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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy

The Good

  • Some of the best level designs of any 3D platformer
  • Beautiful, colorful graphics
  • Controls work just about flawlessly in nearly every situation
  • Soundtrack is a delight
  • Lots of stages and tons of stars to find and collect.

The Bad

  • A couple of Mario's special suits can be frustrating to use
  • Minimal amount of story doesn't tie everything together especially well.

Here is the game that Wii owners have been pining for, a game that has tons of appeal for both the less experienced player and the longtime gamer. A game that deftly combines accessibility and challenge, all wrapped up in a package that's both deep and addictive. Super Mario Galaxy is all of this and more. It is simultaneously one of Mario's best adventures and a game that doesn't require fandom of the portly plumber's previous engagements to appreciate. The sheer quality of Mario Galaxy's wonderful level designs, tight controls, and brilliant presentation is the sort of thing that just about anyone who loves gaming should be able to appreciate, and that many will fall head-over-heels for.

The premise for Mario Galaxy begins in fairly well-worn territory. Mario receives a note from his beloved Peach to come to the castle, for she has a special "gift" for him. He arrives, only to walk straight into chaos as Bowser and son arrive in a fleet of airships and use a giant UFO to pluck the Princess' castle right out of the ground. Mario gives chase, but is unable to rescue her before the fearsome twosome jet off into space. This all certainly sounds par for the course, but it's where Mario ends up that gives Mario Galaxy its own flavor. Mario eventually hooks up with a creature called a luma, from a race that looks like some kind of cross between an invincibility star and a headless chicken. The lumas are led by an enigmatic woman named Rosalina, who lives with them on a crazy spaceship called the comet observatory. Mario learns that Bowser has made off with a gaggle of power stars used to power the observatory. To reach Bowser's hideout, Mario has to travel to all the various galaxies in the universe to collect as many power stars as he can in order to power the ship back up, fly to the center of the universe, rescue the princess, and set everything right again.

Mario 64, anyone? If you played that seminal game, Mario Galaxy's star hunt progression probably sounds familiar to you. But apart from that basic structuring, you can hardly call Mario Galaxy a Mario 64 rehash. If anything, Mario Galaxy simply takes the basics of what made Mario 64 such a dynamite game, and turns them completely crazy.

The definition of crazy here has a lot to do with gravity and physics. Each galaxy contains a series of little worlds that can't even really be called planets so much as they are floating puzzles. In many of these worlds, Mario can walk just about anywhere. When he lands on a sphere, he can walk all over it, going sideways and upside down in the process. Sometimes you'll simply jump in one area and end up gravitating toward the ceiling or walls or even another nearby planetoid without even realizing it. Often Mario will need to track down launch stars, which, when you shake the Wii Remote while standing near or inside one, will send you flying to a whole new, previously inaccessible area. There are even sections where you'll be floating through space, using specialized pull stars to hop from area to area, all while floating through the spatial void.

Practically every galaxy you explore is an absolute joy to experience. The level designs here are top flight in every regard, with tons of clever and sometimes dastardly traps and puzzles for Mario to navigate. The difficulty doesn't start off terribly high, but as time goes on, the game ramps up nicely, building the challenge steadily until the final areas, which, though perhaps a bit frustrating to inexperienced players, provides the exact sort of tough workout you've come to expect from a Mario adventure. But even aside from the challenge level, simply exploring all these various galaxies is half the fun. Whether you're floating from land mass to land mass on a giant spinning flower, running frantically around a giant series of platforms that shrink to nothing the first time you touch them, or taking on one of several terrific 2D side-scrolling areas reminiscent of New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, you won't be wanting for variety while playing through Galaxy's dozens of levels.

In a sort of nod to the suit-happy gameplay of Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario can don a number of different costumes that give him new abilities. For instance, in several levels, Mario can take on the abilities of a bee, buzzing around through the air via his new pair of wings, and wall-climbing specific honeycombed areas of the environment. With others, Mario can freeze water to walk over it, launch fireballs (natch), fly, wrap himself in a Mario-sized spring and jump to great heights, turn invincible (natch, again) and even turn into one of those pesky boos, allowing him to float around and pass through some solid walls. In most cases, the game takes great advantage of these abilities in the context of each level. A few involving the bee suit are a bit frustrating (given that you lose the suit when you touch water) and the spring suit is kind of a pain to control given Mario's perpetual bounciness, but otherwise, these abilities add a great dimension to the already excellent gameplay.

Apart from the screwiness of the spring suit, there's very little issue to be taken with Mario Galaxy's controls. At its core, it controls much as Mario 64 did, but with a couple of Wii-centric twists. For one, Mario's primary attack is a basic spin move (the same spin move you use to activate launch stars). Simply shaking the Wii Remote engages the spin, and it's an extremely responsive mechanic. The one trick to it is that you have to wait a second before spinning again, so you want to make sure you're able to get away from whatever bad guy is nearby if you happen to miss.

The other key change is the addition of the Wii Remote as a pointer. Simply by pointing at them on the screen you'll collect star bits, which can be found just about everywhere and serve as both Super Mario Galaxy's currency and as a weapon. Firing star bits is as simple as aiming the Wii Remote at an enemy and pressing B to launch. But you don't want to fire off too many of those, as they come in handy for unlocking new stages later on. Only in a few specific cases does the game really dabble in true motion control, such as sections where you're surfing on a manta ray or walking on a boulder. But even these few divergences from the standard gameplay formula are largely successful and quite fun.

Mario Galaxy's journey is scattered and epic all at once. There isn't much of a thread tying together all these disparate worlds, apart from the fact that they have power stars hidden within them somewhere. And yet, at the same time, the lack of cohesion in what you're doing never really gets in the way of your enjoyment of it. Because each level is so much an island unto itself, it actually makes each one stand out all the more.

It helps that practically every stage in the game has a great deal of replayability purely on its own merits. These levels are just inherently fun to go back to again and again, and that the game gives you plenty of reason to is even better. Once you complete an area, you can go back and engage in a specialized version of it in certain cases. Essentially, comets will enter orbit in some of these galaxies, and thus change the way you play in some bizarre way. Whether it's speeding up all the enemies in an area, putting you on a timed run, or having you race against a doppelganger Mario, there's a nice variety of change-ups to experience. The adventure probably won't take you more than 12 to 15 hours if you just collect the minimum number of stars necessary to get to the end level, but you can certainly tack on a great deal more to that if you're into going back and collecting all the stars. And if you want to unlock the game's neat end surprise, you'll need to get all of them.

There is even a multiplayer component to the game, albeit a limited one. Another player can point their Wii Remote at the screen and take part in some of the basic fun, like collecting star bits, shooting star bits, and the like. You can even directly assist Mario by pointing at him and pressing A at the same time as your friend to make him do a super jump, and stop certain enemies from attacking by highlighting them with the pointer. It's not the most involved co-op mode you'll ever experience, but it can be fun if you've got someone enthusiastic alongside you.

As wonderful as Mario Galaxy's gameplay is, its graphics are even better. There simply isn't a better-looking Wii game available. A great deal of credit is due to the art design, which is simply phenomenal. The character designs, level details, animations, all of it is incredibly colorful and vibrant, and just a joy to look at. The technical engine does its part as well, keeping the frame rate drops to minor, infrequent bouts. One area especially worth noting is the game's camera, which takes a largely cinematic perspective, albeit with a limited amount of player control. You can adjust it right or left in certain areas, and go to a first-person view if you just want to look around. There are a few areas where the camera prevents you from seeing things perfectly, but mostly it does an excellent job of framing the action, especially considering all the kooky perspective shifting the game does as you run around these oddball environments. The only thing that's kind of a bummer is that you'll undoubtedly wish at some point while playing that the Wii could support resolutions higher than 480p; but even with the limited resolution, the game just looks beautiful.

