As we approach the 18 month mark in the Xbox 360's lifespan, there's one thing I can say for certain: if you like shooters (first or third person, run-and-gun or squad-based) this is the system for you. Sure, the 360 has a few niche games (the oddly endearing Viva Pinata, Rockstar's Table Tennis), a smattering of RPGs (the western-styled Oblivion and the more traditional Enchanted Arms), and even the requisite Grand Theft Auto clone (Saint's Row), but at the end of the day, this is a system that seems to live and die by shooters. F.E.A.R, Gears of War, Rainbow 6: Vegas, Quake 4, Ghost Recon: Advance Warfighter, and the upcoming Halo 3…the list just goes on and on. I like these games-I really do-but I often find myself looking at the list of 360 releases and wishing there were just a bit more diversity in terms of genre. This looks like it will be changing in the months ahead (there are some RPGs on the horizon, including Blue Dragon, as well as some other interesting looking titles), but at the moment, a lot of the Xbox 360 library's gameplay revolves around shooting things. Take, for example, Prey.

A port of a PC first-person shooter (FPS), Prey is all about running around and blasting things with a number of different weapons and giggling at the aftermath as heads explode in fountains of blood, bone, and brains. Featuring a sci-fi setting (as opposed to the other standard of the genre-a historical war from human history), the title evokes memories of both Doom 3 and Half-Life. However, what sets the game apart is that unlike most games in this genre (and most games in general); the protagonist of Prey is a Native American. It's nice to see gaming reaching for more ethnic diversity in their characters-and rest assured that making the lead of Prey a Cherokee Indian isn't just lip service…it's vital to the story and the gameplay.

As the story opens, players will take control of Tommy, a young man living on a reservation. Tommy yearns to escape from the confines of his community (seemingly both physically and spiritually-he tells his grandfather numerous times that he doesn't believe in the mysticism of his people), but his girlfriend, Jen, has no real interest in leaving. Before this potential stalemate can reach critical mass, an alien ship abducts Tommy, Jen, and his grandfather. Trapped on the ship, Tommy gets free and sets out to save his loved ones while trying to eradicate the alien menace. During his adventure, he'll become more in-tune with his roots and learn that the alien presence isn't an invasion, but something much more sinister.

Most of Prey's ten-or-so hours of game time is spent guiding Tommy through the alien ship, known as The Sphere. Here, the game is like Doom 3 in that a lot of the environments are dimly lit metal corridors where aliens can pop out and launch a surprise attack at nearly every turn. What sets the game apart is a unique twist-since the environment is an alien ship, there are strange portals that warp players to other areas, magnetized strips that allow Tommy to walk up walls and across ceilings, and buttons that flip rooms, making the floor the ceiling and vice versa. Since Tommy is a Native American (which is a culture with a rich spiritual background), he learns early on how to "spirit walk"-which means leave his body and breach unpassable areas with his soul. While this initially seems mostly like a gimmick, Prey does eventually use all these cool elements as a vital component of the gameplay. Progressing past a puzzle or dead-end often involves using these environmental and spiritual factors. Is there a wall blocking Tommy's path? Look for a flip switch (you may have to spirit walk to get it), walk across the ceiling, then flip the room back to the original setting and proceed. Sometimes, the game even requires players to leave their body in just the right place so that their spirit can move them from one location to another with switches. It's all very cool.

The core of the game is focused squarely on running-and-gunning and it's mostly successful. Prey is a pretty standard affair in the world of FPS games, content to let players grab ammo and health replenishers at various points while switching between a number of different weapons. And while the game is on an alien ship, complete with guns unlike anything found on Earth, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the guns looked different but mostly acted like traditional human weapons. There's the basic rifle, which has a scope for sniping, an acid gun that's just a gussied up shotgun, a rocket launcher, a more powerful rifle with a secondary function of throwing grenades, and so on. The only truly alien piece of weaponry was the leech gun, which can be filled with either plasma, lightning, or frost ammo (and late in the game, sun ammo). Unfortunately, the ammo choices are mostly aesthetic since they're never used in puzzles or anything like that.

