The most common bit of praise that will probably be heaped on Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is how well it has made the jump to a portable system. Where it stumbles is that it has brought every one of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series' faults along too, before adding a few new ones of its own—problems that are only magnified by the game's portability.

Liberty City Stories is well-worn territory for those familiar with the series: a third-person action/driving hybrid that allows the player to climb up a city's crime hierarchy by committing increasingly large acts of larceny, harassment and murder.

From a technical standpoint, there's no argument that Liberty City Stories is an achievement. It looks and feels much like its home console brethren, with an intricately detailed city which only requires loading between the three islands that make up the playing area. Very little has been spared graphically in the move to the PSP and in that regard, the console switch was a success. The radio stations that have been with the series since its inception are here too, and the hosts and commercials are as well-written and -performed as ever.

The characters (many of which will be familiar to fans of the series, including lead character Toni Cipriani, last seen as a secondary GTA 3 character) are also voiced well, though with none of the star power of previous GTA titles. It's a shame that the characters are placed in a story that never seems to go anywhere, with most of its few key plot points bungled. This is a problem that is new to the PSP GTA. A series hallmark is an overarching story with a momentum that propels the player from mission to mission. That's seriously lacking here, and not having good reason to play missions becomes more of an Achilles' heel when missions begin getting excessively frustrating.

A lackluster story and a lack of big name voice acting wouldn't condemn the title alone. What does it in, and what is just plain puzzling, is how control problems from previous titles have not only persisted, but grown on the portable system.

Vehicle control is predictably great, and vehicles still handle just as smoothly on the PSP, but on-foot travel is the sloppiest the series as seen. Perhaps series fans have gotten used to it, but why the main character must always come to a skidding stop while running (making quick turning impossible) is beyond me.

The gunplay (always a stumbling block for the GTA games) is similarly weak. Rockstar was close to getting it right in GTA: San Andreas, but it has actually regressed to the worst the series has ever seen. It's a far too common occurrence to pull the auto-targeting trigger while Toni is face-to-face with an enemy, only to have him turn the opposite direction to try to blast a civilian 50 feet away. Making only a few guns able to be shot during movement also makes for plenty of deaths while cycling through weapons and frustration.

When it's almost impossible to escape quickly on foot, and Toni seems to enjoy gunning down everyone except the guy filling him with lead, the end result is many cheap deaths, and heaps of unwelcome opportunities to repeat levels. As per usual in a GTA title, that means finding wheels, stocking up on ammo and returning to the mission point. While this legwork may be fine for home consoles, it's a horrid fit for bite-sized portable gaming where the entirety of a quick session can be eaten up by travel and five to six second loading times before and after cutscenes.

What would have made much more sense for a portable GTA would be an option upon death to try the mission again with no loading, no driving, no cutscenes, and all my guns and ammo intact, which would have made a lot of the gameplay issues more forgivable.

I'm aware that some of these issues have plagued the series for years, but this is its sixth major iteration—there's just no excuse anymore. Moreover, in the case of Liberty City Stories these problems have crippled the game on the PSP in a way they never have on home consoles.

That's not to say there's no fun to be had. Die-hard fans of the series (of which the cash registers would indicate there are many) will probably relish in being able to be Liberty City crime lords on the go. And admittedly, a lack of real quality titles in the PSP line-up right now might make the game's flaws more forgivable to those who have already sunk hundreds of bucks into Sony's portable system. But its hard to imagine that a steady stream of frustration won't eventually tire even the faithful … or the desperate.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Liberty City Stories will be to serve as a cautionary tale. As the power of portables becomes more analogous to home consoles, developers will be well-served to remember that even though the screen may be smaller, it does a great job of magnifying flaws. Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

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Warning: This review features spoilers.

There is a sequence in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater that encapsulates why Hideo Kojima is one of the best game designers working today. It's a sequence in which the protagonist, Snake, is having a near-death experience. Trapped in the twilight between life and death the player is visited by visions of everyone they have killed throughout the game. The player cannot hurt any of the ghosts, but the ghosts can hurt the player. Snake must simply endure all the pain and agony he has caused, facing each and every enemy soldier he has killed, all baring the scars of exactly the way the player chose to kill them.

More than anything else, a game designer has the unique ability to inflict pain on people. Whether this pain comes in terms of boredom or frustration or sadness is irrelevant. If a game designer can create dissonance, get the player to reflect on why they are experiencing it, and focus that reflection back into core mechanics of the game, he or she has just accomplished something that only videogames can do. Kojima does this regularly in his games, and Metal Gear Solid 3 is only the latest example of why his quirky style is still fresh after 17 years.

Snake Eater is Kojima's love letter to the 60's, taking most of its inspiration from the Connery-era Bond films. It's a bit of a departure from previous Metal Gear games. Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty both took place in the present, and drew most of their inspiration from contemporary Hollywood action epics like The Rock and Pearl Harbor. The era of Snake Eater is different, and the style has been reshaped to reflect the entertainment culture of four decades ago. Yet Kojima's signature touch remains unmistakable. All of Kojima's works use Hollywood genres as a departure-point to explore themes that would never be touched in the American mainstream. Metal Gear Solid was about a soldier who realized his enemies were not evil, but people who were exploited by selfish politicians. Sons of Liberty was about the U.S. government's desire to censor information and maintain its cultural superiority over the world. Kojima wrapped both these stories in a cloak of Hollywood gloss so thick that to the untrained eye they seemed like celebrations—not critiques—of American culture. But the beauty of Kojima, of all Kojima's work, is that they're both.

Players take control of Snake, decorated WWII vet and espionage specialist, as he is being air-dropped into a remote area of southern Russia in 1964. Snake's mission is to resolve an international incident quietly by rescuing a world-class weapons scientist from Soviet hands. Naturally, the mission gets more complicated as the plot becomes increasingly complex, but the core gameplay remains the same. Survival is the name of the game in Snake Eater. Snake begins with several outfits of camouflage which can be donned on the fly. Players will pick up additional types of camo as the game progresses, all of which have different levels of usefulness depending on what Snake's immediate surroundings are. This is a totally unique stealth system, and it works handsomely. It's an extremely satisfying feeling to be able to lie in plain view of an unsuspecting soldier and know that he'll never see you as long as you remain still. Of course, if you wish to make your presence known, there are a variety of attacks that will help you deal with your opponents. The standard equipment from previous Metal Gear games is there, including handguns, rifles, and various explosives. But the greatly expanded hand-to-hand combat is what sets Metal Gear Solid 3 apart. Snake can now grab opponents and choose to interrogate, disarm, or kill them in a myriad of ways. There's nothing quite like leaning against a tree in tree bark camo and surprising someone as they come around the corner with a quick disarm followed by a shakedown. This can literally be done to every soldier in the game, and the results are both gratifying and hilarious. Of course, if you want to simply kill everyone, there is nothing stopping you—except, perhaps, your conscience.

The gameplay in Metal Gear Solid 3 has a sandbox quality that is a rare achievement for Kojima. Many have criticized his limited gameplay spaces in previous games, and rightfully so. But Snake Eater is a leap beyond the cramped playgrounds of both Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty. The huge jungle-like environments of Metal Gear Solid 3 allow for endless variations of sneaking strategies. A single screen can take hours or minutes depending on how one chooses to use the plethora of items, weapons, and camo at Snake's disposal. As in previous games Snake has a radio support team that can be contacted at any time. They will comment on virtually every idiosyncrasy the game contains, from weapon information, to political backstory, to character information, to classic movie trivia. They also serve as Snake's guide to hunting. The world of Snake Eater is alive with endless varieties of animals and plants to discover, study, and eat. Eating is necessary to regain stamina, so hunting becomes a vital element of staying alive and keeping your aim steady. With all these elements working in unison, Metal Gear Solid 3 achieves a cohesive quality its predecessors lack. This is the one Metal Gear game where you could skip the story entirely and still feel like you got a meaty game.

Kojima doesn't just stop at making a fun game. He uses his gameplay as a foundation for the themes of the story he is telling. By now, everyone has heard criticisms of Kojima's pension for long cut-scenes, which are certainly justified to an extent. As much as I love his work, there are moments in Snake Eater that made me want to reach through the screen and slap Kojima in the face. You'd think that after a decade of making games with cut-scenes he'd realize how to condense expository information, but no. Kojima still likes to drop research papers on players at key moments, often at the expense of pacing. Fortunately, these moments are greatly reduced in Snake Eater. For the most part the cinematics are beautiful, concise, and poetic in how they transform the arrogance of American jingoism into somber meditations on right and wrong. Snake Eater embodies the contradiction that Kojima's been cultivating for years. War is both fun entertainment and horrific human tragedy at once. How the player chooses to participate in that tragedy, and how much enjoyment they get out of it, is up to them. When certain moments make the player aware of what choices they've made, it brings into focus the ethical dilemma of the plot. It encourages the player to reflect on the characters and their fates in ways they might not otherwise.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is not a perfect game. One thing I didn't touch on is how esoteric some of its design choices are. The camera, for example, is still based on conventions rooted in the classic 2D design of Kojima's original Metal Gear from 1987. Some players may find this awkward, but then again many people find Kojima's odd mix of Hollywood, Hong Kong, and Anime awkward. The bottom line is that Kojima is both retro and eccentric, and unless you're willing to accept that, his work won't fly for you. But if you are, if you are on his wave-length and able to appreciate all the witty touches that make his games sing, his work becomes rewarding in ways almost no other games are. In Metal Gear Solid 3 Kojima's artistic vision is rich, and he is in perfect control of his medium. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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Dante Yamoshaki
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Dante Yamoshaki

I almost completely agree with you on your review. One thing that would be awsome however is the option to play in complete 1st person view….as long as you have some sort of surrond sound so you can hear what is around you. This game’s story line has touched me in ways not many games have. By the credits I was about to burst into tears. The only other game that has been able to do that was Monster Rancher when my favorite Monster dies but oddly you get attached to them. Back onto the MGS3 Subject, This game has… Read more »

Sometimes I think we're going about this game criticism thing all wrong.

Read most videogame reviews these days, online or off, and you'll see a tendency to focus on a particular game's graphics, storyline, intricate gameplay, etc. Critics (and I include myself in this diatribe) tend to reward games for their complexity and depth, disdaining anything that seems to simple, shallow or, horror of horrors, "kiddified." Is it more than 40 hours long? Is there a huge difficulty level? Do you need to level up for several hours before moving on to the finale? Do you need to crack open the manual before even playing? If so, give that puppy a 10.

The problem with this is that most people don't want to play 40-plus hour games that require intricate knowledge of the controller and familiarity with the genre (or gaming culture in general). Joe or Jane Six Pack has neither the time nor the interest to invest in such matters. What's interesting about this discrepancy (at least from a sociological standpoint) is the hypocrisy some "hardcore gamers" display towards those that ignore or mock their hobby of choice. Like the comic-book geek who can't understand why the general public doesn't hail "Ultimate X-Men" as the masterpiece it obviously is, too many gamers bemoan the fact that they're seen as a market solely devoted to adolescent, immature boys, who crave little more than violence and tits. "Why can't we get more women/kids/adults-over-30 to play our games" is an ongoing industry cry, after which developers go and make something like Manhunt.

