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Press Start: February 2007 Game Reviews

In this month's "Press Start," Peter Rizkalla reviews Gears Of War, Warioware: Smooth Moves, Okami and Elite Beat Agents and find out which titles have a shot at winning big at the upcoming GDC Awards.

It's February and Valentines Day is right around the corner. Now is the time when you cannot possibly forget to get your significant other something nice. If you don't have a significant other, this might be your opportunity nab a hubby or wifey by checking out some local outdoor events, visiting a local church pic-nic or even checking out Craig's List!

But when you are buying endless amounts of chocolate encased in pink and red boxes shaped like hearts don't forget about one of your old friend Pete's favorite events: the 2007 Game Developer's Conference. It's right around the corner and in this month's edition of Press Start, I will be looking at a handful of pretty outstanding games some of which are sure to win something at this year's GDC Award ceremony.

Gears of War lives up to hype. With the implementation of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3.0, this is the kind of game that makes an Xbox 360 worth buying. All Gears of War images © Microsoft Game Studios, Epic Studios.

Gears of War for Microsoft Xbox 360: Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios; Developer: Epic Games; Release Date: November 7, 2006; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: shooter; Players: 1-2; Support: LAN gameplay; Online: eight player co-op/head-to-head

Lock and Load

Even before Gears of War was released it was given monikers like "The Halo Killer" or "The next step in videogame evolution" or even "The game that will help realized the Xbox 360's full potential." Personally, I just didn't buy it. I am never really impressed with how much hype a game can gather even before it has been released and it goes without saying that many of us have often been disappointed when a highly anticipated title is released and just can't live up to it's own propaganda.

But (and this is a big one), when I heard that Epic Games was implementing their new Unreal Engine 3.0, I decided to give it a shot. As you play Gears of War you begin to realize that not only does it live up to the hype but this is the kind of game that makes an Xbox 360 worth buying. Could this be a sign that people in the game industry are starting to realize just what the game industry needs? Maybe.

Watch Your 9!

Our grisly hero of this story is Marcus Fenix, a former military commander who has just been busted out of prison and immediately reinstated into action. We later find out that a struggling human race is at war on a foreign planet with a blood thirsty species known as the Locust.

Just by looking at the gameplay footage and screenshots of GOW you can tell that it is not a First-Person-Shooter. It is actually a Third-Person-Shooter that plays very similar to an FPS. You got the traditional controls; the left analog stick makes the character walk while the right analog stick makes the character aim. What is not traditional about the controls is that the maneuvers used to take cover from enemy fire are essential to the gameplay. Players can hide behind rocks and walls while enemies are shooting or just to reload their gun and can pop out at any time to let the Locust eat lead, toss a fragmentation grenade or take aim for a headshot. Players can also dive and dodge from cover to cover in an attempt to get in a better firing position.

The gameplay feels very concrete and the controls become second nature after a few fire-fights. As you begin to convert the endless hoard of Locust Grubs into canon fodder you'll find that some of them will either just die and some of them will just become so badly injured that they can't fight anymore. GOW allows you to perform a coup de grace on a fallen, but not quite dead, enemy by stomping on his head; not very "Jesse Colin Young" if you catch my drift, but it's still fun to do.

The gameplay in GOW is astounding as are the graphics in the game. The lighting and texture mapping is not only gorgeous but also gives the player a better advantage in judging how far or how close an enemy is.

Another interesting aspect of the game is the energy meter. Technically it's not even a meter. When you get hit by enemy fire a large red icon will begin to appear in the middle of the screen. The icon indicates that you are bleeding and as you take more and more fire piece by piece the icon will begin to reveal itself until it is fully revealed and you are dead. To stop the bleeding the player has to take cover for a short while until the icon begins to fade away.

