We got your princess right here.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

News: Xbox Next
Posted by JayGo :: 2:49 PM

Finally, after all the rumours about the next Xbox.. we get.. more rumours!

The next-generation Xbox console may come in three different versions, according to a report today which claims that the firm plans to launch versions with and without a hard drive in 2005, and a fully functional PC / Xbox 2 combination in 2006.

Technology website The Inquirer reports that an NDA'd presentation given by Microsoft to analysts and market researchers in the UK pointed to the existence of three hardware versions, with two of them launching next autumn.

Xbox Next and Xbox Next HD would largely be functionally identical, but the latter of the pair features a hard drive and offers increased functionality as a result - which could be anything from Xbox backward compatibility (which the basic model could not offer due to the lack of a hard drive) to media jukebox functions or TIVO-style video recording.

The full article goes on to describe the proposed Xbox Next PC in more detail, and says that the plan may be unveiled in full at CES in January. Now, forgive me here.. but if you're trying to compete with a console in such a dominant position as the PS2 is, why would you try and give them a helping hand by dividing your product up into three lines? Seems very counter-productive to me.

Futhermore, current Xbox users have got used to the benefits of the hard drive. Not needing memory cards, downloading new content, custom soundtracks and all of that. So.. why would Microsoft even consider having a version of their new console which removes all of that, and potential goes back to ol' expensive pain-in-the-ass memory cards?

Of course, this may just be all speculation for now, but not much of this new plan (as bold as it may be) makes sense to lil' old me. Oh well. We'll have to wait and see..

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Review: Smackdown vs. Raw (PS2)
Posted by Chris :: 1:36 PM

WWE Smackdown vs. Raw for the PS2 Game Console is the newest entry in the Smackdown series from THQ that's spanned 5 previous games over two systems. Developed by Yuke's, the 6th game in this series added some well deserved tweaks in the game engine. Several new features have been added this year, such as the opening match mini-games. These consist of a Test of Strength, a Staredown, and a Shoving contest, which are all performed with a well timed hit of a button at the beginning of a match.

Another great added feature was in the form of Clean/Dirty Moves, so you can choose to play the heroic good guy or the devilish, cheating heel. SDvsRaw also has more than 40 of your favorite and not so favorite WWE Superstars along with WWE Legends such as Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Andre the Giant, and the Legion of Doom. And unlike last year's SD: Here Comes the Pain, the legends are complete with entrances and theme music. Nice touches there.

Probably the most improved feature in this year's game is the Royal Rumbles. The addition of a Ringout Meter, which at leat gives you a fighting chance in the Rumbles because it takes longer for you to be eliminated because you have to wear down your bar first. Unfortunately, it also gives your opponents the same fighting chance. So Rumbles are bit harder this year, but more fun.

Also available this year, for the first time ever, is online play. Sadly, the only thing available for play online is singles matches and Bra and Panties matches. No defending your Create-A-Belts, no tag team matches, no tracking your wins and losses, and no participating in Specialty matches. Very disappointing. Maybe someday, someone will get an proper online wrestling game going. And maybe by then, I'll actually have broadband. :(

Returning, FINALLY, is the Create-A-Belt and Create-A-Pay Per View. Fans haven't seen the Create-A-Belt since the Good 'Ole Days of Wrestlemania 2000 on the N64, and I, for one, am glad to see it back. You can also defend your belt in multiplayer and if you lose your belt, it goes onto your opponent's memory card and you can't get it back until you win it back. SO be careful who you put your title up against. You may never see it again.

So, since this was a big title here at AC and several of our reviewers either bought the game and/or wanted to review it, what we've done is set up a bit of a Roundtable Review. This review features our AC's Own Dan, Anthony, and myself along with Special Guest Reviewers Omar and Chris McLeod and (for the most part) covers what I didn't cover up there in the beginning. So, take it away, fellas!
Chris: Alright gentlemen, first off, what are some initial impressions of the game?

Chris M.: As someone who played the fuck out of Here Comes the Pain, I was anticipating this game a ton. I have to say, it wasn't quite as good as Here Comes the Pain was, but it's not horribly dissapointing as some of the reviews made it out to be. The game has depth, but it has depth in different ways than Smackdown: Here Comes The Pain (HCTP) had it. Overall, not dissapointed, but not dazzled. I will go more into depth with this when other questions arise.

Anthony: I was worried it would be a step backwards from HCTP. But, I actually found myself having more fun playing this then HCTP is some areas. The mini-games, and challenges make this a deep game, and much fun to play.

Dan: I didn't really know what to expect from the game. I'd sort of stayed away from the PS2 games for God-knows-what-reason, and even when I ordered HCTP from one of my rental services it didn't work. But when this came around after talking with some of you guys, I decided to get it (We are or were, after all, wrestling fans). I thought the game was actually pretty good. The controls were a bit unintuitive to me, but nothing completely prohibitive. I had issues in other areas, though.

Chris: Now, I was sorta looking forward to the game, but in all honesty, not too much because at the time, I didn't have a PS2, so I was worried I wasn't gonna get to play it. But then I did get one and SDvsRaw at the same time. I've played all of the SmackDown series, with the exception of SD: Just Bring It, and while I prefer the No Mercy engine, ( I honestly think everyone in this room does as well) I've really gotten used to the SD engine.

[At this point, the church says "Amen."]

So all the added tweaks to the engine like the Dirty/Clean meter and the Pre-Match Mini Games were nice additions. I especially love the Dirty Moves, since I'm a heel bastard.

Omar: I think this engine is an improvement over Bring The Pain since it felt almost too mechanical in how you had to break down your oppenent. It was break down one body part and that's it. Compared to a game like Fire Pro, where you can cause general damage to your opponent and win that match, much like real wrestling.

Chris M.: Well, a lot of real wrestling is working a certain body part, too.

Omar: Yeah, but Bring the Pain was extremely mechanical, and if a guy's moveset didn't have moves that damaged the area that his finisher did, you were forced to repeat the same moves over and over. It showed how stupid Rock and Austin's movesets were. Where's the fun in that? Even with the reduced roster, I think it's the best SD game of the series and it does a good job recreating the WWE.

