Games 9/29/09: Dead Space Extraction, Spyborgs, Skee-Ball

Dead Space Extraction
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC
From: Visceral Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

For the second time in as many years, developer Visceral Games has attempted to conform a genre to the needs of its fictional vision rather than the other way around. And for the second time in two years, it pretty well knocks it out of the park.

Part of that has to do with what “Dead Space Extraction” is in relation to “Dead Space,” the thoroughly polished third-person horror shooter that was among the class of the Xbox 360 and PS3 last year. “Extraction” isn’t a port of that game, but instead a brand-new chapter in the fiction that details the run-up to the devastation that sets the stage of the first game.

The change in storytelling methodology is significant: The original “Space” had you traversing mostly alone through mostly quiet corridors, but “Extraction” regularly surrounds you with a crew and even has you playing as more than one character when the story necessitates a change of perspective. That amounts to a significant increase in character dialogue, and “Extraction” takes full advantage by developing several intriguing characters (yours included) and funneling the entire production through a spectacularly energetic first-person presentation.

That first-person viewpoint is a byproduct of “Extraction’s” understanding of the limitations and possibilities brought forth by the Wii platform. But despite the fact that “Extraction” plays like an on-rails light gun game instead of the free-roaming third-person game that preceded it, the new perspective and approach ceases to feel like a concession once it becomes clear how little has been lost.

The deadly Necromorphs from “Space” return, and nothing about the encounters — from their attack intelligence to the spot-damage approach needed to put them down — feels dumbed down or scripted. The inventive weaponry also returns, alternate fire modes and all, and some of the guns (the disc ripper in particular) are more fun to use because of the immersive nature of the controls. Kinetic and stasis powers lay freely at your disposal, and opportunities to use them are no more contrived here than they ever were in “Space.” The only real puzzle contrivance is an occasional hacking mini-game, but even that manages to be exciting once it ramps up the challenge and consequence.

About the only place “Extraction” feels compromised is in the upgrades department. Instead of leveling up your character and weaponry to best serve your attack style, the game assigns upgrades automatically based on your between-mission grades and the items you pick up (if you’re quick enough) with your kinetic beam while the action rages on. The reflex test is great fun in its own right, but the lost flexibility merits mentioning all the same.

“Extraction’s” main campaign is exciting enough in its own right to merit multiple playthroughs, but Visceral incentivizes things with four difficulty settings and a challenge mode that turns the missions into points-based high score pursuits. “Extraction” also supports two-player co-op, which is always a treat, but there’s something to be said for going it alone — and maximizing the story’s creep factor — the first time through.


For: Nintendo Wii
From: Bionic Games/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language)

It’s the little things — some of them arguably beyond control — that undermine “Spyborgs,” a likably odd little Capcom venture that, for reasons good and bad, recalls the company’s earlier days as a feisty publisher of niche games in which inventive concepts and unpredictable execution mingled freely.

The oddity of the concept starts at the name, which makes the game sound like either a licensed Saturday Morning Cartoon product or yet another “Pokémon” knockoff hoping to strike gold on a Nintendo system. In fact, “Spyborgs” is neither, but rather a wholly original property that plays like a hybrid between “Devil May Cry”-style games and a 3D interpretation of Capcom’s terrific sidescrolling brawler games (“Final Fight,” “Captain Commando”) from the 1990s.

The general gist — choose from three playable characters and, using a combination of melee and shooting attacks, take out every enemy robot you see before advancing to the next area and repeating — is exactly what a marriage of those two games would lead you to believe it is. “Spyborgs” very quickly demonstrates a thorough understanding of the kind of action it wants to present, and surprisingly little time passes before it drops you into a rather frantic area in which robots descend from all sides.

At the very same time, though, “Spyborgs” quickly bares its biggest weakness: a dependency on a controller configuration — the Wii remote and nunchuck attachment — that proves surprisingly ill-fit for a genre that doesn’t really ask for much in that department. All three playable characters’ default attacks are mapped to the B button, which is a trigger and hardly ideal for rapid button presses. Secondary attacks are mapped to the nunchuck’s clumsy C and Z buttons, while the only ideal button — that big A button on the remote — goes to waste on a jump maneuver that only sparingly comes in handy.

Those awkward button placements obviously aren’t developer Bionic Games’ fault, and a pretty fun ability to uncover invisible objects using the remote’s pointer while the action rages on means “Spyborgs” can’t just allow the Classic or Wavebird controllers as alternate input methods. There’s no way to remap buttons to at least mitigate the issues, so it’s just something with which players have to deal.

For those willing to do so, the good news is that the game’s necessary evils don’t completely overshadow its upside. As stated earlier, “Spyborgs” has its act together in terms of speed and challenge, and while there’s nothing extraordinarily original about the overall design, the semi-cartoony style is pleasantly easy on the eyes.

Like its 1990s forefathers, “Spyborgs” also is most fun — and, in terms of its shortcomings, easier to forgive — when two players take it on together. It’s only a shame the game didn’t go one better and make it a three-player game. There are three selectable characters, the game has enough enemy robots to go around, and the Wii supports it, so why not?


For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse
iTunes Store Rating: 4+

Freeverse has been a master of making pristine little apps since the days before the iMac, to say nothing of the iPhone, even existed. “Skee-Ball” rather aptly demonstrates that mastery by skillfully being all the things it should be while also going above and beyond the concept without going overboard. The skee-ball portion of “Skee-Ball” works explicitly well, with realistic ball physics, responsive touch (and flick) controls, and a presentation that looks good and sounds perfect. But “Skee-Ball’s” equally dead-on emulation of the game’s true purpose — accumulating reels of tickets and cashing them in for stupidly prizes — is equally pristine. The prizes aren’t real, of course, but collecting them and stocking your virtual trophy case is a legitimately fun endeavor that gives the game real legs. Freeverse squeezes additional mileage out of the feature by making certain prizes expensive and rare and by shuffling in different prizes at random each time you launch the game. The only thing missing is Bluetooth multiplayer, though the game’s support for the Plus+ network — which allows players to interact and compare achievements and scores across a growing multitude of iPhone games — is a pretty nice consolation prize.

DVD 9/29/09: Fermat's Room, Away We Go, Monsters vs. Aliens, The Guild S1&2, Shrink, The Girlfriend Experience

Fermat’s Room (NR, 2007, IFC/MPI)
The real shame about all those “Saw” sequels is that the premise — a group of individuals, arranged for unknown but deliberate reasons, tasked with using their own wits to save their own lives — deserves so much more than to be used simply as an excuse to kill a few annoying people in various gory ways. “Fermat’s Room” exquisitely demonstrates why by taking the premise to its intellectual extreme: Four slightly egotistical mathematicians (Lluís Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán) are drawn into a trap disguised as the ultimate mathematical enigma, and they have to solve a series of riddles to keep the room from closing in on them. The skeletal premise reaps its own reward: “Room’s” single, all-inclusive consequence removes the pointless exercise of predictably killing off uninteresting characters in sequence, and it also provides ample opportunity for every characters’ story (and their connections to the trap) to play out. But “Room” tops that foundation with a handful of truly great twists that amplify the effect of all that discovery, and it isn’t long before the short-term fates of our four heroes isn’t even the top story of the hour. As an added bonus, the riddles are pretty great. “Room” doesn’t give you a ton of time to play along and figure them out yourself, but that’s what the pause button is for. In Spanish with English subtitles, but absolutely worth the read. No extras.

