Review: Rock Band 2

April 16, 2009

Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2

Harmonix / PS3, PS2, Wii, Xbox 360 / Teen

Reviewing games is usually a very insular process. You get the game, you lock yourself in a room with it, and you futz with it until you have an opinion and a bunch of talking points. The only place other people come into the equation is if your mom decides to bring you pizza rolls and ask why you haven’t gotten a “real” job. As pitiful as this seems the system usually works, but it hits a few snags with a game built from the ground up to start parties like, say, Rock Band 2.

So, being young, crazy, and surrounded by other people of the like, I decided to try and cram as many people as I could into m tiny dorm to do some of my futzing for me and collect information on how other people view a game I’ve turned into a private obsession. Luckily for my self-esteem, the consensus was “fun”.

Before we get to the group work, some technical observations from the “professional”:

  1. The “talky parts” have been fixed, and by fixed I mean made so easy they’ve become meaningless. You can 100% Testify while ordering a pizza.
  2. The drum trainer is genius, if you can’t get better by using it; you had no rhythm to begin with.
  3. There are now drum solos, but there are only six of them and half of those are uninteresting or unchallenging. Oh well, no one likes a drum solo anyway.
  4. The only change to the tried-and-true guitar gameplay is the addition of hammer-on/pull-off chords. If you know what that means you’ve already bought the game and are using this review as masturbation material.

But enough about me, lets get to the party.

As soon as I go the game home I opened our dorm-room door and started propositioning passers by like a Dutch prostitute in a red-light district window. Through my persistence I assembled an interesting group of players:

  • Dan – Guitar Hero expert. Rumor has it he got so good by playing constantly while under house arrest
  • Evan (from 511) – Came in drunk and insisted he could play Joker & The Thief on hard guitar (he couldn’t) then wandered off to race people through the lobby. Came by next day and apologized.
  • Wes – Tobacco chewer who gave every instrument a shot. My mic has smelled funny ever since.
  • Jimmy – Roommate from most racist town in the state. Insists he likes black people. Loves the Grateful Dead more that is reasonable for any non-stoner.
  • Jacob – Other roommate. Only actually comes to room if he needs a place to sleep or has enough time to play a game of Madden between activities. Plays a mean medium bass.
  • Red – Floor punching bag, butchered Black Hole Sun on vocals.
  • Steve – Generally bewildered, played bass
  • Kayla – Real singer from a musical family. Blazed through Maps on expert like they really don’t love him like she does. 
  • Austin – Sometimes singer, super geek, responsible for fan-favorite drummer Protoman.
  • Brittany – RA, said she would sing Livin’ on a Prayer then chickened out.
  • Kelly – Wandered in, played a couple songs, wandered out, said it was cool. Probably stoned.
  • Blake  – Good guitarist, better at Halo
  • Kaitlin – Jimmy’s friend from different hall. Defies all the stereotypes about girl drummers.
  • Krikor – Last roommate, talented violinist who holds 17 state weightlifting records. Yeah, you read that right.
  • Big Scott – Also can sing, brought his own fancy-pants wireless guitar.
  • Me – Jack-of-all-trades and the person in charge of the DLC choices. Can guitar and sing on hard if I want to show off.

Jimmy and I kicked things off by trying to unlock all the songs we could. We knew we had to grab potential party favorites like Down With The Sickness and Any Way You Want It, but I also wanted some personal favorites like Alex Chilton and Uncontrollable Urge available.

As we grinded our way through the tour to unlock all we could, there was a steady stream of interested faces by going by our door. No one actually tried to play they just stared. It was like being in a zoo, but with better music and less stink. Eventually we decided to give up the grind and start inviting the gawkers in.

The first visitor was Austin, who had played with us on Rock Band 1 before, and has real drumming experience from getting kicked out of a garage band for not being serious enough. Knowing we had a capable crew we kept touring for unlocks, but that would have to change soon.

Slowly other visitors entered until we had 8 people in our tiny 8×15 room. The core band finished the set and then motioned to the watchers to come forward, take up the instruments, and turn on the no fail mode for their shot. It was then that I finally got to rest my pipes as Red took up the mic for Black Hole Sun. 5 minutes and 35% later Red was off the mic and I was back on.

