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Review Archives - Page 2

January 28, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Burnout Paradise

Burnout ParadiseBurnout Paradise
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Price: $59.99
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Category: Racing
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: January 22, 2008 (US); January 25, 2008 (Europe); February 7, 2008 (Australia)

The latest addition to Criterion's long-running, turbo-charged, truly insane race 'em up series turns the franchise on its head via a surprising new free-roaming slant, with oddly conflicting results to show for it. While Burnout Paradise is often a fantastic, truly original title that supersedes its predecessors right across the board, it just as often proves a frustrating and flawed exercise in missed opportunities and even flat-out monotony. Allow me to explain.

On firing up the game for the first time, you'll find yourself almost instantly set loose upon Paradise City minus any sort of leash. There's all but two minutes of a tutorial to get you up to speed, and scarce little in the way of unlockable content for which to work towards, with Paradise instead throwing an entire god damn world at you in pretty much one go. The idea is, you blaze around this wide-open city, pull off stunts, track down collectibles, and partake in any of its endless list of challenges and events as and when you please. It's all up to you, fella.

This is all fantastic stuff at first too. Beholding the exquisite detail of Paradise City, and the luscious fluidity in which you careen around its plush, sensual innards awards it instant love that's hard to deny. For a while, you feel as if you're witnessing the very future of racing games in fact, not just graphically, but in terms of sheer design. All of the series' landmark traits — the ludicrous speed, the demented pile-ups and the jaw-dropping crashes — come through in-tact, but this time via a seamless, less constrained and undeniably next-gen universe in which to now savor them. Wow.

Burnout ParadiseUnfortunately, the actual content within this world often fails to live up to the premise. Over time, the challenges reveal themselves to be a repetitive, cut-back and under-realized bunch, giving the game a far more hollow feeling than perhaps one would've liked. Criterion boast the presence of a new such challenge at each and every crossroad in the entire game — with you merely holding down the two triggers to enter any at will — but in practice, the majority of its 120 odd events prove a little too similar for comfort.

You've got good old "Road Rage" challenges — the pick of the litter — that see you bashing enemies to death as you navigate the streets at immense speeds. Enjoyable "Stunt Runs", that enforce gravity defying jumps and crazy drifts within a set time limit. And of course the traditional Burnout races that you'd expect, in which you go toe to toe with seven AI combatants in a blitz for the finish line ala previous titles in the series. The difference being, Paradise has much improved new car handling, way better graphics, and some pleasing new depth to its boosting system. And hey, that's great.

What ain't are the actual "tracks". An unfortunate side effect of the free-roaming world in which they're set, sees these city-based routes never feeling setup, nor specifically designed for actual racing. Grid-like streets simply can't match the cornered-off, impeccably designed circuits of similar such driving games, and the added freedom of multiple routes can make such races notoriously confusing too. Given this game's extreme speeds, it's mildly annoying having to continually monitor your mini-map in order to gauge where to turn, with you regularly heading off down the wrong street and spontaneously having to backtrack at a split-second's notice. Expect many a lost race due to this. And grinded down teeth.

With only eight potential finishing lines peppered throughout the entirety of the city, races all end in a worryingly similar fashion too. You'll return to the same roads and same locations so darn often, déjà vu becomes a prominent gameplay feature. A new "Marked Man" twist on these races spruces them up occasionally, in which you'll have to zoom to the finishing line by your lonesome while kamikaze AI drivers ram you off the road to much amusement, but even these grow old in time. A pity.

Burnout ParadiseWhat started out fresh and invigorating then — heralding the pinnacle of its genre — grows slowly stale and bland as you progress. Scrapping the challenges, hitting the streets sandbox-style, and merely seeing what crazy off-road secrets you can uncover becomes a far more gripping way to spend your time as a result, and there's plenty of nooks and crannies tucked away within Paradise City to set your sights on with that in mind. This can't hide the fact that the single player game is a somewhat short-lived affair for the most part though, and five or six hours in, I was just about done with it. Particularly in light of the city's shockingly small size that lets you blitz from literally one side to the other in about 4 minutes flat.

Thankfully, all is not lost. Paradise boasts a superb online mode you see, one that goes a hell of a long way towards filling in the blanks. A mode, oddly enough, that reminds heavily of Crackdown of all things. In the same way that game was always at its best when played online — with you and a buddy merely tearing up the town and causing as much improvised mischief as you could — Burnout is no different. Just er, trapped in a car this time out. Ignoring the plot — or in this case, the races — engaging in your own demented multiplayer stunts is where this game truly shines, only it supports a whopping great 8 players by comparison, and is choc-full of superb mini-games for you to partake in along the way.

Paradise weaves such inventive tomfoolery into the actual game design, you see. One minute it may task your group with pulling off 100 jumps between you in quick succession, the next it may have you pile every single car onto one specific level of a particular building without falling off, and so on. The subsequent calamity and group-based bundles prove endlessly enjoyable and undeniably hysterical, with literally hours dropping off the clock at a time as you work your way through its laundry list of shenanigans. The average newcomer will often be left with a, "Guh? I don't get it" look on their face on first firing it up, and given the co-operative nature of these challenges, it can be annoying when just one of your eight won't play along. Once you get your head around how it all works though, simply fartin' around with your pals starts to make up the very core of Paradise's brilliance, and with a decent host making full use of the challenges, it proves truly amazing stuff. Not to mention utterly unique.

Burnout ParadiseSure, for more traditional online fun, there are more familiar multiplayer races on offer too. You can partake in 4-round mini-leagues should you so wish, at which point the game reverts to more of a Burnout Revenge-style versus game. All the "rivalry" features of its predecessor return thankfully, with new Vision Cam/PlayStation Eye support giving such violence a new — and often mature-rated — twist, and it's pleasant enough fun I'm pleased to say. The finicky niggles and mass confusion of the single player races turn into plus points when played alongside humans, with all players regularly zooming off in the wrong direction to much amusement and giggly group banter. With no one at a distinct disadvantage, races can turn drastically at a moment's notice, right up to the very home straight, making 'em far more enjoyable and exciting than against AI. Combined with the aforementioned co-op mini-games, this multiplayer suite affords the game much needed mileage most noticeably lacking from solo play.

