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Press Start: September 2007 -- Hits or Misses

In this month's edition of "Press Start," Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla challenges BioShock, kicks it with Mario Strikers Charged, rocks out with Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, takes a ride in Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars and has a close encounter with Alien Syndrome.

This time of the year is always good for the game industry. It's the time when all the game developers that showed off their newest games in the most recent game conventions release those games to get a jump on the fall season. Plus, a lot of developers have had the whole year to build up hype for specific titles that they hope to release to a crowd of rabid, anxious fanboys.

The only problem is that every once in a while games with a lot of hype surrounding them tend to fall short of expectations. Lately, though, that hasn't really been a problem. The Xbox 360 has been out for almost two years now, with a slow and steady stream of great games flowing into its already huge library, while the Nintendo Wii and the PS3 are really starting to pick up steam.

This month we are going to look at a few games that either have a history of titles behind them or have built up a huge amount of anticipation within the game industry. This is the first batch of games to hit store shelves before the flood of titles that usually comes in around this time of year and I am happy to present them in this month's edition of Press Start!

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BioShock has a lot of hype to live up to after more than a year of news, previews and some awesome-looking in-game footage. All BioShock images © 2kgames.

BioShock for the Xbox 360; Publisher: 2K Games; Developer: 2K Boston/2K Australia/Irrational Games; Release Date: August 21, 2007; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: first-persion adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

We Built This City On Rock And Roll

After more than a year of news, previews and some awesome-looking in-game footage, BioShock has finally seen the light of day. The hype that has surrounded this game has been nothing less than immeasurable, but can this beautiful-looking, very stylized game live up to its advance reputation?

BioShock's story is unlike any other. When you start a new game, you're looking through the eyes of an unnamed man comfortably sitting in a passenger plane. The plane starts shaking, the lights go out and soon that plane has crashed into the ocean below. Somehow you survive and swim your way up to a dark and spooky-looking stone structure. I'm sure there are some nice, friendly people there that can help you out!

As you step onto the stone island and walk through the ever-so-inviting, rusty steel doors, you find a steel pod that takes you deep under the ocean. You look out the window of this air-tight pod and see an unbelievably huge city built at the bottom of the ocean. Later you find out that this city is called Rapture and it was built by a man named Andrew Ryan to create a place of absolute freedom. He built this city to escape the restraints of the world and to allow the scientist, the artist and the laborer to live a life of absolute, uninterfered-with greatness.

Scientific breakthroughs have been made in Rapture, including gene manipulation. A chemical called ADAM gives people new powers, allows them to alter their strength, change how they look and more. Of course, by now you know something has gone wrong. People are addicted to ADAM and have gone insane. Mutated little girls called Little Sisters are like ADAM factories and everyone is after them. However, getting to these little girls requires getting through their guardians, the Big Daddies. Big Daddies are these huge guys in giant brass diving suits with giant drills for arms and they, unfortunately, aren't happy guys! As you venture through the ruins of Rapture your only friend is a man named Atlas who communicates to you by way of a two-way radio. So basically, you're boned unless you find a way out of this rotten city.

Don't Hold Out on Me, ManBioShock is a first-person adventure game. You fight off insane people called Splicers using weapons like pistols, shotguns, a Tommy Gun and a very faithful faucet wrench. In addition to everyone's favorite weapons, you also pick up plasmids. Plasmids are genetic powers that you will find throughout the game, which give you the ability to use lightning, fire, telekenisis and other genetic mutations which emanate directly from your body. Oh, and don't forget about the ability to turn your arm into a living hornets' nest and shoot out a swarm of hornets at your enemies. Extra cool points go to the developers for that one!

All through the game there will be several mechanical items that can either help you or hurt you, such as vending machines, health stations, surveillance cameras and gunner bots. Any of these machines can be "hacked" to your advantage. Hacking will cause vending machine prices to be lowered and health stations to injure enemies who try to use them, and allow enemy robots to work for you. Hacking is done through a mini-game that plays exactly like Pipe Dream for the NES.

