Games 3/26/08: Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, Singstar '90s, Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

“Rainbow Six: Vegas 2” isn’t terribly new, but it is improved. For the legions of gamers who still have the 2006 original spinning in their consoles, that may be news enough.

For those who want a bit more detailed of an explanation, the changes in “R6V2” are modest but almost universally welcome.

Most noticeably, features previously relegated only to multiplayer now appear throughout the game. The campaign’s storyline now centers around a character you design yourself, and you can accumulate experience points — which still lead to better weapons and gear — in the campaign as well as during multiplayer sessions. A new system that rewards skilled kills — headshots, close combat attacks and the like — yields further rewards, and it, too, works across all modes of play.

For those who don’t wish to play alone, “R6V2” takes more steps forward than backward. The campaign now supports only two-player instead of four-player co-op, but the ability for a second player to drop in and out at any point without disrupting the first player’s progress is a nice and necessary concession. Four-player squads still can band together under the arena-style Terrorist Hunt mode, which has expanded admirably both in terms of maps and gameplay customization options.

On the competitive multiplayer front, “R6V2” adds three new objective-centric modes to complement the usual suspects. More importantly, the game allows players to invite friends to join them in ranked as well as unranked matches. That doesn’t fully compensate for the lack of a true party system, a la “Call of Duty 4,” but it’s a step in the right direction.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much more of the same. Your character’s newfound ability to sprint gives the action a modest shot in the arm, but Ubisoft otherwise doesn’t meddle with the fundamental gameplay that made the first “Vegas” the best first-person tactical shooter on either console. The graphics definitely haven’t improved much, your A.I.-controlled squadmates still aren’t as smart as you wish they were, and occasional framerate drops are the price we pay for the game being in simultaneous development for both platforms.

But none of these issues, while each disappointing in their own right, is enough to detract from how refined the game is in the areas that matter. “R6V2” takes a great game, makes it better, and provides closure to a storyline that needed one. That’s not everything everyone wanted, but for the core audience, that’s more than plenty.

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Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters
For: Playstation 2
From: High Impact Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)

Singstar ’90s
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, sexual themes, use of alcohol and tobacco)

Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz
For: Playstation 2
From: Relentless Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, mild language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

While the PS3 brings home the buzz in the Playstation family, Sony’s unsinkable PS2 continues to sell alongside the best of them. Consequently, Sony manages to keep the software coming, even if most of it consists of content packs and port jobs of varying quality.

Among the latest batch of new first-party software, “Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters” easily stands out as the most intriguing. Sadly, it’s also the most disappointing.

“Matters” is the latest example of a Playstation Portable game making the jump to the PS2, and anyone who doesn’t know this going in will be jarred by how inferior the game looks when stacked against the “Ratchet” games that were specifically developed for the PS2. That would be bearable if looks were the only problem, but framerate issues and camera controls that arbitrarily do not work make for a product that feels inexplicably rushed to retail.

Even those who do know the origins of “Matters” are likely to be disappointed. The PSP version’s best feature — a suite of extremely clever online multiplayer modes for up to four players — is now strictly an offline, splitscreen table for two. The essence of the modes remains intact, but it’s a huge step backward from the portable game, which easily remains the definitive version a full year later.

Things are a less unpleasantly surprising elsewhere, with both “Singstar ’90s” and “Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz” essentially serving as expansion packs for those who invested in the “Singstar” microphones or “Buzz” game show buzzer peripherals, respectively.

“Singstar ’90s” (available by itself or bundled with two microphones) does nothing the previous four “Singstar” games didn’t do, so if you’ve played any of those, nothing down to the last pixel should surprise you here. As with previous “Singstar” packs, your interest in “Singstar ’90s” comes down to whether the track listing intrigues you or not. Per usual, there are 30 songs and videos with which to sing along, and a complete track listing is available at Sony’s “Singstar” web site, singstargame.com.

“Quiz” (sold alone or with four Buzz controllers) is similarly low on surprises, delivering the same quiz show experience of other “Buzz” games but with a focus this time on movies. The game looks a little better than previous “Buzz” games, and the Oscar-inspired theme gives it a little more visual personality then previous iterations. Most importantly, “Quiz” features 5,000 new questions to answer, so if you enjoy the “Buzz” games but have tired of all they offer, this is a pretty safe way to replenish your stock.

Games 12/12/07: Unreal Tournament III (PS3), Game Party, The Golden Compass

PDF Clip: Games 2007-12-12

Unreal Tournament III
For: Playstation 3
From: Epic/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

The mad rush of groundbreaking games has come and gone, but 2007 still has one last fantastic trick up its sleeve.

That, initially, wouldn’t seem to be the case — at least not if the game in question essentially is a technologically revved-up version of its predecessor, which is what “Unreal Tournament III” is. If you’ve played a “UT” game before, you know what to expect here: a high-speed, mostly-multiplayer, first-person shooter with lots of maps, gametypes, weaponry and eye candy.

In gameplay terms, “UT3” doesn’t innovate so much as tweak. Epic mostly let ride the gametypes from “UT2,” adding a single new mode that simply combines two preexisting ones. Familiar guns, vehicles and characters return, and the map lineup consists of a mix of brand-new and upgraded designs. The single-player component still takes a back seat to multiplayer, but some significant A.I. improvements make it more fun to practice against computer opponents when you don’t feel like taking on live competition.

Online, the story also remains mostly the same. “UT3” runs a touch slower on the PS3 than it does on the PC, an intentional (and smart) tactic to accommodate players using controllers instead of mice and keyboards. But it’s still the fastest multiplayer shooter in the business, and initial tests on the Playstation Network found no issues with framerate drops or network lag. The only serious caveat: The PS3 version can support only 16 players at a time, which is half of what the PC version can handle.

Fortunately, “UT3” doesn’t skimp elsewhere in the PC-versus-PS3 department, and that’s where the aforementioned innovation comes into play. You can, for instance, play with a mouse and keyboard if you prefer that to a controller, though players can elect to engage in matches that allow only controller-holding players.

Much more importantly, though, “UT3” allows PS3 owners to import and employ the endless sea of user-created maps, gametypes, characters and other content that shortly will flood numerous community sites devoted to the game. You’ll still need a copy of the PC version if you want to create your own modifications, but being able to access all that free content on a whim gives “UT3” the kind of legs that previously was the exclusive domain of PC games. There’s a reason PC shooters enjoy a longer lifespan than their console counterparts, and some happy PS3 owners are about to discover what that reason is.

It’s merely a shame that, as of release day, the feature isn’t quite functional. Oops. Hopefully, this changes quickly — or at least before gamers move onto the next bag of tricks 2008 promises to offer.

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Game Party
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Not since the days of “Baseball” and “Tennis” on the original Nintendo has a game been so lackadaisically named as “Game Party.” How long until someone releases a game called “Video Game?” On the other hand, the cover art is pretty nice. So is the $20 price tag.

