BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Weekly new games are coming out for the XBox 360 system, but which games are living up to the hype? I recently had a chance to play a half dozen highly touted games: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, LEGO Batman, Crash Mind Over Mutant, Soul Calibur IV, and Warhammer Battlemarch. Some of these games exceeded my expectations for them, based on magazine articles and online reviews. Some, fell short. But all of them definitely had their moments.
First, before reading the reviews, I think it's fair to tell you I'm relatively new to the XBox 360 system. In fact, aside from buying a beat up XBox and playing a few games on that, I hadn't touched a game system since college when I had a Super Nintendo. I've had my XBox 360 less than a year. I've only been on XBox Live since April. So, these reviews are for the experienced and newer gamer. Also, as you can see by the titles above, they are an eclectic mix of game types.
Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway
I wasn't that familiar with Brothers in Arms, outside of reading a few issues of the new comic book series. However, both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, so I'm very interested in that era. My first thoughts of BiA after seeing the beginning of the game was it reminded me of the HBO series, Band of Brothers. Here we had friends going into battle against impossible odds and dealing with everything imagined thrown at them: tanks, machine guns, open terrain, snipers, bombs -- about everything but the kitchen sink. I can't imagine what it must have been like being in that situation, but having a few units at your command and seeing men shot and hurt, crying out in pain, it gives you a small idea. I don't want to equate real war to video games, but I think the producers of this game went above and beyond to give a realistic experience.
From what I can know of the era, the uniforms are authentic and the weapons are true to the times as well. It feels grim and gritty, not just the video type clips that further the situation, but it almost feels as if you could choke on the dirt being blown up around you, freeze from the icy water you must wade through or burn when the flames of wreckage get too near your body. I felt my pulse pounding quite a bit during this game, not just in the stressful times when you're peering through a sniper's sight with one or two chances to get that shot right, but the "normal" times when you know a battle's up ahead.
It's almost like a "safe" day in the life of a World War II soldier. Safe because when we get shot or blown up or hurt in any way, we come back from the injury as good as new and get to continue on. But it does give you an idea of running for cover, advancing on the enemy, using bazookas and other weaponry to target the ideal area to do the most damage. The element of surprise can be your aid by flanking the enemy. If you're fast enough, you can get behind a group, fire your weapon and take out a nest of them, before one even has the wherewithal to react. Although there never seemed to be enough grenades to help me out, I still managed to make my way through this game with my skin intact.
I've heard some complaints playing in the multiplayer online and from a few other people around me about the side quest to find the Killroy markers. I found that challenge fun, though. We've all heard stories of Killroy, so finding those images and adding the text to them were interesting and fun. I know I didn't find all of them, but it was very imaginative where some of them were located. A lot of the game, you could miss something right below your nose, if you just failed to turn in a different direction or look a certain way. You don't need to find any of these to complete your mission or the game, but it was fun looking. Also the game offers you the chance to replay chapters and points, almost like the menu option of a DVD where you can go through to specific moments. If you've missed something during the game, you can replay that moment over and try to find the Killroy or Retcon Point or anything else you might have missed that prevented you from accomplishing 100 percent of your goals. I thought that was a great bonus, to be able to go back to different moments, especially when others told me spots to look for the Killroy. Instead of having to play a whole chapter over again, I could just go to the specific scene and attempt to play that area.
Like a DVD, these weren't just faceless and nameless drones fighting alongside you. These were fleshed out, fully developed characters. Their backstory unfolded in those film type sequences. You learned more and more about these men, the things they'd gone through and the hard choices almost all of them made as a result of being flung into this war. It was amazing how realistic the game was. Also realistic was the amount of blood and guts shown when you landed a choice shot or blew up some cover or did anything else that would result in gore. Although it wasn't as disgusting as Dark Sector, it still is a little unsettling to see, in slow motion, a shot hit someone in the head or a person be blown in two by a bazooka round. If you're feint of heart, this might not be the perfect game for you.
