Games 5/17/11: MX vs. ATV Alive, Brink, Gatling Gears

MX vs. ATV Alive
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $40

Just in case the current economy of video games wasn’t in enough confusing flux for you, along comes the newest and strangest chapter in the long-running “MX vs. ATV” series to confuse it just a little bit more.

(You didn’t think the lower retail price — $40, down from the usual $60 — was because THQ loves you, did you?)

It isn’t. Rather, it’s the basis of a new pricing plan that, if successful, may become a new normal.

For that lower price, “Alive” arrives with the best iteration yet of its unique brand of off-road racing. It also comes standard with a smattering of tracks and single- and multiplayer (two players splitscreen, 12 online) modes. Initially, most of the tracks and events are locked, though every mode has a few that are available to play straight away.

Instead of the usual career mode, “Alive” outfits you with a single experience points bar that accrues experience across every mode of play. Upgrade to a new experience level, and new parts avail themselves to your rider and his motorbikes and ATVs. Achieve certain level milestones — level 10, for instance — and you get faster vehicles to ride, new tracks on which to ride them, and new events (online and offline) that are available only to players of certain level classes.

Beyond that? Open up your wallet. “Alive” prominently features an online store in its main menu, and THQ plans to gradually stock it with new events, vehicles and tracks you can purchase piecemeal, eventually turning your $40 investment into whatever price you’re willing to pay.

Cynicism about the “have it your way” messaging aside, “Alive’s” handling of this idea could be worse. If you never drop a dime into the store, there’s still a respectable amount of content to unlock simply by playing the game and leveling up. (New copies of the game also include a voucher for a free download that includes what are, until you reach level 10, the best tracks and events in the core game.)

But for being a game that’s all about the art of the continuous reward, “Alive” errs by unlocking that core content at an aggravatingly slow pace. Until you reach that 10th level, for instance, you’re stuck riding the same four long tracks, two short tracks and three free ride environments (voucher content included) ad nauseam. A trickle of new events becomes available then, at which point you repeat the process with a little more variety until you hit level 25.

The idea, of course, is for you to alleviate the tedium by buying new stuff online. (Predictably, you can even pay to unlock all core content straight away.) But when all the math is done, that isn’t a terribly great trade-off when you consider this so-called flexibility comes at the expense of the more full-featured career modes from previous games.

But if you have to ride these tracks over and over, at least it’s fun to do so. “Alive” continues the heavy infusion of physics that really came into focus in the last game, asking players to control their rider’s body and position while simultaneously controlling the vehicle. The dueling weight factors (along with the effects of heavy track deformation) add a subtle but unmistakable layer of strategy to the art of cornering and fighting for position — in the air, post-ramp, as well as on the dirt. But none of these factors work at the expense of the speed, danger and general freneticism that’s made the games so accessible all these years.

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Brink
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Splash Damage/Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

In a perfect world, “Brink” would be a compelling first-person shooter. One day, if a patient community has formed around it after some patches arrive, it may still be.

Right now, though, it’s a fiasco — a mess of too many mishandled good ideas relentlessly undercutting one another.

On paper, it sounds like the zenith of dynamic, squad-based combat. “Brink’s” crumbling post-apocalyptic utopia has two warring factions — those interested in preserving the floating city known as The Ark, and those bent on leaving it for a new life — and the game offers a separate playable campaign for each faction.

Beneath that lies a healthy collection of classes (soldier, engineer, medic, operative), weapons, body types (big guys tolerate more damage, while smaller guys are faster and able to wall-run to ledges the big guys can’t reach) and perks that unlock as players accumulate experience points. The perks range from an enormous suite of weapon attachments to stackable special abilities, and if you know what kind of attack strategy you want to adopt, you almost certainly can find a combination that supports it.

In action, though, it’s a race to see which tantalizing piece of “Brink’s” puzzle can disappoint you first.

Take, for instance, the campaigns. “Brink” sells itself as a game that can be seamlessly enjoyed as a single- or 16-player online experience, but in reality the campaigns are glorified multiplayer matches that support A.I. bots if human competition isn’t available.

Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose situation. “Brink’s” net code is prone to lag that’s impossible to ignore even with just a few human players, and it’s a mess when eight players fill each side. But playing alone is even worse, thanks to some unbelievably stupid ally and enemy artificial intelligence. The value of teamwork is no trivial matter here: If your teammates cannot complete an objective themselves, they most certainly need to protect you while you do so. But your teammates repeatedly fall asleep at the wheel, and because enemies storm objective points or spawn endlessly right near them, you’re climbing an impossibly steep hill without their assistance.

And for what? “Brink’s” story barely says. Outside of a few audio logs and some laughably half-hearted cutscenes at the top of each stage — which you can play out of order for all the game cares — the game’s fiction barely colors in the details of this conflict. Instead, you get roughly six hours’ worth of missions whose objectives rarely make much sense.

Even if you can somehow assemble 15 friends to play the game the right way (a heady proposition for any online multiplayer game in which breaking rank has little consequence), and even if you manage to avoid all that lag, “Brink’s” fundamentals are too shoddy to keep it satisfying. The guns feel week and unwieldy, even when staring down the sights. The grenades explode with all the fury of a balloon flying too close to a ceiling fan. The environments have a unique look, but the objectives — in addition to too often being incredibly boring instances of “stand here and guard X for X minutes” — almost always take place in congested corridors that degenerate into artless shootouts at point-blank range. “Brink” makes a big deal about characters’ ability to free run, but it doesn’t integrate these abilities into the objectives nearly enough.

Splash Damage has already gone on the offensive with promises to fix its game, and maybe it’ll deliver. But it hasn’t yet, and until that changes, your money should stay where it is.

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Gatling Gears
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), Windows PC
From: Vanguard Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)
Price: $15

The age-old game design truth remains true: If something you do isn’t original, you’ll be forgiven as long as you do it well. “Gatling Gears” is the umpteenth twin-stick shooter (left joystick to move, right stick to aim and shoot) to appear in the last few years, and while the tutorial teases a technically (and visually) polished game with large levels and lots of firepower — gatling guns, rockets and grenades are all available immediately and in nearly infinite capacity — it also inspires no confidence that it does the same old formula better than the numerous games that preceded it. Fortunately, after a few decent but slow levels, things change considerably for the better. “Gears” doesn’t rewrite the script, but it fills it with some terrifically frantic action that’s imposing without being cheaply difficult. An upgrade path allows you to significantly improve the oomph of all three weapons, and “Gears” counters by crowding its pretty outdoor environments with increasingly tougher enemy soldiers, vehicles and robotic contraptions — topped on each level by some terrific multi-stage encounters with bosses that sometimes command half the screen. “Gears'” campaign is lengthy and polished enough to command the $15 tag, and it complements it with an arcade-style Survival Mode and two-player offline/online co-op support across all modes. The proliferation of twin-stick shooters has dampened the excitement whenever yet another one arrives, but if you like the genre, this is one of the good ones.