Audio is also excellent, thanks largely to the top-notch soundtrack. Much of the music is made up of classic Mario tunes from a wide variety of different games, and it's all modernized and orchestrated. These are some of the best renditions of these tracks since the originals, and you're sure to be humming along as you play. There's little voice work in the game, but the few voice samples that are there are used to nice effect. It's probably better to just hear Bowser snarling than it is to hear him being a chatty Cathy, anyway. The sound effects are a touch on the shrill side at times, but the bulk of them fit the vibe of each stage nicely.

When all is said and done, the thing that really makes Super Mario Galaxy such a standout game isn't the fact that it's another Mario game, but the fact that it doesn't even need to be a Mario game to be successful. Sure, it's got all the nostalgic flavor Mario fans would want, with the updated soundtrack, familiar foes, and various other Mario-related bric-a-brac scattered throughout the adventure, but the game never leans on these nostalgic aspects as a crutch. It instead puts the whole of its focus on its gameplay design, and with good reason. You could probably swap in just about any other characters from practically any other franchise, and this would still be a phenomenally fun game. That it layers all these memorable characters and components on top of that phenomenal design just makes it all the sweeter. If ever there were a must-own Wii game, Super Mario Galaxy is it.

By Alex Navarro, GameSpot
Posted Nov 7, 2007 3:54 pm PT


The Good

  • Dynamic, emergent shooter gameplay
  • Unparalleled visuals with destructible environments
  • High level of replayability
  • Power struggle makes for huge multiplayer battles
  • An amazing accomplishment overall.

The Bad

  • The single-player story ends
  • Will laugh at every CPU and GPU thrown at it
  • No team deathmatch.

It was hard not to be completely impressed when the first images and videos of Crysis appeared about 18 months ago. Scenes of lush jungles and towering alien war machines looked light-years beyond what seemed possible. Of course, the two questions that revolved around Crysis since its announcement were whether it would deliver on those visuals and whether it would deliver a game worthy of those fancy graphics. It turns out that the answer to both those questions is a resounding yes, as Germany's Crytek has proven that its 2004 hit Far Cry was no fluke. In fact, it was just the beginning from this studio. With its sophomore effort, Crytek has managed to deliver an incredibly advanced and exciting first-person shooter that practically rewrites the rules for the entire genre.

Crysis is an alien invasion game set in the year 2020. An archeological team on a remote Pacific island is captured by an invasion force of North Koreans, and your US Special Forces team is dispatched to investigate and rescue the scientists. Clad in high-tech nanosuits capable of boosting your strength, speed, and armor, as well as cloaking you temporarily to the enemy, you're parachuted into a tropical paradise that's crawling with intelligent enemies and something else that's tearing both the North Koreans and US forces to shreds.

Like Far Cry, the first half of Crysis is essentially a "sandbox" game where you're put in the middle of incredibly large levels and tasked with an objective. How you get the job done is pretty much entirely up to you, which is part of the brilliance of the game's design. For instance, the environments are big enough to give you a wide range of latitude. Do you have to get to a certain point on the map? You can take a meandering route that avoids patrols and go stealthy, or try the up-front approach and try to blast your way through, with the danger of enemy reinforcements showing up. Need to infiltrate a North Korean-held village? You can try the front gate, or maybe explore and find a quieter way in.

Couple these huge environments with the powers of the nanosuit, and you have a ton more options. You can play like the eponymous character from the movie Predator and use your cloaking abilities to stalk North Korean patrols, picking them off one by one and watching the survivors react in confusion. That could be via a silenced rifle, or simply coming up from behind a guard and grabbing him by the throat and hurling him off a cliff, or through the roof of a building, or against a tree, or whatever catches your fancy. Enhanced speed and strength give you an amazing amount of mobility, so you can vault atop buildings and come down behind someone, or run up against a North Korean vehicle next to a cliff and push it over the side. In a heartbeat you can switch between different roles, from stealthy assassin to seemingly unstoppable death dealer. It's a game that makes you feel like a superhero, though not an invincible one, because you simply can't run roughshod over the enemy. Crysis rewards smart, fast thinking.

It helps that the game features a high degree of advanced physics and destructibility in a highly dynamic world. Getting caught in a firefight in the jungle is a cinematic treat, thanks to the way the bullets will chop down trees, while branches sway from impacts. This isn't just a visual effect, either, as falling timber can kill if it lands on someone. There's all sorts of emergent behavior like that throughout the game, events that spring up completely unintended or unforeseen. In one instance, the flaming wreckage of a chopper landed on a hut, crushing it and killing all those inside.

Meanwhile, the gunplay and ballistics modeling make this shooter feel as if you're handling real weapons. Trying to hit a target at long engagement ranges is challenging thanks to weapon recoil and other factors. The North Koreans are encased in body armor, so they take some time to gun down, unless you aim for the head, which usually puts them on the ground. At your disposal is a variety of firearms, like shotguns and assault rifles. One of the neat aspects of the game is that you can fix up your weapons on the fly, adding scopes, silencers, and grenade launchers, provided you've found them. There are trade-offs for each add-on. Silencers let you take down guys quietly, though they reduce bullet damage, meaning you've got to make every shot count. Or flashlights mounted on your weapons might help you out in dark levels, but will give you away.

Crysis gives you all of these toys and ratchets the action higher and higher the deeper you get into it. The first level of the game introduces you to the sandbox combat and the nanosuit. From then on, the battles become larger and more intense as the action escalates. You'll storm North Korean-held villages and bases; encounter their counter to your nanosuit; take part in a chaotic assault on a North Korean harbor; and from there the game accelerates. Next is a wild tank battle in a tropical mountain valley, with helicopters and jet fighters roaring overhead. There's a sheer rush as your tank plows through vegetation and knocks down trees as missiles and tank fire erupt all around you. Meanwhile, the vehicle explosions are convincing, right down to the way ammunition cooks off and sends spirals of smoke outward. It's visual poetry of destruction. You're not confined to your tank the entire time, either. You can jump out at any time and use your suit powers and rifle to take on enemy infantry. When they're dead, pick up their dropped rocket launchers and engage vehicles in a cat-and-mouse-style game.

As events in the game continue to ramp up, you'll find yourself inside the alien ship, the zero-gravity environment delivers a visually strange and yet wondrous setting. As you navigate through the environment and engage the aliens you have to figure out your way through the level. Escape the alien ship and you're tossed into a frozen environment against the alien foe. After the alien vessel, the game becomes less free form and more linear, but it also amps up the action along the way, reflecting the way that the stakes are being raised. Now you're trying to fight your way out of the alien sphere, which means dodging war machines that look like something from The Matrix. There are a few more surprises in store from that point before you get to the ultimate showdown.

The one criticism that can be leveled on the story is that it leaves you screaming for more. While there's an adrenaline-packed finale, you still don't want the game to end on the note that it does. The single-player campaign is around eight to 10 hours long, which is a healthy amount for a shooter. There's a lot of replay here, too, as you can experiment with a multitude of different approaches. Plus, it's fun to go back and try out the large, set-piece battles again and again, since they can unfold in different ways thanks to the dynamic nature of the combat and the artificial intelligence.

