Several games hardly need an introduction since they’ve become staples for their respective developer, such as GTA, Madden, etc.  Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an exception as the second installment in the Red Dead series and is the first Rockstar has made entirely on their own.  The game has gone from being another rumor mill title to being quite the eye catcher with promises of several activities and a strong core single player in an open world Western environment.  Just how well does the end product of this ambitious title hold up?

In Redemption’s main single player you assume the role of John Marston; former gang bandit turned bounty hunter who wants nothing more than to start a new life with his wife and son.  Unfortunately, this means hunting down Bill Williamson, a once fellow outlaw to Marston.  Along the way, Marston meets with a considerable amount of individuals, generally crooks, liars, tyrants, manipulators and anything in-between.  While the story’s premise is decent enough, the actual experience is little more than a gigantic goose chase with an ending that feels too out of left field for comfort.  Most of the cutscenes involve Marston hoping to acquire information and being told to carry out activities for the supporting characters.  You’ll still get much of the symbolic commentary on society through conversations which Rockstar is known for hosting, but these and certain gunfights are ultimately the highlights of the main conquest.

John Marston finds several friends and enemies throughout his journey in Redemption

The campaign might not be terribly interesting, but the world you’re free to explore is.  If you focus strictly on the single player you’ll see much of the environment and get at least fifteen hours worth of gameplay.  Putting in the time for side missions and other plentiful activities will bring in even more game time.  While you’ll participate in several widespread shootouts no matter what your progression style is, events such as horseshoe tossing, poker and blackjack, one-on-one gun duels, bounty hunting and much more help give the game some variety.  Although many of these can be quite fun, some, such as herding cattle, can prove to be a chore even if it does compliment the setting.  Most events incorporate their way into the single player with proper tutorials familiarizing yourself with the controls on-the-go, so you’ll garner a fair share of events to play, both the fun and not so entertaining.

When exploring the game’s wilderness, players can expect to find a wide variety of creatures which can be killed and skinned to gain more money.  Bears, wolves, cougars, skunks, snakes and other animals can be hunted down or you can find horses, mules, buffalo or even zebras to tame and ride, should you choose.  Additionally, there are unscripted stranger encounters throughout the lands and in towns.  These are usually people who’ve had their means of transportation stolen (horses or stagecoaches) or prostitutes about to get killed by less-than happy customers.  It’s a small touch but helps to sell the game’s dangerous atmosphere and should help keep most players on their toes.

Battles can get close and frantic, but they never feel impossible or over-challenging

Control-wise, Redemption feels tried and true to Rockstar’s ever-popular GTA series with a few minor changes.  The time-slowing Dead Eye feature from Revolver returns with three levels to attain.  And instead of driving cars or piloting helicopters, you’ll be riding horses and, occasionally, stagecoaches and trains to get around.  Should you find yourself in a rush, however, you can always set up a campsite and travel to either a previously visited town or to a waypoint set on your map.  During combat, the controls hold up relatively well but it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter some hiccups, primarily when trying to take cover.  As with most titles nowadays, your health will regenerate in a few seconds after being shot while Dead Eye takes a bit longer.  Killing more enemies will boost your restoration time.

As one might expect, Redemption also comes complete with a note-worthy multiplayer.  Your single player feats have no effect on the multiplayer and vice versa, leaving you with little more than a handful of characters and a mule as your default mount.  Players can choose to join Free Roam with others and have a small variety of objectives.  The most beneficial of these is completing Gang Hideouts, which has you kill a large number of enemies in a single area, rewarding money, weapons and XP.  These can be tackled either solo or with others, with the potential difficulty being harder than any of the game’s missions when going alone.  From there, you can take part in more conventional modes, both kill and objective-based.  Of course, you can always decide to have fun, senseless shootouts in Free Roam as well.

The game can become quite breathtaking when looking over a long distance

One area that Rockstar has usually been credible with is creating a polished, good-looking open world game.  Fortunately, Red Dead Redemption manages to please our eyes with only a few hindrances.  Many of the game’s best-looking moments are when you’re on top of a high cliff looking down at the world and impressive draw distance.  There are also small, occasional touches that might throw you for a surprise such as a pink-orange sky color during dawn.  Details on the surroundings and character models are quite solid though, like most free roam games, you’ll get a fair share of these features loading in-game for a few brief seconds.  As for the game’s framerate, it might slip up a few times but never to the point where it truly impairs the moment.  However, you’ll still likely fall prey to some interesting or funny glitches throughout the game.

If anything, Rockstar tends to do a better job in the sound department than the visuals with usually strong music and always excellent voice work.  Once again, they prove themselves on all fronts in Red Dead Redemption.  Every character’s voice fits them and the scenario perfectly which helps to keep some of the less conventional individuals convincing even if they themselves aren’t exactly likable.  Since the game takes place during a period before automobiles became a standard mode of transportation, you won’t find any in-game songs to listen to while traveling.  Instead, we’re given an original soundtrack that usually plays during cutscenes, missions or in-game moments such as the random encounters with strangers.  The score does fit with every moment well but it’s not on a standout level such as those found on Halo and Metal Gear Solid.  Various sound effects such as the fire tone from weapons, explosions and horse-riding are all believable and give each battle a proper sense of peril even if some aren’t terribly challenging.

There are plenty of creatures to find in the wilderness, some will attack when you get too close

Red Dead Redemption has built up quite a train of hype, especially over the last months of its development time.  GTA fans who go into the game knowing what to expect (that it’s a Western) should get what they’re looking for and even those who might not happen to be fond of Rockstar’s acclaimed series are encouraged to give this game a shot.  That said, Redemption does have its fair share of flaws which are usually quite minor, but the lack of a truly interesting story and some less-than entertaining mandatory missions hinder the game just enough to leave a considerable repercussion.  Even so, this is a very competent release which remains engaging even outside of the main story thanks to several side missions and activities, both in the single player and multiplayer.  Red Dead Redemption does enough to justify an investment and then some.

To say the Halo franchise sells is like telling your friend that being stabbed is painful.  For nearly a decade, Bungie’s hit shooter series has become synonymous with the Xbox name.  As you may recall in 2007, a multiplayer beta for Halo 3 was released with the open world action game, Crackdown.  At the time, it was considered a risk, but the end result was a success for Bungie and now we’re seeing this happen with other releases.  Since the Halo 3 beta was well-received, it isn’t out of line that we get similar treatment for Halo: Reach.  Now that the doors have shut on this “temporary multiplayer demo,” it’s time to see if said game is shaping up to match the quality of its predecessors.

Over the course of the beta’s run, we were treated to a handful of assorted match groups a la Playlists.  Some new matches were added per Playlist, such as the new Headhunter mode wherein players kill each other for flaming skulls, which must be collected and brought to a certain location.  The big match additions, however, came with the Spartans versus Elites modes, Invasion and Generator Defense (aka Network Test 1), which were added a few days after the beta’s launch.  Both of these modes see Spartans defend a position while Elites attack, since our favorite Predator brethrens sword-wielding alien warriors can take a few more shots than Spartans before dying.  Bungie has expressed skepticism as to whether these aforementioned matches will make their way into the final product, saying the reception will help determine their decision.

Bungie once again allowed us to get a taste of their latest offering.  Needless to say, things got interesting

All the game types feel familiar for anyone who’s played their fair share of shooters, even if just this generation.  While the two Invasion modes (one objective-based, the other centered on kill counts) and Generator Defense give a nice twist on how to play, it’s still tried and true.  Fortunately, this means Bungie should have no qualms about releasing Reach with these versus modes since having the Elites always attack helps keep things balanced.  Also, the two Invasion variants, despite having a 12 player limit, provided easily the most intense and, at points, viscerally satisfying moments of the entire beta.

Of course, it’s tough to enjoy a match if the gameplay isn’t fundamentally entertaining, and the Halo series has always managed to remain engaging.  With that in-mind, it should come as no surprise that Halo: Reach isn’t far off from its predecessors.  Much of the gameplay is still unchanged, though new abilities have been added in the form of Loadouts.  These are classes which the player chooses at the beginning of the match and after dying, typically providing the same starting weapons but different perk-like abilities.  Some of these are restricted to Spartans, such as sprinting, while the Elites get their own including a forward roll.  Others found in the beta included an active camouflage (which becomes less effective the quicker you move), a shield that grants temporary invincibility in exchange for the inability to move and, my personal favorite, jetpacks.  A few other, minor gameplay tweaks have also been made, such as the reincorporation of health packs, fall damage and no more dual wielding.  These decisions are in-line with Bungie’s statements about trying to make Reach feel like Combat Evolved.  In the long run, it still feels similar enough to Halo 2 & 3 (combine the trilogy in a blender and the end result is Reach).

Abilities such as jetpacks let you come just a bit closer to Michael Jordon

Another signature aspect to the Halo games has been the memorable weapons and vehicles, with each installment bringing some new, interesting additions.  This is one area the Reach beta falls short, since we have no new vehicles and only two new weapons that aren’t alterations of previous firearms.  Because there’s no more dual wielding, we have a distinct lack of smaller weapons to find, with the Needler, Magnum and Plasma Pistol being the only exceptions (Spike and Flame grenades have also been removed).  Changes have been made to a few weapons, such as the Battle Rifle now being called the DMR, which fires single shot, semi-automatic rounds rather than triple bursts.  One of the more peculiar weapons is the Covenant Focus Rifle, which is essentially the Beam Rifle meets the Sentinel Beam.  It can zoom in twice and deals plenty of damage, but you must maintain fire on your target in order to kill them.

The only new additions (thus far) are a standard grenade launcher (which prominently ricochets to avoid feeling cheap) and the Plasma Launcher, which is a lock-on Plasma Grenade launcher that fires more stickies the longer you hold fire.  It’s definitely the most fun weapon to use, but it never feels like a crutch since it’s unlikely to last even a minute before respawning.  Most of the common favorites still made their way into the beta, including the Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Plasma Cannon (replacing the Plasma Rifle) and the always fun Gravity Hammer.  Vehicles were only available on the Invasion modes, with the Wraith, Scorpion, Warthog, Ghost and Banshee being drivable.  All still function similarly except for the Banshee, which automatically moves forward even quicker and requires pressing a button to switch between the Plasma fire and Fuel Rod shots.  That is to say, this is still the Halo fans know and enjoy, but I did feel a bit underwhelmed about having less firearm options.

Yes, you pick up flaming skulls to determine your score.  Completely inconspicuous.

Perhaps the biggest (and only huge) letdown of the Reach beta was the selection and quality of the maps.  In all, we were given four different locations for battlefields.  The first two maps made available were Swordbase and Powerhouse, with Boneyard and Overlook being subsequently released.  Swordbase and Powerhouse are relatively small to midsize maps that feel best built for matches of five-on-five, tentatively.  Boneyard rivals the series’ largest maps by significantly bumping up the scale and allowing more, smaller areas to be unlocked throughout Invasion matches.  Finally, Overlook has a moderate to large size with a single, small bunker being the only indoor structure.  The reason these included maps are so substandard is because they’re not very interesting and, with the exception of Overlook, are dull, conventional and uninspired.  While they aren’t bad or even horrible like most of the maps in say, Modern Warfare 2, it’s still disappointing given how great the overall quality of past Halo maps have been.

Bungie also added some options outside of the actual combat itself to try and keep the game interesting even in the menus.  One of the first indications of this is in the approach taken to customizing your online character.  Helmet, shoulder and chest options remain as before except you’ll purchase them with points you’ve earned from playing.  The more interesting and coveted armor pieces are unlocked the more you play and are also more financially demanding (but they’re still completely cosmetic).  Your accumulated points are displayed both when browsing for parts and after finishing a match.  Although you’ll spend points for upgrades, they won’t be deducted from your leaderboard score.

Alternate armor is now purchased, but they don’t affect how many shots you can take.

Other options include your player preferences; such as whether you want quiet or chatty teammates, prefer working together or going solo, etc.  These choices are nice, but for some reason the beta doesn’t save them before you turn off your Xbox.  The final menu touch to note is an alternate take on voting for upcoming matches.  When you enter a lobby, three map and game type combinations will be displayed with the option to vote for one of the three or choose “None of the Above” for an entirely new set of variants.  This is definitely a good approach to giving the players more choice, but with only four maps and a limited selection of modes, the use of it in the beta was fairly negligible.

As with the Halo 3 beta before it, Halo: Reach is shaping up to be another solid, competent installment to Bungie’s immensely popular franchise.  Although there’s much to like here, it’s questionable as to whether Reach will truly match the quality of its predecessors.  For my money, Combat Evolved and Halo 3 were excellent while Halo 2 bridged between good and great.  If the beta is any indication, Reach will likely turn out as good as the first sequel.  With superior maps, more weapons and more vehicles, Reach could wind up being a more than worthy entry to the series.  However, the beta itself doesn’t feel like a true push forward as much as it does a few interesting ideas added for the sake of a franchise update.

If you’re a fan of first person shooters, chances are you were among the many that bought and continued to play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare months after release.  Bringing the series into a present day setting proved to be a wise one, offering innovative scenarios and customizable options for you to carry out directives.  Now, two years later, Modern Warfare 2 has arrived, bringing a new campaign and plenty of fresh multiplayer content to the table.  Just how far does this take the new entry?

