Games 3/6/12: Mass Effect 3, Zumba Fitness Rush, Warp

Mass Effect 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

Bioware wants everyone to enjoy “Mass Effect 3,” which is why it’s instituted options that allow players to enjoy it purely as a third-person shooter (with all role-playing upgrades and moral crises handled automatically) or a role-playing game (in which you still must fight, but against a considerably more generous difficulty curve).

But if you’ve been with the “Mass Effect” trilogy from the beginning and have no desire to play its closing chapter in a compromised state, let there be no confusion: Everyone is invited to play, but “ME3” was very much still made for you.

Bioware poured an encyclopedic ton of galactic mythology into the first two chapters of its space epic, and without spoiling a single story point, “ME3” pays it all off magnificently. The battle against the galaxy-cleansing Reapers is thrilling and narratively exhaustive enough to enthrall new players — instead of assembling a squadron, as you did in “ME2,” you’re rounding up an entire galaxy’s worth of warring races to defeat the Reapers — but there is a considerable bonus for those making return visits. The conditions of “ME3’s” core conflict produce some jarringly unlikely alliances, and the sheer number of loose ends Bioware ties up (with regard to characters and entire sectors of space alike) is staggering.

As per series custom, “ME3” provides the option to import a save file from “ME2,” and it’ll tailor itself to reflect the choices you made (and, perhaps, the characters who consequently perished) in those first two games. Also per series custom, the ending you see will come down to some brutal decisions you’ll have to quickly make en route to your showdown with the Reapers. No one does this stuff better than Bioware, and “ME3” does it better than ever.

The actual act of playing “ME3” has changed little from its predecessor: It looks great, benefits from reasonably smart A.I., and as cover-based third-person shooters with light squad management abilities go, it hits enough competent marks to uphold its part of the package. Seeking cover remains occasionally problematic when embroiled in a 360-degree fight: Sometimes an attempt to find cover will result in a roll that leaves you more vulnerable than you already were. Occasionally the enemy count skyrockets and things just fall apart. But these moments are rare and, over the course of a 30-hour game that mostly plays without incident, forgivable.

A note to Xbox 360 owners: If you have a Kinect that’s suffering from neglect, plug it in. “ME3” uses the Kinect’s voice-recognition abilities better than any game ever has, and being able to manage your squad and change weapons without pausing to use the radial menu is a surprisingly valuable time-saver.

And a note to those who couldn’t stand “ME2’s” space-mining minigame: “ME3” brings it back in an altered, reduced and surprisingly tense new incarnation. It’s still wholly optional, but give it a chance.

“ME3” marks the series’ first foray into multiplayer, and the result — four-player online co-op, tasking you (as a lower-level soldier) and your teammates with eliminating waves of enemies — is your standard survival co-op mode. The combat feels the same, and with six character classes to upgrade and lots of perks, challenges and gear to unlock, the mode certainly has legs. It isn’t wholly fresh, but it’s very solid.

The one ingenious aspect of the multiplayer is how it ties back into your solo campaign. Your efforts to battle enemy forces feeds into the larger war against the Reapers: The more waves you take out in a sector of the galaxy, the stronger your fleet becomes in that sector. You need not participate to see “ME3’s” story reach its conclusion, but your story might have a happier ending if you do.

Zumba Fitness Rush
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Zoë Mode/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $50

If your aptitude as a Zumba Fitness master is of great significance to you, “Zumba Fitness Rush’s” progress tracker — which compiles daily, weekly and monthly reports about your technique as well as your time invested and calories burned — will be a source of great comfort (or perhaps, depending on the result, great shame.)

But for the rest of you who just want to have fun working out and not have a computer constantly tell you you’re doing it wrong, “Rush” — be it because it can’t or simply because it understands where you’re coming from — is a welcome change of pace.

“Rush’s” setup should feel familiar to anyone at home with dance or fitness games, because it’s basically an amalgamation of both. Along with the progress tracker, there’s a roster of preset classes (15 each of short, medium and full length), as well as a tool for assembling your own workout from the 42 songs (and accompanying routines) on offer.

Rounding out the feature set is a mode for dancing to a single song, a tool for finding live Zumba classes if you’re ready to take your act public, and a place to acquaint yourself with (and practice) the myriad of dance steps scattered throughout those routines.

That practice feature may be of interest to you if you want some grasp of the Zumba method before taking on a workout.

But even if you study up, your first “Rush” workout (and, likely, several more after that) will likely bring with it the sensation of being dropped into the deep end of the pool. Once the song begins, you’re on the clock, and if you’re expecting your virtual trainer to give you any cues as to which steps are in your immediate future, you should just give that idea up and prepare to react and emulate as quickly as you can.

Fortunately, “Rush” drops you into that pool with a life preserver in the form of a very generous technique feedback system. Make an honest attempt to keep up and reasonably replicate what’s happening on screen, and you’ll likely come away with a pretty good score. Keep a good pace, and you might even fake your way into a five-star performance. The Kinect isnt sophisticated enough to dock points based on the flustered expression on your face, so, it’ll assume you at least partially know what you’re doing.

The line of trust “Rush” draws is arguably perfect by way of being so wobbly. You can’t outright cheat it, and you slack or completely disobey the routine, it will catch and penalize you. As with a good in-person workout, the goal here is to get you moving first and learn the technique second, and regardless of “Rush’s” intentions, that’s what it achieves.

Save for its wide berth with regard to technique, “Rush’s” Kinect implementation is pretty sharp. Two-player support works similarly as long as you have the room (some routines require lateral movement that could spell trouble for uncoordinated friends). Getting around the game also is easy thanks to support for Kinect’s voice recognition abilities: Speak a menu option or even a routine’s song’s name, and it’ll head right to it — no annoying hand-waving necessary.

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Warp
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Windows PC
From: Trapdoor/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $15

You’d be forgiven for initially wondering why “Warp” — a seemingly harmless puzzle/stealth hybrid starring a muttering alien, named Zero, who might be the cutest Pixar character Pixar never created — got slapped with a Mature rating. Thankfully, once you use Zero’s warping ability to literally warp into the body of a soldier and bloodily explode out of him, it becomes clear in a hurry. Zero’s initial trick, which allows him to instantly warp roughly five feet in any direction, comes into play via an overhead puzzle arrangement that plays as much like a “Metal Gear Solid” offshoot as anything else. Zero is helpless in a direct fight against the soldiers, scientists and other traps trying to contain (or kill) him in the facility he’s trying to escape, so you’ll have to plot a stealthy route through large, open-ended areas that are equally rich with hazards and items he can use to his creative advantage. New abilities, including cloning and telekinesis, gradually expand his arsenal to counter a difficulty that climbs gradually before spiking near the end, and the large environments house special challenge areas (complete with online leaderboards) and other bonus content for players who really want to put their abilities through the wringer. As puzzle games go, “Warp” is a legitimately clever mind-bender, and as a stealth games go, it’s terrifically tense. That odd-couple combination, along with the wild mishmash of adorable and bloody that weaves Zero’s story together, adds up to an experience that has few peers.