DVD 11/30/10: Yes Virginia, Spot's Magical Christmas, The Search for Santa Paws, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black

Yes, Virginia (NR, 2009, New Video)
Santa Claus (allegedly) is not real, and newspapers should never, ever print assertions they know to be untrue. But for one special day in 1897 New York City, both rules bowed down to a greater good. The story of Virginia O’Hanlon — who, in the face of growing doubt about Santa’s existence, sent a letter to the editor of the venerably trustworthy New York Sun and asked him to set the record straight — is a true story, and the spirited response the editor printed alongside her letter in the paper is a cherished piece of American history. Like the children’s book, which provided the inspiration for the character designs, the computer-animated “Yes, Virginia” lets the true story be the star. Some creative liberty is taken, but the film leaves the central tale, and the real people who made it really happen, as it found them. “Virginia’s” design, animation and voice acting are handled with terrific care, and the chord it strikes between cynicism and sweetness gives it an likable authenticity most Christmas specials try but fail to achieve. Beatrice Miller, Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alfred Molina and Michael Buscemi, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: A making-of feature that should not be overlooked. The story of how the filmmakers found Miller, the voice of Virginia, arguably rivals the true story behind the film itself. Also: Director commentary, kid cast commentary.

Spot’s Magical Christmas (NR, 1995, BBC)
It’s doesn’t get much purer than this. In “Spot’s Magical Christmas,” Spot (a talking dog) and his parents (also talking dogs) are getting ready for Christmas when they’re visited by two of Santa’s reindeers, who took Santa’s sleigh out for a test drive and subsequently lost it. Never one not to be helpful, Spot enlists his animal friends and, in between the occasional sled ride and snowball fight, sets out to find the sleigh and save Christmas for all. The outcome of “Christmas” is never in peril, because everything about Spot, his friends and his adventure is pleasantly even-keeled and sweet. And because that sweetness never veers into preachiness or any other form of messaging, the pleasantness is contagious. “Christmas” looks like a watercolored children’s storybook in motion — no surprise, because it’s also a book — and the quaint presentation and straightforward storytelling make no bones about this being a sweet Christmas story for kids. But if you’re in need of some no-strings-attached holiday escapism, there’s no age restriction for enjoying this.
Extras: Animated short “Spot’s Winter Sports,” two DVD games.

The Search for Santa Paws (G, 2010, Disney)
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Disney has continually parlayed “Air Bud’s” talking live action dog technology into 13 years of movies about dogs becoming sports stars, astronauts and, now, Santa’s best friend. In “The Search for Santa Paws,” Santa (Richard Riehle) visits New York to pay respect to a toy shop owner who passed away and left the shop to grandson James (John Ducey), an accountant from Los Angeles who isn’t ready to drop everything and move. A turn of events leaves Santa with amnesia, Paws the dog gets separated from him, and the task of gluing everything back together falls to two orphans (Kaitlyn Maher and Madison Pettis) who are fleeing their own version of Miss Hannigan (Wendi McLendon-Covey). On paper, it sounds like a dreary mess. But among a few other surprising displays of savvy, “Paws” avoids the kid movie mistake of reducing all the adults to rotten imbeciles. (Even James, whom a lazier movie would immediately relegate to soulless jerk duty, comes off as a good person with understandable reservations.) All of this may not matter to “Paws'” intended audience, who may only care about rooting for Paws and his friends to save Christmas. But if you’re a parent who must endure the glut of insultingly simplistic kids movies that reduce every character to a stereotype, take solace in knowing that “Paws,” hit-you-over-the-head transparent though it often is, tries a little harder. It’s silly, completely unbelievable and terribly cloying, but the sweetness at least feels genuine.
Extras: Interactive pop-up storybook, sing-along track, deleted scenes, music video.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (NR, 2009, Fox)
Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: If you’re easily offended or cannot find humor in humanity’s darkly childish, selfish and/or stupid side “A Very Sunny Christmas” is every bit as ill a fit for your DVD player as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is for your television. But a funny thing happens when “Philadelphia’s” cast of imbeciles (Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Rob McElhenney) and its appetite for absurd storylines and reckless self-disregard in the name of comedy collides with the Christmas spirit: It feels strangely right. “Christmas” is developed like (and, at 43 minutes, runs no longer than) a typical episode of the show, and the prospect of paying full DVD price for one episode and a few extras doesn’t scream “value” no matter how good that episode is. But as special Christmas episodes go, “Christmas” — which finds the gang amending for Christmas traditions that, in some cases, weren’t so much traditions as criminal lies told by awful parents — is very funny, tailored perfectly to its cast, and, in its own juvenile way, surprisingly in tune with the holiday spirit. And if there’s any doubt about “Philadelphia’s” understanding of its audience, a great scene starring the Simon toy and Omnibot should put it firmly to rest.
Extras: Four Paddy’s Irish Pub coasters, deleted scenes featuring Young Charlie and Young Mac, behind-the-scenes feature, a Sunny Christmas Sing-along.

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (NR, 2002, Universal)
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” — or even “The Muppets Take Manhattan” — this is not. The premise of “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” is an obvious play on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Kermit, facing the loss of the Muppet Theater to slimy creditors and developers, imagining what the lives of his fellow Muppets would be like without him. The inclusion of developers and talk of lawyers isn’t exactly out of left field in a “Muppets” movie, which has never shied away from painting less-than-idyllic pictures of whatever plight the Muppets face. But even with this taken into account, there is a depressing level of calculated cynicism in “Christmas.” The Muppets occasionally get brief opportunities to be their silly selves, and some of the offhand send-ups of other Christmas movies are great. But when it isn’t wasting time shoehorning pop culture references (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, reality TV, a mock Crocodile Hunter) that completely rob it of any sense of timelessness, “Christmas” paints the world with strokes so completely soulless that even the inevitable happy ending can’t wash them away. Jim Henson put the Muppets in similarly dire straits without losing sight of what makes their universe its own creation, and unless your idea of a good Muppets Christmas special includes Muppet go-go dancers, criminals and “Fear Factor” characters, skip this and hope the heirs of Henson’s imagination never fumble it this badly again.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, nine-song Christmas soundtrack CD.

Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black (NR, 2009, History Channel)
The formerly edgy act of bad-mouthing the holidays has been practiced so frequently in recent years that it’s practically as quaint as the act of enjoying them. The stale odor is especially pungent in “Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black,” which purports to be a primer on how to enjoy the month-plus-long season without going insane in the process. But “Holidays” doesn’t attempt to r
ationalize with the holiday juggernaut so much as give a group of celebrities and comedians a forum in which to complain about every facet — even the mostly harmless ones — of its existence. What did dreidels, Thanksgiving dinner and sitting on Santa’s lap (the mockery of which “A Christmas Story” perfected with far more subtlety 27 years ago) do to deserve this? “Holidays” slightly redeems itself (and slightly justifies its distinction as a History Channel product) by opening the panel to some authors and historians, who explain the origins and myths behind many of the traditions. But their time is sorely limited by the overwhelming train of spoiled, miserable people trying to convert their dislike of everything into jokes you’ve heard a thousand times already. If you want to survive the holidays, don’t put yourself in a hole by watching this first.
Extra: Unaired footage.

Games 11/30/10: Create, Gran Turismo 5, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Spelunker HD

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows, Macintosh
From: EA Bright Light Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

For whatever reason — and the title sure doesn’t help — “Create” has been perceived as a genre rival to “LittleBigPlanet,” a 2D platformer that allowed players to design and share their own levels and has a sequel coming in January that lets people design entire games across a multitude of genres. “Create” doesn’t do that, which naturally makes it sound sorely overmatched.

But “Create” doesn’t do that because it isn’t designed to do that. Rather, this is “The Incredible Machine” for the modern era — a series of simple problems in need of complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque solutions, with a nice helping of physics and other contemporary amenities to freshen up a beloved but long-neglected video game concept.

“Create’s” cheerfully colorful exterior marks it as a game that wants to appeal to all ages, and its first hour — which meticulously introduces the concept and interface through a series of extremely easy problem-solving challenges — might raise some alarms. The interface tutorial is appreciated, because “Create’s” pop-up menu system most definitely requires a period of acclimation before it feels natural. But the extreme ease of the early challenges is enough to ignite concern that this might be nothing more than a “Machine” imitator that’s afraid to challenge people.

Don’t worry; it gets better. “Create” gradually introduces challenges that award players based on their ability to solve multiple objectives or complete a single objective with style or by using as few objects as possible. Every completed challenge introduces new objects into the sandbox, and eventually, those objects introduce new physical properties (magnetism, for instance), combine to form more complex objects (two wheels plus a girder equals a makeshift car), and introduce properties that are harder to predict (a pinball bumper) or come alive in ways that must be harnessed toward completing the goal (rockets, missile-firing tanks). The puzzles reflect the increased complexity through increasingly weird objectives with more variables in play, and “Create” starts handing out some really good brainteasers halfway through the second (of 10) zone.

Though the pop-up menu system isn’t the most streamlined of interfaces (tip: use the D-Pad to rotate and resize the objects, even if that’s never communicated in the tutorial), navigating through “Create” is a mostly pleasant experience. The game makes trial and error a frustration-free endeavor, allowing players to test a solution at any time during its construction and instantly sending them back to the edit screen with a single button press and no loading. A weird but oddly enjoyable decorating component lets armchair designers dress up different zones just for the heck of it, and players can drop objects into each zone (and even the title screen) and freely test their properties toward whatever purpose they please.

That last touch of experimental freedom leads into the one page “Create” borrows — and borrows well — from the “LittleBigPlanet” playbook: challenge creation and sharing. Players can devise their own problems using the existing zones or a free-play sandbox, and as long as the problem has a workable solution, they can upload it and share it with friends, strangers or both. Players also can share solutions to the game’s built-in levels and even redecoration blueprints, and a Community Challenge feature tasks players with submitting creative contraptions according to a theme in hopes of getting their design in the game’s Hall of Fame. The online features work flawlessly, and provided “Create” develops its deserved following, they should give the game some very long legs going forward.

(Note: These online features aren’t available in the Wii version.)


