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Beats: A New Way to Experience your MP3 Collection

Sony Computer Entertainment Studios London recently unleashed their new rhythm based title “Beats“. What differentiates Beats from other rhythm titles such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and Guitar Hero is its ability to play tracks from your personal MP3 music collection.

The game uses a beat tracking technology that maps button combos thus creating a unique gaming experience that revolves around your song selection. Each beat corresponds to a face button on your hand held, your goal is to successfully match the on-screen symbols with your PSP’s face buttons. The game also spreads out the symbols into three different directional sections (left, right and center) on the screen, which gamers must counter with the appropriate directional pad and face button sequences.

As you consecutively rack-up combos, your points multiplier meter, which is situated on the right hand side of the screen, goes up (x8 being your highest multiplier). The game will eventually give you glowing orbs that boost up your “Overdrive” meter (located on the left hand side of the screen). Once the meter has been filled up you can tap your left shoulder button and jump into Overdrive mode, which doubles the default points scheme (x16 being your highest multiplier).

The gameplay varies from song to song. It’s interesting to see how various musical genres are interpreted by the beat tracking technology. In other words, the more music you throw at the game the more fun you will have with it. It’s a unique and challenging way to experience your music.

Beats also offers a music creation game type called “Jamming.” In Jamming, you are given the opportunity to mix your own tracks using various predefined instruments. The game comes bundled with 11 tracks that each have their own sets of instruments. You jam along creating your own beats as you go while taping on the right shoulder button to switch through instruments. The tracks can then be recorded and shared with friends. Beats also includes a wireless multiplayer ad hoc mode which lets you create your own jam session with friends locally.

Beats also lets you customize your game to appeal to your tastes. The game offers over 70 background visualizations that interact with your gameplay. It would have been nice if you would have been able to switch through visualizations on the fly while playing the game, but the game offers enough variety to spruce things up when things get a little monotonous. You can also choose one of nine menu themes that match your song/artistic style. Hopefully Sony will offer up some extra visualizations and themes as downloadable content on the PlayStation Network.

Beats will change the way you listen to your music collection. Perhaps one day we’ll see the same type of beat tracking technology in other rhythm based games, thus giving users the ability to interact with their favorite tunes with ease. Beats can be downloaded either through the PlayStation Store on a Windows based PC (store.playstation.com) or on the PlayStation 3. Oh, and don’t let the mere $5 price tag fool you as Beats will definitely be one of those titles that you’ll keep coming back to. Dare I say Beats is one of the year’s most impressive PSP titles?

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Super Mario Galaxy Review (Wii)

Super Mario Galaxy

Nintendo’s storied mascot Mario is back in an all new adventure for the Wii dubbed “Super Mario Galaxy. The latest Mario iteration is the sequel to 2002’s “Super Mario Sunshine” for the GameCube. How has the Super Mario franchise evolved since its predecessor, and how does the famed platformer translate on Nintendo’s Wii?

The game kicks off with Mario being invited by Princess Peach to attend the Star Festival in the Mushroom Kingdom. As Mario makes his way to the castle to meet-up with Princess Peach, the kingdom is suddenly attacked by King Koopa himself, Bowser. Bowser unveils his latest creation, his very own galaxy, in which he proceeds to rip Peach’s castle off of the ground and kidnap the helpless Princess. In the chaos, Mario manages to grab hold of the castle as it’s being hurled out of the ground. Soon after, Mario is awaken by three Lumas (star beings who assist our hero through out the game) who prep him up for his latest journey through Bowser’s galaxy.

Super Mario Galaxy is without a doubt the best looking Nintendo Wii game. The game features bright colours and system-pushing textures that edge out any other Wii game on the market. The intelligent spherical level design puts every other modern day platformer to shame as you never get bored of what the game ends-up throwing at you. Super Mario Galaxy is also played through an auto-camera system (eliminating camera issues that plagued previous 3D Super Mario titles) which makes the game accessible to pretty much anyone.

The latest Super Mario title also contains one of the most entertaining and memorable scores to date.
Galaxy features over a 100 different tracks (mixed in with the traditional Mario sound effects we’ve grown accustomed to) that range from revamped classic Super Mario tracks to new orchestral compositions. At times throughout the game, the musical themes play in sync with the gameplay, adding an interactive musical element to Galaxy. Super Mario Galaxy’s orchestral score was composed by Mahito Yokota alongside original Super Mario Bros composer Koji Kondo (who penned four new tracks for Galaxy).