Set five years after the killing of Zakhaev in its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2 opens by introducing you to the new antagonist: Makarov, a former lieutenant of Zakhaev.  As before, your goal is to discover any information on Makarov, locate him and hope to eliminate another blood thirsty individual from the world.  Once again, you’ll assume the role of varying individuals throughout Modern Warfare 2’s campaign, each with their own branching paths contributing to the story.  The game has you performing much throughout the world, but due to the short length (can easily be completed in less than six hours), it oftentimes feels incoherent and lacking a sense of focus.  On a positive note, the game does a good job in handling the key twists and emotional moments which add incentive to push through.

Upon completion, you can tackle the Spec Ops mode, which allows you to participate in a number of goal oriented missions, either by yourself or cooperatively with a friend.  In order to unlock more levels you’ll need to earn stars, which are gained by completing missions on higher difficulties or meeting specific demands.  Generally these take place in either the same or similar settings found throughout the single player campaign.  Without any connection between the missions by means of a plot, however, Spec Ops might not be what most players will be looking for in a cooperative mode.  Fortunately, there are enough levels to at least offer some content for players to return and (hopefully) earn higher accolades.

Anyone who has played Call of Duty in the past will feel right at home here.  At the beginning, you’re put through the usual introduction to gameplay mechanics before being tossed into your first real mission.  You can either inaccurately fire from the hip, aim down your sights for precision or utilize the game’s auto-aim mechanic to take on multiple foes.  The path is tried and true with a couple small twists and turns along the way helping to break the monotony, such as bringing civilians into account and offering the occasional non-linear path.  Fundamentally, this is the same Call of Duty that fans know and love.  So, if you’re not on the band wagon yet, this one likely won’t do much to change your perspective.

There are a wide variety of ways to customize weapons to cater to your tastes.

Action has usually been in the form of intense firefights for the series and Modern Warfare 2 attempts to step this up a notch.  While the controversial and irregular No Russian level might not be the best attempt at this, the rest of the game sharply hits the mark.  The campaign has plenty of memorable battles, ranging from a snowmobile chase to a series of large scale confrontations throughout Washington D.C.  If it isn’t clear by now, the game definitely hits close to home with conflicts that are top notch simply for their locales.

Of course, if you’re an avid player of the series then it’s probably safe to say that you’re most interested in the full blown online portion.  And for fans of the 2007’s Modern Warfare, this sequel delivers plenty of content that is sure to keep you coming back over and over again.  Expected additions have been made such as weapons like the SCAR-H assault rifle, extra perks-one letting you reach your next killstreak with one less murder and different equipment options to assign per class. A few new inclusions and changes have made their way into the game as well.  Among these are deathstreak awards-assistance from dying multiple times without getting a kill (such as temporary painkillers) and the ability to choose which three killstreak rewards you have available.  You can also earn call signs and emblems to let people know what kind of player you think yourself as.  The amount of content available to unlock and utilize in Modern Warfare 2 is quite staggering and it’s very possible that you’ll use different weapons just to see how a certain combination can play out on the field.

You’ll take part in some impressive battles throughout the short but sweet campaign mode.

Online gameplay demands far quicker reflexes than those in the single player and, if you’re a bit rusty when heading in, it might be tough to play catch up at first.  But once you’ve hit a high enough rank to make your own individual class, the experience definitely becomes more rewarding.  Maps are mostly well constructed though, as usual, there are a number of areas in each that seem catered towards players who want to hide and essentially obtain “cheap kills.”  This also leads to the issue of player behavior online.  Even though this isn’t a direct issue with the game itself, the amount of players we encountered either camping or hiding in the most shameless locations was rather striking.  These are the times where it can feel sympathetic to just leave a game in order to avoid frustration.  Yet, when you’re in a match that has a variety of behaviors being exhibited by others (as the game should be played) then it can be tough to go wrong, even if you wind up at the bottom of the barrel.

Call of Duty has known for having very solid visuals as a multi-platform series and Modern Warfare 2 is no different.  Gun models look noticeably smoother but more detailed than those of its predecessor while environments typically look quite solid, especially from a distance.  Lighting effects and the varied mix of color tones are also put to great use throughout the single player and on the fresh slab of multiplayer maps.  Even during the game’s most intense firefights, the framerate holds up quite well, seldom taking a significant drop (if at all).  Character animations, however, remain fairly dismissible but there are points where you’ll appreciate the small touches finally made, such as characters flying a short distance when killed by a shotgun.  About the only large complaint with Modern Warfare 2’s visuals are that the lighting and shadows for characters and environments are quite ugly up close.

Some of the locations you’ll fight in hit very close to home.

The game’s audio front, however, might just be its most impressive aspect next to the amount of online content.  Dialogue and voice work are notably improved upon with some lines that sound as if they came out of a Christopher Nolan or James Cameron film.  Characters also feel a bit more authentic this time around thanks to solid deliveries from an equally competent cast with Barry Pepper and Keith David lending their talents.  Even more notable is the emotional and at times powerful score courtesy of the always brilliant Hans Zimmer.  And once more, the sound effects from weapons, explosions, bones cracking from drops and much more are put to great use here.  Everything about Modern Warfare 2’s audio contributes to make it that much more immersive and convincing.

As always, the end of the year has seen some great releases and Modern Warfare 2 manages to solidify itself as a clear contender for game of the year.  Though it has some shortcomings amidst all of its modes and feels more like a strong update, this is only further reason why fans shouldn’t miss out on what it has to offer.  If the first Modern Warfare wasn’t your cup of tea, then it’s unlikely the numerous additions and small tweaks will do anything for you here.  Yet for anyone else who’s a fan of console first person shooters with plenty of replay value, this is a game that’s definitely worth signing up for.

The last couple Need for Speed games haven’t exactly been what one would call stellar. After the pathetic quality of Pro Street and Undercover, most felt the series couldn’t go any lower. This year alone we’ll be seeing the release of three separate entries to the series, the first of which is Need for Speed Shift, developed by Slightly Mad Studios. Once again the series has been taken away from the streets and back on to closed tracks in hopes of delivering a simulation oriented experience. Has this finally managed to bring the series back on-track or is it still on a crash course to the junk yard?

When starting the game’s Career mode, you’ll be put behind the wheel of a BMW for a couple events to determine your recommended difficulty/assist settings and how much cash that can be used to spend on your first car. After that you’ll be open to a small number of races which will initiate your drive to the NFS World Tour-the primary Career objective. However, in order to quality for this you’ll need to race through enough events while upgrading and purchasing cars in order to keep up.

You progress through the game by winning stars in events, with up to three being available depending on your finishing position. Bonus stars can also be obtained by completing certain objectives, usually revolving around racing actions (drive a clean lap, spin out other opponents) or reaching a certain number of Profile Points. The latter of these are gained by your behavior on the racetrack; whether precise (staying with the race line, not hitting anything) or aggressive (drafting, blocking and crashing into opponents). Whatever Profile Points you earn are added to determine your Driver Profile, which has up to fifty levels to reach. The driving style you earn the most points towards in a race will contribute to whether you grow as a precise or aggressive driver. What’s nice about this is that the game opens the ability for you to choose how you want to race; you’re encouraged to drive how you like.

“Shift brings the series back on to closed race courses again, which are quite welcoming this time around.”

Shift’s Career opens up a good chunk of events to take part in, with more becoming available as you earn additional stars. While there might be plenty of accessible races, you’ll only have to take part in a chunk of these in order to unlock them all. There are a total of five tiers of race events, but it’s very possible to have all unlocked before finishing the first two. What also helps adding stars become easier are Invitational Events, races that have you drive pre-selected cars for a variety of occasions, which are obtained by increasing your Driver Level. On a positive note, this means you don’t have to take part in every event in order to reach the end (go ahead, skip the lousy ones). However, this also means the game can potentially be completed in a few quick hours; making the time spent in the Career solely dependant on how much the player is willing to race.

With that in-mind, the key question is just how fun the game is. Fortunately for us, Shift turns out to be a fairly entertaining entry. A key reason for this is the highly emphasized cockpit view. Though we’ve all seen (and experienced) games with their own attempts at replicating vehicle interiors, this is easily the most immersive to date. From the in-car details becoming blurry while accelerating to the colorlessness and shaking when in a nasty collision, Shift manages to create a very strong driving experience while in the cockpit. Add an adrenaline-inducing sense of speed to the mix and we have an installment that, for the first time in a good while, finally lives up the series’ name. Other camera views are available, but none deliver the potential excitement found in the cockpit (not to mention racing in third person feels very imprecise).

A variety of modes are available to try in Shift, with standard races, time trials, Duals (pitting similar cars against each other) and Drifts being among the inclusions. The driving model for non-Drift events is solid, though players will want to tweak the sensitivity and control settings to acquire a better feel. Once this is addressed, the game can be very exciting and fun; arguably the most intense the series has felt since Most Wanted. As for drifting, the entry level is quite high with the slide physics being rather exaggerated. Frustration is highly probable at first but with enough time, this mode can become manageable and quite fun. However, as you put more time into the game, shortcomings will begin to show and become fairly prominent.

“Drifting can be fun, but it’ll take time, patience and tolerance.”

One of the primary issues comes from the racing AI. Although Slightly Mad made a wise choice in ditching the much-loathed rubber-band AI, this hasn’t prevented it from impeding the gameplay. Once past Tier 1, my experience with the in-game racers became very bitter; with blocking, shoving, ramming and spinning out being amongst the common actions I faced. There were also points the AI would hit my car as I passed them (turning my Clean Overtake into a Dirty Overtake) and side-swipe me at the very beginning of a race. Needless to say, the AI doesn’t seem too bothered by being intrusive. While this issue isn’t too prominent on the Easy difficulty, it’s quite noticeable on Medium. What also made things annoying is how on Easy, the challenge is essentially nonexistent but anything higher feels over-demanding.

Another disappointment comes from the car selection and customization options. One of the few things previous Need for Speed games handled well was the car collection. Unfortunately, Shift has a modest-at-best selection. Nearly every vehicle is a recently released model with the only old cars being tuners such as the 1972 Skyline 2000 GT-R and the Toyota Corolla (no classic muscle to be found here). As for customization, most of this comes in the form of performance and tuning. One nice touch to this is how if you give your car every upgrade you can convert it to a Works vehicle to realize its full potential and compete in higher level contests. However, those hoping for a good assortment of visual options will be disappointed as the paint system doesn’t feel so smooth and the vinyl options are condensed and barren.

“Get ready to be engaged, Shift offers the most intense cockpit view gaming has seen.”

Then there’s the driving model and overall gameplay which, as mentioned, is solid yet also conflicted. Although Shift tries to be a simulator it ultimately doesn’t feel like one. Instead, the game finds itself stuck in-between simulation and arcade styles. While you’ll need to be wary of your position and control on the track, cars won’t endure any dire consequences for getting involved in a severe collision or being put throughout rigorous standards. The worst that will happen is your car will start turning one of two ways on its own, but as long as you stay on the track and keep up, anything goes. Having the option for aggressive behavior alone indicates the game isn’t nearly a full-fledged simulator. And when you can practically drive right under a car without taking any strict damage it only becomes abundantly clear. Despite this the game can still have its great, fun moments, but they don’t occur very consistently. Those who are more concerned about a game that offers a good driving experience in-general likely won’t mind this gameplay predicament.

If you ever get tired of playing by yourself you can always hop onto online races with up to seven other players. Even though you can’t race with as many people online as you can with the AI, it helps keep races from being too chaotic and the experience is mostly lag-free (save for when I got hit twice by an invisible car). While playing online can be fun, the entire interface is very limited, with little beyond joining and creating races being available. It would’ve been nice to have a way to view or exchange car tuning set-ups or be given more than just races themselves. Sadly, what we have is barely enough to keep most players interested unless they want to race for a higher Driver Profile rank with their friends.

“Don’t be surprised if your hands start trembling from the sense of speed when in the faster cars.”

From a visual standpoint Shift is quite pleasing to the eyes. The car models are replicated well enough and usually look quite sharp so long as you don’t get into a nasty wreck. Damage modeling in the game is mediocre at best, with bumps and scrapes being given dull, almost laughable detail. Environments generally look good as well, regardless of whatever time of the day you’re racing (though the amount of tracks is on the short side). Shift’s framerate manages to stay consistent as well, with minimal choke-ups even during the more chaotic moments. Unfortunately, the game has a fair share of glitches, some of which made the game literally unplayable. These can range from anything as small as grass appearing on the track to something odd like parts of the HUD disappearing to the game getting stuck in a replay leaving you to head to the Dashboard or restart your Xbox to resume playing.

On the audio front the game really hits the ball running. Engine noises when speeding or revving are highly emphasized and given an ambient echo-like sound when in the cockpit view. The sound of driving a Lamborghini or Works BMW over 150 MPH can almost be compared to the sound of a jet plane taking off. Other sound effects such as loud tire screeching and your driver groaning and panting when in a collision also help liven the experience. About the only possible downside to the game’s overall sound is the music, which features a forgettable selection of tracks that ultimately don’t stand out except when in the menus. As for the game’s announcer (who alerts and gives you advice), he essentially sounds like someone who’d become the target of a “Why so serious?” joke.

“Racing action can get chaotic which, in this game’s case, isn’t always a good thing.”