Who Built This City and How Much Were They Paid?

The graphics are a marvel to behold. The water effects in BioShock are like no other water effects you have ever seen in any game. The frame-rate is very smooth and can be even smoother when "unlocked" in the options mode. The whole city of Rapture has this art deco, 1920s, Gotham City feel to it. Even the music is all old songs like "It Had to Be You" and "Down by the Old Mill Stream" that sound like an old phonograph. The whole feel of the game is bloody, but not just bloody for the sake of being bloody. The use of plasmid powers and the scary feel of the game makes BioShock feel like a mix between the most recent Shadowrun and Resident Evil.

Tricky puzzles and huge levels give BioShock lots of replay value. The only problem... no online play. It would have been nice to see some online matches, with the option to play as either a plasmid-wielding Splicer or a drill-toting Big Daddy. Aside from this notable exclusion, it's safe to say that BioShock is a must-have game; so if you have an Xbox 360 or a gaming-ready PC, then shame on you if you don't already own a copy.

Mario Strikers Charged for the Nintendo Wii features all the gameplay elements from the Gamecube version, with updated graphics and a few extra little goodies.

Mario Strikers Charged for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Next Level Games; Release Date: July 30, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: sports; Players: 1-4; Support: Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector; Online: 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 player matches

The Real Football

Good Grief! Our favorite portly plumber Mario and his friends have been in every kind of sports game imaginable. Baseball, basketball, snowboarding, soccer and even street brawling! Heck, Mario has even been a featured dancer in a Dance, Dance Revolution game for the Gamecube! I think the only sport Mario hasn't been in is pie eating; personally, I'd really like to see that. Either way, Nintendo has taken one of the best Mario sports games and given it a sequel. On the heels of the very well-made Mario Strikers soccer game for the Gamecube, we now have Mario Strikers Charged for the Nintendo Wii.

You take control of a variety of Nintendo characters, including, but not limited to, Mario, Bowser, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Wario and Donkey Kong. You even get to pick the classic sidekick characters as your... uh... sidekicks. There's Toad, Hammer Brother, Boo, Birdo and more.

All the gameplay elements from the Gamecube version are back, with updated graphics and a few extra little goodies.

Pele Would Be Great in This Game

First off, there are several different game types, including an exhibition mode, a career mode and online matches. Players choose a team captain and three sidekicks. Matches can be played with a time limit or up to a certain score in either a multi-game series or in just one game.

There are a bunch of different soccer stadiums, each with its own look and feel, and some that have adverse effects on the match. On the offense side, players can pass, shoot, dodge, block and fire out a super-charged shot that has a better chance of scoring a goal than regular kicks. Each of the sidekicks has specific dodges and charged shots that reflect their character. For example, when dodging with Dirty Bones, he doesn't actually dodge, he teleports a pretty good distance, and shooting a charged shot with Hammer Brother makes him jump into the air and throw a bunch of hammers before shooting the ball; this knocks down the goalie to insure the shot scores.

A Mario game would not be complete without crazy items being thrown or bombs going off. © Nintendo.

A charged shot is performed by holding down the shoot button, then releasing it. If the button is held down long enough using a team captain, a small gauge will appear around the character that starts up a mega-strike shot. Provided that an opponent doesn't hit you during the charge, a successful mega-strike shot will show a short cinematic of the character leaping into the air and firing off multiple balls at the goal. This brings up a small mini-game in which the opponent points the Wii-remote at the screen and uses the cursor to swat away the oncoming balls.

What Mario game would be complete without the use of some crazy items? During a match, players can gain items by shooting a blue-charged shot or by being hit by the opponent. Of course, the items -- like turtle shells, banana peels, bob-ombs and stars -- are all inspired by previous Mario titles. Heck, even chain-chomps are in this game as an item, but they take out everyone on the field, friend or foe!

