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Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

Interactive entertainment technology has grown up over the past thirty years and, for the most part, our understanding of and appreciation for it did as well. The advancement of time has not meant universal acceptance however: video games have seen controversy after controversy since becoming a mainstream medium. Perhaps the most controversial of the whole lot caused a revolution for an entire industry: Grand Theft Auto III. Seven years ago on October 22nd, 2001 players were introduced to true sandbox gaming, allowing the person behind the controller to do, go, and see whatever and whenever they desired within the realm of the game's environment.

The incentives to this newfound freedom did not come without a political price. With the nature of the game being crime-based with the player on the side of the bad guys, the game became the most desired target for political abuse in the following year. With the release of Grand Theft Auto IV - the official sequel to the events that took place in Liberty City - players get to return to the worst place to live in America.

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My Country Tis of Thee

Rather than focusing on a nameless mute thug, a Scarface knockoff or an early 90s future rap star, the latest title in the series brings an outsider to Liberty City. Niko Bellic seeks the land of opportunity but hits the shore at the city of mafias, crooked cops, and ethnic gangs that fill the streets with violence and suffering. As a Serbian immigrant - literally fresh off the boat - he seeks a new start in life. Unlike his precursor protagonists, Niko comes to us as a man with a far more prevalent past. A former soldier in the Bosnian war, Niko is haunted by the past and seeks redemption for the horrors he and his former comrades visited upon others.

Unlike the previous main characters, Niko really develops as a person. He possesses a soul, a conscience that regrets his mistakes and failures in the past and only wants to start anew. Alongside his cousin Roman, owner of a local taxi service, the same thing that drove him to Liberty City stands in his way: his former comrades. Traitors to his former squad, of which there were only three surviving members (Niko included), he must seek out and find the truth behind who betrayed them and exact revenge by any means necessary. Along the way he is introduced to a large number of characters, probably the largest group seen in the franchise to date. Filled with plot twists, both somewhat obvious and many others completely unexpected, Niko fights his way up the criminal food chain all the while protecting both his allies, his employers, and his family. With the main quest lasting well into thirty-plus hours in length this game has by far the most inviting story ever produced by Rockstar.

With nothing but the clothes on his back and the few possessions in his duffle bag, Niko arrives on the docks of Liberty City with nary a penny. Drawn there by his cousin Roman's tales of women, fancy cars, and fortune, Niko's hopes of being able to enjoy life in the new country are quickly dashed. Reality sets in after he learns that his cousin's luxury condo is nothing more than a studio apartment filled with cockroaches directly next to an elevated train. It becomes clear to Niko that he will truly has to start all over again, having to work his way to the top one major player at a time.

Players who remember visiting Liberty City seven years ago will find that the city they once knew has been drastically altered. Unlike the almost mid-size city feel of Grand Theft Auto III, Niko Bellic's Liberty City is vastly larger and both looks and feels much more like the major metropolis it is modeled after. Gone are the islands of Shoreside Vale, Stauton, and Portland. They are replaced by the much larger islands of Broker, Dukes, Bohan, and Algonquin and even part of the state of Alderney: Rockstar's take on New Jersey. The resulting size of the city is gigantic, beating out recent renditions on games like Spider-Man 3 and maybe even the upcoming Sierra title Prototype. It can literally take up to thirty minutes to traverse the entirety of the map.

Rockstar has gone to great lengths to recreate New York in their own twisted fashion. Many of the landmarks of the city, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, are featured in the game. To keep the critics at bay, they have been renamed and slightly remodeled into the Statue of Happiness and the Rotterdam Tower respectively. Many other New York landmark locations are present, giving Liberty City a quite authentic feel. It is interesting to note that many of the streets of Liberty City are named after minerals and elements in the periodic table, though the vehicles in the game all have the same license plate.

When you transition from one neighborhood to another you will instantly notice the changes in people. The day-night cycle has the same effect; the transition going from businessmen and women to seedy prostitutes and lowlifes as the sun goes down is simply breathtaking. Of course, as is tradition in the series, the populace is filled with distasteful anger and road rage throughout so veterans will feel right at home. And all this can be enjoyed with the full freedom to roam around as you please. 


My Heart with Rapture Thrills

The most prevalent addition to the Grand Theft Auto universe is the creation of a cover system similar in function to games like Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas. This is a significant improvement over the previous three games, as many missions could be near impossible to play later on. It is such a good addition that the end result is almost game-breaking, allowing the player to sit behind cover for long periods of time and wipe out dozens of enemies without even taking a scratch.

The standard gameplay controls are very similar to the previous games but some things have been reorganized on the controller. All is pretty much well and good, though one of the nitpicky things players will quickly discover is the camera system. Like the previous games in the series, the player can freely control the camera any way they see fit. New is that the camera automatically reverts to its default position when the right stick is not in use. While this doesn't sound like an issue, it can be a bit of a pain when you are driving a car simply because you can't keep an eye out to either side of you. However, this is just a bad pistachio in a five gallon bucket full of goodness.

