Trauma Center: Second Opinion ArtWhen I reviewed the first iteration of Trauma Center on the Nintendo DS, I said that it was the first game that truly felt like it couldn't have been done on any other platform. Now that there's a revision of it on the Wii, I guess I'm going to have to eat those words. Although Second Opinion is essentially the same game as the DS's Under the Knife, not only is it just as good, it's the definitive version.

Stepping into the role of Dr. Derek Stiles for the majority of play, Trauma Center: Second Opinion asks players to perform a variety of surgeries such as cutting open a person's chest to remove tumors, carefully reconstructing shattered bone fragments in a broken arm, and eventually, battling malignancies which are more like alien creatures than biological maladies.

The Wiimote functions as a substitute for a range of medical implements while the nunchuk attachment changes the selection depending on the situation. With a quick flick of the thumb, the on-screen cursor can become a scalpel, forceps, a syringe, needle and thread, a roll of gauze, and a few other things as well. It seemed awkward at first since I had originally learned the game using the DS's stylus, but within a few minutes I came to see that although the Wiimote isn't as immediate and immersive as holding an implement and touching the screen with my hand, the nunchuk actually improved speed and control—there's no longer any need to pick an implement with the active (operating) hand.

Under the Knife's clean, attractive presentation and well-written story are still intact. A little bit personal, a little bit political, and a little bit science-fiction, the developers fare better than most in this area. Although not packing the amount of plot found in your average RPG, the still-frame cutscenes are actually worth reading and enhance the game nicely with solid characters and intelligence. In addition to the original content, Second Opinion introduces a new, mysterious female doctor. Although her storyline isn't very long, she has some of the most interesting operations in the game and is tightly interwoven into the reworked endgame sequence.

Since Second Opinion is an update and not really a sequel, I can forgive the fact that there still isn't any choice given to players about the direction of the story or the dialogue between the doctors and nurses. (Being a bit more RPG-ish in this respect would be a fine addition to the formula.) However, the developers were clearly listening to their audience with regard to the difficulty level.

Trauma Center: Second Opinion Screenshot

Under the Knife was incredibly hard, so much so that I actually couldn't finish the final operation even after a whole day of trying. Second Opinion mercifully includes adjustable difficulty settings that weren't available before, and they're a godsend. Procedures that gave me hand cramps and ulcers before are now pleasantly challenging, and the previously impossible "last battle" is now quite manageable. I felt the developers did themselves a great disservice by making such a fantastic game prohibitively difficult last time, and I'm overjoyed to see that this particular problem has been corrected.

I originally called Trauma Center: Under the Knife one of the most worthwhile purchases for the Nintendo DS, and Second Opinion is every bit as vital to the Wii. There's nothing else on shelves quite like these games, and Trauma Center: Second Opinion capitalizes perfectly on the highly unconventional interaction style Nintendo is bringing to this generation's table. Rather than a gimmick or a quick add-on like some other Wii titles, Second Opinion's gameplay feels tailor-made for the Wiimote and clearly displays its potential. I hope more developers follow suit. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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malkav11
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It’s good to hear that the Wii version makes changes beyond simply moving it to a larger screen and motion controls. I really wanted to like the DS version, but I got fed up and sent it back to Gamefly after the fifth time I failed only a few missions in. I just did not seem to have time to handle the mission with the rapidly appearing blood clots, even with the Healing Touch. And the fact that it sometimes wouldn’t recognize what I wanted it to do didn’t help. (Zooming in and out, mostly, but I think there may… Read more »
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Chili Con Carnage Art 

A one-trick pony that manages to stay entertaining far longer than I would have ever expected, Chili Con Carnage is a passable action title more notable for its absurdity and humor than for its gameplay.

Entirely comprised of the sort of leap-to-the-side-while-in-slow-motion "bullet time" action that's been a common staple since John Woo and Max Payne made it popular, Chili Con Carnage doesn't bring anything new to the table. The third-person action meets the basic requirements, and the nondescript environments featuring "I am a videogame level" architecture lack sizzle.

The game's hero, Ram, can throw himself in any direction and perform impossible headshots with ease thanks to the smooth and efficient targeting system. Although the game sometimes zeroes in on the wrong enemy, most of the time all that's needed is to point the targeting reticule at the desired bad guy, hold the right shoulder button until it turns yellow (almost like a timing minigame) and pull the trigger. Voilà! One less goon to contend with. Repeat this action several thousand times, and the result is Chili Con Carnage.

Chili Con Carnage Screenshot

However, that's not to say the game doesn't have merit. In actuality, the developers have a sense of humor that I greatly appreciated, and the choice to populate the game entirely with Hispanic characters (and accompanying Hispanic voice actors) gives it an interesting flavor. Although some players may see the ethnic stereotypes as offensive, I saw them as purposefully irreverent and found the lack of seriousness (all too common in this kind of game) to be quite refreshing—and before any readers accuse me of being culturally insensitive, I come from a Hispanic background myself.

I couldn't help but laugh when I tossed a loaded piñata into a courtyard and watched a mob of thugs descend on it like greedy buzzards seconds before it exploded. A different pickup allowed me to summon a hulking luchador named "El Gimpo" to bring the beatdown, and yet another pays open homage to Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi with dual guitar cases that spit death. Some gags are a little obvious like the free-roaming chickens in every environment, yet I found it all to be pleasantly tongue-in-cheek, and not at all in bad taste.

Though I admit that Chili Con Carnage's style won me over, my appreciation of its intellectual slant can't erase the fact that its formula of endless headshots is extremely simplistic. Even worse, the difficulty curve can spike erratically, enemies on different elevations are a nightmare to target, and there were a number of times when I felt like the game was barely holding itself together.

Chili Con Carnage Screenshot

For example, I defeated the first boss with exactly one shot. It wasn't supposed to happen that way, but an unexplainable glitch occurred and before I knew what had happened, I was watching a victory cinematic. In another area I kept dying over and over, completely frustrated because I couldn't figure out how to progress. It turned out that the game was glitching again—simply exiting a vehicle was immediately killing my character when it should have been allowing me to go on. Don't even get me started on the final boss; it took me forever to finish the game because I couldn't get a required contextual action to occur.

I love the sass and energy of Chili Con Carnage, but the developers behind it need to spend as much time on polish and balance as they do on comedy. More technical elbow grease and more thorough playtesting would have helped work out some of the kinks that hold it back, and a smoother ride would have easily kicked the experience up a notch. Based on the evidence, I believe that Deadline Games is capable of putting out something more satisfying—but in its current state, Chili Con Carnage is more like chips and salsa than arroz con pollo. Rating: 6 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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The Red Star Art 

The last few months of retail releases have had a number of surprise arrivals for fans of small titles and niche offerings. For example, the kissing RPG Chulip had been lost in limbo for quite some time before suddenly appearing on shelves. Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer has made its way stateside against the common consensus, and the subject of this review, The Red Star, had been missing in action after making a strong impression on a demo disk and a brief appearance at past E3s. Can Duke Nukem Forever be far behind? We may never know the answer to that question, but one thing I can say with confidence is that despite numerous delays and narrowly avoiding the axe, The Red Star (if not the others) was well worth the wait.

Weakly telling an incomprehensible story which I assume relates to the comic book it was based on, The Red Star's dramatic efforts amount to being less than a footnote. Although I may not say this often, in this particular case the merits of the plot have absolutely no bearing on the quality of the gameplay. The sole reason to get into The Red Star is its intense action.

Perfectly balancing melee brawling and the sort of old-school shooting that usually involves flying spaceships through alien armadas, the development team has actually been quite successful in melding the "shmup" and "beat-‘em-up" genres into something that possesses a progressive intelligence in design, while maintaining strong roots in the past.

The Red Star Screenshot 

The game offers third-person action with two characters to choose from, and a third accessible after completion. Each character comes equipped with a small set of physical attacks and combos in addition to guns, a crowd-clearing super move, and most interestingly, a shield. Wading through hordes of Soviet-themed enemies is a joy for players who like to revel in constant action. Although it's quite clear from the sparse graphics and lack of bells and whistles that the development team didn't have a large budget, I can easily see past the exterior into the cleverness that obviously went into The Red Star's formula.

With a good variety of enemy types, players are constantly required to switch up their tactics on-the-fly. Some opponents are invulnerable to gunfire, some must be kept at a distance, and some have particular patterns or weaknesses that require more than simple button mashing to overcome. By introducing new types and cycling through them in each level, the developers make sure to keep brains engaged by evaluating the combat situation moment-to-moment. The shield mentioned earlier adds a nice layer of depth (giving the player invulnerability for a fleet moment) and a gun heat gauge stops mindless blasting. Although the pieces may not be very complex, they fit and function beautifully.

Going further, the game enriches the experience by constantly surprising the player with boss encounters that completely shift gears into the high-octane "shmup" genre mentioned earlier. Similar to bullet-hell shooters like Mars Matrix or Ikaruga, The Red Star explodes in these sequences and demands the sort of twitch-gaming reflexes and Zen-like concentration that's usually reserved for a mean arcade cabinet when you're down to your last quarter. With strategic fighting and shooting in copious amounts, this game is an adrenaline junkie's dream.

The Red Star Screenshot

My only criticism of The Red Star is that it can become fairly difficult in the later stages, and even moreso for people used to the gentler levels of challenge that many games have adopted recently. With no mid-level checkpoints, it can become frustrating to die at a boss and have to cover the same territory multiple times before making progress. Including difficulty settings or at least offering players the chance to go back into previous levels and power-up before the nastier sections would have helped smooth out the ride. I actually had to restart my entire game four levels from the end because I had upgraded my character inefficiently and couldn't make it through—a wee bit of tweaking could have prevented that disappointing roadblock.

Although enhanced graphics and special effects would have improved the game cosmetically, there's no denying that the mechanics are dialed-in and the developers have some damned good heads on their shoulders. Add in the fact that it retails for a rock-bottom $20 brand-new, and The Red Star and becomes the next surprise hit that's on every B-list hound's radar. Despite its rocky road to retail, I sincerely hope that The Red Star counts as a win for the developers and lets them produce another title—I'd love to see what they'd create on a bigger budget. Rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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2 Comments on "The Red Star – Review"

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Brad Gallaway
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Hey Peg..

thanks for the praise and congrats on finding it. evidently, it’s pretty hard to come by.

when you’re leveling up (i was using Nikita, BTW… i strongly recommend her since she was a WAY easier time of dodging enemy fire) the only important things are reducing gun heat, speeding up gun cool-down, powering up ONLY gun #1 (the starting gun) and increasing damage resistance.

forget everything else unless you have a surplus of points, but with those four stats buffed, the game will be survivable. ; )

legendarypegasu
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Great review Brad, I just picked this up yesterday and going to be starting it soon. In your review you mentioned that you had leveled up you character inefficeintly and had to start over. Care to give any advice how should I level up my character to avoid any problems later on?

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Earth Defense Force 2017 Art 

I am supremely disappointed in Sandlot.

When I played Robot Alchemic Drive on the PS2, I thought it was sheer genius. The game's giant transforming robots left cities in rubble and their enormous sense of scale completely won me over. I had nothing but praise for that title, and I earmarked the house as a developer to watch for. When I heard that they were behind Earth Defense Force 2017, I was ecstatic.

Now that I've played it, I'm tearing up my Sandlot fanclub card and crossing them off my favorites list. An overpriced, underproduced piece of junk, I'd feel pretty sketchy paying $20 for EDF2017. The fact that it's actually retailing for $40 is brass-balled robbery.

In Earth Defense Force 2017, aliens arrive on earth and they're completely hostile, natch. Featuring an array of super-sized enemies like spiders as big as houses, 50-foot tall robots and giant dinosaurs with cannons mounted on their backs, players hit the streets for some extremely basic third-person shooting on the road to reclaiming earth for humanity.

Earth Defense Force 2017 Screenshot

On paper this seems like a fantastic idea—at least from a sci-fi enthusiast perspective. I mean, blasting hordes of ants crawling across a skyline like one of Uncle Milton's farms gone wrong seems like can't-miss quality entertainment, and who doesn't like giant mechanoids spewing lasers? I sure do. In practice, Earth Defense Force 2017 is a stunning display of cheap production values, poor planning, and grinding repetition. In fact, the only qualities that EDF has in common with RAD are its sense of scale and the way buildings collapse into huge, chunky polygons.

Technically, EDF is a joke. The graphics are pitifully underdetailed, the collision between objects is nonexistent, and the physics make absolutely no sense at all. It's clear that realism is not a quality the game is shooting for, but it doesn't even meet the minimum standards that most would reasonably expect, especially on the 360.

I burst out laughing when a skyscraper came tumbling down after being hit by a single rocket, but not in a good way. Meanwhile, nearly infinite swarms of bugs and thick mobs of robots clustered together so tightly that they clipped over and into each other, blocking off all view of anything except more bugs and robots.

Earth Defense Force 2017 Screenshot

After playing the first handful of levels, the game had no surprises left to offer. Open, non-interactive (unless you count demolishing buildings) and bland areas host plague-like numbers of enemies that exist solely to be mowed down, without even the barest hint of artificial intelligence. There are some rudimentary power-ups to be collected in an effort to survive the massive onslaughts of later levels, but I hardly see the point. I can't imagine any players sticking around for 53 missions' worth of mindless blasting when they're all carbon copies of the first.

Run, shoot. Shoot, run. EDF tosses in a few ill-conceived vehicles, each controlling like a differently-shaped brick and doing little except to get the player killed even faster. I could maybe see this being entertaining for a single afternoon with a co-op partner aboard, but the game doesn't even support multiplayer over Live—unbelievably, the only multi option is single-console splitscreen. Cue vomiting.

A bad play structure, no complexity or true feeling of progression, no bells or whistles, no unique ideas, outdated multiplayer—even the achievements are junk. (One for completing the game on each difficulty level, and one for collecting all the weapons. Who's going to sit through this garbage long enough to finish it even once, let alone multiple times?) I could go on and on, but why bother? This is the worst 360 game I think I've ever played with nothing to redeem it. Earth Defense Force 2017 can't even stack up against the recent Burger King games, and those were little better than minigames on a disc coming in at four dollars each. The only possible future I see for Earth Defense Force 2017 is gaining the notoriety as one of those "so bad it's good" games, but don't be fool yourself—it's just bad.Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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27 Comments on "Earth Defense Force 2017 – Review"

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Anonymous
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It seems to me like he played this game expecting a new, ground-breaking action title. He wasn’t the only one puzzled by such an archaic game on a next gen system back when it game out. But EDF is content to be an old-school arcade style shooter and its among the best of that type of game. That’s what makes the game so wonderful to many of us more retro-style gamers. If it strived for realism or had accurate physics and a real story it would just be another generic third person shooter and I wouldn’t enjoy it much.

Matt
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Brad, Picked this game up after reading Dan’s article comparing this with Halo 3, and I agree with many of your points: the graphics are atrocious, the physics are laughable, the clipping problems are constant. And, of course, the vehicles are essentially useless. But, never once did I find it repetitive. There’s something about shooting down a giant mechanized Godzilla, or whatever that thing is called, that never got old for me. And look, there’s green ants AND red ants to shoot! Haha. EDF really feels like a 3D version of Smash TV to me. The game just reminds me… Read more »
Marty M
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I completly disagree with him. I think it is one of the better games for 360. I have spent at least 60 hours on in. That is more than most games i play and i am still having fun with it

Marty M
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Did you really play this game? You say no one would waste there time playing this game, but me and my friend have spent at least 60 hours playing this game and it is still not old. Sure the graphics suck, the animation is awkward, a the dialogue is a bunch of crappy lines, but it is one the funnest games ever made. Say you take Call of Duty and take away the graphics, story, multiplayer, and all those other things. Would you say that was the worst game for 360. Pick the game up again and play it for… Read more »
codyb
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I’d like to say that, yes, this is a bad game. By most every standard in the industry this is a bad game. But the standard of fun is subjective. Naturally, Brad would be doing a disservice to his profession if he said this was a good title. Obviously he didn’t find it personally amusing. But this game is fun. One of the most fun games i have ever played. I love it for the same reason i love Shadow of the Colosus. I love the cheezy voice acting way too much. And i think it looks damn good because… Read more »
Orwell
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Man I got this game because me and my little brother wanted a multi-player to play because Call of Duty 4 wasn’t in and there really weren’t any other good multi-player games in. We began playing it and got hooked despite its graphics and its obvious lack of gameplay variety. I was shocked by the amount of space there is to move in the stage even more so on the beach. Co-op is awesome and the only way to beat Hardest and Inferno earlier on. The AI’s get really smart on Inferno so much so they blocked me off a… Read more »
Anonymous
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Well, I must say you were a Little harsh. I admit the game has wretched physics and collisions. However, the game all-round provides hours of stupid fun. I myself was a fan of the Robot Alchemic Drive. And when I first played EDF, I noticed the similarity in style of action, certain mechanics, and sound effects. You cant make much of a comparison to RAD and EDF, as out of my group of friends they loathed RAD and found it impossible to play but Loved EDF and its simplicity. So it really is a matter of to each their own.… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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I find it laughable that this wretched game has so many vocal defenders… but six of one, half dozen of the other. ; )

Anonymous
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You clearly loaded up the game, selected Easy as your difficulty, and got bored within 10 minutes. Guess what, that’s the same for any console game. Try the game on Hard, Hardest, or Inferno, then let me know if you still think it’s a mindless killing game filled with grind. $5 says you can’t beat the first 10 levels on Hard. I find it laughable you are reviewing games, expecting advanced AI and needing to invent strategies on the fly … all on Easy mode?

Brad Gallaway
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To everyone who’s enamored with EDF, check out my Lost Planet review coming soon. if you like EDF’s action, you’ll *love* Lost Planet’s.

Anonymous
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actually i found this to be a pretty sweet and innovative game

Chris W
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Up until recently the only game I had played on the 360 for more than a few hours was geometry wars but Earth Defense Force is by far the most fun I have had with my 360. Single player or Co-op this game is great. The reviewer is a complete tard. I don’t know how anyone could possibly say its the worst game on the 360. People now a days are too hung up on if it doesn’t look as good as gears of war then its crap. This game may have crappy animations and simple graphics but I’d take… Read more »
ratbag howser
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I couldn’t disagree with this review more. EDF is rough around the edges, it is simple, it is just a shooter. But when it’s as magnificently fun and hectic as this game is, you’d need to be dead inside not to enjoy the ride. This is the kind of game that puts a smile on your face and if you can get a friend around to play co-op then there’s not much more fun to be had anywhere.

Anonymous
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This is one of my favorite games so far this year. All the negatives he says are true, but none of them make the game any less fun.

8.5/10 from me.

Brad Gallaway
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Everybody’s got an opinion and it’s pretty clear that you like the game… not going to debate you on that one, but i will say that even though $40 may be “budget” compared to the overpriced $60 MSRP attached to most of the other 360 games, it’s still ludicrously high for EDF. the quality of the game is just not there, and i think i would have been at least a little more forgiving if it didn’t cost as much. i completely sympathize with developers on a shoestring… i champion them on this site all the time. however, the fact… Read more »
X
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The game, by the way, is NOT full price – a quick check will remind you that all 360 and PS3 games come with a $60 price tag. It IS a budget title.

No hard feelings, Brad – you just seemed to totally miss the point with this one. Cheers.

X
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This game is a classic, and the complaints raised in this article are total rubbish. The graphics and sound are, yes, sub-par. But the game was made on a shoestring budget, mind you, for a Japanese audience, and by people who strived to make a game they wanted to play. This aspect shines through perfectly. It feels like you’re a character in a B-rate sci-fi film, from the way the characters move jerkily, to the way the voices are all overacted, to the sheer scale of the alien forces massed against you. And seriously, with that many things onscreen at… Read more »
John Gawarecki-Maxwell
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John Gawarecki-Maxwell
Anonymous…harsh, much? Look, I totally agree that I feel like Brad missed the point with his review of EDF, but it’s not like he doesn’t have actual points. The game is pretty much, for lack of a better term, a shitshow, with ugly graphics, janky design, vechicles that are almost completely useless (the tank is actually pretty damn good), and repetitious level design that if it doesn’t grab you the first time, it never will. Yes, to us, the stupid fun balances it out (not to mention the crazy stories I’ve had with this game), but it’s not like these… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Heh, well it seems clear that EDF2017 has its fans… for you folks who loved it, make sure you check out The Red Star on PS2. it’s every bit as shooty but a lot tighter and way more structured. no giant bugs or 50-story tall robots, but it’s an awesome action experience. if you liked EDF, then you’ll probably love Red Star.

Anonymous
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This is the worst review I’ve ever read. Seriously. You either know nothing about games or you just hate fun. Technically this game is a triumph and the gameplay is pure fun. Not the sort of fun you seem to be after but that kind of pick up and play fun that you don’t tend to see these days, at least not since the Dreamcast died.

Ignore the above review. It’s idiotic in the extreme.

