Games 11/15/11: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Super Mario 3D Land, Slam Dunk King

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

Bethesda’s massive open-world role-playing games have forever been an endearing battle between vision and technology, with the limitations of the latter always causing bugs and weird production value hiccups that keep the former in check.

Quirks like those still make appearances in “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” but a sparkling new engine makes these occurrences feel like occurrences instead of the norm. Technology finally appears ready to ride along with vision, and “Skyrim” takes it to the ends of its earth in what almost inarguably is the biggest game anyone has ever made.

Improvements make subtle introductions during an opener that spotlights two elements — voice acting and character design — that ranked among previous games’ biggest reality checks. They remain weak links here, but the days of faces even a mother wouldn’t love and one voice actor seemingly voicing half the cast appear to be over.

From there, ambition takes over. “Skyrim” quickly introduces you to your first dragon — the game’s star attraction, and the lynchpin in a big first-act reveal that won’t be spoiled here. The scope and individual pieces of that encounter — dragon artificial intelligence in particular — are immediately stunning.

Shortly thereafter, you’re fully loosed into Skyrim — with a quest and a burgeoning storyline, but with the freedom to ignore them indefinitely and explore the land’s 16 square miles as you please.

And what a world it is. That “Skyrim” is gargantuan isn’t a surprise, because these games always are. But when you experience the enormity and variety of terrain — mountains crawling with everything from blizzards to bears to wooly mammoths, elaborate caverns and towns that exist far off the storyline’s main road, lush forests and fields that house bandits, dragons, giants and more — that exists between two locations that appear so close to each other as dots on your map, it’s just staggering.

Best of all, everything is fair game. Dragon chasing you? Lead him into a giants den and watch giants, dragons and who knows who else duke it out (and come for you next if you make a play for the post-fight spoils). In an era of games growing obnoxiously reliant on cutscenes, “Skyrim’s” most memorable encounters just happen — organically, dynamically and differently for every player who plays it their own slightly unique way.

That stands to reason, because you can sink 100 hours into “Skyrim’s” optional quests, guilds and storylines before even setting another foot on the main road, which should be good for another 50 or so hours. If you want to get technical, “Skyrim” never completely ends, thanks to a system that generates random secondary quests into perpetuity. There’s a limit to the variety of those quests, of course, but that’s the price paid for endless adventure.

“Skyrim’s” first-person melee combat still feels clumsy and artless, though ranged and magic attacks work well, especially with the ability to map different spells to each hand. Happily, Bethesda has finally figured out how to make the third-person perspective something more than useless curiosity fulfillment. It looks good, and it feels good for melee combat. A button press swaps perspectives at will, so you can enjoy the benefits of both in tandem.

Much more roundly improved is “Skyrim’s” overall interface, which organizes your quests, maps, inventory and development with considerably more polish than in the past. Leveling up is exponentially more dynamic: As you flex certain skills — be it combat and defense or persuasion and lock-picking — those skills improve and contribute to your overall development, which you can augment with special perks that are neatly arranged across all 18 skill categories. The interface still presents a learning curve, but it’s Bethesda’s most accessible system by several orders of magnitude.

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Super Mario 3D Land
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

It’s hard to believe there’s a dimension that has eluded the plumber who took platforming mainstream in two dimensions, reinvented it in three, and spent entire chunks of two recent adventures running upside down like it was a morning jog.

But “Super Mario 3D Land” takes place in a dimension that is neither exclusively two nor three dimensions, and the game’s willingness to present itself from semi-fixed angles that change from level to level makes it hard to pin this down with mere numbers or names.

Lest you worry, “SM3DL” plays at its core like any other Mario game. Mario can run, jump, punch blocks and kick turtle shells as naturally as ever, and the goal — reach the flagpole before time runs out — is a callback to the very first “Super Mario Bros.” A hall of fame’s worth of classic enemies (Goombas, Bullet Bills, Boos, Bowser and his kids) returns alongside some new enemies, and Mario complements some new power-ups (the boomerang suit being the most prominent addition) with a handful of perennial and returning favorites (fire flower, Tanooki suit, propeller box).

“SM3DL” moves at a very slightly slower speed than most contemporary Mario games do, particularly with regard to how quickly Mario can transition from a run to the kind of sprint needed to make longer jumps. But the difference is nearly negligible, and if you’re familiar with Mario’s repertoire, you need not even crack the manual to become almost instantly acclimated with “SM3DL’s” controls.

Rather, where “SM3DL” deviates is by filtering that time-tested action through a new perspective that borrows equally (and simultaneously) from Mario’s 2D and 3D adventures.

Though levels frequently look like 3D Mario levels, they’re presented from a fixed angle that prioritizes running through them linearly instead of exploring them from all angles. Every level hides three special coins off the main road, and collecting them often comprises the most satisfying and challenging aspects of “SM3DL’s” main quest, but that’s the extent of exploration.

Initially, and thanks to a crop of early levels that are fun but too short and entirely too easy to complete, the perspective shift feels like a compromise.

But once it gets comfortable, Nintendo does what it does best and mines the new angles for as much unique gold as it can. Some levels pull the camera sideway to start as old-fashioned 2D levels before rotating and zooming way out to reveal a massively vertical environment that still moves with the urgency of an old-fashioned sidescroller. Occasionally, the game shifts slightly diagonally to add layers behind layers (think “LittleBigPlanet,” only more intuitive). Sometimes it opts for a strict overhead view with scrolling rooms — essentially paying tribute to the original “Legend of Zelda’s” level design while infusing it with the full might of Mario’s athletic arsenal.

“SM3DL’s” original eight-world quest never becomes terribly difficult, but when these and numerous other ideas start flowing and Nintendo goes a little crazy with the level designs, the continual promise of surprises lurking around corners makes the tepid difficulty relatively easy to forgive.

Should you disagree, the revelation of a second quest (which avails itself upon completion of the first) should soothe your concerns. Nintendo has been protective of the knowledge that a second quest even exists in “SM3DL,” so without spoiling too much of what lies within, let’s just say this: It’s much tougher than the first quest, and its fearlessness with regard to difficulty lets it go that much crazier with the designs and special conditions it tosses around. If the “SM3DL” Nintendo advertises on the box isn’t doing it for you, the one hiding behind it almost certainly will.

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Slam Dunk King
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: PikPok
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: Free

With respect to the big-budget masterpieces and sprawling epics crashing onto store shelves this fall, sometimes all you want to do is dunk a basketball. On that, the polished-in-its-own-right “Slam Dunk King” has the last word. In “King,” basketballs fly into the air as if fired by a clay shooter, and your objective is to grab them with your finger and dunk them with a powerful swiping motion. Where “Dunk” makes this fun is in its allowance for creativity. A no-nonsense dunk will get you a couple points, but mimicking a windmill, corkscrew, alley oop or double pump (among numerous others) will award you considerably more. (You even get bonus points for pulling down the rim post-dunk.) If you want to net a truly inspired score, a combo system lets you chain a massive score by juggling one basketball in the air and dunking others without letting that first ball drop, which kills the combo and could potentially end the game. “King’s” embrace of style and risk/reward makes it a ton of fun to play, and a leveling system and suite of unlockable power-ups and courts gives it surprising legs for such a simple idea. It’s responsive to your swipes, pretty to look at, and supports Game Center and OpenFeint (complete with cloud saves, so you can resume progress across different devices) as well.