Playing the Field
The lowdown on the season's new games
DJ HeroActivision, $120 ("turntable" included)
Band HeroActivision, $60 ($200 with guitar, drums, and mic)
It's shocking that it took this long for the saturated rhythm-game market to produce a hip-hop oriented product. As a music genre largely focused on rhythm over melody, this seems like a no-brainer. It's hard to believe, but it seems that Activision has waited to do it right rather than rushing a product to market before the fickle public changes its buying habits. Maybe Obama really is killing capitalism.
Or maybe his influence has created the finest music simulator to date. DJ Hero has all the ingredients you need. The 93 original mixes vary from acceptable (Beck's "Loser" mashed up with Eminem's "My Name Is") to genius (DJ Shadow mixing David Bowie's "Let's Dance" with Boogie Down Productions' "Jack of Spades"), but there's something to be said for such a selection of well-crafted tunes even if you do hear Rhianna's "Disturbia" three times in different mixes. The gameplay is based largely on the Guitar Hero template, in which notes or beats come moving down the screen until crossing a threshold indicating the precise time for corresponding action. Those actions consist of tapping and scratching using one of the three buttons on the turntable included with the game. Use the crossfader to alternate or blend the two tracks as instructed, and you have the fundamentals for DJ'ing.
Fake DJ'ing, anyway. Scratching with the plastic turntable has as much in common with the real deal as playing Guitar Hero has with playing guitar, and that's to say very little. The key difference between the two games is that DJ Hero more closely approximates the original instrument's purpose. Guitar Hero's guitar is not a creator of sounds like the real thing, but is merely a medium between a prerecorded track and your speakers. The better you play the game, the more like the original the song sounds. The same goes with DJ Hero, except real DJ tables also use prerecorded tracks (records) to create original sounds (mixes, scratches, etc.). This somewhat diminished distance between reality and gameplay translates to an invigorating interactive music experience.
The game eases players into the controls using a tutorial hosted by the self-proclaimed "first person to scratch," Grandmaster Flash. As you work your way up the difficulty setting, the controls more closely mimic the mixes. You can't fail a song, but a bad performance will sound like it, which can be a real curse for some of these outstanding creations from the likes of Daft Punk and DJ Z-Trip. Some songs combine the DJ deck with a guitar track, and these are some of the weaker tracks in the game, but it's nice to be able to mix it up with my fake guitar loyalists. Activision has created enough Guitar Heroes to know how to organize songs and create challenges that unlock other mixes and playable characters without losing track of the game's focus: the music.
No less professionally presented but drastically less innovative is Band Hero (not to be confused with its competition, Rock Band). Choose to play guitar, bass, drums, or even sing one of the 65 songs, including more pop-oriented fare like Jesse McCartney and Nelly Furtado along with more obvious choices like "Mr. Roboto" and "American Pie."
Approximating Guitar Hero 5 in almost all respects, the game's sole purpose might be to parade Taylor Swift around in an attempt to grab the attention of the younger, Top 40 set, when I was hoping for a new franchise with unique attributes. However, if the track list interests you, it's cheaper to pay for the game than to download that many tracks at $2 a pop. Capitalism is apparently alive and well. – James Renovitch
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Disney Sing It: Pop Hits: For those looking to sing along with the Jonas Brothers
The Beatles Rock Band: For kids in need of a musical education
Food Network: Cook or Be Cooked!Namco Bandai, $40
Just to be clear, this new title – the Food Network's first foray into gaming and designed by local firm Red Fly Studio – has little to no real-world applicability: I, a novice gamer, can cook my way out of a paper bag, but routinely got burned by my competitor, who lives on frozen pizza and drive-throughs but, more crucially, can wield a mean Wii-mote. Food Network: Cook or Be Cooked's challenges have more to do with one's ability to master repetitive tasks with a remote and nunchuk than with actual culinary chops, but that fact doesn't diminish the fun of trying not to frazzle while maneuvering from counter to sink to stove through the timed assembly of an entrée and sides. Overpour the olive oil? That'll dock some points. Forget to flip a pancake on time? You're likely to get served with an exuberant ejection card reading, "You Got Cooked!"
