The summer months are typically a down time for the gaming industry: The E3 video game conference has happened, bringing it with it the promise of exciting new games for the coming holiday season. But once E3 concludes, the summer doldrums set in. This year, of course, the effect is even worse: A month after Microsoft's Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta (see my review) concluded, and I find myself wistfully thinking of the fall.

But it's even worse than that. This year, I've been playing through a slew of Xbox 360 games, and most of them, frankly, are pretty bad. Consider this review a warning to anyone thinking of picking up any of these titles: These games (or in two cases, the multiplayer components of previously reviewed games) range from horrific to OK at best. Most of them are, in other words, hardly worth your time, let alone your hard-earned dollars.

Let's dive right in.

Gears of War (Multiplayer)

I've been meaning to rant about this one for a long time: While the Gears of War single player experience (see my review) is unmatched by any other game title on any console, and is in fact second only to Half-Life 2 on the PC (see my review of the Xbox version) as best overall video game of all time, its multiplayer component is so horribly bad, so horrifically unenjoyable, so mind-numbling unplayable, that I can't believe there hasn't been more press about it. When you peruse the back catalog of first- and third-person multiplayer shooters that have been released over the past decade, some true standouts emerge: Quake III Arena. Unreal Tournament 2004 (perhaps the best multiplayer shooter ever made, by the way). Call of Duty 2 (see my review and multiplayer review). These games all include clues on what you need to get right when creating such a title. The makers of Gear of Wars not only ignored all this advice, they apparently laughed in the face of it. The result is an utter train wreck.

Now, I want to be very clear here: Many reviewers will tell you that Gears of War multiplayer is good or even excellent. And Gears has been at or near the top of the heap for games played online via Xbox Live, meaning that people are actually playing this game, every day, for hours at a time.

These people, clearly, are idiots.

OK, I'm kidding. Maybe. But if I had to hazard a guess, the real reason that everyone is cutting Gears so much slack is that the single player stuff is so darned good. That's not right. Because as good as the single player experience is, the multiplayer experience is an absolute joke. An absolute embarrassment.

Students, let's discuss one of the unwritten tenets of multiplayer gaming. This one is so obvious, you might think we'd never even have to bring it up. But the clowns who made Gears--did I mention they were the same guys responsible for UT2004, perhaps the greatest multiplayer shooter of all time, the game that gets virtually everything right?--apparently need a refresher, so it's time to go back to Shooter 101. It's called respawning. If you're playing a multiplayer game, team or not, and you get killed, you get to respawn and continue the fight. The mechanics of this can vary: For example, there might be specified spawn points on the map, or perhaps a timeout period before you can come back. But you can come back. I mean, duh. You didn't wait around in a game lobby for fifteen minutes to be shot once and then have to wait for the match to end, right?

Right?

Well, that's exactly what happens in every single multiplayer mode in Gears of War. (Well, with one exception: On April 9, 2007, Epic released a free multiplayer add-on for the game via Xbox Live that adds a game type called Annex, where, get this, you can actually spawn in-game after being killed. What innovation!) In Gears, you see, you die and you stay dead. You get one life per round, and you can't play again until the level is won, generally when there's only one man or alien left standing.

Hey, its fun watching other people play games will you twiddle your thumbs, right?

Moving away from this obvious and glaring issue, Gears Multiplayer is still a stink bomb. Despite the beauty of its graphics, the levels are almost uniformly uni-dimensional: You can't climb up into a tower and snipe because you always play at or right above ground level. The characters, human or alien, are completely interchangeable with no discernable advantage to playing on either side. And instead of walking, running, and jumping, you can only shuffle close to the ground, agonizingly slow, with infrequent bursts of "speed" that only approximate the normal walking speed in other games. Put simply, Gears Multiplayer is boring, slow-moving, and claustrophobic. It is a joke, a sad joke Epic is playing on gamers everywhere. And I don't understand why there's no outrage about this very clear problem. Gamers deserve better than this.

By the way, Epic is using the same gaming engine behind Gears to make the long-awaited UT2004 sequel, called Unreal Tournament 3 (which is curious, since there have already been at least three UT games.) A pure multiplayer shooter, UT3 will ship first for the PlayStation 3 and PC in late 2007 and then for the Xbox 360 in 2008--apparently this staggered release was an apology to Sony for making Gears Xbox 360-only at launch. (PC and 360 versions will ship at some point, however). Let's hope that UT3 is frenetic, fast, and fun like its predecessors, and not boring, slow, and plodding like Gears of War. You should still buy Gears for the superb single player campaign. Just forget about the multiplayer silliness.

Rating:

Call of Duty 3 (Multiplayer)

I've been playing Call of Duty 3 (see my review) online regularly since the game was released late last year. As a huge fan of the Call of Duty series specifically, and of World War II shooters generally, I view it as my solemn duty (ahem) to acquire every Achievement that Activision cares to throw at me, as I did with Call of Duty 2 (see my review and multiplayer review). But Call of Duty 3, as I noted in my single player review, is no Call of Duty 2: Its buggy, has overly-long checkpoints, and a frustrating way of doling out Achievements. The first and last bits are particularly problematic for multiplayer as well. But it's worse: Call of Duty 3 multiplayer, inexplicably, screws up everything that was right about Call of Duty 2 multiplayer, though to be fair, it does toss in some nice improvements too. In sum, it's a mixed bag.

