Games 3/28: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 (Wii), Def Jam: Icon, Spectrobes

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The first eight swings I took in “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” had no place in a backyard, much less the PGA. Each veered wide left or right, landing either out of bounds or in the water. Swinging the Wiimote like a virtual golf club was fun, but not exactly productive.

The problem? I was playing “Woods” like a video game. For the ninth swing, I employed every trick I’d ever learned on a golf course — knees bent, shoulders and feet square, eyes on the “ball” instead of the game, swinging in two motions instead of one. I swung the Wiimote, looked at the screen, and to my great amazement, the ball was en route to the fairway. It missed by inches and landed in the rough, but it was some serious progress — and one of the coolest “ah ha!” moments I’ve experienced in six years of reviewing video games.

The Wii version of “Woods” is, by no small margin, more challenging than any EA has ever produced. For the same reason, though, it’s also the most fun. Success will take time and practice, and the game will certainly fail you from time to time by misinterpreting your movements. But those who take time to learn the game’s control nuances and craft a dream swing will find it awfully difficult to revert to using buttons and analog sticks to replicate the same sensation.

Crafting that swing will take some work, but EA’s ready to help. “Woods” is rich with features, delivering 18 courses, 35 pro/fantasy golfers, the Tiger Challenge, a career mode and a multitude of traditional game styles, skill challenges and arcade-style games. But its best feature may be the practice swing. At any point during play, you can press a button to step away from the ball and take one of more freebie swings, which are graded in terms of distance and accuracy. It’s an invaluable tool that makes it far easier to understand both your swing and the game’s ability to interpret it. “Woods” has more trouble with the short game than the long game, so take full advantage to understand these issues and adjust.

Even still, “Woods” will sometimes inexplicably fail you. But as anyone who’s played the real game knows, so will your driver — sometimes, to this game’s great credit, for the same reasons.


Def Jam: Icon
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong lyrics, violence)

“Def Jam: Icon” officially completes the series’ transition from wrestling game to street fighter. Anyone who had hopes of this franchise picking up the ball that THQ’s World Wrestling Entertainment games keep dropping, sorry — you got the first “Def Jam” game, but that’s all you’ll get.

But while “Icon” is much more of a punch-and-kick affair (with some grappling) than its predecessors, it’s still not for button mashers at heart. In fact, the action has slowed down rather than sped up. Domination is as much about defense as offense, and the slower pace allows you to play a nice game of beatdown chess with your opponent.

Where things get a little nuts is in “Icon’s” implementation of music — fitting, given the game’s cast of real-life hip-hop artists. Environments rattle and explode in time with the music, which either gives you or your opponent a boost (depending on whose song is playing). Toss your rival into a parked car, and if you time it right, the car will juke to the beat of the music and leave a bumper-sized mark on his face. Should your timing be off, you can perform DJ scratch maneuver, which, along with setting off certain environmental effects, can start your song if your opponent’s is playing. (360 owners can employ music from their MP3 library, and “Icon” will time its rattling and exploding with giddy-inducing accuracy.)

The use of music in “Icon” is brilliant, and it adds an extra coat of style to a game that, aesthetically, is bathing in it. But it also creates a learning curve that doubtlessly will catch some off-guard. Impatient gamers, beware: If you don’t spend some time in the free-form practice mode, the smile on your face when you fire this one up will fade quickly.

“Icon” features a respectable create-a-fighter feature, as well as adequate online play on either network. But the piece de resistance is its rags-to-riches story mode, which finds you on the business end of a record label — managing finances, pummeling rival producers, squaring off against paparazzi and more. Fighting remains the game’s focus, but the modest management system is surprisingly fun. Ditto for the storyline itself, which, while a little loose end-heavy, is as joyously outlandish as the game in which it’s told.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Jupiter/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)

How do you know when a game is ambitious? How about when the game case literally develops a bulge from holding in an instruction manual that checks in at 80 pages? “Spectrobes” wants to out-Pikachu “Pokémon,” and it’s pulling out every stop to do so.

At least laterally, it succeeds. The fundamental gist of “Spectrobes,” as with “Pokémon,” is to discover, collect and train hundreds of little monsters — in this case, a long-feared-extinct race of fighters and seekers known as Spectrobes, who are far more equipped than humans to fight off the invading Krawl (i.e., bad guys).

