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Jason Evangelho

Five reasons to both love and hate "L.A. Noire"

What to expect from Rockstar’s gritty 1940s crime adventure

Rockstar and Team Bondi’s “L.A. Noire” may very well be the most expensively produced game in history. It’s also set to make history with its groundbreaking facial animation technology and its superb narrative. But if you’re expecting standard Rockstar fare, you may find yourself being either sorely disappointed in, or helplessly in love with, this gritty 1940s crime adventure drama. Read on for the five things you may love – or hate – about “L.A. Noire”.

1: THE UNCANNY VALLEY
In the field of robotics and 3D animation, The Uncanny Valley revolves around that creepy feeling you get when a robot mimics a human with up to 90 percent accuracy. For years, thousands of video game developers have strived to reach a level of realism with their fictitious, computer-animated characters. Team Bondi, the creative force behind “L.A. Noire,” is the first to accomplish it. The breakthrough technology behind this facial animation isn’t just an expensive achievement, it’s a revolutionary step forward in game design. For all intents and purposes, the myriad of emotive characters in “L.A. Noire” are humans, and their expressions cannot be distinguished from an actual person. In fact, you may discover an internal logic loop inside your brain as it fights to determine if what you’re watching is occurring in the real world or a digital one. From a hard swallow after telling a lie, to furrowed eyebrows, facial tics and even squinting eyes that can be measured in millimeters, this isn’t just the closest games have come to being interactive movies — this is an interactive movie.

2: IT ISN’T “GRAND THEFT AUTO: COPS”
This may come as a disappointment to some, but credit goes to Rockstar for not being afraid to bust out of their own mold, especially when you consider the inherent sales risk involved. While it can be argued that “Red Dead Redemption” was merely “Grand Theft Auto with horses,” some sites describe “L.A. Noire” as “Grand Theft Auto: Law Enforcement.” For better or for worse, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “L.A. Noire” retains a razor sharp focus on its narrative, even encouraging you to let your partner drive in order to arrive at the next crime scene more quickly. While the occasional street crimes can optionally divert you from the next plot development, they still don’t encourage a true sandbox/open-world style of gameplay. Interaction with random citizens is almost non-existent, and the game prevents you from pulling a gun unless absolutely required by the storyline’s events. And sure, you can smash into traffic but be prepared to get a sinfully low score at the end of the case. At every turn, Rockstar and Team Bondi relentlessly direct your attention to the writing, the acting, and the inherent adventure. It’s a refreshing change.

3: UNDENIABLY VINTAGE MUSIC
Time and time again, Rockstar has procured a wealth of period-appropriate music for its “Grand Theft Auto” series, but they’ve outdone themselves with “L.A. Noire”. The soundtrack features 1940s jazz perfect for a dusty bar or suspenseful caper. More importantly, it exudes such a vintage sound because it is vintage. It literally sounds like Rockstar traveled back in time to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, scouted the clubs and bar scene and brought back master recordings of the music that knocked their socks off. It’s so moody and stirring you may even find yourself becoming a fan of the slick instrumental jazz of that era.

4: BLACK & WHITE IS THE NEW 3D
While companies like Sony and Nintendo are pimping out 3D visuals, Rockstar has reversed their thinking entirely. Buried in the options menu is an option to play through “L.A. Noire” in black and white. Sure, you’ll miss the golden handles that indicate buildings and rooms you can enter, but it completes the illusion that you are Cole Phelps, a straight-laced detective solving crimes in a perfectly recreated seedy version of 1940s Los Angeles. Suddenly, the dialog sounds more authentic, and you’re transported back to this 8 square miles of pre-freeway, noir-inspired slice of California. Techophiles will probably hate it, but it’s the only way to play.

5: YOUR ABILITY (OR LACK THEREOF) TO DETECT A LIE
Ask yourself, “Self, why can’t I ever detect that idiot who always bluffs during Saturday night poker?” Ask yourself if you’ve been lied to by a significant other, only to discover the truth days, months, or years later. If you can’t distinguish truth from fiction in real-life, don’t expect to bust chops in “L.A. Noire”. Remember that outstanding facial animation? It’s so convincing that you have to carefully study the faces and body language of witnesses and suspects to catch a fib. Does the timing of their wording seem off? Are they using less hand gestures than normal? Are they using just their mouth to smile, or is their whole face lighting up with happiness? Does their neck really itch, or are they nervous as hell? Are their eyes fleeting back and forth at an unusual speed? These are things to consider when asking a simple question, and the simple fact that you can detect a lie by studying their mug is a leap forward in video games. Then again, it could also be your undoing, resulting in a scolding from your Captain so intense that it scars you for life.

“L.A. Noire” is now available for PS3 and Xbox 360 systems for a suggested retail of $59.99

Meet 'Proun,' an indie racer that truly is art

The neverending “Are games art?” debate has just been silenced

The Van Abbe Museum is home to the contemporary works of Pablo Picasso and El Lissitzky among many other internationally renowned artists past and present. Currently, the museum is even featuring a little indie racing game called “Proun.”

“Proun” is the creation of Joost van Dongen, a Dutch indie game designer who also was responsible for a colorful painting adventure called “de Blob” which THQ later purchased the rights to. “Proun” has been kicking around for six years, a product of spare time and inspired evenings, and it’s a racing game that not only dazzles the eyes, but has a unique hook built into it.

