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.

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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.

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Wet
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.