Games 5/3/11: MotorStorm: Apocalypse, Lego Battles: Ninjago, The Fancy Pants Adventures

MotorStorm: Apocalypse
For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, violence)

It seems a bit odd to commend an arcade racing game set amongst a crumbling city for its subtlety. But when the obscene amount of destruction taking place sneaks up and grows on you like it sometimes does here, that’s the only word that works.

Like its fellow “MotorStorm” games, “MotorStorm Apocalypse” is an off-road racing game with a taste for physics that is unquenchable. Dune buggies, rally cars, motorcycles, sports cars, monster trucks, ATVs and big rigs all share the same track, and the game just slightly exaggerates the properties you’d expect from each vehicle to create some seriously chaotic races.

The controlled chaos that ensues isn’t for everyone now any more than it has been since the first “MotorStorm” game debuted in 2006. But for those who can get into it, there isn’t anything else out there quite like it. “Apocalypse’s” vehicles are squirrelly and very prone to subtle but unmistakable overreactions to jumps, bumps, boosts and anything else that forces a sudden change in speed or orientation.

What makes these brief losses of control perfectly acceptable is the terrific way “Apocalypse” compensates with an equally generous allowance for recovery. Provided you understand the properties of the vehicle you’re driving — bikes are fast and super responsive but extremely fragile, for instance, while trucks cannot change course nearly as quickly but are durable enough to use smaller vehicles to couch a spinout — “Apocalypse’s” responsiveness overcomes its lust for weighty physics just enough to never leave you feeling totally out of control for very long. The line it toes between control and bedlam is razor-thin, but it toes it beautifully.

The “MotorStorm” method looks ever more impressive with “Apocalypse” changing the setting from jungles and beaches to cities and suburbs — and doing so at no expense to the series’ off-road roots.

A goofy (in a good way, complete with cheesy motion-comic presentation) story explains all, but the gist of “Apocalypse” is this: A major city is about to get pummeled by a rogue’s gallery of natural disasters, and while all but a few stubborn citizens flee for safety, a gang of daredevil racers decide to use the city — and the ensuing disaster — as grounds for a competition.

It may not be a smart idea, but it’s a visually spectacular one. Best of all, it regularly sneaks up on you. During the course of a three-lap race, an earthquake might hit early and turn cracking roads into buckling waves and ramps, which you can hit to catch air and land atop a building the moment after it topples. Tidal waves and tornados change the routes you can take from lap to lap, and during the game’s best moments, it transforms from a street racer into an off-road racer right before your eyes. “Apocalypse’s” weather and other effects look awesome, and the game as a whole animates beautifully, but its that gradual transformation over the course of a race that’s most impressive.

Structurally, “Apocalypse” pretty closely resembles its predecessors, complementing a satisfying single-player mode with splitscreen (four players, with the option to fill the remaining slots with A.I. racers) and online (16 players) multiplayer. A persistent milestone track awards you with unlockable perks, medals and new parts, which you can use to design and share customized vehicles with friends.

Unfortunately, the current Playstation Network outage means there’s no way to test the online functionality yet. If “Apocalypse’s” multiplayer fidelity is a make-or-break factor in your decision to purchase or pass, you’ll need to wait a little longer to make a choice.


Lego Battles: Ninjago
For: Nintendo DS
From: Hellbent Games/TT Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Inevitably, somebody was going to wise up and design a real-time strategy game that would allow kids and absolute novices to cut their teeth on the genre without getting completely demoralized in the process.

Arguably, “Lego Battles: Ninjago” succeeds at doing exactly that. Just as arguably, though, it goes overboard in its attempt to do so.

Conceptually and structurally, “Ninjago” has its head in the right place. The Lego license, and TT Games’ impressive aptitude for mining it for comedic storytelling, gets the storytelling off to an entertaining start before passing the baton to the tutorial.

From here, “Ninjago” demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how to create a strategy game that feels like its bigger-budget contemporaries without overwhelming new players the way those games would. Controls work as you expect via the touch screen, and while the smaller screen sometimes makes it tricky to select specific units precisely, it works pretty well with practice. That holds true as well for the overlying interface, which lays out a host of management tools — a mini-map, resource tallies, build queues, objectives and more — in a way that’s easy to manage and rarely intrusive.

Unfortunately, where “Ninjago” goes a bit too far in the user-friendliness department is in the action itself, which rarely provides players with any serious adversity to overcome.

Too many missions force players to seek and attack rather than defend, which tends to limit the amount of creativity you can apply to your battle plan. That’d be unfortunate even if “Ninjago” provided you with fair fights to win, but there is almost never an instance in which your troops do not outnumber and overpower the enemy battalion by several degrees.

Short of malicious neglect of your troops, it’s awfully hard to lose a fight, and even kids who are completely green in the art of troop management should back their way into conquests with little trouble. Contemporary kids’ games are generally bad about underestimating the abilities of their audience, and while “Ninjago’s” lack of credit is no more offensive than that of other kids’ games, it’s harder for a slower-paced game like this to hide it.

The sum total is a game that’s impressive and underwhelming all at once. Ultimately, until a better challenger comes along, it’s still easy to recommend to parents with kids who want to graduate to “StarCraft” someday but have nothing to play with in the meantime. Even with the disappointing lack of difficulty, “Ninjago” succeeds in providing a pretty spot-on introduction to real-time strategy games, and between the story mode and a secondary skirmish mode that includes a handful of popular match types (tower defense, capture the flag, king of the hill and more), it’s definitely comprehensive.

Provided you have a friend with a second copy of the game, “Ninjago’s” two-player local wireless multiplayer is the best news of all. All the single-player skirmish matches make the move over to this area, and even the most unseasoned human opponent should provide a more unpredictable resistance than the A.I. does. It’s in this department where “Ninjago” most closely reaches its potential as a strategy game that doesn’t play down to its audience. Unfortunately, because you need one copy of the game per system, it’s also the one area players are most likely to never experience.


The Fancy Pants Adventures
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Borne Games/Over The Top Games/EA2D
Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $10

“The Fancy Pants Adventures” began life as a Flash game, but don’t dismiss it because of its origins. The Flash-esque graphics — flat and hand-drawn — are simple, but they perfectly complement some seriously fluid animation. That animation, in turn, allows “Adventures” to be a slightly different flavor of 2D platformer — one that depends heavily on wall jumps, slides and momentum as well as the usual running and jumping to fly through levels from bottom to top as well as left to right. All of this translates seamlessly from the keyboard to the gamepad, and “Adventures” considerably builds around the original game with a story mode and a large handful of mini-games and bonus levels that test players’ speed and ability to chain together acrobatic maneuvers. For the truly compulsive, it goes deeper than that: “Adventures” scatters collectibles and hidden challenge rooms all over each level, and maneuvering through the levels to find those rooms is just as fun as entering them and completing the challenge. You can blow through the story in a couple hours or so, but players bent on seeing and completing everything the game offers will be at it for many hours longer than that. If you need help, “Adventures” offers co-op support (four players, locally or online), but be warned: Like “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” the game includes the means and motivations for players to toss their good intentions aside and gleefully antagonize each other instead.