Games 8/11/09: Space Bust-a-Move, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Space Bust-a-Move
For: Nintendo DS
From: Taito/Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

A dramatic overhaul would not appear to be in the cards for “Bust-a-Move,” which has stuck to the same script — shoot bubbles toward a cluster of bubbles at the top of the screen and match sets of three or more same-colored bubbles to clear them — for ages now. That’s doubly true for “Space Bust-a-Move,” which isn’t even the first “Bust-a-Move” game to appear on the DS.

But within the confines of that formula, “Space” turns out to be a surprising departure from 2006’s plain-named “Bust-a-Move DS” — and not just because, for whatever reason, it takes place in space.

The starkest change comes in the control scheme. The first DS game used a fun touch screen mechanic that allowed you to shoot bubbles with a virtual slingshot, but “Space” opts for more traditional, button-friendly controls (D-pad to aim the bubble shooter, shoulder buttons to fire). You can use the touch screen to emulate the button controls, but it’s disadvantageously slow.

But the loss of slingshot controls, which took up the entire touch screen in “BAM DS,” isn’t in vain. “Space” shifts the action down so that the shooter and the bubble cluster share the same screen, which also alleviates the previous game’s biggest problem: that annoying gap between the two screens and the havoc it could wreak on a perfectly-angled shot. The top screen generally serves a presentational purpose, which means different things in different modes.

The big exception to that rule takes place during “Space’s” entirely nonsensical but entirely wonderful story mode, which finally gives Bub and Bob some narrative motivation for clearing all those bubbles. It also blesses “Space” with some impressive two-screen boss fights, and guess what? “Bust-a-Move’s” gameplay lends itself startlingly well to boss fights.

The story mode headlines a slew of new feature tweaks “Space” tosses at the wall to belie its $20 asking price. Single-card local multiplayer (four players, down from five) returns, and the debut of online multiplayer (four players) goes off without a hitch despite some occasional and very temporary lag issues.

For dedicated solo players, a game-wide rewards system awards currency good toward unlocking a handful of alternative modes that tack on different rules to the standard “Bust-a-Move” gameplay. “Space” even tosses in a “Brain Age”-style challenge system, which tracks daily progress through a pair of time trial challenges. The customary, no-frills endless mode is, of course, in there as well.

Under the “useless but cool” umbrella, “Space” also lets you use the rewards currency to change the bubble and shooter designs, which only enhances what already amounts to a hilariously whimsical explosion of audiovisual cute. Charming though “BAM DS” was, “Space” ups the ante in every respect, and the goofy storyline knocks it out of the park.

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G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Double Helix/EA

Double Helix wants to take you down memory lane with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it probably isn’t the destination anyone had in mind.

Rather, instead of capitalizing on the nostalgia of the cartoon and toys that inspired the movie of the same name, “Cobra” evokes memories of the original Playstation era, when third-person shooters first ventured into three dimensions but lacked the sophistication or capability to do the things we now take for granted.

Instead of over the shoulder or even behind the back, “Cobra’s” action takes place from a partial bird’s-eye view. The right analog stick controls neither the camera, which sits at a fixed perspective, nor your weapons’ aiming reticule, which doesn’t even come into play. Holding a trigger activates the game’s auto-aim capability, and all the right stick does is swap between enemy targets. In terms of shooting sophistication, “Cobra” doesn’t even approach “Robotron,” much less “Gears of War.”

“Cobra” attempts to compensate for the mindless demands by laying down a pretty thick gauntlet of enemies. The game tips its cap to present day by including a cover mechanic, but the action tends to get so manic that you’re almost better off continually running and dive-rolling under hails of gunfire whenever your Joe’s health needs replenishment.

Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. “Cobra’s” fixed camera usually does what it should, but there are recurrent instances in which you’ll be firing blind because the enemies have spawned from behind or have populated an area before the camera swings around to show them. “Cobra” flirts with complete disaster during fights against ultra-powerful mechs that are only vulnerable from behind: Not only does the camera lag miserably while you try to get in position for a sneak attack, but occasionally it hides the enemy altogether, which for obvious reasons is a potentially fatal problem.

Dying is no small matter in “Cobra,” either. Each mission features two faux-checkpoints, but failing a mission sends you back to the start no matter where that failure happens. You can sidestep this problem by playing “Cobra” on its easiest difficulty, which revives your Joe ad nauseam until you beat the mission, but there’s no real gratification in playing a game you essentially cannot lose.

The strange nods to outdated conventions, along with “Cobra’s” bland presentation — a byproduct of staying faithful to an equally drab film — add up to a game that cannot possibly be universally praised nor recommended as a $50 purchase in 2009.

But “Cobra’s” unwavering adherence to its bizarre design sensibilities also makes it more unique than the bevy of third-person shooters that aim higher. When the game isn’t getting in its own way — and, particularly, when you have a friend (offline only) instead of the computer playing alongside you as the second Joe — “Cobra” makes for a stupidly fun good time for an audience that can appreciate the old-time mentality. For that small sliver of the gaming public, this has “guilty pleasure” stamped all over it.

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Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta
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)
Price: $10

It’s been an exemplary ride for “Fallout 3,” which followed a fantastic core game with four pieces of downloadable content that each improved on what came before it. So it’s quite a shame to see “Mothership Zeta” not only end the game’s run on a down note, but lay bare “Fallout 3’s” most glaring weaknesses in doing so. The premise, which finds you the object of a 1950s-style alien abduction, is no slouch, and it certainly marks a departure from everything that preceded it. But it also means you’re conducting business almost entirely in the tight confinements of a spaceship, traversing one generic corridor after another while doing little more than hitting a few switches and blasting the same aliens and drones ad nauseam. “Fallout 3’s” shooting mechanics have always fared competently in the wide-open wasteland against a wandering enemy or two, but they’re a nightmare in a claustrophobic hallway against a half-dozen ruthless aliens. Some audio logs and a few cool (but only incrementally more powerful) weapons aside, “Zeta” also leaves nothing to discovery, which arguably is the bread and butter of the “Fallout 3” experience. The listless story isn’t nearly compelling enough to counter all that’s wrong here, and it’s probably best to save those $10 for 2010’s “Fallout: New Vegas” instead of spending it here.