Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 (Xbox360 review)

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At its core, Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 is a technical showcase for the shapely heroines of Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive series. You don’t have to look much farther than the opening cinematic sequence to know that the game is out to provide you with fan service in the purest sense. There’s quite a lot of suggestive material to be found here, with loads of cleavage and g-strings, and some of the bounciest breasts you’ve ever seen. The game never crosses the line towards the obscene, much to the chagrin of those still looking for that mythical Tomb Raider nude code, but it comes pretty close to being an interactive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. If all you’re looking for is pretty, jiggling girls and something that’ll show off the latest in technical achievements in graphics, then you can stop reading now, as on the visual front, the game most definitely delivers.

No matter how shallow the rest of the game may be, Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 features some of the most attractive graphics we’ve ever seen. The assorted locales and landscapes are postcard-perfect, really capturing the look and feel of a picturesque island paradise. And more importantly, the visiting ladies of the Dead or Alive tournament look even better than they did in Dead or Alive 4. Their animations are silky smooth, and when they’re playing poolside or going for a swim, it’s hard not to remark on how great it all looks. The girls lack in certain features that would make them more lifelike, as they have flat skin textures, so you won’t find any wrinkles, pores, or other blemishes, something that was touched on by the impressive-looking Rumble Roses, a game that even gave its girls realistic stretch marks. This fine line that was drawn between realism and fantasy keeps the girls from entering that Uncanny Valley territory, where digital characters can appear lifeless and downright scary. Still, some may find something disturbing about objectifying these girls, considering their youthful faces and anime-inspired facial features. How attractive the girls are to you is really a matter of personal taste, and your satisfaction with the game is entirely contingent on this.

The physics behind the character models need special mention, particularly the effect that allows for their ample bosoms to jiggle and bounce independently. While it may be unrealistic at times, if you can suspend disbelief, you may get a chuckle or two out of the sheer absurdity of it all. Some people love this stuff, and more power to them. Of course, real women don’t very often look like these do, and that’s understandable, as Itagaki and Team Ninja have created idealized versions of most gamers’ dream girl. These are world-class martial artists, wrestling champions and ninjas, not the barista at the local Starbucks that won’t give you the time of day.

To provide you with something to do as you watch the girls play poolside, you can take pictures of them, collecting snapshots for, ahem, later viewing. The girls don’t notice the cameraman taking the shots, and the whole thing feels very voyeuristic and even somewhat creepy.

It’s almost unfathomable why the decision was made to change the mechanics behind the original DOA Xtreme Volleyball game. You have a single camera perspective, giving you a sideline view of the action, which works well for providing plenty of good looks at the characters’ posteriors, but not very much as far as depth perception, making it very hard to predict the ball’s position. In the original game, your player would auto-center underneath the ball when appropriate, but now you have to rely on instinct and sheer luck in order to get underneath the ball for a dig. The blocking and serving work well, though, and you are rewarded with extra cash whenever you execute impressive moves.

The water ski races are a big part of the Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 experience, on par with volleyball. You can perform a variety of tricks, some involving butt wiggles of course, but the challenge for the most part is just coming in first place so you can collect your winnings. The controls are fairly simple, with shoulder triggers allowing you to make sharp turns, and a turbo meter allowing you to turn up the speed for a last-second finish. The ocean environment looks good for the most part, but something about the water looks unnatural due to the overuse of the chop effect. Just like the breast physics, the core technicality behind the water is very impressive, but it lacks in subtlety.

The other mini-games don’t fare very well either. The appropriately named Butt Battle and Tug-of-War are guessing games, with little strategy to bring to the table. You simply have to hope that you feign or dodge at the right time and attack when your opponent is vulnerable to squeak out an occasional win. These games could have been great fun if there was more to them than just a lucky guess. The water slide is pretty interesting, in that it creates a really good sense of speed, but you have to basically have the route memorized and know the exact timing for each of your movements in order to keep your girl from flying off the slide to the ground below. The pool-hopping game is a competitive affair now, and if you make a single mistake in your race across the floating platforms, you’re just out of luck. Beach Flags fares a bit better, as it’s just a simple race on the sand, testing your reflexes at the start of the race and your ability to mash on the A button quickly. It’s not very deep, but at least you don’t feel like you were cheated by unfair AI.

