The Video Game Critic's
Halloween Review Special
The Critic's "Fright Factor" ratings:Ain't no thing but a chicken wing.
Marginally scary... what was that noise? Did you hear something out back?
Creepy as hell, but you'll survive. Probably. Maybe.
Yikes, this is intense. Could somebody hit the lights?
This will absolutely scare the living [expletive] out of you.
Unbearable. Why am I doing this to myself?!
Land of the Dead (Groove Media 2005) B
It may not look like much, but if Land of the Dead's purpose is to scare the hell out of the player, it gets the job done. This game didn't seem to garner much attention at the time of release, but it's actually pretty good. It feels decidedly low budget, but then again, a lot of the best horror movies were low budget (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Blair Witch Project). Graphics-obsessed gamers are likely to dismiss Land of the Dead with its angular zombies, plain scenery, and frame-rate glitches. Even I have to admit that the trees look awful. But underneath that rough surface lies some truly unsettling first-person action. The locations are faithful to the zombie movie genre, and your limited view makes it easy for things to creep up on you. The first stage is set in a farmhouse, and I thought that I was safe after closing my front door. Needless to say I jumped a mile when I saw some rotting ghoul shambling through my living room (and dirtying up my rug). The stage that truly won me over was the cornfield stage. What's more scary that frantically trying to escape a cornfield with decomposing monsters closing in on you? The zombies look scary enough, and while they sometimes stand around clueless, they have a way of lunging at you unexpectedly. The well-designed controls let you run using the left trigger, but over time you'll run short of breath and have to slow down. There's a lot of firepower readily available, but reloading some weapons can be agonizingly slow. Hey, that just adds to the suspense. Land of the Dead won't win any awards, but if you've ever wanted to play a part in a zombie film, it's exactly what you're looking for.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Grabbed By The Ghoulies (Microsoft 2004) D+
Grabbed by the Ghoulies had a lot going for it. First off, it's from Rare - the makers of Donkey Kong Country and Banjo Kazooie (among others). The game has a zany horror theme in the tradition of Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, 1993), and it's one of the few Xbox titles suitable for kids. The premise resolves around a teenager named Cooper whose girlfriend is abducted and carried into an old mansion. The story is conveyed via comic book-style cells, and it's fun to watch them flash by. Ghoulies makes a fine first impression with its slick production values, fast pacing, and good humor. I really like the dance scene with monsters cutting the rug as a mummy works the turntables. The mansion is expansive, but you'll also venture through surrounding areas including a farm and a lighthouse. Ghoulies looks like a generic platformer on the surface, there's no jumping - just lots of fighting. Upon entering each new room the doors are barred shut until you defeat all the creeps therein. The actual "ghoulies" are comical little demon monsters, but you'll also face zombies, mummies, pirates, and vampire chickens. I love how the pirates repeatedly scream "arrghh" as you pummel them. If you take too long to dispatch the creeps, the grim reaper appears, playing the "Evil Otto" role (Berzerk, Atari 2600). You unleash attacks using the right thumbstick, holding it toward an enemy to unleash a flurry. This ill-advised control scheme feels mushy, inexact, and unsatisfying. It's actually hard to tell when a monster is defeated, so you'll waste a lot of time and energy needlessly pounding on lifeless corpses. Weapons include water guns and fire extinguishers, but these are confusing to use. The more you play Grabbed by the Ghoulies, the less enjoyable it becomes. Advanced stages incorporate arbitrary rules that force you to only attack certain enemies or only use specific weapons. Monsters in advanced stages take too long to beat down, and some are practically impervious to attacks. Even the fun of exploration dissipates as you're forced to backtrack early and often. The camera control is left completely to the player (via the triggers), and it's a real hassle in enclosed areas. Rare dropped the ball with this one. Ill-advised controls and lazy design make Grabbed by the Ghoulies feel like a squandered opportunity.
Haunted Mansion, The (TDK 2003) B+
For those of you that were disgusted by Disney's slow-paced Pirates of the Caribbean game, I can assure you that Haunted Mansion is ten times better. Let me qualify this review by stating that I've been a Haunted Mansion nut since I was a little kid. When I was 6, my parents bought me the Haunted Mansion book and record set, which I cherish to this day (yes, I still have it). I've been on the Haunted Mansion Disney ride (in three of the parks) literally dozens of times. To me, the Haunted Mansion embodies what Halloween should be: scary but fun. Initially, I was worried about this game, because the back of the box shows what looks like a run-of-the-mill 3D platform game, resembling Medi-Evil (PS1) or Maximo (PS2). But Haunted Mansion is a supremely enjoyable game that's really hard to stop playing. Though a little tame by video game standards, it retains the same dark but whimsical tone of the ride. Haunted Mansion is a bit on the easy side, but every room is full of new surprises. Each contains a unique puzzle that's tricky enough to make you think, but not so hard that you'll get stuck. It's truly commendable how the developers came up with so many interesting puzzles that never seem frustrating or tedious. Without giving away too much, I'll give you an example of one that I found to be clever. In one room, you're shrunk down and placed on a pool table where an invisible being starts shooting the cue ball at you. After running for my life for a few minutes, I realized that by standing near other balls, I could get them knocked into the pockets, which solved the puzzle. Besides puzzles, you'll shoot your share of ghosts and giant spiders, some of which are quite frightening. The floating lady ghosts have hair covering their face, reminiscent of the movie The Ring. One flaw is that it can be difficult to shoot spiders that are at your feet. The house itself looks properly gothic and dilapidated, and the otherworldly sound effects are sure to give you the creeps. There are some nice touches that Haunted Mansion fans will appreciate, like busts that turn their heads to follow you around the room, and portraits of decaying corpses. The camera is rarely a problem, and there are numerous opportunities to save. Haunted Mansion isn't completely original, but its thoughtful puzzles, simple gameplay, and excellent presentation make it one of the more enjoyable games I've played on the Xbox. It could have been a bit scarier, but otherwise I am thrilled with this likeable adventure.
Rating: Teen (mild violence)
House of the Dead III (Sega 2002) B+
I consider myself a House of the Dead veteran, having played through both the first House of the Dead (Saturn) and its sequel (Dreamcast). House of the Dead III (HOD3) doesn't offer much innovation, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. As in most light gun games, your movement is automatic, so all you have to do is blast away at the "undead" ghouls. Sega originally started programming this as a cell-shaded, cartoonish-looking game, and remnants of that style can still be seen. The creatures and gore are too unrealistic and over-the-top to be frightening. When killed, the zombies disappear in a splash of green blood. People in the cut-scenes have freakishly large hands. The sound effects are pretty alarming, and the understated music is effective. HOD3 contains the same bad dialogue we've come to expect (and love) from the series, including gems like "We can't let everyone's death be in vain!" and "G, what happened to the world?" This edition has some new features that add to the fun. You are equipped with a powerful rifle, but that's the only weapon you'll get. Reloading is automatic, so you don't need to shoot off-screen. At certain intervals, you can explicitly choose between multiple routes, although other actions also affect your path through the game. You are now alerted to rescue situations before they happen, so you won't accidentally shoot the innocent. All of the action takes place in a huge factory. It looks great, but unfortunately you can't shoot up the scenery - just a few barrels and boxes. I was really impressed with some of the imaginative scenarios in this game. I love the boss that chases you up the stairs, and the zombies trying to squeeze through the closing elevator doors is reminiscent of a scene from Dawn of the Dead. In one area, you even have to shoot bodies that are falling from above. I've read several reviews that say the regular XBox controller works just as well as the light gun (made by Mad Catz), but I don't agree. While I will admit the controller works better than expected, there's really no substitute for a good light gun. Bonus features include the House of the Dead 2 (arcade perfect) and a surprisingly long preview of the upcoming House of the Dead movie. If you like frenetic arcade shooting action, HOD3 is a good choice. The non-stop carnage is exhilarating at times, and there aren't many titles like this for the XBox. Light Gun Note: For best results, use the Pelican Rifle or the gun by Cypher Games. Beware of the MadCatz Blaster which doesn't work on many TVs.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick (THQ 2003) D
I wasn't expecting much for $20, but being a long-time Evil Dead fanatic, I was hoping that Fistful of Boomstick would at least be respectable. I figured I could tolerate some mediocre gameplay as long as it retained that classic over-the-top horror formula I've always loved. Well, you have to be careful what you ask for, because this is certainly mediocre, and I don't think I like it so much. Wandering through town blasting ghouls with your shotgun and dismembering them with a chainsaw is entertaining for a while, but the fun doesn't last. The graphics are below average, with plain-looking, uninteresting scenery. The character models are blocky, although the gratuitous splattering blood and flying limbs do compensate for this somewhat. Our hero Ash is voiced by Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, who sounds like he's having a swell time. His funny wisecracks include gems like "Yes, you may have another", "Thank you for shopping at ass-whippings R Us," and "I bet you're for gun control now, huh?" The monsters do seem to possess the classic Evil Dead mannerisms, but they look pretty rough for an Xbox game. The stages contain a series puzzles that often defy logic, and you'll find yourself running in circles. Battling zombies in the streets hardly feels like an Evil Dead movie, and it's frustrating not being able enter most buildings. In addition to fighting, you'll also talk to people and collect keys to open new areas. Spells gradually become available, but trying to execute a spell in the heat of battle is hazardous to your health. In later stages medical kits are in short supply and the zombies swarm you from all directions. Fistful of Boomstick was an ill-conceived project, and even Evil Dead fans will find it hard to justify shelling out $20 for it.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Van Helsing (Universal 2004) B-
Unlike most movie-based video games, Van Helsing is a very enjoyable action-adventure. I wasn't thrilled with the film, but I must say that Van Helsing's subject matter is perfectly suited for a video game. All the monsters, stages, and bosses are conveniently provided by the film. Van Helsing is a monster hunter in a trench coat on the trail of the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and Dracula. The characters closely resemble those in the movie, and like the film, the acting and dialogue are pretty bad. The background story is a streamlined version of the movie, but it's of little consequence in a game like this. You'll have a lot of fun exploring the haunted castles, collecting items, and blowing away undead ghouls. The game is played from a third-person perspective, along the lines of Devil May Cry, Ominusha, or Castlevania Lament of Innocence. Van Helsing doesn't innovate on the genre, but it doesn't have to. The dark, gothic European scenery is quite atmospheric - I just wish I had some control of the camera so I could freely examine my surroundings. The castles, towns, and graveyards are meticulously detailed, but I found the annoying cave levels to be far less interesting. I actually had to subtract half a letter grade for getting stuck in those caves (by no fault of my own of course)! Many stages feature pathways that look similar to each other, resulting in a lot of inadvertent backtracking. You'll face a host of cool creatures like flying vampire women, ephemeral ghosts, and shambling skeletons. Unfortunately, you'll also have to deal with some downright boring pests like floating skulls or Dracula's diminutive workers, who look too much like Ewoks. Our hero is armed out with some very effective weapons like spinning blades and a rapid-fire crossbow. As you would expect, you collect new weapons and learn new moves as you progress. Monsters tend to regenerate when you return to previous areas, but you can often dart right past them. Van Helsing is action packed, and the puzzles aren't very hard to figure out. I love how the game is saved often and transparently. Van Helsing doesn't push the envelope, but it serves its purpose very well. Monster movie fans would be wise to give this one a chance.
