Games 3/13/12: MLB 12 The Show, Nicktoons MLB 3D, SSX, Jak and Daxter Collection, Journey

MLB 12 The Show
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60 for PS3, $40 for Vita, $80 for bundle (through April 10)

Nicktoons MLB 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Black Lantern Studios/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $30

“MLB The Show” has been the undisputed king of baseball sims for at least five years running, and even though the 2012 edition’s additions rank on the weak side, this remains the case.

For the second straight year, a new pitching mechanic leads off the roster of changes. But in contrast to last year’s excellent Pure Analog system, the Pulse Pitching method relies too much on a gimmicky (and counterproductively touchy) timing mechanic that doesn’t really replicate the sensation of making a perfect pitch. With practice, it can be mastered, but “MLB12’s” other delivery methods — Pure Analog, Meter and Classic — are more fun. Fortunately, all remain available to use and tweak as needed via an extensive options screen.

“MLB12’s” flashiest new feature — Diamond Dynasty, available only in the PS3 version — attempts to replicate the success of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes, in which you assemble teams of players from virtual packs of cards you buy with in-game (or, of course, real) money. But while the seeds of compulsion are there if you’re willing to look for them, Diamond Dynasty clearly is a rookie effort — all over the place in terms of confusing interfaces, and spotty with how it facilitates team management and rewards.

The better modes — Season/Franchise, the role-playing Road to the Show — are available on both Vita and PS3, and those who purchase both versions can share the same cloud save file between both. If you love the game but never have time to play an entire season on your couch, the flexibility this entails may be the best news there is about this year’s game.

As per annual tradition, there’s more good news in between the lines. A brand-new baseball physics engine should quickly make its presence known to longtime players, and Road to the Show finally lets you begin your minor league career as a starter instead of on the bench. Tweaks have been made to the way A.I. managers and general managers handle lineups and trades, respectively, and every detail of the Marlins’ hideous new uniforms and home run structure has been recreated in exquisitely ugly detail.

Most importantly, none of the core fundamentals that have made this series the best in the business have been broken.

2K Sports’ simulation counterpart continues to lag behind and spin its glitchy, unrefined wheels. But 2K Play engineered a pleasant surprise last season with “NickToons MLB,” which took MLB players and teams, sprinkled in Nickelodeon characters and stadiums, and powered it with the terrifically fast (and surprisingly deep) engine that originally powered its outstanding “The Bigs” arcade baseball games.

Sadly, “Nicktoons MLB 3D” arrives on the Nintendo 3DS in alarmingly bad shape. The personality and players are there, as are the modes (season, tournament, minigames) and intricacies that made last year’s game more sophisticated than your typical arcade baseball game.

But where it matters most — gameplay — is where “3D” falls completely on its face. Instead of fast, it’s unflatteringly slow and prone to framerate stutters. And while the console version’s responsive controls made every facet of the game fun to play, “3D” can’t even get the basics right. The half-second lag between button press and the moment a batter actually swings the bat is impossible to forgive in a sport where timing is king. “3D” updates the rosters for 2012 and adds a few new ballparks and modes not found in the console versions, but the shoddy foundation completely invalidates whatever upside it has to offer.

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SSX
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics, mild violence)
Price: $60

When EA Sports first unveiled its rebooted “SSX” — complete with gritty, humorless overtones and “Call of Duty”-esque cutscenes to complement the otherwise familiar snowboarding action — the groans that met it halfway were fierce enough to send the studio into retool mode. Many months later, what we ultimately get — colorful, cheerful, loaded with impossible tricks and exaggerated physics — is a good approximation of how the first proper “SSX” game in nearly seven years should look, play and even innovate.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Don’t holster that groan just yet.

Under the right conditions — on a wide mountain with room to trick creatively and in an event centered purely around racing or accumulating large trick scores — “SSX” sings as beautifully as ever. It’s blazing fast, stringing tricks (either with the new, stick-centric method or a scheme that approximates classic controls) is extremely easy, and exploiting the mountain for one incredible combo after another is blissfully fun.

But for every time “SSX” gets it perfectly right, there’s an instance where it inexplicably flubs it.

Some runs, including a handful that lead off the single-player campaign, take place in tight runs overcrowded with ramps and grindable lines. Botch one jump, and it’s too easy to ignite a chain where your rider is haplessly missing opportunity after opportunity while you simply wait for a clear patch of snow on which to rebuild the deck.

Much worse, however, is when “SSX” throws you down a mountain that’s plagued by bottomless drops around and even within it. Annoying though the chains of missed opportunities can be, they pale in comparison to the non-thrill of pulling a spectacular big-air trick, only to land on a ridge that slides you into a pit you couldn’t foresee when originally taking off. “SSX” includes a limited-use rewind feature, perhaps as penance for the cheapness of such turns of fortune. But even then, your momentum is disrupted and your score dinged.

Though the race and trick events are occasionally undermined by some unreasonably inhuman A.I. Opponents, “SSX” frustrates most during the new survival events, where the goal simply is to complete the run. Your rewinds are severely limited here, and the mountains tend to be severely broken. That means lots of cheap falls, which means lots of trial and error. Surviving these runs is a simple matter of memorizing the layout and riding sensibly instead of tricking out, but when was the last time you played “SSX” with a desire to ride sensibly and predictably?