What makes “Spectrobes” so interesting is how you go about doing this, from discovering a Spectrobe (stylus-based fossil excavation) to awakening it (speaking soothingly into the DS’ microphone), to incubating and evolving it (think virtual pet simulator) to eventually taking it into the field to help you discover more fossils and minerals (as a child) or fight the Krawl (as an adult). It’s the circle of life in the palm of your hand, and “Spectrobes” strikes a nice balance between depth and accessibility in making it all possible.

It also makes it easier to accept the game’s ultimate limitation: repetition. Every game in this genre — “Pokémon” included — is guilty of this. There’s only so many ways to collect and cultivate monsters, and you’ll have seen most of what “Spectrobes” can do fairly early into the adventure. Similarly, while the real-time battles — in which you control yourself and two Spectrobes at the same time — are an inspired change of pace from the usual turn-based throwdowns, there’s only so many ways these can end. Before long, it’s a grind.

But before long, you probably won’t care if you like this kind of game. Games like “Spectrobes” thrive on the grind for purposes of story advancement, and there’s no small sample of people who embrace the personal investment a game like this requires. This is where all that ambition gets put to great use: The character designs aren’t on “Pokémon’s” level, but the effort you devote to finding and raising these characters creates a level of attachment even Nintendo hasn’t quite achieved.

Games 3/21: God of War II, Lunar Knights, Custom Robo Arena

God of War II
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

Any fears of a sophomore slump from the PS2’s best action game dissipate in… oh, two minutes, maybe? Yes, “God of War II” has quite an act to follow — and what better way to do so than by kicking things off with a boss fight?

The opening encounter — the plot details of which won’t be spoiled here — pits you against hundreds of normal-sized enemies and one ridiculously huge boss enemy. It takes place in three separate areas, including the boss’ burning innards. And when it’s over, nearly 90 minutes later, you’ll have witnessed an opening throwdown that puts most games’ final levels to shame.

The best part? It is, literally, only the beginning. Even if you take on that fight in its entirety and have a bad case of ADD, what immediately follows will make you want to keep on playing.

This, people, is how you do a sequel right. For the most part, anyway.

If there’s a gripe about “GOW2,” it’s that it’s basically an extension of its predecessor. Carryovers from the first game — everything from the orbs to controls to the interface to several common enemies and how to dispatch them — are abundant. If you played the original, occasional stretches of the sequel will undoubtedly leave you with a sense of déjà vu.

But at the risk of sounding like a fanboy or an apologist, who cares? “GOW” is one of those rare big-budget games that got just about everything right in its first attempt. It played marvelously, hopped genres (platforming, puzzle-solving, brutally violent combat) with ease, and told a thrilling story that unfolded during instead of merely between the action.

Notable additions include a new grappling ability — which gets put to great use — and a brand-new batch of context-sensitive scenarios that (very) briefly change the nature of the game. For the most part, though, “GOW2” justifies its sequel status by taking everything that worked the first time, polishing it, and upping the ante across the board.

That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds when the bar sits so high — just ask “Mario Kart 64,” “Devil May Cry 2” or even “Halo 2.”  Perhaps chapter three will take more chances, but it’s hard to begrudge a game that outclasses the class of its genre for an encore.


Lunar Knights
For: Nintendo DS
From: Kojima Productions/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)

It doesn’t exactly come right out and declare it, but “Lunar Knights” clearly is an extension of the “Boktai” games — a brilliant pair of Game Boy Advance action-RPGs best known for the solar sensor attachment that made playing under direct sunlight a requirement. “Knights” doesn’t come with any such attachment, but the characters, gameplay, mythology and heavy employment of both vampires and sunlight (and now moonlight)-dependent gameplay will immediately ring bells for fans of the series.

If “Boktai’s” geographical and time-sensitive demands scared you, worry not: The sun and moon in “Knights” exist solely inside the DS’ top screen. The game’s time of day plays a major role in the storyline and affects several facets of the gameplay, but it’s no longer dependent on your time of day. (Players who plug in a “Boktai” GBA cart while playing, however, receive a nice reward. How’s that for proof of the games’ connection?)

