For the first "Press Start" column of 2008, Peter "Rizk" Rizkalla takes a look at Unreal Tournament III, NiGHTS Journey of Dreams, Assassin's Creed and Dementium: The Ward.
What the crap? Has it really been a year already? 2008 is going to be a great year and, no, it's not because we're finally going to lose that extra 10 pounds that we've been trying to lose since New Year's of '94. That gut isn't going anywhere, so just sit back and let it hang. 2008 is going to be a great year because, even with all the crap that happened in 2007 with the Xbox 360 "Red Ring of Death" problems, the poor PS3 sales, and the ridiculous Wii shortages, it was undoubtedly one of the best years the game industry has ever seen. Now that things have calmed down a bit with the Big Three, there is every reason in the world why the game industry should do even better in '08.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of our "Press Start" column, I have selected a variety of titles to take a look at this month, all of which have come out fighting. 2007, although great, has shown that the game industry is stuck in a few ruts. Maybe this year we'll see American developers create some great original game concepts, instead of settling for the constant barrage of army first-person shooters. Maybe we'll see some Japanese developers create some titles with a story that doesn't fall into the typical "anime" formula. Rest assured that none of these games are like that. I invite you to kick back and check out the face-rocking games we've got in this month's triumphant edition of "Press Start!"
Unreal Tournament III for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Publisher: Midway Games; Developer: Epic Games; Release Date: November 19, 2007; ESRB Rating: M for Mature; Genre: first-person shooter; Players: 1-32; Support: N/A; Online: matches and co-op campaign
Bring on the pain! Another manly game designed to be played by manly men has hit store shelves! But not just any manly game; this is Unreal Tournament III. The Unreal series can be credited as the inspiration for every manly game that has ever been released. The last true Unreal installment we saw was Unreal Tournament 2004 which came out in... 2004 (I think). Other spin-offs, such as the successful Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, were fully welcomed, and now the tried-and-true core franchise is back for another fragfest.
Anyone who is familiar with Unreal knows that, if anything, the series definitely lives up to its name. UT3 is a very fast-paced first-person shooter with unreal, sci-fi weapons like the crystal shard stinger minigun, the shock rifle, and, everyone's favorite, the tri-rocket launcher. As in Gears of War, UT3 gives you the option of playing through the campaign mode by yourself or co-operatively with a friend. The story follows a team of mercenaries called the Ronin, who are looking to avenge the deaths of their clansmen.
The meat and potatoes of Unreal is the gameplay; every weapon has a primary and secondary fire and both can be used strategically in UT3. For example, the flak cannon's primary fire is a spray of small flak shells that do little damage, but have a wide range, while the secondary fire is one big ball of flak that does huge damage, but requires you to be way more accurate to nail your target. Another manly new addition to the series is the ability to feign death. Doing this makes your character collapse in a heap, which adds a new level of strategy to the mix. Say someone is on your tail, mowing you down with a minigun; before he can take you out completely, you can feign death to trick him into thinking he killed you. As he passes by you to find someone else to kill, you can jump back up and plant a nice happy rocket into the back of his skull.
There are various modes in UT3, such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, warfare, and a couple new ones like vehicle capture the flag and duel. Vehicle capture the flag is the same as the original capture the flag, except (this is a no-brainer) you get to use vehicles. Duel lets two players play a one-on-one deathmatch. Players can also customize their character by choosing their character's species, team and appearance. The custom character options are limited at first, but more options are unlocked as you play through the campaign. Speaking of customization, exclusive to the PC version of UT3 is the classic UT editor tool, where players can use the 3D software to create custom players, vehicles, items, weapons and just about anything else. If you are lucky enough to have picked up the collector's edition, it includes a DVD with tutorials on how to create your own content.
Following the Epic Games studio tradition, the graphics in UT3 are gorgeous. Incredible-looking levels and characters move at a surprisingly outstanding frame-rate without requiring that much PC hardware. The only thing that disappoints me is that Epic has decided to do away with the "adrenaline" abilities that were found in previous Unreal games. That's kind of a bummer, but thank God that the armor and double-damage power-ups are still around. This is one manly game that should be played on a manly computer against manly players. If you don't own this game, you're just not manly. Sorry, that's the way it is.