Late in the game, Prey does stray a bit from its "blast everything" gameplay, incorporating a small space ship that Tommy uses to reach higher levels in a tower. While this sounds cool in theory, I found these portions of the game lasted way longer than they should have and became incredibly tedious as time went on. It's nice to see developers trying to break up the routine-but these vehicle segments add little more than aggravation to what was already a solid gaming experience. Prey works best when it's got Tommy running around on foot dodging enemies, flipping rooms around, and dispatching aliens with extreme prejudice. These flight segments seem clunky and out of place-almost as if they belonged in another game entirely.

Conversely, an idea that does work is the lack of a save and reload system. Where most modern FPS games have implemented an autosave checkpoint system in their levels, Prey forgoes this in favor of something a little different. When Tommy dies, he's whisked off to a spirit world. Here, he engages in a mini-game where he must shoot red and blue birds with his bow. Red birds give him health, blue spirit energy. After a short time, he's pulled back to the land of the living in the same spot where he died. This is a nice feature because it never requires players to play through stuff they've already done (which is invariably what happens in other games when people die between checkpoints). Because of this, there's never a bogging down of the narrative. On the other hand, it does occasionally make the game a little too easy. Also, a variety of mini-games would have been nice. After shooting the birds for the 20th time, it gets a little old.

Visually, the game looks good. While some of the more recent 360 titles have started to take advantage of the hardware in ways that Prey didn't, this game still impresses with its graphics. Most of the ship is a series of corridors (which are nicely rendered), but occasionally things open up and Tommy can see more wide open areas. This generally happens in the flying segments, which aren't the most fun, but at least players are treated to some breathtaking vistas while working through the tedium.

Prey makes excellent use of the 360 controller with key functions laid out intuitively across all the buttons and triggers. The analog sticks are responsive (almost a little too responsive in sniper mode), the shoulder buttons cycle through weapons either backwards or forwards, and the trigger feels great when firing. My only real complaint here is that to open things or activate a switch (a very common occurrence in the game), players will have to press the right trigger-which is also the fire button. If Tommy isn't lined up properly, the gun shoots instead of hitting a button. Compounding this problem is that it's always Tommy's left hand that does the opening/button punching. Using the left trigger to do this would have seemed more intuitive. A minor quibble, for sure, but one that bugged me throughout.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent audio in the game. Prey features a really moody soundtrack from composer Jeremy Soule (of Elder Scrolls fame) and some very good voice acting. The main characters (Tommy, Jen, and his grandfather) are particularly good, sounding like genuine Native Americans without being caricatures. Also, radio host Art Bell lends his talents to the game-as himself. At various points of the narrative, Tommy will stumble across a transmitter that is broadcasting Bell's show. These interviews are pretty funny and help flesh out the story a bit.

In the pantheon of Xbox 360 shooters, Prey is one of those games that straddles the line between the A and B list. It's not a AAA experience like Gears of War, but it definitely does so many things right and well that it's deserving of being placed amongst the best the system has to offer-even if it pales a bit in comparison to most of its compatriots. While it doesn't do anything we haven't seen a few hundred times before (indeed-if you looked up "traditional FPS" in the gaming dictionary, there would almost assuredly be a picture of this game), it does almost everything competently and tells a pretty good story while doing it. On a console with less shooters, this would be a gem. Compared with the rest of the 360 shooter library, Prey has to settle for just being very good. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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On August 9, 1969 Charles Manson's "family" broke into the home of filmmaker Roman Polanski. Polanski wasn't home at the time, but his wife, actress Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant), and several guests were. The group would slaughter everyone present—then strike again a mere ten days later, adding two more bodies to the total. When they're caught a short time later, Manson becomes a ghoulish celebrity—the devil incarnate, a man feared more than any other.

Since the crimes are so sensationalistic, it's no surprise several books chronicling Manson and his band of hippies sprang up almost over night. Naturally, most of these affairs were written in the style of today's tabloids—any facts that can't be corroborated can still be used and if you're unsure about certain details, feel free to use artistic license and make up something that sounds good.

