World of Apex

Friday, November 25, 2005

It even includes the Batmobile

Yes, I know I'm late getting this review out, but it's been a really irritating day. Actually it was a great day until about two hours ago, and then it went to hell. I had the entire day off to myself, and did nothing but play Gotham and Condemned, trying to increase my Gamer Score by getting Achievements in the games. Today I had managed to rack up my score to a grand total of 900 points, with some cool things including owning every Ferarri and Lamborghini in Gotham, and beating one ending of Condemned (there are more endings!).

Now, note the wording: I HAD managed. I say that because everything I did today is now gone. Wiped out, done for, nada, erased. Why, oh why? I signed up for Xbox Live, that's why. I went through an hour of annoying signup procedure to get my free month of Gold level membership (I'm "Apex001" by the way), had to fight the age verification and go through basically a second signup to put in my dad's information, only to have it overwrite my offline account and all of its stats.


So anyway, I guess I'll have to go through Condemned again to catch the other ending(s), and win all of the tourneys in Gotham a second time through with different cars or something. Oh well, all is not lost. I should hopefully get Perfect Dark Zero soon.

Enough rant, on to the review!

Project Gotham Racing 3

By now you must be wondering where exactly the title of this post comes into play. Well, first of all, this game is one of those few times in history where a game meets the buzz head on, and then some. Gotham is a fantastic racing game that's neither extremely realistic nor extremely arcadey. While not boasting an excessive amount of licensed cars in it, the ones there are more than enough to suit your wants and needs. If you want more than Ferarri, Lamborghini, Maserati and quite a few other international supercar makers, then I can't help you. The title refers to a Panoz racecar in the game, where the description panel says, paraphrased, this car's nickname is "the Batmobile".

The main selling point of PGR3 is of course the graphics, which needless to say if you have seen any screenshots or trailers of it, are stupendous for a launch title. While no titles will be utilizing the full three cores of the system's main CPU until Gears of War comes out in February, Gotham does a fine job of showing what even one core can do. The models have polycounts with more figures than a CEO's salary, a fantastic motion blur effect is in there, and full use of the HDR lighting technology is there too. All you have to do is take a stroll through your garage and gander at your ride to be amazed by the visual quality. As if the cars weren't enough detail to make your head spin, the tracks are absolutely gorgeous as well, especially my personal favorite Nurburgring. Of all the launch titles, Gotham is the real visual showcase, and it does really need to be seen to believed.

One of the areas I think the game excels in is the controls and mechanics of the racing itself. While not strictly a simulation, but far too realistic to be an arcade racer, Gotham finds a happy medium between the two, and delivers a solid racing experience for everyone. While the physics will keep most realism addicts at bay, you can show off a bit as well with flashy drifts and spins. In fact a main focal point to the solo career mode is getting Kudos points, which you gather by showing off your skills in getting the car sideways, among other things. Speaking of modes, both the online and solo career modes feature a miriad of different race types. You'll encounter standard street racing, elimination and time trials, but also style races such as drift challenges and cone gate. In general the style races tend to be short and involve alot of finesse work on the track, whereas the normal timed and street modes are flat out racing against something, be it the clock or an opponent. The controls are comfortable, and the change from the traditional face button gas and brake to the more precise pressure-sensitive triggers is a welcome one. A really interesting feature is the ability to look around your car, or the interior cockpit if you drive in-car like I do, by using the right stick. What really makes that useful is inside the car, where you can glance at side mirrors (assuming you haven't messed them up by hitting things) or your rearview mirror to get a look at your competition. You can also use this to explore the finely detailed interior, including functional gauges, which also illuminate during night races.

The one feature I haven't had the chance to try out yet, since I've been battling with the Live signup procedure, is GothamTV. By the sounds of it, this mode will allow you, via Live, to watch other racers go at it remotely, just like you would watch a race on the telly. You get two options on the menu, view a friend or the world's best (which if you get featured on gives you a hefty Gamer Point bonus Achievement). Other than that, I'll give you an update when I do try it out.

