Games 5/11/10: Skate 3, Iron Man 2, Tecmo Bowl Throwback

Skate 3
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

“Skate 3” arrives a mere 16 months after its monstrous predecessor, and there’s no sane point in pretending that doesn’t factor. Everything that was great about the first two games — the awesome control and open-world freedom the first game introduced, the bonanza of features the sequel brought along — is here, and some nice new features and a brand-new city make this one a no-brainer for fans of the series, but the roster of changes isn’t as dramatic this time as it was last time.

That isn’t to say what’s new isn’t welcome, though — particularly if, as “Skate 3” clearly encourages, you plan on enjoying the experience with friends.

Black Box has done a surprisingly thoughtful job of injecting the right amount of storytelling continuity into the “Skate” games, with callbacks and inside jokes for seasoned players that new players starting fresh need not even recognize. This time, the story shifts to team play, both in terms of winning team competitions and developing a profitable new skate brand.

“Skate” has never shied away from making online play a big part of its appeal, and “Skate 3” takes it further by essentially allowing players to engage the entire game online. Antisocial types can enroll computer-controlled teammates during the story mode’s team challenges, but calling on up to five friends to assist and/or antagonize — players can slip between cooperative and competitive play dynamically — is so much more fun with the right crowd. Along with the new city to explore, the dynamic multiplayer also presents the biggest fundamental shift to the story mode, which otherwise leans upon familiar challenges and the same general structure (the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” rule) to move things along.

The socialization extends to “Skate 3’s” creation tools, which function like they did previously but now present themselves within a social networking interface that makes it easier for friends to find each other’s clips, graphics and photos. The bigger addition here is the skate park creator, which functions just as any fan of the old “Tony Hawk” series’ park editors might wish it to. “Skate 3” also increases players’ ability to modify their environment as they wish by allowing them, a la “Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground,” to place common skate park objects in any part of the city at any time with few button clicks.

Elsewhere, it’s a series of little things that some will appreciate and others won’t even notice. A new Skate School feature (starring a very funny Jason Lee, who upholds the series’ terrific voice and character acting standards) helps initiate new players, who might also appreciate an optional new camera angle that’s straight out of classic “Hawk” games. Players who wish to perfect their technique on their own time can employ the optional trick analyzer, which charts joystick movements and breaks down why attempted tricks don’t go as planned. The Hall of Meat, which scores players based on their ability to maim themselves, is a little more flexible and, for those who prefer, able to score all bails automatically without being activated first. The off-board controls are no longer absurdly stiff, and while the trick bag is pretty full by now, a few new ones, including advanced underflips and darkslides, make welcome debuts.

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Iron Man 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

If you’re bound and determined to enjoy “Iron Man 2” in video game form, here’s a tip even the most skilled of you may wish to follow: Play the game on its easiest difficulty setting.

That isn’t a testament to the steely challenge “IM2” poses to players so much as — as was the case in the first “Iron Man” game — its aggravating propensity to let some truly sloppy execution get in the way of what otherwise could be an ideal action gaming playground.

Like its predecessor, “IM2” kinda sorta keeps in step with the movie throughout a series a linear missions in which Iron Man (or War Machine; outside of one mission, “IM2” lets players select whichever character and corresponding weapons loadout they prefer) performs some occasional bodyguard duty but mostly just shoots and blows stuff up.

When it’s done well, the results are perfectly, mindlessly fun. Both characters can dash, hover, fly, engage in airborne hand-to-hand combat and fire short-burst and explosive weapons, and “IM2’s” flexible controls allow players to mix and match those abilities as they see fit.

But any time the action enters a tight space or finds our heroes surrounded by a barrage of enemies — which, by the way, is often — things just fall apart.

Nine times out of 10, it’s the fault of a spastic camera and auto-targeting system, which finds the former spinning around wildly while umpteen targets fire liberally from all angles and play tricks on the latter. On the easiest difficulty setting, it isn’t terribly difficult to just dash away and rebuild the deck, but those who engage the higher difficulty settings should expect to die repeatedly and cheaply at the hands of these technical failings.

The headaches come to a head during a final boss fight against an absolutely gargantuan Ultimo. The scope of the showdown is visually fantastic, but it’s entirely beyond the camera’s capabilities, and the hysterical fit that ensues will leave some players dizzy and others just scrambling for the off switch. What should have been “IM2’s” shining moment instead becomes its lowest low.

The co-op applications for “IM2” are pretty obvious given its two-protagonist cast, but in another sign that the game was probably rushed to stores in concert with the movie’s release, the relatively short single-player story is all there is. An interface for upgrading and unlocking customizable weapons and suits is nice (if a bit user-unfriendly), but once the end credits roll, there’s nothing to do beyond replaying old missions.

Hopefully, some developer will one day get a chance to do with Iron Man what Activision is doing this year with Spider-Man: create a proper game that isn’t tied to the creative direction and release date of a film. The ingredients for gaming greatness are there, and a proper development cycle and all it entails (polish, a stable camera, a storyline written specifically for the game and some value on the features side) would probably produce something pretty special.

Beyond “IM2’s” startling inability to improve on the well-publicized failings of the troubled first game, no such significance exists here.

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Tecmo Bowl Throwback
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Southend Interactive/Tecmo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

How faithful is “Tecmo Bowl Throwback” to 1991’s “Tecmo Super Bowl?” One button press holds the answer. “Throwback’s” biggest shortcoming — the missing NFL license — is a big one, and while it makes concessions by allowing players to rename the fictional team and player names, the loss still stings. Had Southend Interactive gone a little farther and allowed players not only to customize team colors but also create entire online leagues with friends and their customized teams, “Throwback” might have the legs to be a full-blown
sleeper sensation. As unsensational callbacks go, though, this one’s still got it. The modernized audiovisual presentation is a surprisingly good fit, but it changes nothing about the series’ celebrated two-button gameplay and dead-simple playbook. “Throwback” is so faithful, in fact, that players can switch between the new look and the old 16-bit graphics and sound instantaneously — even mid-play — with one button press. The gameplay has aged just fine despite all that’s happened to football games since its heyday, and those discouraged by the increased complexity of EA’s football simulations might find such pleasurable simplicity to be the chief selling point here. While “Throwback” doesn’t go as far as it should in terms of features, it also isn’t threadbare: Along with local and online multiplayer (two players), there’s a very simple (no general manager tools) but sufficient (if some continuity and stat tracking is enough) season mode for solo players.