Games 2/3/09: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, Animal Boxing, Savage Moon

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

The liberation of Anchorage, Alaska, from an invading Chinese army has been a source of in-game whispers and references since the original “Fallout” debuted more than 11 years ago, but the $10 “Operation Anchorage” add-on marks the first time fans have been able to experience the event through their own eyes and thumbs.

As such, the first of three downloadable “Fallout 3” add-ons is also the most acute in its target audience. Its ties to the “Fallout 3” storyline are threadbare — you’ll visit Anchorage via a simulation that exists inside the present setting of Washington, D.C., — and outside of experience points and some new weaponry and armor, little that happens within carries over to rest of the game.

The upside to all that autonomy is that “Anchorage” is free to play by some of its own rules. Standard “Fallout 3” protocols apply, but “Anchorage” puts you in the middle of a war rather than a solitary trek across a post-nuclear wasteland, and the extreme emphasis on combat — including skirmishes alongside a hand-picked team of comrades and showdowns against an army’s worth of devious human and vehicular adversaries — lies in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s affinity for solitary discovery.

The downside to that upside? Not all of it works. Bethesda compensates “Anchorage’s” bloodlust by making it a too easy to stay alive and equipped without really earning it. Whereas “Fallout 3” has you scraping for ammo and medical supplies however you can, “Anchorage” spoils you with recharge bins that replenish both without limit. Beyond those bins, 10 intel suitcases and some explosives that are harder to pick up than they should be, nothing in the environments can be scavenged for later use.

Fortunately, while “Anchorage” unquestionably takes you down a more linear path than “Fallout 3’s” missions typically do, you still have the freedom to fight as stealthily, loudly or mischievously as you wish. Per usual, certain characters are off-limits and cannot be killed, and there’s no way to change the ending of a battle that’s already entrenched in “Fallout” lore. But how you reach the end of “Anchorage’s” not-quite-four-hour runtime is largely your call.

Bethesda has confirmed two more downloadable packs for “Fallout 3,” and both appear to deal more directly with the main storyline than “Anchorage” possibly can. Overwhelmingly, this is a fun piece of one-shot fan service that anyone can enjoy but only a select audience of long-time fans will truly appreciate. If you’re not in the latter camp and simply are in it for the new enemies, weapons and armor, it’s important keep that in mind.

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Animal Boxing
For: Nintendo DS
From: Gammick Studios/Destineer
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

For an unassuming handheld game about boxing animals, “Animal Boxing” sure covers some ground. It’s brilliantly clever, yet fundamentally broken. It’s impossibly easy and unnecessarily difficult. Finally, depending on the quality and proximity of your friends, it’s both easy and impossible to recommend.

As touch screen boxing goes, “Boxing,” which stars you as a custom-designed human fighting some 50 not-so-innocent anthropomorphic pugilists, nails it. The game uses the touch screen as the top screen — you play “Boxing” by holding the DS upside-down — and your punches are registered through corresponding gestures: Tap to jab, swipe horizontally to hook, swipe vertically to uppercut. The buttons work your defense, and effectively dodging punches both looks and feels really cool given “Boxing’s” first-person perspective.

Unfortunately, the actual fight mechanics can’t — or rather, don’t — keep up. Playing “Boxing” the way it’s meant to be played, by dodging punches and landing a few your own while your opponents’ defenses are down, is far too difficult with the ludicrously small window of time you’re given to recognize your opponent’s action and react.

As if to compensate, “Boxing” includes a block mechanic that isn’t dependent on timing. But it’s too powerful — able to dodge flurries and super punches alike without any need to lay off the button — and it makes the game too easy to exploit. Your fellow fighters don’t vary in technique as much as they do in appearance, and once you realize the block button stops pretty much any attack cold, it’s entirely too easy to lean on it and sneak in enough jabs to score a cheap victory.

Had “Boxing” slowed down a few ticks and adopted the same pace of “Punch-Out!” or even “Fight Night,” playing it legitimately would provide a perfect mix of challenge and intuition. Hopefully, Gammick can tweak the speed for a follow-up endeavor that really does the engine justice.

In the meantime, this is where your friends come in. Assuming you can agree to resist exploiting the block function, “Boxing” works fine as a two-player game. The fact that you and a friend are mutually mashing on each other does plenty to mitigate the aforementioned problems and re-center the emphasis on all “Boxing” does right.

Alas, Gammick hasn’t made this as easy as it should be. “Boxing’s” only multiplayer outlet is via multi-card wireless, which means you’ll need two copies of the game to fight each other. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle given the generous $20 price tag, but it’s an obstacle all the same.

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Savage Moon
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Fluffy Logic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, fantasy violence)
Price: $10

If you like real-time tower defense strategy games but are dismayed by their tendency to dabble in the cuter end of the video game graphics pool, “Savage Moon” — which has you defending mining facilities on the moon against waves of giant, ugly bugs — has your name on it. In complete contrast to the likes of “Pixeljunk Monsters” and “Ninjatown,” “Moon” resembles your traditional real-time strategy game, opting for gritty, realistic (by giant-bug-on-moon standards) graphics and explosive defense technology and special effects. That begets “Moon’s” other selling point: It’s fast. Everything, from unit creation to upgrades to researching new technology, happens either instantly or within seconds, and with the bugs marching at you with similar impatience, “Moon” threads the line between traditional strategy and reactionary action. That’s doubly so when you replay completed story missions in Vengeance mode, which sends endless waves of bugs until you’re overpowered. None of this is to suggest “Moon” has an genre identity crisis: Given the range of available technology and the challenges posed by the terrain, brains still trumpet brawn, and the game throws in an excellent risk/reward wrinkle by letting you adjust the ratio of firepower, defensive strength and monetary gain in order to best suit your approach. The lack of multiplayer and co-op is a real bummer, but “Moon’s” single-player scope easily recoups its asking price.