Ben Jacobs

The Sonic series’ move to 3D was not quite as graceful as other series’ offerings. The original Sonic adventure while clumsy, was enjoyable, but later releases have strayed so far from what made Sonic great in the first place that many have given up on the series. The last straw may have been Shadow the Hedgehog, an almost unforgiveable move to make Sonic more ‘hip’. These reasons may be why Sonic and the Secret Rings feels like such a triumph, even though it is often clumsy in its own right.

Many previews said that Secret Rings was attempting to emulate the 16-bit Sonic games, and if that was the intent with this game, SEGA failed. What Secret Rings does is try to find a happy middle between 3D gameplay and the 2D games of yore. The levels here are more like tracks, and the gameplay feels more akin to Sonic R than any other Sonic game. Here, you will zip through some very well designed levels, trying to grab as many rings and avoid as many hazards as you can, until you find the finish line. And it works. Quite well, in fact.

The Wiimote adds a lot to this title, and I didn’t think it would. The smoothness of turning with the remote takes a little while to get used to, but as soon as the tutorial is over, you will be racing away. Where the controls, and ultimately the game, fall short is that while you can go really fast and the thrill is absolutely amazing, the game asks you to stop sometimes. When you turn the controller so that the face of it is facing you, Sonic will start to walk backwards. Some parts of the game actually require this and everytime, you will curse the dumbest design decision ever. If I need to backtrack, why not have a clearly marked alternate path I can use to circle around to where I was?

Sonic starts out with a decent bit of speed, but by the end of the game, you will wonder why you ever thought he was fast at the beginning. Sonic and the Secret Rings has a surprisingly delightful RPG aspect, where upon successful completion of a level, you will get skills and experience points. You equip these skills onto your skill ring, and swapping out for specialized skills in certain stages becomes an art form later on.

Never fear, Wii owners, this is one game that you can actually use to show off the graphical abilities of the Wii. Textures are wonderfully crisp, the areas detailed, and if the game drops below 60 FPS, it isn’t noticeable. While your friends are being wow’d by how fast the little hedgehog goes, they can marvel at the sound track. But probably not. The soundtrack is made up of some of the cheesiest rock music on the face of the planet. You can even make a game out of what you think the words are. “No such thing as an aeroplane… la dee da”

As one of the few original and buyable games for the Wii, Secret Rings is a triumph that just stumbles a little bit in the controls department. Later iterations will hopefully take care of this. There’s even an obligatory Wii Multiplayer Mario Party Style Minigame-Fest to goof around with once your friends want to pick up the controller. If you are a Wii owner chomping at the bit for something original and daring, here’s my pick.

Godfather : Blackhand for Wii Review by Ben Jacobs

EA’s effort on the Wii so far is admirable. They’ve released their share of original games, like SSX: Blur, but a majority of the releases have been Wii versions of multi console games. Godfather gives me the impression that there was a meeting at EA at some point this year. They were working on some Wii games, and an intern spoke up and went “We have a huge back-catalog of easily portable games that we could practice our waggle on”. Godfather is the result of this fake meeting.

And it works. Marvelously, at times. This is the same game that you might have played on the Xbox a year or so ago. There are extra missions, and Wii-exclusive features that dot the experience, but a majority of the new content is going to be in the controls. The graphics look much the same as they did on the Xbox, but with some improved explosions and a better framerate. Load times are also a lot better.

Now let’s get to the part of this review that you actually care about. EA has made a spectacular case for a Grand Theft Auto game on the Wii. The Godfather: Blackhand uses the nunchuk configuration, with the stick used for movement and the remote used for, ya know, whacking. A great deal of the game time is spent beating the crap out of people, and the controls feel very natural and immersive. You begin by targetting with a button on the nunchuk, and then proceed to make punching motions until your enemy is a bloody pulp. After spending a little time with the game, you will learn how to grab a mobster, walk with him up to a wall, and then push both controllers forward to bash his skull into it. Extremely responsive control makes it very rewarding.

Shooting guns is simplified, which makes the experience much less frustrating than say, Red Steel. Targetting is done the same as with melee combat, but you point at the screen to shoot. Your aiming is simplified, as your cursor can only be moved around your enemy. This allows you to carefully pick where you shoot, resulting in blown knees every few minutes.

