Plugged In

Console war? What console war?

mainhed_consolewar.jpg

A question:
Can you call it a console war if one side refuses to put up a fight?

The latest sales numbers released by the independent market research firm NPD Group were announced recently and the news wasn’t good for Sony. Again. The recently repriced Xbox 360 outsold Sony’s PlayStation 3 by more than a 2-to-1 margin in August. Worse yet, sales of the PS3 — which also recently received a price cut — fell roughly 18 percent from July. Sales for the Xbox 360 jumped 63 percent over that same period, thanks in large part to its aforementioned price cut.

Of course, neither console could keep pace with Nintendo, which sold more than 400,000 Wiis in August. But as Nintendo likes to keep telling everyone, it’s not competing against Microsoft or Sony. Another reason for Microsoft’s sales boost was undoubtedly the arrival of Madden 08 and BioShock, the top two selling next-gen software titles for the month. Only one PS3 title, Madden 08, cracked the NPD’s Top 20 list of software sales.

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With the first full week of the NFL behind us, it’s officially time for football. And time for football video games. Since I’m a little late to the party with these reviews, I thought I’d go ahead and condense all three major gridiron releases for the Xbox 360 — NCAA 08, Madden 08 and All-Pro Football 2K8 — into one take. Consider this your one-stop shop for all things pigskin.NCAA 08

The good: Deep dynasty mode featuring a revamped recruiting model; smooth gameplay and a ton of new animations. The bad: No alternate uniforms; poorly implemented menu system. The bottom line: If you’re a college football fan, there’s no good reason not to pick up NCAA 08. EA Sports’ game is light-years ahead of last year’s offering, and the improved frame rate really quickens the gameplay and puts control back into the user’s hands. That’s a good thing. Score: 8.5/10.

ALL-PRO FOOTBALL 2K8

The good: The best gameplay of this year’s releases; plenty of create-a-team options; online leagues; great assortment of football legends. The bad: No NFL license; no dynasty or career mode; graphics not up to par with other 2K Sports titles. The bottom line: The spiritual successor to NFL 2K5, this game overcomes the lack of real NFL players or teams by offering the goods where it counts most — on the field. The choice to go with former NFL stars works great and provides a nice bit of nostalgia for longtime football fans like myself. Score: 8.5/10.

MADDEN 08

The good: The best next-gen Madden experience to date; fleshed-out franchise mode and owner’s mode; gameplay is tight and responsive; emphasis on weapons adds a strategic element. The bad: Gameplay plagued by an abundance of turnovers; no online leagues; CPU doesn’t challenge calls. The bottom line: Chances are, if you’re a football fan you’ve already picked up your copy of Madden. If you’re still on the fence, rest assured that this isn’t the same steaming pile of poo that we’ve had to play the past two seasons. Madden 08 is actually fun to play. This franchise finally seems headed in the right direction. Also, don’t dismiss the Wii version of Madden 08. The motion controls are tight, the new Family Play mode is great for beginners and the mini-games are plentiful. Score: 8.3/10.

The great escape

I’ll try and keep this short and sweet. I’d like to apologize for the lack of updates lately. It’s not that the gaming world has ground to a halt — there has been plenty to talk about over the last week or so. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to write about them.You see, my mother-in-law is battling lung cancer. For much of the past month, she has been hospitalized and on a ventilator, fighting for her life. Obviously, some things are just more important than video games reviewing.

While gaming has taken a back seat to real life lately, I have gained a newfound appreciation for the escape that video games provide. Being able to jump into a game of Madden or BioShock after a trying day has helped keep me sane these past several weeks. God willing, I should be back to updating this blog regularly very soon. Until then, thanks for understanding and keep on gaming.

REVIEW: BioShock for XBox 360

BioShock

You stand in the foyer of a once bustling medical facility. A soothing voice still echoes over the PA system, touting the benefits of genetic enhancement. Meanwhile, the terrifying laughter of members of the hospital staff, now known as Splicers, bloodthirsty examples of genetic engineering gone wrong, surrounds you in the shadows.

And then the lights go out.

