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Press Start: April 2009 -- Awesome and Cheesy

This month, Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla reviews some guilty pleasure games: Resident Evil 5, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, Phantasy Star Portable and We Ski & Snowboard.

Do you have the guts to admit that you liked the original Power Rangers? C'mon, admit it! They were freaking cool! That's kind of the theme of this month's column. Everybody's got that one game they love but are too embarrassed to admit they like it because it's kind of corny. Mine is Lost Planet; I reviewed Lost Planet a while back and, although that was a good game, even I couldn't handle the over-the-top cheesy dialogue. None of these games are that bad, but all of them can all be categorized as a guilty pleasure. Well, all except Resident Evil 5, which had dialogue valiantly improved by Capcom. It's still a little cheesy, though.

For the most part, all of the titles we're featuring this month are actually very well put together. It's great to see such good work coming out of the game industry even after the holiday season. It's also great to hear that guys are actually working out there, what with all the layoffs and closures going on. Apparently, the devs who put together these titles are like me and love a game that makes you cringe just a little bit. Hit the jump to check out what we got in this month's "Press Start."

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Resident Evil 5 takes the best survival horror franchise and makes it better with improved voice work. © Capcom. 

Resident Evil 5 for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: March 13; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: survival / horror; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: co-op and versus modes

The Resident Evil series has become one of the most popular game franchises in history since its initial release on the PS1. It is definitely the most popular survival horror franchise in game history, with the Silent Hill series coming in second. I've said it before and I'll say it again: blowing up zombies is one of the most fun things to do in any videogame. Resident Evil 5 takes what Capcom started in RE4 and expands upon it in many ways.

First, the story; RE5 lets players take control of returning character Chris Redfield, who made his first appearance in the original Resident Evil. Pharmaceutical company Umbrella is causing more biological problems, this time in Africa, and Chris is sent there to investigate. As Chris arrives, he teams up with Sheva Alomar who accompanies him throughout the game. Technically, the enemies in RE5 -- known as the "Majini" -- are not actually zombies but rather living humans who have been infected with a virus that physically mutates them, makes them feral and gives them enhanced abilities.

Now everyone's favorite subject... the visuals. RE5's modeling is done very well; facial animations are very expressive without being over the top or stylized. In fact, the character and facial models are actually very realistic even though ol' Chris has gained some serious muscle mass since the first RE. Typical RE titles were saturated in darkness; in RE5 about half of the time you will be in dark areas and the rest of the time you can expect some very well-lit environments like foggy swamps and villages which look scorching hot. Throughout the RE5 adventure, players are treated to cut scenes which are very well done and here's why: great camera placement and well-timed events move the story along smoothly and never feel forced or tacked on. Toward the beginning of the game, Chris and Sheva walk by a group of men beating a large sack with sticks. As you get closer to the group they stop, turn and stare at you with very unfriendly demeanors. It is circumstances like that, which make you think, "What or who was in that bag?" Fighting enemies shows off some gorgeous design and animation concepts, like when an enemy's head explodes after being shot or when an enemy tries to grab you and mutant tentacles protrude from their mouth. Infected dogs' entire bodies split in half when they attack you.

Speaking of the production, a common problem among previous RE titles was always the atrocious voice acting. RE5 takes a dynamic step in the right direction and introduces some very well placed voice work. Nothing comes out over-exaggerated and all the voice acting fits perfectly into each circumstance, with a lot of attention going into making the voice acting feel right for North American audiences. The only voice work that seems a little wonky is the overly-intensified Long Island accent of Ricardo Irving.

Now on to my favorite subject... the gameplay. At first, everyone is going to piss and moan about the controls. "Oh, it's too hard" or "Oh, it feels like I'm driving a tank." After we all finish crying, the fact is this: a few minutes into the game and we're maneuvering Chris and Sheva with the greatest of ease. It's about a 15-minute learning curve. RE5 does, in fact, take the same road as RE4 and does not allow the player to move when aiming and when swiping the knife -- get over it, it makes the game scarier. The Majini are much more intelligent than the Ganados from RE4; they will jump at you from great distances, they will continually dodge your fire and they will duck and cover as they fire at you. Yes that's right: enemies use guns against you in RE5! For this, Capcom has included a duck-and-cover system that can actually have a mind of its own sometimes; a few times you'll find that it will force you to aim straight up or down and won't let you aim where you want. It's a bug that I'm sure can be fixed with a patch or two.

