What did you think we did this time of year - spend the whole day scratching our heads and looking at tax receipts? No, man! We're gamers, and gamers play games year-round. Now, getting gamers to write about games is a whole other beast. So I promised the staff that everyone that participated in this week's gaming report would be entered in a drawing. I will pay off the winner's holiday debt in its entirety.
Okay, everyone's ballot is in. Roll the prize barrel! The person whose name I pick will have the honor of being listed first in this article and I will (cue echo effect) erase his holiday debt!
And the winner is . . .
I . . . I won? Imagine that! This is great! Tremendous! But even this wonderful turn of events is not the highlight of my week. For you see, this past week I finally beat one of the most shameful entries in my Pile of Shame: Skies of Arcadia Legends.
Skies came and went on the Dreamcast, and even now that version is sitting about a block away from me at my brother's house. I had always intended to play it, and even though I didn't technically own it, I considered it honorary Pile-of-Shame material. So when I got the GameCube version as a gift the middle of last year, I started on the task of redeeming myself. As has been a recurring pattern with me, I got right to the end of the game - seventy-five hours in! - and . . . I set it aside. Sheesh!
But the cycle would not be repeated this time.
A few days ago, after writing my Deus Ex: Invisible War review, I went through the final battles of the game. And I beat that sucker. Another one off the list, sure. But Skies is so much more. It is one of the very best RPGs I have ever played - and I have played dozens of them.
So if you are looking for a title with a battle system that will keep you off of auto-pilot (especially in the air fights - no pun intended), will pull you in with its characters and attacks, and will give you plenty to do, invest in a copy of Skies of Arcadia on either console, but know that the extra missions and the two extra group attacks of the Cube version are worth seeing in their own right.
After that incredible experience, I started a game with a slightly different focus, Mafia for the PlayStation 2. If you loved watching Don Corleone's origin in The Godfather, Part II, you might want to give this one a look. Unless you are greatly offended by long loading times, irritating camera work, and bullets that frequently whiz through a target without doing the slightest damage.
This is a period piece set in the 1930's, in what looks like a cross between Brooklyn and Chicago. The cinemas are long and competently acted, following the career of a man drawn into the Mob. I admit the story is interesting enough to keep me playing, but I can only recommend the game to those who absolutely love Depression-era Mob tales. And you might want to look into the Xbox version. The loading times couldn't be worse than they are on the PS2. But I doubt the graphics are much better. This is a very good-looking game. It's worth a rental for patient people.
I know I won once already, but do I get a prize for writing two paragraphs on Mafia without mentioning that other game? (Hint: GTA.)
Not surprising to board patrons Mzo and Rich, the oft-discussed Crimson Skies remains my most regularly played game to date. While many have long since given up or taken an indefinite hiatus to enjoy other XBL games, such as Rainbow Six 3 and Top Spin, I remain the scourge of the air. Recently, I discovered a new technique with the Bulldog that gives me a significant tactical advantage. After several "team dogfight" sessions, both my rank and statistical performance improved dramatically. Many players online resorted to name-calling and other colorful remarks. Usually I don't even bother responding beyond expressing my pity for their lack of sportsmanship. (Note that this is nothing uncommon for any online competitive game, going back as far as the X-Band era, but it is worse than it used to be).
As of this writing, I am holding down an all-time rank of 18 under the Top Aces board. I don't expect to ever reach the number one slot, since that player has an extremely high point buffer (19,000). Needless to say, it won't stop me for aiming for the Top 10, followed by a Top 5 slot. Meanwhile, more and more players continue to join the online community, which has reached a total of 112,000 and is rising. As for Rich and Mzo, well, they look at the game in an entirely different light now and they regularly play throughout the week. Not to mention, they've been doing substantially better since I shared some of my newfound techniques. (However, Mzo still prefers the Dust Devil despite its slight lack of speed). Recently, TNL Radio founder Nercm finally took the plunge and invested in an Xbox. I am hoping to bring him into the fold. I could always use another target.
Unlike Teddman, I haven't looked at my copy of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! since Christmas. I am considering getting back into again if I can find some TNL'ers equipped with a GameCube broadband adapter. I'm sure Hero or someone else has one. I think I'll start off with that before I join the Project Gotham Racing 2 club.
And in other news, Sonic Heroes made its debut on the GameCube early last month and became the newest addition to my library. It admittedly impressed me the first three days I played it, but that faded quicker than the Blue Blur himself! Overall, the control is solid and I admire the abilities Sonic Team integrated, allowing you to control three characters at once. The stages are vast, diverse and fast - real fast! However, the game feels a bit unpolished, and the evil camera quirks which have haunted Sonic fans since his 3D Dreamcast releases remain in full effect.
