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Awful Review: Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War (Xbox)

  This isn't my first time through Return to Wolfenstein: Tides of War. I previously picked up the game used, played the first level and decided it wasn't for me. My initial impression last time out was that it was an exceptionally crappy stealth game (since the first encounter that you experience in Wolfenstein: Tides of War is to knife someone in the back). The reality is that while there are a few opportunities to employ stealth, you are very likely to have better success with a combination of careful sniping and berzerker runs. I haven't played any version of RTW other than Tides of War. I understand, however, that the first block of missions which take place in a densely populated area almost entirely free from civilians and a series of underground tombs in Egypt are new to this release.

The new missions are far more functional than beautiful. They exist for the dual purposes of introducing the game mechanics through annoying chimed bulletins, and to prime the pump of the game's storyline.

The layout and design of levels seems to be almost intentionally derivative of Goldeneye on the N64. This is not a bad thing, but is somewhat unexpected for old school fans of Wolfenstein 3d and Spear of Destiny. In fact, this is probably the closest thing you're going to get to a good Bond game until EA loses their license to kill every tie-in that they can get their greedy little mitts on.

The game also has some shout-outs to Catacomb Abyss 3d, the first person dungeon and graveyard shooting game that came before Wolfenstein 3d (the great grand-pappy of Heretic and Hexen).

Visually, once you get through the first set of missions, you're in for a much more visually appealing experience, roughly on par with Hitman: Silent Assassin. However, this is not Doom3. The engine is capable, but there's a reason that id spent four years writing the Doom3 engine to replace this one.

Floor textures have an annoying habit of becoming a muddy mess of antialiased pixels. Wall, switch, and sign textures look OK from five or six feet, but if you step right up to them, they are all quite fuzzy. The edges of broken windows and other partially transparent textures, which you will see frequently if you take a sensible sniper approach to the game, also bear the telltale signs of low resolution antialiased texturing. I can only speculate that memory restrictions precluded the use of higher quality textures.

There are two other significant annoyances in this game for me:

  1. The character crouches when the player clicks the left thumbstick, which is also used for movement. If you set the crouch stick to toggle instead of hold, you will find yourself crawling around at the worst possible moments (for instance, in the thick of a firefight, while attempting to dodge a panzerfaust rocket). You can avoid this problem by using the crouch on hold feature under the Advanced Settings menu (why isn't this under controls)? However, if you do that, you may find yourself standing at inconvenient times. Probably a better approach is to jump liberally during important battles, which will kick you out of crouch mode as well.
  2. Although the game indicates that you have reached checkpoints, no save file is created. If you are killed in action, you will respawn at the checkpoint, however, if you go to the menu and load the quicksave, you will respawn at the last location you explicitly saved at, even if it is several missions back. Of course, what this means is that you will need to strictly adhere to ritual saving throughout the game. Save whenever you enter a new mission, save before you enter a new area, save when you have full health and weapons from a cache, save at every good opportunity.
Jumping is activated with the left trigger, which I would prefer be assigned to crouching. The cross pad manages inventory items, which are entirely unneccessary for completion of the game, but can make boss fights incredibly easy (Uber Soldat, hop over the railing, run right up to him, toss on the X-shield and annihilate him with the venom. No problem).

In terms of enemy design, the zombies don't look so hot. Humans all look good and animate well, including the Uber Soldat and prototypes. The x-creatures and cyber-dogs are considerably less fun to look at, although they do a very good job of putting the scare into you when you come around a corner. The x-creatures demonstrate another engine oddity: they emit a kind of radioactive light, which you can see through walls and floors. I'm not sure if this was intended or not.

Creature AI is generally good. You occasionally come across human enemies just lying in wait for you, but these are few and far between. More frequently, enemies will be manning machine gun points, taking a bead on you with a mauser from a watchtower, or even paratrooping into your zone. Enemies display a tendency towards a chaotic swarm when they appear in bunches. They emerge from every building to converge upon your location, bringing their formidable firepower to bear. Generally, there are defensible positions to fall back upon that allow you to pick them off at your leisure. But beware, because if one member of that pack has a mauser, you may find yourself without a head in short order.

Occasionally, enemies will do interesting, unexpected things when out of your LOS. A perfect example is the Uber-Soldat prototype just before that boss battle. The fight takes place in a kind of four sided tunnel. Your first instict will be to head for a corner and wait for him to poke his beady little eyes out, then nail him with a few pips from the old paratroop gun before high tailing it out of there to avoid the panzerfaust rockets that will soon be headed in your direction. This approach will even work for a while, until he decides to go around the other way, and fill your backside with rockets, or just hold position, hoping that you're be fool enough to walk into his sights.

