Games 6/29/10: Transformers: War for Cybertron, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Guess the News

Transformers: War for Cybertron
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: High Moon Studios/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Yes, “Transformers: War for Cybertron” is a tangibly better game than the two rushed-to-retail games that accompanied the two godawful “Transformers” movies released in the last three years. And yes, by having nothing to do with the movies, “Cybertron” is free to base its storyline, visual presentation and gameplay on the cartoon, which is all “Transformers” fans have wanted all along.

But “Cybertron” improves on those games like a football team improves to 8-8 a year after it finished 1-15. It’s a leap in the right direction, but one still flawed in ways fan service alone can’t obscure.

First, the good stuff. The storyline not only takes place within the cartoon’s timeline, but is a bona fide prequel instead of some trivial side story. The playable characters — among numerous others, Optimus, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream and Jetfire — are colorful instead of drably indistinguishable like they were in the movies, and humans have no presence whatsoever.

As with previous “Transformers” games, players can play from the perspectives of both the Autobots and the Decepticons, but in a welcome evolution, “Cybertron” merges both campaigns into a single storyline. Previous games had players repeating the same events from both perspectives and effectively canceling out the two different endings that resulted, but “Cybertron” reaches a single, satisfying conclusion that nicely sets the table for the cartoon.

In terms of fundamentals, the news remains good. “Cybertron” looks great — colorful, but also just a little grimy — and it finds the sweet spot between making the Transformers both agile and impressively weighty. The controls are more conducive to transforming than they were in the movie games, and both the third-person shooting and vehicular controls are pleasantly responsive. “Cybertron’s” environments are tighter than the movie games’ wide-open levels, but they offer enough room for players to switch between forms as they please.

The problem comes when “Cybertron” tries to do anything ambitious with those mechanics… because outside of a couple of missions that incorporate air combat, it never really does. Regardless of storyline condition, practically every mission consists of killing X number of grunt enemies, moving to point Y and repeating ad nauseam until the boss fight, which usually consists of more mindless shooting with the occasional extra condition based on each boss character’s attack pattern.

The moment-to-moment action is good enough to make “Cybertron” mindless fun anyway, but fighting the same grunt enemies and completing the same objectives so many times gets old long before the credits get to rolling. “Cybertron’s” support for three-player online co-op livens things up somewhat, but repetition with friends is only so much better than repetition alone. (A bonus horde mode, which removes the storyline pretense and just floods the screen with enemies until you can’t take it anymore, is a better, no-nonsense use the co-op function.)

For some, “Cybertron’s” competitive online multiplayer (10 players) will be the star of the show, if only because it dangles a carrot in the form of attainable experience points and unlockable abilities for players who level their four classes (leader, scout, scientist, soldier) up the 100-level scale. But the actual gameplay relies on the same old game variants and feels simplistic and dated compared to more tactical shooters with similar leveling systems, and it might be too simple for persistent leveling alone to keep the community bustling.

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Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
For: Playstation Portable
From: Kojima Productions/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)

From the optional-but-recommended pre-game data installation to the offering of three imposing control schemes to the tutorial and eventually the game itself, “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” stakes its claim as perhaps the most demanding game in the PSP’s five-year-old library.

But if you’re part the intended crowd, and if you have company, the good news is that Kojima’s latest wholeheartedly justifies that demand with an experience that’s as filling as any of the big-screen “Metal Gear Solid” games.

Out of necessity, “Walker” — which sets itself 10 years after the events of “MGS3” — also plays like a cross between that game and “MGS4.” The lack of a second analog stick and extra set of triggers, and the control freedom those afforded, makes it hard to run and gun to the extent “MGS4” allowed on the PS3. “Walker” makes generous concessions to counter the button gymnastics needed to accommodate the PSP’s limitations, but it also encourages players to just stay out of trouble by avoiding enemies and using close-quarters combat the way older “MGS” games practically mandated. There’s an unquantifiable but noticeable easing up of enemy A.I. and the damage their weapons cause, but Kojima tunes it just right, accounting for the system’s deficiencies without dumbing the game down, stripping players of weapon/gadget depth or making the journey a cakewalk.

“Walker” plays like it should, tells another winding story that covers yet more ground in the bizarre “MGS” timeline, and it manages once again to stretch itself over 25-plus hours of playtime without being dog tired by the time the credits roll.

As usual with this series, though, that’s not all — and this is where it might get confusing.

“Walker” complements its primary gameplay with a surprisingly deep tool for managing Snake’s base of operations. Snake can make allies out of enemies he non-lethally neutralizes in the field, and the tool lets players put them to work researching intelligence, developing technology and even assisting in battle. “Walker” packages the tool inside a byzantine interface it doesn’t explain terribly well, but players who figure it out will find a strangely engrossing management game that regularly improves the action in the field.

Even with the presence of that tool taken into consideration, though, “Walker’s” biggest surprise has to be its co-op support for up to six players via local wireless play. The availability of co-op and the number of players allowed varies by mission, a nice consideration that shows Kojima values the story’s integrity over shoving six soldiers into every mission.

Unfortunately, some of the missions that do support co-op — in particular, fights against boss characters that take an army’s worth of bullets to defeat — practically require it for all but the most skilled “MGS” players. Given the series’ traditionally single-player leanings, this little surprise is bound to frustrate some, especially because players have to seek out other players who also have PSPs and copies of the game instead of just look online for willing partners. (Players with a Playstation 3 can use the free “Ad Hoc Party” app to jerry-rig an online session, but the number of players doing so is bound to be smaller than if the game supported online play on its own.)

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Guess the News
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Finger Arts
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild sexual content or nudity, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references)
Pric
e: $3

There’s nothing wrong with a game being just a game, but sometimes it’s nice to accomplish something with that entertainment. Enter “Guess the News,” which combines “Wheel of Fortune”-style phrase guessing and whatever’s in the news to create a word game that’s as enlightening as it is fun. “News” grabs fresh headlines from various news sources and presents them as incomplete phrases, scattering the missing letters among a sea of letter tiles below. Tap and/or drag the titles to their proper spots — and do it quickly to maximize score combos and avoid timing out — and the game hits back with increasingly obscure headlines that have more letters to fill in. “News” complements its concept with an exquisite interface that allows players to customize their experience according to difficulty and genre of news (top stories, sports, entertainment and so on). The game also makes it easy to dig deeper into those headlines, even mid-game: An in-app Web browser takes players to the stories behind the headlines they help complete, and if your continued research takes you out of the app entirely, “News” saves your progress for easy resumption later. OpenFeint integration — leaderboards, achievements and so on — rounds out the package.