Lara: Back again, for the very first time

I’m fresh off getting a long look at Lara Croft’s new-old adventure in “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” this morning at the W in Los Angeles (worth visiting just for the big Salma Hayek picture in the entryway).

“Anniversary” is a remake of the original “Tomb Raider” that came out for PCs 10 years ago. Gaming was still very fella-centric at the time, with Duke Nukem blowing holes in everything and Mario still following his happy save-the-princess path. When “Tomb Raider” was first still being put together, they were actually considering a character that was essentially an Indiana Jones ripoff. Then they bandied about the name “Lara Cruz.” Eventually, gamers got the British archeological bombshell they know and love.

I’m usually pretty leery whenever the word “remake” creeps up, but what I got to see was pretty solid stuff. I’m not saying it’s quite on the scale of “Resident Evil” for the GameCube, but it was a pretty stark contrast to what we experienced a decade ago. I put some pics up, though they might not do the game justice.

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In addition to some of the redone puzzles, they also integrated the revamped, platformish control scheme used in Legend, so actions that would take a lot of time to do in the PC game would take half the time with the new control scheme. That’s something of a challenge as far as level design goes, especially since one of the big gripes about Legend was that it was too freakin’ short. We’re promised at least TWICE the playtime of Legend for Anniversary.

In terms of combat, I got a look at a new “adrenaline”-based counter system. If you dodge an attack at the right moment, the game executes bullet-time slowdown, with a pair of aiming sights zeroing in on a target. Time it right, and you get the chance for one-hit kills (insert “massive damage” joke here.) I saw this put to good use in the remodeled T-Rex battle, where you had make use of the counter-shots to blind theT-Rex and cause it to run into things. It looked a little on the easy side to do, but then again, I didn’t get any hands-on time. You’ll also see the return of the interactive cutscenes that were introduced in Legend, as well as a completely rebuilt musical score.

The game is set for PS2, PSP, Wii and PC, with the PS2 version dropping on June 6.

Thoughts on the ‘Halo 3′ multiplayer beta

I came, I saw … and I got owned.

My experience with the invitation-only multiplayer beta for “Halo 3″ ended up being a lot more than a fact-finding mission – it also became a quick refresher course on both gaming culture as well as the roles of “taste” and “style” in online play.

If you’re new to gaming and don’t quite know what a beta is, think of it as a rough draft or VERY early tour of a game.

You get the basic foundation of the gameplay, as well as an idea of what the game is going to offer in terms of features and visuals. Stuff like glitches, bugs are expected, since the game is nowhere near finished yet.

“Halo” is one of console gaming’s most popular franchises, mostly because it gave many console players a chance to go online and blast each other for hours. It gave many gamers that vintage online action experience that PC users had already been enjoying for years.

Tons of hype and fanfare followed the first two “Halo” games, which will make “Halo 3″ probably the most anticipated game of the year, at least in the eyes of the mainstream. If you see throngs of gamers in stores on Sept. 25, you’ll know why – that’s when “Halo 3″ is supposed to come out for the Xbox 360.

The beta doesn’t give you the option to shoot computer AI opponents for practice – you get tossed right into the fire against other people, so you learn on the job.

One nice feature was “matchmaking,” where the game attempts to find other players that either match or come close to your skill level. If you’re in a “rumble pit” match (free-for-all deathmatch), this is an effort to ensure you don’t get stuck with a bunch of ringers. In team competition, the matchmaking tries to make sure you and your buddies don’t get put up against some all-star team. Sometimes it worked … and sometimes it didn’t.

In terms of playing, “Halo” vets will feel right at home with the controls – not much has changed. It took me a while to get used to holding two weapons at the same time (dual-wielding), as well as getting used to the run-and-gun, breakneck pace of the matches. It also took me a while to get used to jumping again, as well as using a very useful “Halo” tool – the melee attack.

It took me a few games before I started notching a few kills, simply because my “Rainbow Six Vegas” instincts kept kicking in and getting me annihilated. Unlike “R6,” there’s no button-press cover system in “Halo,” nor do enemies die after taking just a few bullets. For a few seconds, I forgot that “Halo” players have a rechargeable personal shield.

One thing I wanted to check out were the new weapons and gadgets. One fun item I got to use was the “bubble shield,” which you may have seen in the “Halo 3″ trailer a while back.

After you snatch one, press the X button to lay it down and form a protective energy dome around you that blocks practically anything.

It’s only temporary, but I’ve already seen a few expert players use it in a lot of creative ways. I once saw one player set up a shield and trap another player inside … with just a grenade to keep him company. I call this the “phone booth of death” technique, and I hope to pull it off at least ONCE before I die.

