Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Grand Theft 4" a hit -- but only for adults

“Grand Theft Auto IV” hits stores today and industry analysts predict it could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history - nine million copies strong.

Microsoft and Bungee Studios' epic “Halo 3” did a record-breaking $300 million in first week sales late last year. Most analysts think “GTA IV” will hit somewhere just short of $400 million in week one.

The game is rated M for Mature and includes blood, violence, partial nudity, offensive language, strong sexual content and drug use.

It’s about a European named Niko Bellic who comes to Liberty City (a near-perfect stand-in for New York) to live with his cousin, Roman. Roman has gotten his cousin to move here with the promise of riches - only Roman lives in a dilapated apartment and has a crummy job at a car service.

The two chase the American Dream but quickly fall into debt - and into the underworld. Niko finds himself driving to do “odd jobs” for a crime boss.

Rockstar Games, which publishes “GTA,” has been careful to not release too much information about the game or to even trumpet its arrival, the way Microsoft did with merchandise tie-ins and a massive ad campaign for “Halo.”

“Rockstar wants to control the message all the time,” says Sam Kennedy, editorial director for the gaming site 1UP.com. “They want this to be seen and perceived exactly the way they want. That’s why - outside of the official trailers they released - people haven’t seen a lot of gameplay footage in advance of ‘GTA IV’ shipping. They want to build that hype.”

The game (4 stars out of 4) has been delayed two years and took nearly 1,000 people to produce. Rating it purely as a video game, it’s one of the best in the past five years. The playing field is an entire city, nearly produced to scale. You can interact with virtually everything you see.

I played the PS3 version for a few hours and then the Xbox 360 version for a few more. I enjoyed the PS3 because of the support for the motion controller, but the Xbox colors were a little better, particularly when playing on an HDTV capable of 1080p resolution.

The game is violent. You play from the perspective of a criminal. You steal cars. You run over people. You shoot people. You drive drunk. You can also buy a hamburger or a beer. You can fly a helicopter. You can play pool. You can date. There’s even a stand-up comedy routine stuck in there.

And there is plenty of simulated sex - in cars and in strip clubs. I had seen some videos of that portion of the gameplay over the weekend that prompted me to think that this game should be rated Adults Only. I haven’t changed that opinion after playing.

I think Rockstar has every right to publish this game and consenting adults, those 21 and over, have every right to play and enjoy. The game is made for adults.

There’s lots to enjoy. Store owners just have to be sure to check IDs. I’m not so sure this game should be displayed on the shelves alongside "Mario Kart," though. It probably should be the kind of thing you have to ask for.

But it is awfully good.

As you drive from mission to mission, hopefully using your GPS, you interact with city dwellers who talk and interact with you like you might expect in real life. Players must be mindful of how much damage your car sustains as you move along. That affects how it drives.

I marveled at how detailed the streetscapes were. The people on the streets have plenty to say, too. (In my experience, I didn’t hear the same reaction twice.)

I enjoyed the interaction a little more than the combat. Shooting was easy. Fighting was not so easy. But there are plenty of bonus games to keep your attention, plus some multiplayer modes.

This is the best game of the year, and it’ll sell like it, too.

“The addressable market at launch is about 24 million consoles,” says Michael Pachter, video game analyst at Wedbush Morgan. “So how many will sell in the first week or month or few months? Nine million. That’s the number. That’s about a 35 percent attach rate. By year’s end, it’ll be somewhere between 11 and 13 million because more consoles will be sold before the holidays.”

The Associated Press contributed.
Langston Wertz Jr.: 704-358-5133; lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

Monday, April 28, 2008

Grand Theft Auto 4 should be rated X

The last installment in the hugely popular "Grand Theft Auto" video-game series needed a re-release because of an "accidental" piece of code inserted into the game. That code allowed players to have some pretty graphic sexual encounters with digital female characters.

The game was quickly slapped with an Adults Only rating, prompting Rockstar Games to take the code out and release the game again with a more consumer-friendly Mature rating.

Tuesday, "Grand Theft Auto IV" debuts in stores, and it needs an Adults Only rating, too.

I wrote a column in Monday's editions over the controversy this game is sure to cause.