Need for Speed Shift sets out to try and accomplish a number of goals, with the primary two being to deliver an authentic racing experience and potentially revitalize the series. Although it doesn’t quite manage to fully accomplish either of these, this is still a valiant effort that, had it given some more development time, could’ve been a far superior package. As it stands, Shift offers up some exciting race action that is definitely intense and fun, but hampered by a number of flaws. The cockpit view and sense of speed help give this game a much needed edge to be worth a shot for die-hard fans of the series or those who don’t mind a sometimes unforgiving racer. One can only hope the series will head back uphill from here.

For the past forty years one particular genre of music has always raised the stakes– heavy metal. With a combination of strong guitar work, rumbling bass grooves, thunderous drumming and soaring vocals, heavy metal has pushed its way into territory that other genres won’t. Amidst the countless acts out there, one band has stood above the rest, becoming the most recognizable metal group to this day. With the fame they’ve achieved and the status of two gaming franchises attempting to replicate playing in a band, the two have come together in this touted spin off.

Guitar Hero: Metallica is the second game in the Guitar Hero franchise to focus on a single band. However, unlike the Aerosmith outing from last year, this title brings the full band experience a la Guitar Hero: World Tour with a bigger band. As a result, those who’ve played prior games in the series should know exactly what they’re getting in this release. With Metallica being the theme of the entire package and nearly fifty tough, hard-hitting tracks to play on every instrument, what you hear is what you get.

The game’s Career mode unfolds in a standard fashion. You’ll begin by playing two of Metallica’s songs and then work your way through the other tracks. Interestingly enough, you’ll have all the songs available in Career well before you’ve even played half of the total set list. While there’s technically a story to the game, it only shows up during the brief, comic book-like cutscenes a few times. Essentially, you play as a band inspired by Metallica and endure a few struggles to play with them. Needless to say, it’s nothing to write home about.

Metallica’s face-rocking song catalog makes it to Guitar Hero

Gameplay-wise there’s nothing new to be found between this game and World Tour. That said, since the game is centered on a proficient metal band, the game isn’t as much of a pushover. Similar to Legends of Rock, Guitar Hero: Metallica once again amps up the difficulty with plenty of challenging songs to shred through. If you’re a series veteran, then beating this game won’t be too demanding. However, if you’re a more casual player who isn’t as experienced, you’d better prepare for some crazy note charts. Another way the level of challenge has been bumped up is with the added Expert + difficulty for drums. For songs with this option, double bass notes have been incorporated into the note charts along with a few pad notes added over the Expert difficulty. In other words, if Expert drums didn’t challenge you before, they’re guaranteed to now.

Despite the abundance of taxing songs, the game is quite fun and entertaining. While some games have an issue with being challenging yet fun, Guitar Hero: Metallica manages to avoid this inconvenience for almost all of its songs. Neversoft did well to make sure the game was engaging, and as a result it’s very possible to enjoy this game even more than World Tour if the soundtrack is to your liking. Even though there are a few songs that are simply absurd in their difficulty, they ultimately do little to detract from the experience with plenty of other great tracks waiting to be mastered. In fact, many of the songs are so enjoyable that multiple playthroughs of some are inevitable. A few times I went back to play a couple songs a second or third time in a row simply because they were so engaging.

Another reason the game is so pleasurable is the presentation, especially in regards to the soundtrack. There are a total of forty-nine songs in the game, twenty-eight from Metallica and twenty-one from various guest acts. Almost every Metallica song you’d want in a Guitar Hero game is present, with “Master of Puppets”, “Where I May Roam”, “Seek and Destroy”, “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Disposable Heroes” being just some of the standouts. As for the other bands, Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent For Leather”, Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town”, Slayer’s “War Ensemble” and plenty more are featured. It’s all a very superb selection. While there might be one or two songs that a few people may question about being omitted, just about every essential song is included on disc. As an added bonus, if you have the Death Magnetic album installed to your hard drive from Guitar Hero 3, the files will carry over to this game, bringing the set list total to fifty-nine.

You can customize and create your own character…

There’s also more to do with the songs than just play them. Each song has a selection of Song Extras which include letting you look at the lyrics on-screen, watch a video (usually live) of certain songs and providing Metallifacts. Metallifacts provide information to you on-screen about whatever song is being played (as performed by the in-game NPCs), which are interesting tidbits to read while listening to the song. Not every song has Metallifacts, but for those that do, they’re bound to catch your interest.

As for the visuals, they’re not much of a step above World Tour, but a few little touches help to sell the experience. Each of the Metallica band members have been motion captured and look really sharp, especially in comparison to the members found in the Aerosmith title. Thanks to this, the animations look very smooth and some of the member’s on-stage movements have been captured in-game as well (such as bassist Robert Trujillo doing his “windmill spin” during “Seek and Destroy”). Also impressive are the locations you’ll be playing at, some of which are based directly off of certain albums by the band. While you’ll mostly look at scrolling notes, it’s tough not to glance away at some of the impressive set pieces.

The problem with the visuals is that they use the same engine from World Tour, which is to say it isn’t terribly detailed outside of the band members. And though the Metallica members might look great, they only show up when you play songs by them (unless in multiplayer). The characters outside of them, on the other hand, are as unremarkable as always. But when you’re seeing the world’s biggest metal band performing on an impressive Master of Puppets themed stage, it’s tough to find much to complain about.

…or play as one of the franchise’s iconic characters, including Metallica themselves

There are a couple peculiar design choices in the game, not all of which are good. For instance, while you do unlock songs to play in the Career mode, every single song is available in Quick Play regardless of how much progress you’ve made. This gives less incentive to even bother with the Career mode, but if you’re just picking up the game and want to jump right in and play “Master of Puppets” or “Disposable Heroes” from the get-go, you’re in luck. Another part to note is that while the Death Magnetic tracks work with this game, nothing else will, whether from Legends of Rock or World Tour. This means you’ll still have to swap out discs to play songs from other series entries. One more thing to note is that no instruments have been made available for the game. While you can pick up a second bass pedal at GameStop for reserving the game, there’s not even a Hammett/Hetfield guitar, which may disappoint bigger Metallica fans since the Aerosmith outing at least had a bundle.

At the end of the day, Guitar Hero: Metallica is essentially what it sounds like: a Guitar Hero game for Metallica fans; by the fans, for the fans in the purest sense. The set list is excellent, especially if you’re a metal fan and most of the songs are very pleasing to play. In addition, playing as any member of the band in the locales is bound to bring fans into the experience even further. Unfortunately, some odd design choices are ultimately what keep this game from feeling like a complete package. This is a great game, given you’re a fan of the band or genre. On the other hand, if Metallica or metal just don’t cater to your tastes, then you’ll want to look elsewhere.

For the past few years Harmonix has attempted to replicate the rockstar life within gamers’ homes.  From bringing the shredder out in many with Guitar Hero and unleashing the whole band experience with Rock Band, it’s clear they’re determined to make the most out of their games.  And now Madcatz is releasing a few peripherals to enhance this rocking sensation.  Among these products are three cymbal expansion kits (up to three cymbals available per kit) compatible with any Rock Band 2 wireless drum set.  Do these plastic imitations manage to bring the touring experience closer to home or are they best left on the drawing board?

Included in the double cymbal kit (expected release for triple and single kits are November 30 and December 15, respectively) are two plastic cymbal pads, poles for standing and support, clamps with two openings on each end to connect the poles and drum kit, and three colored cymbal tips for stability.  The initial set up might become confusing since the instructions are limited to a couple vague pictures in a small folded booklet.  We were uncertain as to which end of the clamps were for the cymbal poles or the drum kit.  Once this potential uncertainty was resolved, connecting everything else was a breeze.

While the picture on the box shows the two included cymbals being used for the yellow and green pads you can choose whatever color combination you want; the cymbals themselves are not color-coded.  If you’re planning on having all three cymbals, then you’ll have to wait for the triple kit to become available since it’s the only one that includes a clamp with three openings (for the third pole and cymbal).  Each color represents a certain cymbal type; yellow being the hi-hat, blue acting as the ride, and green representing the crash.  In drum fills, Big Rock Endings and Freestyle mode the game will distinguish the cymbals from the pads when struck; one of the product’s main enticements.

The cymbals look great when added to the drum set.

The build quality is good; it feels as if they can take a good beating. We didn’t have any notes dropped during our time with them.  While shaped as entire cymbals they’re designed to only be hit on the reinforced sections (which make up about half the circumference).  What’s good about this design-wise is that the other ends of the cymbals help absorb the impact of each hit, allowing for better retraction than the Guitar Hero: World Tour cymbals.  Two complaints, however, are that they don’t bounce drum sticks back as well as the pads (so don’t expect to perform fast beats on them) and they aren’t very quiet when beaten.

Unlike Guitar Hero’s cymbals, these don’t get their own spot on the fret board; hitting the cymbals is optional.  While this might sound like a waste of money, the challenge of hitting and alternating between the pads and the cymbals is still present.  And despite contributing very little, if anything to the gameplay, the cymbals do make playing the game feel more like the real thing.  This means Hard or Expert players who can distinguish the pads from the cymbals during songs will get the most out of these optional drum stick targets.

For what it’s worth, the Rock Band cymbal expansion kit manages to be a decent product that’s mainly recommendable to a certain audience.  It’s not an urgent purchase and probably won’t do much for inexperienced Rock Band drummers, but those who play on Hard or Expert will likely find it a worthwhile investment.  The double kit is currently available at select stores for $29.99 USD but those who want the full drum kit experience will have to wait until the end of the month for the triple kit to become available for an extra $10 USD.

Bigger, better and more badass.  These are the words Cliff Bleszinski used when referring to Gears of War 2, raising expectations higher than its predecessor.  Between a fair number of videos and developer diaries, Epic did well to hype up the sequel to their 2006 hit.  Now Gears 2 has been unleashed to Xbox 360 gamers; has it proved to be as great as anticipated or is it a forgetful experience?

Gears of War 2 picks up six months after the end of the first, with the Lightmass bomb leaving but a small dent on the Locust Horde.  Entire cities have been sunk by the Locust with Jacinto being the last human stronghold remaining.  In retaliation, humanity has decided to take the fight to the Locust by launching attacks underground.  There’s also a side story with Dom looking for his wife Maria amidst the raging war.  The plot is one of the many areas that have been improved over the first, with emotions and care for characters coming into play.  There’s still plenty of corny dialogue and some melodrama to be found, but Gears 2 manages to keep its story brisk and interesting.

The core gameplay from Gears of War has barely changed, with only a few tweaks being made.  This doesn’t hinder the game though, since it controls just as well, if not better than before.  The cover system has been touched up a bit and the game does have a slightly better feeling of control.  This isn’t to say nothing has been added to the options players have when slaughtering bloodthirsty opponents.  Downed enemies can now be picked up and used as human shields.  They can be beaten to death by fist, by a weapon-oriented finishing move or through old fashion curb stomping.  Chainsaw duals have also been added to address the issue of who wins when two players have their bayonet ready; with the faster button-masher coming out victorious.  Another small tweak made for the chainsaw is that it’ll take a few more shots than before to lower your bayonet; meaning death by chainsaw isn’t so much a seldom occurrence anymore.  Grenades can now be used as proximity mines by hitting them against walls (with the melee button) and smoke grenades knock down enemies when nearby, making them more useful.  Stopping power also plays a role in the game so that rushing into the action is discouraged.  Getting shot while running will slow you down and likely get you killed very quickly.

To compensate for a lack of major gameplay enhancements, the scope and stakes have been raised drastically.  You’ll be faced with taking on far more enemies than before; with armadas of opponents assaulting you at once.  New foes such as the kamikaze Tickers and the appropriately named Bloodhounds are among the new forces you’ll need to exterminate throughout your expedition.  A few weapons have also been added to even the odds.  The primary Locust rifle (now the Hammerburst) has been altered to become a single shot rifle that can zoom in and is an effective alternative to the Lancer.  A burst pistol, poison grenades, portable shields (can only be used with a pistol in-hand), chainguns and mortars are also available to help you show the Locust who’s got the upper hand.

One of the complaints with the first Gears was that the difficulty levels didn’t feel very balanced; with Casual feeling too easy and Hardcore feeling too challenging.  Thankfully, Epic has addressed these issues and added a Normal difficulty between Casual and Hardcore.  While Normal does feel balanced, it is rather forgiving.  This means the more experienced players will want to start on Hardcore if they’re seeking a real challenge.  Another issue addressed is the length of each Act, with all five being roughly the same duration.  All told, it should take most players around eight to ten hours to finish on their first run.

While the Campaign is short but sweet, Gears of War 2 offers plenty of incentive to keep coming back.  There are several collectibles you can add to your War Journal through the Campaign, giving insight to the thoughts of other characters outside of the main story.  Cooperative play is still available, but only for up to two people.  Then there are the online modes, which all together add some serious replay value.  The player limit has been raised to ten gamers per lobby, making matches bigger without eliminating the in-your-face action.  Outside of the offerings from Gears of War, there are a couple new modes available too.  Guardian works similar to Assassination, but players can continue fighting even if their leader has been killed.  Submission works like capture the flag except a Stranded is the flag and must be shot into submission to grab hold of and secure.  Then there’s Wingman, which divides players into teams of two and allows for a lot more action to occur between teams.  For some matches you’ll still have to wait after dying until the second round starts, but now you can move the camera around maps to help kill time.  If you ever find a nice shot, such as someone getting blown to bits by a shotgun, you can quickly take a picture while looking around.

