Games 7/7/09: Red Faction: Guerrilla, The Bigs 2, Battlefield Heroes

Red Faction: Guerrilla
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Volition, Inc./THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

Volition’s past work on the “Saints Row” and “Red Faction” have joined forces for one extraordinary lovechild in “Red Faction: Guerrilla,” which ditches the franchise’s claustrophobic first-person shooter roots in favor of a full-scale, third-person liberation of open-world Mars.

“Faction” originally established itself by allowing players to destroy environments before destructible environments became remotely commonplace, and “Guerrilla” makes its name not only by applying that principle to a persistent, open-ended landscape, but by once again doing it better than anyone ever has. Advancement through the game opens the door to all manner of explosive technology (rockets, atomic rifles, armored vehicles and mechs), but it’s just as fun to leisurely decimate a fortress with nothing more than your absurdly powerful sledgehammer. The ensuing mayhem feels astonishingly authentic: Buildings come apart and topple realistically rather than in a manner that feels anywhere near scripted.

Getting this right makes “Guerrilla” a game worth playing, and Volition’s all-points grasp of shooting, driving and on-foot controls pushes the experience beyond simple novelty.

But the game’s best quality, as seen previously in “Saints Row,” is the sheer amount of objectives it gives you to accomplish with these cool toys.

“Guerrilla’s” main storyline, which finds you rising against the same people you helped empower in the original “Faction,” is pretty smart about diversifying and giving weight to its various missions. But an abundance of fun side missions — raids, destruction puzzles, hostage rescues and more — is ripe for completion at the same time. Your headset also alerts you to optional, in-progress events you can help complete, and traversing the landscape reveals strategic, enemy-controlled structures that you’re free to destroy at your convenience.

Just don’t expect much help when you engage. “Guerrilla’s” lone major misstep is its failure to convey the sense that you’re fighting alongside rebels instead of alone. Comrades do come to your aid, but only in small handfuls that are laughably paltry next to the endlessly large opposition forces. On harder difficulty settings, that imbalance leads to some frustrating and cheap gameplay discrepancies. (For those who want the fun without the headache, the casual difficulty setting tempers the imbalance without dialing down the mayhem.)

All the technology that makes “Guerrilla” good on the single-player side translates over to multiplayer (16 players online or LAN). That, along with the fact that all the weapons and gadgets are immediately available, is all the game needs to stand out in spite of its reliance on the same old modes you can find most anywhere else. More surprising is the game’s local multiplayer component, which allows up to four friends to pass the controller and compete in a series of destruction-themed party games. It’s not terribly deep, but it is terribly fun, and Volition deserves major kudos for providing something for players who like to play in the same room.

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The Bigs 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Other versions available for: PSP, Playstation 2
From: Blue Castle/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild language, mild violence)

2007’s “The Bigs” was a major surprise, and not just because its first attempt to spell modern-day arcade baseball was so spot on.

Rather, the big shock was how well the game pulled that off while also giving armchair managers everything they need to execute a smart as well as forceful game of baseball. Turbo, accumulated through good pitching or plate discipline and used to temporarily superhumanize players, could be applied to fielding and baserunning as well as pitching and hitting, and allocating it smartly was paramount toward manufacturing and preventing runs. The game’s stellar, arguably revolutionary baserunning controls also made it easy to play all manner of small ball, making a perfectly-executed hit-and-run as exhilarating as the game’s cinematic home runs and diving catches.

Everything that made the first game work is preserved in “The Bigs 2,” which leaves well enough alone and elects instead to make a series of mostly welcome refinements.

Most prominent is the Batter’s Wheelhouse, which provides a visual indication of each hitter’s sweet spot. Attack a hitter’s sweet spot and fool him, and you receive an extra turbo boost and shrink the spot. Attack and serve up a bad pitch, though, and you probably can guess the consequence.

Elsewhere on the field, pickoff attempts now actually might work (or result in an overthrow), while losing a home plate collision or failing to catch a bullet line drive can lead to player injury. (So can beaning a hitter, for you nefarious types.) Turbo plays and stockpiling the offensive cache necessary to execute a no-doubt homer are fundamentally unchanged, but “The Bigs 2” adds a tier of risk/reward to both sides with the opportunity to make legendary catches or shoot for the moon with a supersized grand slam.

Feature-wise, the story is similar. A full season mode is most welcome, and the Be a Legend story mode — which finds you as a former Major League superstar beginning a post-injury comeback in Mexico — is an inspired (and meatier) sequel to the first game’s Rookie Challenge. The skills mini-games place a greater emphasis on multiplayer, as does the awesome Home Run Pinball mode, which now supports simultaneous two-player co-op/competitive multiplayer and lets you use Las Vegas, Shibuya and retro Times Square for home run target practice alongside the first game’s modern-day Times Square.

As far as dressing goes, everything looks better, with crisper player models, sharper lighting and livelier stadiums. Dedicated players can unlock retro uniforms (including those of the Montreal Expos) for each franchise, as well as a handful of classic stadiums and legendary players (no surprise, once you see how reverential the story mode is toward baseball immortality).

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Battlefield Heroes
For: Windows PC
From: DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (tobacco reference, violence)
Price: Free to play

The free-to-play model — a free base game, with peripheral content sold at a premium — has enjoyed modest success in its short existence, but it receives a major credibility boost with the debut of “Battlefield Heroes.” “Heroes” plays like a “Battlefield” game should: You fight as part of one of two armies, and it’s your job — by gun, by knife, by tank or by plane — to control various territories before the enemy does so first. “Heroes” presents the action in the third instead of first person, and the cartoony graphics are a dramatic (and welcome) departure from the series’ traditionally realistic tendencies, but it’s as much a “Battlefield” game as any other game bearing the brand’s name. The difference, of course, is that “Heroes” runs — and runs nicely, thanks to its scalable graphical demands — in a Web browser. Outside of a plugin, the game lives entirely on a server, which allows you to access your custom-designed soldier from any PCs equipped to play the game. “Heroes” is perfectly fun in its free state, but the degree to which you can level up your soldier gives the game surprising legs, and those legs might make investing in some of “Heroes'” premium content (clothes, weapons and some unique perks) worth the expense. In a nice touch, “Heroes” also allows dedicated players to accrue valor points, which work toward the purchase of some store items, simply by playing the game. If you’re savvy enough to keep those points rolling in, “Heroes” may never cost you a dime to play.