It's been a while since my last collection of Xbox 360 game title mini-reviews and I've got a number of games here, some quite good, some pretty bad, which I'm never really going to get around to writing full reviews for. That said, I'd like to provide some guidance on these games, though some are a bit on the old side. So here's a collection of mini-reviews I hope you'll find helpful. With most Xbox 360 titles costing $60 in the US, you don't want to get stuck with a dog. Here are some of the games I've played recently that don't warrant a full review, but might still be worth your time and money.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Released in November 2006, SEGA's Xbox 360 version of Sonic the Hedgehog is an adrenalin-laden 3D scroller with bright, sunny graphics and a familiar set of characters, assuming you're an old-timer with Sonic experience. And while I was quite taken with the early Genesis-based Sonic titles, I have to say that the modern Sonic isn't particularly compelling. And it's a problem that spans generations: My nine-year-old son Mark, who should be drawn to a title like this, agrees that Sonic is pretty boring, overall.
The problem is that the Sonic series' main strength--that overwhelming sense of speed, something that really set it apart from the Marios of the world a decade and a half ago--just isn't present in this modern version. On the 360, great racing games like Burnout Revenge (see my review) capture this stunning capability in high definition wonder. But Sonic is slow to speed up and never really captures that wonderful speed effect that should dominate this experience. It's just ... boring. There are even lame sequences when you move slowly around a town... exploring. Geesh.
Sorry, but I just can't get excited about Sonic. Take a pass on this one.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2
When I reviewed the original Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) a year ago (see my review), I just didn't get the game. As a fan of twitch-happy first person shooters, GRAW seemed slow and awkward, and it's reliance on team-based play, where your team members were all computer-controlled, just didn't sit well with me. Flash forward a year, and the excellent Rainbow Six: Vegas (see my review) caused me to go back and restart GRAW. And you know what? I like it, and quite a bit. In fact, if I were to review that game today, I'd probably give it four stars for the single player experience, which is actually quite good once you figure it out.
With that in mind, I jumped at the chance to check out Ghost Recon 2 (GRAW 2), which is even better than the original, with one major caveat. This sequel features better graphics, a tweaked control system, a nice mix between individual and team-based play, and a decent story that takes place literally right after the events in the original GRAW conclude. There's just one problem, and it was painfully evident in both of the run-throughs of the single player experience that I completed: The game is woefully short. What make this difficult is that the third of the three acts is approximately one-third the length of the first two. So when you hit the end of the game the first time, you can't believe that's really it. But it is.
Another problem, though this is less serious, is that the multiplayer version of the game is seriously detuned, graphically, from the single player experience. It's almost like GRAW Lite or, as my son noted, a completely different game. However, the co-op missions are still interesting (as with Rainbow Six) and worth checking out.
Overall, fans of tactical shooters like GRAW and Rainbow Six will absolutely have to check out GRAW 2. It's not perfect, but I had a heck of a time with it and can recommend it heartily. Good stuff.
Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV
OK, I admit it. I was a Dungeons and Dragons goon in high school (you know, when I wasn't participating in the high school's then-budding Computer Club or PEEKing and POKEing my Commodore 64). And my Tolkien credentials are second only to Christopher Tolkien himself: I first read "The Lord of the Rings" in the sixth grade, and that same year I wrote a lengthy comparison of that series and Terry Brooks' "The Sword of Shannara," in which I argued that Brooks was a hack who ripped off Tolkien wholesale. I've re-read the trilogy (and various other Tolkien titles) dozens of times. My point is simple. I should love games like Oblivion. The problem is, I don't.
And God knows, I've tried. Through the years, I've turned to PC fantasy games again and again in a vain attempt to find something that would hold my interest. The problem isn't the genre, or in the case, even the implementation. The problem, of course, is me: Fantasy role playing games require your ongoing attention, hours of dedication a day, and a never-ending desire to keep going until you've soaked the game for all its worth. But I'm a busy guy. And the truth is, I really don't have that kind of time or mental dedication for any video game. I like to get in and out, and the types of games I really enjoy--typically first person shooters--reward people like me with short, easily-obtainable objectives that you can enjoy and complete in short bursts. Video games, for me at least, are a time filler or reward that I can enjoy during downtimes in my professional and personal lives.
But don't get me wrong. Oblivion is an absolutely excellent game. And if you're the type of person who can embrace such a thing--note that Oblivion is actually a single player experience only; you don't interact with thousands of others in some sort of online world--then this is a game you should absolutely consider. The world of Oblivion is vast and deep. There are quests, of course, and side quests. There are character classes, skills, and non-player characters of various depth. And if you're really into it, there's even a $20 downloadable add-on, The Shivering Isles, that will let you garner another 250 Achievement points. That's right: You can just keep playing and playing and playing.
So I apologize to the fans of Oblivion, as I'll never get into this game, not really. But I see the quality there and understand that this is one of the most compelling experiences ever offered on a console. If I was a student or retired, perhaps, I could give it my all. But for now, all I can do is recommend it to others, so I will. It's clearly an amazing game.
The thought that there might be a game out there that my five-year-old daughter Kelly would love was just too good to pass up. And Viva Pi?ata delivers the good, albeit in a world that's a quirky mix of Kameo (see my review) and "The Teletubbies," with a little product placement thrown in for good measure. (An associated television show may or may not still be on the air. Honestly, I don't care.) But fear not, Viva Pi?ata is actually a good game, it really is. The only problem is that it's not really playable by the young audience it targets. That means an adult, or less ideally, an older sibling, will need to sit in on ever game session. And while spending time with your kids is obviously a good thing, doing so in front of a video game console isn't, shall we say, optimal.