Rockstar decided to use the Euphoria physics engine, well known for being one of the most realistic engines on the market. With it, they have succeeded in providing some of the best drive-simulating in an action game to date. The only small weakness in the driving controls shows when you are in the heat of pursuit. At these times it can be overly difficult to navigate traffic while you (or a cop) are trying to do a P.I.T. (Precision Intervention Tactic) maneuver.


The traditional six star wanted system is still there, though instead of having players search for star icons on the map to decrease the wanted level a simpler system has been devised. Rather than having to deal with cops all over the city, a circle will appear on your radar displaying your known whereabouts to the police. By simply driving outside the circle and hiding from any cops that pass by, you can end their search for you and remove your wanted status. This can make even escaping a six star wanted level a not so daunting task. Paint N' Sprays are present throughout the city but the number of them has been dramatically reduced and will rarely be used by the common player.

Let All that Breathe Partake
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the game is its full-on multiplayer mode. While there was a co-op mode in San Andreas, it was severely limited in scope. This new robust mode handles up to sixteen players in a room and comes with a whopping fifteen different modes to play in. Three modes stand out: Team Mafiya Work, a mode in which different teams attempt to complete random tasks for cash; Turf War, a variation of your standard King of the Hill mode; and Cops N' Crooks, a game in which one team hunts another down before they can get to their safe house. The Free Mode allows everyone to go where they want and do anything in the city. This can ultimately lead to some very creative antics on the part of your fellow players (helicopter jousting anyone?) but will no doubt lead to marathon sessions of survival against wave after wave of cops. Of all the modes Cops N' Crooks is arguably the most fun to play but you will find a good server with tons of players for every mode you load up.

The Stars of Progress Still

Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the best looking games to come out since the now-gen console wars began back in 2005. The environments really stand out but what ultimately makes the game awe-inspiring are the character models of the main cast and their supporting characters. The 'emotional modeling' is so fantastically done that it is sometimes easier to read the characters than to listen and understand what they are saying. The audio in the game is fantastic. The voice acting is top notch and well worthy of the hype and anticipation gamers have had for this title. Niko in particular is very well acted, as you can easily feel the sadness and anger despite his no-nonsense bravado. In addition, the cars and weapons almost all sound unique and are identifiable by sound alone. Listening to this game in surround sound is truly a treat.

Despite the impressiveness of the graphics and audio, there are still some issues. The frame rate in particular does tend to sputter, especially when a lot of things are on screen at the same time. Some bugs are still popping up at the time of this posting but there's no doubt Rockstar will step up to fix these issues.

Of Thee I Sing
Grand Theft Auto IV is by far one of the most impressive titles to have arrived since the first sandbox games appeared. While this iteration of the series may not exactly be a revolution as much as a refinement and a good sign of things to come, it is certainly worthy of the hype. I have only scratched the surface of what GTA IV can bring to the player and it would certainly take many more pages to even set foot beneath the surface of this very deep game. Perhaps not the Mecca of gaming, but certainly something very close.


Review: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2


A little under a year and a half ago Ubisoft released the latest title in one of the longest running video gamer series of all time: Rainbow Six. Rainbow Six Vegas was a dramatic shift in many aspects for the series, introducing many new concepts to both the single and most importantly the multiplayer modes which has always been the highlight of the series. Earning several shooter of the year awards in 2006 Ubisoft decided one more campaign was needed to fill in some of the blank spots left behind and thus created Vegas 2 which dropped into stores just this week. But does Vegas 2 expand on where the first game was a hit or does it sink faster than a lead balloon? Read on and find out.

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A Little Less Conversation
Despite the sequelistic nature imposed in the title Vegas 2 functions as a companion piece more than anything else. Instead of focusing on Logan Keller, the team lead of the previous game, this new title focuses on Bishop, a customizable character players create at the outset of the game whose background history has him being one of the much liked instructors at the Rainbow team’s headquarters in Hereford, England. Thrust back into the operational status when rumors of chemical weapons about to be unleashed in the city of sin, Bishop leads Jung and Walters, Keller’s teammates in the first game, on a series of raids on various locales throughout the city seeking to learn why the attacks are happening.

The Rainbow Six series, spawned off the outstanding novel of the same name, has always prided itself in creating an intricate plot that leads to complete and total ass-kickory of the terrorist threat. However as the series has grown over the years the plots have unfortunately shrunk in size and adequately as well and Vegas 2 is a clear victim of this. As a companion game it does fill in some of the holes from the previous game but it doesn’t deliver them in nearly the grandiose style you would want, which is especially the case for veteran players who already know what and when many of the key plot elements occur. The ending is lackluster even though you finally get to take care of the antagonist of the previous game. Don’t expect to be wowed by the story that much; trust me.

A Little More Action Please
While the story of the game is a disappointment is not. Well, almost. Following in the footsteps of the previous game the controls are almost identical save for the reorganization of a few buttons that ultimately works out better than the first time around. Vegas 2’s controls are almost as tight as they were in the first game thought there are still persistent yet minimally annoying issues that can occur within the cover system, most notably being the fact that some objects in the world you simply can’t take cover behind.

