December 2008

Need for Speed: Undercover sorely wants to be considered as a hardcore racing simulator with its inclusion of open-world environments and car customization, but can the inclusion of these elements elevate it beyond a standard arcade racer?

Originally touted for its inclusion of cinematic storytelling, EA drastically overstated the mediocre story of an undercover wheelman agent and his FBI lead. And while I didn’t have a hard time staring at the hot Maggie Q while she blathered on about how some race would lead to the bad guys, the plot was just plain stupid and the cutscenes outright cheesy. But hopefully you didn’t come to see the bad acting; you came for the racing.

This title hearkens back to Need for Speed: Most Wanted, with the addition of police chases to the standard sets of races. You are given a pretty impressive open world to roam around in, although you there is little incentive for you to drive around as you don’t actually go to any of the races, you simply select them from the map or press down on the d-pad to choose the closest competition available. This almost seemed like a “why-bother” approach as there was absolutely no reward for roaming, no secrets, no sweet-finds, just more city.

Similarly the level up system seemed counter-intuitive; you gain money by winning races that could be applied to upgrades. By going above and beyond and dominating the matches you could gain driver skills. Here the system fell apart as the majority of the driver skills applied to cars and there was no point investing your money into upgrading a car when you could get a nicer car in a couple of races. The car customization options were nice, but ultimately had zero impact on how the car handled. It is the inconsistencies like this that drag the game down, and will have die-hard car racers cringing.

What makes this game so successful is how fun it is to play. The races are widely divergent and paced nicely enough that the replay will be significant; from the standard circuits and point A to B races you also have access to car chases that go for wow factor speed and maneuvering. The police presence is strong, and with destructible environments it never got old leading as many cop cars as I could into a falling bridge. Unfortunately for all of the races the difficulty was minimal, weak cars could easily surpass strong cars the first attempt. If the AI doesn’t do a good enough job for you, you can take the racing online with multiplayer modes including some races and the popular cops and robbers scenario, which is like a capture the flag with cars. 

Need for Speed: Undercover does some things right, but it almost always has an equal amount of dropped balls and plain annoying characteristics. A hardcore racer should avoid this title at all costs. The casual gamer may find this right up his alley.

ESRB: Teen for drug references, car theft and speeding, lots and lots of speeding
Plays Like: Arcade format street racer that acts like a hardcore racer
Pros: Casual gameplay, easy to pick up with perfectly paced events
Cons: Too easy at times, underutilized customization and world

It’s hard to not be charmed by the idea of playing Guitar Hero anywhere you go, or of strumming your DS with wild abandon, faux pick in hand and lip askew like a geeky Billy Idol. Whimsical charm only gets you so far in the face of frustrating issues, though, of which Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades has plenty. Just as we found in our review of the original On Tour, those issues can be a real pain – usually in the wrist area. 

Decades offers more of the same, utilizing a virtually unchanged in-game engine and fret/cartridge accessory to offer 28 new tunes for your rocking enjoyment. All the tracks are from the original masters (no more touring with cover bands) and they’ve been categorized into decades, starting with “modern” for anything in the past few years and then running all the way back to the ‘70s to deliver a little Lynrd Skynrd action. 

While the songs do tend to get better as you progress through the campaign (assuming you’d rather listen to Blondie than Paramour), Decades tosses all notions of its predecessors gradually increasing difficulty aside. Instead of getting progressively harder as you work through the campaign the songs just get progressively older, meaning completing this one doesn’t lead to much of a feeling of accomplishment. However, the new ability to run through that campaign playing the rhythm/bass tracks as well gives Decades significantly more single-player shelf-life than On Tour.

Multiplayer longevity is boosted too thanks to WiFi compatibility with the original On Tour, enabling gamers with either cart to play the all the tracks from the other when connected wirelessly. That’s great if you have a friend who won’t be bothered to upgrade to the new one, but chances are you still aren’t totally sold that you should be making the upgrade yourself.

Primary among things to consider before buying is the unchanged fret attachment: if you can’t get comfortable with it you’ll be in pain long before you even hit the ‘90s. Also, with the same in-game engine you’ll still see bands that aren’t really playing along, hear sound that isn’t crystal clear, and deal with a touch-screen strumming mechanic that at its best takes a good bit of getting used to and at its worst isn’t responsive enough for technical riffs. Ultimately Decades is a better game than the first On Tour, and both games can be genuinely entertaining. But, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a 28-track expansion pack, and $35 ($50 if you get the bundle with the fret attachment) seems like a bit much for that.

ESRB: E10+, for lyrics
Plays Like: Guitar Hero On Tour
Pros: Reasonably faithful experience; new campaign mode adds some life; solid multiplayer
Cons: Still uncomfortable for most; looks, plays, and feels exactly like last On Tour

Hurry now and maybe you can own Call of Duty: World at War for only $34.98 at Amazon for the Xbox 360. Regularly $59.99, the game’s price has been slashed today as it’s Amazon’s Gold Box Deal of the Day. Earlier the game was also available for the PlayStation 3 but quickly sold out. Buy it now

Well, as the holidays come to a close and gamers start moving back towards their normal routine, we’re wondering: what did you get this year?  You know you want to tell us.

Steam Holiday Sale

December 26, 2008

It’s that time of year again. No, not Christmas (although we all had great holidays here at Snackbar!). It’s time for the Steam Holiday Sale! Every game available through Valve’s wonderful digitial distribution service is at least 10% off, and the three titles I picked up today (Heavy Weapon, Half-Life: Blue Shift, and Half-Life: Opposing Force) were either 80% or 90% off!

Here’s a partial list of the great deals, but you can see everything offered at

Fallout 3 $39.99 (25% savings)
Peggle $4.99 (50% savings)
Bioshock $4.99 (75% savings)
Portal $4.99 (75% savings)
Valve Complete Pack (include Left 4 Dead) $74.99 (25% savings)
Half-Life: Blue Shift $0.99 (80% savings)
Half-Life: Opposing Force $0.99 (80% savings)
Heavy Weapon $0.99 (90% savings)
Left 4 Dead $37.49 (25% savings)