Games 7/5/11: F.E.A.R. 3, Cars 2, Backbreaker Vengeance

F.E.A.R. 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Day 1 Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language)
Price: $60

Is it possible to be both a mostly excellent game and a big letdown? It sure is, and “F.E.A.R. 3” — the arguably-misnamed fruits of a game in development since before “F.E.A.R. 2” released — stands as enjoyable, aggravating proof.

First things first: the story. Because of “F3’s” unusual development experience — look it up if you’re curious about the reasons and means — it feels more like a continuation of the original “F.E.A.R.” than its sequel. The game opens a big window into the tormented origins of the first game’s chief protagonist and antagonist, but if you’re hoping for a payoff on the second game’s cliffhanger, you’ll mostly be stifled until the very end.

Far more jarring than any of this, though, are the changes new developer Day 1 Studios has made to the core “F.E.A.R.” gameplay, which is known as much for its pristine enemy intelligence and creepy atmosphere as its unique storyline.

That atmosphere returns, though this time, it’s competing with a persistent scoring system that frequently (and prominently) awards you points for killing stylishly and using various weapons and techniques multiple times. The system, which feeds into a game-wide XP system that awards you perks with each new rank you attain, is a fun new wrinkle that, along with the ability to play completed levels as the first game’s antagonist, encourages replaying the campaign different ways. But the continual flashing of scores and mini-achievements definitely clashes with the moody atmosphere “F3” wants to present, and it’d have been nice if players who wanted to could at least hide the notifications and just see a post-mission score roundup (which the game already displays).

The beloved artificial intelligence also returns. But in a troubling development, it also leaves, and not just once.

“F3’s” early levels are mostly terrific, and the additional focus on cover — “Take Cover” button and all — doesn’t transform enemy soldiers into robots who repeatedly pop in and out of cover. They still behave intelligently, calling out your position, changing theirs and double-teaming you when a level’s layout allows for flanking.

But storyline developments also pit you against what, by any other name, are zombies. They stupidly rush at you, and “F3” immediately transforms into a twitch shooter that’s all reflex and no intelligence. An even stupider enemy type appears later to put up an even less interesting fight. A third enemy type is more formidable, but only because it requires more firepower to destroy and not because it does anything more advanced than rush you.

During “F3’s” back half, flat encounters like these outnumber the great shootouts that dominate the first half. The levels reflect it, too: Elaborate battlefields give way to stifling corridors, and some encounters may as well be from a light gun game. The highlights still outnumber the lowlights, but the margin is dispiritingly slim.

Fortunately, the rest of what makes “F.E.A.R.” great — excellent firepower and great control — is back, and it applies to an inspired online multiplayer suite (four players) as well as the campaign (which supports two-player local/online co-op).

“F3’s” splits its multiplayer between competitive play and variations on the survival mode that’s creeped into every shooter of late. But the touches it applies to each mode — an encroaching wall of death in one survival mode, the ability for players to possess and use A.I. soldiers as leverage in competitive play — add a layer of teamwork and strategy that works in perfect tandem with the low player limit. Additionally, the XP perks you earn in the campaign carry over here (and vice versa). 

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Cars 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS, PC, Mac, Linux
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Critics have caustically dismissed the “Cars 2” movie as a soulless vehicle for endless merchandise tie-ins. And perhaps critics have a point, because while the “Cars 2” video game gets few points for imagination, it’s the first Pixar-branded game that’s better than the movie on which it’s based.

Like previous “Cars”-branded games, “Cars 2” is, at its purest, a racing game. Playable versions of a ton of vehicles — from the obvious picks like Lightning McQueen, Mater and Finn McMissile to more obscure choices like Daisu Tsashimi and Tomber — are on hand, and the game’s most basic event is a three-lap, eight-vehicle race to the finish line.

But while the movie’s identity crisis results in a messy story about racing, villains, world travel and surprising amounts of gunplay, the game just parlays that mess into something that’s a little bit “Burnout” and a little bit “Mario Kart.” You can use the right stick to sideswipe opponents immediately in your vicinity, and most tracks are teeming with weapons that may not look like turtle shells and banana peels but often function in a way that will ring immediately familiar to “Kart” fans.

As with most arcade racing games, you can accumulate a turbo boost by driving stylishly or dangerously. The difference in this case is that, because these cars are alive, they can jump on cue and perform various arial tricks without a need for ramps. A few ground tricks (including the amusing ability to drive backward) also help fill the boost meter, but jumping is the most useful: Along with setting up arial tricks, you can hop certain gaps and rails to reach shortcuts off (and sometimes above) a track’s main road.

Though the actual act of driving in “Cars 2” is a little unremarkable — the slow default speed of the vehicles will remind precisely no one of “Burnout” — it’s sufficiently responsive. When you throw in the combat and tricks, it adds up to a level of chaos that’s frantic but wholly manageable — accessible to players of all ages, but never so easy as to bore the experienced among us.

It’s only too bad the game doesn’t use all these bits and pieces to flesh out a few more event types than it has. “Cars 2” has a decent-sized single-player campaign, but the decent size means you’ll see the same handful of events over and over. Sometimes, in the case of races or events where you have to take out as many grunt “lemon” cars as you can before time runs out, the events are exciting enough to endure repeat performances. But other events that impair the formula — lonely endurance events in which you’re riding on a nearly empty track, for instance, or events that take place in open-ended but small arenas instead of on tracks — overstay their welcome rather quickly. The game misses opportunities to surprise players with new mission types and chooses instead to throw out more challenging favors of the same modes as the campaign continues.

Things diversify a little more on the multiplayer (four players) side: Some campaign events add a co-op angle, a few new modes (a destruction derby-style competition and a base defense mode) join the fray, and a free play mode allows you to design your own mission parameters (for solo play as well).

The only downside? “Cars 2” supports local multiplayer only. As too often happens with games aimed at kids, online play drew the short stick and sits this one out. 

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Backbreaker Vengeance
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon to: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: NaturalMotion/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $15

“Backbreaker’s” full-priced 2010 debut consisted of a fun minigame that propped up a full-fledged game of football that was too broken to recommend. As such, “Backbreaker Vengeance” — which cuts the price, strips out the traditional football and trains all its focus on a suite of minigames — makes all the sense in the world. Like its predecessor, “Vengeance” kicks off with Tackle Alley, in which you’re the ballcarrier and you need to obey the laws of physics and momentum while using jukes, spins, hurdles and other evasive tactics to dodge tacklers and string together a stylish touchdown. But the new Vengeance mode flips the script by making you a tackler who has to dodge blockers and catch the ballcarrier, while Supremacy mode is a five-round, four-man race to the end zone in which the worst rusher becomes the tackler in each subsequent round. “Vengeance” doesn’t get a whole lot more intricate than that, but it complements each mode with five tiers of increasingly elaborate configurations of obstacles and opponents. It also smartly focuses on high scores and online leaderboards, using a risk-versus-reward scoring system to encourage total, creative mastery of each tier. The competition extends beyond scores, too: Each mode supports two-player local/online multiplayer, though the Supremacy mode’s inability to accommodate four human players is disappointing.