Away We Go (R, 2009, Universal)
When the story shakes out and all is said and done, “Away We Go” probably belongs in the comedy section of your favorite video store. But if fantastical stories about knife-wielding psychos can classify as horror films, then so, too, can the story of Burt Farlander (John Krasinski), who is well into his early thirties, loosely employed, and in love with a woman (Maya Rudolph as Verona De Tessant) who loves him back but still steadfastly refuses to marry him despite getting ready to deliver a baby who will be born one month after (not before) his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) bolt on them for another country. So forgive “Go” for its stark change in tone, which is impossible not to notice during its steady (but never total) migration from sharply funny comedy to something approaching drama territory. The good news is that the sacrifice of laughs isn’t in vain: Cute comedy though it initially purports to be, “Go” ultimately emerges as an illustration — and an strikingly thoughtful one at that — of the relentless struggle between freedom, structure, youth and wisdom. Carmen Ejogo, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan and Maggie Gyllenhaal also star.
Extras: Director/writers commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Monsters vs. Aliens (PG, 2009, Dreamworks)
The only thing worse than getting hit by a meteor that turns you into a 50 ft. tall giantess? Getting hit by said meteor on your wedding day. Such is Susan Murphy’s bad luck, which only gets worse when the U.S. Military locks her up with a band of monsters who, outside of their unusual appearances, are an arguable better fit for civilized society than their captors. As the title indicates, aliens also join the fray, and it isn’t exactly a shocker where the story goes once they do. Little, in fact, is surprising about “Monsters vs. Aliens,” which goes through one  predictable plot motion after another and sticks to the kind of humor one has come to expect from a Dreamworks Animation production. But is that a bad thing? Not really. Telegraphed though the whole thing is, “Aliens” also is reliably charming in its simplicity, and it certainly isn’t lacking for eye candy or (at least with regard to the monsters and aliens) some likeable, well-designed characters. Top-tier storytelling this is not, but it’s lot of fun, and that’s plenty good enough for almost anyone who would seek this one out.
Extras: If you get the double pack, you get a second DVD, “B.O.B.’s Big Break in Monster 3D,” which wasn’t available for review at press time. Extras on the main disc include filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, an animation video jukebox, a look at Shrek’s Broadway debut, a “Kung Fu Panda” virtual world, and a sneak peak at the next Dreamworks Animation project. A lot of cross-promotion, in other words.

The Guild: Seasons One & Two (NR, 2007, New Video NYC)
The story of “The Guild” — which began in earnest as a self-produced online sitcom before becoming a YouTube and iTunes sensation, emerging as a programming staple on Xbox Live and, among other things, spawning a hit music video and reportedly providing some of the inspiration for Joss Whedon’s similarly cherished “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” — is arguably more extraordinary than the actual show. But that isn’t a knock on the program, which looks in on the happenings of a group of anti-social online role-playing gamers (think “World of Warcraft”) who have it completely together in their virtual world but fall somewhat to pieces when forced to contend with the real thing (and each other). The humor adopts a similar improvisational bent as “The Office” and its ilk, and it’s hit-and-miss — sometimes brilliantly funny, sometimes just silly, sometimes repetitive in beating to death the same stereotypical traits of one of the characters. But the premise is novel and ripe for a send-up, and “The Guild’s” ability to strike a chord with the very audience it’s poking fun at says everything about its understanding of the material. It bears mentioning, though, that these episodes are as bite-sized as a typical YouTube video: Stack all 22 episodes together, and you’ll still be done in little more than two hours’ time. Felicia Day, Jeff Lewis, Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, Robin Thorsen and Vincent Caso star.
Contents: 22 episodes (commentary available on all), plus interviews, audition/table read footage and liner notes.

Shrink (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
“Shrink” is a great example of a movie that could push roughly half (if not more) of its cast out of the picture entirely and probably emerge as a much better production than the good film it ultimately settles for being. Yes, the film is about a shrink (Kevin Spacey as Henry Carter), and “Shrink’s” principal storyline appropriately centers around both Henry, his demons, and the high school-aged client (Keke Palmer and Jemma) whose immediate past shares parallels with his. Henry and Jemma are “Shrink’s” best characters by numerous heads and shoulders, but that doesn’t prevent the film from dousing the plot with side stories featuring characters (Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Pell James) with peripheral and sometimes emotionally hollow ties to those two characters. Their stories are reasonably interesting, and the actors tasked with telling them certainly carry their weight when asked. But it all comes at the expense of a great central story that, with more time, could have taken “Shrink” to places far beyond where it’s allowed to go in this incarnation. Robert Loggia also stars.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, music video.

The Girlfriend Experience (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a high-priced call girl whose selling point, among other more obvious things, is her ability to emulate a relationship experience and consistently do so for months and sometimes years. So if the man on her arm looks like her boyfriend, then she’s simply doing her job — unless, of course, it’s her actual boyfriend (Chris Santos). Perhaps as expected with a complicated charade like this, one of the parties develops a yearning for more the present situation allows. But “The Girlfriend Experience” is in no hurry to reveal which piece — be it one of Chelsea’s clients, her actual real-deal boyfriend or Chelsea herself — seems intent on breaking the puzzle. “Experience,” in fact, isn’t necessarily interested in even getting to the heart of the story, which it presents as a train of opaque exchanges and narrations that barely lays anything out and often presents itself out of chronological order. The whole thing is frustratingly vague and a soulless waste of 78 longer-than-they should be minutes … or perhaps it’s a gifted, inventive method of storytelling that lets its characters tell their own stories in ways a more ordinary script couldn’t on its own. “Experience” is so unflinchingly dead-set in its approach that a polarized reaction is probably to be expected and encouraged, to say nothing of understood.
Extras: Unrated alternate cut, director/Grey commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 9/22/09: Halo 3: ODST, Mini Ninjas, Wet

Halo 3: ODST
For: Xbox 360
From: Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, language, violence)

Lest there be any lingering confusion about what, exactly, “Halo 3: ODST” is, here’s the rundown.

It’s a standalone game, not an expansion, and you don’t need “Halo 3” to play it even though the online competitive multiplayer is ripped verbatim from that game. The single-player campaign is brand-new, as is the Firefight co-op mode (two players splitscreen, four online,) and three of the competitive multiplayer maps. The other 21 maps are from “Halo 3” proper, but if you didn’t download the three $10 map packs or the free Cold Storage map, 10 of those are new to you.

Thus, it’s up to each individual player to decide if “ODST” makes good on its $60 price.

Judged on its own merits, though — and particularly by the new gameplay avenues the new content explores — the game lives up to its billing and feels right at home alongside those proper “Halo” releases.

Partial but significant credit for that goes to the Firefight mode, a no-brainer feature that does for “Halo” what the Horde mode did for “Gears of War 2.” Waves of Covenant forces descend on you, and they don’t let up until you do. Brief respites between waves allow you time to restock and recharge, and there’s a dual emphasis on being a good teammate and taking chances in order to stockpile points. Nothing about the mode really innovates, but it’s a predictably great time because it infuses the formula with the gameplay polish that’s defined “Halo” games since the franchise’s first day.

With that said, though, it’s the story campaign — which, like “Halo 3’s” campaign, can be conquered alone or online with three friends — that ultimately defines the game.

For starters, it’s remarkably different despite also being more of the same. “ODST” pits you not as series mainstay Master Chef, but as a handful of comparatively underpowered orbital drop shock troopers, and your diminished abilities make fights against the Convenant’s tougher foes more menacing than they were in “Halo 3.”

The story, which takes place entirely on Earth and alongside the events of “Halo 2” and “Halo 3,” also takes on a decidedly different structure by centering itself around the hub city of post-war New Mombasa. “ODST’ introduces missions as flashbacks that piece together the events that led to the city’s destruction, and different missions put you in the shoes of different troopers before coming to a head in present day.

