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.

Games 10/25/06: God Hand, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends, Lumines Live!

God Hand
For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature

Awesomely terrible or terribly awesome? That is the question surrounding “God Hand,” arguably the most polarizing game to arrive in 2006. The “love it or hate it” superlative is abused to the point of irrelevance, but Clover’s bizarre brawler is the real deal.

Why might you hate “Hand?” For starters, the production values are a mess: The story makes no sense, the visuals are sloppy and incoherent, the animation is stiff, and the voice acting is deliberately horrendous. The control scheme borrows from the Nintendo 64 days, with tank-like controls and no means to maneuver the camera, which is way too close to your character’s back as is. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for an already-challenging brawler that likes to send enemies your way from every direction.

So with all that going against it, what’s to love? How about the positively enormous roster of unlockable moves that include everything from standard blows (uppercuts, roundhouse kicks) to special attacks (shockwaves, missile kicks) to slapstick (making like Roger Clemens and plunking someone with a baseball)? You can customize your arsenal to suit your fighting preferences, and you can even hit the local casino to quickly raise funds toward purchasing more moves. (As a fun aside, see what happens when you deliver a cheap shot to a fellow gambler).

Additionally, depending on who you are, “Hand’s” flaws may work as perks. Those who can adjust to the strange controls will discover a level of depth not remotely expressed in the game’s awkward opening battles. One-on-one fights, in particular, are fantastically fun. Similarly, those with a strange sense of humor may appreciate “Hand’s” bizarre mishmash of inanity, which clearly was no accident.

Ultimately, you’ll have to try this one yourself. Criticism and praise for “Hand” has touched both ends of the spectrum, with critics in one camp condemning the game as garbage while others anoint it as the best PS2 game of the year. Where you stand is up to you, but one thing’s for sure: You’ve never played anything quite like it. Given Clover’s perilous commercial record, you’re not likely to ever again, either.


Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
For: Xbox 360, Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP (coming November to Playstation 3)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Here’s hoping you brought your appetite: EA Sports is serving Tiger a la carte this year, and you have a poison to pick.

Do you want lots of courses? The Xbox or PS2 version of “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” might be for you. Each boasts a total of 21 real and fantastical courses, nearly twice as many as the Xbox 360 version’s dozen. Then again, the courses you do get are prettier and more immersive on the 360 than what’s possible on the older hardware. That goes as well for the pros (15 on the 360, 21 on Xbox/PS2): You get less of them, but they outclass their old-hardware counterparts in terms of looks and animation.

It gets trickier. The 360 version sports nearly two dozen modes, including the essentials (tour, training challenges, skins, match play, player creator), some new stuff (a full-featured practice facility, the deservedly-hyped team tour) and a healthy smattering of arcade- and mini-game modes that can be enjoyed solo, with friends or online. The PS2/Xbox versions sport the new team tour mode, but a good chunk of the fun side games are exclusive to the 360.

The PSP version has its own exclusive suite of fast-paced mini-games as well, but no team tour and only slimmed-down versions of the other essentials. Then again, this is the only version that allows you to save a game in progress. Never mind that it’s also portable and allows you to play online from wherever you can find a hotspot. Just be prepared for a lessened degree of control: The PSP’s analog nub is no substitute for any of the aforementioned systems’ controllers.

So you can’t have it all. Fortunately, if you’re a fan of the series, you can’t go terribly wrong, either. “TW07” is fundamentally identical to its predecessors: The analog swing and putt controls still provide the most intuitive game of video golf around, and the optional new preflight adjustments (including shot targeting and power boosting) offer additional accessibility for players who miss the days of meters and three-click gameplay. That, plus whatever features you decide are most important to you, make “TW07” second only to itself as the market’s most comprehensive golf simulation.


Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

As if it knew ahead of time that “Nintendogs” would be a massive international sensation, Nintendo hid the Dalmatian breed inside all four versions of the game and kept that bit of information on the down low. The unlockable Dalmatian was awarded to players as a treat for being studious, dependable virtual dog owners, but chances are good many “Nintendogs” owners to this day have yet to, ahem, spot one. (Sorry.)

Enter “Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends.” “Dalmatian” plays exactly the same as the previously-released quartet of “Nintendogs” games, but this time the Dalmatian is both on the cover for all to see and available for adoption right from the start. A “greatest hits” collection of previously-advertised breeds — Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Yorkie and Beagle — also is immediately available for perusal. Beyond that and the dogs’ ability to understand French and Spanish as well as English voice commands, the game hasn’t changed at all.

Nintendo, to its great credit, makes it clear on the back of the box that all 19 breeds ultimately are available in each of the game’s five flavors. Any accusations of unfair franchise milking at fans’ expense pretty much end there. Then again, Nintendo also slaps a “Limited Edition” badge on the front of the box, almost certainly ensuring a healthy level of interest from collectors, fanatics and the ebay crowd.

Ultimately, though, “Dalmatian” simply offers an additional option for the bazillions of people who have purchased a DS since “Nintendogs” originally released last year and set fire to the system’s buzz. If you already have a copy and have no desire to praise your dog in Spanish, you probably have no need for “Dalmatian.” Don’t feel bad for the puppy on the cover, though; there are many thousands of folks ready to adopt him or her in your place.


Lumines Live!
For: Xbox 360 Arcade
From: Q Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

“Lumines” was one of the best games to launch alongside the Playstation Portable last year, and the block-puzzle-slash-rhythm sensation remains one of its best games more than 19 months later. Considering how accessible and addictive the “Lumines” formula remains, its migration to the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade is a match made in downloadable heaven.

Or so it would seem, until you realize “Lumines Live!” marks the latest slap in the new and entirely unwelcome era of video game microtransactions.

Like any other Live Arcade game, “LL!” offers a free trial version and a not-so-free full version (priced in this case at 1200 Microsoft points, or $15). Unfortunately, the full version (as it’s labeled) isn’t full. For your 1200 points, you get the challenge/marathon, puzzle, mission, versus and multiplayer modes. But the puzzle and mission modes consist of only five levels each, while the versus mode includes only one (yes, one) level.

Want more than that? Pony up: Additional versus levels will set you back more points, and you’ll pay yet more for an acceptable amount of missions and puzzles. The included 12 skins pale in comparison to the PSP version of “Lumines,” and you’ll have to pay extra for more of those as well.

This bit of news would be less aggravating if all this extra content was accessible in a single bonus pack that was available now. But assembling the real full version of “LL!” requires four separate downloads (five if you want the much-publicized music video skins), and three of these won’t be available until next year. Worse, none of this is explained up front, though Q is kind enough to spill the beans once you’ve parted with those first 1200 points.

Major ill will aside, “Lumines” still plays like it should, and the Xbox Live action is fun and free of nasty sneak attacks on your wallet. But if online play isn’t a concern and you have a PSP, you’ll be far better served by the forthcoming “Lumines II.” It costs only twice as much as “LL!’s” broken initial download, but it offers considerably more content than all five downloads put together. You also get the entire game at one time. What a concept.