In this article space I'll be detailing the experiences I've had with a bunch of different Xbox 360 titles. Please make note that these are first impressions after at least two hours of play of any given game, I mainly want to give you guys a heads up of what looks to be a sure thing and what looks to be crap or worth a rental instead. I'll update this front page list as I add impressions. Let's get to it!
Kameo: Elements of Power
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Project Gotham Racing 3
Xbox Live Arcade *new*
Madden 2006 feels like more of a dress rehearsal for the next generation of football than a complete and finished game in the series. All of the players are looking their best with fancy, high resolution textures, no jaggies, sharp crowds and even slightly better animations than the Xbox version of the game. Fancy graphical zazz aside, there's a lot missing here from what players expect from a Madden game, I can only surmise they were in a rush to make launch.
What You Get
You can play regular games, adjust settings sliders, play online and play in a Franchise mode. You can view instant replays, you can throw the ball, you can run with the ball. The basic game of football is here, it feels a lot like every other Madden game you've ever played, I'll let you decide if that's a good thing. The passing cone is still in this game but unless I missed something in the brochure they call a manual it seems to be something you can turn on during a play by choice rather than something that you either have to use or you don't. I have no idea if it increases your accuracy or not, kind of an odd way to implement it if that's the case.
What You DON'T Get
You don't get the Madden mini-camp to learn the game and hone your skills, you don't get a season mode, you don't get to challenge calls on the field, you don't get a lot of presentation perks you've come to expect like watching the field unit bring out the chains. Instead, the camera sweeps up to the billboard screen and shows these old school 2D graphics representing the chain going past the ball or coming up short. You don't get an offensive hit stick to knock down opponents like you do in the other platforms. Some other things you don't get that I don't miss are the stadium management mode, superstar mode and commentary from John Madden and Al Michaels. Commentary is very minimal, the home team gets a "podcast" which gives you the very bare basics of what's happening in the play "Big Ben drops back to pass"…he has to rush it!" without any color commentary. I actually prefer this to listening to John Madden prattle on and on about how important first downs are so that's ok.
Bugs and Weird Things
The first thing I noticed was the momentum is a off in the game. There have been times where my receiver catches the ball and suddenly starts stumbling the opposite way he was running and losing all momentum, it's odd. The blocking and running game is still the stand-up level of player pinball you tend to see in Madden, they just don't react well to close contact all the time. I've thrown balls and watched in replay as they sailed through the safeties hand and into the receivers grasp. You'll see your running back drop to the ground when he's clipped by a defensive player who came flying at him in a dive tackle from four yards away, it takes away the feeling of playing a sim and puts you in more of an arcade state of mind.
The best example of a bug I've encountered is in this little video I shot with my digital camera, you see players diving THROUGH other players fairly often. Nice work!
You spend a lot of time watching close-ups of your players approaching the line, looking around and sweating as you play a typical game. It's easy to skip with the press of a button and zoom the camera out so you can see the field but it really brings home just how much they want you to stare at their fancy graphics. I don't blame them, Madden 2006 for the Xbox 360 has little else going for it.
Verdict so far: Rent it so you can impress your friends with the shiny graphics.
Contrary to what we saw with Madden 2006, NHL 2K6 has opted to keep all the features found in the Xbox version of the game and add a couple more for good measure. You now have a new goalie control that allows you to instantly switch to handling the goalie while the A.I takes care of your players. With a click of the right thumb stick you switch over to goalie control, using the left thumb stick to handle your facing and the right stick and buttons for performing different saves. When a shot is taken, time slows down and the camera moves behind the net, giving you a target to see roughly where the shot it going. You've only a few seconds to choose a course of action, just like real goaltending only without all the squatting, It's an interesting feature to be sure but I've found the computer takes care of it so much better than I can, I don't see much point in switching over. It can be fun to dive around and make fancy saves as a novelty though.
Goalie feature aside, the only other thing that's really changed are the graphics, which don't look much better than the Xbox version of the game. The textures and player modeling are definitely better but in direct contrast to what I thought a 360 game was supposed to show, I still see jaggies here and there. It's not awful, but you do notice when the camera goes to the scoreboard or between action scenery shots. Another thing you notice is when you're not zoomed in and you're just playing the game, you won't see much to tell you this is a next-gen game. The ice looks a little better, the crowds look better and the boards around the ice look good but I don't see a lot of next-gen shiny here. At least the frame rate is really good!