It isn’t a typical racing game in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be any competition (and perhaps its spiritual cousin is “Audiosurf”). Rather, you maneuver up and down on a cable that runs through abstract landscapes, trying to avoid the obstacles appearing in the distance. Given the game’s dazzling good looks, this simple task may be more daunting than you think.

In a recent press release, van Dongen commented on his achievement:

 

“With Proun I tried to make something that looks radically different from most other games, and so far reactions have been very positive. I am both happy and surprised that following my own stubborn vision worked out so well!”

 

His artistic racer will grace PCs in the spring of 2011, but in the meantime it will also be on display at the La Gaîté Lyrique museum in Paris. That makes two influential museums which consider “Proun” a work of art. One could argue that this effectively silences the “games as art” debate which Roger Ebert ignited last year.

Racing Review: Shift 2 Unleashed

EA unleashes a frightening, thrilling, visceral racer

Late last year, EA and Slightly Mad Studios fired some aggressive verbal shots at Polyphony Digital’s “Gran Turismo 5”. Andy Tudor, lead designer of “Shift 2: Unleashed,” called the game more of an encyclopedia than a racing experience. Prior to that, EA Vice President Patrick Soderlund accused “Gran Turismo 5” of being sterile. These were exaggerated accusations rooted in truth carefully designed to deter racing enthusiasts from purchasing Polyphony Digital’s labor of love, and instead hold out for “Shift 2: Unleashed.” So, is the new simulation wing of “Need For Speed” finally ready to take on the kings of the asphalt like “Forza” and “Gran Turismo?”

One certainly can’t accuse Slightly Mad of a lazily produced sequel. While the original “Shift” had 18 tracks, “Shift 2” packs a satisfying and varied 30+ locations and 60 tracks, many of them now drivable at night. A new Helmet Cam enhances the already brilliant cockpit experience while full crash damage ensures extra caution at high speeds lest you lose tires and blow out your Works-modified engine. Throw in the option for meticulous tuning, which allows gear heads to save custom tuning schemes for individual courses, and the inclusion of the addictive Autolog feature from “Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit” for an automotive customization dream.

“Visceral” is one hell of an overused term in video game reviews, but it’s truly the best adjective here. Shift was praised for its immersive, life-like cockpit view, but the new Helmet Cam in “Shift 2” makes sitting in the driver’s seat downright frightening. The camera now utilizes subtle tricks like leaning into the apex of a turn, and the scream of acceleration and screeching tires completes the illusion that you’re in control of this high-end vehicle. What makes it frightening? Load up a night race at Nürburgring using the new Elite handling model and your HUD turned completely off, and you’ll shriek in terror when you approach that final chicane going much too fast. Mastery will beget eventual enjoyment, but you’re in for a thrilling and often scary high-speed ride.

There’s all this tension, and that’s even without mentioning the very aggressive AI. Worlds apart from the “on-rails” AI drivers in “Gran Turismo 5,” your opponents in “Shift 2” will do everything in their power to disrupt your perfect line. They also hold grudges, so expect even an accidental bumper tap during an overtake to be returned in kind. With no rewind feature, driving precisely and defensively is crucial, which erodes a bit of the game’s potential fun factor. Sadly, this makes a strong argument against using the excellent Helmet Cam since your peripheral vision is so restricted. The AI isn’t perfect, though, and you’ll witness occasional mistakes that open up opportunities.

Drifting once again represents a minor sub-section of the career mode, and it is simply no fun at all. Sure, the “Shift” series would suffer a personality conflict if it simply borrowed the simplistic, arcade drifting from its cousin “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.” That being said, Slightly Mad should consider giving players the option to skip drift events entirely in future installments; mastering the tricky and tedious drift mechanics will make you feel accomplished, but it’s a frustrating experience bereft of any trace of fun. To date, no developer has matched the intoxicating blend of fun and challenge that Codemasters did with “Race Driver: GRID.”

“Shift 2: Unleashed” offers a substantial career mode. Your progression as a driver depends on your XP earned for not only landing on the podium, but also for things like sticking to the perfect race line, performing clean overtakes and maintaining a lead over the pack. It doesn’t force you to grind, rewarding you generously enough for solid performances and always showering you with unlocked events to explore. Once you hit Level 10, however, expect the difficulty to skyrocket. The steering still feels a bit twitchier than it should, especially using the PS3’s Dual Shock controller, even after adjusting the caster angle. Put yourself in a V12 Maserati MC12 and every slight flick of the steering wheel feels like it could end in disaster. I admit, it probably feels just as perilous to drive it on real asphalt, but more balance should be maintained between simulation and fun. I suspect many gamers will put this one down in the higher echelon of events simply from sheer difficulty.

One thing that made an impression in the audio department was the treatment of the game’s soundtrack. The developers wanted to instill a sense of emotion and significance, and they’ve created stripped-down orchestral remixes of songs like Stone Temple Pilots’ “Take a Load Off” and Anberlin’s “We Owe This to Ourselves.” These are subdued versions with strings and echo effects, and it works brilliantly in the context of the game’s menus feeling both mellow and melancholy all at once.

