Assassin’s Creed II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)
Most games, broken down, are simply collections of similar actions and commands repeated over and over. But most hide it better than 2007’s “Assassin’s Creed,” which combined majestic core gameplay with an oppressively patterned quest structure that neutered its inventive storyline and instilled some serious déjà vu in many players.
Almost from the start, though, “Assassin’s Creed II” demonstrates that it has learned its lesson. The storyline, now set in 15th century Italy as well as present day, receives the narrative justice it deserves: The present-day cast accrues some essential dimension, the characters in Italy are exponentially more likable than the first game’s humorless cast, and the game lets the story breathe by staying in place over multiple missions instead of continually jumping back and forth in time.
“Creed’s” timeline liberally and cleverly mixes factual and fictional history to reconstruct the legend of its characters’ lineage, and witnessing this reconstruction is miles more rewarding this time around. An optional collection of puzzle-oriented missions unlocks even more doors, connecting everything from Adam and Eve to John F. Kennedy to engineer some wild possibilities for future series installments.
The anatomic improvements extend to “AC2’s” gameplay, which reaps the reward of a quest structure that no longer requires players to complete X number of side missions before assassinating subject Y, jumping through time and repeating. The side missions return, but they’re significantly more diverse and more savvily ingrained into whatever else is happening in the landscape, which feels more alive thanks to some sharper A.I., the introduction of an economy and some great (albeit gamey, so relax your sense of disbelief) new mechanics for managing notoriety and seeking cover from guards while in a crowd.
The main storyline missions integrate themselves better as well: “AC2” makes it easy to start a new storyline mission almost the instant the previous one concludes, and the game tells much of its story while the player directs the action. Players who skip all that markedly improved optional content to beeline through the main story will do themselves a disservice, but “AC2” at least leaves that decision up to you. However you approach it, there’s always something to do, and there exists no lingering sense of familiarity haunting the game despite the 15 to 30 hours of gameplay it has in store.
Elsewhere, “AC2” doesn’t mess with what made its predecessor so great in spite of its unmistakable shortcomings.
The simple act of getting around Italy as Ezio is as fun as it was traversing the Holy Land as Altaïr: The cities are meticulously designed, and Ezio’s freerunning capabilities — combined with a control scheme that’s fantastically intuitive in spite of the demands it puts on a gamepad’s button real estate — make it tremendously fun to scale buildings, leap rooftops and position yourself for the perfect takedown.
“AC2,” for its part, offers a larger repertoire of weapons and techniques to wield, and thanks to the presence of Ezio’s good buddy Leonardo Da Vinci, the inventions — including a flying machine that practically doubles the fun all by itself — pour in throughout the entirety of the adventure.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
The worst thing about “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” besides its abysmally uninspired title, is the way Nintendo itself has misrepresented it as a shell of Super Mario games past that requires four players in order for fun to be had.
Fun indeed is had by turning what traditionally has been a solo endeavor into a two-, three- or four-player free-for-all, with all active players running through the game simultaneously as Mario, Luigi and two Toads. (The princess, per usual, has been kidnapped.) Nintendo doesn’t change one iota of the levels regardless of whether one or four players are running through them, and the results are predictably and often hilariously chaotic.
Players can cooperate and spring off one another to perform amazing stunts and reach impossible heights. But they also can antagonize one another, going so far as to pick other players up and toss them to their demise. It’s a riotously fun time, but those who want to ace the game — finish every level, find all three special coins in each level, discover every hidden pathway and, of course, rescue the princess — will be impossibly hard-pressed to do it with the “help” of friends.
Fortunately, wonderfully and despite implications to the contrary, “NSMBW” is an equally amazing game as a solo experience, meeting and arguably exceeding the bar set by “Super Mario Bros. 3” and “Super Mario World” some 20 years ago. Ideas introduced in those games return fearlessly reinvented here, and “NSMBW” continually surprises with new platforming contraptions, level designs and power-ups. The new penguin suit is possibly the most versatile Mario upgrade ever, while the propeller suit ranks with the best of the best on the fun scale.
Classic characters and level archetypes also return, but 20 years of technological and graphical advancements allow them to do things that simply weren’t possible before. Happily, beyond the new suits, the same doesn’t apply to Mario and friends: Nintendo keeps the control scheme classically simple, and instances of motion control in “NSMBW” are infrequent enough to be novel and surprisingly fun in how they function in conjunction with the levels in which they appear.
Totaled up, “NSMBW” is, to perhaps an unprecedented degree, that rare game that is as magnificently enjoyable for long-suffering 2D Mario fans as it is for those who have never played one and had no idea a 19-year drought even existed. It’s an enormous value simply by being a full-featured game that offers two diametrically different experiences that can be cherished on wholly separate levels.
The only bug in the pancake batter is the lack of an online co-op option. Four-player “NSMBW” is a farcical mess in person, and Nintendo is dead right in assessing that the mood wouldn’t translate nearly as well online. But for those who lack the means to set up a local game, having an online consolation prize still trumps not having it.
For: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Given the myriad of fun possibilities, it’s somewhat amazing only one game — “Bust-a-Move DS” — has prominently leaned on a control mechanic built around using the Nintendo DS’ touch screen as a virtual slingshot.
That changes rather dramatically — albeit imperfectly — with “WireWay,” which builds an entire adventure game around the idea.
“WireWay” stars you as a strange little alien named Wiley, and the completely weird storyline — which deliberately is silly to the point of genuine amusement — has Wiley on a quest to gather valuable stars that are useless to Earthlings but extremely valuable to Wiley and his strange kind.
But the game isn’t about controlling Wiley so much as the areas through which he must navigate. Each level starts with Wiley grabbing onto the lowest-hanging wire, and you propel him forward by pulling back on the wire, picking your angle and launching him at stars, special items, enemies and other wires. “WireWay” introduces new contraptions as the game soldiers ahead, but the primary mode of transport involves firing Wiley around the level like a rock in a slingshot.
It isn’t a perfect science. The action takes place on both screens, and the space between screens translates into a blind spot that can complicate your shot selection. A nice touch allows you to shift the camera using the D-pad, but doing so also limits how far back you can pull the wire in certain directions. Practice makes near-perfect and it’s never a game-breaking problem, but it would’ve been preferable if “WireWay” let you zoom in and out rather than simply shift the viewpoint.
Other than that, though, the mechanic makes for a fun trick around which to build a game, and “WireWay” helps itself by regularly introducing variety to the levels and making them challenging to complete. For those who enjoy perfecting games, a grading mechanic that scores your ability to grab all the stars, find the special items and get to the ship as quickly as possible should induce a nice amount of replayabilty. Acing the game is no easy feat.
“WireWay” complements its goofy storyline with a two great challenge modes. Flick Trials limits how many moves you can make to send Wiley to the ship, while Strategery — the jewel of the game both in name and concept — forces you to pause the action and draw in the wires and contraptions yourself. Both modes use the same scoring system as the story levels, so they offer the same level of replayabilty for perfectionists.
All those calls for perfection make “WireWay’s” multiplayer mode, which turns the action into an anything-goes race to the ship, a pleasantly mindless change of pace. Four players can compete locally using one copy of the game, but only two courses are available unless everyone has their own copy. Online play isn’t available, but it’s hard to imagine a niche game arriving smack in the middle of the holiday blockbuster season accruing a major online following anyway.