Rating: Teen (Blood and gore, violence)
The Suffering (Midway 2004) B+
I initially backed off of this prison-themed horror title, mainly because of its subject matter, which I perceived to be both disturbing and gratuitously violent. The guy on the cover is in an electric chair for Pete's sake! But once I heard the sequel was set in my hometown of Baltimore, my curiosity was piqued. Upon further investigation, I was surprised to discover a quality, mature-themed action-adventure with impressive production values. This is definitely a mature title. The main character, a hardened criminal named Torque, is trapped in an island prison where chaos breaks out. The profanity is relentless, but considering the characters are hard-core inmates, it actually seems appropriate. The professional voice acting also helps make the profane dialogue sound halfway believable and less gratuitous. The gore manifests itself in splattering blood and severed limbs, but it's nothing I haven't seen before. The Silent Hill-inspired freaks are pretty nasty. Resembling the subjects of sick experiments, some have syringes for eyes and others have blades for limbs. The action is mainly limited to exploring buildings and killing monsters, but it's a blast! Whether using the first or third person viewpoint, you always have a good angle and the controls are responsive and intuitive. During critical moments, you can transform yourself into a rampaging monster. On your journey you'll have the opportunity to team up with other prisoners, who actually help you dispose of these creeps. I also like how monitors on the walls let you preview upcoming areas - we've seen it before, but it's still effective. A tragic background story is conveyed through a series of unsettling hallucinations, providing bits and pieces of Torque's sordid past. If you'd think running around in a prison facility would be boring, you haven't seen Abbott Maximum Security Penitentiary. The atmosphere is intense, with inhuman sounds, alarming percussion, and eerie lighting that convey a sense of danger and foreboding. It's like walking through a haunted house - perfect for Halloween. The surround sound is so effective that you can even use it to locate the source of noises. I'm glad I didn't miss out on this. If you're over 16 and can stomach the gore, The Suffering can be a pleasurable experience.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)
The Suffering: Ties That Bind (Midway 2005) B
In the first Suffering game, an anti-hero named Torque blasted his way out of an island prison invaded by the legions of hell. This sequel offers the same brand of limb severing, brain-splattering action, but this time the city of Baltimore has gone to hell (uh... more so). While you might assume the change of venue would lead to a more wide-open brand of chaotic mayhem, that's not really the case. The streets, alleyways, and even rooftop areas tend to be surprisingly closed-in and even claustrophobic in design. Much of the action takes place indoors as well, in some truly disgusting dilapidated buildings. In general, the dark environments are effectively unnerving and extremely well conceived. Likewise, the grotesque monsters with weapons melded to their bloody limbs look absolutely terrific, particularly when combined with the flashes of machinegun fire. I love how they continue to twitch after you pump them full of lead. The Suffering's disturbing locales, regenerating freaks, fantastic lighting effects, and a relentless cacophony of alarming sound effects combine to make Ties That Bind feel like a living nightmare. In addition to its atmosphere, the developers did a lot of other things right as well. The gameplay is fast-paced - almost arcade-like - and the controls never let you down. Although the city is Baltimore by name alone, each new section looks very distinctive and the attention to detail is remarkable. You never feel like you're revisiting similar areas. And instead of forcing to you to view verbose, lengthy cut-scenes (Metal Gear Solid 3 anyone?), the background story is conveyed through brief but effective clips that blur the line between hallucination and reality. The shaky, grainy style of this footage takes its cue from the classic film Seven. While the stages are linear in design, moral decisions you make shape events later in the game. Best of all, The Suffering is easy to play. There's no need to juggle items, because it's all done automatically. You can save at any time, and there's actually an easy difficulty level (good idea!). On the downside, while the voice acting is high quality, I could have done without the gratuitous profanity. Also, while most of the graphics are excellent, the people models look surprisingly angular and stuff. But if you're an adult looking for a shooter than won't make you think very much, Ties That Bind is a satisfying romp. And remember, Baltimore may be the embodiment of hell, but you really can't beat the crab cakes.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)
Silent Hill 4: The Room (Konami 2004) B
With a fresh new premise and the freakiest batch of monsters you'll ever see, Silent Hill 4 delivers the gore, chills, and thrills we've come to expect from this quality horror series. You play a man who wakes up to find himself trapped in his own apartment, which has been tastefully decorated with a huge hole in the bathroom wall and chains draped over the front door. The hole serves a portal to mysterious surreal worlds, with locales that include a prison, subway, and forest. Between trips to these areas, you return to your "room" to save your place and gather clues by peering through windows and peepholes. Despite its innovative design, Silent Hill 4 is surprisingly linear, with key events occurring in a predetermined order. As usual for a Silent Hill game, the story tries to be cerebral but makes no sense at all. Still, the action is intense thanks to interesting scenery and marvelously designed monsters. I have to hand it to the artists - they have really outdone themselves. Grotesque bodies "grow" out of walls and creepy corpses glide around as if being propped up by an unseen force. The baby-faced, two-headed freaks walking on two arms are especially twisted. I was surprised how Silent Hill 4 has moved away from the "flashlight in the dark" approach. Most stages are well lit, and as a result the gameplay feels less edgy and more like Resident Evil. The graphics are top notch, with a stylish, washed-out look which reminded me of the movie Seven. The creature animation is uncanny, but for some reason your man walks like he has a huge pole up his butt! What's that all about? The sound effects are more understated than Silent Hill 3, but still effectively chilling. Silent Hill 4 isn't as terrifying as it could have been, but at least it takes the series in a new direction. Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes)
Fatal Frame 2: Director's Cut (Tecmo 2004) C+
If you're ever in the mood to be scared silly, you really can't go wrong with these Fatal Frame games. An intense third-person adventure, Fatal Frame 2 (FF2) incorporates cinematic techniques like those used in Japanese horror flicks such as The Ring and The Grudge, both of which managed to scare the living [expletive] out of me. FF2 is a story of two young sisters wandering through the woods and stumbling across an abandoned village. According to legend, it was once of place of evil cults and human sacrifices, and its grisly past is gradually revealed through a series of eerie, grainy cut scenes. While FF2's graphics are hardly state of the art, they are sufficiently dark and ambiguous to convey a genuine sense of foreboding. The long shadows and moonlight midst give the forest a Blair Witch flavor, and the tiny rooms are extremely claustrophobic. You'll often catch a glimpse of something in corner of your eye, heightening the sense of paranoia. Like its predecessor, gameplay involves dispelling ghosts by snapping their pictures with a special camera, and timing is key. Normally several "shots" are required, and the ghosts rematerialize in different places each time, creating a sense of alarm as you frantically search around. Few games sent chills down my spine and made my hair stand on end like Fatal Frame 2 - the game is actually distressing at times! The "heartbeat" controller vibration, otherworldly sound effects, and hideous ghosts combine to create an immersive, frightful experience. Adding to the tension are some of the most effective cinematic techniques I've ever witnessed in a video game. Even the "spirit radio" audio clips are unsettling. FF2's difficulty is fair, the save points are copious, and load times are negligible. Unfortunately, the game is marred by design flaws that become increasingly apparent as you progress. With regards to your camera, the game designers took a beautifully simple concept and overcomplicated it beyond all rhyme or reason. With an excessive number of interchangeable parts, upgradeable functions, and customization options, Fatal Frame 2 has the dubious distinction of being the "Gran Turismo" of horror games. You're even forced to perform "combos" with your camera, which is just plain stupid. Another problem is that your movements are severely limited, with invisible walls that often impede your progress. The controls are responsive enough - until you need them the most. During ghost attacks the frame rate suffers and the controls become flakey to say the least. As you encounter more powerful ghouls, successfully executed "fatal frames" are anything but, and you soon learn the concept of instant death. I should also mention that my copy of the game is buggy and requires about 10 minutes to load a saved game! In the final analysis, Fatal Frame 2 is undeniably scary, but lousy design and technical glitches prevent it from taking the series to new heights.
