Games 6/20: Forza Motorsport 2, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Surf's Up

Forza Motorsport 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Forza Motorsport 2” has a problem, and that problem’s name is “Forza Motorsport.” Microsoft Game Studios’ first attempt at a hardcore driving simulation was such a knockout, there’s precious little for the sequel to do to improve on the formula.

But improve it does, particularly if you have an Xbox Live Gold Account.

While “FM2’s” single-player component is wonderfully deep, its online community is giggle-like-a-schoolgirl incredible and likely will remain so until the day “Forza 3” releases. The insanely deep car customization features practically comprise a game in their own right, and it’s a thrill to race your creations against the world’s best armchair drivers and mechanics. The paint and decal options allow your artistic juices to run absolutely wild, and you can even sell your cars on a live auction block in exchange for in-game currency, which can be used to purchase new cars within the game. How brilliant is that?

Elsewhere, the improvements are more subtle but equally important. Team 10 has tweaked an already-incredible physics engine, further bridging the gap between the game’s 300 vehicles and their real-life counterparts. The difference in how vehicles and even various parts perform is tangible even to casual observers. Such dedication to realism isn’t for everyone — success in “Forza” demands a much more subtle touch than a game like “Burnout” requires — but those who crave it will reap almost endless reward from “FM2’s” attention to depth and detail.

All that content and detail — along with a fantastically smooth framerate — has its drawbacks, at least visually speaking. While “FM2” produces some gorgeous car designs, the tracks don’t look quite as good as what other Xbox 360 racers have produced. Worse is the omission of an in-dash camera: It’s wholly understandable (good, even) that recreating 300 car interiors wasn’t at the top of Turn 10’s priority list, but a few generic options for us less picky sorts would’ve been nice.

Those issues aside, “FM2” is a monster of a game, and there’s so much more to it than a 375-word review can cover. Just know that if you love cars and love a good, exciting driving simulation, few games will spin in your 360 as long and as frequently as this one.


Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence)

If there’s a Nintendo Wii-related trend more disturbing than the explosion of mini-game collections that comprise too much of its library, it’s the similar sprawl of Xbox and Playstation 2 ports that developers have tried, with awkward results, to wedge onto Nintendo’s hot new property.

“Mortal Kombat: Armageddon,” which surfaced last October on the Xbox and PS2 and just now arrives on the Wii, painfully illustrates why.

On its own merits, “Armageddon” is a good fighting game. Midway offers support for three control configurations, two of which allow you to play the game the traditional way (via Wavebird or Classic controller). On this level, the action is as solid now as it was last October, and Midway backs up a fun fighting engine with a huge roster of fighters and modes both complementary (create-a-fighter, story mode, practice, multiplayer) and irreverent (a humorous kart racing game that’s surprisingly well made).

But it’s that third control configuration — the motion controls — that’s got people talking about an eight-month-old game. It’s also the reason Midway is selling “Armageddon” for $50 — or more than double what it retails for nowadays on Xbox and PS2 — despite the omission of online play on the Wii version.

Sadly, it’s also the biggest letdown. For starters, the motion controls are limited to a scant handful of special attacks. Regular punches and kicks are regulated to the Wiimote’s tiny D-pad, which is as clumsy as it sounds. Forget about pulling off combos you could execute with ease on other controllers.

Worse, the few moves that do use motion controls are contrived attacks that don’t even match up with whatever motion you’re making. If you were hoping to punch your opponent simply by mimicking the motion yourself, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The 1:1 immersion that drives games like “Wii Sports” and “Tiger Woods” is completely absent here, and the motion controls merely serve to complicate matters for no good reason.

It’s hard to knock “Armageddon” too much, because it is a good game. But it’s a good game that lacks both its chief selling point and the online play cheaper versions have. If you need a fighting game and don’t have another system, there’s fun to have here, but it’s not the fun you had in mind when you dropped $250 on that Wii.


Surf’s Up
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Nintendo Wii, Gamecube and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, language)

Honestly, who doesn’t expect a kids-centric licensed game based on a film about surfing penguins to not be horrible? If “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” couldn’t rise above the crushing tide of disappointment, what chance does this game have?

Here’s the thing, though: We haven’t had a surfing game of any kind in a few months shy of five years. How this drought came to be is a mystery, but Ubisoft seems to have received the memo. Instead of churning out some unfocused drivel that cashes in on the movie’s assumed popularity, it has instead produced a competent, fun and family-friendly surfing game that’s a more pleasant surprise than all three aforementioned games combined.

That’s not to say “Surf’s Up” is exceptional or even worth a buy. It has problems, including a doozy we’ll get to in a moment. The on-rails design — your surfer of choice constantly is moving forward, with a wave off to the left or right and all manner of obstacles straight ahead — will feel too simple for those hungry for a serious surfing game. There’s also the occasional weird problem with physics and collision detection that sometimes will cause you to tricks you could otherwise land with your eyes closed.

Still, the game is strangely fun on a very simple level. The trick system is solid in spite of the random issues, and nailing a combo after launching off a monster wave at just the right time is quite a bit of fun. The 10 playable characters each feature their own distinct bag of tricks, and the game offers a few side objectives in addition to racking high score after high score. Meeting those objectives nets you new characters, customizable surfboards, character accessories and (on the Xbox 360) achievement points.

Unfortunately — doozy time — “Surf’s Up” is almost comically short. An hour and change is all it takes to complete the game’s main objectives, and two or three more should take care of all the side objectives. None of the versions feature online play, and all that remains is a four-player split-screen mode. That’s not a lot of value for a game that costs between $40-$50. Ubisoft did a nice job exceeding gameplay expectations, but it’s hard to recommend anything higher than a rental until the price drops.