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Press Start: March 2007 Game Reviews

For the March "Press Start" column, Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla reviews four PSP games, Syphon Filter, Lumines II, Tekken: Dark Resurrection and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are an entrepreneur who has decided to open your own videogame studio. You have calculated the risk of opening such a business and have already assembled a team of very talented designers and programmers.

Now imagine that business is good. Business is so good that your studio has moved from minor projects like children's PC games and GameBoy Advance titles to much more costly projects, such as games for the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360.

You now have the opportunity to start making original games for Sony's portable system, the PSP. However, if you decided to go for it there would really be no guarantee that you would make any real money. In fact, in the short-run you can pretty much expect to lose money.

So what do you do? You play it safe. Instead of developing new games exclusively for the PSP, you begin to re-release games that you have already published for other game systems (after dumbing down the graphics just a little) onto the PSP.

I mean why not? The PSP is a powerful system and can handle pretty hardcore graphics, it costs way less money than creating a new game from scratch and it's good for people who don't own the more expensive home systems and would like to play the same games on-the-go. Sure the games really weren't made for the PSP and as a result they have some technical problems, but the games are still playable and almost as enjoyable the second time around.

I wish I could say that this is not happening in the game industry, but it is. Many well-known game studios are practicing this very same cost-effective approach and, as a result, an incredible system like the PSP is not realizing its full potential.

But wait! There is a silver lining to this story. Fortunately there are a few brave, strong companies that have decided to take the risk and actually create some exclusive titles for the PSP and we're gonna take a look at a few of them in this month's edition of Press Start!

The PSP can handle the full on 3D characters, environments and hi-res texture mapping that Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror offers. Thoroughly impressive are the gorgeous models and clean texture maps. All SF:DM images © SCEA.

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror for the Sony PlayStation Portable; Publisher: SCEA; Developer: Sony Bend; Release Date: March 14, 2006; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: Shooter; Players: 1-8 players online; Support: online voice chat; Online: various objective modes and deathmatch modes

Running and Gunning

Syphon Filter has always been a very creative, as well as a very entertaining videogame franchise. SF was first introduced in 1999 on the original PlayStation and featured some of the most intuitive and difficult gameplay of that time. The first SF inspired two sequels on the PS1 and an online, multiplayer based title on the PS2, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain.

It seems surprising that Sony would release a full-fledged addition to the series on its portable system, but, sure enough, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror has graced us with its exclusive goodness on the PSP.

I Forget Which Goggles to Use Here

Like in the past SF games, the player controls Gabe Logan; a special strike operative who usually takes care of matters too delicate for the military. Along the way you receive help from other characters and even get to control other characters, such as Lian Xing, another important character in the SF storyline.

Even though the PSP has been out for two years it's still pretty awesome to know that a portable system can handle full-on 3D characters and environments and hi-res texture mapping. But, pretty models and colors aren't everything. What is thoroughly impressive is it handles gorgeous models, clean texture maps (even when viewed really close) and some minor facial expressions without sacrificing the frame-rate.

The "move/aim" control scheme works very well especially considering that this is a PSP title. Walking and strafing is done with the analog nub and aiming is performed with the face buttons; X, Square, Triangle and Circle. The left and right buttons on the cross pad are used as shift keys to toggle between weapons, goggles and accessories. Certain weapons will also allow you to scroll between how many shots the weapon will shoot when the right trigger is held down. Either single shot, three shots at a time or fully automatic baby!

The

Every area in the game has different background music, which does a good job of setting the emotion of the moment and the voice acting is refreshingly professional. It's just really nice to hear some good dialog with the right emphasis instead of the constant over-the-top attitude and cheesy phrases like "... Once and for all!" or everyone's favorite "Noooooooooo!!!!!"

SF: DM is probably the best shooter available today on the PSP and is a really tough act to beat. In fact SF: DM is arguably the best installment in the entire Syphon Filter series.

