Games 8/30/11: No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, Quarrel

No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise
For: Playstation 3
From: AQ Interactive/Marvelous Entertainment/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $40

If you wanted to love “No More Heroes” on the Wii but couldn’t get around its logistical roadblocks, the least interesting news about this overdue port may also be its best news.

Before we continue, let’s restate that: “No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise” is a port of the first “Heroes” game. The game’s new developer and publishers haven’t dramatically remixed it or spruced up what ailed it back in 2008, and while the graphics benefit greatly from the high-definition bump, that’s exactly what they are — a high-definition presentation of visual assets from the Wii version. It suffices just fine, in no small credit to a unique graphic style seen most commonly in motion comics, but you won’t be floored.

If anything — following an opening sequence that gives you an enticing taste of “Paradise’s” combat, mainline mission structure and storytelling flair — you might be confused. Because between those missions lies perhaps the worst open world design ever devised, and it arrives on the PS3 fully intact and still seemingly incomplete.

“Paradise” mandates that you take jobs (minigames) and side missions to fund your career as an up-and-coming assassin, and it spreads those tasks out across a huge map that’s perplexingly empty between destination spots. Driving through town once is, thanks to motorbike controls that give “stiff” a bad name, a bit of a chore. Doing it ad nauseam to play so-so minigames that eventually allow you to get to the next mission is just tedious, and “Paradise” missed a major opportunity to just do away with the open world or at least make it skippable via menus.

As with “Heroes,” though, what lies at the heart of this barren environment is what makes “Paradise” worth the trips through it. The game’s combat — doled out with your fists, feet and a beam katana that by any other name is an off-brand lightsaber — is simple but fun in an outrageously violent B-movie kind of way. The satisfaction of ripping through an army of no-name thugs is matched on a different scale by the mainline missions’ final encounters, which bring some terrifically weird character designs to a head with tense (if often unwieldy) one-on-one fights.

The boss designs work in tandem with monologues, dialogues, style choices and anything-goes narration to create a world that’s confidently capable of pulling double duty as a heart-on-sleeve spectacular and a fearless self-parody. Completely unrelated Influences come together to create discordant harmonies in “Paradise,” and the glee with which it all happens makes it easy to appreciate the game’s stylistic misses almost as much as its hits.

As should be no surprise, “Paradise” supports the Move controller in the same fashion that “Heroes” supported the Wii remote. But a lack of refinement in this area means that the camera issues that plagued this control scheme once plague it all over again here. There’s no 1:1 fidelity between the Move wand and the katana, and the annoying motion needed to recharge the katana is actually less responsive than it was on the Wii because the Move wand wasn’t built with jerky movements like this in mind.

Fortunately, “Paradise” had the good sense to include compatibility with traditional controllers, and the second thumbstick does wonders with its allowance of manual camera control and increased responsiveness with regard to certain finishing attacks. Playing this way undoes some of the novelty that made “Heroes” special in its first incarnation, but if the novelty of the Wii remote has already long worn off, it’s hardly a loss.

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Quarrel
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Indiagames Limited/UTV Ignition
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $5 for deluxe version; lite version available for free

The conceptually brilliant (and arguably excessively cheerful) “Quarrel” is what happens when Boggle and RISK have a child. The setup might sound familiar: Up to four armies share adjacent territories with one another, and dominating a “Quarrel” match comes down to wiping out the other armies before they eliminate yours. In this case, though, a battle comes down to eight random letters and one chance to build a better word than the opposing army. The more troops you have occupying the conflicted square, the more letters you can use to build your word, and the winning battalion can (depending on circumstance) take the square completely, whittle it down to one opposing troop, or make opposing troops switch allegiances. “Quarrel’s” cheerful presentation is a bit too caffeinated for its own good, but the actual game is a polished execution of a seriously great idea. You can play a base game of “Quarrel” for free, but most of the good stuff — a campaign, match customization, daily challenges, most of the maps and characters — is available only in the deluxe edition. Unfortunately, neither edition includes any kind of multiplayer, which might be a deal-killer given the influences in play and the state of word games on iOS. The A.I. is reasonably good, but here’s hoping multiplayer tops the to-do list for future updates.

Games 8/23: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Adventures of Shuggy, Anomaly Warzone Earth HD

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (intense violence, blood, sexual themes, strong language, drug reference, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

When we greeted “Deus Ex” as a liberator from a first-person shooter genre that badly needed a growth spurt, few probably predicted history would repeat itself 11 years later.

But here we are, neck-deep in a genre that’s reverted to old habits and covered them up with cinematic flimflam. And here’s “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” which holds so true to its pedigree that what was amazing then is amazing all over again now.

This isn’t immediately apparent, because while “Revolution” quickly establishes itself as a cover shooter — with a third-person perspective while in cover —  it also makes a point to let you know that attacking enemies at the front door is as viable a tactic as using stealth to neutralize them from behind. The cover interface makes complete use of the controller and requires some finger gymnastics when “Revolution’s” other systems are in play, but once you acquaint yourself, all the pieces — responsive controls, satisfying gunplay, intelligent enemy A.I. and an intuitive cover mechanic — are there.

“Revolution” complements this encouragement of freedom with a design that very ably suits it. In place of the same old corridors are open-ended areas with multiple paths straight through and around enemies. A tense and deceptively deep hacking minigame allows access to locked pathways, security cameras, sensitive data and other access restrictions, and you can move certain objects to create your own cover when cover isn’t readily available.

But it isn’t just “Revolution’s” levels that branch: It’s the whole game. True to the series’ lineage, “Revolution” operates around a role-playing core that’s built to accommodate your preferred attack style. In this instance, you can use experience points — accrued through everything from kills to finding secret passageways to completing side missions — to purchase bionic augmentations. (The story, set 25 years before the first game, explains all.)

“Revolution’s” augmentation selection is large and wonderfully diverse. Stealthy players can purchase an augmentation that briefly turn them invisible, for instance, while other augmentations let you see through walls, lift extremely heavy objects, and read other characters’ minds when in conversation with them. (Verbal manipulation, thanks to a great dialogue tree system, goes a long way here, which is why “Revolution” stocks an entire augmentation shelf dedicated to social mastery.)

The long list of augmentations works in concert with open-world hub cities and a massive, branching storyline — roughly five times the size of a typical shooter — to create an experience that truly feels tailor-made. Fans of the original expect nothing less, but if you’re new here, “Revolution’s” scope and freedom allowance might shock you. Engage in each cities’ side quests and dive into the ridiculous amount of discoverable exposition hiding behind locked doors and firewalls, and you’re looking at a 40-plus-hour investment that’s almost universally polished.

It’s merely a shame “Revolution” loses itself so badly whenever things come to a head in a boss fight. In contrast to everything that precedes and follows, these boss fights — enclosed shootouts against a massively overpowered enemy who can withstand an inhuman amount of firepower and has no issues firing explosives willy-nilly and unloading his or her own augmentations without rhythm or limitation — are a horridly rude awakening, especially if you’ve adopted a stealthy approach and don’t carry a ton of ammo. Outside of their infrequency, there is nothing good to say about these encounters, so you’ll just have to endure them to get back to everything else that makes “Revolution” so incredible.

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The Adventures of Shuggy
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Smudged Cat Games/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, comic mischief)
Price: $10

It happens every summer. Amid a glut of terrific downloadable games that fly off the virtual shelves under the generous promotional umbrella that is Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade, there drifts a ridiculously unlucky game that, despite being good or even great, gets instantly and thoroughly buried simply for releasing shortly before or after the campaign runs its course.

This year’s dishonoree, “The Adventures of Shuggy,” is especially unfortunate, because despite an outer shell that would suggest otherwise, it arguably outclasses the entire 2011 Summer of Arcade crop.

If you’re type of player to which “Shuggy” most explicitly caters, it may not even be close.

It certainly doesn’t look that way. “Shuggy” tells a cute but simple story about a vampire named Shuggy and the haunted castle he inherited and must clean out, and while the cartoony graphics are pleasant and certainly sufficient, they won’t drop jaws the way the likes of “Bastion” and “From Dust” can. Most of the game’s levels span no larger than a single screen, and the overriding goal of each level — collect all the gems — isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

But if you confuse the Flash-style graphics, bite-sized levels and older-than-Atari objective for a lack of ambition on “Shuggy’s” part, you’re letting vanity fool you. Simple and cute though the whole thing seems, the game is a beast in terms of physical and intellectual challenge.