I admit I had a lot more fun playing this game offline than online. Although I couldn't get enough of playing Enemy Territory Quake Wars online, I found BiA's online play unfulfilling. It seemed to have some inconsistencies. For instance, when I was playing the story mode, I could shoot an enemy a few times and he would fall down. Now, online, I shoot the enemy a few times, he didn't go down. Worse, he shot me once and I died. As a result of never being able to get the "kill" I didn't enjoy it as much. Plus, there seemed to only be a few options/screens to play online. With the aforementioned team up of Quake Wars, there were at least a dozen different boards to play with your group online. This seemed quite repetitious after a while. I just had a hard time getting into the online aspect of it. Also, it's a shame the game shipped after September 17th, because one of the Achievements was to play the game on that date. Although I'm sure hardcore gamers will have calendars marked to play this game on that date next year!
Speaking of the Achievements, I was able to get all the points offline and a few of the online ones so far. It's not an impossible dream type of scenario. If you go through the game, pay attention, and do the deeds in front of you, those Achievements are there for the taking. It was a nice mix of blowing up things, shooting things, finding things and generally surviving that opened up Achievements. I don't know if I'll ever get the final online Achievements, but I had a blast getting the offline ones!
In my opinion, this game lived up to the hype and went well beyond it. I can't wait to find out more about the cursed gun and see what battle these soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division are involved with next. In fact, I'm so intrigued that I might try to check out some of the other games. I'll definitely be paying more attention to the comic now, to see what happens next with Staff Sergeant Matt Baker and his supposed cursed gun.
I couldn't get enough of LEGO Star Wars, so I was looking forward to playing this game very much. I love how imaginative it is seeing your favorite characters brought to life by the LEGO brick. As a youngster, I'd imagine it would spark a lot of fun play with your own LEGOs, trying to see if you can build a car or building or city scape to look just like the one you've just gone through in the game. But, as an adult, it's just interesting to marvel at and wonder how they thought to do something like this with these LEGOs. I can't fathom the amount of time it must have taken to create a game like this, complete wiht all the extras, hidden items and characters. As a big fan of Batman and, especially, The Animated Series, I thought this was an excellent game. All the expected elements: Batman, Robin, Alfred, Catwoman, Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, Commissioner Gordon, Mr. Freeze, Batmobile, Joker Van, etc.,. were present, along with dozens more characters. The Batcave came to life in LEGO glory, my only regret is we didn't have the dinosaur or giant penny. I would have loved to see some of their treasures as backdrops. Arkham Asylum was also bursting at the seems with it's evil occupants. It was fun to just explore both areas and see what you could discover, as well as rake in some LEGO studs, the coin of the realm, to buy improvements, upgrades and secret (or maybe not-so-secret) characters.
The game is very easy to get into. It starts with a bang that reminded me a little of the '60s Batman television show. I think there were a lot of nods to all incarnations of the Dark Knight throughout the game, which made for an even better experience. I couldn't wait to see what happened next. In fact, I was so intrigued by the scenes before each adventure that sometimes a few villains got in some good licks on my heroes, because I was still laughing or smiling about the opening scene to each level. The minisodes really added to the enjoyment of the game. I know a lot of heart went into this game -- careful consideration to make it something fun for comic fans and for those just wanting to play a great game.
Any LEGO game is also like a treasure hunt. Smashing the most innoculous of items could reward you with a cannister (which you collect to get an even greater item) or some other bonus. There are hidden red bricks, cannisters and other things that make it exciting to play. You have to spend some time looking around, almost being a detective like the Batman, or you won't reap the rewards. It's also important to explore every area as fully as possible. Smash windows, climb buildings, glide around above the rooftops; you never know what you might find. LEGO games encourage you to search and, almost like a Where's Waldo, you can go through each level being vigilant of the surroundings and secrets each houses.
Just because it's a LEGO game doesn't mean it's simple and easy. I didn't have too much trouble getting through the first case, but had my head handed to me several times by Mr. Freeze. He seemed almost impossible to tackle. I've heard some tips about beating him, by avoiding him until you "have" to fight him, but that's not known when you're just going through the game. You see a villain and think, "I must pound him!" You don't think, I should run around and avoid him until I have the chance to really hit him. There are just a few learning curves that you must consider when playing this. If something isn't immediately working for you, look around there has to be another solution. The obvious choice isn't always the best choice. However, thankfully, once you beat a level on "story mode" you can go back through in "free play" and discover some of the things you might have missed along the way. Having that option is nice.
