Games 12/29/09: Where the Wild Things Are, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, LittleBigPlanet Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit

Where the Wild Things Are
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Griptonite Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

Invariably, once Christmas wraps and the annual holiday onslaught of megablockbusters eases up, there remain a few games that bear the scars of coming out at precisely the wrong time and being completely overlooked for doing so.

In 2009, that dubious distinction belongs to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a not-necessarily-for-kids’ game hopelessly tied to the release date of a not-necessarily-for-kids’ movie and subsequently overlooked for coming out smack in the middle of a tidal wave of bigger releases. A long history of lousy games based on kids’ movies, and the perception that creates for this game, didn’t help matters.

But “WTWTA” borrows heavily from the Playstation 2 classic “Ico” and, surprisingly, succeeds where other like-minded games failed. Players control Max, the mischievous little boy who washes up uninvited on the island of the Wild Things, and most of the game’s action consists of the same mix of light combat and ledge jumping, rock climbing, and environmental puzzles that “Ico” did so masterfully well. Max is easy to control, and the semi-fixed camera angle — also borrowed from “Ico” — presents each environment in a manner that’s intuitive without making traversing it a complete cakewalk. The Wild Things add a wrinkle to the challenges by lending a hand and further altering the landscape whenever they can.

As should be expected from a game based on a movie that itself is based on what practically is a picture book, “WTWTA’s” story isn’t exactly a narrative barnburner. But Griptonite makes good on with what it has to work with: The game looks pretty good and animates nicely, and the Wild Things emerge as really likable characters in spite of their secondary role throughout most of the game.

Like so many other family games, “WTWTA” pads the main story content by dropping various collectables in each level. Unlike as with most games, though, rounding them up is something a worthy pursuit. The game doesn’t overload the environments with hundreds of useless objects to round up, nor does it hide items in places players would never bother to look. There’s a challenge in finding everything, but it isn’t so obtuse as to be a waste of time, and finding them pays off in the form of rewards — some of them leading to fun new optional challenges — in the hub level that doubles as the Wild Things’ home base.

The sum of this content (there’s nothing to do beyond the single-player adventure) doesn’t quite justify the full price the game commanded back at launch, but a quick price drop means finding “WTWTA” brand-new for upwards of $20 less already is a feasible proposition. At that price, it’s hard not to recommend it: Younger players will appreciate a game made for them that doesn’t insult their gaming intelligence, and their parents — or really, anyone in need of an “Ico”-style fix — might come away surprised by just how much this innocuous piece of tie-in merchandising gets right.

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Guitar Hero: Van Halen
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 2
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

“Guitar Hero’s” previous single-band releases, devoted to Aerosmith and Metallica, were already of questionable quality before “Rock Band” kicked the bar out of the atmosphere with “The Beatles: Rock Band.”

Though a perfectly tenable game for reasons to be detailed later, “Guitar Hero: Van Halen” doesn’t brighten the picture. Depending on your opinion of Val Halen’s present-day relevance and your tolerance for “Guitar Hero” releases in the span of a single year, it might even constitute a leap backward.

Per convention, Van Halen’s visual fingerprints are all over the box and interface, and the band’s likenesses come to life in typical semi-cartoony fashion. This time, though, politics and squabbling have left former bassist Michael Anthony and former lead singers Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone off the bill. Consequently, none of the band’s Hagar- and Cherone-fronted catalog appears, either. Whether the loss of that music and iconography is a big deal will vary from fan to fan, but there’s no arguing it doesn’t splinter whatever hope “GH:VH” had for documenting its subject matter the way “Beatles” did.

Then again, Neversoft’s inability to learn from “Beatles” — or the failings of its own single-band games — torpedoed that hope without the band’s help.

“GH:VH’s” 47-song track list is, like those other games, significantly smaller than the numbered (but same-priced) “Guitar Hero” game. Bbut the real issue comes from 19 of those songs being either Eddie Van Halen guitar solos or the product of bands other than Van Halen. The game claims the other music has some stylistic connection to Van Halen’s music, but one look at the track list (Fountains of Wayne? Third Eye Blind? Weezer?) suggests otherwise. Whatever effort would have been necessary to kiss and make up with Hagar, if not everyone from Van Halen’s past, would more than have been worth it if it resulted in a coherent, complete tribute to the band’s catalog. This, by contrast, feels like a track pack tucked inside a full-priced game with some extra filler to justify the price.

On that note, it comes down to whether the tracks, which would cost nearly $80 if totaled up as downloadable content for “Guitar Hero 5,” justify the purchase. “GH:VH” at least does things — namely, a new career mode and a new suite of achievements/trophies in the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions — a track pack alone cannot.

But do you want to buy something Activision seems reluctant to sell? The company gave the game away to anyone who purchased “GH5” earlier in the year, and it waited two months to sneak it onto shelves after most people’s holiday shopping had concluded. Pushing the game out the door at full price after previously giving it away seems like a move made for the half-hearted heck of it, which seems to have been “GH:VH’s” artistic approach as well. Watching a publisher practically wash its hand of a product doesn’t affect the quality of the product itself, but it’s hard to get excited about a game when the people who made it seem not to care.

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LittleBigPlanet: Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Requires: LittleBigPlanet
From: Media Molecule/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $6

Media Molecule has made more than good on its promise to consistently support “LittleBigPlanet” long after its late 2008 release, so the appearance of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” level kit would superficially seem no more interesting than the numerous other costumes and packs that preceded it. But with this level kit comes a new element — water — whose significance needs no real  explanation for those already familiar with “LittleBigPlanet’s” modus operandi as a physics-heavy 2D platformer. And beyond the clumsy introduction — the Playstation Store’s description of the pack doesn’t even mention water, much less its significance — the new content works just as one would hope it would. Media Molecule’s attention to physics detail has gone a long way toward establishing “LittleBigPlanet’s” identity, and its year-in-the-making take on water enjoys the same level of care. Implementing it in new and existing level designs is as easy as adding any other ingredient via the game’s level creation tool, and the tool’s extreme flexibility allows players to utilize and control water in a multitude of imaginative ways. That, in turn, gives a game with near-endless legs even more staying power going into 2010. Not bad for six dollars. (For those who care, the rest of the pack, which includes “Caribbean” character costumes, five new single-player levels, new PSN trophies and new music/objects/stickers/materials with which to further modify levels, is pretty hearty as well.)