After plenty of delays, and months after the PC version has had time to make its mark on gaming, Doom 3 has finally made its way to the Xbox. An impressive achievement in audio and visual technology, Doom 3's visceral gameplay is a deliberate throwback to the original Doom from 1993 (appropriate, since the game is essentially just a retelling of the first). And for what creator Jon Carmack and his experienced team at id envisioned, Doom 3 is a resounding success.

Since Doom 3 is a remake of the original, the story is essentially the same. At a research base on Mars in the year 2145, a nameless Marine arrives to report for a routine assignment amid whisperings of missing persons and mysterious happenings. Armed with only a pistol and a flashlight, he's dispatched to a remote section of the compound to find an errant scientist. Quickly, things start to go awry, and soon enough all hell breaks loose—literally. The base slowly descends into chaos as the forces of Hell run rampant. The story will take our protagonist to Hell and back before its resolution.

Surprisingly, given its clear focus on action, storytelling is one of Doom 3's strongest points. This is not to say that the plot is anything spectacularly original or evocative, but the way the story unfolds—through in-game dialogue, radio conversations, emails, and audio logs downloaded to the Marine's PDA—provides a rich backdrop for the chaotic events that unfold.

Mood and atmosphere are the keys to Doom 3's success. The graphics and sound are simply phenomenal. Though the Xbox version certainly lacks the high-resolution detail of its PC cousin, it's doubtful that console gamers will care. Doom 3 is easily the most visually impressive game on the Xbox. The ugly, claustrophobic corridors that fill the game are crisp, lushly detailed and full of life. Although the game takes places almost entirely in similarly industrial environments, they are surprisingly varied. And when our hero descends into Hell itself, it's an astonishing sight. I vividly remember Hell in the original Doom (I also remember being pretty creeped out, despite the crudeness of the graphics by today's standards), and the reimagining of it is truly a frightening place. Additionally, the many hellish enemies players will encounter are all fantastically detailed and are believably animated with impressive fluidity. Most impressive, though, is that Doom 3 runs remarkably smoothly. Even when large numbers of enemies and tons of explosions and effects on screen, the frame rate chugs along without a hitch.

Doom 3 is also quite dark, making very impressive use of real-time shadows. Lights flicker, rooms are often dimly lit, and there are many sections of near total darkness. Our protagonist is armed with a flashlight, but he can't wield both the flashlight and a weapon at the same time. Now, some people might find that to be fairly contrived since even most modern day weapons can be fitted with a flashlight, but given the large arsenal our Marine accrues—particularly some that are heavy weapons or prototypes—I thought it would be less logical for him to have light attachments on them. Of course, I'm sure there is some creative counter-argument—maybe he should have a flashlight built in to his suit! But really, talking about logic in a game as outlandish as Doom 3 is absurd. Being forced to swap between the flashlight and the weapons is a pure gameplay mechanic, and it successfully creates a sense of fear and vulnerability.

The superlative audio adds tremendously to the game as well. I'm fortunate to have a quality stereo system that is able to capture the nuances of the sound, but I suggest that players not so fortunate with their home audio invest in a decent headset to fully experience the dynamic sound in the game. Just as seeing a blockbuster science fiction movie on TV is less engrossing than seeing it on the big screen with crisp surround sound, Doom 3 will lose much of its atmospheric impact without the sound cranked and clear. Subtle, often faint sound effects bring a great sense of tension to the gameplay. It's quite nerve-wracking to be pacing around in near-total darkness, only to hear a ghostly groan or thumping footsteps coming from close by.

But despite the advanced technology that encapsulates the game, Doom 3 is a decidedly old school experience. Carmack conspicuously eschews the many first-person shooter conventions popularized in the past five or so years by everything from Half-Life to Halo. Instead of having a shield-recharging system, a limited weapons arsenal or only allowing players to heal themselves at dedicated "health stations," id went back to the old school conventions of the original Doom: Our protagonist, the lone, tough-as-nails Marine (who, for no particular reason, is far tougher than his comrades, all of whom succumb to the forces of Hell), is a veritable one-man army with an arsenal that could put a hole in a small country, yet he moves adeptly and switches from a pistol to a chainsaw to a rocket launcher with superhuman speed; Armor and health are randomly scattered and often hidden in the most absurd places; and although the zombie marines display some decent artificial intelligence, for the most part the monsters in the game have simplistic, aggressive attack patterns—they are, after all, monsters.

Perhaps Doom 3's greatest achievement is that it proves that all these seemingly hackneyed conventions are still functional and do little or nothing to sacrifice suspension of disbelief. There seems to be an implicit assumption among game designers that "realistic" correlates to "believable," but Doom 3 proves that such is not the case. On the contrary, too often when a game strives to be "realistic," its contrivances become all the more obvious. With brisk pacing, spectacular atmosphere, high-tension gameplay and adept storytelling, Doom 3 hides its contrivances artfully.

Doom 3 is also very linear, which I view not as a shortcoming but as an integral part of the excellent pacing in the game. The PDA acts as a multifunctional tool that allows the Marine to access new areas and gain access to some hidden items when he downloads information from other characters' PDAs. Essentially, it's the same find-the-key gameplay of the original, but again id has turned archaic contrivances into believable gameplay.

This is not to say that Doom 3 couldn't have benefited from more progressive thinking in some respects. It would have been nice to see a little more variety or intelligence in the tactics of the enemies. What if, for example, instead of always blindly charging at the Marine, they kept their distance and tried to lure him in into a trap? Once the relatively simplistic attack patterns of the enemies are memorized, there is little effort in dispatching them unless they appear in large numbers. Fortunately new enemies appear often and they are varied well, but the replay value does take a bit of a hit.

The difficulty of Doom 3 is a point of contention as well. I don't mind the occasional surprise, but there are times when the cheap ambushes that are found throughout the game become a little too cheap and make the game too frustrating. In one example, I found a room full of ammunition. Having low health already and without any health packs in the area, I needed all the ammo I could get. I stepped out of the room only to encounter a veritable army of ghouls and, by the time I was done slaughtering them, I was literally one hit away from death and I had used nearly all of the ammo I had found. The whole thing was just a booby-trap. Additionally, the old "monster in the closet" gag gets old pretty fast. It doesn't happen all the time, but it often feels too forced and artificial to gel with the rest of the game.

Though it should be no secret to those who have read the PC reviews, the multiplayer is decidedly average. Personally, I would rather id had just skipped the competitive multiplayer altogether. It's clear that Carmack and company were focused on Doom 3 being a scary, solitary experience, and that the multiplayer was merely added on to appease the popular but misguided notion that what is essentially a minigame is a required feature in a first-person shooter.

For the Xbox, Doom 3 has been graced with a nice new feature: a cooperative campaign. It's a great feature; the levels are trimmed down to be more action-oriented, and the narrow corridors are widened a bit to accommodate two players. Weapons and ammo are also designated to each player, so it's impossible for one player to hoard all the items for him or herself. The downside, however, is that all of the multiplayer features are available only over Xbox Live or via System Link. All of the fun I had playing Halo cooperatively was with a buddy sitting next to me, and with a console with four controller ports, neglecting split-screen play is a rather glaring oversight.