Dan: Now the title of the game is Smackdown vs. Raw - basically the premise follows the last year, give or take a few months, of the WWE storyline, which is that the shows Smackdown and Raw are split, allowing for completely different things to be going on in each show (with the odd trade or feud between shows). How do you think the story mode reflected the spirit of that and the current storyline climate of the WWE?

Chris: Honestly, I don't think it reflected it very well, because the story modes are the same regardless of which brand you're on, which was very disappointing. And sometimes it was the little things. Like I was on Raw and there was Torrie Wilson and Sable on Raw. Which is a big WTF. And both Stacy Keibler and Trish Stratus were on Smackdown. Which made no sense. On the other hand, some little details were quite good, such as JR and King randomly spouting out "You won't see this kind of action on SmackDown!" during commentary and the outrage of a SD superstar coming over to Raw. Seeing Angle and Taker and the like on Raw was neat, but there wasn't really a long term reason for them to be there, and it was like it was forgotten the next month.

Chris M.: I agree with Demp [ed note: "Demp" is Chris' nickname] that the season mode doesn't compare well to the current WWE environment and storylines. The whole "divas on the wrong shows" stuff was very weird. As was the fact that the wrestlers they accompanied weren't even the right wrestlers. The whole "You won't see stuff like this on Smackdown, JR!" commentary was nice and all, but it made little sense when King said it during my battle royale match where it was me and 14 other SmackDown guys. And also, in the real WWE, they don't really focus on brand feuds all that much. I think that the whole "Smackdown invading" and such was a product of the fact that the game is named "Smackdown vs. Raw", and ultimately, I think the idea of the game shaped the story mode more than the actual WWE storylines. HCTP's story mode was probably a little better, though SDvR's wasn't horrible by any means.

Omar: I agree with Demp and Chris on the storyline mishaps, I personally think the story mode from Here Comes The Pain was much better with random stuff from past WWE storylines with the characters from the season being thrown in. My favorite storyline from HCTP was my guy as champ, me getting attacked from a car with a sledgehammer (like Rock) and finding out it was my friend, Killa K's CAW... Then at Wrestlemania we fought. You just don't get that in SDvRaw.

Anthony: I hated how the storylines for each brand were the same. To be honest, outside of the commentary, I didn't feel a difference between two brands. I also didn't like how they took out the option to create the rosters for each brand. But overall, the career mode was fun, and had a variety of twists and turns.

Dan: I couldn't believe, personally, that they pulled the same trick they pulled in this game that they did in Day of Reckoning. There's no real difference here between either storyline. That takes out half of the replay value, unless you happen to like seeing both red AND blue. There were two things I really did like, though. One, you can actually lose matches here and the storyline progresses. I know this because I lost a whoooole lot (we'll talk about that later) intially. Two, you actually get to make the odd decision. This sometimes affects whether you'll have a tag team partner (for instance), or whether you'll be playing a good guy (face) or a bad guy (heel).

Chris: Now, one of the new features in SD vs Raw is the Clean/Dirty Moves and Meter. Two part question here: How did you guys like that, and did it change your wrestling style any?

Anthony: I really enjoyed the clean/dirty meter, I thought it added a whole new dimension to the matches, and the gameplay. I really felt a level of satisfaction hitting someone with a mega low blow after building up my meter, and I also found myself trying to play as a face/heel in order to build up my meter.

Chris: I really enjoyed the Clean/Dirty Feature. My CAW's are usually heel-ish guys and I like to cheat alot by using chairs and low blows, cause frankly it's more fun. So now I can do all that AND get rewarded for it? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP. So it really didn't change the way I play much, because I'm a heel dick anyways. Although the Clean Meter is great incentive to actually wrestle Chris Benwah style and break down your opponents body piece by piece.

Chris M.: The Clean/Dirty moves and meter were okay, but I think it kind of limits my style if I want to do clean or dirty moves with the filled meter. Perhaps I haven't explored it enough, but I usually like to do the dick heel moves AND the crazy dives onto my opponents.

Anthony: You do have the option of turning off the meter.

Chris M: I know... but it just doesn't seem worth it to wrestle a certain style in order to do just a low blow or just more powerful clean moves. It's a nice feature, and I'm sure I'll find more use for it as I wrestle more, but for now, it just seems superfluous.

Omar: I like the meter since I felt like I was actually working a wrestling match, as compared to trying to beat the hell out of my opponent. I even crafted my CAW to working a dirty style and it had a hand in what choices I made in Story mode. My one gripe is that I don't think dirty fighters should be penalized for high flying moves.

Dan: I think it was a little flawed in the execution. I played mostly Dirty, and even when I was trying hard, it was still pretty difficult to pull off the Dirty "finisher". Moreover, when I made a decision storyline-wise that turned me into a Clean wrestler, it didn't work very well for me, as almost all my moves were set up for a Dirty wrestler. It would have been nice to include 2 different movesets to bring that in. What I also noticed a lot of was when I was wrestling Clean with my Dirty moveset, I actually wrestled a lot like Stone Cold Steve Austin. Putting some sort of "grey" or "anti-hero" characteristic would have been nice as well. Unfortunately, neither of those were there. Also, I found it a little annoying that they didn't integrate this feature into all (or nearly all) different match types. Heels and faces exist in Last Man Standing matches too.

Chris: I'll agree with Dan here with the Wrestling Clean with a Dirty Moveset. That didn't quite work out for me.

Chris M.: Yes, and I'll also note that to do the dirty finisher, all you have to do is grapple.

Omar: I think there should have been another dirty attack... Where's the fork attack?

Chris M.: How do you all feel about the CAW mode this time around? HCTP's CAW mode was really great, do you think this version is better, worse, the same?

Anthony: I felt that the CAW has always been the finest feature of the SD series. This one was no exception. I made a pretty good version of my SWF [ed note: Slash Wrestling Federation is an e-fed at InThisVeryRing.com] wrestler. Only one complaint: I felt there was a lack of moves that hadn't already been given to an already created WWE wrestler. Not having a slingshot suplex upset me, also.

