Games 6/22/10: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, Toy Story 3, Wake up the Box!

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

It takes a special kind of thread to maneuver a needle as well-established (and, because it’s a professional golfing simulation, creatively handcuffed) as “Tiger Woods PGA Tour,” and it’s doubly difficult to please everybody in doing so. But in making changes that separately benefit those who want a more accessible golf experience and those who want a game that makes that first group cry, that’s precisely what “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11” does.

On the accessibility front, “TW11” introduces a slightly fantastical currency, called focus, that players can accrue by playing well and spend as they choose to add power to a shot, increase accuracy or (among other things) use a putt preview mechanic to help fine-tune a shot on the green. The focus interface’s subtle design respects the integrity of the simulation, and because it’s rewarded to players through skillful play and hands out benefits with entirely believable results, it’s satisfyingly authentic despite being an inarguably contrived video game mechanic.

The focus currency headlines a number of more subtle changes that let unseasoned players cater “TW11” to best address their shortcomings. The career mode once again distributes skill improvements as players advance their created golfers through the PGA Tour calendar, but now players can allot experience points to the areas — putting, driving, fading and so on — that most need the help. The optional tutorial lessons do a much better job of preaching the value of draws, lofts and shot types, and the analog stick controls (and meters for reading their accuracy) are responsive without, as they sometimes have in previous games, resorting to excess sensitivity.

On the complete other side of things is the new True Aim mode, which takes away all of “TW11’s” gamey assists and presents the entirety of the action, even post-shot, from the golfer’s point of view. Outside of a GPS device that helps players read the terrain and know the distance to the hole, the True Aim filter is akin to playing golf the way real golfers play it. It’s little more than a new camera angle and a disabling of certain viewing functions, but it arguably is “TW11’s” best addition for players who crave authenticity and want a new kind of challenge from the series.

Though the aforementioned tweaks might be the best thing about “TW11,” the addition of team play is the most prominent. The Ryder Cup, complete with captain duties and team management, joins the roster of playable championships, and “TW11’s” online team play supports up to six teams of four players each.

Traditional solo play (up to four players locally or online) returns, but now all players can shoot at their own pace online without watching everyone else take their turn. That welcome change heads the usual list of tiny enhancements, including some tweaks to the graphics and ball physics, more realistic green layouts, dynamic wind patterns that are prone to gusts, and a livelier GamerNet Challenges system, which allows players to challenge community shot records and accrue bonus experience points without ever leaving whatever mode they’re already playing.

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Toy Story 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Also available for: Windows PC, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief)

“Toy story 3” is what happens when inspired ideas fight a battle to the end with uninspired ideas while good and subpar execution duel similarly in the background.

Fortunately, if not easily, the good guys win more battles than they lose, and the game is significantly better than its five-car collision of ingredients would imply.

The struggle is apparent immediately, with “TS3” pushing players into the story’s first level — an on-horse Wild West chase level starring Woody as the playable character — before the main menu even pops up. The level is simple, straightforward fun, but it’s also hampered by an unpolished control responsiveness (in this case, some imprecise horse jumping controls) that infects other control schemes throughout the game. A very generous checkpoint system makes it easy to forgive the setbacks the controls cause, but not so much that they aren’t still annoying when they pop up in bunches.

Immediately following that first level, “TS3” drops players into an entirely different mode — the Toy Box — and it does so without adequately clarifying that players who wish to continue the story can do so without doing a single thing in this mode. But the confusion might be for the best, because it’s probably the most foolproof way to demonstrate to players that it’s this mode — and not the storyline, which feels more like a collection of self-contained vignettes than a coherent storyline — that really makes “TS3” better than just another kids’ movie game.

Toy Box is “TS3’s” answer to sandbox gameplay — a fully open world, teeming with citizens, “Toy Story” characters and a horde of missions to complete and virtual toys (characters, vehicles and full-blown playsets) to unlock.

The missions aren’t exactly ingenious, with most of them being either fetch quests or simple facsimiles of side quests found in other open-world games. But “TS3” designs them to be either quick or open-ended, making it easy for players to take on multiple objectives at a time while collecting more as they check some off the list. The variety of quests does plenty to compensate the lack of original mission design, and it only increases as players compile rewards and use them to purchase new toys — a horse here, a stunt car track there — that come with new mission types.

Those occasionally dodgy controls rear their head here as well — particularly with regard to the toy car controls, which are among the worst driving controls to be found anywhere in 2010. But “TS3’s” mission structure is so dense that when one quest is giving fits, there’s probably another one right behind it for players to work on before they go back and give the first one a shot. It’s a busybody’s paradise, it uses the “Toy Story” license very well, and it offers ambitious players a ton to do if they wish to turn the game inside out.

The story missions, by comparison, are less impressive, in part because there aren’t too many of them and they don’t tell much of a story. What they can do, though, is experiment with level designs the Toy Box’s open-world structure couldn’t properly accommodate. Not every experiment is a success, but enough of the missions do enough things right to make this a welcome addition to the game’s surprise main attraction.

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Wake up the Box!
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Wandake
iTunes Store Rating: 4+

“Wake up the Box!” is an imperfect game in some pretty significant ways, but developer Wandake appears to have partially acknowledged that by rewarding those who get in on the ground floor. Like a handful of other physics-based puzzle games, “Box” gives players a set amount of pieces in each level and tasks them with arranging them to influence the laws physics and successfully complete the level. But unlike most of these games, the object in “Box” is to create a chain reaction that leads to havoc — specifically, waking the napping Mr. Box — instead of prevent it. Though “Box” gets the physics and piece controls perfectly right, it does a
poor job of explaining this objective, and a lack of instruction means you’ll have to decipher the game’s methods, interface and scoring system yourself. “Box’s” level count — 15 total, 10 of which are pretty easy to solve — is similarly lacking. But Wandake has promised lots of updates to come as “Box” evolves, and because the game is free for the time being, questions of value cease to exist for those who download it before the price increases. So get it now, get comfortable with it and get ready: Once “Box” reaches the 11th level, it assumes players have the basics down and are ready for some seriously tricky challenges, and future level additions are likely to tax the brain similarly once Wandake pushes them out the door.