Circling back to the heated remarks from EA leveled at “Gran Turismo 5,” “Shift 2” does indeed contain a satisfying collection of 140+ vehicles, ranging from retro Japanese beauties like the R32 Skyline to the impossibly sexy (and expensive) Lamborghini Reventón. None of the choices seem tacked on, and tuning and tinkering with each one is a delight. Their engine audio isn’t captured as meticulously as GT5, and the dashboard models aren’t as painstakingly detailed as “GT5″’s premium models, though they are a vast improvement over the original “Shift”. But those fighting words from EA and Slightly Mad Studios are an invitation for direct comparisons to their self-declared rival, “Gran Turismo 5.”

Put simply, is “Shift 2: Unleashed” the better racer?

“The essence of racing is total commitment and focus.” – Matt Powers, Formula D Driver

If you enjoyed “Need for Speed: Shift” to any degree, buy this right now. It certainly is clearer in purpose than the uneven “GT5,” but it also struggles to distance itself from its outlandish, arcade-driven Need for Speed roots. In this writer’s opinion, the difficulty level becomes too extreme to be considered constantly fun, but “Shift 2” definitely belongs in the upper echelon of racing games. If you subscribe to Matt Powers’ philosophy on racing, perhaps having mindless fun isn’t at the top of your list, and, in that case, “Shift 2” gets another unwavering recommendation. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand. Some basic understanding of gear ratios, caster angles and aerodynamics is required to push your vehicles to their full potential. It’s a remarkable improvement over its predecessor and if the developers make the same substantial leap forward with “Shift 3,” it should prove a fierce challenger to any racing series daring to call itself competition.

The top 5 video games of April

From nostalgic fighters to quirky rhythm games, these are April’s must-play titles

The total list of game releases for April feels downright anemic compared to the onslaught of high-profile releases in March, but it gives us ample time to whittle away at our backlog while still experiencing some of what April has to offer. As we do each month, we’re rounding up our top five most anticipated releases.

Mortal Kombat | NetherRealm/Warner Bros. | April 19

What “Street Fighter IV” did to revitalize the trademark Capcom series, “Mortal Kombat” 2011 looks to do for its legendary fighting franchise. Our hands-on time with the 2D fighter gave us a swift feeling of nostalgia, instantly putting a smile on our “Mortal Kombat”-loving faces. The animation and move execution was beyond smooth, and the title utilizes the power of the current generation of consoles well. The first true entry in the “Mortal Kombat” saga this generation (we’re not counting “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe”) looks to impress in terms of game play and graphics. Also, God of War fans can’t help but love the inclusion of Kratos as a perfect fit to the MK universe. All signs point to this being the game that fully rights the direction that the franchise is heading after last generation’s utilization of a 3D fighting engine and weapons left “Kombatants” with mixed opinions.

Patapon 3 | Japan Studio | April 12

PON PON PATA PON! Without question, one of the most original and whimsical rhythm games to grace the PSP (or any system) is Japan Studio’s “Patapon.” With games like “Ape Escape,” “The Last Guy,” and “Loco Roco” under its belt, this development team understands quirky, addictive games. The latest sequel continues the colorful, silhouetted look and classic rhythm action game play, but introduces co-op and competitive online multiplayer, a feature more developers need to implement in the PSP’s twilight hours.

Portal 2 | Valve | April 19

When the original “Portal” was released in 2007 in the Orange Box, all indications said that it was just another throw-in product to help out “Half-Life 2.” However the puzzle-platformer soon gained huge amounts of critical acclaim for the unique portal warping concept and dark humor provided by robotic antagonist GLaDOS, who was called the greatest video game villain of all time by IGN. The announcement of “Portal 2” created shock waves across the gaming community, but the biggest part of the announcement was the price tag. Because the original was intended as side-title, it was relatively short, with a low price of $15. “Portal 2” was announced to be a full $60 game. How many new physics mechanics did the designers at Valve add? Exactly how long is this game going to be? Of course, is it actually going to be worth $60? We think so, but only time will tell.

SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs | Zipper Interactive | April 19

To say that “SOCOM 4” has a lot going for it is an understatement. Sony’s long-running tactical shooter sports a 12-hour single player campaign, Playstation Move Support, 32 person online multiplayer, and it heralds the needed return of Zipper Interactive. We’re loving that Zipper took a page from Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted 2” and recorded the voice actor’s movements and dialog in the same room, allowing for more believable character interactions. We’re loving that the team took the time to deliver us a promising Beta. We’re loving their attention to detail with enemy AI, ensuring that unlike “Call of Duty,” enemies won’t be bullet sponges but instead worthy adversaries. Most importantly, we’re loving that with the included Classic Mode we can turn off all those wimpy features like regenerating health and respawning.

Conduit 2 | SEGA/High Voltage Software | April 19

“The Conduit” may not have been a critical darling, but it gave players an unprecedented amount of control customization, and pushed the Wii hardware to its limits. With “Conduit 2,” High Voltage Software has funneled tons of community feedback into both the single player and multiplayer presentation. The All-Seeing Eye scans faster, pre-rendered cut scenes and much more dialog now augment the story line, and you can look forward to a whopping 14 multiplayer modes spread across 12 maps. Those aren’t even numbers “Call of Duty” or “Halo” can claim. Perhaps, most importantly, this gives publisher SEGA one last shot at a successful FPS on the Wii, and a much-deserved sequel to an underrated game for fans of the original.