Essentially all of the game's best moments come outside of boss battles (although you probably won't forget the experience if you down the Uber-Soldat only to be killed by a scientist with a Luger). The bosses are more or less of a sameness, all about 10 feet tall with poor mobility, a devastating close attack and an annoying long range attack. Worse by far to encounter a nazi with a flamethrower in a dark alley.

Dark alleys and other poorly lit areas abound in Tides of War. If you've played Doom3 lately, you may find yourself either wishing you had a flashlight or even stabbing fruitlessly at the black button like a space marine caught in hell. Unlike Doom3, these areas are not generally populated with enemies or items, so running through them like a madman won't cost you anything. In Wolfenstein, you never need to rest, and there is no "run" button (just like the old days).

This game is short. Even though the later levels are more expansive, a dedicated player can easily burn through this game in a weekend, while getting plenty of beauty sleep.

Overall, though the game has some issues related to graphical quality, easily ambushed enemies, and one extremely questionable control decision, it is easily worth the twenty dollars or less price point that it now garners as a "Platinum Hit." If you're a used game shopper, you can find it in the neighborhood of eight dollars at one major chain. And that is what we call a bargain, because I haven't even touched on the large battlefield multiplayer options.
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Awful Review: Doom 3 (Xbox)

  I purchased Doom 3 a couple weeks ago based largely on the overwhelmingly positive reviews online. I'd been somewhat skeptical regarding both the potential for the game and based on the problems with current reviewing practices (see post below).

My concerns can be summed up as follows:

  • Early evidence showed that the game would only be playable on very high end current systems, and that possibly only future systems would be able to access the full potential of the game and it's engine.
  • The engine itself, along with the high level of graphics, seemed to create an optimal environment for score inflation.
  • The game was termed a "remake" or "reimagining" of Doom, which didn't need to be remade, since it is still one of the best games ever made (and IMHO better than Doom II).
  • With the exception of a brief fling on the Dreamcast version of Quake 3: Arena (which I loved online), I hadn't enjoyed any of the id games produced after Doom II (although I played a port of Quake I on the Dreamcast as well, and that was adequate, if somewhat sterile).
  • Return to Castle Wolfenstein was utter crap, playing off many of the worst aspects of current games (again, IMHO, maybe I should give it another chance).
I'm happy to say that for the most part, my fears were unfounded. I should note that I'm playing the Xbox version of Doom 3, which may differ from the PC version in minor and major respects.

The Good:
  • The engine -- it does produce quite spectacular visuals.
  • But, the game does not highlight the engine -- it focuses on the game: storytelling and frantic action (as opposed to Quake I, which was basically a tech demo).
  • NPC actions -- there are some really good examples of things popping out of the environment that either contribute to the atmosphere or clue you in on enemies, I'm thinking particularly about body parts churning out of ventilation shafts, and barrels or jugs being tossed down by imps, not to mention the first encounter with a pinky where it attempts to bash down the door.
  • Background character story arcs -- essentially every character with the exception of a select handful (who also die quickly, for the most part) is not interacted with in a living state, however, they all have lives that are connected to the lives of other people on Mars or on Earth.
  • Darkness -- Doom 3 puts a premium on light in the base, few areas have windows to let in "natural" world light, and the power systems have been terribly stressed by the activities in Delta Labs. Naturally, this means it's going to be pretty damn dark, which adds new actions and psychological reactions to gameplay: searching corners with a flashlight for items, tossing grenades into dark areas to provide temporary light and hopefully kill any lurkers, finally realizing that you don't have the flashlight in hell then feeling powerless (personally, I felt the absence of the flashlight far more severely than the loss of the major weapons systems).
  • Online Co-op -- need I say more?

The Bad:
  • Corpses disintegrate -- this may be a factor only relevant to the Xbox.
  • The Shotgun is extremely powerful -- in fact, in many cases only one to two blasts from the SG will completely destroy anything up to a Revenant, which tends to make the other weapons more or less superfluous. Unload that sucker on a Hell Knight and it'll be left gasping for breath (before disintegrating of course).
  • The Hell Knight redesign -- I was very disappointed by this, particularly since most of the enemies prior to that point were nearly pixel for pixel from the prior games. This seems to be yet another example of Doom 3 playing down the hell/Satanic imagery that marked the earlier games. Visually, the Hell Knights are now harder to identify as a threat outside of what is presented by an Imp.
  • The sidelining of ritual imagery -- you find one area relatively early on where some sort of growth is taking over the base, and there are some ritual items in the area, but for the most part, this sort of activity has been sterilized from this remake (even though it is alluded to in emails).
  • False alarm tricks -- when a floor tile pops up, and I can't sneak down under the floor, I'm disappointed. These tricks also seem to bring you out of the game for a moment. You're clearly in because you have a visceral reaction, but when you realize that the danger is not real either in the game or in real life, suddenly you're out of the game.
  • Online Death Matches --- No dedicated server option, maximum 4 players per game, but in real life, without dedicated servers, you're lucky to get a lag free match with 2. In a game like Rainbow Six 3, you've got 8 players tossing one back on a routine basis...Unreal is far beyond that. Surely id could have done better than this. The extremely low number of people online playing is about all that you need to see to know that this isn't adequate.

