Games 11/25/08: Need for Speed: Undercover, Animal Crossing: City Folk, Bioshock + Challenge Rooms (PS3)

Need for Speed: Undercover
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: PC, Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Some admired “Need for Speed: ProStreet’s” risky venture into the world of legal street racing and safe driving.

Most did not.

For them, “Need for Speed: Undercover” will mark a step in the right direction, even if it basically is a rushed retreat back to everything — open-world street racing, cop chases and general environmental destruction — that made 2005’s “Most Wanted” one of the series’ best and most beloved entries. If you liked that game, it’s hard to imagine “Undercover” leaving you disappointed.

The downside? With only a year’s time to complete the scramble, “Undercover” is split down the middle in terms of steps forward and backward.

Most problematic this time is an erratic framerate, something no “NFS” game has struggled with this generation. Framerate drops are infrequent and only occur in certain spots on the map, but the drop can be severe when it happens. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the game’s early missions take place around this spot, which will lead to some unfavorable first impressions before faster cars and better environments speed things up considerably.

“Undercover’s” other surprising shortcoming is the on-screen GPS and mini-map, which mostly works but occasionally chokes completely during story-based missions in which the entire city is open. The map inevitably will send you down a bad side street or highway ramp, so be glad you can restart a mission quickly and easily.

Fortunately — and in spite of a goofball story that can’t possibly reconcile why you need to win so many races and destroy so much terrain to complete an undercover sting investigation — “Undercover” hits far more than it misses. The races, which take place on semi-closed tracks that won’t confuse your GPS, are textbook “NFS,” as are the controls and physics, which let you drive far more recklessly than in pretty much any other arcade racing game.

While the addition of role-playing elements is a nice touch — you’ll accrue driving skill stats any time you dominate an event — “Undercover’s” most welcome enhancement is its emphasis on pursuit. The awesome cop chases from “Most Wanted” are back almost verbatim, and “Undercover” tosses in handful of other chase events, including sprints down crowded highways and some cat-and-mouse hunts in which the goal is to total the other driver’s car and bring the driver to justice.

An eight-player cops-and-robbers battle marks the highlight of “Undercover’s” solid online multiplayer offerings. Shamefully, the game offers no split-screen offline multiplayer whatsoever — the latest example of a senseless trend that developers need to undo immediately.

—–

Animal Crossing: City Folk
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you fell madly in love with “Animal Crossing” when it debuted six years ago on the Gamecube, you might want to sit down. Because while Nintendo still loves you and treasures your company, it wants to see other people.

For the uninitiated — which was everyone back in 2002 — the joy of playing “Crossing” is almost impossible to understand until you give it a firsthand whirl. You star as a human character living in a neighborhood full of talking animals, and the purpose of the game, which has no end goal, is to be a good neighbor while earning money to afford a nicer house and all manner of things with which to stock it.

The charm of “Crossing” — which “Animal Crossing: City Folk” unmistakably conveys — is a strange combination of relaxation and purpose. Beautifying your village takes work and there are goals to achieve and items to collect, but with no time constraints or threats of failure, it’s easy to lose yourself in the idyllic ease that the game’s visual design exacerbates.

Of course, if you played “Crossing” on the Gamecube or more recently on the Nintendo DS, you already know this — along with roughly 95 percent of what “Folk” has to offer.

“Crossing’s” concept lends itself to boundless ideas, and the Wii’s cursor-friendly control scheme is explicitly capable of rectifying the interface hiccups that hampered the Gamecube game, but “Folk” barely improves on its predecessors in either respect. The city hub, while certainly a new destination, recycles far too many characters and concepts to justify its status as a chief selling point.

The only solid step forward happens in the game’s online component, which allows you to visit friends’ villages and chat using the speakerphone-like Wii Speak peripheral, which sells separately for $20. Visiting villages also allows animal neighbors and crops to cross-populate, which is a neat touch until you’ve seen all the game has to offer in either category.

But this alone cannot justify the large expanse of time Nintendo has had to improve “Crossing” and take it to new frontiers. Fact is, Nintendo wants to sell Wiis to people who have never even seen, much less owned, a Gamecube, and “Folk” is for them more than it is for those who cared before it was trendy to do so. If “Crossing” is new to you, congratulations: It’s one of the most novel experiences in all of gaming, and those of us waiting to be struck by that same lightning a second time are jealous of the fun you’re about to have.

—–

Bioshock
For: Playstation 3
From: 2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

Arguably the best Xbox 360 and PC game of 2007, “Bioshock” is now one of the best Playstation 3 games of 2008. If you held out or lacked the means to play this a year ago, you’ll be pleased to know the game has aged perfectly well in its ultra-tardy migration to the PS3.

If you followed “Bioshock’s” ascension last year, you likely already know all you need to know regarding the core physical game. The PS3 incarnation neither adds nor removes anything the other versions’ storylines did or did not have, and the lone out-of-box enhancement is a Survivor mode, which simply is an parallel-universe version of the adventure with significantly less ammo and special abilities at your disposal.

Of far greater interest to “Bioshock” fans is the one thing that, sadly, costs extra: challenge rooms. Available as a $10 download on the Playstation Network, the three challenge rooms represent the most drastic influx of content fans of the franchise likely will see until “Bioshock 2” appears.

Fortunately, it’s a great influx that speaks to the flexibility of the core game. While one of the challenges asks you use your wits to rescue a Little Sister from atop a broken Ferris wheel, a second challenge sends you through eight chambers of pain, all weapons blazing, to rescue another. The third challenge — in which you must trick one of the ultra-powerful Big Daddies into accidentally imperiling itself — requires both brains and reflexes.

The polish that made “Bioshock” such a stunner in the first place carries down to the challenge rooms, and the game doles out Playstation trophies for clearing established target times. All three rooms allow a myriad means of accomplishing the task at hand, making it fun to try different ideas and replay the challenges in order to beat your best times.

It’s hard to justify spending $70 for the complete “Bioshock” experience if you already paid to play it last year, but if you’re a “Bioshock” vet who wants solely to check out the rooms, renting the game and buying the rooms isn’t the worst way to go. If you enjoy the rooms in the spirit they’re meant to be enjoyed, you’ll easily get your money’s worth despite essentially renting downloadable content.

And if you’ve never played “Bioshock” before? Read that first paragraph again, grab your keys and head to the nearest game store, because this gem has eluded you for far too long.