Monday, November 19, 2007

A thinking Man's "Halo"

It's been a great fall for video games.

"Halo 3" turned out to be just as good as the hype. The latest round of sports games, especially the NBA titles, was outstanding.

This week, we get another major title that delivers in "Mass Effect" from Microsoft Game Studios. It's another Xbox 360 console exclusive.

The game tells the story of a special agent named Commander Shepard, who basically is the sheriff for the galaxy. As Shepard, you'll battle a force that seeks to destroy not only your world, but all worlds.

Developed by BioWare, the studio that made the excellent "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic," "Mass Effect" is amazingly deep. Even expert gamers will play this for weeks.

Turns out that Shepard is the only human agent in a police-like group called Spectre, but being the only human in a galaxy where humans are not always trusted, his life can get, well, complicated.

To me, this game felt like a "Star Trek" film, where Shepard and his team are faced with many moral decisions as they explore the universe, find the threat and figure out ways to stop it. You can destroy entire alien races, or keep them alive, with choices you make.

As you seek your ultimate goal, you can also explore uncharted worlds and meet all manner of uncharted life. In battle mode, you can choose to focus on the action (like in a "Doom"-style game) or to use the squad-based combat schemes to use more strategy. Ultimately, this is a thinking man's "Halo."

When fighting, look for areas to take cover; this will help keep you alive. I'd also suggest using grenades often and saving the game often, too. Unlike many titles in this genre that force you to reach certain stages to save, you can save "Mass Effect" almost anywhere.

The game is simply gorgeous, and the character voiceovers and movements are very realistic. You can get lost in this title, which is rated M for blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes and violence. It's for adults and it's a big winner. One of the best for '07.

Grade: A-plus.

Review: Call of Duty 4

There's nothing like a really good first-person shooting game, and "Call" definitely fits the bill.I tried the PS3 version and the graphics were very, very good. You play as a U.S. Marine and a British SS solider -- each character advancing the same storyline -- and you get technology and firepower that would make James Bond jealous. Stuff like a AC-130 Gunship, which flies above the battle and fires 105mm rounds into your enemy. Talk about clearing a field fast.

The game puts you into some intense fights going on around the world to try to stop a rogue terrorist agency that's gotten some Russian nuclear devices. And this is the most intense fighting game I've ever tried. Enemies are plentiful and smart. There are some plot twists that come so fast and so suddenly, they really will shock you. But the fun here is the fighting. And there's lots of it. Rated M for Mature.

Grade: A.

• I also tinkered around the Nintendo DS model. The game lost some realism due to the graphics, sound quality and screen size, but it's essentially the same story. I just preferred such a big game on a regular TV screen.

Review: Orcs & Elves

Electronic Arts' title for the Nintendo DS brings a cell phone hit to the 3D world. It looks better obviously, but it was kind of boring and too old-school.

Characters don't really move fluidly and battles aren't really battles; you merely get to find out after the fact what your chosen strike has done to the enemy. Rent this one before you buy. Rated T for Teen.

Grade: D.

Review: Super Mario Galaxy

I didn't get to spend as much time with this game as I'd like because of other work duties (yes, covering video games really qualifies as work for me).

But at first blush, it appears to be as fun as advertised.

In this latest Mario adventure, you have to try to stop Bowser, who has stolen something called Star Power from a comet (stay with me here) and has used it to rip Peach's castle apart and take its inhabitants into space. Your job? Get your friends back.

From there, it's basic Mario -- collect objects, topple bad guys, get the girl -- save for one twist: Mario is given the ability to perform spinning attacks thanks to the motion-sensitive Wiimote.

I was grinning while I was going at it. Best of all, I could let my kids play, too. Rated E for Everyone.

Grade: B-plus.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Guitar Hero rocks

The biggest box in video games belongs to Activision's "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock."

The new Nintendo Wii title (which is also available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) comes with a life-size wireless guitar in a three-foot-long cardboard box. The guitar has swappable face plates, and you can remove the neck to make storage easier.

The game itself has a fun action battle mode where you can play against a friend. But I enjoyed career mode most. You try to play your way out of the garage onto the big stage, mainly by playing against "bosses" in "American Idol"-esque competitions. When you do well, you earn money to buy better equipment, outfits and instruments.

