Games 9/13/11: Nicktoons MLB, Resistance 3, Rise of Nightmares, Star Fox 64 3D, Bloodrayne: Betrayal

Nicktoons MLB
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii and Nintendo DS
From: High Voltage/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

If you’ve been wondering what the awesome arcade baseball game “The Bigs” has been up to since 2009, here’s your answer. “Nicktoons MLB” isn’t as feature-complete as “The Bigs” was, but simply by borrowing its engine and keeping it intact, it leapfrogs most kids’ baseball games in terms of presenting a great game of baseball.

It also, by mixing semi-realistic major league players and stadiums with the likes of Spongebob Squarepants and Stimpy, is kind of hilarious without even trying.

Perhaps the best thing about “Nicktoons” is that if you want to play a straight-faced game of baseball, you mostly can. Full rosters aren’t available, but all 30 MLB teams’ starting lineups (and two pitchers each) are available. And while the arcade-style flavor and players’ exaggerated physiques make towering home runs and spectacular catches the headliners, everything you need for manufactured runs and pitchers’ duels is here. The pitching controls allow you to paint corners and toy with hitters’ sweet spots for extra turbo. That turbo — earned through plate discipline as well as pitching — can be applied to baserunning and fielding as well as pitching and hitting, allowing you to beat teams with defense and the hit-and-run as well as the long ball.

Though “Nicktoons” softens the difficulty curve — if you play “The Bigs” on medium difficulty, you’ll want to set this one to hard — it makes no concession with regard to how it plays.

The twist, instead, is the ability for Nickelodeon characters to share the same field and uniforms as the Major Leaguers. “Nicktoons” offers a pickup game-style format where you pick an MLB or fantasy team and take turns (either with the computer or a friend via local multiplayer) picking Nick characters to fill half the roster. A Showdown mode allows similar roster management, only with one team solely comprised of Nick characters taking on an all-MLB squad.

“Nicktoons” provides six Nick-themed fantasy stadiums, but the game is never more amusing than when it presents, with a reasonably straight face, the likes of Invader Zim belting a double off Yankee Stadium’s wall and sliding safely under a Derek Jeter tag. “Nicktoons'” visual presentation of this impossible mixture is a wonderfully seamless compromise between realism and cartoon, and while the game’s commentary is a bit repetitive, it’s hard not to laugh when GIR interrupts Perch Perkins’ play-by-play with some seriously nonsensical color commentary.

(Naturally, while “Nicktoons” includes a nice array of popular and obscure Nick characters, there’s bound to be an omission that bothers you. Your mileage, of course, will vary.)

More conclusively bothersome is the drop in content from “The Bigs” to “Nicktoons.” Though all 30 teams have representation, only six MLB stadiums are available — a puzzling omission considering they’ve all been modeled for “The Bigs.” Offline multiplayer is limited to two players, down from four, and online multiplayer is non-existent. The game’s tournament mode — a ladder-style gauntlet in which you must take down every MLB and fantasy team to be crowned champion — is excellent, but it’s not as deep as the season/story mode hybrid that is “The Bigs'” centerpiece. The amazing Home Run Pinball is reincarnated as a fun but more subdued target challenge, and the skill challenge games are gone.

For its part, 2K Play at least prices “Nicktoons” $20 cheaper, so the feature downgrade stings less than it normally would.

A note about “Nicktoons'” optional Kinect controls: They aren’t very good. Pitch selection and placement is way too difficult, and some lag means competent contact hitting comes down to guesswork as well as timing.

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Resistance 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

For all who thought “Resistance 2” was a case of a game losing its nerve and simply fitting in, “Resistance 3” has good news: It agrees.

That carry-two-weapon-at-a-time limit from “R2?” It’s gone. Outside of one story-mandated occurrence, when you find a weapon, it’s yours to keep — to the eventual tune of a 12-weapon cache that’s easy to manage and so much more fun to maneuver than the convenient but boring two-weapon maximum.

If you’re familiar with developer Insomniac — masterminds of “Ratchet and Clank” as well as “Resistance” — you also know weapon design is their forte. “R3’s” magnum isn’t just a pistol: Its bullets also explode when you pull a secondary trigger. The stock rifle can tag enemies and pelt them from around corners with homing bullets, and the already-dangerous Atomizer’s secondary function creates what is, by any other name, a black hole. Every firearm in “R3” has some bonus ingenuity in its standard or alternate fire modes, and you can upgrade each twice — simply by using them — to do even more outlandishly useful things.

