Monday, March 24, 2008

PlayStation 3 builds momentum

After a slow start, the PlayStation 3 is finally starting to show some promise.

In my mind, it's always been the best of the current-gen video-game consoles. Now sales are picking up, software production is ramping up, and Sony is ready to begin a major push for its machine this spring and summer.

Last week, Sony announced an online upgrade for PS3, called Profile 2.0 or BD-Live. It will give PS3 users access to downloadable video content, ringtones and games. The software update will also allow photo and music playlists to be copied onto PSP units.

"With Blu-Ray established as the high-definition optical disc standard, more consumers are ready to jump in and take advantage of everything the format offers," Sony Computer Entertainment vice president Scott Steinbert said.

The new upgrade will require a high-speed Internet connection and at least 1 gigabyte of local storage, available on some PS3 models' internal hard drives.

On April 8, Sony will release two BD-Live enabled titles on the network: "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "The 6th Day." Both titles, the company said, will include content not available on the current Blu-Ray disc versions.

Other features coming with the new update:

• "Resume Play" will allow the PS3 system to start playing some Blu-Ray discs and/or DVDs at the point they were stopped, even if the disc has been removed from the unit.

• "Audio Output Device" will be a new remote play setting, allowing the PSP to serve as a remote control for music played through the PS3 console.

• The PS3's Internet browser's view speed is improved, even allowing video files directly linked from a Web page to be streamed (hello, YouTube!).

• DivX and WMV files larger than 2 gigs will be playable, and "mosquito noise reduction" will be added as a setting for improved movie playback.

REVIEW: Lost: Via Domus

I'm a big fan of the ABC television series and had high hopes for the game, in which you play an amnesiac professional photographer who is one of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815.

The storyline and the enemies will be familiar to anyone who has watched the first two seasons. The goal is to piece together the mystery by interacting with other survivors. Flashback scenes, like those in the show, help some.

I think "Lost" fans will love interacting with The Others and seeing what kooky nicknames Sawyer has for them.

But the characters didn't look enough like the ones I see on TV, and the minigames were too repetitive. On top of all that, the whole thing is over too fast. Good rental, questionable buy.

REVIEW: Left Brain, Right Brain

In this latest Nintendo DS puzzler, you play 15 mini-games all based on speed and accuracy that challenge you to use both sides of your brain. There are games that make you use your strong hand and weak hand, and games based on speed and accuracy.

You can challenge friends or practice over five difficulty levels. And I couldn't get mad when my son wouldn't put this down. He says, "Dad, I'm learning to use my left hand better. That's why I'm still playing."

New Turok not exactly what I remember

`Turok' battles soldiers, huge insects and dinosaurs
PS3 and online versions give you nonstop action in an alien jungle

I used to love the original "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter," so I was tickled to try the new "Turok" (Rated M for Mature) on PlayStation 3.

I wasn't disappointed.

You play as Joseph Turok, and you're part of an elite special-forces unit on some strange planet. (OK, I know you've heard this story line before.)

Your mission is to take down your former boss, Roland Kane, who is holed up on a genetically altered planet.

Your ship is shot down and you land in a jungle crawling with Kane's soldiers, as well as huge insects and dinosaurs. Your mission? Stay alive and capture Kane.

Basically, this is nonstop action that actually had me sweating a little. A good soundtrack helps with that.

I liked how you sometimes need to use stealth to kill an enemy with a bow and knife so you wouldn't alert large groups of other enemies in the area, and how you can "train" dinos to attack other human enemies (which can sometimes backfire disastrously, however).

Graphically, this one looked pretty good. I was shocked at how real it looked the first time a dino started literally eating my guy, as I struggled to get him free.

You can play "Turok" online with up to 16 players in a variety of modes. Also, when the game hits stores this week, look for the PS3 version to be patched to provide rumble control and enable 1080i support. A patch for the 360 version will also be available.


Review: `Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends'

In this fun little E-rated game for Nintendo DS, your goal is to digitally create good food for nine judges.Using more than 250 ingredients, you try to cook things like shark fin soup and meatloaf in an effort to earn a gold, silver or bronze medal based on your final product.

In some game modes, Mama shows up to help you avoid mistakes. (I made a lot.) In others, you're on your own. You can also play online with up to three friends.

This game was a nice diversion.


Review: `Boogie'

Music games are all the rage now, and here's another for PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS. (It was released for the Wii last August.)

"Boogie" (rated E for Everyone) features familiar hits from artists like Kool & The Gang, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. The good news, for parents, is that it encourages kids of all ages to get up off the couch and move.

Basically, what you do is dance and sing along and let the game record your voice as you make music videos.

We need more fun-for-the-whole-family games like this.


New color for popular DS

The next-generation video-game consoles -- PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii -- seem to get the lion's share of publicity these days. But nothing sells like Nintendo's hand-held unit, the DS.

On Sunday, Nintendo will be releasing a new Cobalt/Black version of the portable. This is the seventh color available for the DS and joins Polar White, Coral Pink, Onyx, Crimson/Black and the limited-edition Gold and Metallic Rose.

I'm sure it'll sell.

In 2007, the DS was the best-selling video game system in the United States, where more than 8.5 million gamers bought a unit. Since it launched in November 2004, Nintendo DS has sold more than 17.6 million in the United States.

Cool skating game for girls

Game offers more than skating

In "American Girl: Mia Goes For Great," the title character is a precocious 10-year-old who dreams of becoming a star figure skater.

She's grown up playing ice hockey on a pond behind her home with her three brothers. Everyone tells her she could be a hockey star, but Mia decides to pursue her dream.

The game, available for Windows PC from THQ, takes you through some life lessons about losing with grace, being a good sport and believing in yourself.

