Microsoft's second game console built on the solid foundation of its first, with enhanced online play and multimedia features.

Ubisoft/Ubisoft Montreal

I approached this game with the utmost caution.  After all, the first Assassin's Creed was uncomfortably close to a critical disaster, with reviewers finding themselves as annoyed by the repetitive missions as they were awestruck by the lifelike graphics.  The bad press was made that much worse when a webcomic surfaced portraying lead developer Jade Raymond as a mindless bimbo, willing to do anything to please her undersexed fans.  Ubisoft unwisely threatened legal action, giving the distasteful drawing even more exposure and leaving gamers with the impression that the company was run by humorless bullies.  (People tend not to buy games from humorless bullies.  Unless it's Rockstar.)

When the sequel was released, I watched Metacritic like a hawk, pouncing on each new review and carefully gauging public reaction to the game.  It didn't take long before I noticed a pattern in how Assassin's Creed II was perceived.  The critics who were unimpressed by the original sang the sequel's praises in pitch-perfect harmony, offering every assurance that the game was an improvement over its predecessor.  The critics aren't always right, of course... in their rush to praise Batman: Arkham Asylum, they glossed over its most aggravating flaws.  However, critical opinion of Assassin's Creed II was so uniformly positive that taking a risk on the game didn't seem like that much of a risk.

I never played the original Assassin's Creed, so I can't tell you how the sequel improves upon the first game, or which flaws have remained constant.  However, I can say as a newcomer to the series that Assassin's Creed II brings welcome changes to some well-worn and increasingly threadbare styles of gameplay.  It's a game that's heavy on killing but mercifully light on testosterone, with an open-ended world that rarely seems aimless and stealth action scenes that aren't rigid or frustrating.  The visuals are so beautiful, the atmosphere so convincing, and the storyline so carefully constructed that you'll never doubt for a second that over two hundred people were responsible for its design.

The game begins with you running for your life alongside a mysterious female accomplice, who takes you to an abandoned warehouse.  During the trip, you discover that you've been training to join a league of noble assassins in its eternal struggle against a sinister shadow organization called the Templars.  You've learned a lot about the bloody business by playing a distant ancestor in a virtual reality simulation.  However, you'll need to round out your knowledge by strapping yourself into the Animus one more time and stepping into the leather boots of Italian renaissance figure Ezio Auditore Di Firenze.

Roguish and handsome, Ezio has no greater aspirations than chasing some Florentine tail and getting into occasional scuffles with the spoiled sons of the city's aristocracy.  His priorities change in a hurry when his family is railroaded in a trial by Italy's powerbrokers.  When his father and brothers are hanged in the town square and his mother is left speechless from the shock of their deaths, Ezio abandons his childish pursuits and begins a twenty year mission of vengeance against the men who conspired against his family.

You'll hunt for these scoundrels in twelve missions, split equally between nail-biting platforming and the most refreshingly dynamic stealth action since the last Sly Cooper game.  Unlike Batman: Arkham Asylum, which viciously punished the player for stepping outside the boundaries set by the designers, Assassin's Creed II gives you remarkable freedom in how you can take out your next target.  Should you take refuge in a haystack and wait for him to walk past, or find sanctuary in a crowd and stick a blade in his throat when you cross paths?  Maybe you'd rather deliver death from above with a throwing knife or your wrist-mounted pistol.  It's your call, and there are only a handful of instances when that choice is taken out of your hands.

While you're thinking about your next move, you'll want to take the opportunity to look around and sample the local color.  I've never visited Venice, much less 15th century Venice, but I have to imagine it would look a lot like this.  There are ornate churches towering over densely packed strings of houses, waterways with manned gondolas and cargo ships, and a cast of hundreds including crowds of bystanders, obnoxious bards (outta my way, bitch!), and the world's most modestly dressed prostitutes.  There's even a celebrity appearance by Italian super genius Leonardo da Vinci, who helps you defy both the corrupt town leaders and the very law of gravity as you inch ever closer to the leader of the conspiracy that claimed the lives of your family.

Assassin's Creed II comes so close to perfection, but drops the ball in one very crucial area... control.  It's too clumsy and too contextual, giving you the nagging feeling that you're never completely in charge.  Buttons on the face of the controller are assigned to Ezio's head, arms, and feet (uncomfortably reminiscent of Strata's ancient arcade flop Time Killers), and the function of these keys changes depending on the situation.  In other words, jump doesn't always mean jump, and assassinate won't always yield the intended results.

The game's "pathfinding AI" goes one step further in wrenching the control from the player's hands.  Ezio climbs walls at frustratingly uneven speeds, and won't even attempt to grab footholds seemingly within his reach unless you attempt a wall-hugging jump... a skill you won't learn until late in the game.  Finally, your speed is not dependent on how far you tilt the left thumbstick, as is common in action games, but how many buttons you're holding down while moving.  If you've got an Xbox 360, your finger will ache from holding down the right trigger after an hour of play.  If you've got a Playstation 3, heaven help you, because the triggers on its Dual Shock 3 are so slippery as to be finger-proof.  Either way, you'll curse the designers for breaking with tradition in the worst possible way.

