Games 11/01/06: Final Fantasy XII, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Family Guy: Video Game!

Final Fantasy XII
For: Playstation 2
From: Square Enix

“Final Fantasy” has accumulated quite a few laurels over the last 16-plus years, but no one ever seems content to rest on them. With every sequel — spin-offs notwithstanding — Square introduces both a brand-new universe of characters and a heavily retooled means of carrying this universe’s story to its conclusion.

This inability to sit still has never been more apparent than it is in “Final Fantasy XII,” which forgoes retooling in favor of ripping the wires from the wall. Those menu-driven, turn-based battles that have been a franchise staple since day one? Send them a postcard, because they’re gone, replaced by a mixture of turn-based and real-time action that fans of massively multiplayer online games may recognize. “FFXII” also marks an end to the era of random encounters: Would-be enemies move in plain sight, and the transition from faux-3D to the real deal (complete with manual camera controls, another first) means you can engage and avoid as needed.

The changes are welcome to the point of overdue, and they really shine once you’ve assembled a party. Managing up to four characters in real time is exciting and challenging during big battles, and the ability to script actions beforehand and modify them on the fly means you can summon your inner general as well as soldier. The slick new licensing board — similar to but more flexible than “FFX’s” sphere grid — allows you to upgrade characters with whatever specialties best suit your style, be it strength in combat, magic, healing or pieces of everything.

“FFXII’s” story marks another bold step: The usual “unassuming hero saves world” retread has mostly been shelved in favor of a modern tale of power, politics and the status quo. Everything still starts and ends with a select set of main characters, but the incredibly pretty world in which they live plays a far more integral role, and the story is richer for it. Expect to sink anywhere from 40-100 hours into this monster before it ends, followed by who knows how many months of uneasy anticipation for whatever bold stroke Square Enix paints next.

—–

Splinter Cell: Double Agent
For: Xbox 360 (altered versions available for PS2, Xbox, Gamecube)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature

Impatient gamers have been taunted year after year by Ubisoft’s “Splinter Cell” games, which reward players for staying under the enemy’s radar rather than going in with guns blazing. The level of care required to excel at “Cell” is unacceptably high for overeager types, but the polish and production values these games receive make it extremely difficult to pretend they don’t exist.

Longtime fans may feel otherwise, but for the fence-sitters, “Double Agent” represents Ubi’s most tempting dangle job yet. The story is better developed than before, with government agent and perennial good guy Sam Fisher playing for the other side for the first time. Carrying out this story also requires less patience than ever: You still need to exercise good stealth etiquette to excel on the game’s higher difficulty settings, but you can afford to be considerably more reckless on the easy difficulty. (You also can save anywhere, all but eliminating excessive backtracking should you fail a mission.)

These same selling points may not please “Cell” fanatics, some of whom undoubtedly would love another game as pure and strict about stealth as the series’ first. Similarly, “Agent’s” online multiplayer components, while fun and faster paced than ever, will feel dumbed down to those reared on the more intricate modes from the previous two games. The game also looks only marginally better than “Chaos Theory” looked on the Xbox, which makes the occasional framerate dive hard to stomach.

But a disappointing “Splinter Cell” game is still better than most franchises’ best, and “Agent” proves it. Level designs are top-notch, Sam is as fun to control as ever, and a good story idea serves and is served by good game design. (Case in point: The new trust meter, which provides an easy way to keep tabs on your influence with good and bad guys, both of whom you’re simultaneously serving and fighting.) Problems everyone can agree on do arise — namely the inconsistent A.I. of games past and an uncomfortably close camera, to add to the list assembled above. But the good very easily outweighs the bad, regardless of if this is your first “Cell” game or your fourth.

—–

Family Guy: Video Game!
For: Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP
From: High Voltage/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature

“The Simpsons Hit & Run” wrote the book on how to turn a (once)-hilarious Sunday night cartoon into a video game that’s as fun as it is funny. If the first few levels of “Family Guy” are any indication, it’s a book High Voltage and 2K Games can recite from memory.

As a piece of fan service, “FG” does everything right. The show’s cast and crew lent their talents, and the result is an extremely funny lost episode that mixes in new material while tossing in just about every inside joke or side character the series has ever trotted out. The show’s barrage of non-sequiturs are cleverly presented in the form of equally out-of-left-field mini-games. “FG” even does “Hit & Run” one better by incorporating cel-shaded 3D graphics instead of plain old polygons.

“FG” drops you into the shoes of three characters: Stewie, Peter and Brian. Stewie’s levels — a handful of which open the game — are the highlight, mixing platforming, item collection and ray gun shooting in derivative but mindlessly fun ways.

You’re waiting for the bad news, right? Well, here it is. Brian’s levels are all about stealth — creep around this and that corner and don’t let yourself be seen. Unfortunately, what constitutes as “being seen” is so arbitrary, you’ll spend half these levels guessing and the other half shooting steam out of your ears because you guessed wrong and have to start the level over. This, also, is where the game’s humor works against it: Lines that were funny the first time are blood-curdling the fifth time around.

Peter’s “Final Fight”-style levels are a relief by comparison, but they don’t feel nearly as developed as Stewie’s portion. Certain characters are randomly impervious to certain attacks, but that and a few obligatory combos are as deep as the action gets. Just mash, move right and repeat. Once you acquire a special move or two, you can sleepwalk though these levels. Take advantage — your nerves could use the rest before the next Brian level rolls around. If you want to see this episode to its conclusion, you have your work cut out for you.