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Mafia II

Full Review

Mafia II CoverSince Grand Theft Auto III was released in 2001, there has been a new expectation of open world video games. Along with a story, there needs to be dozens of extra things to do that usually have little to do with the actual plot, such as driving a taxi cab, delivering pizzas, or putting out fires (that you started!). Now what if we had a game that featured an open world, but was story driven and linear? Seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but that’s exactly what Mafia II is.

Mafia II was released in August on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows. Reception has been good but for a game in development for over half a decade, some gamers and analysts were expecting better. Mafia II is all about recreating that favorite mobster movie of yours and putting control into your hands. While it isn’t my favorite genre of film, I can appreciate a good mob tale when I see one.

Our copy of Mafia II was provided to us by 2K Games, this review is for the Xbox 360 version.

Killzone 2

First Hour Review

Killzone 2 CoverBack at E3 2005, Sony showed off two minutes of "in-engine footage" of a highly detailed military shooter. The visuals were unmatched by anything previously seen in a video game, and PlayStation fans went nuts. In the comings days, Sony eventually backpedaled from their initial claim and admitted that the footage wasn't pulled from any gameplay architecture, and was instead a target render "done to PS3 spec." In a matter of weeks, Killzone 2 went from the new standard of visuals to a fraud.

Sony knew there was some damage control to be done here, and a few years later, the same footage was shown with in-engine graphics. Amazingly, few could tell the difference between the CG target render and the real deal, and the hype train left the station for good. At its launch in early 2009, many media outlets were calling Killzone 2's graphics unparalleled.

My interest in the game had always been lukewarm, considering my waning affinity for military-style first person shooters. Several Call of Duty titles had already come and gone, and none had left a lasting impression upon completion. I hadn't played either of the two previous Killzone games -- who has? -- but I decided to give Killzone 2 a shot anyway. After all, I've got access to a pretty amazing HDTV and surround-sound system, so I might as well put them to use.

Mafia II

First Hour Review

Mafia 2 CoverWhen someone talks about the mob, the first thing that pops into our head is probably a great gangster movie. Be it The Godfather Part II, Scarface, or Goodfellas, there are a lot of excellent mob films to land on. 2K Games would like to change that though with Mafia II, the sequel to the 2002 hit, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven.

Can you even name a decent mob game? Sure, there have been Godfather games, a bargain bin full of Yakuza titles, or even the Grand Theft Auto series, but there has not been a standout mob game since the original Mafia. A game that flew way off my radar, but must have landed on someone’s as it received a lot of critical acclaim.

So here we are eight years later with Mafia II. Yes, the game has essentially been in development that entire time as it was originally slated to release on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 (remember those?). Fans of the original are going to be expecting a lot of improvement over nearly a decade of development, and those who are unfamiliar with the series are going to be asking what sets Mafia II apart from the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Mafia II was released on the Xbox 360, PS3, and Windows. The First Hour’s Xbox 360 copy was provided by 2K Games.

Split/Second

First Hour Review

Split Second CoverI’ve been a fan of the Burnout series for years, ever since I rented Burnout 3: Takedown for the PS2, it has been my favorite racing series. Friends know that I am not a fan of realistic racers such as Gran Turismo or Forza, but would much prefer a round of destructive racing. As the Burnout series evolved with traffic checking in Burnout Revenge and an open world system in Burnout Paradise, I began to miss the classic vehicular elimination.

Enter Split/Second, an arcade racer from Black Rock Studios released earlier this year by Disney for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows. This was just the game I was looking for: lots of destruction in fast cars on skinny streets. Split/Second has an additional twist though, and that is the primary way to take out your opponents is to trigger some kind of set piece explosion.

It’s not easy to explain, but just imagine you’re on a Disney World ride that’s on rails and you can tell the animatronic pirates ahead of you to cut the head off your rival. Now replace the Disney World ride with an abandoned airstrip and Johnny Depp with... well, an airport terminal blowing up in a million pieces.

This is Split/Second, and this is its first hour. Also check out Ian's full review of the game.

My JRPG Localization Wishlist

Blog Post

Tales of Graces CoverFor years, Japan was the dominating force in the games industry. Ever since Nintendo blasted onto the scene in the eighties, it's always been my opinion that the developers in the land of the rising sun have had the edge on everyone else. The Atari age has long since given way to names like Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Capcom, Konami, Square, and so many others. If I made a list of my hundred favorite games, I'd be willing to bet that seventy or more of them come from Japan.

These days, however, the tide has shifted. The worldwide yearning for platformers and action games and traditional RPGs has been eclipsed by the first person shooter and sports game markets, two genres that Japanese developers are woefully unfamiliar with. Only the top games in each genre outside of Halo clones and Madden wannabes can make bank anymore, and developers are starting to play it safe with what they bring to the table. One genre affected by this trend is the JRPG, which has always had a focus in Japan, but also branched out to the world stage more often than not. These days, however, it seems Japan's favorite genre seems to be transforming more and more into Japan's shyest genre, rarely coming out to say hi to the rest of us.

In a rather shocking revelation, I've actually managed to find a hearty list of JRPGs that I pine for. I've never been the genre's biggest supporter, which doesn't surprise me in retrospect considering I never owned a SNES, Playstation, or Playstation 2 during their primes. However, I hereby pledge to buy any of the following games that come to America. I said the same thing about Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, thinking it would have no chance of arriving; I made good on my promise, bought TvC: Ultimate All Stars, and loved it. So it's on you now, localization teams. Make it happen.