Burnout Paradise is an intriguing experiment all in all then, that at often times works, yet just as often fails. In addition to the plethora of negatives outlined above, a series of smaller annoyances like the lack of an instant "retry" option, the removal of the ever enjoyable "Crash" mode, and the inability to turn off the god-forsaken "takedown" cam continually grate, all culminating in far from the nutso racing classic some might have been expecting. There's no denying though, that in its first few hours alone, it's one hell of a spectacular ride, and with a server full of pals, there's no multiplayer game quite so original...nor so god damn hilarious.

Providing you have friends, I'd say it's worth the pinch.

PLUSES: Traditional Burnout car-bashing antics prove just as fun as you'd hope, while flawless graphics with a seldom-faltering 60 FPS render 'em better than ever before. Amazing multiplayer modes provide plenty of longevity.

MINUSES: Single player challenges lack variety, while the city feels small after just an hour or two of exploring. No instant retry on the events can be frustrating, as can the reliance on a mini-map for one so fast-paced.


Posted by Matt Robinson at 12:15 AM | Comments (7) | Posted to PlayStation 3 | Review | Xbox |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

January 15, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
Director: Uwe Boll
Cast: Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Lillard, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Burt Reynolds
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 11, 2008

Science tells us that air expands to fill a vacuum. This weekend, I was able to witness the cinematic equivalent of this phenomenon, as Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale attempts to fill two hours of screen-time with the best Lord of the Rings ripoff money and a B-list cast can provide.

Anyone who follows these movies closely knows that the Boll business model revolves less around box office, and more around video sales and exploiting German tax loopholes to make the movies on the cheap. Still, when you go to a movie on opening weekend and there’s 14 people in the theater, that can’t be a good sign. Especially when one of them brought a newspaper.

In a superficial way, the movie is based off the 2002 video game Dungeon Siege, but the phrase “A Dungeon Siege Tale” is code-speak for “the video game never had much plot to begin with, so we’re gonna be winging it”. Jason Statham plays a farmer named, conveniently enough, Farmer. To move things along from farming to ass-kicking, the Krug (orc wannabes, even in the original game) attack Farmer’s hometown, killing his son and kidnapping his wife. Farmer embarks on his Revenge-n-Rescue Road Trip, which soon intersects with the broader policitcal intrigue of the realm – the Krug are part of a plot to get the King of Ehb (Burt Reynolds) off the throne, so that his moron nephew (Matthew Lillard) and the evil mage Gallian (Ray Liotta) can take over. Technically, there’s other pieces to the puzzle – wizards, Amazonian tree women, the requisite grizzled sidekick for comic relief, the serious military guy who disdains the hero at first but grows to respect him -- but you get the general idea.

So where do you go with this? It seems like you’d play to your strengths: you’ve got a proven action lead in Statham, the magical elements give you plenty of opportunities for CGI spectacle, and you’ve assembled a quirky cast (Reynolds, Liotta, Lillard, Ron Perlman) that’s probably more geared to action-adventure than serious drama. If you’ve already got a boomerang-wielding farmer, Kingdom of Ehb ninjas, and a villain who dresses out of the Johnny Cash Warlock Collection (including the only leather jacket in the Kingdom of Ehb) – well, dammit, set course into the winds of lunacy, and full speed ahead!

But that wasn’t the movie Boll he wanted to make. What he really wanted to make was, well, Lord of the Rings. Superficially, you get things like surrogate Ringwraiths, an Eowyn subplot, or a big battle in a rainstorm because, well, that’s how it looked at Helm’s Deep. This would be forgivable, but the movie also insists on making the characters speak in pseudo-profound quotables; everyone’s fishing for Gandalf-ian nuggets of wisdom, and it’s pretty mind-numbing after about the first 20 minutes.

Yet at the same time it’s being pretentious, it’s also infected with the stupidity common to bad movies where people say and do completely idiotic things to keep the plot moving. This is a movie where a character will get two arrows shot at him, and wait around for the third because he’s supposed to die; a movie where Liotta makes the typical madman speech about how there’s no good and evil and rules are irrelevant, but then decides to fight Farmer hand-to-hand instead of just zapping him off a cliff or something. Sun Tzu would so not approve.

There are some additional technical sins against the cinema gods, including some scenes left hanging due to curious editing and the overall level of the acting – for example, Farmer’s reaction to his son’s death is more on par with the irritation you’d associate with a parking ticket. But let’s also give it credit for a few of the things it does right. The combat choreography is usually pretty good, as you’d expect from a Jason Statham movie, and the magic effects were fairly well-done, though I found myself wishing they went a little further with the CGI mayhem.

There are probably other things to complain about, but to do so would miss the larger point -- the ultimate failing of In the Name of the King is that it’s tough to sit there for two hours and be beaten over the head with memories of a much better movie. It’s sort of like going on a date with someone who does nothing but talk about their ex. There will probably be a collective knee-jerk reaction to proclaim it among the worst films ever, just because it’s Uwe Boll, but that seems a little unfair to me. If I had to grade it by the five-star system, I’d probably put In the Name of the King around 1.5 – it’s not awful in the same way something like Deuce Bigalow is awful because it tries to be more than that; then again, “tedious” and “derivative” certainly aren’t compliments.

Posted by Jay McDonald at 1:00 PM | Comments (6) | Posted to Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

January 11, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: MapleStory iTrading Card Game

MapleStory Starter SetMapleStory iTrading Card Game
Developer: Wizards of the Coast
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Price: $9.99, Starter Deck; $3.99, Booster Pack
Platform: PC (MMORPG game)
Category: iTrading Card Game
Release Date: November 6, 2007

Gaming Steve first introduced me and a lot of surprised Americans to the biggest MMORPG in the world, Nexon’s MapleStory.