Surprisingly, the awkward control isn't a fatal mistake.  It could have been in a less ambitious game, but Assassin's Creed II rises above it by being nearly flawless in every other respect.  All right, the ending is pretty stupid too, but that's two shortcomings in a game that addresses not only the issues of its predecessor, but the more deeply rooted flaws of the past ten years of game design.  It features characters you won't regret saving, sandbox gameplay with main objectives you'll actually want to complete, and stealth action that won't whip you bloody for coloring outside the lines.  If all this doesn't convince you that Jade Raymond has earned her place among today's leading game developers, you might as well turn in your Xbox Live membership, that God of War T-shirt, and the little stuffed Yoshi you've got hiding in your closet.  You're out of the gang!


2K Games/Gearbox
First-Person Shooter



JULY 17th, 2XXX: Just touched down on the planet Pandora.  Just lookin' at this place makes me thirsty... it's dry, it's dead, and the closest thing I've seen to civilization is the sad little shanty town where the ship landed.  I'll be honest with 'ya... this place is a dump.  I've seen better truck stop bathrooms.  I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for all them rumors about a treasure buried somewhere on this dirtball.  They call it the Vault, and it's big... real big.  Big enough for me to retire a hundred times over.  Big enough for the whole galaxy to talk about it.  Big enough to bring me here along with who knows who else.

JULY 18th, 2XXX: Taking the bus to Fyrestone.  There's a guy there who's got all the equipment I need to start lookin' for the Vault... Zed, I think.  Right now, I'm squeezed in here with a bunch of other treasure hunters.  The chick's not so bad to look at, when you can see her, but these big meaty guys scare the hell outta me.  I think one of 'em's from the army, while the other one looks like he could rip you in half if you got him mad.  The bus stinks somethin' fierce and the driver won't shut up... the sooner I get off this tin can and stretch my legs, the better.

JULY 19th, 2XXX: I'm here at Fyrestone, and being shown 'round the place by some damn robot.  It's gripin' that the bandits here like to shoot at it for fun, and after listening to it for the last fifteen minutes, I can't say I blame 'em.  The only other thing I remember it telling me is that these green posts will bring me back if I get killed somehow.  Guess it makes a copy of you, and spits you back out in one piece if you get your head blown off.  Gotta love technology!

JULY 20th, 2XXX: Got my first toys from Dr. Zed, along with a job... he wants me to pick off some of the skags outside his shop.  What's a skag?  Imagine the ugliest dog you've ever seen, with the biggest jaws you've ever seen.  Yep, that's a skag.  I got a pretty sharp aim, and the skags ain't too tough if you keep your distance, so I'm not expectin' any problems.

JULY 23th, 2XXX: No problems with the skags, but the bandits!  Damnation.  Got blindsided by a pack of 'em and was gunned down in a hurry.  The New-U works great, though... it was like nothin' ever happened.  Guess I'm gonna have to get better guns to handle these guys.  This rusty 'ol revolver just isn't getting the job done.  Also, I sure wish I had a better GPS system... this thing don't work worth a damn so I gotta pull out a map every ten steps.  Gets real tiresome after a while, 'ya know?

JULY 24th, 2XXX: The other folks on this planet- the ones who ain't tryin' to kill me, I mean- don't seem to do much but give me jobs and crack jokes.  Seemed kinda strange at first, but I guess you gotta have a sense of humor if you live in a place like this.  Also surprised that Pandora wasn't as dark as I thought it'd be when I first came here.  You could spot a skag comin' from a mile away... and when you find a nest of the varmints, you'll be glad you can!

JULY 27th, 2XXX: Just took out Nine-Toes and his pets, and I'm feelin' a lot more confident about my chances here on Pandora.  Took all his money and his favorite weapon as my reward.  Not like he's gonna miss it where he's goin', right?  Lemme tell 'ya, I can't imagine how a gun can get any better than this baby... it shoots a half-dozen bullets faster'n you can blink, and the bullets set anything they hit on fire!  I got a shield now too, so I'm not wastin' so much money at the New-U stations.

JULY 30th, 2XXX: Remember when I said it couldn't get better than the last gun I had?  It got better.  I betcha this place has more ways to blow bandits up than you can count, and believe me, there's nothin' I love more than killin' bandits.  Blew the leg right off one of the sonuvabitches with my sniper rifle... he never knew what hit 'em!  Also got a Bloodwing, which is kind of like a crow with a really big beak and really sharp teeth.  Gentle as a lamb with me, but he tears up skags like nobody's business.

AUGUST 2nd, 2XXX: Thought I was a goner last night.  Got into a fight with a bruiser... he smacked me around and tossed a rocket my way.  I was face down on the ground and the lights got dim, but I figured out that I could still use my guns while I was dyin'!  So I filled the dumbass with lead while he was standing there laughing.  As soon as he died, I came back to life right on the spot!  It was the damnedest thing.  Sure wish I'd known about this before!

AUGUST 8th, 2XXX: Skags and bandits, bandits and skags!  Ain't there nothin' else on this planet?  Only thing that keeps me here are all them different guns... and oh yeah, the Vault.  Completely forgot about that.  Whatever, it'll be there tomorrow.

AUGUST 15th, 2XXX: I'm comin' home.  I'm tired, and the bandits just get meaner 'n meaner the further I go.  The Vault can wait, and the guns can wait too.  Next time I go to Pandora, I'm bringin' some friends along with me.  Can't imagine why I came here without 'em.

Square-Enix Europe/Avalanche

Meet Rico Rodriguez.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound... before blowing them to bits.  When he goes fly fishing, he throws back anything smaller than a military helicopter.  His favorite bar hovers five thousand feet above the Earth.  He's the most interesting man in Panau... although there won't be much left of it by the time he leaves.

