Resident Evil 5: Not as evil as we'd like

Resident Evil 5: Not as evil as we'd like
GTA IV: The new episode, for Xbox 360 only, is “The Lost and the Damned.” (Rockstar Games)
Maybe it's the dusty setting of an African village instead of a freakily deserted town. Or the fact that most of the action takes place in sunny daylight instead of fog-shrouded nighttime. Perhaps it's because the two main characters, Chris and Sheva, look a little too much like Troy and Gabriella from "High School Musical."

Whatever the reason, Resident Evil 5 fails to live up to the excitement of its predecessors.

The RE franchise set the bar for horror survival games with its blend of "things that go bump in the night" and its limited weapons and ammunition to use to stop said bumps. Although the zombies that Chris and Sheva encounter are as frightening as imaginable, this outing leans more toward the action genre than the "escape at all costs" outings of times past.

The gameplay in RE5 is primarily co-op, with gamers controlling Chris and either the computer or an online buddy driving Sheva. Specific puzzles are created that require you and your partner to work together in order to move on. But at times the artificially intelligenced Sheva stands exactly where she shouldn't (and frequently runs out of bullets), causing more frustration than fun.

The graphics are great and, along with the well-designed cut screens, really help illustrate how much work surely went into the title. It's too bad the same can't be said for the controls, which at times feel clunky and unresponsive, most likely due to the limitations the third-person view naturally imposes.

RE5 isn't a bad game. It's just lacking the frights of its predecessors.

Grade: B (would have probably been better at night).

Details: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms; $59.99; rated Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language).

New adventures in Liberty City

Like getting a new paint job for a beloved ride, The Lost and the Damned, the first new episode of Grand Theft Auto IV downloadable exclusively for the Xbox 360, doesn't disappoint.

Instead of angry immigrant Niko Bellic and his exploits, gamers here get to take the role of ultimate tough-guy biker Johnny Klebitz and his gang the Lost as they brawl their way through the same gritty Liberty City that Niko did last year. The familiarity is great: Despite having to run new missions in an all-new story, most of the landmarks are intact, right down to the perfect location to hijack a helicopter (a pier in the south of town) and the creepy beating heart chained inside the Statue of Liberty-esque monument.

It's the subtle refinements that make this feel fresher than you might think. The visuals seem a lot grittier this time around, like they were shot with a grainy 16-millimeter filmstock. Johnny's cellphone has a camera, meaning he can snap photos of his exploits (yes, even in the gentlemen's club). And some of the nicer vehicles that you can carjack have talking GPS units to aid in finding your way about town. Additionally, there are great new in-game TV shows, an Internet system to use and new tunes on the radio stations to enjoy as you tear stuff up.

Grade: A (a welcome return trip to Liberty City).

Details: Xbox 360 platform; $9.99 downloaded from Xbox Live; rated Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol).

Be a general in the Halo Wars

Halo Wars is a bold new direction for the mega-successful Halo franchise. Gone is the "micro" first-person view of Master Chief as he battles the Covenant; in Halo Wars, you get a "macro" challenge of assembling a fighting force and successfully deploying it to defeat the aliens in a battle set 20 years before the previous games.

Yet despite relying on strategy more than strength, Halo Wars still packs a ton of action and gets quite complex -- too much so at times. Trying to manage a bevy of battles and squads spread out across a large map is no easy task. But with its brilliant game design, real strategy buffs will surely latch right on.

Best of all are the brilliant cut screens that advance the story between battles. Flawless and gorgeous, the clips set a new standard for cinematic beauty in video games. People have never looked as realistic as they do here.

Grade: B+ (brilliant cut-screens mixed with complex strategy action).

Details: Xbox 360 platform; $59.99; rated Teen (mild blood, mild language, violence).

A more vivid Street Fighter

Welcome back, Blanka: You've never looked better.

Keeping the same cartoonish graphic styles updated with 3-D sensibilities available on the next-gen game systems, Street Fighter IV successfully improves the franchise while keeping intact the elements that made it a classic.

The same great characters (complete with their swollen muscles and unusual powers) all battle in the simple one-on-one fights that helped launch the genre. Like the previous games, it isn't easy mastering the complex combinations of buttons to pull off amazing moves. The timing has to be so precise that gamers new to the franchise (and those without crazy button-mashing skills) might find it a little inaccessible, at least at the start.

Add in some bizarre anime-style clips and an equally bizarre theme song that has to be heard to be believed, and fans nostalgic for Sagat, Chun-Li, Ken and Ryu will not be disappointed.

Grade: B+ (will be best enjoyed by fans of the franchise).

Details: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms; $59.99; rated Teen (alcohol reference, mild suggestive themes, violence).

There's nothing at all to F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is like many other games of the "trying to be exciting" type; it's just done a lot more poorly. With its standard story (soldiers being used for a top-secret project without their consent, yawn) and an absence of thrills, F.E.A.R. is lacking any real drama.

In a quality game, the levels are created so well that things jump out from behind shadows; here, the flashlight just starts to flicker. Lame.

Grade: D (derivative and dull).

Details: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms; $59.99; rated Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, partial nudity, strong language).