Games 6/30/09: Grand Slam Tennis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fallout 3: Point Lookout

Grand Slam Tennis
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Before the Wii was marketed as a system for everyone, it was pegged as a beacon for unprecedented immersion. Now that Nintendo’s $20 Wii MotionPlus peripheral is finally here — and, more importantly, games like “Grand Slam Tennis” are on board to support it — that original claim finally holds true.

It demands mentioning that “Tennis” plays fine without the peripheral. The same control scheme from “Wii Sports” is included, and “Tennis” betters it by mapping lob and drop shots to the A and B buttons and allowing players to use the D-pad to shift their character between quadrants on the court. A more advanced scheme, incorporating the nunchuck attachment, affords players full character movement along with the same shot controls. “Tennis” allows you to swap schemes and difficulty levels on the fly, which makes establishing your ideal setup reasonably painless.

But “Tennis” becomes an exponentially better game when the Wii MotionPlus enters the picture. Instead of simply reading every motion as a generic swing, “Tennis” translates your handling of the Wii remote directly into how your character handles the racket. Shots are aimed rather than merely timed, and the trajectory of your motions significantly affects the path the ball takes.

The irony of this is that en route to becoming a better game, “Tennis” becomes a much more unfriendly one first — to the point where it initially doesn’t even seem like the thing works. “Tennis'” video tutorial is decent, but this kind of precision is so foreign to the Wii that a significant period of acclimation almost certainly will be necessary.

Give it that time, though — and that may mean an hour, even two, of solid play — and it should click. When it does, it feels extraordinarily precise.

Either way you play, “Tennis” backs it up with a hefty feature set. The single-player career mode is fairly standard stuff, but some of its ideas — particularly the ability to beat the likes of Nadal, McEnroe and Williams and then assign a signature move of theirs to your created player — are implemented really nicely. Local multiplayer (four players) comprises of both traditional tennis and a handful of party configurations. Online multiplayer (four players) sticks strictly to traditional singles and doubles matches, but in another nice touch, two players on the same console can play doubles together against online competition. “Tennis” also uses EA’s superior online service instead of Nintendo’s friend codes system.

But the slickest trick of all might be the Get Fit feature. Link your created character to a slot in Get Fit, and “Tennis” tracks your activity throughout the entirety of the game’s other modes whenever you play with that character. One can only guess what method of calorie counting “Tennis” uses and how accurate it is, but seeing this little bit of progress stamped across the game’s other screens adds a nice layer of secondary reward that turns even the most abysmal tennis performance into a source of positive reinforcement.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Also available for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Windows, Mac
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for feeling a whole lot like “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which came and went two full summers ago. “Phoenix” broke significant ground by giving players complete, open-world access to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and “Prince,” which aims to faithfully replicate a film that largely takes place in the same world, has no choice but to do the same thing.

Fair or not, there’s no way trekking through these same classrooms and corridors can inspire the same level of awe it did the first time around. “Prince” provides as much access as “Phoenix” did, and it does make improvements on your ability to adjust the camera manually and find the fastest route between two points. But the improvements are incremental, and beyond a few new areas and some new side objectives to complete, the game feels handcuffed by its need to stay faithful to a story that, at least in the present tense, goes few places “Phoenix” already hasn’t been.

(The flashback scenes, which play a crucial role in “Prince’s” story, play out purely as non-interactive cutscenes, which makes sense but, if you’re familiar with their implications, arguably represents the game’s biggest missed opportunity to shake things up.)

Perhaps the most notable addition to “Prince” is the return of Quidditch, which finds you playing exclusively in Harry’s shoes as the Gryffindor seeker. As a diversion to the rest of the game, the Quidditch bits are fast and fun. But they also never aspire to be more than a diversion. There’s no sport-specific strategy to capturing the Golden Snitch: All you have to do is fly around some obstacles and through star-shaped rings, and it’ll be yours. The speed of these sequences makes them more exciting than they sound on paper, but by no means does this aim to replicate Quidditch the way EA’s “Quidditch World Cup” game did back in 2003.

“Prince” also introduces a nifty potion-building mini-game, which gets over some slow and simple beginnings and evolves into a surprisingly fun franchise answer to the “Cooking Mama” games. The object is the same — mix the requested ingredients in a specific order without overdoing it — and “Prince” doesn’t really take it anywhere beyond there. But the relative freedom the game affords with regard to handling ingredients keeps it from being a mindless exercise in following onscreen prompts.

Overwhelmingly, though, “Prince” is more of the same. The Dueling Club challenges are repackaged instances of the wand duels that already appeared in “Phoenix,” and they’re not deep enough to make the inclusion of a two-player duel mode a terribly big deal.

The ultimate draw of “Prince” remains its capacity to bring the story to interactive, single-player life. For those who understand what that entails — and how it handcuffed the developers — there’s a pleasant, if very familiar, experience to be had.

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Fallout 3: Point Lookout
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 arrival of “Point Lookout” feels somewhat anti-climactic following the release of “Broken Steel,” which both changed the ending to “Fallout 3” and raised the game’s level cap by 50 percent. But “Lookout,” which takes us up the Potomac River and into Maryland, more than compensates. “Lookout” trades in the grey, concrete wasteland of post-nuclear D.C. in favor of shorelines, marshes and Civil War-era mansions — a stark change of scenery that occasionally better resembles Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” games than “Fallout 3.” With the change of scenery comes a change of culture, which pretty significantly affects both the storyline and the characters you befriend and battle. All that liberation allows “Lookout” to spin whatever wild yarn it pleases, which (without spoiling anything) also leads to the most phantasmagorical tangent since the virtual reality sequence in “Fallout 3” proper. “Lookout” unfolds on what rather convincingly ranks as the largest chunk of virtual real estate in any “Fallout 3” expansion thus far. Point Lookout is nearly one-fourth the size of the D.C. Wasteland, and those who travel off the beaten path will uncover a couple of first-rate side quests that both enrich the local mythology and fortify its ties to the larger “Fallout” universe.