Dan: CAW mode was interesting. I was able to make a pretty decent luchador, who looked a lot better here than he did in DOR (THE RETURN OF LEYENDA!). However, when I went to create myself, obviously I was looking for a lot more facial details for myself than I was looking for for my masked luchador. I found that while having 154 or so different eyes is nice, how come there are no different noses, or mouth shapes? My guy barely looks like me as I was able to do a slight bit of jaw morphing. I also thought the hair options were kind of abysmal. My hair looks like a shorter version of Rhyno's - curly and long. It was impossible to find even his hair type - I looked over and over again. I'm not sure if it needs to be unlocked, but it's annoying that it isn't there. As for moves, I didn't really feel like it was lacking a lot. It actually had the Emerald Fusion, so I was happy.

Omar: I personally think that creating the body parts for your CAW is almost too deep, The people that post CAWs online are insane to toy around with it to make near perfect versions of WWE guys not included in the game. I love the large selection of moves though.

Chris: I thought the CAW Mode was pretty much the same this go around, although I did like the new interface. And for the love of God, THANK YOU for fixing the shitty looking shorts and pants and for also having a decent selection of short hairstyles. I've always thought that one area where SD Create-A-Wrestler modes were lacking was in all the goofy shit they'd put in for you to use. I mean, really, who's gonna use a Rainbow Wig or a Vegeta hairstyle? Not I, that's for sure. I'm anal about some parts of my Create-A-Demp and the little facial tweaks you can do satisfies me greatly. Also, I'm glad they kept the CAW Snapshot feature from Day of Reckoning, cause I for one was really tired of seeing my CAW represented as Shadow Man.

Chris M.: I'm a mixed bag about the CAW. The initial interface seems kind of unfair. At some points it's easier to scale your body when you have the clothes you want on your CAW. I thought it was good, and I did like the better selection of pants and shorts and short hairstyles (though none seemed to fight just right). I thought it was a little lacking in shirts, and I thought the face morphing was kind of strange. I'm still not quite comfortable with my CAW's face.

Dan: Yes, I agree.

Chris M.: It takes a LOT of tweaking to get the face right... a lot more than in HCTP. The moveset doesn't seem too limited, it's still got the moves I liked last time and then some. The only thing that makes it seem limited is the fact that you can only assign certain moves to certain grapples. Like, in HCTP, I could put anything in Submission grapple... Not so in SDvR. It doesn't bother me THAT much, it's just kind of weird. I DO like the bookmarking feature, though. A LOT. Basically, as you're going through and assigning your CAW moves, you can hit R2 and "bookmark" that move if you like it.. Thus you don't have to go scrolling through all the moves.

Omar: Oh yeah, and some of the B submissions seem kind of weird. A headlock can make you submit? WTF?

Chris M.: And I also don't like that they removed the original entrances from last time. Where's the ballet dancing? Where's the drunken stumble? Those were things that made the CAWs fun last time.

Dan: Okay... I famously went something like 2-20 on the first 3 days with this game in Story Mode. The matches I won I happened to win by sheer luck or by exploiting the system (keeping the computer on the ground longer than would normally be possible, with the same submission move.) Be honest. Wasn't the story mode AI a bit overly aggressive early on? I can't see that being healthy for the casual gamer. I'd have given up if I hadn't bought the damn game. Also, what did you guys think of the WWE Challenges?

Anthony: I think that for a good career mode, you need to gradually increase the AI. It eases you into the game, and let's you build your character up. I didn't notice it being hard early on, but I could sense an un-eveness with the AI in career mode. The game gives you about 60, maybe more challenges. The challenges ask you to complete exhibition matches under certain guidelines for cash. I really enjoyed them - they reminded me a lot of Madden. Plus, it was a great way to earn money for the shopzone.

Ramo: I'm a SD junkie so I know the system in and out so I didn't have too many problems, but I did have the same problem that Dan had with HCTP, if you know in the begining that your CAW sucks, then it's understandable that the AI could whip your ass. I loved the challenges, except for the "win after taking two finishers" one since it's not natural to the game play.

Chris M.: I didn't think the AI was too hard, I think that you have to strike early though, and not let them get an advantage at all. It takes some getting used to, but if you pretty much stay on the offense the entire match, you'll probably win every time. That's one thing I keep in mind while making my CAW: I go for moves and strikes that are conducive to further offense,l ike the Jericho toe kick, which stuns an opponent and lets you get off an easy finisher. The challenges were pretty cool, it's a nice element that it added to the game, but some of them do seem pretty ridiculous.

Dan: See, for me, I was actually not comparing it to Fire Pro D (which don't have no, and don't need no stinkin' storylines), but to Day of Reckoning, where you start up from the ground as a jobber (a guy who loses a lot) and work your way to the championship. In this game, it's like your CAW is already assumed to be a Superstar, but his stats just happen to be 50 points lower than everyone else's. It's extremely frustrating. As far as the challenges, I found I was doing some of them so I could cling to the AI curve and win matches. After the dam broke in Story mode, I started doing a lot better. The gameplay was even compelling. But they really, really need to start slower next time. This was my least favorite part of the game. When I went into exhibition to play, say, Eddy Guererro vs. Triple H, I didn't see any drastic difference between the two in terms of ability, and everything flowed like a normal match. Not so much with the story mode initially.

Chris: I honestly didn't have too much trouble with the story mode mainly, just because I hadn't played an SD game in forever, I turned it down to easy to get my rhythm back. So then I took my CAW, complete with a 26 rating, into story mode and didn't have too much trouble, except for the fact that I tapped out to Shelton Benjamin and had to restart the Last Man Standing Match with Tajiri few times. Then I when I got my stats up to point, I jacked the difficulty back up to normal. But one thing I cannot STAND about the AI is the constant barrage of attacks the computer will hit you with while you're on the ground and they will NOT LET YOU UP AND I WANT TO KILL THE PS2. It's very fucking cheap and not very gentlemanly like.

Dan: Yeah, in No Mercy, after one or two submissions, the game would force you to your feet. In this game, you can actually endlessly apply submissions as long as the opponent doesn't counter.

Chris: One gripe about it, though is that there's no Tag Team Title or Icey Title storyline like in Here Comes The Pain, and even if you had a Superstar Point total of 65, you could still win the World Title. Almost like you didn't earn the title. I didn't like that the World Title being the focus of the Story Mode. I liked the slow build of HCTP's story mode better.

