Xbox Reviews P

Painkiller: Hell Wars
Grade: B-
Publisher: Dreamcatcher (2006)
Reviewed: 2007/11/6
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity)

screenshotWith 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 chunks 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 into 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". © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

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Panzer Dragoon Orta
Grade: A-
Publisher: Sega (2003)
Reviewed: 2003/2/27
Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

screenshotFew people had a chance to experience the original Panzer Dragoon games on the Sega Saturn, so it's good to see the series come back strong on the XBox. In this third chapter, you pilot a dragon through fantastic, dream-like worlds, blasting monsters and bombarding huge airships with your immense firepower. Although the game is largely "on rails" (your course is predetermined) there is some room to navigate around obstacles, and at certain points you can even alter your path through a stage.

The background story revolves around Orta, a young girl who rides a dragon. The visuals, both in the cut scenes and during the game, are outstanding and sometimes exhilarating. At times it feels like one of those theme park illusion rides, and it's fun to play too. You can rotate your view 360 degrees and a useful radar pinpoints your enemies' direction. You deal most of your damage using lock-on missiles, but you'll need your regular shots to shoot down incoming projectiles. As your ace in the hole, there's the powerful "berserker" attack that basically obliterates everything on the screen. You can also dash, slow down, and switch between standard, powerful, and agile dragon forms on the fly.

This unusual shooter demands a tremendous amount of technique and strategy. Fortunately, an outstanding tutorial walks you through the finer points of the game. There's also a "Pandora's Box" menu option which houses goodies that open up as you progress.

My main complaint with Panzer Dragoon Orta is that you don't always know what the heck is happening around you. The disconcerting camera angles during play, coupled with an incomprehensible storyline often left me bewildered. Sometimes friendly companions are difficult to distinguish from the bad guys, and the colossal bosses require an inordinate amount of time to defeat! Orta is one tough game, and you shouldn't be ashamed to set the difficulty too easy. Still, this is a game you'll return to time and time again. © Copyright 2003 The Video Game Critic.

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Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection
Grade: C
Publisher: Crave (2005)
Reviewed: 2005/3/22
Rating: Everyone


screenshotI happen to be a big pinball fan. I own my own Lord of the Rings pinball machine and I'm familiar with the history of the game, which extends way back to the early 1900's. So as you can imagine, I was pretty psyched when I found this collection of seven pinball games from the 1950's through the 90's: Ace High, Central Park, Big Shot, Genie, Black Hole, Victory, and Tee'd Off.

Pinball is one of those "real world" games that translates surprisingly well to video games. Especially on the PC, there's no shortage of fantastic pinball titles. The tables in Pinball Hall of Fame are rendered in photo-realistic detail, and you can even see the reflection of the backboard on the table! The flippers are perfectly responsive, and you can shake the table with the joystick (just be careful not to tilt). But what really struck me was just how antiquated the tables look, with the exception of the futuristic "Black Hole" from 1980.

Still, some of the older tables are surprisingly fun and addictive, partially due to their sheer simplicity. The 1974 Big Shot looks cheesy as hell, but has that "one more time" quality that keeps you coming back, trying to top your best score. Ironically, the most recent game in the package, "Tee'd Off" from 1993, is also the least interesting. Its excessive ramps and hidden passengers make it hard to tell what's going on. In all of these games, the ball animation is silky smooth but has a "floaty" quality that seems unnatural.

The elongated shape of the tables is hard to capture on a television screen. The close-up viewing angle makes it hard to react to caroms and aim for targets. The wide-angle view lets you see the whole table, but most of the graphical detail is lost. On the bright side, the Gottlieb Collection includes plenty of background information, a generous number of configuration options, and its under-$20 price is certainly reasonable. It's difficult to capture the essence of real pinball in a video game, but Pinball Hall of Fame's effort is commendable. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.

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Pirates of the Caribbean
Grade: D-
Publisher: Bethesda (2003)
Reviewed: 2003/7/27
Rating: Teen (violence, gambling, use of alcohol)

screenshotWhen I first started playing Pirates of the Caribbean, I could tell that something wasn't right, but I couldn't put my finger on it. After a few minutes, I finally figured it out - this is a PC game! You can tell by the awkward user interface, unresponsive control, and the tedious nature of the game in general. And get this - it isn't even based on the movie! It's just a third-person pirate RPG with a Disney license slapped on it.

Granted, the graphics are terrific - especially the picturesque colonial townships, finely detailed tall ships, and gorgeous sunsets on the water. But the game itself is a real drag, and most console gamers won't tolerate its sluggish controls and slow pace. Sure there's sword fighting and sea battles, but you'll spend most of your time wandering around, bartering with merchants, and having pointless conversations with the locals.