That, to understate things, is why it’s nice not to have to choose only two. “R3” takes returning “R2” semi-hero Joseph Capelli from Oklahoma to New York, and the clashes that await veer seamlessly between close-quarters combat and immense shootouts in wide-open battlefields. “R3’s” gun selection runs a similar gamut, and the ability to freely swap between a sniper rifle and a shotgun means the game is similarly free to change scope whenever it pleases. You’ll always have the best weapon for the job.

But it’s another callback — a reliance on finding healthpacks instead of waiting for health to magically recharge after a period of inactivity — that gives these shootouts a real sense of danger.

“R3” isn’t stingy when it comes to distributing healthpacks. But their availability is limited, and when you’re pinned down in poor health and a school of Chimera is advancing on you, you have to find a way to outwit them instead of simply hide out, regenerate your health, shoot indiscriminately and repeat. This direction is so much more fun that it’s a wonder so many shooters went the regenerating health route over these last few years.

Those factors, in concert with the flexible scope and the Chimeran A.I. — slightly smart, mostly bullheaded but dangerous enough that being bullheaded works in their favor — make “R3” an exciting mix of tactical and run-and-gun gameplay that doesn’t sell either approach short. The preceding two games laid the foundation for a big blowout this time around, and this game delivers exactly that.

“R3’s” multiplayer ambitions, meanwhile, have taken a step back. Competitive multiplayer supports 16 players instead of 60, and instead of a separate eight-player co-op mode, you get the option to play the campaign with a second player in tow.

The co-op isn’t recommended due to the way it mitigates the aforementioned danger effect and awkwardly wedges into the storyline, but “R3’s” competitive multiplayer doesn’t suffer from the reduced player count. The gametypes are your standard match types with a tweak or two to accommodate the “Resistance” universe, but the ability to wield one-of-a-kind weapons on one side and Chimeran powers on the other is all the game needs to be a blast.

A note about “R3’s” Playstation Move compatibility: It works without incident. You’ll likely prefer the familiarity of the controller on harder difficulties and during multiplayer, but the fact that it’s debatable speaks volumes about the Move’s ability to accommodate first-person shooter controls.

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Rise of Nightmares
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $50

Give “Rise of Nightmares” an A for effort and an A+ for conviction. It marks a stark change of scenery (gruesome, story-driven horror instead of family-friendly minigames) for Kinect, it’s the first Kinect game to give players full range of motion, and it takes both breakthroughs and runs pretty wild with them.

Far more subjective is the grade it deserves for execution. It might impress you, it might bewilder or aggravate you. Or it might make perfect sense, because if there’s a genre where control inhibitions are an arguable asset, horror is it.

Though “Nightmares'” walking controls are predictably odd, the game — which plays out from a first-person perspective — at least makes them simple to understand. Standing still and facing forward keeps you still. Turning your torso left or right turns you onscreen, and putting a foot forward or backward and keeping it there sends you walking in that direction until you bring your foot back.

Simple or not, though, this still is bound to be the most trouble you’ve had walking since your toddler days. The Kinect will occasionally misread a motion and send you backpedaling when you mean to walk forward, and in tight spaces with odd geometry, it’s entirely easy (and dangerous) to bump into B, C and D when making a seemingly simple trek from A to E.

With some acclimation, though, it starts to feel somewhat (though never completely) natural. “Nightmares,” for its part, also assists by allowing you to automatically walk to interactive items in view — weapons, notes, doors and other usable objects — simply by extending a hand and reaching for them. Certain areas allow you to use a gesture to auto-walk, and when you’re close to enemies, raising your arms to fight also reorients you to face whomever is closest to you.

“Nightmares'” combat attains a similar level of clumsy immersion. You fight simply by mock-using whatever weapon you’re holding — swinging a knife, punching with brass knuckles, throwing projectiles and even using a hedge-clipping motion if you… yeah. A kicking motion also makes for a nice knockback attack.

You have a degree of control where your attacks land, and “Nightmares” factors limb damage into your enemies’ ability to fight back. But it’s never completely precise, and you’ll occasionally be reduced to flailing if things get dicey.

More than not, though, “Nightmares'” gesture recognition is on point, and the game takes advantage of its proficiency in some very clever ways. An enemy with an ear-piercing scream will destroy you unless you literally cover your ears. Deadly traps require you to run, duck, balance and dodge. A delicate piece of machinery needs a similarly delicate crank turn to work, and a hulking enemy who can hear but not see you will pummel you dead unless you remain still and completely silent. Put your real-life phone on vibrate, because if your Kinect’s microphone picks up any noise during these bits, your in-game character is toast. (How’s that for immersion?)