Gran Turismo 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Polyphony Digital/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Years of delays in the supposed name of perfection have elevated “Gran Turismo 5” to a legendary status it never really earned. Polyphony Digital’s all-world driving simulation franchise is marked as much by stubbornness as it is by obsessiveness, and if you’re surprised that the latest entrant hasn’t evolved like it probably should have, it’s your own fault.

That isn’t a blanket indictment of “GT5’s” quality so much as a reminder that Polyphony’s baby plays by its own rules even when it bends to convention. The overdue introduction of vehicle damage ranges from invisible to ineffectual. The menu interface, particularly when sorting through different events with different entrance requirements, is supremely user-unfriendly. And the artificial intelligence remains oxymoronic, with A.I.-controlled cars following a predefined path and reacting to players only when the laws of physics make it impossible not to.

The obsessive attention to detail also takes a hit when the boasting gets broken down. Yes, there are 1,000 cars in “GT5’s” garage, but 18 of them are different versions of the Mazda RX-7, and 41 more are Nissan Skylines. And while the top 200 of those cars are meticulously recreated, the remaining 800 are less impressive, with exterior ornaments textured in and engine sounds and interiors that aren’t necessarily authentic. Car fanatics likely can appreciate the differences between different years of the same model, but casual players may wonder why they unlocked yet another Toyota Celica — or why, even though the game looks phenomenal when a race is in motion, some cars just look “off” when sitting idle.

But here’s that reminder again: “GT5” is aimed squarely at people who dearly love cars — to the degree that laboriously sorting through the parameters of seemingly indistinguishable vehicles is a cherished feature instead of a chore — and it holds no concern for those who come away feeling alienated by the labyrinth of menus, nitpicks and unintuitive progress roadblocks that await.

For that first crowd, though, there is a ton of content here. The A-Spec Mode houses all the cups and traditional career progression, while B-Spec lets players try their hand at coaching instead of driving. The License Test challenges return, but in a series first, “GT5” ties every mode into a single, persistent experience system that lets players go straight to entering cups without having to pass any license tests first.

The Special Events mode is “GT5’s” most interesting new feature, as it sends players into challenges designed around go karting, NASCAR, rally racing and even the “Top Gear” test track. The game’s attention to detail with regard to each discipline’s unique physics and demands is really impressive, but the event designs (sometimes you get races, other times some absurdly strict tests) are hit and miss.

“GT5” also brings the series fully online for the first time, though this, by Polyphony’s own admission, remains a work in progress. Some light social networking features allow friends to gift each other cars and post messages to each other’s walls, and the lobby system lets players set up races by whatever rules they prefer. But other promised features such as matchmaking aren’t yet present, and some heavy network traffic has made accessing the game’s servers a game of chance so far. When everything is up and running, though, the actual act of racing online is a pretty smooth one.


Donkey Kong Country Returns
For: Wii
From: Retro Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

If you played any of the three “Donkey Kong Country” games on the Super NES during the mid-1990s, the surface of the aptly-named “Donkey Kong Country Returns” should look exactly as you envision it would.

Superficially, it’s a natural evolution. The “DKC” trilogy produced three of the better sidescrolling action games on the SNES, and while the faux-3D graphics have aged, the games still play well. “Returns” puts 15 years of graphical and technological advancements to good use: Everything is modeled in real 3D despite the mostly two-dimensional perspective, and the levels can twist around and play with space in ways those old games couldn’t possibly do. But the core action — running, jumping, ground-pounding, barrel blasting and even riding the mine cart and Rambi the rhino — hasn’t changed.

Though a little more risk-taking wouldn’t have hurt, “Returns” at least does the next best thing by putting those familiar ideas to some pretty clever use in environments that, thanks to technology, are much livelier than their SNES counterparts. Some stretches of action operate on dual planes of perspective, and levels frequently feature outside forces (a trigger-happy pirate ship, a ridable whale, lava geysers) that change the tenor of the action without introducing new controls or gimmicks. Every level has hidden rooms with bonus collectables, and “Returns” rewards the truly ambitious by unlocking fiendishly difficult bonus levels in each world in which players find everything.

Finding all those bonuses is by no means an easy task. In fact, simply seeing “Returns” to its conclusion wouldn’t be a guarantee if Nintendo hadn’t included an optional feature that allows the overwhelmed to “skip” levels by letting the computer finish up for them. For all the right reasons, this is a tough game that, true to its predecessors, demands real skill from its players and only holds hands as a last, slightly demoralizing resort.

But “Returns” is challenging for the wrong reasons too. Mid-level checkpoints are often placed in strange spots, requiring players to replay simple, lengthy stretches of certain levels just to get back to the tricky part that tripped them up. Sometimes, those checkpoints outfit players with Diddy Kong, who rides on Donkey’s back, wears a jetpack that makes jumping easier, and gives players two extra life bars. But sometimes it doesn’t, and players have to replay those stretches without him and hope Donkey’s two bars and regular jump are enough.

But the game’s worst offense is its wedging of motion controls where they don’t belong. Players shake the Wii remote to make Donkey Kong roll forward, bash the ground or blow, and the game determines which action to execute based on whether Donkey Kong is standing still, ducking or moving. But sometimes Donkey Kong’s momentum keeps him moving after players stop moving him, and that’s enough for a remote shake to send him rolling off a cliff instead of bonking the enemy in front of him. In a game as frantic as this, that’s a “mistake” you will make, and considering how many buttons go unused, it’s a mind-boggling oversight that adds unneeded aggravation to a game that’s tricky enough already.

That “Returns” remains worth playing in spite of these aggravations is a testament to all it does right versus all it does wrong. And you need not suffer alone: “Returns” offers two-player local co-op play, though it doesn’t address the disparity between the player who gets to control Diddy’s jetpack and the one who is stuck with Donkey’s plain-jane jump.


Spelunker HD
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Tozai/Irem
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

Not everybody played “Spelunker” when it debuted on the NES in 1987, but those who did have a special remembrance of the cave-dwelling platforming game that was fiendishly, unforgivingly difficult from its very first minute. “Spelunker HD” swaps in a cute new look and gives the iconic (for “Spelunker” fans, anyway) music a jazzy makeover. But while the ability to save progress takes a little of the edge off, the absurd lack of forgiveness is exactly as it was 23 years ago, and it isn’t there by accident or because the developers don’t recognize how cruel it can be. Instead of striving for accessibility and pleading for wider appeal, “Spelunker HD” feels like a joyous celebration of “Spelunker’s” difficulty, and for fans and conquerers of that nasty old game, the spotless return to that world is supremely fulfilling. “Spelunker HD” instead modernizes itself in other, better ways: There are 100 new levels (the original game had six, to put that number into perspective), and the game now allows up to four (splitscreen) or six (online) players to share the same cavern as they work together or complete to collect the most treasure. The new look and sound nicely toe the line between contemporary and deferential, but “Spelunker HD” lets players opt for the original music and graphical style (retrofitted new environments and all) if they prefer to suffer like it’s 1987.

DVD 11/23/10: The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The Expendables, Luther, Deadland, The Six Million Dollar Man Complete Collection, Deadwood CS

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Barely a word is spoken during the first 10 minutes of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” which finds two kidnappers (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston) plotting for and eventually converting on the abduction of a millionaire’s daughter (Gemma Arterton as Alice). The silent treatment is handled beautifully, and it provides a clinic on how to effectively develop two characters without saying anything. So it’s quite a testament to what happens next that the story shines even brighter when everybody starts talking. “Creed,” like any good suspense story, has more in store than is initially apparent, and like any great suspense story, it revels in the timeless device of a simple plan that inevitably enters a tailspin. But all these twists and surprises wouldn’t be nearly so interesting were it not for the awesome job “Creed” does of giving all three of its characters a personality that goes way beyond their situations and roles. The undercurrent of unease in the plan is due to the general uneasiness of those entangled in it, and “Creed’s” attention to character detail from start to finish turns its every moment into a engrossing guessing game regarding who will do what next.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes.

The Expendables (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
It goes nearly without saying that “The Expendables” — a movie renowned for its explosively meatheaded cast (Sylvester Stallone, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Steve Austin and more) and not its story — is 100 minutes of mostly dumb fun. But let’s not pretend that’s not an achievement. “The Expendables'” plot is so jumbled as to give incoherence a bad name, which is to be expected when the task of explaining it falls to two actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis) who appear in exactly one scene and spend as much time making self-conscious winks as they do explaining anything. The movie also feels a need to cram in extensive back stories for some (though not all) characters, and with all that and a mission going on, the wheels never even get on long enough to come off. But movies like “The Expendables” come out almost every week — mostly straight to video — and most of them achieve the same level of incoherence without having any fun doing so. “The Expendables,” by contrast, has a ball. The popularity of the cast is no accident, and when you have this much charisma firing everywhere — to say nothing of the liberal deployment of punches, kicks, knives, bullets, vehicles and stuff that makes other stuff explode — it almost doesn’t matter that the script turns a simple coup into a story that’s as lucid as the Unabomber manifesto. The only unforgivable sin? Crews, the most charismatic member of the whole cast, is entirely underutilized, though he at least makes sure to steal almost every scene in which he appears.
Extras: Stallone commentary, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, marketing gallery.

Luther (NR, 2010, BBC)
It takes something special to stand out amongst the glut of cop shows on television today, and with the likes of Dexter, Mackey and McNulty already passing through, even a morally dubious cop has to spice up his methods to break new ground. On the surface, John Luther (Idris Elba) doesn’t do that: The opening minutes of “Luther” find him making a choice that will suspend him for seven months and crater his marriage to Zoe (Indira Varma), but it’s nothing the aforementioned rogues haven’t done before and worse. But while “Luther” initially follows familiar roads in its depiction of its titular character, it pretty quickly carves some new ones with its construction of the world around him. The show’s six episodes trot out a hall of fame’s worth of demons and deranged criminals — one of whom (Ruth Wilson) sticks around for the duration — and rather than play down the absurdity of so much depravity happening in such a tight timeframe, “Luther” bear-hugs it with the kind of character dramatizations and verbal face-offs one typically finds in the theater rather than on television. It’s rarely preferable for a show to tell rather than show, but “Luther’s” love affair with words — and the deeply satisfying story arc that plays out as result — makes this a brilliant exception to that rule.
Contents: Six episodes, plus a lengthy behind-the-scenes feature.