MapleStory is a free-to-play MMORPG and is cute — super cute in fact. You couldn’t ask for a more family-friendly (E10+ ESRB Rated) MMORPG, all of the monsters look like stuffed animals, the characters look like children dressed up for make-believe, and the reading level is pretty easy. The game mostly "free", however it does make money by selling the best armor, weapons, quests, and items for "real money" via micropayments at the Cash Store. That’s pretty much it except for some special events or quests you can discover by talking to the NPCs.

Of course this super-cute game was not satisfied with simple video game world domination, so it teamed up with Wizards of the Coast to try its hand at the Collectible Trading Card Game (TCG) market. Taking full advantage of the MMORPG, the MapleStory card game ties directly into the online game by providing your online characters items from the cards themselves. Hence, they also renamed the genre as an Interactive Trading Card Game (iTCG ... everything must have that little “i” letter these days). Although relatively simple, I found the game refreshing and fun.

The MapleStory iTCG is also cute — dare I say “super cuter?” The game is as cute as the Pokémon TCG, and a little easier, I think. This game was intended for all ages, so it lacks the complexities of Magic: The Gathering and is simple for little kiddies to pick up and play.

You play by having your main character duel another character ... that’s it, what could be simpler? The duel is won by leveling up your main character, playing monster, item, and tactic cards, and reducing your opponent's hit points to zero. Quick, simple, and fun.

As for the cards, there are only three types — tactic, monster, and item cards. Tactics are actions which take place immediately, monsters will defend you and attack the opponent, while items will enhance your monsters. The ingenious mechanism of the game is that each card can also be used to level up your character.

MapleStory Job Cards

Hence, the key gameplay mechanic of the MapleStory iTCG is that you can either use the cards in your hand to play immediate actions, summon monsters, and equip your monsters with new items, or you can sacrifice your cards in order level-up your main character. So throughout the game you must always make a choice — do you sacrifice the cards in your hand in order to make your character more powerful or do you use the cards in your hand to strengthen your position?

Of course the iTCG ties directly into the MMORPG game. All characters and items are taken directly from the MapleStory MMORPG and anime (yet to be released in the USA) and each card is either a regular or a "super-special" silver card. Silver cards have special online code which will earn you items from the cash shop at no extra cost, so essentially a small part of the cost of a 9-card booster pack goes towards one or two items on the online cash shop. Barring certain character, level, and job restrictions, you may use these new items right away. For example, I got a red lounge chair which increases my health recovery rate which I was able to use in both games.

MapleStory iTCG is perfect for anyone who plays card games like the Pokémon TCG. The starter set comes with a CD to install the MapleStory MMORPG client software, two mini-decks and a booster pack. The starter set is a great way to discover both aspects of the MapleStory universe, and they complement each other nicely. See the Wizards of the Coast official site for more information on the MapleStory iTCG, including a game play demo.

Posted by Robert Gauss at 11:00 PM | Comments (4) | Posted to Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

January 9, 2008

Gaming Steve Review: Final Fantasy XII

Final Fantasy XIIFinal Fantasy XII
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Price: $19.99
Platform: PlayStation 2
Category: Role-Playing
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: October 31, 2006

Hi everyone, Chuck here, on board for my first review at Gaming Steve. For my first time out, I thought I'd touch base on a slightly older game that's gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of all the shiny new consoles hitting the market in the last year or so: Final Fantasy XII.

It was asked about by a caller on the most recent podcast, and as I am playing through the game for the third time by chance, and am supposed to be covering the console RPG beat, it seems fate has decreed this is where I should start, sort of like a spiky-haired androgynous young man who stumbles on a huge adventure.

The Final Fantasy series is one of the most venerable console RPG franchises whose roots extend back to the original Nintendo console. The series is known for three main gameplay elements: a long, deep RPG experience that can last 100 hours or more if all the optional sidequests are performed; a large cast of detailed and interesting characters; and numerous, super-pretty cutscenes that blur the lines between game and interactive movie.

Final Fantasy XII delivers on all these fronts and adds an element new to the series: a single-player RPG experience informed by the latest trend in RPGs, the Massively Multiplayer RPG.

Final Fantasy XIIWith that out of the way, let's look at the game's positive qualities, which I have given the stunningly original name of "pluses".

First, the game has really stunning cinematics that tell a great story through the game's cut-scenes. These cut-scenes really show just what the PS2 is capable of in the hands of a technically proficient game design crew that knows the hardware they're designing for intimately. Final Fantasy XII ranks with God of War II as the best-looking games ever to grace the best-selling console of all time.

Second, the game has a really solid mechanical structure that make it a joy to play. Combat is interesting, requires a lot of tactical management and can be intense, both visually and in that "if that doesn't work I'm dead meat" sort of way.

Similarly, the game allows for interesting and varied character advancement, that follows a more freeform path than other offerings in the Final Fantasy series. You can tailor your characters to the way you like to play the game. While generally speaking a balanced party is most effective, the game doesn't force you to play that way. If you want to have an entire party of black mages blasting away with damage dealing spells, an entire party of tough fighters wearing heavy armor, or a party of lightly armed skirmishers, you can.

The world of the game, Ivalice, is an enormous, fascinating backdrop for your adventures and feels like a living, breathing place. Some NPCs will only be in a given city for a short while, while others are permanent residents you can visit again and again and whose dialogue changes as you advance through the game. For a series not known for true sequels, the Final Fantasy franchise has now visited Ivalice three times, in Final Fantasy Tactics (an original Playstation classic which has been remade for the GameBoy Advance and soon for the Nintendo DS), Final Fantasy XII and FF XII: Revenant Wings. The creative folks at Square can't seem to get enough of Ivalice and I'm inclined to agree.

Then there's the story and especially the characters. Final Fantasy XII lags a bit behind FF X in the quality of its story, but that game had the best story of any console RPG, ever so matching it would be a bit tough. Where the story really shines, and the writing behind it, is in the characters. Each main character of Final Fantasy XII (6 in all) and several of the minor characters are interesting and detailed enough to carry their own game. They're people you want to root for (or against) and that you're interested in enough that you want to see how it all turns out for them.

