Lord of the Rings: The Third Age – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

LoTR Watcher

Batting cleanup for Gandalf, who really needs to employ the “double tap” philosophy. No use being stingy with ammo when fell beasts roam the land.

Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.

LoTR Balrog

My bet? Gandalf Plows past Balrog, but loses to M. Bison in the first two rounds.

So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.

LoTR Drums

Berethor breaks up his neighbor’s cave troll drum circle, complaining of the noise, but we all know it’s just him being racist.

At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.

LoTR Bow Legged

I’m not sure this is what they mean by “bow legged.”

It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.

LoTR Discount Characters

Discount Aragorn talks to second-rate Boromir, while shoddy immitation Arwen looks on.

For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.

LoTR - MoreLembasAnd…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.

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Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick – PS2, XBox

FFB1I have quit my job at the Red Cross, tired of explaining to aging, overweight women with creaky knees that no one will have the courtesy to try to die on a table so they don’t have to attempt CPR on the floor. Naturally, I won’t rest until my resume makes me look like a hard-core Looney Toon character, so I went and signed up something far more psychotic: substitute teaching. Today’s adventure: first grade. And by “adventure,” I mean I’m going to take a break from grotesque, high-strung demon-spawn that will devour your soul to talk about something relaxing: Evil Dead. And before you ask, let me point out that sometimes the only thing that held your substitute teachers back from a nice, therapeutic dismembering was that chainsaws are forbidden on school grounds. Likely, I’ll wager, for just that very reason.

FFB4

To Do: Clear street of deadites so Doc and Marty can travel back to 1955 and prevent Old Biff from giving the Necronomicon to himself, thus preventing Evil 1985 from ever happening.

The Evil Dead films tell the story of Ash, who from an ill-fated camping trip with his college friends, must constantly fight back legions of demons who possess the corpses of those around him. And much like its subject material, it comes back to life every time the filmmakers try to kill it, each time just a little campier, a little more bloated, a little more disgusting and unrecognizable than the time before. After people stopped funding the films, there’s been talk of an Evil Dead 4, with director Sam Raimi telling fans they’ll just have to satisfy themselves with the three films. And two video games. And the musical. And the Ash vs the Evil Dead tv series. And let’s not forget 2007’s My Name is Bruce. So despite the fact that there’s never going to be an Evil Dead 4, there’s no shortage of cocky, swaggering, gore-themed, dad-joke one-liners recorded by Bruce Campbell himself. And to prove it, you can hear one every time you hit the triangle button in Fistful of Boomstick.

2003’s Fistful of Boomstick pretty much set up Ash’s backstory, which has become more consistent and dependable as giant perky tits in Game of Thrones. Everyone perceives him a schizophrenic, alcoholic loser, until someone unleashes the evil dead and he rescues the world, earning everyone’s gratitude just shy of actually treating him like he’s not an alcoholic loser. In this instance, a reporter interviews a colleague of the late professor Knowby, and plays a recording of an incantation over live TV. This immediately fills Dearborn, Michigan with hoards of evil demons who possess everyone in their path, thus paving the way for the 2016 election outcome. Ash immediately sets upon his quest to slaughter his way through the deadites with nothing but a chainsaw, shotgun, and the complete wares of a combined gun shop and hardware store strapped to his back.

FFB2Evil Dead has always been rather loose with the bounds of the horror genre. So too has it treated survival horror like the woman willing to take him home ten minutes after the bar closes down. Fistful of Boomstick technically bears the telltale features of survival horror, in that it limits the number of saves, controls the amount of ammunition and healing items, becomes progressively darker as though the player is suffering a minor stroke, and scatters a small junkyard around the game while demanding you clean it up. However, as with the PS One game, Hail to the King, the game feels remiss if it doesn’t hurl enemies at you with the frightening urgency of your grandma trying to stuff every last serving of tater tot casserole down your throat lest she think you waste away and starve like a Somalian orphan. Ammunition is only rare compared to the monsters, but the plethora of melee weapons negates that effect (Ash with a sword. Enough said) Save tokens likewise have the scarcity of AOL disks in the late 90s.

FFB3

Coincidentally, this is also Sean Hannity’s to-do list.