Welcome to Rapture. Welcome to BioShock. Welcome to the most amazing video game you’ll ever experience. In BioShock, your journey after a plane crash leaves you stranded in the ocean. After swimming to a strange tower jutting out of the water, you descend into the underwater city of Rapture. The city — the vision of the maniacal Andrew Ryan — was built to be a safe haven for those seeking to escape the moral and ethical confines of the civilized world.

Welcome to Rapture

But things went terribly wrong in Ryan’s utopia and now the once beautiful city is a wasteland, overrun by its genetically altered inhabitants. Your goal in BioShock is to escape in one piece, but along the way you’ll be tasked with uncovering the mysteries of Rapture and helping those survivors who remain.

You begin with only a wrench to aid you in your quest, but you soon have access to a whole host of weapons. You also gain access to Plasmids, genetic enhancements that grant you abilities like telekinesis or let you shoot fire from your fingertips. Both weapons and ammo can be upgraded and there are several different Plasmids out there to help you survive.

And you’ll need all the help you can get if you’re to make it out of Rapture alive. Splicers, the most common enemy type, feature smart A.I. and will often attack in waves. Best yet, the encounters in BioShock aren’t scripted, meaning you never know where the next threat will come from. Splicers also have access to many of the same weapons as you.

But the most difficult enemy you’re likely to encounter is the Big Daddy, the metallic behemoth that accompanies a Little Sister. You don’t necessarily have to fight a Big Daddy to beat BioShock (they won’t attack unless provoked or unless you threaten a Little Sister). But killing the Big Daddy and harvesting the ADAM carried by a Little Sister is the only way to expand your Plasmid abilities. And without Plasmids, your chance of survival drops considerably.

A Splicer

While the gameplay is top notch, the atmosphere and environments in BioShock are the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, bar none. From the moment you climb out of the water and enter Rapture, you are immersed in a living world that the developers at Irrational Games have recreated in painstaking detail. The NPCs you interact with are just as detailed as the environments in which they live.

You could write volumes about everything that seperates BioShock from the rest of the games out there, but no amount of words could do it justice. This is the next step in the evolution of video games.

BioShock
Developer — Irrational Games
Publisher — 2K Games
Sugg. retail price — $59.99
Rating — M for mature (Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language)
Final score — 9.9 out of 10

Enter the Rapture — BioShock demo available

BioShock

Today’s the day many gamers have been waiting on — the release of Madden ’08. But there’s another reason to fire up your Xbox 360 today — a demo for BioShock is now available.

That’s right. Gamers can now explore the underwater city of Rapture in 2K Games’ BioShock, an atmospheric — i.e. creepy — FPS that’s set to take the world by storm when it arrives on store shelves next week. The demo, which checks in at over 1.3 GB on the Xbox 360, is available via the Xbox Live Marketplace. It takes players through a tweaked version of the game’s first level, beginning with your escape from a fiery plane crash.

To say any more would spoil the experience, so just grab the demo, turn off the lights and hold on. BioShock is what next-gen gaming is all about.

The Week in Review

Business is about to pick up. Gaming business, that is.

Tuesday’s Madden O8 launch signals the beginning of the fall video game rush. From now until the end of the year, gamers are going to be bombarded with new releases each week. And I’m not talking about lousy licensced movie tie-ins here. No, this is the good stuff.

So go ahead and celebrate “Maddenoliday.” Just remember that this year, the best is yet to come. Now on with the news:

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Xbox 360 owners have a chance to sample two of the more unique titles set to be released later this year as demos for the action shooter John Woo Presents Stranglehold and the Japanese RPG Eternal Sonata are now available to download on the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Stranglehold is based on characters from Woo’s cult classic film “Hard Boiled.” The demo lets gamers tackle the first level of the retail version of the game, set in a Hong Kong marketplace crawling with bad guys. While relatively short (it is a demo, after all), the level shows off what makes Stranglehold worth a look– over-the-top action, destructible environments, slow-motion shootouts and a hefty amount of blood.

If you’re like your games a little less … intense, check out the Eternal Sonata demo. The combat system is turn-based, but not in the traditional sense. And though the story — you’re playing in a fantasy world dreamt up by dying composer Frederic Chopin — is a bit out there, the gorgeous environments and detailed characters are hard to dismiss. After playing through the demo, Eternal Sonata is definitely on my “must-have” list.