Anthony: I HATED that they took out those titles... really took away a dimension of career mode.

Anthony: This next one's simple question really: what were some of the little things that you really liked about this game? I'm talking about quirks and such the average gamer may not notice. These can be postivie and negative. They can be graphical, control wise, or sound wise.

Chris M.: First off is in CAW mode, the fact that you can put a bag over your CAW's head. Second, I liked the "holding onto submissions until the five count" feature (In order to build up your "dirty" meter, you can hold onto a submission hold after the ref tells you to break it.) Third, I kind of like the new ringside view, it makes it look more like you're on the actual show with the actual camera view.

Chris: The return of the turnbuckle removal and the foot on the ropes moves. The fact that you can complain to the ref about a slow count. DITTO on the "ignoring the rope break" thing. The corner chop mini-game, and last but not least, THE TITLE AT RINGSIDE SO YOU CAN USE IT OMG if you're a champ. But I will say, that the Hell in a Cell looks waaaay too small this go around.

Omar: When I go to the top of the stage, the side view hampers your view, I love being able to ignore the ref for the 5 count, I love being able to complain to the ref. I think being able to have your manager distract the ref and it really works it great. The camera in the 6-man hell in a cell pulls out way too much. Like Demp, I love the chop battles.

Dan: Unlike most of you guys, I think, I actually liked the dancing Torrie and Sable menus. Sable looks actually decently attractive here. I liked that the camera was set just like a TV camera was. I liked the holding of the 5 count, though I wish you could do it in any match type, not just the ones who had a clean/dirty meter. I didn't really particularly like the submission A/B stuff. Nor did I like that submission moves basically were null and void in any match where they were turned off. You can't even apply them to work on an opponent.

Omar: Dano, I think you can. As long as the match has rope breaks

Dan: I don't think you can because it doesn't count them as "submissions", per se. It's like the armbars in the game where it does damage, but needs to be applied repeatedly.

Chris: Superstar Voiceovers: Good? Bad? Cool? Annoying? What's your take?

Dan: One word: awful.

Omar: Most of the guys sound like they were using their normal voices, which is really shown when you hear Vince who must have been really geared up that day.

Chris M.: They were sort of cool, but I don't think they were needed. I don't think they should've sacrificed other stuff for the sake of voiceover.

Chris: Well, like the actual Raw and Smackdown broadcasts, JR and King and Cole and Tazz are hit and miss in the commentary, mostly miss. But for the most part I tend to ignore them in the heat of battle anyway. Now, as for the cut scenes, very few of the voiceovers have any spunk to them. Vince McMahon's is my standout voiceover, as it was emotional and as pumped as he usually is. But as for the rest, *snore* Which is what Eric Bischoff must have been doing during his recording session, cause he sounds like he downed a gallon of Quaaludes before he got started. They add to the realism of the TV production, but I do think that they should have given your CAW a default voice to use.

Omar: Also, if you go through the Story mode with a guy on the WWE roster, they don't talk either.

Chris: Alright guys, final scores?

Chris M.: 3.5
Omar: 3.5
Chris: If I could give it 3.75 , I would, but as it stands, SD vs. Raw gets a mighty 3.5 from me.
Dan: 3.5
My final score: 4/5 While it has some hic-cups here and there (story mode, crappy announcers and voice over), this is still the best installment of the Smackdown series, and arguably one of the best US wrestling games available today.

Chris: Now, averaging the scores, rounding up (chosen at random prior to review starting), we still arrive at a mighty...!

Out of 5.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Review: Halo (XBox)
Posted by Ariel :: 8:38 PM

A Retrospective Reflective

A few games in every generation sometimes become the standard by which other games in that genre are judged. Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Doom. These are just a few of the titles that have forever altered the perception of what games can and should be and how they are created afterwards. Most of these divisions are made, initially, along console lines (Arcade games are usually immune to this), especially before the true impact of the game can be noted. One of the last monoliths to have been released is Halo: Combat Evolved.

Dan and I knew only three things about the game when we initially picked it up. The first was that it was the "killer app" for the X-Box (or so EGM said). The second was that it was a first person shooter. The third was that it had a co-op mode. With this information available to us we were braced for the worst. The last experience we had playing an FPS on a console was Quake 3 Arena for the Dreamcast. Let us just say that it SUCKED and leave it at that. With great trepidation and some would say morbid curiosity, we started up the system and the game. Little did we know that we were going to end up doing nothing else for the next 2 days.

Before embarking on this article I did some research and found the most common complaints that are had in this game, as well as the aspects of it which are unanimously praised. The most immediate detraction of the game, particularly from our current X-Box Live perspective, is that it doesn't have any Netplay. Bungie has said that it was not included because they couldn't get the system to work properly, or it didn't meet their standards, or something like that. I say more power to 'em for refusing to include an aspect in the game because they knew they couldn't get it to work. There has been some half-made crap released with things that could have been fixed if more time had been allowed for quality control or somebody bit the bullet and said, let's axe that and come up with something we can make that'll replace it.

The other design flaw I've noticed is the design of the game's sound seems designed to truly work only with a Surround Sound system. Every cutscene in the game I needed to turn up the volume on the TV because I lacked a center channel. I'm hoping I don't encounter something similiar in the next game. Beyond that I have heard this: The single-player mode of the game is weak considering it is the main method of playing the game. There are several lulls in action while playing the game. You repeat several areas instead of exploring new ones. The weapons are not balanced. The Allied A.I. is extremely stupid.

This first one, I've noticed, comes from several people whose intitial experience of playing the game was the Co-Op mode. Although you miss many of the graphic subtleties of the game when playing in Co-Op (you only use half the screen at the time) the gaming experience itself takes on a whole new level. While the single-player mode can be said to be good, maybe even great, although it is not the revolutionary achievement Half-Life was, being able to tackle all of the objectives in the game with the help of a partner added an entirely new dynamic into the mix that would probably not have been possible in other FPSs. This is something that I had been lamenting in video games in quite some time. The loss of the the 2 player game. Most games that had been created since the N64 era had been single-player only, unless they had a versus mode in them of some kind, where the players fought against each other. Gone were the days of Mario, Raiden, Final Fight, and Double Dragon, where two or more players could combine their abilities in order to complete the game and share their victory. Video games are always more fun with others (If not, then why on Earth would multiplayer games be so popular?) Halo brought that experience along with a great single player story that played out fantastically when you and your best friend teamed up and tackled the game's challanges. Which me and Dan proceeded to do for two days straight.

