Games 10/18/06: Killzone: Liberation, Mercury Meltdown, Clubhouse Games

Killzone: Liberation
For: PSP
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Problem: You made a first-person shooter named “Killzone” on the Playstation 2. People really liked it. You want to make more “Killzones” on more systems. But your next destination, the PSP, handles first-person games about as well as the Washington Generals handle the Harlem Globetrotters.

Solution? Make a “Killzone” game — but don’t make an FPS.

Result? Awesome. Give Guerilla Games a round of applause: It knew better than to pretend, as many developers have, that what’s good for the PS2 automatically is good for the PSP. And in not playing dumb or assuming we were, it crafted one of the best games of its kind ever made.

Oh sure, the song remains the same: You’re still fighting the Helghast army, and your methods — guns, grenades, tanks and turrets — haven’t changed. But in “Killzone: Liberation,” the camera’s zoomed way out, and the action now takes place in an overhead fashion — think “Commando,” “Ikari Warriors” or the top-down levels in “Contra,” only with 3D animation, more complex level designs and other modern-day bells and whistles you expect from a shooter in 2006.

Other 3D games have attempted this in the past — “Max Payne” and “Rainbow Six” on the Game Boy Advance are two shining examples — but this is the most magnificent reinvention yet. Everything that was fun about “Killzone” is fun again in “Liberation.” The firefights are both intense and cerebral, mixing duck-and-cover strategy with guns-blazing blowouts. Vehicles are surprisingly fun to control and are implemented perfectly, as are squad controls and escort missions that actually don’t stink. The game is tough as nails to beat, but the excellent checkpoint system always keeps victory within reach.

The soldier you control could be a little zippier, but beyond that, the new approach never holds this one back. In fact, “Liberation” is such a fresh mix of old- and new-school gameplay, “Killzone” fans just might be tripping over themselves to play it. Portable renditions of console games need not be crippled or dumbed down to be faithful, and Guerilla’s stroke of brilliance stands as proof.


Mercury Meltdown
For: PSP
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Mercury” had its place in the launch of the PSP last year. The PSP needed puzzle games — every portable system does. And “Mercury” — which plays like “Marble Madness” and “Super Monkey Ball,” but with much cooler physics — was a good game with good timing.

That said, “Mercury Meltdown” is the real deal, a soup-to-nuts improvement in terms of gameplay, design and everything in between. Name a flaw in “Mercury,” and chances are good “Meltdown” has addressed and stamped it out.

First and most importantly, the frustration has been toned down. “Meltdown’s” difficulty progression is far more gradual, offering less lobotomy-friendly levels at the very start and less ridiculously difficult ones shortly after. And because the more than 160 new levels now come in packs of 16 instead of one after the other, you can put a difficult level aside when it’s driving you nuts and simply try another one. Finally, remember the timer? It’s still there — but if time expires, you merely take a penalty in your pursuit of the high score instead of start the level over. In other words, Ignition wants you to play “Meltdown” in whatever manner best fits you.

“Meltdown” also looks like a new game, replacing “Mercury’s” generic visual style with an explosion of color and personality that seeps into the levels, menus and even load screens. The load times are way down, and Ignition takes advantage of everything from wireless multiplayer to downloadable content and game sharing. The new party games — which themselves have multiple levels — are clever new twists on the gameplay formula. And it almost goes without saying at this point that the levels feature a new slew of traps and gadgets to compliment the inventive batch from the last game. Everything else has been improved, and you can bet that piece of the puzzle has been as well.


Clubhouse Games
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You say you want a new game for that there Nintendo DS? Well heck, how about 42 of them? That’s what you get with “Clubhouse Games,” an everything-to-everyone compilation that’s such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder it took two years and Nintendo itself to deliver it.

As implied by the name, “CG” is an array of games you might play at a clubhouse, including card games (everything from Memory to blackjack to poker), table games (checkers/chess, board game knockoffs, dominoes) and other casual standards (darts, bowling, billiards). The “42 games” pitch is pretty honest, too: You don’t, for instance, get 35 variations of Solitaire and seven other games. Between the game selections and the various ways to play them — including an Xbox 360 achievements-like mission mode — “CG” isn’t hurting for variety.

That’s not to say every game is a winner. While “CG” gives you a lot to chew on, you’re asking too much if you expect each game to be the definitive version of its sort. The Texas Hold ’em game, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to choose the size of your bet. And the billiards game is … well, it’s bad.

But for every disappointment, there are plenty of games that are both faithful and executed well. And while “CG” features lots of usual suspects, Nintendo has included a surprising number of inspired picks, including Spit, the shuffleboard-like Takeover, the Jenga-esque Balance and I Doubt It!, which is a G-rated but otherwise faithful interpretation of a certain anatomically-named card classic. That little bombshell is enough to make up for the baffling omission of air hockey (which we can only assume was saved for the sequel, because no other explanation suffices).

