Games 1/25/11: Dead Space 2, Kinect Joy Ride, Spare Parts

Dead Space 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Visceral Games/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Everyone makes third-person shooters now. But nobody has made anything like 2008’s “Dead Space,” which took a suddenly oversaturated genre, doused it in ingredients normally reserved for horror games, and turned that combination into a brutally claustrophobic shooter with a fiction that puts most contemporary science fiction to shame.

“Dead Space 2” expands its playing field from a solitary spaceship under siege to an enclosed space city that’s been left in ruin by the invading mutant Necromorphs (who, depending on your interpretations of the first game’s events, are either evil incarnate or victims of fanaticism gone obscenely wrong). But while the environment is larger and more diverse — a point driven home by portions of the game that take place in wide-open, zero-gravity space — the storytelling is considerably more personal.

Engineer-turned-army of one Isaac Clarke was a silent protagonist in the first game, but “DS2” gives him both human companionship and a voice, and without spoiling anything behind the necessity of those additions, both are for the better. Isaac’s odyssey hits the ground blazing as soon as “DS2” cedes control to you, and the 15 chapters that follow are a clinic on how to give a formerly silent character a voice and a starring role without ever allowing him to overstay his welcome or trivialize the significance of the larger story around him.

Most importantly — and in the spirit of its predecessor — the storytelling sets the table for an exhilarating wave of showdowns against a more powerful Necromorph force on turf that often favors them over you.

All of the first game’s hallmarks — inventive weapons, great controls, a painfully good ability to illustrate the might of attacking Necromorphs who break through Isaac’s defenses — are hallmarks in “DS2” as well. But “DS2” upgrades the shooting controls from great to immaculate, and it provides more opportunities to put the secondary weapons’ unique specialties to invaluable use. Even Isaac’s telekinesis device, previously good for solving puzzles but little else, is a formidable combat tool this time.

Chiefly, though, “DS2” just sets better tables than its predecessor did. A vicious enemy from the first game returns at the worst time imaginable here, and the two-chapter chase that follows should rattle the nerves of even the most stoic players. Elsewhere, a new, exponentially savvier strain of Necromorph engages Isaac in a game of hide-and-seek that turns ordinary corridor crawls into dangerous instances of walking on tiptoes and constantly stopping to look over your shoulder whenever you hear a clank or the lighting plays tricks on you.

These and other moments provide “DS2” with its highlights, but it bears mentioning that, outside of one chapter that goes slightly overboard with cheap scares, there really aren’t any lowlights. The fundamental formula that steered the first game drives this one as well, but every chapter changes the rules just enough to keep the action from ever losing its edge. As story-driven experiences go, this is — by any metric — as good as it gets.

Though it wasn’t really necessary, Visceral decided to incorporate multiplayer (eight players, online only) into “DS2” anyway. What results is pretty much what you’d expect: Familiar shooter conventions and map designs apply, and the more you play (and kill), the more weapons and perks you can unlock.

Compared to the single-player stuff, “DS2’s” multiplayer is pretty pedestrian. But all that gameplay polish carries over, so it plays well. It also provides players their first opportunity to play as four species of Necromorph, whose unique movement and attack methods make a surprisingly smooth migration over to the multiplayer arena.

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Kinect Joy Ride
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Big Park/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Everything that’s wonderful and broken about Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral can be found within the confines of “Kinect Joy Ride,” and often within the span of a single event.

As the name and presentation imply, “Ride” is a deeply casual racing game. The tracks are delightfully cartoony, the cars look like toy replicas instead of actual cars, and your Xbox Live avatar fits right into the visual theme as your driver.

But nothing in that exterior can illustrate just how casually “Ride” plays. There are, for instance, no crash physics, because you cannot crash no matter how poorly you drive. You also cannot brake or accelerate, because the game elects to handle that for you.

The inability to brake and accelerate isn’t a case of “Ride” safeguarding players from their own inability to drive safely, but instead an unspoken admission that the Kinect simply isn’t savvy enough to handle a full-featured racing game without a controller’s help. “Ride” elects not to use a controller, so there’s no way for players to subtly control their speed in a way the game can recognize with any satisfactory reliability.

Still, give “Ride” points for trying to put together the best racing game it can for a device that shouldn’t have one at all. Because while it didn’t succeed at that task, it turns out a unique and bizarrely fun game en route to falling short.

“Ride’s” event types run the arcade racing gamut, offering standard and sprint races along with a stunt ramp, trick competitions and a quirky event in which the goal is to smash into as much stuff as possible.

In all these events, the controls are fundamentally the same: You turn an imaginary steering wheel to steer your onscreen car, twist your body in any direction to perform tricks when the car is airborne, and, in the only direct control you have over your car’s speed, do a pull motion to accumulate turbo before pushing forward to boost.

As should be no surprise with a game that can’t handle subtle speed control, “Ride” isn’t immaculate at handling steering, either. It recognizes turns, but a sloppy grasp of precision will regularly cause accidental oversteering and understeering, and while you can’t crash, you most certainly can (and will) drive off the road.

Surprisingly, the boost mechanic is even worse: Even if you pull back violently, there’s an excellent chance the game will ignore you, making it entirely too difficult to time a boost for maximum gain. Get ready to boost too late, steer too hard and fly off the road, negating any benefit of accumulating turbo in the first place.

Fortunately, “Ride” at least seems recognizant of its shortcomings, making it pretty easy to unlock new events and rewards with so-so scores in the single-player portion of the game. And while “Ride” doesn’t remotely register as one of the Xbox 360’s best racers, the contortions needed to perform tricks and get your car to cooperate inspire a level of physical involvement that those otherwise superior games do not. Provided you can enjoy “Ride” on this silly, messy level and not take the need to succeed too seriously, it’s a surprisingly fun time that pretty savvily underscores the Kinect’s gifts as well as its shortcomings.

That’s especially true if you play with like-minded people. “Ride” supports offline (two players) and online (eight) multiplayer, and the shortcomings are that much easier to endure when everyone is in t
he same boat.

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Spare Parts
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

It’s only fair that a $10 game be held to a looser standard than a $60 or even $20 game, but “Spare Parts” occasionally pushes that generosity threshold to the edge. Mostly, “Parts” is a harmless case of “Ratchet and Clank” lite: You’re a robot named Mar-T, and while your default abilities consist solely of running, jumping, punching and firing flimsy projectiles, a handful of found parts gradually allows you to walk on magnetic walls, hover like a rocket and hack electronics. At its best — which, fortunately, is the rule and not the exception — “Parts” is a charming, visually vibrant game that uses these abilities to create some clever puzzles and platforming challenges. Occasionally, though, “Part” leans excessively on combat, which, due to sloppy combat controls that remain sloppy even when Mar-T upgrades its abilities, never really feel good. That comes to a head during the first half of the final boss fight, which drags unnecessarily and, due to a nearly non-existent penalty for death, isn’t challenging so much as monotonous. The second half of that fight, which funnels Mar-T’s abilities into a dispiritingly rote trial-and-error exercise, falls even flatter. The bad taste that lingers isn’t the deal-killer it would be in a more expensive game, but if you consider your time more valuable than your money, it’s still something to think about because you lock in your purchase.