Another new weapon I stumbled upon was the Spartan Laser. If you’ve played “Gears of War” and have seen the Hammer of Dawn, think of the Spartan as its horizontal cousin.

While the Hammer rains down an energy beam from the sky, you can actually point the Spartan like a rifle and unleash its death-dealing payload on anyone (or anything) that gets caught in front of it.

I felt the power of the Spartan Laser firsthand – I saw a flicker of red light near my feet, and then witnessed a fearsome beam carve a smoky trail right in front of me. The guy didn’t miss the second time. Oddly enough, his gamertag was something like “ChuckNorris.” I learned a very fast lesson then: Run away from lasers … especially if Chuck Norris is pulling the trigger.

The beta featured three maps, two of which I really liked. The first one was “Snowbound,” where you do a lot of fighting in fresh powder as well as a network of underground tunnels and small bases.

The other map I liked was “Valhalla,” which featured what a lot of people are calling the “man cannon.” It’s essentially an energy platform that literally shoots you into the air and across the map (hence the term). It adds a little bit of limited aerial combat to the experience, and you can actually use it to launch you AND a vehicle into the fray. It’s awesome.

I also discovered the ability to detach heavy machine-gun turrets and carry them around, like Jesse Ventura’s character in “Predator.” It slows you down, but say good-bye to anyone who’s in your sights when you pull the trigger. The same goes for the portable missile pod.

In terms of overall visuals, the game looks like it’s going to be in the good-to-very-good range. The textures and detail on the weapons looked very good, and there were some cool visual effects when bullets hit the water.

However, if the game were released right now, I’d still put the glitzy shine of “Rainbow Six Vegas” and the decimated beauty of “Gears” ahead of it. I just need to see more, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the finished product could be something special.

There’s still a lot more stuff to discuss, such as the ability to “record” your match and watch it over again, kind of like the way pro athletes study film to scout an opponent. There’s also more weapons and various match modes (all rocket launchers, all sniper rifles, etc.) But sadly, there’s not enough space.

I had fun with the “Halo 3″ beta, and I’m probably going to be playing it until it ends on June 6. Whether it’ll be enough for me until Sept. 25 – time will tell.

Nope … no beta yet.

So, I fire up the 360 to start downloading the Halo 3 beta … and I can’t. Apparently, there are some issues that need to be handled, which would explain why the beta is a few hours late. Here’s what Bungie has to say:

Folks are reporting problems downloading the Halo 3 Beta via Crackdown this morning. We have alerted the appropriate Live authorities and they are taking care of the problem as we speak. More news as it comes in.

With any luck this will be a short delay. People entering the Beta through other methods – Friends and Family, Rule of Three and so on, are unaffected.

Sigh.

Release date for Halo 3 … Sept. 25

Circle your calendars to call off sick that day. I wish there was some way to calculate the hours of lost productivity that will happen that first week, kind of like the first few days of March Madness.

Here are the official words from Microsoft:

In a year when Hollywood is launching its biggest blockbusters ever, a video game is set to conquer them all. Halo 3, the final chapter in the groundbreaking Halo trilogy, is set to shatter day-one entertainment sales records when it is released worldwide beginning Tuesday, Sept. 25. Created by legendary developer Bungie Studios and exclusive to the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system, Halo 3 will set a new standard for interactive storytelling and social gaming by engaging consumers worldwide in Master Chiefs epic battle to save humankind. Halo 3 will be available to audiences around the world starting Sept. 25 and will release in Europe on Sept. 26.

Halo 3 is much more than a video game release; its the biggest entertainment event of the year, said Peter Moore, corporate vice president of Microsofts Interactive Entertainment Business. On Sept. 25, we intend to deliver a finale that will go down in entertainment history and leave people around the world with an experience that will be shared and enjoyed for years to come.

Fueling the early buzz around Halo 3, Microsoft unveiled the multiplayer beta on the eve of its release at a star-studded event in Hollywood. Beginning tomorrow, May 16, Microsoft Game Studios will kick off the Halo 3 multiplayer beta, which provides audiences worldwide with an exclusive, early look at some of the multiplayer elements of Halo 3 on Xbox LIVE. Adding to the excitement, Microsoft is also announcing a special edition Zune digital media player inspired by the hugely successful Halo franchise. On shelves next month, the Zune-Halo 3 edition comes loaded with a collection of Halo content, including videos, soundtracks, trailers, ads and artwork.

In November 2004, the worlds view of video games changed forever with the release of Halo 2, which generated a record-setting $125 million in sales within the first 24 hours and changed the way people think about interactive entertainment. Three years later, it remains the most-played game on Microsofts Xbox LIVE online gaming and entertainment network, with nearly 1 billion hours of online gaming logged to date.

