for several seconds. There is even a secondary blue orb meter, which when full, can be used to clear the screen of enemies. Despite all the commotion and screen-filled battles, I never once experienced slowdown. The in-game graphics are nice, but in the distance things get downright blurry. The battles sound pretty good, but I thought the environmental audio was terrific—such as birds chirping in the background during the forest section.

The dialogue is obviously dubbed into English, as words do not match mouth movements. It’s unfortunate that you cannot save mid-level, because if your character dies, you have to replay from the beginning—this was frustrating at times, especially after you’ve accumulated 1,500+ kills. It’s worth mentioning that at the start of each level, you get to choose a left and right flank: infantry, heavy infantry, Pikeman, or Archers. You can give simple commands to each flank separately, but the fact is both flanks are almost useless in battle for anything other than distracting the enemy. Unfortunately the game does not have a formal ending, as once you complete the campaign with Inphyy, you can start it again with a different character, and round-and-round we go. While the ensuing levels are not identical, they may as well be, as things tend to get repetitive quickly. Achievement points are difficult to come by in this game.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed completing Inphyy’s campaign (took about five hours), but I would not want to play through again with another character—much less six other characters. There's very little in the way of strategy, but the hack-n-slash action is entertaining for a while. There really should have been a mid-level save system, and the AI was weak.

TMNT - 74%
Release Date: March 20th, 2007
Review Date: September 10th, 2007
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Wii, PC, PS2, PSP, DS, Gamecube, GBA
Completed: Yes

TMNT game review

You can always spot games intended to hype a movie, as they are conspicuously released simultaneously on just about every console. Along these lines, TMNT will be made available on the 360, PS2, Gamecube, DS, GBA, and the PC. Movie games generally suck—we all know this—but TMNT manages to break the mold so-to-speak. While it is true that the game was developed in less than 12 months, you would never know by playing it. TMNT is primarily comprised of 3D platform gameplay, which looks and feels pretty slick overall. In fact, I thought the entire game had an appealing style to it. The camera-angle is controlled automatically and this can be frustrating at times, but overall it was done unexpectedly well.

The graphics are definitely not sharp—I would liken it to a nice Xbox game—so if you are really into visuals, you will most likely be disappointed. As expected, you have the opportunity to play as each of the four turtles—Donnatello being my personal favorite as his attacks not only cover a wider area, but they look sweet too. Along with each turtle’s now famous weapon of choice, each has unique combos, a martial arts kick, and can call in any brother for a screen-clearing power attack. But be careful, because if you call in a brother at an inopportune time, their overall respect for you will decrease and it will take longer for you to call them in the next time. I liked the ability to switch from turtle to turtle while playing through a level—as each has his own unique abilities (Michelangelo can fly short distances with helicopter numchucks, for example). While the combos are fun to use, they get stale eventually due to lack of variety.

It takes approximately 15 minutes to plow through each of the 16 levels, partially due to the below average difficulty level and never-ending lives. The most challenging facet of the game is platforming, and certainly not the enemies. The controls are straightforward, although once in a while I found that it was easy to accidentally trigger a “wall run” rather than simply jumping—this often resulted in running past the platform and losing a life. The AI is embarrassing and lifeless—most enemies simply walk towards you and take a swing, making it easy to pick them off one by one, regardless of how many there are on screen. The combat itself does not feel powerful—when you roundhouse an opponent, it just seems insubstantial. Bosses are tougher than the barrage of foes you usually meet, but are just as predictable.

The voice-work is fairly strong, but will definitely not win any awards and seems contrived in spots. The game’s plot understandably ties-in with the upcoming movie (no Shredder), and as a result I found the between-level cutscenes to be marginally entertaining. Achievement points are easily earned with the passing of each level, as well as with a few straightforward combat-related feats. This game took me 4:31 to complete (according to the in-game stats).

Bottom-line: If you enjoyed the arcade versions of TMNT, this is a fun trip down memory lane—albeit with fewer enemies and more platforming. Despite a bland combat system, this game has a unique style that fans of the series will no doubt appreciate. For the rest of us, it might make a good rental.