Though the overriding gem-collecting objective holds steady, “Shuggy’s” gameplay parameters rather drastically vary from level to level. Sometimes, it’s 2D platforming at its most classic — jumping across pits and dodging enemies to collect each gem in a single run. But sometimes those levels take place upside down, asking you to be just as spry while also demanding you push the control stick left when old habits want to push it right. Occasionally, you have to do it at a 90-degree angle.

Other times, “Shuggy” asks you to rotate the entire level so that Shuggy lands on platforms and not spikes once gravity kicks back in. Frequently, you’ll have to time a jump while simultaneously rotating a level.

Yet other levels task you with manipulating multiple Shuggies, who must work in tandem to unlock some brilliantly devious cause-and-effect puzzles. They may or may not be observing the same laws of gravity while working together. Other times, when controlling one Shuggy, a crack in time will create ghost Shuggies, who both can help you (if you time certain cooperative actions to the cracks) or kill you (if you run into them and disrupt the space/time continuum).

These variants represent a sample of the laws obeyed in “Shuggy’s” 100-plus single-player levels, which liberally mix these and other parameters to create some absolutely maniacal challenges.

For the right crowd, though, the difficulty level is just right. “Shuggy” is a demanding endeavor, insofar that you have to collect every gem in one run without making any fatal mistakes. But the game takes a page from the similarly engrossing “Super Meat Boy” by providing unlimited lives and instantly restarting a level whenever you fail. The capacity for frustration is still there, but it’s extremely short-lived when you immediately can pop back up and give it another shot.

For those who enjoy working together, “Shuggy” includes an additional 36 levels that require a second player to complete. The co-op levels are offline only, but “Shuggy” includes online support by way of leaderboards and a two-player competitive gem race (also available offline) that dials down the intellectual demands in favor of a mindless but enjoyably frantic scramble.

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Anomaly Warzone Earth HD
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Mac,
From: 11 bit studios/Chillingo
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $4 for iPad, $2-$10 for other versions

Tower defense games are a perfect fit for the iPad, which is why there are way too many of them coming out at once for the genre’s good. But if you’re hungry for a change of pace instead of a break, “Anomaly Warzone Earth” flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting your way 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 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 of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are intuitively polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the other driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress.

Games 8/2/11: Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions, Call of Juarez : The Cartel, Trucks and Skulls NITRO

Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Dual screens aside, Nintendo’s 3DS still has one advantage over its trendier, phone-call-making portable competition, and it isn’t the 3D gimmick.

Rather — and as “Pac-Man Tilt” ably demonstrates — it’s the ability to combine tilt and touch controls with real, tactile buttons and put all three into simultaneous, chaotic play.

“Tilt” represents one-seventh of “Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions,” which combines five other games and a silly “Pac-Man” movie into a package that’s both great fun and noticeably deficient.

For many, the star attractions will be the games they’ve played before. “Dimensions” includes arcade ports of the original “Pac-Man” and “Galaga,” both of which play perfectly despite not being an ideal fit for the 3DS’ horizontal screens. “Dimensions” amusingly compensates by allowing you to view the action through a mock cabinet, curved CRT monitor effect and all. Everything still looks a little small, but not so much that the games are hard to play.

“Dimensions” also includes the “Pac-Man Championship Edition” and “Galaga Legions” reboots. Given that these newer games were designed for widescreen displays and analog joysticks, their ports to the 3DS feel more natural. The only downside is the hardware’s fault: That 3DS joypad isn’t as precise as a 360 or PS3 controller’s joystick, and you’ll occasionally pay for that in “PMCE” with your life.

If you have a question right now, it’s probably regarding why “Dimensions” includes those two games but not “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” or “Galaga Legions DX,” both of which released to even greater acclaim than their predecessors received. There’s no good answer other than the likelihood of Namco holding them so it can double-dip with a second compilation. That’s unfortunate, but the original reboots hold up awfully well, so it only partially stings.

Instead, “Dimensions” reserves those spots for two new games that take specific advantage of the 3DS hardware.

“Galaga 3D Impact” re-imagines “Galaga” as a first-person rail shooter, and you can use either the accelerometer or joypad to aim and shoot down contemporary representations of the “Galaga” waves you know and despise.

The new viewpoint is no replacement for traditional 2D “Galaga,” especially as presented in “Legions,” but “Impact” easily fulfills its mission as a challenging throw-in whose aim is to turn an arcade classic on its ear for one time only. It sticks to imitating the things that make other rail shooters fun, and enhances the experience with an upgradable weapons tree that makes inspired use of the iconic “Galaga” tractor beam.

Ultimately, though, it’s “Tilt” — in which players run, jump, roll and ride as Pac-Man — that sheds enticing light on what’s possible when the 3DS’ control inputs are working in tandem.

At its core, “Tilt” controls like any other sidescrolling platformer with regard to running and jumping. But if you want to destroy certain obstacles and clear a level as quickly as possible for a higher score, you’ll want to tilt the DS and send Pac-Man into a roll that’s faster and more dangerous than his top running speed. A typical “Tilt” level also features platforms, cannons, bomb balls and other apparatuses that you must move and aim using the accelerometer — sometimes while simultaneously using the buttons to control Pac-Man and the touchscreen to activate a crucial power pellet.

“Tilt’s” 30 levels make increasingly frantic utilization of these tandems, and achieving top marks is a legitimately tricky good time. Had Namco gone whole hog with the idea and upped the level count to the triple digits, this sliver of “Dimensions” may have been worth the price of admission all by itself.

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Call of Juarez : The Cartel
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Techland/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $60

Those who stroll unknowingly into “Call of Juarez : The Cartel” are in for a serious case of video game culture shock. The third game in a series of gunslinging first-person westerns takes place in present-day Los Angeles amid a looming war between the United States and a Mexican drug cartel, and while the national park setting is slightly novel, the game’s first shootout would otherwise feel at home in that other series that has “Call of” in its title.

“Cartel’s” chief protagonist has ancestral ties to the previous game’s protagonist, but otherwise, this may as well be a new series altogether. If you played previous “Juarez” games precisely to get away from assault rifles, C4 explosives, launching rockets at choppers and small armies constantly firing on your position, “Cartel’s” embrace of all that in the first mission alone will leave you deeply dismayed.

Whatever attempt “Cartel” makes the justify this change isn’t helped any by its storytelling. The leap to present day doesn’t strive for novelty, opting for a pedestrian cops-versus-gangs story instead of something that calls back to the Old West or makes the main character a fish out of water. You can play as one of three characters — “Cartel’s” online co-op functionality lets you assign two other players to the other two — but all three are dull caricatures who blather in cliches and (along with their enemies) repeat themselves way too often.

Past the national park, the areas in which the story unfolds — warehouses, a nightclub, a whole lot of streets and alleys — feel like a who’s who of urban warfare standards as well.

As for how it plays… how does “passable” sound? “Cartel” has a good assortment of guns and its controls and aiming are perfectly sufficient. The artificial intelligence of your allies and enemies leaves much to be desired, but neither is so unfortunate as to break the game.

Rather, like everything else, they’re competently ordinary. And while that faint praise is nothing new for the series when it comes to gameplay nuts and bolts, it’s harder to defend when it’s surrounded by the same old guns, enemies and environments instead of an Old West setting that’s considerably more unique in this medium. You might enjoy “Cartel” while you play it, but it also might be the most forgettable game you enjoy all year.

The one area where “Cartel” flashes some ingenuity is via a handful of optional assignments and findable items that allow you to build a resume as a dirty cop on the take. Getting your hands dirty nets you rewards, but only if you can successfully do so when your partners aren’t looking.

Thanks to the aforementioned A.I. deficiencies, going rogue is moderately fun but not very challenging when playing alone. But trying to pull some valuable wool over your friends’ eyes while they try to do the same to you adds a fun layer of two-way paranoia to “Cartel’s” co-op mode. The rewards and consequences for success and failure aren’t powerful enough to make the feature a total game-changer, but if you elect to play “Cartel,” asking a couple friends to play along will go a long way.

“Cartel’s” competitive multiplayer content (12 players) brings the game back to earth. The two modes —  gangs-versus-cops team deathmatch and a modified team deathmatch with rotating objectives — fit the new setting, and everything that was competent in the campaign remains competent here. But if you’re already invested in another online first-person shooter, nothing “Cartel” does is fresh or fleshed out enough to shake your loyalties.

