Why Do They Call it a Woofer?

Review

If you’re an Xbox owner like me then you’ve probably warmed up to the idea of high definition. At first maybe the 720p’s and 1080i’s were scary, the 5.1’s unnecessary, and you had a perfectly fine CRT from 1994. Sooner or later though, a game came along that demanded HD. Whether it was the tumors you developed sitting three inches away from the TV trying to read the text in Dead Rising, or the desire to get the most out of Gears of War’s vibrant grey and brown color palette, your eyes demanded HD lovin’ and proceeded to sodomize your wallet.

Everything is better in HD except porn, unless razor burns are a turn on for you. It’s only logical then, that everything is better in 5.1 surround sound too. But again if you’re like me you’re either stuck in a shared apartment or your parent’s house, and while shuddering your house down to its very foundation because of an awesome explosion will put hair on your balls, other people around you may be less appreciative.

Back when 5.1 Headphones first came about, they were over $500. They probably also sucked. Xbox 360 owners should be familiar with the benefits of cutting edge technology. You get to spend excessive amounts of money to be the first kid on the block with a plastic box full of circuits and metal, and all it does is make a fancy red light pattern and sputter a bit. Unfortunately, years of new designs and advancements don’t always change things.

Enter the AX360 5.1 Surround Sound Headphones by Tritton. Enter, trip and fall, and go running back to mom. Maybe they’ll come back in 3-5 business days…

That sums up my introduction to these headphones. Well, they actually did make it to my noggin, and offered some thrilling surround sound. Unfortunately, after a few minutes it occured to me that something was amiss. While I was experiencing thundering explosions in front of me and rich sound effects, anything going on behind me sounded like it was being broadcast over HAM radio. It turns out the designers of the AX360s took the concept of having a 5.1 system on your head quite literally. Every speaker is accounted for, shrunk down to bite-size, and jammed into each earpiece. Unfortunately, it sounded like the rear channels came from a thrift store.

Armed with my experience on Xbox customer service I prepared myself for a battle against automated voices and John Smith from India. Luckily, it turns out Tritton is a small company with small company values, at least that’s the impression I got – they bend over backwards for their customers. In the end, I had two working pairs of headphones for the price of one, so I’m not really complaining.

After using them for a few weeks I can say that they work quite well. You do have to tinker with all the volume controls, and sometimes this can be on a game to game basis. After a particularly bumpin’ round of Rez I switched to Virtua Fighter 5 and nearly had my ears blown out by cheesy dialogue. There are also a lot of wires, but I’m assuming they wouldn’t pack the punch they do without all those wires. The bass is usually really impressive, and it’s complemented by an awesome but mild vibration.

The 360 part of the AX360s doesn’t mean they won’t work elsewhere. Tritton packs enough cables to hook them up to just about anything. The main advantage of these over a standard home theater pair is that they double as an Xbox Live headset.

Overall I’m a bit hesitant to recommend the AX360s. They’re an excellent pair of headphones, but I imagine better sets will come out down the line. If you have the means to set up a normal home theater, I suggest doing that, but if you don’t mind a bit of tinkering and you need to keep things quiet, they’re certainly not a bad choice.

Tentacle Rape Monster Sim 2007

Review

The Darkness for Xbox 360 is a mediocre game pretending to be an excellent one. Despite the fact that I’m completely aware of this, I still can’t decide which side I land on. It’s kind of like how George Bush is so obviously a bad guy, and yet, he gets by well enough on some sort of dopey charm. The Darkness was developed by Starbreeze, creators of the best thing Vin Diesel ever starred in: Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay for the original Xbox. There are some similarities to be found here: the concrete-to-everything-else ratio is still 10:1, the most unsuspecting weirdos all seem to need your help with something, and there are a ton of collectables – this time it’s in the form of phone numbers which you call at payphones to unlock concept art and full issues of the original comic.

Yes, The Darkness is based on the comic series of the same name. I’d never read it before, but the fact that I could barely read the text at 1080p tells me the developers did, and decided it was best to spare us. The story of the game itself is interesting enough, though, despite the fact I normally champion stories that have grey areas and questionable heroes, the plot here is a bit overbearing.

You play as Jackie Estacado, a 21-year-old gangster who was brought up by a New York City Mafia boss. He looks like half the attendees at I-Con if they had less Mountain Dew and more HGH in their diet. Unfortunately for Jackie, he is suddenly possessed by Mike Patton in the form of a demonic tentacle monster with a horrible case of bronchitis. Throughout the adventure you meet dirty cops, dirty gangsters, and even dirty undead Nazis. Aside from a particularly poignant scene in which Jackie watches To Kill a Mockingbird with his girlfriend, the entire game is about as bright as Don Corleone’s asshole.

