Tim Canty

Me and My Katamari

August 25, 2006

[i]Katamari Damacy[/i] has become the stuff of legends. The wildly popular franchise has legions of fans all over the world. Now, in its third (and supposedly final) incarnation, has it still got the Katamari magic?

Fans of the previous games will already be intimately familiar with the King of all Cosmos, a ‘stark raving loco’ deity, who craves attention. Following his rise to fame in [i]We Love Katamari[/i], the King and his family enjoy a nice day out at the beach. However, the King gets a little over excited (as per usual) and ends up obliterating a string of islands. The islands inhabitants are understandably upset by this, so the King orders his son, the Prince, out to collect objects to make new islands. So that’s where you start; grab a blank Katamari and start rolling.

The Prince’s tool of choice, the Katamari, is an odd rubbery ball thing, which sucks up anything smaller than itself. The more stuff which gets stuck to it, the bigger the Katamari grows, and so the bigger the objects you can collect. This means you start out rolling up paper clips and coins, but eventually you can grow large enough to absorb people into your ever growing behemoth. That’s where the game’s irreverent humour comes into play, as you roll screaming children into your Katamari alongside cows, stationary, buildings. The combined sound of chickens, children and cows all crying out at once is, frankly, hilarious.

On the PS2, the Katamari games utilize both analogue sticks, to control the ball like a tank. Unlike its PS2 counterparts, Me and My utilizes the Directional and Face buttons, owing to the fact that the PSP has only one analogue stick. These controls aren’t as slick as the PS2 games, but they are easy enough to get to grips with. In a short while, you’ll take to rolling like an expert.

The areas you roll around in gradually grow in scale, as you grow with your Katamari. To begin with, you’re confined to rolling around a small room indoors, but eventually, you can break out into a large city, rolling up all manner of buildings. The world and the items in it are very colourful, and your Katamari adopts a sort of twisted beauty as it collects all manner of pastel coloured objects. The graphics aren’t far removed from the PS2 version, but there’s a trade-off, in that there are some annoying load times, and the physical appearance of the Katamari holds far less objects than the PS2 version.

The soundtrack is just as crazy as the PS2 version. There’s plenty of Japanese pop music, salsa, rock, and even lounge music. The music tends to get overbearing at times, even distracting, but the occasional piercing scream helps break up the music nicely.

The downside is that [i]Me and My Katamari[/i] is far shorter than the other Katamari games. Returning players from the previous games will just breeze straight through in a few hours. Also, there are far fewer environments to play around in. That means you end up playing in the same areas over and over again, which can get quite dull. There’s a multiplayer mode, allowing for up to 4 people to compete with each other, but given the scarcity of PSP’s, and the fact that each player needs a copy of the game, this’ll be a seldom used feature.

Despite its shortcomings, [i]Me and My Katamari[/i] holds true to what Katamari’s all about: short bursts of random insanity. And it’s pretty damn good at it. It belongs in the collection of any Katamari fan, and it’s good enough to introduce people to the series too.

Have you ever rocked out on an air guitar? Have you ever wished you could rock out on a real guitar, but found that pesky lack of talent getting in the way? Well, now you can rock out on a miniature Gibson SG plastic guitar, courtesy of Red Octane. This game proves that rhythm can still be fun, and it just may be the best of its genre, ever.

If you’ve ever played a rhythm game before, you’ll know what to expect here: a board, covered in 5 different coloured blobs, scrolls towards the screen. As they hit the bottom of the screen, you hit the corresponding key on your controller. What separates [i]Guitar Hero[/i] from the rest of the crowd is that you’re given an actual guitar to do this with, as opposed to the standard PS2 controller. Though the Dual Shock does function with the game, it’s barely worth a glance; the guitar controller is where it’s at. The specialist controller is also the cause of the game’s elevated price tag (Up to $15 more than most games).

