Panzer Dragoon Orta

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Panzer Dragoon Orta (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a rail shooter exclusive to the original Xbox. The last Panzer Dragoon game released to date (and likely ever) it acts as a swan song of the series – a great entry to go out on.

You play as Orta, who rides a bio-mechanical dragon that shoots the hell out of everything. The story is, well, a little complicated, really strange, and has a dash of weirdness only Japanese games can provide. Like most rail shooters, your focus is placed on lining up shots and so you do not have much control over the dragon’s flight path – that isn’t to say you can’t steer slightly but it’s not the focus here. You have two main attacks – tap A for a stream of individual shots or press and hold A to fire lock on shots. Both attacks feel good and are appropriate in different scenarios although I will admit that I used lock on way more than the individual shots. Enemies can and will come at you from any direction, and you can snap the camera 90 degrees in either direction by pulling the left or right triggers – this is extremely intuitive and keeps you on your toes. At the end of each stage, there is a boss battle and (if you finish that without dying) you are treated to a scoring screen where you see statistics on accuracy, enemies killed, time taken, etc. and you are then given a letter grade. This is perfect for going back and trying to best your previous score. I have to finally mention here that the difficulty level here is a bit high – a lot of reviewers criticized it on release for punishing difficulty, and I was already having issues on the second level on easy. This is a challenging game for sure, so be prepared to die a lot when you start.

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Visually, the game looks wonderful. Bright colors, open levels, and a rock solid frame rate. Are there better looking games on Xbox? Sure, but not many, and much fewer if you restrict it to games that have such a solid framerate. Water effects are especially nice here, and I really appreciated the way they used water in the levels I played.

Sound effects are really terrific – laser blasts crackle, explosions boom, and warning bells give you a sense of urgency. Music is also quite good, with the soundtrack upbeat and electronic – it makes you feel like you’re in an arcade. Voice work was the original Japanese, which I thought was a nice touch even if it makes it a bit harder to judge if it was good or not.

Verdict: Play again! This is definitely challenging, but the bright graphics and the arcade like stage nature of the game will keep me coming back.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

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Red Faction II

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Red Faction was a defining game of the Playstation 2 for me. The single player story line (which took heavy inspiration from Total Recall) was excellent, the technology that allowed you to blow holes into the environment (GeoMod!) was impressive, the weapon selection was great, and multiplayer was a blast. For some unknown reason, I never picked up Red Faction II (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) despite the fact that I was aware of it and I loved the previous entry – I have no idea why. Unlike the first entry, the story has you playing as a super soldier right away – no lowly miner gunning down tons of enemies this time. I don’t know if the story will improve, but based on the first hour or so of the game I would bet that it doesn’t. It’s not offensively bad or anything – but it’s missing the charm of the previous entry. Thankfully, the shooting is just as good if not better than the original, and just so that you’re reminded that this is a mid-2000s title, dual wielding weapons is a primary feature. Just like the original, there is a single player campaign as well as multiplayer – although only locally, no network play. The campaign was certainly varied enough, with you not just doing typical FPS levels, but there was also a set piece heavy section in the beginning where you run the gun turret on a plane – a nice change of pace and it was fun without overstaying its welcome. Menus were intuitive and buttons were almost always what you expected – fit and finish is top notch.

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Visually, the game looks great on the original Xbox. Models animate well, explosions look great, and most of the texture work is above average for the time. The only time I noticed any slowdown was when activating the night vision mode – otherwise performance was solid. GeoMod is also a great addition with you being able to blow holes in walls, and the physics for the debris created is pretty good for the time. This is a good looking game, not the best on Xbox but definitely competent.

Sound is really all over the place here. Sound effects are excellent for the most part, and the voice acting is generally acceptable to good. The voice acting had levels all over the place though – one person would sound like they were whispering while another was shouting in your ear. I have no idea what was going on in the studio when they recorded this stuff. Music is another downfall as it’s completely forgettable – I just stopped playing 30 minutes ago and wouldn’t be able to recognize a track if my life depended on it.