While some others had success with the vocals no one really had their 2001 monkey at the obelisk moment with the drums. Evan, Dan, Blake and Steve all tried with a too-stiff grip on the sticks and never got a hold of it. Wes got closer but almost broke my pedal. The non-experienced person who did the best was Jim’s study-buddy Katlin, who made her way through Simple Man on hard with few mishaps. Despite my own efforts to get everyone to try everything, it became a reoccurring theme that no one really wanted to stick anything out to get better; they just wanted to have fun.

And fun is what we had, with more people dropping in and out, usually on some form of guitar. We had the band experience I always dreamed of, and I got to sing Chop Suey more than I ever wanted.

Even when I wasn’t trying to draw people in I somehow managed to. I was minding my own business one night and doing some solo singing when Scott caught the sound of Master Exploder. We ended up playing ’till 2 am, not doing anything too intensive, just having fun.

It was like that for a few more days with some people coming in and dabbling, some spending serious time with it, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. I got to feel like a gaming evangelist, bringing people into the fold. Then Jim broke the drumsticks and it was all over.

I may be using the word too much but dammit, we had fun, and that was what the game is all about. You don’t have to play on expert or work the heaviest metal songs over and over until you get the solo right. You just have to pick the level you have fun at, and a song that everybody knows and prance around like a rock star. Also, I have firsthand experience with the hardcore appeal the game has to offer.

As has been said many times before Harmonix is a group of musicians making games to create new musicians, or at least people who know a little more than when they started. Every week there’s either something fresh to dig into that I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise, or I get to learn the bassline I never noticed in a song I love.

For some it may be about the music, for some it may be about the multiplayer fun, some may even be drawn to the challenge of nightmarish songs like Painkiller. Whatever your calling Rock Band 2 has something for everyone… except, perhaps, people who really, really love Aerosmith.


by Zack Rovinsky



Review: NCAA 09

April 16, 2009

Now With Even More Shady Boosters

EA Tiburon / All Consoles / Everyone

After a few years being portrayed as the bane of both gamers and humanity’s creative spirit, EA seems to have settled into a comfortable role as the king of “pretty much what you’d expect” (a darn sight better than Activision: the king of “again with this shit?”). They rarely surprise but they even more rarely dissapoint. If that’s what it takes to make hundreds of millions of dollars it makes you wonder why other people try so hard. The only thing really worth mentioning is when they screw up and, low and behold, they did. But, as with many things EA, it’s not really as big or as small a deal as many would have you believe.

First, lets just get the new stuff out of the way. The grass now resembles a well-mowed green shag carpet rather than a gym mat with grass clippings scattered on it, which is an improvement in my book. The create-a-player and campus legend modes have gotten just a bit deeper since last year. The replay options have been fine-tuned. Custom TD celebrations allow you to chose between kneeling to thank god, jumping around, partying with the mascot, or just running around like a jackass. The player models now resemble actual 18-22 year old human males rather than an anime artist’s over-muscled rendering of football players. Finally, as always, the rosters are updated to exclude all the guys on the covers. 

All of this is staying within the realm of “pretty much what you’d expect”, but that’s when laziness and complacency rear their ugly heads. There are serious issues in a few vital places that don’t break the game, but can cause headaches for players. The CPU sliders, which are supposed to affect the level of computer-controller opponent play, do absolutely nothing. Instead, the human sliders, which affect the play of all your teammates you don’t have the giant super-brain to control, affect both human and CPU play levels. They cancel each other out and bring us back to doing absolutely nothing. Also, the online dynasty, meant to be the future of fantasy football, sometimes simulates games humans have already played. Messing up the results and screwing the whole endeavor. 

There are more little disappointments beyond the technical fuck-ups too. It’s way, waay too easy to just blow past CPU defenders with a speedy player. I should know, it’s the basis of my success in campus legend mode. Also, 3 games into the next generation EA still hasn’t bothered to render the stadiums of smaller division-1 schools, instead sticking them in generic bowls. As an attendee of one of those smaller schools this majorly pisses me off. I want my Kelly-Shorts!

On top of all that is the general feeling that NCAA isn’t nearly as ambitious as Madden. While big bro’ is touting a game that adapts to the player’s skill and really teaches the game,  NCAA is still chugging along with ignorable features, roster updates, and mascot games. Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about all this if they had just made the game polished and solid.

Instead, they’ve traded uninspiring for unacceptable. EA’s laziness has cost the franchise it’s hard earned reputation, screwed over fans who thought they could buy another annual sports game update without any nasty surprises, and shone a light on just how stuck and half-assed their college football games have become.