Another nice feature is the multitude of Batman and Robin suits that aid in each task. Several suits allow Batman to plant bombs, glide from place to place, shatter glass, touch red-hot items and perform other tasks. Robin has suits that allow him to be a techie genius, cling to walls (Holy, '60s Batman, Batman!), dive deep underwater, and attract items to deposit in receptacles that will produce items to help you move further into the game. It might seem a little silly, but the silly is half the fun of a LEGO game. Also once you have all the suits, it makes going through levels in "free play" a lot easier. Some items require a specific skill set to be obtained. Even with all the suits, though, you still need special characters to help you get everything. It might take having every character available in your arsenal for you to gain all the treasures. It's still a lot of fun just adding those characters to your arsenal and trying to accomplish every goal for each level.
What's fun about LEGO Batman is you don't just get to play the game in "story mode" and "free play" as the heroes. There are 15 hero levels, but there are also 15 villain levels. It gives you a chance to really cut loose with your dark side, even in jest and fun. I know a lot of people actually prefer playing as the villains. Not me, I love going through a level with a certain female hero in tow and watching her cut loose on these insane in the membrane folks. But it's interesting to kind of see both sides of the story. It's also fun to jump super high with Clayface and smash things. There's something liberating about tossing giant cars about.
There are a multitude of Achievements to be gained in this game. Some are really easy to get, like just completing each level as the hero or villain. Some are a bit more challenging, like beating a specific number of enemies with a certain skill or ability. I know it's fun to have "secret Achievements" but I always thought it would be nice if the game booklets started including a check list at the end of them for the Achievements. If you have 10 secret ones, that could just be listed as "secret" with a line after it for the gamer to fill in its name. It would be nice, when you're in a level, to have a list to look at and know, "If I just hit a few more thugs with this weapon, I'll get an Achievement." It would make it a little easier to have those Achievements on hand. Yes, I know I could just find a spot online and print out the list, but having it all together in the manual would be a boon.
All in all, I think LEGO Batman definitely lived up to the hype. In fact after playing this, I'm aching for a LEGO Justice League Unlimited or LEGO Legion of Super-Heroes. Heck, I'd even settle for a LEGO Superman. I just love the format of these games and how accessible they are to the newest of gamers. I only wish there were an XBox Live option. How fun would it be to be able to be any number of the heroes or villains and just have a Gotham City to go through? The format could have been like Quake Wars or Brothers in Arms, where you have teams of good guys and bad guys and missions to do. It would have been fun to have a group together playing this way. I think LEGO missed the boat by not having a Live option. Also when Achievements are for playing with more than one person, it would be nice to have a Live option so you could get those. Some gamers don't have family members who like to play as well. So having that option would be nice.
Crash Mind Over Mutant
I'd only heard the name "Crash Bandicoot" in passing. I knew he was a video game character, but didn't know much more about him other than a new game was due in stores soon. However, I'm a big fan of the all-ages type games and love getting the chance to discover new things, so I was anxious to check out Crash Mind Over Mutant. I thought it might be a nice way to spend a few hours or more. Upon first playing the game, it immediately reminded me of the various Shrek games, which I'm sure remind longtime gamers of something else, in that you started in Crash's house and had the power to go anywhere open on the map to discover new things. Almost immediately, a pair of Crash's friends give him a quest and it's off he goes! Crash has this spinning move that allows him to dig underground to get to certain places, jump super high to get to other places and, generally, knock the snot out of the smaller opponents he comes face-to-face within his travels.
As for the larger opponents in his way, all Crash has to do is best them in combat, and zoom, those are monsters in his pocket, meaning he can jump on them, use their skills and rely on their strengths to get to the next level. It kind of reminded me of Pokemon, only instead of having this creature by your side, you're riding it to accomplish your goals. You can store two of them at any given time, so you can have a variety of skill sets to aid you as you go further into this world. There are dozens of creatures to encounter, so it brings something fresh to the plate as you get further and further enmeshed into the game. However, it does feel a little monotonous after a few hours playing. But to break the monotony are a variety of side games and side quests that let you practice some of Crash's skills and abilities, without really garnering any penalty for failure. The timed quests are a little frustrating though. Although the gathering green mojo is usually simple, the finding all the treasure chests can be quite bothersome, if not downright impossible to accomplish at times. A younger mind, with faster reflexes probably can accomplish all of this without any consideration, but a newer gamer or * ahem * older gamer, might have a problem with the timing and reflexes. I'm still trying though!