Such is the running theme with “Party,” a modest compilation of parlor games that constantly makes you take the good with the bad.

“Party” features seven games: darts, air hockey, skee-ball, hoop shot, beer pong (called ping cup to protect the children), table shuffleboard and trivia. All essentially are what you expect them to be, and you generally can predict how the Wiimote controls work in each.

Problem is, for some reason, not all games click the same way. The throw motion in darts is fundamentally similar to the motions in hoop shot and skee-ball, but for whatever reason, it’s significantly more intuitive in darts. Where darts seems to adjust to different players’ release timing, skee-ball and hoop shot do not, resulting in a truckload of non-throws and wildly missed shots in each. Beer pong raises similar issues, but they’re easier to mitigate once you master that game’s distinct timing.

Beyond darts, the stars of “Party” are air hockey and trivia. The sideways camera angle in air hockey takes getting used to, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t switch to a behind-the-back perspective when you’re playing solo. But it works pretty intuitively, and the ability to lift your mallet and trap the puck, a la real air hockey, is a nice touch. Trivia is exactly what it sounds like, but the diversity of questions and a cool interface make it a far more polished throw-in than one might expect. Spinning the virtual category wheel is stupidly fun, too.

That leaves shuffleboard, which is neither fantastic nor troubled. It could stand to be more intuitive, but it’s very playable once you figure the nuances out.

Every game in “Party” features four-player support, which is nice. What isn’t as nice is the way Midway shafts solo players. Beyond air hockey and shuffleboard, you can’t set up computer opponents to challenge you, and in those games, there exist no options for adjusting difficulty. Even if “Party” is intended as a multiplayer-centric title, what’s wrong with throwing a few options in for those who have, or simply may want, to play alone?

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The Golden Compass
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Shiny Entertainment/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild language, violence)

The current method du jour of converting movies into video games is not to do one thing exceptionally, but rather do a million different things somewhat adequately.

It’s a philosophy “The Golden Compass” embraces all too warmly. Before you see the end credits roll, you’ll run through levels that borrow from “God of War” (button-mashing combat), “Metal Gear Solid” (stealth), “Kameo” (using different creatures to change abilities), “Ico” (ledge-hopping and climbing aplenty) and more. You’ll also encounter an enormous number of mini-games, the completion of which allows your character to win dialogue exchanges with other characters.

At first, Shiny seems to have a handle on it all. None of the game’s elements are particularly spectacular on their own, but they work, and the mini-games function as a nice, occasional diversion between challenges.

Before long, though, those dialogue exchanges start springing up like weeds. It’s also at around this time that “Compass” introduces you to the compass, which you’ll use to decrypt certain mysteries that need solving for the story to push forward. An explanation of how excessively bloated this feature is could fill all 400 words of this review on its own, and at no point does fun enter the equation.

Just like that, the wheels are off, and you’re left to navigate semi-linear levels without always knowing what you’re supposed to be seeking out. Stumble into the general vicinity of the answer, and the game grabs your hand and holds it in a vice grip until the solution is abundantly clear. From there, you simply press the buttons that need pressing, and it’s on to the next segment. There’s little room for a middle ground that would challenge seasoned gamers without absolutely roadblocking younger players.

The mob of compass- and dialogue-related interruptions are a deal-killer for all but the most ardent “Compass” fans, because there simply are too many good games out right now to justify purchasing something so patched together.

But perhaps the worst news of all is that, beyond the chance to wander through certain areas of the film, “Compass” doesn’t offer much for its fans, either. The film’s actors don’t lend their voices, and the graphics fall far short of what they should be. “Compass” easily ranks among the year’s worst-looking PS3 and Xbox 360 games, and it might even top that list once you account for atrocious interface design. Blurry 2D graphics in 2007? Really, Shiny?

Games 11/14: Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am

PDF Clip: Games 2007-11-14

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am
For: Playstation 2
From: Creat Studios/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, language, mature humor drug reference, cartoon violence, suggestive themes)

The good news about ” Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am” is that, at $30, it’s affordably priced by video game standards. That allows fans of the hilariously funny “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” cartoon to purchase it on impulse and play through it to see some exclusive new content, including a brand-new episode.

The attractive price also is, for many of the same reasons, bad news. What “Pro-Am” doesn’t do to your wallet, it most certainly will do to your patience and will, regardless of how deep your “ATHF” fandom goes.

For whatever reason, Creat Studios decided “Aqua Teen” fans would want a golf game, so that’s primarily what “Pro-Am” is. The twist is that, between shots, you have to manually walk to wherever you hit the ball. On your way there, you’ll be swarmed by enemies and must defeat them before taking your next swing. You fight as both Frylock and Shake, and can switch between characters on the fly.

The combat element helps “Pro-Am” make sense of the golf approach, but it’s a black hole of fun due to a rash of technical problems straight out of the early days of 3D. The fighting controls are super-sloppy, collision detection is terrible, the characters are slow and choppily animated, and the action ranges from shallow to cheap.

This sadly, comes on top of a golf engine that’s equally inadequate. “Pro-Am” uses a traditional three-click swing system, but it’s often inaccurate, to the point that even chip shots sometimes travel nowhere near where you aim them. That’s assuming you can aim them anyway — a tricky proposition when the only means of viewing the course you’re on is through a broken landing cam.

Topping off the triumvirate of botched game styles is a kart racing game using golf carts. The same problems — poor control, sloppy technical execution — apply here as well.

The only possible reason to play through “Pro-Am” is, of course, the writing. It’s true to the show, and when you’re not seeing red because of the sludge of frustration you must wade through to get to the cut-scenes, it’s pretty funny. The major characters make appearances, the show’s voice and writing talent are on board, and the graphics are faithful (for better or worse) to the show’s look.

If that’s worth $30 and a few hours of blood-curdling frustration, then by all means, enjoy. But you’ve been warned.

Games 10/31: Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, The Simpsons Game, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-31

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction
For: Playstation 3
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, crude humor, fantasy violence, language)

Everybody dances in “Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction.” Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a grunt, boss character, ally or even a gun turret. If you throw a Groovitron and it lands in someone’s vicinity, they dance. Period.

The Groovitron, one of umpteen weapons and gadgets at your disposal in “Destruction,” has high strategic value, because enemies in a dance trance can’t hurt you. But it also underscores just how much care went into this game’s design. “Destruction” wouldn’t play any worse if every single character didn’t have his or her own unique dance animation, but Insomniac went ahead and made it so anyway. That level of detail is all over “Destruction,” and it’s what makes a game not terribly far removed from its predecessors a must-play all the same.

Improvements abound in “Destruction.” It’s exponentially prettier on the PS3 — not quite Pixar country, but certainly within striking distance. The story is more ambitious as well, overlaying the usual mix of adventure and comedy with some rather straight-faced insight into Ratchet’s origins. (Some will love the new direction, some won’t, and the ending won’t please everyone.) There are new weapons and gadgets to play with, naturally, and you now can selectively modify your arsenal with the terrific new upgrade tool, which operates in the same vein as a “Final Fantasy” character upgrade system. Insomniac also included some modest (and fun) support for the Sixaxis motion controls, but you can use the analog sticks for these sections instead if you prefer.

