Games 2/8/11: Test Drive Unlimited 2, Mario Sports Mix, We Bowl

Test Drive Unlimited 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Eden Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, simulated gambling, mild suggestive themes)

In 2006, “Test Drive Unlimited” gave console racing game fans something — an open world swimming with other players driving and racing freely — they’d never had before.

Then four-plus years passed with no one else even trying it again.

So to call “Test Drive Unlimited 2’s” arrival welcome is to understate a bit, especially when the sequel produces two freely-explorable islands (Ibiza and Hawaii) instead of one, adds storytelling and structural enhancements to the single-player side, increases event diversity, and fixes just about everything — from vehicle handling to interface design — that had room for improvement.

Like its predecessor, “TDU2” blurs the line between single- and multiplayer to create a single, fluid experience. The islands are teeming with A.I. traffic regardless of player count, and those who prefer to drive offline will still encounter A.I.-controlled “players” who behave and can be challenged to instant races like a real human opponent.

Regardless of how you play, there’s plenty to do without the company of others. “TDU2” offers three tiers of driving — two street class, one off-road — and each has a ladder of license tests and competitions to win. These events run the gamut, including traditional/elimination-style races, time trials, speed trap competitions and other usual suspects. The out-of-event challenges are a bit less traditional, testing your ability to drive safely, maintain a dangerous speed and even tail another car without raising suspicion.

Like an MMO, “TDU2” rewards you cash and experience points for just about everything you do, be it competition points for winning events, social points for engaging other players or discovery points for finding car dealerships, mechanics and even clothing stores, salons and plastic surgeons (really) for your customizable avatar. “TDU2” allows you to control your avatar out of the car when at home or in places — shops, social clubs — where other players’ avatars may also visit, and you’re as free to challenge and socialize in these instances as you are on the road.

Keeping track of events, stats, shops and other players would be dicey without an interface to keep it together, but “TDU2’s” menu system is about as polished as controller-friendly console interfaces get. It’s pretty, it’s meticulously organized, you can use filters to reduce map icon clutter, and the in-game GPS works perfectly — even allowing you to fast-travel to events if you visited the road previously.

The best news about “TDU2’s” multiplayer? It just works. When you enter the world, players just appear. And while that wonderful interface gives you numerous ways to invite friends and create lobbies, clubs and multiplayer variations of just about every challenge (including cop chases) from the single-player experience, the ability to just cut off another human driver, engage in some impromptu street racing, and set up (and gamble on) a race with a tap of the high beams is immensely gratifying.

But the best news about “TDU2,” period, is how much fun it is to just drive these vehicles. The lower-tier cars are easy to control without feeling pokey, while the high-end models reward skillful pedal management with a fantastic sense of weight dueling with speed.

But it’s the availability off-road vehicles — and, new to the series, the freedom to drive absolutely anywhere on the islands, road or not — that will doubtlessly steal the show for some. “TDU2” nails the joy of taking hairpin turns in the mud and grassy roads, and the off-road competitions are responsible for every bit as much excitement as highest level of the high-end races.

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Mario Sports Mix
For: Wii
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

With respect to the “Wii Sports” titles and the clever ways they introduced motion gaming to the masses, they’re nowhere near the best sports games to release under Nintendo’s watch. That distinction instead goes to the Mario Sports games, and while it stagnates in some areas, “Mario Sports Mix” very capably reminds us why.

Unlike most Mario sports games, “Mix” takes on four sports — hockey, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball — instead of one.

But while stretching it thin does come at a price — there’s no career mode like the baseball-centric “Mario Super Sluggers” had three years ago, for instance — it doesn’t result in “Mix” diluting its sports and reducing them to glorified mini-games the way “Wii Sports” does. They’re casual representations, and hockey and basketball support three-on-three and two-on-two play instead of five-on-five. But the games control traditionally (either with a remote-and-nunchuck configuration or just the remote held sideways) rather than as motion control demonstrations, so there’s no need to strip away entire facets of the sport the way “Wii Sports” had to do.

The emphasis on traditional controls is a welcome show of restraint for a series that could have gone the complete other way. “Mix” keeps the basics of each sport super simple while creating a second layer of slightly advanced techniques — dekes, fakes, special shots — for skilled players who endeavor to use them. Some controls involve shaking the remote, but none involves any kind of gesture recognition, which allows “Mix” to maintain the high tempo that’s synonymous with these games. The Mario sports games have always compensated for their simplicity with an insatiable taste for speed and controlled chaos, and “Mix” keeps up beautifully.

“Mix” upholds additional series conventions by going appropriately nuts with the Mario iconography. The game’s cast of playable characters remains disappointingly thin — there are no new additions unless you count your Mii avatar — but each sport has a healthy selection of themed stadiums and courts that bring with them unique rules, conditions and sometimes obstructions. A manageable influx of “Mario Kart”-style special items allows for the temporary disruption of opposing game plans, and each character has super moves that are awfully tough to stop (but, in an ever-welcome touch, are not unstoppable if you’re quick enough).

“Mix’s” tepid single-player depth is disappointing: The usual Mushroom/Flower/Star Cup tournaments are accounted for, but also per usual, the difficulty is too tame to challenge even moderately talented players. Solo players can always play online, and the game’s interface and stat tracking (as well as its performance) are satisfactory. But the lack of voice chat support puts a damper on that experience as well. (Has Nintendo forgetten about its own voice chat peripheral? Seems so.)

But as has always been the case with these games, “Mix” is exponentially at its best when you’re playing with others in the same room. The combination of speed, chaos and simple but polished controls makes this a terrific party game that strikes an enviable balance between accessibility and excitement, and the four sports represented here are natural fits for the formula. “Mix,” to its credit, supports local multiplayer just about everywhere, including tournament play (three players), online co-op (two) and traditional competitive play (four).

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We Bowl
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: It’s complicated

Freeverse has demonstrated a mastery of dangling carrots with its outstanding “Skee-Ball” and improbably addictive “Coin Push Frenzy” iOS games. But it errs miserably with “We Bowl,” which validates every concern ever expressed regarding the “freemium” game model. On the surface, “Bowl” is a pleasant — albeit unspectacular, thanks to stiff controls — bowling game. Like “Skee-Ball,” it rewards good performance with tickets that, once accumulated, can unlock pins, props and clothes for your customized bowling alley and bowler. Problem is, “Bowl” is only playable when you have golden balls, which is its form of in-game currency. You start with 20, each throw costs one, and when you run out — even mid-game — you either have to wait 30 seconds to bowl again (and then wait again) or pay real money to purchase a “bag” instantly. “Bowl” clearly wants to you exercise option B if the blanketing of “Buy this!” reminders is any indication, and the net result of waiting and being pelted with ads for balls (along with other ads that are easy to accidentally tap) is so much worse than if “Bowl” had just asked for a few bucks up front and left you alone to play the game. The bowling isn’t good enough for this hassle to be worthwhile, and the only thing “Bowl” nails is how to alienate customers before they can even drop a dime.