Games 4/17/11: Fez, Supremacy MMA Unrestricted, Anomaly Warzone Earth

Fez
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Polytron Corporation/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Following a quick introductory level and an amusing sequence that will mess with the heads of anyone who has watched an Xbox 360 (or two, or three) fail on them, “Fez” reveals the little trick that has made its release so hotly anticipated for some four years now.

The best part? It arguably — very arguably, admittedly — isn’t even the best trick in “Fez’s” bag.

During that opening level, “Fez” pretty customarily makes the kind of first impression you might expect from a modern-day 2D platformer. As the obscenely cheerful Gomez, you can run, jump and climb up certain walls and ledges, and the goal — reach the exit door at the topmost point of a mostly vertical level — is so obvious that the game seems reluctant to even point it out. Because there are no enemies, time limits or consequences for failure — making a fatal jump into a perilous spot simply places you back at your jump-off point — the reluctance is understandable, because success is inevitable.

But past that point, it’s a different story. “Fez’s” jubilantly silly story (sort of) explains the details, but the nutshell explanation is that your flat, 2D world is now a rare combination of still flat but in three dimensions.

Essentially, like sides of a cube, a level in “Fez” consists of four flat planes instead of one. Press the right or left triggers and the entire level unflattens into a cube, rotates on its axis and flattens again.

The only exception is Gomez, who remains exactly where he was. Platforms, walls, and other objects that were perpendicular to your point of view are now parallel (or, if you rotated twice, turned inside out and reversed), and with the level flattened, objects and areas that sat far apart at one angle might be right next to each other at this angle. Hop over to that now-nearby platform, rotate the level back, and suddenly you’re on the other side of the level.

“Fez’s” goals — find enchanted cube pieces (among other items) and keep on unlocking and opening those exit doors — remain dead simple. But when a cube piece sits impossibly out of reach and you have to find the right sequence of rotations to get over there or trigger the sequence of events that brings it within reach, the achievement of those goals is no longer so inevitable.

The (arguable) most beautiful thing about this arrangement is that “Fez” remains reluctant to explain itself. Gomez’s friends are on hand to marvel in disbelief as you rotate their entire world at will, but very little of the game’s dialogue serves to explain anything beyond the absolute basics.

The deal “Fez” brokers is simple. There are no enemies, time limits, scoring systems or failure penalties, and you’re free to jump back and forth between levels and solve riddles in whatever manner you discover them. In return, “Fez” tells you next to nothing about its riddles and how to even find, never mind solve, many of them. The map, though not entirely useless, seems deliberately convoluted. If you’re missing a few items from an area you last visited hours earlier, finding your way back there can be as tricky as solving some of its riddles.

But getting back there isn’t a chore when it entails uncovering numerous surprise discoveries along the way. “Fez” is that impossibly rare game that’s deviously challenging and absurdly relaxing at the same time, and the carte blanche it provides to truly and freely explore a world that’s as mysterious as it is unabashedly cheerful is a wonderful case of the journey, rather than its completion, being a game’s reward. The lack of stricter structure and harsher peril is bound to turn some off, but for those who derive as much joy from discovering as they do conquering, this is not to be missed.

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Supremacy MMA Unrestricted
For: Playstation Vita
From: Kung Fu Factory/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $40

“Supremacy MMA Unrestricted” is, without a doubt, the best mixed martial arts game in the Playstation Vita’s library.

Unfortunately, that’s partly because it’s also the only one. And while some MMA action is better than nothing, there’s enough working against “Unrestricted” to temper the enthusiasm serious fans may have for the sport’s Vita debut.

Most glaring is the uphill battle against UFC’s and EA Sports’ games for fighter name recognition — a problem “Unrestricted” arguably eschews by opting for a mostly fictional roster of fighters based on real-life fighters whom casual fans likely wouldn’t recognize anyway.

