Games 11/29/06: Guitar Hero II, Tony Hawk's Project 8, Excite Truck, Genji: Days of the Blade, SingStar Rocks!

Guitar Hero II
For: Playstation 2 (coming to Xbox 360)
From: Harmonix/Red Octane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

Attention, Red Octane shoppers: Should you already own “Guitar Hero” and the awesome guitar controller that came with it, it’s possible to buy the sequel without being forced to buy a second controller.

That said, don’t do it. Mow a few more lawns and be a little nicer to people if you have to, but if you liked “Hero” at all, you’ll want to do whatever you need to do to round up the extra $30, make a friend and pick up “Guitar Hero II” with another guitar controller packed in.

Multiplayer in the original “Hero” was an expensive proposition: The unbundled guitar controller cost almost as much as another PS2 game, and the modes, while fun, were limited in scope. “GH2” makes multiplayer far more inviting and worthwhile by making it the centerpiece of its new feature set. The number of riff-off modes has increased, but you and a friend also can jam together for the greater good of rock in the new co-op mode. This, combined with handicapped difficulty settings and the ability to choose your favorite discipline (lead, rhythm or bass), makes it easier than ever to delude yourself into thinking you’re on stage in a band instead of in your parents’ basement playing video games. (Should your friends be a bit guitar-shy, a new and very welcome practice mode allows newbies to learn the basics in a pressure-free setting.)

Beyond the aforementioned additions, “GH2” plays like a bigger, badder version of its predecessor, with more songs (Kiss, Rage Against the Machine, Guns N’ Roses, Skynyrd, Buckethead and more than 60 more), venues, characters and eye candy. The guitar controller — a not-quite-life-sized beast that includes five chord buttons, a strum bar and a killer whammy bar — hasn’t changed in terms of functionality. But it comes in a cool shade of blood red to compliment the black model from last year’s game. You can’t very well rock the (parents’) house with matching shredders, now can you?

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Tony Hawk’s Project 8
For: Xbox 360 (best), PS3, PS2, PSP and Xbox
From: Neversoft/Activision

Contrary to rumors — and perhaps to the dismay of some — “Tony Hawk’s Project 8” does not mark a return to the dead-serious “Hawk” games of old.

Neversoft’s positioning of “P8” as a soup-to-nuts rebuild of its series and its reprioritizing of skating over mischief — last seen arguably four games ago — may suggest that. But any game with a suite of objectives centered on a giant beaver mascot and his R/C car can’t be all that serious. Nor can a game that allows you not only to manually bail mid-trick, but control (for the first time) the flight and impact of your bail in order to (another first) rack up as impressive a hospital bill as possible.

The hospital bill feature takes the edge off what is a slightly but noticeably more challenging game. “P8” is still forgiving when it comes to landing inhuman tricks — particularly as your created skater’s attributes grow — but some overdue tweaks definitely have been made. It’s hard to describe these tweaks in words, but you’ll notice their presence the first time a landing you take for granted results in your face smacking one of the many sidewalks, streets or foreign objects in “P8’s” open-ended city and surrounding area. (That’s somewhat new too, as are the inspired “beat this record!” tag challenges splattered about said sidewalks and streets.)

Activision has put its marketing weight behind “P8’s” new Nail the Trick feature, and with good reason. Whereas most of the game’s movements emphasize the relationship between your board and the ground, Nail the Trick — which, when activated, slows down the action and zooms in on your feet — spotlights the relationship between your feet and the board. The left stick controls your left foot, the right controls your right, and tricks we’ve taken for granted for seven straight games — kick flips, pop shove its — suddenly become considerably more challenging and valuable, not to mention a ton more fun to execute.

No version of “P8” is a bad egg, but those with a choice are best off with the Xbox 360 version, which features graphics on par with the PS3 edition but a suite of online multiplayer options not found there. Save for some slowdown, the game looks noticeably better on next-gen systems than last year’s “Hawk” port on 360.

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Excite Truck
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo

Your enjoyment of “Excite Truck” is directly and completely proportional to how soon and how well you master the ability to turbo jump. Simple as that.

It’s not that “Truck” isn’t fun without the turbo jump — it is. But the Wii’s main selling point is its ability to let us play games in strange new ways, and anyone who has purchased a driving wheel in the last 10 years (or has ever been to an arcade) has more or less experienced what “Truck’s” steering controls bring to the table. If only in this one genre, the Wii is old hat.

So it falls on “Truck” to impress in other ways. Happily, it rises to the challenge. The game is fast from bell to bell, and the tracks are loaded with deep dives, shortcuts and triggers that dynamically alter the landscape in ways that help and harm you and your adversaries. The star scoring system rewards daredevils as well as speedsters: Winning races nets you a ton of stars, but so does catching big air, wrecking opposing trucks and driving through a forest full of fender-bending trees, to name some examples.

