Games 3/29/11: Crysis 2, Playstation Move Heroes, Swarm, Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime

Crysis 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Crytek/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

At least nowadays, “Crysis 2” is a rare breed of first-person shooter. It tells a thoroughly epic story over 12 hours instead of four and within a single game instead of across a cliffhanger-riddled trilogy. Rather than start furiously and plateau, it also continually gets better as those hours pass.

Good thing, too, because the first two hours? Not so great.

The alien invasion of New York City eventually enters full bloom, but before you face it firsthand, you’ll have to contend with a private military that will kill you for your nanotechnological armor, which affords you superhuman physical abilities and the limited ability to cloak yourself and become nearly invincible.

“Crysis 2” flashes some of its gifts — particularly, the jaw-dropping transformation of Manhattan into a battlefield that’s crumbling all around you — during these skirmishes. But the human enemy A.I. is impossibly binary, with soldiers almost psychically pelting you with bullets one moment and completely losing track of your position the next. Your armor’s abilities come into play, but not nearly to their potential, and during the game’s flattest moments, you’re forced to mindlessly react rather than strategize.

But “Crysis 2” makes a furious rally once the corporation steps back and the aliens take over. Our invaders flash a much larger range of intelligence, which both makes them a more formidable enemy and frees you to use your setting, abilities and firearms to fight your way — stealthily, from a distance or violently barreling forward.

Without spoiling the details, things only improve going forward. Your armor’s abilities grow more durable, the alien forces respond in higher numbers, and “Crysis 2” drops you into one set piece after another and asks you to fend off enemies descending from all 360 degrees. The chaos increases, but the balance issues from earlier never return.

The relentless depiction of the invasion’s progress is similarly terrific. The “Crysis” brand is synonymous with graphical fidelity, and “Crysis 2” certainly delivers on that renown. But more than polygons or textures, it’s the real-time depiction of New York’s pending demise — buckling streets, crashing buildings, iconic architecture transformed to resemble the Death Star from “Return of the Jedi” — that will stick with you.

The devastation works in concert with a story that, even if it doesn’t make those early shootouts fun, most certainly justifies the private military’s inclusion in the fray. Again, no spoilers here. But the story starts with a bang, develops at a terrific pace throughout the campaign, and goes wonderfully (but sensibly) crazy during the homestretch. Ties to “Crysis” and the inevitable “Crysis 3” lie within, but overwhelmingly, this story soars without any dependency on prior or pending events.

Beyond the inability to play as the aliens — you’re fighting either as Marines or privatized military — “Crysis 2’s” online multiplayer (12 players) is similarly fulfilling. “Crysis”-themed variants on the usual match types make appearances, highlighted by a clever Crash Site mode in which teams race to extract energy from alien pods that crash-land in random locations. The maps are diverse, a full experience points system gradually unlocks new perks across a multitude of classes, and the flexibility with regard to private matches, options and matchmaking (including an area open strictly to inexperienced players) makes it very accessible.

Impressively, the multiplayer includes suit powers at no expense to its balance. Everybody starts off with basic cloaking and weapon resistance powers, but the powers hold a limited charge before needing a recharge. So you can use them as an impromptu crutch or a strategic catalyst, but not both at once. Choose carefully.

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Playstation Move Heroes
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Nihilistic Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

Let’s be clear: Even though the six characters who share the “Playstation Move Heroes” marquee originate from some of the best platforming games of the last decade, they’re strictly here as friendly faces on loan from that genre. The premise and structure allow “Heroes” to sometimes feel like more than a collection of not-quite-mini-games that use the Playstation Move controller in various ways, but broken down to its essentials, that’s what this is.

“Heroes” kicks off with a cute cutscene that brings our heroes (Jak, Daxter, Ratchet, Clank, Sly Cooper and Bentley) together, allows them to make their awkward acquaintance, and gives us a skeletal storyline that explains why they’re trapped in this alternate dimension. It doesn’t really make sense — picture a game show, hokey narrator and all, in which our heroes must rescue “fans” from peril in order to save themselves — but as excuses go, it’s well-made and good for some fun fan service.

The challenges that comprise “Heroes” mix and match different objectives (free fans, protect fans, survive an enemy onslaught) with five different play styles that utilize the Move controller in various ways. Basic melee combat works predictably — swing the Move wand to swing your character’s corresponding weapon — and a variant replaces that weapon with a whip that’s pretty fun to crack. Events designed around shooting enemies and targets with a blaster also function like you’d expect, with the wand becoming a makeshift blaster you point at the screen and fire.

