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Video Game Heat Index

Mark Bemenderfer | Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Creativity is at an all-time low in Hollywood. The biggest movies of the summer have been remakes, sequels and spin-offs. But they also tend to be some of the most successful movies. The runaway success of “Spider-Man 2,” a sequel that improved on the original, proved this trend.

The video game industry is no different. When games like “Halo 2” and the legion of “Final Fantasy” games sell as well as they do, it’s a knee-jerk reaction for the producers to create more sequels and spin-offs. This summer has exemplified that, with the biggest sellers falling into that category.

Madden 2006

With Madden franchise being the current 800-pound gorilla of football games, its yearly release is highly anticipated by fans. It is the most successful football license in gaming, and has been that way for many years. The latest Madden capitalizes on updated rosters and new gameplay mechanics.

Of the updated changes, perhaps the largest would be EA, the game’s developer, choosing to revamp the passing design. In previous years, passing was relatively simple, if a little unrealistic. Scrambling quarterbacks could deftly sling the ball across their body with ease, milliseconds before sacked.

A new level of realism has been introduced with the new quarterback vision feature. In order to complete a pass in “Madden 2006,” the quarterback has to be looking squarely at the receiver. Making sure that the pass connects is now fully controllable. Even the quarterback’s line of sight must be taken into account.

“Superstar,” a new feature of the gameplay, is a welcome addition, as it allows the player to develop a football persona from scratch, and build his career. Everything from training schedules to the player’s parents play a role in this process, adding an almost role-playing quality to the game.

Not many significant defensive changes have been made from last year’s incarnation, leaving players on familiar ground. Offensive players also sport the ability to use the “truck stick,” their version of the defensive hit stick. With careful timing, the running back can slam the defender off of him, but it slows him down more than a simple juke. – B

NCAA Football 2006

“NCAA Football” is to college sports games as “Madden” is to professional ones. It’s the most successful college franchise, and like “Madden,” a new incarnation is released every year. In the past, it has always been in the shadow of its EA big brother, a trait that has, fortunately, been overcome.

The new selling point for the series, beyond being faster and more responsive that previous versions, is the inclusion of the “Race for the Heisman” mode. As in “Madden 2006,” the gamer now has the ability to create a player and follow him through his career. After creating an athlete, it is the gamer’s responsibility to get him into a decent school, based upon his performance in training drills. A shoddy performance means poor offers, as well as decreased stats. A good performance means better offers, and excellent starting stats.

Fortunately, even if you don’t impress Notre Dame with your player’s performance, you can pull a Rudy and walk on to any team. It makes it harder, however, to get on the fast track to Heisman status.

Everything else is improved or at least comparable to last year’s version. Taking a cue from the Blitz series, athletes can now become impact players, essentially going “in the zone.” An impact player gets there by repeatedly performing excellent plays. This brings an added layer to the game, giving both you and your opponent a target for which to watch. For your college football fix, at least until the first home game against Michigan State, here’s your ticket. – A

Conker: Live and Reloaded

The only one here that truly falls under the remake category, “Conker: Live and Reloaded” is a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day.” The single-player story has been left relatively untouched, with some subtle winks tossed to fans of the original. For those who have never played through the Nintendo 64 version, the X-Box remake comes highly recommended. It’s a fun, adventurous romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

However, fans of the original will still find things to draw them into purchasing the game. The multiplayer mode has been completely revamped, and is playable over X-Box Live, the X-Box’s online gaming community. The dueling factions of the Nazi-like Tediz and the good squirrels are the playable characters, with different character classes further diversifying the gameplay.

Fans of “Halo,” and online gaming in general, will find plenty to enjoy in the game. Gamers inclined to explosions and heavy artillery can choose the lumbering Demolisher. Others looking for a little more finesse might choose the Sneaker. Finally, the Grunt is the jack of all trades and for intangibles, there’s the Thermophile.

Creating replay within the game is a wealth of unlockable features based upon online performance. Killing the opposition garners medals, which then open up improved weapons or abilities for the characters. Healing teammates and repairing critical machinery earns medals as well. A combination of all those factors affects rankings, which leads to promotions and more prestige with the “Conkers” community.

The only drawback to the game is the steep learning curve, and a depth that does not quite match “Halo.” But those factors aside, “Conker: Live and Reloaded” is a great experience for action fans. – A-

Halo 2 Map Pack

While not a game per se, the “Halo 2” map pack offers new levels and updates weaponry for “Halo” veterans, giving enough content to warrant heavy consideration. Nine new multiplayer maps round out the “Halo” experience, with updates on classic levels like Wizard and Longest. There are new maps as well, with some standouts being the train station Terminal, and Gemini.

Terminal is a fairly symmetrical level, with train tracks that go through the center of the map. Items are placed near the tracks, forcing players to risk their digital lives to obtain key weapons. It’s also highly amusing to see an opponent go flying from the speeding trains.

Most of the content on the DVD can also be downloaded for free off X-Box Live. Already, most of the maps are free, with the remaining maps released free of charge shortly. A “Halo” animated short is also included on the disc, and is worth a look for hardcore fans.

However, the map pack is not worth the disc’s $20 retail price. Without Live to download the content, the purchase becomes more worthy of consideration. But for those with Live, there’s relatively little reason to pick this up, as the primary content can be downloaded free of charge. – C-

The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction

While playing “The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction,” it’s almost impossible to not stop and feel awed by the sheer chaos gamers can create. While controlling the Hulk, the gamer gets a great feeling of controlling a multi-ton wrecking ball of destruction. Cars, pedestrians and even busses are sent flying with the tap of a button.

Immensely impressive is how well the Hulk’s animations were designed. Unable to fly, the Hulk travels by bounding throughout the city, off buildings and over rooftops. This creates a fluid, very dynamic mode of transportation, with plenty of realism as the Hulk lands. Land next to or on a car, and the shockwaves sends the car flipping away. Concrete cracks, and people run from the Hulk’s arrival in terror. It is truly an entertaining and humorous experience.

However, the gameplay by itself is not necessarily enough for an entertaining game. A decent story was tossed in as well, with rogue government officials and the military breathing down Bruce Banner’s neck. The missions aren’t incredibly varied, and most of them revolve around the Hulk smashing something. Then again, the Hulk was never really known for espionage or subtlety.

The closest comparable game is “Spider-Man 2.” Both of the games have free-roaming environments that can be manipulated and explored. However, “The Incredible Hulk” may have the more immersive environment due to the Hulk’s ability to smash and modify his surrounding. Even the skyscrapers can be leveled by the Hulk’s power, drastically altering the game area.

For comic-book fans, this game is a must-have. Blowing the previous Hulk games out of the water in every way, “Ultimate Destruction” lives up to its title. – A+