Monday, June 1, 2009

The Hottest Games of Summer 2009 - Part 4

The Hottest Games of Summer 2009 - Part 4 - Last part

From Nintendo's "Punch-Out" to EA's third tango with "The Sims," we line up our summer picks -- and then we let you know how we really feel about them.

'Madden NFL 10' -- Expected Aug. 13; 'NCAA Football 10' -- Expected July 14

Matt: Kiss the 'two-zero' in the title bye-bye this year in favor of a simpler, trendier number. You'd think that's all EA changed if you missed "Madden NFL 2009". That update pushed the series's already tasty visuals offstage and instead emphasized substantive features like an adaptive difficulty mode, exhaustive analytical tools and tactically transformative procedural animations. Surprised? I was. This year's version may do the series one better with a swing toward even more hard-core football simulation, with the whole game tuned to run and animate at a slower, more realistic speed (and it'll have a new game-speed slider if you care to dispute the dev team's defaults). EA's "NCAA Football 10" stands to benefit from similar improvements, including a slick-sounding procedural awareness system that'll see players track the ball with their eyes, head and shoulders, and change up attitudes dynamically, from shifty-eyed nervous glances to petrifying glares.

Darren: No matter what we say or do, people will go out and buy either or both of these by the truckload. That's the sad truth. Thankfully, as you've noted, neither series sits still. Oh, and don't forget that, with two athletes on this year's Madden cover, it's two times the curse! (I keeed, I keeed.) Some people will be psyched to see that the Wildcat formation used and abused by the Miami Dolphins gets implemented, but I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with the Wii version of the game, which is a little less concerned with realistic facial features. Word has it that the Nintendo-fied take gets a "Team Fortress 2"-esque, cartoony face lift and some not-quite-the-usual game play. Let me explain the latter: Minigames, called "Spotlight Moments," will pop up midgame, and they'll have you swatting with the Wii Remote to knock a receiver's hand off the ball or to make a last-minute Hail Mary pass for the win.

'Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days' and 'Dissidia Final Fantasy' -- Both expected Aug. 31

The Scoop: "Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days"; Genre: Action RPG; By: h.a.n.d.; From: Square Enix; For: Nintendo DS; Rating: Pending

"Dissidia Final Fantasy"; Genre: Fighting; By: Square Enix; From: Square Enix; For: PlayStation Portable; Rating: Pending

Info: Fantasy versus fantasy!

Matt: Since we're doomed to wail and gnash our teeth and pine after "Final Fantasy XIII" until sometime in 2010, Square Enix fanboys (guilty as charged) will have to settle for a couple of handheld diversions instead. "Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days" -- yes, that's the title, and yes, it's ridiculously pronounced "three-five-eight days over two" -- takes place between the original "Kingdom Hearts" and "Kingdom Hearts II." What's better than "Final Fantasy" meets Disney? Nothing (well, except maybe "Final Fantasy" meets The Muppets), and the game ships with cooperative multiplayer capability, to boot. As for "Dissidia Final Fantasy," the only thing cooler than Cloud Strife and Sephiroth smacking each other around arena-style would be a Square Enix fighting game on a set-top console. That said, it's hard to argue with the publisher emphasizing exclusives for an install base (the PSP's) approaching 50 million units -- as many as the Xbox 360's and the PS3's worldwide combined -- so I won't.

Darren: You're the Squaresoft superfan, Matt, so I'll take a bit of a back seat on this one. I've always had a love-hate relationship with the FF games. Fantastic music and cinematography (yeah, I said it, "cinematography") are surrounded by some unnecessarily repetitive game play at times. And if I want to skip ahead, I get penalized for not grabbing item X, locked in an eternal losing battle with some ludicrous monstersaurus. But there's good news on the "Final Fantasy XIII" front, buddy -- that is, if you can stomach buying "Final Fantasy Advent Children Complete" on Blu-ray. Among its special features is a "preview" of "FF XIII." In Japan, that meant a demo of the game -- don't know if it means the same in the United States. So, you're basically paying for a preview of the next game, and suffering through a free HD movie that comes with it.

'Halo 3: ODST' -- Expected Sept. 1

The Scoop: "Halo 3: ODST"; Genre: First-person shooter; By: Bungie; From: Microsoft Game Studios; For: Xbox 360; Rating: Pending

Info: This is a first-person "Halo" game without Master Chief, but with an emphasis on darker, grittier game play in the African city in "Halo 2," New Mombasa.

Matt: I liked this "Where's Master Chief?" stand-alone "Halo 3" expansion better when it was subtitled "Recon." ODST? Stands for "Orbital Drop Shock Trooper," as opposed to "Oh Darn, Someone Tripped." That said, Master Chief is an iconic Clint Eastwood in an astronaut suit, so I can't say I'll miss him in Bungie's parallel narrative exploring events during the time frame of "Halo 2" in New Mombasa, Kenya. What's different? Well, remember all the good guys who died on cue as you tromped through the prior installments' firefights? You're one of those poor fools this time, a lowly UNSC soldier with squat in the supersoldier department. Master Chief was a tank -- you're a matchstick with a gun. Bungie cautions not to expect a serious tactical or stealth-based shift, which is really too bad, since the alternative sounds disturbingly like "Diet Halo."