Finally there's the overall feel of the game, which I really like. It's a very old school RPG. There's a lot of killing things and taking their stuff, treks through unexplored deserts and jungles and dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons. Tombs, mines, cave complexes, temples, ruins and star destroyers ... err, Imperial Dreadnought-class Airships.

Final Fantasy XIINow for the game's drawbacks, which we'll call "minuses" for the sake of consistency. Most of these drawbacks fall under the "too much of a good thing" heading.

For example, while the cut-scenes look amazing and have the fine voice-acting, cinematic direction and dramatic musical score we've come to expect from the series, there's too many of them and they tend to come in waves. When the story advances, for example, first there will be a cut-scene about our heroes. Since we know them well, have been playing them for the entire game and since they're interesting characters, these tend to be extremely interesting.

These are usually followed, however, by touching base with the villains and their machinations. These aren't nearly so interesting. For starters, the villains are much less interesting as the heroes. They don't have motivations you can sympathize with or understand. They're eeeeeeeeeevil. 70's comic book evil.

Also, unlike many other Final Fantasy games, the villains aren't even anyone you've interacted with. Seymour, one of the main villains of Final Fantasy X, was someone you came to hate gradually, as you fought him again and again. The villains of FF XII are characters you get to know through repeated cut scenes, but don't ever actually interact with before you fight them and kill them. For the main villain of course, this is the end of the game. Meaning you'll have spent hours watching the exploits of someone you don't particularly care about, even in a "man I really want to kill that guy" way.

Often, this second cut-scene is then followed by a third cut-scene. In all it becomes too much, it's too long a break away from the action and if you hit a wave of cut-scenes at 4 a.m. at the end of a marathon game session, dozing off during the cut-scenes is a distinct possibility.

Next there's the grinding and camping. These are terms familiar to any MMO player and likely familiar to most RPG players. Power levelling is a great thing in an RPG. It's that happy time when the monsters are powerful enough to be really challenging, you're gaining levels regularly but you're not being overwhelmed by the opposition. That's as close to Diablo-esque RPG perfection as you're going to encounter.

Final Fantasy XIIGrinding on the other hand, is when you really need to be higher level to fight that next boss but the monsters that give you the most experience aren't particularly interesting, or challenging. While there are several side missions that can help mask the grinding, or at least make you feel like you're doing something (other than grinding), the middle of the game especially has long periods where you are either grinding for experience or grinding for gold to upgrade needed equipment. The difficulty curve of the bosses spikes well beyond the typical monsters, meaning you need to kill lots and lots of them in order to be an appropriate level for the bosses.

Finally, there's the fact that the game's two main drawbacks, the grinding and cut-scene waves, show up at different times. Early and late in the game, when the gameplay is just about perfect, you're going to be sitting through waves of cut-scenes. In the mid-game, the cut-scenes are relatively rare, but you're going to be grinding for XP or cash. At least they help you out if you're playing the game for a second time by letting you skip the cut-scenes.

So what's the final verdict? FF XII is an excellent game with some serious flaws. The gameplay ranks with the best of the series and delivers a compelling old-school RPG experience that feels more like Final Fantasy III for the DS than Final Fantasy X. The middle period of the game can be a tough slog at times but if you watch for areas you like, that give you good XP or loot and spend a little more time there, you can minimize the pain and breeze through areas you find boring.

The characters are first-rate and the writing is superior. The cut-scenes are just grouped together in waves and focus a little too much on a group of villains that weren't worthy of the amount of screen time they were given. Either seeing the villains less or giving them a point of view other than "I want power so I can conquer the world, duh" would have made a huge difference in how interesting the story was. A little more Magneto, a little less 70's Lex Luthor would go a long, long way here.

Still, despite its flaws, Final Fantasy XII is a worthy entry for the franchise and a game worth keeping your PS2 plugged in (and off eBay) to play.

PLUSES: Super-pretty cut-scenes; great characters; rich, compelling old-school RPG gameplay.

MINUSES: Too many cut-scenes focusing on stock villains; level grind occasionally feels forced.


Posted by cwrice at 12:00 PM | Comments (9) | Posted to PlayStation 2 | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

December 18, 2007

Gaming Steve Episode 66 - 12.18.2007

Mass EffectIt's the end of the year and that means everyone has to release their "lists". So I join in the fun and go through my picks of 2007. What were the best games of 2007? What were the hidden gems that fell through the cracks? What were the most disappointing games? And what was my pick for Game of the Year? (I guarantee that my pick will be a surprise.)

Plus find out the status of the Name That Game contest where you can win a free next-gen game console. Enjoy the show!

Gaming Steve Episode 66 Program

  • 00:03:52 Game News:
    • Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3 both underperform.
    • GameStop opening tourney venues.
    • Time loves video games.
    • Blizzards confirms new MMORPG in the works and I give details.
    • Everyone loves to game!
    • Auran shuts shop, nobody really surprised.
    • Assassin's Creed sells a gazillion copies ... but who cares! There is a new Might and Magic game coming!
    • Why November sales matter for the entire year.
    • Nintendo is losing a billion dollars on the Wii's short supply.
    • Nintendo and GameStop to issue rainchecks (does anyone even know what a raincheck is anymore?).
    • Soda companies blame video games for obese children.
    • E3 returns to LA Convention Center, nobody cares except for gaming journalists.
  • 00:55:18 Special Feature: What were the best, the hidden gems, and the most disappointing games of 2007?
  • 01:23:49 Review: Mass Effect for the Xbox 360.
  • 01:38:23 Name That Game: Do I pick the winner for the next-gen console this week? Do I?
  • 01:40:00 Show Mail: I answer your email questions (send me some more questions please).
  • 01:46:00 Final Thoughts: Why is nobody playing my 2007 Game of the Year pick?
Download the show (111 minutes): Gaming Steve Episode 66 (MP3).

Subscribe to the Podcast directly in iTunes (MP3).
Add the Gaming Steve Podcast feed to your RSS aggregator.
Digg the show? Then Digg it!

