This Week’s Releases (April 3-7, 2006)

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Week thirty-four of my ongoing, irreverent news column; originally posted at Next Generation.

Game of the Week:

Tourist Trophy
Polyphony Digital/SCEA
PlayStation 2

Back when the PlayStation was new, Ken Kutaragi asked all his employees for new game ideas. It didn’t matter how silly; he just wanted input. In particular, he wanted a mix of input from people who were deeply invested in videogames and people who barely had anything to do with them. Kazunori Yamauchi’s response was that he wanted to be able to drive his own car on his television screen. Kutaragi thought that was sort of clever, so he put Yamauchi in charge of producing that game; what Yamauchi turned up with, of course, was Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo is, as these terms go, a very hardcore game – not necessarily in the “hardcore videogame” sense, except as far as a person who is hardcore about anything technical can usually apply that to something else hardcore and technical; it’s hardcore in the sense that it is an ode to the motorcar in all the layers of obsessiveness you might ascribe to a Gundam. Each game incorporates an increasingly disturbing number of makes and models, each tuned to as close an approximation as possible, given the current state of videogames – all for the ultimate goal of allowing the player to reproduce his exact car (or perhaps his dream car) and drive it from the safety of his living room.

That’s an impressive effort for an idea that, on the surface, sounds so pointless. Why drive your own car on your television instead of just driving your own car? Well, what salaryman has the time to go out and drive around whenever he wants? It’s a form of wish fulfillment, from the simple to the grand, for people who really get off on cars and driving yet probably have other things in their lives to keep them from pursuing these interests as far as they would like to. The game means to enable these dream scenarios with as much accuracy as technically possible.

Besides, as Yamauchi said to a certain Tim Rogers a while back, there are far more car enthusiasts in the world than there are Gamers. By going ultra-nerdcore over a topic with wide appeal, Yamauchi attracted droves of people who cared nothing about videogames for their own sake. In time, just about every car manufacturer was fighting to get its latest models into Yamauchi’s latest model, as the game was such a good sales tool for the auto industry, allowing as it did customers to find exactly the car that was right for them.

In a sense, Yamauchi was onto a few current trends way ahead of anyone pegging them and starting to take them seriously. Gran Turismo is a “serious game” by just about any stick you use. And maybe more significantly, Yamauchi tuned right into Nintendo president Satoru Iwata’s current mission of expanding the appeal of videogames beyond the obsessive niche they’ve dug out. The process is a little different, of course; Iwata wants to make videogames implicitly appealing to a mass audience, whereas Yamauchi wanted to use the medium as it already exists to express something already appealing to a mass audience. The effect is kind of similar. There are some issues of semantics that may or may not be important; you can go argue those on the message board of your choosing. They’re probably worth discussing, if not right here, right now.

Tourist Trophy, now, is Gran Turismo with motorcycles. Hey, why not. According to GameSpot, the game’s producer, Takamasa Shichisawa, went to Yamauchi with a burning desire much like Yamauchi’s when he went to Ken Kutaragi all those years ago. Sure, it’s not the most original idea in the world. So what, though; if you’re going to have a car enthusiast game, you might as well have a motorbike one. If anything, motorcycle fans seem even more fanatical about their means of transport – likely in part because it’s a less mainstream one (as shown by how long it took for this spin-off to get made); in part because motorcycles are so much more visceral than cars. Tourist Trophy seems to go to great length to reflect this quality, so all the power to it.

There’s no reason for this game to be anything other than a success. By nature, it won’t sell as well as Gran Turismo. For one, it hasn’t got the name yet. For another, as noted, not as many people groove on the bikes compared to the cars. For yet another, there’s the danger of Gamers dismissing the game in light of its description – which sounds derivative because it is. Still, the formula ain’t broke – and it seems like every bit as much care and attention has gone into Tourist Trophy as has its parent series. So, hey. Here’s another winner for Sony, at the extremes of its flavor of mass appeal.

Rest of the Week

Bust a Move Deluxe
PlayStation Portable
Taito/Majesco Games

It’s Puzzle Bobble on the PSP. There are a bunch of modes, and the game has wireless multiplayer features. There’s not a lot more to say, except that Bub and Bob look like they’ve been hitting the Krispy Kreme a bit much since we last encountered them. I also kind of wonder why there’s no “portrait” mode, considering the dimensions of the playfield. If there is, no one has mentioned it.

Commandos Strike Force
Pyro Studios/Eidos Interactive

The earlier Commandos games were isometric “real-time tactical combat” productions; sort of a cross between Warcraft and Metal Gear, featuring the WWII predecessors to our modern black ops crews. Now the series has been translated into what seems to be a marginally successful first-person shooter. The player is given control over one of three character archetypes from the earlier games – sniper, spy, or green beret – to use appropriately over the course of the game. Of the three versions of the game, the Xbox one is getting the highest average, at 90%; the PS2 is getting the lowest, at 69%. Mind, not a lot of reviews are out there yet, so these averages might be a little skewed.

From Russia With Love
Electronic Arts
PlayStation Portable

The same game you probably played months ago, now on PSP! Now you can play as Sean Connery in a jetpack, while you yourself are in a jetpack. Consider the irony.

Major League Baseball 2K6
Kush Games/2K Sports
Xbox/PlayStation 2

As conventional wisdom would have it, the difference between the 2K series and EA’s sports games is that every year Visual Concepts (and its associate) tries to find a new spin for its projects. For the MLB series, this year’s focus appears to be on the minutiae of player statistics. As GameSpot puts it, “All previous console efforts will likely pale in comparison to 2K Sports’ upcoming MLB 2K6, a game that looks to take stats-tracking to an entirely new level.” Apparently Kush has integrated some technology from the “Inside Edge” scouting service, resulting in a mountain of data unprecedented in any previous baseball game. The game is getting the typically highish scores, so far. If you want to see the game for PSP, 360, or PC, wait another three weeks.

Frozenbyte, Inc./Meridian4

Most succinctly, this game is Alien Syndrome 2006. It’s a top-down, Ikari Warriors-style arcade shooter, rendered in full 3D, set against a futuristic alien invasion. There are tons of explosions; there’s tons of blood; and the game itself is purported to play rather well. Visually, the game is quite attractive. The environments allow a decent amount of freedom. The player is given a flashlight, and everything casts real-time shadows. The game is inexpensive and seems quite appealing, to the classically-minded. Outside of a few corners of the Internet, though (which will go wild over this game), don’t expect to hear too much about this after its release.

SWAT 4 Gold Edition
Irrational Games/VU Games

It’s a compilation of the original game and the expansion pack released a month ago. Box checked; move along.

Author: Azure

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