Collecting gold and treasures is a huge part of RE5 because now there are more guns to buy than ever before in a Resident Evil game. Not to mention that almost all of the guns can be upgraded to obscene levels of power and efficiency. The game will expect you to power up your weapons as you progress. For example, one of the first bosses is a chainsaw-wielding Majini who takes a truckload of time to take down. Later on you run into three or four of that same chainsaw Majini at the same time and if you haven't upgraded any of your weapons, then you are S.O.L.

For the first time ever, Resident Evil introduces cooperative play in the main adventure mode, with one player using Chris and the other using Sheva. Playing with a friend -- even over the internet -- makes things really interesting, but also can get a little old real quick. It can also be a pain in the butt to get an online co-op match going. Because of this, Capcom has introduced a versus mode in RE5 that adds even more replay value to the title. Resident Evil 5 is an instant classic and offers a great gaming experience. The game feels, looks and plays great; and thank God that when Sheva is controlled by the AI that she is not an absolute idiot. I personally don't know why Capcom has been showing so much love recently, I'm just glad that they are.

Eat Lead is perhaps the first third-person shooter to spoof the genre. © D3 Publisher.

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Publisher: D3; Developer: Vicious Cycle; Release Date: Feb. 26; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: third-person shooter; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Games can be funny sometimes. I've giggled at a few jokes every now and then. Heck, I've even laughed out loud at some of the more humorous instances in games like Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and Street Fighter IV. But for the most part, there are no game comedies; no one has ever really made a game to be seriously hilarious. That right there is an open invitation for some lucky game developer to blaze a trail into this area of game development. Vicious Cycle and D3 have come up with Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard which is a title that attempts to usher games into the comedic genre.

The story of Eat Lead follows Matt Hazard, a fictitious videogame hero who was really popular in the '80s but now is washed up and is attempting to make a comeback. OK, I know the phrase "fictitious videogame hero" makes no sense, but bear with me on this: it's a story about a guy who was popular in videogames had he really existed. It's a spoof, get it? Apparently, the 8-bit era is when the Matt Hazard games first started and became very popular very quickly. Eat Lead even shows footage and screenshots of fabricated Matt Hazard games. Matt Hazard became so popular that he decided to ask his publisher to take the Matt Hazard franchise in a different direction. After his publisher agreed, Matt Hazard began to make crappy spinoffs like a Matt Hazard kart racing game that ended up causing his publisher to tank. The publisher has now been bought out by a new executive named Wallace Wellesley III, who wants to breathe new life into the Matt Hazard franchise. Later you find out the Wellesley is actually out to destroy Matt by throwing all of his old bad guys at him at once and Matt's only help is his old game friends and a woman known as QA who has hacked into Matt's game to help him.

Voice work from comedic actors Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris and gameplay that winks and nods to gaming fans make this title pretty enjoyable.

On the surface, Eat Lead is a straight forward, 3PS with not a lot of frills. There are a good amount of weapons, some are awesome like the Magnum and the dual sub machine guns and some are just down right hilarious like the water pistols. Along the way you'll run into jokes such as when QA gives you a huge list of objectives and Matt asks her shorten the list. QA then gives you the objective to "Shoot everything that moves." Later, you run into spoof characters like a wizard who talks like William Shatner and a futuristic soldier/cook named Master Chef. I'm not making this up! You'll also run into pixilated Nazis who are flat when they turn to the side, which is a hilarious shot at the Wolfenstein games.

The only thing about Eat Lead is that sometimes the gameplay can get downright frustrating. You'll find yourself in some unapproachable circumstances with very little ammo and you're fighting off a tentacle monster that throws bombs at you while guys keep coming at you. This wouldn't be much of a problem if it didn't take so many shots to kill just one guy. Also there is no online play but the funny thing is that they actually spoof themselves for not having online play! The voice acting is hilarious with the voices of Will Arnett as Matt Hazard and Neil Patrick Harris as Wallace Wellesley III. The whole feel of the game is like you're playing something out of the '80s; even the Matt Hazard theme song that plays between fire fights sounds like something you would hear in a Beverly Hills Cop movie. Eat Lead is not exactly an epic title but that's not really the point. Think about it, do you really expect outstanding special effects and a poignant story from a movie like Robin Hood: Men in Tights? No. Eat Lead is the same thing; it's an enjoyable 3PS where the main idea is to make you laugh.

Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is a great ninja game and should help bolster the PSP. © Ubisoft.

Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Nintendo Wii and Sony PSP; Publisher: Ubisoft; Developer: Aquire; Release Date: Feb. 5; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action / adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is the latest addition to the Tenchu series since the release of Tenchu Z on the Xbox 360. However, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins has actually not been released on the more powerful Xbox 360 or PS3: it's actually showing love to the Wii and PSP. The original developers of the Tenchu series, Aquire, has made a return to put together this installment of Tenchu. Tenchu started off as a series of great games on the PS1 and then on the PS2. Later, the Tenchu series started to lose its luster with the release of a poorly put together Tenchu for the DS and Tenchu Z, which was actually an all right game but was not met well with the majority of gamers. So enters Tenchu: Shadow Assassins.

The story is that your boss, Lord Goda, is at war with rival Japanese territories and, on top of that, his daughter has been kidnapped. You play as either Rikimaru or Ayame. Rimikaru has always been the main character in all of the Tenchu games. In Tenchu Z, you played as your own created character, but even then, Rikimaru gave you your missions. Instantly, you will notice that the visuals of TSA are significantly above par for Wii games. The characters are very well designed and the whole TSA world retains a feudal Japanese feel to it. The music gives the game even more of that feeling with the exception of the weird opera piece that plays every time you start the game.

As in any stealthy ninja game, you are required to stick to the shadows and not be discovered. Sneaking up to enemies unnoticed will allow you to kill them instantly. However, the AI is smart; computer-controlled enemies can hear you if you make too much noise and will discover a dead body if you don't dispose of it properly. If enemies get a feeling that you are hiding somewhere, they will start looking for you. If they see you, then they'll pull out their swords and start a fight. The Wii version introduces new melee controls when you get into sword fights. The camera will switch to first-person and you will literally have to hold the Wii Remote like a sword and swing it to slash your opponent or twist it to defend against incoming slashes. This is a novel idea to include but it is damn near impossible to win a sword fight on Hard or Hell difficulty.

The characters are very well designed and the whole TSA world retains a feudal Japanese feel to it, even with some problems with the voice acting.

You can only grouse about a few things in TSA and here they are. The voice acting leaves much to be desired. Almost all the enemies sound the same and sometimes they just won't shut up. At one point I startled three enemies at once and -- lucky me -- they all were voiced by the same voice actor, so it sounded like the same three sound bites were repeating and overlapping each other for about two minutes. Also what I find kind of weird is that although this game was originally made in Japan, there is no option to hear the voices in Japanese instead of English. Last but not least, in Tenchu Z your character could roll very fast and very far, but in TSA you are given a dash instead of a roll, which doesn't travel nearly as far. On the lighter side, the dash lets you travel from shadow to shadow totally unnoticed. Wait, I got one more; the tutorial voice is annoying as hell.

I have to be real: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is good. It's really good. It's also a hell of a challenge to go through. You can kill enemies from almost any hidden position and the items that help you accomplish that range from ninja stars and swords to jugs of water and a cat. Seriously. The story progresses nicely through a series of very well done cut-scenes and players have the option of going through the same levels again in a "shadow" mode, which makes the levels even harder by multiplying the enemies and putting them in difficult locations. This is a great Wii title and one that Nintendo should showcase to give them a break from all the "casual market" Wii games out there. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is an all around great ninja game.

Phantasy Star Portable is an enjoyable action/RPG with just the right amount of complexity for a portable game. © SEGA.

Phantasy Star Portable for the Sony PSP; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Alfa System; Release Date: March 3; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action / RPG; Players: 1; Support: 1-4 player wi-fi; Online: N/A

You have to get it right. You can't call Phantasy Star Online just Phantasy Star because they're actually two totally different game series. The Phantasy Star games are the more traditional RPGs, spanning all the way back to the original SEGA Master System, while the Phantasy Star Online games first started out on the SEGA Dreamcast and, of course, were online. SEGA has melded the two Phantasy games into Phantasy Star Portable for the PSP. The idea is to have a game that feels like the PS Online games, but portable.

Personally, I've been anticipating this title for a while now and here's what I got from it. The gameplay is typical PS Online; you start off by creating a custom male or female character with the choice of multiple races that all have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. PS Online fans will be happy to know that typical PS Online race expectations, like Beast transformations at level 20, are still present. Playing through missions has you switching from weapon to weapon as you fight off the various monsters of PS Portable -- which are called the SEED -- and making use of supportive items. As with any PS Online title, you can expect a range of laser weapons such as guns and melee attack weapons like laser swords and spears. Enemies will randomly drop items that can be used during quests as well as money that can be used for tasks such as buying new weapons and armor. There is a boss battle at the end of almost every level and winning the battle will reward you with money and items to help you along the way.

Downsides for the title include no online mode and no lobby as in previous iterations.

Graphically the game looks great on the PSP. Monsters retain their typical abstract designs that PS Online is known for; most of them look like futuristic cyborgs with organic bodies and a little bit of futuristic machinery added to them. The NPC characters -- as well as your own custom character -- all have an anime style to them. Familiar characters from previous Phantasy titles like Laia Martinez make a return as well as new characters such your CAST species partner Vivienne. CAST is the name for robotic characters manufactured by humans.

As you go into battle, you have the ability to invite characters that you meet in the main story to join you on your quests to help you fight through the hoards of SEED. SEGA has also included the ability for a friend to join you on your quests for some co-op multiplayer. The only real downsides to PSP are that there is no online multiplayer. You have to be next to a friend with a PSP to play together, which really isn't that bad because it's not exactly a PS Online title. It's just that it would have been really cool to include. The second downside is that there isn't a real lobby anymore. In previous PS Online titles, you were always able to walk around a lobby filled with NPCs in between quests to buy equipment, play mini-games and perform other tasks outside of the main adventure. Now, everything has been turned into menus; if you want to go to the GUARDIANS HQ you don't actually walk there, instead you just select it from your list and then, boom, you're there. It seems kind of shallow, but at least you're treated to some really good looking 2D renders in the background of the menus. Still, Phantasy Star Portable is just what the PSP needs to add a spark to the increasingly dimming library of PSP titles. It's an enjoyable action/RPG with just the right amount of complexity for a portable game even without the inclusion of an actual lobby... grumble... grumble... grumble...

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Don't let the cuteness fool you: the characters in We Ski & Snowboard can rip. © Namco Bandai. 

We Ski & Snowboard for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Namco Bandai; Developer: Bandai Namco; Release Date: March 3; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: sports; Players: 1-4; Support: the Wii Balance Board; Online: N/A

Everyone loves a game where the characters have small bodies and big heads. It's adorable, it's charming and it's been a constant videogame trend for years. The Wii is notorious for having these kinds of games in its library due to its lack of processing power and due to the ever-present plethora of shovel-ware that is constantly released on the Wii. When you take those cutsie little big-headed characters and put them on skis or a snowboard, you instantly feel the urge to go "Awwwwww. How cute." That is, until you see them pull off some pretty sick stunts and tricks. We Ski & Snowboard is a sequel to the only good skiing game that has ever been released on the Wii, which was We Ski. Namco Bandai has taken everything that was good about We Ski and has brought it to We Ski & Snowboard with a bunch of new extras and features.

As I said, the graphics are pretty simple in WS&S, but for a totally different reason than you think; The whimsical characters that are portrayed are not just "cut-corner" Wii graphics but rather they are the typical, anime art style that Namco Bandai often likes to use in their games. Players can choose to either use their Mii characters in the game or create their own custom avatar from a pretty broad library of characteristics that include type of hair, face, skin color, goggles and other accessories. The environments look nice and have, thankfully, a very, very smooth frame-rate.

Now, if you want to talk about animation, then that is a different story. Characters move very smooth and very sharp when performing individual actions and stunts. You can easily tell that the programmers and animators were in full control of this title throughout its production. It's a perfect contrast to games like Skate It which are a mash-up of random keyframes and poor transitions.

There are many gameplay options in WS&S that include stunt runs and races. There is also a gameplay option that allows you to just kick back and enjoy the resort. Players can choose their character and equipment, get on the hill and actually enjoy a day of skiing and snowboarding like in real life. In this mode, you actually have to get on a ski lift, let it take you to the top and ski down the hill. In addition to this free-roaming mode, you will run into various characters than either need your help or reward you for finding them. Like in We Ski, WS&S also supports the Wii Balance Board, which adds to the skiing or snowboarding experience. WS&S uses the Balance Board very well; leans and tilts are responsive and sensitive and it also makes performing stunts easier.

The atmosphere of WS&S is also a hoot. When you're playing through the free-roaming mode you will hear musical pieces playing in the background that are actually theme songs from previous Namco titles like Ridge Racer and Katamari Damacy. An online multiplayer feature would have been a great addition to WS&S and it's kind of sad to not see it there. Another little setback is the fact that, even though you can customize your own characters, there are no unique characters that would be the primary poster-boy -- or girl -- of the game which also excludes the option of having character-specific super maneuvers or stunts in the game. We Ski & Snowboard is a good title that makes great use of the Wii Balance Board. It's a simple-looking game with not-so-simple looking animations and abilities. If you like big-headed, anime-style characters, then dive right in.

Peter Rizkalla is a life-long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences and events. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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