The fictional roster allows “Unrestricted” to take liberty and give most fighters a unique storyline to complete. The stories are short and won’t win awards for creativity. But it’s an angle the other games can’t take, especially with a level of grit that doesn’t always flatter the fighters. The cutscenes, distilled through voice-acted motion comics, look and sound good, too.

“Unrestricted” also breaks convention by including woman fighters, and here it does opt for real-life fighters. Problem is, only two — Felice Herrig and Michele Gutierrez — are included, and they can only fight each other. Unsurprisingly, their storylines wrap after 10 minutes because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

The actual act of fighting is a similar case of enticing and off-putting, though it doubtlessly will lean toward the latter for MMA purists.

Like its peers, “Unrestricted” accommodates multiple fight disciplines (wrestling, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu and so on) and provides the necessary means for ground, standing, striking and submission combat. Different fighters succeed differently based on their disciplines: Focusing on strikes if you’re a submission specialist will, for instance, probably end poorly.

Unlike its peers, “Unrestricted” distills its action through what essentially resembles a non-MMA fighting game. You get a lifebar, and the only way to win a fight is to drain your opponent’s lifebar. An opportunistic counterattack will hurt more than a plain strike, but there’s no way to thread the timing needle and land one perfect punch that turns a losing contest into a knockout victory. Similarly, the only way to make an opponent tap out is to perform a submission when his lifebar is already near zero. “Unrestricted” rewards players for focusing on specific body parts by giving attacks on weakened areas a damage premium, but the facets of a tense MMA fight — both on the technical side and the thrilling, this-can-turn-in-an-instant side — are dampened when the lifebar rules all.

“Unrestricted” also mimics fighting games by taking place almost exclusively on a 2D plane. You can move more freely to change stances during a ground attack, but when both fighters are upright, they’re always facing each other without any means to circle around and use the octagon.

These aren’t minor shortcomings if you want a true-blue MMA experience and not a fighting game with MMA trimmings.

But if you can settle for the latter, “Unrestricted” at least does that pretty well. Its handling of multiple disciplines certainly suffices, and each fighter has a nice complement of moves they perform merely adequately as well as expertly. You can mix button and touch controls freely — escaping submissions is ideal with touch, while basic attacks work best with buttons — and pretty much every move has a weak spot that can be countered and reversed if you time it correctly.

“Unrestricted” also performs sufficiently in the features department. Along with storylines for 14 fighters, the 16 male fighters each have separate upgrade paths that unlock customization bonuses. A training mode and two tournament styles round out the single-player options. A no-frills multiplayer option (two players, local/online) is available as well, but attempts to find an online match (and sometimes even connect to the server) proved unsuccessful.

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Anomaly Warzone Earth
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android, Windows PC, Mac
From: 11 bit studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, language)
Price: $10

Tower defense games have grown so prevalent that even the ones that mix in other genres and rewrite the rules of engagement are cropping up at a dangerous rate. “Anomaly Warzone Earth” dials it back with a presentation and control scheme that’s pure fundamental tower defense, but it flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting through an alien defense. The general rules of tower defense apply, but rather than lay out towers and turrets, you’re assembling a convoy lineup and drawing a path for it to follow through and around the streets of Baghdad’s and Tokyo’s urban battlegrounds. Vehicle upgrades and repairs replace tower upgrades, a handful of power-ups let you devise temporary defenses for your offense, and when all else fails, a terrific Tactical View interface lets you re-chart your course at any time. Nothing “Earth” does represents a seismic shift for tower defense, but the change of possession is a welcome twist for a genre that could use a few more of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the multiple campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the others driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress. “Earth’s” Xbox 360 version is late out the gate compared to its counterparts, and the control pad is (while plenty sufficient) less ideal than the other versions’ touchscreen and mouse controls. But along with the Tokyo missions that previously were exclusive to the Mac and PC, the 360 version gets a set of six Tactical Trials scenarios that (true to the name) task you with making creative use of limited resources to complete trials that play like riddles as much as they do missions.