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Trucks and Skulls NITRO
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: Appy Entertainment, Inc
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 for iPhone/iPod Touch, $2 for iPad

If you like the concept behind “Angry Birds” but wish it was less chirpy and a whole lot more metal, your wish could not be more granted. “Trucks and Skulls NITRO” takes the same general idea (executed with comparable competence) but replaces the birds with trucks and rockets while swapping out the pigs in favor of skulls and demons. The audiovisual presentation makes similar trade-offs, though not at the expense of a colorful presentation and a sense of humor. But while “Skulls” initially feels like a transparent knockoff of the hottest game around, it goes its own way just enough to freshen things up. There’s a greater emphasis on full-scale destruction, along with some awesome contraptions that assist in the wreckage from multiple angles. A few of the “birds” perform tricks that no angry bird is capable of, and a more flexible scoring system makes it possible to achieve four-gear scores (the “Skulls” answer to “Birds'” three stars) by completely destroying a level instead of defeating the skulls using the fewest amount of moves. “Skulls” stays fresh over more than 200 levels by introducing new gadgets and obstacles at a steady pace, and Game Center support allows you to compare scores and achievements with friends also playing the game.

Games 7/26/11: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, Wii Play Motion, Puzzle Agent 2

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Before it was cool to love “Deadly Premonition,” “Earth Defense Force 2017” was everyone’s ironically adored game of choice — a low-budget, sloppily-assembled but wholly lovable Japanese third-person shooter that took bad graphics, terrifying voice acting, comically stiff controls, jerky animation and mixed in a too-ambitious-for-its-own-good scope and some dead simple but absolutely chaotic shootouts to create one inexplicably great time.

With “Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon,” we have the third-person shooter equivalent of a cherished unsigned band putting out its major-label debut. An American developer has wrestled away the reigns, and it’s clear a bigger budget was in play during development. “Armageddon’s” control tweaks — both on foot and in vehicles — are a night-and-day improvement over “2017,” and while the visual presentation remains behind the curve, it’s considerably more stable and much better equipped to handle the action when everything is collapsing and exploding.

“Armageddon” has similarly matured in terms of content. Four soldier classes — trooper, jetpack, tactical and battle — each have a separate experience points system that unlocks new weapons as you play, and with more than 300 weapon variants on offer, you’ll have to play through the campaign multiple times to unlock everything.

For its part, the game includes remixed versions of finished missions and co-op support (four players online, two players offline) to make that prospect more enticing. Per genre custom, an arcade-style survival mode also is available for six players to shoot through together.

All of those frills are well and good, and they make “Armageddon” a technically better game than “2017” even as they take away some of the ricketiness that made that game so lovable.

Fortunately, if you can get over that, what remains is a game that, more polished and Americanized or not, still embraces what ultimately made “2017” a blast to play.

As the subtitle makes perfectly clear, “Armageddon” has not replaced giant insects with soldiers or stuffed the action into claustrophobic corridors. This isn’t a cover-based shooter against moderately large bugs: It’s an all-out bonanza against absolutely monstrous bugs, robots and spaceships on massive battlefields that are every bit as destructible as the balsa wood buildings from “2017.”

That, in this age of every third-person shooter running for cover, is what’s most important to preserve, and “Armageddon” hangs on for dear life.

The downside to all this is that, for all the chaos “Armageddon” unleashes, that chaos doesn’t change much from mission to mission. New enemy types appear, the remixed levels are a nice touch and the class and weapon variations certainly provide some additional flavor, but the core action — shoot lots of enemies, and then shoot lots more — doesn’t change much from the first mission to the last.

“Armageddon” isn’t much for storytelling, and that’s easily forgiven when your orders are to kill everything that moves and the act of doing so is mostly great fun. But when you don’t have much storytelling to do, you also don’t tend to mind your rhythm and tempo very closely. In “Armageddon’s” case, that leads to missions that start loud, stay loud, end loud and sometimes outstay their welcome.

This, of course, is nothing taking an occasional break won’t fix. But it’s something to bear in mind if your plan is to blitz through “Armageddon” during a quick rental rather than buy it and play it at a more measured pace.

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Wii Play Motion
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50 (includes Wii Remote Plus controller)

The Wii remote has been granted a new lease on life with the news that it will play an integral role in Nintendo’s Wii successor. So if you were on the fence about investing in a new remote — in particular, the Wii Remote Plus, which combines the original remote and Wii MotionPlus attachment into one device the size of that original remote — you can invest with a little more confidence.

And if you’re going to do that, you may as well repeat history and throw in an extra $10 for another “Wii Play” minigames collection that’s much better than its throwaway price suggests.

Similar to its predecessor, “Wii Play Motion” offers 12 minigames whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the versatility of the controller inside the box. This time, with MotionPlus capabilities baked into the included remote, that means games with significantly better motion control fidelity than the much simpler games in the original “Play.”

(As a side note, know that while “Motion” scatters two-to-four-player multiplayer support across most of its minigames, any additional controllers you use either must be Wii Remote Plus controllers or have the MotionPlus attachment.)

With increased controller versatility comes an increase in minigame versatility, and while “Motion” never feels like an active game in the “Wii Sports” mold — you very easily can play all 12 games sitting down — it certainly encourages players to do some surprising exercises with the remote.

The most clever example, Spooky Search, even has you pointing the remote anywhere but at the screen, brilliantly using the built-in speaker to clue you into the location of ghosts so you can grab them and struggle, Ghostbusters-style, to pull them into a ghost trap.

Star Shuttle, on the other hand, turns the remote into a virtual space shuttle, using all the buttons as thrusters and tasking you with carefully docking onto a space station. If you ever played the infamous refueling minigame in “Top Gun” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, this will ring familiar. (Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as difficult.)

In a nod to the remote’s ability to recognize subtle motions, Treasure Twirl has you raising and lowering a deep sea diver by carefully rotating the remote like a throttle while tilting it to control the diver’s lateral movements.

The arguable gem in the package, Teeter Targets, requires an even softer touch: The remote becomes a teeter totter, which must contend with real-world physics to not only keep a ball in air, but guide it into different targets to clear a level.

Other games — an ice cream scoop balancing challenge, an elaborate version of whack-a-mole, a target-shooting game with multiple level themes, a virtual stone-skipping simulation — utilize the remote in less surprising ways. But while some games are deeper and more engaging than others, “Motion” doesn’t have any that feel like duds or even filler. All 12 work as expected, and all 12 are blessed with Nintendo’s unique brand of personality and presentation.

“Motion” isn’t hurting for replayability, either. Teeter Targets, for instance, features 30 levels and three additional endless modes, and each level and mode includes its own high score table. This isn’t the exception, either: Every minigame in “Motion” features its own handful of bonus levels and solo/multiplayer modes beyond the original mode, and every level of every mode has a leaderboard that records your and your friends’ best scores and times.

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Puzzle Agent 2
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Macintosh
From: Telltale Games
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $7

Though not wholly original, “Puzzle Agent” nonetheless felt like a breath of fresh air for adventure games. Instead of more of the same point-and-click cause and effect, “Agent” unfurled its mystery through an intelligent assortment of brainteasers in the same vein of Nintendo’s terrific Professor Layton games. The storyline opted for a surprisingly low-key sense of humor rarely seen in video games, and the visual presentation — a mix of color pencils and charcoals, occasionally deliberately zoomed in to give everything an odd blur — remains one of a kind. If you played “Agent” and liked it, the long and short of “Puzzle Agent 2” is that it has more of it on offer. Loose ends from the first game’s cliffhanger ending are tied up somewhat, but new loose ends emerge in their place. The tone and visual style confidently migrate to the sequel untouched, and while “PA2” introduces some welcome new brainteaser types and cuts down on a few that were overexposed the first time through, most of what you see — from riddle types to how they’re presented — will be at least somewhat familiar (and, unfortunately, mostly easier). Still, for most fans of unsung FBI agent Nelson Tethers’ first adventure, this will suffice. The first game made a splash because it was a surprise, but it was the design, polish and variety of puzzles that ultimately made it endure. That, difficulty quibbles or not, applies the second time around as well.

Games 2/22/11: de Blob 2, Stacking, Battleheart

de Blob 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Tongue/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Any conversation about criminally overlooked Wii games should have “de Blob” in the first paragraph, if not the lead, so THQ deserves commendation for giving the series a second chance on more (and better) hardware.

Fundamentally, “de Blob 2” doesn’t break significant ground so much as make a more ambitious and more diverse return to form. You still play as Blob, a hyper-absorbent and deeply charming ball of goo whose primary abilities include rolling, jumping, smashing and absorbing different colors of paint, which he can use to turn the colorless buildings and citizens of Prisma City into their happy former selves.