One of the biggest highlights of the Rainbow series has been its focus on hostage rescue and room clearing, something that was perfected in Vegas 1. The sequel continues that tradition with an increased emphasis in this regard, having you invade a variety of different building including recreation centers, casinos, and many other notable locals. Ordering your teammates to clear a room is just as simplistic and is just as fun participating in as simply sitting back and watching your teammates wipe out the enemy, something that, for the most part, works every time. Vegas 2 in several areas increases the number of entry points, thus increasing the replay value by inviting the player back to experience clearings in several different ways.

The most notable new feature is the introduction of a bullet penetration system, something that is a most welcome item to have but is becoming increasingly more common with the advent of titles like Call of Duty 4. While this offers up some changes to the gameplay, particularly in the multiplayer section, the end result isn’t as used as it should be, as most environments are composed of impervious materials like concrete and steel. The variety of weapons this time around has been beefed up to include all the weapons from the previous game as well as a dozen new ones, marking the return of the L85A2 and the Aug assault rifles, as well as two new sniper rifles, a new pistol, several other assault rifles and some submachine guns. All in all the arsenal for Vegas 2 is quite impressive and is very satisfying, though there will always be that one nagging veteran fan who will wonder where his M16 is.

Another feature worth mentioning isn’t exactly new but is more a refinement. The experience point system from the first Vegas seems to have been thrown out the window in favor of the A.C.E.S. system, something that is much more competent than the old one. Tying directly into the series’ signature Persistent Elite Creation system, this new experience system is a welcome change. By performing various actions you are rewarded points based on how your opponent is killed, whether it be via explosives, through cover, or pretty much any way imaginable. What makes this new system such a success is the fact that it ties into both the single and multiplayer, meaning your progress in either, no matter which you play, affects you overall.

What has to be touched on is that of the competency of the AI. What is unfortunately about the Tom Clancy franchise is that, save for a few notable exceptions within the Splinter Cell series, the games with the author’s name seemed destined to have some of the most despicable AI seen in gaming. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is unfortunately no exception to that rule however as both the enemy and friendly AI for the most part seem to have an intelligence level on par with that of your average housecat: it’ll either work when you are in an extremely ideal situation or simply not at all. The enemy intelligence seems determined to either sprint into your bullets, stand there and take it, or fire at you with the accuracy of a six-time NRA competition champion. The math simply doesn’t explain how a shotgun blast from almost one hundred feet away can be an instant kill. The same goes your teammates, as they seem determined to not obey your commands roughly every other time you issue one or perform them perfectly when in the context of a room clearing. Put quite frankly if your teammates fall during a room clearing it is 90% of the time the fault of the player placing them in a compromising position or giving them an ill-thought-out order.

Where the Grass is Green and the Girls are Pretty
Rainbow Six Vegas in 2006 was one of the graphical highlights that year. Built on the Unreal Engine 3 like most games nowadays, Vegas was an excellent example of what the engine could do in the hands of a third party developer. Today however it seems that the wow that was Vegas 1 has dimmed in this new title despite looking almost exactly the same. While Ubisoft stated as a goal for the previous game to show off what can be done with the engine using one of the most glamorous cities on Earth as a base to work off of its clear that they weren’t trying to reach that goal this time around. Set during the daytime as opposed to the previous games glitzy nighttime setting, Vegas 2 takes players beyond the strip into some of the city’s more seedy and drab locales. The bright HDRL neon signs and beauty that is the mainstream places to visit in the first game are gone, replaced by locations you simply don’t go to unless you live there, detracting in one of the main selling points of having the game set in Las Vegas. It’s disappointing overall really, coming off with the feeling that you are being given a watered-down version of what made Vegas 1 so appealing.

Vegas 2 fails to fix some of the graphical issues that simply don’t make sense. Does it make sense that I can throw a grenade at a leaf and have it bounce back at me? Does it make sense that a flashbang with blind a player who is wearing thermal goggles? Players will find that, ultimately, what graphical improvements that are made to the game are almost entirely focused on the character models and even then only minor tweaks seem to have been made. It’s also worth noting that Vegas 2 has some of the most blatant advertising outside of the Burger King games that came out a while back. Seriously, is it necessary to have the logo for the MLG league posted everywhere and for an entire map to be devoted to Comcast?

The audio work done for the game is more par for the course than anything else, introducing almost nothing new and seemingly dropping in quality in comparison to the first game. Unfortunately it seems that a majority of the enemy dialogue has been recycle and very little of it is new save for a few instances. Jung and Walters seem to have come down with a case of laryngitis and barely whisper their lines this time around. The weapons and explosions sound just as good as they did before though and players with a surround sound system will certainly find themselves completely drawn into the experience.

A Little More Bite and a Little Less Bark
While the singleplayer portion unfortunately leaves you with an unsatisfied feeling it’s as certainty that the multiplayer portion of the game is the highlight experience. The game ships with eleven maps available to play on the disc, two more being available to download for free as bonus content. Vegas 2’s list of maps has quite the variety of locales to play on, including a few Vegas 1 maps, several classic maps from Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield in celebration of the series’ 10th anniversary, and half a dozen brand new maps. While it does satisfy the nostalgia of several veteran fans with the classic maps the new maps don’t truly satisfy like they should. Several of the new maps make spawn camping quite easy to do in the team-based modes.

