The magic of 4
Bringing the boost

Demo siren song


Game demos emit a strange, siren-song allure. They tease us with their free, no-obligation, limited-time goodness, enticing us to give them a whirl, even when we have very little actual interest in them. If you've ever stood in line for a swag bag, you know the feeling. That bag is probably full of junk, but you'll wait as long as it takes to get your hands on one...just in case.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend conducting my own personal demo blowout extravaganza. On the docket: Resident Evil 5, F.E.A.R. 2, MLB 09 The Show, and Phantasy Star Portable. These are all new games (Phantasy Star Portable is a bit tricky in this regard), and they offer a mixed bag of experiences. While I don't think it's fair to evaluate games in their pre-release states, it's certainly possible to glean a few impressions. I'll offer some of mine in a moment, but before I do, a quick word of caution. Sometimes game demos fail to adequately convey the full measure of a game (Burnout Paradise: underwhelming demo / fabulous game - and getting fabulous-er all the time [more on that later this week]). And sometimes a demo promises an experience that its final release ultimately fails to deliver (Clive Barker's Jericho). So a big grain of salt is probably in order here.

Resident Evil 5: Lots of people have weighed in on this game and its allegedly racist overtones. I frankly have a few concerns about this myself, but I'm going to withold judgment until I see the final release. I will say that Capcom has mixed a few white faces into the tribal zombie throng who weren't there in the early trailer that appeared months ago. I have no idea what this means or if it changes anything. What I do know is that the game feels like a major step backward in terms of controls. Moving, aiming, and shooting all felt stiff and unresponsive to me - a real disappointment given the evolutionary step forward RE4 represented in a series that has battled dodgy controls since its inception. I admit shooters aren't my strong suit, but I struggled mightily to survive the first level, and keeping Sheva alive felt less like fun and more like work. Maybe RE5 shines brightest in co-op mode (if so, I look forward to that experience), but in single-player I couldn't help thinking the game looks next-gen, but feels very last-gen. Or maybe the gen before that.

I promised to keep my hands off it, but I can't help noting one more aspect of RE5 that grabbed my attention. Sheva is a noticably light-skinned black woman, while the natives all appear very dark-skinned (except the sprinkled in white ones). Again, I'm trying hard to withhold judgment, but these things tend to leap out when you play this game. Perhaps I'm making too much out of the small snapshot I've seen.

F.E.A.R. 2: Hey look, another shooter! This short demo plays and controls well, and it continues the solid nightmare/explore/kill gameplay of its predecessor. But I couldn't help thinking as I made my way through each area how desperately this genre needs an infusion of new ideas. I'm wandering around a deserted school; a scary child appears in a ghostly form; I hear eerie voices and distant weeping; I stumble across voice logs of previous victims; I use bullet-time to gain an advantage over my enemies; etc., etc.. It's hard to see anything wrong with this sliver of F.E.A.R. 2 (aside from some significant framerate issues in the PS3 version), but it's also hard to figure out why I need to play this game. Again, it's a demo, so maybe Monolith has more up its sleeve than the demo suggests.

Phantasy Star Portable: The idea of a portable Phantasy Star game excites me to no end. The reality of a rehashed chapter from a fairly lousy PS2 game released in 2007 knocks the stuffing right out that euphoria. Repititous dungeon crawling, weak voice acting, and a recurring feeling that Sega has figured out a way to completely ruin a once proud franchise make me wonder why this game should see the light of day. Online mulitplayer could possibly rescue the ship - 700,000 copies sold in Monster Hunter-mad Japan suggests there's a big audience for this experience - but I was hoping for more. Even Sega's customary high production values appear to have dipped with Phantasy Star Portable. I suppose one upside of this demo is that it forced me to locate and charge my PSP, which I haven't touched for months.

MLB 09 The Show: The cream of the crop, the best of the bunch, and the biggest surprise of all. MLB 09 has the potential to be a very special video game. I'm saving my impressions of it for later this week, when I'll expand on why I'm so excited and why I think you should be too, even if you're not a sports-game nut. Stay tuned.