“Halo Wars” (rated T, $60 on Xbox 360): Don’t let the Spartans on the cover and the “Halo” name fool you. “Halo Wars” isn’t a first-person shooter, and it’s not developed by Bungie, who made the first three “Halo” games. Instead, we get a real-time strategy game from Ensemble Studios, the now-defunct studio responsible for the beloved “Age of Empires” franchise. “Halo Wars” is a swan song of sorts for Ensemble, which was closed by parent company Microsoft shortly before this game hit stores. Several Ensemble staffers have created their own, independent spin-off developer and will support “Halo Wars” after release. For its part, “Halo Wars” plays like a slimmed-down PC strategy title. It doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to shoehorn too many controls into a game pad the way many real-time strategy games made for consoles do. I’ll have my review of the game ready soon, but in the meantime, check out Stephen Totilo of the MTV Multiplayer blog’s semi-review, in which he likens “Halo Wars” to playing with army men, in a good way. The collector’s edition, which sells for $80, includes a special vehicle for use in the game and a code to download the Mythic map pack for “Halo 3” before it releases to the general public over Xbox Live, among other goodies.
“Empire: Total War” (rated T, $50 for PC): This largely
turn-based game’ll make “Halo Wars” look like child’s play. Strategy
titles are just better on the PC, and early reviews indicate this is one of the best. “Empire: Total War” is set during the Enlightenment, that post-Middle Ages era where gunpowder is just starting to come into vogue. The beginner-oriented campaign called The Road to Independence tracks the United States’ colonization and early inklings of statehood, the kind of storyline Americans of all political stripes can get behind. The world map in the main game, of course, is much broader, with skirmishes set in North America, India, the Caribbean and other locales.
“MLB 09: The Show” (rated E, $60 on PlayStation 3, $30 on PS2 or PlayStation Portable): Opening Day’s a little less than a month away. Heck, Manny Ramirez just signed his contract this week. But that won’t stop those of us with visions of pennants dancing in our heads from trying to stake our claim to a World Series ring before the season even opens. Baseball games are great because they allow skilled players the fantasy that their team really could win the World Series, even if that team is the Padres. (For the record, my team of choice is the St. Louis Cardinals.) Sony’s “The Show” franchise is the industry leader, but you’ve gotta have a PS3 to really tap into all the new features for this year’s title.
“Major League Baseball 2K9” (rated E, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on Wii, $30 on PlayStation Portable, $20 on PC or PS2): Since signing its exclusivity deal through 2010, which lets 2K Games make the only officially licensed multi-console baseball game, the “MLB 2K” series has yet to really hit the ball out of the park. The last one I played, “2K7,” for example, had a bug that caused some game saves (including mine) to become corrupt, incapable of advancing past the final day of the regular season. Oh, to win 120 games only to never be able to play in the postseason. Now I know how the 1994 Expos felt. I’m sure “2K9” has no such problem, but if early reviews are any indication, “2K” still hasn’t caught up to “The Show.” Nonetheless, this is your only option for an authentic baseball game on the Xbox 360 or Wii.
“Ninja Gaiden II” (rated M, $30 on Xbox 360): The
downloadable Mission Mode for this game, normally $10, is marked down to $7 through
the weekend. If you liked the game enough to want to fight off wave
after wave of enemies for the sake of a few achievements, it’s not a
bad deal. It’d be better if the mode was free, as it was in “Ninja
Gaiden” for the original Xbox, but once the genie of paid content is
out of the bottle, I suppose you can’t put it back in.
“Sonic and the Black Knight” (rated E10+, $50 on Wii): Every time a new Sonic game comes out, somebody at Sega talks about how it’s better than the last few mediocre games starring the blue hedgehog. Yet when it’s all over, gamers are always disappointed. Sonic used to be Mario’s faster, more compelling rival, but these days he walks in the plumber’s shadow. Nonetheless, “The Black Knight,” set in the storybook world of King Arthur, is worth a look for kids uncorrupted by the greatness of Sonic titles past.
“Tom Clancy’s HAWX” (rated T, $60 on PS3 or Xbox 360): It’s an aeriel dogfighting modern-warfare-style game. It probably won’t touch “Ace Combat 6: The Fires of Liberation,” but it’s getting good enough early reviews that fans of flight games should find plenty to like.
What I’m playing this weekend: I’ll be plowing through “Halo Wars” in preparation for a review. In between, I’ll spend a bit of time with “Major League Baseball 2K9,” play some “Culdcept Saga” matches and try to catch up with some friends in “Left 4 Dead” or “Unreal Tournament III.” I may sneak in a bit of “Halo 3” to try out the Mythic map pack. “Killzone 2” is calling, as well. Aaaah!
What I won’t be playing: “F.E.A.R. 2” showed up this week, but I kind of want to go back and play the first game. I’ve got some time off coming, so I’ll probably give it a go then. “MLB Front Office Manager” might not get much more playtime now that the “real” baseball games are out. The inability to sort players by any statistics other than a number reflecting “overall ability” frustrated me beyond belief. In a game obviously catering to the stathead geek, numbers-crunching baseball fan, it’s an inexcusable flaw.