All of which brings me to the EyeToy, Sony's new camera peripheral for the PlayStation 2 (PS2). Now, my two-year-old daughter loves the EyeToy. Ever since I showed it to her a few months ago, she asks me to bring it out constantly. She loves seeing herself on the TV screen, especially in the "Playroom," where she can make colored sparkles dance off her televised image. She loves playing the window washing game with me, where we fling our arms about in an attempt to remove computerized suds from an endless series of windows. She especially loves recording 10-second messages via the video messaging subsection.

All of the games on the EyeToy: Play disc that accompanies the peripheral are as exquisitely uncomplicated. Apart from the window washing game, the rest of the games tend to involve smacking or spinning something, sometimes both. Kung Foo, for example, has you beating back a never-ending stream of tiny ninjas. Soccer Craze asks you to keep a ball in the air for as long as possible. And in Plate Spinner you, well, spin plates. In many ways, the EyeToy games hearken back to the early Atari era, where developers took one idea and repeated it, getting faster each time.

Now, the above paragraphs would be enough for many gamers to disdain EyeToy: Play without even looking at the thing. And while the interactive camera has garnered mostly good press, there have been dismissive rumblings. Even strongly positive reviews tend to focus on the EyeToy's potential as a PS2 peripheral and dismiss the accompanying game as little more than an amusing novelty title; too simplistic to garner much attention from PS2 owners.

I would argue, however, that its simplicity and superficiality are actually good qualities. In creating the EyeToy, Sony got two important concepts right. One, by throwing away the controller, gameplay suddenly becomes a lot easier. You don't need to know anything about dual shock or an R2 button to enjoy the EyeToy. My father-in-law can play the EyeToy. My wife's young nieces can play it. More to the point, they would actually want to, since the games offered on EyeToy: Play are fun, engaging and addictive.

That brings me to point two, namely, that the EyeToy feeds the average person's vanity by projecting themselves onto the television. As just about every reality show on the air proves, being on television remains an important status symbol in our culture. EyeToy allows gamers to reward their egos, but since the game is in their home they're safe from embarrassment. I don't have to worry about my weight or if I combed your hair when I play. It's pretend broadcasting.

What's more, EyeToy breaks down a lot of the boundaries between the player and the game. The average nongamer, let's face it, feels some degree of disconnect when they're outside the game pushing buttons on the controller. But when they see themselves inside the game (shades of Tron), all of the sudden they have a more invested interest in what's going on. It's the same reason why we like customizing characters in games (like in the Tony Hawk series). EyeToy allows the player to feel more connected to the game than they could before.

Like Karaoke Revoution and the Dance Dance Revolution franchise, EyeToy: Play is inclusive rather than exclusive. It encourages people of all ages to join in the fun rather than feel excluded from some odd club they have no interest in being a member of. More than Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy Whatever, EyeToy is the killer app that can draw people who have never played a videogame in their life before towards the PlayStation 2. Rating 9 out of 10.

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It wasn't too long ago that I had a conversation with someone about Pokémon. Interestingly enough, he said that while the Pokémon Game Boy titles were accompanied by a popular card game, virtually no one he knew actually played the cards. The cards were just something on the side—collectibles. To get in on the real Pokémon action you'd really have to get the Game Boy cartridges.

Although this was something of a revelation for me, it wasn't a surprise either. Strictly speaking, the Pokémon card game was an after thought to the Game Boy titles. Still, the conversation made me think. Moving card games onto portable systems seemed like a natural evolution with many benefits. The most obvious benefit would be cost, since it would no longer be necessary to spend a fortune to build a powerful deck… Especially these days, when foil-wrapped card packs cost anywhere between three to five dollars. (When I was a kid, I used to spend a quarter on a pack of hockey cards and it came with a stick of gum too.) Playing Yu-Gi-Oh! on a cartridge basically gives everyone more or less equal access to powerful cards. Another nice bonus is that rare and valuable cards won't get worn out through playing, or, heaven forbid it, lost or destroyed. Just be careful with that cart

Since Pokémon, trading/collectible games have also become a staple for the Game Boy Advance (GBA)—Medabots, Digimon, and Megaman Battle Network, to name some. One of the very best games released on the now defunct SNK Neo Geo Pocket was in fact, an original card game called Card Fighter's Clash. It was only natural that a popular card game like Yu-Gi-Oh! would eventually find success on the GBA. Born from a manga and powered by a popular animated series, Yu-Gi-Oh! is massive. In 1999, when Konami held a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament, fifty-five thousand fans showed up. Some time during the event, riot police were called in.

However, unlike the Pokémon games, the Yu-Gi-Oh! videogames were really secondary to the actual card game. While videogame sales are robust, they are still modest compared to the card sales. Some day, I think card games might be predominantly played on portable game systems, but the Yu-Gi-Oh! games highlight some of the problems with making such a transition. Many of these problems are undoubtedly keeping the bulk of Yu-Gi-Oh! fans playing with paper for the time being.

Yu-Gi-Oh!: Worldwide Edition, the latest Yu-Gi-Oh! title released on the GBA, is best described as a simulation of the card game. There isn't anything terribly fancy about it. The playing field looks just like it would if the card game was played on a table. Monsters don't come to life (a la VR technology) as they do in the anime series. But the developers did make a number of good design choices including giving Worldwide Edition a layout similar to that of a fighting game. In the game, card duelists from the anime series are available to duel against and are selected from a location on a map. Each duelist has their own unique decks and when defeated, the player is given a pack of five cards with which to enhance their deck. The meat of the game however, just like a fighting game, is the competition between human players. Playing against the computer is mostly to enhance a deck by gaining new cards, as well as to familiarize players new to Yu-Gi-Oh! (although it's possible to learn the game from just watching the anime series).

As is expected with card games, the vast majority of cards available in Worldwide Edition are close to worthless. Despite this, there are plenty of good cards, as well as enough different card combinations that it's not necessary to continually depend on the same set of cards to win. A player can create a beat-down deck loading up on strong monster cards as well as magic cards that enhance attack strength. Alternatively, one could create elemental decks, or load a deck with traps. It's certainly not the most complex of the card games available, but it does find a nice place in the middle. Worldwide Edition is easy enough that most people will grasp the gameplay concepts quickly, but varied enough that a player can spend a good deal of time trying out different tactics and strategies.

There isn't anything inherently wrong with the game itself. It's fun and there's lots of replay value with link option. The main weaknesses in Worldwide Edition come from the difficulties in moving a card game on to what is essentially a closed game system.

The game features over a thousand cards, but I know that the card game itself has more than two thousand, maybe even three thousand cards available to collect. What are missing aren't just the weak and uninteresting cards either. Some of my favorite cards, like Blast Sphere, are nowhere to be found. It's even more disappointing to see that many of the cards featured in anime are missing as well. What would have been really great, is if Konami at the very least allowed gamers the opportunity to use the much coveted Egyptian God Cards. Even if these cards were available for tournament use in the real card game, it would be very unlikely that many people would even have one since their rarity would be a given. A big advantage to playing videogame versions of a card game is to get cards that would otherwise be impossible to obtain in real life. The God Cards would have been a great selling point and a wonderful bonus for Yu-Gi-Oh! fans that bought the game.

Yet another complication Worldwide Edition has is that it's essentially closed. Perhaps in the future there maybe an option that allows for new cards or game rules to be imported onto the cart, but it's highly unlikely. Chances are new cards and rules would mean a new game, and that would mean having to buy that game and build a new deck all over again. The space capacity of a cart may even require that other cards be removed to make place for new ones. With paper cards, when the rules change, it's not necessary to pickup a new set. And incorporating newly introduced cards into a real-life deck doesn't pose the same kinds of problems as it does for a Game Boy cartridge.

One last problem I had with Worldwide Edition is the odd decision to only allow the player to assemble a single deck. There isn't any option to assemble an alternate deck. Since I started playing the game, I've amassed literally thousands of spare cards and it would be nice to use different decks to keep things interesting. Sadly, the lack of a spare deck option means that I have to discard my current deck and rifle through over a thousand different cards to assemble a new one. The process is so cumbersome that much of the time I don't even bother, but if I could freely switch between different decks, the game would have been that much more fun to play.

Even with just over a thousand cards available, the game is still fun. It also gets quite a bit of extra shelf life with the link option. The problem is Worldwide Edition in no way feels like a complete, definitive version of the card game. Especially with less than half the cards available from the trading card game, it feels more a like a sampler. Though I'm not too keen on spending loads of money on paper cards, buying regularly updated cartridges can get costly as well. And really, what's the point when the cards you couldn't get on paper aren't available on silicon either?

Don't get me wrong, I do like the game. It's just that perhaps I'll wait until a version with playable God Cards is released before I buy another Yu-Gi-Oh! game. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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There's something a little distancing about controlling a skateboarding game with a regular hand controller. When you consider the supreme levels of balance, coordination and concentration required to do tricks on an actual skateboard, simulating the experience with a handheld piece of molded plastic seems almost like twiddling your thumbs. Arcade games like Sega's Top Skater have tried to fix this problem using a full sized skateboard controller with mixed results. Koei has adapted this idea to the more space- and price-conscious home market with a thumb-board controller that attaches to the Playstation 2's dual analog sticks.

Surprisingly, the thumb board makes controlling Yanya Caballista: City Skater (Yanya) seem even more distant from controlling an actual skateboard.

Sure, the various combinations of board-twisting, leaning, and clicking exercise slightly different thumb muscles than simply pressing the appropriate buttons, and require much more hand coordination. The controls also provide suitable analogues to the real-life board movements they simulate, so the control scheme seems natural from the get-go.

But the spotty way the game recognizes your board contortions makes the whole process an exercise in frustration. I can't count the number of times I mashed the back of the board to perform an Ollie only to see my on-screen avatar skating along as if I wasn't touching the controller. It's like trying to ride a real skateboard on which every jump only has a 50 percent chance of leaving the ground. Motions for tricks like grabs and spins are similarly disregarded.

It also seems odd that Koei would want a more realistic control scheme for a game that is one of the most unrealistic simulations of skating I've ever seen. Skaters in Yanya hang in the air interminably—as if they were skating on the moon—and can effortlessly maintain grinds for miles and miles. As a design decision, the weird physics fit well with the game's quirky irreverent nature, but the lack of realism makes the skateboard seem like more of a gimmick than a way to more accurately simulate skating that I had hoped for.

Fortunately, the board is removable and Koei has deigned to include a control scheme similar to the oft-imitated Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. As soon as I found this classic control scheme hidden in the options menu, my score for the game jumped at least four points. The controls immediately became more responsive and the control scheme, while less intuitive, was still natural.

