The well-designed campaigns let one or two players guide war-hardened soldiers through beast-infested, war-torn urban environments. The majestic ruins are stunning, and the battlefields are strewn with barriers to take cover behind. Gears of War is probably the best-looking game ever made, and even my PC-gaming friends can't argue with that. The visuals are rendered with gritty gray textures and the lighting effects are outstanding. The restrained use of color not only adds to the realism, but makes the spattering crimson blood all the more dramatic.
All of the weapons pack substantial firepower, and that's good because the bad guys can absorb a lot of bullets. The splattering of blood makes it easy to tell when you've hit your mark, and some guns conveniently double as chainsaws (for when you want to get up close and personal). Before tossing a grenade, handy wire-frame graphics show its path, making it easy to adjust and play the angles. And wait until you witness the "hammer of dawn" - a gun that lets you direct a devastating particle beam from a satellite! Gears is similar to Halo in how it lets you recover health by laying low for a while. But even should you lose consciousness, your partner can resuscitate you, adding to the sense of teamwork.
Gears of War is totally engrossing, and my friends often mention how "they could play this thing all night". The only aspect that really bothered me about the game is its dumb save system (the worst since Dead Rising) which only lets you to save one campaign per user profile. Since I'm playing through the game with multiple friends, I've had to create several user profiles as a work-around, and they're a pain to keep straight.
A lesser gripe is that since everything is rendered in shades of gray, it can be tough to tell friend from foe in the heat of battle. Also, there's really no tutorial, so you need to pick up things on your own. Otherwise I love Gears of War. It raises the high water mark for combat games with its exceptional polish and innovative gameplay. It's kind of hard to imagine how Microsoft could even improve on this thing. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.
As with the first Gears, the degree of detail in the graphics is astounding. When I feast my eyes on the ornate architecture, sophisticated machinery, rugged landscapes, and twisted beasts, I feel sad, knowing I'll never be able to absorb it all. Hell, even my character's backpack boasts more detail that I could ever appreciate!
The control scheme is intuitive and comfortable, allowing you to perform tactical moves like taking cover and tossing grenades with ease. Like the first game, the "active reload" lets you expedite the reload process with a well-timed press of the right bumper. When your health is depleted, you sometimes have the option to crawl to safety. You'll see enemies doing this too, but you can stomp on them to put them out of their misery.
The shooting action is nicely paced as you gun down grunts on motorbikes, scurrying landmines, giant spiders, and flying squid monsters. The splattering blood is satisfying, and the jarring explosions are enhanced with some excellent vibration effects. The epic soundtrack blends into the action nicely, and the interesting cut-scenes never overstay their welcome.
As you would expect from Gears, a terrific split-screen co-op story mode is included. This is fun because many stages are cooperative by nature, especially those that involve disabling traps or driving (one player steers while the other fires). Each player can select his own skill level, so a casual player can team up with a hardcore gamer without ruining the experience for either one.
One surprising new addition I almost overlooked is the thrilling new Horde mode. This arcade-style romp (which also supports split-screen) challenges you to wipe out wave after wave of enemies invading a confined area. It's utterly relentless, insanely hard, and addictive as all hell. The hours simply fly by once you get caught up in the madness ("Dude, it's almost 12 o'clock!").
No matter what mode I played however, I encountered glaring bugs ranging from getting completely stuck in an open area to temporarily losing control of my character. Gears 2 could have been an A+ game, but these glitches take the sheen off an otherwise first-rate shooting experience. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
One notable new weapon is the "digger" gun that burrows underground before exploding on contact with an enemy. You can man catapults, and you get an awesome view of the flaming rock as it approaches its target. The graphics have a realistic, gritty look, but there's not much eye candy. The dialogue isn't exactly Shakespeare but it definitely gets an "A" for sarcasm. The controls are intuitive but I hate how the camera shakes when you run. It makes me ill!
The campaign mode (which can be played cooperatively) is linear but the difficulty is fair and there's never a dull moment. Still, the game gets repetitive at times. I don't know if it's the "Beyond Thunderdome" scenery or familiar bosses like a giant spider, but the developers seem to be running short on ideas.
The horde mode is always a crowd pleaser, and you can now fortify yourself between waves by buying barriers like barbed wire and weapons like turrets. It's addictive, but the insanely difficult boss stages can bring your progress (and fun) to a screeching halt. Gears of Wars 3 gives fans more of what they want, but I think the formula is starting to wear thin. © Copyright 2012 The Video Game Critic.
Golden Axe has a nice arcade feel, and in an era of overblown epics, I find that refreshing. The game does borrow heavily from the Heavenly Sword (PS3, 2007) block/perry mechanism, where you press the left or right bumper depending on the "color" of the attack. A successful dodge lets you administer a devastating counter resulting in splattering blood, flying limbs, and emphatic screams. If you're lucky, you might even get some blood on the camera lens.
