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.

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Spyborgs
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?

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Skee-Ball
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.