The challenge gets pretty difficult, but you won't find yourself becoming frustrated at the game too often mainly because of the solid control scheme. For example, you have the option to sneak along walls and peak around corners to pick enemies off one by one, or you can just select your biggest gun and make a valiant charge right through the bad guys while unloading cases of bullets into them. Both methods have a strategy to them and both are pretty darn fun.

All through the game are hidden items and secrets that unlock certain features in Dark Mirror. Puzzles can be a grueling challenge as sometimes you have to memorize a combination to a lock that you will not encounter until the end of that stage so just make sure you have a pen and paper handy.

Online multiplayer is actually as enjoyable and polished as any other online shooter you will find on the PS2. The levels are huge which can sometimes be a problem when you are trying to find someone to shoot at but also have potential when going into a team deathmatch.

They Won't Know What Shot Them

SF: DM is probably the best shooter you will find available today on the PSP and is a really tough act to beat. In fact SF: DM is arguably the best installment in the entire Syphon Filter series.

At times the game does seem like it's moving pretty slow and loading times are painfully long. But regardless, you will find yourself picking up and playing this game over and over again. It's one of those games that you just can't seem to put down; and that's the defining characteristic of a very well made game.

Lumines was an outstanding launch title and was a perfect fit for the PSP. But does Lumines II (above) live up to its predecessor? All Lumines II images courtesy of Buena Vista Games.

Lumines II for the Sony PlayStation Portable; Publisher: Buena Vista Games; Developer: Q Entertainment; Release Date: November 2, 2006; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: puzzle; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Bring on the Sequel

OK, everyone who owns a PSP is absolutely required to own the first Lumines. It was an outstanding launch title, it was addictive and it was a perfect fit for the PSP. Lumines featured beautiful background visuals, as well as foreground visuals and a soundtrack of some of the most awe-inspiring underground techno and trance music that's ever been heard. But does Lumines II live up to its predecessor?

Is It Still Shinin'?

The object of Lumines II is the same as the first Lumines. Small, two-colored blocks in groups of four fall from the top of the screen and the goal is to rotate the colored blocks in an attempt to stack the matching colors together to form larger blocks. A sweep moves from left to right to the beat of the music, eliminating the large matching blocks and leaving the unmatched blocks. When the unmatched blocks reach the very top of the screen the game is over

Like before there are many game modes in Lumines II such as a one player endless mode where as your score grows you earn additional skins and music to play to. There is also another puzzle mode where players must form recognizable shapes using the two colors of the Lumines blocks.

Lumines II has opted to keep the beautiful visuals and ditch the underground music in favor of a more recognizable list of musical tracks. Musicians, such as Gwen Stefani and Black Eyed Peas, now have some of their more popular music featured in Lumines II, in addition to their music videos playing in the background.

The ever so helpful special blocks are back in Lumines II to help clear out wandering blocks of the same color. As in Lumines, the special blocks clear away any blocks of the same color that it touches when it is formed into a large block. Now that's all well and good but couldn't Q Ent. have been a little more creative for the sequel? Why is this the only special block? Why not add blocks that explode and eliminated other blocks in its vicinity? Or even blocks that add to the difficulty like blocks that can only be eliminated using specific methods.

Another new feature in Lumines II is the Sequencer mode, which allows you to create your own background music to play during the game. This seems like a great feature; the only problem is getting the damn thing to work! Trying to figure out what does what in the Sequencer is a seemingly endless challenge of trial and error and the manual is no help at all.

Although Lumines II offers new, beautiful visuals and the background music videos are a nice touch, this sequel doesn't add to the original Lumines.

I'm Going Back to Tetris

Lumines II gives you more of the same from the first Lumines and adds very little to merit a purchase. Don't get me wrong, the new visuals are beautiful and the music videos in the background are a nice touch, but most of the time the videos will just distract you from the actual gameplay and cause you to mess up.

