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Reading is fundamental


Made Man

(Aspyr; PlayStation2, Windows)

A couple of weeks ago I was facing a stretch without the possibility of any money besides what I had in my pocket. I have experienced this before, and the way I have learned to deal with it is to stay in my apartment, sleep a lot, and eat very little, counting the days. At my age and with my diet of cigarettes and coffee, Internet porn will only go so far. So I have found that the best way to kill the hours when I am conscious has been to play video games. With my meager budget, I set aside what I needed to buy some games and hit the mall. I came home with two, neither of which was a new release, but they were cheap. One, Made Man, has a gun on the cover, so I bought it. The other shares its theme with one of my favorite movies of all time, Jaws. I settled into my apartment with a stock of food, water, and my new video games.

Made Man tells the story of a Vietnam vet who gets mixed up with the Mafia after his tour of duty. This could easily be an amazing game. The story could have been pretty good if its makers had put it together with some semblance of caring; without warning, you jump from the city to the jungle and back, and apparently you are trying to find some gold. Finding gold? This is stupid, right? But the game has slimy feds and two-faced friends stabbing you in the back — can’t miss there.

Early on, however, you realize that whoever made this game had either never played video games or heard there was a lot of money to be made and, like the guy in Field of Dreams, figured, "If we make it, they will buy." I can enjoy almost any game if I play it long enough. Throw in parts that take place in Vietnam, with an actual "The End" rip serving as the soundtrack, and you would be hard-pressed not to make me happy. I love Vietnam War games, shooting guns, and Mafia cutaway scenes. But holy lord, Made Man sucks. Every weapon you fire is so clunky and inaccurate, in terms of killing people, that it’s actually unfun. This was a first for me. Your enemies, however, shoot like gods. They never, never, never fucking miss. Their bullets also often defy physics. I hate this game. Even though I still had weeks to kill, I tossed it and took a nice 16-hour nap.

Jaws Unleashed (Majesco; PlayStation2, Xbox, Windows) would save me. How bad could it be? Even if it was awful, it’d be good for some laughs. You get to play as the shark. This had to be fun. And maybe there’s a Quint minigame. I love Quint.

Perhaps the copy I bought was pirated — hence cheap — because it didn’t work. No magic could make this game work. No matter how many times I blew on the disc, blew inside the PlayStation2 unit, inserted and reinserted the game, tap-tap-tapped — I still got that "No Disc" screen. I even tried winging the disc across the room, screaming, crying, and stomping on the console. No dice.

I was looking at an endless line of empty days spent staring at my walls. As a last resort I played God of War 2 (Sony; PlayStation2) on Titan mode, which is the hardest setting and possibly not actually meant to be played by humans. For anyone bothering to try this, when you get to the fight with Zeus at the end, you might as well just go ahead and kill yourself, because the shit can’t be done.

With 10 days of no money left, I gave up on PlayStation killing time for me. I gave up on porn, YouTube, everything. I even gave up on cigarettes. I read a book.

Myth mash


God of War II

(Sony Computer Entertainment; PlayStation 2)

GAMER The sequel to the best game of 2005 may not be the best game of 2007, but that’s only because Shadow of the Colossus ruined all games for all time by boiling adventuring nerdery down to an unheard-of, almost new-age minimalism. That game ruled. There is nothing minimal about God of War II: it’s actually gorier, with even more expansive cut scenes than before, seamless game play, and volcanic brutality.

Your guy, Kratos, decides to go after Zeus and along the way encounters such old pals as Gorgons, minotaurs, and Cyclopes, with some new creeps thrown in, such as a hammer-wielding berserker who is really fun to decapitate. You also meet up with — and kill — Perseus, free the Phoenix, and rip off Icarus’s wings. Practically every well-known myth is represented. They release the kraken, for crying out loud! Fun, fun, fun.