Crackdown - 84%
Release Date: February 20th, 2007
Review Date: November 8th, 2007
Developer: Realtime Worlds
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: Yes

Crackdown game review

It would be hard to deny that Crackdown is a type of GTA-clone, mainly because it is a type of GTA-clone, but the folks at Scotland’s Real Time Worlds added enough new elements to create a satisfying, open-ended game worth checking out. You play as a new breed of ultracop who must clean-up the metropolitan streets of Pacific City, which is split into three very distinct districts (actually, they are islands) that have become overrun with their own respective ethic gangs—Russian, Asian, and Central American. Within each of the aforementioned districts, there are hordes of incensed gang minions to eliminate, and several crime bosses—none of which are particularly unique.

Even on the “tough” setting, most enemies are weak and can be easily annihilated with the game’s souped-up weapons (this includes the crime bosses). It is only when you are severely outnumbered that you may succumb to their firepower (plus, you can usually find a safe spot to hide for a few seconds, at which time your armor will automatically regenerate, much like Halo). The weapons themselves are straightforward—pistols, machine guns, grenade and rocket launchers, hand grenades, etc—but what makes them considerably more interesting is that your skills will increase as you play—modeled similarly to the skill system within Oblivion. There are four skills that you can increase to level four (this is the maximum, unfortunately): Agility, Driving, Explosives, and Weapons. As a skill reaches a new level, your corresponding actions tied to that skill become more pronounced. For example, when your explosives skill advances, all your explosions will become larger and will do much more damage. In fact, explosions are one of the game’s primary draws in my opinion. Barrels and vehicles will violently explode into a blazing inferno, complete with the flying bodies (on fire of course) of those unfortunate enough to be nearby—it never gets old for some reason.

The game includes a targeting system vaguely similar to that of Just Cause. You lock onto one target at a time, and unload. Then, move to the next target. Repeat. One of my favorite activities was jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper, targeting rooftop enemies with the long-range grenade launcher. It was just so satisfying. Oh, that reminds me…if you’re looking for realism in this game (I’m not), you’re out of luck. You can actually jump off the tops of very tall buildings and fall to the streets below, with little or no damage. In fact, the concrete cracks beneath your feet instead, which was actually a pretty cool effect.

The sound in Crackdown is solid overall, comprised of crisp voices and thunderous weapons and explosions. The constant street battles actually reminded me of that amazing post-robbery gunfight in the movie Heat—remember how the sound of gunfire reverberated through the city streets? The spoken dialogue is well done, and I found this particularly noticeable in the Russian district, where the thugs actually speak Russian (although I really do not have a clue what they were saying, so the actual dialogue may have sucked).

Throughout the game you are gently guided (and admonished) by a narrator of sorts, whose voice fits the role perfectly. The graphics are nice, but not what I would term sharp, and at times almost appear cel-shaded. The water surrounding the islands looks really last-gen, and the beach waves look even worse.

There are optional vehicle-based races and stunts that you can participate in, but frankly they never garnered my interest—the races were just too lengthy for my tastes. It took me around ten hours to finish the game, so it’s fairly short as far as open-ended games go. The ending is…interesting. But, even after you complete the game, you can keep playing—max out your skills, go for more achievements, whatever you like.

Bottom-line: Great explosion effects, lively downtown areas with plenty of civilians, plus a simple skill-leveling system work together to create a game that is pure mindless fun. No puzzles to solve, so hints to decrypt, just lots of firepower and plenty of baddies. Co-op mode is available.

Viva Pinata - 94%
Release Date: November 9th, 2006
Review Date: November 6th, 2007
Developer: Rare / Virtual Life
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PC
Completed: Yes

Viva pinata game review

The piñata-based video game genre has always been ultra competitive—that goes without saying. In Viva Pinata, Rare has created an unprecedented game that absolutely oozes innovation. When I initially read that the main goal of this adventure is to attract wild piñatas to your garden, I thought it was a ridiculous concept. It was later nominated for numerous prominent game awards, which then piqued my interest. The last straw was when I saw it at the store for $30—so I bought it.

The ensuing experience drew me in like few games ever have. Here’s the lowdown: you manage an expanding garden to attract wild piñatas, which you must then propagate, while working to prevent various slow-moving foes from impeding your progress. Piñatas are drawn to your garden based on a number of factors, but water coverage, plants, trees, and the resulting produce are generally the focus. There are a multitude of different piñatas—most of which are modeled after real animals and many of which will not make an appearance until you are well into the game—the pacing is well done.