Overall, Doom 3 is a very entertaining game that really sucks you in to the world that it creates in single player and co-op mode. Just pretend that the mockery of life that is Doom 3 DM doesn't exist. I'm looking forward to playing Resurrection of Evil, and hoping it won't gloss over the imagery like this installment did. It's already set up for 8 player DM, so I'm hoping that it has standalone server support that will make that a legitimate possibility. Quake 4 (also on the Doom 3 engine) is also among the games I'm looking forward to on Xbox360 (although a lot of that should be attributed to Raven, who are routinely amazing, with the notable exception of Heretic 2).

In the end, Doom 3 comes down to strapping on your chainsaw and grabbing your shotgun, which is really the core of the Doom franchise, and as a result, it delivers the goods on a lot of levels. The new complexity related to the atmosphere and play styles creates a game that is not just a carbon copy of the ealier games in the series though, it is a worthy place to start for those who haven't played the previous titles (although with a title like Doom 3, people may not notice).
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Awful Review: Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball (Xbox)

 Having enjoyed immediate sales success with Dead or Alive 3, Itagaki and Team Ninja turned their attention to their next project. As an iconic gaming rebel with an iron fisted grasp of the demands not only of hardcore gamers, but digital fanboys and casual gamers, Itagaki boldly decided to take the series in a different direction: 2 on 2 bikini clad beach volleyball with an all female roster.

Ironically, the new game is as true to the traditions of Dead or Alive as was Dead or Alive 3. Where Dead or Alive 3 emphasized and expanded upon the combat side of the series, neglecting the collection aspect, DOAX take the opposite tack, putting emphasis squarely on bodacious female characters and a nearly endless opportunity to purchase, collect, and trade costumes, accessories, and equipment.

Although Dead or Alive has a notoriously large roster of female fighters (growing with each installment), the available lineup was just short of a full deck with just Kasumi, Lei Fang, Tina, Ayane, Helena, Hitomi, and Christie. Team Ninja quickly remedied this problem by adding Lisa, Zack's melatonin-rich business manager. Reaction to the new character was immediate and strong, with fans petitioning Itagaki to include her as a playable character in future editions of the DOA fighting series.

Conceptually, the game is simple: the player chooses a character for a two week "vacation" on Zack's island. Each day, you have three opportunities to play a volleyball match, give gifts, attempt to find a new partner, play a jumping mini game (designed to enhance familiarity with the game's use of analogue buttons, which most everyone will opt out of in preference of the precise gameplay offered by separate buttons for hard and light strikes), shop, reprogram the island's radio station (with access to whatever music you've uploaded to the system), or just rest, play, and gambol about the island in a highly provocative manner (gravure style). At night, you have additional opportunities to send and receive gifts and to gamble.

At the end of two weeks, your character makes off with whatever winnings they're still holding, and their stash of items purchased or received as gifts. Lather, Rinse, and Repeat.

Players have a few different options for making money, which is essential if you intend to afford the rarest bathing suits, with prices reaching into the millions of Zack dollars. You can "invest" your seed money in the casino at night, play the jumping mini game for cash rewards (up to six times per day), or play volleyball games. The more accomplished you are at gambling, jumping (timing counts), or volleyball (higher point spreads lead to greater rewards, so take advantage of weak opponent matchups), the more cash you'll have to spend in the island's stores.

Each day, the items available in the stores change. Food items purchased early in the day spoil if not added to your collection or eaten, and each character has access to certain rare items that are not available to other characters except as presents. The ultimate hardcore fanboy will want to aquire every one of the hundreds of available items for each of the eight playable characters. This will require insane amounts of effort to purchase the rarest items and wily friendship garnering tactics to prevent the giftee from simply throwing out your gift. Fortunately, in the DOAX world, simple bribery is more than enough to win the friendship of even the hardest hearted rival.