Let's talk positives first. As with COD2, Activision has provided a number of downloadable levels for Call of Duty 3 fans, increasing the already excellent collection of built-in maps. There are new capabilities, too: You can ride in trucks, tanks, and motorcycles, for example, and different character types actually mean something besides different weapons types. For example, scouts get sniper rifles, but they can also call in air strikes. And there's a new medic class that gets points for healing teammates. These all add nicely to the variety of game play.

But boy, did Activision screw the pooch with this one. In COD2, the sniper was king: Any decent player with a sniper rifle could easily and steadily dominate the other players, and I can still hop into a COD2 match and kick some serious behind. In Call of Duty 3, the sniper rifles have been unceremoniously denuded, and not only are they less effective than before--there's nothing like shooting a guy in the head twice only to watch him turn around and off you with a single pistol shot--the sniper rifles are, in fact, almost completely useless now. For fans of COD2, yeah, we get it, they were too powerful, but in Call of Duty 3, they've gone too far.

If the gun selections were simply equal across all teams, this wouldn't be an issue. But whereas the Allied and Axis armories were pretty much balanced across the various teams, in Call of Duty 3, they are not: The Americans get a deadly accurate gun, the BAR, which is wonderful both at long range, like a sniper rifle, and at short range, like a rifle. It is, in fact, the single most powerful weapon in the game by a long shot, and if you have it, you're pretty much unstoppable. If you're on the other team, you're toast. The German equivalent, the MP44, is a joke: Inaccurate at any range, it is not even remotely similar to the BAR. This one-sidedness makes Call of Duty 3 multiplayer frustrating in ranked team matches, where you can't pick the team and thus might end up on the losing side of an electronic coin toss.

Tied into this issue is how Call of Duty 3 dolls out multiplayer Achievements. After you get the first few easy ones, you're only remaining Achievements, Captain, Major, Colonel, and General--come after you have acquired 2000, 8000, 200,000, and 400,000 points, respectively, in ranked multiplayer matches. One point, typically, is awarded for one enemy kill, though there are a very few other ways to get points (become a medic and revive a teammate, for example). It took me about a month to get Captain. I've been playing the game steadily for two months and have yet to get Major. As far as I can tell, I'll never get Colonel or General unless I dedicate the rest of the year to playing nothing but this one very flawed game. That's 200 frustrating Achievement points anyone normal will never get.

In short, Call of Duty 3 multiplayer falls short of Call of Duty 2 multiplayer in the same way that the single player experiences lined up. It's good but not great and frustrating on a number of levels. I don't know why I keep playing it, I really don't. And I have no idea why Activision doesn't balance out the weapons and immediately. It's a huge and glaring problem.

Rating:

Call of Juarez

I've come around on this one after consulting with a friend who absolutely loved it and going back to replay some key sequences. Call of Juarez is everything the similar GUN (see my review) was not: Engaging, fun, and graphically lush. As with GUN, Call of Juarez is an Old West shooter, and it's surprisingly interesting plot throws every single Wild West stereotype imaginable at you. Damsel in distress? Check. Train robbery? Check. Mystical Indian wisdom? Consider it done.

You play two different characters in the game, switching back and forth between them as the plot develops around you. As with Hour of Victory (below), their abilities are supposed to set them apart from a game play perspective, but that doesn't really pan out. One is Billie, the distraught Mexican teenager who's not allowed to date the Anglo love of his life. The other is Uncle Ray, a derange preacher who lets appreciates vengeance more than turning the other cheek.

There are numerous levels, and quite a variety of tasks to perform, keeping play interesting as you progress. Annoyingly, however, you do not get Achievements for completing individual levels, but rather for completing a single task within each level. Some of these Achievements are just silly easy--like the ones where you have to kill 10 enemies with a bow (when that's pretty much your only weapon at the time) or kill 10 spiders with the whip (when, again, it's your only weapon). Some, however, are terribly hard. You have to finish an entire level "without getting a scratch," which sounds easily enough. After all, all you need to do is kill three rabbits, put out a tent fire, and then get a single feather from an eagle's nest. The thing is, to do this, you have to traverse about 100 in-game miles, with incredibly varied terrain, where the simplest stumble down a hill will damage you. And that Eagle's feather? It's at the top of a realistically-sized mountain, which you must scale up and down, all while an angry eagle attacks you from time to time. It's not impossible but it is absolutely ridiculous.

I do like that you can go back and replay levels to get Achievements you may have missed, and looked at in that light, Call of Juarez delivers on some levels. Some sequences, however, are terrible: There are numerous pointless gun fights, some really silly fist fights, and you can actually go back and relive these sequences for additional Achievements.