Verdict: Play again. While I still think the original is a better game, this was pretty fun.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

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Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an arcade flight game, with a focus on action. Set in a fictional 1930s, you take the role of Nathan Zachary – leader of a group of pirates. This is widely regarded as a cult classic for the original Xbox – unfortunately with the shut down of Xbox Live I’m unable to try any of the multiplayer features, so this will only be covering the single player campaign.

You start the game with a cut scene that I’m sure was quite good for the time, but has not aged well. You apparently lost your plane gambling and someone has decided to collect. Nathan wakes up in bed with some woman whose name we don’t know – he dashes off and recaptures his plane and the game starts. The whole intro sequence feels very dated, not just because of the cinematic, but because of the tone – yes he’s a womanizer I suppose, but adding the woman to his bed added nothing to the game and feels a bit tacky. Once you get past the tutorial, it plays very similarly to other games in the genre – fly missions to destroy enemy bases/equipment, or fly protection for your allies. Doing this, you will shoot down tons of enemy planes (don’t worry, the pilots always safely parachute out) and do a lot of maneuvers with your plane. It feels very arcadey but controls really well – gameplay reminds me of Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter – and its always fun to do dogfights in these types of games.

Visually, the game is stunning. There are a lot of titles on the original Xbox that hold up well and this is no exception. Your plane has some heat wash coming out of the back, draw distances are huge, models are fairly well detailed, and water looks great. This game looks and runs fantastically – I couldn’t ask for more.

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Audio is also excellent – voice work is better than average, sound effects are clear and correct, and the music is wonderful. The main theme as well as the background music during gameplay are just perfect, with an orchestral theme that seems plucked from an Indiana Jones movie. It all just fits perfectly. One complaint though, is that I heard the same excellent tracks repeatedly, so I wonder if the lack of soundtrack diversity will get grating after spending more time with the title.

Verdict: Play again! This was a lot of fun, and I can see finishing the story.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

NFL Fever 2004

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In celebration of the start of football season, this week’s entry is NFL Fever 2004 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia). Released for the original Xbox, it was part of Microsoft’s push of sports games onto the platform – there were 4 NFL Fever titles released, with this being the final entry. While sports games are typically not something I seek out, I find Microsoft’s entry into the console market fascinating and so I had to try this relic from that time.

Since I had limited time with the game, I jumped into some quick tutorials and then a quick game. The tutorials were fairly basic but they give you gist of controls (running, passing, tackling), and were easy to skip though or come back to if required. After that, it was on to the single game mode. I picked the 1990 Eagles (a nice touch that some ‘retro’ teams were included along with the current lineup at release time) and of course squared off against the 93 Cowboys. Controls were pretty good in general, passing and running felt intuitive from the beginning, but I will admit that there was a strangeness to the timing on the field that I wasn’t able to pin down. I was either moving a bit too fast or a bit too slow based on controller input and it felt – well, wrong. Overall the game was fun for what it was, but other than the retro teams, it didn’t wow me.
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Visually this is a great showpiece for the original Xbox. Characters are detailed and animate well, and the field looks great. Menus are clean and clear and communicate very well what you need to do. This is definitely some of Microsoft Game Studios best visual work on the platform.

Solid sounding hits, roars from the crowd, and believable announcers make sound effects a bright point here. There are some licensed music tracks for the menus, which were acceptable especially for the time, but they got a bit stale during my time with the game. I didn’t check to see if the game supported custom soundtracks, but if it does it’d be a welcome addition.

Overall, this is a solid title from my layman’s perspective. The controls feel good, there are a ton of modes and teams, and the whole thing feels very polished. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information online about the series so it’s hard to say how well it did for Microsoft financially. The NFL license went to EA in 2004 and has been renewed since – killing any opportunity for competition and leaving NFL Fever as a historical artifact of Microsoft’s first console.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Nothing against the game itself, but sports aren’t really my thing.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb and Game Spot.

