Games 5/23: Shrek the Third

Shrek the Third
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 2, PC (alternate versions available for Nintendo DS, PSP and Nintendo Wii)
From: Amaze Entertainment/Seven Studios/Shaba Games/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

Sometimes expectations are everything. Witness “Shrek the Third,” which likely is enjoying more flattering press than another movie tie-in game, “Spider-Man 3.” While “SM3” easily is the superior of the two games, players who enjoyed the last “Spider-Man” game surely expected a more profound step forward than they received.

On the other hand, those who played and enjoyed “Shrek 2” should be pretty content with “Shrek the Third,” which carries on the series’ tradition of producing marginally fun games that are neither lousy nor particularly special.

Overwhelmingly, “Third” is a brawling game – a button-masher’s paradise that unleashes a barrage of enemies to whomp, breaks up the monotony with a platforming challenge, resumes the flow of bad guys, and repeats the routine.

Six characters – Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, Prince Arthur, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots – stand at your command, but their capabilities are much more similar than different. Each sports different animations, but “Third” basically plays the same no matter who you are. Even Sleeping Beauty knows how to rumble, which is a ridiculous but infinitely more welcome development than some hackneyed stealth mission or other square-peg-in-round-hole contrivance that could derail the game.

Fetch quests and a few puzzles are thrown in for flavor, but you can blow through most of “Third’s” very brief adventure by leaning on the attack buttons.

And therein lies the $40-$50 problem. Kids and ultra-casual players may come back for seconds and (ahem) thirds, but seasoned players will have more trouble conquering their buyer’s remorse than the game’s challenges. Unlockables, multiple difficulty settings, side quests, achievements (360 version only) and some genuinely fun mini-games (including two-player offline versions) extend the replayability, but not to a degree that pushes this out of the rental column. It’s fun, but only for so long.

“Third’s” other big problem, ironically, is its animation. The script is funny, the soundalikes who voice the characters do a terrific job, and the game’s cut-scenes – which play out like a papercraft puppet show – are refreshingly clever. But this appears to be where all the resources went, because the in-game animation is choppy and almost unacceptably half-hearted for a game that’s based on an animated feature. The graphics aren’t particularly great on the whole – dead-eye stares and weak textures abound – but they’d be far easier to accept if they moved more fluidly than they do.

Games 5/16: MLB 07 (PS3), Bust-a-Move Bash!

MLB 07: The Show
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Sony’s sports games lineup suffered from some very public growing pains during its transition from the original Playstation to the PS2, culminating with most games taking a year off in 2004 to shake the lead out.

This time around, Sony is taking a safer route. That means a game like “MLB 07: The Show” doesn’t make as splashy a debut on the system as would a game built for it from the ground up. But it also means we won’t have to wait three years for the best-playing baseball game of the last hardware generation to become the king of this one.

For those who skipped the PS2 version of “MLB” in favor of getting the definitive edition, the rewards are modest. Online features such as a scoreboard ticker and chat are now always available, rather than simply when playing online. The game also makes simple but clever (and optional) use of the controller’s motional-detecting capabilities by allowing you to perform dives on defense and even aim your slide when running bases.

Graphically speaking, “MLB 07” has a ways to go to catch up to 2K Sports’ baseball game. A smattering of new animations and some high-definition gloss aside, these essentially are the same visuals we saw on the PS2. It looks fine, and the incremental improvement is hardly surprising given the game’s upscaled port treatment. But surprise or no surprise, you’ll never mistake it for a TV broadcast the way “MLB 2K7” tricks you into doing.

In terms of everything else, though, “MLB 07” bests all comers. Sony’s game already was home to the smartest, most intuitive video game baseball experience on the market, and the surprisingly bloat-free improvements in “MLB 07” only help matters.

In terms of features, the new Road to the Show mode — which lets you play situational ball as a would-be big leaguer with Hall of Fame dreams — is original, engaging and personally satisfying to a startling degree. “MLB 07” also boasts complete franchise, season and online modes, including 30-team online league support.

On the field, smart catchers scout hitters and recommend pitches for you, different umpires have different personalities, and the game offers on-the-fly scouting and swing analysis when you need the help. The much-improved throwing controls come lifted from EA Sports’ baseball game, but the brilliant new baserunning system more than compensates in the originality department.


Bust-a-Move Bash!
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Taito/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Here’s a lesson for you developers out there: If you’re going to rush a game out the door, at least get the super-important stuff done first. Taito did that much for “Bust-a-Move Bash!,” which brings the celebrated bubble-shooting, color-matching puzzle game to yet another gaming system.