Perhaps the biggest multiplayer offering is Horde, in which up to five players work together against wave after wave of increasingly difficult Locust.  While it can be played offline with two people it’ll take a full lobby of the best players with everyone working together to reach level fifty (the highest level of difficulty).  What makes Horde such a great mode is that it demands the game be played the way it was designed in order to succeed; killing with teamwork and in the quickest, nastiest ways possible.  It’s also extremely fun since the action is intense and viscerally satisfying, with enemies coming at you from every corner.  Between the solid multiplayer offerings and the challenge offered in Horde, gamers can expect to get plenty of bang for their buck.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Gears 2 is the visuals, especially from a technical standpoint.  Even though some felt the 360’s limits had been pushed with the first Gears, Epic has once again squeezed as much out of the system as possible.  The Destroyed Beauty theme remains and is used to an even better effect with action taking place in and having a great effect on the once pristine Sera.  As aforementioned, the scale has been raised considerably and is definitely the biggest improvement graphically.  The detail has been bumped up a decent bit as well, with character models and the environments looking smoother and sharper at the same time.  All this has been handled extremely well by the framerate, which remains steady even during the biggest battles.  About all that could be held against the visuals are that there’s still some pop in textures and dead body glitches.  These problems aside, Gears 2 looks absolutely stunning and is a nice step above its predecessor.

The sound for Gears of War 2 is also noticeably superior to its predecessor.  While the same voice actors have reprised their roles and still deliver some cheesy lines, there are occurrences when the dialogue shows improvement, particularly during the game’s more serious points.  The Locust sound just as nasty and sinister as before; growling many of their lines in an almost death metal style tone.  A fairly impressive musical score accompanies the game during every firefight and cutscene, adding to the gritty but intense scenarios and encounters.  What’s more is that the sound effects have also been worked on nicely; with every gun having a distinct pitch when fired, explosions sounding like loud bombardments and exploding bodies sounding as wet and chunky as they should.  That’s to say, you still won’t get sick of hearing your enemies fall apart before your weapons.

Gears of War 2 manages to be everything that the sequel to an intense, violent shooter should be.  The single player might be short, but it offers such a great, huge experience from start to finish that a second playthrough upon completion is likely.  Add on a great online multiplayer portion and one heck of a mode in Horde and you’ve got yourself a damn nice package.  Rest assured this is not Gears of War 1.5; this is a game that gives even the top titles released this year a run for their money.  Be ready for a second round of frantic bone crushing and blood inducement.

In 2006 gamers were given their first next-gen sandbox-style fix with Saints Row, seen mostly as a time killer until Grand Theft Auto IV rolled around.  Perhaps the biggest surprise with Saints Row was that it turned out to be a good, recommendable game.  GTA IV has since been released and now Volition’s given us Saints Row 2, aiming to liven the experience its older cousin offered.  Does Saints Row 2 manage to be a worthy alternative, or is it still living in GTA’s shadow?

Saints Row 2 opens with you waking from a five year coma in Stilwater prison (on a separate island) and lets you create a character with a robust customization system.  There are so many options that it might actually become overwhelming for some.  When finished making your character, a fellow prisoner helps you escape.  The ensuing jailbreak sequence serves well as a means to help you adapt to the basic gameplay mechanics and leaves a good first impression.  Upon arrival in Stilwater you’ll see that much has changed with new landmarks and old areas being given either facelifts or deteriorations.  Since the events of the first Saints Row, the 3rd Street Saints have broken up; it’s up to you and any followers you can gather to become the leading gang once again.

The first thing to clear up is that Saints Row 2 is not another Grand Theft Auto IV.  In fact, other than containing the essential sandbox-style aspects there’s very little both games have in common.  This game is more colorful than GTA IV, Stilwater isn’t as big as Liberty City; multiple side-stories comprise the main story; missions are oftentimes outrageous and the game itself is geared towards complete obscenity.  GTA IV is a more serious, down-to-earth crime drama, wherein Saints Row 2 is more a light-hearted satire.

Like its predecessor, Saints Row 2’s main single player experience has you take on multiple gangs to gain territories (forty-five are attainable).  The gangs you’ll face this time around are the Brotherhood, Sons of Samedi and the Ronin.  Each group has their own storyline, avoiding interference with any of the other plotlines.  While the stories for the gangs in Saints Row felt like they had a bit of significance, Saints Row 2 doesn’t offer too much to push the tale forward and has a fairly weak narrative.

Very little has changed in regards to the game’s overall design.   As with Saints Row, you’ll need to take part in side missions to boost your reputation so you can partake in gang missions.  There are plenty of activities to find with old favorites making a return along with a few new additions such as Trail Blaze (drive an ATV while on fire to checkpoints), Crowd Control (protect celebrities from crazed fans) and Fight Club (beat multiple enemies with melee attacks).  The only real downside to these tasks is that there are way more areas for some than others.  For instance, roughly half the activities are racing events, yet there are only one or two Demolition Derbies, Insurance Frauds and Mayhem operations each.  If players focus on progressing through the story they can expect roughly twenty hours of gameplay with plenty more achievable through side missions.

Outside of new activities, a fair amount of content has been added for accessing.  New weapons such as a laser-guided RPG, samurai swords and stun guns are among the new arsenal selections.  A decent number of aircraft and watercraft variants are accessible, a small melee combat system has been integrated (with the ability to pick up certain objects to bash or toss), multiple cribs can be purchased and customized, gang styles and vehicles can be selected, and gunplay has been improved thanks to more precise aiming (click the right thumbstick).  These are among the many niceties added to the game that, while not too significant, are very welcoming and make the game feel more alive.

Playing the game itself is almost always a blast, with the first few hours being the most exciting since players will be able to experiment with what’s been added to the mix.  While there are plenty of missions to tackle, most of the time you’ll wind up shooting and blowing stuff up with a few driving sections tossed in.  The structure does start to show its flaws during later missions, which are the only points the game proves to be challenging.  Even during these parts, the enemy numbers are what will typically overcome the player.  The AI is simply idiotic, proving to be quite the nuisance whenever needing to protect allies who can’t die during missions.  Fortunately, the game is generally fun to play, with the potential for a plentiful amount of ridiculous roadkills and deaths to take place.

One of the most enticing features of the first Saints Row was that it included a fairly decent online component.  Unfortunately, Saints Row 2 falls short in this department.  As with the offline portion, you can customize and buy outfits for your character, yet you can’t transfer characters between the two modes.  Match options are lackluster, with deathmatch, team deathmatch and a new mode called Strong Arm being the only choices.  Strong Arm is essentially a marathon; your team will take part in several activities until one side reaches $100,000.  When a team wins a single event they receive a $10,000 bonus added to their score.  What makes Strong Arm disappointing is that you have to play what the game chooses; you can’t change any of the variants.  During matches players are cut off from most of the city and there isn’t even a cruise match type for those who just want to mess around with their friends in the city.  Take into account a maximum of twelve players per lobby and we’re “treated” to a mediocre online segment.

Another area Saints Row 2 leaves much to be desired is the visuals.  While it’s more colorful and lets you do crazier, more chaotic things than GTA IV, it seems the game was barely polished prior to release.  Stilwater’s landmarks and features look decent enough but issues such as pop-ins and cars sometimes disappearing when looking away from them get in the way.  Character models usually look pretty good, especially in cutscenes.  However, roaming pedestrians and gang members were obviously given less detail than the main characters.  As before, cars usually look good and fall apart nicely in big crashes and explosions.  The framerate holds up well with dips only occurring in the midst of the most hectic events.  The visuals aren’t bad; it’s just that they could’ve used some much needed TLC.

Sound, on the other hand, is not a major issue with the game.  Voice acting is once again solid with slapstick and crude dialogue being delivered nicely, if randomly, at every turn.  Sound effects are also satisfying, especially hearing enemy cars crash and explode around you.  Then there’s the soundtrack, which is a good improvement over its predecessor.  As expected, radio stations play songs at random via stations.  You can control what stations will play and create your own station by purchasing songs, adding them to a playlist.  Artists like Deftones, Lloyd Banks, Kasabian, Opeth and even Europe have songs in the game for your listening pleasure.

At the end of the day, Saints Row 2 manages to be a mostly satisfying sequel with a few key issues holding it from true greatness.  Comparisons to GTA IV might come up, but both are very different games.  What’s nice is this game accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.  This means if you’re looking for an obscure and fun sandbox-style game you needn’t look any further.  Be ready to wreak havoc.

Acclaimed developer Rockstar is no stranger to changing things around.  From taking different approaches with their franchises or a new title (Table Tennis anyone?), it’s expected to see noticeable variations with their games.  In April, Rockstar took things in a more serious direction with Grand Theft Auto IV and was met with universal acclaim.  Now, we’re given Midnight Club: Los Angeles, the fourth title in their fairly popular racing series; arriving with a few alterations of its own.  Have these modifications brought it to the front of the pack or is it lagging behind the competition?

Midnight Club: Los Angeles places you in the shoes of a newcomer in town hoping to make a name for himself.  Upon arrival you’re given a choice between three cars from some locals who help you around the racing scene.  From there, you race events with a few enemies and allies gained along the way.  It’s pretty obvious the story is only meant to serve as a bare-bones reason for why you’re in Los Angeles and, as with every other racing game out there, it’s forgettable at best.

Unlike previous Midnight Club titles, which were set in multiple cities, Los Angeles takes place in, well, Los Angeles.  The scale of the entire city is definitely a good step above the locations from previous entries, though some might miss the excitement of venturing into new territory.  Fortunately, there are plenty of events to find and tackle around the city, with more being added after completing others.  This is nice since you won’t run out of things to do anytime soon.

Races can quickly get up-close and personal.

There are a number of ways to access these proceedings throughout the game.  You can cruise until finding someone to race or pull up a map outline to choose where you want to go.  There’s also the option of viewing a map of the actual city by pressing the Back button (which zooms out from your location), allowing access to races from there.  Press the Y button and you’ll find the main objectives and can set a GPS marker for any of the available happenings.  It’s a neat addition and while key goals are provided, the choice of what events and when to tackle them is up to you.

Midnight Club’s signature checkpoint system is once again present in Los Angeles.  Ordered, unordered, circuit and Landmark races – selecting the best route to get to the finish line without checkpoints – still function the same as ever.  While the game does offer the occasional time trial and car delivery, you’ll mostly participate in the aforementioned races.  Flash your headlights at another driver and you’ll begin racing to the starting line.  Depending on the finishing position, you’ll acquire more reputation (which we’ll get to later).  As always, the checkpoint races work well and since you don’t need to be too close to clear them, it helps alleviate some of the nuisances from previous installments.

Races have one of four difficulties, represented by colors (green being easiest, red being hardest).  Beating these on higher difficulties will earn more money and reputation, with the latter determining your rank in the game and unlocking upgrades, cars and more races.  Money is fairly easy to obtain, but there are plenty of ranks to progress through and a plethora of cars and parts to purchase.  The game handles this play-and-reward system well and the desire to attain more items and cash can become unexpectedly addicting.

The cops don’t exactly have a welcoming presence.

Most events take course over three races with some requiring you to win a certain number of times.  The game also has point-based tournaments which you can generally choose the difficulty for in advance.  There are a few ways to compete in the game, but what it ultimately boils down to is clearing checkpoints as fast and efficiently as possible.

While the game does divide events into categories and difficulties, most gamers will only tackle the easier ones.  Midnight Club 3 fixed one of the biggest issues with its predecessor: excessive challenge.  Unfortunately, Midnight Club: Los Angeles has brought that exact problem back with a vengeance.  After the first race, the game becomes surprisingly tough and haphazardly goes from laughably easy to painstakingly harsh.  Even on the easiest settings, the game can be completely unforgiving, with one or two mistakes potentially costing you the race.

This can happen for any number of reasons.  Sometimes the AI becomes very aggressive and will leave you in the dust.  Traffic tends to be in the most awful areas at the worst instances and at times it’s easy to make a wrong turn towards a checkpoint.  It can quickly get frustrating.  The game demands patience since it might take a while to adapt to the way it controls.  The gameplay will click quicker with some more than others while a few may have to mess with the options to get a firm grip.  Once you get a good feel and can manage to beat some events it becomes fun and exciting.


Special abilities like EMP help balance the difficulty a bit.

One other annoyance in the game, however, is the cops.  Unlike Need for Speed, cop chases in Midnight Club are not enjoyable.  Cops have a very small role in the game and you’ll repeatedly encounter the same patrolling cruisers.  Attention can be avoided by travelling slowly when they’re around, but it seems odd for an arcade-style game to encourage safe driving.  Sadly, the chases are always uneventful and boring; gaining the cop’s attention is way too easy and losing them is simply annoying.  The evasion system feels broken at best; we had a point when there was only a roadblock and we were still in the chase despite being on the other side of the map.

These frustrations can be alleviated by one of four available special abilities.  Zone temporarily slows down time, Agro makes your vehicle briefly indestructible and lets you ram any vehicles out of the way (including the racer AI), Roar forces any nearby traffic aside and EMP will shortly slow down nearby racers.  In order to use any of these you’ll have to drive cleanly for a certain amount of time.  One ability can be equipped per car and further use will allow more gauges for them.  Each of these capabilities is helpful, but EMP and Agro tend to be most practical since they can hinder the indecisive AI.