At its core, though, “Destruction” is a bigger, grander case of more of the same. And that’s mostly fine, because Insomniac has the science of creating an awesome action game down cold. From the moment the first cut-scene ends, “Destruction” propels you forward, and while you’re free to traverse the galaxy at your leisure, the game sits continually ready to drop you into one loaded set piece after another. In outline form, it’s formula. But the creativity and polish that bubbles under the surface of that formula leaves you hard-pressed to find a dull moment.

If “Destruction” leaves a hole anywhere, it’s in the multiplayer department. Given how brilliantly the PS2 and PSP “R&C” games did multiplayer, it definitely hurts not to see any such component in “Destruction.” Perhaps Insomniac will surprise us with a downloadable add-on. More likely, we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.

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The Simpsons Game
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, animated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes)

There exist plenty of gamers who will play “The Simpsons Game,” regardless of how awful it is, simply to see it in motion and check out the storyline.

Fortunately for them, whatever plans EA had for making an awful “Simpsons” game were scrapped in favor of making a good one instead.

The vast majority of “TSG” plays out like a third-person action game. You star as Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and (occasionally) Maggie, with two characters (the computer or a friend controls the second character) partnering up at any given time. Each Simpson boasts unique special abilities: Homer can roll around like a ball, for instance, while Marge can round up angry mobs for any purpose.

Beyond a few nagging issues — namely, some unrefined jumping controls and a camera that goes awry in tight spaces — the action comes together shockingly well. The diverse superpowers give “TSG” lots of gameplay variety, and it also allows for some clever level and puzzle designs. Your A.I.-controlled partner seems to know when to act and when to wait for you, and you’ll almost never fail an objective because the game failed you first.

Pleasant a surprise as the gameplay turns out to be, it’s still the writing that ultimately rules the day, led by a storyline that’s a structurally incoherent but hysterically funny amalgamation of past “Simpsons” episodes and commentary about the video game industry. Brilliant, biting one-liners swarm from every direction, and the twists the writers create — be it a shocking boss character or a sudden transformation into an entirely new gameplay genre — are inspired to a jaw-dropping degree. (Wait until you see who the final two bosses are. Pure gold.)

Gameplay and writing aside, no review of “TSG” would be complete without noting just how insanely cool it is to finally experience a “Simpsons” video game that actually looks like the TV show. The cel shading style EA incorporates occasionally produces some hideous results, particularly during a small handful of cut-scenes that weren’t produced by the show’s animators. For the most part, though, it looks stunning, especially in motion. Being able to walk around the “Simpsons” universe as we know and love it has been a want of fans ever since the first 3D “Simpsons” game appeared, and the novelty of finally being able to do so isn’t something that will wear off any time soon.

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Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, tobacco reference, language, violence)

The bright light of scrutiny shines hotter than ever on the “Tony Hawk” line of skateboarding games, which after nine years and nine games is hearing more cries than ever to take a break, retool, and return refreshed.

“Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground” won’t change that. It’s still arcade skating, and you still can pull off ridiculous strings of tricks no real-life skater could dare accomplish. The controls, save for a few new maneuvers, go largely untouched. The overarching storyline — you’re a nobody trying to become a somebody — also will ring familiar to “Hawk” veterans.

Still, the notion that “Ground” is merely last year’s game with new cities (Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore) and some new objectives isn’t fair. In fact, some of this year’s additions are among the best the series has seen, even if they’re sometimes too rough around the edges to reach their full potential.

Most notably — and with stark exception to a create-a-character tool that doesn’t let female gamers design a woman skater — “Ground” really lets the creative juices fly. The skate park editor has been integrated into the career mode in the form of a lounge, and you can alter both the architecture and ambience as you progress through your career. If you’re online, you also can invite other gamers into your lounge and host online competitions.

The creativity extends out into the game world. “Ground’s” career mode takes a cool new turn by offering three separate goal tracks, which you can tackle separately or simultaneously. While two of them are entirely about skating prowess, a third — rigger — has you constructing impromptu skate zones in the cities before executing tricks on them. The building tool isn’t as intuitive as it should be, but it’s always available, regardless of whether you’re pursuing the rigger track or simply want to build for fun.

A new video editor rounds out the package. Having to manually begin recording — as opposed to the game doing it automatically — is a bummer, but the tool is impressively robust otherwise.

The new features complement the old ones, and “Ground” once again offers enough content to make it a worthwhile purchase for its most ardent fans. Neversoft’s baby is no longer the critical darling it once was, and it certainly isn’t groundbreaking anymore. But until it stops being fun to play and stops hitting that pick-up-and-play sweet spot, who cares?

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Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation
For: Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

Staying the course has rarely looked as good as it does in “Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation,” which makes the jump to the new generation of hardware in about as no-nonsense a fashion as could be expected.

The big news with “Liberation” is, without a doubt, how good it looks. The “Ace Combat” series has long been the premiere source of aviation eye candy on gaming consoles, and “Liberation” launches that reputation into the stratosphere. The game’s aircraft look stunning on the outside and from within the cockpit, and the environments look incredible at eye level and practically photorealistic from 7,000 feet above. It’s a shame Namco Bandai insists on basing the storyline in a fictional world, because the only thing “Liberation” lacks is that one-of-a-kind wow factor that comes from zipping around a real-life locale.

The other big story, perhaps predictably, is the series debut of online multiplayer. “Liberation” marks the first appearance of “Ace” on the Xbox platform, and that means Namco Bandai is now playing to a crowd that not only expects an online component, but one with plenty of legs.

Happily, the game delivers — perhaps a little too well. “Liberation” supports 16 fighters in the air at a time, and that almost always leads to action more frantic than most “Ace” veterans are used to experiencing. Everyone’s firing missiles at will, you’re continually in someone’s sights, and the balance between simulation and arcade that the single-player missions strike pretty much comes undone on Xbox Live.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, of course. “Liberation” packs in a ton of different individual and team-based modes, and the mayhem that ensues is terrifically entertaining once you adjust to the tempo. If all else fails, you can always sample the game’s two co-op missions, which are such unexpected and well-executed treats that you might wish the entire single-player campaign supported co-op play in some fashion.

Alas, no such luck. Instead, “Liberation’s” single-player component is more of what gamers have come to love and hate about past “Ace” games: good action, inane story, control support for both simulation and arcade fans, missions that are epically and sloppily designed within the same space, and a sparse checkpoint system that aggravate struggling players to no end. If past “Aces” got your blood pumping, be it for good reasons or bad, “Liberation” should deliver a similar result.

