Games 11/1/11: Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Battlefield 3, Ben 10 Galactic Racing, Dungeon Defenders

Kirby’s Return to Dream Land
For: Wii
From: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Kirby might not even know it, but the way he walks in “Kirby’s Return to Dream Land” — with a proud strut and a carefree expression that completely belies it — is amusing without even meaning to be. That goes as well whenever Kirby enters a body of water: He sports a stylish innertube at the surface, and instantly swaps it for goggles whenever he plunges into the depths.

There are a thousand other similarly effortless details to spot in “Land” — some of them silly like those mentioned above, others crucial to the game’s design, but all adding up to a prototypically spotless Nintendo game that exemplifies the difference between a good sidescrolling platformer and one devised by the company that created the mold.

This isn’t to suggest “Land” has broken said mold. As the title itself implies, this is a return to Kirby’s roots much in the same way “New Super Mario Bros.” brought Mario and Luigi back to their basics. “Return’s” primary objective — move from left to right and reach the exit — is as pure as video game objectives get, and Kirby’s techniques — strutting, jumping, floating, swimming and the always-wonderful ability to open his mouth, ingest enemies like a vacuum and briefly acquire their powers — are just as they were during his first visit to Dream Land.

Of course, Dream Land itself isn’t the same as Kirby left it. The levels and worlds are all new, and they’re naturally more elaborate in their construction than in past “Kirby” games. Simply cruising from entrance to exit isn’t terribly challenging, but completely mastering a level — finding every secret area and using certain powers to acquire every last collectible piece of the spaceship you’re helping Kirby’s friend rebuild — is pretty tricky.

You can, of course, return to levels multiple times to find the pieces you missed, and because these levels are so cleverly but intuitively designed and the game so polished in every respect, replaying old levels new ways is a ton of fun. New and old enemies afford Kirby more powers than ever to mimic — including some spectacularly destructive super powers that engulf the entire screen — and every facet of his many control schemes is on par with his every last visual quirk in terms of attention paid to detail. In every crucial respect, “Land” is immaculate.

Though the game doesn’t bend over backward to specially accommodate it, “Land” features four-player local drop-in co-op in a slightly similar vein to “New Super Bros. Wii.” This time, though, only player 1’s peril is of any consequence. The other three players — playing as Waddle Dee, Dedede, Meta Knight or a Kirby clone — can incur all kinds of disaster in a supporting role, which allows someone with skill to lead the game while young kids or other novices play along and assist without impeding the game’s progress. That makes it a less chaotic party game than “NSMBW,” but a far more ideal experience for families who play together.

As has become tradition, “Land” complements the primary game with a surprisingly filling selection of bonus content, including challenge rooms, practice rooms and minigames. “Land’s” core gameplay uses only the Wii remote, turning it sideway to mimic a traditional controller, but some of the minigames allow you to use the remote’s motion capabilities. None of them are wildly original in light of the billion or so minigames that have graced the Wii over the last five years, but they’re fun, well-made, and suffice very nicely as free sides for an extraordinary main course.

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Battlefield 3
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
From: DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

No use wasting time being cordial: “Battlefield 3’s” single-player campaign is a bummer. Military first-person shooters have increasingly valued flash over substance since “Call of Duty” dumbed it down and became the market leader, and the less said about “BF3’s” me-too attempt — too many restrictive corridors, quick-time events, gimmicky diversionary missions that imitate instead of innovate, and stiflingly controlled scenarios that allow the psychic enemy A.I. to absolutely brutalize you if you dare attempt to ignore the continuous interface prompts and flex some creativity — the better. It’s technically polished but imaginatively bankrupt, and DICE — which proved it could construct good single-player campaigns with the “Battlefield: Bad Company” offshoots — should know better.

Fortunately, buying a “Battlefield” game for the campaign is like watching the Super Bowl to see the Black Eyed Peas. The multiplayer is the reason we’re here, and all the things the campaign condemns — the freedom to roam, to strategize, to fly that jet instead of simply sit in the gunner seat — are the things multiplayer lays at your feet.

First things first, a caveat: “BF3’s” console multiplayer suffers a steep drop from its PC counterpart. It’s limited to 24 players (two teams of up to 12 or four squads of up to four) instead of 64, and out of necessity, the larger maps have been pulled in a touch to prevent the slimmed-down armies from feeling too spread out.

Additionally, while the game remains plenty nice to look at when installed to the console hard drive, it doesn’t look nearly as sharp as those jaw-dropping demos you may have seen of the PC edition. Xbox and PS3 hardware simply isn’t capable. Combine that with player counts and match types (team deathmatch, territorial control, attack versus defend) you’ve seen before, and “BF3” isn’t the game-changer all the pre-release hype suggested it would be — especially with this being the third full-featured console “Battlefield” game to appear since 2008.

Demoralized yet? Don’t be: In spite of all the unfortunate news you just read — and assuming EA works out the server connection issues that continue to creep up as of this publication — there remains much to like about “BF3’s” online skirmishes.