The gameplay is standard first-person shooter fare with evil demon powers thrown in for good measure. You spend a lot of time helping out random folks in the subway with various problems that usually involve killing people. However, at one point a batshit-insane old lady had me collecting quarters she dropped in front of an oncoming train. Imagine the scene: you, waiting on the tracks so this crazy geezer can toss a handful of quarters and watch you scramble wildly for her own sadistic pleasure. All told, she spent about five dollars watching me attempt this feat, and all I got out of it was another unreadable comic book.

When I wasn’t being harassed by subway kooks, I was shooting people or raping them with slimy black tentacles. More often than not, I went the rape-route, as I found the shooting mechanics to be about as fun as threading a needle, not to mention swinging a big black cock around is a concept I hadn’t experienced in a game before. They’re usually white, and small, and Japanese.

When I investigated the cause of my aiming troubles, I came across an entire suite of tools for modifying my sensitivity. No less than four sliders allowed me to adjust a host of values I didn’t completely understand nor were documented in the instruction manual. If I wanted to mess with this stuff, I would have applied for a job at Starbreeze.

The questionable design choices don’t end there. A weird cover system exists in The Darkness which, if I were the developer, I’d give some fancy name like “Procedural Weapon/Noggin Concealment” and slap on the back of the box. In reality, it means that half the time you peak over an object to shoot someone, Jackie reaches over with his guns-and the other time he simply peaks his head out like an innocent groundhog. I found that armed gangsters weren’t phased by my attempts to stare them down, and they typically took the opportunity to play Jackie-mole with my exposed head.

These glitches and control issues were persistent, but I quickly found ways around them. One of your powers allows you to detach one of your slithering sausage monsters and perform remote kills safely from a distance. By the end of the game, I’d dispatched half the population of New York City with the little guy. Nothing like the hero cowering behind trash cans the entire game.

Despite all the awkwardness, I have to say I enjoyed my 10-12 hours of time with The Darkness. There were enough clever little moments to keep things interesting, especially if you can grab it for $20 or so. Just don’t touch the multiplayer modes. Online play feels like a practical joke, with characters barely animating, a complete lack of responsiveness, and everyone I played with wondering what they’d gotten themselves into. If you’re into story-driven shooters with a dark tone, you can look past all the silly gameplay quirks, and if you’ve already played the far-superior Riddick, I’d say The Darkness is a good rental or cheap buy.

Through the Looking Glass of Shit

Review

LOST: Via Domus is the new game for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC based on the ABC TV series. The first thing I will say is that if you’ve never watched LOST, you can take this opportunity to think about what you’ll do with that money you save by not buying or even renting this game. You can also think about what to do for the 3-7 hours you’ll have not playing this game, or the 5 minutes you may have spent reading this. Seriously, move on–this game isn’t for you.

In Via Domus, you take control of a new character, a man suffering amnesia and premature graying who was on Oceanic 815 with the rest of the survivors. Right from the start, we have the most canned plotline in the history of story telling. Luckily, the plot improves as you learn more, but the first twenty minutes or so will most likely turn off anyone who isn’t suffering buyer’s remorse.

The lack of genuine voice actors for many of the characters makes for some unfortunately hilarious lines. Michael exclaiming, “WALT!” while staring lifelessly into the distance with creepy bug eyes is as much unnerving as it is tear-enducing-ly funny. Fortunately, the characters who are most pivotal to the story either have competent stand-ins or are voiced by the real deal. That is, all but John Locke, who sounds like an Indian chief trying to sell used cars (“Brand spankin’ new!”).

Even if you are a diehard LOST fan who engraves cryptic messages in your pencils and backs out of the driveway at a bearing of 325, you’re probably going to take issue at some of the liberties this game takes. It never explicitly contradicts the source material, but when the writers of the show tell us it’s not canonical, the whole experience comes off as a multi-million dollar piece of fan fiction. It’s really too bad, because I have to say I liked most of the story, including the well timed ending that coincided with the episode which aired the same week.

A good story with some entertaining twists is great, but ultimately this is a game. That’s where things go terribly, terribly wrong. Besides a few completely nonsensical fuse-box puzzles reminiscent of the hacking puzzles in last year’s Bioshock, LOST’s gameplay relies on frustrating trial and error. Apparently, the developers felt it would be clever to include several timed 15-20 second sequences where if you don’t take a picture at just the right time it would loop endlessly until you got it. From what bargain bin did this professional photo-journalist get a camera that can’t even auto-focus? The fun continues when you feel around in the dark for bottomless pits or get jumped in the randomly-timed smoke monster insta-kills.

It gets better, though, as I simply must share one of the most absurd logic puzzles of all time. It’s not quite as bad as catching cat hairs to make a moustache, but it’s a good reminder of why the adventure game genre is all but dead. I shall change the names of the characters to avoid spoiling anything.