That said, kids of all ages should enjoy this game. You control a small swath of land which you can garden and fix up as you see fit, and as you do so, a variety of flora and fauna will move in, improving or ruining things. All of these creatures are pi?atas, naturally, which makes for a colorful and engaging, if abstract, world. It also makes it a bit less terrifying when something dies, I guess. There's lots to do, and most of it is pretty non-linear, so you get the feel of a real (and hopefully thriving) ecosystem. You can also experiment with different styles of land management, which is much more interesting than it sounds.
If you've got young kids and you don't want them shooting aliens or even zapping twenty-year-old blobs on Xbox Live Arcade, definitely consider Viva Pi?ata. It's a fun if not perfect game for children.
Major League Baseball 2K7
I was eager to see what the first good Xbox 360-based baseball game would like, and Major League Baseball 2K7 is like the realization of a childhood dream, when I saw pictures of Mattel's World Series Major League Baseball for the Intellivision with ECS (Entertainment Computer System) and wondered how realistic these games could be. Over 20 years later, Major League Baseball 2K7 delivers on that promise with a game that features stunningly realistic visuals, a decent controller scheme, and an engaging baseball experience that really puts you in the park. (Just don't pay too much attention to the stunningly unvaried ballpark cut scenes that make Fenway Park look identical to, say, Dodger's Stadium.)
Die-hard sports franchise fans might find Major League Baseball 2K7 a bit limiting, but really all I was looking for was a way to experience major league baseball action with my son. And on that note, Major League Baseball 2K7 is quite good. Pitching and batting, the two primary activities of the game, are both approachable and easy to master, while fielding is automated enough to not bog you down in too much fetching and throwing. That said, you still have to make intelligent decisions about where you want to throw the ball. It's just not overly academic.
You can also compete in home run derbies and other side games, which my son finds especially engaging. The announcing is as repetitive as the exterior stadium and fan shots, but whatever: This is a show-off title and one that looks and plays wonderfully on those high-end HDTVs that everyone's buying. Highly recommended.
When the Xbox 360 originally launched in November 2005, it arrived with two competing basketball titles, NBA 2K6 and NBA Live 06 (see my reviews). My son and I greatly preferred NBA 2K6, though neither one was particularly excellent. So when it came time to upgrade, we went for NBA 2K6's sequel, the aptly-named NBA 2K7.
Like its predecessor, NBA 2K7 is good but not excellent. It features better graphics, naturally, and some improvements to game play. Star players seem a bit more like their real world counterparts, but then that just highlights how generic all the other players look and act.
Some bits are worse this time around. Free throws are frustratingly difficult, which is painful when you easily can light up a game with long-distance threes. And the computer-controlled defense seems a bit better than it should be. Haven't the developers seen how bad the modern NBA can be?
In the same vein as Viva Pi?ata (see above), Cars, a game based on the Disney/Pixar hit movie, seems like a no-brainer for kids. There's just one problem: The game, like the movie--which, not to be a jerk about it, contains way too much NASCAR culture for this literate Northern liberal--is ultimately disappointing. All the characters and much of the music from the movie is there, go figure, but because Cars is a totally open-ended game in which you can pretty much wander around the fictional town of Radiator Springs and figure out what to do. I'm not sure about your kids, but this wasn't particularly compelling for mine. In fact, I found the whole thing rather lackluster myself.
The racing sequences are well-done, if repetitive. But some of the goal-based stuff, such as collecting post cards from around the large play area, seem interesting at first but quickly get frustrating. Ultimately, Cars is more like Sonic than Viva Pi?ata: You want to enjoy it but it's pretty boring. I recommend avoiding it unless you're a kid and a die-hard Pixar and/or NASCAR junky. In which case, of course, you should seek help.
Madden NFL 07
My son and I really enjoyed Madden 06 (see my review), mostly because its few Achievements were so readily, uh, achieved. In Madden 07, the number of Achievements, and the difficulty with which you can obtain them, has been ratcheted up accordingly (and, in my opinion, too much). The game itself? Hey, it's Madden. EA's monopoly look at NFL football is as good as its ever been, which, fortunately, it quite good.
Play calling and overall playability is about on par with the previous installment. (Again, excellent.) What's changed this year is that you can control running plays a bit better, assuming you can master the twitchy controller requirements. That is, you can now juke, twist, and dive in ways that were previously impossible, allowing you to pick up additional yards on each running play.
A big part of the Madden experience is the franchise stuff, and this year there's also a Superstar Hall of Fame mode in which you develop an NFL star from the ground up, literally. That's a bit too much for me: As with Major League Baseball 2K7, above, I simply enjoy Madden 07 for the game experience, and as with previous entries, what you get here is top-notch. Highly recommended.
For the remainder of the year, I'll probably review a single Xbox 360 title each month, but before we settle into that rhythm, I've got a diatribe coming up about the low-quality of multiplayer action in otherwise excellent games like Gears of War (see my review) and Call of Duty 3 (see my review): Gears of War, in particular, is a huge multiplayer disappointment, despite what you might have read, and the recent release of the Halo 3 multiplayer beta, which I'll also be writing about shortly, only serves to further highlight its problems. More on this subject soon, I promise.