Now I could finally sink my teeth into the gameplay. It seems that a mysterious alien race called the Gawoo have invaded New San Francisco in the near future. Luckily, the Gawoo are fascinated by skateboard tricks, to the point where they explode upon seeing a suitably impressive skateboard display. Sounds perfectly plausible to me! Let's get to it.

Initially, I was expecting a game like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, with free form environments and highly varied goals. Instead, I found an experience more like Jet Set Radio: a strictly timed affair where the goals are all painfully similar and figuring out how to get to the next goal is half the challenge. The artistic parallels to Jet Set Radio are also apparent, from the obvious cel-shaded graphics to the subtly similar color palettes and ostentatious Japanese character designs. The similarities tread the fine line between homage and outright theft of the Jet Set Radio style and how much one can tolerate them will probably depend on personal taste.

Most of Yanya's appeal derives from its well-designed levels, which often resemble a good platforming game more than a traditional skateboard title. Especially impressive is one section in the fifth level in which criss-crossing ramps and pipes lead the player up to the top of a skyscraper filled cityscape, culminating in a breathtaking jump from thirty stories up. One mistake means starting again and losing valuable time, which keeps the tension high. I was also impressed with the game's well-balanced challenge curve, which manages to be difficult without being frustrating. Even though I wasn't able to complete most levels the first time, I was able to get farther and farther in the compartmentalized layout with each play, which made finally reaching the stage boss all the more satisfying.

The gameplay has one main flaw though: it's incredibly repetitive. The goal in each level is to perform tricks in front of the dozens and dozens of Gawoo. Some Gawoo require a certain type of trick to defeat (a grab, for instance), but this hardly shakes up the experience in any meaningful way. There are none of the racing, collecting or exploration-based goals that spice up other skating games, and the added ramp and challenge modes are just more of the same.

There's even a lack of variety of tricks, which are automatically performed with one button press, and lack the customization that lets a player add a personal touch to their routine. Performing the same generic "Spin-Flip-Grab" combo over and over isn't nearly as exciting as stringing together a "360 kickflip to melon grab revert" in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.

I got the feeling that Yanya was trying too hard to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness. From the finger-board controller to the nonsense story and floaty physics, it seems Koei was trying to make a skateboarding game for people who don't like skateboarding games. If Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is the American sitcom of skateboarding games, with predictable pacing and familiar set pieces, than Yanya is the genre's ridiculous Japanese anime, always ready to mess with your expectations of what the genre should be. Much like New York City, it's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Rating 7.5 out of 10

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There's nothing special about a game with high production values. I think we're past the point in this industry where we should be impressed by a game simply because it "looks professional." After all, there are plenty of movies that "look professional," but that doesn't mean they're good. Not that I don't appreciate it when people go the extra mile to give their game the best possible presentation, but that ultimately has little effect on the quality of the game itself. What amazes me is that "high production values" and "Hollywood-quality story" are common praises for videogames. On one hand I can sympathize with this position: I too grew up during the age of bad full-motion video and numerous painful attempts on the industry's part to emulate Hollywood. But on the other hand, I think we're far enough beyond this unfortunate phase to still be caught up in this kind of rhetoric. Imagine, if you will, how pathetic it would seem if Roger Ebert began a review by saying "Wow! They really spent money on this movie! They even got real Hollywood actors like Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis!"

This is the kind of vibe I get from Primal, a new gothic action/adventure game by Sony Computer Entertainment's European branch. It seems to be designed to invite this kind of praise. It doesn't use any high profile actors (at least none Americans would know), but the way the story is emphasized and the visual style in particular have an "aren't you impressed that we spent this much time and money" quality I find aggravating. This wouldn't be so terrible if there were some redeeming gameplay, but there isn't. In fact, there's almost none. I don't think I've played a more boring game in my life, a fact that makes the game's obsession with its own story and moody atmosphere seem almost narcissistic—as if it is actively trying to prevent me from having fun so I can be captive to what it obviously thinks is more important.

Primal is the story of a girl named Jen who is sucked in an alternate reality after her boyfriend is kidnapped at a rock concert by a mysterious hulking figure. After she's injured trying to save him in a scuffle with the mystery person, she finds herself in a hospital where she is visited by a gargoyle named Skree. Skree tells her that she must come with him if she wants to save her boyfriend, and he leads her into OBLIVION, a dimension which houses the NEXUS, a machine that keeps reality balanced and in check. Naturally, Skree tells Jen that the NEXUS is failing because the four sub-realms of OBLIVION are out of balance, and this all has something to do with why her boyfriend was kidnapped. If you've ever played a videogame in your life you can probably guess what comes next.

The first thing players will notice about the game is how languid its storytelling is. After a fairly long cut-scene where Jen's boyfriend is kidnapped, the player is subjected to endless expository cut-scenes in which Skree basically outlines the entire backstory of Primal's universe. This is amazingly boring. Long cut-scenes aren't necessarily bad, but for them to be justified they at least need to be told in an interesting way. Games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and even Xenosaga, while they could certainly stand the use of an editor, at least have a rudimentary understanding of what makes a story interesting (i.e. not telling the player everything from the beginning). Primal's exposition is so one-dimensional it feels like a classroom lecture. I half-expected Skree to pull out a chalkboard and quiz me on the names and places I was expected to remember. This isn't helped by the fact there's nothing to do for the first hour of the game except literally walk from one cinematic to the next. There is no actual gameplay for what seems like an eternity, and when it finally does come around you might even have trouble noticing it since it is so inconsequential.

Basically, the game is designed for Jen and Skree to function like a team. The player can choose between one and the other at any time, and through their combined efforts the player is able to solve puzzles that allow her progress through the realms of OBLIVION. Skree can use torches, turn to stone, and climb on walls while Jen can fight and shift into "demon forms," alternate physical forms gained throughout the game that each have different abilities. I'm sure this sounded great on paper, but in the game it never rises above the level of plodding busy work that is so contrived it clearly has no other purpose than to give you something to do between cinematics. Environments, while technically gorgeous, are nothing more than linear paths with arbitrary puzzles littered along the way to impede your progress. Players can expect to spend several minutes at a time wandering aimlessly around empty spaces looking for a single lever, door, or whatever to get to the next area and repeat the process all over again. I assume this is supposed to be made tolerable by the presence of combat, but even that is a joke. The player can literally run past every enemy in the game, a flaw so obvious that the designers had to resort to making certain enemies stand in crucial doorways to force you to fight them. Of course, even this might be forgivable if the combat itself was fun enough that you actually wanted to fight, but it isn't. The controller layout is needlessly awkward, and there is no sense of impact to speak of when hitting or being hit not even with the extra demon forms. There is absolutely no visceral dimension to it whatsoever. It's exactly like the puzzles and exploration: limp and monotonous.

But, even with all these examples of lazy design, the game could have been redeemed somewhat. Even games that function as little more than over-glorified DVDs can be interesting and entertaining if the story itself is actually worth suffering through the gameplay for. Unfortunately, this is where Primal strikes out once and for all. As I mentioned above, it is clear that the story and general presentation have been given much more attention than the gameplay. Primal is counting on its story to motivate you to play through the game, but in this sense it fails pretty miserably. There are multiple reasons for this, but the all basically boil down to how clichd the story is—and I know how that sounds coming from me. I firmly believe that cliché is not necessarily bad, and that good writing and good acting can rise above even the most tired formula. Primal has neither of these. Although Jen appears to have been designed as tough goth girl with spunk and wit, her dialogue and acting is so hollow it sinks any appeal the character could have. The "jokes" and "banter" she frequently exchanges with Skree invariably fall to the ground like comic lead, and, I'm sorry, but I couldn't listen to her voice without thinking of Courtney Cox in Masters Of The Universe. I eventually switched the voice-acting to French so she at least wouldn't seem quite as ditzy. Ultimately, the thing about Primal that bugged me the most was how superficial its aesthetic was. It seemed to think that dark skies, spooky castles, cloven hooves, and metal music makes something a hip piece of neo gothic fiction. But there is absolutely no originality of substance to it whatsoever, nothing interesting Primal brings to the mix. Devil May Cry had a lot of the same flaws as Primal (dialogue, plot) but at least it had two things going for it: gameplay, and a new spin on the goth aesthetic. Likewise, Soul Reaver 2 had gameplay arguably as bad a Primal's but managed to polish off a truly compelling story with superb dialogue. I can't imagine anything Primal does that doesn't seem derivative of something much better. In the end, it seems like a very, very lame imitation of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

It's sad. It boggles the mind to think that this much time was spent on presentation and backstory when none of it resonates in the slightest. At the very least, the game could have been enjoyed for its narrative, but given the fact that gameplay is virtually non-existent there is nothing to cushion the player from the agonizing boredom that is Primal's randomly generated gothic fantasy plot. Soon after I got it, someone ask me to describe it to them and I remember saying it was like Soul Reaver 2 without the plot. In other words: nothing. Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

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Personally, I thought that Primal was a very sophisticated and worth-while game; that is, unless you were looking for another Texas shoot-em-up. It was refreshing to play a game that valued puzzle-solving as much as it did combat. The graphics were of a very rare calibre and they did have a high profile actor, Andreas Katsulas who played G’Kar in Babylon 5. But don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him Guest Critic, Babylon 5 was also very high calibre.

Like the Final Fantasy games, Xenosaga is a heavily story/cinema-driven role-playing game (RPG). For those restless types, the first few hours of Xenosaga can be particularly excruciating, as it seems that every door walked through triggers a cutscene. Besides being numerous, some of those cutscenes are so long (getting well past the half-hour mark at times) that Monolith Soft decided to add a pause/skip feature. Gamers who really care about the story have the convenience of pausing a cutscene if they need a quick washroom break. Less enthused gamers can skip the scene entirely and move on. For the really long sequences, the game will provide an opportunity to save in the middle of a cutscene. Battles aren't quite so forgiving though. A few attack and spell animations can be skipped, but the majority will take a half-minute or more to execute, and all a player can do during that time is sit helplessly and wait for the next turn.

If Xenosaga is any indication, then Japanese game developers aren't yet ready to end their tawdry love affair with the cinematic effects pioneered in games like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil. Rather, they seem to love these effects more than ever. Despite current consoles' ability to render detailed environments in real time, Capcom still uses fixed camera angles for its instalments of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. Square still loves its panning camera that starts every battle in Final Fantasy. And as demonstrated by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty, Hideo Kojima would probably be happier making movies. But for all the enthusiasm these developers have in wielding such cinematic effects, they have also been heavily criticized lately because these effects ultimately restrict a players experience. Their excessive use disempowers gamers.

Xenosaga posed an interesting dilemma however. Like it's predecessor Xenogears, Xenosaga's greatest asset is its story. And although I found the game's battle system to be one of the best since the Grandia series, it was the next cutscene I was after. Long bouts of not playing didn't seem to bother me. I was more than happy to sit through the discrete, thirty-minute chunks of story that I was rewarded with after navigating some of toughest RPG dungeons in recent memory.

