Games 3/28: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 (Wii), Def Jam: Icon, Spectrobes

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The first eight swings I took in “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” had no place in a backyard, much less the PGA. Each veered wide left or right, landing either out of bounds or in the water. Swinging the Wiimote like a virtual golf club was fun, but not exactly productive.

The problem? I was playing “Woods” like a video game. For the ninth swing, I employed every trick I’d ever learned on a golf course — knees bent, shoulders and feet square, eyes on the “ball” instead of the game, swinging in two motions instead of one. I swung the Wiimote, looked at the screen, and to my great amazement, the ball was en route to the fairway. It missed by inches and landed in the rough, but it was some serious progress — and one of the coolest “ah ha!” moments I’ve experienced in six years of reviewing video games.

The Wii version of “Woods” is, by no small margin, more challenging than any EA has ever produced. For the same reason, though, it’s also the most fun. Success will take time and practice, and the game will certainly fail you from time to time by misinterpreting your movements. But those who take time to learn the game’s control nuances and craft a dream swing will find it awfully difficult to revert to using buttons and analog sticks to replicate the same sensation.

Crafting that swing will take some work, but EA’s ready to help. “Woods” is rich with features, delivering 18 courses, 35 pro/fantasy golfers, the Tiger Challenge, a career mode and a multitude of traditional game styles, skill challenges and arcade-style games. But its best feature may be the practice swing. At any point during play, you can press a button to step away from the ball and take one of more freebie swings, which are graded in terms of distance and accuracy. It’s an invaluable tool that makes it far easier to understand both your swing and the game’s ability to interpret it. “Woods” has more trouble with the short game than the long game, so take full advantage to understand these issues and adjust.

Even still, “Woods” will sometimes inexplicably fail you. But as anyone who’s played the real game knows, so will your driver — sometimes, to this game’s great credit, for the same reasons.

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Def Jam: Icon
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong lyrics, violence)

“Def Jam: Icon” officially completes the series’ transition from wrestling game to street fighter. Anyone who had hopes of this franchise picking up the ball that THQ’s World Wrestling Entertainment games keep dropping, sorry — you got the first “Def Jam” game, but that’s all you’ll get.

But while “Icon” is much more of a punch-and-kick affair (with some grappling) than its predecessors, it’s still not for button mashers at heart. In fact, the action has slowed down rather than sped up. Domination is as much about defense as offense, and the slower pace allows you to play a nice game of beatdown chess with your opponent.

Where things get a little nuts is in “Icon’s” implementation of music — fitting, given the game’s cast of real-life hip-hop artists. Environments rattle and explode in time with the music, which either gives you or your opponent a boost (depending on whose song is playing). Toss your rival into a parked car, and if you time it right, the car will juke to the beat of the music and leave a bumper-sized mark on his face. Should your timing be off, you can perform DJ scratch maneuver, which, along with setting off certain environmental effects, can start your song if your opponent’s is playing. (360 owners can employ music from their MP3 library, and “Icon” will time its rattling and exploding with giddy-inducing accuracy.)

The use of music in “Icon” is brilliant, and it adds an extra coat of style to a game that, aesthetically, is bathing in it. But it also creates a learning curve that doubtlessly will catch some off-guard. Impatient gamers, beware: If you don’t spend some time in the free-form practice mode, the smile on your face when you fire this one up will fade quickly.

“Icon” features a respectable create-a-fighter feature, as well as adequate online play on either network. But the piece de resistance is its rags-to-riches story mode, which finds you on the business end of a record label — managing finances, pummeling rival producers, squaring off against paparazzi and more. Fighting remains the game’s focus, but the modest management system is surprisingly fun. Ditto for the storyline itself, which, while a little loose end-heavy, is as joyously outlandish as the game in which it’s told.

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Spectrobes
For: Nintendo DS
From: Jupiter/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)

How do you know when a game is ambitious? How about when the game case literally develops a bulge from holding in an instruction manual that checks in at 80 pages? “Spectrobes” wants to out-Pikachu “Pokémon,” and it’s pulling out every stop to do so.

At least laterally, it succeeds. The fundamental gist of “Spectrobes,” as with “Pokémon,” is to discover, collect and train hundreds of little monsters — in this case, a long-feared-extinct race of fighters and seekers known as Spectrobes, who are far more equipped than humans to fight off the invading Krawl (i.e., bad guys).

What makes “Spectrobes” so interesting is how you go about doing this, from discovering a Spectrobe (stylus-based fossil excavation) to awakening it (speaking soothingly into the DS’ microphone), to incubating and evolving it (think virtual pet simulator) to eventually taking it into the field to help you discover more fossils and minerals (as a child) or fight the Krawl (as an adult). It’s the circle of life in the palm of your hand, and “Spectrobes” strikes a nice balance between depth and accessibility in making it all possible.

It also makes it easier to accept the game’s ultimate limitation: repetition. Every game in this genre — “Pokémon” included — is guilty of this. There’s only so many ways to collect and cultivate monsters, and you’ll have seen most of what “Spectrobes” can do fairly early into the adventure. Similarly, while the real-time battles — in which you control yourself and two Spectrobes at the same time — are an inspired change of pace from the usual turn-based throwdowns, there’s only so many ways these can end. Before long, it’s a grind.

But before long, you probably won’t care if you like this kind of game. Games like “Spectrobes” thrive on the grind for purposes of story advancement, and there’s no small sample of people who embrace the personal investment a game like this requires. This is where all that ambition gets put to great use: The character designs aren’t on “Pokémon’s” level, but the effort you devote to finding and raising these characters creates a level of attachment even Nintendo hasn’t quite achieved.