You'll battle your way through armored knights and barbarians donning animal skulls. I love how the brutes scream a bunch of gibberish before they attack, and it's cool how knights lose armor as you wear them down. The fighting action is fun, but it's the beast-riding aspect that sets the game apart. These lumbering beasts have a real sense of mass, and their attacks deal substantial damage to multiple enemies at a time. Between battles midget thieves emerge and scamper around, and it's fun to hack away at them to reveal goodies. Please kids - don't try this at home!
As much as I dig Beast Rider, the critic inside of me can't overlook its flaws. There are some outrageously cheap traps, including giant bear traps that spring out of the ground without warning. Expect occasional camera difficulties, especially when you paint yourself into a corner. During one boss encounter the collision detection seemed to stop working for a few minutes. Certain locations like the rainy Highland Fortress wear out their welcome and make the game feel padded. Your progress is saved automatically between chapters, which run about 15 minutes each.
The game features an excellent musical score that incorporates primitive beats and otherworldly voices, and the combination is effective. The cut-scenes are also a treat, featuring amazing, hulking beasts that call to mind the old Ray Harryhausen films. One thing Golden Axe fans will surely miss is a two-player coop mode - something that's obviously a lot harder to pull off in 3D than 2D. Beast Rider may be rough around the edges, but if you're looking for some down-and-dirty hack-n-slash action, this is your game. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
GTA4 incorporates a lot of modern technology, but it's not just a gimmick. The GPS tracking is an invaluable tool for quickly reaching your next destination, and the cell phone keeps you in touch with all of your low-life acquaintances. The graphics are outstanding. The city looks so real you can almost smell the urine in the alleyways, and there are no load times as you drive from one end of town to the other - quite a technical achievement.
Driving like a madman or going on a shooting spree is outrageously fun, and there's no substantial penalty for going buck-wild and causing wanton destruction. Within a minute of picking up the controller, my friend Chris was laughing his ass off and shouting "A+! A+!" GTA4 is like a real-world version of Crazy Taxi (Dreamcast, 2000). The impact of collisions is sensational, and I love how Niko shrieks as he's catapulted through his car's windshield. Yes, there is damage modeling.
Liberty City is crawling with police cars, but they ignore most infractions, and it's easy to escape their "circle of detection". Exploring the massive environment is fascinating, and you can even swim in the water! Sniper missions and vertigo-inducing helicopter rides really emphasize the game's spectacular sense of scale. The people move with fluid motion and convey realistic facial emotions, but the hookers look pretty rough.
GTA4's missions vary in terms of fun and excitement, but they tend to be somewhat forgiving. Unfortunately, failing a mission sends you back to your apartment, and driving back to the mission location can be a hassle. The radio stations offer some standout musical tracks like the Smashing Pumpkins, M.C. Lyte, and Bob Marley, but like real radio, there's too much idiotic talk. The satirical radio and television programs attempt to incorporate social commentary but come across as obnoxious and unfunny. Rockstar should hire some writing talent instead of relying on the guy down the hall. Even so, this game is a technical marvel that's consistently intriguing and often amazing. It's hard not to be entertained (or at least offended) by Grand Theft Auto IV. © Copyright 2008 The Video Game Critic.
The first thing you'll want to do is take a joyride through this gorgeous, living world. It's exhilarating to weave through traffic at dangerous speeds, and ramming motorcyclists and watching them fly through the air is pretty much my favorite thing to do. The game is generally forgiving and the police won't hassle you for traffic violations (although running down pedestrians tends to draw some attention). You can only enter certain buildings, but there are plenty of extracurricular activities like playing tennis, riding a rollercoaster, getting drunk, and frequenting strip clubs (trouble, here I come!).
Once you get tired of goofing off (and you will), you'll embark on missions that feature elaborate heists, violent shootouts, and exciting chases. You can toggle between multiple criminals with intertwined storylines (a la Pulp Fiction). Some missions are tedious (planting bombs in a trailer park) but many will get your heart pumping (escaping cops on a crowded freeway). The gameplay is not a huge step up from GTA4, but I appreciated the frequent checkpoints and customizable controls. I was really impressed how conversations while driving incorporate reactions to collisions.
One thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the handling of adult themes. I kind of expect brutal violence, but much of the dialogue is obscene and obnoxious. The radio talk shows are raunchy and devoid of humor. The "robot" movie you watch in the theater is pornographic and unbearable to watch. Is the game racist? Probably, but since it offends everyone, I guess that makes it okay.
I did enjoy the diverse soundtrack which incorporates plenty of old favorites from artists like Billy Squire, Elton John, Simple Minds, NWA, and even Eddie Murphy (remember "Party All The Time?"). The save system can be confusing at times, but at least there is a quick save option. The game has tremendous variety, but sometimes you may find yourself not knowing what to do next. Grand Theft Auto V certainly is a lot of game for the money, but its juvenile treatment of adult themes is a major turn-off. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
Guitar Hero 5 (GH5) offers a fresh set of 85 tunes that run the gamut from classic rock (David Bowie, "Fame"), to heavy metal (Motley Crue, "Looks That Kill"), to 90's alternative (Nirvana, "Smells like Teen Spirit"), to modern contemporary (Gorillaz, "Feel Good Inc."). There are a few oddballs like "Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash) and "Bring the Noise 20XX" (Public Enemy with Zakk Wylde). My personal highlight was "Only Happy When It Rains" (Garbage), made all the better when I unlocked Shirley Manson as a playable character. "Sympathy For the Devil" (Rolling Stones) was not a good choice for that band because the bulk of that song's notes come from a keyboard.
Whatever your tastes, rest assured you'll find plenty of tunes that you like - and hate! GH5's familiar gameplay involves hitting the proper notes in rhythm as they roll down the screen, racking up bonuses for consecutive notes. GH5 tries to spice things up with extraneous controls and bonus challenges, but there's nothing groundbreaking. A career mode lets you unlock new songs and venues, and it's fun to play through.
But what really sets Guitar Hero 5 apart is its accessibility. Instead of having to painstakingly unlock every song, all the tracks are readily available in "quick play" mode. While this is handy when you're having a party, it makes the career mode a lot less satisfying. I also noticed that this game seems more forgiving than previous editions, registering notes even if they are a split second off. Music fans will enjoy Guitar Hero 5, even if it's just an old car with a new coat of paint. © Copyright 2010 The Video Game Critic.
Check out these tunes: Ain't Talkin' Bout Love, And the Cradle Will Rock, Hot For Teacher, Oh Pretty Woman, Panama, Running with the Devil... this is what I'm talking about! It had been a little while since I dusted off the old guitar, but it's like riding a bicycle - and still quite the adrenaline rush!
While banging out these classics I was surprised to see the "new" Van Halen characters on stage with short haircuts. Diamond Dave is sporting a full head of hair! At the beginning of Pretty Woman Eddie Van Halen plays a guitar with a cordless electric drill. Would you believe it sounds horrible? Eat your heart out Spinal Tap! I can play any song flawlessly at medium difficulty, but the hard level is a serious leap. That extra orange button feels like a bridge too far!
The career mode is terrific because you can adjust the difficulty any time and have a selection of songs at each "venue", allowing you to skip tunes you don't like. Extras for each song include lyrics and interesting behind-the-scenes song facts. You can play lead guitar or bass, and if you have four people you can play the whole damn band.
Other acts sprinkled in include Billy Idol (White Wedding), Foo Fighters (Best of You), Fountains of Wayne (Stacy's Mom), Weezer (Dope Nose), and Foreigner (Double Vision). The fact that these songs don't come off as well is just a testament to Van Halen's guitar supremacy. I do however wish this game contained some of their Sammy Hagar-era music as well. Still, if you're thinking of digging that plastic guitar out of the attic Guitar Hero Van Halen is a pretty good excuse. © Copyright 2020 The Video Game Critic.
The early stages are mainly tutorials to get you acquainted with the controls, which includes riding a horse. The control scheme could be more intuitive (double-tap left bumper to roll?), but you'll learn to love the "quick draw" feature, which gives you slow-motion and auto-aim for short periods of time. Gun's excellent production values are evident in its quality voice acting, heroic orchestrated score, and thoughtfully conceived missions. The horse animations obviously utilize motion-capture technology, and you have to respect that attention to detail.
To be honest, Westerns aren't really my thing, so Gun had an uphill battle to win over this critic. But the game succeeded by focusing on the action, keeping the objectives clear, and using short cut-scenes only when necessary. You'll engage in shootouts not only in saloons, but on bridges, steamboats, and trains. The missions have a lot of variety, so you'll engage in stealthy jailbreaks, high-speed chases, and explosive train ambushes. I'm not usually big on "escort" missions, but the one where you ride on top of a stagecoach while picking off attacking Indians is absolutely thrilling!
Gun is linear in nature, but there are side missions to help you pad your "stats". There's an easy difficulty available for those who just want to enjoy the ride, and you can save at any time. The game features a lot of hot, dusty locations, making this ideal for your summer gaming pleasure. Gun is not the most addicting game in the world, but if you play a few missions here and there, you'll find it well worth your time. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Screen shots courtesy of IGN.com