Kris VanHaaren

Gears of War

January 2, 2007

For months now we’ve been salivating over gameplay videos, trailers, and the mere thought of running a chainsaw through hordes of Locust like a hot knife through butter. As is always the case when a game has this much hype behind it, we all ask ourselves, “Can it really be that good?” Is [i]Gears of War[/i] the system selling “Killer App” that it’s been presented to us as, or have we been hoodwinked again with just another mildly entertaining title that has been hyped up more than a Don King fight? The answer might not be quite what you think.

First of all let me set things straight. Gears is a 3rd person, tactical, stop-n-pop title. This isn’t Black with a chainsaw attached to the gun and better graphics. You really do need to pay attention to where enemies are, and more importantly where they are headed because the AI in this game is superb. Enemies will flank you; they will split up and try to get behind you, come from unexpected angles, and more than likely give you a good scare. Likewise, you will need to use all these same tactics if you are going to take down the Locust force with any efficiency, especially on the harder difficulties where you will very quickly learn that if you don’t take cover, you won’t last long. These features all work to make the co-op play in [i]Gears of War[/i] one of the best multiplayer experiences around. There are very few times I’ve had more fun on my Xbox360 than when a friend and I get together and play co-op in Gears. There’s really nothing like completely immersing yourself in the game- calling out positions, communicating, and working together to flank a pack of locust; it’s just a truly rewarding and fun experience.

The campaign is very entertaining, and the gameplay doesn’t seem to get old or repetitive (at least it hasn’t for me yet, and I’ve played through 3 times, on my fourth time through right now, and still having lots of fun with it). The game isn’t very long, but isn’t particularly short either at around 15 hours or so the first time through, probably a bit more on the harder difficulties. Gears does, however, lack in the story department. You never really know the story behind what’s happening or why you are doing what you’re doing. This is made even more disappointing by the fact that the few little tidbits of story that are in the game make it seem as though the story really could be quite promising if they had just elaborated on it all.

The Multiplayer versus mode is pretty lackluster in comparison to the great campaign and co-op options. Firstly, the game only allows for 4v4 action. In this day and age with games like [i]Call of Duty 3[/i] allowing for 24 players, there is really no excuse for not having at least a 6v6 or 8v8 setup. On top of this there are only 3 online modes, all of which are variations of your basic deathmatch. Warzone is simply that, a basic team deathmatch. Execution is a team deathmatch where you must be right up near an enemy to finish them off. Finally, a third “protect the president” style variant called Assassination has one player as the leader of the team, and if the leader is killed, it’s round over. While all of these options are pretty fun, I don’t see the harm in throwing in some capture the flag or maybe (gasp) coming up with something original to bring to the multiplayer arena. The lobby system is a bit out of wack as well, allowing people to start games with lopsided teams in ranked matches, and it would be nice to create a lobby with your friends and not have to quit out and regroup every time. The good news is that Microsoft is working on fixing some of these problems and that the update will not cost us a single, red, micro-transacted cent. Now even with all of these problems, the online versus modes are all pretty enjoyable, especially with a bunch of friends. I mean honestly, can you think of anything more fun than curb stomping your best friend? Yeah, me neither.

Now this is what most of you have probably been waiting for. The graphics. [i]Gears of War[/i] is by leaps and bounds the most graphically impressive title on not only the 360, but any console, and I have a hard time thinking of many PC games that can contend with it; especially when played on an HD set. It seems that the Cliffy B and company spent a considerable amount of time on every single visual aspect in the game. The over the top gore in Gears is impressive with a rather unique effect being applied to the blood which I’ve never really seen before. The water and rain are stunning. The first time I loaded up Act III and saw how the rain glistens and runs down the bark on the trees, I watched that for a good five minutes in awe. The lighting and reflections in the game are of course top notch as well. Although, I will say that some of the reflections may be a bit overdone as sometimes in darker areas it looks almost like your armor is glowing, but it’s a rather minor blemish that really doesn’t take anything away from the pure beauty of the game.

