• No categories


Good enough, fella?


Here’s a game that piles on hot-rods, collectible Playboy centerfolds, piano joints with framed Bogie posters, and one instance of a full-fledged Sinatra sing-along. Mafia II (2K Czech/2K Games, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)is the sequel to 2004’s Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, a well-received PC game that put players in the shoes of a cab driver as he rose through the ranks of the 1930s mafia. Its sequel mines similar Coppola and Scorsese territory, set this time in the 1940s and ’50s, as you play a young war vet looking to settle his late father’s debts.


The American war-era backdrop is a fantastic sandbox to play in: there are old-school billboards, decorative storefronts, and lavish little details like Christmastime snow slowly blowing away from your car as you drive down the street. But in the case of Mafia II, the freedom of the open world becomes largely an irrelevant means to an end: a set of roads that direct you to your next mission. There are really no side-quests to perform apart from stealing a few cars or hunting for Playboys, and even the old pastime of shooting it up with the cops is pretty unsatisfying. I spent most of my travel time with the cops trailing helplessly behind me. You have to wonder why the developers spent so much time creating an open world city that exists only to shuffle you from shootout to exposition.

Jack Scalici, director of production for developer 2K Games, told me that, for him, the story is the game’s most important aspect and he hopes that Mafia II‘s cinematic style will be best appreciated by film critics rather than traditional game journalists. The game does lend itself more to plot deconstruction than gameplay analysis, but unfortunately Mafia II doesn’t quite nail the story either.

The game’s scope is vast — it spans years as you leave the dreary 1940s for the sunny ’50s — but Mafia II never manages a truly satisfying character arc, content instead to putter along in standalone vignettes. The gangster lifestyle ain’t always shits and giggles and there are some fantastic little moments — jail yard fights, lugging a day-old dead body around in the trunk — but tension quickly fizzles, leaving the story a wildly inconsistent experience of highs and lows.

Actually, “wildly inconsistent” describes Mafia II to a T. Bum checkpoints, spiking difficulty, funky camera tics: it seems for every pro there’s a con. But if the aesthetic appeals to you, there’s enough play here to make the game worth a spin. I had a good time; the most promising games always get the most flak.

Deja vu all over again


Crackdown 2


Xbox 360

GAMER In a case of super-stealthy marketing, Microsoft placed access to the eagerly-anticipated 2007 Halo 3 beta on the disc to Crackdown, a then-unknown IP. Gamers bought the unproven game for a sneak peek at the biggest game of the year, and found themselves ensnared by Crackdown‘s hyper-realistic superhero universe and carrot-on-a-stick gameplay, which rewarded gamers for exploration. Three years later we get Crackdown 2, developed by an offshoot from the original team, and not much has changed in the game’s fictional Pacific City. Set 10 years after the first title, once again you play an agent for a shady company called simply the Agency and are tasked with saving the city from destruction.

While Crackdown was a stylized take on the Grand Theft Auto series, the sequel is influenced by recent zombie successes like Left 4 Dead, trading gangsters for undead “Freaks” who now litter the city and its numerous underground caves. Other than the new enemies, Crackdown 2 is pretty much the same game we saw three years ago, with a slew of brand new problems. Setting aside the numerous bugs and frame rate issues I experienced in Pacific City, it’s disappointing to see that there remains little story beyond the above one-sentence synopsis. With no incentive for their actions, players are forced to make their own fun in an open-word environment that they probably visited just a short time ago. Repetition has always been the name of the game — dispatching foes is secondary to hunting down hidden orbs scattered throughout the city, increasing your stats and making your agent leap higher and live longer — but playing Crackdown 2 is itself an exercise in repetition, because it’s the same city and the same stats as the first game.

Crackdown 2‘s development cycle was reportedly somewhere in the range of eight months, and in that time developer Ruffian has given the game an unattractive facelift and added the ability to play against 16 other players. Granted, eight months is not long enough to build a full-blow sequel, but Crackdown 2 is a full-priced, glorified add-on to the first title and that’s likely to upset gamers expecting bigger and better. Since 2007 a number of companies have taken a stab at the idea of an open-world superhero, most notably Prototype and Infamous, but the spirit of competition has not done Crackdown any favors. If you liked the original, you might be able to look past the problems its sequel tosses at you for the pure joy of collecting stuff, which remains the series’ best feature. But if Ruffian doesn’t make a big change in the franchise’s next iteration, it’s going to find itself left in the dust. 

First-person shooter


Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Tom Bissell

(Pantheon Books/Random House, 218 pages, $22.95)

In the fifth chapter of his essay collection Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, author Tom Bissell meets “Al,” a staffer at the 2009 DICE convention, an annual game industry event held in Las Vegas. “By 2020,” gushes Al, “there is a very good chance that the president will be someone who played Super Mario Bros. on the NES.”

There exists an entire generation who grew up alongside video games, and while it might well include a future president or two, it also contains a handful of talented writers eager to vivisect their childhood obsessions. Bissell is a model for this new breed of video game journo — schooled in the discourse of academic criticism, tempered in the crucible of high-stakes, highbrow publishing, and possessed of an unapologetic love for the medium — and Extra Lives is an important, relentlessly perceptive book.

Bissell began as a travel writer, and his background gives him a gift for evocative descriptions of video game vignettes that sketch the aesthetic and technical particulars in deft, efficient strokes. Each of the nine essays in the collection is roughly centered around a single game; the limited corpus, chosen with conviction and care, skews toward recent games like Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and Bioware’s Mass Effect.

This modern focus is a reaction to a game design sea change, one that privileges story and artistic ambition over technical achievement and mindless action. But games have a long way to go, and Bissell is determined to unpack their puerility, along with his unblinking acceptance of it: “If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every 10 minutes, had me gulping a gallon of aesthetic Pepto, I would stop reading or watching,” he opines. “Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem. I routinely tolerate in games crudities I would never tolerate in any other form of art or entertainment.”

Veering constantly from the personal to the theoretical, Bissell proves that it’s possible to ruminate on the past, present, and future of video games in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and consistently entertaining. The book’s only flaw is its relative brevity, especially considering that two essays (“The Grammar of Fun” and “Grand Thefts”) already have appeared in print in an abridged form. Nevertheless, games and gamers should count themselves lucky to have Extra Lives on their side.

“Cell” out

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction

(Ubisoft/Ubisoft Montreal) PC, Xbox360

GAMER Sometimes you play a game like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction and think, “Did the people who made this even bother to play it?” Questions begin to boil over. Why would you make a game in which you can skip some cutscenes and not others? If it’s really necessary to include unskippable cutscenes, why must they precede the three parts of the game most likely to cause the player to die and reload? My fingers got tired while playing the game, but not from the controller — from scratching my head in angry confusion.

Conviction has its satisfying moments, to be sure, nice visuals, and a distinguished pedigree of stealth-based, third-person titles. But the overall impression it leaves is of a game that is frustrating, uneven, and short. For every ambitious step that Ubisoft Montreal takes forward, it takes two in the opposite direction, mimicking the actions of the game’s protagonist, grizzled superspy Sam Fisher as he tries to creep up on a unsuspecting henchman. Clever set-pieces, like the one in which Fisher must eavesdrop on two villains with a remote-control surveillance array, are quickly overshadowed by the game’s profusion of sour notes, including a truly wretched take on the timeless “dodge the laser beam of instant death” mechanic.

The Splinter Cell series has always been about sneaking around in the shadows, and Conviction mostly hews to this dogma. Except when it doesn’t, and you’re suddenly expected to gun down enemies by the bushel while running at a full sprint. The developers seem to take a perverse pride in forcing you to unlearn the lessons of completed gameplay. Getting used shooting enemies in the head? Wait until you come up against their magical, bulletproof helmets as the game limps toward a conclusion.