But for an avid first-person shooter fan like myself, none of the complaints I can level at the single-player game amount to more than minor nitpicks. Doom 3 does so many things right that its retro-style gameplay feels decidedly new. Although, save for the visual technology, it does little to advance first-person shooters to new grounds in the way a game like The Chronicles of Riddick or Half-Life 2 does, it brings together the best qualities of the genre and serves as an example of how to do the most important things right. I'm sure many shooters will come along in the future with more complex gameplay, but Jon Carmack and his team have shown us that when the basics are done right, simplicity is all the firepower you need. Rating: 9 out of 10

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ZippyDSMlee
ZippyDSMlee
12 years ago

Doom 3 is the start of FPS’s getting out of great level design and innovative fun weapons,Doom 3 goes beyond normal realisms games have fallen into, basic bland weapons ontop of bad lighting and small poorly built levels leaves this game as a overall downgrade to FPSs prehaps if remero stayed there would be some worth while design left in ID based games…,the only good thing about D3 is the story the engine handicapped the game. I believe it was Metroid prime dev team that coined the phrase first person adventure but what no one seems to realize is that… Read more »

Since the original Deus Ex made its auspicious debut in 2001 to a resounding ovation from gamers and industry insiders alike, Warren Spector has had a great deal of expectations to meet in crafting a sequel as ambitious as the first. And Deus Ex: Invisible War is certainly no half-baked sequel. The game has gone under the knife for a major facelift, and whether one finds Invisible War to be a worthy successor of its predecessor depends largely on what aspects of the original they most value. But regardless of the ire that will inevitably be felt by some, Invisible War improves on the elements Spector himself felt most integral to the game and does away with much of the extraneous elements he felt detracted from the experience he was trying to create. The result is a game that is more focused than the original, and although it often overlooks fundamentals it is one of the most brilliantly crafted games of the year.

The first and most controversial change is that the Nanotech and Skills systems from the first have been condensed into a much simpler "Biomod" system. There are five skeletal sections, each with three biomod skill slots such as cloak, hacking, stealth, bot domination, regeneration, strength, and the like. Some of them are passive, meaning they are always enabled, while the rest are active and drain an energy meter similar to nanotechnology in the first game. Biomod canisters are found throughout the game and the player simply chooses the skills to which to apply them. Only one of the skills in each skeletal section can be used, so players must not only decide their course through the game by choosing the appropriate biomods, but have limited freedom to replace their biomods later in the game if they so desire.

While such a drastic change is bound to disappoint those who relished in the micromanagement of the first game, I have never been a fan of such stat-crunching. I would rather spend my time playing the game than worrying about increasing a skill by a minute percentage. The new system simply streamlines the game by taking attention away from submenus and stats and emphasizing the core idea central to the gameplay: choice. Nothing but tedium was lost, and focus was gained.

The next major change was to use unified ammo. There's clearly a lack of realism when a non-lethal boltcaster uses the same ammo as a flamethrower. However, it's no more a stretch than believing that a character can carry an arsenal fit for an army, which of course is conveniently concealed and doesn't seem to slow him down at all. The changes keep the game moving more briskly by eliminating the need to micromanage multiple ammo types. Instead, players can simply use their desired weapon for any situation as long as ammo is available. It was a decision done to emphasize in-game choice, and again, only tedium was lost.

The last major change is that of an unusual user interface that is circular in shape rather than tucked away at the bottom corners of the screen. Some have found it to be obtrusive; I feel it's aesthetically appealing, well organized and far easier to use (navigating it with the Xbox controller is a snap) than the grid-like interface of the original. The opacity can be turned to zero, so those who loathe the change can simply get rid of it, and the PC version of the game now a has a patch that moves it toward the edge of the screen.

The genius of Invisible War lies in the same elements that made the original a success. The entire game is enveloped in a rich, often complicated narrative palette that drives the player's every action. The game takes place 20 years after the first, and the world is recovering from an economic collapse that was instigated by JC Denton's actions in the first game. Players control Alex D., a biomodified soldier who is caught in a web of ambiguous allies and conniving foes. Warring factions are clashing over the use of biomod technology, and players are thrust into a complex web of conspiracy in which they are fed all manner of conflicting propaganda by opposing factions trying to persuade Alex to help them. As in the first game, it is of course the player's choice whom to help and whom to betray.

The gameplay is also filled with choices, though fundamentally little has changed from the first game. Players may choose numerous ways of confronting any situation, and although choice is limited by what biomods the player has used (in itself another choice), there is still a pleasing degree of improvisation involved. For example, if confronted with the task of infiltrating a guarded area, players may sneak past guards, knock them unconscious, kill them from afar, or bring down the house Rambo-style. Electronic security like turrets, cameras, bots and beams may be evaded, disabled with EMP grenades, hacked, or rendered ineffective with the use of certain biomods. Doors may be opened with a key code, hacked, or blown open with explosives.

Stealth is very well done. The enemies are quite alert, and although they're a little too dense to consider the artificial intelligence (AI) realistic, it's functional and fun. It is possible for Alex D. to reduce his chances of being detected by moving slowly, crouching, and hiding behind objects or in the shadows. Enemies notice movement and sound, and will investigate anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately though, combat is a bit more of a letdown. The damage model is lacking in animations, so enemies simply stand there taking bullets until they're dead. Unless the game is played on the "realistic" difficulty, enemies take a rather ridiculous number of shots and even then a single headshot won't always do the trick. The combat AI is not particularly impressive either, despite the frequent chatter by the enemies that makes them appear otherwise. Only on rare occasion do enemies bother to use the environment for cover, and they never display more complex behaviors like retreating, using explosives to fish out hiding players, or providing cover fire for teammates. A new physics system is also in place that allows for impressive manipulation of the environment. Oddly, dead bodies can be tossed like rubber dummies (which I suppose is just for comedic effect), but the physics are by and large very well done and fun to use.

But despite some fundamental weaknesses, I found myself enjoying the mechanics if only because Alex D.'s actions are always enveloped in a rich narrative context—I felt that everything I did had a purpose. The game always moves at brisk pace, always keeping its focus and never leaving the player wandering or wondering.

But like its predecessor, Invisible War is progressive not only in its gameplay, but in its subject matter. Throughout the game, a fascinating and wonderfully told story unfolds as players are asked to choose alliances based not on trivial gameplay decisions, but on moral convictions that are intertwined with ideas of free will, freedom, human nature, equality, and individuality. As the conspiracies unravel and alliances and motives become more clear (although there always seems to be an air of ambiguity to the factions competing for your allegiance), the choices become heavier and will ultimately ask the player to trust one faction to direct the fate of the entire world.

While shifting alliances will change who is trying to kill Alex D., it is always possible to change one's mind right up until the end. In fact it is entirely possible to do the bidding of any given faction and betray them at the last moment. While some may feel this detracts from the weight of the choices involved, I feel it strengthens the game by allowing the player to make choices that are deceptive or misleading. Why not try to lead two factions into war with each other, or ally oneself with a group only to learn their weakness? It can all be done in Invisible War. The endings are unfortunately a bit anticlimactic, but as a whole the game is extremely satisfying simply because of sheer magnitude of choice involved. Completing the game only left me wanting to replay it with different biomods, different tactics, and different allegiances. On repeated play, I found opposing alliances to all offer equally satisfying gameplay experiences.

