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.