Deadland (R, 2009, Phase 4 Films)
Before you assume, let’s clear the air: Whatever the title implies, this isn’t another zombie movie. Rather, the “dead” in “Deadland” really does refer to the land, which has been decimated by World War III and an ensuing plague that has reduced the United States to an assemblage of provinces scrambling for a cure. But Sean (Gary Weeks) isn’t concerned with the new world order so much as he is with navigating it to find his wife (Emily-Grace Murray as Katie), whose whereabouts have been unknown for five years. The catch? When the bombs went off, the couple was headed toward a separation, and it isn’t clear whether Katie even wants to be found. “Deadland’s” world isn’t totally unfamiliar to the post-nuclear playbook: There are factions operating by their own laws, and the sick and weak have been relegated to second-class status by those violent enough to enforce the distinction. But even with all the familiar decorations, “Deadland” succeeds because it ultimately and overwhelmingly is about Sean and not his predicament. The movie uses flashbacks to his pre-war life to great effect, borrowing details from that world to give importance to pieces of this one, and it takes just another post-apocalyptic story and makes it personal. That doesn’t completely free it from the bounds of cliche, but it definitely sets it apart in a genre plagued by imitators.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection” (NR, 1974, Time Life): Sometimes, it takes much longer than it should for a television show to make its DVD debut. Occasionally — and this is one of those occasions — the wait is worth it. Much as it did with “Get Smart” a few years back, Time Life has made “The Six Million Dollar Man’s” DVD coming-out party one to remember, housing 40 DVDs inside an awesome gift box that, through the magic of lenticular technology, plays a faux-video of a faster, stronger Steve Austin sprinting on one side of the box. It also plays the famous “we have the technology” clip whenever the box is opened. All five seasons (comprising 100 episodes) are included in individual packages, and a sixth case includes five discs’ worth of bonus content. Those extras, along with extras attached to each season set, include three reunion movies, new (and old) interviews, a ton of behind-the-scenes features, commentary, individual season retrospectives and broadcast versions of all three pilot TV movies.
— “Deadwood: The Complete Series (NR, 2004, HBO): The wait hasn’t been nearly as rough for “Deadwood” fans, who already have seen the show come to DVD in complete series and individual season formats. But if you’ve been waiting for the Blu-ray edition (or if you just really value your shelf space), this Blu-ray set — which houses all 36 episodes and 13 discs in a case that’s no thicker than a typical season box — is good news nonetheless. Extras include a retrospective on the series’ abrupt conclusion and cast/crew interviews, plus all extras (commentary, behind-the-scenes features, interviews) from the previously-released season sets.

Games 11/23/10: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Sonic Colors, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)

Don’t be fooled by the quick turnaround, spinoff-like title or emphasis on multiplayer. “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” is, in every respect but its packaging, a full-blown and fully worthy sequel to last year’s “Assassin’s Creed II.”

Ubisoft made such hay about “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer that the unsuspecting might mistakingly think it’s the game’s main dish. Turns out, it isn’t.

But the hay is justified. Backed by its own side story, “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer stars players as test assassins, and the goal of a typical match is to assassinate another player while eluding the player (or, in team play, group) whose assignment is to assassinate you.

The multiplayer maps are populated with A.I. people, some of whom closely resemble players’ character models, and the game leaves players free to decide how to attack, elude and hide in plain sight. The freedom to employ stealth tactics — and, in the process, attempt to fool other players by mimicking computer-controlled characters — adds a brilliant layer of psychology to what otherwise are traditional rules of multiplayer engagement. Players who traditionally are slow on the trigger can still rule a match by out-scheming their less observant adversaries.

“Brotherhood” implements a terrific experience points system that rewards players for making savvy kills, and those who level up receive access to new tricks that open the door to even more elaborate plots. All tallied up, it’s a terrifically original slant on multiplayer, with a great rewards system to match.

And it’s merely a companion piece to one of the year’s best single-player games.

“Brotherhood” resumes the intertwining stories of Desmond Miles (present day) and Ezio Auditore da Firenze (16th Century Italy) exactly where “AC2” left them, and the game’s first twist finds Desmond heading to the present-day incarnation of Ezio’s Villa while, in the 16th Century, Ezio watches it fall into ruin as he flees to Rome.

The new setting marks the first time a “Creed” game has taken place almost entirely in a single city, but “Brotherhood” more than compensates by making Rome monstrously large, freely explorable and loaded with mandatory and elective missions that increase in variety as the story advances. Chipping away at the Borgia’s rule allows Ezio to increase his influence, take the reigns of Rome’s economy and, eventually, assemble an uprising of assassins to take down the overlords for good.

The Assassin’s Guild is the most significant change to the “Creed” storyline formula, and it’s a surprisingly welcome one. “Brotherhood” lets players manage recruited assassins in a menu system that makes it easy to level them up and send them on missions across Europe, and the ratio of engagement to user-friendliness makes for a fun investment that never diverts too much attention from the primary gameplay.

The real treat, though, comes from being able to call those assassins into battle whenever they aren’t away on assignment. Ezio can fight alongside them or use them to flank or distract enemies while he hones in on the primary target, and while an excessive reliance on the assassins can get them killed, “Brotherhood” leaves players free to deploy them when and how they please.

“Brotherhoods'” storyline matches “AC2’s” in terms of length and importance in the timeline, and while Desmond doesn’t get as much face time as he did in “AC2,” players finally get a chance to control him for a meaningful length of time. Both characters’ lives take major turns in the final act, too, so if you loved “AC2” and plan to play “Assassin’s Creed III,” this seemingly innocuous offshoot is not to be overlooked.


Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Criterion/DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

“Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” finds the creators of “Burnout” not only playing in another racing franchise’s yard for the first time, but finds them refreshing what arguably was that series’ finest hour.

Predictably, compromises have been made in the rebooted “Hot Pursuit,” with facets from both brands now sharing the same road.

But the compromise doesn’t feel like a compromise so much as the best of two very good worlds. Like a typical “Need for Speed” game, “Pursuit” comes loaded with real, licensed cars from the likes of Porsche, Lamorghini and Pagani. The on-track action, particularly once the fastest car class is unlocked, is as blistering as a typical “Burnout” game, and the crashes and takedowns are every bit as spectacular. But the weightiness of the cars (and their subsequent ability to withstand more damage without crashing) feels more like “Need for Speed.”

The choices made between speed, weight and durability are of no trivial importance to “Pursuit,” which gets its name by letting players play from both sides of a nasty highway battle between street racers and cops (who, wonderfully, have access to police cruisers that are as exotically branded as what the racers drive).

“Pursuit’s” single-player component divides its events between both sides, and in a move that will dishearten anyone who enjoys “Need for Speed’s” B-movie storytelling, it opts for the “Burnout” approach of just letting players jump into events without narrative provocation.

Some of those events — too many, in fact — are racing game staples. Street races and time trials are prevalent on the street racing side, while the cop side has duels against racers and a time trial variant that also prioritizes mistake-free driving.

The game’s speed and polish make all these events perfectly fun, but they still pale in comparison to Hot Pursuit mode, which pit a squad of cops against a sextet of street racers who, in addition to taking on the cops, are competing with each another to win the race.

“Pursuit” spices up the mode — which is available online (eight players) as well as in the single-player portion — by providing both sides some tools of sabotage (spike strips, roadblocks, EMPs, radar jammers, even a police helicopter) that add a nice layer of strategy to the mayhem. But with or without those tricks, the freewheeling chaos of the mode, and how perfectly it meshes legitimate racing with combat and dual layers of competition, easily stands alone as the game’s hallmark feature. “Pursuit’s” single-player component regularly offers new Hot Pursuit events to play, but not nearly as many as it should have in relation to all those other modes that can be found in just about any street racing game.

In lieu of a storyline, “Pursuit’s” flashy interface award instead goes to the Autolog, a game-wide social networking system that allows players to post messages and photos, see how their event times stack up against friends’ times, get alerts when friends beat their times and, of course, instigate online competitions. The omnipresent (but never intrusive) nature of the Autolog makes it a terrific benefit for those who have friends also playing the game, but for those who don’t, this comes at the expense of global leaderboards. It would’ve been nice if “Pursuit” had an optional (if less functionally impressive) global or regional Autolog that allowed those who lack the friends to still have a cut of the experience.


< strong>Sonic Colors
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Someone at Sonic Team finally received the memo stating that Sonic the Hedgehog’s adventures would be better off without the towns, humans, exploratory levels, werewolf transformations, cars, guns and every other misfit idea the studio has tried to implement since the series went 3D 11 years ago. They also read that memo, which is why “Sonic Colors” cuts the fat, lets Sonic be Sonic, and emerges as his best three-dimensional outing ever.

At the same time, parts of that memo appear to have been smudged, because “Colors,” for all its improvements, still has some familiar aggravations that may, even in the face of fresh goodwill, ruin whatever plans you had to enjoy the game.

But first, the good news: “Colors” marks a return to franchise purity, with Sonic sprinting from end to end, collecting rings, jumping into enemies, and using the usual contraptions to blow through levels while avoiding spikes, bottomless pits and other traps. There’s a story, but it stays surprisingly on point, and it doesn’t require Sonic and friends to engage in any weird extracurricular activities that bring the action to a painful crawl.

The only real gimmick “Colors” has is the scattering of alien creatures who, in return for Sonic’s attempts to liberate them, give Sonic the ability to briefly transform into (among other forms) a rocket, laser beam or obstacle-devouring force of nature. But these transformations are ingrained into the core game, and they don’t disrupt the action so much as give it an occasional, temporary dose of variety.

Perhaps the best news about “Colors” is that, finally, Sonic Team has figured out how to frame a 3D “Sonic” game. The camera zooms further out than in the past, and the game takes the reigns to continually keep it trained on Sonic in ways that make sense. Compared to the schizophrenic cameras of “Sonic” games’ past, and how thoroughly they could sabotage player progress, this alone makes “Colors” the best 3D “Sonic” game of all time.

But while the born-again camera may finally be blameless for players’ failings, the loose controls are as guilty as ever. “Colors'” levels are full of spots that demand precise platforming, but Sonic’s footing is slippery, his jump is limp, his double jump is both weak and unwieldy, and the completely unpredictable effects of his dash maneuver make it totally unreliable when a long jump toward a short platform is in order. Some of “Colors'” later stages would be beasts even if Sonic had Super Mario’s nimbleness, and they come off as cheap when they demand ballet from a character who couldn’t tiptoe down a grocery store aisle without knocking something over. Gaming masochists will love it, and they’ll appreciate the way “Colors” encourages multiple playthroughs by grading performance and dangling special collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but regular players might find the will to continue totally sapped after a string of cheap deaths.

“Colors” takes place inside an amusement park, and its appetite for bright colors and lights makes it a visual feast. The game supports numerous input styles — remote, nunchuck, classic/Gamecube controllers — and even lets players play as their Mii in a handful of special challenge levels. Those challenge levels also let two players play simultaneously, but while co-op “Sonic” is a novel idea, the action is a little too haphazard for this to capture the same lightning “New Super Mario Bros.” bottled last year.


Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

After 27 years of playing it safe with spinoffs, retreads and cameos, Namco blew the doors off the barn with a true sequel, “Pac-Man Championship Edition,” that rewrote the “Pac-Man” script without changing the tenants that made it the most popular video game ever made. “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” takes that blueprint, refines it, and douses it with sprinkles. The base game has changed: Mazes now crawl with dozens of ghosts instead of four, but all but a few rogue ghosts will follow Pac-Man in formation, making their movements easy to predict. “DX” counters the crowded mazes by giving Pac-Man a limited-use bomb to briefly clear his path, and it sends the action into a very brief fit of slow motion whenever Pac heads toward peril. Such lifesavers sound like game-breakers on paper, but they quickly become indispensable once it becomes apparent just how ridiculously fast the game gets as players increase their score. (Happily, “DX’s” outstanding control responsiveness never loses a step even when the speed is out of control.) “DX” increase the maze design count from two to 10, lets players dress those mazes in multiple audiovisual styles, and adds new free play, ghost combo and time trial modes. The only downside: The achievements/trophies are entirely too easy to unlock this time, and while every mode of every maze gets its own leaderboard, there’s no at-a-glance way to see how you stack up against your friends.

DVD 11/16/10: Best Worst Movie: The Story Behind Troll 2, Exam, The Extra Man, Metropia, The Kids are All Right, Doctor Who S5, WWII: The Essential Collection, Scholastic Storybook Treasures Treasury 2, Metalocalypse S3

Best Worst Movie: The Story Behind Troll 2 (NR, 2009, Docurama)
If you’ve seen “Troll 2,” the sheer awfulness of everything about it — the acting, the storytelling, the sets, the props, the fact that it shares absolutely no relation to the original “Troll” — may need no introduction. The good news is that if you haven’t, “Best Worst Movie” is only slightly less of a riot to watch. Directed by Michael Stephenson — who played the little kid in “Troll 2,” and whose acting dreams died when he watched a VHS copy of the movie he received one Christmas morning — “BWM” not only touches base with many of the people responsible for the film’s creation, but rolls camera as those folks encounter a cult fan uprising that arranges nationwide screenings and meet-ups dedicated to celebrating the movie’s awfulness. As should be expected, some of the offenders — particularly George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father in the film — revel in the attention, while others either embrace it reluctantly, look at it sideways or outright reject the notion that “Troll 2” isn’t great. The charge both sides get from the complete unlikelihood of it all is terrific fun to watch, and the stories everyone tells — be it of career destruction, the perils of being on that set or the thrill of being part of a movie, even if it’s the worst one of all time — is a complete validation of why people make movies in the first place.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bonus interviews, filmmaker Q&A, fan contributions, a special message from Goblin Queen Deborah Reed.

Exam (NR, 2009, MPI)
Some jobs are more prestigious than others, which is why eight hopefuls have agreed to gather in a dingy room for the next 80 minutes and take a test that has only one question and a few rules. The catch? None of them knows what the question even is, to say nothing of how to answer it, and asking the guard who’s watching them is against one of those rules. The good news? They’re free to work together to figure it out, even though it means fraternizing with the competition. How’s that for a job interview? If “Exam” sounds like a “Saw” deviant, in which participants must make impossible decisions toward an uncertain end, that’s exactly what it is. But while “Saw” is an elaborate excuse to torture some jerks, this is legitimate suspense that trades blood for smart, genuine psychological intrigue. The best part? Even when things inevitably get ugly, “Exam” has an answer to the obvious question: With nothing at stake but a job, why would eight otherwise brilliant people ever let a simple quiz get out of control? Without spoiling, “Exam” has an answer, and on top of being a good twist, it’s a pretty convincing explanation. No extras.

The Extra Man (R, 2010, Magnolia)
A combination of lingerie, a teacher’s lounge and horrendous timing has resulted in unemployment for teacher Louis Ives (Paul Dano), who takes advantage of the dismissal to move to Manhattan and find himself. Unfortunately, what he finds instead, while looking for a roommate, is Henry (Kevin Kline), a fellow teacher who dabbles in light gigolo behavior despite having views on sexuality that “are to the right of the Pope” (his words), and whose eccentric behavior and disposition would make most other eccentrics either jealous or uncomfortable. And then there’s Gershon (John C. Reilly), who is easier to just witness than explain. That isn’t entirely a compliment, either. “The Extra Man” is anchored by three great actors who very clearly are enjoying themselves, and the clever script has some very amusing quirks and quips (see the Pope comment above) from all three. But when you look at the big picture and take away the eccentricities, little else remains. “Man” rides comfortably for a while on its weirdness, and it never fully loses its ability to entertain. But a sinking feeling creeps in when, roughly halfway through, the possibility emerges that the circus of quirks is all “Man” has to cover up what otherwise is a pretty empty story. More than not, the second half merely validates that worry. Katie Holmes also stars.
Extras: Commentary with Kline and Jonathan Ames (who wrote the book on which the film is based), deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Metropia (NR, 2009, Tribeca Film/New Video)
One could spend an entire review’s worth of words trying, without success, to describe “Metropia’s” unusual animation technique. The characters are part caricature, with enlarged heads and slightly disproportioned faces sitting atop malnourished bodies. But those faces are composed from what looks like a marriage of 3D modeling and static photography run through a filter, creating a stilted animation style that’s kind of unsettling. “Metropia’s” desaturated colors and effectively creepy visual presentation certainly matche the tone of its story, which finds Europe running out of resources and its citizens succumbing to a corporation that runs a massive underground transit network and enjoys a strange level of control over people who use the network. The look, and the way it drives the tone of everything around it, easily is the movie’s best asset, and the revelation of how that control spreads is really clever. But without that creepy look, most of “Metropia” would amount to little more than a stock story about half-dead people sleepwalking through a life of grime and corporate control. There’s no shortage of material in that realm, but a few clever ideas aside,”Metropia” seems pretty content to explore the same general themes most of its contemporaries also take on. It’s worth seeing anyway, thanks to that bizarre look, but the unused potential is every bit as visible.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, premiere footage.

The Kids are All Right (R, 2010, Focus/Universal)
“The Kids are All Right” is your prototypical family-of-four drama, albeit with two moms (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) instead of a mom and dad. But fear not: This isn’t 1995, and “Kids” doesn’t attempt to coast on the novelty of a lesbian couple raising two teenagers (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as Joni and Laser, respectively) and making a pretty successful go as a normal suburban family. The wrench, instead, falls to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the semi-anonymous donor whose sperm was used to conceive Joni and Laser. The teens try to track him down for curiosity fulfillment’s sake, Paul has no issues with being found, and when he walks into the family’s life, all that familial normalcy — including bottled-up spousal resentment and teenagers being teenagers — gets an overdue shakeup. In other words, “Kids” is your typical family drama. Unique arrangement or not, “Kids” doesn’t rewrite the playbook at any point in its storytelling, which wrestles with dreariness as often as it flirts with comedy, and one has to wonder if a longing to achieve perfect normalcy kept it from letting any one of its characters really break out from the rest of the crowd. If it did, that’s too bad. “Kids” hits many of the customary notes — smart, thoughtful, delicately developed — a good script should, but the dulled edges do it a disservice.
Extras: Director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Worth a Mention
— “Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series” (NR, 2010, BBC): See, that wasn’t so bad. The fifth season of the rebooted “Doctor Who” began not only with a new doctor (Matt Smith) stepping in for the very popular David Tennant, but with series creator Russell Davies handing the creative reigns over to Steven Moffat. But while the transition wasn’t entirely painless, and while the trickle-down from the new regime let to other tonal or stylistic changes that naturally infuriated portions of an extremely vocal fanbase, the pillars of “Who’s” first four seasons are all over season five. The writing is as versatile as it is clever — cr
edibly grim one episode, joyous fun the next — and the storytelling and character design are among the most thoughtful in contemporary sci-fi. Tennant/Davies are nowhere near forgotten, but seeing a new duo strive to uphold that duo’s standards of excellence is a new kind of inspiring. Includes 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a three-part video diary, 13 behind-the-scenes “Doctor Who Confidential” features, outtakes and three art cards.
— “WWII: The Essential Collection” (NR, History Channel): Three very highly decorated World War II documentary miniseries — “The World at War,” “Victory at Sea” and “The Century of Warfare” — come together in this 56-hour, 22-disc set. Extras include making-of features, bonus segments, additional interviews, photo galleries and episode introductions from Peter Graves in “Sea.” “World at War,” which has the biggest footprint in the set at 11 discs, also makes its Blu-ray debut this week.
— “Scholastic Storybook Treasures: Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics 2” (NR, Scholastic): Just as it did for volume one, Scholastic compiles 100 of its renowned children’s stories into an 17-disc box set that spans more than 19 hours. Selections include “Corduroy,” “Ralph S. Mouse” and “My Senator and Me: A Dog’s Eye View of Washington, D.C.”
— “Metalocalypse: Season III: The Dead Man” (NR, 2009, Adult Swim): Dethklok’s fortress, Mordhaus, lies in ruin, and Ofdensen appears to have perished in his heroic attempt to protect it. And if you think that sounds scary, wait until you see the horrors our once-fearless heroes face when they look their own mortality, to say nothing of their bank balance, in the eye. Includes 10 episodes, plus extended scenes, Klokateer recruitment videos and a Murderface dance sequence. (Note: If you didn’t understand every third word in this description, best to start from the first season. This is one of Adult Swim’s more consistently good newer shows, so it’s a worthwhile endeavor.)