Thankfully, the voice acting is solid (Knuckles gets my vote as the best among the pack), albeit heavy on dialogue and a bit too "cute" for my liking. It's gotten to the point that my local GameStop staff and I were compelled to keep our demo copy on pause to avoid hearing from such characters as Big the Cat, who endlessly utters "Froggy" when left idle. While Sonic Heroes is packed with an abundance of replay value, diversity, and challenge (see: Eggman boss battles), it doesn't make quite the boom we've come to expect from Sonic Team.
Since I started school again, my Game Boy has been my constant companion. Sword of Mana gives me a break between classes, and it's been pretty awesome. I'm still not sure if the game is complex beyond my comprehension, or just ridiculously simple. Either way, it's pretty fun, though some of the game systems - for tempering and forging weapons and armor - have horribly obscure rules that aren't explained.
And then there's Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, which I've been playing ever since I picked it up after Christmas. About five minutes into playing the game I wished that I had picked it up sooner. The game is gold. I'd even dare to say that it's my favorite video game of all time, with a perfect balance of difficulty, truly impressive controls, and great presentation. The combat in 2nd Runner is so much fun, and it constantly evolves with new combat abilities earned while progressing through the game. I've started playing through it on the hardest difficulty, and it's definitely been kicking my butt, but I keep trying.
Splinter Cell - I finally got around to playing this stealth masterpiece on Xbox, and the experience brought to mind one of my gaming pet peeves: Why can't I save anywhere? This feature would be especially welcome in Splinter Cell, because by the fifth time I creep into a window, wait for a cut scene to play, knock out and hide the bodies of four guards throughout a few rooms, disarm multiple video cameras, and finally creep slowly down a staircase only to make too much noise and fail the mission, I'm ready to quit playing the game rather than restart all of that.
Mission-based games really need a flexible save system, or else they can get annoying fast. That was one of my main complaints with the GTA series too. I just don't enjoy wasting time hauling ass across town to restart a mission objective over and over again. Games like Halo, Prince of Persia, and Metal Arms have similar checkpoint-based saving, but the nature of the gameplay makes them much easier to deal with. The combat action is very fun to play (and replay), the checkpoints were frequent enough, and the trial-and-error combat tactics were enjoyable.
By contrast, there is usually just one way to complete a section in Splinter Cell, and the gameplay itself is not fun to do over and over again. It's rather tedious even the first time through. And don't tell me that the checkpoint system is integral to the game and it wouldn't be challenging without it. Ubisoft's PC version of the game contains a quicksave feature you can use at any time. Now why couldn't that have been in the console versions too?
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (GameCube) - The latest installment in the Mario Kart franchise is a good game, but I couldn't help being a little disappointed in it. I had a blast playing it over the holidays with a group of old high school friends who'd grown up with the N64 and SNES versions, but still felt something was missing. The course design is a little uninspired, the game mechanics a little off, and there wasn't much in the way of brand-new modes and options. I was surprised that I wasn't addicted to it right away like I usually am with Mario Kart games.
Though many players have said you get used to the lack of a jump button, I never quite did. What reason is there to not include it? There are still numerous stretches where jumping repeatedly would help a kart speed through water, grass, sand, mud, and other hazards. Not to mention avoiding a spin-out from all the bananas littering the course! It makes powersliding feel odd too, though it works well enough. Double Dash is the first game in the
series not to have a jump, and I hope it's the only one.
Despite all of this, I might still have been able to get hooked on it because it's good multiplayer fun. But there's no online mode! By now it's unreasonable to expect one in a first-party Nintendo game this generation, but that really hurts. I rarely have four friends over these days that are willing to play Mario Kart. And unless we're home for the holidays, there's no way for me to go head-to-head against my old buddies like I did in high school and college: we're spread across the country now.
My time is almost now completely dominated by the absolutely brilliant Prince of Persia. The more I play it, the more I believe it is the solution to the problems that seem almost chronic in 3D games that require quick movements. The camera is cinematic without being obtrusive, the gameplay is seamless, the animation is seamless, and best of all, you never blame the game for the mistakes you've made. Props also need to be given out on the whole controlling-time thing for offering a truly "Why didn't they think of this before?" idea to the problems we come face to face with in 3D platformers.
On the Live front, I picked up Phantasy Star Online used for the Xbox, making this the third system I've played the game for, and the second I've gone online with. Still as addictive as ever, though I admit it's pretty creepy how that Hunter's Licsense thing automatically (after you click, "I agree") comes out of whatever card you used to register your Xbox Live account. Still it's only, $17.99 used, folks, so get your asses out there and pick it up so I have someone to play with.