Greg Hastings’ Tournament Paintball

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Greg Hastings’ Tournament Paintball (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is something I normally would have zero interest in. I’ve never played paintball, and while I don’t think the game itself is boring or uninteresting, video games based on it are usually garbage. If you are looking for a laugh, check out PC Gamer’s review of Extreme Paintbrawl – a perfect example of this. This game is an exclusive title for the original Xbox – as I’m trying to collect every original Xbox exclusive, I had to pick up a copy when I found it in a bargain bin. After purchase, I did some research and apparently this was a cult hit – it was Xbox Live enabled and supported voice chat. Now that the Xbox Live servers for the original Xbox are offline, I tried the game single player to see what I thought.

Being that this is ostensibly a multiplayer focused sports title, the single player doesn’t seem to have anything close to what would be called a story – there is a series of tournaments to undertake, but that’s it. I’m fine with this, as I really don’t think this game needs any kind of narrative structure to make it interesting. You can do some superficial character creation by picking one of 5 or 6 prebuilt character models, and then assign upgrade points to some skills to your liking. You start as part of a team, and can go to tournaments to earn trophies and money which can be used to purchase upgrades and cosmetics such as clothing. There is also a leveling mechanic where you gain experience and levels for successfully completing a tournament and then get additional points to buff your character. This is honestly fairly basic, but it works and fits in well.

Tournaments are selected on a map screen and have you paired against an opposing team for best of 5 matches. Because it’s paintball, you are eliminated from the match in one hit, but the game has a ‘cheat’ mechanic where you can do a small quick time event (similar to power meters in golf games) that will usually grant you another shot – with the exception that if you get caught cheating by a ref, your team forfeits the entire match. I thought this was a neat idea and made the matches more interesting. I’m not sure if this exists online, but if it does I imagine it would be quite frustrating. AI opponents were fairly tough on the normal setting, and I had to turn them down to easy to finish the first tournament which was a nice surprise. The movement and the guns felt nice and it worked well as a shooter in general. My one gripe with the controls was that in order to reload you needed to hit the black button – thankfully reloading wasn’t needed most of the time.

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Graphics were fairly average for Xbox – the framerate was good, but the models and environments looked like they could easily run on PS2 or Gamecube. Really nothing spectacular here, but nothing bad enough to dock it – it’s simply average.

Sound effects here are pretty bad. I get that paintball guns don’t make much noise, but it was impossible to hear when opponents were firing. The lack of good effects also made the guns feel…. weird. There isn’t any visible recoil (again, paintball guns) but that matched with the lack of sound made firing unsatisfying. Music was OK, reminding me of Tony Hawk or Amped soundtracks, and the game does support custom soundtracks – which is a nice touch.

Overall, I had some fun with Greg Hastings’ Tournament Paintball but the lack of multiplayer makes this a bit uninteresting this many years after its release.

Verdict: Back on the shelf – while not a terrible game, it’s not something I can see myself returning to.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

JSRF: Jet Set Radio Future

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JSRF: Jet Set Radio Future (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a unique game – no where else have I seen similar combinations of art style, music, and insane story come together so well. I’ve also never before experienced a game that I should love, but just don’t quite.

So where to begin with this one – let’s start with the art style and visuals. The game is celshaded and frankly still looks great. I bet if they just increased the resolution it would look right at home on modern systems. One of the main themes of the game is graffiti and the characters and environments take a lot of cues from that style. I don’t know exactly how to put it into words, but while playing, the game seems like graffiti art in motion.

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The game itself plays like a Tony Hawk type rollerblading game –¬† the controls are definitely arcadey and you grind on rails and other parts of the environment for what seems like forever. You are awarded points for doing tricks, and it all feels great. The tricks however aren’t really the focus of the game. In each level you have to spray paint graffiti onto specially marked surfaces to achieve a goal – in the first level I played it was to get a rival rollerblading gang (seriously) to come out of the shadows and challenge you for intruding on their turf. You can paint by pulling the right trigger while in range of a target and you need to collect spray paint cans throughout the level to keep the meter up – run out of paint and you’ll have to hunt for more cans. Thankfully, there are tons of them distributed throughout the levels so I never found myself running out. My one complaint about the gameplay is that when you start it isn’t clear where you need to go or what you need to do – you’re dumped into what I assume is a central hub with no indication of where you are supposed to go. I think I figured out what the correct first level was, but the game never told me.