Michael Ironside is a gem as the voice of Fisher, and he growls his way doggedly through a plot full of Clancyite conspiracy gibberish. Another amusing touch is the Zombieland-style floating text that shows up on the walls when the game is trying to get you to do its bidding. Less appealing, as far as pop culture goes, are the creepy, 24-style “torture is cool” minigames. We all play video games to be empowered. But if your idea of fun is bashing an unarmed prisoner’s face into the wall using the B button, please, seek help. At the very least, I can hope to avoid partnering you in the Conviction‘s entertaining co-op modes.

From Russia with … mutants?


Metro: 2033

(4A Games, THQ); Xbox360, PC

GAMER Ukrainian developer 4A Games is a minnow in an industry dominated by krakens, so it’s heartening to see a small, Old World studio deliver engrossing product in the form of Metro: 2033. Based on a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro takes place in a postapocalyptic future. Nuclear winter has driven the population of Moscow underground, into the city’s vast subway system, and the survivors are beset from all sides by Communist fanatics, neo-Nazis, and bloodthirsty mutated beasts.

4A’s homebrewed game engine is a little rough around the edges, but it does an impressive job rendering the junk-strewn, densely populated Metro stations and the haunting, pitch-black tunnels that connect them. The title makes good use of the source material to create a convincing, cohesive atmosphere, drawing on local voice actors and maintaining a firm commitment to first-person storytelling reminiscent of Valve’s Half-Life series.

The voice-acting is just one component of the game’s excellent sound design, which cannily reinforces the eerie atmosphere. Whether it’s the unexpected howl of a mutant leaping at your throat, the off-key singing of a Communist guard about to get a throwing knife in the back, or the cacophony of haggling voices that welcome you a populated station, the game’s auditory cues can be almost as important as its visual wizardry.

Working in concert, audio and video can make Metro: 2033 a terrifying experience indeed. During intermittent visits to the city’s bombed-out surface, the player must wear a gas mask. Spend too much time breathing Moscow’s toxic atmosphere, and you will soon notice your character’s ragged, wheezy breathing as the air filters start to give out. If you’re attacked while wearing the mask, it will crack, impairing your vision, and soon you’ll find yourself battling enemies while staving off asphyxiation, unable to see them through your cracked, foggy gas mask — not for the faint of heart.

Unique touches like the gas mask, the hand-powered generator that juices your flashlight, and the pneumatically-pumped silent sniper rifle add convincing weight to the game’s dystopian world. The latter is particularly useful due to the game’s heavy emphasis on stealth — running and gunning through the Metro is a good way to get killed. This is partly due to a design decision, and partly due to the game’s wonky shooter mechanics. Some enemies require an exorbitant amount of ammo (which is doubly frustrating — ammo doubles as in-game currency), and it’s often difficult to tell whether or not a shot aimed at a fast-moving target has hit or missed. But these and other qualms are eminently forgivable in a first-time developer. Despite the game’s flaws, 4A definitely hits the target.

Nothing’s shocking


BioShock 2

(2K Games/Digital Extremes/Arkane Studios); Xbox360, PS3, PC

GAMER The original BioShock (2007) was a revelation in game design, inviting players into a living, breathing world that simultaneously awed and terrified, an undersea metropolis at the bottom of the Atlantic, undergirded by a surprisingly deep treatment of Objectivist philosophy. In the game’s stylized 1950s, the city of Rapture is conceived and built by its founder Andrew Ryan as a libertarian paradise. Developer Irrational Games rendered it as a gorgeous ruin, filled with Art Deco filigree, cascading seawater, and haunting period music — the soundtrack to a uptopia’s devolution into Hobbesian chaos.

There were many who balked when the sequel was announced, and the concerns of the naysayers seem justified in light of a game that cannot muster the watertight coherence of its predecessor. BioShock 2 puts you into the clanking dive suit of one of the original’s iconic “Big Daddy” characters, genetically modified brutes who protect creepy, glowing-eyed “Little Sisters” as they harvest ADAM (the game’s magical, chemical MacGuffin) from the ruined corpses strewn liberally about.

Big Daddies were panic-inducing adversaries the first time around, so it serves as an interesting inversion to step into their weighted boots and impale crazed “splicers” (Rapture’s mutilated, gene modification-addicted denizens) with a drill-bit the size of a traffic cone. Your character’s ability to breathe underwater enables the introduction of brief traverses outside the city’s pressurized buildings — a novel exercise in the eerie, aquatic sublime.

The player’s Big Daddy is one of the original models, codenamed “Delta,” and the action of the game is driven by your attempts to reunite with your Sister sidekick. In your way is Dr. Sofia Lamb, a sort of Stepford Stalin who replaces the Randian exhortations Andrew Ryan provided via radio in the first game with a lot of religious, communitarian claptrap. Unfortunately, Lamb isn’t half the adversary Ryan was, and the game’s story has none of the careful calibration or bold engagement with questions of individual freedom that made its predecessor so affecting.

Instead, in classic video game sequel fashion, the title throws a bunch of zany “bigger and better” ideas at you, in the form of new weapons, ADAM- derived pseudo-spells, and the “Big Sisters,” spindly, hyperkinetic murderers who are mostly notable for their tinnitus-inducing screeches. A frantic new multiplayer mode is likely the cause of the item overload and short single-player campaign, and though serviceable, those in search of frags are likely to find satisfaction elsewhere. Like Rapture itself, the BioShock franchise began as a grand, noble idea — only to descend into internecine, leaking disrepair.

Galaxy quest



(Bioware/Electronic Arts) PC, Xbox360

GAMER It took a piece of state-of-the-art hardware and a team of abundantly talented animators and programmers to get me back to the gaming basics. I’d assumed control of Commander Shepard, hero of Mass Effect 2, and I needed to weigh my many options; making the wrong choice would have disastrous consequences. As the Xbox hummed and guzzled power from across the room, the back of a takeout menu became its newest pen-and-paper peripheral — a list of pros and cons.

The first Mass Effect introduced us to Commander Shepard and the galaxy he inhabits: our familiar Milky Way, but teeming with alien species, political intrigue, and the casualties of interstellar capitalism. It, too, was a game of choices. The series’ developer, BioWare, specializes in role-playing games built around these choices, allowing players to make their own decisions while navigating intricate dialogue trees and labyrinthine, branching plots. Moral quandaries and rhetorical pickles are almost as frequent as futuristic gun battles in Mass Effect 2, and an instinct for the right choice of words at the right moment can be more valuable than a hyperactive trigger finger. The characters you encounter can be made to do your bidding, but only if you cajole those who need cajoling, and threaten those who can’t be cajoled.

It’s a system that cannot be sustained without top-notch writing, and BioWare’s well-honed dialogue, careful storytelling, and limber imagination can be felt in every aspect of the game. Though the subject matter takes full advantage of a “Mature” rating, it avoids the schlock or ham-handedness that plagues similarly calibrated titles. The shocking crimes of Mass Effect are the product of a science fiction universe built painstakingly from the ground up, and as Shepard journeys across the galaxy, he encounters crises mundane and mythic.

Though some troublesome complaints persist, the sequel improves on the original in most important areas, boasting a fleshed-out side-quest system, refined galactic exploration methods, and a host of other changes designed to make life as the savior of the galaxy just a little bit easier. The farther into the game you get, however, the less these mechanical concerns matter — the staggering ambition of the designers, along with the depth and nuance of the fiction they created, dwarf more pedestrian concerns. As an inhabitant of a dangerous, space-operatic world that feels more alive than most video game representations of existence on Earth, your survival will depend on your decisions. Choose wisely.