What about you? Do any of these games demand purchase? Is there something missing on the list that you’ll be picking up this month?

3DS grudge match: Ridge Racer 3D vs. Asphalt 3D

Need a racing game for Nintendo 3DS? Find out which one takes the trophy

Whenever a new video game system launches, racing game junkies can count on two things: High prices and a new version of Namco’s “Ridge Racer.” With the release of Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld, however, “Ridge Racer” has some competition from Gameloft’s “Asphalt 3D.”

To help you decide how best to spend your hard-earned cash, College News is pitting these portable racers against each other in Nintendo 3DS grudge match.

“Asphalt 3D” | Developed by Gameloft

“Asphalt 3D” has a lot going for it in the numbers department: 42 licensed vehicles from companies like Aston Martin and Ferrari, and 17 real-world locations like Paris, Aspen and Las Vegas. When it comes to game play, Gameloft’s racer offers some genuine – if not thrilling – fun, especially when roads are littered with nitrous boosts and shortcuts. High speed collisions, however, are head-scratchers. A slight tap against oncoming traffic and you’re sent spinning toward a guardrail, but plow into the vehicle in front of you at 100MPH and you’ll scoop it behind you as if it were a feather.

“Asphalt 3D” is technically a rehash of Gameloft’s “Asphalt 5” for the iPhone, and doesn’t come close to representing the graphical prowess of the 3DS. Car models look decent enough, but textures are muddy and it lacks the level of polish present in “Ridge Racer 3D.” Strangely enough, the demise of “Asphalt 3D” is attributed to the good quality of the iPhone version. For $6.99 on the App Store, you get more racing modes and an online multiplayer, something the 3DS version lacks while selling for a staggering $39.99. To its credit, the career mode is more robust, but it lacks the level of challenge most racing purists desire.

“Ridge Racer 3D” | Developed by Namco-Bandai

A staple of game console launches, “Ridge Racer” has always exuded this techno-urban vibe, and tracks like Downtown Rave City truly showcase the visuals of the 3DS. The system’s 3D capabilities are put to great use as well, adding a level of immersion which benefits your driving habits. Playing the game in 3D makes it easier to judge the distance to a corner or a nearby opponent. It even adds subtle touches like cherry blossoms that blow in the wind and smack realistically against your screen. That said, it’s also the first 3DS title (I’ve played eight thus far) to give me a genuine headache, so use the 3D functionality conservatively.

“Asphalt 3D” has the advantage when it comes to licensed cars. the collection in “Ridge Racer 3D” is entirely fictional, though the car models themselves look slightly better. Also included with every copy of the game is the most annoying backseat driver you’ve ever heard, constantly adding grating commentary that gets old after the first series of races.

Minor gripes aside, what this game does exceptionally well is present the thrill of arcade racing. The heavy (if exaggerated) emphasis on drifting – a staple of the franchise – results in an exhilarating sensation of speed, especially when played using the bumper camera. The career mode will keep you busy for at least 15 hours, and the challenge during each tournament feels just right.

The Verdict

While we expect inevitable titles like “Need For Speed” to surpass the level of polish and depth present in “Ridge Racer 3D,” Namco’s faithful racer easily takes home the crown when it comes to the two available racers at launch. It utilizes the 3D effect brilliantly, and packs more fun into its tiny cartridge than Gameloft’s lazy competitor.

Review: Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy

Ridiculous name, essential fighting game

Square Enix pleasantly surprised me in the summer of 2009 with “Dissidia Final Fantasy,” a rich fighting game that injected the trademark production values and traditional RPG character progression of Final Fantasy with the real-time fighting mechanics found in “Crisis Core.” Then, they went berserk in the most satisfying way possible by adding enormous depth and individuality to each of the 20+ iconic characters. On many levels, “Dissidia” dwarfed even dedicated fighting staples like “Street Fighter” or “Tekken.” It wasn’t uncommon to run into people (myself included) who had sunk over 80 hours into the PSP brawler and were still clamoring for more.

With “Dissidia 012 [duodecim]” – a newly released prequel – Square Enix is aiming to satisfy fans of the original, hook newcomers and deliver an even deeper experience. The looming question is: Does this feel like an expansion pack or a proper sequel?

It’s likely that “Final Fantasy XIII” attracted new fans to the long-running franchise, so let’s quickly run down the core fighting mechanics in “Dissidia 012.” Unlike most fighting games, you have two individual health meters. Each character begins a match with both Bravery and HP meters. Using bravery attacks depletes your opponent’s bravery and adds it to yours. That bravery count is then used to determine how much damage you inflict when attacking with a separate range of HP attacks. This intense tug of war results in a layer of strategy. Will you relentlessly assault your foe with bravery attacks so that a single devastating HP attack brings victory, or will you gradually chip away by alternating both? Combined with a slew of ranged and melee attacks, monsters to summon, an assist character, sprawling level design and several different game-changers like EX Mode and Bravery Breaks, “Dissidia” offers an abundant fighting experience that also comes with a modest learning curve.

Like its predecessor, the plot of “Dissidia 012” is anemic. The masterful storytelling which is normally a Square Enix signature is absent, replaced by dialogue which is saturated with gloomy observations with a melodramatic narrative from Kain, among many others. And, like its predecessor, I could care less. You’ll stay glued to “Dissidia 012” for the beautifully orchestrated mayhem, the ever-present fan service, and the enormous amount of content to discover.

A total of nine new playable characters join the original cast of 22, including Lightning (FF XIII), Yuna (FF X) and Tifa Lockhart (FF VII). Lightning is influenced by the Paradigm system of “Final Fantasy XIII,” which allows her to switch between three tactics (and entire move sets) on the fly (Medic, Ravager, and Commando). It took awhile to grow accustomed to her diversity, and you’ll need to invest some time before you feel comfortable with her, but you’re presented with useful battle tips at opportune times during the campaign. (You’ll be learning the ropes for the first several chapters of the story.) Overall, the new characters are well designed and each boasts a tremendous amount of animations, styles and attacks. I especially appreciated the inclusion of the Laguna Loire of “Final Fantasy VIII,” who adds some much needed comic relief (and bullets!) to the otherwise dour narrative.

Assists are another new feature. Simple and effective, assists let you momentarily call in an ally to assist in a single bravery or HP attack, based on how much of the assist bar you have filled. These are particularly useful when your opponent is jetting away from you or nimbly dodging your attacks.

At first, the sheer volume of skills, attacks, equipment and magic to master can be overwhelming. Square has thoughtfully added an RPG Mode for “Dissidia 012,” allowing timid players to issue commands in a more turn-based approach. For experienced players, however, this is merely an iteration of the game’s Command Mode and it detracts from the appeal of the game, which is the free roaming and progressively intense real-time battles.

[Below: The chaotic awesomeness of an EX Burst attack]

Rounding out the new features is an open world map to traverse between chapters, which succeeds in conjuring up some pre-“Final Fantasy XIII” nostalgia. There’s nothing awe-inspiring here, but it does break up the monotony of the chess-board style navigation during dungeon levels.

All told, “Dissidia 012” has just enough new game play elements to make things feel fresh, and I can’t stress enough how much depth there is to learning a single character, let alone the package total of 30. Just as I was questioning the value proposition, I discovered that completing the main story unlocks the entirety of “Dissidia.” Indeed, there are two complete games packed onto this UMD (Universal Media Disc). For persistent players who proceed to defeat the original campaign, a third and lengthy secret scenario – basically a playable epilogue – is unearthed. Then there’s the Arcade Mode, and along with that is the ability to create original quests; replays can be viewed and edited, etc. Is it worth the full price? It’s arguably worth more, especially to newcomers. If you only put 40 hours into “Dissidia 012,” it’s likely you’ve barely scratched the surface.

Praise aside, I’m lamenting the lack of true online play in addition to the local ad hoc. This is a missed opportunity, and one that Sega rectified with their “Phantasy Star Portable sequel.” Square’s refusal to include internet multiplayer matches is inexcusable at this point, especially with the popularity of this series in the West.

Still, with the robust fighting mechanics of “Dissidia 012,” stellar production values and numerous modes, there’s plenty here to engage a player like me who poured over 80 hours into the original. While it lacks a compelling story and online play, the rest more than compensates. Even if you have just a passing interest in fighting games or the Final Fantasy franchise, “Dissidia 012” belongs in your PSP (Playstation Portable) collection. Honestly, a 1000 word review doesn’t do the game justice, but I’ve endeavored to at least summarize how exceptional it can be. The rest is up to you.

Review: Super Monkey Ball 3D

Sega’s mischievous monkeys get the 3D treatment

Like “Ridge Racer,” Sega’s “Super Monkey Ball” is no stranger to system launches. The franchise saw its console debut during the launch of the Nintendo Gamecube, and later accompanied the frenzied opening of the iTunes App Store. Built on the foundation of the classic marble board game “Labyrinth,” “Super Monkey Ball” (SMB 3D) finds AiAi and his menacing monkey friends tilting various mazes in order to roll to the goal, and snatch up every last possible banana on the way. It’s a simple, effective formula, and now it’s being augmented with the allure of 3-D and motion control on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld.

In SMB 3D, your driving concern is devouring bananas and reaching the level goal as quickly as possible. To accomplish this, you use the 3DS motion sensors or the circle pad to tilt each level back and forth, side to side, propelling your ball-bound monkey to its next adventure. In addition to rolling your way to the goal, different surfaces in the maze will trip you up, slow you down and generally attempt to stop you in your tracks. It all requires precise control, quick reflexes and carefully calculated movement.

When SMB appeared on the iPhone, the device’s built-in gyroscope seemed a perfect fit for the puzzle-like, tilt-based action. Sadly, it was too finicky and sensitive, and required an uncomfortable playing position. The good news is that the motion sensing capabilities of the 3DS are far superior, and Sega’s developers seemed to have mastered them this time around. Unfortunately, the 3DS has a “sweet spot” for viewing games in 3-D, and the act of moving the portable around to control the action results in constantly broken 3-D viewing. It works perfectly for standard 2D, but that brings us to perhaps the strongest selling point of SMB 3D.

