Games 5/10/11: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, DanceDanceRevolution, Outland

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, PSP and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30-$50

If you’re at all familiar by now with the Lego games, you know precisely how “Lego Pirates of the Caribbean” goes.

Whether that’s a good thing or not is, of course, up to you.

Even by the standards of recent Lego games, “Pirates” feels married to a formula that charmed everyone in 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” but has evolved at a glacial pace ever since. The game divides itself into four mini-campaigns based on the four “Pirates” movies — including the upcoming “On Stranger Tides” — and the extreme majority of these levels finds players controlling Lego-fied versions of the films’ most popular characters as they reenact the most memorable scenes from each movie.

This has been the case with every console “Lego” game. But the Lego-fied heroes and villains of “Lego Batman” at least had cool gadgets to play with, while “Star Wars” and “Lego Harry Potter” had a wide complement of vehicles and spells, respectively, to diversify the action a little bit.

“Pirates” trots out a few new tricks. You can occasionally fire a cannon in first-person mode, solve puzzles using Jack Sparrow’s versatile compass, and sometimes control a whole party of characters instead of the usual twosome. “Pirates” also is the prettiest Lego game yet, with levels that take place both above and below sea level and in front of the kind of picturesque vistas rarely seen in these worlds.

But the vast majority of “Pirates” is the same gameplay — light platforming, light combat and cause-and-effect puzzles that are a weird mix of illogical and overly easy — that has defined these games for six years now. Things that could’ve used improvement in 2005 — the awkward fixed camera, imprecise jumping controls, combat undermined by loose collision detection, the lack of online co-op support — remain in need of improvement, and the aforementioned additions are neither significant nor pervasive enough to mix things up the way “Batman’s” and “Potter’s” diversions did. If you came here hoping for anything beyond more of the same, you’re even more out of luck than usual.

At least the cutscenes remain funny. In fact, if you like the idea of the “Pirates” movies more the drawn-out, rambling movies themselves, this might be the gateway you’ve been waiting for.

The Lego games, for all the routines they follow, are consistently brilliant in the art of converting its source material into funny cutscenes powered completely by body language, pantomiming and genuinely amusing slapstick. “Pirates” has less iconic material to work with than previous Lego games did, and because the “Pirates” movies are already campier than the likes of “Potter” and “Star Wars,” there’s less of an opportunity to take a completely serious scene and find a way to mine it for laughs. But the more restrictive parameters don’t keep TT Games from working its storytelling magic, and the result — funny, easy to follow and rarely bogged down in directionless blather the way the movies are — is entirely palatable whether you love the movies or have never even seen them.

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DanceDanceRevolution
For: Xbox 360
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, suggestive themes)
Price: $40 for game and mat bundle

The subtitle-free name may scream “reboot” — as if Konami recognizes it released a few too many “DanceDanceRevolution” games (including three others on the Xbox 360 alone) over the years and wants to start over.

But in the post-Kinect age, “relic” feels like a more appropriate term. Fresh start or no fresh start, entirely too little has changed to make “DDR” feel like anything but a slightly different version of the slightly different games that preceded it — and too much has changed elsewhere to make that acceptable anymore.

This isn’t to suggest what worked before cannot work now. The “DDR” formula — step on the bundled dance mat’s giant buttons in accordance with the visual prompts and beats of the music — is recognizable to the point of iconic now, and it remains as simple as ever to play and difficult as ever to master. If there’s an advantage to releasing slight variations of the same game so many times over the years, it’s that Konami has the difficulty curve locked down. Between the multiple difficulty settings and room for tweaking in the options screens, “DDR” has the range to accommodate just about everybody.

All those passing years have also allowed Konami to pack a lot of modes and features into these games. “DDR” isn’t as ambitious as the “DDR Universe” series, which sent a horde of features orbiting around elaborate single-player quest modes, but the usual arcade modes are accounted for. The new Club Mode slightly mimics the “Universe” quests by stringing songs together and asking players to complete challenges beyond just hitting the right buttons. A four-player Dance Off mode lets players take turns racking up the best score on a song, though it — along with all of “DDR’s” modes — lacks online multiplayer support.

Of course, when “DDR” trumpets an offline-only multiplayer mode as one of its big new features, it says volumes about the series’ age and inability to grow with the times. It’s a bit shortsighted to omit online multiplayer from any Xbox 360 game that has the means to support it, and it looks downright lazy when that game marks the series’ fourth iteration on the system.

But Konami’s bigger problem by far is its complete ignorance of Kinect. “DDR” arrives nearly six months after “Dance Central” made waves as the Kinect’s best launch title, and that game’s range of motion — utilizing a player’s upper as well as lower body and doing so without any need for a dance mat — makes this game’s range look positively ancient.

It doesn’t help that the mat remains a wired accessory. The wire is pretty long, but if you’ve arranged your setup to accommodate either the Kinect or a wireless setup in general, there’s still a chance you can’t even plug this thing in and place it at a comfortable distance from your setup.

Konami has, to its credit, priced “DDR” to move. Even with the mat bundled inside, the $40 price is cheaper than the “Universe” games cost all by themselves.

But the low price reads like an admission that “DDR” isn’t the revamp its name implies it should have been. The room for growth is more spacious now than its ever been, and if there’s a fifth “DDR” game for this system, it’d be wise to evolve if it wants to be looked at as more than a budget game for old fans.

For those curious, a complete list of songs included in “DDR” is available at konami.com/ddr. Additionally, if you’ve purchased downloadable tracks over Xbox Live for the “Universe” games, they will work in this game as well.

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Outland
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Housemarque/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Like many contemporary 2D platformers, “Outland” takes a page from “Metroid’s” playbook, sprawling its adventure across a large, open-ended landscape dotted with collectable abilities that gradually increase your ability to access the world’s most far-reaching corners. But “Outland” sets itse
lf apart by taking a page from a whole other genre — overhead space shooters, and “Ikaruga” in particular — and integrating it in a way that never once feels forced or awkward. As the story explains, “Outland” pretty quickly gives you the ability to change your energy from light (blue) to dark (red). Red projectiles can hurt you only when you’re blue (and vice versa), and while you can hurt enemies of the same color, you’ll do more damage when you switch energies. The formula allows “Outland” to assume the traits of a bullet hell space shooter, flooding levels with red and blue projectiles and asking you to run, jump and slide through mazes of bullets while quickly swapping between energies to stay alive. It’s an extremely clever concept, and because the game’s controls and animation are as perfectly fluid as they are, it works unbelievably well in practice. “Outland’s” visual style — half silhouette, half moving painting — is terrifically unique, and between the retail-sized campaign and support for two-player online co-op, it earns its $10 asking price without breaking a sweat.