If a break from the single player experience is desired you can always hop on to Xbox Live for some multiplayer speeding.  There are plenty of ways to play the game online, but it’s ultimately standard races and capture the flag-style procedures.  Up to sixteen people can participate on Xbox Live as opposed to taking on roughly four opponents at a time offline.  One nice part about the online portion is that being among the first to finish will add money to what you’ve earned in the single player section.  Racing with friends is mostly satisfying although there’s a good chance you’ll encounter some performance bugs such as the environments going from blank to detailed and other gamers’ cars spawning all over the place before and during the race.  These issues can be persistent, but they don’t ruin the experience and it’s nothing a quick patch or two shouldn’t fix.

It won’t be long until your car looks like this while racing.

Outside of racing, modifying vehicles is also available.  While the list of roughly forty cars isn’t terribly impressive, the options to transform them are.  Body parts, paint, performance options and the like are all present.  You can also adjust several aspects of the interior, put multiple vinyls on with several shape and masking options, give your car two-tone paint jobs and much more.  If you love altering every part of your ride, it’s easy to become addicted with the potential for hour-long customizations to take place.  It’s all very impressive.

Naturally if there’s so much to do with the cars you’ll want them to be sharply rendered in-game.  Fortunately, the cars in Midnight Club: Los Angeles look great, with each having approximately 100,000 pixels.  The detail definitely shows.  The game’s damage modeling, while not on the level of say Grand Theft Auto, is pretty good.  The city itself usually looks great with the abovementioned bland to detailed texture setback being the only major issue.  And since the game has a full day and night cycle, you’ll be able to see it from multiple perspectives (five angles are available for every car, including a nifty cockpit view).

The cars also sound very good when driven, with noticeable changes being made after performance parts have been added.  Other sound effects such as crash noises are decent, though not awe inspiring.  The soundtrack is hit or miss depending on your taste in music.  There are plenty of licensed tracks in the game, with multiple for each genre.  While most gamers will be able to find some tunes they’ll like, not many of the songs seem to fit the fast style of the game.  And since the default audio settings make it tough to hear the songs over the occurring action, it makes the music feel like it’s contributing very little to the game.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles has the right concepts in place with plenty of realized potential, but much still untapped.  It’s a solid game that most arcade racing fans should find something to enjoy, but the uneven difficulty, lackluster soundtrack, car roster and a somewhat basic online portion are what hold it back from being a truly great racer.  Fans of previous games in the series and especially Midnight Club 2 will get the most out of it while others will simply shrug it away due to the flaws.

“Improvement” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a follow-up for any item.  Any product that’s supposed to be a successor should either offer something its predecessor didn’t or incorporate enhancements which improve upon its flaws.  With the new Rock Band 2 wireless drum set, improvements have been made.  But, is it really worth shelling out nearly $100 for this “improved” product?

One thing that Harmonix was going for with last year’s Rock Band was innovation, particularly with the drum set, given that it was the first of its kind.  Unfortunately, this drum set became the target of several complaints such as the pads being too loud, not sensitive enough, notes sometimes being dropped, the hitting of one pad setting off another and perhaps the most frequent: a plastic bass pedal that broke rather easily.  Needless to say, there has been plenty of room for improvement, but have these issues been resolved?

Let’s examine what’s included inside the box of this separately sold drum set.  The box comes with everything you need to assemble this drum set with the four pad piece, metal and plastic holdings to keep the set together, and a bass pedal.  Only this time the drum set is wireless, running on three AA batteries.  While the box says that it comes with its own set of batteries, ours were mysteriously missing.  Setting up this drum set is just as painless as last year’s model; it shouldn’t take much more than ten minutes.

A few changes have been made to this drum set to make it better than the last one.  Beyond being wireless the drum pads are more sensitive and produce less noise when hit thanks to softer pad material.  Perhaps the biggest improvement is that the bass pedal has been reinforced with a sheet of metal and rubber pads to reduce the chances of it breaking.  These improvements, while minor, should at least give the new drum set more longevity.

Finally, there are four additional ports located on the back of the pads.  One of these ports, located right below the bass pedal port, was rumored to be for double bass use.  We attempted this and were unsuccessful.  So, any metal heads wanting to imitate their drum idol will have to hold out a little longer.  The other three are yellow, green and blue ports designed for cymbal expansions to be released later next month.  We will have a review for those shortly after release.

Do these changes manage to make this drum set a recommended purchase?  Unfortunately, no.

Despite minor improvements, the drum set, like its predecessor, is a tough recommendation in itself.  Upon playing our first song we were already having a less-than satisfactory experience, with notes getting dropped rather frequently.  After checking to see that everything was hooked up correctly and that our batteries weren’t loose (we were using three freshly bought lithium batteries) we decided to go to the Freestyle mode and see if we could figure out the issue there.

It turns out that our new drum set has a cross-pad issue so to speak.  Whenever the blue pad is hit in the half closer to the yellow pad it’ll sometimes set the yellow pad off.  We also had a similar issue with the green pad for a brief period.  To make matters worse, whenever both the red and blue pads are hit simultaneously the chances of the yellow pad registering a note are increased.  While this happens most frequently when the pads are hit harder than usual it’s still an inconvenience.  For those who play on Hard and Expert, using this drum set will be an annoyance rather than a pleasure.  We have contacted EA and they’ll be sending us a replacement for our defective set.

Putting this yellow pad issue aside our drum set has worked very well.  The pads respond adequately to being tapped and when hit the drum sticks will bounce back easier thanks to the new drum pad material.  The bass pedal has also worked like a charm so far; we’ve pressed, stomped and rested our feet on it and have had no issues.  So when this set does work as it should, it’s just as fun to play as the previous Rock Band drum set.  The subtle improvements might make it a bit easier to play but if your current drum set is holding up well then you have little incentive to rush out and purchase a new one.

The Rock Band 2 wireless drum set is a lot like Star Wars Episode 1; it had plenty of promise and some redeeming qualities, but just didn’t manage to be a worthwhile investment.  While this drum set might have been a blast to play had it worked properly, as our product stands it’s merely a bittersweet slight improvement over the first Rock Band drum set.

When a band plays a concert and the audience cheers and chants for an encore it’s usually rewarded with an extra song or two.  Games, on the other hand, have sequels that offer any number of extra hours of new content for fans of the previous game.  But, when it comes to games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the main difference between encores and sequels is the number of songs that will be played.  This little fact is the driving force behind Rock Band 2, the sequel to last year’s highly successful Rock Band which, like Guitar Hero, managed to be a surprisingly good investment for those wanting to rock with their friends.  The game disc has been released for the Xbox 360 a month before the bundle and other versions, but is this encore enough to keep its audience rocking?

Those familiar with the first Rock Band will find there really isn’t much new to Rock Band 2.  With the deletion of the regular Solo mode for each instrument, players will have to progress through the game’s Band Tour mode in order to unlock songs.  This can make the experience more interesting; especially for those who like the Band Tour mode and since you can now participate in the Band Tour with others online.  However, those who want to rush through and quickly unlock all the songs will be in for a rude awakening since it’ll be a good while before you unlock every single song, especially since you need to beat the song to play it in Quick Play.

Those who aren’t familiar with Rock Band’s Tour modes will find it a surprisingly involved experience.  Sets of songs (most of which are at least 4 songs long) need to be completed in order to advance and unlock more songs, hiring managers and staff members will assist whether by finding new locals, acquiring more fans or earning more cash.  As you play more songs and sets you’ll gain more cash and fans, but the game will often times give you the option to play songs for fans and no cash or vice versa.  There are plenty of other options the game will offer the player and for those who didn’t get a taste of this from the first game; it’ll be a big surprise.

Of course the real treat of the game isn’t acting like a hotshot businessman for a rock group, it’s the songs which ultimately make or break a game like Rock Band 2.  While the first Rock Band didn’t have very many songs on disc it had a very solid set list with almost every song being a master recording.  Additionally, every week from the game’s release date brought new songs for people to download for a reasonable $2 per song.  This time around Rock Band has plenty of songs on the disc, bringing 84 new tracks for gamers to rock out to.  Not only that, but every song downloaded for the first Rock Band will play on Rock Band 2.  Add to that the option to transfer 55 of the 58 songs from Rock Band to Rock Band 2 for a mere $5 and you’re already set for a large number of songs from the get-go (with over 300 available as of now between the games and downloadable content).

Even though Rock Band had a great set of songs on its own, Rock Band 2 takes it to the next level, adding a bigger variety of genres to the mix with some songs that many people have been dying to see in a music/rhythm game.  There are plenty of great, famous songs in the game also a few nice new ones such as “Shackler’s Revenge” off Guns ‘n’ Roses new album Chinese Democracy.  AC/DC make their debut on a Guitar Hero/Rock Band-style game with “Let There Be Rock” and hits such as “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor along with clever re-recordings of “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead and “Souls of Black” by Testament are welcome additions as well.  And the best part of all these songs: they’re all master recordings.  Also, included with Rock Band 2 is an access code that will allow those who purchase the game to download twenty free songs in the future.

Perhaps the biggest debate about Rock Band was how the songs just weren’t as tough as some might’ve expected, with songs that appeared in both Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3 being easier in Rock Band.  While some people liked having less challenge so they could have a better shot at passing and doing well on their favorite songs, many were disappointed by the lack of challenging songs.  Well, those who have wanted to see their favorite songs given justice by difficulty need not fret, because Rock Band 2 has more than just a few tough songs.  From “Battery” to “Panic Attack” to “Painkiller” and “Visions”-arguably the game’s toughest songs-there’s more than enough challenge here to keep some of the top Rock Band players returning to do better.

Gameplay-wise very little, if anything at all has changed from Rock Band to Rock Band 2.  One nice adjustment is that hammer-ons and pull-offs are very easy to see with the size difference more obvious and the notes having a white glow to make them distinguishable.  As mentioned, the songs are tougher this time around but just like its predecessor only a few of them are frustrating.  Even songs such as “Painkiller” and “Souls of Black” might surprise people with how fun they are, in spite of their difficulty.  Plus, when playing through the Tour mode it can be tough to put the game down; our first sitting through the game went on for over eleven hours and the only thing that kept us from coming back after turning it off was how tired our hands were.

This isn’t to say that songs are the only new additions brought out in Rock Band 2 though, as there are a couple things added to the game.  For starters, there’s a new Drum Trainer mode which is intended to help the less experienced drummers.  The Drum Trainer mode has two means of practice: a Beat Trainer and Fill Trainer.  When in the Beat Trainer you’re given over seventy drum beats of which you can also speed up or slow down so that you can become acquainted with the more complicated parts of songs.  As for the Fill Trainer, you’ll be given a few regular beats and then a fill section which gives you some different beats that will flow well with the beat given in the non-fill sections.  This way when you play parts just like those or similar you’ll know what beats will flow with the song the best when you’re in a drum fill part.  The Drum Trainer is definitely a great addition and will do well for those who need something other than just a Practice mode for pre-set songs.

There’s also a Modify Game sub-menu in the Extras menu of the game which will allow you to manipulate the game to your desire, just without any of the benefits of playing normally.  While you can enter cheats through this, the game provides you with perhaps the only two you’ll ever need to or want to use: Breakneck Speed and No Fail Mode.  Activating Breakneck Speed is basically the game’s equivalent to Hyperspeed from Guitar Hero, so you can go even faster on the drum beats if you want to or can even handle it.  And the No Fail Mode is pretty self-explanatory; it lets you play through songs without failing.  This, like the Drum Trainer is a very nice, welcoming addition since you can finally play through whatever song you want on any difficulty without having to worry about failing.  While activating No Fail Mode gets rid of Achievements, game saves and any other benefits of playing the game the regular way, it’s still the perfect option if you just want to have fun and mess around.

There were a number of things that made people come back to Rock Band over and over again.  First off, the game was just fun to play so even replaying the same songs was a blast.  Second, there were multiple ways to play and tackle each song, with the option to play guitar, bass, vocals and the then-new drum sections of songs.  And finally, with weekly downloadable content it was even easier to get your money’s worth for both the game and each song released afterwards.  While we didn’t get to test out any of the new instruments with our copy of the game (we’ll bring you a report on the improvements for the new instruments soon) your instruments from Rock Band will work just fine.  And the 84 on-disc songs along with downloadable content still coming every week will be more than enough to keep you coming back again and again just like before.

Rock Band 2 goes by the most common gaming philosophies when it comes to sequels: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  While the game doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it really doesn’t need to with an amazing soundtrack, still solid gameplay and enough upcoming content to keep fans of the first returning for more.  The game’s still plenty of fun, offers enough challenge without being unbearable, has a couple great additions and will still bring out the inner rocker within you.  Have fun and rock on!

Excessive violence and brutality aren’t exactly common in videogames nowadays, especially with games receiving flak for being too extreme in their content.  It’s even rarer when these games have a dark and moody atmosphere.  2005’s Condemned: Criminal Origins was released with the launch of the Xbox 360 to stellar reviews across the board.  The game had a gloomy mood with a simple but interesting way to play thanks to mostly melee combat and forensics investigations comprising most of the game.  Now, more than two years after its predecessor’s release, Condemned 2: Bloodshot has finally been released, complete with all the hostility and horror you’d expect from such a sequel.