The unveiling of the Halo 3 launch date comes on the eve of the release of the Halo 3 multiplayer beta, which will debut to audiences worldwide via Xbox LIVE on May 16 at 5 a.m. PDT and run through June 6 at 11:59 p.m. PDT.* The Halo 3 multiplayer beta will provide audiences worldwide with an exclusive early look at some of the multiplayer elements of Halo 3 on Xbox LIVE. Gamers who are interested in experiencing the multiplayer beta of Halo 3 can still participate through the purchase of the critically acclaimed, Xbox 360-exclusive title Crackdown, which was launched in February. Starting May 16, the specially marked copies of Crackdown will act as a key for gamers to participate in the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. In addition to giving gamers their first opportunity to get their hands on the new levels, weapons, vehicles and game types, the multiplayer beta will also provide valuable data that Bungie will use in continued development.

The Halo franchise has expanded beyond video games into The New York Times best-selling books, graphic novels, collectible merchandise and now a new, special edition Zune digital media player. Encased in collectible packaging, the Zune-Halo 3 edition digital media player comes pre-loaded with artwork, trailers and music from all three Halo games, as well as an exclusive new episode of Red vs. Blue from the fan-adored machinima creator Rooster Teeth Productions LLC. The Zune-Halo 3 edition (estimated retail price $249) will be available exclusively at GameStop starting June 15.

And now, introducing …

… our gaming podcast for the Sun and Daily Bulletin, “Wanna be a Gamer?”

For those who may not know, Canan Tasci of City News has a New Year’s resolution — to take up video games. She has selected yours truly as her bumbling guide through a world that features guitar heroes, cooking mamas, chainsaws and gods of war. Our podcasts can be found on the front page of www.dailybulletin.com and www.sbsun.com. On the Bulletin Web site (scroll down and look to the right), you’ll be able to catch up on the stuff we’ve done so far. We’ve got some videos to go along with Canan’s journey into gamerdom. Check them out!

Here’s the first episode, which sets the tone and where we discuss Canan’s reaction to “Gears of War” and “God of War 2.”

Episode 2: Guitar Hero II

Episode 3: More GH II and a little bit of first-person shooter action

Episode 4: Spider-Man 3 and Sony Gamer Day impressions

If you’re one of the many folks who find the gaming world a little weird and scary — check us out. It’s nothing to be frightened of. Really.

Doing more ‘Crackdown’

I said I wasn’t going to do it … but I bought the downloadable content for “Crackdown” and messed with it over the weekend. It’s the best 800 points I’ve spent in a long time. I was looking for new agents and perhaps a new gang, but after killing about 2/3 of my Saturday rolling around the city and hurling buckets of rockets at criminals (in an armored car no less), I think I’m even happier that I own this game.

As far as the new content goes, I explored the “Keys to the City” options, which range from God Mode (like you need it) in this game to the ability to make vehicles appear out of thin air. I felt like a hulking, evil, gun-toting … wizard. You can’t explain that kind of silly power. However, the game tries to compensate for this the sudden godliness by eliminating the ability to save your game. I started out as the skinny agent, but then hopped in a car and used the Keys to max out all his abilities. The next time I left the vehicle, I was a buff, hell-raising war machine armed with a minigun that actually needed time to warm up before it fired. Madness.

My favorite of the new vehicles is the armored car, which comes equipped with a rotating rocket-launcher turret. It’s fast, it can slam smaller vehcles into pieces, and generally looks like something the devil would drive. All I would have needed were rims. Oh well. You also have an Agency race car, which I can’t drive to save my life because it’s so freaking fast. I’m also afraid to hit anything for fear of shattering into pieces.

I also played with some of the new weapons. I told you about the minigun, but there’s also a “harpoon” gun which manages to take out thugs in one shot, and I also screwed around with the “lobber,” a grenade-launcher hybrid that litters the air with (I think) sheets of shrapnel. I didn’t use this as much, as I ended up taking out too many innocents by accident. I am kind.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with everything that was provided, and I didn’t even get to try the “street racing” minigame yet. I’m not sure I will, since I’m really not into racing games to begin with. Plus, it’s only a couple of days before the Halo 3 beta, where I plan on being dead to the rest of the world. Hopefully, my podcast partner Canan will be able to sneak in some kills as well.

Thoughts on the BlackSite: Area 51 demo

As I write this, I’m waiting for the Forza Motorsport 2 demo to finish downloading, and for some reason, it’s rolling along at paint-peeling speed. In the meantime, I got to try out the BlackSite: Area 51 demo earlier this morning. It certainly looks nice enough, especially since the whole demo is using rain effects. But after seeing the rain in Gears, I had slightly higher standards … and I’m not sure they were met.