However, one of these books, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (written by Ed Sanders of the rock group The Fugs), gains more attention than many of the others. Sanders' book asserts The Family not only committed the Tate and La Bianca murders, but they may have been involved in something even more heinous—the making and trafficking of snuff films. This may or may not have been the first time the phrase "snuff film" was used—but it is almost assuredly the point where it infiltrated the collective consciousness of the American citizenry.

For those readers who aren't up on the history and terminology of transgressive cinema, the "snuff film" is a film wherein a person (or persons) is murdered in front of a camera. This film is then offered to an underground network of collectors who supposedly relish viewing these atrocities. The snuff film is not to be confused with the mondo documentary (a la the sensationalistic Italian documentaries like Mondo Cane, Shocking Africa, et al.) or the Death Tape or "shockumentary" (e.g. Traces of Death, Faces of Death, etc.). The mondo documentary and death tapes exist—you can rent them at your local video store in most instances. Snuff, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a clever urban legend. After decades of raids, reported findings of snuff films (which have turned out to be legitimate movies like Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, or Hidoshi Hino's Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood—a film that Charlie Sheen turned over to the FBI because he thought it was real), and sensationalistic claims of underground murder movie rings, no one has ever found a real snuff film made for distribution. Murder has been captured on tape, but never in the way that the snuff film supposedly operates—as a commercial enterprise.

And yet, the myth of snuff cinema lives on—buoyed along not only by the popular media (before Nic Cage starred in 8mm or Alejandro Amenabar made Thesis other filmmakers were exploring the mystique of snuff in Emanuelle in America [Joe D'Amato aka Aristide Massacessi], Last House on Dead End Street [Roger Watkins], Hardcore [Paul Schrader], and the most infamous of all, Michael and Roberta Findlay's Snuff with a generous assist from distributor Allan Shackleton), but by the fact that no matter how repulsive the idea of snuff cinema may be, it also seems like something that could very well be real.

The latest group of mavericks to build a piece of entertainment around the supposedly taboo subject of snuff is none other than Rockstar games. Rockstar, no strangers to controversy since the release of the Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), have once again pushed the boundaries of what's acceptable in gaming with the release of Manhunta game that plays like a cross between Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and a 42nd Street grindhouse exploitation flick.

As Scott points out, this game isn't for the weak-hearted. Manhunt is the most perverse and disturbing game I've ever experienced. It does make GTA3 look like Sesame Street. However, my problem with Scott's score is that he's essentially penalized the game not because of technical shortcomings (which are mentioned in passing), but primarily because it offended him. Manhunt is a twisted game—but it's not a game that deserves a 3.5 rating.

Once players get past the gore and nearly pornographic violence of this title, they're treated to one of the better action stealth games to come along in recent memory. Say what you will about Rockstar and their tendency to live off of controversy, but it's hard to deny they make interesting games that do more than simply up the ante in terms of violence and graphic content. GTA is cited by the mainstream because, in it, you can sleep with hookers and then bludgeon them to death. Gamers cite it as a great game because it offered up an unparalleled amount of freedom in its open-ended design. Manhunt will almost assuredly be looked at in the same contradictory terms by the opposing groups.

While there is no shortage of things that impressed me about this game (and I'll get to those shortly), I think the thing that left the biggest impression was the game's completely nihilistic tone. Manhunt is like the bastard offspring of Nietzsche and The Marquis de Sade—had they been game developers. It thrusts players into a world that's so dark, so foreboding, and so all-encompassed by evil, hopelessness, and despair that the hero of the game is a mass murderer. Playing the game reminded me a lot of watching John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in that there was no good in this world, just an endless darkness. This isn't a pleasant feeling, or one that many people go out of their way to experience, but it's really impressive for a game, a medium that's still in its infancy in terms of being an artform. That's not to say Manhunt is art, but it's certainly a title that is going to pave the way for growth in gaming (albeit in both good and bad ways, most likely).

Nihilistic tone wasn't the only thing that really impressed me about Manhunt, though—there are about a bazillion technical elements that stand out as well. Everything from the art design (which complements the game's tone flawlessly—I never want to visit Carcer City), the casting of the inimitable Brian Cox as the voice of the game's antagonist, to the ingenious use of the USB headset to add to the immersiveness of the gameplay (by allowing Brian Cox's character to speak directly in your ear throughout most of the game—he's like the little devil on your shoulder urging you on to greater atrocities as the game progresses) is top notch. This game isn't Roadkill—a lackluster game that tried to lure gamers in with graphic content but didn't have the gameplay to hook them. Manhunt is the real deal—one of those rare games that sports not only mature content, but also solid gameplay to go along with it.

