Games 3/16/10: God of War III, Pokémon: HeartGold/SoulSilver Versions, Tiki Totems

God of War III
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony Computer Entertainment Santa Monica Studio
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content)

An uncommonly high number of games that owe an uncommon amount of debt to “God of War” rolled out quickly and furiously in the early going of 2010, and upon completion of “God of War III,” it’s pretty clear why they did.

They wanted to get out of this thing’s way, and with good reason.

To keep the conversation grounded: No, “GOW3” doesn’t shake up the formula — brutal third-person melee combat combined with ambitious environmental puzzle-solving — that made its predecessors among the best games in the Playstation 2’s and Playstation Portable’s libraries. Not accounting for the obvious advances in visual fidelity, ardent fans could still point to “God of War II” as the best in the mainline trilogy in terms of storytelling and level composition.

But that fight is too close to call with any authority, and for that same reason, “GOW3” plays on a plane that all those imitators, good though most of them really were, simply cannot match.

A good portion of that comes in the construction of the game’s contemptible anti-hero. Kratos might be the scariest controllable protagonist in all of video gamedom, and Santa Monica Studio complements that persona with a vicious arsenal of weapons and attack patterns to match.

“GOW3’s” imitators typically understand the importance placed on a fluid control scheme and the ability to chain attacks without interruption and change tactics on a dime. But “GOW3” compounds that attention to detail with a level of two-way savagery that simultaneously makes the player feel like an unstoppable monster and turns ordinary fights against nobody enemies into trap battles that can turn fatal quickly. Kratos’ tribulations have never been one for squeamish eyes and nervous hands, and some of the imagery “GOW3” doles out is harsh enough to make anyone wince.

The unchained appetite for murderous grandeur spreads to the scope of the overall game, which occasionally zooms out to reveal environments, puzzles and even traversable enemy titans who reduce Kratos to the size of a nickel on the screen. Santa Monica has a knack and a half for presenting its idea of scope in a way that’s intimidating without being disorienting, and the way “GOW3” shifts between such ridiculously divergent scales and perspectives is simply awesome. The series may best be recognized for its outlandishly epic boss fights, pitting Kratos against mythical gods and beasts many times his size, and that doesn’t change here.

With the core ingredients down to an art form, the game’s nitpicks are debatable and likely come down to individual perception. Certain puzzles might take too long for some players’ liking, and the bloodthirsty among us won’t love it when the game occasionally strings together two consecutive puzzles with maybe a short bout in between. The penultimate portion of the game drags a bit due to enemy repetition, and there’s one challenge in particular that briefly abandons all that’s good about the combat.

Fortunately, the payoff after this lull is enormous. “GOW3” presents itself as the culmination of Kratos’ journey, and if that’s really the case, then the dazzling batch of sequences that comprise the game’s ending could scarcely be a better sendoff.

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Pokémon: HeartGold Version
Pokémon: SoulSilver Version
For: Nintendo DS
From: Game Freak/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

The first 10 weeks of 2010 have been more generous to gamers than the first half of most years typically are, and the release calendar is so full that a remake of a game that already feels like it’s been remade ad infinitum shouldn’t be worthy of a mention, much less 500 words’ worth of ink.

That is, of course, unless it does something as bizarrely revolutionary — and potentially beneficial beyond the realm of entertainment — as this twosome does.

Skeletally speaking, “Pokémon: HeartGold Version” and “Pokémon: SoulSilver Version” are, respectively, remakes of “Pokémon: Gold” and “Pokémon: Silver,” which released simultaneously on the Game Boy Color in 2000. Per “Pokémon” custom, those games were mostly identical outside of a few special Pokémon exclusive to each, and the same holds true of the remake.

In fact, a lot of what holds true in the remake has held true throughout the series’ lifetime — so much so that casual onlookers likely couldn’t tell the difference between a remake of a 2000 game and a brand-new chapter in the series. That’s something of a testament to the system in place, which combines classic role-playing gameplay with classic obsessive-compulsive completionism to create gameplay that’s addictive, accessible and rewarding over the long haul. But for players who hit their limit at some point in the last decade and are waiting for Game Freak to rock its own formulaic boat, watching the series reach into the past isn’t exactly encouraging.

With all that said, though, “SoulSilver” and “HeartGold” at least feel like more than simple retreads. Players with fond “Gold” and “Silver” memories can enjoy them anew with all the perks — sharper graphics and interface, stylus-friendly controls and the same wireless/online battling and trading modes that debuted in “Pokémon: Diamond” and “Pokémon: Pearl” — that have been added since the series migrated to the Nintendo DS.

But it’s the accessory bundled in the box — a fully functional, Pokéball-shaped pedometer that players can drop in their pockets and use to level up their Pokémon simply by getting out and walking around — that transforms the news of “HeartGold’s” and “SoulSilver’s” arrivals from pleasantly pedestrian to pretty exciting.

Nintendo previously produced a pedometer accessory for its “Personal Trainer: Walking” self-improvement game, and the pedometer here functions similarly. It counts steps and converts them into in-game experience independently of the game or DS, and transferring the data happens via a wireless infrared signal swap that requires no accessory hookup. Press a button, transmit data, reap some in-game rewards, and go rack up a few thousand or so more steps while developing your Pokémon in the healthiest manner possible.

The idea is pretty seriously out of left field, but it’s an ingenious way to add real-life value to a role-playing game’s most monotonous moments, and “HeartGold” and “SoulSilver” prove it also works. Here’s hoping, for the sake of those of us who have tired of “Pokémon” but not necessarily its principles, that other developers take the idea and do something similar.

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Tiki Totems
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: spokko
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price at time of review (subject to change): Free for basic version, $1 for premium version

Great fun though physics-based puzzle games usually are, they’re also kind of high-maintenance on the iPhone. Games that require precise degrees of tilting and touching also demand that players sit upright and use both hands, which isn’t ideal for a lazy pre-bedtime game session. So “Tiki Totems” gets points for adopting a “less is more” approach. The object of each level is to remove bricks and planks in order to safely drop a Tiki statue from the top of a structure to safe ground below, and removing certain pieces of the structure can ignite a chain reaction that’s enti
rely physics-powered. But the game’s low-maintenance control scheme — tap pieces of the structure to remove them, with no tilting or other precise motions running interference — makes it easy to pick up and play without sacrificing all that’s good about a physics-driven puzzle game in the first place. Now also is a good time to pick “Totems” up: The basic version, which comes bundled with 80 levels and the option to purchase 64 more, is currently free, while the premium version, which includes all 144 currently available levels and a promise to include all future level packs for free, only costs a buck. The games’ iTunes descriptions indicate these are temporary prices, so don’t waste time if you’re feeling thrifty.