To that end, the story remains the same: Free everyone and everything from the INKT Corporation’s monochromatic rule, in what almost certainly will be the cutest allegory you’ll ever see for regime takeover and democratic revolution. Like the first game, it’s charm run amok, with adorable character design, genuinely funny dialogue and a soundtrack that brilliantly bends to your actions in the game.

Primarily, the revolution comes via Blob painting every last square inch of “dB2’s” 11 levels, which also include missions centered around liberating citizens, sabotaging INKT technology and other objectives related to level design and story events.

The levels — which include a cola plant, a prison zoo and the Inktron Collider, to name three examples — are large enough to qualify as open worlds, and as long as time remains on the clock, Blob is free to tackle secondary objectives as well as main story missions in whatever fashion suits him. The clock is meant to keep players constantly moving, and it succeeds in just the right way: The time limits are generous on both difficulty settings, there are umpteen ways to add time, and once the main objectives are complete, the clock disappears and “dB2” lets you complete the rest of the level at your leisure.

All of this was true of “dB1,” too. But the series’ extremely unique underpinnings make the initial familiarity more forgivable than it might otherwise be, and the changes “dB2” does introduce are almost always welcome ones.

Most notable are the new sabotage missions that take Blob underground and play like a sidescrolling game instead of the traditional 3D action you see above ground. The new perspective lets “dB2” design a whole new flavor of challenges that still capitalize on the core concepts, and when these mini-levels bump up their difficulty later on, they occasionally outshine the bigger levels.

“dB2” also offers a limited offline co-op feature that allows a second player (as Blob’s friend Pinky) to shoot paint at environments, enemies and Blob himself using a targeting reticule. It isn’t nearly as involved as controlling Blob himself, but it adds a fun social element to the game, and if you’re playing the PS3 version, it’s an ideal use of the Playstation Move wand, which “dB2” supports throughout all its modes.

Elsewhere, the changes are customary but appreciated. The mission objectives are more diverse than last time, and “dB2” gradually introduces new powerups and gadgets that increase both Blob’s arsenal and the kind of missions he can encounter. It’s unquestionably more of the same basic gameplay, but the little surprises “dB2” reveals (three words: wrecking ball Blob) over its surprisingly lengthy adventure are enough to keep a great concept blessed with great execution going strong.

Provided you aren’t restricted to playing “dB2” on the Wii, the better hardware also helps. “dB2” looks terrific in high definition, and it benefits from a more traditional controller’s ability to control the camera without the kind of fuss that unfortunately comes standard on the Wii.

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Stacking
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Double Fine Productions/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

This is what happens when a developer with big-budget talent and an independent spirit flourishes on a platform that allows it to flex both characteristics at once: You get a game in which you play as a Russian nesting doll.

(In case the term isn’t ringing a bell, Russian nesting dolls are those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other. You open one, and a smaller one is inside. Open that one, and an even smaller one is inside.)

“Stacking” brings those dolls to life, starring you as a tiny stacking doll named Charlie and tasking you with rescuing your family from an evil baron who has kidnapped and sentenced them to involuntary servitude.

By himself, Charlie is overmatched. But he has the ability to “stack” into any doll who is one degree larger than him and assume control of that character. That character, in turn, can stack into an even larger doll, and the process continues until you achieve control over the game’s largest (and, usually, most influential) dolls.

“Stacking” arranges its story by putting each imperiled family member in a different environment — a cruise ship, a zeppelin, a triple-decker train — and connecting everything with a similarly spacious hub level set inside a train station. Charlie is free to roam the environments as he likes, and you can inhabit any character, major or minor, who is roaming about.

Every character has a special maneuver he or she can perform — some of them crucial to the story (a widow seducing a guard into leaving his post), some useful (a woman with a spyglass can quickly discern which characters qualify as significant), some silly (dancing, playing paddleball, or performing various acts of mischief, which the game rewards through a suite of optional challenges).

The trick to saving Charlie’s family is to use the right dolls in the right ways to solve various cause-and-effect riddles, which generally involve getting around, influencing or assuming control of powerful dolls who won’t let Charlie get by them in his default form.

At its most linear, this isn’t terribly difficult, nor is “Stacking” particularly lengthly (a few hours, maybe) if you rush through the storyline and ignore the optional content.

But “Stacking” makes a terrific decision to give every challenge multiple solutions, and the players who will truly enjoy this game are the ones who come back to figure out every solution to every problem. Every challenge has an easy solution that’s made somewhat obvious by the presence of certain dolls in the vicinity, but the more obscure solutions require some inventiveness and often involve using dolls the game hasn’t labeled as significant. Other optional objectives, including the aforementioned mischief-making and a great challenge that involves reuniting other families by finding and stacking them together, give “Stacking” a lot more activity than initially meets the eye.

It also gives players an excuse to spend more time in the absolutely delightful world Double Fine has designed. “Stacking’s” dolls really look like living nesting dolls, from the expressions on their faces to the polished wooden sheen they give off to the wobbly, stop-motion-esque animation of their every movement. The rest of the world, which feels like a collection of early 20th century miniatures come alive, provides a beautiful complement. Even the cutscenes play along by mimicking a
silent film reel — piano soundtrack, written dialogue frames, film artifacts and all. The storytelling runs a bit heavy in “Stacking’s” early going, but its presentation is so novel that the excess is easily forgiven.

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Battleheart
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Mika Mobile
iTunes Store rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

As games that blend genres and take advantage of platform strengths go, it rarely gets better than this. On paper, “Battleheart” reads like a role-playing game: You assemble a party of characters with different strengths, upgrade those strengths by accruing experience and gold in battle, and use that gold to buy, sell and upgrade weapons, armor and other items with special attributes. But where most RPGs lean heavily on story, “Battleheart” all but skips it. Instead, the battles — which the game distributes across selectable levels almost like an arcade game — are the end as well as the means. That’s fine, too, because where most RPGs use a battle system that’s turn-based and menu-driven, “Battleheart” opts instead for a frantic, hands-on system that plays like a real-time strategy game on caffeine. Players control up to four characters at once, and commanding them is as simple as drawing a path for them, pointing them at specific enemies to attack, and occasionally tapping an icon to activate a spell. The simple controls — which nicely complement the game’s clean, ultra-cartoony look — prove a perfect fit once “Battleheart’s” introductory levels quickly give way to some seriously chaotic skirmishes. Things get crowded to a fault sometimes, especially on the smaller iPhone screen, but it’s an acceptable side effect of “Battleheart’s” refusal to compromise its thirst for chaos.


Games 1/4/11: MicroBot, Splatterhouse, Zombie Smash HD

MicroBot
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Naked Sky Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“MicroBot’s” decision to take the rapidly staling twin-stick shooter genre into a fresh new setting — the human body, a la “Fantastic Voyage” — pays immediate dividends in the audiovisual department. Provided you can get behind some other new ideas that are so different as to arguably run contrary to the genre’s typical principles, it compounds that reward as you delve deeper into that setting.

Like “Geometry Wars,” “Super Stardust HD” and any number of other twin-stick shooters, “MicroBot’s” control scheme — left stick to move your vessel, right stick to aim and fire — couldn’t be simpler. You’re controlling a nanorobot instead of a spaceship, and invading aliens and zombies have been replaced by invading bacteria and other catalysts for illness, but the primary objective — shoot everything and stay alive — is as pure as it’s ever been.

But “MicroBot’s” setting almost immediately allows it to set a different pace than its peers typically establish. Steering the nanorobot through an advancing school of cells or against an opposing current of blood adds a palpable degree of resistance (and, when riding with the current, assistance) to basic movement, and the setting takes on its own life as a neutral third character in the battle between bot and disease. The body can be both a lifesaver and a hazard depending on how you approach its moving parts, and it looks awfully good regardless of its utility. (Word of warning to the excessively squeamish: Clinical or not, “MicroBot’s” depiction of video game blood may be a little too authentic for your stomach’s liking.)

The setting also provides occasion for “MicroBot” to dote on exploration more than a twin-stick shooter typically does. Arguably, it’s to a fault.

Rather than take place in a single screen or arena, “MicroBot’s” levels are large, winding and rife with alternate passageways and other secrets. Levels are dotted with hidden items and atoms that go toward upgrading the bot’s capabilities, and while picking levels clean is totally optional, uncovering the trickier secrets is easily as satisfying an endeavor as any of the mandatory challenges.