Another element that is a little frustrating is the ability to get lost in areas of the game, without meaning to. Yes, there is a map that pops up when you hit a button, but the big X for "You are here" does little to aid you, especially when it's tough to tell exactly what path or direction to take to get "there" when you need to be THERE! I enjoy having the option to visit places I've been and try to find new things that are there, but I also like having a straight forward, "this is where you go, this is what you're supposed to find, get to it!" Also some directions or hints are spoken on the screen, if you miss hear or don't have the sound up all the way, you don't get to hear those directions again. So sometimes I would get lost of not know what to do next, because I misheard (was playing this originally when I was laid up with a terrible ear infection) or had the sound too low. I think an option for having that clue repeated until you hit A or B or Y or X to make it stop or having the clue in text on the "help" screen, would have been a nice option. With some of the what to do next parts being unclear or downright distorted at times, it adds to the frustration level of play. I didn't know where to go. I didn't know how to get to certain places. Some times it was tough to even find a place to save your game, even though there is an option to save when you hit the menu screen, I don't think you begin play again at that spot.
The Achievements to this game are tough to get. A lot of them revolve around the mini games, finding obscured items (some which seem impossible to spot) or bonuses or, again, playing this game in co-op. If you don't have a friend to play with in person, you probably can't get most of them. If there were an XBox Live option to play with one of your friends, then you could accomplish those goals. I think this is a great game for a family, because it really encourages team work and thinking skills to get to the next levels. It would be a good one to give as a gift for a family. It just didn't get under my skin and feel like a game I have to play to the end. It was fun for a few days and hours, but then it really felt like I'd done this over and over again.
As stated, I didn't know much about this property, but thought it was a nice way to spend a day. I don't know if I'll ever finish the game, but I might pop it in again on a rainy day. In contrast, I think my little cousins would instantly be addicted to this game, so that 'tween age group would appreciate this more. Crash Mind Over Mutant would be great for a rental, but might not be a game you want to add to your personal collection.
Soul Calibur IV
I didn't set out to get this game, even though I'm a huge Yoda fan and was tempted to get it just for the Star Wars tie-in alone. However, though a happy circumstance, I found myself in possession of this game and was very interested to get started playing. When you first turn it on, you'll immediately be blown away by how pretty the artwork is. For a fighting game, you don't expect to see this delicate artwork, designs, costumes and elaborate scenery. At least I don't expect that. I expect to see a dark and gritty scene with fighters beating the snot out of each other. So, it was nice to see this almost like a Japanese anime scene with all the intricacies you'd expect from one on the video screen. I also was super impressed with the character create ability that let you control every aspect to the most minute of details including the color of just about every piece of the costume and accessories.
What impressed me even more than the amount of detail that went into that area, was the amount of thought that went into the storylines for the characters. There are dozens of characters you can play through a Story mode, Arcade mode or have travel up and down the Tower of Souls steps to gather treasures. Each character has his or her own unique reasons for trying to obtain the Soul Calibur. When you got to the end of the Story mode, you saw an animated sequence that detailed the results of this quest and even more secrets of the character. Each character had unique fighting styles, techniques and weapons. As you obtained more money and skills, you could buy items to upgrade each character to make an ultimate fighting machine. Each character also had his or her own special Soul Crush move. I couldn't master making this move happen, even though I played through all the tutorials. However, I was still able to make it through every Story mode and a few of the Arcade modes without using a Soul Crush. I also made it up several levels of the Tower of Souls, which I recommend not even attempting until you have a few characters beyond level six or seven; but going down the steps was frustrating. I don't have time to play this game for five or six hours to descend the entire level in one sitting, which is what you have to do. On the upper levels, it saves every few levels so you can move on to something else or sleep or eat or anything important like that. With the lower levels, you get a few characters and just are set loose. When those characters die, you're done. There don't appear to be any save points going down, at least none that I've found.