Simply put, I can never return to playing this franchise in two dimensions. Sega’s implementation of 3D is more than a gimmick; it’s a necessary enhancement that not only adds subtle depth to the colorful worlds, but also improves your game, not to mention that days later, the 3D effect still feels and looks fascinating. Even with the unit’s 3D slider barely on, distances to perilous cliffs and blind drops become easier to estimate, saving lost lives and trimming precious seconds from your course time. The sense of speed is also enhanced, making long downhill runs exhilarating. That being said, I experienced a slight case of motion sickness after about 20 minutes of continuous playtime. In a warped way, it’s a testament to Sega’s developers! If this happens to you, get outside and inhale some fresh air.

The 3DS launch lineup has a mixture of meaty games, and also games that are light on content and longevity. “Super Monkey Ball 3D” falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It packs in seven themed worlds, each brimming with original music and injected with tons of personality. From the actual mazes to the background visuals, creativity abounds. But each world contains only 10 levels, and when you consider that each level takes, at most, 60 seconds to complete, a skeptic could argue that there is a sum total of 70 minutes of gameplay.

The game does include two extra modes a bit too robust to be considered mini-games, but too shallow to be considered compelling. “Monkey Race” feels a bit like “Mario Kart Lite” and offers 16 different vehicles and a handful of tracks to compete on. Similar to other kart racers, a variety of weapons can be procured mid-race and unleashed on your opponents. It’s fairly well executed, but it just doesn’t feel like Monkey Ball. I came here for the maze-negotiating puzzle platforming, not for tacked on kart racing. If it suits you, though, and you don’t own Mario Kart, there’s plenty to enjoy. The other mode, “Monkey Fight,” is a bit shallower and finds you squaring off in fist fights to see who can obtain the most bananas. It’s the most throwaway mode on the cartridge and is only fun in spurts against a buddy using the game’s local WiFi multiplayer.

Speaking of online, it’s a shame that this and many other launch titles aren’t showcasing the robust online functionality of the 3DS. There are no online matches here, not even leader boards which is something a game really needs.

Compared to most other “Super Monkey Ball” releases, the 3DS version feels sparse. What’s here, however, is nonetheless exciting and the main Monkey Ball mode is addictive and makes you want to replay it a lot. The subtle depth that the 3D adds is magical, and the challenges within at least promise to have you endlessly competing with yourself.

For full coverage of the Nintendo 3DS, head to VideoGameWriters.com

*Author’s Note: Sega provided us with a retail review copy.

Review: HP Mini 210-2000 Companion PC

Attractive in both design and price, HP’s Mini has finally sold us on netbooks

Tablets and smart phones may be invading retail shelves and consuming the thoughts of gadget geeks, but they aren’t exactly practical when it comes to taking notes (or stealthily chatting on Facebook during class). They may be the new hot trends, but there’s still the need for the good old-fashioned keyboard. Enter the HP mini 210-2000. If netbooks are going extinct, no one told HP.

One of the first things we noticed about this HP mini was the sleek design. Small, light (under 3 lbs) and compact, it exemplifies the idea of a netbook. The silver edges are clean and the crimson red design has a matte finish, giving it a very modern look. That same finish is present on both the top and bottom, which makes the entire unit pretty attractive from any angle. In a thoughtful design decision, HP has implemented a simple latch system inside the battery compartment, allowing accessibility to the RAM modules. This makes the process of upgrading memory a snap. No tools, headaches, or guesswork are required.

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In our experience, the deal-breaker with netbooks has always been the keyboard. The majority of them seem to sacrifice usability for compact size and the result is always the same: confused digits and a mountain of typos. The HP Mini-210, however, sports a 93 percent full-size island keyboard with soft, quiet keys. It’s an easy transfer for someone used to a regular desktop or laptop, and in all honesty, it has been the catalyst for this writer to switch to netbooks.

Just below the keyboard, however, lies the multi touch touchpad, and it was the main complaint of our two testers. The section of the pad where the mouse buttons are located is streamlined into the surface itself, making the two difficult to distinguish by touch alone. If your finger moves slightly when you’re trying to click, the pointer can and will go careening wildly across the screen. You’ll eventually grow accustomed to it, but proper initial use will take a very concentrated effort.

Perhaps the biggest selling point for this netbook – and indeed what makes it ideal for college life- is the outstanding battery life. Insert your own adjective for “phenomenal” here; it will still apply. We wanted to punish the 6-cell battery, and instead it practically mocked us. With a full charge, we switched on the WiFi, cranked up the volume, increased the brightness to full capacity, and set a high-definition movie to play – on repeat – from the 250GB hard drive. It lasted a staggering five and a half hours before giving up the ghost. During normal day-to-day usage it provides around eight hours of battery life, and running idle, the battery will stand strong for 10 full hours. The most shocking realization? The device had barely warmed up. Needless to say, we were very impressed by its performance.

The LED display is also stellar, boasting a vivid 1366×768 resolution. It’s a refreshing change from the standard 1024×600 shipping in most netbooks. Images look sharp, web text is a joy to read, and there’s a nice range to the brightness settings. The lack of HDMI or DVI output is disappointing though (only VGA is available.) It’s an upgradable option, but we think HDMI should be standard at this stage in the game.