The actual missions are trademark “Halo” — new locations and objectives, but same weapons and enemies — but the hub city is considerably more wide open. You can take on missions out of order, uncover audio clue that further unfurl the story, and hunt patrolling Convenant forces in the dark. The lack of stuff to do in a mostly desolate city keeps “ODST” from remotely approaching “Grand Theft Auto” territory. But it’s a novel change of pace for a series known for its uncompromisingly linear gameplay, and it works surprisingly well.


Mini Ninjas
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii
Also available for: Windows PC, Nintendo DS
From: IO Interactive/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Cartoon violence, crude humor

It’s always exciting when an established developer takes a break from making M-rated blockbusters to delve into a genre typically dominated by second-rate developers making fourth-rate games in hopes of prying a buck from kids and parents who may not know better.

“Mini Ninjas” has no intention of misleading anybody. You indeed star as a pint-sized ninja named Hiro, and outside of the occasional brute or boss, you’ll do most of your dirty work against enemy soldiers of similarly adorable proportions.

At its core, “Ninjas” is a pretty simple mix of platforming and cartoony swordplay. Levels are wide open for discovery, and there’s plenty to uncover in each one, but the game by and large is pretty linear: Traverse level, defeat bad guys, find some hidden items if you please, maybe fight a boss and repeat.

Taken solely on these points, “Ninjas” is a serviceably fun experience. The levels are more diverse than their objectives imply, the base combat is fun (though, like the “Lego” games, a bit on the loose side), and everything about the presentation — a charming cast, a pleasantly no-frills storyline, levels and characters that look hand-painted rather than computer-generated — is leagues beyond what a kids game typically gets.

But it’s the attention to the stuff between the lines that elevates “Ninja” from good to great.

As players rescue Hiro’s friends, those friends — five in all, each unique in terms of abilities and each gifted with the same attention to character detail Hiro receives — become unlockable and playable at any point going forward. Hiro’s library of spells expands similarly, and some of those spells — fireballs, summonable tornadoes, the ability to embody any of the many animals wandering about — are a blast to use. The game’s variety of projectile weapons and fermentable potions isn’t as exciting as the spells, but it adds another layer to the simple foundation and certainly comes through in a pinch.

But “Ninjas” shines brightest with its complete allowance to let you play like a real ninja if you so please. The game lets you know when you’re hidden — be it by applying the camouflage spell, embodying an animal and sneaking by, or simply crawling in the bushes and keeping to the shadows — and you can quietly take enemies down one by one if you like giving their comrades a good scare. The game never mandates that you play stealthily, but it gives you every tool needed to do so, and there’s a special level of gratification (along with an in-game reward) that comes with conquering a level completely sight unseen.

The sum total of so many good ideas working in complete harmony makes “Ninjas” one of the better all-ages games to emerge this year.

The only thing IO left out (that most of those second-rate developers, to their credit, typically shoehorn in) is a way for a second-player to join in cooperatively. Two-player co-op probably would disrupt the story’s logic, but the trade-off might have been worthwhile for those willing to suspend disbelief.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: AM2/Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

The triumph of style over substance is acceptable in a two-hour movie, but it’s practically a cardinal sin for the former to outclass the latter when the playground is a 10-plus-hour video game, where frustration and tedium trump eye candy almost every time.

“Wet” is, from start to finish, a demonstration of style mercilessly trampling substance, but it’s also a demonstration of a developer aiming for a style and knowing exactly what it needs to do to hit it on the nose without grating on the nerves. Developer AM2 set out to make the definitive grindhouse movie tribute, and it somehow explicitly succeeds without overstaying its welcome.

Presentationally, it’s exceptional. “Wet” overlays the action with a nifty film grain effect, and as your character’s health drains, so does the quality of the faux-film. The soundtrack — one of the best video game soundtracks of 2009, by the way — kicks into high gear during more climactic moments, and every now and then, the game “misplaces” its film reel in favor of a some bizarre video clip that has nothing to do with anything. During “Wet’s” most fiendishly fun moments, the graphics slip away almost completely, replaced by a sea of red and characters drawn only in silhouette.

“Wet’s” gameplay can’t match its pizzazz in terms of nuance, and the opening level is an alarmingly simple affair in which you enter a room, kill a bunch of enemies and repeat until the story dictates otherwise. The combat is similarly simple: You can take enemies down by acrobatically gunning them down in slow-motion, a la “Max Payne,” or by spamming the X button and slicing them with your sword. Fun though the core techniques are, neither sports much in the way of variety early on.

But things open up nicely as things move forward. “Wet” offers a suite of unlockable weapons and moves that both complement its style and give players more ways to put down an enemy, and a nice attention to level design turns some pretty set pieces into playgrounds that allow for bouts of “Tomb Raider”-esque platforming. When the two styles merge and “Wet” lets you wax violently and acrobatically at once, the gameplay is as much a trip as the presentation. The especially true once, upon first completing the story, you can activate a special mode that scores your acrobatic efficiency.

Things are more hit-or-miss when “Wet” deviates from formula. The occasional interactive cut-scene demonstrates one of the better examples of how to do quick-time events right, while a few one-shot levels look impressive but become a chore to play due to their trial-and-error nature and how easily a single mistake can get you killed. AM2 awkwardly integrates a series of time trial challenges into the core game as well as separately as a bonus mode, and they’re a disaster until you grasp (no thanks to the game) how dual shooting works. Even then, they suffer from sloppy course design.

DVD 9/22/09: Observe and Report, Castle S1, Battle for Terra, Lymelife, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, SpongeBob Squarepants: The First 100 Episodes, Astro Boy V1-5, Terminator: TSCC S2, 30 Rock S3

Observe and Report (R, 2009, Warner Bros.)
For whatever reason, 2009 was designated the year in which to push a mall cop movie out the door. But while Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) shares a job and a workplace crush (Anna Faris) sub-plot in common with Paul Blart, his all-business demeanor and hilariously oppressive machismo put him in closer proximity with the likes of Nicolas Angel from “Hot Fuzz.” That’s true as well, in fact, for the entirety of “Observe and Report,” which enjoys a surprisingly comfortable dual existence as a sharply funny screwball farce and a black comedy that revels in its own violence. Things begin as they always do, with “Report” trotting out the usual everyman comedy ingredients — amusing setting, cast of characters (Ray Liotta, Dan Bakkedahl, Jesse Plemons, a scene-thieving Michael Peña) who are unfit for society to varying degrees, and some funny gags and lines to tie it together. But there’s a slight tinge of dark-heartedness with the way the film goes through these early motions, and it only grows in stature as the story unfurls itself. By the final act, “Report” appears as concerned about the surprisingly careful workmanship of its plot as it is making people laugh, and the final culmination of those socially unfit characters and the bitterness that lurks inside erupts in a bitterly funny and exceptionally memorable barrage of blood and bad feelings sprayed everywhere.
Extras: Forest Ridge Mall security recruitment video, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes.