Nintendo’s online savvy seems to improve with each effort, and “CG” is no exception, featuring an integrated PictoChat that’s always accessible but never intrusive. Online play is available for each game, as is wireless multiplayer (eight players, one card). The adjustable difficulty makes “CG” fun to play alone, but few games scream “find some buddies” quite like this one does.

Games 10/11/06: Just Cause, The Fast and the Furious, Bounty Hounds

Just Cause
For: Xbox 360
From: Avalanche/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Mature

Does “Just Cause” have problems? If you’re a stickler for realism, boy does it ever. Any game that lets you scale the side of a mountain by literally running up and along it isn’t what you’d call a work of realism.

Same goes for the ability to, oh, jump off the mountain, deploy your parachute, fire a grappling hook at a passing car, paraglide behind the car, leap onto a passing plane, kick the pilot out, fly the plane, shoot down a police chopper, leap out of the plane, somehow deploy your chute again, and land at the site of your next mission while the plane crash-lands in the distance.

The preceding stunt — or several million variations of it — is entirely possible in “Cause,” which takes the open-ended gameplay of “Grand Theft Auto,” mixes in the worldly sensibilities of “Mercenaries,” and piles a huge helping of Hollywood blockbuster on top. Where games might pull off similar stunts through scripted events and other contrivances, the insanity one commits in “Cause” is entirely organic, limited only by imagination and a need to stay alive.

The explosive possibilities — and what you’ve read only scratches the surface — are made all the more impressive by “Cause’s” incredible visual and technical prowess. The fictional tropical island of San Esperito is 250,000 acres of wow, boasting expansive highways, skyscraping mountains, shanty and resort towns and a numerous bodies of water (full ocean floor included). Gorgeous lighting and weather effects deepen the immersion factor, and the almost complete lack of load times really hammers home just what developers can do with this new generation of hardware.

“Cause” is sprinkled with nagging issues that actually are problems, including some unpredictable car physics, a map that sometimes deceives you at the worst possible time, a degree of sameness to some environments and some rudimentary artificial intelligence. Fortunately, these problems rarely add up to anything debilitating, and they’re pretty small potatoes in a game that lets you do heaven knows how many things no game has ever before let you do. Suspend your disbelief, think on or off your feet, and enjoy the ride — be it by land, sea, air or all of the above.


The Fast and the Furious
For: Playstation 2
From: GoBig!/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Wow, talk about showing up a little late to the party.

“The Fast and the Furious” was a movie screaming for a game tie-in back in 2001, when street racing games were still a novelty and the film’s popularity was at its peak.

Yet here we are, three films and five years later, with the PS3 looming and street racers a dime a gross on pretty much every gaming medium down to and including mobile phones. “Furious” has arrived, but its tardiness guarantees casual observers will dismiss it as an also-ran based on a has-been. Perceptions aren’t helped by the game’s almost superficial ties to the films: The Tokyo setting from the third movie plays the part of host, but the not-quite storyline features none of the main characters and functions more as glue than anything else.

Let’s be honest, though — the only good thing about the films was the racing. And purely as a racing game, “Furious” is much better than a mere also-ran — a little too similar to its contemporaries, for sure, but no slouch in their presence and just different enough to justify its existence.

For starters, the game is fast: The sense of speed on the asphalt is terrific despite a slightly jumpy framerate, some grainy visuals and other indications of the PS2’s limited power.

More importantly, though, the cars — which are licensed and extremely customizable — handle nicely even in the lowest class. The sense of power and weight, combined with awesome drift controls and the aforementioned speed, mean you won’t have to wait until you can purchase faster cars to enjoy the game like it’s meant to be enjoyed.

The attention to control becomes especially apparent during mountain drift races, which have you peeling around a peak in a frantic tug-o-war between speed and control. “Furious” is fun on the streets, but you’ve likely been there and done that in other games. If your street racing thirst still burns and you want to try something truly different, head for the mountains ASAP.


Bounty Hounds
For: PSP
From: XPEC/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Part of being a gamer is wondering how a sprawling team of developers, publishers and game testers managed for months to overlook a problem (and solution) you’re able to spot almost immediately.

Take, for instance, “Bounty Hounds.” Here’s a game that, while never spectacular, has a lot going for it. It’s a new franchise made specially for the PSP, and the pick-up-and-go gameplay — your typical mindless hack/slash romp, albeit with a futuristic motif and shooting weapons tossed in for variety’s sake — is an ideal fit for the portable. The graphic novel-like story is pretty slick, and the action is fast, pretty and full of enemies crawling out of every nook.

