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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
by Darwin Hang
Darwin Hang takes on the PlayStation 2's latest Sonic the Hedgehog-based racing game...

An object’s velocity is equal to its displacement divided by the time of travel.  This means that an object which starts and ends its voyage at the same position has a velocity equal to zero.  Now, let’s say that that object A is Sonic the Hedgehog riding a hoverboard.  Object B is a robot chasing object A in the story mode of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity.  Both objects start at position X and end at position X, giving both of them a velocity of zero miles per hour.  The story mode, like Sonic on his intergalactic hoverboard, goes nowhere.


Sonic’s distinguishing trait has always been his speed.  He was fast without any technological aid.  That was the point.  He was able to use his natural skills to defeat Mr. Robotnik, or Eggman, who was obsessed with technology.  This racing-obsessed version of Sonic does not appear to be made within the same continuity as the original Sega titles.  It fails in its inability to retain the spirit of the Sonic franchise.  Sonic doesn’t need a vehicle, he needs to run and jump and spin fast.  Eggman has become comic relief.  Because the story mode has to be played through to unlock features of the game, there should have been some course alterations so that the races would feel like a natural progression of the story.


When the game sticks to racing, it’s tolerable.  The courses play differently for different characters, and a slow motion “drift” function is well designed.  Sometimes gameplay is exciting.  The courses play differently for different characters as long as you stick to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles.  The “Rogues” are feathered mirror images of the mammalian main characters.  The racing is fast and there are many gimmicks which work well and many gimmicks that don’t.  Because of the gimmickry, there is not an even playing field, meaning that this does not make for a good party game.  Once a course is played through with each character, it loses its charm.


Like its intended tween audience, the Sonic franchise is going through an identity crisis.  Does Sega keep churning out Sonic titles that no one cares about until people just start ignoring him and pretending he doesn’t exist?  Will Sonic someday have MTV Made help get his singing career started?  Too bad these questions could not have been addressed earlier, before Sonic reached his mid twenties.


As someone who grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog (yes, I was that kid who had a Sega Genesis instead of a Super Nintendo), it was hard for me to play Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity.  I am going to keep typing that name, because it is part of the problem.  My generation grew up on side scrollers and 2D first person shooters.  Most of the time we had no idea what the plots of the Sonic games were or if they even existed.  Then, it didn’t matter.  Now it does.


Art builds upon its predecessors.  It doesn’t rely on nostalgia to retain an aging audience.  It connects generations while creating gaps between them.  Art causes friction.  Art makes us question our limits as a human race, our future, and our past.  With all the mediocre, thoughtless, effortless, useless titles I play, such as Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, the more I wonder if I was wrong about stating that video games are art.  Maybe, like Van Gogh, this game won’t be appreciated until the Sonic franchise is finally dead.


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Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Azmol Meah takes on the UK-exclusive Hurry Up Hedgehog! for the Nintendo DS. He doesn't hold back.

There have been many video game iterations of popular board games in recent years. Everything from Monopoly to Risk to Jenga has made the jump from cardboard boards to, erm, digital boards!


All are household names and all have sucked as video games harder than a super turbo charged vacuum cleaner.


Next in this inauspicious line is Hurry Up Hedgehog!, based on a popular German board game known as Egelrace, which roughly translates to ‘Hedgehogs in a Hurry’. And just as the aforementioned titles should have remained board games, so should have Hurry Up Hedgehog. After playing the game equivalent, you’ll genuinely question how this could even pass as a decent board game.


There are two things that will catch your attention when playing Hurry Up Hedgehog!. First, there’s an option to dope the hedgehogs. Second, the little critters themselves come across as a sort of super freaky hybrid of Tina Turner’s ‘Aunty’ character from Mad Max 3 and some reject Twisted Sister outcast. Of course, those hedgehogs are maxed out with anthropomorphic traits, which means lots of animals behaving like humans! Why can’t hedgehogs act like, you know hedgehogs—granted, they don’t do much aside from getting splattered on roadsides by soccer mums in their 4x4’s—but surely a hedgehog murdering simulator would have been a better idea than what Oxygen have given us (ideally, the hedgehogs in this alternative game would be on drugs as well).


But alas, the developers only managed to get the dope part right. The rest of the game simply involves guiding those whiny, grotesque beasts we get from A to B on a 6x9 garden-themed grid, where your greatest foe isn’t an overindulged Knightsbridge housewife, but instead, a mud pit. Yes, that’s right, a mud pit. You move your team of Frankenstein’s droppings from left to right, forwards, backwards or on top of other Hedgehogs for some hot, saucy, hedgehog on hedgehog action, guide your team to the finish line and that’s it.


Yes, that’s it; stroke the stylus in four different directions. If you can master the ancient art of being able to tell the difference between, left, right, up and down then you’ll be a Jedi at Hurry Up Hedgehog! in the blink of an eye. Though with gameplay this banal, don’t be surprised if you find yourself edging closer and closer to the dark side. Even its single cart, six-player multiplayer can’t rescue it from total disaster.


Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the game essentially has one mode, no in-game music, a middle school educational CD-ROM look, menus that are only ever half explained, characters that could rival Sonic’s merry band of losers in terms of utter lameness and gameplay that requires no skill, thought, strategy, arcade nor mental ability. Add it all up, and you have one awful game.


Wisely, the game is being released at a paltry £14.99, which is, in all honesty, £14.99 too much. Sadly, a lot of the DS-loving teeny–boppers will probably pick this up, thinking it’s some sort of new super cutesy pet sim, but it’s not.  It may simply be the MOST…POINTLESS…GAME…EVER.


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Tuesday, Apr 15, 2008
The PopMatters review of Major League Baseball 2K8 is up today, a game that redefines (for better or for worse) the way that video game baseball can be played. But what if you want something a little bit less...revolutionary?

This is actually the third season for the current generation of video baseball games, given the Xbox 360’s head start with Major League Baseball 2K6 way back in ‘06.  It’s the second season for Sony’s PlayStation 3 versions of their own baseball game.  As such, it would be plenty understandable for Sony to choose to put all of their effort into the PlayStation 3 version of the game, leaving the PlayStation 2 version behind.  They could have gone the EA route, putting out almost exactly the same game as last year with updated rosters, put it out at a budget price, and been done with it.


Of course, given the number of late adopters who still haven’t hopped onto the PS3 bandwagon, it’s also plenty understandable that they didn’t quite go that route.


Major League Baseball 2K8, as you might have read via today’s review from Jason Cook, has chosen to take the path of innovation, completely overhauling pretty much every aspect of baseball gameplay that we have come to know.  The hitting, pitching, and even the fielding in 2K8 features a heavy reliance of the capabilities that modern controllers wield, capabilities that the classic baseball sims never truly even tried to take advantage of.  MLB 08: The Show for the PlayStation 3 features highly developed online modes, hard drive-utilizing features, and all kinds of the extra features one would expect from a PlayStation 3 baseball sim.  The PlayStation 2 version of the same game, however, might just be perfect for the players weaned on Bases Loaded and R.B.I. Baseball, a classic experience with updated graphics and just enough game modes to keep you happy if you’re in the mood for something new.


The reason MLB 08 works for the classic players is that its primary game mechanics will be extremely familiar to just about anyone.  Sure, it’s a little bit more advanced than “press ‘A’ to pitch”, but not all that much.  You’re still swinging the bat with one button.  Fielding feels as natural as it ever has, because you’re doing it in ways that you recognize.  There’s no new paradigm, no new control ideal that must be learned; even without a look at the instruction book or an ounce of experience, you’ll be able to step right in to MLB 08 for the PlayStation 2 and be able to play.  You’ll probably lose, yes, but you’ll be able to play.


Where Sony chose to improve the game is in ways that help the digitized men in the game to perform better.  A pitcher can study a hitter’s tendencies, and a hitter can study a pitcher’s.  A fielder can use the wall to his advantage to jump up and rob a home run.  These are things that improve the experience without necessarily taking away from the pick up ‘n play scheme.  It eases you in to the new features, as once you’re used to the basics, you can slowl y introduce the more advanced play styles to your arsenal of moves.  The fantastic “Road to the Show” play style has been updated as well, as the success/fail dynamic of the tasks your manager gives you aren’t quite so cut and dried as they were before, which makes the play experience less discouraging.


As such, it’s obvious that Sony didn’t put the full-on effort into the PlayStation 2 version of MLB 08: The Show, not like they did the PS3 version, anyway.  What they came up with is entirely the polar opposite of the Major League Baseball 2K8 approach to baseball, subtle tweaks that improve the game rather than overhauling.


In short: it’s the perfect baseball experience for the ex-core PlayStation 2 owner who just isn’t quite ready to move to “next-gen”.


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Wednesday, Mar 26, 2008
In this edition of Checkpoints, we blast off with Rocketmen: Axis of Evil.

Right around the time that Mutant Storm Empire hit, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I need to separate myself from the whole top-down 360-degree shooter thing.  I mean, there is not a game in this genre that I haven’t enjoyed, to some extent.  Smash TV was and is a hoot, Geometry Wars is one of the most addicting, infuriating games ever made, Undertow does neat strategic sorts of things with the genre, and Mutant Storm Empire, well…it didn’t do anything new, really, except offer an insanely high level of difficulty for those who fancied themselves skilled enough to take it on.  And yet, I loved it.  Honestly, other than Guitar Hero III, there’s not a single game I played more in the last few months of last year.  This, of course, probably means I have a problem.


As such, going into a new game in the whole “use one analog stick to move, use the other one to shoot” shoot ‘em up genre was filled with a sort of trepidation.  Is Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, Capcom’s latest Xbox Live Arcade offering, going to be another timesink the way that Mutant Storm Empire was?  Am I going to find myself addicted again?  Am I ever going to be able to look at a game in this genre with a subjective eye?


Interestingly, the answer to all three turned out to be “yes”.


