Games 4/7/09: The Godfather II, Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game, Burn Zombie Burn!

online casinoGodfather II
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

Sometimes, it’s the little things. In a game as wonderfully, erratically ambitious as “The Godfather II,” it’s the little things that, however subtly, sometimes save the day.

Take, for instance, the game’s ingenious living map, which not only helps you get from point A to B — handy, considering the story takes place in open-world Florida and open-world New York City at the same time — but keeps track of your targets, your allies, your family’s holdings, the profit margins at each property and just about everything else you need to manage via the game’s newfound Don powers. When a holding is under attack, the animated 3D map quite decisively illustrates the urgency. Ditto for when a rival holding is up for grabs.

And thank goodness, too. The original “Godfather” game was a busy affair, but “II” takes it to another plane. You’re still on the ground as a soldier — intimidating businesses, picking locks, battling rival gangs, handling random strangers’ dirty business and doing what needs doing to stay out of jail. At the same time, though, you’re also building your own branch of the family from the base. Among other activities, you’ll build your own crew, assign guards to newly-acquired businesses, and send protection whenever your family — in New York, Florida or both — comes under attack.

That’s a lot to ask of a game that’s also cribbing from the “Grand Theft Auto” school of open world game design, and “II,” much like its predecessor, proves to be a jack more than a master of many of its trades. The third-person shooting controls are good enough, but prone to sloppiness in close quarters or when cover is concerned. Opposing A.I. isn’t particularly bright, bystander A.I. often is ridiculously inept, and sometimes, objects and people just plain disappear when you hit them.

The management stuff proves a surprisingly good fit considering how different its demands are from the ground-level gameplay, but some will find it an intrusion when, for instance, rival gangs repeatedly attack your holdings and force you to divert attention from whatever task is already at hand. Some will feel the same about the family management and character upgrading — all handled well, but all logistically demanding stuff that typically falls outside the bounds of this genre.

The natural upside is that “II” is one heck of a meal for players who bring their appetite. All those logistics translate into a maze of ways to see the story to completion, and the usual torrent of unlockables and side objectives are there for the truly ambitious. “II’s” online component (16 players) isn’t quite as interesting — the available modes are themed, but typical of team-based squad shooters — but any money you make (or lose) online does apply to your single-player family’s balance sheet.

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Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 2 and Windows PC
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Every spring, a wave of kids’ movie tie-in games, ranging from bland to terrible, invades stores and preys on unsuspecting parents.

This year almost certainly will be no different. But before that wave crashes down, we have “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a game that not only is terrifically fun for kids, but legitimately good enough for their older siblings and parents to enjoy with or without their participation.

The monsters are the good guys in “MvA,” and you’ll have ample opportunity to control three (and possibly four) of them. Ginormica, a 49-foot woman with pickup truck-sized roller skates, typically handles racing- and on-rails missions. The Missing Link, a weird fish/gorilla hybrid, is gifted in the arts of brawling and the scaling and deconstruction of enormous alien robots. Finally, there’s a dopey blue blob named B.O.B., whose ability to stick to walls and ceilings and squeeze through grates makes him good for a legion of platforming missions through puzzle- and maze-like arenas. (An offline co-op mode allows a second player to play as head monster Dr. Cockroach, but he functions more as support for the first player than a full-blown character.)

During its opening slate of missions, “MvA” shifts frequently between characters and displays an impressive grasp of all three play styles. It also raises some red flags with safe level design and a need to repeating certain objectives almost verbatim and in succession.

Once the acclimation period ends, though, business picks up dramatically. The levels are longer, and the extra time allows “MvA” to drum up some really clever designs that engage your monsters’ abilities in ways the earlier missions couldn’t even imagine. When the game is at its best — particularly when going nuts with B.O.B.’s labrythinine levels — it operates on a plane typically reserved for the likes of Ratchet and Mario.

This isn’t to suggest the game completely escapes perception. Repetition definitely returns toward the end, peaking during a final boss fight that rehashes the same sequence two too many times. “MvA” occasionally leans excessively on context button sequences, and while the characters are funny and appealing, this is in no way a showcase of the 360 or PS3’s graphical capabilities.

Still, it cannot be stressed enough how much this one outclasses the vast majority of its counterparts. “MvA” handles numerous play styles without any one dragging down the others, and it never underestimates its audience. If the kids want a new game to play this summer, this, until further notice, is the one to get.

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Burn Zombie Burn!
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: doublesix games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $10

“Burn Zombie Burn!” would appear to be self-explanatory: It’s an overhead, “Geometry Wars”-style shooter, only with cartoon zombies chasing you instead of shapes. Nevertheless, a trip through the tutorial is a must, because only there will you learn, despite appearances, how unique this little gem is. “Burn” lacks “GW”-style dual stick controls, but the scheme it uses instead proves a better fit once you master strafing and befriend the lock-on button. The title isn’t kidding either: Zombies you set on fire are considerably more dangerous than regular zombies, but the more inflamed undead you have on your tail, the more points you get for each kill. The points matter, too, because high scores are the only way to unlock all six levels and the surprising multitude of mini challenges tucked inside each. A terrific risk/reward system emerges from “Burn’s” strange science of normal versus inflamed zombies, and some seriously diverse weapon and zombie types complicate things to a satisfying degree. For those willing to master it, the total package is an impressive return on investment: Unlocking and mastering every last one of “Burn’s” challenges provides the kind of time sink $10 — and sometimes $60 — rarely gets you. The only bummer: Co-op is splitscreen and offline only.