Chris Massey

The Colin McRae Rally series has become one of the premier rally racing simulators since 1998. It may not have the Scottish racer’s name on it, but DiRT is the latest entry into the series, and it continues to excel at rally racing. What’s more, DiRT is one of the best looking racers to hit the Xbox 360 and possibly rivals the visuals of flagship title Gears of War. Unfortuantely, some issues keep DiRT from being all that it could have been, including one of the most poorly thought-out multiplayer components on the system. Still, fans of the series, and even newcomers, will find a lot to go wild about.

DiRT offers up a pretty slick overall presentation. Aside from the realistic (or at least, mostly realistic; more on that further down) rally racing that the McRae series has been providing for over five games now, DiRT has some of the most impressive menu interfaces I’ve ever seen. Travis Pastrana makes a voice-appearance and guides you through the game, and other voice-overs help explain track layouts and strategy. A large selection of tracks, realistic engine sounds, and pleasing visuals help make DiRT one of the most polished racers alongside Forza 2 and PGR 3. Clearly one of the factors that pushes DiRT into this category is the amazing visuals.

The biggest achievement that DiRT can hand to itself is its gorgeous graphics. While other racers like Forza and PGR present some impressive looks, DiRT goes above and beyond on the graphical front. Tracks are beautifully rendered with lush trees, great textures, and dirt and grit flying everywhere. Driver seat cameras, especially the interior camera that features the dashboard, help make DiRT look all the better. Probably the most impressive aspect, however, comes from the game’s collision system. Driving into walls, poles, and otherwise dangerous objects to run into can really end up totaling your car in the long run, and the system even detects each separate element of the car, from the wheels to the cooling intake. Slamming into something hard enough can even immobilize your car and put you out of the race for good. Also worth mentioning is that unlike many racers, DiRT has managed to gain permission to have cars rollover and take all kinds of abuse. For that reason, replays can be immensely entertaining.

As for the meat of the game, DiRT offers up a pretty diverse set of racing options. The main attraction here is career mode, which has you progressing through a tiered series of races to reach the top and final race. As you progress, you’ll come across the standard rally race through off road territory, but in addition, there are several other types of races to mix things up. Hillclimbs, rallycrosses, CORR races, crossover events, and more make up the bulk of career mode, with each having detailed explanations given by Pastrana. There are a lot of variations on these racing types, even going so far as to add in semi-truck races, so you’ll find a lot to do in career mode. In addition to career mode, there are also other modes such as championship, but for the money, career mode is where you’ll spend most of your time.

There may be some that find rally racing a tad complicated. This will probably only be bolstered by the psychobabble that your co-driver spews throughout the game. Rest assured that DiRT is accessible to all audiences. It isn’t all that difficult to pick up and play a race, even if you’ve never even seen a rally race on television. While there are discernable differences between the handling of cars, it is simple to adapt and take the wins in stride. That said, with the five difficulty modes offered, rally enthusiasts are in for a challenge on Pro Am and beyond. With DiRT, there’s pretty much something for all skill levels.

With all the praise given to DiRT so far, there are some unfortunate downsides, starting with the game physics. The Colin McRae series has been known for a realistic approach to rally racing, and DiRT doesn’t seem to be an exception. Yet, cars don’t seem to feel as natural as they should and don’t grip the road quite like you would think a rally car would. This doesn’t make for an impossible-to-control game, but taking corners and braking seem much easier than you would think. With this taken into consideration, DiRT almost seems to stray away from realism a bit and shows a little of its arcade side. It has been said that the Xbox 360 Wireless Steering Wheel feels much more in-tune with the cars than the game pad (something I was unfortunately unable to verify), but even with physics issues, DiRT can still be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, while control issues can be excused in light of DiRT‘s great performance, the online play doesn’t get off so easily. The PGR, Forza, and Need for Speed series’ have been providing ample online support for quite some time now, but DiRT does not. Instead, you can have up to 100 other players join into a lobby and race separately on the same track to try and make the best time. This isn’t a bad idea, but as the sole online option in the game, it makes for a bit of a disappointment. Rally Raids and Corr races are great fun offline, and, though probably ridiculously chaotic, would produce the same results online. It isn’t enough that there is only a single mode to choose from, but also your options between picking tracks are also hindered by a voting system. The single player is good, long fun, but some better multiplayer options would have really put DiRT over-the-top. For now, it seems like the developers just stopped short.