More of God of War II relies on instantaneous button sequences followed by merciless button mashing than its predecessor, which is OK if you’re part of this new generation of alien children born grappling PlayStation 2 controllers. But for the old, motor skill–deteriorated rest of us, it can be a living hell. Just lifting gates can be murder. You certainly get the feeling that the makers of the game had this in mind when they designed it. There was a lot of me muttering, "You dicks," at the TV. In fact, on the bonus making-of documentary that came with the first game, the main creator, David Jaffe, made a few comments about being bummed that some superhard levels had to be cut. This time around, the makers seem to have thrown every possible thing in there to make beating level bosses a nightmare, but somehow they don’t make the difficulty too much to bear. As tough as some of the levels were, I was never overwhelmed with frustration, a daily occurrence for me with God of War I. I said, "What the hell? I can’t beat this guy," a couple times, but then all of a sudden, the guy was dead, and I wasn’t even sure what I did.

If anything, the game is too short, with more puzzles than fighting, yet you don’t think of that while playing because you’re having too much fun. And admittedly, it’s not that easy. I did throw and break one of my controllers at one point. It’s just over kinda quick. The problem is, it’s so fun being Kratos, any ending is gonna be a letdown. There just isn’t another character in video games who kills with his ferocity — and variety of methods. The guy kills everybody. (Mike McGuirk)

Mi viva loca


Viva Pinata

(Microsoft; Xbox 360)

GAMER When I grabbed Viva Piñata at the store, I hoped the game would inspire my Xbox 360 to a greatness beyond its current status as a sleek, expensive bookend that plays DVDs. Viva Pinata’s premise might be described as Pokemon: Capitalist Edition — you are a pinata farmer in charge of creating a garden that will attract a multitude of brightly colored pinatas, which you will have to tend and breed in a totally G-rated way. You make money from selling the rarer, more valuable piñatas.

I’ll be honest: my interest in this game was piqued when someone told me you could whack the Whirm pinatas with a shovel and feed their candy viscera to the Sparrowmint pinatas. We need more of that sort of content in children’s games.

The game play is most reminiscent of SimCity: you must satisfy the requirements of your potential citizens to entice them to move in and stay. Once your population gets large, chaos ensues. You plow your garden, and once you have nice soil, a Whirm pinata moves in. These are soon followed by Sparrowmints. But why doesn’t my bird pinata eat my worm pinata? After about five tries, my Sparrowmint flew off toward my worm and ate it. This lack of responsiveness sadly plagues Viva Pinata. Actions fail and give you no indication why. At other times the game generates an ominous err-err noise and doesn’t indicate why it made the sound or refocus on the problem piñata. You have to search over your large garden of piñatas to find the one that was poisoned or got in a fight.

When your pinatas inevitably start fighting, you’ll find there’s no way to break them up except to whack or spray them. Your pinatas sicken if they lose a fight, get wet, or are smacked. If you don’t build fences, you’ll spend most of your time calling the doctor, yet building fences is nearly impossible. The analog control is terrible — it will fail to fence areas such as untilled land but won’t tell you why. Getting your pinatas behind the fence is another trial — there aren’t any gates, and the game doesn’t pause while you’re fencing. You have to herd them into the area you want to fence, and half the time they wander off while you’re building.

After about two days of playing this game, I got frustrated and sold it. The controls were awkward and unintuitive — reprehensible in an adult game but inexcusable in a kids’ one. The game play felt buggy and broken. Since this is the only real children’s title for Xbox 360, I can’t completely dis it. But your kids, being smarter and more patient than both you and me, will probably enjoy it a lot more than you will. (Kea Johnston)

Princess party


The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess

(Nintendo; GameCube, Wii)

GAMER Every Christmas as a child, I’d dream not about sugarplums but about Nintendo. I mentioned it to Santa at the mall, but alas, there was never one under the tree. So I made friends and used them for their consoles. Sadly, none of them were into The Legend of Zelda, so I did not grow up following the series like many of my generation. Twilight Princess is the first game I’ve played in the series — and for us Zelda initiates, it’s not a bad place to start.

You begin as an elf named Link who lives in a tree house in a quiet village in the land of Hyrule. The peace is destroyed when the children are kidnapped first by monkeys and then by something far more sinister.

