BLASTING: Gears of War
By Christmas, the battle lines will have been drawn in the next-gen console wars. We’ll know the answers to the pressing questions people have been raising since E3. Was Microsoft’s year-long headstart with the Xbox 360 as big an advantage as it claimed? Was the buzz around the Wii the real deal, or was Nintendo careering toward a Snakes on a Plane–like letdown? Would it have been savvier for Sony to firebomb its corporate offices and collect the insurance than to release the PlayStation 3 for $600? Whatever the future holds, the real winners will be the gamers who are still hanging onto their PS2s and even GameCubes, since this fall will see the release of must-have titles for both systems.
Capcom gets the party started on September 20 with the release of
, a PlayStation 2 exclusive that’s one of the most visually striking games I’ve seen on any system. Okami looks like a Japanese watercolor painting come to life, with pale, blotchy colors reined in by thick, black outlines. The painting comparison doesn’t end there: though you spend much of your time controlling a white wolf named Amaterasu, you also have to use enchanted brushes on the environment. The trailer shows the game world pausing and then tilting away from the screen as a godlike brush snuffs fires and hurls lightning bolts. Only when Okami arrives will we know whether the gameplay is half as enticing as the graphics, but the dreamlike look makes it seem like this year’s answer to Shadow of the Colossus.
GameCube owners have had it pretty rough lately. Nintendo’s cute lil’ console hasn’t had a meaningful exclusive since Resident Evil 4, and its recent library has consisted of inferior versions of cross-platform games and weak tie-ins to movies and TV shows. But before the company turns its full attention to the Wii later this fall, the ’Cube will have two last gasps.
SUPER PAPER MARIO
is on track for October 9. Although the paper-thin characters and background objects will be familiar to Paper Mario role-players, the gameplay has more in common with the action-adventure platforming of New Super Mario Bros. Super Paper Mario is shaping up to be one last blast of traditional gameplay from the company that invented it.
Also on tap for GameCube owners is the long-awaited
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS
. Although Nintendo has announced no ship date, multiple outlets including Ebgames.com are pegging it for November 1. Twilight Princess is yet another adventure set in the boundless world of Hyrule. This time around, the game has jettisoned the cartoonish look of Wind Waker for a darker, more mature veneer. It also includes added features for the Wii, taking advantage of the controller’s motion sensitivity when using weapons and items like fishing poles. But since it was developed for the GameCube, that version won’t be lacking in any meaningful way.
I fawned over
in last year’s fall preview, only to have Rockstar Games announce its delay about five minutes after we went to press. I clearly haven’t learned my lesson, because I’m once again psyched over this tale of one student’s quest to take down the most powerful clique at school. Although no one outside Rockstar has played the game yet, that hasn’t stopped concerned, totally sane activists like Jack Thompson from calling for its outright ban. To me, that’s reason enough to get excited about it. Bully ships exclusively for the PlayStation 2 on October 17. Seriously. I hope.
Speaking of long-delayed titles: the 12th installment in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series finally makes its way to the PlayStation 2 on October 31.
FINAL FANTASY XII
departs in a number of ways from its predecessors, from the removal of random battles to an entirely reworked combat system. Instead of choosing every action in a battle, you assign each character a strategic fighting style — called a “gambit” — and then let your party do its thing. The Japanese press loved it. I’m more interested in knowing whether the story line stacks up to the better Final Fantasy games of the past. I can’t take another whiny, girlish protagonist like Tidus from Final Fantasy X.
With Halo 3 still somewhere over the horizon, Microsoft is counting on another exclusive shooter to move Xbox 360s this season:
GEARS OF WAR
, an ultra-violent action adventure in which the last remnants of humanity battle an evil race called the Locust Horde. Playing from a third-person perspective, you have to keep taking cover and pumping round after round into the monstrous Horde. Developer Epic Games promises massive, in-game storytelling events to complement the usual cinematic cutscenes. Co-op play over Xbox Live should provide lasting appeal, but what I’m really looking forward to is chopping up baddies with the chainsaw bayonet. Gears hits on November 7, just over two weeks before the PS3’s street date. That’s not a coincidence.
Also on November 7 comes the sequel to last year’s biggest surprise hit.
GUITAR HERO 2
will include the same great shredding gameplay, but the cracked geniuses at Cambridge’s Harmonix have even more up their sleeves this time around. The biggest improvement is in two-player mode: rather than performing half of a song, this time each player will helm a different instrument. That means one player might be on rhythm and another on lead, or one on six-string and another on bass. There’s also a much-needed practice mode that will allow you to break songs into chunks and hone those face-melting solos to perfection. But the biggest news of all? This time you can play “Free Bird.”
Given the massive success Nintendo had earlier this year with New Super Mario Bros for the DS, the appearance of
YOSHI’S ISLAND 2
should come as no surprise. The original Yoshi’s Island was a late-period masterpiece for the Super Nintendo that had the title dinosaur trying to return baby Mario safely home. The sequel sticks with that premise, but this time Yoshi also gives a lift to baby Peach and baby Donkey Kong. Each passenger provides Yoshi with a different power; one presumes he’ll need to switch among them in order to complete his mission. Although it’s a little odd that Nintendo has taken more than a decade to give us this sequel, all will be forgiven if Yoshi’s Island 2 can live up to its predecessor.
All release dates were accurate as of press time, but they’re subject to change without notice. Check back here after Nintendo's press conference on Thursday, September 14 for an update.