With physics errors and online disappointments aside, DiRT is among some of the best racers on the Xbox 360, and is certainly the premier rally racer on the console. While PGR and Forza offer up slick visuals, DiRT will truly blow you away with its amazing graphics, and the damage modeling is something all racing titles should strive for. With a long and fulfilling career mode, the game also packs a lot into its offline options. It’s just too bad that the developers had to skimp on the online functions. Even so, DiRT is highly recommended and lives up to the standards of the Colin McRae Rally series.

-Psychedelic images on the screen begin the conference.

-Jack Trentton is introduced…but he’s virtual. It’s a virtual verision of Trentton in the PS3’s Home system. Virtual Trentton hits on some virtual ladies.

-Jack Trentton is introduced…this time the real one. Games, games, and games are coming. Trentton invokes the recent PS3 price cut and the new 80GB model.

-160 games will be coming to the PS2.

-Invokes yet another price cut, this time the recent PSP price cut.

-PSP: SOCOM U.S. NAVY SEALS: Tactical Strike, Wipeout Pulse, Siphon Filter, Logan’s Shadow, NBA 08, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Silent Hill: Origins, Patapon, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, Sonic Rivals 2, The Sims 2: Castaway, SWAT: Target Liberty, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lion, Castlevania: The Dracula Z Chronicles are all shown on a very small, very hard to see PSP screen.

-Trentton goes back to his virtual home avatar. He and virtual Kaz Hirai exchange awkward pleasantries before Kaz comes on stage.

-Kaz shows off the new PSP. Not much different looking, but it is 33% lighter and slimmer. It also has high video quality that can be hooked up to Bravia HDTVs to show off PSP content on big screens. Games can be played this way as well.

-Trentton comes back to show off a sliver PSP that will be packaged with Daxter, 1 Gig mem stick, an the Family Guy Frickin Sweet Collection. There will also be a collectable Star Wars Darth Vader PSP alongside Star Wars Battle Front: Renegade Squadron in a Star Wars package. Chewbacca shows it off…wait, what?

-Playstation Network time. 200 million are on the PSN. Phil Harrison takes the stage.and talks about downloadable games. Eccho Chrome is shown off for both the PS3 and PSP, a puzzle game that looks simple but becomes far more complex. Wipeout HD, Pain, Warhawk, and SOCOM: Confrontation are announced for both the PS3 Blu-Ray and PS3 Store. Wipeout HD, Warhawk, and SOCOM will all be online enabled; unclear if Pain will be or not.

-Back to Playstation Home. The Home client will now run on a cell phone. Phil takes some pictures. Home’s environment is shown off. Singstar is shown off in Home and details over its integration into Home is given. Also, the picture Phil took of the audience earlier is now posted on the wall of his virtual ski lodge. You will be able to launch directly into games, including multiplayer matches.

-Trentton returns. Sony stands behind Blu-Ray.

-NCSoft will be created online games for the PS3.

-Ubisoft is bringing Haze to the PS3 exclusively. Trailerz.

-Epic is working with Sony to provide games with the Unreal Engine. Unreal Tournament 3 is a PS3 exclusive. Another trailer.

-More third party PS3 titles: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Kayne and Lynch: Dead Men, Resident Evil 5, Burnout: Paradise, Madden 2008, Harry Potter & the Orderof the Phoenix

-Metal Gear Solid 4 time. Hideo Kojima takes the stage. A new trailer with real time, game quality footage. Simultaneous worldwide release in early 2008. Trentton reaffirms PS3 exclusivity. Kojima will play a demo of MGS4 at the upcoming Tokyo Game Show.