But it’s the turbo jump — the process of applying turbo right as your truck takes to the air — that makes it all come together. Mastering the timing behind this technique will take practice, but once you get it, “Truck” goes from a seven on the fast scale to roughly a 20. Perfect your technique and string jumps together, and it’s hard not to be hooked.

Nintendo’s online strategy has been caught with its pants down at launch, so “Truck” features split-screen multiplayer for two players only. That, and a somewhat low variety of races and special challenges — ring-jumping, a slalom-like gate challenge and a demolition-derby-style manhunt — will leave mode-aholics a bit unimpressed. This doesn’t necessarily hinder the replay value, though: Like “Mario Kart” and “Wave Race” before it, “Truck” makes the most of what it does have, and there’s very little here that doesn’t command a return visit (and several more after that).

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Genji: Days of the Blade
For: Playstation 3
From: Game Republic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Once upon a time, it was cool to be a fixed-camera game. True 3D at a respectably high resolution wasn’t possible on the original Playstation, and going the faux-3D route for the sake of prettier graphics wasn’t a particularly bad style choice, especially with so many developers struggling to master true camera controls in the first place.

For whatever reason, “Genji: Days of the Blade” looks at that period as the good old days. The PS3 is more than capable of delivering a beautiful game in all three dimensions, and “Blade” itself is proof — a high-resolution whirlwind of color, special effects, and rich detail infusing every battle, be it in the Japanese countryside, at sea or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, you can see only what the game allows you to see. “Blade” features the same rigid third-person perspective one comes to expect from a typical full-3D game, but the ability to control that perspective is nowhere to be found.

This is more than a graphical problem — it’s a gameplay problem as well. “Blade,” being your standard hack/slash game, sends enemies after you from every direction, and trying to fight screen-sized soldiers whom you can’t see but know are behind you (or worse, in front of you) makes for an uncomfortably (and unnecessarily) claustrophobic experience. Why Game Republic didn’t throw in even rudimentary camera control boggles the mind. Something as simple as a button to rotate the viewpoint 180 degrees would’ve done wonders.

This, of course, was one of the main problems facing last year’s PS2 “Genji” game. If you got past it the first time around, you likely will be able to do so again here, and you’ll be rewarded with a much longer storyline, more and better weapons and moves (including a flashier return of the mini-game-esque Kamui special powers), and two new playable characters to complement the returning Yoshitsune and Benkei. Just don’t expect anything more than that: It may be playing on new hardware, but it’s the same old “Genji,” for better or worse.

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SingStar Rocks!
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sony has a deal for you: Embarrass yourself in front of others, get a free microphone.

Unlike every karaoke game that preceded it — in other words, the four iterations of “Karaoke Revolution” — “SingStar Rocks!” stomps the notion of passing the mic by including two USB microphones in one $50 package and practically bribing would-be glass-breakers to duet, have a sing-off and even participate in team-based challenges. Soloists can hone their craft by their only, but “Rocks!” takes the ball and runs with the notion that karaoke is rarely a solo affair.

The “SingStar” series has been a hit in Europe for a couple of years and four versions of its own, so “Rocks!” isn’t exactly a rookie effort despite its rookie status in America. The game’s voice- and note-recognition technology is serviceable, and the clean, minimalist layout is a time-tested means of attracting new players and non-gamers with as little fuss as possible.

Still, “Revolution” vets be warned: “Rocks!” isn’t quite as generous in terms of letting flat notes by, and there’s no satisfactory means of letting you know how best to adjust your pitch and tempo. This and the lack of a satisfying tutorial/practice mode means you’re left to figure this one out on your own — not a big deal if you’re goofing off with friends, but potentially aggravating if you’re discovering this one alone.

Other “rookie” mistakes? The 30-song lineup (including Thin Lizzy, Marvin Gaye, The Killers, Joss Stone and The Rolling Stones) is more authentic than “Revolution’s” sound-alike songs, but it’s also considerably smaller in size. And in a bizarre karaoke no-no, there’s no option to mute the original singers and sing along to just the backing music.

Still, even that last oversight can’t curb what is one of the PS2’s better multiplayer train wrecks-in-waiting. Karaoke in any quantity is an easy crowd-pleaser, but turning it into a group activity takes the fun (and trauma) to cool new heights. “Revolution” remains the better game overall with its larger lineup and variety of modes, but casual party gamers in search of an affordably-priced party-in-a-box will find plenty to enjoy here.