A thing that always irritated me about many racing games in past was poor engine sounds. I really hate it when a classic muscle car sounds like a whiney import, or when it seems most of the cars sound the same. Luckily for me, and probably alot of people like me, Gotham's sound design is great. Every engine sound in the game was custom recorded from the real car, or so Microsoft says. I'd be willing to believe that, as I have yet to hear two different cars with the same sound to them. The variety and accuracy of the engine sounds really helps add to that simulation feeling, even if the gameplay is a bit more forgiving than a true sim. The rest of the sound is great too, from tire screeches to bumps, scrapes, and slams. I can't say much for the soundtrack though, because I muted the music right off the bat and played my own MP3's from my SD card instead.

Other notable features include a nice but not outstanding splitscreen multiplayer (though you can add computer bots to the race, which is cool), and an online career mode in which you compete with others around the world for top-10 ranking spots. I probably won't be frequenting that very often, I'm definitely not among the world's best.

Graphics: 10/10 - For a launch title, PGR3 is jaw dropping.
Gameplay: 8/10 - Good blend of real and arcade, nice controls, but not much variety.
Sound: 9/10 - Great engine sounds, overall on-track effects are good.
Replay/Multiplayer: 8/10 - Definitely a popular Live game, not much replay on solo though.

Overall: 9/10 - This is both a damn good racing game and an excellent launch title. Buy! Now!

note: This was written late at night and may contain bad grammar and/or spelling errors. Get over it, I'm human too.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

I hate nay-sayers

"Widespread reports of overheating."

" getting your 360: $400
xboxlive for 12 months:$69.99
finding out bill gates just screwed you: priceless

"told ya ms sucks lol oh yeah ps3 gonna kill em on this lol i cant wait to se this i hate microsoft but i still gone use windows lol good lock lol"

I have two things to say about the link and quotes listed above:

1) You people are idiots.
2) You people have no idea what you're talking about.

This little panic goes to show exactly how idiotic people in general are, and how quickly the fanboys of the opposing side are to jump on the smallest piece of bad news and inflate it to incredible size. Yes the console spews heat, it's an immensely powerful box. If these people had a brain in their skull they wouldn't have crammed the console into a tiny entertainment center where the heat can't escape. One of the first things I did as an XBOX 360 owner was clear off my coffee table of anything behind the system to ensure it wouldn't overheat.

As for the moronic quotes, if the language and lack of grammar there don't tell you how stupid Sony fanboys are, the fact they've pounced on a single sliver of possibility that the system may have a flaw should. Stupid owners do not mean the hardware is bad. You people should be beaten within an inch of your life for assuming something blindly to put down a system you don't like.

Rant over, expect my Project Gotham 3 review tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Criminally Original

As the third part of my week-long Xbox 360 reviewfest, I present you Condemned: Criminal Origins. Monolith's horror/thriller/first person shooter/first person melee action title is chock full of violence so sickening it's like a train wreck; it's hideous but you just can't stop watching (or in this case, playing).

Condemned: Criminal Origins

When I went to Electronics Boutique last Friday to pick up a few games before launch day, Condemned was actually not even on the list. While I had heard alot about it and seen some screenshots that really didn't reveal anything of the game's style (except it involved not-so-modest amounts of gore), my top three were Gotham, Madden (for my dad) and Perfect Dark Zero. Unfortunately EB was at the time sold out of PD:Zero, so I decided to pick up this somewhat interesting sounding game made by the great Monolith (of recent FEAR fame, a game that tops my list of all time FPS's). It's a good thing I did, because I've spent a ton of time on it the last two days.

Personal story of near-tragedy aside, Condemned is as much an experience as a game, just like Monolith's other blockbuster. The sense of first-person immersion in the world is incredible, as everything you do - from climbing ladders to headbutting a dazed opponent - is done from the eyes of your character Ethan Thomas. Remember that, because it will be mentioned again later.

