Games 10/27/09: Borderlands, Afrika, Forza Motorsport 3, Axel & Pixel

Borderlands
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)

If “Fallout 3” represented the courtship phase in the inevitable marriage of role-playing games and first-person shooters, then “Borderlands” marks the co-habitation period. There are some messy revelations that weren’t apparent before and will need addressing in the future, but for right now, the net effect is pretty nice.

The changing tide is apparent almost immediately: Following a brief storyline introduction that doubles as a tutorial, “Borderlands” drops you into a gameplay flow that’s more indicative of a massively multiplayer RPG than a first-person shooter. Different spots on the map post missions, and you’re free to simultaneously take on as many as are available. A few of them trigger storyline advancements, but most (even those central to the story) offer little more than some dialogue text inside the mission info screen.

“Borderlands” lets you experience the story alone, with up to three friends online or via LAN, with a friend via splitscreen, or any combination of the three at any point, and the storyline structure remains consistent regardless. The game isn’t lacking for personality: The frontier setting is home to some wonderfully seedy characters and a darkly funny sense of humor, and the cel-shaded graphical style looks terrific and lends a great sense of irony to all the dark inhumanity it paints in vivid color. But those searching for some engaging storytelling will find no such thing.

The real goal here — in true MMO or “Diablo” fashion — is to kill nearly everything that moves, rack up experience points and level up your character so he or she has access to the game’s ridiculous assortment of armaments and mods. “Borderlands” absolutely nails the leveling system: The character class upgrades are endlessly useful, the weaponry mods often wonderfully clever. And because weapon upgrades apply to entire classes of guns rather than specific weapons, you can apply them liberally without fear of wasting cash or having to stick with old weapons when better ones come along.

Better ones do come along, too — and often. In true “Diablo” fashion, “Borderlands” goes absolutely crazy with just about every first-person shooter weapon staple, mixing and matching fire modes and gifting rarer guns with powers that typically are the domain of superheroes. Precious few games can entice a player to ditch a rocket launcher in favor of a pistol that packs more punch, but “Borderlands” can and regularly does — until, of course, an even crazier rocket launcher comes along.

All of this and more lies in store … eventually. The sum total of “Borderlands'” main and side quests amount to a massively long adventure, and the first five or so hours of that experience have you fighting waves of scags (think giant rats) and dimwitted barbarians who lack any artificial intelligence whatsoever. It’s dull with friends, and it’s even worse alone. Just keep at it: The A.I. never reaches Mensa country, but it does improve exponentially, working in tandem with all those perks and weapons to make “Borderlands” a much more enthralling shooter than it first appears to be.

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Afrika
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony/Natsume
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild blood, mild violence)

There are two Africas in the video game world — the one, seen in “Far Cry 2,” in which every living being is a hostile target, and now this one, where the only thing you shoot is photographs.

If you can appreciate the unique skill set that comes with that activity — and, just as importantly, put up with a slow start and some presentational issues — this isn’t a bad place to be.

It’s best to start with what ills “Afrika,” because the game dishes it straight away. “Afrika’s” long development cycle is well-documented, and the game shares markings — a mandatory install procedure, an enormous save file that takes forever to access — indicative of games from the console’s early days. Even with the installation, though, “Afrika” succumbs to an enormously long load time every time it first boots up.

All signs point to inefficient coding: “Afrika” still looks great but no longer drops jaws like it did during its 2006 unveiling, and there’s nothing so flashy about the presentation (which lacks even voice acting) to justify these issues.

But these amount to the game’s most pressing problems. And once you begin the act of actually playing “Afrika,” they really don’t register.

Your virtual e-mail is your master in “Afrika,” and from it you’ll receive assignments to shoot animals from specific angles and during specific acts and poses. Completing each assignment consists of getting the shot your clients want, but your payout depends on how good the shot looks in terms of proximity and technique.

“Afrika’s” restrictive early going has you riding in the back of the Jeep rather than driving it yourself, and your guide dictates which areas you can shoot. It takes a few sessions before the game doles out more than one assignment at a time, which means you’ll ride out, complete one objective, ride back and repeat a few times.

This, presumably, is a good time to get to know “Afrika’s” control scheme, which is hampered only by the lack of an invert-Y option for those who want one.

