Games 3/20/12: Yakuza: Dead Souls, Crush3d, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Motorstorm RC

Yakuza: Dead Souls
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

It has always taken a special kind of person to truly appreciate the “Yakuza” series, which reengineers flaws into points of endearment like few (if any) other series can.

“Yakuza: Dead Souls” takes that bizarre two-way affection into a whole new arena, but it never loses itself in doing so. An already confluence of brawling and storytelling goes slightly nuts with the addition of zombies, firearms and more sustained action than has typically been present in these games, but everything that comprised those earlier games — including the weirdly wonderful tug-o-war between archaic and charming — remains intact.

“Souls,” perhaps obviously, isn’t central to the “Yakuza” canon, which up to now has crammed several television series’ worth of violence, drama, comedy, family feuds, criminal dynasties, troublemakers and complete weirdos into four numbered games and a spinoff that released only in Japan. “Souls” takes “Yakuza 4’s” setting and premise — once again dropping you into the shoes of four deeply unique main characters — and tells a what-if story in which the undead clog the streets and the usual friends and enemies enact a moratorium on their squabbles.

Along with the setting and characters, most everything else with which “Yakuza” is synonymous returns in “Souls.” In safe zones walled off (for now) from monsters, you’ll find a new assortment of strange people to meet and assist in side stories. Hilariously weird minigames and diversions abound. The random troublemakers who pick fights in the street have disappeared (perhaps a nod to your new shared enemy), but when you’re battling zombies, the full brunt of “Yazuka’s” brawling controls — from suplexing zombies to using everything from bats to bicycles as weapons — lay at your disposal. As always, it’s a fast and exciting 3D answer to the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the 1990s.

But while hitting a zombie in the face with a coffee table is effective in a pinch, you’ll need some real firepower when “Souls” drops you into an area crawling with several dozen undead.

Enter guns and grenades — and what a strange entrance it is. “Souls” crams three flavors of shooting controls into its existing gameplay with reckless disregard for elegance, and their respective effectiveness is inversely proportional to pretty much every third-person shooter made since roughly 2004.

Whereas holding the L2 trigger to aim down the sights of a gun increases precision in most shooters, it’s generally a nightmare here — sabotaged by a camera unfit to handle it, as well as Sega’s baffling decision to map aiming to the left instead of right stick. (You can’t move while aiming this way.) The method is handy when sniping from a distance, but laughably worthless otherwise.

A middle option, wherein you hold L1 to strafe and automatically fire at enemies in your line of sight, works a little better — except when pressing L1 causes you to strafe facing the wrong way, unable to turn around, even if you’re facing the right way when you press it. It happens randomly, but also regularly.

Ultimately, the best (and, by an factor of 10, most fun) way to mow down zombies is to not even aim at all. As you run through a room hammering on the shoot button, your character shoots whichever zombie is nearest by in his field of view. You can turn on a dime and clear a room in the blink of an eye, especially once you unlock a visually spectacular special ability that lets you use gas lines, circuit boxes and even loose steel girders as bullet-activated hazards.

Played this way, the shooting is fast, exciting, effortless and silly in exactly the right way — in other words, a perfect complement to everything else “Yakuza” has done so wonderfully for so long.

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Crush3d
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Zoë Mode/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $35

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “Fez,” an upcoming, long-in-development puzzle/platforming game that literally turns the 2D platformer on its side.

But five years ago, an unheralded game named “Crush” did it first — and incredibly well — on the Playstation Portable. “Crush3d” takes steps forward and backward in remaking that game for a new system and (hopefully) new audience. But everything it did so brilliantly is preserved and, five years on, as clever and malevolent as ever.

(As a sidebar, the original “Crush” is available for $10 on the Playstation Network for the Vita and PSP. The more you know.)

The object of “Crush3d’s” 40 levels, as explained by a surprisingly chatty storyline, is to collect enough marbles to open a portal to the exit and then reach that exit. But accessing the marbles and the portal isn’t a simple matter of running and jumping over to them, because they typically sit impossibly out of reach.

Instead, you must rotate the level itself, turning it on its side or even vertically so that you’re viewing it from above. And after doing that, you have to “crush” it and flatten the 3D arrangement into a 2D one. Flattening the perspective connects platforms that exist nowhere near each other in the 3D space, and once they’re in close proximity according to your new perspective, you can hop from one to the next like they were next to each other the whole time. Uncrush the level, and suddenly you’re on a completely different plane.

All of that perspective manipulation transforms a completely pedestrian platformer into a beastly mental challenge, and “Crush3d” very quickly makes you work for it if you want to perfect a level (all marbles collected, the optional trophy and concept art piece discovered, and no hints used). Before long, the difficulty curve sharpens with the addition of pushable obstacles, moving platforms, giant cockroaches and blocks that behave differently based on color and dimension.

If that sounds intimidating, mission accomplished. But “Crush3d,” to its credit, doesn’t antagonize unnecessarily by throwing up a time limit or penalizing your score if you take your time solving a level. You might resort to some trial and error just for the sake of doing so when things really get elaborate and you reach your wits’ end, but unless that cockroach is giving chase, you’re free to take your time exploring a level without the nagging sensation that “Crush3d” is rushing you through the problem-solving process.

With that said, if time and crush limits appeal to your masochistic side, a 40-level Trophy Mode — wherein you must complete a level using only so many crushes, and within a par time — is available as a complement to the main story. Finding a trophy in the campaign unlocks the corresponding level in this mode, so keep your eyes peeled.)