In fact, the one survival horror target they hit more accurately than Bill Cosby playing beer pong with a handful of roofies is the black-on-black color palette. The game opens on a dark and murky Dearborn, and gets progressively darker, what I refer to as the “untreated diabetes” aesthetic. Praising complete and utter lack of any visual cues as a horror game staple always felt like praising rusty barbed wire and 10W-40 as a dietary staple. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this trend led to a game like Perception,, and it surprises me even less that players

Hidden in each level are permanent power-ups. Some raise Ash’s maximum mana, enabling the player to cast spells more often. Others increase his maximum health, enabling the player to stare longingly at one more permanently empty blip on the life gauge. It isn’t just the unbridled manliness, easy access to firearms, and the denizens of hell-spawn risen in legions that make Dearborn a Republican paradise. There’s also a dearth of healthcare, thus ensuring that if you want to refill your life, you have to work harder than a Mexican laborer for those elusive health drops and just hope that the work itself doesn’t eviscerate your bowels and swallow your soul in the meantime. Fuck that. I play video games to escape real life. This is worse than playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest.

FFB5

That poor car can’t even get a break in a video game.

On that line, the game seems just a little too hard, and sadly, not in a way that the developers likely intended. Imagine, if you will, two high school history teachers. The first teacher runs a challenging class because he expects you to understand the past, but also the cause and effect of various historical events. That teacher, let’s say, is Final Fantasy Tactics; difficult, but rewarding when you figure it out. The second teacher is also difficult because after giving you an assignment, he jets off to the local titty bar leaving nothing but a Magic 8-Ball for you to check your answers. That teacher is difficult because his priorities are more in line with machismo than balancing the class properly. But hey, repetition is the key to education, right? Thanks to several conveniently placed unskippable cut scenes, you’ll never have any doubt about the plot in those moments right before a difficult boss fight! Now if you’ll excuse me, the school day is almost over and I have a stack of singles burning a hole in my pocket.

Family Guy Video Game! – PS2, PSP, XBox

fg-coverIf you’re the type of person who likes to be more aware of your surroundings than your average rutabaga, you may have noticed I’m reviewing the Family Guy video game this week. “Great!” you’re thinking. “Now he’s going to lecture us on the evils of licensed games before telling us how much he likes this one, like some sort of congressman who rails on the importance of family values before being found with a dead Vietnamese transvestite hooker in the trunk of his car. The only thing more formulaic than his entries on licensed games are episodes of Family Guy!”

Family Guy and I have a very special history together. It’s like a supportive grandparent who helped me get through the tough times in life—reliable, always there to make me laugh and make me think, and kind of painful to watch now that its getting older and starting to have trouble putting a coherent thought together. It seems only natural, then, that they’d want to put together something to remember the good times, to recall all those fond interactions. And that’s just what they made. The game, while fun to play, has less the wit and unexpected humor of Seth MacFarlane and more the air of me and my friends mindlessly quoting episodes in lieu of conversation.

fg-brian

Brian disguised as a lamp. His sections were clever and entertaining, mostly because I didn’t play long enough to remember why I hate stealth games.

We’ve seen that the Family Guy writers, at their peak, couldn’t produce a plot longer than about 17 minutes (a number that’s declined as a function of time) unless George Lucas wrote it for them. As such, Family Guy Video Game! Follows not one, but three storylines. Stewie squares off against Bertram, Peter’s sperm from Emission Impossible, now born to the lesbian gym teacher and reigning supreme over the neighborhood babies (which, I hear, is a common origin story for the world-domination types. Look up baby photos of Genghis Kahn. And Trump? His hair is simply hiding the fact that his head is shaped like a deflated football.). Brian, once more accused of impregnating Seabreeze (from the episode Screwed the Pooch), goes on a stealth mission to discover the real father in a Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer sort of way. And Peter, in the only plotline that doesn’t hearken back to a wad of ejaculated semen from 2001, randomly decides that tv’s Mr. Belvedere has kidnapped his family, and the only way to rescue them is to kick the teeth out of every man woman and child (mostly child) in Quahog, and to knock the dentures out of anyone over the age of 65.

fg-electrocuteGameplay is simple, stemming from the TV show’s method of humor. Rather than reinvent video games, jokes are thrown in as nods to games from the 80s and 90s, such as the Simpsons arcade game or Galaga. Peter and Brian both control naturally and intuitively, and for the most part Stewie does, too, although aiming at enemies is a bit like being strapped to a tilt-a-whirl. Stewie’s levels are partly platforming, though, which has felt like blindfolded beer pong ever since the shift into three dimensions, but one particular section of extended vertical platforming escalates that to feel more like lobbing live chickens into oncoming go-karts…after a rousing match of beer pong.

fg-glitch2

Most cut-away gags are played out as minigames and have about as much bearing on the plot as they do in the TV show. The manatees must have been having an off day.