Those who enjoyed the original Xbox title were usually fans who enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere and became avid collectors of all the swimsuits and accessories you could purchase to outfit your preferred character. This aspect of the game is still present, and you could spend hundreds of hours collecting all the outfits. The more expensive swimsuits in particular are worth getting if you want to see the most flesh, as some of the higher-end swimsuits are little more than a pair of quarter-sized jewels and a couple strings holding it all together. You’ll have to work hard on making cash to afford it all, however, as everything is pretty expensive, and money isn’t very easily acquired at the casinos, which don’t offer odds any better than you’ll find in Vegas. While the money-making is tedious, the collecting aspect of the game is quite robust, and it’s easy to see players spending months with the game and still finding more items to acquire.

Collecting and managing the inventory is a major part of the game, and the gift-giving system is how you make friends with the other girls. You’ll refer to their personal likes and dislikes, and send appropriate gifts to girls until they decide to trade presents with you on a daily basis, one of the best ways to acquire new accessories and swimsuits. Kokoro is a fan of the color orange and plays the piano, for instance, while Christie likes the color black, driving, and enjoys the occasional glass of tomato juice. If you want to get on Tina’s good side, you’ll have to ply her with video games (like the purchasable Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox prototypes) and wrap them up in blue wrapping paper. There’s no feedback indicating whether or not a girl likes a gift unless she decides to accept it and send you a gift in return, and it can be very hard to get a girl to accept your gifts initially. You’ll need to make friends to participate in beach volleyball as well, and it can be pretty sad when you lose your partner and have to wander the beaches on your lonesome.

If you’re an achievement whore, the preferred nomenclature for those that try to increase their gamerscore at every opportunity, you’ll have a tough time getting even a single achievement point out of the game without spending weeks of work on it. You need to complete entire collections of swimsuits for each girl to start getting these points, and it’ll take you plenty of time to do so. Luckily you only have to play through the 14-day vacation once to unlock the Bob Marley track that is the highlight of the game’s soundtrack. There are undoubtedly some songs that will appeal to you here, and you can customize your playlist at the in-game radio station. What you’ll enjoy most depends on your personal tastes, like whether or not you can enjoy a Spanish-language track, vibe with dancehall reggae, or if you’re a fan of Hillary Duff.

The most disappointing aspect of the game for me personally is the online multiplayer support. You can’t bring over any of your girls from the single-player game, as your avatar when setting up multiplayer sessions is some silly little thing like a starfish or a turtle. Once I actually got to play some games, I found that the online servers were incredibly laggy, making the online competition completely unplayable. With time this may be remedied, but as it stands now, you have far more to gain playing through the game on your own than on Xbox Live.

The original Dead or Alive Xtreme Volleyball did many things well, as it provided a relaxing atmosphere for people to play in, take in the sights, collect trinkets, and basically just have a good time away from the predominantly violent and fast-paced offerings that are the norm in video gaming. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 just isn’t as relaxing, with its frustrating mini-games and flawed core game mechanics. There’s still plenty of eye-candy to be had, but if you’re looking for anything more, you may want to pass.

Virtua Fighter 5 (review)

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Let’s just get one thing out of the way: it would be easy for GameSpy to have gone out and looked for someone with a veritable laundry list of credentials and know-how to review a fighting game that warrants the sort of anal-retentiveness that has given it such a strong cult following among the kinds of people who dismiss Soul Calibur with the same scoff that most of America saves for professional wrestling. Phew, that was long. Instead, we’ve taken a completely different route. Rather than having someone who can pinpoint, frame for frame, move for move, the subtle differences of Pai Chan between VF4: Evo and now, the team has assigned a reviewer who owns a copy of Evo, but somehow, never got around to actually popping it into his PS2. With that in mind, VF fanboys, sorry, this review’s not totally aimed at you. You knew you were buying this game when you stood in line for 24 hours on November 16th, or at least, while we all thought it was a PS3 exclusive. There’s nothing, good or bad, that we can say that’s going to change your mind.