So taking all of this into consideration, is [i]Gears of War[/i] the killer app that we’ve been waiting for? Is [i]Gears of War[/i] worth dropping 400 bills on an Xbox 360? I’m still a bit torn on this one. The gameplay is great whether you are playing alone, co-op with your best friend on the same screen, or with your buddy across the pond. The online versus is entertaining and adds to the already very healthy replayability. The lack of story is a little bothersome because there is a good foundation for story within the game; it just isn’t capitalized upon. The graphics are amazing, and the 15-20 hours of gameplay each time through will keep you busy for a while. Killer app? In my eyes probably not, but the sales numbers tell quite a story, and it seems that many people would say that it is. If I had spent 400 dollars on my Xbox 360, 60 bucks on [i]Gears of War[/i], and whatever other expenses you might incur when first getting a 360, I can’t honestly say that it’d be worth it for this one game. Don’t get me wrong, [i]Gears of War[/i] is a great game and is one of if not the best on the console right now, but I don’t think it could justify buying an entire system. If you like shooters, if you like action, if you like having to use your brain a little bit when killing hordes of enemies, this is most certainly going to satisfy your need.

Madden NFL 07

November 8, 2006

Everyone has their own favorite season or time of the year. Some people prefer the summer time and enjoy the sunshine. Many people love Christmas time when everyone seems so caring, absorbed only in family and friends. For me, however, that time is August. No matter how old I get or how hard things have been, when August comes about, I feel like a little kid on Christmas Eve. Why, you might ask? Can’t you smell the grass? Can you not hear the pads crack? It’s time for [b]Madden[/b].

Just like any other Madden fan that played last year’s iteration on the 360, I was beyond curious whether this year’s version would be another disgrace to the long-standing series or if it would return to its Hall of Fame status. The short answer is that [i]Madden 2007[/i] is not only leaps and bounds above last year’s abomination, but it is one of the best Madden games I’ve played in several years. Most everything in the game has been tweaked, if not completely overhauled. The mini-games have been remodeled as some of the drills have been removed, new challenges have been added, and several of the pre-existing drillers have been retooled.

Anyone who has kept up on the hype for this year’s Madden knows that the biggest and most anticipated change is the Superstar Mode. Until this year the SS mode has essentially just been franchise mode without the ability to make the decisions and changes within your team. [i]Madden 2007[/i] brings a complete facelift to the SS mode. You begin by selecting your parents, which in turn selects your position. You can play any position other than kicker or punter, and you play from an over the shoulder perspective of your player. Every single position has its own unique set of moves along with its own style of play. Once you choose your position you will create your physique as well as customize your player. Once you’ve molded your SS you will go through several workout sessions where you showcase your ability in the 40 yard dash, bench press, and a position specific drill. Next up is the combine and finally- draft day.

Once you’re drafted, the real fun begins. Practicing will allow you to gain “influence” for the upcoming game. Influence can be best described as that sort of effect a player has over a game when he is playing in a truly dominant role. Influence can be built much faster by breaking a big run or pass, making a crucial third down stop, or intercepting a big pass. You control only your player, but you can choose to control the opposite side of the ball or to simply watch your team play at a quicker pace so as not to bore the player while he is on the bench. While I find SS mode to be the most engaging facet of [i]Madden 2007[/i] (other than the online play), it is not without its faults. The camera angle is a bit too restrictive many times and takes away a lot of the fun for some of the positions. SS mode also has a rather steep learning curve, so you should be prepared to invest some time and to get beaten around for a while until you get the hang of how each position plays (something like real football).

[i]Madden NFL 2007[/i] is by far the greatest visual representation of the series since its conception. This is not only because of the powerhouse graphics of the Xbox 360 but largely due to the attention to detail. For the first time in the series, the environment within the stadium feels alive. Not only do the stadiums look great, but they are as unique as they are in real life. The crowds are jumping, writhing masses that no longer look like cardboard cut-outs. The fields look absolutely amazing. The turf really looks like turf, and everything about the stadiums looks just like you would find it in real life. Character models in [i]Madden 2007[/i] are better than ever and are enhanced by the plethora of outstanding new animations that have been added. I’ve been playing for over 2 months now, and I’m still seeing animations that I haven’t seen before.

The audio in [i]Madden 2007[/i] is, for the most part, impeccable. The crowd noise is fantastic and helps immerse you in the game. When you’re on the field, you are completely pulled into the experience by the myriad of subtle sounds and noises that combine to truly make this an NFL experience. Everything- from the linebacker calling out coverages, to your sideline cheering you on, to hearing the footsteps of the pursuit as you break that long run- pulls you into the game. It doesn’t help, however, that [i]Madden 2007[/i] is jam packed with mediocre rock and rap. It seems like the argument between rock and rap over the last few years has been decided by mixing equal portions of boring and uninspired samples from both sides. Now, since the game is entitled “[i]Madden NFL 2007[/i],” you might think that John Madden would still be the one calling the game; think again. The iconic tandem of Madden and Michaels has been replaced by a generic, boring, new announcer.

