Games 1/10/12: Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012, Invizimals: Shadow Zone, NFL Blitz

Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, violent references)
Price: $50

That hissing sound you hear? That’s your resolution to get in shape slowly seeping out of the room as the new year starts feeling familiar and the excitement of 2012’s first week gets pushed out of the way by life as usual. Gym memberships are expensive, finding time to go to the gym is a hassle, making a plan is hard, sticking to it harder. Seeing progress requires saintly patience, and on top of all that, exercise for exercise’s sake is often really boring.

Thank goodness for, of all things, video games — and particularly this one. After a year of good-but-not-great fitness games releasing for Microsoft’s Kinect, “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012” gets pretty much everything right en route to knocking every aforementioned excuse off the table.

The polish is immediately apparent, too. In addition to not being a complete pain to navigate using Kinect (voice control would have been nice, but it proves unnecessary), “Evolved’s” main menu very cleanly lays out a staggering array of workout programs, games, virtual classes and other tools. Inside each of those menus lies a large array of programs organized by intensity and the goals they help fulfill. The offerings — targeted strength training, yoga and dance classes, training programs for specific sports and numerous others — are terrifically comprehensive, and “Evolved’s” uncluttered and intuitive presentation of all these options is extraordinary.

“Evolved’s” My Zone section allows the game to build workout plans for you based on your needs and availability, but they aren’t binding: A game-wide stat tracker gauges your progress against your goals, and it does so regardless of which programs you engage or ignore. Additionally, most programs are on the short side, making it easy to jump around and diversify your workout as wildly and impulsively as you please.

Though “Evolved” can only do so much to make its straightforward workout programs fun, it at least does a good job of keeping hassles at bay. A trainer demonstrates each exercise as he or she calls them out, and while the game’s grading of your form isn’t always accurate, it’s close enough to keep you minding your form without growing needlessly frustrated doing so. Kinect calibration happens quickly and automatically, and “Evolved” works well regardless of lighting and whether you have a surplus of room or just enough.

The ability to jump between programs is additionally welcome in light of “Evolved’s” suite of games and special events, which provide a fun means of breaking up straight-faced workout routines. A block-punching game provides a physically intense way to unleash some aggression, while a rhythmic stepping game evokes the spirit of “DanceDanceRevolution” without the need for a dance mat. An amusing jogging game lets you run through VR recreations of storied cities, while a block-balancing game lets you employ your newfound yoga skills in pursuit of a high score.

“Evolved” provides multiple difficulty settings and a scoring system for each of these and its other games, but it offers the same courtesy to its traditional workouts as well. The periodic tendency to misread your form will dock your scores unfairly now and then, but past that inconvenience, the constant presence of scores to beat and other meters of progress — along with in-game badges and Xbox 360 achievements — allows “Evolved” to continually dangle and dish rewards beyond the simple promise of fitter days ahead.

Should you not wish to do it alone, “Evolved” also includes in-game tools — and a companion website, — that let you stack your progress against that of your friends and the world at large. The games also support four-player multiplayer, though only offline.


Invizimals: Shadow Zone
For: Playstation Portable
From: Novarama/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40 (includes PSP camera accessory)

Augmented reality is neat, and Sony’s PSP camera accessory — an adjustable camera that pops into the top of the PSP and can be adjusted to be a front- or rear-facing camera — is pretty nice as well. “Invizimals: Shadow Zone” uses the latter to create a game based around the former, and as a demonstration of all that cool tech, it’s certainly a proof of concept.

Whether it amounts to more than that will come down to your interest in monster-collecting games and your patience with a story that has you watching the game as much as you play it.

“Zone” arrives a year after the original “Invizimals,” and most of the essentials remain the same. It’s a “Pokemon”-style game, and when you drill that story down to its bare bones, the object — collect Invizimals and pit them in battle against other Invizimals — is the same.

The difference, of course, comes with how you discover and track those Invizimals. Instead of exploring an expansive game world, you’re walking around your own world and panning the camera around until you spot an augmented-reality Invizimal frolicking around your furniture or other surroundings. (They favor bright colors, so if your surroundings lack any, it may be wise to correct that before hunting in vain.)

Upon spotting one, you have to lay down your trap card (bundled with the game), and once you do that, one of a handful of rather simple minigames commences. Complete that, and the Invizimal is yours to customize (name and color scheme), upgrade and employ in battle.

“Zone’s” fighting portion also differs from “Pokemon’s” in that it’s more real-time combat than not. Attacks are mapped to buttons instead of menus, but a need to recover stamina between moves lends an air of turn-based strategy to the fight.

Problem is, there isn’t much more to the fighting than the threadbare description implies. Because the Invizimals appear in augmented reality and in relation to the trap card, you can’t move them around the space with the analog stick. Outside of basic and strong attacks and a block button, there’s little nuance to the fighting, and that doesn’t change as you advance through “Zone’s” storyline.

Nor, for that matter, does the act of trapping Invizimals, which is neat until the tech’s novelty wears off. Though “Zone” offers incentive for those who absolutely must collect every single Invizimal for no other reason than sheer compulsion, it never builds on its mechanics in any substantial way, nor does it introduce new concepts as things progress.

That’s a problem when you spend as much time watching as you do playing.

“Zone,” like its predecessor, tells its story through first-person live-action cutscenes, and if you got into the first game’s story, you’ll be happy to know it delves even deeper into Invizimal mythology this time around.

If, however, you didn’t like that story, “Zone’s” incremental advancements over its predecessor are bound to disappoint. The AR tech works better this time around, but the game’s inability to take that tech and expand on it is hard to defend in light of how simple those mechanics are.

“Zone’s” competitive multiplayer portion (two players, local wireless or online) consists of a pretty straightforward versus mode and a tournament option, while a co-op mode (local only) allows two players to team up and complete select quests together. None of the modes eludes the aforementioned problems that bring down the story mode, but it’s still nice to have the option to put your custom Invizimals up against those of a friend.


NFL Blitz
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $15

Though Midway’s “Blitz: The League” games were head-and-shoulders deeper than “NFL Blitz” ever was, the one thing it couldn’t provide — the NFL license — was the one players wanted the most. With both the franchise and license now in EA Sports’ hands, that no longer poses a problem. And while this “Blitz” lacks some elements — roster management, injuries, story-driven seasons and giggle-inducing illegal late hits — of those other games, the arcadey spirit of those original “NFL Blitz” games returns in immaculate condition. The old rules (seven on seven, 30-yard first downs, two-minute quarters and no penalties) still apply, and a game of “Blitz” plays so fast and loose with football conventions that you need not even like football to get a kick out of this. Also per usual, it’s a game best enjoyed with others (four players, online or offline). In addition to basic pick-up games, the new “Blitz” includes some clever and surprisingly deep modes for collecting star players, assembling dream teams and pitting those teams against other players’ rosters. For solo players, “Blitz’s” A.I. offers a good (if not always situationally sharp) challenge. And while it isn’t as robust as the multiplayer modes, the Gauntlet Mode — a ladder-style season complete with “boss fights” against teams of fantastical characters — is fun in its own right (especially when you beat those mascots and recruit them to your team).

Games 11/29/11: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Disney Universe, Where is my Heart?

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
For: Xbox 360
From: 343 Industries/Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

Though “Halo: Combat Evolved’s” impact has been exhaustingly documented, there may be no finer point than the realization that the 2011 holiday season’s best new first-person shooter may very well be a 10-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint.

At least on the solo (or two-player co-op) side, that’s what “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” is — a pretty carbon copy of the game that launched with the original Xbox in 2001 and subsequently formed the foundation of a video game juggernaut.

Arguably, “Anniversary’s” faithfulness is to a fault if you’re accustomed to the advancements the series has made — from enemy A.I. to the ability to sprint, hijack enemy vehicles and dual-wield weapons — since that first game. Even visually, and regardless of a graphical revamp that brings everything up to par with the recent “Halo” games, there are allusions to yesteryear in the jerky way other characters animate and the odd turns enemies sometimes make when flanking and backpedaling.

The upside to staying so faithful? A cool trick that lets you swap between the old and new graphics at any time with a single button press. The transition is a little awkward insofar that the screen briefly fades to black without without stopping the action. But as a fulfillment of curiosity and a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far graphics have come in a decade, it’s a wonderful little touch. (Just be sure to use it when the coast is clear.)

As it happens, the rest of the game remains pretty wonderful as well. “Halo’s” sequels and prequels have outdone it in terms of scope, design variety and level arrangements, but the tenets of those great games — wide-open battlefields, branching paths even indoors, enemies that swarm and flank as well as rush in packs, numerous opportunities for devising your own unique plan of attack — are fully intact here. It was groundbreaking in 2001, and in 2011, following on the heels of oppressively linear military shooters that routinely punish creativity in their campaigns, it still puts many of its newer, flashier contemporaries to shame.

For those who never played it on the original Xbox, the full-circle timing of this anniversary release could not be better. Last year’s “Halo: Reach” allowed players to play out the story that fed into the events of the original game, so if “Anniversary” is new to you, it may as well be a sequel to “Reach” in the same way a “Star Wars” movie from 1977 is a sequel to one released in 2005.

For the returning players, each mission hides a terminal that unlocks new insights — courtesy of perennial series antagonist 343 Guilty Spark — about where the series is headed when the next “Halo” trilogy kicks off next year. The terminals are sometimes harder to find than they should be, but for the diehards, they’re absolutely worth seeking out.

“Anniversary’s” faithfulness isn’t quite as hardcore on the multiplayer side (16 players). The game includes remastered versions of six classic maps and some match configurations that allow players to reenact the original game’s four-player multiplayer, but it uses “Reach’s” multiplayer engine to power it.

At no point does “Anniversary” pretend otherwise: The game uses the “Reach” branding, includes all of its features (from Forge mode to jetpacks), and allows you to play with “Reach” players who purchase the six maps as a $15 download. The maps that shipped with “Reach” aren’t included on “Anniversary,” but in a generous touch, “Anniversary” includes a code that lets you download the maps for free and use them in “Reach” if you have a copy.


Disney Universe
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)
Price: $50

Though “Disney Universe’s” name isn’t exactly untruthful, it might be a little misleading. This is neither a simulation nor an expansive online multiplayer game (as games with the word “Universe” generally tend to be), and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the “Kinect Disneyland Adventures” game that lets you explore a virtual Disneyland.

If anything, the “Disney” in the name is more garnish than dish — a decorative exterior for a platforming game that has more in common with “LittleBigPlanet” and the Lego games than anything the “Universe” tag might imply.

Unless you had grandiose ideas for “Universe,” though, that little surprise is — particularly for younger and unseasoned players — a pleasant one.

“Universe’s” levels are modestly sized and pretty self-contained, framed by a fixed-camera perspective that functions similarly to what you get in those Lego games. Also like those games, completing a level in “Universe” typically entails complete a handful of simple mandatory objectives (which clear the way, cause-and-effect style, to the exit) and some trickier optional objectives that are good for collectibles, achievements/trophies and pride in a challenge comprehensively completed.

At no point does this become strenuously difficult: Even flat-out dying in “Universe” provides no punishment beyond simply losing a few hundred coins, which are abundantly available and function as currency toward unlocking new levels and other bonus content. But “Universe” isn’t so easy as to be insulting or boring even to players who are experienced enough to cruise through it.

In large part, that’s because “Universe” does the little things better than those Lego games do. Enemies storm levels at regular intervals, but while the combat is simple and loose, it’s far more refined (and, consequently, miles more fun) than the Lego games’ shoddy excuse for brawling. “Universe” also handles locomotion with considerably less guesswork: The characters don’t run and jump like they’re wearing soggy clothes, which makes it more fun to get around and easier to (among other things) correct a bad jump while airborne. Given a fixed camera’s occasional tendency to betray the laws of perspective and distance, even a little extra polish in this arena goes a long way toward alleviating aggravation.

Predictably, everything the game does is more fun when in the company of others. “Universe” supports four-player offline co-op, and it fulfills the mission of giving players numerous reasons and means to antagonize each other as well as work together.

