A mind is a terrible thing to waste in "Psi-Ops"
By Columnist
updated 8/17/2004 3:53:44 PM ET 2004-08-17T19:53:44

What a summer. "Spider-Man 2" had players living indoors, eschewing sun and sand for another crack at Doc Ock. Titles like "Catwoman" had the opposite effect, sending players screaming from their consoles into the open air, cicadas be damned.

Summer's always a strange season for an industry enslaved to the holiday release cycle.  Below are some of the highs and lows of the season.

"Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy"
(PlayStation 2, Xbox)
This summer's guilty pleasure does what video games do best by combining sci-fi cheese with heavy weaponry.  An elite soldier trained by the government in deadly mind (psi) powers, "Psi-Ops" hero Nick Scryer is a video game Uri Geller, but instead of bending spoons, he uses his mind to hurl conveniently-placed exploding garbage cans.

After the world is threatened by a shadowy organization called "The Movement," Scryer moves into action. Although he boasts the usual assortment of weapons, the game's excessive use of rag doll physics demands that Scryer uses his mind to hurl enemies -- or better yet, hoist them in the air and riddle them with bullets.

Game progress yields new mind powers like mind control, pyrokinesis and X-ray vision. 

"Psi-Ops" successfully parlays our society’s appreciation of government conspiracies with solid action, graphics and sound effects straight out of "The Forbidden Planet."  It’s a dumb game, sure, and one that's horribly violent.  But the violence is all comic book violence and like a good pulpy comic book, the fun factor is high. Youngsters and anyone without an appreciation of sci-fi camp should stay away, however.

Electronic Arts
Hermione works her magic on Harry.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
(Gamecube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)
Released on the heels of the third movie in the Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the game, looks great.

Character models for the three protagonists, Harry, Hermione and that pale twit Ron, are impressive and the excellent voice acting lends a dose of realism. The game also does well by their school, Hogwarts, capturing it in all its British eccentricity.  

Where the video game fails is in translating the third book's feeling of dark foreboding (and onrushing puberty experienced by Harry and pals) into gameplay. Granted, puberty is not something I'm dying to experience again, even virtually, but the game could have been a more engaging epic if some of the story's emotional complexity had been included.

What we have instead is a mildly challenging adventure game where the player is required to leverage the power of each of the three protagonists as they battle demons, acquire spells and solve simple puzzles. Many of the puzzles involve lifting various crates around in one combination or another. Are these kids wizards or longshoremen?

New for "Prisoner of Azkaban" is the ability to control any of the three heroes, each with his or her own specialty: Harry is more athletic, Hermione can cast a greater assortment of spells and Ron can find secret doors. For PlayStation 2 owners, "Harry Potter" also includes several mini-games for the EyeToy.

"Harry Potter" is engaging for the younger player, not so engaging for the teen or adult player. The books may be popular among all ages, but the game is for kids.

Nice: Hometown of topless bathing and brainless car chases

(PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)
"Driv3r" -- pronounced "driver" -- opens with the full cinematic treatment: exotic locations and voice talent credits that include Ving Rhames and Iggy Pop. There's an implied promise that the player is in for a sprawling, dare we say, "Grand Theft Auto" experience.

Tanner, a Miami-based FBI agent, in on the hunt for an international car thief ring. The quest takes him from Miami to Nice, France to the hookah smoke-filled alleyways of Istanbul. Settings are impressive. Nice is, well, nice and any effort to move the action game genre beyond the streets of London, New York and Los Angeles is welcome. 

But if you think you're going to be able to explore these cities you're wrong. While "Grand Theft Auto" rewarded the player with an interactive environment -– a sense of humor helped -- “Driv3r” plods from one car chase to another and before you know it, you've reached the end of the game.

Despite the promise of being able to explore cities on foot, the effort is worthless. Tanner handles like an SUV and his aiming mechanism is so off that players will be amazed if they actually hit something.

Vehicles handle better. Players can jump into cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats. But the game's rules of the chase are so ruthless, even the simple joy of carjacking is a chore. Fail to keep up with a car -– even if it’s still in your sights -– and it’s “Mission failed.” 

After my first round with the game I thought what a shame it was to see “Driv3r’s” cinematic efforts wasted on a car wreck of a game. Then I realized I was wrong. The problem with “Driv3r” is that it’s too much like an action movie: long on mood, short on content.

The studio is where the magic happens.

"MTV Music Generator 3: This is the Remix"
(PlayStation 2, Xbox)
"MTV Music Generator" is a toolbox for the budding audio dabbler eager to remix, deconstruct and tweak pop hits into club anthems. 

The included tunes are predictably shallow -- this is MTV, remember -- with solid four-on-the-floor hip hop and house tracks from the likes of Sean John, Outcast and the U.K.'s Carl Cox.  Fortunately "MTV Music Generator 3" packs enough add-ons to allow the user to transform Outcast’s “I Like the Way You Move” from commuter radio fodder to a dubbed out after-hours club tweak-fest. 

The magic happens in the studio component, where tracks are divided into instrument groups on a 24-track sequencer. Layering any of the studio's several thousand samples across the 512-bar grid is as simple as clicking a button. 

"Music Generator 3" also includes a beat box for creating one-bar-long drum beats, a melody maker for Kraftwerk-like electronic "plings" and "plongs" plus a number of added effects like reverb and delay.  

Players can rip eight second samples from favorite CDs. Long enough to pull in "Can you dig it" from "The Warriors" soundtrack, but pretty short nonetheless.

Another shortcoming: Samplers hoping to earn future recording contracts won't be able to upload their files online. Playback is limited to the software.

Perhaps this shortcoming is a good thing -- does the world really need to listen to my "I Like the Way You Move (Loftus dub-mix)?" But as a simple, easy-to-understand studio “toy,” "MTV Music Generator 3" is worth a look for those video gamers whose summer is still defined by a soundtrack.

Coming up
As August rolls around, it will be time to fold up the beach chairs and put down the caipirinhas for good. Things are going to get a little dark, a little scary and I'm not just talking about the Republican Convention. On Aug. 3, the long awaited "Doom 3" hits the streets.

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