Speaking of which, the AI is generally excellent in a fight, as enemy soldiers use cover and concealment effectively. They also know how to lay down suppressing fire and are great at tossing grenades to flush you out of hiding. Getting in a firefight in the jungle with these guys is always fun, because they'll make you work for it at the default normal difficulty setting. (However, the AI can suffer from the same problem all shooters seem to have; mainly that bad guys sometimes don't know what's going on down the road from them.) When you take damage, find cover and your armor and health will regenerate. If you die, you reload to the last checkpoint or quick save. Meanwhile, Crysis includes a special hard mode called delta, which is a lot of fun, because rather than making the game tougher by cheating and giving the bad guys more powerful weapons, delta takes away some of the gameplay crutches that help you at lower difficulty levels. For instance, incoming grenades are no longer highlighted, so you've got to pay attention now, and your health regeneration is slower. And the best part about delta is that all enemy soldiers speak fully in Korean, so unless you understand Korean, you're going to have a much harder time trying to figure out what they're planning to do.

The single-player game is a considerable accomplishment by itself, but Crytek has also included a full-featured multiplayer mode called power struggle that combines the best of the Battlefield games and Counter-Strike. The goal in power struggle is that each 16-man team (for 32 players total) must destroy the opposing team's base, but to do so they have to construct alien weaponry at a central prototype facility. To power the prototype facility, though, both teams need to seize and hold power stations throughout the map. In addition, there are bunkers and factories that can be captured; capturing a bunker allows your team to spawn in forward positions, while capturing a factory allows you to purchase vehicles that can help your side. Whenever you help your team by killing the enemy or seizing an objective, you gain points that can be used to purchase more advanced weapons, vehicles, and gear. It's an excellent multiplayer mode, and it comes with five large maps to support it. Keep in mind that everyone has their suit powers as well, so in addition to all the running and gunning and vehicle driving, there's plenty of leaping and speed running and cloaking going on.

Then there's instant action, which is essentially deathmatch with nanosuit powers. This is a chaotic mode set in some stunning levels, including what feels like a fully modeled Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. You can run around the flight deck, a good chunk of the hanger deck, and many of the corridors. Weapons are strewn about everywhere in instant action, so it's just a crazy melee of shotguns, snipers, rocket launchers, or nanosuit-enhanced fists. However, a team deathmatch mode is missing, which seems odd. Team deathmatch would have been a welcome addition, since it would have instilled some kind of teamwork into an otherwise free-for-all frenzy. Finally, Crysis multiplayer features built-in voice support, which means that all you need is a microphone to talk to your fellow players and teammates in power struggle.

Graphically, Crysis looks photorealistic at times--it's that amazing. Crytek has managed to achieve a visual fidelity that blows away anything seen to date, and there are countless moments when you'll just stop and gape at what you're seeing. Sometimes it's just the ordinary, like the setting sun casting all sorts of shadows and rays through the jungle canopy. Other times, it's something epic, like watching a huge alien war machine stomping toward you. The impressive aspect of the graphics is just how it manages to render huge, open, dynamic, interactive levels. Everything looks amazing up close or far away. Interacting with your squadmates lets you gaze upon the mechanical sinews of their nanosuit, or the incredible facial animation that brings them to life. They're capable of the subtlest of facial gestures to help convey emotion. Then you can sit on a ridge and peer down using binoculars to a village a kilometer away, scouting the location of the patrolling guards and machine gun posts. The sheer fact that many of the trees and buildings are destructible just adds a level of realism that's staggering.

You'll need a fairly high-end system to make the game look its best. In that regard, Crysis really does embody everything that's both exciting and daunting about PC gaming. A dual-core CPU and the latest generation of video card can run the game at maximum detail settings capably, though you have to lower the resolution a bit to do so. It's doubtful that a system has been built yet that can run the game at ultra-high resolutions with all the graphical sliders maxed out. Dial down the detail settings to high, which is the next-lower setting, and Crysis still blows contemporary games out of the water. Results are a bit mixed at medium and low settings, though. At the lowest detail settings, objects pop in and out with a fair degree of consistency. It's annoying at best and frustrating at worst, as it can impact gameplay. Crysis does support both DirectX 9 and DirectX 10, though the latter requires you run the game using Windows Vista. The visuals in DX9 are impressive, but they really come to life in DX10, provided you have the hardware.

The game also sounds fantastic, from the primordial "moans" that the island periodically releases, the soft crunch of dirt and branches under your feet, and all the background sounds that you'd expect in the middle of the jungle. Turn on your suit's cloak, and everything sounds muffled. The music, by composer Inon Zur, feels inspired by the scores from epic Hollywood action movies, while the voice acting is also excellent, helping to deliver some distinct characters and even a little humor.

If you put it all together, Crysis is just remarkable. This is a game that pushes the envelope in terms of both technology and gameplay and does so with aplomb. Crysis raises the expectations for every shooter to follow when it comes to graphics, interactivity, environments, immersiveness, AI, and gameplay. Quite simply, Crysis represents the first-person shooter at its finest, most evolved form.

By Jason Ocampo, GameSpot
Posted Nov 13, 2007 12:01 am PT

Forza Motorsport 2

The Good

  • A phenomenal driving model that's appealing to both beginners and experts
  • Races just feel right, from the great car physics to the top-notch opponent artificial intelligence
  • framerate consistently holds steady at a brisk 60 frames per second
  • Tons of cars to buy and modes to race them in
  • Customization is ridiculously deep.

The Bad

  • Racing sound effects aren't as varied as they could be
  • Could have used a few more tracks.
It's exceedingly rare when you can say that a driving game is built for everybody. Considering how splintered the driving-game audience can be, with the hardcore sim-savvy fans on one side and the more casual, arcade-oriented crowd on the other, most games that have tried to appeal to both markets haven't pulled it off. However, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport for the Xbox flew in the face of other such failures. It created a game that was both easily accessible and remarkably deep, with a challenge level so scalable that you'd be hard pressed not to find some setting you liked. Now, Forza has come to the Xbox 360, and expectations are understandably high. In most regards, Forza Motorsport 2 delivers on those expectations. Not only does it continue to improve and tweak an already fantastic driving model, but it also piles on more cars, more tracks, more modes, and more features than you'll know what to do with. That's not to call the game flawless, but for every little quirk that pops up in Forza 2, there are a myriad of awesome elements to make those issues practically irrelevant.

Forza 2 cobbles together more than 300 cars from 50 major manufactures; a ton of licensed, aftermarket parts and upgrades; and 12 racing environments, several of which are real-world tracks like Laguna Seca, Mugello, Sebring, and the dastardly Nürburgring. It's a healthy jump in content over the original Forza, especially with the cars. Looking down the list, you'll race in everything from a Volkswagen Golf or Mini Cooper to top-of-the-line Ferraris, McLarens, and Saleens. It's a huge list, with tons of custom-built variations on popular rides and exceedingly fast racers. Between the 12 tracks, 47 different ribbons are available, meaning many of the tracks can be raced through a host of different ways. The best tracks in the game tend to be the ones based on real life. A couple of the tracks can be real snoozers, but even they have a ribbon or two that can be fun, given the right situation.

None of those cars would make a bit of difference if the game didn't drive well--so it's good that it does. Cars are built out in such a way that they all have an individual feel on the track. Of course, you'll feel the difference between an Enzo and a Beetle, but you even feel the differences between a Beetle and a Golf. No two cars feel quite alike, and that's understandable given the wide variety of statistics and parts unique to each car. In nearly every case, cars feel just right as they speed around the track. Each car's physics are spot-on, and you almost never get the feeling that the car you're driving isn't behaving true to life. The only time the physics get a little wonky is with collisions. Basic bumps and rubs look and feel right, but big head-on collisions seem oddly understated.

