Games 2/23/10: Aliens vs. Predator, World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars, Walk it Out!, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

Aliens vs. Predator
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Rebellion/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)

There are moments in each of “Aliens vs. Predator’s” three single-player campaigns where the game flashes some honest-to-goodness greatness that other first-person games can’t touch.

The brightest of these flashes happens straight away in the marine campaign, which outfits players as a standard soldier in a world crawling with aliens and, eventually, the Predator. “AvP” drops players into an environment where light is a precious commodity, and the game doesn’t waste time with dull shootouts against grunt enemies. The aliens are the enemy, and each one alone can easily take a player from healthy to dead. In packs and in darkness, they’re a nightmare.

But once the scene changes to less intimidating pastures and the aliens resort to less frightening tactics, “AvP” regresses to also-ran status. The fights start repeating themselves, the level designs feel more generic, and when Rebellion recycles an old twist from a previous “AvP” game and introduces the androids enemy class, this might as well be any shooter.

Unfortunately, “AvP’s” antiquated controls — which lack a lean or even crouch mechanic and rely too much on auto-aim assists to bail out some sloppy aiming precision — ensure it isn’t even just another shooter once the scares peel away and the dated mechanics are exposed. The action is more uninspired than truly bad, but when the game drops piles of enemies in one spot and expects players to avoid making mistakes while it makes so many, it feels pretty cheap.

Fleeting flashes of excellence also seep into the alien and Predator campaigns, which value stealth and melee combat over gunplay. Disabling the lights, climbing the walls and terrorizing humans is a fun thrill early in the alien campaign, and the Predator campaign offers enough trick (albeit with a slightly clumsy control scheme) to leap around the map and massacre humans, aliens and androids alike.

But these two campaigns eventually suffer the same problem: Most of what you see and do will be seen and done within each campaign’s opening scenario, and the same flat levels players see as the marine await yet again once the novelty of both campaigns wears off. None of the three campaigns requires more than three hours to finish, but all manage to wear out their welcomes because of how repetitive they are with regard to design, tactics and enemy intelligence.

Online multiplayer (18 players competitive, four players co-op) fares little better. The survival co-op mode, which pits player-controlled marines against endless alien waves, is just the single-player game’s bad controls and A.I. on overdrive.

Most of the competitive modes, meanwhile, are dampened by player-controlled aliens’ and Predators’ melee kill animations, which are so excessively drawn out that by the time Player A kills Player B, Player C is halfway finished killing a hopelessly vulnerable Player A. A few modes that play off the series fiction establish gameplay conditions that mitigate these domino effects, but it’s a testament to “AvP’s” overall haphazardness that such a hindrance plagues any, much less the majority, of these modes.

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World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars
For: Xbox 360
From: Big Ant Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

The enormously successful advent of $10-$20 downloadable games left doubts that games like “World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars” — a retail product that shares shelf space with $60 games but costs $20 out of the gate — would ever have a place on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3.

They do, it seems, but they probably shouldn’t, because while times have changed, the problems that plagued shoestring-budget games with retail ambitions have not.

It’s not like “Outlaws” lacks merit, either. This is the first racing game in the Xbox 360’s existence that bears the World of Outlaws branding, and with that come racers, vehicles and tracks that fans of the touring series will certainly recognize. For those who never even heard of WoO, there’s value as well, because the combination of sprint cars and tightly-contained dirt tracks is a rare sight in a racing game landscape that’s beyond saturated in most every other area.

But the true value of a racing game always, always hinges on how it moves on the track, and “Outlaws” simply lacks polish in too many areas to make all that uniqueness enough of a compensation.

Most of “Outlaws'” shortcomings are forgivable. The overall interface is cumbersome and, in the career mode, a little bit confusing to maneuver at first. The career mode feels a bit thin, particularly with regard to car tuning flexibility, but that’s understandable given the budget price. Same with the graphics on the track: “Outlaws” looks a few years old, the cars appear to glide on the dirt rather than dig into it, and despite the box’s promise to the contrary, the lines torn into the dirt don’t seem to have much effect on the action in subsequent laps. Not ideal, but no big deal.

But things completely fall apart in the one area — control — where “Outlaws” couldn’t afford to slip. Steering is entirely too touchy, and the cars lack any sensation of weight. Taking a corner with any kind of force practically guarantees a spinout, but the alternative — babysitting the left stick and practically tapping it so as not to oversteer — just isn’t fun.

Compounding the problem is the game’s A.I., which seems to have no such trouble. Make one mistake in a 30-lap race, and catching up is nearly inconceivable. There simply is no reward for driving dangerously, because doing so is pretty much impossible, and that’s a killer for a game that’s trying to sell arcade-style excitement.

Things fare slightly better in multiplayer (two players split-screen, eight online), if only because everyone is prone to the same steering issues and the playing field is more level. “Outlaws” doesn’t do anything fancy online, but it lets players tweak races according to basic parameters and throws in a hot potato-style bomb tag variant for those who want a little extra danger. But the likelihood of a strong online community surrounding a shaky, budget-priced game is practically a pipe dream, so make sure you have friends waiting to play before placing too much stock in this portion of the game.

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Walk it Out!
For: Wii
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild lyrics)

Given the Wii’s initial potential to immerse players and simulate the experience of interacting more freely with virtual worlds and activities, a game built around the entirely banal practice of walking — yes, walking — would seem just a wee bit ridiculous. Even with the Wii’s unexpected transformation into a virtual fitness tool taken into account, who needs a $30 piece of software to motivate them to walk in place?

The good news is that even the goofily-named “Walk It Out!” seems to understand how absurd the whole thing sounds on the surface. The better news is that in subscribing to a formula that’s pretty much a descendent of Konami’s “Dance Dance Revolution” games, it circumvents the issue and emerges as a fun, original and surprisingly rewarding exercise tool.

As implied by the title, the premise in “WIO” is to, in fact, walk it out. Some introductory tutorials and the occasional trainer chatter aside, the game’s primary mode drops players (either solo or with a friend via local co-op) into an open world, and they’re free to walk around at their leisure while the game tracks their step counts.

The kicker is the way “WIO” engages players’ completist tendencies by scattering more than 3,500 icons across the world. Each icon has a price attached to it, and steps are the game’s currency. Accumulate steps and point the Wii remote to “purchase” icons, and the game turns those icons into scenery, new songs for the soundtrack and new pathways that open the environment up for additional exploration.

Players who get into “WIO’s” gamey, collectable nature will rack up steps without even thinking about the working going into doing so. If the point of an exercise video game is to make players forget they’re exercising, this one nails it.

But what of the actual act of walking in place? It works, and surprisingly well, because Konami translates the rote original act into a light rhythm game. “WIO” comes with 120 songs, and players who want to accumulate steps will need to step in time with each song’s beat to do so. The variance of beats gives “WIO” about as much variety as one could expect from a game centered around walking. For players who find “Dance Dance Revolution’s” aerobic demands appealing but can’t get past those games’ difficulty, this offers the same benefits without the imposing drawbacks.

To no surprise, “WIO” supports Konami’s dance pad controller for Wii. But the pad isn’t required, and the game counts steps with surprising competency when players simply put the nunchuck attachment in their pockets and walk on any flat surface. The Wii Balance Board yields similarly accurate results, and it emerges as the ideal setup by giving players something solid to stand on and control their steps.

As any respectable fitness game should, “WIO” tracks calories, steps, distance walked and (special to this game) how competently players stay on the beat. The results aren’t entirely scientific, of course, but any gauge is better than no gauge, and the game’s ability to graph progress over time is a nice touch.

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The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: The Odd Gentlemen/2K Play
ESRB’s Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

For all the wonderful ways 2008’s “Braid” combined art, music, storytelling, “Super Mario Bros.”-style 2D action and some truly mind-melting puzzles built around time manipulation, the production struck many as unnecessarily stuffy. For those folks, “The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom” is a double victory, because in addition to sparkling on all the same facets, “Winterbottom” does it with a sly grin and under the silliest pretense possible (a pie thief manipulating time and space to, yep, steal pies). “Winterbottom’s” puzzles aren’t quite as elaborate as “Braid’s,” if only because the game elects to break them into single-screen challenges instead of larger sidescrolling levels. But the intellectual itch this one scratches is completely the same and, in the hardest challenges, every bit as rewarding. That victory alone makes “Winterbottom” a no-brainer to recommend. But the game significantly sweetens the deal with an outstanding audiovisual presentation that brilliantly recalls the whimsical style of an old silent film serial. The game’s nefarious but silly sense of humor falls perfectly in line: Winterbottom might be the most lovable video game ratfink since Wario, and the rhyming between-level dialogue is as funny as it us clever.