Castle: The Complete First Season (NR, 2009, ABC)
Accomplished novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is bored — with the adulation of his fans, the press junkets, the parties and even his most popular character, whom he killed off in his most recent book before skidding into a pretty large writer’s block. Fortunately (for lack of a more tasteful way of putting it) for him, a woman is dead, and the killer fashioned the murder after a scene from one of his books. A pretty detective (Stana Katic as Det. Kate Beckett) calls him in for assistance, the author gets a few good ideas while offering his unsolicited assistance on the case, and a strange partnership is born between a police force in need of a new perspective and an author more desperate for a new hit than he’d care to admit. All of this is just an elaborate excuse for yet another weekly show in which detectives unravel murders, and once the table is set, that largely is what happens. But that premise also allows “Castle” to invest in its characters’ divergent personalities and make an effort to use them as more than simple vessels for detective knowledge and snappy lines. Castle’s and Kate’s chemistry is pretty textbook odd couple stuff, but their respective levels of charisma more than make it work, and the show’s ability to convey the seriousness of the job without turning to the same old abrasive dialogue is especially pleasant. It also makes that inevitable season-ending cliffhanger worth more than the usual shock schlock these procedurals typically trot out. Susan Sullivan (as Castle’s mom) and Molly C. Quinn (his daughter) also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and outtakes.

Battle for Terra (PG, 2009, Lions Gate)
The lush planet of Terra is a bastion of peace until a band of human soldiers — the last remnants of a war that resulted in the destruction of three planets’ worth of humanity — touches down in hopes of claiming Terra as their new home. A few misunderstandings ensue, and just like that, the two species are mired in yet another needless conflict. So who wins this battle for Terra? Turns out, it’s time. The animated “Battle for Terra” is as good at showing as it is telling, combining charming design and a thoughtful script to endear viewers to its characters and planet almost as quickly as it introduces them. That’s a good thing, too, because at only 84 minutes long, “Terra” needs all the time it can get to push through the kind of conflict from which three-hour movies and multi-season television series are made. The scarcity of minutes propels the film to take well-traveled roads that demand less explanation than gutsier, more original story choices might require, and that results in a story that’s less enterprising in its main plotline than it is with regard to its setting and characters. Fortunately, the latter is enough to carry the former, making “Terra” a slightly unrealized but nonetheless fun piece of simple sci-fi escapism. If nothing else, it’s a great movie for kids hungry for more sci-fi than the studios have on offer for their age group.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Lymelife (R, 2008, Screen Media Films)
How does this happen? How does a film like “Lymelife” get described on its own box as being not only laugh-out loud funny, but violently funny as well? Who knows. “Lymelife” does have a wry laugh or two tucked inside, and the film — a slice-of-life ensemble story about two neighboring families enduring different levels of growing up and crumbling down — absolutely has its moments. In fact, it quite skillfully accomplishes the very difficult task of satisfactorily fleshing out and intermixing seven characters (Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hudson, Cynthia Nixon, Kieran Culkin, Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts and Jill Hennessy) without taking shortcuts, overstaying its welcome or resorting to ham-fisted handholding. But while different viewers will surely identify with different characters to different degrees, it’s hard to imagine who is going to walk away from “Lymelife” doubled over in pain from expending so much laughter. Only when compared to the likes of “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children” is “Lymelife” anything close to a suburban laugh riot, and it’s kind of a shame that some comedy-hungry viewers, hungry for a comedy, will walk away disappointed by an otherwise very good film that simply doesn’t live up to its comedic boastings.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes.

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
It doesn’t take a historian to connect the dots between the roots of alternative animation and what Rob Zombie has put together with his presentation of “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” which brings to animated life the comic book of the same name. “Superbeasto’s” art and animation styles look like products of the same pen that John Kricfalusi used to design Ren and Stimpy, and the writing style (and no shortage of nudity, blood and more nudity) would purport to nod to the likes of Robert Crumb and Ralph Bakshi, who made it look easy to produce countercultural cartoons in an era that neither asked for nor necessarily welcomed their arrival. “Superbeasto” also makes it look easy, but only because it rarely looks like it’s ever doing anything but cashing in on a trail that was completely blazed for them. The glut of gratuitous sex and violence is never shocking, only lazily juvenile and sprayed randomly to the point of tedium. And outside of the very occasional funny exchange, the writing feels no more inspired — a barrage of bland throwaway lines that only gets sloppier as time ticks away. The animation looks great, but that’s about all that works here. If this is a tribute to the artists who scratched and clawed to pave its way, it’s an awfully sorry one.
Extras: Deleted/alternate scenes, outtakes.

Worth a Mention
— “SpongeBob Squarepants: The First 100 Episodes” (NR, Nickelodeon): The box describes this as “the Best SpongeBob DVD Collection EVER,” and the box is absolutely right. As the title implies, the 14-disc set includes the first 100 episodes of the show. Also included: a new retrospective, commentary tracks, Life Lessons from Bikini Bottom, an extended edition of the first episode and a music video. The packaging — lenticular cover, hard-plastic box — is pretty slick as well.
— “Astro Boy: Volumes 1-5” (NR, 2003-04, Sony Pictures): The 2003 reboot of the classic Tezuka Osamu anime, previously released as a box set, now is available in five separate volumes of 10 episodes each. The fifth volume includes a making-of feature, while the other four arrive without extras.
— “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, Warner Bros.): Enjoy what you get here, because as happens too often, this show’s run ended prematurely and this is all that remains. Includes 22 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, an eight-part behind-the-scenes feature, storyboards, rehearsal footage and bloopers.
— “30 Rock: Season 3” (NR, 2008, NBC Universal): Includes 22 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features (one with the Muppets), a season finale table read and a photo gallery.

Games 9/15/09: Need for Speed: Shift, IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, Defense Grid: The Awakening (XBLA)

Need for Speed: Shift
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Sony PSP, Windows PC
From: Slightly Mad Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

EA’s annual “Need for Speed” releases have sputtered since roughly 2006 — so much so that a reasoned, prudent publisher would bench the franchise for a year, retool, and start fresh in 2010.

EA, on the other hand, decided instead to not only double the dose — an entirely different “NFS” game arrives on the Wii in November — but also, with “Need for Speed: Shift,” take a second crack at the legitimized track racing approach that made 2007’s “Need for Speed: ProStreet” the franchise’s all-time low point.

Good for them, too. “Shift” sidesteps all the pitfalls that dragged “ProStreet” down, but it also rather masterfully nourishes the famished middle between the glut of arcade racers and super-simulative likes of “Forza” and “Gran Turismo.”

That’s largely because “Shift,” despite trading in fictional street races for real-world tracks, never actually abandons the fundamental thrills that made past games so exciting. The surface ingredients of a serious driving sim are there, and winning races is a demanding endeavor when the artificial driver intelligence is maxed out and the brake lines and various driving assists are deactivated. But Slightly Mad Studios has developed an all-encompassing difficulty curve that’s as inviting to those who fear “Forza” as it is to those who’ve mastered it, and at no point — on any setting — is the sensation of the ride anything less than the first priority.

It’s here where “Shift” absolutely sparkles despite doing nothing more than small things. The camera shakes violently at high speeds, loses color during paint trades, and crumples into a mess of blurred, offset images when you nail the guardrail. “Shift” consistently impresses in motion, but it takes things to a separate plane of excitement during a race’s most exciting moments. That, along with all that accessibility, makes it a racing sim anyone can play and love.

In terms of features, “Shift” feels like a prototypical “NFS” game, albeit without the open-world approach most recent entries took. The career mode is dense with races of different configurations, time trials and the always-fun drift competitions. There’s a nice array of exotic licensed vehicles you’ll never drive in real life, and the degree of visual and performance enhancements is plenty sufficient for most players. “Shift” doesn’t offer nearly as many options or gameplay hours as the super sims, but not everyone will see that as bad news.

