Games 5/31/11: Dirt 3, Kung Fu Panda 2 (Kinect), Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale

Dirt 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics)
Price: $60

It stands to reason, unless you’re unreasonable, that “Dirt 3” isn’t going to be the leap forward for off-road rally racing that its immaculate predecessor was only two years ago.

That doesn’t mean, however, that some pleasant surprises don’t lie in wait.

From the top, the best news about “D3” is that everything that was great about “Dirt 2” either remains great or has ever-so-subtly improved.

Visually, it’s still at the top of the racing game class, equally in terms of car detail, track detail and how good everything looks in motion. “D3” increases the variables with regard to weather and time of day, and while a dirt track race under the sun looks predictably terrific, a late-night race on snowy terrain is jaw-dropping (and a little unnerving when you realize how little light there is to guide you).

The sense of danger is a credit to a physics engine that is equal parts authentic and rivetingly unwieldy. “D3’s” default handling makes for a perfectly challenging game — punishing if you drive carelessly, but rarely cheap in terms of physics snafus — and the equal prioritization of speed and weight allows it to strike a balance between manageable and thrilling without letting either side win.

If you disagree, the game is better than its predecessors about letting you correct it. Along with providing three difficulty presets, “D3” also lets you tailor the experience as needed. So if, for instance, you don’t want the auto-braking assist enabled but would like the opponent difficultly toned down and could use some stability control assistance, you can set each slider as you please with no penalty to your advancement through the career mode.

(If even that fails, a limited-use Flashback function lets you literally rewind a race a few seconds and take a mulligan on a bad turn.)

In terms of career, “D3” largely builds on its predecessor, mixing traditional checkpoint rally events with races on various terrain and with different classes of cars, trucks and buggies. The game liberally rotates through tracks (set across eight new locations), conditions and event types and ties everything together under an experience points-style Reputation bar, which rewards your ability to win events skillfully (instead of, say, qualify after using the Flashback feature three times) with new vehicles.

The big new addition here — and also to “D3’s” multiplayer (eight players online, and in a welcome series first, two-player splitscreen) — is the Gymkhana, which takes all those terrific racing physics and applies them to open-ended stunt wonderlands that challenge your ability to jump ramps, drift through gates, spin out and string together trick combos for high scores.

The Gymkhana stands in excellent contrast to the tenor of “D3’s” other events — a sharp change of pace from the normal “Dirt” gameplay, but one that capitalizes perfectly on the gameplay fundamentals established by those other modes.

It also, at least on the multiplayer side, lets “D3” do things it could never do if it was just a straight-faced rally racer. You can now, among other things, play Capture the Flag with rally cars or engage in a mode where you must crash into alien cutouts without damaging surrounding building cutouts in the process. If you can imagine some of “Mario Kart’s” best party games, but instead with world-class vehicles obeying the laws of one of the genre’s best physics engines, you have an idea of how this works. And like everything else in “D3,” it performs as good as advertised.

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Kung Fu Panda 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
Alternate versions available for: Playstation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Griptonite Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Games based on kids movies have enjoyed a pleasantly unexpected surge in quality and attention over the last few years, and based on THQ’s diverse array of “Kung Fu Panda 2” offerings — four dramatically different games, tailored to their respective systems — it’s a trend that will continue.

In the case of the Xbox 360, “KFP2” is designed squarely for the Kinect. Without one, you can’t even navigate the rather clunky main menu, much less play the game, so don’t confuse this for a traditional game with optional Kinect-friendly trimmings mixed in.

As you might predict, Kinect’s primary role here is to help Po (the Kung Fu Panda, in case you didn’t know) perform all those cool moves he learned in the first movie. When you punch, kick, jump, block or dodge, Po does the same.

Sort of.

Unlike, say, the boxing game found in “Kinect Sports,” “KFP2” doesn’t really allow for freestyle, 1:1 fighting.

Rather, it’s more like “Punch-Out!” lite with motion controls. The game will prompt you when you’re free to attack or it’s time to defend, and while you’re sometimes free to mix your punches and kicks as you please, you’re mostly tasked with reacting to your enemy. If he’s on the attack, the game will give you cues to defend or dodge a certain way, and if you attack and he dodges, there are only a couple of countering moves that will actually do any damage. Sometimes, the game even forces you to call in the Furious Five and watch them finish off an enemy for you.

At first, when the fights are mindlessly easy, the limitations are a serious letdown for anyone who knows the Kinect is capable of overcoming such restrictions.

But once the fights become more interesting — multiple enemies, faster and more elaborate defensive stances for keeping Po on his feet — “KFP2” finds a nice groove. At no point does it evolve into a furious challenge, but if the goal is to get players to sweat a little bit, it absolutely succeeds in spite of those self-enforced limitations.

The same generally holds true when “KFP2” takes a break from fighting and tries something else. Chases set atop high-speed rickshaws have you dodging, jumping over and ducking under obstacles while enemies pelt you with debris. A target practice game is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, while a noodle shop game tasks you with feeding customers quickly by managing their order and making sure you throw the right orders to the right tables (and dodge orders that are rudely sent back).

Though they fit awkwardly into a storyline that is patchwork at best, the general takeaway from those games is the same as it is from “KFP2’s” main portion. The games are simpler than they could have been, but they work, and while they never become viciously challenging, they all keep you in pretty constant motion.

That, in fact, is the grand takeaway as a whole. On every level — from control fidelity to constricted freedom of motion to the lack of any kind of multiplayer support — “KFP2” very obviously could have been better. But what we get is fun and functional, and if the goal with Kinect is to mix in some burnt calories with your fun and not make it a total hassle to do so, this fulfills that mission better than most early-stage Kinect games have to this point.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Windows PC
From: Bedlam Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Price: $15

“Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale” won’t win any honorable mentions, much less awards, for breaking ground. If you’ve played a dungeon crawler, the vast bulk of what you’ll experience here — the quest structure, the threadbare story, the endless array of grunt enemies and barrels that await your weapon — will look familiar to a distressing degree. “Daggerdale” competently covers the basics, with multiple character classes, collectable loot, a useful array of spells and a character-leveling system that upgrades the usual attributes all present and accounted for. It also, unlike the vastly overrated “Torchlight,” can challenge players by swarming them with enemies who are actually somewhat formidable. On the ingenuity scale, though, “Daggerdale” stands totally pat, happy to embrace the same uninspired environments, gameplay standards and quest design flaws (prepare for a lot of backtracking) that have made dungeon crawlers the most complacent genre in existence. The inclusion of online co-op (four players) is nice when it works, but the aggravations — interface discrepancies and glitches, a lobby that makes it guesswork to team up with similar-level players, tolerable instances of lag and the bizarre tendency to whisk you to a load screen while the action continues for your partners and you get pummeled with no recourse — dampen the occasion. If you absolutely need some dungeon crawling and can forgive the complete lack of inspiration, the offline co-op (two players) is, at least for now, the best way to play.