Graphically, Invisible War is a mixed blessing. It is inarguably leagues better than the first game, which was not exactly at the forefront of graphical technology. The game uses the next generation Unreal engine for very impressive real-time multi-sourced lighting, sharp textures and detailed environments. The character animations are not dramatically improved, however, and are a bit clunky. Additionally, the game could have used another month or so for optimization, as the Xbox version takes regular hits to the frame rate and even with a high-end PC the game may not always run smoothly. Load times are also a bit long, which is a bit annoying since unlike the first game which was designed with large, open levels, Invisible War uses smaller areas with more frequent load times (a limit imposed by the simultaneous development of the game on the Xbox and PC due to the limited RAM of the Xbox). Playing the Xbox version, I also had a few incidences of the game crashing. Fortunately the game saves in every new area and I'm pretty good about saving frequently anyway, but a console game crashing is inexcusable.

The first Deus Ex was such an unheralded surprise that expecting the sequel to reach the same levels of ambition is misguided. Invisible War refines, streamlines and improves on the first with better presentation, more focused gameplay and a rich narrative that touches on meaningful moral challenges that face us. Contrary to the cries of some fans of the original, the sequel has not been dumbed down for the sake of a broader audience. Warren Spector rightly knew that it was choice, not stats and micromanagement, that drove the first game and he has successfully reshaped the game to emphasize that quality. Only by overlooking some fundamental aspects of design such as hit detection, animation, frame rate and artificial intelligence has Spector fallen short of creating a complete masterpiece. Invisible War succeeds because it never trivializes the player's choices. Few games are willing to raise the kind complex and relevant themes found in Invisible War at all, much less treat them with the same passion that Spector has. This is a truly sophisticated game in nearly every respect, and I can only hope that as the series becomes more refined and reaches a broader audience, it will shape the design of all games to follow in its wake. Rating: 9 out of 10

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

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Sometimes, we're a little slow here at GameCritics.com. Usually, we'll have a game reviewed shortly after its release, but occasionally our relatively small staff gets overwhelmed and overlooks a game. Hey, we do our best, but pobody's nerfect. Alert readers might notice that Nightcaster has been on store shelves for well over a year. Heck, the sequel is already out! It was an Xbox launch title meant to fill the action/role-playing gap represented by games such as the Diablo series for the PC. Perusing our games inventory for the site, I noticed that Nightcaster was still there after all this time, perhaps an overlooked gem—a sleeper hit, so to speak.

Boy, was I wrong. Nightcaster wasn't a sleeper hit—it was just a snoozer. Less a role-playing game (RPG) and more an action brawler in the vein of Sword Of The Berzerk, Nightcaster is an action fantasy in which a mysterious evil has overrun a mythical land, and Arran, our hero, has taken upon himself to purge the world of this evil with an arsenal of deadly magic spells. Part Legend Of Zelda, part Lord Of The Rings, Nightcaster exudes an indistinctive mythos, though a surprisingly well-developed one, that has become far too cliché in the action-RPG genre.

Arran has four 'schools' of magic at his disposal: light, dark, fire, and water. He is given the opportunity to specialize in one school of magic, so that subsequent stats are affected accordingly; for example, if he becomes a light mage, his light spells will become more powerful but his dark spells will be weaker. He will also collect objects during the game that increase the power of his spells, increase his health, or teach new spells.

If all this sounds like a solid setup, it is. But poor implementation can flatten even the best of ideas. During the game, Arran confronts a variety of monsters. Each is color coded to represent the school of magic they are strongest with. A light creature, for example can be damaged by fire or water spells and is most vulnerable to dark spells, but is immune to light spells. Arran is moved with the left thumbstick in what begins as a traditional third-person view. When confronted with enemies, the right thumbstick moves an orb around the screen as the view shifts to a three-quarters overhead view. Arran can have any four spells (one for each school) at his disposal at any time; the left trigger cycles through them to arm one of them for use. Combat is as simple as moving the orb in the vicinity of an opponent and pulling the right trigger. Generally, it's not necessary to cycle through the different spells since any enemy will be damaged by three of the four schools of magic. So if you are a dark mage, you can keep a powerful dark spell equipped and easily polish off most opposition. When you encounter dark enemies, you simply switch to another magic school long enough to defeat them. Enemies grow in strength and number, but Arran also accumulates enough power that the difficulty doesn't increase substantially. Save points are fairly numerous as well, so a losing battle is generally not a frustrating experience.

Nightcaster seems like a battle system without a role-playing game. There is little variety or depth to the combat, and even in the presence of assorted power-ups it becomes painfully repetitive after only a short while. The story is very well developed considering the narrowly focused nature of the gameplay, and the idea of multiple schools of magic had potential to be much more fleshed out. But sadly, Nightcaster seems like a simplistic action title masquerading as a role-playing game hastily developed to fill out the Xbox's launch lineup rather than the smartly crafted action-adventure it might have been. Further marred by a below-average presentation (even for a first-generation Xbox title), Nightcaster is a title that has earned the dust it's collected. Rating: 3 out of 10

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Here at GameCritics.com, we don't always get an early crack on new releases. Often, we don't get through a game until commercial sites have had their say and word of mouth has had time to circulate. I was not oblivious, then, to the general panning of Kakuto Chojin, a 3D fighter that debuted a year ago as a tech demo to showcase the Xbox's lighting and effects capabilities. It can be challenging to suspend one's expectations in order to better understand a game. But Kakuto Chojin, though certainly not an abysmal failure, is indeed mediocre at best. Despite a team of developers hailing from respected fighting games that include Tobal No.1 and Soul Calibur, Kakuto Chojin ends as little more than the tech demo as which it began.

Stylistically, Kakuto Chojin is a treat. It features smooth, lifelike animation with beautiful graphics and creatively designed characters. Even the soundtrack—a sort of dark, pulsing techno theme—adds nicely to the ambiance. Visually, the game impresses with excellent lighting and reflections, but overall it is not as impressive as last year's Dead Or Alive 3. The backgrounds look a little flat, and the industrial/urban-themed settings are generally static and lifeless. It is still a good-looking game, however; the decaying, claustrophobic arenas and purposefully unappealing combatants give the game a unique aesthetic appeal.

Unfortunately, that is where the appeal ends. The ultimate barometer of a fighting game's success is its gameplay, and in this respect Kakuto Chojin is decidedly average. It is not for a complete lack of effort—somewhat like the new Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Kakuto Chojin eschews the conventional "punch, kick, block" scheme and instead implements high, middle, and low attacks that are designated to the face buttons. The system has potential, but Kakuto Chojin leaves the concept underdeveloped. Contrary to what I had read elsewhere, each fighter has a fair number of moves, but nowhere near the number of today's better fighters. While the game can be easily beaten with a handful of hackneyed combos, fighting games have never been about getting to the end but rather mastering the nuances of combat. Kakuto Chojin's depth comes from moves that are linked to create new combinations. One character for example, a Bruce Lee look-alike, has a "pak sao" (parry) that can be performed after a basic offensive attack. If he intercepts a counter attack, he can perform additional moves after the pak sao. Other characters may end an attack in a certain stance that allows for new attacks or a position that, based on their opponent's reaction, allows them to perform follow-ups and counters. Unfortunately, I feel that few players will discover this depth. The practice mode that is offered is inexcusably subpar, and features no way to spar with the computer; thus it becomes impossible to practice all of the available moves since so many of them are based on your opponent's reaction. Depth has little value if it is inaccessible.