Anyway, the demo puts you in a town called Rachel, which is being swarmed by alien lifeforms. You’re the point man on the three-man squad (like GRAW) sent in to clean up the place. All I was able to do in the demo in terms of tactics was use the right bumper to order my guys to go in a certain direction. In the finished product, how you lead determines the kind of morale or energy your team members have. If you keep leading them to danger, there’s a chance they won’t like fighting for you much longer.

I kept trying to break the habit of applying Rainbow Six Vegas covering techniques to this. The left trigger is the zoom button (like Gears), and I resorted to simply moving and crouching behind solid objects for cover. Fighting the aliens reminded me a lot of Resistance: Fall of Man, but without any strange weapons to use. Well, it is the demo … perhaps there’s some strange plasma cannon I can use in the finished product. Who knows?

I’ll say one thing … these freakin’ aliens can take a lot of bullets. I spent a considerable amount of time hurling obscenities at these tall creatures whose torsos disassembled from the rest of their bodies and crawled toward you after getting shot. And they exploded. These guys are going to loads of fun in the finished product. You do a lot of fighting in a gas station, so I got to see how the game handled medium-sized explosions. Decent, but nothing that brought a tear to my eye.

The coolest visual treat happened at the end, when some flaming alien being slams into the ground in front of you, decimating a store and sending a shockwave that ends up flinging a bunch of parked cars at you and your squad. Upon impact, the game slows down, Matrix style. Part of it is for dramatic effect … the other part, I imagine, is so you can avoid getting a faceful of station wagon.

A trip through Springfield … sort of

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I got invited to the celebration/block party for the 400th episode of “The Simpsons,” with Canan Tasci of City News (or as she’s known on our gaming podcast, Turkish Princess) riding shotgun. The pictures you see are taken from my all-powerful camera phone, because the both of us fail at charging our actual digital cameras.

Part of the party featured a demo of the new Simpsons game, which our friend Scot Rubin of All Games Interactive got to check out. You can also hit up GameTrailers or IGN to see the footage that sadly, me and Canan missed b/c we got there too late. Traffic fails when driving from Ontario to Los Angeles.

From what I’ve seen and heard, the Simpsons’ foray into the world of next-gen mimics the cartoon show in terms of art style and animation. Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa are all playable characters. The family finds itself literally trapped inside a video game, and they each discover unique abilities in their virtual world. You’ll see Homer gain calories and transform into a rolling, Katamari-style blob and Bart assume the role of Bartman, using his cape to glide through the air in a large brewery. The fact that it managed to pull this off in a 3D setting made the footage a little more enticing. What everyone saw was very early, pre-alpha stuff, so a lot can change from now until the game’s release.

As for the party itself, there were a ton of people there, feasting on all kinds of food — you had everything from tacos to four kinds of sausages to ice cream in a back alley. Which is kind of creepy … “hey kids, want some ice cream, come to the alley.” Whatever … I enjoyed it.

There was also a big projection screen against one of the set buildings, where they showed episode No. 400 to crowd at night. Matt Groening, the creator of the SImpsons, managed to address the crowd before it started. Not to spoil anything, but this particular episode hit home with the two of us — it tackles the concept of new journalism and the Internet vs. old journalism, with Kent Brockman serving as the centerpiece of the story. Now, prepare for some bad pics.

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That humanoid bit of fuzz is Matt Groening, the father of the SImpsons. I only recently learned how to pronounce his name (for the record, it’s pronounced GRAY-ning).

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Yeah … I need to bring a better camera.

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Of course, this had to be here. Oddly enough, no Duff beer or donuts.

Kid gets arrested for making map of school

It was only a matter of time before we got some stories of panic reactions in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings (especially where game stuff is concerned).

A Chinese student in Fort Bend, Texas was arrested after parents freaked out that he re-created a map of Clements High School and uploaded it into a game so he and his buddies could goof around in it. Clearly, he’s a terrorist — or at least that’s what the police said when they arrested him and labeled him a “terroristic threat.” The Chinese community has rallied around him, but he still won’t be able to take part in any graduation ceremonies. I found the synopsis on Joystiq and there’s a link to the local newspaper story as well.

It would be easy to go off about how people virtually re-create real-life surroundings all the time, not only in gaming, but in other disciplines as well — for educational purposes. But I think that point would fall on deaf ears here with this group. I hope these paranoid goofballs are happy — they just took a bright kid who had some technical skills and condemned him. He’s being punished because he’s good at something that’s too “newfangled” for a group of frightened people to understand.

And no, it’s not lost on me that the kid is Asian. Never mind that the insane VaTech shooter was Korean, and that this kid is Chinese. There’s a part of me that thinks that after the VaTech shooting, we all started looking the same. At least that’s how it looks in this case. What a shame.