-Harrison is back. More Home to show off future games. Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction is shown off in trailer/developer interview format. Folklore is also shown off, a “dark fairy tale.” Heavenly Sword, NBA 08 with weekly content and 1080p, LittleBigPlanet, and Uncharted: Jake’s Fortune are also shown off.

-Gran Turismo 5 trailer is shown.

-Killzone 2 trailer is shown with actual gameplay footage.

-Nintendo begins the conference with a video showing the success of the Wii and DS in the mainstream media, including; South Park, The Colbert Report, and numerous talk shows and news shows.

-Reggie presents the sales figures and touts the expanding market of the Wii and Nintendo DS. All your charts are belong to Nintendo.

-Women and old people are buying video games.

-Nintendo shows off it’s new controller: the Wii Zapper, a lightgun shell that the Wii Remote and Nunchuk fit into to form a gun for FPS games.

-Ninja Gaiden is coming to the Nintendo DS. As is Dragon Quest: Swords, both coming next year. Mario and Sonic at the Olympics will also be coming to the Wii and DS.

-Super Smash Bros. Brawl time. Launching on Deember third. That’s all for now, apparently. Time for more videos about how Nintendo has changed people’s lives.

-Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is being shown off. Touch sensitive features are bein shown off. The touch screen controls where Link runs and also is used with items like the boomerang and to solve puzzles. Phantom Hourglass is apparently the best Zelda game ever.

-Another person comes on stage to show-off Metroid Prime 3. Wii controls are shown off, with lock-on features for strafing and motion controls to aim and gesture between different visor modes.

-Time for Nintendo online. And more videos of new shows.

-WiiWare: starting next year, new, original user developed content coming to the Wii Shop.

-Mario Strikers Charged is the next big online title. Madden 08, Fifa 08, and other EA Sports titles are also going online. Another, Dragon Quest will also be online enabled. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is also going online. Reggie is serious about showing your stuff online.

-Mario Kart Wii is coming early next year and will be online enabled. Will also debut alongside the Wii Wheel, a steering wheel controller for racing games on Wii.

-MORE new stories about the Wii’s success.

-Iwata takes the stage. Complete with a Mii in the background. Addresses the appeal of games like Nintendogs and the Brain games while also assuring that the hardcore will be pleased with the Wii and DS as well. Recaps on some of what we’ve seen, like the Wii Zapper.

-Miamoto will be out soon with a new game. For now, we get another video.

-Reggie is back. Brain Age 2 will be coming on August 20th.

-Super Mario Galaxy, “the first worthy successor to Super Mario 64.” Galaxy’s coming on November 12th.

-Picross DS will allow you to create your own puzzles and share them with friends. EA is bringing customization to MySims on both Wii and DS. Reggie invokes High School Musical 2, and the audience goes buck-wild. Rayman Raving Rabbids 2.

-Ubisoft is bringing MyLifeCoach and MyWordCoach, word and spelling based training.

-More videos. This time Wii Sports.

-Last game time. Wii Fit trailer. Looks to be a sort of aerobics-based game with a floor-based controller, similar to those plastic step…things. Also has mini-games like soccer goalie and marble balancing.

-Miamoto takes the stage. He wants to ask us if we’ve been sweating it up.

-Miamoto talks about Wii Fit. A couple people takes the stage to showcase some of the exercises for the game. One is a leg pumping, balancing game while another is a game where you step on the controller pad to the beat of the music. Another has you pretending to be an airplane. The controller is called the Wii Balance Board, and it measures your weight and balance shifts. Reggie is going to get a body check. Reggie and Miamoto battle it out over a soccer mini-game. Reggie wins.

-Reggie closes with, yep, another video.

