Games 11/30/10: Create, Gran Turismo 5, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Spelunker HD

Create
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows, Macintosh
From: EA Bright Light Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

For whatever reason — and the title sure doesn’t help — “Create” has been perceived as a genre rival to “LittleBigPlanet,” a 2D platformer that allowed players to design and share their own levels and has a sequel coming in January that lets people design entire games across a multitude of genres. “Create” doesn’t do that, which naturally makes it sound sorely overmatched.

But “Create” doesn’t do that because it isn’t designed to do that. Rather, this is “The Incredible Machine” for the modern era — a series of simple problems in need of complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque solutions, with a nice helping of physics and other contemporary amenities to freshen up a beloved but long-neglected video game concept.

“Create’s” cheerfully colorful exterior marks it as a game that wants to appeal to all ages, and its first hour — which meticulously introduces the concept and interface through a series of extremely easy problem-solving challenges — might raise some alarms. The interface tutorial is appreciated, because “Create’s” pop-up menu system most definitely requires a period of acclimation before it feels natural. But the extreme ease of the early challenges is enough to ignite concern that this might be nothing more than a “Machine” imitator that’s afraid to challenge people.

Don’t worry; it gets better. “Create” gradually introduces challenges that award players based on their ability to solve multiple objectives or complete a single objective with style or by using as few objects as possible. Every completed challenge introduces new objects into the sandbox, and eventually, those objects introduce new physical properties (magnetism, for instance), combine to form more complex objects (two wheels plus a girder equals a makeshift car), and introduce properties that are harder to predict (a pinball bumper) or come alive in ways that must be harnessed toward completing the goal (rockets, missile-firing tanks). The puzzles reflect the increased complexity through increasingly weird objectives with more variables in play, and “Create” starts handing out some really good brainteasers halfway through the second (of 10) zone.

Though the pop-up menu system isn’t the most streamlined of interfaces (tip: use the D-Pad to rotate and resize the objects, even if that’s never communicated in the tutorial), navigating through “Create” is a mostly pleasant experience. The game makes trial and error a frustration-free endeavor, allowing players to test a solution at any time during its construction and instantly sending them back to the edit screen with a single button press and no loading. A weird but oddly enjoyable decorating component lets armchair designers dress up different zones just for the heck of it, and players can drop objects into each zone (and even the title screen) and freely test their properties toward whatever purpose they please.

That last touch of experimental freedom leads into the one page “Create” borrows — and borrows well — from the “LittleBigPlanet” playbook: challenge creation and sharing. Players can devise their own problems using the existing zones or a free-play sandbox, and as long as the problem has a workable solution, they can upload it and share it with friends, strangers or both. Players also can share solutions to the game’s built-in levels and even redecoration blueprints, and a Community Challenge feature tasks players with submitting creative contraptions according to a theme in hopes of getting their design in the game’s Hall of Fame. The online features work flawlessly, and provided “Create” develops its deserved following, they should give the game some very long legs going forward.

(Note: These online features aren’t available in the Wii version.)

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Gran Turismo 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Polyphony Digital/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Years of delays in the supposed name of perfection have elevated “Gran Turismo 5” to a legendary status it never really earned. Polyphony Digital’s all-world driving simulation franchise is marked as much by stubbornness as it is by obsessiveness, and if you’re surprised that the latest entrant hasn’t evolved like it probably should have, it’s your own fault.

That isn’t a blanket indictment of “GT5’s” quality so much as a reminder that Polyphony’s baby plays by its own rules even when it bends to convention. The overdue introduction of vehicle damage ranges from invisible to ineffectual. The menu interface, particularly when sorting through different events with different entrance requirements, is supremely user-unfriendly. And the artificial intelligence remains oxymoronic, with A.I.-controlled cars following a predefined path and reacting to players only when the laws of physics make it impossible not to.

The obsessive attention to detail also takes a hit when the boasting gets broken down. Yes, there are 1,000 cars in “GT5’s” garage, but 18 of them are different versions of the Mazda RX-7, and 41 more are Nissan Skylines. And while the top 200 of those cars are meticulously recreated, the remaining 800 are less impressive, with exterior ornaments textured in and engine sounds and interiors that aren’t necessarily authentic. Car fanatics likely can appreciate the differences between different years of the same model, but casual players may wonder why they unlocked yet another Toyota Celica — or why, even though the game looks phenomenal when a race is in motion, some cars just look “off” when sitting idle.

But here’s that reminder again: “GT5” is aimed squarely at people who dearly love cars — to the degree that laboriously sorting through the parameters of seemingly indistinguishable vehicles is a cherished feature instead of a chore — and it holds no concern for those who come away feeling alienated by the labyrinth of menus, nitpicks and unintuitive progress roadblocks that await.

For that first crowd, though, there is a ton of content here. The A-Spec Mode houses all the cups and traditional career progression, while B-Spec lets players try their hand at coaching instead of driving. The License Test challenges return, but in a series first, “GT5” ties every mode into a single, persistent experience system that lets players go straight to entering cups without having to pass any license tests first.