But to do that, you have to master the controls, which can take awhile. Even the best of you are not going to replace Eddie Van Halen or anything, but you can get to where you can strum pretty well. And if you hit a few great notes in a row, your "star power" meter lights up and you can use it to increase your score -- and beat down your buddies.

The guitar controller has a hole for the Wii remote to snap into and connect via the Nunchuck port. This allows the guitar to be wireless and use the Wii controller's rumble feature and the speaker. So when you're playing, the guitar will give you real feedback.

Graphics are ramped up over older "Guitar Hero" games. Rock guitar legends Slash, Tom Morello and Bret Michaels spent hours in motion-capture suits so that the in-game characters look and move realistically. And if you can beat a "boss" like Slash in a battle, you can unlock him for future use (like in the next song, having him play lead on "Welcome to the Jungle").

A few hints: When you play, stand up and look toward the top of the screen as much as possible, because the "notes" for you to play drop from the top of the screen. And if you get lost, stop playing and find the beat again. Bad notes can make the game stop faster.

On the Xbox and PS3 versions, you can download new songs, but Wii fans get an incredible song list from groups like Aerosmith ("Same Old Song and Dance"), Guns N Roses ("Welcome to the Jungle") and tracks specially recorded for the game. The Sex Pistols re-entered the studio for the first time in 30 years, Activision claims, to record "Anarchy in the UK."

This is going to be a big holiday hit.

Grade: B-plus.

Review: Lost-Cauze Gaming Headphones

Parents of gamers, you know what it's like when the kids are going at it and you have to keep telling them to turn it down, right?Good news. AblePlanet's new Lost-Cauze Gaming Headphones will give you some peace and allow your kids to play without having the sound up really loud -- where it could hurt their eardrums.

The headphones, which are large and comfortable, cancel background noise almost too well. You don't hear much of anything except the music you're listening to or the game you're playing. I couldn't hear the phone or the doorbell even with the volume on 2 or 3. The company says its proprietary "linx audio" technology enhances sound quality and improves speech clarity while filtering out undesirable sound, and increases perceived loudness without increasing volume.

And I'd agree it does all those things well, plus it comes with an extension cord, so you don't have to sit 2 feet away from your TV.

Grade: B-plus.

Review: Nyko Wii Charge Station

Game controllers are constantly sucking batteries dry. But Nyko's new charge station for the Wii can keep them fresh.

And this is clever: Using specially designed covers that replace the original battery covers, the dock allows you to charge the batteries while they are still in the remotes.

The station comes with two rechargeable NiMH batteries, the two covers and a 6-foot power cable. You can charge one controller or both controllers at the same time. Now I'd like to see a similar product for the Xbox 360.

Grade: B.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Showdown Video: Call of Duty 360 vs PS3

I found a video that compares the two versions in the same screen.

Which do you all think is better?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mom takes PlayStation away, son tries to kill her.

There's a trial going on in the Washington, DC-area right now where a 17-year-old has admitted hiring someone to murder his Mom -- partially because she wouldn't let him play videogames.

This is a sad, sad story.

Cory Ryder admitted "involvement" last week to solicitation to have his mother and stepfather killed. That was one of four counts against him. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 27.

Shannan and Joey Troiano worried about their son's bad behavior and bad grades at school.

Cory walked out of middle school classes, smashed a fire extinguisher case and once broke into a county fairgrounds and vandalized property. He was sentenced to supervised probation. Later, he dropped out of school, stole $45 from his sister's piggy bank and fought with his mother, who kicked him out of the house.

Cory told police officials he was upset about being thrown out, which led to the contract he tried to take out against his parents.

Throughout his troubled childhood, the Troianos would ground Cory for weeks and eventually took away his PlayStation and banned him from watching television.

On June 2, the mother of one of Cory's friends told the Troianos that she'd heard their son, then 16 years old, say he wanted his mother killed. The Troianos called the police and a detective set up a sting. Police lured Corey to a Days Inn hotel and Ryder made a "formal agreement" with an undercover office to have the man kill his mother and stepfather. He was going to pay for the murders with his soon-to-be-deceased stepfather's new pickup truck.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wireless N, Powerline Routers boost signal speed

More and more games are dependent on fast Internet connections: for online play, to download updates, to download games or movies.

And these things can be taxing on most wireless routers.