So, what's a cranky Scarface wannabee like Rico doing in a tyrannically ruled island paradise like this?  He's been hired to bring down a rogue agent, but after locating the target, his mission expands to tearing down the pillars of the Panuan leadership, allying himself with three factions all opposed to the country's self-serving dictator.  He'll raid strongholds, gun down high-ranking military officers, and turn valuable resources into smoldering craters, all to break Baby Panay's stranglehold on the country and pave the way for an American-friendly replacement.

Rico's armed with all the usual tools of the mercenary trade, from the handy, high-capacity pistol to heavy-duty weapons like assault rifles and missile launchers.  However, his bread and butter are the parachute in his backpack and the grappling hook mounted on his wrist.  These serve as his main mode of transportation, with the latter pulling double duty as an especially sadistic weapon.  Having trouble with that pesky soldier?  Hang him from the ceiling and fill 'em with lead... or lead him to the edge of a twenty story building and flip him over the side... or pin him to a propane tank and puncture it with a bullet to send the poor sap on the (last) trip of his life!  There are a dozen ways to use the hook on Panay's men, but don't expect any of them to be humane!

Thanks to the grappling hook and a "heat" system that turns up the intensity as you pick off targets, each mission can be a lot of frantic fun.  There's certainly nothing wrong with the visuals, either... they're a step up from the already impressive first game, with a greater variety of scenery and less of that artificial plastic sheen.  However, even the stunning graphics can't make the trips to each new trouble spot in Panau enjoyable.  You'll either have to glide your way to the location with the parachute, hijack a vehicle to speed up the journey, or call for an extraction... but only to a town you've already visited.  The nation of Panau is enormous, even large beyond reason, making travel painfully time-consuming regardless of how you get from point A to point B.  Worse yet, if you attempt a side mission and die, you're dragged all the way back to a safehouse located several miles away, forcing you to repeat a trip you didn't want to take in the first place.

The writing and voice acting aren't exactly a treat, either.  Rico's gruff, flippant attitude was easier to swallow back in 2006, when every video game character was a macho jerk, but after two Uncharted games, players have come to expect a higher standard from their action heroes.  Unfortunately, there's nothing to like about the entire cast of Just Cause 2.  Rico's a dick, his fellow agents are dicks, the faction leaders are dicks... everyone with a speaking role is the kind of arch-douchebag that will shake your faith in humanity.  Just to make sure you completely hate them, the characters have been given accents that run the gamut from borderline insulting (there's a mission in the game called "Fry me to the moon," suggesting that even the designers realized this) to mystifyingly absurd.  I don't know what Bela Santosi's native language is, but it can't be anything that came from this planet.

From No More Heroes 2 to Mass Effect 2, many recent sequels have distanced themselves from the meandering sandbox gameplay so common in modern video games.  Perhaps Just Cause 2 should have followed their lead, or at least tightened the gaps between hot spots on its needlessly oversized map.  There's just too much dead space separating players from the action, taking much of the thrill out of this thrill ride.



Pinched by a tough economy and keenly aware of their increasingly disillusioned fans, game publishers are working hard to restore the reputations of their most valuable franchises.  Sega's effort to redeem Sonic the Hedgehog in the eyes of gamers after a half dozen stinkers has been the most publicized of these attempts to win back a scorned audience.  However, SNK has a lot of its own bridge building to do after burning its fans with the highly anticipated, massively disappointing King of Fighters XII.  It'll take more than just one game to mend those wounds, but King of Fighters 2002 Ultimate Match is definitely a step in the right direction.

You'd expect from the title that this is a remake of the game Eolith developed nearly a decade ago for the Neo-Geo.  While much has changed, it does has the same goal of giving the player a fighting experience that's both comprehensive yet comfortingly nostalgic.  Much of the fat from previous KOF games has been trimmed away... there are no strikers, no tagging in teammates, and no critical counters, keeping the focus squarely on the player and his opponents.  What's offered instead are over fifty fighters, with nearly every cast member from the long-running King of Fighters series in attendance.  A few of the less popular brawlers were kept out of this battle royale, but even they're on the sidelines, cheering on the competitors in some of the most gorgeous backgrounds yet seen in the franchise.

What separates King of Fighters 2002 UM from the original is the level of polish in its design.  It's got an entirely new science-fiction aesthetic, bringing back fond memories of the underappreciated King of Fighters '99 while taking advantage of the Xbox 360's high resolution.  The characters haven't been touched up beyond an optional blur filter (especially annoying for Whip, whose eponymous weapon was blocky even by the modest standards of the Neo-Geo!), but the title screen animations and the brief intermissions between fights all look fantastic.  It's also worth mentioning the heavy metal soundtrack, which takes old favorites from the King of Fighters music library and cranks up the volume and intensity 'till the dial breaks off!  Bring headphones.  Hell, get the compact disc if you can find it.

If there was any complaint that could be made about the game (aside from its relative antiquity compared to, say, Street Fighter IV or BlazBlue), it's that some of the characters are absurdly difficult to use.  The King of Fighters has never been friendly to novices, but late additions to the series like Ramon and Angel will tie even seasoned players' fingers into knots with their lengthy chain attacks.  Nearly every strike in Angel's bag of tricks have to be set up with an opening blow that's hard to land and must be delivered at point-blank range.  In the hands of an expert, this angel of death delivers graceful retribution to her adversaries, but to anyone else, she's practically worthless.