Another thing that sets all the different cars apart from one another is the new performance index rating system. Cars are still classified through a lettered system (D-class cars are the lower end of stock, store-bought rides; S class is all high-performance vehicles; and so on), but the new performance index now separates out cars within their own class by assigning each a numerical value based on individual stats in speed, acceleration, braking, and the like. Upgrading cars with new parts boosts the PI, and if you go over a certain number, the car will actually move into a new letter class. Seeing the PI of opponent cars versus your own lets you know exactly what you're up against and, in some cases, if you need to spend some cash before you're able to compete.

What primarily makes Forza 2 such a joy to drive is the way you can scale the difficulty to your own skill level. If you're a novice player and don't know a Gran Turismo from a Need for Speed, Forza 2 eases you into simulation driving nicely with several driving-assist features. There are basic ones, like stability control, antilock braking, and traction control that all work to keep your car on the road without too much duress. The big feature in the original Forza was the dynamic driving line assist, which essentially put a big line of color-coded arrows along the track (green means accelerate, yellow means slow down, red means brake), dictating the ideal driving path. This same line is present in Forza 2, but there's also a modified version of it that only shows braking spots. This ends up being the ideal line to use, as the original line has a tendency to become something of a crutch. Here, you're really only getting help with the turns, and once you've run a track a few times, you can usually get a good feel for where every ideal spot for deceleration is. If you're already into the hardcore driving sim genre, these features probably sound more annoying than anything else. Fortunately, you can turn it all off and get the full, realistic driving experience if you like. Doing so does make the game significantly more difficult, so consider yourself warned.

Even with all the assists turned on, careful driving is a must in Forza 2. Take a turn slightly too fast, and you're spinning out in the rough. Likewise, driving too passively will drop you down in placings fast, as the artificial intelligence will capitalize quickly. That's what you'd want in opponent AI, of course, and in most every situation, opponent drivers behave smartly. Unless you give them a reason to, opponents rarely bump or slam into you; instead, they concede corners if they can't pass you cleanly. And if you happen to start slamming around like bumper cars, the AI will adjust accordingly, with more easily intimidated opponents backing off and more aggressive opponents knocking you off the track if they get the chance. Generally though, they'll stick to their racing lines and drive professionally. In a sense, you know the AI is good because you don't find yourself thinking about the other cars much, except at moments where you're fixing to pass them or one of them is aiming to pass you.

There's more to Forza 2's driving model than great physics and smart AI. The driving interface is another huge factor in what makes the game so enjoyable. While driving, you can bring up a variety of different menus that show where your car is damaged, the temperature of your tires, and even some advanced telemetry data that might look like gobbledygook to a more casual player, but these give fantastic insight into the performance and status of your car for those who know how to read it. These options are what sets Forza 2 apart from other games of this type.

Perhaps the best overall aspect of Forza 2 is that it gives you so many ways to experience its fantastic driving model. You can start out participating in exhibition races or time trials, hop online to take on the rest of the world, or dive right into career mode, which is the true meat of the game. Career mode starts you out picking a region to call your home, with options of North America, Asia, and Europe. Specifying a region essentially dictates what brands of cars you want to establish a relationship with early on, and you'll quickly find yourself earning discounts with automakers from your region.

With a region picked out and your first car bought, you'll be presented with only a few unlocked racing series and a driver level of one. From here, it's race, race, race. The career mode is where you earn all your cash and boost your driver level. Boosting your cash flow lets you buy new cars and part upgrades, while upping your driver level earns more discounts on cars and unlocks new races to take part in.

What's neat about the career mode is that it finds ways to keep the progression fresh, even if it is putting you on the same courses again and again for dozens of hours. You'll encounter region-specific races, class-specific races, ones limited to certain levels of horsepower, and the ever-sadistic endurance races that have you racing on the same course for far, far longer than the average five- to six-lap endeavor. The lack of track variety starts to wear after a bit, especially considering how long the career mode is, but there's enough variety to the types of races to keep you very much interested in finishing your career.

The slightly goofy thing about career mode is that you can buy your way to victory as you please. Since you get a quick look at what your opponents are rolling with before a race, you can simply take your qualifying car, boost it to the hilt, and smoke the competition from the get-go. Now, that doesn't work in every situation. Some races require cars of very specific speeds and performance indexes to enter, so you have limits on what you can do. Even still, if you know how to work within those limits when upgrading, you can usually outclass the competition. If you find this a cheap practice and prefer to drive more evenly matched cars, you certainly can. But if you just want to get through the career, it's not hard to upgrade your way to relatively easy victories.

If you get tired of beating up the AI and still need to earn more money, you can hop online and take part in online career races, which earn you cash just as in the offline career races. These are the equivalent of standard ranked matches on Xbox Live, though the host does have more control over the settings of a race. Apart from the standard track and laps info, hosts can exclude certain car classes and even force any of the individual driving aids off for all racers in a match, including the driving line. Once you hop into an online race, you'll find a smooth experience. We rarely ran into any noticeable lag during our online matches, and though there were a few crash-happy online racers, you can most often weed out those players by forcing off some of the driving assists.

There's far more to the online mode than basic races. Microsoft is hosting weekly tournaments for various car classes that anyone can attempt to get in on. The system for tournaments is pretty awesome. You simply sign up for a tournament that hasn't started yet by doing a qualifying lap on the first-round track. Depending on the number of overall slots for the tournament, the number of players with the top qualifying times equal to the number of available slots gets in. From there, you race one round a day and progress depending on your placing within the race. As cool as the tournaments are, there is one odd thing about them, namely that it's not entirely clear why some racers progress and others do not. There was one instance during our testing that we showed up for a race with only one other opponent (there were supposed to be four racers total), and even though the two of us completed our race, we didn't move on to the next round. The other tournament we ran didn't give us any problems and we progressed normally, but it would be nice if the interface did a bit more to show why one racer is progressing versus another.

There is also a very strong community element to Forza 2. Apart from being able to take in-game photos of your races and upload them to the Forza Web site, you can gift and sell cars online. Gifting a car is as simple as picking a car, picking someone on your friends list, and sending it off. Selling cars has seen an upgrade from the original game. Instead of only being able to hook up in lobbies and sell cars at set prices, you can now put your rides up for auction to the entire Forza community. You just select a car from your garage, set a price, and hope someone's willing to bid. And if you're the bidder, you just put money down and hope for the best. The only issues with car auctioning are on the bidder's side. There's no way to set the maximum price you're willing to pay, à la eBay, so if you're in a battle with someone over a car, you'll have to keep going back and forth until one of you gives up or runs out of available money.

If you want to sell a ride online, you're going to want to do some customizing--and not just in performance parts. Forza 2 has a huge visual customization element to it that is both amazing and incredibly daunting at the same time. The customization mode uses a layering system that lets you stack shapes on top of one another as well as resize and move them as you see fit. There are limits to the number of layers you can make, but it's a very high one. Just looking at the mode wouldn't give you the impression that it was all that impressive, but after seeing some of the absolutely bananas cars people have already made, you realize there's way, way more to it than first glance reveals. Not everyone is going to have the patience to make these painstakingly detailed decals, but for those who do, there's a lot to work with here.

Even if you don't slap a bunch of anime girls or Pringles logos all over your car, the stock rides look exceptional. Nearly all of the game's graphical oomph is in the car models. They look and move incredibly realistically, and the game's nice use of lighting and reflection gives the cars even more of a gorgeous sheen. Sometimes that sheen is slightly rebuffed when you notice a bit of aliasing around the edges of the cars while playing with a high-definition display, but apart from that, it's hard to find much fault with the car models. There's even damage modeling to enjoy, though it's not exactly elaborate. Bumpers will sheer off, fenders will dent, paint will chip, mirrors and wings will fall off, and so on. But there's no truly horrific crash damage. Going head-on into a wall at 150mph doesn't result in much more damage than you'd accrue when banging into an opponent's hatchback at 50mph. Still, what damage modeling the game does offer looks good, and it's nice that it's there at all. And if you happen to have simulation damage turned on, big wrecks will pretty much break your car, making it nearly undriveable. So even if the outward damage isn't terribly impactful, you can still screw up your car royally if you're not careful.