The debatable downside is that the exploration comes at the expense of intensity. “MicroBot” provides a ton of stuff to shoot, but it also punctuates its frantic shootouts with slower moments designed around exploration. Anyone expecting a continuous, “Geometry Wars”-style assault should adjust their expectations, because this isn’t that kind of game. Beyond a secondary challenge mode, the game doesn’t even use a scoreboard.

The upside to that arguable downside is that “MicroBot” embraces its adventure-game ambitions. In addition to roomy, the levels are more diverse than the setting might imply. The boss fights that cap each area provide satisfying closure to each area. Local co-op support lets two players complete the journey together.

Finally, the upgrade tree is absolutely stellar. Collecting atoms and unlocking abilities allows you to upgrade the nanorobot with a surprising abundance of parts, and the game’s flexibility with regard to parts distribution — and the effects different distributions have on play — is striking. Players who want a faster game can upgrade their way to one by loading their bot with navigation parts, while struggling players can fortify their bot with defensive parts to ease the difficulty. “MicroBot” naturally allows players to upgrade their weaponry as well, and the nice array of firepower has something for everyone to like.

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Splatterhouse
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

“Splatterhouse’s” legacy undoubtably will be the new heights to which it elevates video game gore. True to the name, it’s swimming in blood, with the most minor of attacks spraying the screen with blotches of red while the more advanced moves practically coat the entire level in the stuff. Throw in some special kills that trigger some very painful-looking interactive cutscenes, and the award for the goriest game in existence is now handily in this game’s possession. A subtle reliance on cel shading slightly mutes the effect, but only slightly.

But Namco justifies the whole disgusting display by applying some real weight — figuratively as well as literally — to all those attacks. “Splatterhouse’s” storyline encompasses a good eight to 10 hours of play time, and the novelty of all that blood would dissipate awfully quickly if the storytelling and gameplay propping it up weren’t so surprisingly strong.

“Splatterhouse’s” core action plays out like any number of recent action games in the “God of War” and “Dante’s Inferno” vein. One button handles light attacks, the other heavy attacks, and using the attack buttons in different combinations allows Rick (that’s you) to escalate the impact of his arsenal. A handful of limited-use weapons — planks, cleavers, chainsaws and a couple more that will be detailed later — provide a temporary uptick in offense when available.

As the story explains, though, Rick is no ordinary protagonist. In fact, he’s kind of a geek — albeit one fused with a mask that (again, as “Splatterhouse” explains) transforms him into an inhumanly strong hulk. Along with the aforementioned blood-coating attacks, the extra strength allows him to, for instance, pick up an enemy, pull his arm off and use that arm as a bat. Well-timed special attacks fill the battleground with usable “weapons” of this magnitude, adding a nice level of risk/reward and effectively discouraging the exercise of banal button mashing. Combined with the game’s nice control balance — there’s a noticeable and beneficial heft to Rick’s attacks, but not at the expense of his agility — the combat system is much more thoughtful than the bloodlust might initially imply.

Doubly surprising is “Splatterhouse’s” story, which begins ambiguously but makes a gradual, continual transformation into something surprisingly artful. The story of Rick, his talking mask (again, story explains), his girlfriend and the maniacal Dr. West doesn’t quite add up logically, and the mask has more than a few annoying things to say (and say again) while harassing Rick. But “Splatterhouse’s” first two-thirds construct a legitimately wicked horror story, and when the narrative focus shifts from Rick to West in the final third, the game handles it with a surprising level of care and spirit.

All the same, the usual trappings of the genre are accounted for. While “Splatterhouse’s” storyline ramps up well, the action can stagnate, and nearly every enemy configuration in the game’s back half consists of remixed arrangements of the same enemies from the first half. Some new boss enemies appear, the locales change up nicely, and Rick’s upgradable repertoire opens up the combat variety at a good pace, but the creeping repetition still leaves a mark.

Much worse, though, is when “Splatterhouse” tries its hand as a platforming game despite having a character and camera that aren’t remotely up to the task. These segments are cheaply difficult and, because of how often you’ll die because the game fails you, annoyingly unfun. Fortunately, they’re also pretty brief and very infrequent.

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Zombie Smash HD
For: iPad
From: Gamedoctors
iTu
nes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)

To look at a screenshot of “Zombie Smash HD” might be to presume it’s yet another tower defense game in which you must defend your house against yet another onslaught of zombies. But “Smash” spares itself from the rehash tag by letting you go very literally hands on with that defense. As zombies encroach on the house, you can use your fingers to pick them up, lob them backward, fling them across the screen and, true to the title, smash them into the ground. Various weapons and pickups — construction wrecking balls, meteor showers, a coach’s whistle that stops everyone in their tracks — are available for a temporary assist, but to succeed at “Smash” is to be quick with the hands and master the art of using multiple fingers to fling multiple zombies simultaneously. In the later stages, it’s far more an action than strategy game. “Smash” includes a 31-day campaign mode, a shorter bonus campaign with remixed rules, an endless mode and a sandbox mode, and it dangles Game Center leaderboards and achievements for extra motivation. But it’s the colorful cartoony presentation that really makes the whole thing sing. Gamedoctors itself describes “Smash” as a survival comedy game, and between the goofy zombie designs and the slapstick that erupts when pickups and your fingers work in tandem, it’s an apt description.


Games 9/28/10: Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, NHL Slapshot, NHL 2K11, NHL 11, Puzzle Agent

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

When “Spider-Man 2” gave players a chance to swing freely as Spidey through open-world New York City, it was revolutionary. When “Spider-Man 3” did the exact same thing in high definition, it was fine. And when “Web of Shadows” repeated the trick a year later, it was kind of old.

“Shattered Dimensions,” by contrast, goes back to a model that pre-dates the revolution. There are 13 levels, each with its own environment and boss villain, and while most of the levels are roomy and ripe for exploration, there’s a continuous forward progression not found in those open-world games.

Guess what? It feels fresh again, and the distinctive qualities and greater sense of purpose each level has far outweigh the freedom to go anywhere at any time. Along with the magnificent job Beenox does of cramming so many aspects of the Spider-Man universe into a surprisingly lengthy game, it’s arguably the best “Spider-Man” game ever made.

The “Dimensions” name comes from the game’s big hook — the ability to play as four different Spider-Men (Amazing, Ultimate, 2099 and Noir) who work together in different dimensions to save the universe from tearing to shreds.

The different Spideys naturally have different abilities. Ultimate Spider-Man, for instance, is built to handle more enemies at a time than the others, while Noir Spidey compensates for his iffy fighting abilities by being able to hide in shadows and dispatch enemies before they even see him.

The four Spideys share a base control scheme, but they operate differently enough to give the game a surprising array of variety, and “Dimensions” rises to the occasion by designing levels and even visual styles (cel shading for Amazing Spidey, lighting effects run wild for 2099, sepia tones for Noir) that feel distinctive and play to each characters’ (and villains’) styles.

Compounding the variety between the different dimensions is a total willingness on the game’s part not only to have as much fun as possible with the license — the game flashes excellent voice acting and a sense of humor that hits far more than misses — but also to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.

Sometimes, it doesn’t work: Some levels drag on for too long with repetitive combat, while certain stretches shine a light on the things (wall-climbing, namely) the controls and camera don’t handle so well.

More than not, though, the results sing. Zip-swinging through a tornado of debris in pursuit of Sandman isn’t like anything thats been done before in a superhero game, and it’s as intuitive as it is chaotic. A frantic swing against a tide of tidal waves ends with a dash atop a capsizing boat. A pursuit through a darkened carnival has Noir spidey neutralizing thugs from atop a tilt-a-whirl. And a level starring Deadpool as the villain is set within the parameters of a game show. “Dimensions” reserves as much care for its 13 villains as it does its four Spider-Men, and the outpouring keeps the surprises coming all the way through to the conclusion (and, hilariously, past the final credit roll).

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NHL Slapshot
For: Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

NHL 2K11
For: Wii
From: 2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)

NHL 11
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)

Another fall means another round of hockey games from the usual suspects, but the rules have changed slightly for 2010.

The biggest twist is “NHL Slapshot,” a brand-new, Wii-only game with arcade tendencies that harken back to EA’s early hockey days and a pack-in hockey stick peripheral that makes it a beast of its own creation.

The stick is nothing more than an enclosure for the Wii remote and nunchuck, and those who wish to play “Slapshot” without it can do so with two alternative control schemes. But the scheme designed around the stick — buttons play a role, but the act of swinging the stick allows players to shoot, check and deke — is surprisingly fun and, thanks to “Slapshot’s” arcade leanings, plenty precise enough to work.