I am all about the multiplayer. Rest assured GOW has plenty. Friends can play together either cooperatively or competitively. Cooperative gameplay allows you and a friend to play through the game's main story together. Competitive gameplay pits you up against each other in various modes such as a traditional deathmatch, a game where you must find and kill the captain of the other team and others. All multiplayer modes can be played either on one monitor by split-screen, on two monitors (via LAN using two Xbox 360s) or over Xbox Live.

I always say "gameplay before graphics" and although the gameplay in GOW is astounding the developers were no slouches when it came to graphics as well. You would think that the cinematics in this game are pre-rendered Full-Motion-Videos but they're not; that's actual in-game footage we're looking at! The lighting and texture mapping is not only gorgeous but also gives you a better advantage in judging how far or how close an enemy is during gameplay. The character models also retain that Unreal Tournament feel with the oversized armor. The environments are beautiful and, needless to say, highly interactive.

By George I Think They've Got It!

What Gears of War provides is excellent graphics, rock solid gameplay and tons of replay value. What's interesting to note is that here we have a current generation system game like Gears of War that only had a budget of just over $9 million when the common-place game from a previous generation, like PS2, had an average cost of six to eight million dollars. That's not much of a financial leap which leads one to think that Epic Games is running a very clean ship.

This is exactly what the game industry needs; people who know how to make games, are passionate about making games and can manage their studio properly. There really isn't much to say about what's wrong with Gears of War except that it uses the vibrate feature in the controller a lot and as a result it burns up my batteries real quick; big deal. If Microsoft and Epic continue to make games of this caliber then it's safe to say that Sony and Nintendo are going to have to step up their game to keep up. Much kudos to the Epic Games team; keep 'em coming boys!

WarioWare: Smooth Moves goes with the Nintendo Wii like

WarioWare: Smooth Moves for Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Intelligent Systems; Release Date: January 15, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: party game; Players: 1-4; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Behold the Form Baton

It's funny to think that Nintendo has been making WarioWare games for almost four years now. The first WarioWare title was WarioWare: Mega MicroGame$ for the Gameboy Advance. Nobody really knew what to expect from the game but when we found out that WarioWare consisted of hundreds of single action micro games, it turned out to be pretty fun.

WarioWare: Smooth Moves goes together with the Nintendo Wii like "lamb and tuna fish" (if you've seen the movie Big Daddy you would have gotten that last one). Smooth Moves brings back the familiar characters, weird artistic style and even more micro games than ever before and with the use of Nintendo's motion sensitive controller it's one heck of a ride.

Consider the Balance Stone

As you start playing Smooth Moves you'll notice the art style of the characters and backgrounds look almost Flash animated or like they were done in Illustrator, but as you begin to play the micro games the visuals vary from light 2D sketches to extremely low-res (but still recognizable) 3D models to fully rendered 2D and 3D animations. The object of the game is that each character in Smooth Moves has their own arbitrary little back story just to hold the game together and a set of micro games which the player must play through.

The micro games are simple little tasks with simple one to two word instructions that are performed within no more than three or four seconds. The player must execute these tasks using the Wii-mote (or as the game has named it "The Form Baton"). For example, in one micro game the player will see a human hand holding the handle of a funny looking machine and the word that appears on the screen is "crank," so the player must hold the Wii-mote in his fist as it appears on the screen and act out the crank motion. Sounds simple? It gets more complicated.

The game has many forms that the player must master such as "The Mohawk" where the player must hold the controller on his/her head. Or "The Big Cheese" where the player must place his hands on his hips while holding the Wii-mote in one of his/her hands. The result of your actions seem so crazy sometimes; one minute you'll be aiming a stream of water at a fiery building, the next minute you'll be trying to wave your hands vigorously to clear the air of someone's...uhh...flatulence.

To master WarioWare: Smooth Moves a player must hold a controller atop their head for

Each time you start a new set of games you are given only three mistakes, after the fourth mistake the game will be over and the player will have to start from the beginning of the set again. As you play through the game you begin to unlock more and more characters thus unlocking more and more micro games which once played can be revisited and played again and again in the games museum.