The first thing you'll notice when you load up Condemned is it forces widescreen display, no matter what the aspect ratio of your TV or system is set to. This annoys me a bit as I have a 4:3 ratio HDTV that's a few years old (though it still runs 1080i very well), so I have the dreaded black bars bounding the top and bottom. I've grown used to this a bit, since just as in FEAR the cutscenes are all realtime game footage, so the widescreen play makes it feel a bit like an interactive horror movie. Keeping on the subject of visuals, the realtime cutscenes are excellent because this game is simply beautiful, in a real-world, gritty way. Running on the same graphics engine as FEAR with optimizations and additions for the new platform, you'll be able to see every detail on every object. You can read fine print on signs and other wall-plastered text, which is a testament to how high-resolution the textures are. The models are clean, lifelike, and well animated, bringing everyone to life in a whole new level ranging from your not-so-athletic sidekick Rosa to the psychopathic enemies trying to separate your head from your shoulders. The gritty realism is not for the feint of heart though, as liberal amounts of gore along with some gruesome violence (explained later) are both constant companions throughout the game.

I mentioned in the hardware review that the controllers are great, and this game will make you thankful they are. The smartly laid out controls (though fully customizable as well) are pretty easy to learn, letting you go through a short story segment-plus-tutorial in a flash and hop into some action within about ten minutes of starting the game. You'll need to tweak stick sensitivity though, it's pretty steep at first. Other than a couple of nuances (I always slip and hit the left bumper instead of trigger) the controls are good.

Along with the controls of course comes the heart of the game, the combat. Most of the time you'll be toting around one of who knows how many makeshift melee weapons you can find in any given level. There are three kinds of weapons. Debris weapons, are extremely common and range from nail-filled boards to locker doors, pipes, and more. These all have their advantages and disadvantages in range, speed, blocking power and attack power, and you can compare them with a small display in the top right corner when you go to pick one up. The second type are Entry weapons, which, as the name implies, are normally used for tasks including popping locks, chopping down doors or levering open gates. You won't find as many entry weapons though, and they only come in four flavors (sledgehammer, crowbar, shovel and fire axe). Normally you'll have to hunt down an Entry weapon to get something done in a level or advance, and often you may overlook the weapon sitting right under your nose*. The third, rarest and probably most interesting are of course Firearms. You won't come across many guns laying about, and there's no extra ammo in the dingy city underworld, so neither the manual nor I can stress how crucial saving ammo is. You're better off stealing a gun from a dead or stunned enemy than tracking one down, though chances are you won't get a full magazine. Aside from your preferred method of pummeling or puncturing, you have a Tazer (set to stun of course) and a kick attack, both of which you'll find very entertaining and useful in the thick of combat. Stunning an enemy with the Tazer will keep a gun-weilding foe from blasting you with his peice, while also allowing you to swipe it from him and give him his own medicine. When no one's taking potshots at you, you'll get a crash course in blocking effectively, because if you don't you're going to die faster than an American Idol winner's career.

Between fencing psychos with pipes or giving them some voltage, you'll gather clues to aid in completing the twisting, turning and very movie-worthy storyline. Though this feature is a bit linear in its use, it's rather fun and often gives you a break from the fray to catch your breath and use a medkit. Some of the effects are rather cool too, like the blacklight to find blood stains. Back to the storyline, it starts rather slow but picks up quickly and veers from generic to extremely interesting and strange as you go. It will both confuse you and suck you in, but for better or worse, it's definitely a good thriller plot.

I almost forgot to mention the astounding sound design in this game. You'll find yourself listening intently to any and all sounds around you in every room throughout the game. Not only can you hear the shuffle of feet, grunts and sounds of things being knocked around, but you can also hear even the subtle hoarse rasping of their breath. You can hear scuffles between enemies long before you see them, which gives you plenty of time (usually anyway) to plan your strategy. This game's incredible, consuming atmosphere is completed by the great sounds that do alot more than go bump in the night.

