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Headsup: Variety is the Spice of Any Gamer’s Life

Okay, so I missed a couple of weeks doing game-release headsups. Things happen (I’m looking at you, X-Men). With the holidays fast approaching and the impending debut of Microsoft’s next-gen console, the gaming goodness is getting hurled at us with incredible frequency. Here’s a quick hitlist of this week’s goodness.

It’s a big week for extending franchises (true of most weeks any more, alas), so we’ll start there. It’s fall, and that means that baseball’s tyranny in the world of sports is nearly over. Hockey and football titles have been out for a little while already, leaving this week for NCAA basketball to make its debut. EA’s March Madness 2006 drops on Xbox and PS2. If you’re a big fan of collegiate roundball, this one’s all for you. Gameplay tweaks promise to make your CPU-controlled defense a little more effective, which ought to level the difficulty curve from last year’s game and open the game up to more casual players. The dynasty mode lets you work players through training camps; juggle the tricky objectives of recruiting, discipline, and game prep; and set your non-conference schedule to pit your squad against the most prestigious opponents.

The other big sports franchise hitting this week is SSX On Tour. This extremely over-the-top snowboarding game has enjoyed three very successful installments so far, and this one looks to be no exception. The addition of skiers instead of the purely snowboard-focused prior installments opens up some new options for veterans of the series, and the new art style, ripped straight from the bored study-hall doodles of that one skater everybody knew in high school, gives the game a very raw feel…much more underground than the slick, polished, commercial-sponsored races of the previous two installments. This meshes well with the game’s new focus on building your own boarder from the ground up. Rather than choose one of the cast of colorful SSX characters, career mode now lets you create a custom competitor, working your way through the novice circuit and bunny slopes to become a “Black Diamond Rockstar.” The familiar cast of characters still show up as competitors throughout the career mode, though, so odds are good you’ll bump into your favorite on the slopes at some point. The trick system has been simplified a bit, and the game’s focus has shifted to more complicated objective-based runs (perform so many feet of rail grinding, spend a certain amount of time in the air, etc.) rather than the straightforward “do as many tricks as is humanly possible before you get to the bottom” runs of the previous games. Those runs still exist, mind you, but there’s a little more variety in what you’re being asked to do this time around.

Moving away from the wide world of sports, we move to shooting things, and this week’s shooter entries couldn’t be more different. For the PS2 only, SOCOM 3 gives fans of tactical squad-based military action something to cheer about. This series continues to be the only real contender against the various Tom Clancy-derived military shooter entries, and the competition is a wonderful thing for fans of the genre. With thirty weapons, twenty weapon attachments, vehicles (complete with mounted machine guns and grenade launchers), and the addition of swimming, this new installment promises to really up the ante. For those with a PSP, the game will communicate with PSP’s SOCOM: Bravo Team title, unlocking additional mission features and other goodies. Multiplayer has always been a strong point in the series, and this one is no different, with an elaborate ladder system to track progress and match you against competitors of similar skill. Alas, according to a report from Kotaku, the game is requiring that you input credit card information in order to participate in clan play, so be prepared to cough up your personal intel in order to go play SEAL and shoot folks in competitive team play.

On the far other end of the shooter spectrum, we get Serious Sam 2 on the Xbox and PC, sequel to the hugely popular releases of 2001 and 2002. It looks to maintain the arcade-style feel of the older offerings, complete with quirky sense of humor and cartoonish graphics. Gameplay looks to be the same over-the-top trigger-happy goodness of the original, with some nice graphical updates and a wider variety of weapons to wield. If you enjoyed the first installment (and we did), you’re probably going to like this one, though early reviews indicate that there are some framerate issues and some repetitive level design that detract from the sequel and make it less satisfying than the original.

This week’s RPGs are sort of a mixed bag. The eagerly anticipated Digital Devil Saga 2 continues the Shin Megami Tensei franchise with more freaky hellish sci-fi netherworld action, while Sony updates the SNES classic Romancing SaGa to full 3D on the PS2 for those looking for a nostalgic kick. Either game promises dozens and dozens of hours of play, though only the die-hard are likely to find much to love about the revamped SaGA game, with its very open-ended quest system and minimal plot structure. It’s a game where one goes level-grinding for the sheer sake of powering up characters, and not because there’s some impending doom on the universe that requires you to become a demigod and save the planet (again). On the other hand, the new SMT game promises to continue the series’ fantastic storytelling and truly unique style. The previous games are dark, dark affairs, where the story is more likely to begin at the end of the world than to launch some heroic attempt to avert it.

I’d like to take a moment, in closing, to express my irritation with Capcom over their new title Devil Kings, originally published in Japan as Sengoku Basara. The original version includes sixteen playable characters in a gonzo over-the-top version of feudal Japan, taking historical accuracy out behind the shed and beating it senseless. Full anime cutscenes. Gunslinging samurai that will bust out a chain gun and mow down hordes of advancing horsemen. Just batshit insane fun, made all the moreso by the vague tie-ins to historical feudal Japan. Fearing that all of us stupid gaijin wouldn’t get the joke, the game was repackaged, playable characters cut to twelve, anime cutscenes totally removed, and all reference to feudal Japan replaced with generic fantasy bullshit. Now it’s just a vaguely interesting version of Dynasty Warriors. You take out all the shit that makes it over-the-top and entertaining, plus restrict our play options? WTF? Hit us with the straight shot, Capcom. We can take it. Hell, I even enjoy playing some of the import RPGs with the Japanese voice acting, and can’t understand a fucking word of it. Bring that noise. Don’t punk out and give us dumbed-down bullshit because you don’t think we’ll “get” your edgy alt-history stuff.

Buy March Madness 06 from Amazon: (PS2, Xbox)
Buy SSX on Tour from Amazon: (GameCube, PSP, PS2, Xbox)
Buy SOCOM 3 from Amazon: (PS2)

Buy Serious Sam 2 from Amazon: (PC, Xbox)
Buy Digital Devil 2 from Amazon: (PS2)
Buy Romancing SaGa from Amazon: (PS2)
Buy Devil Kings from Amazon: (PS2)