For those who want “NHL 11” on the Wii, the downside to “Slapshot” is obvious: Even with the more traditional control schemes, this isn’t a sim on that level. But “Slapshot” also isn’t shallow: It has the whole league, some junior clubs, roster management, a season mode, a Peewee-to-Pro career mode, goalie controls, mini-games and a player creator. Don’t let the stick gimmick trick you into thinking “Slapshot” is a one-trick game. It isn’t, and if you want a game that plays like EA’s classic NHL games but has a modern feature set (online play excepted), this is not to be missed.

Wii owners who want something more serious have another exclusive option in “NHL 2K11,” but it’s hard to get excited about a game that’s pulling stand-in duty while 2K Sports retools the series for a 2011 reboot on all three consoles.

“2K11” isn’t without new material: The Road to the Cup mode — which pits players’ Mii avatars in a series of mini game challenges — benefits from clever games and a funny game show format, and improved MotionPlus implementation enhances the stickhandling controls.

Mostly, though, the game feels as tired as its stand-in status implies. It looks aged, it counters the stickhandling improvements with other control issues that return from last year, and online performance remains spotty. Player records return data from the 2008 season, and certain features from previous 360 and PS3 versions still aren’t here. Next year’s game might be worth this holdover, but right now, owners of those consoles are missing little.

It helps, of course, that those systems still have the best simulation in the business with EA’s “NHL” series, which, since its own reinvention a few years back, has toed the line between authenticity and accessibility better than any sports game — “Madden” included — ever has.

“NHL 11’s” big new feature — an Ultimate Hockey League mode that involves playing well in any mode and collecting cards that improve player attributes in lieu of competing with other players in a monthly online tournament — might be too big for those who wish to play the game on a remotely casual level. But obsessives who love both hockey and the tenets of role-playing games should adore the new challenge, which is insanely deep and wholly unlike anything a sports sim has attempted before.

For the rest of us, the changes are more minute but worth mention all the same. The Canadian Hockey League joins the game’s comprehensive roster of teams beyond the NHL, and the Be a Pro career mode now begins in those junior ranks before shifting to the NHL. The faceoff system gets a pinch of extra depth, sticks break, and tweaks in the physics quietly infiltrate the entirety of the action to improve everything from checks to dekes.

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Puzzle Agent
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Macintosh
From: Telltale Games
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, drug use or references to these, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)

“Puzzle Agent” marks a pleasant change of pace for Telltale Games, which has done the vast majority of the heavy lifting responsible for the point-and-click adventure game revival. The overt humor of those other games is replaced here by a more low-key (but still funny) style that, along with the color pencil-and-charcoals artwork style, are based on cartoonist Graham Annable’s comics and animated shorts. More importantly, though, “Agent” isn’t really a point-and-click adventure in the traditional sense. Players still tap on parts of the environment to help Det. Nelson Tethers navigate around the sleepy town of Scoggins, Minn., but the real action takes place through a series of brainteasers that, when solved, provide clues toward unraveling the greater mystery at hand. “Agent’s” riddles run the gamut, from deductions of logic to visual challenges straight out of a book of brainteasers, and fans of Nintendo’s sterling “Professor Layton” games will appreciate a similar level of variety and craftsmanship (and, for those who need it, helpful hints) on display here. The amount of content here isn’t as bountiful as it is in those “Layton” games, but the friendly price reflects that, and it’s a small tax to pay for a game that adds a distinctive energy to a genre that’s never looked healthier or more inviting than it currently does.

Games 6/22/10: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, Toy Story 3, Wake up the Box!

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

It takes a special kind of thread to maneuver a needle as well-established (and, because it’s a professional golfing simulation, creatively handcuffed) as “Tiger Woods PGA Tour,” and it’s doubly difficult to please everybody in doing so. But in making changes that separately benefit those who want a more accessible golf experience and those who want a game that makes that first group cry, that’s precisely what “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11” does.

On the accessibility front, “TW11” introduces a slightly fantastical currency, called focus, that players can accrue by playing well and spend as they choose to add power to a shot, increase accuracy or (among other things) use a putt preview mechanic to help fine-tune a shot on the green. The focus interface’s subtle design respects the integrity of the simulation, and because it’s rewarded to players through skillful play and hands out benefits with entirely believable results, it’s satisfyingly authentic despite being an inarguably contrived video game mechanic.

The focus currency headlines a number of more subtle changes that let unseasoned players cater “TW11” to best address their shortcomings. The career mode once again distributes skill improvements as players advance their created golfers through the PGA Tour calendar, but now players can allot experience points to the areas — putting, driving, fading and so on — that most need the help. The optional tutorial lessons do a much better job of preaching the value of draws, lofts and shot types, and the analog stick controls (and meters for reading their accuracy) are responsive without, as they sometimes have in previous games, resorting to excess sensitivity.

On the complete other side of things is the new True Aim mode, which takes away all of “TW11’s” gamey assists and presents the entirety of the action, even post-shot, from the golfer’s point of view. Outside of a GPS device that helps players read the terrain and know the distance to the hole, the True Aim filter is akin to playing golf the way real golfers play it. It’s little more than a new camera angle and a disabling of certain viewing functions, but it arguably is “TW11’s” best addition for players who crave authenticity and want a new kind of challenge from the series.

Though the aforementioned tweaks might be the best thing about “TW11,” the addition of team play is the most prominent. The Ryder Cup, complete with captain duties and team management, joins the roster of playable championships, and “TW11’s” online team play supports up to six teams of four players each.

Traditional solo play (up to four players locally or online) returns, but now all players can shoot at their own pace online without watching everyone else take their turn. That welcome change heads the usual list of tiny enhancements, including some tweaks to the graphics and ball physics, more realistic green layouts, dynamic wind patterns that are prone to gusts, and a livelier GamerNet Challenges system, which allows players to challenge community shot records and accrue bonus experience points without ever leaving whatever mode they’re already playing.

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Toy Story 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Also available for: Windows PC, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief)

“Toy story 3” is what happens when inspired ideas fight a battle to the end with uninspired ideas while good and subpar execution duel similarly in the background.

Fortunately, if not easily, the good guys win more battles than they lose, and the game is significantly better than its five-car collision of ingredients would imply.

The struggle is apparent immediately, with “TS3” pushing players into the story’s first level — an on-horse Wild West chase level starring Woody as the playable character — before the main menu even pops up. The level is simple, straightforward fun, but it’s also hampered by an unpolished control responsiveness (in this case, some imprecise horse jumping controls) that infects other control schemes throughout the game. A very generous checkpoint system makes it easy to forgive the setbacks the controls cause, but not so much that they aren’t still annoying when they pop up in bunches.

Immediately following that first level, “TS3” drops players into an entirely different mode — the Toy Box — and it does so without adequately clarifying that players who wish to continue the story can do so without doing a single thing in this mode. But the confusion might be for the best, because it’s probably the most foolproof way to demonstrate to players that it’s this mode — and not the storyline, which feels more like a collection of self-contained vignettes than a coherent storyline — that really makes “TS3” better than just another kids’ movie game.

Toy Box is “TS3’s” answer to sandbox gameplay — a fully open world, teeming with citizens, “Toy Story” characters and a horde of missions to complete and virtual toys (characters, vehicles and full-blown playsets) to unlock.

The missions aren’t exactly ingenious, with most of them being either fetch quests or simple facsimiles of side quests found in other open-world games. But “TS3” designs them to be either quick or open-ended, making it easy for players to take on multiple objectives at a time while collecting more as they check some off the list. The variety of quests does plenty to compensate the lack of original mission design, and it only increases as players compile rewards and use them to purchase new toys — a horse here, a stunt car track there — that come with new mission types.

Those occasionally dodgy controls rear their head here as well — particularly with regard to the toy car controls, which are among the worst driving controls to be found anywhere in 2010. But “TS3’s” mission structure is so dense that when one quest is giving fits, there’s probably another one right behind it for players to work on before they go back and give the first one a shot. It’s a busybody’s paradise, it uses the “Toy Story” license very well, and it offers ambitious players a ton to do if they wish to turn the game inside out.

The story missions, by comparison, are less impressive, in part because there aren’t too many of them and they don’t tell much of a story. What they can do, though, is experiment with level designs the Toy Box’s open-world structure couldn’t properly accommodate. Not every experiment is a success, but enough of the missions do enough things right to make this a welcome addition to the game’s surprise main attraction.