NiGHTS Journey of Dreams for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: SEGA; Release Date: December 18, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1-2; Support: Nunchuck, Classic Controller, Gamecube Controller; Online: My Dream garden community, multiplayer races
This Character Looks Like a Football Mascot
If you can remember as far back as the SEGA Saturn then you can sure as heck remember a game called NiGHTS Into Dreams... ! When NiGHTS Into Dreams... was released for the SEGA Saturn, SEGA created a custom analog controller specifically for controlling it. That's how good it was! People love the first NiGHTS game so much that it is now fetching prices on eBay higher than when it was originally released! SEGA has now ventured back into the old-school realm to bring a new iteration of the NiGHTS series to the Nintendo Wii in the form of NiGHTS Journey of Dreams.
As before, NJoD takes place in a dream world. Players control the main character, NiGHTS, who can fly freely throughout many dream levels completing certain tasks. First, let's talk about the controls, because they're one of the best things about this game. Players can choose to control NiGHTS either with the Wii Remote, the Wii Remote and a Nunchuck, the Wii Classic Controller, or even with a Gamecube Controller. The latter three of these choices allow you to control NiGHTS with an analog stick; however, if you decide to control NiGHTS with just the Wii Remote, then an icon appears on the screen where you point the Wii remote. Holding down the A button makes NiGHTS fly towards the icon and moving the icon around the screen navigates NiGHTS' movements. You can also twist the Wii remote while flying to perform acrobatic moves which help you collect power-ups, fly through rings and trap enemies. Using just the Wii remote takes a little practice, but it's the best way to play once you master it.
I'm Either Dreaming or This Is an Acid Trip
The art design in NJoD is fantastic. The environments and characters all have an abstract, yet lighthearted, feel to them. Mountains can sometimes look like circus tents, enemies will take the form of flying seahorses, and everything has a very vibrant color scheme. Another fantastic aspect of NJoD is the music. The music is among the most engaging and memorable in any game, and it also helps retain the abstract yet calming feel of the game.
The concept of NJoD is that Nightmarens have infested the dream world of Nightopia, which has caused the two main children of the game, Will and Helen, to suffer nightmares. This is a slight downside to the game, because every once in a while you will be required to control Will or Helen, at which point your only control abilities are using the children to run, jump and attack by throwing blue spheres. Although using the kids is essential to the story, it's not very enjoyable.
What's With the Inflatable Clowns?
When using NiGHTS, players can loop around enemies to trap them. Trapped enemies will appear in an area in the game called My Dream. Nightopians (friendly NPCs) can also be brought into the My Dream area. My Dream is your personal garden, which will change based on how many enemies and Nightopians you collect. You can then go online to visit other players' My Dream gardens to explore, exchange gift items and chat. This is nice and all, but at no point can you take control of NiGHTS and fly around in the My Dream areas.
NJoD also allows two players to compete in races or battles. This added multiplayer option is a welcome bonus to the game experience. In fact, players can also connect online to race other NJoD players over Nintendo Wi-Fi. It would have been great if there were a mode that let you create your own aerial course in NJoD and allowed other players over Nintendo Wi-Fi to control NiGHTS and play through them, while you fly through levels created by other players online. Having to use Will and Helen in the story mode is the downside of NiGHTS Journey of Dreams, but it is still a great gaming experience.
Assassin's Creed for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC; Publisher: Ubisoft; Developer: Ubisoft Montreal; Release Date: November 13, 2007; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
It's Stabby Time
Hooray for killing people! Is there anything more fun in a video game? Developed by the same people that brought us Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed has been in the public eye for a long time, even before its release. Right from the beginning, it just looks cool. The main character is Altair (pronounced "all-tie-EAR"); he's dressed in an awesome-looking white robe, he pushes people out of his way when he walks, he's missing a finger, and he kills people with a hidden blade. You can't get much more "gangsta" than that. But does all that instantly make this game great? Of course it doesn't, but it sure helps. Let's take a deeper look at Assassin's Creed, shall we?
Technically, the main character is not the super-cool Altair; the main character is actually a totally uncool bartender named Desmond Miles. A drug company is performing tests on him; they are analyzing his DNA, which contains the memories of his 800-year-old ancestor, who of course is (you guessed it) the super-cool Altair. Altair is part of a guild of assassins who live by three laws: assassins must never kill innocents, they must always remain hidden, and they must never bring harm to other assassins. Right at the beginning of the game, Altair breaks every one of these laws and is then demoted. The guild of assassins gives him one more chance to redeem himself, and so you have to climb your way back up the ranks.
