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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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Sony flaunts upcoming PlayStation wares Add to ...

Last week Microsoft showed off upcoming wares for the Xbox 360 to Canadian media in Toronto, and this week it was Sony's turn. Reporters gathered in a medium-rise building on Queen Street West in Ontario's capital Tuesday to check out several of Sony's soon-to-release exclusives, as well as a few high-profile multiplatform titles. Here's what I saw.

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ModNation Racers

Sony's Matt Levitan told me at E3 that this game from Vancouver-based United Front Games is basically a kart racer with LittleBigPlanet sensibilities. Now that I've had a bit of hands-on time with it I have to agree.

Put simply, players create their own characters, cars, and tracks, then share them with a community that rates, remixes, and recommends other people's work.

But that's just a quick summary and it hardly does justice to the game's apparent depth.

Character customization options border on limitless, with players applying clothes, accessories, and facial features to a basic character frame that's shaped a bit like Marvin the robot from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. What's more, you can create multiple copies of specific accessories and attach them wherever you like. My guide made a headdress out of feathers to illustrate this point, and It reminded me a bit of creating a creature in Spore.

The same freedom exists in the car making module. You can design a semi-realistic looking F1 racer, a gangsta coupe with bouncy suspension, or a fantasy machine with engines that run off of a solar panel or power generated by a hamster wheel. (These modifications don't alter the car's abilities-I was told that one of United Front Games' primary focuses was ensuring performance parity between player creations.)

However, the most impressive part of the game looks to be the track editor. Players can begin track construction by creating a landscape and then paving over it, or by laying down track and then building up the surroundings. If, at any point, you want to stop, just press the triangle button and the track will complete itself. That means you never have to worry about making a broken, un-drivable level.

It took mere minutes for my guide to create a fun, beautiful circuit using imple but powerful tools including landscape brushes and prop sprays, which place random, themed objects (such as buildings and trees) together over a wide area at the touch of a button. His hastily constructed demo circuit looked better than many of the professionally designed tracks I've seen in other kart racers.

ModNation Racers looks cute, clever, and extremely inviting. I can't wait to take it for a longer spin when it releases in the middle of next year.

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"Grand Theft Auto with Nazis" is how my guide described Pandemic and Electronic Arts' Saboteur, but I think he may have been selling his own product a bit short.

Sporting beautiful black-and-white art design with colourful highlights for flames, blood, and Nazi symbols (I was told colour slowly seeps into the rest of the environment as we play), this open-world action game puts players in the shoes of a farm boy-cum-race car driver who seeks revenge on a Nazi general for killing his best friend. Based in a Moulin Rouge-style club in Paris, our hero roams occupied France on foot and by car carrying out demolition missions, including one that involves turning a massive zeppelin into a stadium-sized ball of flames.

I was told we'll encounter moral situations-like whether or not to stop and help civilians being harassed by Germans-but that the game never blatantly asks questions such as: Do you want to save these people and become a better person? Saboteur appears to have a more linear, cinematic story. It's not about becoming a hero or villain, or even winning the war, but instead getting some payback.

And that's okay by me. I'll readily jump into this offbeat World War II adventure to kick some Nazi butt come this December.

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DJ Hero

I've been eager to lay hands on one of DJ Hero's toy turntables for months. I was finally able to at Sony's event, and I have to say it feels pretty good. Not exactly like a real turntable-it's smaller and a bit flimsier-but it's at least as adequate as the plastic guitars and drums to which music-loving gamers have grown accustomed in recent years.

There are three indented buttons embedded on the table that players press in time with onscreen cues. The left and right buttons also change tracks, moving you between songs. Start rubbing the disc up and down whenever a squiggly icon pops up on screen to get the scratch sound, or just pull it back to spin back the music. There's also a cross-fader that can either play both songs at equal volume or silence one, but that only comes into play in harder difficulties (which I didn't try).

The question, I suppose, is whether people will flock to toy turntablism the way they did to mock rock.

Activision has certainly done its best to offer up a broad and inclusive track list. The publisher announced all 95 songs in the game earlier Tuesday, and the list runs the gamut of mixable music, including Marvin Gaye, Grandmaster Flash, Vanilla Ice, Gwen Stefani, Daft Punk, 2Pac, and Rihanna. And even if turntables aren't your thing you can still pick up either your old Guitar Hero axe or a mic and start jamming while the DJ spins.

The mixing commences October 23rd.

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God of War III

I didn't get to try this one myself, but I did watch a fellow reporter work his way through a few levels, and from what I saw, this unbelievably bloody action game shares much in common with its venerable predecessors.

Which is to say it is a supremely vicious bit of entertainment.

I witnessed one sequence in which one of the series' patented giants-a 100-story molten rock god-smashed scenery in the background while our protagonist, the Greek warrior/god Kratos, used his signature chain swords to carve up massive minotaur and other mythological beasties in the foreground.

But my most vivid memory is of Kratos grabbing a human foe's head from behind, fingers pressing into his cheeks and slipping into his open, screaming mouth. His left hand covered one of his victim's eyes, leaving the other free to bulg out of its socket and dart about in terror until his head was torn from his neck in a crimson geyser.

My mouth (and those of about half a dozen other nearby journalists) hung silently agape. It was an incontestably marvelous feat of video game visuals, but one that might give me nightmares.

Still, it won't deter me from picking up a copy when it releases next March.

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Heavy Rain

The last game I took in was Heavy Rain. I stood by for about 20 minutes while a colleague worked her way through a small part of this dark, film noir-ish thriller, and came away thinking it might be the most graphically advanced game I'd ever seen; perhaps this generation's visual equivalent to Shenmue.

The facial animations of the game's characters come close to what we've seen in CGI films like Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf (see the image at the top of this post). What's more, the detail of everyday objects-from a kitchen sink surrounded by almost photo-realistic utensils and soap bottles to a drug store shelf crammed with hundreds of packages, each with clear, legible words-is unsurpassed in anything I've seen in interactive entertainment.

As for the game itself, the jury is still out. The dialogue seems well penned, and the range of subtle actions we can make our protagonist perform-pouring a jug of milk, turning the ignition of a car-appears vast.

Whether players will get lost in (or grow bored of) all of this impressive minutiae, however, remains to be seen. Expect it next year.

Follow me on Twitter: @ chadsapieha

Update - I've already been emailed about the absence of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I declined to write about this particular game here because I'm currently playing through it. You'll see my review here or elsewhere in the Globe early next week.

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