Games 12/13/06: Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony, Call of Duty 3 Wii, Kirby: Squeak Squad, Rampage: Total Destruction (Wii)

Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
For: PSP
From: SuperVillain Studios/Gas Powered Games/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen

The worst thing about “Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony?” Why, it’s its timing. “Throne” arrives on the PSP smack in the middle of the holiday rush, seemingly yet another victim of the tidal wave of more familiar non-PC game hits that drowns gamers annually.

That’s a pity, too, because this is the hacking, slashing dungeon crawler a certain segment of the PSP-carrying population has lusted after since the system launched nearly two years ago. Where a handful of games have failed due to problems ranging from bland design to uninspired execution, “Throne” succeeds by committing no such sin.

For starters, it’s rarely ever dull. “Throne” doesn’t deviate a great deal from the dungeon crawler formula — which, admittedly, is a blueprint for repetitive, grinding gameplay. What it does do, though, is complement that simple formula with depth in every respect. The game is an adventurer’s paradise, crammed with truckloads of diverse environments to explore, quests to undertake, monsters to slay and rare (and useful) treasure to find. It also lets you play your way, offering character classes that are upgradeable in a slew of ways and can master a dynamically-growing list of skills and jobs as the game progresses.

All this daunting depth is made consumable by “Throne’s” other shining plus: total and complete user-friendliness. An exceptional interface makes sifting through the myriad upgrade options a piece of cake even for genre rookies, and the ability to stack found items against your inventory on the fly makes it refreshingly simple to decide what’s worth equipping, worth selling and best left behind. There’s even a color-coding system that ranks the special items according to value. If you like your depth with a side of convenience, heaven awaits.

Beyond this — and in addition to a stylish storyline that isn’t afraid to be a little silly at times — the game is just fun to play. It’s fast, pretty and unhindered by lousy cameras and sloppy A.I. The occasional long load time is a bummer, but the PSP’s sleep feature means you still can pick up and play this one at a moment’s notice — a nice compensation for the many, many moments spent waiting for a game like this to appear.

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Call of Duty 3
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Treyarch/Exakt/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

The Wii is an exciting new system with unspeakable potential, but it’s a system developers are still learning to understand. There may be no better example than “Call of Duty 3,” which enjoys a dual existence as both a fun game and an unflattering exposure of the Wii’s warts.

Save for graphics (not nearly as good) and online play (omitted), “COD3” is identical, feature-wise, to its big-ticket Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. That means the same storyline, battles, and obligatory tutorial level at the onset of the campaign. Mostly, that’s good news: Despite less horsepower, the Wii doesn’t get saddled with a less exciting game.

But it’s also bad news. The flimsy tutorial — all of three minutes long — is serviceable when playing with a controller but wholly undercooked when trying to master a brand-new control scheme. “COD3” uses the Wiimote and Nunchuck (required) to emulate a PC mouse/keyboard setup, and it’s pretty common sense stuff. But it’s still nice to develop some level of proficiency before entering a fight as intense as the battles here. Prepare to die — often — as you fumble to learn how to be a good shot while German bullets swarm you every time you peek around cover. Exciting? You bet. But frustrating? Goodness, yes.

It gets worse. Throwing a grenade by shaking the Nunchuck is fun in concept, but having to press the D-pad (instead of, say, a button on the Nunchuck) first means you’ll inevitably budge the Wiimote, which inadvertently moves your aiming reticule and causes you throw the grenade off target. This isn’t the game’s fault so much as the controller’s, and it underscores the potential for problems caused by not having enough buttons handy (and perhaps the need for a more full-featured attachment down the line).

Other weird issues — including a weapon struggle mini-game that’s absurdly demanding in terms of precision — further fuel the frustration. But for every aggravation, there’s a moment — a sniper mission here, a surprisingly smooth driving mission there — that immerses players in ways the flashier versions cannot. Patient gamers hungry for new experiences should check this one out, but be warned: The developers are still learning, and they expect you to learn right alongside them.

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Kirby: Squeak Squad
For: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Playing “Kirby: Squeak Squad” after playing last year’s “Kirby: Canvas Curse” is like eating an ordinary pretzel after trying one of those soft pretzels with the cinnamon glaze for the first time. It’s hard to go back to plain old salt, and it’s just as hard to go back to a traditional Kirby game after playing “Curse,” which turned the formula on its ear and used the DS’ touch screen capabilities to brilliant effect.

But a pretzel by any other flavor is still a treat, and that same adage applies to “Squad,” which takes a lot of what made prior Kirby games good, mixes in a few new tricks, and produces an experience that’s a little too familiar but a lot of fun nonetheless.

Kirby fans will know what to expect: “Squad” is two-dimensional platformer, and Kirby’s abilities to jump, float and vacuum-swallow enemies whole is compounded by whatever form he temporarily embodies after swallowing certain enemies. Forms include plenty of returing favorites (swordfighter, wheel, tornado, arrow-shooting angel, bomb-lobber), but “Squad” introduces some new ones as well, including a rabid animal, an rather charming magician and others which are best left unspoiled.

Beyond the occasional mini-game, “Squad” uses the touch screen as a means to store up to five forms, power-ups and/or treasure chests. This comes into play in a good way: Many levels feature multiple paths, and mastering the game as it’s meant to be mastered (the rather humorous story provides the details) means finding your way into these visible but obstructed areas. You’ll need to embody certain forms at certain times to do so, and the capacity to store forms makes it possible for “Squad” to add some strategic challenge to what otherwise would be a pretty soft game.

None of this will make anyone forget “Curse,” the sequel to which hopefully is either in development as you read this or on its way there. But Kirby is one of Nintendo’s best and most unheralded characters, and there’s no reason he can’t headline two series instead of one as long as the games keep delivering like they do.

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Rampage: Total Destruction
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sift through the Wii’s launch library, and you’ll find plenty of examples of how games we’ve played for years can be dramatically reinvented — and in a good way — on Nintendo’s new system.

“Rampage: Total Destruction,” on the other hand, represents the opposite phenomenon: a respectably-designed game made worse, not better, by the inclusion of Wiimote controls (and the lazy development team that included them).

If “Destruction” seems a bit familiar, that’s because it originally released in April on the PS2 and Gamecube. Introduced as a budget-priced modernization of a beloved arcade classic, “Destruction” was just that — “Rampage” with more monsters (nearly 40 to the original game’s three), more modes, more real cities, more means of destroying them and better graphics, sound and animation. “Rampage” hasn’t aged as well as some arcade games, but Midway mostly delivered on its promise with a simplistic but fun (and funny and nostalgic) pick-up-and-play game.

Little has changed since April beyond a slight jump ($10) in price and Wiimote-specific controls. Unfortunately, the latter is where “Destruction’s” biggest problem lies. The idea of using the Wiimote to punch buildings and throw cars is an extremely appealing one, but the controls are so tacked-on that the idea is far better than the reality.

For starters, because “Destruction” wasn’t built from the ground up with the Wii in mind, half the commands (punching, jump) are relegated to button presses while the other half (smashing, grabbing) now work via Wiimote motions. (You can also move you monster by tilting the Wiimote, but plugging in the nunchuck and using the analog stick cannot be recommended enough.)

Unfortunately, these motions involve nothing more than flicking the Wiimote up/down or left/right, so it never feels like you’re destroying anything. It’s also much too easy for the game to confuse your movements and grab when you want to smash. Miss those simple button presses yet? If you play hashed-together games like this, you will. You’re better off getting the cheaper Gamecube version and playing that on your Wii if you need a “Rampage” fix.