The game is aimed at girls and their mothers, but I think younger boys would enjoy it as well.

Using a Program Building tool, you help Mia pick out her costumes, create her skating program and practice tough moves. There is a library with hints and tips, plus a few strategy-based mini-games.

Ultimately, the basic lessons taught here -- and the joy of finally getting past the Lucerne Winter Show and onto the regionals -- more than got my 41-year-old attention.

This is a very well done game.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5 stars.

EA Sports Keeps NFL License

Electronic Arts will continue to produce exclusive NFL video games through the 2012 season after it extended its contracts with the league and the Players Association.Some fans will love it. Others who wanted 2KSports back into the official NFL game will hate it.

EA will retain its rights to use NFL teams, stadiums and players in its games, the company said last week. The agreements provide EA access to NFL Films and the NFL Network to use in games.

EA produces the Madden NFL line of games.

News and notes

• Activision will release "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" in June. The game will allow players to virtually become the famous rock band, tracing the band's career from their first concert on. Xbox Live has a free download of Aerosmith's "Dream On" today.

"Having a game built around Aerosmith has been a huge honor and really a great experience for us," says band member Joe Perry. "We've put a lot of ideas into the game so that fans can have fun interacting with our music, getting inside our body of work and learning about the band's history."

• iSuppli, a technology research and advisory company, predicts the global installed base for the Nintendo Wii will rise to 30.2 million units in 2008, up from 18 million in 2007.

That will put the Wii ahead of the Xbox 360's total of 25.7 million units in 2008.

• Nintendo of America has asked the U.S. Trade Representative to encourage specific governments around the world to take a more aggressive stance to combat piracy of Nintendo video games and systems.

China is the primary source of manufacturing pirated Nintendo DS and Wii games, and Korea has emerged as the leader in distributing illegal game files on the Internet. Despite aggressive anti-piracy actions taken by Nintendo, Brazil and Mexico remain saturated with counterfeit Nintendo software.

• Video-game player sales fell 6 percent on a weekly basis last month in the U.S., but software sales were up 18 percent weekly, according to industry specialist the NPD Group.

Nintendo Wii was the top-selling console and PlayStation 3 outsold Xbox 360 for the first time, with consumers buying 269,000 consoles, compared with 230,000 Microsoft machines.

No more HD-DVD? Win for consumers

Toshiba's giving up of HD-DVD a clear win for consumers
Blu-Ray picture quality is already included in PlayStation 3 console
A Best Buy salesman shows copies of Warner Bros' film "300" in both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats at the Best Buy store in Burbank, Calif. Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008.

The biggest news to hit the video game industry last week really didn't have much to do with gaming.

Toshiba announced it is going to abandon HD-DVD, ceding the format war over next-generation players to Blu-Ray.

It's great news for most consumers, who can now upgrade to high-definition home video without having to worry about whether their new player will be a doorstop by Christmas. But it's also a big win for Sony's PlayStation 3 console.

Sony includes Blu-Ray compatibility in each PS3 console it sold. That was responsible for the initially high retail costs of the PS3 ($499 and $599, although the price point has since dropped to $399), but also for helping to create an instant installed base for Sony's new DVD technology.

With HD-DVD out, the PS3 -- for the moment -- has a big edge over the Xbox 360, which currently plays high-definition movies if you have the now-obsolete add-on HD-DVD drive.

But the 360 can rally back. Microsoft no doubt will continue to expand high-definition content distribution via the Xbox Live online network. And the company announced last week that Xbox Live is releasing software that will allow gamers to create their own games, and then share them over Xbox Live. Hopefully, it'll lead to the creation of a few innovative, mainstream hits.

Review: Need for Speed ProStreet

Street racing is back in this Electronic Arts game for Xbox 360 and PS3.You can compete in any of four game modes: drag, drift, grip and speed. I couldn't master all four because each requires different techniques, and I'm just a pedal-to-the-metal guy when it comes to racing games. You also can build your car, upload it to the Internet, and race against friends.

The graphics on both systems are startling -- particularly the damage effects. That damage can affect the cars and the drivers realistically, as can the smoke, flying dirt and dust clouds.

I liked the 360 version better because of the rumbling controller, but it's a cool little game on either system.


Review: Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action

Microsoft Game Studios' movie trivia game for Xbox 360 comes with four special wireless "Big Button Pads," which you and up to three friends use to buzz in "Jeopardy!"-style.

The challenges -- like trying to guess the names of films based on children's drawings or a list of actors and actresses in the cast -- are awfully fun to take on with a group. I brought this out during a party over the holidays, and it was the hit of the night.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Toyota Prius a gas guzzler against a BMW?

With gas rising well over $3 per gallon, I bet you've looked twice at that Toyota Prius hybrid that gets nearly 50 miles per gallon. It's becoming so beloved, and so economical that five states are allowing Prius drivers to roll in high occupancy lanes all by their lonesomes: Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Arizona.

But a new Sunday Times of London article indicates the Prius may get a run for its gas sipping money from a rather large BMW sedan, the 520d.

Two test drivers drove a 545-mile trek from London to Geneva in the Toyota and the Bimmer. The gas-powered Prius got 40.1 miles per galloon. The diesel-powered BMV got 41.9. And the test even included more in-city driving than usual to try to give the hybrid a chance to recharge its batteries in stop-and-go traffic.

The idea for the test came after two Times writers heard from readers who weren't getting the claimed mileage from their Priuses.

"If our readers are right and the official figure is wrong it has important implications, not least of which is that people driving frugal diesels are getting a raw deal," the paper said, since hybrids get some tax and roadway access benefits in Europe like here in the States.

Langston Wertz Jr.