Even with the handful of oddballs in the cast, including more Kyo clones than anyone could possibly want, King of Fighters 2002 UM is the best game the series has seen in years; more satisfying than the pretty but hollow King of Fighters XII and more professionally designed than King of Fighters 1998 UM.  Each battle is a thing of beauty with the right controller (not the one that came with your Xbox 360, of course) and there are unlockable bosses for players of every skill level, encouraging practice and repeated playthroughs to sharpen your gameplay to a razor's edge.  All is not forgiven yet, SNK, but give us five more games like this and we'll talk.


"I've always loved this series and had wanted this installment to excel on the Playstation 2 in the same way that its predecessors had dominated arcades.  Sadly, there's still a lot of room for improvement... so much, in fact, that Maximum Impact feels like rough framework, a skeletal structure onto which a more complete game can be built." - excerpt from a review of King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, written in 2004. we go again.  Five years after Maximum Impact, SNK is repeating all the same mistakes with another next-generation revival of its King of Fighters series that feels half-finished.  However, unlike past efforts to modernize the franchise, the problem with King of Fighters XII isn't a lack of ambition, but ambition poorly invested.  The graphics are nearly everything SNK promised, but the underlying game is so shallow and undeveloped that it can barely keep pace with fighters released over fifteen years ago.

Sure, the gameplay works, but it's missing something.  Actually, make that a whole lot of things.  The play mechanics have been stripped to the bone, with all the features you've come to expect from King of Fighters quietly swept under the rug.  The Advanced and Extra fighting styles are gone, the segmented super meter is gone, and the controversial strikers from King of Fighters '99 are gone.  What you get instead is a lame Critical Counter system that works a little like the V-combos in Street Fighter Alpha 3.  Block an enemy's attack and land a heavy punch immediately afterward and he'll be briefly stunned by a flash of light, letting you hammer him with punches and kicks until his vision returns.  It boils down to a lot of mindless button mashing, and feels tacked on to give the simplistic game engine some faint illusion of depth.

Even the characters have been lobotomized to lessen the burden on the artists; often dragged back to the days of King of Fighters '94 with just three special attacks and one super move.  The Ikari Warriors who gradually developed their own fighting styles over the course of the first four games are back to square one, with Clark and Ralf losing signature moves that distinguished them as individuals.  Flame-haired David Bowie look-alike Iori Yagami has it even worse, with a completely redesigned move list that will leave fans of the flamboyant fighter confused and despondent.  Finally, longtime members of the cast have been pulled from the tournament entirely.  Mai's disappearance made fans fume the most, but hardcore players will be furious to discover that King, the wily lady kickboxer who was the backbone of their teams in past KOF games, has vanished as well.  Filling the void are contrived late additions to the series like Duo Lon, Shen Wu, and Ash Crimson, which are neither particularly useful nor have the personality of the heroes they replaced.

The graphics were clearly the focal point for the design team, but surprisingly, even the artwork comes up short next to the competition.  Although the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes offered as backgrounds are razor sharp, the chunky character models aren't as sleek or dynamic as the heroes from Arc System Works' BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, looking like more fitting competition for the five year old Guilty Gear XX.  There's also a lack of sincerity in the artwork that leaves the fighters too polished, too processed, too... artificial.  Some research reveals why... the characters were all traced from rendered models, a process similar to what was used in The Art of Fighting 3 in 1996.  Back when the world was dazzled by computer rendered graphics, this was a pretty slick trick, but now it just seems like a cop-out.  What part of hand-drawn don't you understand?

SNK was given some margin for error with Maximum Impact, but they'll get no such charity for King of Fighters XII.  It's the most unfinished and lopsided game to ever hit a console, retailing at the same price of two vastly superior competitors.  It's not as beautiful as BlazBlue, it's not as meaty as Street Fighter IV, and with the graphics stripped away it doesn't compare to games released ten years ago, from its own series.  SNK can do better than this... and so can you.

Electronic Arts/BioWare

Yes, that's a ten.  You didn't think this site was even capable of giving ratings higher than an eight, did you?  It is possible, but just not likely.  The Gameroom Blitz grades on a cliff wall instead of a curve, and only the best of the best can scale that mountain of cynicism and earn a perfect score.  Such a game would have to set new standards for its genre, and probably some other genres as well.  It would need to shatter expectations with Emmy-worthy acting and writing in an industry where storylines are usually the kindergarten paste that holds the action together.  It must have the unlikely combination of diverse gameplay and a tight, user-friendly design.  Most importantly, it would have to keep the editor up through the night and well into the next day, unwilling to step away from the controller and get a few damned hours of sleep.

The frustratingly flawed Mass Effect was not that game, but its sequel sure as hell is.  It's the game of the month, the game of the year, the best Xbox 360 exclusive so far, and quite possibly the best game of this console generation.  The Playstation 3 can't touch it.  The Wii can't touch it.  Even top-quality cross-platform titles like Assassin's Creed II and Street Fighter IV can't reach its level of excellence.  Mass Effect 2 takes all the promise of the previous game and distills it down to a perfect drug that will leave gamers sleepwalking through work and school for the week they'll need to complete it.  It will consume you... and you'll happily dive head first into its jaws.