But playing Family Guy Video Game! For a well-crafted interactive experience is like watching porn for dynamic and intricate characters. What really matters is the humor, and whether or not it matches the quality of the show. In a way, it does…and that way is that they clearly only got Seth MacFarlane and one or two other actors to reprise their roles, so most of the quips and one-liners are lifted verbatim from the TV show. So on one hand, it’s exactly the same as the TV show, and yet it somehow translates about as well as if someone ran it through two dozen different languages on Google Translate. Wait, actually, that could be pretty funny…

fg-glitch

Picture of Joe in the back to remind you how this glitch will cripple you permanently.

So far, this has been a particularly difficult review for me to write. In part it’s because my attention is split between job hunting, a perpetually hungry cat, a polar vortex that’s freezing Duluth to the point where my car won’t start and every time I try the key shatters in the ignition, and the trauma and disbelief over the fact that a few paragraphs ago I used the phrase “Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer.” However, the biggest challenge in reviewing the game is that apparently in Peter’s second level, if you are killed by one of two policemen after the midway checkpoint, they do what policemen do best after shooting a black man (Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?): they move on with their lives. They don’t come back after you respawn. And since, in true beat-em-up fashion, you can’t move on with the level until you kill all the enemies, so you end up wallowing in an existential crisis between a porta-potty and an ice cream truck, left with nothing to do but kick the shit out of some kids and their moms. After their corpses are dead and rotting, you might amuse yourself by head-butting the truck, but eventually all you are left with is a headache, a pile of useless iron, and a few square meters of Quahog where you can do nothing but wander in circles, contemplating the inevitable need to end it all and wonder if there’s a new game in your future.

fg-too-bad

This section looks like fun. Too bad I can’t play it.

So I suggest turning auto-save off right before you go into the porta-potty, or you might be stuck with the constant reminder that the game is shit. Otherwise, it’s not bad.

Nightfire – PS2, XBox, Game Cube

dominique
I’m currently having a bit of a Jonny Quest crisis when it comes to James Bond. In eighth grade, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the standard by which I set my life up for disappointment. My yard wasn’t big enough, my life wasn’t adventurous enough, my friends weren’t close enough, and instead of making daily trips to Gibson-esque cyber worlds, the most technical, scientific thing I could do was set people’s VCR clocks for them. However, about ten years back, untreated depression, a vicious break-up, career uncertainty, and the entire Bush administration had given me new standards for disappointment, so when I dug up some old episodes of Jonny Quest, I could finally watch them objectively. Even if I ignore the fact that I’ve seen McDonald’s wrappers with more entertaining writing and character development less natural than breast implants, the first time they busted out a “Sim-sim-sala-bim,” I began to edge cautiously away from the series like it was a family member who always refers to Asians as “those little yellow people.”

japan

Visit exotic locales. Meet the local population. Then shoot them.

Likewise, James Bond always held a certain allure for me throughout high school and early college, allowing me to vicariously experience the frustration of not living a life of exotic travel classy parties, and the luxury of not being rejected by girls who would prefer I sequester myself in a hole somewhere because I wasn’t exotic or classy enough for them. Fortunately, Goldeneye gave me something to do while cloistered like a frustrated adolescent monk, thus fueling my frustrated fantasies—kind of like putting out a kitchen fire with a bottle of bacon grease simply because you like the way it smells afterward. I wrote about that last week, though, about how the Wii remake was a disappointing, linear, first-person-shooter without any elements of the spy-thriller genre. It was only after playing Nightfire and watching Tomorrow Never Dies that I came to the realization, “Oh yeah. They’re all kind of bad.”