For the past ten years, the Harvest Moon series has somehow managed to make the chore-like nature of planting tomatoes and cutting grass seem fun. How it has achieved this sorcery is a pure mystery. Regardless, it seems that the creators have decided to give the series a futuristic facelift in Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon. Unfortunately, while most other titles in the series give off a distinctive and quaint charm, Innocent Life seems completely out of place with other Harvest Moon titles. It could be the generic futuristic setting, or it could be the dull-as-dirt pacing and little to do, but in the end, Innocent Life is painfully forgettable, even for the biggest Harvest Moon fan.

Innocent Life takes place in the far-off and totally futuristic year of 2022. On the Island of Heartflame, which coincidentally looks like a big heart, most of the old agricultural practices have been outdated by automated processes, which have led to a pretty easy life. Unfortunately, this has also angered the spirits of the island, who have punished humanity by locking off land and threatening to erupt the nearby volcano. In a last ditch effort, the sickeningly named Dr. Hope creates you, a robot boy, to tend to the farmlands and bring back the old farming methods. That’s right, he’s solving the problem by making robots do the work instead. That’s progress.

Unlike most other Harvest Moon titles, instead of working on the usual farm, all of the farmland resides on top of a set of ancient ruins. It’s a different feeling, although for the most part, the mechanics are mostly the same. What is different is that you only have access to a small bit of the actual ruins at first, with the rest being unlocked as you complete your robotly tasks. These tasks will eventually unlock a lot more content than you’re originally given at the start, which is great if you can tread through to get to it all. The keyword here is A

Since its inception, the Command & Conquer series has always been about a fun, accessible experience that many people who normally don’t play RTS games can get into. While Command & Conquer Generals was a great game in its own right, it seemed to leave many of the traditions of the series behind, much to the dismay of fans. Now that EA has gotten the series back on track with Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, things are getting back to the basics. Much of what Tiberium Wars has to offer is old hat, which is both good and bad, but the game also marks the return of the wonderfully dorky full-motion video, enhanced graphics, and the same great multiplayer options. While it remains on the simple end of the RTS genre, Command & Conquer is an awesome return to old tradition, and it’s just plain fun.

Much of the hype around Tiberium Wars‘ launch has centered around the return of the enigmatic Kane, the leader of the Brotherhood of Nod (and voted least likely to die in an ion cannon blast). Tiberium Wars is, of course, a direct sequel to 1998’s Tiberian Sun, so it’s been roughly a decade since we last heard from the fight between the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) and Nod. Things takes place in 2047, about sixteen years after the event of the Firestorm expansion pack for Tiberian Sun, and the story focuses on the Third Tiberium War which Nod provokes by destroying the space station Philadelphia. Like all entries into the series, you’re given the choice between playing as Nod, GDI, or even the newest alien faction, the Scrin, in campaign modes.

Campaign mode generally runs along the same lines as previous incarnations in the C&C series. Both campaigns run significantly different, largely in part due to the different approaches each army takes. There are five acts in each campaign, with the first two acts generally devoted to introducing you to the main units of each faction. Probably the most significant factor in campaign mode is the return of FMV cut scenes, which not only have some big name actors involved, but look terrifically sharp and crisp. Michael Ironside, Tricia Helfer, and probably the biggest name here, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), all come together to make for some enjoyable, if not cheesy as hell, HD movie cut scenes. And yes C&C fans; Joe Kucan is back as big Kane himself.

Tiberium Wars also steps back into old formulas by returning to the kind of interface and game play presented by Red Alert 2. Resource harvesting, mobile construction vehicles, and the traditional sidebar have all made it back into Tiberium Wars. On the whole, the game is much more akin to classic C&C than Generals ever was, which should definitely please fans. For that reason, Tiberium Wars doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and sticks to tradition. Some might see this as trailing behind other recent RTS games, and if you’re expecting new and different, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. Even so, that doesn’t stop Tiberium Wars from being enjoyable on the whole, and what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for full-fold in capturing the great C&C game play.