The Special Events mode is “GT5’s” most interesting new feature, as it sends players into challenges designed around go karting, NASCAR, rally racing and even the “Top Gear” test track. The game’s attention to detail with regard to each discipline’s unique physics and demands is really impressive, but the event designs (sometimes you get races, other times some absurdly strict tests) are hit and miss.

“GT5” also brings the series fully online for the first time, though this, by Polyphony’s own admission, remains a work in progress. Some light social networking features allow friends to gift each other cars and post messages to each other’s walls, and the lobby system lets players set up races by whatever rules they prefer. But other promised features such as matchmaking aren’t yet present, and some heavy network traffic has made accessing the game’s servers a game of chance so far. When everything is up and running, though, the actual act of racing online is a pretty smooth one.

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Donkey Kong Country Returns
For: Wii
From: Retro Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

If you played any of the three “Donkey Kong Country” games on the Super NES during the mid-1990s, the surface of the aptly-named “Donkey Kong Country Returns” should look exactly as you envision it would.

Superficially, it’s a natural evolution. The “DKC” trilogy produced three of the better sidescrolling action games on the SNES, and while the faux-3D graphics have aged, the games still play well. “Returns” puts 15 years of graphical and technological advancements to good use: Everything is modeled in real 3D despite the mostly two-dimensional perspective, and the levels can twist around and play with space in ways those old games couldn’t possibly do. But the core action — running, jumping, ground-pounding, barrel blasting and even riding the mine cart and Rambi the rhino — hasn’t changed.

Though a little more risk-taking wouldn’t have hurt, “Returns” at least does the next best thing by putting those familiar ideas to some pretty clever use in environments that, thanks to technology, are much livelier than their SNES counterparts. Some stretches of action operate on dual planes of perspective, and levels frequently feature outside forces (a trigger-happy pirate ship, a ridable whale, lava geysers) that change the tenor of the action without introducing new controls or gimmicks. Every level has hidden rooms with bonus collectables, and “Returns” rewards the truly ambitious by unlocking fiendishly difficult bonus levels in each world in which players find everything.

Finding all those bonuses is by no means an easy task. In fact, simply seeing “Returns” to its conclusion wouldn’t be a guarantee if Nintendo hadn’t included an optional feature that allows the overwhelmed to “skip” levels by letting the computer finish up for them. For all the right reasons, this is a tough game that, true to its predecessors, demands real skill from its players and only holds hands as a last, slightly demoralizing resort.

But “Returns” is challenging for the wrong reasons too. Mid-level checkpoints are often placed in strange spots, requiring players to replay simple, lengthy stretches of certain levels just to get back to the tricky part that tripped them up. Sometimes, those checkpoints outfit players with Diddy Kong, who rides on Donkey’s back, wears a jetpack that makes jumping easier, and gives players two extra life bars. But sometimes it doesn’t, and players have to replay those stretches without him and hope Donkey’s two bars and regular jump are enough.

But the game’s worst offense is its wedging of motion controls where they don’t belong. Players shake the Wii remote to make Donkey Kong roll forward, bash the ground or blow, and the game determines which action to execute based on whether Donkey Kong is standing still, ducking or moving. But sometimes Donkey Kong’s momentum keeps him moving after players stop moving him, and that’s enough for a remote shake to send him rolling off a cliff instead of bonking the enemy in front of him. In a game as frantic as this, that’s a “mistake” you will make, and considering how many buttons go unused, it’s a mind-boggling oversight that adds unneeded aggravation to a game that’s tricky enough already.

That “Returns” remains worth playing in spite of these aggravations is a testament to all it does right versus all it does wrong. And you need not suffer alone: “Returns” offers two-player local co-op play, though it doesn’t address the disparity between the player who gets to control Diddy’s jetpack and the one who is stuck with Donkey’s plain-jane jump.

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Spelunker HD
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Tozai/Irem
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

Not everybody played “Spelunker” when it debuted on the NES in 1987, but those who did have a special remembrance of the cave-dwelling platforming game that was fiendishly, unforgivingly difficult from its very first minute. “Spelunker HD” swaps in a cute new look and gives the iconic (for “Spelunker” fans, anyway) music a jazzy makeover. But while the ability to save progress takes a little of the edge off, the absurd lack of forgiveness is exactly as it was 23 years ago, and it isn’t there by accident or because the developers don’t recognize how cruel it can be. Instead of striving for accessibility and pleading for wider appeal, “Spelunker HD” feels like a joyous celebration of “Spelunker’s” difficulty, and for fans and conquerers of that nasty old game, the spotless return to that world is supremely fulfilling. “Spelunker HD” instead modernizes itself in other, better ways: There are 100 new levels (the original game had six, to put that number into perspective), and the game now allows up to four (splitscreen) or six (online) players to share the same cavern as they work together or complete to collect the most treasure. The new look and sound nicely toe the line between contemporary and deferential, but “Spelunker HD” lets players opt for the original music and graphical style (retrofitted new environments and all) if they prefer to suffer like it’s 1987.