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse (Wideload Games 2005) C-
I absolutely love the premise behind this unique zombie game. In an entertaining twist on the usual theme, you play the zombie, attacking people and eating their brains to sustain your energy. Stubbs the Zombie has style to burn, with hilarious animations, over-the-top gore, outrageous attacks, a killer retro soundtrack, and a wicked sense of humor. Stubbs limps around in that classic zombie manner, cigarette in mouth and organs hanging from the huge gash in his side. Your basic attack involves smacking innocent people into a daze, and then eating their brains as they scream, "Please stop eating me!" As the stages progress, you acquire unconventional new attacks which include releasing poisonous flatulence, tossing organ grenades, "bowling" using your own head, and possessing people with your disembodied hand. It's even possible to rip off a soldier's arm and beat him with it! People you kill soon turn into zombies themselves, providing you with a mini army to invade the next area with. As good as it sounds, Stubbs is crippled by its dull, repetitive stages. The game is supposed to be set in a futuristic town as envisioned during the 1950's, along the lines of Disney's old Tomorrowland. While you might expect this to provide ample comedic material, it really doesn't, and the sterile, spacious environments provide little to see. In fact, some stages are so incredibly boring that you'd think the developers made a concerted effort to make them that way. We're talking about empty parking garages, a maze-like police station, deserted city streets, and shopping malls with no stores! Everyone knows the future is boring, but c'mon now! Half the time you can't even tell where you're supposed to go next! I can't help but think how this game would have really kicked ass with some Resident Evil-quality scenery. Another nagging issue is the excruciating load times, probably the worst I've ever witnessed on the Xbox. It was so bad that a friend asked me if this was an Electronic Arts game (that's bad!). Technically, Stubbs the Zombie is solid, with responsive controls, sharp visuals, and remarkable animations. That shouldn't be surprising considering the game's main claim to fame is its use of the Halo engine. Another notable feature is its cool retro soundtrack, with re-recorded versions of classic songs like Mr. Sandman, Lonesome Town, and My Boyfriend's Back. There's even a hilarious dance bonus stage that plays like the old electronic game Simon. But for all the interesting twists and gimmicks, Stubb's gameplay is somewhat repetitive and boring, although the split-screen two-player cooperative mode does enhance the experience. Some may find Stubbs the Zombie too bizarre to resist, but this is clearly more style that substance.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights (THQ 2003) B+
The team that produced this game really had their act together. Despite employing every hackneyed platform gaming device known to mankind, Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights succeeds in a big way. It gets off on the right foot with a quality intro that not only captures the distinctive look of the cartoon series, but even incorporates the catchy original theme song! This game itself is about as close as you can get to an interactive cartoon. The 3D characters are exceptionally well animated and incorporate literally dozens of scary villains from the old series, including the wolf man, ghost diver, the "creeper", and the witch doctor. As you explore a haunted mansion, spooky graveyard, and ghostly pier, you'll collect Scooby snacks, discover hidden areas, and unlock warp gates. Each stage has multiple paths, and some require a specific power-up to enter. These power-ups include a football helmet used to bash in spider webs, and a lampshade to hide from monsters. The game becomes more fun as you acquire more items, and their accompanying animations are very entertaining. The platform action is pretty standard, but the short stages and forgiving difficulty compensate for that. I did encounter a few issues with judging jumps, but that's par for the course with any 3D platformer. What I really love about the game is its attention to detail. In the haunted mansion stages, you might expect every hallway and room to look the same, but instead they're populated with all kinds of interesting antique furniture and spooky portraits. There's even an eerie green glow shining through the windows and onto the floors. The game is loaded with all sorts of things associated with Halloween, including spider webs, graveyards, organ music, and monsters that pop out of the scenery. The audio is absolutely stunning. The background music sounds as if it's lifted directly from the show, and the sounds of creaking doors, fluttering wings, and howling wolves are crisp and clear. Scooby Doo himself has a surprising amount of dialogue, and many of his lines are nothing short of hilarious. Last but not least, the game even has laugh track - how bizarre is that?? Great fun for the whole family, Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights sometimes feels more like a funhouse ride than a game. Rating: Everyone
Painkiller: Hell Wars (Dreamcatcher 2006) B-
With first-person shooters becoming increasingly more sophisticated (see Bioshock and Halo 3), Painkiller's "shoot-everything-that-moves" gameplay is refreshing and fun. This game was first released for the PC in 2004, and I still recall my friend Scott showing it off and telling me what a great Halloween title it was. He was right! Despite its age, Painkiller still looks great on the Xbox. The game's storyline is conveyed through cut-scenes starring a topless gal named Eve. As you stare intently at her boobs, she blabs away about something or another. Painkiller's early stages are set in spooky graveyards and vast cathedrals, complete with chanting and organ music. Hooded monks approach menacingly but explode into meaty chucks when blasted at close range. Each stage offers a fantastic new environment like a swamp, prison, opera house, town, or asylum. A few stages go a bit overboard with the winding staircases, so much so that the opera house actually made me nauseous! Painkiller is fast and frantic, but despite the occasional hiccup in the frame rate, the action flows smoothly. The game's innovative weapons include a wooden stake gun, a freeze ray, and the "Painkiller", which is best described as a "blender on a stick". Enemies react according to where they're hit, so when an approaching freak takes a wooden stake to the chest, it looks awesome. You'll face a nice variety of monks, knights, bikers, mental patients, demons, and even witches on broomsticks!. They are all nicely rendered and spooky-looking. Unfortunately, there are only two or three enemies per level, and the massive waves of attackers make you feel like you're killing the same guys over and over again! Heavy metal guitar riffs play as you unleash a six-pack of whoop-ass on the undead bastards. Lucky for you, they never seem to realize that those barrels are indeed flammable. Occasionally you'll transform in a demon yourself, becoming invincible as your vision changes to a blurry black-and-white perspective. Once the carnage subsides, you can collect souls and search for ammo, weapons, and hidden areas. It's really annoying how souls take a few seconds to appear, forcing you to wait impatiently for these green clouds to materialize (yes, souls are green!). Gold coins can also be collected and used to purchase tarot cards (power-ups) between stages. Painkiller's colossal bosses are impressive, and some of these towering behemoths reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 2, 2005). I truly enjoyed Painkiller's occult themes and pick-up-and-play quality. If it's close to Halloween and you're feeling more violent than usual, you may even want to bump up the grade to a solid "B". Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity)
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (Konami 2006) D+
It's like beating a dead horse to say Castlevania has never been very good in 3D. Still, Konami keeps plugging away, hoping one day they'll make a 3D version that comes close to capturing the magic of the popular 2D titles. With Curse of Darkness, you have to wonder how hard they're trying. Darkness basically mimics the lackluster gameplay of Lament of Innocence (Playstation 2, 2003), but incorporates more "stuff". The melodramatic, overwrought introduction reveals that upon his death three years before, Dracula unleashed a terrible curse upon the land. You just can't win with this guy! I wasn't too impressed by the androgynous characters and embarrassing prose sprinkled with pretentious words like "thence". The game takes itself far too seriously, with verbose, drawn-out cut-scenes that bored me to tears. The equally uninspired gameplay consists of running down long halls while hacking at monsters that materialize out of thin air. The hallways and rooms tend to be wide-open, probably in an effort to ease camera issues. The camera control could be better, but it's about average for this type of game. Harder to justify is how you can't see very far into the distance - it's like every hallway is shrouded in fog! The gothic scenery is elegant enough, but each section of the castle has a bunch of rooms that look exactly the same, making it easy to get disoriented. Gaudy arrows attempt to keep you moving in the right direction, but their 3D, rotating appearance makes them tough to discern at certain angles. You almost wish they had just labeled the doors "in" and "out". Minions you'll encounter are standard Castlevania fare, including werewolves, skeletons, ghosts, cyclops, and mermen. They look good, but I hate how they spawn arbitrarily, and then respawn when you return to old areas. The controls are crisp and responsive, allowing you to strike down multiple enemies with ease. One notable new feature is your "fairy" sidekick who "evolves" throughout the game. Castlevania's lush orchestrated musical score is well done, but even that gets old after a whole. Curse of Darkness is a step up from Lament, but it's still generic and uninspired. The Castlevania formula just doesn't "work" well in 3D. If you're looking for some real occult fun, try the Devil May Cry series instead. Rating: Mature (blood and violence)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Electronic Arts 2002) B-
Much like the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is better than you might expect! The production values are top-shelf, with genuinely creepy environments, intuitive controls, and intelligent voice dialogue provided by the actors themselves (except for Sarah Michelle Gellar). The game offers a mix of exploration, puzzle-solving, and even sniping, but you'll spend most of your time showing monsters what the wrong end of a karate kick feels like. As a kung-fu hottie of the highest magnitude, Buffy beats down vampires, hellhounds, spiders, shambling zombies, and assorted other supernatural minions. The spiders look pretty gross, and the decomposed zombies keep coming back - even after losing a few limbs. The impressive fighting engine dishes out fluid and surprisingly elaborate attack combinations. Sometimes Buffy can dispose of a foe with a single, well-timed backhanded stab, and it's satisfying to watch a vampire disintegrate into dust. There's no shortage of weapons, including crossbows, flamethrowers, holy water, shovels, and even baseball bats. It's easy to throw enemies, and chances are, there's a sharp piece of wood sticking out somewhere closeby! Tossing vampires in front of moving trains is another enjoyable pastime. Certain locations are inspired by the show, including the high school and the Bronze nightclub. Realistic moonlight, fog, and flame effects convey an eerie atmosphere, and there are some genuinely frightening sights, like a contorted body crammed into a locker. Equally unnerving is the otherworldly music and disturbing sound effects like creaks, growls, and giggles. Locations like the mausoleum border on photo-realistic, but the cemetery feels too maze-like and the industrial areas are downright boring. Fortunately, none of the stages are particularly long. Another issue is the monotonous battles caused by too much monster respawning. She only killed like one or two in each show, yet she plows through them by the dozen here! Through it all Buffy tosses out some great lines like "You want a piece of me?! I'll give you the whole damned pie!" You go girl!! The characters are dead-ringers for the real actors, and their lips even match the dialogue. The controls are simple and responsive, although switching between weapons is a bit of a hassle. The fact that Buffy runs and climbs quickly allows the game to progress at a brisk pace. There's a nifty auto-save mechanism as well. All in all, this is a very well constructed game that I'm sure will become a collector's item, considering the show's cult status. Feel free to bump up the grade by one letter if you're a fan of the show!