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Wake up the Box!
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Wandake
iTunes Store Rating: 4+

“Wake up the Box!” is an imperfect game in some pretty significant ways, but developer Wandake appears to have partially acknowledged that by rewarding those who get in on the ground floor. Like a handful of other physics-based puzzle games, “Box” gives players a set amount of pieces in each level and tasks them with arranging them to influence the laws physics and successfully complete the level. But unlike most of these games, the object in “Box” is to create a chain reaction that leads to havoc — specifically, waking the napping Mr. Box — instead of prevent it. Though “Box” gets the physics and piece controls perfectly right, it does a
poor job of explaining this objective, and a lack of instruction means you’ll have to decipher the game’s methods, interface and scoring system yourself. “Box’s” level count — 15 total, 10 of which are pretty easy to solve — is similarly lacking. But Wandake has promised lots of updates to come as “Box” evolves, and because the game is free for the time being, questions of value cease to exist for those who download it before the price increases. So get it now, get comfortable with it and get ready: Once “Box” reaches the 11th level, it assumes players have the basics down and are ready for some seriously tricky challenges, and future level additions are likely to tax the brain similarly once Wandake pushes them out the door.


Games 5/25/10: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Split/Second, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, 10 Pin Shuffle

Super Mario Galaxy 2
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Nintendo has made zero bones about “Super Mario Galaxy 2” being more of the same stuff that made “Super Mario Galaxy” what it was, and because “Galaxy” was one of 2007’s best games, no one really seemed bothered by the idea of “SMG2” being, at worst, the same fundamental game with new levels.

And at worst, that’s exactly what this is. But that’s also what the first “Galaxy” was — a prototypical 3D Mario game that had the same old story and was more notable for the unbelievable variety of new level designs it unleashed than any revolutionary change to the way players controlled Mario.

This time, just like last time, Nintendo relegates motion controls to special self-contained challenges that serve as diversions more than the main course, which plays out using the same traditional control scheme Nintendo has been using since Mario first entered the third dimension in 1996. A second player can once again use a Wii remote to help (or hinder) Mario in a few minor ways, but this doesn’t change the core game so much as give it a light social element. Like its predecessor, and unlike last year’s “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” “SMG2” isn’t designed with multiplayer in mind beyond sharing turns and passing the controller around.

With none of “Galaxy’s” basic ingredients needing any repair, Nintendo did as it should and focused primarily on unleashing two-plus years’ worth of whatever crazy new level ideas it could conjure.

The result, without getting too specific and spoiling anything, is nothing short of exquisite. “SMG2” reuses bits and pieces of certain “Galaxy” levels, but it largely reinvents the wheel, constructing worlds that play liberally with the laws of gravity, collapse upon themselves, make Mario feet 2 feet tall, dream up impossibly crazy boss fights and even pay tribute to Mario’s past adventures. New characters join in, old favorites return, and the whole thing is an unapologetically colorful ball of joyful, brilliant design that perfectly toes the line between welcoming players of all stripes and challenging the best of them to bring their A-game. Picking every level clean will take a good 15 skillful hours to do, and there isn’t a moment in those hours where Nintendo’s level designers just coasted by.

“SMG2” expands Mario’s suit repertoire by combining his classic (Fire Mario) and “Galaxy” (Bee Mario, Spring Mario, Boo Mario, Rainbow Mario) power-ups with a couple new entrants. Rock Mario can wreak havoc as a living boulder, while players who could use a hand will appreciate Cloud Mario’s ability to create his own platforms.

But perhaps the most welcome addition — along with being able to occasionally play as Luigi without beating the whole game — is the return of Yoshi, whose unique abilities come into play much more effectively than they did in his last appearance eight years ago. “SMG2” generally reserves Yoshi’s appearances for specific levels, but the upshot is that those levels better cater to Yoshi’s ability to eat this and grab onto that than would be the case if Mario could enlist him at any time. Yoshi gains a few new powers of his own, including the ability to illuminate like a light bulb and turn into a makeshift blimp, but the same abilities he’s had for 20 years remain the most fun to use here.

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Split/Second
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Black Rock Studio/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

It’s pretty clear how “Split/Second” wants to set itself apart as more than just another arcade racing game. The game’s premise exists inside a reality television show, which exists inside a fake city that players can thoroughly blow to pieces while simultaneously working their way around otherwise traditional racetracks.

Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is how well “Split/Second” does the little things — difficulty balancing, single-player rewards, a pattern of destruction that relies on timing and physics instead of simple scripted explosions — to make the big thing work so splendidly.

“Split/Second’s” core racing component should ring mostly familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how arcade racers work. The game is generous with the crash physics, allowing and encouraging dangerous driving over pristine technique, and players who draft, drift, catch air and otherwise live dangerously are rewarded with further abilities toward gaining an edge.

In this case, though, those abilities translate into limited-use but freely deployable triggers that level portions of the environment and brutalize all cars that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those triggers translate into everything from helicopters dropping bombs to collapsing bridges to a yacht taking out a piece of highway, and “Split/Second’s” outstanding graphics engine brings every calamity to eye-popping life.

But it’s the physics more than the graphics that keep those explosions fresh beyond the novelty period. “Split/Second’s” impressively spartan heads-up display offers clues as to when it would be best to trigger a disaster, but simply hitting the button doesn’t promise anything. A.I. drivers can sidestep a poorly-timed trigger, and players very easily can trigger an attack on their own car if they don’t think it through. Nothing about the mechanic is scripted, and A.I. drivers are as prone to making the same mistakes.

For the same reasons, dodging other drivers’ attacks is arguably even more exciting than setting them off. The arsenal of trigger possibilities shrinks considerably for players who lead the race, but driving with seven targets on your back changes the game enough to more than compensate. “Split/Second’s” superb driving controls make skirting disaster by inches a tangible thrill, and the game’s diversionary events — which find players dodging bombing helicopters and outrunning semis bent on sabotage — play to this thrill as perfectly as the more traditional races do.

A point could certainly be made that “Split/Second’s” single-player career mode is hampered by some ruthless A.I. that can send players from first place to last in the blink of a single mistake. But the game rarely trips players into making unfair mistakes, and the career mode counteracts by rewarding players who finish in fifth as well as first with some kind of progress compensation. Players can repeat races at any time (and with better vehicles acquired by accumulating progress elsewhere), and while the system occasionally feels cheap, there’s something refreshing about an arcade racer that challenges you to conquer it from the very first race.

Naturally, any grievances with the A.I. fall away in “Split/Second’s” multiplayer mode (two players splitscreen, eight online), and all that’s great about the on-track action in single-player play applies here as well. Just don’t expect much beyond that: It works, and it supports most of the single-player modes in multiplayer form, but that’s about as fancy as it gets.

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Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Five “Prince of Persia” games in seven years after three in the preceding 14 has taken the franchise from nowhereville to sequel city in a hurry, and “The Forgotten Sands” does itself no favor by abandoning the dramatic visual and narrative makeover that made the 2008 reboot such a pleasantly fresh surprise.

“Sands” instead is a direct sequel to 2003’s “The Sands of Time,” which provides the basis of the “Persia” film currently in theaters (and, consequently, should answer whatever questions you had about Ubisoft ditching that reboot and rushing “Sands” out 17 months later).

Early on, “Sands” feels less like a sequel to “Time” than a capable but uninspired imitation of it. It plays like a typical “Perisa” game, mixing some ambitious environmental platforming with sword combat that’s more fun than special. Per series tradition, the massive traversable environments — ledges, trapeze swings, poles, cliff sides — feel like gigantic environmental riddles more than simple action game playgrounds, and the game uses an assisted character movement scheme that doesn’t hold players’ hands but also doesn’t require angle-perfect precision jumping. As with “Time,” and per story dictation, players eventually receive a limited-use ability to rewind time and correct mistimed jumps without reverting back to a checkpoint.

That rewind trick becomes indispensable once “Sands” comes into its own and gives the Prince powers that dwarf anything “Time” did. Players gradually receive the ability to alter the environment — freeze and unfreeze water, make entire structures appear and disappear — while simultaneously jumping through and climbing around it in traditional and (thanks to yet more abilities) exhilarating new ways. “Sands'” early levels aren’t exactly dull, but the designs in the second two-thirds of the game, which mix and match abilities with abandon and place a premium on meticulous timing and some serious thumb gymnastics, put them to shame.

“Sands'” combat, which pits the Prince against several dozen grunts and the occasional heavy at once, is considerably less impressive, but also an improvement on the 2008 game’s drab one-on-one combat. The Prince has a modest array of upgradable sword attacks and spells, but the combat typically amounts to little more than mashing buttons to kill a few dozen enemies while dodging the glacial attacks of the handful who get a chance to fight back. It’s nothing other action games haven’t done considerably better, but it is good for a mindless break between the more cerebral platforming parts, and it never carries on long enough to become a detriment to the fun.