Bloodshot picks up about a year after the end of Criminal Origins, and things have all gone downhill for protagonist Ethan Thomas.  He’s gone from a typical officer of the SCU (Serial Crimes Unit) to a drunken bum whose typical night is laying about the cold, dark streets in the city.  But things are about to take an abrupt turn back to familiar territory for our unlucky hero as he’s tracked down by members of the SCU to find Van Horn, an old partner of Ethan’s from the first game.  But as with any real horror story, things become quite hairy for Ethan as he winds up battling thugs and baddies on the streets and demons in both his head and reality.  It’s a nasty but very intriguing set-up for a game, giving the story a nice bit of interest from the beginning.

The storytelling in Bloodshot is pretty similar to its predecessor, with some of the story unfolding in cutscenes and the bulk of it being told during in-game conversations.  Usually the story feels like it’s just rolling along to give a reason for taking you to a number of various locales.  Fortunately there are enough plot twists to keep things interesting and give the game a little more meaning.  Newcomers to Condemned don’t have to worry too much about getting lost in Bloodshot, since several occurrences from the first are mentioned in this game.  Ultimately the whole story manages to be decent enough to carry the game but, like its predecessor, players will likely be left with lingering questions.

Fortunately, the story is far away from the best that Bloodshot offers.  For starters, the gameplay in Bloodshot is a decent improvement over Criminal Origins, all things told.  With the combat, more weapons have been added and combos have also been introduced.  While there are a decent amount of combos you can unleash on those who get in your way you’ll usually find yourself falling back on the punch-block-punch-punch parry combos.  This time you can hold your block stance for a period of time but this ultimately proves worthless unless you activate your block right when your foes strike.  The combat system itself is pretty good, but when you’re facing multiple enemies it really begins to show how flawed it is.  There’s nothing really wrong with the system, it’s just that it wasn’t made with the thought of several enemies at once in mind.

Making a return are the firearms, which were found every so often in the first Condemned and encouraged the conservation of ammo.  This time around, however, firearms play a far bigger role, with some levels centering around them almost entirely.  While guns still alleviate some pressure off the player, using them can be a chore, especially when the levels they’re most plentiful in are when the enemies also wield guns.  And even though using a gun is always preferred over the game’s melee weapons, they do make the game lose a bit of what made its predecessor so different by putting less emphasis on the melee combat and weapons.  Speaking of melee weapons, there are a decent number of additions to the roster available for use.  You’ll find several items, ranging from golf clubs to locker doors, bowling balls and even toilet seats available for use.  While the amount of useable items isn’t on the level of say Dead Rising and no longer includes the deadly sledgehammer, there’s still much to toy around with.

Finally making a return are the forensics investigations, with a convenient prompt saying “Study Evidence” popping up near an examination location.  Whereas the first game’s forensics sessions were simplistic and shallow, Bloodshot adds a bit of depth to the system.  You’ll find yourself examining several samples while searching for a good bit of specific details when given certain requests and asked questions.  Added is a rating system, ranging from Poor to Perfect based on a scale of five circles, making how well you investigate matter more.  At first the details to these examinations are obvious but some of them will become a little tougher, with a few depending more on lucky guesses.  All told though, these investigations are superior to those found in Criminal Origins and are arguably a bigger, better improvement over the combat system.


Adding more to the mix of Bloodshot’s gameplay are the enemies, and there are plenty of them to find here.  The foes you encounter start as mostly typical thugs but quickly shift to mix of demonic and freaky creatures which could be best summarized as more sinister versions of certain enemies from Silent Hill and Resident Evil.  Your foes in this game tend to be quite tough, and death will likely become typical for most people as they push through the game.  However, this is more an association to the numbers your enemies come in rather than their actual intelligence.  In fact, just about the only thing about the enemies that doesn’t prove challenging is their astuteness.  Their hits are strong, speed is sometimes eye-blinking quick and they tend to appear in far bigger numbers than before.  It’s easy to feel cheated when killed, but for those who like a challenge, their thirst will be quenched here.

As far as entertainment goes in-general, Condemned 2 is a tricky title to put a definite opinion on.  Sometimes the game will be horror gaming at its finest and at others it’ll be merely a chore of frustration.  The parts in the game that reflect both of these instances are about equal in their occurrences and overall impact; the high and low points equally stick out.  There are a good amount of scripted moments implemented into the game itself which will demand you have quicker than normal reflexes.  If you can get past these parts without dying, they’ll definitely be a fond moment but if not, then it’s easy to look at that moment as cheap and disappointing.  A few of these scripted parts will be harmless, but many of these moments feel better suited as either a cutscene or even in a feature film.  Ultimately, how much the player will enjoy Bloodshot comes down to how familiar they are with the first game and how quick their reflexes are in a relatively slow-paced game.

Those that played the first Condemned likely remember it having some pretty remarkable visuals for its time, so it’s only expected for its sequel to look a good bit better.  While Bloodshot does improve the overall technicality of the graphics, it’s not anywhere near as big of an overhaul as you might expect.  The biggest visual improvement is the character models, particularly Ethan, as they no longer look as muddy and actually have facial details.  Unfortunately the rest of the game really doesn’t show much of a technical improvement over its predecessor.  Environments look about as good as they did in Criminal Origins, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to notice with a more than two year difference.  The time that Condemned 2’s visuals shine the most is in regards to its art design.  Like the first game, there are plenty of wicked, sinister and very interesting designs realized in the game and will likely be what makes players really open their eyes during the game’s high points.

While the visuals really aren’t anything to freak out over, the game’s overall sound is.  Criminal Origins had some of the best audio around, mixing eerie noises and appropriate dialogue with its ambient atmosphere to really make the experience memorable.  This is the same case with Bloodshot and is arguably the game’s strongest point.  The dialogue, while sometimes cheesy is usually fitting with the current situation and the voice-acting, while not great, never becomes annoying, unlike other games with chatty characters.  But it’s the game’s low volume music, creepy sound effects and other noises emitted by enemies and the environment that make this game’s audio front so impressive.  Few games ever manage to have audio or sounds that bring you into the experience, but Bloodshot is one of those rare few that shows audio is sometimes all you need to get the player engrossed.  Horror fans will be in for a real treat when the game’s audio begins to shine, and don’t worry, there are plenty of those to be found.

While there are several aspects to Condemned 2 that make it similar to its predecessor which are for the most part fortunate, one that isn’t is the game’s lasting value.  There are eleven levels total in Bloodshot.  Some might take a good bit of time to beat; others will take just a few short minutes.  All told Condemned 2 will take about six to ten hours at most to beat on the Normal difficulty setting.  Upon beating the game you’ll unlock FPS mode which gives you infinite ammo in each level and usually starts you with some sort of firearm.  It’s a decent reward, but as stated earlier, use of guns isn’t always the best way to experience the game.

This time around Condemned has an online multiplayer mode, which might sound like an interesting mix but it couldn’t be any more lackluster.  Some might think that’s it’s better to have multiplayer than not having it at all, but here it doesn’t really matter.  There are about half a dozen modes to participate in with support for up to eight players online.  These aren’t exactly impressive numbers, but the maps are small enough to keep the action going.  Unfortunately, just like using guns, fighting with several other players online isn’t the best way to experience the game.  Again, the game’s control scheme just isn’t meant for multiple-person battles, and this translates into an ultimately unrewarding online experience.  Most of the game’s replay value will come out of the rewards and achievements you can gain from doing really well in each level, but this likely won’t keep most players coming back for long.

All things told Condemned 2 is a good sequel that does manage to do the first game justice on most counts.  The game isn’t always the most entertaining or satisfying but those who thoroughly enjoyed Criminal Origins will probably find a lot to like in Bloodshot.  Online the game is about as fulfilling as a hangover but the single-player does more than enough to justify a good rental.  Fans of the first will find what they’re looking for here, but take heed, for this isn’t a generous game.

Back in 1995 a little light gun game by the name of Area 51 was available to play in arcades. This game never really left too much of an impression on the gaming world. Ten years later, another game under the same name came out for the Xbox, PS2 and PC which gained a bit of attention for itself. Now Midway has brought us their vision of the infamous government location and it’s gotten a good bit of praise from the early previews. But can this latest incarnation of the Area 51 franchise manage to leave a lasting impression or is it just another first-person shooter that will be forgotten by the end of the year?

BlackSite puts you in the boots of a US soldier simply identified as Pierce who serves as yet another dead silent, emotionless videogame character. The game starts with you and two of your squad mates bringing Hell to an unconvincing adaptation of Iraq. After about an hour of uneventful shootouts and traversing, the game tries to up the ante by tossing in some otherworld-like beings at you. The rest of the game takes place three years after your little Iraq raid yet characters treat it as if the events happened just days ago. Over that time lapse aliens have been popping all around Nevada; your job is to neutralize any threat that comes your way.

The plot of BlackSite is one of the game’s many faults; it just fails to be anything other than average and forgettable. We’ve seen the story about government conspiracy and the possibility of extraterrestrials being tested in underground bases in numerous games and movies. Unfortunately for BlackSite, it doesn’t manage to do any better with its story. On the other hand, it doesn’t do any worse either. The only interesting parts of BlackSite’s story are two of the plot twists, but other than those brief moments there’s basically no substance to be found in the story.

But plenty of games have had lousy stories and turned out to be really good. Just take a look at the Tom Clancy-based games. So surely BlackSite has enough strong points to look past the mediocre story, right? Well, this isn’t really the case. Let’s start with the gameplay, which is so painfully basic that it’s easy to assume Midway put minimal effort into making that part of the game stand out. The only things that really add anything to the gameplay are the occasional vehicle segments and the use of so-called squad commands.

With the vehicle missions, the controls are clearly derivative of Halo, too bad there’s barely anything other than just driving in those sections. To pull you out of the experience even more, the vehicles control very unrealistically and almost as if you’re skateboarding. As for the game’s squad commands, they couldn’t be any more bare bones. You can tell your squad (usually made up of two) where to move. They will travel in a very Rainbow Six Vegas-like fashion. Good luck with making them get there quickly. About the only use your squad will prove is during some parts in the game wherein you’ll need to ask them to specifically take down a door. As if you couldn’t kick down most doors yourself. Other than the occasional vehicle mission and door opening command about all you do in BlackSite is walk around and kill alien hybrids. Ultimately, the game’s strongest aspect is that the controls are easy to pick up, learn and adapt to more or less thanks to how overly simplistic everything in the game is.

Now, this normally wouldn’t be much of an issue if the game itself was fun for the action alone. But once again, BlackSite can’t fulfill even this bit of potential that just about every videogame has. Perhaps the one feeling that’ll likely come to most that play this game is boredom. It just feels as if the game’s lacking anything to help spice it up. It’s way too easy to be put off by how unimpressive the game is. This isn’t to say that BlackSite is lacking so much that it makes the game horrible; it’s just that it lacks enough to make this a simply unremarkable experience.

What’s odd is that the game remains a relatively dull experience despite a fair amount of scripted moments that could make your eyes pop in awe. And truth be told, there are a few moments in the game that are likely to make you sit back and say “Whoa” to yourself. But even these eye-opening moments don’t amount to much with every other aspect to the game feeling average at best. It doesn’t help that the game starts out almost completely devoid of any real entertainment and doesn’t begin to show improvements until you’re about half-way through the single-player. The game does slowly manage to become more entertaining as you progress into the second half, but the later levels are also filled with the bulk of the game’s frustrating moments. There might not be very many parts in the game where you’ll become aggravated, but they certainly stick out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, BlackSite does manage to function as a shooter, even if that isn’t enough to make it a particularly entertaining title.

If you’re wondering just how much you’ll have to be put through in this game until reaching the end, it’s not much. There are a total of six episodes in the game and each take about an hour, but some will be shorter than others. The game itself comes out to being four to six hours long. For those that remember Gears of War’s difficulty, BlackSite’s are laid out very similarly. Three difficulty options are available (Yellow being the lowest, Orange being medium and Red being hardest) with the medium difficulty saying it’s intended for shooter veterans. But truth be told, the Orange Level difficulty should be your choice, unless of course this is actually your first time playing an FPS or you’re just not good at these games. And it must be said that the game has quite possibly one of the worst, most unsatisfying endings this year in games.

As far as replay value goes, it might as well not exist. The single-player portion in BlackSite is likely to leave a bad enough impression on you that you’ll just want to ignore the game right after that. But there is an online multiplayer portion, though it doesn’t really offer much. There are a few maps to challenge other gamers to in one of four multiplayer modes. Unfortunately, this barely manages to be enough to even consider the game for a competitor against some of the other multiplayer shooters released this year. And to add insult to injury, the game only has support for up to ten people, which is laughable in comparison to the sixteen plus player cap in games such as Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, both of which have more modes and maps than BlackSite. Basically, BlackSite only earns itself about five or six hours of “game time” thanks to the single-player and offers little to no replay value in either the multiplayer or single-player.

As I mentioned earlier, the game’s strongest aspect is how easy the controls are to pick up. Well, this can only be said since the game has only two aspects that manage to stand out among the mediocrity that plagues the game. Other than the controls, the best part of the game is its technical proficiency. While this isn’t the case with every part of the game, there are a few situations that the Unreal engine is put to good use in BlackSite. For instance, there are several sections throughout Episode 3 that show a good bit of effort was put into the game’s visuals. There’s a decent amount of destructible items in the game that the player can mess around with, but the game’s several scripted moments are what make this most apparent.