I love the subject matter, but I didn't have the patience for this game. And except for a brief sword fighting tutorial in the beginning, you have to figure out everything yourself, which is terribly frustrating. The "user-hostile" interface doesn't help matters. You walk up to a chest and a hand appears in the corner, but no matter what button you hit, nothing happens! The sword fighting moves lag behind your commands, and the framerate stutters on a regular basis.

The strength of the game lies in your freedom to roam as you please. It won't advance the story, but you can sail to different islands and visit many scenic locations. The music is also pleasant and appropriate for the time period. If you're looking for a slow-paced adventure with a strong storyline, maybe Pirates of the Caribbean will appeal to you. But for action-minded gamers, I'd recommend Pirates: Legend of Black Kat (PS2, Xbox) instead. © Copyright 2003 The Video Game Critic.

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Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat
Grade: A-
Publisher: Electronic Arts (2002)
Reviewed: 2006/10/14
Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, violence)

screenshotAlthough widely overlooked, Legend of Black Kat is arguably the best pirate game ever made. It's a potent combination of explosive sea battles, interesting island exploration, and exciting swordplay. The game progresses at a steady clip thanks to its nicely tuned difficulty, responsive controls, and frequent save points.

You assume the role of an attractive female pirate by the name of Kat, who must single-handedly battle famous pirates, giant crabs, gorillas, and skeletons. In addition to wielding a sword, Kat can hurl knives and toss exploding powder kegs. Each island is unique and fun to explore. I especially like the nifty vibration effect that alerts you of nearby buried treasure. Controlling your ship on the high seas is easy thanks to arcade-style controls that even include a turbo boost! Blasting away at other ships is satisfying, especially when they explode into flames.

This Xbox version's graphics are noticeably more polished than the Playstation 2 version, and its crisp audio includes creaking boats hulls, exotic birds, resounding explosions, and a lively musical score. The save and load times are much better in this version as well. Those looking for realism will prefer Sid Meier's Pirates (Xbox, 2005), but gamers looking for non-stop action should check out this underrated adventure. © Copyright 2006 The Video Game Critic.

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Pitfall: The Lost Expedition
Grade: C-
Publisher: Activision (2004)
Reviewed: 2005/7/3
Rating: Everyone

screenshotAttempting yet another comeback after his ill-fated 16-bit Mayan Adventure in the 90's, Pitfall Harry is once again swinging from vines and hopping over crocs. Lost Expedition is somewhat disappointing - it lacks polish and fine-tuning - but there's still some fun to be had. The graphic style strikes a whimsical tone with large-headed, cartoonish characters. Its basic gameplay and lush tropical scenery suggest Crash Bandicoot (Playstation), but some of the more expansive areas exhibit a Tomb Raider influence.

Pitfall's graphics are easy on the eyes. Beautiful plants sprout around ivy-covered ruins, and you can see far into the distance. Likewise the crisp sound effects make you feel immersed in a jungle filled with birds, monkeys, chanting natives, crumbling rocks, and waterfalls. Many of the basic gameplay elements from the Atari 2600 (1982) game are included, like leaping over pits, swinging from vines, avoiding rolling logs, and dealing with crocodile-infested waters.

But unlike the original game, navigating vines is slow and tedious, requiring you to constantly reposition yourself, and then swing back and forth to gain momentum. Harry also has the ability to roll up into a ball (a la Metroid) and the obligatory "stealth" mode lets him sneak around snoozing monkeys. I really like the invisible checkpoints and the fact that long falls are not fatal. It's also cool to escape from the jaws of a crocodile by pressing a button rapidly.

Unfortunately, Lost Expedition is plagued with design flaws. The stages have multiple paths, but most are only accessible after acquiring a specific item (like a torch or gas mask) much later in your journey. This means you'll be doing a lot of backtracking through areas you've already been through several times, and that just sucks. Managing items is a pain, and performing a simple task like drinking water from your canteen is needlessly complicated (and almost impossible during a battle). Why the right joystick is used to "grab" is beyond my comprehension.

The camera is funky, so you'll need to constantly adjust it. Objectives are often unclear and even when they are clear, it's confusing how to accomplish them (okay, I have a torch, and I'm supposed to burn these crates - but how?) The dialogue can be hard to hear, but that might be considered a bonus considering how corny it is. Pitfall's maps and instructions are presented in a tattered, handwritten presentation that looks cool but can be hard to read. In the end, the Lost Expedition is a good-looking adventure but spotty gameplay prevents it from reclaiming the glory days of the franchise. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.

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Project Gotham Racing
Grade: B+
Publisher: Microsoft (2001)
Reviewed: 2001/12/6


screenshotI'm not sure what "Project Gotham" means, but this is no Batman game. It's a super-realistic racer that takes you through the streets of New York, London, Tokyo, and San Francisco. With sharp graphics, responsive control, and intense gameplay, Project Gotham is easily one of the best racers I've ever played.

