Games 8/27/08: Too Human, Grid (Nintendo DS), Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty

Too Human
For: Xbox 360
From: Silicon Knights/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

The story behind “Too Human’s” creation — nine years, three platforms, countless restarts and even some pending litigation — is packed with more mythos than the game’s actual story. The long process also leaves an indelible mark on a final product that’s both unrelenting in the pursuit of its vision and saturated with design choice that were more acceptable when development began than they are today.

The heart and soul of “Human” centers around its gameplay mechanics, which most closely resemble those of the “Diablo” franchise of PC games. “Human,” like “Diablo,” is a dungeon crawler in which the primary objective, beyond carrying out the storyline, is to slay thousands of enemies, build up your character’s attributes and hopefully stumble some one-of-a-kind piece of weaponry or armor.

Rather than use buttons to attack, as most console dungeon crawlers do, “Human” instead maps all attack commands to the control sticks. It sounds awkward, but in practice, it represents the best approximation yet of “Diablo’s” mouse-based gameplay. Flicking the stick to slide between enemies and carve through armies of monsters is surprisingly satisfying once you develop an understanding of the system’s intricacies. (Ranged combat doesn’t fare as elegantly, thanks to “Human’s” stubborn auto-targeting system and unavoidably archaic camera controls, but it generally suffices.)

But while “Human” validates itself when it finds a groove, serious balancing issues often leave it struggling to do just that. Remedial enemy A.I. sends the same monsters straight at you ad nauseam, and it’s hard to glide gracefully between enemies when you’re so frequently mobbed. The penalty for dying in “Human” is practically nil outside of an obnoxious cutscene you cannot skip, and the game compensates for this by overwhelming you with waves of cheap enemies.

A little less cheapness and a little more danger would have done wonders for elevating “Human’s” stakes, which already ride low thanks to its lacking storyline. Silicon Knights has positioned “Human” as a trilogy, but part one neither sets the table compellingly nor leaves gamers hungry to find out what happens next.

Yet with all that said, it must also be said that for the right crowd, “Human” still manages to hit that sweet spot just flush enough to suck people in. The character-building options are just deep enough, and while the game doles out rare items far too generously, the compulsion to uncover slightly better loot remains. If you understand that compulsion at all — or simply cannot for “Diablo III’s” arrival — “Human” is unquestionably worth at least a rental, if not more.

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Grid
For: Nintendo DS
From: Firebrand/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Resist, for a moment, the entirely understandable urge to penalize the Nintendo DS version of “Grid” for what it isn’t and never could be — specifically, the gorgeous, blissfully intuitive sleeper that emerged from left field to become one of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3’s best racing sims.

The DS is capable only of rendering 3D that looks straight out of the late 1990s, and as such, “Grid” loses one of its chief selling points — those incredible good looks — entirely by default. The cars are ugly, the backgrounds relatively static, the collision animations more reminiscent of crashing piñata cars than steel bending around steel.

But short of reinventing itself as an unrecognizable 2D racer, “Grid” has little choice but to look as it looks and make do from there. Far more important than how the game looks is how it actually performs, and it’s here where the news considerably improves.

On the track — 37 licensed tracks, to be exact — “Grid’s” 29 licensed vehicles handle surprisingly well despite the limitations of the DS’ control pad. Imagine a Nintendo 64 racer and the degree of control that typically entailed, and you have an idea what to expect here: a degree of precision not on par with the console versions but plenty serviceable for what it’s trying to accomplish. “Grid’s” simulation leanings are understandably more forgiving on the small screen, but the game still keeps you abreast of vehicle damage and when it may be wise to enter the pit for repairs.

For the trouble you invest in getting to know its intricacies and looking past its inherited shortcomings, “Grid” rewards you with a whole lot to do. As hinted by the number of included tracks, the single-player component is remarkably comparable to what the console versions offer, and “Grid” accompanies a rather nice variety of event types with a satisfactory toolset for upgrading, redesigning and tweaking whichever cars you’ve unlocked. Four-player wireless and online multiplayer are available for those in search of human competition, though there’s no telling yet whether the game will foster a viable online following.

It deserves to, if only due to “Grid’s” dauntingly deep track editor, which provides a startling level of freedom for designing your dream track and lets you challenge other players to beat you on your own turf. Hobbled though “Grid” unmistakably is by the DS’ limitations, it also takes acute advantage, though this feature, of the special capabilities only Nintendo’s handheld can provide.

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Downloadable game of the week

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, use of alcohol)
Price: $15

With “Quest for Booty,” the celebrated “Ratchet & Clank” series ventures into new territory: episodic gaming. That means a jarringly shorter (roughly three hours) game than “Ratchet” fans are used to, and it also means a detour in the series’ storytelling. “Booty” takes place on the heels of last year’s full-sized “Tools of Destruction,” but it doesn’t resolve that game’s cliffhanger ending so much as advance it a few degrees. Consequently, Clank — who was kidnapped at the conclusion of “Destruction” — isn’t available as a playable character. That’s unfortunate, but here’s the good news: In adhering to the bite-sized format, “Booty” trims the junk that sometimes weighed previous “Ratchet” games down, leaving behind three uninterrupted hours of top-shelf running, jumping, blasting and puzzle-solving. Ratchet’s gadget arsenal consists mostly of holdovers from “Destruction,” but the game’s environments are completely new and even more lovingly detailed than what gamers experienced last year. The series’ expert mix of action, humor and gorgeous good looks is as close as gamers can get to experiencing an interactive Pixar film, and “Booty’s” expert pacing makes it an ideal summer blockbuster that’s easily replayable purely on the merits of fun. If you truly love “Ratchet,” this one’s a no-brainer.