Who says you have to grow up? Here at SI.com's Game Room, our staffers review the latest sports video game titles to hit the market and welcome your feedback.
12/08/2006 02:27:00 PM
Holiday Gift Guide
It's a banner year for video games with three next generation consoles on the market.
Check out our Holiday Gift Guide for a look at Nintendo's Wii, Sony's PlayStation3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360, and for recommendations for the best games on each system.
By Adam Duerson
I have a lawyerly friend named Calvin Wong who lately has been "in the area" much more often than usual. Calvin has been "just popping by to say 'Hi‚'" with greater frequency. He dropped in twice last week—one time with a group of five people in tow. He swung by another time to "pick up some things" that he'd left behind. (By my recollection, he'd already done this once, but had forgotten to reclaim all of his things the first time, necessitating a follow-up visit. Very ex-girlfriend-like of Calvin, I remember observing.) And on Thanksgiving day, while his family was eight blocks away inhaling tryptophan-and-gravy, there was Calvin, camped out at my turkey-less New York City apartment.
Calvin is far from a video game addict. To call him a fan would be an overstatement; I think he might have the first Playstation buried in his studio apartment somewhere. But he's hooked on Nintendo's new video game system, the Wii, and so I have a new friend. As long as I need a partner to fill out a four-player game of Wii tennis, Calvin is welcome at my abode. Wii benefit Number One: Wii facilitates friendships.
I'll start by assuming you don't have your hands on a Wii yet. Like any Christmas-release video game system, they've been short-ordered, with the ultimate affect of hype and mayhem. (Not quite as much mayhem as the release of the PS3—which I'm not very keen on—has created. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that PS3 sales have been plagued by drive-bys, stampedes and muggings.
Here's the gist of Wii gameplay: The system is motion-based, meaning that the actual movements of two controllers are translated into sword parries, baseball bat swings, steering wheel motions and so forth. The primary controller is a remote that is held in your right hand. The remote has a directional pad, A and B buttons, and the equivalent of START and SELECT buttons; and if you turn the thing sideways, you have what functions like an old 8-bit NES controller. (For Wii racing games, you hold it sideways and rotate it from an imaginary center-point like you would a steering wheel.) If you point the remote at your TV, you'll find a moving icon (or crosshair, in shooting games) that serves the way a mouse cursor would on your computer. This is how you generally navigate start screens. The remote rumbles—nothing new. But it also communicates with you through a tiny speaker. It talks, whirrs and reminds you that it's your turn in, say, a game of bowling. And it boasts a power button, too, allowing you to turn off your unit from your seat. I should also note here that I've exhausted the two AA batteries required of two of my four controllers already.
For some games, you're required to attach the remote to a smaller, left-hand controller that Nintendo is asking us to call a "nunchuck." The nunchuck interacts with the remote via a three-foot cord and features two more trigger buttons, plus an analog stick. This comes into play in first-person shooters, Madden, or any game where you have to use two control pads. In Call Of Duty 3, for example, you move your infantryman using the nunchuck's stick, and point the controller at the TV to maneuver his eyesight and aim.
Finally, there's the gaming unit itself, a snazzy white casing that is about the size of three DVD cases stacked onto each other; and a pencil-sized receiver that is placed on top of your TV. (The later is what your controllers interact with.) The console physically echoes Nintendo's previous system, the GameCube, in its minimalism, but is actually quite complicated. I was pleased to learn I wouldn't have to run an internet cord into my living room as the Wii has built-in wireless internet access. (I was slightly less pleased that it took just short of an hour to configure my wireless connection.) The Wii also plays GameCube games and can interact with GC controllers; and it has a port for SD memory cards. My editor pointed out that Wii doesn't come with a component cable and complained of being forced to go directly to Nintendo to buy one, but that has yet to bother me.
Even without a game, the Wii promises tons of fun, although not every element of its channel-based system is fully operational yet. There's a weather channel that is scheduled to launch soon. Same for the Web channel. And there's a shopping channel where Wii points (2,000 for $20) can purchase downloadable NES, Super Nintendo, N64, Genesis and TurboGrafix games. I downloaded Zelda for $5 in less than five minutes and will no doubt spend countless hours with it over the next month; thank you very much, Nintendo.
A welcome inclusion in the $250 Wii bundle (system, receiver, controller, nunchuck) is the first-party sampler called Wii Sports, which includes games of tennis, baseball, bowling, golf and boxing. Assumedly, Wii Sports is meant to showcase the motion-based features of the Wii in a very primative, ground-level state. In other words: "Here's what we can do. Just wait until we make it better!" Accordingly, the game consists of childish, LEGO-looking players who sometimes do and sometimes don't possess arms or legs. But, because it is built for the Wii, as opposed to preexisting games like Madden '07 that were simply tailored to incorporate motion, it gives one a better sense of how the Wii's features can be used.
Wii Sports also happens to be the best example of what the Wii ultimately is: a group-friendly system that is easy to pick up and play on the fly because of its intuitiveness. I've had no less than 30 people into my apartment to play Wii in the last month. I always start new players with Wii Sports‚ tennis and my instructions are always simple. I hand the player a remote (no nunchuck is needed here) and tell them, "Hit the A button to lob the ball before serving. Then, just play tennis." Before long, there are two, three or even four aspiring Roger Federers fluttering around my tiny living room, grunting with every backhand and cursing questionable line calls. Most people are able to beat me -- a lousy backhand hitter -- in straight sets within an hour. In this sense, Wii is everything that the PS3 and Xbox 360 are not. Nearly every person who's visited my Wii -- er, me, exhibited skepticism about another video game system. Generally, they felt overwhelmed by the button combos and multitudes of controllers, joysticks and triggers that seem to be increasing with every new system. Wii is much more simple. In many cases you simply move your body however you would imagine yourself in such a real-life situation. Same goes for Wii Sports' bowling, which most accurately replicates the actual experience of playing the sport. Baseball is also dead-on in its translation of controller motions to bat motions. Alas, the pitching is limited and all base-running and outfielding is played out automatically by the computer. Golf is less fun. Boxing is pure chaos. Remember, this is a launch title.
With other games, the incoporation of motion detection into gameplay is pulled off at varying levels of success. Madden, for one, uses the system's capabilities brilliantly on offense. In one play you might whip the controller backward to take a snap; spiral a ball downfield with a crisp controller snap forward; outleap a defensive back by raising both controller and nunchuck; and stiff-arm a would-be tackler by whipping the controller to your right. Defensively, things get trickier. It simply isn't as intuitive to jut both controller and nunchuck forward to make a tackle as it is to pump your arm for a pass. From a PR standpoint, it doesn't help that most Maddenites are hardcore traditionalists. Don't trust everything bad you hear about Madden '07 on Wii.
I've played the World War II first-person shooter Call of Duty 3 on both the Wii and the PS3 and I cannot decide which I like better. Your opinion will no doubt be dictated by whether you're open to learning a new set of controls. Same goes for Red Steel, a first-person shooter that uses a similar "Nunchuck-to-walk and Controller-to-aim" configuration. I haven't spent much time with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance; and I'm saving Zelda: Twilight Princess for my next sick week. I can only commit to a Zelda game in week-long periods. I'm sure I'll get around to it. And when I do, I'm certain Calvin Wong will be just around the corner.