Gamers can choose from three types of play – Solo, Hot Potato (in which players trade off the controllers to cook cooperatively), and the competitive Cook-Off – to complete the preparation of increasingly elaborate dishes, from cheeseburgers and potato salad to pan-roasted chicken with couscous and steamed fennel. (Sound tasty? The instruction booklet contains the recipes.) Food Network personalities Susie Fogelson and Mory Thomas provide a running commentary that ranges from cooking tips to a somewhat arbitrary-seeming feedback on performance. The only real drawback here is the limited replayability – all it takes is a dedicated afternoon to lick the game's 12 unique recipes. I suppose you could then try to perfect them in real life, but good luck then with the dirty dishes that are blissfully absent from Cook or Be Cooked!. – Kimberley Jones
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Assassin's Creed II: All of the chopping with (thankfully) less eating
Wii Fit Plus: Work off those fake calories with something approximating a workout.
Brütal LegendElectronic Arts, $60
First came Glenn Danzig to the Fun Fun Fun Fest, then Dethklok – a death metal parody band for chrissake – slayed the Austin Music Hall, but before all that, Brütal Legend made the gaming landscape a bit more, well, brutal. It is quite possibly, as our Music editor likes to call it, the year of metal. You can thank Creative Director Tim Schafer (of Psychonauts fame) and voice actor Jack Black for the gaming portion of that moniker. Black is the roadie-turned-hero Eddie Riggs who must save an alternate dimension that looks like so many Molly Hatchet album covers.
The game is surprisingly not a two-trick pony that overrelies on Black's comedy stylings and Shafer's eye for metal imagery, but manages instead to create a complex and unique gameplay that combines equal parts action and strategy. Use Riggs' axe (read: guitar) and axe (read: axe) to slay enemies, and utilize your thrashing skills to command soldiers and other allies. Or use those skills to slaughter your friends online. The controls can get a bit hairy as your abilities advance, but the combination of epic storytelling and playability is undeniable. Younger players can opt out of the bloodshed and foul language, or you can let the rivers flow with the blood of your adversaries and the mountains echo with curse words. – James Renovitch
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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: Even more brutal because it looks real
New Super Mario Bros. Wii: Decidedly less brutal, but just as surreal
Small Words for Big Releases
Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve, $60, PC & Xbox 360): Four people vs. countless zombies. If it's anything like the original, you'll want to play online with friends who have your back so you can keep your brains.
Scene It? Twilight (Konami, $50, Wii, release date Nov. 24): The Scene It? franchise is counting on your obsession. If anything, you'll find out how many questions can possibly be asked about one movie.
Dragon Age: Origins (Electronic Arts, $60, PS3 & Xbox 360): This season's role-playing game mines the same Tolkien imagery with an epic storyline and enough customizable content to make it your own.
Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (Rockstar Games, $20, Xbox 360): You will need the original Grand Theft Auto IV to play this downloadable add-on. Motor around Liberty City protecting a decadent club owner and parachuting off buildings.
LittleBigPlanet (Sony Computer Entertainment, $40, PSP): The PSP version of this PS3 hit has all new cute and playable levels while maintaining the level creator from the original. Design your world and share it with friends.
Aion (NCsoft, $50 plus a $15 monthly subscription fee, PC): Another massively multiplayer online game from Richard Garriott's old stomping grounds. Breathtaking environments and the ability to fly make it the MMOG of choice this season ... if you can take a break from World of Warcraft.
Tekken 6 (Namco, $50, PS3 & Xbox 360): After six tries, you can only assume that they have the scantily clad and gravity-defying fighting game down to a science. – James Renovitch
For more reviews – including Borderlands and A Boy & His Blob – visit the Screens blog, Picture in Picture, austinchronicle.com/pip.