Underneath all of that combat there are two things at work you may not notice right away. One is the improved Havok 3.0 physics engine, which you'll quickly take notice of if someone pegs you in the face with something, or throws a chair down a stairwell at you. The ragdolls are as close to perfect as you can get, and though occasionally a strange sliding ragdoll bug occurs, it is not common. The other under appreciated layer of detail is the excellent AI system for the enemies. Built off of the same AI that had you thinking you were fighting humans and not bots in FEAR, the system has had nothing but improvements since its debut. The enemies are mostly crazed berserkers, and therefore they are very unpredictable. I love the AI and it's damn scary at times.

All in all, the game has a great atmosphere that sucks you in and immerses you in an insane horror world where paranoia runs as rampant as the psychotic enemies that stalk you. The unique evidence finding system, while linear in use, is still something different and fun to use. The combat is solid, simple, yet tough to master, and not made any easier by the intelligent-yet-unpredictable AI. Last but not least, the graphics are excellent, gritty, and not for those who become queasy.

Graphics: 9/10 - Excellent, but a bit *too* gruesome for many.
Presentation: 9/10 - Only available in widescreen, but otherwise it's great.
Sound: 10/10 - Did I just hear something in the other room?
Replay: 8/10 - Though it's a bit short, there are lots of unlockables and XBOX 360 Achievements to get.

Overall (not an average): 9/10 - Gritty, gruesome, and gorgeous.

Stick around for my third review tomorrow, the highly touted and anticipated Project Gotham Racing 3. Or you can not bother reading it and plan on buying it, because you probably know it's good already.

In other news, NBA 2K6 and Perfect Dark Zero should be arriving in the mail sometime around Monday, so if these three reviews go over well you can expect reviews of those two as well.

Improving by removing

As part two of my long-winded review of the Xbox 360, I'll be going over each of the three titles I got at launch for the system over the next three days: Project Gotham Racing 3, Condemned: Criminal Origins, and Madden 2006. I decided to start with the worst, so if you don't want to hear another word about American football or EA's monopoly, stop reading and wait for tomorrow. Otherwise, here's my review of Madden NFL 2006 for the Xbox 360...

Madden 2006

There aren't many times in the gaming world where taking features out of a game makes it better, but somehow with the excessively bloated and useless features in Madden this makes perfect sense. Far from the enormous heap of gimmick that the other consoles have, Madden on the 360 is relatively spry. Gone are the idiotic radio show, pointless mini-camps and lame Madden/Summeral commentary (though that could have stayed for comedic value...BOOM!), and the game proper has been reduced to quick play and franchise modes only. However in the process of removing every possible feature to rush the release, they did take out things that would be rather nice. All customization and individualism has been removed aside from soundtrack playlists, and that includes Create-A-Player and Team. You also can't challenge calls anymore, nor can you play cooperatively with more than one player per team. The former isn't too bad, but the latter is a killer for someone who is surrounded by football fans like myself, who gets dragged into playing often. Now all I can do is watch really, but it just so happens that isn't a terrible thing.

If there's anywhere Madden excels on the new console it's the completely scratch-made graphics engine. For the first time...well, since the PS2 was launched...EA actually made improvements to the game's graphics. Now you really can't say the graphics suck, because they're very well done, even for EA, great provayor of craptacular graphics (don't try to argue EA fanboys, the graphics on every EA game up to now have been outdone by Sega and Take-Two. In fact if you compare the 360's sports games they're outdone as well. NBA 2K6 makes EA's NBA Live look like last generation's). The polycounts are high, the shaders and reflections are shiny and reflective as ever, and best of all, I think, are the persistent uniforms. Thoughout the game, players' uniforms will be stained, helmets will be scratched, and sometimes turf will be lodged in your facemask. On top of that the players' faces are modelled in almost mugshot-perfect ugliness, down to Michael Strahan's tooth gap. However, with all the graphical neatness there are some irritating animation problems to offset it. While many, maybe even most of the animations in the game are by themselves pretty smooth and accurate, they often don't string together well and you constantly see teleporting players, or a magically rotating ball fitting into a reciever's hands. The biggest problem I have with the animations is that none of the players' individual personality is shown by the facial animations. Every player in the game is apparently chronically depressed, bipolar and has lockjaw, unless of course they're chewing cud (read: talking to each other). Excessively happy players like Hines Ward just don't seem right without the personality that make them revered on the field. Oh yeah, and Polamalu doesn't have the dreads! Damn you EA, give Troy the dreads!

