Games 4/14/09: Nintendo DSi, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Flock!

Nintendo DSi
From: Nintendo
Price: $170

It’s always exciting to get a new toy, and unless you count the meteoric advent of the iPhone, it’s been a good two-and-a-half years since a new gaming system touched down.

As such, the arrival of the semi-new Nintendo DSi was cause for more excitement than it probably merits under the harsh light of rationality.

To Nintendo’s credit, the DSi marks improvement over the DS Lite in ways apparent and not so apparent. You wouldn’t know it just to look at it, but it’s more powerful inside than the Lite. Eventually, there will be games that either offer more features on the DSi or simply don’t work on the other DS models at all.

The system’s most visible new feature — a tiny camera on the outside and an even tinier one on the inside — promises similar results, though it remains to be seen how well the cameras function in the areas of motion and light detection. Nintendo’s first attempt, the downloadable “Wario Ware: Snapped,” fails pretty miserably.

Still, the cameras benefit from some fun applications in the DSi’s redesigned virtual dashboard, which also features a fun voice manipulation program. The dashboard also links to the new DSi store, which offers new games for download to the systems internal storage (new) or SD card slot (also new). Nintendo included $10 worth of store credit with each DSi — a shrewd move that could inspire untold numbers of users to give downloadable games a chance. But while the temptation to spend that credit straight away is strong, the iffy early offerings in the store make it wise to hold out for something better.

Elsewhere, it’s the little things that loom large. The buttons feel sturdier than they did on previous models. The battery light indicator says more than just red and green. WPA encryption support is included for wireless Internet access, though a convoluted menu arrangement makes setting it up trickier than it should be. The two screens are larger than before, though some may not even notice the difference. The DSi also finally includes the ability to hot-swap games and return to the dashboard without restarting the whole system — small but wonderful convenience.

The DSi does suffer one big loss with the removal of the Game Boy Advance slot, which both cuts off that entire library and marks an end to such weird attachments as the rumble pack and the goofy “Guitar Hero” guitar peripheral. The value of that slot varies wildly from person to person, but if you ever got a chance to use the paddle controller that shipped with the Japanese release of “Arkanoid,” you probably understand what a loss it is.

Losing anything from the $129 DS Lite becomes hard to swallow when you consider the DSi’s notably higher price tag. Similarly, while the system improves on the Lite in all those aforementioned ways, it’s hard to recommend it to Lite owners until some compelling games arrive that take specific advantage of its power and abilities. That day will come, but DSi’s price may drop before it does. The immense range of the DS’ library makes the DSi easy to recommend to anyone who lacks any kind of DS hardware at all, but Lite owners might feel some serious buyer’s remorse once the novelty wears off and there’s little else to show for their purchase.

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The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Starbreeze/Tigon/Atari
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

If selling games is a race, then “The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena” is a 100-meter sprinter with an eight-second head start. In a move that hopefully becomes a trend, developers Starbreeze and Tigon have included a remastered copy of “Athena’s” prequel, “Escape From Butcher Bay,” as bonus content.

“Bay” was incredible enough to command $50 on its own five years ago, and its approach to first-person stealth still feels fresh in its 2009 incarnation. Tigon and Starbreeze took an oft-inaccessible genre and made it immersive and exciting by nailing the control scheme and devising some ingenious means of communicating your ability to hide and remain hidden. It didn’t hurt that the game’s storyline and characters were more engaging than those found in the “Riddick” movie that released around the same time.

“Athena,” at least initially, doesn’t monkey around with the formula. The story picks up where “Bay” left off, and following a brief reintroduction to the controls and nuances of the stealth system, you’re back in the shadows, avoiding fights whenever possible and dividing and conquering when that won’t do. As was the case in “Bay,” even the most pedestrian of enemies can deal quick and debilitating damage, and picking multiple fights at once almost always is fatal.

But it’s on the same token where “Athena” arguably loses its way. Following a deeply satisfying stretch in which melee weapons and a dodgy tranquilizer gun are your only bets, the game slathers you in guns and ammo, and it counters this bounty by sending waves of stupid enemies storming your way. You still can shoot out lights and lurk in the shadows, but you don’t necessarily need to, and once you face enemies who only succumb to gunfire or force you to fight in entirely cover-free environments, all that delicate balance takes a flying leap.

This isn’t to suggest “Athena” is a failure. It’s more fun than not, and some of its best moments are during these wheels-off-the-bus stretches. But with “Bay’s” meticulous construction feeling fresh all over again in the same package, the reckless abandonment of stealth and artificial intelligence feels sloppy even when it’s fun.

Even with “Athena’s” problems taken into consideration, though, the total package — two nice-sized campaigns and a respectable suite of multiplayer offerings (12 players, online only) that capitalize on Riddick’s special abilities — comes recommended without hesitation. “Bay” did things in 2004 that no game until now has done since, and its rerelease to a wider audience is absolutely deserved. That it brings a whole additional game along for the ride is merely a very, very nice bonus.

(For those wondering, “Bay” and “Athena” exist as separate options in the main menu, so you can play them in whichever order you please.)

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Flock!
For: Playstation 3 via PSN, Xbox 360 Live Arcade and Windows PC
From: Proper Games/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (crude humor, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $15

“Flock!” presents a stiffer barrier to entry than most downloadable puzzle games — and not merely because it’s $5 more expensive than most think it should be. In “Flock,” you’re a UFO, and your objective is to herd farm animals around hedges, past natural and unnatural pitfalls and doohickeys and onto your mother ship. The idea is inspired, and a fantastic look and personality pile on the whimsy. But because you’re merely herding animals instead of controlling them directly, “Flock’s” intricacies may give you fits. Things start to click when you learn not to overdo the controls and let the animals do some of the work for you, but that’s not an easy thing to understand when the game rewards speedy herding with medal bonuses. Fortunately, finding a way to carefully herd every single animal on the board is more fun and worth more in the rewards department, and “Flock’s” 50-plus levels don’t disappoint in the brainteaser department. The game also earns its price tag by letting players design and trade their own levels online. If the game finds a devoted following, that translates into months of continuous (and free) downloadable content. It’s merely a shame you can’t actually play the game online with those same people: “Flock” has co-op play, but it’s offline only.