Games 11/16/10: Goldeneye 007, Kinect Sports, MotionSports, Fighters Uncaged, The Fight: Lights Out, Superstars V8 Racing

Goldeneye 007
For: Wii
From: Eurocom/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

We’ve seen classic first-person shooters get reissues with slightly sharper graphics and slightly modernized controls. But “Goldeneye 007” represents the first time a publisher has brought a cherished shooter through the nostalgia wall and fully into the present, and the result is an extraordinary mix of old and new that feels startlingly fresh.

For starters, let’s be clear: This isn’t a simple cleaning up of the classic Nintendo 64 game. The new “Goldeneye” is a new game that adds new layers to the storyline (now starring Daniel Craig instead of Pierce Brosnan), parlays those layers into new environments, and uses the old set pieces as inspiration for new mission designs rather than for purposes of copying and pasting. Modern amenities — destructible environments, regenerating health on lower difficulties, the customary visual improvements and all they bring — make their presence felt, but its the way the game spins revered levels into new experiences that shines brighter.

At the same time, “Goldeneye” does not forsake its roots. Dispatching enemies stealthily — a game-changer back in 1997 — remains fun in 2010, in no small part because of “Goldeneye’s” immense gun selection and multilayered level design. But at no point does “Goldeneye” punish players who would prefer to recklessly run, gun and punch their way through. Most modern shooters do, and “Goldeneye’s” ability to retain its old-fashioned values while modernizing most everything else is perhaps its most impressive achievement. Other little touches — neutralized enemies fade away here the same way they did out of technical necessity on the N64 — provide undeniable winks without running interference on players who have no connection to the original game.

Technically speaking, “Goldeneye” looks good for a Wii game and certainly covers its bases in terms of controls. The remote/nunchuck combination works terrifically, very rarely confusing the need to adjust the gun’s aim with the need to turn, and the game includes a variant that caters to the Wii Zapper accessory. But those who want to play “Goldeneye” a little more traditionally (albeit with dual sticks, something the N64 lacked) can use the Classic or Gamecube controllers to do so.

“Goldeneye’s” campaign runs roughly twice as long as most of its contemporaries — a nod, intentional or not, to the days when first-person shooters prioritized length and elaborate level design over cutscenes and corridors.

But “Goldeneye’s” legendary status was built on the back of its multiplayer, and Eurocom’s successful replication of that will ultimately define this game as well.

True to form, “Goldeneye” includes four-player splitscreen, and the playable characters (Oddjob, Jaws, Julius No), modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, Golden Gun) and modifiers (melee only, tiny players, paintball, invisibility) return from the original.

But “Goldeneye’s” online multiplayer (eight players) elevates this to the arguable top of the Wii’s first-person shooter heap. The lack of voice chat support for Nintendo’s neglected Wii Speak peripheral is disappointing, and the welcome ability to form four-player parties is still hampered on the ground floor by Nintendo’s clumsy friend code system. But players who want to just jump in and play some lag-free online “Goldeneye” finally can do so, and Eurocom rewards those who do with an experience points system that doles out better weapons and gadgets as players level up. Online multiplayer also takes advantage of the higher player count to add some new modes centered around team and objective-based play.


Kinect Sports
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild violence)

Time will tell just how capable Kinect is as a full-body motion control device, but one thing is clear right now: No matter how good the hardware is, it always will bow at the mercy of its software.

Witness, for instance, the six sports (soccer, football, horseback riding, hang glinding, boxing, skiing) of “MotionSports,” which takes those sports and mostly doles them out in pieces. The soccer section has penalty kick and goaltending minigames, for instance, while the football section has challenges that test passing, running and kicking, but neither provides anything close to a replication of the full sport.

The bite-sized portions wouldn’t be such a big deal if “MotionSports” didn’t bog itself down in load screens and multiple menu tiers every time players complete or even attempt to just restart a minigame. Players will spend as much time waiting as they will playing because of how inelegant the interface is.

But the real problem with the simple games is that they should be able to handle their undemanding tasks far better than they do. Kicking a soccer ball or football is literally hit or miss, with the game regularly ignoring kicks and, if players take one step back too many, stopping the action entirely. The passing game offers no sense of control whatsoever, while boxing and horse riding feel as laggy and gesture-dependent as a bad Wii game from three years ago. Skiing and hang gliding work better, but they’re also the least demanding games, asking players to perform soft motions or simply lean instead of do anything intensive. The experience they provide over playing with a standard controller is negligible.

Perhaps we could blame the system and not “MotionSports” if its counterpart didn’t profoundly shame it, but that’s exactly what “Kinect Sports” does.

For starters, “Kinect Sports” presents more complete recreations of its offerings (soccer, beach volleyball, table tennis, bowling, boxing and five track and field events). Only soccer feels at all abstract, because players only pass, kick and block, but it’s still a regulation game of soccer instead of a tray of samples.

More than that, though, the games just work like they should. Boxing provides full fist control instead of just recognizing a few gestures, and while table tennis and bowling initially feel awkward due to there being nothing to physically hold, their abilities to recognize speed and spin quickly make playing them second nature. Volleyball easily differentiates between bumps, sets, spikes and even different types of serves, and the absence of lag makes it easy to execute outstanding long jumps and javelin throws without fouling or compromising the approach. “Kinect Sports” offers a tutorial for each sport, but it didn’t need to, and there’s no better testament to its flexibility and accessibility than that.

“Kinect Sports'” offers a nice single-player progression system, throws in some minigame variants of most sports and runs on an interface that completely outclasses that of “MotionSports.” It also supports four-player online multiplayer, which “MotionSports” omitted completely. (Both games have four-player offline multiplayer.) The Wii’s dearth of online-enabled motion games may be the unfortunate standard, but on a system that counts Xbox Live among its essential features, the expectations are higher.


Fighters Uncaged
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

he Fight: Lights Out
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, simulated gambling, violence)

Hand-to-hand combat was an obvious motion game idea even when the Wii was in its infancy, and it makes significantly more sense with the added fidelity of the Playstation Move and Kinect.

On paper, “Fighters Uncaged” enjoys the early advantage, because in addition to fists, the Kinect can recognize different kinds of kicks, blocks and even a head butt. It’s a point the game drives home during an elongated opening training session that needlessly isolates each move inside its own tutorial.

The wealth of attacks is impressive, but it also demonstrates how overdesigned parts of “Uncaged’s” fighting system are. The game uses a three-tiered visual indicator to communicate how close the fighters are standing to each other, and the cluster of similar moves causes the game to rely on gesture recognition rather than use true full-body motion to assess the source, power, speed and location of an attack. The game also slows down and uses additional visual cues whenever it wants players to act defensively — perhaps a concession for a bizarre, diagonal camera angle that makes it hard to discern that stuff more naturally.

Naturally, it all falls apart once the tutorial safety is off. The concessions hamper the experience without compensating for “Uncaged’s” shortcomings with regard to recognizing specific moves or even any move at all. Taking damage because the game fails to act on your motions is entirely too common. “Uncaged’s” lifeless presentation — no character customization, crushingly repetitive single-player progression against a tiny roster of fighters — put the burden on the novelty of its controls, but those controls fall entirely too short for that not to backfire.

“The Fight: Lights Out” isn’t exactly spotless either, and the obvious downside is that, while the two required Move wands nicely double as fists, there’s no way to add kicking to the arsenal like “Uncaged” can. (An optional head-tracking feature also is best ignored, because it just doesn’t work.)

But while “The Fight” only has a fraction of the arsenal, it does more with it than “Uncaged” does with the entire palette. The level of control over each arm is still a little unwieldily — particularly early on before players can upgrade their fighter’s stamina — but it’s noticeably more fluid and never feels gesture-dependent. Your arms will sometimes flail wildly, and you’ll occasionally punch the other guy’s shoulder instead of his face, but a fumbled motion is miles better than an ignored one.

“The Fight’s” seamless action provides a better workout than “Uncaged” does, and the interface is better at rewarding players within the game as well. A surprisingly polished career mode allows players to train and fight at their own pace. And because the game centers around underground fights, players can bet in-game money (which pays for training sessions and gear) on the outcome and nature (clean or dirty) of their bouts. The career mode lets players design their own fighter — something “Uncaged” bafflingly omits — and the seedy presentation allows for touches (a desaturated high-contrast graphical presentation, a live-action Danny Trejo as the game’s mentor) that give it distinction and a welcome tongue-in-cheek quality.

“The Fight” also owns an advantage for its inclusion of local and online (two players each) multiplayer. Players also can watch and bet on other players’ bouts. “Uncaged,” by contrast, is completely multiplayer-free — an foreseeable move, considering the awkward camera angle, but also a final, inarguable indictment of a game that was underdeveloped in every regard.


Superstars V8 Racing
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Milestone/O-Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

No one has benefitted from “Gran Turismo 5’s” legendarily long delay more than O-Games, which, in addition to poking brilliant fun at said delay, has softened the wait in just the right way. “Superstars V8 Racing” does not compare to the forthcoming “GT5” in terms of car roster, track selection, modes or single-player investment. But it has a lot of important bases adequately covered, with a championship mode, a modest handful of scenario challenges, and very customizable race settings for single-player and online multiplayer (12 players). Most important, the on-track action feels like the equivalent of what many $60 racing games get. It looks like a full-priced game, and the cars handle comfortably but feel nice and weighty. “V8” also does a nice job of accommodating players of different disciplines: Though it doesn’t run as deep as “Turismo,” it allows knowledgable players to tune cars to their liking and ride purely, while also allowing those who want a more arcadey experience to turn on assists, turn off penalties, deactivate damage and ride as dangerously as they please. The flexibility carries over to online play, where hosts can set parameters according to their preferred discipline. If “V8” develops a following, it could be a good online destination for serious and not-so-serious racing fans alike.

