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WHAT IT IS: God of War III presents the continuing adventures of the world’s most unlikable video game character. There’s no question that Kratos, the “Ghost of Sparta”, is one of the hugest, shiniest dickheads in the history of fake history. At least he stars in one of the best action games you’ll find on any system.

The PS3 debut for Sony’s flagship series is almost exactly what you’d expect: a souped-up, prettified blitz through the standard God of War tropes. It’s still a three-dimensional action-adventure concerned primarily with slaughtering as many enemies as possible. The occasional puzzles and light platforming return, as do the controversial Quick-Time Events. These aren’t complaints, but statements of fact. Another fact: God of War III is not what we in the biz call a “bad game”.

WHAT’S GOOD: Superb presentation has always been God of War’s main hallmark, and with the power of the PlayStation 3 the series looks and feels better than ever. The typical God of War visual set-pieces are now so beautiful they’d pop every single one of Argus’s eyes. The massive size of various gods and Titans is more overwhelming with the clarity of hi-def. Monsters swarm around you in intimidatingly large numbers. The combat can be slightly mindless but it never gets boring thanks to a variety of enemies, weapons, and attack types. There’s so much gore that it comes close to comedy, but it looks good and it’s in keeping with the violence of the myths the game builds from. God of War III amplifies everything memorable about the series.

The familiar story sees Kratos searching for revenge against an epic mythological backdrop that takes you from the depths of the Underworld to the seat of Zeus’s power. You’ll storm Mt. Olympus with an army of Titans, graphically dismember various deities, and even rip the head off the Sungod himself (uh, spoiler alert?) The story’s nothing more than an excuse to travel through some gorgeous scenery and kill everything you see; as such, it’s not just a throwback to the first two God of Wars, but to basically every video game made before, say, 1995.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: I don’t think it’s possible for a game to have a less likable main character. If nihilistic antiheroes were SUVs, Kratos would be a Hummer; he’s an easily screwed up idea taken to a garish extreme. He’s so over-the-top in his clichéd badassitude, with a goatee, tribal tats, and guttural croaks, that you almost hope he’s a parody. It’s hard to sympathize with a protagonist who wantonly massacres innocents and whose actions wreak havoc on all on Greece. Also, the game sometimes spits out too many enemies at once, slowing the action down into a boring slog. It can also be difficult hitting a double jump off a cliff, for some reason. That leads to the occasional cheap and infuriating death.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: God of War III is a no-brainer for fans of the series or action games in general. It also requires almost no brains to enjoy, as it’s about as thoughtful as a Frank Frazetta pin-up. If you can’t enjoy big dumb angry action, at least when it’s as well-done as God of War III, you probably don’t play video games, anyway.

All you need to know about Lips is that it’s a karaoke game. If you like karaoke, you’ll probably like Lips. If you’re a fan of Karaoke Revolution or Sony’s Singstar series, and have been hoping something similar would come to the 360, then here you go. If karaoke frightens or repulses you no matter how many scorpion bowls you’ve downed, then Lips is most certainly not for you.

It’s very similar to Singstar, because really, how many ways can you do karaoke? Lips’ Japanese developer iNiS did, however, make a few choices in both presentation and mechanics that make the game a more enjoyable experience. The microphones combine wireless convenience with a pulsating visual display and a motion-controlled score multiplier bonus similar to those found in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The versus and co-op modes are smoothly implemented. There are a few mini-games built around the motion controls that might offer some amount of entertainment to those tired of just singing. Singing’s still the main draw, though, because, um, this is a karaoke game.

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Karaoke games are only as good as their playlists. Lips’ 40-song set is fine, despite a fairly limited variety of genres. The game skews a little too far toward recent pop music. Almost half the 40 songs come from this decade, and most of them are either pop, R&B, or rap hits by the likes of Alicia Keys, Beyonce and Avril Lavigne. There’s a tiny smattering of country, rock, and classic R&B, including stalwarts from the Jackson 5, Johnny Cash, and Ben E. King, but if you aren’t a regular listener of contemporary Top 40 radio then a lot of these songs will be new to you.

That lack of diversity is a bit of drag. The more Euro-flavored Singstar features somewhat obscure numbers from bands such as Bloc Party and Scissor Sisters. I’m not asking for the Blank Dogs or Krysmopompas, but it would’ve been nice to see some more independent music. The closest is probably Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks,” which also happens to be the game’s best duet in the game. Regular downloadable content updates could broaden the game’s stylistic scope, but the pricing might be a bit high at $2 a song. For the same two bucks you can download a song for Rock Band or Guitar Hero World Tour, and not just sing but also play fake guitar and drums.

One of Lips’ primary selling points should preclude complaints about diversity. You can hook your Zune, iPod, or other MP3 player into your 360 and access the non-encrypted files through Lips. Basically, Lips will let you sing any MP3 in your collection. This is an interesting feature, but obviously the game can’t generate lyrics for any random song you load up, so it’s less like karaoke and more like singing along with your stereo. It still scores you on your ability to hit the right pitch, so some element of the core game play (such as it is) still remains. Still it’s not quite as awesome a component as one could hope.