The lulls in action in the game are necessary, especially when playing on the Legendary dificulty (By the way, renaming the difficulty scale from Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard to Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary was a stroke of genius. There's nothing better than to turn to someone and go "We just accomplished something legendary"). Otherwise you would simply be overwhlemed, and you would seek to create your own lulls in the action. I can't even recall how many times, after staving off an attack, while we were still being bombarded by energy mortars and the marines accompanying us where screaming their heads off, me and Dan kept watch on screen while we talked over our strategy for defeating this next group of foes.

The most fun part about that was that the AI in the game was intelligent enough to be predictable. Sounds like a contradiction in terms right? Well, the thing is, if you're playing against another player and you notice that they run for cover when you chuck a grenade at them (a smart thing to do) then you can use that to your advantage (chuck two and hope you predict where they will dodge to correctly). The Covenant would try to retake strategic positions (higher ground, weapon stands, vehicles) and attack you in a co-ordinated and intelligent manner. A smart opponent is easier to outsmart than a dumb one.

Case in point: In Quake 2 there is a corridor patrolled by some huge brute. You lob a grenade over the side of the window to distract him. It blows up, makes lots of noise, but the brute just keeps on walking. You shoot him in the back to get him to come to you so you can kill him from a safe perch. He gets shot, stops for a moment, looks around (but never turns around) then keeps on going. If you step into the corridor he immediately turns and fires on you. If you step back out AFTER he's fired on you, he resumes his patrol. Stupid. Very stupid. A smart foe (Let's say an Elite) will detect the initial grenade explosions and careful saunter over to see what caused it. You shoot him in the back, he turns and if he sees you will first alert the troops under his command and then come after you. If you step into a corridor behind him he will not turn unless you make enough noise to be heard. Intelligent. Easier to manipulate than the dumbass hulk from Quake, but still intelligent (you alert him, he alerts others and this usually results in all hell breaking loose, which often results in your death).

You want an example of where a lull in action is a good thing? In the level where you make an assault on the Halo control room, right before you get to it, is a gaint door. Upon opening it you reveal a covenant ambush waiting for you. On Legendary there is a cloaked, plasma sword wielding Elite who charges you, plus a mass of Grunts, one or two with the huge Hunter guns, Vipers (I THINK that's what the guys with shields are called. Dan and I usually called them shield guys) and a couple of Elites in the back. Upon killing the charging Sword Elite (no easy task in and of itself) You can hide behind some of those purple containers that are found here and there and the wreck of the Banshee you rode in on (at least for us we where able to get it here). All the while the grunts are bombarding you with cover fire and the Vipers are moving into flanking position. Taking out the flankers allows you to sit back, fire a couple of shots to keep most of the grunts back, and talk strategy with your friend (if you're alone, get to thinking). There are several times where no one is attacking you and you can sit back and relax and believe you me, you'll be grateful for the break.

I spoke about the Marines screaming their heads off earlier. I know a couple of marines and soldiers. I know a lot more than I probably should about battlefield tactics and conduct and the training the Space Marines would have to go through in order to become what the game says they are. Granted the player plays the role of Master Chief, a genetically engineered soldier designed to be the best of the best of the best of the best of the best, BUT that still doesn't excuse the other marines from being nothing more than fodder. Especially considering the intelligence programmed into the enemy. If you have a Marine watching your back, shoot him. He'll do you no good except maybe alert you with his death gurgle, or the weapons fire that kills him. They won't try to dodge grenades, they know nothing of cover fire, they can't drive, or shoot well. They are fun to have around for conversation but they couldn't fight their way out of a garage if their life depended on it. Which is very damn funny considering that's almost an exact situation you run into in the game. After the experience of running through the game in co-op mode (something that more games should exploit) trying to use a group of marines to help me out 1/100th as much as having Dan at my back was an excercise in futility. I really was a one man army, which kind of sucked after being part of a tag team of ultimate destruction. If you get Halo, get your best Video Game playing friend (or just your plain best friend if they play video games) and run through the game, on normal if you've never played and then on Legendary. Trust me, the experience is worth it.

One complaint I read was that the game was not open ended enough, you kept running through the same areas and it was all very linear. I agree, somewhat, on the linear part. There was really only one path to go through when completing the game. The real fun part was what you did along the way. Occasionally the game allowed for some short-cutting or alternative route selection. But most of the time it said, go this way, and off you went. As far the repeating areas: I found it alot of fun to go back through an area I had already shot, fought, killed, and butchered my way through only to encounter the scars of my previous battle and heavier resistance. It added to the great atmosphere of the game, that you really were stuck on this ring world and that you where fighting for your life against what seemed like impossible odds. I would have liked the option of going a different route and having the chance to ambush an enemy or two, but I only started noticing this after playing through the game completely on every difficulty mode, alone and with a friend. Years later I still love playing the hell out of this game.

That was the point when I discovered multiplayer. I made some new friends and me and Dan finally got to experience the multiplayer mode that everyone was always screaming about. It was fantastic. The level design was spectacular (as the single player levels where), using vehicles and playing team games was great. Rally Racing was fun, especially when you had a gunner backing you up. Ambushing a Scorpion tank never gets old, and sniping another player, in the dark, at 500 paces is still absolutely priceless. I can see now why so many people went through hell and high water to get their X-Boxes online and play with others. Here is where the only true complaint many people have about the game comes in. The weapons are unbalanced. A head shot or two with a pistol will take down anything and the needler is ineffective as a combat weapon (if you've got the patience, space, and time to hit, run, and hide then you can MAYBE use it. But why bother when you call pull up a plasma pistol and take care of business right then and there). Most people (me included) love the Assault Rifle, (although the Shotgun is my personal favorite, especially considering my penchant for close quarter combat) and so I never really noticed the imbalance inherent in the weapon list until playing the game for a very long time. This is something that is going to be addressed in the next game, but it is also something I can't really dock the game for, as it never reared its unbalanced head until much, much later in my gaming experience, far past the time that the average replay value of a good game would have completely worn off.