Brad Gallaway
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Hi John, and thanks for your comments. If you’ll go back in the archives and look at the games i’ve covered since 2000, you’ll see that i’m actually a fan of shooters and action-oriented games… i’m not critiquing the genre or against it at all. in the case of EDF, it’s a full-priced game for what was (IIRC) a bargain-priced release in Japan. like i mentoned in the review, $20? maybe.. $40 is outrageous for something that’s so untuned, simplistic and unrefined. shooting big bugs is great, but shooting big bugs when the bugs are clipping into each other and… Read more »
John Gawarecki-Maxwell
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John Gawarecki-Maxwell
I wrote the previous before reading your (rather vicious) consumer guide. From reading that, it seems to me (and I’m fully willing to eat crow if I’m wrong) that the problem is that you just don’t like arcade-style shooters, since your major complaints (bland, repetetive, crude, etc.) could be said about every single arcade-style shooter, the ones I’ve listed included (aside from the artless comment; that just strikes me as, once again, missing the point). Granted, whereas most arcade-style shooters (redundant much?) are expertly designed and fine-tuned, EDF is, admittedly, a bit on the loose side, yet it doesn’t really… Read more »
John Gawarecki-Maxwell
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John Gawarecki-Maxwell
Not that I’m going to deny that Earth Defense Force 2017 is the most simplistic of concepts drawn out to insane lengths, or even that most of your complaints are completely unfounded (the game is none-too-attractive, vechichles are awful, and the game, much like its $40 “budget-priced” brethren Rockstar Table Tennis, is pretty low on content for the asking price), I feel like you’re missing the point, Brad. As I see it, the game is very much a throwback (not to speak of the rest of the Simple series) to a sect of shooters that has all but gone the… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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When i wrote the review, i knew that there were going to be players out there who disagreed– no problem, i totally respect your opinions.

however, i do think that most people are far too lenient on the game. it’s very shoddily constructed, and simply “shooting lots of things” is hardly a winning game formula. in fact, it’s probably the most basic concept that exists in videogames…

simply being able to shoot things isn’t significant enough to be a selling point, IMO… especially when so many other aspects that make a good game *should* be there, but are totally absent.

EDFer
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EDF is far from a great game, but it is a good one — and there are a few elements in it that ARE indeed great.

Comparing it to a b.s. corporate marketing tool from Murder King is terribly unfair. If you’re going for laughs or shock value, fine, but you better turn in your gamer card if you truly believe that. Again, EDF is no masterpice but still better than 80-90% of the crap many studios produce.

Or maybe you just don’t like killing things. Go play your Wii and leave hardcore games for the, uh, hardcore.

Adam
Guest

Ok, so its graphically uninspiring and repetitive but a game doesn’t have to do masses of techincal effects to be good.

This game harks back to when games were more simple and a lot more fun. No complicated missions, no time trial game modes, no puzzles, just leave-your-brain-at-the-door shooting the crap out of anything which movs.

Chi Kong Lui
Guest

Wow, that’s just too bad. While I was doing the screenshots for this game, I thought it looked like such a fun and crazy concept. With such good pedigree in the developers, its truly disappointing. Did anyone else play this one yet? Do you agree with Brad?

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Gurumin Art 

Cute, sweet, and to-the-point, Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure is a brand-new franchise from the minds behind such old-school classics as Ys, Popful Mail and Brandish. Falcom clearly still has what it takes-I'd even say that their latest is my favorite Falcom effort ever, and easily one of the best PSP games available, bar none.

The thing about Gurumin is that although no one aspect of it is incredibly unique; every element is completely dialed-in and produced perfectly. For example, the story about a young girl befriending monsters and helping them regain lost furniture isn't very gripping, but the characterization is solid and there are enough laughs to let the player establish a better-than-average connection to what's going on.

The third-person action featuring light puzzle elements and minor dungeon exploring isn't anything gamers haven't seen before, but again, it's completely nailed. The controls are tight and show above-average awareness of the player experience by including small assistive features such as a functional lock-on system and an auto-jump for tricky gaps that make sure players don't get frustrated by the inherent camera issues unavoidable due to the PSP's one-stick limitations.

Gurumin Screenshot

Game progression is masterful. It's easy to blow through and see an ending in around eight to ten hours, but there's a substantial amount of fresh content left for those who want the "real" ending, not to mention a huge amount of replay for completists who want to score top marks in every level and find every secret item. It may seem simple, but many developers stumble badly in this area. I can't praise Falcom enough for making Gurumin equally satisfying from both casual and hardcore perspectives.

The colorful, cartoony graphics don't push the cutting edge of what the PSP is capable of, but the art direction is superb in that every element is not only bright and attractively rendered, but that a great deal of effort was made in making sure that the visual cohesion throughout the entire adventure was as complete as it could have possibly been. There are no stylistic breaks to be seen anywhere, and as such, Gurumin's identity and flavor come through in absolutely pure fashion.

Gurumin Screenshot

Making the extremely difficult look effortlessly easy, Falcom has created what could be called a "perfect" portable game. Its level of technical production takes full advantage of the hardware and presents equal opportunity for both newcomers and seasoned gamers alike in bite-sized chunks tailored for on-the-go sessions. Could a portable fan ask for anything more?

The box art might not be interesting (and personally, I think the title of the game is terrible) but once past those superficial elements it's impossible to ignore the superior design and technical mastery that's present in every minute of gameplay. Gurumin puts most of the PSP's library to shame without even trying, and my hat is off to Falcom for creating the kind of PSP experience that so many other developers have failed to. Rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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1 Comment on "Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure – Review"

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Mike Bracken
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I’ve been meaning to pick this up for a few weeks now (I was kind of on the fence about it…I seem to be that way about 99% of all PSP games these days). If you liked it this much, then I’ll most likely wind up enjoying it too.

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Frequent readers of this site may be familiar with my pet project, the Bargain Basement. In that feature, I put a spotlight on games that don't get the amount of attention they deserve, recommending solid entertainment that can be purchased on the cheap. (Check our archives if you'd like to read more.) With that idea in mind, I can't think of a more perfect example of Basement fodder than the Capcom Classics Collection Remix. However, in order to do it justice, I felt like I'd have to go long-form and give this disc an extended review outside the Basement since it goes the ultra-value route and packs twenty-two complete games onto one small UMD.

Before getting into the title-by-title breakdown, I wanted to throw out a few facts for readers who may not be familiar with this title; first, all the games included in this Remix have been culled from the vast Capcom back-catalog, and most have seen either limited or wide release in American arcades. The technical conversion process involved with getting these games on the PSP has been great, and they're all practically arcade-perfect.

Besides being faithful to the originals, the Digital Eclipse conversion team has done a great job adding various extras like tips, original artwork, and music selections that are all unlocked by meeting certain criteria. In fact, a small menu pops up during gameplay when some of these criteria have been met, doing a very good impersonation of an Xbox 360 Achievement. One final thing to note is that it's possible to enable a "rapid fire" for every single game—a complete godsend. I never really noticed how many old-school games require trashing my thumb to mash the fire button, but being older and having some RSI and ergonomics issues means that Digital Eclipse receives my eternal thanks for keeping it real and giving players like me the option.

…and without further ado, the games.

1941: Counter Attack: Another in the venerable series of WWII-themed vertically-scrolling shooters, I'd say it's also the best one. A good set of power-ups and the signature loop-de-loop maneuver give it a well-rounded feeling. It's also got a great pace with solid action, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It's a nice (if not exactly stunning) entry.

Avengers: A crummy top-down beat-‘em-up. It looks terrible and controls even worse. I have no memories of this game ever being in any arcade I went to, and I couldn't find any redeeming value to justify why it should have been included here. This is exactly the kind of filler that I don't like to see in "classic" collections.

Bionic Commando: Now, this is more like it. BC is a true classic, with the hero's extendable grappling hook inspiring generations of gamers to this day. However, be aware that this is the arcade version and not the superior highly-modified NES version that most players are familiar with. There were a series of Capcom games that were actually better and deeper on the NES than their coin-op counterparts, but even so, it's great for the original Bionic Commando to be included.

Black Tiger: I remember playing this one and thinking it was incredibly awesome at the time, but I see it now as a too-hard action game that doesn't hold up. It comes off as a sort of hybrid between Castlevania and Capcom's underrated Gargoyle series with the main character' flailing his mace and leaping mid-air from pillar to pillar. The downside is that death is never more than three seconds away and there's no unique, defining characteristic to make it stand out when compared to other games that do the exact same thing, only better.

Capcom Classics Collection Remix Screenshot

Block Block: It's just like Arkanoid, Breakout, or any of the 10,000 other clones that involve sliding a paddle back and forth at the bottom of the screen and bouncing a ball back up to destroy colored blocks. Mindless fun for five minutes, but I doubt many people will spend much time with it.

Captain Commando: Captain Commando was one of those characters that always made his way into the frenetic Vs games, but I never managed to actually see the game he came from despite all the years I spent in arcades. It's here, and basically a one-off of Final Fight with a wackier vibe and slightly more complicated mechanics, though just barely. I like it more than Final Fight for its irreverence, and it also comes complete with some hotter-than-FF's S&M female bodybuilder enemies, so bonus points for that.

Final Fight: Debatably the most influential and well-known sidescrolling beat-‘em-up of all time, FF gives players the choice between three different characters before taking it to the streets to clean house on a legion of trashy punks and no-good hoodlums. I'm guessing that most people reading this article are already quite familiar with this game, but it's a definite must-play for those who haven't. I just can't imagine someone calling themselves a gamer without having tried this at least once or twice.

Forgotten Worlds: A horizontally-scrolling shooter employing men who can magically fly rather than the traditional airplane or starship. I was completely stunned by the smooth animation of the characters rotating in place the first time I saw it. Easily one of my favorite games from the arcade era. The game is an interesting mix of high-intensity shooting combined with limited upgrades and item shopping, not to mention the ability to fire in a full 360°. A little bit ahead of its time; I would love to see a modern update.

Last Duel: An interesting vertically-scrolling shooter. (Arcades sure had a lot of shooters back then, didn't they?) The main selling point of this entry is that the player controls a vehicle that can transform into a car for certain levels and a jet for others. A neat idea, but it's a pretty shallow experience since the player doesn't control when the vehicle transforms and the levels are quite average, lacking any unique design. Calling this a "classic" is a little sketchy, in my opinion.

Legendary Wings: Another arcade game that was transformed into something better on the NES. LW is an odd shooter that gives heroes a pair of wings and asks them to defend their mythologically-themed world from evil technology. Most of the game is a vertical shooter, but some interior areas inexplicably become a piss-poor platformer of sorts, taking away free flight and replacing it with weak jumps. The enemies in these areas are brutal, and the game as a whole has a high degree of difficulty. It may be a recognizable name for people who've been playing games for many years, but it doesn't hold up.

Capcom Classics Collection Remix Screenshot

Mega Twins: An unremarkable side-scrolling platformer that could easily be mistaken for any number of Dragon Ball-inspired games overpopulating the genre during the 16-bit era. It's got some cute visual design and a few things that made me chuckle (the characters fly thanks to some bird hats with flapping wings) but doesn't have much pizzazz and leaves absolutely no impression. I forgot it was even on the disc until I went back and double-checked my information for this review.

Magic Sword: This was another actioner I used to love in the arcade, but unlike Black Tiger, it still holds up decently. The basic formula of taking a warrior up fifty floors of an evil tower lends itself to some fast-paced hacking and slashing, but what keeps it playable is a wide variety of "helper" characters that tag along and lend a hand. Three words: the Lizardman rocks. I never had enough money in my pocket to finish the game in the arcade, so I having this included in the collection was a special treat.

Quiz & Dragons: Surprisingly, this was one of the titles I played the most. Taking one of four characters and walking them around a game board while answering stale trivia questions doesn't seem like a good time, but it was. I think half of my enjoyment came from how dated it seemed, but I'm also a bit of a trivia nut. Getting quizzed for a few minutes whenever I had some PSP time was lightly diverting and didn't require too much involvement, so it felt like a good fit in short bursts.

Section Z: Another of the titles that was a lot better at home than it was in the arcade. This iteration is a very basic horizontal shooter with the player controlling a small astronaut-type character who's basically a piece of bait floating in the air. It's not very pretty, it's not very sophisticated, and it's really, really hard. Shooty players wanting a challenge might want to put in some time with this one, but it's far from my favorite on the disc.

Side Arms: While several games on this UMD made an improved appearance on the NES, SA actually found a home (at home) on the TurboGrafx-16. It was a purchase that tormented me as a child with its harsh, hateful difficulty, and I clearly recall never getting past level 3 after spending so much hard-earned money on it. Well look who's got infinite continues now, b!@tc#3$! Seriously though, the game is unbelievably hard for a side-scrolling shooter and SA specifically is the game that convinced me that Capcom needed to stop making shooters… so many elements are "off" in its balance that there's no satisfaction from playing it at all. If any readers out there can beat the game without using a ton of continues, I'll gladly bow down and call you the king or queen of twitch gaming.

The Speed Rumbler: Interesting yet not very playable, TSR has a quasi Mad Max-ish vibe about it. From an overhead perspective, the player drives a car and shoots other cars or runs over pedestrian enemies. The part that got my attention was that the driver can exit the car at any time to attack on foot, although such action is extremely not recommended. Feeling unfocused and unfriendly, it's one of those odd games from yesteryear that made me wonder who could have ever enjoyed it, even back then.

Street Fighter: The game before the game that started the tremendous fighting genre craze, it's pretty easy to see why this one didn't go anywhere. Although the same basic concepts are here—one-on-one martial arts, etc.—the execution is terrible. I could look past the quaintly stiff animation, but there's no coming to terms with the kind of delay between pushing the button and seeing the attack that requires you to be a precog in order to actually land strikes. Oh, and the opponents? They've got no mercy whatsoever. It's fascinating to see where the most influential fighting game of all time came from (if for nothing else than to see how much the engine has progressed), but this iteration is painfully unplayable.

Capcom Classics Collection Remix Screenshot

Strider: It's hard to look back and realize that I paid $70 for an inferior Genesis version of this game brand-new, but I'm not bitter. Strider rocks as one of the most original and memorable titles of its era. Hiryu's lethal flashing blade and then-unsurpassed acrobatics rendered it a must-play every time I walked by its cabinet, and it's not hard to see what I saw in it back then. Although it's made an appearance on modern systems a handful of times before, I was glad to see it here and still think of it as one of the must-plays from its time and for anyone who's interested in gaming history. That crazy zero-g orbit area? Unforgettable.

Three Wonders: Actually three titles in one. TW consists of the platform-actioner Midnight Wanderers, horizontal shooter Chariot, and block-based puzzler Don't Pull. In a unique twist, Midnight Wanderers and Chariot are actually connected. The first game asks the player to defeat enemies and reclaim a magical flying machine, and the second game sees that same flying machine in action. These two titles are beautiful, high-quality and utterly charming. Perfect examples of why hand-drawn animation will never go out of style, their luscious artwork still looks stunning. Don't Pull is the odd man out, unconnected to the other two. Starring a rabbit who pushes blocks to smoosh enemies (push… don't pull, get it? ha-ha), it's a decent game that echoes its contemporaries. It's nothing special, but entertaining for a few minutes.

Varth: The final game on the disc is the textbook definition of a standard vertical shooter. Flying machine taking on hordes of enemies? Check. A basic selection of weapons and power-ups? Check. Unique, distinctive element to differentiate it from the dozens of others? Uh… maybe not. It's not bad and it's worth a quick play-through, but this is another of those unmemorable efforts that I forgot was on the disc.

To wrap things up, I'd like to applaud Capcom for Remix. The variety of games is far better this time around that it was on their first PSP collection, Reloaded, and the overall quality of the selections is quite high. Although the rationale and design behind most of these quarter-munchers have seen their day come and go, they still deliver tasty gameplay in small amounts and fit well on a portable platform. I'd recommend this disc for the historical interest and research purposes alone, so it doesn't hurt that the majority of these titles still have teeth. Without a doubt, Capcom is still one of the most influential and talented houses in the business and has been for decades. Anyone who needs proof need look no further. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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3 Comments on "Capcom Classics Collection Remixed – Review"

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Brad Gallaway
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hey Sleeve, thanks for the corrections. The title was a typo but you’re absolutely right about Remixed being the second and not the first. it’s funny, i bought them at the same time and got the release dates switched, but the real reason i was so convinced that Remixed was second was that Reloaded’s (the other PSP compilation) interface and content is so horrible it just naturally seemed like it was what i’d expect from a first release– rougher, not as optimized, poorer selection, and so on. i’m honestly surprised that Reloaded is so shabby considering that Remixed came out… Read more »
shun
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Hey Brad, good review. I don’t have the UMD — I don’t have a PSP — but I have definitely played a lot of those games you’ve mentioned (and I still keep some of their ROM files in a safe place so I can play them on an emulator any time I want). Anyway, does the collection have multiplayer functionality? Based on my experiences, a lot of these games are a lot more fun when played with many people. The First Street Fighter blows. It was near impossible to pull off a Hadoken with any accuracy. In fact, I wouldn’t… Read more »
sleeveboy
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Two minor corrections for the reviewer:

The correct title is Capcom Classics Collection Remixed. It is also the first, not the second compilation collection released by Capcom for the PSP.

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Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Art 

One of the biggest, most important franchises in videogames today, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series commands the loyalty of a legion of fans and continues to set the standard in many ways for developers across the world. Squeezing all the trademark elements players expect onto a much smaller scale, Portable Ops manages to come close to the modern-style espionage action associated with gruff supersoldier Snake—but not without serious modifications to the formula.

Although I thought both Metal Gear Acid 1 and 2 on the PSP were successful in their own right, Portable Ops leaves behind their card-based, turn-based mechanics and brings the sort of real-time third-person action that has previously been seen on standard home consoles. It's a testament to Kojima Productions' ingenuity that they were able to re-create the flavor last sampled in the successful MGS: Snake Eater, but the traditional sneaking, variety of high-tech gadgets and close-quarters combat are unavoidably hampered by the PSP's technical limitations.

It comes as no surprise that camera problems abound, and the enduring curse of the Sony R&D team's decision to include only one analog stick lives on. Not being able to effectively scan Snake's surroundings is a constant irritation and seriously curtails the feeling of being a lethally proficient operative. That said, once I came to terms with this admittedly significant issue, I was surprised by how faithful the action is.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Screenshot

That's not to say that Portable Ops is strictly an action outing. In addition to hiding around corners and knocking out guards with a tranquilizer gun, a major part of the game requires spending time managing captured troops who are then enlisted in Snake's service…think of them as abducted human resources.

By incapacitating an enemy and then dragging him (or her) back to a magically ubiquitous transport truck, Snake can take advantage of the qualities possessed by each conscript. For example, some excel in medicine and can be used to increase the quality and frequency of acquired life-ups. People with cartography skills can enhance the detail on the maps Snake has of each level, and most importantly, soldiers can be used as the perfect camouflage.

At any time, the player can let Snake take five and directly control any of the captured troops. By actually being one of the enemy soldiers, nearly universal free reign is granted to walk straight into hostile territory and do what needs to be done without much fear of being spotted or setting off alarms. Snake may have had some nifty camouflage in his last adventure, but there's no better disguise than actually being someone else.

I give big points for creativity in this aspect. Management and use of these troops is something that Snake has never had before, and it absolutely lends the game its own unique flavor. The downside to this new twist is a practical one—it's utterly tedious to drag enemies back to the truck. Players who want to take full advantage of this system will likely want to spend some time replaying levels in order to headhunt the right skills, but regardless of the benefit, it should have been quicker and easier to accomplish. As it is, the pace is slowed immensely over the course of capturing dozens and dozens of people.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Screenshot

Since no Metal Gear review would be complete without touching on the story, I do give top marks for the hand-drawn cutscenes rendered by the phenomenal Ashley Wood. Thoroughly emotive, his electronically-enhanced illustrations are a perfect fit for Kojima's tone. (For more of Wood's work, the Metal Gear Digital Graphic Novel UMD comes highly recommended.)

Artistic value aside, I found the plot to be a little formulaic with the usual cast of super-powered oddballs and multiple double-crosses. Less energetic than I expected, Portable Ops stumbles on its dramatic legs and only manages to come together in the final acts. With so much resource management of the soldiers going on, it's too easy for the dynamic cutscenes to be nullified by shuffling menus.

However, devoted Gearheads who've been following the clandestine plot threads interwoven by Kojima's mad genius will definitely get more out of the experience than the average player. In an unusual move, Portable Ops is a direct sequel to Snake Eater despite the shift in formula as well as platform. There are a number of extremely juicy factual bits revealed about the Patriots, the formation of Outer Heaven, and the motivation behind Big Boss's shift from national hero to international terrorist. Although actually playing the game left me nonplussed at times, these nuggets were satisfying to chew on.

Despite being something of a mixed bag from any perspective, there's no doubting the fact that even a middling Metal Gear game easily outclasses most of its competition. This is doubly true for the PSP and its anemic library, and regardless of its flaws, I'd say that Portable Ops is probably one of the safest purchases for PSP gamers, easily trouncing most of the junk in the PSP section. Snake is definitely one of the most compelling characters in videogames today, and I'd take a slightly flawed adventure with him over another carbon-copy racing game or generic puzzler any day. Rating: 7 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner ArtIn my book, the only thing worse than a mediocre RPG is a mediocre RPG that could have been great. Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner is the perfect example of solid ideas that should have come together in an above-average experience, but got tripped up on its own misguided intentions. In this case, I blame the tragedy on an irrational devotion to its "dramatic" elements and an insane desire to tell an uninspired, undercooked tale regardless of the impact on the game as a whole.

Calling a spade a spade, Jewel Summoner is effectively nothing more than a darker version of Pokémon. The style in art design and graphics may skew towards an older audience, but things are mostly familiar save for the details. Things like Jewel Summoner's elemental and combat systems aren't directly analogous to what Game Freak came up with, and the mechanics of leveling up and modifying monsters' abilities is much deeper than anything Pikachu or Charizard ever asked of players. However, a global view clearly reveals that these two games are simply opposite sides of the same coin.

Given the amazing staying power and cultlike following of Nintendo's cutesy juggernaut, I can't exactly say it's a bad idea to crib from that formula. I'll state clearly for the record that I deduct no points for Gaia following in Ash's footsteps, but the problem is that in contrast to Nintendo's focus on "catching ‘em all", Jewel Summoner takes a disastrous turn by subjecting players to unbearable amounts of dialogue from a cast that left me coldly apathetic.