Call of Juarez is graphically gorgeous. Combined with the excellent plot and the wonderful Old West setting, there are some great moments. The Achievement stuff is ill-designed, and some of the repetitive fighting sequences bring it down a bit. Overall, Call of Juarez is easily one of the best games in this roundup, and the one I'd most recommend to the typical Xbox 360 gamer. But it's a mid-level title in the scope of the other excellent games currently available.

Rating:

Hour of Victory

I noted above that I'm a fan of World War II shooters, and it's true: I'll buy anything even remotely falling into that category. Hour of Victory is such a game, though the "remotely" qualification applies here in spades. Yes, Hour of Victory is a shooter that takes place in a World War II setting. Yes, there is a multiplayer version of the game in which you can play against other people. But no, this game bears almost no resemblance to Call of Duty 2 or 3, despite the surface similarities. It is, in fact, one of the worst Xbox 360 games I've ever played. The multiplayer bits, especially, seem like an inside joke foisted on unsuspecting gamers. These guys couldn't seriously think anyone would want to play this travesty online, could they?

Before we get to that, let's deconstruct the single player experience. Set over three campaigns in North Africa, Germany, and finally Berlin, Hour of Victory lets you play as one of three characters in most levels. This, indeed, is its main differentiator, as your character selection makes each level very slightly different because of the unique capabilities of each. For example, Bull is the macho man with the big guns: He can race through the middle of a level and take more damage than the other guys. Tagger can, um, pick locks. And Ross can climb ropes. Yippee! What's hilarious about all this, aside from the fact that none of these choices appreciably changes the game experience, is that you will need to complete each level three times, one with each character, to get all the single player Achievements. Dear God.

Graphically and sonically, Hour of Victor is completely average, though I found some of the snow-swept levels in the middle campaign to be attractive. The game play, however, is what really sinks this title. If you've ever played one of those in-arcade games, where you actually use a plastic rifle to shoot at zombies, or terrorists, or whatever, then you understand both the game play mechanics and level of AI utilized in Hour of Victory. It's just utterly unsatisfying.

Even worse is the multiplayer. Indeed, this game makes even Gears of War multiplayer look superior by comparison. There are only three game modes--Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Devastation--and only a handful of levels, all of which are so graphically horrible that they make the single player experience look like a Michelangelo masterpiece. These are levels that could have been accurately rendered on a mid-1990's era Sega Saturn. They're just horrible. Adding salt to the wound is the inane little music riff that plays every single time sometime dies in the game. Kill me, please.

This game is a complete waste of time and money, even if you simply must own every World War II-themed game ever made.

Rating:

The Darkness

Two years ago, Microsoft turned up the publicity machinery behind its Xbox 360 console for the first time and we were treated to a number of game trailers and previews, all promising next generation visual, sonic, and gaming experiences. And sure enough, one of the very first games Microsoft promoted was The Darkness, a striking horror-tinged title: I first published a screenshot gallery for this game way back in May 2005. (I published a second screenshot gallery over a year later.) Two years after the initial trailer, the game finally shipped. I'm uncertain it was worth the wait.

The Darkness is a dark (ahem) and violent title worthy of its "M" (Mature) rating. You play Jackie Estacado, an up-and-coming but low-level mob hitman who's having a really bad 21st birthday: First, the mob boss decides you're getting too big for your britches and tries to have you killed. Second, an alien demon called, yes, The Darkness, has decided to make your body its host.

A first person shooter, The Darkness is absolutely beautiful, in a dark sort of way: The graphics are everything you'd expect from a next-generation 360 title. It's quite violent, though you tend to take out guys who are even more evil than yourself, which I suppose is somewhat rewarding. And though taking on the mob might be difficult on a good day, thanks to your new-found buddy The Darkness, which imbues you with a number of special powers, including a pair of serpents that rise up out of your shoulders, a black hole, and a collection of Darklings you can call to do your bidding. All of these, and your other dark powers, literally rely on the darkness for power, so you'll spend a lot of time shooting out street lights in the pretty believable looking New York City locations.

Ultimately, The Darkness just doesn't do it for me: The characters are all stereotypes, and the dark powers seem to exist solely to help you solve the puzzles that are liberally sprinkled through the game. The graphics are gorgeous, but the levels are artificially constrained to keep you on the rail, and it appears that only two small sections of the city have actually been created.

As with Hour of Victory, multiplayer in The Darkness is a complete afterthought, and when you consider that this title, Gears of War, and Call of Duty 3 all deliver great single player experiences but miserable multiplayer, you might begin wondering if game makers have forgotten some of the basics. Yeah, The Darkness looks great, it really does. But sometimes beauty is only skin deep.

Rating:

Final thoughts

Despite my disappointment in most of these titles, there are still some bright spots to consider. Guitar Hero II is an absolute gem, and I'll review that separately soon. Some recent Xbox Arcade games are also excellent, and inexpensive: We've spent a bunch of time with Sonic the Hedgehog (the Sega classic, not the horrible new one), Marble Blast Ultra (a favorite of my son), Bomberman LIVE, and 3D Ultra Mini-Golf lately, and all are fun, replayable diversions. As for the games reviewed here, hey, you can do better. A lot better.