Games 5/24/11: L.A. Noire, Dream Trigger 3D, Pinball FX2: MARS, Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four

L.A. Noire
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Team Bondi/Rockstar
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $60

Fans of Rockstar-published games might look at “L.A. Noire’s” marketing, see the usual Rockstar game symptoms, and very understandably assume that, just as “Red Dead Redemption” was “Grand Theft Auto” in the Old West, this is “GTA” in 1940s Los Angeles.

But while “Noire” looks and sounds like a “GTA” game, it plays almost nothing like one. In fact, it plays quite like no other game out there, and if you can give it a chance to grow on you, this police detective simulator achieves its objective skillfully and with exceptional confidence.

First, a word on what “Noire” is not. Though you’re free to explore this massive, meticulously replicated chunk of Los Angeles however you like, this isn’t your typical open-world game. There are random street crimes scattered outside the game’s main storyline, but the overwhelming majority of “Noire’s” activity lies along the main road.

Additionally, you cannot run around, Niko Bellic-style, and raise random hell. Outside of specific instances in which you’re trading bullets with criminals, you can’t even draw your weapon. You’re police detective Cole Phelps, and this is the story of his ascent through the ranks, not of the time he lost his mind and murdered half the city.

Perhaps more jarring is that, third-person shootouts and car chases aside, “Noire” is primarily an adventure game. Some criminals will die from your gun, but most of your play time will consist of carefully scouring crime scenes for evidence and using your findings — combined with smart witness questioning and suspect interrogation — to successfully close a case.

Games have covered this ground before, but “Noire” does it better by venturing beyond the usual adventure game limitations.

Crime scenes, for instance, aren’t restrictive, cause-and-effect pixel hunts; they’re wide-open areas you freely explore like you would in any other open-ended third-person game. Some wonderfully subtle (and, if you’re feeling confident, optional) musical clues tell you if you’re near clues or have found all there is to find, but if you proceed to interrogation before fully turning a scene inside out, “Noire” does not intervene.

That goes as well for interviews. “Noire” compiles questions from clues you find, and you’re tasked with believing, challenging or (if you have evidence to back it up) outright accusing interviewees of deceit. “Noire” leaves it up to you to read people’s faces for signs of dishonesty, and it provides the means for doing so with some frighteningly advanced facial animation technology.

Occasionally, you can request help — most cleverly, via an “Ask the Community” feature that polls other players’ responses in the same situation. But “Noire” mostly lets you sink or swim here as well. If you fudge a line of questioning that undermines a case, the game doesn’t ask you to try again. The story barrels ahead, with the consequences of your misdeeds funneling into the overarching storyline.

(Don’t worry, completionists: You can replay completed cases as you please.)

The only place you’ll see a retry button is if you die in a shootout or get caught while stealthily tailing a suspect, but “Noire” keeps the difficulty of these portions pretty tepid.

Compared to “Noire’s” creative, lavishly detailed crime scene searches and its polished interrogation interfaces, the actual action is more sufficient than exemplary. The cars handle well and the cover-based shooting works perfectly fine, but both function more as dessert than the main course. Given how perfectly Team Bondi prepared that main course, that’ll more than do.


Dream Trigger 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Art Co. Ltd./D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $40

At first glance, “Dream Trigger 3D” looks like the fresh and totally bananas game some of us have been waiting for since the Nintendo 3DS launched with a lineup full of safe sequels and retreads.

At first play, the game seems absolutely impossible — a ridiculous mix of old-school shooter, “Lumines” and “Rez” that appears punishingly hard even on its very first level.

Upon subsequent playthroughs, though, the pieces that comprise the madness reveal their intricacies, and “Trigger” turns into a manageably frantic game with some unique ideas.

Unfortunately, that quickly leads to a whole new and wholly surprising problem: Is “Trigger,” which initially felt fresh and brutally imposing, really just shallow and way too easy instead?

It’s hard to translate “Trigger’s” methods into words that do it justice, but let’s try.

On “Trigger’s” top screen is your spaceship, which you control with either the joystick or D-pad. Surrounding you, along with the occasional power-up, are blips of light that are enemies who can attack you but are, in that incarnation, invincible.

To make them vulnerable, you have to use the touch screen, which functions like a radar screen and illustrates your invisible enemies as dots on a map. Drawing over those dots, and letting the “Lumines”-like sonar bar run over your scribbles, makes them visible on the top screen, where your ship is now free to blast them into oblivion.

Here’s the catch: Your ship only shoots forward, so you have to come into direct contact with each enemy to destroy it. The counter-catch, is that while your ship is firing, it’s invincible. The counter to that is that your ship can fire for only so long until it’s vulnerable again, and the best way to recharge your firepower is to continually expose new enemies with sonar.

Throw all those catches and conditions into one pot, turn the speed up, set the whole thing to a complementary musical beat and place it in front of various scrolling backgrounds that take terrific advantage of the 3DS’ 3D capabilities, and “Trigger” is an exciting exercise in managing two planes of activity at once.

Problem is, once you figure out the science behind it all, “Trigger” doesn’t throw any curveballs or do anything to meaningfully enhance it. There’s the appearance of a lot of content inside the box — a 55-level quest mode, free play, time attack, in-game achievements, two-player local wireless co-op and competitive multiplayer. But outside of aesthetics, little about the game changes from one level to another, and if you can beat the first level, you almost certainly can beat the last.

Perhaps most troubling is “Trigger’s” tendency to crash the 3DS entirely when the 3D slider is on — a rather significant issue, considering this is one of the better visual implementations thus far of the new system’s most prominent new feature.

Is this the game’s fault or the system’s firmware’s fault? Is this fixable with a patch? Are patches even possible on the 3DS? And if they are, does this mean the 3DS has joined the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in the unfortunate age of the patch? Time will tell, but there’s nothing comforting about these early findings, and it’s impossible to recommend purchase of a game that, at least for now, is prone to these breakdowns.


Pinball FX2: MARS
Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (requires free Pinball FX 2 dow
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Comic Mischief)
Price: $3 each

The tables keep rolling in for the endlessly expandable “Pinball FX 2,” and the latest additions keep the bar as high as it’s been since launch. The “Fantastic Four” table complements the Marvel four-pack Zen released last December, and like those tables, it makes excellent use of the comic’s heroes and villains by bringing them to life right on the table. In fact, its utilization of the The Thing, who guards the top of the table and can literally pick the ball up and swat it back at you like a volleyball, may be the most amusing application yet of a Marvel character in “PFX2.” The Mars table — a revamped version of a previously-released “Zen Pinball” table — appears less flashy at first glance. But once a Space Station soars in for a landing over your head or you make acquaintance with patrolling scanner bots or a spider bot who saves your ball, it’s clear that first impression was deceiving. The Mars table also features one of the better ramp layouts in a “PFX2” table thus far. Like its predecessors, both tables look terrific, handle authentically and hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. Both tables also integrate seamlessly into “PFX2?s” overriding achievements, leaderboards and score structure, making the best video game pinball platform around that much better.