The game's story is complete twaddle and achieves nothing save to interrupt the fast-paced and pleasant combat with endless interludes of nonsense. Regular readers will know that I abhor spending time leveling up or getting overwhelmed with random battles, but Jewel Summoner's dungeons are (surprisingly) too short. In fact, after accomplishing any given mission, I often found myself wishing that the characters would simply shut up and let me get back to actually playing the game. Interrupting enemy turns with well-coordinated attacks and forcibly recruiting with faux Pokéballs is completely engaging; listening to unlikable morons wear out their lungs (and my patience) is not.

Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner Screenshot

When I'm taking a system on the go, I want to spend my time actually playing, not clicking through screen after screen of text and listening to line after line of voice acting. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Jewel Summoner is at least half dialogue, if not three-quarters—a fatal mistake when the quality of such is so unappealing. The solid battle system and monster-collecting offered here are exactly what the PSP needs, but all its positives are fatally smothered with a mountain of RPG babble-baggage that a smart director would have left on the cutting-room floor. Rating: 4 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Seluropnek
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I’m currently playing this game myself, and totally agree that the amount of inconsequential dialogue truly bogs down the game and is completely incongruous to a portable game. However, the real star of the game is the simple addiction of catching and building up your monsters, and this is handled quite well – simple fun without becoming bogged down with complexities, but just enough depth to require some player creativity and keep you hooked. The fact that you can even perform amalgamations while you’re not playing is perfect for this sort of game, and perfect for portables. So really, the… Read more »
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Mazes of Fate Art 

Following the traditional course set by almost all consoles before it, the Game Boy Advance has had a series of phenomenally satisfying releases recently, in what will come to be known as its final days. The little-handheld-that-could has had a fantastic run, and I can't think of a better sendoff than to host top-notch efforts like Summon Night 1 & 2, Yggdra Union, Back to Stone, and two recent Final Fantasies. Unfortunately, any game that's less than fantastic will only look worse arriving so late in the GBA's life cycle amidst such stiff competition. Suffice it to say, Mazes of Fate is less than fantastic.

Plunked amidst a negligible tale of a society that's forgotten its gods and come under siege from marauding goatmen, players pick from one of three archetypes (or create a custom character who does not have unique art) and are set loose in a small town to talk with townsfolk and gather clues about various topics. The world soon opens up to minor exploration and sidequesting, all of it promising until the weak dialogue and uninteresting pleas for assistance begin to stack up. Sadly, the limited RPG elements seem a little too large for the development team to handle. In fact, the people behind Mazes of Fate seem to have bitten off more than they can chew in many ways.

Mazes of Fate ScreenshotMazes of Fate Screenshot

While its graphics don't look too shabby in screenshots, the visuals have a decidedly low-rent quality to them in person. I might be inclined to cut the game some slack, but so many recent GBA carts have sported smooth, attractive looks that anything less can't cut it. The weak graphics are also an Achilles heel because most of the game takes place, naturally, in mazes.

I like a good dungeon crawl, but in this genre it doesn't pay to skimp on production values. I found it far too easy to become disoriented since walking through the drab underground tunnels was pulled off about as convincingly as something from the NES days. (Anyone who's played the atrocious Wizardry or Swords & Serpents on old Nintendo systems knows what I'm talking about.) Especially bothersome is the single-frame animation, and the way nearby enemies look like badly drawn cardboard standees.

The developers don't seem to have put much thought into acclimating gamers to their particular adventure, either. The beginning segments so vital to hooking players stumble right out of the gate with a series of obstructionary hoops to jump through before getting to the real action. Is it ever a good idea to force a multi-stage item hunt down a player's throat before they're invested? I'd say not.

Mazes of Fate ScreenshotMazes of Fate Screenshot

Once things are underway and navigating catacombs becomes the majority of playtime, seeing a map of the current area is a constant need. Perhaps the DS's dual screens permitting dedicated displays have spoiled me, but putting everything on hold to consult cartographics every few seconds slows the game down immensely.

Besides what I've mentioned there are a number of other rough edges to discuss, but ticking them off one by one would only make me feel worse than I already do—after all, I pride myself on giving independent studios and underdog games a chance. However, though I can see what the developers were going for, the dungeon-crawl genre comes pre-loaded with a few hurdles to get over, and anyone attempting to pull it off successfully has to absolutely nail the mechanics or drown the player with charm in order to avoid turning out something that's too trudging and tedious to bear. Although it's not terrible in any aspect, Mazes of Fate simply fails to do either.

Mosquitoes might be tiny insects, but get trapped in a room with one and it soon becomes clear that something small can become a major annoyance. Get stuck in a room with a swarm, and you'll leave the room. Mazes of Fate might have had a slim chance a few years ago, but arriving alongside infinitely more capable competition renders rough, mediocre and annoying content immediately, undesirably obsolete. Rating: 4 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Enchanted Arms ArtTraditional Japanese-style role-playing games (JRPGs) are a clearly-defined genre, and have been for quite some time. They don't appeal to me much after playing through the majority from the last three console generations, but I still keep my eye on them. With more technological tricks available than ever before, I'm waiting for someone to clear out all the effeminate amnesiac heroes and stale, overused clichés—the time is right for a boundary-busting title to shake things up and kickstart a role-playing renaissance.

Although its formula is a little unusual, Enchanted Arms is not that game.

The plot is weak and predictable. The characters are flat and dull. The bloated playtime is far too long for its own good. Dialogue is presented as two heads talking onscreen, completely lacking any cinematic energy. Menus are excessive, and should be streamlined for ease of use. The introductory tutorial sequence is one of the most drawn-out in videogame history…

…And I could go on, but rather than run down a laundry list of Enchanted Arms's flaws, I'm going to focus on a few things I liked. (Sort of.)

The first seems relatively insignificant, although in actuality I'd say that it was quite stunning; this game is the first I've played where a homosexual relationship between two men is treated as absolutely normal. I was quite impressed to see that this taboo topic was presented as a complete non-issue, and although the characterization wasn't the most mature, there's no denying the intent. Further in, this particular plot point took an intriguing turn by having one partner "controlled" by the female antagonist, stripped of his autonomy, and reduced to being a villainess's plaything. I couldn't help but chuckle at the boldness of the writers' thinly-veiled subtext, and applaud their chutzpah.

What does this have to do with the actual game? Absolutely nothing, but this treatment of alternative relationships is where the developers make their most successful statement…although they score a few points in other respects, every other positive is counterbalanced by a negative.

Similar in design to the PlayStation's Koudelka (progenitor of the PS2's Shadow Hearts RPG series), Enchanted Arms' combat system is refreshingly different from the usual turn-based affair; each battle takes place on a grid, and each character can attack only within certain areas. For example, the main character is proficient at attacks that strike straight ahead, another has diagonal attacks, and so on. Learning how to position characters is of utmost importance.

Enchanted Arms Screenshot

In another interesting twist, subtle pressure to end battles quickly is applied through "Vitality Points." By winning efficiently, characters lose a minimal amount of these points, and sometimes none at all. After a mismanaged scrap, the points are like grains of sand in an hourglass—when a character's points run out, he or she can no longer participate, and must be sidelined. It can be crippling to let powerful characters take a breather, so managing these points adds a nice layer of complexity.

By constantly evaluating the chess-like maneuvering and striving for maximum potency in every single battle, Enchanted Arms manages to feel pleasantly different from most of its RPG brethren. Further enhancing this flavor are the numerous Golems available to be recruited or purchased as supplements to the core group of characters.

Roughly analogous in role to Pokémon, Golems are artificial creatures which come in every shape and size, ranging from cute, petite humanoids to massive fantasy creatures taking up a quarter of the battlefield. Each one comes with a specific set of abilities that can't be altered, so it's up to the player to decide whether to bring a Golem that focuses on supporting and healing the main characters, one that dishes out heavy damage, or some combination of both. With around 100 choose from, finding and trying them all out can become an end in itself.

Ignoring everything else the game gets wrong, the chemistry created between the sectional battlefield, the characters' strategic attack ranges, and the addiction inherent in collecting the Golems would have been enough to give Enchanted Arms a pass in my book, but like I said…for every positive, a negative.

Enchanted Arms Screenshot

The richness of the puzzle-like combat is diluted by the high frequency of random battles and an auto-pilot feature where most fights can be completed by sitting back and letting the computer do everything.

The attraction of Golems is negated by the active party limit of four characters. When a main character gets rotated out to let a Golem in, that character misses out on status-upping points crucial to advancement. Those points can be purchased at a store, but money is constantly in short supply, and with so many other things to buy (weapons, healing items, and so on) it becomes easier to leave the Golems on the bench until a main character becomes incapacitated. Of course, by doing this the Golems are underpowered because they haven't had their stats upped through experience… and I think you see where I'm going with this.

Because of these missteps, Enchanted Arms is a very contradictory, frustrating experience, and I don't understand why every engaging aspect was hamstrung by an equally bad decision. However, I could probably look past these fumbles if the whole thing wasn't wrapped up in a subpar, obese adventure that fails to deliver dramatic thrills. Without a doubt, Enchanted Arms works best when flexing its strategic muscle. When asked to talk to villagers or backtrack for some silly story-based fetch quest, the excitement of combat rushed out the door and I went rushing towards GameFAQs to find the quickest way of skipping through overabundant prattle and getting back to the combat.

Although a reviewer is supposed to make their judgment based on what is and not on what could be, it's hard to do in this particular case. If they had trimmed all the meaningless RPG fat and reworked Enchanted Arms into something more concentrated, the experience would have played to the game's strengths and been more successful for it. The problem is that the developers have created what would have been the perfect eight-hour adventure (with plenty of bonus content) and forced it into becoming a forty-hour game that's so bogged down with irrelevant filler that it commits a smothering form of creative suicide. For me, the only thing worse than playing a waste of time is playing a waste of time that had potential. After twenty-six hours and walking away from a game whose spark is extinguished before completion, I can only shake my head. Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Gears of War art 

Receiving huge hype and easily ranked as one of the highest-profile titles of 2006, the Gears of War assault machine was successful in generating buzz, selling millions of copies and taking the lead in Microsoft's holiday charge. It certainly became the new reason to own a 360 according to most sources, but was it all that it could have been? I think it depends on perspective.

In my view, Gears provides an unsatisfactory experience for the solo player– something I classify as an unforgivable sin. However, in spite of being less than impressed with what I usually regard as the most important aspect, I'm going to agree with the majority and call it a success. Why? More than the retail numbers, more than the stunning graphics, and yes, even more than the messy chainsaw melee kill, I'll remember Gears of War as the game that brought co-op back.

First and foremost, players' initial impression of Gears of War will likely be awe at the magnificent visuals. Although too much of the game exists in various shades of gray, there's no question that the amount of electronic opulence on display is currently second to none. Without overstating the case, it impresses in every area from the major elements all the way down to the fine details, but once past its formidable appearance there really isn't a lot to it.

Gears of War Screenshot

A third-person shooter with heavy emphasis on taking cover, Gears' play style is very familiar and instantly accessible. Although labeled "stop and pop" as opposed to the traditional "run and gun", there isn't much here that hasn't been seen in other games. However, it's worth noting that the intelligent control layout makes it effortless to get into the action and rapidly absorb the nearly-nonexistent learning curve.

Sadly, in contrast to the cleverness displayed in its welcoming mechanics, the story mode feels flat and unimaginative. Utterly failing to create memorable characters or an engaging tale, logic and narrative continuity don't exist in the Gears universe. Lead designer Cliff Bleszinski has stated in interviews that he didn't want to weigh the game down and overwhelm players with too much story, but Gears' plot is laughable, and barely capable of stringing the impressive-looking set pieces together. With such anemic effort in this area, it feels almost as though Gears of War is less a complete game and more a solid technical framework within which to place one.

Other aspects of the adventure are also surprisingly weak, like the small number of enemy types, limited interaction and mobility within environments, and transparent pre-scripted segments that hearken back to games from generations past. As just one example, I was stuck at a door, unable to unlock it. I had somehow managed to make my way past the invisible "trigger point" meant to unleash a surprise enemy, and since I hadn't killed that particular enemy, I couldn't move forward. Once the enemy was dead, the door unlocked… and I scoffed. Oh, and there are minecarts. Nextgen design philosophy, this is not.

Although I wasn't impressed by the campaign mode, what I was impressed by was the ability to go through said campaign mode with a friend over Microsoft's Live service. Having the opportunity to crack Mystery Science Theater-style jokes in between giving directions and covering my teammate's six gave me a reason to keep coming back when the absurd plot and straightforward action weren't enough.

 Gears of War Screenshot

Plenty of other games have online multiplayer, but I'm a player who needs a goal; an objective or a reason to keep pushing forward against all odds. Although I've saved the world and even several universes by myself many times over, the chance to take on an entire adventure with another living, breathing person added the unique kind of excitement and addiction that's been missing from console games for far too long.

One of my favorite moments from the game was being perched comfortably behind cover and taking potshots at a lethal enemy gun emplacement. I had practically no chance of getting a headshot on the Locust soldier manning it, so I kept myself busy by being a target and making sure the heavy cannon was aimed at me. At the same time, my brother was slowly working his way towards the gunner, hopping behind fallen pillars and crumbling blocks, keeping out of sight while I talked him through it. It was a thing of beauty to watch him from a distance, slowly creeping… when the Locust exploded into a shower of unidentifiable parts with both my brother and I untouched, it was icing on the cake.

This co-op feature was extremely welcome and exciting enough to make me forgive Gears of War for its various trespasses. I couldn't help but celebrate the appearance of a full-length multiplayer option that didn't involve repetitively gunning down strangers in the kind of standardized fragfest that's become all too common in the last few years. (That fragfest is also in there for those who want it, but it kept my attention for less than an afternoon.)

Call me a jaded critic, a wet blanket, or anything else, but I'm not going to be dazzled into submission by stunning visuals and overlook a core game design that doesn't impress—but I do give credit where credit is due. My hat is off to Epic for bringing back a completely engaging style of play that hasn't been in vogue (or even possible) for quite some time. Its significance is not lost on me, and I'm hoping with both fingers crossed that the opening co-op salvo Gears of War unleashed is merely the start of a continuing trend. Rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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10 Comments on "Gears of War – Review"

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wily_codger
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1, Epic’s learned a lot between this and Bulletstorm about how to make fun single-player. In this, it’s…ok. The excellent graphics and animations — the game still looks pretty good five years later! — make the gameplay seem better than it is, I think.

2, Man, that is some terrible checkpoint placement. I hope the person responsible didn’t get their bonus that year.

Patrick
Guest
I have to say i find this review odd… not that you didnt like the game as much as most seem to… i mean, i myself find many games to be grossly over-rated. I have, for most of my gaming life, been a single-player-only kinda guy. I feel the button pressing (which, really, how many buttons did you press in its entirety? 3 maybe?) is something that games will always have. its not like there was forced “key-card” collecting or back-tracking to artificially draw out game time. as for the “been there done that” effect you seem to be suffering… Read more »
Jerry
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Having just finished the game, I very much agree with this review. The co-op surpassed every other co-op I’ve played for many years because while there have been other co-ops availible, this one seemed well built for it. And I did have some troubles on single player (enemies not appearing when they should on the first level, Dom getting killed over and over by bats, glitching off the train) that a human sidekick helped me to avoid. Thank you as well for mentioning the minecart. I felt like I was playing Donkey Kong. Not to mention riding on a train’s… Read more »
ANDY
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YOU CAN T PLEASE EVERYONE APPARENTLY, STILL ALMOST 3 YEARS RUNNING THE GAME STILL SELLS FOR $60 AND IS RATED THE BEST XBOX GAME EVER. THE FACT THAT YOU STILL FIND SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE GAME IS FUNNY BECAUSE YOU JUST FALL INTO THE CATEGORY OF PEOPLE CALLED “HATERS” WHO NEVER WANNA SEE SOMETHING LIKED BY EVERYONE, INSTEAD YOU HAVE TO FIND ANYTHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT-JUST AS LONG AS THERES SOMETHING.

Anonymous
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Are you insane Smood? Why are you visiting a site if you are not searching for the opinion of another gamer? If you come here expecting the same score to be given out as everyone else’s, than why do you bother seeking anyone’s opinion? It’s a democracy (well, I think the UK is at least), and not everyone has to conform to the media’s opininon. Oh, and by the way, most decent FPS’ DO have co-op modes (at least in my limited experience). Problem is though that they don’t really reach the standard offered by, say, Gears of War. Gears… Read more »
Smood
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CO-OP games are not easy to come by these days. Especially games that feature the entire single player campaign through co-op that are additionally incredible experiences. Malkav you don’t know wtf you’re talking about.

Regarding the review my policy is simple. If the score in question is more then 2 standard deviations from the press mean score… then it is not very valid… you sir are an outlier, good thing you are not reviewing at a more prominent review site.

Matt
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True, the co-op is a centerpiece to the whole package but I thought the single player held its own quite admirably. I don’t play many shooters but I found Epic’s approach to the genre to be much like Resident Evil 4’s reworking of its game play. There’s enough of a “jump in and shoot” factor combined with strategic “stop and pop” that makes this game shine. Perhaps it’s my infrequent visitation rights with console shooters that draws me in but overall I’d agree with the higher scores given on Metacritic etc.; where’s the video game Bible that says mine carts,… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Thanks for the comment. i abbreviated my comments for the sake of the review, but i’m not much of an MMO or FPS player and not really a fan of military-themed games like R6, etc… so having an adventure/action game where two players could be onscreen at the same time on a console brought back memories of the old days when that type of play was fairly common, talking NES-era, and so on. granted, Gears wasn’t the first to bring co-op back, but it was the first to make a significant stab at bringing the style and flavor (non-MMO, non-FPS,… Read more »
malkav11
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I find myself mystified by the regularly repeated notion in this review that co-op has somehow been dead. It’s not nearly as common as I would like it to be, to be sure, and it’s true that online co-operative is mostly manifested in the form of MMOs these days, but gone? No indeed. I have a dozen or more titles myself of which my friend(s) and I regularly partake, and there are others that we have passed up for various reasons. I don’t know, maybe it’s co-operative in shooters that’s supposedly been missing? But look, Doom 3 (on Xbox, anyway),… Read more »
D. Clearwater
Guest
Very true… when I first saw elements of the game, I had high hopes. Even the commercial had me thinking (hoping) that this might be a somewhat different shooter since the commercial had this slight melancholy tinge. But after I started the game, boy was I wrong. I HATED the design of the main character… er, main cardboard cutout, and the story, well, the review pretty much tells it as it is. And the game play… ugh… it takes more than a futuristic chainsaw to cover up some of the old gameplay mechanics. At the very beginning I ran past… Read more »
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Bully Artwork

Before its release, Rockstar’s Bully found itself in the center of a media firestorm. The subject of nonspecific and wildly rampant hyperbole, popular media had a heyday painting it as a "Columbine simulator" and the next major piece of socially irresponsible entertainment set to corrupt the innocent and impressionable children of America. Since most of these claims were made by headline-hungry people who knew little to nothing about the actual game (or videogames in general), it comes as no surprise that the project is much tamer and far less violent than dozens of other discs passing completely under the radar of politicians and news anchors everywhere.

In all fairness, Rockstar didn't really do much to fight this portrayal of Bully. After all, it's said that bad press is better than no press, and what better way to achieve notoriety and “hot game” status than to position it as the thing that parents fear (and by extension, kids want)? It was the most intelligent thing they could have done, really, since Bully is nothing more than a Grand Theft Auto one-off dressed up in teenager's clothing.

Set in a boarding school, young Jimmy Hopkins is dropped off by his wealthy, negligent parents and left to his own devices. Engaging in the expected hijinks along the way, Jimmy, like our current president, is something of a "uniter.” Taking the disparate cliques so familiar to anyone who’s ever been to high school, he tackles them one by one and eventually becomes the common link joining these social circles together.

Although great care has been taken to illustrate Jimmy's world, Bully carries over many of the common characteristics found in Rockstar’s other work. Rough graphics, control issues, a poor targeting system, shoddy collision, and so on suggest to me that very little has been done to polish its underlying structure. As a player and critic, my opinion is that it's well past time for Rockstar to stop ignoring the obvious and invest more resources in the engines running its games.

Besides the technical issues, Bully also possesses the same basic identity as Rockstar’s biggest seller, Grand Theft Auto (GTA). With a duplicate open-world philosophy and random assortment of missions scattered throughout the map, I was on familiar ground instantly. Although concessions have been made to make the experience more player-friendly (handy bus stops acting as quick returns to school grounds, easily available weaponry in Jimmy's room, the ability to gain life by kissing passing schoolgirls, and so on) many of the nonsensical hoops that GTA players suffer through still remain. As someone who’s spent time with nearly every title they've published, it's quite tiresome to again be confronted with Rockstar's stubborn resistance to improving their formula—little things like adding a "restart" option for failed missions, or reducing the need to constantly traverse large stretches of the map to get from mission to mission would go a long way to making their games less tedious.

These similarities to GTA might not be so damning if not for the fact that so many of the missions are simple fetchquests requiring a player to travel to X location, and deliver item Y to person Z. This is stuff I’ve been doing for years, and it stopped being engaging a while ago. There are a few inspired missions like stealing the school mascot uniform to sabotage a football game, but most of the tasks were just variations of the same thing and instantly forgotten after completion. Although people who aren’t already well-versed in the GTA style may get more mileage out of Bully, the entire adventure was stale and repetitive, not expanding in any significant way over what Rockstar has already established multiple times.

Unfortunately, Bully’s largest asset and potential saving grace—the school environment and cultural content common to the vast majority of gamers—is undercut by a scattered central plot that doesn’t hold together. The general concept of Jimmy uniting the school is clear, but the details are lost jumping between the disparate, disconnected missions. Bully also fails to make the grade in terms of character development. Friends become enemies in the span of one cutscene with no explanation, and in practically every story segment from beginning to end, Jimmy belches the same "what's going on?"—a sentiment echoed by me as I wondered where the storytelling was.

