Games 6/13: Planet Puzzle League, Shadowrun, Mad Tracks

Planet Puzzle League
For: Nintendo DS
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Planet Puzzle League” has spent its life in some sort of video game witness protection program, having changed its name over the years from “Panel de Pon” to “Tetris Attack” to “Pokémon Puzzle League” to “Pokémon Puzzle Challenge” to “Dr. Mario & Puzzle League.”

If you’ve played any of those games, you know what to expect here. If you haven’t, imagine “PPL” as a perfect hybrid between the likes of “Tetris” and the likes of “Bejeweled.” Had it simply stuck to a consistent name over the years, it probably would sit right up there with those two games on the brand-name scale.

Digressions aside, “PPL” does everything and then some to endear itself to new and old friends alike. The modes list, for one, is insane: In addition to the game’s chief selling point (two-player online and four-player wireless play, both of which feature voice chat and function just as one would hope), the long list of single player modes includes the usual puzzle suspects (marathon, time attack), a versus mode against the computer, a ton of objective and mission challenges, a “Brain Age”-esque daily play mode and a few other surprises.

“PPL’s” stat tracking could be better, but its ability to save your best performances is pretty cool. The game’s options also are sufficient: Beginners can enable hints in order to get a grip on advanced chain and combo techniques, and you can hold the DS “Brain Age” style (like a book) or the usual way.

Most importantly, “PPL” plays better than ever. As was the case with “Zoo Keeper,” the touch controls speed up the action and allow one to rip off combos that previously were either impossible or close. Beyond that, the formula hasn’t changed. Those who prefer button controls still can use them — “PPL” shines with either configuration. Advanced players, however, will likely prefer the touch controls when contending with the game’s tougher challenges.

Aesthetically, “PPL” has come down with a pretty brazen case of “Lumines” fever, with generic but visually pleasing skins and electronic music replacing the parade of mascots and cutesy music that decorated previous editions. Outside of a lifeless and dull menu interface, it looks nice. But unless you buy games based on the quality of their menu interfaces, that’s pretty small potatoes in light of how good the other 99 percent of “PPL” is.

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Shadowrun
For: Xbox 360 (also available for Windows Vista)
From: Fasa Studio/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence)

Unsuspecting buyers may not realize “Shadowrun” is a multiplayer-only game in the vein of “Counterstrike.” Microsoft doesn’t satisfactorily explain this on the game’s case. So in case you didn’t know, and in case you don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account and don’t want one, consider yourself warned.

It’s a pity, though, because when not burdened by puzzling limitations, “Shadowrun” leaves some brilliant fingerprints on the formulaic first-person shooter genre.

On top of the usual roster of guns and grenades, “Shadowrun” adds an impressively large array of technological and magical abilities that allow you to teleport, summon creatures, heal, resurrect teammates, set traps, see through walls and more.

This alone is pretty cool, but it’s the incredible dedication to balance that really makes these abilities shine. Every skill has at least one significant downside to complement its upside, resulting in a giant game of rock, paper, scissors that rewards creativity, strategy and eventually mastery. (The same philosophy applies to the playable characters, each of whom has significant strengths and weaknesses.)

What all this brilliance inadvertently does is reiterate what a great single-player experience “Shadowrun” could have offered. Unfortunately, unless you count the training segments and an offline replica of the multiplayer game that uses A.I.-controlled opponents instead of live ones, no such thing exists. No story, no missions, nothing.

Even on the multiplayer side, “Shadowrun” lacks frills. The game includes a whopping three match styles, two of which are flavors of capture the flag. The third is team deathmatch. If you’re keeping score, that means no individual deathmatch, no territory battle, and no homegrown modes that take advantage of the game’s unique abilities. A mere nine maps lay at your disposal, and there’s no way to track your stats. That leaves Achievements as the only tangible thing to strive for in the entire game. At least the online interface is nice and easy to navigate.

The simple act of playing “Shadowrun” is a lot of fun, and Live Gold members who do most of their gaming online anyway will find this as feasible a holdover as any until “Halo 3” roars in. Just remember: That game, which will feature a full single-player adventure on top of a dazzling multiplayer component, costs the same as this one. It’s your $60, so make sure you understand what you’re getting for it before it leaves your pocket.

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Mad Tracks
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Load Inc./D3 Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 MS Points (approx. $10)

Countless developers have attempted to replicate the sensation of playing with toy cars on a video game console. Overwhelmingly, they’ve failed. Most simply create a standard racing game with tiny cars maneuvering around oversized everyday objects — which, beyond visual novelty, might as well be any other racing game.

“Mad Tracks” takes an important extra step by giving us physics and controls that complement the graphics, which are colorful but about what you’d expect from a 3D Live Arcade game. The cars feel extremely light, as if made of plastic instead of steel. Like your standard RC car, they’re easy to control and capable of turning unrealistically on a dime. Also like RC cars, a collision or bad turn can send them flying and/or completely out of sorts. That’d be bad news in a realistic racing game, but it’s an absolutely perfect fit here.

“Tracks'” other strong suit? Variety. In addition to a few different race types, the game features a hodgepodge of bonus events. One event pits you in a two-on-two game of foosball in which you score by ramming the ball into the goal. Billiards and golf events work similarly. Another event has you driving off a ramp onto a dartboard, while another pits you on a dinner table in a battle to knock enemy cars over the edge before they get you. Every game type is littered with power-ups — both the usual suspects (missiles, engine boosts, oil slicks) and quite a few inspired choices (high beams that blind other drivers, the ability to slow time for everyone but you).

With all that “Tracks” has to offer, it’s a bit surprising that seeing everything it has doesn’t take very long. Beyond checkpoint races, most events feature only one track, and no event is particularly epic in length. “Tracks” has three pages of events to complete, but only the first page is available. The other two require additional downloads that will be released (no doubt at a cost) in the future.

That said, what “Tracks” does offer is fun, and it remains so after multiple replays. That’s especially true if you play with others. “Tracks” offers split-screen and Live support for every mode. Both work nicely, but the lack of a lobby or party system makes it a hassle to play online with a set group of friends.