Mass Effect 2 benefits most from BioWare's decision to throw out the sandbox gameplay of the original and replace it with a "quality over quantity" approach.  While freedom of choice is abundant in the conversations, galactic exploration, and optional missions, the levels are kept linear, with only a handful of hidden paths and few alternate routes.  This allows for a tightly focused and extremely polished design that just wasn't possible in the previous game.  Every space port you'll visit seems both distinct and tangible, with a wealth of little details adding to the illusion of reality.  You'll know from the minute you step off the ship that Omega is the armpit of the galaxy, a dreary city bathed in red lights and littered with garbage and humanoid debris.  By contrast, Illium is a capitalist paradise, with visitors surrounded by stock market kiosks and bombarded with tacky advertisements.  The action scenes are less memorable, alternating between serpentine corridors and slightly wider battlefields, but the driving rain in the abandoned research facility and the lush scenery of the uncharted jungle planet still make an impact.

Although there's a stronger emphasis on action than in the original, character development and interaction is what gives Mass Effect 2 its RPG street cred.  After every mission, you'll have a chance to talk with every active member of your crew, and it won't take long before you'll relish the opportunity.  Characters who originally seem distant and even obnoxious begin to reveal themselves in unexpected ways, forcing you to see them in an entirely different light.  As you progress, you'll engage in heated ethical debates, settle fights between crewmates, and learn about alien customs while sharing a few of your own.  The game's mythology won't surprise most science-fiction fans... the Geth are Star Trek's Borg after a sleek iPod makeover, and the hulking Krogans (sorry) are so much like Klingons that Michael Dorn himself was hired to play a few of them.  It's familiar territory, but the writing is so clever and the characters so packed with personality that these well-worn roads are worth revisiting.

Like most BioWare titles, the conversations in Mass Effect 2 are interactive, with the left joystick used to pick dialog options.  Typically, you can either do the right thing and offer words of comfort, succumb to the guilty pleasure of being a total bastard, or try to be diplomatic and lose both friends and conversation options in the future.  (There's just no room for a Captain Picard in the world of Mass Effect, it seems.)  However, there's a new wrinkle in the form of reflex actions.  Occasionally a red or blue icon will briefly flash during a cut scene... tapping a shoulder button on the controller will make Shepard derail the event with a dramatic action that either heals wounds or pours salt on them.  This adds a sense of urgency to the normally hands-off cut scenes, but has the unfortunate side effect of prompting twitch reactions from gamers who may not be too happy with the results!

Combat in the original Mass Effect, like everything else about the game, was dull and aimless.  However, the sequel borrows the framework of immensely popular cover shooters like Gears of War and Uncharted, then builds on it with its own unique ideas and style.  The basics of hiding behind waist-high obstructions and popping up just long enough to pick off enemies remains the same.  However, the action can be paused to select powers for each member of your squad, ranging from gun enhancements to "biotics" that spindle, fold, and mutilate enemies with all the brutal flair of a Sith Lord.  Throw in heavy weapons like ice grenades and a screen clearing nuclear strike and you've got a game that satisfies from every angle.  The grown up will appreciate the sophisticated storyline, but the kid in you will love breaking out the particle beam and melting mercenaries like so many ants under a magnifying glass!

There are a few flaws... very few, and mostly inconsequential.  BioWare has gone a long way toward cleaning up the cluttered interface of its games, but every once in a while, the company will slip back into its old habits.  One mission requires you to navigate a maze of catwalks to keep tabs on a crooked politician, but since the target is difficult to see and the helpful navigation arrow has been disabled, it feels more like a blind stumble to the finish line than a legitimate challenge.

The level designs in the action scenes lean toward the contrived, although this may be more a fault of the cover shooter genre than this game in particular.  It's rare to be surprised by an enemy attack, because an open area with stacks of boxes is an unmistakable tip-off that a squadron of Geth troopers is just around the corner.  The only thing missing is a flashing neon sign at the entrance that reads "BAD GUYS AHEAD! PROCEED WITH CAUTION!"  There's a lack of spontaneity that makes the gun battles less thrilling than they could be, and the code breaking mini-games, while mildly diverting, do little to hide this.

Finally, Mark Meer is a dark spot in an otherwise shining cast of experienced voice actors.  Unfortunately, he's also in the lead role.  You'll be hearing his dry Chuck Norris impression a lot unless you swallow your pride and play as the female Shepard instead.  Jennifer Hale does a hell of a job as the hard-nosed space captain, bringing a touch of humanity and sensuality to the role, so you'll ultimately be glad you put her in the driver's seat and your male ego in the trunk.

These are minor issues in a carefully crafted masterpiece.  Since the introduction of the CD-ROM format, there's been a push in the video game industry to bring a more cinematic quality to the gaming experience.  However, Mass Effect 2 one of the rare titles that brings the aspects of film and game together without letting one eclipse the other.  Cut scenes are staged with all the careful attention you would expect from an award-winning film director, while the gameplay is compelling enough to keep you hunting for missions, mining for minerals, and unlocking gun upgrades for hours on end... even at the cost of more pressing obligations.  This is a game that offers everything while compromising nothing; a rare master of all trades.  The question you'll have to ask yourself isn't if you should buy Mass Effect 2, but how long you should kick yourself for not buying it earlier.

From Software
Action.  Occasionally.