The many colors of the HP Mini 210

It’s not our style to bore you with tech specs, but the HP 210-2000 packs a capable Intel Atom N455 processor clocked at 1.66GHz, with 1GB of RAM. The system will handle basic multitasking without any complaints, but noticeable slowdown occurs when you have several (more than three) browser tabs in use. Streaming high definition movies from sites like Hulu or Netflix can result in stutters and choppy framerate, but it handles basic flash and standard definition content admirably. On occasion we did notice some unstable behavior when waking up the device from hibernation. While you can resume your work instantly, the operating system needs a few extra seconds to get up to speed. Even when it looks fully functioning, we noticed a lagging pointer and a delay in our typing on screen. This is a minor nitpick though, and certainly isn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch. For day-to-day research, web use, writing and music, this is a great little machine.

Speaking of music, the speakers on this little netbook pack a serious punch with much louder volume and richness than most full sized laptops. They’ll satisfy you in a small room, so enjoying your music collection in the dorm or living room is a definite possibility.

Lastly, there’s HP Quickweb. Instead of booting to Windows 7, you can boot to a slick looking interface that contains your email accounts, Skype chat, web browser and multimedia files. Quite literally, you can check and respond to mail, listen to music, surf the web and even play some built-in games all within about five seconds of turning on the netbook, and without even logging in to Windows. Granted, it isn’t as speedy as doing all this inside Windows 7, but it’s definitely handy when you’re in a hurry, and it consumes very little battery life.

Aside from shaky performance when the HP Mini 210-2000 ($369.99 for our model) is pushed to its limit and a frustrating touchpad interface, this netbook is one we’d be happy to plunk down with full price. It refuses to heat up, the design is sleek and easy on the eyes, and the battery life is out of this world. Perhaps the strongest recommendation, though, is the fact that after years of praising full sized laptops, this is the first netbook capable of briskly changing our stance.

• 10.1 inch WSVGA HP BrightView Infinity LED-backlit display
• Windows 7 Starter
• Intel Atom Processor N455 (1.66GHz)
• 1GB DDR3 RAM
• 250GB HDD (7200 rpm)
• Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150
• 6-cell Lithium-Ion Battery, up to 10.75 hours

*Author’s Note: HP provided College News with an evaluation unit of the HP Mini 210-2000.

Review: Top Spin 4

Hey “Virtua Tennis”? We need to talk…

In 1999, Sega released “Virtua Tennis,” an arcade game that married the simple back-and-forth premise of “Pong” to the aesthetics and physics of tennis with stellar results. Gamers with  a fleeting interest in the sport were nevertheless captivated for hours at the game’s simple control scheme and addictive mini-games. I was one of those people, obstinately refusing to give a second glance to competitors like 2K Sports’ “Top Spin” series.

Unexpected and unassuming, “Top Spin 4” arrived mysteriously at my doorstep this week, almost as if it had caught me contemplating the Move and Kinect support of the upcoming “Virtua Tennis 4,” knowing it had the advantage. It knew I was weak and disenchanted after Sega’s sub-par 2009 entry. Upon unwrapping 2K Sports’ “Top Spin 4” and stepping onto the virtual court, a sinking feeling washed over me – it was time to draft a long overdue breakup letter to my beloved “Virtua Tennis” series.

Where controls are concerned, 2K deftly handles the balancing act between accessibility and depth. The learning curve here can be daunting for some, but stick with it and you’ll see your game drastically improve. The game’s Top Spin Academy mode does a fantastic job at training beginners and revealing the depth of the contextual control scheme, especially to transplants of the “Virtua Tennis” series. While the writers behind the accompanying text are overly verbose, there is a wealth of wisdom behind these explanations. You’re taught everything from the timing of basic control shots utilizing top spin and slice, to tricky drop shots, devastating serve techniques and crafty strategies for risky net play. In a clever twist not normally found in tutorials, you are at one point required to perform shots with bad timing in order to feel the difference.

2K includes a large roster of tennis pros both past (Agassi, Sampras) and present (Nadal, Federer and Williams). For the most part, their relative strengths and weaknesses are represented accurately on the court. Federer’s forehand prowess will scare you into next week, but he’s much weaker at the net. That said, each of the 25 pros’ attributes are pre-determined and maxed out at level 20. Thankfully the allure of the character creator and created player career modes offers a substantial amount of content.

For those who like to customize, “Top Spin 4” has it covered with a dizzying array of options. Using the advanced facial editor, we had a stocky Portuguese look-alike ready to rock in less than 15 minutes. After giving life to your avatar champ, you can further customize him or her with gear, hair styles, tattoos and on-court mannerisms and animations. This is deeper than most character generators found in popular RPG’s.

If you have even a passing interest in tennis, you’ll spend the majority of your time in career mode of “Top Spin 4.” The underlying goal is to evolve your player’s core discipline – Serve & Volley, Offensive Baseline or Defensive Baseline – by spending XP earned from sparring matches, special events and minor and major tournaments. You can also hire multiple tiers of coaches who help you improve certain stats faster than normal, and their challenges also present an enticing meta-game during matches. More thoughtful additions include the character progression screen showing you which real-world champs play as your preferred style, and the fact that your custom character gains XP during any mode of play, including exhibition games and online multiplayer.

Between events you’re presented with goals for advancing your worldwide rank (for example: participate in two minor tournaments and have more than 5000 fans). It’s this constant sense of progression and advancement that kept our interest at peak levels for over 20 hours in a three-day span.

