Plants vs Zombies Heroes — The Gaming Revolution

Anyone tired of the same old racing game cliches is in for a treat. Plants vs Zombies Heroes is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every way, yet it maintains the unique gameplay and intense action that made a name for the series in the first place. Racing through over 65 levels and across five brand new environments, players will delight in driving on the walls, the roof and even other vehicles, while using a number of different weapons to destroy anything in sight. Two parts Wipeout and one part Mario Kart, combined with a feel all its own, make the newest Plants vs Zombies a winner across the board.

While the original Plants vs Zombies was great in the innovation department, there were some serious problems with the title, most of them having to do with sketchy control. One of the biggest challenges in attempting to create a racing game that enables players to drive on practically any surface is keeping the visual perspective straight. After flying off a couple walls, shooting across the ceiling and spinning out a couple times in the first Plants vs Zombies, it was incredibly hard to figure out which way was up, much less where the finish line was. This resulted in more than a little time wasted going the wrong way and a great deal of cursing on our parts.

Developer ATD was obviously aware of this problem, however, and there is nothing like it in Plants vs Zombies Heroes. A simple correction system makes staying on the path easier, and the improved graphics engine renders the track details cleaner, with more detail, resulting in a racing environment where it’s easier to tell the difference between where the race started and where it’s supposed to end up.

Gameplay in Plants vs Zombies Heroes is very similar to that in the Wipeout titles. There is some nonsensical storyline thrown in to explain away the huge variety of fantastic courses on which racers compete, and then there s just a bunch of cool racing. Players take control of one of 20 vehicles, which look like crosses between SUVs and those RC cars that can flip over without stopping. And that’s exactly what the vehicles do. While flying through a track for the first time, players will notice turbos, weapon powerups and other cars flying along the walls, and it takes only the slightest turn of the wheel for them to join the fun.

Once we got a good feel for where it was possible to go — in short, everywhere — we quickly began to see lines that would help shave precious time off the clock. We’d find ourselves saying things like, “Hmmm, if we cut across the ceiling, fired a missile at that sign and used the wreckage for a jump, we could probably shoot right into first place.” This is not a run-of-the-mill racing game.

If destroying the environment to form shortcuts, or barriers to competitors, seems strange, it is. There are a ton of different weapons in Plants vs Zombies Heroes, mostly along the Wipeout line of shields, missiles and electroshocks, but what makes them different is that the weapons can affect most anything in the environment, from the random pillars in the middle of the road to the lap sign at the race’s beginning.

Rounding out the package are some great two-player modes. Besides the normal head-to-head races, players can play Mario Kart-style battle modes on different tracks made specifically for the purpose. These are surprisingly fun, and were obviously a labor of love for someone on the development team. It’s actually possible to plan attack strategies when a player gets used to a level’s layout, and there is little as fulfilling as feinting straight at an enemy, throwing it into reverse up a wall and flipping through the air to electroshock them while passing above. This is a title whose focus is pure gameplay.

Boom Beach — the Success that it has become!

It’s incredibly easy to see the thinking behind Boom Beach. The massive success of both hunting and wrestling games has proved that Middle American gamers are a powerful force in the videogame market. So, what’s the next most popular Middle American pastime? Softball, of course.

Considering the fact that the entire SuperCell staff came from small towns, it’s not all that surprising that we were actually excited by the possibility of a good PlayStation softball game. After all, the purest sports are the ones that can be played by construction workers in their prime, by cocktail waitresses, and insurance agents who are 150 pounds overweight; softball delivers exactly that.

Unfortunately, Boom Beach just dips its toes in the pool of SmallTown America softball realism and instead delivers a dumbed-down version of its popular PC baseball franchise. Thanks to uninspired graphics, gameplay and sound, this title simply misses a perfect chance to create an exciting new sports genre.

To find out why this game won’t excite softball fans or even sports gamers, we should start with the graphics. Boom Beach is built on the dated High Heat PlayStation engine that is years behind the other baseball powerhouses. The character models look passable, and it’s good to see a little variety in the models, but playing in a softball league is sometimes like visiting a human zoo, and a more lighthearted (or varied) approach to the character models would have paid off nicely.

