Games 10/18/06: Killzone: Liberation, Mercury Meltdown, Clubhouse Games

Killzone: Liberation
For: PSP
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Problem: You made a first-person shooter named “Killzone” on the Playstation 2. People really liked it. You want to make more “Killzones” on more systems. But your next destination, the PSP, handles first-person games about as well as the Washington Generals handle the Harlem Globetrotters.

Solution? Make a “Killzone” game — but don’t make an FPS.

Result? Awesome. Give Guerilla Games a round of applause: It knew better than to pretend, as many developers have, that what’s good for the PS2 automatically is good for the PSP. And in not playing dumb or assuming we were, it crafted one of the best games of its kind ever made.

Oh sure, the song remains the same: You’re still fighting the Helghast army, and your methods — guns, grenades, tanks and turrets — haven’t changed. But in “Killzone: Liberation,” the camera’s zoomed way out, and the action now takes place in an overhead fashion — think “Commando,” “Ikari Warriors” or the top-down levels in “Contra,” only with 3D animation, more complex level designs and other modern-day bells and whistles you expect from a shooter in 2006.

Other 3D games have attempted this in the past — “Max Payne” and “Rainbow Six” on the Game Boy Advance are two shining examples — but this is the most magnificent reinvention yet. Everything that was fun about “Killzone” is fun again in “Liberation.” The firefights are both intense and cerebral, mixing duck-and-cover strategy with guns-blazing blowouts. Vehicles are surprisingly fun to control and are implemented perfectly, as are squad controls and escort missions that actually don’t stink. The game is tough as nails to beat, but the excellent checkpoint system always keeps victory within reach.

The soldier you control could be a little zippier, but beyond that, the new approach never holds this one back. In fact, “Liberation” is such a fresh mix of old- and new-school gameplay, “Killzone” fans just might be tripping over themselves to play it. Portable renditions of console games need not be crippled or dumbed down to be faithful, and Guerilla’s stroke of brilliance stands as proof.

—–

Mercury Meltdown
For: PSP
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Mercury” had its place in the launch of the PSP last year. The PSP needed puzzle games — every portable system does. And “Mercury” — which plays like “Marble Madness” and “Super Monkey Ball,” but with much cooler physics — was a good game with good timing.

That said, “Mercury Meltdown” is the real deal, a soup-to-nuts improvement in terms of gameplay, design and everything in between. Name a flaw in “Mercury,” and chances are good “Meltdown” has addressed and stamped it out.

First and most importantly, the frustration has been toned down. “Meltdown’s” difficulty progression is far more gradual, offering less lobotomy-friendly levels at the very start and less ridiculously difficult ones shortly after. And because the more than 160 new levels now come in packs of 16 instead of one after the other, you can put a difficult level aside when it’s driving you nuts and simply try another one. Finally, remember the timer? It’s still there — but if time expires, you merely take a penalty in your pursuit of the high score instead of start the level over. In other words, Ignition wants you to play “Meltdown” in whatever manner best fits you.

“Meltdown” also looks like a new game, replacing “Mercury’s” generic visual style with an explosion of color and personality that seeps into the levels, menus and even load screens. The load times are way down, and Ignition takes advantage of everything from wireless multiplayer to downloadable content and game sharing. The new party games — which themselves have multiple levels — are clever new twists on the gameplay formula. And it almost goes without saying at this point that the levels feature a new slew of traps and gadgets to compliment the inventive batch from the last game. Everything else has been improved, and you can bet that piece of the puzzle has been as well.

—–

Clubhouse Games
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You say you want a new game for that there Nintendo DS? Well heck, how about 42 of them? That’s what you get with “Clubhouse Games,” an everything-to-everyone compilation that’s such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder it took two years and Nintendo itself to deliver it.

As implied by the name, “CG” is an array of games you might play at a clubhouse, including card games (everything from Memory to blackjack to poker), table games (checkers/chess, board game knockoffs, dominoes) and other casual standards (darts, bowling, billiards). The “42 games” pitch is pretty honest, too: You don’t, for instance, get 35 variations of Solitaire and seven other games. Between the game selections and the various ways to play them — including an Xbox 360 achievements-like mission mode — “CG” isn’t hurting for variety.

That’s not to say every game is a winner. While “CG” gives you a lot to chew on, you’re asking too much if you expect each game to be the definitive version of its sort. The Texas Hold ’em game, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to choose the size of your bet. And the billiards game is … well, it’s bad.

But for every disappointment, there are plenty of games that are both faithful and executed well. And while “CG” features lots of usual suspects, Nintendo has included a surprising number of inspired picks, including Spit, the shuffleboard-like Takeover, the Jenga-esque Balance and I Doubt It!, which is a G-rated but otherwise faithful interpretation of a certain anatomically-named card classic. That little bombshell is enough to make up for the baffling omission of air hockey (which we can only assume was saved for the sequel, because no other explanation suffices).

Nintendo’s online savvy seems to improve with each effort, and “CG” is no exception, featuring an integrated PictoChat that’s always accessible but never intrusive. Online play is available for each game, as is wireless multiplayer (eight players, one card). The adjustable difficulty makes “CG” fun to play alone, but few games scream “find some buddies” quite like this one does.