Gameplay still feels just like Madden always has but has been refined in a few areas. The truck stick has been expanded upon and is now the “Highlight Stick.” Now when you push up, down, left, or right on the right joystick a player specific juke move will be triggered. If you have Reggie Bust in the backfield you will perform a more evasive and shifty move. If you’re running between the tackles with Jamal Lewis then you will make moves to attempt to bull your way through the defense. This along with new personalized running styles gives you the feeling that if you’re playing as Tiki Barber, you’re really playing Tiki Barber. Another new feature is the lead blocker control. Lead blocker allows you to, before the snap, switch to any player on your offense so that when the play starts, you can control that player, make your block, and then continue blocking or switch to your running back. While this is a novel idea, it feels a bit gimmicky and can’t really be used when playing online or against a real opponent because it gives away the fact that you are running the ball.

After the disaster that was [i]Madden NFL 2006[/i] on the Xbox 360, I can gladly tell you that [i]Madden 2007[/i] is not only better than last year’s installment, but it’s the best that I’ve played in many years. New visuals, player animations, and beautiful stadiums are all near perfect. The mediocre-to-bad soundtrack is left behind by the authentic sound effects of the players calling out audibles, the players yelling from the sidelines, and the footsteps. Oh the footsteps. There is still, in my mind, no better gaming high than beating down your best buddies in a good ole’ game of Madden, and it’s never been more fun than in this year’s [i]Madden NFL 2007[/i].

Marble Blast Ultra

September 19, 2006

If you’re anything like me, you’ve found a good amount of fun in the various iterations of [i]Super Monkey Ball[/i] over the years. [i]Marble Blast Ultra[/i] could be described as a derivative of [i]Super Monkey Ball[/i] with the difference being that instead of controlling the landscape, you control the marble. [i]Marble Blast Ultra[/i] isn’t a terribly in-depth or complex game, but it’s mildly addictive due in large part to that same simplistic gameplay.

[i]Marble Blast Ultra[/i] is comprised of sixty levels which are split into three difficulty levels: beginner, intermediate, and expert. Your goal in each level is to reach the finish point as quickly as possible, and in some cases you must collect all of the gems spread throughout the level before heading for the finish point. There are several different types of power-ups placed throughout each level which range from super speed to super size to the ability to hover across the map helicopter style.

[i]Marble Blast Ultra[/i] is a good mix of challenge and fun. The 60 levels should keep you busy for quite some time as should the online play where you fight to get the most gems before the timer runs out. If you’re a fan of puzzle games or just need something to keep you busy when killing time, [i]Marble Blast Ultra[/i] is a pretty good choice.

Crystal Quest

September 5, 2006

[i]Crystal Quest[/i] is just one of many low budget arcade titles available on the Xbox Live Arcade. Developed and produced by Stainless Games, [i]Crystal Quest[/i] is a modernized version of the side-scrolling shooters that ate up your quarters all too fast back in the day. Your objective is to navigate your way through wave after wave of enemies while collecting crystals, avoiding mines, and eventually opening the exit to the next level.

The controls are very simple, which is what makes [i]Crystal Quest[/i] so much fun. You move your ball with the left joystick while shooting and aiming with the right joystick. You also obtain “smart bombs” as you progress, which will clear the level of enemies and are used by hitting either of the triggers. The game has ten difficulty ratings, and if that isn’t enough, you can download an “extreme” difficulty from the Xbox Live Marketplace.

As with all arcade titles, [i]Crystal Quest[/i] has 12 achievements that total 200 delicious gamer score points. The achievements are a good mix ranging from easy to hard, yet none are next to impossible (i.e. Geometry Wars). There are also downloadable sound effects packs along with a few different scenarios. Not to mention that [i]Crystal Quest[/i] boasts 60+ levels. At the thrifty price of only four hundred Microsoft points (five bucks) you really can’t go wrong with [i]Crystal Quest[/i].