The multiplayer is purposefully designed for replayability whether or on the couch with some buddies or played separately across the country. Ubisoft has incorporated a full online co-op mode for two players wanting to experience the singleplayer campaign in its entirety, casting the second player as a user-created character named Knight. The co-op mode is a lot more satisfying, as the experience in Vegas 1 was extremely stripped down and ultimately only worthy of play for achievement hunters. Two new adversarial modes have been added to the game, the first one being and escort mode called Team Leader. This ships alongside with Demolition, a mode that plays exactly like a session of CounterStrike with one team attempting to plant and detonate a bomb and the other team defending the bomb sites. Vegas 2 also sees the return of the classic satellite capture mode Total Conquest as well as the return of the standard variety of deathmatch modes. Of the two new modes Demolition is by far the more entertaining of the two given the tactical nature of Rainbow Six gameplay and is a welcome experience for fans of Call of Duty 4’s Search and Destroy mode.

Close Your Mouth and Open Up Your Heart And Baby Satisfy Me
As a devout follower of the Rainbow Six series and the Tom Clancy franchise overall Vegas 2 feels more like an expansion pack to the first game instead of something truly worthy of an individual product release. Most people won’t be as critical of this game as I am and readers should take note most of what has been touched on won’t become apparent to the average player. While the singleplayer is a lackluster experience the multiplayer is a very enjoyable experience once again. For those of you coming off of your Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 highs Vegas 2 will definitely satisfy you and quite frankly it couldn’t have come at a better time. Don’t expect this one to leave your shelf for at least a few months.

Graphics: 8
Sound: 9
Interface: 7
Replay: 8
Gameplay: 7
Overall: 8



Review: Assassin's Creed


In the last generation of console gaming, a French developer, famous for their work on tactical shooters like the Tom Clancy game series, took a leap of faith and decided to try something new: the revitalization of a classic franchise. The franchise turned out to be Prince of Persia, a classic side-scrolling adventure loved by NES gamers, and the trilogy that followed the revival was a huge success. For the next generation, Ubisoft decided to take another leap of faith while still keeping its feet grounded to its experiences, creating an entirely new intellectual property that is a spiritual successor to the Persia series.

But is Assassin's Creed a grand enough experience to dethrone royalty or does the Prince still stand supreme? Read on and find out...

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Weaving a Tale
If there is one thing Ubisoft Montreal is well known for its creating an extremely intricate story, and Assassin's Creed is nothing short of an excellent example of what they can accomplish. In fact it has the potential to be one of the greatest fables they've ever conceived. To even reveal what happens in the first five minutes to a newcomer is a crime however, so I won't spoil it for you. Suffice to say you will certainly enjoy learning about those weird computer effects you've seen in all the previews for the game. Suffice it to say though is that Assassin's Creed utilizes storytelling elements that are rarely used in television and film nowadays. Not because the type has died out but simply because it’s a potentially risky one to take for those mediums of entertainment. It works perfectly however for video games as this title demonstrates.

The majority of the game players take on the role of Altair, a member of an assassin guild living in the middle of the Third Crusade in the year 1191. The Knights Templar, long time enemies of the assassins, are in search of a treasure and Altair is assigned to prevent it. He gets in over his head however and fails, leading to the death of a fellow assassin, the dismemberment of another, and even so much as leading the enemy to the assassin's fortress. For this colossal failure he is demoted back to novice status and stripped of all his weapons.

To earn back his status in the guild he must assassinate nine different targets; each one contributing to the escalation of the Third Crusade in their own way on both side of the conflict. They hide among the people of the three prominent cities of the time and area: Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem. In order to achieve his goals Altair has to infiltrate the city the target is in, gather intelligence, attack and kill ánd make a successful escape.

Assassin's Creed is an example of an enticing story that has great potential for the future. The only conceivable flaws are that you want a lot more than is given and, if anything, the ending is quite abrupt. While this is a perfect set-up for the next game in the series, it would have been nice if the game had a bit more closure.

Sword: Apply Directly to Forehead
Assassin's Creed succeeds in its story as much as in its gameplay. Playing as Altair, you will find him able to do almost anything you can imagine doing via free running. Utilizing a simplified yet intricate control design, players use the face buttons to work corresponding body parts. The end result is extremely intuitive and very easy to use. The controls are divided into two types of play: low and high profile. When in low profile, Altair blends into the crowd, walking and gently pushing through groups of people without attracting the attention of the guards. In high profile players can engage in free running, combat, and having Altair shove his way through the crowd; though this action certainly grabs the attention of the local guards.

When given your target's name and general location by your master in Masyaf you must traverse the over world to your target which is, to say, very expansive. The size and scale of it is outstanding, going so far as to give you the same feeling you once had when you first journeyed into Liberty City in GTA III. In-between the cities are plenty of villages and army checkpoints so unless you want to be chased throughout the countryside by the enemy its best that you maintain a low profile in these areas. Thank goodness you are granted the ability to ride a horse, lest you be forced to travel the way on foot. After having visited each city you can warp between them if you wish, which is a big advantage if you don't want to take the ten to fifteen minute journey in-between them.