The 25 cars look fantastic and handle like a dream. The tracks aren't very exciting, but there's plenty of variety and the cities look fairly realistic. The main problem is that the tracks tend to have VERY dark shadows, making it difficult to judge upcoming turns. A well-designed "kudos" system allows you to earn points by driving with style, speed, and skill. It's really fun to watch your points rack up during a good run. You use these points to unlock new tracks and cars.

Unlike Gran Turismo 3 (PS2), you won't have to invest an inordinate amount of time to get to the good stuff. The audio is less impressive, and the "radio" tunes didn't really appeal to me. The four-player split-screen mode is smooth and very competitive. Project Gotham is really a very impressive first generation racer for the XBox. © Copyright 2001 The Video Game Critic.

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Project Gotham Racing 2
Grade: B+
Publisher: Microsoft (2003)
Reviewed: 2004/6/23
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThe Xbox's "flagship racing franchise" (it says so on the box) is back with more of everything that made the original such a hit. Realistic graphics, precision handling, and endless challenges signify this first-class racer. Project Gotham 2 (PG2) features over 100 cars (in 14 classes) and 100 tracks located all over the world, including Chicago, Washington DC, Sydney, Yokohama, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Moscow.

The tracks are well designed with realistic scenery, but like the first Project Gotham, they're plagued by over-shading that makes it hard to see where you're going. The problem is especially glaring in the split-screen mode, but it even affects the single-player mode. The "night tracks" are ridiculously dark, especially if you shatter your headlights!

The career mode provides a wide array of challenges, including navigating cone courses and reaching breakneck speeds on the "speed camera" courses. One of the charms of the first Gotham Racing was its "kudos" system, which awarded points for stylish maneuvering - mainly power slides. Well in Project Gotham 2 the developers (Bizarre Creations) went cuckoo for kudos! It seems like you earn kudos for everything, including overtakes, good "lines", drafts, and "clean sections". Heck, I inadvertently earned some Kudos for sneezing during one race! I'm sure Bizarre Creation's intentions were good, but it feels very watered down.

The new multi-tier kudos system is needlessly complex. When you finish a race and tons of bonus kudos are heaped upon you, it just feels routine. Despite these minor quibbles, PG2 still manages to be both realistic and fun. The cars handle precisely, and the game supports on-line play (which I did not try). The four-player split screen is fun but I wish it was more obvious when you finish the race. I often found myself driving an extra lap before noticing the small word "Finished" in the corner of my screen. Project Gotham 2 may not be the end-all of racers, but fans of the original will consider this more of a good thing. © Copyright 2004 The Video Game Critic.

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Psychonauts
Grade: B+
Publisher: Majesco (2005)
Reviewed: 2021/3/19
Rating: Teen (cartoon mischief, crude humor, language)

screenshotPsychonauts wasn't exactly a runaway hit but this 3D platformer is boldly inventive and often brilliant. Its story begins at a peculiar summer camp where kids are taught psychic abilities. Mature-ish humor and oddly-proportioned characters convey weird, Pee Wee's Playhouse vibe. I don't know who this game was targeted towards but it can be disturbing at times.

Our hero is a boy named "Raz'' out to uncover nefarious schemes by delving into the minds of camp counselors, deranged characters, and even monsters. The 3D platform mind stages are loaded with mental metaphors like memories, figments of imagination, and mental cobwebs. You overcome obstacles and defeat your monstrous fears using skills like levitate, burn, and clairvoyance. Some of these powers are a little awkward to use. For example, to throw an item (telekinesis) you need to lock-on an item and then position a 3D arrow. Not easy to do in the heat of battle.

The hub of the game is campgrounds you're free to explore to collect items and purchase upgrades. The "mind" stages tend to be linear in design but the platforming is quite advanced. I like how the frame rate remains smooth as you navigate these sometimes dark, nightmarish mental landscapes. Depth perception can be tricky while jumping, but considering the topsy-turvy nature of these stages, the camera is relatively well behaved.

The game goes really heavy on item collection and fetch quests are the order of the day. There's a lot of inventory manipulation and without certain items or powers you may find yourself stuck. Upon reuniting a smiling hat box with its tag they both do a little dance together. That gives me the creeps!

Though somewhat dark and twisted Psychonauts maintains a wicked sense of humor. Its clever dialog is delivered with perfect timing by professional voice actors. It's hard to describe this game because every stage feels like its own little Twilight Zone episode. Psychonauts is like the video game version of Inception. It may just be too "meta" for its own good but you have to appreciate its genius. © Copyright 2021 The Video Game Critic.

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Screen shots courtesy of IGN.com, Gaming Age Online, GameSpot, Xbox Addict, Playstation.com, Moby Games