Games 10/24/07: Mercury Meltdown Wii, Crash of the Titans, Flash Focus: VTIMAD, Clive Barker's Jericho

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-24

Mercury Meltdown
For: Nintendo Wii
Previously available for: Sony PSP, Playstation 2
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It took a year, but “Mercury Meltdown” is finally in its rightful place. What was a great game on the control-challenged PSP and a slightly greater game on the slightly more capable PS2 is now one of the few year-old ports that not only belongs on the Wii, but feels like it was designed for it all along.

For those unfamiliar, “Meltdown” is a contemporary take on “Marble Madness,” but with a twist: Instead of maneuvering a marble to the exit without letting it fall off the playing board, you’re responsible for a glob of mercury that’s susceptible to splitting, spilling over the side and anything else that could endanger a glob of silver goo.

“Meltdown” already had the blob physics down on the PSP, and that goes double for the exceptionally clever levels, which feature numerous combinations of gadgets, traps and strange characters. The objective — reaching the goal — is simple, but the board designs, high score challenges and bonuses that come with finishing quickly and minimizing mercury loss give some real depth to that simple idea.

“Meltdown” also already had the controls down, but the benefits the Wiimote brings are obvious before you even turn it on. (For those who disagree, the Classic Controller is supported.) Instead of tilting the playing field with an analog stick, you instead hold the Wiimote sideways and tilt that, as if you’re holding the level in your hand. It feels great, and the game responds to even the smallest nudge, so there’s no blaming anyone but yourself when your blob falls into oblivion.

And if it does, so what? “Meltdown’s” proficiency at what it does gives it such an addictive quality that you’ll likely retry levels even after you succeed, just to see if you can top your score. The difficulty curve heads skyward at an ideal pace, and the 160 levels include numerous gems that are rewarding to complete and master, alone or with friends. (“Meltdown” doesn’t feature any proper multiplayer mode, but it’s easy enough to pass the Wiimote and create your own.) That goes as well for the handful of multi-level party games you’ll unlock as you progress through the main mode.

The final cherry on the sundae? It costs $20. Given how many shoddy ports cost more than twice that, it’s darn near heartwarming to see Ignition deliver both a great game and a great deal.

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Crash of the Titans
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 2
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP
Alternate versions available for: Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance
From: Radical Entertainment/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor, mild languge)

When you’re desperate, things sometimes look better than they are. And when all three gaming consoles are mired in an inexplicable drought of mascot-based platforming games, even the arrival of one with a history as checkered as Crash Bandicoot’s is a welcome sight.

Happily, you don’t need beer goggles or the gift of self-delusion to enjoy “Crash of the Titans.” Groundbreaking though it isn’t, “Titans” nonetheless may be the best “Crash” game since original developers Naughty Dog abandoned it eight years ago.

In a lot of ways, “Titans” succeeds simply by taking the familiar and polishing it up. You’ll do a lot of platform-jumping, but an infusion of physics adds a level of fun beyond simply timing the jump and sticking the landing. There’s only one means of alternative transport — a sort-of hoverboard — but the game gets the mechanics down pat and creates some fun areas in which to use it. There’s incentive to collect a few different types of items within each level, but “Titans” never gets lazy and leans on that as an objective.

A little more surprising is how combat-heavy the adventure turns out to be. “Titans” balances acrobatics and fisticuffs pretty well, but the fisticuffs clearly run the table this time. That’s partly because Crash is, despite his sheepish personality, well equipped to deliver some damage.

Mostly, though, it’s due to Crash’s new ability to “hijack” monsters, assume control of their minds, and use those monsters to take down and hijack even bigger baddies. This food chain-style approach sounds monotonous on paper, but it’s pretty brilliant in practice, and it allows “Titans” to throw down some extensive but beatable enemy gauntlets. Though hampered by Radical’s strange decision to use a camera that players can’t manually adjust, the fights are satisfying and, at least initially, fresh.

Once the novelty of the combat wears off, Radical is mostly out of surprises. But derivative fun done right is fun nevertheless, and “Titans” serves up a solid six-plus-hour adventure that’s pleasing to look at, hilarious to listen to (stop and eavesdrop on your enemies; you won’t be sorry), fun to play the first time through, and worth at least one replay for completists. New “Mario” and “Ratchet” games will arrive in the coming weeks to take credit for ending the plaftormer drought, but it’s very worthwhile to give this one a look while you wait for those.

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Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s going to be fun to see what crazy ideas Nintendo comes up with for its next round of training games. Given the irony of using a video game system with two tiny LCD screens to promote better eye health, nothing is off-limits.

That’s not to say “Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day” actually trains your eyes. Even the instruction manual half-admits such a feat is beyond the reach of a video game.

Either way, “Focus” makes its case. Like the “Brain Age” games, it’s doctor-approved, created under the advisement of renowned vision training expert Hisao Ishigaki. (Sadly, unlike “Age,” “Focus” uses a “King’s Quest” reject instead of Ishigaki’s disembodied head to serve as the game’s mascot.) It also seeks to educate players about the eye in the same way “Age” waxed educational about the brain.

“Focus” tests your visual acuity in tandem with your mental dexterity, honing in on such attributes as peripheral vision, hand-eye coordination and the abilities to gather lots of information at once and track moving objects and patterns. As in past training games, it scores your results by assigning an “age” to your eyes. Scoring in the 20s is optimum, and scoring close to your actual age is good. Any other result means you have work to do.

“Focus'” 17 training exercises — 10 basic, seven sports-themed — are a fun lot overall, with the sports challenges (hit a pitch perfectly, engineer a perfect table tennis volley) easily providing the game’s highlight.

What these exercises aren’t, however, is rewarding over a long haul. Nintendo’s brain training games offered some real intellectual hills to climb, but “Focus” doesn’t enjoy this same luxury. Timing your bat swing is fun, but there’s no sense you’re permanently improving at it in any meaningful way. The element of luck also plays a larger role in these games, which in turn can skew the progress “Focus” charts over time.

Given that “Focus” doesn’t offer anything beyond this core component, it’s a tougher sale than its brain-training cousins. Then again, given the wildly different opinions people have about these games, you may disagree completely. As long as you realize that “Focus,” while fun, is a step down in the franchise, you probably know whether you want it or not. If all else fails, the $20 price tag dulls whatever buyer’s remorse you might experience two weeks from now.

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Clive Barker’s Jericho
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
From: Mercury Steam/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

The “Jericho” in “Clive Barker’s Jericho” refers to a squadron of soldiers trained both in conventional and unconventional arts of warfare. As the game begins, you’re filling one soldier’s shoes while artificial intelligence takes on those of your teammates.

An hour or so later, you’ll likely prefer the protection of the Chicago Cubs to that of Team Jericho, which clearly has no idea what the word “warfare” means. Regardless of whatever storytelling pedigree “Jericho” has behind it, it’s no match what could easily be the worst A.I. to appear in any squad-based shooter this year.