The Saboteur

Full Review

Saboteur CoverI don’t think I’ve ever played a game and honestly felt sad that the developer was no longer around, but that’s exactly what happened after I beat Pandemic Studios’ swan song, The Saboteur. I had an honestly great time with a flawed game, which is the opposite experience I’ve had with similar games in the genre. 

The Saboteur is pretty much the quintessential First Hour game: I played the first hour of the game a few months back, loved it, but had to send it back to my brother-in-law. A few months later I had the opportunity to borrow it again and jumped at the chance. When I said I wanted to keep playing, I really did.

Without much further ado, The Saboteur was released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows, and while the game seems to hint at future sequels, with the studio closing it is doubtful those will ever appear.   But you never know, I’m assuming EA owns the license to the game and characters so they might trudge up good old Sean Devlin again someday.

My full review is on the Xbox 360 version.

Alpha Protocol

First Hour Review

Alpha Protocol CoverAlpha Protocol is Obsidian Entertainment’s first original title after a history of picking up series where BioWare left off, including Knights of the Old Republic.  Released about two months ago and published by Sega, Alpha Protocol is subtitled “The Espionage RPG.”  Definitely an enticing combination of words for fans of Western RPGs.

Critics rewarded the game a very wide range of scores, from 20% to over 80%, so it sounds like we have a love/hate game on our hands.  There’s obviously something in Alpha Protocol that appeals to some gamers, so I’ve decided to give it a try myself.  I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, and from a distance, Alpha Protocol appears to be an attempt to replicate its success.

Word has already come out that the cold reception the game received has scrubbed any chance for a sequel, but Obsidian shouldn't complain too much since they're currently responsible for developing Fallout: New Vegas and Dungeon Siege 3.

So let’s not waste any more time and get into the first hour of Alpha Protocol for the Xbox 360.

Half-Life 2

Full Review

Half Life 2 CoverIt's hard to find a gamer who doesn't have some experience with the Half-Life franchise. A champion of PC software when things started shifting heavily in the favor of consoles, the original Half-Life wowed critics with its pulse-pounding scripted sequences and seamless stitching of narrative and gameplay in first-person. The long-awaited full sequel, Half-Life 2, received just as many accolades, if not more, for its advances in artificial intelligence, character animation, and especially the robust physics engine powering the game's many objects.

And yet, it was only two weeks ago that I first experienced a game in Valve's flagship franchise myself. I've never been much of a PC gamer: I can count the number of games I've played on a computer monitor on one hand, and four of them begin with the words "Star Wars." I've had many consoles in my life, but rarely a PC with the power to play current games. I'm actually typing this on a Macbook right now, and as we all know, Macs just aren't for gamers.

That said, Valve has made an effort to bite into the Apple market with Mac versions of Steam and many of its own big games offered therein, just in time for the annual 4th of July sales on the incredible digital distribution service. And if Valve is willing to create a Mac version of Half-Life 2 and price it at an outrageously fair $3.39 just for me, then I guess I owe it to them to try the game that millions have gone headcrab-crazy for.

But for all its fame and glory, the bottom line is that Half-Life 2 is a six-year-old PC game in a genre I'm not terribly enthralled by. Did I hate it? Hit the jump, smash that caps lock key and ready your profane comments, PC fanboys, because I'm about to tear into your beloved Half-Life 2 like a shotgun into an antlion.

Heavenly Sword

First Hour Review

Heavenly Sword CoverThe Playstation 3 was a tough sell for Sony back in 2006. Nevermind the console's infamous $599.99 US price tag; it simply didn't have any must-have games in its launch window. Much like the PS2, the system's first year was mostly without a killer app. Even worse, adoption of the Blu-Ray format wasn't nearly as fevered as the PS2's prominently-featured DVD drive. It was once said that the best-selling game in the PS2's first year was The Matrix on DVD: people ignored the lack of games, they just wanted a DVD player, and PS2 provided a cheap solution, which the $600 PS3 was anything but.

Perhaps Sony's first true hope for a must-have game, Heavenly Sword was released in November 2007, a full year after the system launched. The game was marketed heavily, taking top slots in Sony's E3 presentations and making appearances on television months before it was to launch. When Heavenly Sword finally descended onto store shelves, reviews averaged out to a positive mark, though the range of praise spanned from "Perfection" to "disappointment."

As a bit of a 3D action game buff, I've always had my eye on Heavenly Sword, but I'm only just now playing it for the first time. I've got specific tastes in the genre: even God of War managed to disappoint me on some levels. Let's see if Heavenly Sword cuts it.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4

First Hour Review

Lego Harry Potter Years 1 4 CoverI’ve played every LEGO videogame made so far. Of all my videogames on the Xbox 360, only the LEGO games have the esteemed honor of having all their Achievements unlocked. I played them to completion as fast as possible, almost as if in a fever. If they made LEGO Schindler’s List, I’d probably play it. Same goes for LEGO Requiem for a Dream. The point I’m making here is that I love these games, and I’m twenty-six, and I’m not afraid to admit that they are just my cup of OCD tea.

Conversely, I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan. I’m one of those rare folks that actually read the first three books before the first movie came out and became a worldwide sensation. I had the sixth book spoiled for me on a Lord of the Rings TCG forum. I read the last book in less than 24 hours, locked up in my parents’ basement, only coming up once to eat dinner and not talk to anyone. The movies are hit or miss in my mind, but the world and characters and magic of it all is something I can’t get enough of. Neither can my fiancée. We’re getting married this October and heading to Universal Studios on our honeymoon to check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

I’ve been excited about this merging of two great entities since I first read about it. I always expected the next universe to be LEGO-ized to be Spider-Man’s. My expectations are high, and after having played the demo that was recently released I have no fears that the first hour for LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 will be anything but spectacular.

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