So, a minor graphical update and packed with all the cool features of the Xbox original, that doesn't sound too bad right?
Xbox version: $19.99
Xbox 360 Version: $59.99
Verdict so Far: If you don't own an Xbox, feel free to get this version, it's a great game. If you do own an Xbox, don't waste your money.
Kameo was one of the few Xbox 360 titles that really struck me as a great game in the making at this year's E3. I'm happy to report that six hours into the final product, my expectations have been exceeded on almost all fronts.
You play Kameo, a sexy hot fairy Princess who's family has been kidnapped by her traitorous sister. Not only did she snatch them up, she freed Thorn, Overlord of the trolls to add to the general chaos of the situation. Rather than start you off in some peaceful glade so that you may learn the game, you're thrown right into a pitched battle with trolls as Kameo makes an attempt to rescue her family. It doesn't go well as she loses the three elemental powers she does possess and her family remains in captivity. NOW you're in the peaceful glade after you're rescued from certain death.
The first thing that you notice about Kameo is just how graphically striking and colorful it is. Sharp, bright colors are not something I usually associate with Xbox games but Rare has always proven to be the exception to the rule. To go along with the color palette are all the graphical features we expect from a next generation title. No jaggies, high resolution, tons of particles, hundreds of enemies on the screen at times, huge draw distances and anistromophical latibulbs up at the wazoo. That's right, the graphics are so advanced there's stuff in there I had to make names up for. Suffice it to say Kameo is gorgeous thanks to the fine display of graphical prowess and the good job Rare tends to do on art direction.
The sounds are also good, I'm a big fan of the instrumental music that plays in the background. I wish the voice acting was a little stronger in parts but it gets the job done and I haven't encountered anyone that makes me want to stab new holes in my ears. We'll call that a win.
Sound and graphics aside, Kameo shines in the gameplay department most of all. This is a 3D platformer with many of the usual collect this, unlock that, find this switch, talk to that person, beat this boss, jump over that chasm of doom, etc. you find in the genre. That may sound pretty boring until you consider that Kameo herself is rarely"… herself. Kameo spends a lot of time morphing into various elemental powers as she progresses though the story. They range from the Armadillo Mr.Ruin who can roll into a ball and bowl over enemies or build up some steam and go shooting over ramps to Deep Blue who is great for swimming under water and firing water torpedoes. You can also turn into Ash the dragon and burn your enemies up, melt ice and even lay fire traps. Pummel Weed is a cool plant who boxes your enemies throwing lefts and rights depending on which trigger you press. In total, there are ten different forms you can take and each plays differently and is useful in different situations for combat and puzzle solving. The six I've freed have all been fun and full of personality so far, easily the coolest aspect of the game if only for the sheer variety.
Kameo herself can do a pretty impressive flip kick and hover around a bit faster than most of her other forms. You're vulnerable as Kameo but sometimes speed is more important than anything else. For example, when you're riding a horse down a hill and plowing through over 500 trolls to reach the bottom, speed is a great asset.
The game is pretty linear although there are opportunities to explore some of the more open areas and villages for side-quests and items. You can bring up a mini-map anytime to see where you're supposed to go to progress the story so you'll rarely find yourself wandering around and wondering what to do next. The game saves automatically early and often so frustration levels are kept to a minimum. I have yet to encounter a puzzle or fight that had me wanting to throw the wireless controller and death isn't such a large set back that I want to quit playing for any great length of time.
All in all, this is one of the most complete experiences in the 360 launch line-up.
Verdict So Far: Very nearly a must-buy launch title unless you can't stand platformers. It's also $49.99, $10 bucks less than most 3rd party launch titles!
Condemned: Criminal Origins
I've often referred to Condemned as a "hobo abuse simulator" since I first saw it at E3. So far I haven't seen much to suggest I was too far off the mark, there's more game here than just hitting crazy people with blunt objects though so we'll take it from the top and get to the abuse in a minute.