But there are problems with Kakuto Chojin that hamper the depth it does have. Aside from the timing elements needed to link new moves, the dynamic between combatants is lacking. In Dead Or Alive 3 for example, I could stun an opponent or knock them off balance with a strike to the legs. I could then capitalize on their momentary loss of balance with a carefully chosen string of unique attacks based how they reacted to the first attack. I could time my attacks to counter their offensive attempts to leave them momentarily vulnerable; or, I could intercept their attack and throw them to the ground. Think of Soul Calibur, the way that a powerful strike would make a blocking opponent heave backward under the force of the attack. Such dynamics do not exist in Kakuto Chojin. Opponents cannot be forced off balance, pressured, or intercepted. Kaktuo Chojin rarely forces players to think, react, or adapt to their opponents. Worse still is the absence of a deep grappling system. Each character has a default throw, but after experiencing the deep counter/throw system in Dead Or Alive 3 last year, Kakuto Chojin again is sorely lacking. Lastly, the arenas are all completely flat, empty and lifeless. Nothing in the environment can be used against opponents—even basic wall combos are absent.

The minimalist approach to fighting is mirrored in the features offered as well. Aside from a modestly enjoyable four-player battle royale, there are no unique features to extend the life of the game. Fitting, since there was little life to begin with, but still disappointing.

The best thing I've gotten from Kakuto Chojin is an appreciation for the finer nuances of today's superior 3D fighters. It is not worthless, but feels outdated. With only Dead Or Alive 3 and Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance to fill out the Xbox's fighting lineup, Kakuto Chojin should have been better. It should have matched its dark, stylistic image with a deep fighting engine and compelling features. Fighting games are deceptively simple, complicated games to develop, and with today's standards there is no room for mediocrity. Kakuto Chojin doesn't have the goods to find a place in any fighting fan's library. Rating: 4 out of 10

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On its release last year for the PlayStation 2, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty was widely hailed as a masterstroke of game design, blending a complex, twisting narrative with unparalleled stealth mechanics and a surprising indulgence of creator/producer/director Hideo Kojima's existentialistic musings on individualism, love, loyalty, and faith. It was a bold creation that used the interactive gaming medium to communicate a vision; rather than the narrative being a backdrop to the gameplay, the gameplay served as a palette through which Kojima articulated an ideology, much of the story serving as mere filler for the more substantial (and relevant) message he spoke with the games dramatic and unexpected conclusion.

But Metal Gear Solid 2, for all of its sweeping ideology and bold provocations, was a game that suffered under the weight of its own ambitions. Kojima's vision was given to us unrestrained and unrefined. Often, plot twists became so frequent and arbitrary that not only did it become difficult to comprehend Kojima's narrative, but it also became burdensome to dichotomize its convoluted progression, separating the most vital turning points from trivial distractions. The characters were similarly indulged in a most arbitrary and confusing manner; lengthy codec conversations and cutscenes that stretched up to 40 minutes often featured overdrawn speeches rife with trivialities that served no purpose other than to confuse the player and detract from the tension Kojima had so purposefully hoped to build.

Kojima's failure to restrain his vision created an imbalance in gameplay that only further compromised the poignancy of his final message. Oddities such as a tutorial that begins hours into the game; gameplay elements that are bluntly explained rather than left to the challenge the discretion of the player; and level designs that failed to lend many opportunities for players to implement the substantial array of skills, gadgets, and weaponry at their disposal drained Sons Of Liberty of its phenomenal potential. Nowhere is this lack more evident than in the title of this new expansion of the original: Substance. The original game is still here in its entirety, but is now packaged with the addition of five "Snakes Tales" (adventures that revolve around the games classic protagonist), a few hundred VR missions, over 150 alternative missions, and many other unlockable challenges too numerous to mention. Kojima seems to have recognized that he started running so fast that he forgot to tie his shoes, and thus Substance finally gives players the opportunity to more deeply explore the beautifully nuanced stealth engine that was so sorely undermined by his penchant for melodrama.

The original Sons Of Liberty is here, exactly as it was released a year ago. Although the graphics have not been improved for the Xbox, they still look spectacular even a year after the games release. The superb use of blur effects, cinematic direction and unmatched motion-capture make it a real treat for the eyes, particularly during cutscenes. A dramatic original score, superlative sound effects and excellent voice acting make it a treat for the ears as well. And although its a game wrought with imbalances, its still a unique experience no gamer should miss.

"Snakes Tales" are five adventures that seem to loosely revolve around the Sons Of Liberty story, featuring bosses and important characters from the main game. The stories are told through text, which set the backdrop and feature all dialogue (no new cutscenes were recorded for Substance) as well as delineate your objectives. The missions are challenging, long enough without feeling overdone, and often place you in situations where using your head is more prudent than using your instincts.

The VR and alternative missions are also quite challenging, but their inclusion only makes me wish that they had been implemented last year as a training mode. Upon loading the missions, you can choose to use Raiden or Snake and while the levels are the same for each, the placement of objectives and enemies varies moderately. After selecting your character, you choose between VR missions and alternative missions. The former are the same kinds of missions found in 1999's Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions—3D simulated environments, with simple backgrounds that hearken back to the film Tron, that are usually short and require you to complete a basic objective and reach the goal. There is a sneaking mode in which you have to evade guards and reach the goal without being spotted, an "eliminate all" mode in which you stealthily disable each guard, as well as various weapons-training and combat missions. There are countless missions and enough variety to provide hours of enjoyment, although the weapons training levels are somewhat bland (amounting to little more than target practice). Completing the initial set of missions unlocks yet even more missions along with new costumes for Snake and Raiden. Although the variety wears thin after a time, the sheer number of missions is undeniably impressive.

The alternative missions are much more interesting. Instead of taking place in computer-simulated VR rooms, they take place in actual locales from Sons Of Liberty and feature more interesting objectives such as diffusing bombs, taking pictures, eliminating invisible enemies, collecting dog tags, or being given only a few shots and told to dispatch all enemies in an area.

All the extra missions included with the game, replete with many unique situations not encountered during Sons Of Liberty, highlight both the strengths of the game's stealth engine and the weaknesses of Sons Of Liberty itself. Although there is a great deal of enjoyable gameplay to be had, its completely disjointed from the core game. It becomes clear that Hideo Kojima's scattered, unfocused cinematic vision left his brilliant gameplay design painfully undeveloped. Substance does offer a deep, challenging experience, but its unfortunate that the real "substance" was missing from Sons Of Liberty in the first place. It was a groundbreaking but deeply flawed game, and this expanded version of the game serves best as a reminder that as games begin to transcend the boundaries of simulation and cinema, developers must remember that gaming's strength lies in its interactivity. When that core element is overlooked, no amount of dramatic vision or philosophical indulgence can save it. Rating: 6 out of 10

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

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Okay, here's today's to-do list: I need to go sell some of the rare weapons and armor Ive found for some cash, and trap a soul or two so I can enchant a weapon. Of course, I'll want to learn a few new spells before that, but I'm probably going to have to do some trivial favors for a friend maybe steal something from a wealthy socialite. I need to repair my weapons and then assassinate an aristocrat (hopefully without being detected).

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, from developer Bethesda Softworks, often seems so much like a full days work that it's easy to forget its just a game. It is time consuming in a most unforgiving way, and there is always something to do: someone to speak with, something to find, something to learn. Despite flaws that restrain the game from reaching the vision of its developers, it is remarkably engaging and always interesting, even if its not always very enjoyable. Most importantly, Morrowind's foray into extremely non-linear gameplay reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses of the concept, and in the process elevates the art of videogame design.

