"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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November 17, 2004

Digital Narcosis
Last Friday was a momentous day in my storied video game career...it shall forever be known as the Day of the Xbox. Completing my video game console trifecta took some time and I probably should have bought an Xbox sooner, but I had been trying to convince myself that I didn't need to. After all, the Xbox 2 (codename Xenon) is reportedly being released next Fall/Winter and all indications point to it being backward compatible, so all of the Xbox games I didn't have a chance to play before, I could next year. I also flirted with the idea of buying a new computer (my current one is over five years old now and creaks a-plenty), which would still allow me to play Halo and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I decided, though, that rather than spend an obscene amount of money on a brand new state-of-the-art computer that would serve just as a media center (which my current computer still handles well enough) and gaming device, it makes much more sense to just spend the $150 and get an Xbox. And, you know what? Hell yeah, I'm glad I did it. Just the fact that it natively supports progressive scan on nearly all its games makes it worth it...goddamn these games look awesome on my HDTV. What this means, though, is that I now have a backlog of Hall of Fame Xbox games to play...with even more great games for all three systems coming out in the next two months. Thankfully I have no life, an understanding girlfriend, and the Phillies aren't in season right now. So here are my quick, one-minute reviews of all the Xbox games I'm playing right now (and bear in mind that, with a few of them, I'm barely more than an hour into them):

Halo 2:
First of all, I haven't ventured online yet, so I haven't touched the multiplayer game, which for many people is the whole point of Halo 2. Just evaluating the single-player experience, it's solid, but not as groundbreaking as the overwhelming hype would have you believe. Surrounded by gorgeous graphics, immersive sound effects, and beautifully rendered cutscenes, it's a shame the single-player game still boils down to "Travel from point A to B while shooting aliens...arrive at point B and shoot a few waves of enemies...travel from point B to C while shooting aliens...end of level." Occasionally, you'll jump in a large vehicle for some monotonous driving from B to C. Thankfully, the engine is top-notch and the dressings boast the best production value money and a few years of tweaking can buy, but so far it still isn't challenging the long-time champ of single-player console FPS's, Goldeneye on the N64. The variety of objectives and the myriad gadgets at your disposal in Goldeneye still hold up after seven years. Granted, I'm only a few hours into Halo 2, so there's still plenty of time for my opinion to change. And, of course, the game is still fun to play even with its familiarity. I'm not a huge online gamer, so I don't expect the multiplayer aspect will blow me away, but that remains to be seen. It's enjoyable and a must-buy for any fans of the original, but not as perfect as the Hype Machine dictates.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic:
As a long-time Star Wars nerd, I've been dying to play this one for a while now. So far, it's lived up to its lofty reputation. The action/RPG hybrid engine is well-designed and character customization is absorbing. Featuring the in vogue "Choose Your Own Adventure" dynamic that allows the player to decide based on his actions whether his character is Good or Evil, it works more effectively here than in older games because the choice isn't just bland good or evil, but the Dark Side vs. the Light Side of the Force. Any Star Wars fan will admit a chill contemplating the possibilities. Despite the sequel coming out soon, I wanted to make my way through the original before jumping into the next installment. If you're a Star Wars nut and own an Xbox (or a moderately powerful PC), you already have this game, but its polished design and mechanics should appeal to all gamers.

NCAA Football 2005 and Top Spin:
The free games that came with the system, both are good representatives of their genres. NCAA isn't as high-ticket a name as Madden or ESPN, but for casual video football fans, it serves its purpose well. I don't really care at all about college football, but the on-field action is fun enough when you need a break from Halo. It's understandable why they're not present, but still odd that all the jerseys read "RB #48" (or the like) instead of actual names. As for Top Spin, it doesn't stray far from the Virtua Tennis formula and that's a good thing. Instead, it just tweaks the controls a little, ratchets up the graphics considerably, and adds a full roster of playable, real-life tennis stars. The gameplay can get a little monotonous when playing a full match (I highly recommend lowering the number of sets or matches needed to win), but it supports Xbox Live (as does NCAA), so there's a lot more unpredictability to be found online. If you're looking for a tennis game, though, you can't do much better. The gameplay is familiar, but that's mostly because Virtua Tennis nailed it so perfectly.

Ninja Gaiden:
Fearless prediction: this game will fucking piss me off. I love the Ninja Gaiden games (hell, I spent a stupid amount of money buying the ultra-rare Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for SNES), but this one's difficulty goes off the chart. It took me a disturbingly long time just to beat the first boss without using up all of my health powerups. The fighting controls are tight, but so many enemies are thrown at you that you need to be on the top of your game to not get the shit beaten out of you. Complicating matters considerably is a dumb camera system that players have no control over (except for a button which just centers the camera behind the player). Already, I've had multiple instances where the camera obscured an enemy right next to me just long enough for him to break in and attack. Like many Xbox games, though, the production levels are sky-high and the graphics are stunning. Thankfully as well, the engine cranks along at a steady 60 frames per second, essential for keeping the action fast and furious. That said, I fear for the life of my Xbox controller. I don't know how many ass-kickings I'm going to be able to take before something comes crashing apart...either the controller or my head. I'm already working up an adverse reaction to playing...

And finally, saving the best for last...

Burnout 3: Takedown:
Awesome, awesome game. I've already played way more of this one than any of the others. It's a truly groundbreaking take on the racing genre and catapults itself up to the lofty echelon of F-Zero and Uniracers (this one'll get its own review one day--possibly the most overlooked game of all time). The blend of breathtaking speed and sprawling, epic crashes has never been achieved with such brilliance before. Humming along at 60 fps with the beautiful graphics soaring by in a blur, it captures the sense of tremendous speed that many lesser racers miss. Then you'll catch up to a rival, slam into the side of his car and begin grinding him along the rail in a flurry of sparks and debris; his car soon spins out of control and crashes spectacularly with oncoming traffic, sending ravaged cars flying around the screen--all in cathartic slow motion to capture the finest details of the mayhem. Ramming into opponents and wrecking them with painstaking devastation never gets old. Wisely, developer Criterion didn't artificially jack up the difficulty level, instead opting to just overwhelm the player with events (over 170 total) ranging from straightforward one-on-one races to the innovative "Crash" levels where your goal is to slam into a massive traffic jam and create as much damage as possible (it tallies up the cost of your destruction and rewards medals based on target scores). Some of the events you'll win easily on your first try, but others may take some dedication and perseverance (especially the Burning Lap races, where you race against the clock and success depends on keeping your boost flowing and your driving flawless). The variety (which includes a huge amount of unlockables and special events) makes the game incredibly addictive. Toss in Xbox Live support and customizable soundtracks (on the Xbox version only) and you have not only one of the best games of the year, but also one of the best arcade racing games of all time. An essential purchase for Xbox and Playstation 2 owners.