You play the game as FBI Agent Thomas, a serial crimes investigator visiting the crime scene of the latest in a string of violent murders. Monolith spends a good deal of time setting the mood for the game and it pays off dividends when you reach the body and start looking for clues. Soon, things start to get a little intense and you're framed for the murder of"… well, I'd better not spoil things too much. The story is a major part of the game and after beating down your 20th hobo you're going to be clinging to the plot and hoping it drags you right through to the end.
Can beating hobos get old? How about zombie hobos? I didn't think it could but sometimes Condemned really tries my patience at times. Agent Thomas isn't a runner, he likes to shuffle from place to place to facilitate the tone and atmosphere (or is that atmosFEAR) so running through levels or away from deranged thugs isn't really an option. You can sprint temporarily but I think Agent Thomas has asthma, he needs to take a break after about ten seconds of running. So you're slowly making your way through dark, gritty locales and you're forced to fight your way through plenty of filthy urchins. Lucky for you, the flashlight is always on when you need it and it stays pointed ahead of you even when you're hitting Smelly Joe in the face with a pipe.
The combat is mainly melee at first, with lots of blocking, kicking and swinging to be done in the early levels. For the most part it feels a lot like hand-to-hand fights in The Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox and PC. It works pretty well although I still struggle with a lack of depth perception at times, getting hit when I didn't think the enemy was close enough to connect. A 3rd person perspective would probably help but you're locked in at the first person so I'm hoping I get used to it. After four hours of playing I'm not so sure I will.
There are guns in the game but the ammo count is always limited and you cannot carry more than one weapon at a time. Pistol whipping is allowed though so you're never totally out of options. You also always have your handy taser which is great for stunning enemies and giving you a chance to take away their blunt object or crack them in the head with your shovel. It gets pretty good range so it's essential if the crazy person has a gun and you don't. The taser needs to recharge after use though so you can't be using it without discretion. All in all the combat is pretty good but it gets repetitive and your slow movement can really be a pain in the ass when some guy is sneaking up behind you.
The investigating you do to clear your name is an interesting concept that isn't really used to do more than further the story between miscreant bashings. You basically enter a room, the game tells you there is a clue nearby, you press "X" to automatically bring out the exact tool you need to find the clue and search the area for it. When you find the finger print, sweat mark, blood stain or whatever, you scan it and someone at head office tells you what it is and how it applies to the case. That's the extent of your "investigating" so far, it's a shallow implementation of a cool concept.
Graphically the game looks great and the animations and voice acting are all top notch. It looks like a high-end PC game, which is more than good enough to serve the gameplay they offer. I know I may come across as sounding a bit down on the game but it does atmosphere well and manages to keep it pretty tense as you explore the levels. After a few hours in things are actually picking up and the enemies are starting to get more varied. I'm engaged enough that I'll probably finish the game, if only to see if you move on from the dank, abandoned buildings and into some more interesting locations.
A couple bugs worth noting so far. Sometimes when you knock a guy out he'll crumple to the ground and the physics will slide him across the floor for a bit as if he were on a slope. I've also used a shotgun until it was out of ammo and dropped it only to have a hobo pick it up and start shooting me. Unless he's keeping shells in his pants, I don't think that's fair. The bad guys should have to play by the same rules I do.
Verdict So Far: This is a one-run game you're not going to want to play twice. Probably a better rent than a buy if you're not sure you want to spend full launch price on it. You also collect dead birds as an ongoing collection quest, that's just messed up!
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
I've probably spent the least amount of time with this game so I won't go too deep with it. At a glance, Need for Speed: Most Wanted looks pretty good. Sure, the heavily filtered full motion video cut scenes are over-done and over-acted but they're still pretty fun to watch. The "story" here is that a nasty fella won your car in a street race by cheating and he's since raced his way to the top of the black list using your own ride. Oh, the humiliation!
Your job is to drive around town, pick up races and challenges to win money, get better cars and work your way up the black list by challenging the other "listed" opponents. Of course, the cops don't like you zipping around town so they'll do what they can to take you out of races and arrest your sorry ass. The cops may be the saving grace for what feels like an otherwise sluggish and vanilla racing title. Any old race is made more interesting when police officers are trying to run you off the road. This game is out for almost any platform you can imagine so getting it for the 360 is really dependent on your love of the series and your desire for more graphical chutzpah.