If you’ve ever played a Wii and ever played “Bust-a-Move,” you probably imagine the control scheme working one of two ways. Sure enough, “Bash” includes both, with “gun” (point the Wiimote at the screen, wave left and right to aim) and  “baton” (grip the Wiimote like a wand, and the on-screen bubble shooter mimics your movements) schemes.

The gun scheme is slightly more fluid, but the baton method reigns supreme by freeing you from having to point the Wiimote at the screen in order to play. It also allows you to dynamically control the speed of your shot by tilting the Wiimote forward (slower speed, greater control) and backward (faster shots, less control). Either approach works, though, and the virtual sensation of holding the shooter in your hand instead of operating it via controller definitely adds to an experience that’s changed little over the years.

The polished controls are more surprising than they should be when you consider how many bad decisions plague the rest of the game.

Take the puzzle mode, which returns alongside the standard marathon mode to comprise the bulk of “Bash’s” single-player component. Per usual, it serves up 500 puzzles to clear, and per usual, it’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the game insists that you complete a staggering 50 at a time instead of the usual 10. There’s no way to save mid-game, so you’ll either have to get comfortable or accept that you’ll never topple this mode entirely.

Then there’s the Bash mode, in which up to eight(!) players simultaneously fire on the same game board. It’s clever and extremely chaotic, but the complete dearth of strategy keeps it in the temporary diversion zone. That means “Bash’s” primary multiplayer draw is the same great “Bust-a-Move” multiplayer mode we’ve all grown to love — except that oops, Taito omitted it entirely instead of giving us both.

More bad news: The menu system is unintuitive, the modes lack important options, and the high-score system is woeful. Hopefully the controls are enough to satiate you, because until next time, that’s all the good news you get.

Games 5/9: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, Spider-Man 3, 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
For: Xbox 360
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, violence)

Game studios have tried for years to wedge real-time strategy games into our console gaming libraries, and the results have ranged from compromised (“Army Men RTS”) to traumatic (“Starcraft 64”).

But between the horsepower and high-definition graphics, this appears to be the generation in which the RTS gets some console cred. Case in point: “Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars,” which not only comes from the genre’s A-list, but also migrates from the PC to the 360 with minimal compromise and no dumbing down whatsoever.

That’s not to say “Wars” usurps its PC cousin. It doesn’t, and as long as the 360 can’t support a keyboard-and-mouse configuration during gameplay, no RTS ever will. You’ll have to be quick with the stick to stay on top of all your units, because clicking on a spot on the map isn’t an option. Neither are time-saving keyboard shortcuts. All this extra control negotiation can conjure temporary moments of panic in a game that’s faster-paced than your average RTS, especially when facing human-controlled armies over Xbox Live.

Still, “Wars” does quite a job with the hand it’s dealt. While commands are never a key press away, they’re rarely more than a button click or two out of reach. Once you achieve some hands-on experience with navigation and develop a sense of how commands are arranged, second nature settles in.

With the control hurdles overcome, “Wars” plays no differently than what PC gamers received barely a month ago. On the right equipment, it looks outstanding. (SDTV owners should prepare to treat their TV like a monitor and sit closely.) The top-notch storyline proves there’s still a place for full-motion video in video games, and the ability to wage campaigns from all three sides of the story — with multiple difficulty settings — is a treat. Slowdown occasionally plagues the action when things get busy, but the 360 proves it’s capable of hosting a top-notch RTS without gimping the experience.

If you’ve checked out the demo on Live, you already know “Wars” has tremendous multiplayer upside. Up to four armies can take the battlefield at once, and “Wars” also offers team play, some familiar alternate modes (capture the flag, king of the hill, territory), and even Vision Camera support. Solo players can somewhat replicate the experience with the Skirmish mode, but it’s not the same thing when no one can see you striking victory poses at your defeated enemies.


Spider-Man 3
For: Playstation 3/Xbox 360 (versions also available for PC, PS2, Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance)
From: Treyarch/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence, animated blood)

It makes sense that Spider-Man be the best-looking thing about “Spider-Man 3,” seeing how it’s his name on the door.

But the discrepancy between our hero and the rest of his latest game is so stark, you wonder if Spidey himself had a hand in the design. “SM3” marks the superhero’s first foray into PS3/Xbox 360 waters as the headliner, but his supporting cast seems a bit hesitant to make the upgrade. While this doubtless is the biggest “Spider-Man” game ever, it’s a little too graphically reminiscent of “Spider-Man 2” to wow gamers the way they’ll want (and probably expect) it to.