Where “Shift” surprises a bit is in its meta content. An in-race points system, which awards gutsy and skilled driving, looks like a knock-off of “Project Gotham Racing’s” kudos system until you realize it’s attached to a 50-tier leveling system that dishes rewards each time you level up. A mountain of winnable badges gives “Shift” an additional layer of achievements to strive for, and players with healthy friend lists will appreciate a subtle interface tweak that shows whether you or a friend has the best time on any given track. (Naturally, “Shift” also includes traditional multiplayer for up to eight players. Split-screen, unfortunately, gets shafted again.)


IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: 1C Company/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

A game’s ability to carry a player through its main menu and opening cut scene isn’t necessarily a harbinger for its ability to entertain the player from there. That’s good news for “IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey,” a versatile World War II dogfighter which enjoys the odd distinction of being a game that has more trouble when the action is paused than when it reaches a crescendo.

The problems are fleeting, insignificant but, at least initially, also a little unsettling. The background music stutters like a skipping CD when the game loads its opening cinema. The video, which packages real World War II footage to introduce the game’s campaign, looks nice but also stutters and even freezes before kicking back into gear. Some more stuttering, a so-so menu interface and a long load screen later, we’re into the tutorial mission.

Fortunately, and appropriately, this is where “Prey” starts to deliver. Not only do the weird glitches fade away once the action takes to the skies, but that action looks great, moves authentically and proves surprisingly capable at presenting the same storyline and missions to gamers of dramatically different disciplines.

The flexibility starts and ends with the game’s three control schemes, and the names pretty much tell the story. “Prey’s” arcade scheme enables multiple aiming and airspeed assists and disables most spot damage, making it easier to just dive into battle with reckless abandon. The simulation scheme, on the other extreme, strips out all assists and reduces visibility to only what a real pilot would see. The realistic scheme, meanwhile, makes concessions in both directions for a flexible but challenging middle ground.

What “Prey” doesn’t change throughout these settings is the pace of the action. Even on the arcade setting, it’s truer to the speed of a serious flight simulator than the arcadey likes of an “Ace Combat” or “HAWX.” Players who have trouble getting into the genre won’t find “Prey,” even on its friendliest setting, to be the game that changes their mind. But console gamers aching for the kind of flight sim typically reserved for PC gamers should embrace this without hesitation, while those on the fence at least can get their feet wet under the game’s more accessible settings.

“Prey’s” single-player component is decent enough in terms of length, though it also suffers from the same glut of mission repetition that hampers most every other dogfighter. There are only so many objectives one can complete from the cockpit of a WWII fighter, and most involve shooting down similar squadrons of enemy planes. Such is how it is. At least the game drops you into different aircraft during different chapters of the campaign, which does make a difference.

On the multiplayer side (16 players, online only), the mode offerings — deathmatch, team deathmatch, two forms of territorial battles — are standard but sufficient. The greatest concern here, as always with this genre, is whether “Prey” can accumulate a community large enough to provide round-the-clock competition. Time will tell.


Defense Grid: The Awakening
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Hidden Path Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language)
Price: $10

The world needs another tower defense game like a turkey needs Thanksgiving, and “Defense Grid: The Awakening” does itself no favors with that vanilla title and reasonably pedestrian art direction. But “Awakening” isn’t just another also-ran: It circled the block last year as a stellar $20 PC game, and the only thing it loses in its migration to Xbox Live is half its original price. “Awakening” doesn’t bend rules or do any fundamental things other tower defense games don’t also do. Rather, the not-quite secret to its success lies simply in how carefully and skillfully it does it. There’s a balance in the tech the game provides versus the enemies it throws at you, and there’s a similar balance in the rhythm of the checkpoint-laden missions, which consistently lift the action to a satisfying zenith without tossing story overboard and carelessly dumping enemies on your head. That story isn’t anything special in its own right, but it’s serviceable, and the charming sentient computer that aids your defense planning provides the game with personality almost immediately. Like most tower defense games, “Awakening” is a solo-only affair. But for all $10 gets you — a surprisingly lengthy story mode and more than 100 challenge levels on the side — the game’s value isn’t even questionable.

DVD 9/15/09: White Night Wedding, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Trumbo, Rumba, Camille, Deadgirl, New DVD on TV roundup II

White Night Wedding (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
It’s only a rehearsal and not the actual wedding, but if Jon’s (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) performance as the groom — leaving his cell phone’s ringer on, taking a call during his vows, air-kissing his 18-years-his-junior bride (Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir as Anna) — is any indication, maybe it’s best to call the whole thing off. Actually, there are quite a few reasons to do that, and “White Night Wedding,” which originally appears to be yet another wacky wedding comedy in the making, isn’t afraid to dissect them frontward and backward as it strives instead to be something else completely. “Wedding” weaves together two separate chronological threads of Jon’s life, dropping enticing allusions about the past in the present track before jumping back in time to fill in the blanks those teases create. As it typically does in any film that’s as mindful of its characters as it is its plot, the trick works. But “Wedding” takes it to its own special level because, even when the story enters darkly serious territory, the film’s quirky, hilarious side never completely extinguishes. By the time we’re all caught up in the present, the sum of all that comedy, tragedy and familiarity makes the sweet moments that much sweeter and the wacky antics that much more genuinely funny. The payoff at the end, a combination of all the moods that preceded it, could scarcely be more fitting or more pleasant. In Icelandic with English subtitles, but vastly worth the read. No extras.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
There are many words one could use to describe “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” But how does “serviceable” sound? Indeed, “Wolverine” takes us back to Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) pre-Wolverine days as an American supersoldier whose tour of duty spans centuries rather than mere years. It also, with varying degrees of thoroughness and competence, touches on the pasts of Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), Blob (Kevin Durand), Kestrel (, Silver Fox (Lynn Collins) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), each of whom had secondary roles or no role at all in the “X-Men” films. Arguments among the faithful continue to rage — particularly with regard to Deadpool’s treatment — as to how badly Fox botched what already was a pretty fleshed-out story in comic book form. But for the rest of us, “Wolverine” amounts to a film that often is pleasant to look at but rarely aspires to be anything a litany of other recent origins-centric comic book films haven’t already been. Jackman’s performance is as expected — this is his fourth rodeo as Wolverine, after all — and the rest of the film just kind of follows suit in adhering to the same old trappings. Fun? Sure. Memorable? Unless you’re irate about Deadpool and can’t unsee what you saw, not really.
Extras: Director commentary, producers commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, anti-smoking PSA.

Trumbo (PG-13, 2007, Magnolia)
A gifted storyteller deserves nothing less than gifted storytelling for his life’s story, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — who wrote “Johnny Got His Gun,” “Spartacus” and “The Brave One,” but who also was blacklisted by Hollywood and thrown in prison during the embarrassing Communist witch hunt of the 1940s — had no shortage of stories to tell. Skeletally speaking, “Trumbo” tells Dalton’s story in chronological order and in straightforward fashion. But while the film does include interview footage with Trumbo (who died in 1976) himself, the vast majority of his firsthand words come channeled through readings by a slate of familiar actors (Paul Giamatti, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson and Donald Sutherland, among others). The readings, shot without backdrops and read as only an actor could, initially flirt hard with pretention. But when it becomes apparent how genuine they are, with real laugher, tears, anger or jubilant acts of latching on to Trumbo’s wit finding their way into the recitations, the concerns (mostly) melt away. And when those words come alive — be they from a letter to the phone company or as part of a speech, piece or loving note from imprisoned father to son — it’s established almost beyond debate that no other delivery would do this life as much justice in its allotted time as this one does.
Extras: Bonus readings, photo gallery.

