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.

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Vanquish
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.

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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.