The game begins with a minimal narrative setup: you control a slave who, for some mysterious reason, has been set free by orders of an Emperor and released on the island of Vvardenfall. You create a foundation for the character in-game, choosing sex, race, class, skills, and other characteristics that will make him or her creation unique. This character is then given a package and a "mission" of sorts. However, once this initial setup is complete, you are free to do as you wish. Rather than proceed predictably and mechanically through a tightly scripted sequence of events, you are free to chart your own course through the game. In fact, there is such an overwhelming sense of freedom that Morrowind often feels less like a game and more like an alternate reality where one can live and function.

Like any videogame, a players actions in Morrowind are limited by rules and boundaries; Morrowind simply does not guide the player through a strictly linear progression. You can choose where to go, what do to do, and when to do it. Vvardenfall is extraordinarily vast and intricate. There are numerous factions and guilds that can be joined, and each will give players tasks to perform, ranging from trivial fetch quests to complicated adventures involving deception, murder and thievery. A central narrative, involving a faction under command of the Emperor called the Blades, gives the game some direction and structure. The Blades are the only faction for which membership is required to further the central plot. Of course, there is nothing that says you have to follow the games plot at all. It is quite possible to simply live a fictitious life of sorts in Morrowind, stealing, adventuring, trading, and taking on any of the hundreds of random mini-quests scattered throughout the game. There are also hundreds of books found throughout the game that detail the history and culture of the land.

As with any role-playing game, your character will gain experience and become more powerful with time. Interestingly, characters in Morrowind conform to the actions of the player. To become skilled in magic, one casts spells; to become skilled in thievery, one steals, and so on. Such a system eschews any limitations on character development. There is nothing to stop a player from developing a character that is skilled in stealth, wears heavy armor, and casts powerful magic spells. There are all kinds of fascinating trades that can learned four different "schools" of magic, alchemy, numerous weapon and armor skill, conversational skills, sneaking and lock-picking skills, and so forth. This is one of Morrowinds greatest strengths if you become bored with developing one group of skills, you can simply take a break and work on developing others.

Unfortunately, the open-ended gameplay, coupled with the immensity of Vvardenfall, is a double-edged sword. With so little emphasis on the central plot and so many factions and random passers-by to dole out quests of varying degrees, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to do. The gameplay may feel aimless or confusing. It is not unusual to spend hours on end in a daze of overlong peripatetic journeys that seem to have little purpose or value. While a departure from linearity is welcome, a more pressing importance on the central plot would have given the game a stronger sense of direction. Oddly, the central supporting characters seem to suggest that time is of the essence, yet the game gives no concrete incentives to further the plot. Additionally, the walking pace is exasperatingly slow until your character is significantly leveled up; some more reasonable form of travel (such as the horse in The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time) would have spared hours that are spent grudgingly wandering from one place to the next.

Morrowind is certainly an ambitious game; the scale of the world is overwhelmingly large and its population is remarkably diverse. Within the rather broad boundaries of rules that structure the game, there are virtually no limitations on a players actions. You could be freeing slaves one moment and robbing an aristocrat the next. However, in the attempt to create such a wide array of cultures and characters, much of the believability of the characters is sacrificed. Dialogue is entirely text-based. Players are given a menu of subjects from which to choose that varies from one non-playable character (NPC) to the next. Each NPC has a disposition rating the higher their disposition, the more likely they will be to share personal or confidential information, sell items at low cost, and purchase items at an inflated price. It is even possible to offer bribes or use your characters speechcraft skill to increase an NPCs disposition. While the system itself is quite creative, the monotony of text subjects presented by the NPCs prevents them from portraying a believable sense of humanity. Additionally, the content of the dialogue rarely strays from factual information. Few of the characters are personable albeit in the most translucent manner (such as a friendly greeting). While developing intricate personalities for hundreds or thousands of NPCs is obviously impractical, it is an unfortunate side effect of a game of such massive scale.

To its credit, Morrowind is largely what the player makes it. It truly is open-ended. There are an amazing number of skills and trades to master, and nearly infinite ways to play the game. As incredibly long and involving a game as it is, it is virtually impossible to gain a real understanding of the freedom offered in Morrowind without trying multiple characters. Conflict may often be avoided through stealth or magic. When conflict does occur, there are almost always numerous solutions paralyze an enemy and run, chop them to smithereens with an axe, or drink an invisibility potion and vanish before their eyes, for example. Because the game is stat-based, it is also possible to exploit the level-up system to create an extraordinarily powerful character. While such power mongering can be very tempting, it is not necessary to fully experience the game and may in fact dilute the role-playing experience.

Morrowind is often the victim of its own ambition. In my review of Microsoft's first-person shooter Halo, I wrote, "I believe that the greatest achievement to which any game can strive is to create a world so lifelike, so logically implemented, that it allows players to feel a suspension of disbelief that is uninterrupted by illogical inconsistencies." Morrowind is filled with odd breaks in logic that hamper that suspension of disbelief. The world can seem very interesting and believable one moment, then feel very static and artificial the next. At one point in the game, for example, I robbed a merchant in plain sight. I had established a rapport with this merchant and had a very high disposition rating with him. To my surprise and despite the on-screen message informing me that my crime had been reported I lost no disposition points with the merchant. Crime is also handled illogically. Even if a character is alone when you attack or steal from them, your crime will immediately be reported and every guard in Vvardenfall will try to arrest or even kill you. All NPCs will be reluctant to speak with you. Simple monetary payoffs to a handful of seedy helpers in the game will immediately and completely erase not only the bounty on your head, but your reputation throughout Vvardenfall. The act of sneaking, which is integral to the game (particularly if you choose to avoid violence or master thievery), is handled in such a strange way as to rob it of believability. Sometimes it is possible to commit crimes by simply standing out of a characters view. I was able to steal from right under peoples noses and even kill in crowded areas simply by "hiding" behind a doorway or support beam. Bethesda was so eager to create a big house that they failed to give it a solid foundation.

Nonetheless, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is one of the most fascinating games I've played in recent memory. It is an ambitious but flawed game that is exasperating at some times, captivating at others, and always engaging. The quests are well varied and the world is full of interesting things to see and do. Bethesda's efforts to create truly non-linear gameplay are as much an experiment in game design as they are a realized concept. In their attempt to create a world so massive and diverse, Bethesda made a handful of key oversights in logic that sometimes paint a contrived, unconvincing world. Nonetheless, the array of skills is so interesting and the innumerable paths through the game so varied that Morrowind impressively displays many of the strengths of non-linear gameplay. Both its successes and its flaws will serve as important landmarks in the future development of role-playing games. Rating: 7 out of 10

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The shooter is such a straightforward, often vacuous genre that its conventions seem doomed to be endlessly recycled. Change the story, change the guns, change the bad guys, but its still just point-and-shoot. As the genre has slowly and sporadically evolved through advances in artificial intelligence, environmental interaction, and narrative immersion, the mechanics themselves have remained virtually unchanged. But what if the next creative step in the genre had nothing to do with the aforementioned elements, but instead involved a new approach to how the game itself is played? What if altering the control mechanics could alter the gameplay so dramatically as to create an entirely new perspective on the timeless, fundamental shooting element itself? Enter Gunvalkyrie, an action sci-fi shooter from little-known developer Smilebit.

A small development wing of Sega, Smilebit is perhaps best known for the unique, cross-genre game Jet Set Radio and its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. Members of the team were also responsible for the stellar Panzer Dragoon games released on the Sega Saturn console in the mid 1990s, which shattered the conventions of the rail shooter by integrating 360° camera rotation. Gunvalkyrie continues Smilebits distinguished tradition with an unusual approach to control and navigation that has left some players frustrated and others captivated. I belong to the latter category.