But if judged by 007 standards, Nighfire blew me away on its release. It had a story as original and strong as any of the films (even if the films are formulaic and convoluted), it’s own opening sequence (even if the song sounded like a monkey trying to crush a termite running across a piano) and an overall look and feel that completely outdid the previous game, Agent Under Fire (even if that game was only a mediocre effort at best). The story has Bond investigating the theft of a missile guidance chip as it is turned over in secret to Raphael Drake, a man who heads the Phoenix Corporation that specializes in decommission of nuclear weapons. Sounds to me like they’re throwing Bond softball missions in his old age. A man with dead nuclear weapons who runs a company named after a bird that comes back from the dead in a fiery blaze wants control of nuclear weapons? I’ve seen episodes of Blue’s Clues that were harder to crack. Mix in your standard cocktail of Bond villain motivations (Part Hugo Drax from both the Moonraker film and Novel with a spritz of Blofeld’s New World Order) and you have a pretty good story that almost certainly doesn’t sound completely ripped off from the main series.

nightvision

The game gives you constant access to night and heat vision, which you will probably only remember when you search for screen shots for your blog post.

If you read my Goldeneye Reloaded review from last week, I lamented the fact that modern Bond games are practically indistinguishable from your average Call of Duty. Nightfire, fortunately, had not yet fallen into that trap, and thus has objectives a little more complex than “Go that way. Don’t get shot.” Stages have some areas that, if you squint just right, might be forcing you into it’s own predetermined Macarena of fantasy espionage, but mostly, they’re free-roaming and engineered like real world locations: buildings naturally have hallways with doors and rooms off of them, outdoor locations are reasonably open and non-constricting, and roads, like always, are long corridors with very few forks which all link back up to the main road and have boxes of missiles and body armor lying around on the pavement. This gives the game an aspect of exploration absent from the hallway-of-bullets style games. The player can find extra body armor, ammunition caches, or even weapons stronger than the ones Bond loots off corpses. This creates one of my favorite scenarios for video games—options for the player. Each weapon has an alternate method of fire for when you want to be accurate with your shot or just hit everything in front of you, when you want to be silent and stealthy or if you don’t care who knows where you are, or when you think an enemy is best brought down with a hail of bullets or a grenade launched into their face. Also unlike modern games, you can carry as many weapons as you find. Yes, it might take Medieval torture equipment to stretch my imagination far enough to picture Bond lugging around enough firepower to be legally classified as either a small-scale civil war or an NRA gun show, but this is one case where verisimilitude takes a back seat to being fun to play, and I’d rather have a steady choice of weapons than leave a trail of deadly breadcrumbs behind me for my enemies to follow every time I stumble across a new gun.

driving

Wait, this isn’t a screenshot from Nightfire…this is a photograph from my driving test.

The other benefit to the exploration is that the player can potentially change how the level plays. An early stage tasked me with skirting a castle’s security system. Halfway through I stumbled across a panel that controlled the spot lights. There’s something about zapping a single wire with a watch laser and then waltzing right in through the front gates that makes me feel like…well, like James Bond, to be honest. The player can discover moves like this several times throughout each level, and each one jacks up their score (towards unlocking multiplayer features). The game calls these “Bond Moves,” described in the manual as “Moves that only Bond would think of.” Disregarding the fact that any action taken by the player is, by definition, no longer a Bond move, some of these are a little disappointing. Sure, it takes some skill to launch a car through a diner to evade enemies, but I’m pretty sure that’s in the standard Blues Brothers playbook as well. And maybe it takes the keen eyesight of a super-spy to spot a weak support beam that would bring down a bridge on top of a troop of soldiers, but it takes less wit to realize that an explosive barrel makes a better target than the enemy huddling for cover behind it. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m assuming the NSA is monitoring this post, so please consider this my application.

alura-mccall

The game forges emotional connections with the characters by killing you constantly so you have to stare at Alura McCall for a combined total of three hours.

And, of course, what Bond game would be complete without his legendary charm, beautiful women, and we can only assume the unholy stench every time he unzips his pants that derives from the conglomeration of sex diseases he’s accumulated over the years? Nightfire views women less like Bond’s companions and more like dialysis machines, which he can’t be separated from for more than an hour at a time. In addition to having three named women and at least two random girls lining up to perpetuate his addiction to carnal spelunking, one later stage murders a love interest at the top of Drake’s Tokyo tower and gives him a fresh girl by the time he makes it to the ground, as though he got them in a buy-two-get-one free sale and just had the third one laying around unopened in his glove box. I know Bond has become so flat and formulaic he looks like a Loony Toons algebra book, but we are still talking about the character who went on an angry, vengeful killing spree when his wife was murdered, so it might have been nice to give him more time to grieve than it takes to acquire PTSD.