At least, in a world with any justice it would. Instead things will be back to normal for NCAA 2010 and, as long as they make sure the game isn’t broken, we’ll be back to putting up with “pretty much what you’d expect”.


By Zack Rovinsky


Review: Turok

April 16, 2009

Bringing A Bow To A Gun Fight

Propaganda Games / Playstation 3 Xbox 360 / Mature

It’s odd that in a society so devoted to moving forward, we have an insatiable appetite for nostalgia. Just look at the movie theater where Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Miami Vice were all brought back from the dead with middling results. Or on TV where you can see updates of American Gladiators and Knight Rider anchoring NBCs spring offerings with equally middling results. It’s not surprising therefore that gamers have similar lust for their childhood memories and have shown a willingness to pay to get them back. That concept led Touchstone to dig up one of gaming’s more memorable fossils; the dinocidal Turok series.

As expected you play as Turok, this time a space marine with a mohawk fetish who’s only relation to the protagonists of previous games is his Native American ancestry, choice of weaponry, and predilection for running into dinosaurs on a regular basis. Oh, and the silly name. Turok was once a prisoner given a second chance in a famed regiment called the Wolf Pack under charismatic leader Roland Kane. After turning his life around under Kane’s guidance his mentor goes rouge and Turok is transferred into a new company sent to track down Kane. In case you’re wondering, yes that is a bit of a rip-off of Metal Gear Solid 3, but here’s where things take a turn. Turok’s ship is shot down on a planet full of dinosaurs. Why? Because dinosaurs are awesome that’s why.

What ensues is a first person shooter that is, you guessed it, middling. You get a standard set of weapons with assorted dual wielding possibilities plus a couple of low-tech alternatives: a bow and arrows, and a hunting knife. In most games those weapons would probably be a mild gimmick and little more, but here you’re actually better off using them than you would be charging around with the standard FPS combo of dual SMGs and a bad attitude.

The reason for this is that the targeting system is extremely difficult to control to the point where any attempts at shooting accurately is simply not worth the frustration in tense firefights or dinosaur ambushes. This also manages to ruin the bow, which would be a highly effective stealth and sniping tool if it weren’t so hard to aim. Even if you have the patience to use the bow effectively, the game treats finding ammo for it as some sort of reward for exploration. Arrows will only be found in secret areas, and if you run out, you can expect to spend a good deal of time combing levels you’d rather just breeze through looking for arrows. You can forget about picking up your spent arrows too. Once they’re gone they’re gone for good.

While the targeting is the biggest problem with Turok, the arrow annoyance is one of a bunch of other little issues that, for the most part, seem like results of developer inexperience rather than incompetence or some sort of demented grudge against the player. For one, Turok is a rather bouncy fellow from the way he walks and jumps to the way he climbs ladders. This, combined with the camera’s constant need to whoosh in and out of Turok’s head like some sort of indecisive poltergeist, makes for a rather nauseating experience. I, for one, had to take a number of breaks during gameplay to keep from ruining my favorite lounge chair.

Even though the knife is often the best weapon available for multiple situations the game throws at you, there’s a problem there as well. For some reason the special knife kills that are what actually make the knife useful and deadly must be initiated after an on-screen button prompt rather than just responding properly when you’re in range of a bad guy. This means that if you’re trying to use the knife in a frantic scuffle with a dino or trying to get a drop on a human enemy, you must wait for the prompt rather than relying on your own sense of timing. This generally makes using the knife a choppy and unintuitive experience.

On top of that, the game really seems to try to encourage stealth from the player. It gives you less health than most FPS protagonists and a number of silent and deadly weapon options. Even then it’s inevitable that Turok’s going to end up in a few big firefights and, it’s almost equally inevitable that the player will die once in a while during these big firefights because of limited, stealth-encouraging, health. Rather than getting sympathy in this situation in which you’ve basically died as a result of developer laziness, the game acts like it’s your fault for failing to live up to their expectations, shows you an annoyingly long load screen, and then dumps you back at whatever checkpoint you had the luck to have reached before. This can be up to 10 minutes of gameplay back from the firefight, and it can take multiple tries at times to figure out the best way to dispatch the regiment of enemies waiting for you up ahead. Needless to say, this got frustrating quickly.

There are also a few other little things like the level design, which is linear, boxy, boring, and just downright ugly. Touchstone seems to have put together a rather good voice cast including Timothy Olyphant (fresh off a game-related project in the Hitman movie) the black alien guy from Stargate, and home wrecking game show host Donnie Whalberg, but the sound quality of in game effects and dialogue is terrible for some reason.