The controller has 5 ‘fret’ buttons, a strum pedal and a Whammy bar. To hit a note successfully, you must hold down a fret button, then strum. Often, notes have a streak of colour following on after them- these are power chords, which are activated by strumming, like any other note, but then leaving the fret button held down. While a power chord is being played out, you can wiggle the whammy bar in and out, to bend the note, earning you more points.

The guitar also has a motion sensor, to detect when you tilt the guitar up. This activates Star Power (which is accumulated by hitting a streak of Star shaped notes, or using the whammy bar on a Star shaped power chord) where you’ll earn more points. At the end of each song, you’ll receive a review, and will receive 3 to 5 stars, depending on how many points you earned.

The meat of the game is in the Career mode, where you progress through the ranks of rock stardom. You start out playing simple songs in someone’s basement, and finish up playing legendary rock anthems at a massive amphitheatre. Completion of songs (and getting 5 star reviews) earns you cash, which can be used to purchase new guitars, characters and songs. Though this arguably ruins the game’s ‘arcade’ style nature, it does add a lot of depth, and makes it easy to keep track of which songs you’ve ‘5-starred’.

There’s the basic Quick Play mode, where you pick a song and a difficulty, and the game arranges the rest for you (Chooses the character, guitar, venue etc.) and you play simply to beat your highest score. This mode is fun, accessible, and very easy to pick up and play.

Possibly the greatest gameplay mode however, is Multiplayer. Here, you get to duel, head to head, as two players can attempt to out rock each other. And, in accordance with this, the sound from each guitar riff plays through the speakers separately on your TV, so that Player 1’s music comes through the left, and Player 2’s through the right. This makes for some very interesting sounds, and only serves to underline how good (or not) each of the players is.

The selection of music available is nothing short of astounding. There’s not a bad song in sight, with contributions from legends like Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Motorhead, Blue Oyster Cult…the list goes on. There’s also a large selection of unsigned bands, including the remarkable Graveyard BBQ whose song, “Cheat on the Church” appears on the list.

This game is outstanding in everyway, with the only flaws being graphical. With the PS2 this close to the end of it’s era, we should be seeing better stuff than this. That aside, there’s a broad range of characters, venues, songs… everything has been done right. This has knocked [i]Donkey Konga[/i] off the top of the rhythm game pecking order, and is unlikely to be trumped by anything less than [i]Guitar Hero II[/i]. There’s no two ways about it – go buy [i]Guitar Hero[/i].

Unless you’re new to this whole ‘Playstation’ thing, you’ve probably played [i]Grand Theft Auto 3[/i] at some time. And if you have, you’ll feel right at home here. [i]GTA: Liberty City Stories[/i] is another trip through the streets of the worst city in America, and it’s bigger and badder than ever before. Liberty City is divided into three islands – Portland, the industrial district; Staunton, the residential and business centre; and Shoreside Vale, where the rich kids play. Though not often regarded as the best [i]GTA[/i] city, Liberty has a certain undeniable charm, which makes it stand apart from the others. It has a mafia-istic feel about it; if you like the Godfather for example, you’ll love this. The grimy streets underneath the constantly overcast sky… it’s like a worst case scenario version of New York.

So how does [i]GTA:LCS[/i] fit into the saga? It’s set in 1998, everyone’s terrified of the millennium bug (A nice touch) and the city is tense. Everyone seems to be coming apart – there’s strike action against the construction of the Callahan bridge as the ferry workers fear that the bridge will result in them losing their jobs. Of course, there were no ferries in [i]GTA3[/i]. Wonder what happened to them… The unfinished bridge means that Portland is isolated from the rest of the city when you, as Toni Cipriani, arrive. As you progress through the story, the bridge becomes more or less complete, but not totally. Eventually you can cross to Staunton Island. But then the strikers take out the Shoreside Vale lift bridge, so you’re stranded on Staunton until further notice.
The missions are more mafia centered than any of the previous games – mainly because you play as a wiseguy in the Leone family, rather than a freelance anonymous killer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t get the same freedom of choice as you do in the other [i]GTA[/i]s.

