Special: The Event of 90% Sequels
Since 2000, Sony has brought members of the media together three times for its annual SCEA Gamers Day event where the company boasts an impressive lineup of PlayStation 2 games and proves it has kept the commitment to PSOne when it comes to releasing sports titles. Because SCEA is headquartered in San Francisco, traveling from coast to coast is required, staying in the ultra lavish 'W' Hotel is perfect for when the night's retired, and cruising around the bay in a yacht leaves you, say, inspired. But none of these perks outweigh the advantage of receiving ample attention from individuals involved with the development process of each of the upcoming games. Given the select group gathered at this Gamers Day compared to an expo like E3, all of the fine details show up and any question that comes to mind can be answered.
SCEA Gamers Day 2003 officially kicked off with an alluring video composed of clips from upcoming games and was followed by speeches from SCEA President and CEO Kaz Hirai as well as vice presidents Jack Trentton and Andrew House. Each of them took to the stage to outline the success PlayStation 2 has seen in the past year, summarize their expectations for the future, and answer questions on the minds of many at the time. The highlighted numbers during this time included the 20,000 PS2 Combo packs sold in its first week available, the 88,000 Network Adapters purchased so far, and the tremendous overseas success of the EyeToy, the PS2 camera that already released in Europe.
PS3 was briefly mentioned, but not in any factual form. However, SCEA was willing to divulge a little more information regarding PSP, the pocket platform that is "closer to PS2 than PSOne." The button layout will consist of the following: a single analog stick, four face buttons (triangle, square, circle, and cross), a directional pad, two shoulder buttons (left and right) and, rounding out the obvious, select and start buttons. While a prototype wasn't available at the time, we'll be getting the first glimpse around May 11, 2004, when E3 2004 commences. In the meantime, about 10 first-party titles are being worked on and third-parties are said to be eager to do the same. Adding to the already known fact that the Sony portable will be able to connect to up to three other PSP devices using 80211.b wireless technology, it was revealed that it will also connect with your PS2 or even a PC. This will definitely come in handy given the slated movie, music, and community functions. With the worldwide launch set simultaneously in Q4 2004, we're just as eager to see how much of an impact the device will have on Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, especially with UMDs (3xCD ROM space), a USB 2.0 port, memory stick use, and a headphone jack to boot.
The most relevant announcement to current PS2 owners was the news that the 40GB Hard Disc Drive (HDD) would make its way to the American market during March of 2004 for $99 with Final Fantasy XI preinstalled. FFXI will also be the second game (Everquest Adventures being the first) to entail paying a monthly fee, currently set at $12.95, but as with most MMORPGs on the PC, the initial 30 days will be free of charge. This should give gamers just enough time to become fully addicted to the game and feel no pain in paying thereafter. Additional developers intend to utilize the HDD for their online-enabled games including SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs and Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, both of which were among the playable games available after the conclusion of the press conference.
SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs
Whether you are a pro at tactical shooters or a tactless shooting rookie, there's a good chance you bought SOCOM only to be SOCUMBed to playing it online hour after hour, vying for the MVP Award (stands for Most Violent Player in my book). Why should this be assumed? Because SOCOM became #1 online console game where 50,000 - 60,000 gamers log on to play an average of 3 hours a day, totaling to 150,000 hours in a 24 hour period. While we were attempting to take each other out this past year and kick anyone who camped, Zipper Interactive has been building upon this first effort with SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs, which is set to release without the headset, come November. However, the game will still be compatible with the all headset devices, including the new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) headset to be retailed by SCEA. Furthermore, the name of a talking player will show up on screen to avoid the confusion that often plagued label-less online games in SOCOM. Also, to counterbalance the cheating that occurred throughout the online levels in original, SOCOM II will reinstate the classic stages minus the malleable play, perfect for my favorite area, Forstfire.
The single-player game will be intensified as well throughout areas of Algeria, Albania, Brazil, and the bleak land known as Russia. But don't rush to conclusions about the graphics being bleak at all, because SOCOM II appears more polished and the new areas seem well-designed to heighten the thrill it brings as a tactical shooter. The coolest special effect has to be the adjusting of your eyes to changes in light, conveyed through the graphics, when entering a dark room from the lit origin or vice-versa. Much more to come on SOCOM, but do check for additional details in our existing preview.