That was before I saw some of the detailed clips that began hitting various game sites Monday -- all with an age verification screen warning beforehand.

The new game, among other things, allows players to choose one of three prostitutes for various forms of sex in a car. It graphically displays simulated group sex in a strip club. The images are about in line with something you might see after midnight on certain movie channels.

The question is: Why is this in a video game?

I haven't played "GTA IV" yet, but I was simply shocked by the clips I saw. It's as if Rockstar Games is sticking its finger up at the establishment that wants this game shut down. Violence, as usual, is plentiful, too. The game is obviously marketed towards adults and I hope retailers only sell it to those over 18.

I realize controversy helps make games sales, but I think the company has stepped over the line with this one.

Read Langston's review of the game by clicking here

Grand Theft Auto buzz, controversy, well under way

Tuesday will be one of the biggest days of the year for gamers -- and one of the most controversial.

Rockstar Games will release "Grand Theft Auto IV," the latest in a series that has sparked sales of more than 35 million units and been the focus of social outcries about the dangers that video games can pose for children.

Former presidential candidate Joe Lieberman has called the "GTA" series "horrendous." But Henry Jenkins, a respected professor at MIT, likes how the game explores the notion of choice and consequence.

In the "GTA" games, you generally play as a low-life thug working your way up in the criminal underworld. The way you do it -- by shooting police officers and dealing with hookers, drug dealers and pimps, in very graphic ways -- is what attracts the controversy.

And controversy attracts curiosity. That means too many kids are playing a game they shouldn't.

"Well, you know how the saying goes, `There's no such thing as bad publicity,' " said Libe Goad, editor-in-chief of the GameDaily Web site. "I can only suspect that the more people read about the thing called `Grand Theft Auto,' the more they want to find out what it is."

A digital `Scarface'

In "GTA IV," the lead character comes from Europe to live with his cousin and quickly finds himself in the criminal underworld. It's like a digital "Scarface," with you in the Tony Montana role.The latest game is reportedly a huge leap over previous installments.

The level of realism has been ramped up; Rockstar North producer Leslie Benzies told ign.com in a recent interview that it took nearly 1,000 people and 3 1/2 years to develop this title, which takes place in Manhattan-esque Liberty City.

And it's the realism that disturbs critics.

"This brutally violent video game must be kept out of the hands of children," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.

Winter is especially concerned because a previous "GTA" title secretly included a mini-game that allowed players to have a graphic sexual encounter (the game briefly earned an Adults-Only rating before Rockstar re-released it).

He would also like to see "GTA IV" not displayed publicly in stores, and for retailers to check IDs.

"Legally, stores cannot sell children pornographic magazines or handguns -- but they can legally sell video games to children that contain pornographic content or that teach children how to kill," Winter said. "This is wrong.' "

My take

I've played the previous three "GTA" games and have found them all well done and well thought out.

I'm 41, and I don't see anything in these games that I haven't seen in critically acclaimed movies such as "The Departed" or "No Country for Old Men." The difference, of course, is you're not watching someone get killed. You are the killer.

Let's be clear: No one under 18 -- and probably no one under 21 -- should play this game or even see it played. But Rockstar's commercial, showing strippers on a pole and crooks driving fast cars, will be effective at luring teens as well as older male customers.

" `Grand Theft Auto' was one of the first games that was specifically designed with older gamers in mind," said Game Daily's Goad. "It took the same stuff we were seeing in TV and movies and put it into a video game. It's not sci-fi, it doesn't involve magic -- it's set in a `reality' that people can relate to."

And we can expect plenty more "Grand Theft" titles in our future.

"I can definitely imagine the `GTA' franchise lasting for years to come," Goad said. "Rockstar would have to have a death wish financially to stop making `GTA.' "

Thursday, April 17, 2008

NCAA '09 trailer looks good

NCAA Football 09 looks very much improved, from graphics to features. Playing a game with mascots would be wild. I hope Madden shows similar improvement, particularly with pre and post game presentation.

What do you all think?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Kobe Bryant shouldn't have jumped over that car

On a recent day off, the best player in the NBA decided to jump over a sports car coming at him fast enough to end his life -- much less his career.