Finally, music and sound in this game are very good. The sound effects and most of the voice acting are good and fit in well with the rest of the game. The music is widely regarded as fantastic and while it fits, it’s not my taste. I will say that the game lets you select tracks to listen to and there is a large selection – I found a few that I liked better than the rest and was able to listen to them which was a nice touch.

So the sound, gameplay, and visuals are all good and they work together but I’m still not super into it. I can’t really say why. I never did particularly enjoy any of the Tony Hawk games even though I recognize them as quality – maybe I just don’t enjoy these types of games in general. I will say that I did enjoy my time with the game for the most part, it just didn’t click with me.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. I may revisit at some point, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

 

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) was released in 2003 for several platforms – I own and played the Xbox version, but it is also available on Gamecube and PS2.

The story starts out in the past, with you playing the role of the prince. His father, the king, is conquering an Indian city and enlists the help of a shady Vizier to take the city by surprise. I’ll be honest, the story seems a little elaborate and didn’t draw me in at all. While the direction of the story is a bit lacking, presentation was done very well. You have flash backs and flash forwards at certain points and the cut scenes never overstay their welcome.

Basic gameplay has you doing a lot of platforming and some melee combat. The combat is… acceptable. It doesn’t feel particularly deep, but it’s competent enough to make the game a little more interesting. Platforming is the bread and butter of this game. You can do a ton of traversal maneuvers and the rooms are puzzle like in nature, forcing you to use all of them. The camera has a first person and wide landscape mode that you can switch to on the fly, which is great, but it’s still hard to accurately judge some jumps which leads to more trial and error than it should. Thankfully the major mechanic in this game helps a lot in mitigating it – it is reversing time. Let’s say you made a bad jump and fell to your death – if you have some sand left in your dagger, you can pull the left trigger and reverse time to a desired point and try again. This is a cool idea that is executed perfectly – it makes the game stand out and not devolve into just another action platformer. Despite it’s age (almost 13 years old at the time of this writing) it feels like mechanically it could be a new release.

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Sound is good but not great – nothing that’ll blow you away but nothing terrible either. I did notice in my setup that the voice over audio was frequently way, way too low to make out and there wasn’t an option for subtitles that I saw. Graphics are very nice, especially for an Xbox release. They did something right with the engine, because there is tons of AA and not a single jagged line did I see in my time with the game.

Verdict: Play again! This holds up amazingly well and looks great on Xbox. Well worth a revisit.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Sega GT 2002

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Sega GT 2002 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a simulation racer released for the original Xbox. If you’ve played the more popular Gran Turismo 3, you should know what to expect. There are several modes available when you start the game, including a replay theater, quick race, chronicle mode, and the main campaign. I only played the main campaign as that’s the only mode that is interesting to me personally in these types of games.

In the campaign you are given $13,000 to purchase your first car (which won’t buy you much) and then it’s off to the races. The races offer fairly realistic physics and have a difference from Gran Turismo – your car takes damage. This damage is automatically repaired at the end of the race by deducting from your winnings or any money you have in your account. There is no modeling of the damage you take, just a meter. This makes the game play much more cautiously than Gran Turismo – you don’t want to smash into an opponent to get a head as it’ll cost you money. When you’re not racing, you can upgrade your car, buy new cars – of which there are quite a few from at least a dozen manufacturers- and view your trophies in your garage. This was also a difference from Gran Turismo and one I wish that game had. Your garage has the trophies from your wins displayed, but when you win you are allowed to snap pictures from the replay of the race and have them appear in the garage. It’s a nice touch, and makes you feel like your a real racer.