In fact, “SM3” shares a lot in common with its breakthrough predecessor. A bigger-than-ever New York is yours to swing through as you please, and the addition of gang-controlled territory adds some badly-needed weight to the bevy of random crime-fighting missions that await. But the city remains on the lifeless side, and “SM3’s” population feels more disconnected from your actions than ever in light of the lively sidewalks found in “Crackdown” and “Saints Row.” If the novelty of swinging around the city wore off quickly last time, don’t expect a different result this time around.

That leaves the storyline, which leads to more issues — particularly, the unlikely blend of nerve-fraying difficulty and coma-friendly boss battles. Several challenges in “SM3” involve completing quick-button events or taking on multiple enemies simultaneously, and the game isn’t equipped to handle either particularly well. The frustration these difficulty spikes cause is compounded by unskippable load screens and cut-scenes you’ll have to watch and rewatch each time you fail. The ensuing fear of failure leads you to play it super-safe whenever possible, resulting in overlong boss encounters that lack any stimulation beyond the initial reveal.

With all that said, arguing that “SM3” isn’t a letdown is impossible. But for those who loved “SM2” or simply can’t get enough Spidey, the game still offers some upside. Spider-Man’s lengthy combat repertoire makes him fun to control, and symbiote (black) Spidey basically sends the same maneuvers into overdrive, which never is a bad idea. Swinging around Manhattan remains a riot in spite of the aforementioned issues, and the game provides plenty to do beyond pulling your hair out.

Consider yourself warned, though: If you want to experience all the good “SM3” offers, some difficult times lie ahead. Good luck. As it happens, you’ll need it.


3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures
For: Xbox 360
From: Wanako Studios/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 MS Points ($10)

Sometimes a game comes undone by a big, gaping problem that players under no condition can ignore. Other times, a game — oh, say, “3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures” — comes similarly undone not by one big problem, but by numerous tiny ones that add up. It’s easier to ignore trouble when it comes at you in grams rather than pounds, but aggravation eventually catches up to denial.

“Adventures” is as likeable as it isn’t. The game presents miniature golf in three themes — Old West, carnival, outer space — and each is colorful and rich with obstacles true to the sport, environment or both. Just about every hole has some secret hole-in-one tactic waiting to be discovered. Three time-tested control schemes are available, as is four-player support (online or off). “Adventures” even throws in a course editor that’s surprisingly robust for a Live Arcade game.

But “Adventures” comes with as many “buts” as it has features. The themes are put to good use, but the game mixes them together instead of keeping each theme as its own course or tournament. The course designs generally suffice, but each theme has a few holes that either are completely uninspired or dreadfully laid out. The editor is slick, but it’s saddled with a cumbersome interface.

But it’s the controls that, by far, are “Adventures'” biggest little problem. Being able to putt your way is a nice touch, but piling on 200 more control schemes won’t do any good if all of them suffer from the same problem. The line between a chip shot and a power shot is much finer than it should be, and unless you have incredible timing, hitting the ball either way past the hole or far short of it becomes a regular occurrence. It’s possible to tame the issue with practice, but when a $10 game has less intuitive control than some freebie Flash games on the Web, we still have a problem.

All that said and in spite of itself, “Adventures” still manages to be fun. It helps immensely, though, to play with friends rather than solo. The aggravations will grate either way, but at least you can laugh at a friend’s misfortune in between episodes of quietly seething at your own. When you’re battling each other, it’s easier to forget how much you’re battling the game as well.

Games 5/2: Xbox 360 Elite, Pinball FX, Eureka Seven, Vol. 2: The New Vision

Xbox 360 Elite
From: Microsoft
Price: $479

Ask most people to describe the Xbox 360, and the words “video” and “game” are bound to come up, likely in sequence.

That’s what makes the release of the Xbox 360 Elite a bit puzzling. It’s the same Xbox 360 you know and maybe love, and it’s still a top-notch gaming system. But there’s no way Microsoft designed this with gamers in mind.

Beyond the brand-new black casing, the Elite’s most stark change is in its hard drive. Whereas the $399 Premium model shipped with a 20-gigabyte drive and the $299 Core model didn’t even come with a hard drive, the Elite comes stacked with 120 gigabytes of free space to fill. The Elite also features HDMI compatibility, and the box includes an HDMI cable that owners of high-end displays will appreciate.

It’s hard to argue with the HDMI upgrade, but it’s just as hard to figure out why anyone who uses the Elite solely for gaming would need 100 additional gigabytes of space. As long as the Core is around, developers are obligated to code their games in a way that minimizes hard drive dependence and game save files, which never were that big anyway. Downloadable content adds up, and pack rats who can’t part with downloadable demos may appreciate the space, but neither need warrants anything close to 100 extra gigabytes.