Gangstas Wear White
Assassin's Creed controls very well. Altair can either be inconspicuous by subtly blending into crowds or posing as a scholar, or he can be very conspicuous by "free running" through crowds and environments. Free running is when Altair quickly climbs up buildings, jumps from rooftops, runs up walls, and performs many other acrobatic feats to get where he is going. The AI in the game is great; when you "free run" you will hear the people around you say things like "What is he doing?" or "I've never seen anyone do such a thing." Being conspicuous is fun, but, if you get too nuts, the town guards will get suspicious of you and may attack Altair.
If you think you are just going to run through this game and kill any guard that gets on your nerves, then think again! The enemies have almost all of the same combat skills that you do, including countering your attacks and throwing you around. When you start losing to a group of enemies, you can run and hide from them. Once you cut around a corner where they can't see you, you can disappear in a haystack or a roof garden, or by sitting motionless on a bench. Guards don't play around when they see you climbing to get away from them; they will either climb up after you or shoot arrows and throw rocks at you to knock you down. See what I mean when I said how good the AI is?
Haystack Diving, the New Olympic Event
Although the combat system in Assassin's Creed is great, this title does not just consist of a mash-up of repetitive combat. You will be required to eavesdrop on conversations, pickpocket, stealthily assassinate people, and interrogate people by beating the snot out of them. Throughout the game there are many side-tasks to keep you busy, such as collecting hidden flags and killing Templar Knights; there are also many towers you need to climb -- these are not only side-quests, but also help reveal more of your map.
Assassin's Creed is not some mindless "hack-and-slasher." It creates a feel and gives you a sense of depth. The Middle Eastern characters and environments not only look gorgeous, but the NPCs actually speak various Arabic dialects, and crowded marketplaces make you forget that you are playing a game filled with polygonal characters. Assassin's Creed is not only a work of art; it is also the product of extremely hard work and deep research. I can't wait to see what Ubisoft is going to do for Assassin's Creed on the DS.
Dementium: The Ward for the Nintendo DS; Publisher: Gamecock Media Group; Developer: Renegade Kid; Release Date: October 25, 2007; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: first-person horror; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
Scarier Than a Talking Penguin
Horror games have always held a special place in the hearts of gamers. I guess we just like being scared half-way into a heart attack. Classic franchises like the Resident Evil series and the Silent Hill series are probably what pop into your mind when you think of this genre. New to the genre is a 3D title by Renegade Kid named Dementium: The Ward for the Nintendo DS. Now, you're probably thinking, "How horrifying a game can you really make on the DS?" Admittedly, the DS doesn't have the greatest 3D capability, but that hasn't stopped great-looking 3D games from coming out on the DS in full force.
This Must Be Someplace in New Jersey
Dementium starts off a lot like Bioshock, where you control an unnamed character. This character wakes up in a room within a mental institution and it's really dark. You soon find a flashlight; then you find your first weapon in the form of a nightstick. Something is really wrong about this asylum because there is blood everywhere and there are messages on the walls written in blood. Dead bodies soon start jumping back to life and attacking you. You later find other weapons like a pistol and a shotgun. What makes this game scary as hell is how dark it is. You can barely see what's right in front of you unless you have your flashlight equipped, and you can't have a weapon and the flashlight equipped at the same time.
The controls are great. The cross-pad moves your character, while the touch screen lets you aim and look around. Aiming with the touch screen is responsive and accurate, much like using a mouse in a PC first-person shooter. Dementium keeps its fear factor by giving you only a certain amount of ammo and forcing you to ration it as best you can to stay alive. The sound in Dementium is another achievement; the music (when there is any music) is macabre and fitting for each area of the game. In the nursery, you'll hear a musical piece that sounds like it is being played on a children's music box, and it's downright creepy as hell. The sound effects also add to the feel, with random screams, babies crying, and the growls of monsters that you can't see until they are right behind you tearing you apart.
Keep a Clean Pair of Pants Handy
Gamecock Media Group and Renegade Kid suggest that you play this game in the dark while wearing headphones. I suggest that, if you have a bladder-control problem, doing so might not be a good idea. Be forewarned, this game will scare the living piss out of you. Dementium: The Ward is a great game experience and a definite success for game industry newcomers Renegade Kid.
Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong aficionado 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. He can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.
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