Presented in a style that draws influences from such diverse sources as Japanese anime, modern American science fiction films, and H.G. Wells novels, Gunvalkyrie is set in an alternate timeline in the early 1900s, when an eccentric British scientist named Dr. Hebble Gate has found a way to produce massive amounts of energy from materials found within the wreckage of Halleys Comet. The human race enters a second Renaissance, making massive technological advances in only a few decades, including travel into deep space. Humans begin to colonize other planets while Dr. Hebble continues his secretive research into the energy found in Halleys Comet. But of course all is not well. Dr. Hebble and the colonists of a distant planet called Tir Na Nog have mysteriously disappeared, and grotesque insect-like monsters are swarming the ruins of the colonies. Two supersoldiers enlisted by a military arm of the British government (the games namesake) are dispatched to wipe out the hostile creatures, find Dr. Hebble, and uncover the mysteries of his bizarre research.

At the start of each mission, players can choose between Kelly, an agile but underpowered heroine, and Saborouta, a slower but more powerful samurai warrior built like a human tank. Along the way, scores from each level are tallied for "GV points," which are used to purchase upgrades for more sophisticated defenses, items, and weaponry. Each character is equipped with a jet pack, and this is the key concept that makes Gunvalkyrie unique. Once the game begins, the creative design of the game slowly begins to show through, and those patient enough to learn the nuances of the controls will be in for an action game like no other.

The left and right analog sticks perform movement and aiming, respectively. However, unlike shooters such as Max Payne or MDK2, characters can only aim in the direction they are facing and cannot be turned by using the right thumbstick. All movement is accomplished by the left thumbstick, which rotates the characters and moves them forward or back. Players expecting to conquer the game with precision strafing will be sorely disappointed. The left trigger executes a jump, and when held down or pulled a second time will activate the jetpack (the jetpack has a limited charge that is quickly replenished when the character lands). Once in the air, a quick dash (called a "boost dash") forward, backward, or to either side is performed by depressing the left thumbstick while simultaneously pushing it in the desired direction; a quick pull of the stick in the opposite direction will cause the character to hover. A quick turn is accomplished by performing the identical "click and push" with the right thumbstick. The right trigger is used to fire.

If it sounds complicated, thats because it is. It is not, however, restrictive or overbearing. It took yours truly approximately half an hour to fully understand how the game is meant to be played, and another couple of hours to really master the control scheme. Along the way, I questioned why Smilebit had chosen to restrict the looking mechanism. I am certainly not the first; when Gunvalkyrie debuted at last years E3 show, players complained about the controls. When the game was previewed by gaming publications, players complained about the controls. Why, then, would Smilebit so stubbornly stick to their guns, declining to even include the option to alter the control scheme? It is because Gunvalkyrie is not meant to be played like Max Payne, Halo, or MDK2. The kind of movement that can be accomplished in Gunvalkyrie is totally unique, amazingly precise, and wonderfully engaging to experience. The unorthodox controls play to the games strengths; while it is not possible to rotate the character with the right stick, the independent movement and looking mechanisms allow you to move in a straight line while rotating the camera to fire. While precision strafing is lost, it is compensated for by the precision gained in flight. The emphasis in Gunvalkyrie is on flight, movement, and positioning. A skilled player will spend a great deal of time in the air, dashing about hordes of alien creatures with spectacular speed and rapid targeting. Once the controls become second nature, the logic of their seemingly cumbersome setup becomes apparent.

The action in Gunvalkyrie is sudden, persistent, and unceasingly intense. The story provides an atmospheric backdrop, but it is not directly integrated into the game a la Halo or Half-Life. While Gunvalkyrie allows full 3D movement, its style is most reminiscent of rail shooters such as Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox; each level consists of a linear mission (which is usually "destroy all enemies!"), and the levels—though often quite large and occasionally very open—are deliberately crafted to sustain the games feverish pace. The game is set up in a very traditional shooter fashion: linear stages followed by a boss, which culminate with a series of boss characters toward the end of the game. Defeating the game unlocks a new mode, but most of the replay value comes from trying to attain higher scores on the levels to buy more elaborate upgrades. In this respect, Gunvalkyrie comes off a bit lacking. As engaging as it is, the game is surprisingly short. Its like being served a succulent steak, taking a few bites, then having it pulled away.

The levels are not widely varied, but range from open desert canyons to mazes of indoor hallways. The limited variety and number of levels is the games only real weakness. The levels are all quite uniquely inspired, so its a shame that the game isnt a bit longer or more diverse. Nonetheless, the game is so stylish and the graphics are so nicely detailed (particularly the main characters) that the worlds are worth revisiting. Sound is effective as well. The effects for the jetpack pack a lot of punch, and the guns pack a satisfying "oomph." I was a bit disappointed in the music, which, though fairly good and suited to the game well, is purely electronic. After these developers did such an exceptional job with the orchestral soundtrack to the Panzer Dragoon series, I was expecting a bit more.

Mechanical innovation is often viewed as strictly contextual, in that it solves a problem or improves the functionality of a gameplay element. Gunvalkyrie challenges this perception by eschewing the conventions of its genre with a complex, unorthodox control scheme that radically shapes the direction of the game. A number of critics have hastily dismissed Gunvalkyrie as being too cumbersome to be worth mastering, and certainly too difficult to be enjoyable. I firmly disagree. Those with the patience and the desire to master Gunvalkyries control configuration will discover a game that is both remarkably original and highly rewarding. Only its brevity and its reliance on conventional linear progression hold it back. If the levels flowed more logically and the story were more intertwined with the game itself rather than being relegated to text and sparse cutscenes, Gunvalkyrie would be a masterpiece. Nonetheless, I applaud Smilebit for their willingness to explore new approaches to the 3D shooter. Gunvalkyrie shows that complexity can be both approachable and compelling, and that gamers are far from seeing the limits of its time-tested genre. Rating: 9 out of 10

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Capcom is something of an enigma. Like so many of todays profit-driven developers, they shamelessly dilute the market with endless strings of sequels, spin-offs, and outright knock-offs. But occasionally, amidst the hordes of boring Resident Evil and Mega-Man sequels, something compelling emerges. The developers at Capcom, responsible for classics such as Street Fighter II and the original Resident Evil, have, on occasion, shown themselves capable of creating truly innovative, genre-defining games. Devil May Cry, the latest concept from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, injects new life into Capcoms stale action-adventure formula. While it doesnt quite reach the same heights of cohesive design as Resident Evil or Street Fighter II, it is nonetheless a wonderfully immersive adventure, radiating both the creativity and technical expertise of its experienced designers.

The story is about as cliché as it gets—a one-man army must fight to save the world from the forces of the underworld (while saving the girl, of course). But thanks to some creative characters, even the overwrought dialogue and predictable plot twists cant send the game plunging into B-movie oblivion. The hero, Dante, is an amalgam of such classic characters as Simon Belmont (of Castlevania fame), Solid Snake, and Shinobi, but somehow still manages to seem uniquely inspired. Hes a half-human, half-demon acrobatic killing machine with a dry wit and unwavering bravery. Sure, hes cocky—he snickers at a giant, fire-breathing scorpion and mocks the god of the underworld—but his wry tongue is offset by stalwart nobility that would impress even the aforementioned superheroes. The real stars of the show, though, are the demonic hordes that Dante must single-handedly vanquish. Devil May Cry features a fantastic lineup of ferocious villains, including shape-shifting animals, living sludge, icy werewolves, and scythe-wielding specters. This charismatic cast exemplifies what the game is all about: style.