Controls are good, if a bit touchy, and that’s exactly what you need in this type of game. I will say it was a bit strange to be accelerating using the A button instead of a trigger, but I got used to it quickly. Sound is good for the most part, but the drag racing event had some horrible notes in the background music. The music on the menu screens is very serene and I liked it quite a bit.

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Graphics are a mixed bag – while they look good, especially for an early Xbox title, there is an expectation that racing games should look good – and by this standard they are simply OK. Gran Turismo 3 looks as good if not better, and that game came out a year before this one on a ‘weaker’ system.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Sega GT 2002, but if I’m going to play a simulation racer from that time period, I’m going to play Gran Turismo even if it’s just nostalgia talking.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. This is a competent racer, but I have better ones available in my collection. If you don’t have a PS2 and only own an Xbox then this is a great alternative to Gran Turismo 3.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Grabbed by the Ghoulies

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Grabbed by the Ghoulies(Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is the first title developed by Rare and published by Microsoft after Microsoft purchased the studio. Even though I never owned an Xbox during it’s original run, I remember being aware of this game and how important to both Microsoft and Rare it was. That partnership has, well, soured over time with Rare devoting most of it’s time to Kinect titles in the sunset years of the Xbox 360 and not creating creative new properties like it had done from its inception. Not all of these properties worked or were good, but they were almost always different than what was normally on the market.

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Enough about history, lets get into the game at hand. Grabbed by the Ghoulies is meant to be appropriate for younger audiences and I feel that it mostly succeeds in this. It isn’t too hard and while it does have a spooky vibe, the art style takes away any edge. The game is a basic brawler with a strange control scheme. You attack in the direction that you hold the right analog stick. Camera controls, which are normally the right analog stick, are moved to the triggers. This works fairly well, but I never got used to it in my hour with the game. I’m sure over time it becomes a non-issue. You can pick up and attack with items in the environment. You move room to room through a haunted mansion, where the basic game play loop is this: go into a room, the doors lock, fight enemies or find and item to unlock the door, then go to the next room. I didn’t get bored with this during my time with the game, but I can see this basic formula wearing thin 3 or 4 hours in.

The graphics look quite nice, with a cel shaded appearance. I think this helps most games age gracefully, and this is no exception. Other than some textures being low res (par for the course in 2003), the graphics look fine even by today’s standards. The music is fitting, very whimsical and spooky sounding, and sound effects fit right in. Even though this is clearly a kids game, I found myself having quite a bit of fun with it.

Other than the main story, there are separate challenges that you can unlock by finding collectibles in your play through of the main game – it’s nice to see this as it adds some replay value to a game that is relatively short.

Verdict: Play again! This was pretty fun and is apparently fairly short – I think I’ll play this around Halloween this year and who knows, maybe I’ll finish it that time.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Amped 2

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I was never very interested in sports games, and extreme sports games doubly so. I knew a lot of people who play and enjoy these types of games, so there is clearly some broad appeal, but I’ve never been drawn to them myself. I say this to give the reader some context into my thoughts on Amped 2 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia).

Amped 2 is an original Xbox exclusive released in 2003 by Microsoft Game Studios. The game take a decidedly arcade sports approach, which for snowboarding is a perfect fit. You can select a snowboarder, customize their look and board, and take them out on the mountain to perform tricks for points. That’s pretty much the entire game however the developers managed to mix it up a fair amount by not only having a massive amount of courses¬† but different challenges and scenarios to play through as well.

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The graphics are very nice for the original Xbox – high detail character models and some great looking courses. Some of the textures are a bit muddy and low res, but considering the time it was released (2003) they are more than acceptable.

The sound effects and music are all very fitting, but I didn’t care for the music – it’s mostly licensed and not my taste. According to Wikipedia, you can use your own MP3s if you don’t care for the soundtrack which is a nice feature.

The controls feel good for the most part, but there is some definite issues with the analog sticks on the Xbox – the dead zones are pretty large by today’s standards and balancing on a rail never felt quite right to me.

Overall, if you have an original Xbox and are interested in snowboarding games, I think this would be a good one to try. It’s just not for me.

Verdict: Back on the shelf.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb