GameCube: A force to be reckoned with

Nintendo is making a big pitch for GameCube at next week's E3 game expo, but it's already showing off its stuff in early preview of an upcoming Star Wars title.

Nintendo may not open its doors to the press until next week's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), but there are other ways to skin a cat.

In a plot twist that would have caught Obi Wan Kenobi off guard, LucasArts invited MSNBC over to Factor 5, its development partner for the Rogue Squadron games, to have a look at its first game for GameCube - Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron 2 (RS2).

If you've been looking for a good excuse to play a Star Wars game, RS2 is a great one. The three missions that Factor 5 demonstrated came very close to looking as if they had been clipped out of the original trilogy.

In the first battle, an interactive remake of the first Death Star battle, players lead a small force of X-Wings past a small swarm of TIE Fighters through enemy turrets and into the famous trench.

Forget anything you have heard about polygon counts and processor sizes - this re-creation of the cinema's most famous battle is nearly flawless. GameCube may not boast the largest polygon counts, but it makes very smart use of polygons and textures, resulting in an amazingly true-to-the-movies recreation.

From the moment you enter the trench that circles the Death Star, you cannot help but notice the crisp look of its walls. These are not the faded and rough-looking walls in past Star Wars games - including Starfighter on PlayStation 2. This trench has the same dull plastic look as the one in the movies.

GameCube makes good use of light, too. Whether lit by lasers or exploding Imperial ships, the walls of the Death Star glow to reflect changes in light.

Like the one in Atari's early '80s Star Wars arcade game, this trench has blast walls, turrets and obstacles to dodge. But this game is truer to the movie. You can't drop your guard when turrets stop firing at you - that only means that TIE Fighters are on your tail.

The cockpit in RS2 even features that nifty aiming display that Luke eschewed in favor of the Force. And yes, there are bonuses for using the Force instead of the aimer.

But this article is not a review of RS2; rather, it is the first impressions of GameCube as revealed through RS2.

RS2 makes great use of all of GameCube's strengths, especially its controller. GameCube's controller is the most sophisticated yet seen, with a digital direction-pad (D-pad), two thumb-pads, a four-button cluster and four shoulder buttons. And you use every single button to play RS2.

The main steering mechanism in RS2 is the left thumb-pad; the right thumb-pad is used for controlling the camera. You view RS2 from two perspectives, either behind your fighter craft or from within its cockpit. Moving the right thumb-pad from the exterior view allows you to change the camera angle. Moving it from the interior view lets you look around the cockpit.

RS2 uses the D-pad as a means of communicating with your wingmen. During battles, a menu appears with four commands. To select the proper message, you press up, down, left or right on the D-pad.

Then there are the shoulder buttons. The top right button accelerates your fighter, both lower buttons make you do barrel rolls, and the left shoulder button acts as a break.

The four buttons in the cluster do all of the standard stuff - fire weapons, change views, etc. That may sound like a lot of controls, but thanks to intelligent layout, it's pretty intuitive.

As impressive as RS2 is, it should be noted that this is no first-generation game. LucasArts had to wait for the standard PlayStation 2 development kit while creating Star Wars: Starfighter; but with RS2, Nintendo gave long-time partner Factor 5 a huge head start. In real-world terms, RS2 is somewhere between a first- and second-generation game.

A direct comparison
For a more head-to-head comparison of GameCube and PlayStation 2, players can look to Madden NFL 2002 from Electronic Arts.

Last year's Madden was the star of the PlayStation 2 launch library, and this year's game has some visual improvements. (It may also have deep gameplay improvements, too, but I did not have enough play time to test that.)

The PlayStation 2 version of Madden is further along than the one for GameCube, which currently lacks details such as goal posts. Electronic Arts is clearly building the GameCube code from the PlayStation version as the menus I saw still had PlayStation symbols for marking buttons.

That said, it is no surprise that the versions are nearly identical from most camera angles. Differences do appear, however, when the game camera closes in on players' faces. The players in the GameCube version have more lifelike faces, while the very high-resolution players in the PlayStation 2 version still have life-less, somewhat homicidal, mannequin eyes.

While Electronic Arts is making Madden for Microsoft's Xbox as well, the Xbox version is not yet ready for unveiling. This might be a good safety measure as Microsoft's NFL Fever 2002 looks to give Madden a real run for its money. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Halo looking spectacular
In fact, many of Microsoft's games are shaping up nicely as the company prepares for its fall launch. Halo, a game that I once wrote off as a mistake in Microsoft's marketing, may just be good enough to break the curse that has vexed first-person shooters on video game consoles. (With the notable exception of Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64, no first-person shooter has ever made it into the top 10 games for annual sales.)

With horizons that look more like Roger Dean posters than video game art, Halo looks spectacular. It has oceans with rolling ripples, amazing lighting effects that include real light physics when you use flashlights, and all kinds of intelligent monsters to battle.

Halo may not look quite as realistic as RS2, but organic environments with plants, rocks, and humans are harder to recreate than synthetic scenes like Death Stars. And people are much harder to make than fighter craft.

In other words, Halo is an ambitious project that was more suited for computers than video game consoles - and Microsoft may yet pull it off.

So who will win the day at E3, the industry's biggest showcase? Microsoft has momentum, but all eyes are on Nintendo, and Nintendo's got some goods to show. At this point, however, I have only seen one and a half games on GameCube. While RS2 blasts the competition, Madden scores only mildly better than the PlayStation 2 version.

Microsoft has revealed more of its hand, and the Xbox cards look strong.

Nintendo is still playing a guarded game, but if Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron 2 is any indication, Nintendo may have an unbeatable hand.


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