At one point, two ninjas have kidnapped the president and his daughter and have taken them aboard a pirate ship. As the bad dude, I had to stop them with the pistol I’d fired about three times in the entire game. My first idea was to shoot the ninja immediately in front of me, as any bad dude should always go for the quickest and bloodiest resolution. Unfortunately, the other ninja killed the president’s daughter when I did this. In my second attempt, I shot the other ninja, surprised to find that it resulted in the president getting shot by the first ninja. On my third try, I noted a stick of dynamite on a box and immediately shot it, which stopped the two ninjas but also blew up the daughter. Going against everything in my small bad dude mind, I tried leaving and was immediately stricken with a deadly case of guilt. At last, I concluded that a bad dude would simply absorb the dynamite explosion in his manly chest hairs, knocking out the ninjas but blocking the president’s daughter from harm.

No one would ever, ever think to do that on the first try, and it’s this absurd kind of design that is ultimately LOST‘s downfall. Well, that and the fact that you spend most of a scant five hours running around barren yet beautifully designed set pieces, begging the game to give you something to do. The story is nice, but the actual game, the whole point of programming all of this rather than just airing it as an episode, is horridly flawed. It’s a rental for any LOST fan who was excited about it, and that’s as far as I can recommend it. It seems one thing will never change, and if I ever get Desmond’s time travel sickness, crappy licensed games will be my constant.

Burnout Paradise review – No Girls or Green Grass in this City

The Burnout racing game series has until this point been about driving fast, crashing, and repeatedly pressing A to advance through about a million confirmation, warning, and congratulatory screens. Allow me to give you an example of the kind of punishment one had to endure for the act of finishing a race in first place:

“CONGRATULATIONS!” Press “A”.
“YOU UNLOCKED A NEW CAR!” Press “A”.
“Would you like to save?” Select “Yes”.
“Are you sure?” Press “A”.
“WARNING! Do not remove your memory card during the saving process.” Press “A”.
“Game Saved.” Press “A”.
“Dave, will I dream? Daaaaaaave.” And then you power down the system.

Occasionally you got to play a racing game but mostly this was what I recall spending my time doing. Thankfully this element has been mostly stricken from the latest entry: Burnout Paradise, and replaced with a huge concrete playground to speed excessively in. Fans disappointed by the lack of interruptions will be happy to know that by merely unlocking a few cars they’ll be treated to 2-3 minutes of scrolling text and the obligatory jamming of the “A” button next time they visit the garage. For the rest of us this is an unwelcome distraction but ultimately nowhere near as intolerable as it was in Burnout 3: Takedown.

Since more often than not I actually got to play Paradise, I should probably say something about the game itself. You’re thrusted into an open world environment where events are activated at any street intersections, cars are earned by tracking down and crashing into them, and every single car inexplicably lacks a driver. The vehicles handle so well you’ll feel like you’re channeling The Stig. The graphics are so smooth my eyes came. The game is so much pure fun that I don’t really see any point in touching something like Gran Turismo or Forza ever again. Sorry gearheads, but adjusting camber is never going to be as fun as weaving through traffic at 200 mph, smashing into an opponent, and turning their car into a fiberglass accordion.

The open world is initially awe-inspiring; then unfortunately, for a period, controller-throwing-ly frustrating. The mini-map is zoomed in way too close for the speeds you travel at. You’ll regularly find yourself taking an entirely wrong turn, thinking you took a shortcut, and then finishing at a solid, respectable 8th place. There are turn signals at the top of the screen that tell you when to turn if you don’t want to take any shortcuts, but the moment you go off the beaten path it is critical that you ignore it completely. In fact, just ignore it anyway, be a man, don’t stop for directions, and just learn the city. It’s the Steve McQueen way. Eventually you’ll start to know major roads by name, the best shortcuts, and the craziest stunt jumps. Once it all clicks the game becomes a completely different beast, so give it some time.

One feature I must hit on is the amazing online play. Everything is so seamless you can literally do a double barrel roll off a cliff while inviting your friends to your game. The only time there’s a break in the action is when you gather everyone for a race. Races always end at one of the 8 major landmarks in the city but can start from any intersection in Paradise. This is especially brilliant because once you learn all of the finish lines no matter where the race starts you have a general idea of where to go. There are few gaming experiences as adrenaline pumping as a close 8 player race in Burnout Paradise.

There’s a lot more to say about this game, but it’s really not necessary for me to go on for pages about the hundreds of single player events, 350 co-op challenges, user created races, webcam support, and wide variety of vehicles. All told, I’ve spent over 25 hours playing this game and I’m absolutely ready to go back for more. If you love racing games, buy Burnout Paradise immediately. I will warn that there is a multi-hour learning period as you settle into Paradise City, but ultimately it pays off. Casual gamers will have fun tooling around the city while the hardcore will aim for every shortcut. If you’re in between it’s possible you’ll end up overwhelmed and bored, but just stick with it, learn with some friends, and it will eventually gel. If you’re on the fence, you owe it to yourself to at least rent it as it’s easily the best entry in the series and one of the best arcade racing game ever.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato