Games 3/31/09: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, Fallout 3: The Pitt, Pocket God

Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
For: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

At first sight and first play, “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure” is a game that dares you not to love it. It’s immensely pleasing on the eyes, and the storyline — fronted by the charming, monocle-clad title character whose life is in your hands — is adorably but sharply amusing.

Also, the game’s premise — a “Mega Man”-style sidescroller on the top screen working in tandem with a “Tetris Attack” clone on the bottom — is uniquely, expertly executed. Enemies you topple and power-ups you find as Henry become blocks on the puzzle game below, and clearing those blocks away both prevents those enemies from returning and activates those power-ups. The two games influence each other in other clever ways, and you can switch between them at will with one button press.

If it sounds rather unwieldy, a little acclimation proves otherwise. Henry’s adventures use the DS’ buttons, while the puzzle portion works multiple ways but plays best with the stylus. Once you develop a system for keeping the stylus handy while focusing on the top screen, switching becomes second nature.

Most importantly, “Adventure” doesn’t drop the ball in either area. Had the top game released on its own as a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance game, it would be one of the more accomplished sidescrollers on either system. And while the “Tetris Attack” clone pretty much is exactly that, it’s a fast, fun homage that puts many dedicated DS puzzle games to shame in the responsiveness department.

All of this holds true throughout the entirety of “Adventure,” but unless you’re a sidescrolling virtuoso who enjoys an absurd challenge, it grows increasingly difficult to admire once the game unleashes a serious spike in difficultly, which happens around the midpoint of the third world.

At no point is “Adventure” hopelessly unreasonable. But there exist multiple points going forward where you’ll find yourself under attack from all angles with nowhere to escape. Once Henry loses a certain portion of his health, it’s practically a death sentence: He gets knocked into other enemies, who can pile on attacks, and your ability to rebuild his health through the puzzle portion takes a crippling hit. Throw in some sparse checkpoints and the occasional cheap bottomless pit death, and “Adventure” gives gamers of average ability every reason in the world to shut it off and never go back.

It goes without saying, then, that casual gamers seduced by the vibrant artwork and promise of puzzle-solving are better off getting those fixes elsewhere. “Adventure” ultimately is one of the DS’ better games, but not every great game is for every player. Disappointing though it is to say it, only those with godly skills and saintly patience need apply here.

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Fallout 3: The Pitt
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Though fun on its own terms, “Operation Anchorage” was something of an awkward way for “Fallout 3” to kick off its run of downloadable $10 expansion packs. The episode took place almost entirely within a simulation inside the existing game, and because the story focused on past events in the “Fallout” timeline, little beyond a few new pieces of gear stuck with you once it ended and you were back in Washington, D.C.

“The Pitt,” on the other hand, feels a bit more traditional. The location has changed — to Pittsburgh, accessible now via underground rail — but the norms established in “Fallout 3” mostly translate verbatim. Everything plays out in the game’s real world and present day, and everything from the people you meet to the loot you find is as fair game here as it is in D.C.

Respect to “Anchorage’s” fresh ideas aside, this faithfulness makes for a much better episode. With the ground rules already established, “The Pitt” is free to focus entirely on the human fallout of post-nuclear Pittsburgh, where human slavery has returned and a makeshift monarchy — established by a new strain of the same raiders who run wild in D.C.’s landscape — inexplicably but unmistakably holds rule.

In true “Fallout” fashion, “The Pitt” gives you a starting point — disguised as a slave, with designs to help plot an overthrow — but takes the gloves off from there. A few central characters remain invincible per usual, but the vast majority can, depending on your preferred methods and intentions, be reasoned with, provoked or killed outright. “The Pitt” lets you play devil’s advocate far more than “Anchorage” did, and whether you negotiate with the overlords, play ball with them or pick them off without even introducing yourself, the presence of innocent bystanders means even a reckless gunslinger with good intentions might accidentally find a few casualties on his conscience.

Along with a better roster of characters comes a better storyline with a few fantastic detours and a truly disarming reveal near the end. As it’s presented, “The Pitt’s” storyline matches and arguably outclasses the main storyline from “Fallout 3” proper, though it also benefits from having to fill three to fours’ time instead of 30.

Like “Anchorage,” though, “The Pitt” ultimately feels like a standalone diversion. You can revisit Pittsburgh as you please upon completion of the episode, but your travails through D.C. don’t change much as result. The major exception, of course, is the gear you bring back. In “The Pitt’s” case, that means two truly vicious new weapons that, once found, likely will become staples of your inventory no matter where the game takes you next.

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Pocket God
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Bolt Creative
iTunes Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: 99 cents

With respect to processing power, 3D graphics, tilt sensitivity and Internet connectivity, one of the iPhone’s most understated assets is the wide availability of silly, guilt-free, 99 cent amusements. “Pocket God” aptly demonstrates why. “God” gives you a simple desert island and a single inhabitant. From there you can do whatever you please within the bounds of game, which includes adding additional islanders, tossing them into the ocean or a volcano, changing the weather with a flick of a finger or sending everybody clinging for their lives by turning the device on its side. That, and a few other surprises, is all “God” really does, but that’s the point: You pay a buck once, and the game pays you back by being a perennial source of easy giggles whenever a spare moment calls for them. To its credit, Bolt Creative is encouraging return visits via free updates which it dubs as episodes. Each adds a new trick to your godly arsenal, and the title of the episode offers a hint as to what the new power is and how to activate it. Bolt has released 11 episodes since “God” debuted in January, and all indications point to more ahead.

Games 2/24/09: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, Halo Wars, Noby Noby Boy

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Requires: Grand Theft Auto IV game disc

No one really knew what it meant when Microsoft promised, seemingly forever ago and at a cost of 50 million of its own dollars, two exclusive downloadable additions to the Xbox version of “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

With the arrival of the $20 “The Lost and Damned,” it’s starting to make sense. Much like Rockstar changed the face of console gaming seven years ago with “Grand Theft Auto III,” it has now dramatically altered what owners of a $60 game should expect when a publisher asks them to invest additional funds atop the initial investment.

“Damned” doesn’t move the action away from Liberty City, and in fact takes place at the same time as the events you experienced as Niko Belic in “GTAIV.” This time, though, you’re filling the shoes of The Lost Motorcycle Club Vice President Johnny Klebitz, who made a cameo but little more in “GTAIV.” Fittingly, most of the action takes place in Alderney, which “GTAIV” presented in full but rarely utilized during its storyline.

In dismissive terms, it’s more of the same. But when your storytelling and voice acting exist in a class all their own — and a fantastic opening cutscene serves as stark reminder just how good Rockstar is at that stuff — a return to that level of quality after a 10-month layoff is entirely welcome. Expansion content or not, “Damned’s” single-player component is good for roughly 10 hours of gameplay, which is competitive with most games that cost triple the price. The new story makes stars out of a new crop of Liberty City citizens, lets us reconnect with a few familiar faces, and includes some fun side missions (biker gang turf wars and “Road Rash”-style bike races, to name two) to complement the main storyline.

Those bike races — which let you enjoy the vastly improved motorcycle physics while also knocking your friends off their rides with a bat — mark the best of “Damned’s” new multiplayer offerings, which mostly (and satisfactorily) remix existing “GTAIV” modes to incorporate the biker gang motif. The other arguable highlight: a two-player Chopper vs. Chopper mode, which has one player in a helicopter hunting an escaping player on a bike. Outside of the turf war modes, it marks the best multiplayer-centric use of Liberty City’s spacious geography.

Given that “Damned” is full-featured to the point that it feels like its own game, it makes sense that Rockstar treats it like a separate entity from “GTAIV” despite using assets from the original game. But that deep division also leads to “Damned’s” only major disappointment: The new weapons (six) and vehicles (17 new bikes, three fantastic new four-wheelers) work only in “Damned” and not in “GTAIV” proper.

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Halo Wars
For: Xbox 360
From: Ensemble Studios/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, violence)

Easily the best thing about “Halo Wars” is the degree to which Ensemble Studios has translated the Xbox’s most recognized shooter into a real-time strategy game.

“Wars” steps backward to narrate the events that preceded the first “Halo” game, but it doesn’t dare get fancy with the franchise. The same three factions you’ve fought as or against all return in full, and the troops, vehicles and special facilities from those games are replicated here without exception. (Other staples, including the music, menu interface, mission scoring system and even the collectible hidden skulls that enable special cheats, are tucked inside as well.)

On the other hand, if you don’t care about “Halo” and want, as Ensemble promised, a PC-quality strategy game that’s made for a controller, some measure of disappointment lies ahead.

Yes, “Wars” streamlines the controls, making it effortless to manage units without performing the kind of acrobatics needed in EA’s “Command and Conquer” games. But Ensemble’s solution doesn’t solve the problem so much as smooth it over. You can’t, for instance, create pre-defined assortments of different units for easy reference later. “Wars” automatically figures this stuff out as you send units to different sides of the map, but it’s a level of handholding that experienced RTS players will not appreciate.

Then again, “Wars'” equally simple single-player missions make nuanced micromanagement mostly unnecessary. Resources practically accumulate on their own, and if you build and maintain some relatively inexpensive turrets where the constricted base-building model allows them, you rarely need worry about defense, either. Outside of a few exceptions, the missions place an excessive emphasis on offense: Build an overwhelming force, steamroll forward, and you almost cannot lose.

The problems with the campaign — which, despite a short length and the complete omission of Covenant-perspective missions, drags on due to repetition — mean that, like most “Halo” games, “Wars” is best recommended for its multiplayer features (2-6 players, online/system link only).

Sure enough, this is where it shines. “Wars” lets you play as either the UNSC or the Covenant (though never the Flood) in its freeform skirmish mode, and the hands-off approach — your base and battle strategy versus theirs — makes for less predictable outcomes. It would’ve been nice to see Ensemble try something more ambitious with the Xbox Live infrastructure, but the simple controls and general fast pace of the action (by RTS standards) make this a fun option for those who like their real-time strategy in short, accessible doses.

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Downloadable game

Noby Noby Boy
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $5

It’s hard to definitively describe a game whose full intention is either mysterious or completely absent, but that’s what you get with “Noby Noby Boy,” which must be experienced firsthand to be even remotely understood. “NNB” stars you as Boy, and the goal (maybe) is to stretch yourself out, eat stuff and just experiment at your own leisure in a bizarre, physics-centric wonderland. You then can “submit” your stretching totals to the sun, which collects submissions from everyone on the Playstation Network and uses that total to stretch a character named Girl. Once Girl can touch additional planets, those levels will open to everyone on PSN who owns the game. Yep. Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand any of that: “NNB” is so weird that you might not understand it any more after playing it than reading about it. Consider, also, that the endgame remains a secret until the PSN community uncovers it, and “NNB” becomes a purchase only if you don’t mind gambling $5 on what is, without exaggeration, a complete leap of faith. Though “NNB” comes courtesy of the guy who created “Katamari Damacy” and adopts that game’s visual and stylistic methodology, even your feelings about that game cannot dictate whether you’ll get this one. If you’re feeling adventurous, just roll the dice.

Games 2/3/09: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, Animal Boxing, Savage Moon

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

The liberation of Anchorage, Alaska, from an invading Chinese army has been a source of in-game whispers and references since the original “Fallout” debuted more than 11 years ago, but the $10 “Operation Anchorage” add-on marks the first time fans have been able to experience the event through their own eyes and thumbs.

As such, the first of three downloadable “Fallout 3” add-ons is also the most acute in its target audience. Its ties to the “Fallout 3” storyline are threadbare — you’ll visit Anchorage via a simulation that exists inside the present setting of Washington, D.C., — and outside of experience points and some new weaponry and armor, little that happens within carries over to rest of the game.

The upside to all that autonomy is that “Anchorage” is free to play by some of its own rules. Standard “Fallout 3” protocols apply, but “Anchorage” puts you in the middle of a war rather than a solitary trek across a post-nuclear wasteland, and the extreme emphasis on combat — including skirmishes alongside a hand-picked team of comrades and showdowns against an army’s worth of devious human and vehicular adversaries — lies in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s affinity for solitary discovery.

The downside to that upside? Not all of it works. Bethesda compensates “Anchorage’s” bloodlust by making it a too easy to stay alive and equipped without really earning it. Whereas “Fallout 3” has you scraping for ammo and medical supplies however you can, “Anchorage” spoils you with recharge bins that replenish both without limit. Beyond those bins, 10 intel suitcases and some explosives that are harder to pick up than they should be, nothing in the environments can be scavenged for later use.

Fortunately, while “Anchorage” unquestionably takes you down a more linear path than “Fallout 3’s” missions typically do, you still have the freedom to fight as stealthily, loudly or mischievously as you wish. Per usual, certain characters are off-limits and cannot be killed, and there’s no way to change the ending of a battle that’s already entrenched in “Fallout” lore. But how you reach the end of “Anchorage’s” not-quite-four-hour runtime is largely your call.

Bethesda has confirmed two more downloadable packs for “Fallout 3,” and both appear to deal more directly with the main storyline than “Anchorage” possibly can. Overwhelmingly, this is a fun piece of one-shot fan service that anyone can enjoy but only a select audience of long-time fans will truly appreciate. If you’re not in the latter camp and simply are in it for the new enemies, weapons and armor, it’s important keep that in mind.

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Animal Boxing
For: Nintendo DS
From: Gammick Studios/Destineer
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

For an unassuming handheld game about boxing animals, “Animal Boxing” sure covers some ground. It’s brilliantly clever, yet fundamentally broken. It’s impossibly easy and unnecessarily difficult. Finally, depending on the quality and proximity of your friends, it’s both easy and impossible to recommend.

As touch screen boxing goes, “Boxing,” which stars you as a custom-designed human fighting some 50 not-so-innocent anthropomorphic pugilists, nails it. The game uses the touch screen as the top screen — you play “Boxing” by holding the DS upside-down — and your punches are registered through corresponding gestures: Tap to jab, swipe horizontally to hook, swipe vertically to uppercut. The buttons work your defense, and effectively dodging punches both looks and feels really cool given “Boxing’s” first-person perspective.

Unfortunately, the actual fight mechanics can’t — or rather, don’t — keep up. Playing “Boxing” the way it’s meant to be played, by dodging punches and landing a few your own while your opponents’ defenses are down, is far too difficult with the ludicrously small window of time you’re given to recognize your opponent’s action and react.

As if to compensate, “Boxing” includes a block mechanic that isn’t dependent on timing. But it’s too powerful — able to dodge flurries and super punches alike without any need to lay off the button — and it makes the game too easy to exploit. Your fellow fighters don’t vary in technique as much as they do in appearance, and once you realize the block button stops pretty much any attack cold, it’s entirely too easy to lean on it and sneak in enough jabs to score a cheap victory.

Had “Boxing” slowed down a few ticks and adopted the same pace of “Punch-Out!” or even “Fight Night,” playing it legitimately would provide a perfect mix of challenge and intuition. Hopefully, Gammick can tweak the speed for a follow-up endeavor that really does the engine justice.

In the meantime, this is where your friends come in. Assuming you can agree to resist exploiting the block function, “Boxing” works fine as a two-player game. The fact that you and a friend are mutually mashing on each other does plenty to mitigate the aforementioned problems and re-center the emphasis on all “Boxing” does right.

Alas, Gammick hasn’t made this as easy as it should be. “Boxing’s” only multiplayer outlet is via multi-card wireless, which means you’ll need two copies of the game to fight each other. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle given the generous $20 price tag, but it’s an obstacle all the same.

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Savage Moon
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Fluffy Logic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, fantasy violence)
Price: $10

If you like real-time tower defense strategy games but are dismayed by their tendency to dabble in the cuter end of the video game graphics pool, “Savage Moon” — which has you defending mining facilities on the moon against waves of giant, ugly bugs — has your name on it. In complete contrast to the likes of “Pixeljunk Monsters” and “Ninjatown,” “Moon” resembles your traditional real-time strategy game, opting for gritty, realistic (by giant-bug-on-moon standards) graphics and explosive defense technology and special effects. That begets “Moon’s” other selling point: It’s fast. Everything, from unit creation to upgrades to researching new technology, happens either instantly or within seconds, and with the bugs marching at you with similar impatience, “Moon” threads the line between traditional strategy and reactionary action. That’s doubly so when you replay completed story missions in Vengeance mode, which sends endless waves of bugs until you’re overpowered. None of this is to suggest “Moon” has an genre identity crisis: Given the range of available technology and the challenges posed by the terrain, brains still trumpet brawn, and the game throws in an excellent risk/reward wrinkle by letting you adjust the ratio of firepower, defensive strength and monetary gain in order to best suit your approach. The lack of multiplayer and co-op is a real bummer, but “Moon’s” single-player scope easily recoups its asking price.