While I realize my reviews have gotten progressively cloudier and can only really be called reviews in the sense that I’m looking at stuff again, I’d like to state clearly that I liked this game. It has the classic Bond feel. The gadgets are actual spyware (not the stuff that the Internet installs on your computer)–the day you can download a grapple beam from Google Play is the day the spy thriller genre dies. The difficulty curve works well, although it’s a little depressing to watch your scores progressively drop off until the game stops giving you gold medals and unlocked items and handing out participation awards instead. At the end of the game, especially, you notice that checkpoints are rarer than nuns in a brothel, but with unskippable cut scenes, I can probably recite Drake’s final monologue the next time I audition for a play.

Lego Star Wars – GBA, NDS, PS2, Game Cube, XBox, PC

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler's List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler’s List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Months ago I played Grand Theft Auto III, and hated it so much that I didn’t finish. At the time I had another GTA game on my shelf, which you may have noticed never made it to this blog. I didn’t just set the disc on fire out of hatred for the series–although in an Odyssey of the Mind style hallucination, I did consider re-purposing it as a coaster, a wall decoration, a tiny stage for pet mice to perform on, a projectile to hurl at my neighbor’s overly-excitable dog, or a shim to level out my wobbly kitchen table. No, instead, I put it in my PS2, which immediately responded, “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Now put a real PS2 game in my tray, would you?” I tried repairing the disc, but apparently someone before me had re-purposed the game as a nail file. “Fine by me!” I thought. I didn’t want to play it anyway! And I moved on to a more interesting looking game: Lego Batman. Which promptly seized up at the beginning of the Penguin’s story arc. Moral of the story: don’t buy used games at Savers. But what can you expect from a store that would chuck Mega Man 2 in the trash for its age, but then try to sell six dozen Madden games for $4 each? Yesterday, I actually found high school sports trophies, engraved with the names of the winner. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day? Burn it! Damn cartridge!

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They'll have to wait outside.

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They’ll have to wait outside.

So to reign in my tirade, when I pulled out the Lego Star Wars disc and could not even with a generous heart refer to it as “round,” I didn’t have high hopes of finishing the game. But as you can see, God does have a sense of humor, and he chose to perform his miraculous Hanukkah Game Technique to keep the disc spinning for as long as it took me to finish, thus forcing me to write about a game virtually identical to Lego Star Wars II, which I reviewed only a few months ago. So here it goes…

Lego Star Wars covers the prequel trilogy, but otherwise bears no differences to Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

Pretty good, huh? One of my best reviews yet. Oh! Wait! I’ll do it as a haiku!

Lego Star Wars has
No major differences from
Lego Star Wars II.

Special Ed...momma dropped him on his head...now he's not so bright, instead...he stars in the Phantom Menace.

Special Ed…momma dropped him on his head…now he’s not so bright, instead…he stars in the Phantom Menace.

But seriously, I should probably at least pretend to have some journalistic integrity (I’ll get it when someone starts paying me to write, damn it!) and try to say something worthwhile about it. Lego Star Wars marks the first of the licensed Lego games developed by Traveler’s Tales. Oddly enough, this rookie attempt actually makes it easier to write about, since it lacks a number of things that have become staples for the Lego licensed series. Characters can’t assemble bricks into objects to interact with. The Jedi sort of can, but only as part of their Force powers.  Also, you’ll notice that none of the levels have Free Play areas, places you can access only by bringing other characters into the level using Free Play mode. And now, a limerick:

Uh, Obi-Wan...maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

Uh, Obi-Wan…maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

When playing a Star Wars with bricks
the Jedi all play Pick-up-Sticks
The blasters shoot bolts
The Gungans are dolts
While the enemies all act like pricks.