“Hounds” allows you to use either the directional pad or the analog stick — but not both — to control your character. It would stand to reason, then, that if you use the D-pad to move your guy, the stick would be used to control the camera and vice versa.

Unfortunately, while games have been doing just that for some 10 years now, “Hounds” does not. In fact, beyond being able to center the camera behind your character or on a targeted enemy, you have no control whatsoever over the camera. This is no trivial matter with enemies surrounding you almost constantly, and the problem is compounded by a fidgety auto-targeting system and the fact that the default camera angle almost always is inadequate in the first place. You’ll spend as much time running in circles to fight this problem as you will fighting actual enemies.

It’s about as fun in practice as it sounds on paper, and XPEC’s inability to map even bare-bones camera controls to either the D-pad or the stick is a pretty staggering oversight given all the things it does right. Those with great patience can probably get around it, but only someone desperate for a game of this ilk should even make the attempt.

Games 9/27/06: Okami, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis, Test Drive Unlimited, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime, Bomberman PSP

For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen

You know that sound a politician makes when he promises to reform government and lower your taxes? That same hollow thunk is what you can expect to hear from hundreds of games that proclaim, “You’ve never seen anything like this!” only to arrive months later looking exactly like [insert previously released game here] with [insert slight improvement here].

“Okami” isn’t exactly guilt-free in this regard. To say it models its structure, gameplay and storytelling approach after Nintendo’s more recent “Legend of Zelda” games is something of a kind understatement.

But unless you’ve ever witnessed a watercolor painting come to life, enter the third dimension and move at the mercy of your two hands, you truly have never seen anything like “Okami” before. Clover Studio’s art direction is so stunningly original and expertly executed, all charges of me-too-ism would be forgiven had “Okami” merely aspired to be a “Zelda” copycat in gorgeous clothing.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. Whereas Link employs a cornucopia of gadgets to save the day, our hero in “Okami” — a wolf with a better backstory than perhaps any wolf ever — wields a paintbrush. A button press transforms the world before you into a canvas, and from here you’re free to alter it as needed to move forward. Paint a sun to light up the sky, swipe a straight line to cut down trees, fill in a path to reach points B, C and D. Maybe sketch out a bomb for when all else fails. The brush comes into play during combat as well, with some memorably original boss fights ensuing as result.

If this sounds gimmicky to you, guess what? During the first hour, as Clover lobs remedial kindergarten-grade challenges at you, it is. But once practice ends and your range of abilities increases, novelty gives way to integration. And if there’s anything more impressive about “Okami” than its art direction, it’s how Clover takes a should-be gimmick and brilliantly employs it as the heartbeat of an adventure that’s every bit as satisfying as Link’s best. Who needs a shiny new Playstation 3 when the arguable game of the year is playing right now on the rickety old PS2?


Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Poor Mario. Every time he tries to do anything — meet a girl, take a trip, start a business — there’s someone ready to bring him down. In the case of “Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2,” Donkey Kong not only has crashed the opening of Mario’s new theme park, he’s also kidnapped Pauline — Mario’s first flame from way back in the day — yet again.

How’s this for jaded, though: Instead of performing his usual rescue job, Mario has taken the wind-up Mario toys he saved in the first “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” game, ordered them to do his dirty work, and slipped out the back door to catch the end of the ballgame at home.

As implied by Mario’s absence, “March of the Minis” is a different game than its predecessor. Whereas that game was mostly a platformer with a passing resemblance to the classic “Lemmings,” this one is a full-blown, touch screen-powered “Lemmings” homage with Mushroom Kingdom parts. You have some control over the toys, but it’s limited. And as they march through and around a gauntlet of pipes, pits, spikes, piranha plants, toy Donkey Kongs and more, you’ll need to tinker with the levels themselves as much as the little Marios to keep them away from peril.

It’s a simple concept. But as the levels grow more intricate, you’ll need to be quick of mind and hand in order to keep the Marios on point. Escorting a single Mario to the goal is all that’s needed to unlock the next stage in “Minis,” but players who want enjoy the game for all its worth will aspire not only to march all of them to the exit, but earn top ratings and unlockable minigames while doing so. You get out of “Minis” what you put into it, and saving Pauline is only half the point.

Should you prefer to flex your creative rather than multitasking skills, “Minis” includes a fun, intuitive level editor. Up to eight creations can be saved at a time, and you can trade levels with friends (wirelessly or online) to keep the fun from ever running dry.


Test Drive Unlimited
For: Xbox 360
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

The onslaught of open-world racing games — where you’re free to just cruise around to your liking and rack up any number of moving violations between races and missions — is a blessing with one critical flaw. Driving around and unleashing vehicular mayhem in a virtual world is a stupidly fun time sink, but it’s not quite the same when you’re terrorizing computer-controlled traffic instead of other maniacal drivers.