Rather, that 100 GB is reserved for people who have taken the bait and let Microsoft sucker them into buying downloadable TV shows they could record for free with a bottom-of-the-line DVR. If you want to pay for last night’s “Colbert Report,” it’s available on Xbox Live, and Microsoft and Comedy Central are all too happy to sell it to you. The timing of this system’s release is no fluke.

The name, on the other hand, is. While the Elite provides all the tools you need to pay for previously-free television, you still need to drop close to another $100 for a first-party Wi-Fi adapter. The PS3, Wii, PSP and DS all feature built-in Wi-Fi, and it’s almost comical that a near-$500 system with “Elite” in its name is the only holdout in the group. Throw in the Wi-Fi, and the Elite is a good value for gamers and videophiles alike. Without it, though, the math doesn’t add up.


Pinball FX
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 pts. (roughly $10)

Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade has really blossomed in the last year, evolving from an overpriced experiment (the Xbox days) to a so-so retrogaming museum (Xbox 360 launch) to its current status as a bastion of well-made indie games and remade classics.

“Pinball FX” falls into the “well-made indie games” category. Despite the inexplicable use of “FX” in the name — “Xtreme” and “Mania” must’ve been taken — the game is bent on recreating the experience of pinball as faithfully as possible on a video game console.

Generally, it does a fine job. The satisfaction of launching a ball heavenward feels on par with the real deal, and “FX” generally nails the sensation of high-speed pinball.

Fair warning, though: That’s the only speed it knows. If the physics in “FX” feel snappier than you remember from real pinball, you’re not imagining things. The action never feels unwieldy, but the fast speed and inability to hit soft shots undoubtedly will irk pinballers who thrive on playing a more controlled game. Fast reflexes, as well as a little ESP so you can nudge the table when a ball appears headed for a dead zone, are paramount.

“FX’s” modest three-table count is acceptable given its modest price tag, and two of the tables — themed after street racing and secret agent theatrics — are built well and thick with mini-missions and unlockable surprises. The third table is decent, but the double-decker design is one only supreme players will ever put to any good use. That it also portrays extreme sports and “street” culture in a way only Borat would buy doesn’t help, though it is good for an unintentional laugh.

Graphically, “FX” looks terrific — like a real pinball table stuffed inside your television screen. The option to view the action from five different angles is a nice touch. The menu system leaves the door open for future table downloads, and the leaderboards do what they’re supposed to do. The omission of some kind of pass-the-controller multiplayer mode is a real oversight, but “FX’s” online component — in which up to four players play on the same table in a simultaneous race to achieve a certain score — is both a riot and a clever mix of faithful pinball and something not possible in the real-life game.


Eureka Seven, Vol. 2: The New Vision
For: Playstation 2
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

If you like fudge cookies, you’ll likely enjoy double-fudge cookies as well. On a similar note, if you enjoyed “Eureka Seven, Vol. 1,” you’re similarly bound to enjoy “Eureka Seven, Vol. 2.”

Unfortunately, just as double-fudge cookies don’t solve the inherit downsides of fudge cookies, neither does “E7V2” address many of its predecessor’s problems. Recommending this to fans of the first is easy, but it’s not the same thing as calling it a success.

First, some credit where it’s due: The game, at least from a storytelling perspective, pays good respect to the television show on which it’s based. Like its predecessor, “E7V2” is a prequel leading up to the events of the show, and it mingles original characters from the first game with familiar faces who play a larger part on the show than here. The game’s script comes courtesy of the show’s braintrust. and “E7V2” brings a clearer focus and a voice cast to replace “E7V1’s” mess of dialogue boxes and uneven narratives.

“E7V2” also better balances the ratio between gameplay and storytelling, but it’s still completely out of hand — arguably an interactive miniseries first and a video game second. Considerably more than half of the “gameplay” consists of watching the story play out. That’d be fine if the adventure broke past the 20-hour mark, but it doesn’t even get halfway there.

Then again, maybe that’s not so bad, because the action isn’t exactly spectacular. “E7V2” is chiefly a mech fighter, albeit one with a diverse variety of confrontations — airborne mech combat, ground mech combat, hand-to-hand throwdowns and hoverboard racing. But if you not-so-fondly recall the control and pacing issues from the first game, get ready to not-so-happily reintroduce yourself to them. Stiff controls abound, gameplay is either excessively chaotic or painfully slow, and the game doesn’t test your abilities even when it loses control.

The only reason to drop money on “E7V2” is to see what happens between the first game and the show. Even then, it’s hard to recommend this one as a buy. The sequel is noticeably better than the original in several respects, but it so completely fails to address so many serious problems that it’s still hard to call it a better game. Unless you’re an insatiable fanatic who played through the first game multiple times, this is a rental at best.