Online matches are fun and very competitive. The gameplay is very responsive, with almost no lag; in fact, before you start an online match, the game will tell you the quality of the connection between you and your opponent using stars on a scale of one to four, with four being the best, one being the worst.

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!

The graphics in Mario Strikers Charged are awesome and the frame-rate is smooth, even when things get wild. The character cinematics that are shown whenever a goal is scored do a really good job of portraying each character's mannerisms. The gameplay can get confusing sometimes, but it never gets out of control.

The "Strikers Challenges" mode, which has you complete challenges within crazy circumstances, is fun and even rewards you with unlockable bonuses, but I feel there should still be a mini-game mode for out-of-match mini-games. Technically, the mega-strikes aren't truly mini-games. Something like a penalty kick mini-game or a boss-battle mini-game, where you fight a giant chain-chomp by kicking soccer balls at it. That would have been fun. I mean, even baseball games have a home run derby mode and Mario Hoops: 3 on 3 had dribbling mini-games. Those points aside, Mario Strikers Charged is big fun and is easily one of the best Mario-themed sports games ever made.

The newest installment of the Guitar Hero series -- brings back memories with the songs of Quiet Riot, Ratt and Twisted Sister. All Guitar Hero images © 2007 RedOctane, Inc.

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s for the PlayStation 2; Publisher: RedOctane/Activision; Developer: Harmonix; Release Date: July 24, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: rhythm; Players: 1-2 competitive or cooperative; Support: Guitar Hero SG Controller; Online: N/A

Where's My Knight Rider T-shirt?

Ah, the 80s. A time when girls wore leg warmers with their side-ponytails and guys wore parachute pants with their checkered Vans. Back then if you had a dispute with someone, you settled it by breakdancing on a cardboard mat. The music was iconic, and anyone who actually lived through the 80s can listen to a song from back then and be flooded with memories of skin-tight pants and super-teased hair.

You got to believe that the guys over at RedOctane sure as hell remember the 80s, and that's why they created the newest installment of the Guitar Hero series -- Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s! In Rocks the 80s, you get a good selection of very popular songs to play through, such as Bang Your Head by Quiet Riot, Round and Round by Ratt, and of course no respectable 80s music game is complete without Twisted Sister's I Wanna Rock.

Like any of the Guitar Hero games, Rocks the 80s needs to be played with the guitar controller to be truly experienced. For those of you who are not familiar, the controller looks like a guitar but has buttons on the neck instead of strings, a switch in the center of the controller that emulates playing the guitar strings, and a whammy bar to alter the sound of notes just like with a real guitar. There is also a motion-sensing mechanism inside the controller that activates "Star Power" when the controller is pointed straight up, but we'll get into that a little later.

I Play Atari 2600 in My DeLorean

When you start a new game, you get to choose the name of your band and an 80s-looking male or female character to represent the leader of your new band. You also get to choose the style of guitar that your character will play. During songs, you play the different colored notes by holding down the button of the same color and strumming the switch on the controller when the icons reach the bottom of the screen. How accurately you play each note and how many notes you miss determine how well you play the song.

Now let's talk a little about "Star Power." The better you play through a song, the more Star Power you accumulate. At some point you'll see the words "Star Power Ready" on the screen, and that's when you really gotta rock out! Tilt the guitar controller straight up and playing notes and using the whammy bar will give you double points. You can also activate Star Power by simply pushing the select button, but that's no fun!

The better you do in the game, the more money you are awarded. You can then use that money to unlock new guitars, new guitar finishes, and even a new character, the Grim Reaper! (By the way, the Grim Reaper is awesome!)

Rocks the 80s seems light on songs, with a playlist of only about 30. Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper andTarzan Boy by Baltimora are all MIA.

You Calling Me a Biter?!

I only have a few gripes about Rocks the 80s. First of all, it seems like this one is pretty light on songs, boasting a playlist of only about 30, while other Guitar Hero games have anywhere from 40 to 50 songs. The reason for this is probably that a lot of RedOctane's efforts are being focused on the upcoming Guitar Hero 3, which is pretty much guaranteed to be saturated with songs. Still, it hurts not to be able to play Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo.