Controls wise, this game takes full advantage of every button the PSP has. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Drive-by shooting is a staple of the [i]GTA[/i] series, and it has become difficult to pull off here. In the default control scheme, you’re required to hold down the L button, and tilt the Analogue stick left or right, then shoot. But you can’t change the direction you’re moving in when you do this; it leaves you totally vulnerable. The alternative allows for a more [i]GTA[/i]-like drive by style, where L and R allow you to look left and right, respectively. However, with this setup, the Handbrake is mapped to Square and X pushed together. Neither one of these control schemes work particularly well. Also, to correctly use the analogue stick, you need to move it with the ball of your thumb. It takes a while to get used to, and doing it incorrectly can hurt your hand…

The graphics are pretty good, all things considered. They’re slightly better than [i]GTA3[/i]’s – there are improved lighting and mist effects, for example. The soundtrack is of the same style as [i]GTA3[/i]’s – an overabundance of techno and trance music. The relaxing classical strings of Double Cleff FM are also present, but the annoying DJ breaks the mood… The staple Talk Radio show isn’t up to regular [i]GTA[/i] standards either – and it loops far too often.

As far as gameplay goes, [i]GTA:LCS[/i] is half-way between [i]GTA3[/i] and [i]GTA: Vice City[/i]. [i]Vice City[/i]’s expanded weapon sets are here(The inclusion of a chain gun is particularly nice), as are the changeable outfits. However, one of the big [i]Vice City[/i] improvements was the inclusion of aircraft; which are sadly missing from [i]GTA:LCS[/i]. This is odd, to say the least, as there are a whole host of fully functioning helicopters hidden away in the game’s code, yet they are only available with the help of a certain game hack… Also a problem is the save system. It stays true to the [i]GTA[/i] style of having a ‘safe house’, but that really doesn’t work so well on a supposedly portable game; how pick-up-and-play is it if you have to run all the way back to your safe house every time you need to save?

The missions are fun. That’s not debatable. Toni Cipriani is an excellent character, even if he has reduced choice in the theme of his missions. He’s a little deeper than [i]Vice City[/i]’s Tommy Vercetti, but you won’t be getting as attached to him as you did to San Andreas hero, CJ. The storyline is just as epic as we’re used to with the ‘big’ [i]GTA[/i] games and Toni gets to do more damage than any other [i]GTA[/i] protagonist; even going so far as to level several city blocks. The token side missions are here, in full force. If I’m not mistaken, there are actually more mini-missions in [i]GTA:LCS[/i] than there were in San Andreas. Among the new jobs available are car salesman and trashman.

Overall, it may not be the killer app everyone made of it. It’s definitely a buy though, as the sheer size of it will keep you going longer than any other game at the moment. The dry black humour will raise more than a few giggles and the intense driving missions will keep you hooked. The inclusion of motorcycles in Liberty City Stories was simply a stroke of genius – Nothing gives you more of a rush than slicing up the road on a PCJ-600 at 90mph. And now you can do it on the go. Groovy.

The following takes place between 19:00 and 20:00. [i]24[/i] is currently the most popular Fox show on television. Seems only right to milk the franchise with a quick tie-in, right? But it seems SCEE has gone the extra mile, and made a worthwhile game here. Let’s check it out, shall we? Let me start off by saying one thing: Fans of the series should play this game. If you’re a fan of [i]24[/i] and you haven’t already played it, then go out and rent the game as soon as possible. If you’re a not a fan of [i]24[/i], then you’re probably not going to get much enjoyment out of this game. That’s the short version at least.