This game had very little flaws. All of them can be easily fixed. Halo 2 shall prove whether or not Bungie listened and worked on the aspects of the game that will move it even closer to perfection as we now see it. At the time, Halo was absolutely fantastic: an incredible experience that could be shared with others and will soon be shared across the globe. This weekend, Dan will come over to my house and we will start the sequel the same way we started the original. Not really knowing what to expect, except now we'll have snacks and drinks at hand and a goal to work through the game on Legendary our first time out. I'll wait until he gets here to fire up the game, and we shall continue a story that we began years ago. Together.

Go out and buy this game right now. Get Halo 2 as well. Play through the first (even on Easy its a challange) and then play through the sequel. You won't be dissapointed. Wog wog wog!


Definitely Not News
Posted by Shocker :: 2:03 PM

Apparently Halo 2 is coming out tomorrow. This is exciting to many folks. Expect a review for it by Monday-ish.

- Dan

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Review: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
Posted by Shocker :: 2:51 AM

So, another year, another GTA. I have to admit, this one snuck up on me - I am not not a fan of the GTA series, but as I told Anthony last week, don't really ever harbor any loyalty to the franchise. Unlike a new Mario game, or Zelda, or even Halo (and most especially, currently, Prince of Persia), I don't wait with giddy anticipation at the release of GTA games. I just go and get them. My first true GTA experience was with the original PC game, a game I felt was kind of fun in small doses, but had utterly meaningless missions that did nothing but alleviate some of the boredom with the core gameplay. I probably played all of 4 minutes of GTA 2, finding it to be more of the same.

So GTA 3 knocked me as flat on my ass as it did anyone else who had ever even heard of the first couple of games. It was like taking a Game Boy Color version of Carmageddon and turning it into Grand Turisimo in a single leap. I still remember that you could set the camera in GTA 3 to be like the cameras in the first two games, strictly top-down. Of course, that was quickly abandoned as the series really took console-root with Vice City (and hasn't looked back), it was still one of those quirks that made you wonder how the heck we went from point A to point R so quickly.

But I never bought GTA3, though I spent some time with it. I downloaded the voice tracks and a couple of the music stations (back then, all the music, commercials and such were all made up, and excellently done), listened to them, laughed my ass off, and then got myself hyped for Vice City, aka The Game That Made Me Buy The PS2.

Irony would have it that the PS2 I bought Vice City for would break down right as San Andreas came out, forcing me to trade it in at EB Games (they never checked it, so I got $100 credit for it. Yeah, baby!) to get the new, sleeker, smaller PSTwo. It wasn't so much a force as a preponderance of evidence - old and busted PS2 that I can't play a potential Game of the Year on, or new hottness PSTwo that even comes with the network adapter I was too cheap to spring for? The choice was made.

Still, the loyalty issue comes up again, because I didn't dive straight into GTA: San Andreas. Rather, I let Ariel have at it for the weekend while I was down in LA. Mostly, what I wanted to see was how he played it, and what you could do with it. When I got back home, I basically did the opposite, and it had interesting results. Let me start from the beginning, though.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas basically chronicles the story of Carl Johnson - CJ, the San Andreas version of Tommy Vercetti. Continuing in the vein of strong main character development that was laid down in Vice City, GTA: SA gives a very interesting and complex character to CJ - somewhat former gang member, appears to want to reform, but is drawn back into the gang life in Los Santos when his mother dies, and ultimately back into the gang which he ran to Liberty City, the site of GTA 3, to get away from. The story drives the game, and the character of CJ is steadily developed through various missions.

The missions make up the heart of the game - it is where the plot is advanced and where you open up new areas to travel to. Intially, you only have access to the city of Los Santos, though by playing through and passing missions, you open up neighboring cities. While it may seem a bit restrictive to only allow access to a single city initially.. er.. it's not.

Los Santos is huge. It is bigger than most game worlds by itself, and, as a city modeled after Los Angeles, is eerily accurate. By eerily accurate, I mean it seems like it was designed by someone with an abiding hate for order (Like LA!). Streets meet up at all sorts of weird angles, over hills and wild curves, and for no particular reason. Going across a freeway will take you from one gang's turf to another's, or from a busy commercial area to a suburb. But unlike some of the polished streets in Vice City's sprawling metropolis, this game feels less like a city designed around helping a player find all the things he or she needs to find, and much more like someone dropped CJ into the middle of an already living and breathing system. As a result, you'll find that you're going to be more apt to get completely lost, or need to seek out a particular landmark or two to get a general idea of where you are. You'll be using the map a lot more here than in VC to help you just get around Los Santos (And never mind that there are 3 other cities like this in the game). What I found most amazing about all of this was that when I got out of whatever car I'd stolen, and just walked around, or into some buildings, the level of detail for just a simple house, or backyard or hotel was amazing. Stretching that out over an entire, gigantic game world is just mindblowing. As someone who has spent a significant chunk of their life living in South Central LA, I can attest that the world is a pretty accurate representation of a ghetto where it needs to be.

Actually being able to go into buildings is a new feature added to San Andreas. While many of the missions tend to serve the plot, and advance it, a lot of others are basically tutorials on how you can enter the many various minigames that make this game famously distracting. One of those, for instance, is the ability to burglarize buildings by getting into a particular burglar's van. With it, you can then enter peoples' houses and rob them blind. Other buildings have a little less life to them - the hotel I mentioned, while having a ton of detail in each room, lacked people! So after a while of exploring an empty hotel, I just left.

This leads me to making my first gripe about this game, and, slightly more generally, about the entire franchise up to now. For all the talk about a fully interactive world, neither Johnny McRandomThug from GTA 3, nor Tommy Vercetti in GTA: VC or CJ in GTA: SA has much in the way of words with the average, every day citizen. Beyond punching them, of course. Granted, GTA has always been more about generating enough people to make the option of fender-fodder more appealing than jabber-jawing, but after a while, with so many people around and no one to talk to, I actually did start feeling a little left out of the loop. Your character is cast into such an extraordinary role - rulebreaker, outlaw and bandit - that there is very little grounding in reality for his presence. In any sort of just world, citizenry would flee in terror at my very sight - my 200-innocent-citizen killing spree should attest to this. But citizens in San Andreas are happy to simply ignore me, even as I've got an MP5 in my hands and am aiming it at some other bystander.