No escape from Azeroth


World of Warcraft
Blizzard Entertainment (PC, Mac)

Most games don’t celebrate anniversaries, nor do they last long enough to celebrate five. World of Warcraft is so unlike most games that its recent milestone seems like just a pit-stop on the way to its 10th, or 15th year. Produced by Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) has rewritten the rules of the possible when it comes to computerized entertainment, smashing records of size, scope, and popularity with every new press release.
Since it debuted Nov. 23, 2004, players have logged cumulative years of their lives into the game, creating characters and venturing forth into a vast world filled with ax-toting foes and ravenous, mythical beasts. Their progress is driven by the accumulation of experience (doled out for vanquishing enemies and completing epic missions); reputation (among fellow players and also the computer-controlled “nonplayer characters” that pepper the vast, living world); and loot, the not-so-secret lifeblood of the MMORPG enterprise, which pumps through the endless “my sword is bigger than yours” status grind at the heart of the game. Thanks to the $15 subscription fee that each player ponies up each month, Blizzard has raked in around $1 billion in revenue each year.
With 11.5 million subscribers, World of Warcraft is now more populous than that titan of central African geography, Chad. Drawing on huge user-bases in China, Korea, and Europe, along with its North American stronghold, Blizzard has strangled the MMORPG market with both fists. The game is so popular and so time-consuming, furthermore, that it is in direct competition with virtually every other game released. Those caught in the icy clutches of “WoW” must decide whether they can afford to take time off to enjoy the new console shooter or world-building strategy fest.
In other circumstances, the overweening success of a single game would prove frustrating to its competitors: other developers trying to get their products in the hands of receptive audiences. Except in this case, most of those developers are themselves addicted to what some call the “World of Warcrack.” Far from resenting the pixelated equivalent of smokeable cocaine, these designers, some of them genuine gaming nobility, are just as starving for new content and phat lewts as the next Cheeto-stained WoW-head.
This kind of unquenchable hunger for the game will surely serve as the focus for much of the mainstream fifth-anniversary coverage. Bound up in WoW’s immensely popularity, unending structure, and time-sucking nature is a good deal of human iniquity. Five years of endless questing have given us “Warcraft widows” — significant others spurned in favor of virtual breastplates. A blind item on popular gossip site Gawker.com implicated the game in the breakup of a prominent celebrity couple. There have been murder plots and accidental deaths. Sweatshop-style “gold farms” in places like China force teenage employees to spend endless hours accumuutf8g virtual currency to sell on the Internet black market, much to the consternation of Blizzard.
Despite its addicting foibles, World of Warcraft shows no sign of slowing down. Cataclysm, the third expansion to the game, will reap huge profits — on top of the monthly subscription fees — when it comes out next year, promising new areas to explore and new characters to inhabit. In case you thought you had any hope of avoiding this magical, alternate world, be warned — a feature film directed by Sam Raimi is already in the works.




(Gearbox, 2K Games) XBOX360, PS3, PC
Video games are a remarkably derivative medium, recycling old tropes and exhausting cliches. This is made more frustrating by the industry’s relentless hype machine, which trumpets newer, better, more unfamiliar games, only to deliver tired titles bound up in a patina of pretty, cutting-edge graphical distraction.

Borderlands is one of the rare games that inverts this paradigm. A hybrid of shooter mechanics and RPG-style progression, it wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, borrowing unabashedly from the best to deliver a combination of the loot-hungry avarice of Diablo (Blizzard), the apocalyptic milieu of Fallout 3 (Bethesda), and the user-friendly set-up of World of Warcraft (Blizzard). With a few clever tweaks, the game becomes a Frankenstein of fun, delivering exuberant shoot-em-up gameplay and an avalanche of enticingly ever-increasing numbers.

To call the story icing on the cake is to be a little over-generous. Four adventurers arrive on the planet Pandora, thought to be the home of a mythical vault full of alien treasure. Violence ensues. Exposition is doled out courtesy of the game’s lone adaptive failure, a retread of the angelic "mysterious female voice on the radio" bit that was played out by the second Halo (Bungie/Microsoft).

Such sour notes are quickly forgotten once the action begins. Taking command of one of four archetypal classes — the brawling Berserker, the stealthy Siren, the head-shooting Hunter, and the stolid Soldier — the player is quickly thrown into a desolate world filled with bloodthirsty enemies, simple but not onerous fetch quests, and oceans of loot.

It is in the acquisition of exorbitantly powerful digital swag that any action-RPG lives and dies, and Borderlands delivers with aplomb, paying homage to Diablo’s seminal embrace of procedurally generated items. Nearly all the game’s weapons exist as random concatenations of statistics, gaining potency and usefulness by stringing together adjective-modifiers that mete out verbal hilarity as well as they deliver fiery death.

Want to wield a gun named the "Malevolent Thumper"? Have you dreamed of mowing down cannibalistic midgets with a sniper-scoped shotgun that fires rockets filled with acid? The game provides all this and more, and the player is inexorably egged along by the prospect of bigger, badder firearms with which to kill bigger, badder bad guys.

The developer’s commitment to levity is refreshing in a climate of increasingly self-serious titles. In comparable games, rare, powerful enemies are "elite." In Borderlands, they’re "badass." The voice-acting, though sparse, is littered with satisfying moments, from the exaggerated Southern drawls adopted by Pandora’s natives to the Hunter’s soft chuckle whenever a critical hit turns a rampaging adversary into a pile of bloody goo.

Though the game is at times gorily realistic, its most unique feature is its art style, which blends comic book techniques and cel-shading to add visual spice to what would otherwise be a drab, dusty wasteland. By swathing their adapted gameplay in this inimitable guise, Gearbox performs the important task of creating a game that’s familiar, but not too familiar.

Single-player and two-player splitscreen are both viable options, but the focus is clearly on online co-op, which allows up to four players and adjusts the difficulty on the fly to allow for the profusion of gunslingers. With no built-in loot allocation system, partying with trusted friends is recommended, cutting down on disputes as much as it increases the potential for social, frag-filled fun. While it is likely to be overshadowed by some of fall’s more high-profile titles, Borderlands gleeful gameplay, distinctive look, well-executed homages, and generous dispensation of big guns might just give the big guns a run for their money.

Brütal odyssey


>>Read Ben Richardson’s full interview with Tim Schafer here


GAMER "The first time we pitched it, they wanted us to change the genre, to make it about country or hip-hop or something."

Game designer Tim Schafer is sitting in his SoMa office, in his favorite chair — appropriately, a rocking chair — and talking about his masterpiece. "They were saying, ‘Why don’t you open it to all music?’ We said, ‘Look — this is a game about epic battles, good vs. evil, Braveheart-type moments. And heavy metal is the musical genre that focuses heavily on folklore. It sings about medieval combat. It’s really the only genre that makes sense for it.’"

The game is Brütal Legend (Double Fine/EA), and in the end, Schafer got his way. Taking control of Eddie Riggs, a grizzled roadie voiced by Jack Black, the player journeys through a metal landscape inspired by the album covers the designer studied in his youth. Wielding a massive battle-ax and a magical guitar, Riggs encounters righteous friends and fiendish foes, including characters voiced by luminaries like Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, and Lita Ford. The soundtrack is a carefully compiled list of headbang-inducing classics.

Schafer agrees that the game is his most personal creation to date. "All games are wish fulfillments. All games are about fantasy. This is a game where I’ve been able to make my own wish fulfillment. I would like to go back in time with a cool car and a battle-axe while listening to heavy metal."


