Games 1/4/11: MicroBot, Splatterhouse, Zombie Smash HD

MicroBot
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Naked Sky Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“MicroBot’s” decision to take the rapidly staling twin-stick shooter genre into a fresh new setting — the human body, a la “Fantastic Voyage” — pays immediate dividends in the audiovisual department. Provided you can get behind some other new ideas that are so different as to arguably run contrary to the genre’s typical principles, it compounds that reward as you delve deeper into that setting.

Like “Geometry Wars,” “Super Stardust HD” and any number of other twin-stick shooters, “MicroBot’s” control scheme — left stick to move your vessel, right stick to aim and fire — couldn’t be simpler. You’re controlling a nanorobot instead of a spaceship, and invading aliens and zombies have been replaced by invading bacteria and other catalysts for illness, but the primary objective — shoot everything and stay alive — is as pure as it’s ever been.

But “MicroBot’s” setting almost immediately allows it to set a different pace than its peers typically establish. Steering the nanorobot through an advancing school of cells or against an opposing current of blood adds a palpable degree of resistance (and, when riding with the current, assistance) to basic movement, and the setting takes on its own life as a neutral third character in the battle between bot and disease. The body can be both a lifesaver and a hazard depending on how you approach its moving parts, and it looks awfully good regardless of its utility. (Word of warning to the excessively squeamish: Clinical or not, “MicroBot’s” depiction of video game blood may be a little too authentic for your stomach’s liking.)

The setting also provides occasion for “MicroBot” to dote on exploration more than a twin-stick shooter typically does. Arguably, it’s to a fault.

Rather than take place in a single screen or arena, “MicroBot’s” levels are large, winding and rife with alternate passageways and other secrets. Levels are dotted with hidden items and atoms that go toward upgrading the bot’s capabilities, and while picking levels clean is totally optional, uncovering the trickier secrets is easily as satisfying an endeavor as any of the mandatory challenges.

The debatable downside is that the exploration comes at the expense of intensity. “MicroBot” provides a ton of stuff to shoot, but it also punctuates its frantic shootouts with slower moments designed around exploration. Anyone expecting a continuous, “Geometry Wars”-style assault should adjust their expectations, because this isn’t that kind of game. Beyond a secondary challenge mode, the game doesn’t even use a scoreboard.

The upside to that arguable downside is that “MicroBot” embraces its adventure-game ambitions. In addition to roomy, the levels are more diverse than the setting might imply. The boss fights that cap each area provide satisfying closure to each area. Local co-op support lets two players complete the journey together.

Finally, the upgrade tree is absolutely stellar. Collecting atoms and unlocking abilities allows you to upgrade the nanorobot with a surprising abundance of parts, and the game’s flexibility with regard to parts distribution — and the effects different distributions have on play — is striking. Players who want a faster game can upgrade their way to one by loading their bot with navigation parts, while struggling players can fortify their bot with defensive parts to ease the difficulty. “MicroBot” naturally allows players to upgrade their weaponry as well, and the nice array of firepower has something for everyone to like.

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Splatterhouse
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

“Splatterhouse’s” legacy undoubtably will be the new heights to which it elevates video game gore. True to the name, it’s swimming in blood, with the most minor of attacks spraying the screen with blotches of red while the more advanced moves practically coat the entire level in the stuff. Throw in some special kills that trigger some very painful-looking interactive cutscenes, and the award for the goriest game in existence is now handily in this game’s possession. A subtle reliance on cel shading slightly mutes the effect, but only slightly.

But Namco justifies the whole disgusting display by applying some real weight — figuratively as well as literally — to all those attacks. “Splatterhouse’s” storyline encompasses a good eight to 10 hours of play time, and the novelty of all that blood would dissipate awfully quickly if the storytelling and gameplay propping it up weren’t so surprisingly strong.

“Splatterhouse’s” core action plays out like any number of recent action games in the “God of War” and “Dante’s Inferno” vein. One button handles light attacks, the other heavy attacks, and using the attack buttons in different combinations allows Rick (that’s you) to escalate the impact of his arsenal. A handful of limited-use weapons — planks, cleavers, chainsaws and a couple more that will be detailed later — provide a temporary uptick in offense when available.

As the story explains, though, Rick is no ordinary protagonist. In fact, he’s kind of a geek — albeit one fused with a mask that (again, as “Splatterhouse” explains) transforms him into an inhumanly strong hulk. Along with the aforementioned blood-coating attacks, the extra strength allows him to, for instance, pick up an enemy, pull his arm off and use that arm as a bat. Well-timed special attacks fill the battleground with usable “weapons” of this magnitude, adding a nice level of risk/reward and effectively discouraging the exercise of banal button mashing. Combined with the game’s nice control balance — there’s a noticeable and beneficial heft to Rick’s attacks, but not at the expense of his agility — the combat system is much more thoughtful than the bloodlust might initially imply.

Doubly surprising is “Splatterhouse’s” story, which begins ambiguously but makes a gradual, continual transformation into something surprisingly artful. The story of Rick, his talking mask (again, story explains), his girlfriend and the maniacal Dr. West doesn’t quite add up logically, and the mask has more than a few annoying things to say (and say again) while harassing Rick. But “Splatterhouse’s” first two-thirds construct a legitimately wicked horror story, and when the narrative focus shifts from Rick to West in the final third, the game handles it with a surprising level of care and spirit.

All the same, the usual trappings of the genre are accounted for. While “Splatterhouse’s” storyline ramps up well, the action can stagnate, and nearly every enemy configuration in the game’s back half consists of remixed arrangements of the same enemies from the first half. Some new boss enemies appear, the locales change up nicely, and Rick’s upgradable repertoire opens up the combat variety at a good pace, but the creeping repetition still leaves a mark.

Much worse, though, is when “Splatterhouse” tries its hand as a platforming game despite having a character and camera that aren’t remotely up to the task. These segments are cheaply difficult and, because of how often you’ll die because the game fails you, annoyingly unfun. Fortunately, they’re also pretty brief and very infrequent.

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Zombie Smash HD
For: iPad
From: Gamedoctors
iTu
nes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)

To look at a screenshot of “Zombie Smash HD” might be to presume it’s yet another tower defense game in which you must defend your house against yet another onslaught of zombies. But “Smash” spares itself from the rehash tag by letting you go very literally hands on with that defense. As zombies encroach on the house, you can use your fingers to pick them up, lob them backward, fling them across the screen and, true to the title, smash them into the ground. Various weapons and pickups — construction wrecking balls, meteor showers, a coach’s whistle that stops everyone in their tracks — are available for a temporary assist, but to succeed at “Smash” is to be quick with the hands and master the art of using multiple fingers to fling multiple zombies simultaneously. In the later stages, it’s far more an action than strategy game. “Smash” includes a 31-day campaign mode, a shorter bonus campaign with remixed rules, an endless mode and a sandbox mode, and it dangles Game Center leaderboards and achievements for extra motivation. But it’s the colorful cartoony presentation that really makes the whole thing sing. Gamedoctors itself describes “Smash” as a survival comedy game, and between the goofy zombie designs and the slapstick that erupts when pickups and your fingers work in tandem, it’s an apt description.