Verdict So Far: I'll probably keep playing it once in a while although Project Gotham Racing 3 is a much better racer.
Project Gotham Racing 3
Along with Kameo, PGR3 is probably the most feature complete and "finished" game on the launch list. My friend Rob and I jumped into career mode and took turns finishing challenges, buying new cars and earning Kudos points for hours. We could have done split screen races but we were having a great time just trying to beat different events. The main difference between this game and Project Gotham Racing 2 is the definite leap forward in the graphics department, this is possibly the best looking game on the launch list.
Graphics aside, the same PGR2 challenges are all here with new tracks and locations to do them on. Cone challenge, time trials, races, kudos time trials where drifting and other maneuvers earn you more time to finish a lap, speed trials and more. I'm no racing fan (Forza and Gran Turismo are too hardcore for me) but PGR3 provides a great balance between simulation and arcade racing. There are a ton of fully licensed cars available to buy and each one has a different feel to it, leaving you with some definite preferences when it comes to speed and handling.
On the multiplayer side of things you can of course race with your buddies, the experience doing that has been just as good as PGR2 ever was, it just looks even better. The new element here is Gotham TV, a service that allows you to watch other races and even provides a ticker tape in the game menus that tell you when friends beat records and other achievements. It's all very well integrated and speaks well towards the long-term playability of the game. I can't wait to see you guys online!
Another neat feature is the crowd that tends to hang around the tracks to snap pictures of you while you're racing. It's a small touch but it gives the city a bit more life as you're blazing through the races. I feel like I could go on and on about PGR3 but the bottom line is if you like racing games even a little, it's easily one of the best to be had, certainly it's the best looking. If you don't like them"…nuts to you!
Verdict So Far: A must-buy unless you really don't like racing games.
If for some reason someone catches you at the midnight launch and steals all your games before you can make good on your escape, you'll still have something to play on the Xbox 360. Live Arcade offers a small fleet of classic and simple games to play for a few bucks. All of them also offer free trials so you can always try before you buy.
Gauntlet: This is the classic game of Gauntlet, you play with up to three friends online over Live and it's the exact same game you played when you were a kid. The graphics have been enhanced a bit too!
Geometry Wars: An original game, Geometry Wars is like Astroids on acid. You zip around a grid with your space ship and use the right analog stick to control where you fire as the left stick handles movement. What do you shoot? Flying shapes of course! That's essentially what the game is all about, there is a ton of variety in the enemies, colors, speeds and weapons at your disposal as you fight to stay alive and get a high score. If you unlock the full game, your score will be put online and you can see where you stand among the best players. The graphics are excellent (considering it's a top-down 2D game) and it's just a lot of fun to play.
Mutant Storm Reloaded: Similar to Geometry Wars, you once again use the analog sticks to move and shoot, only this time you progress through rooms that get harder and harder as you go. It's very colorful with big, bright explosions and it supports two players. Another cool arcade shooter.
Here is a full list of the current Arcade games available and soon to be online:
Astropop – Popcap Games
Bankshot Billiards 2 – pixelStorm, Inc
Bejeweled 2 – Popcap Games
Crystal Quest – Stainless Games
Feeding Frenzy – Popcap Games
Gauntlet – Midway Home Entertainment
Geometry Wars 2 – Bizarre Creations
Hardwood Backgammon – Silver Creek Entertainment
Hardwood Hearts – Silver Creek Entertainment
Hardwood Spades – Silver Creek Entertainment
Hexic HD – Microsoft Game Studios
Hoopworld – Streamline Studios
Jewel Quest – iWin.com
Joust – Midway Home Entertainment
Marble Blast Ultra – GarageGames
Mutant Storm Reloaded – PomPom Games
Outpost Kaloki – Wahoo Studios
Robotron 2084 – Midway Home Entertainment
SmashTV – Midway Home Entertainment
Wik: Fable of Souls – Reflexive Entertainment
Zuma – Popcap Games
That's a lot of gaming if you get bored with your full retail games. With any luck the list will grow at a steady pace and we'll have lots of cheap, fun games to play during the slow times.