Now granted, they did implement a way in which you could give positive and negative responses to people in this game, and it plays out a couple of times, but it is nowhere near the level of interaction of games like Fable, or even Mortal Kombat: Deception's Konquest mode. As I said, for a so-called "fully immersive" world, I should be able to talk to people who aren't about to give me missions every once in a while, even if it's just so they can tell me that they're going to work, or that their new Sony PSP really "ROCKS MY SOCKS!!"

Now the plot itself is worked out very well. There are some extremely humorous scenes, as well as some fairly dramatic ones as well. The world CJ left has essentially deteriorated, and as CJ and his friends try to piece together their gang, and their heirarchy within the gang structure, eventually leading into a lot of other problems. Voice acting here, bar a few slightly flubbed lines by CJ (voiced by Chris Bellard) is top-notch. Lending vocal talents are such actors as Samuel (IT'LL GET YA DRUNK) L. Jackson, James Woods, David Cross, to name a few (or have a full list).

Missions here are a mixed bag, though. A lot of missions are simple tutorials for minigames you can choose to engage in. Yes, they are well produced, but ultimately they don't really mean a lot if you're not very much into what it's peddling (The burglary wasn't really my thing, for instance). Some of the missions require reliance on AI controlled shooters (such as the infamous "Wrong Side Of The Tracks" level, which I am 2 for 15 on), or very vaguely defined mission standards. Added in was a new "Trip Skip" feature, that allows you to skip pat having to repeat the same portions of missions over and over. Unfortunately, it doesn't work on all missions. You will also inevitably end up playing some missions that just aren't fun, such as the ill-conceived OG Loc Dancing Mission, or the Caesar Vialpando racing mission. Filling a game with a few half-done minigames is one thing, but requiring a player to complete half-done minigames is an entirely different thing. No one forced you to play Pazaak in KOTOR (XBox/PC) or the Paddle Game in Beyond Good and Evil (PC/Consoles) to simply advance the story. Other missions are epic battles and heists that must be played just for the experience of playing them.

You can actually completely customize ol' Carl. This I really liked. Ariel turned Carl into, what could best and only be described as a reincarnation of Tupac, a big, huge shirtless gangsta with an attitude. He accomplished this by going to the gym and lifting weights, sprinting and sparring (you are given a cell phone call that tells you where the gym is and how to use it- BTW, the cell phones look like giant walkie-talkies, remember that?). He customized Carl with imposing tattoos and a combative wardrobe. I took a different tack. I did go to the gym, but only to get his muscle stat up to about 60%, so he was reasonably toned. I built up his stamina, dyed his hair blonde and dressed him up as a baller. Both looked incredibly different, yet both were the same character. Very nice, especially considering the best you could do with Tommy Vercetti was dress him up in a golf outfit.

Speaking of the statistics, the game carries RPG-like stats for CJ. Everything from his stamina to muscle tone to sex appeal, respect, driving, biking, cycling, piloting and boating, and just about anything else can be improved by doing activities that promote its increase. Eat a lot of fatty foods and Carl will get fat (dropping his sex appeal and stamina). But if you don't carry a certain amount of fat, then when you get hungry, you'll start burning muscle away, decreasing that stat. Don't go to the gym regularly for maintenance, and you'll start looking Somalian.

The stats I really wanted to improve were Stamina and (personal preference) Biking. Stamina, of course, helps you run away from people who are chasing you for longer. Biking, in a definite improvement over Vice City, improves the ability CJ has to stay on a bike when he would normally crash and bail. Also, biking in this game doesn't hurt CJ as much when he falls off as it did Tommy, which means you're a lot less likely to get wasted from flying off the bike. It loses a bit of realism, but the game is far more fun and balanced in this way.

Another source of cheap death has been eliminated as well: For the first time in the history of GTA, your character can actually swim! Yes, falling in the water no longer means instant death, although it can get you stranded in the middle of the ocean without so much as an island around. Swim long enough, of course, and you'll increase CJ's swim stat, which allows him to hold his breath longer. While I didn't see too much use for this, aside from the loss of a cheap death, I did read that there are apparently 100(?) pearls scattered throughout the waters if you feel like collecting them.

Another excellent improvement is the way the police respond in this game. In Vice City, anything above a single star had to be either bribed away (pick up a floating badge icon), or rectified by a local spray shop. In GTA: SA, you can out-pursue two stars if you work at it long enough, and one star you can usually get out of by running and hiding. This adds a lot to the game, because sometimes you can accidentally kill an officer and snag an easy two stars right off the bat. The cop AI is excellent here. At one star, the cops basicaly try to run you down. A cop car, if it sees you, might give brief chase, but generally leave you alone. They essentially try not to use lethal force, although they will if you are carrying a weapon, which was a nice touch. At two stars, you will usually get a couple of cruisers and a motorcycle cop after you, but, as I said, you can usually out run them as well. It's at 3 and 4 stars when it starts getting ridiculous: cops popping out of every corner, rappeling down from the helicopters chasing you - it's the kind of mayhem you deserve when you work for it, and is very satisfactory without stealing all the fun out of being a petty criminal.

Now the music - Vice City introduced the idea of having actual licensed tunes into a GTA game. I remember telling my friend James that one of the best features of the XBox was that you can incorporate custom soundtracks into some of the games, an idea which he poo-poo'd. Then out comes Vice City and he loses his shit over the soundtrack to the game. Well, with good reason - the soundtrack in GTA: Vice City was a retardedly outstanding collection of classic 70's and 80's tunes. Anyone who does not want to drive over a ramp in slow motion to the strains of "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight" is not my friend. But the music here... the game is set in the early 90's, if I recall correctly, just doesn't do it for me in the same way. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I didn't get that killer soundtrack vibe from this game.