Dedicating an entire screen to a picture of a sun or moon might seem wasteful, but you’ll appreciate its constant presence once you realize the importance such factors as cloud coverage and wind play in how much energy you can harness and where.

In fact, “Knights” is a poster child for using the DS’ special features to improve a game’s playability rather than simply pile on the bloat. Kojima doesn’t force touch screen capabilities onto a control scheme that doesn’t need them. Instead, it replaces “Boktai’s” most mundane element — having to drag the coffins of defeated vampires out of their castles — with a bizarre, stylus-controlled space shooter sequence that’s eloquently executed and a fast, fun change of pace from the main quest, which is wisely left alone.

In addition to its smart use of creative restraint, “Knights” improves on the “Boktai” formula in several respects. The role-playing elements run deeper, the overall presentation (now with animated cut-scenes) is more engaging, and you eventually can switch between two vampire hunters with rather starkly different approaches to combat (and life in general).

Add this beauty to the too-short list of smart, sophisticated adventure games for a system that’s hungry for them. With no sun sensor to fear, the opportunity to jump in and see what this series is about has never been better.


Custom Robo Arena
For: Nintendo DS
From: Noise/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

When “Custom Robo” made its stateside debut two years ago on the Gamecube, it accidentally left its personality back in Japan. The game played well enough, but a convoluted storyline and a lifeless visual presentation consistently undermined it.

Fortunately, “Custom Robo Arena” packed its bags more carefully. The nonsensical “defeat the bad guys” storyline has been scrapped, and in its place is a return to the fun competition angle that worked perfectly fine in the first, Japan-only game. The bland graphics of the Gamecube game also disappears, replaced by a clean and very visually pleasing look that’s reminiscent of any number of Super Nintendo role-playing games.

For the uninitiated, “Robo” is what the TV show “Battlebots” would be were it a story-driven videogame. You navigate through the storyline as a person, but the bulk of the gameplay consists of you customizing, maintaining and pitting your robo[t] against other people’s robos in a battle to see which bot is best.

While the story mode looks like old-school “Final Fantasy,” the battles in “Arena” take place in a three-dimensional, single-screen arena. These fights aren’t as easy on the eyes as the 2D stuff, but the gameplay — think “Power Stone” and “Smash Bros.,” but with robots — is fast, fun and increasingly nuanced as you advance through the game. Part of “Robo’s” appeal lies in collecting and sorting through the ridiculous number of parts you can use to customize your robo. Guns, boots, rockets and more exist in all manner of configurations, and building a bot that complements your fighting style is a lot of fun.

It’s also easier than ever to do, thanks to a storyline that, while a bit on the talky side, is miles more engaging than what Gamecube owners slogged through three years ago. You have to advance through the story to acquire parts to use in multiplayer combat, so it’s nice to be able to actually enjoy doing so this time.

Speaking of multiplayer, “Arena” (mostly) delivers the goods, offering both single- multi-card wireless play as well as (can I get a Hallelujah) online play, complete with record-keeping, friend/rival lists and a reliable matchmaking system. Four-player support would’ve been nice, but the two-player battles you do get don’t exactly disappoint in the chaos department.

Games 3/7/07: MLB 07, Motorstorm, Formula One Championship Edition

MLB 07: The Show
For: Playstation 2 and PSP (coming April for PS3)
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It was always a little disappointing that the coolest part of Sony’s so-so basketball game — the rags-to-riches career mode — wasn’t instead instilled into its endlessly-better-than-so-so baseball franchise. The career mode in “MLB 06” was terrific, but it lacked the lone-wolf mentality that could really set it apart.

“MLB 07” returns last year’s career mode intact, but it dishes a second, completely separate mode that adequately fills this void. In Road to the Show mode, you play solely as your created character while your teammates handle their business. Batting and pitching — if you’re a pitcher — play out like normal, while defense and baserunning take place from your player’s perspective. The action skips past all plays not involving you, and games typically fly by in a few minutes or so, making this a dream mode for anyone too impatient to invest in 162 or more half-hour play sessions.

Road to the Show essentially plays out like scenario ball, and it’s certainly no replacement for playing the full nine with the whole team and endless managerial controls at your disposal. But its larger endgame — a multiyear career that could find you toiling in AAA or in Cooperstown — is engaging and strangely personal in its own entirely special way. It’s nothing but good news, especially since Sony wisely kept the other career mode — along with franchise and single-season options — around for those who prefer it.

Gameplay-wise, “MLB” remains the best in the business, and the improvements introduced in “07” — umpires with different personalities, pitcher (and pitch) momentum, on-the-fly swing analysis, smart catchers who scout hitters, “MVP Baseball”-like throwing controls, a new baserunning system that’s absolute genius once you get used to it — are inspired and surprisingly low on fluff for a series that’s been around the block this many times. The online component also receives a boost, with 30-team league support, a live scoreboard ticker, and the ability to tinker with a multitude of settings, upload your findings and download someone else’s if you can’t
perfect the formula. How clever is that, and how soon before other sports games swipe this idea?


For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, violence)

Last year’s “Motorstorm” demo was a cautionary tale on how not to send a game’s hype to screeching halt. After months a buildup, gamers were treated to a preview that was slow, stiff and hardly reflective of what videos had promised.

That, happily, was an aberration. In finished form, “Motorstorm” is fast, fluid and most definitely reckless enough to get the hype train rolling again. Evolution Studios’ anything-goes dirt racer is the PS3’s most technically impressive game yet — a cornucopia of mud, fiery wrecks and debris flying every which way.

“Motorstorm’s” selling point is its bending of convention. A typical race might feature ATVs, rally cars, motorbikes, buggies and big rigs all on the same track, and the gulf between strengths and weaknesses is far more dramatic than most racers can convey. Motorbikes are fast and prone to flight, but they’re crash magnets. Trucks are slower and clunky but can plow through debris — and opposing vehicles — that would stop an ATV cold. And so on. The differences are stark, and anyone with any common sense will immediately recognize them.

The real genius is in the track designs, which branch out both horizontally and vertically and present a maze of pathways toward the finish. Danger lies everywhere and roads are mostly non-existent, but the tracks are designed in such a way that you always know which way is forward. That seems elementary, but only until you realize how many free-form racing games can’t make the same claim — especially when the tracks deform with each lap run like these do.

But “Motorstorm” has an Achilles heel, and not a small one. The online component is option-laden and fantastically fun, but offline players have only one mode — career — from which to choose. Want to set up a custom race? You’ll need to locate the career event that most closely resembles your ideal because Evolution somehow forgot to include a customizable quick race mode. Want to play a friend who is sitting right next to you? Sorry, you can’t. “Motorstorm’s” treatment of SDTV owners is a bit cold — the menu text is painful to read — but it’s nothing compared to what players without Wi-Fi access will experience. If that’s you, then perhaps a rental instead of a purchase is in your future.


Formula One Championship Edition
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

If Sony’s Liverpool studio is taking suggestions for next year’s edition of its “Formula One” series, here’s one: Add a tutorial mode.

“Formula One Championship Edition’s” attempts at accessibility are all-encompassing enough to be in a game design textbook. On one end, the game allows you to adjust the intelligence of opposing drivers and whether such real-world factors as penalties, fuel, crash damage, tire wear and inclement weather play into the equation. One the other end, you can activate all manner of driving aids ranging from brake markers and other visual indicators to assisted control schemes in which the PS3 helps you steer and brake.

But even with every assistant enabled and every real-world factor dumbed down, “F1” requires the kind of dexterity few racing games ever demand. Take away the safeties to get the full F1 experience, and you have some serious learning to do. That’s not a knock against the game: Commanding an open-wheel racer isn’t like driving a Jetta, and “F1” quite effectively illustrates that.

Gamers with a thirst for learning certainly can get the hang of it the hard way. But “F1” undercuts itself by omitting some kind of hands-on means of guiding new players through not only the rules of the race and the art of the pit stop, but also the intricacies of the vehicle they’re driving. A tips section is a nice touch, but it’s basically a series of Wikipedia articles. We live in an era in which every idiotic shooting game sports a tutorial level, so there’s no reason for a game that actually needs one to not have one.