Along the way you will have the availability of a store (buy seeds, produce, items—the store owner has a humorous attitude), a hunter (captures piñatas), and even helpers (they can mine, water your plants, scare off troublemakers, and pick weeds). Purchases are paid for with foil-wrapped chocolate coins, which are earned in an assortment of ways including when you play the mini-games and sell piñatas, items found in the mine, and produce.

The visuals are appropriately bright and notably vibrant—it all works together to help manifest a lively environment that you'll enjoy visiting. Pinatas are thoughtfully designed, as is the charming surrounding settlement (although you cannot leave the garden). Slowdown occurs very infrequently, but it is noticeable when it does occur. The game has a definite cartoon feel, which works very well with the overall aura. In fact, one of the greatest aspects of this game is its appeal to gamers of all ages. My cousin and I joke that it looks unusually kiddy—that is, until you get hooked. Talk about addictive…I spent many a night trying to advance just a little further.

The audio is a crisp 5.1, comprised of great character voices (and humorous scripts), excellent background noise (kids cheer when a piñata bursts, for instance), and a pleasant musical score. Viva piñata has an easy-to-use control scheme and regular in-game explanations help keep you informed. Easy-to-navigate menus provide a wealth of information including player status, garden residents and topography, a piñata encyclopedia, and a myriad of other useful data. The achievements are well designed and easily attainable with some planning and effort—it was fun earning them.

If you eschew this title because of the unusual plotline and cartoon-like graphics, you are really missing out—it was almost the greatest game I never played. Not surprisingly, sales have underperformed—which is a real shame. Despite this, Rare has all but committed to a sequel, and there are rumors a version will be made for the DS.

Bottom-line: Rare has brought true innovation to the 360 in this very atypical title. Always entertaining and of the perfect difficulty, this game embodies good clean fun. Running your own piñata ranch has never been so addicting.

Call of Duty 3 - 86%
Release Date: November 14th, 2006
Review Date: April 29th, 2007
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Wii, PC, Xbox, PS2
Completed: Yes

Call of duty 3 game review

Call of Duty 3 is one of the best expansion packs I have played in quite a while. Ok, so it wasn’t an expansion pack—it just felt like one. The third installment of the Call of Duty franchise once again places you in war-torn Europe during WWII (again?). Approximately half of the game is played as an American soldier, with the rest comprised of British, Canadian, and Polish segments.

Considerable design obviously went into the environments, as the towns are well-constructed and expansive, not to mention rolling hills populated with lush vegetation and smoking rubble. The developers do a great job of giving everything a distinct European-flair. While some of the textures are undeniably ugly up-close, the graphics are by and large very nicely polished—especially the soldiers you fight alongside. Nice touches such as leaves blowing in the wind, floating ash, and wine barrels that leak when hit add realism to the experience—even leaves and rock walls will appear to deteriorate when fired into directly.

The missions themselves are fun, but start to feel rehashed as the game progresses—sort of a “been there, done that” feel. While the firefights can get downright frantic at times, most levels involve straightforward directives. Nothing too new. The AI was refreshing in that your counterparts will actually kill the enemy—what a novel concept—although enemy soldiers make no attempt to jump away from a grenade thrown at their feet. Don’t spend too much time watching your fellow soldiers, because characters vital to the plot are invincible—I saw multiple grenades explode at one soldier’s feet with no damage whatsoever.

The new gameplay feature is based on close-quarters combat—think RE4 fast button pressing sequences—and it is a gimmick if there ever was one. What I noticed most was the ambient action, such as artillery fire and planes flying overhead, which was really well done (surround sound is a must if you have the means). The rumbling sound of a plane buzzing past you at low altitude helped bring me into the game, and I often found myself just watching the fighters in the sky—too bad they cannot be shot down. Call of Duty 3 really shines when it comes to the overall sound—reverberating explosions that shake the screen, bass-heavy weaponry, deafening sirens, and German-speaking enemies and radios all work to add authenticity to this title.