The game looks like like Vice City, if slightly "worse". While I don't think the graphics have changed all that much from GTA: Vice City, I do think they're behind the curve as far as where most games on the PS2 are now. Whereas GTA 3 set a decent standard, and Vice City piggybacked on that one, that back is getting awfully overloaded by this version. While they did tone down the obnoxious lighting effects that were utilized in Vice City, they eliminated the option to remove them completely, which was availible in VC. The game does seem a bit more "mature", in a sense. While Vice City emphasized and glorified the somewhat showy and glitzy Italian Mobster scene, this is a more serious and darker game graphically. In light of games like True Crime and The Getaway, though, which attempt to do the GTA thang, it'd be nice to see the series get a graphical overhaul, even if it meant sacrificing some of the draw distance, or random citizenry that could be on screen at the same time.

Likewise, the vehicle and fighting systems here need serious work. I have never understood how Rockstar, the developer of Midnight Club 2, continues to put out a game featuring out-and-out arcade racing through cities that still controls like the original Grand Theft Auto (read: Not that great). Crappy cars slide all over the road with no control. Big cars like the lowriders feel downright floaty. The rarest and nicest cars drive so fast and so out of control that they explode within minutes. Driving just about any car with any precision is an exercise in futility. If you want to test that theory, try driving like a regular, law abiding citizen for 5 minutes. You can't make right-hand turns, can't stop in the right lanes, can't go more than 2 or 3 minutes without hitting someone... I know the game is designed to be arcadey, but "arcade" is not an excuse for poor design. For GTA 3, this was fine, but at this point, I at least want a speedometer in first person mode. The fighting system is more of the same. In Vice City, and even here, it still remains a chore and a task to get through even the most mundane of gunfights without someone behind you, whom you can't see, drilling you with bullets because you can't get a lock on them. Honestly, a simple circle-strafe would be beautiful. I also almost caught a seizure from the camera flashing and jumping to-and-fro as Ariel changed locks on targets with no smooth transition. The effect was lessened when I was playing the game myself, as I knew where I was going to go to, but it was still an annoyance. The car camera is the opposite story. Depending on where the camera is when you jack the car, you could be in second or third gear by the time the camera moseys its way over to show you what's in front of you. This led to failing a couple of missions when the game accused me of "attacking" vital characters I didn't know were in front of me because I was waiting on the camera to get there.

While I'm complaining here, I absolutely hate the map system in this game. When I first played it, because I was still trying to get my old PS2 to work, I had my 19 inch TV sitting on my nightstand next to my bed. And since I am lazy, I just left it there when I started playing the game. So 4 feet away from a 19 inch TV, I had no gripes about the map. But put that on even a 25 inch TV screen more than 7 or 8 feet away and you're talking trouble. The map has so many icons on it, and the icons are so small, that everything is indistinguishable. You're lucky if you can tell where your next marker is for your mission. And, inexplicably, even though it is animated on the minimap, when you open up your big map, the icon does not animate. Not animating means it doesn't stick out, which means you must pore over every inch of the giant Los Santos map to find a small yellow marker. Sometimes this marker can be thrown in the mix with several others.. You get the picture here. The map in the menu, while allowing you to zoom in, doesn't allow you to see any but the most basic of terrain. About a third of Los Santos usually fits on the map in its most zoomed in form, and like I said, the city is huge, so this doesn't provide much in the way of detail.

Let's talk about the soul of GTA: ability to be a total outlaw and get away with it. Of course the game features all of the same gameplay elements that have made GTA games both famous and infamous - the ability to steal just about any car you see, kill anyone around, beat up cops, hire prostitutes, kill said prostitutes, go to clubs, pimp, etc. In fact, the sheer number of minigames is astonishing. There are even a few two-player icons out there which, if you're not playing alone (which I always was), you can hook up with a friend to try. Two of the more intriguing sidequests are the turf wars and the quest to get a girlfriend. By gaining respect (by winning missions, showing off your gang's colors, things of that nature), you gain more respect. The more respect you have, the more gangstas you can have as a crew to stalk the streets with you. After a while, you can even perform drive-bys and hit and run attacks on neighboring gangs, and take over their turf. As for the girlfriend sidequests, by upping your sex appeal - dressing nice and clean, being seen exiting a great car, not being overly fat, you can attract women and even get girlfriends. To each his own, is the saying.

In addition, if you want, you can enter professional low-riding competitions for cash, race, gamble, dance, work out, tag, become a taxi driver, EMT, firefighter or vigilate cop or, my personal favorite, just drive around. Driving around gives you a chance to explore the world, which blends being a world for a guy on foot and a world for someone driving around very well. I spent many more hours that I want to admit driving up and over the exact same few ramps in GTA: VC simply because it was so much fun. San Andreas is the same way. With the improved bike mechanics, it is actually more fun to zoom around in them than it was in the original. Driving around also gives you the opportunity to visit smaller towns and communities that the storymode just doesn't take you through. As well, you get a feel for the interesting and somewhat inaccurate, though appreciable physics engine the game employs.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a game that favors the fun road over the ultra-realistic route. This alone makes it immediately more accessible than its imitators, and its insanity is one of the reasons so many non-hardcore gamers love the series. While I don't really want ultra-realism, I do want some refinement to the core portions of a game that is now over 3 years old. The lack of refinement led some to call Vice City a simple expansion pack to GTA 3, and in light of San Andreas, the criticism is valid. SA is a much, much more fleshed out and real improvement over Vice City and GTA 3 in that it integrates the storyline, the character, the city and his plight to create a total package. Even though CJ, like Tommy Vercetti, is basically dropped into his respective city, with CJ, it immediately feels like he grew up there and is a long-time resident instead of a violent tourist. It gives the player a bit more emotional investment as well. Rather than simply trying to take over the entire town, you're attempting to right a wrong that takes you in that direction. And even when you don't feel like getting into all of that, you can simply drive around, listen to music or hilarious talk radio and try to wreak havok. It's too bad I don't have a 9.5 here, because the game is simply, given its flaws (outdated driving, poor shooting, awful map, and required, poorly executed AI and minigames to advance the plot) right in the middle of perfect and almost-there. It's a definite buy, though. I will err ever-so-slightly against it, if only because I feel like they've basically ignored problems that existed since its first 3D foray. Still, go out and immediately get this if you don't have it already.

- Dan

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