Lips is without a doubt a party game. With only 40 songs, though, the fun might not last too long, and neither the MP3-functionality nor the downloadable content offerings are perfect solutions. Lips might not do enough to stand out from the karaoke game pack, but it’s a perfectly acceptable alternative to Singstar for those who own a 360 instead of a PS3.

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Samba de Amigo, Sega’s beloved maraca-based rhythm game for Dreamcast, seems like a natural for Wii; gamers are already accustomed to rapid arm movements thanks to Wii’s motion controls. The resolutely bright and colorful game also possesses Sega’s most adorable mascot, a sombrero-sporting monkey that’ll kill the kids with cuteness and the adults with kitsch. Yep, this remake should’ve been a quick and easy process, just a matter of improving the 9-year-old original’s graphics, maybe tacking on some sort of online mode, and bundling in a pair of wireless maracas. Nothing could be simpler, absolutely nothing.

And yet it didn’t happen. Sure, developer Gearbox Software did the first of those two, updating the graphics and adding in online leaderboards and downloadable content. Samba de Amigo remains undeniably charming with an arresting color palette, and manic cartoony visuals that are smoother and cleaner than most Wii offerings. It’s also one of the first of Wii’s disc-based games to embrace downloadable add-ons; anyone with a wi-fi connection can buy new songs. It’s evident that Sega and Gearbox intended to treat both the game and the Wii’s audience with respect, unlike many companies who are just angling for a quick cash in. Somewhere along the way, though, they bungled that most essential element of any rhythm game: the controls. Not only are maracas not included, the Wiimote-and-nunchuk control scheme is painfully imprecise. You wield the controllers like a pair of maracas, but the game struggles to correctly recognize your motions.

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Here’s how it works: There’s a cluster of six circles laid out like a hexagon. A constant stream of balls moves from the center of the hexagon toward the circles. The balls hit the center of the circles in time with the beat of one of the many songs from the game’s salsa-flavored soundtrack. All you have to do is point your ersatz maracas in the direction of a circle when the ball reaches its center, similarly staying on beat with the music. You point up, down, or straight to the side, all either to the left or right, depending on where the balls travel. The timing is unnecessarily difficult, however, due to the sloppiness of the controls. You’ll be pointing up and to the right, but the game thinks you’re pointing down. You’ll point to the side, but the game thinks you’re perfectly still. It can be ridiculously frustrating.

The Wii remake of Samba de Amigo has to be considered a disappointment. The developers mostly made good decisions in translating an older game to a modern system. When the controls respond properly, Samba de Amigo is as fun as ever. But it’s a fundamental problem when a game simply doesn’t do what you tell it to, and that happens far too often with Samba de Amigo.

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You know what would’ve made World War II better? Miniskirts! Or so says Valkyria Chronicles, Sega’s excellent new tactical role-playing game. It’s not officially about World War II, but the parallels are blatant, with a fascist power marching across a continent called Europa while imprisoning a dark-haired ethnic minority. The big picture is similar, but the details are all wrong, like a history class essay by a 15-year-old who spent the entire semester doodling record covers.

Players command the overwhelmed militia of Gallia, a small country that’s basically Switzerland. The militia is a diverse, mixed-gender bunch. It includes dozens of playable characters who fall into one of five distinct military classes, each with its own special skills, combat styles and level-based power-ups. Like any good role-playing game, characters earn experience and money that can be used to power-up offensive and defensive stats and develop new weapons. Players recruit a squad of soldiers from each class and deploy up to nine at a time in a number of major set-piece battles, all spread out over a series of 18 chapters. These confrontations eschew the isometric turn-based battles of genre classics such as Military Madness and Final Fantasy Tactics, opting instead for a brilliant hybrid of top-down and third-person perspectives. Players select the unit they wish to command from a bird’s eye battlefield map and then take direct control of them in a 3-D third-person environment. It makes the combat more immediate and engrossing, and less like a high-tech version of Risk. It combines the cerebral pleasure and power-rush of military strategy with visceral action-game thrills into an addictive and unique gameplay system.

Each battle is book-ended by a myriad of anime-style cut-scenes full of personal and political intrigue. Non-playable narrative bits like these can easily undermine a game through bad writing or voice-acting, but Valkyria Chronicles’ cut-scenes are surprisingly well-made. Beyond the beautiful graphics, which look like a water-color painting, Valkyria Chronicles boasts a relatively sophisticated story that doesn’t gloss over the less savory aspects of war. Characters die, but they also live more believably than often found in video games. Their relationships on and off the battlefield aren’t as simplistic or cartoonish as many localized Japanese role-playing games, which so often suffer from indifferent or disrespectful translation. The game doesn’t entirely escape clichés or stereotypes (including a shameless gay caricature that’s mind-boggling in its political incorrectness), but the story is subtler and more thoughtful than expected from something in this genre.