Twilight Princess manages to engage the player pretty quickly. Link himself has the personality of a houseplant. But once you are drawn into the twilight world, which happens quickly, you meet your comrade: Midna, a creepily cute snaggletoothed imp. In the twilight world you become a wolf, and like an unruly child, Midna wants to ride on your back. Thankfully, he pulls his own weight with special attacks. The plot progression is well-timed so players feel like they are controlling the story without losing track of the final goal, to liberate Hyrule.

Hyrule is a fairly open world. You can roam much of a large map that opens up further over time. You can fish and hunt bugs, though there are really only two types of rewards for exploring and collecting: money and heart containers. The predictability and general meagerness of the rewards take the fun out of collecting and exploring, and interactions with the world itself are pretty much limited to throwing things. That’s not to say this isn’t rewarding in itself: once the tutorial was over, I started hurling pumpkins at nearby children. Oh yes, I was supposed to be helping the shopkeeper find her cat so she’d sell me a slingshot, which brings me to the thing that distinguishes this — and, I’ve heard, the Zelda series — from other role-playing games: the puzzles.

Most involve figuring out how to reach a goal by combining your limited tools with surrounding objects. Many battles require more thought than reflex: one sequence requires you to kill three demons — the caveat being that if one is left standing, it will resurrect its companions. Neither the puzzles nor battles are terribly difficult, but they are integrated perfectly.

Twilight Princess’s game play is well paced and very fun, and next to that, sound and graphics are pretty much just icing on the cake. I played the Wii version, and it’s no secret that its graphics aren’t as sharp or detailed as those on the PS3 or Xbox 360. However, stylistically the game is beautiful. The soundtrack is unobtrusive.

In short, Twilight Princess is the most fun I’ve had on the Wii so far. There has been a severe lack of fun puzzles in gaming since the adventure game genre died out about a decade ago. Zelda fills this void with brainteasers that are challenging but not hard. (Kea Johnston)

His world or yours?


Scarface: The World Is Yours

(Vivendi Universal; Windows XP, PlayStation 2, Xbox, Sony PSP)

GAMER One nice thing about Scarface: The World Is Yours is that although it is a first-person shooter–adventure game, there is no sewer level. It doesn’t matter what the story line is: at some point, dude is going into a sewer and tromping through ankle-deep water with rats skittering around.

Scarface doesn’t bother with that. It’s more interested in having you sell cocaine and brutally murder people, like a good game should do. You peddle so much coke that it’s really astonishing the game hasn’t offended nutty Christian groups. Maybe the makers were able to get around objections because your character, Cuban drug lord and world-class cusser Tony Montana, never kills innocent people. If you point your gun at a civilian, you find yourself saying, "Not in my game plan, bro," or the best one, "I kill one and I go straight to hell." In each case, the gun will not fire.

The game is still unspeakably violent. The story picks up right before the part in the movie Scarface when Ángel Salazar’s killer sneaks up behind Montana and airs him out. Instead of this happening, however, you direct Montana through an epic bloodbath in order to survive, so he can regain his spot at the top. Along the way, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s formula is perfected, the makers take character interaction to a new level, and you end up playing a game that could go on forever.

The scope and game play are very much like those of GTA: San Andreas, but everything’s been streamlined. Montana doesn’t have to fucking work out, eat, and shit, and there is no repetitive dating scheme. Instead, you just sell coke and kill, drive around really fast, spend millions of dollars on useless items, and pick up women.

Interacting with the peripheral people is really fun too. Montana has some standard dialogue, but once in a while an actual unique conversation will occur. When talking to pretty women, he says predictable things, but when he pulls similar pickup moves on elderly women (who give "are you nuts?"–type responses), it’s really funny. He orders his lackeys around like Don Rickles on an f-bomb rampage. When he steals a car, he utters any number of one-liners, from "Um, this is Miami undercover police — I need your car" to "You can keep the puta — I just want the car." And on top of being hilarious, the character is almost perfectly voiced by a guy named Andre Sogliuzzo, reportedly handpicked by Al Pacino for the job. James Woods, Elliot Gould, and many other actors appear.