In order to get close to your target though, you must start with gathering information. When you first enter your target's city you are confined to the district area he is in and any other district you've visited before. Within that area you must complete several different tasks in order to learn as much as possible. These tasks can include eavesdropping on a conversation, pick pocketing an enemy, interrogating informants for information, or assisting other assassin guild members in menial labor. Optional tasks, such as high viewpoint spots, allow you to get a better look of everything in the general area on your radar. Rescuing civilians from harassing guards will earn you helpers should you be chased. If anything however, it gets a bit repetitive as each mission has you doing these tasks. But once you have a certain amount of tasks completed you can report to the local assassin's bureau to get permission to go after your target.

Once you are granted permission the game sees its biggest highlight. Stalking your true target is a thrill in itself and never gets old. At first you are treated to the sight of the target doing either a speech in front of a crowd for example, before you can move freely and actually get close. Seeing the reaction of the guards as you close in ramps up everything, while the music suddenly picks up and everything around you goes to hell. As you drive your blade into your target you are treated to a cinema of him, in his lasts moments, conversing with Altair as he asks to learn more of the targets connection to the other eight. When you exit the cinema you are most often surrounded by guards and you can either fight or flee at this point. Reporting back to the local bureau without you being followed yields your reward: the return of a rank and ability taken from you at the beginning of the game.

Bring a Knife to a Sword Fight
Combat in Assassin’s Creed, while awkward at first, is very imaginative and fun. Battles are designed to play in rhythm, as counterattacks have you attacking just before the enemies blade strikes while you can also parry and dodge their attacks. “Combo” execution kills are a bit difficult to pull off at times but reward you with a gruesomely realistic scene of Altair making sure his enemy won’t be getting back up off the ground. Once players gain the ability to utilize counterattacks however it can be a bit of a game breaker, as all you have to do is simply wait for the enemy to attack and press a button at the right instance. Some battles can last well into ten minutes with dozens of enemies at all times, but for a majority of the game combat isn’t necessary to achieve your goals. Still, you won’t find yourself not wanting to fight the enemy too often as it is still quite fun.

Assassin's Creed’s only true flaw is in its replay value. As this is a single player game you can't engage with others online or even share scores. You cannot restart the entire game over without having to create a new profile, but once the credits have rolled you can select any mission section you wish, which really helps when item hunting. The collectable portion will extend the gameplay if you are truly dedicated and want your achievements, but it’s not worth going after for the average player.

Architects of a Crusade
As stated before, Ubisoft is well known for quality presentations, and Assassin’s Creed is certainly no blemish to that reputation. The world of the game is fantastic in scale and damn near awe-inspiring when you first visit a new city. Each of the cities is created using the original building plans of the era, with a few artistic licenses used along the way. The grand scale of the cities, while nowhere near the size of what you’d experience in games like Grand Theft Auto and the like, are still robust and completely believable given the time and place the game occurs in. Each location captures the feel one would expect from the city, with evangelicals on corners spouting about the enemy, Saracen or Crusader, while rallying the crowd with their rhetoric. Beggars stand on street corners crying out for anything they can get their hands on and harassers line the backstreets ready to cause trouble should you innocently pass by.

And speaking of crowds, Assassin’s Creed certainly has a huge population. Complimenting the size of the cities, the world feels truly alive when you immerse yourself in a crowd of dozens of civilians as they go on about their daily lives. The crowd control system built into the game allows you to maneuver throughout it almost without getting hung up, though it can occasionally happen. Crowds will actively chastise you should you use high profile movements and the like. The sheer numbers of the crowd are complimented by the number of unique models. Not too often will you find the same model in the same area, which is a very welcome sight since previous games with large crowds (i.e. Dead Rising) have the same model used many times within the same area all throughout the game.

The audio portion of the game is fantastic, especially when listening in 5.1 surround sound. Hearing everything from the bustle of a busy marketplace to the clash of swords is extremely enjoyable. The music of the game is excellent as well, especially when in combat against your assassination target. Even the dialogue is fantastic with a grand mix of English and Arabic everywhere throughout the game. Lip-syncing is well done here, though there are occasions where you do feel like you are in a badly dubbed Japanese monster movie.

We Carry On
Assassin's Creed is an excellent example of what a next generation action adventure game should be. The gameplay is solid, the graphics are great and its audio is hard to compare to any other game in the genre. While the game does end quite abruptly, it is however a perfect set-up for a sequel and I'm certain I'm not the only one really anticipating one. Lets just hope we don't have to wait another three years before we get it.

Graphics: 9
Sound: 10
Interface: 5
Gameplay: 9
Stability: 9

 Overall: 9


Review: Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation

Over a decade ago Namco introduced us to an arcade flight game that, up until then, had been filled with either realistic simulators or ventures into space. Today, over seven games later there has yet to be a proper competitor for the title of best console flight sim. But for a series that has previously been on only Sony hardware has the series’ transition to the next generation on the Xbox 360, does Ace Combat 6 set itself as a benchmark for the series and all other flight sim titles to come in the future or does it crash and burn?