No, no. There are lots of early adopters who are on the fence right now about the investment they’ve made in Sony’s machine. Resistance is awesome, but there’s a point where adding a few more ribbons to the ranking is getting a bit grueling, and Nathan Hale has taken down the core of the Chimera threat one time too many. Maybe the wait for the EU launch of PS3 has sapped a little wind from the Ridge Racer 7 sails. Outside of playing a lot of PS2 titles, what’s there to do, besides play more ports of 360 games? Suffice it to say, there are some who will argue that Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection will tide them over until Tekken 6. Those people obviously haven’t seen Virtua Fighter 5 and Dark Resurrection running on HDTVs yet.

Another way to describe Virtua Fighter 5 is that it’s like the Pixies. The average Joe gamer probably has gone for the Tekkens, DoAs, and Soul Caliburs well before reaching for AM2’s fighter. There will undoubtedly be a strong sense of “why didn’t I discover this game sooner?” that will accompany the first few hours of play. Kind of like most rock fans were some three years ago when the Pixies announced their reunion tour. Never fear, PS3 owners; this monkey’s gone to heaven, and brought back manna in the shape of Sixaxis controllers.

What truly makes VF 5 shine so brightly lies in its controls. While VF‘s detractors have complained that the series is too hardcore for the average gamer, who they’d say would rather rattle off button-mashing combos with Heihachi or Helena, VF 5 is surprisingly accessible for anyone who’s picked up a 3D fighting game. Indeed, while the hardcore gamers will be purchasing PS3 fighting sticks in anticipation of this one, casuals will be able to jump in and knock the crap out of a friend in no time. Gamers who’ve cut their teeth on other blockbuster 3D fighters should have little problem getting into the groove.

Unlike other fighting games, however, highly evolved, well-timed combos will begin to evolve out of the primordial ooze, and eventually, anyone who puts in enough time on characters will begin to see the subtleties at work. It’s small things, like combo canceling, or the fact that sometimes, a certain five punch setup won’t work as fast as the player would like, because the fighter’s animations haven’t completed their run, that show off a certain depth that more popular fighters lack. Players can fight cheap in VF 5, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more effort and polish to do it in comparison to other titles.

If there’s anything that we don’t like, we wish that there was an option to utilize analog controls instead of the D-pad. While not every fighting game allows for it, the option to turn it on or off, depending on preference, would have been a very nice touch, and one that would leave everyone happy. Also, in the spirit of comparing VF 5 to its predecessor, we popped in VF 4: Evo and gave it a test run. While the visuals on the new game are so intensely beautiful (especially on an HDTV) that it makes the PS2 game look nearly unplayable, the core mechanics of more than one character felt nearly identical. We sense that the hardcore might complain that VF 5 really feels like VF 4 Evo with a facelift, but the visuals more than draw the line in the sand, and for newcomers, the argument likely won’t, and shouldn’t, matter.

The Kumite that’s central to the plot brings the combatants from VF 4 back in the fray, and introduces Eileen from China, and El Blaze, a masked Mexican wrestler. Eileen’s techniques lie in Monkey Kung-Fu, and her style is deceptively vicious. El Blaze has a variety of unique styles that feel like half-Rey Mysterio Jr. luchador and half-“insane martial artist.” Really, though, regardless of new fighters, it’s all an excuse for everyone to beat the unholy hell out of each other, and for friends to find new ways to screw their buddies on the couch over, now that we’re in the generation of Sixaxis as the standard and the “unplug the Dual Shock” trick no longer works. The truth is, the actual Kumite takes a backseat to an experience that’s a fighting game about the experience of playing fighting games.