[i]Chaos Theory[/i] is the third installment in the immensely popular stealth series [i]Splinter Cell[/i] from Tom Clancy. As is always the question with a sequel, we have to ask what’s new that makes this part of the series an improvement over the second or even the first? As you might expect, the same great stealth gameplay that we have come to know and love is still there, but does [i]Chaos Theory[/i] bring anything new to the table? Is Ubisoft milking this one dry? Read on to find out, and if you’re good, I might even let you in on the secret of why exactly terrorists can’t see the trademark green goggles Sam wears from point blank range.

As far as gameplay goes, if you are at all familiar with the first two games you will be able to pick this one up and get right into things. It plays pretty much identically to the rest of the series in terms of moving Sam around and in the presentation, menus, and interface. So what’s new this time around? Well, a lot. Sam has been outfitted with several new gadgets as well as some new moves and is even equipped with a knife this time around. First of all, you’re multi-purpose headgear now has a new function. Not only does Sam have his night vision and thermal vision, he now has a third option which detects electromagnetic pulses and helps to show you everything that may be hidden on walls or that you can manipulate with the OCP which can be used with your pistol. The OCP can be utilized multiple ways. You can no longer shoot cameras out, but you can lock them up for a short amount of time with the OCP, as well as knock lights out temporarily.

No longer does a locked door stop Mr. Fisher. Besides being able to pick locks, if you get into a pinch and need to get away quick you can break locks which is much quicker but makes a lot of noise and will alert enemies that may be in the area. You can also use the new hacking system to get to places you otherwise may not be able to. Along with the new gadgets, Sam has been given some delicious new stealthy moves on top of that. You are now able to drop onto enemies to knock them out, pull the unsuspecting over ledges or railings, and grab people through fabric walls or tents.

Along with the plethora of gadgets and moves that Sam has acquired since your last visit, he has also been given a bit more freedom. The game is most definitely still stealth based, but a few things have changed. There are now multiple paths and routes in many levels that will get you to the same place. You are allowed to choose whether you want to sneak through missions or if you want to pull out the big guns and blast your way through the opposition. Now this isn’t to say that you can just run start through the game shooting everything. The game is certainly much harder if you want to attempt to throw stealth out the window, but you have more flexibility in gameplay this time around. Alarms no longer serve as a, “three strikes and you’re out” system. Alarms do have an affect still, but rather than ending your mission they just cause more guards to be posted and eventually he guards are armed with helmets and bulletproof gear.

The visuals of Splinter Cell have never exactly wowed me. Things have always seemed a bit too dark (I know it’s a stealth game but, c’mon, it really is a bit much) and the series has always looked a bit rigid and flat. With all of the talk about the graphical look of [i]Chaos Theory[/i] on the Xbox you might think that that would go for the other editions of the game as well but this is not the case. The game is still very dark which I expected but I was really hoping that the character models and the environments would look much better. Unfortunately, Sam still has 90 degree angles for elbows, character models are still rather bland and rigid, and the environments are still pretty plain and uninspiring. I will say that, as much as I have to say bad about the visuals in [i]Chaos Theory[/i], it isn’t all negative. The game doesn’t look terrible; it just doesn’t utilize the full potential of the PS2. A few of the textures and the lighting would have to be the visual bright spot of the game. The audio of [i]Chaos Theory[/i] follows in the footsteps of the graphics. Not necessarily bad, but certainly not optimal. The voice-acting is still quite cheesy and the terrorists still sound like talking causes them immense physical and emotional pain.

So what exactly does [i]Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory[/i] do to advance the series? You get the same great stealth gameplay, with a bit more action and a handful of new gadgets and moves. [i]Chaos Theory[/i] is short just like both of its predecessors and is still bang your head against the wall difficult. Oddly enough I actually enjoyed the story of [i]Chaos Theory[/i] better than the last two. I say this in the same way as I would say that I enjoy someone kicking me in the groin much more than someone shooting me in the chest. [i]Chaos Theory[/i] still comes up rather short on the story end of things, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last two titles. I would have liked to see an improvement in the voice-acting or the visuals of [i]Chaos Theory[/i] but to be honest, [i]Splinter Cell[/i] games aren’t about voice-acting or shiny character models. The co-op play brings in a whole new set of co-op moves and a different gameplay experience that can be very fun with a friend. If you enjoyed the first [i]Splinter Cell[/i], or [i]Pandora Tomorrow[/i], you will most certainly want to pick up [i]Chaos Theory[/i]. It improves on the previous two games in almost every aspect of the game. Oh, and terrorists are color-blind. Duh.