The potential is there. Each squadmate is gifted with two weapon specialties and a special ability of some kind (telekinesis, fire, time manipulation and more). An early plot twist gives you the ability to inhabit your teammates’ bodies, and from that point on you’re free to swap bodies and control any active soldier on your squad at any time.

Ironically, “Jericho’s” massive A.I. complex surfaces almost the instant this happens. Suddenly, squadmates not under your control forget how to (a) take cover, (b) fire and (c) heal fallen teammates — a common occurrence because of (a) and (b). You’ll spend far too much time healing fallen teammates yourself, which in turn puts you in immense peril.

Should you go down, you’ll assume control of another active soldier. But between the disorienting effect of switching bodies and the fact that whichever soldier you’re commandeering probably is horribly out of position, you’ll barely have time to react before getting pummeled again. Once all soldiers perish, it’s back to the checkpoint.

Because “Jericho” assumes you have a respectable army at your back, it plays cheap with the difficulty curve. The guns feel weak, the grenades are awful, and the game often rewards killing an enemy by spawning a new enemy either in the same exact place or a few feet behind you, resulting in yet another cheap death. A dull visual style (this is perhaps the most monochromatic game since “Asteroids”) makes it hard to discern enemies from teammates, and it’s only when those teammates have taken yet another fall that the picture clears up.

The worst part? You’re stuck with these mopes. A squad-based first-person shooter released in 2007 without any co-op play whatsoever is completely unheard of — until now. Among all indications that “Jericho” was rushed to market, this easily is the most damning.

Games 10/17/07: Project Gotham Racing 4, Spider-man: Friend or Foe

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-17

Project Gotham Racing 4
For: Xbox 360
From: Bizarre Creations/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Every gym class has that one kid who finishes the mile run three minutes after everyone else. If you’d like to know what that kid feels like, a couple hours with “Project Gotham Racing 4” should do it.

Fundamentally, “PGR4” falls in line with its predecessors. The racing action blends arcade- and simulation-style elements, and the Kudos points system encourages you to take risks — powerslides, drifts, sharp corners — while also winning the race or completing whatever objective is at hand.

But few games go to such lengths to undermine their core concepts like this one, and the result is a disastrous first impression that will send many scrambling for the eject button before the good times begin.

Eventually, “PGR4’s” licensed cars — and, for the first time, bikes — become fun to drive. But before you can fully utilize those vehicles, you’ll have to endure a couple hours with cars that steer like boats and purr like shopping carts with 2 missing wheels. That might be okay if “PGR4’s” track design was more open, but the roads are almost comically narrow for the most part. Instead of racking up Kudos points, you’ll be bouncing off walls, zigzagging down the road and drifting into unintentional 180s while opposing racers embarrass you.

With patience — and enough Kudos to purchase some respectable wheels — the experience improves exponentially. But even when it hits its stride, “PGR4” never hums. Every time you assume the bad times are over, a lousy track design awaits with some cold water, and the love/hate relationship continues.

It doesn’t end on the track, either. Beyond the bikes, an improved multimedia editor and a dynamic weather system that makes a pretty game slightly prettier, “PGR4’s” other big news is the reorganization of the career mode.

Again, the changes undercut the concept. “PGR” fans who’ve grown accustomed to repeating events and perfecting their scores will be dismayed by the season-style makeover, which requires you to cycle through the entire calendar before taking another crack at an event. Realistic though that may be, it undermines the pursuit of perfection that made previous “PGR” games so cherished by its fanbase. A new arcade mode replicates this pursuit, but on a much smaller scale.

All told, it’s arguably the best-designed game you’ll ever possibly hate. It’s also, for that reason, impossible to universally recommend in spite of its merits. Rent it, endure the dark period, and see how you feel after that.

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Spider-man: Friend or Foe
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS and PC
From: Next Level Games/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Say this about “Spider-man: Friend or Foe:” It’s the most relaxing Spider-Man game to come along in years.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. “Foe” shares no ties with the increasingly bleak “Spider-Man” movies, and the result is a happier, snappier Spidey who isn’t being voiced by a sleepwalking Tobey Maguire. An awesome premise — Spider-Man must posse up with his most renowned enemies and defeat a common nuisance — gives way to some great odd-couple moments and some pretty funny dialogue, and the game’s colorful, semi-cartoony visual style contributes to the happy-go-lucky tone. After the multifaceted downer that was the “Spider-Man 3” game, this is a most welcome change of pace.

Problem is, those good vibes seem to trickled down to whomever was in charge of making “Foe” challenging — assuming the job was even handed out in the first place.

“Foe” plays out in the same style as “Marvel Ultimate Alliance.” It’s primarily a brawler, and while Spidey uses his web-shooting abilities in all manner of combat scenarios, he travels almost exclusively on foot.

The high variety of attacks makes for some fun action, but there’s no getting around how ludicrously easy the game is. “Foe” sports a single difficulty setting, and you’ll almost never perish during the game’s six-hour adventure. Even if you do, so what? You respawn in the same exact spot, a modest loss of character upgrade points your only penalty. Boss fights are slightly more consequential, but they’re so easy, you may never even discover what those consequences are.

The laziness trickles down to the rest of the game. “Foe’s” various locales look completely different, but they’re all basically the same levels in different clothing. You’ll move forward, hit a switch, find “hidden” items the developers didn’t even bother to hide, and repeat. Same goes for the enemies: Bosses aside, you’ll face three distinct types ad nauseam. They look different from mission to mission, but they fight almost exactly the same.

This plus a lack of any online co-op (two-player offline only) makes it impossible to argue that “Foe” is anything beyond a quickie holiday cash-in. It’s fun in spite of its flaws, particularly for younger players who might find it more challenging. But it’s not pay-full-price fun, and the rental period should provide more than enough time to see and do everything there is to see and do.

Games 9/12: Stranglehold, Tiger Woods PGA 08, Stuntman: Ignition

PDF Clip: Games 2008-09-12

John Woo Presents Stranglehold
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Tiger Hill/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence)

Arguably no game has earned the “action game” classification quite like “Stranglehold,” which incidentally also rewrites the rules on how to translate a film into a game.

“Stranglehold” isn’t based on a movie, but in fact is a sequel to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.” The narrative isn’t Hemingway, but it works as an excuse to revisit Chow Yun-Fat’s Inspector Tequila. (Yun-Fat provides his voice.)

More importantly, though, “Stranglehold” gives us a crack at reenacting some of the greatest action scenes in movie history, and the degree to which it pulls that off is remarkable. Environments are ridiculously destructible, enemies storm in like clowns out of a limousine, and Tequila is gifted with an insane arsenal of moves that are deliriously fun to execute and arrange.

“Max Payne” fans will see a lot of that game in “Stranglehold.” Tequila can slow time in limited bursts, and time slows automatically whenever he has an enemy in his sights and is in the throes of any number of acrobatic moves ranging from diving to sprinting across the tailbone of a wrecked dinosaur museum exhibit.