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, mild language, suggestive themes)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds (Vivendi Universal Games 2003) D+
When I started playing Chaos Bleeds, I was like, "Wait a minute, this doesn't even look as good as the first Buffy game!" It's true. The environments aren't nearly as detailed or dark, and indoor areas like the Magic Shop look far too spacious and clean. The characters appear more cartoonish and their faces look like dolls. In terms of gameplay, Chaos tries to copy the first game, even taking you to similar locations such as a graveyard, factory, and sewers. The same monsters are back, so expect plenty of those crawling torsos you stomped in the first game! So what's new here? Well, those bat-faced vampires look pretty ugly, and the giant spiders are extra-crispy this time around. There's also an appearance by that creepy ventriloquist dummy (*shudder*). Chaos Bleeds is playable, but it lacks the polish of the first game, and its stages vary drastically in terms of duration and difficulty. Switching weapons is a constant hassle, and I hate how you have to be unarmed in order to perform a throw or use an item. Vampires and zombies respawn continuously, artificially lengthening the game. Buffy has plenty of martial-arts moves, but too often she misses her target and continues out her string of moves at thin air. The repetitive fighting is tiresome, and the puzzles are unimaginative. When I had to locate a handle to close a steam value in a sewer, I asked myself "Didn't I do this in the last game? What's next, a fuse box puzzle?" Sure enough, there was a missing fuse right around the next corner! The camera angles are glitchy, and at one point I could not exit the first-person crossbow view (until I died). Several of the show's actors lent their voices, but not Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) or Alyson Hannigan (Willow). Buffy's replacement is dead-on, but Willow's seems to be overacting. The dialogue lacks the wit and irony of the show, and comes off more like dialogue that's trying to sound like the show. A two-player mode is included, but these games are pathetic! Whether you're collecting bunnies or fighting zombies, random events cause both players to switch characters or worse yet - switch scores. Fans of the Buffster can bump up the grade by a letter, but only because of the fun unlockable videos which include outtakes and interviews with the cast. Note: An astute reader pointed out that this was a cross-platform game that was likely watered down by the PS2.
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, suggestive themes, violence, mild language)
Splatterhouse (Namco Bandai 2010) D-
As a longtime Splatterhouse fan, I find this modern "re-envisioning" to be fairly reprehensible. This game takes the B-movie appeal of the original 2D games and substitutes it with shock value, lewd images, and juvenile humor. The profanity-laced dialogue is embarrassing, and all the gallons of blood washing over the screen can't hide the fact that this is a hack-n-slash title of the lowest caliber. Like the original, the basic gameplay involves moving from room to room while bashing regenerating demons with weapons (or your fists). There are plenty of attacks to mix things up, but it's hard to tell who's taking damage - you or the creatures! The button-mashing gets old in a hurry, and the collision detection is so poor that I once punched a creature and hit the one standing behind him instead. The stages are very inconsistent in terms of graphics and quality, and the first boss would look more at home in a Transformers game. The graphics aren't bad, with plenty of shadowy hallways, plush furniture, and clammy demon skin. The controls are overly complicated and there are too many one-hit deaths. After losing a life you'll need to wait a full minute for the last checkpoint to load, and it feels like an eternity! And just when you thought the game couldn't sink any lower, you find yourself collecting nude photos of your girlfriend. There are a few side-scrolling stages that try to recapture the old 2D magic - in vain. The single saving grace of this disc is the inclusion of three original Splatterhouse games, including the arcade original and the two Genesis sequels. These classic side-scrollers are so good that it's almost worth playing through this miserable, ill-conceived game just to unlock them.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Shadows of the Damned (Electronic Arts 2011) C
This demon shooter has an unorthodox "grind house" style that's appealing. Its crisp graphics, responsive controls, fast pacing, and over-the-top premise give the game an arcade flavor. The wisecracking anti-hero "Garcia Hotspur" (who resembles a young Benicio del Toro) literally goes to hell to rescue his girlfriend! Hell looks a heck of a lot like Europe with its narrow streets winding through quaint townships. Garcia's sidekick is a flaming skull (with a British accent no less) who can morph into a motorcycle and a variety of weapons. The story is often silly and occasionally profane, but it's a wild ride. There's a lot of satisfaction to be derived from blowing off demon heads with shotguns. Shadows of the Damned doesn't water down the shooting with an auto-aim mechanism which has become all too common in today's shooters. It's tough to execute a headshot, but that makes it extra satisfying when you do so. On the flip side, it's frustratingly easy to miss jumping enemies during shootouts in tight spaces. The game has a lot of fun little quirks, like the fact that your weapons shoot teeth and health is replenished by drinking bottles of booze. There are even old-school collectibles like diamonds and strawberries. The game is linear in design and the save points are frequent. Sadly, Shadows sabotages itself by incorporating a "special type of darkness" which periodically enshrouds the area you're in. It slowly drains your life, and worse yet it drains the fun from the game. To restore the light you'll need to find and shoot a mounted goat's head (no, that's not a typo). Being forced to find light sources adds a puzzle element and a sense of urgency, but it feels contrived and unnecessary. The endless boss battles also left a bitter taste in my mouth (a boss life meter would be helpful). As it is, Shadows of the Damned looks like a great game but doesn't play like one.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Dead Rising 2 (Capcom 2010) C-
The original Dead Rising gave us survival horror in a zombie-infested mall - an interactive Dawn of the Dead movie. Unfortunately its awesome premise was squandered by the worst save system ever devised. Dead Rising 2 is set in Fortune City, which is clearly modeled after Las Vegas with its glitzy scenery and numerous entertainment attractions. The story kicks off with an interesting "Running Man" intro but then settles into the familiar formula of beating down zombies in a mall while escorting survivors to safety. The zombie hordes tend to congregate in groups so you can often weave through them without confrontation. I like how they shamble slowly in your general direction before suddenly lunging toward you - just like real zombies do! Bludgeoning undead has never been more fun thanks to "combo weapons" that scatter bodies like Sauron from Lord of the Rings. The action can be pretty intense, especially when you need to fight through a mob while low on health. The arrow at the top of the screen keeps you headed in the right direction, and the story would be nicely paced if not for the constant (and lengthy) load screens. The save system is better than the first game, but you can only save in pre-defined places (restrooms), so when you die you typically lose quite a bit of progress. The controls are less than intuitive, and during one battle I accidentally exchanged my baseball bat for one of those foam "#1" hands - not cool! It's necessary to periodically return to the safe house at 7 AM to provide your little girl with "Zombrex", which makes no sense. The escort missions subject you to lots of backtracking and pesky cell phone messages. Sorry, but cell phone calls and schedules are things I play video games to escape from. I was hoping the cooperative mode would be better, but discovered both players had to be on-line, which royally sucks. Dead Rising 2 is an improvement over the original but too often the game feels like a chore to play. Note: Capcom recently released a new version of this game called Dead Rising 2: Off the Record.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, use of alcohol, intense violence, language, sexual themes)
Rise of Nightmares (Sega 2011) B+
Incorporating Kinect body-motion control into a survival horror game was a tall order, but Sega pulled it off. Rise of Nightmares is about as immersive as they come, giving you a harrowing first-person perspective while exploring decrepit environments and fending off zombies. It feels like a virtual haunted house as you travel through forests, graveyards, crypts, and castles in the country of Romania. You control your movements with regard to both direction and speed. Turning your body adjusts your view (which works great) and you walk by stepping forward. Moving while turning can be awkward, but Sega thought ahead and provided an ingenious "auto-move" feature. When you're not being accosted by ghouls you can simply raise your hand and be effortlessly guided to your next objective. Curious gamers however will want to thoroughly explore and collect all the bonus items. Interacting with objects is easy, as you simply move a hand icon over a highlighted item. Rise of Nightmares also requires you to perform realistic motions to open doors, pull switches, swim, duck, climb, or wipe the vomit off your face. Motion controls prove effective when fighting off zombies. Vertical hacks are more potent but horizontal slashes tend to severe more limbs. Weapons include machetes, pipes, electric knuckles, exploding test tubes, and the obligatory chainsaw. The Kinect works well in open areas, but falters when zombies converge, resulting in an annoying "invisible wall" effect. I really love the creature designs which include executioners, cultists, butchers, witches, maids, and super hot nurse zombies (super hot before their flesh started rotting, but I think that's just common sense). There's a faceless woman opera singer with a voice so loud you literally need to cover your ears to prevent taking damage! Some zombies have mechanical body parts, suggesting gruesome experiments are under way. It tired me out but Rise of Nightmares kept me riveted with its fast pacing and short stages. The action gets pretty intense, and my wife actually screamed when she looked into a mirror and saw the image of the main boss. This ominous boss is especially cool because although he can't see through his mask he can still hear you, so you need to remain perfectly still when he's in the area. The game has a bizarre storyline that's unnecessary and a lot of profanity which is even more unnecessary. Still, Rise of Nightmare is an intriguing game that's worth dusting off your Kinect for. It's a little clumsy but it will get you involved like no other horror title can.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Alan Wake (Microsoft 2010) A-
Critics like to focus on its mind-bending storyline, but Alan Wake delivers pure survival horror not unlike Resident Evil and Silent Hill. You'll explore decrepit houses, collect items, solve puzzles, fend off monsters, and never ever relax until the music subsides. The story begins with writer Alan Wake taking his wife on vacation to a sparsely populated island covered with mountains and forests. After she suddenly disappears, Alan finds himself plunged into increasingly bizarre circumstances that have him struggling to grasp reality. This game oozes with atmosphere as you explore shadowy forests, abandoned farms, and creaky cabins. The lighting is effective and the natural (and unnatural) sounds are unsettling. Ethereal madmen frequently materialize out of the darkness armed with hatchets and chainsaws. The ensuing battles are intense as you use a flashlight to keep them at bay and conventional weapons to polish them off. Adding intrigue are poltergeists that toss everything from barrels to freight trains in your direction. Lighted areas are your safe haven, serving both as checkpoints and health stations. It's quite the adrenaline rush as you sprint for the light with several attackers in pursuit. To say Alan Wake maintained my undivided attention would be an understatement! Even so, I disliked being forced to change my flashlight batteries every 10 seconds during combat! It's bad enough I have to reload my weapon every two or three shots! I could also do without those annoying bird encounters. The game is divided into six "episodes", each beginning with a "previously on Alan Wake" recap - like a TV show. These lengthy episodes would keep me up way past my bedtime, but that's just a testament to the riveting gameplay. I often downplay the importance of storylines in a video game, but in this case the gripping narrative made the cut-scenes fun to watch. They feature superb voice acting, realistic facial expressions, likeable characters, and good humor. Sadly, the story eventually goes so far off the deep end that it becomes impossible to completely reconcile the madness. In the end you might find yourself wondering what the hell just happened. Regardless, Alan Wake is a spellbinding, adult-oriented thriller that will have you clutching the controller until your hands cramp in pain. And I mean that in a good way.
Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence, alcohol and tobacco)
Dead Island (Silver 2011) C
Here's a zombie game you can even enjoy guilt-free in the summer months. Dead Island takes place on a tropical resort with white sands, palm trees, airy bungalows, and breathtaking views. Unfortunately everyone has transformed into a zombie, so you'll need to band together with other survivors to escape. The gameplay seems to boil down to running a series of errands - often in parallel. You'll break into a lifeguard station, save people under attack, and search for critical items. Everybody and their mother wants a favor, so it's easy to get sidetracked. Fortunately a dotted line on your radar keeps you headed in the right direction. The sunny scenery is striking, punctuated by the sound of sea gulls, wind, and distant thunder. Wading through a pool of crystal blue water is relaxing - until someone takes a bite out of you. There are plenty of makeshift weapons like oars, crowbars, and butcher knives. You can also construct your own weapons out of miscellaneous objects, but you need to obtain a blueprint first. Bludgeoning zombies is habit-forming, especially with all the splattering blood, flying limbs, and bloodcurdling screams. The first-person view is disorienting when fighting multiple zombies, but driving around the island running over zombies is one of the simple joys of life. Some first-person games make me a little queasy over time, and Dead Island definitely falls into that category. There are always plenty of suitcases, trashcans, and corpses to search for cash and knickknacks. You might only be finding $5 at a time, but it adds up. You'll need it because it can cost hundreds of dollars to cobble together weapons. The zombies can run like track stars. They tend to approach quickly, often catching you completely by surprise. No question about it - this game will make you jump out of your seat. The user interface could use some work though. The menu system is counter-intuitive and manipulating your inventory is awkward. I was psyched about the four-player co-op, until I discovered it was on-line only. That sucks, but playing solo is enjoyable enough. The auto-save kicks in at a regular basis and the checkpoints are frequent. Dead Island feels like a cookie-cutter effort, but the refreshing scenery and rampant violence makes it worthwhile.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
Plants Vs. Zombies (Popcap 2010) A
I was skeptical about this previously-only-available-via-download title, but Plants Vs. Zombies eventually got the best of me. This game makes the hours just melt away. It's a comical, horror-tinged, real-time strategy (RTS) game played on a single screen depicting your back yard. Zombies approach slowly from the right, and your goal is to prevent them from reaching your house. Prior to each wave you select several carnivorous plants, mines, blockades, and special items to use. Once the action begins, you'll strategically place these items to fire pellets at the zombies, slow their progression, swallow them whole, or just blow them up. Your "currency" for planting items is sunlight, generated by sunflowers. You'll generally want to plant these early and often along the far left. Plants Vs. Zombies has a Warcraft vibe as you skillfully manage resources and multitask for maximum destruction. What sets this apart from other RTS titles is its simplicity and short stages. It's instantly gratifying yet endlessly playable. The adventure mode introduces one item at a time, and as your selection grows new strategies emerge. The cartoonish zombie horde features colorful characters including pole-vaulters, football players, and disco dancers. Things begin slowly but it doesn't take long for the fun to kick into overdrive. It's satisfying to watch your minions decimate the undead mob. A row of lawnmowers serves as your last line of defense, activating automatically when touched by a zombie. Plants Vs. Zombies isn't particularly hard, but it's just challenging enough to keep stringing you along. The animations are fun to watch and the moaning voices ("Braaaains...") are just hilarious. So how do you make a superb game like this even better? You add more ways to play, silly rabbit! Extra modes include co-op, survival, puzzle, bonus games, and even a versus mode that lets a friend control the zombies! Now how much would you pay? But wait - you also get two complete puzzle games as a bonus. Peggle is cross between pinball and Pachinko from the Price is Right. You shoot a fixed number of balls at colored pegs, and every peg hit disappears. There's a lot of bouncing around, and some of the most amazing shots are totally unintentional. It's crazy addictive and even my wife was hooked. The second puzzle game is a marble shooter called Zuma. While less compelling than Peggle, it's still fun and boasts rich sound effects and an amazing African soundtrack. All three games save your progress, but there are no local leaderboards. Even so, this is a terrific value considering how these games warp the time continuum and make crack look like a mildly addictive drug. This package sells for under $20, so run out and buy it immediately.
Deathsmiles (Aksys 2010) A-
Wow. This is one of the best 2D shooters I've ever played, and almost certainly the best looking. Several versions of the game come on the disk, including the Japanese arcade original and a 360 edition that leverages the system's HD graphics. Deathsmiles is a potent combination of flashy visuals and old-school fun. You select between four different flying chicks equipped with crazy firepower. Before each game you have the option of watching a brief tutorial that explains the subtle nuances of the controls. There are two fire buttons that let you to shoot either left or right. Enemies converge from all directions, but the game is considerate enough to alert you when danger approaches from behind. You can hold down a fire button to initiate rapid-fire, which has the side effect of slowing your movement. Defeated foes drop "point items", and collecting 1000 points let you temporarily initiate maximum firepower. I love the layered stages with their vivid colors and fine details. There are six to select from including a port, a haunted forest, a murky swamp, a spooky graveyard, and an active volcano. The port stage is not only festively decorated for Halloween (!), but it contains massive pirate ships! That made me giddy as a schoolgirl, and I'm not just saying that because I was playing as one! Your foes include old standards like dragons, grim reapers, cyclops, and hellhounds, but you'll also encounter quirky characters like pigs armed with butcher knives! The bosses range from whimsical "giant cow" to an absolutely hideous face tied down in the graveyard. Unlike most modern shooters, the bosses never wear out their welcome. Deathsmiles may be whimsical in tone, but its shooting action is no joke. Two players can cooperate, and it's actually quite playable despite the added chaos. High scores are saved along with initials, but the confusing interface makes it a little hard to peruse these rankings. The "score attack" mode is only available on-line. Deathsmiles is the kind of game you rarely see for the Xbox 360, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, partial nudity)
Left 4 Dead (Valve 2008) B
If you're looking for a scary game to play around Halloween, this one would be a fine choice. Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter with a survival horror theme, but its non-stop action and frantic pace takes the genre to a new level of intensity. You'll forge through spooky locations including apartments, woods, subways, and a train station. Four separate scenarios are available, and while each is unique, they often tend to reuse certain areas. Zombies roam everywhere, and your team is composed of four characters who must cooperate for the best chance of survival. Although designed for on-line co-op, a two-player split-screen mode is included, and you can also play solo, with the CPU controlling your teammates. As is the case with many modern zombie flicks, these zombies can run like freakin' Adrian Peterson. Every few minutes all hell breaks loose as a stampeding horde attacks from multiple directions. It's an alarming situation, but it's fun to gun down dozens of creeps at a time. Left 4 Dead has a number of innovative features. The silhouettes of your teammates are visible through walls, making it much easier to keep everybody together. Crouching improves your aim, and painkillers provide temporary health boosts. If you're incapacitated and being revived, you can still aim and shoot - a nice touch! All the weapons are all pretty effective, so you're never stuck with a worthless pea shooter. Between stages you'll take shelter in "safe houses" where you can heal and reload. While stages are loading, stats are displayed that rank players by categories like "least damage taken" and "headhunter". The zombies come in a remarkable variety, and there are a few super-creeps you'll recognize by their distinctive sound effects. A "boomer" is an overweight ghoul that explodes when shot, and a "hunter" can leap from great distances. A "smoker" will reel you in with its extended tongue, and the "tank" is just one big mountain of muscle. But the creature that will strike the most fear into your heart is "the witch". This emaciated female just wants to hide and weep, but if you accidentally stumble upon her, you're in for a serious hurting. You'll hear her weeping sounds accompanied by a haunting refrain when she's in close proximity, and together they will make your blood run cold. Left 4 Dead also features realistic natural sounds like rain and crickets, along with startling creaks and moans. Turn up your surround sound! Does the game have any shortcomings? Well, the environments are not destructible at all. The split-screen mode is hard to set up, and the single-player game offers achievements to unlock, but no scoring. Left 4 Dead does get monotonous after a while, since it's little more than non-stop shooting. It's pretty scary though, and you'll find yourself on edge the entire time. Left 4 Dead is a real treat and a welcome departure from the typical slow, methodical zombie shooters.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve 2009) B
Zombie games are traditionally slow and methodical, but Left 4 Dead carved out its niche with a downright frantic brand of shooting action. This second edition offers more of the same with new weapons (an electric guitar), new creeps (the back-riding "Jockey"), and more ways to play ("realism mode"). Teamwork is key as you forge through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world, and if four players aren't available, the CPU will fill out the party. In addition to mowing down droves of sprinting zombies, you'll encounter specialized creatures like the "Spitter" who spews toxic green goo or the "Charger" who just plows into you. These super-monsters can be a real pain in the ass, yet it's always satisfying to rescue one of your teammates from one. The weeping "witches" are back, but instead of hiding they tend to be wandering out in the open. Try not to disturb them, because these chicks will go premenstrual on you! Left 4 Dead 2 is a fast-moving game, and when a horde converges there's gunfire in every direction. It's hard to avoid friendly fire and not uncommon to hear someone exclaim, "Stop shooting each other!" The interspersed voice dialogue adds flavor ("this is some crazy [expletive]") and is often informative ("we have some pipe bombs over here!") It's easy to heal your companions, and it's also critical to maximize your chances of reaching the next safe house. Between stages a series of "ranking" screens are displayed that add a competitive element. Technically, Left 4 Dead 2 has some issues. Whether you play split-screen or on-line, the controls are touchy, the collision detection is inexact, and the frame-rate can get a little rough. The graphics are mediocre, and certainly no better than the previous game. It's easy to lose your bearings and rarely obvious what direction you need to go. New locations include a mall, motel, rainy swamp, and carnival, but these are surprisingly bland. I did enjoy the rain effects however, and the New Orleans stage is quite original. If you're looking for some straight-up shooting action, Left 4 Dead 2 brings the heat. New modes include a versus mode where you play against player-controlled zombies, and a "realism" mode which removes all handholding for maximum difficulty. Does it get tiresome mowing down endless waves of rampaging undead? Yeah, but Left 4 Dead 2 has a nice pick-up-and-play quality that's satisfying in short spurts.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia (Southpeak 2007) F
I owned this game for three long years before finally completing a review. Why? Because every time I sit down to play Monster Madness, I have an overwhelming urge not to. Despite its intriguing premise, the game is just a chore to play. It stars four fashionable teenagers including one who talks like Keanu Reeves ("Dude, you're like dead - again!") Monster Madness tries to be a comical monster fighter in the tradition of Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, 1993). In fact, one kid even exclaims, "Zombies have eaten my neighbors!" The comic-book-style intro gives way to a slightly tilted overhead view as zombies are about to break into your house. Unfortunately the graphics are really muddy and indistinct. Not only is it hard to spot collectable items, even the zombies tend to get lost in the cluttered scenery. You use the two thumbsticks to move and aim, but your character tends to slide around, making it hard to target anything. You press in the right thumbstick to jump, which is ridiculous. Slashing and shooting creatures is unsatisfying because there's no distinct animation or sound effect to punctuate each hit. The monsters just sort of blink and fall over. Invisible walls are everywhere, and zombies tend to get caught on them as much as you do. Up to four players are supported via split-screen, but even coordinating with two people is more trouble than it's worth. On the bright side, the game is constantly introducing fresh new monsters for you to dispose of, including demons, spiders, undead pirates, and giant Bigfoot creatures. There are some freaky bosses including a hideous granny who tries to kiss you! You can use any object as a weapon, and there are vehicle stages as well. The upbeat organ music is decent, but the voice acting is uneven. I can appreciate its irreverent take on the horror genre, but Monster Madness lacks entertainment value. Apparently zombies ate the fun too! Note: A downloadable patch fixes a lot of the game's issues - most notably the controls. It makes the game playable, but not necessarily enjoyable.
Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, tobacco reference, violence)
Dead Rising (Capcom 2006) D+
Obviously inspired by the classic zombie flick "Dawn of the Dead", Dead Rising places you in the role of a "hard edged" photojournalist spending three days in a zombie-infested mall. As you fly into town via helicopter, a semi-interactive stage sets the mood perfectly as you survey the devastation. Upon arriving at the mall, a number of supporting characters are introduced, including a few curvaceous babes. The people are realistically animated, but their faces appear to be full of Botox! They also seem strangely oblivious to the dangers around them. The zombies come in a remarkable variety, and while slow and dumb, they're still dangerous due to their sheer numbers - just like in real life! Exploring the expansive mall is fun, and there's also a scenic park, a grocery store, and outdoor shopping areas. But what's most satisfying is how you can beat zombies into bloody pulps using whatever you can get your hands on, including trash cans, benches, steel racks, baseball bats, chainsaws, flower pots, and baguettes. Locate the katana and you can even slice up those creeps "Kill Bill style". Most objects can be used as projectiles as well. It's a blast to mow down zombies en masse with a lawnmower, or kick a soccer ball into a crowd and watch it ping around. Experimenting is really half the fun. Guns are available as well, but ammo is limited and the aiming mechanism isn't so hot. Dead Rising maintains a clever sense of humor, evident in the ability to don silly items like a dress or a Mega Man mask. But despite its awesome concept, Dead Rising manages to shoot itself in the foot in the most unlikely ways. First and foremost, the save system has been universally hailed as the worst ever devised. There's only one save slot, and you can only save your place in rest rooms, which are not ideally spaced. After you die, you're presented with two options: "Load from Last Save" and "Save Status and Exit". Although the second option might seem reasonable, in fact it forces you to restart the game from the beginning! Someone in Capcom's quality control department didn't do a very good job. I also take issue with the insanely hard "bosses". You'll endlessly pump ammo into these freaks, and then they'll turn around and kill you with one hit! The game also suffers from an excessive number of loading screens, and the font used to display dialogue is incredibly tiny. Finally, the missions can be tedious at times, forcing you to backtrack all over God's creation while your annoying cell phone rings off the hook. Dead Rising is definitely a crowd-pleaser, offering ample eye candy and an unsurpassed degree of instant gratification. But those who play the entire game will almost certainly develop a love/hate relationship with it somewhere along the line.
Silent Hill: Homecoming (Konami 2008) B+
Homecoming ushers Silent Hill into the next generation with style, reinvigorating the franchise with a fresh new look and feel. Previous Silent Hills were consistently scary but tended to be slow, plodding, and difficult. I like how Homecoming picks up the tempo and is generally easier to play. The basic premise is unchanged as you search a foggy, deserted town for some bratty kid while fending off twisted, deformed creatures. Spine-tingling sound effects and limited visibility create an intense atmosphere, but Homecoming eschews the grainy visuals of past Silent Hills and looks crisp and clean by comparison. The unnerving background music ranges from alarming cacophonies to melancholy pianos. The game keeps you on edge as you creep through a cemetery, hotel, police station, and prison. Among the evil hordes are hellhounds, hammerhead goons, and some smoking hot nurses (from the neck down, at least). Some of the more bizarre creatures have heads protruding from their crotches! Isn't that nuts!? Homecoming has its share of memorable moments including a flooded basement encounter and a harrowing elevator ride. Your character is surprisingly mobile, dodging attacks with ease and moving between rooms without having to contend with load screens. Combat is more sophisticated than past Silent Hills but not complicated. Homecoming is well programmed but a few design issues had me scratching my head. The inventory system is confusing, especially when items you just picked up don't show up in your inventory! Certain puzzles don't make much sense, like when you "use" an empty gas can to obtain gas from a truck. The graphics are sharp but uneven in quality. The lighting is terrific and the decrepit graveyard looks properly weathered, but the grass looks flat and standing water looks more like glass. The distribution of health items and save points could also be better. Homecoming could use a bit of polish, but it proves this franchise can still deliver the spooky thrills.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language, sexual themes)
Devil May Cry 4 (Capcom 2007) A-
The first Devil May Cry (PS2, 2001) won over gamers with its frantic hack-n-slash action, hellish creeps, and magnificent gothic scenery. Like a 3D Castlevania, it was easy to play and the eye candy was off the charts. Its first two sequels were uneven, but Devil May Cry 4 (DMC4) really executes the original formula to perfection. The opening sequence features a woman on stage singing a mournful song as our hero Nero lays waste to peg-legged creeps in the streets outside. While poetic, it's also indicative of DMC4's overdone cinematics. The first stage is dominated by two dudes engaging in a mid-air battle so over-the-top that even Matrix fans will be rolling their eyes. Since both fighters have white hair and red coats, it's hard to tell them apart. Oh I see - Dante has a five o'clock shadow! At the fight's conclusion, Dante is impaled against a wall, pulls the sword out of his own chest, and merrily heads off. It's totally dumb but the game still succeeds despite its ridiculous theatrics. The pacing is swift as you move from one location to the next, dishing out stylish combos while laying waste to winged knights and spinning jesters. Some of the more imaginative creeps include shark-like creatures that glide through solid floors, and specters in flowing robes (which are revealed to be scrawny bugs). I really like those spinning "gyro blades" which can be used to both solve puzzles and slice up enemies. The first boss is a massive fiery centaur, and while the battle is epic, the crazy camera makes it hard to tell what's happening. In general however the fighting action is fun and the puzzles are reasonable. I really like the fact that there's an "easy" difficulty option. You can save after each chapter, and the chapters vary wildly in terms of length and difficulty. From coalmines to a sprawling cathedral to a lush forest, the game offers a diverse assortment of really gorgeous locations. The cinematography and art direction is first rate, but the cut scenes often border on cringe-worthy. Nero is unlikable as the cocky pretty-boy who tosses out one-liners under the most dire of circumstances. When a female character in an outrageous outfit enters the fold, expect to see plenty of gratuitous boob and crotch shots. I'm pretty sure a 15-year-old boy directed this! Devil May Cry 4 loses points for its contrived style, but ultimately triumphs thanks to its nonstop action and awe-inspiring visuals.
Resident Evil 5 (Capcom 2009) A-
This chapter of the Resident Evil survivor horror saga ditches the dark, gothic scenery of Europe for sunny African locations. The opening chapter takes place in a war-torn urban area with burnt-out buildings and rat-infested shantytowns. Weren't these locations beaten to death in recent games like Metal Gear 4, Call of Duty 4, and every other first-person shooter released in the past two years? Maybe, but when a mob of zombies converges and you're trying to survive long enough for helicopter support to arrive, it's really intense! Resident Evil 5 (RE5) stars Chris Redfield and an exotic babe named Sheva. RE5 is designed for two-player coop, either online or via split-screen. The CPU does a decent job of playing the role of the second character, but the game is more satisfying with a human partner. Besides being able to cover each other and exchange items, you can resuscitate your partner when he's dying. Occasionally you'll become separated, and it's quite a relief when you meet up again. Reunited and it feels so good. Reunited 'cause we understood. In the pitch-dark cave stage, one player lights the way with a lantern as the other blasts zombies. In the swamp area, one player drives a boat as the other picks off monsters on shore. In addition to zombies of all racial backgrounds, you'll face ghouls on motorbikes, masked men with chainsaws, and executioners armed with oversized axes. Impressive bosses include a giant vampire bat, a sea serpent, and a troll reminiscent of the one in RE4. Be sure to keep an eye out for those exploding red barrels - it's one cliche that keeps on giving! RE5's controls are excellent, and you can hold plenty of items. The action does not pause when you access your inventory, and this really adds to the tension. In case you don't stumble upon a critical weapon (like a shotgun) in your travels, you can always purchase and upgrade weapons between chapters. I love RE5's brisk pacing, entertaining cut-scenes, and brief load times. A friend can join in your adventure at any time. The dialogue is nothing to write home about, with Chris constantly bristling about how he "needs to get some answers!" When playing split-screen on a wide-screen display, the two screens are cropped, leaving a lot of empty black space. Couldn't they have at least put the maps in there? Some critics may lament how RE5 lacks the "creepy" factor of past RE games, and seems more like an action movie. Personally, I think the series benefits from the change of pace. Less easy to forgive are the final few stages which come off as generic and occasionally boring. Even so, RE5 is an action-packed thrill ride you'll to want see to through to the end.
Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (D3 Publisher 2009) C-
If slashing up zombies with bikini-clad hotties is wrong, then I don't want to be right! Bikini Samurai Squad has a wonderfully absurd premise, but the same low budget quality that makes it appealing is also its downfall. The main character is a chick decked out in some cowboy stripper garb (complete with stockings and heels), and her younger sister dons a schoolgirl outfit. The opening cinematic features a very provocative shower scene - something you won't be seeing in the Wii version! Together these girls kick zombie ass all over town with the help of their swords and martial arts abilities. As zombies emerge from the concrete, you'll employ fierce button combinations to slice them up into tasty morsels. A radar displays shows where they are congregating, and that's helpful because the camera is always pulled very close. The gore meter is through the roof, and it's especially satisfying to plow into a gang and watch the blood wash over the screen. Occasionally you'll transform into a marauding zombie yourself, making the action even more over-the-top (if that's at all possible). The stages include a graveyard, hospital, and parking garage. There's not much to see, and little of the environment is destructible. You'll run up against a lot of arbitrary barriers, causing the message "you can't go here right now" to display. What is this, 1997? The fighting action is mindless fun, but it is certainly monotonous. Sometimes zombies will continuously regenerate in an area, causing you to ask, "when is this going to end?" The bosses include a pair of hideous "poop" monsters - not to be confused with attractive poop monsters. While hacking up the beasts, the game's clipping problems are on full display as sloppy polygons appear and disappear all over the place. Onechanbara's controls aren't very intuitive, but I do prefer this game's button-tapping over waggling the controller in the Wii version. Unlockables includes alternate outfits and a police chick armed with an Uzi and shotgun. I like the premise, but it's hard to recommend something as monotonous as Onechanabara. It takes a certain breed of gamer to appreciate a quirky title like this. You know who you are.
Haunted House (Atari Interactive 2010) D-
The original Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1981) let you guide a pair of eyeballs around a four-story house to collect pieces of urn while avoiding spiders, bats, and ghosts. A remake was long overdue, but why did they have to make it so boring? This game put me to sleep. In each stage you guide a kid around a maze of rooms while pulling levers, collecting keys, and trying to find the exit. The kid-friendly graphics are decent, and the ethereal ghosts are enhanced with some nifty lighting effects. The furnishings sport a plush, antiquated look appropriate for an old house. There are stone fireplaces, suits of armor, and plenty of big chests to open. Holding in the A button lets you search furniture as a brief progress meter appears - similar to Impossible Mission (Atari 7800, 1989). You'll find a lot of items like matches, coins, keys, and health. Unfortunately these items are so ubiquitous that you get tired of searching for them. Ghosts appear in the form of apparitions and yappy dogs, and frankly they are more annoying than scary. You can usually avoid them, and if they latch onto you, you can shake them off. I like the concept of using light sources to destroy the ghosts, but it's hard to tell if you're dealing damage. The best way to clear a room is to light its fireplaces using a torch, candle, or... a cell phone app?! Haunted House is mind-numbingly repetitive. The rooms all start to look the same after a while, and the stage layouts become more sprawling as you progress. And where are the scares? The creepiest aspect of the game is the occasional cackle, creak, or distant sound of a crying baby (always unnerving for some reason). The game itself is quiet and uneventful. In fact, the original Haunted House is more exciting - and playable - than this.
Rating: Everyone (language, mild blood, mild cartoon violence)
Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop (Capcom 2009) C
Its visuals pale to the original Dead Rising for the 360, but this late-arriving Wii edition has a few things going for it. You play an investigative reporter dropped off at a sprawling mall in the midst of massive zombie outbreak. You soon team up with others and fight to save survivors while unraveling a dark mystery. During search-and-rescue missions you can use whatever objects are lying around as weapons, including bowling balls, baseball bats, circular saws, cash registers, and lawnmowers! Plowing through mobs with a shopping cart is almost as fun as doing it in real life! Experimenting with new weapons is part of the fun as you see how high you can ratchet up the body count. Aiming at the screen places you into an over-the-shoulder shooting mode, where you can experience the joys of making heads explode. The original Dead Rising suffered from unrelenting difficulty and a poor save system, but Chop Till You Drop remedies those flaws. It's not hard to make steady progress thanks to the ubiquitous save points and forgiving gameplay. The Wii motion controls are intuitive but imprecise. Occasionally you'll swing a bat when you don't intend to, or find yourself staring at the ceiling while under attack. The button scheme is a little confusing. Was it really necessary to map the most common action ("examine") to Z+A? The limited processing power of the Wii is also on full display as zombies materialize from thin air as you walk through the mall. The system can't seem to render very many zombies at a time, but wasn't that one of the draws of the original game? Chop Till You Drop is also bogged down with excessive load screens and backtracking. And whose idea was it to incorporate pesky zombie poodles and dive-bombing zombie parrots? C'mon man!! Chop Till You Drop offers a slightly watered down Dead Rising experience, but less frustration means you can enjoy the zombie apocalypse. Finally!
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Konami 2009) D-
Silent Hill is one of my all-time favorite horror franchises, but playing Shattered Memories was truly a nightmare. As in the original game (Playstation, 2000), you play the role of a dad searching for his little girl in a deserted town following a car accident. Elements like the drifting snow, diner, and school will be familiar to fans of the series. Motion controls are heavily used, starting with aiming your flashlight with the Wii-mote. The pointer lets you interact with the scenery in clever ways like turning knobs on a security system or sliding bolts to unlock doors. Another neat element is how your Wii-mote doubles as a cell phone, so you hold it up to your ear to hear your calls. The phone also offers a slew of other features including a camera, GPS map, and save game device. Unfortunately, the phone interface is unwieldy and since you need to access it constantly, it becomes a real liability. Shattered Memories lets you explore a city and its outskirts, but your path is always heavily constrained, whether by snow drifts or fences or walls of ice. The game contains some very clever puzzles, most of which require you to pay close attention to details in your surroundings. Periodically reality will slip away and you'll find yourself in an alternate world with dark skies and ice-covered scenery. This is when things get scary. Grotesque, faceless creatures converge as you frantically run towards any door or wall that's glowing blue. There's little sense of geography, so as you flee from room to room you'll often find yourself running in circles! Whenever a freak latches onto you, the game prompts you to swing the controllers to knock them off, but it doesn't do much good! I would be swinging my arms like a [expletive] madman and those things still wouldn't let go! And once two or three pile on, you can forget about it. That's a shame, because these sequences are genuinely frightening. Scary music and effective sound effects also heighten the intensity. One original (but ill-conceived) aspect of the game is how it "psychologically profiles you as you play". This occurs during periodic therapist flashbacks where you're asked a series of personal questions which apparently have some bearing on events. The thing is, some of these questions are sexual in nature! Okay, now that's just creepy. In the final analysis Shattered Memories is a poorly-executed and sometimes embarrassing attempt by Konami to cater to a mature audience.
Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)
Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition (Capcom 2007) B
Originally released for the GameCube in 2004, Resident Evil 4 (RE4) was universally acclaimed and is widely regarded as the greatest survival horror game ever conceived. Set in an isolated European countryside, this imaginative adventure oozes with atmosphere and tosses out surprises at every turn. The game begins in a dilapidated house in a wooded area, calling to mind films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project. Later you'll explore an old church in a graveyard, engage in a shootout on ski lift, ride a high-speed mine-cart, and have a boat encounter reminiscent of the film Jaws. RE4's pacing and difficulty are dead-on, with frequent checkpoints and strategically-placed typewriters to save your progress. Its controls are a compromise between a first-person and third-person shooting perspective, offering an "over the shoulder" view. Except for a few minor bonus missions, this Wii edition is almost an carbon copy of the GameCube version, with no perceivable graphical or audio upgrades. The only difference is the Wii's motion controls, which have been grafted onto the game in a rather clumsy manner. Especially after experiencing the comfortable controls of Metroid Prime 3, I found RE4's to be awkward and remarkably non-intuitive! Being able to aim directly at the screen is nice, but everything else takes time to grasp. To look around, you hold in the B button on Wii-mote while moving the joystick on the nun-chuck, and I often found myself staring at the sky as some madman was slicing into my flesh. While aiming, the camera "zooms in" a bit, effectively obstructing the left side of the screen with your character's head. Even navigating the map and item screens feels clumsy. I guess Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition serves its purpose as a port of the classic game, but I would hardly regard this as an upgrade. Those who never played the original can bump up the grade by a letter, but those who experienced the GameCube version will find themselves wondering what the point of this is (to make more money, silly rabbit!).
