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Dee Yun Dee Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2007-04-16 05:49:16

The Holograms Were Weak; The Misfits Rocked Out

The Xbox 360, like its predecessor, is the king of the first person shooter. With buzz focused on Halo 3 and Half-Life 2: Orange Box releasing later this year, there are a few current releases that gamers may gloss over that are worth playing:

Call of Duty 3 skipped the PC platform for some odd reason. It may have had something to do with the development duties shifting from Infinity Ward to Treyarch. Call of Duty fans can instantly tell that someone else handled these chores. The controls aren't quite as tight, the guns don't feel/sound quite as good, the missions aren't designed quite as well, there aren't any memorably standout defining moments, and on and on. There wasn't a wholesale drop in any of these elements, but just enough to notice that some little factor was amiss. It's like one of those rare off years where the Honda Accord doesn't make Car and Driver's Ten Best list. It's still a great car, but perhaps something was tinkered with that was best left alone. (CoD3 also gave me a touch of motion sickness. Nothing major, but enough that I had to use load times between missions to take a few breaths to stave off the hint of nausea.)

They added a couple of mini-games. When planting an explosive charge, instead of a single button press, you engage in a series of stick movements and button combos to simulate priming and setting it properly. Meh. There are also a few scripted hand to hand combat sequences done in a similar Simon Says mechanic. Bleh. Thankfully they're rare and only last a few seconds each, because they aren't fun in any meaningful way. The one new mechanic that I do like is the ability to grab enemy grenades and hurl them back. You can also "cook" your own grenades by holding onto them longer before tossing them.

From a technical perspective, CoD3 is a gorgeous game. Every inch of it is covered in high resolution textures and you can stare at individual blades of grass as you duck your head from MG42 fire. The game centers exclusively on the Normandy Breakout, so from an artistic perspective, the same assets are employed over and over throughout the game, whereas its predecessors covered various fronts. Despite the upgrade in visuals over CoD2, the lack of variety and sense of wonder is another slight degradation in overall quality.

Call of Duty 2 was the Direman Press 2005 Game of the Year, and this sequel falls annoyingly short in every single category... except multiplayer. The Live component received a massive overhaul, with multiple classes to play (a la Battlefield or Team Fortress) and additional game modes. This is the reason to pick up this title despite all of my nitpicking about the campaign mode. Rank: B (Lower if you're only interested in single player.)

F.E.A.R. was developed by the same guys that put out Condemned, a 360 launch title full of shadowy lighting effects, stellar creepy audio, and seriously spooky gameplay. They brought all of that back and crammed it into a full-on shooter. The biggest compliment I can pay F.E.A.R. is that it reminded me of playing Half-Life, only instead of a sci-fi dimension bending game, it's a sci-fi psychological horror game. Admittedly, the story isn't anywhere near as engaging as Gordon Freeman's, but the gameplay itself is actually more intense and rewarding.

The visuals are amazing, and contribute directly to the general feel of the game. Just like Condemned, all of those oppressive shadows cast by real time lighting lay siege on your psyche, making you more vulnerable to scare tactics and horror storytelling. All of the models are sharp and detailed. The audio is phenomenal, from the rattling chatter of the guns to the unseen voices whispering in your ear. I had to bust out my rear speakers (something I haven't done much of since my toddler started roaming). Playing F.E.A.R. in the dark at night with surround sound enveloping you is fantastic.

The key hook to this game is a "bullet time" slowing ability. You're some manner of experimental soldier with heightened reflexes, and when you hit the left shoulder button, everything slows down to a crawl. The effect looks crazy cool, with Matrix bullet vortexes and shattering glass, flying body parts, and explosions in slow motion. The thing is, this makes the game fairly easy. Activate this power and retreat when it runs out, and repeat once the ability is charged up again. The irony is that F.E.A.R. is an extremely slick and sexy shooter in real time. I recommend playing in easy mode without using this "cheat" for awesomely intense firefights. The controls are tight and responsive, and all of the guns feel and sound amazing - the shotgun is one of the best ever. I also have to mention the excellent enemy A.I. All of this combines together for a game that's more creepy than scary, but it did manage to make me yelp out in surprise and shock a couple times (especially as I embraced the ending).

F.E.A.R. even helped me figure out why CoD3 made me slightly motion sick - excessive head bobbing. F.E.A.R. gave me the option of toning it down and I didn't have a single issue with it all game. The multiplayer is also solid with all of the usual trimmings. Rank: A

The Far Cry franchise can be a bit confusing. Far Cry Instincts was an original Xbox game. There was an expansion called Far Cry Instincts: Evolution. Far Cry Instincts: Predator is the 360 game, which is an upgraded port of those two aforementioned titles combined. There was also a prior PC version of Far Cry which was an entirely different game altogether. Gamer media has given Predator middling reviews, and I attribute this primarily to the lack of new content, because it's a fun game. If you've played the Xbox versions, skip it. Otherwise, it's definitely worth a look.

Much of the criticism centers around the graphics. Yes, they're not fully "next-gen", with lower resolution textures here and there, but Predator still looks good. The draw distance goes on forever, giving you panoramic views, and the water looks absolutely astounding. The character models are admittedly laughable for the 360, but it doesn't affect gameplay at all. Unfortunately, the sound is unimpressive; FCI:P's pop guns just don't have enough grit to them. The controls also feel soft and swimmy, and I often found myself using the left movement thumbstick for fine adjustments of my reticule, a major shortcoming for a shooter. I could tell that the developers gave you a very forgiving hit zone to make up for the imprecise controls. The A.I. is horrid: they just swarm you and stand around firing mindlessly. They can pinpoint you through foliage and it just feels cheap.

Despite all of these flaws, I still recommend FCI:P because of its hook. In the crowded FPS genre, you need to have a unique hook to stand out. Call of Duty lets you kill Nazis and envelops you in historical authenticity. F.E.A.R. gives you bullet time and a bloody creepfest. Far Cry Instincts: Predator gives you shamanistic animal abilities: enhanced strength, speed and animal senses. You don't start off with any of them. The beginning of the game is a fairly generic shooter, but as you slowly gain these abilities the fun amps up. It's like any number of Star Wars games that are completely mediocre until you get your hands on a lightsaber that starts to unlock your Force powers. You can power claw your foes (the mechanic is exactly like Halo 2's elite force blade thingy), track them by scent, leap gaping chasms with cheetah speed, and so on. Once FCI:P gets rolling, it brings the fun, which is all that matters. Rank: B

Now Playing - Super Paper Mario (Wii)

Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce

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