The Grand Theft Auto formula is just fresh enough that Godfather is still very playable. The attention to detail in the areas is admirable, with many explorable shops. All with no load times. The cut-scenes are very well done. The detailed character models make it believable and the voice acting is spot on. By framing your exploits on the street inside of the rich Godfather world, you gain a nice amount of justification for the violence.

Unfortunately, this is really a re-release. If you have played The Godfather on any other platform, the new content is not worth the $50 purchase. The motion controls work very well, adding to the experience, and this is a very good purchase for a Wii owner hankering for something meaty. There is a lot of content here, with hours and hours of gameplay. There are enough missions, side quests, and general tom-follery in The Godfather to keep even the most dedicated mobster entertained for weeks.

Gamers were teased by the Wii Sports pack that Nintendo bundled in with their Wii console. While a few of the games were excellent, most notably bowling, others were lacking. The golf game especially drew ire not because it was necessarily bad, but because the potential for a golf game on the Wii is just monumental. The little remote that could seems custom fit for a good golf game and who better to take up the challenge than EA Sports?

All the features that you enjoyed in other iterations of Tiger Woods Golf are here. The courses are plentiful and most of your favorite golfers are in here. I couldn’t find Freddy Couples, but maybe he’s hidden a little deeper than I looked. There are about 10 bagillion modes of play, including some arcade modes that, while gimmicky, are fun diversions from the more traditional modes. But that is not why you are reading this review. You want to know how the game controls.

I am happy to report that Tiger Woods for Wii may be the best sports game you play this year. Not only is it complete and nice to look at, the controls just take this game above any other sports, let alone golf, outing available. Swinging is done exactly like you would want it to be done. You pick up the wiimote, you get down in your stance, hold B to indicate you are ready to swing and then let it rip. Tiger Woods succeeds where both Super Swing Golf and Wii Sports golf fail in that your swings feel visceral and accurate. You will be whipping huge shots off of the tee in no time. The controls are quite realistic and often (sometimes painfully) mimic your real life golf game. I tested many different swing styles, going from more of a baseball first-time-golfer swing, to a shot with proper turning of my wrists, and the difference in the game is tremendous.

Where the controls falter a little is in the short game. You would imagine that putting would be difficult with these controls, but the real problem is in the approach. It will take you a few sessions to get used to making carefully aimed and timed approach shots. To do a shot like this, you need to bring the remote up slowly and then swing once your golfer has his arms as high as the shot you want to do. It works, but it will take some practice. In fact, for optimum initial enjoyment, I suggest you play with mulligans on, as inexperienced players might accidentally trigger a shot by casually pressing the B button or there is a mis-cue from the game.

The controls and main game are very solid, but the presentation could use some work. The in-game character models are very detailed and the environments crisp, but the interface is just unforgiveable. Some of the decisions made on the UI boggle the mind, like only allowing one player to choose a character at a time, and the last player to hit A gets control of the screen. The create a character interface is especially ugly and problematic.

What Tiger Woods on Wii represents is effort on EA’s part and the result is a very enjoyable sports experience. The controls alone make the game, and in future iterations, I expect the rest of the game to catch up, and the glitches in the controls to be ironed out. A wonderful first outing.

DDR Ultramix 4

March 20, 2007

Oh man, I haven’t played a DDR game at home since high school, so when Konami’s newest for Xbox showed up at our offices, I got more then a twinge of nostalgia. I’ve been out of the game for a long time, spending a quarter or two here and there when I see an arcade machine, and I haven’t whipped out the dance mats since the original Xbox DDR release. Suffice to say, I am a little rusty. Having missed the rest of the offerings for Microsoft’s console, I can’t comment on the difference between this version and the last, but I can safely say that Ultramix 4 delivers on everything Konami said would show up on the Xbox versions.

The song selection is the first thing any DDR fan will page through when faced with a new DDR game and Ultramix delivers on this front. You know that song about wishing your girlfriend was hot like (me)? That’s on here, and tells the story of a lot of this mix. While catering to old fans with DDR mainstays, Ultramix 4 rolls out recent club hits. Your little sister will definitely recognize more than a few songs. 70 songs ain’t nothing to sneeze at either, and all are danceable. This release could definitely have the subtext “Club Edition”.