If, at this point, you’re wondering how Disney fits into this, the answer is “loosely.” “Universe’s” levels are themed according to Disney properties, but the themes feel like themes more than the actual worlds from whence these brands came.

That’s doubly so for the characters you play as and face off against: Instead of literal Disney characters, they’re vinyl dolls wearing costumes with Disney character themes. If you played “LittleBigPlanet” — and particularly if you purchased any of the Disney-branded outfits for that game — the characters in “Universe” will almost certainly look just a little familiar.

The significant upside to that loose interpretation is that it allows “Universe” to cram a whole ton o’ Disney — Mickey and friends, Winnie the Pooh, the Muppets, the Disney Princesses, Pixar’s most wanted, Jack Sparrow, “Tron” and more — into the game without having to explain why Lilo and Peter Pan might be joining forces on a pirate ship. The story it comes up with instead is amusing, the characters look adorable in their Disney Halloween costumes, and the costume abilities and level intricacies shout out to their respective themes in clever ways that set this apart from just another Disney game.


Where is my Heart?
For: Playstation 3/Playstation Portable (universal, via Playstation Network Minis)
From: Die Gute Fabrik
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

A traumatic family hiking trip inspired Bernie Schulenburg to design “Where is my Heart?,” and what results is a wonderful case of turning a negative into a positive. “Heart” follows the adventures of three monsters lost in the woods and searching for a way home, and at its most basic (on the first level), it’s a simple case of running and jumping through a level that fits entirely within the constraints of a single screen. From there, though, the levels break apart into disconnected panes that form a coherent level but do so out of order. A pane in the top left of the screen might depict scenery that’s adjacent to a square on the bottom right instead of right next to it, and you’ll need to dance along the edges and use the level design’s context clues to decipher how to reach the exit. “Heart” goes from easy to ingenious extremely quickly, and once it gives you the ability to rotate those panels and navigate parallel dimensions in search of shortcuts on the other side, the puzzles become downright devious. Fortunately, everything else about the game — the adorable 8-bit graphics, the sweet demeanor of the monsters, a sound palette that’s minimalist in a way that evokes Apple II-era games — makes “Heart” too impossibly charming to even frown at while its puzzles cerebrally kick you in the face. An understated gem like this stands in complete contrast to the tornado of big budget games that are bigger and badder iterations of the same old thing, and if you’re dying simply the play something you’ve never played before, this one is essential.

Games 4/12/11: The 3rd Birthday, Mayhem, StarDrone

The 3rd Birthday
For: Playstation Portable
From: HexaDrive/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

It’s been a long time — 10 years — since we last saw Aya Brea in “Parasite Eve II,” and for those who cared about the games she was in rather than Aya herself, this likely isn’t the homecoming you had in mind.

Officially, “The 3rd Birthday” marks the continuation of the “Eve” storyline, an opera of mutated monkeys, genetic engineering and spontaneous combustion that’s entirely too bizarre to explain succinctly. Unofficially, it doesn’t much matter: Only a few other characters make the crossover from “Eve” to “Birthday,” and while there are definite ties to the past — Manhattan and Christmas Eve really do not mix in Aya’s world — the new storyline feels more like a fresh crisis for a familiar face than something reliant on events whose explanations exist in a decade-old game.

More to the point, though, “Birthday” doesn’t play anything like the “Eve” games, which creatively layered role-playing game elements atop horror gameplay from the “Resident Evil” playbook.

“Birthday,” by contrast, is a third-person shooter, and even by the classifications of that genre, it falls heavily on the arcadey side. A heavy infusion of storytelling directs the action, but most of the time, you enter an area, the music swells, you clear the area of monsters, move to the next area and repeat. The game compensates for the PSP’s lack of a second stick by using the left trigger to lock onto enemies and making aiming mostly unnecessary, which in turn transforms “Birthday” into a run-and-gun shooter that rarely stops running and gunning.

If it sounds repetitive — especially stretched across the 12 or so hours “Birthday” needs to weave yet another enjoyably labyrinthine story — that’s because it is. But the general fast pace of the action means it also stays fresher than if “Birthday” moved at the speed of a traditional third-person shooter.

“Birthday” also helps itself by throwing in some oddball mechanics that, while often confusingly explained, do serve their purpose.

Because Aya is more a spiritual presence in these shootouts instead of there in the flesh (crazy story explains, don’t worry), you’re free to “jump” into the bodies of your human allies, control their movements, and jump at will from body to body. As long as the body Aya assumes doesn’t die, neither does she, and being able to leap around the environment so quickly allows her to flank enemies and use cover in some creative ways.

Other tricks aren’t quite as significant but do come in handy. Aya can use the same trick to temporarily jump into the bodies of weakened enemies and destroy them from within, and a limited-use trick called Liberation temporarily makes her an invincible force of nature. “Birthday” doesn’t give you much in the way of tactical controls over your allies, but it is possible to duck behind cover, direct crossfire on a specific enemy, and either evade the enemy or finish it off while your allies concentrate their fire that way.

If you like “Birthday’s” brand of shooting enough at its outset, the flavor these mechanics provide — along with an elaborate weapons/armor upgrade system and a completely convoluted (but, once you get it, pretty cool) means of upgrading Aya’s DNA — should keep it in your favor while the story does what it does. “Eve’s” unique gameplay remains missed, but “Birthday” carries on the series’ quirky storytelling disposition, and that may be the more important of the two legacies here.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Left Field Productions/Rombax Games/Evolved Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

From the numerous mentions of 3D in the marketing to the two pairs of 3D glasses bundled inside, “Mayhem” makes a pretty big deal about its stereoscopic 3D capabilities. Unfortunately, it’s much ado about nothing: The glasses are the old-fashioned red and blue variety, and the results of using them — so-so results for some, headaches for most — is the same it’s always been with that kind of 3D technology.

Fortunately, the 3D is optional and disabled by default. Twice as fortunately, “Mayhem” doesn’t even need the gimmick, because it’s an entirely great time on its own merits.

In large part, that’s because “Mayhem” is the first game since 2007’s “FlatOut: Head On” to successfully attack a genre — destruction derby racing — that’s a no-brainer for gaming possibilities but also a magnet for lousy budget titles that don’t even try to do it right.

Like “FlatOut,” “Mayhem” splits its time between racing events (traditional race and longer elimination-style events) and car combat (a last-vehicle-standing destruction derby and an event where you must knock the opposing vehicles off the track and into pits before they do the same to you).

But speed and destruction are never mutually exclusive. “Mayhem’s” races — often set on figure eights and other tracks where you’ll run into cross- and opposing traffic — are wonderfully perilous, and taking first place is as much about knocking your opponents off the track as it is about boosting past them down a straightaway. Conversely, because the combat arenas are nice and large, you’re afforded plenty of room to attack with purpose, finesse and speed instead of merely bump and react.

“Mayhem’s” driving physics, which vary nicely across 120 delightfully clunky sedans, wagons, trucks and even monster trucks, play their part perfectly. They’re a little squirrelly, which can lead to your getting turned completely around in a race where you trade paint and lose the fight, but they’re more than sufficiently responsive in terms of steering and cornering. The action is fast without feeling needlessly unwieldy, and there’s an unmistakable weight to the vehicles that does not come at the expense of their handling. Everything feels just right.

Though the 3D experiment isn’t a rousing success, “Mayhem’s” graphic novel-style presentation gives the game a striking visual personality anyway. Nearly the entirety of the game — vehicles, tracks, arenas — appears in stark black and white, with the only sources of color being a blood red skyline and the occasional bright yellow “BAM!” that pops in after a particularly vicious collision. The unique look is a jaw-dropper at first, and it surprisingly doesn’t get stale or even get in the way once you grow accustomed to it. Credit the level of detail in the cars and tracks, which squeeze as much out of that minimal color palette as could possibly be expected.

If “Mayhem” hobbles anywhere, it’s in the longevity department, but the budget asking price goes a long way toward mitigating even this concern. The game’s career mode can be finished off in four hours or so, and outside of unlocking all the vehicles, there’s little else in the way of dangling carrots. But the racing is fun, fast and distinct enough to make “Mayhem” replayable simply on the merits of replaying it for fun, and if you have friends whose taste in racing games runs parallel to yours, the simple but sufficient multiplayer support (two players split-screen, eight online) has your back.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: TastyPlay/Beatshapers
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

To really understand “StarDrone” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, be
cause while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a little bit of pinball, a little bit of “Breakout” and a little bit of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), describing exactly how it comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the general goal in “StarDrone” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 53 levels and clears the area of collectible stars (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. But you don’t control the ship directly — enter slinging physics — and the levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some fatal, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, “StarDrone” may even be too unwieldy to truly enjoy. But for the player who loves nothing more than to replay levels in hopes of shaving a second off that finishing time and shoot for each level’s gold medal score, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “StarDrone’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Just keep a DualShock handy if you want to do your best: “StarDrone’s” lauded Playstation Move support delivers as advertised, but it supports traditional controllers equally well, and the added precision they afford will come in handy come high score pursuit time.

Games 3/1/11: Bulletstorm, Ys I & II Chronicles, Dreamcast Collection, Back to the Future E1

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: People Can Fly/Epic Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)

With respect to the hard-working people who brought “Bulletstorm’s” sound design to life, few would blame you for playing this first-person shooter with your sound muted.

“Bulletstorm’s” storyline is infested with cliches, and its characters are massively unlikable meatheads who inspire no rooting interest whatsoever. It initially feels like a spoof in the “so bad, it’s good” vein, but too many turns for the melodramatic make it clear this wasn’t the intention.

“Bulletstorm’s” comedic antidote for the encroaching melodrama is to take dirty words that make second-graders giggle and jam them into sentences in ways that intentionally make no sense. Hilarious, right? Nope, and you need not find swearing remotely offensive to be put off by the notion that something’s funny simply because somebody blurted out a word you can’t print here. It’s immediately lame, and hearing the same gag ad nauseam over “Bulletstorm’s” six-hour campaign is nauseating. (There’s a toggle to disable “mature” language — calling it that is unintentionally funnier than the entirety of “Bulletstorm’s” script — but that won’t fix everything else that ails the story.)

But “Bulletstorm’s” problems go deeper than storytelling. Though the levels look pretty, their construction — too many tight corridors, too little room for meaningful strategy, laughable attempts at “puzzle”-solving — are uninspired. The enemy A.I. occasionally falls apart, with a half-dozen baddies all targeting you despite the nearly constant presence of two allies by your side. Your allies are even worse, regularly standing out of position, blocking your view or just doing nothing while those aforementioned enemies dig in. It makes the omission of online campaign co-op even more regrettable than it already was.

Good thing, then, that “Bulletstorm” at least does some things no other shooter does. If it didn’t, the aforementioned roster of problems would be impossible to overcome.

“Bulletstorm’s” big hook is the notion of killing with style. You can shoot a guy if you want, but why do that when, for instance, you can pull a gigantic seed toward you with your energy leash, kick the seed so it lands on an enemy’s head, pull the enemy in with the leash, kick him into the air and fire a shot that launches him into a gigantic cactus? Doing that nets you more points, which function as currency toward purchasing weapons and ammo. In the game’s best move, it gives you an in-game database of every possible stylish kill and challenges you to achieve all 131 of them.

Default weapon aside, “Bulletstorm’s” guns are satisfyingly powerful and fun to use, and the leash — which you crack like a whip to yank enemies and objects toward you for additional manipulation — adds a fun, mischievous wrinkle. Your kick, meanwhile, is as straightforward as it sounds but similarly fun to use because it’s cartoonishly overpowering.

The moment-to-moment insanity afforded by these abilities does much to compensate for all “Bulletstorm” does poorly, but the novelty also has an expiration date. It starts wearing thin about halfway through, and the final few chapters — which find the A.I. and level-design problems at their worst — are a grind.

It’s no mystery why “Bulletstorm” nixed competitive multiplayer, which would have been disastrous with everyone booting and leashing each other constantly.

But whether Anarchy mode — which allows four players to fight cooperatively online (and collect special multiplayer-only skillshots) against up to 20 waves of enemies — provides satisfactory compensation is debatable. Anarchy is “Bulletstorm” at its best — no annoying story, no useless friendly A.I. — but even competing for the high score won’t fully scratch whatever itch you might have for human competition.


Ys I & II Chronicles
For: Playstation Portable
From: Falcom/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, partial nudity)

Dreamcast Collection
For: Xbox 360
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone to Teen (mild violence, suggestive themes, language)

What follows is a tale of two retro compilations — one from a publisher that understands its audience, the other from one that seemingly couldn’t care less.

“Ys I & II Chronicles” represents the umpteenth time the first two games in the “Ys” series, which debuted nearly 24 years ago, have been released, rereleased, remade and/or retouched. “Chronicles” most closely resembles a 2001 PC remake that never released in America, and in addition to the graphical and storytelling upgrades that premiered with that version, this edition includes a terrific new remixing of the games’ wonderful musical score, three versions of which are selectable in-game. “Chronicles'” initial printing comes packaged with a soundtrack CD containing the score, and if you’re part of the audience XSEED is targeting with this release, you understand why that’s no trivial bonus.

As perhaps goes without saying, the only thing that remains dated as ever is the first-generation “Ys” gameplay, which resembles a classic role-playing game but employs a strange semi-real-time combat system that merely asks players to “bump” into enemies in a certain way and let the stats sort out the battle. It was weird then, and it’s old and even weirder now. But it still works, and because it’s the primary reason “Ys” stood out from its peers back in its original iteration, the developers would be crazy to mess with its integrity.

“Chronicles” might be an odd mix of old and new, but it’s a polished and faithful mix that makes smart decisions about what to change and what to preserve. Series devotees should be pleased, even if they’ve played these games inside out already.

Sega’s “Dreamcast Collection,” by contrast, is a collection made for whomever and for reasons unexplainable beyond cash grabbing.

For starters, the four selections — “Crazy Taxi,” “Sonic Adventure,” “Sega Bass Fishing” and “Space Channel 5 Part 2” — don’t exactly embody what people loved about Sega’s Dreamcast console. “Taxi’s” probably the darling of the bunch, but it’s also available as a $10 standalone download.

All four of these games, in fact, either are or will be available as Xbox Live downloads — which is why Sega chose them for inclusion. “Collection” doesn’t even bother modifying the boot code: Once you select a game from the top menu, you have to quit out to the Xbox dashboard and reboot “Collection” to select another one.

Such laziness might be OK if “Collection” at least did the one thing — give you $40 worth of good downloadable games for $30 — it set out to do.

But “Sonic Adventure’s” control and camera issues — which were problematic by 1999 standards, to say nothing of 2011 — remain intact. “Crazy Taxi’s” physics and driving controls are way too touchy with the Xbox 360’s controller, and Sega didn’t even bother to map the reverse gear to the left trigger, which racing games have been doing for nearly a decade now.

“Space Channel 5 Part 2’s” uniqueness has allowed it to age a little better, because even with the advent of rhythmic music games, nothing plays quite like it. But its timing demands remain uncommonly stiff — now to the point where it feels broken on the more responsive 360 controller. “Sega Bass Fishing,” meanwhile, was only notable in its day because it supported a bizarre fishing reel controller that obviously doesn’t work on the 360. Why bring this back? Who knows.

Sega didn’t have to reinvent these games to justify selling them again, but even a little effort — controller concessions, interface redesigns, widescreen support for all games — would have done wonders for convincing us it cares at all about this collection. But it doesn’t, so neither should you.


Back to the Future: Episode One: It’s About Time
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Also available for: Windows PC, Macintosh, iPad
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, language, mild violence)
Price: $20 for a PSN season pass (which gets you episodes two through five when they release on PSN); $25 for the season pass on PC/Mac; $7 for episode one separately on iPad

We’re not going to get a “Back to the Future IV,” but because the latest “BTTF” video game adaptation has landed in exactly the right hands, we no longer need it. “It’s About Time” isn’t a retelling of the movies: It’s a new story, set in 1986- and 1931-era Hill Valley, and it succeeds the events of the films, which still make their presence felt in some subtle, clever ways. Like most Telltale games, “Time” is a point-and-click adventure (optimized pretty painlessly for the PS3’s controller), and advancing through the story incurs a mix of saying the right things to the characters you (as Marty) meet and solving a few cause-and-effect puzzles to help trigger events beyond Marty’s direct control. In the case of this episode, that means meeting Doc Brown’s younger self in order to free the Doc you know and love from the local jailhouse. The puzzles aren’t exactly brainbusters, nor is “Time” a particularly lengthy game if you can quickly outsmart it. But those puzzles do their part in advancing a “BTTF” storyline that’s lain dormant for 21 years, and between the spot-on voice acting, the genuinely funny dialogue and the willingness to take creative license with the universe beyond what the movies provided, “Time” nails it. Like most Telltale releases, “Time” is merely the first of a five-episode pack you buy all at once, and if the teaser you see at the end of episode one is any indication, things will only get more interesting in episode two.

Games 1/18/11: DC Universe Online, Mass Effect 2, A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!

DC Universe Online
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, mild suggesting themes, violence)
Subscription Fee Required: 30 days free, $15/month thereafter

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games remain a mostly unknown commodity in console gaming circles, and “DC Universe Online” greets the uninitiated with one seriously creaky welcome wagon. Before you do anything, you’ll have to download one patch, enter an activation code and stare at a single, static screen while two more patches (totaling roughly 17 GB in data; what’s the point of the disc, anyway?) glacially download. All this, just so you can play a game that cost you $60 already and, after 30 “free” days, will require another $15 a month thereafter.

The good news is that while “Universe’s” business model will engender culture shock for a lot of Playstation 3 owners, the game itself at least makes more sense on a console than many of its peers would. The controller-friendly action is fundamentally identical to a game like “God of War” and “Bayonetta.” It isn’t nearly as fluid as in those games, which enjoy the advantage of a much more controlled system that isn’t under attack by multiple players with multiple agendas. But it’s good enough after you upgrade your superhero (or villain) a little, and it gets continually better as better powers and more diverse attacks become available.

“Universe” benefits similarly by moving like an action game. Characters bound, hover and climb pretty freely through some impressively large and open levels, and while you might see other characters skip around a little due to network hiccups, your movement always feels pretty smooth.

The controller-friendliness even extends to the menu system. “Universe” uses the same exact menu layout for its console and PC iterations, but it arranges everything in a way that’s pretty easy to navigate once you’re familiar with the layout.

So fundamentally, this marks a good start, and while “Universe” has fallen prone to the same outages, overages and hiccups that apparently every MMO must experience at launch, it’s been far more smooth sailing than not so far.

What remains to be seen is whether Sony Online Entertainment can sustain player interest beyond “Universe’s” first wave of content, which isn’t nearly as inspiring in terms of design as it is in terms of technical proficiency.

“Universe’s” overriding story — you’re an up-and-coming superhero (or villain) training under the guise of an iconic DC hero or villain — is clever, and the game gives players lots of creative freedom in the character design tool. But opportunities to develop a real connection to your created character, or anyone else for that matter, are infrequent so far.

The quests are simplistically designed — beat up 10 of these, collect 15 of that — and while players can team up freely with others in the world, the scene rarely resembles anything remotely epic. Players used to enjoying comparably-sized battles for free in other console games are going to wonder what the $15 tax is getting them if SOE doesn’t wow them soon.

Time will tell, but the pieces appear to be there to make it happen.


Mass Effect 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

Ports don’t arrive much later to the party than “Mass Effect 2,” which makes its Playstation 3 debut a week shy of a year after it appeared on the Xbox 360.

But it’s nowhere near too late to get acclimated with a game as good as “ME2,” which deservedly won a museum’s worth of year-end awards from critics and fans alike. And like any good party guest, it compensates for its tardiness by bearing gifts.

For starters, because the first “Mass Effect” remains non-existent on the Playstation platform, Bioware has given the uninitiated a significantly better means of catching up to the story than it did for players on other platforms. An in-game interactive comic book details the important events of that first game, and through a handful of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style moments, readers can shape the comic’s story in much the same way players charted their narrative course through the game. The Xbox/PC versions of “ME2” allowed players to use save files from the first game to affect how the second game’s story began, and this comic has the same effect.

The PS3 version of “ME2” also comes with three downloadable bonus mission packs — “Kasumi: Stolen Memories,” “Overlord” and the brilliantly revelatory “Lair of the Shadow Broker” — integrated into the disc. Getting $24 worth of content for free is nice, of course. But having the packs available from day one is nice at any price, because it allows players to engage in those missions as they appear in the timeline instead of retroactively because they completed the game’s main storyline months prior.

As for the main course, it’s as spectacular as ever. “ME2” found Bioware taking its extensive gift for storytelling, universe construction and role-playing and wrapping it around a third-person shooter that’s every bit as good as the genre’s best. The game is leaner and more efficient than its predecessor, but it’s every bit as loaded in terms of storytelling and optional content — missions to undertake, entire species to meet, unexplored star systems for crying out loud — for intrepid travels to discover.

Though “ME2” had little that was in need of patching, the PS3 version accounts for the tidying up Bioware did after the Xbox/PC version’s release. Namely, if you’ve heard about and are wary of the mining mini-game that provides resources with which to construct new weapons and upgrades, you’ll be happy to know the process is considerably more efficient now than it was a year ago.

Bioware also claims that this version of “ME2” is running on the engine that will power “Mass Effect 3” when it releases later this year for all three platforms. The visual difference isn’t too dramatic unless you’re actively looking for it, but that’s due more to how good “ME2” already looked than any graphical shortcoming on the “ME3” engine’s behalf.


A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable (both via Playstation Network)
From: Frima Studio
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $2

Though funny and certainly honest, the title of “A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!” also potentially misleads, because it paints a picture of a simple overhead space shooter trying to get by on a dirt-cheap price and catchy name. The truth couldn’t be more different. “Bucks” breaks its surprisingly funny storyline into a series of star systems — some hostile and ruled by some pretty colorful villains, others shrouded in mystery. The levels can be played and replayed almost in any order you please, and in a terrific, “Mega Man”-esque touch, a villain’s superweapon becomes yours to use freely once you conquer his or her system. “Bucks” features a pretty extensive (and flexible) upgrade path for the rest of your ship as well, and while the game’s four difficulty levels make it accessible to shooter fans of every discipline, the harder villains demand that you upgrade wisely regardless of who you are. All this and an in-game achievements
system add up to a immense quantity of gameplay for two little bucks, and “Bucks” makes good use of that quantity with polished, classically frantic arcade action and some genuinely good laughs in between levels. Have you ever played a $2 game with first-rate voice acting throughout the entire experience? If you play this, you can say you have.

Games 11/2/10: God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Vanquish, Pinball FX 2

God of War: Ghost of Sparta
For: Playstation Portable
From: Ready at Dawn/Santa Monica Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

This is the third “God of War” game to release in less than three years. If you count last year’s rerelease of the first two games, it’s the fifth.

It’s little surprise, then, that most of “Ghost of Sparta” feels pretty familiar. A few new ideas aside, Kratos’ latest adventure overwhelmingly follows the template established by his previous escapades: There’s a ton of melee combat against the usual minions, some multi-level boss fights against gods and monsters, a few environmental puzzles and platforming challenges to break up the pace, and a dash of new insight into the mental makeup of gaming’s angriest protagonist.

At its worst, “Sparta” treads beyond familiarity into outright predictability. Players with legs in the series will know almost psychically when the game is about to switch gears, and even little details like the locations of secret treasure chests are so predictable as to feel automatic when found. Familiar enemies with familiar attack patterns make repeat appearances, and the patterns in which larger non-boss enemies appear — by themselves the first time players see them, and in pairs and eventually sets later on — is customary at this point.

