Child of Eden
For: Xbox 360
From: Q Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence)
Lest there be any confusion, you can play “Child of Eden” slumped in a chair with a controller. Should you choose to do so, what you get — a visually and functionally worthy spiritual successor to “Rez” that’s nearly miraculous simply for existing, given how acute “Rez’s” devoted following was — is pretty great.
But ever since Microsoft started branding Kinect-optional games’ boxes with the “Better With Kinect” tag, it’s never been nearly so true as it is in this instance.
For those familiar with “Rez,” consider this its direct sequel: It comes from the same minds who brought you “Rez” and, more to the point, plays a whole lot like it.
For those unfamiliar, “Eden” is a rhythm-based rail shooter that continually hurtles you forward through fantastical themed worlds that play out like living music videos. The gameplay is pretty elementary: Enemies fly at you, and you need to neutralize them with a weapon that locks onto up to eight enemies at once before firing. Unlike “Rez,” which gave you an on-screen avatar, you’re represented in the first-person “Eden” by a circular reticule that you move either with the left stick (controller) or your right hand (Kinect).
Should the enemies get off a shot, a new weapon that continually auto-fires is on hand — in the case of Kinect, literally on your left hand — to shoot down projectiles. (The controller method uses a single reticule and maps the weapons to different buttons, while the Kinect method asks that you keep one hand visible at a time to determine which weapon you wish to use.)
As with “Rez,” what elevates “Eden” from simple to special is the degree to which your actions both feed off of and feed into the look and sound of the game. Players who simultaneously take out eight targets in perfect time with the music receive a bonus score multiplier, but your actions continually alter the rhythm and beat density regardless of how good you are at keeping a beat.
Naturally, with 10 years of technological advancements at its back, “Eden” can do things “Rez” couldn’t in 2001 or even in its 2008 high-definition remaster. The five worlds are more diverse than “Rez’s” five levels were, and the sheer level of visual effects — along with “Eden’s” ability to seamlessly alter perspective and assets when transitioning from one sequence to the next — makes this a most unconventional showpiece title.
For Kinect owners, that’s doubly true, because from the opening menu onward, “Eden” absolutely shames pretty much every Kinect game to date in terms of fidelity and motion recognition. The game is still easier to play with a controller — no margin for error is still better than a small margin — but conducting the action with your hands instead of simply controlling it with sticks makes for a wholly different experience.
(To “Eden’s” credit, it encourages you to play both ways by using separate score leaderboards for Kinect and controller methods.)
As with “Rez,” “Eden” isn’t exactly bursting with content, and if your aim is to see each world once and only once, you’ll be finished in two hours’ time.
But if you look at “Eden” and only see two hours of gameplay, this probably wasn’t made with you in mind. Experiencing each world is great fun, but “Eden’s” true obsession — as with “Rez,” which you’d best believe still gets heavy play to this day — is the classically arcade pursuit of a higher score. “Eden” includes a suite of mostly meaningless unlockables to attain through repeated playthroughs, but it’s the online leaderboards that, for the right crowd, will turn two hours into 200.
Shadows of the Damned
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Grasshopper Manufacture/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
When a game lets style run completely wild over substance the way “Shadows of the Damned” does, it’s usually because there really isn’t a whole lot of substance in place to stop it from doing so.
But while “Damned” doubtlessly will be best remembered for its characters, setting, humor and overall audiovisual presentation, each of these headliners serves to complement rather than mask the actual gameplay, which is — while mostly conventional, save for a few hit-or-miss bits — quite good in its own right.
On a textbook level, nearly everything about “Damned” is standard-issue. It’s primarily a run-and-gun third-person shooter. Your weapons, broken down, are the same old pistol/shotgun/machine gun/blunt weapon foursome that’s ruled shooters for two decades. Common enemies attack in waves, boss enemies inevitably have a red weak spot, and advancing through levels often means finding a key here to open a gate there. Even the story — demon hunter Garcia Hotspur must trespass in Hell to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend — is simply a darker version of rescuing the princess from the dragon.
But for every old convention “Damned” calls in, it has a special ingredient to freshen it up and own it.
The weapons foursome, for instance, is actually a single, transforming weapon that doubles as Johnson, a wonderfully cheerful talking skeleton head who becomes Garcia’s best pal as they traverse through Hell. Though “Damned” isn’t afraid to delve into juvenile humor — particularly during a bizarre (and unspoiled) chapter that briefly but significantly alters the gameplay — the chats Johnson and Garcia share while traversing the underworld might provide the first laugh-out-loud moments you’ve ever had while playing a game set in Hell.
“Damned’s” version of Hell is, in itself, pretty remarkable: In contrast to the usual red rocks and lava, this underworld is awash in cobblestone roads, moonlit lakes, quaint cottages and even seedy neon districts. There’s even a friendly half-demon merchant named Christopher who speaks with a delightful Southern accent. “Damned” bathes its setting in unconventional lighting that gives everything a wholly unique color palette, achieving a balance between vibrant and grimy that’s refreshingly unique for any game, much less one awash in demons.
