Games 2/28/12: Asura's Wrath, Syndicate, Nexuiz

Asura’s Wrath
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: CyberConnect2/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, use of alcohol, violence)
Price: $60

Everything you do in “Asura’s Wrath,” you’ve done before … except, perhaps, the part where you have to fight only with your feet because your arms were ripped off during a fall from space. Or the part where you literally fight a sentient planet. Or the part where you battle what resembles a metallic Buddha, who gets devoured by a demonic elephant who himself is blasted into oblivion by a spaceship.

Other than that and some two dozen other things, you’ve done this before.

“Wrath” assembles the wildly grandiose odyssey of Asura — a disgraced demigod whose anger and lust for vengeance makes “God of War” star Kratos look like a teacup puppy by comparison — with three familiar ingredients.

Primarily, it plays like a “God of War”-style brawler, offering Asura an arsenal of melee, ranged and special attacks he can chain together with abandon.

“Wrath” intersperses the brawling with on-rails sequences — sometimes on the ground, other times soaring through space — that play like “Rez.” You control Asura’s lateral movements with the left stick, roll the targeting reticule around the screen with the right stick, and unleash a maelstrom of missiles after locking onto a dozen or so targets at once and pressing the fire button.

Gluing everything together are quick time events, those interactive cutscenes where you follow a series of onscreen button prompts to help your character execute some amazing stunt. “Wrath” has garnered a reputation for leaning excessively on the mostly unpopular QTE mechanic, but it’s undeserved. Though a regular occurrence, the QTEs never overwhelm the other facets of “Wrath’s” gameplay.

More importantly, “Wrath” actually makes them fun. Failing a QTE has consequence, but that consequence doesn’t include (as it often does in other games) resetting the cutscene ad nauseam until you recite the prompt correctly. The QTEs make sense in where and how they’re implemented, they’re generous with regard to how much time you’re given to hit them, and unless you completely drop the ball and flub every single prompt, the cutscene barrels ahead.

“Barrels” isn’t an exaggeration, either. Whether brawling, flying, QTEing or storytelling, “Wrath” screams forward at a frantic pace that ignites all these familiar gameplay concepts with a fresh, exhilarating energy.

The speed does not come at the expense of technique, either: You’ll have to evade as well as attack, whether on foot or in flight, and every boss enemy (even the planet) has patterns and tells waiting to be exploited. It’s controlled chaos at it’s finest, and when “Wrath” interweaves its three big ingredients into a single sequence that starts in the sky and ends on the ground, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen or done in a game.

“Wrath’s” story mirrors its gameplay — absolutely bananas, but surprisingly coherent (and reverent, and even funny) upon closer inspection. The game presents itself like an 18-episode television show, complete with credits on both sides, mock commercial breaks (without the actual commercials) and narrated bumpers teasing the next episode. The presentation is amusing, but it also serves a purpose: Each episode brings its own story arc to the larger narrative, and being mindful of those arcs and starting points allows “Wrath” to unfurl its increasingly crazy saga at a tempo that’s accessible in spite of all the insanity.

Depending on your play style, “Wrath’s” run doesn’t necessarily end when it ends. Casual players can complete the 18 episodes in six-ish hours and find little else to do, making the $60 price hard to swallow in spite of how great those six hours are. But overachievers have reason to give it a second and maybe third spin. Each episode has a scoring system to master, there’s an achievement for beating the game under special conditions that ramp up the difficulty, and there’s a special 19th episode waiting to be unlocked if you have what it takes to unlock it. (The end of episode 18 spills the details.)

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

Fans of the beloved 1993 strategy game “Syndicate” unleashed a nuclear moan when EA pronounced it reborn as a first-person shooter, and developer Starbreeze responded with assurances that the heart and soul would return intact.

The finished product is a rare case of both sides being right. This most definitely is “Syndicate’s” world, but fans of the strategy games most definitely have reason to howl anyway.