Growing up in Sonoma, the designer escaped his suburban life by rocking out to Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. He would drive down to San Francisco for shows, catching sets at Mabuhay Gardens or the Stone. The music introduced him to a mythic world of horned hell-monsters, glistening chrome, and mortal combat, a world he never quite left behind.

He attended both UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, dividing his attention between computer programming and creative writing, two talents he would later fuse. At Berkeley, he took a class on folklore from Alan Dundes, a provocative professor whose belief in the power of folklore influenced Schafer’s work tremendously. In 1989, he got a job in San Rafael at Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts. He was assigned to The Secret of Monkey Island, a comedic adventure game by designer Ron Gilbert. Monkey Island was the perfect vehicle for Schafer’s talents, taking full advantage of his boundless imagination, storytelling sense, and biting wit. It is best remembered for its "insult sword fighting" section, in which dueling buccaneers trade verbal jabs in lieu of physical ones.

Mitch Krpata, game critic for the Boston Phoenix and author of the blog Insult Swordfighting, identified the defining quality of Schafer’s LucasArts output via e-mail: "Character. There are a few archetypes that most games go to again and again: silent man of action, easygoing everyman, tormented soul out for revenge. Schafer’s protagonists aren’t like that. They’re individuals. They’re good guys, but they have flaws, and their flaws aren’t things like they just care too much, dammit."


After finishing the biker-themed Full Throttle in 1995, Schafer hunted inspiration. It came to him as an unlikely combination of themes, both closely tied to his San Francisco home. Initially, he was devouring classic noir films at the Lark and Castro theatres. A trip to the Day of the Dead parade in the city’s Mission District delivered the epiphany. The higher-ups at LucasArts had been agitating for a game with 3-D graphics, a prospect he did not relish. "I really hated the look of 3-D art back then, because it looked like a nylon stretched over a cardboard box," he remembers.

Picking through a table of Day of the Dead ephemera, the idea came: "I saw those calavera statues. Instead of modeling all of the bones in papier-mâché, they’ll just make a tube and paint the bones on the outside. I was like, ‘This is just like bad 3-D art. This is great!’"

Additional fodder was provided by doctor visits to 450 Sutter — a building that combines Art Deco architecture with Mayan motifs — and Schafer began work on his most ambitious project to date. Drawing on his collegiate folklore training, he and his team wove together elements of Day of the Dead tradition, Aztec folk tales, and noir cinema to create 1998’s Grim Fandango (LucasArts), a sprawling epic of crime and love in which all the characters were stylized, calavera-style skeletons "living" in the Land of the Dead. Featuring a labyrinthine, affecting story, delectable hard-boiled dialogue, and stunning art direction, it is still ranked among the best games of all time.


Schafer left LucasArts in 1999, concerned that the company would exercise its ownership of his beloved characters without his participation. He wanted to found his own studio in San Francisco. As he told me over the phone, "Working at a company where you can look out the window and see the city outside is just so inspiring. It’s not just about having great restaurants at lunch, though that’s part of it." Starting in his living room "in a bathrobe and flip-flops," the nascent Double Fine Productions — named after a "double fine zone" sign on the Golden Gate bridge — jumped from location to location, including an unheated warehouse with a rodent problem and a toilet that often unleashed an "ocean of human waste" into the office.

The first Double Fine game was 2005’s Psychonauts, an ambitious project about a summer camp for psychic kids that failed to reach the wide audience it deserved. Even in this rarefied setting, Schafer included bits of the city’s lore. A character named Boyd was based on a homeless man who hung out near the team’s offices, doing odd jobs and enlightening the Double Fine crew with his extensive conspiracy theories.

"Sometimes he would just be on a rant about [how] the government would be trying to read his mind using satellites, or using the broken glass in the streets to bend their optics around," Schafer recalls. "He just produced great quotes: ‘I don’t want to be liquid, I want to be a turtle with rockets strapped to my back!’" Deciding to include him in the game, the designer painstakingly created a flow-chart that would procedurally generate conspiracy theories for Boyd to spout onscreen. "He constructs it by coming up with a conspirator, what their plan is, what the victim of it is, and strings it all together with a bunch of coughing and stuff."


Brütal Legend, Double Fine’s latest game, was released Oct. 13, and gamers across the country will have the opportunity to play through the piece of San Francisco folklore most familiar to Schafer: the one based on himself. By making a game about a character transported from our familiar world into an ax-happy metal battleground, the designer has turned his story, the story of a misfit headbanger from a city steeped in metal history, into a new kind of 21st century myth.



FIFA ’10

Electronic Arts (XBOX360, PS3, PC)

GAMER Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, so it follows that soccer video games are among the world’s most popular games. With such a mammoth amount of cash on offer, the battle to be the planet’s premier publisher of simulated footy boasts extremely high stakes. For more than a decade, two of gaming’s biggest names, Electronic Arts (U.S.) and Konami (Japan) have fought tooth and claw for the affections of the vast soccer-gaming constituency, releasing yearly versions of their dueling mega-franchises, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer.

For years, the Americans came in second best, using their financial clout to secure licensing agreements with leagues and players, but delivering poor gameplay. The reasons at the time seemed obvious — Americans don’t like soccer. Americans don’t understand soccer. EA’s glossy licenses played into a narrative of U.S. imperialism, in which a rapacious corporation strip-mined the world’s game and its gamer devotees, backed by its Madden millions. Embattled "Pro Evo" was the preferred product everywhere, attracting tournament players, couch-bound amateurs, and quarter-hoarding arcade addicts alike. Even the pros themselves played it.

This lasted until 2007. A new class had matriculated at EA’s Montreal substation, led by producer David Rutter and programmer Gary Paterson, a Scot and a lifelong football fan. A talented group of designers, they were sick of living in Pro Evo‘s long shadow, almost as sick as the higher-ups at EA, who were perennially No. 2 at the gaming box office. Recognizing that only serious change would get FIFA back into the profitable sun, the team rebuilt their game from the pitch up. Instead of constantly chasing Konami’s innovations with ineffective imitations, they would produce something completely unlike Pro Evo — new, different, and worthy of being judged on its own merits.

When FIFA ’07 was released, the differences were obvious. Paterson, realizing that the excitement of soccer lay in its unpredictable outcomes, spearheaded the redesign by throwing out all the canned animations. Instead of player and ball interacting in a scripted, predetermined fashion, player and ball became realistic objects, coming together in a simulated physical world that obeyed Newtonian rules like gravity, momentum, and acceleration. Shots on goal, which previously resembled shots you’d see coming from a gun in an action game, now hinged on a complex combination of variables, like ball speed, shooting angle, and player skill.

Seemingly overnight, the FIFA team had a game that felt more like real soccer than Pro Evo ever had. Fans and critics were stunned — the world’s soccer-gaming hierarchy had been abruptly turned on its head. FIFA ’08 and ‘09 continued in a similar vein. The team in Montreal, not content to rest on their laurels, incorporated the massive strides made in realistic physics modeling to make the games better, more realistic, and much more exciting. Taking advantage of EA’s huge marketing budget, they recruited marquee players and tapped consumers neglected by Konami, particularly Spanish-speaking game buyers in the U.S. FIFA ’09 smashed sales records, and powered more than 275 million individual online matches. The franchise, often the bridesmaid, was finally the bride, and it was marrying rich.

On Sept. 17, EA released the demo version of FIFA ’10, which hits stores Oct. 22. The game boasts a number of improvements, including a new dribbling system, which finally frees players from the strictures of eight-way movement — one of the most transparently "game-y" elements of simulated soccer, but also the most intractable. Sales are expected to calcify EA’s dominance. Ensconced on its newfound throne, the massive publisher would do well to heed the lesson that got it there: when the gamers are opening their wallets, you’re only as good as your last game engine.

