Gamers have plenty to be excited about this summer as an onslaught of games begins. To save you some time, we’ve narrowed the list of wannabe wing-dingers down to 15 hot titles that range from campy shooters and sword-fu fighters to rhythmic rockers and bank-robbing bonanzas. We even have one game–Will Wright’s Spore–that lets you nurture a single-celled protozoan blob and grow it into a galaxy-gobbling species.
PC World’s two gaming experts–Matt Peckham, who writes our Game On blog, and Senior Writer Darren Gladstone, a self-described gaming nut and author of our Casual Friday column–weigh in here with their opinion of each game.
An interesting side note for PC gamers: Over half the titles in this list include PC versions, with two of those exclusive and one, Spore, an apparent blockbuster if it lives up to even half its prerelease hype.
See if you agree with Matt and Darren’s opinions. Whether you do or not, please comment and let us know what you think.
Matt: You’re traveling through another dimension, one not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. You’ve just crossed over into…the Will Wright zone. In Spore, you start as a single-celled thingamabob, then “evolve” into a multicelled thingamabob, and eventually spread your thingamabob civilization across the galaxy. The Creature Creator is already available, so keep your eyes peeled for the platypus-that-can-kiss-its-own-you-know-what species that’ll be popping up any day now.
In Video: Maxis’ Creature Creator Release Party
Darren: Like most of the free world, I’m looking forward to this game, and to its viral nature (by far the coolest part). I mean, people will see my Editorus Rex or the ninja race I’m trying to create, and they’ll incorporate it into their own universe. The only foreseeable problem with the Creature Creator that’s available now is having to wait until September before I can actually do something with my monsters.
Guitar Hero: On Tour
By: Vicarious Visions
From: RedOctane, Activision
Rating: Everyone 10+
ETA: June 22
Info: Guitar Hero invades the mobile market with a four-button guitar grip that plugs into your Nintendo DS and lets you “strum” the touch screen while tapping keys in time with a four-path note highway.
Matt: The only thing wilder than the fact that this game exists at all is the accompanying video from Nintendo explaining how it works. Points for grabbing our attention (“You are the master connector PER-son!”). And hey, it’s the first Guitar Hero game that uses an actual guitar pick. How cool is that?
Darren: I dunno, man. This just screams “mistake” to me. It’s tough to eke out high-quality audio from a DS, and half the fun of all these rock-and-rhythm games is indulging in the illusion that you’re a rock god. Even though the home-console versions have me windmilling a plastic toy in the living room, it’s better than a tennis racket in the mirror. As for plucking invisible strings on a DS touch screen: I may look like a complete tool, but I’ll try anything once.
Battlefield: Bad Company
By: EA Digital Illusions CE
From: Electronic Arts
For: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
ETA: June 23
Info: This first-person-shooter spinoff from EA’s military-themed first-person-shooter Battlefield series includes simplified soldier classes, two solo campaigns, online support for up to 24 players, and a whopping “90 percent destructible” assortment of mission locales.
Matt: Crack squads with military moxie? These aren’t those guys, but whoever reimagined EA’s Battlefield series as Kelly’s Heroes meets Three Kings deserves a medal. Whether the goofing around and wreck-anything attitude equal shooter nirvana is anyone’s guess, but if you’re into blowing junk up, this one has kaboom-sauce slathered all over it.
Darren: A modern F-Troop sounds good, but if you ask me, the fireworks in the background will be the star. I mean, it’s not as if I watch Independence Day for the story. Still, “90 percent destructible”? Who picks that indestructible 10 percent? I can’t wait to find a bulletproof balsa-wood plank or to toss a single grenade that levels brick houses.
Info: Sid Meier’s turn-based world-conquering strategy opus lands on the latest consoles and handhelds with a user-friendly interface and streamlined timetables, jettisoning virtually none of the sophistication of its computer cousin.