It's probably not ethical to review a game you haven't completed, but I'm so eager to put the smackdown on this one that I'll use a convenient alias.  Not for me, mind you, but the game itself.  Instead of its actual title, which is nothing exciting anyway, I'll just refer to it by the name it should have been given... Quicktime Wankfest.  See how long it takes before you can guess which game it is!  Give yourself bonus points if you already know.

Back in 2009, veteran game developers From Software decided to create an exclusive for each of the current generation consoles, except the Wii, which always gets stiffed when big-name publishers make big-budget projects.  The Playstation 3 received Demon's Souls, an expertly crafted but viciously difficult action RPG that became the abusive love interest of countless gamers.  The Xbox 360 got Quicktime Wankfest, a case study in everything that's wrong with video games today.  You can tell who got the better end of this deal.

Anyway, Quicktime Wankfest begins with you, a faceless member of an elite team of ninjas, preparing to purge Tokyo of a parasite infection imported from the jungles of Africa.  Hmm, the most overused video game trope this side of the captive princess coupled with a plotline stolen wholesale from Resident Evil 4... you haven't even gotten past the first cut scene and things are already starting to look grim for this one!

The real problem with Quicktime Wankfest is that the opening cut scene never ends.  Once you leap out of the plane to confront the Plagas, er, Alpha Worms, you're locked into the first of many, many quicktime events.  First introduced in Sega's Shenmue, quicktime events clumsily merge real-time gameplay with cut scenes for a hybrid that's not really interactive, but too distracting to enjoy as a purely cinematic experience.

When the lead character crashes through the glass wall of a skyscraper and hits solid ground, the gameplay switches to a beat 'em up in the vein of Ninja Gaiden or God of War.  Unfortunately, the action is kind of pedestrian and doesn't really stand shoulder to shoulder with the games that inspired it.  Your surprisingly meek ninja is stuck in two gears, shifting from "slightly constipated" to "ludicrous speed" with a tap of the right trigger, the ninja vision is rarely as useful as similar gimmicks in Batman: Arkham Asylum or Assassin's Creed II, and finishing blows aren't as user-friendly or seamless as the ones in the God of War series.

Just when you think you've adapted to the quirks of the game engine, it grinds to a sudden halt with a close-up of the hero's masked face and another marginally interactive cut scene.  Just tap the buttons when they appear onscreen to proceed... or don't, and watch the footage rewind back to the start of the sequence.  You never actually seem to die in these quicktime events; like history, you're doomed to repeat them until you get them right.  No, you can't rewind to the minute before you rented this and make the right decision then.

It doesn't take long before the game dissolves into a schizophrenic farce, much like that Tex Avery cartoon where the bulldog maestro adopts six different personalities while conducting an orchestra.  It's a game!  It's a movie!  It's back to a game again!  After an hour, you'll scream at the television to make up its damn mind and give you one or the other.  While you're making furious, impotent demands of an inanimate object, you might also ask for a reason to care about the atom-thin characters, or the gravity-defying but largely hands-off fight scenes that seem more trite than outrageous in the wake of Bayonetta.

Ultimately, Quicktime Wankfest is doomed not only by an identity crisis, but by a lack of ambition in all its multiple personalities.  It's not compelling cinema.  It's not a satisfying action game.  Frankly, it's not much of anything.

Disney/Black Rock

Split/Second likes to think of itself as a reality show, but it’s about as divorced from reality as it can get.  Produced by Black Rock Studios, the developers of the underappreciated PURE, this racing game puts you in a twelve episode long competition where each car is armed with a detonator.  Sliding through corners, drafting behind rival cars, and launching off hills juices up the device.  Once it’s charged, you can squeeze the trigger to unleash all manner of hell on your adversaries, from rock slides to way-too-close encounters with gigantic cruise ships.  If your car happens to become a sardine can with you trapped inside it, don’t worry… the producers will bring you back to life and set you back on the road in a fresh ride.  Forget NBC… now that’s a powerful network!

Critics have compared this game to the Burnout series, and in many ways, it’s an accurate description.  Many of the modes in Split/Second, from the races to the elimination rounds to the detonator time trial, are lifted straight from Burnout, with the addition of traps spread throughout the track.  Springing these traps (referred to as Power Plays) gives the action the same spirit of aggressive competition as Burnout, but this time from a distance… shoving the other racers into guard rails won’t result in anything but disappointment and a scratched paint job.  Split/Second also takes inspiration from Ridge Racer in its heavy emphasis on drifting.  Mastery of the power slide is your only hope of victory in the later episodes, and the sports cars with a light, slippery frame have a huge advantage against the sturdier but less maneuverable trucks.

Split/Second gets all the basics right… the graphics are gorgeous, as you’d expect from the current generation of game systems, the soundtrack has that slam-bang action film vibe that perfectly fits the explosive arcade gameplay, and the control is serviceable, if biased toward drifters.  However, the problem with Split/Second is that the play mechanic its framework is built around just doesn’t work.  While it took deliberate skill and effort to shove other drivers off the road or into oncoming traffic in the Burnout series, Split/Second’s Power Plays are unpredictable and largely out of the player’s control.  You just taps the button and you takes your chances.  When these attacks send your opponents to the scrap heap, it’s a beautiful thing, but just as often you’ll see them zip right past the traps you’ve triggered, or run face first into them yourself.  With rare exceptions, it’s impossible to know where the sweet spot for a Power Play is set, making them a double-edged sword without a hilt.