Rumba (NR, 2008, Koch Lorber)
Fiona (Fiona Gordon) and Dom (Dominique Abel) have at least four things in common: They’re teachers, they’re lovers, they’re weird, and they have a burning (and talent-laden) passion for Latin dance. But that passion takes a devastating blow following a car accident that permanently damages both in separate ways. Tragic, no? Yeah, it probably should be. But “Rumba” kicks off with a series of visual, nearly dialogue-free gags that showed rather than told us just how off-kilter Fiona and Dom were at full capacity, and the car accident merely opens new doors for a new slew of more of the same. Ultimately, it amounts to the best Mr. Bean movie Rowan Atkinson never made. It’s silly beyond logical reason, but it’s amusing and clever enough to make one feel silly for ever worrying about logical reason in the first place. It also, for those who value the little things in comedy as much as the big, blaring things, accomplishes far more in the way of character development than a cursory look at the film’s broader gags would imply. Dance fanatics, however, be warned: Despite the title, the “Dance Extravaganza!” quote on the cover and the pictures of Fiona and Dom dancing on both sides of the box, “Rumba” is more a portrait of love and social deficiency taken to cartoonish extremes than it is of the art of dance. In French with English subtitles, though the dialogue is so sparse that subtitlephobes can watch without too much trouble.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Camille (PG-13, 2007)
Camille (Sienna Miller) and Silas (James Franco) are, in spite of Silas’ bursting reluctance, newlyweds. Or actually, following a bad motorcycle-and-sidecar accident on the highway, maybe they merely were rather than are newlyweds. Or perhaps they never were newlyweds in the first place. Or perhaps your guess is as good as any, because “Camille” sure isn’t going to ever spell it out for you. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The film’s flirtations with complete absurdity notwithstanding, it’s a lean, almost classically-disciplined love story about a hopelessly romantic girl and a coal-hearted guy who nonetheless falls for her and violates the laws of land and possibly nature to try and make her happy (or shut her up). Whether that’s enough, though, will hinge greatly on your tolerance for a film’s ability to tell its story at any cost. That, explicitly, is what “Camille” does, weaving a one-of-a-kind distortion of reality that’s confusing at first and downright contradictory as the minutes tick by. The mess of rule violations at the end allows different people to take different things away from the film, but it’s just as likely to make some throw their hands in the air and wonder what the heck that was they just watched. David Carradine and Scott Glenn also star. No extras.

Deadgirl: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2008, Dark Sky Films)
“Deadgirl” perfectly encapsulates the conundrum of praising a horror film for carving new avenues into the land of the depraved and deranged. The plot — two high school friends (Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan) find a seemingly immortal (and inarguably naked) dead girl (Jenny Spain) in an abandoned hospital — is potentially vile, and what happens next more than fulfills that potential. The two friends are kind of creepy even before the story gets going, and even the character who backs into the protagonist’s role is pretty disturbing when a crazy thing called conscience enters the field of play. Between these and other ingredients that pop up later, there’s nothing much at all about “Deadgirl” that bears liking … except for the film itself, which is supremely gifted at playing out this disturbing confluence events much like selfish high school boys ruled by id probably would. Naturally, and essentially, it’s equally able to convey a full complement of consequences for those impulses before balling the whole mess together for a conclusion that’s as spectacular and revolting as one would hope and/or fear.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, make-up gallery.

Worth a Mention: Yet more TV on DVD
— “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 4” (NR, 2008, Fox): Includes 13 episodes, plus a life performance of “The Nightman Cometh!,” one behind-the-scenes feature and bloopers.
— “Primeval, Vol. 2 (Series 3)” (NR, 2009, BBC): 10 episodes, plus commentary and two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Grey’s Anatomy: Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, ABC): 23 episodes (one extended), plus deleted scenes, 100th episode feature, outtakes and a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Private Practice: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, ABC): 22 episodes (two extended), plus deleted scenes, bloopers and two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Bonanza: The Official First Season: Volume 1” and “Bonanza: The Official First Season: Volume 2” (NR, 1959-60, CBS): 16 episodes per volume, plus different archival interviews, photo galleries and original promotional material for each set.
— “Sanctuary: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2007, E1/Syfy): 13 episodes, plus commentary on every episode, original Webisodes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, photo gallery and a sneak peak at season two.
— “Fear Itself: The Complete First Season: Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2008, Lions Gate): 13 episodes, plus director interviews for each episode and nifty headstone packaging for the collector’s edition. (It bears mentioning, though: There isn’t actually a regular edition.)

Games 9/8/09: The Beatles: Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Must. Eat. Birds.

The Beatles: Rock Band
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
From: Harmonix/MTV/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, tobacco reference)

Guitar Hero 5
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 2
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

On paper, “The Beatles: Rock Band’s” mission could scarcely be simpler.

Fortunately, as it did with the original “Rock Band” — and, once upon a time, the original “Guitar Hero” — Harmonix makes it look every bit as simple in practice.

The upshot is that “Beatles” is explicitly what Beatles fans would wish it to be — the original master recordings of 45 songs, neatly organized over important periods in the band’s lifespan and stuffed out the gills with the imagery that similarly defined each era’s importance and influence. Beyond the new support for three simultaneous singers (which in turn allows for the formation of six-player bands), the game leaves the “Rock Band” formula alone.

Where “Beatles” goes for broke, and scores, is in its inspired dedication to fan service first and everything else second.

Unlike recent “Guitar Hero” games dedicated to one band, the playlist isn’t half Beatles and half other stuff, nor is it presented out of order. The career mode rides the same chronological track as the band’s journey, kicking off in The Cavern Club and culminating with the 1969 Apple Corp rooftops show. The Fab Four makes an inspired transformation into 3D videogame characters, the venues are exquisitely recreated, and the animated imagery that pops up between venues and particularly during the Abbey Road Studios sessions makes the game as sublime to watch as it is to play, particularly since so much of that imagery is out of view when your focus is on actually playing the game and hitting the notes. In terms of presentation and devotion to the subject matter, “Beatles” puts Neversoft’s single-band tributes to shame.

For those who don’t care for the Beatles any more than they do the Monkees, though, Neversoft’s latest may actually be the better of the two games.

For starters, “Guitar Hero 5” isn’t hobbled by its subject matter. Stuff that has no place in a dedicated Beatles tribute — custom character/band creation, support for any combination of four instruments, eight-player online competitive multiplayer, the ability to play as your avatars in the Xbox and Wii versions — fits in just fine here.

Similarly, while the quality of the game’s 85 out-of-box tracks will vary from ear to ear, it’s hard to argue against the value of 40 additional songs for the same price (and less if you’re buying the instruments bundle). The GHStudio mode from last year’s “World Tour” also returns with a significant user-friendliness boost, making it easier for players to record their own instrumentals, download other players’ creations, or just jam for the fun of it in a makeshift recording studio.

In terms of gameplay, “GH5” plays by the same rules as “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” games gone by (“Beatles” included), with the capacity for drop-in/drop-out co-op and the aforementioned support for multiple instrument configurations being the only real noteworthy changes. But “GH5” gets a slight nod over “Beatles” in the note chart department, if only because it supports more difficulty levels and presents a friendlier graduation between each.


Batman: Arkham Asylum
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Rocksteady Studios/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

Good licensed videogames find a way to mold their subject matter so it conforms to whatever established gameplay genre it’s trying to imitate. The bold ones, meanwhile, do the opposite, bending and melting popular gameplay conventions until they do justice to the license rather than the other way around.

“Batman: Arkham Asylum,” to both its benefit and detriment, is one of the boldest licensed games around.