At first glance, the game’s controls might seem a little intimidating to your average gamer. But in actuality, Super Mario Galaxy features one of the most simplified control schemes in modern gaming. The game is played with both the Wii Remote (Wii’mote) and the Nunchuk. Gamers control Mario using the control stick on the Nunchuk while the Wii’mote uses its “A” button for action sequences (jump, swim, grab and speak) and its “B” button to shoot Star Bits while aiming at the screen. The Wii Remote is also used as a pointer to grab Star Bits.

All of the moves Mario moves that gamers are accustomed to are present in Super Mario Galaxy (backwards somersault, wall jump, long jump, ground pound etc.) The only new move comes in the form of a spin attack that is accomplished by shaking the Wii’mote. The spin move also comes in handy when jumping as it will allow you to make a higher jump.

Super Mario Galaxy also includes a new innovative co-op mode that lets a second player interact with the main player while he’s experiencing the game. To play this point-and-click “Co-Star” mode, Wii owners simply need to have a second Wii’mote. With the additional Wii’mote, player two can collect Star Bits, shoot Star Bits, stop enemies, make Mario jump and spin. This mode is accessible at all times during a game session.

If you own a Nintendo Wii, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Super Mario Galaxy. If you don’t own Nintendo’s latest console, then this game gives you enough reasons to justify purchasing a Wii. There’s something for everyone in Super Mario Galaxy as it’s simple enough for anyone any family member to pick up and contains enough challenges to satisfy hardcore gamers. If you’re only on the market for one Wii title this year, then don’t think twice about picking up Super Mario Galaxy.

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Blue Dragon Review (Xbox 360)

Blue Dragon

After being on the market for two years, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console still lacks a solid RPG lineup in its video game library. Earlier this year, Microsoft published Mistwalker/Artoon’s “Blue Dragon” in Japan. The title was well received by Xbox 360 owners in the land of the rising sun, so it was just a matter of time before the RPG would make its way to our shores. The big question was whether or not the game would translate well to North American audiences.

The Blue Dragon journey begins in the fictional villa of Talta following the annual appearance of mysterious purple clouds that bring about chaos and destruction in the form of a land shark. But this time around, the game’s main protagonists Shu, Kluke, and Jiro decide to take the matter in their own hands and attempt to fend-off the threat.

Shortly after a brief confrontation with the shark, our youthful characters are dragged into a scenario involving a mothership captained by the ruthless Nene. The heinous blue skinned commander soon reveals to our heroes that he’s the mastermind behind the attacks on their village. A battle ensues after the revelation, which leads to the overpowering defeat of Shu, Kluke and Jiro to the hands of the nefarious Nene.

Subdued, our adventurers break away from the anarchy and attempt to escape the mothership, but are soon overwhelmed with its technology. Out of nowhere, a female voice instructs the trio to each ingest a sphere that will grant them the power and ability needed to escape the ship. Shu, Kluke and Jiro consume the orbs which results in their shadows morphing into ghostly creatures with unique abilities. With their newfound powers, our heroes set off to defeat evil Nene and his mechanical army led by Mecha General Szabo.

On the down side, the game’s story might be too over-the-top for gamers not accustomed to the world of traditional Japanese RPGs. The overzealous characters and offbeat story line can make it difficult for people to get sucked into Blue Dragon. But gamers familiar with Square Enix’s early “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” games will feel right at home, but don’t expect a story that’s appealing and as memorable as titles from those two franchises.

The inclusion of the shadow creatures is what sets Blue Dragon apart from other RPGs. Each character’s shadow has the ability to unlock and switch classes thus enabling the ability to use different sets of skills. Gamers can raise their classes and learn different skills by successfully defeating enemies and gaining shadow points (along with the traditional experience points gained by the characters). Like every other RPG before Blue Dragon, leveling-up your character/shadow gets increasingly complicated as the game progresses.

An interesting aspect of this game is the ability to change our shadow’s class at any time outside of a battle. Skills gained can be carried over to other classes by simply adding them to your skill roster. In theory, this means that any skills can be carried over to a particular class (sword master skills can be transfered to black magic skills and vice versa). A nice addition as your characters do not need to adhere to skill sets usually reserved for certain classes.

Blue Dragon was developed in tandem by Japanese game studios Mistwalker (a studio founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi) and Artoon. Sakaguchi created the game’s story and acted as Blue Dragon’s producer. Dragon Quest fans will immediately recognize the Akira Toriyama designed characters (Toriyama was not only responsible for the character art in Dragon Quest, but he’s also the creator of the famed Dragon Ball series). The Square Enix RPG similarities are more than influential, they’re more like an attempt to lure fans of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to the the Xbox 360.