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Kick The Tires
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation is set, most interestingly, within the same world as all the games that have been released since Ace Combat 4, simply occurring on another piece of land elsewhere on the planet. Sixteen years after the Ulysses 1994 XF-04 asteroid broke up and crashed to Earth the nation of Estovakia, a militaristic regime that rose from the ashes after the asteroid devastated the country, in a surprise attack invades its peaceful and prosperous neighbor Emmeria, attacking its capital Gracemeria. You play as Garuda One, call-sign Talisman, as you battle through a fifteen mission campaign to restore order to Emmeria and drive the Estovakians out of your country. The parallels to the cold war are quite obvious and couldn’t have made it more so even if you didn’t realize that switching the letters around in Estovakia yields the word Soviet.

This new entry in the series engages you in the story by way of telling it through six different character’s viewpoints about what is going on as the game progresses. Ranging from a civilian mother trying to get back to Gracemeria and find her child to an Estovakian colonel interrogating captured Emmerian soldiers to even a rogue tank crew that’s seemingly taken out of the classic movie Kelly’s Heroes, the different viewpoints give a fresh take for the series. At least, that is, in theory, as the attempt, though encompassing several minute cut scenes between every single mission in the game the end result does not give you a satisfying conclusion to every story that it attempts to give you. The only true closure comes to the mother and the colonel, arguably the main characters of the entire drama outside of the action that occurs on the battlefield.

Splash 1, 439 To Go
Ace Combat 6 stays true to its origins, remaining a arcade flight sim the negates factors, such as jet wash and the effects of G forces, that would otherwise hamper and ruin the experience for all but the most determined gamer. Series veterans will find that very little has changed in terms of gameplay and player abilities, and what has is for the better. The controls for the game are as solid as ever with almost no notable discrepancies. Players and fans of the series will note that the amount of weapons your plane can hold by standard is greater than what you would expect an entire battalion to have on hand. Fires of Liberation is the same and so much more, this time giving you almost double the loadout of any other game in the series, and with good reason.

The scale of the missions and battles are huge and are at least one-and-a-half times larger than any of the previous maps released in any other game in the series. As such there are tons more enemies to vanquish as you fly over the battlefield, making the size of your loadout fitting. To make use of the large size maps Ace Combat 6 utilizes what is called a Dynamic Operation System, spreading out the conflict into up to six individual battles across the mission. Completing a certain number of operations will result in the completion of a mission, but operations can be failed if you are inattentive so you need to balance yourself out and consider where you should head first. The boss battles, a series standard, are quite epic as well, as you will face off against a gigantic aerial carrier as well as a giant mechanized cannon.

Even with your large loadout you will in several missions need to rearm yourself, which you can do if you cross the return line on the map or, should your particular mission have an airfield you need to capture, do a combat landing. The combat landings, unlike return line ones, occur on the map itself as the battle goes on around you, but since you are attempting to land you are very vulnerable to enemy fire so its best to clear out the surrounding airspace before you come in. All in all though the combat landings are a very welcome addition to the series.

Another noteworthy addition to the series is the ability to call in support. Previously in the Ace Combat series, should the enemy be gunning for you, you could only call in your wingman to help you out. This is not the case any longer, as players are given the option to call in support from surrounding units to help out whenever you need it with the simple press of a button. Depending on the situation players can call in support from air, land, or even sea units to help level the playing field. The final new addition to the series is ESM, an ability provided by support units like AWACS, which increases the accuracy and maneuverability of your missiles, something that is really handy when facing off against elite enemy units.

Despite all the new bells and whistles added to the singleplayer experience there are several little caveats that will deter players. The most notable issue series veterans will have is the game’s selection of planes and its overall length. Previous Ace Combat titles have had a huge selection of planes available and its slightly disappointing that, despite having a selection of the most modern and well known aircraft known today, it is a much smaller list than normal. Namco does make up for this fact however by offering all the planes in multiple paintjobs, but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the selection is limited. The previous games have ranged in length between twenty to as many as sixty missions a piece, with Fires of Liberation falling to a mere fifteen mission campaign. Even with the missions lasting sometimes over half-an-hour a piece the campaign is distinctively short and can be completed in just a weekend’s worth of play. I’ll address this however in just a minute.

Never Leave Your Wingman
The multiplayer component of Ace Combat 6 is something Namco was never able to accomplish on either Playstation platform and does very well to rectify this here on the Xbox 360. Utilizing Xbox Live Namco has created a fantastic multiplayer experience that really compliments the singleplayer experience. Players can engage in up to sixteen player battles online across three different modes: team battle, which is essentially team deathmatch, battle royale, the non-team version of the above, and siege battle, a team based objective variant where two teams attack/defend various targets on the map. The final mode available, and probably the most interesting of them all, is a co-op battle mode where up to four players engage in single player objectives. Unfortunately there are only two missions available for the co-op mode at the moment, but for every bit they are entertaining they are also quite difficult.

Combined with the singleplayer campaign the end result has a great amount of replay value. Once the campaign has been completed players can choose to begin it again at a higher difficulty will all of their cash and planes intact, and with five different difficulty settings. The achievement selection also encourages extended play and not a single achievement is outside of your grasp. The game also features several collectable functions, such as the ability to record the history of certain enemy aces and friendly units. Namco also promises that downloadable content, such as new variants of planes, new levels, and most importantly new co-op missions in the future, with some content available right now. Whatever mode you like to play, Namco will have you covered in the future.

