Games 3/1/11: Bulletstorm, Ys I & II Chronicles, Dreamcast Collection, Back to the Future E1

Bulletstorm
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: People Can Fly/Epic Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)

With respect to the hard-working people who brought “Bulletstorm’s” sound design to life, few would blame you for playing this first-person shooter with your sound muted.

“Bulletstorm’s” storyline is infested with cliches, and its characters are massively unlikable meatheads who inspire no rooting interest whatsoever. It initially feels like a spoof in the “so bad, it’s good” vein, but too many turns for the melodramatic make it clear this wasn’t the intention.

“Bulletstorm’s” comedic antidote for the encroaching melodrama is to take dirty words that make second-graders giggle and jam them into sentences in ways that intentionally make no sense. Hilarious, right? Nope, and you need not find swearing remotely offensive to be put off by the notion that something’s funny simply because somebody blurted out a word you can’t print here. It’s immediately lame, and hearing the same gag ad nauseam over “Bulletstorm’s” six-hour campaign is nauseating. (There’s a toggle to disable “mature” language — calling it that is unintentionally funnier than the entirety of “Bulletstorm’s” script — but that won’t fix everything else that ails the story.)

But “Bulletstorm’s” problems go deeper than storytelling. Though the levels look pretty, their construction — too many tight corridors, too little room for meaningful strategy, laughable attempts at “puzzle”-solving — are uninspired. The enemy A.I. occasionally falls apart, with a half-dozen baddies all targeting you despite the nearly constant presence of two allies by your side. Your allies are even worse, regularly standing out of position, blocking your view or just doing nothing while those aforementioned enemies dig in. It makes the omission of online campaign co-op even more regrettable than it already was.

Good thing, then, that “Bulletstorm” at least does some things no other shooter does. If it didn’t, the aforementioned roster of problems would be impossible to overcome.

“Bulletstorm’s” big hook is the notion of killing with style. You can shoot a guy if you want, but why do that when, for instance, you can pull a gigantic seed toward you with your energy leash, kick the seed so it lands on an enemy’s head, pull the enemy in with the leash, kick him into the air and fire a shot that launches him into a gigantic cactus? Doing that nets you more points, which function as currency toward purchasing weapons and ammo. In the game’s best move, it gives you an in-game database of every possible stylish kill and challenges you to achieve all 131 of them.

Default weapon aside, “Bulletstorm’s” guns are satisfyingly powerful and fun to use, and the leash — which you crack like a whip to yank enemies and objects toward you for additional manipulation — adds a fun, mischievous wrinkle. Your kick, meanwhile, is as straightforward as it sounds but similarly fun to use because it’s cartoonishly overpowering.

The moment-to-moment insanity afforded by these abilities does much to compensate for all “Bulletstorm” does poorly, but the novelty also has an expiration date. It starts wearing thin about halfway through, and the final few chapters — which find the A.I. and level-design problems at their worst — are a grind.

It’s no mystery why “Bulletstorm” nixed competitive multiplayer, which would have been disastrous with everyone booting and leashing each other constantly.

But whether Anarchy mode — which allows four players to fight cooperatively online (and collect special multiplayer-only skillshots) against up to 20 waves of enemies — provides satisfactory compensation is debatable. Anarchy is “Bulletstorm” at its best — no annoying story, no useless friendly A.I. — but even competing for the high score won’t fully scratch whatever itch you might have for human competition.

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Ys I & II Chronicles
For: Playstation Portable
From: Falcom/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, partial nudity)

Dreamcast Collection
For: Xbox 360
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone to Teen (mild violence, suggestive themes, language)

What follows is a tale of two retro compilations — one from a publisher that understands its audience, the other from one that seemingly couldn’t care less.

“Ys I & II Chronicles” represents the umpteenth time the first two games in the “Ys” series, which debuted nearly 24 years ago, have been released, rereleased, remade and/or retouched. “Chronicles” most closely resembles a 2001 PC remake that never released in America, and in addition to the graphical and storytelling upgrades that premiered with that version, this edition includes a terrific new remixing of the games’ wonderful musical score, three versions of which are selectable in-game. “Chronicles'” initial printing comes packaged with a soundtrack CD containing the score, and if you’re part of the audience XSEED is targeting with this release, you understand why that’s no trivial bonus.