Xenosaga spins one of the most engaging science fiction tales I've seen in recent years, tackling enormous themes and subjects. Just to give a sampler (and nothing more), one of my favourite characters is a cyborg that had committed suicide when he was human. Due to a piece of legislation known as the Life Recycling Act however, the government had the right to revive his dead body as a cyborg and use him for military purposes. And this happens to be just one small facet of a detailed, multi-layered story. Producer Tetsuya Takahashi's passion for this world and the characters that inhabit comes through in every moment of the game. The care and attention he and his team put into crafting the world of Xenosaga is astounding, and at times overwhelming. Indeed, there is so much detail a glossary was added to reference characters, important organizations/factions, terminology, and key historical events. Keeping up is difficult at first, but the lore, the history, the political intrigue and secret agendas are as impressive here as they are in a series as established as Star Trek (though Xenosaga is much, much darker).

Like Xenogears, Xenosaga features heavy theological and religious references that will probably put off some gamers. Most of these references will likely lead nowhere, and some of the more obscure ones (like double meaning of the word peche) will be missed entirely, but those who muddle through will find a highly provocative, plot driven narrative with long hooks. Seeing as this game is prophetically entitled Episode I, it should be obvious that the story here is merely a set up. Characters here will undergo only a little development, and indeed many will remain enigmatic even at the very end. The plot doesn't get resolved. But as a set up, Xenosaga does point to something big. It's hard to say at this point how good the story will be later on, but from what I've seen so far, this particular gamer will be expecting a lot from future instalments.

It's also interesting to see how much of the narrative material has been integrated into the visual and aural aspects of the game, giving Xenosaga a unique and consistent motif. The religious imagery in particular, has been used quite well. Though early levels are bland, later levels become quite imaginative. A memorable dungeon took place inside a Cathedral like space ship with Gregorian chanting in the background. Attack and spell animations also followed in the same vein, mixing arcane religious symbols, scrolling runes and Hebrew texts, with slick graphical effects. The clash between science and religion is a prevalent theme in Xenosaga, and it pervades down to the very aesthetics of game's environments, its soundtracks and character/monster designs.

The 'game' portions of Xenosaga are equally impressive, though as per the genre it is discrete and mostly detached experience from the narrative. Still, it's one of the very best battle systems I've played on a console RPG.

The game seems to take place on two different levels. Taking a page out of Grandia, there are no random battles in Xenosaga. All enemies are visible on the field. What makes Xenosaga interesting though, are the options and tactics offered before a player even initiates an enemy encounter. Players are provided with a radar system similar to the Metal Gear games, and they have limited abilities to sneak around enemies. If spotted, players can sometimes outrun or out manoeuvre an enemy. Other features include traps scattered about dungeons; players can gain various tactical advantages during battle if they are successful in luring an enemy into one of the traps.

A number of interesting options are also available to a player once an encounter is initiated—the most interesting of which is the Boost feature. Essentially, Boosting allows characters to 'interrupt' the turn of an enemy combatant. Boosting also works in conjunction with another feature known as the Event Slot, and through strategic use of the Boost and Event Slot, players can access a number of useful bonuses they can use for the duration of a turn. Against more powerful enemies, proper use of Boosts becomes essential, not just to set up combination attacks, but as a means of counterattacking. After a successful battle, a number of points will be awarded, and those points can be used at the player's discretion to unlock spells, new attacks and skills, or augment vital stats. It's even possible to use point for transferring spells between party members.

One of the few complaints I really have about Xenosaga's battles is how difficult they are. The game favours stringing together weaker attacks, and magic is mostly used for support purposes. Getting through some of the tougher bosses and even some of the dungeons requires good strategic planning, lots of boosting, and tenacity. While I preservered and managed to figure out the system, novices will probably get frustrated by most of the dungeons. Xenosaga also has one of the clumsiest menu systems I've played, and this will almost certainly add to the frustration as well.

Another problem are the mechs. Like Xenogears, players have the option of using a mech, but in Xenosaga the mechs are extraneous. It's possible to get through the entire game without using them, and it may even be preferable to do so. Mechs are cumbersome to use, expensive to maintain and upgrade, and in general more options are available during battle without the mechs. The designs are uninspiring and most of the mech attacks were dull.

Before I conclude, I wanted to mention something about the soundtrack, which was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and performed by the London Philharmonic. I was impressed with Mitsuda's compositions, as usual, but I was also impressed with Namco and Monolith for using the London Philharmonic on this project. Though music in the game is rather sparse (most dungeons use ambient sounds for the background), the music that could be heard was full and luxurious. The biggest treat was the haunting closing track that played during the end credits.

Not every gamer is going to enjoy Xenosaga. The lengthy cinematic sequences and emphasis on telling the story is going alienate those who prefer to spend more time playing than watching. Still, I was able to enjoy the experience even though I generally prefer more interaction myself. Xenogears reminded a lot of an old game I still play on my cell phone, Memory. As you flip cards over in Memory, and match up the symbols hiding beneath, a picture is revealed. The picture doesn't have anything to do with the game of course. But if it's good, I'm going to enjoy it anyways. So it was the same with Xenosaga. Even though it was separate from the 'game,' I enjoyed the story anyway. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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Sequels. To this day, film, book, music and game authors continue to perfect the art of recapturing a single or multitude of experiences through a sequel. They incorporate modifications to the original formula through additions to story or mechanics, change nothing, or even go so far as to redesign it completely. And while many of these sequels are true testaments to their predecessor, others rob themselves of what was once a unique and interesting concept only to be left with an empty shell. What complicates this situation further is whether the author's intentions are to expand their works for themselves, their fans, or to pad their pocketbooks.

Something that specifically comes to mind is Linkin Park's latest release, Meteora. Which, if you ask me, should have been titled mediocre. I was a fan of their debut album Hybrid Theory, which is probably why I felt terribly duped when I purchased their newest CD last month. I looked forward the band furthering their music and artistic vision by expanding on the success of their debut album. Boy, was I off. They had 2 ½ years between original releases and all I got was a 35-minute set of music tracks that sounded exactly like their previous album with similar lyrics. C'mon guys, you've got to do better than that.

Unfortunately for Capcom, Devil May Cry 2 falls into this mediocre category as well. As a fan of the original, I looked forward to another round with the title's clichd lead character and its unparalleled sense of style. Even more so, I looked forward to improvements on the original's formula and some tweaking of the overall experience. Sound familiar?

Now, what made the original a hit in my eyes was its stylistic nature coupled with its fast paced and challenging gameplay, interesting characters, and artistic direction. I would like to have thought these aspects would be continued, or better yet, improved upon. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. The new development team decided to rebuild the series, and in the process, they stripped everything the first title did right.

The most monumental loss is style. Too keep combat from being tedious and boring, Devil May Cry utilized an intricate system that encouraged players to take out enemies in some of the most creative ways seen in games today. Players were rewarded based on how stylishly they dispatched of their enemies. The styling system has returned, but this time around it is completely lacking. Dante is left with only a few attack patterns and almost no variation on them. I was also disappointed to find that I could no longer learn any new attacks. I found myself stuck with the same boring combos for the duration of the game. The only changes I could make were to the weapons themselves by purchasing upgrades, and even that was little more than cosmetic.

This ties directly into my second complaint, the lost difficulty. Somewhere, someone decided the first title was far too difficult for the casual gamer. So, instead of implementing an easier difficulty option or mildly adjusting the difficulty on a whole, Capcom ripped away any challenging aspects to the game. No longer was I required to incorporate both sword and firearm into my entourage of combat. More often than not, I could sit in one place and let the auto-lock target the nearest enemy and blast away with Dante's handguns. Add that to the aforementioned upgrading available, and with firearms alone Dante is almost unstoppable. This title was made so implacably easy; I could fly through levels, defeat the boss creature and be on the loading screen for the next area in a matter of minutes. If all this weren't bad enough, the title is considerably short and can be completed over a weekend. For me, the greatest challenge was to keep myself from falling asleep whilst playing.

This brings me to yet another problem: loss in Dante's character. He was once a smart witted and at times amusing persona, but all of that is lost. Now he rarely speaks, and when he does it's completely dry and unimaginative. There wasn't any situation or mechanic placed in this title that even attempted to draw me into his perspective or ease my mind into some sort of emotional charge. I felt unattached throughout the entire experience.

Speaking of characters, to flesh out Devil May Cry 2's already thin chronicle, Capcom decided to add an additional playable character. While I'm sure their intentions were to add depth to the story, Capcom did nothing of the sort. The new character Lucia, a dual-sword baring femme fatal, just seems to appear from thin air. Her additions to the story aren't apparent until later in the game, and even when they do surface are weak at best.

There's one other point I want to touch upon before I wrap this up—the horrid camera system. I cannot believe Capcom thought it wise to use static camera angles. Now I can enjoy the greatest flaw of the Resident Evil saga in another title. It's so ridiculously out of place in this series. As I mentioned before, I could easily sit in one spot and knock off my opponents by using just Dante's handguns, and because of the poorly placed cameras, and I was forced to more times than I can remember.

I couldn't help but be reminded of my disappointing Meteora purchase while reviewing this game. Both shared such a remarkable contrast on how not to continue a career or series by removing or simply not implementing any form of evolution or improvement. Simply put, both Devil May Cry 2 and Meteora fail to be a testament to themselves or their prequels. In essence they remind me of a plastic Easter egg: hollow and lacking any substance. Capcom, the worst of the two, has managed to turn this once stylish and enigmatic series into just another cash cow. Fitting I suppose. After all, what could I really expect from the company that wrote the curriculum for "Franchise Milking 101"? Rating 4 our of 10.

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How will video game characters react when they are smart enough to realize they are video game characters? Maybe they'll be programmed to serve happily, boldly risking their lives for our entertainment. Maybe they'll be angry at the malevolent player-gods that continually throw them into harm's way. Or maybe—hopefully—they'll have a sense of humor about their situation, like the characters in Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc seem to.

No, the characters of Rayman 3 are not endowed with some radical new artificial intelligence that makes them fully aware of their artificiality. But they are endowed by the game's talented writers and voice actors with dialogue that might make you think they are. This self-referential back-and-forth sets this game apart from the crowded market of platformers that it mocks and imitates with equal finesse.

It's obvious from the start that Rayman 3 is not a game that takes itself seriously. After a quick flying mini-game, Rayman goes on a quest to find his trademark limbless hands, which were pulled off in the introduction by his big blue friend Globox. Aiding Rayman is his quest is an irritable fairy, Murfy, who narrates one of the funniest in-game tutorials I've ever seen.

As Murfy reads instructions from the manual—"hit the jump button to jump," "hit the punch button to punch," and so forth—he asks, "people get paid to write this stuff?" Eventually, the manual starts talking back, threatening to fire the fairy if he doesn't stick to the script. Murfy is not to be silenced, though, and continues to point out the logical inconsistencies necessary for a good platforming game. He challenges the manual with sarcastic comments like "Oooh, a switch. I bet it activates a mechanism," and questions about why one such switch activates a door in the middle of nowhere.