Posted by Gaming Steve at 5:30 PM | Comments (16) | Posted to Podcast | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

December 13, 2007

Gaming Steve's Top 10 Video Games That Nobody Played in 2007

Sure everyone loves to read about the best games of year, but just how many times can you read about Super Mario Galaxy and Mass Effect? I’m here to tell you about ten excellent games that somehow fell through the cracks in 2007, all of which well deserve your time and attention. So after you've gotten your fill of Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3, give one of these gems a try. You won’t be disappointed.

The Darkness10. The Darkness (Xbox 360, PS3)
Perhaps releasing a dark, gritty FPS in the middle of the summer wasn’t such a good idea in retrospect. After all, who wants to battle demons, eat hearts, and hide in the shadows when they can go outside, eat hot dogs, and soak in the sun?

Well now that the weather can turned cold and wintry you owe it to yourself to check out this fantastic title from Starbreeze Studios, the makers of the 2004 “way better than the move” Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Based upon the Top Cow comic book, The Darkness successfully mixes horror, action, and adventure into a unique First-Person Shooter. Without giving too much away you become possessed by a demonic force and you’ll need to combine FPS gunplay with your unique demonic powers. It’s a cool combination that never gets old and allows you to play the game in a variety of ways. Do you use demonic stealth power and kill your enemies at a distance, or will you just run and gun down your foes? Oh yeah, and don’t forget to eat your enemies hearts to boost your power! That never gets old.

One of the more interesting aspects of this game which was included for no other reason other than to add to the game’s atmosphere you can literally sit and watch entire movies, television shows, cartoons, and music videos inside the game itself. I actually watched To Kill a Mockingbird on a TV within the game, which is either really sad or cool (I still haven’t decided which). It’s little touches like this which make this game stand out from your standard FPS fare.

Plus it doesn’t hurt that this game looks fantastic, especially on the PS3. Now that you’ve finished Halo 3 and Crysis look toward The Darkness to fill your FPS fix.

Orcs & Elves9. Orcs & Elves (DS)
Developed by John Carmack and id, Orcs & Elves was originally released as a cell phone games last year … wait! Come back! Don’t let its history scare you away! This is unlike any cell phone game you might have played in the past. This game is actually … good!

Orcs & Elves does its best to recreate the feeling of those old school fantasy RPGs released in the 80s/90s but combined with modern FPS gameplay aspects. Think Quake but with magic and goblins and with a dash of RPG thrown in for good measure, and after years of starvation from the old-school dungeon-crawling genre, Orcs & Elves is like a five-course feast that will stuff you with RPG goodness.

The game starts out as your standard FPS fare – walk through corridors, kill monsters, collect loot, improve your weapons – but as you play you’ll start to see why this game received such acclaim when first released last year. The combat is addictive, quests are fun, your selection of weapons is extensive, characters are silly, the plot is always changing, and the game is expertly paced. Cut from the “just one more turn” school of gaming, this game will continuously keep you engaged and challenged.

Filled with fun quests (including bartering with dragons and drinking with ghost dwarfs), monsters which actually require tactics to defeat, and a plethora of weapons and magic this is a game which will keep you engaged from beginning to end. For $20 you won’t do much better when it comes to old-school monster-killing.

Odin Sphere8. Odin Sphere (PS2)
So why is this game on the list? Didn’t Odin Sphere get a freaking ton of press these last few months? And wasn’t everyone saying that this was the “last great game for the PS2”? Yes and yes, but all of this press and goodwill has not translated into sales. It’s a real shame as this game lives up to the hype and shouldn’t be missed.

The graphics are insanely gorgeous, the action fast and furious, and the gameplay innovative. Sort of the “Pulp Fiction” of video games, Odin Sphere tells its story through five protagonists, each of which you’ll get a chance to play. Each character has its own unique fighting style and controls, which always keeps the game fresh and new. Plus as you explore their history you’ll reveal a larger, overarching story as each character intersects with the others. The final result is an epic story that continuously keeps you interested throughout.

Gameplay is your “standard” 2D-fantasy-action-epic-RPG (heh, when was the last time you played one of those?), only on this world all of the levels are designed like spheres (get the title now?). Like the classic game Defender, the levels continuously loop and will only allow you to escape once you defeated the appropriate number of foes. Oh yeah, and you need to kill monsters in order to grow your power-ups from plant seed. You know … like sheep.

Come on people! Isn’t the PS2 like the best-selling game console in the world? Don’t you have like four or five PS2 in your house collecting dust? Why aren’t you playing this crazy beautiful game?! Send your PS2 off in style with this fantastic game.

Etrian Odyssey7. Etrian Odyssey (DS)
This unique 3D dungeon crawler RPG was released in May 2007, but good luck finding it in the stores. No, this was not a runaway best-seller (have you even heard of it?). Rather the publisher, Atlus, seemed to release just enough to supply to meet the limited demand for this game. That’s a real shame as this is an excellent and challenging RPG which is perfectly suited to the DS.

The top screen is used to display the dungeon using relatively simple 3D graphics from a first-person point of view. While the bottom screen is used to map your progress through the dungeon, just like the classic days when having a pad of graph paper next to your computer was mandatory. And this simple act of mapping your progress really connects you to the adventure and makes you want to explore the 25-level dungeon.

Extremely challenging and well-designed, Etrain Odyssey is a refreshing blast-from-the-past. The gameplay is relatively simple – build party, kill monsters, gain levels, explore the dungeon – but with a wealth of character customization you’ll actually enjoy the occasional grind just to level-up your characters and try out their new abilities. Oh yes, and the music is easily the best ever to appear in a DS game to date.

If you cut your teeth on rigorous dungeon crawls from the Apple II+ days this game will be right up your alley. And when you complete this long, brutal game, you will have (in your best John Houseman voice now) “Earned It!” Bonus: The sequel is being released in Japan next year.

Jeanne D’Arc6. Jeanne D’Arc (PSP)
If you are a fan of strategy role-playing games then this was the year to own a PSP. Over the past few months we saw the release of three great SRPGs for the PSP – Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, and Jeanne D’Arc. All three are excellent games but Jeanne D’Arc stands above the rest … and is probably the one you ignored.