You have the option to play as three characters other than Montana: the driver, the enforcer, and the assassin. You steal cars, bust heads, or eliminate government officials for big paydays. These missions are inexhaustible. So are Tony’s drug dealing and delivery missions, all of which are chosen from a menu. It’s nuts. This means you are free to select what to do and when you want to do it, but more important, it means there is no real end to the game ever. Even after the extensive story line is completed, there are an endless number of rival gangs for you to tangle with. Once you have defeated all the big bad guys, you sell coke and collect money. It’s like a locked groove.

Sometimes these movie-themed games are really crappy rush jobs. But it is obvious from the very start that the folks behind Scarface not only love the movie — an important factor — but also were interested in making what is potentially the best game of the past year. (Mike McGuirk)

Left Behind: Eternal Forces


GAMER It’s no secret. We’re in the end times, and at the clarion’s call when all of God’s children are raptured into heaven, we’ll be left to deal with the Antichrist — who, by the way, has a job at the United Nations and is working like the devil to see that people get college educations to further support the dark lord and his satanic machinations (which, of course, include sexual equality). Hail, Satan!

Unfortunately, in the recently released Left Behind: Eternal Forces — based on the best-selling series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, in which a handful of heroes is left to save humanity after the rapture — you only get to play as the "good guys," the Tribulation Force, whose mission is to foil the nefarious Global Community peacekeeper forces. Actually, you can play for Satan, but first you’ll need to convince a couple of your friends to load this crappy game onto their computers to play with you. Go ahead. Ask them. See what they say once you explain what the game is about. Unless they are 70-year-old evangelists or the parents of babbling blond, banal gospel or country music stars, your friends will laugh at you. I’m no expert, but I think former UN ambassador John Bolton might like this game’s premise.

As for me, I found it childish and ridiculous. And as a video game, it was like playing Pong in a dark swamp. In the time it took me to maneuver my character up the street in order to convert a couple people for "Trib force," I could have easily hijacked a truck or a BMX bike, robbed a police station, and beaten a shopkeeper senseless — all while dressed as Dennis Rodman — while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The point the developers of this game are trying to make is that immoral video games like GTA and other shoot-’em-ups, such as SOCOM and Halo, offer no positive messages. That said, I’m not quite sure what moral messages there are in this game. It was so hard to play that I never really got a good feel for the potential it might have. At certain points of the game, secret clues appear, except they’re not actually clues but scriptural passages about the end times or some half-assed tirade calling evolution a satanic plot. Whenever your character is activated, he or she will say "Praise the Lord" or "Laying straight paths" before going off to save humanity. When the players run low on spiritual energy, their comments are more like "What now?" or "I could really use a sandwich."

Inside the package was a short video by its makers and the authors of the book series the game is based on. There’s also commentary from other influential evangelical leaders, including Dr. Jack Hayford, the president of the Foursquare Church, who comments that this game is "every bit as much fun as kids perceive other stuff."

Really? Whose kids?

When I was a kid, my evangelical grandparents gave me music they hoped would counter my newfound love of heavy metal. But Stryper and metal missionaries Bloodgood can’t touch Iron Maiden and Metallica, and if parents think their kids will find this game more fun than others on the market, they really should get out more often. Given the choice of playing as a Navy SEAL (as in SOCOM) or some sweater-vested geek trying to convert New York City, I would much rather be the former.

In the promotional video, a gamer named Grant says the game is so unique he "just can’t stop playing it. My eyes are getting so tired, ’cause I’m having so much fun that I might fall asleep on my computer."

Here’s a suggestion if you want to keep Grant from falling asleep and drooling in his keyboard: you have to make it easier to play. I had to keep rebooting my computer in order to get the game to move at all. When I finally did get to play, my character was killed by an evil, college-educated, rock music gang — which poisoned me. That’s right. Gangs in New York have college educations and spend their time poisoning people. I know the developers are trying to keep the level of violence down, but the soldiers get to shoot each other. Are they trying to teach their children that gangs don’t use guns? Has there been an upsurge in gang-related poisonings lately?

I found trying to convert people (which is the main point of the game) to be a soul-crushingly boring waste of time. There is no way teens will flock to this game (unless they feel an obligation to play the gift grandma got them so nobody’s feelings get hurt).