Presentationally speaking, it’s the best game of the year thus far. “Asylum” toes a line between the animated series and the recent, darker films, but it never displays anything less than a spotless understanding of the Batman universe. A good storyline works in tandem with some incredible voice acting (much of it employing the same actors from the animated series), and the game is stuffed with audio and visual storytelling nuggets that overlay the action (a la “Bioshock”) rather than interfere with it. Everything from the character designs to the speedy and stylish map/inventory/menu interface benefits from a superlative level of care.

The rush is similarly pronounced during “Asylum’s” more exciting gameplay moments. The game pulls triple duty as a hand-to-hand brawler (Batman versus unarmed thugs), a stealth game (armed thugs), and a platformer that emphasizes exploration and incorporates some of Batman’s better toys (Grapnel gun, Batarang, explosive foam). In each case, developer Rocksteady has tweaked with well-worn formulas to best accommodate Batman’s particular methods and means.

When these bets pay off, they do so magnificently. The brawling segments, which punish mindless button mashing in favor of nuanced, rhythmic attacks, absolutely sing under the right conditions. And when the game gives players room to freely employ both Batman’s toys and his Detective Vision — a breakthrough on-the-fly interface shift that overlays the screen with a wealth of information but never feels excessively gamey in doing so — the exploration and stealth missions are a treat. Without spoiling anything, “Asylum” also cleverly incorporates some of Batman’s familiar arch nemeses in a handful of one-of-a-kind encounters that further diversify its gameplay offerings.

But between these moments, “Asylum” has a tendency to lose its way. Fights turn into logjams when the screen fills with too many thugs and contrived fight conditions get in the way. Stealth missions fall prey to contrivances of their own, with inconsistent enemy intelligence and the occasional forced story mechanic changing established rules of engagement from one encounter to the next. And while it makes sense within the context of that awesome storyline, all the backtracking through old environments can be a considerable drag late in the game.

“Asylum’s” good moments nonetheless outnumber its bad ones, and with the exception of a few truly aggravating fights and backtracking expeditions, the weak stuff gets a lift from all that other stuff the game continually does right from start to finish. Totaled up, “Asylum” easily stands alone as the best Batman video game ever made, and its best ideas should influence numerous games that appear in the years ahead.


Must. Eat. Birds.
For: iPhone and iPod Touch
From: Mediatonic
iTunes Music Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

In the mercilessly crowded field of iPhone games, costing a dollar no longer is enough to capture the public’s attention. But a bizarre visual presentation never goes out of style, and “Must. Eat. Birds.” is as gifted in that respect as they come. “M.E.B.’s” basic concept is pretty simple: You’re a monster with cake, and an army of parachuting birds wants your cake, so you must launch yourself into the air with a slingshot (pull back with your finger, pick an angle and fire) and eat the birds before they eat your cake. The actual gameplay — bits of which will remind players of everything from “Bust-a-Move” to “Missile Command” to a mini-game on the Nintendo DS version of “Super Mario 64” — is neither intricate nor revolutionary. But it’s functional and fun, and it works in tandem with a thoroughly enjoyable flat-shaded visual style that’s soaked with bright colors and terrifically funny character designs for protector and invaders alike. The cheerful look and sound make “M.E.B.” a great game to fire up and play when an instant good mood is in order, and Mediatonic only helps the experience by padding it with a challenge mode, a mission mode, unlockable achievements and online leaderboard support.

DVD 9/8/09: Important Things with Demetri Martin S1, Crank 2: High Voltage, Good Dick, Parks and Recreation S1, Worst Week, New DVD on TV roundup

Important Things with Demetri Martin: Season One (NR, 2009, Comedy Central)
If you’ve seen Demetri Martin’s live act or his 2007 comedy special, you already know how edgy his act — one part cutely hilarious jokes, one part folksy musical number, a sketch comedy portion that literally incorporates sketch paper and magic markers — is not. But funny is funny, and Martin is really funny. “Important Things with Demetri Martin” essentially repackages his standup approach in 22-minute episode form, with each themed episode taking on such hot-button topics as chairs, safety, timing and coolness. In that respect, “Things” feels almost like an educational children’s show that lost interest in educating children somewhere along the path between conception and completion. It’s a format that serve’s Martin’s delivery rather perfectly, too. The dorkily dry delivery and random nature of the humor leave “Things” helplessly prone to the occasional gag that simply does not land. But that same spastic randomness always ensures a better gag is only seconds away, and despite the thoroughly odd nature of the whole production, “Things” hits a whole lot more often than it misses.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus commentary, deleted sketches, a free tiny poster (that’s what it’s called) and a sticker.

Crank 2: High Voltage (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
Not for one ounce of one minute does “Crank 2: High Voltage” — which finds returning hero Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) and his time-limited mechanical heart in hot pursuit of the criminals who stole his real, invincible heart — strive for sensibility. But to merely call it farcical or illogical is to do the film a serious injustice, because “Voltage” very deliberately aspires for devices far beyond simple exaggeration. The acting is purposely, ridiculously unfiltered. The fight, chase and otherwise unclassifiable action scenes — and “Voltage” consists of four and a half minutes of action for every 30 seconds of attempted storytelling — are deliriously silly, particularly when working in tandem with all that maniacal acting. Attempts to inject back story are gloriously fulfilled through any number of completely random forays into mixed media, and even the film’s occasional need for a subtitle results in some preposterous splattering of screen-sized type instead of the usual polite use of the bottom fifth of the screen. The whole thing is a mess, but it’s a controlled mess, because “Voltage” knows what it wants to do and it just goes and does it without compromise. For that reason, it’s also a wildly fun time, though movie snobs are strongly advised to steer clear. Amy Smart, Dwight Yoakam, Efren Ramirez, Reno Wilson and Keone Young all reprise their roles.
Extras: Writers/directors commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Good Dick (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
“Good Dick” may as well be in act three once we’re invited to the party: As soon as it starts, we’re waist-deep in an awkward dance between an unnamed, socially damaged video store clerk (Jason Ritter) who lives in his car and the even more socially damaged customer (Marianna Palka, who also wrote and directed) who holes up in her apartment, steps out only to borrow a stack of videos each night, and somehow captures the imagination of our clerk despite saying only the requisite amount of words needed to complete each night’s transaction. “Dick,” for its part, stumbles around just as awkwardly, laboring under an early fog of melancholy before opting for dry comedy and ultimately settling, like most movies about romance do, for some amalgamation of the two. But like its characters, “Dick” also conceives a strange level of attraction in spite of its awkward ways. Our two not-quite heroes are likeable in spite of each having so many overtly off-putting traits, and when they can’t carry things, a consistently well-written script and a handful of strong supporting characters (Martin Starr, Eric Edelstein, Mark Webber and Tom Arnold) are there to pick up the slack.
Extras: Sundance Film Festival premiere footage, bloopers.

Parks and Recreation: Season One (NR, 2009, NBC Universal)
“Parks and Recreation” comes to us courtesy of some of the same comic minds behind “The Office,” and it shows — though not always for the right reasons. The same not-quite-mockumentary approach from “The Office” is on display here, with “Recreation” instead chronicling the small-time trials and tribulations of a very small-time wing of local government looking to convert a giant pit of nothingness into a park. Similarly prevalent is the amount of fodder that’s ripe for humor, and as “Recreation’s” episodes tick by, the show demonstrates an increased ability to mine that material for gold. But just as “The Office” got off to rocky beginnings, so does “Recreation,” which undergoes familiar difficulties as it scrambles to flesh out its characters, construct a season-long story arc, and continually make us laugh all at once. Something has to give, and early on, it’s the laughs that pay the highest price. Fortunately, as the later episodes attest, those payments aren’t in vain. Season two very likely will be “Recreation’s” real coming-out party, but this abbreviated season has its moments and makes for a nice introduction. Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, Paul Schneider, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt star.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus commentary, an extended cut of the season finale and deleted scenes.