With a strange name and an even stranger storyline – the retelling of the story of Joan of Arc within a fantasy world with talking animals, demons, and magic powers -- Jeanne D’Arc is an attractive and vibrant game that is accessible to newcomers and SRPG veterans alike. Unlike other SRPGs which require a PhD to completely understand Jeanne D’Arc takes the time to explain to you how the elaborate combat system works. And between the intense battles and the intense story you’ll never be bored by this 30-hour game.

If you’re looking for a solid strategy game and aren’t afraid to learn a bit about history (granted this history has talking dogs and orcs) you won’t find a better PSP game this year.

Rogue Galaxy5. Rogue Galaxy (PS2)
This action-RPG was created by the legendary Level-5 (Dark Cloud & Dragon Quest VIII) and was an immense critical success in Japan. So when it’s released in the States a year later it is, of course, completely ignored. Perhaps everyone was busy playing Gears of War or was busy dreaming of Halo 3 when this Rogue Galaxy was released, but if you missed this game and you love RPGs then you owe it to yourself to pick up this gem of a game.

Sure I could go into detail about the beautiful graphics, immersive storyline with plenty of unexpected twists, and a fun action-combat system, but what you need to know is this. If you like RPGs then you will like this game. In fact, I put this game up against any RPG released on the PS2, including all of the Final Fantasy games, and say that this game is as good if not better than all of them. And the action-combat system actually makes combat fun, unlike those tiresome turn-based combat systems which take forever to complete.

And since this game was released nearly a year ago you can get this game cheap! In fact, I just saw this game in the bargain bin at Best Buy just the other day. This game does not deserve the silent funeral that is the gaming bargain bin. So while you are waiting for Final Fantasy XIII to released sometime in the year 2000-who-heck-knows, break out your PS2 and start exploring the Rogue Galaxy!

The Warriors4. The Warriors (PSP)
This game should actually be on this list twice – once for when it was originally released for the PS2 and Xbox in 2005, and now for when it was released for the PSP. One of the greatest movie licensed video-games of all time, The Warriors actually surpasses the movie as it expands upon the film and allows you to fully explore the world of a gang-ridden New York City circa 1979. Somehow Rockstar managed to take a simple two-hour movie and fully flesh out a 15-hour game, telling the story of how each member joined The Warriors (Swan, Ajax, Cleon, Vermin, Cochese, Cowboy, Snow, Fox, and Rembrandt … even their names are cool) and their rise to from street-rats to one of the strongest gangs in New York.

But what makes this game so great? Where to start? Let’s see – the combat is deep, the world is fun to explore, each character feels completely unique, the story is interesting, the music and voiceovers are fantastic, and the rival gangs are truly original. Where else can you fight gang members who walk around in top hats and mime makeup? And with twenty gangs in the game you’ll always have someone interesting to fight.

The PSP version is a near perfect port of the original PS2, or if you want get the PS2 or Xbox versions for a song. If you love Rockstar and the “feel” of their games then it owe it to yourself to pick up this gem. It’s as if this movie was custom-made for Rockstar to turn into a video game as no other game “feels” more like a Rockstar game than this one.

Listen to Cyrus, “Can you dig it?”

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure3. Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure (Wii)
It’s amazing that the Wii is so popular but yet there are a surprisingly small number of truly good games out for the Wii. Outside of the core Nintendo titles there are precious few good games to be found. And what’s even more amazing is that this excellent game, which can easily be enjoyed by families, can’t seem to find an audience (especially in Japan where this game is completely bombing). Maybe it’s the cartoon graphics or the strange name, but don’t let this gem of a game slip you by.

Sure there is a main plot, but the core gameplay consists almost entirely of puzzles. You will need to solve a series of levels, each of which is presented to you with a Rube Goldberg-type layout. By correctly performing a series of mind-bending actions you’ll be able to solve the puzzle and receive your prize. Those familiar with the popular Hapland games will feel right at home here (and for those of you who have never played the Hapland-style games make sure to check out these mind-boggling games).

The puzzles in Zack & Wiki range in difficultly from easy to fiendish, but yet are never frustrating enough to make you quit the game in its entirety. Plus the game has its own in-game help system for those who are truly stuck. And best of all the game fully utilizes the Wii Remote where your on-screen actions mimic the actions of the Remote. Need to go fishing? The Wii Remote mimics a fishing rod. Need to light a torch? Wave the Wii Remote into the firepit. Using the Wii Remote in this manner feels natural and is a lot of fun.

Something else worth mentioning is that this is a great game to play in a family or party setting. The puzzles lend themselves to group with one person controlling Zack and the others helping out. Others can even use their Wii Remotes while you are playing, which turn into a “Wii laser pointer” device, to help point out areas for you to explore. In fact, I would say this game is even more fun to play with others, especially those who aren’t the “gaming type” as the puzzles and Wii controls will appeal to just about anyone who likes to have fun. And for those “gaming types” out there, don’t be turned off by the colorful graphics and funny animations. Even the most jaded gamer will crack a smile when playing this game.

At $40 this game is a total steal and one of the best games out for the Wii right now. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

Overlord2. Overlord (Xbox 360, PC)
One of the best games of the year, Overlord feels like a lost treasure from Bullfrog before they sold out to EA. Overlord is one of those “multi-classed” games that is hard to categorize. If you combine the strategy of Pikiman, the humor of Fable (although this game is actually funny), the wickedness of Dungeon Keeper, your standard RPG elements, and even a little bit of SimCity base-building and you’ve got yourself one fantastically unique game.

You play as the Overlord, a nameless, faceless brute who controls an army of goblin-like minions who tell as many jokes as they do throw punches. There are four different types of minions, each having a different ability, and through them you’ll need to traverse through a fantasy world and defeat seven “goodie-two-shoes” heroes. And although the combat and strategy elements are fun, it’s the simple act of exploring the world where this game really takes on its character. Everything you will see is familiar, but twisted. Hobbits are gluttonous brutes, elves are morose sloths, dwarfs are physocpathic moneybags, and so on. Diving deep into this “Lord of the Rings-esque World Gone Bad”, and then systematically destroying most of it, is a truly fun experience.

