Games 9/6/11: Driver: San Francisco, God of War: Origins Collection, Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon

Driver: San Francisco
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii
From: Ubisoft Reflections/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)
Price: $60

At long last, the formerly-great “Driver” series can lay claim to being formerly washed up. “Driver: San Francisco” is polished, pretty and loaded with a kitchen sink’s worth of arcade racing mission and mode types. It’s also guided by a storyline that, without breaking series continuity, is completely crazy in an wholly, startlingly beneficial way.

The prologue shows all, but here’s the gist: You, as series mainstay John Tanner, are in a coma. But your comatose state gives you a wild ability to not only observe San Franciscans’ activity from a bird’s-eye view, but “shift” into any driver on the road and assume control over his or her body (and, by extension, vehicle).

“D:SF’s” appetite for polished interfaces makes this shifting mechanic a breeze to use: One button press shifts out of body and atop a living city map, and shifting into another body is as simple as highlighting a vehicle and pressing the same button. The game’s prioritization of fun over everything else means that, outside of special challenges in which you must succeed on driving talent alone, you can shift whenever, however and as often as you please.

Immediately, shifting is fun because it allows you to drive all kinds of vehicles (licensed cars, tow trucks, semis and everything in between) and jump into the minds of numerous trivial and important side characters. (“D:SF’s” storyline, presented somewhat like a weekly police drama, utilizes good character development, great voice acting and surprisingly sharp humor to tame the implausibility monster it creates, and the clever writing trickles down to even the most idle of chatter between the most trivial of characters.)

At some point, though, you’ll unwittingly stumble into something that brings the shift mechanic’s true potential into full light. It might be in the body of a cop forced to take down four street racers alone — a task made much easier if you quickly shift into oncoming traffic to create a roadblock before shifting back to finish the takedown. Perhaps it’ll be during a team race, where you must quick-shift between two cars in the same race in order to place them first and second. You can always use raw driving skill to complete challenges the hard way, but “D:SF’s” scope, interface and total allowance for player ingenuity creates a confluence of racing and real-time strategy that’s too much fun to ignore.

It helps immensely that the game’s other facets also carry their weight. “D:SF” looks terrific, and its vehicles finds a great balance between weighty and arcadey handling controls. More than 100 vehicles are on offer, and with some exceptions, you’re free to complete a myriad of mission types — stunt challenges, arrest/getaway missions, checkpoint/open-ended races, tailing/escort missions and more — with whatever ride you like. Fleeing four police cruisers in a bus is a fool’s errand, but “D:SF” won’t mind if you try. And because just about everything you do (even when failing missions) earns you experience points toward the purchase of new cars and upgrades, you’re never really penalized for trying something ridiculous.

“D:SF” nicely migrates most of its finer points to the online (eight players) and local (two) multiplayer side. Traditional races are available, but other modes — tag and co-op cop/criminal chases, to name two — take advantage of the open-ended map. Unless you opt for a pure race, the shift mechanic is fully in play for all players at once, and the ensuing chaos doesn’t break the game like you might guess it would. Should you unlock every last reward in the solo campaign, a separate experience points and rewards track awaits on the multiplayer side.

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God of War: Origins Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Ready at Dawn/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity)
Price: $40

After Sony rounded the Playstation 2 “God of War” games into a terrific Playstation 3 compilation two years ago, it was all but written that this two-pack, which brings the series’ two Playstation Portable entrants to the bigger screen, would someday follow.

But if you never played those games the first time around, “God of War: Origins Collection” represents more than simply a nice effort on Sony’s part to make the entirety of the franchise available on one system. It also — thanks to the efforts of a developer that wasn’t afraid to leave its mark on a series it didn’t create — allows those who don’t own a PSP to see the series in a slightly but noticeably different light.

Lest we get carried away, neither half of “Origins” — 2008’s “Chains of Olympus” and last year’s “Ghost of Sparta” — marks anything close to a radical departure. Both games star you as the same old Kratos, who, at least initially, uses his same old Blades of Chaos to wreak the same old havoc on a familiar cast of human, inhuman and mythical enemies. Gameplay remains a mix of 80 percent combat and 20 percent platforming and environmental puzzle solving, and if you’ve played any “God of War” game enough to remember the basics, the brief tutorials that open both games will be completely unnecessary.

With that said, though, the distinctions are there, and not simply in the form of new environments, boss enemies and magic spells. The pace at which “Sparta” shifts players between combat and platforming is a series best, and while “God of War III” operated on a scale these games couldn’t possibly match, the platforming controls and level designs in these games are significantly fundamentally superior to “GOW3’s” effort. A weapon introduced near the end of “Olympus” (no spoilers) may be the best thing Kratos had ever wielded, and a new chase mechanic in “Sparta” is — while sorely underutilized — responsible for some of that game’s highlights.

Perhaps most interesting are the bold steps both games take to add some overdue definition to Kratos’ beginnings (“Olympus,” which is a prequel to the original game) and family life (both games but particularly “Sparta,” which takes place between the first two games and introduces us to Kratos’ brother). The console games have painted Kratos into a corner as an unlikable brute with cloudy intentions, but these games do a terrific job of giving us some sorely needed color without feeling completely out of character.

Because the same developer responsible for making these games also handled porting them to the PS3, it isn’t terribly surprising that “Origins'” migration is a smooth one.

Lest you have unrealistic expectations, this isn’t a case of a game’s graphics getting a ground-up overhaul, but instead an attempt to transfer assets designed for a tiny screen to something much bigger. A predictable downgrade in detail in certain respects (characters’ faces in particular) reflects that.

But because most of “Origins'” action takes place from a distance and at a frantic pace, details like these aren’t worth much concern. In action at full speed, both games look like legitimate big-screen games, and the compensation for that loss of detail — a framerate locked in at 60 frames per second and ground-up support for 3D hardware if you have it — more than makes up for the occasional slightly blurry texture. In terms of presentation and control refinement, “Origins” is a first-class translation.

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Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Backbone Entertainment/345 Games/Comedy Central
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes)
Price: $10

“Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon” gets the rare distinction of being a game that animates better than the cartoon on which it’s based, but if you’re familiar with the low-rent Comedy Central cartoon, you also know that’s a small hurdle to clear. You also know what to expect from the game’s audiovisual department — namely, ugly characters, gallons of blood, bizarre weaponry (desk laps, rubber chicken rockets, propane tank shooters) and several premium cable channels’ worth of blue language flying freely and repeated ad nauseam. Whether you love it, hate it or simply enjoy the bewilderment it engenders, the presentation is the most unique thing about “Apocalypsegeddon,” which otherwise combines a decent sidescroller and a decent twin-stick shooter into something that is neither exemplary nor bad. “Apocalypsegeddon” helps itself by providing three playable characters and outfitting each with upgradable attributes that enhance their abilities without  marginalizing their unique strengths and weaknesses. The game also prioritizes co-op play (online/offline, four players) insofar that it’s the default mode of play throughout the campaign. Turning it off or setting up a friends-only game is easy, but a stiff (and erratically spiking) default difficulty means you’ll probably want to play with someone who can share the load and revive you when you succumb. The loose difficulty progression and mostly non-existent enemy A.I. work in concert with the cheap presentation to form a game that never comes together completely, but if you love the cartoon or can’t get enough twin-stick action, “Apocalypsegeddon” is (faint praise alert) certainly competent.