The camera controls are straightforward — sticks control aim and zoom, R1 shoots — and responsive enough to handle quick bursts of shots. (In a nice touch, turning the controller sideways does the same for the camera lens, allowing you to shoot vertically.) Action outside the first-person viewfinder takes place in the third person: You can walk freely around the environment, and the D-pad allows for crouching and leaning as needed to sneak an ideal shot.

Once the game takes the kid gloves off and hands you the keys to the Jeep and the kingdom, the experience lives up to the promise. “Afrika’s” virtual world feels dynamic and alive thanks to the animals’ eerily authentic behavioral animations, and the lack of artistic restriction (especially once you upgrade your equipment) frees you to shoot at your leisure whether on assignment or not. “Afrika” lets you export your favorite shots as JPEG files from the main menu, so you can enjoy and share your virtual photograhic exploits just as you would your real ones.

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Forza Motorsport 3
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

The best thing one could hope for from “Forza Motorsport 3” is that it makes its predecessor look like a dress rehearsal by comparison. Pixel-perfect racing sims don’t have the freedom to reinvent themselves at will the way arcade racers can, and a huge chunk of “FM3” — the real-world cars (now more than 400 from 50 manufacturers), the real-world tracks (more than 100), and the things you can do with those cars on those tracks — offers about as much creative liberty to Turn 10 Studios as the game of football allows to any given iteration of “Madden.”

It doesn’t help matters that “Forza Motorsport 2,” released little more than two years ago, already was something of a stroke of brilliance in its own right.

With all that said, Turn 10 does a nice job — albeit a mostly risk-free one — of making “FM3” both a roundly better experience for those who ran its predecessor ragged and a considerably friendlier one for the those intrigued by the game’s content but intimidated by its learning curve.

At its highest difficulty settings, “FM3” is as much a beast as ever, and the new in-car view presents a whole new (and wholly rewarding) difficulty curve for “Forza” pros to climb.

But the other end of the difficulty pendulum is brimming with hand-holding enticements — an effective suite of turn lines and physics assists, but also a rewind button players can use as they please to literally rewind part of a race and correct a mistake on the fly and without limit nor consequence. The rewind button feels like a dirt-under-the-carpet solution to “Forza’s” imposing difficulty to newcomers, but those who want nothing to do with it can disable it and pretend it never existed. “FM3,” for its part, rewards players who race at higher difficulty settings with more experience points and monetary compensation whenever they complete a race in the season mode.

Speaking of, “FM3” undergoes a welcome single-player makeover by designing your seasonal race schedule around your vehicle preferences rather than obligating you to compete in races that force you to stock your garage with cars you may not want. The game’s personalization options are as vast as they were in “FM2,” which became more famous for its design tools than its on-track component, and it’s nice to be able to stick with a favorite car and continue tweaking and tuning it for the entirety of the mode’s lifespan. (For the amateurs, good news: “FM3” has a Quick Upgrade option if you want some say in your car’s performance but don’t wish to delve too deep into the particulars.)

“FM2’s” suite of online features — traditional races, non-traditional races, and especially the ability to “sell” designs for in-game cash — was its crown jewel, and “FM3” doesn’t mess with perfection. Designers now have a sales leaderboard of their own, which is a simple but ingenious nod to that movement, and a pretty extensive rules editor allows players to rather explicitly design races around criteria of their choosing.

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Axel & Pixel
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Silver Wish/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, crude humor)
Price: $10

We’re waist-deep in a 2D gaming renaissance that has seen character animation reach Disneyesque levels, so it’s an ironic kind of pleasant to experience “Axel & Pixel,” which magnificently bucks that trend by acting as if the 1970s never ended. “Pixel” operates primarily as a point-and-click adventure game, and it follows the rules of the genre — explore the scene and figure out what objects and cause-and-effect relationships will get Axel and his trusty dog Pixel to the next area — pretty faithfully. The control scheme and cursor design feel tuned to accommodate a gamepad, making the lack of a mouse a non-issue, and occasionally “Pixel” interrupts the storyline with a more action-heavy mini-game that uses the controller to full effect. (Three of the mini-games are playable as standalone modes with additional levels and leaderboards, and one of them — a physics-heavy dune buggy platformer — arguably is the best part of the entire package.) The sum of these parts would be nice in any clothing, but “Pixel” knocks it out of the charm park by taking two very likable leads and dressing their world in a visual and animation style that feels like a product of the same pen Terry Gilliam used for all those wonderful “Monty Python” animations. It’s weird, but it works, and it elevates “Pixel” from just another fun point-and-click adventure to a class all its own.