Additionally, “Stranglehold” is generous with the firepower. Ammo is everywhere, and every gun uses a magical magazine that never needs a reload.

When all else fails, a foursome of special, limited-use moves — allowing Tequila to heal, zoom in on an enemy, enjoy limited indestructibility and automatically clear out a room — are available. The more style with which you dispatch enemies, the more times you can take advantage.

To compensate for your many talents, “Stranglehold” hurls the kitchen sink at you. With few exceptions, the action never stops during the game’s seven levels: Cronies constantly blitz you, boss characters are made of steel, and sometimes both problems land on your plate at once.

Some technical problems — namely, a camera that struggles with tight spaces and an action/jump button that occasionally doesn’t respond as intended — compound the problem. For the most part, though, the game feels exceptionally good, offering a sense of control that belies the madness happening around you.

“Stranglehold’s” single-player experience is beatable in a weekend, and the deathmatch multiplayer is chaotic fun but not built for endurance. But that’s forgivable, because if there’s a game that’s worth dusting off and replaying every few weeks or so, this easily is it. If you fancy action games at all, a return on your investment is assured.

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Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08
Reviewed For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, PC/Mac
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

In every way but one, “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08” is the best “Woods” game yet.

The “but one” has nothing to do with features, because “08” is loaded. The multi-pronged career mode is deeper than ever, with the Tiger Challenge receiving a role-playing-game-style makeover that incorporates the game’s numerous golf (10), arcade (two) and mini-game (10) modes.

A full tour also is available for your created character, who comes courtesy of the most amazing character-creation tool in any game, period. The new headshot import tool works astonishingly well under the right conditions, but crafting something from scratch is awfully fun.

The “but one” has nothing to do with online support, though online play occasionally falls prone to some lag. It still delivers, and the new Gamernet feature — which lets post online clips of your greatest golfing exploits and challenge others to match them and “bust” your clip — could be the franchise’s best new feature in years.

Visually, “Woods” isn’t much prettier than last year, but it’s impressive where it counts. The golfers, including your created characters, look exceptional, and the courses are easy enough on the eyes to make some ugly spectators and jagged edges forgivable.

Nope, the “but one” is bigger than all those things — combined.

For whatever reason, “08” needlessly tinkers with its most essential asset: the swing. Put simply, it’s measurably more sensitive than before. The window for hitting a straight shot is perilously small, and the difference between a shot or putt that falls short and one that grossly overshoots the target is a soft touch that’s impossible to quantify. Well-prepared shots with feel-good swings occasionally go nowhere near their intended targets, and it’s often unclear why.

“08” reintroduces the three-click swing control scheme as an alternative to compensate, but the margin for error is so cruelly small that it merely adds to the illusion that the game is working against rather than challenging you. Fortunately, you can switch schemes instantaneously if you find that different setups deliver in different situations.

That’s ultimately what you’ll have to do if you don’t want to wait until next year. “08” offers a ton to love, but it also dares you to keep coming back after the new control alterations send you storming off. Mastery remains a possibility, but you’ll need the patience of a steady-handed saint to topple Tiger this year. You’ve been warned.

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Stuntman: Ignition
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2
From: Paradigm Ent. /THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

Mercy is a beautiful thing, and it’s the one thing “Stuntman: Ignition” needed most. The original “Stuntman” had none, and it turned an intriguing game with a dynamite concept into something unplayable.

The concept returns untouched in “Ignition.” You’re a movie stunt driver, and it’s your job to complete various scenes by following on-the-fly cues from the director and hitting your assignments. Miss too many, and you have to start the scene over.

But “Ignition” undoes many of “Stuntman’s” most grievous offenses, and it’s an immeasurably better game for that reason alone. Vehicles that controlled like boats in the first game now maneuver as intended, so it’s easier to hit those assignments. The director is more forgiving, allowing you room to string together some tricks without having to be unreasonably precise when hitting a target. If that’s still not enough, an optional easy mode allows you more strikes and the chance to finish the scene, for practice’s sake, even when you fail.

“Stuntman” was nerve-fraying because of all the aforementioned issues, but it was the excessive load times whenever you failed that really did the game in. By contrast, you can jump right back in and try again in “Ignition” without any wait at all. If you played “Stuntman,” you know how great that news is.

Still, “Ignition” is less aggravating than “Stuntman” in the same way a twisted ankle hurts less than a sprain. It’s much more fun, but it still demands patience.

Nailing a scene to satisfaction remains challenging, and it’s made tougher by the game’s sometimes-random nature. That same arbitration that makes “Ignition” more forgiving can sometimes backfire, and there are times where you’ll complete a move and still receive a strike. The physics engine sometimes produces unpredictable results as well, and it’s bound to occasionally burn you in similar fashion.

But compared to the first game’s mile-long list of problems, that’s cake. “Ignition” is playable in every way “Stuntman” was not, and it doesn’t do so at the expense of the concept, visual presentation (looks terrific, though the framerate occasionally dips) or features (career mode and the awesome stunt track editor return, and eight-player online multiplayer joins the fold on the 360 and PS3). If you felt gypped the first time around, it’s time to get your feet wet again. This is the game you wanted to play all along.

Games 7/4: The Darkness, The Bigs

The Darkness
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Starbreeze Studios/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

Arguably no game developer is experimenting with immersion quite like Starbreeze Studios, which most recently was responsible for a movie-licensed game (“The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay”) that was immeasurably more interesting than the movie that inspired it.

The concepts that surfaced in “Riddick” go into overdrive with “The Darkness,” which drops you into the shoes of a 21-year-old mobster who finds himself doing battle with both his crime family and a demonic possession that gives him some seriously scary powers. Fundamentally, it’s a first-person shooter, and much of the action that takes place is not unlike what might take place in any other FPS. But the devil is in “The Darkness'” details, and it’s the sum of these details that set the game so far apart from its peers.

Case in point: You’re looking for a certain building, but there’s no arrow or in-game display pointing the way — only a few “You are here” maps on various street corners. Even when you calculate (in your own head) the directions of your trip, you literally have to read the street signs in order to find your destination. That’s assuming you don’t need to take the subway, which you’ll have to learn in similar fashion.

It’s like being a tourist in a new town, only with half the locals out to kill you. This lack of hand-holding — and this is just one example — will feel excessive to some, but that’s more an indictment of gamer tastes than Starbreeze’s creativity.

To reveal too many details about the demon possession would be to spoil parts of a very story-driven game. Just know that the powers it grants — which include a number of stealth attacks and the ability to create black holes and summon demonic (and surprisingly funny) underlings to do your bidding — are almost universally awesome. “The Darkness” is home to a number of terrific and very challenging shootouts, but it’s these special powers that will truly drop jaws.