Somewhat less impressive, though still attractive, are the tracks. If you get an up-close-and-personal look at some of the ground textures, foliage, or other set pieces scattered around a track, they won't look so hot. But then, if you're getting an up-close look at these pieces, you're probably doing something wrong. The scenery is meant to stay to the periphery while you whip by at ridiculous speeds, and in that context, it all looks great. And that's the thing of it, really. You don't spend much time looking at the track backgrounds because the sense of speed is so phenomenal. It helps that Forza 2 runs at a solid 60 frames per second, with almost no hiccups to speak of. That fast frame rate, combined with some really fast cars, creates a sense of speed that can be breathtaking at times. If the trade-off for not having exceptionally detailed track environments is the game running at a constant 60 fps, that's fair enough.

The last thing of note about the visual presentation is the camera angles, or lack thereof. The game does feature four camera angles, two outside the car, one on the hood, and one at bumper level, and these all work great. The bummer is that there's no cockpit camera view. Games like Project Gotham Racing 3 and Test Drive Unlimited both had full-on cockpit camera views with individually modeled dashboards for each car, so it's disappointing that there isn't any such option here.

On the audio front, engine sounds are crisp and clear, as are the other peripheral sounds of a race, from tires squealing around the track to bumpers cracking as they hit up against one another. If there's any flaw to be found with the audio effects, it's that there just isn't enough variety to them. Many of the engines sound nearly identical to one another, even in instances where it seems like more differentiation ought to be present. The sounds themselves are often excellent, but some dissimilarity in effects would have been beneficial. Though there's no in-game music (unless you're running a custom soundtrack, of course), the game features an excellent array of licensed tracks for the menus from artists like the Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, Bloc Party, Prodigy, CSS, LCD Soundsystem, and more.

What Forza 2 ultimately achieves is the precise brand of evolution you'd want from a sequel to the original Forza. The driving model has been made even better with the tweaks and adjustments made to it, and the features set is so remarkably deep that you're likely to lose large chunks of your free time buying, customizing, and racing your favorite cars. It's a testament to the original Forza's design that this sequel can feel both so much like the original and yet so much better at the same time. If you've got even an inkling of a theory that you might like driving games, you need to play Forza 2.

By Alex Navarro, GameSpot
Posted May 29, 2007 6:49 pm PT

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary Review

An old game can learn new -- intriguing -- tricks.

Let's get it all out on the table: I'm not the world's biggest Tomb Raider fan. I played Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider 2 when they were originally released, but they quickly became a jumble of jumping, jungles and dinosaurs in my mind that sapped any inspiration to invite Miss Croft back into my home.

Watching the first Tomb Raider movie didn't help her cause either.

That said, when Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary arrived on my desk, I put aside my old qualms about the game -- no action, boring gameplay, bland environments -- and decided to dive into Lara's revamp. I even went back and played Tomb Raider: Legend so I could give you a well-rounded analysis.

The result is a turbulent Greggy.

If you've been living under a rock or in a tomb (damn, I'm witty), Anniversary is Lara's original 1996 adventure re-imagined with the Legend engine. That means you're chasing the Scion of Atlantis through Peru, Greece and Egypt like in the original game but you have access to Lara's grappling hook, 45-degree jumps and shimmy abilities like in Legend.

It's an awesome mix. I distinctly remember trudging through the original Tomb Raider on my PC at a snail's pace and cursing the tank controls for our voluptuous heroine as she fell to her death for the umpteenth time. Now, Lara moves swiftly and nimbly across ancient temples, which are throwbacks to the original levels, and sprawls out to grasp at whatever ledge she can while airborne. Even when you fail -- and you will -- most of the time you feel like Lara's trying just as hard as you are. You're a team this time as opposed to when you were just guiding Lara's brain-dead body in '96. She'll grab edges with her fingertips, and you'll need to tap a button to help her regain her composure, and improvements like that -- taken from Legend -- make moving through Anniversary much easier than the original.

However, that's not to say it's all acrobatics and amazing moves in Anniversary. Although the Croft's skills are hundreds of times better than the original, I still found myself cursing at Lara like she stole my Ghostbusters jumpsuit. Here we are in a cavernous Greek temple filled with columns, blocks and sharp instruments of death, and all I want the lovely Miss Croft to do is jump on a cube. She jumped once and glided along the side of the box; she jumped again and glitched between the top of the cube and the floor; another jump and she slid off the side and impaled herself on a batch of spears.

Really? This is the chick who can drop four stories, catch a ledge, back flip onto a pole and somersault onto a landing without breaking a sweat, but a box will do her in?

These flubs only get worse when the camera gets involved. Plenty of times you'll be faced with a seemingly easy leap from a ledge to a landing, but the camera -- which is almost always in too tight -- will restrict you from being able to take in the whole scene. Most of the time it's just a nuisance, but sometimes it's going to be the motivator behind Lara's grisly demise.

But, hey, that's Tomb Raider, right? Crystal Dynamics has done an excellent job at staying true to the original game -- for better or worse. Legends reinvigorated the franchise with ample cutscenes and combat, but Crystal Dynamics shelved all that for Anniversary because the original game didn't have that stuff. That means you'll get your story cutscenes at the beginning and end of a level in Anniversary and have more platforming and puzzle-solving than you can shake a shotgun at in between.

Action? There's more action in the first ten minutes of Legend than there is in the first half of Anniversary. Whereas you had guards and baddies to shoot it out with in Legend, Anniversary sticks with the original's few enemies and has you capping mummies, wolves and raptors as you uncover new areas. It was a fun throwback to go toe-to-toe with the T-Rex again, but the animal kingdom is just as stupid and easy as its 11-year-old counterparts.

The bear comes at you, you climb up the stairs, it turns out bears can't climb stairs, and you shoot Smokey to death. Repeat for any other savage beast that comes at you.

There is one nice touch to the otherwise mundane battles. When an opponent charges at Lara, you can press a button prompt on-screen, Lara will jump to the side and a Matrix-style slowdown will begin. Two moving targets will appear on the screen, and once they meet and turn red over the enemy, Lara can pull the trigger for some serious damage. Still, that's just one cool tidbit of a boring battle system that has you spend the majority of your time standing on a summit shooting dumbfounded animals below you -- if you can get the camera to pan in that direction.

Graphically, Anniversary looks impressive on the PC. After having fooled around with the console version for a few days, I was knocked on my duff by how good Lara and her environments looked. There's detail in the cave walls, Miss Croft's edges are smooth and the whole thing just looks slick.

Yet what Anniversary lacks in guns-blazing action and gorgeous graphics, it makes up for with mind-maiming puzzles. Each room seems to have new challenges for you to solve whether it's a system of cogs and gears or a weird scale. Most go like this: Ok, I can pull this lever, hop on the moving gate, leap to the ledge and then jump back to safety … nope. That killed me. Ok, I can pull the lever … You'll be pissed that your wasting your gaming time loading the last checkpoint (which are plentiful) and trying to figure out how to just get to the next room, but when the "ah-ha" moment strikes, you'll feel the exhilaration that has made this series a goldmine.

Closing Comments
Yargh. Anniversary is a hard game to score. I liked Legend more, but that was because of the action and story. I can't fault the developers for not including either of those things in Anniversary -- it's a remake. If Crystal Dynamics and Eidos had Lara fighting ninjas or something, I'd have to be upset that they changed everything.