I really shouldn't spend much time talking about the gameplay, because unfortunately, aside from the removal of useless garbage, the gameplay hasn't changed much from the last generation. Though EA had the presence to take out mini-camps, they left in crap like the "Hit Stick" (read: Gimmick Stick) and the offensive equivalent with almost the same name. Though the controls are responsive, the mediocre physics are still there, allowing you to turn on a dime and defy the laws of motion. For all those who bitched about the "QB Vision" feature, it's still there, but by the looks of it you won't need it anyway. In the two games I've played on Pro difficulty I've been 24 of 26 for 384 yards and no interceptions, while never using the vision thing one time. Even on higher difficulties the AI isn't very good, though their quarterback seems to hold his own no matter if the rest of the team sucks.

Madden doesn't kick off the next generation, it more or less stumbles into it with a limp. The game was obviously rushed into circulation, but despite that is still a relatively fun football experience for fans of the sport. While trimming the excess feature fat was a good idea, taking out some of the more useful parts of the game in the process wasn't.

Graphics: 9/10 - They're solid, with all kinds of this-generation goodness.
Presentation: 8/10 - Clean, easy menus that aren't that bad looking.
Sound: 6/10 - Nice sound effects on the field, but the mediocre soundtrack and lack of commentary hurt it.
Quality/Replay Value: 5/10 - It's just another sports game, all your replay encompasses is 30 years of franchise mode. No custom teams or players to play with either.

Overall (Not an average): 6/10 - The good sound effects and visuals save it from a very, very bad rating.

That's all for today kids, tune in tomorrow for Apex's review of Condemned: Criminal Origins, with Project Gotham 3 on Friday!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

And so it begins...

The next generation of console gaming. Supposedly the generation where playing games on consoles is actually considered "gaming", rather than a bunch of unruly teenagers rampaging about mindless titles. This is finally the generation when a console's hardware can actually rival (or in this case, surpass) a PC's hardware for a fraction of the price. But the question it really worth it?

The first thing I'll say is anyone that says the XBox 360 doesn't live up to "the hype" is a total assclown. The second thing I'll say is anyone that whines about it being "too expensive" is also a total assclown. "The hype" is Sony feeding the public (read: mindless sheep) fake, pre-rendered trailers and speculation to how their system will "outperform" the rest. "Too expensive" means you know nothing about the hardware, its capabilities, or how much an equivalent PC would cost. No one is forcing you to buy the damn thing, so stop complaining about the price, which is more than a good deal.

Rant aside, I have too many good things to say about this system to cover in one post, unless it were to span the geometric surface area of the planet Earth. With so much to cover and such a long break ahead of me, I'll be breaking down each part of the review into separate posts. I'll start right now with the system itself, the controllers, and the interface, then move onto the really flashy, gamey stuff down the line.

The Hardware

The first thing I noticed while lugging the fairly weighty package from my local store this morning was it's not a flimsy system. Though not nearly as imposing as its predecessor, the 360 is still a well built, chunky system that you need not worry about failing on a daily basis. When I finally wrestled it out of the packaging, I was pleasantly surprised how sleek the system was. Being both a stark white color and having a nicely curvy design, the case itself is certainly a fine centerpiece for any coffee table. My one gripe here is the elegant design of the system is put off a bit by the *massive* power supply. Understandibly, the powerful tri-core CPU and custom graphics processor require a lot of power, but it really is enormous.

