Games 5/21/08: Boom Blox, Assault Heroes 2

Boom Blox
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

To the untrained eye, “Boom Blox” may look like yet another addition to the mountain of awful Wii games that litter store shelves in hopes of trapping unsuspecting buyers with an appealing box and catchy title.

In reality, “Blox” may be one of the biggest surprises of 2008. Like so many of those bad Wii games, it feeds on simple ideas. Unlike all of them, it does so with masterful skill.

For starters, “Blox” is so rich with gameplay modes and variations that satisfactorily explaining what it even is would require more words than this review space provides. Sometimes the goal is to throw a ball at a tower of blocks and knock down certain pieces while leaving others intact. Other times, you’ll use special blocks or projectiles to set off chains that knock everything down in as few throws as possible. Other levels have you pulling pieces out, Jenga-style, in hopes of accomplishing various objectives. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, some levels have you holding the Wiimote like a zapper and blasting blocks for points. And so on.

These mechanics may read thin on paper, but “Blox” is so refreshingly proficient as a package (erratic zapper levels aside) that it’s a different ballgame in practice. The motion controls are almost shockingly on point, making it easy to throw and pull without fear of game glitches undermining whatever strategy you’ve devised. A massive array of levels — more than 300 spread out over multiple modes — provides a ton of puzzles to solve, and an awesome infusion of real-world physics injects “Blox” with simultaneous doses of intelligence and unpredictability. Achieving the gold medal score in every level is a fun and legitimately challenging enterprise.

And yet, none of the above provides the best reason to play “Blox.” That honor instead goes to the game’s robust four-player offerings, which dish out yet more levels in both the co-op and competitive vein. Given the appealing premise (destroy stuff!) and that the polished controls allow even novices to master them simply on instinct, “Blox” may be the Wii’s most inviting and addictive party game since “Wii Sports.”

Should you actually burn through everything “Blox” has to offer, fret not: This sundae has a serious cherry in the form of a full-featured but incredibly intuitive level designer. Inspired designers can alter existing levels and create new ones from scratch, while the less driven can download levels that friends create and send their way.

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Assault Heroes 2
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Downloadable for: 800 MS Points
From: Wanako Studios/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

Gaming is nothing if not a sequel-friendly business, and with “Assault Heroes 2,” the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade has the first of what surely will be many sequels to games that either began life or flourished on the service.

Few franchises deserve the milestone more. The original “Assault Heroes,” released last year, was a terrific top-down shooter that employed dual-stick controls (left joystick to move, right stick to aim and shoot) a la “Geometry Wars” but did so in an environment reminiscent of such classics as “Ikari Warriors” and “Commando.” The premise — shoot everything — was simple, but the game’s grasp of modern graphics, controls and features made for a wonderful mix of classic sensibilities that still satisfied contemporary gaming expectations.

Fundamentally, “AH2” doesn’t change that, and pretty much everything that made the original great — including online and offline two-player co-op — makes the sequel just as good. Your 4×4 has some new weapon possibilities, and you now can commandeer tanks, choppers and mechs during various portions of the game. All are trickier to maneuver than the 4×4, but the cool weapon systems in each make the learning curve worth traversing.

Additionally, while “AH2’s” story is weaker than a snowflake at a furnace convention, it provides an excuse to briefly venture into space. The fundamental gameplay remains the same out here, but a new suite of vehicles and weaponry — along with a couple surprising shifts in perspective and a few levels that skillfully pay homage to the likes of “Galaga” — change the pace just enough to keep things fresh between terrain-based missions.

The most pronounced change, however, has nothing to do with what you’re flying or driving. Whereas the original “Heroes” featured on-foot action only during bonus underground areas or when enemies destroyed your vehicle, “AH2” lays down mandatory stretches of levels in which the only way to get by is to leave the safety of your ride and fight on foot.

Happily, the biggest change also happens to be the best. “AH2’s” on-foot missions add a refreshing dose of danger to a game that, overall, is somewhat easier than its predecessor. To compensate, the game also greatly expands your foot soldier’s weaponry and provides the very helpful ability to dodge-roll enemy attacks. That’s a smart trade-off, and it adds up to an assemblage of on-foot battles that not only blowi away their counterparts in the original, but arguably outclass any portion, period, of either game.