I sure wish you could skip the between-level cutscenes—arghh! No interesting history lessons, just banter between various soldiers. When your character dies, a quote appears regarding how terrible war is, which seemed incongruous with the game’s premise of ridding the world of evil by force.

The difficulty is variable, but on the default setting it’s about perfect—maybe a bit on the easy side. If you really want a challenge, try hardcore—good luck, you’re going to need it. The multiplayer is improved over Call of Duty 2 in that you are no longer limited to eight players. Instead, up to 24 players can simultaneously wage battle in a variety of gameplay modes. The damage is more on the realistic side…it’s nice not having to pump two clips into someone before they fall.

Bottom-line: If you enjoyed Call of Duty 2, you’ll no doubt enjoy more of the same in Call of Duty 3. There is not much new to experience, but more polish has marginally improved certain aspects including absolutely exceptional sound.

Dead Rising - 83%
Release Date: August 8th, 2006
Review Date: February 3rd, 2007
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Completed: No

Dead rising game review

Dawn of the Dead always seemed like it would make a great video game—and apparently Capcom agreed. While Dead Rising is technically not based on the aforementioned movie, it’s about survivors in a shopping mall surrounded by hordes of zombies—come on! You play a photojournalist named Frank West who is trying to determine what’s behind the recent military quarantine of the quiet town of Willamette, Colorado. The introductory helicopter ride to the town’s mall provides a disturbing conveyance of the chaos surrounding you, and acts as a nice tutorial on taking pictures. After you are dropped-off at the zombie-infested mall, you must begin piecing together the plot with the help of other survivors.

In an effort to avoid giving away any plot elements, suffice it to say you will be battling your way through thousands of zombies, psychopaths (bosses), and more. The tools of your trade are as varied as any game in history—you can use just about anything as a weapon. Cash registers, soccer balls, potted plants, gas-powered augers, gumball machines, lawn mowers, and shopping carts are just a fraction of the available items—as well as standard pistols, shotguns, and automatic weapons (which tend to be tough to aim quickly). Speaking of gore, bring a mop because this game gets messy fast. You really do need to witness what happens when you pound a shower head into a zombie’s cranium—hilarious, and a reminder that this game doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Your missions are heavily constrained by time schedules, which is something I could have done without. Plus, to add insult to injury, you can only save one game per memory device. Suppose you save a game (the save system is horrible) without realizing you do not have enough time to complete the next objective...well, your game is screwed and you’ll have to start over from the beginning. Quite frankly, it’s almost scary to save a game. Bosses tend to be unnecessarily difficult, a bit tedious, and can absorb ridiculous amounts of damage, so the lack of a good save system is made even more noticeable. That aside, bosses are always uniquely designed and the pre-fight cutscenes are usually entertaining.

The various survivors you will accost are also distinctive and have discernable personalities, although you do not need to save any of them to complete the game. In fact, what you do in-between case files (main objectives) is up to you—it really doesn’t matter. It’s fun to just run around the mall, visit stores, ride the rollercoaster, and drive cars and motorcycles through the slow-moving hordes. The best use of this free time is to focus on increasing your experience points by taking pictures and completing optional side missions. Each time you level-up, you will gain enhanced abilities such as a jump-kick, health bar entension, or more powerful attack strength.

Dead Rising’s audio is top notch—from boss fight music to the gushing splatter while slicing a zombie in two, right down to the perfectly emulated “mall” music (classic!). The voice acting is very well done, but unfortunately the character’s lips are not synched accurately.

The entire game consists of 72 in-game hours, which amounts to around ten actual hours. To give you an idea of how many zombies are in this game, there is an achievement for killing 53,594 of them (the entire population of Willamette). Difficulty-wise, Dead Rising is undeniably on the challenging side.

Bottom-line: Dead Rising offers a gore-infested, zombie-laden adventure that, if nothing else, will provide you with hours of entertaining and open-ended mall exploration. While the in-game timer does put a damper on exactly how much you can do, it also acts to keep the plot progressing. Overall, this game could have been improved with a better save system and less strenuous boss battles.

P.S. Does anyone else think Frank West walked like a monkey?

P.S.S. What bonehead at Capcom is responsible for designing Otis? Enough with the phone calls dude—and stop telling me I’m rude if I cut you off because I’m being attacked by zombies.