Despite the female soldiers’ cute uniforms and a ridiculous number of battleground upskirt shots, Valkyria Chronicles is about as sexy as a Geocities website. Tactical role-playing games have always been a small niche in this country, and Valkyria’s PlayStation 3 exclusivity limits its potential audience dramatically. A game like this would never make waves in America like a GTA or Call of Duty. That’s a shame, because the massively enjoyable and satisfying Valkyria Chronicles is one of 2008’s best games. Blogger Brilliam once chastised game critics for not disclosing games they didn’t consider for best-of-the-year recaps due to ignorance or lack of personal experience. If I had played Valkyria Chronicles in 2008, it definitely would’ve made my list.

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DC Universe Online is a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) set in the crazy mixed-up world of DC Comics — the publishers of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. There’s a fundamental issue plaguing MMOs set in an established fictional milieu: Everybody wants to be the famous dudes. There would be millions of Flashes, Wonder Women, and Green Lanterns buzzing around, with maybe only three B’wana Beasts, if limits weren’t set. Any semblance of a coherent game-world would be impossible, but as Nightwing has proven, there’s little fun in brutalizing Gotham hoods without wearing a ridiculous bat costume. Microsoft scuttled a similar MMO based on Marvel Comics for this very reason.

Would-be Bruce Waynes might be disappointed to hear that no genuine DC characters are playable in DC Universe Online. Players will make their own heroes or villains from scratch. Any crimes busted or perpetrated by comic characters will be controlled by the computer. This might make the game less immediately exciting, but it’s the only sensible decision.

With that taken care of, the biggest pratfall will be insuring that the customization tools are robust enough to keep people from inadvertently making the same character. The only thing worse than several thousand Booster Golds would be several thousand identical nobodies. No character creation mode was on display at the New York Comic Con, but Sony’s playable demo did show off a dozen or so pre-made characters designed in-game, and they were all significantly different in terms of appearance and abilities. The designers claim there will be enough options to prevent unintentional duplicates, but that remains to be seen.

The demo was pre-alpha, meaning the game’s nowhere near being finished, and the playable area was limited to a small portion of Metropolis. It was still a wide swath of real estate, so the entire city should be huge, far bigger than the Manhattan found in the most recent Spider-Man game, Web of Shadows. Heroes and villains were brawling in Metropolis due to a convoluted storyline involving Lex Luthor, Doomsday, STAR Labs and Superman. I played as Kid Frostbite, a gadget-using villain working for Luthor’s squad. I wore a jetpack, but couldn’t fly. Maybe one day, if Kid Frostbite dreams hard enough, he, too, can soar into the sky, but for now all he can do is jump about 50 stories high.

Action clearly trumped narrative in this demo, and despite being a very early build, it gave a good sense of where the controls are headed. It was particularly adept at demonstrating how superpowers will be implemented. Four categories define a power-set, and players will pick from multiple options per category in the character editor. The first is the basic nature of the power, such as ice, electricity, prehensile facial hair, etc. Then there’s the power source, or way of manifesting and directing that power, like a staff or ring. There are three types of super-powered movements available, including flight, super-speed and inhuman gymnastics. Sony was vague about the fourth and final aspect, which it called abilities, but it apparently covers non-motion and non-charged-based powers such as super-strength.

Some powers are regulated by an energy meter that depletes when used, and slowly refills when left alone, whereas others momentarily lock out after each usage. Players can use either superpowers or good ol’ American fisticuffs in combat situations, switching between normal and powered modes with the press of a button. Standard melee attacks don’t use up any energy, but do a fraction of the damage; powers are more powerful, but need to be deployed strategically. It’s a straightforward, completely serviceable set-up.

Kid Frostbite easily dropped cop after cop, and stronger STAR Labs security officers didn’t pose much more of a threat. Taking down superheroes was a challenge, not just because they were more powerful, but because real live humans were controlling them elsewhere in the Sony booth. Based on the demo, the game feels like a button-mashing beat-em-up with light strategy involved in knowing when to use superpowers. Sony plans to incorporate traditional role-playing game elements in the final product, though, including a leveling-up system.

The game’s narrative intentions are intriguing, especially for comic fans. Players randomly roam about various fictional DC cities, fighting or committing minor crimes as necessary. At specific times and locations they’ll be able to join up with recognizable heroes or villains from the comics and embark on a pre-scripted instance. Instances will be more challenging, but offer greater rewards, beyond even the thrill of fighting alongside your favorite Justice Leaguer.

Some notable comic luminaries are working closely with Sony to create these scenarios, including current hot-shot writer Geoff Johns and former prominent DCU architect Marv Wolfman. At a DCU Online panel Johns, Wolfman, and artist Jim Lee swore their involvement would guarantee the game remained respectful of the source material. Famous heroes will remain in character and DC canon won’t be violated. If you know comic fans, you realize that the only thing more vital to them than preserving continuity is not tearing any of the pages, so this should be a relief to many.

Sony wouldn’t commit to any release schedule, but a source sounded hopeful that it’d be out for the PC and PS3 by mid-2010, at the latest. Sony also hasn’t announced any information about the pricing arrangement, or whether the game will be subscription-based or not. If the price is sensible, and development remains this promising, then DC Universe Online could be huge with gamers and comic fans alike.

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