Throughout the game only the Wii-mote will be necessary to play through the micro games but toward the end of the game, players will be required to use the nunchuck attachment (or as the game calls it "The Balance Stone").

Beware Grandma's Dentures

WarioWare is one of those games that look so simple you think to yourself "I could have made that!" Yeah sure anyone could have made the simple graphics and animations within WarioWare: Smooth Moves but leave it up to Nintendo to come up with such abstract ideas. Clever gameplay and random art styles have somehow come together again to create a very worth while game for the Nintendo Wii.

I am fairly certain that this will not be the last WarioWare title.

Okami is a work of art. It manages to not only pull off an enjoyable action-adventure experience but it does so with an art style like we have never seen. © Capcom.

Okami for Sony PlayStation 2; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Clover Studio; Release Date: September 19, 2006 ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action-adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

I Walk The Line

Okami is a work of art in every sense of the word. A new addition to the recently dull genre of action-adventure, Okami manages to not only pull off an enjoyable (and long-winded) action-adventure experience but it does so with an art style like we have never seen.

Okami's story is a tale of Japanese lore. Ancient, evil demons (those are the best kind of demons) have been reawakened and are ravaging the world once more covering it in darkness; figuratively and literally. Armed with a fiery discus, a celestial paintbrush and a really annoying bug. Our hero, Amaterasu, must fight her way to the source of this darkness and destroy it to bring light and color back to the world.

Taaaaake ooooooonnn meeeeeeee...

The first great thing I love about this title is that not only is the main character not human but it's not even a male! Amaterasu is a female, white wolf. This is so uncommon in games nowadays. The majority of games that have been released in recent years have displayed super muscular guys wielding heavy guns; now I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I just think Okami is a brilliant change of pace.

Fresh out of the box Okami delivers an enormous story when starting a new game. The story is told through on-screen text and a strange language that kinda sounds like someone talking backwards and the visuals are portrayed with what looks like moving Japanese artwork and some nice effects here and there.

The in-game graphics are some of the most beautiful cel-shading we have ever seen from the gorgeous characters and environments to the fire emanating from Amaterasu's weapon to the trail of flowers and grass that she leaves where ever she walks. Graphically, the characters all have a kind of whimsical feel to them while Amaterasu looks so genuine; almost rotoscoped or motion-captured.

Controlling the character feels slippery at first but after a while it begins to make sense why things feel the way they do. For example, while venturing through a village you will find that Amaterasu begins to jump randomly without even touching the jump button. Then you realize that every time you approach a short obstacle such as a wooden fence Amaterasu leaps over that fence before running head-first into it. It makes sense that a wolf would do that instinctively.

Holding down R1 on the controller freezes the screen into what looks like an old sepia colored painting so that the player can make use of the Celestial Brush. The brush is used for many things such as rebuilding a bridge or slashing through a stunned enemy. There are 13 different brush talents that Amaterasu learns throughout the game which I really don't want to spoil.

When engaging in combat with enemies everything on the screen turns into a blazing red color and locks you into a set area like a wrestling ring. At this point, Amaterasu employs her flaming discus to put the hurt on some enemies using ground and air attacks.

Hey Furball!

Okami is an all out masterpiece as far as graphics and story go. Controls take a little getting used to and the music fits each circumstance throughout the game. The only thing that becomes a nuisance is the weird backwards talking that you hear whenever someone is speaking. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time used the same method of on-screen text to tell the story (and maybe a yell, grunt or giggle whenever the situation called for it) and represent spoken words from the characters without using that weird backwards talk and it worked just fine.

Also there is so much text throughout the whole game that it almost feels like an RPG. By the last count Okami required 1,500 pages of text to be translated from the original Japanese version to the American version. That just seems like a lot for an action-adventure title.