“Heroes” shines brightest during the remaining two play styles, which center around bowling and disc throwing. In both cases, the motions you make are reflected in the strength and angle with which your character throws the disc or rolls the ball, and in both cases, you can continue steering the ball or disc after they’ve left your hand. You even can make the ball jump with a quick flick of the wand.

Trimmings like that, along with levels designed to take advantage of them, are what elevate “Heroes” from a vanilla mini-game collection to something a little more ambitious. Rolling a bowling ball at a target is one thing; rolling and steering it around a corner, over a blockade, up a ramp and into some pinball-style bumpers before manually detonating it is another.

“Heroes'” environments are large and elaborate — so much so that you need a Navigation or standard PS3 controller to freely move through them while the wand simultaneously handles other duties. Unlockables and score multiplayers are scattered everywhere, and netting gold medal-worthy scores requires a level of creativity and exploration that’s foreign to your typical mini-game collection.

But “Heroes” isn’t impervious to what ails its peers. Even with the extra coat of ambition, the events mix up only so much from instance to instance, and if you don’t enjoy revisiting old challenges in an attempt to attain gold medal scores across the entirety of the game, you might see all you want to see within a casual weekend of play.

Primarily, that’s due to the game’s unfortunate inability to parlay its events into any kind of competitive multiplayer format. “Heroes” supports two-player co-op, but the second player merely assists via a targeting reticule instead of as a second character. It’s fun, but it lacks the longevity a competitive format would have even with stripped-down versions of the various challenges.
Mini-game collections may be shallow, but they remain popular because they’re an easy choice for party game play, and “Heroes” cripples its long-term value by ignoring that point.

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Swarm
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Hothead Games/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Imagine a re-imagined “Lemmings” in which you control the Lemmings directly instead of simply guide them, and you have an inkling of an idea about “Swarm,” a sidescrolling platformer which tasks you with controlling 50 characters at once instead of one. The goal in “Swarm” is classically simple — get as many swarmites to the exit as possible, and rack up an impressive score by keeping your score multiplier high while also keeping swarmite casualties to a minimum. But that’s easier said than done. The adorable swarmites — bug-eyed blue aliens who demonstrate no free will and no desire to change that — are as stupid as they look, and they’re magnets for danger. Occasionally, when you need a few to sacrifice themselves to protect the rest, their stupidity is beneficial. Mostly, though, it’s just trouble, and when “Swarm’s” trickier levels ask you to perform maneuvers that would require finesse with one character, never mind 50, don’t be surprised to limp to the exit after witnessing the deaths of 500 Swarmites in a few minutes’ time. Level checkpoints frequently resupply your Swarmite army, but you’ll want to keep as many of your original 50 alive as possible in order to access certain level secrets and finish with a score high enough to unlock the next level. “Swarm’s” odd controls — lots of basic functions mapped to the triggers — take some practice, but mostly, the challenge it presents is the good kind. If you love your sidescrolling platformers, like being challenged, and crave something different, don’t skip this.

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Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Windows PC
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Back when downloadable games cost $5, missteps and cut corners similar to those found in “Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime” were easily accepted. But with a higher price comes a higher bar, and “Slime” — which attempts to apply the dual-stick shooter formula to a license seemingly fit for it — comes nowhere close to reaching it. The structure — enter room, doors lock, kill ghosts, doors unlock, leave room, repeat — grows monotonous in a hurry, in part because the actual act of busting ghosts is hampered by imprecise controls and a proton stream that lacks impact. But it only gets worse, not better, when “Slime” provides new weapons to use, because whatever variety they introduce gets kneecapped by an intrusive contrivance that makes certain ghosts completely impervious to certain weapons. Once the difficulty spikes and the screen crowds with multiple varieties of ghosts, you’re constantly switching weapons according to the game’s demands instead of your own preferences. The resulting chaos is a nightmare when playing alone with three A.I.-controlled partners: Their poor battlefield awareness makes them sitting ducks during boss fights, which, along with the levels themselves, start to repeat during “Slime’s” back half. So if you must play “Slime,” you’d best find friends to assist you via co-op play (four players, online/offline). Just don’t bother if it’s fan service you’re after: Between the flat story presentation (blurry comic panels with way too much text considering the context) and the replacing of the Ghostbusters you know with a cast of unknowns, “Slime” falls short in this regard as well.