Described as a "revolution" of the original and not a mere sequel, Jak II makes a point of target a more mature audience, integrates everything in its power, and puts forth a story that is expected to drive gamers to finishing the entire adventure. Plus, doing so will most likely mark a different experience for each player in which Naughty Dog's Jason Rubin noted that the Crash titles on PSOne didn't have such free will. That newfound freedom combined with the multiplied length of the game and the multiple mini-modes of play that span platform, shooting, racing and so forth, Jak II should encompass all that cross its path this October. Be sure to read up on our experience with the game in our hands on preview.
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando
Ratchet takes command of PS2 for the second holiday season in a row and will be carrying along Clank again since gaps still need crossing in the sequel where the duo is 'Going Commando.' However, there don't seem to be any noticeable quality gaps in the actual game, which is larger than the original by 150% and contains replay challenges involving hover bikes, space combat, and so on. The biggest draw to Ratchet & Clank 2 has to be the guns that can be drawn throughout the adventure. There's nothing like going commando with an arsenal that includes shotguns, sniper rifles, seekers, plasma guns, and hover bombs all in a fitting platform form.
In a way, it's hard to simply call Ratchet & Clank 2 a platform title since the game takes a unique approach of offering RPG elements such as health and experience points for character growth. Likewise, enemies will become increasingly stronger too. The duo is able to deal with the threat with some serious combat, though, especially when suiting up in gear that including the less-than-serious Ratchet Snowman costume and Giant Clank. Because the original was often hailed as the best looking PS2 game on the market last year, the sequel takes a step further with the use of spherical worlds that curve the platform into a small globe-like shape. For now, check out that and other details on the duo in our initial preview.
Gran Turismo 4
No racing series has been able to surpass the simulation experience that each version of Gran Turismo delivers and, when one does comes close, it's always curbed by comparison to the latest GT game. Just as the franchise leaves its competitors in the dust, Polyphony Digital readies its next PlayStation 2 production, Gran Turismo 4. Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of the renowned Gran Turismo games, flew in to be at the Gamers Day and demonstrated the latest playable build of the game, which included a never before seen level on the narrow streets of Italy. Making it seem easy to navigate this course, known as 'City in the Air' because of its high-hill altitude location, Yamauchi speed through the small city without hitting a single wall. However, as I quickly found out, to the average gamer not constantly aware of the next bend, it's not so simple. The challenge is as tight as the look of the real-life location thanks to the 50,000 photos taken over a two week period.
The same was done with the level that runs through New York City's Time Square, in which the surroundings display all of the sights of the city with McDonald's, MTV, and even NBC's big-screen television. Taking a spin through New York City is sure to leave anyone that has actual walked those streets in awe, mostly because no other traffic is present besides the in-game cars. In all seriousness though, with 500 cars to come out of the latest game and courses matching real-life locations, Yamauchi sees GT4 as a historical experience for car enthusiasts in addition to being the hands-down dominating simulation racer that we come to associate Gran Turismo with. All of this seems true given the information so far, especially the online mode to be made available when Gran Turismo 4 releases in 2004. Until then, look for another update on its progress and check out our additional coverage on the game.
Rise to Honor
Jet Li has risen to the occasion as a martial arts master of video games by lending both his voice and moves to the production of Rise to Honor, a game that brings a unique concept to the kung fu dojo using the right analog stick. It makes utilities of all 360 degrees when slapping the analog stick in any direction and then combines the initial move with four additional attacks in the same direction or a different location where an enemy is present. Basically, this allows the game to host full-fledged kung fu battles in which Jet Li's character, Kit Yun, is encircled by the generic Hong Kong thugs seen through such action flicks. These melee levels combined with others featuring impressive gun fights that entail Matrix-like slow-motion diving or collaboration with a female partner, give Rise to Honor what it needs to constantly keep its eleven different stages thrilling, from Hong Kong to San Francisco.
Over the summer months, since our first hands on impressions of Rise to Honor, it seems as if the game has been polished with more combos linked together and additional moves intact. Plus, I was able to witness one of the best special effects during a gun battle where Kit Yung, in the middle of an intense hospital shootout, jumped back on a gurney only to having it roll down the hallway while he continued to shoot. This is obviously something we've come to expect in any sort of action film these days, but don't often see in our own living rooms without some one ending up in pain. The only pain you must endure is waiting for a chance to play this game since it isn't expected until January of next year.