While the other Lego games don’t exactly force you to look up walkthroughs, this attempt eliminates the need entirely.  It doesn’t really employ puzzles or more than a few secrets, instead focusing on a run-and-gun, Mega Man style of gameplay. The vehicle levels control well, surprisingly welcome from Lego Star Wars II’s underwater-shark-rodeo vehicle handling. It does result in a slightly too easy game, but they don’t exactly market these games to the World of Warcraft or the competitive Smash Bros. crowds. Beating the game in two days actually made the experience rather pleasant.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

For licensed games, the Lego series don’t suck. I know that describing them like that equates to calling someone the world’s tallest leprechaun, or naming someone hacky sack champion of the hospital’s paraplegia ward, but unlike most game licensing, Traveler’s Tales doesn’t seem to do it for a quick cash grab, hiring three people to code the game and twenty-five to design the box and marketing material. Instead, they aim for humor, for ease of gameplay, and amusing moments like when Yoda, who hobbles at a snail’s pace, opens his lightsaber and becomes the God of All Ninjutsu. I know they all play pretty much identically, but look for a few other Lego articles in the future, since I can probably repair my Batman disc. And I bought Anne Lego Lord of the Rings for her birthday. And Lego Jurassic World looks fun…

Nope. I checked. Still no one wants cares about the pod race.

Nope. I checked. Still no one cares about the pod race.

…yeah, I just make my job harder for myself. Maybe I’ll have something to say six months from now. Oh, and Pod Racing? Still stupid.

Jade Empire – XBox

JE4
I generally like to finish the games I start, even if I can immediately see I’ll have less desire to pick it up for a second time than a condom. However, I have run into a few things that just completely bring the game to a premature end (thankfully, not like the condom). I couldn’t finish Star Ocean: To the End of Time because the disc had a hole through the label the size of a small dog. I’ve quit a few games because of corrupted game data at the end of disc three. Some games may get lost during computer formatting (another reason I prefer consoles), while some games get lost when lent out to friends (which, I suppose, beats the book I got back once in a ziploc bag). Anything for the NES risks the connector pin death seizure. And Soul Reaver…well, that one just sucks like a hoover. But I can add a new one to the list–I sold the game two hours into playing it. I’ve recently opened a small book/game store on Amazon, and after a week of not selling anything, I got bored and fed up and decided to toss in one of the games I thought looked interesting. And naturally, someone swipes it from me. I should play games I want to sell more often.

JE2So my review for Jade Empire might end up a little short, but after hours of listening to the characters blather on endlessly and trying to feign consciousness like a volunteer at a senior citizens’ home, a good concise review would do us all some good. So…

Jade Empire combines Onimusha with Fallout.

There. Another day’s worth of writing finished. Or rather, since I can’t figure out what to do with chapter 14 of my novel, I might as well keep going.  Jade Empire combines an action combat system with RPG character growth, much like, well, Onimusha. Or Fallout. The player chooses from a list of premade characters, each with a blank personality installed, and then sets out on an open-ended quest full of choices. Occasionally you choose which quests to accept and which skills to level up, but by far most of these choices involve picking one of three dialogue options in the standard formula of “Magnanimous kindness the likes of which would make Pope Francis look like the offspring of Joseph Mengele and a nazgul by comparison,” “Waffley, non-committal response that any sane person would give when asked to get involved in the problems of strangers,” and “Murderously arrogant phrases generally only uttered by the offspring of Joseph Mengele and a nazgul, which would strike you down with the crippling guilt of a Catholic grandmother should you even consider selecting it.”

Yeah, that sucks, but I just need to find the bathroom.

Yeah, that sucks, but I just need to find the bathroom.

Choose whichever dialogue option you like; inevitably it will lead to an extensive expository monologue that will repeat useless information and refuse to tell you anything that might actually advance–or even initiate–plot. It gives the impression the game’s authors never once considered that more skillfull methods of exposition might exist. “Show, don’t tell? Trust the players to understand simple clues? Fuck that! We need everyone at the martial arts school to constantly talk about your mysterious orphan back story while throwing in comments every other sentence about how much your rival student acts like a dick!” These writers must envision White House aides bursting into the Oval Office each morning saying, “Mr. Obama, as you know, the American Public elected you, our first black president, in 2008, but you have had to face adversity from the GOP establishment blocking your every move. Yes, indeed, you’ve had a rough seven years, with the Republicans not letting any of your legislation pass. Just think of how much progress you could have made had they not prevented your agenda from…”

We know. He knows. They know. We all know. Now can we please just get to the martial arts action? Historically, talking to NPCs in towns and villages has provided a clever, enjoyable, and optional method of exploring the culture and history of a fantasy world, but navigating these giant sequoias of dialogue trees feels like a mad dash for the end, trying vainly to choose the most taciturn response possible, but even saying “Goodbye” often commits you to a Shakespearean sonnet or two of exposition or unsolicited advice.