Moments like that are legitimately unsettling in “Nightmares,” which drops you into a mansion of “Saw”-like horrors and rarely puts you at ease once the lengthy story kicks into gear. The game establishes its setting and villains quickly, and the combination of clumsy controls and unstoppable enemies sniffing for you makes for an experience that’s extremely unique and very legitimately creepy. It’s every bit as inelegant as you’d expect a free-range Kinect game to be, but if you enjoy gaming’s experimental side and thirst for something different, this is bound to be one of the most unusual releases to surface during this very crowded holiday season.

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Star Fox 64 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Some point soon, Nintendo has to reposition the fledgling 3DS as a go-to spot for new Nintendo games instead of revamped versions of games that were new under the Clinton administration.

But while we wait for that to happen, there’s nothing wrong with being impressed by “Star Fox 64 3D,” which quite dramatically freshens up the Nintendo 64 original without abandoning what made it so good in its time.

That’s kind of a big deal, because for reasons only Nintendo knows, there hasn’t been a “Star Fox” game since that wasn’t accompanied by some catch that made it something other than a simple, proper dogfighting game. And if this revamp proves anything to those only interested in a new game with new missions, it’s that the formula still works when the production values stay current.

If you’re the rare person who never played “Star Fox” but has an interest in this new edition, there’s little you need to know. “SF643D” is a third-person space dogfighter, and while it occasionally lets you fly the ship freely in a confined space, most missions take place on rails and keep you moving forward while allowing you to control your X and Y axes.

It shouldn’t sound complicated because it isn’t complicated, but it’s fun due to a high concentration of enemies to shoot and obstacles to dodge at a relatively fast pace. Completing one of “SF643D’s” branching storyline trees isn’t wildly difficult, but it isn’t a cakewalk either, and achieving gold medal scores is a legitimate test of your ability to efficiently neutralize enemies, keep your allies alive and stay out of trouble yourself while also navigating a level’s trickier spots for rings and other pickups.

Treated well, that’s a formula that won’t age. And as remakes go, “SF643D” does its part to make an old game feel young again.

Most obvious is the visual makeover, which is significant. “SF643D” transforms an early N64 game into something that looks right at home on the 3DS. It isn’t just a case of new textures, either: Some sections — boss fights in particular — have received what look like ground-up rebuilds, featuring significant leaps forward in animation and composition as well as obvious things like textures and polygons.

Thanks to the 3DS’ second screen, the makeover extends to the interface, which also takes customary advantage of the touchscreen. When your allies and enemies speak to you, their faces comprise the entire bottom screen instead of a small widow, and they’ve received a night-and-day upgrade over their N64 counterparts. That may sound trivial, but it’s the tip of an iceberg’s worth of interface polishing, and if you’ve developed an attachment to the “Star Fox” universe, seeing these characters come alive this way in a proper game is a treat.

The 3DS-enabled enhancements produce mixed results. The 3D effect is a perfect fit for a game in this genre, and it makes “SF643D’s” visual upgrade pop even more. The best thing about the optional accelerometer aiming controls, though, is that they’re optional.

The most clever implementation comes via the inner camera, which snaps your picture and shares your dismayed reactions with friends who shoot your ship down in “SF643D’s” four-player wireless multiplayer. Unfortunately, you’ll already likely be in the same room as your enemies, because the game lacks online multiplayer. That’s a severe bummer, because while “SF643D’s” multiplayer is pretty bare-bones, it’s still fun, and the ability to play online would have done wonders for making this feel like a truly contemporary remake.

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BloodRayne: Betrayal
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: WayForward/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, mild language, violence, blood and gore)
Price: $15

Some shaky games and awful movies left little doubt that a change of scenery would be good for the half-human, half-vampiric Rayne. Whether it’s also good for you comes down to whether you tolerate punishment or embrace it. “BloodRayne: Betrayal” takes what formerly was a traditional action series and re-imagines it as a lavishly animated 2D sidescroller with cartoony but graphically violent (in a “How did this get a Teen rating” kind of way) look. That animation is elaborate to an arguable fault, particularly when you’re trying to dodge peril and one Rayne’s attack animations creates a slight but critical lag in control sensitivity. Responsiveness is at a premium, too, because “Betrayal” is stiffly difficult in a “Mega Man 9” kind of way and occasionally unreasonably hard when it asks you to make some very precise jumps with jump and dash controls that aren’t so precise themselves. Those who pride themselves on mastering cruelly challenging games will get their money’s worth several times over, thanks to a campaign that’s tough to beat and a scoring/ranking system that’s merciless and demoralizing. (Don’t be surprised if you never grade higher than an F, even if you finish the game.) Mere mortals, however, should be advised: “Betrayal” has no issue with crushing your spirit, be it by design or due to the aforementioned issues, and if you don’t go into it hungry for a beating — not simply tolerant of one, but hungry for it — you’re bound to get chewed up, spit out and left wanting your $15 back.