“The Darkness” comes equipped with an enjoyable multiplayer mode that allows you to play as one of the aforementioned underlings, but it’s more of a bonus than a chief selling point. That’s fine. It’s pretty clear where Starbreeze’s heart lies, and it’s refreshing to see a first-person shooter that not only heavily prioritizes its single-player component, but is so thoroughly able to do so in the first place.

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The Bigs
Reviewed for: Xbox and Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, PSP and Playstation 2
From: 2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

The problem with most arcade sports games is that, by injecting fast-paced fun at the expense of strategy, that very fun tends to wear off a lot sooner than we’d like it to.

“The Bigs,” however, is not like most arcade sports games. To the contrary, 2K’s arcade baseball game gives more serious games a run for the money in the strategy department.

Unlike previous arcade baseball games, “The Bigs” doesn’t attempt to undo the balance of the game on which it’s based. The game’s fiercest hitters are more imposing than ever at the plate, but that holds true for the hurlers as well. Playmakers who like to hit and run, bunt guys over and shift the defense can still do all of these things. The buffed-up graphics are larger than life and the game is faster-paced than “MLB 2K7,” but you won’t feel like you’re playing some dumbed-down version of baseball here.

In fact, once turbo enters the equation, the opposite holds true. On top of everything else, success in “The Bigs” means managing your turbo, which accumulates through plate and mound discipline. Do you spend turbo to stretch a single into a double, or is it better to save it for a knockout pitch or clutch hit? Every factor of the game — defense included — benefits from turbo, but its status as a precious (and earned) commodity means you have to spend wisely.

As it’s implemented, the turbo system is an ingenious good time. Ditto for the on-the-fly mini-games that allow you to rob home runs and knock the ball out of a catcher’s hand. Everything that happens in “The Bigs” is an exaggerated concoction of ballplayer attributes and player skill, and the entire experience is both pleasantly accessible and startlingly deep.

If there’s a big problem with “The Bigs,” it’s the omission of some kind of season/franchise mode. Still, the rookie challenge — where you create a character and complete a number of challenges such as winning games, building skills and completing various scenarios — gives the game some good single-player legs. Online play is available on both systems, and you can even play with a human teammate in two-on-two play.

Lastly, there’s the home run pinball mode, which combines a home run derby, pinball and New York’s Times Square. It’s gimmicky as gimmicky gets, but good luck not being hooked after one play.

Games 6/27: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii
Also available for: PC, PSP, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The summer of bad movie-based games is far from over, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take a break. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” promises to be an uncommonly good summertime movie sequel, and the game of the same name — while certainly flawed — follows suit.

To EA’s great restraint, “Phoenix” doesn’t try to be something the movie and book are not. Harry doesn’t run around Hogwarts unleashing hell and lightning bolts on Slytherin students, for instance, and the game is appropriately light on conflict outside of the story’s key showdowns. Most of the action revolves around assembling Dumbledore’s Army and completing various side quests that increase your abilities and advance various plotlines. You occasionally step into the shoes of other characters, but only when the story dictates it.

Such faithfulness won’t excite the non-fans, but “Potter” fanatics will find plenty to love in spite of the oft-ordinary objectives.

For starters, Hogwarts Castle has truly come alive. And with assists from the Marauder’s map and/or Invisibility Cloak, you’re free to explore the whole thing at your leisure, pending objectives or not. The Great Hall, Hagrid’s hut, moving staircases and wisecracking portraits — it’s all here. “Phoenix” sports some sporadic graphical and framerate hiccups, but it does an incredible job of replicating Hogwarts in exquisite detail.

That goes also goes for the game’s overall presentation, which is lively and appropriately dramatic. Those unfamiliar with the source material won’t always know why they’re doing what they’re doing — playing “Phoenix” is akin to reading every fifth page of the book — but fans should love it.

Control-wise, “Phoenix” plays out like a typical third-person action game. The key exception is the right analog stick (or, in the Wii’s case, motion controls), which handles spellcasting duties instead of camera control. The absence of an on-the-fly manual camera is felt in tight spots, but the various spellcasting commands work so well that it’s a completely acceptable loss. The spells also give rise to some puzzles that, while simple, are pretty fun to solve.

“Phoenix” doesn’t reinvent anything, and seasoned gamers have done most of what it offers (outside of Wiimote spell-casting) a dozen times before. But “Potter” fans have ached to run free around Hogwarts since the first “Potter” game appeared on the original Playstation, and “Phoenix” grants that wish with authority. That alone makes it easy to recommend.

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Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

One of the best things about the Nintendo DS’ “Brain Age” — and a feature sorely missed in its spiritual follow-up, “Big Brain Academy” — is a daily training feature. In it, you can take a short battery of tests once a day, and the game charts your progress. Simple, yes, but it’s also a stroke of genius that gave a fairly no-frills game a bona fide sense of attachment.

It’s also something “Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree” could really have used. Nintendo’s first big-screen brain game makes a solid translation from the small screen, but it’s missing that same sense of attachment that would have made it a daily ritual.

Like the DS “Academy” game, “Degree” tests your brain in five different areas: identification, computation, analysis, memorization and visualization. A test mode puts you through the paces in all five categories, ultimately grading your performance by calculating the figurative weight of your brain.

Each area contains three different challenges, and all 15 use the Wiimote as a point-and-click device, which works fine given their cerebral nature. For the most part, the challenges are fun and indeed challenging, at least at higher levels when you’re on the clock. You can sample every challenge in a matter of minutes, but the randomness of the problems keep you on your toes and prevent mini-game fatigue from taking over.

Also like the DS game, “Degree” features a multiplayer component — in this case, two pass-the-Wiimote games (Mental Marathon, Brain Quiz) and one (Mind Sprint) that features two teams simultaneously racing through a series of problems. All three are fun in some way, but the frantic Mind Sprint is the clear gem. It’s just unfortunate Nintendo didn’t include support for four simultaneous teams. That might have been crowded on smaller televisions, but it would have made a good thing even better for those who could handle it.

There’s no question “Degree” could have benefited from a few more challenges, but the game remains strangely replayable because of the nature of what it has. The real bummer, then, is the stats system. “Degree” keeps records of your brain’s weight and best scores in each mode, and even allows for score trading online. But there’s no system for progress tracking, which even the freebie “Wii Sports” had. You can always create your own chart in Excel, but where’s the charm in that?

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PS2 and Wii (see last paragraph), Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

Not since perhaps the days of The Great War has a synonym for “good” been so repeatedly misused. Since 2005, “The Fantastic Four” has inspired two insipid movies — and now, with “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” two rounds of wholly mediocre games.

To be fair, the game has its moments — if you play it right. Visual Concepts has fashioned “Surfer” into a “Marvel Ultimate Alliance”-style brawler, and as with that game, you play as one of four team members while either the computer or up to three friends handle the other three. Co-op mode alleviates the game’s enormous issues with stupid A.I., while playing solo allows you to switch between characters on the fly.