All of this should be a bigger problem than it is, and it is a shame that a developer as talented as Ready at Dawn doesn’t just completely flip the script and try something wildly different.

But all of this would be a bigger problem than it is if “Sparta,” like its series cousins, didn’t do what it does so ridiculously well. The first “God of War” ignited a train of imitators that’s still rolling strong six years later, but no protagonist in any of those games controls as perfectly as Kratos does, nor do any of them possess an arsenal or a default weapon that’s anywhere near as devastating or versatile as the Blades of Chaos. All of that carries over without issue to the PSP, and “Sparta,” which might be the prettiest portable game ever made, satiates the series’ enormous appetite for scale without breaking a sweat.

Furthermore, while “God of War III” looked understandably prettier on the PS3, “Sparta” arguably trumps it elsewhere, mixing gameplay styles at a better pace than that game did. “Sparta’s” puzzles feel just right in terms of length, scope and difficulty, the platforming challenges are far more intuitively designed, and one of the game’s new ideas — a handful of breakneck chase sequences that, sadly, pop up only occasionally — is also responsible for some of its best moments.

Though not by much, “Sparta” also outdoes its big-screen counterpart in the area of storytelling. The story sets itself in between the first two games, introduces players to Kratos’ brother, and allows us to delve deeper into Kratos’ familial backstory without daring us to detest him the way “GOW3” did. The introduction of Kratos’ brother also makes possible another new gameplay wrinkle, but because it’s story-dependent and shows up near the end of that story, the specifics of that wrinkle not be spoiled here.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Platinum Games/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Japanese developers have tried and tried to make a response to “Gears of War” that plays like that game but doesn’t completely muzzle its local flavor to do so.

When it doesn’t get in its own way, “Vanquish” represents the best attempt yet. And when all of its pieces are working in perfect harmony, it occasionally outclasses its inspiration.

Like “Gears,” “Vanquish” most fundamentally is a cover-based third-person shooter, with its most basic firefights forcing players to find cover, pop out and dispatch enemies who employ similar methods on the other side of the battlefield. It handles the task well, with responsive controls and weapons that either are satisfyingly accurate or explosive enough to justify their unwieldiness.

Beyond that, and thanks to the suit players wear, things get interesting. Instead of sprinting, players can slide on their knees at twice the speed and mobility of any sprinter. During this slide, or when rolling to avoid attack, players also can briefly slow down time to ensure a little precision in the heat of chaos. (The slowdown kicks in automatically when health, which eventually recharges automatically, drops to near-fatal levels.)

The slide and slowdown both heat up a suit that cools down quickly but temporarily malfunctions when overheating, and an effective melée attack overheats it instantly.

Players who obsessively manage the suit’s temperature will succeed where others perish, but the need to do can quickly become aggravating when it becomes apparent how easily and constantly the suit can overheat. “Vanquish’s” battles often surround players with enemies, and the game has a tendency to punish those who take advantage of these special moves, only to find themselves surrounded and relatively defenseless when the suit overheats yet again. Quick-witted players can scramble for cover, but it’s still frustrating when a game gives you cool toys but places you in situations that seemingly discourage their use.

If that doesn’t annoy you, the presentation might instead. “Vanquish’s” characters are cartoony meatheads of the worst kind, the story is incomprehensible, and the constant blaring of techno music will force some to pause the game simply to hear themselves think. The game’s graphics are pretty — the explosions, in particular, are some of the best in the business — but the mostly generic design of ally, enemy and environment feels like a waste of talent and resources.

And yet, with all this said, it’s hard not to recommend this one. At its most disappointing, “Vanquish” is a perfectly fine cover shooter that punishes players by design rather than because of its own inadequacies. In spurts, though, it lets players go nuts with those abilities and enjoy a level of frantic action that “Gears” couldn’t even comprehend. And at its best, when both the basic and special abilities are given a playground or boss fight that feels designed to take advantage of them, this is one of the most riotously fun shooters ever made. For all the missteps “Vanquish” takes, it has the basics — player movement, weapons responsiveness, pace of action — mastered.

It’s just unfortunate players can’t revel in the insanity together. “Vanquish” would be absolutely bananas in a multiplayer setting, but no such feature exists. Beyond replaying campaign levels for a higher score, there isn’t much to do once that incomprehensible story wraps up.


Pinball FX 2
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: Free for client; $2.50 for individual tables, $10 for four-packs

Zen Studios’ continuous post-release support for “Pinball FX” made it feel like a platform more than a standalone game, and “Pinball FX 2” embraces that notion from the start with magnificent results. “PFX2” is a free download, and players are free to download tables and four-packs a la carte for $2.50 and $10, respectively. The tables from “PFX1” have been freshened and ported over, and any tables you owned in that game are free to play in “PFX2,” which also provides free demos of every available table. Each table comes with its
own set of achievements, providing achievement junkies significantly more ground to cover than your typical Xbox Live Arcade game. As a pinball sequel, “PFX2” is similarly satisfying. The tables — older tables included — look nicer, the camera angles make more sense, and the ever-so-slightly-slower ball physics better emulate the real thing. The newer tables are considerably more elaborate than their predecessors, but every table gets a major playability boost if you have a healthy Xbox Live friends list. Beyond four-player online (and offline) multiplayer with optional video chat, “PFX2” makes great use of leaderboards, constantly showing players which friends rule which tables and even rewarding those who compile the best total score across all tables. Zen declared its intention to support “FX2” with special online competitions as well as more tables, and its track record makes it easy to believe “PFX2” will have legs for years to come.

Games 6/29/10: Transformers: War for Cybertron, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Guess the News

Transformers: War for Cybertron
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: High Moon Studios/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Yes, “Transformers: War for Cybertron” is a tangibly better game than the two rushed-to-retail games that accompanied the two godawful “Transformers” movies released in the last three years. And yes, by having nothing to do with the movies, “Cybertron” is free to base its storyline, visual presentation and gameplay on the cartoon, which is all “Transformers” fans have wanted all along.

