MASS EFFECT sci-fi /role-playing (Xbox 360) Rating: NNNNN
Fans of complex science fiction like Battlestar Galactica will rejoice at the release of Mass Effect, an epic role-playing game from Edmonton-based studio Bioware. If you think that's geeky, you're right: gleefully so, as all sci-fi standard are accounted for, from a federation of aliens to a reawakened ancient civilization to a dire threat to organic life.
Gameplay is comfortably familiar: galactic exploration and "away-team" missions where you employ a massive array of weapons, technology and mystical powers, all stunningly rendered. These options are the trickiest aspect of play to adjust to, but they supply the detail for the hardcore crowd.
What sets Mass Effect apart is how it puts the role back in role-playing games, throwing you into a mix of complex politics, morality and intrigue like you've never experienced before. Forget cinematics - you are the star of this story, thanks to a unique "conversation wheel" from which you chose paths of dialogue in every encounter. Direction is top-notch, too, framing shots to highlight the action. The game creates the most complete universe and immersive story imaginable. Simply put, you will not find a more compelling game than Mass Effect this season. ID
BEAUTIFUL KATAMARI rolling adventure (XBox 360) Rating: NNN
A few years back, XBox fans got a really good reason to be envious of their PlayStation counterparts. Katamari Damacy rolled quietly onto gamers' screens and continued to wrap up more and more fans into its ball of success.
For the uninitiated, Katamari is one of the simplest, yet most entertaining games ever made. You are a prince and your mission is to roll up balls of stuff from Earth. When the ball reaches the right size, the King of all Cosmos, who spews waves of rainbows from his mouth, tosses it into the sky, where it becomes a star or a planet. The stuff you roll up starts small - think thumbtacks - but as the ball grows you can roll up people, cars and buildings. Sounds silly, but it's really incredible fun.
So where does Beautiful Katamari fit into this picture? Bringing the game to the 360 is really its greatest achievement. It's pretty much a rehash of Katamari 2, its gameplay, world and objects mostly recycled. There's no distinguishable upgrade to the graphics engine to harness the 360's power. A few new multi-player options includs Xbox Live integration, but nothing adds much to the solo fun.
If you've played Katamari on a PlayStation, don't bother with this one. Otherwise, you owe it to yourself to spend some time rolling Katamaris over the holidays. RM
FINAL FANTASY XII: REVENANT WINGS real-time strategy (DS) Rating: NNN
Taking off a year past the point Final Fantasy XII on the PS2 ended, this portable adventure takes to the high skies of the world of Ivalice. The main characters, Vaan and Penelo, lead their own band of sky pirates who end up protecting an old and ancient race of legend, previously hidden from the world below.
The Gambit system returns, though in an overly simplistic manner, and Espers are summoned via a License Ring, which vaguely reminds me of FFX's job system. The game has a very in-battle feel, which is nice but can lead to some control difficulties when too many sprites clutter on the screen.
It's not perfect, but fans will enjoy this not-quite-real-time strategy in this story that revisits familiar characters and places, with a finely woven musical score. JC
MY WORD COACH educational (DS) Rating: NNN
While this game isn't bad, it feels too much like a cadaverous version of a more fleshed-out game. Filling in missing letters, matching meanings and playing a tile-drop game with Bookworm origins are some of the training exercises you do on an daily basis to keep your verbal skills up.
It features 16,800 words from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, and one thing I kept wishing for were alternate meanings and origins of words.
I'd wait until the price comes down, but if you think that your vocabulary could be ameliorated, this is a nice training tool to keep less frequently used 20-dollar words on the tip of a normally 10-cent tongue.
Also available in French and Spanish editions. JC
UNCHARTED: DRAKE'S FORTUNE action/platform (PlayStation 3) Rating: NNN
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a blockbuster adventure packed with jungles, tombs, puzzles and head-busting action. You play Nathan Drake, a morally questionable but lovable modern-day treasure hunter searching for the secret stash of his ancestor, original Renaissance man Sir Francis Drake, which just might be the lost gold of El Dorado. The plot is propelled by snappy sarcastic dialogue delivered in standout voice work throughout, keeping the summer-flick feel.
While it's definitely entertaining, the actual gameplay gets interrupted by frequent cinematic-cut scenes. Ironic, huh? What's more, Uncharted's lush environments are some of the most fully realized in recent memory, which only makes it more galling when you can't do things like crouch or swim downwards. Why strive for realistic worlds if we can't interact with them in a realistic way?
The game makes up for this in the action with clever AI, crafty enemies that actually work together to sneak up on you. Adds up to a good time, but one you'll forget once the lights come up. ID