Bully Screenshot

I appreciate Rockstar's effort to take its most significant contribution to videogaming and reshape it into a form that's friendlier and more appropriate for younger gamers. There's no denying that the academic setting will more palatable to some than the usual depiction of gangster life. However, Bully is the same product I’ve already consumed four-plus times before, and an interesting thematic twist isn’t enough reason to sing its praises. Bully is even further lessened in light of the fact that it comes on the heels of what I consider to be one of videogaming's significant achievements, San Andreas. Still, I can't fault Rockstar for creating a product that seems more "socially responsible" than people accuse them of being, and any developer deserves to profit by cashing in on the fruits of their past labors. Bully may not be the step forward (or even the societal poison) some might have expected, but it is competent at what it attempts to do. To many gamers, this alone will be enough. Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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The main thing I have to say about Cooking Mama is that it pains me greatly to give it such a low score. The artwork is saccharine-cute, I love the offbeat concept, and the price is right-but, it's just too shallow and too repetitive to rate any higher. I hate to admit it (and I looked hard for reasons to give it a bigger number) but I couldn't do it.

Don't get me wrong-it's a fun, interesting diversion. As one would expect, Cooking Mama is all about preparing food and creating delicious, appealing meals. Although there are a few RPGs that feature cooking as side-quests or minigames, Cooking Mama is the first game that I know of to completely revolve around adventures in the kitchen.

Interestingly, the game is very faithful and accurate when it comes to the subject matter.  I may not be a professional chef, but I am an excellent cook and I'm very comfortable whipping up anything from a light snack to a formal dinner.  (Just ask my wife, she'll tell you.) Knowing the difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon and a leek from a shallot, I was impressed to see how much actual cooking technique was incorporated.

As a matter of fact, many of the game's 76 recipes could almost be followed step-by-step in real life.  Naturally, Cooking Mama is not an electronic Rachael Ray, but with a little bit of real-world experience under a player's belt, simply following along with Mama would actually get you pretty far towards a nice lunch.

I suppose then, that this accuracy is a major part of the game's downfall. As anyone who cooks knows, a lot of time and effort goes towards the prep work. Slicing, peeling, chopping, grating and mixing are all necessary steps, and Cooking Mama doesn't dodge them. Using the stylus, players will do the grunt work over and over again in minigames and that simulate each step in the process. Make circles on the touchscreen to beat an egg, blow into the microphone to cool a sauce, and so on.

It's not that it isn't enjoyable to do these things, but once each minigame is learned, Cooking Mama is all about repeating these steps in various combinations to make different dishes.  I feel awkward criticizing the developers for being so true-to-life, but chopping onions or shelling prawns the exact same way thirty or forty times doesn't exactly make for gripping gameplay.

Perhaps if there were other aspects to the experience, such as some sort of basic story mode or an Iron Chef-like competition, Cooking Mama would feel a little more energetic or purposeful. As it is, the only motivating factor is in trying to earn a gold medal by performing each step in a recipe flawlessly.  It's little reward, and there are no larger goals or narrative to keep things moving.  There aren't even any credits that roll after completing all of the recipes, and there's nothing to do besides the actual cooking-no restaurant management, no shopping budget, no characters to talk to, no places to go. 

Although I do appreciate that the game was released at a budget price-point, I would have gladly paid top dollar if the developers had taken it further and build it up into something more substantial; possibly a Phoenix Wright-style graphic adventure or a basic RPG.  The potential is clearly here for another out-of-left-field cult hit, but the charm of sautéing, stewing, and sometimes scorching wears off too soon, and there's nothing to fall back on to bolster the experience. More aperitif than main dish, some peripheral content and a slightly broader scope would have made Cooking Mama a richer, more filling treat. Rating: 4 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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I've spent the last few years staying away from First-Person Shooters (FPSs). They were fun for a while, but the genre is the most over-populated in the entire videogame spectrum.  Quite frankly, I had a hard time telling one from another and it's only recently that I've been interested enough to see what's been going on in my absence. Of the stack that I've recently played through, Prey isn't the best, although it manages to incorporate a few unique elements and a surprisingly welcoming demeanor.

Telling the tale of a disenfranchised Cherokee named Tommy who's tired of reservation life, our leading man is soon abducted from his go-nowhere future into the guts of a biomechanical spaceship called the Sphere. This interstellar marauder is the size of a small planet, and strips worlds of their biology in order to refuel. Tommy takes on the task of saving his girlfriend who was also beamed up, killing aliens and checking off most of the boxes that FPSs ask players to check– clearing out hallways, solving simple puzzles, collecting progressively larger guns, and so on.

To be frank, Prey is quite average in many ways. However, its notable features are twofold; one aspect (the unsuccessful one) is a blending of Native American mysticism with Sci-Fi heroics. The other part– the one that worked– was to experiment with level design by emphasizing gravity tricks and extraterrestrial room layouts. This two-pronged attempt was bold, but the results are decidedly mixed.

The first bit, Tommy's heritage, could have been interesting because Native American themes are rarely touched in games and Prey tries to show its main character as more than the standard cipher. Tommy acquires "spiritual" Cherokee abilities such as projecting his spirit outside his body and the ability to resurrect himself from the dead. I'm not at all knowledgeable about Native American myths, but I'm not satisfied with the way this content been handled. Instead of adding to the character or the gameplay, this side of Prey feels unfinished and superficial.

For example, as someone who's portrayed as a lifelong nonbeliever, Tommy is able to use these mythical powers instantly and rarely reflects on them. Granted, he's also onboard an alien ship battling monsters at the same time, but I still felt as though more could have been done to address this expansion of his belief system, or how the traditions and stories he's been ignoring his entire life affect him as a character.

Taking personal development out of the equation, Sending his soul outside his body is only good for letting Tommy pass through force fields, and resurrecting himself from the dead can be used without limit. (One reason why I said that Prey felt welcoming– since there's no such thing as permanent death, there's no need to reload a save or go back over territory that was already covered.)

Although the resurrection aspect served a function I appreciated, the out-of-body was little more than a glorified key to get past doors, and neither had real weight or significance.  In fact, the developers were never very consistent with use of the spirit world and how it coincided with the alien Sphere. It's not explained how Tommy's spirit form can interact physically with some objects and not others, nor is it explained why energy weapons can damage ghosts encountered along the way, or why these ghosts are even there in the first place.  I'm sure the developers wanted the mystic aspect to give Prey depth, but it's not successfully integrated into the whole. If the spiritual side of Prey was completely excised (replacing magic with some type of appropriated technology), the game would have been just as enjoyable and might have made a little more sense.

Although the characterization and story elements were awkward misses, the rest of Prey serves to satisfy.  I especially enjoyed the game's second twist, the use of gravity and alien level design. Since the Sphere is an entity that constructs itself from what it can scavenge, it makes perfect sense that its insides would be a jumbled, haphazard mess jury-rigged out of necessity with little regard for order. Although the levels are essentially laid out in a linear way to minimize player confusion, they were also very successful in conveying a non-human sense of architecture and an environment that felt utterly alien. 

Modes of transportation within the Sphere like shifting gravity and teleportation portals reinforce the bizarre nature of the Sphere's interior. By using special walkways or hitting switches, Tommy can defy gravity or re-orient its pull. Floors become ceilings, walls become floors, and the brain becomes pleasantly dizzy trying to keep a struggling toehold on spatial orientation. The portals I mentioned are small shortcuts through the space-time continuum that connect to different areas together.  Although they boiled down to being special-effect doors followed by drastic location changes, their function in enhancing the alien atmosphere was invaluable. I can't think of many games where only a few steps and a glowing orange circle separate a dank, metallic hallway and a wrecked 747 embedded in a piece of flesh the size of a football field.

Prey's marriage of scientific and spiritual might not be the best fit, but convincing environments, dynamic gravity, and mastery of genre basics assure its status as a pleasantly solid entry into a very crowded field. If the sequel mentioned at the end of the game can address the issues that need work, I'd be very willing to go on another journey with Tommy, spherical or otherwise. Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Microsoft Xbox 360 version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Chromehounds is an unusual entry to the "big robot" genre.  Rather than being fast, flashy, or even very stylish, it's about teamwork. For once, the idea of victory for one man against an army is disregarded in favor of a humbler, more cooperative approach to futuristic mechanized warfare.  Forget Voltron or any of those anime images exploding with speed lines, Chromehounds is more like enlisting in the military than becoming a rocket-boosted knight in hydraulic armor.

As someone who plays games predominantly alone, I was a little dismayed to see a very distinct split between single player and multiplayer. Although the core experience in both modes is about getting into a huge mobile weapons platform, joining a squad and waging war in a fictional Eurasian territory called Neroimus, the single player campaign isn't really a traditional adventure.  Instead, it serves as an extended and in-depth introduction to the six "role types" (Soldier, Sniper, Defender, Scout, Heavy Gunner and Commander) that make up a Chromehounds squad.

After choosing a role, the game proceeded through one training run and six story-based sorties before awarding a medal and prompting me to try another. Regardless of which is chosen, the combat has a very distinct flavor.  The Hounds themselves move slowly and must be piloted in a very deliberate fashion.  The sense of scale helps make it tolerable since they do feel very large and formidable, but this reduction in velocity is actually FromSoft's way of encouraging tactical planning and situational awareness while discouraging run-and-gun behavior at the same time. It's not going to be to everyone's liking and I'm sure that adrenaline junkies will find themselves going through withdrawals, but Chromehounds is clearly not meant to be "deathmatch with robots".

The total of this training mode comes to 42 missions (43 if you count the obligatory "boss" level at the end) which initially seems like a lot, but most of the sorties can be finished in a matter of minutes. Being already familiar with mech games, I ate up the solo content in just over a day. Although there's much potential for expanding the singleplayer aspect and turning it into a full-fledged affair, there's no question that the real meat to Chromehounds lies online; this is where teamwork comes into play, and investing in the concept ends up being both its strongest asset and its most damning liability.

Getting connected and going onto Xbox Live, the same game world from the disc is re-created on the Internet where FromSoft has crafted a structure that encourages players to form their own squad of real people and wage virtual war. Split up into distinct battlefields, players choose to align themselves with one of three factions and then fight for control.  The ultimate goal is for one faction to control all of the territory and "win" the war, after which the process resets and starts again.

It's a great idea, but the fact that Chromehounds is so team-oriented is something of a handicap, at least for people like me. As I mentioned earlier, I usually play by myself and a squad of one isn't a force to be reckoned with. Although I never tried the game against a full squad of six, groups of two or three were more than enough to overwhelm me and bring my missions to a rapid and embarrassing end. Since I wasn't able to gather enough friends with 360s and copies of the game, I tried joining groups who were already online.  The results were mostly mixed. Being the odd man out in a group of players who already know each other doesn't work well, and it's my feeling that some type of social connection outside of the game would do wonders to enhance cooperation.

Being someone with a full-time job and responsibilities in the real world, I don't often have regularly-scheduled game time unless it's late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. The people I would like to play with are also "grown-ups" like me with similar lifestyles, not to mention the fact that most of them live in different time zones. As such, something that requires so much coordination with others and dedication to the game is a significant barrier. I definitely respect what Chromehounds is trying to deliver, but the fact is I'm not ready to devote the level of time and energy necessary to get the most out of the experience.  It's hard enough to find one or two other friends to play a game with; trying to find five others whose schedules coincide with mine is a near impossibility.

Although I opted for the honorable discharge, I walked away from my service with a great respect and admiration for the project. Chromehounds is a bold game with a unique vision and identity, something that not many can truly claim in this era of one-offs and inspired-bys. People willing to enlist for the full tour of duty are going to find a tactical experience unlike anything else out there– just make sure you know what you're getting into before you sign on the dotted line. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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I'm just not having much luck with review material lately. First I had to suffer through Drakengard 2 (which made me fall asleep—no joke), and now, a game lands in my lap which actually ties with Unlimited SaGa for the lowest score I've ever awarded a game in my entire career—Generation of Chaos on the Sony PSP.

According to the box, I could "create, grow, and govern my own kingdom!" in addition to "massive 30 vs. 30 combat!" while I experience "real time battles!". While this stuff may technically be in the game, I'll be damned if I can make heads or tails out of this mess.

For something that appears to be some sort of Strategy Role-Playing Game (SRPG), I always expect a bit of a learning curve. The game's cutesy big-head anime artwork was another tip-off, and of course the fact that it was published by Nippon Ichi (famous for intricate cult hit Disgaea as well as other games in the SRPG genre) was a giant, flashing red light to get ready. However, even taking all of those things into consideration doesn't account for the frustrating disaster that Generation of Chaos is.

After starting, the very first thing presented to me was a Character Edit screen full of numbers, abbreviations and data— and absolutely no context in which to process it. Being clueless as to what this was all about, I accepted the default selection out of about 20 classes (warriors, ninjas, wizards, etc.) to choose from, and then had to allocate a bonus points. Bonus for what, I have no clue since the game had not even begun yet. I figured that once I clicked around and got past this beginning segment, things would become clear. Boy, was I wrong.

After that confusion, I thought it wise to select the "beginner" country as my home area. (The package states ten to choose from, but I could see only two.) Surprisingly, the knight I had just spent time agonizing over in the edit process wasn't even my main character! I didn't know where that person went or who it was, but I tried to not think too hard and just go with the flow.

One long, dull, and uneventful cut scene later, chapter 1 began by throwing me onto a playing field which looked more like a boardgame than anything else. I was informed that thieves were robbing someone's coffers somewhere, and away I went— no instructions, no tutorial, no opening walkthrough to show how the game is played… nothing. It's not as if the game is so intuitive that no instructions are necessary, quite the opposite. No less than eight status windows took up space on my PSP's screen alongside the Chutes n' Ladders pathways, with no help to be found anywhere. The manual that came with Chaos was completely worthless, being little more than list after list of technical definitions without explaining much of anything.

Why is it important to me that the first week of the month is cloudy? What does it mean that there are blue chevrons next to my market? What does it mean that I even have a market? Why could I select a character and move it three squares over, and couldn't do the same anywhere else? Where was I supposed to go? What was I even supposed to be doing? I have no idea what the answers are to any of these questions, or the hundred more that sprang up within the first 10 minutes of gameplay.

By randomly stumbling through and picking things at random, I eventually got to the "real-time combat!", and what a joke that was. When two characters meet after wandering around on the map, the game goes into more stats and information before putting a whole bunch of carbon-copy characters on screen and letting them aimlessly bump into each other while the computer (or maybe it was me) used herbs and cast some kind of magic. It seemed as though I only had control over one character on the entire field, and that level of control was sketchy at best. To be honest, I couldn't even tell which army was mine.

As I sat with PSP in hand struggling to try and get a handle on all of this nonsense, I kept thinking over and over how incredible it was that a developer would or even could create a game so capable of completely losing a person like myself with so much experience in gaming. The developers, Idea Factory, are stunningly, staggeringly oblivious when it comes to establishing the clear structural framework and incorporating necessary conventions that players require in order to become immersed and comfortable in a game. They may know a lot about stats, classes, and attributes, but they don't know a damn thing about being open or accessible.

Regardless of how clever, cool, or interesting the developers think they or their product are, it's a distasteful form of commercial and creative suicide to churn out a product so nichely impenetrable that 99% of the PSP market will be immediately ruled out of ever joining their audience. I'm sure there's a small cadre of super-hardcore math majors into intricate medieval costume drama and puzzling out the mysteries of Generation of Chaos, but I'm not one of them.Rating: 0.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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I don't usually like music games. They don't do much for me. I don't like singing along doing karaoke, I don't like sweating and stepping on arrows in Dance Dance Revolution, and I don't like anything that uses bongos… but I like Guitar Hero. Why do I like Guitar Hero when so many other audio-based games leave me cold? In this case, it's all about the controller.

Looking strictly at the gameplay, Guitar Hero is nothing more than logical evolution from Harmonix based on their other efforts like the excellent FreQuency and the pretty good Amplitude. Colored icons scroll towards the player and the correct button or sequence of buttons must be pushed at a certain time. It's not new, and it's not even really different. But, like I said—it's all about the controller.

Coming packaged with a peripheral in the shape of a guitar, a certain kind of magic takes hold when the ax gets plugged in and the opening menu screens are navigated. It might not make a lot of sense at first, but there's an incredible difference between sitting slouched over on a couch and standing up with legs spread in a power stance.

It feels stupid and embarrassing at first, so I recommend trying it out in a room alone. However, before the first song is over, the dark overlord of rock 'n roll makes his presence known and any thoughts of self-consciousness or modesty get tossed out the window. Now I gathered an audience. It may have been just my fiancée and my dog, but that didn't matter—I was a rock star.

For a few minutes, dreams of being a bad-ass chick magnet shredding a guitar onstage come true. My hands have to move to make the notes blast. My fingers have to fly. After nailing all the chords in a tough song, I almost expect a roadie to run in from the other room holding a mirror piled high with cocaine, a flock of hot groupies close behind. Without ever having taken a lesson in my life, Guitar Hero turns me into an all-powerful icon, kicking ass and ready to trash a cheap hotel room.

It goes without saying that very few games I've ever played have had such a visceral, immediate and transformative effect. Although intellectually my brain may tell me that there isn't much to it, it's impossible to ignore the electricity of one hand on the fret buttons and one on the strum key. It's a physical reaction.

By playing the game in a way that actually emulates playing the instrument, it becomes that much easier to slip into the music and start pounding away. The song selections are excellent, and although there are a few notable artists missing (where's the AC/DC? Pre-Hagar Van Halen?), anyone who appreciates rock will be sated with the work here; you just can't not move your head and jam to people like Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones, Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Motorhead, Pantera and more.

There isn't a whole lot to complain about with Guitar Hero—you're either going to rock out like a mofo and become the essence of superstardom, or you're not. The odds say you will. It's true the visuals could use a little more variety and pizzazz, and the game does get unbelievably difficult on the higher settings (so get practicing), but these aren't really things that can be held against it. The game is what it is, and nothing I could say in this review will effectively capture the sensation of holding the guitar controller straight up in the air and slamming through an insane series of notes on reflex, not really understanding how I did it—and not really caring.

Now move aside… my solo is coming up.Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Breaking away from the world of vert ramps, skinned knees, and million-point combos, developer Neversoft is trying its hand at an all-new franchise. Famous for its wildly successful Tony Hawk series, they've struck out in a different direction and created a new entry in the sparsely populated Western genre. I'm sure that stuffy suits in a boardroom somewhere are nervous about Neversoft leaving the dry, over-milked teats of the Hawk cash-cow behind, but in my opinion, Gun is an extremely solid game and an enjoyable experience from start to finish, skateboards be damned.

Telling the not-too-thrilling story of Colton White, Gun places players on a fairly predictable path of revenge and discovery. While scratching out a living selling game to passing riverboats, Colton's father is killed. Before dying, it is revealed that Colton is not actually his son. Naturally, this leads Colton into the untamed west in search of answers and justice.

To be perfectly straightforward, Colton is a boring, flat character that fits neatly into the western hero mold, and doesn't go an inch past. The story leading him along the way is equally uninspired. However, this gray zone of personality is saved by the fact that the play mechanics are squarely dialed-in and the variety of missions is excellent. Although Gun lacks the flair and style of Red Dead Revolver, it clearly has the technical advantage and offers a fuller experience. Gun is a perfect example of quality workmanship overcoming mediocre material.

Set in a free-roaming environment somewhat similar to Grand Theft Auto, I was able to follow the story missions or to pursue one of the many tumbleweed-tinged activities.. While I usually skip over side-missions in favor of the main quest, the opposite was true in this case. I got a lot of enjoyment helping a rancher herd cows and keeping lawbreakers off the streets in Dodge City. There was also the option to hunt animals roaming the landscape, and riding for the Pony Express or playing poker at the saloon were available, too.

While none of these things by themselves would make for a very rich experience, the fact that they all exist together cohesively helped to give depth and breadth to Gun's world—something that was greatly appreciated. In fact, I might even say that the side missions themselves are the best part of the game, creating a sort of Wild West-lite simulation.

Otherwise, Gun fits the description of an average action game. The graphics don't impress (never a strong point for Neversoft), but they get the job done adequately. There's lots of shooting, a range of upgrades to be purchased, a few costume switches, and the requisite last boss defeated by a couple of dumb gimmicks. It's nothing particularly unique or innovative, but the pace of the game is as smooth as warm butter, and the ability to alternate between the search for revenge or to peacefully ride among the mesas elevates its status.

Although I did encounter several bugs during gameplay (mostly collision errors like getting trapped inside walls, random freezes, or watching the wolf I was stalking pass completely through a large rock) these were only minor setbacks. Neversoft included frequent restart points to ensure that an untimely death or technical hiccup never set me back very far. Bonus points for that.

I'd have to say that despite the lukewarm tone of this review, Gun is by far the best Western game I've ever played. This is true partially because it's a good game, and partially because most of the competition is wretchedly awful. Still, Neversoft managed to get things right where a lot of other developers have gone very wrong, and for this I have to give them credit. In fact, the only thing I could really see missing were the mini-games I was hoping to find hidden away in the upper floors of the cathouse—if any of you find a code, e-mail me.Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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I play games. My fiancée Gina plays games. We play together on the couch, but we don't usually play the same game at the same time. Although neither one of us would put the First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre at the top of our lists, I thought that the review copy of Unreal Championship 2: the Liandri Conflict might be a good chance for the two of us to broaden our play habits a bit and bond a little at the same time.

…It seemed like a good idea, anyway.