DVD 11/9/10: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Men of a Certain Age S1, Three and Out, The Dry Land, Freaknik: The Musical, Grown Ups

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (PG-13, 2010, Universal)
A word of caution: Don’t watch “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” with a headache. Or in an impatient state of mind. Or, perhaps (but only perhaps), if “meaningful” is one of the more important adjectives you use to qualify a good storyline. On paper and on our world’s terms, “Pilgrim’s” storyline is dead simple: Boy (Michael Cera as the title character) meets girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers), girl’s jealous exes challenge him for her hand, and boy sets out to win her heart. But “Pilgrim,” which is based on the six-volume “Pilgrim” graphic novel series, only partly exists in our world. The rest of the time, it dabbles in whatever fancy suits it best: The exes become a league of supervillains, Scott’s conflicts with them turn into living video game battles, and everything from physics to the passage of time to the ring of a telephone captures the essence of a comic book come alive. Arguably the best movie treatment a comic has ever received, “Pilgrim” draws no borders between fantasy and reality, and what results is one of the most visually inventive movies ever made. For the viewer willing to play along, suspend disbelief and indulge in the film’s every whim, it’s also one of the most fun films of the year. But heed this warning: The storyline underneath all of “Pilgrim’s” non-stop novelty is pretty thin, and if you’re not here to enjoy the noisy, breathless presentation, you probably just shouldn’t be here.
Extras: Four (two cast, two crew) commentary tracks, deleted scenes, trivia track, bloopers, a ton of image galleries.

Men of a Certain Age: The Complete First Season (NR, 2009, TNT/Warner Bros.)
The surprising dearth of shows about middle-aged men has left “Men of a Certain Age” almost all alone with a goldmine of material, and that, along with the three famous faces (Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) in lead roles, clears it to succeed no matter how lazily or tritely it handles all that found gold. Happily, while “Age’s” opening themes arrive right on schedule — Owen (Braugher) is happily married but unhappily employed, Joe (Romano) is recently divorced and living in a hotel, Terry (Bakula) is a rolling stone on an inevitable collision course with fulfillment issues — it handles those themes and everything that comes next with a magnificent level of nuance and insight. “Age” is a very funny show, but it’s as much a character drama as a comedy, and the laughs it elicits come from an understanding of those characters rather than a bunch of jokes at their expense. Owen, Joe and Terry aren’t mere vessels for the same old middle-aged-man jokes other shows have bandied about: They’re the be all and end all of “Age,” and the show flourishes as result.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Three and Out (R, 2008, Entertainment One)
It’s extraordinarily bad luck for a train conductor to ever hit a person, so imagine how Paul (Mackenzie Crook) feels after running down two people in two weeks. It’s enough to never drive a train again, and when Paul discovers that conductors who hit three people in a month are given forced retirement and 10 years’ pay, he searches for someone suicidal enough to help him pull off the hat trick. As long as the guy wants to die anyway, no harm done, right? It probably needs not be said that, with a premise like this, “Three and Out” pretty safely encroaches on dark comedy territory. But while that holds true, and while “Out” produces some pretty sharply funny moments throughout, the game inevitably changes when Paul finds his willing participant (Colm Meaney as Tommy) and agrees to help him settle some scores and make a few things right before the window closes. There’s an intelligently amusing bitterness to almost everything “Out” does even in its sweeter moments, and Meaney is awesome in his portrayal of a scoundrel who is nearly impossible not to like. But the soul-searching that inevitably envelopes our two main characters sneaks up on us as well as them, and it turns “Out” into a terrifically thoughtful movie without taking its comedic edge away.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Dry Land (R, 2010, Maya Entertainment)
Numerous movies in recent years — most of them documentaries — have tried to depict the unwieldy havoc post-traumatic stress disorder can wreak on a soldier as he or she attempts a return to normalcy. “The Dry Land,” though meandering with its storytelling, might be the most convincing effort yet. “Land” begins with James (Ryan O’Nan) arriving in the States after a tour in Iraq, and there really isn’t any way to describe what happens next in a way that flatters the movie. James adjusts to sharing a bed with his wife (America Ferrera) again, wrestles with demons, loses some of those battles, and finds himself at the bottom of the employment food chain in a country he nearly died defending. But it isn’t what James does that makes “Land” special so much as the many little ways the movie illustrates the internal battle over a psyche that’s both chipping away and fighting to rebuild itself. “Land” never preaches and rarely has to use words or telegraphing to illustrate this conflict, and it manages to convey the heaviness of the issue while hanging onto a faint gallows humor and without turning into a dreary downer. PTSD skeptics will continue to be skeptics, but that doesn’t make “Land’s” effort any less stirring. Wilmer Valderrama, Jason Ritter and Ethan Suplee also star.
Extras: Director/Ferrera commentary, PTSD resources.

Freaknik: The Musical (NR, 2010, Adult Swim)
Sometimes, it’s enough just to be stimulated. If this is one of those times, “Freaknik” — an animated good-versus-evil battle in which the Ghost of Freaknik past attempts to revitalize the famed spring break festival while a secret society that includes Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton and Oprah attempts to stop him — almost certainly will not do you wrong. “Freaknik’s” jokes aren’t inventive enough to be all that funny on their own, and because the villains are lifted from a Dave Chappelle conspiracy hoax whose freshness date expired a few years ago, almost everything beyond the initial novelty of their existence feels a little stale as well. Hasn’t every Al Sharpton joke been told at this point? Still, if you like the people (T-Pain, Cee-Lo, Lil’ Jon and Rick Ross, among others) behind “Freaknik’s” characters — and, more important, enjoy the music they make — this is entirely too caffeinated to be missed. “Freaknik’s” musical numbers are supremely catchy, the kinetic art and animation carry the creativity load when the script falls short, and the constant motion of the whole project makes its shortcomings easy to forgive. A note about the length, though: The box misleadingly asserts that “Freaknik” runs 91 minutes, but that number comes from combining the televised (44 minutes) and uncensored director’s (50) cuts. (How Adult Swim landed on 91 from those two numbers is beyond explanation.)
Extras: T-Pain/Young Fyre/One Chance commentary on the extended cut, music videos.

Grown Ups (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
It’s never a good thing when a movie’s cast is having more fun amusing itself than the people who paid to see them, and the discord rarely is more pronounced than it is here. “Grown Ups” finds five childhood friends (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider) reuniting in their old hometown to honor the passing of their elementary school basketball coach, and as always happens in stories like this, each brings a different degree of family, success, memories and baggage with him to the weekend-long reunion. But “Grown Ups,” as you might guess based on that cast, isn’t terribly interested in exploring
all that stuff on any meaningful level, and the material exists mostly as ammo for a bullet storm of playful insults volleyed between characters. That’d be fine if the insults were funny or clever, but they’re the same flat putdowns we’ve heard a million times already, and outside of the occasional slapstick bit or the inevitable discovering of heartfelt feelings in act three, these knocks are almost all the movie has going on. That doesn’t seem to bother the cast, which repeatedly laughs at its own material. But it’s a big problem for viewers, who, in addition to probably not laughing nearly as much as the cast does, are left to feel like the silent sixth wheel at a party they neither can enjoy nor (eject button notwithstanding) leave.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Games 11/9/10: FlingSmash + Wii Remote Plus, Power Gig: Rise of the SixString, Rock Band 3, Shaun White Skateboarding, Dream Chronicles

FlingSmash + Wii Remote Plus
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

It’s slightly amusing the way “FlingSmash” exclaims on its box that the $40 Wii Remote Plus peripheral that’s bundled inside this $50 package is a free bonus rather than the main draw. But it also says something about “FlingSmash,” which feels like a more complete game than the $10 games Nintendo previously bundled with other similar peripherals.

First, a note about the Wii Remote Plus: In terms of function, it does nothing the Wii remote didn’t previously do with the MotionPlus attachment connected. But it’s a clear upgrade in terms of form, with the MotionPlus’ functionality now bundled into a remote that’s no bigger and no heavier than the original Wii remote. If you’re in the market for a new controller, this is the most elegant solution available.

The controller is available by itself for $10 less than the “FlingSmash” bundle costs, and there’s some irony in Nintendo bundling it with a game that requires MotionPlus technology but is more unwieldy than a lot of Wii games that released before that technology even was available.

But with trial, error and understanding, “FlingSmash” proves to be more fun and more durable than its throwaway price would imply.

“FlingSmash” adheres to the Nintendo storytelling template — cute kingdom in crisis, cute character (Zip, a Kirby-shaped creature with a wild smile and goofy haircut) called on to save the day — but it plays more like “Breakout” than Nintendo’s other sidescrolling platformers. Rather than control Zip (or, if you prefer, his ladyfriend Pip) directly, players swing the remote to fling him toward blocks, gems and other stuff in order to clear a path forward and rack up a high score along the way. Zip bounces off blocks and walls like a pinball, players volley him back like a tennis ball, and the general object is to clear out as much of a level as possible, collect some medallions (that eventually unlock each world’s boss level), and not let the scrolling level trap Zip out of moving forward.

The biggest problem with this unusual control scheme is the game’s failure to show players how best to wield it. “FlingSmash” gives off the impression that holding the remote any old way and swinging it freely will produce a precise, intended result, and perhaps a remote with all this tech built in should do exactly that. But Zip is significantly easier to aim if you hold the remote flat, buttons facing up, and swing it horizontally, and “FlingSmash” is much more fun when he goes exactly where you want him to go.

For those who really dive in, it proves to be a surprisingly fulfilling game as well. “FlingSmash” has eight worlds, each with three levels and a boss fight, and while simply getting through the story takes only a few hours, getting the top ranking on each level is a fun and legitimately challenging endeavor. Getting good scores also unlocks some competitive and cooperative minigames for two players, who also can team up to complete the main campaign together.


Power Gig: Rise of the SixString
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Seven45 Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

Rock Band 3
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
From: Harmonix/MTV Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

Naysayers love to remind people that, for the price of most music game bundles, players could purchase and learn to play a real instrument.

That admittedly attractive notion makes the debut of “Power Gig: Rise of the SixString” an intriguing development for wannabe guitarists, because while “SixString” is compatible with the plastic instruments you may already own, the guitar bundle ships with a controller that doubles as a real six-string guitar.

