Games 12/2/08: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Tomb Raider: Underworld

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
For: Xbox 360
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

If you really want to, you can play large chunks of “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” like a traditional “Banjo-Kazooie” game, which — once upon a time — was Rare’s very capable answer to Nintendo’s 3D Super Mario games.

“N&B” is, in fact, chock full of things to run, jump and climb on — so long as you don’t mind some meager compensation for your efforts. While certain acrobatics will net you exciting bonuses, most simply reward you with the game’s version of currency. Banjo’s gymnastic talents almost never factor in beating the main storyline.

That honor, instead, belongs to “N&B’s” many, many vehicular missions, which see you winning races, conducting rescue missions and engaging in various forms of vehicular combat, among a ton of other clever objectives, to accumulate enough tokens to unlock levels and ultimately beat the game.

That sounds like the last thing the series needs … until you step inside Mumbo’s Garage and discover just how much control you have over the construction of those vehicles. “N&B” gives you plenty of prefabricated land, air and sea vehicles to ride if you lack the creative fortitude to design your own, but the game’s creation tool is a stunning achievement that’s both easy (and fun) to use and shockingly lax in terms of restriction. If you construct a massive, completely unbalanced tank with one sideways wheel, “N&B’s” physics engine will make it impossibly difficult to ride well. At no point, though, will the game prevent you taking it out of the garage and giving it a shot.

That freedom — along with hundreds of parts ranging from simple foundation blocks to weapons and accessories galore — afford “N&B” ridiculous amounts of possibility, and the game’s inspired design fulfills that possibility completely. More than just a beautiful, funny game with great characters, “N&B” is a wonderland of creativity, filled to the brim with challenges and surprises that cater simultaneously to casual and seasoned players. You need only complete roughly half the vehicle challenges to beat “N&B,” but knocking off every last one of them (and earning optional time trial trophies in the process) is a long, entirely joyful endeavor for those crazy enough to take it on.

Rare’s hands-off magic carries over to the multiplayer space (eight players online, two offline), where armchair engineers can engage in 28 different race and stunt events and bring their homemade (and tradable) creations to the party. The races and derbies are fun in their own right, but the myriad ways people can construct a winning vehicle make “N&B” an entirely one-of-a-kind racer on a console that’s stuffed with them.

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Tomb Raider: Underworld
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PC and Nintendo DS
From: Crystal Dynamics/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Every kid growing up — including, presumably, future Crystal Dynamics employees — heard the same spiel about the importance of a good first impression. So it’s disappointing to see lessons go unlearned in “Tomb Raider: Underworld,” which follows a brief tutorial with a bland underwater mission whose centerpiece puzzle looks promising until you realize it’s just an uninspired fetch quest.

At least these dull beginnings show off how good “Underworld” looks and moves — an important point for a franchise designed around exotic locales and a main character capable of treating them as her personal jungle gym. More importantly, it does just enough to show that all the improvements “Tomb Raider” has made since its 2006 reboot remain intact, which is good enough to keep players believing better action lies ahead.

It does. “Underworld” treats its environments — jungles, caverns and the sea, to paint a picture — like gigantic puzzles, crafting huge worlds that neither feel contrived in how you maneuver through them nor lean on vagueness and cheap design to ward those contrivances off. Traversing though an area is a satisfying endeavor, but the levels are designed so well that as long as you’re keen to your surroundings and abilities, you’ll never be stuck for too long. When all else fails, “Underworld’s” generous checkpoint system makes it easy to just try something, see if it works, and try something else if it doesn’t.

Doing so is a treat, too: “Underworld” is gifted with extraordinary control and a camera that, outside of its occasional nature to zoom in way too close, keeps up with you. The intuitiveness extends to vehicular segments (the motorbike is a blast to ride) and even “Underworld’s” novel answer to interactive cutscenes, which slow down time and let you figure out what to do rather than simply plaster a button on screen and ask you to press it.

The lone downer? Once again, it’s combat. Between the peashooter power of the guns and hand-to-hand combat that just feels unwieldy, “Underworld” is as ungraceful during a fight as it is graceful most everywhere else. Fortunately, the firefights are both sparse and brief, and a few of them are completely avoidable if you’re fleet-footed.

As often happens in this series, you can take or leave “Underworld’s” story, which is amusingly outlandish but by no means crucial to enjoying the challenges it sets up for you. Good thing, too: Without spoiling anything, the game’s ending is so abrupt, you likely won’t see it coming. Remember “Halo 2?” Consider this a second coming.