Mostly Turok just gives you a general feeling of playing a game that was crafted with less than steady hands. A game made by a developer using you as a guinea pig so they can learn from their mistakes and make a better game next time. More power to them if they can get better. But did they have to sacrifice good ol’ Torok along the way?


By Zack Rovinsky


Review: Def Jam Icon

September 28, 2007


EA Chicago / Xbox 360, Playstation 3 / Mature


Anyone who’s ever witnessed a scuffle outside a trendy nightclub, taken a look at DMX’s arrest record, or sat through any number of movies where ass is kicked in a club setting knows that Hip-Hop and violence seem to find each other quite often. So, it was no great surprise when EA started making hip-hop fighting game series in a partnership with the Def Jam record label. It was surprising, however, that the series was actually good, thanks to the use of the developers behind the N64’s superb wrestling games. The Def Jam series has since evolved from wrestling game to brawler, to a stylized hybrid the likes of which we haven’t quite seen before known as Def Jam: Icon.


As with the previous games in the series, you make your own character with one of the better create-a-player modes you’ll find in any game. You’re a random dude who, after beating the crap out of a meathead in a club, is invited to work as an enforcer/producer for the record label owned by Curtis Carver, a once prominent force in the industry that has fallen on hard times. You’re soon introduced to the competition, Troy Dollar, played, in a downright confusing casting choice, by funnyman Anthony Anderson. You’re put right to work as a type of hired thug, and that part of your job doesn’t change at all as you progress up the ladder at the label. Even when you become a big-name producer, you’ll still be slapping around people to build your business. That’s right kids, every conflict in this game is solved by beating the holy hell out of those who would dare oppose you.


The fights themselves are set under a colored haze in environments that literally bounce to the beat. Each fighter picks a song from the licensed soundtrack and whoever is in command of the fight has their track of choice controlling the movements of the level. Using the environment’s movements and surges is essential to wining fights. Each stage has a number of points that make a dramatic movement at high points in the beat and can be used to deal a big blow to opponents. You also have some control over the environment as you can use a turntable-scratching gesture to trigger a high point and cause the stage to surge, hopefully hitting your nemesis. While this dynamic is certainly interesting for a time, you’ll need to pull it off over, and over, and over again to win all your fights, and there aren’t enough levels to keep it interesting.


The between fight setup is pretty much the same as last time with your guy being quickly told who he’s going to fight and why before being simply let loose like a bull in Pampalona. However, there is something new to do betwixt slobber-knockers besides shopping and playing dress-up with your hard fighting, hip-hop doppleganger, run a record label. Yes, your character is given control of a hip-hop label and, as a music producer, your primary duties are to sign artists, release albums, and beat the giblets out of people who get in the way of those first 2 activities. The music part of those duties are accomplished using the computer in your crib between fights. You will release albums from your stable of rappers, determine the marketing budget, then watch them shoot up the charts as you rake in the profits. You will also have to keep your artists happy by shelling out money for private planes, video games, and, occasionally, legal fees(seriously). As interesting as this may seem there isn’t all that much to do in running the business and what there is to do is generally idiot-proof.


If the career mode and straight up fighting isn’t so great how about online play? Alas, the game gets so unresponsive online it’s hardly worth the trouble. So much for that.


Even if the gameplay isn’t so great there are some positives here to keep people interested through the mediocre parts. The game looks great and has the same level of quality character models and graphics as Fight Night 3 with a sense of style that few games can match. Also, the soundtrack is great, if you’re into that sort of thing, and is completely uncensored. Every dirty word is there to make your pugilistic experience that much better.


If you like rap and fighting games and wish they could be somehow combined, then this is your game. It’s worth a rental even for fighting fans who are looking for something a little different. Just be warned that the experience looses steam quickly.



By Zack Rovinsky





360 PC Teen

A Pikmin knock-off that starts slow and suffers from iffy controls and a lack of  inovation. Sports more graphical fog than should be seen in a next-gen game.




360 PC Mature

A top-notch shooter with beautiful, deeply immersive settings and deep, nuanced gameplay. But the story isn’t all it could’ve been and it fades at the end.



Spider-Man 3

All Platforms Teen

Just as disappointing as the movie was. It’s essentially the same game they put out for the last 2 movies with the handicap of the 3rd movie’s story.



Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The 80’s

PS2 Teen

Nothing more than a cheap and dirty cash-in with less songs than, and recycled characters and venues from Guitar Hero II. Luckily the song list is good.



NCAA Football 08

360 PS3 PS2 Xbox Everyone

Fun additions to the already engrossing and newly renamed Campus Legend mode, and a robust set of replay options keep the college game at the top.



All-Pro Football 2K8

360 PS3 Everyone 10+

2K is back to challenge Madden without the NFL license. The gameplay and creation mode are sharp but there’s very little to do beyond that.



Madden NFL 08

All Platforms Everyone

All this year’s additions are gameplay-based and most work well. The rest is still the same old Madden. If you like it you’ll buy it and if you don’t you won’t.



God Of War II

PS2 Mature

No one does crazy hacking and slashing like Kratos, and he’s still the best with huge, inspired boss battles and a robust combat system that makes every fight fun.



Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

All Everyone 10+

If you’ve ever wanted to tag along and perform menial tasks with Harry and his chums here’s your game. If you want something to actually play look elsewhere.



By Zack Rovinsky 

Forza Motorsport 2

360 Everyone

The best sim racer, pure and simple. The races are tight and intense, the tracks and cars look great, the career mode is deep, and customization options abound.



Grand Theft Auto:Vice City Stories

PS2 PSP Mature

There are some interesting additions here, such as expanded hand-to-hand combat, but the PS2-era formula is wearing thin and this story is the thinnest of the series.


WarioWare: Smooth Moves

Wii Everyone 10+

A ton of fun with friends and even alone. The mini games are as wacky as ever, and the form system helps the wiimote movements feel right for each game.



Red Steel

Wii Teen

Imprecise controls and lackluster AI keeps the first Wii FPS from living up to the console’s promise. Most likely to go down as an interesting Wii experiment.



Need For Speed: Carbon

All Platforms Everyone 10+

More of the same from the top street racing franchise, not that that’s a bad thing. The racing is still fun, and the autosculpting and canyon races are nice additions.




PS2 Mature

The Japanese take on GTA has its moments: a good story, RPG elements, an ear-scalding amount of swearing, but the targeting system leaves much to be desired.



WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2007

PS2 360 Teen

The control, graphics, and creation system benefit from next-gen power but, maddening gameplay inconsistencies and horrific load times mar the experience.



Sonic The Hedgehog

360 PS3 Everyone 10+

Between the mind-numbing load times, the unwatchable cutscenes, and the moronic sidequests. The same camera and control problems still haunt Sonic in 3D.



NBA Street: Homecourt

360 PS3 Everyone

Still the best streetball game and still a ton of fun. The homecourt challenge mode is a solid and intuitive career mode and the video packages are facinating.


Kingdom Hearts II

PS2 Everyone 10+

A great sequel that fixes all the problems with the original and adds enough to keep the formula interesting. The best of both worlds from Square and Disney.



Tomb Raider: Legend

360 PS2 Xbox PC Teen

Learning from the mistakes of Angel Of Darkness, Lara’s latest romp revitalizes a faltering series while borrowing liberally from other games, but in a good way.



Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

360 PC Teen

A possible sneak peak at the future console RPGs. Features a huge sandbox environment with tons of stuff to do. Purchasable extras may rub some the wrong way.



Rumble Roses XX

360 Mature

Slightly improved gameplay and visuals can’t redeem this flimsy excuse to show busty women in skimpy outfits and vaguely homoerotic wrestling situations.



The Godfather

PS2 Xbox PC 360 Mature

The largest game budget ever was not wasted in making one of the greatest movies ever into a game. A great deal of fun despite the issues that accompany any GTA clone.



Driver: Parallel Lines

PS2 Xbox Mature

Largely succeeds in taking the series back to its wheelman roots, but the on-foot portions are still trying to be too much like GTA, albeit with terrible audio.



Onimusha: Dawn Of Dreams

PS2 Mature

True to the Onimusha formula of hack-n-slash gameplay and spectacular cutscenes. The cutscenes are still the best, but the hacking and slashing is getting old.



The Outfit

360 Mature

A cartoony take on WWII that is more strategy than shooting. The formula is interesting, and works best online. Offline, the AI can’t support the gameplay.



Arena Football

PS2 Xbox Everyone 10+

Even for fans of Arena Football, the game is too thin in features and unbalanced in gameplay to provide much enjoyment. Non-arena fans will just be confused.



By Zack Rovinsky