I guess my first clue that perhaps we didn't choose the right game was when I opened the package and showed Gina the cover. On one side was Anubis, the main character of the thin story mode. A tall, imposing figure clad in what must be several hundred pounds of armor, he definitely looked the part of "bad-ass." On the other side of the cover? Selket, a busty female popping out of a metallic bikini, every vital organ except for the reproductive ones exposed, a fact which Gina did not fail to notice. She wasn't offended by the skin, but rather, by the fact that that there was no protection or even logic in Selket's "combat" outfit. I had to agree with her.

We both took our favorite spots on the couch the next evening and I watched as she played the game through its tutorial and opening levels. A huge platformer fan, she is certainly no stranger to holding a controller. But her immediate sense of being overwhelmed by the controls was evident. She picked things up quickly, and then I went through the same levels myself. Once we had a handle on things and had been through team matches and a good portion of the story mode, we each looked at the other and the shared glance said it all: We were both ready to go back to our other games.

Technically, there's nothing wrong with the game; quite the opposite in fact. The graphics are sharp and the framerate is solid, both in singleplayer and multiplayer modes. Personally, I found a few of the animations to be a bit lacking, but it's hardly even worth mentioning. Liandri is a notable game in that it blends the traditional shooting action of a FPS frag-fest with third-person melee combat, and I thought it worked extremely well in terms of transitioning between the two. The gunplay came off like the standard sort of affair, but using melee weapons added a nice dimension to the action by giving the ability to deflect shots back at opponents, or getting up close and personal for some punishing strikes.

However, despite the revelation of seeing the entire character onscreen (instead of just a gun in a hand), neither one of us could find any reason to keep on playing. Running around arenas, blasting the hell out of the blue team, didn't appeal to either of us. We just didn't see the point. Our apathy towards dealing shrapnel death wasn't Unreal's fault; it comes off like a very polished and well-produced game. I suppose our issue was more with the genre and its mindset. Kill, respawn, kill some more, repeat. Capture some flags, play with super jumps or one-hit death insta-gib rifles, etc. It all starts to blend together in an overstimulated mess of testosterone irrelevance.

Granted, neither one of us fall into the 18-to-24 year-old male demographic, nor has a cherished love of trash-talking, so I suppose that we aren't the audience that is supposed to "get it." Still, it was a little bit frightening to see how quickly two seasoned gamers like us found our eyes glazing over and our minds wandering. Even a few glasses of wine couldn't help liven things up. If I had to encapsulate it, I'd say that the experience felt very shallow and unsatisfying, especially since we were looking for constructive, rewarding teamwork and not heated competition. At the end of the night and a few hours of asking her to kill the blue guy on the stairs (or having her tell me to blast the robot behind the pillar) we were left feeling like we had neither enjoyed ourselves nor accomplished anything.

As much as we both like the idea of co-operative play, I think the bottom line is that we were in the wrong playground. Unreal Championship 2: the Liandri Conflict is a fine package, full of screaming weaponry and loads of options for players who live for this sort of thing, but I doubt that anyone who's not already into the big-caliber/big tits run-and-gun culture will find much to bring them into the fold. It's all well and good for games like Liandri to exist for those who savor its flavor, but it's a shame that the game industry hasn't done more to broaden and explore co-op gameplay structures lately (outside of MMORPGs). It really shouldn't be as hard as it is to find something two people can settle in with for an evening. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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I like goofy, oddball games. I live for them, in fact. If not for the occasional surprise out of left field or insane concept that miraculously trickles down through the approval process, I'm not sure if I'd even still be into games today. The current disc rekindling my love of electronic entertainment: Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters.

The unusual premise of this gem is that the waters, lakes, and streams of the game's world are becoming sickly polluted, and small bass Finny is chosen to gather the help of some local "masters" to save their home. Hemingway this is not. But it gets the job done in setting the stage for what I found to be an earnest, lovable weekend.

Finny accomplishes his "chosen one" tasks (mostly fetching) by using abilities that are basically what you'd expect a fish to be able to do. Although his talents might seem limited at first since fish aren't known for much more than swimming and getting lightly breaded, the developers actually make good use of the concept to craft one able-bodied little hero.

For example, hunting animals and bugs in the water is a large part of the gameplay since the sustenance is needed to keep up Finny's health bar. Finny can also push certain objects by swimming against them, and he can carry some items (though only one at a time) in his mouth. Of course, since this is not a strict simulation there are a few things that normal fish can't do, like snapping ropes with a quick tail-flip, but overall the concept of literally being a fish worked well and was very coherently realized. It was also just neat to have a character who wasn't packing a rocket launcher or sniper rifle, and who didn't hop on enemies' heads to "squoosh" them. Outside of the absurdly difficult Ecco games and Dolphin on the Atari 2600, I'm hard-pressed to think of many titles that explore the idea and challenges of aquatic adventuring from the wet side, and it's a nice change of pace.

I also admired the developers' inclusion of fishy perils, too. Adding a slight element of biological realism, Finny must be on his guard against the danger of getting snapped up by larger predator fish—a natural element of living life with a set of fins. There's not much "combat" in the game, but taking on a giant piranha or alligator gave an occasional adrenaline spurt, and there's nothing better than swallowing something that tries to swallow you first.

Besides the constant possibility of being someone's lunch, Finny will also have to dodge weekend anglers,. I found it all too easy to swallow a treble hook in disguise while stalking minnows or crayfish for a health boost . Once hooked, Finny needs to either snap the line or throw the lure out of his mouth. Escaping fishermen was a nice touch, although I did think that getting hooked happened too often for my taste. It also sort of irked me that Finny could be inside a cave or some other remote location and still be caught, though there was no realistic way for a fisherman to be nearby.

Besides the stripped-down biology lesson, Finny's graphics were a high point for me;every aspect of the screen is saturated in color and carefully designed. Despite being a no-profile title at a reduced price-point, the disc showed no signs of being low-budget at all. Everything looks solid and beautifully clean, with care being taken to produce interesting reflection effects near the water's surface and taking into account visibility and water clarity to varying degrees. Besides the visuals, the other production values were just as high, with the voices and music both being surprisingly excellent.

Although something like Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters swam right up my alley, I can foresee the game running into problems when trying to find the proper audience. It's cartoony and offbeat enough to discourage "core" gamers who have the skills to put the game through its paces, but the difficulty of many sections will likely be too hard for the younger set drawn to its aesthetic. Jumping Finny up waterfalls and snapping fishing lines was surprisingly difficult. Handling the game's camera can also be touchy, and the game lacks clarity when the fetch-quest at hand is done and it's time to move to the next area. There's also one timed segment very early in the game that was tough even for me, so I can imagine lots of kids giving up on the disc.

That said, the game's impression on this jaded, seen-it-all critic was a short, sweet, and I'd even say a charming one. Playing Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters was about as close as I come to relaxed reverie with a controller in my hand these days, and I'm glad that Natsume took a risk (and will likely take a loss) by bringing such a refreshingly quirky niche game to break up the monotony of infinite WWII recreations, look-alike FPSs, and customizable racing games currently boring the hell out of me. Pass me a lemon wedge, I'm going back for seconds. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Metal Gear is undoubtedly one of videogaming's best-known franchises. The series is popularly credited with starting the stealth genre with Metal Gear Solid, one of the original PlayStation's runaway hits. It was an unquestionable smash that did much to strengthen Sony's cred with gamers. Bringing Snake back for the PS2 in the equally successful and controversial Sons of Liberty was another home run for both Sony and Konami. Clearly, the goal with Metal Gear Ac!d was to score once more by launching the new PSP hardware with a proven superstar. However, this time Snake's mission is quite a bit different than his past forays, and the results are mixed.

No longer featuring real-time action, Ac!d is a turn-based strategy game using a new collectible-card style system for attacks, abilities, and movement. Play consists of an intricate structure where Snake creeps through environments slowly and methodically, every step requiring forethought and planning. With a set number of options available each round, and with each action incurring a "cost" in time accumulated before Snake can take another turn, reactionary playing rarely pays, and skin-of-your-teeth escapes are few and far between. This time around, the speed of a trigger finger is irrelevant—it's all about mental dexterity.

As a fan of Strategy-RPGs like Vandal Hearts and Shining Force, and also someone who enjoys collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and the PS2's phenomenal cult hit Culdcept, I was sold on the genre-fusion premise of Ac!d from the get-go. In practice, I found that it was full of good ideas, but lacking balance and smooth playability, especially in the all-important first few hours.

My first impressions of the game were so poor and my level of enjoyment so low that I actually shelved it and walked away, so frustrated that I needed to put it down. The camera system is very weak, and it's difficult to get a good view of areas that feature multiple elevation levels, or those with intricate architecture. It was hard to see small features like vents to crawl into, or oddly-placed doors. A prime requirement in Strat-RPGs is that it be easy to grasp the character's surroundings in order to make effective choices. Ac!d stumbles here.

Another rough area is that the game's way of managing guns—a central play mechanic—is completely counterintuitive, and the developers take no steps to make it easy for players to understand. Instead of simply drawing a gun card and "using" it, I had to first equip a gun card. Then I had to draw another gun card of the same caliber and combine it with the first card before I could shoot. I could, however, fire the gun right away as a counter-attack. It's extremely confusing and makes no sense, especially since the gun cards available at the beginning of Ac!d aren't used this way at all.

Other irritants abound, such as the fact that Snake can't really "do" anything (…except punch) without a card. It's important to sneak and not be seen, but I couldn't grab a guard from behind and choke him out to avoid detection. I couldn't climb over small boxes or hang from ledges without the specific cards. I couldn't get through locked doors without standing around helplessly burning through my deck waiting for the key card to come up. When seen, I couldn't fire on a guard standing right next to me without using a card to simply turn and face him. It drove me batty that I would use a card and then be interrupted by a cutscene, after which I would lose the card I just selected even I never actually got to use it.

I could go on, but the point is that many of the qualities of the card system in Metal Gear Ac!d are eccentric, to put it mildly. Too many things make too little sense, and I can't see why the Ac!d team ham-handedly tried to completely reinvent the wheel. Still, I count myself as a true Kojima fan and I love the Metal Gear series, so I came back to Ac!d after a short break and a mental prep session. The funny thing was… I ended up liking it a lot.

Once I got used to all the quirks and idiosyncrasies, the rough edges, the frustrations and every thing else, I discovered a great Metal Gear game that didn't reveal itself until I slogged through the first eight to ten not-very-enjoyable hours. The story ended up excellently unfolding into a dark, spiraling flower full of twists and turns in classic Kojima style. Working my way through hostile territory with Snake's new partner Teliko was a great exercise in precision teamwork, and collecting enough cards to give me creative leeway in designing my playstyle took the experience to a higher level.

It's extremely unfortunate that the Ac!d team couldn't reshape the opening hours into something more welcoming and tolerable. I can easily see why so many people would give Metal Gear Ac!d the cold shoulder since the game clearly gives it to the player first. However, for those who manage to make it past the painful introduction, there's a very worthy addition to the Metal Gear legacy to be found. I'd even go so far as to say that I enjoyed Ac!d more than the recent MGS3: Snake Eater when all was said and done, but an Ac!d sequel with a huge tune-up would be even better. The rating is 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Some games seemed destined for the top. It's hard to predict and even harder to define, but once in a while all the elements come together to create something that catches everyone's eye. It's almost like a cosmic conjunction when the action feels right, the style is electric, and the visuals grab on first glance and don't let go. Before its release, a large amount of buzz had built up online and in magazines—and nearly everyone who saw it agreed—God of War had it.

By most accounts, the game has walked its talk and made good on the hype and excitement generated by the media. I was fully prepared to agree and join the crowd of cheerleaders before I started writing this review, but now looking back and reflecting on it after completion, I'm not so sure. I certainly think that God of War is an outstanding game when looking at each of its components, but it takes more than technical excellence to create a true classic.

A third-person action adventure from Sony's Santa Monica Studios, God of War comes from the pedigreed minds behind a number of Sony hits like Twisted Metal: Black and War of the Monsters. The game stars fallen warrior Kratos on a quest for revenge against the Greek god Ares. The reason for this quest is told through a series of cut scenes whose drama won't be spoiled here, but it's safe to say that anger and rage are his driving forces.

Kratos is a very able-bodied man with many techniques at his disposal and a thirst for bloodshed. Gamers who like their action on the brutal side will not be disappointed after seeing the carnage caused by his Blades of Chaos—two huge knives on the end of extendable chains. Backed up by these weapons (as well as magic and abilities provided by the gods), no man or beast found in Greek mythology can stand up to his assault. Without overstating the case, blood-drenched violence is rained down upon everything in his path.

Although it's clear that using the Blades of Chaos and slaughtering mythical monsters are the highlight, gameplay strikes a balance between combat and environmental navigation. A large portion of the game takes place inside a large complex divided into small areas, each with its own set of puzzles. Although none of them were extremely difficult, they were always engaging and interesting, providing a break from the action while being straightforward enough to keep the pace of the game very high with little dead space to be found. I admired that I was never stuck on either combat or puzzle-solving long enough to become bored.

Gameplay aside, the game itself is absolutely beautiful. Featuring a static camera, I was treated to many stunning environmental shots showcasing the hard work and excellent design incorporating classic elements from Greek mythology and combining them with videogame scene-setting. The view from a cliff below Pandora's temple overlooking a desert was stunning, and doubly so after reaching a ledge and seeing the crawling giant on whose back the temple is perched. The characters in the game are just as impressive as the landscapes and the people behind Kratos' animation deserve a standing ovation. Watching his bladed chains spin and whirl was hypnotic, and the amount of work that must have gone into making such sequences so seamless was no doubt backbreaking.

God of War takes a very mature approach to its presentation during combat and cutscenes. Although the depictions of gory death are extremely graphic, I do feel as though they are an appropriate fit to the violent fantasy tone of the game. The weapons themselves spill raging rivers of blood, but Kratos also shows lethal hands-on creativity in ripping the flapping wings off of shrieking harpies or impaling giant serpents onthe masts of ships. Visually, very few punches are ever pulled.

Nudity is also on display, with multiple examples of females being shown completely topless, or with garments so thin and revealing that they might as well be. Obviously, neither kind of content will be for everyone, especially children who might not be prepared to deal with bare breasts and stabbing soldiers in the stomach with their own swords. But, as a mature gamer who is very conscious of my purchases, I appreciated it and would welcome similar efforts—as long as it was clear who the intended audiences were, as it was here.

This is usually the time when I bring up a game's flaws, but I could find almost nothing to hold against God of War, technically speaking. Occasionally there would be a less-than-perfect camera view, but outside of that, Santa Monica Studios has crafted an unassailable product. However, I must admit that I had a hard time warming up to Kratos; I find that he lacks the "classic" element I mentioned in this review's opening.

His bone-white skin and twisting, flying blades cast a strong spell, but as a character I found myself being kept at a distance from him throughout the length of the game. It was hard to identify with a character so focused on destruction and rage, and in spite of the fact that his reasons for being so hell-bent are eventually revealed as valid ones, I never felt very much for him at any point.

Obviously, he is aimed to be something of an anti-hero, and in this respect I think he was successful. But, I can't help but think that a valuable sense of connection is lacking. For being the focus of the adventure, I needed more than madness and hate to motivate me. As cliché as it sounds, a little bit of heroism and maybe even a sympathetic trait or two would go a long way towards warming up Kratos' cold persona. As cathartic as it may be at times, I don't believe that any truly great games are built around characters with such hard, dark cores.

Comparing Kratos to others of his ilk, I was somewhat reminded of an earlier character, the vampire Kain from the original PlayStation's Blood Omen. However, even as a vampire wantonly draining villagers and bringing ruin to the world, I never felt distanced from Kain the way I did from Kratos. There was a balance to Kain's character, and he retained much of his humanity even while committing terrible atrocities. If anything, I would say that this lack of a connection, this lack of balance is God of War's weakest link.

It's undeniable that God of War is an outstanding technical experience. As a critic, I really can't find any flaws in the production values or the intensity of the graphic content, but I still couldn't help feeling a little bit empty after all was said and done. It may set a new high watermark by polishing its mechanics to near-perfection, and the integration of combat, animation, puzzle-solving, environmental design, and graphics are about as fine as anyone making an action game on the PlayStation 2 could hope to produce. Still, I can't help but think that a little more depth and soul underneath Kratos' untouchable repertoire of fatalities would have lifted the game into true super-stardom.Rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Do I like games that push the envelopes of design and creativity? Most definitely. There are few pleasures like sitting down with a title that does the unexpected, that blows my mind with a unique twist, or shocks me with some radical re-interpretation of existing standards. Can every game achieve these lofty aspirations? It might be nice to wish for, but my gut tells me that it's not likely. So, when a game finds itself lacking brilliant new concepts, it's a fact that solid mechanics and good production values can get it pretty far. Tork: Prehistoric Punk is one of these games.

Boiling it down, Tork strikes me as a bit of a mix between former platforming superstar Crash Bandicoot's early games and the first Sly Cooper. Those titles were designed with a strong focus on simplicity and forward motion that appealed to many players, myself included. Tork shares that same feeling with related tones in pace and level design.

The story is nothing remarkable. Basically, it's about cave boy Tork on a quest to rescue his kidnapped father. Don't look much deeper, because there isn't anything there. This is hardly surprising, and not really something I'm docking the game for, since thin stories are par for the course when talking about platform action games. If you can live without heavy drama, the game does have it where it counts—the gameplay.

Our horned hero comes equipped with the requisite jump and double-jump, as all good platform heroes should. He can also attack with his bolo weapon, up close or at a distance. Rounding out his repertoire, Tork can transform into a yeti, an armadillo, and a flying squirrel, the animal shape taken depending on which area he's in. Mostly used to access side areas with goodies, each of these alternate forms also possesses a screen-clearing super-attack and slightly different moves.

So far this disc might not sound very special, but it's the way those things come together that makes Tork: Prehistoric Punk such a pleasant little game.

Foe example, everything about the game sports an absurdly high level of production. The graphics are extremely well-done, being smooth and finely polished. It's a gorgeous effort, with no rough edges to be seen. Between this game and Scaler, there seems to be a renaissance of absolutely beautiful budget-priced platformers going on.

Controlling the little cave-kid is as smooth as silk, and his animations flow as well or even better than a lot of blockbuster stars' do. (I'm looking at you, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Oh, how the mighty have fallen…) The camera is also quite nice, usually providing a very good view of Tork and his surroundings, though it may be zoomed out a bit too far at times.

The level designs deserve special praise. The progress in each area is fairly linear, but numerous side paths and hidden nooks to explore give them a very open, unrestricted feeling while also avoiding the potential for getting lost. My favorite was a tall, crumbling castle being struck by lightning. It was a joy to play through, leaping around terraces of falling stone while scaling grey brick heights. Further in, Tork finds himself on the back of a huge train, hopping from car to car while I watched an industrial city roll by in the distance. Those are just two examples, but every level is just as fleshed-out as the last. Besides being a treat to look at, the game also rewards the time and effort taken to fully cover these areas, so there is some replay potential for people who care about high scores and such.

Evidence of the developers' love for the game (raising it above the level of a phoned-in bargain title) is shown by the novelty missions thrown in to spice things up. In one area, Tork must chase down a giant medieval war wagon, taking it apart bit by bit. Another challenge puts him atop a pterodactyl's back for some decent airborne shooting action. Little segments like this pop up often to keep the game from getting stale, and even the standard "run forward and bop enemies" stages are better than average, coming stocked with plenty of prescripted elements and small surprises here and there. The bosses are well-done too, each one requiring a fair effort and some decent hand-to-eye skills while never feeling cheap or aggravating.

There's not much else to say about Tork: Prehistoric Punk except that it's smooth, I enjoyed playing it very much, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone craving some upper middle-class platforming. It won't set the world on fire, but if it had hit the Xbox way back when it was announced a few years ago, it would have had a much better chance of making a name for itself. There's no shame at all in putting out a solid effort like this. The only "bad" thing that could be said about it is that it's not revolutionary. Even so, this bargain-priced horned kid ended up being worth every penny.Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Let's face it: every sci-fi geek's most fervent wish is that someday, some genius will invent Star Trek's holodeck in real life. What could be better than going into a sterile little room and suddenly finding yourself at the peak of Mount Everest looking out at the roof of the world? Or better yet, slinging a mean six-iron in the old West with tumbleweeds in the background? Even better than that, what about seats in the judge's booth during the 2005 Coppertone swimsuit finals? As far as I'm concerned, anything that gets us closer to that goal is quite welcome. Sony's Eye Toy and the games using it may be microscopic progress, but it feels like a step in the right direction.

Vaguely similar to a futuristic airborne version of the extreme snowboarding game SSX, AntiGrav uses the Eye Toy for a hands-free control scheme. Play takes place in a series of tracks featuring tall jumps and winding rails, with the board being controlled solely by the motions of your body. Ducking makes the character duck, leaning steers, and popping a head up makes them jump. Tricks are done by getting airborne and then performing specific hand motions in combination with the head movements.

Setting up the unit required no special attention with the exception of turning on all the lights that were already in my living room. The game picked up my face right away (it's the central indicator for movement) and after a brief calibration to make sure I was in proper range of the camera, everything was good to go.

It's hard to describe the feeling I got once the game began. A mix of absolute delight and wonder would be a close approximation. The synergy of leaning left and watching the hoverboarder veer was unlike anything I've experienced before, and it was good. The game made me think about my physical position as well, so I found myself making a conscious effort to stay in the right spot, holding my body just so, and not slouching while playing for the first time in years. On concept and originality alone, the game gets total respect from me. Quite literally, there isn't anything else like it on consoles today. However, I'm a little disappointed to report that my infatuation with the concept and execution didn't last very long.

There are two main modes to the game, one based on tricks and the other on races. The race mode is very dull, no different than the tricks mode except it's required to go through each track three times to advance. The tricks mode held my attention longer, but even that didn't have much staying power because the difficulty curve seemed way off.