The gameplay revolves around fast-paced, almost non-stop action interspersed with simple puzzles similar to those found in Resident Evil. Dante is armed with an oversized sword and a pair of twin pistols (affectionately dubbed "ebony and ivory"). There are numerous melee and projectile weapons to be collected, but all point to the same goal: kill the enemy, and do it with panache. The object of the game is to use combinations of the moves afforded by Dantes arsenal to accomplish stylistic kills. For example, Dante can slash his opponents with a quick one-two combo, follow it with an uppercut to launch the opponent into the air, leap in to the air and then, while in "flight" (so to speak), pummel the helpless demonic spawn with his twin pistols. Depending on the variety of moves implemented and the frequency of their execution, the player will be rewarded with a ranking of sorts. Words such as "dull," "action," "braw" (no, thats not a typo) and of course "stylish" appear in the upper right area of the screen to indicate the players performance. As they are slaughtered, the demons leave behind "orbs" that Dante can use to purchase new moves and power-ups. The more stylish the kill, the more orbs that are rewarded, meaning more moves and a more formidable Dante. A handful of bonuses can be collected during play, but generally the extent of Dantes repertoire and the strength of his defenses are determined by the players ability to exploit the games combat system. Unlike Resident Evil, where the limited supply of ammunition and health boosters made combat an affair best worth avoiding, the gains to be had from combat make repeated confrontations in Devil May Cry rewarding and occasionally necessary.

The caveat of action-oriented gameplay is that unless the combat system is intuitive on the outside and complicated on the inside, the gameplay will grow old faster than an 80s action hero. In this respect, Devil May Cry takes many steps in the right direction, but a few in the wrong direction. Dante has a significant number of moves at his disposal. Even at the onset of the game, a reasonable variety of moves can be executed by varying the timing of sword attacks and incorporating a mixture of gunplay and sword-slashing. Dante controls very smoothly—the analog stick will move him in the direction it is pressed, unlike the Resident Evil formula wherein pressing up will always moves the character forward. The ease of movement and simplicity of the basic controls make the game accessible to the novice player. A little study, though, will reward dedicated players with a variety of moves (most of which are purchased with the red orbs) that can be incorporated into all sorts of creative combinations. Just figuring out different ways to create stylish combinations can provide hours of enjoyable gameplay.

The only difficulty this system runs into is that although a variety of moves are available, players can easily progress through the game using a fairly limited repertoire (although advanced enemies will block the more basic attack combinations). The enemies are wonderfully varied in their design and attack patterns, but there is little need to vary Dantes offensive approach. Additionally, the game doesnt always reward players for creativity. Occasionally, I pulled off what I though were some pretty eye-catching combos, only to be slapped with a "dull" ranking. Once players figure out how to exploit the style ranking, combat runs the risk of degenerating into a series of repetitive combinations and unimaginative button-mashing.

Fortunately though, the impressive variety of enemies and large number of moves available make the games enjoyment the responsibility of the player. Sure, you can progress by using the same combos over and over, but do you want to do that when there are so many other moves available? The game could have been better had it put more pressure on the player to use a bigger variety of combinations, but nevertheless it gets high marks for simply giving players the option to approach combat in different ways.

The entire gameplay package is wrapped nicely in a fine technical presentation that successfully utilizes the power of the PlayStation 2. The worlds are visually astounding, not because of high polygon counts or eye-popping textures, but because of their moody, pseudo-gothic design. Pillars pulsate like living things; leaves and fog sweep through lush forests, and castles radiate a menacing, evil aura. The combat makes good use of special effects as well. Dante can use special attacks that surround him with a translucent purple light; his movements are subtly blurred when he uses his twin pistols; enemies may be transparent, breath fire, or turn the ground into ice. The game also packs some quality audio, with some respectable (if not campy) voice acting and a nice mix of clangs, booms, and groans. Everything in Devil May Cry has personality—style, if you will—lending the game a feel thats all its own, distinct from any other action-adventure in recent memory.

While the narrative builds suspense effectively, the game is ultimately too short and the characters are left too shallow to give the game the emotional impact it could have delivered. However, the excellent fighting system, the appealing characters, and the unique stylistic approach to both the presentation and the gameplay make Devil May Cry a worthy next step in Capcoms tradition of genre-defining games. By ignoring many of the clichéd elements of similar action titles, it successfully propels this genre past the recycled concepts that, ironically, Capcom is often responsible for perpetuating. Now, we just have to wait for the sequels… Rating: 9 out of 10

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After the previous Extreme G games graced the Nintendo 64 with choppy framerates, muted graphics, and mediocre gameplay, it seemed like Acclaim had taken a potentially interesting concept and butchered it. While uninspired gameplay (a sloppy take on the Playstation hit Wipeout) plagued the series, it was clear that an equally pertinent problem was Acclaims poor management of the hardware. Choppy, inconsistent frame rates are a definite problem when the focus of a game should be speed and fluidity. However, Acclaim seems to have turned a new leaf with the third installment of the series, this time on the technologically superior Playstation 2 console. Extreme G III seems to be the kind of game that the designers were attempting in the first place. Although the core concept of the game—race jet-powered bikes on gravity-defying tracks while dueling with other racers—remains unchanged, some remarkably subtle changes (not to mention some not-so-subtle ones) have transformed Extreme G from a mediocre trend-follower to a well executed, exhilarating racer.

From the onset of the game, its clear that Acclaim has crafted a much cleaner and better-organized game. The slick-looking menus are easy to navigate, and there are a reasonable variety of options available. The meat and potatoes of the game is its career mode, which offers a league race, an arcade mode, and time trials. Also available are a two-player versus mode and a much-welcome two-player team race, in which two players can race cooperatively. In the League mode, players begin the game by selecting a two-rider team, then choosing one of the two riders to race with. Unlike the previous installments, in which weapons and power-ups were scattered about the track to be picked up during the race, Extreme G III features a money-based system (a la Gran Turismo) in which players purchase weapons, shields, and engine upgrades with money earned from the races. Ammunition and shield energy can be collected during the race itself by riding over long "energy strips" that run along the tracks edges. Players compete in a four-series, ten-track championship that runs through desert canyons, futuristic cities, and pristine forests.

Regardless of how many features are included in an action-oriented racer such as this, only the speed and fluidity of gameplay can make the game worth playing. If the previous installments could be likened to an economy-class car, the latest installment plays like a souped-up supercar. The short draw distances, blurry graphics, and inconsistent frame rates of the original have given way to sharp, fluid graphics, imaginative worlds, and tracks that sometimes seem to stretch endlessly into the distance. The tracks are sufficiently wide to allow room for fierce combat and driver error while remaining narrow enough to demand a sufficient challenge. The game controls responsively and intuitively (though it unfortunately lacks analog steering). I found it fairly easy to make small adjustments while racing and make hasty recoveries while in combat. The tracks are very well designed, requiring a bit of memorization and precise timing during sharp turns, while allowing for some mind-blowing speed on straight-aways.