Manhunt's main gameplay component centers on stealth. Lead character James Earl Cash must sneak around the gang-infested Carcer City while offing his enemies in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. Cash can lure his opponents away from their comrades and deal out swift and merciless death by using his environment. Tapping walls, tossing bricks, or chucking a severed head around a corner will all get the bad guys' attention—as will talking into the game's headset. Meanwhile, Cash hides in the shadows, watching his prey—and when they turn their back, he sneaks up on them and kills them. The brutality of the kill (there are three levels) depends on how long the player holds the attack button before actually committing the action. Level three kills are the most gruesome of the bunch

Each and every kill gets its own cutscene—the game switches to a grainy video camera point-of-view (further adding to the snuff film ambiance), and this is where the men are separated from the boys. The cutscenes in Manhunt capture everything in loving detail—plunging shards of glass into guys' faces, decapitation with piano wire, or beating them to death with baseball bats (amongst countless other tools of death) and are shown with an unflinching eye. The sound work only adds to the game's chilling effect

Many will question whether or not this level of violence was necessary. There's no real answer to this question—is the graphic portrayal of violence in any medium truly necessary? Truthfully, it's an aesthetic decision—not much different than Peckinpah pushing the boundaries of what could be done in cinema with The Wild Bunch.

There will be members of the gaming community and the greater community at large who will assert that Rockstar only included over-the-top violence for violence's sake and to create controversy. I can't say this isn't true. However, in my own estimation, the violence in Manhunt seems more designed as a response to the company's critics than a mere gimmick. While Joe Lieberman and company decry the GTA games for their violence at every opportunity—as though these games were the most graphic things ever created—Rockstar has come out with a new game that makes the violence in GTA seem quaint in comparison. People who were afraid that GTA desensitized them to wanton violence have now discovered they're not nearly as jaded as they thought. I'd go as far as to imagine that at some point, people who thought they were desensitized by the violence in Manhunt will discover there are even worse things out there, too (and I know—I make a living writing about some of the most twisted stuff ever committed to film; believe me, there are things out there that make Manhunt look fairly innocuous). Whether or not this is a good thing is a personal decision—but I like what Rockstar's done with this gamea lot.

The other area where the game works really well is in terms of intensity. Manhunt is a hard game—a lot of the gameplay revolves around the old "try-and-die" school of game mechanics, meaning players will wander into an area, try something, fail, die, and start again. The enemies can be unforgiving and unrelenting in their pursuit of Cash, meaning that a slow and steady approach is often the best course of action. Running from a group of white supremacists whose only goal in life is to dismember me is intense—I literally had sweaty palms at some points (particularly in the level where Piggsy—a creature you must see to believe—was chasing me with a chainsaw).

Yet for all that's good about Manhunt, it's not a game without some problems. While Scott wasn't enamored with the controls, I didn't find them particularly troublesome. What bothered me were the title's later levels, wherein the game will switch from a straight up stealth gore game to a more frenetic action shooter. Levels occasionally employ run-and-gun game mechanics that seem strangely out of place after all the sneaking around, and it's just not as much fun as stealthily taking out enemies. While the early portions of the game tend to let the player decide to fight it out if he chooses (which is rarely ever the best course of action, but players can succeed by not using stealth), these later stages force the player into shooting everything. It's a bit of a letdown, particularly when the targeting system could use some tweaking.

Another problem area is the title's inevitable reliance on "game logic." Game logic issues are those weird things that happen in a game that could never happen in real life—and I don't mean flying, or magic mushrooms, or anything like that. Instead, I mean things like hobbits who can't cross ankle-deep streams, or players who can jump over some cars but not others—things developers put in to make the gameplay work or to keep players on the predestined path, basically. Manhunt's biggest game logic problem is an essential one, but it's still a problem. If Cash enters the shadows and stands still, no one can see him, even if the enemy is standing two feet in front of him. Even more interesting is that no one in the game, not even the bad cops, has access to a flashlight. I can understand why this is, but it does occasionally ruin the immersiveness of the experience.