Worst Week: The Complete Series (NR, 2008, NBC Universal)
NBC probably wasn’t banking on “Worst Week” being a one season-and-done series, but the early demise likely was for the best for all involved. “Week” is the stateside answer to the British sitcom “The Worst Week of My Life,” and the premise is roughly the same: Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), who is set to marry Melanie (Erinn Hayes) in the very near future, must survive the week ahead without destroying everything in his path (himself included), endangering his future in-laws (Nancy Lenehan and Kurtwood Smith) and torpedoing his marriage before it even begins. The idea worked the first time around because, like most British sitcoms, each of “Life’s” two seven-episode seasons was short enough to accommodate the gimmick without dragging it out. “Week,” on the other hand, has 16 episodes to fill, and the only reason it doesn’t have more is because viewers rightly lost interest in witnessing what essentially is the same formula — Sam means well, screws up, tries to right his wrong, screws up again — repeated ad nauseam. Imagine “Meet the Parents” as a six-hour film with weaker characters and no De Niro, and you have an idea how “Week” ended up. It has its moments, and it ultimately does provide a steady stream of light, mindless amusement, but it’s hard to imagine where, if anywhere, the show could have gone from here.
Contents: 16 episodes, plus commentary.

Worth a Mention: More TV on DVD edition
— “Fringe: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2008, Warner Bros.): 20 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, production diary, bloopers and a Gene the Cow montage.
— “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): Seven episodes, plus five behind-the-scenes features.
— “The Office: Season Five” (NR, 2008, NBC Universal): 26 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, 100 episode retrospective, bloopers, Webisodes and an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences feature.
— “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, ABC): 24 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers, two behind-the-scenes features and two retrospectives.

Games 9/1/09: Spectrobes Origins, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, Shadow Complex

Spectrobes Origins
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Genki/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The debut of “Spectrobes” on the Nintendo DS was an auspicious anomaly — a game intricate enough to merit its 80-page manual, yet one so recognizant of those intricacies that the whole experience was startlingly accessible. Its mix of depth and user-friendliness was so pleasantly enjoyable, in fact, that it was able to draw inspiration from Nintendo’s “Pokémon” games while simultaneously engaging players who typically would want nothing to do with them.

“Spectrobes Origins,” by contrast, ships with a nine-page manual, but that merely is a testament to its ability to adapt itself to the platform rather than any sign that it’s dumbed itself down. “Origins” thoughtfully transfers the DS game’s chief ingredients to the Wii, employing smart but modest motion controls and using the increased screen real estate to integrate the instruction manual into the game’s opening hours.

It can be overwhelming at first, because even without taking the storyline and “Spectrobes” lore into consideration, “Origins” has much ground to cover. The game will fill in the narrative blanks, but the objective is (as with “Pokémon”) to discover, raise and eventually employ Spectrobe creatures in battles against an invading army of enemy Krawl creatures.

The chief difference is that in “Origins,” those battles take place in real time instead of through turn-based play. The Wii remote’s buttons handle your human character’s combat, while a series of adequate motion controls allow you to order your Spectrobe to fight, retreat and target one particular enemy while you work on another. Party management comes down to little more than switching out Spectrobes and keeping yourself healthy, but the no-frills approach nicely complements the battles’ fast speed and brief nature.

Especially fun is “Origins'” capacity for drop-in/drop-out local co-op, which allows a second player to control the Spectrobe directly. The game’s camera occasionally struggles to frame both players when the fight spreads out, but the small quirk does little to diminish the fun of taking the game on with another person in tow.

Where “Origins” gets a little bolder — and where it nails the motion controls — is in its intricate system for intervening at every stage of a Spectrobe’s evolution, from fossil excavation to incubation to training to using them in battle (or, the case of child Spectrobes, search expeditions.)

For the most part, “Origins” handles these tasks through interfaces similar to what we’ve all seen in some form before.

But the game’s fossil excavation mode, in which you use tools to break apart a fossil that’s encasing a living Spectrobe organism, is, as it was on the DS, more fun than it has any right to be. The Wii remote perfectly mimics the tools at your disposal (a hammer, a drill and a laser, to name a few) and the liberating nature of the task — excavate the organism quickly and safely, but do it however you please — does wonders not only for immersion, but for instantly creating a meaningful relationship between players and the creatures they rescue.


Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level-5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference, mild violence)

The most surprising thing about “Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box” might be the fact that it’s here and ready for public consumption. Nintendo of America has been uncommonly quiet about the game, stealthily unveiling its existence a few months ago and keeping similarly quiet in the run-up to its arrival on shelves.

The hushed tones somewhat make sense, because really, what is there to say? For those who played “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” last year, “Box” is explicitly more of the same — a new storyline, three digits’ worth of new brainteasers to solve, but otherwise a nearly-identical game in terms of graphics, music, presentation, interface and philosophy.

For those less familiar, “Box” is, in a nutshell, a collection of genuinely smart riddles — the stuff of which brainteaser books and bar tricks are made — packaged inside a charming story that benefits from a level of care (hand-drawn animated cut-scenes, terrific voice acting, a compelling storyline) typically reserved for action and role-playing games. “Box” presents itself somewhat as a point-and-click adventure game, only with self-contained brainteasers as the barriers one must overcome to complete the story.

As with “Village,” the riddles in “Box” are startlingly diverse both in the way you maneuver through them and in how they tax your brain. The game’s optional hint system, along with its allowance for players to pick different paths through the game, permit the riddles to approach a satisfying, rewarding level of challenge without creating a situation where a single, overwhelmingly difficult puzzle could completely impede one’s progress. The complete absence of time limits also removes any need to resort to guesswork, which in turn lets players approach the game’s puzzles as methodically as they would if those puzzles were in a rainy day book instead of a video game.

Totaled up, “Box’s” mix of challenge and concession is an extremely impressive demonstration of how to make a game that not only perfectly understands its intended audience, but remains completely accessible to all without intellectually neutering the riddles that make it so unique in the first place.

“Village” understood this philosophy so distinctively well the first time around that it’d almost be a shame if “Box” tried to be anything more than a retread with new content. A new story, and the 150 or so new puzzles it brings with it, are more than enough to command the $30 asking price even (perhaps especially) for those who wrung the first game completely dry. (As it did the first time around, Nintendo and Level-5 will sweeten the deal by regularly releasing additional puzzles for free download over Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection.)


Shadow Complex
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Chair Entertainment/Epic
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence, mild language)
Price: $15

Someone, eventually, was bound to create a two-dimensional “Super Metroid” facsimile using modern technology, but that someone was supposed to be Nintendo. Instead, Chair Entertainment takes the initiative, crafting a tactical espionage game that stars you as an everyman, mostly uses plausible real-world guns and environments but still, for all intents and purposes, plays like a classic “Metroid” game. It works, and rather beautifully, because Chair — which openly and refreshingly copped to “Metroid’s” influence — did its homework. “Shadow Complex,” like “Metroid,” consists of a single open-world environment, and accessing certain areas requires you to first find powerups and weapons that pave the way. (Surprise!) The concept isn’t fresh, nor is the storyline. But “Complex’s” level design is no slouch by “Metroid’s” lofty standards, and those modern amenities — essentially high-definition 3D graphics and animated presented from a 2D perspective — make it the most polished of its kind as well. Best of all, Chair has designed “Complex” in such a way that — again, like “Metroid” — there are tangible incentives for playing through it multiple times. If the asking price seemed high at the outset, it feels like a bargain after your third or fourth trip through.