“Crush3d’s” gameplay and puzzle design will look wholly familiar to those familiar with “Crush” on the PSP. Stylistically, though, it’s another story.

The game’s use of stereoscopic 3D is excellent — no surprise given the emphasis on perspective perception, but worth noting all the same. But “Crush’s” unique visual style — dystopian but also colorful and silly, with some likably weird graphic novel panels bringing a grouchy but whimsical story to life — has been shelved in favor of something a little less exciting. “Crush3d’s” presentation is pleasant, with brighter backdrops and a friendlier (though not saccharine) makeover for the characters, but it doesn’t stand out the way “Crush’s” look does even to this day.

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Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Slant Six/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

If you assembled a focus group of people who’ve never played a “Resident Evil” game and tasked them with designing the next one, “Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City” very well might be what they conceive by day’s end.

That isn’t damning criticism so much as faint praise, because “City” at least fulfills its unimaginative ideals with competency. It holds no candle to a traditional “RE” game. But as a cover-based, co-op-capable third-person squad shooter that hits every bullet point an online, experience points-driven, competitive/cooperative shooter needs to hit? Sure, why not.

With that said, the best thing about “City’s” cover shooter ambitions might be how it largely abandons them early in the campaign, which you can play alone with three A.I. partners, online with three human partners, or some mix therein. (Sadly, there’s no local co-op option.)

“City” drops you into the shoes of an Umbrella Corporation-appointed cleanup squad, tasked with removing all traces of its involvement in sparking the Raccoon City zombie apocalypse. In other words, you finally get to play out the saga’s formative episodes from the bad guy’s side.

Without spoiling specifics, the first leg of this PR campaign pits you against government soldiers who are armed both with guns and intelligence. (Hence, the need to fight from cover.)

The results are passable but sloppy. There’s no button to stick to cover: “City” does it automatically, which means it sometimes doesn’t when you need it to and does when you don’t. That, and the occasional unresponsiveness that happens when you try swapping weapons, detract from a control scheme that otherwise covers the basics adequately.

Fortunately — and inevitably, because they’re “RE’s” reason for being — the zombies indeed rush in. And once they do, “City” becomes 10 percent cover shooter and 90 percent run and gun.

The change in tempo doesn’t fully nullify “City’s” shortcomings, especially when it descends into chaos during mission-ending objectives that cram levels with zombies and soldiers galore. But the action is lively, and it’s fun to take on the zombie horde with degrees of weaponry and dexterity that wouldn’t make sense in a more traditional “RE” game.

As co-op experiences go, “City” is once again satisfactory. Setting up foursomes is easy, and teams that protect (and, in the event of a bad zombie fight, disinfect) each other will find those aforementioned descents into chaos much easier to bear.

If, however, you play alone, be prepared to fight alone. A.I. partners can kill a zombie or two, but they provide shoddy protection and can’t revive you like you can them. (If you turn zombie or become incapacitated, the game halts and whisks you back to the nearest checkpoint.) Cold though it sounds, your A.I. partners are best used as bait while you flank enemies from behind.

Other bullet points abound. The campaign is roughly six hours long, but with six very different (and separately upgradable) character classes to play as, there’s incentive to go play it again. Stats persist across the whole game, so you can apply your unlocked perks to “City’s” competitive multiplayer suite as well.

The competitive multiplayer (eight players, online only) features “RE”-flavored variants of team deathmatch, capture the flag and territory control. A Heroes Mode, meanwhile, lets you play as famous faces from games’ past and take sides in the standoff between Umbrella and the government.

Again, the action is fun but customary — albeit with a wrinkle. The multiplayer arenas are crawling with zombies, and once again, they’re the common enemy of both opposing forces. Having to manage boatloads of A.I. enemies while also outwitting more formidable human opponents — who are dealing with the same zombies while taking you on — adds some serious (and, unlike the chaos mentioned earlier, welcome) bedlam to what otherwise is pretty standard four-on-four action.

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Motorstorm RC
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10 on PS3, free on Vita for a limited time

If you ever imagined how amusing it might be to see “Motorstorm’s” hulking off-road vehicles shrunk down to RC car form, just wait until you see one of them flip over and land haplessly on its plastic back. To an arguable fault — at least, if you come in expecting a normal racing game — “Motorstorm RC” takes the gimmick and runs wild with it. The tracks — which “RC” displays from an overhead perspective a la “Super Off Road” or “R.C. Pro-Am” — are miniaturized, toy-car replicas of courses from all four previous “Motorstorm” games, and the vehicles’ handling physics are appropriately light but (like an RC car) just a little bit stubborn in the handling department. “RC’s” default controls mimic those of a remote control, with one stick (or R2 trigger on the PS3) handling the gas and brake while the other stick handles steering. You can customize these settings to use buttons if you wish. But if you want to beat your friends’ ghost times and get gold medal scores across all 48 events — a mix of races, time trials, overtake challenges and drift competitions — you’re advised to master the analog acceleration in order to tame that stubborn handling. Drive these vehicles like they’re regular video game cars, and you’ll pay dearly and regularly. Outside of four-player splitscreen on the PS3 version, “RC” lacks any kind of head-to-head multiplayer component. But its terrific integration of friends’ scores across all modes means you’re constantly competing with them anyway. Your scores and progress sync across both versions if you own both, and while the Vita version is free for a limited time thanks to Toyota, buying either version gets you the other version for free when it returns to regular price. How cool is that?