Autumn with Xbox


GAMER The fall release schedule lacks the marquee names and rabid hype that defined the previous year in gaming, but thumb-callused consumers everywhere should have much to look forward to following a summer of ho-hum titles.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision), PS3, Xbox360, PC After farming out a by-the-numbers semi-sequel, Call of Duty: World at War, to developers Treyarch, Infinity Ward has redeployed. Bridging the treacherous divide between immaculately choreographed single-player campaigns and frenetic, repayable multiplayer, Modern Warfare the first was a smash hit and remains an XBox Live staple. Activision will count on its tent pole FPS to hit another one out of the park, with the help of snowmobile chase firefights and all manner of shit that goes "boom!" (Nov. 10)

The Beatles: Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV Games/EA), PS3, Xbox360, Wii Not just another rhythm game; more like a labor of love. Unlike, say, "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" (Activision), the Fab Four’s name comes first for this title. Early reviewers have heaped praise on Harmonix, honing in on the attention paid to visual detail. Beyond recreating the band’s distinctive instruments and best-known gigs, the developers worked closely with Apple Corps. to animate "dreamscape" sequences that will set the scene for the group’s late-period, psychedelic tunes. Three-part harmonies and the ability to download the Liverpudlian quartet’s entire catalog (which is still not possible on iTunes) are just gravy. (Sept. 9)

Borderlands (Gearbox/2K Games), PS3, Xbox360, PC Gearbox’s twitch-based postapocalpytic RPG made early headlines by effecting a complete change in art direction, resulting in its idiosyncratic, cel-shaded look. More important is the promise of a huge open world, four-player co-op, and the Diablo (Blizzard)baiting siren call of procedurally generated loot. (Oct. 20)

Brütal Legend (Double Fine/Electronic Arts), PS3, Xbox360 The long-awaited masterpiece from San Francisco’s resident game royalty, Tim Schafer. The Grim Fandango (Lucasarts) creator and his team at Double Fine have ridden a rollercoaster to get this game in stores, but a bevy of celebrity voice talent, a head-banging soundtrack, and Schafer’s boundless imagination are sure to make it worth the wait. Also enticing are Ocarina of Time (Nintendo)-style spellcasting via electric guitar, a so-crazy-it-just-might-work RTS option for multiplayer, and enough heavy metal-themed mayhem to fill a few hundred macabre record sleeves. If you can only slay $60 worth of bloodthirsty demon between now and the holiday game glut, this is your surefire pick. (Oct. 13)

Happy trails


Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

(Techland, Ubisoft; PC, XBOX360, PS3)

GAMER Though the cowboy is a quintessentially American hero, the Western genre has flourished in the hands of foreigners. Famous for his "Dollars" trilogy, Italian director Sergio Leone was one of the many European filmmakers who reinvented and preserved the form, even as it became unfashionable in the U.S. With this in mind, the efforts of Polish developers Techland in creating Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood are impressive, but less surprising. Replicating the distinctive look and tone of many gun-slinging classics, the team tiptoes the split-rail fence separating homage from imitation, crafting a first-person shooter with enough escapist, six-gun fun to counterbalance its many faults.

The game is a prequel to 2006’s uneven Call of Juarez, providing back-story for the original’s two protagonists — Billy Candle, a kid with a knack for getting trapped in nigh-unplayable Thief (1998) — style stealth levels, and Ray McCall, a Bible-toting psychopath who could harangue his enemies with scripture at the press of a button.

Ray is back, swapping his good book for a brace of Colts, and he’s joined by his brother Thomas, who favors a long rifle, a lasso, and a waistcoat full of throwing knives. Each sibling has a distinct playstyle, and you choose to control one or the other at the beginning of most levels. This is a welcome elaboration on the first game’s alternating setup, in which players would clear each level twice, first as Billy, then as Ray, hot in pursuit. Having the choice in Bound in Blood adds some needed variety, and invests the player in the brothers’ increasingly fierce rivalry.

Their enmity revolves around Marisa, the femme fatale astride a convoluted plot that draws on a number of Western tropes. Buried gold, rogue Confederates, angry Apaches, wisecracking banditos — it’s all there. Ray and Thomas blast their way through reverent, set-piece shootouts, trading gruff jibes as competition for Marisa’s affections heats up. With two playable characters, the lack of split-screen or online co-op is a glaring oversight, as irksome as the aggressive auto-aim or the brain-dead, shooting-gallery AI. Pistol-duel boss fights comprise the game’s best moments, switching the camera to holster-eye third-person and requiring the player to slowly circle their opponent before quick-drawing and firing at the toll of a bell.

Class-based multiplayer will keep some cowpokes coming back, but this seven-hour game is probably better as a rental. Though it’s not bad, and certainly not ugly, "good" would be too kind.

Arm race


Bionic Commando

(GRIN/Capcom; PC, XBOX 360, PS3)

GAMER Reading faithfully from Hollywood’s remake-happy script, the game industry has learned to cannibalize its history. Bionic Commando is the first in an ever-expanding series of big-budget 8-bit retreads; Splatterhouse (Namco Bandai) is due out later this year, and more are sure to follow.

Bionic Commando slots you into the futuristic combat boots of Nathan Spencer, voiced ably if bombastically by Faith No More’s Mike Patton. Spencer is equipped with a bionic arm, a telescoping grappling hook of a limb that enables him to cling to his surroundings and swing, Tarzan-style, through the game’s various levels. The arm is the game’s defining feature, imbuing an otherwise unremarkable third-person action title with a giddy, kinetic thrill.

Physics-based acrobatics are a passable reason to resurrect a moldering NES franchise, and it’s too bad Swedish developers GRIN couldn’t revamp the production values as well. The game is rated "M," for mature, which means the characters curse like it’s going out of style, but the story is insulting to anyone with intelligence even approaching maturity, when it makes sense at all. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a scientifically-augmented super-soldier is released from prison in exigent circumstances, made hostage by withheld knowledge of his missing wife-slash-daughter-slash-favorite toy, and charged with saving the world by sinister higher-ups who are totally not going to stab him in the back at a crucial moment.

Despite its free-swinging promise, the game’s lushly designed levels are disappointingly linear. Wide-open areas are liberally slathered with "radiation," an ugly blue texture that acts as a wagging finger of disapproval every time you try to go somewhere the level designers didn’t want you to. Swing too high? Death by radiation. Too low? Radiation. Too far to the left? You get the idea.

Also frustrating is a profusion of tepid, gun-based combat, and when you’re not using your arm to throw cars at things, you’re frantically trying to put bullet-shaped holes in the helmeted henchmen of Gottfried Groeder, a cartoon fascist with a German accent that would make Major Toht blush all the way down to the Headpiece of Ra-shaped scar on his palm.

Given these drawbacks, multiplayer proved to be a refreshing pleasure. Radiation-free and adrenaline-heavy, the game’s death matches make you feel like Master Chief crossed with Spider-Man, and the bionic arm provides all sorts of invigorating possibilities. There are possibilities of a sequel too, judging from the post-credits teaser. If someone makes the rounds at GRIN headquarters installing bionic brains, I might be interested.

Undead again


Resident Evil 5

(Capcom; Xbox 360, PS3)

GAMER With sales hovering around the 35 million mark, Capcom’s Resident Evil series has become less of a cash cow and more of a cash elephant. If I explained to you that Resident Evil 5 is in fact the seventh game in the main series, you might care, but suffice to say that between a bookshelf’s worth of games, novelizations, comic books, and feature films, expectations for the most recent installment are running high.