Just like in the last game, VF 5 boasts Quest mode, which enables players to play in virtual arcades around town against opponents of various skill levels, from pwnable noobs to opposition that will put players on their backs in less time than it takes to load the fight. It’s all A.I.-driven, and while, at times, the CPU can be maddeningly cheap, especially on higher difficulties, it’s a wonderful primer for newcomers to sharpen their skills. It’s also ripe with opportunities to unlock all sorts of quirky costume adjustments and collect gold, although money is often harder to come by than a wad of hundreds in a homeless shelter.

There has been a bit of controversy regarding VF 5‘s lack of online play. Some people feel that it’s a serious detraction, especially in light of the fact that Dead or Alive 4 has online multiplayer. Even more cynical people feel that Sega has deliberately left out online play because it would take a sizable chunk out of the profitability of VF 5 in arcades. My feeling is that between the lukewarm online implementation of most games on PlayStation Network, and the laggy gameplay issues that DoA 4 has faced over Xbox Live, it’s probably better for AM2 to have left online out of the game.

There have been many a times that we at GameSpy have tooted the online horn, but at least, in this reviewer’s case, there have been enough poorly implemented online experiences that we’d rather not have it, than to play a horrifically embarrassing experience, replete with chugging framerates, frustrating near-victories, and redneck teenagers screaming into headsets. While we don’t deny that there are people unhappy with VF 5‘s lack of online multiplayer –in fact, we anticipate a litany of angry responses to our stance– we don’t feel for a split-second that it worsens the experience at all. That does not mean, however, that we don’t wish there were online leaderboards; for a game that aims to simulate an arcade experience in a variety of strange ways, it’d be nice to have a nice, fat scoreboard on PSN for all to see, a la Tony Hawk’s Project 8 on 360.

Instead of online matches, part of what makes VF 5 so satisfying for multiplayer is the sense of personalization, combined with the traditional on-the-couch trash talk that defines the fighting game experience. Players can take a character, run it through Quest mode, and build up some definitive victories, then play against friends, and the win/loss tally will still be affected. It explains why, outside of a few cheap victories from the CPU, some friends and loved ones have managed to put a few dents in my armor. There’s a strong sense of time and value invested in each character, and it really adds to the experience.

While Virtua Fighter has been known as the fighting game for the hardcore for several years now, it is with Virtua Fighter 5 that the series has a fine opportunity for some mainstream love with the average gamers. There’s never a strong sense of “oh, you picked the crutch character” that there are in other fighters. Instead, it’s a pure fighting experience that gamers who’ve only played Tekken, DoA, or Soul Calibur will be able to jump in and appreciate, while veterans will hop in and log in endless hours on unlocking as many items as possible. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect game –that’s entirely too subjective– we wish that VF 5 had some online leaderboards, slightly less cheap A.I., and we’re concerned that the hardcore might feel that in spite of its visuals, it’s really just “VF 4: NEXT Evolution” with prettier graphics. Again, while some might disagree strongly with us, we’re okay with the lack of online multiplayer in this case. Although none of us own a 1080p TV, we wonder if the resolution wasn’t capped to give the upcoming 360 version a little more “umph.” At the end of the day, however, we close with this advice: for gamers who’ve mocked their PS3-owning friends, it’s time to suck up to them and hang out at their crib for this one. One taste of this, and it’s going to feel like a long, long wait for the summertime release on Xbox 360.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Review)

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After years of wondering “what’s going on with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?”, we suddenly can’t escape the game’s shadow. It started a few weeks ago with a preview build of the single-player game (which we’re still playing), and now we’re knee-deep in the game’s multiplayer beta test, which will soon become available to the public via Fileplanet. While the multiplayer is a bit more traditional than the ambitious single-player campaign, we’ve been pretty happy with what we’ve seen so far.

To start, we were glad to see that the performance of the multiplayer beta was substantially improved over previous hands-on playtests. Granted, it helps that we just finished building a brand new test PC to play it on (with an Intel Core Duo E6600 CPU, 2GB RAM and a GeForce 8800 GTX), but even at 1920×1200, we had a smooth framerate going throughout, which we’re guessing gave us a bit of an advantage over the average player on the test servers (who, even at point-blank range, often seemed to respond slowly and miss horribly). The only drawback on our end was that we crashed to the desktop every 2 or 3 games, something we’re obviously hoping won’t be the case with the game’s March release.