In the end, this is Tomb Raider for better or worse. The controls are light-years better than the original but still aren't solid like Prince of Persia's; the graphics are beyond anything the original could muster and kick the crud out of the PS2 version; and the puzzles are just as tough as the original, but the enemies are just as lame.

Still, it's hard to find a videogame feeling as good as solving a Tomb Raider puzzle that's stumped you for the past half-hour. If you're a Croft fan or someone looking to get into this franchise, this title -- at $30 price point -- is worth raiding your piggy bank for.

I told you I was witty.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

Oh, oh, it's magic -- you know.

Harry Potter, you're my hero. Sure, you've defeated a three-headed dog and a giant snake in your movies, but now, you're pulling off magic tricks in real life -- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first movie tie-in videogame of the summer that I've actually had some fun playing.

Ten points for Gryffindor.

In case you're a big lame-o and didn't know it, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix storms into movie theaters in July and follows Harry, Ron and Hermione through their fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry's keen on the idea that He Who Shall Not Be Named is back and when the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor refuses to teach defensive spells, Harry and the Potter Posse take matters into their own hands.

Take this, statue!
Take this, statue!
Now, creating a game based on Harry's exploits can't be easy for developers. These two-plus-hour movies aren't exactly packed with action what with Harry and his friends always talking, hanging out and going to class. Over the years, game makers have had to figure out what parts of the franchise work in the videogame industry and what parts don't -- the results have been mixed as gamers have been subjected to weak games of quidditch and lackluster fight sequences.

Although it's flawed, Order of the Phoenix touches on what a Harry Potter game should be. Rather than trying to create action, EA tries to focus on making you feel like you're living in Hogwarts. The school's recreated hallway-for-hallway from the blueprints used to mold the movie version, the paintings in the Grand Staircase move, students mingle around the campus and react differently to Harry based on which house they're from, and there are no load times as you go from woods to classroom to Gobstone match on your PC.

Although the movie's storyline is in the mix -- there are more than 35 tasks for Harry to accomplish to keep the tale moving -- the game is geared towards your personal exploration of Hogwarts. You'll learn six non-combat spells: push things backward with Depulso, smash stuff with Reducto, etc. -- that will become your bread-and-butter. See, Hogwarts is one of those sandbox environments us videogame folk like to talk about so much. If you wanted to, you could just wander around the school using Wingardium Leviosa to place paintings on the wall or Reparo to fix broken pots -- each move unlocks some of the 4,360 discovery points hidden around the place that make Harry's spells more powerful and unlock secrets in Moaning Myrtle's Room of Rewards.

Why won't you let me get to the bathroom?!
Why won't you let me get to the bathroom?!
So with the school covered, EA pushed the your-in-the-movie vibe further and did away with any kind of HUD. Order of Phoenix's screen is devoid of any radar, health bar, magic meter or videogame clich¿ you can think of. Aside from the name of whatever room you just entered popping up in the top left corner for a moment, this game looks like you're watching something on TV -- but that's not to say you're completely on your own. Although there's no gigantic arrow pointing out the way you're supposed to run, Order of the Phoenix doesn't leave you lost in the confusing seven-story school -- it hands you your very own copy of the Maurader's map.

If you've seen the movies, you probably remember the Rand McNally version of the boarding school -- a dried, yellow piece of parchment that contains the entire Hogwarts layout and can track anyone in the building. In the game, you'll tap the Tab button to bring up the map and then left (for locations) or right (for people). Once you select the person or place you need to go visit, a diamond pinpoints the spot on the map, you close it via the Tab button and the inky footprints that plotted people in the movie sprawl out before Harry on-screen. You follow the prints to get to your chosen location or person.

Bravo, EA.

Now, the map isn't exactly what's shown in the movie -- when you select the list of folks in the school, you're just seeing people with tasks for Harry. Ginny Weasley might need you to help her pull off a prank with Fred and George, Professor McGonagall might need you to round up some first years, or Colin Creevey might need you to help get his camera back. During the first half of the game -- set before Christmas break -- you'll have around 30 tasks to finish as you assemble members of Dumbledore's Army. After the break, you'll have a dozen or so to finish up as you try to make Professor Umbridge's life a living hell and get ready for He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Order of the Phoenix isn't just tasks, class and footprints -- you will have to pick up your wand and kick some ass. Throughout the roughly 10- to 15-hour story, you'll need to battle unruly kids, Slytherin punks and the dark lord himself with the six combat spells you've picked up with Hermione's help. Stupefy stuns your opponents, Expelliarmus will disarm them and Petrificus Totalus will paralyze them. Because there's no HUD, the only way you'll know if you're hurt or hurting your opponent is by watching them. If Harry's hurt, he'll clutch his side or drop to one knee. When he's defeated -- although it's more likely to be the bad guy who goes down -- Harry will sprawl out face down in the dirt.

Wiggling wands!
Wiggling wands!
Yay, Harry Potter, right? Well, I never said the game was perfect.

Although it's thankfully limited, combat is flat. In battle, you'll need to maneuver side to side and alternate between tossing attack spells at your enemies and protection spells around you. It's slow-paced and generally not interesting.

Next up on my complaint list is the controls. Harry's movements are controlled by the same set of keys you've come to expect in PC games, while the mouse governs the spells and the direction of Harry's movement. In general, navigating as Harry is cumbersome. Like the console versions, the camera in anchored is specific places, but using the keyboard and mouse's loose controls takes you out of the movie experience.

Although moving the mouse to wave your wand and beat up Draco Malfoy is a neat idea, the notion never made me feel like I was actually performing magic -- I knew I was just moving my mouse around until I found the spell that worked in a given situation.

Fear the rainbow attack.
Fear the rainbow attack.
Never pulling a player out of the videogame experience is something this game strives for, suffers for and sadly, falls short of. Although there's no denying that the in-game action in the Order of the Phoenix looks great -- detailed vistas surround the school's stone bridges and the institution's insides look great -- but the cutscenes don't pass muster. Rather than create new models for the cutscenes, it looks like EA used the same ones from in-game action.

The move makes sense -- rather than pull you out of the experience by suddenly changing models, stick with the same images the players have been seeing -- but the implementation suffers. Although the characters look fine running across the screen and interacting with one another, they look downright pale-faced and creepy in the cutscenes, which are oftentimes plagued by a mysterious glow.

Closing Comments
Order of the Phoenix is a lot like Madden. If you dig football, you'll love Madden, but if pigskin isn't your thing, you might not see what the hoopla is all about. A non-Harry Potter fan is going to look at Order of the Phoenix and only see the flaws -- the music drowns out the dialogue, sometimes Harry has trouble opening doors, and there's a graphical glitch here and there -- but if you know what gillyweed does and you don't have one of the better console versions, you'll enjoy this game.

Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword Review

With nearly enough features to qualify as a sequel, this is one expansion you can't pass up.

Sid Meier's Civilization IV has already enjoyed one solid expansion pack, but this week's release of Beyond the Sword brings so much new stuff to the table that it nearly qualifies as a sequel. Adding in a comprehensive new espionage system, a political element to religion, new options for colonies and corporate competition, the expansion energizes an already lively strategy game. Add in improved AI, more combat options, and nearly a dozen scenarios and mods and you've got an expansion that you won't be able to put down for months.

As expected, the expansion includes a whole bundle of new toys: leaders, units, buildings, technologies and wonders. The 16 new leaders (and one reshuffle for Rome) almost bring us up to covering all the trait pairings. Some of these new trait pairings make for exciting strategies. Joao's Expansive and Imperialistic traits make him a powerhouse in terms of quick development while Pericles' Creative/Philosophical combination gives him a definite edge in terms of research. There are other combos that are just as interesting, especially when combined with the new unique units and buildings for the new civs.

The naval units benefit from some gap filling between galleys and battleships but aside from privateers and ships-of-the-line, most of the new sea units arrive very late in the game. On land, siege engines have been taken down a bit in terms of effectiveness but that just means you'll have to plan your assaults more carefully. Fortunately, by the time you'll start planning tank invasions, you'll have much more mobile artillery and cruise missiles that can keep up with your advances. The new air mission system makes air combat a bit more realistic, but you'll need to worry a little more about land and sea units intercepting your sorties.

Firaxis promised us that they'd improved the AI considerably with Beyond the Sword and after playing more than a few games, we have to admit that they've succeeded. Those of us who usually play on Prince have had to step down to Noble just to preserve our pride. Even so, the AI is much better at waging war now in terms of using the right number and mix of units on attack and defense. We've also seen some truly terrifying stacks appear right on our borders with little to no warning. More than once the AI has offered us peace only to gain time to rebuild their army for phase two of the conquest.

The espionage system is one of our favorite additions to the series. You can set aside part of your budget each turn for espionage spending against each of your rivals. The more points you spend, the more you'll find out about your rivals and the more opportunities you'll have for your spy units to perform espionage missions. Knowing just what your opponents are researching or being able to investigate their cities whenever you want is a huge benefit.

Beyond that, the espionage system allows players an opportunity to really hamper their enemies' success without relying on warfare. In one particularly peaceful game we were several turns away from a space victory when we discovered that the English were going to beat us by winning a cultural victory a few turns sooner. All we had to do was send a few spies down to one of their cities and instruct them to start sabotaging any buildings that were producing culture. Sponsoring a quick city revolt kept them from being able to replace the buildings quickly enough to beat us to victory. Of course, espionage can be a vital arm of your military strategies as well. Throwing a city into revolt just before your forces attack is a nasty surprise for your enemy.

The best thing about the espionage system is that it works perfectly well for players who don't want to take much of interest in its finer points. Just by adjusting your new espionage slider, you'll accumulate points that will allow you to spy on enemy cities and will increase the cost of their own espionage missions against you. To get the full effect of the new espionage elements, of course, you'll have to tinker with the balances and use your own spy units to perform missions but players can get as involved as little or as much as they want without seriously jeopardizing their success.

Ever since the first Civilization was released, fans have been asking for ways to split empires up through war or revolution. While we're still not quite to the point where we're likely to see the Confederate States of Egypt or the People's Republic of Portugal, there's now an option for players to liberate large portions of their empire and make them vassals under the AI's control. The only hitch is that the colony has to be on another continent. You can then liberate individual cities and have them join your existing colonies.

Liberating colonies on another continent can definitely help stave off the crippling effects of early expansion but it's also useful to avoid the small maintenance fee that you now incur for any cities you have that aren't located on your home continent. The only real downside to the colony system is that it winds up costing you more in commerce and production than you'll save in maintenance costs. By the time you're ready to develop a substantial overseas colony, you're likely to prepared to produce the courthouses and banks necessary to make it a profitable endeavor.

Ultimately, the best argument for creating a colony is that you'll save the time you would otherwise spend managing it. Since the newly liberated colony starts with a significant bias towards you (+10 just for being granted their freedom, plus bonuses for open borders, etc.), you're bound to have a solid vassal for the rest of the game. If you can manage to spin them off so they share your religion, so much the better. This can be particularly useful if you're head of the Apostolic Palace.

At first glance, the Apostolic Palace seems like one of the more significant additions but its influence is going to vary quite a bit from game to game. It seems like its overall effectiveness is increased when you have lots of different civs that share your state religion and plenty of war between different religious groups. It works a lot like the United Nations, both in terms of passing resolutions and allowing diplomatic victories, but the resolutions require very specific circumstances so you won't be voting on new measures every few turns like you are with the UN.

We like the way that the Palace's powers are balanced. While it's great to be able to declare war against the infidels or to reassign city ownership now and then, the extent of the palace's powers depends on the strength of its members. Of course, the more members you have, the less your own vote will count when passing resolutions. Whatever the extent of its influence, it pays off by adding more interest to the religion system and offering up an earlier (but not easy) shot at a diplomatic victory.

We're less happy with the way Corporations work. In their attempts to model the international aspects of modern business, Firaxis have basically turned corporations into offensive weapons you can use to stifle a rival's economy. Much like religions, corporate influence is spread by non-combat units. You'll want to establish branches in other cities to offset the corporation's maintenance cost and to pass some of that cost on to your rivals. In this way, corporate executives become like chain letters or pyramid schemes between cities. Found a business in a rival's territory and he or she will have to screw somebody else in order to make up the penalty.

It seems weird that you can cripple an opponent's economy simply by selling them cereal or sushi. We can't argue against the benefits that some corporations provide in terms of resources, but it seems like their maintenance penalty is too severe. Granted, you can always rely on State Property to keep rival companies out of your borders but by the time that's an option you'll probably need the extra health allowed by Environmentalism more than you'll need the gold corporations will cost you.

Our only other objection here is the convoluted requirements to establish these companies to begin with. Never mind having to gain access to the right resources and the appropriate technology, the fact that you have to sacrifice a specific kind of Great Person for each corporation you want to build makes the system more complex than is justified by the potential profits. Admittedly, by the time the corporations become available you should be pumping out a regular supply of Great Persons, but as often as not you'll find yourself with an artist or scientist when what you really need is an engineer or a merchant.

The last significant change to the core game is the addition of random events. We've already covered a few of our favorites in earlier previews, but the more we play, the more impressed we are that the events seem to reflect the circumstances we're in. Sure, things like hurricanes and plane crashes are a bit unpredictable, but the game capitalizes on religious friction or lengthy wars to come up with some very specific and relevant events. We're also seeing more and more of them that have lasting effects on the productivity of certain tiles or buildings.

The Advanced Start is a great feature for players who dislike the slow build of the early game, or for those who begin in a later age with a little more control over their starting position. A point system allows players to purchase cities, cultural influence, units, improvements, techs, buildings and pretty much anything else they want for their empire. Unfortunately, the AI doesn't seem as capable of purchasing a setup that allows for early expansion so if you spend more points on workers than population and also load yourself up with galleys and settlers, you can definitely get out to an early lead.

There's not much to talk about in terms of presentation. The new flavored units and buildings add a lot to the visual style of the game, and the new units and leaders are, for the most part, very well done and fit the style of the game nicely. We were definitely disappointed that Leonard Nimoy wasn't used for the new technology quotes. Sid Meier himself provides the new readings but it just isn't the same.

Sadly, the game still suffers from some performance problems, particularly towards the end of the game. There are also, not surprisingly, some definite balance problems that need to be addressed. A few of the values need to be tweaked, particularly with regard to the effects of espionage missions in Marathon games. Luckily, it seems like some of this stuff can be solved with some simple number substitutions.

Beyond the Sword also ships with a number of scenarios and mods. For us the appeal of the expansion is more in the additions to the core game than in the scripted scenarios or non-historical mods. Nevertheless, there are a number of intriguing mods here that are worth trying even for fans of the vanilla game. Rhye's and Fall's unique historical timeline and civ-specific victory conditions make it a lot of fun for players who want to play a slightly more "realistic" version of Civ, while the Next War mod extends the experience into the otherwise ambiguous realm of Future Tech. Final Frontier is a very attractive mod for those who want to experience Civ in a more Gal Civ style setting.

In terms of scenarios, the appeal here will depend on your tastes. Longtime fans will be happy to see a brand new series World War II scenarios focusing on Europe or the Pacific. It's certainly not for impatient or inattentive types but you have to respect the scale and detail of the scenarios. Things get a little weirder with the game's lone fantasy scenario, Age of Ice, and downright perplexing with the X-COM inspired AfterWorld.