Once again, an all-white design team manages to capture the essence of cliched depictions of Asia.

Once again, an all-white design team manages to capture the essence of cliched depictions of Asia.

Still, despite the pacing, which often places these lengthy cut scenes between each battle, I had a fairly positive reaction to the design.  The setting replicates a loosely Chinese-ish country, in a political climate loosely resembling the historical unification of China by the first Emperor, Qin, albeit much in the way that Edward Cullen loosely resembles a vampire. The story starts in a small, rural martial arts school, where people take every opportunity to tell you how awesome you are, usually via some stereotypical Chinese-sounding platitude, which people speak as fluently as their native…English. (And also some weird made-up Russian/German sounding language meant to show how old people resist change) Even your bitter rival, Gao the Lesser, can’t resist throwing a few jabs over how no one at the school can beat you. Also his voice sounds familiar.

…is that Nathan Fillion?

Mostly Chinese, except when Japanese culture works better. Then who cares?

Mostly Chinese, except when Japanese culture works better. Then who cares?

Did they just cast Malcolm Reynolds as the son of a Chinese aristocrat? Not that I mind him reprising his creepy priest/obsessed starship captain voice for an epic RPG…I just don’t always see my epic martial arts villains as the riding-roping-wrangling cowboy types. Couldn’t they get Chou Yong Fat or Jet Li (or Jackie Chan!) as their celebrity cameo?

Whatever. Anyway, you engage in the obligatory MacGuffin conflict with Gao, thus providing the standard impetus to pull you out of the village for the inevitable razing and murder of all its inhabitants, except for the one you most likely would attempt to rescue. Points for originality, as I can’t think of another game that destroyed the protagonists home town except for Nifleheim in Final Fantasy VII. And the Mist village in FFIV, the Esper world in FFVI, Fynn in FFII, Zanarkand in FFX…and also in the Four Heroes of Light, Bravely Default, Legend of Dragoon, Kingdom Hearts, Xenogears, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Shining Force, Banjo Tooie, Sands of Destruction, Metroid…you get the picture. You gain access to a flier–a kind of ancient Chinese version of steampunk technology, an aircraft shaped like a mosquito. Which the villains almost immediately swat out of the sky–but not until after playing a space-shooter style mini game–and the questing ensues.

Dear Cosplayers, your move.

Dear Cosplayers, your move.

Yeah. This game really wants me to put it in the WTF category. But, beyond the nap-inspiring dialogue and poor attempt at Chinese atmosphere by an almost entirely white development staff, the game doesn’t suck. Even if it skimps heavily on the combat, it won me over when I stumbled upon a cook who bragged about having food so bad that no one ate more than one meal from him. After acing his challenge of eating three meals, he gave me the option of a super-secret developmental dish, which I ate. My next set of options let me lie and tell him I liked the food and that he should try it, which he did. Next thing I know, I have to decide whether or not to loot his corpse. You win, Jade Empire. Points for style.

Sneak King – XBox, XBox 360

For those of you who don’t remember, back in the early 2000s, Burger King’s marketing department discovered the line between “cleverly funny” and “call-the-cops disturbing” and decided to straddle that line like a 600-pound man balancing on a bicycle seat. They released a series of commercials in which a chibi-headed king approached people in awkward scenarios or appeared in unusual hiding places, only to pull a Burger King menu item out of his robes, after which a voice-over would tell you about said item if not just to distract you from wondering about the amount of Rohypnol the King may have just slipped an innocent bystander. Shortly after this, however, the marketing department decided to double down on this method of selling hamburgers by associating them with a masked stalker, and released the game Sneak King (ah, sneaking! I see what you did there!) for the XBox and XBox 360.

Uhh...I don't know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, "Dude...a little too far."

Uhh…I don’t know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, “Dude…a little too far.”