But what will keep them from rejecting your bribes? Simply put, there are some things that each character likes so much that they will never throw them out. Ethnic foods, special recipes, musical instruments, guns, things that are a certain color, all can be used to curry favor if you give them to the right people. This influence peddling strategy also comes into play when you are attempting to convince another character to join you as your partner in world domination through volleyball.

The volleyball itself is adequate, but could certainly be better. Partner AI is frequently very bad, particularly if you permit your partner to take a position near the net, even if the character has high defensive skills. There are options to reposition the partner character, but this is definitely an advanced feature. The camera field of view is frequently too small to permit you to see what your partner is doing, and it can be difficult to properly position yourself along the width of the pit so that you can effectively counter opposition attacks. Even so, the animations are fluid, and the game looks great. Setting up opportunities and receiving setups works surprisingly well. Serves, while difficult at first, become like second nature with extended play, and can be deadly scoring opportunities when properly executed.

In all, there's just enough gameplay not to discourage players from coming back for more, which is a good thing, because otherwise, you'd never earn that Venus suit for all eight characters.

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Awful review: Dead or Alive 3 (Xbox)

 DOA3 is the Xbox successor to the SEGA Saturn game Dead or Alive and the Dreamcast game Dead or Alive 2. It follows in their footsteps, with a compelling high level fighting system, realistic physics, and characters with high levels of physical beauty.

As in other fighting game series, this new edition adds new combat areas, a couple of new fighters, and a brand spanking new end boss designed specifically to piss you off.

The best of the new fighters are, solid additions that increase the number of available fighting styles, instead of just adding a new name to the gameday roster (*cough* Leon *cough*). Hitomi, the superior new female character, uses a power oriented karete style with lots of straight legged kicks and strong punches that do lots of damage, but have less flow than the ninja characters. This power style suits the character well to newcomers to the series or to fighting games. The new male character, Brad Wong, uses a drunken style (although unlike forbears in the Virtua Fighter and other games, he doesn't drink while on the job). His pacing is entirely different from that of other characters in the series to date. Once you come to grips with the timing necessary to string together his attacks, you can do substantial damage in a short period of time. Because of the need for precise timing and a solid grasp of the available moves, and how best to string them together, I consider him an advanced character, somewhat like Mitsurugi of Soul Calibur.

The other two new characters, Christie (an English assassin who uses a tiger / mantis style), and Hayate (a ninja in a similar vein as Hayabusa), provide new story hooks, but have less interesting fighting styles.

The combat zones have been entirely revamped. The outdoor zones are full of scampering or resting animals, and as in DOA2, include many levels suitable for sending your opponent flying 10s of meters downward. The few remaining enclosed zones are filled with onlookers, and there are fewer "danger zone" oriented areas, with a larger emphasis on wall juggling combos somewhat similar to those in the Fighting Vipers series (although with gravity much closer to that in real life), rather than the explosive environmental damage of the original DOA (don't fool yourself though, that's still here too).

Unfortunately, unlike it's predecessors, there are very few unlockable extras in this game. A limited number of additional costumes can be downloaded from one of the Exhibition discs (or on the Dead or Alive Ultimate discs), and by meeting certain circumstances, you can unlock Bayman as a playable character, but the insane desire to run through story mode just one more time to unlock Kasumi's 17th costume is no longer present.

Perhaps this is a good thing though, because the final boss in story mode is even more annoying and frustrating than Tengu from DOA2. Once again, most of the challenge comes cheaply from a skewed camera perspective and an enemy that easily tosses you back with special moves. Once again, defeating the enemy involves finally getting close enough to land a few punches, and hitting it with your most powerful moves. In my opinion, this type of boss battle is counter to the entire spirit of the DOA series, which has relied on depth and balance in characters instead of a cheap fireballing turtle scheme. Battles are like a ballet, with characters exchanging blows, countering each others moves, and pressing the advantage when the opponent is vulnerable. These are the gameplay elements that drew players into the game after the voyeuristic novelty of independent breast movement (perhaps unsurprisingly reined in in more recent installments) wore off. Happily, in player versus player action, the game still holds to that high standard of balance, mobility, and true to life (or at least film) combat.

As one of the earliest million sellers on Xbox, the game is widely available now in platinum hits packaging. Since the release of Dead or Alive Ultimate (a remake of DOA2 on an improved DOA3 engine, paired with a port of the Saturn version of DOA), Dead or Alive 3 has also been appearing with regularity in the used game bins for ten dollars or less. At those prices, almost anyone can rationalize grabbing this game that hasn't played it yet, even with Xbox360 on the horizon.

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