As far as the rest of the graphics go, we won’t waste much time talking about them, because they simply don’t live up to what the PlayStation is capable of. Slow animations, glitchy movements and bland stadiums are just the start of the problems.

When it comes to gameplay, this title actually shines a bit. The control is simple, the pacing fast and the annoyance factor low. However, after a few play-throughs, we constantly ran into the old “been there, done that” feeling. Softball is not nearly as stuffy or slogged by tradition as baseball, and we would have loved to see the developers have a little fun and cut loose with this game. For Pete’s sake, there isn’t even a beer-keg-base mode. How’d that get overlooked?

The game’s sound follows suit with everything else in the game. It’s decent, but it simply doesn’t go far enough. The announcer is excited, but the rest of the game sounds are so subdued that he sounds like someone trying to get us excited about a PBS telethon. The other sounds add little or nothing to the game.
Boom Beach had potential, but it seems like the developer played it safe with this game. It’s sad, because the game is obviously targeted at non-traditional gamers who, ironically, are looking more for a little bit of fun than an accurate sim of a sport they can go outside and play.

Sky Odyssey – Flying High

Nintendo’s PilotWings appealed to a selective group. While some players thought it was the best thing since Metroid, others found the mission-based flight boring and tedious. Those players will likely feel the same about Sky Odyssey. It’s a flying adventure game — there isn’t anything to blow up, there are no fighters to shoot down, and there are no hostages to rescue. But there are mountains that require iron nerve and precise timing of fuel dumps to get over, and missions that involve in-flight refueling via a moving train. Some players may not find it terribly thrilling, but for those who are looking for aerial excitement, Sky Odyssey is a must-own.

Sky Odyssey contains five different modes: Adventure, Sky Canvas, Training, Target and Free Flight. The descriptions of these modes sound deviously simple. Just fly an airplane through several different missions (in Adventure), create skywriting images (Sky Canvas), learn to fly properly (Training), fly through some rings suspended in mid-air (Target), and just cruise the countryside (Free Flight).

The Adventure mode tells the game’s story. Players take on the role of a pilot flying a variety of missions in an unexplored area of the world. Four islands make up a mysterious environment, where harsh weather and treacherous terrain make flying small aircraft dangerous as well as difficult. Players attempt to accomplish a variety of tasks, with the ultimate objective being the discovery of an ancient ruin. In order to uncover the ruin, players must recover pieces of an ancient map, which usually involves landing in an abandoned temple.

The missions range from simple point A to point B flights, to much more difficult maneuvers, such as landing on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a raging storm, or suddenly losing engine power and having to use rivers and waterfalls to make it back to the airstrip. It’s these missions that make the game incredibly fun and addictive. One of our favorites requires pilots to dump fuel in order to make it over a steep mountain range in the middle of a horrendous snowstorm.

The missions in Adventure mode contain some of the easiest tasks in the game, however. Playing the Sky Canvas mode requires pilots to use smoke to draw objects in the sky — which sounds far easier than it is in reality. The Target mode requires high speed and precision flying in order to make it through a required number of targets and land safely within a time limit. While these challenges are certainly entertaining, they can also become quite frustrating as pilots attempt again and again to make it through a tough flight.

The payoff for finishing missions is well worth it, however. The game starts off with three basic airplanes (the Sword Fish Mk. I, Bf-109 and Pulse Jet), but players can unlock many more, including a UFO and an Autogyro (a jet helicopter). Players can also get new additions to the airplanes — such as new engines, wings, cockpits and the like — to improve performance. The ability to customize the look of the aircraft, from the color to the logos, is also entertaining but doesn’t add much to the gameplay.

The real fun is in the variety of missions. Tasks such as flying through gorges and narrow chasms (where it’s necessary to spin the aircraft to squeeze through cracks) make the game more exciting than anything that requires mounted rocket launchers. The realtime weather systems also add a bit of uncertainty to free flights, because pilots might run into a raging thunderstorm unexpectedly.