Syphton Filter: Omega Strain
The Syphon Filter series will finally stake its claim on PS2 next year after successfully releasing three installments on the original PlayStation. But, because there's such a significant gap between its last run on PSOne and the latest, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, many new gamers will need to be acquainted and returning players must get reacquainted with the feel of the franchise. This shouldn't be too difficult given the game's tremendous online incentive and LAN capabilities with cooperative player for up to 4 users. And, once you take the first steps in learning how the controls function, the game feels as if it could drag you in for hours at a time. The lengthy missions can be solved with greater ease this way since teammates can lead to supplies like explosives that ultimately cuts down on the work a level entails.
One such example of cooperative assistance comes into play when scouring through a train tunnel underground and coming across a derailed car. Nearing this train car triggers a message that instructs you to press the triangle button and, when playing cooperatively with another, sets your player up to boost a partner to the top. When a friend goes through the same type of process, they are hoisted to the top of the train and can again press triangle to pull you up as well. After doing all of this, one person can grab an explosive pack and throw it into a fire to burn a floor later on in the level.
The Omega Strain doesn't stop with acquiring explosives through cooperative play. Before each level begins, players equip their self-created character with the right arsenal to use to complete their mission. The most stunning of these weapons has to be the taser, which dispels a high-voltage charge that electrifies enemies until they eventually catch on fire and drop dead. But, you also have to be careful that the flames don't spread onto you in the process. This shows that the game has the depth needed to succeed and should continue to impress us when it is expected to release in February of 2004. Find out more in our original preview of Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain and look for a planned update prior to it's arrives.
Final Fantasy XI
The Final Fantasy franchise has become the best-known RPG and the greatest reason for role-playing fans to own a PSOne and PS2. In March of 2004, the saga is set to continue, but for the first time, it'll be online and preinstalled on PS2's 40GB HDD, as announced during the opening press conference. Though this means that the entire package must be purchased for $99 and that neither the drive nor the game can be bought separately, it also means that new missions, levels, characters and updates like a planned player-versus-player function, can be downloaded to extend FFXI's already-long lifespan.
While newfound RPG franchises have been weighed against Final Fantasy games for years, FFXI is getting some of that same treatment in being compared to Sony's Everquest series. This is because a lot of changes reflect the standard of most MMORPG games with created characters, visible enemies, battles involving automatic combat over turn-based fighting, and the ability to trade items and create an online alliance with a total of 18 players. But, a lot has to do with the Final Fantasy legacy, so don't get discouraged with any of the evolutionary online changes. Character growth, battle rewards, open landscapes, chocobo riding, and a massive amount of menus to navigate are just the beginning of what you will encounter when this Final Fantasy adventure releases in the states in March.
NBA ShootOut 2004
Along with NFL GameDay 2004 and NCAA GameBreaker 2004, NBA ShootOut 2004 for PS2 features some of the best online capabilities. In fact, they are so good, that even if you don't like the gameplay presented, I would suggest testing out ShootOut 2004 online just to see the features that should appear in console sports games over the internet. All 989 Sports titles use the same username and password for added convenience, buddies can be contacted online or left a message when offline, users can access stats and manage to their messages from a PC, and keep track of real-life sports scores at the bottom of menus just as they appear on a television screen. Plus, voice chatting can be taken in the game and throughout the menus, a function that EA's sports games could benefit from when eager for a rematch. Obviously, these online benefits beat out much of the competition to come, which implies ShootOut is releasing about two weeks before most of its rivals. For the full list of features and information regarding the graphics and gameplay overhaul of NBA ShootOut 2004 be sure to check out our preview of the game.
The EyeToy camera had to the greatest accessory at E3 in 2003 and the most innovative gaming add-on seen in a while. As mentioned during the opening press conference, the EyeToy, which comes complete with 12 mini-games as part of Eye Toy Play, has already released in Europe and enjoyed seven weeks of success as a top-selling product there in the process. The most popular seems to be Kung Foo where you must swat a barrage of small ninjas, the easiest might be Wishi-Washi in which players whip windows down, and the hardest has to be Mirror Time where hitting green targets is good, red ones are bad and four sections of the screen rotate and flip in different ways to confuse your eyes and mess with your brain. The rest of the games fall somewhere in-between with Plate Spinner, UFO Juggler, Boxing Chump, Keep Ups, Slap Stream, Ghost Catcher, Rocket Rumble, Boogie Down, and Beat Freaks. Since EyeToy is releasing on November 4 of this year for $49 and will come packaged with EyeToy: Play, there's going to be a lot of fun to go along with the innovation side of the product to say the least.