The more time we invested into career mode of “Top Spin 4,” the larger our review outline became. This mode alone has so much depth it’s easy to get lost in the constant draw of competition, sponsorships, improved skill sets and the steady climb to the top of the proverbial ladder. Finding fault here is difficult, but we do have to question 2K’s bizarre choice of grating menu music, consisting of a bouncy, jazzy instrumental sound, and the repetitive “North American Scum” by LCD Soundsystem. After a few hours, you’ll definitely be switching to your own soundtrack.

“Top Spin 4” also features a healthy online offering with the standard exhibition modes as well as the 2K Open (seasonal events limited to Level 20 pro characters) and the robust World Tour mode, which lets you take your created character online to start your ascension up the Xbox Live or Playstation Network ranks. In our experience we were frequently humiliated here, matched with and trounced on by players with a higher level, faster movement and more powerful shots. Fortunately the XP earned – even from losing – can help to level up your character and transport back into your single player career mode. Frankly, the online experience just wasn’t as interesting due to frequently mismatched talent levels (excluding the 2K Open). We also noticed the occasional stutter in animation during a serve, but it was too infrequent to adversely affect the gameplay.

Here’s something to consider: I’ve never had more than a passing interest in the real-life sport of tennis, and while “Virtua Tennis” was always a blast to play and master, “Top Spin 4” has coaxed sincere appreciation out of me by virtue of its deep (and educational) training courses and immersive career mode. If “Top Spin 5” happens to augment this outstanding career mode with some tantalizing mini-games, Sega will have plenty to worry about. Whether you’re new to the franchise or a Pong veteran, don’t overlook this one.

Homefront: Single Player review

From the writer of Apocalypse Now comes a gritty, emotionally engaging shooter

Author’s Note: In order to accurately convey our impressions of “Homefront,” the following review contains minor spoilers.

There are things in “Homefront” which cannot be unseen. There are indelible images of civilians being executed on suburban street corners as their frantic children tug desperately on the pants of their Korean captor, screaming in anguish. There are jarring scenes involving mass graves and unspeakable torture. There are horrifying events which depict an American culture that has simply ceased to exist, swallowed and ravaged by a cruel and relentless Korean enemy. “Homefront” may be speculative fiction, but once you’re immersed in its emotional narrative it feels like a haunting reality.

The film industry’s burgeoning interest and involvement with video game developers nets a huge payoff here. John Milius, the screenwriter who penned “Red Dawn” and “Apocalypse Now” (and whose real-life persona was the basis for iconic “Big Lebowski” character Walter Sobchak), is behind the script of “Homefront,” which has a piercing emotional impact without relying on constant sensory assault or cheap gimmicks. It is also unapologetic in presenting a focused plot without pulling any punches or worrying about offending its audience.

The basic premise of “Homefront” involves the gradual and manipulative occupation of the United States by a United Korea. The chilling introductory cut scene reveals the plausible baby steps leading to America’s demise, beginning in 2011 and culminating in the events you help to orchestrate in the year 2027. In short, you’re a former marine pilot who rejoins a group of freedom fighters willing to risk their lives to reclaim even a slice of their once-great nation. We applaud developers Kaos and their publisher THQ for having the courage to present what many will consider a controversial and downright disturbing story, and for doing so with more class and respect than Infinity Ward’s infamous “No Russian” level from “Modern Warfare 2.” The caveat being that here the experience isn’t optional.

The single player campaign does succumb to the many tropes of First-Person Shooters, in stark contrast to its elevated storytelling. You know them as regenerating health, endless “Follow this guy” prompts and more F-bombs than a “Halo” match on Xbox Live. Someone needs to remind developers that occasionally colorful language has impact; endless cussing just comes off as juvenile. The story mode redeems itself by placing you – outnumbered and underpowered – in desperate situations that never wear out their welcome. From defeating the Koreans’ automated turrets that tower above the level to a brief but awesome helicopter sequence (you’re the pilot and shooter here), to a climactic finale on, underneath and above San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, each of the seven missions are compact, poignant and memorable.

Visually, the Unreal Engine keeps allowing developers like Kaos to pump out magic, even if the palette is noticeably lacking any vibrant reds or greens. Then again, when much of America has been reduced to dirty, abandoned restaurants-turned-battlefields like White Castle and Hooters, the grays and browns seem appropriate. Overall, only the PC version will impress you graphically; with its console cousins feeling slightly washed out and dull in several spots, specifically building textures. That being said, it doesn’t detract from the experience. You simply won’t be bragging to your friends about the eye candy.

Interestingly, the entire single player experience feels trimmed by a professional film editor, which is understandable given the creator of the source material. Everything is concise and smartly paced; perhaps too concise for a video game. The story of “Homefront” is a vertical slice of the USA’s overarching plight against its Korean aggressor, and your team is likely one of the hundreds doing everything they can to take back America. The result is a five hour experience playable in one sitting (two if you are really obsessive) that leaves us satisfied but starving for a sequel.

If you’re searching for a solid solo FPS with a downright gritty and compelling story (yes, it’s the best we’ve seen from shooters in this generation) then “Homefront” is absolutely worth a rental, especially if you plan on skipping the outstanding multiplayer component. Of course, if you want your Battlefield itch scratched, The multiplayer of “Homefront” alone is worth the price of admission and will hold you spellbound for months to come.

Check out our full Multiplayer review here.