Matt: Civilization IV gets a crewcut and an interface that actually works with a gamepad! If anyone has the stuff to pull off turn-based game play on a console, it’s Sid Meier. (After all, the guy only spawned the most popular strategy franchise of all time.) And you can count on this “version [he’s] always wanted to make” selling oodles once gamers realize that it zips along as quickly as RTS games such as Age of Empires. Heck, maybe it will finally convince all you real-time hotheads that “turn-based” games (think playing chess) can be just as lively when done right.
Darren: Passionate PC gamers have a rep as cave-dwelling trolls who shun sunlight. Blame the Civ games. I’ve spent days carefully plotting moves with a series of clandestine keyboard commands. Sure, it may not scream “fast-paced,” but consider yourself warned: You’re now only a gamepad away from a new addiction.
Beijing Olympics 2008
For: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
ETA: July 8
Info: The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing receive a realistic sports-simulation treatment, with career and online modes that cover 32 national teams and 38 events, including such disciplines as shooting, weightlifting, kayaking, judo, and archery.
Matt: The 2008 Summer Olympics don’t launch until a month after this one hits the streets. Think of it as training for the media deluge that will jam the airwaves for two weeks starting on August 8. Multievent games typically discard depth to pack in as much lateral content as possible, and developer Eurocom’s track record isn’t exactly glowing. (Anyone remember Athens 2004?) Still, if you’re up for a little virtual track and field, it’s either this or Sega’s mediocre Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.
Darren: What, no “Olympic Protest” mode? Cheap jabs aside, I know some people will flock to this hoping that jamming the A button can replace a lifetime of couch potato-ing, but I don’t think this game will score even a bronze medal. What bums me out is that the way this game plays probably hasn’t evolved since the old Summer Games and Winter Games titles from the 1980s (as great as those were).
By: inXile Entertainment
For: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
ETA: August 1
Info: Play as a group of wisecracking bank robbers who launch grand-scale robberies around San Francisco circa 1969.
Matt: “All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!” Err, wrong shtick, but right off the block, Hei$t kind of sounds like the Tarantino film that line comes from, right down to the pimptastic ’70s funk tunes and robbers in giant-size Ray-Bans. Think Rainbow Six meets Pulp Fiction, and you have a handle on this plan-a-string-of-robberies tactical action game with attitude by the guys who gave us the mostly likable 2004 snark-fest The Bard’s Tale.
Darren: I am a complete sucker for any sort of heist flick–especially one trying to capture the flavor of everything between The Hot Rock and Dog Day Afternoon, so when you tell me that it’s appearing in game form, I’ll reach for the sky.
Darth Vader and Steven Tyler
Soul Calibur IV
By: Project Soul
From: Namco Bandai Games
For: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
ETA: July 29
Info: The fifth installment in Namco’s Soul Calibur series of weapons-based fighting games about swords with souls and vendettas receives a bunch of new characters, online play, and a little two-on-one roughhousing.
Matt: Astaroth versus Cervantes, Lizardman versus Rock, Yoda versus Darth Vader–hold up a sec, Yoda versus Darth Vader? Who let George Lucas out of his box? Add Dark Side Force abilities such as “push” and “choke” to the roster of potentially cool weirdness, some guy called Starkiller guest-starring as Vader’s rag-wrapped apprentice (seriously, wardrobe check please?) and Yoda performing his hilariously cool Episode Two lightsaber ballet.
Darren: Honestly, I’m torn on this one. I will buy (and probably continue to buy) any Soul Calibur game–they are that much fun. But this whole Star Wars angle has me scratching my head. Why stop there? Why not Jar Jar? Why not the guy from Empire Strikes Back who tells Han that his Tauntaun won’t make it past the first marker? Matt, we may be witnessing a “Jump the Shark” moment here.
Info: Plastic-axe-pickers follow 30 years of the band Aerosmith’s hard rocking in chronological order, from fledgling radio hits to international megastardom.