If you see this title at your local store, do not buy it, even if you think it’s funny. I promise you it is not. It must be left behind. (James Woodard)

Heeding the call


Call of Duty 3
(Activision; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii)

Kids! You might be able to convince your parents to buy this game for you based on its historical content. It is virtually impossible to play without learning a bit about World War II. That’s a nice side effect.
The latest incarnation of the popular Call of Duty first-person shooter series takes place in 1944 at the Normandy Breakout. American forces have already landed in France and are about to liberate Paris from the Nazis. The game does a great job of giving a bigger picture of the war than is often presented. Fourteen missions cover 88 days, culminating in the liberation of Paris. You play alongside platoons from Britain, Canada, and Poland. It’s neat to hear a variety of languages while shooting brains out.
The graphics are nothing short of stunning. The smoke, trees, grass, and buildings are simply incredible. To get the full effect, you have to play on a high-definition TV, but even on a stone age set, the game is beautiful.
Although the game play is fairly straightforward, an array of modes and challenges keep things interesting. Fans of the series will have no problem jumping right into the action, and newcomers will be brought up to speed via a training mission at the start. The aiming system takes some getting used to and provides two options. The right trigger allows you to shoot from the hip. It’s not too accurate, but it’s quick. Pulling the left trigger brings the sights up to eye level and enables you to take precise shots. The trade-off is that while you’re aiming, enemies have a clear shot at you. The game takes advantage of all the buttons on the controller, including the analog sticks. Pressing the right analog stick initiates a melee, while pressing the left brings up your binoculars. Those will pop up when you least expect them — as you’re frantically manipuutf8g the stick to make an escape. It’s a flaw in the control scheme. Or maybe it’s a perfect simulation of how messed up combat situations can become.
Speaking of simulations, the game includes a challenge that has players trying to get through a level while being hit by fewer than 30 bullets. Who takes 30 bullets and calls that a success? The game would probably take weeks of nonstop play to complete if you weren’t permitted to absorb a few slugs. Other challenges ask you to complete missions for assorted countries, work as a medic, drive a jeep, drive a tank, and arm explosives. The range of challenges and three difficulty levels make for a long shelf live.
The greatest aspect of Call of Duty 3 is the multiplayer game. A four-player split screen enables buddies to get rowdy at home, but the online universe is where things really get nuts. Xbox Live allows for as many as 24 players, four per Xbox, to play at once as warriors or medics, with the latter deciding whom to help and whom to ignore. Online stats are tracked, and players build their rank. The online play chain of command is determined by rank — pretty cool.
The sounds are as beautiful as the sights. A surround sound system is recommended, because it’s insane hearing bullets whizzing by from behind. Star Trek composer Joel Goldsmith’s orchestral score makes one wish everyday life were accompanied by one.
All in all, Call of Duty 3 is one hell of a game. For the full experience, buy a $4,000 HDTV and get on Xbox Live.

Army of glum



ANY GIVEN FIVE minutes of Battlefield 2 (Electronic Arts) play can resemble the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. You’re riding in an amphibious tank with your squad across enemy waters. Rumbles from explosions start getting louder and closer. Stray bullets hit the tank’s armor and the water outside. Suddenly you’re on land, the tank stops, and your squad leader yells, "Move!" over your headset. You jump out into utter chaos, bullets flying everywhere, your teammates falling around you. You run for cover as a stray grenade explosion blurs your vision and rings in your ears. With a giant whoosh, a support bomber passes overhead and takes out some enemy tanks. You blitz the checkpoint, trying to pick off remaining defenders and hoping you didn’t miss anyone in the huts that you’re sprinting past.

One of the most realistic war-themed action games ever made, rivaled only by its predecessors, Battlefield 1942 (EA) and Battlefield Vietnam (EA), BF2 is rightfully one of the most popular action games in the country today. It seamlessly integrates land, sea, and air vehicles into lush, photo-realistic maps where trees shake from the force of chopper propellers and snipers hide in swaying blades of grass. And the game play is just as slick as the graphics, allowing you to coordinate complicated team strategies through a simple command system and speak with your squad mates if you have a mic with your computer. The most dynamic part of the game stresses teamwork. Because of its massive strategic depth, if you want to accomplish anything other than annoying people online, you’ll have to work with your team to capture checkpoints and win matches – a feat never quite achieved on this level by other games.