For those not familiar with [i]24[/i], it’s set in real-time, surrounding the events of a day in Jack Bauer’s life. And he has a lot of bad days. Jack works for the Los Angeles CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit), and frequently ends up putting his life on the line to protect his country. And as [i]24[/i]: The Game starts, he’s at it again. It’s 6 AM, and Jack is leading a CTU strike team into a cargo ship. CTU has got an anonymous tip that the ship is full of weapons, and the toxic chemical Ricin. Jack finds the Ricin, rigged to blow. As the bomb is disarmed though, the rest of the team reports that there are no weapons on board. Furthermore, the entire crew of the ship is dead. As CTU follows up on another lead, it becomes clear that it’s going to be another long day for Jack Bauer… The game takes place between Day 2 and 3 of [i]24[/i]. Written by an actual writer of the show, the game explains a few unanswered questions from the show.

Here’s where problems start to arise though – the game assumes that everyone playing is intimately familiar with [i]24[/i]. The characters get no introduction, and many casual players will find themselves getting confused between them. Provided you’ve seen the first two seasons of the show, you’ll be fine.

The bulk of the gameplay is set in third person shoot-em-up style, with a bit of stealth, driving, and lots of mini games thrown in. The shooting system takes a lot of getting used to; holding down L1 targets an enemy and you use the right analogue stick to fine aim. Flicking the analogue stick towards an enemy makes you track them instead. This system takes quite some getting used to, but once you’ve got it down, it all gets a lot easier. There’s a fair amount of variety in the weapons, including a nice tazer gun – words can not describe how fun it is to electrocute someone as Kim Bauer.

Another large chunk of gameplay is GTA-esque driving missions. The city of Los Angeles has been recreated fairly well here. Unfortunately, there isn’t much variety in the driving sequences – they all follow the same formula of driving to one location, evading an enemy, and returning to CTU. This patchy gameplay is annoying; in some places, the game is spectacular, in others, it’s terrible. The story more than makes up for it though, and you’ll find yourself pulling through the dodgy areas, just to see where the story leads.

The soundtrack is amazing. It’s composed by Sean Callery, just like the show, particularly towards the end of the game, the music becomes pretty epic. Although the graphics aren’t that great, cut scenes are done very well. The voice acting is top notch, with the entire cast of the show lending their voices. The same can not be said about the hundreds of random enemies though. They all get bland, uninteresting voiceovers.

There are a few problems with the controls. Sometimes you have to climb on top of objects to proceed. The climb button is the same as the roll button and your character is prone to just randomly rolling into any object you try to climb onto. At points, you practically have to struggle with the controls to get your character to actually climb onto the object in front of him. While these flaws aren’t devastating, they should have been an easy fix. The one big, real problem is this: the game isn’t in real time. That, to a fan of [i]24[/i], is a problem. It’s annoying, as certain parts of the game have been made carefully, to feel as though they play in real time. Others though… one scene has Tony walk out of CTU, and appear at a subway station, literally ten seconds later. There are the occasional nice touches, like when your cell phone rings at just the wrong time, or when Jack needs to find the locations of several snipers, so the action cuts away to CTU. There, you play a minigame, locating possible snipers by way of scanning for heat signatures. Upon completion, the action cuts back to Jack, whose PDA now has the locations of the possible snipers.

There’s a fair amount of replay value – every mission has an unlockable bonus. Most of these are character models, which are nice to look at. There are a couple interviews with the cast, and some nice artwork too. [i]24[/i] fans need to play this game. It’s definitely a purchase. Hearing all the actors, now mostly deceased, is a great reward in itself. Final verdict for non fans – Rent. But, rent series 1 and 2 first. It makes the game a [b]lot[/b] more complete.

SSX Tricky

March 19, 2006

When the PS2 was released, it came with a nice little demo disk. It showed off a few nice videos, had the program YABASIC on it, and a couple of playable demos. [i]SSX[/i] was one of those playable demos. It was, without a doubt, the best of the first few PS2 games. A year later, those crazy guys at EA did what they do best: make a sequel.

[i]SSX[/i] is basically the snowboarding equivalent of Motocross. It’s a race between 6 boarders, each trying to be as stylish and tricky as possible. Throughout the tracks, there are plenty of big jump opportunities, so the boarders can show off their incredible skills in the air. Each successful trick will add to the adrenaline bar at the side of the screen, allowing for a small boost in speed at the touch of a button. Obviously, screwing up a trick, or falling flat on your face will decrease the adrenaline bar. So that was [i]SSX[/i]; a race, pulling tricks to earn speed boosts.