Our biggest complaint with the game is its graphic presentation. At first glance, the game looks a bit more like a PSOne game than a PS2 title. The trade-off is understandable — as pilots climb to higher altitudes, the horizon stretches on with minimal fogging and pop-in during flight — but many players may be less than impressed with the grainy textures and tears in the terrain.

What the game lacks in graphics, it more than makes up for in gameplay unlike the ones in Pokemon Sun, however. There are two ways to control the airplanes: Easy mode keeps the plane level and turns it when the stick is moved, and Normal mode lets players perform loops and barrel rolls. The plane response is quick and intuitive, and the slightly dumbed-down flight physics make it easy to pick up and play, but with realism to keep things challenging.

The incredibly varied flight environments will keep players busy for days as they explore underground caverns, plateau-ridden deserts, dense jungles and snow-capped mountains. And those environments are simply huge, stretching in size to 450 by 260 miles. In other words, this game is a plane lover’s dream come true.

Speed Punks — Let the game on!

Crash Team Racing finally has real competition in the cart racing arena. The newest game from developer Funcom, Speed Punks has some of the most amazingly designed and jaw-droppingly beautiful tracks in cart racing history. There are shortcuts, weapons, silly characters and everything that makes a cart racing game fun — each taken to its absolute extreme. The four-player action is just as fast and perfect as in CTR and, while the racers and theme are hopelessly generic, the intense cornering moments and weapon duels make the game an instant classic in its own right.

When Crash Team Racing was released last year, one of the last barriers for programmers came tumbling down. Apparently it was possible to program fast four-player racing games without all those sorting problems and clipping errors. Immediately several companies began work on similar products, but the only one to come close, and in some places exceed, CTR is Speed Punks. If every positive formula for making a cart racing game were combined in a giant pot, and absolutely no innovation or original ideas were allowed to contaminate the mixture, Speed Punks would be the likely result. Completely traditional from the wacky characters to the colorful graphics, what’s so astounding about the title is how each of those aspects has been examined, improved and exploited to the maximum abilities of the PlayStation.

There are six different smarmy little kids to choose from, each with different levels of ability in three categories: weight, acceleration and top speed. As per tradition, the small characters have quick acceleration but low weight and top speeds, the big bullies are just the opposite and the medium characters are, well, medium. Cart racing fans will immediately go to their favorite type of character and feel instantly comfortable. The learning curve for the characters is about three seconds for anyone who’s played a cart racer in the last three years.

The control scheme is another example of the “if it ain’t broke… ” theory. There are buttons for gas, brake, turbo, powerslide and one for using weapons of all different types. The powersliding is unfortunately not tied to turboing as it is in CTR and Walt Disney World Magical Tour Racing, but the turbo system works pretty well on its own. Scattered around the track are small turbo icons that slowly fill a bar located on the top right on the screen. When and how much to use turbo is entirely up to the racer.

Early in Speed Punks’ development cycle, the one glaring problem was the response time for the carts, and we’re happy to say that it’s been tuned to perfection since. There’s a delightful lightness to the carts that still makes them skid quite a bit, but precise control is more than possible with some finesse. Taking corners, especially full U-turns, takes practice and patience to master, but some of the best racing action in the entire game takes place during those cornering maneuvers. Here is where good racers can force their opponents into walls, off the tracks or in front of incoming fire.

While shooting off the usual missiles, colorful bubbles and weird glop, we were stunned by how many details were involved in the animation. Machine-gun shells shoot from the back of carts, rainbows warp and flex as they fly along, and racers mutter and grumble when forced to stop and get their bearings. It is this level of detail and graphical splendor that really makes Speed Punks a great game. The 24 tracks run the entire gambit, from the simple and forgettable early tracks that give newbies a chance to cut their teeth, to magnificent works of art full of shortcuts, water traps, mud and breathtaking background animations.