But a new type of wireless standard, called Wireless-N, promises faster speeds and greater coverage in the home.

I recently tried a new Netgear RangeMax Wireless-N router and another new Netgear product, the Powerline HD Adapter.

Combined, these new products could make your life easier.

The Wireless-N router absolutely stomped my standard Netgear Wireless-G router that I've been renting from Time Warner Cable for several years. The wireless signal would often drop out in our house, and you could forget about gaming or downloading anything.

Some mornings, I'd walk into our office, where the modem is, and find my wife, Whitni, on the floor, her laptop wired to the router like an IV because she couldn't get a signal.

With the new N router, I got strong coverage throughout the house. The N routers are said to work better if you buy an outboard Wireless-N card, which I did not have, so my speed might've been better (they would also drive up your costs). The signal, though, was always solid and didn't drop via built-in cards. I was pleased with that.

As for the Powerline? It blew me away. It's plug-and-play simple, and fast. The adapter plugs into your wall socket, and you connect it directly to your router via an ethernet cable. Then you take the second Powerline and plug it into any wall socket in your home, connect your device via another ethernet cable and you're humming.

It sends signals over existing electrical wiring (I'm guessing the better your wiring, the faster your speed). I got speeds nearly as fast as a hardwired connection from all corners of my house. Back yard? No problem. Front yard? Great. Speeds were more than twice as fast as via wireless, which again might be faster with an N card. Xbox Live HD downloads were a snap.

I have a friend who was considering a $2,000 full-house wiring option who, when he saw what he could get for less than $300, couldn't get to CompUSA fast enough.

For heavy Internet users, this is a great setup. You have a great wireless signal throughout the home with Wireless-N, and for times when you really want to scoot across the Net, plug into the Powerline.

The only drawback is cost. The Powerlines are $79 each and the Wireless-N is $129. You will also need a switch (another $40 or so) if you're sending signals to a wireless hub, where you might have a DVR, game console and other devices hungry for an Internet signal.

Given that many Wireless-N users would want the N cards to maximize speed, I would sub out that cost and go Powerline. If need be, you can take one to any room in your house.

Later this month, DLink will offer another solution: a new Wireless-N router that will mate with what the company calls a "Media Bridge," essentially another Wireless-N router with multiple ports to allow you to hook up your gear in a "home run" setup.

The bridge, the company says, will amplify the original signal as well as give you a dedicated signal for media applications like HDTV downloads.

The new DLink router will go for $219. The router should be about $150.

More video game notes

One with everything

Back in the previous century, when I was an editor at Games magazine, we published a fake ad for a device that would play any kind of electronic game -- from PC disks to Nintendo cartridges to "Simon." We got hundreds of letters from people wanting to buy it, and the dream still lives.The ball got rolling again when Gerhard Florin, Electronic Arts' head of international publishing, told the BBC, "We want an open, standard platform, which is much easier than having five which are not compatible." Florin envisions a single set-top box that would have a Nintendo channel, a PlayStation channel and an Xbox channel, which each company developing technology for the unified console. He acknowledged that such a fantasy device is probably about 15 years away.

Dennis Dyack, founder of the Silicon Knights studio ("Eternal Darkness," "Too Human") chimed in with a column in Official Xbox magazine. The current console battle makes it impossible for publishers to decide which platform to focus on, he wrote; a unified console would make games "better in quality, cheaper and more widely available." Dyack added: "It can happen. Better yet, it's inevitable." -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

I'm with the band

Activision's "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" is in stores this week, and most of the serious shredders we know have already plowed their way through its hefty playlist. They'll probably finish up the expert level around Nov. 20 -- just as the competition, Electronic Arts/MTV Games' "Rock Band," arrives.

EA and MTV want you to do more than just buy their game, however. They see "Rock Band" players as a potential community and intend to relaunch the Web site as a hub for wannabe rock stars to create sites, blog about music and post "photos" of their virtual bands.

The publishers are also trying to duplicate one real-life aspect of the road to rock 'n' roll glory: the "musicians meeting musicians" classified page. The classifieds will let you advertise your own skills or search for talent to fill out your own lineup. And since players around the world can hook up, a singer in Omaha could end up with a drummer in Osaka. -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

-- Langston Wertz Jr: 704-358-5133;