College Hoops 2K6 - 68%
Release Date: March 7th, 2006
Review Date: December 13th, 2006
Developer: 2K Sports
Publisher: 2K Sports
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2
Completed: No

College hoops 2k6 game review

It seems odd to me that College Hoops 2k6 for the xbox 360 arrived in stores at a time when the college basketball season was just wrapping-up. Odd, but let’s move on. This game just didn’t excite me at all—especially after having played NBA 2k6 immediately beforehand. The AI is impressive, and I noticed that some of the teams actually play like their real-life counterparts, but the graphics leave a lot to be desired.

Gameplay is decent (you can use the shot stick or x to shoot), and allows for eight quickplays (like audibles) which do come in handy. The free-throw mechanics are great—fluid and intuitive. As for the rosters, players are not recognizable and there are no names on the jerseys—just numbers. There is even an option to assign random names—ah, weird. The main reason for this is that the NCAA does not allow player likenesses to be used in games. So, it’s sort of like playing as the UCLA bruins, but none of their players are on the team, just generic-looking players who have similar strengths and weaknesses.

Bottom-line: I really don’t see the point of this game, considering you cannot legally play as the actual college players. Unless you despise pro basketball, why not just get NBA 2K6 and play with your favorite players and teams? Not my cup of tea, but to each his own. Easy achievements though.

Timeshift - 53%
Release Date: October 30th, 2007
Review Date: December 20th, 2007
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Completed: No

Timeshift game review

Timeshift sucks—there I said it. I could boldly claim it had hidden potential, or even redeeming qualities lurking beneath its snooze-fest gameplay, but in the end it just sucks. If you can get beyond the horrific AI, the anemic graphics, a plot that was harder to follow than the television show Lost, and weapons that lack oomph, then you may actually stumble upon a few unique and appreciable aspects.

How could this review end well, you ask? It can't, we both know that, but I would be remiss if I didn't briefly mention some cool features within Timeshift; features that probably single-handedly prevented me from rating this retail mishap below 40%. The main gimmick is time manipulation: the ability to slow, stop, and reverse time in short bursts. It sounds cooler than it is, but I will give the developers points for uniqueness. Aside from that, there are two gameplay elements I really liked: the ability to shoot enemy weapons out of their hands, and being able to stick grenades to enemies who are frozen in time (then stepping away to watch them explode).

Bottom-line: In the end, unless you're just scheming for achievement points, I'd steer clear of this generic FPS title in favor of greener pastures. It's just not worth your time.

Blacksite: Area 51 - 63%
Release Date: November 12th, 2007
Review Date: February 20th, 2008
Developer: Midway Austin
Publisher: Midway
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Completed: Yes

Blacksite area 51 game review

Blacksite is a run-of-the-mill shooter. The list of negatives outweighs the positives, and that alone warrants a low review score. Sure, it had its moments, but they were few and far between. As the title suggests, your missions primarily revolve around extraterrestrial encounters—some of which are impressive (I remember a firefight with a "reborn" near a gas station that was memorable), but most of which blend together in a barely satisfying adventure.

There are a couple inventive weapons, but due to sporadic ammo, you'll find yourself relying upon the assault rifle for the majority of the game. Blacksite is squad-based, so commanding your team to attack an enemy, move to a specific location, and open doors is as easy as pointing and pressing a button. They have a morale meter too, so you've got to foster respect to get the most out of them. I thought the posters of Saddam Hussein scattered throughout your missions in Iraq were a nice custom touch that helped set the tone. Destructible objects such as pillars and sheetrock were a blast to shoot, and the final level looked really sharp (this game uses the powerful Unreal engine).

Some of the problems arise when you realize that there is an overall lack of attention to detail. When you shoot most walls, for instance, no damage decals appear. I felt that there were long stretches of uneventful running, unless of course you found a car at which time your character would exclaim, "Damn...a Dodge Avenger! This thing is brand new!" And no, I'm not joking. In-game advertising doesn't bother me in the slightest, but having the protagonist advertise verbally? Come on.