Adding current pop culture music to the game, instead of the creative underground tracks found in the first Lumines, just seams like a marketing ploy and really brings down the game at many points. I mean seriously, how many times have you heard Hollaback Girl? Do you really want to hear it over and over again during gameplay? Sure, some of you might enjoy the introduction of American pop-culture in these games but they just don't fit in a Lumines title. It's like watching your favorite movie again but with a different soundtrack; and the soundtrack isn't even the same genre of music as the original soundtrack.

Sadly, Lumines II does very little to add to the series. You are better off sticking with the first Lumines, which still has people glued to their PSPs.

Tekken: Dark Resurrection for the PSP is an all around great PSP game, with no frame rate problems, no inaccurate button response and, best of all, almost no loading time! Courtesy of Namco Bandai.

Tekken: Dark Resurrection for the Sony PlayStation Portable; Publisher: Namco Bandai Games; Developer: Namco; Release Date: July 25, 2006; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: fighting; Players: 1-2; Support: wireless game sharing; Online: online rankings and downloadable content

Welcome to the King of Iron Fist Tournament

Fighting game fans rejoice! If you just can't live without fighting games, if it's in your blood and you absolutely have to play at least one round a day, even if it's while you're on the move, then you're probably one of the very few people who are glad you didn't get a DS instead of the PSP because the PSP is where fighting games live!

Some of the most popular fighting game franchises have already made appearances on the Sony PSP. Names such as Street Fighter, Darkstalkers and even Mortal Kombat have already been giving fighting game addicts their fix. Tekken: Dark Resurrection has now been thrown into the PSP mix and already, fans of the franchise are licking their chops.

Get Ready for Battle

Tekken: Dark Resurrection is actually Tekken 5 with some extra features and the toning down of some of the cheaper characters, not to mention the toning up of some of the lower tier characters. The storyline is the same; a bunch of exploding robot Jacks blow up the Honmaru temple in an attempt to take out Heihachi Mishima and Kazuya Mishima (the main characters of the Tekken world, not to mention father and son). Instead of killing the Mishimas the explosion actually wakes up a once locked away grandfather of the Mishima family, Jinpachi.

Now you can probably figure out that the whole reason why grandpa was locked up in the first place is because he, of course, is the most powerful and most dangerous fighter in the world (what with being possessed by the Devil and all).

The fighting system in Dark Resurrection is status quo Tekken. Two-punch buttons, two-kick buttons, ridiculously long combos, juggles and one-hit maneuvers that take out huge chunks of your opponent's health. Dark Resurrection also features a roster of more than 30 unique fighters; some new, some old and some familiar characters we haven't seen in a while like Ganryu and Armor King.

Multiplayer is pretty vast with players having the ability to compete with either one copy of the game or two. Players can also send their current character rank and "ghost" information directly to each other or online through a wireless Internet connection. Unfortunately Dark Resurrection lacks the ability to compete with other players in online matches.

Some of you are probably thinking, "Wait a second Pete. Isn't Tekken: Dark Resurrection already available for download on the PS3?" Well, my players, the downloadable PS3 version of Tekken is actually called Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection and is not the same as the PSP version. Tekken for the PS3 is actually an exact arcade port in HD quality and does not include the extra little features that you get on the PSP Such as minigames like Tekken Bowl and Gold Rush. So with the exception of HD visuals, the PSP Tekken actually offers you more replay value than its much prettier PS3 version.

Players can still boost the rank of their characters in the original Arcade mode and also in other modes such as Tekken Dojo. The Tekken Dojo mode is actually quite similar to Street Fighter Alpha 3's World Tour mode where you build up your character by fighting in various matches with unique rules.

Final Round

Tekken: Dark Resurrection for the PSP is an all around great PSP game. No frame rate problems, no inaccurate button response (like in some other fighting games) and best of all, almost no loading time! You have to admire when a developer caters a game specifically for a certain console; the quality of that game really shows when it's done right.

It would have been nice to be able to fight online. In fact, the online features in Dark Resurrection do very little to distract you from the lack of live Internet matches. Those aspects aside, Tekken: Dark Resurrection comes out strong as a must have PSP title.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops starts off the same way as most other Metal Gear titles, with a very long opening cinematic. All MGS: PO images courtesy of Konami.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for the Sony PlayStation Portable; Publisher: Konami; Developer: Kojima Productions; Release Date: December 5, 2006; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1 offline, 1-6 online; Support: wireless game sharing; Online: death matches, capture the flag matches, etc.