Murfy's comments makes tolerable what is usually be a tedious exercise for a seasoned gamer. By talking to the player through Murfy, the developers let the player know that they're in on the utter ridiculousness of many platforming game conventions, like the in-game tutorial. Murfy's commentary is the developer's way of asking the player to "please bear with us until we get to the actual game."

Those who stick with it will are treated to a well-done cutscene in which Globox inadvertently swallows Andre, a black lum bent on world destruction. Rayman is recruited to guide Globox to a series of witch doctors that try to help extract the black, fuzzy fly from his belly.

Ubi Soft seems to aim its humor at veteran gamers who have played dozens of platforming games in their time. It seems to be their way of making up for gameplay that is mostly standard, if well executed, platforming fare. Simple puzzles and repetitive enemies are balanced by above-average level design, excellently implemented controls, and the tongue-in-cheek attitude that pervades the game. Rayman 3 is the perfect game for the world-weary platform game connoisseur who isn't afraid to laugh at his favorite genre.

The adversarial, sometimes parasitic relationship between Globox and Andre is at the center of much of the Rayman 3's humor. Andre has an insatiable thirst for plum juice, but Globox is allergic; just a few drops will get him tipsy. Thus, when Andre forces Globox to imbibe whole barrels of fermented juice, all hell breaks lose. These drunken escapades are integrated as necessary events in the gameplay, but it's the animations and expressions on Globox's face that managed to at least make me smile every time I saw it.

Even when he isn't drunk, Globox often steals the show with comments that make the player wonder how much he actually knows about himself. When a disco inspired sub-level ends, Globox asks Rayman, "Who turned off the nice music?" When Rayman punches Globox, he quips, "You were a lot nicer in Rayman 2." As he hangs trapped upside-down, the blood rushing to his head causes him to spew off comments about his animations and polygon counts!

On the one hand, comments like these take the player out of the experience by reminding them they're just playing a game. On the other hand, though, these comments make the player step back and appreciate the absurdity inherent in controlling a purple, limbless adventurer with a helicopter for hair. It is just a game, after all, and the characters seem more aware of this than anyone. It's a welcome change from the string of dark, serious, self-important adventure games that seem to be coming out with increasing frequency.

Even the enemy characters get in on the act. Enemy grunts can be seen playing cards and blowing each other's heads off while waiting for Rayman to come by. Other guards can be overheard arguing about whose dad is stronger to pass the time. Still other comments are inserted, like "make him write bad checks," and "poke him in the eyes," into their chants of "make him bleed!" More than just being funny, these comments made me consider the motivations of the countless soldiers I was destroying in a way no other platform game has.

As Murfy leaves at the end of the tutorial, he cries out that he'll "see you in Rayman 4." One can only hope that he'll bring the irreverent humor that pervades Rayman 3 with him, because it's this attitude that converts it from a standard platforming sequel into a work of satirical art. I just hope Globox doesn't hold a grudge. After all, I did hit him quite a few times. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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

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Admittedly, Dr. Muto looked interesting at first. Stylistically, it could have turned the platform genre upside down. Instead, the game ended up as nothing more than a half-hearted production. It lacked the focus and the daring to take a great concept to its logical conclusion. The end product contained a few inspired moments, but the developers ultimately came up with a conventional platforming experience that was not only lacking in imagination, but was also poorly executed on many levels.

This is perhaps one of the most disappointing experiences I've ever had in gaming simply because Dr. Muto's premise showed so much promise in the beginning. Muto is an antithesis to the more ubiquitous, cute and cuddly, fuzzy and bankable platformers currently available. As his name suggests, Dr. Muto is a mad scientist with the ability to morph into various animal forms. Muto's appearance is refreshingly unattractive, and the animals he morphs into are even more so, generally taking on the shape of repulsive creatures, like spiders and rats. Often humorous, the transformations have a perverse quality about them too. Muto's gorilla morph for instance, resembles a botched, patchwork experiment, having multiple eyes the way a spider might. I had high hopes for the game because very few platformers seek to create the kind of creepy and surreal world Muto attempts. Nor do many platformers come up with a gameplay mechanism as inventive as morphing.

Where Dr. Muto went wrong was in Midway's inability to take the game's premise and create a cohesive gaming experience out of it. Naturally, viewing the world from a rat's perspective would be far different than seeing it the way a human does, and Muto's diverse forms should reflect this. In one scenario, Muto might run through a clean, well-lit laboratory, and then change himself into rat to investigate a dark and grungy hole in the wall. Yet the look of the levels and the way they play out often don't reflect how eclectic Muto's morphing ability is. Most of the levels are draped in the same, drab, brown hues, no matter what area is accessed. And all the areas are played the same as manner as any other conventional platform game. No matter where players are in a level, they can expect to jump or climb, hit switches, and not much else.

Morphing is highly underutilized overall, mostly serving as artificial keys. Certain morphs are required in order to access certain areas in the game, but beyond that function, there is really little use for Muto's morphing powers. Each form only offers one basic attack, two at most, and the requisite jump, all of which adds up to a very limited experience. There was one inspired moment in the game however, where as a spider, Muto was able to scale an enormous tower, the camera bobbing sideways and upside down as it followed the action. But hardly anything else is worth noting.

The world of Dr. Muto doesn't show any cohesion either. Though the levels all possess the same, dark, drab look, not one managed to convey any kind of personality. An environmental theme was apparent, with canisters of industrial waste lying about and giant pipes spewing black oil, but Dr. Muto never really generated any sort of emotions with regards to it. I wondered whether these worlds were supposed to be disgusting or funny. The lack of direction left me feeling ambivalent in the end. Much like the levels, Midway did not seem too sure about the kinds of reactions they wanted their characters to invoke either. The enemies that lurked about were generally inconsistent, sometimes appearing as animal, other times as mechanical, and all seemed to straddle an uncomfortable space between cute and weird. Muto himself wasn't even the mad scientist Midway billed him as. He came across as more of an eccentric inventor following in the footsteps of Disney's 'Absent-Minded Professor.' Again, I wasn't sure what to think. Was I supposed to find his human persona endearing? Or was I supposed to pay more attention to the creepy morphs?

Perhaps the greatest disappointment was how poorly the game was executed, despite it being such a conventional platformer. The most annoyingly bad design choices were made with regards to the collecting aspect of Dr. Muto. The developers, in a fit of lavish excess, gave the game far too many items to collect, both in type and in number. There were keys, isotopes, scrap to build special weapons, scrap to build something called the Genitor 9000, something called a terra, and the DNA collected from various animals that enabled Muto's morphing. What's more, many of these collectibles numbered in the hundreds, or in the case of the isotopes four thousand two hundred and fifty. The ensuing onscreen clutter was a genuine eyesore, with breakable boxes appearing all over the place, and hundreds of collectibles floating listlessly in any given level. Constant gathering wore away all my patience by the second level. Even the most exploratory treasure hunters will likely find Dr. Muto to be a collector's hell, never mind what a person who doesn't like collecting will think.

The controls and the camera both exacerbated many of the gameplay problems, as neither of them were done very well. The controls had a sludgy, unresponsive feel, like skittering on ice. And the camera was absolutely horrendous. Much of the time the camera swung over to the front of Muto, blocking out the action. It happened with such frequency I found myself adjusting it every few seconds. The most annoying feature of the camera, though, was its spontaneous habit of going into what looked like a first-person view whenever Muto walked into a corner. Every time that happened (which was a lot), I completely lost my bearings. In cramped areas full of enemies, the camera problems proved devastating to Muto's health.

There is much more I could say about the game too, including Muto's annoyingly squealy voice, but at this point everything else is just detail, and it would become asinine to go over those aspects. Suffice to say that Midway had a great idea in Dr. Muto and did not have the necessary focus to bring out the game's full potential. Still, I would like to see a sequel to Dr. Muto, if for no other reason than to see the game realize at least some of that potential. Rating 5 out of 10.

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

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In the beginning, there was Mario. Mario was bright and colorful and cute and innocent. Parents approved of Mario games. They were clean and wholesome and as American as Nissan automobiles.

Then there was Sonic. Sonic was everything Mario was not. He was fast. He was rude. He tapped his foot if you put down the controller for too long. He had attitude.

Pre-adolescents that grew up on Mario flocked to Sonic in their adolescence. His rebellious nature appealed to a generation that was just beginning to assert its independence. In Sonic's wake, platforming games in general started to slowly change. Color palettes became darker. Characters became more smart-alecky. Even Crash Bandicoot, one of the last bastions of platforming wholesomeness, had a sort of wry, devil-may-care attitude about him.

As gamers and games have continued to mature, so have platforming characters. You can't turn around these days without running into a big-name action/adventure game that features a bloodthirsty vampire, an undead devourer of souls, or some other shallow characterization that just exudes darkness. Some marketing director at Acclaim seems to have caught on to this trend and tried to apply it to Vexx. He obviously didn't try very hard.

As I played Vexx, I could almost pinpoint the exact places where the meddlesome marketer must have said, "this should be edgier." The inexplicable floating demons on the title screen. The still beating hearts that replace the "cutesy" stars and shines of the Mario games. Even the way that Vexx seems to have a permanent scowl on his face throughout the game. It all smacks of a flimsy facade placed on a boilerplate platforming game.

Things start off well enough. In the opening cutscene, the player learns the tale of Vexx, an enslaved young boy who gets pushed too far by his master. When Vexx tries to lash out, he is almost killed by Yabu, the evil sorcerer who is the leader of the slave-driving Shadow Minions. Vexx is saved by the heroic sacrifice of his uncle, who dies in the process of distracting Yabu long enough for Vexx to escape. Conveniently, Vexx manages to stumble upon the Astani War Talons, a pair of ancient power claws that are infused with the power to stop Yabu and his minions. As the games tagline says, "Vengeance has a new name."

Now this is some suitably serious stuff. There's no wimpy 'save the princess' motif here. Vexx is out to avenge the death of his dear, departed uncle and free his race from the hand of a dark overlord. Bring it on!

Unfortunately, after this promising start, Vexx abandons almost all pretence of its dark storyline and instead falls into the pattern of a remarkably standard platforming game. Unlike American McGee's Alice, which had levels that were as twisted as its storyline, Vexx has levels that do little to distinguish themselves from the countless, cartoony platforming levels that have come before them. There's a mountain level. There's a desert level. There's an underwater levelyou get the idea. Not only that, but the enemies are generally cute little blobs with rounded corners that hop around and die with cartoony "splat" sound effects. What happened to dark? What happened to edgy? What happened to any cohesive sense of style?

Vexx's gameplay is also horribly stereotypical for the genre. The player's arsenal of moves includes a backflip, a long jump, a midair ground-pound attack, and a variety of other staples that totally waste the potential of the undeniably cool power claws that grant Vexx his power. The game does gain points for including an interesting mechanic that involves juggling dead enemies with air attacks to build up a special meter. Unfortunately, the meter is rarely useful and the risk involved in attempting to juggle enemies is hardly worth it.