Finally, even though the stealth portions are the highlight of the game, there's a fair amount of repetition while playing them. Cash sneaks around, lures in his prey, kills them, and does it all over again. Sure, the different weapons and gory animations attempt to keep things fresh, but even the novelty of killing someone with a chainsaw wears off after the 20th time the player has done it. Factor in that players will be dying a lot, and hence re-playing areas over and over, and the repetition factor increases.

I don't think Scott's wrong for scoring Manhunt with a 3.5 rating. I believe he was genuinely affected by the content of the game (which is so in-your-face it can't be ignored), and it kept him from enjoying the experience. Reviews are ultimately subjective pieces, and I think Scott did a fine job of saying why he didn't have fun with Manhunt. I feel the opposite of Scott, but at least part of that's attributable to the fact that I have a keen appreciation for gore films and transgressive cinema as a whole. Yet, even getting past that, there's a solid game here, buried under all the violence and controversy—it would be a shame if stealth game fans missed it because it was overshadowed by the title's gory aesthetics. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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According to ESRB, this game contains: Violence

Parents shouldn't worry too much about the game's T rating—the violence is little more than beating guys up, something that kids have been doing since before the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. There's no blood or gore, as defeated enemies simply disappear from the screen entirely. Parents should probably be more concerned about wasting $20 on a game that isn't very good, and their kids will shelve, never to play again, within minutes.

Hardcore gamers can walk right by this one. While players will occasionally find a diamond in the rough in the $20 rack, this game is not one of them.

Casual gamers can also safely give this one a pass, unless they're diehard Aquaman fans—but I'm not even sure such a thing exists.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers shouldn't have any concerns with this title—at least not in the sound department. There's no spoken dialogue at all, and the only talking in the entire game happens during the lame cutscenes between chapters—complete with all of the text in comic-book speech bubbles.

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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I find myself agreeing with Brad on almost all counts when it comes to Dual Hearts. This is an underrated game that got overshadowed by a lot of 'high hype' titles last year, which is disappointing because it's a title that had a lot to offer to gamers looking for something a little different.

The concept of a "dreamworld" hasn't been used so effectively since the original Alundra game on the PlayStation. The physical world of Sonno Island (where our heroes spend the entirety of their adventure) is a small place comprised of a scant number of locations. However, by adding dreamworlds to the mix, the game seems much larger-and much more diverse—than most gamers would imagine. Factor that in with the hybridized gameplay mechanics (the title merges adventure game aesthetics with traditional action role-playing game elements and tosses in a healthy pinch of platforming as well) and you wind up with a title that isn't quite like anything else on the market.

This isn't to say the game is particularly innovative—because as Brad points out, it's not. The elements that Dual Hearts appropriates as its own are all borrowed from other games. However, the way it melds all these things into a cohesive whole is really what makes the game shine.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't second Brad's sentiments on the game's art design. While Dual Hearts won't be winning any awards for its graphical brilliance, the game's visuals tend to fit the mood nicely. The little girl's dreamworld (with the pop-up storybook design) is particularly inspired and arguably one of the coolest level ideas I've seen in a game in quite some time.

Unfortunately, most gamers missed out on this under appreciated title—which is a shame, since it's pretty scarce these days. However, those looking for something a little lighter and different should certainly give Dual Hearts a look. It's not a blockbuster AAA title, but it certainly delivers an entertaining gaming experience. Rating: 7 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

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Perhaps the most striking thing about playing Deus Ex: The Conspiracy a short while ago was how real the story seemed in the wake of September 11th. What was initially a noir-cyberpunk tale about a frightening American future suddenly seemed a lot less fantasy-tinged after watching terrorists attack American landmarks.

Even the inclusion of a plague-like biological agent infecting the citizens of the country, once surely only living in the realm of nightmare and worst case scenario discussions, seemed infinitely more plausible after months of anthrax-filled letters in post offices and the ever-present threat of a smallpox outbreak.