The new title takes place in Africa, where franchise stalwart Chris Redfield has arrived to be gruff and kill things in the name of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance. The world is beset on all sides by misanthropes with syringes full of tentacle-rich zombifying megavirus, and only the BSAA can keep us from being turned into creatures that look like a walking combination of ground beef and motor oil.

Redfield is joined by his hard-bodied counterpart, Sheva Alomar, a local operative who accompanies the player throughout. Cooperation is the name of the game this time around, and you’ll have to pool resources and abilities to survive. Sidekick A.I. is one of gaming’s greatest deficiencies, and though Sheva’s is certainly passable (read: not a constant frustration), simple online and same-room co-op features make two-person play the optimal approach.

The game retains Resident Evil’s infuriating "stop-and-pop" controls, rooting you to the spot every time you aim your weapon. This is ostensibly to preserve the series’ survival-horror roots, although you would be hard-pressed to find anything scary during the game’s paltry 12 hours of gameplay. RE5 plays like an action title, with streamlined item-management and save utilities and a lot of relentless gunplay.

Visually, the game is stunning, creating an atmospheric and detailed world for the player to riddle with bullets. If only the other aspects of the game’s presentation had received even half as much attention — the writing is horrifically stilted, and the story is incomprehensible. Sometimes it seems like the designers are purposefully insulting the players’ intelligence — "The power is off. Maybe there’s some way to turn it back on" — and every single point is made with a sledgehammer. Early trailers for the game brought accusations of racism (white cop mows down herds of bug-eyed Africans), and while this charge loses potency in context, the appearance of grass-skirted "tribal" zombies who literally throw spears at you is extremely problematic. Thankfully, when your back’s to the wall and you’re running out of ammo, it doesn’t really matter if the zombies are black, blue, or green.

Meaner streets


Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

(Rockstar North; Xbox 360)

GAMER Ever since the "next-gen" consoles shipped with capacious hard-drives and easy access to the broadband interwebs, gamers have been paying the price. Picking up where the boxed expansion pack model left off, publishers realized they could nickel-and-dime their fans with "downloadable content packs," recalling the "Batmobile sold separately" chicanery of action figure advertising and failing to deliver even the most rudimentary bang for your buck.

It comes as something of a relief, then, when a developer eschews horse armor and warmed-over levels too crappy for the retail version and provides some downloadable content actually worth the bandwidth, let alone the greenbacks. Grand Theft Auto IV makers Rockstar North restore some hope with The Lost and Damned, a worthwhile 10-hour nugget of episodic expansion that once again turns gamers loose in the open-world cesspool of Liberty City.

You play Johnny Klebitz, a surly biker with bad tribal tattoos and a cadre of "brothers" in the Lost, one of the metropolis’ warring biker gangs. Engaged in a power struggle with the gang’s atavistic head honcho and mired in the world of crime that defines Rockstar’s dystopic settings, Klebitz is soon fighting for his life.

In keeping with the expansion’s hog-wild characters, Rockstar has retuned the motorcycle physics, making two wheels the optimum number for peeling around the vast gameplay environment. Your character has access to a handful of powerful new weapons, and your easy-riding cohort is a phone call away if you’re in need of manpower, horsepower, or firepower. New multiplayer modes cater to the bike-centric gameplay, including a new race mode in which competitors with baseball bats reenact Electronic Arts’ classic Road Rash series.

The writing and motion capture is consistent with the GTA series’ surpassing quality, and Rockstar again proves that careful characterization and plotting makes for a more engrossing gaming experience than a coterie of anonymous sidekicks yelling "boo-yah!" The events of The Lost and Damned intersect intriguingly with the original game, but this is both a blessing and a curse. Despite the developers’ best efforts, Johnny Klebitz isn’t half the protagonist GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is, and the moments when Bellic shows up are an unfortunate reminder of this fact. As with Bellic, the writers make an ill-conceived stab at humanizing their star criminal in Klebitz, presenting him as a voice of reason and moderation. But this all flies out the window once he’s mowing down cops in the dozens. Then again, when you’ve got a fully automatic shotgun to play with, who cares about psychological realism?

Let it reign


Fallout 3

(Bethesda Softworks/Zenimax Media; XBOX360, PS3, PC)

GAMER "War. War never changes." These words have introduced three Fallout games, intoned by narrator Ron Perlman as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape devastated by nuclear bombardment. The world of Fallout is one steeped in retro-futurism, imagining a history in which the end of World War II was succeeded by rapid technological progress but complete cultural stagnation. In the 21st century, competition for resources leads to the Chinese invasion of Alaska, quickly countered by the American annexation of Canada. The question of who fires first is deliberately elided, but the human race soon witnesses the dawn of the apocalypse.

A small fraction of humanity weathers the mushroom cloud, eking out a living among the rubble. Still others are preserved within vast underground vaults. You begin life in Vault 101, literally emerging from the womb and triggering an inspired character creation sequence in which your father’s delivery room commentary on your sex, name, and future appearance is interrupted by menu screens that allow you to customize these qualities.

Emerging into the outside world, you are thrust into the vast and dangerous Capital Wasteland, which encompasses Washington, DC, and its environs. Bethesda Game Studios, having acquired the Fallout license from Interplay, has designed an enormous, incredibly detailed, and realistic landscape, filled with places to explore and characters to interact with. Danger and fun lurk in every bombed-out building.

The realism has its drawbacks. The first two Fallout games had graphics so simple that they allowed the player to fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, and the fully realized world of Fallout 3 takes some getting used to if you’ve played the first two games. The series’ trademark dark humor is also somewhat diminished. Bethesda doesn’t have the knack for the pulpy, dystopian treatment of slavery, cannibalism, prostitution, and drug use that the previous installments did.

Gameplay is conducted in either the first or third person. The "V.A.T.S." targeting system is back in fine form, enabling you to aim at limbs and heads RPG-style and generally wreak havoc. It also can be played as a more traditional FPS, although this mode feels rubbery and inferior.

As much as it would have accorded with critical ethics, I have not played the game to completion. There is too much left to explore, to experiment with, before I set the events in motion that will conclude the main narrative. Despite my backwards-looking gripes, Fallout 3 is a masterwork of world creation, an apocalypse too good to leave, and a game almost too good to win.

Blunt “Force”


Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

(Lucasarts; XBOX360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Nintendo DS)

GAMER Star Wars stories should start with yellow-lettered title crawls. This summer’s animated movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars thought it could do without, and it sucked. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has a title crawl, which is good, because in addition to being a mega-hyped, third-person 3-D action game, it also contains some fascinating revelations about the history of the galaxy far, far away. The game is set between episodes III (Revenge of the Sith) and IV (A New Hope), and you play as Galen Marek, code name "Starkiller," who is Darth Vader’s secret Sith apprentice. Vader rescues Marek as an infant during the Great Jedi Purge; this affecting act of compassion concludes the game’s inspired intro level, which lets players control Vader as he lays waste to the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.

Starkiller soon grows into a powerful dark jedi. True to the title, the gameplay focuses on the numerous ways that the force can be unleashed to wreak destruction on anyone standing in his way. The game’s Havoc physics engine and Digital Molecular Matter animation system realize a world in which almost everything can bend, break, shatter, or be tossed across the room with the wave of a midichlorian-rich finger. Like any good jedi, Starkiller is a one-person army, and dispatching waves of enemies with lightsaber, lightning, and the power of "force grip" can be immensely entertaining.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, the game is a joy, but it is frequently marred by reprehensible design decisions. Targeting with force grip is infuriatingly finicky, and the boss fights tend to culminate in cheesy "press the correct button when it flashes on the screen" mechanics. Action set pieces, like wrangling a crashing Star Destroyer using the force, might have sounded great on paper, but they end up as exercises in frustration. In contrast to Half-Life 2 and Portal, which gave gamers intuitive tools to transform the game environment before letting their creativity run wild, The Force Unleashed relies on boring, familiar force puzzles.