In short, the ingredients with which “Battlefield” made its name remain intact. Even in scaled-back form, “BF3’s” maps are large enough to accommodate numerous attack strategies. If you want to commandeer a plane, tank or chopper, you can. If you want to ride shotgun and man the cannons, you can. And if you’d prefer to just hoof it on the ground, you obviously can. The usual classes (Assault, Recon, Support, Engineer) apply, and if close-quarters combat isn’t your specialty, the maps (and all-inclusive experience points system) allow you to contribute by providing cover fire, medical support or assistance with completing territorial objectives while allies cover you. All is for naught if you and your teammates fend for yourselves instead of strategize, but it isn’t the game’s fault if you don’t use its tools to their fullest capacity.

As is “Battlefield” custom by now, “BF3” is polished in every technical regard. Control is terrifically responsive, the sound is incredible, and — provided you accept the hardware’s limitations — its representations of New York, Paris, Sarajevo and places in between strike an impressive balance between scope and detail.

Assuming those server issues dissipate, “BF3’s” interface is similarly satisfactory. Everything’s where you want it to be, and the addition of Battlelog — a variant of EA’s Autolog social network adapted to “Battlefield” — is good news if you regularly play with people on your friends list.

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Ben 10 Galactic Racing
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
From: Monkey Bar Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

You need not have a degree in video game history to realize “Ben 10 Galactic Racing” — a kart racer featuring the cast of the “Ben 10” cartoon doing battle on fantastical tracks inspired by the cartoon — is a callback to “Mario Kart” at first blush.

Unfortunately, “Racing’s” aim is a bit off. Instead of harkening back to Nintendo’s iconic racing game, it ushers in memories of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when cash-thirsty developers turned every kid-friendly property within reach into a me-too kart racer. Like nearly all of those games, “Racing” falls well short in its bid to conjure the greatness of the real thing.

It isn’t for lack of enthusiasm on the game’s part. From the description of modes to the voice-acted banter that supplies on-track commentary and track overviews, there’s a lot of fan service setting the table. The tracks also vary considerably in terms of design, with numerous climates, themes, on-track hazards, shortcuts and other random curveballs and visual touches on display.

Once the actual race begins, though, “Racing” succumbs to a significant lack of refinement. The steering is tenable but not nearly as sensitive as you’d like with tracks that twist, narrow and reveal as many pitfalls as these do. Opposing racers sometimes appear more concerned with banging into you than winning the race, and they’re particularly good at nailing you with whatever items they have as you close in on the finish line. Some of the items draw obvious inspiration from “Mario Kart,” but others seem designed simply to cloud your vision on tracks that are tricky enough as is to navigate, and when opponents spam you with these items in the last lap — whether you lead the race or not — it’s aggravation on top of aggravation.

Rarely, between these issues and some blatant rubberband A.I., does actual racing skill feel integral to winning in “Racing,” which is unreasonably difficult on its Easy setting and just obscene on Hard. Be prepared, regularly, to take a lead into the third lap and find yourself somehow in last place half a lap later.

If your love of “Ben 10” is such that you’ll suffer through “Racing’s” shortcomings anyway, its multiplayer (four players, offline only) very likely will be its saving grace. Many of the aggravations are either non-existent or marginalized (and, if you don’t take them too seriously, pretty funny) when there’s a level playing field, and while “Racing’s” A.I. is unforgivably cheap, its handling and track design are sufficient enough to get the job done on the multiplayer side. There are more refined and more feature-loaded kart racers on every platform — if not “Mario Kart,” then surely “Blur” or “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing” — but if the license matters more than the game, racing with friends is the best way to enjoy it.

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Dungeon Defenders
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Trendy Entertainment/D3Publisher Of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Don’t let the downloadable size or cheerful presentation fool you. “Dungeon Defenders” is a fiendishly deep blend of dungeon crawling, role playing and tower defense, and if you engage this journey of potentially hundreds of hours, you’d best begin with the tutorial. Superficially, “Defenders” follows the action-meets-tower defense blueprint: At the start of a level, you (and up to three friends via drop-in/drop-out online/offline co-op) strategically decorate your elaborate surroundings with traps, and when you give the green light and enemies rush in from all sides, you’re free to run around and get your hands and weapons dirty fighting anybody who dodges the reach of those traps. Simple, right? Sure — until you realize straight away how different “Defenders'” four playable classes are. Each comes with separate weapons, traps, attribute stats, pets and abilities — all upgradable and customizable — and the inventory and role-playing interfaces more closely match that of a $60 “Elder Scrolls” game than a $15 downloadable equivalent. Consequently, while “Defenders” holds up as a single-player game, it absolutely sings as a multiplayer experience. With four people coordinating an attack while each controls a different class (not required, just recommended) and solves unique problems with unique abilities, “Defenders” resembles a real-time strategy game in which players control every unit directly. The configuration is up to you, and between the story campaign, challenge room variants, player-versus-player arena and a level cap of 70(!) for each character class to achieve, there’s a mountain of incredible content on which to try every idea that comes to you.