Gamers who climb the curve will find a hefty reward at the top. “F1” simulates the 2006 F1 season down to the last detail, packing in a full-featured career mode and every driver, vehicle and track. The much-aforementioned controls (gimmicky motion-sensing stuff aside) are spot on, and driving 200 m.p.h. in the howling rain is an exhilarating, beautiful thing. “F1’s” online component is a bit feature-starved, but the basic racing experience carries over with few compromises. Up to 11 human drivers can race at once, with A.I.-controlled drivers filling in the empty spaces to create a full 22-car field.

Games 2/28/07: Crackdown, Virtua Fighter 5

For: Xbox 360
From: Real Time Worlds/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (Blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Yes, “Crackdown” is the latest in a growing line of video games that overtly takes cues from the open-world formula made popular by “Grand Theft Auto.” But “Crackdown” also is what happens when someone argues that “GTA” is, of all things, too restrictive.

For starters, “Crackdown” is mission-free and sports a plot — kill the bad guys! — straight out of 1988. Gang bosses operate throughout Pacific City, and your job is to weather a relentless sea of henchmen and bring them down. Each boss controls certain aspects of his or her respective gang’s enterprise, which in turn affects a region’s overall landscape. But the order in which you eliminate criminals is entirely up to you. (Sidebar: How refreshing is it to be the good guy in one of these games for a change?)

That goes triple for how you eliminate them. “Crackdown” offers the usual means — guns, explosives, vehicles, fists — but it also drops you into the shoes of a freak-of-nature supercop who can, over time, leap tall buildings, lift and throw both objects and people, and even kick an SUV like a soccer ball across five lanes of traffic. You develop these abilities naturally — beat up a gang member, for instance, and your strength improves — and the eventual result is a staggering departure from your original incarnation.

The excessive freedom will put off those who prefer a checklist of objectives to rattle off, but those who want their open world truly open will be in heaven. Objectives or not, “Crackdown” wastes none of your character’s gifts. Pacific City is enormous, ingeniously designed and dense with activity, and the game’s physics and controls are eons beyond anything this genre has ever produced. Problems do crop up, including a lousy auto-targeting system, a camera that falls apart in tight areas and a strange inability to land smaller jumps with any confidence. But these are niggling aggravations in the face of all the things the game does right.

The best part of all? You can share it all with someone you love. “Crackdown’s” multiplayer consists simply of two players running wild in the city instead of one. Team up against the bad guys or kick cars at each other? The choice, yet again, is yours.

Virtua Fighter 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (Violence)

Hey there, “Virtua Fighter 5!” The Playstation 3 has been waiting for you. It needs a new, exclusive game like a fly needs wings, and what better relief than arguably the best fighting game to surface since “Virtua Fighter 4?”

The attributes that make “VF5” such a praise magnet are the same that made “VF4” so special, only enhanced and expanded in almost every respect. The single-player quest mode has been reinvented as a neighborhood of virtual arcades featuring A.I. opponents of all skill levels and disciplines, and the climb to the top of the rankings — not to mention the quest to unlock the ridiculous number of costume alterations and special items — is a steep, daunting one. Just enjoy the eye candy on the way up: “VF5’s” fighters are among the best-modeled characters in any video game, and they move as beautifully and responsively as they look.

Most importantly, though, is the gameplay, which appeases button-mashers but showers gratification on those who can discover and master the sick list (roughly 70 deep) of moves in each fighter’s arsenal. Fights against low-ranked opponents in the quest mode require little more than reflexive mashing. But don’t dream of taking on the upper echelon until you spend some significant time in the virtual dojo, where you can fight indefinitely against customized A.I. and learn the particulars behind the game’s most effective attacks and counters.

This being 2007, all that mastery would seem to transcend into the multiplayer arena. But this is where “VF5” takes its single, painful stumble. Online play is out, as is any kind of leaderboard system. Additionally, you cannot copy your character data to a memory card, load it into a friend’s game, and stage a showdown against his or her character. Want to set up an eight-player tournament? Print out your own brackets — “VF5’s” lone multiplayer mode is a best-of-three match.

If these features matter to you, you’d best wait and see what’s in store for the forthcoming Xbox 360 version, which at the very least should support online play over Xbox Live. (So much for the PS3 catching a break.)