You can check out trailers of both games below:

Stranglehold

Eternal Sonata

 Halo 3

The weather is getting hot and so is the gaming news. Here’s the latest:

During a conference call this week, Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games announced that the next installment in the GTA series is being pushed back from its previously announced Oct. 17 release date. GTA IV will now ship sometime during the second quarter of 2008, which means it should be available in late February or early April. Considering the enormous expectations for GTA IV, a delay wasn’t altogether unexpected. Hopefully the extra time will allow Rockstar to deliver on the hype.

Grand Theft Auto IV trailer:

Also this week, Microsoft and Bungie dropped a huge bomb on Halo 3 fanboys everywhere. While split-screen co-op play has been a staple of the franchise since the beginning, the multiplayer action is being kicked up a notch for the series finale. For the first time, up to four players can frag their way through the campaign mode together. That’s right, FOUR PLAYER ONLINE CO-OP!  Let that sink in for a minute . . . OK, now for the details. In addition to the Arbiter and Master Chief, gamers will have access to two new Covenant characters in Halo 3 — N’tho ‘Sraom and Usze ‘Taham. You can read their bios on the Bungie site. Halo 3 is still slated to be released Sept. 25, so if you don’t have three friends, you still have time to make some in order to enjoy the multiplayer goodness.

And finally, the long-awaited Xbox 360 price drop appears to be a reality. Sources have confirmed to Plugged In that a three-tiered price drop rumor that has been making its way around the Internet is, in fact, no rumor. Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 8, all three versions of the Xbox 360 console will see a price drop, ranging from $20-$50. The price of the core system, which does not include a hard drive, will drop from $299.99 to $279.99. The premium system, which includes a hard drive, will receive a $50 price cut from $399.99 to $349.99. And the price of the Elite system, with its 120 GB hard drive and HDMI output, will fall from $479.99 to $449.99. With Madden 08 and BioShock just around the corner — and Microsoft’s three-year warranty against the Red Ring of Death — there’s never been a better time to invest in an Xbox 360.

The Week in Review

As if there were any doubts to the link between video games and comic books, just take a look at this week’s Comic-Con in San Diego. From indie developers to established industry giants, the gaming biz was well represented at the annual convention. Here are some of the highlights from Comic-Con, and elsewhere, in what I like to call the Week in Review:

Microsoft has announced a $20 price drop for its Xbox 360 HD-DVD player, which will retail for $179.99 after Aug. 1. Also, anyone who purchases the add-on will receive five free HD-DVD titles from a list of 15 that includes such classics as Blazing SaddlesLara Croft: Tomb Raider and Constantine. A copy of Peter Jackon’s King Kong also comes bundled with the HD-DVD player, so technically you’re getting six free movies, but who’s counting.

French developer Ubisoft is partnering with NBC to adapt the hit sci-fi drama Heroes to the video game world. No specifics were announced, but I would like to see an RPG set in the Heroes universe. Hopefully the show’s excellent writers will have a say in the game’s storyline, regardless of the genre. Ubisoft also revealed that its other TV-based title, a take on ABC’s Lost, is on track for an early-2008 release. You can get an early look at the game in action here.

And finally, for those of you dreading the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones film franchise, I offer you this as a reminder that there’s still some good left in the world. You can thank me later.

Sam Fisher goes into hiding — until 2008

Those hoping to get their hands on the next entry in the Splinter Cell franchise will have to wait in the shadows a little longer. Splinter Cell: Conviction for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 has been pushed back until early 2008, according to French publisher Ubisoft. The announcement was contained in a release detailing the company’s first-quarter earnings Tuesday, which you can read here.Splinter Cell: Conviction is yet another departure from the series’ tried-and-true stealth-based gameplay. While players will still assume the role of super-spy Sam Fisher, this time our hero will no longer have his assortment of high-tech goodies to help save the day. Instead, Fisher will have to rely on his instincts and his surroundings to stay alive.

While I’m all for innovation in gaming, I don’t agree with Ubisoft’s decision to steer the Splinter Cell series away from its roots. Splinter Cell Double Agent wasn’t an altogether bad game, but it didn’t feel like a true Splinter Cell title. But maybe it’s just me. Check out this link for a view of Splinter Cell: Conviction and decide for yourself.