Another serious issue with the game is that once a contestant (typically the computer) is in first place and gains a strong lead, they’ll keep it for the rest of the race.  The meter at the bottom of the screen is reserved solely for Power Plays and the occasional shortcut… unlike Burnout, it can’t be used as nitro.  Since you can’t close the gap with a burst of speed and you can’t attack what you can’t see, your only hope is that the leader of the pack makes a mistake that costs him the lead.  Unfortunately, the computer, being a computer and knowing each course like the back of its circuit board, rarely makes errors when it’s in pole position.  You, on the other hand, are quite vulnerable to dropping to the back of the pack after being surprised with a boulder to the face or a bridge that was pulled out from under your wheels.  Remember the rabid fury you felt when you were thrown from your bike just inches from the finish line in Road Rash?  That feeling is back, and it’s a part of your childhood you’ll wish you could leave in the past.

Split/Second is full of infuriating moments like this, and they’re as much the result of designer error as the regular player kind.  Take the Survival challenges, for instance.  This battle of wits against a series of semi trailers loaded with explosive barrels burdens you with low visibility and barrel drops that are just as unpredictable as the rest of the game.  The blue barrels won’t kill you outright, but they will fill the screen with smoke and debris, setting you up for an instant death by one of the red barrels that the semi has an uncanny habit of unloading just in front of your bumper.  When you’re driving through the heart of Armageddon itself, being able to see past the fire and brimstone to the road ahead is a constant worry.  It’s even more stressful when you’re not sure where the road ends and a momentum-killing crash begins.  Burnout showed players the way with handy navigation arrows… in Split/Second, trial and error is the only way you’ll find the safest path through each course.

Despite it all- the small pool of constantly recycled tracks, the pared down driving controls (there’s a button to watch crashes during the game but no hand brake?!), and the gleeful sadism oozing out of every pore of the design team- you’ll have to admit that you enjoyed Split/Second, if only for as long as the title suggests.  It’s a worthwhile rental, but the bombastic approach that helps it stand out from other racing titles holds it back from the greatness of the Burnout series.  Maybe a second season of the Split/Second series, with the difficulty toned down and more bumper-to-bumper combat, will bring it up to those standards.


The video game industry is a cutthroat business... competition is always fierce, and there's never a shortage of products on store shelves.  Throw in a weak economy, and it can be difficult to persuade customers to purchase even the better games.  Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is one of those hard sells; a solid 21st century remake of a game that's already available on a half-dozen systems, and which toes the edge of obsolescence thanks to the looming Xbox 360 release of Street Fighter IV.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is already in a precarious position, and it doesn't do itself any favors with its demo.  Not only does it fail to make a strong first impression with prospective buyers, it's so completely gimped that it's hard for them to come to any conclusion about it.  It's no surprise that the trial is limited to the plain vanilla Ken and Ryu, and that some of the modes are greyed out in the title screen.  However, while other Xbox Live Arcade demos let you enjoy a couple of stages against a computer opponent before shutting off the tap and prodding you to pay for the full version, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD limits you to local multiplayer fights.  If you're not living next door to a fan of the series, you can't play the game, making this the stingiest demo since War World's meager thirty seconds of gameplay or the constant registration nags in Fireplace.  What the hell, Capcom?

Even after you drop the 1200 Microsoft Points on Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD, there's no guarantee that you'll fall in love with it.  First, the difficulty in the arcade mode is just short of ridiculous.  The stars from previous Street Fighter games have been replaced with four difficulty levels, which all greatly underestimate their challenge.  "Easy" is normal, "Normal" is hard, and "Hard" drops an impenetrable brick wall in front of you at the third stage.  Wait, when did this suddenly become Mortal Kombat?

It's also worth pointing out to purists that the Classic mode is a complete joke.  If you've come to play Super Street Fighter II Turbo without the added bells and whistles, you're better off sticking with Street Fighter Anniversary, which features a faithful conversion of the arcade game along with the flashier Street Fighter III: Third Strike.  What you get here are blurry arcade sprites carelessly dropped onto the same high-resolution backgrounds.  Ooh, less classic than advertised!

Despite these (largely unnecessary) shortcomings, the game does deliver the goods for Capcom fans who aren't quite ready to step into the third dimension with Street Fighter IV.  The new hand-drawn sprites are faithful to the originals, while offering added detail and subtle shading that's easy to appreciate even on a standard definition television set.  The animation is a bit stiff and the artists at Udon sometimes interpret the characters strangely... for instance, Ken's gravity-defying mullet gives him an eerie resemblance to Lion-O from the Thundercats cartoon.  However, even with these occasional missteps, the sharp new artwork more than justifies the delays that kept the game in limbo for almost a year.

As for the gameplay, well, that's exactly the way you remembered it from 1994, with a handful of new moves that elevate it over the slightly underwhelming Super Street Fighter II.  These range from E. Honda's humiliating Oicho throw (the original teabagging!) to the incredibly satisfying super combos.  They're finely tuned to be useless against blocking opponents, but brutally effective if you can squeeze them past your rival's defenses.  These powerful attacks must be earned in battle, making them preferable to the easily abused desperation attacks in SNK's South Town series.