Also, you won't find classics like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper or Tarzan Boy by Baltimora, but I think that's because RedOctane was trying to focus on the "rock" side of the 80s, rather than the "pop" side; so instead we get hits like Seventeen by Winger and Ballroom Blitz by Krokus.

In previous versions of Guitar Hero, they introduced techniques called pull-offs and hammer-ons that were damn near impossible to perform. The really awesome thing about Rocks the 80s is that these same techniques are now a lot more responsive, so they are easier to pull off. This gives the player a lot of room for creativity and improvisation during gameplay which, of course, is just plain more fun.

Also, did I mention that the Grim Reaper is awesome? I'm pretty sure I did.

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Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars, a compilation of Crazy Taxi and Crazy Taxi 2 in one PSP UMP disc. maintains that wild, super-fast gameplay that they both had when they were originally released. All Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars © SEGA of America.

Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars for the PlayStation Portable; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Sniper Studios; Release Date: August 7, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: action; Players: 1-2; Support: multi-disc ad hoc multiplayer; Online: N/A

Crazy Money, Baby!

It's good to see Crazy Taxi back in the mix. Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars is a compilation of Crazy Taxi and Crazy Taxi 2 in one PSP UMP disc. Now, I'm not a big fan of direct ports, but, thankfully, Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars is an exception. Both Crazy Taxi games in Fare Wars still maintain that wild, super-fast gameplay that they both had when they were originally released.

Speeding, drifting, crashing and crazy jumps are still the thing you gotta do to be the man in the Crazy Taxi world, and making tons of money by picking up passengers and getting them to their destination as fast as possible (and by any means necessary) is still the name of the game. But now SEGA gives players the opportunity to play against each other in multiplayer matches and to totally humiliate the opponent in two different ways: by smashing into their taxi while they're on the job and by stealing their customers. It's dirty and cheap, but it gets you more money.

Where Are the Cops in All This?

The controls work very well on the PSP. Accelerate with the R trigger and brake with the L trigger. Shifting to drive and reverse is done with the Circle and X buttons. The action gets nuts and sometimes the traffic can just knock you all around, but that's what makes this a Crazy Taxi title. Thankfully the PSP controls are very responsive, so you can easily go from knocked completely the wrong way to back-on-track very instinctively.

The graphics still retain that Dreamcast feel, without looking too dated. Normally it would be a good thing to update the graphics in any game, but in Crazy Taxi you are moving very fast in a big world, so really good-looking graphics would not only be under-appreciated because you're blazing by everything so quickly, but it would be a problem for the PSP to load them as you play, leading to technical problems. Thankfully, that's not the case with Fare Wars.

It's probably for that very same reason that there is no online play in Fare Wars. A bad connection could really rob you of the true Crazy Taxi experience. However, the multiplayer is awesome. Playing this game with a friend should be the main reason you pick this thing up. It's wild, it's very competitive and it's hella fun!

I Think I Got Whiplash

One of the great things about Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars is that it still has all the same music tracks from the originals, but also allows you to play any music you have saved on your Memory Stick Pro Duo during gameplay. This is one of those "pick up and go" games that I talked about last month. Fare Wars is just great, exciting fun and feels like it can be played at any time.

I only would have liked to be able to use the characters from Crazy Taxi 1 and 2 in the games. It just would have been cool to be able to use Gus in Crazy Taxi 2 and Hot-D in Crazy Taxi 1. Loading times are a pain in the butt, but that still doesn't keep this game from being a keeper.

Fifteen years after its debut, Alien Syndrome finally gets another run! All Alien Syndrome images © SEGA of America.