What once was simply a fantasy game with a dark and apocalyptic vision of the future (a future that many of us thought could never happen in our lifetime) suddenly became much more poignant. While we may not have cyborg-enhanced super agents defending the country, many of the games other elements have become all too real.

This newfound poignancy is just one more reason why Deus Ex is such an incredible game. Ever since its release on the PC a few years back, the game has been praised for its open-ended design, one that allows players to choose from a number of options to solve each of the games situations. Since main character JC Denton can be upgraded in any number of different ways, blasting everything in sight was but one option to get through the games numerous areas. If players preferred, they could concentrate on using stealth, or hacking computer systems, or any number of other options.

Because of this, Deus Ex has a tremendous amount of replay value. To truly experience all the different outcomes to situations, one would have to play through the game several times. Factor in the multiple endings, and the games replay value only increases.

Deus Ex also earned critical acclaim for the way it seamlessly blended diverse gaming genres into a cohesive and entertaining whole. At first glance, the game appears to be yet another first-person shooter (FPS). Everything is viewed from JCs perspective and theres lots of running around and shooting. However, the game also incorporates an abundance of gameplay elements from role-playing games (RPGs). The inclusion of quest-styled missions, characters that JC can talk to, and the leveling-up of his systems are all things not normally found in a traditional FPS. Deus Ex often feels like a hybridized gameeven today, its still one of the few games out there thats successfully blended very different genres into a satisfying game experience.

However, not everything about Deus Ex is so wonderful. The PlayStation 2 port, while being serviceable, is far from perfect. The games not aging well graphically, and the PlayStation 2s limited graphical abilities really mar the presentation. Textures are absolutely hideous in a number of places, and the character models are laughably simplistic.

Worse still are the frequent and lengthy loading times. The PlayStation 2s limited memory requires the game to load sections in small chunks, and switching from one area to another causes the game to stop for loading purposes. This is particularly troubling when JC has to cross through several areas in succession to reach somewhere else. Players will spend more time waiting for the section to load than they do traveling through it.

And last but not least are the controls. Anyone whos played a console FPS no doubt realizes these games were designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind. Deus Ex is no exception. Trying to line up the crosshairs on a target in the heat of battle can be a nightmare. The analog sticks are too responsive, meaning the player will often swing wildly, missing the target in the center of the screen by wide margins. While players will eventually get acclimated to the control scheme, it never really becomes intuitive, which means lots of players will find themselves dying as they struggle to line up their target or flail on the wrong button repeatedly.

Despite the flaws, theres no denying that Deus Ex is an excellent game. While the graphics may not have aged well, the gameplay is just as solid and entertaining as it was back when the original PC version was released. Factoring in the relevancy of its terrorists and plague in America plotline and the game transcends the confines of mere entertainment and becomes something morea frightening commentary on our turbulent times. Rating: 7 out of 10

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

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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I suppose the best way to describe my time with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is to say that I often had a love/hate relationship with the game. Bethesda has undertaken a monumental task in trying to create a role-playing game (RPG) that allows the player to do whatever he chooses, and while they should be commended for elevating the art of game design, Morrowind itself seems to be most fairly viewed as an ambitious, yet deeply flawed game.

By trying to give the player the freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants, Bethesda has certainly pushed the envelope for what can be achieved in terms of non-linear game design. Unfortunately, in the process, theyve also highlighted most of the major flaws with this style of gameplay.

As Mike points out, its easy to forget that Morrowind is a game. It eats up hours of real world time in a way that I havent seen since EverQuest, which can be either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. Occasionally, the game itself is a chorenot unlike a job in the real world. It was in these moments that I hated Morrowind the most. Sure, the game design may allow you to go wherever you want and do things in any order you choose (even to the point of avoiding the games main quest in its entirety), but that doesnt change the fact that the bulk of the games quests are all versions of the same three thingsescort someone somewhere, kill someone and steal something, or find an ancient relic. There are literally hundreds of quests in the game, but the vast majority of them never stray beyond the three objectives mentioned above.

