Games 4/12/11: The 3rd Birthday, Mayhem, StarDrone

The 3rd Birthday
For: Playstation Portable
From: HexaDrive/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

It’s been a long time — 10 years — since we last saw Aya Brea in “Parasite Eve II,” and for those who cared about the games she was in rather than Aya herself, this likely isn’t the homecoming you had in mind.

Officially, “The 3rd Birthday” marks the continuation of the “Eve” storyline, an opera of mutated monkeys, genetic engineering and spontaneous combustion that’s entirely too bizarre to explain succinctly. Unofficially, it doesn’t much matter: Only a few other characters make the crossover from “Eve” to “Birthday,” and while there are definite ties to the past — Manhattan and Christmas Eve really do not mix in Aya’s world — the new storyline feels more like a fresh crisis for a familiar face than something reliant on events whose explanations exist in a decade-old game.

More to the point, though, “Birthday” doesn’t play anything like the “Eve” games, which creatively layered role-playing game elements atop horror gameplay from the “Resident Evil” playbook.

“Birthday,” by contrast, is a third-person shooter, and even by the classifications of that genre, it falls heavily on the arcadey side. A heavy infusion of storytelling directs the action, but most of the time, you enter an area, the music swells, you clear the area of monsters, move to the next area and repeat. The game compensates for the PSP’s lack of a second stick by using the left trigger to lock onto enemies and making aiming mostly unnecessary, which in turn transforms “Birthday” into a run-and-gun shooter that rarely stops running and gunning.

If it sounds repetitive — especially stretched across the 12 or so hours “Birthday” needs to weave yet another enjoyably labyrinthine story — that’s because it is. But the general fast pace of the action means it also stays fresher than if “Birthday” moved at the speed of a traditional third-person shooter.

“Birthday” also helps itself by throwing in some oddball mechanics that, while often confusingly explained, do serve their purpose.

Because Aya is more a spiritual presence in these shootouts instead of there in the flesh (crazy story explains, don’t worry), you’re free to “jump” into the bodies of your human allies, control their movements, and jump at will from body to body. As long as the body Aya assumes doesn’t die, neither does she, and being able to leap around the environment so quickly allows her to flank enemies and use cover in some creative ways.

Other tricks aren’t quite as significant but do come in handy. Aya can use the same trick to temporarily jump into the bodies of weakened enemies and destroy them from within, and a limited-use trick called Liberation temporarily makes her an invincible force of nature. “Birthday” doesn’t give you much in the way of tactical controls over your allies, but it is possible to duck behind cover, direct crossfire on a specific enemy, and either evade the enemy or finish it off while your allies concentrate their fire that way.

If you like “Birthday’s” brand of shooting enough at its outset, the flavor these mechanics provide — along with an elaborate weapons/armor upgrade system and a completely convoluted (but, once you get it, pretty cool) means of upgrading Aya’s DNA — should keep it in your favor while the story does what it does. “Eve’s” unique gameplay remains missed, but “Birthday” carries on the series’ quirky storytelling disposition, and that may be the more important of the two legacies here.

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Mayhem
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Left Field Productions/Rombax Games/Evolved Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

From the numerous mentions of 3D in the marketing to the two pairs of 3D glasses bundled inside, “Mayhem” makes a pretty big deal about its stereoscopic 3D capabilities. Unfortunately, it’s much ado about nothing: The glasses are the old-fashioned red and blue variety, and the results of using them — so-so results for some, headaches for most — is the same it’s always been with that kind of 3D technology.

Fortunately, the 3D is optional and disabled by default. Twice as fortunately, “Mayhem” doesn’t even need the gimmick, because it’s an entirely great time on its own merits.

In large part, that’s because “Mayhem” is the first game since 2007’s “FlatOut: Head On” to successfully attack a genre — destruction derby racing — that’s a no-brainer for gaming possibilities but also a magnet for lousy budget titles that don’t even try to do it right.

Like “FlatOut,” “Mayhem” splits its time between racing events (traditional race and longer elimination-style events) and car combat (a last-vehicle-standing destruction derby and an event where you must knock the opposing vehicles off the track and into pits before they do the same to you).

But speed and destruction are never mutually exclusive. “Mayhem’s” races — often set on figure eights and other tracks where you’ll run into cross- and opposing traffic — are wonderfully perilous, and taking first place is as much about knocking your opponents off the track as it is about boosting past them down a straightaway. Conversely, because the combat arenas are nice and large, you’re afforded plenty of room to attack with purpose, finesse and speed instead of merely bump and react.

“Mayhem’s” driving physics, which vary nicely across 120 delightfully clunky sedans, wagons, trucks and even monster trucks, play their part perfectly. They’re a little squirrelly, which can lead to your getting turned completely around in a race where you trade paint and lose the fight, but they’re more than sufficiently responsive in terms of steering and cornering. The action is fast without feeling needlessly unwieldy, and there’s an unmistakable weight to the vehicles that does not come at the expense of their handling. Everything feels just right.

Though the 3D experiment isn’t a rousing success, “Mayhem’s” graphic novel-style presentation gives the game a striking visual personality anyway. Nearly the entirety of the game — vehicles, tracks, arenas — appears in stark black and white, with the only sources of color being a blood red skyline and the occasional bright yellow “BAM!” that pops in after a particularly vicious collision. The unique look is a jaw-dropper at first, and it surprisingly doesn’t get stale or even get in the way once you grow accustomed to it. Credit the level of detail in the cars and tracks, which squeeze as much out of that minimal color palette as could possibly be expected.

If “Mayhem” hobbles anywhere, it’s in the longevity department, but the budget asking price goes a long way toward mitigating even this concern. The game’s career mode can be finished off in four hours or so, and outside of unlocking all the vehicles, there’s little else in the way of dangling carrots. But the racing is fun, fast and distinct enough to make “Mayhem” replayable simply on the merits of replaying it for fun, and if you have friends whose taste in racing games runs parallel to yours, the simple but sufficient multiplayer support (two players split-screen, eight online) has your back.

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StarDrone
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: TastyPlay/Beatshapers
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

To really understand “StarDrone” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, be
cause while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a little bit of pinball, a little bit of “Breakout” and a little bit of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), describing exactly how it comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the general goal in “StarDrone” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 53 levels and clears the area of collectible stars (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. But you don’t control the ship directly — enter slinging physics — and the levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some fatal, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, “StarDrone” may even be too unwieldy to truly enjoy. But for the player who loves nothing more than to replay levels in hopes of shaving a second off that finishing time and shoot for each level’s gold medal score, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “StarDrone’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Just keep a DualShock handy if you want to do your best: “StarDrone’s” lauded Playstation Move support delivers as advertised, but it supports traditional controllers equally well, and the added precision they afford will come in handy come high score pursuit time.