There are also a lot of secret characters to unlock when you play this game, one of the most anticipated being the Apprentice from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. I thought it was a nice crossover to be able to play this game with its anime type characters on the Star Wars background. I also thought it was interesting to see the variety of types of characters used in this game. I had no prior knowledge of this series, other than seeing some ads about the game which just left me thinking it was a fighting game with no more meat or depth; but I'm glad I had the chance to play this game. It was really enjoyable, at least the parts of it I could master.
Online was a different story. I had a lot of trouble playing this originally, because I didn't know before a match started, you could back out of it. The first dozen times I went online to play with my Level One character, others were Level 20 or higher and proceeded to wipe me out with no trouble. Once I learned that I could leave when a very high level came in to fight me, I did a little better. But another aspect I didn't like was the ability of people to quit in the middle of the game. I'd be close to winning and people would just leave the match. So I didn't get any points or anything. I didn't like that at all. If you're playing, be a good sport and lose gracefully. I lost a lot of games and didn't try to jump out at the end.
I really feel this game exceeds the hype and those of you who think it's a fighting game with little more to offer are going to be pleasantly surprised. I was also impressed with the lack of gore here. Most fighting games have blood and guts flying onto the screen and from the character with each blow. This series had the character lose their armor and get knocked around, but there wasn't a lot of spilling of bodily fluids. I know that impresses some people, but not usually me. I'd like more games to have the option to turn the blood and guts off.
Warhammer Battle March
I like Role Playing Games, so I thought I'd really enjoy Warhammer Battle March. It had monsters, knights, wizards and more. I knew it was turn-based fighting, which I was used to from some of my Super Nintendo video games, so I wasn't turned off by that, like I've heard a lot of gamers complain. What was tough about this game was the fact that it didn't seem to have a lot of things for me to do. I understand the concept of point and click for a battle, but it seemed like I had little control over what happened next after pointing and clicking. My armies would rush into battle haphazardly with most of them dying before getting the chance to fire an arrow or swing a sword. I'm sure there is some kind of fresh way to make that happen. The results of the battles also seemed kind of arbitrary. One of the most frustrating parts though is the almost lack of direction in the game on some of the harder levels. I got to the third part of the hero quest and was supposed to invade a castle. When I got to the castle, I understood I had to have a few ladders for the men to get into the castle, but almost every time I tried to "place" a ladder, it wouldn't happen. By the time a ladder was placed, the enemy had already wiped out most of my men. I just found it kind of crazy to get almost entirely through the campaign, then be halted by either not knowing how to place the ladders or how to use some of the weaponry included in my arsenal.
I think the tutorials didn't do much more than cover the basics. I wish there had been more "how-tos" or pieces about the specific weapons, so I could have understood what to do next. Also, it was a challenge to decide what troops to take with you into battle or not. Of course you could press a button and have the computer decide for you, but that kind of made it seem even more unnecessary for your involvement in the game. This is the kind of game you can multitask while playing, because you just have to press a button here or there and point and click. I enjoy the RPG format and didn't mind the turn-based on games like Final Fantasy, but with the Warhammer Battle March, it just got old very fast.
I thought the graphics were cool though. The monsters looked horrific. The men looked the stoic soldier type, the wizards seemed magical; although the countryside and scenery was a bit drab. It kind of seemed like there wasn't a lot of effort put into the art side of this game. It was just green background or castle or village or anything like that, but there wasn't a lot of detail. I had a hard time staying interested in this game. I wanted to like it more, but just couldn't get into it.
I also tried to play this online, but found it to be challenging and the online play didn't sustain my interest either. I'm kind of not sure why this game was rated 17+, there didn't seem to be a lot of elements that would require that.
I think this is a game you should rent first before buying or play a demo of. If you like the demo or you like the beginnings of the game, then you should enjoy Warhammer Battle March a lot. If you're looking for a game that moves a little faster than a turtle's pace, then this isn't going to be the game for you. I don't think it's lived up to the hype.