Vexx's goals also left me wanting. With the exception of the standard "collect X floating items in this level" goals (which aren't necessarily bad, just not terribly exciting), most of the goals are endlessly compartmentalized into mini-games and hidden portals that take you away from the main level to an isolated area with its own motif and goal. With the exception of the first level, these interminable sub-sections made the levels feel like disconnected sets of random challenges rather than tight collections of goals integrated into a living, interconnected world.

Again, there are a few bright points. Some goals, like the one where a Lilliputian Vexx needs to use a giant video game controller to play a simplified game of Breakout, were clever enough to bring a stupid grin to my face. But for every one of these interesting goals, there were two that had some sort of ridiculous premise (like the mini-games that required you to "fight your inner demons" on a different plane of existence) or incredibly frustrating series of unforgiving platforming challenges that made we want to stop playing.

Vexx also has its share of more technical problems, not least of which is the amazingly long load times. Players are faced with 15 to 30 seconds of loading every time they (1) collect a wraitheart (2) enter a new level (3) enter one of the many subsections of that level that aren't yet in the system's main memory or, occasionally, (4) lose all their lives and have to go back to the main menu.

These frequent interruptions further prevent players from immersing themselves in the game's world and are simply unforgivable when year-old games like Jak And Daxter provide persistent worlds free from any visible loading. Add in a substandard camera and some slightly imprecise controls, and you have a game that looks like it was rushed out to avoid being released too far after the holiday rush.

Vexx is a lot like the middle-class, suburban kid in high school that tries to make everyone think he's cool by wearing nothing but black and listening to Metallica. It's all an act; a dark pretense put up to hide a depressingly normal game that doesn't really know what it wants to be. There's nothing wrong with ignoring the wholesome, sugary sweet conventions of the Mario series, but game makers should at least try to ignore them with some conviction. Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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

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I'm not an expert on racing games, but from what I've gathered most titles in this genre tend to abide by the same general formula. First, players must pick a car and then, depending on the game, customize it as they see fit. The next step sometimes involves choosing a driver that, most of the time, will serve little to no purpose other than to reassure whomever is playing that his or her car isn't being driven by a ghost. Following this comes the track selection, after which all that's left is for players to demonstrate whether or not they have what it takes to finish in first place. Many games following this standard blueprint have been described as being "ultra-realistic." If in this case "realistic" refers to the photo quality appearance of a car, the different sound each engine makes and the custom handling every vehicle offers, than I can't really argue with that description. However, if these games are so realistic then why, when playing some of them, does my car simply levitate over the ground while a supernatural force changes my tires during a pit stop? Realism isn't just limited to aspects such as the ones I've mentioned earlier and Codemasters understood this when they released Pro Race Driver. This game reminded me that, as hard as it may be to believe judging by other titles of the same genre, the racing world isn't governed by cars but by people. As a result, Pro Race Driver's realism comes in the way it humanizes racing.

Pro Race Driver examines the racing genre from a more human point of view than other similar titles. Due to this change of perspective, the game doesn't revolve primarily around the player and him or her winning races and acquiring new cars. Instead, it puts the spotlight on Ryan McKane, the pilot behind the steering wheel of every vehicle the player races, proving that for once, this person is more than just an excuse not to have a car racing with an empty driver's seat. In fact, seeing as how the action revolves around McKane, gamers unknowingly take on a more passive role, much like that of a fan; for while they are still the ones doing the racing, McKane is the person upon whom the consequences of every action will reflect. Winning a championship will attract better contracts and a poor performance will anger his employers. Hence, players are, in a way, following McKane's career through its good and bad times, one race at a time. When watching a race, most of us are little more than fans and Pro Race Driver reminded me that this isn't such a bad thing after all.

The prologue, which somehow tries to explain that racing has been in the McKane family for a long time, serves to further bring out the human side of racing by making use of events that actually happened. It begins by showing a race that was held fifteen years ago where McKane's father lost his life in a spectacular car crash before the eyes of his two young sons. Following this is another sequence, this time in the present, that shows Donnie McKane, Ryan's older brother, suggesting him to a manager as a driver with great potential. To some, this may appear to be something straight out of a Hollywood movie; however, to others this scenario clearly spells out one word: Villeneuve. The father Gilles Villeneuve, considered by many to be a legend, had a death defying style of driving thanks to which he ranked as one of the best in Formula One racing during the late seventies and early eighties. Unfortunately, in 1982 an accident sent his Ferrari flying in cartwheels and chance smiled upon him no more. Nowadays, although his career is presently in decline, the son Jacques Villeneuve still had his shot at fame, having finished second on the Formula One podium in 1996 and having won the World Championship in 1997. While Codemasters' introduction shows that racing isn't a risk-free sport (contrary to other games that only show a few key vehicles going at high speeds on the track), the death of Mckane's father doesn't feel appropriate here. This might be in respect to the Villeneuves or to the plot, which feels a bit overly dramatic at times, but I believe Pro Race Driver could have avoided going in that direction all together.

With such attention being focused on McKane and his story, one might believe that, as a result, the gameplay would have suffered horribly. Fortunately, this isn't the case. At first view, Pro Race Driver consists of racing sports cars, modified specifically for the occasion, throughout various championships. Customization is an important aspect of this game, but it doesn't involve as much adding or taking off parts as it does adjusting what the car is already equipped with. Here, players won't win a race by adding bucket loads of nitro. Instead, the difference between finishing first and last is determined by factors such as the amount of downforce applied to the vehicle, adjusting the ratio in between shifting gears and setting the brake bias properly.

On the track itself, players are given officially licensed cars that, to my surprise, actually show physical damage after taking a hit. After all, it's not every day I get to destroy a car without facing any consequences since McKane is the one taking the blame for my actions. In Pro Race Driver, players can also hear advice from McKane's manager during races. These comments help in no way to change the outcome of a race but they do add to the realism the game is trying to get across.

The artificial intelligence programmed for the other racecars, another aspect of this realism, appears to be more competitive than what I've been accustomed to seeing in racing games. Competition is a human concept accompanied often by aggressiveness, frustration, nervousness and sometimes anger. Codemasters manages to encompass all this in a single red arrow pointing downwards on the screen that serves to warn the player of incoming cars attempting to get pass him. Constantly seeing that arrow move frantically from one side to the other, letting me know that there's at least one car behind that won't settle with finishing after me, was a good way of keeping the pressure on, often reminding that a race is never won until the very end. In relation to this comes the issue of saving. Winning a race is rarely easy and requires both becoming closely familiar with the track and acquiring a lot of practice on it. The problem comes in the fact that occasions to save don't come by often enough. Granted, they usually appear every two races, but while a player can achieve amazing results in the first race, the second can end up being a total disaster. One way or the other, the only opportunity to save one's progress still only comes after the second race.

On certain aspects such as graphics, Pro Race Driver appears to be inferior to other racing titles. However, it could be described as being as realistic as what the competition has to offer. The main difference here lies in the fact that its priorities are set on showing players that racetracks aren't deserted areas as would a ghost town be and that drivers still represent the heart and soul of racing. In this respect, Pro Race Driver is as close to reality as racing games can get. The game is rated 8.5 out of 10.

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

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With his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell created a sort of guide by which just about every myth, legend, or story could be rationalized and even certain patterns among them could be revealed. Almost everything ranging from Homer's The Odyssey to George Lucas' moneymaking machine Star Wars to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings would, when broken down, most likely expose common elements that would transcend the cultural barriers separating them.

While Campbell's work has been used to understand many books, plays and even movies from a different perspective, it has still barely, if at all, scratched the surface of the videogame medium of entertainment. But should a videogame narrative be viewed as any different from that of a book? Should it be dismissed solely because it is engraved on a disc or programmed in a cartridge rather than being written on paper? Granted, I'm a bit reluctant myself to elevate games at the same level of classic literature. However, even after considering the popular prejudice of the general public concerning game stories in that little has changed since the mid-eighties' "Sorry Mario, but your princess is in another castle" type of plot, I do not believe games should be thrown at the bottom of the story-telling barrel. In fact, if I were to consider a book's story in its bare form and size it up against a videogame's, I could argue that the latter can, in certain cases, hold its ground very well. Such is the case with Nintendo's GameBoy Advance remake of the 1991 best-selling title The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. If I were to examine this game using Campbell's concepts, I would most likely discover that many of the elements that have helped make some of the literary classics so famous are also present here, proving that great story-telling is an art that cannot be stopped by technological boundaries.

In its simplest form, A Link To The Past's plot is basic. Find a number of artifacts, destroy the evil, save the princess and restore peace to the land—a formula that's been seen before on numerous occasions. However, if The Legend Of Zelda were nothing more than this, I doubt it would have gone beyond the first installment.It is the meat attached to this skeletal scenario that makes many come back for more with every Zelda title that is released. The gameplay, for example, which remains unchanged from most of the other Legend Of Zelda titles, has players venturing into many dungeons where danger lurks everywhere in order to accomplish two tasks. First, they must find a treasure that holds an item designed to help them in their quest and then defeat the dungeon's evil master in order to gain an artifact that was being held in its clutches. However, this is only one part of the game. Players also have an entire kingdom to explore, as well as many people to talk with—some of whom will give hints concerning the story or various items and how they can be either attained or upgraded, as is the case with the sword. If one wishes to take a break from the adventure, A Link To The Past also has a few mini games that are sure to make any lose track of time and of their money. Hence, players will be hard pressed to find a dull moment when there is seemingly nothing to do.

The background story, which ensures players don't enter the mythical land of Hyrule without having a clue of what is going on, also accounts for the support the "skeletal scenario" receives. In Greek mythology, the hero Theseus was told the story of how the Minotaur came to be in order to understand the problems that plagued the Island of Crete as well as to be given an indication of what had to be done. In A Link To The Past, players are told the legend of the Triforce. It was said that long ago, in a sacred realm known as the "Golden Land," lay three golden triangles symbolizing power, courage and wisdom. Together, these triangles formed the Triforce, an object of infinite might that could grant a mortal any and all of his wishes. From Campbell's point of view, entering this sacred realm and acquiring the Triforce is equivalent to reaching "Apotheosis". This process signifies that the hero achieves the ultimate goal of becoming a God, which is exactly what happens to anyone coming in contact with the Triforce, for they are now gifted with the might of the Gods.

When a gateway leading from Hyrule to the Golden Land was accidentally discovered, people started fighting each other in the hopes that they would be first to get their hands on this legendary artifact. Soon after evil power was said to flow from the Golden Land which prompted the king to order seven sages to seal the gate so to prevent anything from that realm to cross over into the kingdom of Hyrule. This legend not only constitutes the foundation for A Link To The Past's story, but throughout the game, players gradually learn more of it all while forging a legend of their own through the quest they are guiding Link (the protagonist) in.