As perhaps goes without saying, the only thing that remains dated as ever is the first-generation “Ys” gameplay, which resembles a classic role-playing game but employs a strange semi-real-time combat system that merely asks players to “bump” into enemies in a certain way and let the stats sort out the battle. It was weird then, and it’s old and even weirder now. But it still works, and because it’s the primary reason “Ys” stood out from its peers back in its original iteration, the developers would be crazy to mess with its integrity.

“Chronicles” might be an odd mix of old and new, but it’s a polished and faithful mix that makes smart decisions about what to change and what to preserve. Series devotees should be pleased, even if they’ve played these games inside out already.

Sega’s “Dreamcast Collection,” by contrast, is a collection made for whomever and for reasons unexplainable beyond cash grabbing.

For starters, the four selections — “Crazy Taxi,” “Sonic Adventure,” “Sega Bass Fishing” and “Space Channel 5 Part 2” — don’t exactly embody what people loved about Sega’s Dreamcast console. “Taxi’s” probably the darling of the bunch, but it’s also available as a $10 standalone download.

All four of these games, in fact, either are or will be available as Xbox Live downloads — which is why Sega chose them for inclusion. “Collection” doesn’t even bother modifying the boot code: Once you select a game from the top menu, you have to quit out to the Xbox dashboard and reboot “Collection” to select another one.

Such laziness might be OK if “Collection” at least did the one thing — give you $40 worth of good downloadable games for $30 — it set out to do.

But “Sonic Adventure’s” control and camera issues — which were problematic by 1999 standards, to say nothing of 2011 — remain intact. “Crazy Taxi’s” physics and driving controls are way too touchy with the Xbox 360’s controller, and Sega didn’t even bother to map the reverse gear to the left trigger, which racing games have been doing for nearly a decade now.

“Space Channel 5 Part 2’s” uniqueness has allowed it to age a little better, because even with the advent of rhythmic music games, nothing plays quite like it. But its timing demands remain uncommonly stiff — now to the point where it feels broken on the more responsive 360 controller. “Sega Bass Fishing,” meanwhile, was only notable in its day because it supported a bizarre fishing reel controller that obviously doesn’t work on the 360. Why bring this back? Who knows.

Sega didn’t have to reinvent these games to justify selling them again, but even a little effort — controller concessions, interface redesigns, widescreen support for all games — would have done wonders for convincing us it cares at all about this collection. But it doesn’t, so neither should you.

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Back to the Future: Episode One: It’s About Time
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Also available for: Windows PC, Macintosh, iPad
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, language, mild violence)
Price: $20 for a PSN season pass (which gets you episodes two through five when they release on PSN); $25 for the season pass on PC/Mac; $7 for episode one separately on iPad

We’re not going to get a “Back to the Future IV,” but because the latest “BTTF” video game adaptation has landed in exactly the right hands, we no longer need it. “It’s About Time” isn’t a retelling of the movies: It’s a new story, set in 1986- and 1931-era Hill Valley, and it succeeds the events of the films, which still make their presence felt in some subtle, clever ways. Like most Telltale games, “Time” is a point-and-click adventure (optimized pretty painlessly for the PS3’s controller), and advancing through the story incurs a mix of saying the right things to the characters you (as Marty) meet and solving a few cause-and-effect puzzles to help trigger events beyond Marty’s direct control. In the case of this episode, that means meeting Doc Brown’s younger self in order to free the Doc you know and love from the local jailhouse. The puzzles aren’t exactly brainbusters, nor is “Time” a particularly lengthy game if you can quickly outsmart it. But those puzzles do their part in advancing a “BTTF” storyline that’s lain dormant for 21 years, and between the spot-on voice acting, the genuinely funny dialogue and the willingness to take creative license with the universe beyond what the movies provided, “Time” nails it. Like most Telltale releases, “Time” is merely the first of a five-episode pack you buy all at once, and if the teaser you see at the end of episode one is any indication, things will only get more interesting in episode two.