That aside, the rest is all good news. The ports are all nicely placed, including the two USB2.0 ports hidden by the faceplate to the right. While the system *looks* beautiful on the outside, it does make quite a bit of noise while it's working. Granted you'll probably be soaking in a game, drowning out the hum of the system proper, it's quite noticable in a quiet room.

The so-called "Circle of Light" is both pleasing to the eye and useful, showing how many controllers are plugged in, and to which ports. This is especially useful with wireless controllers, as the LED on both the system and controller match to which port it's assigned to. Rumors say the light may possibly find a use in other ways during games, but I doubt it. It's just fine the way it is.

While on the subject of controllers, I can't say enough about how great the 360's controllers are. Slightly larger than the original S-Type design, but greatly smaller than the original clunkers, the form and layout is a perfect blend. It fits comfortably in your mits for the most part, the only real hassle being the rare instance you'll need to use the trigger and shoulder button at the same time. The controllers are tough, heavy-gauge plastic made to take all the tosses and drops you can dish out. The handy "Live" button (as I like to call it. It's the big 360 logo in the middle) is a great addition, as is the Dashboard, discussed later. Setting up the wireless controllers was a snap: the process involved holding one button for about one second, then tapping a tiny connect button on top, followed shortly by a notification the connection was established. Tough, comfy, easy to use; all of those perfectly sum up the new controllers.

Once you fire up the system and make your way through the standard setup procedure, you'll be met with an interesting main screen. You'll notice four tabs there, each a section of your 360's features: Xbox Live, Games, Music and Media, and System Utilities. The menus are clean, concise, and easy as cake to navigate. Even better than that is the Dashboard menu, which can be accessed by hitting the Live button. This excellent feature allows you to sign on gamer tags on a per-controller basis, edit your profile, and even play music in the background all through a quick-access menu. If you're playing online you can check your Friends list and Messages as well. This is one of my favorite features in the entire package.

That's about it for the hardware and interface. If I missed anything you'd like details about post a comment and I'll edit it whatever you like.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Path of Neo, game of the year?

Alright, if the title of this post alone didn't make you crack up, nothing will. I'll sum up this..."game"...with three words: Crimes. Against. Intelligence.

You see, the Matrix series has a long, prosperous history of excellent videogames. I'm still not sure how Enter the Matrix slipped past Best Non-Movie-Game-Adaptation, but somehow it did. Then came Matrix Online, which was so engrossing it puts even World of Warcraft to shame...

Who am I kidding? Matrix games suck harder than an eight pound Orec XL. Even that short bald guy that advertizes those vacuums on the TV would bow to the supreme suckitude of Matrix games. But just when you thought it couldn't get any worse...THIS comes along.

The developers, "SHINY Entertainment", did a great job in living up to their namesake. In fact, it's simply astounding how they could "polish" a complete piece of shit to be so SHINY it blinds people into buying it. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE THINKING?! Are you fucktards into mental BDSM or something? Not even a communist worker would beg for this kind of punishment. This game is a full frontal assault on all your senses, from the abhorrently terrible graphics, to the craptastic, linear, and idiotically pointless gameplay, to the horridly dubbed voiceovers, you get hit from all sides.

I swear to god if I had to sit through one more badly arranged, badly compressed movie-footage cutscene put to the worst wannabe-trance music in the history of mankind I WILL GO BALLISTIC. Thank god I only downloaded it to see just how bad it would be, expecting it to be just above the other two games, sitting right at the "So bad it's hilarious" level on the quality continuum. This isn't even worth spending the small electrical charges spent in your brain to THINK about playing it. I'm just going to stop there, I can't bring myself to relay that story of grotesque brain cell slaughter.

So you want a rating out of ten? How about 1.0x10^(-40) out of ten? I don't think there's a negetive number in mathmatical existence low enough to categorize this lack of quality.

Oh and on a lighter note, I've only got five more days to wait until I get my Xbox 360 (I hope, those shortages for the shipments are a bit worrying). The problem is they'll be the longest five days of the damn year.