Rating: Mature (17+) blood and gore, intense violence, language
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (Capcom 2007) D+
It's amazing how Capcom managed to botch this up. Umbrella Chronicles is basically a light-gun shooter that takes you on a whirlwind tour of older Resident Evil (RE) games beginning from RE0 and leading up to RE4. Consequentially, the game reuses a lot of the code from the GameCube RE remakes. Your character moves automatically as you blast the hell out of zombies, dogs, apes, and other converging creatures. Weapons, ammo, and grenades are scattered about, and can often be revealed by blasting scenery. The crosshair controls are quite responsive, providing excellent aim with minimal lag. You can shake your Wii-mote to repel zombies or wield a knife. At first glance, Umbrella Chronicles seems like a dream come true for Resident Evil fans, with its straightforward gameplay, precision controls, and rich visuals. But the game is not as fun as you would expect, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the first chapter (based on Resident Evil 0) is infested with leaping slugs, whose only purpose seems to be to aggravate the hell out of you. Countless in number and continually cluttering up the screen, these things alone should cost the game a letter grade. Next, monsters can absorb an inordinate number of shots. Even the weakest zombies will keep coming after taking several shots to the face at point-blank range! Don't even get me started about the bosses, who consume bullets like they're Doritos. At one point the game told me to shoot some shapeless boss in the mouth, and I couldn't even tell where its [expletive] mouth was! Unlike Sega's House of the Dead games which offer fast, arcade-style carnage, Chronicles tends to be slow going, and the action is constantly interrupted by load screens, dull cut-scenes, and checkpoints. Dying often forces you to repeat a large chunk of the game. Even the two-player simultaneous mode is lousy. I like the idea of both players sharing a health meter, but it's really easy to get those crosshairs mixed up considering they're both glowing red half of the time! The Umbrella Chronicles should have been a joyride of a game, but it didn't take long for me to grow weary of this.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
House of the Dead 2 and 3 Return (Sega 2008) A
I knew House of the Dead 2 was great when I played it on the Dreamcast in 1999, but little did I know I was playing the best light-gun game ever! It perfectly combines pulse-pounding zombie shooting action, amazing eye candy, and a unique tongue-in-cheek style. House of the Dead 2 is set in an old city with water canals (not unlike Venice), and its narrow walkways and antiquated buildings provide rich, claustrophobic environments. The memorable cast of creeps includes axe-throwing zombies, overweight chainsaw-toting ghouls, and slimy water creatures. Interesting bosses include a headless knight and a leaping lizard whose chest conveniently opens to expose his beating heart. The shooting action is terrific fun, and it's especially satisfying to blow holes in a zombie's head and chest. There are even alternate paths that branch when you shoot strategic targets. The dialogue is absolutely absurd, but it's also one of the more endearing qualities of the game. Memorable lines include "Suffer like G did?", "Don't come! Don't come!", and "Thank you for rescuing me!" House of the Dead 2 has aged like wine, and this Wii edition is dead-on. You can turn the crosshair on or off, and either option works well. House of the Dead 3 is also a fine game, although it can't quite match its predecessor. Its industrial locations are ho-hum, and the visuals look somewhat cartoonish. There are no weapon upgrades like a machine gun, but the default shotgun is pretty awesome. I like how you only have to aim offscreen to reload - not shoot. If only the original House of the Dead had been included with this package, it might have been an A+.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
House of the Dead Overkill, The (Sega 2009) C
This long-awaited fourth installment of the popular light gun series marks a major stylistic departure. House of the Dead Overkill boasts an outrageous storyline, excessive profanity, and disturbing, grotesque bosses. Its surf-rock music and "buddy" storyline indicates a strong Pulp Fiction influence, but as its name would imply, Overkill doesn't know when to say "when". Once the shock value of hearing non-stop F-bombs subsides, the long-winded dialogue becomes boring, and eventually just plain annoying. The ending is the most disgusting ever seen in a video game, and the less said about that, the better. At its core, Overkill offers classic House of the Dead (HotD) first-person zombie-shooting in a house, train, jail, swamp, hospital, and carnival. You can blow off limbs to slow them down, or go for the fatal head shot. The zombies move at varying speeds, but a few come running at you in an alarming manner! The game's pacing is excellent, and the melon-splattering sound effect of exploding heads is very pleasing to the ears. Shooting special icons kick in slow motion, giving you extra time to zero in on the undead hordes. The traditional HotD "save the civilian" scenes are included, but where are the branching paths? Also, in previous HotD games you could shoot random boxes or pots to discover bonuses, but here your targets are limited to glowing icons, which is lame. The two-player action is fun, but the crosshairs look too similar and are easy to confuse. Overkill features seven chapters, and since each plays like its own movie, there's plenty of replay value here. The highlight of the game is the frightful carnival stage. The clowns are almost as terrifying as they are in real life, and being able to ride through a haunted house is a blast. High scores are recorded after each stage, and continues are available at the cost of you half of your points, which turns out to be a pretty ingenious scheme! You can "buy" new weapons, but I found myself sticking with the default Magnum because the others (including the shotgun) are surprisingly ineffective. Overkill has style to burn but technically it's deficient. Compared to the crisp graphics and pinpoint controls of HotD2, the visuals look muddy and the controls are inexact. There's an option to turn off the cross-hair, but you almost need it to compensate for the lousy collision detection. Worst of all, serious frame-rate issues cause the action to become jerky or even freeze momentarily. Overkill is sure to entertain light gun fans, but its lack of restraint and rampant technical issues prevent it from achieving greatness.
Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers (D3 Publishing 2009) D+
To best describe this game, I'll take a line from ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick: "It is what it is". Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers is a preposterous beat-em-up pitting cute chicks in sexy costumes against legions of zombies. The 360 version of the game is an unapologetic button masher, so naturally this Wii version is an arm-shaker. In case you're wondering what the title means, "Onechan" is Japanese for "big/older sister and "Chanbara" means over-the-top samurai swordplay. Put them together and you get a potent mix of action and eye candy. You select from a stripper wearing some cowboy get-up, or her sister decked out in a schoolgirl uniform. The game begins in a subway station crawling with shambling ghouls. By shaking the Wii-mote repeatedly, you efficiently slice, dice and fillet ghouls as blood splatters and limbs fly. When you tear into a group of zombies, blurry motion effects kick in, and they are both satisfying and mesmerizing. New attacks and combos are unlocked as you progress, but the mindless beatings never end. You hack up one mob, and another sprouts from the ground to take their place. The fact that the instruction book is a paltry three pages in length says a lot about the depth of the gameplay. The graphics are fair, but to be honest, these babes look 100 times better in the Xbox 360 version. The endless shaking of the controllers took its toll on my wrist, but I found that moving my arm at the elbow was just as effective and less painful. A two-player mode is also included, but it's boring and feels tacked-on. Onechanbara is an oddball title, and I'm surprised it's even available stateside. If you're ever in the mood for bikinis, zombies, and slaying, you might find this entertaining in short doses. But you definitely have to be in the mood.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, sexual themes, violence)
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Atari 2009) B+
Would it be unfair to call this "Ghostbusters Light"? It feels like a simplified version of the PS3 game, with the same storyline but remixed stage layouts, puzzles, and bosses. The good news is, it's every bit as fun! This lighthearted adventure features the zany characters of the original film, and the actors lend their voices to good effect. You'll revisit the New York public library and Sedgewick hotel, and once again face off against the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Just be advised that after putting in this disk you'll sit through no less than eight intro screens before finally reaching the title screen. Wow, that's got to be some kind of record or something. Ghostbuster's graphics lack the lush quality of the PS3 edition, but the clean, well-defined visuals are still appealing. You can still unleash ample destruction with your proton packs, obliterating every piece of furniture in sight. Blasting the books off shelves is particularly satisfying as pages and debris go flying all over the place. The controls are simpler and more comfortable than the PS3 version. You aim your proton pack using the Wii-mote, and when a ghost becomes trapped in your beam, arrow prompts signal you to swing the Wii-mote in various directions. Doing this slams the ghosts into walls and floors, weakening their resistance. Of course, this would never work in real life (the ghosts would pass through the walls), but this is only a video game, so it's all good. I found it interesting how the stages vary from the PS3 version. The library stage is considerably weaker, but the museum stage has better puzzles and a T-Rex boss. In addition to fine control, the Wii version also offers a sweet split-screen mode. I enjoyed Ghostbusting alongside a friend, despite the fact that the screen becomes chaotic during battles and annoying objective text tends to block your view. Perhaps the best aspect of this Ghostbusters game is its short, bite-sized levels. Unlike the never-ending PS3 stages, this game is broken up into manageable 5-15 minute chunks. I'm a run-and-gun kind of guy, but patient gamers can employ the PKE meter to scour each area for artwork and other hidden goodies. The only glitch I noticed was a lock-up during one loading sequence. Ghostbusters for the Wii may seem watered-down compared to the PS3 game, but with its easy-going style, intuitive controls, and brisk pacing, it has a charm of its own.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Atari 2009) B+
Leveraging the actors from the original films and boasting sky-high production values, Ghostbusters: The Video Game perfectly embodies the humor and tone of the films. The voices and likenesses of the original actors are used effectively, as is the playful musical score and distinctive sound effects. Hell, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis even wrote the damn story! I'm not normally a big proponent of elaborate storylines and cut-scenes in video games, but these held my attention. The stiff, animated characters can't deliver lines with perfect comedic timing, but some of the dialogue will make you smile. In many ways, this feels like a sequel to the films. All the memorable locations have been recreated including the converted firehouse, the Sedgewick hotel, and public library. There's a new graveyard stage that looks utterly spectacular. The characters resemble the original actors but are rendered in a stylized manner so they don't look too freaky. The detail in the environments is amazing, and nearly everything is destructible. Destroying furniture and leveling tombstones with your proton pack is a joy. You can upgrade your arsenal with new weapons as you progress, including one that sprays green slime. Each ghost has its own backstory, and they are so intricately rendered that there were times when I wished I could pause the action and examine them up close. When scouting a new location, you're prompted to equip your Ecto-goggles which provide infrared vision and highlight supernatural activity. Once you've rooted the spooks out, the battle begins as you unleash your proto stream. After wearing the ghosts down, you must wrangle them over an open trap as they slowly get sucked in. It's especially fun and satisfying to see them desperately try to claw their way out. Less fun is hosing down the endless, swarming minions in the form of flying books, floating skulls, and spiders. You'll fight alongside all the original Ghostbusters including "the black guy" (everyone's favorite), but in this game you are the "go-to" guy. I like how the characters can revive each other - it adds a nice teamwork element. Ghostbusters is a very linear game that clocks in at around 5-7 hours. That may sound short, but there's a lot less filler than most adventures, and it's one heck of a ride! What's not to like? Well, the installation process takes so long (a few days I think), I feared that Ghostbuster logo would be permanently burned into my plasma TV. Whenever you fire the game up, prepare to sift through an unprecedented number of animated logos (enough already!). While fighting ghosts, you're often blindsided because the ghouls tend to reappear all over the place. The game is not glitch free, and I actually had to restart it at one point. The game saves frequently, but I never spotted an indicator, which made me extremely nervous about quitting a partway through a level. How hard is it to display "saving" on the screen anyway?? The game has a multi-player mode, but it's on-line only (boo!). I can nitpick, but at its core the game succeeds in fleshing out the Ghostbusters world and immersing you in it. Movie-licensed games don't have the best track record, but Ghostbusters: The Video Game is consistently enjoyable.
Rating: Teen (comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild language)
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