It’s been nearly four years since the Xbox 360 helped consoles get their graphical groove back, which – of course – kicked off the current console generation. Time flies, doesn’t it? The Xbox 360, then -- if we’re going by Tech Standard Time (TST) -- should now be on its last legs. A dinosaur on its death bed, facing extinction by the meteoric approach of a new “next-gen” Microsoft console. But it’s not. In fact, if Microsoft and Sony have things their way, the current console generation will keep on chugging along for another five years.
Not long ago, for us PC gamers and our beefy, ever-evolving rigs, this would have been a moot point – or even a nice bit of superiority to hold over console gamers’ heads. “Our graphics are prettier than yours! Neener-neener-neener!” But times have changed. PC exclusives are few and far-between, and many are only one mediocre first week of sales away from being ported to consoles (*cough*Crysis*cough*). The large majority of games are unable to take full advantage of PC hardware, because consoles and their aging innards are holding everyone else back. Sorry state of affairs, ain’t it?
By now, when people think of The Sims franchise, they think of a virtual dollhouse in which you guide little idiot people through the mundane details of their lives rather than living your own.
That reputation is both well-deserved and unjust. Now in its third iteration, you still have to worry about getting your Sims to a bathroom before they wet themselves. On the other hand, it can be so addictive that it often feels like there’s someone watching you on his PC monitor, selecting you, then clicking on your computer and choosing “Keep playing The Sims 3” from your radial menu. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you go to the bathroom.
Fundamentally, The Sims 3 is a very similar game to its predecessors: You juggle the needs and wants of a family of Sims to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise. What has changed is the revolutionary increase in scale. Previous Sims games locked you into a single lot, and if you wanted to take your Sims elsewhere you’d have to sit through an epic-length loading screen. The Sims 3 loads an entire town, which both frees your Sims to stroll down the street or drive across town, and expands the number of characters living in the world at once from a handful to dozens, simulating an entire community. The ability to quickly zoom out and view the whole area alone puts this version head and shoulders above The Sims 1 and 2.
Plants vs. Zombies takes the familiar desktop tower-defense formula—defensive towers line a path and shoot at endless waves of mindless automatons—and turns it on its side... in your backyard. In typical tower-defense games, you manage one path (and one set of baddies at a time). In Plants vs. Zombies, you have to manage five or six lanes and you have to plant your botanical towers in the same lanes the undead baddies walk.
The game starts simply; you have a few lanes to manage and one or two types of zombies. The number of lanes you have to manage and the number of plants you have at your disposal increases quickly, although the difficulty ramps up slowly over the first several hours of play. You’ll eventually unlock about 50 different plants, each with a different function. Some will form the backbone of your sun economy (sun is the currency you exchange for each plant you place), some are purely offensive, some are purely defensive, and some fill various support roles.
To keep you in check, new zombies are continually introduced. Each different zombie type has new (frequently hilarious) powers, ranging from simple helmets and screen-door shields that let the undead absorb more damage, to Pogo-Stick and bungee zombies that can leap over your defense. Each type of zombie has multiple plant counters; for example, the balloon zombie, who floats happily over your defenses, can be countered by balloon-popping cacti as well as by the Blover, which generates a mighty wind that blows away flying zombies.
It is said that a great game is easy to learn but difficult to master. Demigod has the latter part down—the former, not so much. Veterans of the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, from which this game draws much of its inspiration, will have an easy time grasping the excellent concept, but to most other players it’s a very new form of multiplayer role-playing game, and the lack of tutorials makes learning the ropes a challenge.
To make a long, superfluous story short, portals on both sides of a symmetrical map spew out waves of AI-controlled troops that clash in the middle. Controlling a single powerful character, your goal is to push the tide of battle back at the enemy and topple their citadel. It sounds fairly simple, but thanks to a blizzard of game elements such as eight character classes, structure and minion upgrades, item purchasing, and flag capturing, Demigod becomes extremely complex.
Despite what you see in the screenshots in this review, H.A.W.X. is as much a flight simulator as Burnout Paradise is a driving sim. Ubisoft’s latest liberty with the Tom Clancy franchise is more akin to Descent or Wing Commander than it is to Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X. It’s an arcade shooter that cares more about maintaining a high explosion-per-minute ratio than realism or even proper physics. That means fighter jets with 200-plus capacity payloads, a dearth of takeoffs and landings, and an army of AI-controlled enemy units that are more than willing to fly straight into your missiles for the greater pyrotechnic glory.