Alien Syndrome for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Totally Games; Release Date: July 24, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: top-down action RPG; Players: 1-4; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

I Hate Bugs

SEGA has been churning out quite a few familiar titles of late, what with the release of a new Crazy Taxi for the PSP and the announcement of NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the Wii. But, man, I haven't seen this one in a long time. Alien Syndrome first came out as a coin-op arcade game and soon made its way to the SEGA Master System and many other systems, including the NES. This two-player, top-down shooter allowed gamers to take control of either Ricky or Mary. Players would navigate through mazes, fighting off armies of aliens and rescuing stranded comrades. Alien Syndrome made a return with a first-time venture into 3D on the PlayStation 2. However, this 3D version of Alien Syndrome was actually packaged with a bunch of other old-school SEGA titles in the PS2 version of Sega Classics Collection, so only a few people know that it was ever released.

Now, after 15 years, Alien Syndrome finally gets another run! This time Ricky and Mary are out of the picture and, instead, players take control of Aileen Harding as she clears the Kronos space station of the alien scum that have taken it over.

There's No Such Thing as a Friendly Alien

You get to choose from five specialty classes before you start playing. You can choose to be a shooter expert, an explosives expert, a fire expert, a melee specialist or a survival expert. Alien Syndrome is still a top-down shooter, but what's interesting in this year's new-and-improved model is that moving is performed with the analog stick and aiming is done with the Wii-remote. Basically, a small pointer appears on the screen when players point at the screen with the Wii-mote; players just aim and shoot, which gives you the ability to shoot in any direction and move in any direction.

Players can equip a primary gun, a secondary gun and a melee weapon that's new to the Alien Syndrome world. You can switch between these weapons very easily and at any moment. This game is kinda like the first Diablo, only in space. As you play through the game more and more, your character will level-up and gain new abilities and be able to equip better guns, armor and melee weapons.

Throughout the game you will come across contaminated weapons, contaminated containers and DNA enhancement chambers. In order to open a contaminated container, cleanse a contaminated gun or properly enhance your DNA, you must complete a specific mini-game. These mini-games are both challenging and entertaining, allowing you to use the motion-sensitive controls to accomplish specific tasks. These mini-games reward a quick and steady hand with some superior armor, weapons and enhanced attributes.

Alien Syndrome features challenging and entertaining mini-games allowing use of the motion-sensitive controls to accomplish specific tasks. The mini-games reward a quick and steady hand with superior armor, weapons and enhanced attributes.

Another awesome thing about this game is the ability to have four players play together on the same screen. Things can get crazy with just one player; imagine four players with four different pointers on the screen all shooting at once. It's confusing, but it's still fun. The game also tends to adapt to the number of players who are playing at the same time. It gets harder with more players playing together.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

If Alien Syndrome were a steak, it would be a good-quality cut of meat. But it would be a steak without any seasoning, without any trimmings, and only half-cooked. The graphics are good, but nothing spectacular; it would have been great to see a lot more polish in the modeling, lighting and texture mapping. Considering that the Wii can push a lot better graphics than this, Alien Syndrome could have looked a lot better. The cinematics aren't really cinematics, they're just still images with dialogue. Now, there have been games where that works really well, like Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, but the problem here is that the cover art of Alien Syndrome is not the same style as the still images in the game. The cover art is so much more dynamic and appealing than the art in the cinematics. It just would have had a better feel if all of the art was the same style as the cover art.

Another little snafu is the camera controls; tilting the nunchuck right or left to rotate the camera, although creative, can prove unresponsive at times, and it's way too fast without the option to slow it down. On that same note, you can sometimes forget where you came from on the map because there is no indicator for north, south east, or west. This wouldn't be a problem if there were some way to reset the camera back to its default view, or even to lock the camera in place so that you didn't accidentally move it around.

As I said before, the game is good. If you really get into it, you won't want to stop playing because the mechanics are great. But it just feels like so much more could have been done. It would have been awesome to be able to use vehicles or even use a turret gun. It would also be awesome to be able to play a cooperative game online.

SEGA, please don't let this franchise die. It would be great to see a fully fleshed-out Alien Syndrome 2.

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. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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