Of course, youd be mistaken if you assumed Extreme G III was just about racing. The combat plays a pivotal role in the game and is seamlessly integrated into the frantically paced gameplay. Weapons and items that may be purchased over the course of the game include rockets, machine guns, land mines, shield generators, turbo boosters, and engine upgrades. Quite often, eliminating opponents by way of precision firepower is a wiser choice than trying to outrace them. The weapons are well balanced and are creatively designed without being outlandish. The combat can get extremely hectic at times, which, when added to the tortuously convoluted tracks and 600 mph speeds, makes for some very tense, exciting gameplay.

Perhaps what made Extreme G III the most enjoyable for me was the simple, yet unfortunately rare cooperative race. Single-player games seem to be the rage these days, and two-player modes are almost inevitably one-on-one only. The inclusion of cooperative play is a welcome breath of fresh air. As in the League Mode, players choose one team and select one of the two riders. This time, however, the earnings from races must be split between the players. For example, if player one places first and earns 15,000 credits and player two places fourth, earning only 3,000 credits, the total amount of credits is placed in a bank for the players to split evenly with each other. Accordingly, it becomes wise to use a bit of strategy and good will when purchasing weapons and upgrades. To then add the excitement of trying to bail out your buddy during a chaotic battle or "taking one for the team" makes for a simple gameplay feature that adds almost limitless replay value.

Extreme G III lacks originality, and to some extent it lacks depth. There are only ten races and I found the game only modestly challenging. Nevertheless, it is such a simple, well-designed game that repeated play was just a matter of finding the time rather than the patience. The races are fast-paced with solid track design and smooth, imaginative graphics (one level features some very cool rain that makes splashes on the camera as you race around the track). Despite the brevity of the league race, the well-chosen assortment of options and simple gameplay makes Extreme G III one of the finest racers of its kind. Rating: 8 out of 10

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

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Of all of the countless racing games that have been released over the last few years, only a small few have managed to be true pioneers in what is possibly the most over-saturated genre in video games. There has been a substantial lack of true racing simulators, such as the popular PlayStation game Gran Turismo, since most racing games have relied on the arcade-style formula of pedal-to-the-metal aggression. Ferrari F355 Challenge, Sega's newest offering in this tried-and-true genre from master designer Yu Suzuki, is a groundbreaking game that brings the speed and sensation of racing to life in an amazing new way. Its combination of simple controls and complex racing physics make it stand out as one of the most innovative racers to come around in a long, long time.

I should make it clear at this point that F355 Challenge is not a game everyone will enjoy. It truly is a Ferrari simulator, and the driving is exceptionally detailed and precision oriented. The result is a game that is incredibly difficult, and is probably best suited to somewhat older players. The physics engine is meticulously designed so that even the most simply designed tracks can be extraordinarily challenging. Additionally, even the slightest mistake can easily result in a loss, making the game potentially frustrating for some.

F335 Challenge features all the modes of play one would expect in a top-tier racing game. Arcade mode is a conventional time and checkpoint-based race in which the car settings are predetermined and can't be altered. In Championship mode, you compete for the highest cumulative score over six races, and you are allowed to make alterations to the car. There is also a single play mode which allows you to chose between training (which I strongly recommend), driving and racing. For you social gamers, there is the standard spit-screen versus mode as well. Finally, the game offers a rather odd "network" race, not to be confused with online play, in which you can download other players' lap times from the Internet, then watch your car go head-to-head with theirs (in the form of ghost cars) in a replay. It's an interesting concoction, but it is unfortunate that full-blown online play wasn't implemented.

The training level is an absolute must for any beginning player, since the game physics are just too complex to simply pick up and play. A somewhat generic-sounding announcer walks you through the race curve by curve, telling you when to brake, speed up, slow down, or shift gears. As you become more confident with a track, you can step up to a driving mode that allows you to continuously circle the track in order to improve your timing. I found this to be a very addictive mode of play, as shaving even a second or two off of your time can be quite a challenge. Finally, the game allows you to participate in a real race, giving you good practice for the ultra-challenging championship mode. It all adds up to make the game very accessible to novice players despite its overall difficulty.

On a technical level, F355 Challenge performs, well, like the car it's named after. The graphics are absolutely breathtaking. Every car is rendered in almost eerie realism, complete with reflective surfaces, real-time brake lights, and even hundreds of tiny holes on the surface above the bumper which carries the Ferrari insignia. The tracks aren't too shabby either; every track is meticulously rendered down to the smallest detail, with virtually no pop-up whatsoever and an amazingly far draw distance. Some of the hidden, unlockable tracks, most notably the Atlanta track, are stunning in their detail. As if that wasn't enough, there is also a randomly used assortment of stunningly realistic skies, from bright, billowing clouds to spectacular sunsets, all of which cast real-time lighting on the cars.

In order to record the soundtrack for this game, the developers apparently traveled back in time to 1984 and kidnapped some Quiet Riot soundalikes. It's well done and certainly original, but the cheesy music does a better job of generating a laugh than adding to the thrill of the race. Fortunately, you can turn the background music off. Engine sounds are great, and are utilized effectively. You can use the sound of the engine to gauge when you need to shift gears without taking your eyes off of the road, or hear another car approaching from either side. Subtle sounds such as the engines backfiring are present as well. Generally, racing games are not known for stellar sound given the limited scope of the genre, but F355 Challenge manages to capture the roaring intensity of the race quite effectively.

A large part of what makes F355 Challenge unique is that you have complete freedom to customize the car to suit your style and ability. Every technical detail of the car's function is covered. If you don't like the way the car controls, a slight adjustment here or there could solve the problem. The adjustments you make will often make or break your success in a race; even a slight alteration in the car could add or subtract seconds from your best time. Additionally, the game features four "assist functions," such as the aptly named "intelligent braking system" and traction control, which are designed to help new players become acclimated to the game's realistic physics and learn the skills of the game such as break timing and shift changing. As you become more comfortable with the game, you can wean yourself from the assist functions and begin altering the car settings to your desired specifications.

The races themselves are a total blast, assuming you've taken the time to learn the nuances of the car in the training mode. The sensation of speed is first rate. There's something almost indescribably exciting about blazing around the Atlanta bowl at 180 miles per hour as you try to remember when to shift gears or let off the gas. The variety of tracks adds to the experience as well; some rely on raw speed, while others are slower and will require hours of practice to master a series of complex turns. Adding even more to the experience is the aggressive computer AI; cars will go out of their way to ram you or pressure you to one side of the track, and they will seize every opportunity to capitalize on your mistakes. Since the computer-controlled cars are just as fast as you are, you must rely only on your skill and knowledge of the track to win the race.

F355 Challenge stands out from other racers in that it is exactly what the title suggests. Players expecting the options of Sega GT or Gran Turismo will be disappointed in the game's relatively narrow focus. However, F355 Challenge sets out to accomplish only one thing: to put you, the gamer, in the driver's seat of a Ferrari in the most realistic way possible. In this respect it succeeds remarkably, with a flawless balance of ease-of-use and depth that is unprecedented for the racing genre. Most importantly though, F355 Challenge, despite its difficulty and complexity, remains fast-paced and incredibly addictive. I have spent hours upon hours simply trying to shave second or two off of a race or figuring out how to thwart the computer-controlled cars, experimenting with every subtle detail of the car's function and reveling in the sweet smell of victory when those hours of "work" pay off. If you want a quick thrill, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a complex, challenging and ultimately rewarding game, this is the game for you. It is arguably the best racing simulator ever, easily the best racing game for the Dreamcast, and a must-buy for any racing fan. Rating: 10 out of 10

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

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