But “SixString” errs rather than soars by maintaining such close compatibility with “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero’s” controllers. Instead of changing the game or bridging the gap between game and teaching tool, it just feels like the same old game style with a controller that isn’t tailored to it. Strumming strings instead of a plastic strum bar definitely counts as an upgrade, but while pressing those strings into sensors might look better than pressing a bunch of colored buttons to play notes in the game, it’s nowhere near as intuitive and doesn’t parlay the extra necessary effort into anything educational.

“SixString’s” other tweaks feel similarly misguided. The presentation of falling notes feels changed for the sake if change, and its smaller presence on the screen does the player no favor. Similarly, while the drumming peripheral wasn’t available for review, its design — four motion-detecting sensors instead of any pads to hit — appears to contradict all the noise Seven45 Studios has made about the importance of playing with a real guitar. Finally, while the game supports three-player local multiplayer, the omission of online play is a sore thumb when the competition has been including it for years.

With that said, “SixString” does feature a 70-track playlist and a pretty goofily enjoyable story mode in which to experience those songs. The interface is a downgrade from its competition, but perhaps not so much that the standalone game wouldn’t be attractive to players who already own some instrument controllers and just want new songs the play.

“SixString’s” hedging looks especially unfortunate in light of the release of “Rock Band 3,” which bests all comers as a game and eats “SixString’s” lunch when it comes to closing the toy/instrument gap.

Though it shares interface similarities with the traditional “Rock Band” gameplay, “RB3’s” new Pro Mode replaces the colors with actual notes. And while the guitar peripheral needed to enjoy this mode makes no bones about being a controller, it’s designed in a way that emulates a real guitar in this context better than the real thing does in “SixString.”

The Pro Mode features multiple difficulty settings, and the lower settings allow total novices to gather some understanding of guitar science before parlaying that into a serious crash course on the harder settings. It still isn’t the same as playing the real thing, but it significantly narrows the gap.

The downside, of course, is that to fully enjoy “RB3,” you need to pay for the privilege. At roughly $150, Mad Catz’s 102-button pro guitar controller isn’t cheap. Nor is the new wireless keyboard accessory, which, along with a persistent career mode that awards progress no matter what mode players are in, provides “RB3” with its other big headlining feature additions.

Additionally, while the two-octave keyboard is a terrific fit both in regular and Pro Mode gameplay, many of “RB3’s” 83 tracks (to say nothing of all those songs you’ve accumulated from previous games) lack a keyboard track. If you want to assemble a healthy library of keyboard-enabled songs, be prepared to fork over yet more money to purchase downloadable tracks as they become available.


Shaun White Skateboarding
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

The most ironic thing about “Shaun White Skateboarding” is that the less it resembles a skateboarding game, the more fun it is.

More than no
t, that’s also the best thing about it, because for roughly two-thirds of its story mode, “White” almost completely abandons the tenants of a serious skateboarding game in favor of something that’s basically a platforming adventure game on a skateboard.

“White’s” fictional universe has been rendered grey and dull by an all-powerful corporate ministry, and players are tasked with literally bringing color and life back to the world by injecting it with flow, which bleeds into the world via tricks performed on the skateboard. “White” doesn’t even try to explain how this science works, and that’s for the best: The story is silly fun, and if it provides the excuse needed for a pretty original visual trick, so be it.

For most of the way, the missions in “White” feel like objectives from a platforming game instead of a hardcore skating sim, and it’s to the game’s benefit. “White’s” physics are absurdly generous — players have to really work to fall off the board, and executing 1080s is easier here than turning 360s is in “Skate” — and that allows the game to formulate objectives that are less about pulling off angle-perfect tricks and more about canvassing levels vertically as well as horizontally.

The vertical skating easily is “White’s” best trick. Certain rails, ramps and streets extend holographically as players skate on them, and during the second half of the game, players can shape these rails and streets to form their own paths through the air. Connecting a series of holographic rails and circling a level without ever touching the ground is terrific fun, and “White’s” finest moments take place when it designs objectives around these mechanics. Halfway through the game, players have to race a helicopter by shaping rails and maintaining the high ground, and the chase, to say nothing its culmination, is one of the cooler things ever to happen on a video game skateboard.

But “White” eventually suffers a crisis of confidence. It tries its hand at real skateboarding objectives, and it doles out time-limited missions that demand more from players than a game with physics and controls this loose should demand. On a dime, fun turns to frustration, the generous difficultly curve turns cheap, and all that was forgivable about “White’s” unusual take on skateboarding suddenly stops making sense. Skilled players will persevere, and “White” awards those who do with the awesome ability to create shapable rails on the fly and traverse enormous gaps. But the stark change of mood and the hassle needed to overcome it will aggravate many into just giving up, cutting their losses and moving on.

Sadly, “White’s” multiplayer component (eight players online, two locally) offers little solace. The score, shape and territorial challenges are nicely designed, and there’s a free skate mode for those willing to endure the minor hassle needed to unlock it. But “White’s” online servers have been mostly barren so far, and unless the game enjoys an unprecedented upswing in post-release activity, they’re bound to stay that way. Well-designed or not, there’s nothing these modes can do if competitors refuse to show.


Dream Chronicles
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Nintendo DS, Windows PC, Macintosh, iPhone/iPod Touch
From: KatGames/Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s entirely fitting that “Dream Chronicles” got lost this fall among the sea of big-ticket Xbox Live Arcade games that released around it, and not just because it’s a game centered around finding proverbial needles in proverbial haystacks. “Chronicles” is a hidden-object game — which, for the uninitiated, presents players with mostly static environments and tasks them with finding items hidden within the scene that help complete whatever task is needed to advance to the next scene. At that, “Chronicles” does fine, mixing in object hunts with the occasional light puzzle-solving diversion and wrapping it inside a story that, while kind of incomprehensible, is engaging in a strangely soothing way. But object hunts are an odd fit for a system that operates on the strength of a controller rather than a mouse, and while “Chronicles” cleverly lets players “peek” into the scene with the triggers, using a joystick to move a cursor around will always feel awkward. “Chronicles” also is too short and too easy to command the same asking price as “Super Meat Boy” and four tables of “Pinball FX 2,” to name only two recent XBLA games that provide more value and take much better advantage of the system’s strengths. The same game is available for less money on platforms that suit it better, so if the game intrigues you, leave this version be and shop around.

DVD 11/2/10: Toy Story 3, The Pacific, The Larry Sanders Show CS, Kisses, V S1, The Hungry Ghosts

Toy Story 3 (G, 2010, Disney)
Connoisseurs of thoughtful, well-written movies have had a torrent of great films to enjoy throughout the entire year, making it that much more ridiculous that 2010’s most affecting movie might be a big-budget, computer-animated story about toys. But if you’ve seen a “Toy Story” movie before, you know better than to act surprised anymore. “Toy Story 3” sets off with a neglectful, college-bound Andy finally abandoning his toys for good. Woody, Buzz and friends get shipped off to a daycare center, which teases the prospect of endless children to play with after years of neglect, but the reality is a dark underworld run by a consortium of toys whose baggage and malevolence would place them quite comfortably in numerous R-rated films. Between the dark underbelly of Sunnyside Daycare and where that darkness takes our toys, it’s a little surprising “TS3” gets a G rating. But it might only be surprising because of just how absurdly good Pixar is at taking these endangered inanimate objects and conveying their peril better than most live-action movies can do with living, breathing people. “TS3” looks magnificent and is armed to the teeth with very funny one-liners and sight gags. But it’s that unbelievable gift of endearment, and these characters’ ridiculous ability to subtly but explicitly convey it, that once again sets Pixar apart from everybody else.
Extras: Animated short “Day & Night,” “Beyond the Toy Box” commentary, Buzz Lightyear science lesson, seven behind-the-scenes features.

The Pacific (NR, 2010, HBO)
It was Steven Spielberg who ignited the process of deglamorizing and de-sanitizing World War II with “Saving Private Ryan,” so it’s only fitting that he be present when a miniseries like “The Pacific” comes along to strip it away completely. Beginning at Guadalcanal and taking us through Melbourne, Peleliu and Iwo Jima before taking us home, “The Pacific” tells the story of three Marines (Joseph Mazzello, James Badge Dale, Jon Seda) and their brothers, painstakingly dramatizing their travails on the cusp of, during and beyond the battlefield. The backing of the likes of Spielberg and HBO ensures those battle scenes receive the full Hollywood treatment, and indeed, they are staggering in their scope, detail and fearless presentation. But it’s the time afforded by the miniseries format that truly allows “The Pacific” to be extraordinary. Beyond simply witnessing them in conflict, we see our Marines living in their own filth, acting like goofballs, temporarily losing themselves, and occasionally being brats during a fleeting bit of R&R. It isn’t always flattering, but it absolutely is humanizing, and those awesome battle scenes are that much more amazing when you feel you’re given a chance to get to know the lives at stake.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus profiles of the real Marines featured in the series and two making-of features. In an especially nice touch, each episode also includes an optional two-minute feature that provides historical context to the corresponding episode.

The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series (NR, 1992, Shout Factory)
It’s a little weird to proclaim that Garry Shandling, who played himself quite masterfully in four seasons of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” was born to play Larry Sanders. But it’s a testament to just how perfectly this role was cast. Shandling embodies the socially backward center of attention better than just about anybody, and it’s a skill tailored to Sanders, who awkwardly stumbles — both in front of the camera and behind closed doors — through a surprisingly successful gig as a late-night talk show host. On the set, “Sanders” feels a little dated, in large part due to the early-1990s references and guests who pass through the show. But part of that age is due to “Sanders'” brilliant send-up of a saccharine format made even duller by what, compared to now, was a pretty boring decade. And once “Sanders” leaves the set and goes backstage — which, happily, is where the majority of the show takes place — that age falls away in every important respect. (The bad haircuts and clothes cannot be helped.) Here, “Sanders” lets its darkly funny flag fly, and here, it unloads some sharply funny observations about an industry that continually seems to find its dirty laundry hanging before the public eye. Show business hasn’t changed as much as the rest of the world has, and given the resurgence of late night bad blood in past year, the wildly overdue resurgence of “Sanders,” which previously had only a first season and greatest hits compilation on DVD, feels right on time.
Contents: 89 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a feature-length making-of documentary, outtakes, Shandling/Judd Apatow discussion, Shandling lecture at USC, interviews, other Shandling conversations, Emmy print campaign gallery and a 60-page companion booklet.