Let’s talk modes. DDR Ultramix 4 has more modes than any DDR game, period. Hell, I think there are more modes here than in any game on the Xbox. Some stand-outs are the Quest mode, which is a welcome addition, replacing the annoying “arcade mode” single player of earlier editions. Now, instead of running through sets of 5 songs like in the arcade, you can compete in clubs and earn money. It works, but is more than a little skeletal. Also on the list are some awesome party modes that, while for the most part gimmicky, offer a change of pace for DDR veterans. Fans who have only played the PS2 DDR games will be pleased to hear that you can actually play with (gasp) four people! I know, blasphemy, but it really works and it is a welcome addition. What else does the Xbox edition offer that the PS2 doesn’t? An online mode! You can take your dancin’ skills online now, with competitions and online downloadable content. This is definitely a welcome addition, and something that just couldn’t have been done on the PS2.

A warning, however, to those of you who suffer from epileptic seizures. DDR Ultramix 4 uses more damn flashing lights and randomly changing images. It actually detracts from the game as a whole, as it is very hard to concentrate on the arrows when in the background, a million pixels are changing every second. The presentation, while seizure-inducing, is great, however. The interface works the same as it always has, but with slick transitions. Load times are basically nil in this release, as the menus transition in and out of songs very quickly.

DDR UltraMix 4 really delivers. I couldn’t be more happy with it as a long-time DDR player looking to come back to the game. Everybody who enjoys DDR and has only stuck to the PS2 releases really needs to check out what Konami has been doing on the XBox, because it’s just a whole other ball game.

I imagine, at one point, there were simultaneous meetings at both FOX and Konami. FOX was sitting on the American Idol IP hoping someone would make a good game with singing. Konami was sitting on Karaoke Revolution wishing they could come up with a good single player story mode for their series. That was when a stroke of genius came to both sides (most likely Konami first, FOX second. Afterall, these are the same guys who cancelled Firefly). Let’s take our ridiculously popular IP and slap it on an established series!

That’s right. Take everything you love and hate about the Karaoke Revolution series and add in Simon Cowell and you have the American Idol edition. While previous Karaoke Revolution games sufferred from a lack of single player cohesiveness, now you can take your customized singer through a campaign to become the new American Idol. And let’s be honest, the entire time you were playing the Country Edition, you wished you were on Nashville Star, so it’s a natural progression. All the characters are here, Simon, Randy, and Paula, each with their own distinct personalities. Simon is going to tell you how awful you are, Paula will drunkenly comment on your wardrobe, and Randy will make the most random comments about your pitch that may or may not be accurate. He may or may not also call you his ‘dawg’. Just what you wanted!

The song list is actually kinda great. There are recent hits from Christina Aguilera, and if you try, you can hit those notes. However, fans of the show will appreciate the range of musical styles. Piano Man is just a damn fun song to sing, and I dare anybody to not do a William Hung impression with She Bangs; I know I did.

Anyone who has played the previous KR entries will feel at home with the gameplay, as you are still judged both on pitch as well as timing. Unfortunately, not much has been fixed in this version of Karaoke Revolution, and much of the time you can’t just sing the song and win. You have to sing a note and then adjust it to go at just the right pitch in order to score. It can be frustrating and takes a bit of practice to figure it all out. Personally, I ignore the score and belt out off-key renditions that would make FOX happy to put me on their gag reel. And oh yeah, if you have an Eye Toy, American Idol, you can use the camera to put your face in the game, literally. You can create a little 3D model of yourself to use as your avatar. It also feeds the camera image into the monitors on stage while you sing. Classy.

What really hurts the game is the presentation. While the performances are well animated and varied, the limited amount of judge responses gets stale very quickly. After your 5th performance, you really are going to hear about all Randy, Paula, and Simon have to say. The menus are bland, and a lot of the time, you really don’t get the American Idol excitement. When judging is announced, you just see a bunch of names on a list disappear and hope you’re not one of them. Ryan Seacrest doesn’t lend anything to this game, except for sound bites pulled directly from the TV broadcast. There is no exciting fully animated sequences where you watch the votes come in, like on the show. There is no “good bye song”. It’s just “whoops, you tried. Go again?”.

That actually sums up how I feel about this game perfectly. Please, try again Konami, you’re so damn close. ‘American Idoling’ the Karaoke Revolution formula works so well for the series, and a more engaging single player adventure would really make the game a must buy for both fans of the show and Karaoke Revolution fans. For now, I say give it a rent. You’ll see all you want to see in just a single play-through.