However, like just about everything BlackSite manages to do well, something holds it back. With the graphics, it comes down to three major aspects. The first being that the load times in the game take a considerable amount of time. Dying in the game will reward you with having to sit through load screens that just drag on and on. Another issue with the game’s visuals is that half of the game looks as if it’s lacking a good amount of attention. While there are a decent amount of sections in the game that look quite sharp, there are just as many that leave a lot to be desired. The final thing that makes the game less visually appealing is that it has a very inconsistent framerate. For about half of the game’s firefights you’ll likely notice the framerate drop a considerable amount, especially during the last couple hours. And it doesn’t help that the game is littered with several bugs and glitches.

Sadly, not even the overall sound aspect fares too much better than the rest of the game. The first two things you’ll likely notice when playing is the dialogue and the quality of the voiceovers. Whoever wrote the game’s script must’ve been watching a lot of cliché, no-brainer action movies while writing it up, because BlackSite’s character dialogue is about as cheesy as it can get. Sure, there might be a couple one-liners that’ll get you to chuckle, but it’s still all too over-the-top most of the time. Fortunately, the voice actors fit their respective roles pretty well, and save for maybe one they prove to be substantial enough.

When it comes to sound effects, BlackSite is about as typical as you can get. The weapon’s sounds when being fired don’t come off as being either impressive or convincing; they all sound a little too subdued. About the only exception to this is with certain explosion noises, a few which sound like a train roaring down a collapsing bridge. But this mostly just applies to certain scripted moments, which you can probably guess by now are the center of the game’s good points. As for the game’s score, it’s pretty decent and fitting with the ending credits playing a chilling theme for you. Too bad you won’t get to hear much of the game’s music that proves beneficial to really make the music stand out.

With all this said it might sound as if BlackSite is the worst game ever known to man, or at least shooters. But this isn’t really the case; BlackSite is well and far away from being even a painful experience. The game is merely another mediocre bag of wasted potential tossed out that simply begs you to lower your expectations right before diving in. BlackSite doesn’t quite fail as a game, but it certainly comes close to offering too little for any satisfaction. If a little exploration and killing aliens is enough to keep you satisfied then BlackSite might be worth renting, just don’t expect anything beyond just that.

World War II has become an extremely popular concept for videogames, especially first-person shooters. In fact, it’s so popular that some popular World War II series such as Medal of Honor have been around for a longer time than the actual war. Three of the most well-received shooters that took place during this era were the first three Call of Duty games. But, after a short while, the charm these World War II-based shooters have begins to wear off. Fortunately, developer Infinity Ward has recognized this and is now bringing the Call of Duty name into the modern era. Welcome to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

While Call of Duty 4 is set in a modern day setting, the story in the single player mode is completely fictional. In typical Call of Duty fashion, the game puts you in the boots of more than one character in the single player campaign. Here, you’ll switch between a soldier in the US Marine Corp and the British SAS. The story unfolds back and forth between events occurring through your character’s point of view and exchanges of dialogue during the load screens. As with previous Call of Duty games, Modern Warfare tries to make the story interesting, but it just feels like another fictional and typical modern day war story.

Not much has changed in Call of Duty 4 as far as the core gameplay is concerned. While there are a few added touches like being able to sprint and having new weapons to spice things up, the formula is still the same. The best strategy in the game is to hold the Left Trigger to aim down your sights so you can get the best shot. Otherwise if you try firing from the hip, it’s unlikely you’ll achieve many, if any kills at all. Fortunately, the Call of Duty games have been prime examples of how to make the gameplay in a shooter work well. The familiarity proves to work to the game’s benefit.

While new weapons might just be one new feature added to the game, they really go a long way here. Since the series is taking a departure from the conventional semi-automatic rifles and old submachine guns, it leaves a lot of room open for new firearms to toy around with. The weapons are all based realistically on their real-life counterparts and it’s easy to feel a little bit of Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six déjà vu. Aside from the standard assault and sniper rifles, machineguns and side arms there are grenade launcher attachments, C4 and claymore explosives, and a few other armaments available. The variety in these weapons is quite impressive and you’ll more than likely find yourself going back to the game just for the sake of trying out a pair of different weapons.

About the only thing that makes it hard to experiment with all the weapons is the length of the game, offline at least. Previous Call of Duty games had single players that could be beaten anywhere from eight to twelve hours. Modern Warfare, however, can be completed in as little as six or even five hours if you’re really well-experienced at any kind of shooter. Fortunately, the game has that short but sweet touch to it, so the few hours the single player lasts is fun all the way till the end. When you beat the game you’ll unlock an arcade mode, which basically takes how well you do in a mission and gives you scores based on your performance. So while it’s short, there’s plenty of incentive to head back and play it a few more times.

But for most players, the real reason they’ll keep coming back is for the game’s online multiplayer portion. Like its predecessor, Call of Duty 4 has support for up to twenty-four people online simultaneously, so look out for plenty of blazing guns and explosions out there. As with several other shooters, Modern Warfare’s strengths mostly lie in its online portion. The gameplay is deeper than the single-player, requires a lot more thought and strategy and does more than outshine the offline portions.

When you start playing online your options will be very limited; only two types of matches will be available and you’ll have to stick with pre-selected classes. However, after a few matches your rank will increase and before long you’ll be able to create your own class. But even after being able to create your own class there you’ll still need to improve your rank to unlock more content. Most of this content includes new guns, weapon attachments and accessories; all of which become deadlier the further you improve your rank. Every kill you get is factored into your account to raise your rank; the more points you earn the better. Creating your character class is very simple; you’ll choose a primary weapon, sidearm, grenade type and choose what Perks your character has.

Perks are a new feature to the series. They basically alter your character to give you an edge against the competition. You can apply up to three different Perks to your character, which range from increasing your health, stopping power, making your bullets penetrate deeper, increase your general accuracy and so much more. While it might sound like the option to put on Perks is cheating they do so much that you can overwhelm the entire battlefield. Besides, when most of the people you’ll encounter online have Perks turned on, it’s anyone’s game either way.

The online mode also has another nice little feature to entice you to compete at the top of your game. If you manage to get three kills without dying then you can call on a UAV drone to scan and reveal where your enemies are located on your mini-map. Get another two kills after that without dying and you can call an airstrike to sweep by and bombard an area of the map of your choosing three times. And if you achieve two more kills after that, then you’ll have a helicopter lend you a hand with killing anyone who dares to defy you. Not only that, but using these rewards will yield you more points towards your profile; so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try your hardest while online. Oh and there are sixteen maps included with the game, so those should be more than enough to keep you busy until more content is released.

With so much offered in the game, it’s easy to think Call of Duty 4 would suffer from unimpressive visuals. However, this turns out to be quite the opposite. Modern Warfare doesn’t just look good, it looks fantastic; easily one of the best-looking games out there. If you’re looking to find a game that will undoubtedly impress your friends with visual flair, Call of Duty 4 will do more than suffice. Not only that, but the game always runs at a smooth sixty frames per second and lag online is surprisingly rare. Needless to say, Call of Duty 4’s going to offer plenty of moments which will impress you thanks to how well it’ll render everything.

One area that the Call of Duty series has always excelled at is the sound, so it’s expected that Modern Warfare have a similar effect of impressing. Oddly enough, the sound is actually one of the game’s weaker points, but this isn’t really a low blow since the game does sound impressive regardless. The main reason why the game doesn’t sound as impressive as previous titles is mainly due to the voiceovers; they almost sound like they were taken directly from previous games. For those that remember playing through the British portions of the campaign in Call of Duty 2, Captain Price will sound awfully familiar to them. Everything else in the game sounds amazing; everything comes together exceptionally well and gives off a feeling like you’re in the middle of World War 3.

At the end of the day, Call of Duty 4 is a superb accomplishment that has already shown it has what it takes to at least get a Game of the Year nomination. The single player may be rather short for a Call of Duty game, but there’s plenty of reason to keep coming back over and over. The drift into the modern age has helped the series come out of its shell and reach new grounds, and it’s easily the best installment in the series yet. If you’re looking for a shooter to make you remove Halo 3 or The Orange Box from you Xbox 360 for a while, this will do the trick.

The Guitar Hero franchise is barely two years old and it’s already the biggest party game around. The original release in mid-2005 took what looked like the silliest idea ever and now has the possibility of becoming the biggest name in videogaming. Guitar Hero 2 and Guitar Hero Rocks the 80’s added a neat cooperative mode and raised the ante with the difficulty. Now the Guitar Hero name has been handed to Tony Hawk developer Neversoft while Harmonix split to work on the upcoming game Rock Band. So the big question is whether Neversoft can keep the Guitar Hero formula fresh with another solid follow-up.

Probably the first things people will notice are the changes and improvements to the visuals and presentation. Guitar Hero 3 uses a lot more of the cell-shaded visual style in the menus and brief cutscenes, which make for a couple good chuckles. But when playing songs the game goes for a realistic look over comic-book style. Both the characters and locations have been given a decent graphical overhaul, although there are some rough areas, particularly with the stages. Oh, and the singer used when you play songs, his mouth is huge!

There have also been a couple changes made to the way the game plays now. The first thing most experienced players will notice is that it’s easy to hit the notes, especially the hammer-on’s and pull-off’s. While this might just sound like a new way to make inexperienced players catch up, experienced players will also finds reasons to savor this tweak. Why’s this? Well, let’s just say that Guitar Hero 3 is harder than its predecessors; a LOT harder. How much harder? Put it this way, if you were barely able to get through most of the songs on Expert in Guitar Hero 2, you’re likely to go back down to Hard and stay there for a good while.

Another change made is how some of the note charts on certain songs have been made. You’ll find that many songs that you might normally think would be a straight streak of hammer-on’s or pull-off’s actually have notes you need to strum to in the middle. There are some songs that revolve around different variants of three-note chords, which will either be a curse or blessing for you depending on how far you can stretch each of your fingers. And remember how the three-note chords were usually just tossed in every so often without many notes surround them? Yeah, that concept has pretty much been ditched for some of the harder songs. Needless to say, it’s going to be a while before you full-combo (FC for short; you get a perfect score) the songs in the higher tiers.

Another addition to the series is the Guitar Battles, or Battle mode. This mode is available in both the multiplayer and Career modes. Your goal is to basically screw up your opponent. The way you accomplish this is that instead of getting Star Power you acquire power ups in Battle Mode, which you tilt up the controller (or use select) to activate and mess your foe up. These power ups range from increasing the difficulty, to doubling the notes, causing the amp to overload and make the screen shake, forcing your opponent to strum the whammy bar and a few others. Guitar Battles are incorporated into the Career by having you face off against a legendary guitarist, who won’t miss a single not until you send a power up his way. The Battle mode is a nice idea but it’s definitely an acquired taste since most multiplayer battles last only a few seconds. And since it’s usually the luck of the draw so to speak for the power ups you obtain, it’s easy to feel cheated sometimes.

Since it’s basically evident that you’ll fail at some point in the Hard or Expert Career, Practice mode will be the place most will head to try and improve their skills. As most will remember from Guitar Hero 2, the Practice mode was a Godsend for those that needed to beat the harder songs. However, the mode just doesn’t feel as helpful as before, more or less because the speed you need to hit the notes when a song is slowed down feels more awkward. So, don’t be surprised when you find yourself turned away from Practice mode to save yourself further frustration.

So you might be thinking without the Practice mode being so useful it’ll be impossible to beat the game. Fortunately, this isn’t the case since most of the parts you’ll need to practice on aren’t too hard to learn. The Practice mode can still help players pass and improve upon songs to where they can beat them, but it doesn’t really pay off for songs that you’ll be trying to FC. If you’re looking at this with fear that you won’t be able to beat the game, don’t. The game is very tough and challenging, no doubt, but it’s definitely possible to beat the game on Hard at least and barely use Practice mode for ten minutes.

Despite all these changes and additions the core gameplay is still essentially Guitar Hero. If you’re comfortable with how the series plays by now, then there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t be able to jump right into this one with ease. However, if you’re new or rusty to the series it might be harder for you to get into this particular installment since the game is more challenging regardless of the difficulty selected. This above anything else is why Guitar Hero 3 is best approached by the already experienced players.

The Career mode itself is set up just like previous Guitar Hero games, with a couple additions for good measure. You’ll start by naming your band, picking a guitarist, a guitar, outfit and beating songs will earn you money; the better you do the more you receive. Most of the characters you know and love from previous Guitar Hero games return, although some like Clive Winston and Pandora are missing in action; rest their souls. Fortunately, there are a lot more items to buy and several new characters.

But this is a series that’s all about the music, and the song selection is a big part of why these games have been so well-received. Lucky for us, Guitar Hero 3 has arguably the best soundtrack in Guitar Hero yet. There are more big band names and a lot more master tracks this time around; and covers aren’t too shabby on their own. Among the bands you’ll find in Guitar Hero 3 are Slayer, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Killswitch Engage, In Flames, Guns ‘N’ Roses and so much more. Oh, and all the songs by the mentioned bands are among the many original recordings.

There are over seventy songs to play through in Guitar Hero 3, and a good few of them are going to demand some practice to five star. As before, there are the Face Off and Pro Face Off modes in the game along with a new Co-op Career. The co-op play works a little differently than Guitar Hero 2 this time around. Unlike its predecessors, in Guitar Hero 3 you can only play co-op in the Career mode, which unlocks a few extra songs only available via co-op. While this isn’t a big issue, the real problem is that you need to beat Co-op Career on each difficulty if your friend(s) want to play on a higher or lower difficulty than you. This doesn’t ruin the co-op mode, but it definitely makes it stand out less than before.

