Games 5/18/10: Alan Wake, Lost Planet 2, Smiles

Alan Wake
For: Xbox 360
From: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

Until now, “Alan Wake” was best known in gaming circles as a title in development since before the Xbox 360’s mere existence was public knowledge.

The effects of the lengthy development are apparent in the final product, which occasionally looks older than it is and forces players to contend with some unwieldy (and slightly incomplete) third-person shooter controls. But all those years also have been very kind to the titular character and his story, which are so carefully and cleverly constructed as to render any shortcomings almost completely moot.

It’s no great surprise that “Wake’s” storyline — which finds Alan, a famous mystery writer, racing through a secluded resort town to discover why the pages of his unfinished manuscript have come true and made his wife disappear — is a cut above. Remedy Entertainment produced some of the best storytelling of the early 2000s with its “Max Payne” games, and while the particulars have changed, the ingredients — narration from the playable character, generally stellar voice acting, a word-perfect script that touches darkly comedic, self-depreciating and noirish nerves in the right ways at the right times — have all returned.

Where Remedy outdoes itself is with its thorough understanding of the art of the cliffhanger.

“Wake” presents its story as a six-episode miniseries, complete with “Previously on…” recaps at the top of each episode. The approach greatly enhances the game’s personality, but it also provides a means to drop a terrific reveal at the bottom of each episode that makes it awfully hard not to immediately dive right into the next one. (Sidebar to alleviate potential confusion: “Wake’s” generous checkpoint system does not require players to play entire episodes in single sittings.)

What initially begins as a collection of winks at nods toward classic horror tropes gradually becomes its own creation, and by the time the third episode kicks into gear, “Wake” has enough great characters and distinctive twists to keep its ultimate destination a genuine mystery. (Whether the culmination of that mystery satisfies or aggravates will, of course, come down to individual taste.)

All that wonderful storytelling is enough to offset issues with “Wake’s” gameplay, which is fun but would be unremarkable and kind of repetitive without the story and setting taking it down new avenues.

Though “Wake” utilizes an over-the-shoulder perspective, Alan’s aim — be it with his flashlight or his firearm — isn’t exactly refined. That in itself is an arguable service to the game’s immersion, given that he’s an author and not a soldier. But it also allows the game’s possessed but combat-savvy enemies to flank rather easily, and the shaky aiming translates into some poor field awareness that can prove fatal. A slick dodge mechanic comes in handy when things get hairy, but “Wake” is begging for a melee button that would have made fighting out of a jam more flexible and fun.

Again, though, when all else fails, the checkpoint system is pretty benevolent. “Wake’s” higher difficulty settings pose a nice challenge to those hungry for one, but Remedy ultimately wants to show the ending to anyone who wants to see it. Balancing those two priorties and pleasing everybody is an unenviable task, but Remedy does a very enviable job of pulling it off.

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Lost Planet 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Lost Planet 2” is the most aggravating kind of game there is, because when it isn’t busy being unreasonably toxic, it’s kind of awesome.

At its core, “LP2” is, like its predecessor, just a ton of dumb third-person shooter fun. The weaponry packs an exaggerated punch (both in recoil felt and damage dealt), the operable mechs allow for joyously destructive rampages, and the explosions and screen-sized bug enemies are as impressive here as they are anywhere. “LP2” primarily squares players off against human opposition this time around, but it still takes frequent occasion to bust out some show-stopping encounters against absolutely gigantic bugs.

The net visual and tactile effect of all this action remains incredible and distinctive fours years after we first experienced it, and while the run-and-gun controls feel slightly archaic in this era of cover-based shooters, they’re a perfect complement under these conditions.

Sounds great, right? It should be, and it would be if “LP2’s” overlying particulars didn’t have more left feet than an groggy millipede. But they do, and most of the fault lies with an startlingly unfriendly implementation of co-op play into what used to be a single-player-friendly game.

Like its predecessor, “LP2” tells a story — and, at some 15 hours long, a lengthy one at that. But instead of present it like any other single-player game with co-op functionality, Capcom dresses each chapter in a multiplayer lobby interface. Players load out as a foursome, and those who wish to play alone are gifted three A.I.-controlled players with immersion-shattering fake screennames floating above their heads. The interface is similarly kludgy, offering no way for players to drop into games already in progress and never bothering to explain the confusing setup to players who played the first game alone and expected a similar road through the sequel.

But the real trouble awaits in the gameplay, which operates by multiplayer rules even for those who play alone. That means no checkpoints or save spots during the span of levels that often take an hour to finish. “LP2’s” complicated health math means players can respawn upon dying a limited number of times, but should that math run out, any progress in the level is lost. Players can’t even pause the game — something other co-op games allow even with friends aboard.

These inconveniences turn into deal-breakers once it becomes clear “LP2” has no issue with dishing out some staggeringly cheap action even on its easiest difficulty. One-hit kills, psychic enemy A.I. and unavoidable boss attacks abound, and because Capcom put zero effort into making solo players’ A.I. teammates anything beyond borderline catatonic, what feels cheap with friends assisting is a nightmare alone. Challenge is a wonderful thing, but “LP2” goes about creating it in entirely unfriendly and joyless ways.

The news is better for the subset of players who enjoyed “LP1” for its competitive online multiplayer (16 players). “LP2” borrows some of the single-player game’s health math but otherwise resists the temptation to fix time-tested modes that aren’t broken, and the dreadful A.I. is nowhere to be found. For players who want to experience all the game does right without dealing with all it does wrong, this is the way to do it.

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Smiles
For: iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad (separate version for iPad)
From: Sykhronics Entertainment
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $2 (sale pricing; subject to change soon)

Given the number of perfectly good “Bejeweled” clones lurking in the iTunes Store, it’s impressive to find one, like “Smiles,” that goes its own way by changing just one rule. As with its ilk, the object of “Smiles” is to match rows of three or more identical blocks. The difference is that instead of switching two blocks around within the grid,
players must swap in a block from outside the grid to match three and then use the block they just swapped out as the next block to swap in. There’s a loss of strategy in always having to use a particular block, but “Smiles” counters that by encouraging players to think quickly and keep the board constantly in motion while the score multiplier rockets upward. The fast pace of the main game mode is a surprisingly fun departure from “Bejeweled” proper, and a nice level of polish — both in the presentation and the responsiveness of the controls — makes it work. For a change of pace, “Smiles” includes additional variants, including an outstanding Zen mode that changes the game in the complete opposite way by once again hitting just one switch. The lack of online leaderboards is disappointing, particularly in light of how slick the score- and stat-tracking systems are, but an absolutely gargantuan mountain of unlockable achievements gives dedicated players plenty to shoot for regardless.