Mostly, it’s because the one hopeful straw at which that crowd could grasp — a storyline that meaningfully takes the universe into a new chapter with the benefits of modern production values at its back — never really pans out.

Conceptually, the finer details of “Syndicate’s” world are there, and outside of some needlessly tiny text and a bizarre case of light bloom so bright it occasionally washes out your view, it looks very good.

But it’s mostly a tease. The concepts behind “Syndicate’s” storyline — corporations battling for control governments once had, a power struggle where even the good guys (you included) have bloody hands, a bizarre technocracy where getting microchipped and connecting your mind directly to the Internet is a status symbol, source of power and grave risk all at once — are immensely fascinating, but the meat of it unfolds via audio logs and a library of text you can read in the menu screen (tiny text and all). The story that plays out in front of you alludes to everything, but it overwhelmingly focuses on you, the corporation for which you work and a select handful of allegiances that threaten its (and your) health.

Ultimately, as perhaps you feared, “Syndicate” boils down to another case of you against most of the world. Here’s hoping you like shooting a whole ton of enemy soldiers as they rush at you from everywhere, because that, more than anything else, is what “Syndicate” is all about.

In fairness to Starbreeze, the shooter they’ve built is a fine one, with polished control, a powerful arsenal of guns, and enemy A.I. that flashes a strong combination of brains and teeth.

Your microchipped mind comes into play, too. A limited-use interface overlay can temporarily slow time and give away enemy positions, while special abilities let you hack enemies’ minds in order to overload their circuits or brainwash them into sacrificing themselves or fighting on your side. Occasionally, you’ll also hack other objects — sentry guns, elevators and so on — to operate in your favor. “Syndicate” never puts the hacking mechanic to use in the form of a truly clever puzzle, but it’s prevalent enough to give an otherwise boilerplate shooter campaign the identity it needs.

Along with the single-player campaign, “Syndicate” offers a wholly separate co-op campaign (four players, online only) that puts you in the boots of a capable but less powerful corporate foot soldier.

The co-op campaign is even flatter in terms of storytelling, but if you come prepared to play — i.e., with three friends ready to work as a team — it’s the better of the two modes. Your hacking deficiencies are compensated for when your three teammates hack alongside you, and being able to heal each other is a godsend. You’re weaker, the enemies are stronger and bolder, and the campaign difficulty is an order of magnitude higher even on its lowest setting, so teamwork and communication are imperative. (The difficulty doesn’t scale for fewer players, either, so find a quartet. You’ll need it.)

For your trouble, “Syndicate” offers a persistent upgrade tree that’s considerably more rewarding than the meager upgrades found in the single-player campaign. You get experience points for being a good teammate as well as marksman, and with time, the perks and weapons you unlock will make you a more formidable soldier than your single-player counterpart.

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Nexuiz
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Illfonic/THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (Crude Humor, Mild Language, Violence)
Price: $10

“Nexuiz” may proudly proclaim it’s one of the first downloadable games available that’s powered by the CryENGINE 3 engine, but anyone with a discerning eye for shooters knows that the presence of “Quake III Arena’s” heart and soul is the real story here. Originally conceived years ago as a “Quake” mod, “Nexuiz” comes into its own by taking that series’ core principles — blindingly fast first-person shooter combat, small but intricate maps laden with weapons and game-changing power-ups — and giving them a polished, modern sheen (thanks, largely, to CryENGINE 3’s impressive visual capabilities). Those in search of storytelling and along time need not apply: “Nexuiz” offers a practice mode with A.I. bots, but you must play against others (eight players, online only) to pad your statistics and get those achievements. But much like “Q3A” was so pure in its freneticism that anyone could play it, so is “Nexuiz,” which plays spotlessly online and offers a lot to like — nine maps, nine dual-fire weapons, a ton of mutators that can temporarily enhance your skills or sabotage your enemies’ abilities — for its $10 price tag. The emphasis on team play — team deathmatch and capture the flag are its sole match types — also means you’re never fighting alone.