Games 2/15/11: Killzone 3, Body and Brain Connection, Hard Corps: Uprising

Killzone 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Guerrilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

“Killzone 3” cannot possibly surprise people like its 2009 predecessor did, so there’s no honest way to write about it that achieves the level of awe those lavishly complimentary “Killzone 2” reviews achieved.

But that isn’t to imply “KZ3” underwhelms at all. It tops “KZ2” in almost every respect, and while the story continues to fall short of its potential, the game’s handling of moment-to-moment action — seeking cover without changing perspective, a noticeable weight and impact to every action taken, a vicious depiction of warfare — still sets it apart from any other first-person shooter.

Additionally, while “KZ3’s” story doesn’t explore themes a truckload of other war games haven’t already mined, it provides the necessary means to visit more environments and give players access to more toys than “KZ2” did. As happened in the last game, you’ll get to witness and eventually harness some devastating, not-of-this-world weaponry designed by the opposing Helghan army. The battlegrounds are more diverse — planetary ruins here, a fascinatingly detailed Helghan laboratory there, a wildly colorful planet with predatory plant life in between. And in a nod to “Call of Duty’s” zest for variety, the game mixes up the objectives, complementing standard shootouts with a terrific stealth mission, some sniper duty and tours aboard gunships, ice saws and a vehicle that’s best left unspoiled.

But it bears repeating that a me-too storyline and me-too mission objectives don’t make “KZ3” a me-too shooter. The cover mechanic — a real mechanic for seeking cover, not a plain duck button — adds a tactical layer most first-person shooters lack. The minute dip in speed caused by the aforementioned weightiness provides a perfect complement: It’s subtle enough to never impede movement, but noticeable enough to engender deliberate actions instead of impulsive reactions.

The speed dip doesn’t come at the expense of intensity, either. To the contrary, “KZ3’s” shootouts are spectacularly lively — a combination of great level design, continuous foreground and background activity, and artificially intelligent enemies democratically and relentlessly flanking and descending on your allies as well as you.

The only other notable downer about the campaign? It supports two-player co-op, but only locally.

“KZ2” inventively broke convention from other multiplayer shooters with a shuffle-style mode that changed the match type — deathmatch, assassination, territory and so on — on the fly without ever pausing the action. Because no other shooter has successfully cribbed the formula, it remains fresh in “KZ3” (24 players, down from 32), which also includes a standard team deathmatch mode and a new Operations mode that further emphases the value of teamwork in these skirmishes.

The prioritization of teamwork is no trivial point. The core reward for multiplayer success remains in the form of individual perk and gear unlocks for each class, but you’ll garner more experience points from completing objectives than by simply killing enemies. The eight maps are intelligently designed to force teams to fight in hot zones while also completing objectives in hostile corners, and teams that diversity their classes and work together will rule these battlefields.

Though the controller suffices per usual, “KZ3” marks the first instance of a big-ticket game flashing full Playstation Move compatibility out of the box. The big news here is that there is no big news: The Move controller is as precise as advertised, and with a Navigation or regular controller in the other hand, no part of “KZ3’s” integral gameplay is sacrificed in exchange for playing this way. The tech was mostly validated already, but this seals it.

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Body and Brain Connection
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

When Nintendo scored a surprise hit with “Brain Age,” the torrent of imitation products was surprisingly furious and unsurprisingly mundane.

But the latest me-too product gets an arguable pass. For starters, it stars and features the consultation of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who also starred in and consulted on development of the Nintendo games that started this whole phenomenon.

More importantly, it goes places even “Age” couldn’t go by utilizing the Kinect and replacing styli and buttons with arms and legs.

Structurally and conceptually, “Connection” borrows liberally from “Age.” It features 20 exercises across five categories (math, reflex, logic, memory, physical), and each exercise has its own scoring table, progress chart and series of unlockable difficulty levels.

Similarly, while you can play exercises whenever and at whatever pace you please, the real meat of “Connection” is the daily test, which chooses three exercises for you, grades you on your aptitude in those tests, and distills your performance into an age. The lower your mental and physical age, the better.

“Connection” allows you to take this test only once per day, but that’s the point: You visit daily, take the test, chart your progress, perhaps do some additional exercises for fun or practice, and you’re done in 15 minutes or so. You likely won’t experience any cathartic awakening in terms of brainpower, nor will the light physical demands turn you into an adonis. But it certainly can’t hurt, and “Connection,” like “Age,” has a way of growing on you if you enjoy the exercises and the sense of accomplishment that comes from excelling at them and whittling that age down.

“Connection’s” exercises are simple, but they’re also challenging fun, and despite the presence of categories, every exercise features some mixture of mental and physical taxation. One test has you simultaneously controlling two separate Namco characters with both hands to help them evade “Pac-Man” ghosts. Another tasks you with forming highways with your arms and safely guiding vehicles to their color-coded destination. A low-concept test simply has you popping numbered balloons from the lowest number to the highest, which is pretty easy until negative numbers show up to mess with your perception.

For the most part — at least while playing alone — the Kinect controls work as they should, though you’ll inevitably pop the wrong balloon or touch the wrong button by accident simply because your hand falls in the way. The menu navigation is pretty unwieldy, but it’s tamable with practice, and better for these problems to surface outside the game than during it.

Less sterling is “Connection’s” multiplayer component, which allows up to four players to compete locally for the best score in each exercise. As with most Kinect games at present, “Connection” sometimes loses track of who’s who when a new player jumps in for a turn, and it struggles further during exercises that allow two players to play at once. Things work more than they don’t, and there’s fun to be had this way if you take it for the slightly chaotic experience it has the potential to be.

But it’s harder to accept problems with local multiplayer when “Connection,” like too many Kinect games, completely omits online multiplayer over Xbox Live. You can’t even compare exercise scores online. It’s blasphemy for a non-Kinect Xbox 360 game to release multiplayer that’s local only, and Kinect games should aspire to meet the same standard.

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Hard Corps: Uprising
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Arc System Works/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, use of tobacco, violence)
Price: $15

You may live to see the end of “Hard Corps: Uprising’s” eighth and final level, but it may take you a lot longer than you expect. And for a game that, appearances aside, is a direct heir to the “Contra” throne, there’s no higher compliment. “Uprising” comes courtesy of a developer that’s primarily known for its lavishly-animated 2D fighting games, and its influence results in a visual direction — meticulously animated, anime-style characters set in front of hand-painted backdrops — that’s a jarring but wildly enjoyable step in a new direction for “Contra.” In terms of gameplay, though, “Uprising” is classic “Contra.” Enemies attack in droves, each stage has multiple boss encounters, and seemingly impossible firefights become merely punishingly difficult once you decipher each enemy’s attack pattern. At its most basic, “Uprising” is unforgiving, and beating the game’s arcade mode — three lives, five continues — will be impossible for many. Fortunately, the Rising mode plays exactly the same but allows players to trade in points they score for some seriously useful unlockables — extra lives, extra health, better default weapons and more — that, once purchased, remain unlocked. Keep playing and scoring, and eventually you might unlock enough assists to see level eight. Or maybe just level two. (If all else fails, there’s two-player local/online co-op.) It isn’t easy, but it’s ridiculously fun, and if the satisfaction of conquering a hard-fought level isn’t enough, seeing what bizarre setting and enemies waits on deck most certainly is.