“Test Drive Unlimited” does away with this problem like a Maserati crashing into a Yield sign, offering not only a real virtual world — Oahu, Hawaii — but one populated with real drivers whom you’re free to ignore, challenge or rear-end incessantly until your stress melts away.

“TDU” merges its single- and multiplayer modes into one seamless, gigantic island o’ fun, and you’re free to engage in solo events, multiplayer challenges and other diversions (car/motorcycle shopping, taxi missions, house hunting) on the fly. “TDU” doesn’t really offer an endgame beyond winning events, buying nicer vehicles and just having a good time cruising the island (which, besides some pop-up issues here and there, is gorgeous and rich with detail). Log on, have some fun, log off. It’s a fantastic example of old-school sensibility enhanced by first-rate technology.

Gameplay-wise, “TDU” shares much in common with “Need for Speed: Most Wanted,” sharing strong parallels in terms of visual style, car physics and mission layout. As with that game, you’ll also contend with cops and heavy traffic during and between races. Veterans of “Wanted” also will take quickly to the driving controls here. Just be prepared to pay some dues: The Class F vehicles handle pretty atrociously. (Things improve dramatically with a Class E vehicle, so sit tight.)

Presumably to beef up its online community, Atari has priced “TDU” to move — $40, to be precise, compared to the usual $60. This, however, is not your typical budget-minded game: There’s a ridiculous amount to do here, and Atari has designed a beautiful, forward-thinking beast of a game in which to do it. Expect parts of this game to provide inspiration for more than a few racing games in 2007 and beyond.


Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You may not know word one about “Dragon Quest,” but you’ve probably encountered one of the many toys, plush dolls and keychains modeled after the blue glob of slime that has become the unlikely face of the franchise. Fifty-hour role-playing epics aren’t for everyone, but a dollop of goo with a cheerful smile on its face? Who doesn’t love that?

The lowly slime finally get their day in “Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime,” and what a strange day it is. For the first hour or so, “Slime” consists simply of walking around, collecting items with seemingly no purpose, and stretching and launching yourself, Stretch Armstrong-slash-slingshot style, into evil cats and birds in order to advance the story. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not long before you wonder if this is all there is.

It’s at that exact moment the game puts your fears at ease. Those apples you collected? They aren’t food, but fodder for a gigantic tank you can summon from thin air (from thin air!). Same with the bombs, obelisks, arrows, rocks and more. The tank battles in “Slime” mark the climactic points in the story, and with good reason: They’re strategic, exciting and humorously creative. You can stock your tank with whatever combination of fodder works best with your fighting style, and pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down — including yourself and your tankmates — can be thrown into the canon and launched at the enemy.

The tank battles are available as a multiplayer option as well: Between four and 16 players can participate, depending on your configuration. That’s good news, too, because “Slime’s” single-player modes aren’t intent on challenging so much as entertaining you. The story is bursting with bizarre humor and so-bad-they’re-good puns, and players who fancy an easygoing exploration- and puzzle-fest will find hours of enjoyment inside. But if there’s one word that will never describe “Slime,” it’s “perilous.” Should you manage to find a way to let the cats and birds get the best of you, you simply aren’t trying.


For: PSP
From: Hudson/Konami

Proclaiming, “Bomberman’s back!” doesn’t really carry a lot of thunder when you consider the most recent “Bomberman” game came out … oh, about three weeks ago. But when a game as unrecognizably awful as “Bomberman: Act: Zero” lands with the thud it did, the arrival of the plain-titled but fundamentally divine “Bomberman” on PSP is, indeed, cause for such a proclamation.

The best news about this “Bomberman?” No news at all. The age-old gameplay has aged spectacularly compared to most arcade games from the 1980s. That same gameplay shows up in fine form on the PSP, gifted with a clean, colorful look and graphics that take advantage of the system’s 3D capabilities without abandoning the classic overhead perspective. Gameplay is paced just right: Bombs don’t take an eon to explode as they did in “Zero,” but you have ample time to get out of the way after planting one.

Of equal importance to any good “Bomberman” game is how it handles multiplayer. (Or, post-“Zero,” that it HAS multiplayer.) Thankfully, this “Bomberman” also passes that test. Four-player wireless play is available, and you need only one copy of the game to have at it. “Bomberman” offers plenty of customization options as well: You can dictate what special items are in play, how many winning rounds equal a winning game, the match structure (2-on-2, 1-on-3, every Bomberman for himself) and more.

If there’s a disappointment about “Bomberman,” it’s the lack of online play. That said, should you play solo, bots can be substituted in place of human opponents. All the same customization options are available, and the bots don’t exactly lie down and let you beat them. Hudson included a nice 100-level story mode for solo players, but the solo battle mode (and unlockable copy of the original “Bomberman” levels) are so good as to trump it even when friends aren’t around.