It’s always interesting to see how differently each faction works in C&C titles, and like past games, each faction here caters to specific strategies. GDI is the powerhouse faction, and possesses the real heavy weaponry like the mammoth tank and the juggernaught artillery. Nod, not having the benefits of government funding, can’t match GDI’s power, but instead focuses on stealth and sneak tactics to take out their enemies. Probably the most interesting is the new Scrin faction, which displays an entirely different strategy from the other two groups with an emphasis on air superiority. Each faction offers a good variety, with GDI being for the people who take the abuse and dish it right back, Nod being for the crafty, and the Scrin probably being the most complicated but quite powerful in the right hands.

Maybe one of the main criticisms of Tiberium Wars lies in the fact that the technology tree for each factions isn’t as developed as it could be; or rather, the tech tree isn’t as developed as other more recent RTS games. This doesn’t do the game in, but it is very easy and very quick to move through the tech tree, and you can usually reach the most powerful units within minutes. On the plus side, this doesn’t seriously complicate things, and as it’s shown over the years, C&C often gathers players that normally don’t take to RTS games by keeping things relatively simple. Still, this means that more devoted RTS fans might find Tiberium Wars to be a bit too watered down compared to, say, Company of Heroes or Supreme Commander.

Despite tech tree issues, Tiberium Wars sports some pretty interesting units across the board. GDI’s mammoth tank is a force to be reckoned with, but it isn’t so powerful that Nod’s stealth tanks can’t lie in wait and ambush them before they know what happened. Nod’s avatar has the ability to assimilate technology from other vehicles and adopt stealth scanners or flamethrowers, while GDI’s zone troopers are some of the most powerful infantry units in the game. Most interesting, though, is exploring the units offered up by the Scrin, which have some truly terrifying airships and radically different strategies from the other two factions. While balance issues are mostly on the level, though, things can sort of breakdown online if a GDI player spams forth an army of mammoth tanks, which can be just about unstoppable (although not completely).

Speaking of playing online, Tiberium Wars offers up the online play in spades. Computer A.I. is all good, but online multiplayer is where the longevity comes in, and Tiberium Wars brings back the great online play the series is known for. If you can remember back to Red Alert 2, the multiplayer interface is largely similar to the one seen back then, although more user friendly. The game is super friendly to clans and leader board rankings, allowing for clan battles and matches to be set up on the C&C website. EA has even made a feature called Battlecast as a way of being able to view online matches and even commentate on them complete with telestrator. It’s a neat feature that ultimately is probably underutilized (what, with having to go through the game’s website to view matches), but it is a good way to research player strategy. Overall, the online modes are the best reason to invest in Tiberium Wars, though that by no means discounts the enjoyable single-player.

Looking at the modest system requirements, you might not expect a game like Tiberium Wars to be the most visually appealing game. It’s amazing what they can do with mid-range system specs, however, and even at the base system requirements, Tiberium Wars runs fairly smoothly at higher settings and looks great. Terrain textures leave something to be desired, but when massive armies clash, it’s like a Pink Floyd concert with lasers and explosions going off all over the place. Unfortunately, sometimes the frame rate can drop if too many units get onto the screen, although that’s fixable by sacrificing the visual quality a bit. The bottom line is that even if you aren’t looking for amazing graphics, the game can run very well on mid-range machines, which is critical since many people in the C&C fan base might not have much invested in a big rig.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars is a great throwback to the basics of the C&C franchise. It doesn’t do a whole lot of new things for the RTS genre, but those who appreciated the classic C&C games will surely enjoy the great online modes and the return of the series’ staples. Playing Tiberium Wars is remarkably like going back and playing previous games in the series, and EA has done a great job of emulating the feel of the old games while updating the visuals and some interface options. Any fan of C&C is sure to have a good time with Tiberium Wars.