As David Crenshaw, former leader of the Air Force’s elite H.A.W.X. squadron, you’ve now turned to the private sector to pay the bills and catch the thrills. In the first half of the game, Artemis Global Security hires you to guard oil refineries and bomb military bases for the highest bidder, which—shocker—eventually has you at odds with the U.S. government. Ever the patriot, this twist sends you back into the arms of Uncle Sam and you spend the rest of the game defending America from an all-out invasion.
Don’t tell Newton: Ramming your hot rod full-speed into a concrete block, idling minivan, or in-game ad billboard in Burnout Paradise doesn’t really slow you down. The game is a steady, fuel-injected dose of momentum from spark plug to finish line. Pushing over Paradise City’s 20 square miles of pavement for just an hour means accumulating new cars, completing events, knocking over barriers to find shortcuts or spontaneous jumps, earning license upgrades, setting street-specific high scores, or just streaking a newfound scenic route with rubber.
The game combines the feel of impulsive, mission-based sandbox titles like Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk with loose, forgiving, driving mechanics—making for disposable, whimsical racing with a persistent career and surprisingly good online mode. Every major intersection in the city is a gateway to a racing event. Spin your wheels at a stoplight and you’ll activate a point-to-point race or one of four other variations on the standard sprint: Road-rage events have you side-swiping a set number of opponents within a time limit, stunt runs are all about racking up points with long drifts and high jumps, and in our favorite, “marked man,” you’ll try to escape a set of ominous black sedans before they can smear you into the median. There are vehicle-specific challenges, too, and as you spend more time in Paradise City, you can earn the keys to rival cars roaming the streets by pushing them off the road.
Fans of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War might feel burned by the barely recognizable sequel to their old favorite, but going in without expecting it to be yet another typical real-time strategy game is extremely rewarding. That’s because DoW II is actually two excellent games in one. Both have outstanding graphics and animation, a complete lack of traditional RTS base-building, and strong tactical gameplay, but the single-player/co-op campaign mode and multiplayer experiences are very different.
In single-player, you command a group of four marine squads (or two each in two-player co-op) in a campaign to defend sub-sector Aurelia from invasion by Orks, Eldar, and Tyranid forces. Without the typical emphasis on base-building, the game feels more like an action RPG. For example, squad leaders level up and never die (they can be revived after their life is depleted). The squads can also be equipped with Wargear to make them more powerful.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a proper FEAR game. After Monolith’s 2005 original, there were a couple of very mediocre expansions made by a different studio. When Monolith got the franchise back, we expected great things from its second outing; sadly, FEAR 2: Project Origin never really comes into its own.
As a shooter, it brings nothing new to the table—it tries to excite us with the exact same slow-motion combat system that made the first game captivating four years ago, but is simply not enough this time. Even though the enemies are a little more lifelike than most shooter foes, in that they can realistically vault over obstacles and blind-fire at you from behind cover, fighting legions of mercenaries and clone troopers gets old after a few hours. A few sections with agile wall-crawling enemies are the only engaging moments, but everything else is typical shooter fare—that includes sections where you drive a giant mech and mow down enemy soldiers like cutting grass. It’s been done before, and even though it looks pretty here, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
Here’s the thing about Mirror’s Edge: It’s 85 percent awesome, and we’re as surprised as anyone that the part that’s awesome is the first-person parkour. The running, jumping, and climbing bits are utterly engaging and even transcendent. There’s something liberating about leaping fearlessly from rooftop to rooftop while fleeing from a nebulous anti-freedom force. Unfortunately, for every high you get while soaring through the sky, there’s a painful low in the form of a combat sequence.
And therein lies the rub. The rooftop chases, where the designers were free to build many-pathed courses through the map, are sublime. By confronting the player with a constant stream of risk-vs.-reward decisions—do I take the risky jump to shave some seconds off my time, or the safe jump to avoid death?—and increasing your players speed as she successfully strings together long combos, the game is elevated from the run-along-a-path-on-the-rooftops experience it could have been into something emergent and amazing and wonderful.
Sacred 2 is a hack-and-slash Diablo clone in the vein of Titan Quest, the late and much-lamented Mythos, and, of course, 2004’s Sacred. And thanks to the original game’s popularity, Sacred 2 is also the most-anticipated Diablo clone—other than Diablo 3, of course.
But dedicated hack-and-slashers will find plenty to love in Sacred 2. The game world is huge and nonlinear—there are more than 22 square miles to explore. It’s bigger than Oblivion, bigger than Fallout 3. Unfortunately, most quests take place within a few hundred yards of the roads, and most of the stuff in the middle, though occasionally interesting or whimsical, can be skipped. The graphics are pretty, but not revolutionary, even at the highest settings.