Games 10/12/10: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, NBA Jam, Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ninja Theory/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

Gaming’s 2010 holiday season is fueled almost entirely by sequels to and remakes of games you’ve already played, so the mere air of mystery surrounding the brand-new “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West” makes its presence welcome by default.

Fortunately, “Enslaved” wholly earns that welcome by telling a fresh story, telling it well, and backing it up with continuously great third-person action.

“Enslaved” stars players as Monkey, a prisoner who escaped a crashing prison ship only to become subservient to another escapee, Trip, who planted a device on Monkey that forces him to obey orders and help Trip return home alive. (The story, in addition to boasting outstanding voice acting and exceptional character and environmental details, pretty capably makes surprising sense of the details behind Monkey’s predicament.)

In case you’re worried: No, this isn’t one long escort mission that requires players to keep a useless sidekick alive. “Enslaved’s” levels occasionally ask players to help Trip safely navigate difficult terrain, but these instances usually play out via well-designed environmental puzzles or very quick combat challenges. And in addition to capably following a few commands (run, distract, heal) and flashing smart A.I., Trip usually can fend for herself when necessary.

Freed from babysitting duty, Monkey proves quite capable himself. “Enslaved’s” core action is a cross between third-person brawling and platforming in the “Uncharted” vein. Fights in wide-open fields against gun-toting mechs borrow tricks from cover-based shooters, and a hoverboard-like device lets Monkey freely surf around certain levels at high speeds.

What elevates all these familiar elements into something unique is the stuff “Enslaved” does with presentation and momentum. Monkey doesn’t stop on a dime when players stop running: Momentum carries him a half-step further, and the camera takes a few additional steps before snapping back. Though jarring and counterintuitive at first, the loose physics allow for more fluid movements in battle and a more exciting presentation of those movements. It doesn’t sound like much, and it has to be experience to be fully understood, but it’s enough to light a noticeable fire under what otherwise is a familiar stable of gameplay staples.

(Worth noting: These ticks don’t apply to climbing, which uses a “sticky” system, a la “Prince of Persia,” that allows players to dart from platform to platform without slowing down for precision’s sake.)

Everything “Enslaved” tries — brawling, climbing, puzzle solving, infiltration, escorting, even a little shooting and more — it does capably at worst and brilliantly at best, and the game does a nice job of rotating those pieces so as to prevent any of them from overstaying their welcome.

This alone would make this an easy game to recommend, but “Enslaved’s” ability to tell a wholly original story with so much care absolutely clinches it. Monkey and Trip are much stronger characters than their original archetypes first imply, and “Enslaved’s” world — a post-apocalyptic America that trades in the usual grey wasteland for a beautifully mossed version of New York City, among other locales — is a treasure trove of engrossing unknowns as well as a feast for the eyes.

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NBA Jam
Reviewed for: Wii
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The tenets of “NBA Jam” never completely disappeared, because “NBA Street” and its ilk offered comparable arcade basketball experiences in the meantime.

But “Jam’s” soul — cartoony players, cheat codes, announcer Tim Kitzrow screaming, “He’s on Fire!” — is as essential to the experience as the game itself, and that soul’s complete return to form after 16 years is what makes this comeback so blissfully welcome.

“Jam” plays now as it did then — entirely too shallow to be confused with “NBA 2K11,” but too dizzyingly fast for that shallowness to matter. Dunks still reign over jumpers, turbo-fueled breakaways remain unstoppable, and shoving players to steal the ball is allowable under a ruleset that cries foul only at brazen goaltending.

Experienced “Jam” players should feel comfortable fairly quickly with the available control schemes, though because this is the Wii, there naturally are some caveats.

“Jam’s” default control scheme finds most commands mapped to the Wii remote and nunchuck in predictable ways. But shooting, dunking and blocking all fall to the remote’s gesture controls, with players flicking upward to jump and downward to finish the action. “Jam” recognizes the gestures flawlessly, and “slamming” the remote to dunk is terrific fun, but don’t be surprised if your brain tricks you into flicking and blocking when you intend to press B to steal. The discrepancy fades away with practice, but it’s jarring initially.

“Jam’s” other schemes are similarly dependable and similarly imperfect. The classic controller support feels more natural at first with the right stick handling shooting and blocking duties, but the clumsiness of having to tether the controller to a Wii remote is, while not the game’s fault, awkward nonetheless. Holding the remote sideways like an NES controller allows players to play like it’s 1994 again, but the D-pad lacks the mobility afforded by a joystick. Those aching for a caveat-free control scheme — to say nothing of online play, which this version doesn’t support — might wish to hold out for “Jam’s” upcoming Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 incarnations.

But even accounting for the control oddities, this is like going home again. In addition to playing like it always has, “Jam” also just feels right. The visual presentation certainly benefits from 16 years of advancements, but player faces remain hilariously digitized, creating a look that’s a delightfully weird mix of high- and low-budget presentation values. Kitzrow doesn’t miss a beat in his resumption of announcing duties, and everything from the menu presentation to the hidden surprises (big head mode, playable politicians) is back like it never left.

The best way to experience “Jam” remains a two-on-two game with three other friends in the same room, but the most pleasant surprise about this incarnation is how much it offers (online play excepted) to those playing alone.

The traditional campaign, in which players conquer 36 real and fantasy teams in succession, returns. But “Jam” introduces a terrific new Remix campaign, which has players climbing a more open-ended mountain while playing some very inspired basketball variants that employ power-ups, half-court gameplay and every-player-for-himself mentalities. A game-wide achievements system offers another layer of challenges to complete, and knocking out those achievements unlocks a bounty of classic players and other famous faces. Why wait until 2012 when unlockable Palin and Obama characters can settle their differences right here?

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Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Twisted Pixel
ESRB Rating: Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

“Comic Jumper’s” premise — washed-up superhero Captain Smiley must assist other characters in their comic books before he can star in his own
again — is funny, and it allows the game to regularly change its art style and spoof numerous comic book genres throughout Smiley’s quest for redemption. “Jumper” further piles on the humor with some strange live-action cutscenes, a handful of ridiculous theme songs, and a sidekick whose only talent is antagonizing Smiley (and, by extension, you). But funny turns to obnoxious in a hurry when a game plays as poorly as this one does. Most of “Jumper” resembles a bad “Contra” knockoff, with Smiley moving from left to right while shooting the same enemies ad infinitum with some seriously weak firearms. A handful of segments switch the viewpoint to behind Smiley’s back, with players controlling a targeting reticule that precedes the invention of the first-person shooter. A few mercifully short segments focus on absurdly simplistic hand-to-hand combat. Overwhelmingly, “Jumper’s” action feels either painfully rote (the same enemies continually attacking in the same patterns) or cheap and antagonizing (floods of enemies taking advantage of the Smiley’s lousy mobility while the game’s voice acting continually and gratingly reminds you of your declining health). Rarely is it fun, and rarely is the humor — which itself beats the same jokes to death after a while — worth the hassle.