But unless you’re controlling The Thing, “Surfer” is pretty much a mess. For whatever reason, The Thing not only has the best special movies, but an increased ability to actually land a punch as well. Johnny Storm is near-worthless unless he’s launching fireballs from a distance, and Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman are about as menacing as chessboard pawns. Those playing alone generally can avoid playing as these two (one solo mission each excepted), but whoever gets stuck as anyone but The Thing in a co-op game will not be happy.

Alas, even playing as The Thing gets old quick. “Surfer’s” aesthetics are wildly inconsistent, with some characters (again, The Thing) and levels (New York City rooftops, the very destructible final level) looking good and others looking like something out of 2001. The level designs are another story: Most consist of an endless labyrinth of brawling, hitting switches and riding elevators. Lots and lots of elevators.

Additionally, the film’s story doesn’t exactly translate, and those who haven’t seen the movie will have little idea what’s going on. Despite being in the title and on the box, the Silver Surfer is almost a non-factor — ironic, considering he was a hidden playable character in “Ultimate Alliance,” which also featured The Thing.

You can beat “Surfer” in a day, and there’s no online equivalent to the offline co-op mode. That makes this a rental at best for fans of the Four. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the PS2 and Wii versions, which come courtesy of a different developer (7 Studios), amplify every problem the PS3/360 versions have, and tack on shoddy controls to top it off.

Games 6/20: Forza Motorsport 2, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Surf's Up

Forza Motorsport 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Forza Motorsport 2” has a problem, and that problem’s name is “Forza Motorsport.” Microsoft Game Studios’ first attempt at a hardcore driving simulation was such a knockout, there’s precious little for the sequel to do to improve on the formula.

But improve it does, particularly if you have an Xbox Live Gold Account.

While “FM2’s” single-player component is wonderfully deep, its online community is giggle-like-a-schoolgirl incredible and likely will remain so until the day “Forza 3” releases. The insanely deep car customization features practically comprise a game in their own right, and it’s a thrill to race your creations against the world’s best armchair drivers and mechanics. The paint and decal options allow your artistic juices to run absolutely wild, and you can even sell your cars on a live auction block in exchange for in-game currency, which can be used to purchase new cars within the game. How brilliant is that?

Elsewhere, the improvements are more subtle but equally important. Team 10 has tweaked an already-incredible physics engine, further bridging the gap between the game’s 300 vehicles and their real-life counterparts. The difference in how vehicles and even various parts perform is tangible even to casual observers. Such dedication to realism isn’t for everyone — success in “Forza” demands a much more subtle touch than a game like “Burnout” requires — but those who crave it will reap almost endless reward from “FM2’s” attention to depth and detail.

All that content and detail — along with a fantastically smooth framerate — has its drawbacks, at least visually speaking. While “FM2” produces some gorgeous car designs, the tracks don’t look quite as good as what other Xbox 360 racers have produced. Worse is the omission of an in-dash camera: It’s wholly understandable (good, even) that recreating 300 car interiors wasn’t at the top of Turn 10’s priority list, but a few generic options for us less picky sorts would’ve been nice.

Those issues aside, “FM2” is a monster of a game, and there’s so much more to it than a 375-word review can cover. Just know that if you love cars and love a good, exciting driving simulation, few games will spin in your 360 as long and as frequently as this one.

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Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence)

If there’s a Nintendo Wii-related trend more disturbing than the explosion of mini-game collections that comprise too much of its library, it’s the similar sprawl of Xbox and Playstation 2 ports that developers have tried, with awkward results, to wedge onto Nintendo’s hot new property.

“Mortal Kombat: Armageddon,” which surfaced last October on the Xbox and PS2 and just now arrives on the Wii, painfully illustrates why.

On its own merits, “Armageddon” is a good fighting game. Midway offers support for three control configurations, two of which allow you to play the game the traditional way (via Wavebird or Classic controller). On this level, the action is as solid now as it was last October, and Midway backs up a fun fighting engine with a huge roster of fighters and modes both complementary (create-a-fighter, story mode, practice, multiplayer) and irreverent (a humorous kart racing game that’s surprisingly well made).

But it’s that third control configuration — the motion controls — that’s got people talking about an eight-month-old game. It’s also the reason Midway is selling “Armageddon” for $50 — or more than double what it retails for nowadays on Xbox and PS2 — despite the omission of online play on the Wii version.

Sadly, it’s also the biggest letdown. For starters, the motion controls are limited to a scant handful of special attacks. Regular punches and kicks are regulated to the Wiimote’s tiny D-pad, which is as clumsy as it sounds. Forget about pulling off combos you could execute with ease on other controllers.

Worse, the few moves that do use motion controls are contrived attacks that don’t even match up with whatever motion you’re making. If you were hoping to punch your opponent simply by mimicking the motion yourself, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The 1:1 immersion that drives games like “Wii Sports” and “Tiger Woods” is completely absent here, and the motion controls merely serve to complicate matters for no good reason.

It’s hard to knock “Armageddon” too much, because it is a good game. But it’s a good game that lacks both its chief selling point and the online play cheaper versions have. If you need a fighting game and don’t have another system, there’s fun to have here, but it’s not the fun you had in mind when you dropped $250 on that Wii.

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Surf’s Up
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Nintendo Wii, Gamecube and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, language)

Honestly, who doesn’t expect a kids-centric licensed game based on a film about surfing penguins to not be horrible? If “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” couldn’t rise above the crushing tide of disappointment, what chance does this game have?

Here’s the thing, though: We haven’t had a surfing game of any kind in a few months shy of five years. How this drought came to be is a mystery, but Ubisoft seems to have received the memo. Instead of churning out some unfocused drivel that cashes in on the movie’s assumed popularity, it has instead produced a competent, fun and family-friendly surfing game that’s a more pleasant surprise than all three aforementioned games combined.

That’s not to say “Surf’s Up” is exceptional or even worth a buy. It has problems, including a doozy we’ll get to in a moment. The on-rails design — your surfer of choice constantly is moving forward, with a wave off to the left or right and all manner of obstacles straight ahead — will feel too simple for those hungry for a serious surfing game. There’s also the occasional weird problem with physics and collision detection that sometimes will cause you to tricks you could otherwise land with your eyes closed.

Still, the game is strangely fun on a very simple level. The trick system is solid in spite of the random issues, and nailing a combo after launching off a monster wave at just the right time is quite a bit of fun. The 10 playable characters each feature their own distinct bag of tricks, and the game offers a few side objectives in addition to racking high score after high score. Meeting those objectives nets you new characters, customizable surfboards, character accessories and (on the Xbox 360) achievement points.

Unfortunately — doozy time — “Surf’s Up” is almost comically short. An hour and change is all it takes to complete the game’s main objectives, and two or three more should take care of all the side objectives. None of the versions feature online play, and all that remains is a four-player split-screen mode. That’s not a lot of value for a game that costs between $40-$50. Ubisoft did a nice job exceeding gameplay expectations, but it’s hard to recommend anything higher than a rental until the price drops.