As one would assume, the tricks mode (where I bet most players will spend most of their time) is about finding good lines to travel while performing stunts and going for a high score. The first level was handed to me on a silver platter, and I scored almost double the points required on my very first time through. On the second track, I had to replay it at least eight or 10 times before passing it, and even then just barely. Moving on past the third was more like torture than enjoyment. Practice and repetition is fine, but it seems to me that the game should be easier and ask less than it does (or at least have some variable difficulty settings) since it's not very enjoyable to work this hard when I suspect each track would be a single-try cakewalk with a standard controller. In fact, I started to wonder if I was just immensely clumsy, but other people I had invited over ran into the same issue. My feelings might be misplaced, but something like AntiGrav seems better suited as a low-impact party game or geared towards newcomers, but the difficulty curve contradicts it. Or, maybe I do just suck.

Also, I did want to note that the game wasn't always picking up the location of my hands reliably. While calibrating the camera, my hands would be offscreen when my face was in the right place. When my hands were in the right place, my face was off. This is important because hitting floating targets while rail sliding is a crucial part of the game. By holding my hands at various elevations, the character on screen would do the same thing and "tag" these icons. I found it difficult to hit them consistently, and noticed that the game would sometimes misread my position, making my character stick his hand out or back when I was standing still. Missing these icons means losing out on a mountain of points needed to advance. It was frustrating to have such a difficult time with this, and it bled over into the tricks, too. Certain moves require an arm-sweeping motion to activate, and I found my input working only about 50-percent of the time, preventing me from pulling off most trick combos.

AntiGrav is a superb idea and a very innovative use of a new technology, but the jumping and grinding action of the game wouldn't really be that interesting apart from the interface, and it doesn't do anything that you couldn't do better with a controller. With the repetition and the hiccups, it lost its charm remarkably fast. Given the nature of AntiGrav, the Eye Toy, and the concept of hands-free control in general, I wonder if the sort of visual input showcased here will be limited to supporting roles in the future rather than being the main method of control. However, the ideas are definitely worth exploring. So, from a technology perspective I have to say that AntiGrav was a success… even though it's not exactly the holodeck quite yet. Rating: 7 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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For those who've been following it for the last few years, Toby Gard's Galleon had become something of a legend in videogame circles—though not for the right reasons. It first came into the spotlight for being the brainchild of the Tomb Raider creator, but soon turned into one of the industry's most high-profile no-shows. The game is so late, in fact, that it was originally slated to be a blockbuster on the Sega Dreamcast. Delay after delay plagued the game, and many (including myself) wondered if it would ever appear. It has, and although it arrived with a whimper, not a bang, I'm extremely glad that it materialized. In my view, Galleon is a textbook case that proves the phrase "better late than never" to be true.

The star of the game is swashbuckling sea captain Rhama Sabrier; two women, the redheaded magic user Faith, and Asian martial artist Mihoko accompany him on his journey. The trio is in pursuit of the turncoat responsible for killing Faith's father, and to prevent him from gaining power from a potent herb thought to be extinct. Their chase takes them across the high seas to several fantastic islands filled with mystical and terrible sights.

Just a few minutes past the opening scenes, Gard's influence is clearly felt, and grows stronger as progress is made through the game's seven levels. And though it is not connected in any way save for the man behind it, Galleon is without a doubt the spiritual successor and one possible evolution of what Tomb Raider might have become if Core hadn't run the series into the ground with too many sequels and not enough innovation.

In fact, just the opposite of Tomb Raider, Galleon is something of a gamer's game—a superb treat for connoisseurs containing many fresh concepts, bold ideas, excellent challenge, and an outstanding sense of restraint. Going further, I feel quite comfortable in saying that if the disc had managed to come out sooner than it did, it would have been nothing less than a landmark title setting pace for the industry. Don't believe me? Galleon features huge, expansive, and highly artistic 3D worlds requiring thought and acrobatic finesse to navigate, similar to the direction taken by Ubisoft's acclaimed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Galleon also sports supporting characters used in actual gameplay, not just the cutscenes, along with a basic system for controlling their actions. The end result is something akin to having more able versions of Yorda, the ghostly companion that made Sony's ICO such a masterpiece. These are just two examples, but the thing to remember is that Galleon had already incorporated these ideas before ICO or The Sands of Time ever went into production.

Besides those features, Galleon is built around a unique new type of control where the player decides the direction of the character's movement and leaves the details of getting there to the character itself. For example, I can point the camera towards a series of ledges leading to an overhang, and rather than worrying about trying to jump from ledge to ledge, Rhama will automatically grab, hop, and skip up onto the right surfaces and lift himself up in order to grab the overhang, his movements flowing naturally from one animation to the other. This new system, in conjunction with the vast areas to explore, create a fast, kinetic energy and adept feeling that isn't usually found in platform games. Instead of fearing high places and long drops, Rhama commands them boldly and takes me along for the ride.

The elements I've mentioned alone would be more than enough to make an above-average game, but Galleon goes further with level design and puzzles that remain interesting and intriguing throughout the length of the adventure. There's a sense of maturity; of an intelligence and taste rippling beneath the polygon exteriors of the tropical volcanoes, coral reef castles, and shattered cities floating in the sky. Instead of reveling in the usual clichés, these designs strike out in their own direction and challenge the standard approach to navigation and exploration, making me deal with each area in new ways.

The best example of this was a small segment of the game called the Room of Death. Filled with a series of spikes, buzzsaws, and blowtorches, my first instinct was to nail a split-second window of opportunity between the perils and try to leap through unscathed. I realized I was playing a different sort of game when I stepped back and really took a good look at my surroundings. Above the sharp edges and spinning metal was a small cave entrance, and by having Rhama scurry up the side of the wall and crouch into the opening, I bypassed the room entirely. Finding that route was almost as though the developers were winking at me knowingly and saying that such pedestrian obstacles were beneath them.

I have almost nothing negative to say about the game, though there are a few wayward bits held over from Gard's former work that haven't been completely left behind. For example, combat has historically been one of the worst parts of the Tomb Raider experience, and the same could be said for Galleon. Rhama's skills include proficiency with hand-to-hand, swords, and one-shot pistols, but the interaction with enemies and hit detection aren't as tight as they could be. The game also has a bad (and surprisingly archaic) habit of spawning enemies in ambush points, at times even letting them appear out of thin air. Things like this can be disappointing, but in light of how much the game gets right, it's not too hard to forgive.

I had contemplated ending this review without discussing the visuals, but along with its delinquent timeline, Galleon has also become a bit infamous for its graphics. Clearly, work on the game was begun in a different era and I'd bet that the screenshots on the back of the box have been enough to discourage many people who would most likely enjoy the gameplay. The character models and some parts of the environments are indeed very rough and angular, but after only a few minutes I stopped seeing what they didn't have and started seeing what they did; a charm and coherence within the context of Galleon's world that was impossible to ignore. The game is unquestionably well-realized, and regardless of Rhama's low polygon count, watching the captain execute a series of leaps, grabs and landings miles above the ground is a joy to watch.

I found Galleon to be an exquisite experience from start to finish. Its huge set pieces, impressive vistas, and engaging mechanics are as strong as the sense of personality and creatorship behind them. It's clear to see the potential for how great Galleon could, and would, have been had it been able to avoid the pitfalls and problems that delayed it for what is essentially an eternity in videogame terms. It's just a terrible shame that the things it would have pioneered in the past have already been done by other games in the years between its conception and birth. Adding insult to injury, most players won't bother to give it a second glance when comparing the graphics to the current wave of techno-candy and high-octane sequels. Galleon's vision is amazing, its design was literally a huge leap ahead of its contemporaries, and I applaud the work without reservation. But there's just no way around one unavoidable fact—its brilliance will likely go unrecognized because it simply took too long to arrive. Rating: 9 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Ah, Future Tactics … currently a red-headed stepchild of the videogame review world. Saddled with poor cover art and positioned as a budget release, nearly every write-up I've read takes delight in putting it down, many of them aggressively. Not being independently wealthy, I held off on a purchase myself until I saw a demo running. I bought it the same day. After spending time with it and going back to see how my opinion squared with all those negative numbers, I suspect that most of the reviewers gleefully bashing it probably didn't even get a quarter of the way through.

The premise of Future Tactics is that an unearthed artifact has unleashed a race of aliens upon the earth, quickly subjugating it. Highly reminiscent of John Christopher's Tripods books, a ragged band of human rebels roams the countryside searching for a way to overthrow them. The light storytelling is a nice fit, a good mix of straight and comedic elements.

As for the gameplay, throw everything you know about strategy, tactics, and real-time titles out the window. Future Tactics: The Uprising takes a little from each genre and comes up with a blend that's really unlike everything else out there, though it's slightly analogous to a Worms or Hogs of War (the latter having the honor of being the only review I've ever written deemed "too niche" for publication).

The mechanics are quite unorthodox, not what you'd expect from something with the word "tactics" in the title. Each character (out of nine total) is controlled one at a time, free to move anywhere they want and fire as often as they're able in a quasi real-time fashion. For example, a powered-up character can easily jump to a high vantage point, fire, move to a different location, fire again, and then take cover behind a structure all in one turn.

Besides the action-style movement, something else unusual about Future Tactics is that line-of-sight is vitally important, and it's implemented persistently. This means is that if you're spotted moving around during your turn, the enemy will keep that knowledge and act on it when it's their turn. Being aware and taking advantage of cover is also key. In this respect, the game is, again quite apart from traditionally-structured strats since you have to think on a shooting game's terms. Ensuring that you're always hidden away safely is a must because the aliens are crack shots, easily able to put characters down from great distances.

This new way of thinking about tactics has more in common with a first person shooter than it does with other games in the strategic genre, but I have to say that the approach was very fresh and interesting, both big pluses in my book.

Not content to rest there, Future Tactics also breaks from the norm with attacking. Rather than making a choice on a menu and watching the result, there are two active methods to deal damage. The first brings up a crosshair that must be aimed manually (like a sniper rifle) and the second shows an overhead view of the map. Using this birds'-eye view, a ballistic attack is guided through a radar-like interface. I liked this addition since it kept me on my toes, but decent reflexes are needed for accurate shots. People accustomed to the usual slow, menu-based approach may run into problems.

To be honest, Future Tactics is so extremely unconventional that my initial reactions echoed the sentiments of the dismissive reviews I read. I felt outrage at respawning enemies, and frustration at losing an entire battle if even one character died. The Artificial Intelligence seemed ridiculously lethal at times, and I wasn't sure when (if ever) the enjoyment would start coming in. But, after sticking with it and clearing the fourth (of nineteen) missions, the game started addressing all those issues through the storyline, one by one. After getting over this hump, the game only got better with each stage.

For example, an "immortality" device is stolen from the aliens at one point, after which the enemy ceases to respawn and you're no longer forced to restart if a teammate gets taken out. That plot twist took care of my two biggest complaints in one fell swoop, showing awareness of abstract game contrivances and adding a logical explanation of why they were in the game before removing them.

Future Tactics also has a variety of mission objectives which kept my interest high. Of course there were "kill all enemy" missions, but they were in the minority. Also included were a number of levels with a certain person or structure to protect, and sometimes the only goal was to reach a specific location. This sort of changeup in the S.O.P. was much appreciated, giving a fresh, fast-paced feel.

After seeing the credits roll, I had a new respect for the difficulty curve and how it complemented the storyline. It's like the developers were emphasizing the feeling of being the weak underdog at the beginning, and then slowly built your team up bit by bit, echoing through gameplay the progress made in the plot. Quite ingenious on a meta-level really, and something many other games fail to implement. I enjoyed Future Tactics: The Uprising, but despite thinking it was lowballed across the board, it's not flawless.

A big gripe cited by nearly all the reviews is the time you're forced to wait while the enemy moves their soldiers. This is one area where I agree, though it's not even close to being a gamebreaker. It's possible to fast-forward (literally) through the cutscenes, and it would have been nice to do so for enemy movements. The camera also needs a bit of work, too. Though it's generally serviceable, I couldn't ever seem to get it to do exactly what I wanted it to. Sometimes using the overhead "lookaround" feature worked, and other times I'd have to go into a first-person viewpoint to scout ahead. Occasionally I couldn't see where I was trying to look no matter what view I used. A few more tech tweaks with the camera would have been nice. That's really about it, though.

Future Tactics: The Uprising was a breath of fresh air for me, breaking away from genre conventions and striking out in interesting directions. It's not a multi-million dollar blockbuster and it may not have a marquee franchise name behind it, but there's no denying that the game succeeds more than it fails. The fact that a brand-new copy costs just twenty dollars is icing on the cake. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Gamecube version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, Prince of Persia or ICO? Looking at the question from a purely objective standpoint, Jordan Mechner's original take on the Prince clearly came first, but the matter isn't as simple as that.

Released in an earlier era of gaming, the first Prince of Persia it was hailed at the time for its smooth animation and innovative play. Featuring platform action and puzzle elements in an unusual setting, it possessed almost hypnotic appeal. Its success inspired a number of other games that emulated its slower, more premeditated style such as Out of this World and Fade to Black. Although it used only two dimensions, the first Prince was clearly instrumental in paving the way for both industry phenomenon Tomb Raider, and the grossly under-appreciated, singularly touching ICO.

While ICO shares the same core concept as the original Prince of Persia (an agile character, complex environmental puzzles, and a huge, holistic game world) it greatly expanded and enhanced every possible aspect, incorporating unsurpassed cohesive level design and gripping emotion in the form of an ethereal girl you must protect throughout the game. Rather than simply getting from point A to point B, the ability of the game to invoke true feeling from players transformed ICO from yet another effort retracing Prince of Persia's steps into something that not only paid homage to it, but also surpassed it on every level. It was clearly a new milestone set squarely atop the foundation that Mechner built.

This brings me back to the initial question regarding chickens and eggs. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is obviously an updated incarnation of its former self, but it can also be called ICO's spiritual successor. Sharing many of the same artistic and technical elements that gave ICO its unforgettable essence, Sands of Time is an interesting case of a landmark creation influencing an even greater work, and that work in turn inspiring the recreation of the original.

Ubisoft's creation casts the titular Prince (no other name is given) as an immensely athletic, acrobatic hero. The game takes place in a monstrously large castle the Prince must conquer by using a wide variety of techniques like running on walls, swinging on ropes, leaping from ledges, and using every piece of architecture within reach to get to his goal. Along the way, he will also have ample opportunity to flaunt his other abilities. At his disposal are an unbelievably smooth (and flashy) combat system and the Sands of Time themselves, which can grant an array of slow- and fast-time options.

Starting the analysis portion of this review in a typically uncharacteristic fashion, I'd like to first focus on the control system. Despite the industry-wide shift to 3D, very few developers have ever devised interfaces that approach anything close to true satisfaction. Very often, fluidity and ease are sacrificed for stability (or vice versa) leading to many instances of less-than-optimal experiences. However, Ubisoft has scored a major coup with the solid, logical, and utterly reliable means of navigating in three dimensions. After the thrill of scrabbling across the side of a wall to avoid a pit of spikes, leaping from that wall onto a ladder suspended in midair, climbing it to the top to leap an absurd distance onto a rail-thin balcony and then finally scaling a sheer wall to safety—all without breaking a sweat or straining your fingers, you'll wonder how you ever played adventure games before Sands of Time.

I have no hesitation in stating that this is without a doubt the best control system of its kind ever created. With impossible grace pulling off complex and fantastic maneuvers and never sacrificing the precision so crucial for true ease of play, this is how it should be done. I've always been a believer that the challenge and enjoyment in the best games comes from the things you do, not overcoming problems in actually doing them. This game is the perfect example.

Continuing this review's slightly unorthodox approach, I think it would be a terrible injustice to gloss over the incredibly high quality and taste in the visuals. The atmosphere is art, with an emphasis on soft lighting and elimination of sharp-edged secularism. Complementing the loving care that radiates from every viewpoint, the animation of the Prince himself is nothing short of stunning. Rather than a created character being piloted through hallways and rooms, the Prince is more comparable to a lithe panther, flowing over, under, and through the confines of the castle. The painstaking work that must have gone into blending his movements and creating naturalism in how he relates to his surroundings pays off in spades. You won't catch me saying this often, but the wondrously lush graphics are a substantial asset that add to the overall energy of the experience significantly. Screenshots simply do not begin to approach the power of seeing the game in motion.

It's not an overstatement to say that the levels of craftsmanship and production have created controls and appearance that are nearly without equal. However, as regular GameCritics.com readers well know, it takes more than technical values to elevate a disc into the top tiers of our review archive. Make no mistake, Sands of Time is a great game, but there are a few traits in its persona that give me slight pause. Specifically, I feel that the game's narrative elements and world design are slightly weaker than its outstanding appearance would lead you to expect.

The plot starts well enough with the Prince tricked into unleashing the malevolent Sands by a crafty vizier, causing the death and decay of the surrounding lands. While in the process of undoing what he has done, he meets a princess along the way and they join forces to save the day.

Perhaps it's not the most original concept, but other fine games have been built on less. However, the characters are so thinly written and so little happens to them aside from traversing the levels it's hard to feel a real connection to either of the pair. It also doesn't help that progress relies heavily on impossibly convenient cracks in walls and doors, reducing the slender princess to little more than a sentient key instead of a true partner or companion. This lack of human depth undercuts the impact of the overall adventure, and makes the inexplicably blossoming romance and late-game intimacy scenes seem vastly less compelling than they could have been.

Another disappointing aspect of the tale, the main villain is oddly absent throughout almost the entire adventure. As such, there are no feelings of tension before or vindication after you topple him at game's end. Without being given much reason to actively work against him, he is reduced to being a bland plot device rather than a fearsome (or even vexing) opponent to be bested. The result is that the game takes on the identity of "Prince figuring out the inert castle" instead of a more emotionally involving "Personal quest to stop the evildoer." It's a subtle distinction, but a significant one.

Such lukewarm stars and middling conflict might not be such large factors if not for the game's pacing and overall design. At approximately ten hours the game is short by most standards, yet even this relatively brief length occasionally feels a bit slow and padded.

Certain scenes and events are exceptional on their own, but the castle as a whole never shakes the feeling of being videogame set pieces and puzzles strung together rather than a convincingly believable environment the way that ICO's cold labyrinth was. In particular, the far-fetched architecture and size of the interiors are too contrived to be anything but showcases specifically designed for the Prince's abilities. Ubisoft obviously wanted the Prince to tackle breathtaking maneuvers and thrilling tasks, but I believe a little more realism in crafting the levels would have made him seem even more heroic and larger than life when actually making use of his skills. As it stands, some peripheral locations could have been excised and the obvious nature of the settings more concealed to make disbelief easier to suspend.

In spite of these high-level issues I'm not particularly fond of, Ubisoft's release remains an exemplary achievement in many ways, and is without a doubt one of the finest games of its kind. The level of production has rarely been matched, and it contains a sense of style and spirit that cannot be denied—delicious frosting atop the cake of astounding aesthetics and virtuoso control mechanics. In short, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes Jordan Mechner's framework and amplifies it to the Nth degree for what can only be described as a joy to play. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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What's going on with Konami? Their wavy-line symbol logo on a box used to mean that you could buy that game with complete confidence, knowing that no matter what it was, it would be a top-quality product good for hours and hours of playtime. These days, that peace of mind is long gone. Rather than guaranteed hits, we've been getting shabby things like the awful Cy Girls, the symphony of errors that was LifeLine, and the unbelievably bad Air Force Delta: Strike. Now comes Firefighter F.D. 18, and it's no better than its addled brethren. Originally spotted at last year's E3 Expo, I had hopes that Firefighter's unusual premise and dramatic cutscenes were the start of something good. I was wrong.

Starring the stalwart Dean McGregor, Firefighter F.D. 18 tasks you with saving civilian lives by braving a series of blistering infernos. Equipped with a fire hose, an axe, and the guts to get the job done, everything starts off on the right foot and then quickly falls apart into a mishmash of poor design choices and bad ideas.

Though there isn't much positive I can say, the fire effects are actually pretty neat. Other than that, the storyline isn't half bad compared to some of the silliness I've sat through recently. However, fire effects are just window-dressing, and the disc's straight face during the drama is at complete odds with the shallow, utterly unconvincing gameplay.

Although they look nothing alike, Firefighter is actually very similar in many ways to the 1998 Dreamcast Saturn release, Burning Rangers. In both games, the object is to dash through flame-filled environments and save lives as quickly as possible. However, rather than going for a fanciful sci-fi theme like Sega, we're given a project that presents itself quite seriously. This is a great idea in my book. A large part of real-life firefighting is trying to help others in a race against time, so the mechanism for creating tense action is already there. The major problem, and why this game doesn't work at all, is that the game (aside from the plot) is completely out of touch with reality. By abandoning realism, it relegates itself to being an odd, idiosyncratic experience with no correlation to the real thing, a hard contradiction to overlook when coupled with the tone of its plot. It's like watching a circus clown read Macbeth-the two things don't go together.

The first thing anyone will notice is that the most essential part of such a game, the hose, is totally absurd. Dean can trek around corners, in circles, go through ventilation shafts, and perform all sorts of maneuvering with absolutely no concern for tangling or knotting his watery lifeline. Strangely, the hose seems to end at the bottom edge of the screen without any connection to a stationary water source. By itself, that was a little hard to swallow, but I was prepared to ignore it for play's sake and suspend my disbelief. However, this was only the first out of a long string of things which were simply too artificial to overlook.

The next thing to strike me was that McGregor can instantly "summon" a fellow firefighter to unleash an intense blast of fire retardant. After doing so, this teammate vanishes into thin air. The same disappearing act goes for the people you rescue. Once you reach them, they all magically vanish whether the escape path is on fire or not, even the injured or unconscious ones.