Closing Comments
Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword makes an already phenomenal game even better. The new espionage elements and the Apostolic Palace work together to make the game's diplomatic system more interesting and a lot more flexible in terms of projecting your will on your enemies without resorting to open warfare. An improved AI wages war much more effectively this time around which can drastically increase the drama and tension of your games.

Still, it's not without problems. The espionage system is far too effective on Marathon speed, and the way that corporations work doesn't seem to make much sense. The overall presentation or interface of the game hasn't been improved by the expansion either. Additionally, there are undoubtedly small balances and tweaks that are sure to be coming down the pipe over the next few weeks. In the meantime, the new options and increased difficulty of Beyond the Sword are more than enough to justify its purchase by every hardcore Civ fan.

As for the scenarios and mods, some are definitely more interesting and polished than others but your mileage here will vary according to your interest.

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 Review

Squad, attack that target. No seriously, do it. Why is everyone standing around?

First off, thanks to Ubisoft and Grin for making a PC-specific version of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. Anyone who passed on the more forgiving, arcade-like focus of the Xbox 360's GRAW 2 will find a much more challenging, tactical experience with this one. So if you prefer merciless first-person shooting gameplay, the kind where a single mistake will get you killed, then this is your game.

The plot doesn't really matter here, and moreover it isn't very interesting. Basically you have to recover nuclear warheads from a group of rebels, based primarily in Mexico. Over the course of the narrative you'll hear a bunch of "No man gets left behind!" style chatter from your superiors delivered in a forced, unnatural cadence with no real sense of urgency. But that's really not the point of the game here, it's more about action.

And there's plenty of action online and in the single player campaign. Before each sortie there's a briefing screen through which you can customize your squad of three Ghosts with primary and secondary weapons, as well as grenades. Your own weaponry is customizable as well, giving you the power to attach scopes and silencers to whatever rifles you bring out, swap that in for a machine gun, or opt for a grenade launcher.

Regardless of what you pick, expect most of your team to die, particularly in the last three missions of the campaign. This is the type of game where you're frequently going to get shot and killed by enemies you can't see. Foes can be "tagged," meaning painted with a red diamond, if your squad mates can spot them, but often your buddies won't live long enough to pull that off. Their AI just isn't that good, lowering their already slim chances for survival.

There's a few ways to order around squadmates, most of which work well in theory. You can select them from a list using the mouse wheel, click the wheel to bring up commands like attack, move, or cover, and issue them directly from your own first-person view. You can hit G to switch into first-person mode from the view of your squadmate and control him that way. Finally, you can hit Tab to switch out to an overhead map view from where you can queue up movement orders for your troops as a group or individually, then enact them in whatever order you wish. You can see nearby enemies moving around on this map too, which may feel sort of like cheating at first, but eventually you'll find it to be a welcome feature. It's just too bad that squad pathfinding hasn't been much improved from the first GRAW. They'll still get stuck behind items when told to rally on you. It's infuriating having to hold their hands constantly.

Like your teammates, the foes in the game aren't particularly smart; they're amazingly accurate once they've spotted you. But seeing you seems to be a bit of an issue. Many times, there'd be a group huddled behind a bunker or some other type of obstacle, we'd peek out, drill one with a short burst of rifle fire, and duck out of sight. Stealing a second peek at the bunker would reveal none of the living soldiers had reacted to their buddy's death - they just stood there as if he never existed. This goes for pretty much every level in the game.

Once they do spot you, you're kind of screwed. It's possible to try a flanking maneuver once in a while, but the stages are more linear than the game box would have you believe. You do have a certain degree of freedom for approaching areas, but you'll often run into an "exiting the mission area" warning if you stray too far, which will end your game if you're out of bounds for too long. In a few of the campaign missions it's possible to pick different starting points, but it's nothing you can really call an open-ended gameplay experience - more like a slightly varying one.

Your squad also suffers from some AI issues, particularly when recognizing they're being shot at. You hit Tab to check a field overview, tell two squadmates to move in opposite directions around a building to take out a guy on the other side. Sounds like a good plan, since the opponent would have two targets instead of one. Sometimes it works properly, but at others your troops will just stand there absorbing bullets. It's this kind of AI inconsistency that can make the impressive options for squad control and tactical planning sadly irrelevant. After all, if your troops won't shoot when you tell them to, or the enemy won't fire back when you're firing at them, what's the point of strategic planning?

When the AI is working on both sides, the game can be quite entertaining. The single-player campaign isn't all that long, but the last three missions will likely absorb just as many hours as the entire rest of the game. It's not that they're long, they're just jarringly difficult. For instance, in the last stage we were inserted via helicopter right in front of a bank of enemy machine guns. As our team descended the ropes from the helicopter to the ground, two of our teammates got sniped and killed. The mission hadn't even started yet! Gah!

The better reason to get this game is for its online features. You get quite a few modes, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, variations of hamburger hill (king of the hill), and, most importantly, co-operative maps as well as a recon versus assault mode. Without glitchy AI to mar the experience, GRAW 2's solid shooting mechanics and various lean and reflex maneuvers become much more enjoyable. You can peer around corners, dive and slide forward while running and transition to a crouched position, or move quickly while crouched and dive down again to lay prone.

Awful in-game ads
The best part, at least for us, was getting to play co-operatively through the single-player campaign missions with four people. If you're sick of those maps, though, the game gives you even more venues for co-operative, objective based gameplay. These maps support more than four players, so it can get pretty frantic running around with 24 human-controlled squadmates while peppering occasionally problematic AI opponents with bullets and clearing road blocks and such.

Then there's recon versus assault mode, where players split into two Ghost and Rebel teams. You pick a class, each with a specific weapon loadout, and either try and defend or detonate three AA batteries. Each side can rank up as they gain kills and help out with objectives, which adds to your arsenal as the game continues. It's another good reason to play this game online, but unfortunately there isn't much of a population on the servers yet.

Online or offline, GRAW 2's visuals aren't going to blow you away. There are a few nice sunset stages, but in general the maps look fairly bland. The same kind of huts, shanties, and buildings populate each stage, making the levels blend together instead of stand out. Oh, and there's another dam stage - Ubisoft is really on a roll with these things as of late. Making up for some of the underwhelming environmental visuals are the enemy animations. If they're on the move when lead hits their body armor, they keel over and go tumbling across the ground, sometimes weakly getting back on their knees only to absorb more bullets. The gun models look, feel, and sound quite good, though the reload animations lack the sort of urgency and strength you might associate with someone trying to jam more bullets into their gun in the middle of a firefight.

Closing Comments
While GRAW 2’s single-player suffers from some frustrating AI issues, it does have some worthwhile multiplayer modes. It can be an enjoyable game, and it’s got some entertaining gun and reflex movement mechanics, but it’s not all that memorable an experience. The added features for the PC version are certainly appreciated, and the more punishing level of difficulty definitely heightens the intensity of battle, but the AI problems really hinder the potential benefits. Once they get the AI working properly and open up the maps a little more, the Advanced Warfighter version of the Ghost Recon series could be something more noteworthy. Though his doesn’t really affect the score, it’s worth mentioning that this game has some infuriatingly nonsensical in-game ads. The action is supposed to be set in 2014, but you’ll see billboards for The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Intel Core 2 Duo processors, and a 2008 car. Come on Ubisoft – at least think to put a 2014 tag on that car, or Intel Core 64 Dodeco processors, and just get rid of Shark Week altogether. It premieres next week, says the billboard. In 2014? In Juarez? Does it?