Bottom-line: After all is said and done, there are constant reminders that this game was rushed: clipping issues, enemy AI shooting directly into walls, squad-mates doing the opposite of what you command, the list goes on. The multiplayer community is sparse, and when you do get a match going, you quickly learn the invisibility feature is a bit too advantageous.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - 95%
Release Date: November 5th, 2007
Review Date: November 29th, 2007
Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Mac, PC, DS
Completed: Yes

Call of duty 4 game review

After developing Call of Duty 1 and 2 (but not 3), Infinity Ward was hired for the fourth installment which is, incidentally, the first in the series to be based in a time period other than WWII (finally!). The always patriotic Infinity Ward decided to spend a great deal of time researching military tactics and equipment with experts, and it definitely comes through in the gameplay. The bass-busting weaponry (crank up the subwoofer), coupled with the vivid peripheral audio go a long way in adding to the realistic atmosphere. The believable dialogue has a distinct military-edge, and is usually pertinent to each respective situation. The environments look convincingly authentic, right down to the moths congregating around street lamps at night.

A stress-relieving checkpoint system means you won't be pulling out your hair as you navigate the varied levels. A couple notables include the amazing night stage where you are flying covertly in a C-130 taking care of business on the ground (it was like you were controlling the war clips you see on the news), and the engrossing mission when you are a silent, camoflauged sniper crawling through the tall grass as Russian soldiers step foot all around you without realizing it. Some sections are timed, which I'm usually not a fan of, but in this case it actually works fairly well in getting you to work faster and more aggressively.

As far as negatives, one oddity stood out: you can't walk into the water--there is an invisible barrier that prevents it. I also thought the single-player campaign was maybe a bit short (even on Veteran difficulty, which is what I played it on), but since it was so rich with content, I really can't complain. A surefire silver lining is the addicting multiplayer, which extends the life of this title almost indefinitely.

Bottom-line: Infinity Ward has outdone themselves once again, reinventing a franchise that was quickly becoming stale. Extremely varied mission gameplay, coupled with remarkable attention to detail, make this a can't miss title for anyone remotely interested in FPS mayhem. One of the best games of the year.

Assassin's Creed - 79%
Release Date: November 13th, 2007
Review Date: November 30th, 2007
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Completed: Yes


Let me just put it out on the table: Assassin's Creed was overrated as a high budget title. Sure, it was fun to test the limits within this Middle-Eastern sandbox environment, seeing just how much you could get away with, not to mention stealthily dispatching civilians in inventive ways and provoking city guards to chase. Unfortunately, the novelty of wreaking virtual havoc quickly wears off, and you're left with fairly vanilla, repetitive missions to complete within each of the outwardly gorgeous but inwardly bland cities.

The authentic city architectures are definitely impressive, as each one has it's own ancient flavor that is supposedly historically accurate (you'll visit Damascus, Jerusalem, Acre, etc). At least the environments are gorgeous because the objectives get tedious, as the dialogue is essentially the same in
every city you visit, as are the optional side missions. It actually becomes a challenge to discern between missions, and even cities, due to cookie-cutter game characters. As the title suggests, most of your directives are assassination-based, and none are overly challenging or unique. Let me sum it up: find target, sneak-up, stab, run, fight. Repeat!

The sword fighting is redundant once you get the timing down, and eventually you'll be able to
easily take on countless enemy combatants (they attack one at a time, even if there are several confronting you). Knives are useful for stealth kills, but that's about it. Here's a question for Ubisoft: why is there a crossbow in the opening cinematic when there isn't one in the game? Weak!

The acrobatic animations, such as diving off tall buildings into hay wagons, are smooth and really well done. It's obvious a lot of money was spent developing this game. I also appreciated that during cutscenes, you are free to walk around and can even change the camera angle, so it's a little more interactive. There are some clipping issues, one of which sent me beneath the city I was visiting, but overall the glitching was infrequent. Plot-wise, let's not even go there. I completed the game and I'm still trying to figure it out!

Bottom-line: Assassin's Creed didn't live up to the hype, and while it looked incredible, the rehashed and unimaginative missions get old in a hurry. Being chased by guards is exhilarating at times, but it accomplishes nothing in the line of objectives. The weapons are very limited in scope, the plot will leave you scratching your head, and the ending provides no answers.