Kobe Bryant filmed a spot that hit the internet last week. It begins with him fiddling with a camera and setting up his jump, all while teammate Ronnny Turiaf is begging him not to try it. Turiaf pleads with Bryant that the playoffs are coming up and his team needs him.

"I got this, I got this!" Bryant replies after holding up a new lightweight signature sneaker and spinning it around so we get a good look at the Nike logo. "Do you trust your boy? Just sit back and enjoy the show."

After that, Bryant calls for the silver Aston Martin convertible to come flying at him. He squats down, picking his feet up and down in quick steps. Then Bryant appears to leap over the car. You can even see where the car's shadow crosses over his.

It's very, very convincing.

And when he lands, a mad celebration ensues, with chest bumps and hand slaps and Bryant reminding viewers to, you know, not try this at home.

The clip was filmed March 31, one day after the Lakers beat Washington 126-120 and two days before they beat Portland 104-91. It got more than 100,000 views on YouTube within 24 hours of launching.

But here's the problem.

People will try things they see on TV or the internet, particularly when it's done by a guy like Bryant, who is idolized by millions. Kids across the country have been severely injured trying to imitate some of the stunts seen on YouTube done by teens who jump off the sides of buildings and call themselves "Real Life Spidermen" or street acrobats.

R&B singer R. Kelly has a new look these days. He's painted his braided hair bright gold. It's not the best of looks, but just today I saw three guys at Wal-Mart with the same style.

I can only hope no foolish young person is planning to "just be like Kobe" and have his buddy come flying at him in a silver Corolla tomorrow.

Of course, Bryant's stunt wasn't real, but the digitally enhanced spot doesn't come with any disclaimers. Thankfully, Nike doesn't plan to put this "ad" on TV.

Nike rep Kejuan Wilkins told me Monday that "it is something we worked with Kobe on. It's created to live on the web, more of a viral campaign," he said.

Wilkins said the NBA All-Star was never in danger during filming. I never really thought so, but I just question why he decided to make this "ad" in the first place.

This season, Bryant has done a lot of things right. He's averaging 28.4 points per game, good for second in the NBA, plus 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. His team has the best record in the Western Conference. I can see the Lakers reaching their first NBA final this season since Shaquille O'Neal left four years ago.

This is the year Kobe deserves to win his first league MVP. Making this film, however, was a very bad decision.

After a recent game, Kobe was asked about it by a local LA TV station. He responded with a big grin, apparently happy -- and awfully naïve -- about what he'd done.

"It's Hollywood baby," Bryant finally said. "What do you expect out here? If Rambo can take on a whole army, I can jump over an Aston Martin."

Yes, Kobe, you can jump over an Aston Martin, but the problem is some of your fans might think they can, too.

Langston Wertz Jr: 704-358-5133; lwertz@charlotteobserver.com Langston Wertz Jr.

Wii charge station a must

Nyko Charge Station for Wii
Rating: 4 stars out of 4
Sometimes some of the best innovations are the simplest.
Nyko’s Charge Station for the Nintendo Wii is a near must-have accessory if you have a heavy user in the home (or if you are the heavy user in your home).
The unit comes with rechargeable batteries and a battery cover with a rubberized grip, which helps you hold the Wii-mote better. That’s a good thing considering some Wii fans have damaged property when the Wii slides out of their hand while they’re waving it around playing.
All you do, basically, is replace your batteries with these rechargeable and put on the new cover. No more trips to Wal-Mart at midnight (am I telling on myself?) to get batteries to finish a marathon session of whatever game it is you’re playing).
It’ll take you about two hours to charge one Wii-mote and four hours to do two, and you can charge two at once.
Buzz Junior RoboJam
Company: Sony
System: PlayStation 2
Rating: 3 stars out of 4
Built for the PlayStation2, this is a great family game, aimed at kids, where you control up to four cute robots who all want to be Robot Of The Month.
You dodge rockets. You’re a crash test dummy. The best thing is the Buzz Buzzers – which you must buy separately; four for $40 – but have big colorful buttons, perfect for small hands and help make this game super easy. You just press the big colorful buttons on the controller and play. This is pure fun to play and never gets boring. One of the best family games of the year.
Buzz The Hollywood Quiz
Company: Sony
System: PlayStation 2
Rating: 3.5 out of 4
This game is rated T for teen because of drug references and mild language. Using the buzz buzzers you play “Jeopardy”-style against up to eight players. The game has movie clips, celebrity photos and more than 5,000 trivia questions.
The game essentially puts you into a huge quiz show hosted by Buzz, a slick-talking, glasses-wearing, spiked-blond hair-having guy who tosses questions at you.
There are versions of the game where you can throw pies into your opponent’s face if you get the answer correct first. Another game, Fastest Finger, gives you more points for answering questions faster.
This is great for parties and for husbands and wives, too. I’d addicted.
The Club
Company: Sega
System: PC
Rating: 2.5 out of 4
Rated M for mature, you play as one of eight trained assassins fighting each other. You can play online and the game comes with one month of online access free.
The Club looks great and sound great, so long as you computer’s graphics and sound cards are up to it. But this type of game has been done so much and in some many different ways, there’s no new ground to break here.
There are 48 single player levels and all kind of weaponry to use, but I’m guessing most fans of this genre are going to pick up the fifth or sixth releases in their favorite series instead of starting all over again.
Langston Wertz Jr: 704-358-5133; lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