One of the game’s strong points is its phenomenal soundtrack which was composed by yet another Final Fantasy alumni, composer Nobuo Uematsu. Uematsu’s score is compromised of classically styled symphonic melodies that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years through games like “Final Fantasy VII” and “Chrono Trigger”. But what sets this apart from other titles is the cheeky boss battle music featuring 80’s styled heavy metal music sung with high-pitched intensity by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan (the song’s titled Eternity, Google Gillan and Blue Dragon to get a taste of it).

The original Blue Dragon might not end up being a classic, but it’s a strong start to a franchise Microsoft Game Studios will be building up over the years. With the development of an animated series and a Nintendo DS game in the works, the Blue Dragon franchise is bound to become a household name. In the meantime, Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360 might just be enough to calm your Japanese RPG cravings for the time being.

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Finishing the Fight – Halo 3 Review (Xbox 360)

Halo 3

No more holding back, as it’s time to finish the fight! The near three-year wait for Bungie’s second sequel to Microsoft’s prized “Halo” franchise is over, and gamers all across the globe have been lining up at stores in order to pick up their copy of the highly anticipated “Halo 3” for the Xbox 360. But how does the game actually compare to it’s predecessors? Did the franchise successfully jump the generational gap?

If you’ve been living under a rock, the Halo franchise has been both Bungie’s and Microsoft’s most lucrative gaming venture. The series, which kicked-off in 2001, has sold nearly 12 million copies with “Halo 2” being one of the most popular multiplayer titles on Xbox Live. One would argue that the popularity of the Xbox 360 was mainly due to the eventual release of Halo 3.

Halo 3 kicks-off moments after the controversial Halo 2 cliffhanger ending in which our hero, Master Chief (who is boarded on a recently jettisoned Forerunner spacecraft on it way to earth) explains to Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood that he’s “finishing this fight” against the evil alien conglomerate known as the Covenant. Gamers are soon dropped in an African jungle setting aided by a group of soldiers lead by Sergeant Major Avery J. Johnson and the newly allied Arbiter. From there on, our hero embarks on a final mission to rid the world of the Covenant and the parasitic Flood.

The game does a fairly good job of telling the apparent final chapter in the Master Chief story arc. The story itself is not ground breaking in any sense, but it’s enough to keep gamers hooked through the campaign’s nine levels. Extended replay value also comes in the form of the heroic and legendary modes (the game’s artificial intelligence in these modes make it worth the challenge).

Graphically, Halo 3’s single-player campaign looks stunning. It might not be the best looking title on the Xbox 360, but it still manages to stand out with its great visual appeal. The game’s graphical prowess can be attributed to its fantastic lighting effects and impeccable level design. The game’s extra attention to detail makes everything from its character models to its environments look more defined. The levels are colourful and vivid giving the game modern HD sleekness. Halo 3 also manages to maintain a smooth and constant frame rate from start to finish.

For many gamers, the Halo franchise is all about multiplayer gaming, and Halo 3 won’t disappoint as it delivers on all fronts with a strong ambitious Xbox Live multiplayer presence. Gamers can compete in nine different game types that include fan favourites such as “Slayer” and “Capture the Flag” blended with new modes such as “VIP” and “Infection”. Also returning is Bungie’s critically acclaimed matchmaking service that groups players with similar skill levels, thus creating balanced matches for everyone to enjoy.

Another entertaining aspect of the game is its co-op feature which lets you play Halo 3’s campaign with up to three friends locally or through Xbox Live. The co-op mode also includes a scoring option that keeps track of kill counts, weapons used and various in game stats (also available in single-player). The scoring option adds some extra competitive depth to the co-op experience.

It is now possible for Halo 3 users to capture screenshots and movie clips of their online gameplay and save them to the game’s dedicated file sharing servers where they can be shared with others. This is a great feature that gives gamers an opportunity to relive those glorious online gaming moments with friends and family. Sadly, a copy of Halo 3 is necessary for others to view your media.

The most interesting aspect of the multiplayer mode is the addition of Forge. Forge is essentially a map editor that lets users tweak objects on any of the game’s multiplayer maps. You can edit the game in real-time while playing with friends. Forge will open up endless possibilities and let gamers add personal and unique touches to familiar multiplayer maps.