As a bonus unlike so other games which contain humor, the humor in this game is actually funny! The graphics, the voiceovers, the quests, your minions – everything is colored with a wonderful contemporary British humor. You’ll come for the game, but you’ll stay for the jokes.

Best of all you can play this game on the GameTap service as well as the Xbox 360 and PC. So if you were looking for an excuse to try out this excellent service now you can sign-up just to play Overlord. And you too can “be evil … or really evil!”

Portal1. Portal (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Sure you’ve heard about this game for months now, seeing one fantastic review after another, you have probably even heard all about the “cake”, but have you played Portal?

No seriously, have you sat down and dedicated yourself to play Portal from beginning to end?

Or your friends?

Or your family?

Or your friends of the family?

I’m serious here. Not since the release of Tetris has a game been so perfect and shown the true power of the emotional response that gaming can achieve, and Portal is a game no man, woman, or child shouldn’t play at least once in their life. If you consider yourself a “gamer” and haven’t played Portal yet, well, then you simply aren’t a “gamer”. It’s just that simple. Your knowledge and understanding of what gaming is and what it can accomplish will never be complete until you play and experience the sublime masterpiece that is Portal.

Sure Grand Theft Auto and Halo get all the headlines and press, but Portal is something more. It is one of those extremely rare games that show the true power of what gaming can convey across multiple levels. Portal is up there with the genre-defining masterpieces of Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, and The Legend of Zelda, but perhaps even better. Portal is perfect in every measure of gaming, and in most measures of popular entertainment as well.

But why you ask? Let’s examine the ways:

The story is engaging and has a clearly defined three act structure, just like the greatest movies and plays of all time.

The visuals convey the world of Portal perfectly, everything is familiar but yet odd and at no time will you be taken outside of the game because of a misplaced pixel or design element.

The sound design beautiful, perfect, unearthly and will haunt your memories for years to come.

The controls will make you do things you never though possible and expand your mind in new directions. You’ll accomplish things you’ll never knew were possible just a few short hours before you started to play this game.

The ending is easily one of the greatest endings of all time, for any medium, and will keep people talking (and singing) for years to come.

The length is perfect. Sure it is short; taking only around 2-3 hours to finish, but this allows Portal to be played exactly like it should. If Portal was yet another 25 hour FPS it would have been remembered a good game with interesting controls and that would have been it. But by being short it allows you to appreciate every single second that you play the game, lets you marvel and how they were able to pack so much story into such a short period of time. There is no “dead time” in portal, no filler content, no repetitive tasks. Portal is exactly the perfect length for the story it needs to tell, and it will keep you wanting for more. And at three hours there is no excuse for you no to play this game at least once. Everyone can finish the game of Portal.

Portal isn’t just a game … it is art and helps move the entire medium that much closer to being respected and viable medium for telling a complex engaging story as good, if not better, than any other popular medium.

So once again I ask … have you played Portal?

Posted by Gaming Steve at 1:00 PM | Comments (40) | Posted to PC | PlayStation 2 | PlayStation 3 | Review | Wii | Xbox |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

December 4, 2007

Gaming Steve Episode 64 - 12.04.2007

Eye Of Flame BeholderSince I've been gone for a little while I decided to make this show a bit special. Not only do I have a great guest but I have my biggest contest yet where you can win a free next-gen game console! That's right, a brand new console, as well as other great prizes, and all you have to do is listen to the show!

And in celebration of National Dice Day I have a great interview with Christopher Perkins from Wizards of the Coast. Chris and I geek out and talk about Dungeon & Dragons new 4th Edition and it's upcoming transition into the online world. Enjoy the show!

Gaming Steve Episode 64 Program

  • 00:03:29 Game News:
    • Mario Galaxy is the fastest-selling Mario ... ever!
    • Deus Ex 3 slips out of the bag.
    • Nintendo's Virtual Console sells $33 million. Is that a lot?
    • Nintendo moves a million systems in a week.
    • Grand Theft Auto IV: box art now, trailer later, game much much later.
    • Sony signs new ad agency, a lot of people lose their jobs.
    • Activision and Blizzard join forces to take over the World of Gaming.
    • Gamespot editor fired over Kane & Lynch review?
  • 00:48:33 Interview: Christopher Perkins, Story Design Manager RPGs/Minis R&D from Wizards of the Coast.
  • 01:50:19 Game Review: The Witcher for the PC.
  • 01:58:19 Name That Game: My biggest contest yet where you can win a free next-gen console!
  • 02:02:23 Show Mail: I answer your email and audio questions.
  • 02:26:00 Final Thoughts: I talk about the future of the show.
Download the show (148 minutes): Gaming Steve Episode 64 (MP3).

Subscribe to the Podcast directly in iTunes (MP3).
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Digg the show? Then Digg it!

Posted by Gaming Steve at 10:00 AM | Comments (32) | Posted to Interview | Podcast | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

March 27, 2007

Gaming Steve Episode 63 - 03.27.2007

Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium WarsSo what happens when two of the most anticipated games of the year -- Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars and The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles -- come out on the same day? Well I guess I'll just have to feature interviews with the developers of BOTH games on my show!

Oh yeah, and don't miss the cameos by Billy Dee Williams, Tricia Helfer and Joe Kucan (Kane himself!) throughout the show. Enjoy!

Gaming Steve Episode 63 Program

  • 00:05:53 Game News:
    • February US games sales up and everyone wins!
    • Take-Two takes the fight to Thompson.
    • Take-Two for sale?
    • Xbox 360 becoming Elite?
    • You Don't Know Jack moves online for free!
    • Microsoft probes possible Xbox Live fraud.
    • New Wii browser incoming.
    • PS3 finally hits the UK ... and does really well.
  • 00:26:30 Interview: Amer Ajami, Producer for Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars from EA.
  • 00:42:52 Interview: Bruce Nesmith, Design Director for The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles from Besthesda Softworks.
  • 01:22:17 Game Preview: The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles for the PC and Xbox 360.
  • 01:26:03 Review: Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars for the PC.
  • 01:37:21 Show Mail: I answer your email questions (send me some new audio questions!).
  • 01:50:56 Final Thoughts: Oh yeah, I forgot to do Name That Game this week, sorry about that!
Download the show (115 minutes): Gaming Steve Episode 63 (MP3).