Sony wins baseball title

MLB 08 The Show

Sony, for the PS3, $59.99


Major League Baseball 2K8

2K Sports, for the Xbox 360, $59.99


Baseball season has begun, so of course, updates of the two big MLB video games are in stores.

I got a chance to try out Sony's "MLB 08 The Show" and 2KSports' "Major League Baseball 2K8."

First, a look at Sony's entry.

"MLB 08" (also available for the PSP and PS2) has amazing graphics on the PS3. My son, Trey, was playing recently, and when I walked in, I honestly mistook it for a real game on TV.

But the game offers so much more than just good looks.

There's an up-to-the-minute ticker that keeps you updated with real-world MLB games, down to baserunners, strikes and outs. You can send e-mail to other players online. You can create a player and play a game from his perspective, driving him up the ranks from minor-league baller to major-league millionaire.

In terms of gameplay, "MLB 08" is very solid. It focuses -- as baseball games should -- on the interaction between the pitcher and the batter. A click of a button pulls up nearly every imaginable pitching stat. Another click reveals hitting stats, down to whether or not your guy is confident enough to swing for the big extra-base hit you need.

I found baserunning and fielding to be easy to figure out, and the announcers and sound effects were solid and added to the realistic feel. This is the best version of this game I've ever tried. By far.

"Major League Baseball 2K8," for Xbox 360, didn't look as sharp or as stunning as "MLB 08." My 8-year-old son also felt it was too complicated to play, which is why I rated it lower.

My biggest problem was with the pitching. It's too precise. If you miss your mark by a fraction, you're throwing ball four -- or a two-out, bases-loaded home run. Hitting, baserunning and fielding, meanwhile, seemed to rely too much on using the right analog stick.

But "2K8" is a very deep game. The wealth of control and customization is staggering. There's a 90-team minor-league mode, for example, and its presentation is even closer to a TV broadcast than "MLB 08's."

"2K8" could have been great, but it needs some tweaking and a little dumbing down, I think, to really appeal to the masses.

Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3

Bandai Namco Games, for the PS2, $39.99


There's nothing like a good side-scrolling fighter game.

In this latest installment for the franchise, you choose from more than 40 characters (with Japanese or English voices) and can fight through 20 stages.

The graphics aren't great, but that doesn't matter so much here: You simply bang away on the controller, learn combos through trial and error, and try to work your way to the boss ninjas.

After playing those baseball games, it was nice to pop in a non-sports game, sit back, and go at it without constantly hitting the pause button to check out the instructions.

Are you ready for rumble?

Sony's just-released Dual Shock Controller incorporates the highly anticipated rumble feature (which should've been included with the original PS3 controller). It costs $54.99.

The upcoming "Gran Turismo 5 Prologue" will make use of the force-feedback, and Sony says 30 PS3 titles -- including "MLB 08" -- will use it as well. Activating the feature on certain games may require a software update. A complete list of titles that will incorporate "the rumble" is at http://us.playstation.com.

VIDEO GAMES Langston Wertz Jr.
Langston Wertz Jr.: 704-358-5133; lwertz@charlotteobserver.com.