Games 3/3/09: Killzone 2, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, MLB 2K9

Killzone 2
For: Playstation 3
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

“Killzone’s” ascension — from decent-but-skippable first-person shooter (“Killzone” on the PS2) to underappreciated 2D gem (“Killzone: Liberation” on PSP) to its present status as an event-level blockbuster — means an entire legion of players know nothing about the ISA (good guys/you), Helghast ( bad guys) and why the good guys are the invaders and instigators as “Killzone 2” kicks off.

Unfortunately, while “KZ2” engages in some storytelling, it utterly fails to bring new players up to speed or take advantage of the bounty of metaphorical riches the scenario presents.

Fortunately, the game lives up to its promise everywhere else. You may not care why you’re engaged in this war, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel just how spectacularly alive the conflict is as it comes at and engulfs all around you. “KZ2” looks stunning on multiple levels, but it’s the game’s explicit illustration of ever-present, all-encompassing war that transforms stock skirmishes into absolutely mind-blowing episodes.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that “KZ2’s” semi-tactical control scheme fits so comfortably. Getting used to the game’s intricacies — a slightly unusual control scheme, some deliberate movement physics, a first-person viewpoint that initially feels too close-up for comfort — takes adjustment. The reward for your trouble, though, is a formula that masterfully implements first-person cover without sacrificing anything to make it happen.

The omission of a dedicated cover mechanic in “KZ2’s” multiplayer component is a design choice that will split players, but beyond that, the tactical approach translates nicely to the multiplayer space.

Like any other first-person shooter with multiplayer capabilities, “KZ2” (32 players online, A.I. bots for solo players, no splitscreen) gives you the usual modes and lets you play on either side and customize the game to your satisfaction.

The best way to play, though, is under the default settings. “KZ2” throws you on a battlefield and lets you pick your side, but then tosses one random objective (deathmatch, assassination, territory and so on) after another without interruption until one side collects enough wins to call it a match. A little idea like that goes a long way toward keeping players both on their toes and consistently engaged during longer play sessions.

As is the norm these days, victory has its rewards: Bolster your ranking online, and you’ll be able to play as additional classes (medic, scout, saboteur and so on) and create your own clan, which comes with its own rewards. This, along with the team-centric play that these multiplayer modes encourage almost by default, makes “KZ2” perhaps the best team online shooter since “Team Fortress 2.” That it works beautifully from day one — not necessarily a given for the PS3’s bigger online games — is the icing on the cake.

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50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Swordfish Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)

In “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand,” you are 50 Cent, and your objective is to fight your way through a fictional Middle Eastern country and recover a diamond-encrusted skull that was promised to and subsequently stolen from you after concert promoters stiffed you out of $10 million for your just-concluded USO gig.

No, really. That’s what happens.

Conceptually, “Sand” approaches the zenith of celebrity-fronted gaming ridiculousness — rare territory reserved for the likes of Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shaq Fu” and “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.” Had Swordfish attempted to sell this idea to us with a straight face, we’d be hard-pressed to play it with one.

But Swordfish gets the joke, and it’s got the game to prove it. “Sand” very overtly borrows chunks of “Gears of War” (third-person shooting, cover mechanics), “Army of Two” (co-op-friendly objectives and environments) and “The Club” (combos and bonuses for stylish and consecutive kills), but it blends those pieces together with a uniquely maniacal sense of energy and with tongue planted deep in cheek.

The best news? It plays nicely. “Sand’s” cover mechanic occasionally falls prone to stickiness in tight corridors, but it generally functions like it should. The weapons feel appropriately powerful and are fun to use. “Sand” even does “The Club” better than “The Club” itself did, making it a blast to complete mini-scenarios on the fly and rack up combo points for excessive skill or bravery. The missions don’t exactly reek of variety, but the game throws objectives at you so rapidly that it’s hard to be bothered.

“Sand’s” co-op elements (two players, online only) also work as promised. The storyline unfolds identically regardless of whether you play alone or partner up, and your friends (or, if you wish, total strangers) are free to drop in and out of your game at any time. “Sand” gives you a respectably capable A.I. partner (portraying one of three G-Unit sidekicks) when you play alone, but the sheer ridiculousness of the story remains best enjoyed with a friend laughing along.

(In a weird twist on convention, the second player actually gets the better of “Sand’s” driving missions. If you want to man the turret instead of drive the Humvee, you’ll have to latch on to someone else’s game instead of start your own.)

Frankly, no reason exists not to have it both ways. “Sand” lacks any kind of competitive multiplayer mode, but the campaign is one of those fast, arcade-style blasts that is fun to replay simply for fun’s sake. Unlocking all the available weapons and taunts provides extra motivation to go back, but it’s almost unnecessary.

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MLB 2K9
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Wii, PSP and PC
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“MLB 2K9,” not unlike its most immediate predecessor, has issues.

The default calibration between runner and fielder speed is all over the map. Pokey fielder animations turn even simple double plays into uncertainties, but stretching singles into should-be doubles is similarly dicey.

Then again, the computer’s A.I. occasionally likes to nap on base and in the field. Even completely misplaying a ball doesn’t ensure your opponent will take proper advantage.

A host of rare but unexplainable glitches — be it an infielder throwing the ball to no one in particular or an outfielder literally vanishing with the ball and yielding an automatic inside-the-park homer — dent any illusions of realism. Ditto for many of the player likenesses, which look completely unlike their real-like counterparts and sometimes are just plain ghastly by any standard.

Most distressingly, the game crashed three times, all between late innings.

Were “2K9’s” problems limited to the occasional crash or bug, one might be able to forgive it and hope such occurrences are isolated issues 2K Sports recognizes and can rectify.

But the biggest problem from last year’s game — pitching — remains a killer this year. Simply put, it’s entirely too inaccessible.

“2K9” offers two methods of pitching. But the preferred method, which uses right stick gestures for pitch selection and delivery, is unacceptably fickle. Attempted curveballs become sliders and vice versa, and if you just plain slip on the stick, expect the opposing hitter to punish you for it. A more traditional, button-based style also is available, but it’s even worse: The difference between a good and terrible pitch is minute, and the comically vague meter gives you no indication where you stand on that scale.

The pitching stands in strange contrast to the rest of the game, which — some needlessly complicated but learnable baserunning controls aside — is pretty easy to pick up and play. “2K9” offers two ways to hit as well, but both make sense. Fielding is even easier to figure out.

To its credit, “2K9” also lets you customize every last difficulty detail — from A.I. hitter discipline to the speed of your runners and fielders — to recalibrate the game to your own personal satisfaction. If you don’t mind some major trial and error, you eventually can tune even the pitching to minimize its fickleness. That, along with the usual bounty of feature additions — including a fantastic overhaul to the commentary and the perpetual availability of “live” roster updates — makes it hard to argue that “2K9” isn’t a complete package.

That said, it would be immensely beneficial to have the game in top form without having to coax it there yourself. That wasn’t the case last year, and it appears 2K hasn’t really learned any lessons in the interim.