The beta included two large maps and three gametypes: traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch and an “artifact hunt” mod (well, they call it “artefact,” but we won’t split hairs). Wanting to ease into things slowly, we started out with basic deathmatch, which, as it turned out, wasn’t so basic.

For the first ten minutes, I ran pretty cluelessly around the huge “Railway Station” map with a wimpy little pistol, wondering why I couldn’t find the cool weapons everyone else was killing me with. The reason: because I was a dumbass who failed to see the “press B to access the Buy menu” message at the bottom of the screen. Taking a cue from games like Counter-Strike, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a simple system where you purchase weapons and other gear every time you’re killed, from body armor to grenades and first aid kits. You start off with enough cash to buy some simple weapons, and then rack up more cash as you get frags (you get bonus money for headshots and scoring streaks). Throughout each match, you can go up in rank (I eventually made it through “Experienced” and to “Professional”), which opens access to the best gear.

With the formality of getting some decent weapons out of the way, I started exploring the Railway map, which was huge. In some ways, it reminded me of the large train station map from Call of Duty 2 — only twice the size. That might seem like overkill for a deathmatch map, but with lots of vertical architecture, like watchtowers, run-down buildings, and elevated railways, there were plenty of points to get a wider view of the map and snipe enemies from far off. Of course, being able to see that much of the map means enemies can see you, too, which helped speed up the pace of the action.

Set in a radioactive, rapidly deteriorating outdoor area near the Chernobyl plant, the action clearly sits on the “realism” side of the fence, with weapons that feel like they have a bit of weight behind them and lose accuracy as you move around. You can lean, sprint and crouch, zoom down the iron sights on most weapons, and you’ll limp around when you’re almost out of health. One nice touch is the energy bar that controls your ability to sprint; jumping will also deplete that bar, which should discourage bunny-hopping to some degree. Overall, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the classic Action Quake 2 mod (which, in my mind, is one of the highest compliments you can pay any deathmatch game).

Before long, I started to get the hang of the Railway map, using vertical structures as landmarks to get my bearings. It seemed most players like to gravitate towards a crumbling three-story building on the perimeter of the map; it provided a great view of the map, and you usually knew one or two players would be lurking about. Soon, I found a few favorites among the weapons, and started taking advantage of upgrades as my rank went up.

I think my favorite moment was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with a would-be-sniper; I managed to maneuver myself right under his position, noticed the slim spaces between the ceiling boards, and proceeded to shoot him right through the roof. It’s rare we see anything new in first-person shooters, but that was an entertaining first for me.

Eventually, after a few quick games of Team Deathmatch, I moved on to the Artifact Hunt gametype, which plays like a variant of Capture the Flag. Two teams start at opposing bases, outfit themselves with gear, hunt down a radioactive artifact on the map, and attempt to bring it back to their base. While the map was nicely designed for this style of gameplay, the mode could benefit from a few in-game tips, as many players didn’t really seem to grasp what they were supposed to be doing. In some games, players would just run around and kill each other, as if playing team deathmatch, while other times it seemed players weren’t quite sure where to bring the artifact.

This was a general problem that permeated the beta: there’s some confusing UI design and a lot of things that take some figuring out. Once you know how everything works, it’s easy enough, and there’s enough depth to keep people hooked for months, but it’s easy to see people jumping into the multiplayer, getting confused, and possibly discarding it without giving it a full chance.

Graphically, there are some things about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that look amazing, and others that look just ordinary. A day/night cycle runs during multiplayer games, along with the occasional rainfall, both opening up opportunities for dramatic lighting effects. Every area is full of little details, and yet as a whole, the two maps we played still felt a bit washed out. Granted, it’s supposed to be a dreary setting, but we’ve seen games like Half-Life 2 do desolate and still manage to be eye-catching. Considering S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s long development cycle, we’re just happy the game is finally reaching completion and still looks pretty good instead of horribly dated.

