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PSP action games enter the arena

Mark Bemenderfer | Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Video game manufacturers typically release their bread and butter games at the same time as the initial release of the game system itself, hoping to rope in customers. In the months following a system’s release, there is usually a major dropoff, with most of the subsequent games hardly worth shelling out any money. The X-Box followed this trend, as “Halo” was arguably the only game worth owning for at least a year following the system’s release.

The PSP, Sony’s powerful, pocket-sized gaming system, is no exception to this trend. Following the impressive launch titles, there has been a famine of new titles. The games released since the PSP’s launch have been mediocre at best.

Over the summer, three action games were released for the PSP, hoping to buck the trend. They were all games that held promise, backed by reputable companies popular with gamers. However, of the three, only one is worth the $40 price tag.

The first game released was “Dead to Rights: Reckoning.” The “Dead to Rights” series is an established brandname, but it hasn’t been a positive brand as of late. The two previous games in the series have received lukewarm praise.

To be honest, the story is merely superficial. No character depth is ever introduced, nor does hero Jack Slate ever do more than go from point A to point B. A plot twist is introduced at the end, but it fails miserably to bear any real impact.

The plot should not be the draw for this game, however. The action is clearly the main draw here. On harder difficulty settings, “Dead to Rights” becomes a heavily skill-based shooting feast, with bullets and slow-motion diving serving up the main course.

But although the action can be entertaining at times, “Dead to Rights: Reckoning” fails to be a worthwhile purchase. On the normal difficulty setting, the game can easily be beat in under an hour. The higher difficulties and unlockable cheats add some replay value, as does the four player multiplayer mode.

“Coded Arms,” released within two weeks of “Dead to Rights,” has the distinction of being the first and only true first-person shooter on the PSP. “Coded Arms” follows in the vein of “Doom,” another popular monster-based first-person shooter. But many problems plague this game and prevent it from rising above mediocrity.

The single player storyline is even more forgettable than “Dead to Rights,” if that is possible. Valuable plot information is only revealed in the game manual.

There is too much missed potential in “Coded Arms.” It could have been vastly improved by incorporating other characters, perhaps as recurring opponents. Levels, enemies and weapon designs are repetitive throughout the game. The single-player game’s boss battles, which are massive and actually intimidating, are the only positive aspects to the game. It’s a shame there are only three of them.

Control is also a hindrance in the game. Aiming can be tricky due to the lack of any auto-aim or target-lock features. This hindrance affects everyone over multiplayer equally, so it’s not much of a disadvantage in multiplayer mode. Multi-player mode is where the game shines, as it supports four-player game modes for an action experience on the go.

The last game released was also the most hyped of the trio. “Death Jr.” was originally supposed to be a launch title for the system, but missed the original date as the developer wanting to fine-tune it more.

“Death Jr.” definitely shows the love and care invested by its developers, as it is by far the best of the three games released and has the most robust gameplay. The story is filled with such weird and interesting characters as Pandora, Dead Guppy and Death’s son, the game’s namesake. On a class field trip, Death Jr. accidentally releases an ancient evil from a box after Pandora finds herself unable to open the box herself.

The gameplay revolves around the player controlling Death Jr. as he attempts to save his friends and return the evil back to the box. Failure could mean losing his friends, getting into trouble at school or, most importantly, ticking off his dad. Honestly, who would want to tick off Death?

Controlling Death Jr. is a fun experience and surprisingly deep for a handheld platform game. His weapon of choice, the scythe, can be used in a variety of situations, be it sliding down lines or climbing up ledges. The scythe can even be used as a pogo stick.

The game’s developers stated that they wanted to create an original, recognizable mascot, akin to Nintendo’s Mario, but with a gun. Of course, since the famous plumber was already taken, they had to come up with a new mascot. Hence, as the player goes through the game, an increasing collection of guns is found, much to Death Jr.’s delight.

Two complaints hinder “Death Jr.” and prevent it from being the outright game to own for the PSP. The camera can be a chore to control at times, and there’s a disappointing lack of a multiplayer mode, something that could have really made this game a must-own.

But as it stands, “Death Jr.” is still the current cream of the crop and bucks the trend of disappointing games released soon after a system’s release. Hopefully other game developers will take notice and follow suit.