While most video games shoehorn lackluster plots around top-quality gameplay, The Force Unleashed is the rare game that does the opposite. The story, by project lead Haden Blackman — see our interview with him on the Pixel Vision blog — is engrossing, with cleverly developed characters and real pathos, and Battlestar Galactica vet Sam Witwer brings Starkiller to life with bar-raising motion-capture chops. Unfortunately, playing The Force Unleashed will be an experience familiar to all modern Star Wars fans: one that involves taking the good with the bad.

Ninja binge



(Tecmo/Microsoft Game Studios; Xbox 360)

GAMER It was 1988 when the original Ninja Gaiden began emptying the coin-purses of arcade addicts with its relentless difficulty and catchy soundtrack. Twenty years and roughly eight installments later, the series should be winning prizes for consistency. In the new Ninja Gaiden II, the player once again takes command of über-ninja Ryu Hayabusa and his trusty Dragon Sword, wading shuriken-first into a merciless onslaught.

The 1989 NES port reputedly introduced cinematic cut-scenes to the console medium, though unfortunately the visual innovation was paired with decidedly lackluster plotting. Nineteen years have elapsed, yet it’s no different this time around: a coalition of malefactors has teamed up to awaken an unspeakably powerful evil, and it’s up to you to stop them.

Despite this creative stagnation, gamers and developers keep coming back to Ninja Gaiden for one thing: the combat system, which has been consistently satisfying and incredibly hard in every version. In 1999 a Tecmo developer named Tomonobu Itagaki marshaled "Team Ninja" and began work on the first modern, 3-D iteration of Ninja Gaiden, which was released on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 in 2004.

Itagaki’s initial combination of state-of-the-art graphics and unforgiving difficulty resulted in what has been hailed by many as the greatest action game of all time. And while it often makes you want to smash your controller against the wall, mastering the fluid, frenetic combat is eventually quite satisfying. Breaking with longstanding action-game tradition, the number of enemies is precipitously reduced, with a commensurate increase in cunning and deadliness on the part of Ryu’s adversaries. Rather than beating impossible odds with frantic button-mashing, the player is forced to actually get good at the game.

For better or worse, Ninja Gaiden II picks up roughly where its predecessor left off, bringing back familiar weapons and combo attacks as well as Ryu’s traditional enemies in the form of the malevolent Black Spider Ninja Clan. The graphics engine is snazzy and modern, and the health bar system has been made more merciful by Ryu’s ability to automatically regenerate some health after the conclusion of a fight.

One new feature sets the game apart from forerunners: the gore. While the 2004 version made it possible to dispatch enemies with a well-executed decapitation, the sequel ups the dismemberment ante like an amputee fetishist. Even first-time players will find themselves lopping off legs and arms with alacrity. It wouldn’t be Ninja Gaiden without a frustrating catch, however: desperate de-limbed opponents become serious threats as they resort to ever-more-suicidal attacks. Close in on one and hit the Y button, though, and Ryu will perform an "obliteration technique," a choreographed slice-and-dice that precipitates a cinematic camera angle and veritable tidal wave of viscera.

Itagaki has finally caved to an "easy" difficulty level, and beginners or even experienced gamers will be grateful for the "path of the acolyte." Despite this and other sanity-saving measures, like the addition of automatic save points before boss battles, the game can still be enraging. Ranged attackers know where you’re going to be before you do, and the third-person camera remains uncooperative. One boss even explodes after you defeat him, killing you instantly until you figure out the thoroughly asinine solution.

There’s really no point in complaining. Fiendish difficulty will always be the order of the ninja day, and the "game over" screen might as well be replaced by a picture of Itagaki’s smug, stunna-shaded face. By the time you ascend Mount Fuji to do battle with the final boss, however, the sense of accomplishment is huge. For those looking to master the best melee combat modern gaming has to offer, Ninja Gaiden II is the only serious choice. For those looking to acquire a frustration-induced medical condition, it’s also a great option.

What the hell


(Capcom; PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

GAMER Video games are often pilloried for expressing a particularly juvenile kind of male fantasy, where chain-mail thongs and Kevlar corsets comprise the latest in bulletproof lingerie and mindless, balletic violence is the order of the day. Despite the efforts of more high-minded game designers, every so often a game comes along that confirms the worst of these stereotypes. Devil May Cry 4 is exactly this game. The latest in the wildly successful Capcom franchise abounds with lovingly rendered cleavage, in which cup size is dwarfed only by the polygon count, huge phallus-substitute swords the size of stepladders, and inanely macho dialogue. Players assume control of Nero, an apprentice slayer who replaces Dante, the hero of the first three installments. The plot is effectively nonsense and its function is identical to that of a porn movie, with the sex swapped out for violence. It establishes who will be fighting, where they will be fighting, and the various configurations they will fight in — and then gets the hell out of the way.

Game play is built around a satisfying beat-’em-up system that harks back to classic arcade side-scrollers. Using his monstrous sword, his trusty pistol, and a magically imbued left arm known as the Devil Bringer, Nero unleashes all sorts of punishment on waves of enemies. Stringing together attacks without taking damage allows you to build "combos," which the game grades on a scale that is undoubtedly familiar to its core player-base: eighth-graders. The most pedestrian pwnage will earn you a "D," for "deadly." More complicated attacking will allow you to garner "C" for "carnage," "B" for "brutal," and "A" for "atomic," all the way up to SSS (higher than A), which stands, of course, for "super sick style."

The combat system is abetted by the game’s purposely cartoonish physics, which are tweaked so that firing your gun or using your sword after jumping actually enables you to stay in the air longer than you otherwise would have. This kind of jumping is escapist fun. Unfortunately the game also relies on another kind of video game acrobatics, the dreaded "jumping puzzle." Occasionally Nero will have to perform a series of choreographed leaps to continue his quest, while the game ratchets up the annoyance level mercilessly by adding time limits and enemies that spawn every time you screw up.

These challenges are further complicated by Devil May Cry 4‘s frustrating camera system. Although a freely roaming perspective has been de rigueur in 3-D games for some time, Capcom decided to stick with a fixed viewpoint during most of the game, obscuring important items and areas in order to pimp the game’s admittedly lush environments. When the angle does change, it is often an infuriating 180-degree shift, so that the joystick direction you were just using to move forward now moves you backward, making basic actions like walking through doors disorienting in the extreme. Devil May Cry veterans disappointed in the new protagonist will be happy to learn that Dante appears as a player character about halfway through the game, along with his arsenal of weapons. Once Dante appears, however, the player is inexplicably forced to play through the same levels he or she just completed as Nero, except in reverse order.

This kind of backward-looking regression sums up Devil May Cry 4‘s flaws. Working in a medium that is getting ever more sophisticated, Capcom has made a game that cloaks yesterday’s tired, game play in today’s fancy graphics and hopes no one notices. I, for one, will not stand for this kind of … hey! Check out the rack on that Dominatrix Ninja from Hell!

Driving reign


Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive (XBOX360, PS3)

GAMER Since its April 29 release, more than 6 million copies of Grand Theft Auto IV have been purchased. While Take-Two Interactive is still taking contractor bids on Scrooge McDuck–style cash swimming pools, the gaming press has worked itself into a frenzy, bestowing five-star reviews and expostuutf8g on how GTA IV will revolutionize gaming, culture, and possibly the world.