What saves Morrowind (and pushes me back into the love category) is that the game allows the player to complete the majority of the quests in any way he sees fit. Much like the shooter/role-playing hybrid Deus Ex, Morrowind presents a large number of options in how to handle each and every situation. Players can kill people, bribe them, soothe them with some smooth talk, or simply steal whatever it is they need. The game thus often feels quite lifelike, which only adds to the immersive quality of the experience as a whole. This is where Bethesda has really improved upon standard game design and structure.

Perhaps the biggest flaw with the game is that it can often be incredibly overwhelming. Vvardenfell is a massive world, and traversing it from one coast to the other is no small undertaking. Couple that with the fact that almost everyone the player talks to will have some kind of quest for him to do, and gamers will often find themselves spending hours fulfilling menial tasks that seem to have little in the way of value. As Mike mentions, placing a little extra emphasis on the main quest would have certainly made the game more playable, and still wouldnt have sacrificed any of the non-linearity that Bethesda seems so devoted to.

One area that Mike didnt get into is the graphics. Morrowind is a taxing game for even high-end PCs to run, and it certainly gives the Xbox a workout as well. While the Xbox version looks good, it still doesnt compare to the PC version of the game running on a top of the line machine. The Xbox version is hampered by quite a few aliasing problems (where objects often have jagged edges instead of smooth ones), some pop-up (where items in the distance just pop into view) and a little draw in (where the player can see an item in the distance being drawn into the frame line by line). Worse still is the slowdown that will plague the game anytime you have three or four characters on screen casting spellsthe framerate takes a pretty big hit in those instances. Still, the game looks good for the most part. Those obsessed with graphics will no doubt want to pick up the PC version, though.

As Mike says, what you get out of Morrowind is proportional to what you put into it. Its quite the interesting dichotomy as far as videogames goon one hand, theres no denying the ambition of the game design. Bethesda set out to make a game that gives the player free will, and for the most part they succeeded. On the other hand, gamers have free will in real life, and few of us are using it to go on any great adventures. Morrowinds quest to give the player complete freedom is ultimately a double-edged swordwhile gamers will certainly be able to proceed as they see fit, many will become completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and give up in frustration. There simply has to be a happy medium between the heavily scripted and linear RPGs of series like Final Fantasy and the sheer open-endedness of a game like Morrowind. Bethesda is beyond that balancing point with this game, but they certainly have earned my respect by striving to take gaming to a different level. Rating: 7 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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The fact that Brad scored Eternal Darkness with only a 7.0 rating raised a few eyebrows on our message boards here at the site. It seems that the general consensus from the gaming magazines and other sites is that Eternal Darkness is a classic game, worthy of scores hovering very close to the perfect 10. Im sure some readers have been waiting for the second opinion review to come along in the hopes that maybe the score will improve. Unfortunately, its not going to improve much, because I had problems with many of the same game elements that Brad did while playing through the game.

Only my own personal love of the game's story (which does an excellent job of utilizing HP Lovecraft's Elder Gods mythos without actually using any of them by name) garners the game an extra .5 on the overall score. However, before you start sending in the hate mail, keep in mind that a 7.0 and a 7.5 are very respectable scores. I liked the gamea lot, at times, and would recommend it to anyone with a GameCube. Its just not quite the modern masterpiece that some of the other publications have been making it out to be.

With some minor tweaking, Eternal Darkness could have been a great game. The core ideaa horror story wherein the player takes control of a variety of different characters from different eras is an excellent one. The game's scope is nothing short of epic, which makes it a shame that the actual gameplay is so pedestrian.

The combat system is the biggest offender. In a move that seemed innovative at the time, Silicon Knights implemented a targeting system that would allow gamers to attack specific parts of an enemy's body. Some parts are more vulnerable than others, and attacking them can cripple the monster, making him much easier to deal with. The problem is that the targeting quickly becomes tedious; hitting monsters in the head is almost always the way to go, so that they'll stumble around blindly.

Exacerbating that problem, the game has approximately six different varieties of monsters to combat. There are more, if you count all of the palette swapped monsters of different gods, but thats an incredibly small number of foes for a game that lasts roughly 12 hours. So, not only is the hacking and slashing a little tedious (and the targeting system occasionally cumbersome), but the lack of variety in monster types quickly makes the game feel repetitious.