Matt: The Guitar Hero shred-a-verse adds the eminently expressive Steven Tyler and crew to its arsenal of rock-revival rhythm games. What’s not to love about key-slapping along with songs like “Back in the Saddle,” “Walk This Way,” and “Love in an Elevator”? The only thing that would make this game groovier is a bundled pair of press-on lips.
Darren: With all the plastic game guitars floating around my house, I feel like a roadie for Fisher-Price. Will I buy this? Yes. Will it rock? Probably. But if Activision dedicates a game to the career of Boston’s “toxic twins,” they really need to make this game play like a VH1 Behind the Music episode. I mean, think of the potential minigames!
Madden NFL 09
By: EA Tiburon
From: EA Sports
For: DS, PSP, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
ETA: August 12
Info: The annual update of the only football game with an NFL license gets the usual tweaks to game play and graphics, along with a new holographic training sim.
Matt: Can’t we give this franchise a year off or something? No? Okay, but you’ll have to decide for yourself whether you’re football-nuts enough to drop 60 bucks for better graphics, camera angles, online leagues, new moves and weather effects, and on-demand picture-in-picture. The most intriguing add-in is a virtual training area you “test” through that raises or lowers your “Madden IQ” and adjusts the game’s difficulty accordingly.
Darren: You know what the sad truth, is, Matt? EA could just change the names on the jerseys, and people would still buy it. I’m kinda hoping for the day when you buy the game only once and download updated stats and players every season, and just leave it at that. That said, thumbs-up to EA for not mailing it in and for trying something different. Even if this is the only NFL football game in town.
Valhalla, Space, and Hell
By: Silicon Knights
From: Microsoft Game Studios
For: Xbox 360
ETA: August 19
Info: This game features cybernetic Norse gods versus machines versus run-of-the-mill human beings in an action-adventure that’s part role-playing game, part dungeon crawler.
Matt: Once, twice, third time’s the charm? Too Human has been kicking around since 1999, when it was supposed to be a four-disc opus for the original PlayStation. Since then it has been passing the hat and trawling for publishers (and even launched a few lawsuits). Who knows whether this Roger Zelazny-like tale about cybernetic Norse gods in a twitch-and-click action crawl has the right stuff, but Silicon Knights (Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness, and Metal Gear: The Twin Snakes) makes reputable games, and there’s no reason to think this title won’t be, too.
Darren: I’m with you on this one, Matt. I’ve been thinking optimistically about this game based on Silicon Knights’ track record, but I don’t know how much longer I can wait. Do I need to start creating a list of things that have happened in the time it has taken for this game to get finished? (My favorite is the Mars Lander project, which was conceived, constructed, launched, and on the planet’s surface in less time than Too Human’s development has spanned).
By: Gas Powered Games
ETA: August 19
Info: Action role-playing reaches for the stars in Chris Taylor’s stab at working the action-twitchy Dungeon Siege franchise over with an ethics-driven body-augmentation angle. Shoot your way around a colony ship under siege from aliens, with help from a robotic sidekick.
Matt: Chris Taylor’s Dungeon Siege games are kind of cool for the first couple hours–then the novelty wears off, and you might as well be slogging through a lawn-mowing simulation. Space Siege tries to ditch that rap by adding cybernetic upgrades with a moral twist: You get the “pure” ending only if you emerge at the finale more human than machine. In other words, keep your bionic fetish on a leash if you want to win the game’s goody-two-shoes award.
Darren: I think they licked the whole monotonous button-clicking, but in all seriousness I have a different concern with Space Siege–the controls. If you’re trying to build an action game with an action-role-playing game’s engine, you run the risk of slowing down the game or making it tougher to control. If that’s been dealt with, great, and Taylor could have a winner on his hands.
Info: The third entry in this tactical first-person-shooter series once more takes up the tale of a 101st Airborne Division squad on the prowl during World War II’s late summer 1944 initiative. The mission: Secure a series of bridges over the main rivers in the German-occupied Netherlands.