Darren: Here's where you could be missing the point, Matt. This doesn't sound like "Diet Halo," it's more like "Halo of Duty." Remember how the "Call of Duty" games are more about the average guy just trying to survive, as opposed to Johnny Heroman? Going back through semifamiliar terrain but with a whole different skill set means a potentially different vibe. Besides, you're not just some rookie hoofing through some open world. You're also supposedly playing through flashbacks of squad mates, as well (in a more linear campaign). If anything, I see the potential here for a good mix of play styles if done right. What I'm not as sure about so far is the multiplayer game: I mean, they technically don't have to do much to it. It has a huge following and a giant pile of multiplayer maps already. Are they going to add more on that end? Or will Bungie just bundle all the different paid expansion packs?

'Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising' -- Expected Sept. 1

The Scoop: "Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising"; Genre: Tactical shooter; By: Codemasters; From: Codemasters; For: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Pending

Info: Explore over 100 square miles of real-world terrain in a hyper-realistic shooter that pits China, Russia and the United States against one another.

Matt: Finally. Codemasters promised this "sequel" half a decade ago, then dropped the ball. The original game turned heads for its tactical hijinks and plausible near-future narrative. A speedy follow-up could have been equally good. Since then, we've seen even smarter alternatives like "America's Army," "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," "Brothers in Arms," "Rainbow Six Vegas" and "Red Orchestra." "Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising" needs to be spectacular if it's going to distance itself from that bunch. So far, so good, with promised features like full environmental damage, an unscripted self-sufficient enemy and squad-based AI, and over 100 square miles of geographically accurate terrain modeled after a volcanic Alaskan island (and the option to explore any of it at leisure). Promises promises, of course. "Crysis" made similar claims and, great as it was, it fell short of the mark on too many of them.

Darren: Not to get all "back in my day…," but people seem to forget that the original "Operation Flashpoint" was a huge, ambitious game that outdid "Battlefield 1942" a year earlier. That fictitious 1985 showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was fantastic, and, for its day, it offered huge maps to explore, vehicles to drive, weapons galore, great graphics -- any of this sounding familiar? Now, what I've seen of the sequel makes me want to get my war on: Fine attention to detail is all well and good, but apparently the level editor is supposed to be pretty snazzy. I want to create my own continents and stage some ferocious firefights. How about a 32-players-versus-the-CPU scenario? Or a 32-player free-for-all where everyone controls their own squad? The only fear I have: "Operation Flashpoint" was a seriously demanding game, causing my olde-tyme game rig to stutter. Hopefully, history won't repeat itself.

'The Beatles: Rock Band' -- Expected Sept. 9

The Scoop: "The Beatles: Rock Band"; Genre: Music; By: Harmonix, Pi Studios; From: MTV Games, EA; For: PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360; Rating: Teen

Info: The band-in-a-box rhythm series meets the music of The Fab Four.

Darren: The big question I always find myself asking with rhythm games is: Will the controls work, and does the music, in fact, rock? Take "Guitar Hero" on the Nintendo DS -- it's a hot mess. It had horrible audio compression, and the controls drove me through the carpal tunnel. But Harmonix has what it takes to make music gaming work. After all, these guys perfected the music game genre back in the PlayStation 2 days with "Frequency" and "Amplitude." The Beatles take on "Rock Band" is a bit of a mystery right now. Obviously, you can play as the four famous Liverpudlians and, of course, shell out extra cash for Beatle-themed plastic drums and replica guitars (bowl haircuts not included). Me? I'd be happy if it was only the "White Album." Until we hear more about the set list, though, I'll have to settle on a YouTube clip that sneak-previews the game (watch the screen behind Sir Paul McCartney during the 2009 Coachella concert).

Matt: You'd have to be stupid (or lacking a pulse) not to be thrilled that someone has finally picked up (some of? all of?) The Beatles' catalog for online play (sorry about that, Steve Jobs). To partially answer Darren's "big question," yes, the music's going to rock. It's The Beatles -- what didn't? That said, I'm just as leery about the shameless peripheral bilking. As long as we can use our existing "Rock Band" plastic axes and rubber beat pads, sign me up. But if I'm forced to pay so much as a penny for George's "psychedelic" Strat or John's "peace acoustic" Gibson, Ringo's "rooftop" Ludwig drums or Paul's '61 Hofner Violin bass, I'm grabbing a picket sign and heading straight for MTV HQ. As for the music, like I said, it's The Beatles. You love it, yeah, yeah, yeah…

(Did we miss anything? Should we have skipped something we included? Have any other suggestions? Please comment on our message board.)

Have a good time playing favourite games :)

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