This is the game I dreamed of when I was a kid playing Rogue Spear and Counter-Strike, diet versions of this action-packed feast. But that was before the current ridiculous war and all the oh-my-god footage coming back on television and in films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Gunner Palace. As the previous games in the series did with WWII and Vietnam, BF2 trivializes the trauma of our current war in Iraq – and a possible future war with China – by making it into entertainment.

The game claims to sidestep politics by presenting a fictional conflict between a hypothetical Middle East Coalition (MEC), China, and the US Marines. The MEC and China switch off battling an invasive United States for strategic checkpoints that your team must camp at for a certain amount of time to gain control of. From the opening cutscene that plays like an action movie with all its destruction-glorifying grandeur, it’s clear that only a nation-player with the will to achieve total military dominance over other countries – and a complete ignorance of the ramifications for the people in those conquered countries – could take pleasure in acting out these scenarios. I’m glad most gamers playing BF2 probably don’t have firsthand experience with military oppression, but games such as this present a disconnect between reality and fantasy that contributes to the acceptance of US military actions.

After 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s safe to say that we’ve ceased to live in a bubble. Yet, although BF2 is just a game, its release at a time when 30 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq are reporting mental health issues stemming from the horrors they’ve witnessed, is a sign that our entertainment-industrial complex has shirked its responsibility by uncritically celebrating a very complicated issue, however inadvertently.

The problem is that the premise for war games acts as its own excuse. Nina Huntemann, director of the 2000 film Game Over: Gender, Race and Violence in Video Games, describes how some military games rely on the narrative of neutralizing a terrorist threat without questioning what makes someone a "terrorist" or why we should "neutralize" them. Though BF2 includes little narrative, the idea that there could possibly be a military conflict between the Middle East, China, and the United States is so obvious and predetermined that none of these types of questions even come to mind.

I don’t fault Digital Illusions, BF2’s developer: It’s difficult to sell sensitivity, but it’s easy to sell explosions. I blame a general immersion in entertainment that is predicated on the lie that fantasy is divorced from reality. The fantasy that we are removed from the war in Iraq is one of the things that allows the reality of it to continue.

Video games haven’t just become more like war – war has become like video games. I’ll never forget the moment in Fahrenheit 9/11 when a kid talks about how he listens to the Bloodhound Gang while he sits in his tank and shoots at people. That sounds a lot like what you do in BF2. The war in Iraq is at least partly being fought by kids whose first ideas of war were shaped by video game simulations before they experienced the reality. Like the tactics of dehumanizing the enemy to ease the ethical hang-ups involved in killing them, this extra layer of detachment enables kids to reconcile participating in potentially traumatic events.

Even the US Army actively tries to sell war as a video game. Recently I’ve caught Army recruitment commercials of guys working at computers and coordinating attacks from the comfort of a tent, perpetuating the idea that war can be fought on a flat screen without real-world messiness. Naturally, BF2’s commander screen, on which you can zoom in on different parts of the map and order squad movements or artillery strikes, looks a lot like the graphics flying around an Army commercial.

The Army also invested more than $6 million in a g ame called America’s Army, which it released for free over the Internet in August 2002, less than a year after 9/11 and seven months before war was declared on Iraq. Possibly one of the most sinister forms of propaganda to fly under the media’s radar, America’s Army essentially indoctrinates players into military life through a graphically advanced action game. Openly billed as a recrui tment tool, the game has players make their way through virtual boot camp and then move on to military operations.

Of course, games have always revolved around war and violence, from dodgeball to capture the flag. War is about strategy, problem-solving, and competition, just like most video games. Its popularity as a theme for video games is no surprise, just as it’s no surprise the Army wants to tap into that recruiting pool. These games aren’t desensitizing kids to real violence or instilling them with a lust for it. But the games’ latent values feed an unquestioning acceptance of the United States’ current militarism and normalize it for future generations. I don’t know if we – or the world – can afford another detached generation. Until we find a way to give kids, and, for that matter, adults, a real context for the fantasies provided by the entertainment industry, the enabling disconnect will continue.