Matt: Hey, check this out. What, can’t read what I’m doing? Look harder. See? I’ve giving you hand signals! Just like the ones you can issue to your squad in this game. Of course, you could do that in the last two, so don’t look for much in the way of new features here beyond improved AI, cleaned-up visuals, and a few new special units such as bazooka and machine-gun teams. That’s okay, because this series’s appeal was always the storytelling anyway.
Darren: The Brothers in Arms games have always felt like a love letter to war-history buffs. The developers get down on the ground level and really try to put you in a soldier’s boots. And with every revision of the series, Gearbox further enhances an already deep battlefield. That’s saying nothing of how this first-person shooter has perfected the art of directing squad tactics while in the heat of a firefight.
Soldiers for Hire and a Lego Hero
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames
By: Pandemic Studios, Pi Studios
From: Electronic Arts
For: PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
ETA: August 31
Info: In 2010, you’re a mercenary (surprise!) chasing a power-hungry tyrant who has mucked up the Venezuelan oil supply and sparked an invasion that has transformed the country into a war zone.
Matt: Why the Venezuelan government is hot under the collar (like, for real) about this game is beyond me. I mean, you’re a merc who can join any of six warring factions, not an agent for the United States or any other world government trying to overthrow some digital Hugo Chavez analogue. That aside, the same team that made 2005’s golden Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction has the wheel here, so if you dig blow-up-everything sandbox action games, keep at least an eye-and-a-half on this one.
Darren: This reminds me more of an awesome buddy-action flick where the “loose cannon” is encouraged to do the job in the most visceral way possible. I remember seeing a demo of this game where one player grabs a helicopter and drops the winch while the second player leaps from an exploding oil derrick. I figure if Matt partners up with me online, I could charge neighbors to watch me play. Heck, it’s better than Tango and Cash on cable. Again.
By: Gearbox Software
From: 2K Games
For: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
ETA: September 1
Info: It’s an RPG shooter by way of Diablo and Mad Max about a planet on the edge of the galaxy harboring alien ruins and other decidedly less pleasant things.
Matt: What do you do if you’ve just discovered that the planet your little band of pioneers colonized has a seven-year seasonal cycle, and the leap from winter to spring is waking up some unneighborly natives? Grab four buddies and start shooting? You sure can in Borderlands, which features four-player co-op along with vehicle-based combat. All that’s missing is the Thunderdome–plus Tina Turner in turquoise chain mail.
Darren: This feels more like the Wild West in space–and if that could work for Firefly and Serenity, I feel obliged to give this game a shot. (Yeah, so the TV series got cancelled. You have me on a technicality.) Honestly, it didn’t take much more to interest me in this game than hearing about a four-player action-RPG where I can drive cars with mounted weaponry.
By: Traveller’s Tales
From: Warner Bros. Interactive
For: DS, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PSP, Wii, and Xbox 360
ETA: September 1
Info: Batman finally gets Lego-fied, along with sidekicks Nightwing and Robin and a rogue’s gallery ranging from The Joker and Penguin to Bane, Harley Quinn, Two-Face, and Killer Croc.
Matt: Lego Star Wars is easy and charming, Lego Indiana Jones is neither. Lego Batman? I’ll be honest, the Lego stuff leaves me a little cool lately. Especially with so little changing in the core gameplay between each license (run around, pick up stuff, fall off stuff because of bad camera angles and vague edges). Of course, if you have kids, they’ll probably love breaking down the environments and snapping up piles of classic Lego studs, and unlocking all the hidden characters.
Darren: Matt, you’re a little more forgiving on this one than I am. Sure, these licensed Lego games have been fun as of late, but I never thought that they were truly great. Gimmicky, yes. Suitable for children, definitely. Something that would keep your attention for more than an afternoon? I don’t think so.