Although it isn't an essential requirement to success, A Link To The Past, like many well-crafted stories, pulls gamers into the adventure from the very beginning. The Call to Adventure, one of the early concepts discussed in Campbell's book, occurs when, in a dark room where a man and his young nephew are sleeping, a young female voice telepathically breaks the silence, pleading for help. The uncle leaves the house to investigate, ordering Link, the soon-to-be hero, to stay home. Once he leaves however Link's curiosity, much like the player's, is too strong to keep him at bay. Armed only with a lamp and the knowledge of an ancient legend, he ventures outside to find out what is happening. When stepping outside the house, players find themselves under the pouring rain in the middle of the night as guards appear to have been posted everywhere, which just thickens the fog of mystery in which they initially find themselves.

When reading a story, people are granted the freedom of imagination, for they can perceive settings and characters, for example, in their mind as they please. However, in exchange, they must evidently forfeit any form of interaction, for they can in no way influence the actions of the protagonist, or anything else for that matter. Videogame narratives work the other way around, taking away any privileges at mentally perceiving elements of a story since, as far as the auditory and visual senses are concerned, everything is already predetermined. Players see the action unfold before their eyes as well as hear the music and voices or sounds relevant to the game, which takes away any mystery as to what a particular title might look or sound like. On the other hand, interaction is a liberty anyone can experience when playing a videogame. What makes titles such as A Link To The Past stand out amongst the crowd is how they interlace this free will to explore and act with the background story originally created. The Golden Land mentioned earlier wasn't just thrown in to entertain the player for a few minutes prior to the adventure. Instead, it happens to be an entire world in which much of the action takes place. When travelling in this world, Link can witness the evil beings that the ancient legend referred to. He can also converse with some of its inhabitants who, blinded by their own desire to seize the Triforce for themselves, have become trapped in this place now known as the "Dark World."

The "Crossing of the First Threshold" is another one of Campbell's theories, this time describing what occurs when the hero overtakes the "guardian of the threshold" beyond whom lies the zone of magnified power, where danger and the unknown await. Link crosses this threshold when he discovers the Dark World, a nightmarish version of the land of Hyrule where greed, theft and monsters are commonly found around every corner. The charm here lies in the fact that it is somewhat superimposed on Hyrule, reflecting everything in Link's own world in a corrupted and evil way. The concept of cause and effect plays an important role here, as doing something in one world might have direct consequences on the other. This tie between both worlds isn't limited to objects or places however for many people, who have all in some way been affected by the Legend of the Triforce, have stories and tasks for Link that stretch beyond their own realm, strengthening the link between both worlds. In A Link To The Past, Link's mean to travel freely between both worlds comes in a magical mirror with the help of which he can eventually become "Master of the Two Worlds." Campbell explains that this happens when the hero has succeeded in gaining experience and achieving his full potential, which permanently changes him in the upper plane(in this case the Dark World) and being able to freely transit between both realms. Few games have attempted to create such a delicate setting as A Link To The Past has and even fewer have actually managed to pull it off. In creating this alternate reality, this title has emerged players in the legend in a way that even a written story would have a hard time offering.

Being bundled with A Link To The Past is an all-new multiplayer game entitled The Four Swords. In it, Link can, by taking hold of a magical sword and split himself into two, three, or four copies of himself depending on the number of players connected. It should be noted that this adventure wasn't created with the premise of adding to the Zelda mythos. Here, the story was designed to complement the gameplay. Yet it manages to stick to the basic concepts of the monomyth, the name attributed to any myth that describes the quest of a single hero, by making all of the protagonists identical. Hence, while there may be four Links on the screen, in reality, and as the story also points out, there is only one hero all the time. The basic plot then, although a bit thinner than A Link To The Past's, involves much of the same elements. As for the game itself, The Four Swords doesn't just consist of beating the daylights out of either enemies or the other player. Instead, it emphasizes on values such as teamwork and cooperation to a degree rarely, if ever seen before in a multiplayer videogame. Even though the game adapts to whether two, three or four players are present, the various puzzles, some of which I have found to be very original, always require all characters to work together. It might not always be as challenging as one might hope but it promises not to be a letdown. Thumbs up to Capcom, who managed to offer quite a different take on the multiplayer experience then what would usually be expected all while making an effort not to deprive The Four Swords from any narrative aspect (as is the case with many mutliplayer games).

To the untrained eye, the Link To The Past cartridge may well appear to be nothing more than another videogame for kids and others who refuse to grow out of childhood. However, it is much more than that, being as worthy a narrative as many popular books out there can be. Even Joseph Campbell's concepts, of which I have only mentioned a very limited few, can demonstrate that this particular Legend Of Zelda originated from the same primordial pool as many classics or myths found throughout human history. The difference here is that A Link To The Past's pages aren't made of paper; they're made of silicone. The attention to details given for sights and characters aren't read, but seen through a screen; and the various emotions aren't described, but heard in the many different musical themes the game has to offer. Even after all these changes, one thing remains still: A Link To The Past invites players to embark upon an epic adventure they won't soon forget and that they will want to relive over and over again. The game is taed 9 out of 10.

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It takes a particular kind of mindset to really enjoy a game like Morrowind. You really have to get what the designers are trying to do and understand why they avoid what seem like more obvious alternatives. Like the two previous games of the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind has its sights set on one goal: to provide us, the players, with all the limitless possibility our finite little minds can comprehend. In an age where blockbusters like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy are accused of taking the "game" out of "videogame," its easy to see something like Morrowind as a critique of games that downplay the mediums innate virtues of interactive possibility. As a go-for-broke experiment in open-ended gameplay, Morrowind, like its predecessors Arena and Daggerfall, is ambitious, and that ambition is what gives the game a lot of its staying power. However, the manner in which it chooses to pursue that ambition is so single-minded, so dead-set on interpreting all aspects of the experience through a series of genre conventions, that it occasionally shoots itself in the foot. In many ways, Morrowind is a decisive improvement over the rest of the Elder Scrolls series and a relatively engaging game in its own right. As an attempt to realize a virtual world, though, its inability to think outside the role-playing game (RPG) box prevents it from achieving the sense of believability and purpose it obviously strives for.

Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a first-person RPG where a single player navigates the three-dimensional land of Tamriel, a fantasy world where a centralized, imperialist government rules uneasily over various ethnically diverse provinces, most of which feature races that are common to the role-playing genre such as elves, orcs, etc. Specifically, the game takes place on the Imperial district of Vvardenfall, the homeland of the Dark Elves where ethnic and religious tensions brought on by the Imperial occupation have sparked rumors of war. The game begins when the player, a prisoner from the imperial capital, arrives on a prison ship, is given her freedom without explanation, and set loose in Morrowind with only vague orders to report to the local Imperial secret service agent whenever it seems appropriate. From there, players have the option to pursue their orders (which, unsurprisingly, evolve into the main plot) or simply roam the land freely for as long as they desire and do anything that they wish. Naturally, theres quite a bit to do. The player can choose to plunder caves for treasure, sign on with the local law enforcement, join a religious cult, become a murderer, or even become an immortal vampire. All these are but a small handful of options available to the player and they all involve their own sets of people to meet, places to visit, and items obtain.

Of course, no RPG with this much variety would be complete without a system though which the player can customize her character. Naturally, the player is given the opportunity to choose a race, and gender, and a profession (or even create a profession if none seem suitable). These choices determine what skills and abilities the player will have during the game and from there can be customized as the player sees fit. Want to be an assassin who specializes in crossbows? Or a healer who responds to conflicts defensively? Or a charming rogue who can talk her way out of situations? Its all doable, and as long as players have the patience to improve their skills through repeated use or to buy training from experts, they have the opportunity to approach obstacles in a seemingly endless variety of ways.

Sounds great, right? Of course it does. The dream of the Ultimate Non-Linear RPG has been alive ever since the genre jumped off the page and into the virtual world of 1s and 0s. Its the holy grail the genre has sought after: to effectively recreate the sense of detail and narrative possibility that, previously, only a human imagination could provide. Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a dramatic push to make this dream a reality.

Its an admirable ambition, but one that works much better in theory than in practice. While theres no doubt that Morrowind is a much better game than either of its predecessors, it still suffers from the same core design weaknesses. The problem, I think, comes from two false assumptions. One, that a bigger world is a more real world, and two, that the subtlety achieved with lots of numerical stats is an effective substitute for the subtlety of actual physics. Sure, a big world with 50+ towns is realistic in the sense that its vast, but not as realistic as a world with five towns where the time that would have been spent to make the other 45 was spent giving each town the nuances that make them seem truly alive. Sure, a world where I cant kill a bandit because Im bad with a sword is realistic, but its far more unrealistic in the sense that my sword passes through my opponent without so much as being parried simply because a numeric skill rating is too low.

Things like these wouldnt be so terrible, except that Morrowind doesnt seem prepared to deal with narrative consequences implied by this absurd logic. It doesnt muster any really creative excuses for why the world operates the way it does other than "its an RPG." Why doesnt anyone one go to sleep? Why arent there any children? Why do otherwise peaceful people fly into a homicidal rage as their only response to the most benign physical threats? Why is your character bipolar in his/her response to any situation, only being able to choose between being a do-gooder or a self-serving scoundrel?

Dont get me wrong. Im not criticizing Morrowind because it contains weaknesses in logic. All games that attempt to simulate a believable world do. The best games of this sort, however, find fiendish and interesting ways of disguising them. Games like Deus Ex, Thief, and even The Legend Of Zelda: Majoras Mask managed to orchestrate such ingenious excuses for their obvious logical shortcomings that they transcended them to achieve an impressive illusion of believability. Rather than trouble itself with such things, Morrowind seems content to coyly ask the player to ignore them because well, I guess because we should be happy that the game is so damn big.

Not that this makes Morrowind a bad game. Its actually quite a fun game, just not a very good example of a world simulation. Even though to accept the world as real required a suspension of disbelief that was beyond me, I did find the basic format of advancing in a profession to be engaging. In my game I was a thief, and I had fun thieving, looting, and becoming involved in conspiracy plot that decided the fate of Morrowind and the Empire. So, I think the game works on many of the levels it promises, but just not on the one that is the most vivid and enticing. The back of the box promises the opportunity to "live another life," and that really isnt something that Morrowind delivers on. If you want that and all the dramatic subtlety it implies, youd be better off picking up a bargain bin copy of Fallout or Planescape: Torment. The Elder Scroll series, for all its achievements, still doesnt quite seem to understand that role-playing a profession isnt the same as role-playing a person. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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Videogames have come under heavy criticism in recent years for conventions they refuse to retire, conventions that, the argument goes, are rendered absurd by the graphical realism and sophisticated 3D environments that have become commonplace. The RPG genre in particular has been the target of much of this criticism, but the reason is fairly complicated. Unlike most other videogame genres it actually predates the medium, finding its roots in the pure abstraction of pen & paper role-playing games. In these games events of the story were created by combining the players imaginations with a set of governing rules that were designed to represent or approximate the experience of being at the center of a mythic scenario. Since many of these rules were simply borrowed by video role-playing games they have had an uneasy relationship with the growing standards of realism that evolving technology has made possible. Games like Final Fantasy X have been criticized for adhering to conventions like random combat when many feel that the impressive sense of reality suggested by its visuals is only undermined by such techniques, since the limitations that made them necessary no longer exist.