This hyperbole exemplifies gaming’s innate pathologies. Since their inception, video games have been portrayed as the puerile inferior to other entertainment media, and game designers, players, and critics have long coveted a seat at the table alongside the realist novel and the feature film. When a game as ambitious as GTA IV is released, advocates are quick to frame it as the "future of the medium," a kind of messianic product that will show those old-media Luddites what they’re missing.

GTA IV is not video Jesus. Still, by any reasonable standard, it’s an incredible game, taking the hallowed legacy of the previous GTA games, striving to be bigger and better, and mostly succeeding. At this late date, weeks after its debut, describing it as "only" the next Grand Theft Auto game can seem like very faint praise. Then again, criticizing the game using the metric of its hype is like getting a Benz for your 16th birthday and complaining that you didn’t get a Batmobile.

The GTA series is credited with inventing the "sandbox" game, which drops the player into a vast interactive world with little or no agenda. Complete the missions that drive the story forward — or don’t. Murder passersby until the police have to call in the National Guard — or don’t. Furnished with the power of today’s consoles, Rockstar Games has created a staggering sandbox, recreating New York City’s five boroughs (and a miniaturized New Jersey) in such loving, exhaustive detail that it’s hard to list all the coolness concisely. There’s a working subway system, multiple hours of fake, satirical television — one could go on forever.

In addition to the huge strides the game makes in environmental design and artificial intelligence, it also delivers the latest in interactive storytelling. You play Niko Bellic, a veteran of Balkan strife who disembarks in Liberty City hoping to escape his past and embrace the American lifestyle his previously arrived cousin Roman has touted as luxuriant and easy. Of course, it is not, and Niko is inexorably drawn into the criminal underworld he tried to leave behind.

While it doesn’t quite deliver the reinvention of the immigrant narrative parsed by some reviewers, the game provides an engrossing tale, full of three-dimensional characters (in both senses of the phrase), magnificent action sequences, and deft plot twists. The voice acting is superb and extensive; many conversations have alternate versions, expecting you to get killed and end up listening to them twice. The character animations — in a sense the game’s other kind of acting — convincingly capture the most esoteric gestures, down to the shudder of a crime boss as a line of Colombia’s finest explodes into his sinus.

The save system is still frustrating, and the prospect of replaying a long, violent confrontation after failing right at its end is often almost too much to bear. Despite GTA IV‘s unfettered gameplay, the missions are still very conventional and leave little room for creative problem-solving. Sure, there are a number of red pill–blue pill dilemmas. But in a game that allows you as much freedom as GTA, having to stick to the plan in each attempt becomes annoying. The new multiplayer mode provides a panoply of game types, ranging from traditional death-match and racing modes to cops-and-robbers high jinks that exploit what’s best about the game. Unfortunately the interface is confusing and finicky, and the online player-base seems to still be enmeshed in the game’s vast single-player story.

Grand Theft Auto IV is not without its faults. It may not establish video games as a serious medium. But if you want to have 300-odd hours of fun, there’s no better way to spend $60.

This is you driving on drugs


Endless Ocean: Dive, Discover, Dream

(Nintendo Wii)

GAMER I thought I was looking for some new, nonmayhem-oriented games, and someone recommended Endless Ocean. I read the box and said, "Hmmm. A game where you swim around and look at pretty fish. Yeah. I could do that."

Endless Ocean is a game about scuba diving: you play a young marine biologist tasked with helping to catalog the inhabitants of an imaginary coral reef. Your job is to explore the underwater landscape, to collect artifacts, and to observe as many new and different types of fish as you can, all while listening to a calming synthpop soundtrack. In other words, Endless Ocean is Valium on a disc — which has both good and bad implications.

First off, I’d really like to commend Arika for developing a game that obviously wasn’t destined to sell a gazillion copies. Although it involves the latest in a trilogy, it really brings something unique to the console game repertoire: the ability to delve into environments for their own sake, at your own pace. I stared captivated at the screen, late into the night, using my Wiimote to swim under coral and to follow fish, trying to get as close to the fish as I could in order to see the details of their bodies. Endless Ocean has one of the most user-friendly swimming controls of any game I’ve played. Usually swimming in a console game is an unholy pain. It’s still a bit awkward with Endless Ocean, but oddly enough, it lends realism to the game: steering yourself in an environment that is denser than normal with a giant tank on your back is awkward.

Endless Ocean‘s greatest failure is that it’s not realistic enough. I wished many times while playing the game that my Wii was a PS3 with a Wiimote so I could swim easily and have the detailed fish. I wanted to see their fins and scales. But the Wii just doesn’t support the high-resolution graphics that would allow this. They do a lot with what they have, but it isn’t enough.

Part of the game mechanic is that you gather information about the fish by "befriending them." In the language of videogames and toddlers, this means "poking them." The fish just keep swimming their scripted loops: they don’t care and they’re not real fish. I even used my underwater pen to tag the reef near one with an anarchy sign. Not even a dirty look.

Fish are not the astrophysicists of the animal kingdom. It can’t be hard to write fish artificial intelligence. They should at least swim off when you try to poke them. I feel that with an actionless game like this, the enjoyment needs to come either from being able to admire the environment like artwork or from being able to interact with it. The aim to create realism with all the detail that this implies is just unrealistic on the Wii, and the world’s responses to your overtures are dull rather than compelling.

Say Halo to my little friend


Halo 3

(Microsoft; Xbox 360)

GAMER I have a confession to make: I don’t like first-person shooters. Most of the ones I’ve played share the following objective: "Shoot the marines-aliens-terrorists-mutants and escape from the bunker–prison–top-secret facility–warehouse full of crates." I find this a bit boring. I therefore believe myself uniquely suited to hack my way through the dense jungle of Microsoft-sponsored hype with a flaming machete. Lest you discount the following as being biased, I’ve gotten my FPS-playing friend Glenn Song to cover me and augment my experience with his.

In the Bungie-developed Halo 3 you play a futuristic marine named Master Chief whose mission is to destroy worlds reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Why? These worlds are the key to setting a killer parasite loose on the universe. I’m down with anything that showcases killer parasites. Humanity is working against an alliance of religious-zealot aliens called the Covenant. Halo 3 avoids reducing the story to cliché by maintaining a linear plot but keeping narrative revelations relevant so that they don’t interrupt game play, and by allowing free play over small areas.

The graphics are stunningly good. Even the crates are well textured. The environments are amazingly lush and realistic. The soundtrack is very well done as well, although I think it sometimes borders on melodramatic.

Both Song and I had big problems with the user interface of the game. It took me several minutes just to figure out which buttons to click to start a single-player game, and it took even longer to figure out how to play a level cooperatively with another player. The menus are all nondescript and not really labeled intuitively.

Several times while playing, I felt like throwing the controller in disgust and making this review. Really. Short. That’s because I couldn’t target any of the small, fast-moving enemies. Almost all console shooters are like this, but most console games also have a feature that allows you to lock onto your target. Halo 3 does not. The levels sometimes seem rather lazily designed. The mission on the second level involves going from point A to point B and then back to point A again. It’s monotonous on one level, but subsequent levels also seem to have a lot of backtracking.

Multiplayer is where Halo 3 really shines. There are a variety of minigames along with the traditional body-count competitions, and the games are populated with 11-year-olds up way past their bedtimes. The variety of exotic weapons and complicated terrains makes for pure, exciting mayhem.

As soon as I signed into a game, some kid asked, "Hey, are you really a girl?" I would like to say I beat the snot out of the little whippersnapper, but the reality is that I got killed in the first 30 seconds. Then I got respawned and chased a guy named Tastyporkchop around with a gun that shoots needles.