While the gameplay is largely the same, the key difference between Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD and the low-def original is online support.  Although the arcade mode lets you sharpen your skills against capable computer opponents, you'll never fully master the game until you match wits with unpredictable human players... and you won't have any trouble finding them on Xbox Live!  Whether you take it easy with a laid back Player Match or claw your way through competition-caliber opponents in the Ranked Matches, you can be sure that each fight will be fast-paced and exciting.  You'll sometimes find poor sports who disconnect while on the edge of defeat, as well as latency issues that take some matches on a guided tour through the Twilight Zone, but they're rarely more than a minor and infrequent annoyance.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is a worthwhile purchase for the right audience... but after fifteen years of advancements to the Street Fighter series that extend far beyond pretty graphics, that audience is starting to shrink.  If you prefer the purity of Street Fighter II to the expanded gameplay of its sequels, or are a rabid online gamer hungry for new challengers, your fifteen dollars will be well spent.  However, if neither apply, hold onto your cash... something better is just around the corner, as it always is in this business.


You know, I should be angry that Capcom released Super Street Fighter IV.  The new moves, improved online experience, and expanded cast of characters in this update instantly turned the original Street Fighter IV into a drink coaster and made me feel profoundly stupid that I paid sixty dollars for it.  Despite all that, I can't hold a grudge.  If Capcom had given 110% with Street Fighter IV, it's worked itself to exhaustion with the Super edition, which proudly observes the history of the long-running series while crushing the last five years of fighters under its heel.  This is the peak for the genre on modern consoles... and if we're all very lucky, Capcom won't be tempted to outdo itself in the near future.

Street Fighter IV was a visual powerhouse in 2009, and although not much has been done to improve the graphics in this update, it still has the edge over the competition with its brawny yet endearingly comical characters and luscious, color-drenched backgrounds.  Capcom had expressed concern in the past that polygons just couldn't capture the personality of the Street Fighter cast, but it's clear after ten years of technological advancement that they've put that fear far behind them.  The stars of Super Street Fighter IV have it all, moving as fluidly as they did in Street Fighter III and showing more expression than they ever had in their sprite-based days.  Each character's attitude is artfully expressed in win poses, from Dudley's classic British sensibilities to Dan's misplaced sense of arrogance, and your rivals bulge their eyes and drop their jaws in disbelief as you warm up that outrageous knock-out blow that will send them bouncing around the playfield.

The gameplay is a blend of past Street Fighter releases, with the crisp feel of Street Fighter Alpha but some stray features from Street Fighter III and the largely forgotten Street Fighter EX.  Each character has two super meters, with the first growing with each successful strike and the second rising along with the fighter's frustration from being attacked.  Like Street Fighter III, the first meter can be used to double the strength of special moves, with an especially powerful super move available once the bar is filled.  The second meter is reserved for the ultra moves; flashy finishers that are the closest thing Street Fighter will ever get to fatalities.  Super Street Fighter IV adds a second ultra move to everyone's repetoire, but in another, less welcome tip of the hat to Street Fighter III, these must be selected at the beginning of the match rather than chosen on the fly.  Finally, there are the focus attacks, a holdover from Street Fighter EX.  Hold medium punch and kick together and your character is able to shake off one hit from an opponent, then return fire with a bone-shattering blow which leaves the poor sap gasping for air and open to even more punishment.

New ultra moves are among the handful of minor improvements offered in Super Street Fighter IV.  Keen-eyed players will also notice that the difficulty settings are more honest and that the playing field has been leveled for most characters, encouraging diversity in online fights.  Speaking of the online mode, there are more options there as well, including a Replay Channel that lets you watch previously recorded fights and an Endless Battle where a small pool of players can compete against each other until they pass out in front of their television sets.  Bonus stages from Street Fighter II are also thrown in for nostalgia's sake, but playing them makes you realize why they were eventually dropped from the series... and why you can shut them off in the options screen.

The new features are gravy, but the real draw for Super Street Fighter IV is the expanded cast of characters.  There are ten fresh faces in this update, including two completely original fighters and eight brawlers taken from past games.  The newcomers in the original Street Fighter IV were largely lackluster... or both large AND lackluster, in the case of Rufus.  However, Dimps stepped up its game for the update, adding Juri, a sultry sadist with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and Hakan, a Mediterranean wrestler who's always served extra greasy.  The other eight fighters run the gamut from supremely cool (Dudley) to amazingly versatile (Ibuki) to nearly worthless (Makoto, who makes Dan look like Akuma).  There's even representation from the twenty year old Final Fight thanks to Guy and Cody, making this the most well-rounded cast you'll find in a recent Capcom fighting game.

Is there any reason to own both Street Fighter IV and its supercharged pseudo-sequel?  Well, a game save from the original release will unlock two custom colors in the update, with the first laying on a thick coat of ink from a Japanese calligrapher's paintbrush and the second reproducing the colored pencil sketches used in the introduction.  You also get a chance to double up on your achievement points, if you're willing to do twice the work.  Past that... no, not really.  That's the rub, though, isn't it?  If you're a fan of the series, you've probably already bought the original... and it goes without saying that you'll get Super Street Fighter IV as well.  You know it, I know it, and Capcom knows it, which is why they're able to get away with this re-release.  However, less devoted players have a golden opportunity to skip the dress rehearsal and head straight for the best Street Fighter game released in years... perhaps even decades!

XBOX 360

tech specs




3.2 GHz






256 channels


500MHz ATI Xenos




24-bit color




500 mill per second

best games

Assassin's Creed II
Fable II
Rock Band 2
Street Fighter IV

worst games

Bomberman: Act Zero
Crystal Quest (XBLA)
Ninja Blade
Rock Revolution
Sonic the Hedgehog