What can be a detriment is “Sands'” occasional ability to just act up and not play nice. During the course of this review, for instance, a segment near the end of the game proved impossible to pass until the game was rebooted, after which point everything clicked and the same attempted maneuvers worked perfectly. The game’s checkpoint system is generous enough to make this an inconvenience more than a deal-breaker, and there’s no telling how likely it is you’ll even encounter this problem. But if you suddenly find certain techniques failing you no matter what you do, your best recourse may be the reset button.

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10 Pin Shuffle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (Universal App)
From: Digital Smoke
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $4 (free demo version available)

The complexity of mobile games has skyrocketed since the iPhone development floodgates opened a couple years ago, but sometimes the best games remain the simple ones that just use the touchscreen perfectly right. “10 Pin Shuffle” aims to replicate the shufflepuck bowling game found in arcades and bars everywhere, and while the default control setting is excessively sensitive, the Easy Controls setting perfectly nails the sensation of sliding the puck at those pins. That alone makes this one of those games that even technophobic non-gamers don’t need instructions to play. “Shuffle’s” feature set nicely complements its intuitiveness: The 3D graphics look great, the little touches in the sound and presentation departments are a treat, and the game’s stat-tracking is impressive in its details. Best of all, there’s a bounty of modes, including traditional bowling, a really clever poker mode that combines bowling with video poker, and a version of straight-up, pins-free shufflepuck with customizable win conditions. In-progress games are autosaved if interrupted, and almost all modes support solo play, single-player with an A.I. opponent and pass-the-device or Bluetooth multiplayer. (The poker mode can’t support pass-the-device multiplayer due to its design, but it does support Bluetooth play.)


Games 5/18/10: Alan Wake, Lost Planet 2, Smiles

Alan Wake
For: Xbox 360
From: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

Until now, “Alan Wake” was best known in gaming circles as a title in development since before the Xbox 360’s mere existence was public knowledge.

The effects of the lengthy development are apparent in the final product, which occasionally looks older than it is and forces players to contend with some unwieldy (and slightly incomplete) third-person shooter controls. But all those years also have been very kind to the titular character and his story, which are so carefully and cleverly constructed as to render any shortcomings almost completely moot.

It’s no great surprise that “Wake’s” storyline — which finds Alan, a famous mystery writer, racing through a secluded resort town to discover why the pages of his unfinished manuscript have come true and made his wife disappear — is a cut above. Remedy Entertainment produced some of the best storytelling of the early 2000s with its “Max Payne” games, and while the particulars have changed, the ingredients — narration from the playable character, generally stellar voice acting, a word-perfect script that touches darkly comedic, self-depreciating and noirish nerves in the right ways at the right times — have all returned.

Where Remedy outdoes itself is with its thorough understanding of the art of the cliffhanger.

“Wake” presents its story as a six-episode miniseries, complete with “Previously on…” recaps at the top of each episode. The approach greatly enhances the game’s personality, but it also provides a means to drop a terrific reveal at the bottom of each episode that makes it awfully hard not to immediately dive right into the next one. (Sidebar to alleviate potential confusion: “Wake’s” generous checkpoint system does not require players to play entire episodes in single sittings.)

What initially begins as a collection of winks at nods toward classic horror tropes gradually becomes its own creation, and by the time the third episode kicks into gear, “Wake” has enough great characters and distinctive twists to keep its ultimate destination a genuine mystery. (Whether the culmination of that mystery satisfies or aggravates will, of course, come down to individual taste.)

All that wonderful storytelling is enough to offset issues with “Wake’s” gameplay, which is fun but would be unremarkable and kind of repetitive without the story and setting taking it down new avenues.

Though “Wake” utilizes an over-the-shoulder perspective, Alan’s aim — be it with his flashlight or his firearm — isn’t exactly refined. That in itself is an arguable service to the game’s immersion, given that he’s an author and not a soldier. But it also allows the game’s possessed but combat-savvy enemies to flank rather easily, and the shaky aiming translates into some poor field awareness that can prove fatal. A slick dodge mechanic comes in handy when things get hairy, but “Wake” is begging for a melee button that would have made fighting out of a jam more flexible and fun.

Again, though, when all else fails, the checkpoint system is pretty benevolent. “Wake’s” higher difficulty settings pose a nice challenge to those hungry for one, but Remedy ultimately wants to show the ending to anyone who wants to see it. Balancing those two priorties and pleasing everybody is an unenviable task, but Remedy does a very enviable job of pulling it off.

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Lost Planet 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Lost Planet 2” is the most aggravating kind of game there is, because when it isn’t busy being unreasonably toxic, it’s kind of awesome.

At its core, “LP2” is, like its predecessor, just a ton of dumb third-person shooter fun. The weaponry packs an exaggerated punch (both in recoil felt and damage dealt), the operable mechs allow for joyously destructive rampages, and the explosions and screen-sized bug enemies are as impressive here as they are anywhere. “LP2” primarily squares players off against human opposition this time around, but it still takes frequent occasion to bust out some show-stopping encounters against absolutely gigantic bugs.

The net visual and tactile effect of all this action remains incredible and distinctive fours years after we first experienced it, and while the run-and-gun controls feel slightly archaic in this era of cover-based shooters, they’re a perfect complement under these conditions.

Sounds great, right? It should be, and it would be if “LP2’s” overlying particulars didn’t have more left feet than an groggy millipede. But they do, and most of the fault lies with an startlingly unfriendly implementation of co-op play into what used to be a single-player-friendly game.

Like its predecessor, “LP2” tells a story — and, at some 15 hours long, a lengthy one at that. But instead of present it like any other single-player game with co-op functionality, Capcom dresses each chapter in a multiplayer lobby interface. Players load out as a foursome, and those who wish to play alone are gifted three A.I.-controlled players with immersion-shattering fake screennames floating above their heads. The interface is similarly kludgy, offering no way for players to drop into games already in progress and never bothering to explain the confusing setup to players who played the first game alone and expected a similar road through the sequel.

But the real trouble awaits in the gameplay, which operates by multiplayer rules even for those who play alone. That means no checkpoints or save spots during the span of levels that often take an hour to finish. “LP2’s” complicated health math means players can respawn upon dying a limited number of times, but should that math run out, any progress in the level is lost. Players can’t even pause the game — something other co-op games allow even with friends aboard.

These inconveniences turn into deal-breakers once it becomes clear “LP2” has no issue with dishing out some staggeringly cheap action even on its easiest difficulty. One-hit kills, psychic enemy A.I. and unavoidable boss attacks abound, and because Capcom put zero effort into making solo players’ A.I. teammates anything beyond borderline catatonic, what feels cheap with friends assisting is a nightmare alone. Challenge is a wonderful thing, but “LP2” goes about creating it in entirely unfriendly and joyless ways.

The news is better for the subset of players who enjoyed “LP1” for its competitive online multiplayer (16 players). “LP2” borrows some of the single-player game’s health math but otherwise resists the temptation to fix time-tested modes that aren’t broken, and the dreadful A.I. is nowhere to be found. For players who want to experience all the game does right without dealing with all it does wrong, this is the way to do it.

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Smiles
For: iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad (separate version for iPad)
From: Sykhronics Entertainment
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $2 (sale pricing; subject to change soon)

Given the number of perfectly good “Bejeweled” clones lurking in the iTunes Store, it’s impressive to find one, like “Smiles,” that goes its own way by changing just one rule. As with its ilk, the object of “Smiles” is to match rows of three or more identical blocks. The difference is that instead of switching two blocks around within the grid,
players must swap in a block from outside the grid to match three and then use the block they just swapped out as the next block to swap in. There’s a loss of strategy in always having to use a particular block, but “Smiles” counters that by encouraging players to think quickly and keep the board constantly in motion while the score multiplier rockets upward. The fast pace of the main game mode is a surprisingly fun departure from “Bejeweled” proper, and a nice level of polish — both in the presentation and the responsiveness of the controls — makes it work. For a change of pace, “Smiles” includes additional variants, including an outstanding Zen mode that changes the game in the complete opposite way by once again hitting just one switch. The lack of online leaderboards is disappointing, particularly in light of how slick the score- and stat-tracking systems are, but an absolutely gargantuan mountain of unlockable achievements gives dedicated players plenty to shoot for regardless.