But “Cybertron” improves on those games like a football team improves to 8-8 a year after it finished 1-15. It’s a leap in the right direction, but one still flawed in ways fan service alone can’t obscure.

First, the good stuff. The storyline not only takes place within the cartoon’s timeline, but is a bona fide prequel instead of some trivial side story. The playable characters — among numerous others, Optimus, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream and Jetfire — are colorful instead of drably indistinguishable like they were in the movies, and humans have no presence whatsoever.

As with previous “Transformers” games, players can play from the perspectives of both the Autobots and the Decepticons, but in a welcome evolution, “Cybertron” merges both campaigns into a single storyline. Previous games had players repeating the same events from both perspectives and effectively canceling out the two different endings that resulted, but “Cybertron” reaches a single, satisfying conclusion that nicely sets the table for the cartoon.

In terms of fundamentals, the news remains good. “Cybertron” looks great — colorful, but also just a little grimy — and it finds the sweet spot between making the Transformers both agile and impressively weighty. The controls are more conducive to transforming than they were in the movie games, and both the third-person shooting and vehicular controls are pleasantly responsive. “Cybertron’s” environments are tighter than the movie games’ wide-open levels, but they offer enough room for players to switch between forms as they please.

The problem comes when “Cybertron” tries to do anything ambitious with those mechanics… because outside of a couple of missions that incorporate air combat, it never really does. Regardless of storyline condition, practically every mission consists of killing X number of grunt enemies, moving to point Y and repeating ad nauseam until the boss fight, which usually consists of more mindless shooting with the occasional extra condition based on each boss character’s attack pattern.

The moment-to-moment action is good enough to make “Cybertron” mindless fun anyway, but fighting the same grunt enemies and completing the same objectives so many times gets old long before the credits get to rolling. “Cybertron’s” support for three-player online co-op livens things up somewhat, but repetition with friends is only so much better than repetition alone. (A bonus horde mode, which removes the storyline pretense and just floods the screen with enemies until you can’t take it anymore, is a better, no-nonsense use the co-op function.)

For some, “Cybertron’s” competitive online multiplayer (10 players) will be the star of the show, if only because it dangles a carrot in the form of attainable experience points and unlockable abilities for players who level their four classes (leader, scout, scientist, soldier) up the 100-level scale. But the actual gameplay relies on the same old game variants and feels simplistic and dated compared to more tactical shooters with similar leveling systems, and it might be too simple for persistent leveling alone to keep the community bustling.


Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
For: Playstation Portable
From: Kojima Productions/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)

From the optional-but-recommended pre-game data installation to the offering of three imposing control schemes to the tutorial and eventually the game itself, “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” stakes its claim as perhaps the most demanding game in the PSP’s five-year-old library.

But if you’re part the intended crowd, and if you have company, the good news is that Kojima’s latest wholeheartedly justifies that demand with an experience that’s as filling as any of the big-screen “Metal Gear Solid” games.

Out of necessity, “Walker” — which sets itself 10 years after the events of “MGS3” — also plays like a cross between that game and “MGS4.” The lack of a second analog stick and extra set of triggers, and the control freedom those afforded, makes it hard to run and gun to the extent “MGS4” allowed on the PS3. “Walker” makes generous concessions to counter the button gymnastics needed to accommodate the PSP’s limitations, but it also encourages players to just stay out of trouble by avoiding enemies and using close-quarters combat the way older “MGS” games practically mandated. There’s an unquantifiable but noticeable easing up of enemy A.I. and the damage their weapons cause, but Kojima tunes it just right, accounting for the system’s deficiencies without dumbing the game down, stripping players of weapon/gadget depth or making the journey a cakewalk.

“Walker” plays like it should, tells another winding story that covers yet more ground in the bizarre “MGS” timeline, and it manages once again to stretch itself over 25-plus hours of playtime without being dog tired by the time the credits roll.

As usual with this series, though, that’s not all — and this is where it might get confusing.

“Walker” complements its primary gameplay with a surprisingly deep tool for managing Snake’s base of operations. Snake can make allies out of enemies he non-lethally neutralizes in the field, and the tool lets players put them to work researching intelligence, developing technology and even assisting in battle. “Walker” packages the tool inside a byzantine interface it doesn’t explain terribly well, but players who figure it out will find a strangely engrossing management game that regularly improves the action in the field.

Even with the presence of that tool taken into consideration, though, “Walker’s” biggest surprise has to be its co-op support for up to six players via local wireless play. The availability of co-op and the number of players allowed varies by mission, a nice consideration that shows Kojima values the story’s integrity over shoving six soldiers into every mission.

Unfortunately, some of the missions that do support co-op — in particular, fights against boss characters that take an army’s worth of bullets to defeat — practically require it for all but the most skilled “MGS” players. Given the series’ traditionally single-player leanings, this little surprise is bound to frustrate some, especially because players have to seek out other players who also have PSPs and copies of the game instead of just look online for willing partners. (Players with a Playstation 3 can use the free “Ad Hoc Party” app to jerry-rig an online session, but the number of players doing so is bound to be smaller than if the game supported online play on its own.)


Guess the News
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Finger Arts
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild sexual content or nudity, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references)
e: $3

There’s nothing wrong with a game being just a game, but sometimes it’s nice to accomplish something with that entertainment. Enter “Guess the News,” which combines “Wheel of Fortune”-style phrase guessing and whatever’s in the news to create a word game that’s as enlightening as it is fun. “News” grabs fresh headlines from various news sources and presents them as incomplete phrases, scattering the missing letters among a sea of letter tiles below. Tap and/or drag the titles to their proper spots — and do it quickly to maximize score combos and avoid timing out — and the game hits back with increasingly obscure headlines that have more letters to fill in. “News” complements its concept with an exquisite interface that allows players to customize their experience according to difficulty and genre of news (top stories, sports, entertainment and so on). The game also makes it easy to dig deeper into those headlines, even mid-game: An in-app Web browser takes players to the stories behind the headlines they help complete, and if your continued research takes you out of the app entirely, “News” saves your progress for easy resumption later. OpenFeint integration — leaderboards, achievements and so on — rounds out the package.