Rocketmen does a lot of things right, and the core gameplay elements that make other games in the genre so appealing are all present.  It’s one little dude (or dudette—you get to control a highly customizable character, which is a nice little touch) against a whole bunch of bad dudes (and conspicuously few dudettes), armed with only a pathetic little pistol to start.  As needs to be the case with a game in this genre, there are copious power-ups spread throughout each level, as our hero can pick up all manner of guns, missiles, proximity bombs, and whatnot in the interest of clearing his way through wave after wave of enemies.  The environments are colorful and varied (if occasionally confusing, what with the number of see-through floors that there seem to be in space), and the play is hectic but never all that overwhelming.  In addition to blowing away the baddies, there are other missions to be undertaken as well, most of which involve running up to trigger points and, as the game so humorously puts it, “pounding on the ‘A’ button”.  It’s all pretty basic, but any member of this genre almost needs to be.


Still, there are problems that exist in Rocketmen that simply don’t exist in other games of the genre.  Namely, it feels really odd for a game like this to be on pseudo-rails.  The camera sort of scrolls where it wants, and while you have to walk into certain places to convince it that, yes, now would be a good time to continue the process of scrolling, it’s not always clear when or where you can do this.  Worse, you sometimes have to run right up to the edge of the screen to convince the game to let you proceed, and when the camera then starts moving, enemies are waiting just past that forced horizon waiting to shoot you into oblivion.  So not fair!  Most egregious of all is the fact that the secondary goals are impossible to revisit once you’ve passed the point in the level where they occur; you’ll just have to start over to achieve them.  When you’re talking about levels that last longer than a half an hour, this becomes annoying very, very quickly.


There are other issues with Rocketmen: Axis of Evil as well; for one, the cutscene art style is just…odd.  Static three-dimensional hand-drawn-looking people converse with one another through speech bubbles and voiceovers; a little more animation in these cutscenes would have been appreciated; even if there wasn’t room for such animation given Xbox Live Arcade’s restrictions on the size of the game, the art style could have been changed to make it look a little more comic book-like (see Joe, Viewtiful) and less awkward.  The leveling-up process takes an awfully long time as well, and I have to admit, genre constraint or not, I am getting tired of blowing up random boxes and barrels for money/experience/titanium.


Still, the multiplayer portion of the game is addicting and hilariously hectic when four people get involved, and the single player certainly isn’t bad enough to keep someone like me from coming back.  If you think that overhead shmups are the bees’ knees, then you’ll do just fine with a $10 download of Rocketmen.  If you’ve been thinking since the first paragraph that I’m just this side of nuts, well, Rocketmen isn’t going to help my case with you.  It really is for diehard fans of the genre, but those fans will likely have a blast.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Mar 20, 2008
Checkpoints take brief looks at downloadable and independent releases. Today we throw back a couple o' pints and take on the Dropkick Murphys Guitar Hero III track pack.

Given that Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, it only seemed appropriate that I would pull on my greenest sweater, throw back a couple o’ pints o’ Guinness, and play some serious Guitar Hero.


Before last week, such a proclamation might have seemed like a complete and utter non-sequitur, but last week saw the release of the three-song Dropkick Murphys pack for the can’t-possibly-argue-with-it price of absolutely free.  Now, we can use our fake plastic guitars to get in touch with our Irish sides…because what could possibly go better with a Boondock Saints / The Departed mini-marathon than some Irish boys shouting at you?


Problem #1: All three of these tracks are from the most recent Dropkick Murphys album, The Meanest of Times, which isn’t really such a bad thing, but they’ve got a hell of a legacy that they could be drawing from at this point.  I know they’re trying to promote the latest album, but they’ve now released four of that album’s tracks as playable songs across two different Guitar Hero games.  Part of being Irish is drinking to the past, yes?  Would it really hurt to pretend the band existed before 2007?


Problem #2: The songs are largely chord-mashing tests of endurance.  Aside from the very fun chart for “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” (which benefits greatly from its traditional roots), there are lots of chords coming at you fast and furious; chronic down-strummers will have carpal tunnel by the time they end.


There is a tangible benefit to downloading these tracks via the Xbox Live downloading service: the expert-level chart for “(F)lannigan’s Ball” very well may be the easiest Guitar Hero III song with which to break the elusive 500,000-point mark.  That’s 10 GamerScore points just waiting to be snagged.  It’s actually quite smart for Activision to release, for free, a track that seems so ready-made for passing such a milestone.  It’s easy in games like the Guitar Hero series to feel like you’ve hit a plateau, that you’re never, ever going to get any farther in the game, that your fingers just aren’t quite coordinated enough to blow through “Through the Fire and Flames” or stay on target long enough to pull a 1,000-note streak.  To put in a song that makes it comparatively easy to pass one of those heretofore pretty-damn-difficult milestones is a psychological boon for the frustrated.  It’s the type of thing that tells the intermediate player, “no, seriously, you are getting better.  Come back.  Lars misses you.” And then, just like that, you’re hooked again, thinking that maybe, yes, this is the time you’re going to beat “Raining Blood” on expert.


It worked on me. 


If nothing else, the note charts in the Dropkick Murphys pack beat the hell out of the insanely easy “Dream On” chart that they released to promote the upcoming Guitar Hero: Aerosmith release.  Plus, you just might get one achievement closer to total Guitar Hero domination.  You can’t put a price on that, and so they didn’t.  Take the time and download it.  What do you have to lose?


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