Subscribe to the Podcast directly in iTunes (MP3).
Add the Gaming Steve Podcast feed to your RSS aggregator.

Posted by Gaming Steve at 12:00 PM | Posted to Interview | Podcast | Preview | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

October 16, 2006

MapleStory ... the MMORPG Seven Times More Popular Than WoW?

MapleStorySomething I love to do is try to find the "hidden gems" of the gaming world. Games which have little to no press but are fun, solid games. Games such as Puzzle Pirates, Weird Worlds, and Ticket to Ride are type of games which really get me excited, games which will generate little to no press, but yet have a cult following and are a ton of fun to play.

Of course, how do you find these hidden gaming gems? I have found GameRankings and GameFAQs as the best sources as they have exhaustive gaming lists. Often trying to find these games is a hit or miss exercise, often turning up something like Skydive! rather than Space Rangers 2. Which brings me to my latest find ... MapleStory.

Never heard of it before? Join the club, until I saw it listed as the number two most popular PC game on GameFAQs (right below World of Warcraft and above Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion!) I never heard about this game before. And don't bother looking for this game on Gamespot or IGN or any other major gaming web site, they all have no information on this game (it's not even listed in GameRankings). Yet this side-scrolling MMORPG game is wildly popular with an unofficial 50 million players worldwide. That would make MapleStory seven times more popular than World of Warcraft ... how can this be?

How can a game with no advertising and no press be so popular? I've seen this game listed as the #2 PC game on GameFAQs for over a year, and yet I have to find a single person who has heard or played this game! What is going on here? Why isn't this game getting more coverage? Could it be that MapleStory needs to spend some money on advertising to get some coverage? (That's a topic for another day.)

Well, I gave what appears to be the most popular MMORPG in the world a try for a few weeks and I will say that there is nothing groundbreaking here, but it is a fun, solid game that has a lot going for it. First of all, it's totally free to play (that's good) ... sort of (that's bad). You can download and play the whole game without paying a cent (that's good). However, if you want some cool gear or a cool pet you'll have to use "real money" to buy these special items (that's bad). This method of giving the game away for free while requiring players to buy the very best equipment is very popular with Asian MMORPGs and has proven to be extremely successful (that's good). I am still surprised that more western MMORPGs don't use this pricing method, but expect this to change in the upcoming years (Frogurt is also cursed ... that's bad).

The gameplay in MapleStory is strange combination of platform action, RPG character classes, pixilated graphics, and MMO grouping and ends up playing unlike anything out there. Exploring all the content in the world within a 2D environment takes some getting used to, but the colorful, bright graphics always make the journey interesting. But you will get a workout moving your character during fights while activating your special powers and trying to chat all at the same time. Whether this style of gameplay is fun or just a carpal tunnel syndrome trainer is undecided.

Like everything else in the game, the interface is solid and gets the job done, but the buttons are so large that I often felt like I was playing a game designed by Playskool. The character classes and quests are your standard RPG fare, nothing new to see here. But what the game lacks in originality in character classes it more than makes up when it comes to monster design. Where else can you kill candle monsters, zombie mushrooms, killer birthday cakes, and dozens of other bizarre monster creations? It's as if the designers took everything fun and harmless from your childhood and turned it into a man-eating spawn of the devil. Now I can see why this game is so popular throughout the world! Who can resist killing pink wind-up killer teddy bears?

Perhaps the best part of MapleStory is a huge friendly community (where did all of these people come from?). It's always easy to find a group and although many of the players appear to be of the "younger" crowd, the gameplay is light enough that you never have to worry about a Leeroy Jenkins messing up your "epic" quest.
So if you're looking for a fun, light MMORPG which doesn't cost anything to play, give this on a try. And those of you who are already playing this one, where on earth did you hear about it? And if you're one of the developers, what on earth were you smoking when you designed this game? Good job!

Posted by Gaming Steve at 2:00 PM | Posted to MMORPG | PC | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

October 3, 2006

Gaming Steve Episode 59 - 10.03.2006

Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket SlimeRumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated! I'm back and I have a great new feature where I explain in detail the entire game development process from beginning to end. This week I examine what type of games publishers are looking to publish. Enjoy!

Gaming Steve Episode 59 Program

  • 00:04:09 Game News:
    • Lots of Wii info.
    • Where did all the PS3s go?
    • Tons of new Xbox 360 content.
    • Seaman gets a seaquel.
    • Wii's first-party games to be region-free?
    • Psychonauts, Bloodrayne available via Steam.
    • Bully grabs the coveted Teen rating from the ESRB.
    • BioWare developing for the DS.
    • Microsoft offers free repairs/refunds for defective launch 360s.
    • ESRB must play every game in its entirety says proposed legislation.
    • 1.1 million Lego Star Wars II sold.
    • Oblivion coming to the PS3.
    • South Park gets hooked on World of Warcraft.
  • 00:37:16 Game Review: Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime for the Nintendo DS.
  • 00:41:46 RetroReview: Shining Force for the Genesis and GameBoy Advance.
  • 00:47:08 Making The Game: A new special feature where I explain what it takes to make a video game from beginning to end. This week, what do publishers want?
  • 00:54:34 “Name That Game!” contest winner from last week, a new clip, and the always cool prize!
  • 00:57:55 Show Mail: I answer your questions ... sort of.
  • 01:01:26 Final Thoughts: Love that Puzzle Pirates.
Download the show (68 minutes): Gaming Steve Episode 59 (MP3).

Subscribe to the Podcast directly in iTunes (MP3).
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Posted by Gaming Steve at 8:00 PM | Comments (45) | Posted to Classic | Podcast | Review |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!