My God, Its Full of Contrails
As far as visuals are concerned the Ace Combat series has come a long way in the past five years. Ace Combat 4 brought us terrain designed and based upon satellite imagery. Ace Combat 6, utilizing full HD textures and designs, takes this even further and provides us with the best looking terrain to date, especially in terms of urban centers and ocean vistas. Probably the most impressive level is Gracemeria, which looks like a cross between the real-life cities of Seattle and New York with the addition of the Golden Gate Bridge. The only downside to the terrain comes when flying extremely close to the ground, as the game does not generate smaller buildings and can leave some textures looking dull. Ultimately though they are nice eye candy.

However, the two best looking features of the game are the planes and the clouds. The aircraft in the game are the most realistic looking you’ll find in a flight sim, bar none. Namco has done a great job of taking their appreciation of the power of these machines and making their power apparent to even the most skeptical gamer. The volumetric clouds and smoke contrails are what are going to draw your attention immediately from the outset. The clouds are simply gorgeous and truly compliment the terrain, but when you look at the ballad of smoke contrails as missiles and jets dogfight for aerial supremacy. Seeing these patterns from far off with the game’s excellent draw distance gives you the sense that the battles are ever more epic.

Other things players should take note of are the frame rate, the load times, and the on screen AI count. Ace Combat 6 is extremely stable and very rarely will slow down on you unless something big is going down. The load times in the game’s singleplayer campaign usually last less than five seconds and multiplayer maps take just a little longer, something that is extremely enjoyable. The on screen unit count, just like the scale of the battles, have improved very much, sometimes yielding you five or six dozen enemies and filling your screen with a ton of targeting reticules.

Breaking The Sound Barrier
Fires of Liberation’s audio set up is a mixed bag of both good and bad. The good news: the sound effects are spot on. Everything from the hum of your engines to the sound of your A-10’s tank-buster chain gun is fantastic and very true to their real life counterparts. As with the previous games sound is also localized so an explosion a couple miles away will take a second or two to actually reach you. It’s a really effective sound design that will have you becoming enthralled every single mission.

Now the bad news: of all the poor decisions in terms of audio design Namco had to go and have the entire game’s voice cast be English without the option of a Japanese track. How is this bad you ask? Its bad because the work put into the language track is simply disappointing on all levels, as many of the emotions expressed do not accurately reflect what is going on, whether in the middle of a battle or in the middle of the cut scene. It must be said that the dialogue in the cut scenes are just short of annoying and not a single voice really seems to fit any of the characters. The repetitive use of the phrase “go dance with the angels” pretty much makes for a good drinking game but otherwise it just makes you want to rip your ears off.

Ace Combat isn’t Ace Combat however without an enticing soundtrack, and as any gamer out there who has been exposed to the series will tell you, the series is well known for its epic score. Fires of Liberation massively succeeds in this department, providing you with very appropriate music for almost every situation. This is one game where you won’t want to break out your custom soundtracks.

The Ace’s Edge
Ace Combat 6 comes in two retail forms: your standard disc and a box barebones edition and a limited edition chocked full of stuff. The limited edition comes bundled with a flight stick from Hori called the Ace Edge, as well as a limited edition faceplate. The joystick comes in two pieces, the stick itself and the throttle, which are separate and are connected to one another using proprietary serial ports on one another. The stick isn’t wireless, but it does have a decently long cord which is quite a fair tradeoff. The button layout on the Edge has every single button from the standard controller, allowing you to do everything you can with the layout and then some. The construction is solid and even comes with a rumble feature, something you wouldn’t normally expect out of a peripheral like this.

The only downside to the Ace Edge is that the game does not make the distinction between it and a standard controller, thus it does not adjust the difficulty necessary to make the experience more enthralling. While the stick does make the game feel more realistic odds are you will find yourself falling behind people using a standard controller.

The Total Package
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation is an excellent example of what third-party Japanese games can accomplish on the Xbox 360. The game will definitely be the dominant flight game across all the consoles for the foreseeable future, that is until Ace Combat 7 arrives, but until then, those looking for a solid, fun flight sim that has great potential to stay on your shelf for a long time look no further.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got to introduce my enemies to the bad end of a missile.

Graphics: 8
Sound: 7
Interface: 9
Replayability: 8
Stability: 9
Gameplay: 8
Overall: 8

Review: Beautiful Katamari


 In this still new generation of gaming, where in game screenshots are quickly approaching levels of quality that rival what we pay $9 a ticket to see in a theater, for every game that achieves this level of quality there are ten others that have not. Beautiful Katamari, the latest in the series of quirky Japanese games has just made two large leaps forward: entering into the next generation while also making the jump to the Xbox 360.

But is Beautiful Katamari a ball of fun or is it the latest in a series that simply feels deflated? Read on and find out…

Click to read the full review

They See Me Rollin
Katamari Damacy, a Playstation 2 game that was released on our shores in 2004, was probably the epitome of eccentric games that was released that year. Three years later its still the same case, this time simply on another system. The story of Beautiful Katamari, miniscule that it may be, follows yet another blunder done by the great King of the Cosmos as, while in the middle of a tennis match with his wife, does a power serve that goes out of court. Way out of court, as it flies into space and cracks a hole in the sky, creating a black hole that sucks up everything in the solar system except for the Earth. Once again passing the buck to his lowly son, the Prince is charged with the task of rebuilding each planet and eventually plugging the hole. Yea, its that deep.