Kisses (NR, 2008, Oscilloscope)
Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) have already decided they’re going to marry each other, and with serious problems looming in both of their respective families, the time to leave their hometown and start a new beginning in nearby Dublin is now. The only catch? Dylan and Kylie are kids, and as you might expect, the means with which leave their families behind isn’t nearly as sturdy as their will to do so. Being a movie, though, “Kisses” isn’t the story of what happens when the kids accept their plight and return to life as usual; it’s a story about what happens when they, as kids, have no earthly reconciliation of that plight and bolt for the big city anyway. The consequences are as pedestrian as they would be if Kylie and Dylan took the road of reason, but the consequences aren’t really the point anyway. Instead, this is a movie about dreams, ideals, stupidly blissful ignorance, stratospheric stubbornness, and what all those things do in a playing field full of adults who lost sight of all that stuff years ago. The young actors do an outstanding job of carrying the movie, but “Kisses'” tone ensures that their age was never going to be a barrier anyway.
Extras: O’Neill and Curry commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes.

V: The Complete First Season (NR, 2009, Warner Bros.)
“V’s” alien invasion appears to begin like so many others we’ve seen, with gigantic spaceships hovering cryptically over the skylines of nearly 30 major cities worldwide. The truth, though, is that this is just the final stage of an invasion that for years had quietly slipped peaceful aliens into everyday society by disguising them in human skin. Cool premise, no? Embrace it, because most of “V’s” first season feels like an attempt to stretch a miniseries’ worth of storytelling over 12 episodes that drag and plod as much as they engage. That isn’t a total surprise considering “V” is, in fact, a remake of a miniseries from 1983. But while that partially explains the show’s interest in stalling for time, it doesn’t explain the general sense of sterility that pervades throughout. The original “V” played like a B-movie and centered around ragtag everyday people trying to make sense of a fishy invasion. This remake, by contrast, shifts the storytelling burden to government agents, cult devotees, television talking heads and clergymen. The stories that develop are interesting enough to make this worth watching, but the themes brought forth by those overplayed archetypes are as humorless, straight-faced and familiar as you expect them to be, and “V” feels recycled more for breaking away from its predecessor than for following in its footsteps.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and four behind-the-scenes features.

The Hungry Ghosts (R, 2009, Virgil Films)
“The Hungry Ghosts” is another one of those movies that follows a handful of loosely-connected characters as they m
ake sense of their separate existences. This time, the setting is New York City, the period of time is 36 hours, and the people in play (Steve Schirripa, Aunjanue Ellis, Nick Sandow, Sharon Angela, Emory Cohen) are trying to wrestle free of checkered pasts, mental demons, suffocating materialism, and any number of other ways to describe a lack of inner fulfillment. That’s a tough sell, because the sales pitch essentially asks us to watch and find entertainment in five simultaneous stories about people fighting not to circle their respective drains. But where most movies of this sort lose themselves in a vicious cycle of deepening dreariness, “The Hungry Ghosts” appears to understand what it’s up against. So it mixes a little dark humor and irony into those stories, and it employs just enough snark to stave off the onset of full-blown bleakness. That alone does not translate into an extraordinary film, and like most films in this sub-genre, “Ghosts” inevitably limits its own impact by dividing itself into so many pieces. But if you want a story about life and what it kinda sorta is all about, this isn’t a bad way to get one.
Extra: Photo gallery.

Games 11/2/10: God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Vanquish, Pinball FX 2

God of War: Ghost of Sparta
For: Playstation Portable
From: Ready at Dawn/Santa Monica Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

This is the third “God of War” game to release in less than three years. If you count last year’s rerelease of the first two games, it’s the fifth.

It’s little surprise, then, that most of “Ghost of Sparta” feels pretty familiar. A few new ideas aside, Kratos’ latest adventure overwhelmingly follows the template established by his previous escapades: There’s a ton of melee combat against the usual minions, some multi-level boss fights against gods and monsters, a few environmental puzzles and platforming challenges to break up the pace, and a dash of new insight into the mental makeup of gaming’s angriest protagonist.

At its worst, “Sparta” treads beyond familiarity into outright predictability. Players with legs in the series will know almost psychically when the game is about to switch gears, and even little details like the locations of secret treasure chests are so predictable as to feel automatic when found. Familiar enemies with familiar attack patterns make repeat appearances, and the patterns in which larger non-boss enemies appear — by themselves the first time players see them, and in pairs and eventually sets later on — is customary at this point.

All of this should be a bigger problem than it is, and it is a shame that a developer as talented as Ready at Dawn doesn’t just completely flip the script and try something wildly different.

But all of this would be a bigger problem than it is if “Sparta,” like its series cousins, didn’t do what it does so ridiculously well. The first “God of War” ignited a train of imitators that’s still rolling strong six years later, but no protagonist in any of those games controls as perfectly as Kratos does, nor do any of them possess an arsenal or a default weapon that’s anywhere near as devastating or versatile as the Blades of Chaos. All of that carries over without issue to the PSP, and “Sparta,” which might be the prettiest portable game ever made, satiates the series’ enormous appetite for scale without breaking a sweat.

Furthermore, while “God of War III” looked understandably prettier on the PS3, “Sparta” arguably trumps it elsewhere, mixing gameplay styles at a better pace than that game did. “Sparta’s” puzzles feel just right in terms of length, scope and difficulty, the platforming challenges are far more intuitively designed, and one of the game’s new ideas — a handful of breakneck chase sequences that, sadly, pop up only occasionally — is also responsible for some of its best moments.

Though not by much, “Sparta” also outdoes its big-screen counterpart in the area of storytelling. The story sets itself in between the first two games, introduces players to Kratos’ brother, and allows us to delve deeper into Kratos’ familial backstory without daring us to detest him the way “GOW3” did. The introduction of Kratos’ brother also makes possible another new gameplay wrinkle, but because it’s story-dependent and shows up near the end of that story, the specifics of that wrinkle not be spoiled here.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Platinum Games/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Japanese developers have tried and tried to make a response to “Gears of War” that plays like that game but doesn’t completely muzzle its local flavor to do so.

When it doesn’t get in its own way, “Vanquish” represents the best attempt yet. And when all of its pieces are working in perfect harmony, it occasionally outclasses its inspiration.

Like “Gears,” “Vanquish” most fundamentally is a cover-based third-person shooter, with its most basic firefights forcing players to find cover, pop out and dispatch enemies who employ similar methods on the other side of the battlefield. It handles the task well, with responsive controls and weapons that either are satisfyingly accurate or explosive enough to justify their unwieldiness.

Beyond that, and thanks to the suit players wear, things get interesting. Instead of sprinting, players can slide on their knees at twice the speed and mobility of any sprinter. During this slide, or when rolling to avoid attack, players also can briefly slow down time to ensure a little precision in the heat of chaos. (The slowdown kicks in automatically when health, which eventually recharges automatically, drops to near-fatal levels.)

The slide and slowdown both heat up a suit that cools down quickly but temporarily malfunctions when overheating, and an effective melée attack overheats it instantly.

Players who obsessively manage the suit’s temperature will succeed where others perish, but the need to do can quickly become aggravating when it becomes apparent how easily and constantly the suit can overheat. “Vanquish’s” battles often surround players with enemies, and the game has a tendency to punish those who take advantage of these special moves, only to find themselves surrounded and relatively defenseless when the suit overheats yet again. Quick-witted players can scramble for cover, but it’s still frustrating when a game gives you cool toys but places you in situations that seemingly discourage their use.

If that doesn’t annoy you, the presentation might instead. “Vanquish’s” characters are cartoony meatheads of the worst kind, the story is incomprehensible, and the constant blaring of techno music will force some to pause the game simply to hear themselves think. The game’s graphics are pretty — the explosions, in particular, are some of the best in the business — but the mostly generic design of ally, enemy and environment feels like a waste of talent and resources.

And yet, with all this said, it’s hard not to recommend this one. At its most disappointing, “Vanquish” is a perfectly fine cover shooter that punishes players by design rather than because of its own inadequacies. In spurts, though, it lets players go nuts with those abilities and enjoy a level of frantic action that “Gears” couldn’t even comprehend. And at its best, when both the basic and special abilities are given a playground or boss fight that feels designed to take advantage of them, this is one of the most riotously fun shooters ever made. For all the missteps “Vanquish” takes, it has the basics — player movement, weapons responsiveness, pace of action — mastered.

It’s just unfortunate players can’t revel in the insanity together. “Vanquish” would be absolutely bananas in a multiplayer setting, but no such feature exists. Beyond replaying campaign levels for a higher score, there isn’t much to do once that incomprehensible story wraps up.


Pinball FX 2
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: Free for client; $2.50 for individual tables, $10 for four-packs

Zen Studios’ continuous post-release support for “Pinball FX” made it feel like a platform more than a standalone game, and “Pinball FX 2” embraces that notion from the start with magnificent results. “PFX2” is a free download, and players are free to download tables and four-packs a la carte for $2.50 and $10, respectively. The tables from “PFX1” have been freshened and ported over, and any tables you owned in that game are free to play in “PFX2,” which also provides free demos of every available table. Each table comes with its
own set of achievements, providing achievement junkies significantly more ground to cover than your typical Xbox Live Arcade game. As a pinball sequel, “PFX2” is similarly satisfying. The tables — older tables included — look nicer, the camera angles make more sense, and the ever-so-slightly-slower ball physics better emulate the real thing. The newer tables are considerably more elaborate than their predecessors, but every table gets a major playability boost if you have a healthy Xbox Live friends list. Beyond four-player online (and offline) multiplayer with optional video chat, “PFX2” makes great use of leaderboards, constantly showing players which friends rule which tables and even rewarding those who compile the best total score across all tables. Zen declared its intention to support “FX2” with special online competitions as well as more tables, and its track record makes it easy to believe “PFX2” will have legs for years to come.