It’s remarkable that even at this late date, it’s still hard to make a solid guess on how S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will turn out. Like the single-player portions we’ve been playing through, the multiplayer looks well-designed and has a lot of depth, and yet there are still a number of little issues that we’d like to see worked out before the game’s release next month. In the meantime, we’re going to keep testing both the single-player and multiplayer sections of the game; stay tuned to GameSpy for the latest on S.T.A.L.K.E.R., including the chance to check out the multiplayer beta.

Forza Motorsport 2 (trailer+review)

First of all, great game, i would recommend watching the trailer till the end. It really rocks.

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Today two announcements regarding Forza Motorsport 2 were made today by Microsoft. The first is that the European release date of the upcoming racing game will be the same as the US release date, so expect to see some gamers from the other side of the pond online and ready to throw down on the track this May. The second announcement revealed 35 of the 300 or so cars that will be featured in Forza Motorsport 2.

Today’s list included Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis. Oldies like the 1964 Ferrari 250 GTO and the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder will appear alongside modern dream cars such as the 2006 Maserati GranSport and the 2005 Lamborghini Gallardo. Each of these cars will be fully customizable and sport real-time damage. More cars will be revealed in the coming weeks. To see today’s complete list of cars, you can head to the official Forza Motorsport 2 homepage.

Crackdown For Free ?

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As many Xbox 360 faithful are probably aware, today brings Microsoft’s latest first-party offering to store shelves. As an added bonus, those who rush out and pick up a copy of Crackdown today will be greeted with some free downloadable content once they boot the game up. The fellas at Microsoft are calling it the Four-Play Pack.

Essentially the Four-Play Pack adds four additional Agent avatars for you to choose from each time you load up your campaign (you can select a new avatar whether you’re loading an existing game or hopping into a co-op session with a friend). As you build up your Agent his appearance changes and he actually becomes older, and more weathered. The Agent you begin the game with looks nothing like the super-powered hero that finishes it, so these four new avatars do add a bit of replay value to the game.

Those who are still a bit weary about Realtime World’s extravagant sandboxer needn’t worry, we’ve confirmed with Microsoft that the download will be available – free of charge – from here on out, and is not a limited time offer.

Crackdown is a free-roaming third-person action game where players take charge of a Super Agent charged with cleaning up Pacific City. The game world packs three gangs, twenty-one gang bosses, and plenty of ridiculous carnage. What really separates Crackdown from the pack are the skills that are developed throughout gameplay. Players will enhance agility, physical strength, firearms proficiency, driving ability, and explosions in an attempt to become the city’s greatest death dealer. Needless to say, the game has garnered an M-rating from the ESRB, and will be on store shelves by the time you read this.

Halo Wars

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Any news about Halo Wars is good news right? In that spirit, Ensemble Studios announced today that its chosen Audiokinetic’s Wwise — WaveWorks Interactive Sound Engine — as its audio pipeline solution. The software helps developers blend sound effects, render effects, generate sound banks for use within a game, as well as several other editing tools for sound designers and programmers.

“Wwise is playing a major role in helping Ensemble Studios create the engaging audio experience that we feel Halo Wars deserves,” says Kevin McMullan, Music/Sound Lead, Ensemble Studios. “The first thing that stood out for us about Wwise was just how well it was designed. Because the support team was so open, responsive and helpful, the integration of Wwise into our development environment was incredibly smooth and easy.”

Ensemble Studios — the same studio that developed the heralded Age of Empires — announced that it would be creating a new Halo real-time strategy game at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). There isn’t a whole lot of info about the title beyond its name, and that it will take place within the Halo universe.

Gamers will get to take the reigns as either the Covenant or the UNSC Marine Corps, in a time period that is said to be set prior to the events of the original Halo. We’re betting that gamers will get to see the humans’ first encounter with the evil alien race, and then fight there way up to the events that begin the first game in the series.