My other problem with the game is one that Brad hit on as well. While the idea of having all of these different characters is great, its too bad they all play almost exactly the same. Rather than implement different skill sets for each of the characters in the game, the developers have decided to take the easy way out and give the player a group of different characters that all play identically.

Do these flaws mean I disliked the game? Hardly. To the contrary, I actually liked Eternal Darkness quite a bit. It's got an excellent story in the pulp horror traditions of the 1920s, enough atmosphere to freak out even the most hardcore horror fan, and some excellent music and sound work. Intermingled with that are the above-mentioned flaws none of which ruin the game, but all of which ultimately bring down the final score a few notches. Play Eternal Darkness, but don't expect it to be a perfect game, because it's not. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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For the most part, I find myself agreeing with Mike's review of Capcom's Devil May Cry. The one element that seems to come up at numerous points in that appraisal revolves around just how stylish the game is—and I agree wholeheartedly. The game is stylish—in many ways, its a heady mélange of cinematic influences as diverse as the Hong Kong action film aesthetics of directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam crossbred with the surreal and menacing atmosphere of a Dario Argento horror film. The influences arent only cinematic, however. There are also numerous elements culled from earlier games—most notably Konamis Castlevania series, but also Capcoms Resident Evil games, Mega Man, and even Metal Gear Solid. Its the way that Shinji Mikami and crew have integrated these disparate elements into a semi-cohesive whole that makes the game so intriguing. Yet, I still cant shake the feeling that Devil May Cry is ultimately an exercise in style over substance.

Theres no denying that the game is often breathtaking to look at. Its rich and expansive environments are quite impressive and go a long way toward making the gaming experience an immersive one. Couple that with a battle system thats both simple enough so you can pick up the controller and begin playing immediately—but still deep enough that youll be working on perfecting combos hours after youve started—and youll see why this games generated the hype and early praise that it did.

Unfortunately, though, aside from those elements, there are several problems that mar the overall experience.

As Mike points out in his critique, the battle system allows the player to master a multitude of moves and combos. While this is certainly a good thing (and brings in elements of numerous fighting games), the fact that you can essentially run through the game without using the majority of the moves makes learning most of them seem pointless. The game would have been far more interesting had it required the gamer to master all the moves instead of just re-using the same few combos over and over. Further compounding that problem is the combo rating system. Killing enemies in the most stylish way possible earns you more of the red orbs that function as the games currency—and once you master one impressive combo, the game doesnt give you many reasons to deviate from it throughout the rest of the adventure. This can make the games combat quite repetitive.

Several of the other problems stem from Shinji Mikamis involvement with the Resident Evil series. While the control scheme is much more natural than Resident Evil's, the camera is just as annoying. The problem is that the camera cant be adjusted—it adjusts automatically, making it really easy to get spun around in rooms or hallways, and making combat occasionally more difficult than it has to be because you cant see whom youre fighting.

The other problem is less bothersome, but still a negative. The game features numerous puzzles that are so simple and generic (again, like Resident Evil) that calling them puzzles is probably giving them too much credit. The game sends you on a variety of fetch quests in order to acquire items that you need to advance to the next area. Disappointingly, the game eliminates the need to use your brain entirely—whenever you go up to something that needs an item to be put into it, the game asks if you want to place the specific item in the slot. Theres not even any need for trial and error since the game spells it all out for you. Granted, most gamers probably werent expecting a bunch of brainteasers, but why include it at all if its going to be relegated to such a minor role?

Im sure it probably sounds like I was unhappy with Devil May Cry, but thats not really the case. Mike did such a great job of pointing out the things that the game does well (and mentioning some of the problems that Ive tried to expand upon here) that I figured it was better to spend some time pointing out the flaws instead of just writing yeah, what he said and being done with it. While the game certainly does have some kinks in terms of the combat system, the camera, and the puzzles, theres no denying that its a good game overall. Honestly, this is what Konamis attempts at a 3-D Castlevania game for the Nintendo 64 should have looked like. While Devil May Cry's atmosphere, graphics, and button-crunching gameplay more than make up for the majority of the titles shortcomings, its flaws should not be overlooked. One can only hope that Capcom will tweak the formula a bit for the inevitable sequel. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

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