A year on, they reckoned that they had better come to grips with the technology available to them. They said that they had wanted to do things that wouldn’t have been possible in the first [i]SSX[/i]. Tricky isn’t so much a sequel, as a remake. All the courses of the original are back, but a few of the original riders have gone AWOL. (Sadly, this includes the awesome Hiro.) Tricky makes up for it by introducing a bunch of brand new boarders – from the well balanced alpine boarder, Brodi (Hiro’s replacement), to the maniacal BX boarder, Psymon. All the original tracks reappear, some have minor adjustments. Some are like entirely new courses. There’s also the welcome addition of two new tracks; a super easy beginner course, Garibaldi, and an insanely difficult expert course. Alaska.

The emphasis in Tricky is on style, rather than speed. The introduction of Uber Tricks is the best example of this. Topping off the adrenaline bar, there’s now the word “TRICKY”. When you build up the adrenaline bar all the way to the top, Run DMC will briefly highjack the soundtrack, and start yelling “It’s TRICKY!!” This is your opportunity to perform an Uber Trick. These new tricks award you with massive points, a complete refill to your adrenaline bar (Though it should be full anyway, if you just pulled an Uber Trick…) and each Uber Trick you perform will highlight one letter of the “TRICKY” which adorns the adrenaline bar. Highlighting the entire word will give you infinite boost for the rest of the race. It is of course, incredibly hard to pull off 6 Uber Tricks in time for it to actually make it worthwhile.

Each race you win will give you experience points, which you use to upgrade your rider. These points are pretty damn useful, especially when you turn your attentions to Showoff mode. Showoff is the other mainstay of Tricky – you get a course all to yourself, and have to reach the target number of trick points. Here, Uber Tricks are your friends. Do well in the races and showoffs and you’ll advance a ranking. Your rank is just a cosmetic thing – but each new rank unlocks a new board for your rider.

That’s pretty much it as far as gameplay goes. So what makes it so fun? It’s all the little things. The DJ’s always fun and characters like Eddie and Psymon often have interesting things to say. The variety among the boarders is great. Even the character select screen acknowledges their differences; Kaori hides from Psymon. Those are the nice little details that make [i]SSX Tricky[/i] a joy to play, over and over again.

Load times are kept to a minimum which is strange considering they reappeared with a vengeance in [i]SSX 3[/i]. Popup is non-existent, and framerates are never a problem. The graphics aren’t outstanding, but then – it is 5 years old. All things considered, they are pretty remarkable. One minor problem (if it could be called that) is that each character’s outfit selection has little variety. They’re all the same outfit, just with colour swaps.

The music is pretty damn suitable. Lots of hip hop and the general snowboarding vibe make up this sweet soundtrack. The voice actors are all top notch (David Duchovny and Lucy Liu are among the cast) and all suit their character’s well. The DJ is fantastic; he introduces each track in his own unique way… There isn’t much else to say. [i]SSX Tricky[/i] is fantastic, in an over-the-top kind of way. Some of the Uber Tricks, like Psymon’s Guillotine Air, spit at the laws of physics. It’s this rampant surrealism that makes [i]SSX Tricky[/i] fun to play, even though it’s old.

Should you look into Tricky, even though it has 2 sequels? In a word – yeah. [i]SSX On Tour[/i] does away with all the crazy Uber Tricks, and in the process, loses a lot of the [i]SSX[/i] charm. If you’re looking for a solid, realistic snowboard game; go for [i]SSX On Tour[/i]. If you want a bit of silly fun, this is the one to get. At around $8, there is no downside to [i]SSX Tricky[/i]. One thing I must mention though – steer clear of the Gamecube version. It just doesn’t work – not enough shoulder buttons. That said, go buy it. Now.