Honestly, I don’t know how to describe this one. It feels like a casual game, except it obviously plays on a console (since mobile phones in 2006 had all the processing power of a ham sandwich). I could almost compare it to a licensed game, as it aims to re-enact the commercials, but I find something almost unclean about the thought of Burger King not only charging me for their advertisements, but also labeling it “some assembly required.” At its core, Sneak King relies on stealth, a bold move considering most games include stealth elements more to give the appearance of variety than as an option they actually expect people to use, much like McDonald’s including a salad on their menu to let them shout out to gainsayers, “look! We have healthy options!” Although considering Burger King’s extensive history of game development and the game’s mechanics themselves, I can only assume they made this decision out of sheer coincidence.

In Sneak King, you take on the role of the King, ostensibly sneaking up on people to deliver food, although the NPCs have almost as much visual prowess as a one-eyed hedgehog with its head stuck in a traffic cone, so as long as you don’t barge through a busy intersection, the game pretty much boils down to how fast you can locate hungry people and get to them before they double over in pain and pass out cold, an activity I generally engage in only after eating Burger King food. This does pose a reasonable challenge, however, as these characters only blip on your radar immediately after their first hunger pangs, and afterward must be located entirely by looking for the people with thought bubbles over their heads dangling burgers just out of reach. From beginning to end, the entire process can take less than thirty seconds, so unless the King includes a shot of insulin with their meal, I doubt that any food hiding in his royal tights can save these people from slipping into a diabetic coma.

They actually can see him...they just pretend they can't. If you avoid eye contact, you don't have to talk to him.

They actually can see him…they just pretend they can’t. If you avoid eye contact, you don’t have to talk to him.

The challenge of racking up higher and higher scores provides the primary appeal of the game. Certain factors can multiply your score, such as how often people have spotted you, how close you get to the target before giving them food, and how much flourish you use to bestow the royal meat unto your subjects. However, you can increase your score fivefold by crawling into a barrel, dumpster, toilet stall, or any other hiding place before your hungry victim strolls by. This, sadly, doesn’t work very well. Despite having plenty of hiding places in each level, the NPCs all move on a programmed circuit, and most of them don’t get close enough to the hiding places for this to work. Furthermore, the ones that do either don’t get hungry at the right times, or they’ll spot the King slowly easing himself into his hidey-hole like an old man into a hot bath, a swimmer into Lake Superior in June, or a Carolinian politician into the thought of taking down the Confederate flag. Each of the four levels has twenty different missions, and those that require you deliver from hiding places usually end up with me finding one well-trafficked dumpster, then squatting in it for upwards of fifteen minutes while I wait for enough people to come by to get their hot, delicious burger and its distinctive aftertaste of rotting vegetables and soiled diapers.

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you'll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you’ll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

The King can also increase his score by presenting food with flourish, which involves hitting a button at the right time to stop a meter. Again, given Burger King’s inexperience with games, I think we can understand how they’d include an option that makes the game look fancier without actually making it more fun. Not that we have to forgive them for it. The King has three levels of flourish (which vary from stage to stage), and no matter how many times you’ve seen it before, you still have to sit through every second of his stupid white-boy dance.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

Adding even more unnecessary time onto the game, each of the four stages has twenty different missions. The developers tried their best to introduce variety into these challenges, but when playing a stealth game and getting the mission, “Let five people see you,” one tends to get the impression that the designers have checked out and just want to get paid their $3.99 (with the purchase of an extra value meal…later reduced to $0.99, for understandable reasons).

Sadly, the game really kept me amused for a few hours. Mostly, however, I attribute this to the novelty of the situation. It also felt somehow unique, and I liked the initial aspect of increasing scores, while it provided a rare example of a game without competitive aspects. (When researchers study violent games to “pro-social” games, I wonder if they use Sneak King as “pro-social.”) Still, about halfway through, the difficulty spiked by about a thousand times, which comes off more as poor design and testing than an intentional challenge curve, and by then the game had gotten repetitive enough, the flaws noticeable enough, and my constant battles with the camera obnoxious enough, that while I liked playing it for a little while, I would rather finish a large fries pulled from the King’s tights out of a garbage can than Sneak King.

But the creepy first-person mode, if nothing else, merits this game a spot in my WTF category.