Such arguments are on-going, and I wont dwell on them in this review. However, a basic comprehension of them is important to understand just what is special about Dragon Warrior VII (DW7), Enixs old-school-style RPG recently released for the PlayStation. DW7 is a game that not only employs but revels in practically every convention that console RPGs have used since their birth in the mid-80s, and it is an excellent example of how, when matched with the appropriate sense of style, these conventions still work beautifully.

Although the Dragon Warrior series does maintain a linear fiction of sorts, DW7 is an independent story that should not be mistaken for a continuation of Dragon Warrior IV, the last game of the cardinal series that actually came out here. (Incidentally, IVs story was resolved in V and VI which never saw American release.) DW7 opens in a small fishing village on the coast of an island, or I should say the island since it is the only island in the world. In this bright and tranquil setting you are introduced to three friends: Keifer, a prince of the only castle on the island; Maribel, the daughter of a wealthy shipwright, and a third character, the son of a local fisherman, whom you play and get to name. Thats really it. The game begins with no expository momentum, but it isnt long before some spooky business about magic ruins, time travel, and saving the world turns up. From then on its all about exploration, combat, and dialogue in the grand tradition of classic console RPGs.

DW7 is a balanced game. Virtually every aspect of it works together smoothly making it a comfortable experience that is devoid of redundancy.

DW7 uses extremely simple graphics, offering old-style iconic characters in a modestly detailed 3D world. At first glace it seems primitive, but prolonged play will reveal that it is economical. The graphics are only as detailed as they need to be since they are complimented by a rich dialogue system. This succeeds in giving the world a personality that needs little visual assistance. Conversation can be initiated any time (even in battle) with party members, and they have something to say about practically every conceivable situation. The result is a potent one, an experience where you really feel like you are traveling with people, not simply leading a graphic around who only speaks up when a dramatic event takes place. The arbitrary nature of 90% of the dialogue in DW7 is why it succeeds so well in drawing you into the game, and this wouldnt have been possible without favoring text over graphics as heavily as it does.

Random combat also benefits from the minimalist graphics. Because they are so abstracti.e. because the visuals are obviously meant as representations of reality rather than reality itselfevents like switching to a different perspective for combat seems like a logical extension of this rather than an odd hold-over like in Final Fantasy. Of course, it also helps that, because the graphics are so simple, DW7 enjoys noand I mean noloadtimes. This (along with the fact that they are visually pleasing and reward strategy) makes the random battles in DW7 not the chore they have become in recent RPGs but the concise and fun experience they were originally designed to be in order to support countless hours of play.

DW7 is arguably one of the longest console RPGs ever made (topping out at a whopping 100 hours, give or take 20) and, unlike many other long RPGs, it is designed to be played at a comfortable pace. The plot has been cleverly divided into simple episodes that are neither time-consuming nor over-demanding of the players memory. In other words, the designers actually went out of their way to make a time-management-friendly game, something that can easily be picked up or put down without fear of losing interest. I find this refreshing after suffering through RPGs that expected me to remember details from hour 5 to comprehend the fourth plot-twist in hour 37.

The balance between graphics, dialogue, combat, and overall pacing wouldnt be enough to make DW7 a great game. Even the best craftsmanship must be tempered with a sort of inspiration if it wants to be considered something more. Thats why the tone of DW7s story is the finishing touch that makes the experience worth while. In a market where convoluted narrative and epic melodrama have become the norm DW7 provides a nice contrast. Like the previous games of the series, it depends on understated dramatics that gradually build an emotional investment rather than shocking the player at every turn. The melancholy tone of the various episodes offers refreshing unpredictability. Although the overall plot is rudimentary for RPGs, most of the individual stories that make it up along the way are original and involve resolutions that seem both natural and sad. This may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that it dodges clichs with such ease is one of the reasons DW7 works for a game of its length. Its a world worth coming back to since you honestly never know what youll find.

This isnt to say that the game is flawless. Although it practically has no impact on overall quality, I feel it should be pointed out that the few instances where this game uses CG are an embarrassing mistake. I dont think I have seen uglier computer graphics in my life, and it seems puzzling that Enix would bother to keep these sequences when their simple but effective combination of text and sprites was perfectly adequate for all their story-telling needs. Also, the game begins extremely slow, and although I wouldnt call this technically a flaw it does encourage the possibly that players could grow impatient and quit before the strengths of the game have a chance to reveal themselves. I almost did, to be honest.

It may seem strange that I focused on some of the more general elements of the game in this review. I didnt even discuss the class system or weapon/item management, but thats because I think those aspects are self-evident in their balanced design once you get into the game. Because DW7 is so understated in todays overstated RPG market, I feel its true virtue lies in the near perfect balancing of its basic, simple elements. It is an extremely refreshing example of how the abstract nature of traditional RPG conventions are not necessarily outdated, but only become so when they are awkwardly paired newer design elements. By understanding how delicate a balance this is, DW7 achieves elegance. Unlike some of the more ambitious and experimental RPGs of our time, it knows exactly what it wants to be and evenly distributes its classic design concepts so that they form a harmonious whole. It is a comfortable and manageable game playing experiencethe videogame equivalent of a long, dense novel that is best read over a series of weeks and best enjoyed with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fire every night. Rating: 9 out of 10.

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Fatal Frame is a scary and original horror experience. While not a great game, it does deliver on its promise to explore the survival-horror genre from a fresh perspective. Tecmo, famous for their eccentric and macabre Deception series on the Playstation, has again combined unorthodox gameplay elements into a compelling experience. This game proves that a little creativity can inject a lot of life (and horror) into a good old-fashioned ghost story.

Unlike horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Fatal Frame takes place exclusively in Japan and spins a tale drenched in Japanese mythology. The story concerns the disappearance of a writer and his staff while researching a book in rural Japan. The game begins when Mafuyu Hinasaki, a friend of the writer, arrives at the remote mansion where the writer was last seen. After playing a short prologue as this character, the player takes control of Miku, Mafuyus sister, as she enters the mansion in search of her brother who is now also missing.

Like most other games of the genre, the basic gameplay involves exploration and collecting clues and items that will help the player eventually solve the mystery of the disappearances as well as the dark history of the mansion. Like Silent Hill, navigation involves walking around in the dark with a flashlight, and the interaction is mostly limited to either reading journals or collecting items that unlock new areas of the mansion and further the plot.

If this all sounds rather typical, thats because it is. Fatal Frame would be an uninspired (but well-produced) genre exercise if it werent for a single element upon which the entire game sinks or swims. That element is photography, odd as it sounds. Miku is equipped with a camera, and that camera is what the game is all about. For reasons better left in the game, the camera is attuned to the supernatural and can "see" ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Players can defend themselves from ghosts by taking pictures (apparently sucking their power away) and relive their scariest moments via photo albums that can be saved, edited, and viewed at any time. The camera also serves as a tool to solve puzzles. Taking pictures of certain things (doors, for example) will reveal clues that are relevant to moving the story along.

The camera may sound like a gimmicky idea, and it is. However, the way its implemented in the game represents a small stroke of genius. Since the player spends much of the game peering through the lens of the camera, the designers have smartly taken the opportunity to build a world that exploits the players limited perspective at every opportunity. The game is normally in 3rd person, which often means the only way to see things up close is through the lens of the camera. Youll find yourself using it often to peer into the dark or examine your surroundings—a behavior that, because it seems so natural, sets the stage for the horrifying encounters that make Fatal Frame unique. The player typically feels (though the controllers vibration) or hears a ghost before it can be seen. This forces the player to rely on the camera to find it, and the results are often frightening in a way that few games are. Theres nothing quite like hearing a wail in the dark and "feel" the beat of Mikus heart quicken as you spin around and come face-to-face the eyeless sockets of a deformed woman whose pale arms are extending towards your neck. Its moments like these that make Fatal Frame stand out, and there are plenty of them. Since ghosts can come at any place and at any time, surviving the mansion becomes a wicked little game of peek-a-boo. More damage is awarded for taking the closer snapshot, which means that often survival and taking the most terrifying pictures come hand in hand. The result is a weird element of masochism that makes the game enjoyable. Players will no doubt want to see just how scary and dangerous their pictures can get, and it doesnt take long for an aesthetic sensibility to emerge. In the end, it isnt about survival, but about how scary your album is. This is fascinating because it creates a relationship between the player and the game that is much more dynamic than usual in a horror game. Shooting zombies in Resident Evil will never change, but you can always try to get a scarier picture of a ghost.

Regardless of how effective the central mode of gameplay is at creating horror, Fatal Frame manages to drop the ball in several other areas. First and foremost is the localization. I was sorely disappointed to discover that this game is English voice only. While I suppose I cant expect Tecmo to leave the game in Japanese for an audience as subtitle-phobic as America, they could have at least had the decency to leave the original language in as an option for those of us who would appreciate having the cultural ambiance of the story remain intact. I bought this game because I was interested in a horror story that is uniquely Japanese, and the English voices simply work against this. Of course, it would also have helped if the acting werent stilted and awkward much of the time. With the exception of Miku and (thank god) most of the ghosts, the performances are so wooden Id call them terrible acting except for the fact that I cant call them acting at all. Also, the writing in the game could have been translated better. Although the events discussed in the journals and letters found throughout the game are disturbing in and of themselves, they are often recounted in bland and straight forward prose that does little to stimulate the readers imagination let alone induce fear. The game remains successfully scary in many ways, but a simple rewrite of the text and the inclusion of Japanese voices as an option would have done wonders for making Fatal Frame a more whole experience.

Beyond translation, Fatal Frame has a few other nagging issues. The control is occasionally problematic. For most of the game its fine, but it becomes frustrating in some of the more difficult ghost battles. Youd think Miku could manage more than an anemic shuffle when fleeing from unholy death, but the movement in Fatal Frame is typically sluggish and doesnt respond well to camera changes. When seconds count, this can be very annoying. Also, although this might be a personal preference, I think Fatal Frame drops the ball on a lot of its scariness by explaining too much. The makers of this game could learn a thing or two from games like Silent Hill about what and what not to say in a horror story. Instead of allowing the player to piece together the story in a way that fuels her or his imagination, Fatal Frame provide many convenient cutscenes and other expository material that leave no element of interpretation to the plot. Horror is based largely on fear of the unknown, and after the last "explain it all" journal there wasnt much left to stimulate my sense of fearful wonder except taking pictures.

And thats really why this game succeeds and why I recommend it. The photography element works and works beautifully, and I think anyone who enjoys having their sense of fear manipulated in a unique and satisfying why will find this game worth their time. Its just a shame that some of the other elements arent as inspired. If the game had a better localization and more faith in the players imagination it might have been a great horror game. As it is, it will have to settle for being a good horror game with a few great ideas. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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

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