Fortunately, should you be so inclined, you can enjoy most of “SSX’s” highlights without engaging its lowlights.

With respect to its story track, “SSX’s” showcase features are the Explore and Global events, both of which provide non-linear access to every mountain range and let you hop around the globe as you please. The in-game currency and experience points systems, which allow you to upgrade every playable rider and his or her gear, apply across all modes, so you aren’t missing anything (except some annoying cutscenes and chatter) by outright skipping the story.

The Explore and Global events also comprise “SSX’s” clever asynchronous multiplayer, which functions like a social network for “SSX” fans. You can challenge other players’ scores (which appear persistently in the menus or in ghost form), create Global Events that thousands of players can enter, form and track rivalries, and even drop geotags on a course and challenge other players to find a way to reach the spot where you left it. The longer it stays untouched, the bigger the payout.

The downside of asynchronous multiplayer? It comes at the expense of the traditional stuff. You might spot friends on the slopes if you’re playing the same Global Event at the same time, but if you’re hoping to race friends directly online — or even offline via splitscreen, as was an “SSX” staple once upon a time — you’re out of luck.

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Jak and Daxter Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Mass Media Inc./Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone/Teen (comic mischief, language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40 (games also available separately for $15 each via Playstation Network)

The advent of a “Jak and Daxter” HD collection was patently inevitable as soon as Sony began unleashing these terrific (and terrifically-priced) two- and three-packs of remastered Playstation 2 classics.

Here’s another shocker: “Jak and Daxter Collection” does excellent justice to the three games — originally released between 2001 and 2004 — that comprise it. The remastered games play perfectly, and though the original games’ colorful, Pixar-esque graphics have aged better than those of most PS2 titles, the benefits of a high-definition upgrade are obvious and considerable. The addition of stereoscopic 3D is sufficient for those with the technology to support it, and Playstation Network Trophy hunters will delight at the presence of lengthy trophy lists (each topped with a Platinum trophy) for each game.

If you lost track of “Jak and Daxter” back in the day, “Collection’s” biggest surprise may be just how much variety lies within — and not simply because Naughty Dog (best known today as the developer responsible for the “Uncharted” PS3 games) knew how to stuff a whole lot of creative level designs and ideas into these games. Though the level of variety certainly is copious, it’s the series’ gradual shift in tone and even genre that’s most striking.

The series’ debut, “Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy,” was a 3D platformer from the “Super Mario 64” school of colorful characters, collectables and levels that were open to discovery but still pretty self-contained. A voice cast and slight taste for vehicles set it somewhat apart, but it certainly felt right at home in its chosen genre.

“Jak II,” on the other hand, played as much like “Grand Theft Auto” as it did the original “Jak and Daxter.” Though not gratingly or humorlessly so, the tone was measurably darker, and the difficulty spiked accordingly. The open-world Haven City served as a massive hub at the heart of the game, and guns and vehicles (which, yes, you could hijack) played a major role. The addition of hoverboards even brought with it a “Tony Hawk”-style minigame. “Jak II” never outright abandoned the ingredients that comprised the first game, but platforming definitely takes a reduced role.

“Jak 3,” appropriately, feels like a culmination of all that preceded it. It somewhat jettisons the bustling city design in favor of something more wide-open, and its gameplay accommodates the shift with an epic adventure flavor that very capably makes room for nearly every gameplay element that found its way into the first two games.

Remarkably, the series never really loses its way during the course of this evolution. For all the different ideas each edition throws at the wall, the franchise as a whole is a model of consistency when quality is the sole metric. It’s also aged extremely well, especially with a new coat of graphical paint applied. These games were easy to recommend back when they cost $50 each, and at $40 for all three, it’s one of the better gaming values of 2012 thus far.

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Journey
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: thatgamecompany/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

If your jaw isn’t on the floor following a trip through “Journey,” call your doctor, because you probably don’t have a jaw. As best a video game can be expected to do, “Journey” replicates the sensation of being lost and alone in a wholly unknown land. It drops you in a vacant desert, offers a couple prompts to show you which buttons on your controller are in play, and that’s it. The rest of the way, you’re left to your own devices, free to venture through the desert, under the sea, and up a snowy mountain toward an oasis that waits faintly in the distance. “Journey” offers traditional resistance by way of riddles to solve and secrets to find along the way, but there’s no health bar or even enemies in the traditional sense. More than a game to beat, it’s a literal journey that wants you simply to explore its staggeringly pretty scenery rather than survive it. (Outside of the real thing, these might be the most stunning sand and snow physics you’ve ever seen.) Alone and in though, the trip is a treat without equal. But “Journey” truly sparkles when you come upon other players making their own pilgrimages in the same world. You won’t know who they are — “Journey” doesn’t reveal their PSN usernames until past the closing credits — and your only means of communication is a single button that emits a musical tone of variable length. With that, you’re free to blissfully ignore each other or find a way, like two birds chirping at each other, to share the road and complete the journey together. If you elect to try the latter option, prepare for an organic co-op gaming experience that’s wholly unlike any you’ve experienced before.