Between bike rides and sporadic bursts of effort towards redoing all the trimwork in a guestroom, I've been getting a lot of gaming in lately. And nearly all of it has been spent with these three games, two of which I rented from Gamefly, the third I downloaded for $10 from Xbox Live Arcade.
Novadrome (X360 Live Arcade)
This is a downloadable Live Arcade game that essentially involves repetitive arena battles with cars that resemble futuristic R.C.-style vehicles. I definitely consider this game worthy of the 800 Microsoft Points it costs to download, yet I also feel like it has a lot of wasted potential. The game contains a bevy of cars, courses, and gameplay modes yet each and every match usually boils down to a "kill 'em all" strategy. This is because no matter what the gameplay event is (Hounded, Beacon Blast, Survivor, Wrecking Ball, and Human Race to a lesser extent) the winner is not the driver who collects the most pods or navigates the course the fastest or reaches the most gates, but it's always the person with the most points. And the best way to get points is to kill the competition. Each time you destroy an enemy car you steal half of their total points. This means their is no incentive to follow the goal of the specific event. Instead, just let the A.I. cars worry about finding the checkpoints or collecting the pods. You'll just steal their points by blowing them up anyway. This is unfortunate, but somewhat forgiveable as the game is still fun to play.
The A.I. of the enemy cars ranges from very good to awful depending on the event and whether or not a "Boss" is on the map. It's also a long game. There are over 50 events to play through to complete the standard career mode (20 Achievement Points) and then you'll have to play through all 50 again on Supernova difficulty to earn an additional 30 Achievement Points. No thanks. I played it through once on Medium difficulty and that was enough. There's also an Arcade Challenge and Free Play mode, as well as Multiplayer, but aside from using Arcade Challenge to earn a few more Achievements there's really no incentive to play after getting through Career Mode once. It's fun but eventually it's repetition does grow tiresome. Worth $10, but not a penny more.
Ninety-Nine Nights (X360)
I popped this in the other day and I have to admit that I have no idea what the allure of games like this (and especially Dynasty Warriors) is. You basically pick a character, charge into battle, and maniacally mash the buttons to perform a number of snazzy attacks that -- and I'm not kidding here -- lay waste to hundreds of on-screen enemies. Yes, it is indeed impressive to see an army of nearly a thousand goblins come stampeding over a hill straight towards you, but it requires precious little skill to defeat them all. The brain-deadedness I feel playing games like this is somewhat offset by the beauty of the game and the fact that many of the combo attacks available are quite artistic in their own right. The problem I'm having with N3 is with the way in which the game is meant to be played. You're supposed to play through the missions repeatedly to try and earn higher ranks before moving on and, as a result further level up your character. The problem with this is that I was getting all A and S ranks on my first attempt so I never replayed any missions. Then, finally, I reach Mission 6 and can't even get halfway through it because my character isn't strong enough. So I go back and replay a couple missions, level up, and find a better sword. I return to Mission 6 and make it all the way to the end. And then die. And there is no in-game save so I have to replay the entire mission over again. In some games this is forgivable, but on a mission that contains several cinematics and major set-pieces there is no reason why an auto-save feature wasn't implemented. The urge to play this game long enough to earn a single Achievement is fading fast.
N3 can be frustrating and mindless at times, but it is far better suited for my "western taste" than the Dynasty Warriors games. For starters, the game is very impressive visually. The graphics and number of enemies that can be displayed are most impressive. It certainly makes the Xbox 360 version Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires look like an early PS2 game. Also, and this is a big also, the character names and story elements are easy to follow. I got scolded by a Chinese-American for saying this once on a message board, but I've always felt the Dynasty Warriors games were like some sort of inside-joke that were only meant to be understood by those familliar with ancient Chinese history. I'm not going to be playing through the N3 story with each of the various characters to earn all the Achievements, but I can at least tell you their names and pick each of them out of a crowd. No amount of time with Dynasty Warriors will ever be enough for me to tell Lu Xun from Wei Yan. So if you've ever wanted to play Dynasty Warriors but just couldn't get into it, give Ninety Nine Nights a try.
Fight Night: Round 3 (X360)
I know I give EA a lot of shit for some of their practices (like having corporate sponsorship of the Achievements in this particular game), but I have to say right up front that not only is this a very, very good game, but it's also the first retail X360 game that I bothered to earn all 1000 Achievement Points for. For starters, the game is absolutely stunning to look at. I love the lack of any sort of display or health meter, and only because the quality of the graphics and animation make the fighters' energy and health easily apparent just by looking at them. I also -- and this will be a first -- have to admit that the quality of the ringside commentary is superb. Yes, there are a few key lines of speech that get repeated too often but this is the first sports game I've played where I was still hearing new commentary during my 38th fight/game. If you've played the previous versions of this game then you already know what to expect -- it's been out for a year already and if you hadn't played it yet you must get it.
For those who never played one of the games in the Fight Night series before, you create a boxer for any of the available weight classes (I created a Light Heavyweight) and you work your way up from Amateur status to, hopefully, World Champion. Along the way you train, box, earn money, train, box, repeat. As your popularity rises you get invited to certain milestone fights (aka the Burger King, Dodge, Everlast, ESPN, Under Armour, and EA sponsored bouts) and if you win htose you earn and Achievement and "level up" to the next round of fights. Along the way you'll age, increase your stats, become wealthy (and spend $700,000 on a pair of trunks that increase your punching power 20%) and so on and so forth. Eventually, you'll even develop a rivalry with one or two fighters and that's where the real drama begins. There was one fighter who I fought three times. And in the third bout he actually started fighting very dirty. He was taunting and slipping in an occasional low-blow or head-butt and the drama of the fight seemed very real. It wasn't overdone, it was subtle enough to feel like he really had a beef with me personally. We traded knockdowns in the 5th round and then finally I knocked him out in the 8th round. It was the most exhausting of all the fights I had in my fighter's career and it was absolutely thrilling. By far the most emotionally engaging experience I've ever had with a sports game.
Funny I never did actually earn World Champion status though. I played through the game on Medium difficulty and only dropped it to Easy when I had to fight Evander Holyfield as he easily out-classed my Light Heavyweight's abilities. As time went on, my fighter grew to the ripe old age of 31 and had a 36-8 record. The commentators started questioning why I was still fighting at this age, or what was wrong with me that I kept coming back for more punishment after being knocked out so many times. Finally, I was two fights from earning the final Achievement and just dropped it to Easy mode and finished it out. But the weird thing, and I hate to say it but a very EA-like decision, but you actually earn all of the Achievements before even becoming World Champion. Not sure why that is, but after 40+ bouts I wasn't about to continue on once I had all 1000 Points. I'm not an Achievement Whore by no stretch, but I did find them to be a nice incentive in this game. Even if they are sponsored by Dodge and Burger King.