You play a game like this once in a blue moon; in fact Okami has recently been nominated for four different awards in this year's Game Developers Choice Awards competition including "Best Game" and "Best Game Design." But it kinda seems like a cruel irony considering the fact that Clover Studios have shut their doors and are no longer making games. It kinda looks like Okami 2 will never happen unless someone decides to buy out the rights to Clover Studios.

Elite Beat Agents joins other popular rhythm games such as Dance, Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. All Elite Beat Agents images ©iNiS.

Elite Beat Agents for Nintendo DS; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: iNis Release Date: November 6, 2006; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: rhythm; Players: 1-4; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Forget the FBI

Babysitting... over-zealous cab drivers... directing an award winning feature film... what do all of these things have in common? Not a damn thing! But apparently the conspicuously sane people at iNis have found a way to mesh these ridiculous circumstances together to create a game that's... well... actually quite fun (and unique! Don't forget unique). Rhythm games have become increasingly popular lately, what with Dance, Dance Revolution initially setting the pace and even more recently you have the super popular Guitar Hero. Now in that very same vein; iNis and Nintendo have brought us Elite Beat Agents.

The storyline goes like this; different people from all over the world are struggling through their own specific challenges and adventures. But when their situations become too intense, their cries for help are answered by a special agency known as the Elite Beat Agents. Now what the Elite Beat Agents do exactly is show up to help these people through their problems by performing a series of dance maneuvers to the beat of well known, licensed music. I don't get it either but believe me it gets better.

Agent "Spin" Here

What the player needs to do is this; music will start to play at the beginning of each level and a succession of icons will appear at random spots on the touch screen of the DS. Using the stylus the player needs to tap, spin and drag the icons exactly to the beat of the music. At the end of each song the game will grade you on how well your timing was throughout the song. Like in any rhythm game, timing is critical to how well of a grade you get.

Timing is critical to how well of a grade you get with Elite Beat Agents. The player uses the stylus to tap, spin and drag the icons exactly to the beat of the music and is graded upon his timing.

As far as graphics go; the most crucial aspects of the game, of course, are the beat icons. The icons themselves are pretty basic in order to be recognizable. The real attempt at aesthetic beauty is in the cinematics and character animations. As you begin each level a story will be revealed via anime-style 2D graphics. There really isn't any animation in the cinematics; their more like comic panels or fully colored storyboards. The real animation begins when you start playing through the song. As you're tapping away, three Elite Beat Agents come out and dance to the rhythm of the song (reminds me of the Blues Brothers). The agents are actually 3D models and are animated very well. In each song the agents perform a completely different dance number. They dance pretty well as long as your timing is right but if you miss a note, all three agents fall over as if they were hit by a car.

Although the single player mode will keep you busy for quite a while a multi-player aspect of the game allows you to go head-to-head against friends to see who can get a better grade in a song or cooperate to tackle a song together. Difficulty progresses wildly as you advance through the game. The game gets to a point where it is an incredible, yet frustrating, challenge.

Agents Are Goooooooo!

You might remember iNis as the people who brought us Gitaroo Man; another rhythm game franchise with individual titles on the PSP and PS2. This is the kind of game that proves that a wild and crazy storyline with a very "out of place" feel in western culture can still deliver a one-of-a-kind experience with some very well put together gameplay. This should be a tremendous bit of encouragement for any small game studio looking to make a name for themselves with what little they have.

Maybe it's just me but I feel like it's really hard to understand the jokes in this game (at least I think they're jokes). They just seem out of place in western culture. Although on the other hand western culture is embracing that anime lifestyle more and more. Either way I still like Elite Beat Agents, I mean how often can you say you just helped an old sea captain find sunken treasure by dancing around in a three piece suit to the rhythm of YMCA by the Village People?

Peter Rizkalla is a life long fan of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies such as THQ and Namco and has won several awards for his animated short films such as his videogame themed Flash film Toadstool Funk. Peter has also aspired to one day enter the Flugtag Tournament with his brother Jacob.

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