Games 1/20/09: Moon, Skate 2

For: Nintendo DS
From: Renegade Kid/Mastiff
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, violence)

Before “Brain Age” single-handedly transformed the Nintendo DS into some bizarre educational/self-help/virtual pet device, gamers were salivating over the prospect of the little portable’s potential to replicate the control scheme that makes first-person shooters so popular on the PC.

Finally, “Moon” validates all that long-ago excitement. The control scheme — D-pad emulates arrow keys, touch screen emulates mouse, left trigger emulates mouse button — works as hoped, and the game helps itself by masking the DS’ shortcomings about as much as can be expected.

“Moon” accomplishes that last point, with arguably unfortunate effect, by easing up on the insanity. Though the touch screen absolutely works, it’s still neither as swift as a mouse nor as intuitive as dual joysticks. So the enemy quotient is kept reasonably in check, and other perks, from handy save points to strategically-placed reinforcements, do plenty to keep you and your remote-control droid alive.

Given the amount of storytelling and puzzle-solving Renegade Kid mixes into the equation, though, the slightly lightened load makes considerable sense. “Moon” gradually makes it clear that it’s an adventure game with first-person shooter elements and not vice versa, and it’s hard to mind once the full scope of the adventure comes to light. There are voice-acted cut-scenes as well as tons of discoverable backstory you can choose to ingest or ignore. The 3D environments look fantastic on the tiny screen, and the action is shockingly fast and smooth despite levels that, while nothing artistically revolutionary, are impressive in their scope.

Happily, that ambition fully extends to the gameplay side. The number of unique enemies you’ll face isn’t very high, but the encounters are fun thanks not only to the controls, but how good the guns feel — a staggering surprise given the hardware in question. (That holds exponentially true if you have a Rumble Pack handy.) “Moon” also goes the extra mile by throwing in vehicular and reconnaissance droid segments, which control similarly but still serve to mix up the mood and pace of the action.

None of this is to suggest “Moon” is indistinguishable from more full-featured, big-screen shooters. The hardware makes that impossible, and that’s to say nothing of game’s complete lack of multiplayer features.

But “Moon’s” $30 price tag reflects that, and the lengthy adventure that awaits inside provides more than enough quality and quantity to validate the price tag. The landfill’s worth of showstring-budget game releases has made it harder than it should be to gauge what the DS’ technical limitations are, but until something comes along to knock it off, “Moon” sits atop the bleeding edge.


Skate 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

Given its contributions to classing up the skateboarding genre and returning it to its fundamentals, “Skate” often is misremembered as something of a humorless game despite being nothing of the sort.

Though it refines all that serious stuff that made the first game so good, “Skate 2” likely won’t have the same problem. And you can thank the Hall of Meat — a series of controls and challenges devoted to wiping out and causing as much creative, self-inflicted bodily harm as inhumanely possible — for that. When flying off your board is not only as fun as staying on it, but entirely rewarding in its own right, it’s that much harder to resist the game’s charms.

“S2’s” other big addition — the ability to get off your board, walk freely and move loose objects around to create your own makeshift stunt sequence — is equally welcome, albeit in spite of itself. It works as one would hope it would, and the degree to which it’s implemented — both in the career mode and through a mode that lets you design and share stunt challenges with other players online — is inspired.

Too bad your custom-designed skater walks around like there’s a Festivus pole stuck up his or her shirt. The off-board controls are unreasonably stiff, and that’s a most unpleasant surprise considering how polished “S2’s” on-board controls are.

Fortunately, the extreme majority of “S2” takes place on a board, and the game only improves on its predecessor in that regard. The action on the whole is smoother and snappier, your bag of tricks considerably fattened up, and the ability to string them together made easier and more fun thanks to a little tightening on the accessibility and rough edges front.

Like the original game, “S2” also gives you plenty to do on both the single- and multiplayer sides. The occasional obnoxious objective awaits in the career mode — the antagonizing security guards return, and they’re more annoying than ever — but for the most part, the challenges are accessible, open to creativity and just brief enough to keep you constantly in motion. Beating one challenge often opens two or three more, and between the varying locations and objectives, the game isn’t hurting for diversity.

That’s markedly more true online. Once again, you can set up trick competitions and share and rate highlight reels (which, thank you Hall of Meat, is more fun than ever). But “S2” also takes some of “Burnout Paradise’s” medicine, allowing you to instantly jump into an online free skate session, which features its own set of challenges and a leveling system that will have completionists drooling.