Fortunately, there’s still plenty to do and unlock in the game. In addition to the seventy-one songs in the game there are loads of guitars, finishes, characters and outfits to buy. While all but the songs are ultimately just visual differences it’s still nice to have all these options and you’ll have a moment or two to grace some of the neat designs and animations in the game. In addition to all this and the several modes in the game, Guitar Hero finally goes online with Legends of Rock. The online portion is set up like most games online, allowing you to create matches, select custom rules you’d like to play with or just jump right into a game. And like most other online games the procedure is pretty painless, but don’t be surprised if you have a tough time connecting to some matches.

All told, Guitar Hero 3 is another solid, worthy entry into an already highly-successful series. While not all of the changes and additions made benefit the game, the core gameplay is still there and that’s more than enough to make the game appeal to Guitar Hero veterans. Thanks to an impressive soundtrack with plenty of master tracks, the still fun competitive modes and a nicely done online mode, this is definitely the most full-fledged Guitar Hero experience yet. With so much content available, it’s definitely going to take a really addicting game to keep Guitar Hero 3 out of your system. If you’re an experienced Guitar Hero player, this game’s got must-have written all over it. As for those who aren’t so familiar with the series, this one’s worth a look but don’t be surprised if the game is overwhelming to you.

Halo 3 is, without a doubt, the most highly-anticipated videogame ever, just look at the one-hundred and seventy million dollars the game made within its first twenty-four hours in the US alone. This is an impressive feat, the fact that a videogame managed to take in more money than any one movie has made within its first weekend at the box office. These numbers are nice and all, but the question that’s been on everyone’s minds is whether or not the game is actually worth all this hype. From sodas to twelve-inch statues to toy figures and even laser tag weapon replicas, the build-up for Halo 3 has been huge to say the least. So, is Halo 3 the game we’ve all been looking forward to? Well, read on to find out.

The game picks up right after the events in Halo 2, with the Master Chief landing on Earth and being discovered by Johnson and his team. Earth is in ruin and has been overrun by the Covenant, save for the Elites who have sided with you this time. You quickly find out that the Prophet of Truth and his armies have uncovered a massive structure in the middle of the African desert, possibly the Ark. As you might expect, it’s up to you to get there and stop him from activating the structure, or all life in the universe will perish. Needless to say, there’s quite a bit at stake and on your hands in Halo 3.

CHARGE!

You’re required to push your way through hordes of Covenant troops in order to reach your destination. In the process of the events from Halo 2, the main enemies have been switched around. Since the Elites have now sided with you, someone’s going to have to take their place as field commanders for your enemies. Unfortunately for you, the Brutes are up to the task, and they’re easily the most deadly enemies the series has seen.

As with the Elites in Halo and Halo 2, there are several classes of Brutes, some more powerful than others. The main difference here is that the contrast between the Brutes is far more erratic than that of the Elites. Some of the Brutes you’ll encounter can get downright nasty in their techniques and prove to be quite tough to bring down. You’ll know this when you see a Brute with gold armor, some can even make themselves temporarily invincible. As you might’ve guessed, these aren’t the same dumb-founded apes you encountered in Halo 2.

The Brutes do make for a formidable force to combat in Halo 3, and when combined with the other tougher enemies, you’re not going to be getting around easily this time. Sometimes the resistance you’ll encounter from these foes can get almost too aggressive, but then again, nobody likes a pushover. The only major problem with the difficulty in the game is that if you want to see your enemies at the top of their game, you’ll need to play through on the Heroic difficulty (unless you don’t have a problem getting annihilated in Legendary). If you decide to play the game on the Normal difficulty, your enemies won’t pose too much of a challenge. To make it easier, the amount of enemies you encounter is less, meaning some battles won’t feel as large and widespread as you think.

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So in a sense, Halo 3’s difficulty almost feels like Gears of War in that no difficulty feels quite perfect. But if you’re a well-experienced Halo player, then going through the game on Heroic is probably the best choice for when you start. If you’re feeling a bit rusty when going into Halo 3, then it’ll probably be best for you to start on Normal and then advance to Heroic once you’re familiar with the game.

Most gamers will head straight for the Campaign mode when they hit the main menu. The Campaign is on the short side, clocking in at about six to ten hours depending on the difficulty and your skill level. Fortunately, for the most part, Halo 3’s single-player is very entertaining for the time it lasts. There are a few moments in the Campaign mode that may cause frustration to arise, particularly the second to last level, but it’s ultimately very fulfilling.

One of the biggest additions Bungie has made to the single-player is the ability to play through the game in four-player co-op. You can still play through with a single buddy on one system but you’ll need two systems or an Xbox Live connection to play with four people. Each player will have a different character in co-op, but the third and fourth characters have absolutely no relevance to the game’s story. Fortunately, it still makes for a great experience and is quite a significant addition that will raise the bar for future shooters with cooperative play.

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There have been several improvements made to Halo 3, and you’ll get a decent taste of these goodies in the single-player. One of the first you’ll notice in the single-player is the weapons, both the selection and how they’ve been balanced. All the returning weapons feel and behave as you’d expect them to, some producing some deadly and unexpected results. For instance, the Needler is now far more reliable thanks to a higher rate of fire and the shots don’t have delayed results anymore. The Assault Rifle also returns, with a shorter magazine but is far more accurate and reliable than before. Bungie has done a good job ensuring that the new weapons are evenly balanced with the old favorites.

Few games are known for their weapons as much as the Halo series is. Halo 2 had an already impressive roster of weapons to choose from, and Halo 3 adds even more to the mix. Among the newcomers is the Brute Spiker, a dual-wieldable SMG-like gun that fires out spike bullets that proves to be quite a reliable weapon to use. There are also two new grenades: the Spike Grenade and Firebomb. The Spike Grenade is essentially a grenade that explodes with spiked fragments that can also be stuck to enemies like the Plasma Grenade. As for the Firebomb, it creates a small field of fire upon detonation that sets anything in its vicinity ablaze.

Perhaps the biggest, most substantial additions to your arsenal are the Spartan Laser and Gravity Hammer. The Spartan Laser is an over-the-shoulder weapon that fires lasers to totally annihilate your enemies. Think the Rocket Launcher mixed with the precision of the Sniper Rifle and you’ve basically got the Spartan Laser. As for the Gravity Hammer, it’s basically a large melee-based weapon that you swing to deliver some devastating blows. It has a very slight lock-on feature similar to the Energy Sword, but not as drastic. In exchange, you weld a weapon that deals a bit of splash damage (usually enough to take down a full shield) and can potentially destroy vehicles in one or two blows.

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This is just a taste of what you can imagine to happen in the game, both single-player and multiplayer. And we’ve just barely covered the weapons. Another thing the Halo series is known for is its vehicles, and there are even more to toy around with now. All the vehicles from Halo 2 have returned in Halo 3 except for the very forgettable Covenant Spectre. The tweaks made to the returning vehicles are pretty minor, although some do stick out. For instance, the Banshee can’t make drastic dives and the Scorpion along with the Wraith require an extra person to use the machinegun or plasma turret, respectively.

Naturally, there have been a few new vehicles added to the mix, each of which will probably become as memorable as older Halo vehicles. One that’s already received a good deal of attention is the AT-V Mongoose, with room for a driver and passenger. The Mongoose is nimble, controls really well and makes for a good swift ride in the game, although it’s rather unstable on bumpy terrain. There’s also the UNSC Hornet, which is the human’s answer to the Banshee. While the Hornet doesn’t have a boost option, it does fire homing missiles and has room for two passengers.

As with the weapons, two are really going to stand out from the rest. In this case, it’s the Brute Chopper and the Elephant. The Brute Chopper is a vehicle with room for one driver that’s like a Ghost except it stays on the ground by a large wheel in the front. It fires relatively powerful flare-like shots and has a boost system like the Wraith to make for some quick kills; whether it be on-foot enemies or other vehicles. As for the Elephant, imaging a towering monstrosity of a tank the size of almost four Scorpions and you’ve got an Elephant in a nutshell. Only available in the multiplayer map Sandtrap, the Elephant is a slow but massive force, with room for any other vehicle inside of it.

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Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there, Bungie decided to go and add equipment into the game. How these items work is that you can carry one at a time and you activate them with the X button (the reload button has been moved to the right bumper and left if you’re dual-wielding). There are several equipment items that you can use, such as the Trip Mine, Portable Gravity Lift, Regenerator, Power Drainer and so many others. But the Bubble Shield is likely to become the most widely used. If you’re not familiar with this particular item, it basically creates a force field that protects anyone inside from any outside fire. The catch is that both people and vehicles can pass right through it, so don’t think you’re Mr. Invincible when you drop it.

All these additions are probably making you go “Give me this in multiplayer!” Well, that’s exactly what you’ll get; all these vehicles and weapons are available at your disposal in Halo 3’s extensive multiplayer component. The game comes pre-loaded with eleven maps, only one being a return, which is Last Resort, the new Zanzibar. And yes, the three maps from the multiplayer beta have found their way into the full game, so don’t feel too bad if you get annihilated on one of those maps. The sixteen player limit on Halo 2’s online portion hasn’t changed, but this does help to keep the game running smooth.

Like Halo 2, crazy and insane moments are bound to occur, whether they’re deliberate or accidental. With all the weapons, vehicles and newly added Equipment items, you’ll probably want to save a few of these moments to show your friends. Well, Bungie heard you and has delivered the goods, for Halo 3 now has a saved films feature. The way the saved films work is that every match or level you play on, whether it be single or multiplayer will be saved to your hard drive automatically. If you want to view the clip and/or edit it, such as cutting out a specific part or take a picture, then you’re free to do so. Best part is that you can take the photo or video portion you saved and send it to your friends to really pound down the humiliation on them. The only real issue with the saved films feature is that you can only view your replays from the Campaign mode; you can’t take pictures or save a certain portion of a level.

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But saved films aren’t the only new addition made to Halo 3, there’s also a new mode called “Forge”. What is Forge you ask? Well, in a couple words, its Halo 3’s map editor. Now, before you start calling up your friends saying that you can create maps in Halo 3, it’s a map editor, not a map creator. But by no means should be bummed out over just changing the way each map looks, since the options you’re given and the way Forge has been made makes it easily the best console game with a map editor.

How the map editor works is that you choose a map you want to mess around with and you start as an Elite or Spartan. But then you’re given the option to turn into the 343 Guilty Spark monitor, and this is how you edit what you want. You can change just about everything in a map aside from its set landscape. Weapons, vehicles, spawn points, equipment, crates, turrets, and so much more are all yours to change in each map. The only two limits you have with editing each map is how many of each item you can put on the map and you have a certain amount of money you can spend. Fortunately, deleting items will increase your budget while adding will decrease it, so it’s a fair system. And yes, you can watch replays of when you were messing around with Forge thanks to the saved films feature.

If you’re completely satisfied with the set-up you’ve made for a map, then you can save and upload it for the whole world to see, test and assess. The saved films and Forge mode are easily two of the best things Bungie have added to Halo 3 to make the experience even more involved, especially with the online community. To keep things familiar, the matchmaking in the game remains identical to that of Halo 2. Getting connected to a game is also the same as it ever was, so the wait time shouldn’t take much longer than a minute. Online play is smooth and the experience you’ll get with all the new features and additions make it significantly better than Halo 2; take it from me.

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With all that’s included in the game, it’s easy to think that Halo 3 wouldn’t be much of a technical powerhouse, despite the fact the game’s running on the Xbox 360. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Halo makes its leap to the next-generation on the Xbox 360 and does so very well. Probably the first thing you’ll notice with Halo 3’s graphics is how beautiful the scenery looks. The game manages to have plenty of these areas; some parts look so good it’s downright distracting. The water in the game also looks very impressive; probably the most distracting part of the game’s visuals. Like its predecessors, Halo 3 manages to do all this while running surprisingly smooth; there are no framerate drops in the Campaign whatsoever. The only real complaint about the graphics is that some parts look either rough or seem to lack a bit of detail. Oh, and did I mention how amazing the water looks?

It’s not just the graphics that Halo 3 exceeds at, it’s also the sound, whether it comes from the music, voiceovers or sound effects. The last two Halo games had an amazing score that always came in at the right time and really brought gamers into the game. Halo 3’s music is no different, and the main score might just be the best Halo theme yet. The voice work in the game is also quite impressive, so much that it wouldn’t surprise me if videogame characters got Oscar nominations for the best Actor/Actress awards. Finally there are the sound effects, which are even more crisp and believable than Halo 2, which had some pretty great weapon and explosion noises. Each gun has its own tune with the right punch when shot to make them all sound equally authentic. Needless to say, Marty O’Donnell has done the Halo series more than enough justice by doing his part.

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After three long years of waiting to “Finish the Fight” Halo 3 finally arrives and finishing the fight is exactly what you’ll do. The game has a great conclusion and ties up all the loose ends in the story. As a whole, Halo 3 is definitely worth every second of waiting from the time gamers completed Halo 2. The game is definitely far superior to its predecessor and is just about on-par with the original, maybe even more so since it feels more complete. And just like how the original Halo set the bar for console first-person shooters, Halo 3 raises the bar for all shooters out there. Halo fans won’t need to worry about being disappointed, for Halo 3 delivers the goods and is worth playing through every step till the end.