In the end, Halo 3 is a great title that is fun to play from start to finish. But on the down side, the game doesn’t do much to improve on the Halo 2 formula. In some respect, one could argue that the transition from the original Halo to its first sequel was more dramatic. Halo 2 gave gamers new gameplay features such as dual wielding and vehicle hijacking, which was enough to give it an edge over its predecessor. But in Halo 3, the improvements all seem to be cosmetic. It’s hard not to get the “been there, done that” feel after a few hours of gameplay.

Halo 3 is definitely worth adding to your Xbox 360 library. The game has enough content to keep hardcore gamers captivated until the next Halo iteration. With Halo 3, the Halo franchise remains the definitive console first-person shooter, which makes it enough for gamers to warrant an Xbox 360 purchase. Halo 3 is the must have title for people looking for a fun single player campaign that’s loaded with a strong multiplayer component.

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A Look at Halo 2 Vista

Halo 2 Vista

Bungie Studios’ famed “Halo 2” has finally arrived on Windows Vista. PC gamers now have the opportunity to experience Master Chief’s epic battle against the dreaded Covenant. Will the biggest selling Xbox title of all time (over seven million copies have been sold to date) make a lasting impression on PC gamers? Microsoft is banking on PC gamers to feverishly adopt the title as gamers did nearly three years ago on the Xbox. But does this new iteration actually pack-in enough firepower for them to march in stores and purchase Halo 2?

In Halo 2, the war between the alien Covenant and the humans continue, and this time around, the game’s protagonist Master Chief is called upon to defend earth against the genocidal alien collective. Not only did Halo 2 include a solid single player campaign, but the game also took Halo’s beloved multiplayer aspect and brought it to Xbox Live. Halo 2 became an instant online phenomenon with over five million unique players embracing the feature.

Halo 2 for Vista features all of the now legendary online multiplayer maps popularized by the original release, and also comes bundled with two exclusive maps that are only available in this version of the game. Unlike the recently released “Shadowrun” for Windows Vista, gamers will not be able to experience cross-platform gaming against Xbox owners. Could a Halo 2 update for the Xbox 360 resolve this issue? Perhaps, but with “Halo 3” on the horizon, why would Microsoft even consider spending additional resources on creating a said patch?

Sadly, like the Xbox version, gamers who wish to take advantage of Halo 2 Vista’s multiplayer functionality will have to be an Xbox Live Gold subscriber, which requires gamers to pay a fee (monthly or annually) in order to access these services. Current console subscribers will be able to access these features without having to shell out extra cash. The PC iteration comes bundled with a one month trial subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Will PC gamers, who are accustomed to getting these features for free, even consider subscribing to such a service?

One of the nice things about this new version is that it includes a map editor that enables users to generate custom maps. These user generated maps will surely help Halo 2 Vista have a steady flow of fresh online content. It will be interesting to see what gamers come up with.

Visually, the game looks pretty much like its original Xbox counterpart. The slightly improved graphics stem from the fact that the game offers sharper textures, anti-aliasing and high resolution support (up to 1680 x 1050). All in all, the game’s Havok infused engine still holds up fairly well, but in the end, the visuals in Halo 2 for Vista are only mildly improved, and might not be up to current PC standards for most gamers.

The critically-acclaimed soundtrack by composers Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori remains intact. The soundtrack melds instrumental symphonic music with modern day rock hooks. It is definitely one of the best video game soundtracks. As with the console version, the soundtrack is presented in a 5.1 surround sound aspect that enhances the player’s immersion into the Halo 2 universe.

Since this is a Games for Windows branded title, Halo 2 Vista offers Xbox 360 controller support out of the box. The controller option gives PC gamers the ability to experience a near-perfect console experience. In actuality, gamers who use the controller in a multiplayer environment will gain an auto-targeting functionality that might tip the scales in their favor. But with that said, there’s no better accuracy than using a mouse and keyboard combo. Using the sniper rifle has never been quicker or more accurate with a mouse.

One must wonder whether or not PC gamers are still interested in a two and a half year old title? By now, gamers who were interested in “Halo 2” more than likely ended-up purchasing the title during the original Xbox’s tenure. Microsoft’s decision to make the game a Windows Vista exclusive is also a questionable move. What incentive do gamers have by purchasing this Vista-only port? Besides the option of adding an extra 1,000 points to their Xbox Live gamertag, consumers are not likely to fork out an extra $99 (on top of the $49.99 suggested retail price for Halo 2 itself) to upgrade their setup to Windows Vista Home Basic (which has the least amount of functionality when compared to other versions of the OS). Is Halo 2 Vista doomed from the get-go? Will Microsoft eventually make the title playable on Windows XP, which still is the de-facto OS for PC gamers?

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