I see both of these shortcuts as missed opportunities to incorporate things that would have more closely tied Firefighter F.D. 18 to reality, and by extension, created a more compelling experience. Nowhere is the idea of teamwork used, or even the illusion of it. Firefighting is not a one-man operation. Similarly, calling on help or even being charged with carrying out survivors yourself would have been better than such transparent and illogical shortcuts. Things like this might not even be an issue in a game that was portrayed as fantastical from the beginning (like Burning Rangers), but they don't fly when the game and its characters are set in something like the "real" world.

The things that really took the cake (and crushed any chance of plausibility) were the keycards and robots. I doubt you'd find a single firefighter who would ever consider trying to find some missing keycard while surrounded by an incinerator on all sides. Even more nonsensical than trying to find keycards was coming under attack from lab robots that shoot electricity. Not only were they functioning (or malfunctioning) effectively in the middle of an inferno, they didn't short out when blasted by water. Fighting fire, yes. Fighting robots, no.

I couldn't get past those issues and get into the game, but even if by some miracle I was able to rationalize all of those things, the core play itself is extremely repetitive, losing its charm almost immediately. There's nothing to do besides trudge through the mazelike non-interactive environments over and over again. You can't do tasks back at the station, there isn't a truck to drive, and not even a Dalmatian to feed. There's no depth to the game, and very little to bring you back after just one session. In fact, it was so light and fluffy, I almost felt like I should be putting quarters into it. Perhaps it would be more fun running on some kind of arcade cabinet mounted with a hose peripheral, though I doubt it.

The fire effects may be well done and the idea of firefighting is one I'd like to see explored again in a different game, but I'd have a very hard time recommending Firefighter F.D. 18 to anyone. Rather from the bold, unique effort I hoped it would be, it's a weak, contrived bore that never gets off the ground. A four alarm blaze? More like a soggy day-old campfire. Rating: 4 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Dear Kya,

I'm writing this letter to tell you I was wrong, and I'm sorry. I know that I pride myself on being open-minded and I always try to give small games a chance, but I'm only human. Please forgive me for thinking that you were just another generic 3D platformer trying to keep up with some stiff competition. How could I have known? I know, I know "Don't judge a book" and all, but I'm sure you can understand how your vague screenshots and generic-sounding formula could fool even the most dedicated gem hunter into leaving you on the shelf.

But I'm glad I didn't.

Ok, actually I did. Several times. But I eventually changed my mind and the most important thing is that we ended up getting together. To your credit, I realized how badly I had misjudged you as soon as the title screen faded away. You've got so much going on, I hardly know where to begin.

Of course, I don't need to remind you that you're not lacking in the looks department. Your smoothly fluid animation is a sight to behold, and the color palette on display is like something out of a vibrant Technicolor mindscape. I certainly don't mean to flatter you, but I'll never forget that moment I looked out over the edge of your airborne islands and saw the endless sea of clouds below. Everything was so bright and warm. It took no effort at all to get me to believe in your world.

And oh, what a world. Your central theme based on the constant, buffeting winds of your planet is so completely woven into every aspect of your experience, visually and interactively, that I shed a tear at the sophisticated design you make look so effortless. Through it all, your perfect blending of art and gameplay never lapsed, not for one single moment. I'm still impressed even now.

For example, guiding you through the air currents of your world, flying up and over bottomless chasms or downward in soaring freefalls never failed to catch my breath. Even more impressive was the way you were able to use the same wind so many times in other ways. Take scaling that enemy tower, for instance. I fully expected you to find and use safe windbreaks to aid your ascent, but your coherence and solid vision really hit me when the gusts that threatened to sweep you away became the preserving force holding you to a sheer wall once you turned the corner. Then to top it off, you found a way to use that wind again, only this time by opening a locked door and unleashing it as a weapon against the guards at the top of the tower. Brilliant!

However, what knocked me out even more than your extreme elegance was the way you managed to cultivate feelings of experimentation and discovery in your vast, open levels while never letting me feel lost or misdirected. Figuring out complex areas made me feel as though I pulled off a significant achievement, and what made it even sweeter is that it never felt like the you were working against my progress-quite the opposite, in fact, due to all of the small, practical touches you included.

It really is the little things that mean so much, you know. Your warp points saved me from wasting time covering old ground, and your perfect (yes, literally perfect!) save system ensured that I never lost any significant progress. There are so many other niceties that there isn't room to mention them all here, but you didn't forget a thing .You even managed to include a honeybunch of player-friendly features that even the fanciest "blockbuster" titles fail to think of.

I know I'm starting to sound like some kind of spoony bard at this point, but I simply can't write this letter without also letting you know how I adored your well-rounded character techniques—things like your remote-controlled boomerang, wall-jumping, or riding those big kangaroo-shaped dinosaurs. Your hand-to-hand combat is unsurpassed, too. Every time I thought there couldn't possibly be any more combos or maneuvers, you surprised me with an unbelievable number of sharp-looking moves.

But, as wonderful as you are, there are a few areas in our relationship that I think we need to work on. It doesn't hurt to be honest, right? Well, communication is key and I'd like it if we could get to know each other a little better. I understand you're the type that lets your actions speak for you (and they speak quite clearly!), but don't be afraid to open up and let me know a little more about you. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? A little more characterization wouldn't hurt.

Also, I wouldn't mind if you polished up the camera action just a wee little bit. It's not a big deal, but I did notice some awkwardness here and there. Don't worry; we're already so close I'm sure that such a trivial thing can be put behind us in no time.

Anyway, I hope this letter expresses how I really feel about you and your Dark Lineage, Kya. You're one of the most satisfying, worthwhile, and excellent platformers I've ever met. Time spent with you was challenging but never frustrating, beautiful but never, ever shallow, and utterly captivating for every moment we were together. Still, all good things must come to an end hopefully we'll meet again, but even if we don't, let me say that love at first sight (okay, more like second or third) really does exist after all. This game is rated 9.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Kohyunu
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Dear Brad,

Thank you for this review. I remember reading this review a few months ago. And when I saw Kya from a local game store, I immediately picked it up.

I can see why people may mistake this game as another shovel ware at first glance and why you loved it in the end.

The creators put alot of thought and love to this game.

I wish they made another platformer games for this current gen console, that would rock.

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I don't mean to brag, but as a lifelong console gamer there aren't many genres in which you could say I'm a novice. However, there are a few. I'm not much of a sports fan so I'm helpless with football and basketball games, and I've never really been big on horse racing simulators. Outside of those areas, I think I'm pretty well-rounded. It's a different story when it comes to the PC, though. I've never been keen to sit in front of a monitor when there's a comfy couch and controllers nearby, so I've ended up avoiding most of the first-person shooters (FPS) and real-time strategy (RTS) games that are more at home on something by Gateway or Dell than Sony or Nintendo. In fact, besides a brief love affair with Blizzard's StarCraft, I don't think I've ever really spent time with a full-fledged RTS.

Along comes Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde. A real-time strategy game that's been scaled back and specially designed for consoles by former Blizzard-ers, I was quite eager to explore this style of game a little further.

Much of the talk surrounding the game centered around the developer's stated intent to eliminate the clunkiness that has traditionally been associated with other RTSs on consoles due to the fact that that this generally PC-only genre thrives with full use of keyboards and mice. While limited to the reduced number of inputs available on a controller, the brains behind the game have done an excellent job of keeping everything nice and tidy.

Looking down on the playing field from an overhead "god" perspective, players use the left stick to move a "spirit" that functions as a cursor. Camera controls are mapped to the right stick, menus and help functions are on the D-pad, and three of the Dual Shock's face buttons are assigned one race of goblin (called clans) each. It may sound a bit confusing but everything feels quite simple, and directing your goblins is virtually effortless. For those who want a more hands-on approach, you can lead your forces personally by letting your "spirit" possess any of the goblins you command, at which point the camera moves in for an extreme behind-the-back view akin to what you might expect of a third-person action game.

There are ultimately five "clans" to choose from, unlocked as you progress in story mode. (Multiplayer has everything unlocked from the start.) Each clan has their own specialty and strength. For example, the gray Stonekrushers are good at melee combat and healing, while the red Hellfire goblins offer ranged attacks and a greater sight area through use of scouts. All units can be upgraded to deal more damage or to withstand more punishment, although all the upgrades you purchase will be lost at the beginning of each new level. Besides these standard units, there are defense emplacements used to guard your bases and large "titan" units that can only be directly controlled by the player. Taking the shape of large monsters (a hulking ogre, a giant spiked ball, etc) they're ideally used to lead the charge against enemies or to deal some damage to specific locations in a hurry. They look pretty nifty, too.

All of the goblins, titans, and defense units are created by collecting two resources: gold and souls. Gold, used for upgrades and emplacements, is found by smashing items in the environment (rocks, huts, logs, etc.) Souls, for making goblins, are earned by capturing soul fountains spread throughout each map.

With these elements in place, the game seemed to possess the potential for good strategizing. However, when you get right down to it there's not a lot of actual gameplay here. Why? Because the Goblin Commander's simplicity ensures that the basic formula never changes.

In the span of just a few short levels, you'll soon learn that to conquer each area, you simply follow an identical pattern of scrounging for gold, creating squads of goblins (a maximum of ten goblins per clan, three clans at a time), and swarming your way across each level. Wash, rinse, repeat.

After catching on to how the game worked, I was hoping that the five clans would add some flavor to the mix, but regardless of the upgrades I can't say that I really noticed any significant difference between them. One mob of goblins is pretty much like another despite their specialties, making the game feel humdrum far too soon. Different tactics in using each clan would have been much appreciated. As it is, you can take any three types and use them without special effort, getting the same results. (Perhaps some flying, bomb-dropping goblins next time to change things up?)

I was particularly interested in the titans, but they're in need of spice, too. Controlling a giant green slime or an electricity elemental is a great idea, but these brutes are far more fragile than you'd expect for the amount of resources needed to field them. You'll blow a hefty pile of gold and souls summoning one of these warriors, only to watch it go down in its first big battle. In essence, they're inefficient and wasteful to use, and in a game where you have to "attack" rocks and logs for resources, you don't want to spend a lot on something that doesn't give much bang for your buck.

RTS games are pretty rare on home consoles, and its smooth and graceful handling should be praised. But in all honesty, my interest faded when variety in the gameplay failed to materialize. After you've mastered the basics of giving orders to your minions and you've lost a few titans on the battlefield, there really isn't anything else to see. Toss in some average-to-bland graphics and a story that fails to catch fire, and you've got a great idea that lost something along the way. The multiplayer is no great shakes either, since it's just as dull to herd goblins around with two people as it is alone.

I'd very much like to see an improved sequel that expands on the concept, but as it is, there isn't much here to hold anyone's attention for long. I may be a novice when it comes to playing this type of game, but even I know there's more to a good RTS than this.Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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One school of thought says that videogames are pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Taking a different view, some suggest that the power of a well-crafted interactive experience can be more significant than an afternoon of frivolous distraction. The answer likely lies somewhere in between, but for any game, it's important to consider the content and the context in which it is couched. An adventure featuring an acrobatic plumber bopping winged turtles might have no problem avoiding social commentary, but not all games fit that lighthearted mold. Spanning a vast range of genres, styles, and degrees of realism, some efforts are much closer to issues that have an impact on the people playing them. Take, for example, the premise behind Io Interactive's Freedom Fighters. Set in an alternate United States invaded and "liberated" by the Soviet Union, the game is bursting with untapped potential for both socio-political commentary and the structure needed to satisfy players at the same time.

To help illustrate this potential, I think it's useful to first look at one dictionary's definition of the term Terrorist. It reads: "A person using terror to intimidate or subjugate, especially as a political weapon." This covers the concept on a very basic level, but it lacks perspective. I recently heard that missing perspective in the phrase "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The person quoted was an official from a country accused of harboring terrorists. He did not deny the presence of the soldiers, but instead made the case that the men were not inspiring terror, but fighting for that country's liberty. In listening to the well-spoken, articulate speech, it became clear that the line separating a good soldier from an evil anarchist can be a very thin one, indeed.

Although Io's Freedom Fighter scenario is painted in broad, almost parodic strokes by comparison, it gave me immediate pause. Why? Because contrary to practically all other videogames, in this instance I am the terrorist. If my character wasn't wrapped in the stars and stripes while fighting the sickle and hammer, how differently would the project have been received? For example, if my avatar was an Irish Catholic gunning down Protestants, would it still be acceptable to view him (and by extension, myself) as a clear-cut hero? What about the role of a Palestinian taking on the Israeli army, or even a slave rising up against the old South?

Freedom Fighters clearly motivates players to root for "our side". Some might discourage questioning the patriotic content, but denying the opportunity for discussion would be selling the medium short. A hard look at the bigger picture and one-sided depiction of the situation is necessary, specifically whether reinforcement and endorsement of horse-blinder nationalism is really possible without total hypocrisy, even in a videogame. Similar to the issues raised in Gene Park's Socom: U.S. Navy Seals review, the material has the potential to be quite profound.

The most striking example was a cutscene early in the game. In it, a Russian commander gives a press conference explicitly calling your characters "terrorists" while referring to his forces as "liberators". His slanted recount of your actions from the previous level make your character appear to be a vicious malcontent rather than the heroic soldier the player must believe he is. Coming from a villain, such rhetoric is displayed as an evil twisting of the facts, typical of a tyrannical regime and further proof that your cause is just. However, these comments possessed unusual weight because the message could also be seen from outside the context of the game. Eerily prescient, that cutscene could easily have been extracted word-for-word from any number of speeches given recently by the current Bush administration. The part about American terrorists sabotaging efforts to restore power and food supplies gave me chills.

By turning the tables and placing players in the shoes of people experiencing massive political and military oppression, the scene (as well as the entire game) was ripe for exploring issues that could easily extend far beyond the television screen. Unfortunately, the developers don't cover the topic or extrapolate the issues with any depth, thereby missing a tremendous opportunity to help push videogames past simple entertainment and into a new form of commentary. It's understandable from a sales perspective, but still very disappointing.

All parallels to current world events aside, Freedom Fighters has much to offer in the way of gameplay, though it also falls as short as the intellectual content does. Neither aspect is taken to full fruition, reducing what could have been a revolutionary, landmark title to the status of "action game."

Featuring squad-based military combat, Freedom Fighters employs a third-person perspective using controls similar to what you'd expect of a First-Person Shooter. The left stick handles movement, the right your viewpoint and aiming. The shoulder buttons trigger jumping, ducking, and firing, but the most interesting part of the system are the team commands mapped to the DualShock 2's face buttons.

The average gamer will likely start playing using traditional "lone hero saves the day" tactics, standard in the action genre since its inception, but this doesn't work. Since each level is rife with Russians who overpower and outnumber you, successfully completing missions on your own is impossible. Instead of being quick with a trigger, the most important skill to master is knowing when and how to employ the loyal troops you'll recruit.

By gaining experience points (called Fame), the hero can command a group of up to twelve soldiers. Not at all gimmicky or frivolous, Io Interactive has created a dynamic that can only be described as a blend of Rainbow Six and Pikmin. This kind of scheme has been tried before, but what makes Freedom Fighters stand out is its absolute simplicity and ease of use. It's similar in concept to the Xbox's  Brute Force, but surpasses it by being both wonderfully elegant and far more effective. With a single button press you can send one soldier or an entire mob to roust hidden enemies, secure an area, or rush a pillbox against suicidal odds. It may take a while before not acting like a one-man army feels natural, but it's extremely vital, and makes up the addictive core of the game.

The wonderful levels give you ample opportunity to use this ability, as well. Your hands will always be busy giving orders and squeezing off rounds, but at no time will your brain be ignored. Each area features well-developed architecture, fast-paced design, and a fine attention to detail, meaning that the many nooks and crannies inherent to cities create possibilities to maximize your team while maintaining the feel of convincing environments. With this kind of level construction, it's easy to become immersed rushing through a bombed-out inner-city block, dodging enemies, and launching attacks amidst shattered buildings and sniper-filled high-rises. Taking back the streets with a small army is quite a feeling, and the amount of work that went into polishing the game's mechanics and presentation certainly paid off. Unfortunately, while I found the technical aspects to be a direct hit, there are several places that are in need of reinforcements.

Besides not tackling the political themes as mentioned in the first half of the review, both the story and characterizations are shallow sketches, never reaching a level of believability or fullness. For example, the main character discusses never discusses his feelings about becoming the leader of the resistance, the violent death of his brother, or his "love" of the disc's leading lady. He's basically a paper-thin placeholder waving a flag, and the rest of the cast are little better. This type of minimalist narrative was acceptable in Io's recent Hitman 2, starring a cold-blooded assassin, but it fails to satisfy in Freedom Fighters.

Furthermore, with its emphasis on squads, teammates, and group tactics, I was quite surprised to find that the soldiers under your command are nameless, disposable clones rather than real people struggling for their homeland. Every grunt is totally interchangeable, and it's rare to hear any of them say more than one line. There is no real penalty for losing recruits, and no bonus for saving their lives in the heat of battle. I would have loved to see clearly defined personalities join your army, with some sense of camaraderie and value given to their virtual lives. The ironic lack of the human element in a game that hinges on teamwork is a serious blow, and dilutes the potency of the concept. 

The other substantial problem plaguing Freedom Fighters is that missions take on a cooling sameness before the halfway mark is reached. The logistics behind play are solid as a rock, but the developers ran out of tricks far too early for my liking. After mastering the use of your squad, the only thing that changes are the environments– and regardless of what the levels look like, the same kind of tactics always work. Once the feeling of repetition set in and the plot failed to connect, I kept wondering what new twists or challenges the game was going to throw at me. Very few ever materialized.

While I greatly admire the core of play that Freedom Fighters brings to the table, I'm sad to see that it settles for being a good game instead of striving to be the great game it could have been. Commanding soldiers works exceptionally well, the environments look fabulous, and the entire project is built on a concept I can appreciate, but because the game runs out of ways to use your squad so early in the adventure, it feels all dressed up with no place to go. That feeling is only compounded by the featherweight plot and characterization, in addition to the failure to capitalize on the current state of political world events. Some might take me to task for viewing Freedom Fighters in such a highly idealized way, but the connections to real life circumstances are so obvious and glaring, it became a perfect example of how videogames can, and sometimes should, be more. Rating: 7 ut of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Here on the Internet, specialized abbreviations are often used as a form of shorthand to save the fuss of typing out common words and phrases. Some of these may be confusing to people not familiar with message boards or newsgroups, so as a way of shedding light on this phenomenon, we've collected a few samples. The most prevalent occurrence would most likely be LOL, short for laughing out loud. Used as a way of expressing laughter in a medium that is not conducive to auditory feedback, it's a common cue. Another example is OTOH, or on the other hand. IMO and FWIW (in my opinion and for what it's worth, respectively) are also handy ones to remember when writing or chatting electronically.

Some may believe a falling level of literacy is implied by the habitual use of such quasi-words, but they're really quite handy, even for subjects besides online communications. Case in point—Square-Enix's latest game and the subject of this review, Unlimited Saga. Either WTF or POS could be used as a quick way of referring to the game, since they encapsulate the experience in a brief, pithy manner.

However, since this is a review and not an instant message window, let's go over the game with a more traditional approach. Alleging to be some kind of role-playing game (RPG), Unlimited Saga features seven different "characters." Unfortunately, I have a hard time thinking of them as anything more than placeholders since none of the stories behind them make any sense, nor resonate on any level. They're barely more than conceptual outlines, and I'm still trying to figure out if this part of the game was some kind of in-joke that isn't funny to anyone outside of the development team.

The first character I picked, Judy, is a ten-year old witch trying to save her grandfather from imprisonment in a magic mirror. Her premise was interesting enough, but the dialogue and execution were sketchy and instantly forgettable, amounting to little more than "Grandpa's trapped, so let's go find some trinkets in a dungeon! Whee!"

The next character I tried, Laura the ex-pirate, was just as bad. Starting her adventure at a funeral (or so the text said), she entered a random battle, rescued some prince who just happened to be there, and they both set off on a vague quest after a few no-context lines were exchanged. Players are supposed to be motivated by this? With meager sentences where there should be meaty paragraphs, there's no reason to get involved in the "story" or to care about anything that happens to any of the characters.

The same slapdash level of exposition is prevalent throughout, with anonymous people randomly joining your party with little or no reason given, and certainly no characterization or depth shown at any time. It's strange that the game would utterly fail to score a hit in this area, since Square (prior to the recent Enix merger, at least) is synonymous with (over)dramatic storytelling.

Moving on, the graphics are just as flat as the characters, both literally and figuratively. Showcasing a 2D art style using a pastel palette and clean draftsmanship, Unlimited Saga looks great—until you start playing it. Now, I have absolutely nothing against 2D art, and in fact I love it. Looking at screenshots of Unlimited Saga is likely to catch anyone's eye with its lush illustrations and appealing composition. However, in spite of the top-notch hand-drawn work, the overall presentation leaves much to be desired.

In "towns" (see below), dialogue takes place as a series of heads onscreen communicating through comic-book style speech bubbles. No problem there really, except that there's no animation! Mouths don't move and there's usually only one facial expression per person no matter what they're spouting. It looks like nothing so much as a half-assed Punch & Judy show using paper cutouts instead of actual puppets. The diarrhea-thin dialogue only magnifies the inadequate cutscenes.

There are no towns or overworld portions to explore since all interaction takes place via a series of menus with frilly backdrops. Leaving "town" and venturing into a dungeon is little better. Presented like something one notch above Chutes And Ladders, you move your character like a piece in a board game. Rather than creating the environment, Unlimited Saga shows a small thumbnail rendering of the cave, forest, or wherever you're supposed be in an upper corner, and keeps static backgrounds running for the duration of the dungeon. If I wanted to play a boardgame, I have plenty in my closet. If I want to use my imagination to visualize a fantasy setting instead of seeing one, I can read any number of books. At what point did Square-Enix forget this was supposed to be a videogame?