Katamari plays almost exactly like it did when the first title was released three years ago. The controls are, like its predecessors, incredibly simple to grasp and utilize and never once become a frustration. For the uninitiated, players are given the ultimate sticky ball, each one different in size depending on the level, and uses both thumb sticks to roll it around and pick up objects that litter the world around them. Rolling bigger balls allows you to pick up larger objects and as such travel to different areas within the level. While the initial levels start you out at just a few centimeters high and has you rolling up paper clips, chess pieces and the like you eventually move on to larger much larger balls and stages, rolling up everything from people to cars and even entire buildings. The scale of the levels can range from minute to beyond massive, from within houses to spanning continents and even into space itself. The only regrettable item about the game is that there are a lack of levels in comparison to the previous games, whose number would usually be near 20. As such there are only about a dozen levels which will leave you wanting more.

The scoring system in Beautiful Katamari is one of the few features that is quite different from the previous iterations. Each level, while having you specifically reach a certain size or bigger also has you role up a certain type of object. While this is a good idea in theory in the initial few minutes of a level after a point it becomes almost impossible to roll up just the specific type of object you need. At the end of the level your score is tallied by the size of your katamari and its contents. Having a large number of the item you were assigned to pick up will yield a larger score obviously but flaws are abound in the scoring of the size of the katamari wherein, even if you double or triple the requested size you can still get penalized for it not being bigger.

In addition to the single player Namco has taken it upon themselves to include a robust online multiplayer for Beautiful Katamari. Players can engage in duels against one another or engage in online co-op . While the co-op is a good idea for when you are with your buddy in the same room it becomes a difficult task at times online, as each player handles a part of the same katamari and, without a really strong sense of coordination between the two players, you’ll have a hard time trying to roll the way you want to.

One of the things the previous Katamari games have been lacking in however is the replay value of the game. Beautiful Katamari attempts to rectify this in several ways, specifically utilizing the Xbox 360’s achievement system. Cousins and presents hidden throughout each level will have you returning to roll several times each level in order to get everything, especially if you are a gamerscore whore. One will notice that the overall gamerscore limit for the game is 1250, which will confound players until they realize that several of the achievements are not possible without downloading more levels. Namco promises to release new content in the future, with several levels already available in Japan at 200 points ($2.50) a piece but who knows how long it will take for them to transition to our shores.

High Plains Roller
Beautiful Katamari isn’t a revolutionary title in any way; Katamari Damacy three years ago took that title for being one of the very few quirky Japanese games to make it to our shores and have a strong following. What Beautiful Katamari does for the series is it gives players the most polished Katamari experience ever created. The graphics are the best the series has put out to date, with hi-res textures abound on almost every surface. That is not to say that the visuals are one of the best on the market; far from it. The game still utilizes the cel-shaded technique used in the previous games and doesn’t look anywhere near the quality of games like Gears of War. Instead everything is polished to a mirror shine with nary a bad texture in sight.

Thanks to the power of the Xbox 360 players will also find at least triple the amount of objects to roll up in comparison to its Playstation 2 brothers, which is a very welcoming inclusion as the previous titles had you at times hunting for things to roll up. The frame rate is also very solid though there are some very miniscule slowdowns at times when picking up a exorbitant amount of objects. Probably one of the most outstanding features of Beautiful Katamari in terms of graphics are the load times within the levels, or lack thereof. Previously in the series players, when transitioning to a larger-scale levels players would have to endure a load time that could last as much as 30 seconds long, but thanks to what Namco could accomplish with the Xbox 360 players will find a completely load time free experience; the entire game is designed to be a streamlined experience with little or no interruption when transitioning.

One of the items of interest that players have found enticing over the years has been the audio of the game, particularly the music. Namco certainly knows exactly how people will feel when encountering the game for the first time and has an appropriate track list that’s just a quirky as the game itself is. Everything from Jpop to an orchestrated anthem is included with some tracks being remixed versions of music from previous Namco titles. While you can select what song you want to play before beginning a level it doesn’t play the actual track so unless you already have the track list memorized it’ll end up being a trail-and-error experience trying to find which one you want.

I’ve Got the Biggest Balls of Them All
Beautiful Katamari isn’t your typical game. If it were not for its quirky nature then the game probably wouldn’t have succeeded here in the States at all, let alone outside of Japan itself. With a nice replay value, enjoyable gameplay and simply sharing it with others the game its overall something you will enjoy having in your library, though I wouldn’t blame you, given the line-up coming up over the next 2 months if it was suddenly replaced one day with something like Assassin’s Creed or Mass Effect. At a typical price of $39.99 at launch its definitely more friendly to the wallet than a lot of the other titles coming out this year but its probably better to make this one a rent.

Graphics: 7
Sound: 7
Interface: 8
Replay: 7
Gameplay: 9
Stability: 9
Overall: 8

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