Fortunately, these and numerous other touches serve to dress up rather than prop up “Damned’s” gameplay. Mechanically, it’s extremely sound: The shooting feels good, the melee attack even better once you master the timing. The game’s attempts at puzzles achieve mixed results — a challenge that has you rotating large chunks of the environment is terrific, while a bridge-building challenge is just tedious — but generally, it strikes a nice balance between fighting and searching for keys (which aren’t exactly keys, as you’ll see).
Predictably, Garcia’s demon enemies aren’t terribly bright. But “Damned” compensates by sprinkling in some relentless enemies with unique vulnerabilities and attack patterns. Fighting these demons while simultaneously handling four or five garden-variety demons makes for a frantically fun time.
“Damned” throws in an additional wrinkle by regularly making darkness itself an enemy. Enemies “infected” by darkness are invincible until Garcia uses light to whisk it away, while environments cloaked in it will drain Garcia’s health. Fortunately, while you occasionally will have to manage light sources to keep them flickering, the practice isn’t as tedious as it sounds — nor is the mechanic just an empty gimmick, thanks to the clever (and, again, unspoiled) ways “Damned” sometimes requires Garcia to use that darkness to his advantage.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Other versions available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)
No form of entertainment ages as unfairly fast as modern video games do, but really, how long’s a year? And if the “Transformers” game that came out in 2010 is roundly better than the one that’s out right now, why hold age against it?
As you might guess, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” ties into the movie of the same name and was the beneficiary of a development schedule that was at the mercy of the film’s release. If you’re somehow invested in the timeline of these “Transformers” movies, “Moon” provides a little color by playing out events that lead up to the third film and piecing it into seven missions starring eight Transformers.
Problem is, these events — which have you switching off between Autobots and Decepticons — don’t come together to significantly enhance the movie timeline. Instead, “Moon” feels like a patchwork non-story that serves merely to entice people to check out the movie and see something that actually (presumably) goes somewhere.
That’s a problem last year’s “Transformers: War for Cybertron” — which didn’t tie into any movie and was free to debut when it was ready — didn’t have. And it shows.
Lest we get carried away, “Cybertron” wasn’t exactly immaculate, either. But its focus on the cartoon interpretation of “Transformers” gave it a considerable stylistic advantage over the movie’s artless designs. Additionally, while the story wasn’t edge-of-your-seat amazing, it worked in the service of the game you paid for instead of a movie you haven’t seen, so it felt more complete.
Perhaps most important, “Cybertron” knew how to manage its gameplay strengths and weaknesses. Environments were tight without being cramped, and they made smart use of some good shooting, driving, flying and transforming controls. It broke no bounds as a third-person shooter with “Transformers” touches, but it was good enough.
“Moon,” by contrast, falls back into patterns that made the preceding movie games so unfortunate. The oversized environments are back, and per usual, there’s little to do between killing enemies, traveling down empty stretches in vehicle form, hitting a switch and repeating. “Moon” fills these large levels with areas that, ironically, make the game feel excessively cramped as enemies with no attack intelligence swarm from everywhere. The transition parts would mark a nice change of pace if there was something to do during them or if clumsy controls didn’t cause vehicles to fishtail enough to make “Ridge Racer” look like “Forza” by comparison, but there isn’t and they do.
Though the ability to play as different Transformers in each mission is nice, “Moon” rarely feels dramatically different from one level to the next, and its deviations — a sloppy stealth assignment, a pointlessly easy escort bit — neither change things much nor last very long.
The one area where “Moon” outdoes “Cybertron” is with the ability to transform into a third, stealth form that’s a cross between each Transformer’s robot and vehicular form. It’s slower than the vehicle, but it travels in all directions without turning and, consequently, handles considerably better. “Moon” doesn’t offer many opportunities to let the form shine where the other two wouldn’t suffice, but any variety is welcome when so little is on offer.
But “Moon” falls right back behind again when it comes to online multiplayer (10 players), which cuts the match types down to only three basic variants and completely removes co-op play from the equation. The experience points system from “Cybertron” is back on board, but climbing the ladder is considerably less fun when the variety and quality of match types are both so basic.
Greg Hastings Paintball 2
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, violence)
Yes, it seems silly to have a video game that essentially emulates the very same thing other games emulate with bullets and blood instead of paint pellets. But “Greg Hastings Paintball 2” earns its place not simply because it simulates simulated gunplay. It also pulls in the rules and metrics of the sport, which allows it to accommodate modes and features — team/gear management, licensed players, tournament schedules, in-game play formations, even cheering crowds — that are more the domain of sports games than first-person shooters. Additionally, it creates a tense combat scenario where one pellet can eliminate you and where, among other factors, a shot across the field has to account for a pellet’s tendency to arc in ways a bullet wouldn’t. Running and gunning rarely works in this environment, and while “Paintball’s” controls require an acclimation period, they capably accommodate leaning, rushing into cover and some light playcalling as well as shooting. “Paintball” makes an awful first impression with graphics and sound that look pre-Playstation 2 and a hideous menu system that arguably predates the first Playstation. It may be the least attractive game on the PS3. Provided you can make peace with this, though, and provided you can appreciate the angle this game is taking, what lies beneath is much better than what first impressions imply. Additionally, where appearances fail, “Paintball’s” feature set — full career mode, field editor, Playstation Move support, splitscreen (two players) and online (14) multiplayer, a video library — does not.