Once you actually enter battle, things are just as pathetic as what you endured to get there. Carrying the 2D theme onto the battlefield, your characters are egregiously flat sprites exposed by the screen's zooming and rotation. The visuals here could easily pass for an early PlayStation title rather than the PlayStation 2 game it's supposed to be. If PaRappa The Rapper had a quest mode, it might look like this.

Though certain attacks and enemies display a sporadic smoothness, the game's animation on the whole looks utterly miserable. I've seen more fluid motion on the SNES, and I don't see why the game looks like a five-frames-per-attack slideshow. Is their hyped "Sketch Motion" graphic technique some kind of misguided attempt at abstract performance art, or just a "sketch" of what good animation is supposed to look like?

Graphics aside, battling with the Unlimited Saga system is clunky and completely unintuitive. The battle engine features an insane potluck of disparate elements, almost as if Square-Enix took all of the purged leftovers from ten or fifteen other games and smashed the scraps together to create the unholy videogame sausage that it is.

For starters, the game's battle system is a sadistic joke. From the time you start an encounter to the time the first round ends, it takes no less than fifteen button presses to assign attacks, with five more needed to wank off with a nonsensical wheel that modifies the attack's success. Adding a bit of chance to battles is all well and good, but the wheel spins at about 37,000 RPM. There's not a chance in Hades that you'll be able to use it with any degree of skill, not to mention the fact that it's outrageously tedious to click a button twenty times for each round of battle.

If you can ignore the pain from thumb fatigue, you select five actions in any order from any/all members of your party. After making your choices, you can either let them be performed separately, or try and link them together to form a powerful combo. The key thing to remember here is that you're selecting five actions at once, and once you start the process you have little control. Besides the sheer pointlessness of the wheel business, it's impossible to pull off combos with any degree of consistency because the computer can break your chain at will and hit you with an attack bonus culled from your combo! This is an outright crapshoot. The instruction book explicitly says you should be careful when doing combos, but how can you use caution if you can't prevent interruptions or see them coming? Is crossing your fingers considered acceptable strategy these days?

The rest of the game is just as flaky. Instead of the standard hit point system used in every RPG since the dawn of time, Unlimited Saga implements a mysteriously obtuse two-pronged HP/LP system. In this case, HP is a type of damage buffer, and LP represents your actual hit points. Attacks will deal out seemingly random amounts of damage to either or both values, and I never understood exactly how it was being calculated. Experience and leveling up is also way out in left field, since characters can only access their development after finishing a mission. Instead of leveling up the traditional way, at the end of a scenario you can choose one of four skills to add to a hexagonal chart that displays your character's abilities and skills. It's not very satisfying since every character gets skills that are very similar to each other's, and none seem useful or powerful. Besides the things I just mentioned, there are so many other issues with the game that I can't possibly go over all of them in detail due to lack of space. Straight up, there was nothing about the disc I liked except for the non-playable Final Fantasy X-2 demo (but that just doesn't count.) Sorry, Square-Enix.

Unlimited Saga is so boring and tedious to play that it borders on torture, and I could hardly forget that every minute playing it could have been spent with something far more enjoyable—like getting a double habanero enema followed by a broken glass chaser, or wearing a loincloth made of beef liver and leaping naked into a pit of syphilitic rottweillers.

This random mishmash of substance-free nothingness left me detached and disinterested from start to finish, and I can't believe that Squaresoft let the game make it past the beta stage, much less see full retail release. Unlimited Saga is without a doubt one of the worst games I've played in over twenty years of console gaming, and that's saying something. It looks like the Super NES version of Wizardry finally has some company underneath the bottom of the barrel. Rating: 1.0 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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That's right—a nine. Loyal readers of the site may recall my less-than-favorable review of the original Zone Of The Enders back in 2001. Despite a great battle engine and the attachment of Hideo Kojima's name, it was a shallow bore that sold more copies than it deserved thanks to a massive wave of hyperbole and the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disc it was packaged with. The project was massively unsatisfying, and I couldn't understand why an illustrious house like Konami would release such a half-baked product. Evidently, someone at Konami HQ must have been thinking the same thing.

After being so ruthlessly frank reviewing the previous game, I'm certainly not about to pull any punches with the sequel. I can say with complete confidence that Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner is everything the first game was not, and far more. Not only did the developers correct, expand and improve upon every aspect, they have authored one of the most utterly perfect synergies of gameplay, direction and storytelling that I've ever witnessed. The game had me completely in its grip from start to finish, and I don't think I've experienced anything quite like it.

The only element that really succeeded in the first game, the 3D control scheme, is present and in full effect. Players fly an Orbital Frame (in essence, a nimble flying robot) called Jehuty. It glides with ease in all three dimensions using the DualShock 2's left analog stick, quick and responsive at all times. The right stick handles camera movement and switching between lock-on targets. Primary attacks are handled in a context-sensitive manner, with the square button unleashing a searing blade up close and firing projectiles from far away. There are a variety of other attacks, all depending on the distance from the target and whether Jehuty is moving, dashing, or hovering. It may seem a bit unnatural at first, but the control scheme proves to be extremely effective when the chips are down.

The game's sub-weapons can be selected from a convenient menu with the push of a button, during which time play is wisely paused. Receiving large upgrades, the sub-weapons are actually far more important than they were before, and are now pivotal to success. For those who prefer the up-close-and-personal approach, your Orbital Frame can also grab enemies and objects for use as weapons or shields. Since real weight is given to employing different tactics, Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner leaves nothing to be desired from its smooth, well-rounded combat. Blindingly fast and just as lethal, any major concerns about the controls and depth of the engine were laid to rest almost immediately.

Once the structural basics were established, I was deeply immersed in the slick introductory areas and amazed by the high level of attention paid to every detail. It's not hard to get drawn into the experience. Going seamlessly from hyperkinetic melee to top-quality anime cutscene and back again, the game eschews discrete "levels." With an extremely cinematic and fluid progression between play and non-interactive storytelling, Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner transcends standard directorial conventions and feels like nothing so much as the most perfectly paced thrill ride imaginable.

The story itself might be a bit too stilted for its own good, but it's leagues better than the preachy, pedantic plot of the last game. The clumsy CG has also been upgraded, now beautifully rendered animation. Events center around zoologically-named Dingo Egret. A former military man, he happens to stumble upon Jehuty during a scavenging expedition and gets drawn into a civil war between planets. The dialogue shares more than a passing resemblance to Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative style, but in a far more logical and restrained way. With elements of interstellar colonization, rights of sovereignty and bonds between soldiers, there's a nice mix of large and small issues that fit together reasonably well. It may not be successful on all levels, but I can appreciate the scope and seriousness of the attempt.

The in-game graphics are every bit as masterful as the hand-drawn cinemas. Featuring a unique semi-Cel-shaded technique, the stylized nature of the visual design is accentuated and smoothes the transition between watching and playing. Everything looks unbelievably sharp and vibrant. Frames pulse and hum with living energy, and watching their swarms of radiant lasers turn enemies into fiery whorls is every bit as satisfying as it sounds. The smoke and dust effects are equally impressive, and when players progress to the advanced portions of the game the unbelievably psychedelic encounter with Orbital Frame Anubis will bring you to your knees.

However, none of the plot or aesthetics would make the game especially notable without all elements being unified into a greater whole. Each scene of story gives exactly the right amount of motivation for the upcoming gameplay, and each gameplay sequence directly feeds into the next exposition. The lack of discrete separation between levels creates a non-stop flow that builds over the course of the game into a dynamic, rapid-fire assault on the senses. Once you start, the unstoppable momentum will make it nearly impossible to put the controller down before seeing the ending. The inertia that coalesces is simply stunning, and practically redefines what an action game should be.

That said, there are still a few small technical issues to be solved. As in most 3D games, the camera will occasionally cause problems. With the automatic lock-on feature, Jehuty instantly seeks out the nearest enemy and goes into "orbit" around it until the lock is disengaged or the foe is defeated. With only a few enemies, it works marvelously well and relieves the player of any need to worry about orientation. But the system runs into trouble when confronted with thick crowds. Occasionally, you'll encounter dozens of targets at once (and in one case, literally hundreds). In those instances, the camera goes into a wild spin as you lock-on, dispatch, and re-focus on targets in lightning succession. Players will know the true meaning of chaos during these moments, since all you can do is keep slashing and hope for the best.

Besides the camera issue, the game does not allow players to reassign the button configuration. With time things eventually became workable, but I was generally unhappy with the ascend/descend controls being assigned to the face buttons. It was tough to circle a foe while charging a weapon, dashing to evade fire, and flying up or down, all at the same time. The stock system definitely works, but I don't see the harm in letting players rearrange things to suit their individual preferences.

The only other concern that some will raise would be the game's relatively short playtime. I certainly don't see it as a problem, though. I'd much rather experience something the way it was meant to be experienced than go through the motions with something artificially fattened to extend playtime. Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner is exactly the length it needs to be, no more, no less. More games should follow its bold example. But, for those who crave quantity with their quality, there are a good amount of extras present. Different versions of Jehuty are unlocked for replays of the main game after completion, along with an extra mission mode made up of various challenges. There's also a Vs. mode, and a hidden Gradius minigame using a Vic Viper Orbital Frame (complete with Ripple, Laser, Options and theme music!)

I was literally rocked by Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner. It's one of the finest examples of multimedia convergence I've ever seen, melding visual storytelling's streamlined pace with blindingly fast action and non-stop drive. By the time the credits rolled, I felt as though I had just disembarked from a five-hour roller coaster ride. In my review for the first game, I called it a stripped-down skeleton whose only achievement was a solid combat engine. Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner not only retains the innovative engine, but succeeds everywhere the original failed. This near-flawless balance of programming prowess and artistic vision is not to be missed. Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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Out of a virtually limitless number of videogames to choose from, only three have been inducted into the world-renowned Smithsonian museum. This elite gathering includes the unquestionably historic titles Pong, Pac-Man, and the inspiration behind the subject of this review, Dragon's Lair. Released in 1983 by professional film animator and Disney alum Don Bluth (The Secret Of NIMH, All Dogs Go To Heaven), it rocked the videogame world. By using feature-film quality animation on a laserdisc player instead of the usual pixelated-blob graphics common at the time, anyone walking by was guaranteed to stop dead in their tracks. The gameplay itself was somewhat lacking (mostly reflexive directional taps), but the idea itself was visionary.

Converting most of the first game's content to 3D and reworking practically everything, Dragon's Lair 3D: Return To The Lair stars Dirk the Daring, a knight who's equal parts hero and bumbler. The premise is that lovely princess Daphne has been abducted by an evil dragon and hidden away in the center of a menacing castle guarded by all sorts of fantastic medieval nasties. Dirk must penetrate the deadly keep, dodge traps and defeat all enemies that stand in his way. It's not the most creative story ever told, but the original's charm and radical design are what cemented its success. Sadly, the latest incarnation of that landmark effort doesn't have the personality, lush animation or blisteringly fast pace that made the original such a hit. What it does have is…not much.

Dragonstone has attempted to retain the flavor of Bluth's unique visuals by using an underdetailed celshading technique, but much has been lost in the translation. Even with current technology, games have not reached the level of sophistication that traditional hand-drawn animation contains, especially in 3D. The color palette in use is nice, but the models are too simple and flat. Trying to emulate the standard set by Bluth is an impossible task, and leaves Dragon's Lair 3D looking incredibly lifeless by comparison. If it sounds unfair to compare the game to the work of a master animator, let me also say that it doesn't even match up to its contemporaries. Titles like Klonoa: Lunatea's Veil, The Mark Of Kri and Jet Set Radio Future all look far more vibrant and compelling.

The controls feel as underdeveloped as the graphics look, fully accentuating the game's weaknesses. Instead of using a fast, reflexive interface, Dirk comes equipped with a molasses-coated set of action/platform controls. Everything you'd expect is here, including jumping, grabbing ledges, and so forth. There are no surprises and nothing noteworthy besides how poorly the game handles. In three dimensions, Dirk is stiff, lethargic and feels as though he's perpetually in slow motion. To get anywhere, you'll need to constantly hold down the "run" button to bring things up to a reasonably normal speed. But by doing so, you'll incur framerate slowdown in larger environments.

The game's combat system is terrible. Things are needlessly complicated from the start with the cumbersome requirement of manually sheathing and unsheathing his sword. If you try to attack when it's sheathed, he'll stand there like a brainless slab of meat. If you try to grab a ladder mid-leap with the sword drawn, you fall like a stone. In the heat of battle, it's no better. Dirk wields his blade the way a newborn infant would handle a baseball bat. It's unsatisfying, and leads to many unnecessary hits before the game is over.

Adding to the litany of woes plaguing the disc, the camera also has issues. If given the choice, I prefer artificial intelligence to manage the viewpoint, with an occasional manual tweak here and there. The less I need to do, the better. I like playing games more than I like pretending to be a cameraman. Dragons' Lair 3D takes a more hands-on approach, with a system that requires constant babysitting. It's not my preference, but I can deal with manual cameras. However, if the camera is put into my hands, it shouldn't move or wander once I adjust it! The result is a hyperactive, restless mess that's less advanced than some 32-bit PlayStation games.

With vanilla graphics, sluggish controls and a camera that seems to have a grudge against the player, Dragon's Lair 3D possesses none of the elegance and workmanship evident in the current competition. Furthermore, by leaving behind its distinctive laserdisc-style essence, it abandons its core identity and resigns itself to being an unimpressive, sub-par platformer. I question the merit of this strategy, since keeping nothing but the license and characters doesn't seem wise. The number of gamers who can actually wax nostalgic over them must be ridiculously small by this point.

As an interesting side note, some people may recall that Sega's Shenmue series initially received a lot of flak for their "QTEs" (Quick-Time Events). These segments are fast, highly cinematic and action-packed in a way that would be impossible by giving the player full control of the character. Many sources directly compared the QTEs to the original Dragon's Lair, and negatively dismissed them. However, once the true nature of the sequences was revealed, they were rapidly accepted and praised. By excising its own philosophy so wonderfully reincarnated in Shenmue, Dragon's Lair 3D castrates itself with below-average, sleep-inducing gameplay. It would have been quite interesting to see how the game might have turned out if it retained its own heritage instead of settling for something so formulaic and derivative.

Taking all this into account, there's really nothing else to say about Dragon's Lair 3D except that it was a real disappointment. I still count myself as one of Dirk's fans despite the long string of failed attempts to update the series, and this game won't change that. However, with technical weaknesses, lackluster production, and a failure to find or establish its own identity, the disc is several steps below the expected level of action/platform games. With such an anemic showing it's not likely we'll be seeing Dirk again for quite some time. Rest well, hero…you sure need it. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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It's been a long, dark night, but games based on films and other licensed properties are definitely getting better. Only a few years ago it was unthinkable that any project even remotely associated with a "hot" comic book or motion picture would be more than feeble drek. Lucky us. However, developers seem to be realizing that putting out the effort to make a good title is a lot more sensible than rushing a piece of tie-in garbage out the door. There have been a few recent licensed games that surpassed expectations, but even the bad ones don't seem to be as rancid as they once were. A great example of a new-age attempt at making the leap from big screen to small, Treasure Planet certainly has its flaws but remains a pretty decent offering.

For those (like me) who haven't seen the film, the basic premise is that Jim Hawkins, the game's hero, unlocks an interstellar map to a hidden world stuffed with treasure. He sets off posthaste with a gang of pirates in order to snatch it up, win the heart of his girl, and save the dayor something. Treasure Planet does a pretty miserable job of incorporating story elements, because spliced-in footage from the film alone doesn't cut it. As a result of the slapdash "narrative," there's never a connection to any of the characters and I was never exactly clear on what was going on. I'm guessing that this area got skipped over with the developers banking on fans of the film buying the game, but that's no reason to exclude newcomers. Plot aside, Treasure Planet is basically split into two styles of gameplay: platforming and racing.

In the platform segments, Jim reminded me greatly of Jak, from Naughty Dog's superb Jak & Daxter. The way Jim carries himself and performs his physical attacks has got to be more than a coincidence. I guess if you're going to be inspired, it's good to be inspired by a top-notch game. However, Naughty Dog clearly knows a lot more about videogame animation. Jim moves a bit too fast, and his movements never manage to look quite right. Things are sped up a fraction of a second too fast, and lack the natural fluidity and grace of the competition.

Moving past appearances, Jim has the standard set of platform hero moves including jumping, double jumping, ledge grabbing, punching and kicking attacks, and a few temporary special moves available by powering up his alien sidekick Morphy (another element found in Jak & Daxter, although Morphy is actually more useful than Jak's little furball). All in all, things handle well and there aren't any big surprises or disappointments here.

Structurally, the action underachieves with a lack of creativity and imagination. In each level, there are five objectives. You'll always have to collect ten green energy spheres and a varying number of gold coins, with the three remaining goals being specific to each area.

Some of the tasks are fresh and reasonably entertaining (such as using a cannon to blast a giant dragon out of the skies or sneaking past robot guards), but it would be putting it mildly to say that I wasn't very hot on the collecting. Not only is it about as tired and worn out as you can possibly get (especially in this genre!) it was an obvious crutch for the developers to save them from coming up with five unique objectives per stage. I completely lost interest in the platforming levels about halfway through the game, and avoided collecting anything unless it was absolutely necessary.

However, instead of being a total loss, Treasure Planet's racing segments are surprisingly well done and a joy to play. In fact, the controls, pacing and level designs are so tight that this could easily be a game all on its own—and should have been, given the slightly-below-average quality of the disc's other half.

The racing levels place Jim on a rocket-powered Solar Surfer (basically a surfboard with a sail attached to it.) While riding, Jim can raise the sail for increased speed or lower it to smash through obstacles. Slipping it through beams of light gives a turbo boost, and it's also possible to perform a small number of skateboard-style air tricks after launching from a lip or ramp.

Everything about the racing just feels "right," with all the t's crossed and the i's dotted. The odd-looking vehicle skims around at a breakneck pace, easily fast enough to satisfy my inner speed demon. The courses are a perfect mix of complexity and finesse. Some objectives are straight-up races, and others have you leaping across monstrous gaps or grinding sinuous rails. Factor in obstacles to avoid, managing the sail, pulling tricks, and catching mad air after blazing through a boost, and everything totally clicks. The graphics in these areas are more appealing than the platforming sections, too.

For example, in my favorite part of the game Jim surfs his way through an asteroid belt suspended in deep space. A fiery nebula whorl is visible in the background, and the entire spectacle is lit with glowing, molten colors and a strikingly surreal style. That one level alone almost made up for the rest of the game, and it's really too bad the whole game wasn't more like it. Remove the desiccated run-and-jump tedium, and you'd have one hell of a futuristic racer.

I can't vouch for the game's faithfulness to the film's characters or concept, but regardless of that fact, Treasure Planet is a pretty decent outing. The big names in platforming have nothing to fear from Jim Hawkins, but it's really no worse than a number of other mid-level games. Add in the extremely enjoyable Solar Surfing challenges, and the disc gets nudged into a higher bracket. Players looking for something that breaks new ground in action-adventure or platforming should steer clear, but if you do end up with a copy of the game, don't be upset—you could definitely do worse.Rating: 7 out of 10

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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2002 was a year of big-name games and even bigger hype. Some was deserved, some wasn't, but it was hard to avoid being bombarded by the media for those certain titles that shall go unpromoted in this review. Besides the discs that "everyone" was buying, there were a significant number of smaller efforts with gameplay as good (sometimes even better) than the so-called blockbusters. You can't blame a person for overlooking them in all the hubbub, though. For action fans, there were two games worth noting that I'll be focusing on in this piece: Rygar: The Legendary Adventure and Dual Hearts.

The first, Rygar, is an update to the venerable cult classic on the NES. The original game did have a sequel on the Atari Lynx, but (considering that the audience using it was miniscule) Rygar was not heard from again until now, on the PlayStation 2. Combining elements from the original game with a new structure similar to Capcom's Devil May Cry, this update is well worth checking out for fans of fast-paced, all-out action.

The game is played from a third-person perspective and uses pre-set camera angles to frame the adventure. There are some items to collect, but most aren't essential to progress. Also, while you will come across a few locked doors, opening them is usually no more difficult than flipping a switch a room or two away. The main focus of this game is fighting, and it rarely slows down for anything else. A very good thing, in my opinion.

There are basically two features that separate Rygar from Devil May Cry: the setting and the hero's weapon. Drawing much influence from ancient Greek myths, Tecmo has created a stunningly beautiful world full of Mediterranean vistas and crumbling temples. With such a rich setting, it's surprising that game developers don't draw from it more often. Everything is breathtakingly rendered, from the setting-sun homage to the stunningly unreal sky level. Besides being picturesque, the environments are highly interactive as well. Just about every item and much of the background can be destroyed and reduced to rubble in the search for hidden pathways and concealed treasure. Being able to affect your environment in Rygar points out the inadequacies of similar games that move characters shallowly across static worlds.

The other noteworthy feature is the Diskarmor. Brandished by the hero, a Diskarmor is a powerful weapon resembling a spiked shield attached to a long chain. There are three different types available, and each has their own strengths. Highly versatile, it can act as a shield, grappling hook, and killing implement all combined into one tidy package. The best thing about it is that it's extremely simple and effective to use. By sending it spinning and then guiding it with the analog stick, you can pull off several types of attacks and combinations. My favorite was to sink it into the body of an enemy, and then spinning that enemy in a huge circle while knocking back attackers. After accomplishing certain tasks, you can also fire off potent magical spells or summon creatures for extra oomph against the impressively large bosses.

Putting all of these elements together, Rygar is an ef