Metal Gears and Cogswell Cogs

Metal Gear has been around since the days of the NES, but the franchise really didn't pick up steam until the debut of Metal Gear Solid for the PS1. Since then, Metal Gear has assembled a devoted and sometimes belligerent fan following.

But even with Metal Gear's throngs of followers, fans were irate at the release of Metal Gear Acid and Metal Gear Acid 2 for the PSP. The Metal Gear Acid series did away with the traditional stealth guerilla warfare that Metal Gear Solid was known for and went for a turn-based, tactical board game using cards to represent weapons and abilities.

Konami finally gave in. Fans were happy to hear that good old Snake (Metal Gear's main hero) is coming back for more sneaking and shooting in an all new action adventure title for the Sony PSP. But was this title really worth waiting for?

Solid... Liquid... Naked?

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops starts off the same way as most other Metal Gear titles... with a very, very long opening cinematic. Long cut-scenes are actually vintage Metal Gear, but the cinematics in Portable Ops are not the usual full on 3D, but rather a series of 2D drawings cut together creatively to tell the story. Both the 2D and 3D visuals are beautiful and the animations are fluid. The music keeps you in the mood of the game and voice acting is also up to par with the standard that Konami has set in previous games.

As for the storyline, that's also vintage Metal Gear with the story being extremely mysterious at first and then becoming more and more clear as the game progresses.

Portable Ops is actually comprised of a series of small levels, instead of the traditional one huge world of buildings and or jungles. Each of the small levels can be completed in a matter of minutes and is ideal for recruiting soldiers. Yup, you heard right! A new feature in this Metal Gear is the ability to recruit additional characters. Once you have collected enough characters you will be able to switch between four selected characters at anytime during a mission.

Almost any character can be recruited to help you and each character has its own specific abilities, even the anonymous soldiers. For instance, anonymous henchmen can be used as spies to listen in on enemy conversations to gather intelligence. However, Snake can do the exact same thing with a little bit of creative sneaking.

The multiplayer in MSG: PO is a gem with various live online matches and the ability for the player to create a new character.

The controls in Portable Ops make use of both the analog nub and the cross pad. The analog nub is used to move Snake and the cross pad is used to move the camera. This often becomes a serious problem when action gets intense. When an enemy spots you and begins to open fire the last thing you want to do is struggle with the controls. For example, players will find themselves being spotted by enemies that were impossible to see from their vantage point. The only way to avoid enemies that can't be seen because of the control problem is to memorize the location of that enemy, restart the level and act accordingly.

Snake has his normal set of stealth abilities such as snapping to walls and peaking around corners but often times peaking around corners is useless because enemies can spot you whenever you do it. Moving the camera to see what's around the corner instead of peaking works just as well without being seen.

Multiplayer is a gem with various live online matches and the ability to create a character of your own design but online gameplay still suffers from the poorly designed control scheme. It's also hard to understand why the player must connect to the Internet in order to design a unique character; that feature could have just as easily been added without the requirement of online connectivity.

Substance?

You ever buy a vintage action figure still in its original package? It's so cool to look at and you're just dying to take it out of the box and play with it, but you dare not lower its collector's value by opening it. The desire to play with it eats you up inside. That's really how this game leaves you feeling. You know it's such a well-made game, you know it would be fun to play, but it's a crying shame that wrestling with the controls is a constant problem and often prevents you from performing actions that you know you can perform had the controls been laid out better.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops really doesn't live up to the excitement that followed it when it was first announced. If you are a hardcore fan of Metal Gear then, by all means, pick up Portable Ops and give it your best shot. But if you're just looking for a good action shooter for the PSP, you might be more satisfied with a game like Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror or Killzone: Liberation.

Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong 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.

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